a short story by David Langford
It was like being caught halfway through a flashy film-dissolve. The goggles broke up the dim street, split and reshuffled it along diagonal lines: a glowing KEBABS sign was transposed into the typestyle they called Shatter. Safest to keep the goggles on, Robbo had decided. Even in the flickering electric half-light before dawn, you never knew what you might see. Just his luck if the stencil jumped from under his arm and unrolled itself before his eyes as he scrabbled for it on the pavement.
That would be a good place, behind the 34 (a shattered 34) bus stop. This was their part of town; the women flocked there each morning, twittering in their saris like bright alien canaries. A good place, by a boarded-up shop window thick with flyposted gig announcements.
Robbo scanned the street for movement, glanced at his own hand to be reassured by a blurred spaghetti of fingers. Guaranteed Army issue goggles -- the Group had friends in funny places -- but they said the eye eventually adjusts. One day something clicks, and clear outlines jump at you. He flinched as the thick plastic unrolled; then the nervy moment was past, his left hand pressing the stencil against a tattered poster while in his right the spray-can hissed.
The sweetish, heady smell of car touch-up paint made it all seem oddly distant from an act of terrorism.
He found he'd been careless, easy in this false twilight and through these lenses: there were tacky patches on his fingers as he re-rolled the Parrot. A few hours on, in thick morning light, the brown women would be playing the wink game.... Jesus, how long since he'd been a kid and played that? Must be five years. The one who'd drawn the murder card caught your eye and winked, and you had to die with lots of spasms and overacting. To survive, you needed to spot the murderer first and get in with an accusation -- or at least, know where not to look.
It was cold. Time to move on, to pick another place. Goggles or no shatter-goggles, he didn't look back at the image of the Parrot. It might wink.
Distribution UK List B[iv] only
"IRA got hold of it somehow," Mack had said. "The Provos. We do some of our shopping in the same places, jelly and like that ... slipped us a copy, they did."
The cardboard tube in Robbo's hand had suddenly felt ten times as heavy. He'd expected a map, a Group plan of action; maybe a blueprint of something nasty to plant in the Sikh temple up Victoria Street. "You mean it works?"
"Fucking right. I tried it ... a volunteer." He'd grinned. Just grinned, and winked. "Listen, this is poison stuff. Wear the goggles around it. If you fuck up and get a clear squint at even a bit of the Parrot, this is what you do. They told me. Shut yourself up with a bottle of vodka and knock the whole lot back. Decontamination, scrubs your short-term visual memory, something like that."
"Jesus. What about the Provos? If this fairy story's got teeth, why haven't they ...?" Robbo had trailed off into a vague waving gesture that failed to conjure up a paper neutron bomb.
Mack's smile had widened into an assault-course of brown jagged teeth, as it did when he talked about a major Group action. "Maybe they don't fancy new ideas ... but could be they're biding their time for a big one. Ever thought about hijacking a TV station? Just for an hour? Don't think things like that, it'll be bad for you."
... Dead TV screens watched him from another cracked shop window, a dump that also rented Hindi videotapes. That settled it for them. Why couldn't the buggers learn English? The Group would give them a hint: the Parrot stencil was already in position, the can sliding out of his pocket, fastest draw in the west. At school Robbo had never won a fight, had always been beaten down to cringing tears: he'd learned good, safe, satisfying ways of hitting back. Double-A Group booby-trap work was the best of all, a regular and addictive thrill.
This had better be the last for now, or last but one. Twenty would be a good round number, but the sky seemed to be lightening behind its overlaid sodium-light stain.
If he went round Alma Street way he could hit the Marquis of Granby, where everyone said the local gays hung out. Taking over a good old pub, bent as corkscrews and not even ashamed of it, give you Aids as soon as look at you, the bastards. Right in the middle of their glazed front door, then, glaring red and a foot high ...
The light hit him like a mailed fist. The goggles parsed it into bright, hurtful bars. Robbo spun half around, trying to shield his eyes with the heavy, flapping something in his left hand. The heavy something had a big irregular hole in it; torchlight blared through, and, moving quickly closer, there was a voice. "Like to tell me what you're ...?"
As the beam dipped and the voice trailed off, he saw the shivered outline of a police helmet through that of the Parrot. Behind jagged after-images a face came into view, an Asian face as he might have expected this end of town. The eyes stared blindly, the mouth worked. Robbo had read old murder mysteries where the unmarked body wore an inexplicable expression of shock and dread. A warm corpse slumped into him, its momentum carrying them both through a window which dissolved in tinkling shards.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. The bomb wasn't supposed to go off until you were six miles away. Somewhere there was the broken outline of a second helmet.
"Tape the envelope, all round. That's it. And write DANGER DO NOT OPEN in ruddy big letters, both sides, right?"
"So you know all about it."
"There've been bulletins. The squaddies picked up fifty in that Belfast raid. Leeds CID got another ... some bastard just like this one. I tell you, this job's been a shambles for years and now it's a fucking disaster. Three constables and a sergeant gone, picking up a spotty little shit you could knock flying just by spitting at him ..."
Robbo hurt in a variety of places but kept still and quiet, eyes shut, slumped on the hard bench where ungentle hands had dropped him. He'd told them every place he'd hit, but they'd kept on hurting him. It wasn't fair. He felt the draught of an opening door.
"Photo ID positive, sir. Robert Charles Bitton, nineteen, two previous for criminal damage, suspected link Albion Action Group. Nothing much else on the printout."
"I suppose it makes sense. Vicious sods: run into them yet, Jimmy? Nearest thing we've got here to the Ku Klux fucking Klan."
"This one'll be out of circulation for a good long while."
"Jimmy, you haven't been keeping up to date with this BLIT stuff, have you? It's the same as that fucking nightmare with the kids and their home computers. God knows how much longer they can keep the lid on. It's going to get us all sooner or later ... Look. We are going to have four PMs with cause of death unknown, immediate cause heart failure, and have I really got to spell it out?"
"The only evidence is in that sodding envelope, a real court clearer eh? I remember when they nicked those international phone fiddlers way back when, and all we could do them for was Illegal Use Of Electricity to the value of sixty pee. They didn't have a phone-hacker law those days. We haven't got a brain-hacker law now."
"You mean we clean up after the little bastard, give him a nice room for what's left of the night, and that's it?"
"Ah." The tone of voice implied that something extra was going on: a gesture, a finger laid significantly alongside the nose, a wink. "Car Three cleans up, they've got the eye safety kit, for what that's worth. We show young Master Urban Terrorism to his palatial quarters, taking the pretty way of course. And then, Jimmy, when the new shift arrives we hold a wake for our recently departed mates. No joking. It's in the last bulletin. You'll really appreciate hearing why."
Robbo braced himself as the hands got a fresh grip on him. The outlook sounded almost promising.
The cell was white-tiled to shoulder height, glossily white-painted as it went on up and up. Its reek of disinfectant felt like steel wool up the nose, down the throat. In a vague spirit of getting the most from the amenities, Robbo patronized the white china toilet and scrubbed his hands futilely in the basin (cold water couldn't shift those red acrylic stains) before lying down to wait.
They couldn't touch him, really. They might fine him on some silly vandalism charge, and he might accidentally fall down a few more flights of stairs before reaching the magistrates' court ... even now the hard bunk caught him in all sorts of puffy, bruised places. But in the long run he was OK.
They knew that.
They knew that but they hadn't seemed bothered, had they?
He had a flash, then, of them smiling, "We aren't pressing charges," and "This way, sir," and "If you could just pick up your property ..." A door would open and guess what would be waiting there for him to see?
Silly. They wouldn't. But suppose.
Time passed. The terminus was easy to imagine. He'd seen it so often through the shatter lenses, a long bird profile sliced at an angle and jaggedly reassembled: parrot salami. In outline against walls and windows and posters; as a solid shape in glistening red that lost its colour to orange sodium glare; in outline again as a dead man's broken eyes met his.
It seemed to hover there behind his closed eyelids. He opened them and stared at the far-off ceiling, spattered with nameless blobs and blots by the efforts of past occupants. If you imagined joining the dots, images began to construct themselves, just as unconvincing as zodiac pictures. After a time, one image in particular threatened to achieve clear focus ...
He bit through his lip, took refuge in a brief white-out of pain.
It was in him. They knew. Even with protection, he'd looked too long, from too many angles, into the abyss. He was infected. Robbo found himself battering at the heavy metal door, bloodying his hands. Useless, because just as there was no clear crime he could have committed, there was no good medical reason why unfriendly police should offer him a massive, memory-clouding dose of alcohol.
Flat on the bunk again, he ran for his life. The Parrot stalked him through the grey hours of morning, smoothing its fractal feathers, shuffling itself slowly into clarity as though at the end of a flashy film-dissolve, until at last his mind's eye had to acknowledge a shape, a shape, a
© David Langford 1988, 1997.
This story appeared in Interzone #25, September/October 1988.
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