Chandler is a Girl’s Name

My mind was filled with the mess of papers stuffed inside the filing cabinet. Brace had called from the phone-box downstairs just moments ago and wouldn’t be dissuaded from coming up. There was barely time for me to scrape together my clippings and notes, to get my less-than-sane looking research out of sight before he made it up the stairs. I’d been pouring over my investigations into, let’s call it my condition, when Brace, with the telephone’s rattling dance, had interrupted me. Now that part of me sat in a crumpled wad at the bottom of that dull, steel tower in the corner. Years of asking and looking and digging and hunting, cowering in the dark because of this impatient, entitled prick.

Brace’s panicked footfalls barely slowed as he hit the door, flinging it into the bookcase behind. My bookcase, though, does not take any guff, especially from the likes of Brace, and it gave him the door right back. He took a good hit to the leg, cursed under his breath, and closed the door with a hard smack. The door did not respond.

Brace brought in the smell of too many cigarettes and too little soap. His was the beaten, washed-out look of a failing salesman. A man who sold carpets or vacuum-cleaners. A man who told himself he was doing just fine, that good days were round the corner, while he remortgaged a rat-hole shop and worked seven-day weeks. A man under-slept and overweight. A man with haemorrhoids and a stomach ulcer and, perhaps, a gambling problem. His shoes were polished but his suit, tight around the paunch, fit badly. His hat, with its water stains and crumpled brim, topped off an ensemble that looked as if it owed a little money to a lot of people.

“Well?” his voice, panic stirred with accusation.

“Well what, Mr Brace?”

“You said you’d found her!”

The poor bastard. I felt pity creeping up my chest before I remembered the time I’d have to wade though with the mess in the filing cabinet. I took my feet off the corner of the desk and turned squarely to face him.

I have completed my investigations and you will have a full report by Monday,” I rattled off the message I’d left in a flat monotone, “does that sound like demand to see me immediately and don’t take no for an answer to you, Mr Brace?”

“Less of the cheek, lady. You’ve done what you were hired for. Just tell me what you found.”

We stared at one another and I felt a thrilling wave of heat and static wriggling up my neck just thinking of things I could do with him. This pathetic collection of meat and bone just waiting to be useful. Visceral delights that could buy my days, maybe months. A precession of crimson danced through my mind, bright flashes of tender dismantling. But, in the end Brace did not blink. I let out a grudging breath, deciding to play the professional.

“I’m going to need my fee before that, Mr Brace.”

“You’ll get your money, woman! Just tell me!”

His palm slapping at the desk.

“Now, normally I wouldn’t demand payment like this,” I continued, ignoring him, “but you strike me as a fairly hot-headed individual and there’s a concern that you won’t want to part with money in exchange for bad news.”

“It’s bad news?” he blurted, his hand flayed on he desk, sweaty condensation growing between his pale fingers.

“My fee, Mr Brace,” I said, reaching behind and fishing an invoice from the tray on top of the filing cabinet.

I placed it on the desk and his hand slid over to take the slip of paper.

“£165, Mr Brace.”

His jaw tightened as his hand turned the paper, his eyes falling to the bottom line.

“You’ll see that’s including expenses.”

Brace grunted and shifted in the chair, his hand working it’s way between the seat-back and his arse. It extracted his wallet and began thumbing at the leather and notes. Once it had selected an appropriate assortment, it pulled out the currency, folded it once and held it out over the desk. As I leaned forward to take my money, Brace’s hand lifted it out of my reach while our eyes paired off.

“Where is my wife?” his voice quieter now, calmer.

I stood, Brace’s eyes still held in mine, and relieved his hand of it’s burden. My desk drawer squealed open and I swapped out the notes for a stack of photographs. The drawer closed, a dull groan this time, and I tossed the photos at Brace.

“I tracked her spiritual adviser to a farm in the dales,” I said, sitting back down as he reached for the photographs, “he’s some kind of priest now, charitable tax status and everything. Runs a commune with a bunch of strays. Some missing kids, that sort of thing, but they and your wife appear to be there of their own accord. No kidnapping.”

Brace’s hands had been busy flipping through the photographs, his eyes soaking up the leaves of flat truth, but now they’d stalled at a particular picture. I knew just the one. A small room. One bed. Two people. A frame filled with sheets, skin and sweat. The kind of picture you don’t want to get caught looking at, let alone taking. People talk about free-love and liberation, but most still want it in the dark, behind a locked door and away from prying eyes. I do find parts of my job distasteful. The stacks of filth I’ve squirrelled away, piles of fermenting transgression, but I’m afraid private lives and dirty secrets are my bread and butter. I can’t afford much by way of a conscience.

“She’s with that goddamned hippie?” he stammered, “but I loved her! I gave her everything she ever wanted. She wouldn’t have anything if it wasn’t for me!” shouting at the photograph now.

“As you say, Mr Brace, she’s conducting an affair.”

He didn’t look up.

“That, along with your separation over the past few months, should see to a quick, inexpensive divorce.”

“Divorce?” he echoed, eyes still on the photograph.

“I did tell you to prepare yourself for this very eventuality, Mr Brace,” my best attempt at a conciliatory tone.

“But,” he finally looked up, “that’s just something you say to everyone, surely?” his voice now equal parts desperation and defeat.

It could still go either way.

“I do, Mr Brace, and do you know why?”

He eyes were still on me. Looking out over his wife and her hippie lover.

“I say it because, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that’s the way it is.”

I turned away from the wet eyes, just to check if the filing cabinet was still there. I remembered the bottle I’d put in it, and then remembered the stuff that made the bottle necessary. When I looked back, all of Brace was still there, salty and pathetic.

“At least now, you know,” I added.

Brace’s eyes avoided catching sight of his wife as his head fell, the other photographs flapping their way to the floor along with his gaze.

“I’ll have the completed file posted out to you,” I said, standing, “I suggest you pass it on to your solicitor.”

Brace was defeat piled in a chair, bent over himself like a beaten question mark. He had now ceased to move or speak. I had come to the decision that it was far past time he should leave. I stomped around the desk, slamming my fist on the filing cabinet for punctuation as I went. No reaction. I rattled the door knob and flung the door open, the bookcase knocking it back with a clatter into my hand. Still the sad heap in the chair. I kicked the chair-back gently and then again, hard. The third kick nearly spilled Brace out onto the floor and his head finally jerked up with a start.

“Good evening, Mr Brace.”

He exit was slow but, thankfully, without fuss and with the wretch gone, I could at last liberate my mess of papers from the filing cabinet, along with the blessed bottle. With any luck, he’d be sad and broken for the rest of his days; better that than show him what they did with her afterwards. The drawer squealed before giving up a tumbler which I quickly filled, emptied and filled again. With the alcohol’s jagged, soothing chill both calming and jump-starting my mind, I set about, once more, to make sense of my crumpled life.

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Now That It’s Over

The birch trees lining the drive were throwing fits in the drenched night. Their writhing limbs excited the security lamps into action and the lawn was doused in a stark, clinical light. Sheets of crashing rain caught and reflected the harsh glare, throwing a haze of static back at the house, through air filled with crackling, wet white-noise.

Alice sat in the large bay window that overlooked the driveway and gardens, a small figure dwarfed by that cavernous shell of glass and wood. She was still and quiet, watching the rain smeared against the window by the relentless wind. Quivering rivers of inky night flowing sideways, like fingers of the storm feeling for a way in. Pulling a cigarette from her lips, she stretched out two smoking fingers to the glass and traced along the water's course until she reached the edge of the frame. Alice's hand settled on the latch. The security lamps clicked off and the scene ahead of her was replaced with her own gloomy reflection. She stared into her own eyes, dark circles in dark circles, and then turned the latch, opening the room to the storm. She pulled her legs up onto the sill, crouched and pressed her face into the liquid wind. Her hair whipped about her, the rain striking her one cheek while cold fresh streams ran down the other. There was an iron tang to the rain as it crept into her mouth, minerals and ozone on her tongue. Her cigarette, soaked and battered, broke apart, spilling it's innards. Loose shreds of tobacco crawling down her hand whilst the tatters of paper clung to her fingers.

"What the hell are you doing?"

Alice let her head drop, looking back into the room from under the arm that still gripped the latch. Abe filled the doorway to the hall, lit from behind by a warm yellow glow. She rocked back, closing the window, sat and wiped her hand on the sodden cushions beneath her.

"Nothing," she replied, "I just wanted to feel the rain, that's all"

Abe stepped into the room, leaning his over-stuffed suitcase against the door frame with some effort.

"Look, if you don't want me to go, you just have to ask. You don't have to act out like this," his voice dripping with that oh-so-understanding salesman tone.

"I want you to go Abe, I thought I'd been pretty clear?"

She was going to stay calm.

"Well I still think you're overreacting. Everyone makes mistakes. I just-"

"It wasn't a mistake," she interrupted, "not what you did and definitely not me kicking you out."

She waited to see if he'd argue the point but he just stared. So she carried on.

"You're a soulless creep, Abe, masquerading as person. But even though you're a parasite, I don't hold it against you. It's on me for not calling you on your bullshit earlier. You were just doing what came naturally, leeching off a healthy host, worming your way into my life. But you got complacent and you got caught and now we're done. So you can get the fuck out of my house."

Calm, calm, calm.

Abe's face attempted an impression of a person with hurt feelings, his head lilting to one side as his eyebrows tried to work out the optimum angle for sympathy. It was like watching a dog try to walk on it's hind legs.

"That's unfair Alice. I understand why you're hurt, I really do. I mean, what I did was shitty but I'm not a bad person. You're going to regret saying those things once you calm down."

"Out, Abe. Now."

"Ok, ok. I'm gone," he said, picked up the suitcase and turned toward to the door. "I just want you to know that I'm sorry. I mean that. I really didn't mean to hurt you."

A hell of a time for a first apology. Did he really think she was going to call his name and forgive all that shit? It was all she could do to not hurl everything in reach at the back of his head as he left the room.

Alice heard the front door close and let out a breath that she hadn't noticed she'd been holding. She picked out another cigarette, lit it and breathed in one long measured drag. Then let her head drop back, lolling between her shoulder blades.

"Fuck your sorry, Abe," she whispered to the room in bitter smoke.

It Will Help if the Presentation Feels Somewhat Familiar to Them

So Carl wants us to go through some of the lingo again, this vocabulary here, just so that we’ll be as comfortable with it as possible. It’s got to be slick on the day so let’s use English the whole time, ok?

-No problem.

Great. So, first things first, there have been a few changes.

-Changes?

Yes. Not too many though and mostly cosmetic. The meat of the destabilisation is essentially the same, they’re just changing up some specific words. See here? We’ve got to call the humans earthlings now, plus they’ve changed the names for most of our gear, our ship, our home and a bunch of other little things.

-What things?

Well, like this. We’ve got to call our phones communicators now.

-Why?

Carl just said that it’s what they’ll think we’ll call them. We’re all high-tech and futuristic to them, remember. Phone will sound too mundane apparently, sends the wrong message.

-But our phones aren’t futuristic, they’re just like theirs. Theirs were even better until we saw them and decided to put that immersive display on ours. We didn’t even think to have a screen until we started checking theirs out. It’s stuff like their phone ideas that we want the humans for, right?

Earthlings, remember, and yes but Carl said communicators is just better. It turns out they dreamt up their phones years before they made them, in stories and stuff, and in those stories they called them communicators, so that’s what they’ll think we would call ours.

-That’s bollocks. They’ve actually got these communicators now, don’t they? They all do, they’re on them all the time. They’re probably even better than whatever each of them imagined way-back-when and they’ve all decided to call them phones, haven’t they? They don’t go around all day on communicators saying hello fellow earthling, do they?

I know it sounds stupid but, I’m telling you, it’s what Carl said they’ll be expecting.

-What do you mean expecting? The humans? No one else has tried a full disclosure manipulation before, right? They’ve not been approached by anyone else?

Earthlings, remember, and no.

-Well there you go, no expectations then, surely.

You’d think so but the weird thing is Carl says they’ve been sort of fantasising about meeting people from other planets for ages.

-So? Everyone does. Happens all the time. There’s all these crazy ideas they have and then we pull the reveal and they’re all Oh! Er, you’re just like us then, I guess, and we have a good laugh while they tell each other the odd things they’ve been dreaming up. Then we get to business.

Well that’s the thing, you see, they all kind of dream things up together. Carl tried to explain it to me and it’s like, well, remember when we were first learning English and we thought it was a bit odd, being so full of all the esoteric poetic imagery, those historical and literary references and what have you?

-Yes, bloody nightmare!

Well, Carl says it’s like that because they all sort of decide to have their imaginations agree on certain things.

-How do you mean they all agree? There’s a fair few of them, aren’t there? They can’t all agree. We’re counting on a bit of confusion, aren’t we?

Of course and there’ll be plenty of confusion, Carl’s sure of it. It’s just that they have this general consensus, apparently. On certain concepts. Without them even realising it sometimes. There’s ideas that just become standard for them. Archetypes, Carl calls them. They share all these ideas, you see, and then the good ones just kinda become the way whatever it is, well, is.

-What? And they all just go along with it?

Mostly. Look, it’s like this: Someone thinks something up, like a story, you know? And everyone thinks it’s a good story so it sticks with them and they all sort of keep thinking about it. Then, if they think up any stories of their own, like a new story but along similar lines as that first one, that story they all liked, well, they copy the bits they liked from that first one and mix them about with a bunch of stuff they’ve added themselves. Even if they change something big, it just ends up getting defined by the way it’s different from what was decided on before, by this whole collective imagination thing. Then it all sort of compounds and crystallises as things go along, so that you end up with a sort-of general agreement on, say, what a thief looks and sounds like, or a hero, or what the afterlife is, or what little bearded guys living underground might be like, even people from other planets. It’s got something to do with why they’re so inventive, like an organic growth of ideas, you know? The big stuff naturally builds up over time. Carl and the folks upstairs think that if we go along with these expectations, at the start at least, then we’ll get a strong foothold nice and early that we can exploit later. Get it?

-Not really.

Look, it doesn’t really matter why. This is just something that Carl says he and the boffins upstairs have decided on. He says that the huma- sorry, earthlings. The earthlings will take this all a lot better if it fits in with the stuff they’ve got in their heads already, the stuff in their stories, that’s all.

-It just seems a bit inefficient to me, us spending so much time getting good at English and then having to relearn a bunch of stuff just because they all go around copying one another’s dreams, just because they’ve got these plagiarist imaginations.

I know, I know but like I said, it’s the way Carl and the higher-ups want it, so we’re just going to have to go along with it. Ok?

-Ok, fine. Whatever. So humanity is a bunch of earthlings now, great, and we phone each other on our communicators. Totally normal. What else?