September 10, 2009

With all this talk of Railroaded and writing, I haven’t actually put any of my writing on the blog (blog posts don’t count).  All talk and no writing makes Ben a…non-writing boy.

So here’s the first chapter of my novel, Railroaded.  It’s a little over 4,000 words.

The hand of a lady, aged by time and paled by death, stood up on its own severed wrist, hermetically sealed within the vacuum of a bell jar.  Cradled in the grip of an assistant, the outstretched hand rose above the watching audience as though attracting someone’s attention with a wave.

“£18,000!”  A bidder’s voice sternly announced from one of the phones situated to one side of the auction hall.

The lifeless hand was succeeding; it was holding everyone’s attention.

“Do I hear £19,000?” demanded the auctioneer from behind his rostrum, “£18,000 is the current bid from outside the room.  Do I hear £19,000 from someone with the common decency to appear in person for such an item?”  The auctioneer scrutinises the whole room in one sweep.  Everyone keeps entirely still, ignoring itches and suppressing ticks, whilst one rookie bidder allows a tear to form through fear of blinking.

A bid leapfrogs from the back of the room, “£20,000!”

“£20,000 in the room, £20,000 is the current bid and I‘m going to move things along as we’ve got a lot to get through, by calling ‘Going once’”.  The auctioneer looks towards the phones, a man shakes his head.  “’Going twice’.  Do I hear £21,000?”  The auctioneer gives one final sweep and brings the gavel down onto the rostrum.  “Sold to the gentleman at the back!  That concludes the non-secular introductory ‘handshake’ sale of Lot 230; let’s get on with the introductions proper.  A female aged 63, mother to 1 healthy son and grandmother to 1 healthy granddaughter.  The deceased died from a brain haemorrhage two weeks ago.  Obviously she was born before genetic screening, but the best of us usually are.”  The auctioneer survey’s the room over the half-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose; a monument to such pre-screening times and a symbol of resistance to medical advancements.  “Our medical examiners have determined that she was in fine health and apart from the brain, all other body parts are in very good condition.  A synopsis of the autopsy report is in your programme notes whilst the full report has been available online for the past 5 days.  The usual caveats and terms apply.   All items sold will conform to UK regulations and are grouped together in standard units.”

Closing his notes and removing his glasses, he picks up his gavel to begin the new auction.  “That’s the legal jargon out the way; let’s get down to business ladies and gentlemen.  The next item off our list; Lot 230b the full set of phalanges from the left foot.  We already have a pre-auction bid of £5,000.  Do I hear £5,500?”

Lot 230 was Isaac Miller’s wife, Nicole.  His heart sank as he heard the description of Lot 230 read out.  Family members of the deceased are not allowed to bid, attend or even know the location of their relative’s auction but Isaac’s pharmaceutical background had left him with an intimate knowledge of the closed process and had managed to find the correct auction house.  Once you’re at the door, not many auction houses are willing to turn away potential bidders, so the checks are minimal.

Isaac felt compelled to attend the auction of his wife’s body parts; it was a way of saying goodbye for the last time.  He wanted to see who was going to bid for her, was she going to go to a good home?  These were childish and naive emotions and Isaac knew it but he felt it would help him grieve and say goodbye.  The only people authorised to purchase body parts were professional bidders from pharmaceutical corporations, insurance companies and private research organisations, so even if Isaac had put in the highest bid for his wife’s heart or liver, he wouldn’t have had the clearance to actually walk out the building with them.  The checks may not have been water tight coming in but actually getting his hands on his wife would’ve been as hard as their first date.

The pre-auction bid of £5,000 for the left phalanges remained without anyone else bidding and the auctioneer quickly ended the auction.  The bones in his wife’s left foot were worth £5,000.  Was that a good price?  Isaac had no idea.  Next up were the phalanges from the right foot, the product may have appeared the same but the auction hall came alive.  The bidding opened at £5,000, as with the left phalanges, but after 4 bids it was up to £7,000, someone then shouted £10,000.  There was some more frantic bidding before the auctioneer sold the item for a final price of £13,500.

Once the bidding had finished Isaac turned to the man on his right who had not put in a bid but was especially attentive during this last lot, “Excuse me, could you tell me why the bones on the right sold for more than the left?”

The man turned to look at Isaac with a degree of suspicion, looked around the hall and then leaned towards Isaac without taking his eyes from the front, “You serious?”

“Yes.  I, er…I’m on an employment exchange with someone, apparently he’s having a nightmare down in the labs.”  Isaac hid the lie within a smile.

The man relaxed, “Right, I’ve done that, waste of bloody time if you ask me.”  The man closed his auction programme and placed his coffee on the floor, “OK, it has nothing to do with women themselves, it’s to do with shoe manufacturers, especially in women’s fashion.  Any new shoe design has to take into account the foot of the owner, the stresses and strains that the shoes and feet will go through.  After the computer modelling and the dummy testing, the right shoe is tested with human parts before going to the final stage of live human testing.  Only the right shoe is fully tested in order to cut costs.”

“All this for a shoe?”

“All this to sell the shoe.”  The man looked down and assessed Isaac’s own footwear and rapidly moved the conversation on, “The right phalanges will do well in this lot, whereas something like her heart won’t fetch nearly as much.”

Isaac didn’t thank him for this last piece of information and turned back to watch the auctioneer continue with the next item; the tendons and muscles from both feet.  As the bidding started, Isaac’s mind drifted off into the past.  Whenever Nicole had come home from work stressed and tired, Isaac would tell her to sit down and relax whilst he draped a blanket over her, puffed up a few cushions and dimmed the lights.  After putting an old 2D film on the media console or some music, he’d then go and prepare dinner.  Those evenings alone together were often spent sitting facing each other on the sofa, legs entwined under the blanket, drinking wine, massaging each other’s feet and talking into the night.  Isaac’s analytical mind then took over as the thought of his right-hand’s superiority in strength and dexterity meant Nicole’s left foot had actually received a lifetime of better massages than the right.  Whoever bought the phalanges, muscles or tendons from her left foot was going to get a good deal.

It was not compulsory for the deceased to be auctioned off in the UK but 14 years ago in 2052 legislation was passed allowing this underground, illegal activity to become legal, public and taxed.  It apparently made sense; there was less available space to bury people, the waiting list for organ donors had virtually been eradicated, the illegal body part trade in the UK ended and it was also a financial benefit to the deceased’s family as it enabled debts to be paid off and the opportunity to pass on an inheritance.

A small religious minority objected to this new legislation but religious groups were still free to carry on their traditional burial and cremation practices.  Of course, the public had voted mainly on financial grounds; selling your body parts made a profit whilst buying a plot of land for burial or paying for carbon offsetting a cremation cost a small fortune.  The UK’s radical push for energy self-sufficiency and pre-industrialisation levels of carbon emissions some 50 years before meant new actions such as ‘The Whereafter? Initiative’ were always welcome, especially if it meant a few more pennies in the pocket too.

This added to religion’s demise in the UK and to the piety of the religious rich who were the only ones able to afford being disposed of as their various deities’s decreed.

Another unforeseen benefit of this practise was that people looked after each other with more vigour, if not for more altruistic reasons.  Children took more notice of their parent’s health, each generation taking an active interest in the health of the previous.  Financial institutions placed physical health above personal assets and projected income when taking on long term risks.  Banks lent money based on how much you were worth, every little last piece of you.

Isaac was not here to purchase any keepsakes of his late wife nor increase any bids, both of which were not unheard of.  Soon after the introduction of ‘The Whereafter? Initiative’, new laws were hastily put in place to keep an auction’s whereabouts a secret and limit attendance to bidders from approved organisations.  However, this didn’t mean the system was foolproof; the odd eccentric billionaire had formed companies upon their impending death whose sole aim was to purchase their own body at auction.  The remains were then either put into orbit as a demi-God to watch over their family or business interests, sent into deep space for aliens to somehow resurrect or embalmed somewhere as a monument to their own eccentricity.

The hammer fell to end the bidding on another item and brought Isaac back into the room.  He looked around the auction hall to see what kind of people were bidding on his wife’s body parts and the more he looked he realised that there was a much wider variety of bidders than he’d been expecting.  Isaac was no stranger to this arena, 20 years previous he was a key researcher for a pharmaceutical company and had attended a few body part auctions himself to acquire testing material.  Back then there had only been fellow researchers and insurance company representatives buying replacement parts for their customers.  Now looking around, he could tell the client base had expanded just by studying the dress code and body language of the people in the room.  Before, insurance reps mainly from a medical background and researchers stood alone, didn’t dress expensively and once the bidding for an item had finished the whole room would focus on the next item.  Now, not that Isaac was any kind of expert, but even he could tell that the men and women here were wearing exclusive outfits that would not have been affordable to those of a scientific background.  There was a lot more interaction and networking, but the standout feature of today’s auction was the amount of dealing that went on after a bid had finished. On many occasions the winner was surrounded by a small band of people, eager for further discussions and negotiations.  This place now looked like an old fashion stock market trading floor than the fairly refined and respectable place he remembered.

Feeling a little claustrophobic sitting in a small chair surrounded by such vigorous enterprise and interest in his wife’s body, an irrational pang of jealousy ripped through Isaac.  This place was playing tricks on him; he needed to snap out of it.

Isaac deemed that the terror of interacting with a stranger would help free his mind from any mental quicksand.  He turned back to the man, “My name is Isaac Miller, nice to meet you.”  Isaac tried his best to sound and act relaxed by using his coffee as a prop and conversation starter, “Did you know they sell rat’s milk in the cafe here?”

“I’m Gerard Abbot.  Yeah.  It’s not bad actually, especially when you warm it up and add a big spoon of honey.  My kids love it, they think it’ll give them whiskers and a tail, somehow they think that’s cool.  Why, you never heard of it before?”

“No, I haven’t been to a coffee shop for ages, too long by the sounds of it.  My wife made a mean cuppa at home.”  Isaac paused.  “Well, she used to.  She passed away recently.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.  Are you a religious man?”

“No, but I don’t think she’s gone far away.” Isaac looked at the auctioneer continuing the redistribution of his other half; sorting the refuse into appropriate bins to be recycled.

“How long were you married for?”

“45 years.”

“Holy shit!”  Gerard quickly excused himself and looked around to see if he’d drawn any attention, “45 years?  That’s unheard of.”  Gerard looked Isaac up and down.  Isaac could hear the cogs and pistons working overtime in Gerard’s brain, “So that makes you about 60 years old right?”

“70 actually.”

“Holy…you’re looking good for 70 Isaac if you don’t mind me saying, especially with 45 years of marriage to the same woman.” Gerard briefly relinquished his bidders mask and nodded an acknowledgement of admiration.  “You’ll have to give me your full supplement schedule.  What’s your secret?”

“Oh I don’t know, maybe…”

“Hang on, hang on!”  Interrupted Gerard suddenly, “The next item after this is my baby, I can’t miss it.”  Gerard gave the auctioneer his full attention so he didn’t miss the start of the next item. Isaac listened to the auctioneer’s enticing, rhythmic voice as it skipped and danced up the financial scale until the hammer fell and the process began again.  The pancreas had just sold for £32,000.

“That’s a really high price.”  Gerard confirmed.  “Lot 230 has a great digestive system, there’s a lot of interest.”

Isaac was never shy of complimenting his wife but that was one he’d never tried before. “Why is that?”

“It’s in really good condition; especially considering the age and the fact this person wasn’t genetically screened.  We’ve been analysing the autopsy report for the past few days and there’s some unexpected results.”  Gerard refocused himself on the auction in hand, whilst Isaac sat back and tried to gauge what conclusions Gerard and his team had come to.  Isaac knew the results would be unexpected to any research team but what did they know about the causes of those results?

“Next up we have the stomach ladies and gentlemen.”  The auctioneer stated with confident authority.  “We’ve already seen this fine digestive system sell above common expectations so I’m going to open up the bidding accordingly, £25,000.  Do I hear £25,000?”

A hand went up.  Someone else nodded.  A face on one of the large media displays at the front nodded as a green light switched on above it.  The light then went out as another hand went up at the back of the hall.  Gerard watched intensely; Isaac watched Gerard.

“The bid is £47,000.  Do I hear £48,000?”

“£50,000!” shouted Gerard.

“£50,000 is the current bid.  Do I hear £51,000?”  A hand goes up at the front of the hall.

“£55,000!”  Gerard shouted before the hand had time to come down.

“£55,000.  Do I hear £56,000?”  The auctioneer surveyed the hall, glanced at the media displays, looked down at the phones and asked again before closing the bidding, “Any improvement on £55,000?”  Satisfied there were none, the hammer fell.  Gerard looked down at his programme and made a few notes.

“Wow!”  Isaac said.  “You don’t bid cautiously do you?”

Gerard smiled, finished making his notes and turned to Isaac, “I can’t afford to go back empty handed on this one.  My superiors have given me an open credit account for this item.”

“What’s so interesting about it?” Isaac asked as nonchalant as possible.

“Isaac, forgive me, but I don’t know what you do or who you work for.  I’m not in the habit of disclosing confidential information to anyone.”  Gerard closed his programme and folded his arms to further emphasise his point.  At this moment a few pinstriped executives made their way to Gerard hoping to seal a deal, but Gerard echoed his unwillingness to barter with a firm, short shake of his head and a dismissive wave of the hand.

Isaac had been rocked by the knowledge that research teams across the country had been intensively analysing the autopsy report of his recently deceased wife.  He began to realise that he had been foolish to think that there would be no consequences for what he had been doing for the past 20 years.  His wife had obviously been affected to a greater degree than he had imagined and now her death was going to provide a clue that led to his door.  This wasn’t dead and buried; this thing had only just started.

Isaac leaned in to Gerard and whispered, “I’m sorry.  I’ve been out of this game for a long time; I shouldn’t ask so many questions.”

“What do you mean ‘you’ve been out the game’?  You mean you don’t work for anyone?”

“No.  I’m retired.”

“So what are you doing here?  Buying Birthday presents?”

Isaac smiled hoping it would infect Gerard like a yawn.  It didn’t. “No, no.  I’m just seeing how things have changed since I’ve been away.”

“So this is a fun day out for you?”

“Yeah, kind of…”  Isaac tailed off, unable to continue the lie, “No, actually, no it’s not.”

Gerard glanced at the auctioneer to keep tabs on where proceedings were and then turned back to face Isaac again, “Look I’m getting confused here.  Things aren’t adding up.  Why don’t we ‘exstrange info’ then we can see where we are.”

‘Exstrange Info’ was a term used to exchange personal information on mobile devices.  Each person would hold their mobile device close to each other; press a button at the same time for one second and all relevant information would be stored in each other’s mobile device, therefore rendering each other ‘ex-strangers’.

Isaac apologised and said he didn’t have a mobile device.

“You don’t have one?”  Gerard responded in disbelief.  “But why?  The amount it costs you can recoup in ‘data rebates’.  It’s more expensive to not have one!”

“I keep away from all those techno-shackles.”

‘Data rebates’ was an all encompassing phrase for ‘We’ll discount your bill if you let us listen, track and resell the information’.  In Isaac’s line of work, letting in a fly on the wall was not something he could allow.

Gerard gave the auctioneer another look and saw that the current bidding for the gall bladder was coming to a close.  “Look, Isaac.  I don’t wish to sound rude but I’m feeling a little uneasy here. You don’t work for anyone, you’re not buying any items and you have no mobile device.  You seem like a good guy but seriously, if you don’t let me know your story soon I’m going to have to report you to security.  How do I know you’re not a crazy pro-burial activist with explosives under your jacket?”

Concocting a lie that would last more than two minutes was not an option at this point, as Isaac had never been skilled in lies, only the truth.  So, in the truth he trusted.

“OK, OK, I’ll tell you just don’t tell security.  Lot 230?” Isaac nodded towards the auctioneer, “This very lot being auctioned now?  It’s my wife.”  Isaac looked sheepishly up at Gerard, relieved at ending the lie yet totally exposed to Gerard’s mercy.

Gerard’s face started to turn into one of shock until those cogs and pistons began working again and gradually the shock turned into a smirk.  “So this is one of those final goodbye things I sometimes read about in the tabloids?”

“I suppose” replied Isaac, deflated that a deeply held emotional drive was actually a tabloid cliché.

“How very sweet.”  Said Gerard condescendingly, “OK, let me tell you how you can be sure I’m not going to tell security or anyone about this chance little rendezvous.”


“You’re going to give me some insider information about the liver.”

The auctioneer’s hammer slammed down once again onto the rostrum as Nicole Miller was making her way, bit by bit, all over the UK helping out researchers, patients and product engineers.  The auctioneer sternly informed the hall, “Next item is the liver ladies and gentleman!  Again, in fine fettle, I’ve noticed a few people down here at the front that could do with such a superb replacement.  Let’s start the bidding at £25,000!  Do I hear £25,000?”

Whilst the opening bids were made, Gerard spoke to Isaac keeping his eyes fixed on the auctioneer, “Did she have any problems with her liver?”

“I thought you said your team had been analysing her medical and autopsy reports?”

Gerard quickly acknowledged Isaac with a sideways glance, “Just testing old man.”

A shout from the back of the room, near to where Gerard and Isaac were sitting, entered the bidding, “£45,000!”

Gerard remained cool as that bid was immediately overtaken by someone on a media display.  “Her liver is small, why is that?”

“It’s healthy, in excellent condition.” Isaac tried to change the subject.

“I know it’s healthy, but it’s small.”

“She wasn’t a drinker, only the odd glass of wine every now and then.”

“Isaac!”  Gerard forcefully whispered, “The liver is very healthy, I know.  The question is how can a liver so small appear to be so effective?  How did it get so small?”

The bidding slowed down to a point where the auctioneer gave his first indication that he was ready to sell the item.  Gerard kept the bid alive by declaring a bid of £55,000.  This short period gave Isaac an opportunity to think of a legitimate reason for his wife’s apparently small liver.  He didn’t know it was small; she had never had any liver problems that he knew about.  One of the advantages of being old and born before a time of genetic screening was that there was always a grey area you could hide any abnormalities in.

Isaac responded to Gerard, “Nicole….”

“Woo, woo, easy tiger!”  Interrupted Gerard abruptly, “Don’t go giving her a name.”

“Sorry.  Look, you know how they never bother screening us old people properly because they’re just waiting for us all to die out? She must have had a rare, genetic pre-condition that meant her liver never grew to full size.”

“No health insurance check-ups brought it up?”  Gerard asked quietly out of the side of his mouth.

“Why would they?  They only check for the obvious and the not so obvious, they don’t check for the billion-to-one shots.  They haven’t got the time nor do they want to spend the money.  You still get the odd person dying from extremely rare conditions because it’s cheaper to pay out on it than to check the whole population for yet another human frailty.”

The auctioneer confirmed to the hall that the highest bid was currently standing at £62,000 and asked for any further increases.  Gerard looked at Isaac for a moment to determine the content of his character and the validity of his words.  He knew he could never know the truth so he just concentrated on taking a mental picture of Isaac so he wouldn’t be forgotten.  Isaac returned Gerard’s stare and emptied his mind of any thoughts.  The auctioneer asked for one last bid.  They both looked at the auctioneer.

Gerard stuck his hand up, “£63,000!”

The hall looked at Gerard.  Gerard looked at the auctioneer. The auctioneer looked around the hall, “Sold to the man at the back.”  Made a few notes and then continued; “Now we move onto the last item in the digestive system…”

Gerard jotted down in his programme, waved off the approaching hoards and spoke to Isaac as he grabbed his jacket to leave, “We’re testing a new kind of dietary system, there’s only so much you can do on computers and mice.  Your wife will help many people led better and more healthy lives.”

Isaac watched Gerard walk to the exit, saying goodbye to a couple of people as he left, and gathered his thoughts.  The next item was already off and running but Isaac had lost all interest in the rest of the auction.  He realised this wasn’t the way to say goodbye to Nicole, nothing had changed, he still felt empty inside.  He didn’t want to say goodbye, which was the problem.  Why should he?  The best thing that had ever happened to him was gone; the best years of his life were behind him, what future was there to look forward to now?  He had no future, but his granddaughter had her whole life ahead of her.  If there was one thing that could bring a smile to his face now it was her.  The only reason he had to live was for her future, if he could secure something positive for her then he could say goodbye, not to Nicole but to everyone else.

Feel free to post any comments about it, good or bad!

You can read the next chapter here if you want – Chapter 2.

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