plague

…a disease which has spread over a large area     

There was no doubt in Smith’s mind, nor did there, outside of his mind, as far as Smith was concerned, reside the least hint of doubt. Doubt can’t exist outside of a mind, therefore it couldn’t be doubted. Of that there was no doubt. Doubt is born of doubt, and without doubt no doubt can take root; not taking root, nor can it grow; not growing, doubt would never blossom. It is what is the case. It is the case that there is no doubt. And thus assuring himself, Smith set about informing anybody else and everybody else of the indubitable facts of the case which was most definitely the case.

“The police have flatly refused to tell me who was in the cell next to mine.” Smith laid out his irrefutable evidence. “They even refused to tell me whether it was occupied or not. Need I say more?”

Henry and Oscar tried to busy themselves with their own thoughts, but were having little success.

Of the two, Oscar was far more open to Smith’s theories, having taken a vow of sincerity, not simply to be sincere, but to exist in a sea of sincerity, to breathe sincerity in and out, to burn with sincerity, such that anything he came across was automatically imbued with sincerity, and anything he was involved in, was subjected to, or was a witness to, was instilled with a gravity he would previously have only assigned to his own hunger, thirst and sexual urges. Oscar was to be a serious player in the world as given credence to by other people.

“It’s not that I have theories,” Smith had told him. “It’s theory singular. It’s not a whole load of different theories. I have one view of reality. A coherent view of reality. Because reality is, by definition, both coherent and one.

“But it is a theory?” Henry had asked.

“Not in the sense that there is a possibility that it’s wrong. Only in the sense that it could be right.”

Henry was assigned the financial district, Oscar the Northern Quarter of town. Smith himself would search through the central shopping streets.

“What makes you think he’ll be out in town?” Henry asked.

Smith shook his head in disbelief. “This man will stop at nothing… nothing!”

Henry nodded. Oscar nodded.

Smith distributed photocopied maps with each of their sectors coloured in. Oscar’s sector was coloured in with yellow highlighter pen, Henry’s with green, his own with pink.

“Once you have covered your areas street by street don’t stray outside them. That will spread us too thin. The green sector alone has twenty-three streets. Walking quickly, at say one mile every ten minutes, it will take you over an hour to cover the sector. Then you have to start again, following the same pattern in order to have a consistent chance of spotting him. Do not deviate from the pattern – we’ll do four sweeps.”

“That’s four hours of walking up and down streets!” Henry wasn’t happy with the arrangements.

“We have no other choice.” Smith’s assertion had the tone and volume of absolute faith.

When Henry caught out Oscar’s eyes he didn’t get the expected look of tired irony. This threw him, so he didn’t question Smith’s assertion.

“Now – check your mobiles. We check in every fifteen minutes, on the quarter of each hour. The only other call we’ll make will be if we spot him. We each have a picture of the perpetrator – remind yourself of his essential features every five to ten minutes.”

Oscar and Henry took this opportunity to remind themselves of the photocopied sketch, drawn in Smith’s own hand, of the odd appearance of the perpetrator. His hairline was a blunt and jagged line far back on his head. His glasses were round and heavy – framing very intricately drawn eyes, the pupils of which were pointing in different directions. His nose was nothing but a faint line, his beard was the most prominent and deeply shaded feature on his face – it was a carefully shaped black figure, neatly surrounding his mouth and perfectly white patches of featureless skin, like upside down Arabic script.

Beneath the sketch were the following words:

The Perpetrator

He walks with a faint swaying motion. His head swings from side to side. When he stops, as he frequently does, in order to assess his surroundings, his head extends forwards from his body and turns in a jerky and erratic manner. His build is slight. He may be carrying a rucksack, suitcase or any other type of carrying paraphernalia.

“When you see him…”

“If…” Henry felt obliged to put in.

“… do not approach him. Follow him inconspicuously from a distance of at least twenty metres and call me, reporting his position and heading. He is most likely dangerous. We don’t know what this man is capable of – but he is capable of something.”

Henry walked around the nearest corner and went home.

Oscar walked determinedly to the Northern Quarter, intent on playing a central role in this drama, even if it did drag on for the whole day, even if it wasn’t a drama, even if it made no sense, even if it killed him. It could kill him? Oscar began to appreciate the seriousness of the situation.

Smith approached the task at hand in as methodical a manner as he could think up. He walked down the left side of every street, stopping for one minute at each intersection and looking down each street for a length of time in proportion to the size and intricacy of the picture it presented. He looked down an alleyway for merely ten seconds, a small side street for half a minute, and down a main street, such as Cross Street, for almost five minutes. However when he came to Piccadilly Gardens, the size of the picture was so great and its intricacy was such, that he found himself standing looking out at it from the street corner on which he stood for well past ten minutes.

When he had exhausted a proportional amount of time, Smith realised that the picture Piccadilly Gardens presented to him had completely changed in the eighteen minutes he had been standing there. What was now spread out before him was a completely different picture, a new Piccadilly Gardens, adorned with different buses, taxis, people, shopping bags, trams, opened newspapers, pigeons, litter, prospective perpetrators and everything else. Smith realised that he could stand there forever and be constantly presented with a different picture, a new puzzle, a completely altered vista of which the perpetrator would only be a small part. It was whilst disentangling these thoughts that his phone rang. It was Oscar. There had been a sighting.

The perpetrator was walking quickly up Rochdale Road when Smith had caught up with Oscar. There was no response from Henry. It was just the two of them.

It was getting dark by now, so Smith had to rely on Oscar’s initial view of the perpetrator’s facial features: “It’s definitely him.” Also, the manner in which the man swayed as he walked backed up Oscar’s sighting, strengthening in Smith’s mind the certainty that he had his man.

By the time, twenty minutes later, the figure turned off the main road and walked up to the entrance of a block of council flats, the certainty in Smith’s mind was so certain, so sure, so definite, so unquestionable, so everything, he broke out into a sprint, and was filled with the intention of stopping this man with the full force of his law. He managed to grab the front door of the flats before it shut. He disappeared inside.

By the time Oscar arrived, Smith had reappeared outside the building. The paleness of his face was clearly caught out by the dim yellow streetlights. He was holding the back of his head with one hand and his ribs with the other. He was slightly bent over. He let out brief spurts of breath. He didn’t speak when Oscar caught his eyes. It was only as they approached home that Smith could speak of “the next step”. 

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