Jackie Sydenham caught up with the writer as he was sorting out change at the coffee machine. She wanted to accuse him of neglecting her in favour of Sally Lee.
The writer shrugged. "Some people's social life can go through complex phases which need a lot of servicing," he said.
Jackie pulled a face. "I don't think I'll even try to work out what that was all about. What are you doing at lunchtime?"
"Having a literary discussion with you?"
"I'm still not happy with the way Alice is reacting to what's going on around her."
"I don't know. She's now got a history of repressing stuff and then blowing up in a minor way. All you're doing is having a slightly bigger bang than previously. Your only alternative is to give Chase a bit more to do. He's always struck me as being a bit suspect."
"Define suspect," Jackie said with a frown.
"He looks like butter won't melt but he'd have your gold crowns if you went to sleep with your mouth open."
"I like Chase," Jackie said indignantly.
"Yes, well, women have a long history of liking dodgy blokes."
"I've never really thought of Chase as dodgy."
"And it's your book, so if you say he's not dodgy, he's not."
"But you think he has the potential for dodginess?"
"If you choose to go that way, yes, I think it's credible. Within his envelope."
"I'll think about it."
"You don't have to, you know. You don't have to rewrite your book the way someone else sees your characters going."
"But it might be a better twist. To make Chase do something that's dodgy, but in character when you think about it, when you're expecting another explosion from Alice. It could even be a tangential something."
"Tangential?" laughed the writer. "Wow! Literary structuralism!"
"Yeah, well, you have to sound like you know what writing is about. So you really reckon Chase has the potential for dodginess?"
"Everyone does. It all depends what you think you can get away with. Most people don't think they can get away with anything much, so they behave themselves. A few think they're fireproof. Some of them are, some of them aren't. But they're all people you have to watch out for."
"Interesting," Jackie said thoughtfully. "I'll get back to you over this at lunchtime."
|You Now Have 13 Unread Messages|
The writer studied the pop-up box with a jaundiced eye after delivering a plastic cup of coffee to Sally Lee.
"Looking at it won't get your messages done," Sally remarked.
"This is, in fact, true." The writer clicked on the OK button and began to WOT-rate his messages. He ended up with 3 ones and 10 zeros.
|Your Read Later Box Is Now Full|
"It's not so much having to read the messages as all the messing about that goes with them." The writer clicked on another OK button.
|Your Local Mail Trash Bin Is Now Full|
"I mean," the writer added, mouse-clicking again, "has anyone in the whole history of the universe ever not condensed their Local Mail Trash Bin and actually reviewed the contents on the off-chance there's something in it that they need to keep?"
"I did once," remarked Andras Ektors.
"You, sir, are a bloody trouble-maker," the writer tossed over his shoulder.
"Oh, come on!" the writer complained. "I've just done 13 bloody messages. I don't need another one."
"If you don't open it, it's going to be dead important," said Andras Ektors. "And if you do ..."
"It'll be the biggest waste of time ever," said Sally Lee. "And you could have looked at it and made a decision on it in all the time you've wasted over the pop-up box."
"Sod it." The writer stabbed Ctrl-Alt-A on his keyboard with his left hand.
|Re: the material you found in the archive last Friday.|
Dig some more out this afternoon. Message me by 4:30.
"Talking about wastes of time ...," the writer remarked.
"You mean waste of space if you're talking about the Feck," Sally Lee observed after craning over to look at the message.
"Waste of feckan space," Andras Ektors corrected. "Look out, Sal," he added, spotting Jill Day approaching in his rear-view mirror.
"Sally, I need you for about an hour this afternoon. From three-thirty. Okay?" the diminutive chief executive assistant and sister-in-law of the Sentinel & Advertiser's editor-in-chief made her announcement in the uncompromising tone of a true power-person.
"If you've cleared it with Pierson." Sally Lee offered a ritual reply to the commandment.
Jill Day was already stalking away on high heels, which were designed to make her look more like six foot two than five foot two. She clearly felt that no response was necessary to Sally's observation.
"I've not seen her around for ages," the writer remarked.
"Lucky you," sighed Sally Lee.
After a busy afternoon in the archive and at his work station, the writer went home to dump his bits and pieces. Then he jumped back into his car and set off on a journey to the next-but-one suburb heading anti-clockwise around Chedney. Sally Lee had decided that it would be a good idea if each saw where the other lived in case Marge asked any leading questions at the up-coming garden party.
Sally lived in the left half of a red-brick semi with an easy-care front garden. The entire space had been paved over and the red and yellow roses lived in two large tubs. During a grand tour of the house, Sally mentioned that her friend Marge had been away for the last 3 months, organizing bits of Europe and some of the more savoury bits of the Balkans.
An email to Sally, giving her a month's notice of Marge's intention to return to England to resume organizing the Chedney area, had prompted Sally to get herself into a more acceptable (to her) shape. A period of dieting and tuning-up had followed.
The writer put another piece of the puzzle into place.
After a totally un-Chinese meal of steak and chips with carrots, peas and corn, the virtual couple travelled to the writer's home for another grand tour and further discussions.
His flat was in a lived-in condition and the writer was no more than a lot behind with his dusting. Sally seemed to find his unashamed attitude amusing. After all, if they were only a virtual couple, the writer was under no obligation to impress her with is domestic skills.
Sally had a good prowl around his bookshelves and his music collection and she offered to feng shui his living space for a small fee. The writer promised to think about her offer - but not very hard.
"By the way, about the Mike situation," he added. "I've thought of a lame idea."
"On the grounds that the more pathetic the explanation, the more likely it is to be true?" Sally asked.
"Right. You met an old school friend of mine called Mike Chan. But I call him Chazzer. And he calls me Mike on the grounds that someone ought to be using his name. And you started calling me Mike in the interests of ethnic solidarity."
"That sounds so unlikely, it's got to be true," laughed Sally.
"Only don't volunteer it, okay?"
Sally nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, let Marge extract the information if she has a problem with Mike suddenly becoming Marin. But if she doesn't mention it, don't remind her of it."
"You'd make a pretty good co-conspirator," the writer said equally thoughtfully. "You know the rules."
"If that's an invitation to take over from you in the Feck's conspiracy," Sally said firmly, "then my answer is No way in the world!"
Jeff Boon had expressed an interest in the café in TV-land. The writer felt obliged to suggest lunch there the following day. The force of the hints was overwhelming.
"I feel like a tour guide who's taking small parties of people from a Third World country to give them a glimpse of the real world," the writer remarked as they were passing through the unmarked buffer zone between newspaper-land and TV-land . "Going somewhere that's totally exotic for the Third Worlders but nothing that special for the First Worlders."
"Just shows you," said Boon, "we're all part of the same happy gang on paper but it's like East and West Germany for the little people."
"And we ain't the Wezzies?"
"I guess you could wander around in here for days without ever finding your way to this mythical place. The native guide is pretty indispensable."
"The only alternative is to become undead for a week and get the grand tour officially," the writer mentioned.
"I think I could hack that. I've always felt I'm a natural night person."
"Or just a lazy sod who can't get out of bed in the morning and needs an alibi?"
"Not quite," laughed Boon. "As far as I can tell, I think I should be on a 27-hour day. Awake from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. the next day, asleep till 12 noon, up for another 18 hours, in bed for another 9."
"What you want to do is join the Space Corps and find yourself a planet with a 27-hour rotational period."
"As soon as they get the Space Corps founded, I'll be first in the queue."
"Here we are." The writer led Jeff Boon into the café.
"Looks very impressive," Boon decided after examining the windows. "I wonder if they do space themes?"
"I think it's a 3-hour tape shot from some appropriate building. So unless they can get a camera on the Moon or Mars or somewhere ..."
"I suppose they could do one of the Earth as seem from the International Space Station. Or the Shuttle."
"Or even Mir out of the archives."
"Or a good volcano. Or something underwater."
"Maybe they do," said the writer. "You'll have to question the staff."
"Sounds like a job for our science correspondent."
"Except that I'm the crime correspondent now. As well as a routine, general purposes hack."
"I bet they'd just laugh in your face if you suggested something like those windows for the Advertiser's canteen." Boon took a gadget with dark green, hammered effect finish out of his inside pocket. The gadget was about the size of a 250-page paperback book.
"Go on, what is it?" the writer asked.
"It's a personal sat-nav."
"A global positioning indicator?"
"Right. I'm bookmarking this place so I can find it again."
"Sounds like something that would have made a good space filler when I was the science correspondent." The writer studied displays showing latitude, longitude and height above sea level.
"Sorry, mate. You get so used to your gadgets that you don't think there's anything special about them after a while."
"You assume everyone's got one? Like a car and a TV and a PC?"
"Are we getting profound in our old age?" laughed Boon. "So, what's the grub like in here? Or are you supposed to be so bowled over by the windows that you don't notice?"
"Not bad, actually," the writer said.
The writer was back in the café in TV-land the following day. Jackie had been talking to Jeff Boon. She wanted to see the fabulous windows for herself and she had told Boon that she didn't have much confidence in his gadget's ability to guide him to a bookmarked destination. She also wanted to continue her literary discussions with the writer.
Jackie had decided to send a synopsis and three sample chapters to a literary agent, whom one of her other friends had recommended. Virginia Frage-White was an acknowledged rabid neofeminist and she specialized in women authors.
Jackie felt that she had highly exploitable talents on offer. The writer was inclined to agree. The writer had met Ginnie White a couple of times while cruising the London literary scene and he had been impressed by her pushiness.
On Monday morning, the writer noted that Trevor Mercur was back, hobbling around with one elbow-crutch and a surprisingly lightweight concrete boot. Mercur spent a long time in the Feck-Meister's office at the start of the day and the Feck was far too cheerful when he made his rounds afterwards.
By the time Pierson Day appeared, most of the amusement over the photographs had died down. The presence of Sally and the writer at Sarah Bingham's garden party had been noted by Archie Vraiment, the Sentinel & Advertiser's social correspondent, who had been there with a photographer to record the activities of the area's top people. Smitten by an attack of commercial paranoia, Vraiment had questioned Sally closely about why she had been there in case she was angling for his job.
The Advertiser's photographer had taken some shots of Sally, who had been wearing a big, floppy sun hat, and he had tacked enlarged prints to each of the 4 monitors of her work station cluster for the amusement of her colleagues.
Luckily, Pierson Day had not checked the social news page of his Monday morning complimentary copy of the paper - which had featured the best of the pictures of Sally - and she had been spared sarcastic comments from the Feck-Monster.
At ten past ten, the writer encountered Jackie at the coffee machine.
"How was your do at the weekend?" Jackie asked at once. "Sally looked dead posh in that outfit."
"The garden party was a splendid affair," the writer reported in a 'social affairs correspondent' voice. "It was sunny all day on Friday to dry things out, and sunny again on Saturday but not quite so hot. Then on Sunday, it bucketed down like it was never going to stop again. I reckon Sally's mate Marge is in league with the Devil."
"Sounds a useful person to know," laughed Jackie. She crossed the middle and index fingers of her left hand. "I posted my stuff off to Virginia White this morning."
"What we need to do is plant a story in the paper about how you're being persecuted by your male colleagues," the writer decided. "Then send it to her. She'll snap you up just like that."
"If only," sighed Jackie.
"Why don't they ever have a gunfight in a rainstorm with half a gale blowing?" an approaching voice said. "With rain blasting horizontally down the street and soggy tumbleweed leaping all over the place. One gunfighter trying not to be blown on his face, the other trying not to be blown onto his back."
Jackie moved her eyes towards the source of the voice, then she looked back at the writer and grinned.
"The set-up could be a bloke who's a bad shot with a slow draw, who's being pressurized by a bloke with a faster draw ..." the voice continued.
"And the first bloke picks the time and place for the showdown?" laughed the Western fan's companion.
"Yeah. That would really work, wouldn't it?"
"Sounds like the plot of one of your weird stories," Jackie murmured to the writer.
"Sounds a bit too logical for one of mine," the writer replied.
"The Feck's looking for you, mate," Andras Ektors remarked as the writer arrived at his work station, bearing coffee for four.
"Should I drink my coffee before I commit suicide or just get on with killing myself right away?" the writer wondered.
"He wants to tell you that you've been appointed a co-crime correspondent," Trevor Mercur said.
"Yeah," Ektors added. "Trev stays in the office and you act as his runner."
"And we communicate by encrypted emails when you're out in the field," Mercur said. "Not by phone calls and especially not by calls from mobiles."
"How very MI-5!" the writer observed.
|You Now Have 3 Unread Messages|
"I bet at least two of them are from the Feck," said Andras Ektors.
The writer stabbed Ctrl-Alt-A on his keyboard.
|Talk to Trevor about being co-crime correspondent.|
Message me an acknowledgment of this message.
The other messages were routine rubbish. The writer filed and forgot them. "So where do I run first, boss?" he asked Trevor Mercur.
"Nowhere at the moment," Mercur replied. "We're waiting for all the pieces to fall into place."
"The big build-up and the even bigger let-down," Sally Lee remarked.
"So anyway, is it true she's got these space-age, lightweight mirrors on her bedroom ceiling so you don't get killed if they fall off?" Andras Ektors asked.
"Or is it a flat-screen TV?" said Trevor Mercur.
The writer sent off his acknowledgement to Pierson Day then he frowned at Sally Lee. Their frequent lunches had led to much speculation about a relationship which was more personal than a working one. Their colleagues had taken the pictures from the garden party as proof that something was, indeed, going on between them.
"Think before you speak, Marin," Sally warned. "Because you might not need to commit suicide. And haven't you two got anything better to do than wind me up?"
"Not at the moment," Trevor Mercur told her with a smile.
"Some of us are wondering why we bother slaving away here," said Andras Ektors. "On Friday, a certain person turned in a piece on great droughts of the past after the dry spell we've been having. Only for the heavens to open yesterday."
"They can use it next time we have a couple of dry days," the writer observed. "Or you can recycle it as something else."
"Did you know," said Ektors, "in 1976, a lot of people were convinced that the Minister for Drought, Denis Howell, was in charge of stopping it from raining ever again? The same way the Minister for Unemployment was in charge of putting people out of work."
"Just imagine what would have happened in the Blair Years," laughed Trevor Mercur. "If he'd received an embarrassing number of letters demanding a Minister of Rain. He'd have look on creating one as a way of showing he was listening to the electorate. And it would have been high up on one of his lists of 'my brilliant government's great achievements'."
"It's all right you mocking," said Sally, "but I reckon most of his stupidest blunders were down to sheer insecurity. I mean, what did he know about actually doing the job of government before he found himself running the country?"
"This is, in fact, true," Trevor Mercur admitted.
"Did you know it pissed down with rain in Ulster all through the so-called drought of '76?" Ektors said. "My uncle was stationed there and he kept moaning about being permanently waterlogged in his letters home. Feck warning," he added, spotting a movement in his rear-view mirror.
"Get my message?" the Feck-Monster demanded as he was passing the writer's work station.
"Received and acknowledged," the writer replied.
"Better get your running shoes on, then."
"He's looking way too pleased with himself," Sally Lee remarked when Pierson Day was out of earshot.
"He's got good reason," Trevor Mercur said in a tone which implied that he knew what was going on but he had no intention of sharing his knowledge.