Finally! The last instalment of the short (but not as short as I had originally anticipated) story “Death of an Annoying Person”. Thank you for your patience.
“Engineer!” called Monty, as he strode into the kitchen, followed by Florence, Helen and Mark. The Engineer looked up from a kitchen table as he approached. She had changed back into her usual black leather trousers and white blouse. The white blouse was marked with brown stains that Monty assumed were chocolate. Normally, with the Engineer, it was grease. Considering that she seemed to get marks on her clothes almost immediately, it was hard to fathom why she chose to wear white. The cleaning bill must have been horrendous.
Having attained the Engineer’s attention, Monty continued, “When was the last time you saw Miriam Davies?”
“Who?” asked the Engineer.
“Alan Droightman’s research assistant.”
“Oh, that’s who she is, is it? She seemed very annoyed at his murder. Annoyed more than upset. She was in here a couple of hours ago.”
“And was she doing anything with sugar, do you know?”
“Something with crystals. She seemed to know a lot about it. Gave me some useful tips on growing chocolate crystals. Look at this one,” said the Engineer, holding up an elongated triangle of chocolate. “You could do some serious damage with this.”
“You have a chocolate dagger?” asked Monty raising an eyebrow. The eyebrow seemed appropriate.
The Engineer grinned, and Monty turned his attention to Helen. “Helen, what ways are there off your estate?”
“There’s the train. That’s about it, really,” said Helen. “I believe there’s a few gates to the countryside, for trading with local communities, but they’re not obvious. I’ve never used them.”
“I understand,” said Monty, and indeed he did. The train would lead to the Railway, and all the other transport systems. For those who lived and worked within the transport systems, the outside may as well have been another world. It was not somewhere that you naturally thought of going. Yes, Helen’s estate may have access to the outside, but it was hardly surprising that she wouldn’t have used it herself.
“Engineer,” said Florence, stepping forward, “I understood that you were going to disable the train line. I assume that you did that?”
The Engineer shrugged. “Yes, it was easy enough. It’s an electric line, so I just tripped the circuit breakers. And made sure they’d stay tripped.”
“Miriam Davies will be walking, presumably along the tracks. Can you reset the circuit breakers, so we don’t have to walk as well?”
“Better than that. There a small diesel in the engine sheds. I disabled that as well, of course, but it’ll only take me a minute to fix it. The tracks here have a third rail, and If I turn on the electricity, I might fry anyone walking the tracks. I assume you don’t want that?”
“Absolutely not,” said Florence. “Let’s go.”
A party of five set off towards the engine sheds. On another estate, it might have been a garage for expensive cars, but on the estate of the former Rail Baron, it was an engine shed. As they walked, the Engineer nudged Mark, “So what’s this about?” she asked.
“Alan Droightman came here with two research assistants, Miriam and Rahul,” said Mark. “He’s been stealing their ideas and passing them off as his own in return for promises of good careers. Miriam believed Droightman, but the other one, Rahul, didn’t. Rahul killed Droightman with a chocolate fountain, Miriam found out and killed Rahul with a sugar crystal.”
“Scientists,” said the Engineer. “Can’t trust them.”
“What would you have done in their place?” asked Mark.
“Usually, I shove ‘em under a train. Tragic accident, very sad, no evidence of foul play. It’s when you start getting clever with ingenious devices that you leave evidence and get caught.”
“I believe you,” said Mark, as they reached the engine shed.
The engine shed was a red brick structure, with doors that opened directly onto the track, large enough for a train to pass through. At the peak of the tiled roof were the vents that associated with steam engines, but when the Engineer hauled the doors open, they revealed a single carriage fitted with a diesel engine. The carriage had a small cabin for a driver at the rear, raised so that the driver had to look over the length of the carriage. The Engineer hauled herself underneath to tinker with something. As she did so, Helen opened a door and hauled down a small ladder. She climbed up and gestured for the others to join her.
Inside, it was luxury. There was the usual Railway tendency towards polished brass and wood panelling, but the interior was fitted out as if it were a lounge. Chairs, tables, a drinks cabinet, bookcases… If you had to spend a few hours travelling, then this was the way to do it.
“There’s a kitchen at the back if anyone wants it, as well as other facilities,” said Helen.
“Thank you,” said Florence, “But I don’t think we’ll have time for that. Miriam won’t have gone that far on foot in the hour or two she’s had.”
Monty noted that Mark has already seated himself by the panoramic window at the front with a certain air of familiarity. It was clear that this wouldn’t be his first trip in this carriage. Helen sat next to him. Florence nudged Monty and nodded in their direction. Monty flicked his eyes towards the ceiling and shook his head.
“Why is the driver’s cabin raised at the back like that?” Monty asked Helen. “Makes the thing look like a giant running shoe.”
“Papa wanted to be able to see where he was going,” replied Helen. “You can’t do that if there’s a driver’s cab at the front.”
The Engineer climbed up into the carriage and asked, “All set, then?”
As the others nodded, she pulled up the ladder, closed the door and climbed up further to the driver’s cabin. “Nice view from up here,” she called down as she started the engine.
With little more than a murmur, the carriage eased its way out of the engine shed, through a neat little station dedicated to the estate and down the track towards the estate’s perimeter. It didn’t take the most astute person in the world to realise that not only had Helen’s father wanted to see where he was going, but he wanted mechanical perfection too.
“If she’s walking the tracks, then Miriam will have got about three or four miles,” said Florence.
“That will take her to the edge of the estate in this direction,” said Helen.
“Is there anything of interest, or will she have to keep walking until she reaches the main line?”
“No there’s… wait. Just past the estate perimeter there’s a level crossing. Not part of the Roads, not a transport system crossing, just a level crossing.”
Monty nodded. Very often, when the Railway passed under a bridge or over a level crossing, it wasn’t crossing another transport system, but just an ordinary street. “It seems to me,” he said, “That we’re dealing with someone familiar with Interfaces. Perhaps she could use that to escape the Railway?”
“But then she’d be outside the transport systems,” objected Florence. “Any resources she has, whether money or anything else will be in the transport systems somewhere.”
“Leave the Railway at the level crossing, re-enter another transport system just about anywhere else.”
“We’ll find out in about thirty seconds,” said Helen. “Engineer! The estate ends just around this bend!”
The carriage slowed as it entered the bend, and as the track straightened again, they could see a high stone wall marking the end of Helen’s territory.
“The level crossing is just past the wall,” she said.
As the diesel carriage passed the wall, Monty muttered, “What on Earth?” as he leant forward.
The Engineer slowed them to a stop, about twenty metres from the level crossing. The reason for Monty’s comment was plain. Around one of the gates of the level crossing the air appeared to be filled with shards of glass. Some were as small and as narrow as a finger; some were as tall and as broad as a person. Gradually they were coming together like a three-dimensional jigsaw, forming a tunnel between the Railway and the road outside. As more pieces clicked into place with the sound of crockery breaking, the road past the Railway became more sharply focused. At the centre, they could see Miriam Davies adjusting controls on a black cylinder as long and as fat as her forearm.
“Come on,” said Florence, opening the door, and jumping down from the carriage without bothering about the ladder.
Monty jumped down after her, closely followed by the others. He strode down the tracks towards Miriam, saying, “I’d stop that, if I were you, young lady.”
Not the most original line, he was forced to admit, so as she turned to look at him, he drew his swordstick and took an en garde position. He realised that he’d come too close to whatever Miriam was doing when a spinning, fractal shard of Interface sliced through his swordstick. Half his swordstick dropped to the ground.
“Oh, I say,” he said, shuffling rapidly backwards. “That was a present from Florence!”
“Don’t come any closer,” said Miriam. “Next time, it could be you.”
“Yes, I can see that, but what are you doing?” asked Monty.
“It’s a device that Rahul built for Alan. It demonstrates some of the principles of Alan’s new equations.”
“Would these be the equations that Rahul had… developed for Alan Droightman?” asked Florence.
“You mean,” replied Miriam, “the equations that Rahul gave to Alan in exchange for a glittering career and the fame that goes with it? The science of Interfaces was never Alan’s strength. He relied on us for that.”
“So, what did Droightman do?”
“It was simple. He gave us careers, a secure life, and the chance to apply for positions that would never normally come our way. In return, we gave him scientific knowledge to publish so that he could maintain his contacts on our behalf.”
“And has your professional reputation reached the stellar heights that Droightman promised you?”
“You’re just as bad as Rahul,” spat Miriam, returning her attention to the throbbing black cylinder. “He didn’t believe Alan’s promises either. He thought that Alan was ripping us off. That’s why he killed him.”
“And is that why you killed Rahul?”
“He has ruined my career! All those contacts that Alan carefully cultivated for me, and Rahul destroyed it by killing him!”
“What are you doing now?”
“Rahul built this Interface Generator. I’m using it to generate a temporary interface to outside the transport systems, and then I’ll use it to re-enter again.”
“And what then?”
“I’ll contact the people Alan had lined up for me. Then everything will be alright again.”
While Florence kept Miriam speaking, Monty edged round to the side, trying to get a clear view of the Interface Generator. Satisfied that he had a clear shot, he took the remains of his swordstick, drew his hand back, and threw it at the Interface Generator as hard as he could. It was a good throw, bang on target. It should have caused some hefty damage. Instead, the remains of the swordstick just winked out of existence.
“Unfortunately, that piece of metal wasn’t a single crystal,” said Miriam. “Unless the lattice structure is correct, then anything entering the Interface field will just – well, you saw.”
Florence took something from the Engineer and passed it to Monty. “Here,” she said, “Have a single crystal of chocolate.” It was the crystal that the Engineer had grown earlier in the kitchen.
“Why, thank you,” said Monty.
“Oh, and Monty,” said Florence.
“Don’t aim for the generator. Aim for that point there.” Florence pointed to what appeared to be a nexus where all the shards of Interface energy were focusing.
Monty turned slightly, drew back his arm again, and threw the chocolate shard like a knife. Automatically, he dropped to the ground. His last sight of Miriam Davies – or at least, of an entire and whole Miriam Davies – was of her opening her mouth to scream, holding her hand out is desperation.
Then the myriad shards exploded outward, spinning, circling, slicing, before imploding again. The Interface Generator fragmented, and the crystalline energy, cut through Miriam Davies, again and again. There was no blood, no mess, just pieces of her floating in the air, gently orbiting a common centre above where she had last been. Every now and then her face would come into sight, revealing an expression of shock and horror, then it would turn again, showing a cross section suitable for a biology textbook.
Standing, Monty glanced around, checking off each of their group. Florence, Helen, Mark, Engineer – yes, each was intact.
“Well,” he said. “That was educational.”
“Indeed,” said Florence. “I wonder how long Miriam will remain in that state?”
The Engineer watched for a few seconds, hands in pockets. “Potentially forever,” she said. “It’s held in that configuration by the inherent tension between the Railway and the world outside. That’s what holds a normal Interface stable. This is the same, except it’s been caught half-formed.”
Helen nodded as if she had understood every word the Engineer had said, while Mark stuck his hands in his pockets and stared around aimlessly.
“Good thing she didn’t try to open the Interface on the track, then,” said Monty, turning back towards the diesel carriage.
Two days later, Monty and Florence were boarding a train at the estate’s little station. It had four carriages, but they had the train to themselves as the other guests had departed the day before. Helen had managed to get her celebration after all.
“Well, thank you for having us,” said Florence to Helen, as she stood beside the open door of the carriage – first class, of course.
“Yes, it was far more interesting than most of these events,” added Monty, resting both hands on a walking stick he had liberated from somewhere.
“Thank you as well,” replied Helen. “If you hadn’t straightened things out for me…”
“Then you would have found another way out of your troubles,” said Florence. “Someone like you always does.”
“Still, better be going,” said Monty.
Air-kisses were exchanged, and Monty shook hands with Mark before climbing aboard the train. They waved to Helen and Mark as the train pulled out.
“You see how close Helen and Mark stand to each other?” asked Florence.
“You’re incorrigible,” replied Monty.
The train was still moving slowly as they crossed the perimeter of the estate, and past the scene of Miriam Davies’ demise. Her remains were still circling each other, levitated by the strange physics of the half-formed Interface.
“Someone’s written a sign,” said Monty, “It say, ‘This is what happens to trespassers’”
“It’s Sophia’s handwriting,” said Florence.
“The Engineer?” Monty shrugged, in a most un-Monty like fashion. “I’m going to get changed.”
With that, Monty opened a case, and took out some small brown bottles and a mirror. He wet a fine cloth with the contents of one of the bottles and wiped his face with it. As he did so, a fine, waxy coating came away, and the wrinkles on his face smoothed. A cup took a carefully measured quantity of liquid which he swilled around his mouth. Reaching into his mouth, he removed a small pad from each cheek, released now that the specialised glue had been dissolved. Now the shape of his face had changed, the contents of a third bottle was rubbed into his hair, changing it from grey to spiky blond. A final application from a fourth bottle removed wrinkles and liver spots from his hands.
“How’re you doing?” he asked Florence.
She had already altered the appearance of her face, which was now less matronly, and more sharply defined. A very high-quality iron-grey hair piece had been removed to expose short, almost albino blond hair.
“Doing alright. Just dreading the day when I don’t have to get dressed up to look like this.”
“You say that every time.”
Florence grunted, and removed a wrap-around segment of a body suit, slimming her waist by several sizes.
Monty removed kicked off his shoes with their insoles that changed his walk and posture and dug jeans and a black T-shirt from his bag. Quickly, he changed, discarding the starched white shirt and flannel trousers in a heap.
Flopping down on the seat. He looked like he was in his mid- to late- thirties, which was probably somewhere close to the truth. Florence, with dark eye makeup to contrast with her almost white hair and a sleeveless, faded black T-shirt and jeans had lost a similar number of years.
“These parties,” she said, draping herself across Monty and putting her arm around his neck, “Fun, but they make me feel so old.”