1a : A Change Of Scene
We three, Frosch, Iktar and myself [Prethon, in case anyone has forgotten], passed through the police cordon with our customary ease. The pre-dead cannot contain the post-dead. We were never quite sure if the police ever searched the farmhouse. The mess left by coppers looking for crooks and loot is indistinguishable from the mess left behind by intruders. But more about the farmhouse anon.
Frosch let Iktar take charge of the sports bag while he zoomed away to buy something with his £20 note. Inevitably, he returned with a paperback book in a neat, plastic carrier. The sports bag disappeared into a locker and Frosch left the station with a key, which would be easy to conceal before he merged with the ground before sunrise.
Arriving at Churchill Square, Iktar and I both realized that there was no obvious candidate for Number One. Two pairs of parallel roads of approximately equal size intersected to create an area with an oval park in the middle. There was no obvious place to start the numbering.
Frosch led us, with his usual confidence, to one of the corners. The terrace contained tall, imposing buildings, and the one wearing a black figure '1' on the unpolished brass plaque beside its front entrance looked much the same as the others.
"Not exactly a smoking wreck," Iktar observed.
"Wait till you see the inside," laughed Frosch.
The ground floor windows were dark but we could see rather dim lights higher up. As we mounted the steps up to the front door, I noticed that there was a pane of glass above the door and that it was also dark. There was some traffic moving close at hand but the nearby street was empty. We marched into the house, moving like smoke through netting when we penetrated the front door.
Iktar and I turned into the first room, the door of which was standing open. Some inventive person had been making furniture out of cardboard boxes. The structures were painted white with gloss paint to render them non-absorbent and padded with abundant loose cushions. We were trying out the furniture, and wondering if using candles near it constituted a fire hazard, when we heard the sound of raised voices.
General Frosch had deserted us in search of confrontation.
I took the lead up the stairs. I was almost at the top of the first flight when a shape came hurling at me. Luckily, my reflexes are very fast and I was able to offer it no resistance. The staircase turned a right-angle to the right. The figure zoomed right through me on its way to a hard impact with the wall at the half-landing.
I turned my head and saw Iktar, whose reflexes are equally speedy, following me up the stairs wearing a smile. We heard another crash ahead of us. Feet descended higher stairs. We entered a candle-lit room as part of a crowd.
"Very friendly people living here," Frosch remarked to us. He was standing over a prone male figure while being menaced by an unkempt female armed with what looked like a machete.
The new arrivals flowed around us. With their attention fixed so firmly on Frosch, they seemed not to have identified us as more intruders. Two of them tried to grab Frosch's arms. He swung them toward each other so that they met with a clash of heads and bodies.
Steel carve through air. Steel shattered.
The woman with the machete lost her balance and fell over. She had been expecting the resistance of a metal edge biting into flesh and bone. She had not expected the blade to fly apart. She had not anticipated ending up on the floor holding the handle of her weapon, from which a truncated blade projected.
"As I said," Frosch remarked as the squatters, those who were still conscious, paused to take stock. "Very friendly, the people living here."
From that point on, the pre-dead in the house adjusted to a new balance of power. General Frosch decreed that their candles and lamps were a fire hazard and that it was the duty of himself and his helpers to extinguish them. And keep on ruthlessly extinguishing them when the squatters re-ignited them.
The eight, which included two women, soon learned that we are not to be man-handled (or even person-handled, in the case of the well-built female squatters). Even the apparently weak female in our group, Iktar, is more than a match for any number of the pre-dead. Eventually, the squatters decided that their best course of action was to go to sleep and ignore the intruders.
In the silent darkness -- an absence of light is no handicap to us -- General Frosch began to drain the squatters. His plan was to wear them down until they realized that staying on in the house would involve them in nothing but misery. He was also planning to leave them too weak to break back in if they chose to leave the house.
At about midnight, we left the darkened house in search of diversion in the big city. There were a lot of people living there for whom the hours of darkness were a time to be out and about, enjoying themselves. We had already scouted the garden area at the heart of Churchill Square and, as dawn approached, we merged with the soil for our daily rest.
We emerged again at the end of a dull afternoon. There was light rain falling. We adjusted the outer areas of our being, which resemble garments, to look like rainwear and made ourselves impermeable. Candles and lanterns were burning in Number One, Churchill Square. General Frosch soon put a stop to all that!
The squatters were indignant and outraged at the invasion of their captured territory. The sheer impotence of their rage fuelled their drained bodies. General Frosch seemed to content to show off his omnipotence and let the squatters know by his demeanour that he would prevail in the end. The only question in his mind was whether the squatters would leave before they were fully drained. In that event, he would have to find somewhere to put their carcases.
On the third night of General Frosch's campaign, we infiltrated the house again like a bad smell passing through a gauzy curtain. Some beings would find pleasurable, being able to make life tough for people who deserved it without fear of effective retaliation. To us, it was just a diversion. One couple had given up the struggle, leaving just six of the original unwelcome guests.
We were still enjoying the delights of being in the big city and, unlike the characters in an American TV adventure series, we did not have the clock running against us. We did not have to get the squatters out by the end of the episode, the end of the week, the end of the month or even the end of the year. Iktar and I were just watching and waiting, knowing that Frosch would not explain his intentions until success for the immediate campaign was in sight.
On our fourth night in town, out of curiosity, I returned to the unwelcoming countryside and the farm. I was amazed to find that the farmhouse looked as if a bomb had gone off inside it. The wreck of the wooden support frame for the roof was exposed to the elements and the slates were lying all around the house, looking like shattered, dark gray leaves. The windows, those which had contained glass and those which had been boarded up, were gaping orifices with the central members of the frames just, well, gone. Both the front door and its frame had disappeared completely, leaving freshly exposed ribbons of stone to mark where they had been.
Someone had stripped the interior bare. Even the fire bars in the grate of the main room's fireplace had gone. So had the wall cupboards in the kitchen and the kitchen sink. There had been nothing much upstairs apart from some broken furniture and three abandoned rolls of ancient carpet. Even that had gone. Additionally, the back wall now contained a great, raw hole, which occupied approximately twice the area of the larger bedroom's window.
"It's a mess, isn't it?" a female voice remarked behind me.
"Someone been having a wild party?" I turned to face Xanthe. She was 'dressed' in a fur coat and her dark hair was crammed into a fur helmet. She looked inappropriately elegant in the devastated building.
"Where have you been!" she complained, ignoring an inconvenient question. "I thought you rotten lot had strolled off and abandoned me," she added indignantly.
"That's great, coming from the one who abandoned us while she went walkabout," I returned.
"What have you been doing? Anything interesting?" Xanthe changed the direction of the conversation again.
I sketched out our recent adventures with General Frosch.
"So we have somewhere in the heart of the big city? For a while," Xanthe added with a smile which said that all such things are always fleeting.
"We will have shortly, if General Frosch gets his way. What happened here?"
Xanthe shrugged. "It was like this when I got back, a couple of days ago. Do you think your police got annoyed and needed somewhere to rampage?"
"Possibly. Just as well we've nearly got ourselves in somewhere else."
"Well, are we going to hang about here for the rest of the night or are you going to show me where you are now?"
"You don't fancy giving me a hand with a bit of patching up?"
Xanthe gave me one of her looks of supreme patience by way of reply.
"It goes against the grain to be shoved out of a refuge. In fact, I feel like hanging about here and seeing if I can find out who did this. They deserve a large lump of retribution."
"Prethon," Xanthe said in a 'get real' tone.
"Or I could abandon this place, as I have so many others in the past, and enjoy life in the city for a while."
Xanthe marched over to me and linked arms, her right in my left. As we are both right-handed, it was her way of telling me to lead on. Knowing that it was time to let go of the farmhouse forever, or at least for the moment, we blended into the night, losing our solid forms, and wended our way to the city.
1b : Making The Most Of It
Xanthe plus Iktar plus a new city environment equals a lot of dashing about. I was aware of the validity of this equation. The next few weeks reinforced its proof.
The ladies are old-fashioned enough to want a male escort at times -- more as an accessory than as protection from the city-dwellers -- and I was elected. General Frosch was far too busy with his squatters to join us. I gained the impression that he was not too sorry to see us desert him for some determined exploration of what the city had to offer at night. Frosch has always been a person who likes to get things done his way. And helping hands tend to be in his way if they are not prepared to follow his instructions to the letter without discussion.
I lost contact with him for a couple of weeks. The ladies simply forgot about him. Their promised new base in town was not yet ready and they were more than willing to go off and enjoy themselves until Frosch had completed his master plan.
Our next meeting was by appointment in a private room at a restaurant which seemed to have a rather overblown opinion of itself. General Frosch issued the invitation as the four of us were beginning a new evening in the park at the heart of Churchill Square. He then took himself off for a couple of hours, destination undisclosed, leaving the ladies and myself have a wander round and think ourselves into a property-occupying frame of mind before we headed for our meeting.
At the restaurant, we learned that the squatters had pushed off after about a week of unrelenting and unstoppable harassment. Frosch, we discovered in his own sweet time, had then brought in a cleaning crew to remove their mess. His bagful of cash seemed to be lasting well.
He had also reached a deal with the solicitors representing the estate of the man who had last owned Number One, Churchill Square. General Frosch had presented the head man of the firm with a fait accompli. The squatters were off the premises and the firm's partners could now place their hands on their black hearts and swear that they had not been involved in the extra-legal eviction process.
Now, Frosch had explained, they were at a crossroads.
The partners had the alternative of doing nothing and letting their des. res. become occupied again by another set of undesirables. On the other hand, they could recruit Frosch as their agent and send in workmen to secure the premises and fit a security system. Taking the second route allowed the house to be maintained in good order and removed the shadow of a legal action for negligence by the person who eventually received Number One, Churchill Square, as an inheritance when the courts had finished studying the problem.
"What sort of security system?" said Iktar, ever the practical one.
"Nothing that will be a problem for us," Frosch assured her. "As we can wander around without setting off motion sensors and tripping infrared beams."
"What about your luxuries?" said Xanthe. "The cable TV and the library?"
"In hand," said the General. "I'm also organizing indoor accommodation for our days. Something a bit more private than the park."
"If you're thinking about coffins filled with earth in the cellar, like something out of a horror film, you can think again," said Iktar.
"Cellar, yes. Coffins, no," laughed Frosch. "But you'll see in due course."
"How due?" said Xanthe.
"Do you think you could find enough to keep you amused in the city for another couple of weeks?" said Frosch.
Xanthe put on one of her predatory smiles. "Perhaps, if we try real hard ..."
"I hope this relentless enjoying yourself isn't taking too much out of Prethon." Frosch directed a look of bogus sympathy at me. "Now the poor chap has lost his retreat and his refuge for quiet contemplation."
"Some of us have hidden reserves of stamina," I assured him.
"This stuff's nice. What is it?" Xanthe was sampling a bowl of chunky objects in a pale lemon-coloured sauce. Frosch had ordered a buffet-style abundance from the restaurant rather than individual meals. We were gathered around a large, circular table in the second-floor function room.
"It's either Thai or Vietnamese," Frosch replied, giving an accurate rather than a helpful reply.
"Probably snake or dog," Iktar decided after trying the chunks.
Xanthe pulled a face at her.
We have no real need for food or drink but we can still enjoy tastes and smells and textures. We indulge ourselves from time to time, we abstain for long periods when we have other things to do and we never notice any difference. As with the pre-dead, whatever we ingest becomes part of us. The only difference is that we have no need to eliminate waste products, we can't become drunk and we don't get fat -- unless we choose to vary our density to create an impression of greater bulk.
"Is this swordfish?" Xanthe had moved on to a fish dish.
"I suppose you can tell that from the texture?" Frosch asked.
"I used to grade men on how soon they realized I love a nice swordfish steak," Xanthe replied. "In the old days."
"Someone's got a good memory," laughed Iktar. "Is this a vegetarian curry?"
"Might be," said Frosch. "So anyway, I need you lot to stay clear of the house for a while longer. While the workmen get on with things."
"You don't want your authority diluted?" Xanthe divined. "You don't want them seeing you giving us orders and being ignored?"
"Or you could take over," Frosch suggested.
"The thing about men," Iktar remarked, "is they're so good at doing things. So it's generally a good idea to let them get on with it."
We discovered later that one of the drained and evicted squatters had retained enough energy to be able to make a complaint to the police. In due course, a bored detective visited the firm of solicitors which had nominal charge of Number One, Churchill Square. A junior partner indignantly denied any knowledge of winklers operating on her firm's behalf.
The police borrowed the keys held at the firm's office but they proved to be useless. The house's locks had been changed several times since the keys had been lodged at the solicitor's for safe keeping. A succession of uniformed police officers found that the place was always securely locked up during daylight hours and there never seemed to be anyone at home.
General Frosch's workmen arrived and left discreetly via the back door and if they were ever there when the police called, they ignored them. The workmen had strict instructions to get on with the job. They did not have the permission or the authority to receive callers.
Eventually, the police got lucky. The crew of a passing patrol car spotted Frosch and myself arriving at the front door of our new home about ten days after our night out in the restaurant. Frosch had been unable to resist any longer, the temptation to show off the house in its naked, squatter-less glory.
After checking with their police station by radio, the constables came to the front door door and knocked. Frosch received them after inspecting them via the spyhole in the steel-cored wood.
"Do you live here, sir?" the male constable asked in a fairly neutral tone. He was of an average size and quite unimpressive in his flat cap.
"No, we're just looking the place over," Frosch told him with an unconcerned air. To my surprise, Frosch showed off a bunch of keys, which he then dropped into a side pocket of his jacket. I could remember him opening the front door but I could not recall seeing him unlock it. "Why do you ask?"
"The owners have been having a bit of trouble with squatters, sir."
"What, and you're making sure they don't give us any trouble?" Frosch said. "That's very decent of you," he added with a smile.We had chosen sober outfits of dark suit, shirt and plain tie for the tour of inspection and we looked much to respectable to be social drop-outs. "Although, we haven't seen any signs of anyone living here. Not on the ground floor, anyway."
"Could I ask your names, sir?" the female constable said. She was short and rather round in her bulky, unflattering uniform.
"Frosch," said Frosch.
"Prethon," I added, proving that I could speak.
"James. For both of us," said Frosch. "Which is why we tend to use our surnames."
"And you have the owner's permission to be here, sir?" the male constable asked.
Frosch produced his bunch of keys briefly. "Do you have any problem about our being here?" he added. "Do you think we're committing burglary, or something? Because, if the rest of this place is anything like the ground floor, I don't think there's all that much to steal."
"We've had complaints from the people who were squatting here, sir," said the female constable. Her voice was surprisingly pleasant behind a somewhat uncouth accent.
"As I said, we've not seen any signs of occupation." Frosch looked at me. I shrugged, telling him I had no idea what the police officers were talking about. "Although they could be asleep in the attic, I suppose," Frosch added.
"The thing is, sir," said the male constable, "the description they gave of one of the people who were harassing them fits you."
"Me and a few thousand others, I should think," Frosch told him, maintaining his air of unconcern. "So what are you after right now, exactly?"
"We're checking up on what looks suspiciously like a case of winkling, sir," said the female constable.
"Which is what?" Frosch asked with a mild frown. "This 'winkling'?"
"Eviction of squatters without going through the courts."
"And you think we look like winklers?"
"You wouldn't happen to be living here, sir? To stop the squatters coming back? Either the original ones or another lot?" The female constable evaded the question.
Frosch shrugged. "We just dropped in because we're en route elsewhere through this area and we have the time to look at this place. But I tell you what, officer, why don't we all go on a grand tour? And while we're looking over possibilities, you can look for signs of squatters, signs that we're living here and anything else that takes your fancy. Only I suggest that we all get on with it as there are no lights because the power is switched off."
The constables looked at each other, then the woman nodded. They clearly felt capable of controlling us if necessary.
"While I think of it, let me give you one of these." Frosch reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and produced a business card. "In case you want to make an appointment to arrest me, there's a mobile number on the card."
"Thank you, sir." The male constable took charge of the the card. It was clear that he had come to see Frosch as an amused businessman rather than a criminal who was up to no good.
The police officers had a good poke around the house, taking full advantage of their unexpected access to a building which could offer cellars, first and second floors above the ground floor and useable attic space under the roof. The constables tramped up and down every flight of stairs and opened every door. Then, in the gloom of the hall, they reported by radio to their police station.
Their inspector took some convincing that the house was totally empty of goods and people. He seemed to have been be hoping that his constables would find bloodstains on the walls and signs that there might be bodies under the floorboards. He seemed most reluctant to give his constables permission to resume their patrol without arresting us.
"Where did you get the cards?" I asked Frosch when the police officers had gone. "You were well prepared for them, I must say."
"There's a lot you can do when you have a bagful of money," Frosch replied.
"Such as buying mobile phones?"
Frosch smiled. "It helps the image along, having the right toys."
"Where are all the security devices? I thought you'd had gangs of workmen in, fitting them?"
"The thing about security devices is that they become so much more effective if no one realizes they're there," Frosch told me with a smile.
"So how close are we to moving in here?" I added.
Frosch moved his smile into the realms of enigma. "It will happen very soon."