(Saturday, January 6, 2035)






Henry Hat is savouring a late breakfast when Norlin enters the Catholic Restaurant on Southwest Sixth, a brisk ten minute walk from the Trouble Factory, almost to the West Arrow Highway.  The sky remains ominous, but rain has ceased - for the moment - the diner is clean, sterile... sparsely populated at this quiet hour between breakfast and lunch.  A strolling violinist circles the room, his instrument a recording-box containing full background orchestration for instrumental versions of the King's devotional songs... portraits of the King and Pope Jerzy gaze down from the walls - between, and beneath, them a placard: "We have found the truth... and the truth makes no sense."

There's also a print of Mondrian's Chrysanthemums, which ghastly riddle causes the policeman to shiver...

          "Later and later, Norlin," the man in yellow says, pushing around the debris of a meal in his bowl, "the contemplative life appears to harmonize with you..."

          "I was held up by Germany Smith.  Says he spoke with you..."

"Entertaining fellow.  Rather like conversing with a shrub..." the suncop opines, "a well-trimmed holly, or poinsettia.  Seasonal creature..."

          Henry Hat pushes a few strands of shredded wheat... without, even, skimsmilk... around in their bowl with a thick, glastic spoon.  A plump-cheeked, cassocked waiter approaches their table.

          "Just decaffa and a whole timberwheat muffin."

          "Are you... Norton?" the waiter asks.

          "Norlin.  Close enough?"

The man removes a pale yellow envelope from his back pocket.

"I think this is for you."  Norlin looks up, with a questioning expression, and the waiter clears his throat.  "Guy came round to the back door a few minutes ago, laid a Jean on me and said you'd be coming by..."

Norlin takes the envelope gingerly, holds it up and shakes it as if it might contain a letter bomb.  When it doesn't explode, he nods and holds up another Baratarian fiver."

"Any chance a guy could get some real butter and jam... strawberry, grape, doesn't matter as long as real cream and sugar's involved..."

"Now you know that's illegal, sir," the waiter clucks, but remains at attention by their table when Norlin pulls out another Lafitte.  "Well, you money ain't covered wit' slime, like that other guy's... I think we can accommodate you."

          When the waiter has gone, after glancing round to one of the portraits which, probably, conceals a MAU-surveillance camera, Norlin lays the yellow envelope down, picks up one of the restaurant's knives, and opens it carefully.

"All these other problems round, last thing I need's a healthy, Jatesian breakfast," he says in a challenging way.  "Now... what is this?"

Within the envelope is a placard similar to that posted in the Jates Hall #216, but yellow, on the flip side are the words: "ADMIT ONE".

"Flyer for a Bardo Party," Norlin deduces.  "Illegal as hell... way up in Mormentz, so it won't be no shoddy operation.  Probably have liquor, drugs... Jates knows what else..."

He crumples the envelope and invitation and draws his hand back to throw both across the top of their booth, but Henry Hat drums his knuckles on the table. 

"Somebody went to considerable expense and trouble to locate you and get that invitation into your possession..."

"Yeah, probably some cat lover," Norlin scowls.  "All kinds of freaks up in Mormentz... way my luck is going, there's probably somebody waiting behind one of those purple bushes to take a shot at me, soon as I show my face..."

"Perhaps.  Then again, you don't really have that much face left to lose, do you..."

          "Since you put it that way..."

Norlin draws his hand down and stuffs the crumpled invitation in his pocket as the waiter returns with decaffa and a perfectly rectangular biscuit glistening, ever so slightly, with a clear phlegm of lipids and fructose that the LCs moving smuggled delicacies through the Chinese Market have perfected as almost invisible to long-distance infrared surveillance.

          "Fella that left that envelope... what did he look like?" Norlin inquires.

"Freak.  Long, black overcoat, hat pulled down over his face.  Smelled funny, like seaweed. Somethin' wrong about him.  Just as soon he didn't come back, you either..." says the Catholic waiter, looking over his shoulder again.  Idiot! Norlin thinks.  If one of the hundreds of ladies in Government Center observation posts isn't doing her nails or dreaming about her week's vacation in MexAmerica, a report's probably being transmitted... at this very moment... to the Trouble Factory.

When their clerical waitcaptain has backed away like some extinct crustacean, Henry Hat points to Norlin's breakfast...

          "Want a taste?"

          "Just pick that up."

When he has done so, taking a careful bite of his criminal muffin, Henry Hat picks up the plate and locates a small, white pill... no larger than a grain of rice... on the underside, which he holds up, screening it with the cuff of his yellow coat from the prying eyes of Elvis, and pinches.

"Amateurs!  Don't even know what they're listening for... any old dero will do.  I think we can talk now... anything normally picked up probably travels to Rome and back before the bad guys can do anything about it.  Events move rapidly, accelerating.  Traditional policing methods will not bring us nearer a solution in time..."

"Thus... Stimwood Academy!"

"Correct.  I have a friend inside, one of the doctors... he has arranged, for us, a conference room and will be bringing twelve of his best to the table..."

"Twelve nuts!" the Corporal shakes his head, taking another bite of the illicit morsel.

"Norlin... Norlin... I should have hoped that, by this time, you'd have thrown off such outdated conventions as health and sanity... these are things relative to the dominant culture and extremely malleable during epochs of cultural upheaval, like that which we are quickly approaching.  Upheaval no less traumatic... in its own way... than the Cannonball."

"What am I going to say?" Norlin pouts.  "Monday morning I go into work... same keb as every day for a year and six kebbin' months since, well you probably read my file, or Germany Smith told you.  Still, I had a job, a place to live... see my boy every other weekend, maybe work my way back... could be worse.  Like kebbin' up three cases, including my first command since... well... whole kebbin' Department blames me for losing their Jatesday bonuses and I'm even all over the PV.  Even Paul Parchette's kebbin' monologues... that kebbin' monkey!  Strangers calling me at home with threats and Compliance will probably pull my badge soon as they pull themselves out of the hole they say I dug for 'em..."

"You are one unhappy fellow, Corporal.  Well, were you at least able to find four volunteers to fill out our hand of sixteen?  Sixteen, Norlin, is a very prestigious number..."

"Yeah, yeah... I got a crowd your man will really like.  They'll hold their own against any dozen of his denizens of the academic deep..."

If Norlin expects some objection from the man in yellow, he's doomed to disappointment.  "That's good.  Good," Henry Hat repeats, rubbing his thin hands together.  "You've done a good job... you ought to go easier upon yourself.  You have unresolved issues... I know... and we have time.  So I'd like to tell you a little story," he said.  "I wasn't always with the Solar Commission, you know... there was, even, a time I fancied myself rather like our Mondretto, an artist."

"That so?" Norlin probes, suspicious...

"It was.  I struggled in a web of delusion, finally confronting that spider before whom no gentleman may admit defeat... irrational expectations.  Of course I never sold anything, but I did read books and attend classes, so the mere status of being an artist sufficed to prevent me from being taken in as a social parasite - well, at least until the City Councils up north tightened up their standards.  So, I sought appointment to the Solar Commission and, in the most elementary peering into furnaces and taking measurements of the integrity of congealed sunlight, I sought and, at last, found a sort of absolution... rebirth, let us speak frankly... in those fires.   I saw the ephemeralities of Style burned clean, and the multifold states of Substance made one-pointed..."

"Are you a Jatesist, then?  But it's not possible to be a Jatesist and an artist..." Norlin warned the man in yellow, thinking that this might well be an explanation for Henry Hat's familiarity with Stimwood.  "Even though the Master is gone, there may exist no other artists save those who simply and humbly walk in footsteps that Triple-J has already prepared.  Or quicksketch outlaws, working the Chinese Market.  Well, there was Elvis... but, of course, I am speaking of living artists.  All else that has happened since his ascension is not art, only artifice and, probably, crime.  So... you abandoned this delusion..." the Corporal prodded.

"Until the other night.  He may not be the equal of Triple-J... or, even, that plastic master of linear disaster from whom he borrows a name and angular sentiments, but Mondretto is a subtle enemy," said Henry Hat.  "Think!... Norlin... what dangerous criminals those Old Masters would've made!  Is it mere coincidence that their effigies have been preserved on... cigar boxes?"  The Corporal recoiled.  "Where I might better have employed my time preparing for the afternoon's conclave at Stimwood, Norlin, I found myself caught up in the challenge... fascinated, you might say, like an insect in a spiderweb, filling in Mondretto's dots and shading rectangles."

Henry Hat has brought the Prancing Pony canvas along with him in an opaque, glassine covering... he slides it out, now, showing off his labours to the Corporal.   Norlin dutifully ponders this partially completed enigma in shades of yellow... dark and pale... with grayish streakings at the margins, thinks to respond, then thinks the better of it... mouth hanging open in a flattened "O", face the likeness of a rotting Halloween pumpkin in his indecision.

          "Was there something you wanted to tell me?"

The false violinist swoops by, pretending to play an impossibly saccharine "Jailhouse Rock", and Norlin gestures to the Catholic waiter for a refill.

          "As long as we are telling tales and sharing stories," begins the Corporal. "I think it only fair that I reciprocate by giving you a version... my version... of the incident with Max Bend which, no doubt, you have heard told through a dozen facets, and by a dozen interested parties..."

          But the Solar Policeman refuses to rise to Norlin's provocation... folding both hands in his lap and saying, only: "Behind any legend, there is likely to be a coyote.  A fat coyote.  Proceed."