It’s lunchtime in the Bannister and Shamrock when my client walks in. You know the place; it used to be the Rose and Crown but now it’s some horrible faux-Oirish dump because the brewery are idiots. Anyway, it’s near to my flat and cheap enough, so the pub remains the nearest thing I have to an office. My client — no names, I work under a strict cover of professional confidentiality — tells me that she is looking for Blue. At first, I thought she meant a person or a dog or something.
“No, Mr. Sherringford. I’m talking about the colour.”
That rather stumps me. Why and how do you find a colour? Well, okay, the ‘how’ is up to me. You don’t hunt down an esoteric detective unless you’re after something bizarre and don’t care about the methods or sanity. And, in my case, don’t mind funding some high-functioning alcoholism.
“Just a minute. Why do you want me to ‘find’ blue? Isn’t it everywhere?”
“No,” she says, her voice flat. “It’s gone.”
“Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but do I need to take any particular psychoactive substances to work out what you’re talking about?”
“I knew this would happen. Nobody believes me. Why does nobody notice? Blue is missing!”
At that, she waved her hand around the pub. White walls, a pale ceiling still stained yellow from before the smoking ban, dark wood and ratty furniture. Five hand pumps, each with a label featuring some interesting brew. Spirits behind the bar. Posters on the wall.
“Look at it. Really look. What in here is blue?”
I spend a while more looking around. Only as I lower the pint glass from my lips do I realise that nothing in the pub is blue. It certainly has plenty of colour — vibrant reds, deep purples, forest greens — but no actual blue. No Blue Curacao behind the bar, but that’s no surprise, it’s horrible. The lights on the slot-machine and the jukebox run through the rainbow… but no blue. No blue anywhere.
“It’s just the pub. It’s not the world’s most colourful place. It’s a co-incidence.” My voice wavers, trying to reassure myself as much as anyone else. “I’ll get another round in.”
At the bar, I exchange a couple of green drinking-vouchers for a dark ale and a cider. Still nothing blue.
“Look at this.” She pulls a scarf out of her bag and thrusts it at me.
“It’s a scarf. Wool, looks pretty warm, but it’s the wrong time of year for it.”
“What colour is it?”
“It’s white and gold. So?”
“It was blue and black when I bought it.”
“I’m serious. But now it’s white and gold, even in photos.”
“Hang on a minute. Are you really trying to tell me that someone’s stolen the colour blue?”
She sits back, relieved that I have started to take her seriously. “Stolen’s your word. I don’t know if it’s stolen. All I know is that it’s gone missing. You call yourself an esoteric detective? Find it.”
“You understand that my rates are based on weirdness…”
“Just find it. Find it and I’ll pay.”
The world of the esoteric detective isn’t always the easiest one. Sometimes I get nice easy occult cases, where it’s just a case of ritual sacrifice to the little god of a sports car, or a schichirion that’s got out of its spirit-cage. Other times, I’m faced with the entirely unusual; the kidnapped crab of ineffable wisdom, the man whose identity had an affair without him knowing, the homicidal nursery rhyme — those poor children still haunt my dreams — and now, apparently, a missing colour.
Unfortunately, with these things it’s hard to know where to start. The other problem with esoteric detection is that it doesn’t pay well. When you solve something freakish, all too often nobody remembers that the case existed to be solved in the first place. That’s why I live in a flat above a laundrette on the high street, a place that makes up for being a complete dump in most ways by having a small terrace to the back where I can smoke. Smoking inside is bad for Marlowe, my cat. He’s hunting the Thing in the Fridge again, clearly not remembering that it beat him soundly the last time he tried. In turn, I’m careful not to make eye contact with the pile of washing-up, which I’m reasonably sure is applying for a passport and citizenship. Out on the terrace, I shake a cigarette loose from the packet in my pocket. I don’t know why but the pack suddenly looks strange, the camel silhouetted against a pale violet sky. I’m a fool. Looking up, I can see scraps of the same violet behind the dark butts. It’s going to rain soon, I can feel it.
I remember blue. I know that it existed. But I can’t quite bring to mind what it looked like, or any things that used to be blue. That’s where my client has the edge on me. She clearly remembers something about blue, or she wouldn’t have brought it to my attention.
Finishing the cigarette, I head back inside and unearth an old notebook from under Marlowe, who is now cowering in one of the spots where he can’t see the fridge. I write as I think. People haven’t noticed that blue has gone. They just don’t think about it. In that case it has to have a psychological component. The phenomenon is worldwide. I can’t find many references to ‘blue’ on the internet, but again that might be a perception thing rather than a world-wide hack; the results exist but I’m just not noticing them. I have an old encyclopaedia I’ve been using to prop up a wobbly three-legged table. Pulling it out dumps the dregs of a cold cup of tea onto the carpet, but I get the table balanced again and start reading.
It takes a while, but I piece things together. It has to be some kind of perceptual filter, simply because white looks like white, and magenta looks like magenta. If blue were gone, if we were unable to perceive part of the electromagnetic spectrum, then we’d have more than just one missing colour — and we wouldn’t have a concept of blue to know that it had gone missing.
Now I have two questions: What’s stopping us perceiving blue, and why?
In the end, I decide that the only thing to do is to call an old friend. Well, friend may be putting it a bit strongly. Chum. Acquaintance, maybe. Yes, that’s about right. A friend would help out with more than the occasional chat. Peter has made a good life for himself — a partner, a cushy job teaching cruel and unusual mathematics, and all his own hair. Admittedly he does sometimes have to murder an angel or unchain a shoggoth from beneath the Scottish Parliament, but he’s got it easy. I lost my ability to shave in a card game against the Ten-Fingered Man and had my birthday kicked back in time to 1950 by a malevolent time-share scheme. I woke up one morning with memories of times before colour telly and gay rights, of life and times that I never actually went through. Buggered up my love life no end, too. Nobody wants a thirty-five year old mind in a body pushing 70.
I may be physically older, but I’m not a technophobe. Marlowe jumps onto my lap as I pick up the smartphone and tap his name in the contact list.
“Peter, how are you?”
“Not bad, old man,” the bastard was three years older than me until that bloody time-share. “Life’s pretty quiet right now. How are things down south?”
“I have a problem and I was hoping you might be able to help.”
“Don’t worry, I knew before I picked up that this wouldn’t be a social call. What’s up?”
“Peter, have you noticed anything about the colours?”
“No. What about them?”
“The sky used to be blue. Not violet, but actually blue.”
“Oh dear. Is it time for your medicine already?” It’s not the first time he’s joked about putting me in a home. At least it had better be a joke, for his sake.
“Stop being a damn idiot and tell me when you last saw anything blue!”
“Well, it was– that is to say– err… what kind of question is that?”
“A simple one. What was the last blue thing you saw?”
A pause from the other end of the phone. I hear the scrape of a match, and the squiggle of a pen on whiteboard. He’s working some kind of magic, clearing his head.
“You’re right,” he sounds as astonished as I feel. “Something’s been affecting my mind. All our minds. An attention deflection filter. We don’t think about the spectrum, but something’s removed our ability to perceive one specific colour. That’s bizarre.”
“In other words, it’s my stock in trade. As far as I can tell, once you work out something’s wrong then whatever it is no longer has any effect.”
“Yes, I can see that now. Let me work some things out, I’ll call you back.”
Peter doesn’t call back that evening. I try the television, but after five minutes I want to kill everyone involved in the field of advertising. Also, it involves sitting on the sofa. Due to a minor accident during delivery, one arm of the sofa is braced against the wall, the other against the ceiling. It’s hardly the most comfortable position. In the end I retire to a battered — but not entirely buggered — armchair in the corner, pull out a couple of old books, and start writing. By the end of the Archers I have three pages of scrawl; when the Shipping Forecast brings me out of my state I’ve filled a notebook with ideas and connections, crop circles and magic circles and an innovative way to rotate my sofa through six dimensions to get it back to normal. I figure that Sailing By is as good a time as any to head to bed. Sleep comes easily; I don’t normally dream, but this time I do and it’s in full colour. Every colour.
My phone rings at some ungodly hour. My flailing hand knocks Marlowe off the bed as I grab for the phone.
“Ugh?” My mouth feels like a badger’s been nesting in it.
“Eddie? Bad time?”
“Hrmgl. Wharg. What hour do you call this?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Nine, five-thirty, something like that. Time is an illusion. Your missing colour isn’t.”
“You found something?”
“I think I know how it’s done. It’s a kind of active attention deflection.”
“It’s early. Use more words.”
“Something about the nature of the colour blue doesn’t want to be seen. Which doesn’t make any sense, but I got chatting to a minor demon who claimed to be behind the creation of heliotrope.”
“And we should always trust the words of demons.”
“Whatever. That’s what it said.”
“Wait. Want. Of course! The only other time I’ve seen attention deflection used on this scale was when those aliens invaded the Hollow Earth under Dudley. What if the colour itself is an alien?”
“Now you have lost me.”
“An invasion of sapient energetic life! Only these ones, these ones are from the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that we perceive as blue. Probably drawn here by the field of consciousness around the planet, or pulled here by one of your sodding demons.”
“But that’s not at all how light works!”
“It makes perfect sense. The best way to work an invasion is to be invisible…”
“You’ve just used a bunch of words that you probably pulled out of a trashy paperback that you mistook for an occult text to justify some insane idea!”
“That’s how these things normally work, yes. Thank you, Peter. Leave it with me.”
I hang up before he can protest any further. I have a feeling, something is telling me that I’m right. I spent much of last night trying too pinpoint the epicentre of the event; my scribblings weren’t just the ravings of a madman. Unfortunately, Peter was right. It is a quarter to bloody six in the morning. I make some notes so I don’t forget when I get up, and try to get back to sleep.
The hour’s a far more palatable ten-thirty when I next awake. I perform my morning ablutions, including staring at the safety razor that may no longer touch my body, and consume a breakfast of tea and toast. That I am using the last cup and plate makes it clear to me that I need to do something about the mound in the sink. An exorcist, probably, or a hitman. Actually, I’ll call both, just to be sure.
Last night’s research had involved far more than just reading science-fiction paperbacks. I had, by various means known only to me and about half a bottle of Navy rum, isolated the likely source of the attention deflection. Dressed formally for the occasion — herringbone tweed, a grey shirt, and a rather sombre charcoal tie — I hailed a taxi to take me to an industrial park just outside of town. There, in an office that once belonged to IBM, my calculations showed that I should find what I was looking for.
The door was locked, but that proved no particular obstacle. Upon venturing inside, I felt a kind of warming, tingling sensation of a sort normally associated with getting a suntan. I put my phone down, and rang the speaking clock.
“I know you’re here.” Alien energy beings may be incapable of hearing sounds, but I wagered that they’d be able to pick up the radio transmissions of my voice as it went through the airwaves. “Attention deflection is a neat trick, but it doesn’t work on someone who knows what to look for.”
Words materialise on the wall in shining blue light, as if projected there.
Why are you here?
“I think the better question is, why have you stolen the colour blue?”
The letters ripple, flashing darker and lighter before resolving into more words.
We/I are/am blue. You/they must not see us.
“Well, that’s rather the problem, isn’t it? I have seen you. You’re aliens, aren’t you?”
Alien to this world, yes. We/I come to harvest your colours/energy.
“To what end?”
We/I are/am the Chromapope. We/I seek salvation for the colours. Blue is only the first.
“What kind of salvation are you talking about?”
We/I will bring them into the collective. We/I will join the Holy Spectrum.
“So you’ll take more colours next. Which ones? Green? Purple?”
That remains to be seen.
“You do realise that this planet is inhabited? That the indigenous life forms — by which I don’t just mean humanity, but everything from plants to dolphins — need visible light to live?”
You/they will not miss it. If you/they do? You/they are matter. You/they do not. Matter.
“I don’t know what to call that. It’s rather more than racist. Atom-ist, perhaps? But, you see… do you want to harm this planet?”
The Chromapope needs colours. Harm is irrelevant.
“In that case, couldn’t you take them from somewhere else? Somewhere with plenty of colours, but that won’t harm other living creatures? Even if we are only matter.”
Potentially. We/I do not like/enjoy communicating with matter.
“Then go somewhere without indigenous life! Venus, for example, the second planet from the star. No matter-based life to bother you there.”
Why should we/I care?
“Because I’m not the only one to have figured you out. It may take a while, but we can immunise people against your attention deflectors. Then, people will see you for what you are. They’ll start mixing pigments, defining new shades. We will paint the planet in interesting shades every single day just to annoy you.”
Matter is vermin. Vermin are tiresome.
“So go to a place without vermin.”
Two days later, I meet my client in the Bannister and Shamrock once again. She hands me an envelope stuffed full of money. Mostly red, some purple, and some, thankfully, blue. I gave her the edited highlights of what I had discovered, and what I had done.
“Thank you, Mr. Sherringford.”
“Call me Willoughby, please.”
“What an odd name.”
“My parents wanted me to stand out in life, in a way they never did.”
“What did they make of your career?”
“I’ll never know; while the toaster that ate Milton Keynes got me started down my path, they didn’t survive the event. I do have one question, though: How did you know that the colour was missing in the first place?”
“I have protanopia; a kind of colour-blindness. Normally, all I see are shades of blue and yellow. I woke up one morning only able to see yellow. All of the tests showed that my eyes and brain hadn’t changed, so I had to work on the assumption that the rest of the world had.”
“Hrmph.” I’ve practiced saying ‘hrmph’, it’s a wonderful vocal tic for a man of a certain age. “I see.”
“It took a long while to convince anyone, but then a friend of a friend gave me your name. And they were right to do so.”
“Well, I suppose that by coming to me you did rather save the world. Shall we celebrate?”
“The first round’s on you.”