Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Episode 7

Agent India scrolled her way through her email inbox and sighed. If someone could invent a machine that ran on spam, it would be the nearest thing to perpetual motion as the world could get. No, she wasn't embarrassed by her small member not pleasing the ladies. No, she didn't want a genuine submariner's watch, whatever that was. No, she didn't want to lose 10lb of weight in a week, and, no, she definitely didn't want to give her bank details to Mr Liberty Akubuntu, of the Nigerian Law Socity (sic!) so that he could transfer the residue of a late client's estate out of the country and split it with her.

After all that, there wasn't a single email worth reading. She shut down her email program and decided to surf the net instead while she finished off her morning coffee. It would soon be time to go and take over from Agent Carlisle, but first she would take a quick look at what was going on in the world.

She was just taking a slurp of coffee when the web browser finished loading the main page of her favourite news website. Her sudden indrawn gasp of breath when she saw the main news item caused her to splutter and choke on the hot liquid. Drat it, now she had coffee stains on her nice clean t-shirt and would have to change before going out. The news item was all about the devastating fire at Baron Samedi's jazz club, which was shocking enough, but what had caught her eye was what appeared to be a blown-up still image from some CCTV footage. It showed a young man walking towards the camera, a trumpet dangling from his right hand. The face, although rendered somewhat blurry by enlargement was still clearly recognisable as that of the AFO she had tagged the day before. "So, you're a fire-starter, are you?" she murmured as she read the rest of the article. Was there nothing these creatures wouldn't do? It was lucky no-one had been hurt.

Shaking her head, she drained the last of the coffee, dumped the mug in the sink and got changed. In a few minutes she was out the door.

She parked up and got out of the car, narrowly avoiding bashing the driver's door against a telephone pole (for a Spotter, you can be awfully unobservant at times she admonished herself). She walked briskly up to the side of Carlisle's VW and rapped on the window. His head whipped round and by the startled look on his face, it was clear he hadn't noticed her approach (not just me then, she thought). She dangled the brown paper bag containing one of Marvin's Marvellous Muffins in front of his face as he wound down the window. He eagerly snatched it out of her hand and looked inside.

"Sorry," she said as he examined the contents, "they ran out of Chocolate Sprinkle, so I got you Blueberry instead, is that OK?"

"Yeah, fine, fine, thanks," he replied, "Do you want to get in? I can hand over while I'm eating. Did you get me any coffee?"

India mutely handed over the lidded cup. She then went round the car and opened the passenger-side door. Pulling a moue of fastidious disgust, she quickly brushed the littler of candy bar wrappers and empty drink cans off the passenger's seat before climbing in.

"Sorry about the mess," Carlisle mumbled through a mouthful of muffin. He took a swig of coffee and cleared his throat. "Sorry. Anyway, our boy stayed put most of the night, but did something weird at about three-twenty. Have a look at this." He got out the Cicada and pressed the play button. The VW was instantly filled with sad, sweet music, albeit somewhat tinny-sounding on the recorder's little speakers.
"Pretty sweet, no?" said Carlisle, stopping the playback after a few minutes. "It's a pity we can't put it on YouTube or something. You ever see anything like that before?"

India hadn't, but then she hadn't been an OGS agent for much more than a year, so it didn't mean a lot. "So, it didn't go anywhere else or do anything else?" she asked.

"Nope," replied Carlisle, "it stayed put all night, apart from that one hour. I never lost sight of it at any time when it went for its music practice, and the Ladybird showed it staying put in the motel the rest of the time. Like I say: weird."

"Hmm, then I guess I must be wrong," she said.

"You? Wrong? I find that hard to believe!" laughed Carlisle. India blushed: she was aware that she had something of a reputation amongst the other agents as someone did not take correction or contradiction easily. Seeing her red cheeks, Carlisle's grim disappeared abruptly. "Sorry, India, wrong about what, anyway?"

India explained about the fire at the jazz club and her suspicions of Harold. "But," she concluded, "that demon can't have started the fire: it was here all night. Thing is" she continued thoughtfully, "the police are now looking for it. What should we do?"
"Nothing," said Carlisle. "If your demon didn't start the fire – as seems to be the case – then the police not finding him does no harm, and anyway," he paused for a gulp of coffee, "he'll be gone as soon as we can get a squad over here, won't he?"

"True," acknowledged India. "But in the meantime, they'll be wasting resources looking for the man in the CCTV pictures instead of whoever really started the fire."

"That's not really our concern. We can hardly go to the cops and give our boy over there a squeaky clean alibi, now can we?"

"I suppose not," India sighed. That was the trouble with OGS: it wasn't a government agency and had no more authority than any other group of private citizens being, as it was, essentially a religious order.

"What should we do?" asked Harold for the umpteenth time since he and Teatime had seen the news bulletin about the fire. He was pacing up and down the room.

"Oh, do sit still, old bean," grumbled Teatime, "I can't think with you tramping up and down like that." Harold flopped into the one dilapidated armchair the room possessed.

"Now, these humans are pretty stupid," began Teatime, "so it's my bet that even with your picture all over the news they'll not recognise you in the street so long as you don't do anything to draw attention to yourself."

"I could wear a baseball cap or something," suggested Harold, "shade my face. Maybe wear sunglasses?"

"That's good. That's good, "said Teatime approvingly, "Do you happen to have any of those things?".

"Er, no, just that old hat I was collecting money in." admitted Harold. Teatime rolled his eyes.

"And you're sure you can't change your physical appearance, not even a bit?"

"Sorry," apologised Harold, shrugging, "I was never any good at shapeshifting: it takes all my effort keeping up this one appearance."

"If you take my advice, old button," said Teatime, "You'll start practising: your self-preservation may very well depend upon it one day."

"I will," promised Harold, not really meaning a word of it. Shapeshifting was hard!

"Well, for want of anything better," said Teatime, "I think we're just going to have to rely on humanity's staggering capacity to overlook what's in front of their stupid faces. We can maybe get you a hat or something while we're out. Let's go, old sausage, I'm starving."

They found a pleasant-looking diner easily enough and spent a short time perusing the neatly alphabetical menu in the window before going in. Teatime had wanted to ensure there would be pancakes and maple syrup (there was) and proper English Breakfast Tea (there wasn't).

The Lovin' Spoonful diner was obviously one of those places that relied for the most part on the patronage of regular customers rather than passing trade. As Harold and Teatime jangled their way in through the door, all heads turned toward them and all conversation ceased abruptly. The proprietor – Hank, by name - had just been telling one of his regulars, a middle-aged lady, about his impending knee surgery, and didn't look especially pleased by the entrance of a stranger into his cosy domain. For form's sake, however, he plastered on a smile and asked Harold what he could get him.

Harold was just about to order a nice big plate of bacon, eggs, hash browns and all the trimmings for himself (plus pancakes for Teatime) when Hank registered Teatime's presence.

"Oh, I'm sorry, son," he said, not really sounding it. "This is a food service area. No animals allowed in here, you'll have to leave. Hygiene laws, you know?"

"Aw, lighten up Hank," said the erstwhile recipient of the knee surgery story, a rather blowsy middle-aged woman who could most kindly be described as 'handsome'. "He's only a little monkey and I think he's adorable."

So saying, she leaned her face in close to Teatime's and spoke in the sort of simpering high-pitched voice usually reserved for babies, halfwits and small dogs. "Yeshoo are, aren't you? You're adorable, you wittle monkey, you." She started tickling Teatime under the chin.

Harold felt Teatime tense. His companion's little body just radiated outrage at this violation of his personal space and dignity. Now, Harold didn't know if Teatime was preparing to spring at the woman's face, bite her hand or simply run off. Whichever way, it would not be conducive towards the acquisition of breakfast.

"Take it easy, Teatime," he said soothingly, "the nice lady's just being friendly." He turned to her apologetically, "I'm sorry, ma'am, he's not used to the attention of such a pretty lady – it makes him nervous."

Evidently pleased by this piece of outrageous flattery, the woman laughed but quickly drew back her hand.

"He doesn't bite, does he?" she asked.

"No," laughed Harold, "but he can be very sarcastic at times."

Even Hank laughed at that and grudgingly agreed that, yes, OK, the monkey could stay after all, so long as he behaved himself.

Outside, Agent India was watching the diner from the clean and tidy comfort of her own car. Her cell phone beeped.

"India." she said, not removing her gaze from the diner.

"India, this is Control. Joshua squad has become available earlier than expected and has been despatched to your location. They should reach you sometime this evening. Please liaise with Agent Mercury, the squad leader, from this point on."

"Will do, Control." she replied.

"Also," continued Control, "please upload any images you have of the target and we'll distribute them for you."

"Yes, I will, thanks."

Control ended the call. India allowed herself the luxury of a grin. At last!

Through the window of the diner, she could see the AFO eating a hearty breakfast and apparently laughing and chatting with the diner's owner and some of the other customers. Her grin disappeared. Enjoy your meal, Demon, she thought sourly, because you won't be eating many more.

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