Chapter Thirty Six – Pass

14 Aug

I raised the chair leg and waited as a hand emerged from the tub. To my surprise, there wasn’t a single drop of ink on it. Another hand emerged and gripped the other side of the tub. I stepped back further as I saw the ink rippling again.

Finally, his head emerged. Again, there was no ink on it at all. I blinked a couple of times and tried not to distract myself by thinking about how he’d been able to do this. Slowly, he turned his head towards me and said ‘You’ve found me. Hey, where’s Rosie?’

‘She ran off as soon as I worked out that you were in here. I don’t care what you’re planning, but I don’t want to be a part of it. You tricked me once and I’m, not going to be fooled again. Right, Jules?’ I lowered the chair leg and pointed it at him.

‘Don’t judge her for helping me out here, our goals are the same. Sort of.’ Jules said as he stood up and stepped onto the tarpaulin. Surprisingly, he was wearing a pristine white tracksuit and pale blue jeans. I didn’t know why, but the fact that he wasn’t naked seemed more shocking than if he had been.

He glanced down at his clothes and just said ‘I sprayed myself with the blue ink. It’s invisible if it’s spread thinly enough and it’s totally non-toxic. The only problem is that there isn’t enough of it for anything other than travelling in style.’ He grinned at me.

I glared back at him and said ‘Why did you want me to find you some ink? If you’d crossed back over into my world before you hired me, then you didn’t need it.’

‘No, I didn’t. But I needed to see whether you were any good or not. Think of it as a test. You passed with flying colours.’

I kept pointing the chair leg at him and said: ‘A test? Ok, what was it for? This better be good.’

‘Well, Rosie told me that you’d worked out what was going on here. The multiverse is diseased and it’s immune system is planning to flush all of the toxins into this universe. We plan to stop it.’

‘And you need blue ink for it? Lots of blue ink. Hold on, is this stuff rarer than platinum or something?’ I lowered the chair leg. As pissed off as I was, at least he wasn’t planning anything too evil.

Jules climbed out of the tub and sat on the tarpaulin. I heard a rustling behind me and I raised the chair leg again as I spun round. Rosie stood in the doorway, her arms were full of old papers and notebooks. Obviously, she’d stopped off at The Caffe Noire to get all of her stuff. Well, at least she hadn’t gone to the police or anything like that.

Looking at the ground, she walked past me and sat down next to Jules, he put his arm round her shoulder and they smiled at each other. At least that was one mystery solved and one inevitable disappointment out of the way.

‘Claura, I’m really sorry. We’d planned to tell you about all of this when the time was right, but we needed to be sure that you would be on our side.’ Rosie looked at me and smiled thinly.

I just nodded before dropping the chair leg and sitting next to both of them. We sat in silence for what felt like two hours as Rosie rustled through all of her notes and circled things with a pencil.

When I was just about to get up again, she looked over at me and said: ‘I think I’ve worked out a plan.’

Chapter Thirty Five – Room 23

13 Aug

‘I still think it’s a bit over the top’ Rosie looked again at the chair leg that I’d taped to the inside of my jacket. It wasn’t noticeable at a glance, but the seam of my jacket definitely looked straighter than normal.

‘If he tries anything, then I’m prepared.’ I whispered back as a the shiny new block of flats came into sight. They’d been building them all year and I still half-expected to see a building site when we arrived. Interestingly, in this universe, the bricks were slightly darker and the edge of the car park was covered in ink. Other than that, it was fairly unremarkable.

‘What makes you think that he’ll try anything?’

‘What make you think that he won’t?’ I replied, motioning for Rosie to be quiet.

We got up to the door and, as I half-expected, it was locked. There was a keycard reader next to it and we were going nowhere until we could get past it. For half a second, I thought about staving in the door with my chair leg, but it would probably draw too much attention to us, break the chair leg and land us in all sorts of legal trouble. Whilst I was trying to plan something, Rosie walked up to the intercom beside the door and pressed one of the buttons.

‘What did you do that for?’ I hissed at her.

She just smiled and leaned closer to the intercom before saying ‘Delivery.’

I facepalmed. If I’d known that Rosie was going to try something like this, then I’d have looked around for some clothes that vaguely resembled a uniform. As plans went, it was the most the most stupid one I’d ever seen. Even spies in films take the trouble to put on a disguise before pretending to deliver anything.

Still, I heard a crackly voice on the other end of the intercom and then the door clicked. Rosie pushed it open and motioned for me to follow her into the hallway. It was completely empty and I could still smell the magnolia paint on the walls. I looked over both of my shoulders to check for any porters or security cameras, but there weren’t any.

‘Ok, any idea which room he went to?’ I said.

Rosie just nodded and started walking up the stairs. I followed her and kept my hand in my jacket, ready to pull out the chair leg at a moment’s notice. When we got to the second floor, she stopped and pointed to a door by the stairs. Room 23. There was a small note stuck to the middle of the door. It just said ‘open me’. I could feel more than a bit of deja vu.

As I glanced over my shoulder again, Rosie nodded and said ‘It’s unlocked.’

‘How the hell do you know that? Don’t tell me that you’ve been working with him.’ By now, my fingers were around the end of the chair leg. If I’d been betrayed, then I was going to go down swinging.

Rosie looked at me and just said ‘ You’ll understand when you talk to him. You aren’t in any danger.’

I pulled my hand out of my jacket and gestured towards the door. Rosie just rolled her eyes and opened it. The room was completely unfurnished except for a bathtub on a tarpaulin in the middle of the room. As I got closer, I saw that it was filled with ink.

‘Look, Jules is in the other world. You’ll have to climb into the tub and go across that way. Don’t worry, there’s a shower and some spare clothes here and I’ll pull you out if you’re in there for too long.’ Rosie looked at the tub again and poked it with her foot.

‘Hold on, if… Jules… is in the other world, then who answered the door?’ I gripped the end of the chair leg as I saw an alarmed look flash across Rosie’s face. Before she could stutter out an answer, turned around and ran towards the door. I tore the chair leg out of my jacket and held it at arms’ length.

Rosie fumbled with the door handle before getting it open and running. Turning back towards the empty room, I shouted ‘Show yourself! Come on, asshole! I’m not playing around here!’

The ink in the bathtub began to ripple.

Chapter Thirty Four – Red Light

12 Aug

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t sleep. I churned the whole thing over in my mind and tried to make sense of it all. Either the man who hired me was up to no good and the models were on our side or the man who hired me was up to no good and so were the models. However I looked at it, someone was up to no good. Then another thought crossed my mind, almost making me jump out of bed. How far had the ink spread?

I picked up my torch and walked out of my bedroom and opened the front door for a few seconds. The street looked as normal and deserted as it usually does. Apart from the ruby glow of the streetlights, there was nothing unusual on the pavements. I was just being paranoid.

I went back in and lay back down on my cold bed and looked into the gloom again. Although the curtains were closed, I could still see the faint glow of a streetlight in the corner of my eye. I still couldn’t get my head around the fact that they had turned red. Maybe it was a warning of some kind? A danger signal carefully woven into the fabric of the universe? Maybe they just changed the bulbs?

Every answer could be wrong and every answer could be right. Well, whatever the answers were, this universe was dying. And here I was trying to sleep.

Yawning again, I sat up and picked at the plasters on the side of my hand. As I peeled back the corner of one of them, I realised that there was nothing I could do, nowhere I could look. It was all up to Rosie.

Yes, I could wander around the town and maybe I’d even find something. But it would inevitably just raise more questions. It could even be another red herring. Sighing with frustration, I lay down again and closed my eyes. If I lay here like this for long enough, then I’d get to sleep eventually.

Staring at the afterimages behind my closed eyes, I saw the pyramid shape again. Rosie had said that it was a synchronistic virus, something like a song which gets stuck in your head and never quite leaves. Maybe I was looking at all of this in the wrong way? Perhaps there wasn’t a logical series of reasons behind everything? Perhaps things here spread like ideas? Perhaps this whole universe was a virus?

It was all too confusing, so I focused on the glowing green pyramid behind my eyes and tried to go to sleep. Some unknown amount of time later, I felt myself beginning to drift away.

The next thing I heard was a knocking sound outside my room. Rubbing my eyes, I scrambled to my feet and opened the curtains. Rosie was standing outside the door and I could just see a few ink spatters on the road in the distance. If it kept spreading at this rate, the house would be covered in a day or so.

Wandering over to the front door, I unlocked it and let Rosie in. She looked exhausted and smelled of old teabags. Before I could say hello, she put an ink-stained hand on my shoulder and said: ‘I’ve found him.’

‘The guy who hired me?’

‘Yeah, he’s in a flat on the other side of town. I spotted him when I was going through the Caffe Noire’s bins, don’t ask. I’m not sure if he was just visiting someone, but I followed him and waited nearby. He didn’t leave.’

‘Great, give me five minutes and then we’re going.’ I muttered as I went back into my room to look for my jacket, some clean clothes and something I could use as a club.

Chapter Thirty Three – Science

11 Aug

‘What? Why?’ Rosie looked at me like I’d just suggested that the earth was flat.

‘Think about it, if the models are an immune system of sorts – kind of like giant antibodies- for the universe – then they could probably sense whether someone wanted to harm it and there’s enough of them to stop anyone from directly taking anything from them. If he wasn’t able to get the ink directly, then it’d make sense that he’d hire someone else to find it.’ I facepalmed, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t thought of this earlier.

‘Hold on, are you suggesting that the models have some kind of psychic powers?’ Rosie smiled and said ‘I thought you didn’t believe in that kind of thing.’

‘I mean, when we were afraid of them, they suddenly started chasing us. When we felt that they were a threat, they either started stabbing things or threatening us. But, when I wanted to see how one of them worked – one of them just happened to appear next to me and fall over right in front of me. I’m not saying that it’s psychic, but it they’re part of the fabric of the universe, then it makes sense that they would have access to more information than we do.’ I said.

‘So, basically psychic in all but name?’ Rosie giggled.

‘Yes, but with science. Although I’m not sure what the science behind it actually is.’

‘Ok, so what now? If this guy can travel between the different universes, then how on earth do we find him?’

‘Simple. We don’t.’ I smiled, feeling the beginnings of a plan forming in my mind. It wasn’t a particularly great plan, but it was a plan.

‘Huh?’

I thought about enjoying the mystery of having a secret plan, but there wasn’t really time for it. So, I just blurted it out: ‘We get the models to find him.’

‘What? They’re probably too busy healing the universe, or at least letting it bleed out for whatever reason.’

Rosie sat down on the sofa again and then started staring at the wall. I walked over to her and sat down next to her. She said nothing. It was an awkward silence like no other until I noticed that her hands were trembling. ‘Are you ok? I muttered.’

‘I’ve just realised why they want this universe to bleed.’ She stuttered.

‘So that they can get to the black ink and mix it with the blue ink? Or so they can get rid of it? Hold on, you’re not thinking what I think you are?’

‘Yes, they want to get rid of it. This universe is strange, it doesn’t behave a way that would be considered “normal”. What if the ink was bleeding into the world we both came from and they decided to divert it here. To sacrifice the interesting universe to save their precious fucking normality.’ By now, there was a cold edge of bitterness in her voice.

‘But, if the black ink copies things, then that would destroy the old universe too. Two things can’t exist in the same space at the same time. No, I’m guessing that they plan to neutralise the ink. But they don’t seem to have very much blue ink.’ I felt just as uncertain as Rosie did.

We sat in silence for what felt like forever until I said: ‘Look, I don’t know about you, but I’m quite tired. If you like, you can stay in one of the other rooms or wherever.’

Rosie just shook her head slowly and said: ‘I’ve got some things to check. I’ll meet you back here tomorrow.’

And, with that, she left.

Chapter Thirty Two – Immunity

10 Aug

I nodded and walked over to the kitchen. Jake had gone through a new age phase a few months ago and bought a pestle and mortar for grinding herbs. Given that he’d been in such a hurry to leave at the end of term, there was still a chance that it was around here somewhere. All I had to do was to follow my nose until I smelt wormwood and anise.

I found it in the back of the third cupboard that I looked through. There was still a dark, dried residue at the bottom of the mortar bowl. For a second, I thought about seeing if there was any hidden message in the residue – kind of like how some people read messages in tea leaves. I shook my head, with all this strange stuff, I was starting to become as superstitious as Jake.

Running the hot tap, I scrubbed the mortar until most of the gunk in the bottom of it was blocking the plughole. I dried it with an old dishcloth that probably hadn’t been washed in weeks. Still, I wasn’t exactly performing surgery here. I dropped the marble into the mortar, it rolled into the middle of it and sat next to a star-shaped green stain.

The marble was surprisingly tough and it took about a minute of pounding and grinding before I even saw a single chip of the surface of the marble. I kept going until a long thin white crack snaked its way across one side of the marble. By now, Rosie was perching over my shoulder and watching intently.

‘Try hitting it.’ She muttered.

‘What do you think I’m doing?’ I sighed as I brought the pestle down again and watched the marble shatter with a satisfying plink.

Putting on a pair of rubber gloves, I picked out as many of the glass shards as I could until there was nothing but a small blob of bright blue ink in the mortar. Strangely, it just didn’t smell like anything. I reached for a small plate and poured out half of the blue ink onto it before going out into the yard and fetching the only bottle of black ink which hadn’t started leaking.

Holding it at a distance, I eased the cap open and tilted it very gently over the plate until a single dark droplet fell out and landed on the plate. The two drops of ink rushed towards each other like magnets. I flinched slightly, expecting a violent, fizzling explosive reaction. But they just merged into each other.

For a second, there was a larger marbled blob of ink in the middle of the plate until it suddenly started shrinking again. Rosie put her hand on my shoulder as she looked at the tiny blob of blue ink left in the middle of the plate. The black ink was completely gone. I picked up the plate and looked at it closely before pouring the blue ink back into the mortar and taking the bottle of ink back into the yard.

‘What was all of that?’ Rosie said.

‘An experiment. Just as I thought, the blue ink is able to destroy the black ink. I guess that the shopkeeper … George?… was right about immunity. If the ink is the blood of the universe, then the blue ink is the immune system. Obviously, the universe has caught some kind of cosmic disease. If that’s even possible.’

Rosie raised an eyebrow and I repeated myself before suddenly feeling an attack of cringing guilt. Finally, I said: ‘I found that ink inside one of the models. I guess that they were actually trying to do something good. And I cut one of them in half.’

‘Don’t feel bad, you had no way of knowing and, from what you’ve said, it let you.’ Rosie sighed before saying ‘Anyway, if this ink is actually diseased, then I have to wonder why that guy who hired you wanted a sample of it. Do you think that he was looking for a cure too?’

I felt the answer in my gut before I said it. ‘No, I don’t think he is.’

Chapter Thirty One – In Private

9 Aug

When we got in, I looked around the house for cards and checked the bottles of ink in the kitchen. They were all completely full and I could see a couple of droplets of ink around the lid of one of them. For half a second, I thought about pouring them away down the sink before I realised that this would probably allow the ink to spread through the water system like a virus. I’d screwed up more than enough already. So, I left the bottles in the yard behind the house before taking my jacket off and sitting on the sofa next to Rosie.

I reached over and pulled the blue marble out of my jacket pocket and handed it to Rosie. She stared at it deeply and rolled it around between her fingers before I got up and said ‘I’ll be back in a few minutes.’

Walking over to my room, I rummaged through the boxes under my bed until I found a pair of tweezers and some antiseptic. From the look of it, there were actually four splinters in my hand and they looked darker than they did earlier. I suddenly thought back to the models – if their wood reacted to the ink in any way and I’d just drunk some coffe which had been laced with the stuff, then this would explain it.

I swabbed the end of the tweezers and my hand with antiseptic before digging them into the edge of my hand. The first splinter came out surprisingly easily. So did the second and the third. The fourth was a lot smaller and buried more deeply, but asfter a lot of squeezing and scratching, I was able to get it out again. Afterwards, I pretty much covered the edge of my hand with plasters before changing into some new clothes, grabbing my towel and walking over to the shower.

As I passed the lounge door again, I saw that Rosie was still staring at the marble and was completely oblivious to everything else. I guess I’d know what she was doing that soon enough.

Despite everything strange in this world, the shower seemed to be working properly. It’s amazing how wonderful warm clear water can look after seeing streets drenched in ink.

About fifteen minutes later, I emerged from the steamy bathroom and wrapped a towel around my head. Rosie held the marble up to the light as I sat down next to her and said: ‘So, what is it anyway?’

‘Oh, how do I explain it? Well, it’s kind of like…. No, that wouldn’t be the right way to describe it. Ok, well, the only time I saw it was before I saw the other kind of ink. I was in the Caffe Noire early when a delivery came in. There were two boxes of tea and a small glass bottle of this stuff.’

‘The shopkeeper knows about it? Dammit, he seemed like a really nice guy. Look, did you ask him about it?’ I sighed, this world was getting worse by the minute.

‘George said that it was for protection, he didn’t say any more. Look, he’s a decent guy. If that ink got into your coffee, then there must have been a reason for it.’

‘Yeah, whatever. Look, did he say what it could be used to protect him against?’

‘Not quite.’ Rosie paused for a second before continuing ‘He said something about it being used for cleaning and impunity. No, wait, immunity. That was it.’

Suddenly, this all began to make slightly more sense. I held my hand out and Rosie passed me the marble before saying ‘You’re going to break it, aren’t you?’

Chapter Thirty – Reflection

8 Aug

‘Claura, I hate to say it, but you look like shit.’ Rosie muttered as I staggered back into the Caffe Noire. One of my hands was covered in deep ochre dried blood, my jacket was speckled with sawdust and my shoes were still sticky with ink.

I dropped my shoes by the door and walked over to her table. She’d already turned around and ordered coffee for me and called for another couple of plasters. The old man in the yellow suit by the mural in the corner just sipped his espresso and looked at us with a wry smile. Whilst I was waiting for the coffee to arrive, I got up went into the cafe’s parrot-infested bathroom and washed the blood from my hand. There were a couple of splinters which I’d have to pick out later but, all in all, it looked worse than it actually was. Even the parrots seemed to be keeping their distance from me.

When I came back, there was a cup of coffee sitting on the table and I heard the shopkeeper say that it was on the house. I thanked him and sat opposite Rosie again. She leaned close to me and said: ‘How bad is the street?’

‘Covered in ink, it’s spreading. But everyone seems to be ok. Oh, I found this.’ I reached into my pocket discreetly and showed her the marble, keeping it hidden in my palm the whole time.

‘Where the hell did you find this? Is that… blue ink?’

‘I got it from one of the models, hence all the sawdust.’ I said flatly.

‘Oh.’

‘Have you seen it before?’

She leant in even more closely and whispered: ‘Once.’

‘Where?’ I whispered.

‘We’ll talk about it later. In private.’ She leant back and sipped her rose tea. I sighed and started drinking my coffee, it was still reassuringly warm and it seemed to be a new blend of some kind or other. I looked over at the shopkeeper and smiled at him, he smiled back before returning to rearranging boxes of tea leaves.

The radio crackled again and the opening drum machine beats and distorted guitar howls of “Ribbons” by The Sisters Of Mercy started to echo through the cafe. I looked into the dark mirror of coffee which was still left in my mug. My face stared back at me and my hair still looked an absolute mess. Then, in the reflection, I noticed something pale moving slowly behind me.

When I looked over my shoulder, everything seemed normal. So, I went back to the cup and looked as closely as I could. Then, just for a second, I saw it again – it was a cloud. A cloud, an actual fluffy white cloud. I felt an ice dagger of fear in my chest and tried to keep looking normal. There was only one thing that produced those kinds of reflections and it wasn’t coffee. And I’d been drinking it.

Very slowly, and without trying to show any disgust, I sipped the rest of the coffee. It might have just been my mind, but it tasted more bitter than usual. When there was about a centimetre of it left in the bottom of the mug, I looked up at Rosie before glancing at the door. She just nodded and got up. I left a small tip on the table before I tried to smile at the shopkeeper again for the sake of appearances. He was looking the other way, so we just muttered goodbye and left.

Once we were a couple of streets away, Rosie muttered: ‘Claura, did you see your coffee? I was going to mention it, but..’

‘I know. It would be rude. God, I hope this stuff isn’t poisonous.’

‘I don’t think it is. I mean, if it’s the universe’s blood, then why would it be?’

‘I guess. Look, what do you know about the blue ink?’

‘In private.’ She muttered as my house came into view again.