The Return of the Emancipator

It’s midnight by the Heineken clock and I’m eating a McDonald’s at the base of the O’Connell monument when I hear somebody cursing and muttering above me, and who do I see climbing down from the top of the monument but Daniel O’Connell himself. He’s made it most of the way but he’s hesitating about jumping the last few feet.

“Just do it, Dan. It’s not far,” says I. “Make sure you bend your knees when you land.”

He makes the sign of the cross and he jumps, his cloak flying out behind him like your oul fella dressed up as Batman. Two paving slabs crack noisily under his feet like they’ve been struck by twin bronze sledgehammers, which I guess they kind of have been. Out of nowhere, an image flashes through my mind of stone tablets, smashed to pieces by some old man at the foot of a mountain. Charlton Heston, I think.

“Jaysus,” says he. “Did yiz have to put me so high?”

I crane my neck to look up at the empty pedestal. He uses the distraction to rob a few chips from my McDonald’s and he shoves them in his mouth with a grunt of satisfaction.

“These’re good,” says he, chewing. “I suppose the famine’s over, is it?”

“The potato famine? Yeah, a while ago, now.” I hand him the bag of chips.

“That’s good,” says he. “Glad to hear it.”

He turns three hundred and sixty degrees to get a good look at the place while I finish my Chicken Royale. He picks another chip out of the bag and waves it in the general direction of Starbucks, Burger King, Eddie Rockets, McDonald’s, and the other Starbucks.

“Am I still on Sackville Street?” says he. “It looks a bit different.”

“Same street,” says I. “But it’s O’Connell Street now.”

“O’Connell Street?” I notice a bit of a smile. He nods at the huge metal spire in the distance. “And what’s that? The O’Connell Spike? Daniel O’Connell’s Needle, something like that?”

“The Millenium Spire.”

“The Millenium? You mean, built in the year 2000?” He raises his eyebrows.

“Well, 2003. It was a bit delayed.”

He mulls this over for a bit and then he asks “And where’s Nelson? Yiz moved him somewhere?”

“Um, yeah, he was moved alright.”

“Proper order,” says he, frowning. “Didn’t like him looking down on me. One-handed gobshite. Could feel his beady eye on….” At this, he puts his hand on the back of his neck and wrinkles his nose, disgusted, like, and says “What the..?”

“Here,” says I, and gave him a wad of napkins.

He wipes the bird s**t from his head and neck and then he scrunches up the McDonald’s bag and uses it to finish the job.

“Seagulls,” he mutters. “They’ve lost the run of themselves.”

It’s late and I’m too cold and too drunk for conversation, so I stand. I only came down this end of the street to get away from that big English bollox, Jim Larkin. “Listen, Dan, I won’t keep you, gotta be making tracks.”

“Yeah.” He lets out a sigh and glances up at his pedestal. “No worries.”

He stretches his arms to get ready for the climb but then he grimaces and looks closely at his left elbow. He angles it for better light. The grimace turns into a frown. He sticks his index finger into a small round hole in his bicep and into another hole in his forearm.

“What’s the meaning of this?” says he. “Bullet holes? What have you muppets been up to?”

I back away. “Yeah, about that, Dan. I’d love to stay and chat, but…”

Different Worlds

I look up from my phone to find that April has that hurt expression on her face. It’s an expression I’ve been seeing more and more, lately. She said something. A question? What did she say? Better ask.

“Sorry, what did you say?”

She doesn’t answer straight away, but takes a sip of wine, her eyes hardening above the rim of the glass. It’s her second, even though we just sat down a few minutes ago. I drop my gaze back to my phone and scroll through my timeline, absently. Here, at least, the past is never really gone. It stretches back, and back, and back, a ribbon of words and images and time-frozen smiles. What did Einstein say? The distinction between past, present and…

April is speaking. “I said, are you on Facebook again?” Her voice is flat. Controlled.

“Oh, yeah. Just for a minute. Stephen Hawking has just died.” I thought that might buy me some leeway. When Bowie died, she cried, and I was very supportive.

“That’s why you’re ignoring me? You’re never off that thing.” She picks up the menu and drops it on my plate and says, “Choose something. I’m having the garlic chicken.”

I put the phone facedown on the table and flip open the menu and run my eye down the list of mains. I don’t really see them. I’m thinking about the ineluctable gravity of black holes, and how they pull you in, and how hard it is to escape, but maybe, just maybe, you get spat out and find yourself in another place or in a different time. In the past, perhaps, where things could be different. The menu. Concentrate. What’s risotto? Is that the one with the mushrooms? My hand twitches towards my phone, to google it.

Resonance

1

Lionel watched discreetly in the edges of his vision as a bald man in an orange gown walked across the crowded waiting area and knocked on the examination-room door. The door opened and a female head emerged, inquiringly. The man produced a folded letter from his sleeve and offered it. A hand emerged from the doorway and received the letter, and then hand and head withdrew and the door closed with a soft click. The man, a chemo patient, perhaps, turned towards the seats where Lionel sat, his sandals squeaking on the green vinyl floor.

A ringing sound, like an alarm clock, somewhere close by. Lionel took his mobile from his jacket pocket. No, not his. He thumbed the screen and opened the news app. The stories were slow to load. No signal. Mobile data is always terrible in hospitals. Just as well. No news is good news. He put the phone away and stared at the sandals and shins of the man facing him. Not knowing where else to look, he switched his gaze to the wall over the man’s bald head, and then he closed his eyes.

His head dropped towards his chest, and he dozed. The voices of the other patients slipped loose from all meaning and seeped into his fragile flickering dreams and took on new meanings. He jerked awake, hurting his neck, and dozed again, and woke again, until he wished that they would call his turn so that he could go home and sleep.

A cough caught his attention. For the first time, he looked directly at the man who sat opposite. Was this the same man he had watched earlier? He wore the orange robes of a Buddhist monk, not a dressing gown. And he wasn’t exactly bald, either, because a dense dark stubble covered his head. Not a chemo patient. He was Chinese, possibly. Asian, anyway. Crinkled eyes behind black-framed spectacles, cheeks brown and healthy.

The fingers of the monk’s right hand danced a complicated pattern against his left. He doesn’t talk? A vow of silence? From his facial expression, it seemed he was asking a friendly question. Lionel shrugged his shoulders and down-twitched his lips and flashed his palms to show that he didn’t know any sign language. The monk nodded and smiled in understanding, and sat back in his chair.

2

The morning was nearly over by the time Lionel stepped into the examination room. A nurse sat on the high stool beside the scanning machine, a pair of large headphones resting around her neck. She patted the fake leather of the padded bench.

“Take off your jacket and shirt, and pop up here for me please.”

Pop up. Always that phrase. They must learn it in medical school.He did as he was told. She attached three electrical leads to his torso.

“Have you had one of these before?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe. It all tends to blur.”

She squeezed some gel from a tube onto his solar plexus. Cold. A faint familiar smell that he couldn’t quite identify. She put the headphones over her ears and held a microphone to his chest and used it to smear the gel in circular motions while her other hand turned dials on the scanner. Sounds leaked from the headphones, harsh hisses and whistles, like a radio receiver that was badly tuned, and she grimaced and decreased the volume. Lionel peered at the jumble of shadows on the scanner screen, but it was indecipherable, so he fixed his eyes instead on a peeling patch of ceiling paint. It triggered a deja-vu memory, just out of reach, of an island that he had seen somewhere, sometime, and wanted to visit, or maybe just imagined.

The smell of the gel… he remembered now, it reminded him of the stuff that condoms are coated in. There was another room with peeling paint, and another woman. They had met in a bar. Eye-contact, a shared drink, and somehow they were back in her apartment. Curtains in her bedroom that didn’t block the light properly, so that he hovered on the brink of wakefulness, dreaming, and knowing he was dreaming, of the woman who lay in the bed beside him. Dreaming of her thighs, her green eyes, her breasts, and the lotus flower tattoo on her left hip. Their hangover headaches taking hold as they gave up on sleep and rose and showered and dressed. He saw that she had no tattoo after all, and her eyes were brown, not green.

“All done,” said the nurse. Because of the headphones, she spoke loudly, apparently without realising. She handed him a large sheet of rough paper and he used it to wipe the gel from his chest, his stomach, his flank.

3

The doctor’s chair squeaked as he swiveled. He studied the results of the scan, turning the pages one at a time, shielding them from view in the brown folder. Lionel’s attention wandered to the framed diplomas on the wall. Latin. Unreadable. He thought of his own parchment in its cardboard cylinder, abandoned in the dust on top of his bookcase.

“How are you feeling, by the way?”

“OK, I guess, apart from the insomnia.”

The doctor extracted one of the pages from the folder and laid it on the desk between them. He set the folder to one side.

“I don’t want to worry you, but there’s something here that we should address.” He tapped the page with a chewed plastic pen.

Lionel looked where the doctor indicated. It was a Rorschach mess of blacks and greys. “What is it?”

“A sadness, most likely.”

“A sadness?” Lionel raised a hand to his chest. “But… how did that happen?”

“It’s hard to say. Some people are prone to them. Something gets misaligned. Out of whack. Is there any family history?”

Lionel shook his head. “No. Maybe. I don’t know. We didn’t…” He gestured with one hand to show that he couldn’t finish.

“Hmm. I’m going to recommend a placebo.”

Lionel wasn’t sure he had heard correctly. “A placebo? Will that help?”

The doctor scrawled illegibly on a prescription pad, tore off the sheet, and presented it to Lionel with a flourish and a smile. “It’s quite a strong one. It will help if you believe it will. That’s what a placebo does.”

4

The pills didn’t help. Lionel took them anyway, for ten days, and then he lost patience and poured them into his tea. As a sweetener, they were more effective.

His insomnia got worse. Without quite remembering how, he found himself walking through the city at night. There were few cars, and even the drinkers and the taxi drivers were home in their beds. He went east, with no destination in mind, only a direction. Whenever he was unsure of his course, he glanced at the roofs of the houses to see what way the rusted satellite dishes were facing, and this reassured him. They always faced south, like the moss that grows on trees. Or did moss grow on the north side of trees? His certainty faded.

At the edge of the city, he came across an all-night shop, spilling light onto the footpath. Just beyond the pool of light, on the cold ground, two people were cocooned in sleeping bags, invisible. He envied them. A mid-sized dog stood beside them and watched him approach, but didn’t bark. Inside the shop, a tired-looking Indian student was unbundling the early editions of the newspapers and hefting them onto the shelves. It was later than Lionel had realised. He bought a bottle of water for the walk home. The exchange was silent, each man knowing his part in the ritual.

Outside again, and the dog had left the sleepers and was sitting upright in the middle of the empty car park. It stretched its neck and scratched itself vigorously with a hind paw, both eyes closed in slits of pleasure. It stood then, ears twitching and alert. Not a dog. A fox, orange-brown with black paws. He could never have mistaken it for a dog, and yet somehow he had. It trotted away, and he followed to the edge of the car park. He was tempted to follow it a bit further and see where it went. He might be able to see the stars more clearly if he was away from the lights of the city. Just a mile or two, and then he could go home.

5

The fox moved at a fast pace, its head low and the tip of its tail trailing the ground in its wake, and Lionel hurried after. There was no street lighting, so they walked in moonlight. The road sloped gently upwards and zig-zagged as they entered the foothills, so that they came to a place where the lights of the city were stretched out on the plain below them. To the east, above the road, was a field of grass as tall as Lionel’s waist.

The fox had stopped and was looking directly at him. Glow-eyed, it held his gaze for a long moment, and then it turned and padded through a gap in a hedge and into the long grass. Lionel walked to the gap, and looked back at the city, and at the brightening sky, and hesitated. It would be dawn soon, and the stars were fading. He looked at the narrow trail that the fox had taken. If nothing else, he could follow it to higher ground where he could watch the sunrise, and then he could go home. He had never seen a sunrise before.

Turning sideways, he squeezed through the gap and up the dirt path. At intervals he glimpsed the fox slipping between the swaying grass or cresting over a hillock, or he saw a paw-print where it had squeezed under a fence. They crossed several fields in this way, Lionel climbing over the fences and being careful not to slip as he jumped down onto the dewy ground. Gradually, the spaces between sightings grew longer, and he realised that he had lost the animal and that he himself was lost. Looking back the way he had come, the path through the fields was no longer obvious. The lights of the city were hidden by the rise and fall of the land. There were no sounds of traffic or civilisation and no satellite dishes to guide his way. He walked to the nearest line of trees and pushed his way through the branches, hoping there would be a road on the other side.

Beyond the trees was a large manicured lawn. It sloped down to a brown brick building that curved around three sides of a cobblestone yard. A private school, maybe, or an old house converted to some modern use. Beyond the roof slates, dawn had already arrived in the clouded sky, discreetly, and without drama. He stood in the shelter of the trees, reluctant to trespass, suddenly tired.

At that moment, a deep chime sounded from within the building, as if from a great bell, and birdsong burst up from the branches behind him. The tone billowed and ebbed, impossibly pure, and he could feel the breeze wax and wane in harmony with it, and the whole waking world being tuned and aligned to the deep clear note, and something shifted a little inside his chest. As the last echo faded, a door swung open on one side of the courtyard. An orange-robed monk stepped out. He held the door with one hand and covered a yawn with the other, and a procession of monks emerged single-file into the chill morning, their black sandals pattering on the cobbles, their arms folded inside wide sleeves, their heads lowered.


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Checkout Girl

Snow had been cleared from the footpath and the street and formed into a knee-high mountain range in the gutter. It was dirty and embedded with scraps of litter. I walked alongside the peaks and valleys, my backpack heavy with cans of beer, and I thought about what you’d said. You had spoken the same words to thousands of customers, I’m sure, and each of those customers had given the same answers. That’s how the ritual works. But they didn’t hear your true message. That revelation was mine alone.

I returned the next night, hoping to speak with you again. I filled my basket with cheap beer and placed it before you. You asked me if I wanted to pay by cash or by card. I was transfixed. Beneath the surface of your words, there was a depth of meaning that was unmistakable. Then I looked at the ceiling and saw the cyclops watching with its diode-blinking eye. Eavesdropper, thief-stopper. Did I say that out loud? A flush rose in my cheeks. I paid with fistfuls of coins, my hands trembling, and I left the shop.

I hunched in the shadows of a doorway and thought about your magnificent voice and my muttered responses. You must think me an idiot. How many customers do you speak to each day? Hundreds? What could you see in me? I’m not special. You were just relieving your boredom. Like a fool, I had gone to you two nights in a row thinking that I was chosen by you, that only I could understand you. My eyes watered as headlights from the passing traffic washed over me and dazzled my vision. The swishing of tyres in the slush and the rise and fall of the engines was a tuneless primal music. I groped in my backpack for a can of beer and cracked it open, hoping that the booze and the light and the noise would obliterate you.

I told Dignam about you. He was sceptical about the hidden messages in your words and I struggled to explain it to him. It’s like those 3D magic-eye pictures, I said, when the secret picture reveals itself, only it’s much more than that. It’s an epiphany. He nodded sympathetically, but he said I was imagining things that weren’t there. Slipping back into old habits. It’s the time of year, he said, and the darkness. It plays tricks on the mind. He upped the dosage of my meds and advised me to switch to a different supermarket.

I needed to forget you, so I took Dignam’s pills and I took his advice. I started using one of the German outlets for all of my shopping. I thought about you less and less. Each evening was a little brighter than the one before. The clocks went forward. Summer arrived, with blue days and golden evenings and purple nights. An autumn of greens and red-golden browns.

Then, a change. The trees were skeletal, their leaves dead and useless on the cracked dirty concrete and piled in drifts against the chain-link fences. Darkness was a slow-rolling shutter, inching downwards each day, as the window of light grew smaller. Winter was waiting, and so were you. I walked past the entrance of a supermarket one night and the automatic doors whisked open, startling me. A warm blast of air broke over me like a sea wave and brought your voice to my ears.

Thirst gripped me but I turned away from you. I walked to another supermarket on another street and tried to remember the mindfulness stuff that Dignam had talked about. I couldn’t. In the booze aisle, I filled my basket mindlessly. I joined the line of supplicants at the front and we shuffled in lockstep, unwise men bearing gifts.

You were there too, silent and patient. It’s hopeless, I thought. You’re everywhere now. Omnipresent. I lifted the bottles from my basket and placed them before you one at a time. You spoke, loudly enough that an old woman in the queue turned her head. I heard your voice then as it had always been, cold and distant and omniscient as the dark vaulted heavens.

“Unidentified item in the bagging area.”

——————-

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Goon

I hammer on the front door with my fist and press the doorbell three times. Somebody is coming down the stairs. A dark male shape behind the nineteen-eighties frosted glass. A muttered curse and a key turning in the lock. The man who opens the door is tall, slim, and little more than a kid.

He looks at me and I know what he sees, and that’s fine. He sees what I want him to see. He sees the cauliflower ear and the long-ago broken nose, and he thinks I’ve been in a few scraps. Correct, son. Well spotted. I could have gotten the nose fixed years ago, but it serves a purpose. It tells people something about me and saves me the hassle of proving it the hard way. So, when I say, “I’m here for Michelle,” he doesn’t speak the arguments and questions that occur to him. Without opening the door any wider or taking his eyes off mine, he turns his head slightly and calls out to her. She comes down the stairs, barefoot, nervous, curious, and when she sees me in the porch she sighs and turns back.

To me, she says “I need a minute.”

To him, she says “It’s alright, he works for my dad.”

He gives me another once-over and steps back and opens the door but I have no interest in going inside. That might lead to conversation, and we’re in a hurry. Two minutes later, Michelle comes down the stairs again and kisses him goodbye, making a big production out of it, and whispers something to him that doesn’t do anything to ease the scowl on his face, and then we walk to my car and get in.

“Something wrong with your phone?” I ask.

She ignores the question. “Who told you where I was?”

“Who do you think?”

“Rachel,” she says, and when I don’t respond, she tries another guess. “Susan?”

I pull out from the kerb and file the names away for future reference. If I have to chase her down again, I’ll start with Rachel and Susan. In fact, nobody told me where to find her. I saw her at her dad’s house yesterday evening. She was dressed to go out, and I knew there was a boyfriend in the picture from the cagey way she answered Red’s questions. It took me two hours this morning to find out who the boyfriend is and where he lives. Finding people is my talent and it’s what Red employs me for. Often they don’t want to be found, so it’s difficult. They’ve borrowed from Red, or they’ve bought from him, or they’ve stolen from him. The last group are the ones that really don’t want to be found, because if Red gives the word, they might never be found again. With civilians like Michelle, it’s easy. Their social media is like a trail of breadcrumbs.

So, we’re driving, and we’re not talking much, which is good, because I can concentrate on not being followed. I’ve seen her being flirty with Red’s other guys, Gerry in particular, but with me it’s different. Probably another advantage of my boxer’s mug. She’s not a kid anymore, and I don’t want Red getting the wrong idea. He’s a protective father. That’s why I’m not going to tell him about the lanky student she spent the night with. I’d be expected to go back and express Red’s disapproval to him. I’d have to express it on his fingers, his ribs, his legs, and I can do without that. After a while, she looks up from her phone and stares out the window.

“Are you not taking me home?” she asks.

“No. The Hilton. Your ma and your and sister are already there.”

“What’s after happening?”

I say nothing. She thinks for a second and then starts typing something into her phone, her thumbs a blur.

“Don’t text anyone,” I say, a little more abruptly than I intended.

“I’m not.”

I glance over and see that she’s scrolling through a news app. She finds the story that I knew would be there. A sensational headline. A photo. Fragments of a windscreen scattered on a street like bloody teeth. A man dead, his name withheld from the story, just his age disclosed, enclosed in two brackets, and now he’s not going to get any older. The getaway vehicle burned out and abandoned somewhere nearby. A comment from a local who says that everybody’s in shock and that it’s a good area and that nothing like this ever happened around here before. 

“Who was it?” she asks.

I assume she means the victim, not the shooters. “Someone your dad knows. A business acquaintance.”

She has known about Red’s business since she was fourteen, so I expect her to scoff at the euphemism, but she just bites a fingernail. Probably relieved it’s not Red who got shot. Probably.

“What’s going to happen now?” she asks. “They’re going to keep coming after us?”

Us. Them and us. She’s been rebelling against Red for as long as I’ve known her, but now it’s ‘them and us’.

“No, your dad’s going to take care of it. He told me to get you to safety first.”

A few minutes later, we drive into the underground carpark of the hotel. Gerry is pacing in the shadows near the lift. I can tell it’s him from his walk. He always moves like he’s listening to a song that nobody else can hear. James Brown, maybe. Something funky. I tap the horn once to get his attention. He stoops to peer at us, one hand shielding his eyes from my headlights and the other deep in the pocket of his coat. I drive to him, slowly, so as not to spook him, and lower my window.

“Any word?” he asks.

“Nothing. You hear anything?”

He shakes his head. I turn to Michelle, but she’s already out of the car and slamming the door behind her. She has Red’s temperament. I watch in the rearview as she clomps around the back of the car in last night’s high-heels. Thanks for the lift, I mutter under my breath. You’re welcome, Michelle, don’t mention it.

Gerry says “I’ll text Red and tell him you’re on the way, yeah?”

“Yeah.” As I drive away, he hotsteps it over to the lift where Michelle is waiting.

It takes me fifteen minutes to get to the garage that Red is using as a staging post. There’s a tracksuited youngfella near the gate, pretending to be waiting for a bus, but really he’s watching for the cops, and watching for the opposition, a mobile phone in one hand.

Inside, there is just Red and the Brady brothers. I don’t know the brothers too well. Red only uses them for a particular type of job. They’re his rapid-reaction force. His emergency response unit. The younger one is holding a funnel in the mouth of a two-liter plastic milk bottle, and the older one, Frank, is pouring petrol into it from a can. They’re both wearing hi-vis jackets and builders’ boots, but there’s an automatic pistol on the workbench so I know they’re not about to build somebody a new kitchen. Red is kneeling in front of an Audi I haven’t seen before, changing the licence plate. He does a double-take when I walk in.

“You found her?” he asks.

“Yeah, I left her at the hotel.”

“When?” He fishes his mobile out of his pocket and checks the time. “She wasn’t there three minutes ago.” He thumbs the screen and turns away, raising the phone to his ear. I pull out my mobile and I call Gerry’s number. Voicemail. I hang up and dial again. Answer, you bastard.

Red is talking to somebody. “Yer sure? Alright, call y’back.”

He walks over to me. He’s still holding the screwdriver that he was using to fix the licence plate. The Brady boys are standing up and taking an interest, the petrol can forgotten for now.

Red says “That was her ma. Michelle’s not there.”

“I left…”

He talks over me. “Tony’s there. He hasn’t seen her either.”

“I left her with Gerry. In the hotel carpark.”

“With Gerry?” Red’s voice is shaking now, and so is the screwdriver in his fist. “What’s Gerry got to do with it?” he shouts. “I told you to find her, and bring her to her ma, and her sister, in the hotel.” He grabs my jacket with one hand and twists it. A fleck of spittle lands on my chin. “Now where the fuck is she?”

I reach back to steady myself against the workbench, and my fingers brush against the cold metal of the gun.

——————-

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Continue reading “Goon”

Earth. Have you heard of it?

Earth. Have you heard of it? It’s the blue planet. Blue, because there’s so much water. So much water that it falls out of the sky and drenches my fur. So much water that I throw back my head and catch the drops on my tongue.

Nobody told us in advance. Or if they did, it was in a briefing session when I wasn’t paying attention. There were plenty of those. The first hint we had was when we were coming down through the atmosphere. The air was full of moisture so thick that we could barely see the rest of the squadron. I waited for artillery to scream up from the ground and cut us to pieces. Would it be instant death or the long fall? It seemed like an age before we broke through the cloud cover and saw the city below us, defenceless.

Our squad found one human survivor after the battle. An old white-hair. He was starved and exhausted and digging through the rubble with bleeding hands. We couldn’t explain it. Nobody should have lived through the barrage. Soldiers from other squads came to see for themselves because they’d never been close to a human before. We charged them a portion of their rations just to look at him and when the novelty wore off we kept him around as a mascot and a guide.

I talked to him one evening and asked him about rain. He told me that the moisture stays in the sky because the air is warm but if the air gets cold for any reason then the water turns into droplets and gets pulled down by gravity. That’s how rain falls. Then it just sits on the surface all over the planet which I guess is the blue colour we saw from space. After a while, it gets reabsorbed into the air and just rises up by itself and then the whole thing starts all over again. I’m not sure about this last part. I haven’t seen any rain going upwards.

He told me about soft rains and hard rains and drizzles and downpours. He told me about thunderstorms and cloudbursts. He had dozens of names for it but I couldn’t see why. It’s all the same to me when it’s soaking my uniform or shorting out the electronics in my weapon. He told me about the snow that would come in winter and how it would cover the streets and how people would skate on the canal. I didn’t want to be fooled by his stories. I told him this but then he showed me a glass globe he carried. You could shake it and you’d see white flakes swirling around and settling on the little city that was inside it. His city, he told me, the first one we’d levelled.

When we moved out into the countryside I realised that he was right about the rain. About it being more than just moisture and air and gravity, I mean. That’s all it is but at the same time that’s not all it is. I don’t know how to explain it. I saw it first when I was weaving around the blast craters in the big-wheel. The craters were full of water. The rain pelted into them and made pockmarks that rippled outwards in perfect circles, quicker than the eye could see, overlapping and rolling into each other and through each other and fading out to nothing and then blinking into life again. It was hypnotic, like watching shockwaves from orbit.

Outside of the area of the searchlight beam it was too dark to really see the rain falling but you’d see it where it struck the bulletproof windows and you’d hear it tapping on the roof. I pressed my finger on the cold dry inside of the glass and traced the path of a drop as it zig-zagged down the outside. There was something comforting about being warm and dry in the vehicle with the storm so close. It was like we were inside the old man’s snowglobe but the weather was on the outside. It’s something you have to experience.

And there was that time we were in a forest on foot, doing a sweep-and-destroy for humans. It had stopped raining for the first time since morning and a kind of, I don’t know, greensmell, was rising up from the floor and making everything different. I didn’t know that smells could have a colour. ‘Petrichor’ is what the human called it.

Fat drops were hanging and wobbling on every leaf and all along the branches. I reached up and grabbed a branch and shook it, and it was like it was raining again for a second or two. The human laughed. The rest of the crew just made howls of complaint and shook themselves dry but to me it was beautiful.

At the end of the campaign we came back to the city and we parked at the side of the river. It was wide and fast at this place because we weren’t far from the sea. We got out of the vehicles to stretch and we stared out over the flow. Even after several months it was strange for us to look at. The human got out too and he walked to the edge of the water and looked across at the rubble on the far side. Then he did an odd thing. He stepped into the river and kept walking until the water was up to his chin and then he went under and we lost sight of him completely. We didn’t see him after that.

We thought maybe he swam away or he walked along the bottom of the river and got out again upstream. Or maybe he was just hiding under the water and waiting for us to leave. I don’t know if humans can do that. And if they can, I don’t think our guy could. He was pretty old.

I have his snow globe. I’m bringing it home in my ammo pouch as a souvenir of the mission. We’re probably leaving the planet soon. The commander thinks that we’ve done enough and there’s no point in chasing down the last of the humans. Some of the older guys disagree and think that we’re going to be here for a while. They say that the humans are regrouping in the far north and we need to finish them off properly. I hope that’s true. I’d like to see real snow before we leave.

——————-

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The Count

I had less patience than usual for Woodley’s twaddle. With hindsight, I can see that I was being a little unfair. He had agreed to meet me very late in the evening. Most people would not be so understanding of my foibles. Still, I was tired after my flight, and I was tormented by an unusually strong thirst. Those are the only excuses I can offer for what happened. I cut him off in mid-sentence.

“Do we have an agreement, or not?” I asked.

“Not.” He swallowed. “I mean, not yet.”

“And when, precisely, do you expect that to change?”

A vein pulsed on the side of his throat, betraying his nervousness. I could almost count his heartbeats. He raised one hand towards his mouth, caught himself, and adjusted his tie instead, which was just as damning a gesture. Then he spoke the lie: “It’s, ah, coming together. People are showing interest.”

I sighed. Years of writing, editing, compromising, rewriting, and now it had come to this. I wanted to throw back my head and scream.  I turned away from him and walked to the office window and leaned on the sill. The cool night air, with its promise of rain, wisped against my cheeks and the backs of my hands. Somewhere in the alley below, a cat hunted in the dark. I counted the rooftops, slowly. Counting is what I do when I feel agitated. Anything at all, it doesn’t matter. I count the mistakes I’ve made. I count the people I’ve hurt. I count the people I need to make amends to. I count the days since I last drank, and when I falter, I start at zero and try to count them again.

“It might help if you would meet some of the potential publishers,” he offered.

“That’s not possible. You know why.”

He changed tack. “The literary stuff, it’s very high brow. It’s a niche market. Have you considered writing something else?”

“Like what?”

“Vampire fiction? The teenagers go nuts for that stuff.”

I whirled around to face him. “Do you know how insulting that is? I am an artist.” I may have pounded my chest to emphasise the point. “Did Hemingway write vampire fiction? Did Steinbeck?”

He laughed.

“What’s funny?” I asked.

“All due respect,” he said, chuckling nervously, “but you’re hardly Steinbeck.”

I advanced on him. I saw the bump of his Adam’s apple quiver, once. Drops of sweat appeared on his forehead, three of them, as if by magic, and a blush rose in his cheeks. That was the trigger. I really couldn’t help myself. I lunged across the desk and surrendered myself to the thirst and the anger. My fangs plunged into the side of his neck and I gripped his arms around the biceps, using all my weight to force him back into the chair. His scream was muffled. It’s hard to vocalise your terror, or to object in any fashion, when one of my kind is clamped to your carotid artery. A growl of satisfaction rumbled in my throat, and my nostrils snuffled wetly as I struggled to breathe and drink at the same time. I slaked myself on the torrent until his heels ceased their drumming on the floorboards, and then I stood and massaged my aching jaw.

Of course, my shirt was ruined, and I hadn’t brought a spare. This was honestly intended to be a business meeting, not a feeding. And I have no doubt that I left enough evidence to occupy a team of forensics officers for a week. It was practically dripping from the ceiling. I made myself as presentable as I could, under the circumstances, and left the same way I had arrived, through the window. I counted the rooftops as I flew over them.

I feel some sympathy for Woodley, I really do, but what’s done is done, and he knew what I was since our first meeting. It’s his own fault, in a way, because if he had been a better agent then the whole sorry incident would never have happened. Rather than being too appalled at myself, I’ll just start counting the days again. Tomorrow, it will be one day since my last drink.

——————-

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Elinor

Clack. The venetian blind settled against the window frame and waited, trembling, for the soft breeze to lift it again. When it did, shadows bunched and rippled along Simone’s legs, lingered at the hem of her skirt, and fell back to her ankles. A tide, rushing up a beach and retreating. She was stretched out on the office couch, fanning herself with the brim of my hat. I was sitting with my feet on the desk, tie loosened, collar unbuttoned, watching her through half closed eyes. Reading people is something I do well, and I sensed that she was resisting the urge to smile.

“What’s funny?” I asked.

“This hat, it makes you look like a movie detective from two hundred years ago,” she teased. The fedora was brand new. Twelve credits, it cost me. An extravagance, considering the state of our finances.

“That’s the idea, sweetheart,” I told her. I was being Bogart that day. “Gotta give the clients what they want.” This is true. Image is important in our business. If cigarettes were legal, I’d have one dangling from my lip.

“Speaking of clients…” Simone’s gaze shifted inward, and she dropped the hat onto the coffee table. “Looks like we’ve finally got one.”

“An email?” I asked.

“Yep. Here, take a look,” she said, and flicked her wrist in my direction. The message appeared in my mind’s eye.

I read the important bits out loud. “… blah blah … require your assistance in locating our employee Elinor MacKenzie … yada yada … last heard from two days ago … etcetera, etcetera …”

“Did you miss the good part?” asked Simone. “The letterhead.”

I had missed it. “Oh yeah. How do you like that? Fujimura.”

Even a dolt like me knows Fujimura Biomedical. There are forty million souls buzzing around this beehive of a city, every one of us with a Fujimura memory chip and comm-link buried in the base of the skull.

“A missing person,” Simone mused. Her distant tone told me that a part of her was no longer in the room.

“You’re checking the software upgrade schedule?” I asked.

She nodded. See, that’s why Simone and I complement each other so well. She’s the tech whiz, whereas I’m more of a people person. Simone always starts a search by looking for a technical problem, or a technical solution. If Elinor MacKenzie’s memory implant had bugged out, then she could be wandering around some dank corner of the city with whatever random memories happened to be stored in her organic brain. Fujimura and the city council, which are one and the same thing these days, say that it doesn’t happen, but we’ve seen it often enough to know different. Just last month, we found a fifty-year-old banker in a jail cell. The cops had picked him up for vagrancy and begging. He’d been sitting on the street outside his childhood home, with no memory of his adult life. He hadn’t eaten for three days and he was asking passers-by for food, or if they knew where his mother was.

In the case of Elinor MacKenzie, the first thing I needed to know was, how much could we charge? That meant knowing something about Elinor. I closed my eyes and accessed her social media accounts. She had lots of online activity. Her history flashed through my vision. I picked out the highlights, as best I could. She was an only child, born when her parents were in their sixties. Not as common forty years ago as it is now. Good student. Well qualified. Senior engineer with Fujimura. No significant relationships. Parents dead from natural causes before their hundred and tenth birthdays.

“There was a software release yesterday,” said Simone. “The problem could be a bad patch. She has no cloud backup last night. No GPS trace. She’s offline.”

“Alright, let’s take the case. Treble the fee. Fujimura can afford it.”

The search kept us busy for weeks. We tried all the usual places. I put on my detective hat and went to talk to Elinor’s neighbours in one of those gleaming sky towers in district fifty. Some of them knew her to see, but none of them had known her name or that she was missing. I persuaded the landlord to let me into her apartment. He was reluctant at first but I found the right lever to move him to action. It was the suggestion of her lying dead on a wet bathroom floor and the risk of a lawsuit from her next of kin that had him reaching for his key-cards. I neglected to tell him that she had no next of kin.

The apartment was sparsely furnished and lit with the same white light as the empty refrigerator in her kitchen. I looked through the presses and the drawers while the landlord made noises from the doorway. The presses were stocked with ready meals. There wasn’t much in the way of crockery or cutlery. I could only find one fork, for example. It didn’t look like she had company very often. There was a bottle of wine on the counter, unopened, and a single glass.

I slid open the balcony doors and stepped onto what turned out to be a large patio. I was nearly high enough to read the licence plates on the hover-traffic that streamed overhead. I walked to the corner of the patio and looked down. It took me a moment to orient myself. I was at the north-west corner of the building. On the north side, traffic and pedestrians moved in two directions on an eight-lane roadway. They were so far below that no noise reached me. It was strange to see the neon advertisements from this angle and this height. On my income, the highest I’ve ever lived is the fifteenth floor. On the west side of the building, the river flowed wide and slow, sunlight glittering on its surface. A white wake of froth showed me where a ferry had just pulled out from the dock and disappeared under the bridge. I watched for a minute until the wake broke apart and was gone.

When an implant is offline, there’s always a chance that the user is face down in the river. Nothing knocks out a chip like a belly-flop from a bridge or a balcony. By the time I finished in the apartment, and took the elevator to the ground floor, Simone had checked the databases of the morgues, hospitals and psych wards. She found a few dozen possibles, and I followed up in person.

The hospital wards were bright and busy. The morgues were cool and peaceful. I won’t describe in detail that sleepless week I spent doing the rounds, bribing and wheedling my way into places I didn’t have authority to be, peering into lost faces, living and dead, and not finding the face I was looking for. Only one of the possibles was in the psych wards. I eventually persuaded an attendant to grant me entry and guide me through the maze of white corridors and into the many silent rooms where patients sat on chairs and couches. Finally, we reached the last room, one of the largest, and we threaded our way through the placid white-robed figures to the far corner of the room, to the woman who might have been Elinor. She was sitting on the floor, head bent low over a dog-eared deck of cards. Her hair hung down over one shoulder, exposing a Fujimura chip on the back of her neck that was different to any chip I’d seen before. It was much bigger than usual, and it had a small red light that blinked steadily. She carefully studied the Jack of Diamonds, tracing the face with one chewed fingernail, and then passed it to the bottom of the deck.

“Elinor?” I asked.

She looked up at us blankly and then down at her cards again. “I’ll just be a minute. I’m looking for the sevens.”

I figured that at least a third of the deck was missing. I watched for a while as she studied each card, one by one, none of them sevens, and placed them at the bottom of the deck, until inevitably the Jack of Diamonds rose to the top again. She repeated her close inspection of the card, as if she’d never seen it before, and then placed it on the bottom of the deck and continued. I looked at the attendant. He shrugged.

“It keeps her occupied. Is she the one you’re after?” I could see the speculation in his eyes, the hope of the payment I had promised.

“No.” I turned to leave. “It’s not her.”

As we walked out of the room, I noticed that all of the patients’ chips were the strange oversized models, with red lights blinking in unison.

Over the following days, Simone hacked a few thousand CCTV networks and worked her facial recognition voodoo. Not exactly legit, but she knows how to cover her tracks. We had a few hits from the days before Elinor disappeared, but nothing from after. Of course, most of the other data we needed was available legally, so we bought it and billed it to the client. Every purchase Elinor made, the transport she used, and all of her movements were laid bare right up until the evening she was last seen. We pored over every scrap of information until we knew her better than we knew ourselves.

We ran out of places to check, but for some reason, I couldn’t let it go. I started to see her on the street, and in the crowd at the Metro station, but it was never her. At night I closed my eyes and trawled through everything we had, which was a lot. She had spent more time online than she did in the real world. She had no friends, just acquaintances. There was no Elinor-shaped hole in anyone’s life because there was nobody to notice she was gone. She was invisible in life and now she had vanished for real. The injustice of it bothered me.

We eventually moved on to other cases that were more quickly resolved. One of these concerned Michael Romero. He was a low-paid drone mechanic for some of the bigger drug dealers. You’ve seen their advertisements. Pills, glass, smoke, tobacco, whatever you want, delivered to your door in fifteen minutes. On a dark December afternoon, his wife arrived at our door. He had been missing for six days, and his wife couldn’t afford the fee for the police to keep searching. I doubted that they had done anything more than log the report, but I kept my suspicion to myself. The cops aren’t known for investigating crimes against drug dealers, or their employees, or their customers for that matter. She had just enough credits to hire us for two or three days, if that. She told us that we were her last hope.

I interviewed her. She sat on the edge of the couch and answered my questions with matter-of-fact calmness, but her fingers gripped tightly the forgotten mug of coffee that I had poured for her. I could sense her grief and panic, barely contained, threatening to overflow at any moment. I probed and prodded and made noises of sympathy in the appropriate places.

Simone sat behind the desk with her hands folded in her lap, listening silently. I knew from her posture that she was already online, searching and sorting the digital life of the city, hunting for any sign of the man. Simone can surf deeper and faster than anyone I’ve ever met, while still being aware of her surroundings. Me, on the other hand, I’m not much of a multi-tasker. I close my eyes and move my lips when I’m reading a simple text message. Soon enough, Simone pinged me with a location.

“Mrs. Romero,” I asked, “Would Michael have any reason to be outside the city, in Oldtown?”

“No, I don’t think so,” she said, her brow furrowing. “I’ve never heard of the old town.” Tears welled in her eyes. I sensed that the unexpectedness of the question had loosened the control she was struggling to maintain. All of my previous questions, she had asked herself already, or the police had, but this was a new one. Now she was confused.

I reached out and cupped my hands around hers. “Alright, go home and wait for our call.” I took her mug, now cold, and placed it on the coffee table. I rose, and guided her to her feet, and picked up her coat from the arm of the couch and handed it to her. “I’m going out to look for him. We’ll have an update by morning.”

She seemed startled by the suddenness of my leaving, but I left the details for Simone to explain. I grabbed my hat and trench coat and went downstairs and outside and turned my collar against the sleet. I took a surface taxi, a battered old rickshaw with an actual human driver, to the edge of the new city. I crossed my fingers that there would be enough charge in the battery to complete the journey. There was, just about. He wouldn’t go beyond the place where the streetlights ended, so I paid him and got out. As soon as I did, I had second thoughts, but his tail lights were already disappearing into the rain.

I stood on the crest of a hill, between the tracks of a long-abandoned tram-line, and looked down on the rooftops of Oldtown. I hadn’t been here before. Not even when I was on the force. It was all three-storey and four-storey buildings, like they used to build when space wasn’t such a luxury. Flickering light spilled from windows, and I could smell the fires that were burning in oil drums at the intersections. Silhouettes moved around the flames. I pushed my hands deep into my coat pockets and gripped my old police cosh in one fist. Simone opened a voice channel. She must have been tracking my movements.

“Straight ahead, one klick,” she said. “Michael’s GPS is working intermittently.”

My eagerness for the hunt overcame my doubts. I walked down the hill and past the first of the ruined buildings. There were no vehicles here, so I could have walked down the centre of the cracked roadway, but I stayed close to the shadows of the houses. Cooking smells and conversation drifted out through a broken window. I widened the comms channel so that Simone could see through my eyes.

“Have you ever seen anything like this?” she asked. “This is off the grid. Off the data grid, off the electricity grid, everything.”

“Feast your eyes, angel-face,” I replied. “It’s real.”

“This place is supposed to be abandoned.” She was ignoring my Sam Spade act. “It will be under water in thirty years.”

I walked on. After a few minutes of oppressive darkness, I wanted to hear her voice again.

“How far now, sweet-lips?” I asked.

“Ninety meters. The red building on the right.”

Two large men walked around a corner and stopped in front of me. Simone gasped. Shadows flickered on their faces from the burning torches they held aloft. I adjusted my hat with one hand so that I could see them better from under the brim. My other hand gripped the cosh tighter.

“Say, fellas, what gives?” I sounded more relaxed than I felt.

“Are you lost, brother?” asked one of them. I looked into his brown eyes, weighing my impressions. I detected no threat from him. Just genuine concern, and curiosity. I relaxed my grip on the cosh.

“No, brother, I know where I’m going.” I gestured towards the red building.

“You’re looking for Joanna? You’re new?” he smiled. “Here, take this, the road is wet.” He handed me his torch and then the two of them said goodnight and walked on, talking quietly to each other.

I heard Simone breathe easier. I moved towards the red building. To say that the road was wet was an understatement. A stream ran down the centre. I used an abandoned truck tyre as a stepping stone to jump across, but cold water still sloshed into my shoe. The building was an old library. I looked in through the double doors. The empty bookshelves had been moved around to create spaces and alcoves. One person was sleeping. A few others were sitting around a steaming pot of food, with blankets over their shoulders. I pushed open the doors and they turned to look at me.

“Michael Romero is on your left,” said Simone. “He’s the one lying down.”

A smiling woman rose from the seated group and approached me. She was offering a bowl of what looked like carrot soup. “Hello, I’m Joanna. Are you lost?” she asked.

“No, that’s ok. I’ve just come to find this man here. His wife is looking for him.”

“Ah, I see. Can you help him? He’s injured.” She walked with me to the sleeping figure. It was Michael Romero alright. His expression was pained. I crouched and examined the back of his head. A wound, recently bandaged. It was very close to the location of his implant.

“Are you seeing this, Simone?” I asked quietly. “He took a knock to the head.”

I fished the portable diagnostic kit from my pocket and attached the leads to his inputs, trying not to wake him. The machine uplinked to Simone. It would take a few minutes for her to run some tests. A young man joined us and put an arm around Joanna. He bore a strong resemblance to one of the two men I had met on the street. The one who hadn’t spoken. A brother, I guessed. Joanna smiled and offered me the soup again. This time, the smell stirred something in me, something half-remembered from childhood, and my mouth watered. I accepted the bowl and nodded my thanks.

“Michael has been missing for six days,” I told them. “If his chip is undamaged, I’ll restore his last backup from the cloud.”

“Is that his name?” Joanna looked down at the sleeping figure. “He couldn’t remember. He thought he had a wife, but he couldn’t find her.”

“He was lucky,” whispered the young man. “They normally wander for a long time before they get here.”

“What about you?” I asked. “Where did you come from?”

He grinned and bent forward and tapped the back of his neck. It was unmarked. No data ports. “Some of us were born here in Freetown, brother.”

“And you?” I asked Joanna. Hers was the answer that I really wanted to hear.

“I remember … a view from a balcony on a tall building.” Her brow wrinkled as she spoke. “Everyone else was far below. I remember being unhappy, and alone.” She looked at her companion then, and her frown disappeared.

Simone’s voice broke in. “Michael’s chip is intact. It just needed a reset. You can restore his backup.”

I attached another data lead to his implant, and started the process of making him whole again, and sat back on my heels.

“You did a good job of looking after him,” I said to the couple. “We’ll have him home in no time.”

They said nothing to this, but the woman smiled again. It was a smile I hadn’t seen in any of the photographs or footage that we’d studied. Her hair was longer as well, and she looked different in some other subtle ways that I couldn’t identify. I finished the soup in silence, thinking. Of course, I knew her real name, even if she didn’t. Simone knew it too, I was sure. You can’t spend weeks poring over every detail of somebody’s life, and then not know them when you meet them. The payment from Fujimura would have been useful, but we could manage without it. I knew Simone would agree.

——————-

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