*

Ghost Hunters

The lake was magicked by the moon.

The wind tickled the trees; the same wind teased the silvery carpet of watery light. The dinghy emerged from the rippling shadows, its two crew members silent with the breathlessness of expended energy. They had raised their moon-dripping oarblades to allow their previous effort maximum play on conflicting forces … of which a floating corpse was one.

It lay just below the water’s silky sheen like an impression of a full-length oil painting. The face grinned upward, set thus by the moment of death itself. The legs wagged gently to and fro as if it were really swimming. The arms, weighted by the jewellery on the hands, acted as a couple of claw anchors snagging upon the lake’s pearl-pebbled bottom.

“There you are!” hissed the one who sat taller than the other.

“You sure it ain’t an impostor?”

As the moon went under a cloud, the corpse’s body vanished in a conjuring-trick so sudden any chance audience would be momentarily stunned into utter silence.

Both ghosts had indeed failed to identify the corpse as their own erstwhile body; so neither could yet claim they had hunted down one single parent-in-death…

As the Flying Dutchman of a dinghy itself disappeared, the bank’s reedy clumps gathered the everpresent wind like sarcastic elfin laughter.

(published ‘Peeping Tom’ 1993)

———————————

Cobb

The fact that Cobb could arrive in time for the conference was a ludicrous proposition. In any event, by all accounts, Cobb was dead. But ALL accounts are not necessarily ALWAYS correct.

The conference table was peppered with note-pads (some already scribbled on with figures and diagrams), strewn with HB pencils (a number snapped off at the point due to the haste of preparing for this unplanned meeting), and edged with nameplates in no particular order (in fact, there were not enough chairs to go round, either).

Upon the wall, the cinemascopic computer-screen flickered, focused and unfocused, as the keyboard-man, somewhere in the bowels of the building, struggled with the knobs on his console. He was desperately trying to tune into the various intercoms on board the starships scattered across the known and unknown universe (some even, no doubt, blinking out incomprehensible codes from corners of the UNTENABLE universe whereto they had accidentally strayed). He managed to obtain, in his panic of twiddling, only local radio phone-ins, instead.

The delegates arrived outside in Government-requisitioned items of ancient public transport, clutching their umbrellas and briefcases (the latter designed to look like antique supermarket carrier-bags). One individual in particular, Captain Erak, seemed especially keen to appear nonchalant, as he ambled towards the swing-doors of the skyblock He looked upwards as if in the direction of gods or spacemen who had always been the bane of his life. Dragged out of a cosy bed at the unearthly hour on the other side of the world, with no hope of ever regaining such sleep for at least another forty-eight hours, he was not in the best of moods. He waved lackadaisically at the next participant, who happened to arrive behind him in an old-fashioned London omnibus … together with his retinue of personal secretaries and grooms. This was Battlefield Marshall – whose nameplate, following Cobb’s death, should have been at the head of the conference table. It was, in reality, lying unnoticed in the corner under the umbrella stand where it had elegantly slid during one of those arguments that too often beset administrative staff.

‘Hiya, Erak, we’re going to give those blighters a hiding today.’ Marshall twirled the ends of his moustache with the metal hooks screwed into the knuckle joints of his right hand. These were replacements for the fingers which had been chewed off by the controls of his spacecraft in his now legendary campaign against aliens during the Wars of Redress (after a clumsy (or crazy) engineer had left so many misalignments following an overhaul, it had been nigh impossible to tell the craft’s mouth from its belly button).

Erak yawned, opened up his umbrella and entered the skyblock, thus snubbing his superior (for the sake of his own self-satisfaction) but not enough to be noticed by onlookers. This ensured there was no need for retribution on Marshall’s part. Punishments and vengeances were only required for show: hence those wars so many years before.

Battlefield Marshall shrugged and smiled at the security guard (who stood within the central pivot of the swing-doors); servants these days had no wits, he mused, and all the fun had gone out of command.

Still, Captain Erak would need some sort of warning reprimand, for his oversubtle misbehaviour. But, this idea fled from Marshall’s mind (for want of company).

Cobb, himself fresh from disasters at the planetary poles of New Jupiter, limped towards the building on crutches (which seemed to be natural extensions of his bones). He had been granted a taxi (as soon as the relevant authorities had recognised who he was at the spaceport) – this had meant a charade of flagging it down in the Mall, telling the peak-capped driver (who already knew) where to go and, finally tipping him with a few Old Pennies from the pre-Seventies.

More surprised than anybody that he was still alive (after all, who could follow death?), Cobb waited for the swing-doors to be dismantled (much to the annoyance of its surly jobsworth attendant).

As Cobb mooched on the pavement, he reviewed his life (which in fact, had been little more than a series of events in brackets). Since the Disgrace Years (during most of which he was a child), he had stumbled between irrelevancies, earning stripes and titles as he went. He was now so important, so high up the dignified chain of command (with still only a few links left between him and God), he did not even need a title at all (unlike Captain Erak and Battlefield Marshall). Respect was his deathright, and he was determined to wreak it, even if it meant becoming a cyborg or, even, a full-blooded android with next to no human parts or, at the last resort, a real alien. Death had many stages, and Cobb was resolute in his desire to cross them by whatever means of man, metal and monster.

The hum of voices around the table rose and fell with each item of the makeshift agenda. The wall screen had by now entered Phase – and the many dots and dashes were interpreted quite differently by each delegate.

Captain Erak snored loudly, an ear pricked for any sign of the meeting coming to an end. He had nothing to contribute. The universe, to him, was not as it used to be in the good old days. Everything, but everything, had run to seed. Even beyond the known universe, other civilisations were at this very moment suffering their own version of the Disgrace Years (as his own had done during the Eighties and Nineties). Aliens were aliens by name only. He shrugged in his sleep.

Battlefield Marshall peered quizzically at his nameplate, wondering why he couldn’t decipher it. Words were never his strength. He could not clear his throat. The lung dust billowed round the conference room, showing that the oesophagus filters had been too glibly turned off to allow the free flow of debate and brainstorming. He prodded the bent skewer of his index finger up his nose. There was irritating rust up there.

Cobb surveyed the others from the safety of his own self confidence. If nothing else, death could give him that. These other men were a rat race apart, he mused, grown up to accept such shenanigans with a pinch of salt. Worlds elsewhere were being blown to smithereens upon their very whims within whims. At the same time, between the confines of this room. the intrigues, side-treaties, gangings-up, singlings-out and the subtleties of the evertentacular agenda were quite beautiful to witness. The individual sitting on the floor taking the Minutes would no doubt be struggling with the apologies-for-absence, late arrivals, early departures, cross references, minidelegations, sub-committees, tangents and oodles of any-other-business.

But Cobb knew they all missed one thing, one vital POINT which, if they’d known, would have made the whole meeting POINTLESS: each attendee thought that the others were at least halfway sensible and SURELY capable of a modicum of constructive ratiocination and, by natural inverse extrapolation from such a basic over-estimation of human nature, literally condemned each one to a greater stupidity than his fellows.

Another nova glowed upon the screen like a diamond nugget. Obviously, that Battlefield Marshall fellow couldn’t tell his arse from his elbow (or his mouth from his belly-button), as folds of flesh ore oozed from his nostrils. The blighter had pushed the wrong knob on his personal armrest console (or perhaps it was altogether the wrong armrest).

When Cobb had gained a new wisdom from his own death or had indeed become that metal Messiah which had always been lodged within his flesh, he now KNEW that human inefficiency was the sole cause of universal entropy… NOT vice versa, as history and science had always taught.

HIS would be the job to enlighten other humans: that was why he just HAD to beat death at its own game, to persuade the powers-that-be of this core message. Blame was to be apportioned, true, but man was man enough to take it upon his broad shoulders. Man needed to know, so that man in turn could be dealt with appropriately… IF it was not too late.

But then Cobb died properly for once… despite the failure of his earlier dress rehearsal. Well, they always say it will be alright on the night.

The man taking the Minutes, whoever he was, seemed pleased that the humour in the situation had long since disappeared – it had never been appropriate in the first place.

Battlefield Marshall decided to see to the cloakroom arrangements, to ensure that the correct tickets had been pinned to the correct coats. He passed the flowering of umbrellas upon their stand. He felt cleaned out.

Captain Erak still snoozed, but his dreams were at least clearer than his life had ever been. Tiredness no longer mattered.

Cobb slept a new life where Time nor Minutes counted. His shed body was left like a lion’s cage.

The other delegates argued on, oblivious, as the disco lights on the wall screen flickered through the wordsmoke of the conference room. If only one of them would be inquisitive enough to pick up the late Cobb’s own unofficial hastily scribbled Minutes, then at least the huge choking cloud of humanity would end up having a silver lining.

(Published ‘Strange Attractor’ 1992)

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