by Steve Aylett
Atom and Drowner
The city sprawled like roadkill, spreading
more with each new pressure. A grey rain slicked Campag Street - cars slewed through smoke
and collided with pieces of the Brain Facility. Little flames dotted the rubble like
Zippos in a darkened stadium.
Cradling a guilty treasure, Harry Fiasco stumbled
through diced masonry. Squadcar cherry lights strobed his eager face. I'm number one, he
thought. I'm the business. Look at me walkin' away without even a dent in my hair.
The cold prize steamed as if awakening.
This was no time to be caught with his style round his
News on the car TV showed flarelit
afterscenes of last night's blowup at the City Brain Facility, 'where hundreds of famous
brains,' beamed the newsgirl, 'including that of comedian Tony Curtis, were kept on ice.
What. A. Mess.' Stock shots of missiles. 'The UN Report on Nuclear Deconstruction
estimates that thanks to multilateral efforts there are only enough atomic weapons to
destroy the world five times over instead of eight - way to go!' The President in a
storm of flashbulbs. 'In a hastily arranged press conference, the President, due to visit
Beerlight in four days, shrugged off accusations of bestiality following publication of a
photograph in which he is seen to be kissing a dog.'
The sound came up on the conference. '... form of
affection. I love him like a brother--'
'Homicides up by nine hundred per cent. And fashion
setter Buckyball Tripwire says dresses will be worn drenched in blood this summer. Riot
forecast - late morning a few rumbles and a little hail with cops breaking through in the
afternoon and a scorcher of an evening due to a high pressure front on the lower east--'
'Enough of this tomfoolery.'
The screen shot to a dot, fading.
Rain glinced the windshield and drool-light ran down
the face of Mr Turow. He was a toad-eyed shorty with tar hair and a string-thin tie. He
gave creepy-teutonic as rain drummed the tin roof. 'See the building across the street,
Joanna? The old brownstone.'
The giant in the driver's seat stirred. His head was a
dough mound into which a set of human features had been timidly pressed. The head rotated
to look across the carsplash street.
'On the fourth floor are the offices of Mr Taffy Atom.
Look at this calling card.'
The giant took the card, which in his hand looked like
a postage stamp on a side of beef. He read haltingly. 'Taffy. . . Atom. . . pri - vate. .
'Detective, you fool - what kind of idiot would
advertise himself as a defective?'
'What's dah "p" word mean?'
'According to the Candyman,' Turow leaked, 'and he is
the most educated gentleman of my acquaintance, it means to hide your activities even if
they are innocent. One of the most perverse products of your sick American culture, it was
finally forbidden only a short while ago. This man Atom must be brave indeed to use it on
his advertising. It means he will value results more than appearances, will not be
restrained by the rules and at all costs will avoid attention.' Turow simmered in
satisfaction. 'All of which is good news for us.'
'There ain't no number.'
'Nor an address - another good sign. Atom is as
accomplished and inconspicuous as an ant lifting an eyelash. Take the money and go.'
The giant opened on to the rain and heaved out, then
leant back in at Turow. 'What if he don't bite?'
Turow gave indulgent. 'Joanna, you will learn - in
this town, everybody bites.'
Atom was a noir silhouette against Venetian blinds, and he knew it. He'd
sustained this posture for nearly three hours, in a not-doing meditation to the inner Tao.
The buzzer went and Atom reacted with the flicker of
an eyelid. He'd have to start over. 'That figures,' he muttered, then hit the release
switch to the outer door.
He leaned back in the dark and contemplated the
spritzing of the rain, the bubbling of the fishtank.
Joanna lumbered through the waiting room, which contained a single lawn
chair. Three walls were stark white -- the fourth was a vast, garishly intense painting of
a bridegroom going batshit berserk in a fish market. A load of other stuff in there,
crowded around. Joanna passed it by -he got the creeps off art - and pushed through the
inner door to darkness.
Someone was sat there, a shape against the blinds,
still and silent.
'You Taffy Atom?'
'So I've always been led to believe.'
Satisfied, Joanna closed the door. 'I'm Joanna - er,
Jo, I mean. . . Joe. . . Joe Aniseed.'
'Joe Aniseed,' the darkened figure repeated without
'Mind if I siddown?'
'If that's the way you wanna play it.'
'Real dark in here.' Joanna felt his way to a seat
across the desk from Atom, and eased down. 'You gonna draw dem blinds?'
'Not on your nelly.'
'Can't see your face.'
'Well it's chiselled, aquiline, even feral,' stated
the deep voice, 'with eyes like steel ingots trembling on the smelter rim.'
'Right. Right. . .' To his right a fish tank was
bubbling unlit. Joanna felt uncomfortable, like that time he got hit by a car and everyone
stared at him. 'Hey, you got fish in the tank, right? I take a look, put a light on?'
'I don't like lightbulbs. Their mystery makes me kinda
edgy. I can never tell what's goin' on inside. They constitute a lifeform. Gas. Electrical
impulses. Death. Even a body for disposal, Mr Aniseed. They perch like spiders on
the wall - watching.'
'Gee, I. . . guess I ain't thought much about that.'
'There'll be hell to pay, I promise you.'
So that was what the Candyman called the
'pleasantries' out of the way. So far so good. Down to business. 'Dah reason I'm here, Mr
Atom, is I got a problem. I'm needin' to talk to a guy called Harry Fiasco.'
'Fiasco. Ain't he one of Eddie Thermidor's boys?'
'Sure, the mob - he worked on that big somethin' they
did, that whattya-call-it-'
'Nail on the head, Mr Atom. So the deal is I had a
thing with Fiasco's girl Kitty Stickler, who kinda dances and stuff. And I figured after a
while I oughta ventilate Fiasco before he ventilates me. Like math, right? So I tail the
guy. Tinder Street. Steam risin' outta the streetholes, that kinda stuff. Dark, you know?
So I'm in range and I let rip.'
'So whattya want, a receipt for the bullet?'
'Well it's kinda embarrassin', Mr Atom - but I kinda
missed the guy and he ran as fast as his arms and legs could take him. Now he's hidin'
out- but see, Mr Atom, I ain't seein' Kitty no more. And Fiasco bein' one of the mob's
boys, I don't wanna get found in the weeds or somethin', so I wanna get to Fiasco and tell
him it's all square somehow. And I got ten thousand smackers here says you'll find him
before I can say somethin' interestin'.'
Joanna felt real chuffed at having got through the
pitch, but there was no immediate response from Atom - only the muffled rain and the
'So er. . so whattya thinka my story, Mr Atom?'
'It's got potential and nothing else, bignose.'
'Eh? Hey, you don't understand, they got it in for me,
I'm countin' ten in Italian here!'
Three emergency plans occurred to Joanna, but they
were the same one painted three colours. 'What about ya partner?' he bellowed like a
stunned bull. 'I see that other name on the door out there - Atom and Drowner. Drowner
your partner, right?'
'Ms Drowner is my technical adviser - she works from
'So who's gonna help me, your goddamn goldfish?'
shouted Joanna, standing - the chair clattered backward against the door. 'Hey, you ain't
moved a muscle, yuh weirdo, answer me! You ain't even lookin' at me! God dammit I'm
hittin' the lights!' And he lumbered at the
door, smacking a wallstud - the lights fizzled up to
Atom was as he'd described himself, sat languid at his
desk, regarding Joanna without expression. But something was wrong with the picture.
'Hey.' Joanna pointed helpfully. 'Hey, you ain't
wearin' no clothes.'
'Should I be.'
'What if a lady walks in here?'
'That's a matter for the authorities.'
The fishtank glooped - Joanna saw that it too had been
illuminated, a sickly green. In the flux of refraction hung a venomous fish the size of a
bulldog - in one visual gulp Joanna got the deep body, black and red striped bellyskin,
venting gills, streamer fins, high backblade, hinged razor barbs, blunt head and forward
eyes. But the snub face looked to have been grafted on. It was human, made over with
shutter eyelids and a mouthful of needle-teeth. The specimen yawed slow in the rippling
light, showing off the clench and unclench of a gas bladder and the luminescent phosphene
ghosts in its silver scales. On the speckle-stone seabed sat a miniature castle. The
fish's blue eye gave the scary stare of intelligence.
'Wha' kinda goldfish is that it's a goddamn
With a thrash the fish stuck its expression out of the
water and snarled through the clenched grid of its mouth. 'Define your terms, meathead.'
Joanna's bulk wired with shock. 'It's talkin'
The tank seemed to explode - the fish was upon him.
Poison pain shot up his arm as the predator bit him to the bone.
Joanna heard himself shrieking like a woman, pleading
for release, forming words which held meaning only for those who'd dare join him in the
rarefied realm above his
pain threshold. He hurled himself through exploding
furniture. Amid an eyewall skyburst of nerve stars he saw Atom glance from his perusal of
the phonebook. 'Mind the furniture, you two.'
'Get him off me! I'm in hell! This! Is! Hell!'
Joanna threw off the fiend, which lay gulping on
the carpet. 'I'm on the floor, Taffy! I hate the floor!'
Atom stood, affronted. 'Don't you know assaulting a
security officer is a federal offence?'
'Security officer?' gasped Joanna, reeling. 'It's a
piranha, man! Bit my arm!'
'Count yourself lucky, pal,' queased the fish in its
synthetic voice. 'Gemme off the floor, Taff - spit on my gills someone I can't breathe
'Jed Helms is a credit to his species,' Atom stated,
stepping from behind the desk.
'It ain't duty Taff, I was hungry is all.'
Atom retrieved the fish, spreading its pectoral fins.
'All the best operatives are hungry - you're in peak condition.' He dumped the beast into
the tank. It sculled languidly to the bottom, its eyes closing. Atom turned his fierce
attention to Joanna.
Joanna staggered backward, clutching his arm. 'Now
don't come near me you sonofabitch! This place is crazy you both crazy!'
The wall-shadow behind Atom seemed to swell with
malevolence as Atom declaimed, 'You swan in here mouthing off about your phony name, your
phony predicament, your phony pants, all the while telling me how I should dress - then
you torture my colleague Jed Helms almost beyond his attention span. Get the hell out of
here, or so help me I'll...'
'What is wrong now with that imbecile?' thought
Turow as he saw Joanna slam out of the building and wheel toward him through the rain.
Joanna tore open the door and stuck his head in.
'Drive, Dumpy, drive - there's monsters in dah house!'
'What?' Turow spat as Joanna crammed himself into the
car - he plucked the key from the ignition before Joanna could turn it, and held it behind
him as the giant made a grab. 'Calm down you fool, you'll attract attention!'
'He didn't bite, Mr Turow - but looka dis toothmark.'
And he displayed what looked like the bite radius of a young shark, arced on his arm.
'Don't go in there, Dumpy.'
'Scared of a little yappy dog or something, a brute
like you,' Turow sneered. 'And don't call me Dumpy - stay here while I do a man's work as
it should be done.' He unlocked and pushed out of the car, scuttling through the
rain to the brownstone.
In the lobby he smartened himself up, then entered the
elevator. Joanna probably called on some old woman whose only companion was a spaniel
temperamental in the head. Simple enough. Fourth floor.
Well, all right, the place was a little creepy but was
this not America land of the free? Let them have their dim wallpaper and dense doors.
Everything cruised around his own movements as he
walked the hallway, so dreamlike he looked down to check for rollers. Microdread
pinwheeled over the carpet, approaching him like a tide. His hair strained to stand on
end, curling to question marks under its freight of grease.
Here was the door - ATOM AND DROWNER stencilled on
blurglass. He rang the bell and after a pause the door burst open like an exit wound,
gusts of methane clouding past him.
He stepped into the waiting room, which was a sky
churning with fire and sonic explosions. Igniting magnesia stained the air and wind ripped
expectation into ribbons. Here were heavens gone astray and panicking like bats, blinding
his forehead and releasing a hailstorm of crisis. 'Mr Atom?' called Turow above the storm,
his clothes ballooning with super-rarefied static. 'Are you available for business?' He
knuckled airtrash from his eyes, squinting agog through an atmosphere churning with near
release. And the wind redirected, buffing a sight-line through the roiling smog.
A resinous spine and ribs were suspended in midair,
levitating in theatrical smoke. And amid the creeping fluorescence, inquisition fumes and
white-hot theta flashes boomed a voice as though amplified through 5o,ooo-watt
speakertowers. And it said:
'An office is a machine for dying.'
Turow began screeching like a vulture, mouth dry. He
saw himself, diaphanous in his lack. This encounter was the very litmus of his courage and
his face turned reflex blue. He found himself running, beyond his control. The building
spat him out like an olive.