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The Bulgarian ambassador is found eviscerated in his London quarters, and Major Sonja Slade of the Prussian Army searches for his killer while trying to forget her own ties to the dead man.

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Monday
Jun242013

Week 23

John, The Insurance Clerk

There's a yellow sea. And I am on a tiny boat, adrift without sails or oars. I don't start out afraid. It's as if I just woke up on this boat and I know that somehow I'll be able to get home. Somehow.

I dip my sleeve into the sea. This is a mistake. The sea isn't water. It burns through the fabric of my sleeve, leaving a neat blackened edge. I pull my arm back in. I start to feel cold, and afraid.

And then Mabel is there. The boat is so small I don't know how she could have got there, but there she is. She's not like I remember her. She's old, so much older than I remember, and her clothing is long and dark. She dips her hand into the yellow sea and I want to shout “stop!” but I see that her hand comes out as good as new. Better. Her eyes are dark and she is grinning a great wide smile. Too wide. Too many teeth.

“Mabel?” I say. “Mabel, it's time to take dictation.”

And she nods. But instead of sitting down neatly with her pad and pencil and her shiny brown bob, this new-Mabel, teeth-Mabel starts to mouth something. Her lips are moving but no sound is coming out except for a low hiss. But I know what's happening. She's telling me what to do. She's telling me to call it.

“No,” I say, “I don't want to, I don't want to!”

But although those are the words I intend to say, when I open my mouth other words come out. Words in a strange language which I understand and do not understand, both at once.

“I don't want to call it! I don't want it to come!”

And those are also the words to call it. No matter what I say, I'm calling it. Mabel's smile gets wider and wider. More and more white, sharp, little teeth. And over the sides of the boat creep one fine tendril after another. White and blind and groping. Mabel grins at me with her semi-circle smile as the tentacles begin to crawl over her body.

“Zabrava,” she says to me, “i pamet.”

And I feel them waving, swarming towards my open mouth.

I woke up screaming, shouting, sweating. I tried to get up. They'd handcuffed me to the bed by one wrist. On the bedside table, though, was the pad I used to draw a picture of my pill for the Doctor. And a pencil. I picked up the pencil and scribbled down three words. Then I stared at them.

“Zabrava i pamet.”

It means “remembrance and oblivion”. How did I know those words, when I didn't even know what language they were in? What had I forgotten to remember?

I was starting to feel clearer. Things were more complicated but yes, clearer, as if I'd been in a fog for years and hadn't known it. Something had happened to me, that much I knew. Before Hristos, before getting on the plane to Greece, before these nightmares. There was something else. I remembered the nights of sleepwalking. When I would wake up in my living room with pinpricks on the backs of my hands. Or the shape of a leaf on my wrist. Or a strange foul-smelling oil that would not wash off but dissipated by itself after an hour or two. Dr Ryman said I'd done these things to myself, or imagined them. That's why I needed the Cordulin. To help me sleep. But there was something I'd forgotten... something to do with...

“Mr Smith! Oh, Mr Smith, we've been looking everywhere for you.”

Her voice was half-relieved half-anxious. As when I came back late from lunch and the client I was supposed to be seeing had arrived early. That voice, and that shiny brown bob. It was Mabel.

She bustled. That was what she was. Perfectly normal, bustling Mabel. Fussing around, finding my coat, getting my hand uncuffed, arguing with nurses in tourist-level Greek but with her usual forceful efficiency, making do when she didn't have a word.

“Can you walk, do you need a wheelchair? He needs a wheelchair!” she mimed sitting in a chair and wheeling herself along, “and where are his things? Where's his wallet? Where's his hat? Mr Smith never leaves without a hat, good lord,” a smile at me, a smile that was not too wide and yet it made me shudder, “don't they understand about an Englishman's hat in this godforsaken country? Oh!” she said, “oh I've got your suitcase! The airline delivered it to the hotel.”

She carried it in proudly. Placed it on the bed. Opened it.

“These look important,” she said. She held her palm toward me. In it was my bottle of Cordulin. The label just the same. Mr John Smith. One tablet twice a day with water. Doctor Ryman. “Perhaps you should take one right now,” she said. “I'll get you some water.”

I looked at the bottle. Mabel. And my tablets. Here, together.

“John” she said, and she put her hand on my sleeve. I remembered the burned cuff in the yellow water and pulled my hand away. “John, we didn't know where you were. We were all so worried.”

“All? All of who?”

She looked at me a little oddly. Was that... fear in her face?

“All of us at Ludgate & Smythe, John. Your family at the office. And Elizabeth, of course. Perhaps you should take that pill now?”

I tipped a pill out into my hand. Cordulin. A little broader at one end. QQ on the tablet. Green.

“No no!” Mabel shouted at an orderly, “that's not his coat, his is from Bond Street, come on I'll come and find it with you.”

She bustled out of the room.

There on the bed were my clothes, my suitcase, my wallet. I carefully tipped the pill back into the bottle. I closed the door of the private room. I wedged the chair under the doorknob, tight against the cabinet to one side. I dressed quickly. Shirt, trousers, shoes. Wallet. Hotel key. Something had happened far out at sea. I had to know what. Something out there was calling to me.

I pulled open the window, tipped myself neatly out onto the gravel. I was dizzy, my back ached, my head ached, but I walked briskly towards the gate, holding myself like a respectable Englishman. If there was an outcry to be heard, I was too far away in the hubbub of Athens to hear it when it erupted.

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