Saturday, 29 April 2017

Chapter 5, pt 1. Chick Magnet

Chapter 5.
Stirling Haig, Chick Magnet.



Warning: This chapter contains adult language and humour. If dirty words offend, please read no further.

Again, this is a first draft, so expect errors.  Feel free to comment below, and thanks for reading!




Stirling spent the rest of the evening speaking with the police and salvaging what he could from his workshop. A box of jars that hadn’t cracked or been melted in the fire sat in the corner of his living room. They didn’t smell like sandalwood anymore, now they just smelled like burnt plastic and unfocused rage.

Another one of his ducks had disappeared a couple hours ago, and what little doubt remained that the break-in was connected to the decoy disappearances was officially gone. Someone was officially fucking with him.

 With no contracts for the next few days, no workshop to experiment in, and all of his research material gone, he found himself at loose ends. In a fit of sudden inspiration he sent out a group email to his decoy mailing list asking if anyone had lost, sold, or recently had their decoys stolen. That took exactly fourteen minutes.

He was considering a night in with a large White Russian, Netflix, and the very real possibility of getting lucky with himself, when her heard a knock at his door. That in of itself was surprising, the number of people who’d darkened his door in the last year could have been counted on Luke Skywalker’s fingers—the real ones.

He glanced at his phone, it was a bit after nine, technically it was still early enough for visitors but late enough that it was unlikely. He got himself ready to drop a few of the mental safeguards he habitually kept up, stormed to the door, and yanked it open.

“Mr. Haig?” asked the police officer at the door taking a step back in surprise. She wore an RCMP uniform under the standard blue bulletproof vest, sunglasses, and carried a notepad. I’m Constable Queen, you reported a break-in earlier today? Stirling eyed her sunglasses, then poked his head out of the door to look up at the sky which had been dark since four thirty, then back at her with a cocked eyebrow.

“I just had laser surgery on my eyes. I need to wear them for a couple more days,” she explained apologetically.

“Huh. That’s got to suck,” he said. “You want to come inside?”

She nodded and they walked into his living room. She was almost as tall as Stirling with pale skin and a long glossy black ponytail that fell to mid-back. It was the first time in over two years since a woman had been in his little apartment, and the thought was more than a bit depressing.

“Can I get you a drink? I’ve got coffee and uh… water,” he offered. She smelled really nice.

“Coffee would be great,” she said, examining the box of soot-blackened jars. She picked up the jar containing a dried owl pellet and shook it lightly. The vole bolus made a rattling sound.

Stirling noticed what she was doing. “I see you’ve found my vole. Total chick magnet,” he confided. “It’s only too bad the poles are reversed.”

She replaced the jar of desiccated rodent back in the box. “So, would you mind going over what happened to your shed?”

"Workshop," he corrected her.

Stirling turned to the stove and carefully measured out coffee grinds into the stainless basket of his Mocha Pot, twisted the apparatus together and put the coffee maker on a reddening element. He really needed to get his shit under control, he wasn’t a teen anymore for god sakes.

“I already filed a report,” he said, ignoring the ever-deluded part of his brain that was telling him that if he was really nice and helpful, she might sleep with him.

“This is a separate case,” she said smoothly. “Your break-in may be linked to a group we’ve been investigating.”

Stirling shrugged and retold the story.

“Can you think of any reason why you were targeted?”

“Not really, I made duck decoys. They’re expensive, but they’re not worth going to jail for.” He was getting tired of this.

“And the safe? What was in that?”

“You know, family heirlooms, war medals, a box of vintage 80s porn, a kilogram of homemade thermite, the usual stuff. How do you take your coffee?”

“Black, thanks,” she said dryly.

Stirling noticed a streak of flesh-coloured makeup had rubbed off on the woman’s grey collar. The strip of skin beneath was an ivory white.

The coffee maker had the mechanical version of an asthma attack on the stove-top, and Stirling poured her a cup. He poured himself a mug as well and they sat at the kitchen table.

“Why do I have the feeling you aren’t being completely open with me, Mr. Haig?”
“Because I’m not?” he guessed.

“Any information you can give me will only help up apprehend these people faster,” she said earnestly. “Are you worried about someone coming after you?”

“No, that’s really not it.” If anything, the opposite was true.

“Then why are you holding back?”

“I’m trying to figure out how you fit into all of this,” he replied, tasting his coffee.
“What do you mean?”

“You’ve almost got the cop act down, but you’re not quite there.”

“It’s not an act, I am a member of the RCMP.”

“You’re no cop.”

“I assure you, Mr. Haig, I really am.” She pulled out a leather badge case and showed him a very authentic-looking badge.”

“That’s a nice badge,” he said pointing at it, “But I’m still thinking probably not. See, I’ve been expecting someone to make a run at me ever since the workshop got torched, and posing as a police officer was the first thing I thought of.”

“And the fact that police would naturally investigate an arson doesn’t give me any credibility?”
“It might if I hadn’t already filed my report with the real police this afternoon,” he said. “You, Constable Queen, are a biiig phony.”

“What can I  say that will convince you?”

“Not much,” he admitted.

“Okay then, let’s try this. What reason do you have to doubt that I’m a real police officer?”

“Well, to start off with, female cops have a rough enough time proving themselves in a career that is basically one big sausage party,” he began. “Wearing your hair against regs is all an opening some douche needs to start talking shit about how lady cops get preferential treatment,” he said, nodding at her ponytail. “Not when you can fix it with five minutes and some bobby pins.”

“That’s it?” she asked flatly. “Your entire argument against me is based on my hairstyle? Egads, Sherlock, you’ve cracked the case!”

“Not done yet. Your radio has been turned off the whole time you’ve been here, you haven’t written down a single note in your notepad, but the main reason is that there’s no way in hell the RCMP would ever let someone recovering from freaking eye surgery out with a sidearm! I mean come on, this is Burnaby, not downtown Waco. Good job on finding a Smith and Wesson 5906, though, you really went that extra mile.”

“And that there’s someone in your home with a handgun who you suspect isn’t a real police officer doesn’t bother you at all?”

“Not really,” Stirling admitted. “Under all this boyish charm and good looks lurks the heart of someone with nary a fuck left to give.”

She looked at him curiously. “If I’m not a police officer, then what am I?”

“No idea,” he admitted freely, “And to tell you the truth, what you are is much less important to me than why you are here.”

“Why am I here, Mr. Haig?”

“Elementary, Watson, you’re here because of magic,” he said,” spreading his fingers in a Doug Henningesque motion. Take that, Benedict Cumberbatch.

She sat back in her seat and sipped her coffee. “Magic?”

“Magic.” he agreed.

She eyed him for another thirty seconds before saying, “Not bad,” though Stirling wasn’t absolutely positive if she was talking about the coffee or his uncanny skills of deduction.

“Just so we’re both clear, I’m here with the blessings of the RCMP, the VPD, and most of the other police departments in the Lower Mainland.”

“Most?”

“Abbotsford PD doesn’t accept there are people with non-standard abilities,” she said.

“Hah! I knew it. So you’re what? The magic police?”

“No, I’m just here to let you know that it’s in your best interest to stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Whatever it is that you’ve been doing that has been attracting so much attention.”

Stirling began to speak, but she held up a hand. “I don’t want to know about it, if I did, I might have to do something that neither of us would like.”

“That’s an enlightened attitude, even for a pretend cop to have, I approve,” said Stirling. “So, you aren’t the one who broke into my workshop? The one who has been messing around with my decoys?”

“I don’t know anything about what you just said, please keep it that way. What I do know,” she went on, “is that you’ve attracted the wrong kind of interest. It’s probably already too late, but there’s a small chance you can still slip under the radar if you stop it right now.”

“Magic is real,” said Stirling, speaking more to himself than her. “I need to find someone who can teach me.”

“Nobody can teach you,” she said flatly. “The only thing you’ll discover if you keep it up is the key to a doorway leading into a world of shit.”

“Do you think you could be just bit more cryptic? I’m low on my vague warnings quota for the month.”

“I know, and for what it’s worth I really am sorry, but the less you know, the better it’ll be for you.” He opened his mouth up to speak, but She held up a hand to stall him. “I’m not saying this to be a bitch, I’m saying it because I can see the big picture. I know what kind of danger you’re in. The ones who broke into your workshop aren’t the nice kind of people who will kill you quickly. Take a long vacation, go live on a mountain somewhere and forget you could ever do anything out of the ordinary.”

Stirling eyed her and leaned back in his chair. “Do you know I have to concentrate just to make it bearable for other people to stand my presence?” he asked casually. “I’m doing it right now. If I didn’t keep my shields up, you’d be out that door and gone in under five seconds.”

She didn’t look convinced. “Because of magic I’ve had all the social appeal of a five-foot-ten septic hemorrhoid from the age of fourteen. Until I discovered how I could dial it down, I could literally clear the urinals at a beer drinking competition. I once had an escort offer to pay me to go take care of myself so she could cut the night short.”

“That sounds awkward.”

“I can’t sleep without losing concentration,” said Stirling, “You know what it feels like to drift off next to someone you really like, just to have them wake up screaming and in tears five minutes later? My magical talent is to be unlikeable, alone, and cock-blocked. Just how am I supposed to forget that shit?”

The faux Constable Queen winced and took a final drink from her cup. “I don’t know, I’m just here to make you aware of the situation.”
 
“Come on, throw me a bone,” said Stirling. “There must be something you can tell me. I’ve been trying to find anyone clued into the magic scene for years. I just want to learn how I can be normal again.”

“I can’t, you can’t.”

“You won’t.”

“I won’t,” she agreed, sounding a bit regretful. “People are all the same, Mr. Haig, no matter what their abilities are,” she said rising to her feet. “When they get scared they either run away or they smash what they are scared of.” She looked directly at him, and even with her sunglasses on he could feel her eyes lock onto his. “If there are people out in the world who know about magic, there’s probably a good reason we haven’t ever introduced ourselves.”

She walked herself to his front door.

“Thanks for the coffee, Mr. Haig, and please think about what I’ve said. I’m sorry I can’t do more for you.” With that, she left.

“Well fuck me,” said Stirling. Now he had a headache. Date night was officially off.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Well-intentioned Thermite

Chapter 4




Warning: This chapter contains adult language and humour. If dirty words offend, please read no further.

Again, this is a first draft, so expect errors. This is one of those chapters I'm a bit worried about infodumping in.  Feel free to comment below, and thanks for reading!




Stirling watched glumly as the fire crew rolled up their hoses and prepared to move out. Thermite, no matter how well intentioned, had its consequences.

 When the alarm pad inside the workshop counted down to twenty seconds without the right code being entered, a signal was sent that ignited a magnesium ribbon leading to a kilo of homemade thermite. The thermite in question had been packed onto the top shelf of the gun safe so everything below would be drenched in molten metal.

Stirling had put the thermite there when he realized that some of his creations were a danger to the public on the same scale as radioactive waste, or that seasonal favourite, “Last Christmas” by Wham!. Twenty seconds would tick away after the signal was sent in which a magnesium ribbon would slowly burn its way toward the thermite. It would be just long enough for Stirling to open the safe and yank out the burning ribbon if something had gone wrong with the keypad.

Once the thermite ignited though there was no turning back, it would burn through anything with a melting point below twenty-two hundred degrees Celsius—which is nearly everything.

The out-gassing of the exothermic reaction had blown the safe door off its hinges and embedded it into the drywall next to the entrance. From there, the fire had spread out to engulf a third of the workshop before the firetrucks had shown up. By that point, the thermite reaction had ceased, and the conventional fire was easily put out.

Once the hot spots were all doused, the fire crew had begrudgingly let Stirling pick through the remains. The duck he’d completed the night before had been squarely in the burn zone and no trace of it remained. Stirling wasn’t surprised because he could still feel it in his mind, it hadn’t burned, it had been taken. At that very moment, it was on the move somewhere to the west of him.

A dust-free silhouette on the soggy shelf by the door showed where a neat row of over twenty hardcover black notebooks used to be. Losing the duck was a blow, but losing the notebooks was a genuine catastrophe.

The notebooks were the journals of his progress, more than that though, each one of them was an irreplaceable work of art. They weren’t DaVinci’s journals, but the notebooks were as close as someone like him could manage. He’d documented countless experiments, every breakthrough and failure. There were pen and ink sketches, hundreds of tables and graphs. He’d invented his own shorthand to better describe the mental processes needed for specific spells. They had literally taken years to create, they were the reference he needed for any future work and they were gone.

He began his first notebook out of necessity at the age of fourteen. Up to that point he’d led a perfectly regular life, then, for a few brief minutes in that golden summer of his youth Stirling had ceased living and everything changed.

It had been a long sunny afternoon swimming with friends when he performed a spectacular dive off a wooden dock, and just as spectacularly, slammed his head into a rock at the bottom of the lake. It took long minutes for his friends to notice that Stirling hadn't surfaced and by that point his heart was already struggling toward stillness below the surface of the water.

They located him minutes later, motionless on the rocky lake bottom, a red halo gently drifting around his head. By the time they tugged him back up to the surface, his body contained all the life and vitality of a dented can of Spam.

In most cases that would have been the end, but as luck would have it, one of the girls on the dock that day was training to be a lifeguard. She administered CPR long enough so that when the paramedics finally arrived, they could do more than simply check ID and wait for the Coroner.
Immediately after his abortive death, Stirling was the centre of attention for his friends, school, and community. He was in the papers and the local news station did a story on water safety using his experience as a cautionary tale. The local parents even banded together for long enough to get the dock closed to the public for the rest of summer.

While he didn't bask in the spotlight of his dubious celebrity, it was still jarring when the initial furor passed and people began to draw away from him. Friends that he’d known from childhood were distant, and a cold bubble of exclusion began trailing him wherever he went.
From then on it was impossible to make new friends, and it was around the same time that animals began to shy away from him. In under a week he’d become the social equivalent of a pubic hair in a bowl of vanilla ice cream, and the worst thing was he had no idea why.

Then things began to get more strange.

He would be riding the bus, or walking through the mall when for no apparent reason he’d begin to shiver. Most of the time it didn’t last long and he’d be able to sit down and wait for it to pass. At the time he thought they might just be a lingering reaction to his mishap, a neurological tick from lack of oxygen, but he began to notice a pattern. The chills never happened when he was alone and they occurred the most when he was around the elderly.

Some of the episodes were nothing more than feeling his hair rise, lasting just a few seconds, others felt like he was suddenly biting down on the leads of a set of jumper cables.

It was six months after the chills began while visiting his grandfather in his nursing home that the pattern behind the shivers suddenly became clear.

The lady in the room next to his grandfather, whom he only remembered for her lurid fuchsia lipstick, was undergoing palliative care. Her family was present, holding vigil with tissues and red-rimmed eyes. A near-tangible silence flowed heavily from her room into the hallway.

The care nurse told them in the kind of quiet voice that people normally only used in libraries, that the room’s occupant had only hours left. By the end of the visit, Stirling was shaking so violently that the nurses, his mother, and grandfather, were all convinced that he was coming down with the flu.
The nurse in charge of the floor, who possessed bosoms that any airbrushed Valkyrie would envy, palpitated angrily over and whispered at his mother that, “The boy not come back for a visit until he was feeling well.” And, “Didn't she know that the elderly were much more susceptible to illness?”
Stirling knew better, he wasn't feeling at all sick. The pattern had clicked in his mind, he understood where the the chills came from and why they mostly happened while he was around the elderly. Somehow he could sense death, the closer it was, the more violent the reaction. From that day forward he was careful to avoid care homes, hospitals, and any restaurant that advertised an early bird special. He also began to test the limits of his ability and wrote down his observations in a series of black notebooks.

Stirling fished his phone out of his pocket and dialed Rebbecca.
“Don’t call me Beccy,” said Rebbecca.
“Fine.”
“Or Double b Double c, or anything else but Rebbecca.”
“Sure.”
“Say it with me, Ruh-bec-ah.”
“No time for love, Dr. Jones. You know that credit card number you got for the job today?”
“Yes?”
“Did you already run a deposit on it?”
“It’s what you pay me to do.”
“Good, run that deposit again, but this time accidentally add another couple zeros on the end. We deserve a nice big Christmas tip.”
“What!?”
“It was an accident, it could have happened to any number of self-absorbed party girls, which is exactly what I’ll tell the credit card company if they ask. Besides, everyone knows us millennial-types are a bunch of feckless moochers.”
“I’m not self-absorbed! And my sex life is just fine, not that it’s any of your business.”
“I said ‘feckless.’”
“Oh. So you’re just going to rip these guys off?” Stirling was a bit surprised at the lack of resistance. He thought that he’d have to spend time convincing her to go along with his little plan.
“Probably not. The credit card company will claw it back when they realize the mistake, but in the meanwhile, I want to open a dialogue with these people.”
“How come?”
“Because when I got to East Van nobody knew a thing about the job, and when I got back, my place it had been broken into and my workshop was burned down.”
“Wait! I think I’ve heard about this kind of shit! Burglars get everyone out of the house, then break in and steal Christmas presents right before Christmas.”
“Yeah, that was probably it,” agreed Stirling, examining his fingernails.
“Did they take my present?”
“Did you hear the part about how they burned down my workshop?”
“Yes, my present wasn’t in there was it?”
“No, but they…”
“And you have insurance?”
“Yes, but…”
“So, the question is, did they take my present?”
“Not sure, I’ll have to check,” he said evasively. Rebbecca caught the tone of his voice faster than a piranha on fresh meat.
“Wait, did you get me another Carnivore Club membership?” she asked, her voice turning dangerous. “Artisinal cured meats delivered to your door monthly?”
“Of course not, you’re a vegan. Anybody who has ever spoken with you for longer than thirty seconds knows your a vegan.”
“I was a vegan last year and it didn’t stop you.”
“I thought it might be just a phase.”
“I’ve been a vegan since we met at university. That was ten years ago.”
“Just put the credit card through, alright?” he said.
“Fine, but I want a thoughtful gift this year, no bags of pork rinds.”
“Okiedokie.”
“And if this credit card thing comes back to bite me in the ass, I’m totally blaming it all on you.”
“Got it. Thanks, Reba.” He hung up.

A firefighter with an impressive salt and pepper ‘stache straight out of a 70s porn video, noticed he was off the phone and walked over to where Stirling stood off to the side watching.

“I’m Dave Richards, the Assistant Fire Chief,” he said extending a hand.

Stirling shook. “Hey Dave, love the moustache, thank you very much for all of this,” he said motioning to the burned out workshop. “If nobody’s told you this yet today, you guys are fucking fantastic.”
“Thank you,” Dave replied, smiling. “This your house?”
“I rent.”
“Any idea what might have caused the fire?”
“Might have been the ceramic heater.” Stirling offered.
“That’s one hell of a ceramic heater.”
“I have poor circulation in the winter, got me a real good one.”
“Ceramic heaters don’t usually blow the doors off of gun safes, or get hot enough to do this,” he said tossing Stirling a glob of blackened metal the size of a golf ball. Stirling caught it, it was still warm.

“I loved that heater,” Stirling sighed.

The fire chief shrugged and nodded toward the workshop’s heavy metal door that had been ripped off its hinges and tossed to the middle of the lawn. The handle was missing, and the door itself was bent back from the deadbolt at a ninety-degree angle.

“Like I said, it must have been one hell of a heater, because that door wasn’t us. It was already sitting on your lawn when the trucks arrived.”

Stirling nodded, there was nothing short of a nuclear strike that could have taken that door off, he’d installed it himself. The thermite certainly hadn’t bent it like that, and he couldn’t help but draw a mental line between the mangled door and the three missing decoys.

Seeing he was back, one of the local ghosts had perched on top of the burned-out shed and was gleefully yelling insults while shaking his glowing ghost ass at Stirling. He ignored it.

“You got insurance?”
“Some, it’ll cover the damages, not the intangibles.”
“It never does. Well, sorry about your workshop, lousy thing to happen around Christmas. Good luck with the insurance company.”
“Thanks, Dave, and please thank your guys for their help,” said Stirling waving weakly at the fireman’s retreating back. Dave waved back without turning.
“Hey, Dave,” Stirling called, thinking of something.
The fire chief turned. “You think your guys at the hall would like artisinal cured meats sent to the station monthly? I’ve got an extra gift certificate.”

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Chapter 3 pt. 2 Ashes to Ashes,

Chapter 3 pt. 2 Ashes to Ashes.






Wherein our hero gets an unexpected job and disaster strikes.


Warning: This chapter contains adult language and humour. If dirty words offend, please read no further.

Again, this is a first draft, so expect errors. Feel free to comment below and thanks for reading!




Hastings Street was tarted up like a festive yuletide stripper, soggy tinsel pasties swaying gently in the breeze from every lamp post. Fairy lights lit up storefronts so doused in glitter that they resembled the aftermath of an event put on by the Pixie Hollow Swinger’s Club.

Outside of Rocky’s Meats, a Salvation Army Santa clanged holiday shoppers to an early migraine with a jolly, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” It took more effort to be seasonally festive in the rain, but the little neighbourhood of Burnaby Heights had practice and it was shaking its Christmas moneymaker for all it was worth. Stirling had barely noticed any of it.

On the short walk from his house, it had finally come to him why he was feeling out of sorts. Not one, but two of his ducks had fallen off the grid.

A year ago Stirling had made a plan the inspiration for which came from a computer program called SETI@home. SETI@home was designed to answer the question, “Are we alone in the universe?”

This was something of a coincidence because it was a question that had been on Stirling’s mind ever since he discovered that he alone could depopulate whole ant colonies with only a bit of concentration.

In their search for aliens, the people at SETI recorded a huge amount of data from the cosmos in the form of radio signals from the Arecibo Radio Observatory. It was so much data in fact that there was no way for them to analyze it all on their own. They solved this problem by sending out packets of information to individual personal computers all over the world. Once received, the computers would grind up the data into a fine powder and sift through it for signals from little green men.

The program was set up to run as a screen saver, simultaneously solving the question of our place in the cosmos, and screen burn-in at the same time. Once a computer was finished with its piece of data, it sent the results back to SETI where the staff looked at it, sighed deeply, shrugged, and kept looking.

Stirling came to realize what the people at SETI had already figured out; some tasks were just too big to do by yourself. He needed agents out in the world to do his work for him. As SETI had an army of personal computers to search for alien life, Stirling decided to use decoys to search out magical life.
Like the people at SETI, Stirling had come to the conclusion that he probably wasn’t a unique and special flower growing wild in the universe. If there was one, there were probably others with similar talents as his. Stories about magic were found in all cultures in all times. As the saying went, where there was smoke there was a Burger King.

He’d come to the realization almost immediately that metaphorically whipping out his eldritch junk and outing himself as a freak on national TV would be a very bad plan. He didn’t think anyone would feel safe if people discovered someone in their midst who could do the kinds of things he could. The best outcome he could imagine would involve him being used as a lab rat while white-coated science monkeys biopsied his brain.

So, how could he make contact with others like himself without exposing himself more thoroughly than a pantie-hating socialite getting out of her car? After some thought, he settled on the solution of creating magic hunting decoys. He would carve ducks, have his contact info laser etched onto the bottom, and ship them all over the world so they could be his calling card to the magical world.
He could sense his magic in them, and if he could, others might too. It had taken months of experimentation, but the first of the enchanted fowl had sold from his Etsy page in November.
Until he had proof that there were other people like him there would always be a little voice in the back of his head whispering that insanity was a lot more likely than the ability to do magic.

Now though, something had happened to two of his ducks. It might be nothing more than they'd been involved in some mishap and destroyed, but it also might not. It was worrying and exciting at the same time. His palms got tingly and his heart beat a bit faster thinking of it as he walked the rain-darkened sidewalks.

He was crossing Hastings and heading for home, his backpack heavy with groceries, when his phone buzzed in his pocket. He checked the display, it was Rebbecca.

“Hey Double b Double c, what’s shaking?” he asked into the phone.

There was a silence, “I’ve asked you not to call me that,” came the reply. “I could fine your ass for harassment.”

“It’s your name, not your boobs I’m talking about,” Stirling replied. “The name ‘Rebbecca’ has two Bs and two Cs,” he explained patiently. “You’d need to have four boobs to have two Bs and two Cs, and for me, that’s just a boob too far.”

There was a pause as she digested this, “So three breasts are your ideal?”
“Total Recall had an impression on teenage me.”

“I don’t know what that means,” said Rebbecca. “Just stop it, alright?”
“Fine, did you call to scold me, or is there a job.”

“That depends on whether you keep calling me Double b Double c,” she replied.
“By Grabthar’s hammer, I promise to stop calling you by that name.”

“Whatever, weirdo. It’s a good thing you have me as a buffer between you and your customers. You’re just too strange sometimes.”

She was more right than she knew. Years of little to no social interaction and working the night shift had atrophied Stirling’s mouth-brain barrier to the point that it was better if he had someone else to be the public face of this company. The blind had seeing-eye dogs, Stirling had recognized in himself the need for a speaking-mouth person. Being one of the most socially adept people he knew, Rebbecca was his first choice.

“Agreed,” said Stirling, “it’s why I pay you the big bucks. You’re the Jon to my Ponch, the Beau to my Luke.”

“This is what I’m talking about. This is why you don’t have a girlfriend.”

“The Salt to my Peppa,” he continued undeterred, “and, dare I say it, the spaghetti to my meatballs.”
Rebbecca sighed. “The job’s in East Van, I’m texting you the address and contact info, they need it done today. Like in the daytime when normal people work.”

“Really? You told them about the off-hours double-time?”

“Yeah, boss, they said it was urgent, something about ruined stock, got the credit card number and everything. You won’t burst into flames if you go out in the sun will you.”

“Nah. I’ll pack my parasol. What’s the job?”

 "A warehouse with a rat problem.”

“Ewwwww,” he said drawing the word out.

“I know, right? Mammals are nasty.”

“It’s the extra fluids,” he said sagely. “Alright, I’m almost home, print me out an invoice, and let them know I’ll be there in an hour, give or take.”

“Will do.”

“Bye, Beccy!” he said cheerily into the phone.

“My name…!” he heard as he pressed the disconnect button.

Twenty minutes later, Stirling was suited up, and in the van speeding down Hastings, missing ducks momentarily forgotten. Double time was always welcome, especially around the holidays when work tended to fall off around Christmas.

He arrived at the address and pulled into a paved parking spot along side of the building. It was one of the many warehouses that clustered around the rail yards in East Van. The building at the address Rebbecca had provided was long, grey, and aggressively uninteresting.

Stirling hopped out of the van, positioned his faux respirator on top of his head for best effect, and mounted the steps that led to the building. An unenthusiastic-looking twenty-something guy wearing ironic glasses and a flannel shirt sat behind the reception desk looking at a tablet. The distinct scent of recently smoked pot filled the air.

“Hi, Stirling Haig, I’m here for your rat problem,” he said by way of introduction, peeling off an elbow-length rubber glove and offering his hand.

The receptionist shook his offered hand on reflex. “Rats?” he asked, seeming confused.

“Yeah, I’m the pest control guy,” he said, handing over a card with his dead bug graphic.

This got him a long blank stare. “You know, rats? they’re small, furry, spread the Black Death. I’m here to make sure yours have eaten their last piece of cheese.”

“I know what rats are, but we don’t have any.”

“You sure?”

“Pretty much. We make kayaks.”

Stirling checked the text Rebbecca had and rattled off the address.

“That’s us,” the guy agreed, “but nobody told me you’d be coming in.”

“I was told the contact would be a guy called Brad. Is he around?”

“Sorry, nobody named Brad even works here, I think someone might be jerking you around.”

“Can you maybe just give your boss a shout and double check?” He was going to be pissed if this was a false call. They didn’t happen often, but they happened.

The receptionist shrugged, picked up a phone from the desk and dialed some numbers. “Nobody would’ve even be here today if we weren’t expecting a shipment, everyone’s off until after Christmas,” he said before speaking to someone on the other end of the phone.

Then Stirling felt it.

To sense one of his decoys he needed to concentrate, but the decoys were to the contents of his safe, what the residents of Tokyo were to Godzilla. No concentration was necessary to feel it. The cold presence of the safe in his workshop was always there in the back of his mind. Except now it was quickly disappearing from his senses.

“Motherfucker!” he shouted and dashed out of the building.

Stirling pulled into his driveway just in time to watch the fire department shake off the last drops of water from their hoses onto a charred hole in the side of his steaming workshop.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Chapter 3 Ashes to Ashes. pt 1. 




Moving right along into chapter three. These early chapters made me a bit nuts because I'm trying to introduce the reader to the world without infodumping on them. Not sure how successful I was in that. It'll be interesting doing a re-read when I come back for the second draft.



Chapter 3



When Stirling woke it wasn’t because he was rested, it was because something was different. The afternoon overcast gloamed through a crack in the curtains with the colour of a dirty ashtray, but it wasn't the light that had woken him. Something else had punted his sleeping mind out of dreamland, and for the life of him, he couldn’t think of what it was. 

As he lay awake thinking, a sound from the kitchen drew his attention. It was the regular metronome tap of a beak on heavy glass. It was a sound he knew well.
“Tis a visitor, tapping on my chamber door,” he croaked.

Stirling rolled out of bed, knowing that the longer he waited, the louder and more annoying the tapping would become. He pulled on a terrycloth robe and lurched woodenly out of the bedroom and into the kitchen. In the time it took him to walk from one room to the other, the measured easy listening beat of the tapping had become a speed metal jackhammer. 

“Alright!” he called, wiping his gummy eyes. 

At the ground-level window above the sink waited a large crow named Magnon. The crow eyed him with glass-black eyes, ruffled his feathers, and rapped hard on the glass with its beak three more times; the little bastard.

“You can see that I’m coming, right?”

Magnon hopped back to allow him to push the window open and bobbled over the sill before Stirling had a chance to move back. He fluttered onto the counter, flinging drops of rainwater onto the drying rack of clean dishes, his talons slipping and clicking on the brittle 1950s micarta. Stirling raised his eyebrows at the bird. Magnon eyed him back, unrepentant, and cawed loudly, the closed space in the small kitchen amplifying the sound.

Stirling wiped the spray off his face. “Wet today?” he asked, stooping to pry open the steel cat food container where he kept his supply of unshelled peanuts. He took out a generous handful and sprinkled them on a black rubber car mat that took up a quarter of his available counter space. He took another handful of peanuts, leaned far over the sink, and tossed them out into his backyard. The three or four crows who were waiting for this scrambled for the nuts filling as many as two or three in their beaks before flapping away to eat or hide their prizes.

Magnon attacked the peanuts on the mat, holding the nuts in his strong black talons and using his large beak to break the shells open. He puffed out the feathers around his neck in a self-congratulatory way as he ate.

“Keep them on the mat,” Stirling said, “I’m tired of picking shells up off the floor.” 

Magnon didn’t deign to look up.

Most animals tended to like him about as much as the bedbugs and fleas did. All but the most friendly dogs kept their distance, and cats hissed at him as he walked by. The cat thing didn’t bother him all that much, it always seemed to him as though their permanently raised tails were giving the world the middle finger anyway.

Though few animals were willing to accept his presence, one of the ones that would was the crow. Magnon and his crew had visited him every day without fail for the last three years, demanding peanuts and the occasional scraps.

Their relationship had begun with a rocky start. His backyard bordered on a greenbelt where there stood a large Alder tree that the local crows had claimed for their own. At first, things were fine, the crows did their thing, he did his, good neighbours respecting each other's boundaries. Then, without warning, every day, all day, for two hellish weeks, the crows participated in their own version of primal scream therapy. 

Sleep during the day was impossible. Stirling shouted at them, threw rocks, banged pots and literally danced in furious, naked, sleep-deprived rage. Nothing worked. He began to fantasize about crows falling dead from the sky as he lay awake with gritted teeth, bloodshot eyes staring at the ceiling. 
In a final Hail Mary attempt before bringing his talents as an exterminator to bear, he extended an olive branch in the form of peanuts tossed out into his backyard. He didn't hold out much hope it would work, but he wanted to at least be able to say that he’d tried.

On spying the peanuts, the crows swooped down, darted nervously in, and flew off to devour their prizes on the tops of telephone poles and roofs around the neighbourhood. For the rest of the day he slept soundly in the arms of blessed silence. The next day Stirling tossed out the same bribe, and as a result slept well for the second day in over two weeks. Things progressed to the point where he could depend on the neighbourhood flock to arrive every afternoon and line up on his backyard fence to collect their tithe.

As the feeding continued, Stirling noticed that some of the peanuts he threw would land a bit shorter than the rest. There was an invisible no-man's-land, that most of the crows wouldn't enter, even for the promise of roasted peanutty goodness.

One crow, however, lacked the sense of self-preservation of its less trusting friends. It would eyeball Stirling as he watched from inside the kitchen and sidle in to snatch the peanuts that fell closer to the house. It became a game to see how close he could get the crow to come. Now Magnon woke him every afternoon to eat breakfast with him.  

Stirling flicked the switch of his espresso maker and went to the fridge. There was only a thin line of white at the bottom of the milk jug, if he wanted milk for his coffee, which he did, there would need to be a trip to the store soon. He poured the last of the milk into a porcelain coffee mug, ate some toast and jam, and gave the crusts to Magnon.

Having finished its lunch, the crow hopped up to the windowsill and turned to look expectantly at Stirling. Stirling opened the window and watched Magnon hop out and launch himself into the air. 
As he watched the crow go, he still couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. He noted with mild surprise that it had stopped raining, maybe that was it.

He dressed quickly in jeans and a button-up shirt, walked to the door, and took his rain jacket and hat off the hook. In Vancouver, rain in December was only a matter of time.



Notes:

Feel free to add comments. 
This is a first draft, so expect errors. 
This is written in Canadian English so the spelling may differ a bit from what you are used to. 
I know "gloamed" is not a word, but I liked it in this context.










Sunday, 16 April 2017

Chapter 2 Continued:




More of Chapter 2 for the Easter weekend.
Hope you enjoy!




Stirling backed the van into his spot in the driveway. He rented the bottom floor of a two story house that had been built in the first half of the last century. He’d lived there since he was a student, and hadn’t found the motivation to move again since he graduated from university five years before.

A small cement stairwell on the front of the house led down to his door which opened into a tiny foyer. His furniture choices were largely based on what was here when he’d moved in, what he could afford as a student, and what he’s found on Craigslist to replace it with when that had eventually worn out.

A floor to ceiling pole with swivelling light shades from the 70s stood in a corner next to his well broken-in Ikea couch from the 2010s. A varnished walnut bureau from the 1950s he’d found online held a desktop computer and occupied the wall next to a large flat screen television and current generation gaming console.

He didn’t bother turning on any lights, but grabbed a pear from his fridge—a still-functioning relic from the time when Baby Boomers were actually babies, and exited up a flight of steps that led off the kitchen and into the back yard.

A gravelled path led to a shed that hunkered in the corner of the darkened lot. The shed was about the same size as a large one car garage, and he’d been told it was the original homestead that had been put on the lot back in nineteen hundred something. Where its windows had been, heavy half inch sheets of plywood were now screwed into the window frames.

Stirling held the pear in his teeth and fished in his jacket for his keys. He stepped up to the shed and undid both a heavy deadbolt before swinging the heavy door open. On the inside of the door a piece of printer paper had been duct taped to the surface and read, “Check ALL of Your Pockets!” He stepped in, keyed in his code on the beeping alarm pad, and turned to lock the door securely behind him. The steel bolt slid home with a heavy and satisfying clunk.

The air in the little shop wasn’t exactly warm, but it was a lot warmer than the air outside. There were things in here that wouldn’t react well to being frozen, and he kept a small ceramic heater running all throughout the winter months. He stripped off his heavy jacket, and hung a paint-stained leather apron around his neck.

A stained plywood worktable ran the length of the room against one wall, above which were wooden shelves containing a long row of black notebooks with numbers on their spines. Next to the notebooks were three boxes, with, “Bullshit,” “Maybe,” and “Yes,” written in black magic marker on their sides.

The "Bullshit" box looked like it held all the swept up detritus from the floor of a new age shop after an earthquake, and was by far the most full. It contained dozens of jars filled with bones, crystals, geodes, dried mushrooms, carved runes, and other similar oddments. There were wands, silver rings, and abalone shells. There were decks of Tarot cards, books, and candles overflowing its sides. Though every item had been sealed tight in a jar, inexplicably there still came from it the faintest scent of lavender and sandalwood.

The "Maybe" box, by contrast, contained an old briar pipe and a dead spider.  The spider hadn’t been put there by Stirling, but had volunteered itself when it had fallen dead from the ceiling in the autumn.

The "Yes" Box contained nothing at all, not even a spider.

A propane camp stove sat on the workbench next to a rack of test tubes, which in turn sat next to a full set of carving chisels, paints and carving burrs. As he moved through the room he flicked on a number of desk lamps, toning down the harsh bank of overhead fluorescent lights with their warmer yellow glow.

At the far end of the space bolted to the cement floor was a black metal gun safe. Stirling gave the cold metal handle a familiar jiggle before clicking on a two cup coffee maker. The safe was about as secure as it was possible to get without being a bank vault. Some things you just couldn’t be too careful with.

His latest project lay in a scattering of wood dust in front of him. It was a half-finished wooden duck. He sat down in an office chair that had seen a number of better decades, clicked on a work light, and got to work. It was another two hours of detail work and sanding before a life-sized, unpainted duck decoy sat in front of him. He took a few minutes to look it over, giving it a few swipes of sandpaper where he’d missed a rough spot.  After this there would be no going back. It had to be right the first time.

Now came the hard part.

He leaned down and turned up the thermostat on the ceramic heater under his desk, unlocked his phone, put in his earbuds, and queued up Gloomy Sunday by László Jávor.

He took a deep breath and hit play.

As soon as the first notes hit his eardrums he could immediately feel the dead weight of the melody settle on his chest like the lead apron you wore at the dentist when you needed an x-ray. He gave it a few second to build, then he looked down at the duck in his hands and began to focus.
He built the shape of what he wanted in his mind, and as he did he could feel a frozen pressure forming behind his eyes.

Coldness began to stream off of his body, and his forehead furrowed in concentration. His hands moved over the wooden duck as though drawing out invisible threads through the long grain of the wood. The wood was cold now, much colder than the air in the room, and it only  got colder. As the last bars of the song began to trickle into his ears, the motion of his hands changed, pushing into the wood. The flesh under his fingernails were beginning to turn a pale purple. He could feel the cold sinking into his chest, but he was nearly finished. Just a few more bars. The duck began to smoke, the moisture in the air sublimating off of its surface in a heavy frozen mist.

At last the song finished, and with it, his work. He collapsed back in his chair and drew a freezing hand across his eyelids. He’d paint the duck tomorrow, for now he was just going to rest his eyes. A shiver ran up his spine. He positioned his leg so that the air from the heater could travel up his pant leg.


He reached out his senses, he could feel the duck even with his eyes closed. It was a small thing next to the pulsing presence of the safe, just a little pool of cold shadow. He could sense it, like he could sense all the others he’d made and then sold from his website. Each decoy was a discreet little package of cold, each of them a message in a bottle just waiting for someone to notice.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Long Time no Blog.



It has been a while since I put a blog up here, but here's part of a preview chapter of the novel I've been working on. It still needs work, but the bones are there.

Just a quick warning, there is some occasional strong language and adult themes in this chapter.




Ch 2.



Stirling sat cross-legged on a plastic garbage bag in the middle of the empty apartment’s living room floor. Earbud cables dangled from the sides of his head, and strains of faint music leaked into the room as he scrolled through an e-book on his phone. He sipped coffee from a paper cup and absently took the last bite of the gas station burrito he’d been eating for the last quarter hour.

A backpack sprayer leaned against the wall behind him next to a pair of elbow-length rubber work gloves and respirator mask. He hadn’t touched any of them since he’d set them there an hour ago.
The air in the room hung still and thick with the bouquet of forgotten take-out containers, and with just a faint top-note of cat pee. From the state of the carpets, if the previous tenants had owned a vacuum cleaner then they hadn’t used it. It was standard for this kind of job.

He sat, reading, eating, and being paid for it, because his job was as much about theatre as it was about results. It was the reason why he would arrive on-site dressed dressed in pristine white hooded overalls, a surplus fighter pilot respirator, goggles, and hefting a chromed backpack sprayer. On the back of his sprayer’s reflective tank was a graphic of a bug on its back, tongue lolling out, and with little Xs for its eyes. In short, he arrived dressed to impress. It was a look that said, “Here is a man that is going to seriously fuck up some invertebrates,” even if no part of the outfit was in the least bit practical. It was exterminator cosplay. He designed the outfit for maximum impact because people liked it when you took their problems seriously.

What people didn’t like, he discovered early on, was when you arrived wearing street clothes with a backpack filled with paperback novels. The only thing they liked even less than that was when you left early. This is why Stirling’s phone was full of music, games, and e-books, and why he worked at night when property managers were less likely to check in on him.

 Stirling was in his mid-twenties with dark brown hair and a pale vitamin D deficient complexion that only the most devoted of graveyard shift employees ever achieved. While his looks surfed the descending slope of the bell curve, he didn’t have the face that inspired women to line up to cannonball into his end of the gene pool. This was actually a blessing in disguise, if he'd had the looks of a movie star, he'd be even more disappointed when he got turned down, and Stirling nearly always got turned down.

He yawned and swallowed the last dregs of his now lukewarm coffee. He glanced up at the window, then at the clock on his phone. It was 3:48 am. Twelve more minutes until he could pack up the van and get back home.

     Outside the glass patio doors it was still raining. It couldn’t be said that it was raining again, or even, raining tonight, because that would at least imply that at some point in the recent past it had stopped. It was raining still because it hadn’t quit for nearly two weeks. It was the steady, miserable, downpour that lasted from October to June on the West Coast. This particular night didn't even have the grace to decide if it should rain or snow. What fell were icy wet splats of precipitation that had neither the warmth of rain, nor the dryness of snow. It was as though an infinite number of partly-frozen, pigeons were winging in an endless holding pattern overhead.

It was nights like this that Stirling liked best. Not because he was more productive, or because there was a certain late-December Christmas magic in the air—thought both of those things were true. Stirling liked these nights because he knew firsthand how miserable they could be, and he wasn’t one of the poor bastards shivering outside in the dark. Inside the apartment, it was warm and dry, if not necessarily clean. He read, listened to music, and wasted time in 71-degree comfort.

The infestation he’d been hired to deal with was actually pretty bad. If he’d been one of those conventional pest control types, he would really have had his work cut out for him. All the telltale signs were there. The bloody smudges against the walls of the bedroom, the brown haze around the baseboards, all clear sign that bedbugs, nature’s stabby little hobos, were in residence.

Bedbugs were just fine with him. Winter was a slow season for fair-weather pests like squirrels or raccoons, but bedbugs were an all-year-round kind of problem. The fleas were even more obvious, you could actually see them hopping to get out of the way as you walked through the place.

The previous tenants didn’t have to be bad housekeepers for the bugs to arrive, but it was why the little parasites stayed. You had to be either aggressively indifferent to housekeeping or uninterested in the well-being of your pets to still have a flea problem in late December.

He hopped to his feet, stretched out the kinks, and walked to the sliding patio doors. As he moved, he could actually see the occasional little bloodsucking devils try and hop away from him. He knew that if he stood in one spot for longer than ten seconds, a bubble would form around him which no bug or rodent would willingly cross. It was a handy trick for someone in pest control, and it was what inspired him to get into the business in the first place.

The apartment was three stories up, and as he looked through the window the rain appeared to turn into glowing lava as it passed down through the orange streetlights. His work van with its matching dead bug graphic was parked on the street below. A movement farther down the street caught his eye. In the reflected glare of the window, he hadn’t noticed it at first, but a ghost stood in the middle of the street staring intently up at him. It was an old man wearing a homburg hat and a light button-up shirt over his rounded shoulders.

Stirling could tell it was a ghost for a few reasons. The first signs were the most obvious. There was a faint ethereal nimbus glowing around it, and if you looked closely, you could just make out the rain drops splashing on the wet street underneath him.

The other way he could tell, was from how both of the ghost’s middle fingers were waving wildly above his head, while it made lewd pelvic thrusting motions in his direction. Through it all, the ghost maintained a steady death-glare at his window.

Stirling wondered how long the ghost had been there waiting for him to put in an appearance. Probably hours. The dead had nothing but time to burn. He raised his fingers back at the ghost and gave an exaggerated crotch-grab, just to make sure it got the message from fifty meters away. This didn’t seem to dissuade the old man in the least, on the contrary, on seeing the gesture he immediately picked up the tempo of his own waving and pumping, really putting in a good solid effort. He must have been a spry old guy before he passed, Stirling reflected, the terror of the retirement home.
Stirling continued the back and forth for a while, but competitive air-humping wasn’t getting the work done. Ghosts had no bills to pay, he, on the other hand, had an apartment full of creepy-crawlies and student loans to pay off.

 A woman with an umbrella, whom he hadn’t noticed up to this point, glanced furtively up at his window before hurriedly getting into her own car and starting the engine. From the glance she shot at him, Stirling guessed she’d seen his little display. Not being able to see the ghost as he could, she’d come to the obvious conclusion that she was the target of his pelvic shenanigans. Crap. He hoped she didn’t report him to the landlord. He needed this contract.

A face peered up at him from the rear passenger window as the car accelerated away. Early carpoolers he decided, turning back to the apartment and leaving the ghost to thrust away unsupervised.

Goosebumps ran up his arms and legs as he looked around, he clapped his hands and rubbed them together. Excellent, it was time to make the goddamn donuts. He closed his eyes and went to work. A faint chill began to drift from his body and pool on the floor around him. Then it started.
At first it was just a tiny sound, the noise a pinch of sesame seeds would make hitting the carpeted floor all at the same time. If the apartment wasn’t so quiet, Stirling didn’t think he would have heard it at all. It was like snow falling, you couldn’t hear the sound of a single flake hitting the ground, but the cumulative sound of a dozen tiny impacts all happening at once built on each other enough to be heard.

Stirling opened his eyes and began to walk the apartment humming something that resembled the chorus to “Another One Bites the Dust.” The faint pattering sound followed him until he’d made a complete circuit through the bedrooms, closets, office, bathrooms, kitchen and living room. When he finished, not a single bedbug remained clinging to the walls, or flea hopped from his path.
Nobody ever complained about the smell of his insecticide or the mess from his steam cleaning equipment. Tomorrow the cleaners would come in and vacuum up all the evidence that there had ever been a single insect alive in the apartment.

He felt refreshed as he began to pack up his unused equipment. Five apartments cleared, ten hours billed, and another novel finished. He dropped the hard copy of his invoice, along with a business card and a thank-you note on the counter for the landlord to pick up in the morning.
“Sionara, bitches!” he called out to the empty apartment as he let himself out.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Madame Rag and Mister Bone poolside: a Vignette.

Since it has been a while since I've been doing much but working on the novel, here's an unedited excerpt from chapter seven that may, or may not, make it into the final draft. Since it's pretty much in the same state as when I first wrote it, expect errors. It was a fun little scene to bash out. Mister Bone and Madame Rag are such cartoony villains they almost write themselves.   


 Lucy Fur doing a random spot-check on my writing.


Every city, no matter where it is on the globe, has places that, if not abandoned, are at least left deserted for long stretches at a time. Wherever they went, Madame Rag and Mister Bone went out of their way to seek out such places, and if one couldn’t be found, they simply created the vacancies they required.

It wasn’t that the husband and wife team didn’t enjoy the modern perks of hot running water, fine food, and comfy beds, it was simply that things so often seemed to go badly when they brushed shoulders with “the normal folk.” They mixed less well with the public than sea birds did with ruptured oil tankers. The end result in both cases were rows of dead things, be they migratory sandpipers, or uniformed hotel staff.

It was decided years and years ago that to maintain a healthy breeding population of hospitality workers, that they would strictly curtail their contact with the world of the regulars—especially Mister Bone, who admittedly had impulse control issues. Whenever they were called in for a job that required more than an afternoon to complete, they would simply retire to the closest abandoned motel, condemned home, or recently-depopulated flop house to await their orders.

When their employer was Doctor Knox, this arrangement was even more desirable. Being around Knox made both Rag and Bone feel as though they were walking on eggshells, eggshells made of unstable high explosive. This was likewise fine with Knox, to whom the idea of any kind of familiar relationship with “the help,” was unthinkable. 

The evening found Mister Bone and Madame Rag sitting by lantern light on the moldy cushions of decomposing deck furniture at the edge of a long-neglected indoor pool. Emerald moss and black mildew clung to the tiled walls in streaks, and floating in the center of the once-luxurious pool was a large hummock of brown stringy vegetation. The cold air was moist and held the dark stink of decomposing fungus. Both Rag and Bone were silent, it was the tight expectant silence of an impending unpleasant conversation.

In Mister Bone’s time he’d been shot, stabbed, poisoned, drowned, and defenestrated. He’d lived through Cholera, Typhus, and Plague. He’d been set upon by dogs and burned by acid. He’d been buried up to his neck in the desert sand and left for dead. He’d had limbs caught in steam-powered machinery, and been hung by the neck on no less than three separate occasions. Being nearly crushed under a car was something new, and the novelty wasn’t a welcome one.

As he considered this new turn of events he marched a large brown spider across one set of his knuckles then the other. He’d once seen a street magician do the same trick with a coin, but his way was better. 

“Want to know something?” he asked Madame Rag in a dolorous voice, “Being run over really hurts.” As he said it, he rubbed at his shoulder where tire rubber was still visible against his pale skin.
“It was just a small car,” she said tightly, throwing a quick deprecating glance at his shoulder. “I was crushed by an omnibus. Remember that Shillibeer in Westminster? Three times the weight, and three sets of hooves. That car didn’t even crush your rib cage, I had scars for a week.”

Bone gently released the spider on a cracked resin coffee table, and peered down at her curiously. “Healed fine,” he said, fingering open a gap in the buttons of her top. He leered in an expression of happy lust down at her and attempted to squeeze a cucumber-sized finger between the gap in the buttons.

“That’s not the point,” she replied, slapping away his gargantuan hand. “We were caught unprepared and our quarry has gone to ground. Himself will not be happy,” she predicted.

Bone’s expression fell limp as an overcooked noodle at her words. He shrugged and stared at her with a face like a bucket of still water, and with as much comprehension. After a moment, he began looking around the table to relocate his spider. There would be no help from that quarter. No, Bone’s main contribution to any conversation lay in being an immovable wall to echo ideas off of, and not as a fount of sober advice.

Sometimes when Madame Rag was in one of her less charitable moods, as she was now, she imagined that Mister Bone’s brain was like one of those fattened veal calves kept in it’s little plastic igloo, all tender and wobbly from lack of use. It was well that Mister Bone’s brain was not the feature that most attracted her to him.

Madame Rag’s pocket chimed in the digital imitation of an old telephone bell. She didn’t need to see the caller ID. She’d only given the number to one person, and after last October’s shenanigans, the surviving telemarketers had spread the word around that she wasn’t to be disturbed.   

Rag closed her eyes and assumed a smile that revealed so many teeth that if anyone had seen her, they might have been forgiven for thinking that she was the product of an experiment meant to fuse Julia Roberts with a Great White shark.

The smile was the brainchild of an article she’d read in a Scientific American she’d inherrited from the house’s previous owner. The article claimed that the act of smiling itself could improve one’s mood. With all that had gone pear-shaped that afternoon, she felt that she could do with any quantum of positivity she could bring to the impending conversation. She smiled, and her skin stretched tight as a piano wire across a bike path.

She prepared herself, and picked up on the third ring. “Hello, Doctor Knox, and how are we on this fine winter evening?” she asked, face contorted into a rictus of manic joy, her voice the smooth obsequiousness of rancid fat. “Yes, yes, we did in fact catch up with him…” she stood and began to pace in a circle. “Sadly, no. I have to report that I was quite unable to detain him, another party interfered. They proved to be quite the handful of rusty razorblades…” At this last she glared at Mister Bone who was too focused on his spider to notice a thing. “The Webmage, Dimitri Singh… Yes, the very one.” She took her seat again and sat completely rigidly while she listened.

“I’m afraid I have another small morsel of bad news,” she said, her eyes a-twinkle with mandatory cheer. “Our quarry was able to escape with the notebooks that we’d procured earlier…” The phone’s metal casing began to indent and Rag tried to smile even harder. It wasn’t easy, the muscles in her cheeks began to ache and her molars were becoming visible. Her smile was not having the desired effect on the conversation she had hoped it might. There could be a time in the not-too-distant future when the staff of Scientific American received an unexpectedly lively visit to discuss the veracity of what they chose to publish.

Bone finally looked up at her with the slack expression that passed for curiosity before going back to his spider. It appeared to have fewer legs than it had only moments before.

Rag stood so abruptly her chair zoomed and skittered across the tiles behind her before crashing into a wall with an echoing boom and the sound of shattering ceramic. She began to stalk around the stagnant pool. “Might I humbly suggest that taking the mark out for drinks and the cinema may not be playing to our strengths? We do ever so well with a spot of slaughter and mayhem… No, I would, of course, never presume to tell you your business, I simply refer to our past successes…”

The smile on Rag’s face slowly asphyxiated, and slumped over into a snarl. “In three centuries of being in the business, we have never failed to complete a commission. We will complete this one, one has a certain professional reputation to maintain, you see… Yes I know of it… Very well, I’ll ensure they are made aware… I must say that when that news gets out the cat will be among the canaries… Is there anything else?…” Rag’s face suddenly became blank and inexpressive. “All of them? You would like me to wake all of them?… No I was simply making sure I received your instructions correctly… Very well.”

For the first time in the conversation, Rag’s expression began to slowly melt into genuine pleasure. Mister Bone knew that expression, it was the expression that let him know that soon, hopefully very soon, he’d be able to get his hands wet, red, and sticky.

Rag completed her phone conversation and joined him next to the pool. She looked down to the table where the spider’s dismembered body now sat neatly next to a row of twitching legs arranged from largest to smallest. The spider’s abdomen still moved in tiny shifting twitches, as though it could somehow wiggle away.

“Shall we go, my dear Bone? We have a good deal of work to be about.”

“Good work?” Bone asked.

“The very best,” Rag confirmed. “Murder and skulduggery, Mister Bone! Murder and skulduggery.”
Bone nodded solemnly in reply.

Rag paused a moment and carefully picked up the legless spider between a thumb and forefinger to examine it. After a moment of thought, she popped the dainty into her mouth, puckered her lips, and began to gently suck on it. They left the room without a backward glance.