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Field of Reeds

Andrew Starling

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"St Peter at the gates of heaven and hell. He's a busy man. Dead Christians popping up in front of him at six a minute. So his judgements have to be fast. I think he goes on clothes.

"There's a backlog. Millions waiting to be judged. I see it as a great sports hall up there with bare concrete walls, no windows, something from the sixties. Half of them are singing - hymns, tribal chants, salsa. Dancing. Hell of a commotion. St Peter's in his chair, trying to do his best. They line up to stand in front of him. He looks at the next one for a few seconds, says, 'Nice suit, right hand door'."

The Professor


Chapter One

Foxglove, Kite and Balloons

It was Spencer's turn. The bishop seemed the best piece to move, not for any great strategic reason but because of the shape of its hat. He lifted the bishop from its square, moved it diagonally a couple of spaces through the air like a real chess player might do, and inserted it in his left nostril. It fitted nicely. When he took his hand away it stayed there. As an afterthought he took the second black bishop from the board and used it to plug his right nostril. This one stayed in place too. Perhaps it had something to do with those grooves on the bishops' hats.

"'S that how you feel about religion?" slurred the Professor. Their quart of Jack Daniel's was almost empty. An average nine year old could have beaten them both at chess, but happily they were finding it difficult to beat each other. They were sitting in their favourite chess-playing spot in the middle of the biggest disused lot in the city, ten acres of raw earth and rubble half a mile from the bay. The moon was close to new and still feeble. A few bright stars were beating the city glare.

"Agnostic defence." Spencer's voice sounded very strange inside his head, very nasal and disembodied. He liked the sound of it. Well-distanced from reality.

"Hundreds of years old, this game is," said the Professor. "It's easy to forget that. Two empires fighting each other. The king, his consort, his castles, knights and clerics, all at war."

The chess pieces belonged to the Professor, but if he disapproved of Spencer's unorthodox move, it didn't show. His eyes were open wide, as innocent as a child's. A change in the light caught his bulging cheeks, veins like scarecrow's hands clutching the cheekbones beneath the skin. His coat was open, showing off the single baby-pin that secured his fly. Apart from the ruined cheeks and trousers he looked like an ageing cherub.

How strange, thought Spencer, that I can see your face and you can see mine, yet we rarely see our own. Even when they shaved it was usually blind. It wasn't as hard as mirror-people might imagine.

Behind the Professor was the contractors' yellow machinery, a big conference of hydraulic arms and dozer blades, a Japanese army resting from its daily battle with the soil. They were all Komatsu's and Hitachi's. Whatever happened to good old Caterpillar? Spencer had a brief vision of himself patrolling the fence around that Japanese compound, in uniform, with his flashlight and sidearm. A vision that would go back to a comfortable apartment in the small hours when the shift was over and snuggle up with an adorable girlfriend for the overlap hours, until she rose complainingly for work.

All history now. Can't change history. And it had never been his compound to guard.

He took the bishops from his nose and wiped them on his coat. Instead of putting them on their squares he put them to one side, on the red plastic crate the board was resting on, signifying that the game was a draw under rule 142C, the excess Jack Daniel's rule. If the Professor was right, and this was a war of empires, these two had just declared a ceasefire.

The Professor's description intrigued him. Two warring empires. A curious thought, except that wasn't the way wars were fought these days. Modern wars were fought by multinational companies for the hearts and wallets of the world's consumers, for dollars rather than land. Maybe it was time to bring the game up to date, invent a new set of pieces. The pawns as Mexicans and Chinese stooped over sweatshop tables. The bishops in advertising, with TVs for heads and passing out magazines. The knights as company accountants with tall stacks of cash, but taking it in rather than handing it out. The rooks as company attorneys, holding writs. The queen as chief executive officer in a high-backed chair. And the king? The king nothing more than a squiggly line on a chart - that most crucial yet vulnerable element of any company, its stock market share price.

A stronger flash of light caught the Professor's face. Spencer turned to see where it had come from. A raised freeway passed a dozen yards behind him, its concrete stilts holding the twin decks too high for the cars and trucks to be seen. Only their ghosts were visible; headlights turning the night air white or reflecting off the bottom of the upper deck, casting shadows circling behind the pieces on the board. But the light hadn't come from there. A white limousine was crawling down the contractors' track through the centre of the lot, between the broken concrete and banks of earth, its twin white eyes rising and falling with the bumps. Spencer didn't feel much one way or the other about its approach, except that it was an intrusion. Some half-lost memory told him it was a car he vaguely knew.
It came to a standstill a few yards from where they were sitting, engine off, looking faintly ridiculous amongst all the raw earth and rubble. The big rear door clicked and opened wide, showing the backside of a pair of jeans, which reversed out awkwardly. The figure stood upright and turned, smiling.

Spencer groaned and looked away.

The Professor stared. "You're George Stiles. I've seen you in the papers." He said it quietly. A secret thought accidentally said out loud.

"You must read the business pages, then." George shut the limousine door with a nudge of his bum. One hand was holding a folding mahogany chair, the other clutched a limousine-bar decanter. A small cut-glass spirit tumbler, upside down, rolled around the stopper. "And who are you?" he asked, amiably.

The Professor collected himself. "I'm the Professor." He motioned at Spencer. "And this gentleman is Gent." His voice was much clearer than it had been a few minutes ago. Spencer guessed he wasn't the only one sobered up by the arrival of the car.

"Is that what you call him?" George walked across to join them. He shook the chair gently. It opened gracefully like a folding umbrella. "Is that what you call him?" he repeated. "Gent and I already know each other, don't we, Spen?"

Spencer self-consciously toyed with the knot of his tie. It felt cool and silky to the touch. So did his suit, especially at the seat and elbows, even from the inside. From a distance he looked half-way respectable, but not close up. He looked at the sky rather than at George.

George sat down. The decanter and glass clinked as he poured himself a drink. "Armagnac. Forty years old. I don't think a drink's mature unless it's a little older than me. Maybe I'll have to change my mind when I'm seventy. Would you like some, Professor?"

The Professor grasped the decanter. He was eager to take it but didn't know what to do with it next. He held it but didn't raise it to his lips.

"Come on, it's not formal-night. You can drink straight from the bottle. Nobody cares." George ran his free hand through his fair hair. "Or do you want a glass from the car?"

God, I wish I hated you, thought Spencer. It would be so much easier if I hated you. But you're such a goddamn charmer.

George sprawled on his chair, looking very relaxed. He'd barely changed since Spencer had last seen him - what was it? - two years ago. He had that round, boyish kind of face that doesn't age, just melts a little as time passes. He was still slim, nearing forty yet not pregnant with approaching middle-age. That posture across the chair was typical George. It was hard to remember ever seeing him sat upright. The check shirt and jeans were trademarks too. He always wore casual clothes, even for business. When you were as rich and powerful as George you didn't have to live by the normal rules.

The Professor drank from the decanter and offered it to Spencer, who took it gratefully.

"Gent mentioned you a couple of times," the Professor told George as Spencer drank. "Said he knew you." He glanced at Spencer, looking for clues on how to deal with this cold reunion. "I guess I believed him."

"We went to high-school together. Spencer worked for Foxglove for a long time. What would it be, Spen, ten years?"

Spencer decided it was time to end his silence. He put on a smile. It probably looked false but it was the best he could do. He gave the decanter back to George. The armagnac was fine if you could live with the flavour. It was a sipping drink. In big gulps it tasted thick and raisiny. "How's the battle for control of the Universe?"

"I'm winning," came the standard reply.

This had always been their opening exchange as teenagers, when George had bought his first humble computer and started selling programs to change the screen display. There was a certain sharpness to it. Even all those years ago Spencer had recognised George's ambition. Given the difference in their circumstances now, it was doubly acidic. Yet Spencer wondered if he'd said it to re-establish a withered bond.

"That where you worked on security, isn't it?" the Professor asked Spencer. "Foxglove."

"Until George fired me."

George sipped his drink from the perfect glass. The security lights of the contractors' compound crawled around it, reflected from fifty yards away. Spencer started putting the chess pieces back in their tattered plastic bag.

"I'm not here to open old wounds," said George, gently.

"You think they've closed, then, do you?" Spencer sucked his lip. That was more than he'd wanted to say.

A heavy silence followed, weighed down by the unsaid, but George had never been one to stay silent for long. "Do you ever think about your old colleagues? You knew some of them a long time, must wonder what they're up to these days."

Spencer didn't respond. Like anybody who'd worked with a group of people for many years, he was curious. The answer was yes, but he didn't want to say it.

"Sammy's got another grandchild." George laughed. "Little family of rabbits he produced there."

Spencer had a soft spot for Sammy. He'd worked on security too. It couldn't be more than a few months before he was due to retire, thought Spencer, but still he said nothing. He concentrated on putting the chess pieces away.

"Ever wonder about Bry? She's still at Foxglove, still thinks about you from time to time. I know."

Spencer's hands stopped moving. That really hurt. If George hadn't fired him he might never have lost Bry.

George's tone became more serious, more demanding. "I'd like you to come back and work for me, Spencer. What do you say?"

Spencer snorted. "A drunk as security chief? Yeah, really."

"Not on security, no. I have something else in mind."

"No way." Spencer went back to clearing the chess pieces again. Only three to go. He wanted there to be more.

"A Foxglove employee has gone missing. A very important one. Raymond Kite came to work for me on a project called Balloons. We haven't seen him for more than a month. He stopped coming into work. The lease lapsed on his apartment. He's disappeared."

"Then call the police, put an advert in the paper, hire a detective agency. No. Why don't you just buy one? You can afford it."

As founder of Foxglove - now the largest software company in the world following the sudden collapse of Microsoft - George Stiles could afford an agency or two. The Wall Street Journal put his fortune at seven billion dollars. Yet Spencer could remember him as a young man with nothing but debts to his name, a garage-electronics freak with no garage. George's first PC, second-hand of course, had sat on top of his parents' washing machine in the utility room. There was nowhere else for it to go. On spin cycle the keyboard couldn't be used and the screen was a blur. They'd had a good laugh about that, back in the days before George had to be taken seriously. His big break had come with the Magic Ear, a piece of software that finally allowed everybody to talk to their computers direct without going through the irritating middleman of a keyboard. And it worked, without close-up microphones or any of the other limitations the competition was still saddled with. It learned the user's voice and after a few weeks became more accurate than a typist. It came as standard now with almost every new personal computer, and every Magic Ear sold added roughly fifty dollars to George's personal wealth. A few detective agencies would cost him little more than his spare change.

"You knew some of the same people Raymond knew," replied George. "Anyway, I need somebody I can trust."

The chess bag was full. Spencer drew the strings at the top and gave it to the Professor. A plane was coming in over the bay, murmuring, its engines cut back low. Spencer looked into George's grey eyes. Did he really mean what he'd just said? For a moment he wished he was truly sober so he could tell. It passed. A pointless thought. He'd never been able to tell.

"A thousand dollars a day," said George. "A thousand dollars a day and all expenses. And I mean all - clothes, car, hotel, the works. 'Course you'll have to get off the bottle first. I've lined up a detox centre. Should only take a few days."

"No way." Spencer shook his head. "No way, no way, no way." It wasn't even worth thinking about. There were so many reasons why he shouldn't go back. Like... and if they'd just give him a minute he'd think of them. Suddenly he felt very drunk.

George sipped his drink, saying nothing more. Waiting.

God, he could be so irritatingly cool when he wanted to be. The patient fox. Foxglove. A fox wearing boxing gloves, or kid gloves, or gauntlets. A whole goddamn drawer full. They'd been together when George had come up with the name. They were both twenty-one. George earned two thousand dollars a year from selling display-modifiers, before anybody had even thought of the expression "screen-saver", and was up to his still-freckled brows in debt, but he knew he was going to be big, that he needed a company name. He'd come up with it through reading a piece in Reader's Digest that said a drug was extracted from foxglove flowers, a drug called digitalis. Digital is. A cute little connection for a computer company.

Spencer abandoned his disordered thoughts and looked up at the freeway, at the phantom cars that couldn't be seen. He turned to the limousine, dirt-streaked and motionless - the driver, another crazy bastard, switched off along with the engine. Loyal employee.

No. He wasn't going to give in. Not this time.

"Nice sky," said George. He caught Spencer's startled look and laughed. "I've mellowed a little."

Spencer raised his eyes heavenward. Yes, it was nice up there. He could see Orion. A satellite was passing through it, blinking on and off as satellites appear to do, like mechanical fireflies. Fireflies advertising for mates. Maybe it would find a mate up there, something exotic - Russian or French - or a space-shuttle to dock with. Good old sexy American technology.

"What do you say, Spen?"

"Definitely not. No way. Not a chance."

He could hear George inhale. A satisfied breath. Bastard. The one giveaway sign in his whole unreadable personality, the loud breath he always made when he closed a deal. He was so sure of himself, so confident in his powers of persuasion, in his manipulative words, that he'd already decided he'd be able to turn Spencer round.

But Spencer wasn't going to give in. He was sure of that. He wasn't going to fall for the Stile charm yet again. No, not this time. This time George had got it wrong.

Chapter 2; Michael's Eyes >>>

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The complete manuscript of this book is available free of charge at www.foxglove.co.uk.