Day 72. 161 pages, 58,131 words.
Gordon directed me to the L&E tower lost and found while Anton placidly continued cleaning up post-its and scrunched-up paper packaging. It seemed the lost and found was part of the ‘open to the public’ section of the tower on the other side of the building and on the ground floor, one level down and across the floor from my current location at the waste pickup point.
It was also, unfortunately, on the side of the L&E tower that faced onto Prince Philip Street and the growing quagmire of deathstinking salt water that was happening out there. The only upside of this fact was that it meant most of the level was deserted as employees had found atmosphere-controlled higher ground in the tower or had just gone home for the day, rightly figuring that nobody was going to be worried about an empty water cooler or slightly dried-out lobby plants when the street outside seemed to be sinking into the classical Bog of Eternal Stench.
It was mainly downside, though. I pulled the neck of my shirt up to cover my mouth and nose, and waded through the thickening fumes.
There were a few hardy souls still on duty, including one fellow actually decked out in the attire of the fabled ‘security’ – not such a myth after all, perhaps. He didn’t seem all that interested in doing anything, an attitude I admired, and he didn’t bat an eyelid as I walked past him bank-robber style with my shirt over my face. I evidently wasn’t the first person he’d seen taking such an approach.
Lost and found, likewise, was under the watchful and slightly-watering gaze of a middle-aged woman far more intimidating than the security guard I’d passed. She didn’t even seem to care about the smell permeating from the street, aside from the aforementioned slight-wateriness of her gaze.
“Hi,” I said, and squinted at her name tag, “Rose.”
“Good afternoon,” she said amicably enough, although her eyes remained steely and her expression hawkishly watchful. Out of respect, I lowered my makeshift bandana and winced slightly as Lake Philip and ten thousand dead convicts crawled into my nostrils and said g’day.
“Afternoon. Ugh,” I said by way of a conversation opener. “Smell.”
“I could have warned them this would happen if they tried to bring a gas mains along Prince Philip Street,” she said briskly. “Ghastly notion. Digging into the old water table. The very idea. A gas mains, honestly. They’re lucky the whole lot didn’t jolly well explode. This whole area used to be a salt lake, did you know?” she went on, evidently in no mood to be placated on the subject of government incompetence. “The street is named after it.”
“I did know that, actually,” I said as brightly as I could given the circumstances. “In fact ‑ ”
“Well, where did they think all that water went?” Rose carried on righteously.
I suspected that ‘they’, in this case the government department responsible for laying gas lines, had ‘thought’ that ‘all that water’ in the Lake Philip salt lake had dried up permanently with the big land subsidence seventy-five years ago, and there hadn’t been all that much in the first place – not for centuries, maybe millennia, back when the salt lake had actually been a lake, or part of the ocean, or whatever. Certainly there had never been this much water in colonial times, and as for the miners’ mass grave … well, that was the thing about curses. They tended to ignore inconvenient facts about census numbers and infrastructure studies and water table soundings and salinity levels. Also, you know, gravity.
It probably didn’t pay to think too much about where this sludge was coming from, and how few of the bodies were actually those of the convicts killed in the Barnsley Prison Yard, at least from this plane of reality. Like the Myconet said, there were always bodies buried somewhere.
I blinked and returned my attention to Rose. “Hmm? I mean, pardon me?”
“I said, do you have an interest in history, young man?”
“Oh – oh, yes,” I replied. “I was actually just reading up about the old prison yard, you know, the one they put here so the convicts could collect the salt … ”
Rose sniffed, a staggering display of ingrained response overwhelming the current air quality. “Another ghastly notion,” she said.
“Barnsley Yard got a street named after it too, though,” I said helpfully, and Rose gave me a pinched look that made me realise I was knowing the wrong sort of thing. “Um, so anyway, I was rummaging in the antique shop up on the corner of Collins Square,” I went on, “looking for some things from that era, you know, for a school project … ”
I was, I should probably interrupt myself at this point, well too old to be doing school projects. Even if my clothing, hair, and general presentation didn’t give me away, it should have been obvious. But one thing I had learned when dealing with ladies like Rose – they will see a person younger than they are by a decade, and assume they are fourteen years old. So ‘school project’ only helped to cement the idea in her head.
You might think ‘university project’ would have been a safer bet. This is not the case. Say ‘university’ to a lady like Rose, and she will immediately notice the long hair, the black clothes, the scuffed boots, the sunglasses and the mildly unshaven jaw, and assume ‘layabout’. She wouldn’t be wrong, of course – it would just be inconvenient.
Rose gave another disdainful little snort. “You won’t find anything in the Collins Square place,” she declared. “That man is a common crook.”
Oh good, I thought dryly. “Well, you’re right about that,” I said, continuing my tale of woe, “I mean, about the not finding anything – although I did pick up this funny pair of, ah, X-ray specs, you know the sorts you used to get in the back of magazines? They didn’t do anything, of course, but they were just sort of funny and vintage.”
“I wouldn’t trust Reggie Keyes to provide anything of actual vintage … ” Rose muttered, her eyes focussed on some bygone and probably-minor wrong Reggie Keyes had inflicted upon her in the past, probably related to refusing to pay the price she wanted for her late mother’s awful old terracotta owl collection.
Outside in the street, there was a low crump that I felt vibrate through the soles of my boots, and the counter between us shook slightly. Breaking glass and a car alarm joined in further up the street – apparently the stink-hole had just gotten a bit bigger out there. It was only a matter of time before it stopped eating the swamp-choked Prince Philip Street, and started on buildings.
“Anyway,” I used the distraction to move on smoothly, “I had a meeting with Mister Hammersmith upstairs, and ‑ ”
“Oh,” Rose brightened and nodded importantly, “Mister Hammersmith. What were you meeting with him about?”
“ … Futures … ?” I hazarded, and was rewarded with another knowing nod. “Well, I dropped my X-ray specs and – silly, I know – I was told they might have shown up in lost and found. Um, Anton said he’d picked them up and brought them here.”
Rose’s face pinched inwards again. She would, of course, have Views about people like Anton. Even if she had no real idea what sort of ‘people’ he was.
That was the thing about Views. They tended to blind you.
“I haven’t seen him today,” she said, “but I only just arrived at work. The traffic today is – well, you can imagine,” I nodded sympathetically. “Marion was at the desk this morning, he probably shelved the item. Let’s take a look, shall we?”
But Rose’s search of the ‘new articles’ shelves in the lost and found turned up nothing like a pair of X-ray specs. She asked me what they looked like, which was a minor hiccough, but I was able to vague her off with the help of another distracting set of rumbles and gloopy splashes from the street. Whatever they looked like, there was really nothing of the sort in the L&E tower lost and found.
“Maybe Marion put them on the wrong shelf,” I took a measured risk in implying criticism of someone who might be Rose’s favourite co-worker.
Fortunately, Rose didn’t seem to have one of them, unless Mister Hammersmith counted. “Far more likely he pocketed them,” she said disdainfully.
“Oh,” I said, face falling. “Um.”
“They might show back up in one Reggie Keyes’s display cases tomorrow,” Rose said. “Thick as thieves, those two are.”
The way my luck was going, it wouldn’t have surprised me at all. “Maybe I can find Marion before that,” I said, “and just ask him. It might have been a misunderstanding. Perhaps you have an address … ?”
I could tell that Rose thought I was a nice, if hopelessly naïve boy. “Oh, no need for that,” she said. “Marion will probably be at the cafeteria. He usually spends a good hour or two there after his shift ends. He’s such a ghastly glutton of a man.”
“Right,” I said, looking as disapproving as I could despite my own perennial festive plumpness. “Cafeteria. Thank you, Rose.”
Wondering whether there would be any sort of decent food on offer, and wondering how anybody could eat in this foul miasma, and above all wondering just how my attempt to assess the risks of the Prism and avert the curse of the Barnsley Yard Cookhouse Trumpet had turned into a quest to find Marion in the L&E tower cafeteria, I bade Rose at lost and found farewell and waded back into the stench of the lobby.