Short Fiction: Elijah Beckett Has a Shitty Job

Posted: September 8, 2010 in Braak, Short Fiction
Tags: , ,

[I keep wanting to write the Corsay novels with a chapter in the beginning that’s completely unrelated to the rest of the book, except thematically; like those opening ten or fifteen-minute scenes in the James Bond movies, but Holland keeps telling me I can’t.  So, for your enjoyment and delectation, I’ve converted the opening gambit of Mr. Stitch to a short story, and provided it here.]

“How long has she been like this?”

It was very quiet in the Coopers’ front room.  Their daughter, young Agnes, was in the tiny bedroom she ordinarily shared with her two brothers.  She was alone now, and her mumbling could barely be heard behind the heavy door.  Her parents—mother puffy-eyed and red-nosed, haunted by fear for her little girl; father stoic in the way of a working man of Trowth, determined as desperation mounted to be more fiercely unavailable to it—sat on their low, shabby couch, and said nothing.  Valentine Vie-Gorgon leaned against the wall, arms crossed, doing his best to look serious, but unable to keep the compassion from his face.  Two gendarmes crowded into the room as well.  Beckett didn’t know their names, he’d conscripted them on the way to the Coopers’.  The new knocker stood just inside the front doorway.

The room was dense and humid with nervous sweat; hot and almost unbearably quiet.  Agnes spoke softly in the other room, unintelligibly, punctuating her remarks with a sound like she was rapping on wood.

“How long as she been like this?”  Beckett demanded again.  He tried to seem sympathetic.  Not because he was sympathetic, but because he knew that sympathy would take him farther in his work.  His goals were hindered by his illness; the fades had claimed his right eye, now, leaving it an empty, bloody socket in his face.  No man could easily appear sympathetic with a face that was half a skull, wrapped halfway around with a red scarf to cover the more alarming deformities, and Beckett wasn’t trying very hard anyway.

“Mr. Cooper?”  Beckett asked a third time.  “How long?”

Arnold Cooper blinked and looked up, as though the question represented an unacceptable distraction from his business of appearing disinterested in painful situations.  “Uhm.  I think.  A day.  Two days.”

“A week,” whispered his wife.  “Since—”

“Shush.”  Arnold shook his head.  “She was always a little.  You know.  I mean.  Pixelated.  Not quite here.  Two days ago,” he asserted firmly, “is when she wouldn’t come from her room.”

Mrs. Cooper was shaking her head.  “It was earlier,” she said, softly.  “When she—”

“Catherine,” Arnold Copper interrupted.  He’d settled on his story.  “My wife.  She isn’t.  I mean, children do strange things.  Sometimes.  It’s nothing to do with this.  It isn’t…I mean…”

Beckett said nothing, just stared, and waited for Arnold Cooper to run out of steam.  After a moment, there was again no sound but Agnes, whose voice had taken on a hysterical lilt, but whose words were still impossible to comprehend, and the ticking of the heating elements in the family’s tiny, free-standing radiator.

“When she what?”  Beckett asked.  Mr. Cooper looked as if he was about to answer for his wife, then looked as if he had perhaps thought better of it, and said nothing.

Catherine Cooper was quiet, and sniffed, and wrung her hands, and then she spoke.  “Last…last Midweek, at supper.  She started…she was staring at her food all night.  For ten seconds, or twenty seconds, before she would eat anything.  I asked her…”

“Cathy, this isn’t anything, she was just being.  I mean, Cath.”

“…I asked her what was wrong.  She tried to tell me, I think.  She…

Arnold’s face was reddening now, and he chewed the inside of his lip.  “Cath—”

“Mr. Cooper,” Beckett snapped.  “Shut up.”  He turned back to Catherine Cooper.  “Go on.”

Mrs. Cooper shook her head, and tears welled again in her eyes.  “She was trying to tell me something, but…it was like…like she couldn’t think of the words?  She opened her mouth, but nothing came out.”  Beckett and Valentine shared a glance.

Catherine Cooper continued.  “She was very upset.  I told her to never mind it…”

“And she was fine,” Arnold put in.  “That night, she was fine, there was nothing wrong.  Whatever happened—”

“Mrs. Cooper.”  Despite the warm muffler of veneine in his system, Beckett found his patience wearing thin.  “A week ago.  Was your daughter exposed to anything unusual?  Did she do anything differently?  Besides eating.”

Mrs. Cooper looked discreetly at her husband, wiped her nose, and sniffed again.  “No,” she said at once.  “Nothing.”

Beckett nodded, then turned to the two gendarmes he’d brought with him.  They were eyeing the door to the little bedroom, listening to Agnes’ high, sing-song voice.  “Toss it,” he told them.

“Now see here!”  Arnold Cooper was on his feet immediately, prepared to weild his indignation as a weapon in defense of his home.  “We’ve told you everything!  We’ve got nothing we’re hiding here!”

“Even the…uh.”  One of the gendarmes, ignoring Arnold Cooper, attempted to ask, struggling to divert his attention from that door.

“Not the bedroom.  Not yet.”

“Not the bedroom!”  Mr. Cooper repeated.  “Not anything!  You’re not…now, don’t touch that!  Don’t you…don’t you touch anything!”  His protestations were to no avail; the gendarmes began searching every inch of the front parlor.  They pulled cushions from the furniture and books from the shelves, tore into kitchen cabinets and permitted pots and pans to clatter noisily to the floor.

Arnold Cooper seemed on the verge of apoplexy, face red, following the gendarmes around and demanding an accounting.  Catherine Cooper had leapt to her feet and had begun to wring her hands again.  Valentine put his hands on her shoulders and whispered something to her.  Beckett didn’t know what it was, but it seemed to keep the woman calm, so he didn’t particularly care.  After five minutes of thorough searching, the gendarmes returned to Beckett with a small sheaf of pamphlets.

“This is all,” they said, while Arnold Cooper spluttered with impotent rage.

Beckett examined the pamphlets over Arnold Cooper’s most extreme protestations.  The first was titled “Why They Need Us,” and appeared to be a tract regarding the value of women in the workplace.  The remaining six continued on in this vein:  “A New Way to Educate,” “Notes from the Working Lines,” and so on.  “Suffragist literature?”  Beckett asked, raising his eyebrow.

“I…”  Arnold began.  He paused, turned to his wife.  “I’m sorry,” he told her quietly, then confessed to Beckett.  “It’s hers.  Cath’s.  I told her.  I told her not to bring it into the house.  It’s unnatural.

“Arnold…”  Catherine Cooper looked caught between wanting to scream at her husband and wanting to faint away with shock at his betrayal.  That strangled cry was all she managed.

“I’m sorry Cath,” Arnold went on, “but if it means helping Agnes.  I was just…I was trying to protect my wife,” he said to Beckett.  “Agnes.  She got into it, do you think?  It’s given her the hysteria, or something?”

“No.”  Beckett replied.  He tossed the pamphlets to the ground.  “No, I don’t think so.  Skinner—”  Skinner was gone, he reminded himself.  The new man was James.  “James, I mean.  There’s something else here.  Probably under the floor.  Find it.”

The new knocker was a pale young man, with a defect in his silver eyeplate that caused it to leak ichor periodically.  It made him look like he was crying thick, gummy black tears.  James nodded, wiped the ichor from his face, and began to rattle the floorboards with his telerhythmia, head cocked in the peculiar knocker fashion, listening for discrepancies in the echo.

It was probably an illusion, Beckett knew, that Agnes’ voice seemed more intense with the telerhythmia counter-point.  She couldn’t respond to stimulus, not in her condition.  But still, it sounded almost like her muted babbling was growing more frantic.

“Under the chair,” James said at last.  “The soft one.”

Arnold said nothing now.  His face had gone white.  He chewed on his knuckle.  The gendarmes knocked over an overstuffed armchair and located a loose floorboard beneath it.  They pried it up, and looked into the cavity beneath.

“Aow!”  Shouted one the gendarmes.  He stumbled back from the opening and fell to the ground.  The other man just stared.

In the opening beneath the floorboards were a few yellowed packets of paper.  They had text neatly printed on them, and small diagrams.  There was a lump of greasy brown stone, flecked over with gold.  Faintly, the stone buzzed, just below the audible range, enough to set the teeth on edge.  An almost-imperceptible nimbus of improbable memories swirled across its surface, defying direct observation, but flickering at the edge of vision.

It was a deliaroid, a mineral made from condensed dream material.  The substance was extracted in small quantities from the pineal glands of humans, therians, and certain higher-order mammals, then crystallized and treated with a tincture of denatured phlogiston.  It was a product of oneiristry—one of the thirteen heretical sciences—it was illegal, and dangerous, and an increasingly-popular drug that its users usually referred to as “Delia.”

It was Arnold Cooper’s, of that Beckett had no doubt.  The man would have shaved thin slices from the rock, then held them under his tongue while he drank a strong solvent, like whiskey or brandy.  He would experience a kind of synaesthesia at first, coupled with a mild euphoria.  Eventually he’d become convinced he could see ghosts, or the end of time.  Or, if his mind was already weak, or if he had been very young, his conscious mind would suffer a schism from his perception of the real world, and he’d succumb to shatterbrain.  As had his daughter.

Arnold Cooper said nothing as Beckett picked up the deliaroid and dropped it into his pocket, collected the yellowed pamphlets, and then nodded to the gendarmes.  They ushered him out into the frigid night-time air.

Beckett rubbed his blind left eye.  It should be senseless, he knew, because the fades destroyed the sensibility of the flesh they made transparent, but he had lately become convinced that it was itching.

“What will they do to him?”  Catherine Cooper asked.

Beckett looked at her.  She was no longer sniffling, now, but steady, jaw set, eyes firm.  Beckett found it difficult to look at her.  “He’s damaged his mind,” he replied, turning away.  “The fumes from the deliaroid will have made an ulcer on his conscious-subconscious membrane.  Have you been having dreams?  Vivid dreams, whose content was unclear to you?”

Catherine Cooper nodded, very slowly.

“He’s bleeding out.  The damage is irreparable.  Worse, it’s contagious.  Exposure to him could risk an epidemic.  Another shatterbrain outbreak.”

“So.  What will they do to him?”

“They will take him,” Beckett growled, “to the isolated ward of the First Hospital of Saint Goetius, where doctors will examine him and conclude just what I told you.  They will keep him locked up there until I go there this evening.  When I do, I will shoot him in the head.”  He rubbed his eye again.  “For good measure, the surgeons will dissect his brain, to ensure that his pineal gland is thoroughly destroyed.  If it is not, they will remove it and burn it.  It will be,” Beckett told her, “because I have been doing this for a very long time.”

“And Anges?”  Her voice was barely above a whisper.

If Beckett had been a man of great imagination, he almost could have told himself that he’d heard nothing, that she’d said nothing, and perhaps then convinced himself that he wasn’t here at all, that Agnes Cooper wasn’t slowly dying from a lacerated psyche, that maybe Beckett had been lucky enough to die during the Dragon Isles campaign so many years ago.  But Elijah Beckett, detective inspector of the royal coroners, was not a man of great imagination; he had done his job well for over forty years, precisely because of his dogged refusal to do anything but accept the world the way it was.

“You’ll want…” nothing caught in his throat, nothing at all, you didn’t work as a coroner for forty years and still have to choke back a sob when it came time to do your duty, “You’ll want to speak to her.  Then Valentine will have to take you to the hospital as well.  And your two boys.  Make sure you’re unharmed.”

“And if we’re not?  If we’re like Arnold?”

Beckett tugged at his scarf.  “Then you’ll still want to say goodbye to your daughter.”

In her bedroom, Agnes Cooper was saying her evening prayers.  She invoked the hierologue, as was the custom among young children in the evenings, and asked the Word to keep and bless her brothers and her mother and her father, little realizing that he was the man who’d poisoned her mind.  She asked Divine Providence to uphold the Emperor and the Empire of Trowth, and if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, she was hoping to get a small kitten for her birthday.  Agnes finished her prayers and climbed into bed; the second her head touched the pillow, she jerked upright, crawled out, and began again.

Over and over.  Agnes recited her prayers and went to bed, then  got up and did it again.  She’d been doing it for two days.  Beckett knew, from experience, that trying to stop her would be virtually impossible—you could drag her to the other room, but she’d just run back.  You could lock her in the basement, but she’d just pretend she was in her bedroom and go through the same ritual.

Agnes was crying; tears were streaming openly down her face.  Some people, Beckett knew, were fortunate enough to lose their minds when they suffered from schismatic perseverance; Agnes was not one of the fortunate.  She knew what was happening to her, but was equally unable to stop it; she’d become a prisoner in her own body, desperately repeating the same actions over and over again, trapped in a quirk of her psychology.  She raised her voice or lowered it, pitched it high, sometimes tried to speak very quickly; these seemed to be the only elements that she could control.

“Aggy?”  Catherine Cooper sat on the bed.  Agnes still wept, but she let her voice dwindle to a whisper.  “It’s all right, Aggy.  Dad and mum have to…ah.  We’re going to…”  She turned away, and took a deep breath.  “Dad had to go away to get some medicine.  But I’m going to stay right here.  Mr. Beckett here is going to help you, all right?”

Beckett looked over at James, who’d followed him into Agnes’ bedroom.  Valentine waited outside.  “Check,” Beckett told the knocker.

“Sir, she’s clearly—”

“Just say it, boy.  I have to be sure.”

James nodded.  A tiny thread of ichor dribbled down his cheek again.  “There’s definitely a reverb.  I can hear her voice twice:  once aloud, once aetherically.”

“How long is the delay?”

“Three-quarter seconds,” he said.  Catherine clutched reflexively at her daughter’s hand, but couldn’t hold on to it.  Agnes kept pulling it away to clasp in front of her while she prayed.  “’Sword and fuck, Beckett, isn’t there anything we can do?”

“Yes,” Beckett said, his voice hoarse.  He reached out to find the empty place inside, and promised he’d let himself suffer for this later on.  “There’s one thing.”

Beckett drew his gun.

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Comments
  1. dagocutey says:

    Fucking A+.

  2. Moff says:

    THE GUN HAS CANDY IN IT, RIGHT? RIGHT??!?

  3. […] Hangman’s Daughter” — published in Black Gate Fantasy Magazine; one is “Elijah Beckett’s Job” — which you can read right here at TQP; and the last is a never-before-seen short […]

  4. Michael B says:

    Sword and Fuck indeed. Wow. Yikes, and yuck. Damn.

  5. braak says:

    This is why he’s so crabby all the time.

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