From Euro Temps, Roc 1992
That Friday morning I expected to spend a fairly boring day at the office, filling in some reports and fiddling my expenses. A plan that died at nine fifteen, when I was called up to God's fourth-floor office.
'Let me see if I've got this right. Exactly what is it that you want me to do?'
'Discredit Dr Miraculous.'
'Discredit. What the hell does that mean?"
God touched his fingers together, pursed his lips slightly, and said, 'Abase. Degrade. Cast down. Humble. Discredit.' God's name is Dolby, and anyone who makes jokes about stereo should be bloody careful that they don't do it while he's around. The fat bald git is a strong contender for Captain of the All-England Total Bastardy team, and although it didn't officially exist, the organization we both worked for could probably supply most of the other players. He doesn't like me, and the feeling is mutual.
'So you can read a dictionary. Big deal. What the hell has Dr Miraculous done to deserve our attention?'
'The word you were looking for is "thesaurus". A dictionary defines words, a thesaurus provides alternatives. As for Dr Jack Carter, alias Dr Miraculous, he is currently in Britain, and engaged in activities which are contrary to the interests of Her Majesty's Government. He is to be discredited, to the extent of ensuring that his words will not be taken seriously for a few days. He is not to be permanently harmed.'
So what else was new? They'd hardly put us on to him if he was running up a few parking tickets.
'He's an American superhero, a wanker who gets his thrills beating up muggers and running around with his underpants outside his tights. He's got his own TV series, and a bloody comic book. What the hell could he be up to that'll hurt us?'
Dolby dug into a drawer of his desk, pulled out a folder and spent a couple of minutes pointedly ignoring me while he pretended to read it. I looked out of the window, whistling just loud enough to annoy him, and tried to work out if I could justify some leave while the nice weather lasted. Not a hope, I'd already had too much this year. Eventually he decided to acknowledge my presence again.
'As you know, Britain is in the process of finalizing many links with Europe. Dr Carter apparently objects to part of the enabling legislation that will lead to a Common European Policy on Paranorms.'
'He's hardly alone in that. Everyone I know at the DPR reckons that it'll be the biggest cock-up of all time.'
'You talk to the DPR?'
'They're not exactly the KGB, and I was one of the Temps for five years. Why shouldn't I keep in touch with them?'
'And are members of the DPR aware of the function of this office?' Paranoia should be Dolby's middle name. He hated the idea that someone might be talking about him behind his back, and he was terrified that someone might tell the press about our activities.
'Don't be silly, They think I'm working for the Ministry of Agriculture.'
'Why would the Ministry of Agriculture employ anyone with your abilities?'
'I tell them I'm with the corn circle department.'
'Corn circle department...? Oh, never mind.' He's slow, but even Dolby eventually notices if you're taking the piss.
'So exactly what has Miraculous been up to?' Second time of asking, maybe this time he'd tell me.
'It appears that he's engaged in political activities. He is lending his name and influence to the, umm' – he glanced down at the file, even though he already knew exactly what it said – 'Paranorm Action Group and making statements to the press. HMG is very disturbed.'
Loosely translated, that means that someone at Number 10 has been on the blower and told him to sort things out or he can forget any chance of a knighthood in the next honours list. Dolby wants a title, and I think he'd strangle his granny to get it.
'What's the Paranorm Action Group? The name rings a vague bell, but I can't place it.'
'The PAG is the organization that fought against compulsory crash helmets for levitating paranorms.'
'Oh, idiots with fractured skulls.'
'Exactly. They claimed that the helmets spoiled their enjoyment and limited visibility.'
'I've never seen the police arrest anyone for breaking that law.'
'I believe that the helmet law is occasionally used to hold suspects when no other charge is available, otherwise it is usually left to the discretion of individual paranorms. Of course, there are only a few levitating policemen, and they do tend to have more important things to do.'
'So why bring it up again now?'
'Apparently there are some objections to the new EEC safety legislation, which will be wider ranging and incorporates stricter penalties.'
'I'd better find out what's going on. It'll be easier to put the boot in if I know exactly why he's interfering. Do you have more details?'
'You'll find everything you need to know at Olympia.'
'What's at Olympia?'
'The annual Health and Safety Exhibition. Here's a pass.'
'Your generosity overwhelms me.'
'Good. Make sure that you keep a record of your expenses.'
He turned to another file. As I was leaving, he looked up and said, 'Oh, by the way, I understand that Carter will be visiting the exhibition this afternoon. Perhaps you could deal with him then. Shut the door as you go out, and don't slam it.'
The DPR has Marcia Jones; we have Mrs Bohl, nicknamed Bohl the Troll, an old bat with a Talent for spotting dodgy receipts. Fortunately there's only one of her, because she makes the Marcias look helpful. As usual she wouldn't let me borrow a car from the pool, and wouldn't issue an advance on expenses, so I ended up taking the train to Olympia.
I popped into a comic shop, picked up the last couple of issues of Dr Miraculous Monthly and read them on the tube. They were boring rubbish, with a heavy-handed environmental message in one issue and a totally implausible story about drugs in the other. I'd been wrong about one thing: according to the comic he wore fairly normal clothes, a bit like the uniform the puppets wear in Thunderbirds, and hadn't even got a cloak. Evidently he was a bit of a nonconformist. If the comic wasn't exaggerating his Talent, he was also a tough customer, and I didn't fancy my chances if it came to a direct confrontation.
I reached Olympia just before twelve, and spent a minute watching the crowd outside the exhibition centre. Most looked fairly normal, but a few were wearing costumes, variations on the long underwear and cloaks that most would-be heroes wear. I'd love to know how that style started, it's totally impractical and must be bloody cold nine months out of twelve. I was willing to bet that most of them were unTalented. Someone with a sputtering jetpack flew past, trailing a sign saying END EEC MADNESS NOW. He wasn't wearing a crash helmet. There were a few more pickets on the ground, with signs like PAG NOT EEC and BORN TO BE TALENTED. Their originality underwhelmed me. Someone with a megaphone was shouting, '...take away your freedom of choice, your right to decide what to wear. The Eurocrats want to stifle individualism, and we must stop them now before it's too late. Join the Paranorm Action Group and fight...' He turned away from me, and I lost the thread of his message. I had a feeling that I wasn't missing much.
'Oi, you don't want to go in there.' I'd seen the picket before, at a DPR Christmas party, but I couldn't put a name to him. I had a vague idea that his Talent was telepathy with squid, hardly the most useful ability in the middle of Central London. He made a half-hearted effort to stop me going in, but got a nasty shock when he touched my arm. About five thousand volts, to be precise. My Talent is instant static electricity, and it can be useful when people try to crowd me. I can't put out enough power to really hurt anyone, but he lost interest just long enough for me to get through the doors.
The exhibition was fairly full, but not so crowded that I had trouble moving around. I found the government stands on the ground floor. The Health and Safety Executive were there in force, with big displays on chemical safety, waste disposal, groin strain and other exciting topics. When I got there, they were showing a video, a really crappy film about water safety, with someone dressed up as a giant frog pretending to be a paranorm. You'd think they could have found the money to hire the real thing. Never mind, I wasn't there to be a film critic.
The EEC stand was a little smaller. The main exhibit was a row of mannequins festooned with safety equipment; crash helmets, heat-resistant overalls, Kevlar jackets, elaborate visors and goggles, bulky harnesses, and backpacks covered with flashing lights and antennae. There were a lot of people standing around, reading pamphlets and sizing up the equipment, and none of them looked particularly happy. I looked along the rack, picked up one called Electrical Talents and Safety and took a quick look. At a first glance it wasn't too unreasonable, though the rubber underwear did sound like it might be a bit uncomfortable and/or extremely kinky.
Something poked me in the back, and an American voice said, 'Sorry, buddy.' I looked around: a cameraman and microphone operator were backing away from one of the displays, too busy filming to notice where they were going. The glare of the lights on the camera hurt my eyes. Under the microphone a uniformed figure was walking along the row of mannequins, looking at the signs and collecting pamphlets. Dr Miraculous. I'd have spotted him earlier if I hadn't been reading. Time to get back to business.
He wasn't quite what I had expected from the magazine pictures. The blond hair was actually light brown, and he looked a little chubbier and a lot shorter. Well under five feet, unless I was mistaken. What the hell was he up to? No one had said anything about cameras.
'Cut.' Another American, this time carrying a clipboard. 'Take ten, while Jack gets changed for the demonstration.'
Miraculous and Mr Clipboard went behind the EE stand, into a part of the hall that wasn't open to the public. I tried to follow, but yet another American was there to stop me. This one was built like a gorilla, an looked vaguely like one of Miraculous's assistants I'd seen in the comic. If it was the same man, they'd shown him picking up a car, and I didn't fancy trying to get past him.
'Sorry, buddy, the Doc ain't signing no autograph today.'
'What Doc? I'm looking for the bar.' Not the best lie I've ever managed, but it would have to do.
'Sure you are. This part of the hall's closed today, friend. Head down to the left, there's another bar over there.'
'What's going on, then?'
'We're making a documentary.'
'Oh.' I headed off, having seen what I wanted. There was a big van behind the stand, with the CNN news service logo on the sides. It was a complication I could have lived without. I started to look for a phone.
'Well?' asked Dolby.
'Not very. We've got a problem.'
'Go on.' He was using his 'stern but fair' voice, the one that wouldn't fool a five-year-old. Vicious and totally biased is nearer the mark.
'Miraculous is here, all right, but he's got a film crew with him. They're making some sort of news report for satellite TV. Three guesses what it'll be about.'
'I know what it will be about. Why do you think you were sent there? Now, I'm sure that you can arrange for something to go wrong while they are filming; some sort of embarrassing electrical accident, for example–'
'A little static shock isn't going to change anything. Besides, the bastard's probably immune to it.'
'Well I'm sure that you'll think of something.' There was a click as he hung up, and I knew that the unspoken thought was 'You'd better.'
Back at the stand, Miraculous still hadn't emerged. The cameraman was sitting on the edge of the display platform, having a smoke, but the camera was in his lap. I didn't think that there was much chance of getting hold of it for the two or three minutes it would take to fry its electronics. Instead I stood about six feet away, got out a propelling pencil and pretended to make notes on one of the pamphlets, then casually pointed the tip towards the cameraman.
Fortunately the crowd wasn't so dense that anyone was close to me; I had to build up to fifteen or twenty thousand volts for the trick I had in mind. On a damp day it would have been impossible. I could feel my clothes and the hairs on the back of my hands standing out from my skin, repelled by the charge. Little sparks arced between the ends of my eyelashes, but my glasses stopped anyone else from noticing. If I didn't use a little Brylcreem, my hair would have splayed out like a lavatory brush. Meanwhile the sharp metal pencil casing was spraying a stream of ions towards the cameraman. After a while the tiny breeze eddied smoke back into his face, and he started to cough. I'd hoped that he'd end up coughing so badly that he'd drop the camera, but life just doesn't want to co-operate sometimes. He stubbed the fag out and glared at a ventilation fan on a nearby pillar.
Okay, forget that idea. I touched the pencil to a metal waste-bin, to get rid of the charge; two or three people glanced around when they heard the 'crack' as I earthed myself, but so far as I could tell no one noticed that it was me making the noise. It was time to suck a glucose sweet. I burn a lot of calories when I'm working, and that's the quickest way to replace them.
'Look, are you sure I have to wear all this god-damned stuff? It's fucking ridiculous.' Miraculous was back, but he was wearing the silliest outfit I've ever seen. Baggy plastic overalls, a crash helmet, a mirror visor, a big backpack, and thick-soled boots. There was no way I'd get a static charge through that lot.
'It's what the EEC regulations say a guy with your powers should wear,' said Mr Clipboard.
'God-damned assholes. How's a guy supposed to see where he's going with this crap covering his face?'
'Will you, for Christ's sake, knock it off with the swearing, Jack? This'll be going out on global TV, and they'll refuse to show it if you keep up the bad language.'
'When have I ever let you down, Larry? Just get the fucking camera set up, interview us, then let me get out of this fucking suit before I god-damn melt. And this time I stand on the platform and the EEC guy stands on the floor, he looked about three feet taller than me in the last shot.'
They were setting up for filming again, and I still didn't have any idea what to do about it. Just to add to my woes, a small crowd was forming, attracted by the bright lights and camera; I was near the front, but it wasn't likely that I could stay clear enough to use the pencil trick again. Anything else I tried would have to use low voltages, and that meant very short range.
Miraculous stepped up on to the stage, next to a bland-looking man wearing an EXHIBITOR badge. They talked for a few seconds, then the exhibitor climbed down, so that his head was only a few inches above the American's. Larry whatever-his-name-was came forward with his clipboard and stood in front of them, facing the camera. 'Olympia, one of London's largest convention centres, is today the scene of an extraordinary dispute between British paranorms and the EEC. It's a dispute that could affect every paranorm who sets foot anywhere in Europe. One American paranorm who is already involved is Dr Jack Carter, better known as Dr Miraculous. With him is Dr Dietrich Gruber of the EEC Paranormal Safety Advisory Committee.'
He stepped back, and the cameraman moved in towards the platform. The sound man swung his microphone over Miraculous, and I realized that I could reach out a hand and touch the end of the metal pole behind his back. I started to build up a quick charge, and lost it as a little boy brushed against my leg. He started crying.
'Cut! Could someone please shut that kid up, we're trying to film here!'
Unfortunately his mother wasn't far away, and a couple of minutes later they were ready to start again. This time I knew roughly what to expect, and had my charge ready as the pole came by. I managed to get in two jolts before he moved away.
'Shit, what the hell was that! Cut it, Larry, I'm getting shocks from the mike, must be a loose connection.' He gingerly put it down and started fiddling with the cables.
'Can we go with radio mikes instead?' Larry asked.
'No, there's too much static in here.'
'Check it out, and for Pete's sake get a move on.'
Miraculous wasn't happy. I could hear mumbles that sounded a lot like swearing. He opened the visor and wiped the sweat from his face with a tissue, then propped himself on the railing around the mannequins.
Hmmm. A chrome railing, but it had clear plastic supports. That meant it wasn't earthed. He was wearing plastic shoes, but his hands were bare and sweaty. One of them was on the railing. Interesting. I moved back a couple of steps and strolled around to the other end of the stand. No one else seemed to be touching the railing, and no one was watching. I put a hand on the rail and tried to build up some voltage, nice and gently. It worked. I must have reached ten thousand volts before I started to feel the charge leaking away, then I just kept it constant until Miraculous got up. He didn't even notice, but I knew that his body had to be charged to five or six thousand volts, and with all the protective gear insulating him the only way to lose the charge was through his hands or his face. Now if he'd only touch something... The bastard just stood there with his arms crossed.
Come to think of it, I had a charge of my own to shed. I didn't want to hurt anyone else, especially not where Miraculous might see me. There was no way to get rid of the charge on the railing without someone noticing, but at least I could make myself safe. Fortunately the Olympia halls are steel-framed buildings, and you can always find something earthed if you try. There were too many people near the bin, so I walked further away and touched a fire hydrant. On the way back I got myself an ice-cream.
When I returned, they were just about to start filming again. The sound man had some insulating tape around the pole, so there was no way that I could give him another shock. Dr Miraculous had to be losing charge by the second, and I was out of ideas and feeling lousy. The ice-cream helped a little, and I followed it with another sweet, but I must have shed a lot more energy than I thought when I charged that railing. My Talent wouldn't be good for much for a while.
Larry went through his introduction again, and then went on: 'Dr Miraculous, that isn't your usual costume. Could you tell me why you are wearing all this equipment?'
'I wish I could give you a good reason, but I can't. This junk is what the EEC safety regulations say someone with my powers should be wearing. I don't even know what half of it's for!'
'Dr Gruber,' said Larry, 'we'll get to the doctor's equipment in a moment, but first I'd like you to answer a question that's puzzling me. Your committee is composed entirely of non-paranorms. Why do you feel qualified to advise on their safety?'
'I'm glad you asked me that.' He spoke perfect English, and his smile showed teeth that were a dentist's wet dream. I hated him already. 'We feel that paranorms are too close to their own abilities, too ready to exaggerate their Talents and overlook their human frailties. The committee tries to take a more objective approach, and evaluate risks and the protective equipment needed to handle them safely. After all' – another perfect smile – 'why should someone who fires laser beams from his fingers need less protection than someone who works with an industrial laser system?'
'Couldn't it be argued that you are working from a position of ignorance?'
'It could be argued, but it certainly isn't true.'
'Thank you. Dr Miraculous, you're not an EEC citizen. Why have you become involved in this issue?'
'Well, Larry, I plan to film some episodes of my television series in Europe next year, and by then this equipment may be a legal requirement. I don't accept that it's necessary, I regard it as an infringement of my civil liberties, and I'm not prepared to work under these conditions. If the law changes, we'll have to think about cancelling that part of the series and filming in the USA. I think that I wouldn't be the only American paranorm to pull out of Europe.' He was moving his hands as he talked, but they weren't going near anything that was earthed.
'Dr Gruber, are you concerned about the possibility of a massive withdrawal of American Talents?'
'Europe has its own Talents. While any withdrawal is regrettable, we can undoubtedly manage with our own resources.' He shrugged and spread his hands slightly. And touched Dr Miraculous.
There was a loud crack, and a pretty little blue spark jumped between their hands. The plastic had insulated Miraculous nicely, and he must have still been charged to four or five thousand volts. Gruber was standing on a concrete floor and looked reasonably well earthed. Both of them felt it; Miraculous snatched his hand away, as Gruber shouted, 'Schwein' and punched him on the jaw. It wasn't a particularly hard blow, but Miraculous was off balance and carrying a lot of equipment; he staggered back a couple of paces, then tripped on a wire and fell over. There was a loud hiss, and things started to happen.
They'd certainly given him all the safety gear they could think of. That hiss was air bags inflating, blowing his suit up until he looked like the Michelin Man. Then his backpack got into the act, with flashing strobe lights and the piercing beep-beep noise they use when dust-carts are reversing. There was another hiss, and a cloud of bright green smoke came from a vent. With a loud whoosh a couple of signal flares fired from the top of the pack, streaking across the hall and setting fire to a display of overalls. Miraculous lay there, trying to turn over or get up, looking like a tortoise on its back, and swearing so loudly that I could hear him above the noise of the pack. There was another bang, and a panel blew off the pack, turning Miraculous on to his side. A parachute flopped out, and two more flares fired out of the top. I didn't see where they landed.
Gruber ran forward, trying to open a cover on the side of the pack. It squirted him with a stream of fluorescent orange gunge, with a peculiar chemical smell. Shark repellent, I think. He reached for the pack again, and finally managed to get the cover open and press a switch. The beeps gurgled and died, the smoke gradually stopped, and the suit started to deflate. Someone in the crowd started to clap, and in a few minutes the hall was echoing to cheers and whistles, and the noise of fire alarms.
Miraculous pulled himself to a sitting position, still swearing, and pulled off the helmet. Larry and Gruber tried to help him up. They got him to his knees, then gorilla-face tried to pull Gruber off. They skidded across the platform, and sprawled in a heap in the puddle of gunge. I couldn't help laughing, and I wasn't alone. All it needed was a custard pie to finish things off, but I didn't have one, and both of them already looked ridiculous enough. There was no way that anyone could take Miraculous seriously after that performance. I edged out of the crowd, out of the hall, and, hopefully, out of the good doctor's life. I'd solved the problem without him even noticing me or having a chance to use his Talents, and that suited me down to the ground.
It wasn't two o'clock yet, and I remembered that there was a reasonably good pub in the neighbourhood, so I had lunch before heading back to the office.
'Okay, I'll accept that you won't pay for ice-cream or the comics. Why the hell can't I have the money for my lunch or the tube fares?'
Bohl the Troll looked smug and said, 'You didn't get a receipt for the tickets, and the receipt you got for the food doesn't give the pub's VAT number.'
'There isn't VAT on food.'
'There is if you eat a prepared meal on restaurant premises.' The cow knew that she had me cold, and there wasn't much that I could do about it. It wasn't really the money, in any case; I just hate to see them get away with anything. She leapt in with the coup de grace before I could think of a reply. 'Oh, I nearly forgot. Mr Dolby said he wanted to see you in his office, as soon as you came in.'
'I've been standing here for fifteen bloody minute: why the hell didn't you tell me?'
She just sniffed, pressed the intercom button, and said 'He's on his way up now.'
'Well?' Dolby has never been one to start a conversation by congratulating anyone, no matter how well they've performed.
'Well, what? Well, what? Well, what the hell do you think you've been doing?'
'What you bloody told me to do.'
'Really. And how did you accomplish that feat?'
'I made him look like a twit. You should have seen him, lying on his back and wriggling, with all the smoke and fireworks going off around him. It was one of the funniest things I've ever seen.'
'Yes. Very funny. And I'll tell you something even funnier.' He wasn't smiling, and I was starting to get a very bad feeling.
'He dislocated two intervertebral discs when he fell of the backpack, and he'll be in hospital for at least a week.'
'Great. That ought to keep him out of trouble.'
'Possibly. I should imagine that the lawsuit he's preparing against the Paranormal Safety Advisory Committee will also engage quite a lot of his attention.'
'Did it occur to you that you were causing injuries to an internationally famous celebrity on British soil? Did it occur to you that the injuries were a direct result of using EEC equipment, and of a blow struck by an EEC official? Did it occur to you that you have just, single-handedly, put EEC legislation back five years?'
'You will doubtless be delighted to learn that this operation has not gone unnoticed. I have been ordered to revert to my permanent Civil Service rank, and assigned to one of the Ministries.'
Losing about twenty thousand a year and any hope of a knighthood. What a shame. 'I'm sorry to hear that, sir. We'll all miss you.'
'I beg your pardon, sir?'
'You're coming with me. The government was not entirely ungrateful for my previous endeavours, and I was given my choice of several assignments. I chose a post at the Ministry of Agriculture. I'm head of the new Crop Damage Investigation Department, and I need a suitable assistant. You've already told me that it's your type of work.'
'I don't quite follow.' Not if I can possibly help it.
'I think you'd better follow, or someone might possibly tell Carter how he came to be electrified. Given the scale of damages he's likely to demand, you'd probably spend the rest of your life paying him off. Then there's the damage to the EEC display, and damage to several other exhibits that were hit by signal flares. I think that the total might reach seven figures.'
'If you put it that way... It'll be an honour to carry on working with you, sir.'
'Good. Go down to Mrs Bohl and get her to fill in your transfer form, then report to me on Monday morning with your camping gear.'
'Well, how else are you going to study corn circles? It's not good enough investigating after the event, I want you to be there on the ground when they start to form.'
'But it could take months before I'm in the right place at the right time. Years, even.'
'Yes. It could, couldn't it?' For the first time ever I saw him smile.