Stephen Lewis, 37, a married father of two, from Worksop, Nottinghamshire, accumulated a debt of £65,000 on 17 different credit cards despite despite earning only £22,000 a year. His widow Susan is still being pursued for some of the debt by the Royal Bank of Scotland group. Mr Lewis, 37, of Worksop, Nottinghamshire, hanged himself after being bombarded with default notices and solicitors' letters demanding payment. The Association for Payment Clearing Services said in a statement: "The case of Mr Lewis is clearly a tragic and highly unusual situation. We share our sympathies with Mr Lewis' family." News report, 15 March 2004
Britain's Treasury chief tried to reassure Britons their personal details were safe yesterday after the one of the biggest security breaches in the country's history — the loss of two computer disks containing details about almost half the population. Experts said the loss left millions of people exposed to identity theft and bank fraud. There were gasps from lawmakers in the House of Commons on Tuesday when Darling described the scale of the loss by the country's tax and customs service. Two computer disks that went missing in the post while being sent from one government department to another contained names, addresses, dates of birth, national insurance numbers and in some cases banking details for 25 million adults and children, almost half the country's population of 60 million. News report, 22 November 2007
Richard Cullen, a 65 year old mechanic from Wiltshire, killed himself after building up credit card debts of £130,000. Mr Cullen owed Royal Bank of Scotland more than £35,000, more than twice his annual income, through four different cards. Mr Cullen held cards with 22 different providers. In January 2005 he was found dead in his garage after inhaling exhaust fumes. News report, 3 July 2006
The personal details of three million learner drivers have been lost by the Government. Private information held on teenagers and other people taking the driving theory test — including their names, addresses and phone numbers — have gone missing from a company in America. In the latest such blunder by the Government, Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary, disclosed that the files held on a hard disc drive were lost at a facility in Iowa City last May. News report, 19 December 2007
Ian Beech, 47, apparently took painkillers, drank a bottle of whisky and walked into the sea. His body was found on a Norfolk beach last Wednesday — the same day that the bailiffs were due to take the family home. The dead man's relatives say he was the victim of a new tactic by home loan firms of getting tough with those who fall behind on repayments. Mr Beech left a note saying that the Halifax's decision to repossess his home because of mortgage arrears of just £4,714.66 was 'the last straw.' News report, 15 February 2006
Around 15,000 Standard Life customers were put at risk of fraud after an HM Revenue and Customs courier lost a computer disc containing personal information, while in October one of the department's employees lost the details of a reported 400 individuals when a work-issued laptop was stolen. News report, 22 December 2007
Dereck Rawson, 51, a forklift truck driver who owed £100,000, took his own life because he could no longer face the debts. The coroner in Huntingdon recorded a verdict of suicide on Mr Rawson who hanged himself at his home in Yaxley, Cambridgeshire. The inquest heard his problems began 15 years ago when the sale of his house following the breakdown of his marriage left him with £10,000 in negative equity. He was able to get more and more credit cards to pay off his existing debt, mostly built up through penalty charges and interest, although his weekly take home pay was just £340. News report, 1 October 2004
Peter Highwater blinked and looked at the queue around him.
He was hurt. His left temple felt as though it had been hit with a hammer and his leg felt similarly damaged. He had pains like scratches on his left hand and arm. He couldn't recall coming by any injury that would have caused all this pain. He looked for wounds or scars, but he didn't find any. There were no blood or rips on his clothing.
He was standing in a long, slow moving queue, heading for an open double door marked "Security Search. Remove Coats. Remove Laptops From Bags. Remove Belts And Shoes, Or Else." He had no clear recollection of how he had arrived here. It was a long queue, winding up and down barriers and up and down again, and he must have been standing in it for at least an hour, but he couldn't remember arriving at an airport. The queue was more or less stationary. Around him, people were looking at their wrists and generally harrumphing about how long they had been kept waiting. Notices tacked to the walls announced, "Keep Moving. It's Your Own Fault You've Been Waiting For Hours." A couple of animated conversations were in progress: here, three youths in cheap outdoor clothing chatting excitedly about the guns with which they had recently equipped themselves; there, it looked like a handyman in animated dialogue with a chain-saw salesman.
The queue stretched right across the room. Evidently Peter had been standing here for some hours, at least. He still remembered nothing of joining this queue and neither did he have any recollection of where he was going. The public address system erupted with a grating American accent, "This is a security announcement. Will all passengers please ensure that they have all their belongings with them. Unattended packages will be removed and may be smashed to pieces and incinerated."
Peter felt prompted to see whether he had any belongings. He had no laptop bag and no suitcase. Obviously, he must have checked those in and left them before coming in here, wherever here might be. In his pockets he felt some familiar objects. Passport, a boarding pass, mobile phone, credit cards. No money, and he noticed that his pretty Swatch wristwatch was missing. So was the Parker fountain pen he always carried. So maybe whatever incident brought him here had involved being robbed. Or maybe it hadn't, and he had just left those things in his room that morning and come out without them. Everything was hazy.
Security search was one of Peter's deepest loathings. Homo sapiens had learned to walk upright because that way he could carry luggage in his hands. Throughout history every form of transport — from walking from one tree to another a million years ago to the domestication of the horse and the development of the bicycle, the train, the bus and the car — mechanical transport had sought to convey the passenger and all the belongings he chose to bring with him. Somehow the airlines had made a sow's ear out of a silk purse. Only in airports did the passengers have to be lined up, ordered about, poked, prodded, photographed, x-rayed, inspected, identified, scanned, searched and swabbed.
An officer of some kind appeared beside Peter, from nowhere. He was wearing an official looking uniform and an identity card around his neck.
"Or she." American accent with Ronald on the name badge.
"You thought, 'They carried the passenger and all the belongings he chose to bring with him.' That's non inclusive gender specific language."
Peter looked astonished and couldn't think of anything to say.
"That's not allowed," stated the official, firmly and with no prospect of explanation. "All the belongings he or she chose to carry with him or her."
Peter continued not being able to think of anything to say.
"Inclusive language." The official wagged a finger. "Be more careful."
"Look here." Peter's voice was trembling with emotion. "I don't know who you are, or how you come to listen in to my private train of thought, but I'm just thinking to myself, not writing a leaflet for social security benefit claimants in the London Borough of Brixton. At least, I don't think I am. Where am I?" Peter found a voice, but the officer was already walking along the queue and out of hailing distance.
"Do you want to know where we are?" The man behind Peter was an elderly, moustached fellow in a tweed jacket and trousers that didn't match it and those awful huge black shoes with pointless little holes in the uppers.
"Damned if I know. My pipe is missing. Have you seen my pipe lying about?"
"I don't think so. Do they allow you to smoke in here?"
The P.A. system spoke on cue. "Passengers are reminded that smoking is prohibited in this building and throughout the entire Administrative District."
"Oh, that's me told. My name is Tom, by the way."
Peter and Tom shook hands, and Peter asked "Which queue, exactly, is this?"
"I'm not sure I know," said Tom, "I didn't think there were any other queues."
"Well, I mean, what are we queueing for?"
"I'm not really sure. It's just the queue they make you stand in when you arrive."
"When did I arrive? I can't remember when I got here."
"A minute or two before me, I suppose."
Peter's mobile phone rang loudly. "Hello?"
"Hello, Peter," said an Indian voice, "This is the Capital Two credit card office. I'm afraid your card is now fifteen euro over its credit limit and we have to ask you to settle it immediately."
"This isn't really a convenient time for me to talk," rejoined Peter, "Maybe I could ring you this afternoon?"
"Peter, if you haven't made the minimum payment of three hundred and twenty euro and forty three cents by seventeen hundred hours today, we will impose a penalty charge of one hundred euro on your account and also block your further use of the card."
"Thanks for letting me know," said Peter, "I'll phone the Bank immediately." He hung the call up before the voice could add to the litany of threats and penalties and charges which Peter had unknowingly signed up to in a moment of weakness at the Ideal Money Exhibition.
In front of Peter in the queue was a middle aged lady, slightly overweight and with permed black hair in curls. What with Capital Two ringing him up and complaining about debts which he didn't realise he owed and couldn't pay anyway, Peter hadn't noticed that the woman immediately in front of him was trying to attract his attention. "Excuse me," she was saying.
"Can I help you?"
"I don't know," she said, "do you know anything about compact disks?"
"Not much, although I use them occasionally at work."
"See if you can make this one play. My husband posted it to me. I got it yesterday. I can't make it play. I'm Amie, by the way."
She took off her headphones and handed her Sony Diskman to Peter. He put the headphones on and pressed the Play button. The disk spun but there was no sound. He checked the volume control, but it seemed to be set to a reasonable level. Then he checked that the phones were actually plugged in, and they were.
"I thought it would pass the time while I was waiting," she explained.
"Can you play other disks on it?"
"Oh, yes, I was playing Richard Clayderman. Then I put this disk in and it doesn't work."
"I think the disk must be a dud," Peter diagnosed.
"Yes, I suppose it is. I am disappointed. I was all set to love this record."
She opened the Diskman and took out the disk. It was a copied CD labelled on the back, "Roxette, Look Sharp," in purple magic marker. She looked at it with exasperation and put it into her little handbag.
Ronald bustled up to her. "Good afternoon, Madam. Please tell me your name." He was holding various pieces of paper.
"Buckley," she said, "Amelia Buckley."
He looked at a short handwritten list.
She spelled it out for him.
"I'm sorry to tell you that you're a Misplaced Person, Mrs Buckley."
"Have another look."
"Buckley, Amelia, Mrs. You're definitely not on my list of transits so you're a Misplaced Person. Take all these coupons and go to Platform Two. Speak to the Station Master on the platform."
Mrs Buckley looked flustered.
"You'll need this." Ronald gave her a green cardboard ticket and she wandered off in the direction of the front of the queue and whatever lay beyond it. He turned to Peter.
"I need to see your documentation, Sir. Passport and death certificate, please."
"You remembered to bring it?"
Peter felt in his pockets. He pulled out his passport. What had felt like a boarding card came with it. It was a piece of worn cartridge paper which he didn't recognise. It was a death certificate.
"Thank you, Sir. Highwater, Peter Lessing Highwater." Ronald looked through the list. It was a short list, with perhaps five names on it, hand written in cheap ballpoint.
"National insurance number?"
"CA 01 33 42 B."
"Cause of death?"
"I don't know."
"Cause of death," Ronald read the death certificate, "fractured skull, brain haemorrhage due to bicycling accident. Highwater. Yes, that's you. Welcome here, sir. You're going to the Ninth Circle. Go to the desk there."
Ronald pointed to another officer sitting at a wooden desk covered with papers and an out-of-date computer terminal.
Peter gathered his various pieces of paper and stood in front of the desk.
"Name?" said the official behind the desk.
"Peter Lessing Highwater."
"Look, I just told Ronald all this. Do we have to go through it again?"
"Routine procedures, sir. Ronald works for the Infernal Admission and Containment Authority. I work for Branson's Breakdowns. We are completely separate organisations. Occupation?"
"You just told Ronald that you're a computer consultant. And it says here," he jabbed at the computer screen, "that you're a computer consultant, Grade II."
"Well, if you knew that anyway, why did you ask me?"
"How can it possibly expose anyone to the risk of being blown up if they think I'm a window cleaner instead of a computer consultant?"
"Look, sir, Ronald works for the Infernal Admission and Containment Authority and I work for Branson's Breakdowns. We are completely separate companies."
"But you both have identical information on your systems already."
"Under the Byelaws, Terms and Conditions, it is the passenger's personal responsibility to provide us with the information we need to process his or her admission, even if we already know it."
"I see," said Peter, but he didn't see at all really. "Computer consultant, Grade II."
"National insurance number?"
"CA 01 33 42 B."
"Cause of death?"
"Fractured skull and brain haemorrhage due to bicycling accident."
In the distance an attack dog yapped and snarled. Peter looked up and saw Amelia Buckley being threatened by a dog as she tried to get through the ticket barrier and onto Platform Two.
"Oh, yes. The Ninth Circle."
"Here is your travel ticket. Platform One."
So it wasn't an airport, but a railway station. The station had two platforms and Peter was on Platform One along with a huge crowd pushing and shoving. Amelia Buckley, looking a bit shaken after her brush with the guard dog, was standing on Platform Two, opposite, with three or four others, listening to her Diskman, probably playing Richard Clayderman.
A voice came over the P.A. "Misplaced persons please board the next train at Platform Two."
The train at Platform Two was a Sandringham Class steam engine and three Mark One coaches in spotless and shining Great Eastern colours.
"The fifteen hundred Branson's Breakdowns service from Platform One has been reported running approximately forty-five, four, five, minutes late."
Why did the loudspeaking machine assume that listeners were unable to spell forty-five? It was an exceptionally easy number to spell. There was a mass sigh from the crowd on Platform Two, and some audible cries of "Sod Branson," "Typical" and even "Bloody typical." On cue a one-man band with an amplifier the size of Buckingham Palace began crooning nasal Bob Dylan out of tune and blowing a wheezy mouth-organ. "I thought one went to Hell in a handcart," said Peter to himself, "not one of Branson's trains."
On Platform Two some doors slammed, the locomotive whistled and the train moved off serenely.
An hour and a half later a diesel multiple unit of four carriages pulled in. "Branson's Breakdowns" was painted in red and white on the ends and sides. The train was already full of people, and as soon as the doors slid open the crowd from Platform One jostled and pushed on board. Already hot, sticky, aching from unknown injuries and completely worn out, Peter resigned himself to an abominable journey, as you do when you're about to travel aboard Branson's Breakdowns.
"Branson's Breakdowns welcomes passengers who joined the train at the Admissions Compound," said a recording as the doors closed and the train gathered speed. "This is a Circle Line train. This train is for the Tenth Circle. This train will call at the First Circle, the Second Circle, the Third Circle, the Fourth Circle, the Fifth Circle, the Sixth Circle, the Eighth Circle, the Ninth Circle and the Tenth Circle, where this train terminates."
A different voice added, "I'm Kevin Useless and I'm your train manager." The voice intoned sentences in a strange way, placing the emphases in an odd pattern, like this: "I regret that we are running late because of a signal failure at Doncaster and the wrong sort of sunshine on the train in front. The toilets are out of order because they don't work. Because of staff shortages there is no refreshment service in Rubbish Class. Passengers for the Seventh Circle should get off at the Sixth Circle and walk the twenty-eight kilometres from there, as the train will go through the Seventh Circle without stopping in order to catch up with its timetable. And today's verse from the Bible is Psalm 68 verse 18, 'When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train.'"
"They could hardly get off at the Sixth Circle and walk from somewhere else, could they?" said Peter quite generally, in an attempt to identify himself as a thinking being to those around him.
Two kilt-wearing drunks in the seats closest to Peter began singing "Flower of Scotland."
On impulse, Peter reached for his travel ticket and examined it carefully, on the off chance that it was a First Class ticket by mistake. No such luck. It was clearly marked "Rubbish Class." Then he found the train was so crowded that he could not wedge the ticket back into his jacket pocket, and he would have to stand and hold it until the crowding eased off a little, if ever it did. By crouching, he could see that the train had started crossing a long bridge over a deep chasm of a river.
"I suppose that's the Acheron," said Tom.
"Tom? Where did they send you?"
"Ya wee bit hill an' glen..." put in the drunks.
"They said the Second Circle."
"And shent him homeward to shink again oh flower of Shotland..."
With each station stop the crowded carriage emptied a little, and the drunks began "Flower of Shotland" again. Peter had not been able to find his watch, but he guessed that the train must have been going for four or five hours, not counting innumerable unscheduled standstills, before it finally pulled in to Ninth Circle. It was night and raining heavily.
In the rain Peter followed the crowd into the station waiting room, where they were corralled.
"I'm the station master," said the Station Master, standing on a chair to be heard. "For tonight..."
The train at the platform moved off, drowning the rest of whatever the Station Master was saying in a roar of high-rev diesel engines. As the noise level fell away, Peter caught the Station Master's last three words:
"Welcome to Hell."
The Station Master left the waiting room, leaving the passengers to look at each other and come to terms with their final destination.
"Hell!" repeated Peter, his greatest fear confirmed, "I didn't know Hell would be like this."
"Well, you know now." put in one of the drunks, and guffawed with laughter.
"Is there anywhere to eat here? Anywhere we can sleep?" asked a woman in a north-westerly accent.
Peter went to the door, found to his surprise that it was unlocked, and looked along the road. "Burger King is still open and there's a Best Western hotel."
"I don't think I'll bother," said the north-westerly accent.
"I didn't think I'd end up in Hell."
"Nobody ever does," said the drunk, who thought this hilarious.
"What am I in here for?"
"This is the Ninth Circle. Something pretty disgusting, I should think."
The other drunk stirred. "You shill awake, Miffy?"
"Oh, flower of Shotland..." they chorused.
Three officials wearing day-glow jackets identifying them as BOROUGH COUNCIL came into the waiting room and woke the crowd by yelling "Morning everyone," in a Polish accent. It was the crack of dawn although the BOROUGH COUNCIL assured them it was nearly nine in the morning. "All of you get on the bus and go to the Town Hall."
There was an ex London Transport bendy bus on the road outside, and the passengers dazedly picked themselves up, wandered into the street and clambered into it (the bus, not the street.) Peter managed to get a window seat and watch the journey of two or three kilometres roll by. It was surprising, he thought, how little Hell differed from the cities he had known while he was alive. Council estates, cars, banks, schools, flat-pack furniture shops, they all looked the same. And here was the Town Hall. The three BOROUGH COUNCIL workers sat at tables and the new arrivals divided themselves into queues. Peter was beginning to see the connection between queues and Hell. Ignoring the queues, the workers unpacked piles of papers and packets of peanuts from the desk drawers.
"Abfall, Antony A?" called out the leftmost worker, turning a page in a large cardboard lever-arch file. One of last night's drunks got up and went over to him.
"Mr Abfall?" asked BOROUGH COUNCIL.
"No. mah name's Miffy," he breathed out a stinking cloud of alcoholic beverage vapour, "I wondered if you might have such a thing as a tin of lager about you."
"No," said BOROUGH COUNCIL, "I don't."
"Will you give me a peanut, then?"
"No. Wait your turn for the moment." He called to the room generally again, and Miffy sank back into the corner. "Abfall, Antony A?"
A different arrival stirred and staggered up to the desk.
The man signed it without reading it. After receiving short, inaudible directions, he set off along the road towards an office block. Or maybe it was towards the sewage works: Peter couldn't tell.
"Bedpost, Marmaduke R.?" called the second BOROUGH COUNCIL, eating a peanut.
Thus was the day conducted. It must have been midday when BOROUGH COUNCIL finally called Highwater, Peter L to the table and made him sign here without reading it.
"Treat us as you would the local Job Centre," said BOROUGH COUNCIL, eating another peanut.
"I can't do that. For one thing, I've come in here."
"Here is your temporary Identity Card. It is valid for one month from today. You must obtain a permanent Biometric Identity Card before the temporary card expires."
"Otherwise I'll forget who I am, I suppose," said Peter.
BOROUGH COUNCIL gave Peter a hostile stare and a scruffy piece of paper the size of a playing card bearing its expiry date, 29 November 2007, and his name in an illegible scrawl, and continued, "It is the policy of the Social Starvation Committee that all those capable of work shall earn themselves a living, even if they don't want to. You are a talented man, Mr Highwater. I know of several job vacancies you might like. Do you want to work as a regional manager on the railways, a program maker for ITV One, or a product manager at Bitco Software?"
"I always wanted to work on the railway. May I be a regional manager? I'd soon do something about..."
"No. Dream on. We gave that job to someone else. You're going to work for Bitco. Go up the main road, turn right onto the T Dan Smith Memorial Industrial Estate and give this letter of introduction to the receptionist."
As he left the town hall and turned towards the industrial estate, Peter heard his phone ring again.
"Is that Peter Highwater?"
"This is Monica* [Author's note: Refer to the Appendix, "Infernal English," which explains this usage of the asterisk.] calling from the Capital Two credit card office," said an Indian lady whose name wasn't Monica. "We haven't received the minimum payment on your card this month."
"That's because I'm dead."
"Dead?" There was a silence of a few seconds. "You're shitting me."
"No, dead, as in probably six feet under by now. I would have told you earlier but I wasn't aware that I was dead, and then I was on a crowded and stinking train for several horrible hours. Or maybe I've been incinerated to a pile of grey crouton-like nutty slack and this is all a sort of subjective experience caused by my diminishing brainwave activity. Go and ask Doctor Carrott at the General Hospital if you don't believe me. He signed my death certificate."
"Seriously, you're dead?"
"As true as I'm standing here."
"So who's going to pay us?"
"Well, firstly, it's quite difficult to write a cheque when you're dead, because your arms rot and fall off, and anyway I've lost my pen. Besides, I'm not sure that my debts to you are enforceable after I die. If they are, then how about you contact my executor and ask for my debt to you to be added to his, or her, list."
"If your executor doesn't pay us, your card will be blocked and details of your debt will be posted to your credit record."
"I'm dead, Aanandita, I told you."
"How did you know my name?"
Peter had not even noticed himself using Aanandita's name, and he had no idea how he had learned it. "Lucky guess," he said.
"Your wife will die of shame. People will point at her in the street and tut as she goes by."
"Look, if ever I come back to life, paying my debt to you will be right at the top of my list of things to do. Well, it won't exactly be first on my list but it will be a jolly high priority somewhere after finding my wife and children, getting my house back, having the brakes on my bike repaired, seeing whether I can get my old job back, going to Macdonalds for one of those really nice cheeseburgers with ketchup and sliced gherkins, congratulating the doctor, priest or imam responsible for my reincarnation and undergoing a thorough medical check-up, all the while dodging the paparazzi from Hello Magazine."
The phone squeaked, coughed and went dead. Low battery. Since Peter had not brought a phone charger with him, the phone would never work again. Peter tossed it into the ditch at the side of the road. In an instant he realised that he might, possibly, have been able to acquire a new phone charger from somewhere, but it was too late now: the phone was already half covered in mud. Peter realised why nobody ever hears from the dead: it's because their mobile phones don't work. Fraudsters have for many years been claiming that they could talk to the dead, but that was the easy bit. Anyone can talk to the dead. The difficult bit was hearing them talk to you.
He looked around him. The area looked like a mangy outer suburb neglected for half a century or so. The road was narrow, pitted and cracked, its white lines worn away. Litter lay about the verges. There were some rusted and twisted gas lamps and a couple of telegraph poles were still standing, but they carried no wires. There were some large but ramshackle houses, and some huts made of corrugated iron, breeze-block and plywood. Apart from himself, he couldn't see any people on the street, in the back yards or even at the windows. No cars either. He could hear a dog barking in one of the huts and see a bonfire burning itself out. In the distance four tatty skyscraper-like blocks of flats rose into the sky. Peter supposed they were perhaps twenty storeys high and fifty years old.
"So this is Hell," said Peter out loud without realising, "the ninth circle of Hell. It looks like Soweto." Any resemblance between Hell and the affordable housing in Soweto was deliberate, of course, though probably more by intent of the South African authorities than the Infernal ones.
Ahead of him, along the main road and to the right, was a childrens' playground. Guessing that nobody would know, or care, whether or not he turned up for work at Bitco, Peter set off for the playground in search of someone who might know something — anything — about where he had found himself, and and who might have nothing more interesting to do than tell him the full S/P about it. The playground was empty. There was a rusting climbing frame, a slide, an empty paddling pond, a broken roundabout and a frame with two swings. On the ground were fag-ends, crisp packets, broken bottles and other detritus.
Peter settled on a swing. He realised how tired he was. He did not know how long ago he had last slept properly, but he had certainly been awake most of the night. He noticed that his chin and cheeks were covered in bristle, perhaps two days' growth, and that his clothing was beginning to stick to his body. He sat and stared at the landscape where he found himself. A shanty town, skyscraper flats, and general dereliction: even with Branson's Breakdowns providing what passed for transport, the Ninth Circle of Hell seemed to differ little from the shabbier quarters of earthly cities.
Peter was startled by a girl's voice close to him.
"Don't jump. It's only me."
"Sorry. You startled me."
The woman looked as though she were in her early twenties, very slim with light brunette hair and deep blue eyes. She was wearing a school uniform with white shirt, yellow and blue striped tie, and a dark blue top and pleated skirt.
"Sorry. You're obviously a newcomer. I thought I'd come and say hello." Angela spoke with a musical, southern English accent. "On your first day here, you need someone to talk to."
"Angela," Peter didn't know how he knew what her name was, "are you on the way home from school?"
"No, I left school a while ago. I just like these clothes. They're quite old but they're absolutely immaculate. They must have cost someone a fortune. I thought you'd like them."
"How did you know I was down here?"
"I live over there." She pointed to the cracked upper window of a house nearby. "Eleven Blair Street. I can always tell the newcomers. You look, sort of, overwhelmed and miserable."
"Aren't we supposed to be miserable? This is the Ninth Circle of Hell, after all."
"You can get by, but learning how to do it takes time. You treasure the small things and let the big things take care of themselves. If you leave them alone, they'll leave you alone most of the time."
"The officials, the demons. They do exist, but you'll probably never see one. I don't meet many people here. Few people get sent to the Ninth Circle. I just saw you and I decided to come down and say hello to you."
"That's very kind."
"Come with me. Left to yourself you'll just get worse, sitting here. I think I can find some tea, maybe something to eat."
She stood up and helped Peter back onto his feet. They walked through the gate of the play-park, even though the fence around the park was so badly damaged that they could have stepped straight over it. They turned back onto the main road and onto Blair Street. The door to number eleven pushed open. Angela hadn't bothered to lock it. The house was an untidy collection of what looked like second-hand furniture and little knick-knacks arranged on the shelves and the mantelpieces.
"Should I introduce myself to your family?"
"My family aren't here. They're still on the outside. I died in a swimming accident a few years ago. The family probably won't be sent here when they die anyway. Look, I don't mean to suggest that you're dirty or anything but would you like a bath? The electricity comes and goes and it's on at the minute."
"Yes, I would. You are so kind."
"Through there. Take your time. When you've finished, leave your things on the bathroom floor."
Peter was grateful for the chance to stretch out in the warm water and remove two days' sweat, grime and beard. He wrapped himself in a towel and returned to the living room, where Angela had some tea ready for him. She was still wearing school uniform. She sat opposite him.
"Are you feeling a bit better?" she asked.
"A lot. I don't ache all over any more."
"You'll have to find a home of your own but you can stay here for a while."
"How do I find a home?"
"You can't buy one, because they're expensive and nobody has any money. But you can put your name on the housing list, or of course you can build your own place."
"Build my own place? Do I have to shamble down to Cardboard City and build a bash for myself out of Baco Foil and old Persil cartons?"
"You can. Building your own place will be quicker than going on the list."
"The housing list?"
"You go to the town hall and put your name on the list. Some houses are reserved in advance but there are sometimes flats or houses you can take."
"You mean, living people reserve a place in Hell in advance?"
"I noticed a couple of names on the list already. I think the demons like to arrange special treatment for VIPs like Mark Oaten and Stephen Milligan. Obviously, with all the publicity, they're going to be sent here."
"So...," Peter hesitated before asking, "What sort of people get sent here?"
"Inmates get sorted out into Circles. This is the Ninth Circle. The Ninth Circle is for sexual transgressors. The adulterers, sodomites, homosexuals, prostitutes."
"I'm convicted of prostitution, if you're curious. Don't worry, I won't ask you why you're here. It's likely to be something we have in common, but it wouldn't be helpful to embarrass you."
"Do you, I mean, are you going to..."
"I only did it a couple of times. Well, ten or fifteen times. It was a high profile case, though, government ministers, arms salesmen, senior officials of Middle Eastern origin on state visits, under age girls including me. That sort of thing. A girl in the swimming club talked me into coming along. Then once an accusation turns into a show trial, you haven't got a chance."
"I was doing it, of course. I wasn't innocent. On the other hand, it doesn't hurt, it doesn't really do any harm, and you have no idea how much money those men will pay for half an hour alone with a cute third former in a Brownie outfit. I didn't think that you can't take it with you. But even if I hadn't been selling myself, they would've sent me here for something else. They'll always find something."
Peter took a large swallow of tea. "Did you enjoy the work?"
"It was fun at times, and they let me keep the clothes. I mean the demons let me keep the clothes. I have a wardrobe you wouldn't believe, all silk and straps. It cost a fortune. Oh," she read Peter's expression, "it's been a long time for you, hasn't it?"
"Yes, it has."
"Sorry." She paused and looked away. "Look, I have to go out for a while. You can pick food from the fridge, and there's cheap coffee somewhere, probably Mellow Birds. You can't get much tea down here. Sleep upstairs. There's no electricity after about 2 pm, I'm afraid, but it doesn't get too cold here. I'll be away for a few hours. Don't go out after dark."
Angela wrapped a coat around herself. "Be prepared to sit up and talk to me when I get back." She slipped out onto the street.
It was dark when Angela walked into the small bedroom where Peter was sleeping.
"Where were you?" he asked, waking.
"Don't ask for the details, you may not want to hear them. I was keeping in with officialdom. When you're desperate, do as the desperate do."
"I see you're still wearing the school uniform?"
"I put it back on because I knew you like it."
She sat beside him and let him put his arms around her.
"Is there a window of opportunity for a low dependency girlfriend attachment at this stage in your post-life trajectory?" she asked.
"Sorry? I didn't follow that."
"It's Hellspeak. Used in any official communication, so we all have to learn it."
"Well, if I've understood what you said, I'd enjoy a girlfriend."
"Move over, then." Angela's warm body, complete with the splendid school uniform, slid into the bed beside him with practised skill. "Don't be scared. You can do anything you want," she said, "in case you're wondering, but it might be a good idea to loosen the tie a bit."
Peter took hold of the knot of the tie, and Angela corrected him, "Not like that. Use your teeth."
Peter and Angela woke up twined together in the morning sunlight. Angela was still in the school uniform with the panties round one ankle. She pulled the clothing off and lay naked. Peter had not seen her naked before, and he stared at her for minutes.
"It has been a long while since you last relaxed with a woman," said Angela, stating what was obvious to her. "You relaxed after the third time, I think."
"You're good at relaxing me. You relaxed me."
"Trick of the trade. You really loved your wife, didn't you?"
"What was her name?"
"Tell me, are you generally well disposed towards pointless romantic gestures?"
"OK. Give me your left hand."
Angela took Peter's left hand and clutched the third finger in her fist for a few seconds. "Don't ask me how I do this," she said, and after about ten seconds she loosened her grip and released the finger. Peter looked down. His unmistakable wedding ring was on his finger.
"How did you do that?" he asked without thinking.
"I said, don't ask me how I do it."
"All right, I said it by accident. Thank you. I shall wear it with pride, for ever."
"Do you have any plans for today?" asked Angela.
"Well, I might go to work. There's this job I was assigned to."
"The company has no idea that you work for them. Quite probably no job ever existed. It's a nice day, by local standards. You could come scavenging with me, if you prefer."
"Most of us live by scavenging. We can get hold of most things, but it takes time and you get a bit muddy."
"Do I have any clothes?" asked Peter.
"Yours are still in the wash. In fact, I think they're still on the bathroom floor. I'll lend you some that you'll like."
"How do you know..."
"...what you like? You like to cross dress. I might have some things that will suit you and we can scavenge for more."
"How do you..."
"Oh, Peter! You're in the Ninth Circle of Hell. There aren't a lot of sins that can get you sent here. You were obvious from the first moment I saw you."
"Is it safe to go AWOL from work?"
"No-one's ever safe here, but the demons usually leave you alone if you leave them alone, and honestly those of us who live here leave each other be. They won't be bothered to chase you for missing a work detail."
"Well, one reason is there's not much they can do. They could've scourged you, days gone by, but that's a bit old fashioned, like debtor's prisons and warrant sales. They can give you terrifying visions, but they tried that on Job, and look what happened. And they can't fine you, because you haven't a penny to your name. So even if they come and get you, they'll probably just yell at you and tell you to behave yourself and do as you're told."
"And the other reason?"
"Is because we're all vile perverts. They loathe us."
They both laughed.
"Of course. They'd far rather be out with the fraudsters, the hucksters, the bankers, the financiers, the crooks, the New Russians, where the money is. The Ninth Circle is hard tack, danger money, dread diseases and unsocial duties payments."
Angela got up and ferreted in her wardrobe, sorting two piles of clothing.
"What's the time, by the way?" Peter called across.
"What does the time matter to us? Have you got a train to catch, or something?"
"All right. It was a silly question."
Angela stood up, turned and tossed a pile of clothes across to Peter. They landed on the bed and spilled onto the floor.
"Here..," she counted on her fingers, "Pants and a bra, jeans, shirt, thick sweater, tights, and I think I have some canvas shoes you can borrow."
"I haven't shaved since yesterday afternoon, Angela, I'll look ridiculous."
"But you'll feel fantastic. I'll do your face and hair. You'll look a dream. Let me try?"
"Yeah," Peter was still in the bed and yawning, "yeah, I'll give you a chance."
"You'd best have a wash, then, and we'll get ready and get out there."
"Just there. Out there. Everything we need is out there somewhere with ash and mud on it."
"No. But you have to keep your spirits up. Tell yourself this is the day you'll find fresh lobster in a bin, or a Chippendale sofa. There's usually enough food, clothing, and other stuff to keep you going from one day to the next. Go and wash, you're keeping me waiting."
"What does it matter if you're kept waiting? Have you got a train to catch, or something?"
"You're getting the idea, I think. Here, take a couple of carrier bags for the swag."
"Do we need gloves?"
"You've got skin. Be satisfied with that."
Out there, Peter and Angela walked off the road and into a field of unkempt grass strewn with litter.
"You look super, Peter. I said you would."
"What are we looking for?"
"There's a pencil-case there. Is that the sort of thing?"
"Take a look inside it."
"Pencils, of course, what else...," he said as he opened it, and then, "Oh, money. Eight euro and... three cents."
"Not much call for money here, but it might come in handy. Anything else?"
"Good. Nice colour. You never know when you might need it."
They walked slowly with their eyes cast down.
Angela saw a tin. "Tin of something."
"Pick it up."
"Are we starving?"
"Might meet a cat."
"What are those?"
"Used needles. Eugh! Don't touch."
A few steps beyond the needles was a cardboard carton.
"Food. Probably the local grocer threw it all out," guessed Angela.
"Local grocer? There isn't a shop for a kilometre in any direction."
"Don't pick holes in my explanations."
Peter looked more closely at the contents of the carton. "Crackers, in date. Cheese, tinned milk. How did these things get here?"
"Consider the rubbish-dumps, skips, dustbins and bonfires of the field."
Peter was stumped.
Angela tried a different explanation. "Seek and ye shall find. We have what we need, and it's all free. Take what you want."
"There's more than we can carry."
"You can't eat more than you can carry. There are other scavengers."
From the carton they picked up a day's rations.
"What do you do when there isn't any forage?" asked Peter.
"We took what we want, and we have all we need. Tomorrow there will be more forage."
"Where does it all..."
"'Where it all comes from is a mystery,' sang Angela, 'like the changing of the seasons and the tides of the sea.'"
"There's something you're not telling me, isn't there."
"Don't ask if you don't want to know the answer. We can live by scavenging. You'll understand in time. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."
It was afternoon when they turned back towards the house.
"Will I ever see Claire again?"
"Don't ask a question unless you want to know the answer. I warn you."
"You're trying to tell me that I won't see her again, aren't you."
"You might go to see her, and she might see you."
"How do I go to see her?"
"Look, Peter," Angela turned serious for a moment, "I understand how much you must miss Claire and how many things you have in your heart that you want to tell her, and how you want to see how she is and what she's doing. Maybe help the kids with their homework and fix the bent windscreen wiper and chip in a hundred pounds for your wife's hairdo. We all go through it. But those things are not for us."
"And the good news is?"
"It's nearly Hallowe'en. You can go outside for the night at Hallowe'en."
"Don't get your hopes up. Please don't. Not many of us do Hallowe'en because your visit's never what you expect nor what you want. You won't help the kids with their homework and if the windscreen wiper is bent someone else will have to fix it. It's not your problem any more. A lot of dead people get hurt trying to cling onto life."
"Wife already tucked up in bed with the postman, you mean?"
"It happens. Maybe it's happened to you already and you didn't notice."
"Claire would never have done anything like that while I was alive."
"If you didn't notice, what difference would it make whether or not you were alive at the time?"
There was a pause and Peter asked, "What's the drill for getting a pass-out?"
"Think carefully beforehand. Don't say I didn't tell you."
"What do I have to do?"
"Look, a lot of stronger men than you have come back from Hallowe'en in tears."
"Well, I won't blame you if you're right."
"I am. I'll still be here, so you won't be alone."
"What happens on Hallowe'en?"
"Just like the legends say. You climb out of your grave at sunset on the thirty-first of October and you have to be back in it by sunrise on the first of November. In the meanwhile you can do as you please."
"Suppose I was cremated?"
"Then you have to climb out of the incinerator, I expect. Ashes to ashes."
"And I have to get from here to my own grave."
"There'll be an excursion bus." Peter looked incredulous so Angela added, "There always is."
"Yes. Are you going to take it?"
"Try down by the blocks of flats. There's a bus stop there."
"Which bus is it?"
"There's only one."
"Do I have time to wash?"
"And repair your make-up? Just about."
Half an hour later, as Peter was about to leave her house, Angela called to him from the upstairs window. "Peter!"
"I forgot. Bring me something back."
"Fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. Salt and sauce."
"No. Something with taste."
The sun was near setting when Peter arrived at the bus stop, still in jeans and sweater. The bus stop was surrounded by litter and broken glass, but even with his newly found instinct for scavenging Peter couldn't see anything of use. Least of all a timetable or a map. Still, he was in the right place and just in time. Clearly recognisable two streets away and in failing light, the red bendy bus rounded a corner in the distance and jolted along the uneven road. Peter hailed it.
The driver wound down the window. "This is only the Hallowe'en excursion. I'm not going to Blue Water. Did you book in advance?"
Since the local traffic drove on the right, Peter had to walk into the middle of the road to clamber in through the open folding door.
"I haven't got a booking."
"You're all right, I've got seats. Twenty euro. Do you know where you're buried?"
"Always the same, you greenhorns. The idea is, you have to rise from your own grave, not just any well-known landmark in a city within a hundred kilometres of where you used to live. That's half the fun, isn't it. Tell me your name. I'll try to drop you off in the right place."
Peter realised that he was wearing someone else's jeans. It hadn't occurred to him that he would be expected to pay a fare. He put his hands in his pockets and began trying to think of some sort of apology that would have a twenty euro cash value, and in his right pocket he found a small wedge of paper. It was three ten euro bank notes. The jeans were his size, probably a sixteen or eighteen, and Angela could not have worn them. The notes must have been in the pocket when the jeans were scavenged. He handed two of the notes to the driver.
"Tell me your name so's I can see if I can work out where you're going."
"Highwater. Peter L. Highwater."
"You're probably on the splatnav." He spent a few moments pressing keys on the instrument that had been stuck to the dashboard with Pritt Stick. "You're in luck, I can take you."
"Where am I buried?"
The driver jabbed at the satnav. "Hollywood Cemetery, Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne. Just north of the tram sheds."
Peter must have looked more puzzled than passengers usually did at this stage, so the driver continued, "It's definitely you. National insurance number was CA 01 33 42 B. That's not someone else?"
"No, no, that's me."
"Right," said the driver in the tone of a shipyard riveter rolling up his sleeves before beginning the early shift, "let's get this bus on the road."
Peter turned to take a seat and heard the ticket machine spin behind him.
"You'll need this to get back." The driver offered him the ticket. "Might not be me driving you back, see."
"Is it a long way?"
The driver made a couple of notes on his clipboard. Then doors folded shut with a slam, the diesel engine revved, and Peter turned to take a seat as the bus moved off.
"Hey!" The driver called after him again. "You're gorgeous."
Peter had forgotten that he was en femme. He looked down at the tight pink sweater, the taper jeans, and recalled how much work Angela had put into making up his face and hair.
"Thanks," he replied, "you've made my day, saying that."
The bus was more than half empty. Most inmates of the Ninth Circle seemed not to do Hallowe'en any more. The seats were those hard resin seats that are meant to be proof against vandals. Perhaps vandals found the resin seats so uncomfortable that they preferred to stay at home. Peter was unable to find any position in which to sit comfortably.
Around the bend and along the main road, two figures at a bus stop hailed the bus. One of them was standing leaning on the pole, the other was sat on the verge.
"Another couple of chancers," muttered the driver, bringing the huge vehicle to a halt and leaning out of the window. "You for Hallowe'en?"
"Nah," replied a familiar voice. "It's me, Miffy."
"Ah, not you again."
"Ya dinnae have a can o' lager about ye?"
"If I had, I widnae give it to ye if ye were starvin'."
Miffy laughed. "Bugger off, then." He caught sight of Peter and added, "Who's ya friend?"
"She's my mate Paula. Don't you go gettin' ideas."
"Firstly she's an Olympic kick-boxer and second she's out of your league, mate."
"Hey, darlin'!" Miffy called to Peter, "You got a tin o' lager?"
Peter smiled and shook his head, grateful that he didn't have to speak out loud to answer the question.
Miffy looked at Peter's breasts, obviously impressed.
"I have a timetable to keep to," the driver told Miffy, "I can't have the likes of you stoppin' me every five minutes."
"Likes of us? Where's the likes of us?"
"Oh, bugger off."
Window closed, doors slammed, engine revved, forward movement. Darkness enveloped the road and Peter could see his reflection in the window. At least until his beard began to show, he was gorgeous. Angela had worked assiduously. She had straightened his hair, smoothed his skin, shaped his body into a recognisably female outline, given him the appearance of even teeth and Devon Aoki’s lips, re-drawn his eyebrows, lengthened his eyelashes, goodness knows what else. Probably Angela had practised her skills on some Eastern potentate while dressed up as a slave girl in exchange for a pile of money as tall as a ship's mast, all drawn from some slush fund known only to a hand-picked few directors of British Guns, Tanks, Torture Equipment and Chemical Weapons Ltd. and of half the committee members of the European Union.
It was a long journey. At first there were a few lights in the buildings beside the road. Oil lamps that lit up living rooms enough to eat and talk, or candles that didn't light them up much. There was the occasional flame from a bonfire and here and there a patch of light surrounding what appeared to be a street vendor, selling — was it? — tea or magazines. After that the lights became fewer and the darkness seemed to become darker as the bus drove on. There was very little traffic on the road: Peter counted two lorries and what might have been a police car with a blue lamp flashing on the roof, though there was no traffic to be pushed out of the way. He heard the bus pass over an echoing long bridge and felt it turn a couple of hairpins on a steep downhill.
The other passengers did not at all look as though they were going for a quick rendezvous with their loved ones. Peter had expected some sort of celebration to be going on with Hallowe'en masks, carved turnips, bobbing for apples and, yes, tins of lager. In contrast, his fellow passengers looked like, well, bus passengers.
The bus must have covered a hundred kilometres or so when the city started to appear as a diffuse orange light in the distance. Street lights meant electricity; then houses with lights behind the curtains, then shops with bright signs and display lighting in the windows. The bus came to a halt at the end of a terrace of shops.
"Mrs Kee? Montagu Cemetery. Your stop is here."
A small, late middle aged Japanese lady walked with a stick to the front of the bus.
"Over there." The driver pointed to something in the medium distance. "The bus will pick you up over there," he pointed to a phone box on the other side of the street, "at seven a.m."
Mrs Kee began to make her way to the landscape feature in the medium distance. Meanwhile the doors closed, and the rest of the passengers moved on another ten kilometres or so.
"Next stop Hollywood," called the driver before the bus stopped again. Peter didn't catch the reference.
The driver repeated, "Paula? Highwater? You awake?"
Peter didn't recognise the femme name at first but didn't object to it. He went to the front of the bus.
"Thank you," he thanked the driver, "for sparing my embarrassment when that drunk..."
"Miffy? Oh, he's harmless. He's just full of it. He wouldn't hurt a fly. Now then," he pointed to a wall beside the road, "that's Hollywood Cemetery there. You've not done this before so be careful." He had obviously briefed many first timers. "You can't be seen, but you're not undetectable either. Be careful, keep your head down, and watch the clock. It's now...," he looked at the satnav, "18.50 Greenwich mean time. Sunrise is at 7.15. The bus will pick you up at this corner around seven. Don't miss it, or you'll never get back. You got a watch?"
"Have this one." The driver reached into his pocket and handed Peter the pink Swatch watch which he had noticed missing. "Give it back on the way home. If it's someone else driving the bus, say it's lost property."
"Anything in particular I need to watch out for?"
"Watch out for yourself, gorgeous."
One step later, the doors closed and the bendy bus revved off down the road and around a corner. Peter, now thinking the name Paula to be a wonderful choice of feminine sobriquet. Henceforth while dressed en femme she would be Paula. She looked around for a moment. She was outside the Hollywood Cemetery, which was closed by two iron gates.
Paula decided to visit her own grave. It was, after all, the traditional starting point for one's Hallowe'en meanderings. She laid one hand on the nearer gate and to her great surprise it came off its hinges with a crash. A frightened scream came from somewhere. She stepped over the fallen gate and looked around for freshly dug earth. At the far wall she found a couple of newly filled-in patches marked with a handwritten note in plastic folder tied to a wooden stick. She had to strain to see it in the darkness. "HIGHWATER P. L.," it read, "27/10/07." Having walked back from the grave, through the wrecked gate and onto the street again, Paula knew how the rest of the world now saw her. She felt more or less ready to face the crowds.
Her own home had been about two kilometres away. She didn't know where exactly the cemetery was, but she heard a tram in the distance and found the nearest tram station, vaulted over the turnstile and freeloaded a ride. Leaving the tram, she took the opportunity to check the time on the station clock. It was 21.30. She was at home.
Her first thought was to ring the doorbell and say "Hello, I was just passing and I thought I'd look in and see how you all are," but she thought better of it because it would scare them to death and, even if it didn't, the kids would ask awkward questions about the new look. She contented herself with standing in the front garden and looking through the living-room window. She half expected to see Claire sobbing with grief, being comforted by some unknown but good looking middle aged man. He actually saw Claire half asleep on the sofa. Benjamin, the labrador sleeping on the carpet, awoke, rushed over to the window and started barking, jumping up and down and snarling frantically, looking straight into Paula's eyes. Paula raised her finger to her lips and mouthed "Hush, it's me!" but Benji barked and snarled more furiously than before. Claire shushed him, "There's nothing there," and settled him back on the floor, where he lay looking suspiciously at the window while she went back to her television programme. The twin boys were doing homework. Paula realised that their lives was going on and there was nothing much she could do to help. At least there weren't any Happy Hallowe'en cards lying around. Paula had never quite understood how you can wish your fellow man a Happy Easter, when Easter ostensibly commemorates the atrociously cruel execution of the greatest man who ever lived. Whoever invented Happy Hallowe'en cards must have had no idea at all what Hallowe'en actually stood for: the night when the dead rose from their graves and walked abroad, laughing as they terrified mediaeval peasants out of their wits by rattling chains and throwing doors and windows violently open. Shaking her head, Paula noticed that her car was not standing in front of the house: perhaps Claire had sold it. She drove little and there were always the trams.
It was about ten in the evening, and Paula had now to find some way of occupying the next nine hours. Perhaps she could while away the hours in a decently busy bar somewhere. At least there would be girls in high heels to look at. The tram took her to the city centre.
There was a chip shop on the main road and Paula remembered Angela's order for fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. She knew that in her role as ghost walking the streets she could not simply clank and rattle her chains, demand two fish suppers in the manner of a highwayman feeling a bit peckish and then vanish in a puff of ectoplasm. She had seen innumerable petty thefts on television and she knew the drill. She picked up a stone off the street. Then she entered the shop and stood by the counter, near the cash register, wondering whether to be surprised at the cook's observation, "Cold in here all of a sudden." Customers came and went, and she watched the cook's way of wrapping the food and putting it down on the counter while taking the money for it. Sure enough before long a young woman bought two fish suppers, two tins of lager and a packet of twenty Marlboros. As the cook went through the same pattern of movements, wrapping the food, then putting the food, beer and cigarettes into a carrier bag, and putting the bag down on the counter, Paula hurled the stone at a shelf of lemonade bottles. She wasn't sure what would happen, since the stone was material and she was (she assumed) immaterial. She ran through the most likely eventualities. Perhaps the stone would drop like a stone, ignoring her effort to propel it. Perhaps it would hit the lemonade bottles and pass straight through them. In the event the stone behaved exactly as stones do, and the lemonade bottles behaved exactly as lemonade bottles do when a stone hits them.
"Christ!" shouted the cook, "What was that?"
"I don't know, I didn't see anything," said her customer.
In the confusion Paula quietly picked up the carrier bag and made off with it. Standing on the street she noticed that her heart was pounding with an excitement that she had not felt since, as a tiny child, she had waited outside the school and thrown a stone at the car of a teacher who had given her a row the day before.
She took a few deep breaths and made for the town centre. There she went and sat in a small basement piano bar. A glamorous young woman was playing "Summertime" on a grand piano in the centre of the room.
"That's George Gershwin," she said to the pianist, who showed no evidence of hearing her, while a couple of young men who heard her remark looked up, expecting to see Mr Gershwin descending the staircase into the lounge. Anyone who could play George Gershwin without a score had, in Paula's opinion, immeasurable talent. She was suddenly consumed by envy.
Although it had not been particularly cold on the street, a blast of cold air followed Paula into the bar, and several patrons shivered visibly. She found a corner seat from which she could admire the pianist and she settled down there. There was a television high on the wall in the corner opposite, and it occurred to her that quite probably she and Claire were watching the same programme. It was "Heroes." Television creates fictitious celebrities whose powers (telepathy, for instance) are far less wonderful than the powers which every normal human being takes for granted, like being able to breathe air, digest food, see, speak and understand. Just hearing a coin fall onto the floor, looking for it and picking it up required abilities way beyond the capability of any computer ever built. Then it suddenly occurred to Paula that this was probably the last time Claire and she would ever watch a television programme together, that they would never share this simple daily ritual again, and they were watching the programme in separate rooms, and she was overcome by grief. The man sitting opposite him was drinking Beck's, and Paula, invisible and invulnerable, raised his glass and drank from it.
By six in the morning the trams were running again, and Paula freeloaded a tram ride back to the cemetery gates. The sky was red but dawn was still a quarter of an hour away when the bendy bus rattled along and stopped for her. While the bus had been parked overnight, some wag had spray painted "Route of all evil" on the side in uneven lettering, and a huge spider. The driver was the same man who had driven the bus outbound.
"Hi, Hollywood starlet," he said, "welcome back. Did you have a good night out?"
"Nothing to write home about. Here's your watch, by the way, and thanks for the use of it."
"You're welcome. Don't want you missing the bus home. Do you have a girlfriend?"
"Well," Paula had to think about it and decided that sleeping together once made you girlfriend and boyfriend, "I suppose I do. How did you know?"
"Elementary, my dear Watson. Two portions of food, couple of tins of beer and a packet of fags. Just throw it all out of the window if the Inspector gets on, all right? It's contraband."
"I suppose it is, really."
"There's no suppose about it. If you get caught with that you're for the high jump. Don't lose sleep over it, though, the security's rubbish." He indicated the rest of the passengers, "They've all got some, even if it's just a newspaper."
A newspaper! It suddenly dawned on Paula how much she was going to regret not stealing a newspaper. All those things she would never know! The list reeled itself off in her head. Which government minister had most recently failed to perform the most basic duties of his or her office? She might never know. Did Heather Mills McCartney win an improved offer or did she starve to death — or both? Was the pound worth more than three dollars? What had happened to Madeleine McCann? What fraction of children in primary school could write their own name? Still, perhaps she would be able to scavenge a paper every so often.
Paula took a seat in the bus. She tried to sleep and stare out of the window at the same time. She recognised the passengers who had travelled out with her, and they recognised her, but they didn't say anything.
The bus made another stop to pick up Mrs Kee. She was weeping as she took a seat just behind Paula, so she turned and asked, "What happened?"
"I'll be all right," said Mrs Kee between sobs.
"Have you been hurt?"
"I'll be all right," she said again.
Twenty minutes later the sun was rising, lighting up an empty but beautiful landscape of hills, distant mountains, streams, lakes and occasional farm houses and labourers' cottages. Paula dozed off and was woken by the echo of the long bridge across the deep chasm. After that the bus was passing through a wide, grey, hard landscape of stones and cinders. Steam issued occasionally from the land, and smoke settled over it in a haze. In the middle distance Paula noticed a mangled shopping trolley.
The bus came to a halt at a brightly floodlit kiosk with a barrier and a red stop light. "Hell," said the sign in big letters, "Homeland Security. Stop. No Dogs."
"Who've you got in there, Sidney?" asked the Group Four uniform in the kiosk.
"Poor daft sods."
The light turned green, the barrier lifted and the bus edged across the border. Somehow the design of the kiosks had edged the bus over from the left-hand side of the road to the right. The rocky landscape stretched to the horizon. Instinctively looking out of the back window, Peter saw another sign at the approach to the kiosks. "Come back soon! By Order."
The landscape became less hostile as the bus continued on its run. More grass and the occasional skinny tree. After what must have been two or three more hours Peter saw the familiar four blocks of flats in the distance.
"Is that Miffy at twelve o'clock?" Paula raised her voice to speak to the driver. Miffy was still leaning against the bus stop in the shadow of the flats. His friend was lying on the ground beside him.
"That's him, all right. And Sniffy, his mate, still there."
"I've got something for him."
As the bus drew level with Miffy, it stopped and the driver called him over.
"Paula's got a present for you."
Paula stood up stiffly and walked to the cab. She pulled the lager cans out of the carrier bag and held them out. Miffy took them, opened one of them and took a long swig before answering. "Thank you, gorgeous!" he bellowed, "I love you."
Paula smiled to Miffy, and he said "Thanks," to which Sniffy added an undecipherable grunt.
"What the—? What are you doing? That was perfectly good beer!" The driver was shocked and nonplussed. "You just went and wasted it!"
Paula went back to her seat as the driver muttered "You can't have brains and beauty, that's what they all say."
At the bus station the doors opened and the engine noise ceased with an air of finality. Paula was surprised and pleased to see that Angela had come out to greet her. She waved to her and kissed her when she walked over to her.
"How did it go?"
"As expected. I don't think I'll go back."
"Never go back. Basic rule of the universe. Never go back."
"You mean I should be considering where I'm going?"
"Consideration won't be necessary. Where you're going is your job at Bitco."
"I thought we'd decided against that and I was going to spend eternity with you living on the scavenge of the land in a house on Blair Street in the Ninth Circle of Hell."
"Sounds a wonderful offer, but with regret I must decline. I'm afraid you've been missed."
"A bit of a kerfuffle. The demons came looking for you. They said you'd missed a work detail. God knows how they knew you and I were together. Some damn spy camera must've seen us."
"So my stock has fallen a few percent compared with the Footsie Index?"
"More likely it's risen and they actually need you to do something." She paused, as though waiting for Paula to ask something, and continued, "The demons didn't touch me and I'm shaken but perfectly unharmed, thanks for asking."
Paula wondered what sort of work detail involved being sent to a place of work but not actually doing anything, and out of nowhere the phrase "Five A Day Co-ordinator" popped into her head.
Angela explained, gesturing as though she were communicating with a deaf audience, "The demons are like the Board, company directors, senior executives."
"You mean they're overpaid, greedy and stupid?"
"They take decisions among themselves. It's hard to guess what goes on in their minds. As long as the Job Centre can find a work detail for every new arrival, they can convince themselves that the new arrivals aren't imposing too much of a burden on the souls already here. So everyone gets sent on a work detail to keep them busy, and they don't really care whether you turn up or not. It doesn't really matter whether the local Kimono's Pizza has three delivery drivers, or four, or five. Nobody really cares whether the toilet cleaner or the greenkeeper turned up at the civic amenities park down the Posh End. But if the demons need your skills for some project, some particular task, then they'll put you to work."
"Any ideas why I'm the chef's special today?"
"None at all. Some special skill, experience or talent. What's noteworthy on your CV?"
"O levels, A levels, degree in statistics, first job making bars of soap for Sphincter and Pramble, long stint in experimental computation, and a management job at Orabel Data Silos." He paused and added, "It also says that I like railways and reading maths books. I have a wife, two children, a clean driving licence and in 1967 I won the Duke of Edinburgh Award for laying two kilometres of sixty centimetre railway track up a mountainside in Snowdonia."
Angela realised after a couple of seconds that Paula had reached the end of her summary CV. "That's your life?" she asked.
"I missed out the bicycle and the dog. I wasn't concentrating when I wrote it."
"Well, I'd put my two cents on the management job."
"The core business of Hell is making life miserable for other people, so they always need managers."
Paula considered this, and offered the carrier bag to Angela.
"This is for you, by the way. It's cold now, of course. I'm sorry."
"Oh! You remembered." Angela was genuinely delighted. "Gourmet food. And cigarettes too. I'll save them for this evening. Coming back to my place after work?"
"I'd love to."
They began walking towards Blair Street. Instinctively Paula slipped her arm around her girlfriend's waist. Angela smiled. "I suppose we'd better get you ready for work, then."
"Sounds as though that would be a good idea."
"Mm. Do you want to go as male or female?"
"I don't know. Which would you prefer?"
"Probably male this time."
"That's a pity."
"I'll make it up to you later. Just now, I have to make you look presentable and get you to Bitco."
Peter's boss at Bitco was an unpleasant, short, bald man called Foskill with a mannerism of holding his pen and wagging it like a child waving a twelve-inch Union Jack when the Queen is being driven past.
"I see you decided to come in," said Foskill.
"I got lost. Sorry."
There was a pause and Foskill put away the pen, produced a gold-coloured rewritable compact disk and began to wag that instead.
"Now you're here, we have an urgent piece of work for you." He gave the disk to Peter, took his pen back out of his pocket, started wagging it again, and explained. "At the end of September a data disk in transit from the Inland Revenue office in Newcastle to the Landward Strife insurance company in Edinburgh disappeared. Despite weeks of enquiries, no trace of the disk has ever been found. I can tell you now what happened to it."
"That was a portentous opening," said Peter, respectfully.
Foskill said, with hushed drama, "The reason it has never been found is that we stole it. Acquired it, I mean, by ad hoc means. You are holding it in your hand."
"Nothing is known about this disk except that it is believed to contain personal data of thousands of wealthy pensioners. Decode it. If necessary, decrypt it first."
Peter was rather taken aback.
"Sandy Luff down the corridor has my instructions to drop everything and help you in any way you need. We've arranged a collection of computer tools that we thought you might want, but if you need anything else, holler."
"Are there any notes? Has anyone else tried to decode the disk?"
"No," wagged the pen. "We were waiting for you, as it happens."
"When do you need it finished?"
Peter realised it was a silly question. "Well, I suppose I'd better take a look at it. Has the disk been copied?"
"That would be a good place for me to start, then."
Peter looked at the computer in front of him. It appeared to be switched on and running.
"This is the Microsoft Windows operating system," he observed.
Foskill responded, "You're in Hell. Make the best of it."
"I can copy a disk with it, at least."
He put the disk into the computer. After a few seconds the disk began to spin.
"Look," said Peter as an ikon appeared on the screen, "it's recognised the type of disk. It thinks it's music." At least the disk was readable on standard machinery. There was a swish as the disk reader found the right place.
"I know there's something in the wake of your smile..." Marie Fredriksson sang through the computer speakers, "...I get a notion from the look in your eyes..."
"This is 'Listen to your heart' by Roxette," Peter observed.
"...You've built a love but that love falls apart..."
"Are you sure this is the right disk?" he asked Foskill after a few bars.
"Perhaps not," Foskill conceded, "I'll go any have a look around."
"I think this is an unofficial copy of the 'Look Sharp' album. Should I summarise it on one page of A4?"
"...Your little piece of heaven turns too dark..."
"Meanwhile," Peter said as he unloaded the disk, "I'd best go and say hello to Sandy Luff."
"...Listen to your h—"
Marie Fredriksson came to an abrupt end. The computer ejected the disk and Foskill grabbed it.
Sandy Luff was an underweight young man with a passable resemblance to a drainpipe that should've gone to Specsavers. He worked in the next office but one. He appeared not to own an iron. He was sitting behind a metal desk cluttered with paper.
"I'm Peter Highwater. I just took a job here."
"Oh," Sandy looked up, looking pleased to meet him, and speaking in a rapid and very broad East London. "I'm Sandy. Sit down, how are you? What do you think of it so far?"
They both smiled at the shared cultural reference.
"I'm settling in."
"Has anyone told you what's going on?"
"Never in my entire life."
"Me neither. I meant, were you briefed on the Incoherent Project?"
"No. I've only been here a quarter of an hour."
"You've been skiving? I don't blame you. Right." Sandy sat to attention. "The Incoherent Project is what the Job Centre unwittingly volunteered you for. Get your coat and come with me."
They set off together through the main corridor, Sandy waving his arms around as he talked at speed, and Peter listening, saying little.
They left the back door of the building and spilled into the empty car park. The car park had once been surrounded by a low wall and railings, but the railings were bent and missing and the wall was now broken. Odd bricks had fallen from it into piles all around. Sandy gestured at the dirty blocks of flats that stood in the industrial estate.
"Those are the Blocks, numbered One to Four from left to right. See?"
"Seems exceptionally easy, so far."
"There's not much to it but I think it's easier to get the hang of things if you're actually there. Block One, there," he pointed, "is equipped as a call centre. In fact Block One handles calls for several banks, building societies, double glazing cowboys and mobile phone shysters already. The block, and the call centre, are owned by Incoherent, a subsidiary of Hell Enterprises plc."
"Well, a lot of questions spring to mind, but why would Hell decide to invest in a call centre?"
"From the business point of view, it makes a lot of sense. It's a low wage, high capital industry, which fits in with the general investment-driven approach adopted by the holding company. But the other thing is, it extends the holding company's core business."
"Hell makes people miserable. Our share price is highest when people out there are wishing to God that they'd never heard of us. Which means contact centres fulfil our principal business aims, providing dismal, gruesome labour at pitiful wages to those who work in them, and inflicting gratuitous inconvenience, unhappiness, worry and frustration upon those who are obliged to call them, or receive calls from them. And on top of that it makes a huge profit, which Incoherent, the subsidiary, conceals in bank accounts in Switzerland and a number of other tax havens."
"So what is the significance of the data disk that was intercepted on its way to the Landward Strife insurance company?"
"If there is any data disk. At the moment it appears to be a music disk and no data has been found on it. That's right, isn't it?"
"Yes. Yes, so far."
"Well, if no such disk exists, Incoherent will wash its hands of the whole affair and say someone was copying music disks on company machinery and has been disciplined."
"And if it does exist?"
"First we've got to find it. Then Incoherent has a list of thousands of old age pensioners who have just been, or are about to be, paid vast sums of their own money by an insurance company. Those people are ideal targets for sales of new cars, second homes, ocean cruises, stair lifts, pedigree cats, you name it, all at rip-off prices."
"Ah. I am beginning to see why it is valuable to you."
"To us, Peter, to us. You're part of the Incoherent Project too, you know. And these old geezers are also prime targets for bank account fraud. Any other questions?"
"Lots, really. For instance, why are these offices set up in mid-sixties council flats?"
"You mean you've never wondered where old council estates go when they die?"
There was a grubby Starbucks Coffee on the corner. They went in and Sandy ordered two lattes.
"Five euros sixty."
Sandy paid for both and took the receipt.
"Thank you. That was kind," said Peter.
"It's not my money," said Sandy, who continued at the table, "Funny you should mention that. Housing design is interesting because everyone knows what they want, everyone wants roughly the same, and nobody actually gets it, so nobody's housing is adequate for their need and everyone is miserable, or at least dissatisfied. Big success for us. If you give a child a piece of paper and a crayon and ask him or her to draw a house that he or she would like to live in, he or she immediately draws a hill with trees on either side of it, and up on top of the hill a cottage with a front door, two windows downstairs and two upstairs, and a chimney with smoke coming out. With no other houses in sight and a dog in the back garden. If you ask him or her who lives in the house, there's him or her, baby sister, big brother, mummy and daddy. Yet that is precisely the sort of house that nobody can have, because for the last half century councils have been busy sticking up poor quality high rises while private builders have, basically, built double garages with rooms attached, packed cheek by jowl in crowded suburban estates along the routes and branches of the Southern Region and sold them for a million euro each. And then along comes the Bank, purporting to make the price affordable while actually doubling it. Ever met a successful architect who lives in a high rise block because he wants to?"
"And doubtless the Incoherent Project has been jollying this process along?"
"Not us, mate. But the sheer extent of the misery caused by bad housing is such that, whenever an opportunity arises, the company sticks an oar in, in an effort to make things worse."
They both paused, looked out of the window at the grisly landscape, and drank half a cup of coffee.
"Then," continued Sandly more slowly, "the estates come down here, where they decay and fall apart and fit in quite nicely."
"How do you move them down here?"
"Figure of speech. The buildings do not literally go to hell. That isn't necessary. As long as the buildings are cold, damp, cracked, wonky, mouldy, prohibitively expensive to heat, unsafe, overpriced, next door to junkies on one side and a drunken nutcase playing the bagpipes on the other as well as being inappropriately designed for their tenants, neither they nor the tenants actually need to go to hell, do they? Hell has already come to them. When people are forced to go and live in them, when they have about as much chance of getting a nice place to live as the number 34 bus has of winning the Eurovision Song Contest, the flats are hell. That's what hell is, that's as close as most people will ever get to it. At least while they're alive."
"Where do you get these designs from, then?"
"Castlemilk, probably, or Red Row. Wester Hailes. The Gorbals is down here somewhere, if you travel a few miles up the Blunkett Interstate. Go in daylight."
"The Gorbals was demolished."
"Not down here, it wasn't. It just fell apart, one brick at a time, one roofing tile, one pane of glass, one front door, one chimney pot, and people were still living in it all the while."
"How about the St James Shopping Centre? Ocean Terminal? The Buchanan Galleries?"
"Well, I could go on about them at length, but basically those buildings are Hell in a different way. They appear to contain hundreds and hundreds of shops but they don't actually offer anything for sale, while crushing the lives of the thousands of people who work in them for the minimum wage. The shops all sell exactly the same things as all the other shops. All the buildings achieve nothing whatever, while forcing their staff to give up all the fun of life so they can get up at six and home at midnight and try to live on a pittance. Do you know how much the minimum wage is? If you work all morning you can buy your bus fare and lunch in a cheap restaurant. And if you turn down a job in 'em, the Job Centre can withdraw your unemployment benefit and eventually you will either work in one or other of Hell plc's enterprises or you will starve. Either of those choices suits us."
"Is it really that bad?"
"Oh, yes," said Sandy with glowing pride, "we've made sure of that." Peter was quiet for a minute so Sandy added, "Don't worry, they can't get you now you're inside. You're your own man here. Ironic, innit?"
Peter finished his coffee, looked at the space on his wrist where his watch used to be, and said, "Do you think we'd better go back and see whether this data disk has turned up?"
"I have a feeling, mate, this is going to be rather more of a challenge than old Foskill has anticipated."
Back on the corridors of Bitco Software, Peter and Sandy went to see Foskill in his office.
"Did the data disk turn up?" asked Peter.
"No," said Foskill.
"Oh, dear," said Sandy. "I suppose we had best go and look for it. Trouble is, there are an awful lot of places where it might be."
"The disk we want was swapped over with a music disk," explained Peter. "Probably the music was sent to whoever was supposed to receive the data disk. Whoever sent them probably just put the wrong disks in the wrong envelopes. Whoever received the data disk was expecting a music disk."
"That's still an awful lot of people."
"But I think I know who has it."
"Well, there was a woman in the queue with me at Admissions who was trying to listen to Roxette on her Diskman. She said the disk was just hisses and crackles. Isn't it possible that whoever sent Roxette to Landward Strife also sent a data disk to, er, Mrs Buckley? Amelia Buckley?"
"That would be too much of a coincidence?"
"Would it? Coincidences happen, listen. I once knew a student who was going to throw himself off the Post Office Tower because he failed a crucial exam. His results weren't what his parents expected and he thought he would be ignominiously rusticated, or worse. He put on overalls and heavy boots and even carried a battered toolbox so he would look like a workman and he could go out onto the outdoor platforms. Then just as he was about to jump, his mobile phone rang. It was the departmental secretary ringing to apologise. He hadn't got 19% at all. It was a transcription error: he'd got 91. Not in one paper but an average across all the papers. A double first class pass. One of the best the Mathematics Department had ever seen."
"And that saved his life?"
"No. I told you, he was wearing overalls. He had left his phone at home in his other trousers."
"Bit of a bummer, that." Sandy drew breath, and continued, "So are we going to try to find Amie Buckley?"
"No. You stay in the office and maybe the data disk will turn up. I will find Amie Buckley and get the data disk back from her."
"Do you have any idea where she is?"
"Yes. Well, no. She was a Misplaced Person. She was on the train from Platform Two of the arrivals centre when I was on Platform One."
Sandy was silent for a few seconds, and eventually said, "Let's go to your office and review the position."
"Peter," explained Sandy once the two were alone in Peter's office and the door was closed, "if she was on Platform Two, then she could be anywhere by now."
"Anywhere? Where do Misplaced Persons go, them?"
"Well, actually, she's most unlikely to be just anywhere. More likely she is in Heaven now."
"How do we get to talk to her?"
"We don't," said Sandy.
"I need to think about this," said Peter. "The disk is worth millions of euro to Hell Corporate, isn't it. It's worth at least some effort to recover it."
Peter enjoyed the feeling of leaving the office in the sunshine at a time of his own choosing instead of waiting for the agreed corporate time of five o'clock, or seventeen hundred hours as it was called down here. He went back to the house on Blair Street, where he found Angela in the garden picking up leaves.
"What are you doing back so soon?" she asked, "Work not to your liking?"
"I've decided to pay a visit to Amelia Buckley. Or at least I shall try to."
"Because she has a data disk worth thousands and thousands of euro."
"And she hasn't thought to put it in a bank vault? Where is she?"
"Heaven, I think. She was a Misplaced Person. No banks there, and no bank vaults."
"You'll never—" she began, and thought better of it. "You'll have your work cut out," she commented instead, mildly.
"Heaven is a difficult place to contact. There's no organisation to speak of and no communication between them and the rest of the world. 'Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me,' remember?"
"Is the 'call upon' bit a reference to wet mobile phones with flat batteries?"
"Yes. Be a dear and pick up two handfuls of leaves."
Angela and Peter wandered into the house with two handfuls of leaves each and put them into a metal bucket in the kitchen. Angela talked rapidly, giving the impression that she was still as busy when she wasn't picking up fallen leaves as she had been when she was surrounded by them.
"You're trying to break it to me gently that I'm an idiot, aren't you," observed Peter.
"Well, yes. It's suicide. Or if you get back alive and uninjured at the end of it, at the very least it's not a good use of your scarce shoe leather. The journey to Heaven is long and difficult. You can't just saddle up a camel and trek across the barren rocks and spouting geysers to the banks of the River Acheron clutching a plastic box of fish-paste sandwiches. Besides, a Misplaced Person doesn't necessarily get sent to Heaven. She might have been sent to Admissions by mistake because she had been in a coma and she wasn't properly dead yet. Or she might simply have gone through the wrong door when she was waiting to collect a talent and got caught up in the crowds. She could be back on earth, anywhere."
"Well," Peter was suffering from second thoughts, "Can we contact Heaven and ask if she's there?"
"No! They'd guess immediately what you're up to." She looked at him. "You are up to something, aren't you? Don't answer that... Secondly, there's no organisation that you can ask. And firstly, again, they don't answer when you call them."
"Why is there no organisation? It's heaven, a sort of singing co-operative that helps old ladies across the road, where even the old men with beards wear shimmering white gowns and feathered wings. Surely there must be a receptionist, a woman in a back room who opens the letters, scribbles the answers, does the filing and makes the tea for the archangels?"
"Chalk and cheese, Peter. Hell is a corporate trans-national. It grows by acquisition and horizontal diversification. Heaven is—"
"What?" This was the first time Peter had heard corporate bullshit since his death.
"Acquisition and horizontal diversification means they spend the company's time and money finding new ways to make peoples' lives miserable. Hell Corporate owns and runs the subsidiaries with which it tortures and enslaves the human race. Banks, call centres, Branson's Breakdowns, comprehensive schools, traffic wardens, the Daily Mail, UK Gold. Probably even the Met Office."
Angela replied with a lilt that indicated she was reciting a quotation, "Some people have entertained angels without knowing it."
Peter looked puzzled, and Angela continued,
"It's from Hebrews. You wouldn't entertain the chairman of a bank without knowing it, would you? Heaven is structurally different. There are no subsidiary companies, no holding companies, no joint ventures, no directors, no annual bonuses. Heaven grows by franchise, by individual commitment. Independent people one at a time put their faith and their own resources into someone they know to be out there. Then they begin to work for them on their own initiative. Here a young teacher makes a fruit cake and feeds the tramps in Cardboard City. Over there an old lady arranges flowers on an altar in Dunfermline or Plockton. They'll never know each other and, even if they did, they could never do each other's jobs — quite unlike the freely interchangeable souls trapped in the checkouts and the shelf stacking of some air-conditioned twenty-four hour supermarket. That's why the management call them "human resources," as if they were buckets. The franchisees don't all belong to one organisation, and the organisations that do exist are full of people who aren't franchisees. The franchisees don't know each other. They don't get paid, they are undocumented, nobody really knows for certain who they are. No one gets promoted, no one gets fired, no one gets to be Salesman Of The Month and have his statue erected in the ornamental grounds of the palatial headquarters in Atlanta. They don't get told what to do. They get told what to be, which is quite different, and even then they don't agree on what their instructions mean. They don't wear badges or uniforms, they don't read emails, they don't hold quarterly shareholders' meetings or weekend product parties, they can't recognise one another, they can't even claim expenses. They just do the work that comes their way and get on with life."
"They can't claim expenses?"
"I thought that might make an impression. Peter, did the Good Samaritan tell the innkeeper, 'Put this poor fellow's bill on my American Express card, it's all tax deductible as long as I get a receipt?'"
"So angels are a bit like those poor punters selling washing powder for Kleeneze."
Angela laughed. It was a pleasure to see her looking less than serious after such an earnest explanation. "Substitute good works and kindnesses for ghastly bottles of cheap shampoo and you've got the idea, yes. They even recruit for the cause."
Angela looked uneasy and jumped up, "I just realised the electricity's on. Let's not waste it. Coffee?" She poured water from a plastic milk container into her kettle and switched it on.
"If you wanted to go to Heaven," said Peter in a measured tone, "from here, I mean, how would you go about it?"
"The first thing I would do would be to get my head examined. You can't get there from here."
"Let me try another approach. If I were to try to go to Heaven, would you come with me?"
Angela thought for a moment. "Yes, all right. Shall I make the fish-paste sandwiches?"
"Do we have fish-paste?"
"We?" There was an awkward moment.
"I meant, do you have fish-paste?"
"I think so."
Peter asked, "Are there angels down here? Around us?"
"I was hoping you wouldn't ask that," replied Angela, searching out a sliced loaf. "Who can say?"
"You can say. You seem to know all about the way things work down here."
"They aren't a fifth column, if that's what you meant. There are no concerted campaigns against the excesses and excrescences of decadent western capitalism. No lightning strikes on the Bank of England and no suicide bombers here."
"Where do the suicide bombers go, then?"
"They have a special paradise to themselves in the Outlying Territories and lots of free goes on the automatic virgin dispenser."
"Uh uh," in a tone that meant "No, I'm not, it's true."
"Why didn't anyone tell me earlier?"
"They did. You chose to disbelieve them, and that's your own problem. That's always the way, isn't it. Don't be envious. You have me. They don't." She handed Peter a neat fish-paste sandwich on a plate.
"You make better sandwiches than they do."
"Why, thank you. But when it comes to goat-flavoured hummus, you've got to admit, they win hands down."
"Goat-flavoured hummus sounds curious. What does it taste like?"
"Goat. Not much goat in it, though. 98% Goat Free."
"Funny you should mention it. I had a friend who liked goat-flavoured hummus."
"What happened to him?"
They finished eating and cleared up.
"Now," said Angela, "I have no idea how to get to Heaven, so you'll have to explain your plan to me."
"Plan?" Peter looked nonplussed for a minute. "Oh, yes, plan. I've got everything planned from start to finish. Maps, compasses, GPS, tickets, guide books, ration books, two way radios, passes, visas, money, vibram soled boots, sunglasses, mosquito repellant, water purification tablets, powdered milk, tea and a primus stove. Everything right down to the finest detail."
"I'm pleased to know you're not just setting off on some ill advised adventure without the least idea of how you're going to do it."
"Well, actually, I was lying. I have no clue where I'm going, nor what I'm going to do when I get there, nor how to get back afterwards. I haven't got anything planned at all."
"So, in hostile territory, without weapons, food, maps or even a clean pair of pants, where being caught trying to escape probably means torture and several excruciating deaths one after the other, your plan of action is to travel light and make it up as you go along. Have I got that right?"
"Yes. I say, does it really mean torture and an excruciating death?"
"I don't know. Quite likely it does. I think the idea is that if they catch you escaping then you're fair game. I can imagine some officers of the Community Demon Service would quite like to send a few souls off to an excruciating death."
"Aren't we damned souls immortal?"
"Probably. Not that long ago, the damned souls were incinerated. Hurled into deep pits of flaming sulphur, and it didn't do them any harm. But I wouldn't depend on it."
"Why did they stop incinerating the damned?"
"Since Dante wrote about Hell, incineration has ceased to be part of the core business. Funny thing is, the people who really don't want to see incineration discontinued are the professional bible bashers. With what nonsense will American television fill the Mediaeval Gospel Hour now?" She continued in a startlingly accurate American bible basher accent, "Gawd sez in the Barble, listen, if yiu sin, if yiu lah, if yiu steeyal, if yiu shag the dawg, if yiu reject Gawd's lurve fer yiu, yiu'll goader Hell an' Satan'll have you woikin' in a cawl cinder for awl eterniddy. Gimme awl yer money."
"A petrifying prospect, I agree, Mr Falwell, but it doesn't have the voyeuristic appeal of throwing terrified live souls into burning sulphur so as to watch them not die in agony. You've missed your vocation."
"Torturing sinners hideously by casting them alive into the lake of fire has no place in the logistics of a modern corporation. Anyway, every child who lives in a house with electricity has probably seen a thousand people burned alive before reaching the age of ten, so there's no point in threatening him or her with incineration. The real thing is less frightening than the harmless imitation. As for missing my vocation," she resumed the unbearable accent, "maybe Aa jess haven't gudd araand to it yed."
"You'd make a fortune."
"And save souls fer Jee-zas." She dropped the accent and in an unmistakable Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster, "It's a win win situation, Jeeves."
"What time do we start?" Angela asked, as she and Peter were back in the garden picking up leaves and taking carrier bags back.
"Under cover of darkness, I suppose," suggested Peter.
"I was thinking that, as well. Right," said Angela, "I have to go out for a while. Be a dear and tidy the garden a bit more for me. You can go to bed, I'll be back later."
"Will you be long?"
Angela was scribbling a short note on a tiny scrap of paper. "An hour or two," she said. "Nothing to worry about. When I get back, I'll put my leather knickers on for you."
"What colour would you like? Black, white, red, blue or orange?"
She held up the tiny scrap of paper. The word she had written on it was, "White."
"See? I thought you were the white leather knickers appreciation society. Oh, the electricity will go off, but there will be hot water for a while."
Angela gathered some things into an ancient duffle bag and left. Peter picked up some leaves and rubbish. He thought that he ought to empty the bucket somewhere, but he had no idea where he should leave the contents. Nowhere seemed appropriate. After that he found Angela's pink dressing gown hanging on the back of the bathroom door, bathed, and wrapped himself in the dressing gown. Seeing Angela's Samsara perfume — how had she scavenged that, he wondered — he sprayed himself lightly with it. Then he put together a fish-paste sandwich and a mug of coffee, and he settled in Angela's one big upholstered chair. He might have watched television, but the electricity went off.
It was dark when Angela awoke him, sitting on his legs wearing nothing but white leather knickers, biting his ear and saying in piping Japanese notes, "Hello, big boy. I love you long time."
"Konichi-wa. Oh," Peter awoke fully, "You're good at impressions."
"I speak with the tongues of men and of angels."
"Um. Which was that? I like these leathers. I can't keep my hands off them."
"How long were you away?"
"Not sure. An hour, maybe two, and don't ask the question if you don't want to know the answer. I told you, I have to keep in with officialdom. Anyway, I found out how we get to Heaven."
"You're a genius."
"We take the Ghost Train."
"Of course. What else?"
"Seriously. You're a train spotter. You know this already. A ghost train is a train that is printed in the working timetable but never actually operates. It's just a path reserved in case it becomes necessary to operate an extra train. In case of a troop movement or for track maintenance. Forget cover of darkness. There's a ghost train at 08.00 Monday to Friday that travels to Heaven via St Peter's Curve. Tomorrow it will be necessary to operate it."
"And we are going to be on it?"
"We are indeed going to be on it. Meanwhile let's go to bed. I'm cold here. I'll save the bad news until tomorrow."
Peter and Angela woke when the sun rose. The electricity was on. Peter still had his hands in Angela's leather pants.
"You said," Peter reminded her, "that you'd spare me the bad news until today."
"Yes. The good news is, we take the Ghost Train at 08.00. The bad news is, take, as in remove from its current location, displace, expropriate, larcenise, half-inch, nick or swipe without so much as a by your leave. You're driving."
"Me? I haven't a clue how to drive a locomotive."
"Well, now's your chance to learn, then. Don't worry, it's only a little one. You're driving the maintenance train to St Peter's Curve."
"First Kings, chapter 10. She came to Jerusalem with a very great train — that's me, that is. Come on, let's get bathed, dressed and going."
Peter was en femme today, looking as female as Angela could achieve, on the grounds of railwaymen being more helpful towards a woman than they would be towards a man. They wore what looked like railway issue overalls and yellow jackets. The two of them walked onto the platform at Ninth Circle station and along the track. A small wooden shed stood near the track, where a driver could shelter out of the rain while waiting for an engine to arrive.
"A gleaming Plasser and Theurer track inspection and maintenance machine," said Angela, pointing to it as it stood on a siding, "known for generations to the travelling public as one of those yellow things. What's the time, Paula?" giving Peter a chance to use his or her new name.
"Seven forty. I can see the station clock."
"Good, we've got a little time. We need the ignition key."
"Probably in the shed."
The shed was not locked. As Angela had hoped, nobody paid attention to two women in yellow jackets wandering into the drivers' hut. There was a bakelite phone screwed to the wall and a nearby plastic label identified it as running to "NC Signal Box." Angela crossed her fingers, picked up the phone, and gestured to Paula to find paper and pencil. The connection was direct and it was not necessary to dial anything. When the signal-box answered she adopted the voice of a driver with muscles of steel, covered in engine oil from head to foot.
"Hello! This is driver Highwater and guard Gates, taking out the 08.00 ghost train."
The signal box replied, but Peter couldn't overhear what was said.
"Reports of a landslip on the St Peter's Curve. Just an inspection."
"What's our train number, please?"
More inaudible talk, and then Angela repeated, "2P04," and Paula wrote it down.
"Any problems expected?" she asked, and then replied, "Thanks, see you later," and put the phone back down.
She looked around the hut. Somebody's railway hat was on the table. She instinctively picked it up and put on Paula's head. And there was a working timetable! That would make their life easier. She took it. The time was now 07.50 by the station clock. The current list of diversions and restrictions, pinned to the wall beside the window, didn't show anything that would affect their path. Also hanging on the wall was an ignition key. There was only one siding and only one train, so there wasn't much else that it could be the ignition key for, and she grabbed it. Things were working out well, so far.
They left the hut and let themselves into the cab of the maintenance engine. Paula sat down in the off-side seat and Angela sat beside him. Paula found a handle and wound the train number blinds to 2P04. Ahead of them the signal turned green.
"We're in business," cheered Angela.
"Not quite." Paula baulked, staring at the levers and knobs in front of her. "I haven't a clue how to drive this thing."
"Yes, you have. You're a trainspotter. How many times have you watched a driver drive a train?"
"That's enough. Come on, the signalman is wondering why the train isn't moving."
"Well, let's start with the ignition."
The key turned in the ignition and some lights went on.
"Gearbox in neutral - I think that's the gear shift. We press the starter, wait for the engine to fire..."
There was a jolt as the diesel engine started to turn over.
"We engage gear and release the brake..."
Paula slid the lever of the Westinghouse brake to Release, and heard a rush of compressed air.
"Now let's try some throttle and see what happens. Do your notes tell us what the line speed is?"
"Here we go, then. Air horn, both notes."
Paula sounded the machine's powerful two-tone air horn and jumped at how loud it was. "I've been wanting to do that all my life!"
The train jumped slightly, edged up to five miles an hour and growled off the siding onto the main line. Clunks and a slight rocking of the bogies told Paula that the vehicle had gone over the point and was now on the main line. There, she opened the throttle further and saw the speed climb towards fifteen. Releasing the throttle for a moment she felt the automatic gearbox take her up a notch. They were moving. They had got past the first obstacle, the staff at Ninth Circle station, without any unpleasantness.
"I'm almost convinced I'm going to enjoy this. Keep a careful look out for signals," she said unnecessarily to Angela.
"Aye aye, madam," Angela responded, "Oh, no, that's ships, isn't it. Are signals the red things on sticks?"
"Oh, dear God."
"We've already eaten all the fish paste sandwiches."
"Tragic. I don't think there's a kitchen on board. We should've stolen the Tees Tyne Pullman instead."
"We're not stealing anything," Angela reassured her, "We'll give it back afterwards. It's only TDA."
"That's all right, then."
The speedometer passed forty. Paula let the automatic gearbox take over for a few seconds, rounded a gentle curve and waved back to three young women who were picking blackberries from the bushes that bordered the track.
"Does it feel as good as you expected?" asked Angela.
"Being an engine driver."
"Better. I already feel like a super hero with a magic hat. Green signal!"
A loud ping from the AWS in the corner announced that they had passed a green signal. The speedo was settling on sixty and Paula let the engine idle.
"Where is the curve, exactly?"
"It's part of a branch that diverges somewhere near the Third Circle," explained Angela. "The branch wanders across open country and eventually joins the main line that continues to Heaven. Our story is that we are inspecting a suspected landslip on the Curve."
"You're well briefed."
"It's amazing what people will tell you if you're wearing leather knickers. This mission is jolly important to some of the top brass, I can tell you."
"Why should they care what a second-rate computer consultant gets up to at work?"
"Because they're in on it, of course. They have the fraud planned and ready to go. All they need is the data and they'll have a new high-value income stream."
"Did they tell you," Paula saw a speed limit sign ahead and applied the brake gently, just in case, "how much of it they plan to give me?"
"No, they didn't, but usually, give or take ten percent, under the Infernal profit sharing scheme which applies in most cases, they would give you nothing at all."
"—deducted a percentage before handing over the rest? They don't appreciate being robbed. They'd beat you senseless and then kill you. Or it could be even worse. They might beat me senseless and kill me. Probably worse still, they'd beat us both senseless and kill both of us."
The speed limit came into clear view. It was forty and the train was still doing fifty. Paula put the brake on harder, but not enough to avoid a rough ride around a sharp curve. Screeches came from the wheel flanges and the vehicle bounced from left to right before its speed fell below the limit.
"Hold on tight!" shouted Paula, excitedly.
"Bit late now. I've banged my hip on the side of this seat thing."
"Speed limit sign. Sixty again, isn't it?"
"Yes. I don't know why they don't just give up all pretence of making the seat comfortable and just put huge red-hot metal spikes all over it."
"Because they lack vision. They don't have your creative flair."
The train accelerated gracefully into a long, straight stretch of track, and reached a steady fifty-five or so before Paula let the engine idle. Buildings and plants were thinning out, giving way to the stark, rocky landscape of the rural Ninth Circle. The line was climbing steadily and the land was turning hilly, the distant horizon mountainous and suffused by the distinct orange tone of sulphur. The strange steam geysers were pushing white mist up from the shingle. At first there were some gaunt, almost leafless trees; they became fewer as the line continued to climb.
"How far is the junction?"
Angela thumbed the working timetable. "There's a short stop scheduled at Milepost 232. That's probably the junction where we join St Peter's Curve."
"Token working," Paula observed.
Paula remembered to toot the horn as the train entered a tunnel. There was a thud as the shock wave hit the cab.
"With the steep gradient and the tunnels we're probably nearing the summit," Paula called, but the noise of the engine in the tunnel meant that Angela could not hear her.
The train emerged into the yellow daylight again.
"You're getting good at driving this train," said Angela.
"I don't feel too confident of my driving, but I expect to arrive with all eight wheels on the rails. Speed limit!" Paula slowed the train to forty and passed the limit sign comfortably.
"Have you ever heard of morphic resonance?" explained Angela. "The absorption of other peoples' knowledge and abilities. James Bond is the world's greatest exponent of it. You know how he sits down at the control panel of any complex object — a car, a space ship, a telephone exchange, a nuclear power station, a sewage works, anything — and he immediately knows how to operate the controls? Especially the controls that defuse the bomb that's going to detonate and blow up the entire country in the next ten seconds?"
"I've seen him do it often. I always wondered how he does that."
"It's done with morphic resonance. A number of people have sat in that seat and operated those controls before him. So, when James Bond— Speed limit!"
"Thanks," said Paula, who had been staring at Angela's hips and had forgotten to look at the track ahead. He slowed the train to thirty-five just about in time.
"When James Bond sits down at a control panel he uses other peoples' knowledge of how it works and what to do. It just seeps into his head through his ears and up his nose, like water entering a bath sponge."
"Bath sponges don't have ears and a nose. Does he have supernatural powers?"
"We all do. We're supernatural beings in here." She paused and added, "Either that, or he's good at making lucky guesses. Or everybody can do morphic resonance without realising it."
"Is that how I'm able to drive the train? I can drive it because other people can drive it? I gain their knowledge by psycho-osmosis?"
"No, that's because you're a train spotter. But it explains how come children can operate the video and their parents can't and the instructions are in Japanese."
The train entered another tunnel, making conversation impossible for a while. The flanges squealed, and there was just enough light to make out water running down the walls, wet track and a sharp curve. When the train left the tunnel it crossed a bridge over a wide stream, flowing fast enough for Paula to hear water bubbling.
"Strange," she observed out loud, "there's running water but nothing growing nearby."
The railway was cut into a mountainside rising to a peak on the right and falling away to a deep valley on the left.
"That must be the accursed valley. And that is milestone 248," said Paula, as they passed it.
"We'll be at the junction in half an hour, then. I guess St Peter's Curve takes us further up into the mountain tops, while the main line slews back down into the valley."
The train entered another tunnel for half a minute or so. Then the landscape opened up before them in a wide vista. Ahead in the far distance was the Acheron Bridge. Beside the track a board announced "Mt. Lucifer, Summit, 1015 m ASL."
"I know where we are," sang Paula, "I know where we are."
"Well done, Paula."
A passenger train appeared in the distance, coming towards them.
"Poor benighted souls," said Angela. When the two trains passed, she and Peter could see officials, demons and top brass being waited on in first class and the three Rubbish Class carriages crammed full with the new accessions struggling to sleep standing up and not to wet themselves.
"We have to watch how fast we're going now," said Paula, bringing the speed down to thirty-five. They passed Milestone 235, and Paula began to slow the train to a crawl.
When they saw the junction in the distance they were quite exuberant. There was a reinforced concrete signal box and a red signal. Paula managed to stop the train exactly beside the box. She noticed Milepost 232 beside the track.
"Let's hope we're expected," said Paula, drawing the train to a stop. "Angela, the signalman should reach you the token out of the window up there." She clambered out of the cab and took up the phone attached to the signal pole.
"Driver Highwater, train 2P04," she said, "and I need the token for the St Peter Curve."
"Hey, that's the ghost train! Signalman Brown says you got it."
Angela leaned out of the cab window and reached up to the window of the box. Signalman Brown reached the token down to her.
"Here you are, doll," Signalman Brown shouted over the engine noise, admiring Angela and then noticing Paula. "Do you want fries with that?"
Angela grabbed the token. "What?"
"I said, is she your friend?"
"Yes. See you later. And her. Be sure to bring your friend. Take care."
Angela grinned at him as he disappeared back into the box. Paula climbed back into the cab and slammed the door. The point blade shifted, the signal turned green, the route indicator lit up. The train moved off, onto the branch. There was a ping from the AWS. Angela propped the token against the cab wall. There was a twenty mile per hour speed limit sign.
Now the line began to climb more steeply and the engine was distinctly labouring, accelerating only with difficulty, the wheels skidding occasionally. The track was growing with grass in places and rusted, a sure sign of infrequent use. Some of the sleepers were chipped and scored in a way that suggested a derailment years ago.
"You have an admirer," said Angela. "Did you ever want a boyfriend?"
"Never really thought about it. Nobody ever offered before."
"No mistaking the way Signalman Brown was looking at you. I suppose we ought to look as though we're carrying out a track inspection. Do you know how to inspect the track?"
"No idea. There's probably a control panel somewhere. Are we a long way from Heaven?"
"I don't think so. We'll probably be able to see it soon."
"When was this track last used?"
"I don't know. Whenever there was a need for a direct train from Heaven to Hell or back again, I suppose. Did Satan ever pay a state visit to Heaven?"
"I don't think so. I believe that's pretty much ruled out by the terms of the settlement between God and Lucifer. Satan ought to make a state visit to Britain one day. Judging by the reception King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia got, Satan could expect a hero's welcome as well as a roast beef dinner with Her Majesty. And afterwards there'd be Gordon Brown making that lovely, slightly uncomfortable speech of self justification in the House of Commons." Paula tried to mimic Gordon Brown's accent, but couldn't. "'This man is certainly one of the world's more problematic leaders, complete absence of human rights, absolute monarchy, feudal theocratic state, no democratic mechanisms, criminal trials held in secret without juries, routine use of torture, corruption, women kept wrapped in bags like doughnuts, Realpolitik, on the other hand, man we can do business with, millions of British jobs are at stake making stakes, not to mention alcoholic beverages, leg-irons, electric shock batons and those nifty little aerosols that you spray in the prisoner's face to blind him while you put him in handcuffs and leg-irons, tie him to the stake and beat him with the electric shock batons while drinking the alcoholic beverages. His Majesty has graciously agreed to Honourable Members making a number of fact finding visits during the colder months of the year etc.' You know how it goes."
"I lost the plot. Was that Satan or King Abdullah?"
"It was Satan, but you're excused for not being able to tell the difference. What difference does it make anyway? Satan is quite happy to sit back and let an army of tyrants, thugs and despots do his job for him."
"How fast are we going?"
Angela was right to restore attention to the speedo. It had crept up to twenty-five as the train ran into a slight hollow. Paula gave it a splash on the brake to bring it back into line.
A main line joined from the left. The train rounded another curve and suddenly Paula and Angela, startled, saw the Holy City dead ahead. It was a vast walled city, glowing with its own light. The gates flashed like pearl, while the jasper walls glittered as though studded with precious stones. Signalman Brown had prepared the way for them. A shunt signal guided the train across the station throat. Paula noticed a turntable still in working order, ash pits, water cranes and a coaling chute. Dropping the speed to dead slow, Paula brought the train into a staff platform, stopped it, and turned off the ignition.
They piled off the train onto the grubby platform and looked around. The City of Heaven appeared to be a short walk away. Across the yard were the two splendid, scrupulously clean white marble platforms of Heaven Victoria.
"Here we are," said Paula unnecessarily.
"Well done," Angela congratulated. "We're probably on time, if I knew what the time was and what the timetable said."
"Any plans for what we do now?"
"Fake it as we go along?"
"Why not? It's worked so far."
"Truth or lie?"
"Shall we tell them what we're actually looking for, or do we have a cover story?"
"Cover story. Can you imagine saying to St Peter, 'Excuse me, I'm looking for a data disk that I need in order to perpetrate a massive fraud against thousands of old age pensioners,' and then waiting for him to look your name up in the Book of Life of the Lamb of God? Fat chance. Trust me, I'll come up with something."
They walked up to the pearly gate, where St Peter was waiting, looking bald, bearded and weary.
"St Peter?" Angela asked.
"We bring glad tidings of great joy," said Paula.
"Not more religious fanatics, for God's sake."
"We bring you the most excellent news. The most important thing you ever heard."
"I've heard it. In fact St Paul and I wrote a lot of it. On yer camel."
"If the City Authorities give their permission, Richard Clayderman will give a concert in Heaven."
St Peter warmed to the visitors immediately. "How wonderful. Do go inside and make the necessary arrangements. If there's anything I or my angels can do..."
"We'll tell you," said Paula.
"Is there a hotel we can stay in for a couple of nights," asked Angela, "just while we get acclimatised?"
"The hotel is full, but there's a stable you can sleep in. Just over there. Cross Darwin Square here and it's on the Dawkins Road."
"That'll do, I'm sure."
They stepped through the gate and looked around, dazzled, at the world inside the walls. People were pressing through the cobbled streets, going about goodness knows what business. A map of "Homes of the Stars" had been tacked to a noticeboard.
"Where's Father Christmas?" said a man who was staring at the map.
"I think they denounced him and he moved out," said his woman friend, "and he's probably back at the North Pole by now."
"How can people make a day trip to Heaven?" asked Paula, seeing the tourists.
"They take drugs," explained Angla simply.
"And where are all the angels?" asked Paula. "I expected Heaven to be chock-full of angels."
"Just like on Earth," said Angela, "you can't tell the difference."
"So if I were just to pick on some poor soul at random and ask, 'Are you an angel?' he might say yes or he might say no?"
"He'd say, 'I don't know.' Nobody knows whether they're an angel or not."
"So how do you become an angel?"
"You don't. But if you do good, that might help."
"What about accepting the Lord Jesus into your heart as your saviour?"
"Load of self-serving bullshit. Which would you rather have as a guardian angel, a millionaire televangelist in a charcoal grey suit who accepted the Lord Jesus into his heart as his saviour and comes into your living room every day screaming at you for money, or a little old lady who comes round and gives you a fruit cake when your arthritis is playing up?"
"Is the fruit cake a televangelist?"
"No, the televangelist is a fruit cake, but the fruit cake is an item of bakery."
"I'd prefer the little old lady, of course, wouldn't anyone?"
"So there you are. Becoming an angel is like any other promotion. First, make sure that you're actually doing the job that you want to be promoted to. After that, you might be recognised and get promoted to it."
"Why don't they do something about televangelists?"
"Demarcation, Paula. Don't condemn them: it's not your job. The televangelists find out what God thinks of them when they die. That's all that matters. Don't worry about them."
There was a small shop open selling drinks. An elderly man waited behind the counter for their order.
"What would you like?" asked Angela, perching on a stool near the counter.
"Tea," asked Paula immediately, "British tea with milk." He sat down on the next stool.
Angela giggled and ordered, "Cup of tea and an orange juice. Thanks."
"Three and six."
"Here," Angela reached into her bag and gave him a half-crown and a shilling.
They sat with their drinks watching the world go by.
"So now that we've got ourselves here, what are we going to do?"
"We're going to organise a free Richard Clayderman concert."
"Why? I don't get it. Why Richard Clayderman of all people?"
"Because Amelia Buckley likes him and she's the one we're after."
"But Richard Clayderman isn't even dead yet."
"A tangential issue. A mere bagatelle. A technical difficulty. A minor obstacle in our path, which we shall overcome almost without noticing that it was ever there. I shall step into the breach."
Angela was overawed. "Gosh, can you play the piano like Richard Clayderman?"
"Yes," asserted Paula, "by the power of morphic resonance, I can."
Angela's demeanour changed sudddenly from awestruck to horrified. "Peter, Paula, reality check. Can you play the piano?"
"I don't know. I've never tried. It doesn't look difficult."
"I don't think you should rely too heavily on morphic resonance for this purpose. Never having played a piano is hardly adequate preparation for knocking out a Richard Clayderman concert, is it?"
"All we have to do is get an audience. Mrs Buckley will be in that audience. Then we can get our data disk, then we can run away before anyone realises and take the yellow track maintenance thingy back to the Ninth Circle and then Incoherent can perpetrate a ruthless fraud against millions of innocent pensioners and make a huge pile of hot money."
"For someone else."
"That's the weak spot, but I'm working on it. What would happen if I told Foskill that Mrs Buckley was rather attached to the disk, but she was willing to sell it to us for a million euros?"
"I told you. The demons would come round and kick your head in."
"That rules that out, then. Don't they ever act magnanimously when they know they're beaten?"
Peter and Angela drank tea and orange juice quietly for a moment.
"Where will the concert be?" asked Angela.
"Local primary school, probably."
The Gregor Mendel Primary School was a Victorian stone building with arched windows, a slate roof and a former belfry. Mrs Palfrey, the headmistress, was very pleased to welcome her visitors. In exchange for the children making posters for the Richard Clayderman concert, they would hold the concert in the assembly hall. Thus posters in childish handwriting, crayon and poster paint began to appear in the shop windows and stuck to the walls and fences around Heaven advertising the great forthcoming event.
The school assembly hall was packed with adults awkwardly trying to sit on chairs made for eight year olds, and the piano had been moved to the centre of the room. Peter emerged from the shadows and stood at the front of the hall. Angela had found, or made, a magnificent tailed jacket for him with a bow tie to match. Peter addressed his audience in the best French accent he could manage.
"Ladies an' gentlemen, welcome to my concerr."
There was an unexpected burst of applause.
"Please eendulge me a second. I am lookeeng for a lady. A particular lady, I mean. Mrs Amelia Buckley. Are you—"
A woman three rows from the front stood up and made her way towards Peter. They met in the aisle.
"Mrs Buckley," said Peter, "you may remember zat at Accessions you 'ad a disk of Roxette museek that wouldn't play?"
"Yes," she said, "I remember that."
"And you asked ze man nex to you in ze queue if 'e could feex eet?"
"Yes. I remember him. He looked a bit like you."
"Mrs Buckley, do you 'ave ze broken deesk? Do you have eet weez you, or ees eet at 'ome?"
"The broken disk? Oh, no, it wasn't broken at all. I just put it into the player upside down, that's all. When I turned it over, it played perfectly."
"Ah. I understand. You may return to your seat, Madame."
As Amelia Buckley returned to her seat amid whispers and congratulations from all around, Peter left the stage and went back into the store cupboard that had served him as a dressing room.
"Did you get it?" asked Angela in a strained whisper.
"She never had it," replied Peter, "the bloody idiot. Does the window open?"
There was a broken desk in the store cupboard. They stood it under the window, clambered outside and fell into the playground.
"Let's leg it," said Angela.
The city's own luminescence was strong enough to guide them to the Pearly Gate, where they thanked St Peter for allowing them to visit and explained that they had to go now.
"What about the Richard Clayderman concert?" enquired the old man.
"It's on now. You're missing it," explained Angela.
"Bother, and I'm on duty until midnight. Have a pleasant trip, wherever you're going."
Peter and Angela wandered onto Heaven Victoria and looked around. The station was deserted: there were obviously no trains scheduled for a while.
"How are we going to get home?" asked Peter.
"Same way we got here."
"That won't work. The yellow thing is missing!"
"So it is. Oh, dear."
"How long will it be before the crowd at the Primary School comes looking for us?"
"I see what you mean. I guess that's them in the distance. A minute or two, I guess."
"Is there any other sort of train we can steal?"
"We're not stealing. It's TDA."
"Is there any other sort of train that we can TDA, then?"
"Not that I can see."
"How about a bicycle? A lot of people in Heaven ride bicycles."
"In the blazing sun, over two hundred and forty miles of lumps of hot rock?"
"Well, not exactly. They use bicycles to go down to the corner shop and buy a tin of beans, not for inter-city transport."
The crowd was getting closer. Peter couldn't really understand why the crowd was following them, since they had not been charged for their seats at the concert and there was nothing they could reasonably ask to have refunded to them. But it seemed foolhardy to go and ask them.
"Get off the platform, keep yourself out of sight."
They jumped onto the track and stood close to the platform edge. If you didn't know they were there, you couldn't have seen them from the city gates, or even from the station buildings.
"Are we going to get out of here alive?" asked Angela, really wanting to know.
"Perhaps," said Peter, "provided that no trains come along on this track."
At the further end of the platform, a point blade shifted. A train was being routed onto their track.
"Oh, sod it," said Angela quietly, so as not to be heard by the concert goers, "we face a miserable choice between getting squashed to cat food by an oncoming train or being handbagged to death by an angry crowd of incensed and disappointed Richard Clayderman groupies."
"Do you think, if I were to be squashed by a train, that any self respecting moggy would eat my mortal remains?"
"No," replied Angela, "cats are very fussy. The remark about being squashed to cat food is merely a conventional figure of speech. Do keep your voice down."
A familiar yellow diesel engine turned the bend and arrived in the platform. The maintenance vehicle thingy, back from its excursion, stopped well short of Peter and Angela.
"Hey, it's you! I thought I'd never see you two again."
Signalman Brown leaned out of the cab window. "Get in if you want a ride back."
Peter noticed that the maintenance vehicle was pulling a shunting engine. "What happened?"
"Someone in the staff canteen saw the maintenance vehicle rolling out of the station and down the hill. You must've forgotten to brake the train properly. There was a shunting engine in the box kickback so I took that and went up the branch to look for the runaway from my end. Fortunately the thing had come to a stand by the time I met it, and here's your train back. What are you doing down there?"
"Hiding from a murderous crowd of angry concert goers."
"How did that happen?"
"Mistaken identity. They think I'm Richard Clayderman."
"Easy mistake to make. Anyway, if we're to get back to the box we'll have to go down St Peter's Curve again. It's just as well there aren't any scheduled workings."
Peter and Angela clambered gratefully on board. Brown drove the maintenance vehicle to the buffers, wound the brake on, and picked up the token off the cab floor.
"May as well be on the track legally. I'll get you back to the box in the shunting engine, so don't worry."
"Are we just leaving the maintenance train here?"
"Yes. It can't go back along the main line for a while. It'll have to wait until there's another ghost train."
The three of them clambered aboard the little diesel locomotive.
Peter confessed, "I always wanted to ride on one of these."
"Remind you of Thomas the Tank Engine, don't they," Brown agreed.
Lights, brakes, gearbox, action. As soon as the locomotive turned the curve away from the Holy City, the tracks were in shadow, lit only by moonlight. Peter and Angela tried to make themselves comfortable sitting on the floor and leaning against the cab. Brown drove expertly, staring ahead and operating the controls in silence.
"I suppose," said Peter to Angela, "very few people have seen all three places. Earth, Heaven and Hell."
Angela agreed. "Which do you prefer?"
"Earth, I suppose, but that's the strange thing. There isn't much difference between them. I only prefer Earth because that's where I used to live."
"You're looking at the buildings, Peter, the streets, the grass and the mud. You forget the people."
"Well, we live in the Ninth Circle of Hell. I'm there for cross dressing, you weren't choosy enough about your lovers—"
"I was a prostitute. You can say it. It doesn't hurt."
"Miffy and Sniffy are there for drunkenness, I suppose."
"Goodness me, no. You don't get sent to the Ninth Circle for drunkenness. Use your imagination."
Peter used his imagination, vividly. "You mean, they're, er —"
"Who else would, if not each other?"
"But there's nobody there who would be out of place in a London suburb, or in The Radio Times Interview, come to that."
"You're looking at the wrong things. Earth, Heaven and Hell all have shops, houses, parks, roads, railways, markets, even muddy patches where kids hang about making a nuisance of themselves, light bonfires and smash empty bottles. Yes, sure, Hell also has those great flaming volcanoes that erupt occasionally in a suffocating cloud of sulphurous fumes and coat everyone within a five kilometre radius with dollops of boiling sulphur that burns their skin off, and that's what brings in the tourists, but that's not what makes the difference. And then there are trivial differences that make people feel comfortable or uncomfortable, like Heaven drives on the left and Hell drives on the right. Those little differences are just put there to keep you on edge. But the real difference is who you meet, and who meets you. It's the people that are different. Sheep and goats, Peter. Remember?"
"The shepherd divides the sheep from the goats, is that it?"
"Sheep and goats are very similar to look at. In the Middle East even an experienced shepherd can hardly tell them apart, especially at night when they're covered in sand. But living among sheep is different from living among goats."
"It is, if you're a goat."
"Is there any hope for the people in Hell?"
"Nothing will ever change. But our time in Heaven was not entirely wasted." Angela produced a carrier bag. Goodness knows where she had been hiding it. "I went shopping in Watson & Crick. I got Sugar Puffs, Twining's tea, fresh milk, eye liner, and a nice pillow. Look at it. You never get anything like that in Hell. Pink, with lace edges, like I always wanted. And look at the label: Made in England."
"You'll have to smuggle those in," put in Peter.
"Of course," said Angela, "but I've got them this far without problems."
They paused and felt the engine clicking over the rails.
"Tell me something," asked Peter.
"Anything," said Angela, bracing herself for something intimate.
"What happens if you go back to visit your grave at Hallowe'en and you miss the bus back?"
"Peter, don't. Just don't."
"But what happens?"
"You become an earthbound spirit. A haunting. Unable either to leave the Earth or to rest in peace. Sometimes ghosts get trapped for hundreds of years."
"So that's why they do it."
"They hang around some eighteenth century church or inn or lighthouse because it's the only place they know, waiting for ever. Just standing in the rain for ever, waiting for the bus home."
"We all know what that feels like," said Peter sympathetically.
Brown called out that they were now a couple of minutes from the box. "You don't want to be out here overnight," he added. "These locos get cold. I suggest you come in and plan your next move."
Peter and Angela lay together on the floor of the signal box. Brown's shift went on until dawn and he went to the box window, picked up a tin of beer that had obviously been standing for some while, drew on it and left them alone. Brown stared along the track, sometimes in the one direction, sometimes in the other. The track and the bell telegraph were completely still and quiet. No trains were due until tomorrow morning, but in theory a delay, an accident, or a boulder rolling onto the track could all require the signalman's attention. The night outside the box was freezing.
"You know," said Angela, whispering, "I prefer you en femme. The Richard Clayderman costume doesn't really suit you."
"I prefer the Barbie in a pink sweater look too. But what's uppermost on my mind is, where do we go from here? Now that we haven't got the data disk."
"You go back, tell them you haven't got it, go into hiding, wait a couple of years for their anger to subside, find another job and carry on life as before. I'll bring you fishpaste sandwiches when the coast is clear because I know you like them. We were never going to profit from the disk, so we certainly shan't pay for the loss of it. Don't give up yet. Think carefully. Is there anywhere else it might be? Anyone's desk, office, filing cabinet, toilet or waste-paper bin?"
Peter thought carefully, "No. I have not the least idea where it is. May I give up now?"
"Yes, all right," Angela assented, and added innocently, "Do you want to make love?"
"I thought you'd never ask. Just pretend I'm in full make-up, wig, bra and panties, all right?"
"Same here, Paula. Good girl."
"I love the way you say that."
"There's an early morning freight train." Brown woke them in the bright but cold hour after sunrise. "You could probably go on that. I think someone might notice if I stopped the passenger train to beg a lift for my friends."
"We'll take it."
"The train takes cargo to the outer circles and the Outlying Territories. Asgard and Sheol and beyond. It might not be booked to stop at the Ninth, but I can ask."
"What's the cargo?" asked Angela.
"Mixed freight. Could be anything."
"Aviation fuel for the Elysian planes, sort of thing?" asked Peter.
"Probably tinned corned beef, clothing, newspapers, camels, supplies of propane and sulphur for the volcanoes. Just day to day essentials."
Peter and Angela spilled out of the freight train when it made a short unscheduled stop at the Ninth Circle, and picked their way to the house on Blair Street.
The electricity was on. "Come on," Angela invited, plonking the contents of her carrier bag on the kitchen table, "let's have tea."
Angela made tea with a kettle and fresh milk.
"This is such a luxury."
"I suppose I ought to go back to the office. Face the music. Get it over with. Is there a good Job Centre in the Ninth Circle?"
"No. Is there one anywhere? Good luck."
"Really, good luck. Whatever happens you can always walk out and come back here, if they don't break your legs."
Peter thought he should report the events of the last few days first to Foskill, but Foskill's office was empty and he was nowhere to be seen. Then a thought struck him: had anyone missed him (Peter?) It occurred to Peter that if Foskill had not sent or received any email about his absence, nobody in Bitco would have noticed it. Things had a way of becoming tangible and believable only as emails about them were sent and received. Foskill's computer was showing a blank screen, which Peter took to be a screen saver. Touching the mouse should clear the screen saver and show whatever Foskill had been doing when he left the office, leaving Peter to nose through his boss's recent emails. There was nobody around, so Peter touched the mouse lightly.
The screen remained blank.
Peter pushed the mouse again and the screen remained blank again.
Peter realised that the computer had failed. It was switched on, and the screen was switched on, but there was no picture on the screen. Without thinking of how he was going to account for himself, he found the CPU box on the floor under the desk and pressed the Boot switch with his thumb.
The machine came to life for a few seconds but then passed away again. Peter, an expert in sifting through the wreckage of computer crashes, recognised the signs of a corrupt boot record. The computer was trying to start by reading a damaged disk, failing to read it, and then giving up. Peter checked the drives to see whether the problem was caused by a removable disk (probably easy to fix) or a damaged fixed disk (nearly impossible). Hurrrah! It was a removable disk. To be exact, the problem was caused by a rewritable CD marked "Landward Strife" in purple marker pen. Recognising the importance of the disk, as well as its enormous financial value and the importance of removing any trace of his involvement in removing it from any container, Peter put the "Landward Strife" disk into his pocket and turned round to see Foskill standing in the office doorway looking miserable.
"How long've you been here?" Foskill asked, miserably.
"About ten minutes."
Foskill wagged his finger. "Well, you can fix my computer because it's broken."
"What did you do to it?"
Peter pressed the Boot button again. This time, no longer trying to read the boot record on a disk full of the names, addresses and finances of eighteen thousand old age pensioners and likely future fraud victims, the machine started correctly.
"Fixed," said Peter.
"How'd you do that?"
"Trick of the trade."
"So, have you decoded the disk?"
"Not really. I have been in search of it." He produced from his pocket the disk which he had seconds earlier removed from Foskill's computer. "I believe that I now have it. The deciphering starts in five minutes."
He knocked on Sandy's door, interrupting an expert game of Tetris, and the two of them followed the corridor and sat down in Peter's office.
"I have the disk," Peter announced.
"What's on it?"
"I have no idea."
"So, as you were saying, the best way to start is probably to copy it."
Copying the disk took a minute, and Peter put the original CD carefully back in his jacket pocket. Now they had to find an approach to decoding it.
"Do you think it's encrypted?" asked Sandy.
Peter sat up straight suddenly and sounded as though the question had angered him. "You're joking. You're mental! Did you just get off the banana boat, or something? Use your noodle, Sandy. A disk from the Inland Revenue, a government department which has been handling confidential financial data since the late Middle Ages, whose systems were designed and built by the veteran contractors of government information technology DCR Limited, recorded and transmitted without the knowledge or consent of the data subjects, containing highly sensitive personal data relating to identifiable vulnerable individuals that could, if mislaid, be of use to," he counted on his fingers, "thieves, fraudsters, scammers, burglars, the Mafia," he ran out of fingers and started again, "journalists, lawyers, blackmailers, spies, jealous ex wives, double glazing salesmen and the demons of Hell itself — and you feel the need to ask whether it is encrypted?"
"Well, is it?"
"No. Of course it isn't. Don't be daft. The more elaborate security precautions you take, the less your staff will go to the trouble of using them. Change the password daily and eventually they start writing the password of the day on a post-it note and sticking it to the window where any foreign spy who can read backwards can see it. Imagine: it is four fifty nine on Friday. Arnold's boss is just putting on his bowler hat and taking his umbrella out of the stand to go home when he says to Arnold, as a sort of afterthought, 'Copy this data onto a disk and send it to Landward Strife.' Arnold does not ask questions such as, 'Who are Landward Strife? Is it legal to send other people's personal data to them? What are they going to do with the data when they receive it?' He assumes his boss knows and takes responsibility for all that. Nor does he ask, 'Sir, in your great wisdom, do you think I should encrypt this highly sensitive and confidential data?' Firstly, Arnold prefers obeying instructions, however misguided, to asking questions which might be interpreted as insubordinate criticism. Secondly, encryption is a complicated procedure which Arnold does not understand. Why go to all that trouble to protect the disk against some contingency that's never going to happen in a month of Sundays? Thirdly, Arnold does not believe himself to be at risk of fraud or theft, just a lot of overpaid wrinklies that he's never heard of. As his boss waits for his chauffeur to bring the Bentley round to the front door and whisk him off into the sunset, therefore, Arnold goes ahead, copies the data and puts the disk in the outgoing second class mail tray on the way out because he can't be bothered getting his Section Manager's approval in triplicate to send it by courier."
"I just made him up. But Arnold's details are probably on this disk somewhere. As are Tom's, Dick's, Harry's, yours, mine, Bill Brewer's, Jan Stewer's, Peter Gurney's, Peter Davy's, Daniel Whiddon's, Harry Hawke's, Old Uncle Tom Cobbleigh's and all."
"What details of Arnold does it hold?"
"We are about to find out. As you will have gathered, I do not expect any great difficulty."
A hexadecimal editor displays the actual content of a chunk of data without converting it into text, numbers, pictures, diagrams or any of the other kinds of document that you can read, write, draw, make, mail, edit, mangle and delete by mistake on a computer. So valuable are these tools that ninety nine computer users out of a hundred have no idea that they exist, let alone what they do. Peter and Sandy opened the copy of the data disk with a hexadecimal editor. Peter was immediately enlightened and Sandy was immediately baffled. The editor displayed the disk as an array of two-digit bytes. The first line was:
49 4e 4c 41 4e 44 20 52 45 56 45 4e 55 45
"Inland Revenue," Peter read, "in capitals."
"Hexadecimal bytes, Ascii code, it's obvious. Hexadecimal is counting to the base sixteen. You probably learned it at school, where 'On Saturn, beings have sixteen fingers so the number 10 means sixteen' rather than as 'On Earth there are sixteen ounces to the pound,' but it means the same. 4e is four pounds fourteen ounces, or seventy-eight in real money."
"And how do you interpret these strange Saturnine digraphs, Earthling?"
"Ascii code. The most commonly used code for sending messages, even if you include Morse, Highway, Country, Post, Da Vinci and that strange alien encoding kids use to send text messages. 49 means 'I', 4e means 'N', and so on. '20' is a space. After a while you can read it fairly easily. The first few letters say 'INLAND REVENUE,' and after that, 4c 41 4e and so on, says 'LANDWARD STRIFE.'
"So where does the list of names start?"
"You tell me. Show off the college education."
"Well," Sandy played for time, "there's probably a preamble of some sort, and the names start after that."
"So how do you suggest we try to decode the disk?"
"Look ahead, find a name, then try to work out what data is associated with the name."
"Excellent suggestion, but we are going to adopt a plan of attack with a far greater success rate than finding a name and trying to guess what the data means. We are going to carry out a plaintext attack."
"How? We haven't got any plaintext."
"We've got each other."
"We can second-guess what the plaintext is. The data is not encrypted in any way. The data describes things we already know. Probably it just states which insurance policies the named victim has and how much they cost. All we have to do is find someone we know on the disk."
"You and me. Highwater and Luff are unusual names. Did you have any insurance policies with Landward Strife?"
"Well, yes. Household and buildings. Cost a fortune."
"Let's go, then."
Peter searched for "Luff."
"And surprise, surprise, you are in this list here, and your personal data calls out to us like chickens squawking in a barnyard. Your date of birth is 06/09/1983. Gosh, you died young — I'm sorry." Peter paused for a minute, moved by the thought of Sandy's wasted life, got over it and continued cheerfully, "Your buildings insurance cost you €58.90 a month. And you had a full life policy costing you €140.00."
"How can you read it?"
"This, Sandy old mate, is XML. What a nice surprise! Even if William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Lynne Truss all got together and produced a collaborative work in English called "Hamlet Eats, Shoots and Leaves the Pickwick Club", it would still be easier to read XML. It's a series of labels and data spelt out clearly and distinctly, just waiting for a data thief like me to come along and read it. Do you want to see my personal data too? Only fair, isn't it!"
The editor took a second to find "Highwater."
"Now," said Peter, "What does that tell you?"
Sandy stared at the rows of numbers. "Nothing."
"Try the 'Display As Ascii' option, over there."
"Well, I'll be buggered. Peter Highwater, 25/05/1951, golly... Pension contribution, €341.50 a month, share account, traveller's health €16.75. Made a claim for lost luggage in Paris, 17/08/2002. What's this, over here?"
Sandy pointed to two characters that were either at the end of the entry, or at the start of the next one. L9, it said.
"I expect to be up late sweating over that one. You've got one as well. We're both "L9."
"What does that mean?"
"No idea. It's not XML. It's probably been added from another data stream altogether. Comes from a different place from the names themselves and the insurance records. It could be an encrypted field, my favourite food or the size panties I wear. But we can probably dump enough data from this disk to impress Foskill and Co. by the end of today, even if there are a couple of fields we haven't broken yet."
"And how can I help?"
"Make notes and see if you can second-guess what the schema for the data is. What data it can contain, in what order, what has to be there, what can be left out, which bits are numbers, which are text. If we can give Foskill a schema for the data he'll be happy and he won't notice things like us not knowing how many names there are in the file. Let's look professional. You know exactly as much as I do about this disk. Do a five-minute Powerpoint on what it is and what is in it."
It was the middle of the night when Peter, still in the office, asleep with his head on his desk, was woken by Angela standing outside and tapping on the window.
"My God - Peter," she said as he raised the window and pulled her into the office by her upper arms, "I thought something had happened to you. It's one o'clock."
"I ought to be going home, then. Want to go together?"
"Yes, but I'd rather go out through the door than the window. What did you discover that was so important?"
"Well, firstly, the disk was in Foskill's office all along."
"You found it!"
"Yes, and it was easy to read. Most of it, anyway. There's a preamble and probably a postamble as well, but the data in between is pretty easy to read. But—"
"But there are problems?"
"Interesting problems. After Sandy went home for the evening, I discovered that chunks of the disk are full of junk bytes. Look at this entry, for instance." He pointed to a window in which was displayed:
4c 4f 55 49 53 20 50 45 4e 4b 00 00 00 00 00 00
"It starts with the name LOUIS, then a couple more letters which are the start of the surname, PEN, and then there's a long block of zeroes. A few hundred zeroes. The data has been replaced with zeroes. There are several places on the disk where all the data has been replaced by zeroes."
"Why do you think that is?"
"The only thing I could think of was damage to the disk itself. The CD player can't read some positions on the disk because they're scratched or cracked, so the driver fills it in with zeroes. So I took the disk out of the drive and looked at it. I took it over to the window so I could see it in the best light, and there's nothing wrong with it. No cracks or scratches. For a disk that's changed hands several times it's in astonishingly good nick. So these zeroes are not a fault on the disk. They're data on the disk."
"What does that mean?"
"This disk is a re-recording of a disk that had been broken."
"Someone broke a disk and this is a reconstruction of it? How would they do that?"
"Special machinery, special software and a lot of good fortune. If the original disk broke cleanly into two or three large pieces, you could fix the pieces back together with some sort of sticky stuff, and then there are special low speed disk readers which are built to recover data from damaged disks rather than play them at the usual data rate. They have high re-try counts, they match each byte against its parity bits..."
"That's geek speak."
"But with a following wind, it works, provided you have all the pieces and the sticky stuff doesn't gum up the works. I guess that the data disk was broken, stuck together again, and copied onto this disk here. Where the low speed reader couldn't read the data, it's filled the gaps with zeroes. What does that tell you?"
"Not sure. You've made a clever deduction, haven't you?"
"To recover a broken disk on a low speed reader takes hours at the least."
"Ah," cooed Angela, cottoning on, "and is it expensive?"
"The machines are built to order. They cost serious money."
"So this costs a lot more than, say, throwing the broken disk into the rubbish, phoning whoever sent the disk and asking them to send another one."
"Exactly. You wouldn't do it if you had a legal, legit copy of the disk. You would only do it if you knew that the disk was worth a lot of money and you were certain that whoever owned the original would refuse to give you a fresh copy."
"Or if the you didn't want the owner to know you had the copy."
"Anything else of interest?"
"One other thing. Sandy and I both noticed this. There is a short code for every individual. We had a look at it, and it takes only a few values: the first character is either H or L or U, and the second value is a digit. So I found lots of L3, L9, H1 and so on. Now, what could that mean?" He asked the question rhetorically, as though he had already guessed the answer.
"High and low? With 'U' meaning data unavailable?"
"Could be. Any other guesses?"
"HUL: Harvard University Library? Hindustan Unilever?"
"Two excellent guesses, but wildly wrong. Think about this. I, Sandy, Foskill, Miffy and Sniffy are all L9."
Angela didn't answer, so Peter continued, "Mark Oaten is L9, although he doesn't realise it yet. On the other hand, my wife Clare is U and you are H1."
"Blood group? Social class? Eleven plus result or key stage three outcome?"
"I don't think it's blood group. I think it's the afterlife. Everyone I know is in the Ninth Circle of Hell, that's L9. Clare is still alive, she's Undecided. You're H1. Which is odd because you appear to have been destined for Heaven. In reality you're a Misplaced Person. Did you know that?"
Angela shushed him. "Don't tell anyone."
"You aren't a secret agent, surely?"
"No, I'm still a genuine person. Please, never tell anyone. If anyone asks, I'm L9, like you are. There are no secret agents because nothing that goes on here is secret. I'm not trying to infiltrate, to bring succour and ammo to the Resistance or to raise a rebellion."
Peter quoted, "'These are the angels who have descended from heaven to earth, and have revealed secrets to the sons of men, and have seduced the sons of men.'"
"That's me all over. I'm just in a strange place."
"What on earth makes you want to be here, when you've got the right to live in Heaven?"
"I miss my friends. And I miss my job."
"Really?" They both laughed.
"Of course. Heaven isn't all it's cracked up to be. All good wholesome fun, healthy bodies, self improvement and nutritious food. Chastity, evening classes on poetry and literature, and low fat diets — it's loathsome if you're not cut out for it. Here at least I can indulge my passions a little. Of course, I'm poorer here than I might have been. The irritations of life irritate me more, the constant shortages, the isolation. I'll never own a halo, and the expensive ones are a really cool sort of jewellery. Imagine turning up in Stringfellow's wearing a shimmering Fabergé halo and a short dress. But on the whole I'd rather be here than walled up in a sort of Songs Of Praise museum. Besides," she thought out loud, "here, I've got you."
"Angela, there's something I wanted to tell you."
"Something else about the data disk. Those codes, L9, H1 and so on. It's not what they mean. The issue is where they came from."
"From the Inland Revenue, of course."
"No! The Inland Revenue doesn't know or care where its clients are going to spend the afterlife. That data wasn't being sent from the Inland Revenue to Landward Strife. It was sent to them, from here. They lost it on the way back."
"You're joking." Angela saw immediately what this implied.
"Someone in the afterlife, possibly someone at Bitco, I don't know, passes information to the Inland Revenue about where their taxpayers are going to spend eternity."
"It's just an ordinary writeable data disk," said Angela, waving her arms around, "Available by the dozen at any branch of PCs Are Us. There are probably thousands of them in this office alone."
"The type of disk doesn't matter as much as the data. The data on the disk is a mixture. Some of it came from the Inland Revenue to here. But other data, this extraordinary two-character code that tells us whither the taxpayer's soul is bound in the hereafter, has to come from here. Nobody in the Revenue would know about it."
"Who would do that, and why?" Angela was mystified. "What would they get out of it?"
"I think," Peter suggested cautiously, "that's what we have to find out. Preferably before anyone finds out what we're trying to find out."
"And before anyone finds out why we're trying to find out what we're trying to find out."
"Yes, I think. Actually I'm not sure. Could you run that by me again?"
"You need," Angela repeated, "to find out whether anyone's trying to find out why we're trying to find out what we're trying to find out."
"Yes, you're right. Now, how do we find out who is sending sensitive data to the Inland Revenue?"
"Tie the disk to a piece of string, leave it lying on Foskill's desk and then follow the string and see to whose desk it may lead us?"
"Ingenious, but a trifle obvious, surely. We have a copy of the data on the disk. Therefore, we do not need the disk itself. It is just a piece of impressionable plastic, barely distinct enough from millions of other disks for its owner to recognise it. We are going to give back the original disk with one small addition. We are going to add a web beacon to it. I always knew that being a completely obsessive hacker would pay off eventually."
Everyone else in the office had left for home long ago. It was easy to find a CD burner attached to a computer and unsupervised. Peter copied the necessary slab of software onto the disk, removed the disk, switched the machine off and on again to make sure there was no obvious trace of his activity, and finally he put the disk back onto Foskill's office desk.
"Now, with a bit of luck, when someone finds the disk, takes it to their own room and puts it into a computer anywhere on the company intranet, we shall know about it."
"How will we know?"
"The same way you know if someone on a bus is carrying a cat in a basket. It calls to you. The Web beacon sends a signal over the local network, and we can use that to trace where the disk is. I rather think that's all we can do for the time being. Shall we go to your house and spend a pleasant what's left of the evening together?"
The next day in the office Peter wrote a short description of the data on the disk, pasted in Sandy's neat guesswork schema, and he was about to print it and take the paper copy down the corridor to Foskill's office when a small pop-up appeared on the screen in front of him. Carefully showing no surprise or pleasure in his expression, he noted that the disk had now been put into a computer. The computer had identified itself by its IP address, and the IP address was somewhere in Block One, the big call centre building. Time for a visit, obviously. Someone in the call centre was using the disk.
Squelching across to the call centre, Peter was trying to think of what to ask. He had just about worked out an opening sentence when he reached the main door. The door slid open automatically and he was standing before the reception desk. There, he gave his name and tried asking the obvious. "I'm new here. Can anyone here talk to me about the centre? Just what it does and what you all do here. Nothing confidential."
The receptionist was more helpful than he expected. "Why don't you talk to Aanandita? She's in charge. Her office is on the eighth floor, 817."
"Aanandita? Sure, I'll go and say hello. Is she free now?"
"We're part of the commercial arm of Hell," explained Aanandita. "We accept contracts and we carry them out at commercial rates, using our unusual accumulated expertise."
"What sort of contracts?"
"Anything that symbiotically engages with our profile," Aanandita nodded, "Anything that makes people miserable. For example we do a nice line in ringing up credit card holders and telling them when they're behind in their payments. As a matter of fact I used to do that until recently."
"Do you have a performance metric?"
"How do we compare with other outsourcing companies? We don't really have a comparable metric. They count percentage recovery. We count suicides. Our bonus structure is based around them. If a worker talks a client into committing suicide then he gets a bonus. Hundreds of euro sometimes."
Peter was dumbstruck.
"Telling people they owe hopelessly vast sums of money is good like that. Even though the clients usually have a good idea how much they owe and how hard it will be to repay it, we still get a lot of suicides that way."
"You must be very proud."
"We are. Do you know how many contracts we've held that have driven suicides? For instance, in the 50's we had all the blackmail and public exhibitions that went with the laws against homosexuality. In the 1960s we were all drawing up demolition orders under the Town and Country Planning Acts. The client got a letter — no phones in those days — telling him the Council was about to pull his house down and he would get almost nothing in compensation and, straight away, down he goes to the garden shed for a dose of rat poison. Then in the 1980s we were issuing redundancy notices and closing down heavy industry, driving strong men to push the eject button. In the 1990s, telling teachers that a former pupil had accused them of groping him was always good for creating enough worry, shame and fear. The teacher would drive to the nearest level crossing and end up as track pizza, even though the little bastard was telling lies and everyone knew it. Now it's 2007 and everyone's leaping on the bandwagon of personal finance. We're chasing up credit card debts. You need a flexible and determined workforce to achieve such an extraordinary record."
"And no sense of proportion."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You're talking as though you had no sense of proportion. Look, the Northern Crock Bank discovered a hole in its accounts thirty-two billion euro deep and nothing bad happened to them. Yet any one of their customers who ran up one millionth of that amount in personal debt could have his house and all his possessions seized and sold, and be turned out into the street to boot."
"You miss the point, Peter. Men shall not be saved by gold and silver. The directors will come on board anyway in time, I expect, for their pride and avarice if nothing else. We don't have to worry about them, and in any case they may be more use alive than dead. To us, I mean, not to the customers of Northern Crock. The customer is different. At worst he's probably just been injudicious. To the bank he might be worth a few thousand euro. By the time the bank has paid our fees, lawyers, courts, bailiffs and all the rest, probably not even that. The customer can never pay in full if he lives for a million years. But to us, he is a soul annihilated. A former human being who used to laugh, talk, drink, play with his children, go out with his mates, even spend money and have fun. Once he's dispossessed, filthy, cold, ill, drawing social security, living on the street, sleeping on park benches, been beaten up and arrested a few times, he's coffin filling."
"I can see you're performing a valuable service to the world's burgeoning personal finance industry."
"They want unreliable borrowers off their books, and they couldn't have placed their contract in better or more experienced hands."
"What about those other wholesale merchants of unhappiness and suffering who manifest themselves as vaguely malign bureaucracies in our dimension? Do you do any work for, for instance, the Inland Revenue?"
"We design their forms for them, for one thing."
"But their forms have won awards for clarity."
"Yes, they ask you the questions clearly, in short words and big letters. But that doesn't mean that you know the answers."
"Does receiving a form make people kill themselves?"
"Occasionally, yes. If they've been doing something dodgy, especially. Otherwise it's simply a task which you can never complete because you never know whether you filled it in right, and you can be sent to prison for doing it wrong. So for most people they're a fair source of background anxiety."
Peter realised that if there really was some covert activity tying Hell, the Inland Revenue and the Landward Strife Insurance Company together, and if Aanandita knew anything about it, he would give the game away by mentioning Landward Strife, so he didn't. Instead he asked "How about the British Airports Authority?"
"They have a contract with us too but probably not what you're expecting. They train our security staff."
"Hell isn't just a one way process. There are plenty of people still alive whose skills rival the best we have. Obviously, we want to learn from them."
There was an awkward pause.
"We're starting a new project in a few days. As soon as we can tidy up some loose ends. That might interest you."
"Tell me about it."
"Go and ask Sandra about it. She's down the corridor. I'll phone her, you go and knock on her door."
Peter found Sandra's office and she invited him inside. Sandra was a rather sweet middle aged lady with the same dark complexion, black eyes and hair as Aanandita. Peter took a seat and Sandra began her well rehearsed presentation. She had obviously explained the new project many times already.
"We're setting up a project which will offer people an opportunity of a kind they have never known before."
Peter started to expect Betterware or some scam involving the electricity grid, and listened with attention.
"We're offering them a Faustian bargain. Three wishes in exchange for their immortal soul."
"Nobody will ever believe a word of it."
"Desperate people will believe anything. They buy penis enlargement pills, don't they? Besides which, we will fulfil their wishes for them, if we can."
"So who are you ringing up?"
"We have a market analysis that lists people who are unlikely to commit suicide but might die soon from natural causes. Soldiers in the line of fire, explosives manufacturers, steeplejacks, polar explorers, kids whose father owns a rottweiler, Celtic fans who accidentally wander into Rangers pubs. That's where we start. They get a letter that tells them that they can have three wishes if they phone a number. We answer the call. The letter also contains a lot of small print so when they wish for, say, a relative to come back from the dead, we can say sorry but that particular wish is ruled out by the T and C. Eventually they get three fairly inocuous wishes and when they die we get in exchange some deceased beings who might otherwise have gone upstairs."
Peter had no idea how to reply but then he thought of, "Do you enjoy your job?"
"Yes! It's not as good as driving one of those huge fire engines that tear around airports at very high speed with sirens going and lots of flashing lights, but it keeps me occupied."
"When is this all going to be launched?"
"A week or so. There are some practical issues: ventilation, power supplies, plugs and sockets, that sort of thing, but we'll get things sorted out in time."
"Do you think it will really improve people's lives?"
"Of course not! Otherwise we would never do it. People are miserable for many reasons. They may have perfectly good reason to be miserable. Their dog died, the bus didn't come leaving them to walk home, they're being consumed by some ghastly disease, the bank has collapsed leaving them penniless. That's perfectly reasonable, although we can't do anything about the dog, we invented the disease and set it loose on purpose, we own the bus company and we're probably the ones who bankrupted the bank in the first place. Most of the time, though, people are miserable because of something inside them, something about themselves. Nothing to do with the dog, the bus or the bank. That's just a sort of scapegoat, something they can blame just now for the way they feel all the time. And nobody is going to ring up a call centre and say, 'For my first magic wish, I wish to be less obsessed with money,' are they? 'I wish to be more thoughtful and considerate so that my wife will move back in with me?' Fat chance. They'll say, 'I want a big house.' And then they'll think about it and add, 'I want a fast car, I want to win the lottery,' and the things that make them miserable will stay the same. I want, I want. So they'll still be miserable."
"Do you give them a big house and a fast car and a lottery win?"
"That's not difficult. We can do that. There's a whole sub-prime property market out there, mortgaging vast mansions to people who can't afford them — and at fantastically high prices, not cheap. There are lots of second hand cars and lots of ten-pound prizes on the lottery."
"So they do win the lottery if they ask you?"
"People say to themselves, 'If I win the lottery I'll buy a new bicycle,' and forget that they could probably buy a new bicycle if they wanted to and worked a few days' overtime. For every person who wins the lottery there are fourteen million who are desperately unhappy because they have worked out exactly how they would spend a million-euro bonanza down to the last cent, and they'll never get the opportunity. They think they have no chance of getting some good that they could actually have if only they worked at it consistently. So covetousness gets its own twice weekly show on the telly. Anyway, back to the subject. Fulfilling wishes of the kind we will receive is absolutely no big deal. It's taking candy off a baby."
"How many calls do you expect once this is up and running?"
"We're estimating fifty a day for now. We have enough customer service agents to receive fifty calls a day with no caller being put on hold for more than ten seconds, but of course we're deliberately keeping callers on hold for up to three quarters of an hour in order to make them lose their temper, shout irritably at the call agent and forget what they were trying to do when they rang up in the first place. And also it's a premium rate number so we just mop up their money for nothing. They get this cute recording of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik played on an electronic gadget that sounds a bit like a comb and toilet paper, and a recording of me saying, 'Your call is important to us.'"
"It can't be that important to you," Peter pointed out the obvious, "because otherwise you would answer it."
Peter realised how depressed the conversation was making him. As Sandra looked at him with an expression that meant, "If you have any questions, please ask them, otherwise just leave my office because I want to get back to making piles of money," he went through what he had learned in the last couple of hours. Hell Enterprises plc managed a large call centre, which did lots of work for the credit card companies and a little for the Inland Revenue. They were introducing a Faustian magic wish service with which they hoped to win the souls of innumerable punters.
"What was the last big contract you won?" he asked eventually.
"Between you and me, Landward Strife Insurance. Very hush hush, though, so please keep it just within these four walls."
"OK. You may trust me, Madam. I shall not tell a single soul."
Peter trudged back across the expanse of mud and untended grass towards Bitco's offices. Already this patch of mud felt like the windiest, coldest and wettest expanse of mud and untended grass on the planet. In his office he took a seat in front of his own computer and tried to make himself look busy.
"You're in luck," he said, meaning the exact opposite, "we're accepting a new contract from Landward Strife. Thanks for decoding the disk, by the way."
He gave Peter a thin plastic folder and added, "Have a look and see if this'll work."
"Landward Strife? What are they doing here? Why are they getting involved with us?"
"It's all in here," Foskill tapped the folder, "so read it."
Landward Strife proposals to delocalisatedly outsource its upcoming Fraud Centre to Hell...
Hellspeak was an unfathomable but mellifluous dialect of English which Peter could barely read. The front sheet in the folder continued,
...thereby leveraging and strongerizing Bitco's present operational service base. By virtue of its initial proof of concept, following on after its initial projects, this major proactive investment...
Fraud centre? The irony hit him. Why should anyone build a fraud centre down here? Surely somewhere with a police force, or courts of law, or a prison, or some laws, would be more appropriate. Peter continued to translate frantically,
...this major proactive investment will opportunity a window enablementing Landward Strife to vertically diversify its operational strategies and extension its long term customer impact scenario to tactical trace resistant unauthenticatable bulk financial remissions. Leveraging the Bitco contact orientated expertise base across its whole range of competences, Landward Strife will expedite outstanding growth and shareholder profitability in its quadrant...
Tactical unauthenticatable bulk financial remissions? Surely the customers of an insurance company — or any other sort of company — would want security, tracking, and so forth. Most of them already lived in a world where reading your credit card number aloud in a public place could mean bankruptcy. Why set up an enterprise specialising in financial communications that could not be secured? It would be the equivalent of going to a four-star hotel with your Capital Two card and being asked for payment in used bank notes. Then it hit him: the new fraud centre was not going to prevent fraud, nor to detect it. Its purpose was to perpetrate frauds. With its turnover and profits stashed in a tax haven, and its operations hidden in the realm of ethereal spirits, none of its chickens could ever find its way home to roost.
"What do you think of it?" Foskill was still in the office.
"I'm, ah, impressed," Peter lied. "Who wrote it?"
"It has a certain poetic quality."
"I've got a talent for clear, concise writing. Always have had, since I was at school."
"I didn't really mean that the language has such rhythm, grace and beauty that its sonorous cadences cry out to be read aloud in front of an audience. The days when poetry had rhythm, grace and beauty ended when they rewrote Shakespeare as a cartoon strip. I meant that I have no idea what it means."
"Who cares whether you know what it means? The important thing is that I know what it means. Or, at least, anyone who reads the folder will imagine that I know what it means. The purpose of this folder is not to communicate the essential features of this project to you in a clear and succinct manner. It is to make you think I have a clear idea of what I am doing, while obfuscating the description of what I am doing so that nobody else can work out what it is."
"What are the people in this fraud centre going to spend their days doing, exactly? Ringing up old age pensioners too frail and dimwitted to hang up and asking them to post a couple of hundred euro in used notes to the office of Santa Claus's charitable trust for hungry and disabled children care of a post box number in the Bahamas?"
"You've got it, old son. A bit like Children in Need, really, only in Lagos and no cheques."
"At least Children in Need has an actor dressed as a yellow bear in a polka dotted bandanna and countless D-List celebrities desperately trying to get a part in pantomime over Christmas."
Peter read on.
The onsite development will be undertaken stepwise in multiple phases. Outset contact rates and volumes will be estimationed in a rough ballpark which will refine as the activity proceeds. To rapidly achieve an adequate return investmentwise the cost will be strictly boundarized and its rate of growth monitored. Inward revenue accrual will be maximised by raising operator throughput up. Leapfrogging forward, subsequent phases will be initiated in response to evidenced market upswing potential with regard to contingency provisioning of the ongoing progress. This will adequately drive incremented revenue traffic. In phase one, the pre-existing office floor space is adequate for the currently anticipated traffic volume. Human resource appropriately suitable for the in-prospect task spectrum should be rapidly indentified and relocation packages specified.
Peter noticed that Foskill had left the room and he continued trying to translate the folder. The plans for a Fraud Centre had been draughted, if not particularly clearly, so quite likely the Centre would be built if the fashion, and the stock market, remained steady for a few weeks. Hell Enterprises plc was going to find staff to work in the call centre and set them to ringing up old people and trying to defraud them of money. He knew that already, of course, but now he had it in writing. At least, he had it in writing if you accepted that his translation of it was unambiguous.
Suddenly Peter was overwhelmed by the desire for a wholemeal cheddar cheese and chutney sandwich with real butter, and a cup of tea with fresh milk.
At one end of the main corridor, near the reception desk but screwed to the wall in a place where the receptionist couldn't actually see it, was Bitco's Community Message Board. Feeling a little shame faced, since trading in imported goods seemed to be frowned on by the authorities, Peter went up to the Community Message Board and tried to pretend to be going somewhere else and not really reading it. Long-haired black cat free to a good home, leather office chair for sale in good condition, fountain pen hardly used - and cheese sandwiches, my place or yours, twenty euro and a phone number. Back at his desk, Peter phoned the number. He noticed that he had a new, folded twenty euro note in his back pocket.
"Cheddar cheese," he asked, after the initial pleasantries, "with fruit chutney and wholemeal bread. Can you manage that?"
"Sure thing, baby."
"Can you manage a cup of tea as well?"
"Of course. Twenty euro, OK? I'll park outside the front door."
"Don't even think of it. I drive a yellow Vanden Plas 1500. Twenty minutes."
"It was that or a Ford Edsel. This is Hell, baby. Live it, loathe it, lump it, get used to it."
Added Value Proposition. Relationship development is key to the profitable operation of the Centre, Peter read. By commissioning a workflow system showcasing data capture and presentation capabilities, a pseudonymous multiple operator approach to client facing relationship development will be facilitated. Thusly, customers will incrementally become acceptive of regular calls initiated from Fraud Centre personnel, and more disposed towards compliance with their requests. Business activity monitoring will leverage distributed integration facilities by actively aggregating and dashboarding corporate performance indicators, sharing relevant key visualisations with employees in near real time. From the strategic point of view the operation will be a pheasant shoot and Bitco Software will be the high-wire act.
After twenty minutes or so of this rubbish, Peter looked up and saw a yellow car drive into the car park and take a place at the back, almost out of sight of the building entrance.
The driver was a large woman with a passing resemblance to Ruby Wax.
"Hi! Get in. I'm Janie. Twenty euro."
Peter got into the front passenger seat and handed over a twenty euro note.
"Here," said Janie, holding out a tray with a cheese sandwich and a cup of tea on it. "Comfort food. Just what you need after a few days inside."
"Beautiful. How could you tell that I was new here?"
"You crave decent food. After a few years in here, you forget what it was like."
The food was indeed beautiful. The tray was not a cheap plastic tray with ketchup and coffee smears, but a clean one of polished wood. The sandwich was set on a porcelain side plate, and the tea was in a decorated porcelain cup stood on a matching saucer. Delicious, too.
Peter was part-way through the sandwich when Janie asked if he was enjoying it. He was about to say yes and ask where she got her supplies from, when suddenly Janie shouted: "Quick! Throw the food in the back! Get your head down! Wind the window up! It's a patrol!"
There were two figures in black uniforms on the far side of the car park.
Janie hurled the car through the gate and onto Gummer Way like a rock from a catapult. "The bastards!" Janie yelled without explanation.
"Are you on the run?" said Peter, crouching so that his head would not be seen from outside.
"We both are, now." Janie replied. "Hold tight."
Peter looked around and saw that a blue and white Allegro with flashing blue lamps on the roof and "Hell Constabulary" painted backwards across the bonnet was charging after them. It was perhaps a hundred metres away.
"Can we really outrun a police car?"
"I use what I have." Janie pressed the accelerator to the floor. "I can't outrun them but I can outthink them. Stand by for a rocket propelled tour of the Posh End."
"We'll end up on that programme with Alastair Stewart saying 'Look at this idiot! He's doing nearly, nearly," he looked at the speed, "one hundred and forty kilometres per hour on a bumpy, pitted road going past a greengrocer's shop and a derelict boot factory.' I'll be a laughing stock if my workmates ever watch it. 'The police soon put a stop to his antics. He got three points on his licence.' Do you ever watch that programme?"
"Shut up," said Janie, "Christ's sake put a sock in it and think."
"You said you could outthink them unaided."
"I can. I only told you to think because it makes less noise."
Janie swung the car to the right, through a red light, around a corner onto Kinnock Boulevard, with a squeal of tyres, and bounced over a level crossing.
"Why are they chasing us?"
"I don't know. Why do they hunt foxes?"
"I think it's something to do with the foxes having a taste for chickens."
"Chickens, then. Why do they hunt chickens?"
"They don't hunt chickens. There aren't any herds of chickens living in the wild waiting to be hunted down by upper-class lunatics on horseback brandishing dogs, riding crops, top hats and bugles and kicking seven bells out of anyone who stands in their way."
"All right, Mister Naturalist, why do they hunt tigers?"
"They hunt tigers because they eat people."
"Well in our case, it's cheese sandwiches. Hold this." She gave Peter a small bundle of twenty-euro notes and a couple of scraps of red Leicester.
"Where shall I put it?"
"Did I say put it? Hold it. Don't put it until I tell you to put it, OK? Just hold on to it because it's my wherewithal for next week."
She hurled the car to the left onto Darling Crescent in another explosion of tyre noises.
"Who are they?"
"They," explained Janie, "are DCSOs. The trusties. The pointless flotsam and jetsam of humanity. Demon Community Support Officers."
"Do they have guns?"
"You always ask the wrong questions. Ask, do they have brains? That's the question. And if they do have brains, what is in them? That's the other question."
"All right, do they have brains? What is in them?"
"The answers are no, and shit, in that order. These guys would happily watch a gang of teenage yobs in steel-toed boots kick an old lady to death because nobody trained them to yell 'Hey! Stop doing that, you bastards.' Watch this."
The deafening firework display of blue flashing lights and sirens that was the Hell Constabulary patrol car had almost caught up with them. Janie threw her Vanden Plas into reverse and the steering wheel into anticlockwise and managed to reverse at speed, overheating the gearbox and shooting past the police Allegro in the opposite direction. In the Allegro, two young DCSOs stared at her, astonished, as she roared past them, gaining speed, ignoring a red light and scattering pedestrians. One of the pedestrians shook his fist at her.
"Sorry, mister," Janie mouthed, "The hooter doesn't work. Sorry if I ran over your white stick." Then, to Peter, "See? Told you so."
"Ow," said Peter, "I banged my knee."
"Didn't I tell you to hold on tight?" Janie shouted as she spun the car end for end in a tight handbrake turn. "Sorry, it must have slipped my mind. I must have been so worried about being caught by the DCSOs and having them pull out my finger nails with red-hot pliers soaked in battery acid that I quite forgot the safety demonstration. Fasten your seat belt, turn your phone off, and the emergency exit's here," she pointed with her thumb to the door nearest her, "and there's probably another one somewhere else. In the event of an emergency, hold on tight and you'll quite likely get out alive."
Janie flipped the car onto Milliband Road.
"Are we nearly there yet?" asked Peter.
"Just a little further. Can you still hear them?"
"Then they've probably found an easier target and given up chasing us. If so, we're civilians again, just driving through the city to relax, put dopey smiles on our faces and watch all the sheep and the moo-cows. Oh, look!"
Janie was stopping the car outside City Shoes. "I do so want those blue shoes. Don't go away!"
Janie parked the car at the kerb, got out looking unruffled and entered City Shoes. Peter settled into his seat, calmly, expecting a long wait. If the squad car hadn't been making so much noise with its siren when it came around the corner, he might have fallen asleep.
The two officers in black uniforms leaped out of the car and ran up to the Vanden Plas, where Peter was idly wondering whether the shop had those blue shoes in a size twelve.
"It's Tweedledum and Tweedledee," said Peter, quietly so that they wouldn't hear him.
"Take the key out of the ignition. Get out of the car," bellowed Tweedledum.
Unfamiliar with cars, Peter guessed that the black thing sticking out of the dashboard was a key and twiddled it. To his surprise, it came out of the lock. Then he fiddled with the door and managed to open it. As he clambered onto the pavement, he was pleased to find he still had two arms and two legs and his neck was not broken.
"You were trying to get away from us," said Tweedledee.
"Your power of observation amazes me, Officer."
"Why were you going so fast, running red lights and taking corners at breakneck speed? What were you afraid of?"
"I was afraid of driving at high speed into a building and breaking my neck, mostly," said Peter.
"What was in the car that you don't want us to find?" asked Tweedledee.
"Me, of course."
Then Tweedledum asked, "Do you have your driving licence and biometric identity card with you, sir?" and as Peter tried to think of a reason why he didn't happen to have either of them with him, Tweedledee asked, "Do you mind if I take a look inside?" with a nuance that meant he didn't really care whether Peter minded or not and he was going to take a look inside anyway, and then Tweedledum asked "Were you driving the car, sir?" before Peter had even replied to his question about the licence and the ID card.
"Be my guest. Don't sit on the back seat, because there's a half eaten cheese sandwich on it," said Peter cheerfully, and then realised he had pretty much given the game away.
"Are you offering us a bribe?" said one or the other.
By now it was pretty obvious to Peter that he was in trouble, and it was no surprise to him when the officers manhandled him into the police car. They were about to drive off when Janie teetered out of City Shoes in spiky, sparkling metallic blue high-rise stilettos and called to them, "May I have my key please?" On the back seat, Peter found the key in his jacket pocket and held it, with the little clutch of euro notes and Leicester cheese, out of the open front window. Janie took it.
In the police station, Tweedledum and Tweedledee brought Peter to a desk and recited the catalogue of his crimes to the sergeant behind the desk, who wrote them down: resisting arrest, no ID card, dangerous driving, consuming an unauthorised cheese sandwich, no fixed abode. The sergeant recited to him at speed a few words of legalese that began "You do not have to say anything" and then segued into a torrent of Hellspeak that meant very little, and suddenly Peter was banged up in a tiled cell that smelled of Jeyes Fluid, with a wooden bench, a blanket and a tiny barred window high up where he couldn't see out. There was a leaflet on the bench marked with the Hell Constabulary crest and headed "Your Rights In Police Custody." Apart from its title, the leaflet was blank. On the wall opposite the bench, there was a dated, framed picture of President Satan attired in all his robes of state. He looked very handsome, like John Le Measurier wearing the Coronation Robe and the Crown Jewels, only with a tail and talons. The sergeant brought Peter a paper cup of instant coffee and Peter thanked him for it as he pushed it through the hatch.
"How long can you keep me here me for?" he asked, testing the coffee.
"I wish I hadn't asked."
"We'll get a lawyer to come and see you shortly."
"Great. Just what I wanted. Spending eternity locked in a cell and being regularly visited by a lawyer."
"Are you taking any regular prescribed medication?"
"Alcohol. Six units administered orally every Friday and Saturday."
"Nice try. Do you want me to notify anyone that you're here?"
"Angela Gates. 11 Blair Street. No phone."
"I'll send someone round."
The sergeant was distracted by a shout from somewhere upstairs. He turned back to Peter with the news, "Your lawyer has arrived."
The door opened for a moment and in walked the lawyer, a large, baldheaded man with a kind of professional cheerfulness and optimism about him, wearing white shirt, grey tie, dark suit surmounted by a sort of officer's greatcoat. He appeared the sort of man who would have been quite at home consoling the England football team after a 3-2 defeat by Croatia. He was clutching a briefcase, which he set down on the wooden bench.
"My name's Ramsey. Andrew Ramsey. We'll have a little time together before they question you."
"Three minutes," the sergeant's voice said behind them as the door closed.
Ramsey opened the briefcase and produced a large notebook and a pencil. "This is what they told me when I arrived," he said, indicating a few notes on Peter's name, date of birth, address, employer and so on. "Anything wrong with that?"
"No, it all looks right."
"We've not got much time. Have the police asked you any questions yet?"
"Have you been charged with an offence?"
"Not that I know of. I believe that I stand accused of dangerous driving and possession of an unauthorised cheese sandwich."
"Was anyone hurt during the car chase? Any damage done?"
"She scared a couple of people. No-one hurt or killed."
"The woman who was driving. Look, I answered an advertisement on a postcard pinned to a company noticeboard. I only wanted a cheese sandwich. Suddenly I found myself a fugitive in a high-speed car chase."
"Do you know who she was?"
"No. I don't know anything about her, except that her skills as a peripatetic chef de sandwich are pretty amazing."
The sergeant appeared again, opening the door and saying, "Time's up, come with us now."
Tweedledum and Tweedledee were already in the interview room, waiting.
"You were eating a cheese sandwich," said Tweedledum. "Think very carefully before you answer. Where did you get it?"
Peter was hit by inspiration. "It was in Foskill's lunch box. I was hungry and I saw it sitting there, and I knew Foskill had eaten lunch and he wasn't going to eat it, so I took it and ate it."
"Where can we find this Foskill? Will he confirm your story?"
"He works for Bitco. He probably won't confirm my story. He'll probably say he's allergic to cheese, or something, but don't believe a word of it."
"So you just found the cheese sandwich lying about?"
"In a Tupperware box, on his desk. And I was starving, and it was a jolly good cheese sandwich."
"Then what did you do?"
"I went out into the car park and I saw this yellow Vanden Plas 1500. The driver was sitting in the car, and I'd never been in that sort of car before, so I asked her if she would kindly let me sit in the car while I ate my sandwich."
Tweedledum and Tweedledee looked at each other and then Tweedledee said, "We've heard all we need to. Buster! Put him back in the cells."
The sergeant, responding to the nickname, appeared in the room and led Peter back down the stairs. "You can watch TV for a while, then lights out is eight p.m., got that?" He put Peter into a small messroom with several wooden chairs and a television going in one corner. Two other young men were already sitting there, quietly watching the box. One looked as though he was local, maybe from London or Edinburgh. The other was of Asian appearance. The box was showing an interminable game of football.
"Visitor for you, Ching."
The door opened, admitting a lady whom Peter recognised from the Hallowe'en excursion. Mrs Kee came in carrying a couple of small cooking pans.
"Your mother sent me, Ching."
Ching looked at Mrs Kee as though noticing her for the first time.
"Oh, thank you."
She gave Ching a plastic fork, explaining, "They wouldn't let me bring proper cutlery, I'm sorry, just plastic. You're lucky it's not rubber, I suppose," and then set the pans on the chair beside him. "Meat and rice. Your mother cooked it. She said sorry but she has to work today. No work, no beans. You know how the garden centre is."
Ching took a fork of meat, dipped it in the rice, put it in his mouth and let his gaze drift back to the screen.
"How are things?" she asked.
"Italy are winning two nil," he replied.
"How long is this going on for?"
"This is the second half. Maybe thirty minutes."
Unsure what his reception might be, Peter walked over to them and said, "Mrs Kee?"
"Oh!" She recognised him, and seemed surprised. "Yes. This is Ching, my neighbour's son. Poor boy."
"I won't disturb you for long. When I last saw you, you'd been very upset by something."
"I can't really remember."
"On Hallowe'en night."
"Yes. Yes, I was very upset, I remember. I'm over it now."
"I arrived at the cemetery and I found my own grave, like you do, and I found notices tied to the fences. I read one, and they seemed to be putting up a building on the site. I was shocked, really shocked. When I was alive, my husband bought two plots there so that we could lie together. He is still alive and we'll be separated for ever, and I won't know where he is." She had to pause and regain her composure for a moment. "It probably sounds pathetic, but we'd spent years apart with him being in the Army and then having problems with immigration. In fact I've still got the notice with me." She ferreted in her coat pockets and found a torn piece of typescript, which she showed to Peter.
"Planning application to deconsecrate and change the use of... looks genuine enough. No wonder you were upset. But are you sure you understood the announcement correctly? I thought a cemetery had to remain undisturbed for a hundred years after the last burial there. If your husband is still alive, your burial must have been after 1907, surely."
Mrs Kee said "1998," paused a second, and Ching said, "I like this food. Please ask my mother to cook more of this."
"Of course I shall," she reassured him.
"I shall be out soon on bail," said Ching. "Tell her I will come to see her, definitely."
"I will stop disturbing you now," said Peter, and went back to his former seat, where he couldn't hear their conversation.
The football game finished and was succeeded by a news programme. The main local story was that the Montagu Call Centre was to go ahead, financed and managed by Incoherent and a consortium of banks and finance companies. Peter and Mrs Kee both sat up sharply in recognition. The newsreader pronounced on the economic benefits it would bring to those people involved in it, managing to make it sound as though the profits would be spread generously among all and sundry.
After the news, there was a cheap, generic, unfunny American sit-com of the sort with no plot, no characters and a lot of wisecracks and canned laughter. Buster took each of the men back to their own cell and locked them in with a cardboard tray holding three slices of white bread, margarine, some sort of processed meat, an apple and a paper cup of coffee. It looked as though the catering was one of the things Hell had learned from the British Airports Authority. As Peter ate his dinner, he noticed a brilliant yellow light shining briefly through the small window. A volcano had flared, somewhere quite close.
Stretched out on the bench, under the blanket, Peter experienced one of his rare vivid and consecutive dreams. He was riding a bicycle on a busy street. It was raining. The rain had been going on for a while so the road was running with muddy water. The road surface went from asphalt to cobbles, and he held his weight back over the bike so as not to skid. In front of him he saw a broken bottle and, without thinking, he pulled to the right to avoid it. There was the noise of a car horn and suddenly he felt a tremendous shove, knocking him over. His head hit the kerb. His leg was crushed. The pain was blinding. He heard a voice from behind him, "Fuckin' idiot!" and a car door slammed. Then the street lighting dimmed and went out, the traffic vanished and only the pain and the darkness were left behind. He woke with a start, stifled the squeal that came from his mouth, and went back to sleep.
He had the same dream again. He was riding a bicycle on a busy street, it was raining and the road surface was running with muddy water. The bike hit the cobbles, he turned hard to avoid a broken bottle and fell under the car. It was the same dream, but this time there was a new point of detail. As he landed hard on his left side he felt a compact disk in his left pocket crack and break against his hip. The sharp edge cut him. Then someone shouted, "Fuckin' idiot," a car door slammed and he noticed the unnatural angle at which his leg was twisted. He remembered the driver of the car getting out and standing over him: a middle aged man with a goatee beard and sunglasses in the dark evening, repeating "Fuckin' idiot." Peter had been carrying the disk from the Inland Revenue office in Newcastle. He could not remember where he had been carrying it to, but he knew that he was the person who had lost it.
There was another yellow flare. The volcano was restless, obviously.
Buster woke Peter early, told him to get his stuff together, led him back upstairs to the desk, told him he had committed a serious offence in procuring contraband, if he did it again he could expect to be sent down for it, and gave him a police caution to sign. Peter thought of asking "Down what?" but remained silent and signed. They would not take the matter any further this time. He was leaving the police station when he saw Angela waiting in the doorway.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yes, absolutely, I've been well treated, to be honest."
"Come with me, then, jailbird." she said.
"What did you do to get into trouble with the police?" asked Angela.
"I answered an advert offering cheese sandwiches delivered."
"You should be more careful."
There was a pause as they picked their way along the half-derelict road.
"Angela," said Peter, "I had a dream. The same dream twice. I know what happened to me when I died."
"You're recovering from the concussion, then."
"Yes. Look, here's the surprise. I had the disk in my pocket when I was killed."
"So you're the go-between!" Angela was smiling.
"Yes! Well, I might be. I was just ferrying it from the Inland Revenue to somewhere, perhaps to the post office. I don't know where I was taking the thing."
"Did you ever get to the post office or anywhere?"
"No. I was knocked off my bike by a car. I'm lucky to be alive." Peter paused for a second. "No, hang about."
"It all sounds very cloak and dagger."
"It probably is. I know I had it but don't know where I was taking it."
They reached Blair Street. The electricity was off and the best Peter could do was wash and shave in cold water.
"Something else I've learned. Someone is planning to build on the Montagu cemetery. That's probably the Incoherent project, yes?"
"We have two and two, and they make four."
"I have to tell Claire. She can stop it."
"Why do you want to stop it? They're in their own world. Leave the living to bury the living."
"Because the whole project is dreadful. They're trying to single out vulnerable people and drive them to suicide."
"And it's our job to stop them, is that what you're telling me? They have democratic government, planning committees and local authorities to decide all that. We are inside, stuck in hell, scavenging for a living. We can't help them."
"This isn't about them. It's about us."
"No, it's about someone who got upset on Hallowe'en despite being clearly told not to go."
"You're right, of course."
Angela didn't reply for a moment, and then softened.
"Come to bed with me and then you can talk to Claire."
"I've got a sheer babydoll you'll just die for."
"I mean, how can you arrange for me to talk to Claire?"
"I can't promise that it'll work but I might be able to fix it. Sometimes it works."
"You were desperate again," said Angela afterwards.
"Hadn't seen you for a whole day."
"Second time was a bit gentler. You always seem to be overheated your first time. Relax. I won't go away." Angela paused, then, "Do you still want to talk to Claire?"
"You're going to talk to Claire in her dreams. Just relax and think about Claire and talk to her. Say what you want to say. Sometimes you will hear her answer you. If she answers you, then you know she heard you."
"And if I don't hear her, does that mean anything?"
"Probably that she is awake, that's all. Or her brain is off the hook. You know what it's like. Your party cannot be reached at the moment. Please try later."
Peter lay in Angela's bed, asking for "Claire?" out loud, and Claire, in her own bed at two o'clock in the morning, started to dream vividly of him.
"Claire, I've come back to you."
"No, just for the next five minutes. I have to tell you something."
"Peter, I want to tell you so much. So many things have happened. Sean was wetting his knickers with terror this morning but he passed his French test, Mother's car got towed away while she was paying the electricity bill at the Post Office, and the central heating broke down but Simon came around and fixed it, and I've met this wonderful man called Claudio at the Italian evening class— Oh, shit, I've prattled myself into a bit of a corner, haven't I?"
Angela was right, thought Peter, it's all twaddle now. Important in its own world but nothing that mattered much to him any more.
"Claire," said Peter, "I need you to go to the Montagu cemetery. Not the one where I'm buried but the other one."
"Montagu cemetery," echoed Claire.
"There are some military graves there. Recent ones. Make sure the Council knows those graves are there, because they're planning to sell the land to some consortium who will build on it."
"Sell it to some consortium," echoed Claire in turn.
"Yes, and someone here is getting upset about it."
"Someone is upset about it."
"Enjoy Claudio, have fun together."
"Have fun with Claudio."
"Is he nice?"
"He's lovely, dark skin, and his legs and chest feel like a fur coat. Wealthy enough, gentle but forceful, and less pervy than you are."
"I could envy him. Sleep well, Claire."
Peter disappeared out of Claire's dream and she awoke, shook her head to try to clear out what was real and what was dream, and lay down again. Montagu cemetery, military graves, Council, consortium. Maybe it would make sense in the morning, but maybe again it wouldn't. Claudio, lying beside her, asked whether she was worried about anything, and she said, "It was Peter, come back from the dead to see if I'm all right."
"You're better than all right," he replied, "you're perfect."
"Sh! He might still be listening."
"Let's be silent, then."
Angela pulled Peter's hair gently to wake him.
"Did you speak to her?"
"Yes. That was definitely her."
"What did she tell you?"
"Nothing much. Sean passed his French test, the central heating got towed away, and her new boyfriend has hairy legs and wets his knickers."
Angela giggled. "Nothing new, then?"
"I told her there were recent graves in Montagu cemetery. That might at least delay the project while they find a new site for it."
"Which means nothing to us because we're here for eternity. It's not as though it will take them so long to find a new site that we'll have been released and we can smash down their buildings and then revolt against them, line them all up against a wall and shoot them. We'll still be down here, they'll still be up there, and Hell Enterprises plc will still be trying to rip everyone off and keep the proceeds."
"Now you put it like that, I wish I hadn't bothered."
"Oh, you have to bother occasionally. Just to keep in touch, to remind them that you once existed. Did your wife's new boyfriend really wet his knickers?"
"Only when he saw me emerging out of the darkness of the clothes cupboard into the pale moonlight of the bedroom with my bared fangs ready to bite his throat out."
"I should think anyone would. Very erotic thought, isn't it."
"Do you think Claire will actually do anything about the graveyard?"
"Probably not. Anyway, it doesn't matter. Let me try to explain something to you."
"Go on, then."
"This is meant to be informative, educational and entertaining."
"Yeah. So is the BBC."
"Don't groan. Heaven and Hell are different. Not just different places but actually, structurally different. It's a shame to be in Hell, but we're here, and we're together, and there's no appeal against it, so we make the best of it, yes? And if you're into school uniforms and leather knickers you could certainly do worse than meet me, couldn't you?"
"Yes. Yes, very much. I wish I'd met you earlier."
"You couldn't have afforded me. Now, Hell is an authoritarian corporation, Heaven is a self-organising anarchic co-operative. Hell is highly organised, right down to the identity cards and the job centres. Heaven is just people getting on with things. They're not organised, they don't agree about anything, they just live in the same place and they get along."
"That much I knew, more or less."
"Yes, you're bright, very clever, very intuitive and, incidentally, the best kinky sex partner I've ever seen. But the point is that Hell is a centralised organisation, centrally funded. Heaven is lightweight, with the minimum of organisation. So Hell grows by acquisition and Heaven grows by franchise."
"I need to think that over for a moment."
"Hell grows by acquisition. There is a central committee, somewhere, some Board of Directors or Board of Demons, shacked up in a sin sanctuary somewhere—"
"A sin sanctuary?"
"London is one, Las Vegas is another. A sort of black hole from which reports of libidinous and reprehensible conduct cannot escape. Religious leaders who get tired of obeying their own strictures go to a sin sanctuary where they can drink, gamble, shag prostitutes, take drugs, have sex with little schoolboys for money, and everyone understands when they leave the sanctuary that they were never there, nobody saw them, and above all they never shagged anyone. So the televangelists and the cult crazies can indulge the lusts of the flesh whenever they want to, and then they can go back to lecturing the rest of us on reforming our dreadful wicked ways, and everyone agrees not to give the game away. Got the idea?"
"I got it perfectly."
"So now, let's cut back to the chase. If Heaven were planning to do something that you didn't approve of, maybe to get some anti-retroviral drug through its tests and onto the market—"
"Why should I disapprove of that?"
"Plenty of people do. It's called anti-vivisection. Anyway, if Heaven were planning to push some anti-retroviral drug through its tests and onto the market, and you blew up the laboratory or destroyed the computer with the formulae and the results in it, you'd probably destroy that project, because only the people concerned with that project have any interest in it. Are you with me so far?"
"I'm beginning to see what you're getting at."
"Good. So when you show how someone screwed up an application for planning permission and Hell Enterprises shouldn't be allowed to build there and Mrs Kee's remains should be allowed to repose next to the space dedicated to her husband's, then the planning application will be rescinded and Hell Enterprises will apply for planning permission elsewhere. The Incoherent Project will move to Glasgow or Birmingham or some ghastly sweatshop in Bangalore or the Philippine Islands, it makes no difference. Hell Enterprises plc will get their suicides. It's obviously what they want and they're so much bigger than you that if they walked into the room you'd wet your knickers faster than Claudio ever thought possible."
Peter looked glum. "So, you counsel despair?"
"Not despair but, well, hope. We have hope, of a sort. We can't break out but we have all eternity to get on with things. We don't have to go back and suffer the finance companies ringing us up and trying to convince us that the best thing for us would be to slit our own throats. If the living want to stop them, they're perfectly able to do it. There are thousands of ways to cancel debts and stop unwanted phone calls. We're beyond it all. Why seek ye the living among the dead?"
"Don't we have any responsibility to the living?"
"They're responsible for themselves. Think about it. If the living wanted to cancel debts, they would have cancelled them. If they wanted to stop harassing phone calls, they would have stopped them. So the first thing is that they don't really want to stop them. In the finance companies' quest for profits, a certain suicide rate isn't so much inevitable as acceptable. And the living don't even know that we're here. Sure, they ask each other if they believe in ghosts, but if we make ourselves obvious, the first thing they will do is get a priest in to exorcise us. Have you ever seen a ghost who's been exorcised? It's awful. He'll look as though he just gone three rounds with Henry Cooper. And they do it to women as well, they're quite indiscriminate. Oh, Peter, I'm so sorry for you. You're not in that world now. Things are different here. Deal with it. In time, you get used to it all."
Peter hesitated, and then, "I need to clarify my own ideas, that's obvious. For instance, does the Tooth Fairy exist?"
"Of course she exists. She's beautiful, silent, has strong white feathered wings, dresses in shimmering robes and carries a silvern leather purse with two compartments, one full of silver coins and the other full of little girls' and boys' worn-out primary teeth. God knows what she does with those. In a thousand homes every evening the Tooth Fairy materialises in the form of the father or the mother of the family, leaves a silver coin in exchange for a newly shed primary tooth, and reverts to being a parent again. That's exactly how Heaven works."
"So if you were to ask me whether the Tooth Fairy really existed, I would say no, even though she does, really, exist?"
"She exists where she's needed, when she's needed. The occasion produces the being. You played the part of the tooth fairy for your own children, didn't you?"
"Well, I did sometimes, but Claire did it more often. Depends on who had a silver coin in their pockets that day."
"The Tooth Fairy exists, then, in the same sense that you do or I do. Claire still has a real existence: times, dates, places, memory, continuity of being. But the Tooth Fairy still gets summoned into being, night in and night out, when she's needed."
"What about Father Christmas?" Peter could not resist asking. "Does Father Christmas exist?"
"Saint Nicholas exists," said Angela, "although he's been removed from the Canon of the Saints, so he is just plain Nicholas. He and Mrs Claus still live in their grace and favour mansion up in the Rosalind Franklin Heights. It's on the Map of Homes of the Stars. You could have gone to see it, although he is pretty fed up with tourists hanging around his celestial residence taking photographs and asking where the flying reindeer live. But the big City retailers invented Father Christmas with his white beard, red robes, and magic flying sleigh. He is only an invention of their marketing departments."
"Father Christmas doesn't exist!"
"Sorry, darling. Don't cry."
"I wonder if I'm getting the hang of living here."
"You're still clinging on to a former life. I don't blame you, everyone does it. I don't want to rub it in but if you haven't been incinerated already then you've certainly begun to rot. There's no going back, at least not as a physical, breathing, living being. You can be a sort of ethereal spectator but it isn't the same." She saw how she was upsetting Peter, and added brightly, "We should change the subject. Let me lead you into doing something for the first time. Did you ever smoke a cigarette?"
"Yes, but only once, when I was twelve, and I didn't get very far."
"Let's pretend you're twelve, go out into the garden, and smoke cigarettes. I've got some left. There are even some matches somewhere."
In the garden Angela put a cigarette into Peter's mouth, then another into her own, and struck a match to light it. Angela drew deep on it, not having smoked in days. Then she lit Peter's cigarette. Peter started to cough and found he couldn't stop.
"Try again," Angela said, taking his cigarette in her hand and rubbing his back as though that might help, "maybe go a bit easy on it, if it's your first fag for forty years."
"Blimey," said Peter when he could speak again, "that takes me back."
"Practice makes perfect, and practice makes addicts."
"Will I become addicted?"
"I don't think so. Look where you had to go to get those packets for me."
"So maybe you'll get two packs a year."
"That's heavy smoking by local standards. Usually you can only scavenge one or two fags a week."
"You look really sexy when you smoke."
"It's a gift. You look really cute when I pretend you're twelve. I can turn you on by the way I purse my lips around the filter tip. See?"
"Now, cigarette between the lips and draw on it."
This time Peter knew what to expect and he braced himself. The coughing didn't start for a few seconds.
"Please call me good girl."
"My, you haven't dressed in a while, have you. You should go to the office dragged up."
"I'd love to."
"Let's do it, then, but finish the cigarette first. I'll watch you finish it. Put it in your mouth and ... There!"
Peter blew the smoke out.
"Good girl. Again."
Peter drew on the cigarette, held the smoke in his mouth to taste it, and released it gently.
"You know," said Angela, "I love the smell of smoke. Not the smell of smoke that has just blown into your face or into your hair. There's nothing special about that. But when a man has been smoking for a few years he acquires a dark, warm, honey taste around the mouth and neck. I love that taste, I really love it."
"I'll see what I can do."
"You've made a good start. Whoops! Tap the ash off."
Peter tapped half an inch of ash onto the ground. Angela took a drag on her own cigarette.
"Do I smell of warm, dark honey?"
"Not yet, but only because you don't smoke enough."
"So, little girl, now I've caught you smoking in the yard, shall I make you go to your office and do some work?"
"I don't see why not. After all, as it turns out, at least at some point in its life cycle it was my own disk!"
They finished the cigarettes, Peter trying not to cough too much and Angela trying to purse her lips as sexily as possible until they were down to the fag-ends, which they dropped on the ground and crushed with the balls of their feet, giggling as they did so.
"Transforming you is hard work," said Angela, trying to remember all the things she would need for the job. After an hour, Angela had decked Peter out as Paula the office bombshell in blonde hair with ribbons, pink lips, wide eyes, perfume, orange ribbed sweater and grey knee length skirt, got her long, slim legs walking in glossy tights and flashing black heels, and admired her.
"You look fabulous."
"I haven't been to the office like this."
"Really, Sandy will make a pass at you, I'm sure all the boys will. Shall I come with you, shy girl?"
"If you've nothing else to do for the afternoon, I'd love it."
"Picking up leaves can wait."
Angela and Paula strode off to Bitco's office, where her arrival met a blank look from the receptionist.
"Can I help you? Are you looking for someone in particular?"
"I'm Paula. I am Peter Highwater's alter ego."
"Is that like a civil partnership? He isn't here, I'm afraid."
"No, it means I'm his other self."
"It's a big improvement, I can see that."
"Thanks. This is my friend Angela. She's come to help."
Paula and Angela made for Peter's office.
"This is where I have to find useful things to do," explained Paula.
Suddenly, from along the corridor, there were some shouts of "Where is he?" and "Stand out of the way!" A plod squad of DCSOs had arrived: it was Tweedledum and Tweedledee again. Peter's heart sank. Hadn't the caution been the end of the matter after all? The DCSOs threw open the door to Foskill's office, pushed Foskill out of the way and began to search systematically from top left to bottom right. Paula and Angela edged quietly along the corridor to a position where they could see more or less what was going on in Foskill's office, while not drawing too much attention to themselves.
"They're looking for cheese," said Paula, when she realised what was going on. "I told them he gave me the cheese for my sandwich."
"Bad idea, all things considered."
"Good fun, though. At this stage, at least. I didn't want to get Janie into trouble."
"Enjoy it while it lasts, then. What's wrong with getting Janie into trouble? She's far more used to it than Foskill is."
"Yes, she is, but I don't dislike her to anything like the same extent. Besides which, when I start my own business and I become exceedingly rich, I shall employ her as chauffeur, and I can't have an employee with a criminal record."
"You won't forget me when you're rich and famous, will you?"
"You will be my personal assistant and masseuse, I promise."
In the office, Tweedledum held up a couple of green paper folders. "Where did you get these?"
"Board meeting passed them on to me."
"You're nicked, Foskill," yelled Tweedledee, triumphantly, and they frog-marched him out of the building and into the waiting squad car.
"What were the folders?" whispered Angela, although there was not really any need to whisper any longer.
"One of them is about the call centre project. Not sure about the other one."
A siren began to blare and the car careered off onto the street.
"Can you see it lying around?"
"No. I think they must've taken it with them. Unlikely to be about cheese, I would say."
"Perhaps there's something on his computer about it?"
Leaving the building in such a hurry, Foskill had not shut down the computer properly, and Paula was able to look around the file system for evidence of whatever was in the folder. "Projects," she said, then "Call Centre, or Facilities."
"That might have been the other one. It means us setting up an office for the use of another company. Instead of them building their own office, they use ours. Together with our own staff, of course."
"Any relationship to the call centre project?"
"We'll have to read it, but quite possibly they're one and the same thing."
"Whatever it is, it's still about call centres, then?"
"Yes. I think what it is, is Hell Enterprises plc wants to open a call centre among the living, and offer the use of it to companies there. Benefits to both sides. Do high heels always pinch like these ones do?"
"Only if you insist that your feet are two sizes smaller than they really are."
Paula heard a whistle in the car park outside the building and turned to see a workman waving to her through the window saying, "Hi gorgeous!" Before she had thought about it, she had pursed her lips and blown him a kiss back.
"Don't do that!" Angela warned.
"Why not? He enjoys it."
They turned back to the computer screen and went searching for any documents that might have been added to Foskill's collection recently. From behind them came the sound of a cat mewing. The cat nudged the door open a little and wandered into the office. It was a small tortoiseshell cat with a blue collar.
Paula picked the cat up and read the medallion on its collar. "Sheba," she read, "Foskill, 20 Mandelson Drive." She tickled the cat under her chin and said, "Sheba!"
"Foskill has a cat?" said Angela. "I thought he was evil. He can't be evil if he has a cat."
"Perhaps it's really someone else's cat."
Sheba put up a token struggle against being picked up and then purred for a while. Paula was entranced. "She's gorgeous."
Sheba jumped free onto the desk and began to paw the top drawer. Angela and Paula looked at each other. Neither felt particularly comfortable looking in someone else's desk drawer. It was Angela who pulled it open. Sheba looked delighted. There were two tins of cat food, a tin opener, a fork and a plastic plate.
"Are you hungry, Sheba?"
"Miaou," replied Sheba.
Paula soon had Sheba eating cat food happily on the wide office window sill.
"Do you think we should take her back home?"
"She'll be all right here for a while. She can help us sort out these folders."
"What is there to sort out? We know pretty much what is going on."
"Miaou!" put in Sheba.
Angela was able to see the point. "The question is not what Hell Enterprises plc are doing. The question is what we are doing."
"We're going to defend Montagu Cemetery against the unseen forces of extra-terrestrial capitalism," boasted Paula.
"Fine words," said Angela, "but unlikely to do much good in the circumstances."
"Miaou!" put in Sheba.
"Sheba agrees with me," said Angela.
"No, she doesn't. She only said 'Miaou.'"
"Perhaps we should try to rescue Foskill from the DCSOs," suggested Paula, "before they torture him to death."
"No, I don't. In the evening they make you watch TV, and tonight it's Wife Swap."
"Oh, my God. They're going to make him watch Wife Swap? That's the sort of casual, pointless cruelty that gives torturers a bad name."
"Miaou!" said Sheba, moved to tears by the thought of her owner being sat in front of it.
"Either we have to spring Foskill out of lawful custody, or we have to stop them broadcasting Wife Swap while he's locked up there."
"It's a tough choice. Toss you for it?"
Angela tossed the cat in the air and she landed facing Paula, looking confused.
"You won," Angela conceded, "we do it your way."
"Right. My way is we go and offer to bail Foskill out." Paula picked up Sheba, calmed her down and put her back beside the food bowl.
"Weren't we going to conduct a jailbreak?"
"Yes. That would be extremely dangerous and a lot more fun."
"Of course, the other way to relieve Foskill's suffering would be to stop the transmission of Wife Swap. That would have the advantage of relieving the suffering of countless others who would otherwise be exposed to it."
"Nonsense. You haven't got the hang of this personal responsibility business. They can hit the off switch."
"Righto. So the plan is to release Foskill from his dismal confinement."
"Is there any implement to hand that will be useful, or are we going to destroy the cell block with nothing more than our bare hands?"
"We will find what we need as we go along. You'll see."
Paula and Angela decided that brash was best. They went past Reception boldly, shouting firm goodbyes rather than trying to sneak out without being noticed. From the car park they meandered onto Gummer Way, and from there, they picked their way towards the police station.
The front entrance of the police station seemed a fairly difficult approach, with a wire gate and a smallish wooden door protected by an entryphone, several cameras, and two men in kevlar helmets carrying machine guns. Breaking in by this door seemed impossible.
"I don't think we can get in that way," Paula advised.
"Let's see if there's a back door."
From Gummer Way they turned right at the familiar corner onto Kinnock Drive. There was a flat-pack furniture shop and then a level crossing. The railway ran behind the police station.
"They won't be expecting an attack from the back of the building," observed Paula.
"If the shooting starts, wave your arms about and tell them you're an unarmed painter and decorator, here to touch up the fences."
"Will that help?"
The railway ran through a few trees and behind the police station.
"Can you climb trees?"
"Not very well."
"Try that tree, there. That doesn't look too difficult."
"How do I go up it?"
"Recursively, by trial and error. Put a foot on the lowest bough, then try to climb from there."
Paula and Angela clambered erratically up the lowest branches and reached a spot from which they could see into the rear windows of the police station.
"Miaou!" said a familiar voice a couple of feet above their heads.
"Sheba!" they both said together. "What are you doing here?"
Sheba jumped silently to a lower branch, where Angela could reach her.
"Did you come to see the birds?"
There were no more birds in this tree than any other, so Angela guessed that Sheba had some other reason for being here.
"Perhaps it's just the warmest tree for miles around," Paula suggested.
For a while they sat and watched through the windows.
"Where do you think Foskill is?" asked Angela.
"The cell block is down there. I think it's that bit."
They could see a couple of figures through a window, but not clearly enough to make out who they were. They watched Sheba carefully to see if she showed any sign of recognising anyone, but she didn't. Sheba sat quietly, occasionally looking hungrily at a bird.
"I could take Sheba to see Foskill," said Paula. "I have a bit of a conscience about telling them Foskill gave me the cheese sandwich, to be honest."
"Go ahead," said Angela, "I'll wait here."
Paula picked Sheba up and held her over her shoulder. She carried Sheba gently round the block and rang the entryphone at the police station. Buster was at the desk. He didn't recognise Paula.
"What can we do for you?"
"Foskill is here, isn't he? You're holding him for some reason."
"I brought his cat. I thought he might like to see his cat."
Sheba, lying limply across Paula's shoulder, looked around and then relaxed.
"You'd better come with me, then."
Paula followed Buster down the familiar stairs. Buster unlocked a cell and announced, "Visitor for you, Foskill," before ushering Paula and Sheba into it.
Foskill was looking quite ill, despite having been in the cell for only a few hours. He lifted his cat off Paula's shoulders and dropped her into his lap.
"I saw her in the office. I knew she would be pleased to see you."
"She was a stray, of course. I adopted her when she was tiny. She was really weak: I didn't expect her to grow to this size."
"She's happy and well looked after," said Paula. Paula was surprised that Foskill didn't seem to recognise her, and she pondered whether or not to reveal her other identity to him. On balance it did not seem a particularly bright idea.
"I don't know what to ask you. How are you feeling?"
"Pretty miserable, I suppose, but a lot better for knowing Sheba is all right."
"Anything I can tell your friends?"
"Tell them that in an attempt to make me confess, they're going to make me watch Wife Swap."
"What will you confess?"
"I don't have anything to confess, really. They think I lead a double life, at the same time a software manager for a leading company and a street dealer in cheese sandwiches."
"Can they prove it?"
"I don't think so. It isn't true, even if they can."
It was difficult to imagine Foskill leading a double life. Indeed, Foskill himself occasionally wondered whether he led even a single life.
The cell door opened again and Buster came in. "Time for your favourite television programme," he said to Foskill smugly, and to Paula, "You and the cat will have to go home now."
In the messroom Foskill sat in one of the wooden chairs. The television was already running, showing some nonsensical advertisement about mobile phones playing hide and seek. Surely by now the television companies had worked out that the audience had rumbled them? That the more creative, imaginative, diverse and innovative the advertisements were, the more indistinguishable, homogeneous, mediocre and unreliable were the cheap Chinese imported goods that they were trying to persuade them to buy?
"And now," said the announcer in a tone of voice that falsely implied that what he was about to say would be interesting, "shy, retiring, one-legged librarian Norma Hosepipe from Surbiton changes places with an Iranian terrorist based in Leicester who writes rubbish poetry and converts meerschaum pipes into grenade launchers for a living, in Wife Sw—"
A stone crashed against the plate glass window, shattering it. Smashed plate glass fell onto the tables and chairs in the association room, missing Foskill's neck by less than a metre and giving him a nasty fright. With another loud bang, a second stone came through the opening and smashed the screen of the television set into a million shards, and the set dissolved into crackling yellow flames and thick smoke.
"Crikey! Only just in time!" Foskill exclaimed, jumping out of the broken window onto the railway line outside. Smoke poured out of the window. In the confusion Buster could be heard coughing and trying to yell for an assault rifle. A huge police dog, rather better trained for its role in an emergency than your average DCSO, shot out of a side door to try to seize Foskill in its slavering jaws. Sheba, a case-hardened stray only recently domesticated, sensing an unprecedented opportunity for a good fight, jumped down from the window and overtook the dog. She stood her ground in front of it, arching her back, raising her fur, spitting and yowling. The dog stopped in its tracks, yapping furiously but ineffectively. For an instant there was a stand-off. Then Sheba took a step towards the dog, silently threatening to scratch its nose. The dog thought better of it, conceded defeat and ran off, whimpering, back into the side door. Defeated in a fight by a tiny female cat, it would be despised by all and sundry for the rest of its life.
When the noise died down and the smoke had cleared, Angela, still in the tree, realised she could no longer see Foskill or Sheba. The stocking that she had used so effectively as a slingshot was now stretched and laddered, so she took the other one off to match and waited until Paula arrived.
"Good marksmanship," Paula called up into the tree.
"I got tired of doing good by stealth."
"Where did you learn to do that?"
"Art classes. Long story."
"Was anyone hurt?"
"In the art classes?"
"No, just now."
"Nobody. Just some injured pride and a bitter and publicly humiliated dog."
"Where are Foskill and Sheba?"
"I don't know. They just sort of vanished in the confusion. I hope they can keep their heads down until the hoo-hah subsides."
"Knowing Foskill he'll be back at work tomorrow, Tweedledum and Tweedledee will come and fetch him, and all our efforts will have been in vain."
"In vain?" Angela was taken aback. "Paula, look here, of course it isn't in vain." She clambered breathlessly down the tree to join Paula on the ground. "Oof! Where is your pride? For a moment - uhh - we actually made a difference. Ouch! They were going to try to force a confession," Angela reached ground zero and rubbed her hands together to shake the dirt off them, "out of a man that we both know is innocent. We did something to right an injustice. We helped a friend in need. For an instant we stood out from an indifferent crowd. Of course they'll repair the window, they'll replace the television, they'll carry on forcing confessions out of innocent people, they'll carry on showing rubbish and calling it television programmes, they'll probably go after Foskill and they'll quite likely come after us as well. But just because they can restore the status quo doesn't mean at our effort was worthless. Whatever happens next, we did not expend that effort in vain."
Sheba was sitting on a low fence that separated a garden from the copse and the railway line. For a cat who had just seen off a police dog five times her size, she looked astonishingly peaceable.
"You're back!" Angela smiled at Sheba. "Is that your garden?"
They saw Foskill's face at the window.
Paula realised the obvious. "Those houses are Mandelson Drive, aren't they? That's why Sheba knows about these trees. If Foskill stays at home, he's lasagna, pretty much. The demons may not have much evidence against him as a cheesemonger, but escaping from lawful custody is a different matter altogether. With Sheba the cat aiding and abetting, too."
Paula and Angela walked back along the railway to the level crossing, turned back along Mandelson Drive, and knocked at number 20. Foskill opened the door expecting to see uniforms and was cheered by the glamour on his doorstep.
"Thank you for bringing Sheba to see me."
Paula and Angela came into the house. Sheba came through from the kitchen to say miaou.
"It was all we could do," said Paula. "Now we have to get you out of town, to a safe-house of some sort."
"Foskill," Paula explained, "before I go on, by the way, do you have a first name?"
"It's Foskill," said Foskill, "and my last name is Foskill too."
"No, just plain Foskill."
"Right, then, you've probably got a few minutes before the DCSOs come around knocking on your door, so we ought to get you to a safe-house if we can. Somewhere where the Old Bill won't come looking for you."
"I don't have a safe house. I'm lucky enough to have this unsafe one."
Paula was looking through the front window onto the street. A car stopped on the opposite side of the road. She recognised it immediately.
"Angela, that's my car." Paula pointed to it. "No wonder it was missing from outside my house. I mean Claire's house. Someone had taken it on an excursion to the Nether World!"
The driver was a middle aged man in a leather jacket and sunglasses. He had a goatee beard.
"He's Fuckin' Idiot Man."
"Have you turned into Alastair Stewart?" asked Foskill.
"I recognise him (Fuckin' Idiot Man, that is, not Alastair Stewart). I'd know him anywhere, even here. He was the driver who knocked me off my bicycle, cursed my dying body and left me for dead. And I call him Fuckin' Idiot Man because those were the only two words I've ever heard him say, and in the circumstances they rather stuck in my memory."
Fuckin' Idiot Man got out of the car, slammed the door and crossed the road, striding purposefully towards Foskill's front door.
"We'll hide," ordered Angela, "while you tell him to take his Watchtowers and sod off, not necessarily in that order."
"Me?" said Paula.
"No, not you! You don't live here. Foskill, it's your door. You answer the door to him and get shot of him."
"Me?" said Foskill.
"Yes, you!" Angela repeated, "It's your door!" and then the door bell rang.
Angela and Paula threw themselves onto the threadbare and ancient carpet, hoped that they could not be seen from the street, and waited while Foskill opened the door.
Fuckin' Idiot Man said something cheerful and perfunctory in what might have been an American Spanish accent and gave Foskill a CD in an envelope. "This disk," continued the man, "is a sort of unexpected bonus. It contains the details of twenty five million claimants of Child Benefit. I trust you understand its value."
"About a thousand euro, I expect," hissed Foskill in a lowered voice. "It'll take a few days to get the cash together."
"I have to talk to you about the value of this disk," said Fuckin' Idiot Man, "since you obviously do not understand the scope and scale of the data written on it."
"They know each other!" whispered Angela.
"I always knew that Foskill was evil," Peter whispered back. "The cat is just a sort of diversion."
"Come to my office tomorrow, Fernando. I have guests now," Foskill explained to the caller.
"This cannot wait," the caller replied.
As Foskill tried to delay Fernando's entry into the house, Angela shushed Paula and led her on tiptoe through the kitchen, into the back garden and from there to a side alley which led onto the street. They heard the front door click shut. They crossed the road, still shushing each other, and clambered into the car. The doors had been unlocked but the key was not in the ignition.
"How are you going to start it?" asked Angela.
Paula unfastened a light silver chain that circled her neck. Attached to the chain was the key to the ignition.
They looked back at Foskill's house. Fernando was standing with his back to the window, and Foskill was standing by the fireplace looking out. Foskill could see them and Fernando couldn't. Paula beckoned Foskill to get into the car. She watched as Foskill said something to Fernando and went into the kitchen, leaving Fernando to take a seat and wait. Foskill appeared from the side alley and was already sitting in the back of the car before Fernando realised he was alone in the house. The car moved off.
"Where are we going?" asked Foskill.
"To find a safe house for you," Paula replied. "You're already a wanted man."
"What did Fernando give you?" asked Angela, who was driving.
"Another useful addition to my collection of compact disks," Foskill smiled, "this time from the Child Support Agency."
"What do you do with them all?"
"The Incoherent Project uses them. They ring people up. They try to rip them off, basically. If they're on child benefit then some scam involving insurance or student fees is a good place to start."
"You rip them off?"
"Of course we rip them off. Don't get the wrong idea. We don't stick a gun to their chests and force them to stand and deliver. Those days are gone. These days it's all APRs and balance transfers and fixed rate deals, but the effect is the same."
Angela brought the car to a halt at a traffic light and asked Foskill, "Where would you prefer to go? We can try to find an empty house and leave you there, or we can take you to the railway yard and you can live in a shed. Just for a week or so."
"Let's go for Plan A. The empty house."
The traffic light changed. Wilson Lane was a narrow, winding lane, long superseded by a wider, straighter and more modern Interstate arterial road, but less likely to be watched by the camera goons. The lane led out of town into ragged fields which grew crops or market gardens. Further still, where imported food had rendered intensive small-scale farming hopelessly uneconomic in the 1930s, stood tumbledown farmhouses and cottages. They chose a row of three agricultural labourers' cottages at the end of a driveway two hundred metres or so long. They brought the car around, out of sight of the road, and pushed open the door of the most habitable looking cottage. Inside it was dark and dirty and the few sticks of furniture had been attacked by wildlife.
"Nothing luxurious, Foskill, but you can live here for a few days," Angela reassured him. "There's probably brackish water in the tap and you can forage for food. There will be fruit trees in the garden, that sort of thing. Just stay out of sight."
"Foskill," said Paula, "I'd like to take that disk to Bitco for analysis. I won't say where it came from."
Foskill demurred, so Paula added that, what with Tweedledum and Tweedledee closing in from one side and Fernando closing in from the other, he wasn't really in any position to call the shots. Foskill saw sense and handed over the disk.
"How much is this disk really worth?" she asked.
"To a ruthless criminal with appropriate equipment and technical knowledge, it's worth untold millions of euro. A sum beyond the dreams of avarice."
Paula twisted it between her hands and broke it into three pieces, then scraped the pieces under her shoe on the stone floor.
Foskill was astounded. "What? Why did you do that, for God's sake?"
"Let's call it damage limitation. I have living relatives, for one thing. Aren't you in enough trouble already?"
"You just laid waste my career."
"You were practising a career as a shyster, fraud, con-man and ruthless criminal? I've heard it all now."
Angela sensed they were never going to agree. "Foskill, just stay alive for a few days and keep your head down. We'll come back for you."
Back in the car, as they drove back to Blair Street, Paula asked Angela, "What do we do now?"
"You recognised Fernando, then."
Angela had driven back to her home, probably unnoticed and certainly without being stopped. She and Paula were analysing the day's events over Mellow Birds, and trying to work out what their priorities actually were.
"Yes. It's not the sort of thing you forget," said Peter. "He knocked me off my bike and swore at me. Then it seems he went through my pockets and found the broken disk. Either he or Foskill knew enough to recover most of the data off the disk."
"And all the while he was driving your car."
"Yes. That adds insult to fatal injury, doesn't it! I was on my bike. I hadn't used the car that day. Maybe Claire had come down to see me and parked the car in the Revenue car park. Maybe she just left the car in the Revenue car park and went on a shopping trip with the boys. Out with the kids you don't always think to lock the car and take the key with you. Having somewhere to park is something of a privilege in that part of town, and my car has a reserved space and a sticker. Maybe Fernando was just skulking around the Revenue office looking for cash and credit cards, and he saw that particular car in the car park and decided to drive it away."
"He wasn't looking for cash," Angela corrected. "At least, he wasn't looking only for cash. He was looking for data. Something he could sell."
"I had the data in my pocket."
"So, it was evening, the office lights were on, and you could be seen from the car park. Fernando was outside. He saw you put the data disk into a Jiffy-bag and slip the Jiffy-bag into your pocket. Then he watched you leaving the office on your bike. Then he stole a car in order to collide with you and steal the disk. It just happened to be your car."
"Yes. And in some way he managed to recover the data from the disk."
"Let's go with that theory for the time being. Fernando got into the Revenue car park somehow and walked around unchallenged, looking for something of value, and he saw you through a window or something."
"All right. I can believe that. What do you think Fernando is doing now?"
"Looking for us, I expect. He must feel as though we stole his winning lottery ticket, as well as his car."
"It's my car. At least, it's Claire's. I'm just stealing it back."
"I think when you're an international data smuggler you don't see it that way. I wouldn't worry about the car, though. The point is not that someone stole data from the Revenue. The data would be worthless unless someone was willing to buy it."
They pondered the identity of the individual as they finished the coffee.
"Who is Mr Big on the Incoherent Project?"
"Watch your gender inclusive language, Paula," Angela whispered conspiratorially, "this is not a good time to be packed off to a gender issues re-education camp among the walruses and the penguins on the iceberg-strewn wastelands of the Outlying Territories."
"Is walruses the plural of walrus?"
"I think so. I don't think it's walri. All right, then, who is Mr or Ms Big?"
In reply they both spoke together, "Aanandita!"
"She's co-ordinating the whole Incoherent Project, isn't she?" Paula realised the extent of her responsibilities. "Hiring and firing, signing off budgets, procuring supplies, negotiating contracts, agreeing milestones, quality control, and generally running the show?"
"Is she good enough at information technology to cover her traces?"
"I think," said Paula after a pause for thought, "we are going to find out."
Angela washed the make-up off Peter's face and left him to take a bath and put his male work clothes on. There was still time to get into Bitco's office before Reception locked the front entrance. As other office workers were leaving, Peter and Angela settled into Peter's office prepared for a long forensic session.
"Doesn't Aanandita work in Block One on the industrial estate?" asked Angela. "Where can we get keys to Aanandita's office?"
"Nobody would give them to us if we asked for a million years, but fortunately we don't need them." Peter started the terminal on his desk. "The computers in Block One use network attached storage. They all store data in the same boxes. Makes it easier to share work between members of a team, which is essential if you're constantly reading each other's notes and assuming some fictitious name. We can find out what any of the computers has been used for by examining what's in the shared storage. And all this terminal asks in exchange is a user name and password, and since I'm an administrator..." he typed a few letters, "...hey presto, we're in there."
"Is there a list of the cheques she's signed?"
"There had better be." Peter was leafing through Aanandita's saved data, trying to work out what it all was. "Otherwise she'll have a lot of explaining to do when the auditors come poking their noses into the procurement receipts. It looks as though there's a straightforward database table that lists all the outgoing cheques. Of course a lot of them are innocent. Maybe all of them. Salaries, expenses, fees, building repairs, equipment, rentals, phones. But then if you're writing cheques to yourself you have to do it in a way that doesn't attract attention."
"If you were Fernando," Angela ruminated, "how would you want to receive money in a way that didn't attract attention?"
"Cash. Used notes. Maybe bearer securities."
"Disagree. You can't receive hundreds of thousands of euro in cash. There would be cleared cheques for thousands of euro all payable to cash. Someone would notice, surely."
"Valuable stamps and jewellery, then."
"They're lossy: you only get back a part of what you pay for them. Good if you're trying to carry money around the world without anybody seeing you, but there would be cheques payable to Stanley Gibbons or Tiffany in the database, which give the game away."
"Why Tiffany and not Ratner's?"
"Because they're crap."
"All right, if I couldn't be paid in green folding stuff, I'd set up a shell company."
"Agree. The shell company receives the money, stashes it in an anonymous numbered bank account in Zurich, Lagos or Odessa for all I know, and at the end of each financial quarter Fernando divvies up the loot eighty-twenty with Aanandita, who gets the lion's share because she authorises the payments and she signs the cheques. The accounts show the payments under various headings like salary, dividends, expenses, services purchased, licence fees, bonus and tax. Everything looks legal and shows up in the annual report. The Inland Revenue in the host country either receives tax payments so they don't get suspicious, or possibly they get bribes so that reporting their suspicions would jeopardise their family income supplement. The British auditors and tax examiners are all in the dark because the shell company issues proper invoices and receipts, so there's nothing to give them cause for suspicion."
"Which tells us what we're looking for on the cheques database. Small number of large payments to a company we've never heard of. And that company is..." Peter let the sentence hang in mid air while he ran a database query. "Crook Market Data AO. Five payments by bank draught totalling €3,217,114.31. Phew! That's big money."
"What happens to the thirty one cents?"
"That probably got paid in corporation tax."
"And you think Crook Market Data is the shell company?"
"I don't know, but I think that's very likely. Why else buy British market data from a company based overseas?"
"Can we put a stop to their activities?"
"Wrong question," said Peter, "as you have often said. The first question is, should we put a stop to their activities?"
"I'm not with you." Angela was puzzled.
"Because you were right. Hell is centrally financed, centrally managed and centrally planned. There is no point in trying to stop a bent employee making one or two payments to one or two shell companies. She or he will create new shell companies and one way or another she or he will achieve exactly what she or he set out to achieve. In any case Crook Market Data is doing nothing obviously illegal. I don't know whether we ought to do anything about the Incoherent Project or not, but there's little point trying to stop it."
"They will turn on you and trample you also," Angela quoted.
"Just musing out loud. We have some precious knowledge about the Incoherent Project. Some information that no other legitimate worker in the Project has. We have the choice of keeping it to ourselves or passing it on to Corporate. Now the official line is, cast not your pearls before swine, for they will trample them underfoot, then turn on you and trample you also. That's why whistle-blowers get fired."
"Precisely. We can't defeat them. We can only use what we know. And by the way," Peter asked, "how come you know so much about dodgy shell companies?"
"I used to run one. In my line of business it was very useful if you could take cheques and credit cards, and they had to look legit. I appeared on punters' statements as Red Bell Car Hire."
Sandy came through the office door. "Hi Peter, Angela."
"You're working late," said Peter.
"So are you. Anyway, I have to work late. There's been a sudden detour from the advertised road map on the Incoherent Project."
"Big setback." Sandy made a fisherman's gesture showing how big it was. "The local authority won't sell Montagu Cemetery to the Incoherent Project."
"Really?" Peter had not honestly expected Claire to respond to his appearance in her dream.
"Yes, they've said it would be in breach of regulations. There were some military graves on the site that the Council didn't know about. The bastards!"
"Good for them! Just out of interest, do you have any idea how much they were going to sell it for?"
"I'm not sure but the buzz was they would let us have it for five million euro."
"So I think," said Peter, "at least we now know what's on Fernando's mind."
"Who's Fernando?" asked Sandy.
"Friend of the family," said Peter. "I guess the most important thing for him now is finding another source of income."
"I think," Angela opined, "Fernando's first priority is dealing with the person who took away the source of income that he had," said Angela.
"Oh, my God." Alarmed, Peter realised that Claire might now be in danger. "How can we protect Claire?"
It had not occurred to any of them that prompting Claire to save Montagu Cemetery from redevelopment might anger a volatile man. Obstructing the plans of a ruthless eternal corporation which would find its way around any kind of obstacle sooner or later was one thing. Lighting the blue touch paper of an unstable, violent and probably heavily armed individual was something else entirely.
"We can't hide Claire down here," said Peter, stating the obvious. "Getting a simple message to her was difficult enough."
"But if Hell Enterprises plc finds a different site for the Incoherent Project," said Angela, "and sooner or later they will, then Fernando will probably lose interest in taking revenge."
"Yes, I think you're right. He'll have more important things to worry about, like getting his twenty per cent."
"So the question is, where should the Incoherent Project have its offices?"
"How about the old B & Q building on the Inglis Green Road?" suggested Sandy.
It happened that all three of them were familiar with the former do-it-yourself store. The building was perfect for the purpose. A large empty shell of a building beside a main road, not all that far from a railway station, disused and suitable for conversion to a new use.
"Brilliant idea!" Peter smiled, "now all we have to do is sell it to him."
"How can we sell it to him, when we don't own it?" asked Angela.
"Don't obstruct business by raising trivial objections. We ghosts can move into a building, take possession and live there for hundreds of years without paying rent, can't we? So why can't we sell the tenancy on to a purchaser?"
"And how do we find Fernando?" Sandy asked.
"That should not be difficult. He'll come to us."
Peter and Angela reckoned between them that if they could have convincing documentation ready within a day, they could probably persuade Fernando to buy up the old B & Q building and adopt it as headquarters, thereby deflecting any intention he might have of taking revenge on Claire.
"We've got lots of things to fake. Do you know what a deed of title looks like?" Peter asked Sandy.
"No, but I can search for one on the internet and edit bits."
"Do that, then, and try to make some employee identity cards for a property company as well."
"How about photographs of the building?"
"There must be some, somewhere. Can you find some drawings that will look like a call centre, or a B & Q shop? Any fairly dismal office block will do."
By ten in the evening they had an impressive dossier of documents describing the building, and they resolved that Angela and Paula would try to find Fernando and put a business proposition to him the following day.
Peter was sitting in Angela's house staring out of the window and picking at the fridge. Angela had gone out as she usually did, to keep in with the authorities, and Peter had never asked her what exactly that might involve. The electricity had been off for hours. He was sitting quietly in the darkness, waiting for her to come back, looking along Blair Street. On the table was a folder of brazenly faked documents, ready for a serious attempt to convince Fernando to buy the old B & Q building for the Incoherent Project. He could see a couple of elderly people walking slowly across the ground outside, picking over the grass, scavenging for food. On impulse he went out to talk to them.
"Hi, er, good evening," he began.
"Good evening," replied the old man.
"I haven't seen you around here before," he said.
"Oh, we've been here for ages. Many ages. We were living on Blair Street years ago, when the whole place was a thriving community. People seemed more friendly in those days. Life was, sort of, warmer."
"Did you find a lot of things? I noticed you'd been out here for a while."
"Enough to keep going. There's always enough to keep going."
Peter looked around on the ground and saw a packet of sugar cubes. He picked it up and offered it to the old man.
"Here, have this."
"That's kind of you. We haven't seen sugar cubes for months."
The woman spoke up. "Don't you live with Angela? At number eleven?"
"Very nice," Peter agreed.
The old lady bent to pick up a single glove. "You never know when you might need this," she said, philosophically, adding it to her basket.
Back in the house, the clunk of the opening door startled Peter. Angela had returned from her evening mission with Sheba in her arms.
"Look who I found."
"Oh! It's my favourite cat."
"Where do you think Fernando is? We have to find him some time."
"Skulking around, looking for Foskill, I expect. Let's get some sleep. We have a difficult day tomorrow."
Angela started early, sending Peter to bathe around sunrise and then spending longer than usual making him up as Paula.
"You have to be distractingly beautiful," she said, "so he doesn't spend too much time looking at the fake documents."
"You're a true expert," said Peter, as Angela applied foundation and blusher, "I'm sure he'll be pleased to spend time with us."
"Run me through it again."
Peter was pleased to brief her again on how he expected the day's work to proceed. "We don't own the building at all. We just have to convince him that we own it and we are prepared to sell it, and we take a cheque for it. Once he's got the builders and the decorators in, nobody is going to walk up and demand that he restore the building to its original condition as an empty do-it-yourself shop."
"And when do we get the money?"
"We don't get the money. What would we spend it on? We take a cheque in someone else's name and we dispose of it. He won't even notice that it hasn't been cleared through the bank."
Angela began work on Paula's hair. An hour later Paula was fragrant and feminine and ready to distract Fernando's attention away from the dodgy documents. The two women were about to set off for Mandelson Drive when they realised Paula's car was missing from its space outside the house.
"Damn," said Paula, "it looks as though Fernando got here first."
"He's probably still looking for Foskill," said Angela. "At least he hasn't come for us. Look at it that way."
Angela dressed both Paula and herself in clothing suggestive of wealth, strength of purpose, and a highly profitable business background.
It was chilly outside, and still misty. Paula and Angela began walking towards Foskill's house, where they still expected Fernando to be waiting. They were passing Block One on the way towards the Posh End when Peter noticed a familiar figure going in through the main entrance.
"Isn't that Fernando there?"
"My word," said Angela, "you have sharp eyes. That is him there, isn't it."
"Perhaps he is going to talk to Aanandita. Do you think we could just wait for him to leave, and grab his attention on the way out?"
"Well, we're already caught up in a game of fantasy, fakery, mendacity and deceit," said Paula, "so let's try to bluff this one too."
They waited until they saw the lift carry Fernando up to Aanandita's room, then went in to tackle the receptionist. The receptionist was a well spoken, pretty woman with a badge giving her the name Sarah.
"Hello," tried Paula, "we're from Chesser Property in Edinburgh and we'd like to speak to Mr Fernando."
"Do you have an appointment?"
"It's about the Incoherent Project," said Angela. "The Board agreed to set a meeting room aside for us, and we're due to meet Fernando as soon as he finishes his meeting with Aanandita."
"There's nothing about that here," said Sarah, looking down at the meetings page of her diary.
"They probably forgot to book a room," said Paula. "You know how busy they all are."
"All right," said Sarah, "well, the Castle Room is free all day, on the tenth floor."
"Thank you," said Angela, turning towards the lift.
"You'll need the key," said Sarah, tossing her an old-fashioned mortice key. "Fernando will be free in a quarter of an hour or so. Does he know you're expecting him to come and find you?"
"He's probably forgotten by now."
"All right, I won't let him leave the building. And I'll send up some coffee and bickies."
Paula was about to ask for tea instead of coffee, but realised there probably wasn't any. "Thank you," she said, "that's most considerate."
The Castle Room was a large committee room with thick carpet, a boardroom table, heavy arm chairs, and a complete wall of windows looking out over the Georgian terraces of the Posh End. Angela emptied the dossier onto the table. Sandy had done a very convincing job, particularly if you bore in mind that he had never actually seen the building which they were, ostensibly, so keen to find a new owner-occupier for. There were name badges of silvery plastic with the Chesser Properties name, deeds of title, schedules of payments, maps, a couple of aerial photographs and graphic drawings of the building inside and outside after conversion to its new use.
They did not have to wait very long. As they were arranging the various papers into order on the table, Fernando arrived.
"Good morning, ladies," he said, "thank you for being so prompt. What have you?"
Angela began. "We heard of your recent difficulties and we have come to offer you an alternative home for the Incoherent Project."
"How did you know about the Incoherent Project?"
"Contacts," Angela smoothed over Fernando's worry, "friends in the line of business. The Council put it about that since Montagu Cemetery was unavailable, we might perhaps interest you in a different hard to shift property. For a small slice of the action, of course."
"Of course. Brief details?"
"Former do-it-yourself store on the Inglis Green Road just down from Slateford Station," Paula summed it up, "four thousand square metres, car parking, good condition, flat floor, power ventilation, disabled access, planning permission."
"You have planning permission?"
Paula handed Fernando a document headed "Planning Permission for Change of Use" and signed in an illegible scribble.
"Five million euro."
Paula passed him two of the pencil drawings. "We had a shot at sketching how it would look with your name on it." Prominent on the drawn building was a sign saying "Incoherent plc."
Fernando was evidently impressed. "Which is my office?" he asked.
"This one here," said Angela, pointing to a window at random.
Paula went on lying, "We took the liberty of speaking to a business mortgage broker. He reckons he can get you 90% at 7% per annum over sixty years. He's sitting by the phone in case we want to call him."
"I won't need anything like that much," said Fernando, "but I appreciate your going to all that trouble. Incoherent should be self financing and in any case it has its own source of capital."
There was a brief pause as Fernando considered the property and pulled out a calculator. "Incoherent will pay a substantial rent, of course," he said, tapping some keys, "as soon as the conversion is complete. You can reckon on a payoff period of about seven years."
Fernando was quietly pressing buttons on the calculator.
Angela spoke gently, "Mr Fernando, off the record..."
"Please," said the man, "just call me Fernando."
"Fernando, strictly off the record, as a business woman, I know how stressful a move to new premises can be. I can make buying from us a very special experience, as I'm sure you'll appreciate." She was already unbuttoning her jacket.
Paula was taken aback. Did grown men and women really do business like this? Surely everything had to be stated in terms which could be taken back and read to a Board meeting, charted, graphed, added up, corrected for inflation, amortised over a twenty-five year period, calculated as a rate of return on capital employed and finally circulated to the Financial Times in a press release? And then, after the scheme had been approved by the Board, agreed by the stock holders and made known to the partners, the bankers and the newspapers, didn't someone have to tell the staff?
"I have a Brownie uniform," she added, even more quietly.
"Five million euro it is, then."
"Do you have your cheque book with you? Make it out to Chesser Properties Ltd., if you would be so kind."
Fernando wrote the cheque apparently without thinking, as casually as though it had been a note for the milkman.
"Paula," said Angela, giving her the cheque, "I'll see you later, back at the ranch, OK? Drop this off on the way. Shut the door as you leave and don't look back."
Paula left the building, dropped the cheque into the rubbish bin in the street outside, and wandered back to Blair Street. The old couple were still scavenging on the muddy ground, poking under spent bonfires and looking into broken crates and under pallets. Paula sat in the house and waited, trying not to feel cheated, until Angela arrived in the early hours.
Paula said nothing.
"You're quiet," said Angela. "Sorry if it came as a shock, but that's what you have to do sometimes. You must have realised."
Paula still said nothing.
"You're not jealous, bitter and sulking?" said Angela.
"No, I just don't know what to say."
"That's what you have to do sometimes. You use what you have. Didn't you ever notice that the big customers expect gifts in exchange for placing big orders? Luxurious holidays with all expenses paid, freebies at gambling joints and strip clubs, expensive girls. If you don't believe me, you can always ask British Guns, Tanks, Torture Equipment and Chemical Weapons Ltd. I can't afford to send Fernando first class to Las Vegas sharing a suite in the Hilton with the Saint Trinian's girls for a month, so I make do with what I can."
"Did you enjoy it?"
"I've had worse. The boardroom table was all right, we found some cushions, and the carpet was fairly comfortable, really."
"Did he enjoy it?"
"Not relaxed enough. Too concerned with putting on a show."
Angela put her arms around Paula. "Don't judge me. We achieved everything we set out to achieve. We got Fernando to leave Claire alone. He has an income, he'll get his share of it from Aanandita, and neither of them has reason to do Claire any harm now. And we also salvaged Mrs Kee's right to lie next to her husband in the Montagu when his time comes. Look at it that way."
"Thank you," Paula said, "You're right, of course. Will you see him again?"
"Probably I will. He can do something for me, and I can do something for him. And it doesn't hurt, it's quite a pleasant way to spend an afternoon when you come to think of it. If you don't want to know the answer, don't ask the question. I think we should get your make-up off now."
"How did I do?"
"You were beautiful. Really, he was looking at you and drooling, and did you see the look on Sarah's face? One day we'll have to land some collaborative business. Come on, we're together. Let's enjoy the rest of the night."
It was a warm afternoon and the sun was a more intense yellow than usual. Peter and Angela, now in hiking clothes, were standing at the block of three labourer's cottages looking for Foskill.
"I'm over here." Foskill called to them from the fenced-off garden. It was heavily overgrown but it still grew peaches, plums, apples, pears and blackberry canes. "You were right, there's enough to eat here. I had to improvise a filter for water but I've not been hungry or thirsty."
"Our car's been repossessed," said Peter. "Fernando came and collected it."
"Did you tell the police?" asked Foskill automatically.
"It's not worth the bother," Peter replied, "it's only a car."
Angela looked around and said, "This is such a beautiful place on a bright day that you probably don't want to go home."
"When I saw it in the daylight, I had dreams of moving in here, just throwing everything in, repairing the interior and living off the land, keeping ducks, chickens, pigs. Maybe even a cow. But the truth is I'm useless at anything like that. I never could do woodwork, let alone make repairs to a building. I'd need millions of euro to pay all the workers that I'd need."
"Yes," Angela agreed, "and it's one thing to be here on a day like this, but quite another to be in a house in poor condition when it's cold and rainy and there's a howling gale blowing."
"I won't be sorry to get home, to tell the truth," said Foskill.
"It's about eight kilometres. If we want to be back before dark, we shall have to leave now."
"Am I likely to be stopped, if a patrol sees me?"
"You might be, but don't eat your heart out. Their interests change rapidly. Two days ago you were the blackest villain in the Ninth Circle, which is quite an achievement. Today they have something else on their minds. You're probably completely rehabilitated. I wouldn't worry too much."
"And where's Sheba?"
"She's been living with us, scratching a living in the garden most of the time. We found the occasional tin of cat food for her. She's very happy. She misses you, or course."
"Ah, well." Foskill looked around at the overgrown garden, the tumbledown block of cottages, and the distant landscape of rock and shingle. "Time to go home."
Wilson Lane on foot seemed quite different from Wilson Lane in a car. It was a long road without lights or junctions, narrow and winding. Traffic was slow and light, and there was sunshine and a gentle breeze. Peter and Angela left Foskill at his house, where Sheba was already waiting for him. They walked hand in hand through the Posh End looking into the shop windows and reading the neon signs and the posters, none of which Peter had ever seen before. The peace of the children's park and the scavenging grounds felt comfortably familiar after the long walk, and when the two arrived home they found enough potato and tinned stew in the fridge for a pleasant dinner. The electricity went off overnight, but it didn't seem to matter much.
Work started on the Inglis Green Road site within a week. The building was surrounded by fencing and the conversion started. Outside, air compressors and high-pressure cleaning hoses roared. Windows were cleaned, doors were replaced, lights were repaired, roofing tiles were hammered into place. Desks and machinery arrived inside and a small army of electricians, heating and ventilating engineers, network specialists and decorators moved in, preparing the building for its new use. By the time it realised that Incoherent had no rights at all over the buildings it was preparing to inhabit, Edinburgh District Council was reduced to sending letters asking for clarification of the ownership and receiving replies pointing out the number of jobs that would be created and the numbers of tourists who would come to gawk at the new office. While the paint was still drying on the walls, Aanandita's team moved in and began work. They hammered out a handful of approaches to different classes of people. Then they converted the approaches into scripts and programmed computers to dictate every word their workers would say to those telephone subscribers unfortunate enough to feature on their data disks. Then they began the serious job of trying to part them from their money in exchange for Faustian privileges, imaginary financial rewards to be paid at some unspecified time in the future, or just plain nothing at all. The money was rolling in.
Chapter Ten: Postlude
There had been no electricity since yesterday mid morning. Angela was helping Peter find his clothes and get ready to go to the office.
"Peter, are you going to do Hallowe'en on Friday, do you think?" Angela called across the house, which they had been sharing for a year now.
"I asked first."
"No. Been there, done that. Twenty euro for a bus trip and a chance to see the place where I don't live any more. I don't need Hallowe'en, thanks."
"Are you sure?"
"I made my mind up this time last year. I didn't think you'd be trying to persuade me to go. Last year you were trying to persuade me to stay. I think I'm happier where I am. And where you are, of course."
"Don't you feel any need to keep in touch with the place where your life took place?"
"There you go again, trying to send me packing for the night. Claire visits my grave occasionally, leaves flowers, bursts into tears, the full monty. God alone knows what she does it for. The twins can depend on her and they don't worry about me any more. Why assume a sort of ectoplasmic physical form, go back and risk scaring the life out of all three of them and Benji the dog as well? Maybe in a hundred years' time I shall be overwhelmed by the desire to see how the city is turning out. To discover whether they ever finished repairing the High Level Bridge. That sort of thing."
"If you went back, you could fetch me fish and chips wrapped in newspaper."
"The bus driver will fetch anything in exchange for a small bribe, I'm sure. You don't have to send the organ grinder to do the monkey's job."
"Not that tie." Angela was watching Peter pick clothes from the wardrobe. "Wear the club tie, that one there. It goes with the shirt a lot better. Have you got the amber cuff links?"
Peter had settled into a routine at Bitco. It was mundane but it wasn't too stressful. Today was Tuesday, so there would be an all hands meeting in the morning and a meeting of the Incoherent Project in the afternoon. There was also someone visiting before lunch to talk about the low-voltage supply, which had failed twice in the last month and caused a minor heart attack to the revenues team. Peter had twice failed to catch the man's name and hoped he would not be called upon to recall it. In between meetings there were always coffee and email, and if that failed there was work, if he was twitching for something to do.
"Is there time for coffee?" Angela asked, knowing that Peter had to arrive early.
"Yes, of course. It's not going to rain, is it?"
"How would I know? It probably is going to rain. It usually does."
"Past performance is not necessarily a guide to future precipitation."
"That was share-tipping. This is meteorology."
The roads had never been swept. Cycling to Bitco, Peter kept expecting to find torn shreds of ration books, envelopes bearing Victorian postage stamps, Roman coins and stone age axe heads wedged in the cracks. When the rain started there were oil and dust on the asphalt and Peter was a bit nervous about the roadholding of his bicycle. The bicycle was new and still at the early stage of its life, when bits wore out, worked loose, broke, bent or fell off while it and its rider gradually accustomed themselves to one another.
At Bitco, Peter wheeled the bike into Reception and propped it up in a store cupboard, leaving a trail of mud across the floor tiles. With a bit of effort he was even able to close the cupboard door today. On some days he was unable to close the cupboard door however he arranged the bicycle, and some part of it like a mudguard or a handlebar stuck out. Nobody ever touched anything in the cupboard. Sarah could never understand why anyone would ride a bicycle when there was a perfectly good car showroom on Kinnock Drive barely two kilometres away. She said good morning to Peter and, no, there wasn't any post yet.
Peter found his office. The walls and other vertical surfaces were festooned with post-it notes about this or that. Each post-it represented a task which was important to whoever had asked for it but not actually urgent enough to come to the top of the heap and get done. Some of the post-it notes had dried out and fallen to the floor. When a support request reached the stage of falling onto the floor, Peter reckoned, it had died of old age. Every day three or four dried-out tasks ended up in the waste paper basket. There were easily enough repairs and replacements needed to employ an entire brigade of network contractors, electricians and furniture removers, but somehow the Incoherent Project was staggering ahead from milestone to milestone, safeguarding its existence by making a reasonable return on investment at the end of each quarter. Peter picked up today's quota of fallen post-its. A machine with a blank screen, two machines that could communicate with each other but not with any other machine, an email password that didn't seem to work, and a blown fuse. All these messages had been stuck to the wall for at least a month, and therefore all of them had probably been fixed, fixed themselves, or were never wrong in the first place. Do not fret over yesterday's problems, thought Peter as he put the lot of them in the bin, for tomorrow we shall have new ones.
At the all hands meeting Sandy turned up, together with Neil Crab, their system programmer, and Kevin Useless, who had abandoned his career on the railway and sought his fortune working in computers. Peter simply could not understand this career move, and sighed uncomprehendingly every time he thought about it. He often dreamed of abandoning his career in computers and going instead to work on the railway, especially as the local services were still sometimes hauled by steam locomotives. Sarah was obliging and, without Peter asking, fetched some coffee to the room. Kevin made a five minute report on the Annual Suicide Conference to which he had been delegated last week. Peter knew instinctively that the way to deal with invitations to participate in conferences was to delegate them to the most junior member of staff and to accept a five-minute oral report on everything he saw and heard. This seemed like a privilege to the junior member of staff, who was not yet used to business class travel and business class hotels, while actually getting him out from under everyone else's feet for a couple of days. Suicide was holding up nicely. In none of the sessions which Kevin had attended did anyone present any data relating the ownership of expensive insurance policies or the receipt of telephone solicitations with suicide. Neil had been mucking about with a new encryption box which he had blagged for nothing at an exhibition, and he reckoned that they could use it to speed up encrypted throughput for a few hundred dollars per machine. Peter asked if anyone was doing Hallowe'en this year. Neil and Kevin both said they were going to take part in the old tradition and Peter told them to be careful, keep their heads down, and not forget who they were and why they were there. Peter had the figures for the quarter so far and read them out to encourage the troops: this was up 3%, that was up 4% and the other was up 5%. These figures were met with smiles and general approval even though the figures were provisional, small, and very likely to be revised in an unpredictable direction.
The all-hands meeting ended around eleven o'clock. Then Aanandita was on the phone. She had a couple of big potential customers visiting Block One, both of them considering providing work which would be a useful source of both revenue and suicides. A bank needed to advise customers that the money in their accounts had gone missing, and Scottish Equatorial Assurance needed help to ring around its customers frantically telling them that their endowment funds were worth much less than they had agreed they would be and unless they coughed up uncountable thousands of pounds by five o'clock on Friday they could expect to be sleeping on the street.
"Is that legal?"
"Of course. Did you think the law is there to defend the poor against the rich? And supposing it wasn't, what are they going to do to us? Kill us all?"
"Well, all right then, is it ethical?"
"How long have you worked here, Peter? Surely you know better than to ask that."
"As a bit of work, it sounds right up our street," said Peter cheerfully.
"So can you come to the meetings?"
"Sure. I have some Powerpoint that'll knock them senseless. Give me a phone call when you're ready to start and I'll be there."
"Just talk about the technical aspects. How many computers, how many outbound lines. Blind them with science."
Eleven thirty. The specialist electrician arrived to talk about low voltage supply problems. Peter had expected an East London man in denim overalls carrying a toolbox and wearing neon screwdrivers in his breast pockets, but the electrician was a young Brazilian man called Jean Carlos in a pale grey pin-stripe suit. Components had been overheating and there had been voltage fluctuations; lost production was valued at around two thousand euro, so it was (as Peter phrased it) a priority.
"May I put some monitoring equipment in the affected areas? Meanwhile I'll lend you a box of high-current power supplies in case anything actually burns out. Just to tide you over until the crew is free."
"You're very young to be dead," said Peter, meaning it as a compliment.
"A nasty accident on the Tube," replied the electrician.
"Dreadful place," said Peter, realising the gaffe. "I'm sorry. I wish I hadn't asked." He phoned Kevin and asked him to escort Jean Carlos wherever in the building he needed to go.
"Can't Facilities Management escort him?"
"Yes. But this way, you make yourself known around the office, and you gain some knowledge of the installation here. Then next time there's a low-voltage component failure, I can ask you to fix it."
Angela came in at lunch time. Peter hadn't been expecting her.
"I brought pizza."
"Just what I was thinking."
"You weren't. You were thinking about increasing the security on the web services proxy, or something."
"Yes. But after that I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice to have a—' What sort of pizza is it?"
"'Wouldn't it be nice to have a pizza Napoletana.' That's exactly what was on my mind just before you walked in."
"Here you are, anyway, liar. While you're eating, I have some news."
"What sort of news?"
"Fernando brought our car back. He says he was going to return to the land of the living at Hallowe'en and get a new car while he was there."
"Did he say anything about having found any data disks lying about in the offices of any government department?"
"No, he only talked about the car."
"Has he looked after it?"
"It seems in good condition to me. We've got some time. Do you want to come for a ride?"
"Why not? It's turned out a nice day. I don't have to do anything until three o'clock. You drive."
Eating Kimono's Pizza and drinking Virgin Cola from a tin at the same time, Angela managed to drive the car through the Posh End and out along Wilson Lane without choking, crashing or dropping anything.
"Remember this lane?"
"I haven't been here since this time last year," said Peter. "Are the cottages still standing?"
"In front of you, on the left. I thought we might spend a pleasant hour picking fruit in the gardens there. I brought two string bags. Don't worry, I'll drive you back in time for coffee break."
The top of the overgrown gate had come away from the gatepost, so Peter lifted it out of the way and went up to the plum tree.
"These," he said, picking the lowest and darkest and handing it to Angela, "look yummy."
"Who are you?" a voice called from behind them. It was Foskill.
"It is. Can you pick me another one?" asked Angela.
"Oh," continued the voice behind them, "Hello. I didn't expect to see you here."
"We were just celebrating getting our car back. This seemed a nice place to visit. You look as though you're living out here now."
"I am. This is a good place. I left Bitco and threw myself into self sufficiency."
"After what you said about these cottages?"
"I just realised how much I hate computers. I'd survived out here for two nights, or was it three? And I decided to come out here. If I could survive three nights then I could survive four, and each day I would improve my surroundings a little."
"I remember you leaving. That came as a surprise. I remember signing your card."
"Did they promote you into my old job?"
"No, of course not. They brought in a Greek fellow, Archimedes Runatalos, who was a drinking partner of the finance director and was well qualified by many years of previous experience working in a shoe shop and a carpet showroom."
"I'm sorry. You would have been a good section manager. I was pretty uncertain about leaving, but it was for the best. I have one habitable room with everything I need in it, and I have as much time as I want to make the rest of the cottage comfortable. Do take more plums, by the way. Have a look around the other trees as well. You never know which ones have borne some fruit."
"Oh! Sheba!" Peter noticed the cat coming out of the front door to sniff them. "She's grown."
"She's got a couple of kittens now. She's hidden them in the garden somewhere. One of them looks like her, and the other one's pure white with blue eyes."
"Lucky cat," said Angela, "I like kittens."
"Come back in three months and you can probably have one."
"I'd love to."
"There are a lot of derelict houses around here," said Foskill, "if you ever wanted to get out of the city."
"There are derelict houses where we live, too," said Peter, "but people still live in them."
"I mean, if you wanted to repair one and live in it, nobody would stop you."
"Maybe some time we will."
Peter and Angela picked some more fruit for their string bags. Then Angela loaded Peter and half a bag of fruit into the car and they set back off for Bitco.
"I never thought I'd see Foskill happy," Angela observed.
"I'm still getting over it," Peter said, "the life obviously seems to suit him."
Back at Bitco, Sarah handed Peter two items of incoming mail. The first one was a leaflet advertising mobile phones, or credit cards, or something else, and Peter threw it in the rubbish without looking at it. The second one was an invitation to the Annual Conference on Personal Debt Problems, and he put it in his desk drawer intending to forget about it later.
As he settled into his chair, Aanandita phoned. The presentation would be in twenty minutes. Peter picked up a flash drive, copied his Powerpoint slides onto it, and carried it across to Block One. He was in the Castle Room a minute before Aanandita showed the visitors in. There was already a tray of coffee on the boardroom table, as well as some assorted biscuits. The visitors, two middle aged men in dark suits, sat at the table and Aanandita set out tent cards in front of them saying "Henry" and "Iain." With the lights dimmed and a projector shining onto the white wall at the end of the room behind him, Peter went through the slides. So many big and famous customers, so many speakers of English and European languages, so many outbound and inbound lines, workflow technology, client marketing integration, dynamic scripting, real time outcomes reporting, and a magnificent modern headquarters in the suburbs.
Then Aanandita went briefly through the rate card, and Iain said he couldn't understand how they could offer a full service at such a low price. Peter said that the demons of Hell paid them a subsidy. Aanandita glared at him as first Henry and then Iain collapsed helplessly into laughter.
"Any questions?" asked Peter.
"What currency do the demons of Hell pay you in?" asked Henry.
"Euro," said Peter.
They both guffawed again.
"What's your recruitment policy for call centre agents?" asked Iain.
"As we're working in B & Q's old building, we invite them round to our offices and make them improvise a song and dance routine," said Peter.
Iain laughed so hard that he choked on his drink. Aanandita had to rescue his papers from being spattered with coffee and pat his back until he could breathe again. "You should do comedy full time," he said.
Aanandita carried on glaring at Peter. "We make a great team," he mouthed to her silently.
Back in his office, despite not being at all thirsty, Peter grabbed more coffee and went off to sit in the Incoherent Project meeting. Archimedes was in the chair. This was about the third time Peter had seen Archimedes in the course of about a year, and during the whole year Archimedes had not once spoken to him. Peter felt an urge to walk into the man's office one day and ask, "Who am I? Do you recognise me?" just to see how aware Archimedes was of his subordinates. But, as Mark Twain said, there's no fun in doing a battle of wits with an unarmed man.
The Incoherent Project meetings had become formulaic. Originally they had been the only way to record and weave together all the ideas and experience of the staff on the project group. At the end of each meeting, people looked forward to preparing their contribution for the next. Now, the meetings lurched from one routine topic to another, with the same individuals making the same point every month. One machine was not fast or big enough; the latest release of the workflow software needed to be installed; too many staff were answering the phone in German while not enough were available to answer in Russian or Turkish. Finally, Peter reported that the electrician was still in the building, and Peter asked anyone who had experienced problems with the low-voltage circuits to tell Sandy or himself about it. Archimedes asked whether that meant someone would be lifting the blue Royal Seaton Axminster with underlay in his office, and Peter said that probably no-one would need to as the malfunctioning installations were in another part of the building. Fortunately he was able to keep a straight face while replying.
It was a chilly day and beginning to rain as Peter left Bitco for the night and walked back to what he now regarded as his and Angela's home at 11 Blair Street. Peter had absolutely no interest in home improvement, but motivated by what Foskill had achieved, he had taken it upon himself to better the house. He had at least painted the front door and the window frames with a can of what looked like military vehicle paint. He had begun to tidy up the garden a little, replacing a couple of twisted and broken planks in the fence, removing some cattle wire which seemed not to serve any purpose since there were no cattle anywhere in the neighbourhood, replacing the moss in the lawn with grass, and laying out a border of decorative plants. Scavenging for decorative plants had been quite puzzling. The plants he had found were not growing wild, buy lying around in packages, and the only place they could have come from was the gardening section of the old B & Q store on Inglis Green Road. His present job was removing some unpleasantly heavy scrap iron. He was dragging some iron railings which had been lying on the former lawn into the ground around the park, where people scavenged. Doubtless sooner or later some scavenger would come along in the hope of finding some iron railings. There were three sections of railing, each one heavily rusted and thickly coated in peeling dark green paint. Someone, somewhere, must have found the damn things useful, and possibly even attractive. Each section was immensely heavy but he really could not think of anything more convenient to do with them than to lug them out of the garden. His parents told him that iron railings like those used to be common in English cities but that they had been collected as scrap during the second world war. Instead of just being thrown into the North Sea on account of being ugly and useless, presumably, the railings had been transported behind enemy lines, where British parachutists, supplemented by soldiers of Empire and a handful of highly trained fencing erectors were to construct a continuous fence of green iron railings one and a half metres high encircling and containing the Third Reich.
As darkness fell, Peter returned home from the park, having left the last of the sections of railing in an obvious but, he hoped, safe place. Angela was indoors. She offered him some meat pie and brussels she had cooked earlier. Now the electricity was off, but she had kept the food warm under a blanket. It was delicious. They finished it between them, pausing occasionally to muse out loud on whether to accept Foskill's offer of a kitten in three months' time. They both found the idea appealing, although to Angela it did rather smack more of commitment than she might have wanted. At the end of the meal, the house was pitch dark.
The knock on the door came as a complete surprise. Peter went to the door expecting either a double glazing salesman or the Jehovah's Witnesses, and was surprised to see a man in a suit and a Burberry raincoat. It was too dark to see his face.
"I'm Louis Pencil from the Ninth Circle Borough Council," he said, holding up a plastic card which Peter could not read in the dark to introduce himself.
"Pleased to meet you," said Peter, lying.
"I've been asked to bring your new biometric identity card round to you," he went on, pulling one of the distinctively coloured plastic wallet fillers out of his left pocket. "I know you can't read it in the dark, but I looked at it it before I came out of the office and it says 'Peter Lessing Highwater' on it. That is you, isn't it?"
"Yes," said Peter, guessing that if he said he wasn't he would be found out easily. Most of the things you could do to a biometric identity card, such as trying to get a new one when you weren't supposed to, showing somebody else's card instead of your own, using a card after its expiry date, using it to lever the lids off tins, drawing silly faces on it with a magic marker, setting fire to it or simply getting fed up with it and throwing it away were criminal offences, so declining a replacement identity card when instructed to accept it was probably an offence as well. Officers of the Borough Council were not known for their reluctance to call in the DCSOs when any opportunity presented itself. "Yes, that's me."
"Nothing to worry about. As you probably know, though, your biometric card contains information about your former life and the reasons why it was decided not to place your name in the Lamb's Book of Life and instead to send you down here to an eternity of torment and excruciating agony in the company of your mates."
"I didn't know that," said Peter, "but now that I do know it, I feel that it might have been better not to put that information into the public domain for all and sundry to have a good laugh at."
"The point is, Mr Highwater, that as you would expect of any responsible demonically-funded corporation administering the exaction of retribution, the Infernal Admission and Containment Authority reviews all cases periodically. In addition to that, once in every thousand years or so our laws and customs are revised in the light of changes in public taste. Let me give you an example. Two hundred years ago, on 28 October 1808, if you had stolen a sheep, you might well have been given a cursory trial and then hanged, not to mention buried in unconsecrated ground and sent down here by Saint Peter for an eternity of torture afterwards. These days, if you stole a sheep, nobody would bother to instigate any sort of judicial process against you on the grounds that to hang you would constitute an infringement of your ovine rights."
"What about the sheep?"
"Sheep don't really care much about being rustled. Wherever you put them, they just sort of stand about looking daft, eating grass, making 'maaaa' noises and trying to ignore the Coleman's Mint Sauce lorries that drive along the road at the edge of the meadow."
"You know, I've never really seen sheep rustling from the victims' point of view before."
"Now, you were sent to the Ninth Circle of Hell because of your taste for dressing as a woman. This has now ceased to be an offence deemed worthy of eternal punishment and therefore it has been expunged from the record encoded on your identity card. I have here a new identity card for you and," he ferreted in the pocket again, "a letter confirming your standing from the Containment Authority."
"Wow," said Peter, who didn't really give a fig about it.
"In your case," continued Mr Pencil, "since there are no other criminal charges proven against you, you are free to go to heaven whenever you wish to do so. You have the right to change your first name to something a bit more sacred, although I would advise against changing it to Mary."
"Can I change my middle name? I've always hated it."
"Unfortunately, no. Your best bet would be to stop using it and hope that everyone forgets about it."
"Can I drop the middle name, dress en femme and become just plain Helen? Could I be Helen Highwater?"
"Of course. Any lawyer can do the paperwork in five minutes, and it only costs a few euro, so they'll probably take weeks, charge you an arm and a leg, do it wrong and then lose it all. Anyway, if you decide to take advantage of your upgraded celestial citizenship, show the letter at the railway station and you will be given a train ticket. Please make sure you don't try to use your current identity card again, because it's been cancelled."
"I'm grateful to you for telling me all this, but it's come as something of a shock and I haven't taken it all in. I'll certainly give the matter my full attention tomorrow when it's light enough to read the letter."
"Thank you." Mr Pencil turned to leave, but Peter detained him with a further question.
"Tell me," asked Peter, "what with all these outdated transgressions being repealed, have any new sins been enacted?"
"Eating junk food, smoking in public places, and the use of non gender inclusive language. These now appear in Exodus 20 as the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth Commandments. Goodnight!"
Mr Louis Pencil walked off into the night. The night was pitch black and Pencil tripped noisily over the tin of military vehicle paint that Peter had accidentally left standing on the path, splashing camouflage all over his trousers. Closing the door, Peter heard a pained cry of "Oh, piss!"
"Mind the paint!" he called.
"You've been a good boy," said Angela.
"Were you listening to all that?" Peter asked Angela in the darkness of the living room.
"I'm exactly the same boy, and exactly the same girl as well, but they've changed the units of measurement. I am now on the other side of the great gap fixed between good and evil."
"You're promoted to Division One, you mean."
"Are you going to congratulate me for being given early release?"
"You just said you were exactly the same as you were when they sentenced you, and the only reason they've given you early release is that they changed the rules." Angela hesitated before asking the question that was troubling her. "Are you going to leave?"
"No." Peter shook his head. "I'm going to stay here."
"You could go to heaven, where the streets are paved with gold and the electricity stays on."
"I really like being here, with you, struggling to survive. It keeps my brain active. And my heart, it keeps that active as well. I love you, Angela."
"Don't get all sentimental. Just do what you have to."
"Oh, all right. Do you want to get married?"
"You really have taken leave of reality, haven't you?"
"No! We can patch up the house as it gradually falls to bits, we can scavenge for food, we can live on the odd notes and coins that turn up unexpectedly in our trouser pockets and down the back of the sofa. And there's more at stake than just our futures, because we haven't got any. If we're going to adopt a kitten then we really ought to conform to the moral conventions of the society in which we have found ourselves. What is the kitten going to do when she finds out that her owners are not married? On that inevitable, fateful day when she stumbles across her birth certificate?"
"You're off your head."
"I'll tell you. She will go out into the garden, dodging the pool of wet camouflage paint, climb up the drainpipe and shout it from the house tops. Then after that she'll get freezing cold, come back down the drainpipe again, nudge the kitchen door open and ask plaintively for a tin of cat food and a saucer of milk."
"I give up. Reality is wasted on you. Which of us is going to wear the wedding gown?"
"I think, on the whole, you should," Peter replied, "but I'll help you forage for it."
And they lived happily ever after.
Hell and Highwater
Appendix: Infernal English
Infernal English, colloquially known as Hellspeak, was the official language of Hell. Its purpose was to eliminate communication. The language was derived from the Queen's English but had been modified in various ways and codified by Committee of Permissible Linguistic Forms with advice from the Gender Equality Commissariat and the Health and Safety Executive. In most cases the language was modified by propagating the new forms over television and on the internet until everyone began to copy them, but occasionally (for example, the pronoun pair he/she) it was enforced by changes in law and custom. The guiding principles of Infernal English were to irritate speakers of the Queen's English as much as possible by introducing a catalogue of illiteracisms and speaking in the ugliest known accent on Earth. This meant that no listener would want to read or listen to a passage of Infernal English if it could be avoided. It also meant that a speaker could speak at length without conveying anything. Infernal English reduced the number of words in use by making the surviving words less precise. A speaker of Infernal English would be unable to communicate any idea precisely enough for it to be useful, and at the same time literary and scientific texts would be incomprehensible to him or her. For example, "great" and "good" were interchangeable ("this shop sells great hamburgers"), yet a reader who cannot distinguish between them will never understand history or biography. Similarly, "refute" and "deny" were interchangeable, yet if a reader cannot distinguish between "refute" and "deny," then he or she will not understand any reasoned argument.
After the universal adoption of Infernal English, no-one would ever again know the pleasure of reading, say, a Shakespearian play or the King James bible or a Churchillian speech. Thus the greatest achievement of civilisation, the transmission of beautiful and complicated ideas between human beings, was to be extinguished.
The most noticeable differences from the Queen's English were as follows.
- Accent and Modulation:
- The language was spoken in a grating nasal accent resembling the monotonous quacking of a duck, and at enormous volume. Ideally a speaker sitting ten metres from a listener should hurt the listener's eardrums. Voiceless consonants were replaced by their voiced equivalent ("lader" for "later," "liddle" for "little," "dawdah" for "daughter," "wudder" for "water.") The short vowel "o" was replaced by "u" ("cud" for "cot," "gud" for "got.")
- Used to mean "juvenile." See also "strong language."
- The alphabet was extended so that any printable character might be used as a lexical token. As well as the conventional contractions ("can't, won't"), Infernal English contained e.g. "4u" ("for you"), "m8" ("mate"), "ph1" ("phone"), "c@@onia" ("catatonia"), "l&a" ("lamb pasanda."). To the concept of silent letters, which were written down but not pronounced (e.g. the "gh" in "light") was added the concept of implicit letters, which were pronounced but not written down (e.g. the "irl" and the "riend" in "gf".) Double consonants were often singled and single consonants were doubled, e.g. "neccesary." This was accepted provided the total number of letters in the word was roughly right.
- Animate nouns:
- Nouns ending in -man were replaced by equivalent nouns ending in "-person," for instance, "Scotsperson," "fireperson," "talisperson," "cinnaperson." This was held to contribute to gender equality.
- Usually omitted, e.g. "im", "dosent", "cudent."
- The asterisk, often spelled "astrix," was used in Infernal English to denote a lie. For example, "Every Competitor Wins a Free House*" meant "No competitor wins a free house," "Low rate of interest*" meant "High rate of interest," and "My name is Monica*" means "My name is not Monica." So common had it become in the early 21st century to tell lies in print that by 2007 a simple punctuation mark was in use to distinguish untrue statements and spare the reader the burden of using his or her common sense.
- Compound Nouns:
- Any two or more nouns could be written as a compound, e.g. "Scottishbeer," "pencilsharpener."
- Direct Speech:
- The verb "to say" was deprecated. Infernal English used "to be like," or even "2b like." For example, "I was like hello an she was like what r u doin here an i was like im buyin shoes."
- Used interchangeably with "also." ("You can eat this food cold, and you can even heat it up.")
- Exclamation Mark:
- Emphasis was denoted by quintuple exclamation marks and statements in capitals, rather than by the arrangement of text on the page and the use of carefully chosen words.
- Figures of speech:
- While conventional metaphors are often the only way to describe some simple object, action or situation, the creation of new metaphors was deprecated. Metaphors could be freely chained together, e.g. "It's in cold storage on the back burner," "the window of opportunity continues to grow." Metaphors could be used even when the speaker had no idea at all what the metaphor referred to ("orchestrate," "scenario") or was accidentally saying something meaningless, or the opposite of what he or she really meant, e.g. "cut a swathe," "epicentre," "break the mould," "fallout."
- Form of address:
- All titles including "Mr" and "Mrs" were deprecated. Regardless of the speaker, the status of the listener and the nature of the intended conversation, persons were addressed by their first name. Business letters began "Hi," followed by the first name and an exclamation mark.
- Since no inmate of Hell could be described as free, except in the sense "This inmate is free from lice," the word "free" in its political and rhetorical senses could never be used and was up for grabs. Two senses were assigned to it. In one sense it meant "expensive," e.g. "free phone calls for £10 a month." In another, it meant nothing whatever, "this junk food is 91% fat free." The word "give" was used similarly to mean "sell", e.g. "we give you more jam."
- Least, Most:
- These words were used interchangeably. For example, "All sofas at least half price." In a society without telephones, you could not work out the meaning of this phrase without going to the shop and asking. Which was, presumably, why they printed it - except that in an innumerate society, not even the shop staff would have known the answer. Cf. "I'll be here by at least eight o'clock."
- Moods of the Verb:
- The subjunctive was deprecated and replaced by the indicative. ("I suggest that this is withdrawn from sale.") The conditional form of the verb began "would," e.g. "if it would not stop raining, I would have gone into the garden."
- Asterisks replaced certain letters in obscene words, e.g. "F*ck off, you c*nt!" This rendered them inoffensive and socially acceptable.
- In speech, questions began with the word "question." ("Question: Would you like a cup of tea?") Narratives began "So OK like." ("So OK like once upon a time there were three bears.")
- Parts of speech:
- Parts of speech are interchangeable. E.g. "this presentation showcases our products," "you have first to architect the new production line."
- Phrasal verbs:
- The contractions "could've" and "should've" were replaced by "could of" and "should of." ("E should of bin here but e wasent.")
- Regular plurals ended in 's ("cabbage's and king's.")
- Except where a third person singular pronoun referred to a named individual, both male and female third person pronouns were always supplied, for reasons of gender sensitivity. ("A member of the club must pay his or her annual subscription.") The second person pronoun "you" might be spelled "u." The Committee of Permissible Linguistic Forms had yet to rule on such sentences as "Chris forgot his pencil," in which the reader does not know whether Chris is male or female.
- Punctuation was added to sentences in much the same way that pepper was added to stews. In general any punctuation mark indicated a point where the reader should draw breath before continuing. Full stops were often duplicated or triplicated ("I'm worried abt my gf... she dozen tex me") The meaning of this symbol was that the writer had no idea what he was trying to write. Full stops were optionally omitted or replaced by commas. See also Asterisk and Exclamation Mark.
- This sign was used to indicate that the writer was unable to express his or her exact meaning, if he or she had one, but was able to think of two words, neither of which was what he or she meant. For example, "I bought a teapot/kettle," "I went to a bar/hotel," and "and/or."
- Homonyms were used interchangeably, for instance, "their" was interchangeable with "there" and "they're" and "few" with "Phew!" "To" was interchangeable with "too," "two" and "2," e.g. "I saw 2 plecemen their commin after us." The exact meaning of a homonym, if there was one, was inferred from the context. Allonyms (words which sounded completely different) might be treated as homonyms, e.g. "access" and "excess," "an" and "and," "formerly" and "formally," "future" and "feature," "lose" and "loose," "private" and "privet," "where" and "were." Infernal English also adopted "to give a dam," "here, here," "you'll laugh your but off," and other orthographically challenged neophrasms.
- Strong Language:
- This phrase referred to torrents of the most vile obscenities. The term did not refer to well chosen words intended to create a startling and memorable impression on the listener.
- Transitive Verbs:
- Many transitive verbs were deprecated. Instead, Infernal English prescribed an intransitive verb followed by one or more prepositions. For example, the verb "to meet" lost its transitive sense, and meant "to meet" only in the sense of "to gather together." "The committee meets on Fridays." The transitive sense, meaning to encounter another person on purpose, is conveyed by "meet up with:" "I am going to meet up with Christine." Similarly "beat on" ("The thug beat on the old woman.")
This is a map of the Ninth Circle of Hell, so that you can follow the car chase. Click on the small image to see the map full size.