The drug was said to alter reality. It was either a mind-bender, which altered the taker's perception of reality, or it actually had the capacity to interact with the human mind to bend reality itself. The only problem for people seeking to nail down an accurate description of Herakonin was how the consumer could tell the difference between perception and actuality when in a thoroughly drugged-up state.
As far as the police were concerned, there was no problem. They were looking for Adrian Vernal because he was selling an unlicensed pharmaceutical and the Internet was buzzing with stories about what the drug could do, or what it could seem to do. Vernal was a menace to society and it was the job of the police to protect the public from drug-dealers like him.
The police were on somewhat dodgy ground because they could not define what it was that Vernal was selling. They had no analysis results on test samples and therefore no basis for placing his product into a particular category of banned substances. Even so, the Home Office had ruled that it was in the public interest to investigate exactly what Vernal was doing. Which meant that the legal profession was looking forward to making lots of lovely money out of a test case and criminals were eager to get their hands on Vernal because he was said to be making a large fortune out of his monopoly on sales of Herakonin.
It was Tuesday in Sheffield. Adrian Vernal had rented a bolt-hole on Back Ormond Street, to which he was returning after a quick lunch of vegetable soup and pie-and-chips in a café in the next street. He had told the estate agent that he wanted the office for a month as a base for opinion research work in the city.
He had made vague noises about a new product launch, asking questions about what people were using at the moment and what they wanted in the way of changes and improvements, and he had mentioned the possibility of limited consumer trials of the new product. It was not a bad story, and it had the virtue of being credible and difficult to check.
It was probably terrible unfair on Sheffield, but Vernal was glad that his stay would be brief. The day before, he had walked into a neighbouring office to get some photocopying done and walked in on a one-man crime wave. A middle-aged man in a dark suit and wearing his greying hair in a pony-tail had been talking to the man who ran the business at the time.
Pony-Tail, as had become plain very quickly, was a thug with a twisted sense of personal style. The suit looked very smart but he had ruined its effect with a tie that looked as if he had been sick down it. And the pony tail sprouting from the back of his head was unutterably naff.
Pony-Tail had turned round and told Vernal to get lost, putting on a display of annoyance. Vernal had just stared back at him, too surprised by walking in on a crime to be intimidated. Instead of making good the threat in his tone of voice, Pony-Tail had taken his extortion money and left, apparently not bothered about witnesses.
The man in the office had been embarrassed, but he clearly thought that it was better to be embarrassed and in one piece in his own office than lying battered in hospital. Vernal had mentioned, while the photocopier was running, what a nice little town the man lived in. He had just shrugged to tell Vernal that extortion is a global problem and not something unique to Sheffield. Even so, Vernal was glad that he would be moving on soon.
The stairs up to the second floor seemed to go on for ever, but Vernal told himself that he was giving his body valuable exercise. He turned the key in the lock and reached for the door handle. Suddenly, his feet were no longer on the ground and he was being rushed into the office under the grip of an irresistible force.
Vernal was giving himself up for lost and expecting to hear yells of, "Armed police!" when the force stopped. He stumbled on a couple of paces before he regained his balance. The door closed as he was turning. He didn't recognize the face but he knew the pony-tail.
"I just dropped in, like, to tell you the local business tax for an office like this office is three-hundred a week," Pony-Tail told him in what might have seemed a friendly Yorkshire accent in other circumstances.
Vernal realized, relief overcoming terror, that he had been included in the protection racket and the man has no idea who he was. "I don't have any money in the office," he managed in a fairly level tone. "I'm just setting things up. I'm not making any money here yet."
"In that case, I should get down to the bank," Pony-Tail told him with an untroubled smile. "Otherwise, things might get a bit broken – like the office furniture. Or even your legs."
Vernal glanced automatically at the desk, which had tubular steel legs, wondering if there had been another leak and reality was bending ever so slightly at the edges.
"I know what you're thinking," Pony-Tail added, broadening his smile. "But if you go to the cops, it won't just be your legs that get broken. And I'll have a brilliant alibi when your accident happens."
"Three hundred?" Vernal said.
"I'll be back this way the day after tomorrow. See you on Thursday. Pay day."
The man breezed out of the office. Vernal sat down behind the desk. He pulled open the file drawer and looked at the three vacuum flasks standing inside it. He had discovered the secret of how to make Herakonin in decent quantities while working for an international pharmaceutical company, which had made him redundant after the costly take-over of a rival.
Working out his three-month notice period had allowed him to add to his stock of essential materials, which were readily available in a chemical laboratory but impossible to acquire in handy small quantities by a member of the public.
Vernal now brewed up the drug in a rather disgusting bacterial broth based on his own blood in the temperature-controlled environment of an ordinary thermos flask. The process took eight days. He had been in Sheffield for three days and he knew from experience that if he tried to move the batch before day six, it would be spoiled.
The process had originally taken the best part of three weeks to produce a decent yield of Herakonin on the vacuum-flask scale and Vernal had achieved a gradual acceleration of the brewing process to its present speed. He could afford the three hundred pounds, that was no problem at all, but there was something in Pony-Tail's confident attitude that put his back up and made him prepared to take risks to avoid paying the extortionist. And the only way to do that was to do a runner before Thursday.
If he was going to lose the batch anyway by moving it, Vernal told himself, he had the opportunity to try something radical. All of his previous progress had involved minor tweaks which would not compromise his yield if they had no significant effect. He had two ideas for cutting down the initial period when the process was highly sensitive to disturbance. If he had three flasks on the go, then he had the opportunity to try out both ideas.
Vernal discovered that Pony-Tail had been lying to him when the office door burst open at the beginning of the next afternoon. The extortionist was full of himself and confident of his control of the situation, and it was clear that he got his kicks by pushing vulnerable people around.
He began be making it abundantly clear that Vernal would be hurt very badly if he failed to do exactly what he was told to do, which involved dropping whatever he was doing and getting hold of three hundred pounds if he did not have that much handy on his person.
Vernal crossed the office to the cupboard to collect his raincoat. Yorkshire, he had discovered, can be an extremely wet county. Pony-Tail parked himself on the edge of the desk and began to paw through Vernal's notes, pretending to understand advanced biochemistry. In a fit of irritation, Vernal decided not to prolong the encounter.
It was quite a simple matter to pop a capsule out of the dispenser while he was putting on his raincoat. As long as he kept well away from the door, Pony-Tail was content to give him the freedom of the office. Vernal brought his hand up to his face, crushed the capsule and inhaled deeply. He counted up to six slowly, then he shifted reality.
It was a paradox but the intruder managed both to fall through the desk, landing in the well between the single drawer pillar and the left-hand legs, and to bang his head on the desk top hard enough to knock himself unconscious.
Vernal rushed round behind the desk, flung the top drawer open, seized the pair of cut-through-anything scissors and lopped the pony-tail off right away. He flung it out of the window into the narrow street behind the office.
Then, in a fit of reckless indignation, he hacked off the unconscious man's trousers and boxer shorts and threw them out of the window too. Then he wrestled the semi-naked gangster onto the window sill and tipped him out. The man disappeared into heap of black refuse sacks and cardboard boxes.
After a flurry of offensive activity of that sort, Vernal realized, it would be a good idea to split without delay. He loaded the vacuum flasks into an imitation leather carrying bag, hoping that at least one of them would survive the trip to his next destination, wherever it turned out to be.
He kicked something metallic on the floor as he was checking round the office for anything that he had missed. Pony-Tail had lost his car keys. As he had not yet arranged any transport, Vernal decided to borrow the extortionist's car. Finding it would be just a matter of looking for a car that responded when he pressed the electronic door unlocking button on the key ring.
The good thing about his line of business was that his clients were willing to call his mobile phone number, drop off the cash, wait for him to check it and then go to where he directed them to pick up the merchandise. They were also prepared to travel considerable distances to collect a fresh stock of a very interesting chemical.
Vernal labelled the packs of popper-capsules as Herakonin BP in anticipation of the day when the drug would be listed in the British Pharmacopoeia. The contents of his capsules were an icy pale blue on some days, a pale yellow or crimson on others.
The active molecule was thought to exist only partially in our framework of time and space, which was underlined by its having a shifting apparent chemical formula – no two analyses had ever given the same result – and by the changing colour.
Vernal knew from experience that he could get one substantial reality shift from each dose but that, as a side-effect, there would be minor, unpredictable shifts over the next twelve to twenty hours. He would have to keep his thoughts tightly disciplined for that period of time if he wanted to remain safe until the drug wore off, and most important of all, he could not allow himself to sleep.
There were reports of people disappearing after taking a dose of Herakonin. Vernal had no wish to shift his reality from the one that he knew to one which was entirely unknown and elsewhere. ■