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As Kelly didn't get back to her digs until after five in the morning, she lay rather longer in bed than normally she would have done.

She didn't raise her blondie head until half past ten, which didn't give her much time to get showered and dressed and breakfasted before she met up with Derek at eleven.

She had arranged to meet him in the saloon bar of a Brentford pub called the Shrunken Head.

Starting off the day in a pub might not have seemed to many people the right and proper thing to do. But then many people wouldn't have known, as Derek did, and as Derek told Kelly, that in the corner of the saloon bar of the Shrunken Head there was an original Space Invaders machine in fully working order.

And, as they'd come up even in the previous night's playing of pong, a decider would have to be played. So why not play it out upon this very machine?

'Why indeed not?' Kelly had said.

Kelly's breakfast plate was puce, as was the tablecloth it sat upon. Kelly's landlady, Mrs Gormenghast (daughter of the remarkable Zed and sister to Zardoz, the ornamental hermit, who lived all alone in a tree), stoked up the fire in the front sitter, where Kelly sat late-breakfasting. Mrs Gormenghast wore a pucely hued jumpsuit of a type which has happily gone the way of the split-knee loon pant and the Beatle wig. Not to mention the stylophone.

As if anybody would.

Kelly wore a simple summer frock of turquoise blue. It had no buttons to loosen, which given the fire's heat and all the closed windows, didn't help in the ever-warming atmosphere.

'Is that fire really necessary?' Kelly asked, as she mopped at her brow with a puce napkin.

'It keeps the Devil out,' said Mrs Gormenghast. 'Always keep a fire in your hearth and you'll never have to fear the Devil. My late husband used to say that. He knew what he was talking about.'

'Was he a preacher man?' Kelly asked.

'No, he was a coalman.'

'How do you get your fried eggs so puce?' Kelly asked.

'It's an old Indian trick, taught to me by an old Indian woman trickster. Puce is the colour of at-oneness. Did you know that if you take every single colour there is, about an ounce of each and mix them all together in a big pot, a very big pot obviously, the end result will be puce. Explain that if you will.'

'I can't,' said Kelly. 'But I suppose that…'

'You can split light with a prism, can't you?' asked Mrs Gormenghast.

'As far as I know,' said Kelly.

'Invisible light, it contains all the colours of the rainbow.'

Kelly nodded.

'So how come, if you mix all colours together in a pot they don't end up as an invisible transparent liquid?'

'Well…' said Kelly.

'Yes, that's easy for you to say. Well, well, I'll tell you why, well. Because prisms don't tell all of the truth. Nothing tells all of the truth. Nothing and nobody. The ultimate colour of the universe is puce. Mrs Charker down the road is of the mistaken belief that it is pink. Naturally, I respect her opinions, even if I know they are wrong.'

'Ah,' said Kelly. 'That would be Mrs Minky Charker, wife of Big Bob Charker who was in the bus crash.'

'That's her,' said Mrs Gormenghast. 'Her husband was carried off in The Rapture, I've heard. Not that it makes any sense to me, I've been keeping the Devil out of my fireplace and painting my house puce for years. If The Rapture's on the go, I should have been amongst the first of the blessed to be carried off to glory.'

'Perhaps it's happening in shifts,' said Kelly.

'Probably,' said Mrs G. 'God knows his own business best. The world can all go to pot at a moment's notice, my late husband used to say, but as long as you're all stocked up in nutty slack, you'll always have a welcome in your hearth. That man was a saint. It was a shame the way he met his end.'

Kelly didn't ask.

'Don't ask,' said Mrs Gormenghast. 'By the way, did you hear what happened to that nice Dr Druid at the cottage hospital, last night?'

'No,' said Kelly. 'What?'

'Raptured,' said Mrs Gormenghast. 'One moment he was giving an internal examination to a young woman suffering from verrucas, the next up and gone. I'm going to keep this fire well stoked today. I don't want the Antichrist coming down my chimney. And I shall be keeping this jumpsuit on indefinitely now. I want to look my best when my turn to be Raptured comes.'

'Dr Druid too?' said Derek. 'You really have to be joking.'

He was, as now was Kelly, in the saloon bar of the Shrunken Head. Derek had been there since half past ten, practising on the Space Invaders machine. He was chums with the barman. The barman had let him in early.

'I'm not joking,' said Kelly. 'I just heard. Dr Druid's vanished too. A young woman with verrucas saw it happen.'

Derek scratched at his head. 'There is something strange going on, isn't there?' he said.

'I really think there is,' said Kelly.

Derek now scratched at his chin. 'All right,' he said. 'I am supposed to be covering the annual over-eighties backwards walk between Kew and Richmond along the Thames towpath today. But I think it's a foregone conclusion, that old sod who had me with the Runese the night before last always wins it. I suggest we go to the cottage hospital and follow this thing up.'

'I think that's exactly what we shouldn't do,' said Kelly. 'I don't think we should go anywhere near the cottage hospital.'

'Why not?'

'It's just a theory.'

'I thought we were friends now. Tell me.'

'All right,' said Kelly. 'People are vanishing. Literally disappearing. The first one we know of is this Malkuth off the bus, after him go Periwig Tombs, Big Bob Charker and Malkuth's mum, off the bus, then goes Dr Druid. One after another. Like a disease which is being passed from one person to another, perhaps.'

'There's no disease that makes people vanish. Get real.'

'No disease that we know of, perhaps.'

'No disease. Period.'

'Period,' said Kelly. 'Your aunty said that. People are vanishing and it's all on the police computer. It all leads to Mute Corp Keynes. The black hole of cyberspace. This is somehow related to the country's computer system.'

'I can't imagine by what logic you can possibly draw that conclusion.'

'That is because you are a man, Derek, and I am a \voman.'

'That is no argument at all. Are you calling this woman's intuition?'

'Do you have any theories?'

'The Rapture?' said Derek.

'I thought not. Let's go to your house. I only need about half an hour on your home computer.'

'Er, no,' said Derek. 'My mum will be up. She doesn't like me bringing ladies into my room.'

Kelly gave Derek one of those looks.

'We could use the computer at the Brentford Mercury.'

'I thought it wasn't unpacked. And I think you'll find it's now at the police station.'

'You heard about that, did you? Not much slips by you. But I have my own workstation. I'm not a Luddite like Mr Shields.'

'Then shall we go?'

Derek glanced towards the Space Invaders machine. 'There is that matter of the deciding game,' he said.

'Best out of three. But then we definitely go.'

Derek had his head down as they walked along the High Street. He'd pushed Kelly into best out of seven, but she still just kept on winning.

It was another joyous day. The sun swelled high in the clear blue sky. Birdies called and twittered. There was something about the High Street, however, that didn't seem altogether right.

'Is it early closing day?' asked Kelly. 'An awful lot of shops seem to be shut.'

'Well, it is,' said Derek. 'But they shouldn't be shut this early.'

'Ah,' said Kelly, pointing. 'Look at that.'

Derek followed the direction of the elegant digit. On the door of Mr Beefheart's hung a simple note. 'Closed,' it read. 'Family awaiting The Rapture.'

'Oh dear,' said Derek. 'Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.'

'I think perhaps that we should be grateful for that.'

'Grateful?' said Derek. 'Why grateful?'

'Because it's infinitely preferable to a great black plague cross.'

'God, you don't think it will come to that, do you?'

'I don't know. Let's hope not.'

'Well we're here. The Mercury's offices seem to be open.'

'Then let's get right to it.'

Up the stairs they went. Kelly insisted that Derek led the way. Not because she didn't know the way. But just because she didn't want him looking up her dress.

No receptionist sat in reception.

'I hope Dettox hasn't been Raptured,' said Derek. 'She's the only one who ever makes me a cup of tea.'

'Do you know what,' said Kelly. 'I've never made a cup of tea or coffee for a man in all of my life. And I have no intention of ever doing so.'

Derek smiled. 'There's an old saying,' he said. 'A beautiful woman doesn't have to know how to change a tyre. Or something like that. I'm not being sexist of course. Oh, hold on, what's happening here?'

'Where?' Kelly asked.

Derek put his finger to his lips. 'There are people in Mr Shields's office. You can make them out through the frosted glass partition. I can see a fuzzy pink shape and a fuzzy red one and a large fuzzy Mr Shields-looking one.'

'Nothing unusual in that, surely.'

'Are you kidding? Mr Shields never has visitors. I don't know how you ever got through.'

'Dettox offered to make me a cup of tea. What are you doing?'

Derek was beckoning. 'Come with me quickly, to my office.'

Kelly shrugged and followed.

Derek's office was a dire little room that looked out onto a blank brick wall. There were no signs here of Derek's private obsession. Just a desk, a chair, a filing cabinet and a Mute Corp 4000 word processor. And a telephone with a voice broadcaster attachment jobbie. Derek picked up the receiver, tapped out several numbers then dropped it into the voice broadcaster attachment.

'What are you doing now?' Kelly asked.

'Being nosey. I took the liberty of installing a bug in Mr Shields's office. It helps me keep ahead of him and not get sacked.'

'Very enterprising.'

'Ssh,' said Derek and listened.

Kelly shushed and listened. She heard first the voice of Mr Shields.

'I'm sorry,' said Mr Shields. 'But I don't think I quite understand what you're talking about.' His voice sounded fierce. It didn't sound very happy at all.

'It is very straightforward,' said the voice of one of his visitors. 'My companion and I represent a multinational corporation. My card.'

There was a pause.

'Oh,' said the voice of Mr Shields. 'I see, that organization.'

'That organization, yes. They don't come any bigger, I'm sure you'll agree.'

'I'm very busy,' said Mr Shields. 'Perhaps this could wait until another day.'

'No,' said the voice of visitor number two. 'Our organization never waits. It gets things done at once.'

'Not here it doesn't,' said Mr Shields. 'This is Brentford.'

'Exactly!' said visitor number one. 'This is Brentford. Which is why we are here.'

'I've told you that I don't understand and I still don't.' Mr Shields was still keeping it fierce. The voices of his visitors were, however, calm.

'Do you know what data reaction is?' asked visitor number one.

'No,' said Mr Shields. 'And neither do I care.'

'It is what keeps our organization at the cutting edge of technology and everything else. Our mainframe scans the world for data. It assesses, it assimilates, it correlates, it sorts the wheat from the chaff and then it makes informed decisions.'

'Have you been sent by head office?' asked Mr Shields.

'Our organization owns head office,' said the voice of visitor number two. 'It owns the newspaper.'

'But you can't close it down. You can't touch it. I have a contract for life.'

'We have no wish to tamper with the way you run this newspaper. We have merely come to inform you of the organization's plans for the borough, so that you can play an active promotional role.'

Mr Shields made grumbling sounds.

'Data reaction,' said visitor number two. 'The mainframe received a sudden inrush of data from this borough, the evening before last, at precisely eight minutes past eight. Much of it was jumbled nonsense. But some of it was pertinent and of commercial value. Regarding something called Suburbia World Plc. Does this mean anything to you?'

'No,' said Mr Shields in a voice both fierce and puzzled.

'No-one has ever spoken to you about Suburbia World Plc?'

'No,' said Mr Shields. 'Never. What is it?'

'A theme park,' said visitor number one. 'It concerns turning the whole of Brentford into a suburban theme park.'

'What?' went Mr Shields.

'What?' went Derek.

'What?' went Kelly.

'Your week in Suburbia World Plc would not be complete without a boat trip to Brentford's own Fantasy Island.' Visitor number one spoke in a curious tone, as if he was a voice-over to a web site commercial. 'See the creature of myththat once inhabited this enchanted realm in the dream worlddays of the magic distant past. Take a safari through the wildlife sanctuary and rare bird reserve of Allotment World. You have to picture the images, sweeping aerial shots of the borough, taken from a helicopter. This will be big, very big.'

'But that's outrageous!' The voice of Mr Shields reached a level of fierceness beyond any as yet known to Derek.

'It is,' whispered Derek. 'It well and truly is.'

'Nevertheless,' said visitor number one, in a voice as calm as ever it had been. 'These concepts are now the property of our organization.'

'Hold on! Hold on!' The voice of Mr Shields was accompanied by the sounds of his chair being pushed back. 'You just stop right there. You said that your mainframe thingy received this information. That someone fed it into a computer somewhere.'

'It entered the databanks.'

'Then it is not your property. It's someone else's. Someone who could possibly be reasoned with.'

'What are you suggesting?' asked visitor number two.

'I don't know. But I know you can't do this. Brentonians won't stand for it. This isn't Disney World. This is a real place with real people in it.'

'That's what makes the concept so interesting. What invests it with such enormous commercial potential.'

'Get out of my office!' roared Mr Shields. 'Iconoclasts! Despoilers! Unclean spirits! Out demons out!'

'He's certainly loyal to the borough,' whispered Kelly.

'Mr Shields,' said visitor number two. 'We approached you because you are the editor of the borough's organ, as it were. Brentford is the only town in England, possibly the only town in all of the world that does not have its own official web site. Brentford appears to all but ignore the world that exists beyond its boundaries. It's an anachronism. It has enormous novelty value.'

There came crashing bashing sounds.

Derek said, 'I'd better get in there, before he goes completely berserk.'

'I think you should,' said Kelly.

Derek dashed off and Kelly continued to listen at the voice broadcaster attachment jobbie. She listened to the sounds of crashing and bashing. To the cries for mercy. To the further crashings and bashings. To the voice of Derek calling for reason. To further crashings and bashings and the voice of Derek calling for mercy also.

And then Kelly went in to sort things out.

Which left nobody in Derek's office to listen to the sounds that issued from the voice broadcaster attachment jobbie.

Which was probably all for the best, for those sounds were far from joyous.

Derek and Kelly watched as the ambulance drove away, joyfully ringing its bell.

'We'll be in trouble for this,' said Derek.

'We?' said Kelly.

'I mean you,' said Derek. 'You broke all the bones.'

'You should be grateful,' said Kelly. 'You could have been in that ambulance.'

'Along with Mr Shields and his two visitors. You were, how shall I put this, just a little harsh.'

'I was simply following the Dimac code,' said Kelly. 'It is not sufficient to defend yourself against an attacker. It is necessary that you punish them for their attack in the hope that they will think twice before making further attacks in the future.'

'You threw that man out of a first-floor window.'

'Pardon me, I kicked him out. The move is called the curl of the dark dragon's tail.'

'They were tough customers, though,' said Derek. 'That little one had me up off my feet with one hand. He was crushing my throat. Horrible. I hate violence.'

'So do I,' said Kelly. 'So do I.'

Derek gave her a sidelong glance. 'How odd,' said he. 'Because it really looked for all the world as if you were thoroughly enjoying yourself.’

'Looks can be deceptive.'

'In your case, certainly. So what are we going to do now? Mr Shields is out for the count once more…'

'I didn't hit him this time. I was defending him.'

'True. So what are we going to do?'

'Well,' said Kelly. 'I'm going to look through this.'

'And this is?'

Kelly held a wallet. 'Call it a trophy. I liberated it from the bigger visitor during the scuffle.'

'Shortly before you broke his leg.'

'He kicked me in the ankle.'

'Quite so. Let's have a look in this wallet then.'

'OK, but not here.'

In the Shrunken Head, at a table next to the Space Invaders machine, Kelly Anna Sirjan opened the wallet.

'A business card,' said Derek. 'Let's see.' And he read it. ' "Marcus Shadow. Project Development Associate. Cerean systems." Who or what is Cerean systems?'

'It's a division,' said Kelly. 'Of Mute Corp. But then isn't everything?'

'It's logical,' said Derek. 'I've heard of Data Reaction and if it does exist, Mute Corp would have it.'

'I didn't think that it did exist. I thought it was a Web Myth.'

'Well if it does, then it is about as near to artificial intelligence as anything is ever going to be,' said Derek.

'And basically it scans data, then makes its own evaluation of its commercial potential.'

'According to Web Myth, that's how old man Mute got rich. He invented it back in the 1990s to play the stock market. And the rest is history, as far as he's concerned. If the legend is fact.'

Kelly looked puzzled. 'And the Mute Corp mainframe had an inrush of potentially commercial information at eight minutes past eight the night before last.'

'Yes,' said Derek. 'And that rings a bell, for some reason.'

'Well, of course it does. That's the precise time that Mr Tombs, Mr Charker and the woman with the unpronounceable name vanished in front of Dr Druid.'

'I don't understand,' said Derek. 'You think there's some connection?'

'I know there's a connection,' said Kelly. 'But as yet I don't know exactly what it is.'

Derek looked wistfully towards the Space Invaders machine. 'Would you care for another game?' he asked.

'What I'd really care for would be a word or two with old man Mute.'

'You wish. He's a recluse, no-one's seen or spoken to him for years.'

'I'm sure that I could find a way.' Kelly fluttered her eyelashes.

'I'm sure that if anyone could, you could. But listen, I suppose I should be getting back to the office. I think I'd better take over the editor's desk until Mr Shields comes out of hospital.'

'If he comes out of hospital.'


'The plague,' said Kelly. 'The Rapture. He might be the next to go.'

'You're joking. Aren't you?'


'Good. So what are you going to do?'

'Think,' said Kelly. 'Think and then act.'

'I'll see you later then. Tell you what, the poets are on at Waterman's tonight. Do you fancy going?'

'What are "the poets"?'

'It's a Brentford thing. Founded in 1980 by a local writer that no-one can remember now. It's very entertaining. I think you'd enjoy it. It starts at eight, I could meet you there.'

'OK,' said Kelly. 'See you later.'

'OK,' said Derek and he upped and took his leave.

Kelly sat and thought a while. And then she ordered some lunch. The Shrunken Head did a special. Surf and turf. Deep-fried crispettes of scampi, grilled steak, double eggs, mushrooms, onion rings, fried tomatoes, chips and beans. Kelly also had the dessert. It was death by trifle.

Then she played the Space Invaders machine. Got the high score, as she often did on the one she had at home, the one she hadn't mentioned to Derek, and left the Shrunken Head.

She would return to that pub sometime in the future.

But not in any manner she could possibly have imagined.

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