META-DETECTIVE > by Levin A. Diatschenko > BOOK EXCERPT

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UNDERGROWTH is proud to preview an excerpt from the new novella META-DETECTIVE by regular contributor LEVIN A. DIATSCHENKO.author of The Man Who Never Sleeps, comes another surreal adventure that experiments with reality.

META-DETECTIVE is a new illustrated novella is a cross between pulp fiction detective classics and Greek mythology. 

For more information purchasing a copy of the book, contact Wolfty & Cliff Publishing

 

META DETECTIVE
A Novella

by

Levin A. Diatschenko



ONE



   EVERY now and then I jam up like old guns do. That’s what must have happened. I’d been stuck for a while, perhaps on some thought, because when I finally looked up there was a man in my office. I wondered just how long he’d been sitting there. To compensate for having been caught off guard, I jumped up and paced around the room.
   “Evening,” I said. “Have you been waiting long?”
   “Twenty-five years,” said the man.
   The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. The colour of the man -- his clothes and skin – was black and white with shades of grey. He might have stepped out of an old movie. His expression was fixed as if he were being strangled. I hoped he was joking about the twenty-five years.
   “Sorry about that,” I said. “What can I do for you?”
   “I need you to investigate a murder.”
   “Whose?”
   “Mine. Twenty-five years ago today.”
   “Hold it,” I said. “You’ve been dead for twenty-five years and you wait till now to do something about it?”
   “A murder is still a murder.”
   He opened his jacket and revealed the gaping wound in his solar plexus. It looked like the work of a shotgun fired at point blank.  
   “Good God!” I said. “Cover it up.”
   “Will you help?” he asked.
   “Give me some details.”
   “Judging by your reputation I’d say you might be acquainted with some of them. Here.” He pulled out a piece of paper from his coat, and handed it over.
   It was a list: Seth Minx, Changy Collins and the Doyley Collective. He was right; these were all people I’d either crossed in the past, or at least knew by reputation.
   “Which one of them is guilty?” I asked.
   “They were all involved in one way or another,” said the dead man.
   “If you know that, then what is there to investigate?”
   “See, I want to find out who Doyley was taking orders from -- who is the new fellah taking my place?”
   “As Doyley’s boss?”
   “As number one in this town.”
   “So you’re using me for revenge.”
   “It’s up to you,” he said, “I get my revenge, yes. But you get the glory of putting Doyley and his lot away. I’m a first-hand witness to murder. You may not get this chance again. The police have been trying to put Doyley away for years.”
   “How do you know that?”
   “He used to work for me. That’s the thing: I’ve returned from the grave for a short time only, just to point my finger.”
      “What do I care whether Doyley is caught?” I asked. “Why don’t you go to the police with this?”
   “It’s well known that you’re a lackey for the police. And I’d rather deal with them indirectly.”
   “Now that hurt my feelings,” I said. “You’ll have to give me more incentive than that.”
   “How about your citizenship papers?” he smiled.   
   He was obviously a man of rank. One hears stories about how the Mob still give orders from prison … and now apparently from the grave as well. But I wasn’t one to fight their fight.
   “Hold it a second,” I said, considering.
   I turned and walked out of a door that was behind my desk and that opened out directly to the street. Reserved for a moment like this, it was in a foundation wall.
   You see, opening the door caused the whole room to collapse in on itself. The room shrunk and shrunk until it was but a small box with the dead mobster trapped inside.
   Now I was holding the cards.
   I heard the ‘undead’ man from inside. “You filthy animal!”  
   “Now my opportunity isn’t going anywhere,” I explained. “And don’t try to break out, because that will cause the box to shrink even farther, until space-time bends inwards and a black hole is created. Get it?”
   “I won’t testify to anything,” was his muffled response.
   “Then you’ll never get out of that box either.”
   I heard lots of swearing.  
   This is one of the perks of not having a permanent office.

blacky


   “What’s your name,” I demanded. “Speak up or I’ll kick another plank loose!”
   “You bastard!” he called. “The name’s Blacky. And nobody gets away with crossing me!”
   I’d heard of him. He had lived in the oldest and most central suburb, known as The Circle. It had very old buildings – the town’s first -- and was populated by wealthy families whose parents were the founders of the city. Blacky’s kind were like surrogate royalty. Much of the town’s money flowed back to its centre, glorifying The Circle and keeping it in good repair. The residents of The Circle were generally unintellectual and frivolous.
   A percentage of them – Blacky included – were vicious about self-preservation. They formed one of the two major political parties in the city – the Lyons Party. These were the Old Guard and they were determined to keep their ‘earth’ suburb, as it was called, as the town’s centre.     
   Since Blacky’s death, someone else had stepped up and taken the position of underworld boss. But this new person’s identity was shrouded in mystery.  
   I lugged the box up to ‘reception’.
   “Sinthia,” I said.
   My secretary was sitting on a stool, keeping watch at a broken window. The window had been like that since we found this disused warehouse and converted one of its rooms (which was now a box) into an office.
   “What happened?” she asked.
   “We’re homeless again,” I said. “Take this box over to The Pegasus – don’t let it out of your sight.”
   “Okay Sully. Where are you going?”
   I was putting on my coat and hat. “To gather up the usual suspects for a line-up. The Pegasus has rooms upstairs; get one and move all our stuff there.”
   She gave me a hard look. She always did, when I made her work late. “That’s going to cost money,” she said. “For the room.”
   I turned my back on her, pretending not to hear. I’m always reminding myself not to turn my back on her. She’s the violent type.

   The streets were soft and gluggy and the night was warm. I had to walk quickly because I was sinking into the road up to my knees. As I continued, a bullet whizzed past my ear. This was not uncommon in this part of town; I lived in the Second Ring. Each suburb was circular and ever widening, with The Circle as the centre. The Second Ring was symbolised as the ‘water’ suburb. It was the second-oldest part of town and a ghetto. Street gangs were common. So were riots. Stray bullets were just a part of the weather.  
   I ran out of wind in front of a little neon-lit pub.
   I entered and spotted an acquaintance. “Hello Split-ends.”
   “Hello Sully.”
   Split-ends was a dirty old man in a trench coat. The first image that comes to mind is fairly accurate. He believed that fingers were actually the split ends of arms, the same as the ends of hairs. So he chopped his hands off every once in a while and they grew back longer each time. He kept his arms rolled up in his trench coat.
   “What brings you here my brother?” he asked me.
   “I need your services for a moment. Will you come with me to Bonzo’s?”
   “Why not?” he said. “If you’re paying.”
   Bonzo’s is a highbrow restaurant on the main drag. If the goons from the list weren’t there, somebody who knew where they were would be.
   Split-ends and I got a table against the far wall under a painting of the Two Ronnie’s. I looked around for the highest rollers in the room. There was one fellow in particular I wanted to find, but I didn’t know what he looked like. Split-ends ordered a steak and some wine, the likes of which I couldn’t afford.
   “See that table over there, Split-ends?”
   “Them with the top hats?”
   “That’s right. Get me the fat one’s wallet.”
   Split-ends wriggled around in his seat for a moment and then his hand came up and dumped a wallet on the table.
   I opened it. The driver’s licence confirmed my suspicion that the man was a boyfriend of Seth Minx. ‘Block Head’ was his tag. I’d read in the paper only two days ago that him and Minx had been seen near the scene of a robbery. There was also about three hundred dollars, which I took for myself.
   “Split-ends, check if they’re armed.”
   Split-ends’s arms unravelled from his coat like two fire hoses. They then crept through the restaurant, under legs and tables, like cobras. Over the next few minutes Split-ends kept dumping revolvers and knives on the table in front of me. There were six guns already when I asked: “Is that it?”
   “That’s it,” he said. Then his hands turned to the job of filling his mouth full of food.
   I tossed Split-ends a fifty-dollar note from the three hundred.
   “Cover me,” I instructed. “I’ll give you the usual signal.”
   I approached the table of Seth Minx’s boyfriend. They looked up sneering.
   “Nice to know I’ve got a reputation,” I said.
   “Just what do you mean interrupting our supper?” said one.
   “I need information.”
   “Piss off!” spat Block Head, slamming his brick-like fist on the table.
   “I suggest you cooperate before I have to put my dukes up.”
   Smiling, they each reached for their weapons … only to find empty belts and pockets.
   I tipped my hat and Split-ends, from across the room, pushed a gun barrel into the back of Block Head. He looked over his shoulder.
   “Damnit!” he whined. “Split-ends is here, isn’t he?”
   I smiled. “Now, I have a question to ask. If it isn’t answered, Split-ends puts a hole in you.”
   They sat scowling.
   “Where’s Seth Minx?”
   “I don’t kn…” began her boyfriend.
   Split-ends gave him a poke with the gun.
   “She’ll be here in an hour.”
   “Thanks for your cooperation.”
   I turned my back on them and left the restaurant. Split-ends, according to our usual routine, would keep the gun on them until I left. The mobsters would then be left to guess which one of the customers was Split-ends.
   I’d been waiting outside for fifteen minutes when I saw Seth Minx hopping out of a car and striding towards the restaurant.
   “Hold it, Seth!” I called.
   The second she saw me she kicked off her high heels and bolted.  
   We wound in and out of side streets and alleyways until it became like a ride at the show. I’d just lean one way or the other to turn and slide around the bends. She was just ahead and I heard her cursing about her dress getting ruffled.
   Suddenly there was a wall.
   “Ooff!”
    When I climbed to my feet, she had vanished.   
   “Bollocks,” I said, looking around dizzily.
   In the distance I heard gunfire.  
   The only accessible door I could see was to the lodge of some kind of clubhouse. On the door was an emblem of an equal -armed cross and a serpent spiraling from the centre to the periferal. I straightened myself up and knocked on the big double doors.
   A Frater in a ceremonial robe answered the door. “Lately I’ve been having strange dreams,” he said.
   “I’m sorry, sir,” I replied after hesitating. “I’m not a member.”
   “Oh.” The man was in his thirties. A long nose stuck out from under the hood he wore.
   “I’m a detective,” I explained. “Did a woman come through here only minutes ago?”
   “Absolutely no women are admitted here!” he said.
   “No? Sorry to have bothered you.”
   He snorted and closed the door.
   I paced around, trying to figure out where she could have gone. I looked up theorising that she might have shed her gravity and floated away. There was no trace in the sky.
   An idea popped into my head. I knocked on the doors again.
   A woman, dressed exactly the same as the previous man, answered. “Yes?” she snorted. “You again.”
   I hesitated.
   “Yes, what do you want?” she persisted. Her nose also stuck out under her hood.
   “Hello,” I said. “Sorry for the bother but did a man come in just minutes ago?”
   “Don’t be ridiculous, this is a women-only society. Didn’t I tell you that a moment ago?”
   “But just now you were a man.”
   “Don’t be absurd,” she said.
   “Look, did a woman come here just before me?”
   “A member might have.”
   “Can you show me to her?”
   “Certainly not. We protect our members here. That is, of course, if one did come.” She began closing the door.
   “Hold it!” I glowered.
   Another woman appeared, dressed similarly to the first one. The new woman was grey-haired and stern. “Is there any bother here, Sister?” she asked.
   “How do you do,” I said. “I’m a detective. A non-member may have penetrated your meeting.”
   Both Sisters started.
   “A non-member?” said the first. “But they all gave the password.”
   “Are you aware that only minutes ago you were a fraternity?” I asked.
   “Well, sir,” said the grey-haired woman. “Don’t you think we would remember such a thing?”
   “I would hope so,” I said, “nevertheless, this lady was a man  the last time she answered the door.”
   Both women looked uncertain. But then the grey-haired one said: “No. No, I can’t believe that our whole lodge could have changed sex without me noticing. I’m sorry sir.”
   “Besides,” rejoined the younger woman. “The so-called impostor of yours gave the password.”
   “So a woman did arrive just before me,” I said.
   Begrudgingly, the young woman said, “Well, yes.”
   “How exactly did she give the pass?” the older woman asked her Sister.
   “Well, let’s see,” the young woman began. “I opened the door and said ‘Lately I’ve been having strange dreams.’ She said she must have knocked on the wrong door. I closed it and he knocked again…”
   “He?” said the older woman and I in unison.
   “Oh dear. I mean she.”
   “Please continue Sister,” said the older woman.
   “When I opened it, she said to me, ‘Lately I’ve been having strange dreams.’ Bound by the tradition, I had to reply: ‘What makes you so sure they were dreams?’ I explained to the fool that I was supposed to say the first line and she was to give the reply. She then said, ‘Go ahead then!’ We repeated the process properly, me giving the first line. I then gave him … I mean her … admittance.”
   “You fool!” said the older woman. “She’s tricked you into revealing the reply. Come in detective.”
   “Come to think of it, I do feel a bit out of sorts,” mused the younger woman.the foyer, the older woman stopped me.

  

“I’m afraid you can’t enter like that,” she said. “It’s like a muddy person coming into a room with white carpet. You’ll have to change sex.” She pointed to a changing room.
   After I had changed into a woman and donned a spare robe, I was led to a hall where other women in robes of various colours were engaged in a lecture. The older woman was the Mater of the group. She explained that this was a special meeting of twelve Sisters from different lodges. They had never met before now. Consequently, an impostor would not be discovered on looks alone.
   To Seth’s advantage (I found out later) only eleven of the twelve turned up, and so she’d slipped in as the twelfth member.   
   The Mater called everyone to attention.
   “Sisters,” said my host. “There is an impostor among us.”
   The room inhaled sharply.
   “Does nobody remember that we were a brotherhood not one hour ago?”
   All the women looked at each other.  
   “Are you sure?” one woman called out.
   “We’ve been diluted!” exclaimed the older woman. “Like a drop of milk in coffee, the whole sorority…ah…fraternity… has been affected!”
   “Affected how?” called another. “I mean apart from changing sex.”
   I stepped forward. “Well, ah, ladies…” I cleared my throat, so as to get more accustomed to my feminine vocal cords. “The so-called ‘drop of milk’ is a known criminal. As such, all of you here have become criminals to some degree from the moment she joined you.”
   The crowd roared.
   The old woman said, “Silence!”
   The roar softened into a murmur.


   “This is the whole reason we have passwords and so on!” said the old woman. “To avoid contamination I suggest we ‘cut off the hand that offends us’.”
   “How, Sister?”
   “Why, by staying true to the purpose of our organization, of course. We must take our robes off and wash them!”
   As one group entity, we all began the process of washing our robes.
   A person’s past is something he wears as clothing, in the form of memory. It comes with many stains, such as prejudice and biases. The custom of this organization was to ‘strip’ that mental clothing off upon entering the lodge. Then, once inside, its members donned their formal memory/robes. These were all similar, differing only slightly to denote levels of learning. Together they would share the organization’s past, and so form a group identity. Any self-centred thoughts or memories would be left outside. If an incongruous thought were to come inside, it would ‘smear’ itself over all the robes, changing the entire colour scheme.
   Now we were a diluted Group-Seth. Her criminal intentions had spread amongst us, albeit thinly. This, incidentally, changed everyone into women because Seth was female. That much was lucky; it is easier to spot someone changing sex than it is to spot his or her character.
   The members cleared the room and prepared for The Cleaning Ritual. The Mater insisted that I take part in it.

  We re-entered the main room and stood in a circle, facing inwards. On the floor in front of each woman was a large, rough stone. Beside each stone was a bucket of water.
   “Sisters,” said the Mater, “let us shed our outer, worldly identities.”
   Copying the others, I pulled my robe off and held it in my arms. Naked now, we kneeled at our stones.
   “The bucket in front is your heart. You will notice how clear is the water within. This reflects the purity of our motives. It is the cleansing water of Aquarius and sparkles with enthusiasm and aspiration. Take your worldly robe and immerse it in the water.”
   We did so.
   The Mater continued. “The rough stone in front is the elusive philosophers’ stone. It is the ultimate reason underlying all that we do and live for. Note how immoveable and indestructable it is. This sturdy point is the fulcrum that gives strength to the rest of our lives. Dash your personalities on the rocks of Reason!”
   The women took their robes out of the water and wipped them over the rocks.
   “Only in service to humanity do we wash away the selfishness that stains our true spiritual selves. Let us labour.”
   We commenced rubbing the robes against the stones. Due to the roughness, the stones served well as washboards. I laboured vigorously, stopping only to rinse the cloth in the bucket again. 
   “Here,” said the Mater tapping my shoulder.
   When I looked up she handed me a bar of soap.
   “This holy order,” she said, “encourages education. This soap is the product of intelligence. Labour intelligently.”
   The job was easier with the soap and soon the water was brown. I stopped and rung the robe out. Most of the women were finished, too.
   We held the robes up and inspected them. The sky blues and the buttercup yellows, the reds and whites -- all glowed as if the fabric were made of mythological silk.   
   The Mater left hers on her stone and circled the group, inspecting each bucket.
   “Aha!” she called, pointing to one.
   It was the only bucket still with clean water.
   “Here’s the impostor!” said the Mater. “The owner of this bucket.”
   The woman next to the bucket leapt back. “Keep your distance!” she said, as the women surrounded her. “Stay back!”
   She retreated until her back banged against a wall. “I can explain,” she said.
   “You don’t need to,” said one of the women. “Your water is clear because you were unwilling to give up your selfish perceptions.”
   “No,” said Seth. “It is just that I am already pure and so there was nothing to clean.”
   One of the women held up Seth’s robe; it was filthy.
   Seth’s face went pale. “Well … alright then. I’m not a member of your ridiculous cult. What of it?”
   “Restrain her,” said the Mater.
   Seth struggled in vain. Four women dragged her out the door.
   “Wait,” I called. “Let me take custody of her!”
   The Mater tapped me. “Follow me,” she said. “The ritual is not complete.”
   The remaining sisters also followed, taking their robes with them. The Mater led us up to the roof. Along the way, the first woman that I’d met at the door grabbed my arm and said, “Mater told me to give this to you.”
   She handed me something similar to a foldout stand in its folded up form.
   “We only have twelve drying racks,” she explained, “As we weren’t expecting you. You’ll have to carry yours up.”
   On the roof were twelve clothe-drying racks, in the simple shape of the letter T. I set mine up with the others. We then put our robes on the rack for the sun to dry.
   “But it’s still night,” I argued.
   “Yes. Never mind, the sun will rise in three hours.”
 

cleaning ritual  

The order, of which I was now an honourable member, let me call the police to pick up Seth. I then changed back into my original clothes and sex and rode with her back to the police station.  

  I told Hardy – my connection on the force -- to hold her for me until I returned.
   “What’s this all about, Katonksky?” he grumbled.
   “I need her for a line-up. I won’t be long.”
    
   Next on Blacky’s list was Changy Collins. He began his professional life as a card counter. Changy enjoyed the skill so much that he later went on to card memorising and other memory feats. Eventually he entered chess tournaments blindfolded. All this mental weightlifting led to strange abilities, such as mesmerism and the like.
   Banned from casinos, he was a professional thief now. His method of escape was to disrupt the unity of a situation. The assailant would then give up, completely baffled as to how Changy got away. To understand a situation is to perceive the ‘unity’ of it. For example, a ‘horse and cart’ make up a working unity. But if you change it, say, to a ‘spider and cart’ the unity of the relationship will be broken. To catch Changy Collins would require an understandable relationship, like a lawman slapping handcuffs on a criminal. I knew this would be difficult. For a start, I wasn’t a lawman.    
   For the last month he’d been sitting in his car staking out a government building. I knew this because I passed him every so often on my way home from the pubs.
   When I accosted him he socked me in the nose and ran.
   “Ow!” My nose dripped blood and my eyes watered.
   I chased him into a park and hurled myself at him -- we rolled across the grass, finally stopping with me on top. Both of us grunted in pain.
   “Now hold on a second,” he said in his monotone voice.
   “Shut your mouth, Changy,” I huffed, dragging him to his feet. “You’re coming with me to the police station.”
   He thrust his steel gaze into my skull. “Why in reason’s name,” he said, “would you want to apprehend a tree?”  
   “I said shut up! I have my own reasons.”
   “But I’m rooted to the ground, Katonksky. Even if I wanted to come with you, I couldn’t.”
   I looked down at his feet and saw that he was indeed rooted to the ground. What I’d earlier taken to be jeans was bark.
   “See my point?” he reasoned.
   I felt quite embarrassed. In the corner of my eye, I saw passers-by laughing at me. Some detective I was!
   Never one to let a lack of logic stand in my way, I persisted.  
    Then I remembered something. It was vague, but I’d told myself earlier that in case of difficulty, I should use my magnifying glass. So I took it out of my pocket and peered at the tree through it...
   And saw a human, named Changy Collins!
   “Shit!” I snapped out of the trance.
   Unity was restored. Consequently, so was my strength. He was easy to drag along now.
  “Hold on,” he said. “You’re making a fool of yourself.”
   I clutched my magnifying glass like a talisman.

   “How many more?” Hardy asked when I got back to the police station.
   “Just one,” I said.
   Hardy patted his comb-over down with his stocky hand. “This isn’t your own private clubhouse, Sully,” he said. “You better have a good reason for this.”

    The last person on the list was the Doyley Collective. Doyley was one man but he had nine bodies. To any stranger he looked like a gang of people, but those who knew him understood that it was one soul spread between them. Doyley was a kung fu expert, specialising in Hydra Style. He used his multi-body technique in the same way you or I would manoeuvre our chess pieces. People knew and feared him by the tattoo of a hydra on each of his forearms. He was the unofficial king of the Second Ring.
   Eight of him were hanging out at his usual hideout, on the first floor of a rundown building. The ninth Doyley was across the street watching for trouble.
   My plan was simple. I knocked out the ninth Doyley with a blackjack. Then I took him to the station. I knew that Doyley would try to rescue himself.
   Two more of Doyley arrived only minutes after.
   “I was standing there minding my own business,” the three Doyleys complained in a gravel voice that was almost a whisper, “and that damned fool detective assaulted me!”
   Hardy shot me a foul look. “Sully claims you attacked first.”
   “The prick!” snarled Doyley. “I didn’t get a chance to resist. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to have done!”
   “Is that true, Katonksky?” the cop asked me.
   “Of course not,” I said. “But while you’re here, Doyley, I need you in a line-up.”
   “Outrageous!” exclaimed the Doyleys. “Officer, I want to charge this bastard with assault!”
   “I have to listen to them ... er ... him, Sully,” said Hardy. “I told you that you need just-cause to go hauling people in.”
   “Alright, charge me,” I said. “But first let me do my line-up. I promise you this will be a big bust. The credit will be yours.”
   “We’ve got nothing if you assaulted him.”
   “It’s his word against mine.”
   “No it isn’t – this guy has high up connections.”
   “Are you a coward?”
   Hardy pulled me aside. “Look Sully. You know you don’t have any citizenship papers. If you’re arrested it won’t matter whether Doyley is in the wrong or not. You could even be killed.”
   “I’m willing to risk it,” I said. “I have a strategy.” It was simple enough. A familiar invader will be killed or exiled by a body’s immune system, but a completely new one hangs around and causes confusion. I didn’t consider myself a disease or anything, more like a new piece of information. If they couldn’t explain me away, I figured, they’d have to incorporate me as part of the town. This being the case, my citizenship papers would come. I didn’t tell Hardy all this, of course.      
   Hardy conceded and ordered Doyley to bring all of his selves to the station for a line-up. After that, he’d charge me on Doyley’s behalf.
   “Why are you so indifferent?” asked Hardy. “What’s your motivation? I don’t understand.”
   “I don’t understand,” I explained. “That’s my motivation.”
   “You’re still on about all that!” he sighed.
   “A detective must never be personally involved in a case. The only case I ultimately seek to solve is the question of my true identity. That being so, I cannot be personally involved in my own life.”
   Hardy scowled. “So, what does Doyley have to do with your true identity?”
   “That is what I intend to find out.”  
   I went over to The Pegasus. Sinthia was sitting in the tiny hotel room that she secured, staring angrily out the window. She’d thrown all our stuff around the room.
   “I’m here to get that wooden box,” I said.
   “I need some money,” she said. “I paid for the room out of my own pocket.”
   “Sure. Just give me a moment.” I dragged the box down the stairs and  whistled a taxi.

   “This is what’s going to happen,” I told the dead mob boss through a tiny crack in the lid, once we were in the taxi. “You’ll pick your killer out in the line-up, and I won’t let this box collapse in on itself. All right?”
   “Whatever you say!” came the muffled reply.
    Seth Minx, Changy Collins and the Doyley Collective were standing side-by-side in the line-up when I returned.
   “What’s that?” asked Hardy, pointing to my box.
   “It’s the witness. Have you got a drill?”
   “What for?”
   “So Blacky can see out.”
   “That name sounds familiar,” noted Hardy. “Come on, there’s a drill in the hardware cupboard.”
   Against my better judgement I went with Hardy.   
   “You know you’re turning out to be nothing but trouble,” he grumbled. “Hurry up, will you! I want to knock off for the night.”
   “Don’t you want to charge me?”
   “I’ll do it in the morning. Don’t leave town, for goodness sake.”
   When we returned to the line-up, all the suspects were gone. In their place was a stranger, standing against the white background. He adjusted his tie.
   “Who the hell are you?” I asked. “And where the hell did they go?”
   The man looked around. “Where’d who go?”
   “Answer my question.”
   “I cannot remember for the life of me,” said the stranger, “how I came to be here. Guess you’ll have to release me.”
   “He’s right,” said Hardy. “I don’t know who this bloke is. Got nothing on him.”
   The stranger smiled and Hardy showed him the door. I cursed but Hardy told me to drop it and go home. “You’re lucky,” he said, “You almost got charged with assault.”
   
   I don’t need to tell you that I followed the stranger. He led me to a quiet street – just the kind of street I wanted to rough him up in. But then he turned around to face me.  
   “What’s the idea?” I barked, suddenly aware of how unarmed I was.
   “Sully Katonksky, I’ve been hoping we could have a little talk. Oh yes: We knew Blacky would go to you.”
  “Smart bastards!” I said. “I should have guessed it was a set-up.” I stepped back and got ready for trouble. “Well, you succeeded in getting me here. What do you want?”
   “I have some information for you,” he said.
   “Oh yeah?”
   He reached into his pocket and tossed a little black book to me.
   “It comes with a warning,” he said.
   I glanced inside: it was my citizenship papers. “Say on.”
   “You’re a perfectly legal citizen. You were born not far from here in the desert, and you grew up in the Second Ring. You are the only son of a widow.”
  “What happened to my father?”
  “I believe he was from up north. The point is you can stop investigating who you are. You’ve been stirring up a lot of trouble. Seems a stupid thing to do, right here in your own home.”
   They weren’t new papers. A whole past identity was there and just reading the name made that citizen’s memory come flooding into me like a possessing spirit. It made me question all this detective business. I already had an identity, I thought, one that didn’t attract any trouble. It’s right here in the book.  
   “Do yourself a favour,” said the man. “Give the detective game away. We don’t need any in this town.”
   “We? Who are you speaking for, exactly?”
   “You’ve made some powerful enemies. Doyley is not just a thug. He works for somebody in the New Centre. Understand?”
   “Smug son of a bitch.” I bent my knees, took a deep breath and charged at him.
   He split into two people; I flew between them and crashed into the road. Although I was dizzy, I regained my footing and put my guard up.
   Smiling, the two then divided into eleven different people: Seth Minx, Changy Collins and all nine of the Doyley Collective.

   The sun had risen by the time I made it back, bleeding and raw, to The Pegasus.
   Sinthia’s dark mood dissolved when she saw how messed up I was. She was all smiles after that.
   “Go,” I told her. “Get some sleep.”
   “I can’t do that, Sully. Someone’s got to take you to the hospital.”
   “No. I’m fine here.”
   She would not take me to a hospital. I knew very well that if I passed out, she’d finish the job. I told her to bring the box in. I heard Blacky groaning inside. Sinthia covered it with a tablecloth.
   I put my feet up on it and straightened out my broken legs. “There we are,” I said. “This will be my new desk.”
   I took a swig from my hip flask. The morning sunlight streamed through the window and burned my tender flesh. Smoke rose from me like a cigarette.
   “Hey Sinthia,” I said after a while.
   “Yes?”
   “Did you ever have a dream that seemed so real that, say, if someone does you wrong in it, you wake up angry at them?”
   “Oh sure, Sully. Now and then.”
   “…Then you realise it was just a dream and your anger dissolves.”
   “Sure. What about it?”
   “I don’t know. Sometimes I think I’ll awake from life like that. And all this crap will just dissolve.”
   “Sure, Sully.”
   Why did I even bother talking to her? She was just waiting for me to pass out.

End of Meta-Detective preview

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