|Publisher:||Random House Adult Trade Publishing Group|
Read an Excerpt
A Crime Novel
By Peter Dickinson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Peter Dickinson
All rights reserved.
To pass the time while he waited for Dreiser's signal, Foxe studied the view from the laboratory window. Main Beach, white as detergent powder, reached away in a long scimitar curve, as if some fairly simple equation was drawing it towards the axis where water met sky. The line of it divided the blue of the sea from the green of the shore, and all would have been too dazzling to stare at but for the double-tinted glass of the lab window. The only real interruptions to the curves of colour were the jagged hiccups made by the new hotels of Front Town, each in its own way a sample of tourist architecture at its larkiest and most ebullient. Foxe could never understand how any of them had got built. In the six weeks he had been on Hog's Cay no progress at all seemed to have been made on the newest one, which remained about four-fifths finished a few hundred yards along the beach. The same web of irregular scaffolding mottled one wall, and the same man in a yellow singlet and blue jeans lay sprawled on the planking near the top of it. He'd only been there for three days, to be fair, but he hadn't moved during that time. Perhaps he was dead, or perhaps just a bundle of bright rags, but most probably he was having a snooze, not unusually long by Island standards.
It took a lot to disturb this pervading lethargy, so it was a proof of the day's importance that Foxe could see a man actually working in the foreground of his view. The laboratory buildings stood on the hummocky promontory that closed off this end of Main Beach, and the ground up here was so irregular that the bed of raw, red earth which this man was raking rose half way to Foxe's own level on the upper floor of the buildings. The gardener's black arms were thin and stringy, his singlet ragged, his hat an irregular plate of woven straw. Presumably he was one of Ladyblossom's sons, so he was unlikely to be more than thirty, but the weary strokes of his rake were those of an old man.
Foxe watched the gardener without much interest until he was distracted by his own reflection, faint and doubled by the double glass, standing like a ghost between him and the whole scene. Curiously, it seemed to belong there. You wouldn't have thought of it as the ghost of a scientist who was briefly on Hog's Cay for a working rest: the reddish, choleric face; the pale eyes, slightly pop; the ginger hair, already sparse at thirty-two; the hulking frame, and flesh which it would have taken a lot of exercise to keep trim; it only needed a hand gripping a bull-whip to complete the picture of colonial power. The doubled ghost might have been that of the heir to some plantation, slaughtered in a brief uprising of maddened workers. For a while Foxe postured and pouted, playing with the mash to distract himself from the void behind it.
Suddenly the scene below became more amusing than the Foxe-ghost and its doppelganger. The gardener had stopped raking and was now thwacking a blue-flowered shrub with his rake. Blue petals snowed to red soil. The gardener stopped thwacking, bent to peer into the bush, then reversed his rake and poked with the handle among the stems. An olive-coloured snake nearly three feet long came out of the bush and flowed rapidly away over the raked earth until the gardener, following it with eager, prancing strides, swung his rake and struck it full-strength just behind the head. The rake-handle snapped. The snake continued to move, but not now in any direction, simply wriggling and squirming where it lay. The gardener, hands on hips, stood watching it but occasionally let his feet fidget into dance-like movements, expressive of excitement and happiness. When it was still he picked it up and raised it to his face.
For a moment it looked as if the snake had come to life again, but then the man's hat fell off and Foxe could see that these new convulsions were caused by his trying to gnaw through the creature's neck, though he had a perfectly good sheath-knife in his belt. The head jutted from one side of his mouth while he clasped the body with both hands on the other side, gnashing away and pausing only to spit out morsels of flesh. When he had bared the spine he took the snake from his mouth and tugged its head off, then tossed the body into the bush before fetching a canvas satchel from the path and tucking the head away in it. As he strolled back to his work he was laughing like a drunkard.
He put his hat on and picked up the shattered rake. For a half a minute he made scraping movements at the ground with the headless shaft, then dropped to his knees and tried raking with the shaftless head, but soon gave that up, fitted the broken parts of the rake together so that they looked like a whole tool, placed it carefully on the ground, stretched his arms and lay down with his hat covering his face.
The phone bleeped twice and stopped. This was the signal, a typical Dreiser arrangement. Dreiser inhabited a world of plots and below-the-surface secrets. Though the Prime Minister's visit to the laboratory had only been announced yesterday, Dreiser claimed to have known for a fortnight that it was coming. He had muttered something about the improved quality of the phone-taps as evidence. He also hinted that the Prime Minister was coming to check on Galdi's work, because he proposed to be first in line for a longevity pill when it was perfected; but since it was more amusing for a layman to inspect rats nosing through mazes than a computer counting deformed leucocytes, Foxe had better lay on a show. Foxe normally ran his animals on a rigid time-table—injection, feed, weighing, performance and so on all exactly the same time for each rat every day—and it was a measure of the unsatisfactoriness of his present task that he permitted a hiccup in this routine. He had even altered the apparatus, accepting a couple of strips of one-way mirror which Dreiser had dug up so that the great man could actually see the rats doing their thing, but he'd turned down Dreiser's suggestion that the rats be shampooed.
Yesterday Dreiser had done a time rehearsal of the visit, so in theory the party would reach Foxe's lab four minutes twenty seconds after the signal. Dreiser wanted work to seem to be in progress when they came, rather than obviously starting for their benefit—this was, after all, a surprise visit—so Foxe put on his lab coat, went next door to the animal room and fetched out Keith and Karen. They should be about half way through when the visitors came, and then Lionel and Ladyblossom could put on a complete performance.
The rats were all males, to avoid the variations in performance caused by the female oestral cycle, but they were named alphabetically like hurricanes, boys' names for the groups on Drug A and girls' for those on B. Ladyblossom's original name had been Lucy, but the human Ladyblossom—who was married to Charley the caretaker and cleaned the laboratories—had been so outraged at the omission of her name from the list that it had seemed simplest to rechristen the rat. Simplest it had not turned out because the human Ladyblossom next determined that her rat must outperform the others and began to smuggle crushed prawn into its feed—no doubt some local witch had told her it was a stimulant to intelligence—Hog's Cay seemed to be riddled with that sort of thing. It was odd how quickly she'd guessed the purpose of the experiment. Foxe could have kept the animal room locked and done the cleaning himself, which he'd have done in any case if the experiment hadn't turned out to be so dull and unnecessary; but he was supposed to be on Hog's Cay for a rest, so he now fed crushed prawn to all the rats. Next the human Ladyblossom demanded a more normal sex-life for the rat—"A man ain't a man when he ain't got a woman," she would say almost every day, peering so intently at Foxe that he sometimes thought she was getting at him about Lisa-Anna, whom she couldn't possibly have heard of. There was an uncanny facet to Ladyblossom—the human Ladyblossom, that is; the rat of that name had been bred for normality, reared for normality, and finally selected from nearly a hundred normal rats because it was more normal than average. Though even that process didn't stop you getting the occasional nutter—Foxe had one this time.)
Of course the visiting party messed up Dreiser's timing; Foxe, irritated enough by the intrusion to mess it up still further, already had Lionel and Ladyblossom in the runs by the time they arrived. The main door opened and a woman's voice, deep and emphatic and unceasing, flowed through the glass-panelled compartments like a wave washing into a peaceful inlet. Dreiser's harsh voice had to rise above it.
"Now, this is Doctor Foxe's zoo."
Foxe made an unnecessary note, a man too busy to look up even for Prime Ministers.
"Carry on, carry on," said a third voice, bass and genial. "You can tell me what you are doing when you reach a suitable point."
Foxe felt a presence beside him, saw a large reflected mass appear in the plain glass panel between him and the maze-room, but still didn't turn. All the while the woman's voice, thick and guttural, flowed on.
"... got to be a Catholic graveyard. You try a Proesdant graveyard and you get nothing, not if she been the virginest virgin in the Islands. A Catholic virgin best but a Catholic whore better than a Prodesdant virgin. And so you plant your melon pips, only five pips, on this grave you found, and then ..."
Foxe would have liked to stay watching the rats. Because of the enclosed construction of the mazes he hadn't actually seen them performing until Dreiser had come up with the strips of one-way mirror, and he was finding their behaviour—those immeasurable tiny changes of movement, indecisions, starts and stoppings, twitches and stillnesses—not quite what he'd have guessed; perhaps it was the new mirror above their heads that distracted them; even in the near-dark of the maze it'd be different from the old matt black lid. But the presence compelled him and he turned.
It is always a slight shock for a large man to encounter somebody much bigger than himself; for the moment he becomes a small man, with a small man's feelings.
Doctor Onesiphorus Trotter smiled at Foxe as though posing for one of the thousand posters that ornamented the walls of both Front Town and Back Town—in parts of the latter the shanties seemed papered together with that smile. From them Foxe already knew the yellowish face, the big-muscled cheeks, the sleepy-lidded eyes with their delta of crinkles at the corners, the close-cropped hair and beard, grizzling slightly. He'd heard too that Doctor Trotter was big, but had failed to take in that the man was such a slab. He was not much taller than Foxe, a couple of inches perhaps, but he seemed half again as broad. He was wearing a bright green silk shirt, open at the neck, to display a slice of hairy chest and emphasise a torso that had the massive fitness of a weight-lifter's.
Foxe had winced in preparation for his handshake but the huge grasp turned out to be soft and dry and, quite mysteriously, humorous, as though the hand had a semi-independent life of its own, knew what Foxe's hand had expected and was teasing it, not in a contemptuous fashion but out of the hand's own natural quirk of fun. The Prime Minister smiled his public smile as though unaware of his hand's private doings. Another man stood just beyond him, and over their shoulders Dreiser's scrawny head poked up at a straining angle, as if aware that he ought to be making the introductions but couldn't because he was trapped in the mesh of the woman's monologue. She was still invisible to Foxe.
"Now, this is what I like to see," said Doctor Trotter, gazing round the five glass compartments and letting his eyes linger on the neat rank of rat-cages in the animal room. "Order, cleanliness, modern equipment, all functioning. What do you do with your computer during our power failures, Doctor Foxe?"
"The Company installed a back-up system, sir."
"So I suppose you use it as your main system, with my state electricity as your back-up. Or—no, don't tell me—you have a back-up to your back-up and you don't use my electricity at all."
He chuckled. Foxe saw Dreiser's face take on the look of a silent movie comic—one of the earnest, deadpan sort—whose trousers have fallen down at a public function. Indecent exposure of intimate Company secrets. Doctor Trotter's voice was like his presence—one was conscious by the very quality of its softness and deepness that it was capable of those famous four-hour harangues to ecstatic, swaying crowds of half-starved Islanders.
The woman's voice had something of that staying-power, it seemed; she was now telling Dreiser to water his melon pips with water containing nine drops of the blood of a tree-toad. Doctor Trotter seemed to be able to treat her stream of talk as a sort of thickened silence.
"This rat's taking his time," he said.
Foxe turned with relief to the runs. Ladyblossom had finished his food and was quietly grooming. Lionel had found his way to the fourth gate and was trying to trigger it as though it were the second.
"Yes, he's out of time," said Foxe. "Would you like to see a complete run?"
Foxe went into the maze-room, removed the mirror panels, lifted out Lionel and Ladyblossom and took them to their cages in the animal room. He came back and sprayed the runs, then fetched Michael and Marion and dropped them into the starting boxes, replaced the mirror and came out to the observation area.
"This is the learning-enhancement project, I believe," said Doctor Trotter, who had been chatting quietly with the man beside him.
"That's right," said Foxe, startled.
"How's it going?"
Foxe mumbled. There was no way of catching Dreiser's eye, to see how much he might be expected to reveal. But if the Prime Minister knew about Galdi's work ...
"Well?" said Doctor Trotter.
"The trouble is I don't yet know how I'm getting on, sir," said Foxe. "The Company has supplied me with two substances to compare. I imagine one of them's inert, and the other one may or may not have some effect on learning ability. At a later stage in the experiment I'll send a telex to my co-ordinator who will tell me which is which. The Company likes to play this sort of project very close to its chest. I mean there may be up to thirty people working on aspects of it round the world, none of them having much idea what the rest are up to."
"Yes, I know your Company is neurotic about security."
"It isn't just that, sir. You actually get more reliable results this way. For instance, perhaps what I'm doing is a re-run of someone else's work, to check it over. If I know how he's set about it and what his results are, then I may be influenced to produce similar results, consciously or unconsciously. But if I don't know, and I get comparable results, then that's a much better indication of their validity. Of course my briefing from the co-ordinator is carefully framed so that I don't start doing a quite different set of experiments."
"I see," said Doctor Trotter a little less genially. "So what are you doing?"
"Well, sir, you'll see those are identical mazes. We start by letting the rats simply find their way through. We always race the same pairs of rats against each other. This is the M pair, Michael and Marion—that's what the letters on their backs mean. When they've learnt the maze we block it off with gates which they have to find, and when they've learnt that we put simple triggers on the gates so that the rats have to learn to open them. The gates are all connected electrically to the logic room, where there are machines which time every run, so we can compare all the learning-speeds, both for the different drugs and for different doses of each drug. In effect we put in three layers of learning and then test whether the drug has any effect on the ability to retain the earlier layers."
"And unlearning? That is most important, you know."
"We're into that, sir. At a later stage I will alter sections of the maze and study the effect."
Doctor Trotter watched the rest of the run in silence, broken by a few chuckles. The only other sound was the woman's voice chanting what seemed to be some kind of spell, dreary and repetitive, but Foxe found it difficult to concentrate on the rats. Marion seemed to get through the maze pretty fast, but Michael was off form and barely triggered the last gate when the timing-light winked on. Foxe went into the maze-room and fetched them out.
"I expected them to be white," said Doctor Trotter.
Foxe slid Marion into his pocket and held Michael up for inspection, a handsome hundred-day rat, glossy with well-being, white but patched black over his head and along one haunch and the opposite foreleg. The nude tail dangled, looking vulnerable and ridiculous, like an attempted obscenity which has somehow got misdirected and become an absurdity instead. Foxe enjoyed the excuse to handle a rat more than he should. It was a nonsense experiment anyway.
Excerpted from Walking Dead by Peter Dickinson. Copyright © 1977 Peter Dickinson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.