Tourmaline: Chapter One


Taken from the Operations Handbook for DCS Field Agents (17th Revised Edition)[1]; Appendix D: Non-Suborned Threats.

            … the araka is an extremely pernicious d-sentient parapsyte which sustains itself on the emotional trauma it causes by compelling its host to perpetrate acts of humiliation, degradation, and beastliness. Infestation is mercifully rare – confined predominantly to the lower-class slums of large conurbations and the ghettoes inhabited by foreigners of known moral dubiety – yet the danger an araka presents to the unwary agent cannot be underestimated.
            In its natural state – if indeed it can be said to possess such a thing – the creature inhabits the lowest levels of its host’s psyche, close to the threshold of the collective unconscious, which it uses to pass from host to host during sleep; the araka shuns the bright light of consciousness, preferring the crushing blackness of the chthonic depths. Whilst there can, of course, be no objectively verifiable information regarding its appearance, certain commonalities of description have been observed in the insane ramblings of those who claim to have seen one, to whit: writhing multitudes of tooth-lined tentacles proceeding from an integument of horned and overlapping plates. However, in the case of an infected host falling victim to a subornation Event, the araka invariably takes advantage of the Event’s protean nature to detach from its host – assuming a form which even to the experienced eye is indistinguishable from the Event’s other actants – and hunt for a new host.
            Being non-human – and in any event only partially physical within the boundaries of the Event – the araka remains unaffected by the standard arsenal of sal volatile aerosols and tezlar guns. If the agent is fortunate, it may content itself simply with tearing him limb from limb and feasting on the fear-drenched tissues of his brain. If he is unfortunate, the araka may attempt to infiltrate his consciousness completely, turning him into a puppet of flesh for its hideous and abominable appetites.
            Thus the advice given to any Counter-Subornation agent who believes he may be in the proximity of such an entity is simply this:
            Run.


 [1] Reproduced by kind permission of the Department for Counter-Subornation


***


Chapter One
She Shall be Called Woman

1

Squalling rain chased the young woman up the steps of Birmingham University’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts and into the shelter of its wide doorway, where she rested for a moment, shaking the water from her coat and combing back damp hair with her fingers.
Neil Caffrey, nearly at the end of his six-’til-three shift on the main security desk by the gift-shop, nudged his colleague Steve, who was frowning at the Guardian crossword.
‘Oi-oi,’ he murmured, ‘bandits, two o’clock.’
Steve glanced up and then back down at his paper, shaking his head with a smile. ‘Don’t you ever think of anything else?’
‘What’s to think about?’ grinned Caffrey. ‘Man, she is fit.’
‘She is a student, is what she is. Don’t you like this job, or something? Quickest way to get sacked, mate.’
‘Never happen. And even if it did, Christ, it’d be worth it. I want to die between those legs.’
‘Yeah, well, you better be wearing flameproof underwear, because you are going to crash and burn, my friend. Crash and burn. Still, whatever,’ and he waved Neil on with the end of his biro. ‘It’s your funeral.’
‘Roger that.’
Caffrey put on his best professional security guard smile and sauntered over. The girl was not just fit, he decided – she was gorgeous. Her blonde hair had darkened with the rain, and as he got closer he saw that she had the most incredible sea-blue eyes. Hard to tell about her tits under the coat, but then he liked a bit of mystery.
‘Can I help you, miss?’ he asked, with just enough emphasis on the “help”.
‘Oh yes, please,’ she replied, looking genuinely relieved. ‘I’m looking for a painting.’
‘Well you’ve come to the right place!’ he grinned. ‘We’ve got all sorts. Finest collection of French Impressionists outside of the National Gallery and more Pre-Raphaelites than you can poke a stick at.’
‘Well it’s really only one painting in particular that I’m interested in. She Shall be Called Woman, by George Frederic Watts. I understand that it’s on loan from the Tate. Could you please tell me how I can find it?’
‘I can do you one better than that: I can take you to it myself.’
‘Oh no, you really don’t need to go to the trouble…’
‘No trouble at all, Miss. This place is a bit of a maze.’ The layout of the Barber was actually about as complicated as a Wendy House, but a few careful detours would give him plenty of time to work the old Caffrey magic.
‘Well, I suppose, if you say so…’
Caffrey led her up the main staircase towards the first-floor galleries, pausing only to leer back over his shoulder at Steve, who mouthed the words crash and burn back at him.

2

It didn’t take Caffrey long to realise that Steve had been right: he wasn’t going to get anywhere with this girl.
He managed to get her name – Vanessa – and the fact that she wasn’t a student but had travelled up from London, which didn’t make any kind of sense, because why would you travel from London to see painting that was on loan from a London gallery? Beyond that her answers were monosyllabic and distracted; she kept twisting the strap of her handbag and running on ahead into the next room, despite his attempts to slow it down and draw her out with a bit of chat about some of the artworks which he knew the ladies always went for. Funny how they’d get all excited about a bronze statue of some wood-nymph with her tits out, but stick on a dirty DVD and they slapped you in the face and called you a pig. Just couldn’t figure them.
And she was off again. By the time he caught up with her, she was around the corner and too far down the next corridor for him to stop her doing what she did next. The only other person in there besides themselves was an old man on a bench, and he looked like he was asleep, or possibly dead. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
The painting that she was heading for was massive – had to be six foot high if it were an inch – and it showed a woman’s upper body emerging from a swirling riot of leaves and birds. Flowers bloomed beneath her right hand and a mantle of golden cloud opened around her shoulders and down to her navel as if she was bursting free from some kind of cocoon. But she was cloudy and indistinct: her face thrown back and in shadow, her breasts mere suggestions. It was as if she were awakening fully formed into life without knowing who she was supposed to be.
The impression struck Caffrey so forcefully that at first he didn’t realise that the Vanessa woman had stepped over the low brass barrier rail and laid her hands flat smack on the painting. Her head was bowed, and her breath heaved as if she were suffering the world’s worst asthma attack.
Caffrey snapped out of it.
‘Hey! Er, excuse me, Miss? I’m afraid you can’t actually….’ He reached out to grasp her shoulder, and his voice died as he saw what was happening.
The paint beneath her hands was moving.

3

Steve McBride looked up in surprise as the rain-soaked woman ran back past the security desk. She glanced at him briefly – a wide-eyed, haunted expression – and was outside before he could open his mouth to ask if she were alright. Standing in the doorway, he watched her run down the campus drive towards where it joined the busy dual carriageway traffic of the Bristol Road, and then she disappeared.
Nice one, Neil, he thought. A personal best. In what world does ‘chat up’ mean ‘drive screaming from the building’?
He went back to his crossword.
Ten minutes later, when Caffrey had failed to materialise, he chucked it down again and went to look for him.
Steve found his ID lanyard on the floor at the corner of the Blue Gallery (art 1800 to 1900), in front of the painting which the young woman had been asking after, and there was a strange smell in the air which he almost recognised, but no sign of the man himself. There was no sign of him anywhere in the entire building, come to that. He wasn’t lurking outside, having a crafty fag. Steve ducked across the road briefly to the Guild of Students to see if he were taking an unofficial coffee break, mindful that if he was caught leaving the desk unattended it could cost him his job, but Caffrey wasn’t there either. Nor was he answering his phone – not his mobile, not at his flat. At the end of his shift, Steve even went around to drop the lanyard off – although it had crossed his mind to keep it and let the silly sod take the consequences of an earbashing from Peterson, their supervisor, for losing his ID – but there appeared to be nobody in. Nobody answered the buzzing intercom, and no lights were on in the window. At which point Steve concluded sod this, and went home.
All of it completely drove from his head the trivial detail of the peculiar smell which he’d noticed in the Blue Gallery. It was only long afterwards – after he’d fallen in love with Vanessa Gail, and the horror which she had unleashed had gone too far to be stopped – that he thought back on it and realised what it was: the smell of the sea.

4

The wake which trailed after her through the Institute’s doors and down Edgbaston Park Road was picked up by one of the Hegemony’s floating sensor buoys, but even if she’d been aware that such things existed, she’d never have noticed it, since it looked just like any other homeless young man sitting blank-eyed and motionless, huddled at a bus-stop, easily ignored on a busy city street.
To the buoy, her wake was perceived as a fading, v-shaped distortion in the meniscus of reality, something like a ripple of heat haze. Beyond that, it was entirely unaware of her existence. In its natural state the creature was something like a large, semi-sentient jellyfish, which swarmed with millions of its kind in shallow tropical waters and grazed on the microscopic fragments of dreamwrack left by sleepers. The detector sense which allowed it to home in on their presence served the Hegemony’s needs for a simple, passive early warning system, and they were common enough to be deployed in large numbers throughout most major cities, but it wasn’t sophisticated enough to provide any details beyond a simple imperative: prey here!
It didn’t follow her. That was not its function, since it lacked the necessary autonomy or imagination that might allow it to anticipate a human being’s behaviour. However, there was just enough consciousness left in the vessel which carried it to perform basic, well-trained actions.
From within its filthy clothes, it produced a mobile phone and sent a single preset message to the only number the phone could reach.
The call’s time and geographical location were logged automatically into a system which routinely received thousands of such calls a day, and it began a slow, upwardly-sifting journey through a series of filters and subroutines designed to trawl through the background chaos of the world and isolate preciously rare fragments of purpose. It was weeks, possibly even months, away from the point where a living, breathing operative might see it – if at all.
But that was the thing about hunting. Sometimes it required a level of patience that was almost inhuman.

5

Caffrey didn’t show up the next day either. When Peterson called him into his office and asked if he knew anything about where Caffrey might have gone, Steve confessed his ignorance and produced the lanyard, earning a reprimand which he totted up on his mental account sheet of Shit That Neil Owed Him For. He wouldn’t have gone so far as to say that Caffrey was one of his best mates, but they’d worked together often enough to have developed a rapport, which was close enough. Still, Steve had given him a chance; if Caffrey wanted to play silly buggers or had gotten himself into trouble then that was his own lookout. Equally, if Peterson wanted to call the police and report him as missing, then that was fine too. Steve had learned long ago that the security industry attracted a sizeable proportion of the kind of people whose murky pasts you did not want to get involved with, and if Caffrey turned out to be one of them, he was better off out of it.
It never crossed his mind that it had anything to do with the girl. Caffrey had tried it on with so many others and been shot down so many times that his skin was thicker than his head, and the idea he might have done a runner over her was just laughable.
Then, precisely a week later – and even at the same time of day – she was back. He could hardly miss her; the April weather had turned warm and sunny, and she walked past his desk wearing sunglasses and short blue dress which showed an awful lot of leg.
He followed her upstairs to the galleries, not at all sure of what he was going to say to her. He could hardly accuse her of having kidnapped Caffrey, and anyway there was something a bit off-putting about the relentless way she headed straight for the Blue Gallery. The Barber Institute was a work of art in itself: a Grade 2 listed piece of award-winning Deco architecture which boasted collections from Botticelli to Magritte and one of the biggest collections of ancient coins in the country, and she was walking right past everything (with those very shapely legs), as if none of it were there.
He caught up with her in front of She Shall Be Called Woman. She’d taken off her sunglasses and was gazing at the painting – rapt but serene. There was nothing of the haunted panic he’d seen last time. It was like looking at a different woman.
While he was still trying to work out how to approach this, she spared him a moment of her attention.
‘Can I help you?’ she asked.
‘To tell you the truth, I’m not sure’, he replied, and faltered. Indicating the painting, he said: ‘If you don’t mind me asking, what’s the appeal?’
‘Of this?’ She shrugged. ‘It’s a personal favourite.’ As answers went, it told him precisely nothing. ‘Is that what you wanted to ask?’ There was dry amusement in her voice.
‘Well, no. See, the thing is…’ he rubbed the back of his neck and looked away awkwardly. ‘The last time you were here, you were escorted by my colleague.’
‘Neil. He introduced himself.’
I’ll just bet he did. ‘Yes, well the problem is that since then he’s sort of gone missing.’
‘That was dramatic of him. No offence to your friend, but he didn’t strike me as being that imaginative.’
‘And I think you were the last person to see him, and I just wondered if he said anything to you which might shed some light.’
‘Not really. Sorry.’
‘He didn’t – I don’t know – invite you anywhere?’
‘Invite me?’ she laughed. He got the impression that she was laughing at the idea rather than him, and found that he liked the sound of her laugh very much. He wondered how a man went about making a woman like this laugh a lot more. Probably not by criticising her taste in art. What’s the appeal? Jesus. He cringed inwardly. ‘I’m sorry Mister,’ she peered at his ID badge ‘McBride….’
‘Call me Steve.’
‘…but your colleague didn’t invite me anywhere. He came on a bit strong and I said I wasn’t interested – several times, in fact – and then he called me a frigid bitch.’
‘Oh Christ, I’m sorry.’
She continued quite matter-of-factly: ‘Not to my face, of course, but loud enough for me to hear it, so I threatened to complain to his supervisor – your supervisor, I suppose – and he stormed off. Look, don’t worry about it.’ She waved away his apologies. ‘I’ve been called a lot worse. He’ll be off nursing his bruised ego somewhere.’
Steve’s relief was palpable – it felt like something unknotting itself below his ribs. He should have known it would be something that simple. All the same, if Caffrey had shown his face at that precise moment Steve would cheerfully have punched him in it.
‘So anyway,’ she added, ‘I think I’m done here for the moment. It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Mr McBride.’
‘I said call me Steve.’
‘And I said it’s been a pleasure.’ She held his gaze a little longer than was strictly necessary, and turned to go.
‘Can I just say again how sorry I am for all of this?’ he blurted.
‘Please don’t. It’s starting to sound a little creepy now, and you made such a good first impression.’ Leaving him utterly tongue-tied, those incredible legs carried her out of the building.
It was only after she’d left that he realised he hadn’t even got her name.

6

That evening he presented the conversation to his kid sister Jackie for inspection. She was getting ready for her fortnightly Girls’ Night Out while he took care of dinner time for her two boys, Mark and Will. Uncle Steve’s culinary skills didn’t run to much more than fish-fingers, chips and peas, but that was fine with them, being only six and eight years old respectively. They threw food at each other in front of Nickelodeon while he scrubbed vainly at the scorched mess that he’d made of the grill pan, and Jackie drifted in and out of the kitchen, demanding forensic detail of the encounter.
She stopped, fiddling with an earring. ‘She said what?’
‘That it had been a pleasure,’ he repeated.
‘And then she looked at you?’
‘Yep.’
‘How did she look at you?’
‘What do you mean, how did she look at me?’
‘Well, was it a look or a Look?’
He thought about it. ‘I don’t know. Maybe it was a Look.’
‘And then you said what?’
‘Well I didn’t know what to say, did I?’
Jackie groaned in despair and whacked him over the head with a spatula. ‘You great nurk, that was it! That was the come-on and you missed it!’
‘How is a Look a come-on?’
‘What did you expect her to do – wrap her legs around your waist and say “Take me now, Big Boy”?’ He resumed scrubbing glumly, and she drifted out again but returned a few moments later, hopping on one foot while doing up a shoe – one of her self-confessed ‘slut-pumps’. ‘Next time she shows, you have to ask her out,’ she decided.
‘No, I’ve buggered it now, haven’t I? A girl like that – she’s never going to go out with a bloke like me.’
‘Not if you keep coming out with self-pitying crap like that, she’s not.’
‘Thank you for your support. I shall wear it always.’
Jackie stopped wrestling with her shoe and seized him in a fierce hug from behind. ‘Listen, big bruv,’ she said. ‘You are a six-foot-one security guard who looks a bit like Ben Affleck in a flattering light, likes kids and can sometimes hold a conversation which isn’t about sport. Admittedly you can’t cook to save your life, but that just proves you’re not actually gay. There are thousands of women in this city who would throw themselves at a bloke like you, believe me. I can still set you up with one of the girls from work, if you like.’
‘No bloody fear. I ended up needing stitches last time, remember?’
‘Suit yourself.’ She gave him a peck on the back of the head and breezed away in a cloud of Ange Ou Demon, singing La-Gaga’s “Born This Way” cheerfully off-key.
Later, when his nephews were tucked in, he fired up Jackie’s laptop and googled She Shall Be Called Woman. It had been painted by George Frederick Watts, who was apparently considered to be one of the greatest Victorian artists, and was supposed to be the central of three paintings depicting the creation, temptation, and eventual repentance of Eve. Steve had no idea how this helped him at all, except that maybe it gave him something to talk about to the woman in the blue dress.
But over the next few weeks he was never able to quite bring it up.
She came by at precisely the same time each Friday, giving him a polite smile and a little nod of recognition as she passed his desk, went upstairs to commune with Eve, and then left. She never lingered to examine any other artworks, and she never stopped to chat, and each time that he failed to start up a conversation with her made it harder the next time. He may well have made a good first impression, but at the moment he was performing a painfully slow crash-and-burn all of his own. This, he was sure, would have continued until the painting returned to the Tate and she disappeared from his life forever, except that she crashed first.



Don't make me say it. Just go here. You know what to do next.

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