Scatology Act

By John Lane All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Other

Glandular Problems

Here I sit, broken hearted…



Thyroid flopped back listlessly into the cushions, a fairly close approximation of someone who has just had their skeleton removed by powerful alien technology. He was busy trying to work out how it was he had come to be known as Thyroid. He didn’t have a glandular problem. It couldn’t have been ironic, either, he thought, because he was small and wiry, unless it was that rubbishy, childish kind of irony favoured by eight-year-olds where sarcasm was simply a matter of opposites. Whenever he went to a party, someone would invariably sidle up and say ‘gland to see you’ or worse, before promptly vanishing happily wrapped up in their own mirth. What was that all about? He stopped wondering about the name, wondering instead why he was wondering about it at all in the first place. Like many of life’s quotidian oddities, he mused, there was no reason; it was merely a random name that had stuck and therefore not worth the mental effort he had been applying to the problem. The real issue was that Thyroid’s brain liked to travel interminably around looped arguments and obsess over the utterly pointless. Damn brain, he thought.

Although Thyroid was certainly nowhere near as deluded as one Chester Guberson, all the same he did have his own identity quirks. For example, a lot of people thought him morose, or cynical. Thyroid told himself that he was generally quite positive and when he wasn’t, it was because he was being realistic. The fact was, most of the time, he was morose. In Thyroid’s case, he would doubtlessly be a lot happier if he stopped thinking altogether. However, thinking was basically all he ever did. Thyroid had never been convinced by any particular theory about life or existence, or anything for that matter, except his own atheism. His mind was full of arguments, counter-arguments, counter-counter-arguments. He was capable of both intelligent insight and gross contradiction in his observations. If he criticised himself, it was for being excessively analytical, one symptom of which being the way he would spend so much time concentrating on stupid, vague trivialities, such as having a gland for a nickname. In his own way, Thyroid was also intolerant, albeit of belief systems rather than physical differences. He believed that people were free, should be free, to do as they desired… as long as religion was dismantled and divine faith swept under the carpet of history. It was his habit always to try and delve deeper, even while intrinsically understanding the impossibility of ever knowing why anything was the way it was. What really annoyed him, irritated him, about the religious, for instance, wasn’t so much theological or ethical but rather his total bafflement that people could be so willing to stop at that, as though God-as-an-Absolute was sufficient enough explanation for them to look no further in regards to their existence or the boggling mysteries of a chaotic, beautiful, cold, immense universe; not that such quandaries were the grist of every thought he ever had. Like most people, the majority of his time was spent thinking about mortgage payments and what to have for dinner.

Thyroid shook his head briskly, causing a brrrp sound to flap from his lips. Here he was again, in danger of needlessly complicating another evening with a round of weak philosophical insecurities. He peered down at the Calvin and Hobbes anthology in his lap and yawned. He probably smoked too much weed, was the problem, he thought. An acquaintance of his, Emma, had told him as much a couple of days ago. She had also suggested that this was why Thyroid got so hung up on finding answers to “meaningless existential conundrums that had no bearing on day-to-day living”. Grass changed the way you thought, she had said. It made you think about stuff that maybe you shouldn’t. She had had a point, Thyroid confessed, and he admired her logic but there wasn’t much he could do about that this evening, especially since he had already made a decent headway into the small sealed bag of pungent skunk he had picked up on his way home.

He started flicking through the anthology and began to perk up, laughing at certain strips that he still found hilarious even though he knew nearly all of them perfectly by heart. He suddenly felt the need to do something constructive and so, killing off the remains of his last joint in a couple of tokes, he got up and went into the kitchen to make some toast.

Without paying too much attention, he switched the radio on and almost immediately fell over himself as he backtracked quickly to tune out the appalling song that came belching full volume from the scratchy speakers. It took him about four and a half seconds to notice the searing pain in his foot. Thyroid bit back the urge to shout at the cupboard and made a huge effort not to contemplate the vast universal injustice of stubbing your little toe when you were innocently engaged in nothing more innocuous than toasting a couple of slices of bread. He supposed there were worse things that could happen to a person, so he had a go at himself for not wearing shoes instead.

He was just getting it together when the door-bell rang.

It rang again.

Then again, incessantly this time, the visitor – clearly offended by the door not opening immediately – having decided to keep his finger on the buzzer until the appropriate reaction was forthcoming.

‘Gary,’ whispered Thyroid with a sort of half-groan, now resigned to the fact that the night he had been expecting had decided to take a rain-check and that what he had experienced of the evening so far was only a distant relation. ‘Coming,’ he said, so quietly you would have barely heard it if you were standing next to him.

As usual with Gary’s visits, the shrill of the bell continued mercilessly until Thyroid fully opened the door. The man standing in the doorway was so close Thyroid nearly cracked his head against the visitor’s when he stuck it out of the door. The two men were about the same height, give or take an inch, but Gary was a lot broader, from years of playing rugby for his school, his college and, inevitably, his university; the latter being responsible for the burgeoning broadening of his beer-belly too. Gary was thirty-three, Thyroid’s senior by two years, and seemed to take this honestly to imply unconditional respect on Thyroid’s part.

‘You have got to take life more seriously,’ he said, pushing past Thyroid and heading into the living room. ‘Christ, would you look at this place. You want to tidy up a bit.’ Thyroid followed Gary’s gaze around the room. Okay, it was true the place was a little disorganised but Thyroid thought it still managed to come off as a stylish, liberal sort of disorganisation. Half a newspaper poked out from under the sofa, the coffee table had three cups on it, all half-filled with cold tea, as well as skins, loose strands of tobacco, lighters and a selection of small tins containing different substances, most of them legal. A laptop was balanced on the corner of the table, a cable extending from the back and snaking across the floor to a socket next to the bookcase in the right hand corner of the room, backed against the wall facing the sofa. The bookcase matched the coffee table for disorder, practically spilling out its contents of books, magazines, papers and files. The floor could have done with a hoover, he thought, scratching his head, after he had picked up the cushions and balls of scrunched up paper, of course. The yucca, tall and verdant, looked healthy though, and, in all fairness to himself, Thyroid considered the layout of the room to be an acceptably haphazard cool with its Bohemian spattering of rugs and candles, interesting art prints on the wall and the funky, silver-fronted stereo with a mass of CDs stacked around it. Yeah, he still used CDs! The TV corner could have done with some polishing up, however, looking at the dust on the screen and the DVDs strewn casually about the base of the stand.

Gary put his hands on his hips and tutted loudly, shaking his head sadly. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘when I look at this place, I think I get why your articles are so confused.’ He took a slim bottle of Jack Daniels from his black leather briefcase – he had bought the suitcase for its air of professionalism, exactly the same reason that Chester Guberson had bought his own identical black leather briefcase – and said, ‘I’ll get some glasses.’

Thyroid watched him walk from the living room. He and Gary had known each other for a little over two and a half years, since he had started working at The Contemporary, a respected local newspaper that had just recently started to expand its readership some way out of Birmingham. Gary was on the business and finance desk; Thyroid was strictly human interest and commentary. That they were friends, or certainly that they seemed to spend a great many hours together outside the office, was, sometimes, a source of small, passing comment amongst their peers, mainly because Thyroid and Gary seemed to be so substantially different in nature and because it looked as though most of the time they only ever succeeded in rubbing each other up the wrong way. Raynard Forkes, the resident astrologer on the paper, said Thyroid and Gary had a yin yang relationship, that their two personalities formed a balance. But then he had followed that with something about ascending moons and anyone who had been listening at the time quickly lost interest. Thyroid was happy to think of their friendship as perfectly in tune with the nonsensical essence of being alive. Gary, oddly enough for a man who always had an opinion about everything along with the desire to voice it, was unusually taciturn on the subject, never really commenting on it at all.

Gary re-entered the room holding two glasses, one half filled with the ice, the other without. ‘I read that piece you wrote the other day… what was it about, 21st century philosophy or something?’ He put the two glasses down and had a rummage in his briefcase. ‘Just a second, I’ve got a copy of it here. Me and the boys in the department had a right old laugh about it,’ he said over the top of his case. For a moment, he reminded Thyroid of the ‘Wot no…?’ man, half a head peering over a wall, except with mousy blonde hair that was thinning prematurely and two intelligent eyes that always gave the impression you had just been asked a question. ‘I keep telling you, Thy, nobody’s interested in this let’s-all-live-together, kum-bay-ya shit.’ Gary raised a translucent eyebrow. ‘Especially,’ he said with a meaningful glance in Thyroid’s direction, ‘when the person doing the telling doesn’t really believe it himself. I mean, we’ve all got too much other stuff to worry about. Look here, this bit… hang on… here we are. This is priceless. “We should leave technology to its own devices and instead start looking at how we can upgrade ourselves”. You fucking hippy.’

‘I’d rather be a hippy than the face of greedy, self-serving commercialism.’

‘Bollocks. It’s a commercial world in case you hadn’t noticed. If you want to survive, you’ve got to learn to live in it, just like everyone else.’ He held up the paper and waved it in front of Thyroid. ‘This kind of fluff is no use to anyone these days. Not when people are struggling to make ends meet or feed their kids. How are those people supposed to “upgrade” themselves?’ He threw the paper down onto his briefcase and reached for the glasses once more. ‘One finger or two?’

‘Better make it the one; I’ve started toking.’

Gary sniffed at the air disapprovingly. ‘Yeah? What? Lettuce dipped in cat piss or an old stick of incense?’

‘On second thoughts, I’ll have a double.’

‘Good man.’

Thyroid tickled the tip of his long, narrow nose. ‘Anyway,’ he said, pointing at the discarded paper, ‘whatever your money-addled brain might think, that was a good bit of writing.’

Technically, I suppose, yes it was. I’ll give you that it was nicely executed and all that but… well, who cares, considering the content?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Seriously, who gives a shit? Like I said, man, we’re all too wrapped up in our own problems to waste time solving everybody else’s. And I notice you don’t actually propose any of these upgrades you reckon are so necessary.’ He passed Thyroid the glass with the ice, now swimming gently in a healthy measure of bourbon, and sipped at his own. ‘Ahh, nice,’ he said with a wink. ‘In the end, it comes across as yet another lecture from the self-righteous, and none of us need another lecture. We get enough of that from government. Honestly, Thy, I do understand what you’re saying, but life doesn’t work like that.’

‘Things change.’ Thyroid knew he sounded childishly defiant but he just couldn’t help it sometimes with Gary. Anyone who didn’t know Gary might think he was crass; Thyroid knew, however, that he was sharp and erudite. It hadn’t always been that way. There was a time when Thyroid too could put forth his arguments with the strong voice of conviction. That was before… Well, that was before.

‘Sure they do,’ said Gary. ‘Then again, there are some things that don’t. Look at history. We aren’t interested in other people, except maybe as a source of exotic food or cinema.’

‘Sounds like over-simplification to me,’ said Thyroid.

Gary made a pfff sound and swung his arm as if trying to waft away a nasty smell. ‘And that coming from the king of vague,’ he said. He took another drink of his bourbon. ‘I will tell you this… there is one aspect of living that brings us all together... a, what would you call it, a “supra-ordinate” interest?’

‘And what’s that, then?’

‘Our bank accounts.’

Thyroid sat down in an armchair and leant forward, resting his elbows on his knees and holding his glass out, ready to gesture with it. ‘Not exactly meaningful, is it?’

‘Meaningful? What has that got to do with anything? Meaningful is meaningless if you don’t have enough money to pay the bills.’

‘And that’s exactly what we need to change,’ said Thyroid. ‘If we all think like you, we’ll never get anywhere…’

‘That depends on where you want to go.’

‘Well, anyway, all it takes is a little perspective and observation.’ He sat back in the chair and let his head roll. ‘Actually, Gary, do you mind if we don’t have this conversation now? I want to relax tonight, not think about anything.’

Not exactly meaningful, is it?

Thyroid laughed. ‘Top me up,’ he said, passing his glass over to Gary for a refill. ‘So, to what do I owe the pleasure of this unexpected visit?’

‘I’ll get to that in a minute,’ said Gary, screwing the lid back onto the JD bottle. ‘Listen, seriously, sometimes I don’t get you, Thy. I mean, you’re an okay sort of guy…’

‘Thanks.’

‘Don’t mention it. However, you can be really fucking miserable sometimes.’ He held his hands up. ‘Yeah, yeah, I know, you always try to inject a little positive thinking in your pieces, but it seems tacked on somehow, like the only reason you do it is to make sure the readers come back and keep you in the money you despise so much. You know, deep down, that no-one is going to want to read a column that forever depresses them or makes them feel guilty about not bringing down the system.’ He looked down at his glass, which he was using to draw small circles on the coffee table. ‘However the fuck they’re supposed to do that.’

‘I don’t think you get the point, Gary. I’m just making observations. It’s hardly my fault if I look around and can only see injustice, boredom, dissatisfaction. The world is too hung up on money. But money, like everything else in this world, has a lifetime, a beginning and an end, and sooner or later, probably sooner, it will be over. We have to start learning to live without money.’

‘Oh, blah fucking blah. It’s still no excuse for being a cynical old bloody misery.’

‘You’re calling me cynical?’

‘Don’t make comparisons, Thy. I might be capable of cynicism, certainly, but for you it’s something else. You deconstruct, but you don’t lay any foundations to construct anything else. You’ve become destructive, in a way, which is ironic considering your apparent set of values. And it’s all because you’re still just feeling down about… well, you know… just because you’re miserable, you want to pull everyone down with you. Subconsciously, of course.’

‘I totally disagree,’ said Thyroid, slapping his hand down on the coffee table. ‘I am not that fucking miserable.’

‘Well no,’ conceded Gary. ‘Not all of the time. But a lot of it. And we both know why.’

‘We’re not going to talk about her, are we?’

‘Fine,’ said Gary, flapping his hands in a limp, placatory fashion. ‘But you know I’m right.’

Thyroid closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘The reason for this heart-warming visit, Gary?’

‘Oh yeah,’ said Gary, as if only just remembering, while he fingered a small triangle of bared gut poking out from his belt. ‘Henry wants to see you in the office tomorrow morning; he thinks he might have something interesting for you. He tried ringing today but your phone’s been off the hook or something, so I told him I’d pop by on my way. I just happened to pop into the off-licence as well.’

‘Did he give you any hints as to what it might be about?’

‘No. Well, nothing more than it’d be right up your street. So I imagine it’ll be another in-depth investigation into how to sit on your arse all day, complaining about the state of a world to which you do not contribute.’

They grinned at one another. ‘Don’t you have to go and count coffee beans or something?’

Gary swigged at his bourbon and sucked on his teeth. ‘As it happens,’ he said, ‘I’m having dinner with Carol.’

‘Carol? The girl who was here last week, for the fashion spread?’

‘That’s right. I asked her out.’

‘And she said yes?’

‘Must be my chippy personality.’

Unusually, the JD was having a sobering effect on Thyroid. Maybe that’s a good thing, he thought. Yes, if he could get it sufficiently together, perhaps he might finally get a start on the novel (or script, or poem, or play…) he had been planning to write for the last few centuries. Mind you, he would probably end up writing another article; it was always the easier option in the end, maybe because Gary was right, because it was simpler to just sit there complaining about life than actually creating a constructive alternative. He remembered Gary was still sitting there with him, grinning and waiting, probably, to be congratulated on his extraordinary prowess as a male. ‘Okay, that’s great, Gary. I hope you have a good time. You taking her anywhere nice?’

‘I’m taking her to Toni’s, the Italian place round the corner from the Rotunda.’ He looked at his watch. ‘Shit, I’d better be going or I’ll be late. You can’t keep high class totty waiting, eh mate?’ Gary got to his feet. ‘Look,’ he said, patting his stomach, ‘keep the JD and have a nice evening on me. No need to get up, I’ll see myself out.’ In a whirl of speed and a flurry of huffed, frenetic activity that left Thyroid feeling dizzy, Gary was gone, leaving behind a bottle of bourbon trembling on its base and the echo a front door slamming shut. He was as abrupt in his departures as he was exaggerated in his arrivals. Thyroid stared at the empty Gary-shaped space impressed where his friend had been sitting, watching the indentation rise and fill out like an inverted meringue.

Thyroid looked at his laptop from the corner of his eye and puffed out his cheeks. For a moment, the impulse to get to work on the great British whatever fought for dominance. It wasn’t much of a battle; Thyroid picked up the now static bottle, topped up his glass, crouched over to fish his newspaper from under the sofa and sat back to work on the crossword.


*


Dzzz, dzzz, dzzz, dzzz…

The alarm buzzed in his left ear. Eight o’clock. It could be worse, he thought, blearily forcing open his gummy eyelids. Some people had already been at work for a couple of hours by now. Thyroid spent a few happy seconds scratching his balls, comforted and fortified by the ritual morning scrotal rasp, and yawned. An odour of digested bourbon and residual tobacco, stale and seedy, drifted over his leathery tongue and out from between his dry, cracked lips, sending offensive, accusing reminders of the previous evening’s indulgence threading their way to the memory receptors of his semi-conscious brain. He smacked his lips with a sound like parting Velcro and ran his tongue over teeth that felt filmy and, frankly, disgusting. It was incentive enough to get him out of bed.

In the bathroom, his reflection stared grimly back at him from a mirror dotted with bits of dry toothpaste and shaving foam. His jaw was shadowed by three days of stubble and his black, oily hair hung lank over his eyes. It was strange, he thought, how your eyes could seem so bright and intelligent the morning after a late night session, even if the rest of the face looked like it had been sat on. The green irises of his eyes shone with liquid brilliance, their colour improbably accentuated by a pink penumbra which cracked into tiny pale red rivers that flowed across the white. He ought to shave, he thought, if he was seeing Henry later; a few professional concessions had to be made from time to time. Henry Gunther was a great believer in appearances, which might have bothered Thyroid if Henry wasn’t so friendly towards him all the time. Henry, the editor of The Contemporary, was generally a kind man, calm and well-mannered, and was, apart from Thyroid’s father, one of the few people who called him by his real first name. But then Henry was on a first name basis with all those who worked under him.

After a shower and a shave, Thyroid put on a pair of new blue Levis, a brown shirt with a long collar and a pair of old baseball shoes. He went into the kitchen to grab a yoghurt from the fridge; anything more in the morning would leave him feeling nauseous for the rest of the day. He rang the office to find out what time Henry was expecting him. Fabian, Henry’s pompous secretary, informed him in a faintly ridiculous New Zealand monotone that he was expected at eleven, which gave Thyroid well over an hour. Time enough, he thought, to get to work but still have his daily mug of boiling brown piss in the café next to the office. Taking a few CDs from the shelf above the stereo, he left the flat and got into his car.

The traffic around Birmingham’s city centre was, for once, miraculously fluid and he managed to park his car, a new-edition, burgundy Mini Cooper, at half ten, in an unlikely space (thank God for Minis, he thought) on a nearby side street. Happy the Mini was safely locked, he headed towards the café.

King Bacon was a greasy spoon owned by a Londoner called Tommy King. It was the kind of place where the tea and coffee steamed and stewed for hours in enormous metal urns and the only thing on the menu that wasn’t cooked in hot fat was the white bread everything else usually came wrapped in, although by the time it arrived at the table, the bread was so sodden with oily residue that it no longer made any difference. Thyroid loved the place; he thought it had just the right feel to it. Its walls were a mottled brown off-white that felt slightly tacky to the touch, the tables and chairs were school-canteen throw-outs and the soles of people’s shoes made shlupping noises as they gently adhered to the plasticised floor. Although Thyroid was unable to eat more than a small pot of fermented cow juice in the mornings, he did receive a sort of vicarious thrill from watching others shovel mouthfuls of variously textured bits of heart-stopping cholesterol down their throats. Enthralled, Thyroid stared at a man in a pinstriped suit gnawing and crunching away at a burnt rasher of bacon, either oblivious to or unconcerned by the dribble of thick brown sauce trickling gloopily down his chin.

‘The usual, love?’ asked a sturdy looking woman from behind the counter. This was Patty King, Tommy’s wife. Tommy and Patty, otherwise known to the regular patrons of King Bacon as the Pearlies, not for their name or the fact they hailed from London but because of their perfect munchers. In the end, it seemed only their teeth had escaped being tarnished by the passing of steam- and fat-filled years. The Pearlies might not have held much truck with healthy eating but where dental hygiene was concerned no effort was to be spared. It was unnerving sometimes, seeing those white slabs glowing incongruously from the roasted ruins of their faces. Thyroid supposed they needed good strong teeth just to grind through the solid black lumps of charcoal they advertised as sausages.

‘Please, Patty,’ he said with a smile.

A few seconds later, all the time it took to pour scalding water onto an unfortunate teabag, Patty returned and pushed a mug of boiling liquid in front of Thyroid. ‘It’s like one of them sophisticated perversions, wotchamecallem, fetishes, the way you sit there staring at the punters eating, day after day. What’s so bleeding fascinating?’

Thyroid paused for a moment, momentarily embarrassed beyond speech by the implications of such a searching question. ‘Erm…’ He shrugged. What could he say that wouldn’t make him sound like a weirdo or, worse, a complete dick? ‘Nothing really,’ he responded lamely.

‘Bit strange, if you ask me,’ was Patty’s appraisal. He waggled his eyebrows and grinned at her. She too was one of his “strange” fascinations. A fly-on-the-wall documentary might call her a character. She definitely had personality, like a black-and-white photographic close-up of an ancient, wrinkled Native American. In fact, thought Thyroid, Patty deserved her own black-and-white close-up; except only full garish colour would do her justice. Patty’s face was friendly and usually split into two halves by a warm smile, but it had also been ravaged by the corrosive vapour that issued non-stop from those juddering urns; her skin had a waxy sheen and her fingers were pale and lardy as if, over time, they had absorbed large quantities of the sausage fat they had been in so much contact with.

Thyroid sipped from his mug and immediately lost all sensation in his tongue. Well, why not? he thought. Lately, his life often felt like his tongue did right now, numb, devoid of feeling. His mind drifted back to the conversation he’d had with Gary the night before. Was he really so sad? He knew he wasn’t emotionally free of Anna, yet, even if, after all this time, he really should have been. God knew she was certainly free of him. Gary was right. He had let the whole thing drag him down, but what could he do? She had left him drained, angry, and try as he might he just didn’t seem able to shake off his hard-done-by irritation, nor the genuine heartbreak. So how could his view of the world be anything but bleak, given the distraction of his soul? Thyroid really did want to be positive but found he had neither the energy nor the inclination to make the jump. I’m such an idiot, he thought, admonishing himself.

He took another mouthful of tea as punishment.


*


Thyroid stood quietly, waiting for the lift to reach the tenth floor, where the majority of his colleagues daily ground out their texts. When he arrived, he walked through the office and threw his bag at his desk, where it hit the side and crumpled to the floor in a dejected heap, before making his way over to Henry’s office. Fabian gave him the dubious look he inflicted on everyone. Thyroid was a man who thought that violence was never a solution but there was something about Fabian’s smug attitude that made him want to swipe the wet fart around the head with a copy of the Sunday Times. All of it.

‘Amazing,’ said Fabian. ‘You’re on time. Mr. Gunther is waiting for you if you’d care to go in.’

‘Thanks Fabian,’ he muttered, rolling his eyes. “Mr. Gunther”, he thought. Why couldn’t Fabian call him Henry like the rest of the world? The secretary was eying him up and down as he sauntered past and knocked on the door. Without waiting for a reply, Thyroid entered Henry’s micro-world of opulence.

To have called Henry’s office plush would have been a gross understatement. Walls that could have been (probably were) oak were lined with portraits of past editors and framed front pages. It was all for effect; everyone knew that Gunther was so far the first and only editor of The Contemporary. He just liked the atmosphere the paintings lent the room; in truth they were all portraits of various male members of Gunther’s family. His own portrait hung above an impressively large chair upholstered in classic parliamentary green leather, which complemented an equally impressive desk, also decked out with similarly coloured leather, studded down about four inches from the edge. On the desk were files and papers, an ashtray half full of thick cigar stubs and a state of the art Mac. An elegant frame held an image of Henry’s wife and children, all of them glowing with health and happiness. Thyroid’s sneakers made no noise on the deep, grey carpet as he stepped further into his editor’s realm. Here and there were arranged items of possibly antique furniture, one of which he knew to contain drinks; the others remained a mystery to him. It was no secret that the room had been designed around the concept of the classic editor’s office and that Henry considered himself the classic editor – the cigars, the fact that he always wore his tie slightly undone, as though he had just come from a gruelling press meeting, were all part of the same idea. Real or otherwise, Henry for one appeared as content as anyone could possibly be with his circumstances.

As usual, it was a little disorientating, stepping into Henry’s office; the room had nothing in common with anything that existed on the other side of the door. It had nothing in common with the rest of the building. Even the sounds were different, muted somehow, calmer. Thyroid always felt as though he had passed through a rip in space and emerged into a room in a completely different universe.

Henry was standing at the large window that dominated one wall of his office, his favourite position when not leaning back in his chair, debating with himself whether or not to start on another of his outrageously fat cigars, tapping his fingers on the wooden box that kept them cool and fresh. In some ways, Henry reminded people of Santa Claus, other than his hair – which had all but disappeared – and an absolute refusal to don bright red suits with white fur trimming. ‘Ah, Christopher,’ he said, ‘there you are. And how are we this morning?’

‘We’re doing alright, thanks, Henry.’

‘Good, good. Take a seat.’ Thyroid sat down in the comfortable chair across from the editor. It creaked satisfactorily beneath his backside. ‘You saw Gary last night?’

‘Yes. He said you had something for me, right up my street.’

‘Is that what he said?’ He fingered a bushy eyebrow. ‘I thought up your alley would have been more to the point.’

‘What?’

‘Hmm? Oh, nothing, nothing.’ Henry sat down and brought his hands together, resting them on the desk. ‘How would you feel about handling something a touch outside your usual remit?’

‘I’m not sure. Why don’t you tell me about it first?’

Henry squirmed in his seat, a sheepish grin spreading across his jowls. He cleared his throat. ‘Well,’ he began, obviously unsure of how to proceed. Thyroid thought he looked embarrassed and was briefly amused by his superior’s discomfiture. ‘A few days ago, a friend of mine on the force – you don’t need to know who – told me something of a considerably…’ He paused, searching for the right word, ‘repugnant nature.’

Thyroid’s interest, despite himself, was piqued. ‘Really? What?’

Henry made his mind up and took a cigar from his box, snipping off the end and slowly lighting it, puffing long and hard at the gorged leafy tube, playing for time. He rolled the thick white smoke around his mouth for a moment. ‘It’s nothing more than a rumour, you understand, a couple of coincidences, but my associate believes there may be more to it.’ Henry sat back, apparently finished.

‘Henry,’ said Thyroid, exasperated by the older man’s attempt at circumlocution. ‘What?’

Henry explained.

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