>Well, here it is – the unfinished manuscript for Flatland, the story that wanted to be a novel. If you’ve been following this project’s progress, you’ll know what it’s all about. If not, I suggest you browse back through the Flatland entries on this blog.
Parts of this are fourth draft but as a whole it’s to be treated as a first draft. It’s essentially unedited; I haven’t even done a mechanical spell check, nor have I run it past any of my regular readers. I hope it’s interesting for you to see the story in this raw form … and I hope you don’t get too frustrated when you reach the end only to find the damn thing’s stopped in mid-flow!
Actually, strike that. I do hope you’re frustrated. Because, if you are, the story, even in this rudimentary form, is working.
Enough waffle, on with the show …
Flatland by Graham Edwards
I rolled off the couch and hit the floor. I lay there a while, groaning. My head was filled with cotton and my mouth tasted of the same bad dream I’d been having every night for the past two weeks. The dream about Laura walking into the river until the water covered her head.
I opened my eyes, groaned louder. The bad taste lingered. I spat it away. I crawled to the window, wiped it clean. Looked for something that made sense.
Instead I saw the whole city flattened.
Usually, when I take in the view from my office, I see the rumpled tarmac of the same old street I’ve looked out on for the last ten years. I see the faded grey line that runs down the centre – I can’t remember the last time the municipals sent someone down here to paint it in white. I see the gutters piled high with rats-nest newspapers and broken bottles. I see the low-rise buildings slumped opposite, the line of struggling businesseses that share this forsaken corner of town with mine: Diana’s Deli; Nimblequick the Tailor; the Marscapone Motel. Every day the same.
Not this day.
I stood. The cotton in my head turned to cement as the hangover kicked in. I stared, not comprehending.
Outside, everything was gone. The familiar city skyline had been replaced by a distant horizon so sharp I thought my eyes would bleed. Between me and that horizon was an infinite plain, a horizontal surface stretching in all directions like the biggest sheet of paper you ever saw. The whole world had emptied. The whole world had turned flat.
I reeled back. It was too much to take in. I staggered to the coffee machine, drank three cups black without taking breath. The java cleaned out my head. Wiped out the aftertaste of the dream too. I went back to the window, but the city was still gone.
Except it wasn’t, not exactly.
If the world had become a gigantic sheet of paper, then someone had been scribbling on it. Stretching out from my office door was a scrawl of lines and patterns and scrambled Rorschach blots. And it was moving, all of it, every little scratch and puddle of colour boogying like oil in water or a laser through smoke. At first it looked like chaos. Then, slowly, it began to make sense.
Running left to right through the orgy of light and motion was a band of darkness. It was hard to see, like the edge of a galaxy’s hard to see when your eyes are full of stars. But once you see the wood, you don’t get distracted by the trees.
The dark band was the street. The knife-blade slashes running down the sides were the piles of newspapers. The hectic blots of colour shimmering through the slashes were the rats, hunting through the garbage. Beyond the street I could clearly make out the rectangular ground plans of the buildings opposite and, beyond those, more buildings still. Through it all moved bigger blots, more complex than the rat-shapes, some with flowing organic lines, others blocky and mechanical.
I pressed my hands against the window, gasped coffee-tinged vapour on to the glass. The city had been reduced to a moving map of itself. Three dimensions had become two. Yet, somehow, it was still functioning. The architecture was still in place. Living beings – people and rats and all things between – were going about their lives looking like medical scans of themselves. The whole city in cross-section.
I flopped back on the couch. For a second I wished I was back in the dream. I’m good with dimensions, but this was like nothing I’d seen before.
I asked myself: What force could have done this?
What I should have asked was: Why did it leave me alone?
I’d have worked my way round to that question eventually. But, just at that moment, a woman screamed.
The sound came from outside. Without thinking, I popped the locks and stepped through the door. The scream came again, from somewhere above my head. I looked up, saw a woman’s head poking from a window on the second floor. Her face was small and white inside a mane of crisp blonde hair. Her mouth was a dark oval. The screams were loud but somehow dull. Something in the air was soaking up the sound.
I stepped further into the street. Then I remembered there was no street.
I looked down.
My boots were planted on the moving map the city had become. The surface was hard and glassy, unyielding. On it, flattened forms swarmed and melted. I shifted my weight and started to slide; it was like standing on ice.
I’m crushing them! I imagined my weight bearing down on all that two-dimensional life. My legs tensed in panic.
A glutinous shape slithered up to my right heel, disappeared beneath it. A second later, it emerged unharmed on the other side. I crouched, looked closer. It was like someone had taken a rat and sliced it through. Inside its amoeba-like outline were cross-sections of its bones, its organs, all the squirting liquids and the vessels that contained them. But none of it stayed the same, from one second to the next. It was like the scan was being refreshed a thousand times a second, each time in a different place. Looking at it made me dizzy.
The dame was still screaming.
‘Hey, lady!’ I shouted. My voice, like hers, sank without echo into the air. Is it air? I wondered. Whatever I was breathing tasted strange, like flat lemonade. ‘Are you okay?’
She stopped screaming, seemed to notice me for the first time.
‘Thank the gods,’ she said. ‘I thought I was on my own.’
‘You and me both.’
She pointed at the horizon. ‘Do you see it? Tell me you do. Tell me I’m not going crazy.’
‘Either it’s real or we’re both crazy. And I don’t believe I’m crazy.’
The dame swept her hair back from her face. She was maybe familiar, certainly beautiful.
‘I’m scared,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what to do. Do you think … maybe you could …?’
I took another look across the flat glassy plaza. The sky was black. No stars, no sun. Yet there was cold light everywhere.
Everything about this was wrong. But underneath my unease was something worse. A black dread. A fear of something sneaking up on me from a direction I couldn’t see. Something that didn’t make a sound, and was too many shapes all at once.
Suddenly I didn’t want to be outside any more.
‘Stay there, lady,’ I said. ‘I’m on my way.’
My office occupies one ground-floor corner of a four-storey brownstone on the west side of String City. Filling the other corner is a lobby that serves as the residents’ entrance. Out back there’s an old laundry, abandoned now.
To get to the dame’s apartment, all I had to do was walk along the front of the building from my door to the lobby entrance. From there I could take the elevator, or climb the stairs. But I wasn’t staying outside a second longer than I had to.
I went back in my office, double-locked the door behind me. Grabbing my coat from the rack, I turned it inside-out twice until it was made from cashmere. I shrugged it on and went to the bookcase. I shoved the bookcase aside, revealing a trapdoor exactly the size and shape as a single floorboard. I lifted up the trapdoor and pressed it into the wall in front of me. I spun it ninety degrees and knocked on it three times. The trapdoor flipped open, leaving me standing in front of a horizontal slot. It looked a little like a giant letterbox. From it, an icy wind blew.
There was no way I could fit through that slot. So I picked myself up and folded myself in half, then in half again. I posted myself through the slot and vanished out of the world where I do business and into the perilous realm that exists on the other side of reality.
Into the space between the strings.
I didn’t stay there long. Interdimensional travel might save on shoe leather but it’s also a great way to get killed. If the boundary wolves don’t eat you, you’ll most likely get kicked in the head by an apocalypse mule. If you do manage to avoid the wildlife, chances are you’ll get sucked into the Drop, where the only thing you can do is fall. Forever.
So I kept it brief. I rode a brane-wave up and over a cosmic crease where the strings were all lined up like the strings on a harp. As I flew over it, the universe played arpeggios. Then a blackness rushed up and hit me. I thumped my fists against hard dark corners crowding in like the corners of a coffin. At the same time I was smothered in something that felt like satin. I went on thumping until something gave and I tumbled out of the darkness on to a soft Chinese rug. Standing before me, clutching a white silk robe around her neck, was the blonde woman from the window.
‘What are you doing in my underwear drawer?’ she said.
I peeled a triangle of something soft and filmy off my face and clambered to my feet. Something lacy wafted from my shoulders.
‘It beats using the stairs,’ I said.
She told me her name was Pheme Bacall and she worked for Lachesis Incorporated, in the big head office over on southside. The words poured out of her on a wave of nervous energy. Actually, more a tsunami.
‘Lachesis is quite the success story. After the three Fates closed up the family business, Lachesis went into quantity surveying. Now she’s one of the biggest employers in the String City. They handle all the city’s real estate. Of course, I’m just a secretary. But I’ve got ambitions.’
‘Fascinating story,’ I said. ‘But it’s not why you asked me up.’
She plucked her hand from her robe, used it to massage her forehead. The robe fell open, revealing more curves than a geometry class.
‘You’re the private investigator, aren’t you?’
‘It’s what I do.’ I kept my eyes on her face. Given those curves, it should have been difficult. But it wasn’t. Because she looked familiar enough to drive needles into my heart.
She looked just like Laura.
‘It’s strange,’ she went on. ‘I’ve been renting this apartment for six months and we’ve never met. I must walk past your door every day.’
‘Mostly I don’t use the door.’
‘I see you didn’t use mine. How did you get up here?’ A sudden eagerness lit up her face.
‘I’m good with dimensions.’
‘Yes.’ She gathered herself. ‘Doors are over-rated. I keep mine locked – you never know who might be out there.’
‘Do you know what’s going on?’
‘No. But I’m curious to find out. Care to tell me what you saw?’
The cold light from the window drifted on her cheekbones like snow. On her throat, on the left side, was a tiny tattoo: two circles, concentric, one nested inside the other. ‘I didn’t see anything.
She applied the robe to herself again. The clinging silk made what was underneath harder to ignore. ‘I was in bed asleep. A sound woke me – I don’t know what it was. A sort of a thud. I got out of bed and went to the window. I thought perhaps a bird had flown into the glass. Then I saw … well, what had happened outside. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. It scared me. So I screamed.’
She took a step towards me. In her bare feet, she was exactly as tall as I was. Just like Laura. Her bottom lip was trembling. The robe came open again. She let it stay that way. She smelled of cinnamon.
And I knew that most of what she’d told me was a lie.
‘I’m so scared,’ she said. Her voice had turned husky. Her eyes had grown big. Her presence enveloped me. ‘Won’t you protect me?’
For a second, I had strangest feeling. It was like Pheme Bacall was everywhere, all at once. It was like I was running down a steep hill while warm water climbed over my head. I tried to breathe but couldn’t. If I had, it would probably have killed me.
It was like I was drowning.
A wind whipped up, lifted the robe. Pheme stood wholly revealed beneath undulating silk wings. There was more of her than seemed possible.
Smoke and mirrors, I told myself, helplessly drenched in her.
‘Help me,’ she sang. ‘I love you.’
Someone banged on the door.
Pheme froze. The robe collapsed back over her body. She was just a woman again.
‘You should cover up,’ I said. I took one hem of the robe, folded it over the other. The silk was hot. She held herself rigid while I fumbled with the ties. Her chest fluttered. My hands shook the whole time.
When she was decent, I went to the door.
‘Who is it?’ I said.
A pause. Then a hoarse voice said, ‘Janitor. How many of you in there?’
‘Two,’ I said.
‘How’re you doin’?’
‘Okay, I guess.’
‘Care to open up?’
I raised an eyebrow at Pheme. She nodded. She was smouldering like a bonfire.
I tried to turn the key, but the door was already unlocked. I opened it to reveal a wizened old man. He was wearing blue biballs and brandishing a mop. And he had pointed ears.
‘I thought the Sidhe had moved out of town,’ I said. ‘What with the apocalypse due.’
‘Third generation.’ He waggled his ears proudly. ‘This city’s my home. Name’s Edwin. You’re the gumshoe from the ground floor.’
‘Seems everybody knows me.’
There was movement on the stairs behind him. A crowd descended: twenty or more anxious-looking folk. Half of them looked ordinary enough, but there was a big contingent of chimeras – folk with snakes for legs or wings on their elbows or heads shaped like fish. One looked like a giant cockroach. A couple were giants, so big they had to bend double to fit through the stairwell.
Typical String City residents, in other words.
‘Who are all your friends?’ I said
‘Residents’ committee.’ The faery rolled his eyes. Then he called through the door to Pheme. ‘Pardon me, miss, but th’fella here reckons your apartment’s th’only one big enough. Me, I ain’t so …’
A big man barged out of the crowd, muscled the little janitor aside. He moved fast, leaving fleeting impressions of himself: red velvet smoking jacket hanging off broad shoulders; a long fringe of brown hair flapping like the wing of a partridge; a jawline you could ski down. A silver pendant shaped like an acorn swung from his neck.
‘Pleased to meet you!’ he bellowed. He grabbed my hand, used it to pump my arm. ‘The name’s Mimas! Top floor! You’re that private detective fellow!’
He pushed past me, swept up to Pheme, bent so low his fringe stroked his knee. He took her hand and kissed it.
‘Forgive the liberty, miss,’ Mimas said.
A look like electricity scorched the air between them. Something nearly as hot seared my chest. If I hadn’t been so off-balance, I’d have recognised it as jealousy.
The folk started pouring off the stairs. They flowed past me and the janitor and into Pheme’s apartment. The place soon filled up. Conversation bubbled like an unwatched pot. Mimas ploughed a furrow through the crowd, shaking hands, larger than life. I felt suddenly small: these were my neighbours, but I didn’t recognise a single face.
I scanned the room for Pheme. She was nowhere to be seen. Then, on a wave of cinnamon, she was beside me. She’d topped the robe with a wrap of yellow fur. The fur clung just the same as the silk.
‘Are you all right?’ she said.
‘Not used to crowds.’
‘It’s all right. I’m here now.’ She moistened her lips, settled them on mine. My arms closed against the small of her back. Her hands roved. They felt just like Laura’s.
It felt wonderful. Also terrible. It felt false and true, both at the same time. The fur she was wearing splashed over me, dragging me under. The drowning sensation returned. If this was drowning, I never wanted to take another breath in my life.
‘I’m lost.’ She exhaled the words into my mouth. ‘Find me.’
Then something was dragging her off me. Something hunched and rattling, with clicking limbs and chattering mandibles. It was the giant cockroach.
‘No!’ I shouted, but she’d already slipped from my fingers.
The cockroach heaved her off the ground. She struggled in his clutches. I grabbed her arm but the cockroach whipped a gangling antenna across my cheek. I recoiled, let go. I drew back my fist, punched him square in the mandibles. Chips of chitin flew across the room and bedded themselves in the plaster. The cockroach reeled away. I followed, shoving him in the thorax, pressing the advantage.
The crowd parted as we danced across the apartment. Faces tracked us, curious. I threw another punch, but this time the bug was ready. Still clutching Pheme with three of its legs, he used a fourth to grab my fist. Pincers closed. They rummaged around, messing with my fingers. I yelled with pain and aimed a kick at the bug’s abdomen. He let go, ducking to the side and knocking over an ornate chair.
We circled each other. Blood dripped from my hand, from the cut on my cheek. The bug’s face spurted black ichor.
‘Let her go,’ I said.
The cockroach moved its damaged mandibles. A sound came out like a broken typewriter.
I feinted left, lunged right. The cockroach dodged. The crowd swayed to give us room. I bunched my legs, made ready to leap. That’s when the cockroach opened silver wings and started spinning like a gyroscope. He drilled a hole into the air and in a second was gone, taking Pheme with him. With a sigh, the air folded back into place. The crowd sighed too, as if the curtain had fallen on the final act of a tragic drama.
Except something told me this was only the overture.
Around me, the sighing became a rising growl. Faces turned on me. Most of them had bared their teeth. I backed up. Crowds make me nervous. Mobs have me looking for the exit.
‘Who the hell are you people?’ I said.
A man with the head of a lion roared. A tall woman with arms like scissors slashed at the ceiling. The blades of the scissors were etched with strange markings, like hieroglyphics. A low chanting began, in a language I didn’t understand.
Behind the mob, head and shoulders above all except the giants, Mimas prowled. There was an odd look on his face. Eagerness.
Second time I’ve seen that look today.
I retreated until my back hit the door. The mob came on. I brought up my fists, realised the left one was covered in blood.
And was holding something.
There was no time to see what it was. The lion-headed man was advancing, jaws wide, teeth like ivory boat-hooks.
It was time to leave the party.
I shrugged off my coat and tore out the lining. The lion-man was nearly on me. I spun the lining into a web of carbon monofibre and inflated it to fill the room. While the crowd howled its frustration, I threw myself into the coat’s inside pocket. I saw the lion-man claw at the web, saw the scissor-woman slashed at it with her blades. But the web held, and the coat folded up into nothing, taking me with it.
I rode my coat like a sled down the slopes of the strings, all the way back to my office. I hated leaving the lining behind. It would hold the mob in the apartment for a day or so, but separated from the rest of the coat it would soon lose strength.
Without its lining, the coat would be dead in a week.
I sat a while in the big leather chair behind my desk. My head was full of Pheme: the feel of her, the smell of her, the way she was Laura, even though she wasn’t. I pinched my fingers into my eyes, but she didn’t go away. That bothered me.
The other thing bothering me was the pain in both my cheek and my left hand.
I dragged open the desk drawer with my right hand, found a bottle of rye and a medical kit. I drank a shot straight from the bottle, dabbed the bandage to the cut on my face. The third time it came away clean.
My hand was still balled into a fist. The bug’s claw had taken a gouge from the pad of the thumb. The hand was bloody all over. It felt like it was on fire.
I doused it with rye, shouted as the fire flared to a furnace. Gradually the flames subsided. I used the bandage to mop away the liquor; most of the blood came with it. I dropped the sodden bandage in the trash. One by one, I began to peel back my fingers. Each one, I screamed.
Finally I got my hand open. It lay on my desk like a pale spider. The fingers were swollen but unbroken. The gash on my thumb was bleeding again. I taped it shut with fresh lint.
Nestled in the palm was a scrap of paper, folded twice.
I picked it up, smoothed it open. There was a message, scrawled in shaky black ink:
Take the other two if you want to see her alive.
I drank more rye. I stared at the chair on the opposite side of the desk. The one where the clients sit. After a minute, I walked round the desk, sat in it myself. Stared at the leather I’d just left empty.
Once, a long time ago, I had someone to go to. Her name was Laura. Now there’s just me. Me, and a thousand questions, and nobody to put them to.
Client and gumshoe, all in one.
I started with the note.
My office looks spartan – just the desk, two chairs, a couch, a bookcase and a filing cabinet. Mould on the walls and a carpet that’s mostly stains. But there’s more in the bookcase than just books. As for the cabinet, let’s just say it wasn’t built for files.
Once I’d finished strapping my hand, I dropped the remains of my coat on the couch and went to the filing cabinet. Usually it’s got three drawers, but I walked clockwise round it until it had four. I rummaged in the extra drawer until I found the Scrier.
Compressed, the Scrier resembles a portable radio. Expanded, it looks a little like a pipe organ, a little like a chemistry set. And it fills half the room.
I flipped the switch that makes it expand. And stood back.
As soon as the Scrier started humming, I took the ransom note and dropped it in the slot on the front panel. The Scrier sucked it up and fired it through the first set of pipes. The pipes sang a minor chord and spewed the note into the brass section. Jets of air pumped it through a series of valves and coils and bubbling flasks. It fizzed a while, then moved on. As soon as it hit the second level, the atomic untangler reduced it to less than its components and reassembled it from scratch. Lead shields crashed shut while the gamma rays did their thing. The note fell in a quantum box and sat there until it was everything it could possibly be, all at the same time.
When it finally dropped out of the slot at the far end of the equipment, the note looked exactly the same as when it had gone in. Beside it was a report.
I flipped the other switch and the Scrier crabbed its way back inside the filing cabinet. I walked counter-clockwise round the cabinet until the drawer it had come from was gone.
The report didn’t tell me much.
The paper was nothing special: regular city stock from the Ibis Mill. The ink wasn’t ink but ichor. No hidden messages, even at the molecular level. The bloodstains were mine.
A ransom note written in bug-juice. Neither more nor less than what it was.
Giant cockroaches are odd, even by String City standards. Odd enough to stand out. Even distracted by Pheme, I’d stayed alert to him, because he’d never been far away. I’d seen everything he’d done.
I hadn’t seen him write a note.
He’d already written it when he came in the room. He came with the sole purpose of abducting Pheme. And giving me the note.
Why me? Pheme and I had barely met when the mob appeared at the door. How could the bug have known we’d be together? Or that we’d have …
What? Fallen in love?
And how about that for odd? Crazy, actually. I’d spent maybe five minutes with Pheme Bacall, a dame I’d never set eyes on in my life. And here she was riding my heart like a bronco.
Except it wasn’t crazy, because she was Laura.
Even though she wasn’t.
I thumped my injured hand on the desk, hoping the pain would drive some spike of sense into my thoughts. But it just made me howl. Also, it made me imagine how that vile insect might be trying to torture Pheme Bacall. Never mind feelings. I had to find her!
Back to the note, then. This time the words themselves.
… if you want to see her alive.
The threat was clear enough. It was the demand that was the puzzle.
Take the other two …
The other two what?
I paced, getting angry. I’d been ten years a private eye. The filing cabinet was full of things like the Scrier: clever analytical devices from other worlds, other dimensions. On the bookcase was the Big Dictionary, which is all the reference books you could ever want bound into one. I had every tool I needed, and none of it worth a damn. Because all I had was four words I didn’t understand.
Take the other two.
If I didn’t work it out, the bug was going to kill her.
The bug had taken her! My Pheme! My Laura! Without her I was nothing! I had to have her back. I’d do anything. Anything at all.
Wherever I looked I saw her: the china-white gaze, the halo of black hair. The places on her where that robe had folded into shadow, the places where she’d stretched it to transparency. I tried to shake away the visions but they crashed like waves against me, over and over. Pheme as I’d seen her. Pheme as I imagined her, with me, and the robe nothing more than a memory. It was exhilarating. Mesmerising.
And wrong. Utterly wrong.
I staggered to the bookshelf, bent double. The weight of her was unbearable. Hand shaking, I fumbled the Big Dictionary off the shelf. I cracked spine until it was a Bestiary of Seduction and leafed through the pages. The text was minimal, the pictures stark and simplistic. The book was designed to be read by folk in big trouble. Like me.
I stopped at L for Lamia. The picture showed a creature with the body of a leopard and the face of a beautiful woman. Six pairs of pendulous breasts hung from the monster’s belly. Long canines jutted through rosebud lips.
Pheme was no vampire.
I riffled the pages, found S for Syren. I didn’t even need the picture for this one. I’ve encountered syrens before. Even heard one sing, if only for a second or two. That was enough to innoculate me for life. But that’s another story.
Pheme didn’t have feathers; she was no syren either.
I flipped back a page settled on an entry I’d never seen before. That’s the thing about the Big Dictionary. While you’re not reading, it’s rewriting itself.
The entry was called S for Skandaliser. Most of the page was picture: a tall, slender woman wearing nothing but a pendant. Under the picture were two words:
I dropped the book. So it was true. I’d been enchanted. Pheme was the worst kind of seductress around. Not a predatory lamia. Not a showstopping syren. She was pure potion, built for one purpose only: to insinuate herself into any male mind she chose and stay there, forever.
And the mind she’d chosen was mine.
I sat a while, staring at the picture on the page. It was Pheme, no doubt about it. Time drifted. My eyes filmed over. I wiped them clean, found myself gazing at the pendant dangling between her breasts. It was shaped like an acorn.
I placed my left hand on the picture. I tried not to imagine it was Pheme herself I was touching. I took a breath, grabbed the front cover of the book and slammed it shut.
The pain flashed through my hand and all the way up my arm. I roared, or screamed, or both. I jerked my hand free and rammed the book back on the shelf. Then I went to the coffee machine.
Coffee’s what gets me through most cases. Mostly it just keeps me alert, but occasionally I like to add a dash of something extra.
‘Firewater,’ I growled at the machine.
The machine said nothing, just bubbled a warning. Just because a thing can’t speak doesn’t mean it’s not thinking. Most of the things in my office think, one way or another. And that coffee machine’s smarter than most.
‘I know,’ I said, ‘and I don’t want to hear it. Just trust me when I say I need an edge like I never needed an edge before.’
The coffee machine spat out a plastic cup. But its spigot stayed dry.
‘Don’t push me,’ I said. ‘Just spill the beans.’
Hot, black liquid spurted into the cup. It frothed almost to the rim, then stopped. The spigot rotated, deployed a secondary spout. Gurgling sounds came from deep inside the machine. A tiny bead of red liquid bulged at the end of the spout. It hung, trembling, for a second, then splashed into the cup. Immediately the coffee began to fizz.
I snatched it up, drained it dry. The coffee seared my throat, scoured my guts. The fizzing filled my guts, boiled up my throat, exploded through my sinuses and into my head. Fireworks went off behind my eyes. I dropped to my knees and waited for my scalp to ignite.
It didn’t. Lucky: I’ve seen it happen. The fizzing subsided to a dull crackle, like the sound pine cones make on a fire.
And Pheme was gone.
I stood, feeling sharp-witted and excessively tall and entirely, indisputably me.
I checked my watch. The effects of the firewater would last an hour, no more. After that, Pheme’s enchantment would be back with a vengeance. And nobody in their right mind would use firewater twice in one day. Or even one year.
‘Thanks, buddy,’ I said to the coffee machine.
There was a knock at the door.
I snatched up the ransom note from where I’d left it on the desk, stuffed it in my pocket. I unsnapped the deadbolts and opened the door. There stood Edwin, the faery janitor, still as a statue. His fist was raised, frozen in mid-knock. His head was thrown back and he was gazing at the sky.
‘Come inside, pal,’ I said. I reached out my hand. Edwin didn’t move.
I kept my feet inside the threshold and leaned out. The world outside was as flat as ever; the last thing I wanted to do was tread on that awful glassy page of moving ink blots. I grabbed the strap of Edwin’s biballs with my good hand. Before I could tug, I saw something reflected in his eyes. It halted me, made me look up.
Firewater sharpens all your senses. In this state, I’d have made the perfect sniper. But even without it I’d have seen something was wrong.
The sky had changed. The change was slight, barely noticeable. But there. Earlier, it had been dead black, the colour of nothing. Now something was bleeding through. Something with a vast and terrible order, some cosmic weave. A weft. A pattern. Something vastly more complex than the Picasso shapes on the ground. Something with stripes.
I tore my gaze away from it, told myself it wasn’t there. I bunched my hand on Edwin’s biballs and pulled. He tottered like a doll, then fell inside. I slammed the door and engaged the deadlocks.
I eased Edwin on to the couch, sank down beside him. We sat breathing together. Slowly we both came round.
‘What was it?’ he said at last.
‘Something that shouldn’t be seen,’ I said.
He shuddered. ‘Ain’t gonna argue with that.’ He shook himself. He grinned. His teeth were crooked but the smile lit up his wrinkled old face. ‘Glad to see you, fella. Reckon you’re th’only normal one among ‘em.’
I considered this for a long time. Finally I stood. I went to my desk and sat in the chair I keep for the clients. I swung it round to face the janitor.
I said, ‘Let’s talk.’
‘I been caretakin’ this old place more’n forty year. Seen folk come, seen ‘em go. Seen you come, mister, what is it, eight or nine year since?’
Edwin nodded. ‘You don’t never go home, do you?’
‘You even got a home?’
‘So what’s your story? Don’t hafta to say, you don’t want to. Just interested, is all. I’m interested in folk, me.’
With Pheme gone, there was room in my head for a thousand other things. Fizzing firewater, for one. Also other thoughts. Thoughts I hadn’t processed for years. Thoughts of Laura.
Something tickled my cheek. I pressed a fresh bandage to the cut. It came away wet but clean. No blood, just tears. And the words just came.
‘She died. Laura. My wife. Back then I was … well, I’d been lots of things. Laboured on building sites, fought in a war. Even collected taxes for a while. When I met Laura, I stopped everything I’d been doing. We both did – just stopped. There was space, suddenly, and time, just for us.’
I reached for the rye, found I didn’t want it, went on.
‘Laura was younger than me. Except in her head. An old soul, you know? Said she’d always want to go to college. I said she should go. So she went.’
Edwin said, ‘What she study?’
‘Photography. She was a real artist. Saw things other folk didn’t see. In the end, none of that mattered, because she didn’t see that death was just round the corner.’
‘I’d taken a job on a road crew. You remember those days? Armageddon cracks opening up all over? The city needed a lot of running repairs. It was good work, hard work. Good pay. Enough to pay the rent on a house out on Nukatem Street. We moved in, looked to make it a home. We were a team.’
I stopped. My head was still fizzing by my mouth was dry.
‘How’d she die?’ said Edwin.
‘She got sick, all in a hurry. I was working out of town. Other side of the Scrimshaw Bridge – you know the turnpike out past Little Carthage?’
‘I know it.’
‘The cracks had jarred open the Sixth Gate, crazed the tarmac all the way out to the edge of the Drop. Big job. Took weeks. Turned out weeks was all Laura had.
‘I got back to find her gone. She’d left a note, attached the doctor’s report. She had tumours everywhere. Right through her. Same as her mother, her grandmother. A family curse. She’d nursed her mother into hell and back, didn’t want me do have to do the same for her. So she walked into the Lethe.’
Edwin was blurred. I guess it was my eyes. So much for the firewater.
‘It’s not such a bad way to go, I guess,’ I said. ‘The Lethe – those waters, they make you forget. So even as you’re drowning, you’re forgetting the pain. Forgetting your name. Everything you know. Everyone.’
Edwin stayed quiet. Slowly he came into focus.
‘House still there?’ he said.
‘I still pay the rent.’
‘Ever been back?’
I pressed my hands together, the good and the bad.
Edwin crossed to the door, looked out through the glass.
‘Reckon nobody’s goin’ no place no more. Not since they took ‘em.’
My ears pricked up. I’d like to say it was my private investigator’s instinct. Or maybe it was just the firewater. ‘What did you say?’
‘You know better’n me.’
‘Who took ‘em.’
He pointed at the flat land outside.
‘Th’ dimensions, of course. Only two left. Who took th’others?’
‘That’s it!’ I was pacing the office, impatient, hungry for action. I’d put Laura back where I kept her, underneath everything else. ‘It’s not that the city’s been flattened at all. Someone’s stolen the higher dimensions. All nine of them.’
‘Nine?’ said Edwin.
‘Sure. The world might look three-dimensional – hell, I think of it like that myself some days – but there’s actually eleven dimensions. It’s just that most of them are all folded up so you can’t see them.’
‘But you can?’
‘I’m good with dimensions.’
‘Not th’only one, by th’ look of it.’
I smiled. It felt odd. It also cracked open the gash on my cheek. ‘Edwin,’ I said, mopping the blood. ‘You ever thought of a career as a private detective?’
I went back to the client chair, gave Edwin the hot seat. It felt right that way, don’t ask me why. I put my feet on the desk. My legs felt full of electricity. I checked my watch. Fifty minutes until the firewater wore off.
‘So who did it, d’you think?’ Edwin said. He looked wizened, swamped by all that leather. But his eyes were bright in his age-worn face.
‘Wrong question,’ I said. ‘Try this: why didn’t they do it to us? To this building?’
Edwin grinned, leaned forward in the chair. A thousand new wrinkles appeared. Somehow they made him look younger. ‘Because we’re at th’heart of it. Ain’t we? Ain’t it true? Whoever did this – they’s in here with us!’
I flicked the ransom note across the desk. ‘What do you know about the bug?’
Edwin studied the note, frowning. ‘Mister Carapace? He’s been here, hell, nearly as long as me. Funny story. Used to be a regular cockroach livin’ under th’ floor, apartment five. Fella there spilt some kinda nuclear mush. All kindsa stuff got mutated. Place got cleared out. Mister Carapace, he stayed. Oldest resident now. Not like this new crowd.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Not a one of ‘em been here more’n six months. Including th’fancy fella on th’top floor. Mimas.’
‘You’re talking about all the other folk who came into Pheme’s apartment? What you called the resident’s committee?’
Edwin nodded. ‘Never known nothin’ like it. Them folk, they all moved here in the space of, oh, I’m gonna say a fortnight. Came from all over. But it seemed like they were none of ‘em strangers. Kept getting’ together. That Mimas fella, he was always throwin’ some party or other.’
‘His apartment. Practically a penthouse. S’why it struck me odd he called ‘em all down to Miss Pheme’s apartment this morning. S’why I got ahead of ‘em, tried to warn her. Seemed like she weren’t bothered though.’
‘No, she wasn’t.’ Again I recalled the lightning that had passed between Mimas and Pheme when they met. And how it had made me feel.
Why shouldn’t I feel jealous? There he was moving in on her when all the time she was …
I slapped down the thought, yanked my feet off the desk. Edwin eyed me. ‘Somethin’ wrong?’
‘Too much talking,’ I said.
‘Reckon you got a torch burnin’ for that gal.’
‘If only it were that simple.’
‘Just sayin’. So, what you wanna do?’
‘With only two dimensions left, there’s only so many places to hide. I’ve got Pheme’s apartment sewn up. I reckon it’s time we searched the rest of the building.’
It didn’t take long to establish something was wrong. The skeleton key helped. My neighbours’ apartments were all the same: a few pieces of plush furniture and nothing else. No sign the place was cared for, or even lived in. These weren’t homes – they were placeholders.
The penthouse was just the same, only bigger. It was open-plan, with all the internal walls knocked out. In one corner stood a four-poster bed and an automated kitchen. One whole wall was a TV screen. Otherwise it was empty.
‘Room for a barn dance,’ Edwin said. He loitered in the doorway, reluctant to come in.
‘It’s a big place,’ I agreed, pacing it out.
‘Ain’t this trespass?’
‘Edwin, this whole building’s a crime scene. Hell, the whole city is. Besides, who’s left to grant a warrant?
The penthouse was forty paces by thirty. I jotted the numbers on my notepad.
‘Somethin’ wrong?’ said Edwin. He looked worried.
‘Nothing,’ I replied. ‘We’re done here.’
Back on the second floor, I stopped to listen at Pheme’s door. Through the wood came angry conversation, muffled by the web I’d spun in there. Dull thuds too, as my neighbours tried to break free.
‘What’d you do in there?’ said Edwin.
‘Just slowed things down.’ I pointed across the hall. ‘Is that where the bug lives?’
It was the only apartment we hadn’t looked in. The door was warped by damp and half off its hinges; it swung open before I’d got the skeleton key all the way into the lock.
‘Not exactly security conscious, is he?’ I said.
Leaving Edwin in the hall, I stepped inside.
It was dark and stank of ammonia. The floor was spongy under my feet. I inched forward with my arms outstretched, cursed each time I cracked my shin on something invisible.
I reached the far wall, fingertipped along it until I found a window shutter. I pulled it open. The flat, dead light from the diminished city crawled in. I took a good look round the big bug’s home.
The place was filled with old furniture, rotten planks, broken computers. Reams of paper stood stacked almost to the ceiling, like mouldy Greek columns. Pinned to the walls – covering them in fact – was more paper, sheet after sheet. On some were drawings, on others printed photographs. On other were words. Actually a single word. A name, repeated over and over.
She was everywhere. Every drawing was of her, every photo showed her on the stairs, at her door, waiting for the elevator, all taken from the bug’s own doorway, like surveillance snapshots. The drawings were hasty but good, the photos voyeuristic.
‘He’s a stalker.’ I picked up an old chair leg, used to it to prod a tower of cans stacked on a teetering desk. Dog food sloshed out on a wave of maggots.
‘Guess he’s been watchin’ her a while,’ said Edwin, peering round the door, old eyes wide. ‘Always figured he was weird. Guess he finally snapped.’
‘Looks that way.’
‘So how’d he do it?’
‘Hmm?’ I was transfixed by the images of Pheme. They surrounded me. I wondered if this was what it like to have an insect’s compound eyes.
‘I saw what he did. Th’door was open. How he just kinda spun her away. Was that dimensions, d’you think?’
I went to the window. Pheme’s eyes followed me. All of them.
‘It’s possible,’ I said.
The bug’s apartment was on the back of the building. Normally the window would have been blocked by a stack of gas towers. But the gas towers were gone, reduced to grey pancakes. So I found myself looking out on a view I’d never seen before.
I saw skyscrapers squashed down to mere architectural plans, pine thickets like wide green carpets, multi-lane highways printed out like sleek graphic designs. But, even though it was flat, it was anything but dead: everything was in motion, like a projection screen playing a thousand different movies all at once.
I realised I was looking south, towards the Mountain. The Mountain’s where all the municipal government’s done. It’s where the Thanes have their offices, where the decisions are made. The heart of the city.
It was just as gone as all the rest of it.
The magnitude of what had happened hit me. I slumped against the window frame. The light hammered in. In the sky, that terrible pattern that was more than stripes, more than anything, pressed towards me.
Edwin’s apartment was smaller than the others – hell, it was smaller than the elevator. I knew the Sidhe were famous for their love of enclosed spaces, but this was worse than cramped.
‘How do you stand it?’ I said. It was my turn to stand in the door and peer inside. There was literally no room for both of us in there.
‘I got simple needs.’ He was trying to tidy a mess of pizza boxes and abandoned socks. ‘Want to search? Figure I’m a suspect too, far as you’re concerned. If only ‘cos I’m Sidhe.’
I didn’t argue. Nobody trusts the Sidhe. But that suits them because they pretty much hate everybody who isn’t them. Once they filled this city; three years ago they all moved out, saying they had proof the apocalypse was due – why stick around? Nobody knows where they went. One of the unseen worlds, most likely, although the last time I passed through they were nowhere to be seen.
There’s those who think the Sidhe rumours actually triggered the beginning of the end of the world. Self-fulfilling prophecy, or some such. Not that the world’s ended yet. But the rain never stops and most of the pundits are packing their bags. All I know is nobody trusts a faery.
But Edwin was third generation, born and bred in String City. And he’d stayed behind. Maybe that added up to a difference, maybe not.
All I knew was, I liked the little guy.
‘All right,’ I said. ‘Let’s put you to the test. There’s two ways a person could steal all those dimensions. Either they’re an adept …’
‘Better than me. But yes, you could say that.’
‘What’s th’other way?’
I shrugged. ‘A fancy machine. No idea if such a thing exists. If it did, it would take up a lot more space than you’ve got in here.’
Edwin’s eyes narrowed. ‘But I could still be a … whatcha call it?’
‘An adept. No, you couldn’t. You said it yourself: you’re Sidhe. I’m good with dimensions. The Sidhe aren’t. Simple as that.’ I checked my watch. Thirty minutes left before the firewater wore off. Thirty minutes before the Pheme-bomb went off in my head again. This time, I was sure, the effect would be nuclear.
Thirty minutes left to solve the case.
‘So I’m off the hook?’ Edwin’s grin ran all the way from one pointed ear to the other.
‘Not exactly.’ I balled my good fist and cracked him on the point of his jaw. His eyes rolled back, followed by the rest of him. The pizza boxes gave him a soft landing.
I grabbed his feet and pulled him into the hall. I used some of his socks to tie his wrists and ankles. Then I squeezed into his apartment and measured it out. Tiny as it looked, it turned out to be enormous. Almost the same size as the penthouse, in fact.
I stepped outside, eyeballed the space again. It still looked like a cupboard. I went back in, paced it out again. Twenty-nine by forty.
I went to the middle of the apartment, sat down. The four walls closed in on me, close enough to touch. When I reached out my arms there was nothing there. I shouted, appreciating the echo.
Someone wasn’t just stealing dimensions. They were redefining them.
I took out my notebook, opened it on my knee. I licked the end of my pencil and wrote:
Pheme = Skandaliser. Love enchantment. Time running out.
She knows Mimas.
Nine dimensions stolen. Why?
The Pattern’s coming through.
I thought a moment, then added:
Her door was unlocked.
I stared at the words on the page, then flipped back to the numbers I’d written in the penthouse:
30 x 40.
Sidhe glamour was disguising the true size of Edwin apartment. Also the fact that it, like the penthouse, took up the entire footprint of the building. Well, that was faeries for you. But the glamour was also hiding the most important fact: this apartment was one pace shorter than it should have been.
I walked the walls again, hands flat against the plaster. First time round I found nothing. I wished I had my coat with me. Wearing it protects me while I’m travelling between the strings, but it also keeps me sensitive to dimensional anomalies. Which was exactly what I was looking for here.
But the coat was crippled, its lining torn out to make the web that was holding my neighbours in check. I was on my own.
I glanced at my watch. Twenty minutes left.
I made another circuit, this time with my eyes closed. I tried to make my heart beat slow and silent, but it kept thudding in my ears. I concentrated, letting my fingers feel every crack, every dimple in the plaster.
Third time round I found the join. It felt like an ordinary crack, but when you got real close and listened real hard, you could hear the voidwind whistling through it.
I pushed the fingers of my good hand into the crack and tried to fold it open. It refused to move. I sniffed, caught the unmistakeable burnt-toast smell of an interbrane lock. Whoever had set this up was a pro.
I turned from the crack and unzipped a regular dimensional snag in the air beside me. The snag opened with a roar, exposing a hank of cosmic string. It looked like a vast furrowed meadow. Seven huge animals grazed on the strings, tearing into them like they were so much spaghetti. Steadily eating reality’s weave.
The apocalypse mules.
It was the first time I’d seen them all together like this. Once, you’d have been lucky to see a single one. Now they were everywhere, all at once, munching away at the strands that hold everything together. Another sign of the end of all things.
I pursed my lips and whistled. One by one, the mules stopped grazing and looked up. Their eyes, bright as suns, locked on mine. Their tails twitched like comets. They were identical but for their manes, which were all different colours. Their bodies looked like X-rays, the bones more defined than the flesh that surrounded them. They steamed like kettles.
One of the mules – the one with the purple mane – started running towards me. Its hooves churned up the strings. The meadow it had been grazing on twanged apart like a broken guitar. It looked like it was a million miles away, but already I could feel its breath searing my face.
I waited as long as I dared. Its eyes were close enough to give me sunburn. Froth from its muzzle splattered through the snag. I ducked: that stuff burned like vitriol.
Here ends the partial manuscript of Flatland by Graham Edwards. Unfinished it may be, but it’s still my copyright, so hands off. Thanks for reading.