4a : Pressure Applied
The surveillance camera system had been giving me some intermittent trouble -- refusing to provide a view of the interior of the front porch unless I selected that view, selected another view and then went back to the front porch view. The bloke who came to fix it on the first working day of the new year looked a bit hung over but he seemed to know what he was doing.
A week later, I hit the front porch view button automatically when the doorbell rang, giving the system another routine test. I saw a scruffy bloke in a damp raincoat. He was busy sneezing when he appeared on my monitor screen and he looked harmless enough. He muttered something about a delivery between sneezes, so I went down to the front door.
"James Frosch?" he asked when I opened the door.
"No," I replied.
"Is he here?"
"When will he be back?"
"Who are you and what do you want?" I countered, not inclined to answer any more questions before I got some answers.
"It's you, isn't it?" The scruffy bloke put a weary note of patience into his bunged-up voice.
I frowned at the man, realizing that he had not sneezed once since I had opened the door.
"You're him, Frosch. Lying to me is a serious business."
"Really?" I thought about debating the point with him but I had an attack of the 'what the hells'. I didn't know who the visitor was, because he had neglected to tell me, and I was bored with him already. So I shut the door in his face and ignored his rings on the doorbell, which stopped after about five minutes.
An hour later, the proximity alarm in the porch went off and the camera showed me the scruffy man and a young woman in a smart leather coat. She was holding a police identity card in front of the camera.
At the front door, I denied again that I was Frosch and told the detective that no one of that name lived at the house. She asked for proof of my identity. Luckily, I happened to have my SF cinema club membership card to hand. I produced it along with a handful of banknotes. I am not a wallet person. I stuffed the loose notes back into a 'pocket' pouch in my outer layer before the woman could accuse me of trying to bribe her and handed over the membership card for her inspection.
The detective repeated 'James Prethon' to herself, as if hoping that her knowing my name would get me worried, then she explained that the scruffy man wanted to serve a witness summons on Frosch.
"As I've told you, no one called Frosch lives here," I returned.
"So why would this Mr. Frosch give this place as his address?" the detective asked.
I shrugged. "Possibly because he's a local criminal. This place was infested with squatters for a long time and he may have thought that they were still in residence. And that the local police would accept this as a reasonable address. Is he a scruffy sort of person, this bogus Frosch?" I added with a significant look at the scuffy man in the damp raincoat.
"I wouldn't know," said the detective. "I've never met him."
"Or perhaps there's another explanation," I added. "I'm sure a policewoman knows a whole lot more about why people give false names and addresses than I do."
"I still reckon it's him," said the man in the raincoat, which was still damp even though the rain had been off for at least an hour and a half.
"So anyway," I said to the detective, ignoring the scruffbag's input, "can I get back to what I was doing?"
The detective thought the matter over then decided that there was nothing more to be done. The scruffy man continued his protests as they left but he was clearly getting nowhere. I had considered wishing him, 'Happy New Year, asshole!' but the presence of the detective had made me restrain myself.
I headed up to the office and rang Frosch, whose mobile number I had obtained over Christmas. Frosch denied being a witness to anything, criminal or otherwise, and he said that had no idea why anyone would 'fit him up' as a witness to something which he had not seen. He added that he would never give Churchill Square as his address, anyway, which I was inclined to believe.
"That's what I thought," I told him. "So what's going on?"
"Beats me," Frosch said airily. "But if they come back, just deny everything. Someone's up to something."
"I had worked that out," I told him. "And I reckon you're that sort of someone."
"How's the camera system holding up?" Frosch changed the subject pointedly.
"Okay now," I told him.
"Good. See you." Frosch switched off his mobile.
I decided to let the matter drop until we were face to face and evading my questions would be slightly harder for General Frosch.
There had been no white Christmas but an airstream straight from Russia brought snow and icy roads in the second week of January. Iktar took a holiday in the difficult driving conditions, which meant that she needed a male escort for her evenings out.
As we were still playing our game of making ourselves look like some minor celebrity, I suggested that she could persuade Xanthe to remould herself into an Arnold Schwarzenberger clone if she got fed up with me. Iktar found the notion highly humorous. She didn't think Xanthe would be able to play a man convincingly, no matter how accurate her outward appearance.
She also admitted, to butter me up, that she and Xanthe wouldn't be on speaking terms if they went out together on three successive nights. They both needed an audience -- preferably myself in Iktar's case -- and they weren't prepared to take turns at being each other's admiring partner.
It was on the third night of Iktar's holiday, a Friday, that the confrontation occurred. One minute, she was standing beside me, holding a freshly supplied drink and looking like herself for a change; the next, she was in a corner talking with a smartly dressed woman of the same apparent age. There were no raised voices but I could tell that Iktar wasn't liking what she was hearing. When you've known someone for a while, the body language becomes plain.
Iktar was facing me. Even though I had seen the effect before, I got quite a shock when her eyes suddenly started to glow a brilliant, pale yellow. I could tell from the sudden tension in the other woman's shoulders that she was having her mind blown. I couldn't make out what Iktar told her, but the unmistakable dual tones of a hosted Goa'uld from Stargate SG-1 did reach me.
The woman turned and walked away from Iktar. Her face was frozen in shock and disbelief.
Iktar rejoined me, drained her glass and handed it to me. "We're out of here," she announced in an uncompromising tone.
"Right," I replied. I emptied my own glass and put both glasses on a handy ledge. "Who's your friend?"
"A repo customer who didn't appreciate having to pay to use her car. I fancy going somewhere a bit quieter than this."
The message came across quite plainly. Iktar didn't want to talk about the incident. I reviewed alternative places to go as we left the club. At the same time, I felt sure that she had been lying to me. The other woman had been shaken by Iktar's performance but she had not done the obvious thing -- she had not screamed her head off and fainted. It was obvious that she had been expecting something out of the ordinary to happen, something which an outraged repo customer would not have been expecting.
There was no point in pushing the issue with Iktar. It would just make her moody and silent. No, the time had come, I decided, to push the issue with General Frosch.
Later, when we were back at Churchill Square, Iktar began to develop a certain amount of guilt about her secrets. It must have been something to do with the way that I had remained resolutely a long way from that particular subject. As it was obvious that she wanted to talk about Frosch, but without entering taboo areas, I mentioned the scruffy bloke, who had wanted to serve Frosch with a witness summons. To my surprise, Iktar found an unexpected tangent, which let her glide past the forbidden zone.
"Suppose they come back with a warrant for his arrest for not turning up at the trial and they insist on searching this place?" she said.
"I don't think they can arrest Frosch for not being a witness if he's not been served with the summons," I pointed out.
"Suppose they have some other pretext?" Iktar looked around the TV room, where we were having a last drink in front of the blank and silent screens. "And they start asking questions about who you are and what you're doing here?"
"I'm a security agent looking after the place by calling in from time to time."
"Who just happens to be here every time the police call?"
"I suppose I could ignore them when they ring the bell. Or only let them in every third try."
"Suppose they start asking where you live?"
"I can say here."
"Except that the place is empty. Apart from our lost space. Which we don't want the police looking at."
"That could be a problem," I acknowledged.
"What we need to do is fix you up with somewhere that looks like living quarters," Iktar decided. "We'll do that tomorrow."
Iktar with a mission is an awesome sight. Using what she called a business credit card, she bought an easy chair which folded out as a single bed, a second-hand table and a couple of chairs, three storage units, some clothes, room accessories such as an electric clock and a couple of lamps, and various bits and pieces for the bathroom. She decided not to bother with cooking equipment. If anyone asked, I was to say that I always ate out.
It was clear that Iktar quite enjoyed creating 'the legend'. She mentioned that it took her back to the days when she had been doing this for real in Occupied France. I chose not to remind her that the Gestapo had caught her out eventually and executed her after an appropriate period of torture.
Iktar's final act in the set-dressing process was to devise a list of things for me to do to create the illusion that I was one of the pre-dead. We feel neither heat nor cold but it would be necessary to keep that room and an adjacent bathroom heated, allegedly for the occupant's comfort.
Cleaning would not be much of a problem. Dead skin shed by the pre-dead is a major source of household dust. This is not a problem for us. We were already keeping the internal doors closed to minimize the need for visits by external cleaning contractors.
Iktar told me that I had to move things around in my room, shuffle the items in the storage units, run taps from time to time and make sure that a passing spider didn't spin a web on my toothbrush. Most of what I did would be a complete waste of time, according to the expert, but I needed to be fairly up to date with my schedule, just in case.
Frosch kept out of my way for most of January. According to the ladies, he was working to set his business empire on a self-running footing and he most definitely was not avoiding me. There were no callers at the house but I remained on the alert for minor officials and members of the local police. Then, suddenly, on the last Friday of the month, Frosch was back among Churchill Square's TV viewers.
He arrived looking like a minor TV celebrity, who had been working heavily on his bad-boy image in recent weeks. He appended his fierce face as a greeting to Iktar and then he became himself again.
"So, how's everything?" he remarked to the room at large.
"Quiet but in a state of uncertainty," I told him.
"Everything's under control," Frosch assured me.
"As they said just before the Chernobyl reactor blew up," I replied.
"We're in a quiet phase, in which demands are being stated and refined," Iktar said. She seemed to be quoting from a source which was not familiar to me.
"Which sounds a good time to get everyone up to speed," I pointed out.
Frosch went over to the cocktail cabinet to fix himself a drink as a substitute for an immediate reply.
Of course, I knew what part of the problem was. I knew that the others think of me as a bit of a dreamer. I've never been in a war. I have never been tested as they have. Frosch and Xanthe both saw action during World War One -- Frosch as a soldier, Xanthe as some sort of secret agent. Iktar now makes no secret of the fact that she sneaked about in Occupied France during the Second World War -- until the Gestapo snuffed her out.
I was born during World War Two, and too late to have to do National Service. I have never had anything to do with soldiering or spying. I am untried in their eyes -- and I look like staying that way if no one gives me the chance to become tried.
"Safety first in action is all very well," I said, quoting one of General Frosch's favourite sayings to his back, "but we're not in a world war. If the enemy catch up with me, what are they going to do? Torture me? Kill me?"
"The smallest circles are the tightest." Frosch gave me another of his military quotations.
"You see," I added, "I find that I'm really starting to resent people making judgements about my post-dead self based on what they think they know about my pre-dead self. Okay, so I'm untried, untested under battle conditions. But so what? None of that is relevant any more."
"So what do you want from me?" Frosch said impatiently.
"The truth would be nice," I replied with heavy sarcasm.
Frosch just put on a lazy, unoffended smile. "Yeah? Which version do you want?"
I began to see the hopelessness of my situation.
"Look, I'm still trying to clarify things, find out what's really there," Frosch added. "Give it another couple of weeks and I'll be able to lay everything out for you. Okay?"
"Thirteen days, twenty-three hours, fifty-nine minutes and counting," I told him.
4b : Assassing
Having put me off until a fixed date in the near future, Frosch no longer avoided me. Not that I saw much more of him -- but we did have fleeting contacts, ships passing in the night, as it were. And then, with five days to go until his deadline, he invited me to join him at a fairly fashionable bar called Cassidy's for a drink. He had something to discuss.
It was not until I was approaching the main service counter that I began to have doubts. How would I recognize Frosch if he was wandering around wearing someone else's face? I was on the point of ringing his mobile number when I realized that he would have no problems over finding me. I was my usual self -- and creating pointless problems for that same self, and forgetting that we post-dead can feel one another's presence when we get close enough.
Frosch was out of disguise when I spotted him. The bar had an en suite car park, which was the levelled site of an adjoining building which had been demolished after a fire. While gazing aimlessly through one of the bar's large windows, I spotted Frosch standing beside a black car, peering into it. I went out to join him.
"Something special?" I remarked as I neared him. "A talking car?"
"What, like Kitt out of Knight Rider?" laughed Frosch. "I don't think so. It looks very smart in an understated way, don't you think?"
"I didn't know you went in for understated," I told him. "Or is understated the new over-the-top?"
Frosch smiled scornfully. "This is an achievement thing, Preth."
I smiled back, trying for an equal measure of scorn. I freely admit that I lack ambition in my post-life state. I have no need to seek sustenance and shelter. I have no need of either, and the latter is freely available to me. I can be an unseen presence anywhere I chose. As one of the post-dead, everything is available to me and only ownership is denied for the most part. Even so, I have never felt the need to have a car -- flash, understated or otherwise.
"So you wouldn't be all that impressed if I turned up in one of these at Churchill Square?" Frosch added.
I shrugged. "To be impressed, you have to desire the object that the other person has. I'm not that bothered about having a car."
"This isn't just any car," Frosch was saying as I suddenly noticed a red dot glowing on my chest.
I recognized it as the business end of a laser sight just before the first bullet arrived. I had no time to densify or turn to smoke. So I just assimilated the four rounds, incorporating their mass and momentum into the fabric of my being.
"What the f...?" gasped Frosch.
"Did you just set me up for assassination?" I asked with surprising (to me) cool. "Or was the bloke with the gun aiming at you but he's a rotten shot?"
"It's the technology thing. Did you absorb the bullets?"
I realized that Frosch was looking at the car rather than me, making sure that the beautiful machine had not suffered any damage.
"Well, that's another small mystery for them," Frosch added with a laugh. "The bullets didn't miss, they didn't bounce off and they didn't go through you. So if they hit you, why are you still standing?"
"Technology?" I said. "The same technology that stops people sticking knives into me?"
"Good, isn't it? This technology? Which means it has to be worth a lot of hard cash."
"Except you're not in a position to sell it on, are you?" I pointed out.
"You know that and I know that. But do they?" Frosch said with a cheeky grin.
"You don't have to wait the five days to tell me what's going on, you know."
"There are still a few things shaking down. Such as the lingering doubts that triggered what just happened. And a deal's a deal."
I realized that no one on the street or in the car park had noticed what had happened to me. I had not heard the shots but Frosch had mentioned on occasion that you never hear the bullet that hits you. That was his personal experience, anyway. Whether or not this applies to someone in a post-dead condition, I have no idea. On this occasion, however, it seemed reasonable to assume that the sniper had used a silencer.
"Can we do this later?" Frosch added. "I've just thought of something that needs doing. Something that's going to rattle their cage even more."
I looked at him, trying for a withering gaze, but Frosch was already hurrying away. Deserted, I headed back for Churchill Square and some solitary televiewing until Iktar returned from her night's repo work. At least, I realized, I would have something interesting to tell her about my evening for once.
To my surprise, two days short of his deadline, Frosch turned up at Churchill Square on a wet Wednesday night. Iktar was having a night off from repossessing cars and Xanthe had turned up for a social evening. Frosch's arrival told me that the ladies hadn't just happened to be there.
"Guess what?" Frosch said to me when he had fixed himself a drink -- he had acquired a taste for neat Pernod since our last evening in.
"It's all still up in the air and you can't tell me anything for another six months?" I suggested.
"Cynic!" laughed Iktar.
"Tonight, we admit you into the conspiracy," Frosch said with a bright smile. "Although, you might not like what you hear," he added, his smile broadening.
"In that case, I can just turn round and walk away," I reminded him. "Or step back and let you get on with it with no further involvement by me."
"This is, in fact, true," Frosch acknowledged. "Okay, a spot of history. Quite some time ago, Xanthe and I happened to be in the same general area as a woman who was a witness against an employee of a company run by the North Road Mob. More about them later. The point is, the bloke was acquitted at his trial and the woman was supposed to have police protection. But she'd given her minders the slip on this night because she didn't want them knowing who she was meeting. The North Road Mob were keeping tabs on her and they put two assassins into the area. But the woman recognized one of them and legged it. That's when the trouble started."
"On a note of chronology," Xanthe remarked, "this was a few days after that squatter came back here and tried to shoot Frosch."
"And the North Road Mob had heard about what happened," Iktar added.
"Anyway," Frosch said loudly, seeking to become the focus of the meeting again, "the assassins started shooting and everyone else started screaming and scrambling for cover. Xanthe and me just stood there, watching."
"Where did all this happen?" I asked.
"Didn't I say?" Frosch put on a frown. "It was in a multi-storey car park. So the witness was ducking behind the cars and the two bad guys were circling, trying to get a shot at her. Everyone else was scrambling for the lift or the stairs. But as I said, Xanthe and I were just watching. That's when one of the bad guys tried to take us out as dangerous witnesses."
"Only it all went horribly wrong for him," laughed Xanthe.
"The guy took a shot at me," Frosch continued. "From a range of about five yards. So I reduced my local density and the bullets went right through me. And the bloke hadn't noticed that his mate was behind me, right in the line of fire. So he went down with half his face blown off."
"Which the first man didn't see," said Xanthe.
"No, he was still concentrating on me," said Frosch. "I could see him thinking -- two in the chest? Why isn't he blown away? Obviously, because the target's wearing a bullet-proof vest. So he went for a head-shot. Which zoomed right through me and blew out one of the light fittings."
"I thought he was going to faint when that happened," laughed Xanthe.
"He certainly looked like someone had hit him over the head with something big and heavy," laughed Frosch. "So I just looked him straight in the eye and said, 'Technology. Don't you just love it?' That's when he decided to leg it and regroup."
"And we could hear police sirens," added Xanthe.
"So we split, too," said Frosch. "And then we began getting heavy hints about our technology."
"I think a few words about the North Road Mob would be appropriate for those who know nothing about them," I remarked. "Apart from the fact that they send women members out to stick knives in people."
"Okay," said Frosch. "As you've probably guessed, the customers for the 'technology' are local gangster-clones with ambitions to move up in the world. They've reviewed the benefits of all the usual criminal activities, such as protection, robbery, extortion and so on. But they want to retain an appearance of respectability. In particular, they've been looking at the winkling business from the point of view of finding angles which will give them more profit than, well, someone who doesn't dare step beyond the boundaries of the law. And they're also interested in new ways to create added value."
"It doesn't sound as profitable as the traditional criminal lines of business," I remarked.
"But there's not the same risk of going to gaol if you stay more or less respectable," Frosch pointed out. "So anyway, they've been checking up on how others in the field are operating, looking for ideas for methods using technology which is hard to detect. One obvious area is the use of electronic systems to create sub-sonics waves."
"These are sound waves which are too low for humans to hear but which can be felt," Iktar said, obviously quoting something which she had read or been told. "They leave the exposed individual feeling tense, irritable and possibly even on the verge of a violent rage if the right trigger is added."
"What, all the squatters kill each other so the problem goes away?" I remarked.
Iktar nodded. "In extreme cases, yes."
"Our doings here at a posh address like Churchill Square, and the poor physical condition of the former squatters, soon attract their attention," Frosch resumed. "The story of a bullet bouncing off the one called Frosch intrigued them. Then there was the separate incident of the attempted assassination of the trial witness -- a bullet going through a man answering my description and killing one of the assassins while a woman of Xanthe's description looked on. The upshot of it all was that the North Road Mob convinced themselves we have access to interesting technology."
"A fairly reasonable conclusion," I acknowledged. "If you keep mentioning your technology when someone tries to shoot you."
"So the next step was to check us out," said Frosch. "By the way, a lot of what I'm telling you is out of the proper order but I've built up the story from listening in on the North Roaders' arguments."
"Which is what they have instead of reasoned discussions," Xanthe offered.
"And you're getting it in its proper sequence," Frosch continued. "So anyway, they tried to check us out but got nowhere. No past history on us anywhere they looked. Which told us that we're using false names."
"Aren't we rotters?" laughed Iktar.
"That's when I noticed I was being watched," said Frosch. "So I followed a shadow back to where the North Roaders hang out and listened in. You'll be amused to hear that there are two camps. One lot thinks that we have access to either former Soviet technology sold on by their military or US technology stolen by, or sold to, the KGB during the Cold War era. The other lot think we're aliens, possibly on a scouting mission, possibly preparing to take over the Earth."
"How serious are they about that? The take-over?" I interrupted, frowning.
Frosch shrugged. "It's mainly a joke. But it's also something they can't shoot down in flames. There's no proof we're not aliens."
"Our total lack of history is highly suspicious, for one thing," said Xanthe.
"Are we talking men-from-Mars aliens or illegal aliens from Eastern Europe or somewhere like that?" I asked.
"Definitely men from Mars," said Frosch. "Not to mention women from Venus."
"Just as long as they don't try and kidnap one of us so they can shove us in front of an X-ray machine," I said. "Or try and zap us in the street with a portable X-ray set-up."
"They haven't been talking about anything like that when I've been listening to them," laughed Frosch. "So anyway, we've recently added another piece to their puzzle. Or you have, Preth. Bullets bouncing off, bullets going through and now, bullets just disappearing into nowhere in that car park. Whether we're humans or aliens is now irrelevant. We have technology that they want."
"So where are we up to?" I asked.
"On the verge of our first formal contact with the North Road Mob," said Frosch.