2a : A New Style
The whole squatter problem just went away. I suspected that General Frosch had drained the main protester completely, which would have brought his existence to a full stop, and the over-stretched police lost interest when the complaints stopped. Looking at the matter from their point of view, the situation at Number One, Churchill Square, had moved in a positive direction.
An infestation of squatters is always trouble. There is liable to be violence when the owners of the property seek to gain possession, no matter how closely they stick to the procedures which put money into the pockets of lawyers, judges and those employed by the court system. Police officers are liable to become injured and the police force is subjected to vilification from both sides.
As far as the house was concerned, General Frosch excluded the rest of us for getting on for a fortnight. He wanted to have the place 'done up' to his personal specifications and he wanted to hold a grand unveiling ceremony when the work was completed. And he didn't want the rest of us looking on and offering 'helpful' suggestions.
Xanthe just wandered off on another of her expeditions -- confident, this time, that she would be able to find us again. Before we met at the farmhouse, we all spent decades, at the very least, on our own -- but we seem to have formed a unit of kindred spirits which, for the time being, we are reluctant to disperse.
Iktar and I went to Scotland. According to some night-time science programme which she saw on television recently, the Sun is particularly active at the moment. Iktar wanted to see the Aurora. She also wanted a companion and, as the expedition sounded quite interesting, if not spectacular, I accepted an invitation to accompany her.
General Frosch showed little or no interest in our plans. He had a base of operations to organize and he needed space. Which meant that his audience could get lost until he had something to show off.
The house looked much the same when Iktar and I returned from a tour of the wildest countryside that the Scottish Highlands had to offer. We had enjoyed some spectacular skies full of sheets and ribbons of bright colours on the clear nights. Lightning storms over the mountains had also put on a spectacular display.
When we arrived at Number One, Churchill Square, I considered ringing the doorbell to give Frosch some warning of our arrival. We had no idea whether he was ready to receive visitors. I was on the point of mentioning my idea to Iktar when she melted through the front door without checking her forward motion.
Problem solved, I thought.
There were lights on downstairs but there was no one about. Xanthe, coming out of one of the first-floor rooms, put a hand to her breast and assumed an expression of shock and surprise when she saw us reaching the top of the first flight of stairs.
"Don't you wish people would make a bit of noise so you know they're there?" she remarked.
"Sorry." Iktar offered a reflex apology. "Where is he?"
"He's not here." Xanthe shrugged. "There were light on when I arrived but I can't find him."
"He's not up there?" Iktar glanced at the next flight of stairs.
"I started at the top," Xanthe told her.
"Why don't we park ourselves in front of his cable TV and drink some of his best booze?" I suggested.
"Seconded," Iktar added.
"Because I've not seen anything resembling a TV set or a drinks cabinet," Xanthe said. "The place looks very clean and decorated but there's nothing in it."
"So what's he been doing with it?" Iktar demanded.
Xanthe shrugged again. "Maybe he ran out of money. Anyway, come and have a look at what he's done."
"That's going to go down well," Iktar said. "Us lot wandering around unsupervised."
Xanthe shrugged yet again. "If he's not here to welcome us, tough!"
We inspected empty reception rooms on the first floor, having already looked over the service areas on the round floor. Bare of furniture, the rooms looked quite huge. The next floor seemed well supplied with bedrooms with en suite bathrooms. Even the attics looked like comfortable living space -- well suited to the children of an extended family and much too grand for servants.
We were just thinking of wandering out into the city to consume some time when the man himself was suddenly among us. Frosch, looking enormously pleased with himself, took us on a tour of our new home. His big idea had been to bring in some foreign workmen to create what he called 'lost space'.
It seems that there are firms in the capital city which specialize in bringing in crews of craftsmen from Eastern Europe for single jobs. The workmen are never told where they are, they remain 'confined to barracks' for the duration of the job and they go home with their pay at the end of it to await their next assignment. The idea behind the scheme is that whatever the owner of the property has done remains top secret -- and the job is not subject to the restrictions of planning regulations and other bureaucratic interference.
Frosch had given the house three secret rooms of various sizes by repositioning interior walls. All of the 'lost' rooms were accessed by a sliding panel rather than a conventional door. The secret doors were not for our benefit, of course. We can easily reduce our density and just ooze through a door or a handy stretch of wall. No, the sliding panels were for the convenience of the workmen who had installed Frosch's cable TV boxes and his VCRs in one of the secret rooms.
The cellars, our first destination, had been converted to livable space long before our arrival. Frosch had hit on the idea of creating an extra room containing 4 compartments where we can rest during sunlit hours. He got the idea from something that he saw on TV, he told us -- a science fiction thing in which the people went into regeneration tubes for 3 or 4 hours per day instead of sleeping.
"They just stood on the support pad, this glass thing came down and they switched off for a while," Frosch added as we were heading down into the bowels of the house.
"I'm not going to spend all day standing up," Iktar said.
"Why, what difference would it make?" said Frosch.
Iktar just looked at him, wearing her 'I won't do this' expression.
"What I thought was four individual sections, each holding a container filled with sand as ballast and with some spectacular artificial flowers on top. We just disperse in the sand until nightfall. Nobody claustrophobic, I hope? About spending the day in a container instead of under a large expanse of bushes in the park?"
"I thought I might be claustrophobic after I came back inside a coffin," Xanthe recalled. "But I just sort of percolated up through the ground and out into all this before I realized what had happened."
"Disorientation is common in the newly post-dead and could well be a mental defence mechanism," Iktar said with the air of someone delivering a quotation. "Are you going to point us at the right wall or are we expected to look for your regeneration zone?"
"Some people enjoy a challenge," Frosch remarked.
"And some people quickly get fed up with being messed about," Xanthe pointed out.
Our 'regeneration chamber' looked rather like an oubliette for items from a chapel of rest but it didn't need to be of any great size and it looked able to serve its function well. The TV room on the first floor was more spacious if an odd shape due to its being stolen from several rooms. There were 4 armchairs, boxes for 3 different digital TV service providers and the large, flat, wall-mounted televisions came with infrared-linked headphones so that those watching one channel would not be confused by the soundtrack of another channel.
The third hidden room, on the floor above, was about the same size as the TV room, a different eccentric shape and empty apart from a carton of books. General Frosch was wondering whether it would be more useful if he had an office rather than a library, but he was still making his mind up.
Having seen everything, we retired to the TV room to drink a toast to Frosch. He had provided a couple of bottles of what he assured us was decent champagne for the job. And then, suddenly, I found myself on my own. Everyone else had plans for the night. And so I collected a book from the box in the library/office to read during the commercial breaks and settled down to discover what Frosch's cable TV channels had to offer.
We had a high old time over the next few weeks, wandering about the city, sampling its night life, watching cable TV and reading the books in Frosch's expanding library, which was still housed in cardboard boxes as an expression of his uncertainty over whether he needed an office.
We had a small drama about ten days after the rest of us took up residence in General Frosch's headquarters. It took place at the end of a grey afternoon. Iktar had nagged Frosch into buying some bookcases, telling him that they would fit equally well into a library and an office.
The delivery men carried the fully constructed bookcases up to the second floor and put them in one of the empty rooms. Frosch had reminded us what we would have to move them into the library/office ourselves to preserve its secret. When Iktar had checked over the polished wood to make sure that there were no signs of damage, Frosch tipped the two men with a rustle of fresh banknotes and took them down to the front door, leaving myself and the ladies to get on with the moving job.
Frosch returned to the second floor with a scruffily dressed stranger. Frosch was wearing an expression of amusement as he raised his hands above his head. Iktar and I were in the process of manoeuvring the last bookcase into the concealed room. We set it down in the doorway, trapping Xanthe inside and frowned at Frosch and his companion.
The man stepped out from behind Frosch. We realized that he was carrying a semi-automatic pistol. It looked like a .32 calibre pocket pistol to someone who had seen a lot of spy films on cable TV recently.
"I'll tell you like I told him," the stranger announced in a confident tone. "I want the lot of you out of here right now, and I don't want no argument. You go out in one piece or you go out with a hole in your hide. It's all the same to me."
"Who's your funny friend?" Iktar asked in as insulting a tone as she could manage.
"I rather think he's one of the crew who were squatting here. He was hanging about at the side door when I let the delivery men out," Frosch added as he joined us at the bookcase.
"We don't want that lot back, wrecking the place," Iktar said indignantly.
"Hello? Excuse me? Man with a gun?" the squatter said indignantly. "I'm not bothered about shooting women, you know."
"No, you look the sort of filthy little oik who'd do just that," said Iktar.
"Okay, I think we've had about as much fun out of him as we're going to get." General Frosch took a step in the direction of the intruder.
"I'll shoot," he warned, trying to keep his voice level and menacing.
Frosch deliberately took another step in his direction. The man aimed his gun at him. Frosch took another step. He was doing almost a slow march, taking provocative steps and pausing after each one, telling the intruder that he wasn't impressed.
The sound of the gun going off made me jump. It wasn't as loud as I had been expecting -- certainly not loud enough to trouble our neighbours or anyone in the square outside. The gunman yelped and clutched his left thigh with both hands.
"Force fields -- one, bloke with the gun -- nil," laughed Frosch.
I realized that he had increased his surface density to an impenetrable level and that the bullet had bounced off him to strike the intruder a glancing blow.
"Let's ram the gun up his arse and see if the bullet bounces off the top of his skull," Frosch said, half-turning toward me.
The man with the gun decided that he was promoting a lost cause. He just ran for it. Frosch and I pursued him down the stairs, not making any great effort to catch him, and we closed and bolted the side door after he had fled into the night.
"What was all that rubbish about force fields?" Iktar asked when we rejoined the ladies, who had manoeuvred the bookcase into the library to untrap Xanthe.
Frosch shrugged. "Routine disinformation. Something the guy will believe. Something that's as unlikely as the truth."
"Not bad for the spur of the moment," laughed Xanthe.
But somehow, I was convinced that the remark had the polish of a phrase which had been rehearsed. General Frosch, I became sure in that moment, had a lot more going on than he was telling the rest of us about.
2b : Secrets
Our life in London soon settled down in a pattern which bore little resemblance to our period of relatively quiet contemplation at the abandoned farm in the deep countryside. I assumed that the group had broken apart because of the sheer number of distractions in the capital, although I was somewhat surprised to find that Frosh, having achieved his object of gaining access to comfortable surroundings with cable TV and a library, chose to spend very little time at Churchill Square.
It was clear that Frosch had set himself up in business to a somewhat greater extent than his initial plans had suggested, but he felt no need to tell the rest of us what he was up to. When we tried to press him, his plans were always 'developing'. But he was making a fair bit of money. And he still needed his old comrades -- well, one of them.
"Prethon, old pal," he told me one night when he was making a rare visit to Number One, Churchill Square, "I need a semi-permanent presence here. And you're about the most dependable of our bunch."
The fact that the ladies were both out, gadding about on their own, underlined the truth of his statement.
"How big a favour is it and how much am I going to regret it?" I wondered aloud.
"Not very big, and not at all respectively," Frosch assured me. "You've probably guessed I'm keeping squatters out of other places like this and I'm a bit stretched. All I need is your guarantee that you won't zoom off somewhere else without telling me. There's a good bit of cash in it."
"No one ever told me I'd have to work for a living after I was dead," I complained.
"You can't call this working," scoffed Frosch.
"So how about it?"
"The expression 'money for old rope' comes to mind." I shrugged, sensing that no answer other than an affirmative would be acceptable. "But if you need any help with spending all your cash ..."
"Good man!" Frosch approved.
As it happened, I had found an interesting science fiction film club during my travels around the local area. The club operated on a 24-hour basis and it seemed to do quite well out of night owls. I, of course, had just drifted in and maintained myself at an invisible density while watching the films. But it would be preferably, I decided, to acquire a legitimate membership and occupy a seat as a solid entity. That way, I wouldn't get people standing in front of me. Frosch's anti-squatter pay solved the problem of my membership fee.
The caretaker's duties were very light. I did not have to stay at the house like a sentry during the hours of darkness, ready to repel invaders. It was sufficient that I could be relied upon to visit the house regularly, preferably at least once per day, and make life very uncomfortable for anyone who did break in, intending to occupy the place. Frosch did not spell anything out but I assumed that he expected me to drain the life out of anyone who looked stubborn enough to try to be unshiftable.
Iktar had also found herself a job -- one which was rather more active than mine. She had become a permanent night-shift repro woman for a finance company. If any of the customers failed to keep up the payments on their hire-purchased vehicle, Iktar or one of the others sneaked up on the car or van at the client's home or business premises and drove it away to what most of the employees called the company's Hostage Facility. The client then had the option of either paying off the outstanding debt, usually plus an extra month's money for 'administrative fees', or trying to get the free use of a vehicle from another finance company.
Iktar told me about the job after she had been missing most of the time for about a month. When I thought about it, I was forced to agree that her ability to materialize inside a locked car with an ignition key, and tools for removing any immobilizing device on the steering wheel, made her a natural for the job. So did her previously well-concealed reckless streak.
Iktar quite enjoyed the sneaking about involved, but she admitted that what she enjoyed most was her confrontations with angry customers, who thought that they had a divine right to drive the vehicle and not pay for its use. She loved it when one of her clients tried to get violent with her -- and then received a nasty shock when a poor, weak woman showed them just how tough she was.
I tried to warn her to be careful but Iktar just laughed. After all, what could anyone do to her? If she was already dead, they couldn't kill her -- although they could expose her to the corrosive effects of daylight, which amounted to the same thing. And how do you lock up someone who can dematerialize herself at will?
Xanthe, in contrast, was just spending a lot of time enjoying herself while using the house as a convenient base. She, too, was working for Frosch, but on a secret project. One which was so secret that she couldn't even tell her old friend Prethon about it. I was never quite sure, in the early days, whether Xanthe was just play acting because she was that sort of person. Frosch was similarly unhelpful.
Call me slow but I failed to make the connection immediately when the television news contained an item about a suspected terrorist incident in a squatted house. A total of 5 squatters, 3 from overseas, had been found dead in a house in a moderately good area. The detached house had been empty for some time following the death of the owner and the failure of her relatives to find a buyer.
A nephew of the previous owner had been engaged in legal action to remove the squatters and the neighbours were full of indignation at the way the police had taken the side of the invaders during three recent confrontations in the street. Their indignation was multiplied for two reasons. Number one, the police were treating the nephew as their prime suspect for causing the suspicious deaths. Number two, the police were trying to get the neighbours to make statements about the rows in the street, which would be used to build their case against the nephew.
It was all a fine pickle because the news media were busily engaged in vigorous stirring of the pot. They were giving abundant air-time to 'spokespersons for the homeless', who were raging about the deaths of 5 innocent squatters and the callous indifference of the house owner and the neighbours to their fate, and to 'spokespersons for asylum seekers', who were going on about, well, the usual things that that sort of person goes on about.
It was not until the following day, when a follow-up item told me that the house had been quarantined in case chemical and/or biological warfare was involved, that I began to wonder. As I watched pictures of the house, taken by a camera crew from a very safe distance, and listened to indignant, evacuated neighbours demanding to know when the police would let them back into their homes, I made connections.
I have never had any medical training but I have seen my share of anoying pre-dead people who have been converted to irredeemably dead hulks by having the life drained out of them. It seems reasonable that the lack of a conventional cause of death might make those charged with accounting for the end of a life suggest something new and exotic in the way of chemical or biological poisons to explain away their lack of success.
As an interesting spin-off, the news media were now suggesting that London had been lucky. The capital had been spared a terrorist outrage because the dead people in the house had been careless while handling some biological weapon. It was a line which received the approval of the owner of the squatted house and his family, and also the neighbours. The 'spokespersons' had rejected it. The police had gone very quiet, which suggested that their forensic experts were giving them nothing useful.
Of course, I mentioned the case to both Frosh and Xanthe, separately, and their reaction was one of uninvolved amusement. By then, I no longer suspected that Frosch was involved. General Frosch, as he mentioned to me during our discussion, would have arranged for the squatters to croak off the premises. Xanthe, however, has an impatient streak.
I was diverted from the subject of squatters almost immediately. As a night-owl member of the science fiction film club, I was in the habit of talking to other members during the intervals and exchanging opinions on the quality of that night's films and which films I would like to see included on the viewing programme.
It was during one of these idle chats that I came to realize that a rather pale man called Eric was 'a bit odd'. One of the things that seems to intrigue some of the night owls is why other club members are up and about during the night. Eric, for instance, told me that he works in the computer industry. His job requires him to spend 5 or 6 hours per day writing code for computer programs. And it makes no difference whether he does it during daylight hours or around a night-time session at a SF film club. For my part, I mentioned that I am involved in the security industry at an executive level, and I have to be on call during the hours of darkness, when stealthy criminals are at work.
Eric and I seemed to have complimentary tastes in films and we generally had a chat at some point during the night. It was during one such chat, within a few days of the deaths of the 5 squatters, that he dropped his bombshell. Eric, so he said, was a vampire and that was the reason why he lived out his life during the hours of darkness.
Out of sheer curiosity, and knowing that if he turned out to be a real, genuine, neck-chomping vampire, then he would get a hell of a shock if he tried to make a meal out of me, I went for a look at his home when we had had our fill of SF films. Eric lived in a spacious apartment in a tower block set in a 'good' area. His main room was filled with computers and their associated gadgets. He had 3 different computers for doing different jobs and each had its own set of peripherals, as he called them. His bedroom was a dark pit, at first sight.
Eric switched on a very dim light but my enhanced vision had already shown me his pride and joy. Eric had invested in an American-style, white-silk-lined, king-size coffin. It rested in the middle of the carpet in a bed-less bedroom, where he spent the daylight hours. I think he was rather disappointed by the lack of signs of shock or even revulsion on my part. I mentioned, sometime later, that so many weird things happen in the security industry that we can take meeting exotic beings like vampires in our stride.
Over coffee, Eric introduced me to one of his computers. He used it for writing horror stories, some of which he was able to sell. The rest ended up on his website as free gifts for visitors. I made a mental note at that point to suggest to Frosch that Number One, Churchill Square needed access to the World Wide Web. There were clearly a lot of peculiar and interesting things going on in cyberspace.
Of course, Eric wasn't really a vampire. He was still a creature of the land of the pre-dead but his fantasy was helpful to his literary career. I had mentioned at the film club that it would be nice if my firm could recruit some vampires because they could be expected to stay awake on a night shift. During a brain-storming session at Eric's computer, I told him that someone had suggested that it would be nice if we could set traps for notorious squatters and arrange a sticky end for them as revenge on behalf of property owners whom they've offended, embarrassed and involved in spending money on court costs. Death at the hands of a vampire, my fictional colleague felt, would be a fitting penalty for squatters.
Eric found the concept of winkling performed by vampires so beguiling that he incorporated it into one of his horror stories -- one which did not end up on his website. For my part, I became increasingly suspicious of the secret activities of Frosch and Xanthe. We live in an age of miracles, where the wildest truths of real life are exceeded on a daily basis on television and in the cinema. No one has yet devised a television series about the true post-dead -- about individuals like myself, my three regular companions and the others, whom we suspected had to be at large all over the world -- but only a nudge in the right direction is lacking.
The obvious plot twist is that some secret governmental agency would lead the public to believe that the menace of the post-dead had been eliminated while taking all such individuals into their custody as secret agents. With good reason, I remain suspicious of the motives of politicians and their hirelings. I feel that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility to suppose that my companions, or another of the post-dead of whom we have no knowledge, could just get himself or herself noticed through some flamboyant act.
And if the spy-types and the politicians realized that there are beings like us around, what would that mean for our future? Nothing good, I fear.