The Misadventures of Isabel Instance: IV

The story so far: Isabel Instance, librarian and friend to the dead, and her deceased associate Aelfric Fouracre, are investigating the curious case of Gary Simmons, who has put his mother in the freezer.


Finding the street isn’t hard: it’s sealed off halfway down. By the barrier is a cluster of police officers with round cheeks and flat eyes. There is also a television van, and a handful of onlookers. There isn’t much for them to onlook. The little crowd has a restless, peevish air, as if they know this too, and are insulted by the ease with which they are being entertained. Isabel Instance turns the van round and finds a space some distance away.

“How are we going to do this, then?” she asks, unfastening her seatbelt. “The usual?”

Aelfric Fouracre nods. He reaches into his pocket and produces name badges for them both. He procured them from a secret contact – so he says. Isabel doubts this: she has no evidence that he knows anyone at all apart from her. This is another area in which she suspects his air of mystery conceals a banal reality. She has a vision of Ael making the badges himself: bent studiously over a desk, using a craft knife and Pritstick, his tongue sticking from the corner of his mouth. Perhaps his version of the world is better after all.

The badges identify Isabel and Ael as senior government liaison officers. They usually work. The police, local council authorities, security guards all assume that liaison means something official and generally let them into buildings, crime scenes, more or less anywhere. Isabel was surprised how easy it was at first, but as Ael told her, it isn’t difficult to take advantage of institutions. “Army, police, council, the procedure is similar. Institutions work on rules, and they have far too many for anyone to remember. If you seem to know the rules, they’ll be desperate to please you.”

As they march towards the police they get into formation. Ael goes first, walking briskly, with a faint frown to indicate a razor-sharp bureaucratic brain working at top-speed. Isabel trots by his left shoulder, murmuring into his ear – the high-powered PA. The black clothes suit the part, the red hair less so, but it is mostly a question of conviction. The first line of policemen, awed by the sense of purpose, don’t even think of stopping them. But an older constable straightens as they passed. He starts to say, “Hey!”, but a cool flicker of importance on Ael’s face makes the word die in his mouth. He lamely converts it into, “Excuse me, sir…”

“Sorry, officer. Remiss of me. We’re community liaison. This is my assistant, Miss Instance.” Ael speaks quickly, with a hint of weary condescension. The policeman stares at them.

“Right. Only, we’re waiting for negotiators, see.”

Ael nods. “That’s right, yes. Liaison. That’s us.”

“There wasn’t anything on the radio…”

Isabel cuts in. Ael enjoys playing her boss too much for her liking. “New procedure,” she says, in a clipped voice, looking down her nose. “In case of monitoring by the suspect. You should have had warning we were coming biked over. But it doesn’t matter. You can see our accreditation.”

The policeman takes a step back, to Isabel’s satisfaction. The true measure of a man of importance is how intimidating his staff can afford to be. “Right,” he says. “Well, good luck. He’s locked in the kitchen at the back. Have you…”

“Been briefed. Yes. See that we aren’t disturbed.” Isabel dismisses him with a nod of the head. Ael has already marched to the front door of the house, where he is talking to another policeman. As she reaches the door the policeman and two others file out, and she lets them pass. For a moment she pauses on the doorstep, and tells herself, as usual, not to think about the lunacy of what they are doing.

This is not the first time they’ve walked into situations involving the prospect of violence. Ael is recklessly indifferent, obviously, and seems to assume she will be equally blasé, despite the fact that she has rather more to lose. Isabel sometimes has a horrible suspicion that he is rather looking forward to her being dead, so that he can train up her ghost. No chance, she tells herself, no chance. She’s moving on when she dies. She’s taking the pathway of light: the momentary radiance experienced by most of the dead that leads, so Ael believes, to another world, and one which he expects to be less gratifyingly silly than this one, hence him lingering. Isabel supposes it leads to oblivion. She doesn’t mind that idea. It certainly beats the wry detached death tourism in which Ael has been engaged for a millennium or so. She feels a shudder at that thought. Immortality holds more terrors for her than mortality. The idea of remaining forever, cut off from the best things in life and becoming ever more peculiarly oneself seems rather horrible. Whereas ceasing to exist as the person she is now, which is the very worst that the path of light can offer, strikes her as nothing to get too worked up about. Most of the people for whom she’d choose to remain have gone a long time ago, in one way or another. And she has no fear of ending, per se. She takes a final deep breath and looks around her, then goes inside and shuts the door.

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Will le Fleming is a novelist. His debut, Central Reservation, is published by Xelsion and available now. Read more...

On a grey Thursday morning Holly lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, and wished her sister would die. Five hours later her wish came true. Read more...

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