Chapter 13: All Known Frequencies
At the first awkward line of prose or botched brushstroke, we hurriedly pack away the art supplies and scamper back to our domains of proficiency. Better a quitter than a failure, our subconscious reasoning goes. - No Plot? No Problem!
Tildeworth sat at her desk and typed. For at least the last hour, she'd been unable to open a channel to Sue's phone.
That was only to be expected, of course. Sue had gone somewhere where only the best could trace her, and Tildeworth didn't have the benefit of anything at her destination other than a relatively primitive radio network. Normally that wouldn't be a problem - Tildeworth had spoken to her in a whole host of novels over the past week that didn't even have that - but with every other barrier between them now, it was causing more problems than she could count.
Her fingers shook, filling her screen with a typo ridden mess. For every command she entered, she had to fix another one. She pushed the laptop away over the desk, closed her eyes, leaned back in the chair, and let herself drift.
Not sleep, she told herself. Between the coffee and her promise to Sue, she wasn't going to sleep for a long, long time. But that was okay. Not sleeping was what NaNoWriMo was all about.
The sensation of sitting in a chair melted away, and below she saw bars of blue and bars of green, some short, some long, all racing toward a common goal...
Onward now. Past rows and rows of purple, the triumphs of previous years, past all those, and on, beyond...
And now blue bars again, but no longer moving, outnumbering ever live bar, every purple bar. I didn't think. I didn't do- and the bars vanished. She pushed herself back, like swimming to the bottom of the ocean under immense pressure. And there they all were again, laid out under her form of pure electromagnetism, each one frozen in time.
A good broadcaster could reach anywhere.
She sank back into her body, back to the laptop in front of her, and began typing as if Day Thirty was upon her with all its vengeance, hanging on to her thoughts that threatened to run like delicate fragments of a dream. The laptop scanned, connected...
Tildeworth slumped back into her chair, her energy gone, her eyes closed again.
She opened one eye.
The tinny ringtone, emanating through the laptop speakers (she had always winced at the dreadful sound quality, but she did need portability) brought her back to the world. She sat up, waiting, hunched over her keyboard and the laptop's microphone. The call rang on.
Maybe Sue was busy. It wasn't easy, being a detective, You couldn't pick up your phone any old hour. Yes, that was it. It would be like taking a call in the middle of a show. Nobody would stand for that, least of all Tildeworth herself.
She let it ring anyway, just in case. Sue sometimes took a while to find where her phone was - hardly a surprise, with all those pockets - so she left the laptop to run whilst she went about her business. More coffee, that was a start. Even with the jolt from hearing the call connect, she wouldn't last long without it. Not for the first time, she was exceedingly grateful that fictional characters didn't need to use the toilet unless it was plot relevant.
The grinder whirred. The kettle boiled. The call rang on. Tildeworth gulped down the first mouthful. It wasn't too bad, once you got used to it...
The chirpy little ringing noise subsided, replaced with a grating error tone. When at last she heard Sue's voice, it was only a recording.
"This is S. C. Pilcrowe of S. C. Pilcrowe's Inter-Novel Investigation Agency," said the recorded message. "I can't take your call now, and I'm probably busy with something more important than it anyway. If you must leave a message, do so now."
There was a beep.
"H... hello, Sue?" Tildeworth said, into the microphone. "It's me, Cedilla. Look, I just called... I can't stay here, and I suppose you are busy, and there must be so much going on. So many things I don't even understand! But... I promised I would call you. And I have to go now. I have a show starting soon, and I need more coffee... oh, I stole your coffee. I'm sorry. Did I tell you? I don't remember. I hope you don't mind! I'll get you more, I promise. All your favourites. Even the one where the weasel gets involved! But I just wanted to say-"
The timer ran out, and the laptop beeped again. Tildeworth folded it and slung it under her arm. It was all up to Sue, now. She'd know how it was going to end.
"You know," Pilcrowe said, "the ropes are a little overkill. It is not as if I would be going anywhere. You are the one with the gun."
"Maybe," said Rob the Rat, "but it's all about the look of the thing. And this way I don't get hand cramps."
"You do have a point."
It wasn't as if there was anything inherently uncomfortable about being tied to a chair. It was just very inconvenient. It was even worse when your arch enemy refused to indulge in a spot of gloating and conveniently telling you their plan. But at least it gave her time to think.
And at least Rob had stopped ranting about his motives, which was a relief. Not only because they were rather dull, but because he was right. People in the Nexus could have done something. She could have done something, if she hadn't been spending her days putting herself back together.
It was too much to think of. Better to let the mind percolate over the immediate situation. Sooner or later, he was going to let slip his plan. "Doing anything tonight?"
"Ah yes, let's all sit down and have a nice talk about what I'm planning to do and exactly when and how I'll be doing it, shall we? No, I'm afraid my diary is full, and I won't be able to fit you in tonight. Sorry."
"It was worth a try."
"I suppose it must be rather boring for you," said Rob. He sat down on the bar top, head in hands, looking down at her.
"Oh no, not at all," said Pilcrowe. "I'm having a lot of time to think. Never underestimate the value of a few quiet moments, I believe. I've had a lot to think about in the last few days, and not enough time to do any thinking. Might say you've done me quite a favour."
In the depths of her pocket, her phone began to ring.
Rob sat hunched over on the edge of the bar, twiddling his fingers. The gun was still by his side, but he didn't touch it.
"And given that there's no plot here to stop me," Pilcrowe went on, "if you shot me, I'd probably just walk back in later. Suppose that explains the ropes."
The phone kept ringing. Pilcrowe tried to ignore the sound.
"Ah, but no plot, no problem?" said Rob. Several of the other characters moved closer, watching the scene.
"They do say that," Pilcrowe said. "Although I'm less certain whether or not it applies to the situation we're in now. It does make me wonder. Perhaps you'd have less of a problem if you had something else on your side. Something old, and powerful, and beyond the realm of you and me?"
Rob raised an eyebrow. "The Validator hasn't been around these parts in years."
"No? Any dares crossed your path lately?"
Rob laughed, a quick chuffing sound of disbelief. "Susan, this is a serious novel!
"No serious dares, then? I'd say a shovel murder could fit in here quite nicely. Honestly, I'm surprised the Travelling Shovel of Death never came this way."
"You know," said Rob, "whoever that is who's calling you must really want to talk to you."
Got you. "They will have to leave a message."
"Any idea who it is?"
There was only one person who could. "Absolutely none."
"That's a shame."
"I know. I suppose it's a little anachronistic of me, but has its uses." The phone stopped as she spoke, letting out a little beep to tell her it had gone to voicemail.
"Oh well, so much for that," said Rob.
"Yes, what a shame. I do apologise for my rudeness, but I forgot where we were back there. Was it something about the Travelling Shovel of Death? Because I was thinking about how if you wanted to pull off some very good murders, you might make a little pact with it?"
"You'd make a very good villain, don't you know that?"
"I like to think of myself as an functional anti-hero."
Rob was about to reply, but he was interrupted by a scream that cut through the air. It was at once far away and close by, distant, but immediately recognisable, and even Pilcrowe could not hide the look that crossed her face.
"Was that your friend?" Rob said. "That's a pity. We were just getting to know one another."
Random fell, slipping into the dark, aware of half heard words and phrases. There was no space or time here, simply existence, and the chatter of the dead.
The Shovel was old. It had roamed far and tasted much blood, but what happened to those who died by its blade? Random knew the answer to that. They died, and they returned to the Nexus, and they got a prime interview spot on Tildeworth's show. Everyone knew that.
Something had changed this year.
The Shovel had no consciousness to speak of. The Shovel simply was. It had no need of anything but its purpose. Random saw this all in one instant that stretched out before and inside of her - every bludgeoning, every moment found with blood on the blade.
She saw and heard and felt every last thought of the dying, in every story. She saw them pick up and move on, afterwards, their jobs done for the year. She saw things as they should be.
The onslaught of the dead came faster and faster with every year, every sense aflame with more than she could handle. Each time the fallen got back up, and moved on.
Faster and faster, she plummeted through the memories.
Now the dead fell, but they did not rise again. Their minds went blank, never to see or hear or feel again...
"I imagine the properties of the shovel could be altered?" said Pilcrowe. She let her thoughts do what they did best, running over all that she knew. They grasped a thread that had lain dormant. "But it's not about the Shovel, is it? That's just something to help you along with your real goal."
"What would make you believe that?"
Pilcrowe closed her eyes, and let her chin rest against her collarbone. "Because I am a detective. I do detective things."
"That's the stupidest thing I ever heard."
"Believe me, not so long ago I would have agreed."
"Ah well, it doesn't matter now. If you asked me the real question, I'd say that maybe I wanted my friend back. Pulled that off well, didn't I? I suppose it's time to move on, now." He looked up, and when he spoke again, he was addressing someone behind Pilcrowe, though the doors had not opened, and nobody had moved. "Yes, now would be a good time. Get a move on, would you?"
Pilcrowe craned her head around, as much as the ropes would allow, first one side, and to the other, and there was nobody there. And yet...
And yet there was a cold wind at her back, as if someone had left the door open and the drizzly night had come on in. Cool air ruffled her hair, and burrowed into her thoughts.
You have no idea what you are doing, they said. You never knew.
Random opened her eyes, and stared up into a ceiling fan that had stood motionless for many years, and would never turn again.
She lay, and stared, and thought of nothing. Her lab coat was still wrapped around her hand, piling into a loose heap where she had fallen. Out of the corner of her eye, the Shovel remained where it was.
She should probably do something about that.
When she sat up, it was as if the world had dialled itself down, and time ran in slow motion. Even the light had lost its warm, fiery edge. She was aware of colour and motion, but they were all incidental things, not worth paying attention to.
She still wasn't thinking when she took the lift downstairs and exited into the damp night. There wasn't any need to think. All her questions had been answered. There wasn't anything left to do but go home.
She wanted to cry again, like she had that morning, so she could feel something, but she couldn't even bring herself to do that.
When she passed by the bar, she saw the faint shape of people inside, talking, and laughing.
So she had found her answers, and Pilcrowe was happy. They both got what they wanted. Sometimes the data said something you didn't like, something you desperately wished wasn't true. But you couldn't put it away and deny what you saw in front of you. That was not the way a scientist worked.
She walked on, through the door, into the forgotten library wing.