I contribute to a blog where a few of us have new releases in 2013. One of the challenges was to write a piece of flash-fiction based on the first noun in the first sentence of a book you’ve read. It was a challenge–not something I’ve done much of since the novel is my chosen poison. But it made me think about the short story. I am a fan–MR James, Conan Doyle to name but 2 who gave us bite sized thrills. Of course, when you start digging, you find all sorts.
Some people do this in 500 words, some 1000. My piece here is 1200. I enjoyed writing it. Hope you do to. It’s more YA than kids–but nothing to get worried about.
The book: Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. The noun—cigarette. Apologies for the length. I got a bit carried away.
It’d been raining for three weeks solid in London with humidity off the scale. I yearned for somewhere cool, like Reykjavik. Anything was better than sub tropical Britain. They flagged the body when they were excavating the old cross link tunnel under Baker Street, prepping for the Tesler line. The sonic drill hit a pocket of air and did an auto shut down.Three red lights on the bioscan automatically triggered a scavenger team. They were expecting at worst a python, or a croc that had maybe died of old age or choked on one the megarats that roamed the sewers and were now the size of spaniels. What they didn’t bargain for was Gavin Bentley, which was the name the corpse had on his ID tags.
Old Gav was remarkably well preserved. Something to do with cool air and the chemicals seeping down from when the army started using the tube stations as arsenals, according to the construction foreman.
“We’ve found a few like this”, he said, like he was some kind of an expert.
There was an old station sign above us. I saw the bloke eyeing it. I was waiting for him to say something smart like, ‘elementary, my dear sergeant’. If he had, I’d have tasered the git.
There was more than enough flesh on old Gav for tissue sampling. But his face was all twisted, as if he’d died in agony. After ten minutes, the robomedic beeped and burped up the analysis. When I saw the tox report, I knew this was something really weird. I read the list off to Bannister, my sour faced partner. Like me, he’d been around the block at least a dozen times, with worn out heels on his shoes to prove it.
“There’s cadmium, stearic acid, hexane, toluene, methanol, carbon monoxide, arsenic and ammonia, oh and an insecticide as well as other stuff. Someone hit this bloke with a poison scatter gun.”
“Look at his clothes,” Bannister said. “Either he’s a retro-freak or he’s got a time machine.”
The guy was wearing jeans that looked like real denim, and cowboy boots that were real leather.
“If he’s genuine, then he’s loaded,” I said. “But someone must have dumped him here.” I went over and called up the duty forensic via the robomedics screen link.
Be just my luck if it was Horvath.
She was sitting at home with a glass of wine in one hand and her phone in the other. She saw me and her mouth made the shape of a smile while the rest of her stayed arctic. It was a war and peace smile; loaded with history.
Hers and mine.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said. If her voice was any cooler I’d have got frostbite. “Pulled the late shift again,I see.”
She zoomed out the camera so I could see all of her, not just her face.
But I wanted this to be civil. We’d already spilled enough emotional blood to fill an angst reservoir.
I dived straight in.
“You’ve seen the prelim? Is this ritualistic?”
“You’ve been reading too many novels,” she said.
“Come on, be straight. There’re some clean sheets on my bed and they miss me.”
I ignored her. Sarcasm didn’t float my boat at the best of times.It definitely didn’t at this hour.
“Wait for the insecticide breakdown,” she ordered.
We both looked at the screen, so we didn’t have to look at each other, and watched the little peaks and troughs of the readout develop.
“Tell me what it says,” she said, like she was talking to a four year old. I didn’t like the glint in her eye. She knew she was pushing my buttons.
I read the word on the screen. “Nicotine.”She let out a snort. “Alkaloid. Pretty lethal combination. Sounds suspicious.”
“So I write it up as murder?”
“What choice do you have? He’s hardly likely to have ingested all that voluntarily.”
“Doesn’t sound like a good way to go,” I said.
She shrugged. She’d seen worse. So had I.
We stared at each other. The silence was like treacle.
“So, you coming over, or what?” She swirled her wine. “Greenland’s finest sauvignon…”
I was tired. The last thing I wanted was another fight. But she wasn’t dressed for fighting. Far from it.
When I didn’t reply, she said, “Know what an olive is?”
“Know what a branch is?”
I nodded again.
“Want me to draw you a picture?”
I shrugged. It was one of my better moves. “Give me half an hour to put Gav to bed,” I said.
Horvath smiled properly for the first time. In my imagination, I heard ice cracking. “Make it twenty minutes,” she said.
But that was before we frisked the corpse and found the thing that he’d hidden away in his pocket. White cardboard oblong, 9 cms by 5, 2 cms thick. It had torn cellophane around it and a stark warning emblazoned across the front. SMOKING KILLS. Inside was a white cylinder with a brown end. The cylinder was filled with brown organic material that looked like a shredded leaf. Next to it was a black oblong with a silver stub. 3 cms by 2 of black plastic that smelled weird.
Later, much later, Horvath would explain to me that the smell came from the leaf inside the white cylinder. Something called tobacco, a plant that grew wild in the americas. We worked out from the packaging that the cylinder stuffed with leaf was called a ‘cigarette’. But that was way after we’d unscrambled the files on Gav’s oblong memstick and the world, or at least my corner of it, went supernova.
It was nothing more than a video journal of Gav’s last couple of days. In it we saw him putting white cylinders like the one from the box between his lips, lighting them and inhaling.
So we were wrong about the murder.
It was pretty obvious that Gav had committed suicide. Horvath renamed the cigarette a euthanasia stick.
But even that became a side issue. Everywhere Gav went on the video were signs for London this and London that, London transport, London bridge… But wherever the hell Gav had been, it was not a London I, or anyone I knew, had seen in this century or the last.
Suicide Gav was either a genius film maker, or, as Horvath so nicely put it, “a card carrying doppelganger from another dimension.”
Either way, I ended up pulling a barrow load of overtime because they gave me the case and a three man team to get it sorted. They even gave us a stupid name—The Plague Squad. Because that’s what we called them, the ones that slipped through from the other side like Gav had done—plaguers. But we didn’t want them. Not them nor their filthy cigarettes and diseases. They were vermin and I became the chief rat catcher.
Until, that is, the day I slid through to their side and I met Jimmy Picton and his sister Rhiannon.
At first, I thought that they were just stroppy kids in their mid teens living rough to escape rsponsibility, but that was like saying Krakatoa is just another mountain.
The Pictons were clavers, doorkeepers to you and me. But they’d left the door open and now they were in trouble because someone had stolen the keys. And guess who it was that madam fate had chosen as finder?
Yeah, me, muggins Jones of the metropolice. Hey, but that’s a whole other story…