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First up - sorry. Must remember to change the title text that shows up in the last five entry thingy on the right. Rest assured, some random kittens have been stroked as penance.
It's a special dose of SIBA this time. I didn't write this one, which is why it's way better than my crap. ☺
Written by Richard Goodwin, who some of you who were in the RISC OS scene back in the late '90s, early '00s, may recognise as one of the guys at ArgoNet, who took on the task of fixing Posty's various numerous quirks. Among other things. He liked my "LATV" (as it was called then) series and decided to write his own story with the same characters and situation.
Now this is a good news bad news situation. The bad news is that this story is a pretty good example of what I mean by "anachronism stew". The school uses BBC Micros, the rest of the world is already on Windows 95 with 98 just around the corner. In this time frame, mobile phones exist, but nobody mentions complicated things like that.
Now for the good news. It's a bloody good story.
Just to point out a few things quickly:
- Amy had a 'thing' for Chris in the late '90s version. This has since been removed due to Chris not being a character in the originals (and barely present in this definitive release).
- The protagonist was called "Rick". As that was a bit too Mary Sueish, he is never referred to by name in the definitive releases. But you'll see plenty of use of his name in this story.
- Did I mention this is a cracking story?
I have made minor edits to tone down some swear words, and also removed the lyrics of a song (copyright reasons) and amended a line to refer to the song instead. As for the song itself, this brings us neatly on to the playlist. Why bother quoting some lyrics if we can have the official video instead? ☺
Okay, I'll shut up now. I don't need to say "Enjoy the story", I know you will...
5 - Dead Air
|Dead Air by Richard Goodwin
By Richard Goodwin
based on LATV by Richard Murray
© Copyright 1997 Richard Goodwin
Richard Goodwin is to be identified as the author of this story.
Published here by kind permission of Richard Goodwin.
This story is not to be republished anywhere else in any form (electronic, paper, or otherwise) without the prior permission of the author.
Just another normal day at LATV - the TV in the common room, which had decided to switch from colour to black and white some time ago, had now restricted itself to just black; with one TV out of action that would cut our audience figures by half, so we were running in radio mode for the pre-breakfast shift so they could at least hear us. Not seeing me at this time in the morning was probably a bonus anyway. The tape deck was running at three quarters normal speed so any of our pre-recorded stuff would have sounded like it was being hosted by a female javelin thrower, so it was just me and my computer’s CD-Rom drive which didn’t like the ends of tracks and decided to cut out instead of playing straight through. I sighed, and opened another can of Dr. Pepper - which had grown warm - and cued up a little Nirvana on the CD.
It was at times like this that I really missed David; after all, we’d started LATV together, and even though I had James’ help, and sometimes Chris when he could be dragged away from his network, it just wasn’t the same any more. With David around the station probably wouldn’t have gotten into this mess; not that he was overly techie, but if something went wrong he’d at least go on at me until I got round to fixing it. Broken equipment just didn’t fit into his obsessively tidy world view. At least, not until he’d decided to hang himself from a broken light fitting.
Sometimes the image of him hanging there came back to haunt me; I felt so guilty about the whole thing. Not that I’d actually tied the noose or anything, although it didn’t stop the Police chasing after me for a few days which was, like, just the way you want to mourn a friend’s death. No, I just wondered if there was something I should have done, perhaps listened when life was getting him down; I know that he didn’t talk much about the problems he had at home, but perhaps I should have insisted? After all, what were friends for?
The track ended abruptly, and I struggled to bring myself back to the present. A dedication was up next, well, more like some kid wanted to hear his favourite song played so he’d made up some phony name. Being a professional in the information gathering business, or just plain nosy, there was a time when I’d recognise that someone was using a false name - and not just the obvious ones like Hugh Janus or Mike Hunt either - but now I didn’t really care. I slipped a Björk CD in the drive and cued the track on the computer, mechanically going through some glib dedication line until I heard a change in the drive’s whirring noise as it found the start of the track, then I hit the play button. I wasn’t too up on this album; I hoped it would be something happy to cheer me up a little. It was kind of a slow burner, starting quiet, warming to thirty seconds of music, then just as I thought it was going to be an instrumental Björk’s pixie voice kicked in. Something about being on top of a beautiful mountain. Yeah, that’d work.
I took another swig from the open can and thought of David again. What kind of a friend had I been? Surely I should have seen it coming? He must have been in so much pain, for so long, for him to have taken his own life, and yet I didn’t notice? The song went on to the second verse, something about throwing things off a cliff and Björk wondering what it would be like throwing herself off. Oh, happy...
“It’s not your fault,” said a voice from the bunk behind me.
I span round, startled. “David?”
“Have you forgotten me already?” he smiled weakly.
“But aren’t you... didn’t you... aren’t you, like, dead?” I stammered.
“I hope so. You buried me.” He laughed dryly. He didn’t look that different, sat perched on the edge of the bunk just like he had done a thousand times before.
“So what are you doing here? Don’t you have harp lessons or something?” Something at the back of my mind was telling me that really, right now, at this moment in time I should be running screaming out of the door. It was a ghost. It was David’s ghost. It was David. How could I run away?
“More like pitchforks I’d guess. The bible-bashers aren’t keen on giving Christian burial to someone who wilfully seeks his own salvation.”
“Hamlet. We did it, like, two terms ago, remember?” He shook his head. It had always been like the phrase ‘could try harder’ had been invented for me.
“Uh, yeah, right,” I said evasively. There was still something playing on my mind. “So let me get this straight, there’s just one thing I need to get straight - you are dead, right? I mean, I know we just covered that one, but it’s kind of important to get this right in my mind. You’re dead?”
“I’m dead,” he confirmed.
“We buried you, and here you are,” I insisted.
“Can’t keep a good man down,” he joked.
“Or you,” I shot back automatically. It seemed so weird, like apart from the small matter of him being worm fodder it was almost like old times. I shook my head; “I gotta be dreaming.”
“You dream about me? Euch! Keep that one to yourself!” He grinned, and for a moment it seemed like old times.
I couldn’t help but grin back. Whatever the situation, it was good to see him again. “So what are you doing here?”
He shrugged. I half expected a shoulder to fall off or something. I’ve got to stop watching those kind of movies late at night. “I don’t know. Maybe you drew me here, thinking about me. But then, I’ve just sort of been hanging around - no pun intended - since my death I think. I don’t know, I just can’t settle. It just feels like there’s something...” he trailed off, unable to find the words.
“You’re, like, in limbo? There’s something you gotta finish?”
“I know one thing that’s finished. That track ended ages ago.”
I looked back to the computer. The CD had spun down, track long finished. I looked back at the bunk, but it was empty again, not even a dent in the blanket to show where he’d been.
“Rick?” My head span round to face the door. Anna had popped her head through. “Are you okay? I was just on my way to school when I heard the dead air.”
I sat there trying to get my head together, vaguely aware that Anna was speaking to me. “Dead...?”
“Are you okay? you look like you’ve seen a ghost?”
“Just once, could somebody say that line and be wrong?”
“Did you hear about Rick?” Amy asked, unable to sit quietly for more than thirty seconds as Chris tapped away at his keyboard; or, to be more precise, the keyboard of the computer in the library, after a recent run of bad luck.
“Hmm?” Chris was in a world of his own. He wasn’t quite sure why Amy was still hanging around at this time of night, but he could hazard a pretty good guess. As the Matron’s daughter she’d proved pretty useful in getting him into places, but the downside was that he had to listen to her talking all the time when he was trying to get some work done. He was more interested in setting off his timebomb. He’d already been caught trying to hack into the password file to gain privileges on the school network by the new systems administrator and had had a pretty tough detention schedule to show for it, so he’d written a program to automate the process as much as possible and was setting it to go off at a time when he was safely out of the way. The hardest part was trying to find a time when he wouldn’t be on a computer, and making it look natural, but even he was forced to do games occasionally - so if you look at it from that angle this was double payback.
Amy carried on regardless. “Rick - Anna’s really worried about him. Not that she’d admit it of course. Anyway, when he went off air for, like, five whole minutes this morning, and you know that’s not like him. He said it was a technical problem, but she said that she found him sitting there talking to David.”
“She actually said that? That she saw him talking to a ghost?” Chris still hadn’t looked up from what he was doing. Christ, these machines were antiquated. It felt like if they were any older he’d be using punched cards or something.
“Well, no, she didn’t actually see anything, when she got there he’d vanished,” Amy admitted.
“Rick left the studio during a program?” Chris said absently.
“No, David. Are you listening?”
She ploughed on. “She thinks he might be losing it. You know, he feels guilty for not being able to stop David or something. They were pretty close. They got sent here pretty much at the same time, they always joked that they were cellmates or something.”
“Soulmates, yeah right.”
“No, cellmates. As in prisoners, you know?” Amy sighed. There was no getting through to him. “What is it with you today? What are you working on?”
“Oh, it’s, uh, private. You wouldn’t understand,” he said absently.
That immediately got Amy’s back up. “Oh, I wouldn’t, would I?”
Chris wasn’t so far gone that he couldn’t see a warning sign when it was about to hit him in the face. “Sorry, that came out wrong,” he backpeddled, turning away from the screen. He wasn’t going to get any peace for a while anyway, so he might as well just get it over with quickly. “I just meant, well, it’s not that interesting, I didn’t think you’d be that excited by it.”
“Try me,” she said, with just a little too much force for Chris’s comfort.
“Uh, yeah, okay, well, it’s this new SysAdmin. You know that I used to pretty much have the run of this place,” he said, indicating the computer screen, “but now he comes along and starts, like, adding security and stuff.
“Isn’t that kind of his job?” Amy pointed out, “especially after that last one got fired, you know, after you choked the network with all those pictures of the music teacher...”
“That’s not the point,” Chris objected quickly, “you just get everything set up the way you want it and now he comes along and messes it all up. They’ve even crippled my own machines. Do you realise that I had to actually pick a lock, pick a lock, to get access to a decent computer this morning? I haven’t had to do that in months. Well, at least I won’t have to do that again for a while.”
“Oh, why’s that? Are they giving you better access or something?”
“Nah, I just blocked the lock up with black card. It locks, but if you put your shoulder to it just right it’ll pop right open,” he replied, turning back to the computer.
“Oh.” Amy didn’t know whether to be disappointed that she’d fallen for such a ruffian, or to be excited by his desperado ways.
Chris wiped his nose on the back of his hand. He noticed something pop up on the screen, and rattled off a couple more choice combinations on the keyboard. “Anyway, I’m done here. We’d better leave the scene of the crime; if anyone asks, just say we were up here...” Amy looked up expectantly. “...looking for a bedtime story.”
Amy locked the door behind them and pocketed the key. If it had been a nice Yale-type lock he wouldn’t have to go through all this, but not only was the library door secured by something that would take him more than thirty seconds to get through, Amy always managed to keep the key close to her so that he couldn’t get an impression in the BluTack he’d scrounged from behind the posters on the walls in the Mathematics department. Now came that awkward moment where he just wanted to shoot off and she wanted to hang around talking.
“What do you want to do when you leave here?” Amy asked.
“Go back to my dormy and catch up on some sleep,” came Chris’s blunt reply. “I have to stop by the studio first to fix something though.”
“No, I mean when you leave school - what then?” God, now she was asking about his prospects. She’d probably take him home to meet her mother, except he saw her mother just about every day walking the corridors.
“I dunno, I don’t really think too far beyond getting some sleep.” She wasn’t going to give up easily, so he relented a little. “Something to do with computers I guess, something that gives free Internet access and a nice fast network for me to play with.”
“And that’s it?”
“Well, frankly, anything beyond simply getting through the rest of the year will be a bonus,” he admitted.
“What do you mean?” Amy was genuinely concerned.
“You must have noticed - it’s not like I’m a model student or anything. Half the teachers want to kick me out already - and this at a school for misfits. The other half can’t afford to kick me out because I’m too useful, and they’d have to pay someone to do the jobs I do for them. Which means I have to keep making myself useful, which cuts into the time I’m supposed to be doing schoolwork, so I’m never going to catch up. Vicious circle,” he said a little sadly.
“You poor thing.” Amy patted his arm, then rubbed it.
He shrugged. “It’s not so bad. I’ve already had one of my coursework essays written for me by one of my tutors.” Then, with a shrug, “He only got a ‘C’ though.”
Anna had stopped by to see how I was. I was lying back on the bunk still in my uniform, but she’d sneaked out from her mum’s quarters in her dressing gown. She was picking her way through the video collection, occasionally tutting under her breath and swapping some of the tapes around. I loved to listen to the sound of her voice, to trace the patterns in her accent, I could fall asleep listening to that voice. Not that we, I mean, not that we’d ever, like, I just meant... Anyway, Chris was there, having stopped by around midnight to try and fix a couple of things - the tape recorder was first, so that I could drop in some pre-recorded stuff onto the radio and could start getting some more sleep.
“You’re just upset about his death, it’s perfectly natural,” she sympathised.
“Is it?” I murmured, almost asleep, my worries almost soothed away by her voice.
“Well, I don’t know, perhaps thinking you’ve not only seen his ghost but had whole conversations with him since he’s died, okay, maybe that’s a little on the psycho killer side, but otherwise, yes, you’re just going through a bad patch,” she replied, taking Aliens out of the C section. I guess the Cameron evening I had planned was off then.
“Thanks, I think,” I laughed. Then more seriously, “I don’t know, I could have sworn it was him. If I was imagining him, why did he say all that stuff? Like quoting Shakespeare. You know I’m no good at that stuff, why would I have him saying that?”
“Well,” she said, turning to look at me, “maybe it was all subconscious, you know, if it’s one of his tragedies, all murder and suicide and stuff, maybe it struck a cord or something.”
“God, Shakespeare, that’s really not what you’d want to be reading when you’re depressed,” offered Chris, “his tragedies - higher body count than a Tarrantino movie. Madness, depression, murder, incest, suicide, it’s no wonder David...” he trailed off. “Sorry.”
“You must have seen him reading something?” Anna sailed on, stopping only to glare at Chris. “In fact, yes, you must have, that’s why he mentioned it. I mean, that’s why you thought about him saying it. Or maybe because subconsciously you know one of the plays, you’re projecting that onto him - you know,
‘For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil’
and all that...”
“Hamlet. You did it, like, two terms ago, remember?”
“That’s exactly what he said!” I sat upright, almost bashing my head on the bunk above.
“Uh-huh.” She came over and sat down beside me and put her hand on my arm. “Rick, you studied that only a few moths ago, even you must have retained some of it. Something must have, like, sparked off a memory; did you do anything this morning that might have done that?”
“He played Nirvana then Björk back to back - that’s enough to make anyone want to slit their...” Chris stopped in his tracks, looked at Anna, looked at me, and then headed for the door. “Anyway, I’m finished here. The, er, private line has been installed too.”
“Private line?” Anna asked.
“Er, yeah, Rick needed a phone line for his Internet connection,” Chris began, until he saw a warning look from me.
“So you got a ‘phone line put in? How can you afford that?” Anna looked at me.
“We, er...” I decided to come clean; after considering the options I realised that she’d only get it from me eventually so it was quicker in the long run. “Chris - that is, we - ran a wire from the pay phone downstairs. So long as no-one’s using the phone we can use the line out. I mean, that means I can only use it off-peak and I only use it in short bursts to fetch email and...”
“It’ll be pretty hard to trace,” Chris said proudly.
“I think they’ll eventually notice the discrepancy in the bill,” Anna pointed out calmly.
“Oh, by the time they trace the wire back halfway we’ll have cut it and pulled our half in. They’ll never find us” He realised who he was talking to - sensible Anna, dependable Anna, daughter of one of the teaching staff Anna. “I’ll see you in the morning,” he said, getting ready to run.
Anna took a deep breath. “I guess I should be getting back too,” she agreed, letting the breath out slowly. Well, I guess being suspected of being a loony wasn’t all bad after all.
“Are you going to be all right here?” she continued. Before an awkward silence drew out she added, “I mean, you could always move into another dormy for a while, until this thing blows over?”
“Are you kidding?” I laughed, “I much more scared of those guys than I am of David. I’ll be fine. No really, I will be, seriously.”
They both looked at me from the doorway, and exchanged meaningful glances when they turned to leave. Anna turned and smiled as she pulled the door closed, conveniently forgetting to turn out the light as she passed it. I got up and turned it off, then returned to my bunk. After lying there for thirty seconds, I got up and switched it back on.
The next morning I was back on the air, a pleasantly chilled can of Dr. Pepper on the desk before me. I was under orders to lay off the Nirvana, Björk, The Smiths, The Cure, and pretty much anything from the 80’s and early 90’s where the lead singer wore black - which let’s face it was pretty much all of them. I hadn’t go too much sleep the night before so what with having a sugary, carbonated breakfast I was feeling a little high. I decided to try and find something perky on the album I’d just bought from the charity shop in town, which considering it was the New Order Best Of album was kind of a challenge. So, I was playing the one they did for the World Cup with the football players singing in the background. They’d just got to their fifth ‘In-ger-land’ as I took a sip of breakfast.
“New Order, huh? You know how they got started. They used to be The Joy Division, lead singer committed suicide, they went on to become New Order.”
“I recognise the career path - maybe I’ll skip the Foo Fighters then. Especially I’ll Stick Around,” I said, looking up at David.
“Do that. Skipping the Foo Fighters is always a good idea. But what’s up with you? You look like death.”
“Please, I’ve already had ‘you look like you’ve seen a ghost’ and ‘you’re as white as a sheet’ since your last appearance, I’m a little clichéd out at the moment,” I grumbled, but I couldn’t help but smile. “I couldn’t sleep for some reason last night.” He raised a mischievous eyebrow, which I didn’t rise to. “But enough about me, what’s up with you? Figured out why you’re still here?”
“Fed up with me already or something?” he smiled. “I guess it’s not to put the videos back in order,” he said, looking over my shoulder, “somebody beat me to it.”
“Anna came last night,” I admitted.
“Oh yes?” David grinned.
“To see if I was all right,” I said sharply. “She started fiddling with them - the videos, for Christ’s sake - and Chris fixed the tape deck so the audio side of things is coming back into focus. I doubt if even your obsessively tidy nature could prevent you from crossing over to the other side just because I had Return of the Jedi listed under S for Star Wars though.”
“True, although... wait, wait, I’m getting a message...” he said dramatically.
“What?” I said, perplexed. “Are you actually trying to drive me insane, or is that just a bonus?” I waited for him to carry on, but he was obviously waiting for me to play along. “Okay, come on then, what’s the message?” I sighed.
“Catch her,” he replied enigmatically.
“Catch her!” he repeated.
I followed his gaze, and saw Amy standing in the doorway. Or at least, she had been standing. Now she was kind of slumping. I jumped out of my chair and just managed to catch her before she hit the floor. I turned back to look at the bunk but David was gone. Amy couldn’t have seen him for more than a few seconds, and if I tried to use her to back up my story Anna would just say Amy had seen me talking to myself and got hysterical or something. “Why did it have to be Amy?” I said aloud. “At least Anna would have stayed vertical for more than a few seconds.”
“More’s the pity,” said a voice from very, very far away.
“Sorry, I sent her to see how you were doing and you end up looking after her,” Anna apologised. We were waiting outside the Matron’s office where Amy’s mother was ministering to her daughter. As I sat with my elbows on my knees propping my head up I wondered absently why Amy didn’t carry her own smelling salts around with her, after all, she was no newcomer to waking up in strange places; she even needed a clean pair of knickers at times. Unfortunately for her it was always for the most innocent of reasons. Strange stuff happened when you were in the Scooby gang. “She was just at a bit of a loose end this morning, she was all geared up for a few hours of flirting with Chris but then he said he had something he had to do, so I thought it would do her good to get her mind off of things.”
“I see, couldn’t put up with her pining for much longer so you sent her to me?” I groaned, rubbing my eyes.
“Something like that,” she admitted, smiling weakly.
“Well, I think you succeeded, she’ll certainly have something else to think about,” I said, smiling. Anna started to say something, then thought better of it. “No, come on, say it. I know what you’re thinking.”
“It’s just that, well, you know how Amy is. She probably...”
“...just saw me talking to myself and freaked, it doesn’t mean that David really is back, but that doesn’t mean I’m crazy, I’m just having a hard time accepting his death.” I snapped. “I know, I know, no such thing as ghosts, logical explanation, I’ve been through this in my mind a hundred times.” I knew she had my best interests at heart, but I just wished she’d accept what I saw instead of trying to be so damned reasonable all the time. “Look, don’t try to Scully me. All I know is that I saw something, and I have the lamest witness on the planet.” I said, anger abated. I couldn’t stay mad at her for long.
“So where’s James been all this time?” asked Anna.
“You don’t think James is behind all this do you?” I replied, shocked. “I mean, I know he dresses a little strange sometimes, but dressing in a dead man’s clothes is a little out there even for him.”
“Relax, I was just thinking that if he was around he’d be able to... back you up,” she said with a wave of her hand. I could guess the real reason she wanted someone to be around me.
“We, er, well, I was in that kinda grumpy stage there a few days ago, I might have said a few things...” I admitted, wincing at the memory.
She shook her head, laughing at my misfortune. “Even so, after he heard what happened I would have thought he’d have stopped by or something?”
“Well, he’s kind of busy at the moment,” I said in his defence. “He’s building this spy camera thing and he’s thinking of putting it in the music room so he can get pictures of you-know-who bending forward.”
“Is he still so fixated with her?”
“That’s kind of why we had the argument... I think I might have hurt his feelings a bit.”
“You two have been through too much together for that to affect your friendship,” Anna said practically, standing up as the door opened next to us. She was right of course. “Maybe I should have a word...?”
“Thanks, but it’d be better if I went,” I decided. “After all, you’ll have your hands full for the rest of the day,” I continued, looking at the large bump on Amy’s head.
Another day, another show. This time however I’d planned ahead. The newly-fixed tape deck was whirring away in the background playing a little something I’d knocked together the night before while everyone else was enjoying Life of Brian - one of the few videos in the collection for which the visuals were optional - and I was there more to fret and worry over whether it would hold together rather than for any creative input.
“Good idea,” remarked David. “You don’t want to risk another track running out on you, three strikes and you’re out. In your case, out the door in one of those cute little white jackets where you hug yourself until it’s all better.”
“Thanks,” I said sarcastically, turning to face him. “You’re not exactly helping matters. Do you have to keep vanishing and reappearing like that?”
“Hey, you should try being dead for a while,” he replied defensively, “It’s not that easy you know.”
“Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll pass,” I responded. A song started playing on the tape. “Hey, I picked an INXS track for you. Another lead singer that came to the end of his tether.”
“Thanks. Your sympathy for my current condition is touching.”
“Well, there’s no known cure, so you might as well get used to it.” Somehow his being here, instead of reminding me of that awful moment when I found his body slowly swinging, made it all go away; I could actually joke about it, when I’d gotten into fights trying to stop other people making light of David’s death. “Figured out why you’re here yet?”
“Not really,” he winced, “which is kind of worrying when you think about it. I could be here for the rest of my life. I don’t think my nerves could stand it. Um, not that I , like, have any nerves any more. Or a life. I didn’t have one before, mind you. But anyway, do you realise this place is haunted?”
“I had kind of noticed,” I snorted.
“No, I mean there’s real ghosts here,” he continued. “It makes me a little self-conscious, I don’t really like venturing out too much. I mean, what if I’m not doing it right?”
“Peer pressure at your stage in life huh? Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”
He smiled, but it started to fade quickly. “Look, I’d better be going, I’m still not very good at this haunting business, and I’ve been exerting myself quite a bit recently. Could you, like, um, turn around?”
“What’s the matter? Do your clothes vanish first or something?”
“No, I just... please, just turn around. Look, like I said I’m new at this so I can’t hold this shape for long, and I haven’t got a convenient break where I can go while your back is turned, so this time I gotta ask.” He was starting to get a little agitated. “It kinda freaks people out when I break my shape, and I don’t want you to see me like that.”
“Okay David, don’t worry,” I replied sympathetically. I put my hand on his shoulder, or rather, through his shoulder. He jumped back, startled, and shattered into a million iridescent pieces.
I just kind of stood there for a while, mouth open. I mean yes, technically I knew that David was dead, but now I realised why he’d wanted me to turn around; it was a shock to see that, despite outward appearances, he wasn’t quite the person I’d once known.
It took a second or two for me to gather my thoughts, but I was soon running for the door. A few strides later I was standing, panting, in front of James where he’d set up a temporary HQ in a study room.
“Well,” I asked. “Did you get anything?”
“Sort of...” replied James doubtfully. He was rewinding the video tape, and through the distorted picture I could just about make out the high-angle shot of someone quickly walking backwards across a room. He hit play, and the picture cleared, showing an image of me sitting next to the tape deck. I turned round and started talking, got up, put a hand out and fell forward, and then after a pause ran out of the room. There was no-one else there.
“Oh, for crying out loud!” I shouted, angrily sweeping a pile of James’ papers onto the floor with a dramatic flourish.
Anna, Amy and Chris chose that precise moment to walk through the door. Of course, seeing my little outburst they very nearly walked straight back out again. I just stood there dumbly in a shower of paper.
“What’s wrong?” Anna cried, getting over her initial shock.
“We set my spycam up in the studio,” James reported. He hesitated for a second. “It didn’t really prove conclusive.”
“Oh, no, it proved I’m a nutcase,” I corrected him. “At least, that’s what you’d think if you saw me talking to myself.” I sat down hard on one of the rickety chairs that the school inflicted on its students.
Anna came over and put her arm on my shoulder, which made me feel even more spooked. I must have flinched so hard it probably registered on the... that weird thing they kept at the back of the Geography class. Must try harder. “Hey, come on, you’ll be okay,” she said.
“Oh really?” I said sarcastically. “Five minutes ago I was talking to someone I saw dead and buried. Now I come in here and see myself talking to thin air. So what do I believe? Even my own eyes are deceiving me. Maybe I am making this all up out of grief. I have no evidence, I can’t even touch him...” A thought struck me. “Wait a minute. James, can you get one of these that records infrared, maybe pick up heat sources - or lack of them?”
“On what’s left of my allowance?” James snorted. “After blowing everything on that last VCR, I’m on a Dr. Pepper-free diet for the rest of term as it is.”
“Then there’s only one way to settle this,” decided Anna. “We all meet in the studio, tomorrow morning, 8 a.m. sharp. We’ll lay this mystery to rest once and for all.”
“Hi Chris. What are you doing, coming to meet me?” Amy was walking across the lawn at the back of school, books clutched to her chest.
“Nah, I’m getting out of here. I’ve had enough,” Chris fumed.
“What?” Amy squawked, “are you serious? What happened?”
“Oh, I got into a fight with the SysAdmin. I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’m screwed.”
Amy was almost running to try and keep up with him as he stalked off in the direction of one of the better locations to climb over the wall. “You hit the Computer Studies teacher?” she said, shocked.
“No, I don’t mean like that,” he replied dismissively. “I mean on the network. He found my little timebomb and defused it, so I managed to get all the machines on the network to play Greensleaves. So he tracks me down and kills my account, which forces me to use up one of my backups that I took from one of the first years. So I clock the network down to one quarter speed and he kills that account, and runs a program that nukes any account that logs on from my terminal which means I’m now three accounts down. So I say screw it and unplug one of the terminators.”
“Chris, I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”
“The terminators - you know, it’s like Christmas tree lights, you unplug one of the terminators from the end of the econet and the whole network goes down. First rule of networking. Of course that would never happen if they actually upgraded the network to something decent, even ethernet would be an improvement but, nooooo, they prefer to stay in the dark ages...”
“Chris, you can’t just run away, you’ll get into trouble,” Amy reasoned.
“Oh, like I’m not now?” he fumed. “At least this way I’ll have my freedom. Look, there’s the son of a bitch now, I wonder where he’s going?”
“Chris - don’t. Just leave it,” she pleaded.
“No way man, I’m going to find out where he lives and, and, set fire to his kittens or something.”
“I don’t know, it was the first thing that came into my mind. I’m kind of upset at the moment, when I think of something better I’ll let you know.”
“Chris, he’s just about to drive away,” Amy called out, “You’ll never keep up on foot!” but he was already half-way towards the car park. She took one last look back towards the relative safety of the dorms and then ran to follow him.
“Wow, check out that car,” Chris breathed appreciatively.
“It’s a beige Volvo Chris,” Amy whispered back, “it’s not really a ‘check out’ kind of car.” They were both crouched behind a bush at the edge of the car park, not far from where the Computer Studies teacher was making final preparations for departure.
“I don’t mean what’s on the outside - check out what he’s got on the inside,” he corrected her. “The outside’s probably just so no-one would want to break in.”
“So what am I looking at?” she humoured him.
“Well, the back’s loaded up with stuff - I mean, it’s nearly to the roof. That takes some doing in an estate,” he replied, the same quiet awe still in his voice.
“There’s a cloth over everything, how am I supposed to see anything?” She stood up, brushing dirt from her knees. Chris dragged her back down.
“Not everything. See that long thin bit on the top, shiny bit sticking out of the cloth? That’s some heavy duty tripod, take a hurricane to knock something that big down,” he said, pointing. Amy moved close to him, her head right next to his, looking down his arm as he pointed towards the car. “Which means that one of those boxy shapes - see the one that’s not quite covered, black with metal coverings to the corners? - that’s probably some type of camera equipment, so it’s a fair bet that it’s not boxes of marshmallows underneath. There must be several grands worth in there! Shit, I’m in the wrong game, I should give up computers and take up teaching.”
Chris made a move towards the car. Amy made a grab to stop him. “Chris - no! Don’t go out there! He’s moving off!”
“You’re right, he’ll see us,” he reasoned. “I’ll have to wait until he comes back and see if he’s still got it. Kinda makes you wonder though how he got hold of it, and where he’s taking it though doesn’t it?”
“So you’ll be sticking around for a little while longer?” Amy said eagerly.
“I guess so. Damn, if I go back I’ll be get stuck in detention though, I won’t be able to watch him.” Then a thought struck him. “Hey, maybe your friends can help me.”
“They’re your friends too you know,” she laughed.
He shrugged, a little embarrassed. “I don’t know, I haven’t really hung out with them for that long - I just fix things in the studio...”
She took his arm. “Come on. We’ll go ask.”
“Look, any lame-ass school kid can come up with Godfather part II as a sequel that’s better than the original, but it just don’t work unless you’ve seen the first one, so why don’t you try and be original for once?”
“Okay, okay, let me think... Terminator 2?”
“Same story, flashier effects. Minus several million points for unoriginality.”
“Both excellent in their own right.”
“Die Hard II took more money than the original...”
“And Home Alone beat them both. We’re not talking about money here.”
“Got it! Silence of the Lambs!”
“That was a sequel?”
“See? that proves my point, hardly anyone remembers the first one. Yes, Silence of the Lambs was a sequel, it’s the second Hannibal Lector movie, although it was spelt with a K in the first one, what was it called, Manhunter. I mean, don’t get me wrong, that part where Brian Cox is in prison and gets given that phone without a dial so he can’t cause any trouble when he’s taking a call from his lawyer, then he coolly shorts it out with his chewing gum wrapper and gets the operator to help him by saying he hasn’t got any arms? That is just so cold man, that is way more frightening and underplayed than Anthony Hopkins, but how many Oscars did Manhunter get?”
“I see what you’re getting at, although just because it got the Oscars doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a better film...”
Chris pushed the door to the studio fully open and walked in. “Hi Rick. Sorry to interrupt... um, who were you talking to?”
I looked around to where David had been standing. “Er, nobody,” I said sheepishly.
“Gee, thanks,” said David from over on the bunk.
“Well it’s true - you ain’t got no body,” I quipped over my shoulder. He just groaned.
“Hey David,” Chris greeted him cheerily, although his smile was a little too wide.
“Hey Chris,” David returned.
“Ngh,” said Amy. The three boys turned to watch her head floorwards. Chris caught her just before she landed. “Well, at least we’ll have some peace for a while,” he remarked, carrying her to the bunk. “Do you mind if I...?”
“Oh, sure,” said David, jumping up. His forehead passed through the edge of the bunk above instead of banging his head.
Chris stared for a second. “Er, so, I guess being dead has it’s advantages, huh?” he said eventually, indicating the point of non-impact by shrugging one of Amy’s legs up.
“Hmm? Oh, not as many as you might think,” David said sadly. “But I think I’m getting better at this haunting lark,” he brightened, “two appearances in one day - a personal record.”
“Cool. You still going to show tomorrow morning though?” Chris asked.
“I guess so... Why?” David sounded suspicious.
“Oh, well, nothing,” I butted in, giving a warning look to Chris.
He missed it completely. “Yeah, it’s just that they were kind of hoping you could be here so the others could see you.”
“Others?” David was annoyed. “I’m not some sort of freak show you know!”
“No! David! It’s not like that!” I said hurriedly, jumping up. “It’s just that Anna...”
“Want to show me off to your girlfriend, huh?” he said coldly.
“She just wants to...” I pleaded. But he was gone.
“Oops,” Chris said.
“Yes, oops.” I echoed darkly, sinking back down into my seat.
“Guess now would be a bad time to ask for help then?”
“Not the best of times, no,” I replied, trying to keep my temper. “Now would be a very good time to go and...”
Anna walked in through the door with James. “Hi, we were just looking for Amy.... ooh, it’s cold in here,” she commented, rubbing her arms.
Chris looked at me, and thought she was talking about the look I was giving him. “Yeah, my bad,” he apologised. “I kinda let it slip to David that you all might be here tomorrow when he makes his next appearance.”
The other two stared at him.
“David was here?” James said.
“And... you saw him?” Anna asked.
“Yeah, you know, he was sitting right there on the...” he pointed over to the bunk where Amy lay, but Anna was already rushing over to see to her friend.
“She’s unconscious,” Anna observed.
“You know, two fainting spells in one day, that should tell you something,” I pointed out to her.
“Yes,” she said icily. “That we should be going.”
“Maybe he won’t come. I might have spooked him,” Chris offered.
“That would be a good trick, on account of him already being about as spooked as it’s possible to be without wearing a sheet and throwing crockery,” I observed dryly.
“Will you two stop it,” Anna said crossly. She was still a little put out that we’d left Amy on the bunk while we were arguing the evening before. She wasn’t entirely sure that Chris was on the level, so we’d persuaded her to show up for the breakfast show. James had tagged along too, but Amy had decided that she’d seen enough already.
“Sorry I’m late, I was just chatting with some of the other ghosts,” said David, breaking the tension. “Nice bunch of lads.”
Anna jumped. I was kind of torn between feeling protective and jumping up and shouting in her face. Instead I turned back to David. “Lads? we have all male ghosts?”
“Well, it is an all boys school. There’s a few women from way back, Civil War I think, but I didn’t introduce myself,” he replied. “You know,” he said awkwardly.
“Yeah, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” I joked. “I’m glad you showed,” I continued with more sincerity.
“Well, I had a good think about it after I left, and I realised that Anna must be giving you a hard time over this,” he said. “No offence,” he added.
“None... taken...” Anna replied automatically. I don’t think she was quite up to anything more at that moment in time, as her senses battled her logic for control of her mind. With those big wide eyes, she was beautiful when she was scared witless.
“Anyway, the lads helped me find a little perspective too,” he went on. “Like they said, you were my friends.”
“Are your friends,” I corrected.
James made a gagging sound. “Could you be more American?” he said, removing the fingers from down his throat. He certainly didn’t seem unduly phased by David’s presence.
“Hey, what is this, ‘Be nasty to Anna day’?” Anna complained.
“Anyway,” I carried on regardless, “did they help you figure out why you’re here?”
“No, apparently that’s quite a personal thing,” David said. “Only you can figure out what your anchor is. Or something.”
“That and the fact that they’re still here, so they probably haven’t figured out their own problems,” Anna reasoned, getting with the spirit of things. “Past pupils at this school aren’t the best people to ask when you can’t figure something out.”
We all looked at her.
“No offence,” she added.
“Well, if you’re kind of at a loose end...” Chris began.
“So remind me again,” I said, “exactly why are we doing this?”
“Which part are you having trouble with?” asked James.
“The bit where we freeze our butts off, squatting behind a bush, putting ourselves in mortal danger, while Chris sits in the warm safety of a classroom,” I moaned.
“Oh, the bit where we get to go out and have fun while he’s in detention?” he replied, although he didn’t seem to be having any more fun than I was.
“The glass is always half full for you, isn’t it?” I said bitterly.
“C’mon, it’s not that cold.”
“Yeah, but it’s not dark yet.”
“So sit here and enjoy the sunset.”
“In my dreams where I sit and enjoy the sunset, this isn’t exactly how I pictured it.” We both knew how I pictured it, but that went unspoken.
“Me neither, but seeing as it’s you here instead of Sarah, well, thank God you’ve got your clothes on.” So now we both knew how he pictured it too.
We settled into a sort of grumpy silence for a while, until I couldn’t stand it any more. I cracked first. “Look, I apologised for what I said about you and Sarah, I’ve not been exactly at my best recently.”
“S’okay,” he mumbled, not altogether convincingly.
“I’m sorry, I really am. It could happen.” I tried my best to be sincere, I did. “In some twisted... no, wait, I’m kidding, come back. When I said you should think about going out with someone of your own age, well, I was just thinking that maybe you might get a little more experience under your belt before you go for the big push.”
“Rick, we live in an all boy boarding school,” he reminded me, “I’m not ready to make that much of sacrifice just yet.”
“There are girls in the village... okay, maybe not the best of examples, maybe something that’s got a little less mileage on the clock, I’m just saying that maybe if she sees you with someone else, it might make... her... jealous... or something.” I couldn’t believe I was saying these words. It was like some strange parallel universe, where advice to the teacher fixated was, like, normal.
“She doesn’t know how I feel about her,” he moaned. “How will it make her jealous?”
“Well, okay then, maybe you should let her know, instead of spending all your money trying to get dodgy pictures of her. You’re not exactly in a position to wine and dine her now are you? And she’d be seriously creeped out if she found out what you were planning to do.” James kept quiet. “You are only planning at this stage aren’t you? You haven’t actually...?”
“Relax, I haven’t moved the camera yet,” he grumbled. “Look, I don’t want to have this conversation again, especially if we’re going to be sitting here all evening freezing our butts off.”
“Okay, fine, whatever.” We sat in silence for a few more seconds. “Scho, to the matter at haaand,” I said in a very poor Sean Connery impression in an attempt to lighten the mood, “what has Q department come up with to help usch on thisch misschion?” He looked a little puzzled, so in my normal voice, “how are we going to keep up with this guy? Did you get some sort of homing device or something?”
“Sort of,” James replied, a little defensively.
“That sounds ominous.”
“Well, I couldn’t afford to spend too much, so I thought we’d use these...” He held up to gaudily-decorated walkie-talkies with pictures of cartoon characters on them.
“Walky-talkies? You think he’s going to tell us where he’s going or something?”
“No, look - if you take one and use this elastic band to hold down the transmit button, and another band with a piece of wood wedging down the morse code button, it transmits a squealing sound. You then use the other handset to listen for the squeal. It squeals loudest when the aerial is pointing directly at the other handset, so you get a homing signal.” He seemed quite proud of his lateral thinking. “Cool, huh? Only cost £9.99 from Woolies.” I had to admit, as James’ crazy ideas went, this one actually seemed to have merit. “All you have to do is attach it somewhere under the car where it won’t be seen.”
“Me? This is your idea! You attach it!”
“Hey, I shelled out for the hardware, now it’s your turn.”
“But I’m still in uniform - you’re just in ordinary clothes.”
“And that’s supposed to make me want to get under a dirty, nasty car huh? Get real!”
Grumbling, I snatched the rigged handset and a can of adhesive James proffered and sneaked out to the car. He even had a tennis ball which was to be rolled it under one of the tires as an alibi. The adhesive was pretty quick drying so it caught the weight of the walkie-talkie in seconds, and in no time I was safely back behind the bush.
“All set,” I reported. “So anyway - what kind of range does this thing have?”
“About a hundred and fifty metres,” James admitted a little sheepishly. “Two hundred if you change the batteries.”
There just had to be a downside. “So we don’t want to fall too far behind this guy - which considering that he’s in a car and we’re on bikes isn’t exactly going to be easy,” I hissed.
“Look, if anyone should be down on this assignment it’s me. You’re only here because Anna hassled you to get you out of the studio, and she only really asked because Amy pressured her, and she only did that because Chris asked her. That means I’m here, like, fifth-hand. And the guy’s probably just going to the village for evening classes or something.”
“I checked the community centre’s web site, they don’t have photography classes ‘cos they didn’t get the Lottery money to build a darkroom. We know he’s not going home, or he has a strange habit of not answering his ‘phone if he does. And although we only have Chris’s word for it, he was apparently transporting way too much equipment for an evening class session. We may just be the tools of Chris’ vendetta against this guy, but on his wages that kind of hardware sounds suspicious.” And then, the ultimate weapon. “It could be news.”
“So? I thought we didn’t have a chance of keeping up?” said James obstinately.
I’d obviously upset him by criticising his homing beacon. He could be so childish sometimes. Of course, he was a whole year younger than me. I sighed. “You’re probably right, he’s probably just going to the village, and it’s downhill most of the way. Hell, he’s only in a Volvo. And if he is up to something he won’t want to attract attention by driving too fast. It could be do-able I guess.”
James looked at me curiously. “Do I detect optimism? This is the most enthusiastic I’ve seen you since... well, you know.”
“Since David died? I know. But hey, since we got him back I feel a whole lot better about things. It’s not often that you get told by a suicide victim that it’s not your fault. Not the ones who are any good at it, at any rate.”
“I guess so. But...” Whatever he was about to say, he had to put on the back burner. “Hey, we’re up. Here he comes.”
I pulled the bike round and skidded to a halt in a spray of gravel, not so much for the dramatic flair, more because I was so knackered I didn’t have the strength to pull both brakes hard enough to stop my downhill descent. James opted for just the back brake, overshot and ended up bailing out on the grass verge before he followed the bike into a hedge.
“Nice work, James, I’m so glad I listened to you,” I panted.
“Hey, any time you feel like buying a car...” he groaned back. “Oh, yeah, wait a minute, that’s right, we’re too young to drive.”
“Legally,” I added. “Next time remind me to add a half-brick and a pair of school scissors to my toolkit.”
James retrieved his bike from the hedge, stood up and looked around. “Well, at least we got here - wherever here is.”
“Yeah, I never thought I’d be glad to see roadworks,” I continued, “we’d have lost him for sure back there if it wasn’t for the holdups.”
“Mmm, holdups...” moaned James. I looked at him questioningly. “When Sarah bends over and her skirt rides up you can see she wears those kind of stockings but without anything holding them up...”
I shook my head in amazement at his one-track mind, then put my hand to my eyes against the evening sun and scanned the area. A compound of flat-topped buildings spread out below us, some sort of industrial estate at the edge of town. Just past them, some old Victorian factory buildings on the other side of the railway tracks, no doubt left standing just long enough for someone to come up with the money to extend the estate further. Our target had crossed the railway and parked up outside the factory before going round back. “I guess we should get down there,” I suggested.
James groaned. “Can’t we just tell Chris where we saw this guy park and leave it at that?”
“We can’t leave now,” I informed him.
“You really want to get back on your bike already?”
James came to a decision. “You’re right, we should investigate further,” he said, throwing his bike back into the hedge and striding downhill.
The main doors in to the factory was boarded up with corrugated iron, so my idea about simply walking in the front door had to be scrapped; on further examination however I noticed that the small door set in the main gates leading into a courtyard within the confines of the factory had been used recently, so we snook in there. Of course there was a padlock keeping it shut, but I got that open quicker with a bent paperclip than some people could have got it open with a key. Chris wasn’t the only one who had had to employ devious methods of entry to certain areas of the school, and it was surprising how often the skills you learn at school come in handy in real life. Anyway, it served them right for not shelling out for a decent lock. Once through there it was plain sailing. We found a door from the courtyard back into the building which opened with a little, ah, gentle persuasion, and after a quick scan of the ground floor revealed nothing we moved on up to the next level.
“What are we looking for?” James whispered as we crept up the stairs.
“How should I know?” I replied. “You know everything that I do. I didn’t suddenly find a piece of paper marked ‘Top Secret Plans’ while you were emptying your bladder downstairs.”
“Hey, it’s an abandoned building,” he shot back, “I was just making sure it smelled right.”
“You were afraid of pissing your pants later,” I teased.
“Hey, my name isn’t Amy!” James hissed.
“Take the middle three letters of your name, and it’s close,” I goaded him. I’d been saving that one for about two weeks until the right moment arose, but it hadn’t gotten any better with age. “However,” I halted his protestations with an upraised hand, and then shifted it to point to a set of doors, “in answer to your original question, would a guy with an Uzi sufficiently peak your interest?” I said in a significantly quieter voice.
“Shit!” James said. Through the set of double doors that separated the stairwell from the factory space beyond, a figure sat slumped in a battered old swivel chair, probably left over from when the factory had seen happier times. Across his lap lay the gun. It wasn’t a particularly big gun, the clip was probably taller than the gun was long, but then size isn’t everything, it’s how you shake your arse behind it. And he more than made up in size for that of his weapon. I guess the S-word sort of summed the situation up.
“A little louder please, I think there was an armed maniac on the fourth floor that didn’t quite catch it the first time,” I hissed, dragging him back to the stairwell, and then keeping hold as he started back down the stairs. “Where are you going?”
“Where do you think? Away from here!” James said, making another abortive attempt to break away.
“Why?” I asked.
“Why?” he repeated, incredulously. “On the other side of that door is a man with a gun. What are you, half American or something? Well, I say we get the hell out of Dodge and call in the Cavalry.”
“Look, he’s asleep,” I reasoned. The fact that you couldn’t see what he was doing from this angle made it a little less reasonable.
“He won’t stay that way forever,” James exclaimed.
“What I mean is that it doesn’t exactly show military precision at work here. It’s got to be a bunch of crooks up to no good,” I said enthusiastically.
“Yes, hence the Uzi - you don’t need any great military precision there either, you just squeeze and wave it about. But we’ll still end up dead whatever the finer points of weapons handling,” he reminded me.
“So what do you suggest? We go to the Police?” I put on a silly little-boy voice and said mockingly, “’’Scuse me mister, we just broke into a warehouse and there’s some nasty-looking men in there, can you go and arrest them?’” Back in my usual voice I tried again to reason with him. “Wake up and smell the doughnuts, they’re more likely to lock us up.”
“Fine, then we just walk away, this is out of our league.” He looked me in the eyes, and saw that they were still smiling back at him. Of course him being so serious was making me smile all the more, but I tried not to let on. He shook his head. “I can’t even believe we’re having this conversation; I’m supposed to be the kid here, yet you’re the one acting irresponsibly. Give me one good reason why we should stay.”
“There’d be no story otherwise,” I reminded him. I knew the cameraman in him would start to kick in. I got up and headed off up the stairs in a crouching walk.
James sat there, struggling to find a rational argument, and failing. Finally he noticed I wasn’t there any more and stumbled up the stairs to catch up.
Up on the second floor there were no signs of life; no fresh footprints in the layers of dust on the floor, no marks in the grime on the windows to let in the light, but on an ‘up’ note no armed psycho either. Evidently someone had walked up the stairs before us several times, but obviously all they had to do to check that they were alone was to look at the dirt beyond the little fan-shape of clean floor where the door opened. It was more than a little frustrating; I could walk in there unchallenged, but if I did that they’d know someone had been here. I had hoped to be able to find a chink in the floorboards to listen or, if my luck ran that way, perhaps even look at what they were doing, but I wasn’t even going to get the chance to check.
“Dead end, man,” I admitted.
“Less of the ‘dead’, please,” James muttered.
I was beginning to come down from my previous high. “Maybe you’re right,” I continued with a shrug, “game over. We can’t find anything out without trip-trapping past the ogre sleeping under his firearm, there’s no back way in, no way of looking down on them, and it’s starting to get dark. We ought to...”
Just then there came the sound of voices from below. I stopped in mid-sentence and motioned for James to back off. We ended up crouching in the doorway for no particularly logical reason other than it made us feel better. Then suddenly there was a loud click and beams of light stabbed up through the floor, catching the dust in the air like lasers punching holes skywards. Someone had switched the lights on downstairs. James and myself started breathing again, but softly.
Another series of clicks, and then a whirring sound - music, to my ears at least; the sound of some heavy duty computer gear stirring into life, the sound of power supply fans and hard drives spinning up, as clear a call to action as any engine revving or jet turbine throttling up. I gathered my wits enough to make some appropriately military-looking signals to James to move back out onto the stairwell. He didn’t understand so I pushed him.
“Okay, so now we know. Now we can leave. They’re using a mixture of regular PCs and some UNIX machines, they’re pretty professional but not computer experts which means they have the means to acquire their equipment from people who do know what they’re doing, and that ain’t cheap. We need to get to safety and bring Chris in on this one,” I said quickly. “Now there’s more people, possibly clever ones, definitely awake, I’m a little less eager to stick around.”
“You can tell all that from someone turning a switch on?” James said, half mocking, but just a little in awe.
Just then came the sound of one of Brian Eno’s most ubiquitous compositions - the Windows startup jingle. The UNIX machines didn’t do that, but there had been too many switches snapped on and too few sounds for them all to be UNIX machines. The rest pretty much followed on. “If they were more competent they’d have left the UNIX boxes running all the time, beefing up the security on the machines themselves rather than switching them off and putting an armed guard out front. Hell, one of the grunts probably switched the machines off when they weren’t being used, hence the raised voices, but then they probably haven’t got a proper system up and running yet because Chris saw the hardware being shipped in. Using the Windows boxes - shit, why would any professional want to do a thing like that? It’s probably a mix of off-the-shelf and custom stuff, and Chris’ SysAdmin friend has been brought in to tend to the network. He’s not the head honcho though, he got here well before us and has only reached the computers now - if he was his own boss I’m betting the first thing he’d do would be to walk into the computer room and switch on, he must have been talking to someone more important than himself for all this time. We even know he didn’t take this long just to take a piss, you’ve already proven that you can go to toilet in much less time than this unless we start analysing what we think he had to eat last night.”
James looked at me with something akin to admiration. “Right on, Commander!” he whispered. I’m such a geek sometimes, I even picked up on that early computer gaming reference, and smiled.
There was another sound from below, this time closer to us. The first floor doors to the stairwell. Someone was coming out. “Shit,” I breathed, “someone’s woken Mr. Uzi!”
“Let’s get out of here then,” James replied, equally quietly.
“How?” I asked. “We can’t go down because we’d have to go past him, and we can’t go up.”
“It’s just such a cliché, and you know how I hate them. Besides, all the other floors will be like this, and if there’s roof access it’d be locked and even if we could bust out we’d only make a noise doing it.” Talking of noise, the sound of footsteps were getting louder.
“We’ve got to do something!” James squeaked, seriously scared. I was only a few paces behind him on that. The whole argument was going to become academic if we didn’t move soon. I made a decision.
The guard made his way slowly up the stairs, still a little groggy from his nap. He was also a bit pissed off from the bollocking he’d just got from that asshole nerd, after all, Mr. Big Brain got to go home at night instead of having to stay here all hours guarding the computers from nothing more exciting than spiders and a few mice, but now was not the time to do anything stupid, not when there was this much money involved. Maybe later. He turned the corner and stomped his way up another flight of stairs to the second floor landing. The door was open; he was pretty sure he’d shut it, but maybe someone had come up for a look-see when he had been asleep. He poked his head through and squinted at the floor - nobody had been stupid enough to go inside at least. He took hold of the handle and pulled the door shut, on his way up to the next level.
I put my hand up to silence James, and then when I was sure it was safe we both took a massive intake of breath and let it out in a deep, deep sigh. Hopefully, if no-one ever actually ventured into the room to do their checks it’d be a while before they found the spot behind the door where two scared schoolkids had stood flattened up against the wall. Leaving the door open was risky, but if he’d have opened it himself he might have slammed it into me; this way he just looked in without moving the door except to close it. Now all we had to do was get out, and quickly while he was upstairs. I leaned over to open the door again, and we hopped round it so that we never touched the floor except for where the door had cleared the floor of dust. Shutting it behind us, we had to concentrate hard to stop ourselves just running the hell out of there.
Once out of the courtyard and onto the street in front of the building, we stood near the SysAdmin’s car trying to decide what to do next.
“We have several problems facing us.” I counted them off on my fingers. “One, we need to make sure they don’t find the transmitter stuck to their car. Two, we need to know as much about this guy as possible. Three, we need to get back to school as soon as possible to let the others know.”
“Oh, like, is that all?” James said sarcastically.
“Four, I don’t like peddling?” I offered.
“What are you suggesting?” I think he already knew, but he needed to hear me say it out loud so he could believe it.
“We go native - we do what any local kid does when they see a car left unattended in the city,” I said matter-of-factly, standing there with my elbow resting casually on the roof of the car above the driver’s window like a proud owner. “We go joyriding.”
“Rick, it’s a Volvo. Estate. In beige. Where exactly does the word ‘joy’ come into this?”
“I think the correct term is TWOCing - Taking WithOut Consent,” I corrected him, showing off my knowledge of street lingo. Okay, street lingo learnt from a book. “Hey, if a beige Volvo is good enough for Nicholas Cage, it’s good enough for me.”
“Nicholas Cage does not drive a beige Volvo,” James said adamantly
I counted them off on my fingers. “He does in The Rock, or at least he says he does. In Face/Off he steals one after escaping prison. Con Air, guess what gets trashed when he throws that guy out of the landing gear in mid flight...?”
James put up his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay, whatever. I bow in the face of your greater knowledge of irrelevant film trivia, if only to make you stop. Just be quick, I don’t want them leaning out of the window pumping bullets into the petrol tank.”
“Yeah, I think all drivers should stick to unleaded,” I joked. I rummaged around my pockets, again wishing for that small pair of school paper scissors with the excellent pointy key-sized blades, but I’d just have to make do with what I had. I handed James a yo-yo, and proffered him a bag of jellybabies before finding a a mismatched ‘set’ of screwdrivers from various pockets - that would do nicely, thank you very much.
“What happens if he has a car alarm?” asked James.
“Cover your ears?” I suggested. “We drive off as planned and find a nice quiet patch where we can work undisturbed. It’s an industrial wasteland round here, who’s going to notice once we get off this road? At least we ditch the car. Torch it to cover our tracks.”
“Rick, if I ever ask why you ended up in a school like ours, remind me of this moment first and ask me if I really want to know,” he said on his way round to the passenger side as the lock clicked and I removed the pair of filed-down jeweller’s screwdrivers from the lock.
After picking up the bikes and putting them in the back of the car - a factor which irrevocably changed James’ perception of Volvo estates - we headed back to school, or rather to a quiet spot near school where other abandoned cars had been found recently. With luck the theft, if reported, would be filed away with all the rest; chances are it wouldn’t be reported at all, bearing in mind where we’d taken it from. Of course there was a downside to the plan, in that if we were caught in the act then all the other cars would be blamed on us; the joy quotient of this joyride was kept to a minimum as I tried not to attract any attention, driving along in the gathering gloom in just my shirt so the rest of the school uniform didn’t give me away but without knowing how to switch the heater on, and keeping the speed down to a healthy 38 - after all, driving under the speed limit would definitely have attracted attention. James, meanwhile, was asleep in the passenger seat; I think the recent events had taken a lot out of him. I could have done with some music to take my mind off of things, but I let him sleep, quietly trying to whistle the first thing that came into my head - the theme tune to Buffy the Vampire Slayer - to keep my spirits up.
Finally we made it to the layby that marked the end of our journey, and I flicked the highbeams on to illuminate the area. A lot of debris, twists of melted plastic, cubes of shattered glass in an assortment of colours, the odd battered number plate or hubcap, but no major pieces of ex-car around to attract attention or get in the way. I shook James.
“Wake up - we’re here,” I informed him, leaning over to inspect the contents of the glovebox.
“I wasn’t asleep,” he mumbled, uncurling and rubbing his eyes. “Why is it so cold in here?”
“Stick around,” I advised, “it’ll soon be a lot hotter.”
“Do we have to?” he asked. “I mean, it seems a bit extreme.”
“Well, apart from fitting in with the M.O. of previous joyriders, this now has our fingerprints all over it. You know they have our prints on record, what with one thing and another,” I reminded him. “And that’s not to mention the bumps and scrapes it took from getting the bikes in the back, all those slivers of paint to tie it to us. You really want to risk it?”
“Torch the bastard,” he agreed.
The story lost its shine after the third or fourth time of telling it, and like James I found myself worn out by the end of it all, but it was gratifying to see a full turnout for our return - even David put in an appearance. Through the haze of exhaustion it was easy to think it was just like old times; better, now that we had Chris, the more the merrier. Chris seemed more interested in the hardware, the guns and computers, than anything else; David made sarcastic jokes about James’ knack of self-preservation and about our journey home, with James trying to defend himself; Anna, sensible as ever, tut-tutted about this and that, tried to figure out what the best course of action was, and never left my side; Amy, well, Amy was thrilled and scared in about equal proportions - I think her constitution was more suited to getting her excitement by proxy, so she lapped up every detail. Maybe that was why, even though she got scared out of her wits half the time, she still hung around; she needed to be around us. Whatever. I needed sleep, but it was one of those moments that you don’t want to end. Nothing lasts forever though, and soon everyone drifted away, David literally, most others figuratively, and myself off to sleep.
I’d overslept, I could tell that as soon as I woke up by the light coming in through the window and bouncing off the plain white wall next to my bunk; that, and someone was poking me in the back as I lay there on my side.
“Anna?” I mumbled, turning over.
“Guess again, lover boy,” David laughed.
“Hey, you can do solid,” I observed, still a little groggy.
“Yeah, I’ve been practising,” he replied, a little self-mocking.
“Don’t tell me, from a crazy guy kicking cans around a subway station?”
“No actually, I was trying to figure out how to operate the VCR. I got bored waiting for you to come back last night.”
“Yeah, well, I wish you could have, like, been with last night,” I said a little wistfully. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, James spoke a lot of sense sometimes, but I think he’s still a little young for that sort of thing, you know? I can’t always be watching out for him.”
“Oh, James will turn out fine. And so will Chris, and all the others. You don’t need me at all,” David said sadly.
I sat up, trying to find the words, but he started to fade, slowly. “Damn it, don’t you leave!” I yelled. “Don’t you leave! Don’t go! Don’t go,” I almost sobbed.
Then Anna was there. “Rick? Rick honey, what’s the matter?” she asked, rushing over to the bunk, taking my hand.
“David. I think he’s gone. He said I didn’t need him and then he vanished, and I don’t think he’s coming back this time,” I said, choking back tears.
“No Rick, you were asleep,” she said, shushing me and pushing my hair back from my brow. “You just had a bad dream, that’s all.”
“But... it seemed so real,” I muttered, calming down.
She took my hand. “It was probably an anxiety dream,” she suggested, “you know, it’s like your mind needs to figure something out and your subconscious is projecting certain emotions onto certain relevant people so that it’s easier to make sense of it all.”
“I guess that makes sense,” I admitted.
“It’s something you’re going to have to face up to at some point, you know,” Anna continued. “He’s not going to be around forever - at least, not like he is now. He’s never going to grow up, never going to experience life as he was meant to, and he must be in terrible torment. At some point he’s either going to pass to the other side, or he’ll begin to degrade, like those other spooks who just get stuck in a rut, enacting the same scene over and over in a vain attempt to change what happened to them. You don’t want to see him like that now, do you?”
“You know, for someone who didn’t believe in ghosts not so long ago, you seem to know an awful lot about them,” I remarked.
She shrugged. “I read up on them. I figured it might come in handy,” she said, fiddling with my fingers.
“Maybe you’re right,” I admitted, “I guess it’s kind of selfish to want him here all the time. It’s just he was, like, my best friend, and sometimes I feel so guilty about not being there for him...”
“...And he seems to feel guilty for not being there for you - probably for leaving in the first place,” she reasoned. “It’s... nice that you have a friendship that can outlast even death. But it can’t last forever. It has to end sometime; you know that, you just need a little time to get used to the idea. You’re not betraying him, you’re setting him free.”
“I know you’re probably right. You’re always the voice of reason,” I said. “You know, I guess I must be pretty lucky.”
“How so?” Anna asked, head cocked to one side.
“I seem to have such good friends,” I explained.
For once she sat there unable to think of a reply. She just sat there, looking down at my hand as she held it in hers, not moving. Then she looked up at me, looked me in the eyes, and slowly began to unbutton her...
And then Anna was there, shaking my arm. “Come on sleepy head, time to wake up!”
“Not again,” I groaned.
“Charming,” she said. “Are you always like this first thing in the morning?”
“I wish you were coming with,” I said a little downcast.
“Yeah, me too,”
The whole gang was in the studio, getting ready for the night’s fun; Seven Samurai was in the VCR, to give us plenty of time to carry out the mission - it was either that of Dances with Wolves and I thought it would be better to educate on a school station, not anesthetize. We, on the other hand, were a few short of the seven.
Amy wasn’t going, I mean, that was a given; she volunteered, and she meant well, but I really don’t think she’d have held up too well if the bullets started flying. Like, I’m not saying any of us would suddenly turn into characters from a John Woo film, but the minimum requirement for this mission was the ability to stay conscious long enough to run away. I’d teamed up with Chris to get into the computer room, leaving the other two on diversion duty; now I was saying goodbye to David, who’d been sitting forlornly on the bunk watching us prepare.
“You’ll be fine,” David told me. “You’ve just got PMT - pre mission tension. James can look out for himself; he spoke a lot of sense last time out, you just had a different agenda, that’s all. Chris, well, he seems to have his head screwed on. He’s survived this long. No, you’ll be fine,” he said sadly.
I wasn’t quite sure who was supposed to be cheering who up, and who was succeeding; before I had a chance to figure it out Anna came bounding over. “How do I look?” she said, giving a twirl.
She was dressed in jeans, trainers, a shapeless jacket and a baseball cap with her hair scraped up into it. “It’s quite worrying,” I said, “even I can hardly tell you’re a girl. I hope I’m not going to have nightmares about this later.”
“Oh?” she said innocently, “so what do you dream about now?”
I just stood there with my mouth open, wondering what to say next, but she’d already moved on, helping James on with a bodywarmer that he’d found in some Army surplus shop in town; I think he thought it made him look more military, giving him that SWAT bodyarmour look, but any cool points would have to be deducted for the fact that it was about four sizes too big. It did come with a lot of handy pockets in which he could stash tapes, spare batteries and the like.
“Yes, you’re going to be fine,” David repeated softly, looking past me to the others goofing around, and then back up at me. “Fine without me.” He looked so sad, it reminded me of how he’d been those last few days before...
“Hey, come on, it’s not the end of the world,” I said, a little desperately, remembering the dream I’d had that morning. I could only remember parts of it, but it left me with a feeling of unease.
“No?” David shot back.
“You’re getting stronger every day,” I reminded him quickly, “think about it. You’ll be impervious to bullets, you’ll be able to walk through walls, turn invisible to snoop on people - you’ll be, like, a superhero or something!”
“Rick, it took me three hours to figure out how to turn on the CD player to try and relieve the boredom of being here on my own all day, and now I’ve put in this appearance I’m probably going to have to vanish for several hours to get my strength back. I really don’t think I’ll ever be able to leave this place.”
“Oh, come on, everyone here feels like that,” I joked, “but hey, life goes on.”
“Yeah, life goes on,” he said thoughtfully “but maybe death should be final.”
I didn’t know what I could say to this; it seemed the dream was beginning to come true. “See you when we get back?” I said, not meaning it to come out as a question, but there was no way to keep the worry out of my voice.
“I’ve got a few things to work out,” he replied, “but yeah, I guess I’ll still be here.”
Suddenly there was a knock on the studio door, and it began to open.
“Shit!” I whispered, then turned to David. He was still there, and there was no time for him to leave without whoever it was noticing the balls of coloured light he left behind. I glanced at the bunk and had an idea, tried to shove him under the covers, but of course couldn’t actually touch him; he got the idea though, and instead of getting under the covers passed through them instead, just as the door came open and Anna’s mum appeared.
“Hi guys, I just wondered if you wanted a lift into town?” she asked. She smiled when she saw Anna. “New look for you, hon?”
“Ah, well, it gets pretty cold when it gets dark, y’know?” Anna replied weakly.
“Can’t you just wait until tomorrow to pick up this video? Or better still, just order a copy and pick it up at the weekend?” her mum suggested.
“No way!” blurted Chris. “Er, that is, we’ve been waiting for this video to be released for quite a while now, and, y’know, we’d really like to get a copy as soon as possible.”
“Yeah, and we know the guys who are working tonight,” James added. “If they’re having to open the store at midnight to sell this tape then, well, we really ought to support them and make it worth their while.”
“Well now, that’s very thoughtful of you,” Anna’s mum smiled, but had the good grace not to laugh. “So, it seems like you’ve got everything organised, perhaps I’m just fussing about nothing?”
“Actually, maybe we could take you up on that offer of a lift, if it’s still on?” I said nonchalantly. The others all turned to look at me with astonishment, but hey, just because we were going out on a mission didn’t mean we had to be uncomfortable on the way. I for one had had enough of cycling for one lifetime.
“Sure, of course,” she said. “Although, I don’t know if I have enough room for all of you.”
“Oh, it’s okay, Amy’s not coming with us,” Anna informed her.
“Okay, but what about your friend on the bunk there?”
I froze, an inane grin on my face. Slowly I managed to turn to look at the bunk. David was still there, hidden under the covers.
Amy was the first one to break the silence. “Oh, that’s Da....”
“...Daniel,” I interrupted, brain kicking back into life. “Danny Harrison, fourth former, y’know? He had an idea for a show he wanted to run past us.”
“Oh. Okay.” Anna’s mum said. Phew. Survived that one. Then a thought struck her. “But why is he in bed?”
Why indeed. “Ah, he...” I groped around for an idea. “Why don’t you show her, Danny?” I heard myself say. There were several very quite groans.
David rose slowly, keeping the sheet over him. “Okay, Rick, but you have to ask me the questions,” he said in a squeaky voice.
“Er, yeah, okay.” Looking around for inspiration, my eyes fastened on the video collection on the far wall. “Hey mister ghost, what’s your favourite Hong Kong director?”
“And what does Romeo do to Juliet?”
“F... - er, Woo?”
“What does the crowd in the country bar do when the Blues Brothers play blues music?”
“Huh? oh, boo!”
“That’s, er, very nice dear,” Anna’s mum said supportively. “But isn’t it a little early to be thinking about Hallowe’en?”
“Well, it needs a lot of work,” I explained.
“You don’t say,” she smiled. “Well, if you guys want to get a good place in the queue maybe we should start off now and leave Amy and, er, Danny to work on it?”
She dropped us right outside the shop, where a few people even more sad then ourselves had already started to gather, a collection of picnic chairs, sleeping bags and thermos flasks. She kissed Anna goodnight as James and I unloaded our director’s chairs and a couple of bags supposedly full of sandwiches and soup. “Here’s a phonecard in case you miss the night bus back to the village,” she fussed, “you just give me a call and wait inside the store ‘till I come get you.”
“Mom, we’ll be fine,” Anna assured her.
“I know, honey, but still, better not take any chances, huh?” she said, and with another kiss she drove off.
“She means well,” Anna said, a little embarrassed.
“Hey, it’s only natural. It’s pretty cool of her to let us do this in the first place,” I reassured her. “I don’t think any of the other teachers, or our parents for that matter, would have said yes.”
“Yeah,” Anna said sadly, “kind of a shame we’re lying to her then, huh?”
We stashed the chairs behind the rubbish skips at the back of the shop, hoping that tomorrow wasn’t collection day. We actually did know the guys from the shop, after all, we were there often enough, so getting a copy of the video put to one side so that we’d have our alibi in the morning was a simple matter of bribing them with airtime. We might not have massive viewing figures, but it was a captive audience, so for a small video shop a little advertising could go a long way.
By a quarter past eleven, or as James insisted 23:15 hours, we were back on the outskirts of town, in a side street not far from the factory.
“Okay, final check. Everyone knows what to do?” I asked. Kinda pointless at that stage in the proceedings, but it helped concentrate the mind. Everyone nodded eagerly, breath clouding in the chill of the night air. “James? You get the explosives?”
“Yeah, I got the Physics teacher’s own supply.,” he enthused. “It’s fresh too, he used the transformers in the lab to ignite some the other day to test it. During lesson time too, scared everyone out of their skin.”
“Well thank goodness he’s only into collecting muskets and stuff,” muttered Anna. “God knows what he’d get up to if he could lay his hands on some fissionable material.”
“I don’t know if it’s enough for what we need, so I had to add something of my own to it,” continued James.
“Oh?” I didn’t know that James was into making explosives, although like everyone else he’d downloaded the instructions off the Internet. “What you got?”
“Flour,” he said with a grin.
“James, we’re trying to make a loud bang, not cook for them,” I reminded him.
“No, wait, remember that video the Physics teacher showed us that time? The one with the pianos?” Chris enthused.
“Oh yeah,” Anna chipped in. “They blew up one piano with explosives, and then the other with explosives and a bag of flour, and the second one just flew apart.”
I was still looking lost. Flour? I must have missed. that particular lesson.
“You know, it’s like that scene in Stargate, where Ra says he’s going to send the nuke back through the gate with a consignment of the mineral which will amplify the blast a thousandfold?” James reminded me, trying to put it in terms I’d understand.
“Actually it’s more to do with a heavy density of particulate matter...” Anna began.
“Whatever,” I cut in, head swimming. “Just so long as it works.”
23:30:00: Diversion one: Outside the factory two boys are seen to start throwing stones at an apparently abandoned factory. For some reason they seem to concentrate on smashing the windows on the first floor, with quite some success.
23:31:12: Minimally staffed at that time of night, the grunt with the Uzi again draws the short straw and is sent out to scare the kids off. At this point team two gain access to the target building.
23:32:26: the first floor is seen to be still occupied, the remaining staff having congregated there to check for damage to the equipment.
23:32:30: Diversion two: James’ package is detonated by remote control, another under-a-tenner device. Some satisfaction is noted in the fact that “those smug bastards” the Power Rangers will be destroyed along with the package.
23:32:31: Having underestimated the power of the device, or simply not caring, it seems James had created a package wildly over spec. In the confines of the courtyard the shockwave shatters most of the windows. It is later described as “like the quickening scene out of Highlander. Any quickening scene. Or for that matter anything else Russell Mulcahy has done, ever.”
23:32:36: Recovering sufficiently from the shock to be able to move to panic, the three remaining members of the gang pick themselves up in a shower of glass and start to run. In no particular direction.
23:32:54: Taking advantage of the confusion, team two make their way over to a series of benches to one side of the room. The benches are covered in computer equipment.
“Whoo!” Chris said, as we slid into place behind one of the desks. “That was fun! Do it again! Again, again!”
“Maybe later,” I offered. “Right now we’ve got a job to do, before they realise that they’re not under attack by the RAF.”
The desks were good, solid, metal desks, chunky square legs with metal tops, sides and backs. I slid round to a gap between two of the desks, fished around inside my jacket for the camcorder, slapped it into working order and then poked my head up to look at one of the computers.
“Hey! I know this! It’s Unix!” I exclaimed.
“You mean the Unix where you type lots of stuff in, or the Unix where you have a 21 inch virtual reality display of all the dinosaur pens?” Chris asked sarcastically.
“Funny. Can you tell what it’s doing?” I asked.
“It’d help if he’s logged in with root access,” he mumbled, grabbing a keyboard and tapping away. “Nope, he’s not logged in at all. Hold on a sec, I hacked into his personnel records and generally studied him for a while when I was planning my revenge, maybe I can take a stab at it. Okay Mr. Schreck, let’s see what you’ve got.... let’s start with the obvious ones and work from there.” A little more hammering at the keyboard. “Not his birth date, nobody’s that stupid. The holy trinity, sex, god and password - nope. What about... shit, she’s putting out and he’s not even he’s not even interested enough to use her name.” He paused for a minute. “Oh yes, one more.” He typed in another six characters, then pushed the keyboard away in disgust. “Oh, that is so lame.”
“What?” I asked, thinking something had gone wrong.
“His password is joshua? How could he be so obvious?” Chris almost seemed angry.
“Huh? What’s the problem?”
“Do they not teach you the classics any more?” Chris asked, surprised. “Have you not seen War Games recently?”
“Well obviously,” I replied. “But apart from the 80’s movie trivia quiz, what else is going on?”
“Mmm... not a lot by the look of it, mainly logging, a little comms activity. Ooh, look at this machine though, seriously heavy duty image processing stuff, video editing, and here we have... what does that look like to you?”
I looked up at the monitor he indicated, camera glued to my eye as ever. Sometimes I spent so long like that I felt like it was a Borg implant or something. “Circuit board. A video of some PCB design software?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought at first, but then why is it so fuzzy?” Chris asked. Then he looked back at a tripod set up at one of the windows on the road side of the room, and back at the computer equipment. “Oh... my... God...”
“What? what is it?” I asked.
“We gotta get out of here,” her replied. “Now.” He started to scuttle away, trying to drag me with him.
“What?” I repeated, resisting his pull.
“If I got this figured right, then we’re not dealing with some poxy counterfeit ring,” he warned. Then a thought struck him. “Oh wow, I guess they could be, but not like we guessed, not something mundane like car tax stickers or passports anyway.”
“WHAT?” I repeated again, getting agitated.
“Try missile guidance systems,” he said, his face dead straight.
“You’re not serious,” I laughed.
“Could be,” he nodded. “Something like that anyway. I mean, I don’t know electronics well enough to be sure exactly what, but what I do know for sure is that you don’t set up this kind of operation to steal the latest flatter, squarer TV design.”
“What type of operation is this?”
“One where they’re picking up the signals from a monitor inside that industrial estate, collecting them, stitching them together to make a circuit diagram, and shipping it off over an encrypted link to God knows where in real time.”
“Wow,” was all I could say for a while as the enormity of the situation began to sink in. “So what now?” I asked eventually.
“Run like hell?” he suggested.
“That sounds like a plan,” I agreed.
“Oh, thank goodness you’re here!” Anna exclaimed, running up to me and hugging me when we met her at the bus stop waiting for the night bus home. As getaways go I guess it wasn’t the most stylish of methods of transportation, but it had the advantage of being so ordinary that no-one would suspect it; okay, so maybe it also had the advantage of being the only escape route open to us other than walking all the way back to school. “Did you find anything interesting?”
“Oh yeah,” I grinned. I was so happy to see Anna safe and sound I could have kissed her, but then I noticed something was missing. “Where’s James?” I asked.
“I don’t know, we got separated,” she replied. “Maybe he went back to the shop to pick up the video to make sure our alibi is intact?”
“Maybe,” I agreed hesitantly, although the plan was to wait until morning and get a copy from our friends at the shop. Then again it was a Bruckheimer production, so perhaps James couldn’t wait.
“How long ‘til the next bus?” Anna asked.
“About five minutes,” Chris replied, studying the timetable bolted to the inside of the shelter.
“God, it’s cold,” Anna complained, visibly shaking. Behind my back I heard her pulling her arms up into her jacket sleeves to keep her hands warm, but I noticed that she hadn’t yet pulled away from my embrace.
“Would you like my jacket?” I offered gallantly.
“No, don’t be silly,” she replied, “then you’ll freeze.” She snuggled her head a little deeper into the hollow of my shoulder. “To be honest, I’m not just shaking from the cold. When the adrenalin wears off it’s a bit scary being out here on your own, especially after what we just did. I mean, so many things could have gone wrong...”
“...But they didn’t,” I reminded her. “Don’t worry, I’m here. Tell you what, I’ll keep you safe, you share a little body heat with me, and we’ll make it through this. Deal?”
“Okay, deal,” she agreed, “it’s too cold to argue. Although you move your hand any lower and I’ll make your face warmer with my fist.”
I wrapped my arms around her properly and rested my head on hers. She stopped shaking. Somehow it felt so right, standing there holding her, I could have stayed like that forever.
“Bus is here,” Chris announced, and Anna pulled away.
Damn those night bus drivers for being early, and all other drivers for not being on the road to slow the bus down. “Maybe we should wait here for James,” I suggested, trying to keep the desperation out of my voice, but the spell had been broken.
“No, let’s get out of here before we freeze to death, James knows what to do,” Chris moaned, heedless of various faces I was making at him over Anna’s shoulder; I mean, he was right, but really, what was a little hyperthermia between friends? Grudgingly I flagged the bus down.
All the way back I was convinced that we were being followed, that out in the darkness behind the bus I could make out the driver of every car, real or imagined, and that it was someone from the factory. In the end I had to stop looking out of the window as I was starting to make the others nervous; I sat on the back seat, staring forwards, waiting for a car to come skidding out of the darkness to stop the bus, yet dreading the moment that the bus reached its destination and we had to emerge from it light, warmth and relative safety. It felt like the longest bus ride of my life, and that includes the time we went by coach to Milton Keynes.
Through the hole in the wall, across the lawn and in through the back door; it was locked at this time of night, but luckily Chris happened to have a key - I didn’t ask.
“Okay, I’ll head up to the studio and call the Police, why don’t you guys go and see if James made it back early?” I suggested.
“I’ll check his dormy,” agreed Chris.
“He’s more likely to be waiting in the studio, or at least trying to use the payphone to call the Police himself,” Anna reasoned. “I’ll head up there with you, and if if we can’t find him then while you make the call I can check around downstairs.”
“Okay, cool,” I agreed, and as Chris headed off one way Anna and I headed off in the other direction, bound for the studio.
Anna and I made our way across the ground floor towards the stairs with only the dim glow from the emergency exit signs to light our way.
Anna grabbed hold of my arm, making me jump out of my skin. “Wait,” she hissed. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
“Huh? You have a bad feeling about this? You’re the least superstitious person I know. In fact you’re not even stitious, you’re completely substitious. What do you mean you have a bad feeling about it?” I rambled, an edge of panic setting in.
“I don’t know, something just doesn’t feel right. Maybe we should turn the lights on,” she suggested.
“That’ll just attract attention,” I argued.
“From whom? We’re just scaring ourselves wandering around in the dark. There’s nobody about, we weren’t followed and everyone from the school will be asleep,” Anna countered.
“Okay, okay, maybe it would help to settle our nerves,” I admitted. I flicked the switch.
In front of us was the huge guy with the machine gun from the warehouse. Anna screamed. I screamed louder. Then came the running.
“How the hell did he get here?” I asked quietly, hiding round a corner, panting heavily.
“I guess they must have gotten to James,” Anna reasoned. “That’s why we weren’t followed - they already knew where to find us.”
“Thanks - cheer me up why don’t you?” I muttered, and poked my head back around the corner. I couldn’t see anyone, but I thought I could make out the occasional shuffling noise. I unpoked.
Anna was standing there holding a fire extinguisher. “Here, use this on him,” she whispered loudly.
“Cool,” I thanked her. I poked my head round the corner again, and with a reassuring pat on the arm from Anna I set off in a shambling half-run.
Anna must have stood there all of ten seconds, but to her it seemed like hours. Standing there alone in the darkness, she strained her hearing for the slightest sound, but could here nothing except the creaks of an old building settling down for the night - although each creak might have been an assassin coming for her In the dark, her imagination told her. She had almost convinced herself to turn the corner and try to find me when she heard a definite non-building noise and froze in place. Had she imagined it? Then came a sound of cartilage versus metal (the metal definitely winning), followed closely by a roar of pain. Then came several more metallic clangs, and finally silence.
She visibly jumped when I came back around the corner, machine gun in one hand, slightly damp fire extinguisher in the other. “I meant for you to use it to spray him with it,” she admonished.
“Well, in that case, next time give me one that’s full of foam, not CO²,” I grinned back. “Anyway, let’s get to the studio, I want to make sure there’s no-one else sneaking around before Chris gets there.”
“And if there is?” Anna asked.
I handed her the gun. “Hold this end, point that end, squeeze this bit,” I instructed her.
“Hey, remember who you’re talking to,” she objected, “I am an American citizen you know!”
The rest of the journey was less eventful, so we made good time back to the studio; we found it dark and apparently deserted.
“It’s okay, we’re safe,” I whispered into the darkness behind me, and Anna followed me in.
“So what do we do now?” she asked. “Do we wait for the other to come to us? Or do we try to go find them?”
“We shouldn’t wander off,” I reasoned, “we might miss Chris. And we don’t really know how if there’s any more bad guys wandering about out there either. I say we stay put.”
There was a noise behind us, and the lights snapped on. The SysAdmin had an arm around Anna’s throat, dragging her off her feet so she couldn’t keep her balance. His other hand kept a pistol pointed at her head. “Drop it,” he said, so I let the extinguisher fall to the floor with a loud clang. “You too, dear,” he said to Anna, pulling her this way and that to keep her from regaining her footing and so keeping her too confused to use her gun. He gave a her a particularly violent shake, at which I took a step forward, unable to help myself where Anna was concerned. “Ah, ah, ah!” Schreck warned, tightening his grip around Anna’s throat and pulling her head upwards. She started to make choking sounds, and finally gave up her gun which fell with a clatter to the floor. He kicked it into the dark corner behind him. “Now, why don’t you go sit with your friends over there and we’ll all wait nice and quietly until the rest of our party joins us, shall we?”
I turned to see James emerge from under the blankets of my bunk, followed by a shivering Amy who had apparently been in the studio awaiting our return. “Hey James,” I greeted him with a grin so wide it was just on the border of sanity, “long time no see.”
“It is when you’ve a gun to your head all the time,” he informed me.
I turned back to face our captor, who was still holding Anna by the throat. I really didn’t like the way he was doing that. I mean, holding us hostage was bad enough, but taking it to such a literal extreme just wasn’t right. “Look, Schreck, we all want to get out of this, why don’t you just let us go and we’ll say no more about this, eh?” I reasoned.
“Oh, I really don’t think that’s going to happen,” he informed me sarcastically.
“Why not?” I continued. “None of us are gaining anything from the current situation, and none of us want to die - you included, or you wouldn’t be quite so eager to wave that piece around. We could all just walk away...”
“...and you’d just run straight to the Police.” He snorted. “That’s not going to happen.”
“So what is going to happen?” I asked.
“Soon as some of my friends arrive, that’s when we’ll start walking out of here - with you lot as hostages. Until then, stay cool or your girlfriend here gains a new hole.”
I shivered, then pulled myself back together. “You won’t do that. Right now they’ve got you for a little theft, a little light time and you’re back in circulation. Up that to murder and not only do you you lose your hostage, they’ll put you away for a very long time.”
“What’s one more hostage?” he laughed. “I got four. I can afford to lose one or two.” He pulled Anna up by the throat again, choking her some more.
I couldn’t watch it any more. I knew I couldn’t make it to the gun lying so nearby without him getting a shot off, either at me or Anna. It might as well have been on another planet. Tears of frustration welled up. “Well, kill her and you’d better hope you can get another hostage before I come over there and kick your teeth down your goddamn throat.”
“Really?” he said sweetly, “I seem to have touched a nerve there.” He loosened his grip on her throat and started to grope her, trying to get a rise out of me.
Anna’s involvement seemed to be clouding my judgement. Obviously a change of tactic was required. “Maybe I feel a little protective towards her. But maybe you should look out for your own ass.”
“And why’s that? You going to tell me to look over my shoulder next? There’s nothing there kid, just a blank wall.”
“No, you should be more afraid of what’s in front of you.” I was looking at Anna now. “Maybe if you were holding Amy, then you’d have had a chance. But Anna, she’ll go down fighting. In fact...”
I swear I heard the ribs crack as Anna elbowed him good and hard, ducking her head down so that he would miss even if he managed to pull the trigger. As he stumbled forwards in pain I relieved him of his gun, and with the other arm pulled Anna towards me.
“What was that?” I demanded. “You could have got killed!”
“You told me to go down fighting!” she said indignantly.
“I didn’t stress the ‘fighting’ part, I just meant for you to duck so I could grab the gun!”
Schreck waved with the hand not holding the remains of his ribs in place. “I hate to break up this little lover’s tiff but remember me? Hostage situation? Guy with the broken bloody ribs? Ow!”
“Well, I guess the shoe’s on the other foot now isn’t it?” I said with false bravery, waving the gun around in his general direction.
“Uh, yeah, I guess so, whatever that means,” he muttered. “Kid, you might as well give me back the gun, you’re not going to use it, and my friends will be here in a while.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, did we not tell you? We disposed of most of your friends already, right after we put the call in to the Police,” I lied. “You’ve got nothing to bargain with here.”
He shuffled into a half standing, half crouching position, left hand still clutching his right chest. “Kid, we both know you’re not the kind of person to pull the trigger. Some people can, some people can’t.”
“On the contrary, anyone can pull the trigger given the right motivation,” I informed him, the voice of experience “you know, self defence, protecting a loved one, or just when someone really pisses you off - I think we’ve got all three here. The question is not can you pull the trigger, it’s can you live with the consequences? And there’s only one way to answer that one. If you don’t sit down right now we’ll find out soon enough.”
“Well, if you won’t listen to reason then I guess there’s another reason you won’t shoot me,” he said. “You don’t know how to take the safety off.”
I fell for it, I actually fell for the oldest trick in the book. I looked down. He lunged forward.
The shot rang out so loud in such a confined space it seemed to numb the mind as well as the ears. In slow motion he fell back to the floor, a look of shock on his face. He hit the ground, bounced a little on his ass, and was still.
Then the world started moving at normal speed, and with it came the sound. There was a strange sort of “aaahhaaaahhaaahh” noise in the air, I thought it was Amy screaming. I closed my mouth and the sound stopped.
We just stood there, stunned. Then someone had to ask the $64,000 question.
“Is he dead?” breathed James.
I didn’t answer. I didn’t want to know the answer, not right now. I could safely put that one off for quite some time, thanks very much.
James wandered over and kicked the SysAdmin’s foot gingerly, and then again slightly harder. The body moved, cursing. He bent down, lifted his erstwhile kidnapper’s head up and saw there was indeed still life in it, and then saw the bullet wound. “Oh, nice shot Rick, you just clipped his arm.” Then a wicked grin came on to his face. “Must have gone all the way through, you should see the hole. Looks like a real pumper too, must have hit a vein. You want to come over here and stick your finger in it to stop the bleeding, Amy?” But, of course, she had already passed out on the bunk.
“Thanks a lot James, I have to sleep there tonight,” I moaned.
Anna walked over to Schreck and kicked him in the shin. “You give up yet? Because if that’s what that thing can do with the safety on, you should see what I got planned for you with the safety off!”
A familiar wailing sound could be heard through the window. “Sorry Anna, you’ll have to stop torturing the suspect, the Police are here now,” I informed her. “Let the professionals take over.”
Quite a crowd had started to gather by the time the Police pushed their way through. James, ever the professional, was filming the crowd looking at us. One guy in particular was in good spirits.
“Dude! Killer show, man!” he said.
It’s not like the police showing up was a complete novelty, so I was a little puzzled by his excitement. “You should have seen it earlier, when the bullets started flying,” I exaggerated.
“Dude! We did! We saw it all on the TV in the common room, man!” he enthused. “I dunno how you got that hunk o’ junk working again, but we saw everything! Pity there was no sound, but hey, you can’t have everything in life, right? We saw how you guys totally beat up that guy!”
I was still puzzled. “So, why were you in the common room at this time in the morning?”
“I guess that kid couldn’t sleep. He came round and woke us all up,” he explained.
“Dunno his name. Haven’t seem him around much before, but he looked a lot like that dead kid you used to hang with.”
David. I guess he must have stuck around after all. “You hear that James?” I asked. “Seems we were on TV all the time!”
“Yeah, pity we didn’t get it on tape,” he replied. He thought about it for a while, then lowered his camera. We both rushed over to the VCR, and saw that there was a tape running, red record light blinking. How the hell had he managed that?
“I suppose we’ll have to let the police have this,” James sighed.
“See what?” I asked, turning to face the room and coincidentally block anyone else’s view of the VCR. He looked at me for a second, then quickly slipped the tape out of the machine and secreted it inside his clothing.
Just then Chris pushed his way through the crowd. “Hello, stranger,” I greeted him. “Where have you been?”
“Sorry guys,” he said, “I went to see if James was by the phones, and I this guy there with this huge machine gun.”
“So what did you do?” Amy asked.
“Oh, I ran away,” Chris answered matter-of-factly.
“Thank goodness he didn’t make it back here,” I commented.
“Oh, no, there was no chance of that. He was running after me,” Chris corrected me.
“And he didn’t catch you? Call yourself a computer geek?” I laughed.
“Of course he didn’t catch me,” Chris replied, “I half blinded him with a fire extinguisher.” Anna was talking to one of the Policeman, but she must have heard because I could almost feel the look she was giving me; I pretended not to notice.
There was just one loose end to tie up - I had to find David and thank him. It was quite late in the morning, the Police had packed up and gone home with their three injured prisoners in tow. James had even miraculously managed to find - hey, what’s this? - a video of the night’s proceedings which he dutifully handed over to them; they didn’t have to know about the three other copies he’d made by then.
“I still don’t get it,” I said yet again to all assembled, lounging about the studio in various states of wakefulness. “When we left, he was saying he was too weak to even operate the CD player, but he managed to change the tape in the VCR, set it recording, get the TV in the common room working - a miracle in itself - then patch in the feed from the spy camera, and finally wander around waking up an audience. I mean, I’m grateful for our biggest ever late-night audience and all that, but how the hell did he manage it?”
“Maybe it was just, like, you know, the heat of the moment or something,” Anna reasoned. “Who knows what someone is capable of when push came to shove?”
I was absent-mindedly fiddling with a plant pot - someone had filled it full of soil from outside and then planted a candle in it. There were several of them around, I hadn’t seen them before so I guess someone must have brought them in when we were talking to the Police. A bit weird, but kids our age weren’t given to hoarding candlesticks so I guess it was just another case of ingenuity when push came to shove. “Oh, maybe. I dunno. I wouldn’t have thought he be susceptible to sudden spurts of adrenalin. At least it explains why we haven’t seen him since though, he’s probably “
“Rick, maybe that’s not it,” Anna said gently. “Maybe he’s gone for good this time. Maybe this was his way of saying goodbye.”
“I don’t think so,” I said a little too quickly. “It just doesn’t feel - you know - final. You’d have thought he’d at least have come back to say one last farewell.”
“Maybe he couldn’t. Maybe he found the peace he was looking for - he helped you out when you were in trouble, in his own way, and it took so much out of him that he just couldn’t resist the pull of the other side or something.” She let her head fall down to the desk. “What am I saying? I don’t even believe in all that spiritual mumbo-jumbo. We are all waaaay too tired to be having this conversation.”
I couldn’t argue with that part at least, so I just nodded dumbly.
Just then there was a polite knock on the half-open door, and Anna’s mom - I mean, mum - walked in.
“Hey guys, you still awake? I thought you’d all be fast asleep after your adventures last night,” she greeted us cheerily.
“I very nearly am,” James admitted, barely able to lift his head from the table as he spoke. Chris was already snoring gently over on the bunk; Amy had snuggled up against him.
“Come on, hon, let’s get you home,” she continued, taking Anna by the arm and helping her out of her chair. Anna staggered out into the corridor, and her mum followed, but then stopped and turned back towards me. She hesitated, then said, “that friend of yours that was here earlier - he asked me to give you this when you got back.” She took out what looked like a square of paper from a pocket in her blouse. As she handed it over I noticed that some of her fingernails looked a little knawed and she looked almost as tired as we all did. Perhaps she had stayed up all night worrying. Maybe she even made those silly candle holders to light our way home or something. She certainly had dirt under one or two of those fingernails.
I took the object from her, and after giving me a smile she left the room. I flipped it over; it was a Polaroid photograph. I turned it around to get a better look at the subject, but I already knew who it was. It was David. He was waving goodbye.
With his middle finger.
Well, what can I say? Plenty of laugh-out-loud moments for the genre savvy. I won't spoil the moment by saying anything else here, other than - once again - a great big Thank You to Richard Goodwin.
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Last read at 13:36 on 2020/07/03.
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