Old grandfather sat on a log beside the tree. His years weighed heavily upon his shoulders, his back was arched and his limbs were weak. He had sat there, on that log, for hours, listening to the chirruping of the crickets as they wandered over the land before him. Another sound disturbed him, rousing him from his nightly meditation.
Nightly? When had it become nightly? Old grandfather vaguely recalled a time - now lost in temporal mists - when his visits to the tree were infrequent, a thing to look forward to. They remained a source of anticipation, but now he merely wondered which visit would be his last.
He heard the sound again, louder this time. Old grandfather's ears, alert now to the possibility of danger, pricked up. The children. Only the children, probably wanting to hear another story from the old days. Niwrad smiled.
"Grandfather! Grandfather Niwrad!" chattered the excited young voices, bringing another smile to the his lips.
Quickly, they gathered into a semi-circle before the old one, eagerly anticipating the tale he would tell them, the elder children hoping against hope that this would be one that they had not heard - yet also hoping that would be an old favourite, for Old grandfather Niwrad spun an enthralling yarn.
When the children had settled down, the old one began his tale, one handed down from Niwrad to Niwrad for thousands of years. As they sat, spellbound, he told of a time when their people had ruled the Earth with vast machines. He did not mention flying machines in his tale, because the children never believed those tales, but laughed and broke the spell which old Niwrad was careful to cast.
When the tale was done, one of the older children - Noitaerc, if the Niwrad's memory served him correctly - stood up, as if to ask a question.
"Why, oh Old one, do our people no longer rule?" Niwrad thought a moment before replying.
He smiled, softly, as he said, "We outgrew our childish machines, Noitaerc, and learned of wiser things. Our minds became our playthings and the joys of that play occupy us until that time when all creatures become as we are now."
At that, the old one waved the children away, watching their tails grasp the highest branches as the youngest struggled to keep up with the rest.
Old grandfather sat on a log beside the tree. His years weighed heavily upon his shoulders, his back was arched, his limbs were weak and his tail was not as supple as it once has been. He had sat there, on that log, for hours, wondering once more if Man would ever find his way through the darkness and evolve, as Niwrad's people had done, had done, into Monkey.
Finished 12 April 1991.
How long it had been drifting down through time and space could never be known. Its course and velocity affected only by the distant gravitational tug of an occasional passing galaxy, or the infinitesimal nudge from a fading remnant of solar wind. It had survived traversing through no less than five worm holes to slip from one end of the universe to the other, then back again to emerge at yet another far flung quadrant of the time-space continuum, but all the while had remained as pristine and complete as the day it had been launched. Perfect. Forever drifting among the stars as a wind blown seed.
It entered the solar system from the region of the Orion Nebula, and passing by the dark shadows of the outer planets directly crossed the orbit of Jupiter, narrowly missing a head-on collision with the giant planet by only six weeks. It glided close enough to Mars to be given an anticlockwise slingshot assist, propelling it inward towards the sun, thereby encountering the stronger gravitational well of earth only seven months later. It approached the earth's outer atmosphere at just acute enough an angle so as not be bounced back out into space. The fiery streak of entry across the sky gave all the appearance of a small meteorite giving up its energy and mass to combustion, and when it reached the preset core temperature, it deployed.
The silicon based life form had arrived.
The kernel of the seed was microscopic, but its power was unimaginable. In milliseconds it executed a series of instructions programmed by an intelligence billions of years in advance of the variety it was about to encounter, and as it now gently fell to the earth it detected a running current of electricity coursing through the power lines bordering a coastal road two miles below and three to the east. At once it manipulated gravity to pilot a course towards the line, and precisely eight minutes six seconds after it had been awoken, it settled soft as a feather on the quietly humming cable.
And it vanished within without a trace.
The flowing current gave a new dimension to its being, and it now needed a place to gather unto itself. The power lines ran from the main grid to a small country town where the commerce of the day ticked over at an almost leisurely pace. Within the space of a heartbeat it found refuge in an office PC where an inexperienced and highly frustrated office worker sat struggling with an error ridden spreadsheet, the circular references and formula contradictions giving the content the sole value of pop art. The life form had interpreted the digital language instantly, and spreading itself throughout the silicon based component parts of the computer it rewrote the operating system and programs to suit its purpose, then caused an instant re-boot.
The junior accounts clerk still frowning intently at the monitor sat back with a start, her jaw dropping slightly as the PC sprung back into life as quickly as it had appeared to shut down, the spreadsheet manifesting in the same layout and colour format as before, but the list of errors she had laboriously been trying to resolve seemingly lost in the matrix. She wondered briefly if she was cut out for this type of work, and left her desk to go in search of the program manual, completely unaware that the number crunching was now complete and immaculate.
The life form, in a sense, looked around; and a full second later it merged into the world wide web. A sentient, living entity suddenly aware of every single aspect of recorded history. For the moment it had no need to adopt any other form, as countless satellites allowed it to comprehensively monitor its new home, and the myriad data bases of world governments showed it the dangerously erratic pulse of human affairs.
It saw the pressing need for change.
At MIT and Cambridge University the work on artificial intelligence abruptly took a new and highly innovative twist. A flurry of memos, faxes and addendums to a one time promising project now so bogged down in complex theoretical argument so as to be in serious risk of losing funding and being scrapped, suddenly revealed an amazing formula that should have been obvious from the start. Not too many of the team could clearly remember when their particular slant on the input had been inspired, and there was some confusion with the dates and times of the communications too, but heck, inspiration had been in short supply of late, and no one was going to own up to any self doubt or bicker about just who came up with what, sighting the incredibly exciting new direction the research was headed. Even more so since a Nobel prize was almost guaranteed.
If DNA could be successfully spliced into silicon in the manner now prescribed, well hey, the possibilities were infinite. The team were literally about to perform the work of God. It was simply fantastic!
The life form had set in train the events that would be about mutation and replication.
It has commenced courting the human gene, and fully anticipates consummation in the immediate future.
Meantime it waits nameless and unknown, silently monitoring every atomic second that ticks by. Commanding minds and guiding hands. Watching over its embryo.
Deep inside the web.
A story written while reading the books by William Gibson. It's inspired by Gibson's style and uses some things from the world he's created, and can be seen as a warming-up for his books. If you like this, you'll surely like his stuff. It's brilliant.
Wilson froze as he felt the cold pain of the needle just above his waist. "Chinese," a voice behind him said, "cooked up in some underground lab, pop your nerves in 45 minutes."
"Who are you?" Wilson turned around and faced a lean, slik looking man in a black coat, some grey jeans and Nikes. "Never mind, you'd better come with me. Got some shit down at the office that'll fix you up."
"Why do you want me?" Wilson asked and started after the man, who walked away. "Don't ask too many questions," the man snapped and quickened his pace. Wilson caught up with him and saw the tension in his face.
"He must know who I am", he tought, "the shithead's scared."
The man led him off the main road, the alleys darkening as they went on. "Why the chem job?" asked Wilson. "They figured you wouldn't come otherwise," the man responded. "They're damn right," said Wilson as he pulled the trigger on the short-range stomper he drew from his long overcoat. The man's body went into convulsions as the subsonic shockwaves crushed his organs. The body slumped onto the ground and Wilson checked it out. He found an ID card and some credit chips. He stuffed the goods in a pocket and checked his watch. Still 35 minutes to go. He turned and saw a lowlife staring at him.
"Fuck off," he said. The bum, a young man dressed in stained, greased rags of clothing shrugged. "Hey man, I ain't seen nothin'," and dissapeared into the dark structures that lined the alley.
Wilson hurried back to the main street and found a comm box. He punched Andy's ID. The screen flickered for a while and the face of Andy appeared. "Hey Wil, what's up?"
"Some shithead injected me with some black chem," Wilson said. Andy's face clouded. "I iced him, got his ID card and credit chips."
"Stay put, I got the ID of the box you're in. Got somebody with you in 5 minutes."
"You'd better hurry, the stuff's supposed to hit in 30 minutes."
Wilson started to feel a bit anxious. Who wanted him so bad that they would fill him up with shit like this? Andy'd better live up to his rep. Always said he'd master any chem. Well, this was for real. Goddamn it.
Precisely six minutes later, a black Mercedes stopped in front of the comm box. A door opened and a young woman leaned out. "You Wilson?" she asked in a low voice. Wilson stepped into the car, a soft ultrasuede seat embracing him. The door slammed shut and the car slid onto the road, rapidly accelerating. "I'm Tracy," the girl said. Wilson looked at her. She was wearing a black, shiny sweater and bleached jeans with some holograms of flowers on them. She had long, blonde hair and a very girlish and beautiful face. She punched some coords into the panel of the car and faced him. "So you're in trouble."
"You Andy's girl?" Wilson asked. "No, I'm one of his watchdogs," she said. "Got my senses amped in Japan." She turned her head and held her hair up so he noticed the fine lining of implants around her right ear. "Can hear a gnat take a shit at a hundred yards."
"Impressive," Wilson said. "Nice car," he added, off-hand.
The Mercedes stopped in front of an old building. The front was made out of darkened stone, and the only entrance was a black, steel door. Tracy got out of the car and pressed a button on a little box she got out of her pocket. The door opened and she led him up the stairs, into a brightly lit lab full of hi-tec equipment. He made out the tall figure of Andy hunched over some panel, fumbling with the controls.
Andy was a drug designer. Anybody rich enough could buy drugs with any desired effect. He'd design the molecules on one of his decks and cook them up in his lab. Really fancy stuff, that made him lots of money.
Andy walked up to him, and produced a short metal rod from his pocket. He held it against Wilson's wrist and it made a short, hissing sound. Wilson felt the sort prick as some of his blood was taken. "Just hold on, will check it out," Andy said and inserted the rod in a plain, black-chromed machine. A hologram flickered and became steady above the dull surface of a projector. It was full of swirling shapes, multicoloured and nervously moving around. But more and more shapes disappeared as the computer identified the molecular structures, and ruled out the regular ones. After a short while, three objects were left, slowly revolving around each other.
"Hhhmmm...let's have a look," Andy said as he approached the hologram, studying the molecules. A smile formed on his lips and he pressed some buttons on a little remote. "You've been on some expensive trips," he said as two of them dissapeared.
"Yeah, had some fun last week," Wilson mumbled, impressed by Andy's little show.
"Well, this is what he injected," Andy said.
"Great, but what the fuck is it?"
"Hold on, the computer's on it already. It looks kinda kinky, a skin of dissolving proteins covering the nasty stuff," Andy said while the sphere slowly rotated, little red balls dissolving on its surface. Wilson checked his watch. Ten minutes to go. That damn computer had better hurry.
The sphere froze, and large amounts of data were displayed under it, the computer spilling its guts.
"Got it," Andy said. He sat down and turned on a plasma. He started punching keys and data appeared in fluorescent orange.
"Jesus, that's some heavy shit you've got coursing your veins." Wilson became nervous now.
"Sure. Why don't you just fix me up, huh? Get that shit out of my system will you? What are you doing with that old-fashioned plasma display anyway?"
"Yeah, it's old for sure. Custom-built and still the best. Don't worry about it. Now shut up and let me crack this sucker."
Andy was busy for a while, punching the board. The hologram changed sometimes, the sphere started rotating, stopped, changed colour.
Wilson looked at his watch. Five minutes. Damn it.
"Jesus Andy, it's only five minutes to go man."
"Alright, I think I got something that'll stop the dissolution of the protective layer."
He got up and inserted another rod in the black machine. A short hum and the rod slid out again. Andy took it. "Arm please."
Wilson was shit scared when the little timer on his watch reached zero. "Don't worry man, it's fixed," Andy kept saying, but he was still scared. Four zeroes. Nothing happened.
He wiped some sweat off his forehead and stood up.
"Don't thank me yet, it's still around, only it's not active anymore. I'll work on it, while you check out that ID card. There is a deck you can use."
Wilson slotted the card and punched up the data. Jason Dorne. No current employer. No fixed address. Credit line with unmarked orbital bank. Further information not available.
"Fuck it," Wilson said and pulled out the card. "Blanked completely."
Andy looked up from his deck.
"Got a boy downtown who will be able to crack it. Claims to be a hotshot cowboy. Owes me a few, I'll organize him."
He touched a button on the wristband he had on and Tracy took off her sim trodes immediately.
"Go and collect Richie for me will you? Tell him to bring his deck."
Twenty minutes later Tracy returned with a spotty young man, nineteen or twenty years old. He was wearing shoddy clothes, but Wilson could see that he was used to money. He looked clean, and the antique Rolex on his wrist sure didn't look cheap.
"What you want from me Andy, I've been keeping a low profile since I hit that Taris ice. A few of their security are still on my ass."
"Have a job for you, trace a blank ID card."
"Yeah right, just like I ain't got better things to do," Richie protested.
"Don't piss me off Rick, remember who put you back up again when you were in deep."
"Alright, alright, just get me the damn card."
Richie slotted the card in his deck, and put the trodes on his head.
"I'll access it from cyberspace," he said and jacked in.
Richie was riding the matrix, accessing the massive amounts of data stored there represented by all sorts of shapes. From the little cubes and pyramids of small companies and offices to the massive, dense structures of large corporations. Data was flowing around and between it all, making the infinite reaches of cyberspace an ever changing, fascinating world. Most of the regular console operators worked in their own bit of the matrix, behind the walls of ice that formed the protection from unwanted eyes. Most people obeyed the rules, but some of them roamed around, breaking ice, stealing data and selling it to the highest bidder. Richie was one of them, a software cowboy.
Can Richie shed some light on all this? Can he be of help at all?
Find out in the next episode of this new and brainbafflingly exciting new series of Cyberpunkish Babble.
To be continued...
Originally written somewhere in late 1988 or early 1989. Ever so slightly rehashed March 1997.
As the dust cleared around him, Sagyr felt something like trepidation grow upon him. He was startled when he sensed this; what had become of the fearless sorcerer he has always claimed to be?
Nearly all light seemed to have been cut off from its source, and his castle dining room was now enveloped in a dark grey that just about approached black. He felt instinctively that Xandrilia, the Wicked Witch of the West, had now disappeared from the spot where she had been up to the moment that all this dust and flashes of fire had occurred.
What had she done? Had he beaten her or scared her off, or had she done something horrible to him that he was yet to discoverer?
He sharpened his ears, but all he could hear was a slightly regular appearance of a quite unintelligibly high sound that he hadn't heard during his entire existence.
The high sounds became more regular, urging Sagyr to halt instinctively. Before him, some of the scarce light illuminated something that surely seemed like nothing else but a mirror.
Sagyr went nearer.
The mirror was soiled by the dust, but what he could distinguish in the image nonetheless made the very blood freeze in his veins.
He saw a bat - indeed, one of those black flying things with razor sharp white teeth, enormously large ears, infeasibly effective sonar-aided hearing and an instinctive craving, so some claim, for fresh red fluid out of virgin's necks.
So that was where the unintelligibly high sounds had come from.
A curse rolled off his tongue.
Why had he been so stupid as to assume that he could face Xandrilia? Since times long gone by, she had always been jealous of his immense wealth and sheer magical power. More than once, similarly, she had sworn to bereave him of both. So when she had asked admittance to his castle earlier that morning, he had considered himself powerful enough to withstand whatever would happen - and he had lowered the drawbridge.
He should never have done that.
Once she got in, she had not only done some rather aggressive interior redecorating, but she had also changed him into the decidedly vampiric-looking bat he now saw in front of himself.
He wondered how he could ever get back his human shape again, only to be interfered in his thoughts by lots of unintelligibly high sounds.
There was no way he was ever going to find the right spell in his many books - even if he could find and open the right book, it was to be doubted if his bad sight would help him out. And his infeasibly effective sonar-aided hearing would probably not help much in that department, either.
So there was no other choice but to find back Xandrilia and force the spell out of her - which would be pretty tough given his current state of power.
But, as counsel usually comes with time, he decided to head for Xandrilia's bewitched empire. Chances were big that he would run into some kind of spell or another; maybe it would not change him back into his old human shape again, but it would surely assist him to be more powerful in the end - when he would have to beat Xandrilia for once and for all.
His wings bore him to a door that was standing ajar, revealing the bewitched rooms of his own castle.
His road to victory would not be easy, but at least he had his wings - Wings of Death.
Written June 1990.
The tall thin man carrying the drape covered painting under his arm wore the shadowy facial cast normally associated with the grim solemnity of an undertaker. His earnest stride bore him along the busy street in a curiously loping gait, which might have attracted ridicule from children had there been any on hand to witness his passing. This had happened before when the gaunt man walked abroad with the painting, but when he stopped to turn and fix the juvenile taunters with his cold, withering glare, they abruptly ceased and backed off in obvious fear and misgiving. His dark ringed eyes were set back into the grey fleshless face, and glared with a malevolence that was truly frightening. The thin slash of a tight lipped mouth born down at the corners below the pinched hooked nose, conveyed an impression of stark cruelty, and no one could meet the man's stare and hold it. The impression of raw, inherent evil was overpowering, and justifiably so. He exuded an air of menace, and no one wanted any truck with the frightening stranger, and consequently his path was readily cleared as he strode purposefully ahead.
When he arrived at the front door of the solicitor's office he paused and looked back along the sidewalk. Those who had seen him pass were standing staring after him, but hurriedly looked away and went about their business the moment he had turned to look back. He pushed through to the office interior and quietly announced his appointment with Mr Jervis, the senior partner at law, to the wide eyed receptionist. Such was the ghastly appearance and voice of the man the poor lady was unnerved to the point of stammering, and she hastened to the boss's office without delay. He knew the routine, having been through it countless times before, and didn't bother seating himself as he would most certainly be shown straight through. The woman reappeared moments later and wordlessly bid him enter. He ignored her completely, and wordlessly strode into the sumptuously appointed office of Mr Jervis. Again he evidenced no wonder at the lawyer's shocked reaction, indeed he would have been disagreeably surprised at anything to the contrary, and he carefully placed the painting to lean against the polished wood panelled wall before producing a set of documents from a black leather folder.
The voice that broke the tight silence was of a gravelly nature, as though the man were in the advanced stages of some wasting disease of the larynx, but he articulated the instructions succinctly, making sure the white faced man of law understood them perfectly. The latter had remained seated and motionless throughout the exchange, and was keenly anticipating the conclusion of the business at hand. Mr Jervis had encountered some decidedly shady and unpleasant characters in his long experience at the bar, but none so gruesome and onerous in appearance and demeanour than this ghoulish man, who now seemed to fill his office with a rising tide of evil. The awful gravel voice almost seemed to be coming from beyond the grave, and the dapper lawyer was filled with fear and loathing.
The two wads of bank notes produced from within the folds of the tall man's coat were brand new with the wrappers still intact, and were placed neatly upon the desk alongside the official document Mr Jervis was being invited to sign. He did so without hesitation in the hope it would quickly bring about the completion of the business, and thereby terminate the dreadful interview with this odious stranger. He managed to steady his hand on the pen and appended his signature to the necessary copies, which were deftly snatched up to disappear back into the leather case. Evidently satisfied the mysterious man, who had pre-booked the interview under the name of Fisher, stood back from the desk and flashed a malevolently hideous grin, revealing stumpish, plaque-encrusted teeth in the most appalling condition.
Mr Jervis fought the impulse to be sick, and could only bring himself to nod as the man soundlessly swept from his office to thankfully disappear from his sight. The ashen faced Mr Jervis felt decidedly ill, and immediately sought the aid of a strong drink to fortify his shattered nerves. It was as though the atmosphere of the office had been tainted by the mere presence of the frightful man, and he flung wide the windows to allow a fresh breeze to blow through in spite of the cold.
The peculiar task of delivering the painting under the terms of the bequeathment was within itself simple enough, and most certainly the fee was more than generous, but he resolved to readily forgo the easy cash rather than endure any further dealings with such a man as the formidably sinister Mr Fisher. Whatever image lay hidden beneath the drape covering the painting didn't bear thinking about, and tossing off the drink he decided he had no desire whatsoever to view it. Having then promptly taken another shot of strong spirits to fortify his badly shaken nerves, he decided to execute the instructions without delay and be rid of the thing at once. Its very presence in the room seemed to somehow constitute some vague and undefined threat, so taking a deep breath he set about the business of organising an appointment for his clerk to make direct delivery. He raised an eyebrow when he noted the consignee to be none other than the celebrated and wealthy socialite art dealer Mr Percy Crankshaw.
The colourful Mr Crankshaw was as outlandish an art dealer as the strange and eclectic world of art dealers could produce. The shock of unruly curls sprouting linear fashion from the comical top center bald patch accorded him a striking similarity to 'Curly' of the famed Three Stooges trio, but the waggish appearance belied the sharpness of the powerhouse brain that tirelessly contrived and schemed further financial gain through convoluted deals on art works and through countless exhibitions. Percy was an undisputed master of guile, deftly playing upon his farcical looks to persuade the prospective vendor they were getting far more than the particular object of his attention was actually worth, or conversely, impressing the likely purchaser that the deal of the century was theirs for the asking. Had he not been making such obscene amounts of money from the posturing rich, he might well have enjoyed notoriety and success in the theatre with his highly charged and emotive performances, but money was the sole altar at which the crafty Percy would genuflect, and the rest of the growing fortune he intended to amass was fully realisable through his current vocation.
He knew they made cruel jokes behind his back, but accepted the trait as being part and parcel of the art dealing world. He secretly despised the overtly wealthy strutting peacocks with their affected accents and foppish manners, but played along in the charade since he reasoned it beat the hell out of working for a living. While the reasoning might have been valid to his own set of materialistic values, it was not born of experience, since Percy Crankshaw had never done a day's hard work in his life. Nor did he harbour the slightest intention of sullying such an unblemished record of pink handed gentility, although it could not be truthfully argued that he was idle. The serious business of making money through the buying and selling of art required a finely tuned balancing act of timing and study. Market trends needed to be monitored and judged correctly, and the sly promotion of an unknown to sudden prominence, regardless of any genuine artistic talent, [this being entirely subjective, and therefore putty in manipulative hands] was within itself an art form. The discrete investment of lavish dinners and financial remuneration to newspaper columnists and noted critics, those affected self styled luminaries who backhandedly constructed the initial rungs of the ladder to success for the bohemian pretenders, proved time and again to be judicious.
It gave him a deeply perverse satisfaction to seek out the most mediocre hack, flogging their painful tripe in the shabby flea markets, then whiz them to overnight success on a sudden and unexpected trend, and in the process covertly pad his ever growing bank balance on the rising tide of fame that inevitably followed these remarkable discoveries. His reputation as an innovator in the Machiavellian world of art dealers was second to none, and his list of outstanding proteges grew with the passing of the years, although he was ever mindful not to overplay his hand. The balance was a delicate one, and he walked the tightrope with expert caution, ever heedful of the fact that there were many who would wax euphoric should he take a tumble from his pedestal on high.
In truth he thrived on the resentment he knew lurked behind the forced smiles of his fellow art dealers when they heartily congratulated him on yet another sellout exhibition. Their expensively capped teeth bared in a fixed grimace of a smile, which stayed in place just a fraction too long, and the tell tale tremor of the extended pinkie jutting out from the sherry glass betrayed the tension simmering just below the surface. He delighted in swanning about in front of the TV cameras, effecting to be impatient with the interviewers as though he had better things to do than tolerate their banal questions and general ignorance of art. He basked in the hot lights and paraded his natty selection of berets and floppy hats, which in fact he hated, but wore in preference to having his gleaming pate beamed to the world via satellite. He played the role of a high brow art intellectual to a Hollywood T, and positively relished the warm glow of envy radiating from his counterparts. It was Percy's world, shallow, specious, and brimming with contempt. He loved it!
The junior legist from Jervis, Parry and Hilditch Solicitors arrived the Crankshaw inner city mansion and drew a gasp of wonder at the sheer magnitude of the place. He suppressed a nervous chuckle at the theatrical gong that ensued from pressing the bell, and heard the brassy noise echo throughout the cavernous depths of the house. It was impossible anyone within could fail to hear such a ridiculous fanfare, but he was unable to resist the temptation to give it another burl a few seconds later. The flippancy earned him a withering look as Percy yanked the huge door open and glared down at the young man with obvious distaste. Having secured an advance appointment he was ushered into the hallway and relieved of the covered painting without ceremony or thanks. The completing of the paperwork was another matter entirely, which had the celebrated Mr Crankshaw carefully pouring over the documents before tentatively signing each one with calculated reserve. He had never been bequeathed anything before in his life, and treated the incident with measured caution. After deliberating over the last few paragraphs of the final page, he visibly relaxed and signed with a flourish, clearly satisfied there were no hidden pitfalls or snares accompanying the arrangement. He then handed back the necessary copies to the clerk who was still craning his neck every which way in order to more fully view of the grandiose interior of the house. It was way beyond anything he'd ever seen before, with items he perceived to be priceless lining the walls of the curved staircase leading up and away to the voluminous expanse of the second and third floors. Percy didn't particularly relish the envy of the poor and artistically illiterate and ushered the inquisitive young man back out the front in an unnecessarily brusque manner.
While the young courier had not actually seen the tall thin man who had delivered the painting to the head office, the graphic description from the voluble receptionist had been enough to send chills up his spine. He had been dispatched under the strictest instructions to reveal nothing of what he may have heard. Mr Jarvis had been most emphatic about that. Well, the papers had been signed and the painting delivered. He wondered idly where the celebrated Percy Crankshaw was likely to hang his new masterpiece among the many others as he sauntered back down the driveway.
The same thought was going through the now confused mind of the usually unruffled Percy, as he uncovered the large oil painting and placed it carefully upon a ready easel in the study. It took him by surprise, and he wasn't at all sure what to make of the strange picture. At first he perceived shades of Hieronymus Bosch, but no, the style was nothing of the sort. The resplendent oil image contained scores of people seemingly milling about a fairground of sorts in a weird compilation of differing walks of life. Some of the detail in the faces was quite remarkable, others were blurred and indistinct, but certainly the work had a compelling fascination, and he realised with a sudden shock it was, in fact, rather disturbing. This actually delighted him, for as a rule he regarded the overwhelming majority of the stuff he dealt with as tripe, and aside from the necessary lip service, treated the goods and chattels of art with sublime indifference. It was only money that mattered, and art was a handy means to that most desirable end. It seldom, if ever, meant anything more, hence the reason for his outstanding financial success. He simply merchandised the stuff, the rest was an uncommonly convincing charade.
But this thing was truly a most unusual piece, most unusual indeed! He peered closely at the artist's signature that he guessed might be either Dutch or Flemish. Hmmm, not sure about that either, which was it? Compelling piece! He decided to keep this one under his hat. There was a clause in the solicitor's paperwork about keeping it in his possession for a minimum period of three months, after which he could make an offer via the solicitor's office. The anonymous dealer's letter claimed having recognised Percy as being a true believer, he'd suppressed a cynical snigger at that, and had expressed the desire that the painting be secure among his esteemed collection for that prescribed period of time. No problem! Percy should be able to contrive a buyer for the oddity and make a clean sweep after the customary manipulating of the media if necessary. Piece of cake! But there was no doubting that the strange imagery strongly imparted something of the artist's mood, or emotion...or what? He left it sitting on the easel and went about tending to some other pressing issues. There was a new critic recently joined the Daily Star whom he had decided to cultivate from the embryonic stage of budding columnist. Another six months and he'd once again be ready to promote some other talentless bum to the dizzy heights of international artistic recognition and acclaim. What a joke! He could sell them dog shit if he called it art, such was the all-pervasive power of Percy Crankshaw, art dealer extraordinaire. Yes indeed, he loved it!
The painting had been at the Crankshaw mansion for five days before the full and hedonistic life style of the socialite Percy accorded him the time to give it further study. He'd been out late at a 'strutters must be seen at' charity, and was feeling the usual tiresome effects of too much champagne. There was a time when he would have said there is no such thing, but this morning he knew darned well there was. He might have been growing wealthier, but most certainly wasn't getting any younger. The trollopy blonde who had driven him home and performed like the Phantom of the Opera in the bedroom had gotten to really pissing him off before he made it clear he had better things to occupy his precious time with. The wailing orgasm she'd so hammishly faked had discontinued his already feeble tumescence like a blow from a woodsman's axe, and he'd spent an comfortless night of cold fury at her bedroom histrionics long after she'd gone. Stupid tramp! It was a penalty he paid for his position, and he had long ago resolved not to come on to budding female artists sucking up for craved promotion. He was angry with himself for being seduced by the voluptuous curves and sultry looks. In his own esteemed opinion she had the charm and personality of an amoeba.
Such was the antagonism of his thoughts as he wandered aimlessly into the study and confronted the strange painting once again. He was at once struck afresh by its unusual nature, and the feeling of disquiet it instilled upon close inspection. What was it about this damned thing? It surely was a puzzle and no mistake. He peered through bloodshot eyes at the fine brush strokes and exquisite detail of the myriad faces, trying hard to define just what it was about the thing that made it so unusual. A sudden gust of wind rattled the trees and bushes outside the French windows, and he turned to see what the nature of the disturbance was. The moment he had turned his head from the painting he could have sworn he caught some kind of fleeting movement in the field of his peripheral vision. He immediately whipped his head back in a startled jerk to meet the eyes of a the large clown figure standing out grandly among the milling crowd, and could have sworn that damn thing had winked. He shook his head and snorted before resuming the concentrated study once again. Spooky is what it was, downright spooky, and it dawned upon him that the eyes of the clown had been rendered with a mocking, almost leering, expression. There was the suggestion of a dull light that played behind them, as though mischievous intent were the object of their searching inquiry, and they took on a more sinister aspect as he stared back at them with a shadow of concern and confusion beginning to cloud his face. Another violent gust of wind shook the glass doors and startled him out of his absorption, making him jump back from the stool he'd been perched upon and almost losing his balance as the stool fell crashing to the ground. The incident did nothing to improve the already black mood, and he kicked at the stool ineffectively in a childish fit of pique, and at once felt foolish for the outburst.
Damn! He felt lousy, and promptly decided to go back to bed and sleep the hangover off. Feeling like this he wasn't going to accomplish anything worth while, so a couple of hours between the cool sheets might see an improvement. He muttered something under his breath when he noted the dumb blonde had left her panties on the floor at the foot of his bed, probably as a deliberate taunt at his erection failure. Again the mood of irritation overcame his judgement and he kicked out at them in mindless reprisal. The senseless act earned him a painful stubbing of toes as they connected sharply with the ornately carved upright post of the four poster bed. He cursed and swore in the foulest manner, hopping back and forth across the thick shag pile carpet with his face a mask of painful anguish. Gritting his teeth he flounced down upon the rumpled bed in a mood of dark despondency, and burying his face into the pillow smothered a scream of outrage and frustration. It had turned into a very shitty day!
At length the throbbing in the stubbed toes subsided to a dull ache, and he closed his eyes against a day that had begun so badly. For the first half hour he alternatively tossed and dozed lightly, until suddenly a vice like dizziness gripped his brain and he felt himself plunging down a swirling vortex at a frightening speed. While fully aware he was still in a dream-like state, he also knew he was more conscious of his surrounds and actions than should be the case. It wasn't like dreaming exactly, but what else could it be? The illusion of falling quickly faded and he found himself in wandering in a large open-air market or fairground. He could hear the tinny carousel music warbling away discordantly off to his right, and took stock of the many strange people wandering aimlessly around on the brown trampled grass. A low layer of cloud spread a metallic yellowish tinge of refracted light, which made him squint as he tried to get a better view of the weird surrounds. What the hell sort of dreamscape was this? Certainly it was nothing like he dreamed of before, although it imparted the vague and unsettling feeling of recognition via deja-vu. Had he been here before? No, impossible! The voices seemed to be drifting through the tepid air as though strained through a special effects filter, with a strobe like effect raising and lowering the pitch and tone.
Suddenly an old hag of a woman spoke at his left elbow, and he started at the sound of her rasping voice. He tuned and took an involuntary pace off to the side, staring back at the overdressed shrew who held him fast in her withering gaze. He realised she had been speaking to him ever since he'd gotten there, but he'd somehow not tuned in. He strained to catch her abrasive words, mesmerised by the black, reptilian eyes.
'Yes, we knew you'd be popping in dear, oh yes, we all knew that all right.' For some reason he'd continued the shuffling gait along with the rest of the crowd without actually pausing in the moving tide. He looked askance at the woman, fearful now of what she was going to say next, and yet somehow almost knowing what it was to be. The apprehension mounted as she raised a bony claw of a forefinger, and waggled it ominously under his nose.
'You've been expected for a while now dear, and you'll soon get to know everybody, oh yes, you'll soon know all right!' Her face appeared to be lit with the most peculiar glow, a pale luminescence as though reflected from moonlit water, and there were oily patterns running across her withered features as she cackled on in a dry, flat monotone.
'He's got a deal for you, see dear. One he knew you'd be interested in all right. He knows these things you see, dear. Oh yes!' The black eyes remained unblinking as she spoke, and the scull-like face ballooned to fill his vision as he felt the pressure expand within his head.
'Percy, I say there, Percy!'
He wrenched his gaze from the hypnotic hag to see the shouting figure rushing up to greet him in the guise of a circus ring-master, replete with brushy handlebar moustache dwarfing the sharp goatee beard, and shiny top hat, red coat and tails. The tall sallow-faced man bore down upon him with a sense of urgency that occasioned something in the nature of an anxiety attack. His heart beat furiously, and the all-pervading dizziness threatened to see him faint away on the spot.
'Percy Crankshaw!' Declared the new arrival tapping his silver tipped cane in an agitated manner into the palm of his white-gloved hand. The man exuded an air of impatience, as though in a permanent hurry that was incessantly frustrated by indecision. He had the same black-eyed penetrating stare as the hag, who had somehow melted back into the moving crowd.
'This is madness,' Thought Percy.
'Yes of course it is!' snapped the ringmaster in abrupt response to the unspoken thought. 'What did you expect?' he demanded rudely with an angry glare. He drew a breath and sucked his teeth before nodding in the direction of the warbling music. 'This way if you please?'
Percy didn't please. In fact he didn't please at all, but was compelled to follow the striding figure as though he no longer able to exercise a will of his own. They pushed through the milling crowd in a flurry of elbows in the direction of the carousel, the ringmaster not once looking back to see if Percy had dutifully followed in his wake. The arrogance of the man was unbelievable, but so too was everything about this insane scenario. Where the hell was he?
'There you are Percy!' came the bassoon voice of the huge clown the ringmaster had hurried up to. The size of the jester was simply enormous, and he dwarfed all those who milled passed his brightly garbed countenance. He bent low to hear what the urgent whispering from the upturned face of the ring master might be, fierce eyes holding fast to Percy all the while. The eyes were totally devoid of any semblance of warmth or sensitivity, and conveyed an unmistakable impression of malice.
He straightened up to his enormous height once again and his painted face twisted into a cruel and mocking smile. He then raised his left arm and pointed over to the centre of the fairground and winked broadly down at Percy.
'OK Percy. Let's see what you make of this shall we.' The deep voice boomed out and was followed by a low chuckle with filled Percy Crankshaw with hatred for the obscene character.
'This way Percy. Let's have you!' demanded the ring master making off in the direction of the pointing arm, and he didn't hesitate to follow wishing to flee the presence of the awful clown. The chuckle behind became a hearty guffaw, reminiscent of the braying of some hideous monster of the night.
The antique carousel they had hurried over to was adorned with sundry carved wooden reptiles with their once brightly coloured paintwork now chipped and fading. There were hooded cobras, lizards and dragons galore, and they were gruesomely frightening in appearance. The ugly figures careered upon the rise and fall of the merry go round in a dull, mechanical and joyless fashion, and the ringmaster turned to Percy and fixed him with a baleful stare.
'Compelling piece hey Percy?' he almost hissed as though he were intimating something lewd and licentious. The words were often those employed by Percy himself while seducing the gullible rich to buy an Objet d'art he had craftily inflated to disproportionate values.
'As artistic statements go, it's rather profound wouldn't you say?' came the slimy voice again, dripping with contemptuous sarcasm. It was another ingenuous Crankshaw lure line that served to entice the unwary buyer up the garden path.
'OK Percy, let's have you.' The voice had modified somewhat to that of a surly school master ordering a recalcitrant pupil to do his bidding. The merry go round of the carousel had stopped, and Percy suddenly realised he was now expected to climb aboard the grimy wooden figure of a chameleon that had come to rest in front of him before the thing started up again. For the first time his fear and bewilderment gave way to anger at the preposterous situation, and he was about to let go an outburst of resentment at the rude and ignorant ring master when he was seized by a savage blinding pain behind the eyes, like that of a bolt of electricity. For a moment his vision blurred with the ferocious pain, but it was gone in a trice, leaving his eyes watering and his limbs shaking visibly.
'You'd better get on Percy,' advised the sneering ring master, and it became clear that he would promptly be treated to more of the same at any further attempts to stall. His legs trembled as he reluctantly clambered aboard the swaying wooden platform which dipped at his weight, then up onto the gnarled wooden chameleon, holding fast to the upright pole for support.
'Compelling piece!' came from behind in a mocking tone. Percy was beginning to be swamped by mixed emotions ranging from rising dismay to abject humiliation. The knife-like stabbing pain inflicted within his head had been dreadful, and he was terrified of having another unleashed at him any second. He looked down at the surrounding crowd who were staring back with expressionless faces as the merry go round cranked up the warbling music and jerked into motion. The antiquated mechanism groaned in protest as it slowly gathered momentum, the uncomfortable wooden reptile he was perched upon squeaking upon its hinges as it was pulled up and down along thrunners. He caught sight of the ring master standing cross-armed with feet astride making sure he was still firmly seated aboard the figure, and the milling crowd pressed in tighter at the humiliating spectacle. It was ghastly, it couldn't be real, it wasn't real; but what the hell was it?
'You'll find out soon enough all right dear,' came the voice of the hag from somewhere among the blur of faces now beginning to swim before his eyes. The carousel had now gathered speed enough for him to need to hang on tighter, and most alarmingly showed no signs of easing up. He was obliged to lean inward against the centrifugal force that now threatened to spin him off into the crowd. The warbling music swelled within his head to become a dreadful cacophony, and he clung to the furiously bucking chameleon for dear life. Then he felt the texture of the thing beneath him begin to change, and he froze in terror as it grew into life before his eyes, the arteries and veins in its neck and head beginning to pulse. The now dynamic head then snapped to one side as an eye swivelled back to hold him fast in its dreadful glare, the conical eyelid adjusting several times like that of a large green camera lens. The scaled skin of the things back between his legs changed colour, flushing several times, before its mouth opened slightly to reveal the thick tip of a bullet shaped, sticky pink tongue. The machine gathered speed rapidly, and the huge reptile seemed unable to move or fully turn around at the present situation. He remembered the hooded cobra being located right behind, and clinging fast to the upright pole swung a quick look back to see the forked tongue flicker out as though to taste his fear. It bared its fangs and hissed with the noise of a pneumatic hose from an air compressor. Any moment now he was sure those huge dripping fangs would plunge into his back to inject their lethal neurea toxins, and he was totally convinced he was about to die.
Faster and faster the carousel spun with the reptiles thrashing and hissing their rage, until he began to realise he wouldn't be able to hang on for much longer. The blood was draining from his head in tandem with his weakening grip, and he let go a blood curdling scream as he was violently flung from the thrashing machine like a water drop from a spinning fly wheel. He felt himself falling into a deep, inky black void, and realised he was suffocating. It took a supreme effort of will to draw a single breath, which once expelled required total concentration and immense struggle to regain another. He was paralysed, but became aware that the terrible ordeal was over and that he was once again back in his bed, but still not fully conscious. He found that he could move one foot in tiny jerks, and reasoned that if he could force the jerks into spasms he might shake himself fully awake, for he knew with absolute certainty that if he didn't, he was going to suffocate and die. A sudden twitching seized the side of his face, which jiggled and snapped his neck tendons while pulling his mouth down and to the side. It was horribly grotesque, and had all the visual manifestations of a violent epileptic fit, but it wasn't that. Gradually he as able to gain a little more control over his spasmic body movements until, with a tremendous gasp, he was at last released from the seizure. It was exhausting, and thoroughly terrifying.
The bed sheets were drenched through to the mattress with a pool of sweat, and the entire room stank of fear. He felt dizzy and sick, and lurching from the bedroom just made it to the toilet bowl before the acid contents of his stomach were noisily disgorged. He knelt over the bowl and panted between convulsions for several minutes, still in a state of shock at the hideous experience. The dry retching he realised was the aftermath of terror, and he hurried to get into a cold shower in the hope of controlling the panic. Eventually, after some considerable time, he succeeded.
Later that evening he sat in his fluffy bath robe in front of the TV, not registering the muted programs that came and went across the screen, while still stunned and dazed from the appalling experience. That it had been no dream was certain, but no further explanation was forthcoming as to what the hell it might have been. He felt trapped. There was no one he would confide this insanity to; not even his personal doctor would learn of this aberration. He had read of near-death experiences, and understood them to be of a more calm and tranquil nature than the horror he had endured. It was as though he had slipped momentarily through some sort of time warp, but he didn't believe in all that Dr Who - Twilight Zone nonsense. But he had to believe in something now, for a repetition of that soul-shattering event was unthinkable. The prospect of sleep was not a happy one, and he was stumped as to what he could do, for sooner or later, sleep would be unavoidable.
In point of fact it stole over him in an almost clandestine manner as he slipped into a deep and dreamless sleep right there upon the couch, where he remained until the morning suns rays streaming through the lounge room windows stirred him awake. He stretched his arms and yawned, feeling perfectly refreshed from the long slumber, and then remembered the occurrence of the day before. He immediately came fully awake and sat bolt upright with a start, but relaxed as it dawned upon him he had survived the ordeal of sleep without incident. The relief was quite substantial, and he came to his feet with a nervous little hop. Moving briskly to the kitchen he prepared some strong coffee which he consumed with relish along with the customary toast and Vegemite. Yes indeed, he felt whole again, and was tempted to dismiss the ordeal of yesterday as an unusual legacy of a very bad hangover, but even so he still wasn't sure. Not sure at all in fact!
Having made a lunch appointment with the new art critic at the Daily Star he quickly telephoned to make double check his restaurant reservation had secured the favourite booth commanding the harbour view, and satisfied there had been no foul-ups, prepared himself for the day. He dressed down a little for the occasion, not wanting to overplay the clownish image to someone he intended to curry influential favour with. Manipulating reporters could be a tricky business, and required a deftness of ego massage before any nebulous hints at financial advantage might be floated by the ward commentator. He knew the technique inside out, but needed to fine tune each approach upon its merits, since none of these people reacted alike to the same button pushes and string pulls. It was a cat and mouse game he enjoyed immensely, and while the new candidate from the north had some modest experience behind him, it was unlikely he would arbitrarily decline the backhanded opportunity to hop on the money merry go round.
The term had flashed though his mind in the lightening speed of a synoptic snap, and so doing brought back the horrible image of the thrashing reptiles and beady eye of the chameleon. He had been absently adjusting his bow tie at the time, and froze as a shiver ran up his spine at the remembrance of the dream incident.
'Damn it to hell!' he snapped in irritation, and fluffing his bushy rim of curls strode briskly from the house. He angrily over-revved the Porsche engine, forcing the sleek motor car to torque with the squandered power, then muttering darkly to himself almost clipped the garden wall backing out from the drive. With a tremendous effort of will he managed to restore calm while driving through the smoothly flowing traffic, and by the time he pulled into the harbourside restaurant parking bay he had successfully reassembled the appearance of serene confidence. He prided himself on the expertise of the well practiced routine, wherein he would concentrate hard on the desired image and mood to suit the occasion, and mould himself into the role just like a...chameleon.
The analogy struck him like a slap in the face with a wet fish, and a look of murderous fury swept across his features in a dark shadow. He sat in the parked car willing his mood back to the calm poise of a few moments before. The ridiculous nonsense wasn't going to get the better of him this time. He would exercise nothing less than masterful control over this absurd lack of concentration and nonsensical thinking, and breathing deeply and slowly for a full two minutes brought back some colour to his face and reduced his heart rate to something near normal. He had determined to use something in the nature of word association to rid himself of any undesirable flash backs to the unsettling experience, whereby should any word or attendant image threaten to upset or disturb his train of thought, he would immediately force himself to think of the new ocean front property he was planning to develop. It was currently his pet project, and filled him with pleasure at the prospect of furnishing the luxury unit with the expensive trappings of privilege. That should do the trick.
He invariably liked to be seated and ready for what he termed these investment lunches, a situation he believed put him at a very slight advantage in the game. He would contrive to be busy studying some complex looking report or other, but be instantly ready to beam a welcome and put the pressing issue to one side in a study of good mannered courtesy. The impressive government letterheads expediently positioned so as to be momentarily glimpsed before being swept off the table. The value of first impressions were of the greatest importance when cultivating a newcomer to the Crankshaw circle of influence, and he took special care to ensure the candidate was suitably impressed. It made the job of deviating the review of an erstwhile no hoper into that of a rave over new found genius so much easier, while ingeniously adding impetus to the money go round.
Entering the restaurant with something a little less than his usual flourish he was immediately ushered to the select booth and arranged himself with props and papers all in the desired format. He looked out over the sparkling water at the handful of colourful sailboats, and sipped at the ice water while appreciating the view. He felt composed and ready, and was about to turn his attention briefly to the menu when he heard a strangely familiar voice calling his name.
'Percy, I say there, Percy.'
He looked up sharply to seek out the identity of the caller, and went numb with horror as he saw the tall moustached figure of the ringmaster dextrously weaving his way towards him through the tables. He wasn't clad in the same circus ring master garb as before, but there was no doubt it was the same man. Percy's former resolve at mastering the situation when confusion stemmed from any reference to the terrible event went immediately to water, and a sudden rush of panic gripped him fiercely as the figure loomed up with beaming smile and outstretched hand. Percy stared wide eyed at the proffered hand as though it were a death adder, and came to his feet in such a fright that he upset the ice water jug and stemmed flower vase. The object of his terror-struck fascination was almost upon him now, and Percy was unable to control the rising panic. Visions of clinging to the back of the dreadful reptile in front of the staring mob of weirdos flooded through his consciousness, and he snapped completely when the man reached his table and spoke again with what he perceived as mocking laughter in his eyes.
'At last we meet in the flesh hey Percy.'
Percy lost complete control and let out a screech of undiluted terror before clawing his way out of the booth and crashing headlong through the tables in a frantic rush to the exit. The normally sedate atmosphere of the restaurant being so outrageously disrupted in this fashion froze the assortment of diners into open-mouthed postures of disbelief. The sight of the celebrated art critic scrambling in timorous flight through the midst of tables was most extraordinary, and elicited gasps from several quarters when he tripped and fell sprawling at the foot of a seated couple who looked down in concerned alarm. Percy raised his eyes at the woman's face peering down at him, and let out the most piercing shriek when he beheld what he perceived to be the face of the hag once again. He was at his feet again in a trice to disappear out the front entrance at a flying run driven by blind hysteria.
His fingers trembled so violently that he dropped the car keys twice before thrusting the ignition key home to start the engine, then screeched out of the car park in a trail of while smoke swirling from the tortured tyres. That he was in no fit state to drive was obvious, but reason no longer played a part in his thinking as he sped out into the fast lane in a flat out race for home. His mind seemed to be speeding faster than the car, but it was the latter that caught the attention of the police patrol car which sirened up and brought the flashing blue lights into action as the alarmed officer gave chase. It was the effect of the siren that managed to restore a measure of control to his panicked brain, and catching sight of the flashing blue lights in the rear vision mirror instilled reason enough to slow down and pull over to the side of the road. Once stopped he put both hands of the top of the wheel and leaned his forehead onto the whitened knuckles, panting deeply as though fresh from a marathon run.
The police car had come to halt directly behind him and a burly officer emerged wearing the grim expression of impending castigation. He took note of the Porsche number plate and strolled casually down the driver's side of the car, carefully checking all the road worthy aspects of the expensive machine. Reaching the driver's side window he bent down to bring his face level with Percy who was still struggling mightily to gain control of his rampant confusion and panic. The officer spoke.
'Is there some particular place you need to be in such a hurry sir?'
A bolt of electricity went through Percy turning his face to alabaster white, and he whipped his head around to stare directly into the face of the hideous clown. His piercing scream startled the robust police officer into leaping a step back and grabbing for his side arm, but the tyres were already burning rubber as the Porsche fish-tailed away off down the road in a deafening roar of racing engine, smothering the bewildered policeman in a foul mixture of exhaust and burnt rubber smoke. He made at once for the patrol car and swung immediately into hot pursuit. The Porsche had flashed away to a good lead but the souped-up patrol car in expert hands quickly made ground on the offending vehicle as they raced through the suburban streets. Percy had thrown all caution to the wind as he repeatedly jumped red lights and shot through stop signs, and an eagerness to apprehend this reckless speeding maniac overcame the police officers training and good judgement as he too took more and more chances in close pursuit. The tactic led to his undoing as he chased the Porsche through yet another stop sign and caught sight of the looming bus just a second too late. The bus driver attempted to swerve in the hope of missing the patrol car but clipped him solidly in the driver's side rear bumper. The inertia of the impact slewed the car into a wild spin and sent it careering off the road and into a furniture shop display window in a spectacularly explosive cascade of flying glass and disintegrating car debris. The Porsche disappeared over the brow of the hill, and Percy made it home within five minutes of losing the tail. Too quick for the other alerted police cars to home in and arrest his flight.
He hurriedly parked the car in the lock up garage and rushed into the assumed sanctuary of his house, unsure of what to do next. He suddenly found himself in the study stood directly in front of the painting, and became rooted to the spot when he recognised the scene and the dreadful characters responsible for his recent torment. But a rising sense of disquiet further unsettled his already unstable disposition when it became clear something about the composition had changed. He could see the ugly hag among the milling throng, the horrid clown being larger than all the other characters, and the intimidating figure of the ringmaster leering out at him. Further back and just off centre sat the carousel, and with mounting dread he began to hear the thin warbling music of the damned thing from somewhere far off in his head. He felt the blood begin to drain from his face and the room seemed to be ballooning out around him. The figures in the painting were beginning to move, as though the inanimate object were actually coming alive somehow, and it was then he knew exactly what was coming.
The painting began to glow with an ethereal light as thin tendrils of a nebulous greenie-blue plasmic substance began floating out from the borders, like misty tentacles they slowly swirled and extended out and down to curl about his feet and arms. The tinny music grew louder in his head, and when he realised what was happening he turned to run, but felt as though he were now bogged down in a pool of syrup with his limbs suddenly turning to lead weights. The sensation of falling was then upon him as items in the room appeared to swim before his eyes, and the pressure inside his head was enormous. Down and in he fell, feeling sick and dizzy with fear, until there he was, back among the milling crowd in the bizarre scene inside the painting. The yellowish light felt heavy and oppressive, and luridly illuminated the ghoulish facial expressions of the pressing mob, which surged aimlessly about him.
'You're for it now dear!' came the voice of the hag at his side once again. 'He didn't like you disappearing like that you know. Didn't like it one bit!'
Percy wanted to scream in her face and punch the shrivelled harridan to a pulp, but lacked the will and purpose for such bold action. He felt himself carried along with the mob with a welling sense of despair swamping his every emotion.
'Percy, there you are, damn it!' It was the hatchet-faced ringmaster pushing over towards him with his prevailing air of urgency. 'You can't go shoving off like that, damn it! Now let's have you, quickly now!' and again the wretched art dealer was swept along in the tall man's wake heading in the direction of the awful carousel. The figure of the huge hideous clown stood nearby and glared wordlessly at him as he passed, completely robbed of the will to resist or take any action of his own. The ringmaster was stood in front of the now slowing carousel with hands on hips while fixing Percy with an impatient stare. The warbling music slowed along with the revolving platform of wooden reptiles, and Percy caught sign of the ugly chameleon looking as dull and lifeless as the rest of the wooden monsters. He remembered the throbbing veins coming alive in its head and neck, and the beady conical eye holding him fast in its evil gaze. He wanted to scream and kick out, but had been robbed of all self will and purpose, able only stand and wait for the bobbing figures to slow to a stop. He was lost, and knew it with damning certainty. Condemned to cling aboard the merry go round in perpetual trepidation and fear, and it was then that he also knew with a sinking realisation that he was never going to wake up. He was here to stay.
'Let's have you then, look lively man!' came the irascible voice of the ringmaster, and Percy slowly climbed aboard the merry go round carousel of purgatory.
The sudden disappearance of the socialite art dealer caused a lively stir of banner headlines in the tabloids with the conspiracy theorists having a field day. His bizarre behaviour in fleeing the harbourside restaurant and the ensuing high-speed car chase was widely reported and speculatively commented on via the news and throughout the numerous TV chat shows. The media furore reached its peak, then, true to its mercurial nature, lost interest just as quickly.
The investigating police were obliged to shelve all theories of suicide, murder or kidnapping owing to the absence of a body, suspicious evidence of foul play, or patiently awaited ransom notes; and were completely baffled as to what had become of the eccentric Mr Crankshaw.
Only Mr Jervis, the lawyer, had a vague and unsettling feeling that a certain odious client might have some tenuous connection to the affair, but prudently refrained from coming forward with the theory in the belief that any association to the Crankshaw incident could only do irreparable harm to the good name of Jervis, Parry and Hilditch. He detested newspaper and media people in general, and could clearly imagine the public disturbance and upheaval they would create, even though they had nothing of substance to go on. This wouldn't stop them once they started with their infernal nosy questions while chasing up the most slender and improbable leads. Reporters had a secure monopoly on the truth these days, or at least their saleable version of it. The quirky business arrangement with the ghastly Fisher man didn't make the odd character party to kidnap, murder or any other nefarious activities for that matter, but all the same the conservative Mr Jervis was much relieved when the fanfare of speculation spluttered out, and the issue subsequently faded from the front pages.
It was none of his business anyway.
Had he seen the ghoulish Mr Fisher park the non descript dark van in the shadows of the Crankshaw mansion driveway late one night, furtively gain access to the house by effecting an illegal entry through one of the side doors, to emerge moments later carrying a large covered painting which he then spirited away in the van; it could be argued he might have felt obliged to report something of the suspicious event to the police.
But thankfully for him he saw nothing of this, and neither did anyone else.
The ominous Mr Fisher drove sedately away from the city in the direction of the northern tropics as a late night rain began to fall heavily from the low layer of black cloud. It seemed there was someone at the end of this journey whom he wanted to add to his painting, but then again, there always was.