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The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday
By G D Falksen, David Malki
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 G. D. Falksen
All rights reserved.
Inspector Wilde was in a fine mood when he arrived at the headquarters of Salmagundi's Legion of Peace, carrying three paper-wrapped sandwiches and an armload of printed broadsheets. He had a spring in his step and walked in time to one of the latest music hall ditties, which he whistled cheerfully for the benefit of his coworkers. All along the gaslit passage, clerks and secretaries poked their heads out of their rooms and stared, in wonder and admiration at his audacity. Most of them smiled as he passed, and a few of the braver ones tapped their feet along with the tune for a few moments before dashing back to their desks to avoid the ire of their supervisors. Wilde laughed as he passed a room full of secretaries who somehow managed to type in time with the music.
Midway down the hallway was the Chief Inspector's office, which was fronted by a small antechamber in which her secretary, Marguerite, was busy making sense of several unsightly piles of documents. Her work table was a model of efficiency. Her pens and pencils were all neatly arranged to one side, along with writing paper and a three-section typewriter for preparing documents in triplicate. A rack of empty pneumatic capsules waited nearby to be filled and dispatched.
Marguerite smiled as Wilde approached, delighted by the cheerful whistling. Wilde leaned down, eyebrows arched, and tossed Marguerite the top sandwich in his stack.
"And a girl in uniform's just the thing for me ..." Wilde said playfully, completing the refrain of the tune in Marguerite's ear.
"Max!" Marguerite exclaimed, her cheeks flushing. She pushed him away and made a show of reorganizing the papers on her desk. "You mustn't say things like that to me. People will talk."
"Well, if 'people' are going to talk, don't you think we should give them something to talk about?" Wilde asked, flashing one of his trademark recruitment smiles.
Marguerite was trying to come up with a reply when a third voice interrupted. "Max, get in here!"
Marguerite jumped in shock and pulled a handful of papers between herself and Wilde, as if to deny that they had even been speaking. Wilde was also caught by surprise, but retained his composure. He looked over at the polished voicepipe mounted next to Marguerite's table just in time to hear the Chief Inspector's voice again.
* * *
Wilde kept his head high as he sauntered across Chief Inspector Cerys's cluttered office. Behind him, a sheepish Marguerite closed the door as quietly as she could. What might normally have been a sizable, bland, and dutifully bureaucratic office had, since the Chief Inspector moved in, been transformed into a nest of filing cabinets, pigeonhole shelves, and chairs covered in files and loose papers.
The room was lit entirely by gas lamps, for both of its windows had been tightly shuttered. Located on the top layer of Salmagundi, Legion Headquarters was gifted and cursed with an overwhelming view of the vast horizonless sky that surrounded the city. The silver-gray expanse of ether was a sight of unparalleled majesty and terror. Though sky-borne steamships traveled freely from one floating city to another, urban dwellers could not help but fear the mysterious beasts and horrors that lurked in the great beyond, thanks to old sailors' stories of unfathomable monstrosities. However, even fear could not defeat the human drive for commerce. For every cargo ship lost to the ether, five more were already being built in Salmagundi's shipyards, like heads of a great industrial hydra.
The largest piece of furniture in the Chief Inspector's office was her massive Legion-issue desk, which was covered in papers, pens, and miscellanea. However, it was a metal coffee percolator resting on a stand nearby that was the true focal point of the room. A set of insulated pipes extended from the wall and into the percolator's base, keeping the coffee hot by pumping steam through it from the building's main line.
Chief Inspector Cerys looked up from a collection of reports, coffee cup in hand, and gave Wilde a look. "Max, I'll thank you to stop flirting with my secretary all the bloody time."
"Why, Chief?" Wilde asked, setting one of the sandwiches down by Cerys and then pulling over a chair. "If you ask me, I think she rather likes it."
Cerys gave him another look as she began to unwrap her meal. "She does, Max. She likes it too much." Cerys waved a typewritten form in front of Wilde's face. The document was so complex as to be less legible than a massive ink spot, but it would drive some anonymous bureaucrat into a frenzy if even a single T was left uncrossed before filing. "Marguerite's the only person in this blasted place who can read these damn things, and she's useless for half an hour after you bat your pretty little eyes at her."
"'Pretty little eyes,' Chief?" Wilde asked. "Why, I didn't know you cared."
"Shut up, Max."
Cerys bit into her sandwich and let out a sigh; Wilde suspected it was her first real meal of the day. "Mmmm! Herr Grosse comes through again."
"I'm sure he'll be happy to hear it," Wilde replied. "What's on the agenda for today?"
"We're unusually light on terrorist attacks and serial murderers at the moment, so we're 'lending a hand' with Surveillance."
"Espionage and tailing suspects?" Wilde asked hopefully.
"Examining subversive propaganda for clues," Cerys replied.
Wilde made a face at the thought of such a boring activity. "Just so we're clear, I'm not on duty for another five minutes."
"You're not on duty until I finish my sandwich," Cerys countered.
Leaning back in his chair, Wilde began to read one of the broadsheets he had brought with him. Within a minute, he was all but giggling like a schoolboy.
"What're you so happy about?" Cerys asked, between mouthfuls of sandwich and mayonnaise.
Wilde quickly cleared his throat. "Er. ... Nothing, Chief." His eyes involuntarily read the next line of text and another fit of laughter took him.
"Eh ... heh. ... Um, yes, nothing." Wilde held up the broadsheet for Cerys's inspection. "It's just Mr. Salad Monday. He's giving Deacon Fortesque a roasting over his latest political tract."
"What?" Cerys demanded, bewildered.
"Here, here, listen to this. He writes, quote, 'While I suspect that the Hon. DeacFort is sincere in his belief that the threat of terrorism can be removed by simply shooting every suspected saboteur or socialist, plus one in ten persons of an inferior income distribution, he has forgotten two significant points. First, that the same result could be achieved more rapidly, cheaply, and without a reduction of the work force by improving working conditions and raising lower-income pay rates; and second, that he is an unmitigated fool whose longevity in the printed world can only be ascribed to his wealth, influence, and the public demand for entertaining fiction to read after breakfast,' unquote!" Wilde lowered the broadsheet, the grin on his face outstripping most industrial bridges. "Isn't that terrific?"
Cerys blinked several times. "Max, what in Heaven's name is wrong with you?"
"You don't think it's funny?"
"I think it's a waste of print, and I'm surprised you don't agree. Besides, we've got more important things to do." She tossed him a folder of documents. "Here, make yourself useful and read this."
Wilde set the broadsheets aside and thumbed through the folder. It contained a number of obscure pamphlets and political chapbooks, all machine-printed on cheap paper. They had been bound with red ribbon, and each was plastered with a paper tab bearing the ominous statement "Forbidden!" As he opened one and began to skim the text, Wilde felt a nagging sense that he had read the author's work somewhere before. After a moment, the recollection came to him and he burst out laughing.
"What?" Cerys demanded, from behind her cup of coffee.
Struggling to keep his laughter under control, Wilde pointed to one of the chapbooks. "This is by Fredrick William Slater, isn't it?"
Cerys almost dropped her coffee. "How did you ...?"
Wilde held the chapbook a little higher, and pointed to it emphatically. "Isn't it?"
"Slater's name isn't on any of those books. How'd you know it was him?" Cerys went to take another sip of coffee, and then pointed the cup at Wilde menacingly. "And don't tell me it was a lucky guess. No one in the Legion just pulls the name Professor F. W. Slater out of their hat."
"I recognized the writing style, Chief," Wilde answered. "The guy's got a pretty distinct voice, you know."
"You don't strike me as the kind of person who makes a habit of reading essays on social philosophy, Max. Mind explaining this happy coincidence to me? Or do I have to get the bucket of water?"
Wilde gave an expression of jovial terror. "Not Old Truth Maker! Anything but Old —"
"Shut up, Max, and answer my question."
"Alright, alright. He writes for the papers, so I read him just about every morning."
"The papers?" Cerys asked. "He's not a reporter."
"No, no, not the newspapers. The broadsheets." Wilde held up one of the oversized printed sheets he had brought in with him. It resembled a conventional newspaper, but the upper half of the page was given over to large editorials, while the lower half was divided into columns of small-print articles; in many cases, the smaller segments were only a few lines long. "Tit-tat."
"Tit-tat?" Cerys asked, bewildered.
"Right. Tit-tat. Slater's a tatter." Wilde was clearly under the mistaken impression that they were coming to some sort of mutual comprehension.
"What's a 'tatter'?"
There was a lengthy pause, as Wilde realized his superior was confused, but not how to help. Somewhat hesitantly, he ventured, "A tatter is ... someone who does tit-tat."
Cerys lowered her face into her hands. She had a deep-seated urge to shoot him. "Max ... what does 'tit-tat' mean?"
"Oh!" Wilde exclaimed. He held up the broadsheet again. "It's ... um. ... Well, it's tit-tat." When this answer made Cerys rise half out of her chair with murder in her eyes, Wilde quickly added, "Wait! Wait! It's like a conversation in print!"
"Well, the bigwigs, like Professor Slater, publish their opinions on topics of the day. Then they all read each other's essays and mail in replies, and then those get printed ... and so on."
Cerys paused on the verge of a rant against modern society and how it was conspiring to annoy her. "You know," she said, clearly surprised, "that almost makes sense, in a mind-numbing kind of way." She stepped around the desk and snatched the broadsheet out of Wilde's hands, pointing at the maze of print. "But then, what's all this here? Don't tell me 'Mr. Jervais Mutton' is the name of some brilliant philosopher, Max."
Wilde laughed. "Oh, no, no. Those are all tatters. They're ordinary people who send in their own comments. Most of them never see print, but the really juicy ones get tossed in along with the 'professional' stuff because it's fun to read."
"Fun to read?"
"Audience loves 'em," Wilde confirmed with a nod. "Ask me, they're more popular than the articles they're responding to. People have whole conversations in print, arguing back and forth."
"Conversations? How frequently are these released?"
"Well...." Wilde sat back in his chair and considered the question. "The more respectable printers only do one issue a day, but they tend to be a bit light on the commentary anyway. Most places have a morning and an evening edition, so you can read a comment and a response in one day if you're lucky." He leaned forward again, clearly excited at the prospect of explaining something to Cerys. "But the really good ones ... the houses that print the really juicy arguments ... they sometimes get in as many as three or four a day. Plenty of tit-tat there."
Cerys stared at him, her mouth struggling to form a response. "How?" she finally demanded. "How can they print that much in one day?"
"Well, there's the morning edition that people read during breakfast. Then there's the afternoon edition, which arrives in time for lunch. And finally there's an evening edition that shows up in time for dinner. Sometimes they even do a late night printing that shows up sometime in the small hours."
"Four editions! I'd barely have five minutes to spend reading one. Who has time to read all that, let alone mail in a comment?"
"Clerks, mostly," Wilde replied. "Typists and secretaries who have to sit at their desks doing nothing while they wait for assignments to show up. And the idle rich, of course. People who think that having too much time on their hands qualifies them to comment on topics they know nothing about."
Cerys was quiet for a long moment. "Almost reminds me of the government." She stared at the broadsheet and shook her head. "How long do these arguments last?"
"Days," Wilde answered. "Weeks sometimes, if they get really heated. So long as the papers sell, the presses keep printing them."
"How do they keep track of the arguments?"
Wilde pointed to one of the boxes of print. "There's a little code number in the corner. It tells you which topic the reply goes with, and where it goes in the sequence."
Cerys was rubbing her forehead with her hand again. "Max, I'm afraid to ask, but why are there strings of letters just sitting in the middle of some of these sentences?"
"What?" Wilde rose from his chair and leaned across the desk. Cerys pointed to one of the comments, and Wilde burst out laughing. "Oh! They're just abbreviations, Chief. To save on space. The shorter a comment, the more likely it is to get printed."
"So 'IIMOT' means ...?"
"We pronounce that 'eye-moth.' It means 'it is my opinion that.' People use it when they're about to say something really snooty talking about a topic they don't understand. It's great stuff!"
Cerys gave him a look and shook her head. "I can't believe you actually waste your time with this nonsense." She glared at the page again. "What about 'IHN?'"
"'In Heaven's name,' Chief."
"Oh, honestly, Max!" Cerys exclaimed. "Don't these people have anything better to do?"
"Desk jobs, Chief," Wilde reminded her.
"And they really care about what Jervais Mutton has to say about rising coal prices?"
"Nah, Mutton doesn't discuss commodities. He's too busy falling over himself to agree with whatever Deacon Fortesque happens to think. Now, Salad Monday, he's a fun one. He'll take on five people at once and bring in arguments most of us forgot about ages ago. Frankly, it's a privilege to watch him in action. He's an oddball, that one."
Cerys had returned to her work, and only half glanced up when she replied, "Oh? Why's that?"
Wilde took her cue, and went back to skimming through the pile of pamphlets and tracts he had been given. "Oh, he just doesn't fit into the usual categories. Most of the time you can read someone and say 'he's a socialist' or 'he's a conservative' or 'he's a capitalist.' With Salad Monday, you can't do that. He's all over the place with what he's doing. Sure, he tends to agree with the lefties, but he'll blast them out of the sky when they're saying something stupid. I mean, he's probably as antigovernment as the anarchists, but he has a great time pointing out how stupid anarchism is. He's just ... everywhere and nowhere, I guess."
Something about the statement caught Cerys's interest. "Really? Well, who is he then?"
"Don't know, Chief. No one does. He's been around for ages, since tit-tat started, I think. He was already one of the big names when I got into it a couple years back. There're plenty of theories out there, but he's one of the pen names no one's been able to crack yet. He's probably one of those university types, though. He's always quoting from this or that, and he's got the time to stay up-to-date on whatever's going on."
"But no one knows who he is?"
"Well...." Wilde hesitated. "You know, it's funny you've got me reading up on Slater, because the current view is that they might be one and the same."
There was a look in Cerys's eyes. "Really? Why?" She slowly rose out of her chair and leaned across the desk at Wilde. "You said yourself that Slater's got a distinctive voice. Wouldn't that make it obvious?"
Excerpted from The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday by G D Falksen, David Malki. Copyright © 2009 G. D. Falksen. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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