3a : Buffed Up
Frosch dropped in unexpectedly at Churchill Square one dark, wet evening when the turn of the year was in sight. He arrived during a rather dull part of an episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, which was being shown on Sky One. Frosch and I exchanged a few desultory remarks as the scriptwriters made their point of the moment -- a point which the viewers were expected to remember later in the episode -- and the programme vanished into a string of commercials.
I soon realized that Frosch had the air of dissatisfaction of a general on a tour of inspection -- someone who had been hoping to find his troops up to no good and who was terribly disappointed because that hadn't happened.
The programme resumed as Frosch was sampling the other bottle of malt whisky in the viewing room in an attempt to define the differences between them.
"That's good," he remarked a few minutes later.
"I'm sure the blender will be delighted to hear it," I replied.
"No, I mean that." Frosch nodded at the wide-screen, flat-panel television. "What that guy just did with his mush." A vampire had put on his 'fierce face' prior to joining battle. His reward had been to be staked and turned to dust by Buffy about ten seconds later.
"He's a vampire. They do that either to terrify people or just before they start feeding."
"Good, isn't it?"
"Haven't you ever seen Buffy before?" I asked.
Frosch shook his head slowly, waiting for another vampire to put on the 'fierce face'. "I see what you mean about terrifying people. It would really make you freak out if someone did that right in front of you. Like this."
I couldn't help laughing at the face that he pulled. "You look more like Charles Laughton doing the Hunchback of Notre Dame than a vamp," I scoffed.
"Yeah, well, it's not easy to do it without something to compare yourself with," Frosch complained.
Buffy was back with her friends, going through some more plot, and the vampires had gone back to the canteen until they were needed again.
"When are we likely to see some more of them?" Frosch added. "The vampires?"
"Possibly not in this episode," I told him. "The main threat is from a fire-demon tonight. A real flame-thrower."
"Bugger! When's this on again?"
"It's only on once a week."
"Although, if you go to the website, you'll probably be able to find a picture of a vampire with a fierce-face on, which you can print out and pin up next to a mirror while you practise."
"I knew that," Frosch said in a deliberately ungrateful tone. "The computer's still working, then?"
"Was an hour ago."
General Frosch disappeared. I gave my attention back to the fire-demon, which was toasting parts of Sunnydale while calling upon the Slayer to show herself. Of course, when Buffy did show up, she made very short work of the demon. Then she sneaked away before the Fire Department could arrive with awkward questions.
The next programme was all about human mutants with not a vampire or a demon to be seen. It was about half over before Frosch returned to refill his whisky glass. "I like this smoky one best," he remarked.
I caught a flash of movement in my peripheral vision and turned my head, expecting to see him holding up a bottle. When I was looking in his direction, Frosch suddenly put on a perfect vampire 'fierce face'.
"Impressive, or what?" Frosch relaxed into a beam of pure delight at the amazement on my face.
"That was quick," I told him. "Learning that."
Frosch shrugged. "If you can see where you're supposed to be going, it's easy to get there and remember how you did it. I suppose it proves I'm not too old to learn new tricks." There was a touch of the defensive in the tone of someone who had been born in the year before Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee.
"You sometimes wonder if the things people learn are worth the effort."
"What things are they?" a female voice asked as Iktar drifted through a section of wall and re-solidified. "I just knew you two would be boozing and watching telly."
"Just watch, she'll go all disapproving on us," laughed Frosch. "Then she'll collapse in front of the TV, expecting one of us to get her a drink."
"What an excellent idea." Iktar lowered herself into the chair beside mine and looked at me, letting me know what was expected of me.
"Allow me, madam." Frosch was already on his way to the drinks cabinet. "So why aren't you working?" he added as he poured out just the right amount of whisky and prepared to dilute it by just the right amount with non-London water.
"Some of us are so good at our job that we take a lot less time over it than others," Iktar told him. "So we can either do more work or take more time off."
"And you decided there's more to life than working?" I said.
"When you're working as a source of entertainment, rather than to keep body and soul together, time off is the better alternative," Iktar replied.
"Entertainment being entertaining only when it's intermittent?" Frosch sounded like he was quoting something.
"Right in one," said Iktar. "What's happened to the waiter in this joint? Someone had him exterminated?"
Frosch approached her, carrying her glass and wearing an oily grin. I realized later that he delivered the glass at such a height that Iktar was also looking at his face as she reached for it.
Iktar let out a short scream. I looked at Frosch and saw that he was wearing a vampire 'fierce face'. As I watched, he smoothed his features, waited a few seconds, then put on the 'fierce face' again with expert slickness.
"What is he doing?" Iktar demanded.
"He's been watching Buffy and he fancies becoming a vampire," I explained.
"I thought he'd suddenly developed leprosy, or something equally horrible." Iktar claimed the glass and took a swallow of the whisky. It was pure habit. Drugs like alcohol have no effect on us. We drink spirits purely for their taste.
"Good, isn't it?" Frosch put on the 'fierce face' again.
"I think it looks perfectly horrible," Iktar told him. "Which is the idea of it, I suppose. Maybe I should learn to do that. It would certainly give any angry and potentially violent customers something to think about."
"I shouldn't think your boss would appreciate it if your customers went to the police, claiming he's using vampires to repossess his cars," said Frosch.
"Except no one would believe them," I pointed out. "Vampires aren't real."
"You know that for an absolute fact, do you?" Frosch said, being awkward.
"I shouldn't think they'd come back to our firm in a hurry if they thought we set vampires on them," Iktar decided.
"People who use your cars but don't pay for them? And then don't come back?" Frosch said slowly, examining the concept. "What exactly is wrong with that?"
"Most of them just need a nudge," Iktar explained. "It's like a game to them. They pay a bit, they go delinquent, they get repossessed, they pay a penalty and it all starts over again. Even so, it would probably be better to fighten someone off rather than let them find out that hitting me can be like hitting smoke or the most solid rock imaginable."
"Step into my training academy and I'll show you how it works for a small fee," Frosch offered.
Alone again, I found that I had lost the thread of the programme about mutants -- if I had ever held it -- and I started channel-hopping. There was some saloon car racing on one of the Sky sports channels. I decided to watch them barging one another off the track for a while.
Twenty minutes later, Iktar and Frosch returned from the secret computer room on the second floor, looking enormously pleased with themselves. Iktar ghosted over to my chair and bent over me. She lowered her face towards mine and just as I was starting to wonder if she was going to kiss me first, she put on her vampire 'fierce face' about two inches from my nose.
"I think you'll find it loses the effect if you're too close to someone for them to see what you've done," I pointed out.
Iktar smoothed her features and retreated. She put on a repeat performance at a range of about two feet. "Well?" she invited.
"You could probably get a job as an extra on Buffy," I admitted. "In fact, they'd probably jump at the chance to employ you. No bills for horrendously expensive special effects for the face thing. And you could do turning into a cloud of dust when Buffy stakes you, too."
"An excellent idea apart from one thing," Iktar pointed out. "Don't they kill her off at the end of this series?"
"Spin offs?" I suggested. "I've always said they should do a series about Spike if they can do one about Angel. I think Spike's probably the best character in the whole thing."
"Yes, I know, you keep telling me," Iktar said patiently.
"I can't wait for Xanthe to show up now," Frosch said, half to himself. "Do you think it would have more impact if we did it all together or one at a time?"
"The good thing about not having a heart is you can't drop dead of a heart attack," Iktar remarked. "All together would get her wondering what planet she's on for a while. I don't think she's ever seen Buffy."
"She's going to be real friends with you two," I laughed.
"You've got to do it too," Iktar insisted. "Come on, I'll show you how to do it."
I gave up on the racing saloon cars. Iktar with a mission was not to be denied.
Much to Frosch's disgust, Xanthe failed to honour us with her presence on that evening. In fact, we didn't see her again for several days. Iktar and I were watching an episode of Star Trek TNG when Xanthe showed up again -- and trying to work out if the plot had been ripped off from an episode in the original series. The first time we noticed Xanthe was when she walked into our line of sight from the direction of the drinks cabinet. She took a sip from her glass and stood there, looking at us, waiting.
"What?" Iktar said eventually.
"I met Frosch lurking on the ground floor," Xanthe announced. "I was just wondering when you two would start playing silly beggars, too."
Iktar turned toward me, put on a fierce-face and went, "Grrr, argh!" in as menacing a tone as she could manage. I responded in kind.
"It's quite impressive, seeing someone do that in real life," Xanthe remarked. "Except, strictly speaking, we're not really alive."
"You realized what he was doing, of course?" I said. "Frosch?"
Xanthe nodded. "After I stopped jumping out of my non-existent skin. I thought there was something wrong with him at first."
"Something more wrong than usual?" laughed Iktar. "Anyway, what have you been up to? We've not seen you for ages."
"Running into other strange people." Xanthe claimed a chair which gave her a view of the TV as well as Iktar and myself. "I was approached at a reception a couple of days ago. By two men who want to buy our technology."
"Our what?" said Iktar.
"We don't have any technology," Iktar said with a frown.
"Yes, we do," laughed Xanthe. "We're aliens. We have force fields. They stop us being shot. And we must have all sorts of other gadgets."
"These two blokes were winding you up, right?" laughed Iktar.
Xanthe shrugged. "They seemed serious enough. And they didn't look like the sort of people who take 'no' for an answer."
"So what are they going to do about it if we don't co-operate?" scoffed Iktar. "Kill us?"
"So what did you tell them?" I added.
"That I had no idea what they were talking about. To which they replied they'd give me a few days to think it over then they'll be in touch again," Xanthe told us.
"Sounds like something General Frosch needs to know about," I decided.
"And I would have told him if he hadn't distracted me by playing silly beggars," Xanthe returned. "I can tell him when he gets fed up of playing with his computer. That was next on his list after he'd finished downstairs."
"Not that there's much we can do about it if they get pushy," Iktar remarked. "Unless we want to move away from the area."
"Sod that for a game of soldiers," said Xanthe. "No doubt all will be revealed in due course and it'll be less terrible than we're imagining."
The matter dealt with for the moment, we gave our attention to the television and the unfolding, possibly recycled, threat to the starship Enterprise. I had never thought of myself as an alien before but, I suppose, there is some truth in the assigment. We, the ladies, Frosch and myself, are life forms which are native to the planet Earth, but we're not 'life as we know it, Jim' in a fairly fundamental sense.
3b: Developments, Not All Of Them Welcome
The incident was shocking, I decided later, mainly because I was completely unprepared for it. Shocking but not endangering. This disorganized description reflects my state of mind immediately afterwards. Okay, take a deep breath and think about what happened.
The time was about eleven o'clock on a drizzly evening. It was the beginning of November, the nights were still lengthening and there were Christmas decorations on show in places. I was heading for the science-fiction cinema club, which was having a night of Japanese monster movies.
The streets were quite full but there were lanes in the crowds. A woman entered my clear lane and started walking toward me. I was considering my evasive action -- go left or go right before we collided -- when she smiled at me. Surprised, wondering whether we had met sometime in the far past or she was making a mistake, I delayed the evasive action.
The woman seemed to be about to speak to me. Instead, she brought her hand into view out of the folds of her coat. A light flashed on metal. I realized that she was holding a knife as she was trying to stick it into my chest.
I increased my density almost without thinking. The end of the knife broke off and fell onto the ground.
"We really want to buy in to your technology," she told me with a bright smile. Then she disappeared into the crowd before I could react.
The people around me were not sure what they've seen. The logical conclusion was that I had not been attacked because I was unharmed. Most, I assume, were wondering if it was some sort of candid camera stunt. Whatever they were thinking, none of them wanted to get involved.
When I started moving again, still feeling rather stunned, all of the witnesses to the 'stabbing' had moved away. Even so, I felt that I was attracting too much attention and I quickened my pace. My feet took me automatically to the cinema club. I met Eric, my 'vampire' acquaintance, in the bar. He had just finished a new short story and he was looking for someone to impress with his news. Letting Eric rabbit on removed the need for me to say all that much.
Later, in the scream-filled semi-darkness as a monster called Mothra was doing its best to take out Planet Earth, I let my thoughts drift back to my adventure in the street. I realized very quickly that the stabbing had been very slow. The woman had not really attempted to make a success of it.
The 'attack' had been more a demonstration than a serious attempt to take me out. In fact, the woman had behaved as if she had not expected the knife to penetrate even my outer clothing. The stroke had been confident initially but she had pulled back at the moment of impact, probably to avoid injuring herself.
Xanthe had given me the number of her mobile phone number on the night of her encounter with the two men who had approached her about our 'technology'. The phone was switched off when I called her in the small hours of the night, having seen enough Japanese monsters to keep me going for a while.
I retired to my floral tribute in the basement of One, Churchill Square in an unsettled frame of mind.
It was not until the next evening that I was able to make contact with Xanthe. She promised to get in touch with Frosch, who was keeping his mobile number secret from everyone but Xanthe for some unexplained reason. Iktar arrived as I was finishing the call and I was able to tell her about my small adventure.
"Are you going to be all right on your own?" Iktar asked when I told her that Xanthe was hoping to arrange a conference for that evening. "Or do you want me to stay off work and protect you?"
"As they don't seem to have much going for them in the way of weapons technology," I told her, "you might as well go and harass some more of your clients."
"You're positive they're not leading you down the garden path by pretending they can't manage anything more dangerous than knives?"
I shrugged. "If they do have anything more dangerous, I'll just have to show them my fierce-face and disappear into thin air while they're still boggling."
"Grrr! Argh!" Iktar put on her own fierce-face then dissolved into laughter.
"And they do keep telling us they want to buy in to our technology," I pointed out.
"Unless it's just a plot to get us to show them what we've got and then they rip us off."
"Sounds like someone's been watching too much TV. Our main problem is going to be convincing them that we don't have any alien technology, not avoiding being ripped off."
Iktar shrugged. "We can always quote our prime directive at them. We can't sell our technology to inferior beings."
"Yes, I don't suppose they can argue with that," I said with a laugh. "Although I can't see Frosch passing up a business opportunity like this. There must be some way he can take some cash off them."
"Yes, our Frosch is a very inventive bloke," laughed Iktar.
I discovered just how inventive Frosch had been later in the evening. Iktar was out repossessing vehicles. Xanthe had turned up in good time to catch the start of the TV premiere of a Bond film. When Frosch arrived, during the second commercial break, we learned that his company had arrange a number of other protection deals similar to the one in operation at One, Churchill Square. Exactly how many was a commercial secret, Frosch told us with one of his infuriating smiles.
Some of them, I suspected were solo operations which Frosch was handling personally. I assumed that the client in such cases would be a crooked landlord, who wanted to gain vacant possession ahead of either demolition as part of a redevelopment deal, or refurbishment and reclassification as a property with a higher band rent. But the problems of the pre-dead are not ours.
Frosch revealed his few scraps about his business empire as we speculated about how the news that there was alien technology in town had reached the ears of the people who had approached Xanthe and myself. I concluded, without saying anything aloud, that Frosch had been showing off his invulnerability during his winkling activities and his victims had not been too terrified to talk out of turn.
"In fact," Frosch said with a calculating glance at Xanthe, "I have another property just like this one in need of a resident, if anyone's thinking of volunteering."
"Just regular visits and pest extermination if necessary?" Xanthe asked, putting a calculating gleam in her dark eyes. I have no idea how her pre-dead self looked but she now favours lots of glossy, jet-black hair, a delicate tan and an outer covering which resembles the most expensive of the currently fashionable fabrics.
"And a suitable fee," Frosch added.
"Sounds delightful," Xanthe said with a winning smile. She always likes to be unaccountable and a separate residence would help her to achieve that goal. I realized that in future, she would be a visitor -- a very welcome one -- rather than a resident on Churchill Square.
"And I can do the same for Iktar," Frosch added to me.
"And you've already done the same for yourself, I suppose?" I said.
"A delightful town house with a view of the river," Frosch said with a smug nod. "If you climb up on the roof and use your imagination."
"None of which addresses our immediate problem of the alleged technology," I pointed out.
"A good way to solve your problem is to make it someone else's," said Frosch. "So I reckon we should leave it up to them to spell out what they want and exactly how much they're prepared to pay for it."
"Sounds reasonable," Xanthe said with a nod.
"Do we need all this hassle?" I mentioned. "Do we need their money?"
"Where's your sense of adventure?" scoffed Frosch.
"Sitting next to my common sense," I told him.
I told Iktar about General Frosch's plans the next evening. She took very little time to reject the idea of moving in somewhere else as one of Frosch's team of security agents. Iktar was somewhat embarrassed to admit that she was a sociable person. She didn't want to be alone now, possibly as a result of her experiences when pre-dead and probably as a result of spending five decades on her own when post-dead. She also wanted to continue to share the Churchill Square house with me.
For my part, I can take as much solitude as life, or post-life, can dish out. But I enjoy the company of someone like Iktar, who is intelligent and articulate, and who can come up with good ideas for places to go, like our aurora trip to Scotland. So I was quite keen to keep things as they were.
Frosch went on about a lost opportunity when he visited us on what was a non-working night for Iktar. After he had gone, Iktar and I agreed that money was behind his complaints. We suspected that he employed pre-dead security agents through his company and they wanted a lot more payment than his post-dead companions because their living expenses and expectations were so much greater.
November gave way to December and the weather turned from wet and quite mild to drier and much colder. The fierce-face episode had given Iktar the idea of making herself look like various celebrities for a laugh. I sensed from the way that the idea had very little impact on Frosch that he had been doing a spot of quiet impersonation on his own account for fun and profit, as they say.
The pair of them were also interested in fierce-face variations and they began watching more TV than usual in search of good ideas. They were particularly impressed by the glowing eyes and dual voice of the hosted Goa'uld on Stargate SG-1. Doing the voice presented them with few problems. Although we have no need of oxygen, we mimic breathing to avoid drawing attention to ourselves when among the pre-dead and the air-flow provides us with a means of voice production. Doing the dual voice was just a question of experimenting with minor modifications to our vocal apparatus.
I was more impressed when Iktar managed to add the glowing eyes. She dismissed it as just a bit of biochemistry, which she got from the Internet, but she seemed quietly proud of herself when Frosch took about a week to master the process.
Xanthe joined in when Frosch decided that it would be fun for the four of us impersonate famous people and go to a restaurant or a club. Achieving an exact physical copy is no problem for us but doing the voice is more complicated and requires practice if it is to be done properly. A good strategy, Frosch discovered, is to pretend not to be the famous person. If you can convince someone that you're a celebrity who's trying not to be noticed or bothered by plebs, all of the ammunition is on your side. And if the voice isn't right, that's you putting on an accent to try to make people think you're not who they think you are.
Of course, Frosch went that little bit to far. He spent one evening wandering around looking like Lord Lucan. And it wasn't until we were about to return to our separate homes in the small hours of the night that Xanthe pointed out his fundamental mistake. Frosch had failed to age himself by 25 years.
Two weeks into December, we discovered a practical use for our ability to look like other people. Iktar, our vehicle specialist, noticed the car. The same one with the same two men inside it was parked in various places on our side of Churchill Square for the whole span of three consecutive evenings. The car was absent the next evening but Iktar found our two friends in another car when she went out for a scout around.
We knew by then that the surveillance operation included One, Churchill Square. Frosch took to wearing a different face every time he visited the house and he left without being seen several times, hoping to annoy the watchers, until he realized that the watchers seemed interested only in people who arrived at the front door. The next day, he stopped at the watchers' car and began to take pictures of its occupants with a disc camera.
The watchers got out to sort him out but they spotted an approaching police car and drove off. That was the end of the surveillance operation, as far as we could tell. Frosch seemed confident that nothing more would happen until after the new year holiday. In fact, he seemed to be counting the days. Frosch was up to something. I suspected that Xanthe knew quite a bit of what was going on and Iktar was being kept in the dark in case she let something slip while chatting with me.
Having no other alternative, I chose to ignore the storm to come for the moment and concentrate on surviving the Christmas/New Year period. Iktar, I knew, would have something special planned for the holiday.
And in the new year, I knew, Frosch would spring his latest surprise on us.