Del Mutatis (whose dad was indeed a Latvian immigrant called Mutandis and well known around the bookie houses of Upland City) was the first to spot the tram as it whistle-shrieked its way into her street. She was sitting in the window plucking chords on her favourite guitar when the weird sounds started. Surely, she thought, this is a new low even for Mikey, the tenant of the front bedroom and therefore just above the living room. This is not even his kind of plinky-plonky music and he is a guy who listens to Orbital, Future Sound of London, Jan Garbarek and so on. Never trust a guy who only likes ambient and neo-classical, he used to say. She trusted him though, just that she thought he hadn't evolved to whistles and shrieks.
No, it was a tram, a tram that pounded and grounded and lurched into hissing view, its rear car swinging wildly as it ramped along the barely-used track. In winter the track was used by municipal vehicles and in the other seasons it was the haunt of local youths who organised time trials in cunning hand-operated railcarts. The swagger of a boy who'd just won a railcart race was, after all, preferable to that of a violent youth hanging around and taking drugs; the races were if not strictly legal at least encouraged. It was a bit early in the day for them, though, even if today wasn't a school day (tacit local understanding was that once you left school, you stopped railcart racing; it was for kids and left to them, its champions invariably between the ages of 16 and 18, mostly boys but not only and a definite culture of encouraging girls to participate had grown up. There were even second-generation carters now whose youthful parents had met via the sport).
The tram drew up and disgorged its sole remaining occupant, a dazed-looking man in a blue shirt and jacket and dark grey jeans and bicoloured (blue and white) loafers, not exactly dressed for the time or the place. He carried a rucksack, probably a 25 or 30-litre job, Del thought. He looked like a man on the run; but not, she thought, from something bad he had done; victim, not assailant. In those moments Del Mutatis had stopped being a composer and reverted to the criminologist she was in her daily life. To protect and serve, as the police had it; the question was, are you protecting in this case or protecting from. She was fully aware that very often people thought a certain individual needed protecting from when in fact they were vulnerable themselves. Certain cases of mental illness and distress looked like criminality but, apart from a tendency to breach of the peace, weren't. Criminality required a certain low cunning not dissimilar to the ability to make money and apart from a lack of altruism or empathy, was not really linked to psychological state.
A man in early middle age, travelling alone; some might have flagged up screaming warnings at the very concept. But why? All you had was (i) male and (ii) aged 35-45 and (iii) on his own. Why, she wondered, are we so afraid? Sam Weaver, her second housemate, had once confided in her that most men are (also) terrified much of the time. Fear not so much of sexual assault but of violent assault in general; mugging, random attack, and so on. Men, he reminded her, do not care for other men. They undermine, attack, and even kill them. Not all men, but some. Sam was a police officer proper, a sergeant in Upland's usually and happily underemployed force, and she suspected he knew of what he spoke.
She put down the guitar and left the house. The man was still standing in the middle of the road.
"Good morning," she said, hoping he spoke the language. "Can I help you?"
"Good morning," he said. "The tram just ... dropped me here. I'm sorry, I'm looking for a place to stay. Do you know anywhere around here? My name is Blue Markinnson."
He looked fearful as he said this, as though doubting whether he should have given his name.
"I'm Del," she said. "I'm afraid there isn't a hotel here, I don't know why the tram dropped you. But if you come in I can give you some coffee."
"That would be very kind," said Blue.
The new arrival was very much impressed by the house.
"I just had a small flat," he said, "in the city. Previously shared it with my wife and our co-husband." He looked sad and fearful. "They were ... not nice."
'Not nice' is probably putting it mildly, Del thought.
"They'd already left though," he said. "I had to leave for other reasons. Quite legal," he added. She nodded. They were sitting in the garden bower, an area attached to the back of the house and covered by a simple canopy. The garden sloped up gently to an end fence beyond which the sub-tundra vegetation of Upland sloped gradually upward. Further up there was not even any vegetation. Del liked to run up there in summer; but now winter was coming on and she was in the garden chatting to someone who had to all intents and purposes fallen off a tram.
Mikey wandered down from his bedroom and came out back, shook the newcomer by the hand and listened politely as Blue continued his story, not that there was much to tell any more. The tram journey, the flying cat.
"Ah," Del said. "Aerial cats. Yes. They're technically forbidden here as spyware, but you never know, do you? I mean, they just fly in. Cats can't read, although I do wonder with these ones."
There was a mechanical droning as if on time and a twin-engined aircraft passed nearly overhead.
"Cargo plane," Mikey said. "It's the daily fish run. Have you been to Upland before?"
"Never," Blue said.
"You've got a treat in store," Mikey said.
"Blue needs a place to stay," Del said.
"Tommy's room?" Mikey said.
"I reckon," said Del. "You can kip there for now. If you wanted to stay longer we can talk about rent."
"Done," said Blue. "Thank you."