Jane was never at her most observant in those first few seconds after waking, even so she had a definite inkling that something was wrong. The half read book which had sat half read on her bedside table for almost six months bore the title “James Joyce – Lysses” and she was almost certain that Marilynne Robinson hadn’t written a novel called “Hosekeeping.” Something was definitely wrong.
Jane was into her third year with the Grammar Police and before today, things had been going well. She’d progressed from Commas and Semi-colons to the Department of Vowels and there were whispers that the Director was considering her for the soon to be vacant Head of Relative Prono’ns position. An incredibly lofty promotion given her limited experience.
Despite the stigma often associated with them, the Grammar Police are, in fact, a rather progressive organisation. The negative press they receive is generally misdirected and sho’ld instead be aimed at the vigilantes, those grammatical zealots who explode at the site of a misplaced apostrophe and spend their days pontificating on the evils of finishing sentences with prepositions. These are position‘s which the Grammar Police repeatedly distance themselves from. In the words of the Director himself, “nitpicky crap like that – we don’t give a rat’s arse”.
They pay no mind to split infinitives, are happy for ‘good’ to be employed as an adverb, and abandoned cracking down on spelling the day after the internet was invented. Only the very worst transgressors receive fines for grammar offences and for things to go that far, severe bastardisations m’st have taken place. These days, that means pretty m’ch excl’sively footballers.
“Shit”, said Jane to no-one in patic’lar. She had just opened her dictionary and it had confirmed her worst fears. Every page between ‘T’ and ‘V’ was completely blank. “Shit,” she said again, on acco’nt of most of the stronger words now being o’t of action. Vowel theft. On her watch. This was not good. She phoned her partner.
“D’nn?” said D’nn.
He tried again. “D’nn?”
“Try prono’ncing it with an ‘O’,” Jane s’ggested.
“Done?” said D’nn. “Oh, yes. That works much better. Thanks Jane.”
“Simon, I think we have a problem.”
“Yo”re telling me! I mean, what sort of psychopath steals a vowel? I g’ess we sho’d co’nt o’rselves l’cky. He co’ld have p’rloined ‘E’.”
“Sorry Done. Didn’t catch a word of that.”
“Nevermind. Yo’ better get down here pretty sharpish, the Chief’s on the warpath. Apparently his mother’s called ‘r’sla and lives in ‘toxeter. She’s very disoriented.”
Letter theft was not completely witho’t precedent. In 1951, an anti-obscenity society, calling themselves the Permanently Offended Organisation, p’lled off a daring heist to steal the letter ‘X’ with the hope it wo’ld stop people talking abo’t sex on television. They ret’rned it three days later when it was explained to them that the words which were replacing ‘sex’ were considerably less polite and co’ld be spelled without any Xs at all. A day or two after that, someone noticed that all their stationery was headed with the organisation’s initials in bold caps letters – POO – which was clearly very offensive and as none of the members knew how to feel abo’t this, they immediately disbanded.
The temporary loss of’ X’ had been a national scandal and it took the Grammar Police months to recover their rep’tation completely. Yet ‘X’ was a relatively minor letter. Apart from a few foxes s’ffering existential crises and patients having to wait a little longer for their X-ray res’lts, there was very little in the way of inconvenience. This time it was different. This wasn’t the disappearance of an ‘X’ or a ‘Z’. This wasn’t even a ‘Q’ or a ‘J’, which they may have been able to dismiss as an annoying glitch. This was Grand Theft Vowel and it was f’cking serio’s.
Jane finished the press conference and exited amid a hailstorm of ill-tempered qwestions.
To say the Chief had been angry wood be like saying hitting a bear in the chest with a baseball bat was inadvisable. He was apoplectic and it was Jane who felt the force of his ire. Firstly, he had lornched a barrage of 4-letter F words, which had sownded ridicyoless, as they had now become 3-letter F-words. Even so, the spirit with which they were conveyed enshawed little of their meaning was lost. Then he sent Jane owt to explain the sityoation to the nation’s media alone, saying that he needed to check in on his mother in Utoxeter .
She gave a brief statement, owtlining the letter replacement scheme which, she said, wood hopefolly minimise disroption and had encooraged everyone to rely on homonyms wherever possible. This did little to placate the newspapers who were baying for blood.
“For owers” the Chief told her once it was over.
“I’m sorry sir?” Jane replied.
“For” the Chief spat. “F-O-R. 4!” he spelt. “Ow – ers,” he showted.
“Yoo’ve got 4 owers to find that missing ‘EWE’ or yore days on this force are over.”
Jane nodded, finally getting it. 4 owers. She had ’til one o’clock.
She met Done in the car park. Simon Done was more than her partner, he was her best friend. He was also a fine officer and an eternal optimist. And a healthy blast of optimism was exactly what she needed right now.
“Well?” she asked him.
“We’re screwed,” Done responded, beaming broadly.
“Thanks,” she said.
He was right. How were they going to solve the most daring crime in grammatical history before lonch. It was hopeless. They needed a miracle.
“We need breakfast,” declared Done.
“Terrorsim?” said Jane over a plate of barely edible eggs. “The ADL have been pretty active again recently.”
The ADL, Apostrophe Defense Leag’e, were the most militant of the grammatical vigilante groops. They got very very irked by shop signs that read “Barrys Fish and Chip’s” and responded by attacking the rest of the English langwage in ill-conceived and massively impractical ways. Only two weeks ago, the Grammar Police had foiled an ADL plot to release 14 million wild hyphens into the lexicon in an attempt to gain poblicity for their cawse.
“No,” said Done. “The ADL are idiots, they cooldn’t organise something like this. They’d bogger it op for shaw.”
It was trew. While the hyphen scheme had had the potential to make English practically incomprehensible for days if not weeks, there was never any danger that the ADL wood fail to make a giant bollocks of it. On the day of their intended attack, Norman, the poor chap charged with releasing the hyphens, foolishly opened the cages before he was safely behind dashproof glass. A neighbor overheard the disterbance and called the Grammar Police who managed to recage the beasts, however not before Norman had received some fairly hefty bites and been renamed N-o–rm-a—n-.
“Someone stockpiling them then?”
“Don’t be thick, Jane. Yoo can’t stockpile vowels. Not onless yoo want to start sownding Scandinavian ”
“Ligwistic sabotage? Welsh trying its old tricks again?”
This did have some historical merit. Several hondred years ago, Welsh had decided that it wasn’t satisfied with its cache of ‘Ls’ and sent spies to pilfer some more from English. This enriched Welsh vocabyoolary no end, giving it words like ‘llawysgrif’ – manyooscript, and ‘llafariad’ – which rather fittingly means vowel.
The only problem with this theory was that Welsh had a very effective word exchange pact with English – as testified by words like ‘snwcer’ and ‘comedi’ – if they had needed more vowels they coold have just asked for them. Thieving them was completely disnecessary.
“Dowtfwl,” said Done with some difficolty. “Relations between the two langwages have never been better.”
Swddenly, something hit Jane right between the eyes. It felt so tangible and real that, at first, she thorght Done had thrown a sawsage at her. Then she realised it was her detective instincts kicking in. Then some meat jooice ran down her face and she realised that it was her detective instincts kicking in, and also that Done had thrown a sawsage at her.
“I’ve remembered something,” she told Done.
“See, I knew the sawsage wood do the trick,” said Done, very pleased with his contribyootion. “What is it?”
“I’ve gotta make a phone call first to be shaw.”
Two minits later, she was back.
“Who were yoo talking too?” asked Done.
“The Utoxeter torist board.”
“Don’t yoo mean the Yootoxeter torist board?”
“No, the Utoxeter torist board,” she waited a few seconds to let this point reach home. She saw from Done’s face that it had.
“Bwt that means… they have ‘ewes’!”
“Yes,” she nodded. “It does.”
At ten minits to one, Jane knocked on the Chief’s door. He called her in and slid away the paperwork he had been working on.
“I’ll need yore badge and yore dictionary please Jane.”
His voice was firm bwt not harsh. He was mwch calmer than before. He almost seemed sympathetic. Slowly, Jane obeyed.
“I’m sorry it has to be this way, y’know,” he continyood. “Something like this looks very bad for the department yoo see. Unless someone takes the blame. Yoo’re doing a great service for the department really. I’ll remember that. In a year or two’s time when this has all blown over, yoo can come back. I promise.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I missed that. What did yoo say?”
“I said yoo’re doing a good thing and I’ll remember yore selflessness.”
“No before that. Something about blame.”
“Oh,” said the Chief. “I said it looks bad on the department, ‘nless we have some to blame.”
“Bwt, yoo didn’t say ‘nless, did yoo sir? I think yoo may have slipped in a ‘ewe’. Yoo did it once before bot I didn’t notice. I was too bizzy thinking aboot the press conference. Utoxeter – that’s yore mother’s town isn’t it?”
The Chief’s face flooshed to the color of a traffic light . His eyes tore into Jane like they were Japanese swords. He contemplated lying and then decided against it. She already knew.
“You can’t prove anything you insolent little upstart. Just three years on the force and they’re going to give you Relative Pronouns. I’ve worked my arse off for years and where am I? Bloody vowels. Bloody ‘A’, bloody ‘E’, bloody ‘I’ and ‘O’-”
“So yoo decided to disappear ‘ewe’ for a few days, disgrace me, and then what? Solve the case yoreself and be the hero? Waltz into Relative Pronowns and hand them yore CV.”
The Chief didn’t answer.
“Except, a complete disappearance wood have hert yore mom. So yoo sneaked her a few. Qwite sweet really, apart from all the disroption yoo’ve caused, all the criminal damage and the bit abowt trying to sabotage my career.”
The Chief clapped sarcastically. “Very good my dear. I can see why the Director’s so fond of you.” There was a click of safety being flicked off. “Unfortunately you don’t seem to know how to pick your battles.”
“Yoo can’t shoot me, ” said Jane with rather less certainty the she wood have liked.
“But my dear, I’m not going to shoot you. Oh no, it will be much worse than that.”
He placed his weapon on the table, the barrel pointed straight at her. Jane told herself to be strong. Don’t give him the satisfaction of seeing yoo afraid, she vowed. Then, deciding it was a silly vow anyway, began to tremble violently.
“You know what this is? Yes, I can see that you do. The Deconfabulator 2000, the most powerful language smasher known to mankind. Can turn the entire works of Dickens, Austen and all of the Bronte’s combined into a pile of meaningless symbols in the time it takes to say Wackford Squeers. Also very useful for stealing vowels, I might add. At this range, it will obliterate your very capacity to form vocabulary. It will turn you into a blubbering idiot with a worse command of the English language than a sulky teenager or a Sun journalist. And the best bit is, you won’t be able to tell anyone what happened. Whenever you try, all you’ll be able to manage is a loud farting sound and some occasional dribbling.”
Slowly the Chief raised the Deconfabyoolator 2000. He pointed it at Jane’s head. “Nice. Knowing. You” he said with a smirk and he pwlled the trigger.
Done entered the room somewhere between the ‘Know’ and the ‘Ing’. His first instinct was to throw himself at the Chief before he coold fire. His second instinct was to get the hell owt of the office before he got shot. Fortyonately for Jane, his second instinct didn’t kick in ’til he was mid dive and by then it was too late to do anything abowt it.
Done crashed into the Chief’s arm at the very moment the pointy metal object was flying down the barrel. When the pointy metal object left the barrel it was no longer pointing at Jane’s head. It flew across the room and smashed into a large metal tank which stood in the corner of the room. A metallic clang rang owt and as Done clambered to his feet, somewhat taken aback to still be alive but damn well contented that that was the case, he saw a small hole in the tank’s side.
From the hole, millions of tiny ‘U’s poured out onto the floor. They piled into paperwork, buried themselves in books, dashed through the doorway and scrambled down the stairs. They hurled themselves through the open window and floated away in all directions, squealing with delight at their renewed freedom. Within seconds the ‘U’s set about their work, rendering the illegible legible, comprehending the incomprehensible and having a bloody good go at making even the most unintelligible if not completely coherent at least vaguely penetrable.
A final ‘U’ flew from the tank and hit Done forcefully just below his left nostril.
“Oh, that’s much better,” said Dunn. “Much much better.”
“Chief Upson,” said Jane. “I’m arresting you on suspicion of Grand Theft Vowel-“