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14

Joy, joy, happy joy.

Happy happy joy.

That big fat smiley sun rose up once more above the Brentford roofscape. It beamed down today upon a borough strangely hushed. There was the milk float of Mr Melchizedec bottle-jingling-jangling along. But it seemed queerly muted, as it moved upon its jingle-jangle way. And that tomcat, softly snoring on the window sill of the Flying Swan, growled somewhat in its sleep, as Mr Melchizedec stretched his hand to tousle up its head. And Mr Melchizedec, silent whistling, was aware that something altogether wrong had entered into Brentford and was waiting cobra-coiled and deadly and about to spring.

Derek awoke in his bachelor bed. Rather bruised was Derek and not in a joyous frame of mind. He'd had more than a night of it, what with the beatings he'd taken at the hoary hands of brutal poetesses and later at the leather-gloved and far more brutal mitts of FART men, who had bundled him, along with many others, into the back of a Black Maria and later into a grossly overcrowded police cell. It had been five in the morning before he'd been able to talk his way to freedom. Which hadn't been a minute too soon, as a large and bearded tattooed poet, who was evidently no stranger to prison life and who referred to himself as 'I'm the daddy now', had just been explaining to Derek exactly what Derek's role as 'my bitch' involved.

Derek had hauled his sorry ass back home in a painful huff.

Derek yawned and stretched and flinched from the pain of numerous bruisings. Somehow, he felt absolutely certain, this was all Kelly's fault. It just had to be. That woman was trouble. Trouble travelled with her like an alligator handbag. Or a cold sore that you couldn't quite shake off.

'But I hope she didn't get injured,' said Derek to himself. 'No, sod it. I hope someone punched her in the face. No, I don't really. Yes, I do. Well I don't, but I do.'

So to speak.

Others might have been rising early with Derek. But most weren't. Most involved in the affray were still locked up in the police cells. One called Trevor Alvy was learning the duties of 'my bitch'. But those who had managed to creep or crawl away home, were not, most definitely not, getting up for work. They would be calling in sick. And those of a religious bent would be doing so content in the knowledge that they would soon be Raptured, so what did work matter anyway?

Among this potentially joyous throng was the wandering bishop. Not that he was cashing in as yet upon his joy potential. The wandering bishop had wandered further than he might have hoped for. He had awakened high in the branches of an ornamental pine on the south bank of the Thames in the Royal Botanical gardens of Kew, where his elevated wanderings had carried him.

Kelly awoke in her rented bed at Mrs Gormenghast's. The pillowcases were still puce, as were the duvet and the curtains and the carpet. Steerpike the cat, Mrs Gormenghast's darling, was also puce, but it was a cat thing. Steerpike hailed from the Isle of Fizakery, where every cat is puce.

Kelly yawned and stretched and climbed out of her bed and stood upon Steerpike the cat. Steerpike the cat swore briefly in feline and took to his furry heels.

Kelly was not this morn pleasingly naked. She had slept in her polyvinylsynthacottonlatexsuedosilk mix dress, which was badly ripped and shredded. And slept very badly too. Her hair was tangled and she had bags of darkness under her eyes. She did not look the very picture of rude good health. She looked deathly pale.

Kelly took herself over to the cheval glass and examined her reflection therein. She did not find it pleasing to behold. The events of the previous evening had sorely troubled her. A feeling of overwhelming gloom smothered her like a damp shroud.

Kelly's fingers teased at the tangled hair. She stared at herself in the mirror's glass. A great deal of cosmetic restoration work was going to be necessary, if she was to look anything approaching her natural best for her first day at Mute Corp.

Kelly chewed upon her Cupid's bow and as she stared into the mirror it seemed for just a moment, just as a little subliminal flash, that the face of Big Bob Charker stared right back at her.

Kelly shuddered, she felt tears pushing forward into her blue blue eyes. But she forced them back. Big girls did not cry. She had to remain in control.

She had to take control.


At a little after seven thirty of the sunny morning clock, Kelly Anna Sirjan descended the stairs and entered the breakfasting area. She wore a lime green dress of chromecolorpolysynthasuedodickydido and looked as ever radiant as ever she had looked.

Upon her feet she wore a pair of bright red Doveston holistic ankle boots with tieback super-trooper fudge-tunnels, multi-socket implants and wide-trammel cross-modulating flux imploders. They were the very latest thing. And didn't they look it too.

The fire blazed brightly in the hearth and Mrs Gormenghast, wearing a puce nun's habit with matching wimple, greeted her with an Ave Maria and set to cooking hot crossed buns.

'Did you hear what happened at the Brentford Poets last night?' she called over the bubbling cauldron on the stove. 'The coming of the Antichrist, by all accounts. They say that dozens were carried off to glory, but many more have taken the mark of the Beast.'

'Do you have any coffee?' Kelly asked.

'Only tea, dear. Coffee is the Devil's drink.'

'I'll just have a glass of water then.'

'I've plenty of that, dear. I've had the tap blessed by Father O'Blivion, all the water that comes out of it now will be holy.'

'Do you have a home computer here?' Kelly asked.

'Bless me no,' said Mrs Gormenghast, ladling lard into the cauldron and wondering how it was that hot crossed buns were supposed to be made. 'My husband used to have one. A Mute Corp 3000 series, big bugeroo with side-flange demi-speakers and deep-throat hard blast modulator drive. I believe it worked on some system involving the transperambulation of pseudo-cosmic antimatter, but I couldn't say for sure, because I never used it. I have hay fever you see.'

Kelly nodded in the way that said she really did. 'What was it you said happened to your husband?' she asked.

Mrs Gormenghast scratched at her puce perm with a wooden spoon. 'I don't rightly recall,' she said. 'Did I say that he was run over by a juggernaut? Or was he carried away by the fairies? It's so hard to keep up with current events nowadays and a week is a long time in politics. Do you want grated cheese on your hot crossed buns?'

'Parmesan?'

'No, I'll use a fork.'


At a little after eight of the gone-without-any-breakfast clock, Kelly left the house of Mrs Gormenghast. She did not leave by the front door but by the old back entrance, that used to be reserved for hawkers, tradespersons, mandolin players by moonlight and Tom the butcher's boy. She walked hurriedly up the garden path, between the blooming puce rhododendrons, flowering puce gladioli, glorious puce sunflowers and spreading puce spruce trees and looking left and right and up and down as well, slipped behind the trellis work that hid the two puce dustbins and the garden shed, all painted puce. Kelly lifted the latch and entered the shed.

She stepped over the half a bag of solid cement and peered down through the semidarkness towards a mound of coal sacks. A low murmur came from beneath them.

Kelly stooped and carefully lifted a sack. And then she stepped back briskly, careful not to scrape her expensive footwear on the aforementioned half a bag of solid cement.

On the floor lay Big Bob Charker. He lay face down. His hands were tightly bound behind his back with strips torn from Kelly's polyvinylsynthacottonlatexsuedosilk mix dress. His ankles were similarly secured and drawn up to his wrists. Another strip of dress served as a gag and this was knotted at the nape of the big man's neck.

'It's me, Kelly,' said Kelly. 'I'm sorry that I had to knock you out and drag you here and I'm sorry I had to tie you up like this. But it was for your own sake. You would have killed yourself. Or something would have killed you. I didn't touch your skin. I'm sure I'm not infected by whatever it is you're suffering from. But you'll have to stay here until I can find out what to do to help you. I'll come back later and bring you food. I'm going to Mute Corp. I know the answer to all this lies there.'

Big Bob growled through his gag and struggled fear-somely. Blood flowed from his wrists. It was just a matter of time before he broke free. Kelly delved into her shoulder bag, brought out a pair of white kid gloves, slipped them on, knelt over the big man and applied a Dimac 'quietening' touch to his left temple. Big Bob lapsed from consciousness.

Kelly re-covered him with the coal sacks. Left the shed, the garden and the street and went in search of the cab she should have ordered earlier.


Orders had never been Derek's thing. He knew that he was a free spirit. And an innovator, a man of imagination, a natural leader. If he hadn't had such a rough night of it last night he would have been feeling a great deal happier about dealing with this present day to come.

In charge.

In complete charge of the Brentford Mercury.

The man at the helm. The captain of the ship. The man who made decisions. Dictated the editorial policy. Did the business.

You have to balance things, you really do. The ups with the downs. The goods with the bads. The obfus-cations with the polyunsaturates. The antonyms with the antelopes. The diddy-do's with the rum-tiddly-um-pum-pums

And things of that nature generally.

And so by the time Derek had had his breakfast, been told off again by his mum for coming in so late, put on his very best suit and marched all the way to the offices of the Brentford Mercury, mentally composing a stupendous pun-filled alliterative phew-wot-a-scorcher of a headline, he was out of the deep down doldrums and up in the wispy white clouds and ready and willing and ready once more to tackle the task in hand.

'I am the man,' said Derek, as he upped the staircase, two stairs at a time, put the key that was now his responsibility into the lock of the outer door, turned it and entered the offices.

'You're late,' said Mr Speedy, the pink-suited little man from Mute Corp.

'We'll have the company dock him an hour's pay,' said Mr Shadow, the larger man from the same corporation, similarly suited but in a bright red ensemble.

'You!' exasperated Derek. 'What are you doing here? How did you get in?'

'We have our own keys,' said Mr Speedy. 'Issued by head office. Business never sleeps, you know. Time is money and time waits for no man and all that kind of rot.'

'Rot?' said Derek, making a face that some might have taken for fierce.

'Things to do,' said Mr Shadow. 'We will overlook the unpleasantness of our previous meeting. We're all healed. We bear you no malice.'

'I should think not,' said Derek. 'It wasn't me who threw you out of the -window. It was that Kelly woman and she doesn't work here any more.'

'So very pleased to hear it. Shall we proceed?'

'I have work to do,' said Derek. 'Perhaps you could come back later. Tomorrow possibly, or next week?'

'How amusing,' said Mr Shadow. 'Shall we proceed to the editor's office and discuss business?'

'I have a paper to put out.'

'Yes,' said Mr Speedy. 'And all on your own, by the look of it. Unless you noticed a crowd of employees queuing up to get in. On your late arrival.'

'Hm,' went Derek. 'Actually no.'

'No,' said Mr Speedy. 'There is only us. We three and we must put the paper together by ourselves.'

'Couldn't possibly be done,' said Derek. 'You need typographers, compositors, mixers of inks, straighteners of paper. Someone to make the tea and pop out for doughnuts. It's all terribly technical, you wouldn't understand any of it.'

Mr Speedy shook his head. Slowly he shook it. 'We only need this,' he said, pointing to that tiny briefcase jobbie that those in the know call a laptop.


Kelly's hands were in her lap. Demurely.

The office where she now demurely sat was a pretty swank and fab affair. Walls of brushed aluminium, clothed by the works of Rothko, Pollock, Humphrey (in his pre-video, postmodern, hyper-realistic period) and the inevitable Carson. The floor was of black basalt, a stone desk rested upon steel trestles like a fallen monolith. There were two chairs, one behind the desk, with Mr Pokey upon it. One before the desk, with Kelly, hands in lap. Demurely.

She sat upon a chair the shape of a scallop shell. It was silver grey in colour and it didn't have any legs. The chair hovered eighteen inches above the floor, but did it in centimetres, as they were far more modern.

There was something alarming about sitting in a chair that didn't have any legs, and Kelly found herself ill at ease and constantly pressing the heels of her fashionable footwear to the floor.


'It won't collapse,' said Mr Pokey. 'It works on a principle similar to magnetism, but not. If you catch my drift and I'm sure that you do.' He smiled upon her breasts. 'Do you?'

'Naturally,' said Kelly. 'But it is somewhat disconcerting.'

'Yes, they never caught on with the general public. People eh, there's no telling what they will respond favourably to. Well, actually there is, but we like to keep them thinking that we don't know what it is.'

'Yes,' said Kelly. 'I can understand that.'

'The company that cares,' said Mr Pokey. 'Founded by' He waved a hand and the face of Remington Mute appeared ghostlike and all 3-D above the desk of fallen stone. 'A legend. A true innovator. The man behind the most successful computer games company in the history of mankind. hellcab.' Mr Pokey waved his hand and a game screen gleamed and twinkled in the air, replacing the face of Remington Mute. Cars whizzed, explosions flashed. Sound effects came from hidden speakers.

Kelly barely suppressed a yawn. hellcab was standard stuff in her personal opinion. Hardly wonder boy or altered beast. But then she loved the old-fashioned games. They had a certain, well, humanity, if such a thing can ever be said about computer games.

'speedo,' said Mr Pokey and speedo hovered in the air. 'big truck rumble, fight night fifty, dog tattoo and maggot farm.' And up they came and dangled in the air.

'You know them all,' said Mr Pokey. 'And of course the search is on for even better and better. Better, faster, trickier, more challenging for the game-player. Back at the turn of the century everyone was placing their bets upon virtual reality. But what of that now? When was the last time you ever saw a player in a headset?'

'Yes that's true,' said Kelly. 'Why do you think that was?'

'Fashion,' said Mr Pokey. 'Plain and simple. As with clothes, music, cars, art, architecture, home furnishings, everything. You don't have to go on inventing things. Coming up with new things all the time. That's not necessary. You have Retro. Retro music, retro fashion, retro architecture. It's an homage to the greatness of the past. That's what made Remington Mute, he made computers big and comfortable again, the way they used to be. The way that people got nostalgic over. And the games. They were like the old games. Only better.'

'What makes them better?' Kelly asked. 'Is it the Mute-chip?'

'Mute-chip?' The big fat smile faded from the face of Mr Pokey. His gaze left Kelly's breasts and fixed itself upon her eyes. 'What do you know about the Mute-chip?'

'Well, nothing,' said Kelly hurriedly. And remaining very demure. 'I overheard two men talking about it, when I came into the building.'

'Did you indeed?' said Mr Pokey, leaning across his desk.

'I've no idea what it is. I thought it was only a Web Myth. Is it real? Is it something special?'

'Just product,' said Mr Pokey. But Kelly could see that he was pressing lighted pads that were set into his desktop.

'Anyway,' said Mr Pokey. 'I'm sure you'll learn all about the Mute-chip in the fullness of time. When you have risen to sufficient status within the company. But I wouldn't mention it in public if I were you. I am just replaying the CCTV footage of your arrival. If I can identify the two operatives, I will have them dismissed for their indiscreet talk.'

'No, please,' said Kelly. 'I wouldn't want that to happen because of me. They were whispering, actually. It's just that my hearing is very acute.'

'I wonder if you're lying,' whispered Mr Pokey.

'I can assure you I am not,' said Kelly. 'Now please tell me all about the job.'


'The job in hand', said Mr Speedy, 'is to promote Suburbia World Plc. Naturally this will be done mostly across the World Wide Web. But here, in this Luddite backwater, it must be done through the borough's official organ, the respected Brentford Mercury.'

'It's a newspaper,' said Derek. 'Not an advertising circular.'

'But this will bring jobs to the borough.'

'We don't have an unemployment problem here,' said Derek. 'And we don't have any homeless people sleeping on the streets. Well, we do have one, Mad John. But every borough has a Mad John, it's a tradition, or an old charter, or something. He sleeps in a hedge and he shouts at shoes.'

'Shoes?' said Mr Shadow.

'Shoes,' said Derek. 'He roots them out of the black bin liners that people of a charitable persuasion leave outside the charity shop on a Sunday night. Mad John gets the shoes out and puts them on parade upon the pavement and gives them a good telling-off.'

'Why?' asked Mr Speedy.

'Because that's what he does. He's a local character.'

Mr Speedy had his tiny briefcase laptop jobbie open. He was pressing tiny little jobbie keys on it. 'Sunday evenings, you say?' said he. 'Outside the charity shop. That would be the one on the High Street would it? The sfsasbisoagh. The Society for Small and Shoeless Boys in Search of a Good Hiding.'

'What are you doing?' Derek asked.

'Putting it on the schedule,' said Mr Speedy. 'All we have down for Sunday evenings so far is', he pushed more keys and peered at the screen, 'watching Old Pete plant sprouts in Allotment World'

'Allotment World?' said Derek.

Mr Speedy read from the screen. 'Enjoy a real-life safari across Brentford's very own horticultural kingdom and wild-life preserve. Can you spot the giant feral tomcat of legend? Identify twenty-two different species of sprout? Find the spot where the sacred mandrake grows?'

'Mandrake?' said Derek. 'It grows in Brentford?'

'A character called Old Vic grows it. We have a file on him. He used to be a prisoner of war.'

'I know,' said Derek, burying his face in his hands.

'So we'll add in this Mad John,' said Mr Speedy, punching keys. 'He shouts, you say? Is he violent?'

'Perhaps you should check that out for yourself.' Derek peeped up through his fingers.

'We will,' said Mr Shadow. 'We check everything out.'

'It's not a safe area, you know,' said Derek, straightening up. 'There was a big riot in the Arts Centre last night. I was in it. There was blood, I have bruises, would you like to see them?'

'I have bruises of my own,' said Mr Speedy. 'Mine are far more impressive than yours.'

'I'm sure they're not,' said Derek.

'Our company has a division that specializes in urban pacification,' said Mr Shadow. 'Any trouble from the locals will be swiftly dealt with.'

'Oh yes?' said Derek, the tone of sarcasm ringing in his voice. 'So what will you do, put a big fence around the borough as well?'

'Naturally,' said Mr Shadow. 'We can't have anyone sneaking into Suburbia World without paying.'


'Regarding pay,' said Kelly. 'You mentioned a certain figure yesterday that seemed very generous, particularly as the nature of my job here was somewhat unspecific. You mentioned a contract, has that been drawn up?'

'The figure stands, the contract has been drawn up. You will find the job itself challenging. It should appeal to you. You impress me as a young woman with highly competitive instincts. We at Mute Corp are always working on new games. And we're always looking for qualified participants, players, to test the systems.'

'All right,' said Kelly. 'Well I'm up for it. I've played a lot of computer games in my time'

'We're well aware of that,' said Mr Pokey.

'You are?'

'Of course. We have files on everyone.'

'Everyone?' said Kelly. 'You can't have files on everyone.'

'Mute Corp manages the Government's mainframe, which is linked to the armed services and the emergency services mainframes. Mute Corp manages the communications network. Mute Corp manages all of the World Wide Web.'

'You have to be kidding,' said Kelly.

'Oh no,' said Mr Pokey. 'And it's all there for the public to see. The Freedom of Information Act, you know. Check the Mute Corp web site. We have no secrets.'

'So tell me about this Mute-chip of yours.'

'The corporation's business dealings and interests are not a secret. Obviously the technology we develop is.'

'And so your files on me said that I had potential as what? A games tester?'

'Absolutely. Your university career. Your access to the games library, at the university. You have a natural aptitude towards the playing of computer games. If your natural aptitude lay with mathematics we'd employ you in the accounts department. We only employ operatives according to their specialized skills. And everybody's skills are all on file. Everything's on file. Your whole life's on file. I can tell you the address where you are currently lodging. You wrote out an old-fashioned paper cheque for your landlady, Mrs' Mr Pokey tapped keys, 'Mrs Gormenghast, and she's on file too, bought two pots of puce paint, serial number 10A/BC444 from Homebase in Chiswick last week. Everything is computer-linked. Everything. Surely you are aware of this?'

'Of course,' said Kelly. 'But it is a little frightening when you hear it being read out like that.'

'You haven't committed any crimes,' said Mr Pokey. 'You're a model citizen. No violations of penal codes. No misdemeanours.'

'No,' said Kelly. 'None.'

'You are an ambitious young woman and we are offering you a challenging position.'

'All right,' said Kelly. Ill take it.'

'Well of course you will, you wouldn't be here if you weren't going to. Would you? So we'll get you all checked out'

'Checked out?' said Kelly.

'Just the standard medical.'

'I see.'

'And then you will be highly paid for doing something you enjoy. What could possibly be better than that?'

Kelly thought about it. What could possibly be better than being highly paid for doing something you enjoy? Nothing really. And while she was doing this something, she \vould find out everything she needed to know about Mute Corp. Every little secret.

Or every big secret.

And yes, she was ambitious, and yes, she was highly competitive. And yes, not only would she beat their games, she would expose to the world whatever it was that Mute Corp had done to Big Bob Charker and those hapless souls who had apparently vanished from the face of the earth.

She would.

Oh yes she would.


'Right,' said Kelly. 'I'm up for it. I'll take the medical and get straight into your game.'

'Splendid,' said Mr Pokey. 'I knew you were perfect for the job. We never make a mistake at Mute Corp.' And his eyes were back on her breasts once more and the smile was back on his face.

Kelly smiled. 'Just one thing,' she said. 'What is the name of this new game of yours?'

'go mango,' said Mr Pokey.


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