THE REVEREND COSMOS
It lay there like a jewel, bright red against the dull wooden slats of the bench. The smartphone was a very neat, all singing, all dancing, electronic dream toy. How could anyone have mislaid something that expensive? Yet hereabouts there were still many latter-day yuppies who hadn't crashed out of the scene with Lloyd's underwriters. Turbo often ambled along the Embankment, scouring it for anything they might have dropped in the throes of intoxication, or tossed carelessly into the waste bins thoughtfully provided by the City of London to catch the stubs another man would call a smoke. In a good week they could keep him in cigarettes for days. One Jack-the-lad had the habit of taking out one then throwing the rest of the packet away. Turbo didn't know why the poseur did it, but followed him to his local pub whenever he came into view - fights had broken out over the contents of their waste bins.
The young man glanced about. Nobody on the nearby restaurant's patio was watching. He ambled over and casually slumped down on the bench beside the smartphone. Employed in the only skill he had acquired during the seven years since being expelled from school, he deftly flicked the corner of his jacket over the bright red treasure before surreptitiously pushing it into an inside pocket. Had he been younger he would have gleefully snatched up the find and played with it like a trophy for all the world to see. Since then Turbo had been given too many warnings, and just spent three months on remand for handling stolen goods. The next time he was caught it would be enamel plates and slopping out for a couple of years. He was a pretty tough young man, but had learnt the hard way that being artful was worth a lot more than any teenager's display of machismo.
Just in case the phone's owner remembered where they had left it, Turbo strolled away from the terrace of chattering diners consuming things he couldn't pronounce to lean on the embankment wall where he could safely pull the phone out of his jacket. There appeared to be nothing wrong with it and there was plenty of credit. After going online and earmarking a few items on eBay, he fished in his pocket for the Tesco receipt on which he had jotted down the number of his old cellmate in Liverpool and made the call. Ken was surprised to hear from him: Telecom had disconnected his landline months ago.
After chatting for ten minutes, Turbo found a concealing nook between some bushes and steps and went on to ring a couple of friends in Ireland, the only numbers he could remember because he used them alternately in the National Lottery each week. Usually, any figure longer than his National Insurance number escaped him.
As Turbo gossiped, the paranoia that the dishonest live with intruded and he became convinced that he was being watched by somebody with binoculars on the opposite bank. All he needed at that moment was some copper who knew his face to make the reasonable assumption that he had nicked the smartphone. It was also only a matter of time before the owner missed it and had its calls stopped, so Turbo dashed home.
Turbo's dog, Psycho, hurtled up the hall as soon as his master's boot kicked open the warped front door of his mother's council flat where he had been dossing down for a few nights to avoid his landlord. She had taken off to Spain with her latest boyfriend for several weeks.
Psycho wasn't used to him returning this early and sober and rebounded from Turbo's knees before hurtling away to bark at the pigeons on the balcony instead.
Turbo microwaved the mug of tepid coffee he had forgotten to drink that morning and snatched a gulp as he hunted for the address book he had tossed into the clutter on the sideboard. As soon as it tumbled from the pirated DVDs, he started to tap out all the numbers of his mates on the red smartphone.
Although he had nothing important to say at such short notice, the young man needed to raise his profile after being without a phone for so long. He would have called his mother in Spain, but her boyfriend might have answered and there was nothing Turbo wanted to say to that wazzock.
After he had spent a couple of hours making pointless long-distance calls and purchasing as much as he could with the credit card details still logged on an Amazon account, it was almost seven o'clock. Anyone daft enough to mislay a piece of technology that expensive probably wouldn't have noticed the difference on their credit card or phone bill anyway.
Turbo stretched out on his mother's settee, now frayed by the worrying his staff terrier had given it in frustration at not being able to catch a pigeon on the balcony and, feeling tired after the most conversation he had engaged in for months, laid the smartphone on his chest.
He was also pleased with himself; by the time the owner discovered the address Amazon had forwarded the goods to, Turbo would have been well away with his ill gotten gains, leaving his mother's boyfriend as prime suspect. Anyway, whoever owned the phone would probably just take another one out of the bathroom cabinet - or wherever they kept them. A different colour for each day probably. Red must have been Friday.
Turbo groaned. Friday again. Still no date, and he would have to sell the smartphone before he could afford the price of a pint. People had been getting pickier at car boot sales since the clampdown on counterfeit goods, and the local authorities had taken to padlocking their toiletry supply stockrooms. Worse still, the tempting bottom had fallen out of the adult porn market since the perverts had muscled in. Turbo had occasionally pushed the regular stuff, videos and magazines, though didn't understand fetishism, let alone how a grown man could lust after a ten-year-old. Perhaps he was just old-fashioned and believed some forms of criminality were more criminal than others.
His dog nipped his shin as a reminder it needed a walk.
As the smartphone slid down his chest, the last thing he had taken into account happened - it played a light, catchy tune.
For several seconds Turbo watched the red device happily warbling away on his grubby T-shirt. Anyone who did not take into account that a phone could receive calls as well as make them was unlikely to see any reason for not answering one.
Turbo Gingerly lifted the phone to his ear. 'Allo?'
The voice on the other end was very sexy, somehow managing to waft female pheromones with every syllable. She was also the owner of the smartphone. Turbo nearly choked on the conflict between guilt and his libido. Was he caught red-handed, or being offered the opportunity for a chat up line? As she went on, he couldn't believe his luck. Apparently there were numbers in the phone's memory the owner of the husky tones was desperate to get back. And she would be VERY generous if Turbo returned her property.
£100 for taking a bus ride! And, from what the woman was inferring, that wasn't the only thing on offer if he played his cards right.
'Those numbers must be bloody important, luv?'
'You have no idea.'
'I'll be over right away darling.'
He immediately went online and cancelled everything he had purchased on Amazon, and then dashed back to his one room bedsit with Psycho barking at his heels for food and a decent walk.
It was some while since his girlfriend had stormed out, leaving him with her scabby cat, the only creature that could strike terror into his manic dog, so any opportunity for female interaction was all too welcome. The address of the best prospect for that he had seen in months was a good bus ride out, so he raided the gas meter tin, had a shower and his first shave in three days. Trying to emulate a young John Travolta, he put on a clean T-shirt and underpants, then his tightest jeans and leather jacket. He looked more like pizza delivery. So what, he was going to tell her that he was a bricklayer.
Turbo fed the whining Psycho and emptied half a tin of food in the tiny courtyard for the cat - if the pigeons got to it first, the manky animal could always eat a few of them instead. Just in case the landlord had heard him come in, he left through the back door to sprint for the bus.
Lakendale House was more up market than he had expected; set in its own grounds with a well lit drive guarded by two sinister stone griffins. Turbo should have sensed that there was something dodgy then and there. However, when opportunity tempts the needy libido not much else matters.
He swaggered jauntily along the drive and up the steps to the front door. There was only one light on downstairs, probably her flat. He rang the bell and a female voice purred from the porch intercom.
The door buzzed open. He entered, a rabbit too hopeful of a sexual encounter to worry about ferrets. The hall was large and the floor patterned with a Twenties style mosaic. Waiting at the door to the right of him was the most voluptuous female he had ever set eyes on. She had the contour of billowing clouds to which clung a satin gown, undulating with every movement. This woman was wishful illusion made glorious flesh. Turbo flushed with excitement as his hormones did a tango with his body's thermostat.
'Hello Turbo, my name's Penny.'
It probably wasn't. Turbo wasn't too bothered at that moment. She could have been called Boudicca for all he cared, as long as she didn't keep a double-headed axe under the bed.
Turbo suddenly became aware of what a tacky little oik he was. Her mere appearance demanded that he offer something more up front than the bulge in his jeans and open hand to receive the £100 for returning her smartphone.
'Come into the lounge. It's more comfortable there.'
Turbo should have stopped believing his luck when that antiseptic smell wafted out as she pushed the door open. Something more Debenhams than Superdrug would have been appropriate, but Turbo was so psyched up he wouldn't have recognised a bucket of Chanel No 5 if it was tossed upwind of him at that moment.
On the other side of her lounge the door to a brilliantly lit room was slightly ajar. Turbo hoped that it wasn't her bedroom. Even though she was promising pure ecstasy, he never liked doing it with a light on: apart from his developing beer gut, various parts of his anatomy were tattooed with politically incorrect iconography. The last thing he needed was his inadequate torso to be spotlighted.
He took the glass Penny offered without thinking and tossed back its contents. The drink was sweet and had a kick more powerful than the gut rot he was used to. Within minutes Turbo felt himself floating. The light grew stronger. He didn't care; he had taken a one-way ticket to heaven.
'What you think?' asked Dr Jarvis.
Dr Fensome pouted her ridiculously voluptuous lips, the result of too much do-it-yourself Botox. 'He has the same phenotype as our previous subjects.'
'I meant, do you think the therapy will work effectively this time, instead of introducing an already psychotic young man to his inner Neanderthal? The last two failures are never likely to be released from Broadmoor.'
Dr Fensome flashed a winning smile. 'This time I believe we've got the balance right.'
Dr Jarvis vigorously polished the condensation of the laboratory from his spectacles. 'Are we ready to tell the Church, though?'
His associate gave a bosomy sigh. 'We'll have to. We're taking too long to get results with this compound.'
Dr Jarvis chuckled. 'Don't worry, we know too much about the Reverend Cosmos if it doesn't work. He wouldn't dare pull our funding. Though it's just as well he only wants to accelerate the intellects of petty criminals and inject them with benign thoughts.'
'I don't know. We're having to suppress more traits than we know about. Suggestibility could be raised to a dangerous level.'
'As long as the Reverend Cosmos can put it in his church's tea urn, I don't really think he'll give a toss about any other traits. That attracts more weirdoes than a public library.'
'Weirdoes apart, don't you ever wonder what happens to all his young, able-bodied recruits?'
Dr Jarvis had tried to avoid thinking about that ever since the Reverend Cosmos started to fund their research for a permanently effective docility drug. It was true, despite the Church's recruitment drives, its numbers hadn't seemed to increase to any degree. The chemist preferred to put it down to natural drift.
He noticed that Doctor Fensome's smile had become quite sardonic. It was out of place on such a stunningly attractive face.
'What's the matter?' he asked.
'I was just beginning to appreciate the height of the ripples we made at the University. It's no wonder they sacked us.'
'Philistines. It wasn't as though we were working with embryos.'
'I wouldn't have classified those students as being on zygote level, myself. Can't understand how their parents noticed the change in their behaviour.'
'I think it was their adolescent offsprings' sudden urge to shampoo carpets and join the Moonies.'
'At least the Moonies don't claim to be recruiting for starship crews. Though the ruse does appear to attract the socially inept young men he seems most interested in. Our drug is probably providing them with the only prospect in life they're ever liable to get.'
'Well, that's one way of looking at it.'
Turbo woke up in a builder's yard somewhere off the Ball's Pond Road. As he lay in a skip filled with broken plasterboard, wood shavings and shattered bricks, he tired to recall what had happened the night before. Whatever it was, it must have been very good - or very bad.
He didn't seem to have been involved in a brawl of any description, though there were small puncture wounds on various parts of his torso. He assumed the rats must have had a go at his tattoos during the night, but been put off by his cheap aftershave. It certainly hadn't been a robbery, because someone had pushed a wad of £20 notes into his jacket pocket, though he had no idea what he had done to earn that: the police were too keen on stop and search for him to risk carrying cannabis.
Whatever had happened to Turbo, he didn't feel inordinately distressed by it, and if it happened again he would make bloody sure he remembered what it was the next time.
He was helped from the skip by a suspicious traffic warden who was only interested in petty criminals if they were double-parked somewhere. Given the tightness of his jeans, he obviously hadn't come out the night before to put his foot down on the clutch of a fast car.
After he had managed to get his legs to support him and walked a few yards, Turbo inexplicably felt a surge of euphoria. This time it wasn't sexual.
Instead of going back to the bedsit and at last paying his rent, he took a bus to the Embankment.
There he stood, allowing the Thames' breeze to waft the brick dust from his hair until the euphoria gave way to a shift in his limited perceptions. Suddenly his mind could encompass the profundities that usually made him change channels. He became aware of a huge, complex Universe he had never dared to contemplate before, waiting to be investigated and theorised over. The nearest Turbo had ever been to profound before then was in a game of trivial pursuit at the pub.
With self-awareness came the downside of reality. He was twenty-two. What had he done with his life, apart from familiarising himself with the insides of certain institutions and making himself a general nuisance when out of them? The young man was just a waste of space, worrying away at the edges of society's patience until it eventually had no other option than to put him out of sight for good.
But hey, suddenly he had a mind! Turbo had no idea where it had been hiding. His own skull wouldn't have entertained it for long without it embarrassing him, and his jeans had always been too tight to accommodate anything other than the tackle where his main interest lay. In a shudder of embarrassment, Turbo could see why his girlfriend had stormed out that evening and how his dog had a better grasp of life's priorities, even if they were mainly focused on the local butcher and nearest lamppost. Being able to see yourself for what you are, especially when you're somebody as tacky as Turbo, is an earth shattering experience.
He slumped onto a bench and gazed over to the South Bank, suddenly realising that the old power station was now an art gallery - AND HE WANTED TO VISIT IT!
When he arrived back at his bedsit and switched the kettle on to make a much-needed cup of coffee, he noticed something lying in the courtyard. Whoever managed to toss it there must have had a good aim. Before he could retrieve the letter, Psycho dashed out and seized it. By the time he retrieved the envelope it was in shreds. Fortunately the leaflet inside it was relatively intact. Turbo opened it and read several paragraphs extolling the virtues of a bright new church that claimed to have a direct line to The Maker in the stars. The Reverend Cosmos explained that he was the sole recruiting agent for humans who wanted to sail the heavens in starships controlled with nothing but thought. All new members were guaranteed an encounter with the wonders of the Universe as free spirits - free of humdrum reality, free of fleshly thoughts.
And free of flesh!
All it required was a phone call and overwhelming commitment. As Telecom had disconnected Turbo, he took the wad of £20 notes from his jacket pocket and dashed out to buy a mobile phone.
He was going to visit the stars.
Conan Slater sidled over towards the bench where the bright red smartphone lay. He surreptitiously positioned himself beside it and glanced about to make sure he wasn't being watched.