The morning sun touched lightly on the eyes of Kelly Anna.
The suburban bedroom where she awoke wasn't white though, it was puce. Whether puce really qualifies at all as to being a colour, is a subject for scholars to debate upon. But hopefully in some hall of academe where the walls aren't painted puce. Puce and beige are closely related.
Pink and puce are not.
Kelly yawned and studied her watch. It was nearly nine fifteen.
Kelly rose, and had she been observed by a waking companion, he, or possibly she, would have seen that this golden girl slept naked. But then he, or possibly she, would have known that already. Sunlight, entering through the puce net curtains, fell upon the sweeping curves of Kelly's voluptuous body. Connoisseurs of the female form remain in disagreement regarding the way that a woman's body should be lit to its most pleasing effect. Many favour candlelight and many more the glow of the full moon. But few would argue that a warm and tousled female, lately risen from the bed and caught in the first rays of the sun, is not an article of such supreme beauty as to raise eulogies from poets and other things from hot-blooded males, which make them late for work.
Kelly showered in the puce-tiled en suite. Dried and dressed and attended to the minutiae of make-up and hair-combing.
Young and assured, golden and girl, she went downstairs and ordered the full English breakfast.
It was a little after ten of the joyous sun-kissed morning clock that Chief Constable Peter Westlake, son of the infamous Don and brother to the sinister Arkon Lucifer Abraxus Westlake (who spoke only in iambic pentameter and ate the food upon his dinner plate in alphabetical order), looked up from the duty desk of the Brentford nick to cast a connoisseur's eye in the direction of the beautiful creature that had lately entered the establishment.
In the opinion of the chief constable, a woman's naked body was lit to its most pleasing effect by a single naked light bulb in a small and naked cell.
But, as he was very good at his job, Chief Constable Westlake's superiors overlooked his little peccadilloes, only making sure that he was accompanied by at least two women officers when interviewing a female suspect.
'Ah,' said the chief constable, as Kelly Anna approached the duty desk. 'Come to give yourself up. Very wise.'
'I have no idea what you're talking about,' said Kelly.
Chief Constable Westlake shook his head slowly and surely. It was a very long head. It rose almost to a point. It was one of those rare heads that can actually fill a policeman's helmet. Which meant that he'd never had to wear the chinstrap when he'd been a constable. Which had been handy, as he didn't have a chin.
'You've come to make a full confession,' said the chief constable.
'I haven't,' said Kelly.
'No matter. We have many techniques at our disposal.'
'I've come to report a missing person,' said Kelly. 'And I'd like a printout of all persons reported missing in the London area during the last two months.'
'Indeed?' said the chief constable, resting his elbows upon the desk and cradling the chinless area of his face between his upturned palms. 'Well, you're certainly at liberty to report a missing person. But I cannot allow you access to police databanks.'
Kelly Anna Sirjan smiled upon Chief Constable Westlake.
Chief Constable Westlake smiled back upon her.
'Oh dear,' said Kelly. 'This puts me in a bit of a dilemma.'
'It does?' said the chief constable.
'Yes it does. I don't know whether to employ my womanly charms, flutter my eyelashes and brush my breasts lightly across your desk.'
The chief constable's pointy head began to nod up and down.
'Or quote the Freedom of Information Act, which clearly states that the general public are entitled to view any, or all information held within the police databanks that does not refer directly to named criminals or suspects.'
The chief constable's pointy head ceased nodding. Most men secretly fear intelligent women. Some men openly hate them. CC Westlake was one of the latter.
'This could take some time,' he said. 'You'd better sit yourself down for a couple of hours.'
'No problem,' said Kelly. 'I generally like to meditate at this time of the day. It involves entering a state of trance, please wake me gently.'
Chief Constable Westlake turned his pointy head and shouted, 'Meek! Come here at once!'
A constable with a black eye and a fat Up appeared from a doorway to the rear of the duty desk. He had been seventh man up to the site of yesterday's bus crash. A fireman called Norman had put him out for the count.
'Constable, deal with this woman,' said Westlake. 'And don't allow her to view any classified information.'
'Any what?' asked the constable. 'We don't have any of that kind of thing knocking around here, do we, guv?'
'Just do what you're told, Constable.'
'Yes, but guv…'
'Just do it lad, or know the wrath of my displeasure.'
'Yes, sir. Gotcha.' The constable saluted.
'Why are you wearing that sombrero?'
'A fireman nicked my helmet, guv.'
'And the spotted cravat? Did he nick your tie too?'
'Oh no, guv. The lads and I were discussing the Hegelian dialectic up in the canteen. The cravat is merely symbolic.'
Chief Constable Westlake sighed wearily. 'Just get this woman a printout of all persons reported missing in the London area during the last two months. And take a statement from her about a missing person of her own.'
'Can I use the big new computer, guv?'
Westlake raised his eyebrows. 'What big new computer would that be, then?'
Constable Meek whispered into the ear of his superior officer. Kelly caught the words 'raid on the premises of… dodgy gear… open and shut case… friend of the DI… same lodge… two hundred pounds each hush money… new computer for the station… no more questions asked.'
'Ah,' said the chief constable. 'That computer. Well lad, crank it up and give this woman the printout. And take off that bloody silly hat, you look like the Cisco Kid.'
'The Cisco Kid?' asked Constable Meek.
'Hero of the popular 1950s American TV series,' said Kelly. 'The Cisco Kid was played by Duncan Renaldo. His comedy relief sidekick, Pancho, by the now legendary Leo Carillo. Every episode ended with the lines "Oh Cisco", "Oh Pancho". There were three hundred and thirty-two episodes. And the series ran up until 1961 when Leo Carillo sadly passed away at the grand old age of eighty.'
Constable Meek and Chief Constable Westlake stared at Kelly Anna Sirjan.
'How on Earth did you know that?' asked Westlake.
'I read a lot,' said Kelly. 'Should I follow you, Constable Meek?'
The big new computer stood upon a desk in an otherwise empty office on the second floor of the Brentford nick. Although it was clean and new-looking, it was actually an out of date Mute Corp 3000 Series. The office was not entirely otherwise empty. There were cardboard boxes in evidence. And wires. And complicated keyboards and user's manuals and more wires and a number of dangerous-looking black boxes with warning stickers on them.
Kelly viewed all with an interested eye. 'Who has been wiring this up?' she asked.
Constable Meek reddened slightly in the cheeks. 'Well, most of us, really,' he confessed. 'We haven't made too much progress yet, but we remain confident that our endeavours will be rewarded with a satisfactory conclusion to the operation in the fullness of time. So to speak.'
'Would you like me to put it online for you?'
'Oh would you really? Oh yes please.'
Kelly applied her talents to the job in hand. Shortly thereafter her endeavours were rewarded with a satisfactory conclusion.
'There you go,' said Kelly. 'Now I'll need the password so that I can access the police databanks.'
'Yes,' said the constable, nodding his head.
'So, what is it?'
'What is what?'
'Password,' said the constable.
'Yes, password. What is the password?'
'Password,' said the constable once more.
'You're telling me that the password, is password?'
'Yes,' said the constable. 'Password is the official password for all government computers. Even MIS and Department S. Not to mention GHQ.' The constable paused.
Kelly typed in password.
'You're supposed to say "GHQ?"' said the constable. 'And then I say, "I told you not to mention that." It's a running gag.'
'How amusing,' said Kelly. 'Now I just type in a request for a list of missing persons and request a hard copy, do I?'
The constable shrugged in a petulant manner. 'A running gag isn't a running gag if people refuse to run it,' he said.
Kelly typed in her request. Pressed PRINT and waited.
'Actually I really love technology,' said the constable. 'And I love the way that computers have got all big again. This is a Mute Corp 3000, one of the biggest you can get. All those miniaturized jobbies that came in around 2010. The ones that you wore inside your contact lenses. I could never be having with them.'
'No-one could,' said Kelly. 'People felt cheated by microtechnology, computer systems that fitted on a pinhead. People like plastic boxes with gubbins inside them. Plastic boxes are comforting.'
'And black ones are really macho,' said Constable Meek. 'Oooh, what's it doing now?'
'It's printing out,' said Kelly.
And printing out it was.
Paper spilled from the printer. Paper from a big roll at the back. Jack Kerouac typed On the Road in the 1950s upon a specially converted typewriter that had a spool of paper on the back. It took him only three weeks to type out his best-seller and it was all on a single piece of paper. Not a lot of people know that interesting fact.
'There's at least a page full,' said Constable Meek, preparing to rip it from the roll.
'There's more coming,' said Kelly.
And there was.
'That's fifteen pages' worth,' said Constable Meek, fourteen pages later.
'There's more coming.'
And there was.
'Jumping Jesus on a rope. Give me joy and give me hope,' went Constable Ronald Meek, son of the famous Nigel and brother to the pirate Black Jake Meek (who always wore a wooden leg but never owned a parrot). 'There's fifty pages, no sixty, no maybe seventy. Half of the population of London seem to have all gone missing.'
Kelly tore off the paper. 'It's hundreds,' she said. 'But not thousands. But it's far too many people. This isn't good. It isn't.'
'It's The Rapture,' said the suddenly enlightened Constable Meek. 'The good are being carried off to Glory. I must tell the chief constable.'
'Don't do that,' said Kelly.
'But I must. If I am to be lifted bodily into Heaven, he'll need to call in a replacement for me from the Met. There's a lot of paperwork involved. He'll want to get started at once.'
'It isn't The Rapture,' said Kelly, who, truth to tell, was almost beginning to wonder. 'And I wouldn't go bothering the chief constable with it. Well, not at least until I've left the building.'
'Oh must you go?' asked Constable Meek. 'I was hoping to ask you out to lunch. There's this restaurant I know, the Laughing Sprout. You are a vegetarian, aren't you?'
Kelly smiled and nodded. 'However did you guess?' she asked.
'Call it intuition,' said the unintuitive constable.
'Could you just give me half an hour alone with this computer first?' asked Kelly. 'Before you take me out to lunch.'
'Oh yes,' said Constable Meek. 'Half an hour. I'll change out of my cravat. I'll see you in half an hour.'
Half an hour later the constable returned, but Kelly Anna Sirjan had, like Elvis, left the building.
Kelly sat once more in the saloon bar of the Flying Swan. Before her on the table was the stack of computer printouts, torn into page-sized portions. Beside this lay something most intriguing. It was another printout, but this one came in the form of a map of Greater London. Kelly had programmed the computer to print out this map, dotting the last known addresses of the listed missing persons, along with the dates of their disappearances. The map made for interesting viewing.
Most of the disappearances appeared to have occurred during the last fourteen days. And there was a definite pattern. There were no dots in Brentford, which meant that Dr Druid had not as yet made a report to the police. But a trail of dots led directly to the borough. It was one of eight such trails. They spread over the map like the legs of some titanic spider, the body of which was splattered black with dots. And appeared to cover most of an urban conurbation known as Mute Corp Keynes.
'Mute Corp Keynes,' said Kelly to no-one but herself. 'The new town Utopia built in 2002 by Remington Mute the computer billionaire. "The town of tomorrow, today", if I recall the advertising slogan correctly, and I do. Turned out to be not so much a Utopia as a dystopia, a regular ghetto. He never invested in any more new towns after that. Significant? Perhaps.'
'Hello,' said the voice of Derek. 'Fancy seeing you here.'
'Thank God you've arrived,' said Kelly.
'Oh,' said Derek. 'Is it something important?'
‘I’ll say it is. Take a look at this.'
Derek looked. 'You're pointing to your stomach,' he said.
'I am,' said Kelly. 'It's empty and you're just in time to buy me lunch. They've got a special up on the blackboard. A surf and turf. I'll have that and I'll have a glass of red wine too.'
Derek smiled somewhat thinly and took himself off to the bar counter.
'Barman,' he was heard to call. 'Barman, excuse me please.'
Somewhat later, Kelly pushed away her empty plate and dabbed at her Cupid's bow with an oversized red gingham napkin. 'That hit the spot,' she said, smiling. Derek had just watched her licking clean the plate. 'You certainly enjoy your food,' said he, in "what is known as a 'guarded fashion'.
'I have two stomachs,' said Kelly. 'My dinner stomach and my pudding stomach. My pudding stomach's still empty.'
'I really couldn't face another wait at the bar,' said Derek. 'That old boy nearly had me insulting the barman again. It was a close-run thing.'
'I'll just have a Mars bar later then. How are your investigations going?'
'What investigations?' Derek asked.
'Into the missing patients.'
'I told you I was dropping that. And that sample I took from the bed in the ward turned out to be KY jelly. If it turns out that Dr Druid's butchered the patients, I'll cover the trial. I'm doing an article on the floral clock today.'
'You don't think that the bus crash and the vanishing patients might merit a bit more column space?'
'Mr Shields is dealing with that himself.' Derek now whispered. 'A little bird told me that the police raided his office last night. They confiscated all that computer equipment.'
Kelly teased at her golden hair. 'Why would the police raid his office?'
'I've no idea. But that's a news story in itself. But somehow I don't think he'll let me write it up. What are you doing today? What are all these computer printouts?'
'Just research. What do you know about Mute Corp Keynes?'
‘It's a dump,' said Derek. 'An urban wasteland. Crime City UK. I've got an aunty who lives there. She doesn't dare venture out at night without wearing full body armour. It's the only town in England where you can put up a sign on your house that says intruders will be met by armed response and do it legally. It's a police no-go zone. It's…'
'Not a very nice place, by the sound of it.'
'I wouldn't know,' said Derek. 'I've never been there.'
'Your aunty's going to get a real surprise when you turn up outside her door this afternoon then.'
'What?' said Derek.
They actually had a border post with barbed-wire fences and all. A guard with a clipboard waved down Derek's car. His car was a Ford Fiesta. It was a collector's piece.
'Wind down your window sir and don't make any sudden moves,' said the border guard, displaying an impressive array of armaments.
Derek wound his window down in a slow and easy manner.
'Anything to declare?' asked the border guard. He was a very big border guard, he bulged out of his uniform. 'Have you anything to declare?'
Derek knew better than to offer an Oscar Wilde. 'Nothing to declare,' he said. 'We're just visiting my aunty.'
The border guard looked in at Derek. 'You're not a very big man, are you?' he said.
'I'm big enough,' said Derek.
'I'll put you down as one-way visitors,' said the border guard. 'It will save me the paperwork later.'
‘I’ll only be an hour,' said Derek.
'Oh I see,' said the border guard. 'Well please excuse me, sir. I had no idea that you were a superhero. It's always hard to tell.'
'I'm a newspaper reporter,' said Derek.
'Aha,' said the border guard. 'Mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet. Welcome to Mute Corp Keynes, Mr Kent.'
'Can I just go through now, please?'
The border guard leaned in at the car window. 'Listen,' said he. 'I'm being serious now. This isn't a good place to be. People go missing here. Lots of people. If you go missing we have no jurisdiction to come in searching for you.'
'Damn this,' said Derek. 'Things are really that bad here, then, are they?'
'They're worse,' said the border guard. 'They keep it out of the papers because it looks bad for the Government. Mr Doveston wouldn't look quite so good if the public knew about this place. It's like a black hole of crime. I'm not messing with you. Turn back now. Take the young lady far away from here. They're animals in there, there's no telling what they'd do to her. Well actually there is.'
'We're going back,' said Derek.
'We're not,' said Kelly.
'Don't be absurd. I'm not taking you in there.'
Tm not afraid.'
'Well I hate to admit it, but I am.'
'Then I'll go in alone.'
'Why?' asked Derek. 'You don't even know my aunty.'
'This is nothing to do with your aunty, Derek. This is something big. And if there is one little ounce of manhood inside you, you'll come in with me. I'll go in alone, if you don't.'
'It's your funeral,' said the border guard. 'If they ever find your body, that is.'
'Back,' said Derek.
'Forward,' said Kelly.
Forward apparently had it.
Derek drove slowly through the deserted streets.
'I can't believe this place,' he said. 'I mean this is South London. I know South London can be a bit rough, but this is over the top. Look at it, burnt-out shops, burnt-out cars, the only buildings standing are barred up like fortresses. This can't be real. It can't be.'
'There is something very very wrong about this place,' said Kelly.
'Yes, I can see that plainly enough.'
'But can you feel it?'
'I feel very very afraid. I really need the toilet, but I think I'll wait until I get home. If I get home at all.'
'Pull up here,' said Kelly.
'Here? Why here?'
'Because there's a stinger strung out across the road ahead, under all that debris. You don't really want to drive over it.'
'Oh God,' said Derek. 'I never noticed.'
'You -weren't intended to.'
'Let's turn around and get out of this asylum. Before some sniper picks us off or we drive into a minefield.'
'Where does your aunty live?' Kelly asked.
'I really can't imagine that she's living any more.'
'Well, just in case. Where does she live?'
Derek checked his London A-Z and noticed for the first time the slim red line that ran around the not-so-new town known as Mute Corp Keynes. 'Second on the left, just past the burnt-out church.'
'Next to the burnt-out pub?'
'No past that. Opposite the burnt-out Citizens Advice Bureau.'
'You'd better drive on the pavement to avoid the stinger.'
Derek drove on the pavement.
His aunty's house was number twenty-two. The bungalow with the gun turret on the roof. The moat, the razor wire and the sign that warned of killer canines on the loose at night. Unlike the yard of the Brentford Tour Company, this was no idle warning.
Kelly observed the martial premises. 'Your aunty seems to have adapted well to the changing of the times,' said she.
'She was always pretty tough,' said Derek. 'She was in the SAS, only woman to ever make it to major. There's a lot of military in my family. I think I've always been a bit of a disappointment to them.'
'I really can't imagine why,' said Kelly Anna Sirjan.
There was a bell push on the iron gate that led into the moated compound. The sign above said knock down ginger on this bell and know the joy a bullet brings.
'Perhaps you'd care to ring,' said Derek.
'We are being laser-scanned,' said Kelly. 'I've a securiscan meter in my shoulder bag, I can feel it vibrating.'
'What?' went Derek.
'You'd better press the button. She doesn't know me.'
'Securiscan meter in your shoulder bag? I don't understand.'
'Just push the button please. We are also being scanned from across the street. I think we are about to be shot at.'
'Oh God, oh damn, oh me oh my,' said Derek, pushing the bell button.
Kelly pushed Derek suddenly aside. The deathly rattle of machine-gun fire came swiftly to her ears. Bullets ripped along the ground. And there was an explosion.
'Oh God!' screamed Derek, covering his head. 'We're going to die! We're going to die!'
Smoke and explosions, machine-gun fire mayhem and approaching death with no salvation? Off into the blackness of forever. Not to be borne up to The Rapture. Derek cowered and shivered and uttered certain prayers.
The lock on the gate clicked open. Kelly's hand reached out to Derek.
'Come with me, if you want to live,' she said.