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Vanessa Stuhlmann, beleaguered lawyer and hopeless caffeine addict, is beginning to feel the strain of the worldwide conspiracy against her

Buddy, Can you spare a crime?

Vanessa edged up closer to the counter in the seventeenth Starbucks that had been built next to the courthouse. The last she could remember there had been only six, but that was already a week ago, and she hadn’t taken into account the Starbucks mini-mall that had been built over the weekend, comprising Starbucks 7 - 15. No matter, she thought. Just give me the drugs. Drugs drugs drugs drugs drugs--in an economically dynamic and socially acceptable context.

Her head felt like an eggshell wrapped in felt set in a vice, with the screw slowly and inexorably turned by a mouse jumping on the crank. She rubbed her eyes repeatedly. She was certain somebody had replaced them with steel wool, because the world was grey and coarse and a little rusty around the edges. Her mouth was dry. Her throat was dry. She knew that pumping in forty ounces more of A-grade diuretic would not help very much, but in a blinding flash of revelation she realized what the problem was. No one had gone far enough in desiccating their anatomy. If you could only zap that last micro-blot of moisture from the system, and set the metabolism permanently to Sphinx, hydration issues would no longer be relevant. She would push that envelope. She would turn over new ground in the tissue sciences.

She asked for the Café alla Gobi-Kalahari in the new Ludicroso format. This was about the size of a small Greek amphora, complete with two paper handles on either side. She reached for her purse to pay for it, but then realized that she didnt have it. In shock she discovered that she was not wearing her usual knock-em-dead business clothes, but her tracksuit instead. In a red-faced fog she dug into an embarrassing fanny pack and retrieved the $38 dollars that she needed for the coffee. She then departed with a copy of the Provincial, walking out the door oblivious to the clerks pitiful pleas she should pay for it: oh Maam! Maam! Maam....

She supposed that she should be concerned that court started in less than an hour, and that she wasnt dressed for it, and didnt seem to have her briefcase either, and that she couldnt remember where her car was, or if she had one at all, or just exactly how she happened to come to consciousness with her nose stuck against the glass of the Starbucks window, materializing, as it were, out of nothing, with no memory of what gone before, kind of like birth. But only one thought at a time could poke through the wool in her head, so maybe shell just find a nice park bench and think Om until the system rebooted.

She found a wet bench under a leafless tree on a broken sidewalk across from a deafening air duct next to a choking exit to an underground garage. Restful enough. She nestled the amphora of coffee into her lap and threw her head back. She rolled back the tape of the previous day. The last things she could remember flitted by. The end of the court date with that horrid ventriloquist, and another defeat as the prosecution relentlessly drove their juggernaut on to prove Jessica Endicotts involvement in Styrinskis demise. That was worth a bottle of Cervella Gringa right there. Then the frantic S.O.S. from her investigators Hendrikssen and Walter, on the case disguised as doomed temp labourers with the evil Labour Deadly. But they’d been rumbled and locked in a meat locker in darkest Burburry. Shed called her contacts in Outside Loafers--er, Workers--LUG 13 and promised the worthless layabouts something--which now she couldn’t remember--in return for their help to liberate them. Whatever it was, it must have been good, because the next thing she knew shed gotten another call from her partners, now in the middle of Marshall Island, of all places, to tell her that they had just been sprung by the most casual SWAT team theyd ever seen.

Ohhh, moaned Vanessa. There had to be some kind of payback. What? Shovels. Something embarrassing with shovels. That had to be it.

There was a thump on the bench beside her.

Howdy howdy howdy, said a man in a hard hat. He fumbled in his pockets for cigarettes. Hey, Vanny. Hows it goin,?

Vanessa slanted her eyes to one side. I know--wait--arent you...Clem?

Look at you. Geez you really tied one on last night, eh? Must be a good life, sleaze. Yep. Thats me, Clement OCarroll, glad brother of the tribe of LUG-13. How soon we forget. You heard from your friends?

She straightened up. Yes. Yes I did. That was you, right?

Oh sure.

Thats...uh...serious overtime, she said with alarm.

Nah, he said, lighting his cigarette, and taking a puff. Anything for the cause.

Cause? What cause?

To wipe the ever-so-glorious effing Brazier Institute, universal jerks and c-sucking enemies of the working Joe and Jody, off the face of this earth and every other one known to science.

You mean I dont owe you anything? I didnt promise to do something embarrassing with gravel or flags or hoses or anything?

Nah, nah, nah.

Oh. Okay. Thanks. Really. did you figure it was the Institute?

Oh, that was easy. When you said it was Labour Deadly. Its a well-known front for those a-holes. We just paid the local office a visit. We kind obstruction in their water main. After a little friendly persuasion, we found out where your friends were dispatched. Its amazing how talkative a guy can get, even with his head up a ten inch vacuum hose.

Uh huh.

I mean, he blew a puff of smoke into the air, which was driven back into their faces by the fan, these guys really piss me off. Not only are they trying to drive everybody back to the dark ages, but they got it in for road crews in particular.

Hows that?

Everywhere we go, I mean, in almost every site we dig up, we find these damn pipes and tunnels that aren’t supposed to be there. Interfering with, dislodging, breaking, rupturing, the legitimate ones. Next to impossible to remove.”

What’s the connection with the Institute?”

Got their name on them, the dumb clucks. Damned if I can figure out when they get laid down. They appear almost overnight. Damn, I know they appear overnight, sometimes.

Weird. What do they do? Where do they go?

He exhaled more smoke. Dont know what they do. But, judging from what I see in different parts of town, they all converge on Marshall Island--you know, where that other friend of yours hangs out.

What? What friend?

OCarroll unfolded a copy of the Provincial. Underneath the headline Red Rooster Revolt: Broilers and Bolshies Plague Marshall Island appeared a flash-lit photo of a paunchy man raising his arm in a they-went-that-a-way gesture. Beneath lay the caption Rogatine Bresson, known associate of marmot lover, Vanessa Stuhlmann, directs enraged poultry to Vanderville.

Oh, she said. Hes been busy. She tried to straighten up, but her head hurt. She moaned.

Someone special?


He got up suddenly. You need a change. Quit. Get some fresh air. Come join us. Always room for one more.

Gee, thanks, but....

Another time. Oh, and don’t worry about your furry friends. I gave a call to our brethren in LUG-17 on Derville Island. The paper’s got a nice picture. Check it out. See ya later.”

He ambled away.

Process, process. She moved her hands to open the paper. First she saw the article on Marshall Island, which rambled on about some army of mutant, berserker chickens converging on Vanderville to kick off the End Times. How her detective got mixed up with that she was too tired to figure out. But under this was a photo of a country road under half a mountain of rock and debris. There was an article attached.

Marmots Move Mountain in Terror Attack; Rodents Resist Bold New Economic Strategy

The Provincial: Only a day after the Glorious Brazier Institute advocated aligning the dollar to the fate of the rare Van Derville Island Marmot, the only road leading to Gopher Hallow Park near Brush-Cut Inlet, principal domain of the animal, was blocked by a terrific landslide, neatly curtailing planned efforts to cull the otherwise useless animal and so rocket Vanderville to the state of world dominance it so richly deserves. When informed of the disaster Institute president MacKenzie MacPherson commented “I have to give the varmints credit for a degree of intelligence and cooperative effort not hitherto suspected by zoologists, yet at the same time by resisting our ideas the marmots have in fact become terrorists against the state and must expect the appropriate response.” When pressed for details MacPherson answered he had to catch a train.

Vanessa Stuhlmann, founder of the radical pro-rodent organization MARMORMENT, has been unavailable for comment since engaging in a night of debauchery in Westover last night.

Vanessa crumpled up the front page of the Provincial and threw it away. The ventilation fan blew it back in her face. She got up and started to make her way to the court. A night of debauchery. In Westover? She could not remember a thing. There were the strangest flashes though, like a dream, of lakes and lochs and black ships in the moonlight...she shook her head, which hurt. For now the marmots were safe, but what kind of response did MacPherson have in mind? Incendiary bombs? Parachute drops?

She closed her eyes. Have to go to court. That’s my job. Have to go to court. Face humiliation. That’s my destiny. Have to go to court. Ridicule is good for the soul. Have to go to court....

She felt somebody staring holes through her. She looked around and jumped. But it was only the back of the bench, with the leering face of Jerry Styro, still pitching pristine waterfront condos from beyond the grave: Styro-Foam Developments: Taking the Bleach to the Beach.

She gave the man a twisted smile. Ill find you. You brought me to this. When I pop off to the next world--probably soon--Ill hunt you down. I wont leave a brimstone unturned.

She slowly walked to court, ruminating on the different kinds of afterlife she might have to contend with in her quest for justice, whether she should start researching it now, or if all will be revealed automatically on entry. She passed a store window and saw her reflection slip by. An escaped Burburite in a tracksuit, stringy ponytail and a fanny pack. How did it come to this? At what point did the fatal crack develop?

But on reflection it probably came down to her unrivalled ability to turn talent to disaster, to wrench misery from the jaws of happiness, to break the shovel of achievement against the stump of stupidity. Only she, Vanessa Stuhlmann, could throw away twenty years of potential marital, relationship-ital, and sexual-ital opportunities on a succession of idiots, beginning with Flanaghan, ending with Flanaghan, highlighted by marriage to a vampire and finally culminating in bestowing the last embers of her affections on an extended family of rodents which in her darkest hours she was not sure knew she was alive. Only she, Vanessa Stuhlmann, was capable of taking the dream of all women, to live in Paris, and twist it into an amnesiac nightmare of gaminish street poverty, transient artistic fame, and jail in a Dutch prison. Only she, Vanessa Stuhlmann, could turn the idealistic pursuit of justice for the poor, beleaguered, and downtrodden, into the cynical defence of the fish-murderer Jessica Endicott.