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Monday afternoon-Tuesday night

THE SUIT IS THREE years out of fashion, but he wears it. He does have another one but it’s only a year out of date: too soon for the great wheel of style to have come round to it again. He re-knots the tie — the first was too small, like a blood-clot on his throat — but he still looks like a spiv. Outside in Eglantine Avenue the taxi hoots. It’s only a few metres’ dash from the door, but enough to soak his number two suit through. Wet March. Wet February before it; wet January, wet December, wet November. Wet April to follow; probably wet May. Used to be weather in this country. Now all we have is climate. Plenty of theories, from global warming to atmospheric damage stirred up by Outsider gravity fields. Can’t hoist theories over your head, like an umbrella.

‘Where to?’

‘Magistrates’ court.’

Court is one destination on which taxi drivers won’t quiz you. He makes one comment, on Great Victoria Street, passing a humped-back microbus with a cab company number on the door and roof sign.

‘That’s what I’m getting, when I get money. Run for ever on tap water. Amazing.’

‘They call it something like zero-point energy, but don’t ask me how it works. Shouldn’t work at all, scientists say.’

The taxi bus draws alongside. Steam wisps from its tail piece.

‘Oil companies are going to hate it. Surprised they didn’t try to buy it up and bury it, like the everlasting light bulb.’

The traffic barriers are long gone but the security boxes remain, last legacy of the slow war. They look like a concrete cruet. They incongruously frame the New Concert Hall, jewel in the crown of the Laganside Project — if London can do it with Docklands, Belfast has to do it with Dame Milly Putridia Lagan. The thing looks like a nuclear power station, Gillespie thinks. The signs and symbols have changed in the three years since he last went up the steps to the magistrates’ court — two flags clinging damply to their poles, red white and blue, green white and gold; two crests above the porch, lion and unicorn, harp and St Patrick’s cross; two names in two languages. The schizophrenia of Joint Sovereignty.

He shivers as he passes through the revolving doors. Inside, cigarette smoke and damp male. Same as it ever was. The usual suspects in this year’s sports fashion, laid out along the wooden benches like a team of sent-off footballers. The lawyers sit facing them in plastic chairs. They all have expressions of exasperation on their faces. The floor is cratered with cigarette stub-outs. The walls are graffitied with felt-markered names, fuck-yous and political acronyms.

His case stands head and shoulders above the rest. The humans leave space around it. Even the solicitor looks uncomfortable, chain-smoking, briefcase on her knees.

‘Aileen McKimmis?’

Her glasses are too big for her thin face. They slip down her nose and she has to stare at him over them. That’s right. A man.

‘Are you from the Welcome Centre?’ she says.

‘Yes. Andy Gillespie.’

She doesn’t take the offered hand.

‘I thought they would be sending ah…’

‘An Outsider? No. They send their apologies. They’ve a longstanding appointment with some people from the Joint Authority about political representation, and this did come up kind of unexpected. So they sent me.’ You’re still looking at me over those glasses, lawyer. You see a squat brick of a man, grey-stubbled, cannon-ball head; three years out-of-date suit splattered dark with rain. But you don’t see the inside. There’re things you’ll never know how to do, in there. ‘My Narha is idiomatic; the Centre would not have sent me if they didn’t have complete confidence in my ability.’

His hand is taken.

‘Could I have a wee word with your client?’ he asks.

They say it about the Chinese, or the blacks, or the Asians. Catholics probably said it about the Protestant planters, Celts about Anglo-Normans; late Neolithics about Bronze-agers; every established group about new immigrants. And laughed. Ach, they all look the same to me. Can’t tell them apart.

With this final wave of newcomers, it’s true. They do all look the same. We see their height, and their thinness, and the skin the colour of new terracotta, and the three fingers on the hands and the oval slits in the eyes and the flat wide nose and the tight buds of ears low and far back on the skull and the strips of dark crimson fur over the top of the scalp tapering into a line down the spine; we see the odd jointings and body postures that make their ease seem discomfort to us; and we think, well, they’re not that different, really. Then we look for the sex identifiers, the absolute basis of how we deal with each other: the body shape, the build, the bulges, the breasts or the balls, and they’re not there. Is it male, female, man, woman? We look at another one, maybe there’ll be some difference, then we can tell. It’s important. We have to get these things before we know how to deal with them. They look exactly the same.

Jesus, this is weird. Do they have men and women? How do they tell?

They see with more than eyes, that’s how.

The client stands up to greet Andy Gillespie. It’s dressed in a men’s business suit, way too short in the legs and sleeves, worn over a high-neck green body; a Long Tall Sally label sticks up at the back of the neck. Gillespie takes a long, deep sniff. A female. He shrugs his eyebrows. The client returns the gesture, a flicker of the thin line of dark fur on either side of the central strip. Gillespie offers a hand, palm up. The client bends down and licks it.

The whole room has gone quiet.

She offers Gillespie her hand. He touches the tip of his tongue to the soft centre of her palm. The Outsider tastes of herbs, honey, vagina, rust, hay, incense and pot. Her unique chemical identity. Her name, in perfume.

Aileen McKimmis’s eyes are wide behind her too-big glasses.

I bet you smiled, Gillespie thinks, like they taught you in client relations. Put the client at her ease. Except you did the exact opposite. Bared teeth are a threat. You smile to these people by blinking slowly. Like this.

— I’m Andy Gillespie, he says in Narha. The Welcome Centre sent me. —

— I was expecting a Harridi, the client says. Her voice is a low contralto, her accent unplaceable; strange yet familiar. The aliens in the movies never have accents, except the ones with boomy Big Brother voices. Echoey. Jehovah speaks. This Outsider talks like music.

— Like I was saying to

— I heard what you said to my advocate.

— I’m here in the capacity of an expert witness. Advocate McKimmis has explained to you that we’re here… Gillespie breaks off. — Could we continue this in English? Narha doesn’t have the words for the legal processes. Your law is too different.

‘Certainly, Mr Gillespie.’

‘I know that by your law you did nothing wrong, but this is a very serious charge and the prosecution that’s the lawyer who represents the state whose laws you’ve broken will try to have you sent to prison until the full trial because they think you might attempt to leave the country.’

‘Why should I do that? Do you people not respect your own law?’

‘In a word, no.’

The Outsider screws up her nose: incomprehension.

‘I would have preferred one of our own knight-advocates, a genro,’ she says.

‘Our courts don’t recognize them. You’ve got me, you’ve got Mizz McKimmis; we’ll keep you out of jail.’

You do not want to be there. I’ve seen what it’s like for your people. And I don’t ever want to see what happened there happen again. You won’t go to jail, none of you will go to jail, while I have strength in me.

The door to court one opens.

‘Case twelve,’ calls a short usher in a black gown. ‘Case twelve.’

Aileen McKimmis stands up, tucks her briefcase under her arm and dusts cigarette ash off her skirt.

‘Show time.’

She leaves another butt-end impact crater behind her in the waiting room floor.

Above the magistrates’ bench the shiny new harp and cross shoulder in on the chipped lion and unicorn, like a scam merchant with a deal to offer. There’s a new name for the prosecution. It’s not the Crown versus any more. It’s the Joint Justices. Gillespie can’t believe that the name made it all the way to statute without anyone getting the joke. Double the civil servants, half the irony.

Defence and Joint Justices confer. Back on their home bench, the prosecution consults palmtops. The defendant comes up into the dock. The court goes very quiet. All rise. The magistrates are in. All persons having business, all that. Then again, in Irish. Case number 451279, Joint Justices versus Fff. Fff… Fidiki… The magistrates look at the usher. The usher looks at the prosecution. The prosecution looks at the defendant.

‘Fidikihana Kusarenjajonk,’ she says, very slowly. She takes the usher through it twice.

Andy Gillespie’s loving it.

You are Fidikihana Kusarenjajonk, of Occasionally Plentiful Hunting Hold, Tullynagarry Road, Carryduff?

‘I am.’

The charge is the attempted murder of Christopher and John Beattie, of Wordsworth Gardens, Carryduff, aged fourteen and sixteen, and of Andrew Coey, of Shelley Rise, Carryduff, age fifteen, on the evening of March the first, 2004. How do you plead?

The Outsider flicks her eyes to her defence brief. Aileen McKimmis nods. No, you don’t do that. And Gillespie catches Fidikihana’s eye, flicks his head back. Yes.

‘I am not guilty.’

She doesn’t even understand what that means.

The charge of the prosecution: that the accused did confront the above-mentioned Christopher and John Beattie and Andrew Coey while they were playing football in Wordsworth Gardens, pour an inflammable liquid petrol over them and set them alight with intent of murder.

And what is the condition of the brothers Beattie and Andrew Coey?

Second and third degree burns to thirty per cent of the body surface. The victims are undergoing treatment at the specialist burns unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital. They are very seriously ill. In view of the extremely violent nature of the assault, on young children, the prosecution recommends custody.

The bench is inclined to agree. This is a most heinous allegation. Ms McKimmis; have you anything to say in defence of your client?

‘I’d like to call Mr Andrew Gillespie. Mr Gillespie is employed by the Shian Welcome Centre in University Street, and is qualified to speak on matters of Shian psychology and physiology pertinent to our defence.’ The look over the glasses says, you had better be.

He does the thing with the book and the hand and the wee note card in the box in case you can’t remember the oath.

‘Mr Gillespie, could you tell us about the work of the Shian Welcome Centre?’

‘Certainly. It’s mostly a contact service for gensoons; those are young, single Outsiders, who’ve come into the country looking for Holds the big Shian extended families to join. The way their society operates, adolescents leave their birth families and travel widely until they are accepted into another. The Centre has lists of Holds in Ireland, and also assesses the suitability of newcomers for particular Holds.’

‘A sort of dating agency?’ the magistrate on the left asks.

‘In a sense. And a bit like a employment agency as well, in that it sets individuals up with groups. The Centre also provides a liaison service with organizations employing Shian; industry, shops, restaurants, things like that. There’s a lot of room for misunderstandings between the two species.’

The prosecution harumph.

‘My job is mostly in the field of human-Shian relations and I do quite a bit of translation work as well. I speak idiomatic Narha; that’s the lingua franca of the Shian Nations. The Centre also serves as a base for the Shian political organization, such as it is. You’ve probably been hearing about it on the news lately. I don’t have much to do with that.’

‘So you’re something of a Shian expert, Mr Gillespie?’

‘Well, no one can really claim to be an expert on these people. But I think I know them as well as any human can.’

‘Could you explain, then, Ms Kusarenjajonk’s actions?’

‘The primary motivation in Shian society is the preservation of the children. Family lines, bloodlines, are very, very important to them. The Shian law allows any action in defence of a child; including killing. The case notes state that the children of Occasionally Plentiful Hunting Hold had been taunted and bullied by youths from the estate that backs on to their farm. There are at least five complaints from the Hold to the police, none of which were followed up. The police don’t want to get involved in Outsider affairs.’

‘Police competence is not in question here, Mr Gillespie,’ says the magistrate on the right.

‘The Welcome Centre had been informed that there was friction between the two communities, and we were attempting some kind of mediation. The boys; John and Chris Beattie and Andrew Coey, had harassed and beaten up Fidikihana Kusarenjajonk’s young son Mushedsen on several occasions, and just before the incident, had attacked him on this street, stolen his bicycle and threatened him that if he told anyone they’d come back and kill him. Fidikihana Kusarenjajonk took what she considered appropriate action to end the threat to her child. It may seem extreme to us, but by Shian law, by the customs of her species, she did nothing wrong. By her standards, she showed incredible restraint. In fact, not to have done what she did would have been wrong; it would have been seen as criminal negligence of her child by Shian law.’

The magistrate in the middle twiddles with his pencil.

‘Yes, Mr Gillespie, but it is human law, specifically the law of the Joint Authority, that has jurisdiction in this court.’

‘In your opinion, is Ms Kusarenjajonk a danger to the community?’ Aileen McKimmis asks.

‘No more than any Shian is.’

‘If she is released on bail, is she likely to seek further vengeance on these boys?’

‘No. She’s removed the threat. They won’t be going near her child again. Anything else would be a violation of their individual rights, which is a separate issue in Shian law.’

‘Thank you, Mr Gillespie.’

It’s the prosecution’s turn now.

‘Mr Gillespie, are you a qualified xenologist? Degrees? Diplomas? Certification with our fine new Department of Xenology in Queen’s University?’

‘Well, not qualified.’

‘So you don’t have any accreditation for your expertise on Outsider affairs?’


‘I see. You speak Narha idiomatically. Where did you learn the language?’

You fucking fuck of a smug bastard.

‘Mr Gillespie?’

‘The Maze Prison.’

‘Where you were serving a term for conspiracy to murder. I’m glad to see you spent your time constructively.’

Aileen’s on her feet.

‘I must object to the relevance of this line of questioning. This is not a trial.’

‘But Mr Gillespie’s qualification as an expert witness is surely highly relevant here.’

Middle magistrate does the pencil thing again.

‘It really is a bit cheeky bringing up Mr Gillespie’s prison record, Mr Magrory,’ he says. His colleagues nod. ‘Where Mr Gillespie learned his Narha? Is that is? is hardly relevant.’

‘No further questions. Thank you, Mr Gillespie.’ Smug fucking fuck bastard Magrory sums up. Then Aileen’s on her feet.

‘What we have here is a clash of cultures. I don’t deny that a very serious act took place, that severe injuries were inflicted on these three boys. What is in question is my client’s state of mind, which the bench must recognize is very, very different from our mind-set. In my client’s view, she has committed no crime. Had she killed those boys, she would still have committed no crime. She has no sense of having done wrong; in fact, she has done right. Like very young children are assumed to have no conception of right and wrong and can’t be held morally accountable for their actions, Shian morality, and their concepts of right and wrong, are equally alien to us, and must be taken into account. These are the early days of contact between our species; there must be a certain amount of leeway in dealings between us, a period of mutual adjustment. I sympathize with the sufferings of the victims, and the anguish of their families, but I do not think the law, justice, or relations between humans and Outsiders would be served by custody.’

The magistrates look at each other. They mutter. They nod. Then the middle magistrate says, ‘This is a nasty, vicious attack on three vulnerable members of society. The victims will in all likelihood bear the scars of this attack for the rest of their lives. Such an offence, if proven, would normally warrant custody. However, there are unique features to this case that demand special consideration. We find ourselves in a delicate state of rapprochement between two markedly different cultures, and while the Outsiders must recognize that their law has no remit in our society, deeply ingrained cultural and social beliefs can only be changed over time. Ms Kusarenjajonk, I believe you are convinced that you have done nothing wrong and that you acted in the best interests of your child, but you must reflect that in defending him you have caused suffering to the parents of other children. I am also inclined to believe Mr Gillespie’s testimony that you are unlikely to pose a threat in future, and I am persuaded by counsel’s argument that community relations would not be improved by sending you to prison. Therefore I am remanding you on bail of three thousand pounds to appear for trial on the fifteenth of May in the Crown Court.’

Yes! Result!

‘Central Court of Justice, your Honour,’ smug bastard Magrory interjects.

‘Yes. Exactly. The Central Court of Justice. It takes me a while to get used to these new names. Who is tendering bail?’

‘The Welcome Centre’s putting it up,’ Gillespie whispers to McKimmis. He slips the plastic out of his wallet.

‘The Shian Welcome Centre, your Honour,’ Aileen says.

Back in the waiting room Aileen McKimmis thanks Gillespie.

‘Sorry about the prosecution. That was underhand.’

‘It’s not where you’ve been, it’s where you’re going to. That’s what I tell myself. Most of the time I believe it.’

— Thank you, Gillespie, though I am not quite sure what it is you prevented me experiencing, Fidikihana says in Narha. My Hold will recompense the Welcome Centre as soon as possible.

Gillespie tilts his head from left to right, an Outsider gesture of dismissal. — Don’t worry about it. The Harridis have more money than they know what to do with. But I wouldn’t count on that defence working in the real trial.

The usher’s out again, moving through the hard lads and their briefs, frantic in his little black gown. ‘Case sixteen,’ he’s crying. ‘Case sixteen.’

It’s only a stud-wall box he shares with the photocopier and sixteen boxes of old gold A4 (they like old gold, they do everything on old gold), but it’s more home than his flat over on Eglantine Avenue. He still despises suits and shirts who’ll tell you their real home is the office; they say it because it’s where their families aren’t. For him this office is home because it’s where his family is.

Seyamang and Vrenanka are chasing each other around the desk legs on their tricycles. When they get bored with that they’ll come and stick their faces in the photocopier or climb up the stacked old gold. Seyoura is on the phone hers is the next stud-wall box to Gillespie’s trying to get some kid who’s had his money lifted in the bus station a place for the night in their Transients’ House on Palestine Street. Senkajou is in deep communion with the computer Gillespie’ll never understand how that direct chemical interface works, looks too much like snorting cocaine to him and Muskravhat is making an appointment to see someone from one of the big Holds in London’s Docklands.

Senkajou’s out of the machine and pops his head into the Gillespie box.

‘Excellent result, Andy.’

‘Cost you three grand.’

Senkajou does the Shian shrug, which is a flexing of the shoulders back and a slight opening of the mouth. It’s money, that’s all. It won’t bother them if the Kusarenjajonks don’t give it to them. These people have no idea of the value of money. They’ve built starships, colonized ten planets across one hundred light years without a functioning economy.

‘I am most impressed, Andy,’ says Muskravhat, stopping on his way to the downstairs kitchen to make something for the kids to eat. He’s not their father; neither is Senkajou. It’s the Shian way.

Gillespie blinks slowly. It’s taken him three months to unlearn the automatic human greeting smile.

‘How was the meeting?’

‘Most satisfactory. The British and Irish Joint Authority Directorate is prepared to recognize us as a distinct political entity and negotiate on an equal status as the main Unionist and Nationalist parties.’

‘The Chinese and the Indians’ll be wanting their own parties next.’

‘Of course. They should have had them long before we arrived, but the Unionists and Nationalists insist that there is no such thing as ethnic identities outside their own. There is no Chinese political identity. There is no Shian political identity. If we wish political representation it should be within the framework of the existing parties.’

‘You’re either a Nationalist Chinese or a Unionist Chinese. Nationalist Shian or Unionist Shian. Can’t just be Shian or Chinese, or Indian. Bastards have to divide everything between them. You’re either one or the other. Can’t be neither. Can’t be just for yourselves. That’s sitting on the fucking fence. You know why I haven’t voted in ten years? Because these wankers aren’t worth my vote. If you’re not one, then you must be the other.’

‘Neither side trusts us. The Nationalists suspect us of being planted by the British government to dilute the Catholic population; the Unionists suspect we have been settled by the Irish government to minoritize the Protestant population. The truth is that we have been settled here by both governments to introduce a third element into this country’s political dynamics. But we have land. We have space. And soon we shall have a say in how we live in this land. The real problem is not with the Unionists or the Nationalists, however, but with our own people. There is a strong tide of opinion that we should not involve ourselves in human affairs, or at least not yet. Persuading the Nations to participate as one species will be the great challenge. But that will have to wait until after the season is ended.’

Everything bows to kesh, the spring and autumn seasons. It’s less than a week now to the first moon; the Welcome Centre has been working at a soft scream, like an ant-hill doing speed. Traditionally, all affairs must be set in order before Shian culture effectively shuts down for five weeks. But there’s a more intimate urgency, an inner compulsion. Gillespie’s caught momentary electric tingles of otherness in the air; the chemicals, the pheromones, are stirring. The heat is coming. Gillespie tries to think of it like a big holiday, like Orangemen’s Day and Christmas and New Year and birthdays put end to end, and then end to end again, like summer holidays were when he was a kid. But it’s not. It’s nothing like that. It’s sex. It’s the mating season. It’s the rut. It’s the time that the Shian become alien even to themselves.

There’s an old joke. There’s some psychologist doing a sex survey. First of all he asks, how many do it three times a week? About half stick their hands up. All right, twice a week? About a third. Once a week? All the rest, except one wee old man sitting in the corner, grinning away like an eejit to himself. Once a month? the shrink asks. The wee old man just sits there, but he’s looking ever happier. Once every two months? No. The old boy’s looking ecstatic. Once every six months? Once a year? The wee man sticks his hand up. He can hardly keep himself still. ‘Why are you looking so happy?’ the shrink asks. ‘You only have sex once a year.’ ‘Yes,’ the wee man says, ‘but tonight’s the night!’

The Shian have built an entire civilization around that joke. Only it’s twice a year, and for five weeks at a time. Other times, nothing. Sexless as a nun. Sexlesser. There’re lots of old jokes about nuns and candles. Sexless as a baby. But when it’s on, it’s on.

How can they live that way?

They probably think the same about us. Neither hot nor cold, just this lukewarm half-passion, how can they live that way?

At least someone will be getting sex. For Andy Gillespie it’ll be five weeks of sitting staring out at the rain and the red brick cliff-face of the Holiday Inn with its hundred black-plumaged businessmen nesting in its eighty-pound-per-night ledges, answering the phones and saying, hello, you’re through to Andy Gillespie at the Shian Welcome Centre. Normal service has been suspended during the spring season, but if there’s any way I can help you…

‘Incidentally,’ Muskravhat adds, ‘I have had a call from a Mr Sinnot, who is the manager of McDonald’s drive-thru at Sprucefield shopping centre. Could you talk to him?’

Gillespie phones him back. Mr Sinnot’s relieved to be talking to someone with a Belfast accent, with a Belfast vocabulary to match. The Outsiders learned their English by chemical interface with the brain; they have the words but the idiom you learn from experience. It’s this Outsider employee he’s been sent. She’s refusing to follow company policy of smiling at the customers. Gillespie makes an appointment to visit and sort it out, then Seyoura puts her head around the door.

‘I have just had a call from Occasionally Plentiful Hunting; they wish to pass their thanks and congratulations to you for helping Fidikihana. You have the makings of a genro in you, Andy.’

‘Wrong species, I think.’

‘Rights are rights whatever your native species, Andy. Otherwise they are not rights at all. There is no bar to us practising your law, if we can understand this idea of law; so why should you not study ours?’

‘This is not a great country for upholding individual rights.’

‘You are making excuses, Andy. Yes. A thing. By way of thanking you for your contribution, we have arranged a small celebration later this evening, upstairs, in our apartment. We would be much honoured if you accepted this invitation.’

‘A party? For me?’

‘That’s correct. Your facial expression indicates a possible negative reaction. Have I given offence?’

‘No, I’m just surprised. I hadn’t expected this.’ Upstairs. Home. Into the fold of the Hold. Accepted. Family. ‘Thank you, I’d love to.’

‘Very good. If you wish alcohol, you should bring your own.’

Andy Gillespie catches a movement in the corner of his eye. He moves too slow: Seyamang brings down the big stack of old gold A4. Thud, wail. Seyoura consoles and licks bruises. Vrenanka’s out the back, stalking the cat from the other side of the entry.

Then it is quitting time and the kids are rounded upstairs and as he’s putting on his coat Gillespie decides that he won’t go back to the flat, he’ll grab something to eat down Botanic Avenue. On the way out the door, as he arms the alarm and waits for the confirmation message, he imagines he feels something brush past him, a touch, nothing more. Imagination. Nothing. The roofs and church spires stir the wind up to all sorts of weird things down this street.

The staff in the diner are all dressed in denim and try to move him to a smaller table in case a group comes in but Gillespie folds his arms and looks them his three-years-in-the-Maze-terrorist-related-offence look and they go and pick on someone safer. The service is fucking awful. He wasn’t going to leave a tip anyway. He plays strip-mines and slag-heaps with the sugar in the sugar bowl and decides that the music is too loud and the food is average and the serving staff are getting their own back on him, but it’s better than going back to that flat. Too many nights he sits with tinnies and Chinese and the remote control in the dark, smelly living room, looking at his pictures of Stacey and Talya on the mantelpiece. But he’s thinking about Seyoura and Muskravhat and Senkajou and Seyamang and Vrenanka Harridi, folded and curled together in their little suite of rooms upstairs.

In the bright loud eatery, Andy Gillespie thinks about families, human and Shian. There’s something great and sane to Andy Gillespie about the Hold, the amorphous social unit of the Shian species. Two or two hundred, great roofs or small, lives packed close together under them. Lives come, lives go, lives pass through, the Hold endures. Less than a marriage, more than a friendship or a club. Communal. Dirty word. Nasty word. Discredited word. We’ve forgotten how to be communal. We’ve exalted the individual over the corporate. We’re afraid of others. We are ourselves, we are independent, individual, we live our own lives and we are free. And we end up in our separate rooms with our tinnies and our takeaways and our remote controls individual and independent and apart.

A family, Andy Gillespie has concluded, is what works. A functioning arrangement. Blood is not enough.

He’s brought copies of the photographs of his daughters into his office. They sit on a shelf above the photocopier. They should get to know this new family. Maybe someday they’ll all be part of it.

The staff are cleaning his table around him now, and taking the salt and pepper away to be refilled. OK, OK, I’m going. He turns his collar up against the dark and the rain. Girl students huddle past under umbrellas; the boys in their wee bum-freezer jackets just get wet. It’s a machismo thing. The cafés and diners are bright and loud and busy.

You’d almost think you weren’t in Belfast.

Sirens. Woo-woos. Always something to bring you back. They sound close. He hates the sound of sirens. There is nothing good in them, ever.

In the offie he buys two six packs of Guinness. He’s missed the chemist by five minutes, but the all-night Spar by the station does a wide range of aspirins. It always makes him smile, the aspirin thing. What a great cheap way to get out of your head. You have to have a Shian physiology, though. They’re as knowledgeable about different brands as wine connoisseurs about clarets. There’s a new soluble aspirin-codeine out that’s the thing at the moment. Chemists can’t keep it in stock. The Spar doesn’t do it, but it’s got Junior Disprin, which is almost as sought after. Some day the pharmaceutical companies are going to wise up to this and start putting out their own designer brands. Shortly after that governments’ll be slapping tax on them.

He’ll stick to the black stuff. Each to their own poison.

He’s early so he goes the long way through student land. The old East Belfast Woodstock Road thing was that you couldn’t live over here, it was uninhabitable, it wasn’t proper Belfast. Students and Chinkies and fags and republicans lived over there. Weird Outsiders. Not real people. Now he wouldn’t live in any other part of town. He likes living among students and Chinkies and fags and republicans and weird Outsiders. They’re real. It’s the Woodstock Road, East Belfast Wee Ulster mentality that’s uninhabitable. Fake people living by fakes rules and fake principles. Fake lives. Everything sacrificed to playing the role, being the man, doing the things. Do the friends, do the family, do the wife and kids and house bit. What if it isn’t right? What if it isn’t what you want? Doesn’t matter. It’s the way. You follow it, or you don’t exist.

So, Gillespie, is being what you want to be worth the price of family, friends, wife, kids?

The question makes him falter as he comes round the corner of Wellesley Street on to University Street.

And he stops dead.

There are five police cars, one police motorbike and three ambulances outside the Shian Welcome Centre.

Those woo-woos…

There are police in yellow jackets and paramedics in green coveralls. There are people in suits and coats. Blue lights pulse; uniforms are pushing back bystanders and stringing up Police Incident: Do Not Cross tape.

Andy Gillespie starts to run. It all goes very slow. It all goes very smooth, very soft, very pure and distant. As he crosses University Street he notices how a policewoman has the traffic stopped, and that every bedroom window in the Holiday Inn is open and a salaryman is leaning out into the rain. He’s under the tape and past the uniforms. The coat and suit cops turn they’re shouting something but they’re too slow. They’ll never catch him. There’s a Shian leaning against the side of an ambulance, a blanket around his shoulders. A woman in a beige raincoat is offering him a foam styrene cup of something. The Shian is shivering.

Up the steps. Into the hall. Into the office. He’s still got the bag of Guinness cans in his left hand, the aspirins in his right. The room is full of suits in coats and baggy white bodies with rubber gloves. They turn with a communal squeak.

‘Get him out of here!’ a voice shouts.

‘I fucking work here!’ he shouts. ‘These are my friends!’

Uniforms lunge like monsters in a cheap Hammer Horror, tackle him, wrestle him back to the door. A camera flashes. By its brief light, he sees it all.

There’s one body in the middle of the room. It’s lying on its back, its hands are balled into fists, folded on its chest. He can’t tell whose body it is. It has no face. It has no head. Blood fans out from the severed neck across the carpet. Shian blood is dark as venison; it smells very strongly. There is more blood around the groin, a mess of it. The second body is against the far wall, by the fireplace, underneath the year planner. It lies in the same position as the first, it has no head. Its groin has been mutilated. The third is to the left, in the short corridor beside Gillespie’s office, lying on its back, fists on its chest, cut open below. Beyond, in the back room, are two smaller headless bodies, curled around each other.

All this he sees with absolute clarity and precision in the white lightning of the camera flash.

Detective Sergeant Roisin and Mr Michael Dunbar of Cotswold Close, Dunmurry, are celebrating the arrival of a new dining room suite. It was delivered at seventeen thirty-five by Gribben Weir Reproductions of Dunmurry Lane. It is reproduction Victorian, six fiddle-back chairs and a circular pedestal table in real, but sustainably forested, mahogany veneer, seating four, extendable to six. While manoeuvring it into the cramped dining recess of the Dunbars’ Frazer Homes C5 ‘Sittingbourne’, the delivery men contrived to put a six-inch scratch on the table top. Detective Sergeant and Mr Michael Dunbar are considerably fucked off about this. Gribben Weir have admitted liability and will send a French polisher, but the problem is whether the job will be done by the weekend when the Dunbars plan to host a dinner to baptize their new table. At present, they are sitting on their fiddle-back chairs around the scratch, which is shaped like a tick on Nike sportswear, playing Fantasy Dinner Guest League.

‘Thing is, if it’s one police, it has to be all police,’ Michael is saying.

‘No it doesn’t,’ Roisin Dunbar says. ‘You just think that my friends aren’t compatible with your friends.’

‘I thought we were talking police, not friends.’

‘There’s Darren Healey.’

‘You can’t stand him.’

‘He’s all right. He’s good crack, when he loosens up a bit. His wife’s nice.’

‘His wife’s about to give birth. Anyway, I remember you saying that he cooled off towards you when you made sergeant over him.’

‘Well then, who do you think we should have?’

‘There’re a couple of clients I’d like to invite. Potential clients.’

‘I thought we were talking friends, not clients.’

‘My clients are my friends.’

‘Who then?’

‘John and Kylie, for a start.’

‘Jesus, not them, they’ll sit around and talk about that bloody twenty-four-hour golfing range all night.’

‘That bloody twenty-four-hour golfing range’s worth five grand a year if I can steal John away from his current accountants.’

‘The idea is to have a decent dinner, couple of bottles of wine each general conviviality and crack; not discuss how home working and the information revolution can cut so many hundred a month off accountancy fees. I don’t want to talk shop the whole evening.’

‘Same goes, Rosh, for the Northern Ireland Police Service.’

‘All right, no police, no clients. Who then?’

‘Conrad and Pat.’

‘They’re gay.’

‘Things have moved on a little in this country since they chained the playground swings up on Sundays. We’re supposed to be tolerant, a multi-cultural, rainbow nation. There are aliens living down the road, for God’s sake.’

‘We’ll have Louise here.’

‘It’s not an infection, it’s not like whooping cough or meningitis. She’s not going to be scandalized or have her emergent sexuality warped. And they’re good crack.’

‘OK. Conrad and Pat. Who would go with them? What about Sean and Donna?’

‘Sean and Donna. This is going to be an alternative lifestyles evening, I can see. We’ll be the boring bourgeois farts.’

‘Next problem,’ Roisin Dunbar says. ‘What will you cook?’

At the moment Louise, aged six months and eight days, decides she’s bored with Coronation Street and starts to grizzle in her plastic baby carrier. Roisin Dunbar and Michael dive simultaneously to attend to her. Within seconds they’re disagreeing over which end of Louise is causing the distress and who’s to do the picking up and cooing and rocking thing. And that, Roisin Dunbar thinks, watching Michael jiggling his daughter and singing songs and snatches from Gilbert and Sullivan, is the un-problem underlying the trivialities of who to invite and who not to invite and what to feed them.

Babies change things. They’d warned her, she didn’t believe them. She’d thought she could be police and mother. She’d opted for the shortest maternity leave because there was promotion dangled at the other end of it, and this affirmation of her abilities would slop over into the rest of her life, turn her into wonder-mother, -wife, -supporter while Mikey got his consultancy airborne, — social Rosh, — everything. But you can’t be police and mother; you can’t be police and anything; wife, lover, supporter, friend. It won’t let you. You’re police, and you’re police.

Louise had been more than a baby. She’d been a career opportunity for both of them. Somebody had to stay at home and do the parent thing, and Mikey had wanted to get out of Renswick Bart and do it on his own, one man, one accountancy package, one Internet connection, freeing Roisin to go back to three stripes on the sleeve of her detective’s beige trench coat. Except she knows that the parent thing is more time-consuming and boring and schedule-disrupting than Mikey’s saying. Louise is sitting in her trug and waving her fists and smiling and bringing it down around him. She knows he’s lost one client because of a missed deadline. He’s never said. He never will. Like he never will say that he’s jealous she’s moving on and he’s running to stand still. Maybe not even standing still any more. Watching her pull away from him.

Jesus, Mikey. You should tell me this. Communicate with me. You spend three hundred quid a month on connecting with the infosphere through that white box on the study floor, but you won’t connect with me, for free. Or is that what you want, contact without communion? The great lie of the network age, that connection is communication.

The Communication Age is great and dandy while it’s just ourselves to talk to. Suddenly there’s another voice to answer back, and we realize we’ve never really had very much to say. What we have on show doesn’t impress them, our scrap-books and fetishes and football stickers and Star Trek collections. What we want to sell them, the trinkets and tack of our racial Home Shopping Channel, they don’t need.

It’s hard, sitting on your fiddle-backed chair at your scratched repro Victorian pedestal table in your Sittingbourne in Cotswold Close, to believe in eight million settlers from a world sixty light years away, one hundred thousand of whom are in these six wee counties of North East Ireland.

Mikey has got Louise settled. She’s going off.

And Roisin Dunbar’s mobile rings.

Mikey looks thunder at her as Louise screws up her face for the inevitable explosion.

It’s Willich. Her boss. At this time of night, this has to be big shit. It is. There’s been an incident down on University Street. A major incident. He needs everyone in CID there, now. Seems someone walked into the Shian Welcome Centre and blew five Outsiders clean away.

DCI Willich whispered the secret key of all police work to Roisin Dunbar the day she was promoted to DS. Everything is either a fucking mess, or a bloody fucking mess.

Holds good for life in general, DS Dunbar’s found.

Three ambulances, five patrol cars and a bike: this is a bloody fucking mess. Plus most of CID: she recognizes, in addition to the SOCOs’ evil little black van, Richard Crawford’s Nissan, Darren Healey’s bashed Ford, Tracey Agnew’s scarlet lady VW the ultimate girlie-mobile Ian Cochrane’s white Toyota. New alloys. Flash git.

‘Police. Let me through, please. Police.’

The crowd of gawkers parts guiltily. Bad consciences about being here at all. She notices the salarymen leaning out the windows of the Holiday Inn. One of them has a camcorder. She points him out to a uniform. The officer goes over to shout up at him to turn that bloody thing off. Old paranoias cling. In the old days, the camera could steal much more than your soul.

There’s an Outsider leaning against the side of an ambulance, shaking violently. Tracey Agnew is offering it a cup of tea and trying to coax forth information. She’s wearing aerobics gear under her raincoat.

Detective Chief Inspector Bob Willich is in the hall. He looks like cinders.

‘Bloody fucking mess, boss?’

‘Bloody fucking mess, Rosh.’

She goes into the room. Walls, ceiling, floor, things on the floor swim for a moment. She grasps the door frame, one, two, three slow, deep breaths. Steady. You’re all right.

Barbara Hendron the pathologist is crouching by the side of the first body in her scrubs and rubber. She looks up from her work, nods to Roisin. Dunbar’s never been able to see her without her imagination dressing her up in Middle European evening dress, cloak and plastic fangs. She must have seen Christopher Lee look up from a drained corpse in exactly that way, once upon a Saturday night Horror double bill. There’s a man with her, vaguely familiar; tall, tweedy, Gerry Adams beard. His hair could have been painted on with black vinyl silk.

‘Who’s this?’

‘Dr Robert Littlejohn, Department of Xenology in Queen’s,’ Barbara Hendron says, poking at something with sharp steel. ‘I called him in. I’m out of my depth here. I need someone who knows what should be where, and what shouldn’t. And he only lives around the corner.’

Dunbar knows where she knows him from. All those Outsider Specials they did on BBC Northern Ireland when we discovered we’d been volunteered to billet an entire shipload of aliens: that calm, reasonable, slightly smug voice telling us everything was going to be all right, they were just like us, really, no more different than Chinese or Indians or anything else.

Ah hah.

Dr Robert Littlejohn stands up, wipes his fingers on his green plastic pinafore, offers a hand to Roisin Dunbar.

‘You ever hear those urban legends about old Californian spinsters who shampooed their poodles and then put them in the microwave to dry?’ he says.

Ian Cochrane of the new alloy wheels looks up from what he’s doing with the computer, grins, mimes an explosion.

‘The word “maser” mean anything to anyone?’ Littlejohn asks.

Ian Cochrane frowns.

‘Maser. Microwave laser. Poodle in the microwave effect, with a vengeance. Our killer comes in, one shot.’ Littlejohn stands over the body on the floor, both hands gripping the imaginary weapon. ‘About half a megawatt in an invisible beam no wider than a thread. Totally silent, totally effective, totally untraceable. No cartridges, no powder burns, no rifling, no shell to retrieve. Water flashes to steam. Steam pressure detonates the skull. Boom! Head goes off like a hand grenade. On to the second.’ He steps to the body by the fireplace. ‘Click. Boom! Turns, takes out the third, then goes into the back to kill the kids. Two shots. Boom, boom!’

‘What about the hands?’ Dunbar asks. ‘The posture of the victims?’

‘Haven’t a clue, my dear.’

Roisin Dunbar remembers that she’d never been able to watch more than thirty seconds of Dr Robert Littlejohn. Too full of himself by half.

‘You certain it was a maser?’ Ian Cochrane asks.

‘The necks are cauterized. The intense heat seals the wound. Also, you may have noticed a damp pink haze sticking to everything. Vaporized brain.’

‘I’ve been hearing something about these Outsider weapons,’ Cochrane says. Murder isn’t his area of expertise. He’s a terrorist boy, from way back, clearing up those other leftovers from way back who have yet to learn that Joint Sovereignty is supposed to safeguard their freedoms and cultures. Old paranoias cling exceedingly tight. Old political dogmas cover petty warlordism. This is our pissing ground. Ours. Ours. ‘There’s word that the gang bosses are looking for them. They’re paying top dollar for any Outsider gadgetry they can get their hands on, if it doesn’t blow their hands right off them first.’

‘You think there could be terrorist involvement?’ Willich asks.

‘It’s a theory,’ Ian Cochrane says. He pokes at the computer. ‘Jesus, how is this thing supposed to work?’

‘You stick it up your nose,’ Littlejohn says. ‘Shian technology is largely based around information-carrying chemicals. With humans, sight is the pre-eminent sense; with the Shian, it’s smell. So, if you have to interview any Shian, don’t wear aftershave or strong perfume. It’s the equivalent of wearing a mask. Disguising your identity. Better still, get me to do it. I know these people’s languages, verbal and physical. There are gestures and expressions in human non-verbal communication that are at best insulting in Shian body language, at worst an outright challenge. You’ll be needing help with these people.’

He has just pitched for a retainer, Roisin Dunbar marvels. Five dead Outsiders at his feet, two of them kids, for God’s sake, and Dr Robert Littlejohn is pushing for a consultancy.

‘A simpler theory is that it’s some Outsider feud, one clan blowing away another,’ Roisin Dunbar says.

Littlejohn is wearing a look of superiority.

‘For a start, they aren’t clans. They’re Nations: semi-geographical social units. There are a thousand of them, most older than the pyramids. They have ancient and complex cultures; they build starships, colonize other worlds. They are not the Mafiosi. And for second, it’s physiologically impossible for a Shian to have committed these murders.’

He waits for a leading question, a How so? an Oh really? He doesn’t get one.

‘What’s the first thing you notice about the Shian? They all look the same. Boys look like girls, girls look like boys, no external gender identifiers, all the naughty bits neatly tucked away behind decorous little flaps of skin and they only pop out once the season comes. The guys can even suckle young. But this is just whitewalls and chrome fins, just trimming; where it really matters is in here.’ He waves a finger at his forehead. ‘They don’t have the strong-man, weak-woman set-up that is the absolute foundation of human society. There’s no possibility of physical strength being equated with sexual domination. They have no concept of dominance or submission, no concept of sexual violence. A male Shian hits a female, she hits him back every bit as hard. Even better, it’s all chemicals with these people. Sex is entirely moderated by chemicals; changes in daylight trigger the hormones that kick the Shian into kesh, but also, when they actually do get down to having sex with each other, it’s governed by a series of pheromones exchanged between males and females. She can’t lubricate without a male pheromone, he can’t have an erection without a female pheromone. It’s all some evolutionary adaptation to make sure that if you only have sex twice a year you’re blooming well going to conceive, but from the human point of view it makes rape impossible. They don’t even have the concept. The idea of it horrifies them. No sexual violence, no rape. Tell me, what do you see here? An entire family, murdered. Look at the way they were killed; look at the way the adults’ hands are folded; tidy. Obsessive. Ritual. Look at the way the killer mutilated the bodies.’

Barbara Hendron stands up, wipes her fingers on her plastic suit. Ten red wounds on the white vinyl.

‘The male and female sexual organs were excised immediately after death. I’d say some jagged-edged weapon. The usual hunting knife, commando knife sort of thing. You can get them in the Scout Shop. We found three piles of charred biological material underneath the window in the back room.’

‘The, ah, organs?’ Willich asks.

‘Maser set on grill for thirty seconds,’ Littlejohn says.

I really don’t like your bloodthirsty humour, Roisin Dunbar thinks. Pathologists, SOCOs, even we are allowed to make bloody jokes, because we make our livings out of this stuff and it’s how we stop it crawling into the back seats of our cars and riding home with us and creeping up the stairs to sit on our pillows at night, staring at us. But you make your living out of knowing things about people, things you’ve got out of books and off screens and from libraries, and our jokes turn sick in your mouth. In fact, Roisin Dunbar thinks, I really don’t like you at all.

‘Mutilation, ritual killing, and the clincher: the kids. Protecting the children is the primal law of Shian society. The third one there was probably on her way to the kids when the killer got her.’

‘Her?’ Dunbar asks.

‘You get to recognize the details. The point is that no Shian could have done this. Their physiology makes the kind of psychosis evident in this crime impossible. No, a human did this. A human male. A single, unattached, human male, under-socialized, bit of a loner, on the edge of society. Classic serial killer profile.’

There’s an altercation at the door. Uniforms are politely but firmly holding back a short, bulky man with a near-bald head. He is dressed in a French Nouvelle Vague leather jacket, and is wet through. He’s shouting about working here, his friends.

‘Get him out of here,’ Willich orders. The uniforms struggle him down the hall into the street. ‘Who the hell was that?’

‘Andy Gillespie,’ Littlejohn says. ‘He does work here; the Harridis took him on last November. I’ve seen him on a couple of occasions, but not socially. I don’t know exactly what it is he’s supposed to do, but he does, unfortunately, speak even more perfect Narha than I. I think he must have had access to a souljok at some time.’

‘A what?’ Willich asks.

‘An instant language chemical. I told you everything about these people is chemical; that’s how they all learned English overnight. Turn the language into tailored chemicals and snort them up your nose. I suppose if you were of a picturesque turn of mind you could think of it as a kind of super-snot.’

Ian Cochrane laughs out loud at that.

‘Cochrane, find out about this Gillespie,’ Willich says. ‘Rosh, go and talk to him. Get his story. And give him back his tinnies. What’s in the other bag?’

‘Aspirins, boss.’

Willich frowns.

‘They do it for them,’ Littlejohn says.

‘Would you mind continuing this little conversation in the hall?’ Barbara Hendron says, waving in a bag team. ‘We’re about to take them out and I wouldn’t want anything to leak or rub off on to your good coats. And you know what forensics are like if you muss up their lovely scene of crime. Pack of anal retentives, the lot of them.’

A team is on its way upstairs to break open the private quarters and pick and sniff through the furnishings of lives.

‘You recognized Gillespie,’ Willich says to Littlejohn. ‘So you knew the victims?’

‘I’d met them several times, professionally. These are not, let’s say, your average Outsiders.’

‘How not average?’

‘The Harridis are the largest and most powerful of the Shian Nations in Ireland; and the Welcome Centre Hold held the most powerful Harridis. They’d been in negotiation with the British Northern Ireland Office and the Irish Joint Sovereignty Ministry about setting up a political organization to represent all Shian. Their policy was for much closer integration between Shian and human societies, economies, political and legal systems.’

‘So the killer has knocked over the Shian equivalent of Peter Robinson, or John Hume, or McIvor Kyle? Jesus fucking Christ. This is a bloody fucking mess. The Northern Ireland Office, Dublin and the bloody Outsiders are going to be sitting on me for a quick result.’

‘Serial killers never yield a quick result.’

‘I know this, Littlejohn. What worries me is the backlash when the news gets out. And it will. I saw that wanker Fitzhugh from the Newsletter out there sniffing around like a squaddie in a brothel, and I’m sure his mates from the Telegraph and the Irish News and the Irish Times are out there keeping him company. They put it out that it’s Outsiders killed with an Outsider weapon, and it’ll be bloody Independence Day and War of the Worlds combined by morning. Look, I’m taking a risk here, but I’m putting you on the pay-roll as Outsider adviser, whatever the fuck you call it.’

‘Try “Xenological Consultant”.’

‘If I could pronounce it. I need you to run interference for us, give interviews, go on the news, tell what you told us, that it’s biologically impossible for the killer to be an Outsider. Keep the peace while we look for the real boy. Right?’

‘How much?’

Willich rolls his eyes in the way that says, there are five bodies being zipped into black butyl rubber bags in there, and a gentle dew of vaporized brain all over a late Victorian living room, and you are talking money? But before these thoughts can make it to his throat Tracey Agnew comes in to tell him what she’s got from the Outsider outside. She wraps her coat close around her very bright exercise gear.

‘His name’s Ongserrang something or other. I can’t pronounce these Outsider names. He’s in from Iceland, on his wanderjahr, you know, travelling around. He’s eleven, could you believe it? He had an appointment here this evening; the Harridis were going to fix him up with a new Hold or something, find him a place to stay the night. He’s kind of worried that he doesn’t have anywhere to stay. He turns up at the allotted time, finds the outside door open, thinks nothing of it, goes in, finds the inner door open too, thinks, what a nice trusting welcoming place that they can leave their doors unlocked with humans around, and walks into that.’

‘Do you want me to talk to him?’ Littlejohn asks. ‘He might say more in his own language.’

Willich sighs. It’s a very dry, tired sigh, like a man makes who has seen far too much of what no one should have to see, and doesn’t want to have to see any more but the world isn’t kind that way.

‘We’ll get a statement off the poor bastard in the morning. Great welcome to Ulster this is. Find him a hotel, book him in, tell him we’ll pick him up in the morning. Eleven years old. Would you send your kids off on their travels at eleven? These people.’

Now it’s Ian Cochrane. He’s looking pleased. He’s looking like a man who’s cracked it.

‘Our boy Gillespie,’ he says. ‘I managed to open the computer and get his address. I checked with our database and surprise, surprise, Mr Andy Gillespie has form. Three years in the Maze for conspiracy to murder. Interesting case; he was the driver in a botched assassination on a drugs dealer over on the Newtownards Road. Mountpottinger had been tipped off, our lads were waiting for them. You might remember it, it was the one wee Skidoo McGann got knocked over; we put Big Maun Patterson in a wheelchair.’

‘This rings a bell. It was the day the Outsiders came, wasn’t it?’

‘Didn’t even rate a line in the news. But Big Maun Patterson was Divisional Commander, Third East Belfast Battalion UVF. Our Mr Gillespie has immaculate paramilitary connections.’


‘And they found out, and he silenced them and made it look like some Outsider feud. Except he doesn’t know enough about them to know that they can’t do a thing like that, according to our friend Mr Littlejohn here. You have to admit his timing’s, shall we say, intriguing? If not him, some UVF buddy of his. Contract killing.’

‘Down to the last kid,’ Willich says. ‘Jesus.’

‘It fits,’ Cochrane says. ‘Gillespie lives alone in a flat over on Eglantine Avenue, divorced from his wife shortly after he got out, two kids wee girls; no evidence of any significant others. This is his first job since getting out. What was it you were saying, Dr Littlejohn? Single, unattached, human male, undersocialized, bit of a loner, on the edge of society? He’s got prime suspect written through like a stick of Portrush rock.’

Willich leans against the wall. He looks out at the rain. He does the sigh again.

‘Here’s what we do. Get the lads out door to door, find if anyone saw anything; there’s a bloody hotel across the street, someone must have noticed something. We go for the gun-running approach, it’s the best we’ve got so far; Andy Gillespie is our prime suspect. Littlejohn, you come with me up to the morgue; Barbara might need your expertise, I don’t think she’s ever done a post mortem on an Outsider. We’ll haul Gillespie up there with us, officially to make an identification, if he can make anything out of what’s left. Unofficially, he might let something slip. I’ll prepare a press statement; we do not, repeat, not mention the mutilation of the bodies. I want everyone to know that like they know their kids’ birthdays, all right? They don’t even whisper it in their partner’s ear in the throes of passion. Complete silence on the mutilations. Every fucking nut case from here to Timbuktu is going to come out of the woodwork claiming responsibility once the news goes out. Are we right? Cochrane, send Rosh, Agnew, Crawford, any CID you can lay your hands on, in. This is a bloody fucking mess.’

It’s not because he’s cold and wet and shocked numb that Andy Gillespie’s shivering. It’s this place, this morgue. This porcelain, these tiles; these cold cold reflections of himself, an infinite regress of pale ghosts. Everything clangs. Everything bangs. Everything echoes. And he doesn’t think he’ll ever get the stink of preservatives and cleaning fluids out of his sinuses.

The seats are bloody narrow and hard. Everything aspires to the condition of the slab here.

He knows they have suspicions about them. They’ll have checked him out. They’ll have opened up all his sins and failings and handed them round like a bad school report card amongst virgin aunts. Andy Gillespie; fucked up by thirty-five, well, that’s it. You get one shot and one shot only. Redemption? Change of life? New start? We don’t subscribe to those notions. Leopards, spots; mud, sticking; smoke, fire; those are the maxims we heed.

In his teenage years, when too many of his friends had become Christians for the same reason that other friends started smoking peer pressure he had been hauled along by some recent converts to a wee meeting. Teenage Christianity seemed to be about little else than hauling yourself from one wee meeting to another, presumably so you wouldn’t have any idle time for sinful things, like smoking. There had been a talk he’d learned there always was a talk, and a lot of singing, and not much else on the Will of God. The speaker had impressed Andy Gillespie, for he was that rarity in Christian meeting society: a man of genuine spiritual insight. Most people think of God’s will as a mountain, the speaker said; a big sharp ridge, like the side of the Matterhorn, and if you wander you will fall off and be lost, and it’s a constant struggle to stay on that sharp ridge against the gales and buffetings of the world. But God’s will is not like that at all. God’s will is a valley with many ways through it, and if you wander too wide the steepness of the way will take you back on to easier paths.

The valley and the mountain. Yeah. Andy Gillespie’s trying to live his life like a valley, following the flow down to the sea. Too many others are pushing up the side of the mountain, clinging to the sheer rocks, waiting for the slip and the big fall when the rope won’t hold them.

They think I did it. They think I blew their heads apart like a dropped egg, Muskravhat and Seyoura and Senkajou and little Seyamang and Vrenanka. They think I did that thing with the knife on their bodies. That bitch in the beige coat who didn’t say one word to me as she drove me up here; that thin bastard with the look that says I know who you are, I know what you are, that wee girl with the gym gear under her coat; that big DCI bastard who looks like a Russian president with a vodka problem; even Littlejohn, they’re waiting for that one little slip, and they’ll cut the rope.

They send the bitch in the beige coat for him.

‘Whenever you’re ready, Mr Gillespie.’

Someone has opened the big meat larders and slid them out; he’s glad of that, he doesn’t want to have to hear five sets of chromium runners squeak and clack to a halt.

‘All right?’ the pathologist woman asks. Gillespie nods. She pulls back the first sheet. Gillespie closes his eyes. It’s too close; there’s nowhere he can look away from what has been done. The dead Shian is thrusting its wounds in his face, like Jesus on a crucifix: look at me, look at what they’ve done to me.

‘Can you identify it?’ the woman asks.

The DCI and his DS and Little Miss Reebok Shorts and Littlejohn are smiling to themselves. Gillespie fixes Littlejohn’s eye. He bends to the corpse’s hand, licks the palm.

‘Senkajou Harridi.’

You’re not looking so fucking pleased with yourselves now, are you?

The Work-out Queen’s expression says she might suddenly boke.

He goes to the second trolley, licks the second corpse’s palm.

‘Seyoura Harridi.’

He doesn’t need to identify the third, but he does it anyway.

‘Muskravhat Harridi.’

To the end, then. He goes to the first of the smaller mounds of white sheeting, pulls a spider-thin arm free, presses tongue to palm.

‘Vrenanka Harridi.’

And the last.

‘Seyamang Harridi.’

Little Miss Cycle Shorts is losing her weightwatcher’s dinner in the wash-hand basin by the door.

‘Take him down to the Pass,’ the big boozy DCI says, shaking with fury and outrage. ‘There’s things we want to know from you, chummy.’

There’s a leaking sprinkler in the corridor outside Interview Room number two. Andy Gillespie can clearly hear it through the heavy wooden door. If it doesn’t keep the sound of a drip out, what hope when they start in with the riot batons? ‘Romper Room’, they used to call it. That was the good old bad old days, though. They have Amnesty International breathing garlic and macrobiotic yoghurt down their collars now; they need subtler methods. Psychological methods. Like the drip drip drip drip drip of a leaking sprinkler on the floor. Chinese water torture. And in the chair across the table from you is Dr Robert Fucking Littlejohn, xenologist. Wanker.

At least the Romper Room was quick.

‘Interview with Andrew Gillespie commenced 00:15 Tuesday March the third, 2004. DS Roisin Dunbar in attendance, also Dr Robert Littlejohn in a consultancy role.’

Down go the buttons. On goes the red record light. Same as it ever was, Andy.

‘I haven’t had my cup of tea yet. I’m gagging.’

DS Roisin Dunbar sighs. She doesn’t do it very well. Gillespie thinks about telling her this, decides against it because she does genuinely look tired, greasy, creased. Her make-up is flaking.

‘Look, Mr Gillespie, I’ve got a kiddie, a wee six-month baby. I’d kind of like to get back home to see her some time tonight.’

‘I’ve two girls myself, Stacey and Talya. I’d show you their photographs except you’ve taken my wallet. I always fancied a boy, but you get what you get, what else can you do but be happy with them?’

‘Mr Gillespie, let’s go over this one more time. You state that you left the Welcome Centre at twenty past six.’

‘I remember the time was on the alarm system. There’ve been a lot of break-ins in the offices of University Street recently; I think it was a Crime Prevention Officer from here told us we should put the alarm on even if we’re leaving the place unattached for just a wee while.’

‘But the Harridis were upstairs.’

‘Yes. I was going back there later. They’d arranged a wee hooley because I’d helped a client of theirs in the magistrate’s court. It’ll be in the court records.’

‘That’s not in question. It’s what you said you did between leaving the centre and returning there at eight thirty.’

‘I’ve told you, I went to eat at the Denim Diner on Botanic Avenue. They’ll remember me, I made a fuss about the table. I had lasagne and chips, two pints of Harp, a wodge of banoffee and a coffee. Banoffee, coffee, heh? Then I bought two six-packs of Guinness from the offie at Botanic Station the time is on the receipt then I bought soluble aspirins from the Spar on the other side of the station, the all-nighter. I don’t have the receipt for that, should I have kept it? Then, because I was early, I took a longer way back and found you guys at the Welcome Centre. You know this. This is the fourth time I’ve told you it without any self-contradictions or holes in the story.’

‘But no alibi.’

‘Do I need one?’

‘Ongserrang Huskravidi, who arrived at the Centre for a seven-thirty appointment, found both the front door and the office door open. The alarm was switched off. How do you explain that?’

‘The bodies were in the office. Maybe they’d switched it off when they came downstairs.’

‘But the outside door, Mr Gillespie?’

‘But if I did it, which you think I did, Ms Dunbar, then why the fuck did I come back with twelve cans of Guinness and a bag of aspirins?’

‘Why indeed, Mr Gillespie?’

‘Oh, for fuck’s sake! Can we have a proper police officer in here? Look, instead of trying to pin a multiple murder on me just because I’ve a bit of form and some dodgy friends in my last life, you should be using me to help you. Jesus God, there is some seriously sick fuck out there who has blown five Shian to pieces and cut them up, and you need all the help you can get because you don’t have the first clue about how to deal with Outsiders. Littlejohn here’s as much use as tits on a boar; you need someone who knows the language, who knows the people, who can work at street level. What you’re forgetting is, these weren’t just any old bunch of weird Sheenies; they gave me a chance, they trusted me, they were my friends, and I want whoever did it caught and fucked right up the ass.’

‘You use the word “fuck” very easily, very comfortably, Andy,’ Littlejohn says. ‘Fuck this, fuck that, fuck it up the ass. But there are other words you have difficulty saying. The word “mutilated”. The word “genitals”. The words “sex organs”, or “penis”, or “vagina”. Do you not feel as comfortable with those words as you do with fuck?’

‘Hey hey hey hey, what’s going on here?’

‘I’m curious about how you come to be working for the Welcome Centre. I think I can safely say that you must be the only member of your generation on the Woodstock Road that’s given up fixing cars for Shian-human mediation and translation services.’

‘Like they said about Elvis, good career move. Aren’t we supposed to be an opportunity culture, finding out wee gaps in the market, squeezing ourselves in, making money?’

‘Yes, but why this opportunity?’

- I learned the language, I wanted to do something with it, Gillespie says in Narha.

- In jail, Littlejohn replied.

- In jail, Gillespie answers.

‘Could we keep this to English, please?’ Roisin Dunbar says. The verbal warriors eyeball each other across the table.

- If Dr Littlejohn’s Narha isn’t up to it, Gillespie says in a very difficult sexual innuendo mode with phallic connotations. He repeats it for Dunbar’s benefit in cold English.

‘Your Narha is beyond reproach,’ Littlejohn says. ‘It’s your English lets you down with the odd significant slip. When you were talking about your children to Sergeant Dunbar, you said, “I always fancied a boy”. Do you?’

‘Jesus God, you think I’m one of these pervs gets off on Shian because they remind them of men, or women, or kids, or something?’

‘You’d be amazed, Mr Gillespie, the lengths paedophiles go to to get to work with children.’

‘You are trying to make me out to be something I’m not, some kind of perverted psycho killer. I work I worked with the Shian because I wanted to.’

‘Well, that’s not good enough. Why did you want to?’

‘It’s something I had to do. Something I had to put right. Something I owed them.’


Gillespie looks at the table top.


Gillespie looks at the turning spindles on the tape machine.

‘What did you owe them?’

Gillespie listens to the flat drip of water in the corridor. He won’t tell them. They can keep him here all night, as long as the law lets them hold him without charge, but he won’t tell them about the thing in the Maze. It’s his, all his. They don’t deserve to know it. This is one piece of his life he won’t let them unfold and pass around and snigger over. He sits. The tape winds. The sprinkler drips.

At last Littlejohn speaks.

‘One last thing, Andy.’

‘Don’t you ever fucking call me that. Ever.’

Littlejohn manages a sick smile. ‘If that’s what you want. Let’s go back to the trouble you had talking about the mutilation of the sex organs. Look, you’re squirming in your seat at the mention of it. Why do you find it difficult to talk about?’

‘It makes me sick, what that bastard did to them.’

‘I noticed an odd thing, did you notice it too? The children, they’d been left intact.’

‘Yes,’ Gillespie hisses. ‘I know.’

‘Don’t you think that’s strange?’

‘Yes. It’s strange.’

‘Why is it strange?’

‘You tell me.’

‘Someone comes in, blows their heads up like grenades with five maser shots, then gets out a hunting knife, goes to the bodies of the adults, cuts out the men’s penises and testicles, cuts out the female’s vagina, womb and ovaries, puts them against the wall and incinerates them with the maser, but leaves the kids. Why leave the kids? Why not cut them up, make a perfect job?’

‘Will you shut the fuck up about—’

‘About what?’

‘About fucking mutilations.’

‘Why? Why, Andy? Tell me, what is it you find so hard about this?’

‘Because they were my fucking family!’ he shouts. And he’s calm. He’s cool. He’s all right. He’s all right. ‘And I told you never, ever to call me Andy. You know why the kids weren’t cut up as well as I do. Because they weren’t adult. They weren’t mature. Hell, they didn’t even have a sex; Shian kids don’t become male or female until puberty. They’re just kids. You know that, Littlejohn.’

‘And you know it. And so, it seems, does the killer.’

The soft hum of the tape machine changes pitch as leadertape runs over the heads and the cassette comes to an end. Drip, says the sprinkler. Dunbar turns the tape over, carefully noting times and durations. They check these things rigorously in this age of Joint Authority.

‘Your work with the Welcome Centre must have brought you into contact with all aspects of Shian society in Ireland,’ Roisin Dunbar ventures.

‘What are you trying now?’ Gillespie can hear the weariness in his voice and hates it.

‘I’m sure you’d have encountered all kinds of strange Shian technology.’

‘Oh, I get it. You really should leave this to Littlejohn; he throws you a curved ball. You, straight down the middle. I can see where you’re coming from. Shian technology, meaning weapons? Like masers? Look, I do translation work, I offer a mediation service, like if some employer wants to know why his Shian staff want five weeks’ holiday, or why all the men turn funny and aggressive twice a year when they come into contact with a Shian male employee, or if some poor bastard Outsider is up in court without a fucking clue what’s going on, like I was doing this afternoon. I do know a lot of people, human and otherwise, I do have a lot of contacts; none of them are UVF, UFF, Red Hand Commando, UDA, Ulster Young Militants, Free Men of Ulster, Protestant Action Force, Militant Orange Order, which is MOO and just about the most fucking stupid name for a bunch of loyalist wankers I have ever heard. I don’t know, I don’t care. I’m done with all that. I am certainly not running Shian weapon systems to Loyalist paramilitaries. Jesus Christ, these guys are psychopaths. You want to find the killer, try them. Fucking wired to the moon on this insane Holy Ulster bullshit and Nazi Master Race stuff. They think they’re the Lost Tribe of Israel. Outsiders, Shian? They’d be queuing up to drop the gas pellets on the lot of them.’

A knock, the door opens a crack. Willich puts his head in, beckons Dunbar into the corridor with a twitch of his eyebrows.


‘It would be a hell of a lot easier without Littlejohn there. He keeps changing my tack; he goes off into all this psycho-killer profile stuff, trying to trick Gillespie into slipping up and confessing that he did it.’


‘He has a chip on his shoulder about everything. He protesteth much.’

‘His kind always do. Protesteth too much?’

‘Hard to tell. He’s as dodgy as a nine bob note, boss. But he’s not going to give us anything, even with Littlejohn rattling his cage.’

‘He give you anything on this weapon-smuggling line?’

‘He protesteth mightily much about that too. You still think it’s the way to go?’

‘It’s the best we’ve got. This is Ulster, we only have two tricks, the orange one and the green one. Even our crime has to be Unionist or Nationalist. Everywhere else has proper, ordinary murders for good, old-fashioned, classical reasons. Not this place. So why should killing a bunch of Outsiders be any different? No, we’ll go with the gun-running angle. But a wee word: don’t push Gillespie too hard. There’s a whole operation out there; if we charge him, they’ll vanish. Give him about another ten minutes, then let him go. We’ll stick twenty-four-hour surveillance on him, see where he goes, what he does, who he talks to.’

‘Who’re you getting?’

‘We’re stretched, Rosh. This kind of thing is not what the accountants want to hear about at this stage in the fiscal year.’

‘You mean me.’

‘I mean you. And Darren Healey, and Paul Connor. And I want to know everything; when he takes a shit, how many sugars he has in coffee.’

Roisin Dunbar sighs the police-mother, scratched dining table, husband’s - professional - jealousy - eight - hours - day - behind - a - wheel-watching sigh.

‘It’s a bitch,’ Willich says. ‘Remember, ten minutes, then you let him go.’

He walks off down the corridor, deftly side-stepping the puddle of water on the floor beneath the leaking sprinkler.

Andy Gillespie is watching the local television news and learning about anger. The two are related. It’s a dark, wet March night; the rain is overflowing the sagging gutter and splattering on to the coal bunker roof. Like that leaking sprinkler in the Pass. Took him all last night to get the hammer beat out of his head. The local television news is talking about the Harridi killings. It’s the lead story. It’s about the only story, now that people have stopped killing each other politically. They’re spinning it out in every direction; they’ve got half an hour to fill. They’ve got local politicians on, giving the response from their parties. The usual political suspects. There’s Peter Robinson, looking like a serial killer himself, stating that the Democratic Unionist Party has always maintained that something like this was bound to happen when an alien and hostile population is foisted upon the Unionist people of Ulster without their consent. There’s David Trimble, with that lemon-up-his-ass look on his face that seems to come with the job of Official Unionist leader, saying that this is an inevitable consequence of the politics of Joint Authority, and that no decent, law-abiding citizen can feel safe in his bed while the killer is out on the streets. There’s John Hume, looking more and more like a boozed-out poet, saying that the SDLP fully supports the efforts of the NIPS to bring the killer to justice and that he hopes that this incident has not done irreparable damage to the on-going political dialogue between the Shian Nations and the constitutional parties. There’s Wur Gerry Adams, in his Barbour waxie and cords looking like the lord of the manor, giving the Sinn Fein opinion, which is that this is a ploy by the Outsider planters on behalf of their British masters to further detract from the real issues of the six counties and destabilize Sinn Fein’s presence in the Joint Authority process. There’s M’Lord Alderdice, going love, man; peace, man; let’s all sit down together and think about this rationally and ascertain what the real problem is, not rush off at the mouth in hysterical over-reaction; as if rationality, love and peace, man, ever had anything to do with Ulster politics. And there’s Pastor McIvor Kyle, that evil little man, giving the Ulster Democratic Front position, which is that they’re all maniac pervo killers, the lot of them, and Ulster would be better off without them, and if the UDF held power, they would shove the lot of them back into their rocket ship and send them back into the sky.

What are these fucking jokers doing on my television? Talking about something they know nothing about? Something they don’t want to know about? What has this got to do with them? Anywhere else this would just be a murder. In this country, a new Sainsbury’s opens, a cat has kittens, a cow farts, and they wheel the politicians on for the Reaction of the Parties.

‘Jesus God!’ he shouts, but it’s not the politicians using five deaths to score party political coup that he’s angry at. It’s not even because the police need a name in the frame and his sounds better than anyone else’s. That’s their nature, like it’s the nature of Shian to hunt, and dogs to piss on gates, and Andy Gillespies to be suspects. He doesn’t like it, but it can’t hurt him. They’ll see that he didn’t do it, that he couldn’t have done it.

He’s angry because he’s helpless. Because five people people, not Outsiders, not planters, not aliens that were the closest thing he has to a family died while his back was turned. A moment’s inattention, a brief look away, and they died. He’s crucified himself for the wasted moments: if he’d eaten somewhere else, if he hadn’t had that fight over the table, if he hadn’t had that coffee refill. If he’d gone straight to the Spar instead of checking the pharmacy first. If he hadn’t dithered over whether to get the Guinness or the Caffrey’s. If he hadn’t decided to take the scenic route back, and been there those few minutes earlier. But he did what he did and none of it can be undone. The universe won’t give you any moments back.

He’s angry because when he got out he swore that no Outsider would ever suffer again because of anything he did or did not do. He took what he swore to the Harridis, and told them why he had come, and they accepted him and the thing he’d been given and they gave him family. And now they’re dead. Like that, too quick for his slow feelings to understand what has happened and move him into positions of shock and grief and loss. Anger, that’s all he has. Angry that they have been taken away in a moment. Angry that the police suspect him because they haven’t tried to understand what he felt for Muskravhat and Seyoura and Senkajou. Littlejohn just wanted to make it cheap and dirty, the well-thumbed page that the text book on sexual deviations falls open at. Angry because he couldn’t do anything then, angry that the police have assumed all rights to do anything now.

You have the makings of a genro in you, Andy, Seyoura had said just before the invitation to the party that never was.

Genro. No real word for it in English. Knight-advocate is the usual translation; good on the sense of valour and questing for truth and right, but it can’t catch the spirit of the Shian law it embodies; of personal right and the absolute commitment of the lawyer to defend those violated rights. A kind of loving. A marriage of client and advocate.

Rights are rights whatever your native species, she had said. They are inviolable for everyone, or they aren’t rights. You don’t have to be a Shian to practise the Shian law.

But he’s only Andy Gillespie of Hatton Drive, Woodstock Road, Belfast, ex-con, car mechanic, with a gift of tongues. He wouldn’t even know how to start.

You are making excuses, Andy, she had said, almost last of all.

Andy Hero. Knight-advocate.

At least he’ll be looking in the right directions. At least he won’t be following big smelly presumptions up his own ass. At least it’ll show the police that he wants to find out as much as they who killed them.

Where to start?

The one who found the body. Ongserrang Huskravidi.

And after that?

Make it up as you go along. It’s done you all right so far.

Then his emotions see the three bodies in the crowded front office, and the two smaller ones curled in an innocent parody of soixante-neuf in the back room, and he falls into his chair and shudders and heaves and cries out aloud in his small, smelly flat.

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