Mike Scantlebury - Science Fiction
 
   

THE NOMBUTON

Volume One of 'Dimension Hunters'

ONE

The character in the cloak had feet, probably, but I couldn't see them. That wasn't the surprise: what was REALLY worrying about this guy was that he appeared to be floating, about six inches off the ground. As he crossed the road. I'd seen people in a hurry, trying to get across Corporation Street, especially in the rush hour. But that wasn't it. It couldn't be. For a start, it was too early in the day, around eight o'clock, and for another it wasn't mid-week: it was Sunday.

What was I doing in the middle of Manchester at such a time, on such a day? Good question. I was on my way to the 'Y' Hotel for an early morning game of squash and a shower. NOT my idea. Okay, let's keep this short: I'd met a man at work called Dann - with a double 'D', he was Swedish - and he had a sister. God's truth. It wasn't HIM I was interested in, honest. But he was tall, blonde, tanned, pretty. On him it looked good, but on his sister it was sensational. I was hoping that getting close to him would mean that I got close to HER, sooner rather than later. Who knows, after our early morning rendezvous, maybe he'd invite me back to his house for a Scandinavian Sunday Brunch, and who knows, his sister might have got up by then and would care to join us. Why not? Okay, it wasn't much of a plan, but it was all I had. What I didn't have was a woman, not a sight or smell of one for months, and if playing Dann at squash was a forlorn hope, well, too bad: it was the only hope I had. That was before I met the Caroller.

This guy, the one in the purple cloak drifted across the road about a hundred yards in front of me. No, make that metres; they're more modern, and it's all about the same, anyway, isn't it? It made me speed up. I wanted to see more, but he was too fast for me. By the time I got up to the corner of Withy Grove he had disappeared. I cursed myself for not running, but I was shy really; the street was so damn empty, that I would have felt a fool hammering along the pavement and getting out of breath, in case anyone saw me. And what if HE turned around? But he didn't. He didn't cast a glance my way. Just drifted out of sight around the corner of Maxwell House, the old 'Daily Mirror' building and seemed to vanish off the face of the earth. Gone. It was damn anooying. God, a floating magician - the first that I'd ever seen anyway - and come and gone in an instant. It wasn't fair.

I turned around in irritation, and found myself facing back the way he had come. Now THAT was interesting: if the line was right, then he'd come straight out of the front door of the old Corn Exchange. Okay, I thought to myself, there was sometimes a Craft Fair in the building, maybe a Coin or Collector's Fair. That was it, probably exactly the place he'd come from. I'd said 'magician', and that's what he looked like to me, but I knew there were a lot of small shops and stalls in the Corn Exchange, all 'New Age', incense, candles and horoscopes, and this chap could just as easily have been an owner of one of those Emporiums, that sort of thing.

Except that he was FLOATING. That was the interesting bit; he'd got a party trick of some sort and I wanted to know what it was.

So, I'm crazy. Okay, sue me, but the fact is that I never meant to get into the computing game in the first place. I was on the dole two years before and they'd offered me a short training course. Before I knew it I took another, and another, and they made sure I didn't leave without a certificate. Or two. Before long something strange had happened: I was employable. I got snapped up by a small software house in the middle of the city and found myself working with a lightning team of operators. One of them Dann. The truth is I wasn't happy. Not only because of the long hours and the immense amount they expected you to take home at evenings and weekends. But also because I couldn't cope anymore. I was out of my depth. I had no idea what Dann was talking about most of the time; he was ahead and getting out of sight. I was being left behind. How much longer could I get away with it?

Luckily I had an out. My hobby. In my spare time I was reading every book I could get by Paul Daniels. Magic, that was my hobby, my interest. It was going to be my meal ticket soon, maybe before the end of the year. I was going to quit Capethorne Computers, leave Dann - hopefully NOT his sister - and move on to pastures new.

So this guy, this trickster, maybe he had something I could use. Because, well, if he could afford to WASTE it - floating around on Sunday mornings, after all, when there was nobody even around to watch, for God's sake, no audience - then maybe he would share it with me, and I could make my fortune. Goddam. Fame, fortune, and maybe even the hand of Dann's sister in marriage, whatever her name was. That was one small crack inn my plan: I'd seen the girl, but never even spoken to her, let alone found out her name. Still, there was plenty of time, or so I thought at the time - bear in mind, this was BEFORE I met the Caroller.

So, there it was, the Corn Exchange. Maybe I could find some answers there. Which I did, of course. Horrible, horrible answers. And not at all the things I wanted to move. Still, I met the Caroller there, AND heard about the awful deaths that The Nombuton could submit humans to. Because, of course, HE isn't human. Is he?

TWO

There's about five steps up to the ornate front door of the Corn Exchange, then a set of heavy oak doors, a pair, with glass panels, and not just in one colour. The whole place was put together in the year 1900 or thereabouts, and positively reeks of Victoriana. It's a real atmospheric place, and the atmosphere is mainly old and spooky. Of course, that doesn't mean that at eight o'clock on a Sunday morning I'd expect to see any ghosts, but the place has that feel, I suppose I might have expected something. Yes, something. Not a corpse, certainly.

Up the steps I went and through the double doors, heaving back the heavy one on one side, and then - silence. That's the first thing I noticed: total quiet. It's strange; the place is big, round, with a huge glass dome over the centre of the main hall, and the thing you may notice about it and remember, is that it echoes. But as I hit the building that day, nothing. Absolute quiet.

Oh well, I remember thinking, so maybe I'm too early for the Craft Fair, and maybe some of the stalls aren't open on a Sunday after all. But no sound? Like, where's the Security guys then? That's what I thought, because every other day when I've ever gone there, the first thing I see as I bound up the steps is the big guys in blue hovering around the top of the stairs, past the first door and before the second. There's a little alcove there, a desk top and space behind it. There's ALWAYS a man standing behind the counter, at least one, and maybe another standing in this foyer area. Their job, without a doubt, is to scan the customers entering, perhaps to screen out the troublemakers. Like me. Well, I've been a fomentor of difficulties in the past, so maybe that's why I spot boys in blue so fast. I look for them, because I know they're always on the lookout for me.

This Sunday, nothing.

Something was starting to dawn on me, a subtle feeling creeping up and making me sweat. Something about seeing the floating man. That's one thing wrong this particular morning. Second, the vanishing Security men. That's a second thing wrong. And, well, I know my mother always told me that bad things come in threes: so what's the third thing, I was thinking to myself. Not confident for one moment, that there was a third thing, of course. But there was.

I shouldn't have looked over the counter top, maybe. I didn't need to. I heard the hissing first. Beside the alcove was the door to the staircase and it was jammed open. Usually people had to slip past the Security desk to go upstairs and that gave the men in blue another chance to get in the way of people they didn't like. This day the door was open and through it was that sound, a definite noise, but soft and sibilant. It was a hiss. Most unusual. Perhaps I should have pushed on and investigated that first. But I didn't. I looked over the counter top. I don't know why: maybe I was guessing that the Security woofahs had gone off for a toilet break or a coffee trip. Well, if their cubbyhole was deserted I could look into it. But more than that: maybe I could raid it. Who knows, I was thinking, maybe they had something in there that might be useful - like an intercom, a radio, a computer. Something I could pocket and cash in on later.

I didn't get round to any of that stuff. Instead, all I saw was the top of a hat, a peaked cap. Now THAT was odd. Was there a cap sitting on the desk top. No, it was out in the open. So, it was sitting on a head, but that meant the head was on top of a body and the body was sitting on the floor. Why should any Security Guard be sitting on the floor of his cubicle?

My thought processes weren't at their fastest, and my excuse is that it was early and it was a weekend, but that cap bothered me and I had to get closer. I swung round the corner of the counter and looked down. I saw feet, two black boots. I followed the boots up two blue uniformed legs. There should have been a body there. There should have been a whole person. But there wasn't.

My eyes took it in but my brain had trouble working it out. What could I see? It was as though the stomach of the guy had begun to collapse, fold in on itself, and crumble to dust as it did so. Everything, body, skin, uniform; whatever, it made no difference. The entire centre part of this human being, lying collapsed and folded up in the cramped confines of the cubicle, was crumbling to dust in front of my eyes.


 

 
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