Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Chapter Fifteen

Blake sipped his beer suspiciously. He had no memory of ordering it or idea of why he had done so. Beer is unknown in the Petropolis reality, but from what he had heard about hops and bitterness, something was missing from the flavour. He would have detected more taste if he’d tried licking the label instead. When he looked at the empty bottle for the name of the beer and the ingredients, it seemed smeared or out-of-focus. He lifted it from the bar for a closer look but somehow the printing hovered just outside the reach of legibility.

“You’re dreaming,” he heard Ed say. “None of this meets official minimum standards of reality.” Blake looked up from the bottle to see that the words and logos on the beer taps were equally blurred. The only readable words in sight were printed on Ed’s t-shirt: “There is no such thing as a Stupid Question,” they read. Apart from Ed N’Bro, the interior of the Old Entomologist stood strangely deserted.

“Not completely deserted,” Ed insisted. “There is also the bird.” He nodded in the direction of the birdcage at the end of the bar. Its usual occupant was missing, and had been replaced by some kind of swamp wading bird, tall and tapering, marked by a pattern of vertical streaks as if for hiding among reeds. The bars of the cage had acquired thorns, while rose buds were sprouting from the top. “It’s a bittern,” he explained. “A female of the species. That’s why you can’t taste your beer. Would you like a cola instead?”

Little of this made any sense to Blake, but he had started out with low expectations about the amount of logic that one might discover in a dream, so he was hardly disappointed. “I remember,” he said. “I’m due to contact my boss and deliver a progress report, since she hasn’t contacted me. So I went to sleep.”

“That’s how I would go about it too,” Ed said agreeably, turning to open a fridge. His t-shirt message continued on the back in smaller letters: “However, experience has taught me that there are some sodding stupid questioners.” He closed the fridge and turned back to the bar, clutching a condensation-slick can that he placed in front of Blake. ‘Moko Kola’ it was labelled, while a pattern of interlocking spirals – identical to the tattoo on Ed’s bare shoulders and upper arms – covered the rest of the can.

Blake continued with his explanation, on the theory that secrets confessed to a barman will remain under the seal of professional confidentiality. “I was sent here to recruit a pair of private detectives – Coleridge and Porlock.”

“I am familiar with them.” Ed may have rolled his eyes. It was hard to be certain, due to the duplicate pupils and irises tattooed onto both his eyeballs alongside the central pupil, which obscured the direction of his actual gaze. “From the fact that you are posing as a Brother of the Order of Saint Lazarus – who devote their lives to charitable projects and to treating tropical diseases in particular – I deduce that you were originally on the way to the Sherlock Holmes symposium in 1908, to talk to the detective about his diagnosis of leprosy in The Case of the Blanched Soldier.”

“That’s right!”

“Apart from that, I know nothing.”

“I had to read textbooks on leprosy and tropical parasites so I could maintain the cover story,” said Blake.

“Then you will know all about the Treponema pallidum diseases – Pinta and Yaws.”

“Yaws? What’s Yaws?”

“That’s very kind of you,” Ed said promptly. “Since you’re paying, I’ll have a glass of the good red wine.”

Blake ignored this. “So anyway, I found out an address for one of them. I didn’t find anyone at home, but they didn’t seem to have been gone for long.” Blake saw no reason to mention how he picked the lock, or the filing system he had found in the back room. “It looked as if they intended to be back soon… they had left a dog asleep on a chair. Hey, how come I can read the label on the Cola can?”

“Product placement,” said Ed, enjoying the bouquet of his wine. “It’s my brother’s latest scheme for making a fortune. The big breweries’ products will also be recognisable in dreams as soon as they sign the contract and cough up the payment.”

“I don’t really care whether I can read the label,” Blake grumbled. “I just want the contents to have some flavour.”

“Well, that’s the elephant in the corner of the room that no-one’s talking about.”

“What is?”

That is.” Blake swivelled on his barstool to follow the direction in which Ed had nodded his head, and discovered that there was indeed an elephant in the corner, near the door by the coat-rack, where the shadows were thickest. It was sitting at a table by itself, hunched over on account of the low ceiling, and sipping what appeared to be a large banana daiquiri. It had been there for a while, judging from the number of empty daiquiri glasses pushed to the edge of the table. When it registered that Blake was staring at it, the elephant winked at him and blew bubbles in its drink through its trunk.

“Has that been there all along?” Blake asked. “I can’t believe I didn’t notice it before.”

“Always,” Ed replied. “Apparently it has a right to stay here, under some permanently-binding clause in the lease of the old Killing Jar. For a long time I thought it was a cat, though it never touched the saucers of milk I left out, which should have aroused my suspicions. Never caught any mice, either. But you know what Nietzsche said…”

“Nietzsche who?”

“…If you ignore the elephant in the corner of the room for too long, the elephant may ignore back at you.”

Blake shook his head in the hope that he could change the subject away from tropical diseases and elephants. “I had hoped to meet my boss here but evidently she couldn’t make it. Is there a telephone I can use?”

Ed was less than encouraging. “One of the big ’phone companies wants to promote its cellphones as a key plot device in your next dream. I can’t allow any cellphones until we finish negotiating with them – they’re after an exclusive deal, no competition.”

“How about a land-line?”

Ed pinched his lower lip between thumb and forefinger while he thought. “I shouldn’t really do this…”

“Please! This is important!”

“It’s against my better judgement, but fortunately my second-best judgement is in charge today. Just don’t tell anyone, and keep the call short. The coin-phone is in the cupboard over there – the door with the cups nailed to it.”
“I do not recognise this dimly-lit, cavernous space in which we find ourselves, Mr Knuckles. It is an unfamiliar ambience.” The speaker formed each word with loving care, lingering over each one in his reluctance to part with it. He rapped his fingernail against a pillar as they passed it and chips of stone spalled off. “It seems to be a colonnade.”

“A colonnade?” His shorter companion’s voice creaked; perhaps his jaw-joint or tongue-joint required lubrication.

“That’s what you make if life gives you colons. Whereas if life gives you carbonised steak, you make Beef Carbonade.”

“It’s a catheter. A dihedral. A cathedral. See, up there: St Francis, patron saint of kite-flying.” Even when only pointing with his finger, Knuckles somehow gave the impression that he was brandishing a firearm of some kind. Right now he was indicating a great stained-glass window over to the left. In the higher panes, a kite in the shape of an angel hovered above the clouds, its hands and feet linked by thin lead lines to those of St. Francis in the lower panes.

Knuckles pointed to a statue on their other side, that wore a novelty rucksack or parachute pack in the shape of the Baby Jesus – “And that is St. Christopher, patron saint of medals.”

“I am impressed, Mr Knuckles. I had never so much as an inkling – whatever that is – that you have been schooled in Christian hagiography.” Pausing, to show some respect for their ecclesiastical environment, Kneebone slipped a silver case from his sleeve and chose a replacement pair of contact lenses, this time with a stained-glass motif. They showed the martyrdoms of Saints Stephen and Sebastian.¹ “You are a never-ending source of delightful surprises, like joke-shop itching powder that bursts into flame after five minutes and burns its victim to death in long-drawn-out agony.”

“Someone gave me a Bible for a craptism present. Studied it well.”

The light flooding in through the stained-glass windows was beginning to fade. The little light that lingered was too nervous to venture into the shadowy corners on its own. It came from black wrought-iron racks, spaced at intervals along the aisles and side-chapels, and studded with spikes – inviting saints or street-performers to lie on them in a demonstration of immunity to pain – but instead of saints, burning candles were mounted on the spikes, several hundred on each grating. Perhaps it was God’s birthday.

“What size was it?” Kneebone wondered.

“It measured axectly 20 cm high, 15 across, and two cm thick,” said Knuckles in tones of satisfaction. He had obtained a great deal of obsessive pleasure during his childhood years by knowing the precise dimensions of things, even if this sometimes involved pinning things down to stop them moving while he measured them. “Why?”

“You are in the fortunate position of knowing exactly what people mean when they talk about ‘A disaster of Biblical proportions’.”

“I don’t think so, Mr Kneebone.” Knuckles coughed out the consonants the way an owl coughs up undigested bones. “Biblical proportions are measured in cubits.”

Kneebone was not inclined to argue. “Be that as it may – and it very well may be – what, pray tell, is a craptism?”

“Was supposed to be a baptism, but a parent threw up in the font, so they used a toilet bowl instead.” They arrived at another avenue of pillars that crossed the one they were following. Knuckles stopped at one of the candle-racks and rearranged the candles from spike to spike, opening up spaces between them so that the flames formed the letters BOLLIX.
Blake entered the cupboard to find that every square foot of the interior, except for a small window in the door that looked out onto the bar of the Old Entomologist, was studded with knobs and dials and levers of unguessable purpose. Had Blake been familiar with the Dr Who series, he might have compared it to the experience of occupying an inside-out Dalek.

He fumbled around in search of a telephone handpiece, pulling random levers to see what each one would do. The first resulted in a lurching sensation in his stomach as if the booth was suddenly sinking down, while the view through the window was sliced away by a grainy concrete surface sliding swiftly upwards just beyond the glass. Indicator needles in several dials began to creep upwards or down. A second lever moved against rusty resistance when he pulled it; the movement stopped but various warning lights began to strobe red. A third lever set a row of drums spinning on their shared axis behind a small panel. They turned more and more slowly, allowing Blake to see the images of coins that were printed around their sides, and finally juddered to a halt with three coins all the same lined up behind the panel.² A firework show of lights blinked cheerfully while a slot opened beside the panel and disgorged a stream of cherries, apples and lemons, piling up around Blake’s ankles.

The end of the fourth lever snapped off when he pulled and turned out to be the handpiece. Coincidentally, it was even shaped like a hand, with a microphone in the wrist and a loudspeaker in the knuckles. “Hello?” he said tentatively.

The reply came in a sort of Frankenstein voice spliced together from shorter fragments of voice, with scars and pauses to mark each join. “You have reached the, Random, telephone exchange. Please insert, one mandarin, and speak the number clearly.”

Blake found himself falling into the same style of speech. “I want to speak to, the Petrarch, of, Petropolis.” He kneeled to collect the required fruit.

“A trans-reality call through, Ferrous Wheel Station, will require, two, lychees, for, five minutes, or, one kumquat, for, three minutes. Connecting you now.”

“Hello! You have reached the number of Petrarch Horlicka! The Petrarch is available right now, so make your report, and I’ll decide whether I can be bothered replying.” In the background, Blake could hear muffled thuds and forced exhalations of breath.

“Cohort-Inspector Blake here. I have, recruited the two best detectives from, the Random reality. Well, almost. If it were not for their absence, from their office…”

“You’ll have to speak up – there’s an Am-Tuat grading in progress here at the moment. That’s Osiris style, you fool! Block him with your Thoth style!” Blake realised almost immediately that she was shouting at events in her office, not at him.

“Perhaps ‘precruited’ would be a, better word, Your Distractibility.”

“Stop talking like that, Blake. You sound as if life has given you excess punctuation.”

In the gaps between episodes of grading, when the Petrarch’s attention was not centred on bellowing advice to the opponents, Blake described his visit to Porlock’s apartment. He did not think it was necessary to bother the Petrarch with details of all the independent descriptions he’d heard about Coleridge’s and Porlock’s competence. He tried to ignore the disconcerting fact that he was pressing a soft, flesh-coloured, disembodied hand to his ear, and speaking into the knuckles. From time to time it squeezed his own hand in return.

“Is your cover holding out? Right now it’s more important than ever.”

“Yes, Your Belligerence. I’m careful to stay in costume and in character. But whether it actually fools anyone…”

“Throw him with your Djed attack, you mook!” The Petrarch’s voice was drowned out for a moment by a sudden crescendo of applause. “Well done!” she was shouting. “Kneel on his hand now! Pulp it!”
Blake realised that what he held was no longer a telephone, but rather a pair of designer spotlights that were dazzling his teeth and eardrum with their focused beams. He snatched them away from his head and placed them on an encircling table-top. It seemed that the telephone booth had been changing during the brief conversation, though in a series of such small gradations that he hadn’t noticed. The Yellow Pages directory had morphed into a Bible lying open before him, now picked out by the double beam from the spotlights. Fully half of each page was occupied by what he thought at first were circuit diagrams for computer mother-boards. When he inspected more closely they turned out to be ornately-decorated capital letters, where the strokes of each letter were drawn out into filaments of green and gold paint that wove themselves into a background of foliage intertwined with the necks and limbs of heraldic serpentine animals.³

He looked around and registered that the booth was now a pulpit, enclosing him at waist height. Other than the little pool of light immersing the Bible, compact clusters of candle-flame punctuated the darkness of a cavernous, echoing space. Within the darkness, denser shadows had clotted into dozens of hunched figures lined up at pews. There was a sense of ominous impatience that made the shivers stand up and down Blake’s spine. He realised how he must look, standing in the pulpit, clad in his monastic robe; it must be that the crowd were expecting a sermon from him.

He read from the open pages in front of him. “The text today is from Isaiah, Chapter II, Verse 4: ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares’. What does that mean?” He paused and turned the blankness of his mind into a moment of dramatic tension. Sporadic muttering broke out within the shadowy, hidden congregation. “I have never personally tried to beat a sword into anything,” he improvised. “But if I did, I suspect that there’d be little to show for my efforts at the end of the day except a tired arm and a scrap-heap of battered metal.” He leaned forward over the top of the pulpit in what he hoped was a confiding gesture, resting his weight on his crossed arms upon the Bible pages. “What is a ploughshare, anyway? If it’s anything like a time-share on a plough, then I’m less than enthusiastic about this whole edged-weapon recycling program, because all the other farmers will be wanting to use the plough on their fields at the same time.”

The muttering continued to grow, fell into the rhythm of The Hall of the Mountain King, and built up towards a climax like a snowball of menace rolling down the ski-field of threat (or something like that), forcing him to drop his confiding demeanour and shout out the final words to be heard. Then there was a roll of thunder – prolonged and deafening – like the noise of two trains colliding after some doofus had fooled around in the signals box without knowing what he was doing and pulled on the levers that re-route the tracks. On their spikes, the candles flickered, and flared up, and all went out in unison.

A flash of lightning followed almost immediately, running to catch up with the sound. Its fleeting illumination revealed that the stained-glass window had taken advantage of nightfall to relax; St. Francis had abandoned his kite, and was now receiving a small gleaming tube from two allegorical figures representing Quenchèd Thirst and Guarana for Energy, while the rest of the window had filled in with repeating fern-frond spirals surrounding the words MOKO-KOLA in big red lettering.

Somewhere in the lightless void, a voice croaked like a chorus of crows: “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

“Unless you happen to like cursing the darkness,” a second voice observed, in tones that were saturated in oils and probably quite unhealthy.

Bloody darkness. Sodbuckets. Harbles,” agreed the first voice.

Then the candles came slowly back to life. The scene had changed again, and now Blake found himself in a maze of little winding corridors with nothing to distinguish one from another. There was no-one in sight and no more ominous threnody of muttering. The racks on which the candles were mounted had also morphed into woven meshes of glass prisms, suspended from the ceiling, with one of these hanging meshes casting candle-light on every bend or junction in the corridors.

“This must be a candelabyrinth,” Blake said to himself.

He chose one of the hallways at random and walked quickly along it, past walls painted a shade of light brown, the colour a hospital bureaucrat might choose to paint the walls of the Accident & Emergency Ward in the belief that it was a restful emollient hue.

He turned several corners, ascended a flight of stairs, went down again by a spiral staircase, and found himself zigzagging as the hall turned through one hairpin bend after another. The floors were sometimes gravel and sometimes grass. Sometimes Blake could hear only the crunching of gravel under his feet, and sometimes muffled voices (glooping like Rotorua mud-pools or rasping in harsh disharmony like a raven walking on concrete with a can stuck on one foot), as if other people in adjacent corridors were also exploring the maze. From time to time a door slamming in the distance echoed down the passageway. If the maze was a dream version of the Borges Memorial Labyrinth, switching back and forth between its two states, perhaps it would lead out to Memorial Park.

When at last he reached a fork in the path, he was beginning to feel like a mouse exploring the brazen intestines of a tuba, and had lost all track of where he was located relative to where he had started. “Left or right?” he wondered aloud. “I hope I’m not expected to flip a coin.” Recalling his cover story, he went on: “I am a Brother of the Order of St. Lazarus, sworn to poverty and excessive beardiness and the treatment of tropical diseases! I don’t carry coins!” To be sure, he checked in the secret pockets concealed within the sleeves of his robe, but only found half a mangosteen and two nectarines.

Suddenly the underside of his left forearm twinged. A mosquito? A tropical disease? An inwit?§ Checking for the source of the pang, Blake found that the illuminated capital N from one page of the Bible had transferred over to his skin like a temporary tattoo while he was leaning on it at the end of his sermon. Now it was settling in and making itself at home. Already it had changed colour, so that it resembled an enlarged bruise-blue thumbprint. A closer examination revealed that the interlocking lines on the page that had sometimes been vines and sometimes sinuous necks now looked more like a map.

In fact the image even included a tiny red arrow pointing to a particular junction, with the words ‘You are Here’. Looking up, Blake found the matching message inscribed on the wall of the corridor… complete with a large stylised arrow, cut out of some light material like polystyrene or balsa wood and painted red, so it could dangle from the ceiling on a couple of strings. It was not pointing to him, though, or to the left or the right of the junction, but rather at the wall straight ahead. Blake shrugged and marched towards the wall… which blinked first, at the last second, so he stepped through into…
… A large room, a smithy of some kind. It was a flurry of activity with too many details to take in at once. Blake noted straightaway that the blacksmith at the centre of activity was not entirely human, though it did wear a human-leather apron as its only garment, tied around its midriff with the tanned skin arms as the straps. Its head was that of a great black bull. Other heads hung on hooks around the wall, ready to be changed for different occasions. What he initially thought were demons or imps were in fact small bronze robots with the bodies of calves and children’s heads, gleaming red in the firelight from the forge as they pumped the bellows while the smith pounded away at something Blake couldn’t see, with a hammer in one hand and an anvil in the other.

The smith stopped work and turned its massive head towards him. “Hast thou come for the Hare of the Plough?” Surely it was hollow for its voice to be so resonant. “It is ready. No other smith could have accomplished the task of hammering it out of words.” Blake could see now that its horns were coated in iridescent green nail-polish and dusted with sparkles, and it appeared to be wearing false eye-lashes.

“I think you mean ‘swords’,” Blake said as tactfully as he could.

“No, no, my instructions were clear: ‘Hammer words into plough’s-hares; and pear-heads into pruning hooks.’ And a messy job that was. Or perhaps thou seekest the engines of war. Know, mortal, that it was I who made the Fish Tanks for Morlock II, which fired real fish and could lay waste to city blocks with a remorseless colonnade of tuna and marlin…”

One of the bronze apprentices squeaked something. The smith responded to the interruption by crushing the robot with a hammer-blow, before continuing:

“A remorseless cannonade. From this forge came the dragon-teeth of Cadmus, which sprout into fully-armoured warriors when sown like seeds… the Flagstone of Dopa-Mine, indestructible in battle, though it tended to break the flagpole under its weight… the B# War-Ophicleides with which the House of Brass held sway over all High Dudgeon…”

Unnoticed by the smith, a message was shining on his (?) apron while he (?) spoke, in neon blue letters: MOKO KOLA. WITH EXTRA MINOTAURINE + CENTAURINE FOR ENDURANCE!

“… The skull of Egill Skallagrimsson… the chicken cannons of…”

“To be honest,” Blake interrupted, “All I’m really after are directions out of here. A way to Petropolis would be perfect, so I can speak to Petrarch Horlicka, but failing that I’d be happy to get back to the Random reality where I started.”

“Is that all?” The bovine blacksmith snorted in disdain. It turned back to its work, scowled at it critically, and took a pair of tongs to throw the result back into a crucible. For good measure it threw in the shattered shell and spilled-out cogwheels of its bronze apprentice to be melted down as well. “Egress is that way.” It gestured with the tongs toward the far wall, where a calendar was hanging, beyond the heads on their hooks (now he saw the heads of a ram, a lion, a goat; even an elephant’s head, ears and trunk hanging down limply).

Blake approached the calendar* and saw the door at last. “Egress?” he wondered. “Isn’t that a female egre?”** He stepped through, back into the Old Entomologist. The elephant head opened one eye and winked at him as he passed.

Ed had not moved from the bar where he was finishing his glass of wine. “Have you worked out yet what happened to the bitterness of your beer?” he asked.
¹ He had been known to wear the same contacts to celebrate the Olympic Games, claiming that they depicted the sports of shot-putting and archery.

² They were Golden Thews, a coin seldom encountered outside of novels of heroic fantasy. One Golden Thew is worth eight Silver Thews, which in turn are worth 12 Bronzed Thews, which is a swordsman’s daily salary.

³ Many people make the mistake of calling these ‘Inklings’, but the proper term is ‘Inwits’.

§ They deliver a notoriously painful agenbite.

* Open to show “Miss Septober” who had the head of a red-haired human female but the body of a Holstein heifer, unclothed and reclining gracefully on a hay-bale at an angle chosen to show its udder to best advantage.

** I was honestly not aware that Terry Pratchett had used this joke when I wrote this chapter.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Then there was a roll of thunder...

My cue! Should I be worried that S.C.'s online novel makes more sense than my job?

tigris said...

The Girl from Treponema is now lodged in my head so thank you so very much for that.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

“I was sent here to recruit a pair of private detectives – Coleridge and Porlock.”

Have you considered a collaboration with Tim Powers?

Smut Clyde said...

The Girl from Treponema
Stealing that.

mikey said...

Needs more weaponry....

mikey said...

Oh Kay. Stop right there.

I really need some kind of context. Sorry if that's all pedestrian and shit.

Is this a book you wrote for the Doktorling a long time ago? You've indicated it's for the child - is all this just random order copy pasta?

Or, are you writing it in real time? That would be cool, and the non sequential approach just makes it more charming. However, if you are writing it as we go along, and you choose to approach it non-sequentially, you need to provide some kind of program, list of protagonists, framework for the plot to hang on.

On the other hand, your taste in novels seems to run to the indecipherable, so I may find this exercise in anti-narrative endlessly frustrating.

Would it be so unpleasant to hold my hand just a little bit?

Smut Clyde said...

Is this a book you wrote for the Doktorling a long time ago?

Work in progress. Started a few years ago; new chapters get written sporadically, often as something that I can e-mail home when I'm away from home (i.e. an excuse to find the nearest brew-bar to do some writing). No long-term planning of a plot in advance because that would be cheating (and would take away the fun for me of seeing what happens next).

Posting chapters in no particular order because (a) I am a slack bastard and (b) I need your affirmation.

Needs more weaponry...
It is not my place to educate the Doktorling about weaponry for that would impinge on the uniquely feminine bond between mother and daughter.
When she is 16, the Frau Doktor will take her to the gun shop to choose her own automatic weapon, and I will not be invited for this is Secret Womens Business.

mikey said...

Indeed. A very long time ago, I was married. I gave my wife the Model 19 Glock (compact 9mm), for two reasons. First, the Glock concept has no external safeties, and as I have always been partial to revolvers, this buttons/switches/levers idea has always rubbed me the wrong way.

The other reason is kind of more fun. You see, Glocks cycle very fast because there is very little weight above the barrel, it's mostly polymer. One of the consequences of this is that the brass ejects more backwards than to the side - the extractor doesn't carry the spent casing far enough back before releasing it.

So we'd go to the range, and she'd do multiple assailant drills - ten rounds downrange against three targets at seven to fifteen meters, than a quick reload and double taps at fifty. Of course, all the brass went straight down her blouse.

Always good for a laugh...

Smut Clyde said...

Hot cartridges down the cleavage?
Mikey is on Santa's 'naughty' list.