BETTER DAYS OF A RIPMAN

By Benjamin Croshaw

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Consider the brain.

There are many mysteries surrounding the brain of the common or garden human being. The scientific community agree that there are still several bits of the wobbly thing in question that donít do anything - because saying they donít know doesnít look too impressive plastered over Psychology Today.

Look around at the world around you one of these days. Big, isnít it. And this is just a microscopic dot on the entire expanse of all there is to see. By comparison, itís infinitesimally small. And in what short lifetime you have youíre never going to be able to see everything even this little planet alone can produce. Itís difficult to broaden your perceptions to allow for that.

Itís a beautiful world. I know that, you know that, Rudyard Kipling knew that, the environmentalist lobby knows that, even if they wonít admit to it. Zoom out far enough and the major land masses are still moderately green and pleasant. But the fact is, no-one can see it all. Not even people who dedicate their lives to standing in every square foot of land on Earth. Not even that small minority amongst them who succeed. Thereís more to the world around you than meets the eye.

This is where the seemingly frivolous human-brain stuff in the first paragraph becomes relevant. You canít see everything that goes on around you, your brain wonít let you. Electron particles, spirits, auras ... you canít see them on your own, but theyíre still there, nevertheless. If you could see everything usually invisible to the human eye, you wouldnít be able to see where youíre going.

But letís think about this. People who concentrate hard enough say they can see auras around people, in a good light, if theyíre standing in front of a white backdrop. Some people - those psychic chaps for instance, and more commonly, nutcases - can see spirits. But only if they put their minds to it - if their minds are properly focused, Ďtuned iní if you will. So, those bits of brain that donít seem to do anything ...

... well ...

Who can say, right? Not me, for one. Iím just a poor, lowly writer who works in a computer games shop. No, scratch that, Iím an invisible first-person observational element in this story which serves to construct the narrative from a neutral standpoint. I think. Well, whatever I am, Iím in no position to talk about the use of mystery brain matter, so please yourself. Now, letís stop all this faffing about and start the story proper.

Next time youíre walking down the street, or indeed up the street, or road or avenue or whatever, take a look around at the people staring seemingly at nothing. Maybe they know something you donít.

The main protagonist of this story - other than the neutral invisible first-person whatnot obviously - is now going to be introduced. Letís start with a description, move into placement, and see where we go from there, if thatís OK with you.

He - for the figure is indeed male - is tall. Thatís a good start. Moving into adjectives, heís quite tall. At least six foot. Tall and thin with gangly, dangly limbs, carrying himself upright with his shoulders. A black mop of hair, parted naturally on one side, frames an honest, if slightly unshaven face. A face to which a name can now be applied. And that name is Arthur Yahtzee.

He was the latest of a long line of Yahtzees, eldest son of Beryl and David Yahtzee, named after his war-hero grandfather whose wife forgot to mention her pregnancy as he trotted off to the front line. He was by no means a black sheep of the Yahtzee clan, but certainly a unique addition to the bloodline. In occupation he was a private detective.

There is a tendency, when one brings up the subject of private detectives, to think of trenchcoats, fedoras, being permanently behind on the rent and secreting Bourbon in the filing cabinet. Arthur was no victim of any of these. He usually wore hard-wearing jeans and a white collared shirt, adding a tie on formal occasions, and an anorak in cold weather. He wasnít behind on the rent because he owned his house, a two-storey four-bedroomed affair inherited from Beryl and David after their unfortunate deaths. And he didnít have a filing cabinet, preferring to keep old case notes and important information in several loose-leaf files ironically in what was supposed to be a drinks cabinet. He did drink, but then that activity is not exactly exclusive to private investigation.

Heís in his living room, leaning on the radiator, staring through rain-speckled panes at the street outside his house-cum-base of operations. Plunged into darkness, the sun concerning itself with the other hemisphere just now, the street was lit by orange lamplight, and was completely deserted.

That is, it appeared to be. Doubtless it contained no end of the aforementioned electron particles and wandering lost souls. Arthur, for example, happened to know that it contained something else.

The space-time continuum is not what one would call stable. After all, itís trying to support an infinite number of possibilities on its own, a tough task to even the most battle-hardened of continuums. So, like most things of nature that have gone through sufficient evolution, it has a built-in fail-safe mechanism.

An infinite number of universes, histories, possibilities, causes pressure to build within the continuum. The only way to relieve this pressure is to open a little hole somewhere on the surface and allow it to drain off. Then the hole is healed as quickly as possible, and no-oneís the wiser. This happens a lot. The rips can appear anywhere, and at any time, stay open for any duration, and disappear just as suddenly. Thereís probably one within a hundred yards of where you are, wherever you are. Of course, not many people can see them.

Arthur Yahtzee was not one of the Ďmany peopleí. Thanks to an unlikely event in his turbulent past, he had maintained the ability to see temporal rips. He was totally colour blind as a consequence - he looked upon life in monochrome, like a 1940s movie-goer - but he could see the six-foot wide, shimmery black time rip hovering in the air outside, being emphatically ignored by the creatures of the night and the occasional passing car. Given the choice, he would have definitely kept the colours.

The man Yahtzee was twenty-six at the time these events were taking place. He was eighteen on the day he became what the medical profession dubs a Ripman.

He lived in his family home, and was down to one parent, Beryl Yahtzee having fallen off a ladder and experienced cardiac arrest. Ladders were the sworn enemies of the Yahtzees. Great-granddad Yahtzee had been walking under one when his skull had been cracked by a passing paint pot. Granddad Yahtzee had been perched on a ladder when the sniper perforated his helmet. David Yahtzee would eventually meet his end under the wheels of an executiveís Ford Escort - an executive whose half-brotherís best friend was standing on a ladder two streets away at that exact same time, give or take an hour or two.

Arthur was an adventurous youth. At that moment he was dicing recklessly with death by standing on a stepladder and painting the ceiling, contributing to the redecoration of the landing. He was whistling cheerfully, having just found work at the local greengrocerís.

His whistling sputtered and died as he leaned too far over to take on a nearby untouched patch of ceiling, stumbled on the wobbling ladder which now seemed to be a vital centimetre too short in one leg, and fell awkwardly onto the staircase. He bounced down a few top steps, receiving a vicious bang to the forehead, rattled down a few more, striking his temple on the banisters, and finally came to rest sprawled against the hall table, one of the legs coming into intimate contact with the back of his head.

It was at this point that a curious feeling came over Arthurís cranium, quite apart from the biting pain from several nasty bruises. It felt as if various bits of his brain were changing position, jostling each other, undergoing a retuning as it were. As he stared up at the fallen ladder, the orange wooden ladder splattered with paints left over from several projects, its various hues began to fade before his eyes into various shades of grey. The red carpeted stairs lost their vibrant air. Shadows between furniture, a multitude of several darker colours, all sank into blackness. Coloured light became not so. The world lost its tang.

Oh dear, thought Arthur, brain damage.

But this supposition vanished when he reasoned that he wouldnít have been able to reason if heíd undergone brain damage. He was so relieved by this and amazed by what he was seeing that he almost forgot to pass out. Almost.

He woke up in hospital about an hour later, his father by his bedside and a doctor looking on. David went through the usual motions of regret, sorrow, and slight anger for not explaining about the Yahtzee ladder curse. The doctor went through the motions that applied to him; he told Arthur where he was, why he was there, and how long he was expected to stay. The older man spoke to his son right up until visiting time ended, but Arthur didnít reply. He was still getting to grips with colour blindness and felt his father was keeping up the conversation perfectly well on his own.

Later that day, as the sun descended below the horizon, when the same doctor was doing his rounds, Arthur beckoned him over and quietly mentioned the colour problem.

The man in the white coat and specs rubbed his chin, holding his elbow in the traditional thinkerís pose, then shifted his gaze from a nearby ceiling tile back to the bemused Arthur. "Your colour recognition faded right after the incident?" he asked.

"Right before I passed out, yes."

"I have a few theories, Mr. Yahtzee. Do you think you can walk?"

"Er ... yes?"

"Come with me, please."

Arthur followed the learned gentlemen through what seemed like several miles of hospital corridor, dodging duty nurses and orderlies left and right, before ending up in a pokey but tastefully furnished office somewhere in the administrative section of the hospital. Once there he was directed into a plush Edwardian-style mahogany chair with leather padding, and watched with some caution and a fair amount of incomprehension as the doctor closed and locked the door, then shut the blinds on the only window. To ameliorate the pitch blackness this created, he flicked on a desk lamp and seated himself in a chair opposite Arthurís. Only after watching his patient for a few agonising seconds did he speak.

"Do you see anything unusual about me, Arthur?"

"Unusual?"

The doctor leaned forward. "No shimmery mist surrounding me, all in funny shades with sparkly bits?"

"No, nothing."

Dr. Environ, for twas his name, frowned and reached behind his desk. There was a creak of a cupboard door, and the man surfaced, burdened by the weight of a large stoppered glass jar which he placed on the desk between them. "Could you tell me what you see in this jar, please, Arthur."

Arthur gave the jar due appraisal. He leaned forward in his chair, peered straight at it, supported his chin with a hand connected to a desk-mounted elbow and frowned. Eventually he reached a conclusion. "Itís empty, doctor."

Dr. Environ shook his head slightly, and returned the jar to the cupboard with some effort. Arthur fancied he heard the man tell the container to shut up as he went below desk level, but dismissed this idea rapidly. The good doctor sat back in his chair for a few seconds, pondering the situation, then snapped his fingers and went over to the blinds. He parted one of the shutters, and motioned for Arthur to come and look through them.

Confused beyond measure, the teenager did so. It looked out onto the car park, and on this storey, offered an enviable view of the town. But something was wrong, quite apart from the total lack of colour.

"Do you see something unusual, Arthur?" asked the doctor.

"I think so ... in the car park, down there ..."

"Describe it to me."

"Itís black, sort of eye-shaped -"

"Ellipsoid with tapering ends. Good, I think I can put a name to your ailment."

Up until then, Arthur hadnít been certain whether or not he had an ailment. He returned to his seat, as did the doctor, who leaned forward earnestly in the put-the-patient-at-ease posture. He clasped his hands together and tried not to look morbid. "You are suffering from an extremely rare mental disorder, Mr. Yahtzee," said the doctor - you probably guessed it was the doctor talking, it would be odd if Arthur had said that - "Itís not too serious, you wonít die or go mad or anything, so be reassured on that score."

Arthur chose to waive that right.

"Itís medical name is Rostrumís Syndrome," continued Dr. Environ, "but itís unofficially called Ripmanís Curse. At the expense of your ability to perceive colour you can now see temporal rips."

"Temporal whats?"

"Rips." The doctor went on to explain about the nature of the space-time continuum and how it needs to pop open here and there every now and again to drain the pressure off, and how a very small group of people can see them, a group to which Arthur now belonged. He mentioned that other forms of Rostrumís Syndrome introduced the ability to see peopleís auras and dead spirits, one of which was apparently imprisoned in the jar under the desk. He also explained that all manifestations of Rostrumís Syndrome were kept under wraps by order of the government, kept on a need-to-know basis, and advised the young man not to let on to any particularly gossipy friends. Then he bade Arthur farewell and Arthur went back to bed, back home a few days later, and tried to get on with his life without colour and with time rips.

He didnít learn how to use the time rips to his advantage for another six months, and didnít become a private eye for a further eighteen.

After watching the rip cautiously for a few minutes, present-day Arthur broke off from the stare and shut the curtains. He didnít want to give passers-by the wrong impression. He puffed out his cheeks and slapped his buttocks half-heartedly. He was bored. Not even the Sky Digital programming he had pumping into his set all day was distracting him sufficiently. A few games on the Pinball Wizard in the corner of the dining room failed to raise spirits, which was odd, as he could often hammer merrily away long into the night. There was no doubting it, he was on one of his Ďdownsí.

Sky Digital? Pinball Wizard? In case you hadnít guessed by now, Arthur was quite a wealthy man, shattering the private investigator stereotype once and for all. He had a lot of cases, a lot of cases which made him a lot of money. To stop this beating around the bush, letís get out right now the fact that he was the worldís greatest detective.

The worldís greatest detective lives in an inherited family house in middle England? I really will not be satisfied until Iíve made Arthur out as the least typical fictional detective ever constructed, will I? Arthur was undoubtedly the worldís greatest detective. After five hundred different cases, ranging from murder and art theft to missing cats and people ringing other peopleís doorbells and running away, he had a one hundred percent success rate. He seemed to receive a letter from a different countyís police force every other week, begging him to join the homicide team or whatever. He turned them down, every one, often without looking. A habit which had once led to Arthur ignoring an order to pay a series of parking fines and going down for thirty days.

So, he solved every case he ever took on, but he still wasnít satisfied. He wasnít proud of his great achievements, for all the media exposure he succumbed to. Somehow he felt he was cheating his clients, even though they all went away satisfied. He had been abusing his ability as a Ripman for years. He was an habitual time traveller.

It is possible to use time rips to travel through time and space. They wouldnít be called time rips otherwise. What with the nature of the continuumís pressure fail-safe mechanism, all time rips lead to the area outside physical space - an area with no name, not having been properly discovered, but for now weíll call it Dead Space. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but sheís a sexual partner to it in comparison to her opinion on Dead Space. Itís so unstable that even a stray thought can shape it.

The practical consequences of this fact number two: firstly, you can only enter a time rip if you know it is there, and secondly, all you have to do is think about a certain place and time while entering the rip in order to be transported there instantly. It was thanks to this factor that Arthur was the worldís greatest detective. He was surprised no other Ripman had taken advantage of the time rips this way.

You have to admit, itís a perfect method of deduction to be able to witness the crime as itís taking place. You can see who murdered who, what with and where. You can see where the lost cat wandered off to and report this information back to the owners. You can see where the thieves stashed the haul, return to the present, and lead the police there.

Establishing the facts of the case was always a walkover for Arthur Yahtzee, detectiveís detective. The hard part was constructing the evidence for a courtroom.

The sunlight of dawn crept over the living room carpet, glimmering through a crack in the curtains. A few hours later the interstellar orb in question had shifted sufficiently far to aim its influence at the sleeping physog of the worldís greatest detective, sprawled as he was across the living room sofa with a sherry glass in the vicinity of one hand. The illumination somehow managed to penetrate the eyelids, and in seconds he was downgraded from sprawled on the sofa to sprawled on the floor.

You canít drop off again when youíre chin is being rubbed raw against an exceedingly elderly carpet, so Arthur was forced to concede the hour and drag himself to the kitchen for breakfast.

One bowl of Sugar Puffs, a round of buttered toast and a Screwdriver later, Arthur had the TV on and was trying his best to enjoy daytime television. A tricky task at the best of times, hindered somewhat by the usual headache. It was one of those horrible, yawning headaches, like the ones you get when you eat too much ice cream in one go, and was made no better by the musical doorbell.

There was something you were expected to do upon hearing a musical doorbell, or indeed any doorbell. Arthur knew this, but the headache was clouding his thoughts and he couldnít quite put his finger on it. He was vaguely aware that the activity expected of him involved standing up and walking some distance, and he didnít fancy that at the moment.

Nevertheless, the button was being pushed, the theme tune to Z Cars was rattling around the rooms, and Arthur eventually reasoned that the only way to make it stop was to answer the door as the lesser of two evils. He turned off the TV set, wandered over to the front door, and opened it with no haste whatsoever.

"Arthur Yahtzee?" asked the ringer of bells. It was a manís voice, gruff, probably middle-aged.

"Are you looking for Arthur Yahtzee the person, or Arthur Yahtzee the worldís greatest detective?"

"Detective, please."

"One second." The door closed.

One glass of Andrewís Liver Salts topped with a shot of Malibu later, the door opened again, and there stood Arthur Yahtzee, worldís greatest detective, standing proud in a slightly skewiffed collared shirt and holding himself with the confidence of the RSCís finest.

And as for the man at the door, he had a much more upper-class feel to him. A dark grey pinstriped suit and tie clothed an overweight body, a balding grey-haired grey face topping off the ensemble. The gentleman watched the world go by through a pair of grey plastic-framed spectacles. Thatís what Arthur saw. The coloured version probably wasnít too different.

"My employer wishes to engage your services," said the gentleman.

"And your employer would be?"

"The Earl of Canstfield."

"Come on in."

Shortly afterwards, the newcomer and the worldís greatest detective were seated at either side of the worldís greatest detectiveís dining table. Arthur swept aside the empty glasses and carefully removed the bottles which still contained something drinkable.

"My name is Green," said Mr. Green. "Iím the good Earlís chief butler. I manage his staff. Recently there has been a -"

"Sherry?" asked Arthur, producing a bottle of same and two pint mugs.

"No thank you. There has been -"

"Sure you wonít have sherry? Iím having some." He poured a generous measure and downed it in one, refilling the glass. "Itís Amontillado." He drained the mug again.

"Well, maybe just a small one."

Arthur made with the pouring. Or at least tried to. "Actually I seem to have drunk the last of it."

"It doesnít matter. There has recently been a serious -"

"No, itís alright, look, Iíve found a nice bottle of Chateau Rafite Ď88 thatís still half-full -"

"Mr. Yahtzee -"

"Oh, I seem to have finished off that one as well..."

"Mr. Yahtzee!"

Arthur paused and looked his interrogator in the eye, the pint mug half-way back onto the table. Mr. Green gave him the impression that messing him around would result in a large sum of money not eventually changing hands. He decided to drop the hard-to-get comedy-drunk act, it was really only useful against the pretty ones. He leaned back and poured himself a small glass of some evil-smelling home-made cocktail of the previous night. "OK, give me the facts," he said in his best NYPD Blue voice.

"Thank you. There has recently been a serious theft from the good Earlís dining hall. A valuable vase. We have an extremely efficient security system, so we suspect a member of staff."

Arthur asked what he always asked. "Why didnít you call the police?"

"We would like to keep them out of this. We just want to know where the vase is and fire the person responsible as soon as possible. No need to be vindictive."

"Quite. How did you hear about me?"

Mr. Green pointed at one of several newspaper cuttings pinned to the living room cupboard. "That one," he said. "The Vestibule Murders. A work of genius, the Earl certainly thought so. As soon as he realised the vase was stolen he told me to get Arthur Yahtzee."

The same Arthur Yahtzee shrugged off the compliment as one would a renegade strand of cobweb. "Iím not cheap."

"Money is no object."

"Speak for yourself, Mr. Green." He paused for thought. "Seven-fifty."

"Sorry?"

"Seven hundred and fifty quid to solve the case."

The butler seemed taken aback. "That seems ... fair," he said, uncertainly.

Arthur stood up, casting a determined shadow over Green. "Then letís get to it before Bergerac starts."

Green got to his feet. "Right. Fine. But, er -"

"Yes?"

"Could you dress a little more smartly?"

An awkward pause. "Iíll put a coat on."

"Itís him!" went a shrill, excitable voice echoing through the halls of Canstfield Manor. "Heís here!"

Mandy Leeway, assistant washer-upper, recognised the voice as belonging to Fanny, one of the new serving maids, fresh from college, vast of chest and small of mind. Mandy hoped the girl would continue down the corridor, yelling high-pitched exclamations, but sadly Fate had other plans. The girl Fanny infiltrated the small kitchenette, which contained only a large cast-iron sink and a door to the main kitchens, and stood at the window that looked out onto the gravel drive. This happened to place her right next to Mandy.

The vast Georgian affair that was Canstfield Manor stretched itself around an equally massive roadway, sprinkled with enough small bits of stone to build a serviceable housing estate. From Mandy and Fannyís viewpoint, through a small window on the ground floor deep within the servantsí quarters, an expensive and well-polished black limousine emerged from the tree-lined roadway that led out of the grounds, rounded the grassy verge and pulled up with a crunch amongst a small crowd of various servants near the manorís front entrance.

"I canít believe it, Arthur Yahtzeeís here!" twittered Fanny. "I canít believe I may actually get to catch a brief glimpse of the worldís greatest detective himself! Iím a big fan of his. Iíve followed all his cases. I donít know how he does it! Iíve gone through every one of them and I canít for the life of me work out how he worked them out! He must be some kind of genius! Did you know he brought the Vestibule Murderer to justice?"

Mandy didnít say anything. It was generally best to keep the silly girl talking until she ran out of steam. Granted this often took longer than most people were prepared to wait, but Mandy, like most people who work for the serious upper classes, had supreme patience. She just kept one eye on the scene outside, closed out all sound and concentrated on chipping the dried gravy off the fine china.

"Ohmygosh!" continued the serving maid. "Heís getting out of the car! I can actually see him get out of the car! Heís even more gorgeous than I imagined!"

This last sentence made Mandy cock an ear, and she paid close attention to the dishevelled figure stumbling from the back seat of the limo with what was definitely an air of intoxication. She didnít know what she had been expecting from the worldís greatest detective. Her active imagination, a thoughtful gift from her parentsí combined DNA, had sculpted a man in middle years, clad in a felt fedora and a grey belted-up trenchcoat, carrying himself pompously. Possibly a moustache.

She could scarcely begin to get her head around the idea that the creature being led into the house by the head butler himself had solved over five hundred cases, all of them in less than a day. There was not a glimmer of trenchcoat in that garishly coloured anorak with the furry hood. The head went hatless. The top button went unfastened and the collar went tieless.

Mandyís busy hands slowed to a stop as she watched. The man Yahtzee turned his head left and right to take in the house, and she caught a glimpse of his face. He couldnít be much older than her, and wore a face that was very far from unattractive. Five hundred cases? Even the greatest detectives never solved more than one hundred in an entire lifetime. He must have started solving crimes at the age of twelve.

"Heís ... not like I expected," she heard herself say.

"He doesnít look much like a detective, does he!" chirruped Fanny. This, decided Mandy, was an answer not worth verbally agreeing with.

Mr. Green led Arthur to the dining hall, took his coat, and departed, leaving the great detective with the Earl of Canstfield, a great, towering man with a broad waistband and handlebar moustache connected to his big ginger mutton chops. The sort of face custom built for scoffing at young inventors through.

"Mr. Yahtzee. Can I say what an honour it is to have the worldís greatest detective here." His tone of voice didnít seem to reflect what he said. Neither did the way he looked Arthur up and down, taking in the skewiffed collar, the rolled-up sleeves, the hands in pockets of tatty jeans stained with blue cheese sauce, the white trainers with the shoelaces untied and the padding making a break for it.

"Classy place you have here," slurred the rapidly sobering detective. "I presume this is the scene of the crime?"

And what a scene of the crime it was. Straight out of the period dramas, the dining hall stretched for several tens of yards, the polished mahogany table at similar proportions. Walls panelled in oak were decorated, where Arthur would have put some flying ducks or a faceted mirror, with framed portraits of Canstfields long dead, staring down their Roman noses at this scruffy newcomer lowering the tone of the place with his open collared-look. The floor was carpeted only under the furnishings. The remainder of the floor was bare, the original surface varnished to oblivion. Arthurís shoes, the treads having disappeared into the mists of times past, were refusing to behave themselves. With every step he made, his feet remained in one place only by the law of averages.

"Iíve had the staff prepare one of the guest rooms," said the Earl, leading Arthur along the floor with the grace of a skater. "You can stay here while you work on the case."

"That wonít be necessary," said Arthur, narrowly avoiding an embarrassing bottom-floor encounter for the third time as he followed the large gentleman. "I shouldnít think this will take me until evening."

The big Earlís monocle fell out. "Are you sure?"

"I doubt itíd take me Ďtill lunchtime to be honest."

The Earl, whose eldest daughter was still unmarried and was desperate to find someone wealthy and clever for her, felt thwarted. "At least stay for dinner," he hazarded.

"I donít like to miss Bergerac -"

"We have a television in one of the lounges -"

"Does it have teletext?"

"Does it have what?"

"I prefer to watch Bergerac with the subtitles on. I live next door to newlyweds."

The Earl conceded that he had probably lost the battle, and dropped his obsequious level by a few notches. "This is where the vase was stolen from," he said.

In any moderately rich household, a pricey Ming like the item in question would have been kept on a podium, having pride of place in a well-lit corner of the living room. But the Earls were much richer than that. It had been kept on a coffee table under a particularly vast oil painting of the seventy-seventh Earlís seventh wife. The only evidence of the vase remaining was a slightly off-centre doily. It was next to an almost half-empty whiskey decanter which caught Arthurís gaze for a good few seconds. He caught himself licking his lips and pulled himself together.

"To be honest, I didnít really notice it had gone until I discovered that the devil had also stolen some of my best scotch," said the Earl. "The vase has a certain sentimental value with my wife, I canít stand the sight of -"

"What does the vase look like?"

The Earl almost threw the man out for interrupting his pompous monologue, until he remembered who he was talking to. He reminded himself to judge Arthur by his achievements, not by his demeanour. "Well, itís white, with a blue Japanese pattern, and about so big." He held his palms about a foot apart.

"What time do you estimate the vase was stolen?"

"Er ... some time last night, maybe between nine pm and midnight?"

Arthur cast his gaze up and down the room, and his eye fell upon a large grandfather clock standing against the opposite wall. "Has that clock always been there?"

"Er ... for a few years now, yes, but how is that -"

"I think Iíd like to go back outside and have a good old think," said Arthur loudly. "Could you leave me alone and ensure that no-one disturbs me?"

"Well, if thatís want you want -"

"It is. Thank you."

"Iíll see you out -"

"I can manage."

And in due accordance with the laws of comic timing and Sod, the soles of Arthurís shoes chose that exact moment to part company with the floor and introduce it to his bottom.

As soon as Arthur had escaped the attentions of the Earl, the condescending stares of the portraits and the obsequious fawning of the staff, he found himself back on the front drive, the crunchy gravel a neat contrast to the ice rink of recent times.

Well, that was the upper class. Not his first encounter with them; being the worldís greatest private eye forced him to rub shoulders with all sorts of people from all walks of life, but that was definitely the first Ďextremeí he had worked for. Now all he needed was a case from someone who lived in a cardboard box and heíd have the whole set.

Enough silent soliloquy, thought Arthur. Letís get this wrapped up before Jerseyís favourite export made the dayís screen appearance.

To the viewpoint of anyone else who happened to be around, in other words, no-one, Arthur then stared directly at a blank area of scenery his stare had lingered upon briefly when emerging from the car in an earlier scene. From Arthurís point of view, he sought out the time rip he had seen earlier, determined that it was still open for the time being, and approached until he was barely a foot away from the wavering ellipse.

From that point on, he was acting almost on instinct, having done the same thing hundreds of times. He closed his eyes, just tight enough to shut out light but not too tight to make his vision go all wibbly-wobbly. Then he placed an index finger on each temple, and concentrated.

He started by picturing the room he had just been in. That wasnít too difficult, he always made a point of taking a very close look at the crime scene. It was an instinct that was beginning to overlap into his personal life. Only yesterday he had caught himself counting the mildew stains in his bathroom.

Next he pictured the old grandfather clock he had seen earlier. He pictured every inch of it; where it was, how big it was, the size and pattern of the panels, the face, the typeface of the numbers, the hands. The next stage required a bit of imagination. He pictured the hands in the position of nine oí clock. Good imagination was, while amongst those of Mandy Leeway, not a virtue of the Yahtzees. This made the next stage - picturing the room as dimly lit to allow for it being late evening - doubly difficult, as it did picturing the vase as being not-stolen and picturing the whiskey decanter as being full.

He opened his eyes.

There was definitely a picture forming in the mass in front of him. A sort of vague outline of the dining hall. He kept his hands in position, and focussed his thoughts harder. It wasnít until after he consciously disspelled the background lecherous thoughts concerning certain unnameable cartoon characters that the thought took hold. The picture became clearer, filled out, gained a dimension, stopped shimmering like a picture under turbulent waters, and eventually took on the appearance of a window looking into the dining hall. Wasting no time at all, Arthur stepped through, into the previous night.

The dining hall looked no different, if a bit darker, and was as silent as the tomb. Arthur crawled under the enormous table and took up position between a pair of chair legs. He focussed his gaze on the vase, filled as it was with begonias, and waited.

He almost choked on his own saliva when a familiar hand nudged him awake about an hour later. He turned in surprise, and saw himself looking into the eyes of a young man, maybe in his twenties, with a kindly but unshaven face, dressed in a white collared shirt and scruffy jeans.

"What do you want?" hissed Arthur.

"Iíve come from a few minutes ahead," replied the doppelganger. "You fell asleep on the first go, I have to come back and wake you up. Get your camera ready."

The future Arthur faded into nothingness as the timeline sorted itself out - Arthur would not now fail on his first try, so he had no reason to go back and wake himself up, so therefore his future self wasnít there - and the original Arthur dug out his trusty Polaroid. As he aimed it at the soon-to-be crime scene, the large doors leading into the kitchens swung open with a calculated creak. An undoubtedly male shadowy figure crept towards the vase, glanced furtively around, and took the valued receptacle, disappearing through another of the many doors.

Arthur examined the photo he had taken, and took in the face of the criminal. It looked familiar, not unlike someone he had seen in the preliminary greeting committee. He crawled out from his hiding place, and discovered that the thief had not, in fact, drunk any of the scotch. In accordance with the laws of predeterminism, Arthur poured himself a generous measure and knocked it back in one. The fact that the physics of time travel had bound him to it stopped the flow of guilt in its tracks.

Then it was just a matter of following the man to his hiding place, taking quick photos from other angles for better recognition, taking in where the vase was concealed, and finding another time rip back to the present.

None of this occurred to Mandy Leeway, assistant washer-upper and soon-to-be main character, as she washed up half-heartedly and stared out of the same window at the detectiveís antics. All she had seen was the man act strangely on the driveway, think hard about something, take a step forwards and disappear. Then she had seen him reappear a few seconds later, bearing a few hoursí worth of dishevellment and clutching a camera and some polaroids.

She was more than a little surprised.

Six months after being diagnosed with Rostrumís Syndrome, Arthur discovered he could travel through time, and the nature of time rips. He was working at the aforementioned greengrocerís, as a general dogsbody, manning the till when no-one else was on it, roaming the shop floor when no roamers were apparent, and taking the store room when it was similarly inclined.

On the fateful evening, and it was indeed evening, Arthur had found himself left with the latter. The shop was a narrow building in the town centre, sandwiched neatly between branches of Next and Lloydís, opposite WH Smithís. As such there was only room for a store room on the second floor, so the audacious Mr. Yahtzee was forced to trot up and down a small flight of stairs to carry boxes to and fro.

It was while he was bringing a small delivery of bananas laced with tropical spiders down to the eye of the potential customer that he noticed the space-time continuum split open at the bottom of the stairs, leaving a small time rip, through which space-time pressure began flowing nicely.

He had long since stopped being surprised or fascinated by the things, and now saw them as a passing nuisance. He trotted down the stairs towards it, tutted irritably, squeezed himself around the thing, keeping the bananas well out of the way, and slipped back into the shop proper, muttering obscenities against the space-time continuum.

He had to go through the same routine, reversed obviously, when he went up to fetch the broccoli. It wasnít until the way down that the complications arose.

He turned onto his side a little prematurely, half-way up the stairs, and his errant shoulder brushed against the wall. Coincidentally against the area of wall containing a light switch. The time being half seven, and the evenings being dark at this time of year, the stairwell was plunged into pitch blackness. The only source of light was the occasional spark from the direction of the time rip.

Arthur struggled, perched on a step, to shift the manner in which he supported the crate from two hands to one. Eventually succeeding, he placed his newly liberated hand on the nearby wall and groped around. The switch which his shoulder had found so easily suddenly seemed to have disappeared. He did find a switch, but the operative word is Ďaí, impersonal pronoun, as there were in fact two switches on the wall. One of them was the light, the other controlled the security alarm. When the alarm was going off, the switch turned it off. But when the alarm was not sounding ...

The sudden arrival of klaxons screaming in his ears made Arthur start, he lost his balance on the narrow step, and he began falling down the stairs for the second time in a year.

The stairs were thankfully pretty steep, so he was saved from another sharp bang to the head. He did, however, plunge straight into the time rip, cross the fifth dimension, and land in another time and place.

Complications over, the universe breathed a sigh of relief and continued rolling as usual. Arthur was not so content. He quickly got to his feet, scattering broccoli, and took in his surroundings.

He seemed to be in the courtyard of some large building, built presumably at some point in the Victorian era judging by the architecture, but the thought that he had been transported to the same period was quashed when he noticed a large, much more modern-looking building to his right. There was something hauntingly familiar about everything.

That was when he recognised where he was. His old grammar school, where he had sat and systematically failed every one of his GCSEs. But the old cricket pavilion was still there, visible at the far end of the sports field, and he knew for a fact that it had burned down shortly after he left.

The date and time were confirmed by a sign dangling from a door leading into Big School (a rather fatuous term Arthur had always thought). It advised passers-by to keep quiet, as pupils were taking exams that would dictate the course of the rest of their lives.

If Arthur had not been stunned beyond belief, and had he been a bit older, he would probably have considered the irony in that thought, he having failed all his GCSEs and later become independently wealthy by way of being the worldís greatest detective.

A thought occurred.

He crept over to the same building that bore the notice, and crouched beneath one of the windows. Then, slowly, carefully, he placed both hands on the sill, rose onto his haunches, and peered through the glazed aperture.

Row upon row of nervous kids in uniform seated at tiny little budgie perch-like desks swept up and down the room. All were sweating in the unseasonal heat and staring at their papers, desperately hoping that staring hard at some of the more obscure questions might suddenly trigger some long-forgotten five-minute piece of revision. None were doing this more so than a young man seated near the radiator, a boy wearing a liberal coating of bumfluff and an honest face, with dark hair parted naturally on one side, sporting a collared shirt with the top button undone and the tie loosened. It was very clear that the boy was Arthur, taking his exams and worrying about the future.

The boy suddenly glanced up and around, seeking inspiration, and his eyes met those of the spy hooking his nose over the windowsill outside, who suddenly disappeared down again. A vivid memory was instantly recalled to Arthur - seeing an oddly familiar man outside the school while taking his exams. But he only lingered on this for a moment, as he had suddenly come up with a supposition as to how he came to be there and then. When he had fallen down the stairs he had been gripped by panic and terrible fear of death, and this was heightened just as he had fallen into the time rip. And here he was, stuck in the time of his life he associated most with panic. Panic that came from realising that he had done no revision for the exams at all. Therefore, his destination had been dictated by his thoughts.

It didnít take long after that revelation to get back to the present, but explaining what he was doing sprawled at the bottom of the stairs with several heads of broccoli forming an outline around his prone body was slightly more complicated.

As soon as Arthur told the Earl that he had solved the case, and after the same Earl had got over his shock with a few stiff drinks, the entire staff was ordered to line up in the entrance hall in front of the Earl, his wife, and the great detective.

At least twenty people formed a line from the entrance to the library to the entrance to the billiard room, stretched out in front of the stairs and staring straight ahead, wearing guilty looks.

"Was this necessary?" whispered Arthur to the Earl. "I could have just told you who it was and saved you all this trouble -"

"I figured youíd want to do it this way."

"People often do." The detective looked the line up and down, and saw his quarry not far from the end, looking slightly more guilty than everyone else and sweating profusely. Judging by his dungarees and wellington boots he was the gardener, or possibly one of several, as he looked rather young. Arthur pointed in his direction, and more sweat appeared. "Thatís the one," said Arthur.

"Alright!" shouted the thief, snapping under the tension. "I admit it! I did it! I stole the vase! And why not? These parasites live in obscene luxury, they just stuck some flowers in a vase that could have bought my house! Death to the aristos! Up the revolution!" These last two sound bytes were repeated several times, becoming fainter with each repetition, as the thief was dragged away by another gardener and an under butler, or whatever theyíre called.

"You will find the vase in the second drawer down in the dresser in his room. Now then," said Arthur, turning to the Earl. "All that remains is for seven hundred and fifty pounds to change hands and our business is concluded."

"Iíll write you a cheque," said the big man, reluctantly digging out the appropriate little book from his inside jacket pocket. As he wrote out the sum, and did his best to make the signature look as forged as possible, he kept one eye on the detective, who now seemed to be picking his nose.

"Scratching it," he said, hurriedly returning his errant hand to the confines of his trouser pocket. "I was scratching it."

"I would like to know, before you leave us, Mr. Yahtzee, just how you worked out the case?"

Arthur froze in the act of tugging the cheque from his clientís big meaty fists, and looked him in the eye. This was the stage he had not been looking forward to, having not come up with an explanation that he was happy with.

"I actually solved the case a few days ago, Mr. Canstfield."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Allow me to explain. I have a great many contacts dotted all over the country. One of them happens to be the best friend of the thiefís brother-in-law, who overheard the gardener discussing the revolution he referred to briefly upon his departure in the pub they both frequent. My contact realised this was suspicious in a man who worked for an aristocrat, and passed on this intelligence to me. I knew that if some criminal activity was committed, you would naturally send for me, you being wealthy and me being the best. I felt it would be fatuous to actually wait for the case to be opened before beginning my investigation.

"I then paid another of your staff members - I wonít say who for obvious reasons - to determine exactly what sort of revolutionary activity the man was planning. After several points of intelligence were sent to me, I narrowed the possibilities down to a few. I had my inside operative place some polaroid cameras in various positions, angled towards the aforementioned places of interest, set to go off when the places of interest were disturbed in their appropriate ways. I also had a small video camera placed in the subjectís quarters. All I had to do today was go over all the polaroids I placed and the video recording, and report this information back."

There was a painful silence. The Earl stared, open-mouthed.

"Then itís true," he said, all traces of arrogance and pompousity lost in his voice. "You ARE the worldís most brilliant detective!"

Arthur accepted the cheque with little grace, and smiled warmly. "It is a reputation I have some difficulty living up to. Iíll see myself out." He turned to leave, but didnít move. "Well?" he asked after a few seconds.

"Well what?" asked the Earl.

"Everyone always wants to ask one last question before I go. So get on with it."

"Oh, well I did have a question ..."

"Go on, then."

"Itís just ... with a brilliant mind like yours, why are you still only a private detective?"

Arthur announced his resentment of the implication, and promptly left. There was a suitably vast silence after the echoes of the front door closing died away, during which the various members of staff melted away back to their duties in dribs and drabs, until only the Earl and Mandy remained, both lost in thought.

"Strange chap," said the Earl dismissively.

Somewhere in the back streets of London, thereís a nice little gentlemanís tailor sandwiched neatly between branches of Boots and Electronics Boutique. Itís one of those really old Victorian era shops with those black window frames and rounded panes. But any sharp-eyed architect would have noticed something odd about the place. For a start, there was a small box of Pokemon cards on the counter. And secondly, only the front three-fifths of the building actually made up the tailorís. As for the rest ...

Arthur, hands firmly in pockets and alcohol firmly in digestive tract, made his way through a maze of alleys and back-streets to the rear of the aforementioned shop. Here he found a very heavy cast-iron door with a shutter in. He leaned against it, looked left and right, and rapped his knuckles against the thing with a hollow metal clonk. A few seconds later, the shutter slid back with another hollow metal clonk.

"Whatís the password?" asked the opener of shutters.

"Bram sent me," replied Arthur.

"Hi, Arthur."

The door opened, creaking ominously, and the detective stepped through. Upon doing so he found himself in what appeared to be the saloon bar of a small pub, with booths running along the walls and a bar plastered in various adverts as good bars should be. But there were some notable differences. Some of the beer pumps and optics wore very strange labels. The mounted head of a basilisk stared reproachfully down from a picture rail. The dartboard was on the opposite end of the room to the ockey.

Occasionally, people who have terrible secrets like to unwind and relax in a pleasant environment with other people who have terrible secrets. Arthur came here, to the Corpse and Castaway, regularly, where he could be a Ripman as much as he wanted, not just the worldís greatest detective.

He glanced around the bar at the usual lunchtime crowd. There was Immortal Ishmael in his usual booth, sipping at his usual pint laced with hemlock while sticking knitting needles in his chest. Jason, the werewolf, sat under a stool and tried to scratch his neck with his left foot. Flying Marcus had dragged his balls and chains over to the jukebox and was trying to start up Stairway to Heaven. X-Ray Steve adjusted his mirrored shades and told the currently popular joke to Captain Neutral. The joke which Arthur suspected was about him.

"Evening, Gavin," said Arthur to the vest-wearing apparition behind the bar.

"Hello, Arthur. You seem to be in a slightly better mood than usual."

"Oh yes?"

"Youíve gone all yellow round the edges."

It was useless trying to hide your emotions from Gavin, who suffered from a slightly less uncommon manifestation of Rostrumís Syndrome, and as a consequence could see peopleís auras. The man was often vague when asked how he had contracted the ability, but it had apparently involved studded leather, a credenza and an over-excited consenting adult.

"Had a case this morning," admitted Arthur. "Country estate, small-time heist. Inside job."

"Donít tell me, the butler did it."

"The gardener, actually."

"Cíest your vie. Usual?"

"Yes please."

Gavin held up a pint mug to the whiskey optic and settled down for the long wait. At the same time, the door squeaked on its hinges and in walked a curious figure. Short, clad in a big black trenchcoat that reached down to his ankles, hands in pockets, large hat obscuring the head. Not one square inch of skin was visible, but the curious thing was, the newcomer didnít seem to be casting a shadow.

Almost unconsciously, every occupant of the bar leant over and undid their shoelaces.

"Hi, guys," said the shadowless man.

"Hi, Clive," replied the assembled multitude.

Clive Leech, for twas the name of the man, stripped off his coat and hat to reveal a grey-faced young man with pure white, unkempt hair, in dark glasses and a chunky diamond-patterned sweater. There were also two trails of dried blood leading from his mouth to the underside of his chin, originating apparently from two oversized and pointed incisors. He was a vampire.

Anyone who tells you vampirism comes from being bitten by another one is talking from betwixt their buttocks. Science just doesnít work like that. You donít become a dog every time your border collie licks your hand. You donít start making love to flowers after being stung by a bee.

When a personís anger, frustration and hatred all reach a point that dissolves all human reason, a special hormone is released into the bloodstream, but at the moment it is benign. Only when a brief, catastrophic, sudden event adds the final straw to the heavily overloaded dromedary of frustration does the change take place. A second hormone is released and the two start to interact. Most of the subjectís blood supply is ejected from the mouth, the skin loses its pigment, strength and agility accelerate, the ageing process is halted.

Clive had been living with his sadistic brother, both parents having been killed some time ago, when the transformation took place. Locked in his room and playing violent computer games, negative emotions hit boiling point. Then his monitor exploded, and that didnít help matters. The next day he disappeared, his bedroom door ripped off its hinges, his brother found dead with two holes in his neck.

Letís get some things clear about vampires. Sunlight, yes. Stakes through the heart, yes. No shadow or reflection, yes. Garlic, no. Holy water and crucifixes, no. Requires blood to survive, yes. Immortal, yes. And a few you might not know, too - inexplicable compulsion to untie knots, yes. Unable to father children, yes. Extremely fond of rice, yes. Can only come out during the day on third Sunday of the month, no.

"Howís the blood sucking?" asked Arthur as the unlikely member of the living dead took up position beside him.

"So-so. An old bloke in the park and his dog this morning, nothing else. Howís the time travelling?"

"Canít complain. Had a case this morning."

"The butler did it," said Gavin, having exhausted his supply of witty retorts for the day.

"A half of A positive, Gavin," called Clive. The barlord nodded, and placed a pint glass under one of the oddly labelled beer pumps. Steaming dark red liquid tumbled from the spout.

"Given any more thought to my proposal?" asked the vampire when crimson gore was being sloshed liberally down his throat.

Arthur knocked back a big slug of his own beverage. "Would that be the one about letting you have a little bit of my blood so you can find out what a friend tastes like?"

"No, the other one."

"Ah. That would be one about letting you sit in on one of my cases."

"Thatís it."

Arthur finished off his whiskey and ordered another. He had, indeed, given a lot of thought to letting someone join in, or even starting up a partnership, as he felt he was becoming antisocial. But the timeline was a fragile mistress. You have to be responsible with it, and if thereís one thing Clive was not, itís responsible. "Look, Clive, donít get me wrong. I like you and I value our friendship. I just think letting you travel through time with me might do more harm than good."

If Clive was disappointed, he was a better actor than Arthur gave him credit for. He had asked Arthur every day for the last year, and would probably be more disappointed by now if he agreed. "So what do you like best about me?" asked the vampire.

An extremely hairy gentleman who had last been seen opening a shutter and asking for passwords now approached the dynamic duo. "Sorry to interrupt, lads," he said, "but thereís some woman outside asking for you, Arthur."

This did not surprise the great detective. He did have a not inconsiderable fan base and three stalkers to his knowledge. This wasnít the first time one had followed him to the Corpse, but none had yet made it past Matthew the doorman. "Why donít you tell her to sling her hook?" he said, just before noticing a look in Matthewís eye that he could only attach to worry. "Is something the matter?"

"She says she saw you disappear at Canstfield Manor."

A golden arc of whiskey extended from Arthurís mouth, flew across the bar, and nearly made it back to the optic it had once called home. "Bugger!" he exclaimed. "Bugger, bugger, bugger! Right, Matthew, keep her talking. Gavin, escort me to the back entrance."

"Sheís AT the back entrance."

"The front entrance, then! Come on, we donít have a moment to lose!"

"Why donít you go talk to her?" asked Clive, staring into his glass.

"What?!"

"If you leg it, sheíll know you have something to hide."

"Heís got a point," said Gavin, spitting in a glass. "Just go and tell her sheís been seeing things and recommend a good medical specialist."

"Will that work?" asked Clive, suddenly interested.

"It worked for me when that policeman saw me get struck by lightning," piped up Ishmael.

Arthur gave up. Leaving his drinking mates to their conversation, he hopped from his stool, rounded the bar and stalked, hands in pockets, towards the back entrance.

The woman standing on the doorstep looked at him with the usual stare of wonder that he got from everyone, but with an extra edge of fear in the eyes, or at least some curious hybrid of fear and confusion. She was somewhat plain-looking, but not unattractive from Arthurís point of view. She was clad casually in a light t-shirt and khakis, and an angular face was framed by glossy black chin-length hair.

"Well?" asked Arthur.

"Arthur Yahtzee, right?" replied Mandy, for it was she.

"I donít really need to answer that, do I? Now then, you thought you saw me disappear, did you?" He did his best to inject some sternness into his voice, but the way the woman was looking at him was setting him off balance.

"You did disappear. You vanished for a few seconds and re-appeared with a camera, I saw you."

Arthur sighed and shook his head theatrically. "Look, I think you need help. I can recommend a good specialist -"

"What colour is my shirt?" she asked suddenly.

Arthur raised an eyebrow, as if Magnus Magnusson had just asked him to put his coat over his head and pretend to be Batman for an extra point. "I beg your pardon?"

"What colour. Would you mind just telling me what colour my shirt is, please."

"Donít you know?"

"Of course I know, I just want to know if you know."

Arthurís gathering feeling of contempt for the woman rapidly began dissolving into worry, because he obviously couldnít tell what colour her wretched shirt was. To him, it was light grey, but that could mean anything; yellow, green, pink, even, yes, grey. He tried not to let his growing concern show. "What does it matter what colour your shirt is?"

Mandy smiled and seemed visibly relieved. "Itís Rostrumís Syndrome, isnít it."

Arthurís mouth dropped open, as if Magnus Magnusson himself had just put his coat on his head and begun pretending to be Batman. His attempts to form a coherent sentence from that moment on were doomed to failure. "What - er - who - blergh -" stuttered he.

"Donít look so surprised," said the mystery woman. "My great-aunt had it. She used to take us to the fourteenth century every fourth weekend for a picnic. That was before the Secret World Government hushed it up, of course."

"Hushed - aunt - pic - nic -" continued Arthur, as you would.

"After that they had all her friends killed, but not her as they were monitoring her, and not the family Ďcos we were monitoring her for them, so we all knew."

"Killed - monitor - family -"

Mandy looked the great detective up and down, and apparently became aware of the one-sided nature of the conversation. She went over the possibilities in her head, trying to come up with a plausible way to make him talk a little more openly. Eventually the best supposition came forward - arrange a meeting later on, giving him a chance to re-align the speech centre of the brain. "Would you be interested in meeting for dinner later on?" The words were out of her mouth before she realised this made it sound like she fancied him.

She did fancy him, of course, but she didnít want him to know that.

"Bring a friend," she blurted out rapidly. "Iíll bring one of mine."

Arthur by now had managed to get his act together. "Are you asking me out?"

Damn. "Only in the literal sense," she tried. "You know the Undercooked Lobster?"

"The restaurant down Judas Road, yes."

"Meet me - us there at about seven this evening?"

"Sure." A pause. "And your name is?"

"Oh, Iím sorry. Leeway. Mandy Leeway."

Mandy then took her leave, cursing herself silently. Arthur returned to the partially drunk pint which had become a mostly drunk pint while he had been away and reduced it to an entirely drunk pint.

"Good news, Clive," he said to his vampiric companion. "Weíre going on a double date."

Arthur actually made an effort to smarten himself up that evening. He dragged his mumís old hairbrush through the tangled mop of split-ends sprouting from his scalp and hung his old school tie round his loose collar. He even threw his jeans into the washing machine for a good ten minutes and the spin drier for a record five.

"Nothing like heavily creased jeans straight from the drier," he muttered to himself as he shook the still-damp turn-ups.

The doorbell rang just as he was contemplating a whiskey or rum chaser to steady his nerves, so he hurriedly tossed both down his throat and answered it. There stood Clive, confidently unhindered by excess clothing now the sun had set.

"Hi, Arth."

"Hi, Clive. Iím just getting ready, come in."

Clive accepted the invitation, and sat himself down on the Chesterfield as Arthur used a file to scrape at some crusty brown sauce on his shirt. "I canít understand why youíre going through with this," said the walking dead.

Arthur looked his companion in the eye. "Clive, did you know that Iím still a virgin?"

Clive coughed. "Nothing to be ashamed about, so am I."

"Youíre undead. Iím a virgin because Iím afraid of becoming intimate with anyone, in case they find out about the old Ripmanís curse." He tapped a temple to illustrate his words. "Not only does this girl already know, and not only did she work it out herself so the EDF canít penalise either of us for it, but she also has a cracking pair."

"Oh yes," Clive nodded. "Cracking pair."

The EDF was the official name for the organisation colloquially known as the Secret World Government, a corporation whose existence was hotly denied by all non-secret governments but nevertheless existed. It spent half its time concerning itself with monitoring the paranormal, controlling mankind and speaking on behalf of Earth to alien races, and the other half trying to hush up all of the above. Everyone who frequented the Corpse and Castaway knew about them, as their bugging devices were even less subtle than the monstrosities Arthur sometimes used in his professional capacity.

EDF didnít stand for anything. It was presumed that any corporation with the gall to abbreviate themselves must be important.

Arthur looked his drinking mate up and down, taking in every aspect of his appearance, from his grey skin and pure white hair to his chunky diamond-patterned sweater, khakis and fangs. "Are you going like that?"

"Why not? Itís not like Iím expecting a lasting relationship from this mate of hers."

"And if she should draw nasty conclusions from the fangs, the skin, the appetite for blood, dislike of sunlight?"

"We could trot out the old albino line."

"You need pink eyes to be albino."

"Well, there you go."

"Your eyes are red, Clive."

"Who cares? Besides, if sheís acquainted with the paranormal like your one is, we could just tell the truth."

"The truth is just an excuse for lack of imagination."

"You nicked that line off Star Trek."

"Still relevant."

Clive wandered over to the Pinball Wizard and gave it a few calculated whacks. "So, er," he said in a slightly embarrassed tone of voice. "Think youíre in for something, if you catch my drift?"

Arthur sighed. "I donít know, they say not on the first date, but you know what these modern girls are like-"

"Arenít you worried itíll hurt?"

"What?"

"They say the first time hurts Ďcos your miner gets ruptured, or something."

"You really donít know much about this, do you."

The conversation continued in this silly fashion all the way out the house, along Myopia Street, through Clavicle Crescent and down Judas Road to the Undercooked Lobster, a pleasant seafood restaurant with one star. It would have had more had two of the lobsters not escaped when the man from Michelin had come round. The same two lobsters, nicknamed Bernard and Matthew, were stuffed and mounted above the fish tank as a warning to their contemporaries.

Mandy was waiting there, shifting from one foot to the other in an embarrassed fashion, dressed informally in a white blouse, jeans and trainers. The friend she had brought with her had made slightly more of an effort, clad in a black and white dress with a plunging neckline, her face made up to oblivion.

"Here we go," hissed Arthur to Clive as they approached the women. "Remember, try not to let them see your teeth. If they do, itís a birth defect. Clear?"

"Clear."

"Hi," said Mandy. "Whoís your friend?"

"This is Clive," admitted Arthur.

"This is Fanny," admitted Mandy.

"Hi Arthur!" chirrupped Fanny. "Iíve a big fan of your work! Itís a great honour to meet the worldís most brilliant detective! I work at the mansion you were at this morning! I saw you in the courtyard! You were wearing an anorak!! Whatís wrong with your friend?! Heís all grey!"

Arthur, who had been trying in vain to get a word in edgeways, immediately put forward the long-practised albino line and the bubbly maid seemed satisfied. Clive, who had been staring at her with a broad smile on his face - not a toothy one obviously - took her by the arm and led her into the building, opening a conversation that led directly away from undeath. Mandy and Arthur remained on the pavement, trying not to meet each otherís gaze.

"Is she acquainted with the paranormal?" asked Arthur eventually, nodding slightly towards where Fanny had gone.

"No. And I can see your friend isnít really albino. What is he?"

"Heís a vmpmm."

"A what?"

"Heís a vampire, OK?"

Mandy repeated her last statement, but louder and more agitated.

"Look, we canít help how weíre made, right? Apart from the undead thing Cliveís a very nice bloke. Heís my best friend and he only sucks jugular veins when heís really hungry."

"Even so, a vampire -"

"Not going to be deadist, are we?"

"Can we go in?"

Now from a legal standpoint you can say what you like about the dead. I learnt this in Media Studies. A newspaper can say a cabinet minister was a rapist/serial killer who ran drugs for the Glaswegian Mafia and get away with it as long as the gentleman in question is already six foot under. Worth knowing, really.

Clive and Fanny were apparently having trouble with the maitre dí who had decided he was having trouble with their reservation, or lack of same. As soon as he caught a glimpse of the celebrity in their party these troubles vanished without trace and they were shown to a table by a window, looking out on the canal, within easy shouting distance of the kitchen and visible from any point in the room a waiter happened to occupy.

"May I take your orders?" asked a simpering waiter not long afterwards.

"Iíll have the lobster thermidore with fried egg and chips."

"Shrimp and cashew nut paella, please."

"Um, gosh, this all seems ... I guess Iíll have the paella too!! Oh, no wait, make that the battered cod, oh everything looks so great ... no, no, Iíll have the lobster thermidore with roast potatoes please!!"

"And Iíll have the lobster."

"The lobster what, sir?"

"Just a lobster. Donít need to cook it, just fish one out and bring it over here."

"A raw, live lobster, sir?"

"If you must put it that way, then yes. And do you have any chopped liver?"

"We might have some in cold storage, sir -"

"Just zap it for ten seconds and bring that over, my good man."

The waiter shook his head and made detailed records. "Garnish?"

"The liver IS the garnish."

"I see. And drinks?"

"Tequila. In a pint mug. No worm."

"Just a brandy and coke, please."

"Um, I guess Iíll have a dry martini!"

"Just whizz up some more of that liver in a liquidiser, thanks."

Things were awkward for a while. None of them were able to speak about time travel and bloodsucking while Fanny was still there. Partly because they were actively excluding her from the secrets, but more because they couldnít get a word in while she mouthed off loudly and unstoppably about Arthurís many achievements, her considered opinion on Mandy and the strange thing about Clive she couldnít quite put her finger on.

Then the food had arrived and Clive had started tearing apart the still-wriggling lobster, sucking the flesh from the bits and taking the occasional swig from his glass of liquid liver. Fanny had finally shut up to watch the shameful display. Arthur just kept his head down and dug into his own meal, trying not to catch the eye of his date. Which was fine by Mandy, as she had been avoiding eye contact all evening.

Pretty soon after the last of the screeching crustacean had disappeared down Cliveís gullet he had excused himself and disappeared to the gentís. Arthur, who knew for a fact that his friendís annual excretion wasnít due for another five months, also excused himself and found the vampire in front of the mirror, applying a nail file to his pointed incisors.

"Whatcha doing, Clive?" asked Arthur, leaning upon the counter.

"Sheís everything Iíve ever wanted in a girl," said Clive dreamily, breaking from his dental work.

"Yeah? Well tough, sheís mine."

"I meant Fanny."

This was such an absurd concept that Arthur felt a surge of Doppler effect as a low-flying pig went past at something approaching Mach 2. "I beg your pardon?"

"Sheís perfect. Big thumping jugular, good circulation ... saw how she blushed all the time?"

Suddenly everything fell into place with great steel headache-inducing clangs. "Clive, youíre not ... oh, God, donít tell me youíre gonna -"

"Why not? That lobster didnít have much blood in it, the EDF will make sure thereís no murder investigation, and," Clive leant forward conspiratorially and Arthur did likewise, until their ears were barely centimetres apart and they were almost kissing their reflections in tribute to Narcissus. "To be honest, I donít think anyone who knows her will give a flying toss, do you?"

"And there was me thinking you were attracted to her for her personality and not just her circulatory system."

"Iím undead. So if you have any reason why I shouldnít drink from her living veins, donít hesitate to make this announcement."

"I just think killing her might cause problems between me and Mandy."

Clive popped his file back inside the little velvet case he kept it in, fed it back into his back pocket and led Arthur back into the main restaurant area. "Everythingíll be cool," reassured the vampire. "Iíll take the bitch queen out and walk her home, you stay here with your one and slowly but surely climb metaphorically into her pants, clear?"

"Hello!! You were in there for a long time!! I hope you werenít Ďcottagingí!!" said Fanny, presumably joking.

"Yes, anyway, I think we should leave Arthur and Mandy to it now," said Clive, rubbing away some powdered fang with his tongue. "Iíll walk you home."

"OK!! I know when Iím being intrusive!!" lied Fanny as she took her bag and followed the grey-faced one out of the place. "Iíll see you at work tomorrow!!"

Arthur sat in front of Mandy, who stirred her drink absent-mindedly. "Is he really going to walk her home?" she asked innocently.

"No," he admitted.

"Heís going to drink her blood?"

"I should think so."

"Ah. Well, someone was bound to do it sooner or later. So, tell me about the time rips."