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Friday, September 19, 2014

MUTATOR (DarkFuse, Sept 23rd, 2014): chapter 1 sample


James had just finished mowing his new lawn when he met his neighbor for the first time. It was a fine autumn evening, the sky full of strange cloud. A cool breeze swept across the Yorkshire Dales, bringing with it a scent of moist vegetation and pungent tree bark. For the first time in many years—maybe even decades—James felt relaxed, no longer harried by student grading deadlines or research project responsibilities. And he’d been considering a proposal he’d received from a Central American university—a visiting professorship, six months in Costa Rica—when a voice summoned him from behind…a rather stilted voice at that.

            “I say, we’ve yet to be introduced. I’m Barnes, the fellow who lives in the next house along.”

            At that moment, Damian, James’s aging beagle, who had a tendency to follow him everywhere, started barking at the newcomer, and as James turned quickly to look, he realized why. The man appeared to be defying conventional rules of physics. He was levitating above the fence separating James’s garden from all the rich countryside flanking his detached new home. But then, as a sound of bestial breathing accompanied the man’s presence—a nasally pant from deep lungs—James realized what was afoot. The man was on horseback and his steed was just out of view behind the fence.

            “Be quiet, Damian,” James snapped at the dog, relinquishing the handles of his lawnmower, which was now switched off. Perhaps its raucous sound earlier had drawn his neighbor’s attention. Then for a few awkward seconds he observed the man, whose smile was thin and half concealed by a thin scribble of moustache. As he appeared to want to keep their engagement formal by using only surnames, James replied, “Hi, I’m Parry. Just moved in.”

            “Ah yes, the wife thought she’d spotted activity at the old place. Nice to see it occupied again after…well, you know.”

            James turned to observe his property, a fine country cottage in a magnificent setting. He’d loved visiting the Yorkshire Dales as a child, on the few occasions each year when his undereducated parents had decided to do anything other than watch TV or frequent pubs. But he was over all that, thirty years a professor and now at emeritus status. Only a fool clung to regrets.

            “Thanks. I’m slowly making it my own.”

            Even though James had continued to ham up his working-class accent for anarchic effect, the posh guy went on with communal grace. “You must visit us soon—that is, the family and our menagerie. We have two children, an Angora rabbit, my fine horse, and a couple of house-loving cats.”

            Damian disapproved of either this announcement or the man’s pride, barking loudly again as he spoke. James, privately amused, found it difficult not to reflect on the man’s description of one of the family’s pets: an Angora rabbit. Clearly the common breed James had owned as a child—he vividly recalled mucking out its hutch in his cramped backyard—wasn’t good enough for the Barnes clan.

            “Perhaps once I’m properly settled in, I may take you up on that offer,” he replied, glancing beyond the man perched on his horse, at a much larger property in the middle distance, all brick chimneypots and sash windows. James’s own property had cost nearly a quarter of a million, but Lord knew what the market value of this place might be—a full million? More, perhaps? “Maybe a glass of the fine stuff and a chat about our relative occupations would be nice.”

            “That sounds grand, sir,” said Barnes, responding more enthusiastically to James’s crisper accent on this occasion. Or maybe he was eager to explain how he’d made his obvious fortune. Whatever the truth was, his expression took on a less bullish look and his cocksure voice wavered slightly as he added, “And of course we’ll all look forward to meeting your—”

            “I live alone.” James had already second-guessed the man’s comment but wasn’t about to elaborate on why he had no wife or other relatives living with him. Let the Barnes clan speculate at their leisure; if he ever showed up at their home with a bottle of single malt, it would show James what kind of people they were. But for now, it was good to keep them guessing: Widowed? Divorced? Bachelor? Gay?

            “Ah, I see,” Barnes replied, keeping his tone as neutral as possible. James imagined the man putting such a poker face to good service in a profession that involved bluffing and blagging, the insurance game maybe, or possibly market investment. But James was determined not to be difficult; he’d just moved in and the last thing he wanted to do was sour relations with his new neighbors.

            “Well, I’ll say good-bye,” James announced, keen to put his gardening equipment back in the shed so that he could settle down for the evening with minimum fuss. “I’ll see you soon, I hope.”

            “The feeling’s mutual,” the man replied, and with that was on his way, bouncing up the lane that ran alongside James’s new home and then along a pathway leading to Barnes’s larger property. His horse appeared to be a fine, dark-haired breed with supple musculature and a strong stride. But that was when James glanced away, summoning Damian to his heels.

            “You didn’t like the toffy-nosed bugger from next door, did you, you mangy mutt?” he said, stooping on his aging legs to tickle the dog behind his floppy ears. But after standing again, James was surprised to observe his beloved pet continuing to bark on the lawn. The dog seemed restless in a way that suggested more than relocation from an upper-storey campus apartment to a house out in the remote sticks. Maybe the beagle was troubled by some aspect of the garden James had finally tidied, following the previous owner’s neglect. James looked around, at weedy borders and overgrown hedges, but saw nothing of particular import—certainly nothing that might arouse his pet to such irascible insistence.

            “What’s the matter with you, old boy?” he asked, his words ringing in all the silence that had settled around them. The countryside muttered back, a calming combination of whistling wind and rattling leaves. Trees shook at a distance and the faded engine of a solitary car could be heard, resounding in an unseen valley.

            With some force, James was revisited by his new neighbor’s words: Nice to see the old place occupied again after…well, you know. At the time, he thought Barnes had meant that the property had been vacant for a long time. But now, as Damian continued barking and whirling maniacally on the alopecic grass, James wondered whether that was true.

            After putting away his gear in the shed at the foot of his garden, he turned, crossed the lawn, and then reentered his property, eager only for the sedating influence of tea imported from far corners of the world.

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