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By Steve Aylett
Serif BooksCopyright © 2015 Steve Aylett
All rights reserved.
ATOM AND DROWNER
The city sprawled like roadkill, spreading more with each new pressure. A grey rain slicked Placebo Street - cars slewed through smoke and collided with pieces of the Brain Facility. Little flames dotted the rubble like zippos in a darkened stadium.
Cradling a guilty treasure, Harry Fiasco stumbled through diced masonry. Squadcar cherry lights strobed his eager face. 'I'm number one,' he thought. 'I'm the business. Look at me walkin' away without even a dent in my hair.'
The cold prize steamed as if awakening.
This was no time to be caught with his style round his ankles.
News on the car TV showed flare-lit afterscenes of last night's blowup at the City Brain Facility, 'where hundreds of famous brains,' beamed the newsgirl, 'including that of comedian Tony Curtis, were kept on ice. What. A. Mess.' Stock shots of missiles. 'The UN Report on Nuclear Deconstruction estimates that thanks to multilateral efforts there are only enough atomic weapons to destroy the world five times over instead of eight - way to go!' The President in a storm of flashbulbs. 'In a hastily-arranged press conference, the President, due to visit Beerlight in four days, shrugged off accusations of bestiality following publication of a photograph in which he is seen to be kissing a dog.'
The sound came up on the conference. '... form of affection. I love him like a brother -'
'Homicides up by nine hundred percent. And fashion setter Buckyball Tripwire says dresses will be worn drenched in blood this summer. Riot forecast - late morning a few rumbles and a little hail with cops breaking through in the afternoon and a scorcher of an evening due to a high pressure front on the lower east -'
'Enough of this tomfoolery.'
The screen shot to a dot, fading.
Rain glinced the windshield and drool-light ran down the face of Mr Turow. He was a toad-eyed shorty with tar hair and a string-thin tie. He gave creepy-teutonic as rain drummed the tin roof. 'See the building across the street, Joanna? The old brownstone.'
The giant in the driver's seat stirred. His head was a dough mound into which a set of human features had been timidly pressed. The head rotated to look across the carsplash street.
'On the fourth floor are the offices of Mr Taffy Atom. Look at this calling card.'
The giant took the card, which in his hand looked like a postage stamp on a side of beef. He read haltingly. 'Taffy ... Atom ... pri - vate ... defective.'
'Detective, you fool - what kind of idiot would advertise himself as a defective?'
'What's dah 'p' word mean?'
'According to the Candyman,' Turow leaked, 'and he is the most educated gentleman of my acquaintance, it means to hide your activities even if they are innocent. One of the most perverse products of your sick American culture, it was finally forbidden only a short while ago. This man Atom must be brave indeed to use it on his advertising. It means he will value results more than appearances, will not be restrained by the rules and at all costs will avoid attention.' Turow simmered in satisfaction. 'All of which is good news for us.'
'There aint no number.'
'Nor an address - another good sign. Atom is as accomplished and inconspicuous as an ant lifting an eyelash. Take the money and go.' The giant opened onto the rain and heaved out, then leant back in at Turow. 'What if he don't bite?'
Turow gave indulgent. 'Joanna, you will learn - in this town, everybody bites.'
Atom was a noir silhouette against Venetian blinds, and he knew it. He'd sustained this posture for nearly three hours, in a not-doing meditation to the inner Tao.
The buzzer went and Atom reacted with the flicker of an eyelid. He'd have to start over. 'That figures,' he muttered, then hit the release switch to the outer door.
He leaned back in the dark and contemplated the spritzing of the rain, the bubbling of the fishtank.
Joanna lumbered through the waiting room, which contained a single lawn chair. Three walls were stark white - the fourth was a vast, garishly intense painting of a bridegroom going batshit berserk in a fish market. A load of other stuff in there, crowded around. Joanna passed it by - he got the creeps off art - and pushed through the inner door to darkness.
Someone was sat there, a shape against the blinds, still and silent. 'You Taffy Atom?'
'So I've always been led to believe.'
Satisfied, Joanna closed the door. 'I'm Joanna - er Jo, I mean ... Joe ... Joe Aniseed.'
'Joe Aniseed,' the darkened figure repeated without inflection.
'Mind if I siddown?'
'If that's the way you wanna play it.'
'Real dark in here.' Joanna felt his way to a seat across the desk from Atom, and eased down. 'You gonna draw dem blinds?'
'Not on your nelly.'
'Can't see your face.'
'Well it's chiselled, aquiline, even feral,' stated the deep voice, 'with eyes like steel ingots trembling on the smelter rim.'
'Right. Right ...' To his right a fish tank was bubbling unlit. Joanna felt uncomfortable, like that time he got hit by a car and everyone stared at him. 'Hey you got fish in the tank, right? I take a look, put a light on?'
'I don't like lightbulbs. Their mystery makes me kinda edgy. I can never tell what's goin' on inside. They constitute a lifeform. Gas. Electrical impulses. Death. Even a body for disposal, Mr Aniseed. They perch like spiders on the wall - watching.'
'Gee I ... guess I aint thought much about that.'
'There'll be hell to pay, I promise you.'
So there was what the Candyman called the 'pleasantries' out of the way. So far so good. Down to business. 'Dah reason I'm here Mr Atom is I got a problem. I'm needin' to talk to a guy called Harry Fiasco.'
'Fiasco. Aint he one of Eddie Thermidor's boys?'
'Sure, the mob - he worked on that big somethin' they did, that whattya-call-it -'
'Nail on the head Mr Atom. So the deal is I had a thing with Fiasco's girl Kitty Stickler, who kinda dances and stuff. And I figured after a while I oughta ventilate Fiasco before he ventilates me. Like math, right? So I tail the guy. Tinder Street. Steam risin' outta the street-holes, that kinda stuff. Dark, you know? So I'm in range and I let rip.'
'So whattya want, a receipt for the bullet?'
'Well it's kinda embarrassin' Mr Atom - but I kinda missed the guy and he ran as fast as his arms and legs could take him. Now he's hidin' out - but see Mr Atom, I aint seein' Kitty no more. And Fiasco bein' one of the mob's boys, I don't wanna get found in the weeds or somethin' so I wanna get to Fiasco and tell him it's all square somehow. And I got ten thousand smackers here says you'll find him before I can say somethin' interestin'.'
Joanna felt real chuffed at having got through the pitch, but there was no immediate response from Atom - only the muffled rain and the broiling aquarium.
'So er ... so whatta you thinka my story Mr Atom?'
'It's got potential and nothing else, bignose.'
'Eh? Hey you don't understand, they got it in for me, I'm countin' ten in Italian here!'
Three emergency plans occurred to Joanna, but they were the same one painted different colours. 'What about ya partner,' he bellowed like a stunned bull, 'I see that other name on the door out there - Atom and Drowner. Drowner your partner, right?'
'Ms Drowner is my technical advisor - she works from home.'
'So who's gonna help me, your goddamn goldfish?' shouted Joanna, standing - the chair clattered backward against the door. 'Hey you aint moved a muscle, yuh weirdo, answer me! You aint even lookin' at me! God dammit I'm hittin' the lights!' And he lumbered at the door, smacking a wallstud - the lights fizzled up to clinical intensity.
Atom was as he'd described himself, sat languid at his desk, regarding Joanna without expression. But something was wrong with the picture.
'Hey.' Joanna pointed helpfully. 'Hey you aint wearin' no clothes.'
'Should I be.'
'What if a lady walks in here?'
'That's a matter for the authorities.'
The fishtank glooped - Joanna saw that it too had been illuminated, a sickly green. In the flux of refraction hung a venomous fish the size of a bulldog - in one visual gulp Joanna got the deep body, black and red striped bellyskin, venting gills, streamer fins, high backblade, hinged razor barbs, blunt head and forward eyes. But the snub face looked to have been grafted on. It was human, made over with shutter eyelids and a mouthful of needle-teeth. The specimen yawed slow in the rippling light, showing off the clench and unclench of a gas bladder and the luminescent phosphene ghosts in its silver scales. On the speckle-stone seabed sat a miniature castle. The fish's blue eye gave the scary stare of intelligence.
'Wha' kinda goldfish is that it's a goddamn monster!'
With a thrash the fish stuck its expression out of the water and snarled through the clenched grid of its mouth 'Define your terms, meathead.'
Joanna's bulk wired with shock. 'It's talkin' semantics!'
The tank seemed to explode - the fish was upon him. Poison pain shot up his arm as the predator bit him to the bone.
Joanna heard himself shrieking like a woman, pleading for release, forming words which held meaning only for those who'd dare join him in the rarefied realm above his pain threshold. He hurled himself through exploding furniture. Amid an eyewall skyburst of nerve stars he saw Atom glance from his perusal of the phonebook. 'Mind the furniture, you two.'
'Get him off me! I'm in hell! This! Is! Hell!'
Joanna threw off the fiend, which lay gulping on the carpet. 'I'm on the floor Taffy! I hate the floor!'
Atom stood, affronted. 'Don't you know assaulting a security officer is a federal offence.'
'Security officer?' gasped Joanna, reeling. 'It's a piranha, man! Bit my arm!'
'Count yourself lucky pal,' queased the fish in its synthetic voice. 'Gemme off the floor Taff - spit on my gills someone I can't breathe down here!'
'Jed Helms is a credit to his species,' Atom stated, stepping from behind the desk.
'It aint duty Taff I was hungry is all.'
Atom retrieved the fish, spreading its pectoral fins. 'All the best operatives are hungry - you're in peak condition.' He dumped the beast into the tank. It sculled languidly to the bottom, its eyes closing. Atom turned his fierce attention to Joanna.
Joanna staggered backward, clutching his arm. 'Now don't come near me you sonofabitch! This place is crazy - you both crazy!'
The wall-shadow behind Atom seemed to swell with malevolence as Atom declaimed. 'You swan in here mouthing off about your phony name, your phony predicament, your phony pants, all the while telling me how I should dress - then you torture my colleague Jed Helms almost beyond his attention span. Get the hell out of here, or so help me I'll ...'
'What is wrong now with that imbecile?' thought Turow as he saw Joanna slam out of the building and wheel toward him through the rain.
Joanna tore open the door and stuck his head in. 'Drive, Dumpy, drive - there's monsters in dah house!'
'What?' Turow spat as Joanna crammed himself into the car - he plucked the key from the ignition before Joanna could turn it, and held it behind him as the giant made a grab. 'Calm down you fool, you'll attract attention!'
'He didn't bite, Mr Turow - but looka dis toothmark.' And he displayed what looked like the bite radius of a young shark, arced on his arm. 'Don't go in there Dumpy.'
'Scared of a little yappy dog or something, a brute like you,' Turow sneered. 'And don't call me Dumpy - stay here while I do a man's work as it should be done.' He unlocked and pushed out of the car, scuttling through the rain to the brownstone.
In the lobby he smartened himself up, then entered the elevator. Joanna probably called on some old woman whose only companion was a spaniel temperamental in the head. Simple enough. Fourth floor.
Well alright the place was a little creepy but was this not America land of the free? Let them have their dim wallpaper and dense doors.
Everything cruised around his own movements as he walked the hallway, so dreamlike he looked down to check for rollers. Microdread pinwheeled over the carpet, approaching him like a tide. His hair strained to stand on end, curling to question marks under its freight of grease.
Here was the door - ATOM AND DROWNER stencilled on blurglass. He rang the bell and after a pause the door burst open like an exit wound, gusts of methane clouding past him.
He stepped into the waiting room, which was a sky churning with fire and sonic explosions. Igniting magnesia stained the air and wind ripped expectation into ribbons. Here were heavens gone astray and panicking like bats, blinding his forehead and releasing a hailstorm of crisis. 'Mr Atom?' called Turow above the storm, his clothes ballooning with superstatic. 'Are you available for business!' He knuckled airtrash from his eyes, squinting agog through an atmosphere churning with near release. And the wind re-directed, buffing a sight-line through the roiling smog.
A resinous spine and ribs were suspended in midair, levitating in theatrical smoke. And amid the creeping fluorescence, inquisition fumes and white hot theta flashes, boomed a voice as though amplified through 50,000 watt speakertowers. And it said:
'An office is a machine for dying.'
Turow began screeching like a vulture, mouth dry. He saw himself, diaphanous in his lack. This encounter was the very litmus of his courage and his face turned reflex blue. He found himself running, beyond his control. The building spat him out like an olive.CHAPTER 2
THE NUMB TOWN
Atom pulled on his pants and took the firepole to the garage. Drove through a dogma pageant, Cockroach Centrefold on the stereo. A bullet licked the paintwork. 'What happens,' he thought, 'when the hitcher and the driver are equally murderous?' Looking at this town with an honest eye was like biting into candy with a mouthful of cavities.
A bricolage block on Crane housed Madison Drowner's apartment. Two guys were sparring on the sidewalk with boxing gloves made of tempera meringue. Passing them, Taffy saw the gloves were actually wooden heads removed from statues of the Virgin Mary.
Upstairs, Maddy ushered him in, walking away. 'How they hanging.'
'And I was just mixing some antifreeze.'
'Guess I could use it. Guess we all could. Jed needs servicing.'
'Of all the wild suggestions.'
'Just a torn gill. We had a visitor came asking for it. It's a cliché out there, baby.'
Maddy built a freeze to the sacred dimensions. Sometimes Atom wished he could kiss her brain directly. Her eyes, in defiance of the prevailing trend, were open. She was an angel as real as the bones in her body. 'You're warped, Taff. All that glee - it aint healthy.'
Atom took the glass of blue. 'Health is subjective. I believe I'm evolving.'
'Sure - into a dead man.'
'Where's your imagination?'
'In the medicine cabinet.' She regarded him over a drink. 'You on a prank, Taff? Your forehead's beating like a heart.'
'Sanity's a virginity of the mind, baby. Gimme a shock absorber.' She lit one up between her lips and passed it to him. He breathed it in. 'You know a girl by the name of Kitty Stickler?
'Sure. Standard-issue blonde. All distinguishing marks removed. Rejects men who never noticed her. Rumours of a brain but nothing conclusive. Sings at the Creosote Palace.'
'That a gun club?'
'All the charm of a live bait store. The chandeliers are rubber - they don't take any chances.'
'Sounds like my kinda venue.'
'Yeah - crash dummy heaven.'
'That's what I'm counting on. The greatest high in this graveyard nation is to have an effect.'
'Effectiveness.' She stood close to him, looking into and through his eyes. 'They got a detox program for that?'
Atom chuckled. 'You and your wet mouth.' He pensively regarded his gasper. 'I nearly depend on you, baby.'
'You make me laugh,' she said, 'with your threats.'
The Creosote Palace was the last word in public disorder. Espousers of philosophies as diverse as Malraux gathered under one roof to engage in boisterous deceit and explosive arrogance. The only hope of distracting these bastards was to push a bubblehead on stage and get her wailing.
That was Kitty Stickler, up there singing a Beige Kidney standard which listed the surgical assaults all sexes were told they favoured for the female form. She chirped without irony, having undergone every cosmetic procedure on the list. Her body was so media-aligned it barely registered on the retina. She seemed unable to bend. Somewhere was a knot - someday it would give.
Atom entered, reversing the air's ionic charge. Probability statistics polarised. Trying to detect the girl, he refocused until she fuzzed into view, singing like a lollypop. Even at this bandwidth she was like a flashy ad with no trace of a product. Atom strode between the tables, approaching the stage before the flow of his void coat. He stepped up.
'Excuse me, ma'am -'
Excerpted from Atom by Steve Aylett. Copyright © 2015 Steve Aylett. Excerpted by permission of Serif Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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