Chapter 1: This Won't Hurt
A pen. A book. The Composition.
Sit. Floor. Unfamiliar room.
(Quietly scratch out a life.)
This won't hurt, this won't hurt, he heard him promise in the frantic voice of the unpracticed; unable to make such an assurance. He had slipped into nothing and is waking now to little more; a room sparser than his university halls: desk in front of him, hard bed underneath him. Night. There's a slip of sodium street light bleeding through thick curtains, splashing across his front.
How did I get here? The thought is underfed, the breadth of its implications almost infinite. There had been someone, face distant as a dream, saying those words. This won't hurt, this won't hurt.
Then, there had been an… airplane? Yes? Or is he just thinking that because there had to be one. There had to be one because he's back in England. In London.
He remembers clearly now, the dream retreating: he's in the very city that he had claimed alongside his English nationality. The city where he had lived for so many lonely years in the tribes of similarly seperate people - all together in their separation, all unwilling to engage with humanity, yet shaking with the desire to make something of their lives. Above his thoughts are the noises of the road outside, black cabs throwing out their drunken passengers, a torrent of buses rushing through the streets.
Years. It has been years. Another simple fact accompanied by so many implications. This is not new, living here, being in London. He has been alone, like this, for an age. He feels the time physically settled like the weight of his covers over him.
Dirk rolls to one side, lets the electronic-green glare of his alarm clock announce the early hour of the early morning.
It has been years since America, since Seattle, since them. Why is he mourning it now?
It's easier to sleep than stay awake and think. He closes his eyes, before they can start to leak. His breath settles with a rattle.
It's easier to sleep.
It's yet another watercolour morning in the city: sidewalks slick with water, cabs sliding through the waterlogged road, incessant rainfall the background to the city's fast-moving traffic. Water is everywhere, pooling in the cracks between paving slabs, and Todd has been guiding James around it and not through it for their entire walk. The next puddle - big, clear, temptingly splashable - is too much for the seven-year-old; Todd can feel James gearing up to jump. He grabs James' hand and, with a sharp pull, lifts him up and over it.
James whines, disenfranchised. Todd puts him down on the other side.
James snatches his fingers back, runs ahead towards the bus shelter, dark boots stamping at the pavement. Todd's heart follows him, panic lifting in his body as the small boy with his dark, curled hair trapped in his blue mackintosh - so small, so tiny; I held him in my arms - tugs the invisible leash between them.
Todd quickens his steps, eyes locked on James as he clambers up onto the metal seat. He stands on it, facing the back of the shelter - the metro map, he wants to read the metro map - fingers outstretched to trace the bus route they're going to take. Planning their trip like it's an epic adventure, an unexpected undertaking to discover some fantastic treasure or fight a great dragon, rather than catching the same ordinary bus to school that they always do.
Todd stands within reach of James - no one would take him when I'm this close - and leans against the metal shelter frame as James traces lines on the map with his fingers and moves his lips around the names of destinations. Todd pulls his phone out of his denim jacket, lock screen blipping into life. Nothing but push notifications. News articles. Facebook alerts. A disappointing reminder of his Candy Crush addiction. He slides it back, not sure what he was expecting, why he feels disappointed. Farah doesn't do good morning messages, Amanda will call him tonight as always, James is right beside him. Who else is there?
'Dad? You okay?'
James is staring at him, his little brow furrowed, his lower lip trapped between his perfect white baby teeth. Should he still have baby teeth at his age? Are they going to do the whole tooth fairy thing? How much should they leave him? A quarter hardly goes anywhere, but you have to leave a coin, right?
'Yeah, fine,' Todd smiles, reassuringly.
James' forehead twitches with light mistrust, but he's too young to hold onto it for long. He smiles, then turns back to the map and begins to sing-song a rhyme he picked up from god knows where in his small, perfect voice.
Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques,
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.
The picture on the television is in utter disarray; a spiderweb of pink and purple spreading out from the black fist-sized hole in the broken glass. Key phrase: Fist-sized. Literally so. And instantly, the smashed screen is far more important than the dead woman at Farah's feet, skull caved in, immaculately painted nails on an immaculately manicured hand reaching towards the doorway, pointing the path to freedom that she didn't have a chance to take.
'Ex-boyfriend. Ex-husband,' Farah mutters at the closest uniformed officer - young, mousy-haired, green eyes - and he looks at her for a fat second, clueless. Farah boggles at him. 'Find her ex-boyfriend or her ex-husband.' Intonation: how idiotic the officer is.
Mousy-Hair's eyes widen with realisation; he nods frantically and scurries away, through the throng of officers and crime scene techs who have infested the one bed apartment.
Madeline steps back to let the uniform rush past her; a smile twitches onto her face.
'You're terrifying,' Madeline says.
'I'm not… terrifying,' Farah rebukes. 'I'm precise.'
'Precision, terror,' Madeline shrugs. 'Is all the same. Robotic. Like the Terminator.'
'I'm not the Terminator.'
'I'll be back,' Jason interjects in an appalling Austrian accent, leaning over the body. 'Building's secure. You're thinking it's an ex-partner?'
'Someone punched that television.' Farah gestures at the television fixed on the wall, then the pile of smashed glass on the carpet. 'She's about five-four, maybe five-five. That punch would be above her head height; it doesn't make sense for her to throw like that. That says… rage. Personal rage. They knew the victim. It's a display of anger that is not necessarily murderous -'
'Farah, she looks pretty fucking murdered from here -'
'Jason, shh!' Farah pinches her fingers together. Jason rolls his eyes, but says nothing further. 'They punch the television. To scare her. But she's not scared or frightened - she's been through this before. She's left him, before, for this behaviour. So he has to escalate - to hurt her, to make her frightened. Grabs that,' Farah gestures towards the large copper buddha, covered in skull and brain matter, lying next to a yellow plastic triangle with a number 5 printed on it, 'and brings it down on our victim's head.'
Madeline clicks her tongue. 'Bit heavy handed. Had to know that was gonna do damage, right?'
'People are morons,' Farah says. 'No one really gets how easily head injuries can kill.'
Madeline shrugs, not disagreeing.
Jason sighs, shaking his head. 'Alright. I'll follow up with Whomever-The-Fuck owns the building, see if it's only ever been her name on the lease.'
'I'll start interviewing the neighbours.' Madeline smiles at Farah. 'You're so good at this.'
Farah shakes her head adamantly. 'I've just… seen a lot. It's not difficult when you can see the - um -'
The connections? her mind offers, but the baggage it comes with makes it impossible to say.
Madeline doesn't seem to have noticed the lapse in Farah's words, already turned around and picking out which officers she'll take to interview the neighbours.
Farah taps her fingers on her jeans, taking a look around the room. There are little yellow cards next to every splatter of blood, next to the woman's dumped shopping, next to the murder weapon and the shards of glass and vase. The clues have already been identified. They will be photographed, tagged, sent in for evidence processing.
You should process the whole room - the whole floor - maybe the whole street. Every item could be important! Everything is connected.
The words aren't hers: manic accent, panic. Farah massages her temples, pushing them away, back to the lifetime ago where they belonged. She needs more sleep. She'll tack on another hour in bed tonight, after judo, after putting James to bed.
There's nothing wrong with what she's doing. She's a good cop. You're so good at this.
She's following the evidence. She's doing good.
He's moving. The landscape flicks behind the tube train's rain-slicked windows as they speed across London, taking Dirk ever further from his Islington flat, his street, the borough, the city and then towards… towards somewhere.
The journey is so effortless that it isn't until he's unceremoniously pushed off the train at Heathrow airport- after a lengthy one-sided conversation with a rotund skinhead who eventually got too 'sick of your shit, weirdo' to tolerate him as a fellow passenger - that he realises how many moves it's taken to be brought here.
He knows that, although here is somewhere, it's not somewhere. This is just another square on the chessboard, another neuron firing, another star exploding. Another link in the web of connections. He has to move on.
Dirk buys a ticket at a desk he likes the colour of, using the skinhead's debit card. With how genuinely and emphatically Dirk will try and return it to him later, it can't at all be considered stealing.
The Messenger bows deeply in the direction of the Author's altar, towards the central arm of the Cathedral of Composition. Matins concluded hours ago, but the ringing high notes of choir children are still trapped in the perspex rafters, soundwaves flinging themselves in zero-gravity.
The moss hassocks are covered in the luminescent dust-paint that has accrued over the Seventeen Blessed Days of Expression, and the Messenger's own eyelashes are stained a healthy vibrant pink. His long flowing hair is full of twinkling colour that scatters to the floor as he runs the fingers of his first, second, third and forth hands through it.
The only place the dust hasn't settled is on the once white walls, which are now covered in intricate, careful lettering, intersecting blocks of dialogue and description woven like a tree, barely readable. The Messenger focuses on the only portion of script that he can read as he heads towards his Deity's resting place: la literatura no es otra cosa que un sueño dirigido.
Yes, yes! What a party this religion is!
The Author's altar is a gold-lit oak table draped in the finest Tkaranian-fronting-spider silk cloth, every inch crowded with melting candles of all colours, so crammed with candlelight that anyone could be forgiven for thinking the altar itself was on fire. It warms The Messenger as he kneels on the sturdy pillows, shoved up against the thick rail that surrounds the altar. Treacle-thick ink glints invitingly in three smooth offertory bowls that are just out of reach. All three are packed with sticks, feathers, even toothpicks - anything with enough of a point to make writing a possibility.
The Messenger reaches through the bars of the altar rail and pulls a long feather from the ink. It comes away sticky and ink-logged. The Messenger wraps the barbs around the quill, then presses the nib to his exposed forearm. He writes, in delicate script, the tiny words of his perfect sonnet:
Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques,
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.
He finishes with the symbol of his God, the Author: one long line, the centre of which is marked with a small cross. The drawing is poor, that of a child; the Messenger swells with pride.
That morning, Todd cleans their small bathroom, scrubbing soap stains from the sink and tugging hair from the shower. It's a familiar rhythm of work which, once started, barely scratches at his consciousness, earbuds jammed in his ears as he sinks back into years of bellboy toil, the immaculate standards of the Perryman Grand. Todd still tries to keep his standards high - at least now he can reap their benefits.
The sharp fake-lemon pricks his eyes as soft, symphonic guitar solos drip into his ears through his earbuds. What he hated years ago gives him structure now; something to do, something constructive, something that obstructs all his senses.
He cleans every room in their apartment, disinfects every plate, sorts Star Wars Legos into big plastic crates and shoves them underneath James' loft bed.
All of the time absorbed by music, by the smell of cleaning fluid and hard plastic under his fingers. Work and work and work.
By midday, all that's left to do is wait in an empty apartment. Todd pulls the ineffective plastic gloves off his hands and rubs his water-wrinkled fingers. He sits heavily on the sofa and checks his phone.
Nothing. He builds possible messages to send to Farah.
You ok? Good cases? Staying safe?
Deletes them all, no hesitation. It's not that he doesn't want to know, doesn't care about her, but he can imagine how her face will look when she reads them: a sad, unwittingly patronising smile at the thought of Todd being so bored so early in the day that he has to live vicariously through her.
Next, Todd dials Amanda's number, but kills the call when it goes to the happy family voicemail, with each of the three kids given a chance to shout 'Call back later!' Todd doesn't want to annoy her; nobody likes voicemail.
And that's it. In one fell swoop, he has absolutely nothing to do.
Frustration rolls across his shoulders, settling uncomfortably in the muscles in his neck.
This is life. His life. He's doing good, raising a good kid, but fuck. These times. These aimless afternoons, waiting for something. Have these always been here? How did he deal with them before? Todd can't put his finger on it. Everything's been so… routine. Happy.
Todd grabs his jacket, keys and wallet. He'll go to the park. Anything is better than death by monotony.
Outside, it's still raining; Todd pulls his hoodie over his ears and over David Gilmour's soft stratocaster. He's never been able to feel lost in a city, but this time he tries his best to. He doesn't meet anyone's eyes, hands delved in his hoodie pocket. He flicks his iPhone from locked to unlocked over and over. If he stays small and doesn't engage, he's just a small part in everyone else's story, a nameless background character, a footnote that needs no real examination.
The park is empty. There's a small stand where jazz bands sometimes play on city holidays. Todd can remember taking James here when he was very little, putting him on his shoulders so he could see the saxophone players with the puffed out cheeks. The memory is gold-plated - sunshine, cotton candy, multi-coloured streamers - and bears no relation to the dark grey image in front of him.
He doesn't have anything to do here. He should go home.
Todd turns, and then coughs. A simple cough, but one that turns into a wretch. And another. And then another.
He can't catch his breath. No - no, it's worse. He can't breathe at all.
His fingers start to shake. He can't breathe, because his mouth is full of something. He spits into his trembling hands. Thick, black something is coming out in lumps. The taste is engine oil. Smells like the tarmac of a hot gas station. It's turns his stomach. It makes him want to scream.
He's filled with it, this something, this can't-breathe-get-it-out something. It's filling his lungs, his stomach, his ears, his eyes, and he has to get out of it, get out, get out.
He can't see for the tar, can't hear for it, every sense is taken away, submerged, and he's drowning in it -
He hits the pavement and wakes up in an emergency room bed with a drip in his arm, a medication-induced sense of nirvana, and a small sheet of notepaper in his right hand, which reads t h i s w o n t h u r t until it doesn't anymore: the sheet disappears with the rest of the illusion into thin air.
Chapter 2: Demon
The hull of the spaceliner groans heavily under the crushing force of the ocean. He crawls into a waste-chute hole in the creaking fuselage, puts his hands over his ears and tries to block out the noise.
Spaceships aren't meant for pressure (he learned this, learned this at school during one of the few moments where he wasn't distracted by the pretty girl with the blue-and-pink ringlets, or flicking erasers at his cousin for making goo-goo eyes at the Compu-Teach android). Spaceships are good with one level of pressure, and that level of pressure is sod all.
At least all that screaming has been replaced with rushing water. Perhaps that's good. Perhaps that means someone is coming to help them, and they've stopped screaming because they're getting to their stations to prepare to disembark the injured and wounded. Perhaps everything is going to be alright. No one will think that this is his fault.
But as much as he wants it to be true, he knows it can't be. They're too far from the spacelanes for their SOS to be heard. He had heard the crew shouting that. Heard it before he ran. Ran to hide.
His mum's definitely dead. He saw her blue lips.
There's no one left alive to scream. It's just him. And he can't do anything. The water is rushing in. He clasps his hands tighter over his ears.
He's killed everyone.
Disembarking from the airplane nets Dirk an umbrella from a preoccupied fellow passenger. An umbrella that just so happens to have a business card slipped into the folds of the plastic. Dirk approves of the technique; he's distributed his own cards in the hoods of coats, previously empty back pockets and the occasional collar of extremely fighty cats, but he had never even thought of umbrellas.
Saffron Motel 6
Cheap, Affordable, Low-Cost
The three different ways of saying "not expensive" speak to Dirk's sense of economics. After leaving the airport via Starbucks, he flags down a cab and offers the card. The driver, of course, knows where he should be going.
It occurs to Dirk then that he still doesn't know where he is. Which isn't unusual. It's also raining, which is also quite not unusual. Very not unusual. The sort of very not unusual that Dirk should be paying attention to, if he didn't have to concentrate so very hard on not spilling his drink.
Once he can walk without his legs giving up underneath him, Todd discharges himself, managing to persuade the overworked nurses that following up with his specialist is the best option. That he knows his condition. That he's very grateful that they care so much, but that there's nothing they can tell him of which he isn't already well aware.
They don't need to know that he doesn't have a specialist, or that he hasn't had an attack for almost as long as James has been alive. Todd can't even think about the sheer weight of what getting an attack means. Not now. He doesn't have time. He needs to get to James' school before his bell goes. Todd has always been there to pick him up. He can't leave his son scared at the gates. Pararibulitis isn't James' punishment, after all.
Todd takes a taxi. The driver won't shut up about the guy who was in the cab earlier, who apparently spilled an entire venti whipped-cream-and-chocolate-sprinkles concoction all over the back seat. Todd can feel his pants sticking to the wipe-clean upholstery, hopes the smell of corn syrup doesn't set off another attack.
They arrive at the gates after a thankfully uneventful journey. Kids are pouring out of the school gates, a lone teacher surveying the affair from the base of the flagpole.
Todd pays the taxi driver and gives the teacher a quick nod. She nods back, her eyes flicking over him, maybe spotting something unfamiliar. Shit. He probably doesn't look good. Hospital stay, and all that.
Todd wipes his hand through his hair, trying to bring it back to some semblance of ordered disarray. In bringing his arm to his face, he realises he still has the hospital's identity band around his right wrist. It's a thick plastic, nothing that he can tear off easily. He pulls at the sleeve of his hoodie, covering it up just as James barrels into him from the front.
'Dad! Dad! It was so cool! Mark brought this frog to school in his lunchbox and he was supposed to get it out at recess but by the time we opened it, it was already gone -'
James clambers into Todd's arms and disappears into his story of the vanishing frog and the adventure he and his classmates set upon to recapture it. Todd nods along, feeling his pulse settle to the sound of his son's familiar voice. This is a million miles away from pararibulitis attacks. This is familiar. This is home.
'Mmm?' Todd asks, looking down at the boy in his arms. James' face is expectant. He must have asked a question, which Todd entirely missed.
'You weren't listening to my story,' James says, voice wavering, his eyes huge. 'You didn't like it?'
He's always been very sensitive about stories. Todd hurries to correct him: 'No, of course I did. I was listening. Just -' No. Todd can't get into it now. James is just a kid. 'Never mind. Did you find your friend's frog?'
It's not even five in the afternoon when Farah becomes aware of the quietness around her desk. It's usually a busyish department, even on these dreary April mornings when there hasn't been a break in the rain for what seems like forever. There are only four of them: Jason and Madeline, the newest to their department, and Sergeant Euston, who always insists that Farah call him Greg, though she never does. The department runs smoothly, efficiently. Everything gets done on time with a healthy sense of urgency. Farah never gets bored, there's always something to do, but times like this when everyone seems to be occupied with their own tasks, Farah can't help but hope for... something. It's like the difference between swimming, and swimming in shark infested waters. There's still work to be done - the swimming - but with the latter, there's that extra fun element of maybe losing a leg. At times like this, Farah wouldn't exactly mind a little nip at her ankle.
Jason is flirting with Madeline - leaning over her desk, making her laugh her high-pitched, slightly manic laugh. It reminds Farah of something, but she can't recall exactly what. An image. She focuses on it and remembers. The agency, the holistic one, all those years ago. That bright, sunny day when Todd had placed the fresh sign on the wall and they were all so happy. Setting up the phones. Their desks. Dirk getting shirty over the brand of tea she had stocked the little kitchen with.
The time before... before…
'You should go home, Detective,' Sergeant Euston announces, and the tracing-paper image of Dirk and Todd happily layered over Madeline and Jason lights up and burns away.
'I've got to finish my paperwork, sir.'
Her sergeant gives her a sympathetic, knowing smile.
'You can get that done tomorrow. There's no rush.'
Farah blinks. 'Sergeant, that's… significantly against protocol.' Farah would let out a little laugh at the idea if it wasn't such a serious issue. 'If I don't file this now -'
'The suspect's confessed. He can't go anywhere,' the Sergeant counters, crossing his arms.
'What if he recants it? What - what if we've got the wrong guy?'
The Sergeant laughs. 'Do you think that's likely?'
Farah chews her lip. They had caught the suspect red handed. Literally - his hands were still covered in the victim's blood. As soon as they had found him, he had fallen to his knees, snivelling with remorse, holding his wrists up for the cuffs. It was the victim's ex-boyfriend, just as Farah had suggested. And if it quacked like a duck...
'No...' Farah admits reluctantly. 'But that's not the point. There's procedure to follow - a process. We need to - I need to -'
'Why don't you go home? I'm sure that kid would appreciate having a full evening with you.'
'No, thank you. Sir.' Farah adds the epithet for good measure.
Maybe this is some sort of test. The sergeant trying to get her to abandon protocol to… evaluate her competency, maybe? Farah's not going to get another black mark on her record just for a few more hours in front of the television. She hasn't watched television in at least ten years. She's not even sure she can anymore. What's even on? She would be so completely lost.
'Farah, we can get it done,' Jason pipes up from where he's been eavesdropping on the conversation. 'I don't mind staying behind, I've hardly got anywhere to be. Plus, you're always saying my paperwork is trash; might teach me to get up to your standards?'
'It would help me to understand the format of our files better,' Madeline adds. 'If Jason could take me through it, that is. I am still having trouble adjusting to the, ah, intraciscies of your department's records?'
'That's a great idea, guys,' the sergeant smiles at Farah with slightly too many teeth. 'Sound good, detective?'
Farah finds herself bereft of excuses. Madeleine is a fresh face in their department and Jason desperately needs the experience. It's not too complicated a case, and they've both been involved in it from the start. It's actually a better idea for them to do it than her. Crap.
'Oh. Uh. Yeah?' Farah says, hardly believing the words coming out of her mouth. 'I mean, yes. Yes, you can. Just - let me look over it, in the morning? Before you file it.'
'Sure, boss,' Jason says, even though she isn't above him in rank. 'Try and relax, yeah? Enjoy the night off.'
Night off. God. Farah can't think of anything worse.
The Cathedral's carved oaken ceiling groans open to the overjoyed cries of most of its worshippers inside. The twin suns are becoming perfectly aligned, the beginning of the dual equinox distinctive as the alpha and delta suns are drawn together, the cosmic reversal of a splitting cell in the sky. This solar spectacle is one of the reasons the otherwise desolate rock of Gamunda-56 has been chosen as the location of the Cathedral of Composition; most of the followers are semi-permanently high after chewing on the extremely potent gamu-leaves, and it is a universal truth that there is no better accompaniment to a high than a light show.
Alpha and Delta cross the sky in opposite directions: Alpha rises in the west and sets in the east, and Delta vice versa, to the chagrin of the stellar scientists who often spend the first week of their stay at the Cathedral scratching formulae on napkins, desperately trying to determine the fundamental gravitational laws that would make such an improbable orbit probable. Eventually, bereft of the mathematics they had depended on, they would turn to the gamu-leaves. And so, the congregation would be added to.
When the orbits cross, hiding the slightly smaller Delta behind its larger brother, there is celebration. But when the orbits cross as both suns are in equinox - the zenith for the highest part of the equator where the Cathedral sits - there is a fucking party.
The Messenger embraces each of the souls in the Cathedral around him: those who have already become enveloped in the perfection of the Composition, and those who are still writing formulas on napkins. Beings! Such wonderful beings with lives and words and beauty. Those beings who are to become or are already parts of the Church of the Composition. The Messengers, who serve the Author. The Musicians, who serve the Composer. The Shapers, who serve the Artist.
The Messengers and Musicians are fresh in colourful temple garments, their hair twisted into impressions of staves and quills. The Shapers are in dulcet tones of dull grey and black, as they have been since their God went into Reclusion.
The Messenger embraces his nearest neighbour, a Shaper with fine ash powder covering her face. The Shaper clutches at him in response, and openly cries into the Messenger's clothes.
'Rejoice, sister!' the Messenger says, ecstatic. 'Look into the beauty of the sky! Imagine the pleasures of your Lord! Chew more of the gamu-leaf and know this all to be true!'
'Oh, fuck off,' the Shaper sobs.
The Messenger blinks as he is shoved away, watching the Shaper weep noisily as she collapses onto the floor. True, it is understandable that a great depression should befall those who have lost their God, but this is something that the Messenger cannot comprehend personally. The Gods are a triumvirate with none more powerful than the other, but the Messenger is devoted to the Author, and just thinking of the idea of something managing to bring Him down fills the Messenger with a blustery sense of preposterousness.
At that moment it is, of course, exactly what happens.
In the back of the Cathedral, the Author's Altar begins to shake. The tremors start softly, unheard underneath the noise of the congregation watching the suns above them, the silk gently shifting as if caught in a small breeze. Fine cracks start to appear in the altar's surface, the wobble increasing, and one of the large candlesticks clatters to the stone floor.
The Messenger hears something and whips his head around, trying to locate the sound. He notices the candlestick attempting futilely to burn the stonework, and then the demon perched on the altar. It is small with thick matted hair around its face. There is blood encrusted around its mouth from festering wounds. Its jaw has been roped shut. Thick needles must have been pushed through its upper and lower lips, then pulled tight together. Its eyes are hollow and grey. It stares with flaming rage at the congregation, all of whom are staring above at the sky, bar one.
'My Lord!' the Messenger screams.
The congregation turns with him, gasping and crying as they see the blasphemy in front of them.
The Messenger stumbles forward, through the crowd, pushing through to the altar of his God, but it's too late. Locking eyes with him, the demon gives a smile cruel with exhaustion, gestures a single thumbs up, and vanishes.
Farah stuffs her keys into the door of her apartment and roughly turns the handle. She enters into the cramped hallway and drops her slightly-open umbrella behind her to dry. She can sense the smell of warm pesto heavy in the air, the dull sound of the radio from the kitchen. Todd is cooking, James is "helping" - no doubt they are both already covered in sauce and cheese.
Farah toes off her shoes and stretches her arms high above her head. As she yawns, her vision clouds out for a brief moment, so she's not entirely prepared for James to launch into her stomach.
'Oof,' she says exaggeratedly as James clutches tightly around her waist. 'Hey, tiger.'
'Farah?' Todd calls from the kitchen, clearly surprised to see her home so early.
'Yeah,' Farah shouts back, just to assure him someone hasn't broken in.
She puts her fingers through James' thick hair, trying to brush it out of his eyes so she can see them. James is giving her his over-excited grin - the one that's so manic it almost looks like he's preparing to go for her neck. His blue eyes are twinkling.
'I have to show you this frog! I haven't got the frog - I've got pictures of the frog. It's the coolest frog -'
'I understand there is a frog involved,' Farah says through gritted teeth, trying to escape from James' vice-like grip around her waist. James just holds tighter, laughing. 'Tiger, let me go. I've got to get my jacket off -'
Todd comes into view from around the corner, fluffy white socks on the freshly mopped floor. He looks tired, a bit dopey, but still smiling. Farah rolls her eyes in playful admonishment.
'What did I do to deserve this?' Farah asks him as James squeals.
'Something terrible in a past life?' Todd suggests, leaning on the wall with his arms crossed.
'Okay, bug, you asked for it,' Farah says, warningly.
James' squeals rocket in pitch as Farah quickly determines the easiest yet kindest way to disentangle James' octopus arms. It's a methodical movement that ends with James pinned to the floor on his back with Farah over him, her arm flat across his chest and very, very lightly pinning him down. It's a hold that could be easily broken.
Throughout the maneuver, James is screeching happily, but he pouts when he realises he's been defeated.
'Tap out?' Farah offers, grinning.
'Tap out,' James groans, reluctantly. 'One day, when you get smaller, I'll win.'
Farah rolls her eyes fondly. James has a way with words, a way of looking at things that Farah never feels the need to correct. She lets James go, but he doesn't move, grumpily staring up at her from the ground.
'Good day?' Todd asks. 'You're home earlier than I thought you'd be.'
Farah nods, but says nothing else. They have an unspoken agreement not to discuss any serious police stuff in front of James, so he doesn't get scared or start to worry about her work. Todd smiles back and Farah can see the exhaustion behind it; the light isn't entirely in his eyes.
'Are you okay?' Farah asks searchingly.
Todd opens his mouth as if to say something, but then his eyes flick to James and he seems to think better of it. Farah interprets his silence as something to say later, when James is asleep or distracted by something violent and loud on his WayStation Ultra.
Dirk collapses backwards onto the well-beaten bed of the Motel 6 and stares at the rotating ceiling fan. He can feel the desideratum for this break in his journey like a tightened rope around his belly, binding him to the bed. It tells him that now is a time for rest, for doing banal human things like eating and sleeping. The journey will probably continue tomorrow, not that Dirk knows the destination. Not knowing doesn't worry him like it used to; he's become content with the knowledge that he'll end up wherever he needs to be.
He looks over the watermarks on the ceiling, letting his mind slowly turn. He's back in America, and he's not sure how he feels about that. He hasn't got a client to invoice, and he knows exactly how he feels about that. He hasn't had a paying case in half a year. Dirk's regular stream of lost-cat clients have dried up, and he's got fifty pounds and thirty-four pence in his bank account. He had been one missed gas bill away from resorting to his old staple of palm reading at his local pub for tip money, but he's not sure the dress nor the wig suit him anymore.
Dirk hopes that wherever he's heading, there's payment at the end of it. He falls asleep and dreams of rainbows, pots of gold and other exhausted Celtic stereotypes.
It's a deep sleep, jet lag and months-on-hold depression holding him in a death grip, so he doesn't stir when a blast of light explodes outside his motel room, or when a woman falls screaming from the sky and crashes into the dirty out-of-season pool.
'Dad? Do you know French?' James asks just as Todd reaches to turn off his bedroom light, a classic delaying tactic at the end of their nighttime routine. James' covers are pulled up to his middle, the BB-8s on the collar of his glow-in-the-dark Star Wars pyjamas eerily green in the low light.
'Nope. Just some Spanish. Go to sleep.'
'Cause there's this song - Frère Jacques? I wanna know what it means.'
'We'll google it tomorrow. Sleep.'
'But I'll be thinking about it all night!'
'Then think about it all night,' Todd says, turning off the light. 'Love you.'
'Mmm,' James murmurs, turning over to face his window. He's a small bundle in the darkness of his bedroom. It's a mostly cloudless night outside, and the rain is only a trickle. The constellations above the small, brown-and-white apartment buildings that split the sky and the earth are bright and clear.
Todd closes the door quietly and yawns. It's just after nine, but he's exhausted. There's a mugginess to the air that the AC is failing to clear. Or, possibly, it's all in his head. It feels like he's thinking through treacle.
Farah is in the den, lying across the couch with her feet propped on one arm, eyes fixed on a beaten paperback in her hands. Todd wants to leave her there, not burden her with how tired he's feeling, but she looks up before he can sneak out of the room.
'Are you okay?' Farah asks, putting the book down on the floor beside her. 'You look terrible.'
'Thanks,' Todd says, reflexively. 'Yeah, I'm fine.'
Farah's eyes search him for a second, then widen; she's spotted something. She's on her feet and touching Todd's arm before he can say anything more than a 'Wha-?'
'This is a hospital tag,' Farah says, lifting Todd's wrist to his own face. Todd grits his teeth. Shit. With making dinner and dealing with James, he had completely forgotten to cut it off. 'Were you admitted? When? Were you in an accident?'
'No - no, Farah -' Todd pulls his wrist away. 'I'm fine.'
'I had an attack.'
'But -' Farah stops speaking, but Todd can complete her sentence: Why now? They've not happened for years. What does it mean if they're starting up again?
'I don't know. The doctors know as much about it as I do.'
'Have Amanda's started again?'
'I didn't think to ask.' Todd pauses. He should have thought about that. Shit - what if Amanda's had started again? What if they started when she was alone with her kids? What if she couldn't speak? What if she was drowning, and they didn't know what was happening to their mom?
'I'll message her now,' Farah says, cutting through the nightmare scenarios being generated in Todd's mind. She pulls out her cell and her thumbs fly over the phone at a ridiculous pace. 'Don't worry, I'm sure she's fine.'
'It could not be a universe thing,' Todd says, slowly. Farah lifts her head to look at him. 'I mean… we never actually knew for certain that they were a universe thing.'
'Yeah, but we never knew that they weren't a universe thing.'
'It's just a disease - a disorder. The fact that mine started -' Todd cuts himself off, not even willing to open that box in his mind. 'Look, I never had visions. All that - that witch crap, that was something else. Wendimoor shit. Pararibulitis is just a neurological disorder. My family's had it for generations, Farah. It's just regular life.'
'But - but your family... It's never stopped before you and Amanda. You told me that.'
'That we know,' Todd emphasises, starting to feel like he's defending a position. 'A lot of them died before they had a chance to get treatment, or there wasn't any treatment -'
'Could you -' Farah snaps into the conversation, then she collects herself, putting her phone away. 'Could you not talk about dying? Please? Not like it's a fact, alright? Something that's going to happen. Because. It's not.'
'Sorry. Yeah, sorry. Look, it's going to be fine.'
'Based on?' Farah says, flailing her arms. 'Conjecture? Hope? A past miracle that, apparently, has an expiry date?'
Todd sees a ghost of himself walk forward and take Farah in his arms. Sees Farah put her head on that Todd's shoulder. Sees that Todd stroke her back. Softly reassuring. Effortlessly in charge. A proper partner - man - for this situation.
The ghost vanishes as Farah sits heavily on the couch. She frames her face with her hands and Todd knows she's beginning to strategise what has to be done, how they'll deal with increasing premiums on health insurance, whether Todd can ever be left alone again, how to explain this to James.
James. Todd's stomach drops an apartment block. His son is probably not even asleep yet - still curled up on his side, looking at the stars. He doesn't know everything in his life has just changed. Todd's going to be slinging pills, screaming in pain, getting sicker and sicker, and James is going to have to be there for him. No, not just be there, he's going to have to help. Help clean, in case the chemicals set off an attack. Help cook, so Todd won't accidentally cut himself. Everything that Todd didn't want for him. He's - god - he's going to have to be a carer. He's just a little kid.
Todd shouldn't have said anything. Should've kept it to himself. It's his punishment, not theirs. Couldn't he have played pretend for just a little longer? Idiot. Why did he leave the tag on? Did he want to get caught? Bring Farah and James down with him? What was he thinking?
'I'm going to bed,' Todd snaps, and storms out of the room. He's fucked everything up so badly, he can't even meet her eyes.
Chapter 3: Thumb
'Good morning, good evening, and good night to all you listeners out there on the sub-ether wave band, and goodbye to all of y'all with the one-day-life-cycles. Seriously, it was great knowing ya, hope you paid your taxes. We had a lot of plans for today's show but, golly, I guess the only thing on anyone's speaking implements was that huge… well, what in Zarquon's name was that whole deal, Majikrei?'
'Mornin', evenin', night and bye to you too, Kopiisk. Well, no one seems to know anythin' other than we got a whole planet that seems to have just befoomed out of existence.'
'Yeah, befoomed. It's like a bang but it's got a lack of pop at the end, you know?'
'Popless bang - befooming. Ah, I getcha. So this befoom -'
'Took out the planet. You know. It just flopped away.'
'Like a pop but without -'
'Alright, ok, I getcha. Any survivors? You know, for listeners with family in this sector?'
'Uhhh, we got some reports of evacuation, but you gotta understand most of those planets are ex-mining, small communities. No ships with hyperspace drives, you know? And honestly, if you're not gonna invest in technology to protect yourself, you've gotta expect your species to be eradicated.'
'True, true. I getcha. Well, if anyone did make it out alive, we'd love to hear from ya! What the hell happened, how you survived, but most importantly, what effect you think it's gonna have on the traffic?'
Tina feels herself shiver. A shiver she's not in control of. Because it's cold. It's freezing. There's ice on her skin. In her skin. Why is there ice in her skin?
Someone is speaking. A slurring of sound.
Is that right? Are those words?
Tina moves all the parts of her that usually make her kick. She can't feel whether it's working. She's starting to get scared.
'It's okay. You're okay.'
Tina doesn't believe that, and the idea that she should believe it just because some disembodied voice is telling her to makes her angry.
'This won't hurt.'
She tries to move her arms and feels them being restrained. Someone is holding her wrists down. Someone who is asking her to 'calm down' and 'relax'. They're doing this to her. She isn't in control of her body.
'Let me go! Let me go!'
She can hear her own shouting. Can feel her own feet kicking against something hard beneath her.
Light is beginning to work again, blazing white across her vision, and then a big, thick blur looms above her.
'If she doesn't stop fighting, we'll have to sedate her -'
Tina stops moving. The blur holding her pushes her wrists into the bed hard, overcompensating for her lack of fight, then lets her go.
She knows where she is now. Knows the tug of an IV in her hand. Knows she's in a hospital. She doesn't know how she got here, but she knows the smell, the sounds, the pain. The nurse's heavy hand on her shoulder is supposed to be soothing, but it's not.
'This won't hurt. This won't hurt.'
She loses consciousness, because it's the easiest thing to do.
In the morning, Dirk finds the American equivalent of an off-licence and shoplifts the American equivalent of a ham sandwich and the American equivalent of a chocolate bar. After tasting the chocolate bar on the sidewalk a few blocks away, he's re-convinced that America must have thrown all their sugar into the harbour along with the tea, and throws the rest of it into an open trash can. The sandwich isn't too bad, though definitely not worth the price, so he's glad he didn't pay for it.
Hunger sated, Dirk chooses a route through some side streets, light grey hoodie pulled tight over his head to keep off the light drizzle. He's looking out for something - anything - to put him on the right path, but finds himself facing the ongoing difficulty when it comes to holistic detection: you are always on the right path, even when you are yet to find the path itself. Often, he feels like he's a sniffer dog in reverse, trying first to pull his nose out of some disreputable hand luggage, then to exhale the intoxicating scent and bleach its memory from his nose, restoring himself to a happy, if existential-crisisy, springer spaniel.
He turns onto a wider street, where buses are slashing through puddles beside him. Slightly threatened, Dirk swings his duffle bag over his shoulder to give himself a bit of a buffer from the road, and accidentally swipes it over the head of a very small person who is walking in the opposite direction.
The very small person is, on closer inspection, a child. A child with thick hair and no concept of personal space. The child squeaks petulantly at him.
Dirk stops and turns around. He's entirely unknowledgeable about the etiquette of what to do when you have smacked a child upside the head on a sidewalk, especially one with such a death-glare. He starts to explain how terribly sorry he is, but the words dash back into his larynx as the child's person - the one the child has with him, as most children seem to when walking around - turns around to see where his child has stopped.
The child's person is Todd. Todd Brotzman. That Todd. The only Todd Dirk has ever known, because Todd is a weird name that people don't have.
Dirk experiences the unpleasant sensation of his fight and flight impulses scrambling over each other for dominance. He is incapable of doing anything.
Todd seems to be in a similar state of nothing-doing. He's staring, not saying anything. Dirk feels burned by his image, the very sight of him singeing the lifting hairs on his forearms. Jean jacket, without any patches. Hair slightly longer, touching the edge of his t-shirt collar. One hand clasping a black umbrella.
There's something nagging at the back of Dirk's mind, one word that keeps repeating - child, child, child, child.
'Dad?' the child says nervously.
Dirk looks bewilderedly at the kid. '...No?'
'He means me, you idiot,' Todd says.
His voice. God, his voice hasn't changed. Should it have?
Todd puts a hand out for the kid, who runs up to him and takes it. The developments - that there is a child, that the child is Todd's - scream like demons, clawing at Dirk's skin, cutting into him.
They say nothing for some time. The rain still falls across them. Todd is holding the umbrella over himself and the child, so they remain dry. Dirk, on the other hand, is starting to absorb most of North America's annual rainfall, and he has a feeling that it might have some effect on sea levels if the water cycle is to be believed.
'Well?' Todd says. He's angry, eyes flashing.
Dirk opens his mouth, but he can't find anything to say. There isn't anything to say. There aren't any words in the universe that could articulate how Dirk is feeling, how much he wants to say to the man in front of him. Dirk can breathe, but not enough.
'I ate a ham sandwich,' he blurts.
Todd opens his mouth. Pauses. Closes it, silently. Looks at the child. Shakes his head several times, each one increasing in firmness, and turns back in the direction they had been walking.
'No Todd - Todd, please, I'm sorry -'
He runs up behind him. Todd turns, lets go of his son's hand and pushes Dirk away.
Dirk stumbles backwards. As it turns out, being shoved in the stomach is a pretty poor winner for "this year's first physical contact with another human being".
'Not near him,' Todd all but growls. Dirk has never seen such hatred in his eyes, intensity to set a waterfall ablaze. 'You will leave us alone. You will leave us alone and go.'
'The universe - the universe has brought me here again, Todd,' Dirk says, the words falling out of him. He's scrambling to remain coherent. Are his eyes watering or is it the rain? 'I'm sorry, I'm so sorry it has - I don't want it to, you must believe me -'
Todd is shaking his head, staring at the ground, his lips twitching into a horrible, horrible smirk - into words he wants to say, threats he wants to make, but he can't because he's seen things that make him know Dirk isn't just saying this; it's the truth, or something close to it. Dirk has found him again for a reason. They both know.
'No. No - not here. Not now. Not with my kid.'
'I don't want to be here.' Dirk can see how little Todd believes him, how much he thinks he's done this on purpose. 'I'm sorry, but you know what this means - it's going to happen. It's going to happen to you whether you want it to or not -' Dirk's fingers are trembling, seeing Todd's hatred boiling over, wondering whether the winner for "this year's second physical contact with another human being" is going to result in his third broken nose. 'Please. Please, Todd. Make this easier.'
Todd shakes his head over and over again, looking away from Dirk and back at the child who looks a bit wary and confused, but not scared. Dirk wants to wave, smile, try and pretend things are going to be okay, but Todd would snap his fingers if he even met the boy's eyes.
'Shit,' Todd breathes. It's a shit of acceptance. A shit of "here it goes again". Dirk knows it well. 'Give me a week. Tell the universe to hold off for one week. Then find me again.'
Dirk nods frantically, gives two thumbs up and smiles as wide as he can, although he can promise nothing and Todd definitely knows that. He wipes the water-of-unknown-origin from his eyes.
Todd turns with no acknowledgement, grabs his son's hand, and walks away.
The child turns to look back at Dirk, standing slumped, pathetic and sopping wet, but Todd speaks to him sharply and the kid focuses forward instead.
Dirk feels very sick. He doesn't think it's the sandwich.
The Messenger is dying. His innards are turning to mush, like the flesh of a rotting fruit pulling away from the hug of its peel. He is two things: the shape of himself, curled in the fetal position and silent on the cold floor of the Cathedral, and the feeling of himself, the wild, thrashing, screaming soul within.
'Don't be so dramatic,' the melodic sound of a Musician comes from above him. The Messenger feels the soft, gentle stab of a cloth shoe between his ribs. He moans hatefully at the Musician's kindness.
The Messengers had searched every inch of the Author's vault and found no sign of God. The vault, accessible through a door underneath the Author's altar, was in a state of sacrilegious disarray. The long lines of bookshelves, carved from the bark of the endangered jewelled trees of Trapus-83 and stretching out underground for the length of the north transept, were overturned and ravaged, their wood split and their jewels prized. The books themselves, bound in leather from the hide of the now extinct Meglothian Beast and lovingly hand-copied by devoted Messengers, had all been torn apart. The Author's bed, a pile of the softest pillows and diaphanous woven sheets, had been burst and ripped and exploded. The entire vault was covered in thick blue feathers.
The demon had come. The demon had left. Now the Author, his God, is dead.
'This is the second such demon to come and attack our Church,' a second voice, another Musician, travels above the head of the silently sobbing Messenger. 'How long before a third comes, to attack our dearest Composer?'
The first Musician inhales sharply at the blasphemy. 'Brother! To conceive of such a fate befalling our God, the most perfect of all the Gods -'
'I say this with my hearts full of only the most devoted love, my dear sister. We should not dwell on sadness, yes. But I seek not to delay misery. Instead, I seek an extension to life. We must protect the Composer at all costs. We must remove all who may be unkind. We must assist in the attenuation of our God's power. The increase in demonic influence can only be due to those - those heathens and their lack of contemplation of our God, surely? To act in this regard can only be considered a great celebration of our devotion!'
'Well…' the Messenger can hear the first Musician conceding. 'What are you proposing, dear brother?'
Barely a few rotations later, the Messenger finds himself lying prone on the dusty, barren land outside the Cathedral of Composition, alongside the forms of fellow Messengers and Shapers. A lot are sobbing. Most are tearing at their clothes. Only a few are chewing on the gamu-leaves, trying desperately to find some remnant of their lost Gods and seek their path.
The door to the Cathedral, once permanently open to the masses, is bolted shut. A note is impaled with a finger-sized metal stake to the door.
No Leaflets, Menus or Junk Mail.
Tina wakes to the soft murmuring of hospital equipment, feeling like someone is slowly bailing out her brain with an ice cream scoop.
She forces her heavy eyes open and takes in her surroundings. Hospital room. White and pale blue. Most of the space taken up by the bed she's lying in. It's just wide enough for her body, plastic handrails on each side that have been pulled up so she can't roll off. There's a solitary wipe-clean chair in the corner that looks like it would be a punishment to sit in.
The room doesn't look like it belongs to Clark Fork Valley Hospital. She knows those rooms well. Six months of endless surgeries after the quarry shootout. Orthopedic, vascular, neurological. A parade of surgeons sticking their fingers in and digging out bullets or tugging at parts of her organs and stitching them back together. Six months of feeling like a bag of meat to be prodded and pushed. But she's been home for two months, entirely discharged, bar the regular check-up appointments. Still, there's no more major surgery, just the odd CT scan. So there's no reason for her to be back in one of these rooms.
Maybe something happened at work. But now that the Cardenas house has been militarised off their patch, Bergsberg is now back to regularly scheduled monotony. Maybe Hobbs overreacted to something - after all, that man would call an ambulance for a stubbed toe. But Clark Fork Valley is the closest hospital for miles, and if it was something minor, why would she have been sedated?
Tina tries to focus on the last thing she can remember. She had been at the Sheriff's Department, at her desk. Adding finishing touches to her house of cards. She'd confiscated the deck a few years prior: each suit was a different woman, and as the cards got higher, the women got naked-er. It was the best thing she'd ever stolen from a twelve year old kid.
So, she had been propping Black Spade Bertha up against Red Diamond Denise at the top of the tower for some freaky fun when someone had walked in. A guy. A guy in a big white cloak. He was looking for someone, wondering if they were around Bergsberg.
A boy? Tina stops herself. That can't be right. The guy who'd been looking for a boy was Panto, the pink-haired dude with the jaw chiselled for the gods. He'd been looking for a boy, as well as Dirk Gently. And the boy had turned out to be the Cardenas kid. At least, that's what Farah had said. Tina hadn't entirely followed the whole thing, having been too preoccupied with being shot into human swiss cheese, but she knew that "the boy" was all over.
Her head's all fucked up. Maybe she's got a concussion.
She reaches out for the nurse call button. As she shifts in the bed, she feels her stomach cry uncle. She groans and runs her fingers over her waist, feeling the lines and curves of her surgery scars. These scars, at least, she likes. Proof that she lived. A good story to tell when she's picking up girls (not guys; guys tend to freak out and get overprotective, and besides, they're usually too distracted by tits to notice scars).
She has other scars she doesn't like: the bruise-like circles down both her arms and in the crook of her left elbow. Luckily, those are covered by the sleeves of her hospital gown.
The nurse who comes in is small, brunette and kind-looking. She explains that Tina had been found in a motel swimming pool, completely unconscious, thankfully floating upwards. She'd been dragged out by a bystander. She explains that Tina had found it difficult to breathe. That her pupils had been small.
'You overdosed,' the nurse finally says, like a cashier announcing that a credit card has been declined.
Calmly, coldly, Tina rolls up the left sleeve of her hospital gown. The once-fading bruises are now an angry purple. In the crook of her elbow, just over her thickest vein, there is a circle of pale white. The site of her last injection.
Everything goes a bit white-noise, like someone's untuned a radio and turned the dial way up. Tina can hear that the nurse is saying something - asking who she is, if there's anyone they can call. Tina just gives her name and says no. She knows that Sherlock would come running through hellfire to be with her now, just as much as she knows that seeing him fighting the disappointment on his face would make her never want to breathe again.
'Wait -' Tina says, just as the nurse is about to leave to find her medical records. 'Just - there is someone. Someone who -' I need, Tina doesn't say. 'Might - might want to know I'm here. Her name is Farah Black. I don't - I don't have a phone number...'
The nurse smiles at her so sweetly. It's a fake smile. The plastered one used by people who want to care for everyone, but who know that caring for people like Tina is just a cycle of heartbreak and lies, so they don't let themselves.
He knows this much: he is surrounded by his dead. He doesn't want to see them. Therefore, he can't leave the waste-chute. He must stay here forever.
The spaceliner is steady after having rocked for an uncountable period of time. The water isn't rushing anymore. It occurs to him that he's probably at the bottom of an ocean.
Dark red emergency lighting pulses from the strips around the edge of his small cube. It's making his pale hands look crimson.
He gets hungry. Bites his nails, chews at the skin of his fingers. One of them starts to bleed and he sucks on it. It's gross. He starts chewing on his sleeve instead. It tastes of chemicals, of the decon spray every interplanetary traveller dunks their clothes in to stave off the spread of diseases, of the high-UV paste his mother smoothes over his arms and face every morning. The combination is just as gross, but it makes him less hungry, which is good.
He sleeps in fits and starts, waking from nightmares of the... something. It was huge, terrifying and dark, moving through space and towards his planet. He doesn't know what it was. He still can't explain it. His father had asked him, pleaded with him.
How do we fight it? I'm not mad at you, I know it's not your fault. Just tell us what it is. What's going to happen? Why is it coming here?
His hunger festers. He bites his fingernails again. The blood returns. He lifts his hand to the wall this time, feeling mad with starvation. Pushes his fingers around, writing words that he can barely see in the dim emergency light.
I am saved
When he wakes, there are hands on him. They're sliding him into a child-sized emergency bag, one half made of clear plastic so he can look through it. The fabric around him is warmed with radiation filaments. They seal it, twisting on the breathing taps, and he inhales a sweet mix of nitrogen and oxygen and probably some chemical to stop him panicking.
He sleeps. Dozing away his exhaustion. He wakes in fits, seeing little breaths of reality.
The fabric of the bag being tugged. The feeling of being lifted like luggage. The murmuring of radios.
The red-lit interior of the spaceliner. Everything underwater. Pressure outside the bag. Floating corpses. Blank colourless eyes.
The blackness of the ocean. Pinpricks of light from hand-held ocean-copters' view screens, which each of the beings clutch. Being moved upwards. Towards something wide and broad and orange.
Then, he is awake all at once: he feels the press of a medi-spray canister against his neck and gasps as it floods his system. His body quakes with shock, seizing, his desperately hungry cells being nourished on a molecular level. Someone is holding him down, letting him ride it out, letting him scream. He thrashes, kicking up the sand around him. The scent of salt from the bitter ocean wind is assaulting his face. He's sobbing, crying, clutching, his raw-bitten fingers digging into the cloth of the being's military coat.
'Tolo hailing Ase'en. Tolo hailing Ase'en. Got a Gamma-89. We found a survivor,' the being says into their wrist. 'Requesting extraction. Over.'
'Received your Gamma-89, Tolo,' a voice replies from the speaker on Tolo's shoulder. 'Extraction granted. Can't see your beacons - please confirm activation. Over.'
Tolo quickly scours the landscape, swears underneath his breath. Returns his focus to his wrist as he replies: 'Je'san had the beacons. Can't see where she is. Shall I wait for rendezvous? Over.'
'Negative. No time. We gotta get out before they catch wind of the salvage. You got a Thumb? Over.'
'A Thumb?' Tolo sounds aghast. 'Ase'en, are you getting kickbacks from Mega Dodo now? Over.'
'Hey, tech that works is tech that works. Short-range omni-directional emergency signal. It'll give us enough of a location to extract. Over.'
Tolo grunts, and with the spare arm they're not using to prop up the survivor, they dig deep into the pocket of their overcoat. They pull out a short, squat rod, about three inches long. It's smooth and matte black, and has a few flat switches and dials on one end.
Tolo holds the Thumb up and flicks one of the switches. The Thumb twitches, and two silver strips of metal push out from its centre. Tolo lines them up with their own left thumb, and the prongs accept its shape, circling around it and forming a silver ring.
Tolo clasps the rod in their hand and tightly squeezes. A high-pitched fweep starts to undulate.
'We gotcha, Tolo. Prepare for transit. Over.'
Chapter 4: Sonnez les matines
Farah presses her pass against the electronic reader, and the turnstile in front of her turns green. She smiles warmly at the attending guard as she enters the police department. No matter how often she passes through, she can't shake the feeling that he might stop her, might challenge her on the grounds that she doesn't really belong here. It's a random flash of anxiety, pure paranoia, and if she was less frayed, she would be able to ignore it. As it is, she works out five ways she could prove her identity should he confront her, and recalls the internal extension numbers of Madeline, Jason, Sergeant Euston and her Captain.
The guard smiles back at her. Farah feels like an idiot.
She takes the elevator to the third floor. The halogen lights flicker on automatically as she steps through into the squad room. She's the first one in, as usual. It's oh-six-hundred, and the other detectives usually come in around seven, sleepy and resistant to what they think is an early morning. Farah's already been up for an hour, easily enough time for her morning 5K run and a shower.
She puts her bag down at her desk and logs into her phone and computer. The WayForward machine begins to crank into life at its usual insufferably slow pace, so she makes a coffee while it loads. When she gets back to her desk, she looks through her emails. One sticks out, as it's been flagged "This message is from an unknown sender".
My name is Sarah Taylor. I am a nurse at Saint Cedd's Hospital.
We recently admitted a "Jane Doe" patient after a suspected overdose. She is calling herself Tina Tevetino. She is unable to provide us with any identification outside of her name and we have no medical records.
I would usually involve law enforcement at this point anyway, but she mentioned that she knew a "Farah Black" who worked with her at a police station about a year ago. I recalled this being your name from when you took my statement about a suspicious death in our ER. You gave me your card. It's a long shot, but do you happen to know her?
The email concludes with contact details. Farah quickly scribbles them into her notebook, her heart thumping. This is technically police work. She can justify leaving the PD without taking a personal day. But this kind of case would probably not be handled by her department. She quickly texts a message to Sergeant Euston, who is probably not even awake yet,explaining the situation as best she can, but omitting the part about knowing Tina personally.
She moves quickly out of the building, into her car, and towards the hospital, her mind spinning.
Tina has overdosed. Okay. Farah knew she had a problem with drugs, remembered some mention of that. She could tell it wasn't something that Tina liked to talk about. Tina used to "forget to take" her pain medication, or outright refuse it. She'd laugh it off, say that she was just tougher than they were, but when Farah mentioned it to Sherlock, he had admitted that Tina's drug usage used to be a lot more dangerous than her ever-present weed gummies. That she didn't like taking opiates in case it triggered a relapse.
So that kind of makes sense. What doesn't make sense is that Tina would say Farah had worked with her a year ago. It has been way, way longer than that since Bergsberg. Farah can't even remember the last time they spoke over the phone. All that happened a lifetime ago, before Farah's job, before Dirk left, before James was born.
It might not be Tina. It might be some completely different person using Tina's identity. Using a story they can't quite recall.
Farah convinces herself that this option is the correct one, up until the point that she's shown into the hospital room by a nurse and proven wrong.
It is Tina. Her dirty blonde hair is matted to her skull, the plaits Farah remembers now barely recognisable dreads, three shades darker. Her skin is like wax paper, dark blue eye makeup smeared across her face.
Her eyes flash with recognition as Farah walks in, and she scrambles to sit up.
'God, Farah. Hi!' she says, unmeasurably relieved.
Farah turns to the nurse and nods at him. He gets the hint and leaves them alone. Farah closes the door behind him, taking a few seconds to compose herself before turning back.
'I, ah -' Tina begins, then shrugs with a weak smile. 'Looks like I fucked up?'
'What happened? How are you - why are you...?'
'I don't know,' Tina says quickly. 'They keep asking me that - what I was doing, what the last thing I remember is - but I swear, Farah, I don't know. It's all just a kind of. Blur.'
Farah sits on the edge of Tina's bed. It brings back memories of rehab. Usually, it was Tina who would drag her drip stand to Farah's room and sit on her bed, talking animated nonsense designed to distract them from the pain, from the fear that one or both of them would never be able to walk unaided again.
'How did you even get here?'
'Dude, I don't even know where I am,' Tina says, leaning back. 'I mean, they told me Saint Cedd's Hospital, but I don't know what state that's in. Then they told me you worked for the PD here? Girl, why didn't you tell me?' Tina asks, excitedly tapping her arm. 'We totally would have come down and thrown a wicked party for you! Or across - again, no idea what state.'
'We haven't spoken in years, Tina.'
Tina's happiness freezes and her eyebrows knit together in confusion. Farah suspected this would happen.
'What? No - no way. We spoke on the phone a week ago.' Farah slowly shakes her head. Tina looks around, like she's wondering whether she's being punked. 'We did! I told you about my CT scan in a week. You told me how Todd was trying to get his PI licence, but they kept rejecting it on misdemeanor charges 'cause he got caught with that stash in college. Don't you remember?'
There's an air of pleading to Tina's voice. Farah almost wants to go along with it, pretend she's still with Dirk and Todd at the agency, just to let Tina smile again. But Farah can't lie to her.
'Tina, we last spoke ten years ago. I - The agency closed. Dirk went back to England. Todd - Todd and I -' Farah shakes her head again. 'James. I mean, there's a kid now. James. You'd like him.' Farah has no idea why she says that. 'We kind of. Fell out of contact, you and I. There wasn't much to talk about, I guess.'
Tina is silent, staring at her hands. Farah lets her be, the silence solid around her.
'I don't remember any of that,' Tina mumbles.
'That must be scary,' Farah says, employing some reflective listening training. She pretends to ignore Tina bringing her hand up to her eyes, wiping away the tears that are collecting there. 'But it's okay. You're in good hands. These guys are great doctors. And I'm here! I'm not leaving.'
'Maybe you should go,' Tina says quietly, staring away. 'I mean, if we're not - if you haven't -'
'Hey, don't,' Farah says, putting her hand on the thin hospital sheet, over the lump of Tina's left leg. 'I'm not leaving. Promise.'
On the journey back from school, Todd remains paranoidly close to his son, keeping James' hand clasped tightly in his. The walk is uneventful: Dirk does not jump out of any bushes, descend from any rooftops or slide out of any storm drains. He's keeping his end of the bargain. Or, perhaps more accurately, the universe is letting him keep it.
James is unusually quiet. Todd is grateful for that; it gives him more of a chance to listen for any ambient British accents that might indicate a sudden Dirking. James tugs his hand and Todd looks down to see his son frowning, worry creasing his brow.
'Are you looking out for that man?' James asks.
'What man?' Todd asks innocently.
'The one in the rain. The one you knew.' James purses his lips as he looks away. 'I don't know him.'
He sounds odd. Confused. It must be perplexing for him - the idea of Todd having a life outside the one he's built for his son. It's not as if he's ever experienced anything else. It's been Farah and James and Todd for as long as he's been alive, their own little family unit. Neither Todd nor Farah are very social. Todd can't even remember the last time they had an evening that wasn't the three of them having a quiet dinner, or a day out that wasn't centred around making James smile - the zoo, the movies, a museum with kid-friendly exhibits to crawl on.
Todd squeezes James' hand.
'He's just this guy. No one to worry about.' Todd winces at the magnitude of that lie.
James looks up at him, sternness on his small face. Todd would laugh if he wasn't thinking about all the ways Dirk's return might fuck up James' life.
'He's - we used to know him,' Todd admits. 'Farah and I. We, uh. Fell out of contact. He moved away. To a different country. I don't know why he's back here, but he. Um. Look, he won't be bothering us anymore. Promise.'
James nods, and then remains silent for the entire journey home. It isn't until Todd is unlocking their front door that he says something again, his voice soft and quiet against his father's leg.
'If you don't want him here then we should make him go away.'
His voice is so stern and deep that Todd is struck with the notion that James is saying words he's picked up from somewhere, like that song he keeps murmuring. Todd doesn't know what to say, so he lets James run past him, into the apartment and out of view. A moment later, he hears his son slam his bedroom door.
Messengers and Shapers begin to leave the planet, sobering up to the idea that their Gods may have left, and that there's no real reason to remain in a place where all the really, really good shit is locked up out of reach in the Cathedral. Most of them penniless, they flag down passing spaceships and hitch off. The Messenger has never hitched before, and uses that as a reason not to consider leaving, even as their displaced camp grows smaller and smaller every night.
He stokes the embers of the campfire, looking deep into the centre. He thinks of how many years he has dedicated to the Author, and he can't fathom any other way of life. What had there been before? Learning of the Author, of the perfect way that the Composition would complete the universe. It had all been such a revelation. It had all made so much sense. It had to be true.
The fire dies and the Messenger crawls into the cramped tent he has been sharing for the past few nights. Three Shapers are drawing a complex mathematical pattern in berry juice on the roof canvas. He sits in the middle of them, listening to them derive each successive mark, their mouths smacking as they chew the inferior leaves that grow around the campsite.
The pattern is one of the universal perfections. It has been recorded that the Artist, the Shapers' god, had a long obsession with this pattern and the way it creates fantastical works of art, like the one now being spread onto the tent roof.
The Messenger knows of the calculations behind the shapes. The shapes are fractals, a pictorial representation of complex numbers (z) that can be generated from the quadratic recurrence equation fc(z) = z2 + c under iteration. There are two outcomes when complex numbers are plugged into the equation and then iterated: the answer either increases or never gets larger than 2. The set of complex numbers the Shapers are currently displaying is the one in which the distance never gets larger than 2. The Shapers plug each number into the equation and - if it stays within the boundary of 2 - it is coloured in purple berry. If it increases, then it is left in brown canvas. The Messenger gets this easily enough. After all, compared to the current reaches of advanced hypermathematics, this is grade school shit.
The Messenger watches as the shape bulges predictably, its tendrils of complex numbers stretching outwards like lightning bolts. The Artist's work is beautiful, but nothing like the perfection that the Author brings with his words.
'Your art is a testament to your love,' the Messenger says to a Shaper, who lies down next to him to lick berry juice off his stained fingers. The only noises are the quiet sounds of the berries being squeezed into colour, nails scraping against canvas, and the familiar, comforting chewing of the leaves.
'Thank you,' the Shaper says quietly. 'Such praise is unfamiliar from one who has chosen another god.'
'I can understand the dedication, if not the direction.'
'Brother, may I ask what you intend to do now? My fellow sisters and brothers are to wait until the next setting of Alpha. Then, we shall hitch a ship to the nearest Hyperspace junction and bum some money. We are not against taking you as a fellow passenger, if you are willing.'
The Messenger thinks. 'I do not wish to leave this soil. I do not understand how I will be able to rejoin the universe, knowing that my God - my God is -' The Messenger inhales his sorrow. The Shaper puts his hand on his shoulder, squeezes supportively.
They watch the pattern grow for what feels like hours, until the smell of berry juice and sap thickens the air too much to breathe. The Messenger crawls out of the tent after the Shaper, inhaling the cool night air. In the dusk, the lines of luminescent ash over the Shaper's head glow green. He looks remarkably beautiful, muscles struck with sunsets, like one of the huge humanoid marble carvings that surrounded the Shaper's altar.
The Messenger sits on the bare ground, content to watch the Shaper stretch his body into some form of preparatory stance, no doubt attributable to a fighting style that the Messenger cannot name. The Shaper bends his body ninety degrees at the waist, then stretches his arms out in a further four directions.
Then, with one leg supporting himself upright, he sharply twists his other leg directly to the sky. His entire body swings in one smooth motion, displacing his hip bones in a way that is obviously feasible for whatever biology the Shaper has going for him, but makes the Messenger's own arrangement of ligaments scream.
The Messenger watches, fascinated. The Shapers often practice these types of movement without meaning as an extension of their art, their art being praise, their praise directed towards their god. The Messengers, meanwhile, have words, lyrics and soft perfect phrases.
The Messenger wishes to praise in his own way. He's compelled to describe the Shaper's movements, but all the words that come to mind seem underwhelming. He has learned such beauty from the folios stored in the Author's library - or, rather, those that were stored in the Author's library - but he can't think of anything perfect enough to say. The Shaper moves his body so exquisitely in praise to the Artist; how is the Messenger supposed to create a comparable work of literary art worthy of offering to the Author?
'You are blocking yourself,' the Shaper grates out as his third arm passes under his fourth and grips his ankle. The Messenger startles a little, unaware that the Shaper had been watching, wondering what part of his expression revealed his discontent. 'Flow, brother. Your god loves you for whatever you can create.'
'Frère Jacques,' the Messenger mutters.
The Messenger flushes, unaware his words had been audible. The phrase Frère Jacques is one that he often returns to in self flagellation. It is perfect, whereas the Messenger is not. He writes it onto his flesh in moments of reflection to remind him.
'It is a perfect phrase that I wished to be added to the collection,' the Messenger says quietly. He realises that the parchment he had written it on is probably lying in a tattered mess underneath the hateful, stamping feet of the Musicians, like the rest of his meagre belongings. 'It was in a selection of books, a donation from some pan-dimensionals. They had us read swathes of literature from all over the universe, trying to find perfect offerings. I don't know where they found it, but it - it is utter perfection.' The Messenger trembles with the certainty of it. 'Worthy of the Author. But I could never convince the other Messengers of this.'
'It has - can be perceived as having - some imperfections.' The Messenger presses two fingers to his temples, letting the others card soothingly through his hair. 'It suffers from problems in translation; I have meditated on it for years.'
'In the words themselves. In its original language, the passage depicts a holy man being awoken and asked to call his church to attendance. Sonnez les matines! Son-nez les mat-in-es.' The Messenger sounds out each syllable with a clap. 'Beautiful. But the act of translation into any language either destroys the cadence or distorts the message. This is often the problem with primitive cultures who do not have standardised verbiage.'
'So, you are saying there is meaning not only in the message, but in the form the message is given.' The Shaper smiles, or perhaps he frowns - his head is upside down and it's difficult to tell which way his lips are curling. 'And the fact that the message can be converted, can then be seen to be imperfect... your people thought this meant there could be no perfection there?' The Shaper snorts derisively. 'Your people. Wordsmiths. Convinced there is one truth.'
'The form,' the Messenger repeats, his pulse throbbing as the realisation smacks him across the face. The form. Could it be that the way the Author looks - his form - could be the same as the words to Frère Jacques? That they may translate, become distorted, perhaps even shadowed by imperfection, but they are still at their core perfect?
That simple realisation, that God does not have to appear perfect to be perfect, allows the Messenger to think once again of the demon - with its wild eyes and bloody mouth - and knows that God is not dead. He does not know where God is, but he knows how he can find him.
Chapter 5: Faith
Dirk is sitting in the shower, daring the universe to get him to move. He's been sitting in the same position for almost seven hours, fully clothed, surrounded by a small mountain of chocolate bars and crisp packets that he freed from a broken vending machine beside the pool in the motel complex. The vending machine had been working when Dirk checked in (he makes a habit of checking return coin slots, just in case), but when he had returned to the motel after bumping into Todd, the poor thing had broken down. It was soaked, like someone had turned a hose on it, and its response to such maltreatment was to all but vomit its contents out of the slot. Contents which Dirk was hardly going to let spoil.
Sitting bunched up in the shower is definitely not the most comfortable he's ever been. His thoughts wander towards the cushions and blankets on the bed, and he wonders if he should build a sort of nest-pile to make the situation a little nicer on his arse. But leaving the shower, even if it is to hoard bedding, could be just the movement the universe wants. What if he discovers something within the blankets? Something that might propel him back to Todd in some way? Like... ancient Aztec gold, maybe? Dirk isn't entirely sure of the series of events that would lead from the discovery of lost treasure in his motel room to seeing Todd again, but hey, if there's one thing Dirk knows, it's that the interconnectedness of all things is a giant scheming bitch that needs little reason to do anything.
He begins to hum. Then, he stops. What if humming is what the universe wants?
Then he starts humming again, because what if the universe wanted him to start humming and then stop?
Then he stops humming again, because what if the universe wanted him to start humming, then stop, and then start again?
The upshot of all this is that Dirk works himself into a panic attack, eats everything he's hoarded in an attempt to stuff the feelings away, and eventually collapses into a twitching, anxiety-ridden sugar coma.
The coma is short lived: he's pulled out of his delirium when a kind-looking lady professing to be housekeeping (though she might be CIA) tells him very politely that he's missed checkout, that she's not paid enough to deal with lily-white coked-out a-holes, and turns the shower on him.
To save her the trouble, Dirk throws himself out of the room and into the rain outside. He yells a thank you to the woman (again, might be CIA) and catches his bag when she hurls it out after him.
It seems to be daybreak, the air still cool but with a threat of American heat, the rain sleepy and slow. There are many directions Dirk could go, and he's practiced enough at his own life to guess that all of them will lead to Todd. After a morning of sugar-induced panic and delirium, just the shadowy memory of Todd's blue eyes is indulgently comforting. It's those sorts of feelings that reassure Dirk that, of all the connections in the universe, the one between him and Todd must be special. After all, Dirk's never had a best friend before.
Although, when thinking about it, Todd is probably no longer classifiable as "Dirk's best friend". Todd doesn't want him around. Of course, that isn't necessarily a game ender. Todd didn't want him around the first time, and he still relented eventually. Dirk just needs to turn his machine gun of adventure back in Todd's direction until he's powerless to resist, because he's full of fun... adventure bullets... or something.
Dirk winces at the tactless metaphor. The crossbow scar on his shoulder and the bullet scar on his leg throb, angrily reminding him of their last two adventures and how they'd ended, how fun those adventure bullets had been. Dirk recalls one particular day in the office when Farah had reached up to a high shelf in front of his desk. Her shirt had ridden up and he'd caught a glimpse of one of her scars: a thick glinting ridge of pale skin that ran from the centre of her stomach to her hip.
Dirk snaps himself out of his reverie and finds himself facing the stairs of a large townhouse that looks like its architect watched far too many late sixties science fiction movies. The building is reminiscent of an American football slammed into the ground, only one half exposed. The exposed steel structure is reflecting the dark orange of the brewing sun, and the large porthole windows add to the overall impression that a starship has buried itself in the ground of some strange planet and is greeting a new morning. It's far too interesting a creation not to have been heartlessly divided up into cramped apartments for maximum rental opportunity.
Walking up the stairs, he sees that the front door has a sophisticated, top of the line entry system. There's both an electronic silver pad affixed to the wall, and a camera arranged at head-level, indicative of a two-factor authentication: retinal scan and full handprint identification. The door looks like reinforced steel, something that flamethrowers would balk at, and the warning "THIS DOOR IS ALARMED" is printed in thick, threatening letters on a panel beside it. He can also see that the door has been wedged open with a brick.
Dirk steps over the brick and into the air-conditioned lobby where the doorman's small desk is entirely unoccupied. There is a stack of shiny catalogues in plastic wrap on the desk, a sign that the delivery person had realised the hollowness of his own existence and refused to take the one more step necessary to put them in their individual mail slots.
Dirk leafs through them until he finds the one addressed to Brotzman, T. He lives in apartment 4.
Okay. So now he knows what door to knock on. He can do that. But then again, he could go up the fire escape, try and get in through the window. Maybe it would make Todd laugh. Maybe Dirk could laugh too. Maybe they could share a laugh at how things have changed since then, at what they've been through, at what good friends they've become.
Except they wouldn't. Todd wouldn't laugh. What Dirk is imagining is a fantasy of a reunion - the same fantasy he can indulge in on grey London nights when sleep won't come and he wants so desperately to remember that he once had friends. Friends who wanted him. Friends who supported him. Friends who would welcome him back.
He takes the stairs instead. Todd's apartment door is a plain dark blue that balances the unpainted grey metal of the walls. There's a large potted fern next to the doormat. Dirk wonders if the fern has a name. Dirk has named all of his plants. They are all rubber (it's too heartbreaking to return to his flat/office after extended investigations to find everything dead), but they each have names nonetheless.
Next to the plant is a pair of scuffed wellington boots. They're tiny. Dirk guesses they belong to the child, unless Todd has started a small collection of tiny shoes, has only managed to collect one pair, and wishes to exclusively keep them outside of his apartment.
After looking at absolutely everything he can, Dirk sighs and drums his fingers on Todd's door. He can hear the rattle of a chain, the unlocking of a deadbolt, and then the door opens.
'Hi,' Dirk says, an octave too high. He coughs, smiles, tries to look casual.
Todd stares at him, the slight crease between his eyebrows expressing his panic quite succinctly.
'I told you to give me time.'
'Yes, well. Funny story. It appears I am completely out of money and my accommodation has now become untenable. I was going to construct some sort of cardboard box fort and take up residence on the street, but with this persistent rain - you are aware of the rain, right? Anyway, with the rain, it's highly probable that the fort would melt.' Dirk pauses. 'Is it still considered melting if it's not heat doing the, um. Gooification?'
'There are shelters.'
Dirk forces his smile wider. 'Ah, yes. I've been resident in a lot of those; I don't tend to fare so well. Something about my cheery, upbeat demeanor and incessant somniloquy. I was wondering if -'
'You could stay? Here?'
Dirk beams. 'Back to completing my sentences again! It's as if no time has passed at all. May I?'
Todd is still staring at him. Dirk feels his smile falter.
'James is still sleeping,' Todd finally says.
'Oh, I'll be extra quiet. Won't wake a mouse.' Dirk pinches his lips together, wondering what on Earth possessed Todd to give his son such an utterly unexciting name.
Todd sighs and rubs a small circle onto his forehead with the middle three fingers on his right hand. He seems to come to some sort of conclusion and steps aside, ushering Dirk through.
'Lovely place you have here,' Dirk says cheerily. 'Good example of late structural expressionism: circular glass windows, everything very... metal. Full of technology. Must give you lots of confidence in the security of your building.'
'I used to have confidence in the security,' Todd says scathingly.
'Oh, well, you know me!' Dirk says, growing more and more frantic in an attempt to lighten the mood. 'I'm rather an exception when it comes to that. If I'm supposed to get into a building, there's nothing that can be done to stop it. But then, of course, often the reverse is true - Black Wing, long childhood behind electrified fencing, etcetera. Is this your lounge?'
Dirk quickly skirts through a slightly open door and into a cozy room with a large black leather couch and a modest flat-screen. He sits on the sofa, then kicks his legs upwards and over the arm, putting his hands behind his head.
'Dirk, why are you here?'
'I don't know,' Dirk grins at the ceiling. 'But it's fantastic, isn't it? You and I, amigos, together in the pursuit of the impending investigation. To analyse the unanalysable, to probe where no one has yet thought to probe -'
'So you've got a case, you have no idea what you're doing on it, but you ran into me, so you think I'm gonna be important, is that it?'
'Well, if you must remove all romanticism from the kismet nature of our reunion, Todd, then yes, I guess you could say that.'
Todd sighs again. Todd seems to do a lot of sighing now. It's not something that Dirk remembers. Nor does he remember the constant pinching of the bridge of his nose, or the way his lips move like he's counting down numbers. Dirk decides to approach this tactfully.
'Todd, whatever this case ends up being, you and I both know that there is little point attempting to delay the inevitable. We are about to get into some deeply weird shit, and I know I would prefer us be united at the start than go through the whole ridiculous melodrama of you or I having to come to terms with all this happening again. At a certain point, the introspection becomes quite tedious.'
'I don't want to get James involved.'
'My son, Dirk.'
'Oh. Yes, the um. Little... person,' Dirk says, waving his hands dismissively. 'I'm sure he'll be fine. Couldn't you put him in one of those houses where children learn how to steal and do terrific dance numbers?'
'What? Are you - Are you describing Oliver? Are you telling me to put my son in an Victorian orphanage?'
'Orphanage! That's it! If you orphan him, he'll be entirely safe and you'll be free to do what the universe requires of you. It's very easy, you can even sign a waiver which means that the child can never track you down again -'
'I never should have let you in,' Todd says, slowly shaking his head, eyes vacant. 'Why the hell did I let you in?'
At that moment, his watch makes a high-pitched chirping noise. He glances at it and swears under his breath.
'I have to get James ready for soccer practice. Look, Farah will be back in half an hour. You - you just stay here, don't touch anything. Let her... deal with you.'
'Deal with me,' Dirk repeats. It tastes horrible in his mouth. He stands up slowly, wipes his hands on his shirt, trying to compose himself, but it all boils over. 'I wish - I wish you wouldn't treat me like I'm rubbish that you need to take out. I know I've hurt you -'
'You have no fucking idea,' Todd hisses. 'No fucking - Just. Shut up.' He balls up his fists, like he's ready to pound them on Dirk's chest. Dirk wishes he would. Physical pain would hurt less. Less than the pain of Todd's eyes burning into him. Dirk can feel how much he's hurting, how much this is all his fault.
'Dad?' someone's voice - James', probably - calls from another room.
Todd looks to the hallway door and blinks, the anger disappearing from his face as if he's waking from some stupor. He looks at Dirk, then at the door, then back at Dirk.
'Stay here. Don't touch.'
Todd leaves and Dirk sits back down on the sofa. After a few moments of listening to the movement outside, he begins picking non-existent fluff from his jacket.
Would it be better or worse if James came in? What would Dirk even say to him? Hullo, small child, I'm your father's best friend, except I'm not - your father utterly hates me, because I went back to England and left him, because I'm defenseless against the whims of the universe and also a loathsome prat.
There's a slam as the front door closes, and Dirk finds himself able to breathe again. He shifts, trying to touch as little of the sofa as possible. Would it be better to sit on the carpet? His eyes lazily move around the room, falling on very little. Everything is very clean, very neat, very organised. It's a complete one-eighty from Todd's apartment at the Ridgley.
Deciding that the absolute minimum touching he could do would be the soles of his feet on the ground, Dirk stands and takes a closer look at one of the white bookshelves. They're crammed with novels which Dirk vaguely remembers being mentioned during his brief education at Cambridge, mostly in the context of exasperated peers asking "How could you have not read X?" or "I don't think I've ever met anyone who's never even heard of Y." Spending a large section of one's childhood in isolation from popular culture did make it difficult to hold conversations.
The Great Gatsby. Little Women. The Stand. Gone With The Wind. The full works of Shakespeare. An anthology of the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The bookshelves speak of an erudite love of literature.
Dirk's heart sinks a little in his chest. He didn't know Todd liked to read. He would have guessed Todd's apartment would be filled with... well. He's not entirely sure, but definitely not with this. There should be old records in stacks of cardboard boxes. Fraying concert posters Blu-Tacked to the walls. Piles of black and grey clothes dumped in corners.
Dirk is coming to the frightening conclusion that he doesn't know Todd at all.
On the bookshelves, there's a solitary photo in a simple black frame. It looks half-professional, maybe done in a mall somewhere, a shoulders-up shot of a happy family in front of a greying cream background: Farah with a slightly amused smile in a lace-necked top, Todd grinning tiredly into the camera, and James propped between them, standing on some box perhaps, looking warm and contented.
Dirk is struck with an almost overpowering urge to hurl the photo frame against the wall. The impulse is so powerful that he feels the hot shame of having done it without even lifting his hand. He steps back, horrified at himself. Why would he be angry at a photo like that? They're a happy family.
They're a happy family without you, Dirk's traitorous mind snidely supplies.
Dirk shakes his head free of the thought. What is he even thinking? Of course Farah and Todd are together. They were together when he was last here. That isn't new information. And children tend to happen when two people end up together for long periods of time, like that black speckling that happens to the white grout on shower walls. Again, not new information. Had he really thought they wouldn't move on without him?
As his stomach rolls with guilt, Dirk realises that's exactly what he had thought. He had assumed nothing would change, that they could pick up exactly where they left off, that Farah and Todd would both welcome him with open arms into the Dirk-shaped hole that they had been keeping warm whilst he was away.
The self-hatred that comes with this conclusion is mercifully short lived, as something heavy collides violently with the back of Dirk's head, shattering his sight into stars.
The feeling then is mostly "ow".
He's sitting on a bio-bed, feeling swamped in a backless white-and-blue checked gown, staring uselessly at his toes. The medicare droid has pronounced him fit, healthy and psychologically scarred, all in the same cheery voice.
He doesn't care. He feels numb, like he hasn't fully thawed. He knows his temperature is okay - a safe 105 Fahrenheit - but all his organs feel frozen. He wonders if he should tell someone, but he doesn't think he can face another medicare droid with its programmed sympathy.
His eyes prick and he sniffles.
The curtains around his bed rustle and open. The face that appears is not that of an android, but one of flesh and blood. He doesn't recognize the species but he knows it's rude to ask someone what planet they come from.
'Little one,' the something says by way of introduction. They're dressed in a long blue robe that covers their two long arms and legs. This type of anatomical structure is unusual, but not the strangest thing he has ever seen. In fact, he likes the symmetry. He suddenly wishes he hadn't been convinced to grow that third arm and holds its palm awkwardly in his other two hands.
The being walks towards the bed and closes the curtains behind them.
'I'm so glad to see you are awake.'
'I'm sorry,' he says quietly.
The long pause between them is disturbed only by the slight whirring of the air cycler in the ceiling. The being sits heavily beside him on the bed.
'Could you tell me your name?'
The boy trembles a little and rapidly shakes his head. He wants to, but he can't. He's never been able to. Instead of yelling at him, instead of being frustrated and angry like his father, the being puts a hand on his shoulder and squeezes.
A new sound joins them, the crackling of the Sub-Etha VidNews from his neighbour's bed. Earlier, the boy had sat and listened to the smarmy reporters cataloguing the toll of the dead. The unknown disaster has wiped out the entirety of his planet and most of his race. He knows that, but he also doesn't know it at the same time. It's too huge. He could comprehend the loss of his family, of his town at a stretch, but the whole planet? That's just... stupid.
The boy's hands start to hurt, and he notices that he's been gripping the sides of the bed. His fingers are cold when he clutches them to his chest. He tries to rub some blood back into his flesh.
'I don't want this to be true anymore,' the boy says, not to the being, but to the nothing which is encroaching upon him. 'I want everything back the way it was before. I want my mom. I want my dad. I want to be back in my house getting ready for school.'
Both the nothing and the being are silent in reply. The pain in the boy's hands seems to be spreading to his chest, to where it's still icy. It's making it tighter, harder to breathe.
'I want to know how this works. I want to know how to stop doing this. I want to know how to control it. I want to stop hurting people. I want t-to be n-normal and - and -'
The being squeezes his shoulder again. It's a touch of warmth that begins to melt the spiderweb of ice covering his body, turning everything into water. He can feel it flooding downwards, over his chest, into his ribcage. He shudders helplessly against it, unable to stop the tears when they burst from his eyes.
'We can help you,' the being says, softly. 'We have faith.'
Chapter 6: Go Away
Tina is sitting next to Dirk on the leather couch, holding a pack of frozen peas covered in a tea towel to the back of his head.
'I'm so sorry!' Farah says standing in front of them. 'It's just. You know. I'm on guard, all the time. And I wasn't. Wasn't expecting. I mean. Frankly, you should be pleased I didn't shoot you. Not that I would. No. I would be more sensible. I was more sensible. I -'
'Quite alright,' Dirk manages, smiling weakly.
Farah swallows, nods dumbly at him, and continues frantically doing nothing, which involves a lot of pacing and nervous twisting of her hands. Tina thinks it's quite cute. It had been an awesome throw, Farah nailing the back of the home invader's head with her police radio, and that awesomeness hadn't been diminished just because the home invader happened to be Dirk.
Tina removes the homemade ice pack and runs her fingers through Dirk's remarkably soft hair, checking for blood. He squeaks petulantly under the examination.
'Relax,' she says. 'I've seen worse.'
Dirk pulls away and haughtily preens his usually pristine hairline. Tina toys with the plastic bag of peas and slumps back onto the couch, her thin azure hospital pants riding up around her ankles.
'So, um,' Dirk starts, then immediately stops. He looks sheepishly at Farah, not quite able to meet her eyes.
Farah doesn't say anything, her face expressively blank.
'Okay... guys, not to brag, but I'm a great mood sensor,' Tina begins, looking between them. They turn to her, startled, like they had forgotten she was there. 'I'm like a cross between a mood ring, a psychologist, and the best of someone way gone on peyote. I'm kind of getting the feeling that something might have happened between you guys... am I right?'
'What are you doing here?' Farah asks, turning back to Dirk, her voice soft with disbelief. 'Does Todd... Does he... ?'
'He knows,' Dirk interrupts quietly. 'And judging by the cordial reception, he's just enchanted to be exposed to me again.'
The sarcasm is biting and Tina slides her teeth together. 'Okay, something definitely happened. Did you guys break up?'
Dirk looks at her, confused. 'To which guys are you referring?'
Tina shrugs. 'I dunno. You and Todd, Todd and Farah, Farah and you, y'all three together in happy polyamory. I never really got a straight answer about what you guys were up to. Heh.' She snorts. 'Straight answer.'
Dirk's face speeds through a variety of emotions.
'Tina's been through a lot,' Farah says quickly, cutting through Dirk's ratcheting confusion. 'We just came from the hospital.'
'Oh, Dirk doesn't need to know,' Tina says dismissively, the back of her neck prickling. She smiles at Farah, trying to communicate "shut up" as silently as possible. 'Long story. All good now. Except, can't really remember - well, it doesn't matter. Memory loss. It's just -'
'You've lost your memory?' Dirk says, suddenly breathless with curiosity. 'Oh! Oh, that's so interesting! How far back can you remember? Is it all hazy or is it just gone? Do you remember me? Oh, of course you remember me, you said my name -'
'Dirk,' Farah interrupts. 'She had an accident. It's just a bit of, um. Retrograde amnesia.'
'You have retrograde amnesia?!' Dirk excitedly slaps his hands on his knees several times. 'Did Farah help you escape the hospital?'
'I was discharged -'
'Discharged? With retrograde amnesia?' Dirk wrinkles his nose disparagingly. 'Well. The American healthcare system is disturbingly expeditious. In England, I once had to stay in hospital three weeks just for a broken nose. Well, technically two days for the nose. The rest of the time was spent speaking to a psychologist because no one seemed to believe that my house had been destroyed by a transmogrified eagle -'
Dirk's rant quickly takes priority. Tina experiences no little relief. The tricky part of trying to put on a brave face for all this is that she actually, probably, almost definitely, completely assuredly is not okay.
What the fuck had happened to her? What the fuck had she decided to stick into her arm and why? True, it wasn't the first time she'd woken up in hospital after a blowout, but it was the first time she hadn't woken up to Sherlock standing beside her bed.
The thought of his devastated face as he learns that she's once again fallen off the wagon and reset her sober counter back to zero makes her gut ache. She tenses against the crushing impulse to dig her fingernails into her wrists. The guilt is toxic. She wants to claw it out of herself.
'They wouldn't have discharged her if she wasn't fine,' Farah says confidently.
'Yeah, and anyway, they need all the free beds they can get,' Tina offers jokingly, trying to skew the conversation towards a political discussion on healthcare cuts rather than herself. Farah doesn't bite. She looks at Tina very carefully, and each subtle movement of her eyes makes her feel like a tightly-wrapped package slowly being taken apart, layer by layer. 'No, but I'm fine. I'm great!'
'Well, that's fantastic!' Dirk says, beaming and patting her lightly on the shoulder. 'You know what they say: whatever doesn't kill you gives you an excellent story to tell later down the pub. Like this one time, when I was on the trail of this ferret -'
Thankfully, Farah's phone goes off. Tina takes the opportunity to get to her feet. She's about to head to the bathroom to plaster some counterfeit fine-ness on her face, but she stops when she sees Farah's 'call to action' expression.
'James? James, slow down, what happened?' Farah goes silent, listening intently. Dirk gets to his feet, looking worried.
'Where is - Okay, don't worry. Don't worry, bug. Could you reach into his pockets for me?' Farah pauses. Tina sees her fingers tapping hastily against her side. 'His back pocket. Yeah. Okay, is there a little orange bottle? Yeah? Okay, can you get the lid off it for me?' Another pause. 'You gotta twist it, honey -'
'What's happening?' Dirk says, hovering around her shoulder like a buzzing insect. 'Farah? Farah, what's -'
'Shut up, Dirk,' Farah snaps, holding her finger up at him. 'No, no, James, it's okay. Child-proof caps. Stupid. Of course. You're doing so good. Can you see a nice-looking woman anywhere? Someone with children? A police officer? Someone in a uniform? Where are you?'
The pause is astronomical in size, but Farah eventually starts nodding. She looks directly at Tina and the message cuts through like telepathy: something's happening, I need you to be backup. Tina nods at her, and just like that, they're a team.
'Okay, I'll be there as soon as I can. Just stay on the phone. Hold his hand for me. You gotta be brave, okay? It's gonna be fine. No, I'm not going to hang up. I promise.'
The huge knife slowly inches through Todd's jacket into his shaking, feverish body, sliding into the space between his ribs. The sickening sensation throbs into a deeper pain as - Jesus fucking Christ - the smooth, unyielding metal begins to break through the meat of his heart -
Todd wants to scream, but he can't. He can't because James is right next to him, his tiny hand gripping Todd's, his face blotchy red and streaked with tears. He's got Todd's cellphone pressed to his ear and he's crying into it, his entire body trembling with fear. He doesn't know what's happening.
Todd wants to grab James and hug him tightly just as much as he wants to push him away, but he hasn't got the strength for either. The pain has been going on for too long. It feels like hours. He bites down on his lower lip and groans as the knife slides ever further into its delicate target. With one frantic ba-dum, Todd's heart contracts and squirts hot blood over his chest.
He slams his head back against the pavement and screws his eyes shut. It's fake. It's all fake. It's an illusion created by his sick, fucked up head. But logic ceases to matter when the pain in his throat begins, just above his clavicle: another knife beginning to sink calmly through the lines of sinewy muscle that make up his neck. Todd doesn't need to open his eyes to know what's happening; he can feel the points of half a dozen more knives pricking all over his body - his forearms, torso, thighs, the centre of his forehead - and the pressure as they force themselves insistently down into him and through him.
He's going to die like this. He's going to have a heart attack. His child is going to watch his father die.
Todd begins to scream, the noise otherworldly, wrenching itself from him as his body twitches and pitches and thrashes against the unrelenting, endless -
Something against his lips. Fingers, pressuring him to open his mouth. He does so and heaves pints of fresh blood against his chest, over his face, out of the corners of his lips. He swallows it all back down like a man dying of thirst, praying that there are pills amongst the illusion.
In just seconds, the blood in his mouth tastes a shade less metallic. He forces his eyes open and sees that there are faces around him. James is holding Farah tight, his little head buried into her side. Dirk is there, too, and... is that Tina?
Todd barely has a second to think about it before Tina is grabbing at his shoulders and back, encouraging him to roll over.
He lets her arrange his useless arms and legs into the recovery position. Underneath his right cheek, his left hand feels clammy and wet with sweat, but not blood.
It's over. It's finally over. His stomach lurches, desperate to clear out the rest of the illusion, and he fights against the impulse to vomit. He doesn't want to cause more problems, more mess for his friends to clean up.
But it hurts. God, it hurts. And he wants... he wants what he always wants. What he doesn't let himself want.
'Dirk,' Todd mumbles. He numbly pushes his hand out, fingers stretching into nothing. Someone grabs it, and their touch is sun-hot against his freezing skin. 'Please -'
'I'm here.' Dirk's voice is like a song from a distant room.
Todd's chest throbs, this time not with the pain of knives. He can't let Dirk leave again. The universe can't have him. It doesn't matter how important his job is, how much the universe needs its errand boy; Todd needs him more.
'This won't hurt, this won't hurt, this won't hurt.'
Dirk doesn't disappear. His hand stays there, heavy and real, anchoring Todd to reality. It's easier to breathe now. Easier to hold onto the contents of his stomach. Easier to feel the wind on his face and hear the sounds of distant traffic.
Todd allows his exhaustion to overwhelm him. As he tunnels into darkness, he begs the universe to allow Dirk to hold his hand until he wakes up.
The boy walks slowly down the disembarkation ramp, nervously looking between the crowd gathered below and the nameless being who is loosely holding his hand. The people in front of him are an assortment of different races, a one-stop shop for bizarre biology. They have eyes everywhere, all dotted in strange places deemed evolutionarily necessary a few million years ago, no doubt to the ire of sunglasses manufacturers. All of them are focused on him.
Do they know what he did? Is this a lynching? The boy shrinks into the being's side.
'Sisters! Brothers! Sentimental others!' The murmuring of the crowd curtails into silence as the being calls out to them. 'I have here at my side an extraordinary young man. This boy,' the being says, gripping his shoulder tightly and making him wince, 'has done things! Fantastical, wonderous things! Things which we have been predicting since the daybreak of our church on this glorious planet! He is a being of creation!'
The pantomime of pleasure is universal to all beings: an explosion of cheering, throwing colourful powders. The crowd, where applicable, ooh and ahh, clasp hands in gladness, and undulate their glistening pomfronds. The boy feels his lower lip start to tremble.
'I stand here a servant renewed,' the Being announces, their eyes shining with pride. 'I stand here in the presence of the almighty wordsmith, the finally incarnate Author. Yes, my family, the Author is among us!'
At those words, the crowd begins to collapse forward all at once, falling to their knees onto the sandy earth beneath them. They're saying things that the boy cannot comprehend. His universal translation device must be drowning in the depths of his left ear canal, unable to properly parse the ocean of language.
'I don't understand!' the boy hisses at the being. He sticks a slender pinky into his own ear, wincing as he tries to flick the Babel fish back into working order. 'What are you telling them? You told me - you told me your friends were going to help me - help me stop this -' the boy tails off as he realises that the Being's smile, usually contentment incarnate, is wavering.
'I am so sorry you are distressed. I only wished to give you the introduction you deserve. I told you, we have faith. Faith in your abilities, faith in your determination to correct the faults of the universe...' The Being sighs, presses the pads of their hands against their metallic forehead. 'We believe so much in you. We have been waiting so long for your arrival.'
'But we've only just met... How could you be waiting for me?'
The being looks around the crowd, for what the boy isn't entirely sure. Everyone is still lying on the ground in the dirt, but they all look happy. Happy at him. Happy at him being there.
Well... that's never happened before.
Farah gets them all home quite haphazardly, putting several things on her "Deal With When Inside The Wire" list as she does.
1. James is scared out of his wits. He refuses to let go of Farah's shirt, making driving back to the apartment very awkward. She needs to sit down and explain:
1a. Pararibulitis (god knows how);
1b. That Todd will be okay (god knows if that's true); and
1c. That there isn't anything to worry about (a barefaced lie).
2. Farah needs to lecture Todd (when he's more conscious) for not explaining pararibulitis to James like he had promised.
2a. Farah also needs to lecture Todd re: not leaving your life-saving medication in an easily accessible container.
3. James' face is child-gross with streaked tears and snot. Something that Todd usually deals with. Although not great to look at, definitely lowest priority.
4. Dirk is whiter than Farah has ever seen him and Farah has seen him with severe blood loss. Got to calm him down him, make sure he doesn't go AWOL before Todd wakes up. Low priority because of low risk; he hasn't let go of Todd's hand at all, even when Tina put Todd over her shoulder to carry his unconscious body to the car.
5. Seriously need to thank Tina for being excellent back-up. Also ask her how she learned to deadlift 140 pounds.
When they're back, Farah helps Tina put Todd into bed, working around his and Dirk's permanently clasped hands. She knows from experience that there's little point in taking him to the hospital. At most, they would run a few scans before re-diagnosing pararibulitis, then shrug their shoulders and give him a complementary IV to make it seem worth the bill.
'He won't wake up for a few hours,' she says to Dirk, who is crouched very uncomfortably next to Todd's bedside.
Dirk doesn't look away from his face. Todd's bangs are matted with sweat and his skin is shining, but his breathing is deep and regular. He's out for the count.
'I don't care. He asked for me. I'm staying,' Dirk says sternly.
Farah is uncomfortably reminded of that Scottish terrier that refused to leave the graveside of their owner, but she supposes it won't do any harm to leave Dirk there. She gives him a supportive pat on his shoulder, then leads Tina into the hallway.
James is huddled into a corner on the carpet just outside Todd's door, his head on his knees. He looks up as Farah closes the bedroom door.
'I didn't do anything,' James says shakily. His bare arms are white where they're hugging his knees. 'It wasn't me. It's not my fault. Dad just f-fell down. He just fell down and started - started shaking and I didn't - I didn't know what to do -'
Farah drops down to his level and unwraps his little body, pulling him close to her. He octopuses around her, rasping half-sobs into the leather of her jacket. He's absolutely terrified. Farah pushes her fingers into the back of his curly hair and bounces him a little, like her mother used to do when things got too complicated.
'Shh, bug. Of course you didn't. You did everything right. You called me. What does your dad always say?'
'Farah is a superhero,' James mumbles into her shoulder.
'Yeah, that's right,' Farah confirms, picking him up. 'I'm a superhero.' She looks over his head at Tina and gives her a strained smile.
Tina lets out a huge breath. 'Hell, it never really calms down for you guys, huh?'
'It's been pretty normal since Dirk left, honestly,' Farah says. 'Todd hasn't had an attack in years. Well, actually, he had an attack recently, but before that we thought - well, we didn't think it was cured exactly but -'
James shifts in her arms. He's listening to their conversation. Probably not wise to go on. She doesn't exactly know how much he would understand, but still, he doesn't need to hear anything that might upset him more.
She tilts her head to indicate James, and Tina seems to grasp her meaning. Instead of asking more questions, she quietly follows Farah into his room.
Usually when people come around, James is more than happy to take them on an animated tour, showing off his favourite Star Wars toys, puppeteering them in some complicated storyline of his own devising. Jason and Madeline have sat through at least seven versions of episode VIII, all of which Farah honestly prefers to the real one. This time, however, James doesn't seem demonstrative. He ignores Tina, urging Farah over to his large bookshelf with a firm lurch of his body. Farah carries him over. He leans out of her arms and grabs a few of the books from the top shelf.
'Do you want some quiet time to read?' Farah asks. It's not uncommon for James to want to read, although Farah has always found it unusual. The kid is thoroughly addicted. Todd has to put most of his books on the top shelves to stop him reading late into the night and making himself groggy for school the next morning.
James nods, satisfied with his haul, and Farah places him on the floor. The books he has are a little out of his age range, some not only in complexity, but in subject matter. Some of them are the kind of thing parents are supposed to read to their kids at bedtime - Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events - but then there are the more classic ones that James has really taken to, like 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird. Farah originally voiced concern to Todd about those, fearing nightmares or having to explain institutionalised racism to a young kid, but if there's anything he doesn't understand, he doesn't ask Farah or Todd about it. Farah supposes he's asking his teachers instead.
James sits on the little beanbag chair in his reading nook by the window, and opens Jane Eyre. In an instant, he's disappeared into Gateshead, Farah and Tina and all the troubles of the day locked sternly out. Farah leaves him to it.
'Will he be okay?' Tina asks as Farah carefully closes the door.
'I don't know,' Farah says. 'Kind of... Todd's thing? When he's awake, I'm sure it'll be fine. It'll be fine! It'll be fine. Coffee?'
Tina nods and Farah jogs to the kitchen before she can say another word.
Farah knows she wouldn't like coffee if brewing it wasn't such a convoluted process. She much prefers something sweeter, like a raspberry-infused tea for a light sugar kick. But she doesn't really make coffee to drink it; it's to enjoy the simple process.
She pops open one of the large glass jars that Todd has filled to the brim with Guatemala Antigua, and scoops out a few handfuls into a small chipped bowl. They smell deep and rich. Farah can feel her pulse slow as she breathes in the scent.
She transfers the beans from the bowl to the top of a large hand grinder, which is clamped tightly to a work surface. Putting the bowl underneath the grinder, she grabs the handle and begins to work it around. It's neither easy nor fast; the grinder spits and growls as it's forced through its paces, disintegrating the beans into fine granules. Farah starts to count the revolutions of the handle only when her arm starts to ache, each tiny pang of resistance from unwilling muscle fiber easily ignored after a decade of mixed-martial training.
When the beans are ground, she takes a fresh filter and slips it into a small portafilter. She spoons the granules into it, tamps it down until it's level, and then slides the contraption into the space-aged coffee machine. It connects with a satisfying click.
'If the whole cop thing doesn't work out, you'd be a great barista.'
Farah turns to Tina and stops short. Her long dirty blonde dreadlocked hair is completely gone. It's been cut at the roots, and not neatly. It's like someone has held it up in handfuls and then hacked at them with a pair of kitchen scissors, which, Farah realises quickly, is probably exactly what's just happened. There's only a couple inches of hair left, flopping unevenly.
'Oh,' Farah manages, bereft of anything real to say. There's something wrong. Tina's expression. She keeps grabbing her nose. Sniffling. In a panic, Farah realises that she's seen this look before, but on her own face in the mirror when she's done something stupid and she needs to berate herself for a few minutes before she can calm down.
'I tried to wash it, but, eh. Lost cause. I clearly haven't been to the salon in a while! Must have had bigger priorities. You know?'
Tina's smile is so far from her eyes, it's in a different zip code. The mask she's been wearing since Farah saw her in the hospital is rapidly disintegrating. Farah doesn't know whether she wants to patch it up or tear it off.
'I used to cut Lydia's hair,' Farah says, very quickly. 'Why don't you finish the coffee and I'll tidy things up for you?'
Tina's face tightens and she bites down on her lower lip. She looks at the floor, unable to meet Farah's eyes, and nods numbly. Farah's heart lurches for her. She wants to magic back the finger-thick plaits that had been framing Tina's face the last time she saw her, alongside the thick kohl eyeliner and sarcastic smile.
But Farah isn't magic; she'll just have to make do with what she's got.
A few minutes later, she's carefully moving the hair around Tina's neck with a pair of scissors and a straight-edged comb. Tina is sipping quietly from her coffee mug, her eyes still a little blotchy but a lot steadier, a powder blue towel wrapped around her shoulders.
'You know, I never actually cut Lydia's hair this short,' Farah admits. She dips her comb into a jug of water and uses it to wet Tina's soft hair.
'That's, like, the absolute best thing your hairstylist could ever say. Just for your information.'
'Hey, I didn't finish! I've never cut Lydia's hair this short, but I've done a lot of those... what do you even call them? The faceless figurines with long hair that they give to kids to play stylist with.'
'Oh, those. You had them when you were a kid?'
'No, not me. Lydia. She had all of them. Patrick didn't exactly have a spending limit when it came to his daughter. Which came in handy because we made a lot of mistakes with them.'
'Again - absolute best thing you can say.'
Farah pushes the toggle on Todd's razor, and it buzzes to life. The noise makes her panic and she turns it off.
'Chicken?' Tina goads. 'Come on, it can't get any worse.'
Farah rolls her eyes, even though Tina can't see it. She slips her phone out of her pocket and opens YouTube. She searches for "short haircut with electric razor" and gets a few promising videos, but none for women.
'Do you mind if I give you a guy's cut?'
'Nope. Rock it out.'
Farah finds a video with a thumbnail of a smiling couple: a woman looking as apple-pie-American as it's possible to be without wearing a star-spangled swimsuit, and a kindly smiling G.I. Joe-type man with hair shorter than what Tina has to work with. It'll do.
Farah attentively listens to the instructions as she clicks on the razor and, holding her breath, begins to carefully trim down the sides of Tina's hair. Once Tina doesn't immediately start hemorrhaging from an accidental razor-to-the-head wound, Farah can feel herself relax a little. It's like making coffee.
She checks, double-checks and triple-checks the video as she works, rewinding it so often that Tina is able to completely mimic the Apple Pie instructor, Boston accent and all, before she's done. Farah tries not to laugh at her as she takes the guard off the trimmer.
'Hold still. I'm shaping.'
Farah trims a precise line across the nape of Tina's neck. She ignores the half a minute Apple Pie spends on sideburns, but joins back in to fade the cut around the ears. Crouching beside her, Farah can see Tina peeking a little nervously. Farah can't think about that. Too much pressure of doing a good job. If she stews about it, or she'll stop. Farah re-focuses her attention.
'Okay, now I've got to fade these bits where the sides meet the crown.'
'This guy really doesn't look like he wants to be here,' Tina says, looking at the video. 'I swear he's blinking "Help Me, I'm Being Held Captive" in morse.'
'Okay. Time for... this part,' Farah switches the razor to a 2.5 setting, just a half higher than what it had been previously. What do the razor settings mean, anyway? Inches? Centimetres? Some weird hair-specific unit of measurement?
Stop. Doesn't matter. Concentrate. This is important.
Farah runs the razor up Tina's head, pausing after each pass to carefully inspect her work. Farah brushes some small specks of hair off Tina's shoulders and then presses her fingers against Tina's chin to straighten her head. Tina meets her eyes. Farah both wants to snap her hands away and apologise, but she very equally doesn't want to. The latter wins. She moves Tina's head very gently as she works around her head. Tina moves fluidly in response. It feels a little like pushing hands, a martial art training technique where one partner will respond with opposite movement to a lead partner. But it also feels like something else.
After a few minutes, everything looks regular and even.
'I think we're done,' Farah says, after quadruple checking the sides from the front. Tina looks up at her, patiently waiting. Farah realises she's spending a bit more time than is necessary, and takes her fingers away.
'You haven't even seen it yet.'
'I don't need to.'
They watch Star Trek repeats until the sun dies away through the porthole windows and the night sky illuminates, Tina curled up on the sofa in borrowed sweats. Farah has been silent, playing something on her phone. Sometimes, Tina sees Farah looking at her. She's torn between a desire to chase her eyes and pretend she hasn't seen anything, wondering what Farah's thinking about when she looks at her. Probably just how weird she looks with straight hair.
When Farah leaves, the room becomes unbearably quiet. Tina wants to do something with her hands to occupy herself, to give back to Farah after taking so much. Cleaning, maybe. Except everything in the house is spotless. After washing up their two coffee mugs, she decides to check on James. Farah put him down hours ago, but he might still be awake. If he is, perhaps Tina can help him get back to sleep, read him one of his stories.
Upon peering into his room, it's clear there's no chance: James is fast asleep in his bed. He looks quite cute, lying face up with the covers strewn across his torso, mouth hanging open as he faintly snores. Tina's never wanted kids of her own, but she's often hoped that Sherlock would eventually shack up with someone and have a litter, just so she could be the cool aunt who sneaks them candy and then weed when they get older.
Tina notices that the red lamp in James' little reading nook is still on. She quietly crosses the room, careful not to make a noise, and clicks off the switch on the stand. Saving Farah a few cents on her electricity bill. Score!
Underneath the lamp, she sees a small black notebook. It looks like the kind of thing Sherlock would use to take the odd note on broken fence panels or lost dogs - the stuff that passed for police work in Bergsberg. It could be Farah's, left accidentally.
Tina, not wanting James to come across any gruesome murder notes, picks it up. She opens it, just to flick through and make sure she's not pinching his favourite copy of Peter Rabbit, and it falls open somewhere in the middle. She finds handwritten scrawl inside.
DIRK GENTLY IS BURIED IN A SNOW DRIFT AND EVERYONE DOESN'T LOOK FOR HIM
DIRK GENTLY JUMPS INTO THE RIVER AND IS WASHED AWAY
DIRK GENTLY EXPLODES AND NO ONE CARES
DIRK GENTLY GOES AWAY
DIRK GENTLY GOES AWAY
DIRK GENTLY GOES AWAY
Chapter 7: Perfection Altered
Todd wakes up with the all-too familiar feeling of mild terror. He brings his wristwatch to his face and blinks a few times until the display comes into focus. It’s early in the morning. The panic of having to do something - get James ready for school, make his lunch, or one of the other never-ending family tasks - slowly recedes. He’s got time.
He rolls over and is met with the not-at-all familiar view of Dirk lying face up on the other side of the bed. He’s on top of the covers, fully clothed and evidently asleep.
Memories of the attack waft distantly over Todd’s consciousness, giving some context as to why his erstwhile friend is sharing his bed. He freezes, unsure what to do. Dirk is lying ramrod straight, his arms locked at his side, a position which Todd would attribute more to electrocution than comfortable sleeping. His white shirt is just a little creased, but there are sharp grooves down his thighs where his pants have been precisely flattened. Weird. Todd can’t imagine the man successfully working an iron without getting burned.
As Todd’s eyes graze over Dirk’s chest, he notices his dark mahogany tie, dotted with alternating navy moons and white stars, is tight up against his neck. It looks like a choking hazard, and regardless of his feelings about the man, Todd doesn’t like that.
Adding yet more coal onto his furnace of self-hate, Todd carefully leans over and brushes his hands very gently around Dirk’s collar. Dirk doesn’t stir. This close, Todd can make out the hairs around the edges of his eyebrows, which Todd is surprised to see look neatly plucked. The man trims his eyebrows? When the fuck does he get time to dote over his physical appearance like that?
At this point, Todd realises he’s staring. He forces himself to look away from Dirk’s face and concentrates on his tie instead.
Softly, he puts his fingers into the loop around Dirk’s neck and grips the knot with his other hand. He gingerly pulls downwards, loosening the knot until he can see three mother of pearl buttons on Dirk’s white shirt, all done up. Not wanting to leave the job half done, Todd pops the first and second ones, revealing the pale white skin underneath.
Dirk swallows, and his Adam’s apple bounces in his throat. Todd snatches his hands away and goes as still as he can, his face on fire. But Dirk doesn’t wake up, his hands remaining motionless on the bed as he breathes steadily. Too close.
Todd gets off the bed and leaves the room without a second glance. He races across the hall to the - thankfully - vacant bathroom and twists the shower onto the hottest setting. The water gushes down, filling the small room with a torrent of noise. Todd stares at himself in the mirror above the sink until his reflection disappears beneath the steam.
After washing, Todd puts his boxers and t-shirt back on, consigning the rest to the laundry hamper. He doesn’t really want to go out and face the world, but he hasn’t even got a bed to hide in.
He walks into the living room to find Tina sitting lengthways on the couch watching early morning news, her legs underneath a large blanket. Oh yeah. Todd had forgotten that she was involved in this mess. From the kitchen, he can hear some light rustling. Farah, probably. Or maybe not probably, considering the two unexpected visitors who have already come out of the woodwork. Maybe someone else is here to visit and fuck up the life he’s so carefully built.
‘Hey,’ Tina ventures. ‘Good to see you alive.’
‘Likewise,’ Todd replies. ‘So. Uh. When did you... move in?’
‘Last night. I mean, I think Farah kind of offered - It’s a long story, I haven’t got any shit or anything so I’m basically just gonna be eating your cereal until I can work some stuff out. Hey, Farah?’ she calls. ‘The kraken awoke.’
Farah comes through, dressed for work in a black chiffon top and tight off-black jeans. She’s holding her red-and-white checkered reusable coffee mug, which is gently steaming from the open top.
‘Oh, hey, yeah,’ Farah says, addressing Todd. ‘Tina’s gonna be staying - I mean, I assumed you wouldn’t, um. Mind if she slept here for a few days? There’s a lot - there’s a lot going on -’
‘You didn’t want to ask me first?’ Todd asks, a bit snippily. It’s half his house, after all. Okay, so he doesn’t exactly pay any of the rent, but both their names are on the lease. It’s the principle of the thing. Todd wouldn’t have moved someone in without asking Farah whether it was okay. That was the whole point of putting off saying yes to Dirk, so Farah could say no and they could unitedly kick him back out of their lives, because it’s a fucking stupid idea to bring a maniac into the same home as a small child.
‘She needs somewhere to stay. I thought it would be fine.’
‘We’ve got to think about James.’
‘Ooh, I’m great with kids!’ Tina interjects. ‘Seriously, Sherlock’s cousin is, like, the most prolific baby maker in the entire county. Literally never not pregnant, she’s like a rabbit. They have seven kids and she’s always dropping them off with us when she goes to the mall. We play “climb Uncle Hobbs” and “who can make the biggest fort using stuff from the evidence locker” and “who can get Uncle Hobbs’ gun off him without him realising” and -’
‘We wouldn’t need you to babysit,’ Farah interjects quickly. ‘You have stuff to sort out. You need to rest.’
‘We really need to talk,’ Todd says, physically stepping between Farah and Tina.
‘Okay. Yeah. Hallway?’
Todd carefully closes the doors behind him and Farah as they exit the apartment, moving quickly into the hallway outside, making sure the latch doesn’t drop on the outer door. The lights in the hallway flicker on at their proximity. Rain is drumming faintly on the large skylight above them, the sky outside still pitch black. Todd notices the sad state of the plant. When did he last water it? Might be better just to plant it outside. There’s no shortage of rain. It’s been going on forever.
‘So…’ Todd starts aimlessly.
‘How are you feeling?’ Farah asks after a few seconds. It’s not exactly what Todd wants to talk about, but it’s better than nothing.
‘Fine. Yeah. Well, not really. But. You know. At least the medication - that’s, that’s still working.’
‘You didn’t hear anything back from Amanda?’
‘Nothing.’ Todd winces. Why isn’t he more worried about that? His sister should be a higher priority. ‘Should we drive up to her? I mean, if anything happened, I know she’d call. She’s probably just busy but I - fuck, why the hell am I even thinking about driving up? What the hell is going on with Tina? Why is she -’
‘She had an accident,’ Farah interrupts. ‘She was found unconscious in a motel swimming pool. She asked for me, that’s why we... She’s got memory loss.’
‘Yeah!’ Farah sounds as surprised as Todd feels. ‘I know! Years of it. She pretty much can’t remember anything past the hospital after Wendimoor.’
Todd pauses. ‘So, Tina’s turned up out of pretty much nowhere, brain-fucked. My pararibulitis has come back, so, I’m just… body-fucked. And then… Dirk.’ Todd presses his palm firmly against his forehead. ‘Dirk’s back. This is a case, isn’t it? It’s something… universey and strange.’
‘I mean, I don’t want it to be,’ Farah says in a lighthearted tone that makes Todd sure she wants it to be more than anything. ‘But if it is… then he’s here for a reason. It’ll be for something important.’
‘Yeah, or he could be here to take a whizz in a phone booth.’
‘Well, if he is, then we should help him do it, right?’ Farah looks more delighted than Todd can remember seeing her.
‘Don’t you think I want to? Don’t you think I want to pile everyone in the car right now and leave a little note on our door saying “Gone Holisticin’”? I can’t, Farah. I’ve got James to think about now. I can’t get caught up in something that’ll put him in danger.’
The crestfallen look on Farah’s face stays until she forces herself to replace it with some very unconvincing understanding. Todd feels like he does when he tears toys away from James to put him to bed.
‘You’re right. But I don’t - I mean -’ Farah shakes her hands in the air. ‘Look, I won’t pretend to understand the whole… holistic, interconnectedness stuff. Not like Dirk does. But I get the feeling that… that sometimes the people who get brought into it don’t have a choice.’
‘Like, if the universe subs me in, I can’t exactly tap out?’
Farah wrinkles her nose. ‘That is… a gross bastardisation of sports metaphor, but yes. How about we try to keep you out of it? Maybe we’ll get it all resolved without you even having to get involved. It might be simple.’
‘Simple,’ Todd repeats disbelievingly.
Farah has the gall to shrug, a tiny flash of excitement whipping around her face. She doesn’t meet his eyes.
This is possibly the most uncomfortable breakfast that Tina has ever muscled through, and she’s woken up in a lot of family homes after a night of fucking their sons and/or daughters.
As James spoons his frosted diabete-Os into his mouth, he stares daggers at Dirk, who in turn is awkwardly nibbling on some dry toast and trying not to catch Todd’s eye, who in turn is stirring his black coffee for far longer than necessary as he looks towards Farah, who has her focus directed entirely at her cell phone.
Jesus. Maury could make an entire season out of this dysfunction. Her discomfort reaching critical, Tina tears her toast in two. She takes one half, rolls it into a cylinder, and then leans over to dunk it into a jar of crunchy peanut butter in the centre of the table.
Todd scrunches his nose at her. ‘Is that how they do it in Bergsberg?’
‘Nah. Just breaking the awkward silence.’ Tina drops the toast into her mouth and dusts her hands of crumbs. ‘I could rip a fart if you’d prefer.’
Farah suppresses an unattractive snort as Dirk pulls a face of disgust.
‘No problem, Todd. So, we got a case to solve?’
‘What case to solve?’ James asks. He shifts in his seat, like he’s trying to get as tall as possible. It’s a feeble effort, as his elbows only just reach the table.
‘Dirk’s a detective like Farah,’ Tina explains.
‘He’s nothing like Farah,’ Todd interjects quickly.
‘I’m certainly not,’ Dirk says, insulted. ‘I’m sure Farah has subscribed her entire identity to the erroneous pursuit of fingerprints and blood samples and DNA.’ Dirk pronounces each of these words with derision. ‘I’m much better than that.’
‘Yeah, Dirk pulls it out of his ass.’
‘Tina,’ Todd warns.
Tina holds up her hands. ‘Okay, sorry! Dirk pulls it out of his ass with the assistance of the universe,’ she whispers conspiratorially to James.
James’ mouth twitches into an amused smile. Tina’s glad; out of all of them, it’s him she feels the most sorry for. It’s not like the kid had a choice in this.
‘How does the universe assist?’ James asks, lifting a spoonful of mostly milk to his mouth.
Dirk turns his whole body to face James and slaps the table dramatically. James jumps and stiffens, and Todd glares at Dirk. Tina figures he’s never spent any time with children. Strikes her as an only child. Probably best friends with the adults in the house rather than kids his own age. No doubt he got endless attention growing up. Lucky fuck.
‘I’m a holistic detective,’ he begins. ‘It’s an entirely genuine approach, borne out of a belief in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. It’s completely real and definitely not something I made up.’ Dirk reaches over and picks up the pot of peanut butter. ‘This peanut butter, for example. You can think of it in lots of ways. You could say, “That’s a jar, with peanut butter inside.” So, you’ve separated it into two items: the jar and the spread. Or you could say, “That’s a jar, with peanuts and sugar and molasses, etcetera.” So then, you’ve separated it into lots of things.’ Dirk picks up a small silver spoon and digs it inside. ‘A holistic detective would say that you can never subdivide the whole - you have to consider the whole item, or your conclusions will be bunk. Which is why I, as a holistic detective, have a professional obligation to treat this jar as a whole, and eat the entire thing.’
‘I thought you were having toast,’ James says, as Dirk begins to spoon peanut butter into his mouth. ‘And dad says we’re not supposed to eat stuff straight from the jars!’
‘The universe has plans we shouldn’t question,’ Dirk says through a sticky mouthful. ‘Anyway, the jar is just the start of it. This house, this city, this country, this planet, this universe are all connected in ways that most people can’t perceive. I, however, can.’
James peers around to Tina and hisses, ‘It does sound like he’s pulling it out of his ass.’
The Messenger understands.
The Author, his god, the perfect being of expression. An unknown distortion. Then, the demon, eyes black and twisted smirk filled with hate.
Both the same. Perfection altered.
The Messenger knows now what he didn’t before: the being that had sat on the altar and observed him had itself been the embodiment of his god.
And how had the Messenger reacted when he had been brought into the presence of the divine? He had screamed like a small child and started weeping. How embarrassing...
‘Meeting heroes is always a let down,’ one of the trio of Shapers remarks wisely as the Messenger explains his theory to him, a few seconds before a passing spaceship accepts their hitch.
The spaceship in question is piloted by a swarm of Zonas, a hive-mind of bug-sized individuals who control their ship through strategic electrocution on exposed circuitry. Interstellar space travel is an understandably painful process for members of a species who have to err close to self-genocide in order to light a turn signal. They often pick up hitchhikers in order to pilot their craft for them so they can rest, replenish through rapid multi-birth, and back-seat drive to their fluttering hearts’ content.
The Messenger doesn’t pilot. He sits himself on the Nav terminal and pulls up star charts as the Shapers work the ship.
Perfection, he reminds himself. I am looking for disguised perfection. The Messenger traces the words which have been inked and re-inked on his forearm: those of Frère Jacques. He reasons that the perfect words must have an origin. He further reasons that there may be a chance that if he studies more about the origins of the words, he will gain a better understanding of the Author. Perhaps enough to understand where he might have gone. To understand why he had to change.
The Messenger rises to his feet and steps over a Shaper who is groggily regaining consciousness after obtaining a four-fifty volt blast across the chest whilst attempting to find the cigarette lighter. He reaches a horizontal navigation table and loads as many star charts as he can onto the large perspex screen.
There are still ways to identify the origin of the saying. The universe is wide, yes, but the Church’s reach is not yet infinite. Most donations came from the western spiral arm of the galaxy, the same region where the Church was founded. It’s a reasonable assumption that the pan dimensionals who donated Frère Jacques found the work there.
The stars and planets are plentiful, but the majority are uninhabited. The Messenger uses the computer to eliminate those planets without life, those spinning aimlessly around supernovae, and those that are little more than hunks of rock.
Next, the behaviour of pan dimensional beings. Pan dimensionals tend to gather in clusters around regions of the universe that have naturally occurring probability instability. This is because they often like to return to their home dimension after dicking about in somebody else’s, and instabilities allow easier passage than normal space. All areas with probability instability have been rigorously mapped and designated as plural sectors, not so much in pursuit of the purity of exploration, but more because buying property in them is a bit of a risk. Value decreases exponentially when renters blip out of existence at inopportune moments, leaving large unpaid bills.
Nevertheless, even with the search limited to plural sectors, there are hundreds of possible planets, far too many to eliminate without visiting and gaining a deep enough understanding of their culture to determine whether they could have created the saying themselves.
‘Ow! Zarking ph-photons -’
The Messenger looks up. One of the Shapers has most of her tendrils stuck into a terminal block. She grimaces as something sh-tunks and electricity spits at her. A nearby soup dispenser starts exploding hot orgon-tomato all over the polished steel of the ship - the walls, the ceilings, the floors - and the perspex screen.
From the back seats, the Zonas titter with laughter.
On the navigation table, several of the glass panels begin to fail, their sections wiping out on the map. The Messenger watches with bated breath as the soup begins to pool in precise patterns, patterns which the Messenger is very sure are coincidentally pictorial representations of complex numbers (z) that can be generated from the quadratic recurrence equation fc(z) = z2 + c under iteration.
Most of the planets are covered with soup. One is not. One that is orbiting a sun so small and pointless it isn’t even named. One that is so inconsequential to the workings of the universe that it hasn’t even had a Guide researcher attend it yet. One that is, to all but the Messenger, a completely insignificant small little blue-green thing that doesn’t deserve a second glance.
For reasons unknown, it is labelled ‘the Earth’.
Dirk is within an era of extreme waiting, a period so dramatic and dense it feels like a definable age that should be treated with the same reverence as its better known cousins Jurassic or Mesozoic or Ice. They should construct history degrees focused entirely on exploring the breadth and depth of this eon of great geological boredom. He feels almost crushed under the weight of it.
There is nothing but waiting. Waiting on the floor, watching the rain through the window. Waiting on the couch with Tina, watching advertisements that occasionally break out into television shows. Waiting in the kitchen, prodding fingers into interesting pastes and discovering he rather likes tuna, but detests salmon.
‘I need to leave!’ Dirk announces after twenty minutes.
‘Uh… is that a good idea?’ Tina asks. ‘I mean, Todd did say we should stay in until he got back.’
Dirk considers the proposal. ‘It is true that, based on previous evidence, I’m highly likely to be captured or shot or alien-abducted. However, it is much preferable to death by monotony.’
‘Cool. Can I come with?’
After leaving the apartment building, Dirk picks a direction and Tina follows, wearing an old pair of Farah’s sweats and a baggy grey hoodie. It’s very lightly raining, not enough to need anything more than the hood that Dirk has pulled up over his ears.
They walk through two narrow streets into a small nearby park. Dirk looks around, trying to spot anything of interest. Apart from a couple of pigeons attacking an overflowing park bin, there seems to be nothing.
‘So, is this us on a case?’ Tina asks. ‘Are we searching for something?’
‘No, but at the same time, yes!’ Dirk says loudly in his detective voice as he runs at the pigeons. They scatter. Good. Dirk distrusts feathered creatures. Bloody eagle. ‘Honestly? Very confusing. I barely understand it myself. But I always seem to go in the direction I’m supposed to go, whether I pick that direction myself or choose it pseudo-randomly!’
Dirk peers into the bin. It seems very bin-ish, filled with the usual suspects. He circles around it, looking for interesting graffiti that might be an ancient Egyptian curse, or a secret button that opens an underground bunker. Finds nothing. Just a bin. Shit. He really doesn’t want to have to go through it.
‘And you have no idea why you’re back in America?’
Dirk considers this, kneeling beside his soon-to-be nemesis. ‘I know I must be here for a reason. And there are several things so far. Firstly, there’s Todd. I ran into him almost immediately. He must be important. He always is. Then…’ Dirk hesitates.
‘Then?’ Tina coaxes.
‘I also had a dream shortly before I left. I don’t usually have dreams, not that I remember, at least. This one, however, was significant in that I remember very little apart from a few words that have been permanently lodged in my mind ever since.’
‘This won’t hurt,’ Dirk says. Tina perks noticeably at this. ‘Wait. Do you - Have you heard those words too? Recently?’
‘At the hospital,’ Tina mumbles. A little crease forms between her eyebrows. ‘There were nurses around me. They were, you know. Doing their whole shit-don’t-let-her-crash thing. One of them was saying that. But that - that makes sense? For them to say that? Maybe they were gonna stick me with a needle, didn’t want me to freak out -’
‘Are you sure it was one of the nurses? It couldn’t have been someone else?’ Dirk springs to his feet. Regardless of Tina’s future reply, he has already determined that it must have been, and his mind spins off excitedly.
This is definitely the first connection - the first clue! This won’t hurt. Four words (or three and a bit, for linguistic pedants) which will no doubt form the foundation of his case!
‘Who else could it have been?’ Tina asks.
‘I’m asking because I am very sure who was saying those words to me. I am categorically certain I know who was saying those words… but I don’t know the implications of it yet.’ Dirk gets a good pace going, trying to think. ‘This is the first time in absolutely ages that I feel I’m actually one-up on whatever is about to start, and so I’m reluctant to divulge the piece of information in case it colours the... whatever.’
‘I am so lost right now.’
‘Welcome to my life.’ Dirk grins. ‘Tina! You’re the second part of the puzzle! This is fantastic! Now, you have to help me go through every piece of rubbish inside this bin. It could be the difference between death and a slim chance of everyone I know surviving.’
It takes the best part of the afternoon to tear apart the rubbish bin. The rain has made the air humid, and it’s when Tina pauses to take a break and wipe the sweat off her forehead that Dirk finds it. What it is, he has no idea. It’s a sliver of yellow, about an inch long and one third as wide, creased like a raisin. It feels rubbery, and there’s a strange warmth to it. It very uncomfortably reminds him of flesh.
Dirk knows from experience that weird things that uncomfortably remind him of flesh are usually taken away by police officers, undeterred by his pleas of them being vital to his investigation. Despite this, Dirk trusts Tina enough to show her his findings.
‘Ew,’ she says. ‘Please, dude. Tell me that isn’t a finger.’
‘I am certain it isn’t,’ Dirk lies.
Chapter 8: Coincidental
The scene has already been cordoned off by the time Farah arrives. She lifts the yellow and black crime scene tape isolating the scene and bends underneath, careful to keep her coffee upright. She takes her badge out of her jacket and flashes it at the beat cops who are observing the perimeter. None of them check her identification, but their poor adherence to protocol is no reason for Farah to stop setting a good example.
Jason and Madeline are standing idle over the body in casual conversation. Jason greets Farah with a 'Yo' as she approaches.
'Sit rep?' Farah barks.
'Situation report, Jason?'
'Oh. Yeah, she's dead.'
Madeline giggles and Jason gives her a smarmy grin. Farah wonders what it would sound like if she clunked both of their heads together. Suppresses the urge to find out by taking a sip of coffee.
'Gun shot wound to the chest,' Madeline elaborates after her professionalism returns to her. 'One bullet wound. Crime scene secure, street blocked off, ready for your investigative prowess to give us the who and why.'
Farah frowns, not enjoying the certainty in Madeline's voice. She's not Sherlock Holmes. She's not going to look over the body and instantly nose out a microscopic piece of evidence which will lead everyone to a suitable suspect.
She squats down and looks at the body. The victim is a white female, early thirties, lying slightly curled on her left side. White blouse, now partially stained brown, and dark skirt. Blonde hair twisted into a tight bun. Heels only Hollywood would think someone could run in. A navy lanyard lies across her chest, presenting an ID card. Clearly someone on their way to or from a meeting.
'Was there a bag found with her?'
'Number seven,' Jason says, waving his hand somewhere to the left where - presumably - a little yellow triangle with the number seven is wedged up against the woman's handbag. 'Nothing taken. Money, cards, keys - all still there.'
'Earrings?' Farah asks.
'Huh?' Jason asks. 'What - in her bag? No, I don't think so. Why?'
Farah brings a pen out of her pocket and uses it to gingerly move a strand of blonde hair away from the woman's earlobe.
'The victim has several piercing holes in her ears, but no earrings. She clearly takes great pride in her physical appearance, yet she isn't wearing a single item of jewellery. Her lanyard is from a firm of lawyers, so she isn't required to take the piercings out due to applicable OSHA legislation.' Farah moves around the body, repositions herself at the woman's left hand, which lies open, fingers slightly splayed. 'Look, there's a slight gap in her tan around the third finger on her left hand. A ring that should be there - is almost always there - but isn't now.'
'You're thinking robbery?' Jason says.
'But why leave the bag?' Madeline asks. 'There's money in her - uh - is it still a wallet if it's feminine?'
'Purse,' Farah corrects. 'Exactly. So we're looking at a targeted robbery. Someone who knew the value of what she was wearing. Monetary value, most probably. Or perhaps sentimental? These must be pieces she either wears regularly or that the perpetrator knew she would be wearing today. Which is good because it means we'll have a good chance at identifying what the pieces were -'
'Here, in her purse!'
Farah looks up. Jason has dug something out of the woman's bag (his hands thankfully covered in blue plastic gloves). Upon getting closer, Farah can see that he's holding a strip of photo booth photographs.
Farah pulls a pair of disposable gloves from her pocket, snaps them on, and takes the photographs. All four are passport style, the victim staring into the camera with a slight smile on her face, her outfit identical to the one she is wearing now. The first, third and fourth photographs are almost identical, but in the second one, the victim had lifted her left hand, seemingly to brush some hair out of her eye. In that photograph, her earrings and a golden wedding ring studded with diamonds are clearly shown.
'That's... incredible,' Farah says. This photograph is exactly what she needs for the case to progress.
An uneasy feeling crawls up her spine. Something is wrong.
'Everything alright, Farah?'
'Yeah, Jason,' Farah lies. No sense in concerning anyone else, especially as she's not entirely sure there's anything to be worried about. 'Get that photograph copied. Blown up. I want it on my desk ASAP. I have to go... talk to someone.'
Madeline looks at her confusedly as Farah ducks under the tape and leaves the crime scene.
As soon as she's out of view, she takes off her police lanyard and stuffs it into her pocket. She doesn't want to appear on duty when she's feeling so unsettled.
She sits on a nearby bench, pulls out her phone and drums her fingers against her forehead, letting some of her tension out as she tries to slow her racing mind.
'Okay,' she murmurs to herself. 'Facts and feelings. Facts and feelings. Fact: what has just happened is not impossible, just... highly, highly improbable. Feeling: what has just happened is weird. It feels like... I was handed the answer I was looking for...'
Farah pushes her fingers into her forehead, massaging. Are the feelings she's having reasonable? Are her thoughts rational? Or are they the product of an hyperactive, over-anxious brain? She laughs pitifully. God. If she had ever been able to answer that question her life would have been so much easier.
'Think logically,' she continues, ignoring the old man giving her the side-eye as he passes by, walking his rat-like dog. 'This is just a one-time lucky break.'
But was it?
Farah pulls her case notebook out from the inner lining of her jacket. She uses it as a jot-log for each case; each white page has a carefully divided mix of notes and underlined actions for her to take.The techie in her would have preferred her own personal database, but police departments tended to look very disfavorably on persons who kept private aggregations of public investigations. Best to keep it offline.
She flips to the inside of the front cover, where she's listed the case numbers assigned to her, and their statuses(with spider-like numbers indicating pages within the book that held relevant information).
MD 94/23/49/2020 - Double Homicide - SOLVED
MD 94/23/49/2021 - Homicide - SOLVED
MD 94/23/49/2022 - Robbery Homicide - SOLVED
She analytically brings her finger down the page. All the same. Every case she has investigated for the duration of this notebook - about half a year - has ended in a solve. She knows it's true, but at the same time cannot understand how it is possible. How could she not have a single unsolved case?
She wracks her brain and finds with sinking terror that each case she can remember involved some element that, in retrospect, felt just a little bit too lucky.
A double murder in which the perpetrator's size nine shoe imprint was left in the soil of an upturned potted plant and Farah had just happened to recognise the distinctive tread from her own pair of running shoes. The store she had bought them from had just happened to be the exclusive US distributor, they had only sold one pair in that size, and the manager was happy to hand over the information without a warrant.
A hit-and-run in which the perpetrator had rammed their car into the victim's back. In observing the post mortem, Farah had just happened to notice that the mark was roughly the same size and shape as a licence plate. They could just about identify a few of the letters, and after a quick cross-search with DMV records...
It went on and on in Farah's mind. Each case she could remember closing contained some atrociously fortuitous element.
How had she not noticed this pattern before? How had the delusion that she was that competent been so persuasive? Was she not a critical thinker?
She feels her leg drilling into the ground, forcibly stops it from moving.
Evens her breath. In. Out. Calm. Calm. Calm.
Being proactive will make her feel better. Step one: establish a path forward. Farah knows there is absolutely no benefit to examining something like this in an echo chamber. She is clearly compromised and not thinking straight. She needs someone with experience in the coincidental. Luckily, one of them is just at the other end of her phone.
Dirk is barely able to restrain himself from slamming his face directly into the pile of syrup-drenched pancakes in front of him. If he had known that such delicacies were available for ready consumption in America, he definitely would have had second thoughts about adopting a British nationality. Farah is just having coffee, which is frankly disrespectful to the hallowed tables of IHOP. At least Tina is taking advantage of the opportunity, even though she has opted for the inferior savory waffles with bacon.
'I have a case for you,' Farah says. Dirk perks up excitedly, nodding interestedly as he stuffs pancake onto his fork and then into his mouth. 'But it's already solved.'
Dirk swallows. 'Do I still get paid?'
'What's the case?' Tina asks.
'It's, um. All of them. Well, all my cases. More precisely, the crime my department has me investigating.'
'You want me to... solve every one of your cases?'
'No, all my cases are solved. I said that.'
Dirk isn't sure he understands the mental gymnastics. He moves his fork in ways he hopes will accentuate his logical thinking, which involves a lot of plate to mouth repetitions. Before he can think of a reply, Tina chuckles a little.
'Wait, all your cases are solved?' she asks teasingly.
Farah doesn't blink. 'Yes. All of them.'
Tina leans back in the booth. 'That's impossible. I mean, Farah, you're freaking amazing, but every PDs got their cold cases, their leads that never went anywhere.' She leans forward conspiratorially. 'We have this one guy in Bergsberg, right? Every time a fence gets painted or the county gets around to re-paving the sidewalks, we get a new ass print dead in the centre of the wet concrete. We got no leads, and Hobbs has always been dead set against me trying to make some sort of ass imprint database -'
'Wait, how do you know it's a guy?' Dirk asks.
'It's a guy's ass print.'
'How on earth can you tell?'
'There's an outline of his nu-'
'This isn't what we need to be talking about right now!' Farah squeaks. Dirk can only agree, but he makes a mental note to follow up with Tina later. 'I wasn't exaggerating. Every case has been solved. I've been through my records and I don't have a single open investigation.' She picks up the large brown satchel she carried in with her and opens it, sliding out several thick files. 'I am disregarding so much protocol bringing these files out here, but I need you to look at them. All of them.'
'What are you expecting me to find?' Dirk asks, peering gingerly over the large tomes.
Farah colours a little. 'Evidence that I've gotten a case wrong.'
'Got it wrong?' Dirk scoffs. 'Farah. You are literally the most competent individual I have ever met.' This doesn't seem to satisfy her. If anything, she looks more insistent. 'I mean, even if you did drop a clanger, surely the courts would pick it up? Presumably, all had fair trials -'
'They all confessed. Took deals. Didn't go to trial.'
Dirk's heart leaps straight into the faux-wooden roof. Clue four! He is right in front of clue four! He knows it as sure as he knows he's ordering seconds. He grabs a file and swings it open. Unfortunately, it's full of words in tight blocks of text, none of the spider diagrams which would properly demonstrate connections. He sighs. Mainstream detection is hopelessly asinine.
'All of them?' Tina asks, impressed. 'Did you - did you beat them into submission in the interrogation room? Because, dude -' Tina spreads out her hands. 'Not gonna snitch on you for that.'
Farah shakes her head, distressed. 'No! No, all I've been doing is my job, and - and I've been doing it improbably well. My hit rate is - is staggering. I'm batting so far above average that I need to be tested for substances. I must be missing something. These cases - I must be getting them wrong. I need new eyes on this. Your eyes. Both pairs, um, Tina. I mean, if you're happy to?'
'Sure!' Tina grins, grabbing a file herself. 'Not like I got anywhere else to be.'
'Complaining because cases are too easily solved?' Dirk murmurs under his breath. 'Gosh, some people have all the luck.'
Todd is a little later getting home than usual. After dropping James off at school, he had stopped at a 7/11, picking up some supplies to account for the rapid expansion of the household from three persons to five, and had to assure the drugstore clerk at the CVS several times that he understood the side-effects of his medication before the guy would hand his prescription over.
He opens the front door to the apartment with his back, hands rendered inaccessible due to the two paper bags pushed against his chest. When he walks into the living room, he finds it, as should be reasonably expected, partially destroyed.
The large bookcases have been shifted to the middle of the room, revealing a wide section of the cream-coloured wall. The large, lunar-themed paintings that had come with the apartment rental are on the floor, and replacing them are hundreds of multicoloured sticky notes, each with some sort of writing in black, blue or red ink. Between the sticky notes are thin lengths of red string, held in place on either end by something that looks not quite like Blu-Tack.
Dirk is sitting on the floor in front of the wall, looking at a selection of sticky notes that he has arranged up the length of his left arm. Farah and Tina are sitting on either end of the couch, propped up against each arm, reading through some files. Tina is chewing on something, which gives at least some indication of what the not-Blu-Tack is.
Todd settles his bags on the dining table. Farah doesn't look up to greet him, too engrossed in whatever she's reading. Tina gives him a smile, and Dirk looks at him for the briefest of seconds before turning back to the wall.
'So. Care to fill me in?'
Tina blows a large bubble. When it pops, she pulls it back into her mouth with her tongue.
'Reviewing Farah's case files. It's the freakin' bomb, man. You should try it. Better than sex.'
'Todd doesn't want to get involved,' Farah says without looking up.
'That isn't what I said,' Todd snaps. He's not trying to avoid the case. He just doesn't want to put James in danger. Why is no one able to understand that?
'That's cool. Can you give me a coffee refill, then?' Tina asks, shaking her mug in Todd's direction.
'I'm not your slave.'
'Aw, don't sell yourself short.' Tina grins. 'You can be anything you wanna be, Toddy boy.'
Farah doesn't laugh, but it's obviously a struggle for her. Todd is horribly reminded of every time Amanda had a sleepover in grade eight. She and her demon friends would always break into his room, and then mock him when he chased them out. Todd grabs the mug and storms into the kitchen. It's easier not to argue.
He decides to start on the dishes first, as a minor rebellion. He fills the sink and squirts in a good amount of Dawn, turning around when he hears the clink of ceramic behind him. Dirk has brought in some empty cups and is arranging them on the side.
'You want a coffee too?'
Dirk shakes his head. 'I just wanted to help.'
'Unlike me, you mean. On your case.'
'It's nothing like that,' Dirk says sincerely. Todd believes him. Passive aggression isn't something Dirk does. Definitely more of a Brotzman move.
'You could dry if you wanted to be helpful.'
Dirk nods with the kind of enthusiasm more suited to children when asked whether they want to go to Disneyland.
Todd starts on the plates from that morning, dunking them in the foaming water, scouring the remnants of ketchup and bacon from the surface, and then blasting them with the tap to clear off the bubbles. He does it quickly, as always. Todd's been a plate washer at more restaurants than he can remember, so he knows he's fast, but when he's put all the plates to the side and Dirk still hasn't finished drying his first, he wonders whether he's hit on some secret superpower.
As it turns out, it's not Todd being fast, it's Dirk being slow. He's taking a lengthy amount of time meticulously drying every inch of the plate in his hand, rubbing small circles onto it with the dish towel.
'Have you ever dried a plate before?' Todd asks, trying not to sound amused.
'Is it that obvious?' Dirk sighs.
'It's honestly amazing the stuff you've never done.'
Todd starts on the glasses. He sticks a bristled brush into one and begins scratching at the dried orange juice at the bottom.
'I'm always open to new experiences. Well, as open as I can be when the majority of new experiences I'm offered are, frankly, ghastly.' Dirk meditates on this for a bit as he finally finishes off the plate and places it very carefully on the side. 'I can understand why you no longer wish to participate in those experiences with me. If I had the choice... well. No use fantasising.'
'Dirk...' Todd begins softly. He tails off as he realises he's not sure how to continue.
Dirk is staring firmly at his next plate, at the little circles he's rubbing into the ceramic. After uncounted silence his soft eyes finally look up. The shame in them is unbearable. Todd doesn't want him to feel that way. Maybe he did a week ago, but not now. Not in person.
'It was... really difficult when you left,' Todd says. Dirk, for once in his life, appears to bite his tongue. 'I mean, you just. You just weren't there anymore. We were terrified, you know? Thought Black Wing had got you again. What the hell were you thinking disappearing like that?'
'I'm sorry. I needed to -' Todd doesn't care about Dirk's excuses, and it must show on his face because Dirk shakes his head at himself, seems to stir up some honesty. 'I guess I didn't know how worried you would be. I've never had friends before. But I did call!'
'Yeah, a month later, after we'd exhausted all our cash trying to find you. We sold the office, Dirk. Sold everything we possibly could. Emptied Farah's bank accounts. We had the Rowdy Three scouring every US state for even a trace of you, and then we just get a call out of the blue, and it's you saying you'd fucked off back to England for a case, that you didn't know if you'd be back -' Todd realises his hands are shaking. He puts the glass down and steps away, afraid he'll start throwing them. 'I can't do this again. You can't just drop back into our lives like this, pretend all is forgiven.'
'Farah's forgiven me -'
'Farah didn't need you as much as I did.'
The words appear to slap Dirk across the face, and Todd immediately wishes he could take them back. He doesn't even know if they're true. He suspects it, but only because Farah was able to hold it all together. Todd couldn't. She had been the one staying in motion, building a career, while Todd was in standby, waiting until it became clear that everything was over.
Dirk is staring at him, pale and lost. Farah and Tina are still talking in the sitting room; Todd can just about hear them over the blood rushing in his ears.
'Christ, just say something.'
'I hate myself more than you ever could hate me,' Dirk croaks. 'I spent every night thinking about you. Every night in that empty flat... I would dream that you were still there, and then I would wake up and lose you all over again. And then every day it just became less real. It became more like everything I experienced with you was just some... fantastic dream that I was losing the edges of the longer I was awake. I don't know why I left. I don't know why I didn't come back. I wanted our agency. I wanted to help people. I wanted... you, Todd. You cannot possibly understand how much I wanted you.'
Todd can feel the sincerity in Dirk's shaking voice, the way he's close to tears, his hands tightly balled at his sides, and it suddenly becomes impossible to let him hurt for a second longer. It is the most natural movement in the world to step towards him, to reach to the end of his long arms and smooth his palms over Dirk's fists.
Dirk's breath catches, something that Todd can hear and feel. Slowly, his hands uncurl. Todd threads their fingers together, Todd's palms to the back of Dirk's hands. Dirk's skin is shockingly soft, his fingers long and delicate; there's a heat to them that Todd didn't expect.
Todd squeezes and Dirk faintly inhales. Todd carefully steps forwards and lifts their hands upwards, to chest level. He slides their fingers carefully against each other, turning Dirk's hands until they are both palm to palm. He squeezes their fingers together, hands between their chests.
At that moment, Todd knows with certainty that if he looks away from his hands and up at Dirk's face, he'll be facing an immutable truth. That Dirk's unexplainable eyes, his baffling smile, the incomprehensible sum of this man will be suddenly made clear to Todd in a way that he'll never be able to dismiss from his mind.
'Todd,' Dirk whispers. Not questioning, but affirming. Affirming that the feeling is mutual. He's just as terrified as Todd is. Terrified to have their eyes meet and to let everything change.
If the universe was kind, Tina would burst in at that moment and free them both from the excruciating choice laid before them. If Todd was strong, he would snap his eyes up and finally let out everything being held back in his chest. But the universe isn't kind, and Todd isn't strong. He's just a guy defined by his bad choices.
When he lets Dirk's hands slip out of his and walks back into the living room, it's just another bad choice added to the list.
Farah notices it takes Dirk a little longer than reasonable to come back into the living room. He returns a few minutes after Todd does, and she doesn't miss the way Dirk is desperately seeking eye contact from him. On the other hand, Todd, sitting at the table and looking firmly at the arrangement of post-its on the wall, is actively stonewalling any attempt to catch his eye.
Farah drums her concern into her thigh, wishing she was better at cognitive empathy. What had they been talking about in there? Did they finally have it out? She was expecting a dam to burst when they finally spoke, but there doesn't even seem to be a leak.
Tina opens her mouth, probably to ask where her coffee is, and Farah sharply tugs her foot before she can say anything. Tina makes an affronted noise, but when Farah shakes her head warningly, her face softens to confusion.
"What?" she mouths.
Farah brings a finger to her lips and shuts the case file on her lap.
'You're looking for connections?' Todd asks, eyes scouring the wall.
'Between my past cases,' Farah says.
'Which past cases?'
'All of them,' Dirk says, his voice far less chipper than usual. 'Farah thinks she's been closing her cases incorrectly and we're trying to establish any connections.'
Farah chews her lower lip, trying not to let Dirk's blasé coverage of her complete and utter failures twist the knife into her chest too deeply.
'What?' Todd laughs, smirking arrogantly.
He turns to Farah with one of those sophomaniacal looks he gets sometimes, like everyone else is hopelessly misguided and only he can see through their delusion. Farah colours and looks away. She loves Todd, she does, but she hates this attitude. He always has bottomless confidence in her abilities and won't hear anything to the contrary. Ocean-trench pressure that makes thick knots blossom in her shoulders as she tries to stand underneath it. He thinks she's perfect. She has to be perfect. Everyone expects her to be perfect.
'Dude, she just wants us to review them with Dirk's... you know,' Tina says, waving her hand vaguely. 'See if there's anything she's overlooked.'
'She won't have overlooked anything,' Todd says firmly.
Read: Farah's perfect, she couldn't possibly make any mistakes, and any notions to the contrary are just you being ignorant.
'Could you just -' Farah finds herself squeaking and cuts off her voice. Everyone's eyes lock onto her. She tries to control her breath. Relaxes her neck with a small movement of her head. 'Todd, I asked Dirk to do this. Stop...' Taking away my agency as a person by putting me on a pedestal and dismissing my concerns like everything is my anxiety. '...worrying, alright? I'm fine with this.'
Todd seems to register the tension between them, and Farah half expects him to ask her for another hallway conversation, but he just shrugs. He doesn't believe there's anything wrong with how he's behaving. Of course. Todd is appalling at recognising how his conduct affects others.
'So... back to the board,' Tina says, swiftly moving the conversation along. 'We still haven't found any real connection. Victims are a freakin' rainbow of ages and ethnicities. All the perps are, yeah, complete assholes, but there's no way this seventy-five-year-old guy who pushed his wife off the top of a building was playing golf with the eighteen-year-old who shot up a convenience store.'
Farah's eyes track across the wall. Each post-it note is related to a case: a victim, a murder weapon, a suspect, a location. Those that share any similarities are linked by a red string joining together the gun crimes, the murder/suicides, familiar ages. There are many overlaps that Farah guesses can be expected when you only have a finite amount of people, places and weapons to choose from, but there's nothing common to all of them, which is what Farah was really hoping for.
'So, what do we do now?' Tina asks Dirk as he slumps between them on the couch. 'I mean, holistically.'
Staring transfixed at the wall, Dirk opens his mouth, makes an expression, then closes it again. He repeats this process several times with several different expressions. It's a bit like watching a computer that's been overloaded with processes, a machine in need of a hard reset.
'There is a connection between these cases,' Dirk muses. 'It's you, Farah. You were the lead investigator on all of them. Which is, hmm,' he hums, pained. 'A thought-provoking proposition.'
'What?' Tina says.
'Farah has treated each case in isolation, because the shallow process of typical police work promotes that kind of uninformed thinking. Holistic detection promotes an integrated approach where all cases are interlinked. But not only all cases. All of the universe is connected. This includes not only the detectives themselves, but their friends, relatives - bloody everyone. So here, if the only connection is the detective, that will be where we have to start.'
'Who assigns your caseload?' Tina asks Farah.
'The Sergeant,' she answers. 'Based on our existing loads and our experience. We've got another junior detective, Jason, and one in training, Madeline. Used to work in Quebec.'
'So we should check out why Farah got all these coincidental cases?' Tina suggests.
'No, wait -' Farah interrupts. 'We can't just... start investigating our police department.'
'No, Farah. We can't just not start investigating your police department,' Dirk says in a voice which Farah's sure he thinks sounds wise.
The boy wakes naturally the next day, blinking in the cool dawning light of binary suns. He turns over, gripping his yellow pillow a little tighter around his head. He received it last night, and found it to be the softest thing he had ever felt. His thick red sleeping bag with small fluffy birds embroidered on it, also given to him last night, is a close second.
He can see people around him, sleeping on the dusty ground in a small circle around the campfire. There are lots of circles here, and lots of campfires. Lots of people. Not all of them are asleep; close by, someone is nursing a small lump in a scratchy wool blanket, another dragging a whittling knife up the length of a long stick. Every one of them wanted to talk to him last night. Every one of them wanted to shake his hand. They wanted to perform for him. Entertain him. It's a level of individual attention he has never experienced in his life. His family is absolutely sprawling, attention spread across tens of children. It's not unusual for his planet. The average family is huge - mixed marriages of tesselating adults, lots and lots of kids. School assignments to draw family trees have been banned for millennia, lest the youth population be decimated by repetitive strain injury.
He realises he's thinking with the wrong tenses. Families were huge. Co-parenting was expected. With his planet destroyed, there won't be many like him anymore.
His soul aches to grieve. He screws his eyes shut. Hates, hates himself. He killed them. He destroyed his family. Their tree is burning, branches ignited. Every one of his mothers, every one of his fathers, his sisters, his brothers, his cousins...
He sobs into his sleeping bag until it's sodden, chewing the fabric to keep from screaming.
When the tears finally stop coming and he can breathe again, he pulls himself out of the sleeping bag and wipes his face with the pillow's soft edge.
One of the people who had been sleeping around him, a large rotund being with orange markings from the tip of his pointed forehead to his flat shoulders, is not anymore. He perks when he realises the boy has stirred, and quickly offers to make him breakfast.
Eager for something other than bitterness in his mouth, the boy accepts. The orange being is more than overjoyed.
They sit cross-legged by the dead fire, and the boy wolfs down the thick leafy stew with the whittled spoon, trying not to feel uncomfortable under the orange being's rapturous stare. The broth is thin, but very sweet. On the bottom, there are small vegetables that burst with flavour when he sinks his teeth into them.
'Thank you,' he says respectfully after finishing.
'It is my honor to serve,' the being says, deeply tilting his head.
The boy knows that many cultures have traditions around food. He assumes that finding it honorable to serve may be one of them. Wishing not to offend, the boy tilts his head also. In doing so, he dips his curly fringe into the remnants of the stew, but the being doesn't seem to notice, or is polite enough not to say anything.
'What's your name?' the boy asks as he squeezes his fringe out.
'Ah, we have no names here. We are dedicated to our gods. Our names distance ourselves from them.'
The boy doesn't understand, but he has to be respectful to their culture. That's what mom always says. (Said.)
The being continues, perhaps sensing his confusion: 'We call ourselves Messengers. We are the servants of the Author.'
The being twists around, looking for something. He finds it over the boy's shoulder and points. The boy turns to look.
He sees several beings surrounding a campfire. Some of them are digging their hands into the ground and pulling out handfuls of mud, slapping them against other piles of mud and working their fingers around the dirt. Sculpting. Others seem to be engaged in some form of slow dance which is being performed as synchronously as possible, considering their differing numbers of limbs.
'They are the Shapers. They are the servants of the the Artist. Across from them -'
There, closer to the rising sun, another circle. Most of them are holding objects that span from incredibly rudimental wooden pipes to twists of glinting metal adorned with long strands of multicoloured wire. The boy can see that the objects are being worked, but it isn't until he really concentrates that he can hear the low noise they're making, carried away by the wind. Music.
'They are the Musicians. They serve the Composer. Together, we are united in the servitude of the three Gods: Author, Artist, Composer. The Church of the Composition awaits the moment the triumvirate will gather together to create and perform the Composition, an event that shall fix the broken universe. The Composition shall fix everything.'
'Oh. Could I have some more stew, please?'
The orange Messenger scoops another ladleful from a large ceramic pot and splashes it neatly into the boy's bowl.
'I apologise if I have offended you with my rambling, my lord. There is little beauty in the words I speak. I attempted to invoke the golden arrangement of the rule of three... but perhaps I should retire to the Cathedral and work on my essays.'
'Why do you call me lord?'
'Would you prefer a different epithet? A different name? What do people call you?'
'I can't pronounce my name,' the boy mutters as he swirls his breakfast, the stringy vegetables lifting from the bottom to the top. 'My dad gave it to me. It's in a traditional language from his planet. My tongue doesn't work for it.'
'If you believe that it is a bad name, you should not refer to yourself with it.'
Undisturbed, most of the vegetables sink to the bottom. Only a lump of curled leaf remains, floating on the water like a small boat.
'What would you call me?'
The orange Messenger grins from one ear to the other, and then to the other.
'I would call you the Author. There is no name more perfect.'
'Okay,' the Author says, bringing the steaming bowl to his lips.
Dirk twists the bathroom taps closed and shakes the water violently from his hands like a dog. He catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror and instantly finds himself in the midst of recognising his own face. The reflection in front of him blinks and furrows its brow in a way that accentuates the plasticine nature of his expression.
Confused. His reflection is confused. Why? It's not strange to recognise your own face. In fact, most people would find it utterly expected. But there's something about the time it takes him to recognise his own face that makes the reflection look mildly perturbed, which in turn makes Dirk feel more perturbed, which makes his expression moderately perturbed, and so on in an unending cycle of perturbedness.
'Stop it,' Dirk says to his now acutely perturbed reflection. 'Perhaps it's perfectly normal to be astonished by one's own face; one doesn't see it very often.'
The reflection relaxes.
'But then again, perhaps this is a feeling that should not be ignored. You are on a case, after all.'
The reflection stiffens.
Dirk mulls the feeling over in his mouth, sliding his tongue against his sharp teeth. He hasn't shaved in a while, perhaps that might be it. He's not used to being so unkempt. He finds a sharp-ish disposable razor and a can of shaving gel behind the bathroom mirror. After squirting a stripe across his palm, he lathers his face. The smell of the foam reminds him awkwardly of Todd, a fact he tries futility to shove to the back of his mind as he works the razor against his skin.
Afterwards, e splashes water against his face and uses the corner of a towel to wipe the fiddly foam from around his ear lobes. In the mirror, his reflection looks smoother and wetter, but there's still that feeling of recognising where he's sure there shouldn't be.
His reflection peers at him as he gets closer. Is he going grey? Are those new lines around his eyes? Perhaps. He can't seem to find any reason why his own face should be causing him so much concern. He resorts to pressing his fingers against his skin to test its springiness, in case he's picking up on some minute lack of elasticity. His face feels the same. It just doesn't... look it?
Dirk rubs his forehead. It's too confusing. Everything, too confusing. He looks everywhere that isn't the mirror. On the ceiling, a small moth is fluttering perilously against a lightbulb. Dirk tries to coax it away with his mind but, just as Black Wing had confirmed after six months in the nail gun tests, telekinesis is unavailable to him. The moth starts to bump against the bulb and Dirk winces. Would the light bulb be hot? He can't remember how normal light bulbs work; Dirk's own flat has none, partly because bulbs are exactly the kind of thing you only remember you need after arriving home following a long day's work of hopeless unemployment and caselessness, but also because the Everbulb is still going strong, and using it doesn't require scavenging for pennies in Trafalgar Square fountain to top up the electricity. Dirk carries it around with him at all times. At the moment, it's buried in the bottom of his rucksack.
Three questions, one answer. The thought pops into his head. There must be a very good reason for it to do so.
There's one other object that is always on his person: the air gun from the Wendimoor case. He's never had to use it in anger (or happiness or ennui or any emotion), but he feels far safer carrying a weapon that might give him a fighting chance to distract-and-then-run from whatever weirdness the universe might throw at him. It's helpful to have something that isn't picked up by metal detectors and appears to be little more than a child's toy.
Three questions, one answer. The thought crosses his mind again. The Everbulb. The air gun. And...?
Dirk feels a weight in his back pocket. There's nothing new in there, but what is in there suddenly feels far more important. He slips his hand in and pulls out the inch-long yellow thing he found in the rubbish bin.
The third time that he has found an object while in pursuit of a case. Three questions, one answer.
Is the small object a puzzle? He tries to stretch it, but it's unyielding. He strokes it coaxingly with one long finger, and nothing happens. Puzzles without instructions are pointlessly frustrating. At least Patrick Spring gave him a map to look at. At least Francis gave him a prophecy to decode.
There's a sharp bang on the bathroom door and the weird orange thing in Dirk's hand flies into the air and deposits itself quite neatly into the open toilet. The door rattles as someone tries to pull it open against the latch.
'Oh, sorry!' James' voice comes through the door. 'Didn't know someone was in there...'
'Quite alright!' Dirk calls back, then lowers his voice. 'Stupid Dirk! Always dropping vital clues in toilets!'
He gets to his knees, looks around futilely for a rubber glove.
'Really, universe? Barehanded?'
Dirk tries to think quickly; for all he knows, there's a time limit to this. The small object might not be good in water, toilet or otherwise. He puffs out his chest, channels all the manly energy he can, and reaches in, squeaking 'Ew! Ew! Ew!' under his breath.
Before he can touch the water, he freezes: the yellow thing is moving, twisting under its own propulsion, the back of it flicking. It comes to Dirk in a flash of understanding: the damn thing is swimming! It's longer and thinner than Dirk remembers, having stretched itself out like plasticine rolled between two hands, tapering off into an end. At its front, two beady black eyes blink animatedly up at him.
'Oh, you dreadfully extraordinary little toilet fish,' Dirk coos into the basin. Delightful! He'd been missing the fun of animals in his cases. Solved it!
The toilet fish seems quite energetic now it's been rehydrated, darting about doing laps of the bowl, although it comes to Dirk's attention that this is hardly sanitary. He grabs the clear glass container that the Black-Brotzman household has been using for their toothbrushes, and empties its contents into the sink. Trying both not to harm the fish and to touch as little toilet water as possible, Dirk dips the glass into the bowl and persuades the fish to go inside.
He holds the glass up to his face and, pressing his nose against it, he studies his new friend closely. It is incredibly strange, even after considering its bizarre hibernative abilities. Its yellowness is brighter in the water, its tiny scales flittering gold in the refracted light. The pucker of its mouth latches against the spot where Dirk's nose is pressed, and he is treated to a glimpse of the darkness down its throat as it softly schtucks the glass at him.
'Hello,' Dirk introduces himself sotto voce. 'My name is Dirk Gently. I'm a detective.'
Schtuck. Schtuck. Schtuck. It doesn't seem miffed or particularly pleased at the introduction. Dirk assumes that the fish is either too stupid to perceive Dirk as a threat, or smart enough to be capable of defending itself. Regardless, he decides not to provide it with his business card. They are not waterproof.
First things first: find a less toilet-y home for his new companion.
Dirk hightails it to the kitchen, one hand clasped over the top of the glass. When he skids inside, he puts the fish-and-glass down on the closest kitchen counter, the pulsing of the schtuck slightly faster now.
The largest containers Dirk can see are three glass coffee bean jars that are neatly lined up on a wooden shelf above the sink. He grabs one, twists open the lid, and dumps its contents onto the kitchen counter.
The freed coffee beans rattle like rain on tin and bounce onto the floor. Dirk ignores all of this and sticks the jar under the tap, twisting the faucets on.
'Hey!' Todd shouts, storming in. 'What are you -?'
Over his shoulder, Dirk hears the yelp of a man slipping on coffee beans, and the slam of a man's arse landing on a tiled floor.
Dirk twists the taps off when the water has almost reached the top of the jar, turning around to see a pile of thoroughly pissed off Todd on the floor, surrounded by beans. Some part of him is quite pleased to see Todd annoyed, although another part is not.
Dirk steps over him, puts the full jar on the table, and picks up the glass. The fish has stopped sucking at this point, and is instead swimming tiny laps. A sympathetic shiver runs up Dirk's spine as he sees what little room the poor thing has. He desperately wants to release it into a river. He hates trapped animals; nothing deserves to live in a cage or a bowl for its entire life.
'I swear I will find the largest body of water suitable to your particular inclination the moment the case ceases,' Dirk murmurs into the top of the glass.
'What the - Who the -?' Todd says from the floor.
Dirk lifts the glass up to the jar and tilts it as slowly as he can, trying to transfer the least amount of toilet water as possible, filtering it with his fingers. The fish flops in the air as it meekly breaks the surface, flowing through Dirk's hands and into the new jar. It quickly plummets to the bottom, staying still on its side for a few moments as Dirk's heart beats in his throat. Then, its brain seems to kick-start and it twists itself in Dirk's direction, latching onto the glass again. The rhythmic schtuck drives down his heart rate.
Todd scrambles to his feet.
'No idea!' Dirk replies.
'But how -?'
'I know!' Dirk grins excitedly. 'Isn't it fantastic?!'
Todd puts both his hands to his head and screams.
Hi all readers! I hope you all don't mind, but next update might be a bit later than usual - possibly in two weeks rather than one. I'm moving house :D and fun things like writing about toilet fish have to take the back burner to stuffing my life into packing boxes.
While I'm doing this, I just wanted to thank everyone who's given this piece of work kudos or commented on it, or even those lurkers who just read and don't want to comment because they can't think of anything to say - I love you all and I'm planning on printing this completed work out WITH every comment and sneakily put it on my bookshelves like a real third Dirk Gently... so if I randomly die a few months later, we'll know for sure Dirk's "Three" curse is real amirite lads or amirite lads?