Sunday, May 16, 2010

Chapter Fourteen (a)

Out of breath from climbing the stairs, Coleridge gazed longingly at the armchairs in Porlock’s lounge. They radiated a sense of comfort and contentment. There was something maternal about them, even though the buttons on their upholstery looked nothing like nipples. He could almost hear them calling out to him: ‘Sit in me, Coleridge! Hey big boy, why don’t you sink back into my depths? Rest and relax! No, sit in me! Shut up, you, I saw him first! He’s mine, you little bean-bag!’

But Porlock had invited Coleridge here for an unveiling of a secret, and he was too intent on the coming demonstration to care about the siren cries from his furniture, or his colleague’s need to catch his breath. “Behold the future of detective work!” he announced grandly, pausing at the door to the next room. “This database is the engine-room of my deductive juggernaut!”

Porlock would have preferred that the entrance to the room was through a pair of solid ceiling-high oak doors – embellished with ornate brass handles and hinges – that he could fling open with a satisfying flourish. Alternatively, a featureless slab of brushed aluminium that slid aside automagically and vanished into the wall with barely a whisper of sound. In practice the door was only wide enough for one person; had been painted a tragic shade of purple-yellow by some previous occupant of the house who had been equipped with more house-paint than good taste; and was pitted and scarred across its upper panel where a dartboard used to hang (until Porlock had become so embarrassed by his poor marksmanship that he had taken it down, leaving a clear circle of unpitted paint as a ghostly reminder of where it had been). Also his emergency back-up overcoat was hanging from the handle, and had to be removed and hurled into a corner before Porlock could open the door and usher Coleridge through. All this undermined the drama of the moment.

Coleridge looked around. “It is full of filing cabinets,” he observed after a while. He had no idea what a juggernaut was, but he harboured a vague idea that it was related to an astronaut somehow – but with jugs – so he hoped that beer was involved.

Porlock squeezed past him to enter the room himself. “This is, as it were, the CPU for a new age of computerised crime solving! The mainspring of, umm, a less modern-sounding analogy! The nerve-centre of… umm…”

Behind him there was a rustling from the lounge as Lassi climbed into one of the armchairs and made herself comfortable, turning round and round among the cushions as if about to drain down the plughole. If Coleridge had been watching, he would have almost been able to hear the chair yelping in anguish as her prickles poked into its fabric.

“They’re very nice cabinets,” he said instead, searching for something complimentary to say. “The colour, yes, at least beige doesn’t clash with anything. And the artistic way you’ve lined them all up… words fail me.”

“Nothing happens in Christchurch without its reflection here,” said Porlock by way of explanation.

“Why are you flapping your hands like that? You look like you’re directing traffic at the intersection of Reality Avenue and Daydream Boulevard.”

“I’m encouraging you to see what’s inside the filing system.”

To humour his friend, Coleridge kneeled down to pull a few drawers out and close them again like bellows. They produced a series of wheezy musical notes like a concertina. “Parking tickets,” he reported. “Personal letters. Hand-sketched maps and instructions for getting to parties. Shopping lists.”

“Yes indeed! This room is a kind of scale model of the city.”

“Only without the scales.”

“If a crime is committed anywhere in Christchurch, chances are that it left a paper trail in these drawers if we knew where to look… even a plan written out by the criminals. The trick is knowing where to look.” Porlock sat at a desk where he busied himself with a pen and a cardboard slip the size of a playing-card, writing a description of the latest acquisition for his archive – the tram ticket from the Riccarton rubbish-bin. “This collection of documents is the labour of months. You’ll never guess how I’ve been building it up.”

Coleridge admired an invitation to the opening of an exhibition called Collide-o-Scope at the City Gallery, consisting of a number of wrecked cars, suspended from a rotating framework ,¹ before returning it to its drawer. He skimmed through the itemised calls on someone’s telephone bill, and the expenses listed on the bank statement of someone by the name of Dorian Gray. “My first guess – purely as a stab in the dark – is that most of them were being used to mark a page in books taken back to the Public Library, where you’ve asked the librarians to collect them for you.”

Porlock looked up in surprise from the desk. He had cross-referenced and coded the card, ready to file it away among thousands of others in a separate system of smaller drawers which allowed him to locate the clue he wanted. The indexing system for these cards was as complicated as the rules of double solitaire, and perhaps it was based on the rules of solitaire, or even the other way around.² “Coleridge, that’s astonishing! Much of the time I think of you as a bubble-brained half-awake pillock, with limpets under rocks off the coast of the Galapagos Islands who manage to pay more attention to what’s happening in the world around them than you do – but then you prove me wrong with an intuitive flash of penetrating brilliance like that. However did you guess?”

“This is my butter-knife,” Coleridge explained, snatching the implement from a drawer and holding it protectively close to him, like a rescued hostage.

“You were using a food-covered knife as a bookmark? That’s appalling. The librarians warned me about people like you. Some people should not be allowed to eat breakfast and read at the same time.”

“I don’t know about appalling, but it’s certainly been inconvenient… ever since I misplaced the knife, I’ve had nothing to stir my coffee with. Which reminds me, a couple of strips of cooked bacon went missing at the same time. Is there any chance that they’re somewhere in your bookmark archives as well?”

Porlock rolled his eyes upwards as if looking for aid from the sky, or perhaps checking his eyebrows for any insects that might have become impaled on them. In lieu of an answer, he removed a dozen or so cards from the small drawers. He spread these out on the desk, shuffled them around, sorted them into piles, and finally swept them all together again.

“Pick a card. Any card,” he said, spreading the cards into a fan and holding out the miniature deck. Coleridge obediently pointed to the centre-most card. Porlock put away the others, then followed a cryptic combination of letters and digits on the indicated card (not to mention a line of symbols drawn from the Linear B syllabary) which led him to one of the drawers in a filing cabinet. It rolled out cautiously like a hermit crab extending from its shell, allowing Porlock to extract a battered sheet of paper that had at some point been folded into a flapping crane and then unfolded again in the wrong order.

“That is not my missing breakfast,” Coleridge informed him critically.

“A good performer always leaves his audience wanting something more,” Porlock replied. “Indeed, it is not your breakfast, and there are many other things which it is not: all marked here on the index card, using a system of abbreviations so complex that I have been forced to extend it by borrowing letters from the runes and the Celtic Ogham script. This symbol means that it is not your breakfast.” Coleridge peered closely to where Porlock was pointing (he was firmly convinced that if he tried hard enough to look like he knew what the other person was talking about, then no-one would ever try to cheat him). “This symbol means that it is not a circuit diagram for an antique valve radio, drawn in eye-liner pencil on the back of a takeaway menu from an Indian restaurant. This one means that it is not a photographic copy of a Cubist cobweb left in a corner of Picasso’s studio in 1926 by a spider that had been influenced by seeing too many of his paintings. By a process of elimination, my archive system allows me to conclude that it can only be a map of the secret underground extensions to the Christchurch tram-line, left by mistake in an overdue copy of Elephant-keeping for Beginners, which was returned to the library two weeks ago.”

Coleridge blinked while he processed this information. “My book was overdue too. Your system is amazing, by the way.”

“I call it a ‘search engine’. The Dougal search engine, on account of that being my first name.”

“Do you think it has other applications? Could you hire it out to other people? And I hate to be personal, but I have to wonder what kind of parents would give a child a name like ‘Search Engine’.”

Porlock thought about this. “No, it has no commercial value. I can’t imagine that anyone but me would have any use for a Dougal search. Aren’t you going to say that ‘The game’s afoot!?’”

Coleridge stopped blinking. “The game’s afoot, Porlock!” he exclaimed. “The door is ajar and the elbows are akimbo! We have a tunnel network to explore! In search of vanishing vet clinics, and elusive clients called Stencil, and my missing breakfast!” He paused. “Should we take provisions?”

Porlock stared at the paper, trying to work out which marks were actual lines of the map and which were simply creases. “I have no idea of the scale,” he admitted. “This could take days. We should take supplies and equipment.”

“I shall go and make sensible preparations,” said Coleridge, getting ready to leave. He looked around the room for his hat until he finally remembered that he had never taken it off. “Shall we meet at the tram depot at midnight?”

“The last time you talked about ‘sensible preparations,” Porlock reminded him, “the contents of your travel-bag turned out to consist of a sack of potatoes and a croquet set.”

¹ Its alternative title was Auto-Mobile.
² Except the rules of solitaire normally do not involve hyper-linking the cards by processing them in a “Phase-conjugate Hermitian operator in Hilbert space” that looks suspiciously like an old toaster.


The Galapagos Islands Limpet Anti-Defamation League™³²®© said...

You'll be hearing from our attorneys.

ckc (not kc) said...

You never know when you might find a nice flat spot for a game of croquet.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

a tragic shade of purple-yellow

Whoof! I wonder if there's a colour vision expert in the house to comment on this most bizarre of hues...

Smut Clyde said...

It turns out that in Vasavi (one of the umpteen languages of India), the word that best translates as 'yellow' -- 'piuli' -- can also apply to purple and mauve hues. Such are the things you learn by getting involved in analysing data from the World Color Survey.

mikey said...

Well, come ON!

Is this a juggernaut?