The Rapture

She worked the clay with her fingertips. A sore spot, a tear, she worried at then kneaded into a complete line. Chatter surrounded her, nervous laughter; the stench of perfectionism.

She just worked the clay.

She certainly was no expert. There wasn’t an age when you were meant to have this ‘pottery’ thing licked, there wasn’t a desired number of pots that you should have made in pristine condition. At least not when you were an amateur, when you weren’t competing, but instead dabbling on the side-lines.

This was additional, this was quiet. You could ‘throw’ a pot on a wheel, you could test, you could trial, you could experiment.

This was the soft silence, the in-between time on the shore as the water drags back out, before the next wave crashes down.

In other lessons she hadn’t been watched, she hadn’t been noticed, but here there was a frisson of competition, of comparison. Each looked over the other’s shoulder, to impress upon themselves either their skill or what they lacked. They wanted a solid trophy to take home and prove their worth, to prove they’d invested their money well.

To show what they were really capable of.

She repeatedly smoothed the flat clay with a wooden tool so it shone; the room disappeared, the chatter dissipated. A smirk spread across her face as she became lost in her own thoughts. It was enough for other people’s faces to crinkle in confusion.

The teacher did a tour of the room, cooing over odd-shaped pots and cups, murmuring over the over-zealous and over-confident, bolstering the timid and risk-averse, pressuring the rigid perfectionists. She reached Cassandra and started a conversation.

“Looking better – a coffee cup?”

“A tea-cup.”

The teacher nodded at the sheets of paper at Cassandra’s elbow, where the plans were sketched out in intricate detail and where there were not one, but two clear designs.

“You’re making a couple?”

They both smiled pleasantly but impersonally and continued on their separate performances.

“Uh-huh, a set.”

Organizing the delivery of hot drinks was a main-stay of Cassandra’s profession. People might not want canapes, or to pay for lunch, but they’d probably want tea and coffee at their meetings. She was the Catering and Events Manager at Global Elite, a prestigious hotel chain, its branches were dotted round the world in every major city.

“A tea-cup,” she thought as she wound the clay round so it made a pot like shape, “So strange, that this would be the beginning.”

In the interests of cutting costs she found herself managing a broad sway of these hotels’ catering staff, if only through their procedures. It was her training manuals that were replicated across the globe, her menus that were found in every country, her desired uniform, her dining-room set-ups, her preferred flavours.

Her preferred tea cup that was sat at each place-setting, just so many centimetres from the customer, turned with the handle at a clear right angle, a drop of fudge on each saucer, an elegant weighted spoon, laid just so. Never patterned china, always a bright marine blue.

It was her preferred tea that was ordered by the truck-load.

She found the edges of the large strip of clay and hacked away at both sides, filling them with sticky ‘slip’, a watery clay, before she smoothed the two together, blended them with a small wooden tool. You had to hack at the thing to bond it, to make it strong.

It had been nine months ago when she was approached.

She sat at the hotel bar, wearing her hotel uniform, eating her hotel branded bag of nuts and sipping on a hotel-approved Martini. The petite woman slid beside her, and looked her up and down.

It was just the two of them sat at the bar. A quiet Tuesday in January, when the hordes of people that usually flocked to the hotel were now recovering from the festive season, few were to be found at an extravagant hotel.

The petite woman sat far too close, she smiled too sweetly. The hotel uniform did this to people, you weren’t off the clock, you were ready to serve. They were paying guests, it was their right.

Cassandra smiled back, and considered the best exit strategy.

The woman sipped her fresh Martini, “Could I get you another?”

Cassandra began to shake her head.

“I could really do with the company.”

Now Cassandra could place her: the smile, the sidle, it wasn’t as predatory as it first appeared. She’d arranged this woman’s business luncheon, and spoken to her multiple times on the phone as she had very specific tastes. When the day finally came to pass, she let her in early and showed her round, had her meet the catering staff. Not something she would usually do.

She could see it in her clothes, this woman was a control freak. How much thought and effort had gone into that simple black dress, those heels, the mask of make-up that sat almost like real features?

She played with the olive in the glass. She was asking the wrong questions. The lady beside her wouldn’t do these things, Cassandra nodded to herself: she would have staff.

“Beth, I’d love to.”

The two of them moved to a further corner of the bar, to one of the cabaret style tables. The bartender lit the red candle that lay between them. From the tinted windows, they could see out to the windswept beach.

Three or four Martinis in and Cassandra’s tongue had loosened. They were getting on well. Beth with her smeared mascara and her slurred speech had lost her pristine gloss. She was relatable when she slung her heels under the table and picked at her nail polish.

Cassandra cut out a long strip of clay and began to bend it and smooth it like a handle, to fix to her mug. Beside her another woman complained about the cracks spreading through the drying clay, she was told to soak it in water and wrap it in plastic. Cassandra watched as the small mug was covered in a little white shroud, to sit in the corner and wait.

That small meeting with Beth led to a regular catch up, quick drinks after-work, a coffee on the run, lunch when they could. Over two months she felt she knew Beth, or at least she knew everything Beth presented to her. There was an undercurrent in all their conversations.

Beth worked tirelessly with a security agency that supported international higher-ups from companies, governments and institutions. She and Global Elite had become a constant fixture; it was her job to handle these meetings with iron-tight fists, to make sure that she knew every mechanism, every exit and every staff member. Yet at every meeting she found herself the only woman in the room, and when she mentioned security precautions, the group looked at her burly, male, security guard for confirmation.

Now when she spoke it was deafening, and when someone listened she didn’t stop. She was so used to people not acting on what she said that she found herself constantly checking up, unable to let go. She watched every dropped thread and considered it a criticism. If they had listened, if they respected her, the error wouldn’t have occurred. A lifetime of following up was dragging her down.

The pristine self was sloughing off. Each morning a new layer of lacquer was applied to the fraying body beneath. But when each night consisted of hours of tossing and turning, soon there would be nothing but an amber-like globe, with a small withered cocoon of Beth within.

“Couldn’t you do something else?” asked Cassandra, when the constant cascade of woes got too much.

“I’m the only woman in the room,“ was Beth’s constant reply, as if that was to mean something.

Why fight so hard for something that nobody saw, wondered Cassandra. Who would know she had stepped away? It’s not like she added to the table, her one small seat added nothing, changed nothing. It didn’t register. She told them when it was safe, and even then, they didn’t listen.

At 4am in March Cassandra got a call. Beth talked an endless soliloquy. She’d lost hold of herself. Cassandra hung up the phone. She didn’t rush to her friend’s side, she didn’t offer empty sympathy or comfort.

All she said was, “We’ll find a strategy.”

Then she put it together piece by piece. Like the mug. Like ordering for the 5,000 to be delivered food and drink at bite-sized increments throughout the day.

She started work on her next mug, rounded this time, she hacked triangles into, what would be the mug’s base, and curved these round to meet another flat piece of clay. Slicing notches into the connections and smothering them in slip to seal these small wounds.

Once smoothed with small wooden tools, the mug would be whole, and once fired, water-tight.

Like her current alibi.

She paced it out, like when she paced the room with her servers, like they rehearsed back and forth when there was a function that required perfect coordination. So perfect it was as if she and her crew didn’t exist. Glasses refilled by magic, plates appeared and disappeared in a flash, all without a thought, an action.

That was the key, the fluidity, the cracks couldn’t be visible, the underbelly would only be clear to those who created the illusion.

It was then she started to see tiny cracks in her beautiful marine blue cups and saucers, turned with their handles just so. Once she spotted one, she noted many. How long had they been in rotation? How long had she’d been working invisibly, seamlessly?

Cost-cutting saw her beautiful teacups look battered and worn. She realised she had long been covering for wear and tear, using cloth to cover the tables, centre-pieces to cover the stains, chair-backings to cover the grime, placement of chairs to cover the carpets’ dredge. Lighting to cover the gloom. Showmanship to cover the shabby.

Global Elite wasn’t so elite anymore, and with that realisation, it wasn’t so hard to influence the change she needed.

She suggested various suppliers, pointed out the best, the one she would prefer, that she felt met their brand’s needs and under duress the other that was the most cost-effective.

They would never listen to her adamancy that they were making poor, short-sighted decisions; that it would cost them more in the long run.

She didn’t understand the intricacies of business they’d mutter looking at the finances rather than her small smile. She wrote lengthy emails, popped up in meeting’s minutes, held impromptu crisis discussions. She was so much on the record it was almost farcical.

While she laid down the frame-work, Beth’s contacts worked to tie up loose ends.
Beth pushed for events to take place simultaneously across the globe, or on the face of it she appeared to try and poke this particular idea full of holes. A logistics nightmare she implied, a terrorists’ dream. Her negativity it seemed only spurred them on. They insisted it was her job to deal with these issues rather than derail proceedings. It became a running joke, that Beth was predicting ‘the rapture.’

Cassandra smiled, as she carved her name into the base of one mug and Beth into the other.

Cassandra couldn’t even imagine Beth sipping from this cup, she always clutched a take-out coffee, adding to her appearance as always being both busy and ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

As Cassandra finished her mug, news alerts pinged around the room.

Gloom descended over those who picked up their mobiles; shock and disbelief.

They all looked to her as she carefully laid down her tools.

“Don’t you work at Global Elite?”

Cassandra laughed, “My day off and they make the headlines. What’s happened?”

All the blood drained from their faces.

Beth would be the only one sat at the table now.

Strong and Stable she tells me

Strong and stable she tells me.

Oh really I say, that sounds nice.

Strong and stable she tells me.

Interesting, I say.

Strong and stable she tells me.

Not very specific though, you know what I mean?

Strong and stable she tells me.

Like are you saying ‘strong’ in terms of defence and ‘stable’ in terms of horses?

Horses aren’t part of policy.

Although fox-hunting is. Does it refer to looking for a manger, you know that parable about the Christian saviour?

Overt religious affiliations aren’t part of policy.

I don’t think Boris would have been let in anyway. So, no room at any inn whatsoever then? (To be honest I can’t imagine Lenny’s a fan.) Could stable refer to our economy?

Strong and stable and exactly the way we’ve been doing things for the last 7 years.

So, stable means that we continue to grind people into the ground till there’s no joy, and we cut all the fat from the ‘back-office’ and the ‘waste’ that we don’t have, so that we can create greater problems in the long-run in policing, healthcare, housing, prisons, education and people’s wellbeing?

Strong and stable she tells me.

Does the strong refer to iron grip, like you have on your ministers and the press?

No comment.

Could it refer to your ‘Brexit’?

Strong and stable she tells me, not soft and poached.

A hard-boiled Brexit. Are you referring to some sort of Raymond Chandler novel that I’m not familiar with? Or are we actually discussing breakfast? (I’m very confused.)

Brexit means Brexit.

Right, Britain’s exit from the EU, which we have established is going ahead, we’re wondering more how you’re going to negotiate that and what it will involve…

A red, white and blue Brexit.

Ah so it’s going to be French then. That does make sense.

 

Alchemist: Fingerprints (Part Three)

He holds the card in his hand, while she hadn’t dared. She left it where it landed, as if tampering with it might illicit some complex chain of events, or leave fingerprints.

His are now all over it.

Behind them she spies the piece of bread, peppered with Hara’s blood.

He hadn’t thrown the bread across the room, or screamed at her so close spit flecks hit her face. He hadn’t grasped her wrist and twisted her to a kneeling position on the floor.

Instead he had swatted it to the ground.

She dislikes the waste of it, and something in her boils at the sight of bread on the floor, it’s more than wasteful, it’s a superstition, she’s sure.

She can see how he can be easily wound, like clockwork. She still held the knife.

He flips the card over, there’s no further information on the back.

“Who do you think it’s from?”

“I didn’t think anyone knew I was here.”

He smirks, “You’re kidding?”

She’s not kidding. The two of them stew in their own little worlds for a moment.

Hara confused by the woman he thought he knew, who he thought he shared common knowledge with, who he thought knew him.

He pulls the card up and put it in her eyeline, she glances at it carelessly.

He stands transfixed, and repeats the action as if he’s swiping something across a self-service checkout, and the barcode won’t ring up. He stares deep into his eyes, like a doctor might, to indicate the seriousness of their revelation, and to see if there’s anything there to stare back at them with understanding.

She blinks and draws herself back, her eyes dry. The knife is still in her hands, which are almost wooden; deaden. Hara’s no longer in her sightline. The card is back beside the mat on the floor, she takes a great shudder of breath, and realises she hadn’t been breathing.

She’d been paused.

“It’s some sort of cloaking device.” Hara calls from behind her.

He’s munching a sandwich, the silent observer, where she once had been.

“You stood there for a minute, maybe longer. Without moving, your breathing slowed, your heart-rate slowed, and you didn’t blink.”

He rubs his temple as if he’s scrolling through a series of images, which she realises he is. There’s a swirl of memory that takes over.

She’s in another place, a dilapidated building in another country, her mind is soaked in detail, a floorplan of the room pings direct to her eye, spreading out green in front of her. Voices whisper and distil within her cortex, filtering into key information, a target. She’s to go left, then right, then meet the man who she can hear in her mind, but first she needs to remember the code word.

She taps her temple, and rewinds through the bloody memories, to the man yelping in front of her.

“The Alchemist.”

Vermin

IMG_0010

There are flies everywhere.

They’re not swarming, or humming, or moving. They might be rippling if there were any air in here. The floor is crisp with them and crunchy; a carpet of flies, while overhead hang paper-strips thick with bodies.

One small new soul drones on with an intense whine, as he flails against the stick of flypaper, taking an obnoxiously long time to die.

Through the abnormally thick windows, like some poor kid’s milk-bottle glasses, the sun stumbles into the gloom hitting, who knows how many, years of grime. If you swiped those windows with a finger, you’d never get clean, but stepping into that room itself; would never leave you either.

I walk a carefully constructed passage-way, across this carpet of death, carcasses crackling to dust under my heel. The room itself isn’t a crime scene. It’s as clean and white as any good exhibition space. There is not a hint of blood to be found. There are no bodies marauding around the corner, although there is a sense that there could be. Unlike some cheap carnival ride, it wouldn’t be a man in a skeleton costume jumping out at you, it could be untold horrors. Horrors you couldn’t grasp.

Horrors you didn’t want to see.

If you sneezed tiny fly carcasses, or what was left of them, would scatter in some grandiose and disturbing ripple effect, coating everything with their remains.

It wasn’t just the windows daubed with grime, or the outpost that was this ‘gallery’, or the fresh fly dying; a soundtrack played underneath that, something cinematic; tense. There was a general sense of unease, like you were a voyeur on something tragic, but unknown. You’d walked in on a scene after it had been cleared of nearly all the remnants of despair, save the flies, and even they were dead.

You had missed it all.

Was it due to negligence, ignorance or fear that you hadn’t seen what had happened here?

This was the artist playing tricks with your mind. You hadn’t missed anything. She had constructed this scene. She’d daubed the floors and ceiling with bloody flesh and left it to fester with flies.

All these tiny creatures had suffered for the artist’s vision.

She was the cruel one, not you.

This was only the first room, there were many. It played on your mind that it wasn’t so hard that she would graduate from flies to something larger. The fruit fly itself has roughly 75% DNA equivalence to humans. In terms of genetics; the previous room was a human massacre; a genocide.

In the next space, I found myself walking past endless freezers on either side of this narrow corridor-like room. Clean, clinical – they almost blended into the white of the exhibition space. They were all waist height, save for two large American-style freezers at the end of the room, near the doors.

Half-way through one door was left ajar. A small glow of light rippled from its interior, a slight puddle at its feet, a soft drip against the tiled floor.

At some point it would spread across the room, fade into corners and crevices, coat the floor, while whatever was hidden within slowly leaked out.

Everything else was uniform.

This single open door was something I could easily walk past.

No need to question it or probe further, I could walk on and leave it there, hanging like a question mark. If I were someone else I might open every freezer door, delve into everything available in this room.

It was just the one door that bothered me. I tried to leave the room, but instead hovered at the doorway.

I’d made myself come this far, and I was certain I would never visit this place again.

Once I left it would be final.

I edged back the way I came and bent down to look at the drawers. There were four, iced over and stiff. I had to wrestle to get them to open. Within were multiple plastic bags, packed tight. I wriggled one free and pulled it up to the light.

I gasped at what I saw.

A silly theatrical gasp. The thing was frozen and couldn’t harm me.

A rat, packaged in a freezer bag and stored in there for perpetuity.  Having pulled it free from multiple others, I grew uneasy.

Only one freezer door had been left open.  I stood and looked around at the sea of white-goods around me.

Was this the only sight that was meant to make me stumble, to question what might be hidden in here?

Or was this a careful ruse, so that I with a frozen rat in my hand didn’t question what might be hidden in every other freezer in this room.

Alchemist: A Guest (Part 2)

A scraggly black man with a general weary look sits across from her at the kitchen table.

She offered him coffee, or at least she waved the pot at him and he waved his mug back at her, never giving up his stream of talk. She wasn’t certain if that was what you did with a captor. Did you offer them a hot drink? It seemed polite, but he wasn’t particularly threatening, more pissed off.

It was as if he knew her, like she’d done something like this before.

He gulped the coffee like he hadn’t been fed in long while and kept calling her Kathleen, to which she found herself tilting her head like she was questioning it.

This felt different to the unexpected arrival of the card. It was still lying by the mat at the door. He had stepped over it, briskly. Did he have an air of high ranking military? But he slouched, was dirty, his boots were poorly laced. He gave the sense of having had to march, without breakfast.

Perhaps she should offer him a meal as well? She realises he’s staring at her in silence.

“Where are you Kathleen? You haven’t said a word since I got here.”

She tilts her head in reply, he pushes his chair back and stands in one swift movement; exasperated. It’s that feeling again, like he’s dealing with a difficult child. A consistent runaway, who’s forever causing him problems. Who won’t listen, who goes against orders.

Who consistently tilts her head rather than replying.

“Did you not think we’d get word? A woman hiding in the valley, her face half-burned, wandering round covering her face when she decides to speak to delivery boys. Only choosing to talk to fourteen-year-old boys strikes people as odd. Disturbing. You may not have any electric in your home, but everyone round here does.”

The woman watches him silent still. She doesn’t know his name, he walked in like she should know him, he talks to her like she should know him. He acts like he followed her, but he doesn’t seem dangerous.

He isn’t a threat.

She sips her coffee, he’s bothered by this she can tell. Her silent evaluation of him. It’s pissing him off more than whatever it is she did originally. Did she run from him? That doesn’t sit right. Was he by her at The Plaza?

He’s not who she’d been expecting. It occurs to her that she doesn’t know who she’d been expecting. That she was acting on something else, some memory like a groove in a record player, she was waiting for the needle to hit it right, for it all to sync up, to harmonize.

It hadn’t. He was still exasperated in her kitchen.

Was his name Henry? Harold? Albert? Bert? Cane?

“Kane, you look starved, I have some bread, some cheese?”

He looks back at her hungry but angry.

“Kane?”

He’s not Kane then.

He stands to attention. “I didn’t know we were reverting to last names, ma’am. “

Is that why Kathleen didn’t sit right? It wasn’t her name anyway, she had always been Kat, but he had been Harashan. He was Hara, it was sort of awkwardly falling into place like half-folded origami.

She pulled the bread and cheese from the cupboards and hoped sandwiches might make things better, bring things to light.

“Did you send me the card?”

“What card?” His face crumpled, he was no longer angry, but concerned.

She busies herself with sawing at the bread. He pulls at her shoulder, “Kat, what card?”

She finds herself with the knife at his throat, a drop of blood at the blade. He puts his hands up, and backs away finally realising he hadn’t walked into a familiar setting.

“You know me Kat.”

She continues sawing at the bread, the glance of blood now threaded through its veins.

“I’m not sure what I know.”

Alchemist: Going Dark (Part 1)

She kneeled on the wooden floorboards staring down at the bit of paper. It was more than paper; it was smooth and crisp, textured, with a gold embossed font.

An emblem, with simple text: Alchemist.

A business card worthy of American Psycho, but lacking any way to get in touch.

She got back up off the floor and looked warily past the thick and floral curtains to the dead grass outside her beaten front-door.

It had been slipped underneath her door. No note, no messenger, no package.

Did it signal a delivery?

A warning?

She left it where she’d found it and walked back and forth across the floorboards, her feet cold, while her mind ran hot.

She’d been careful. There was no internet access here. No phone signal, she hadn’t installed a phone line. She didn’t own a mobile device. There were no electronics in this house whatsoever. Not even a microwave or toaster. She cooked with gas.

She hadn’t even latched on to some unsuspecting neighbour’s WIFI, nor snuck into their  house and borrowed some device. She had no hidden pool of electronics under her floorboards that she was itching to tap into. Although she was itching.

In her dreams, she always found herself back at The Plaza, tapping at the screen, nearly covering her tracks while everything went red-hot and burned around her.

She kept getting further, nearly finding a way, but it always ended with her waking up screaming. Remembering her face singeing.

She hadn’t hacked anything. She was off grid. There had been no slip-ups. No chatter.

There weren’t neighbours here, really. There wasn’t CCTV, not down these dirt track roads, GPS barely got you to this location, what with the valley distorting the signal.

A black-spot.

There can’t be many of those nowadays. Maybe it was a case of crossing each of them off the list.

Problem was the ‘community’, they had a hive mentality, she didn’t deal with people directly, didn’t like to show her face. This need to keep her face out of circulation, could have tipped them off. Did they talk about the woman in the valley in the deadened house, who knocked out the electricity, and doesn’t own a radio? The woman who picks up a newspaper and her groceries from a pre-decided stop-off point. Who only speaks to the fourteen-year-old delivery boy, when nothing arrives.

It hadn’t arrived yesterday, neither the newspaper nor the groceries. It had happened before, nothing new, but now it seemed suspect. She had a few things stored away in the cupboards so she hadn’t felt the need to cycle her way down into the village, and remind them.

She figured it would turn up in a few days.

She had no bank accounts. Her bank notes were rolled up under her mattress.

She’d asked for clean bills, the majority had been crisp and fresh. She used the others in a myriad of locations, handed them out to travellers in exchange for anything of use, dumped them in beggars’ bowls, to stump the trackers.

Suddenly the whole plan seemed hurried, unthought out. Would she have been safer in the city? Surrounded by technology, cloaking herself with someone else’s neural tracker. Piggybacking access, rewriting her past, redistributing chunks of information, rather than walking away from it all. Shutting it all down, going dark.

She’d needed to recover, she hadn’t the energy to keep that sort of charade up, to be that purposely clandestine. She’d gone away to hide and lick her wounds, to recalibrate, to let the information sink into place. It was a lot of data, and she’d only had three months.

Or had they given her three months?

There was a knock on the door.