Derek was a little drunk.
He'd left the Shrunken Head and wandered up to the Flying Swan. From there he'd wandered across to the Four Horsemen and from there to the Hands of Orlac. From there his wanderings became a tad confused. He'd wandered into the coin-operated laundry at the top of Abbadon Street, thinking it to be one of those postmodern cocktail bar kind of jobbies that the toffs up West seem so taken with.
Vileda Wilcox (daughter of the embarrassing Harkly 'Here's another good'n' Wilcox and sister to Studs, the Mississippi riverboat gambler, and named, incidentally, after the kitchen cloth of legend) had thrown Derek out on his ear, calling him a filthy drunken pig of a person.
'I only asked for a sex on the beach,' said the baffled Derek, and received a drop kick to the groin that sent him sprawling.
'That's all you men ever think about,' said Vileda, which was basically correct.
'The thing about love,' slurred Derek to himself as he wandered uncertainly and not a tad unpainfully towards the Tudor Tearooms in the High Street, which in his particular state of mind did bear an uncanny resemblance to an Alpine apres-ski kind of bar. 'The thing about love is, that it scans the social bandicoots. No, that's, spans the social boundaries. Kelly is definitely posh. Anyone can see that. You can see that. Can't you?' he asked.
Mad John was shouting at Volvos today. 'What?' he shouted at Derek. 'Speak up. What?'
'Mad John,' said Derek, putting his arm about the loony's ragged shoulder. 'You're my friend aren't you?'
'I'm no friend of Volvos,' shouted Mad John. 'Hatchback or the estate, they're both the same to me. I hate 'em.'
'Yes,' said Derek, or 'yesh', because it's 'yesh' that you say at such times. 'Yesh, you're right old friend of mine. But I love the woman. And I'm a bit posh.'
'You're a bit pissed,' Mad John shouted. And 'You'll get yours, come the revolution,' to a passing Volvo fast-back, with the cross-body spoiler and the legendary cage of steel.
'But money can make you posh, can't it?' said Derek. 'It made Posh Spice posh. Or did it just make her rich? Same thing anyway. Posh is just rich with good manners, everyone knows that, although the posh ones won't admit it. And having a posh voice, that helps, doesn't it? Would you say that I had a posh voice?'
'Listen,' said Mad John softly, removing Derek's hand from his shoulder. Tmjust doing my job, mate. I'm paid to shout at shoes on Sundays and Volvos on Thursdays. The rest of the week, my time is my own. Mostly I spend it watching old Richard and Judy reruns on UK Gold. I'm not a philosopher, or an agony uncle. Why don't you just go home to your mum, Derek, and sleep it off?'
'But if I had money,' said Derek. 'Say I had lots of money. Then a chap with lots of money can get himself a posh woman, can't he?'
'A man with lots of money can get himself pretty much any woman,' said Mad John. 'So why have a posh one? They're really high maintenance and most of them are rubbish in bed. Believe me, I've had loads. If I had a quid for every posh woman who's taken pity on me, invited me back to her home, given me a bath and then, as if for the first time, noticed how ruggedly handsome I am, and then given me a right seeing-to on her four-poster bed, before filling my pockets with cash, I'd be a rich man myself by now and able to get myself pretty much any woman I wanted.'
Derek stared lopsidedly at Mad John. 'Is all that true?' he asked.
'Gawd, you are drunk, aren't you? Come on, I'll help you home. It's knocking-off time for me anyway.'
And so Mad John helped Derek home. Derek's mum thanked Mad John for his trouble, then told him that she felt a terrible guilt that such nice people as Mad John had to sleep on the streets with no roof over their heads and would Mad John care to come in and have a bath?
'Why thank you very much, madam,' said Not-so-Mad John. 'Let's get your lad up to his bed first, shall we?'
And so Derek had an early night.
Mad John didn't, but that's another story. And as it's a rude one, propriety forbids its telling here.
Two streets north of Derek's mum's abode, and just one from the rather posh house where Mad John lived, but where no-one saw him sneak into at night, was the pinkly-painted terraced dwelling of one Big Bob Charker.
At a little after eight of the delicious Brentford evening clock, Minky Charker answered the knock at her front door to find Kelly Anna Sirjan, freshly showered and looking radiant, standing on the doorstep of pink stone.
'Oh,' said Minky, wife of Bob the Big and missing. 'You are the very last-but-one person I expected to find upon my doorstep.'
Kelly didn't ask. She just said, 'Can I come in?'
'Ming the Merciless,' said Minky Charker. 'In case you had been thinking to ask, but were too shy to do so. Do come in then, I'll put the kettle on.'
Kelly went in and Minky put on the kettle.
'Do you think it suits me?' she asked.
'It's the right shade of pink,' said Kelly. 'But I came here to ask about your husband. I don't suppose you've seen him today, have you?'
'Gracious me, no,' said Minky, taking off the kettle and hugging it to her ample bosoms, as one might a puppy or a small dwarf named Dave that one has taken a sudden liking to. 'I thought that he'd been Raptured. Or at least I think that's what I thought.'
'I see you have a lot of candles burning,' said Kelly.
'You can never have too many candles burning,' said Minky, giving the kettle the kind of stroke that you might give to a really friendly otter. Or a hamster, or perhaps a quill-less porcupine that you had taken pity on. 'You can never have too many candles burning, or too many bottles of nail varnish, or too many different brands of kitchen cleaner under your sink.'
'Or toilet rolls,' said Kelly. 'You can never have too many of those.'
'Exacdy,' said Minky. 'Although I never keep them under my sink. There's no room.'
'So you haven't seen your husband?'
'No,' said Minky and she tickled the kettle under the spout. 'But I wouldn't be expecting to, what with him being Raptured and everything. But I'll see him when my time comes to be carried off to glory. And then I'll have some words to say to him, you can be assured of that.'
'If he did turn up here,' said Kelly. 'Say he returned from Heaven for some other reason, to pick up a change of underwear or something. Could you phone me?' Kelly paused. 'No, not phone me, come round and tell me. I'm staying at Mrs Gormenghast's.'
'Madam Puce,' said Minky. 'What an eccentric, that •woman, eh?'
'I'd really appreciate it,' said Kelly. 'It's, er, just that I have some money for him. A great deal of money. It's a surprise. I don't want you to mention it to him. But it's a great deal of money.'
'I'll take that then,' said Minky.
'No, he has to sign for it.'
'I can forge his signature.' Minky stroked the kettle's lid. 'It's something all wives have to do. You'll understand when you marry yourself.'
'Why would I marry myself?'
'Because then you can be assured of getting everything when you get divorced.'
'Oh, I see,' said Kelly. 'All these things are so simple, once they're explained.'
'Except for logarithms,' said Minky. 'They're not simple. Or advanced calculus, quantum theory, or Fermat's last theorem. Not to mention the trans-perambulation of pseudo-cosmic antimatter.'
'The transperambulation of pseudo-cosmic antimatter?'
Minky Charker shook her head and patted the kettle.
'Go on then,' said Kelly. 'Say it.'
'Shan't,' said Minky.
'Oh go on, you know you want to.'
'Oh all right. I told you not to mention that.'
Kelly left the house of Big Bob Charker, not to mention Minky, and took to some wanderings of her own. She felt that she ought to speak to Derek. Warn him. Tell him all that she knew. He was her friend now after all and she didn't want any harm to come to him. He really should be warned to keep his hands away from anything that might contain a Mute-chip. And anything meant nearly everything.
Kelly went around to Derek's. She knocked and waited and knocked and waited some more. She felt certain that she heard moans of pleasure coming from an open upstairs window. But nobody came to answer the door, so Kelly wrote out a note for Derek to contact her as soon as he got home, but not by phone, in person. And that it was very very urgent. And then she folded it up and popped it through the letter box, where it fell upon the welcome mat, which, like that of Derek's Aunty Uzi, had long worn out its welcome.
And then Kelly wandered on and knowing that she needed a drink and with it something substantial to eat, she made for the Flying Swan.
The Swan was not exactly heaving. A couple of old duffers sat at the bar counter. A pair of wandering bishops played darts against two skinners of mule. A battered fireman sat hunched at a corner table, bewailing his lot to a long-legged nurse with a ginger beard, who sipped at a pint of hand-drawn ale, but longed for a sexon the beach.
Kelly ordered a red wine and the full surf and turf, which the barman informed her contained something really special tonight. Haunch of wildebeest and perineum of octopus, served on a bed of Nepalese radish and wolf-bean-coated rice, cooked in the Tierra del Fuego style. With a side order of lime juice that could be either used as a garnish, or dabbed upon the wrists to discourage mosquitoes.
Kelly took her red wine to a window table and sat down to gaze out at the summer evening and marshal her thoughts into a plan of campaign.
As you do.
Five minutes hadn't passed, however (it was nearer to four), when a young man approached her table, wearing a sheepish grin.
Kelly looked up at the young man.
The young man looked down at Kelly, grinning sheepishly.
'Is this chair vacant?' he asked, pointing to a vacant chair.
Kelly glanced towards the chair, then back to the questioning young man. He was a personable young man. A sheath of blondie hair clothed his scalp. A sleeveless T-shirt clothed his muscular physique. A pair of too-tight leather trousers clothed all manner of things.
Kelly shook her head. She really wasn't in the mood. 'The chair is vacant,' she said. 'And given the ample selection of other vacant chairs in this establishment tonight, it is my hope that it will remain so.'
'I'll stand then,' said the young man, his sheepish grin transforming itself into a dogged expression.
'But elsewhere, please,' said Kelly.
The young man looked momentarily foxed for an answer.
But he wasn't.
'You'll have to go to Mute Corp Keynes,' he said. 'That's where the answer lies.'
Kelly's blue eyes widened and her hand found its way into her hair. 'Who are you?' she asked.
The young man seated himself in the vacant chair, availing himself of its vacancy. 'Shibboleth,' he said. 'Shibboleth…' and he pronounced the unpronounceable name. 'Brother of Malkuth. You've heard of him.' Shibboleth extended his hand. Kelly did not shake it.
'Good,' said Shibboleth. 'You know better than that, then. You know a lot, don't you? I know quite a lot too.'
'I don't know what you're talking about,' said Kelly.
'You do,' said Shibboleth. 'Because you're doing what I'm doing, but for different reasons. I've been trying to find out what happened to my brother. And my mother. It has led me to you. You know what happened to them. I know that you do.'
Kelly shook her head. 'Forget it,' she said. 'You're Mute Corp security, aren't you? Come out to check me out. Crude, very crude.'
'There's nothing crude about me,' said Shibboleth. 'Except perhaps my taste in trousers. But I do have extremely good thighs and although man-made fibres stretch in all the right places, they'll never be leather, will they?'
'I won't tell you anything,' said Kelly. 'Please go away.'
‘I’ll tell you two things,' said Shibboleth. 'Firstly you have a tattoo of an Om upon your stomach and secondly you should really turn your face away from the window, you've been under surveillance ever since you left the Mute Corp building today. The fat man across the road, leaning on the lamppost. He's been following you and I'll bet he really wished you'd taken a cab. He's watching you through macrovision spectacles, he can read your lips.'
Kelly turned her face away from the window. 'And how do you know about the tattoo?' she asked.
'You just met your first well-poisoner,' said Shibboleth. 'I'm working with my brother's set-up. It's hacked into the Mute Corp CCTV system, amongst other things. I witnessed your medical. It was disgusting, but strangely compelling. I'm sorry.'
'And I am embarrassed,' said Kelly. 'Something I do not enjoy being.'
'But I am telling the truth. I'm surprised you haven't noticed the fat man.'
'I don't look twice at fat people,' said Kelly. 'It's probably on my file somewhere.'
'We could work together on this.'
'I have no idea what you're talking about,' said Kelly. 'I work for Mute Corp. I will have no hesitation in informing them of your criminal activities first thing in the morning.'
'Yeah, right,' said Shibboleth. 'But it's a tricky one this, isn't it? You don't know if you can trust me and I don't really know if I can trust you. You might be high-ranking Mute Corp security, as Mr Pokey thinks you are. Although he isn't certain, which is why the fat man is following you. Or you might be someone who wants to put a stop to it. All of it. So where does that leave us? Both distrusting each other. But both needing someone to trust.'
'Surf and turf,' said the barman, arriving with Kelly's meal and placing it upon the table with a great show of politeness. 'And I've thrown in a side order of Gambian Bugaboo fish entrecote uambe at no extra cost. Although you are free to tip generously should the mood take you. And I really hope that it does, because I'm saving up for a tightrope of my very own, so I can run away with the circus.'
'Any particular circus?' Shibboleth asked.
'Professor Merlin's Greatest Show Off Earth,' said the barman. 'It travels between the planets in a Victorian steam ship. That's the life for me. The smell of the sawdust, the small dwarves called Dave, and all the confetti you can eat, when you play for a rich potentate at the weddmg of his daughter.'
'That's the life,' said Shibboleth. 'I'd tip you myself, but I think that I'll just keep the money.'
The barman bowed and departed, humming 'The March of the Gladiators'.
Kelly took up her eating irons. 'I'd prefer it if you'd go away now,' she told Shibboleth. 'I'm very hungry and I'd prefer to eat alone.'
'I can understand that,' said Shibboleth. 'And you must be very hungry. Considering how you threw up your lunch in that pub toilet and everything.'
'I took the liberty of hacking into the pub's security system, after I'd hacked into the street surveillance system. You wouldn't believe where the cameras are hidden in that toilet. You'd think that Chuck Berry owned the place .'
'Come back in ten minutes,' said Kelly. 'When I'm finished.'
Ten minutes later, or it might have been eleven, although frankly, who's been counting, Shibboleth returned to Kelly's table.
'If I believed you,' said Kelly, wiping her lips with an oversized red gingham napkin.
'Which means that you do,' said Shibboleth.
'Which means if,' said Kelly. 'What could you tell me, that would positively convince me?'
'Nothing,' said Shibboleth. 'But I could show you where the chapel is. I could take you there.'
'And I would let a complete stranger take me to Mute Corp Keynes at night? Do I look suicidal?'
'My brother may well be dead by now,' said Shibboleth. 'My brother and my mother too. The vanishing act. I don't know how it's done. I suspect that it only works upon people who are already infected. But it's impossible to tell who is infected and who isn't. Perhaps we all are.'
'Don't say that,' said Kelly. 'I have been thinking that myself.'
'Which probably means that you're not infected. Otherwise you'd be thinking what it wants you to think. Hang onto that notion, it's one that keeps me sane.'
'All right,' said Kelly. 'This is probably the stupidest thing I've ever done in my life. But I'll come with you.'
'Brilliant,' said Shibboleth. 'And it really isn't the stupidest thing you've ever done. According to your file…'
'Don't,' said Kelly. 'Although, go on, give me a clue.'
'Identical twins,' said Shibboleth. 'Your eighteenth birthday. The Ocean Rooms… night club… the billiard-room table…'
'That is on camera? That's on my file?'
'Sorry,' said Shibboleth. 'Everything's on file.'
Kelly shook her golden head. And then smiled a little wistfully. 'I'd quite like to watch that,' she said. 'But it wasn't what I was thinking about.'
'Oh in that case you must mean…'
'The secret is in knowing when to stop,' said Kelly. 'Come on, let's go to Mute Corp Keynes.'
It didn't look any better by moonlight. In fact it looked a lot worse. Even more desolate. Even more urban-decayed.
The guard on the border post was a different guard from the one who had been there two days before. Who wasn't the same guard either. Because they all worked complicated shifts.
'Anything to declare?' asked this guard.
'Say it,' said Kelly. 'Who cares? Say it.'
Shibboleth shrugged at the wheel and said it. 'Nothing but my genius,' he said.
'Most original, sir,' said the guard. 'That's the first time I've heard that, today.'
Shibboleth grinned, unsheepishly.
'I'll make a note of it,' said the guard. 'I believe that the millionth person to say it is entitled to a free T-shirt, or something. So, do you have any illegal drugs, laundered money, unlicensed firearms or explosives to declare?'
'None,' said Shibboleth.
'You won't last long in there then,' said the guard. 'Would you care to give me your wristwatch before you go to your certain doom? Only I'm saving up for a unicycle, I want to run away with the circus.'
Shibboleth parted with his wristwatch. 'If we make it out of here later, I want it back,' he said.
'Fair enough,' said the border guard. 'But I might not be on duty when you return. I go off at three when another guard comes on to relieve me. It's not the same guard who came on at three yesterday morning, that's another guard altogether. The one who came on at five the day before.'
'Wasn't it six?' asked another border guard, arriving on his bike.
'Oh, hello Harry,' said the first border guard. 'I didn't think you were coining on relief until ten tomorrow morning.'
'It's a very complicated system,' said Harry. 'Do you want me to take charge of this chap's watch? Only I'm saving up for a milk float, I want to run away with the circus.'
'Do they have milk-float acts in circuses?' asked the border guard that was just about to be relieved.
'Did I say circus?' asked Harry. 'Naturally I meant to say trampoline.'
'He works too hard,' the first border guard explained. 'Sometimes he has to relieve himself, if somebody doesn't turn up.'
'Can we just go through now?' asked Shibboleth.
'I don't know,' said the first border guard. 'I'm not on duty any more. You'll have to ask Harry.'
'Don't ask me,' said Harry. 'I'm just clocking off".'
Shibboleth drove through the night streets of Mute Corp Keynes. He avoided the stingers and deadfalls with the bungee spikes, the landmines and the tempting hedgehogs, which, Shibboleth told Kelly, were loaded with nail bombs. And various other obstructions.
'You seem to know your way around here,' said Kelly.
Shibboleth turned the steering wheel of his automobile. It was a Ford Fiesta. It was Derek's Ford Fiesta. 'I've lived here all my life,' said he. 'I know everything that goes on here.'
'The border guards didn't seem to know you.'
'I didn't know them. There are a lot of border guards. It's a very complicated system.'
'But if you lived here, why did you give them your watch?'
'It wasn't my watch,' said Shibboleth. 'Ah here we are.'
Ahead, through the mostly darkness, shone bright lights. Bright and neon lights. A bar. And a dangerous-looking bar. All concrete front and no windows. Low and ugly. Shrapnel-pocked and needing a coat or two of paint. Or better still demolition. The neon lights blinked on and off the way that such lights do. They spelled out the letters that spelled out the words, which spelled out the name of the place.
the tomorrowman tavern.
All that spelling spelled out.
'You'll like it here,' said Shibboleth. 'Well, actually you won't. But there's worse places to be than this, although I've never been to them.'
'And the chapel?' Kelly asked.