The Cretin Gene
Al Horowitz, ageing cartoonist and self-styled ninja, is catapulted from peaceful dotage to national notoriety when a dissident’s assassin disguises himself as a benign Horowitz vegetable character. Reviled in the press and hunted as a murderous agent of North Korean dictator Boh Gi Mon, Horowitz is soon on the run with his nephew ‘The Kid’, a reclusive arch-nerd geneticist, battling a plot to cretinise the populace through customised junk food additives and media programming. As the zombified masses rise in effigy-burning rage against Horowitz and his supposed fifth-columnist cadre, young lab colleague ‘Technicia’ joins the fight to save intelligent life in the UK while also juggling two male egos and her own secret of the heart.
COMING JUNE 23rd (“Independence Day”) 2018
FREE SAMPLE BELOW – first 2000 words
THE Q. CUMBER KILLING
It’s not easy for an old guy. I’m no geriatric – I can still move like ginger and strike like a ninja – but I come from a time when kids were kids, not nano-adults with pattern passwords and rights. The cartoons game seems the only way now to do anything for kids without being suspected and databased. It’s changed since I started, but I kept up. And I never went to art college so I always had work. Al Horowitz in the closing credits was a name two generations grew up with, something that brought them together: Humble Bumble, Monsieur Mongoose, Wicket the Cricket – all mine, all clean, all kind, not a zombie or a death-ray between them. So from Q. Cumber, an aristocratic old fruit in a deerstalker and monocle who yarns about his antiques to the vegetable village children, it’s fair to say I didn’t expect trouble.
I’d illustrated a spin-off book and was due at a signing the day it all began. I was lunching on a can of sardines with an episode of Top Cat – yes, I’m not married, three strikes of that and I’m out – when my phone thrummed on the sofa where I’d left it for my nap. I wiped my hands on my indoor jeans, and answered with my generic hello that be confirmed or denied as me.
“Mr. Horowitz?” The voice wasn’t old or cold enough for a bank manager or a divorce lawyer. “This is Colin from -”
“I don’t want any,” I said. “I’m broke.”
“– from the bookshop.”
“Ah, sorry. Four o’clock, I know. Don’t go to any trouble, son, just a cup of tea at the end.”
“Mr. Horowitz… Have you seen the news?”
“Never go near it,” I said. “Too depressing.”
“So you don’t know about the killing?”
I said, “That’s the idea, son.”
“No, Mr. Horowitz,” he said. “I mean the Q. Cumber killing.”
I spilled sardine oil in my crotch. SPLOSH! STINK!
“There’s a crowd outside and -” SMASH! “That was the window – don’t come here!”
He hung up. Student prank days fall in spring, not the week before Christmas. I didn’t want to turn off Top Cat but my Spidey sense said I had to. And there it was, right on the first channel: the sombre journalist outside the yellow-taped crime scene, Q. Cumber Killing on the ticker loop, the police lights flashing in the chill.
“…by a lone wolf attacker dressed as the cartoon vegetable, but yes, Jeremy, the motive remains unclear.”
I hit the channel button and got a talking head with piercings in its nose from something called Rainbow Rage.
“…the insidious, pwedatowy and pedewastic nature of this Q. Cumber chawacter defames alternative sexuality in a way widiculous and immowal in the twenty-first centuwy…”
Say that to my face and he’d be glad he had no R’s to kick. On the next was a hog-faced heavy breather woman, professor of something too long for the screen.
“The phallic symbolism of a vegetable such as a cucumber is a trope of neo-postmodernism which in a parapsychological sense affirms the innate violence of the male, and may act as a subliminal catalyst of certain mental disorders…”
I zapped her drivel but got some kind of Caliph Santa Claus.
“…must wake up to the Islamophobic agenda of this Horowitz, who force-feeds impressionable children his colonial, monocultural and materialistic values…”
The next shot was my house, with top-corner insets of Q. Cumber and me. I turned the thing off and had a cartoon vision of myself at that moment: the bulged eyes, the hands starting to shake, the zoom-in on the cold drops of sweat. I set down the sardine can and ninja’d to the window. A boy across the road was staring over with his phone held up, snapping and posting and sharing. I had to get out.
On my phone – I always forget to turn the sound back on, sometimes by accident – I found 82 missed calls, 64 texts and 20 voicemails, all journalists hoping for comment. My friends are good-time sociable types, but I needed a hideout no one came near or by. Then the cartoon light bulb flashed over my head: the Kid. Blood is thicker than water, and the Kid could come back from a year travelling the world and no one would have noticed him gone.
My old heart suffered with every ring till he answered.
I don’t love being called that by a balding nerd of thirty-four, but this time it was music.
“Kid, you’ve got to help me. I’m coming now.”
I hung up before he could argue. Win!
I fired up the radio as I drove through the falling dark. Surely one single crime in this mad world couldn’t stay news for long.
“…sensational reports in the last half hour that the victim of the so-called Q. Cumber killing was North Korean dissident Oh Bum Choon, awarded political asylum a month ago. Speculation has begun as to the connection between the killer, the cartoon’s creator Al Horowitz, and the secretive regime in the pariah Asian state under sinister dictator Boh Gi Mon. The Foreign Office has declined to comment, but the Official Secrets Act is believed to have been invoked…”
I gave my old head a shake in the hope I’d wake up. It didn’t work. One day, I told myself, I’d get top-rate after-dinner speaking engagements from all this.
I parked the ninjamobile a few doors down from the Kid’s place, cold even in my sheepskin hat under a Gotham City sky. It was the suburban semi his mother had left him – she hadn’t died, just relocated to enhance his marriage prospects – and the state of the front lawn and fence declared to all womankind Abandon Hope Ye Who Enter Here. He never knew his father so I’ve always been a kind of sensei to him – and don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of him with his science and all – but there was only so much I could do.
I darted across the icy pavement and banged his knocker – BABAMBABAMBABAM! – till the door clicked and creaked open. Where a man turns in times of trouble is a reflection on his life. The Kid, in a plaid dressing gown over a circus-tent pyjama top and a pair of Bermuda shorts, stood there looking at me with his hairy legs like a foal who’d forgotten how to stagger.
THE MAN OF SCIENCE
Upon the day of the so-called Q. Cumber Killing my whereabouts chanced to be my place of residence rather than my place of employment, videlicet, the laboratory. I was at that juncture engaged in the preparation of a paper on Genome 9X9 for publication in various scientific journals. It is my wont on such occasions to refresh myself at intervals with moderate quantities of coffee and crackers, and, during the brief preparation and consumption thereof, to peruse the internet by means of my mobile telephone. It was thus that I first became aware of the misdeed aforementioned.
My maternal uncle is a good man at heart, but my mother has always affirmed that he will, in the common parlance, come to a bad end. While he appears to suffer from no as yet clinically defined psychiatric condition, his permanent submersion in his own imagination is such as to have rendered him largely unsuccessful in confronting the responsibilities and realities of existence as an adult homo sapiens. I naturally endeavour where possible to contribute to his mental welfare; regrettably, there is of course only so much that even a man of science can accomplish.
I had not seen him since his unexpected visit on my previous birthday, upon which occasion he presented me with a T-shirt encaptioned It’s Not A Bald Spot, It’s A Solar Panel For A Sex Machine. (I suspect that he had purchased this garment for his own use but found it insufficiently accommodating of his corpulence. This is at least preferable to his thinking that I would ever don such an item, or his aiming gratuitously to ridicule my person.) No boy in childhood could have wished for a better uncle, but my ‘having some fun’, as he calls it, has long been a chronic obsession of his and sometimes takes forms I am unable to appreciate.
That it was I to whom he telephoned in his state of agitation, when I saw no practical assistance I might render, I could attribute only to our familial connection and his high regard for my intelligence. To receive him forthwith was most inconvenient but I refrained from any intimation of this and resolved not to appear inhospitable. Though the culinary arts have never been foremost among my accomplishments, I therefore washed the visitor cup and checked the coffee jar and takeaway menus before returning, pro tempore, to Genome 9X9.
Upon his arrival I deduced at once, from the empirical data of his violent knocking and of the obscenities he uttered in forcibly effecting entrance, that his state of agitation persisted.
I offered him coffee, which he accepted after ascertaining that there was at my place of residence nothing, as he put it, stronger. We sat in the living room and he spoke without rationality of his perceived predicament and need of my assistance. Concerned for his heart and blood pressure, I hypothesised that an alternative topic of conversation might exert a desirable sedative influence; taking naturally that which was uppermost in my mind, I propounded a basic framework of Genome 9X9 and its intended use in the treatment of neurocognitive deficit by rendering the cerebral cortex susceptible to radiowave stimulation.
I hereby record in the interest of science that this modus operandi proved curiously inefficacious.
UPON THINE OWN HEAD
I’ve known the Kid since he was a babe in an incubator – swart and plump and scowling like an idishe Winston Churchill – and I never thought he’d move me to violence. But when I needed him in the world of us mortals and he started blathering about his chromosomes, my shinobi self-control gave out.
“Kid!” His brown eyes saucered up at me from his chair as I shook him by his dressing gown lapels. “You see before you a man alone in an hour of peril. Terrible forces are arrayed against me. Your sensei needs you. Go to Channel 1 studios to a friend of mine, Barney Carruthers, and get him to call them off me – no more Horowitz, no more photos of me or my house, no more rentagob fatwas. Understand? He has the contacts to do that. But tell him to be careful, and don’t say where I am. We don’t know who we’re up against. You can take my pass and swipe it at the gate. I’ll write you directions and a note. Just look like you’re supposed to be there.”
He said, “But I’m not.”
“Look like it!”
It was pitiful. I’d told his mother enough times the damage she did by coddling him.
“Pretend they’re all bacteria,” I said. “You won’t even be far wrong. I’ve never asked anything of you, Kid, and you have to come through for me here. Now go and get dressed.”
I shoved him at the stairs and he clomped up, muttering formulas. I ran out and fetched from the glove compartment the pass and my idea pad, and by the time he came down I had a page of instructions ready.
“Uncle Al,” he said, scratching behind his ear the way he always does when he’s embarrassed. “I fear that trespassing and the assumption of false identities are not foremost among my accomplishments.”
“Kid, what would your mother say if she heard that?”
He winced and I thought I’d got through to him.
He said, “She’d tell you to leave me out of your mess, Uncle Al.”
“Well your mother’s not here, Kid. It’s just us men.” I took him by the shoulders and stared into his eyes. “I believe in you, Kid.”
A ninja is allowed to bend the truth in matters of life and death.
“But Uncle Al -”
“We need Carruthers. No buts, Kid.”
I marched him to the front door and he shivered in the cold blast as I opened it.
“Kid, don’t you have a hat?”
He thought about it, and scratched behind his ear.
“Probably, Uncle Al. I could go and look…”
“Just take mine.”
I pulled it down onto his head and sent him off. How was I to know? It never struck me as distinctive.