Fantasies: part 5
It doesn't always go the way you want it to go
The Triverse is
Mid-Earth, an alternate 1970s London
Max-Earth, a vision of the 26th century
Palinor, where magic is real
Previously: Two bodies have been found in an alley behind an exclusive, very expensive high-rise apartment complex called The Lighthouse. Detectives Kaminski and Chakraborty are investigating, but a complaint has been made against them by an employee of The Lighthouse…
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Off duty: DC Nisha Chakraborty
Chakraborty practically fell through the door on her way into her flat. It was mostly tiredness, though with a splash or two of cheap whisky. The hip flask was emptier than usual, but it had been one of those days. It was late, and all she could think about was collapsing into bed.
Fumbling her keys in the lock, she shut the door and plodded through to the kitchen for a glass of water. Her legs felt heavy, as if weighed down. Tiredness hit her differently since the dopur attack; the toxins were long gone from her system, but the effects still lingered. Doctors thought it was likely mental rather than physical, but fuck them. She felt slower, laggardly, like she was always wading through sand. Add real tiredness to the mix and she wasn’t sure she’d even make it as far as the bedroom.
Glugging the water, she leaned heavily on the kitchen counter. Why’d everything always have to be so hard? It was one pile-on after another. Maybe if she had enough disasters she’d be able to climb on top of them all and escape.
Taking a deep breath, she chose to switch on the radio rather than find her way to sleep.
“It’s too early to make any kind of definitive call, of course,” the announcer was saying, “but early exit polls are suggesting a likely return of the Conservatives to parliament with a slim majority. It will hardly be business as normal given the inevitable decimation of their previous majority, but—“
She turned it off. Good. Well, perhaps not good. She’d have liked a complete change, but more of the same in this case was better than the worse alternative. Better than Earth First getting an actual toe-hold in parliament.
A difficult case, a formal complaint against her and Kaminski, plus politics, all on the same day. Still, at least the last of those three was in hand.
Chakraborty tottered through the doorway into her bedroom, kicking off her shoes, wearily removing her clothes as she went and letting them drop to the floor. They could share their London street stink with the carpet until the morning. She fell face-first onto the mattress and was asleep in less than a minute. It was too hot for a sheet.
She woke in the night, shivering and cold. Grabbing at the bed covers, complaining under her breath about the indignity of it all, Chakraborty turned uncomfortably on her pillow, unable to find a position that would lull her back to sleep. Her bones were tired, her eyes ready to sink into the back of her skull, but her brain refused to settle.
The complaint lodged against her and Kaminski by the concierge alleged bullying and misconduct, as well as entering a private space without a warrant. None of it was true, but it was enough to gum up the gears and slow things down. She’d happily bet good money that it wasn’t the concierge’s idea. Boorman was stalling them until he could get his story straight.
And it was probably going to work. They had some interviews booked for the morning, but dealing with the complaint would eat up time. A couple years back it would likely have been ignored, pushed down the road or pinned proudly to the office noticeboard. The move to the big offices in the Joint Council tower had brought with it greater scrutiny and a need to follow the rulebook. Chakraborty had no particular objection to that - she wasn’t one of the old school ends-justify-the-means types like Clarke or DCI Walpole. Some rules were there for good reason, to keep people like Holland in check. God knows there’d been enough stories coming out about wider behaviour in the Met. But since the SDC had got the funding boost and moved in with the bureaucrats, it had felt more performative than ever. DCI Miller was all over it, of course, in his element with the team’s higher profile. Nisha missed the old days.
What she really needed was sleep.
The alarm went off seemingly just as she’d finally drifted off, wrenching her back awake. Her mouth was dry, her tongue like wallpaper paste, and every joint ached. Somewhere just behind her eyes lurked a brewing headache, possibly a migraine-in-waiting. Just what she needed.
Morning light poured in through the window. She slid her legs to the floor and shuffled over, pulling the curtains shut before any morning runners got lucky and looked in her direction. Yep, her head was pounding, now that she was vertical. Not bothering to find her dressing gown, which was somewhere beneath several piles of discarded clothes, she headed through to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of milk, drank it, regretted it. Her stomach made a weird noise. There was plenty of time to shower, find some clean clothes, get dressed and make it across town to the office, which was fortunate as it was going to take a while to get her brain working.
She breathed slowly and deeply as she waited for the toaster to do its thing. It was hard to tell these days what was a hangover, what was her still being drunk, and what was fallout from the dopur incident. Everything blended together. A disaster smoothie.
She ran a hand over her bare skin, over the slight mottling that had remained after the hospital had got the toxins out. It looked like a faint birthmark, but spread out over most of her body, marks from where the creature had injected its poison.
Clicking the radio on, she took a mostly clean plate from the sink and hunted for the remains of the butter in the fridge.
The news was playing. “Although there are still many votes still to be counted and many seats still to be formally announced, we can say with certainty now that the incumbent party will not be able to form a government. With their support clearly having collapsed around the country and wider kingdom, this puts us in new electoral territory. With no party gaining a majority we are left with the prospect of a coalition government, which in turn opens the door to Earth First. Indeed, having swept the board in all of the seats in which they were standing, it is not a stretch to say that the real winners are likely to be those Earth First candidates, many of them standing for the first time, a few defectors from other parties, but altogether a very solid showing for a party that effectively did not exist in a true political sense only two years ago.”
The toaster popped, flinging the slice out and onto the kitchen floor. She stared at It, too tired, too resigned, too ambivalent to bend down and pick it up.
On duty: DC Zoltan Kaminski & DC Nisha Chakraborty
The cigarette packet was already half-empty and it was only eight in the morning. That was a problem, Kaminski decided, especially since it wasn’t easy to source a fresh pack anywhere in the Joint Council tower. Some edict that had come down from the Max-Earth cohort, banning smoking in most of the communal areas of the building and preventing the sale of tobacco products anywhere on-site. He’d have to venture out into the city - there was a newsagents on the next corner, so it wasn’t far to go, but it was still a pain in the arse.
Chakraborty banged in through the doors of the SDC office, looking angry and like she hadn’t slept. Neither of which was unusual, but Kaminski already knew what it was about. “Good morning,” he said, lighting up.
“Election’s gone a weird way.”
“Don’t want to talk about that,” she said. “When’s the first interview?”
He checked his watch. “Should be here any minute. Also, we’ve got a meeting booked with Miller at eleven.”
“Miller? Why Miller?” She couldn’t hide the distaste from her voice.
“About the complaint. Damage control, or something. You know, Miller likes his PR.”
The doors opened and Robin entered, followed by four others: two women and two men. One of the women was dressed in typical office wear, while the other three were in matching - and very smart - suits. He groaned.
Chakraborty turned, following his gaze. “What is it?”
“First interviewee,” he said. “And entourage.”
“Shit,” Chakraborty said. “Legal team?”
“Let’s go say hi.” Might as well get it over with. The interviewee, one Eleanor McKinley, wasn’t especially high up at Boorman Enterprises, which meant there was no way she should be able to afford a gang of lawyers. There was some bankrolling going on.
“Mrs McKinley,” Chakraborty said, extending a hand. The other woman glanced at one of her team, who nodded reluctantly.
“Hello,” was all she said.
One of the lawyers stepped forward and passed business cards to Chakraborty and Kaminski. He didn’t bother to look at it. “We’re representing Mrs McKinley,” the man said. “Any questions are to be directed through one of us, and be assured that we will be monitoring for irregularities. Further, we are aware of a conduct complaint that has been filed against both of you in relation to this case. We would request that this interview be postponed until that matter is resolved. We would not want accusations of bullying or coercion against investigating officers to invalidate any testimony given by Mrs McKinley this morning.” He smiled. “That would be a waste of all our time.”
They could assume the other party-goers would arrive with similar advisers. It was going to slow the day’s progress, which was of course the intention. Boorman was no doubt getting his story straight, arranging the evidence in a way that made him appear minimally culpable.
“Perhaps,” one of the other lawyers piped up, “it would benefit the investigation and our client if alternative staffing could be arranged for this case? Detectives not currently compromised.”
A phone rang elsewhere in the office.
“OK, look,” Kaminski said, “we’ll start off nice and friendly. Basic questions. Get the lay of the land.” He turned to the witness. “How does that sound, Mrs McKinley? You’re not a suspect here. All we need is an idea of the party. Doesn’t even need to be specific. We don’t need names at this point.”
She looked over at the trio of lawyers. Kaminski imagined them as a three-headed dog, yapping away. “There is no obligation for Mrs McKinley to answer any questions while here,” one of the lawyers said.
Jesus. This was going to be like pulling teeth.
“Zoltan,” came Robin’s voice, calling from across the room. She held up the telephone receiver. “Call for you.”
He knew she’d only interrupt if it was important and relevant.
“If you’d excuse me,” he said, forcing a smile at McKinley. Chakraborty could keep working on her.
Robin held the receiver out as he approached. “Asked for you, Zoltan. Sounds fancy. Name’s Patrick Boorman. Isn’t that the one from the case you’re working?”
Kaminski sighed. That was how it was going to be, then. He took the handset. “Mr Boorman, this is Detective Kaminski.”
“Detective Kaminski,” came the smooth voice on the other end. “I have a proposal for you.”
Thank you for reading!
This chapter has a real sense of everything piling on top of Nisha and Zoltan, one thing after another. They say write what you know, and I was definitely channelling a bit of that feeling. October has been a bit of a hellscape so far. It’s good and healthy to work out some of this in writing, I reckon.
Did you see my Monday newsletter about a thing I made up called ‘a story loom’? It was quite fun:
Some good reading from around the web this week:
- is teaching everyone how to learn to read again. This definitely rang a few bells - studying English at university killed my enthusiasm for reading for years. I’m better now, but it took a while, and I’m still a long way from the 1990s and having a different book in every room of the house, all of them on the go.
I find it slightly odd that people (even journalists!) still think social media is a good source for information. I asked on Notes about Meta’s Threads (got, this sentence), and it was interesting to see where people are landing a few months after its launch. How is it for you?
- met once for a coffee and basically transformed into a master artist, it seems. Whatever Nishant is charging for art lessons these days, he should up the rate. I mean, look at these:
The inimitable, unstoppable force that is Substack-based fiction writerpopped up on Detroit news to talk about his life and writing, which was pretty cool to see:
Discovered this week that my son’s primary school teacher took part in NaNoWriMo with me back in 2009. Small world (this sort of thing happens a lot in Norwich). I have now equipped her with a copy of No Adults Allowed to read. I love the way writing forms unexpected connections with people.
- published a new video on game design. Mark’s work is always worth watching, if you’re into that sort of thing:
Meanwhile, here’s a couple of new ebook giveaways that might be of interest:
Anyway, back to today’s chapter. It serves as a slight pause in the action of this storyline, in order to give a bit of space to the slight mess that is Chakraborty.
As for that election result: aside from the ongoing conspiracy plot, bubbling political situation on Mid-Earth is one of the longest subplots in Triverse. The Earth First win does, I’m afraid, mean we’re going to be seeing more of Nigel Maxwell. Having that political situation simmering in the background over a long period is a good example of one of the major pleasures of writing an online serial. Some readers will have largely glossed over those details. Others will have noted the developing and worsening political tensions.
In particular, I was trying to capture in this chapter that stress of a major election, when you wake up the next morning waiting to see how the wider population has chosen. There’s a moment when your fate (and everyone else’s) hangs in the balance. The odd thing is that there will always be ecstatic people and there will always be despondent people - that’s the nature of the voting game.
When an election is especially polarised, or unexpected, it can even tip over into feeling like you’ve been betrayed by everyone else in the country. Like you suddenly can’t trust people you see on the street. That’s the sense I wanted to start capturing here, on Nisha’s part. Mid-Earth doesn’t have the same extreme polarisation we have in real world 2023, in large part because it doesn’t have the internet and social media, but the ramifications of the election are still going to ripple out through the story.
Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed having a chapter that was mostly Chakraborty-centric, and without much in the way of overt action. Just her in her messy little flat. ‘Messy’ is the optimum word when describing Nisha, I think. I do sometimes wonder whether it’s indulgent to have chapters in which the plot doesn’t advance significantly - my previous serials have been much more propulsive in that regard. Let me know in the comments, I guess!
Looking ahead, we’re barrelling towards the finale of the current season. If you thought the SDC getting funding, moving out of the old digs and Lola heading off to Palinor was a big shake-up…that’s nothing compared to what’s coming up. I recently solved a tricky part of the story puzzle thanks to some feedback from my son, which I’ll talk about more once we get to the actual moment.
Right, until next time.
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