Paul JohnstonPaul Johnston
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The House of Dust
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The House of Dust


Life goes by like a dream. The nightmare only begins when your brain slips out of gear and you realise that everything is turning to dust.

I can remember when spring was a non-event in Edinburgh. We used to go straight from the damp chill of winter to summer's deceitful blue skies, and the wind's well-honed knives never took more than a day off at a time. Things are different now. April 2028 was even warmer than previous years. People started parading around in clothing that revealed far too much, juxtaposing the skin and bone of undernourished locals with tourist flab. In June the Big Heat that results from global warming would kick in and the city would turn into a giant Turkish bath, though not in the air-conditioned hotels occupied by our honoured guests.

Except, come June, the tour companies might well have voted with their feet and left us to enjoy the sweat season on our own. The ruling Council of City Guardians has been losing the fight against the youth gangs in the suburbs for over a year. These days groups of Edinburgh's generation excess even mount raids into the central zone, divesting foreigners of currency, clothing and consciousness - not necessarily in that order. The headbangers in the City Guard, no strangers to extreme violence themselves, have had more than their hands full.

Which is why the guardians, fearful that their main source of income is about to go drier than the Water of Leith in August, have been working on a plan to put even more of a squeeze on their subjects. The appearance of the first swallows - they arrive earlier every year - coincided with the completion of the city's new corrective facility: it was intended to turn the Council's "perfect city" into a fully operational prison-state. Personally I've never been a supporter of banging people up, but no one asked my opinion. After all, I'm only an investigator. What do I know about crime and the causes of crime?

So every night the city resounds to the frantic rush of youthful feet and the slap of truncheons on flesh. Special squads of extra-hefty guardsmen and women were formed to deal with the gangs late last year, but the so-called "beaters" end up beaten more often than not.

The problem for me in recent months has been one of commitment. When I was a kid I loved Edinburgh for its breathtaking vistas and its glorious if blood-lathered history. Even after my home city set itself up as an independent state twenty-five years ago, I stayed on the scene. The Council's extreme policies were better than the mayhem we'd lived through when the UK was ripped to pieces in the drugs wars, and its high-minded Platonic ideals at least meant that people were treated with a reasonable degree of fairness. But I've had about as much as I can take of the present regime's iron fist. I've even been considering slipping over the border and heading for Glasgow - at least there's a semblance of democracy there.
To hell with spring. I go along with Merline Johnson. Back in the 1930s she sang about the blues being everywhere. I've always had a tendency to pessimism, but it took the fatal shooting of a guardian and a journey to the underworld to make me realise just how right the old diva was.

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