Thursday, October 20, 2011
The ship swayed and creaked. He feels every bit of it in his body. Taking no chances the crew, damnedable pirates, have chained him with no give. Legs bound in a kneeling position, arms chained to either wall crucifying him to the ship like a perverse figurehead, he’s been their captive long enough to have forgotten the feel of kindness.
It is a small blessing that their fear of him keeps his gag in place at all times. It keeps them from coming anywhere near him. The captain learned a long time ago that he gleans all he needs to live from the moisture in the air, the brine in his eyes. During storms, when he is strongest, the captain posts guards with him. They don’t look at him.
A terrible hope fills him today. By the movement of the ship and the crew’s curses, he knows that they’re being pursued by another ship. This ship is a runner, fast. There’d be little concern of capture if the ship did not gain its quickness from being light, gain its lightness from having little room for armaments or supplies.
The pursuers have had them going for a week now and they’d been out of port for at least a month. He knows from the panic in the crew that the food is all but gone. Soon they’ll be too weak to load what small guns are aboard. He’d be surprised if they could remember how to sight the cannons it’s been so long since the captain has ordered them used.
His hope stems from the pirates’ desperation. If they succumb to practicality then they’ll come for him. With frightened hearts and shaking hands, they’ll undo his chains and he’ll get to spend some time under the sky instead of under foot. So he waits for their desperation to bloom practicality.
It does not take long. The first mate comes with three guards and the keys. It is always the first mate that comes to get him. The captain coming himself would make him a person that the captain fears, he wouldn’t last long once that got out among the crew. The first mate is the only one he trusts with the keys to his chains.
“The captain wants to see you.” He speaks with a unique accent that comes with the ship’s pidgin of French, Spanish, and Greek. His ears hear the gibberish, but his mind provides him with the meaning.
Slowly, they unchain his arms from the ship and secure them behind his back. The guards are afraid to touch him, unsure whether he’ll break or they’ll be infected with something. It strikes him as odd how religious some of these men are.
Coming onto the deck, sea spray hits him in the face, covers his bare chest. He instantly feels more alive. He stands taller, muscles flex, the chains bite into his skin.
They take him to the captain, standing at the aft of the ship. He stands beside the captain looking out at the wide ocean, the only thing marring their perfect view of the horizon the pursuers. The first mate and guards fold themselves into the three other men standing around them.
The captain just stands there for a few minutes, ignoring him. This too is done to show the crew he will do this in his own time, to show that the man he keeps below decks does not frighten him. Around the gag, behind the locked mouth plate, he smiles. Only he and the captain know what he is, and he knows that the captain is frightened of that.
“I have use of you.” From under his coat he draws out the key that only he is allowed to keep. He inserts into lock for the face plate. “If you hurt this ship my men will stab you and you will die before you can swim for freedom. Like always, yeah?”
He nods. It’s always the same threat. It vaguely occurs to him that this is only a half life. But then, the spirits would kill for half a life. The plate falls away and he spits the wooden wedge from his mouth.
His tongue sticks out, tasting the salt in the air. He flexes his jaw, taking in the blue sky, the white clouds, the gentle waves. He smiles at the captain. Other than the crew’s swords there is very little compelling him.
Finally, the captain’s annoyance at the delay shows on his face. He focuses on ship on the horizon. He tries not to think of the men on the ship. He knows he will have to answer for his actions one day, but he’s trying to postpone that day for as long as possible.
“ “ The wind stops, the water flattens. All around the ship, a calm settles. The crew has stopped its work.
“AH!” Lawrence jumps awake in the back of the cab. The cabby swerves.
“Whoa, buddy. You okay?”
“I’m fine. Sorry.” The cabby’s eyes dart from the road to the rearview mirror and back. “I’m good. I’m okay.” The cabby’s eyes return to the road and stay there, Lawrence was prepared to keep reassuring him for the rest of the drive as long as he didn’t take his eyes off the road.
“That jetlag’s a bitch, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, jetlag.” He doesn’t really feel like talking so he looks out the window. What he sees unsettles him so much that he almost closes his eyes again. Outside the cab desert stretched on for miles.
When he’d met the cabby at the airport he’d been fine. They’d been in the middle of a city. He preferred the buildings and people to the endless dry expanse. He tried to think of it as a sea of earth but it just made him queasy. He can’t help it, he closes his eyes.
“We’re almost there,” the cabby rouses him.
“How long was I out?”
“If I’d of known I wouldn’t have let you sleep at all. You wouldn’t believe how many people fall asleep in my cab from the airport.” The cabby keeps up a steady stream of chitchat for the next few minutes. Lawrence doesn’t say much, but he’s glad for the distraction.
“Here we go, buddy.” He pulls up in front of an independent diner. Lawrence can tell the sign was made with care when it was painted, years in the desert sun has faded it badly. “They got good food here?”
“I don’t know. This is my first time here.” He pays the fare and steps out of the air-conditioned interior. His lips are immediately dry and cracked. The heat cuts him to the core as fast as it dried his lips, the urge to speak rises in him. He needs to escape this heat, he’s drowning in dryness.
He rushes inside hoping that they’ll have air-conditioning. No such luck. The interior of the restaurant is as faded as the exterior. He seats himself, impatiently tapping his foot waiting for the waitress.
He can hear the sound of the wind. Not the dry, lifeless wind of the desert, but the damp, alive wind of the storm. It’s calling to him, begging him to call out. He licks his lips with a tongue he can barely feel.
He can’t help himself, the desert is antithesis for him. Why had he decided to come here? To satisfy some adolescent curiosity? He takes one long, shuttering breath.
“What can I get you?”
“Ah.” His eyes fly open, a thirty year old juicy fruit goddess stands before him. “A pitcher of ice water. Please.”
“You need to order something if you want to sit in here, honey.” She says it as if there’s more than a marginal difference between inside the diner and outside the diner.
“I really need some water.”
“You need to order…”
“The special, two of them, just bring me a pitcher of water.” His throat feels so dry. He has to speak now before he loses his chance.
POP! “How you want that cooked?” Her artificially flavored breath hits him in the face. His hands are shaking.
“I don’t care! Just bring me some water.”
“Hmph!” With blurry vision he watches her flounce back to the kitchen. He grabs the edge of the table to steady himself. He’s clenching his jaw by the time she comes back with a glass for him.
He swallows half of it. The cool liquid fills him, calming him. Vision clears, hands stop shaking, the urge lessening. The torrent of wind in his ears shifts to a gentle breeze. How close had he come?
The waitress turns to leave again, he grabs her arm. “Can I get you anything else?” She says it in such a way that makes Lawrence wonder if it’s actually a question. She tired of him he can tell. She’s too used to bullying the locals. He doesn’t trying to be nice to her, he just takes out a fifty and lays it on the table.
“This is your tip if you keep bringing me pitchers of water.” Her eyes gleam slightly as she stares at the bill on the table. Slowly she puts the pitcher on the table. “Thank you.”
He drains the rest of his glass and pours another. He finishes this one in three huge gulps. He doesn’t feel as trapped now, his breathing has evened out. He fills the glass a third time, finishing off the pitcher, but only sips this one. A couple minutes pass, the waitress brings his two specials and another pitcher.
Lawrence only picks at his food. Between the desert and the age of the equipment in the diner the food is completely dry. Mainly he just cuts up the food and moves it around on his plate.
Mainly he watches the people in the restaurant. He immediately discounts his waitress. Seeing her move around the diner, speaking with her, she’s spent most of her life trying to get away from this place. It’s a pity that she’d never really feel like she belongs anywhere.
An old man sits in another booth. He is weathered, his countenance telling the story of a life in the desert. Despite the heat of the day he’s drinking coffee. Lawrence would have considered him a likely candidate if his research didn’t tell him he is looking for someone younger. Besides the old man doesn’t look like he belongs here, only that he’s gotten used to living here.
It’s an old style diner setup, so Lawrence can see the cook behind the half wall separating the kitchen from the dining area. Cook would be a wonderful job for who he’s looking for. The heat rising from the stove providing a fix for the cravings while at work. Though nothing compared to the natural heat of the desert it would do while at work. Unfortunately the cook is wearing a sleeveless shirt that’s plastered to his body with sweat.
Lawrence’s heart falls. He’s not close enough to the cook to pick up a flow from him, but the fact that he’s sweating tells him all he needs to know. It’s possible his sources were wrong. It’s not easy to track a Bearer. The burden/gift they bear making it too hard to get a fix on them.
He’s about to get up, throwing the contents of his glass down his throat, when the kitchen door swings open and a young man steps through. Lawrence puts his cup down and watches him. Something in the way he moves is different.
Somehow his movements come off as light, almost bouncy. Even just clearing dishes from tables, his movements are quick, precise. He wears a t-shirt, jeans, and boots, all are cheap, but he still has an air of status. Lawrence notes that he’s not sweating.
He looks up, checking for more stray dishes. Lawrence motions him over. “You finished with this, mister?” Lawrence inhales and catches the scent of aged stone.
“We need to talk.” He boy smiles at him, Lawrence guesses he’s only about seventeen, nineteen tops.
“Sorry, mister, I’m just here for the dishes. You’ll want to try Craiper St. around ten tonight.” He grabs a plate, Lawrence grabs his wrist.
Sun…Heat…Dry…Sand…Lawrence pulls his hand away, palm red. Perspiration stands out on the young man’s brow now, fear in his eyes. He slides into the booth across from Lawrence. Lawrence pours another glass of water and waits for the boy to say something.
“Holy shit.” Lawrence couldn’t agree more. He hadn’t known quite what to expect, but that was intense.
“Tito, what the hell are you doing sitting down?” The waitress clearly needed more to do.
“I’m…I’m taking my break,” he yells back.
“The dishes aren’t going to wash themselves.”
“I’m on break!” She throws up her hands and goes back into the kitchen. Tito smiles at Lawrence. “Let’s go outside.” Lawrence downs his water and follows him out and around the diner.
“Who are you,” Tito finally asks when they’re alone.
“I’m, Lawrence Evans.” Lawrence doesn’t try to shake his hand. He isn’t offended.
“I’m Benjamin Fuller, but everyone calls me, Tito. Now who the hell are you?” It’s a fair question. If he doesn’t know what he is then he’s probably really freaked out. Lawrence can’t blame him, he’s been there.
“I’m your Twin.”
“Ha, not likely, man.” Tito looks skeptical, very skeptical. There’s at least fifteen years between them. And while Tito isn’t a full blooded Mexican, Lawrence can tell at least one of his parents is, while Lawrence couldn’t be more white without being an albino. It’s hard to believe.
“I don’t mean biologically. I mean spiritually.” Tito’s face is instantly serious. “You can feel it, can’t you? That subtle, tickling at the back of your brain that makes you feel like you know me, even while at your core I unsettle you.”
“Yeah.” Tito is breathless.
“You’ve been having the dreams since you’ve been thirteen. The dreams of other people’s lives, dreams of times long past, dreams that are so real that you feel like you’re living them.”
“Yes.” Tito looks so relieved that it breaks Lawrence’s heart. He knows what it’s like to finally have this explained. Lawrence had spent three years in a mental hospital trying to deal by himself. Tito is a strong young man.
“Where is there open desert?” Tito points down an alley. Lawrence starts walking, Tito doesn’t need to be told to follow, he falls into step next to Lawrence careful not to touch him.
They come out the other end of the alley seeing open land. For Lawrence it’s as close to nothing as he ever wants to get. Longing fills Tito’s eyes.
“I want to share something with you. Watch out there.” Lawrence takes a deep breath and centers himself. The urge to speak has been growing since they stepped out of the diner, the dryness creeping in to all his dark places. “ “
Tito’s hands fly up to cover his ears. “Ah! What the hell?” FLASH! BOOM! The thunder cuts off any further curses. Tito’s gaze is drawn out to the desert, where black storm clouds have formed out of nowhere. The fear is back in his eyes, he retreats till his back hits the wall to the building. “What have you done?”
“I spoke my Word. We’re Word Bearers, Tito. You have your own. Can you feel it? Deep in core.” Lawrence can see he’s confused. He’s frightened, overwhelmed. FLASHBOOM! “You can stop this, Tito. Go ahead. Say your Word. I want to hear it.”
“I don’t…I’m not sure.” Confusion and fear war on Tito’s face. Lawrence hopes he won’t run. He didn’t mean to scare the boy.
“Of course you’re sure. You’ve known it for centuries, you just haven’t spoken it yet. It’s okay. I’m here with you.” His first step is hesitant, his second is firm, his third is confident. Lawrence realizes he’s holding his breath. Tito looks up at him, he nods. Tito fixes his gaze on the storm.
“ “ There it is. It’s as quiet as Lawrence’s Word is loud, but no less powerful. It’s so beautiful. As Lawrence watches the storm clouds dissipate a tear rolls down his cheek.
Dad suffered even from a sight of blood, and he never killed a hen nor slaughtered a pig. But I was aware that once he had donated his blood in the name of my Mum still, because she’d had a narrow escape on an operating table then.
With me a doctor would have my blood tested in a moment: one, two and it’s done. But first they make you ready for rather a time: take a seat, then have a proper finger chosen, though it is always just the one, then they wipe it with spirits until take somewhat sharp like a mini-scalpel. Not everyone can stand the procedure, but I was not against it when a doctor suggested me having my blood tested. She was a likable one, youngish for her age, not married or divorced, probably. And she had no child, I felt it immediately, she had such a look, barren if you want.
Possibly for health reasons she could not bear a child or she didn’t find a right man. Or she could have a particular blood group not to have a child with anyone, that’s why she employed at a doctor’s consulting room to make blood tests. And she urged me to have my blood tested. At first I didn’t mind it, the right thing it is, still she didn’t ask my permission. “Just let’s have your blood tested”, she said and left me. She had many things to do I suppose. In doctor's smocks they walked hither and thither all the time at a clinic there talking over the heads of those waiting, as if one was dead already. And I was still alive and a nurse was preparing to have my blood tested.
While she got me ready she was chattering. She said that men were afraid of blood testing nowadays. More and more they refused to do it and ran away sometimes seeing a drop of blood. And one had nothing to fear, there was a couch behind the curtain in a special emergency to lie low, in case one fainted. She pulled the white curtain aside and showed me a couch with dark green leatherette and I shivered all at once: what for they needed my blood? She suggested me taking off a jacket and rolling up my sleeve, left or right one, I don’t remember. But I was frightened to throw off my shoes, she insisted on. I ever had my shoes clean, but one was not allowed to enter a treatment room in boots. With no shoes I got frightened.
It happens so while walking by oneself at an unknown place at night and still not scared. Nothing to fear of in spite of a dark night until you stumble and then your confidence is missing. It’s off as if left at the same spot one had stumbled over. And then it all changes: the moon is from the other world, unknown and unfriendly.
And so it was with me: while shod I was not afraid, may be because in shoes I could take to my heels at any moment. And the nurse was harping on the same tune that the men had made off frightened to get their blood tested. Well, what on Earth they do there with bloody blood!
…So I made off there in somebody’s shoes for the better. I looked round, nothing but mud in the street, I don’t know why, and I went along to a fellow of mine. We had been in the same class and I never saw him since, but I headed to him. And he had married my classmate then, Gahla. And I never was to their place, that’s why I made my way for them may be. So many years passed, and my Dad was two years as dead.
I tramped to them in dirty boots I don’t know whose but I didn’t take them off. And it didn’t seem neat around, gloomy, the floor boarding was like unpainted in dusk, but it couldn’t have grown dark yet. And there was somebody sleeping over there, half-dressed, his back bare. He was lying with his face down right on the floor, not drunken they said, but of grief. His wife had passed away; she had died right in a hospital there because of heavy bleeding, and doctors couldn’t but help her. And he adored her.
Then I saw that it was my Dad there, I knew him by his back, a lean one.
Mr. Valery Petrovskiy is a journalist and short story writer from Russia.
Не is an English Department graduate at Chuvash State University, Cheboksary, graduated in journalism at VKSch Higher School, Moscow and in psychology at Kazan State Technology University. He has been writing prose since 2005.
Some of his writing has been published in The Scrambler, Rusty Typer, BRICKrethoric, NAP Magazine, Literary Burlesque, The Other Room, Curbside Quotidian, DANSE MACABRE, WidowMoon Press, PRIME MINCER, Apocrypha and Abstractions, The Legendary in the USA, and in Australian “Skive” and “Going Down Swinging” magazines.
At the moment he is writer-in-residence at Marco Polo Art Mag.
Returned to the dark
1. The Others.
It’s dark in here. That’s because I live at the bottom of the jewellery box along with the other outcasts: the tangled necklace with the broken lobster claw and teddy pendant she got for her eleventh birthday, along with the bracelet that’s missing a couple of gem stones. She always says she will have them repaired but never does, preferring to spend the money on more fashionable pieces instead that imitate Asian and Oriental designs. An untrained eye might imagine that they were found by a back-packer on their travels, but they weren’t. They can be bought from any shop on the high-street, and are merely echoes of worlds she’s never seen.
Not all of us down here are broken though. I’m not, and neither is the engagement ring she got from Mark, (who eventually cheated on her with Shannon from Reception,) or the belly bar she took out when she put weight on and decided looked too young for her anyway. The ones at the top who get worn more often pity us, (‘how boring it must be,’ they say to each other in whispers they think we can’t hear, ‘being cooped up down there, month in, month out,’) but in a way they’re jealous. As I’ve said, you could buy them in their hundreds if you wanted to, and they are without sentimental value like the childhood necklace or the belly bar that reminds her of her wild teens and early twenties. They’re easily replaced and she gives them away when they become outdated- or chucks them if even her younger sister and the charity shops say no, thanks. She doesn’t like Mark’s ring or me, so it isn’t often that her fingers dig through the chunky bangles and strings of beads to bring me to the surface. It happens maybe three or four times a year when she has arranged to visit The Matriarch. The ring doesn’t even get a look in. Why Mark wouldn’t let her give it back to him so that he could give it to someone he did love is beyond us; at least that way it would have been enjoyed. All the same, seeing as I’m an heirloom and the ring is eighteen carat white gold with a diamond the size of her little fingernail, we’re here to stay. We’re what she calls “investments.”
Perhaps you imagine I get bitter when the voices of the favoured ones float above my head, chattering away about their ventures out of the box: days at work, dinners, dates, parties and who was there, who wasn’t there, what she wore…you get the drift. Or worse, maybe you feel sorry for me. I’d rather you didn’t. Pity the rest but not me. I’m not so keen on their weight pressing down on me but I don’t mind the dark. In fact I quite like it. It reminds me of home, my real one, from before I met people. As for being bitter, you can rule that out. I’m a pearl, darling; it’s not in my nature. You lot have seen me as a symbol of love for thousands of years and I do try to live up to my name by being kind- although I cannot help but wince sometimes at the irony, given that the first person I ever met died. Don’t look at me like that; it wasn’t my fault. But that’s why she doesn’t like me. All the same, when you’ve being kept in a family for over a century you do take an interest in your present owner, even if it’s not reciprocated, so I enjoy listening to the young ones’ gossip. Let them have their fun while they still can. The best they can hope for is a place in a child’s dressing-up box in just a few, short years so they might as well enjoy it.
I might be old-fashioned and be from a past that she and you would rather forget, but I’m not like your kind. I will endure and outlive the others, her- even you. And I never forget. My memory doesn’t grow weak with age, it gets stronger. I can still smell what my home was like; still feel the movements of the person who found me when he panicked and rushed too quickly to the top, and the urgent, grasping hand of the first, but different person to ever touch me, as though I’d only stopped smelling and feeling them a minute ago. The memories of my owners and the events in their lives play like the films you are so fond of; the moment when her grandfather proposed to her grandmother, and the christening of her mother, they are all here ready to be relived whenever I choose. The stories I could tell you would fill every evening of your life and I would still have more secrets to share, so I don’t begrudge the others their moments. Being 130 years old is not without its perks.
No, it’s not jealousy or bitterness that concerns you when you’re an heirloom, but preservation and stability. It is an unspoken rule that I am passed onto the nearest living woman in the family, and there have only been two times when I have not been passed down either to a son’s wife, sibling, or in the more usual way from grandmother, mother to daughter and so on: the first time was in the 1940’s when my owner died childless and I was given to her niece- (my current owner’s great-grandmother.) The second was ten years ago when the great-grandmother’s daughter skipped her own daughter and passed me down to her grandchild instead, and so here I am. Both times were disruptive and it’s not something I’d like repeating too often, although I fear it will happen again. I know your standards are different, but when an owner approaches thirty and shows no sign of wanting to settle down with someone and have children, you do get a little worried. She hasn’t had a steady boyfriend since Mark, and they split up over three years ago.
What’s the matter? Oh, I see, you’re trying to work it out. I know, family trees are so confusing but try to keep up. Maybe telling you their names would have made it easier, but as I’ve said, stability and preservation are the keys. You do not hear of farmers giving names to their livestock because there is no point getting attached when they will only be sold, or worse. It is the same with me: they will all pass on, leaving me behind and I have too much time to want to spend it all grieving. You will never hear me say their names. Take an interest, certainly; empathising with their joys and sorrows goes without saying but I will not love them. It’s not worth an existence of endless heartache. It’s funny really, in a desert-dry sort of way: A pearl that cannot love.
3. Before she grew up.
I suppose you think it strange that her grandmother, (or The Matriarch as she jokingly calls her,) skipped a generation and gave me to someone who doesn’t like me, but it never used to be this way. When she was little and used to visit her grandmother she would ask, (very politely after giving her a peck on the cheek,) if she could play with her jewellery box. The answer was always yes, and she would very carefully hunt through the diamonds and gold to find me, pin me to her jumper and wear me for the rest of the time she was there. It became something of a ritual, to the point where her grandmother began to pick me out herself and would put me on the coffee table ready for when she arrived. When she was eighteen, The Matriarch had a heart attack, and fearing that she would never leave hospital, insisted on the girl’s mother driving for two hours to get me, so that she could give me to her personally before it was too late. They were very close, and still are in spite of the distance, for she survived against all the odds. Whenever she goes to see her she always comments on how lovely it is, seeing her granddaughter all grown up, wearing her old brooch that’s always been her favourite. And I was for a time. Traditionally I was only worn for a special or significant occasion, but when she was at college I had the strange but enjoyable experience of being put in her pocket and going with her, and if she felt nervous about something her fingers would slide down to stroke me. Normally I hated people manhandling me, but I didn’t mind in her case- it was better than her biting her nails. It was almost as if she thought that having me with her would stop something bad happening- and I have been viewed as ‘lucky.’ Stop sniggering, it’s true. In the days of knights and sword-fighting, we would be worn when the rich and noble went into battle because they thought we would protect them from harm, so don’t laugh at her. It felt good, being wanted, and I have to confess I came in danger of growing affectionate towards her- until she found out from one of her friends about the divers who took me from my home.
4. Coming out of the dark.
You don’t like being reminded of your past- those days of glory when Britain ruled half the world. I think that’s why you apologise so much, and give more than you can afford to charities trying to save the poor and starving around the globe. It’s almost as though you’re trying to make up for all the wrongs done before you were born. And I’ve tried to avoid talking about it in case you ran away- I get lonely sometimes and it’s nice having someone to talk to. But you can’t run forever, things have to be faced eventually. Some of you may already know and may already be trying to shut out the sound of my words by turning your thoughts to the plans you’ve made for the weekend, but there’ll be a lot of you who don’t. There are lots of happy anecdotes from my owners’ lives I could have told you but this is the one you need to hear: My story.
We are not like your kind, but there is one thing we have in common: just as you can’t remember coming out of the womb, we don’t know what it was like being a grain of sand or piece of shell squeezing our way inside an oyster and hardening; all I remember is being. There were no thoughts, for when you live inside a shell there isn’t a great deal to think about- nothing happens. That probably sounds dull to you but there was no sadness, no pain or death. It was peaceful, just being. I didn’t know this at the time but even nothing has to come to an end eventually: the day would always have come when I would be found. It will be hard for you to understand what it was like being taken out of water, hearing sounds, seeing colours and light- all for the first time. On paper it sounds great, this explosion of life, but the reality was frightening- and even fear was something I had never heard of or felt before. Maybe that’s why your newborns usually cry when they come out, because they’re scared and want to go back. I’m trying to think of ways to describe how it was to you, and the only way I can think of is for you to imagine an ancient Egyptian being placed in the middle of a supermarket. That might give you a better idea, but even that doesn’t come close.
I’ve learnt a lot since then- (I’ve had to, I didn’t have any other choice-) but there’s one thing I’ve never been able to get my head around, and that is time. Your lives are ruled by clocks and diaries telling you when deadlines or birthdays are due, but when you have so much time whole years, even decades can pass you by. Forgive me then, if I am a little hazy on dates. What I can tell you is that I was brought to the surface in the late 1800s, which makes me special. There aren’t many of us that come from nature now. Most are made by man in bulk on farms. Things changed. You suddenly became concerned about human life and diving equipment got better. Both meant that the world’s poor no were no longer forced to hold their breaths for hundreds of metres when they dived to the seabed to pick up our shells, risking death by drowning or attack from sharks. At first I thought these people were slaves because I failed to understand why they would choose to do such dangerous work. But I came to realise that slavery comes in all sorts of guises if someone’s freedom is to choose between hunger and work that might kill them anyway. I don’t think anyone knows how many thousands died in the name of my beauty and what I am supposed to represent: love, luck and protection. Yet none of my so-called attributes were able to comfort the diver who found me or save him from blacking out when he ascended.
So now you know why she stopped liking me and keeps me hidden, apart from when she visits her grandmother. It’s all very well for her to hate the history I’m associated with, but she doesn’t realise that the lovely clothes she wears have voices of their own; shadows of people are woven into their fabrics and they never stop talking. There’s so many of them all speaking at once that you can’t actually hear what they’re saying, it’s just noise, which speaks for itself. You don’t need to hear their words to understand what they mean. They all come from foreign countries where labour is easy to get- how else do you think she is able to get them so cheaply? I won’t deny that my story is sad but I have a lot of memories that would give me joy if I allowed myself to feel. Listening to the stories of the living is a lot worse; they’re not just full of sadness, there’s also anger and it surrounds me when she takes me out of the box. You can hear it in the suitcase she flings in the boot of the car, and in the silence behind the news reports on the radio she listens to when she’s driving; those headlines speaking about them, but not for or to them. It’s too much to cope with and I spend those visits wishing they were over. I’m always glad when we get back and she returns me to the dark.
I knew that someone important was going to walk into my life at 12:15, just after I normally drink tea and prepare for an slow day working on the horoscope. Now, maybe you might not believe me. After all, I am a professional charlatan. But I knew something was up, because for the last two weeks every prediction I have made actually worked out.
It started when I saw Mrs Henderson. She was a fat woman, an unpleasant woman, a great client. Like most people who wanted a reading, she didn't want the truth. And normally I didn't give it to her.
“Now, Mrs Henderson, I have a treat in store for you,”
“What's that, dear?”
“I've managed to get hold of some fine English tea. Instead of our normal, I thought we might enjoy some tea reading.”
I pulled out the equipment. It was a plain set. It looked like bone china, but was made in china for a very low price. Mrs Henderson looked impressed anyway. She had a lot of money, and not a lot of sense.
Anyway, I started reading the information contained in the tea leafs. And then the world went blank. When I returned to the world, Mrs Henderson was gone.
I walked out of the shop I had rented, and another of the shopkeepers came up to me. He was normally an quiet, amicable chap. This time he looked like he wanted to throttle me.
“What did you do to Mrs Henderson?” he asked.
“She came out of here. Howling and crying, like you'd tried to kill her.” he put his face up to mine, “You ever do it again and I'll..”
“I don't know what you're talking about,” and I backed away from him. He stalked off. I walked back to my shop, ready to wait for my next appointment.
Mrs Abbot didn't come. She left a nervous message on my answer phone. At the time I didn't realise why. Because I had no other clients for the day, I went home.
That night, I woke up by the loud knocks on the door. I stood to my feet just in time for the door to be broken down.
“Police! Get on the floor! Get down!”
He was aiming the gun right for my head. I dropped down, lay on the ground, and my arms were taken roughly behind my back.
“I'm putting you under arrest,” he said, then read me my rights. He bundled me into a police car.
“Why am I under arrest?”
“Attempted murder,” he said.
My mouth opened wide. It was such a shock, it seemed like I'd just been told I was about to die. And then. Then I was in my bed, looking at the ceiling. The police officers had gone. But it felt more real than a dream. It must have been a dream. Yeah, that was what it was, I convinced myself. Although I should have known better.
In Ireland you can make a full time living as a psychic. less so in England. The English wouldn't even pay you if you could predict the lottery. So I also work as a pitchman. Which, if you think about it, is just another way to make a dishonest buck.
I walked to the nearest boot sale, and set up. It isn't too crowded in the morning. And everyone is busy. So I crawl in through the hedge. They don't know that I'm there against the rules. I set up. My table is old fashioned. A suitcase with legs you fold out. Like the true pitchmen of the 50's.
My pitch is the worm. They wiggle around my hand, like they are alive. The fools in the crowd gave me money. That is what they are for.
They'll never get the thing to work on their own.
And just as I am about to end the pitch I saw her.
She had the longest blondest hair this side of fairyland, and her smile lights up the room like a flashlight. And I knew I am meant to talk to her. Just now.
“Hi, miss, can I interest you in...”
“No,” she said.
She walked off. I had the sense she is in trouble. She was poorer than she used to be, her clothes were expensive, but last years fashion. I had a feeling I will meet her again.
I went home.
It was another mistake.
When I got there, there was Mrs Henderson and her husband. Their eyes were red. They had been crying. I couldn't understand what they were there for.
“How did you know?” Mrs Henderson asked.
“How did you know Keith was killing himself?”
My mouth opened wide. I felt the highest possible shock. Mr Henderson was glaring at me. Like I was responsible.
“I'm sorry... what are you talking about?”
And they told me. How I had made such terrible predictions. That Keith would kill himself. And that Mr Henderson and Mrs Henderson would be next.
I managed to get them to leave. At first I thought that the gossip would help me. But the truth is, no one wants to go to a psychic that tells them the truth. Life is hard enough. You go to a psychic to hear lies.
The phone went silent.
I made some money as a pitchman, so it didn't affect me too much. But I kept on having bad dreams. I kept on seeing people I knew in them. Not just that, I saw how they died. Their pain. And I started to write down what I saw. In a book by my bedside cabinet.
The extra time I had meant I was drinking more too. It was like I'd been cursed. But the worst was the Christians. They decided that these dreams were inspired by Satan. They set up the picket line in front of my office. I started to think I should simply leave.
I waited a day too long. I bought the ticket for Thursday.
On Wednesday, the cleaner came in. She was a nosy parker. And no mistake. Her husband had died a few years back, and she was interested in everything. While it's not the way she put it, she was very interested in the diary.
Which she opened.
All the details of the different murders and deaths I'd seen. All the factual details that no one else other than the murderer could know. She took it to the police, and they read it, and they got their warrant.
I arrived back at the normal time, and nothing was different. The book was there. I didn't notice the surveillance cameras. Not at all.
They broke in that night. It wasn't a dream. And I looked up to them bleary eyed, a gun pointing in my face, and swore.
At least that made me feel better.
They dragged me towards the back of the car, and I noticed someone had decided to give the press warning. So it was very public. Once in, they took me right there. And kitted me out in fetching jail clothing, since I was still in pyjamas.
The waiting began.
This was the first time I was in jail, and I can tell you it is not as bad as some people say. There is an odd vinegar smell, hiding other bodily fluids. And it is never quiet. There is always shouting going on, and doors slammed. But it was no worse than some hotels I've been in while performing.
They took me out to the interview room.
“Interview starting at 1:12pm”
I looked across at my lawyer. Short, thin, balding and bored. The police officer had my diary in front of him. He picked it up.
“So, anything you want to say? About the contents of this book?”
I smiled at the officer. He leaned back.
“In it, you've got the details of dozens of murders. Information the police hasn't released to the public. Information... dare I say it, in some cases that the police didn't even know themselves.”
“So? I'm doing research for a book.”
“How did you know these things?”
He pulled out the diary, and started reading about a murder that had taken place yesterday. I listened without much emotion showing. Disgusting stuff.
“How did you know this?”
“Since when is knowing stuff a crime?”
“Not reporting to the police is obstruction!”
I leaned forward. “I'm a psychic. I... can see what has happened. What will happen.”
The police officer laughed.
“What were you doing between 11:12 pm and 11:31 pm last night?”
“In bed. Like all sensible citizens.”
The police officer stood up. He was ready to terminate the interview, and to be honest, that didn't seem to be the only thing he wanted to terminate.
“I guess we'll hold you in custody until we conclude our investigations.”
My lawyer coughed, “What are you holding him on?”
“Obstruction of justice.”
And that was it. That was the full content of the interview. I was hustled off into the cell, and ended up waiting for days. In telephone conversations with friends, I knew the police were digging up my life.
I was given a notebook, and a pen, and I continued to write down my dreams. I thought I might as well. The police would search my cell every now and again, and confiscate them.
This went on for two weeks.
They even moved me to solitary. Made sure no one could be feeding me this information. Or, presumably, that I wasn't ordering the killings. But the dreams continued. They were getting worse and worse. Every morning I woke up feeling like I had not slept.
They brought me to the interview room.
“How do you know these things? You --”
“I'm a psychic.”
And the police officer deflated. it was like watching some kid letting go of a balloon. I tried not to laugh at him.
“We've done tests. it's obvious that you weren't involved in several of these cases - the killers have confessed, given evidence we've obtained from your diary.”
“Good for you,” I said. My smile was lopsided.
“So I guess we have to assume you were not involved in any of the murders.”
“We're not going to let you go.”
My lawyer stood up, “You've said yourself that he's not guilty.”
“He is a material witness. To dozens of crimes.”
“He was not even present!”
“We've made up our mind.”
I guess at least things looked up, because they took me from prison. They drove me along country lanes, towards a building. I can't tell you precisely where it was. It just looked like an old school to be honest. You'd never have guessed it was an intelligence headquarters. They bundled me out into an empty building.
A hatch opened, and they took me underground.
You've heard of the secret prisons. Well, they are true. They dressed me up in a uniform, tagged my ankle, and locked me in a cage. The only thing they gave me was some paper and a pen to write down my dreams.
At first I got really angry. But the days passed, and it became obvious they would never let me go.
Sometimes people came to research me. They put me in scanners, and gave me all kinds of medical tests. The results were unsurprising. I was just a normal, healthy individual.
They also asked me to look at foreign bases. But it didn't work.
I guess I just have a tendency to see violent crime.
And that was how it seemed I was destined to live for the rest of my life. Until I started to hear the voices. They were low. Just like someone was talking in the next room. Distant. And I couldn't make them out.
I told the guards, but they thought I was having a joke.
That night I was tossing and turning, and I heard someone shout out my name. I woke up. No one was there. Then I tried to get asleep again, and managed it. But the voice was insistent.
“What is it? What is up?” I asked.
Nothing answered me. The guards walked past my cell. But with the dreams and the voices, I was getting no sleep. It started to affect me so badly I would not even eat food.
Within a few days I was exhausted. Mentally and physically drained. And I guess that is what the creatures wanted. Because soon they broke through. It's hard to tell you how it felt. But if you have ever had a moment of shock, when you suddenly feel like you aren't there, you'll know.
“Find my killer,” the voice said.
“What? Who are you?”
“Find my killer!”
Over and over again. Until I finally broke down.
“I'll find your killer... but who are you?”
He said his name. And then the voice faded away. But I knew I had to do precisely what he told me. I'd go mad otherwise. Maybe I was already mad.
But how could I do that when I was locked up?
The opportunity came sooner than I expected. My handlers were getting anxious. I was producing less predictions than normal, and the federal conviction rate was plummeting through the floor.
So they came to me to find what was wrong.
The handlers looked like model citizens. Dark suits, a man and a woman dressed formally, like they were lawyers. They flashed their badge to me. I don't know why, the fact I was in a prison gave them away.
“What's happening, sir? Why have the predictions stopped?”
my voice faded off. The two police officers leaned forward. They looked like they were hanging on every word.
“It's the voices.”
The police officer fell back. You could see him working it through in his mind. Despite the success of my predictions, he settled on the conclusion I was mad. After all, psychic phenomena were impossible. He'd read that once.
“The people who were murdered. one of them is speaking to me. He wants his killer caught.”
“Why doesn't he tell you who the killer was, then?”
I scratched my head, “I guess he doesn't know.”
“Well, who was he?”
I shook my head. But that night, I was thinking about it, and decided that I had to ask. Had to have a conversation, if only for my sanity. When the voices started up, I leaned forward in my bed.
“Who are you?”
“Find my killers.”
I asked the question again. But he would say nothing of use to me. he would only repeatedly ask me to find his killers. Not very useful. Eventually, I managed to coax his name from him. Nigel. Not a very good name for a joke.
So I got the police officers to run a search on him.
That was the strange thing. No murder victims of that name came up. Not any time soon. But a week later, a Nigel disappeared. And I realised the truth.
“Who killed you, Nigel?”
I looked through the court reports. He had been killed by stabbing. They wouldn't let me out of the jail. So all I could do was read the files they brought on him. And I got the feeling that many of the details had been redacted. it was like looking for a haystack in an elephant: messy and not very satisfactory.
What I noticed was that Nigel had been a computer consultant for a large security firm.
The dreams were constant. Interrupted by ghostly voices. But because I was acting, they were less disturbing than they had been.
I read through the files of the security firm.
There were only two people I decided who could have done it. They both had a great deal to gain. At the end of the day, though, there is a limit to what you can do from inside a jail cell.
So I did the only sensible thing I could do.
Get a Ouija board.
The guards looked sceptically at me when I asked for it. But I was responsible for half the murder arrests in the district for the last six months. So they eventually gave me what I wanted. Especially when I refused to furnish them with any more information.
I don't know if you have ever been to a proper séance. Well, to be honest, most of the time the knocks are from the medium. But this time it was different. Within moments of the séance starting, I was aware that the room was colder.
“Hello, is anyone there?”
And the board spelt out yes.
“Are you the voice that keeps speaking to me.”
“What is your name?”
N - I - G - E - L.
F-I-N-D M-Y M-U-R-D-E-R-E-R
I drew my breath in. “Nigel, do you know who your murderer is?”
Then the entire board lifted off the table, and flew towards me. It hit the wall a few inches from my face. The room warmed up again. The presence was gone. For a little while.
The guard opened the door. I knew he must have been watching the CCTV. His face was pale.
“How did you do that?” he asked.
“I didn't” I replied. I knew that he didn't believe me. But he would have to show more senior people. And I knew they couldn't afford to risk me.
I went back to bed. For the first time in weeks, I had no bad dreams. I guess Nigel knew I understood his message. I slept very soundly. Until the next morning. But my guards didn't really understand. Or they did not want to understand.
They decided to cut me off from the outside world.
My handler met me in the interview room the next morning. He looked tired. Besides him sat a man I hadn't seen before. He wore the cleanest, most expensive suit I had seen during my stay at the states pleasure.
“We want you to stop going after Nigel's killer,” he said.
“But... If I do that, I'll never have peace.”
“Carry on like you were. Tell us your predictions. But no wild goose chase.”
The man stood up. He walked out of the room. Measured, and without menace. But he didn't seem to be a man used to dealing with no. My handler shook his head.
“I'm afraid you made a mistake.”
He didn't need to tell me the consequences. All of a sudden, I was put on suicide watch. Woken up every thirty minutes to see if I wasn't dead yet. The heating in my cell surprisingly broke. I knew I was in their hands totally. But I never realised what it was like to displease them.
But they had made a mistake too.
You see, Nigel might be a ghost, but that doesn't mean he is stupid. He can see what is happening. He knows they are stopping me doing what he wants. And this gets him angry. They first times he acted, it looked like coincidence. The guards chair would tilt under him, depositing him on the floor. Or cups of coffee were not placed firmly enough on the table.
But I could feel Nigels anger growing.
It burst forth on the Friday evening. The guard sat down outside my cell. I could feel the room getting colder.
“You'd better watch out,” I said.
“Are you threatening me?” he said, pulling his tazer out.
“Not me. Nigel. He's here. Can't you feel him?”
The guards were spooked by me. They knew that I was able to see things they could not. But although the guards face became pale, his hand on the trigger was steady and firm.
Then, behind him I could see his chair rising off the ground.
“Get away!” I warned.
It was too late. The chair slammed into the guard. He dropped to the floor. Then I saw the guards keys float from his pocket. My cell door was unlocked.
“Thank you, Nigel.”
I walked over to the guard, stripped his clothes off, and changed into his uniform. I thought I didn't have much of a choice. If I didn't do what Nigel wanted he would kill me.
So, I walked towards freedom.
Every door I came to slid open without me doing anything. It would have been creepy if I didn't know what was happening. Soon the alarms started to ring out. People would be grabbing their guns, getting ready to shoot me. I could feel my heart trying to escape from my chest.
I soon arrived at fire exit. It opened in front of me. I climbed down some steps. Below me, I could see coppers swarming. I continued to walk down. One of the coppers recognised me.
“Stop!” he shouted.
I ran in the opposite direction. He took aim, and I could hear the gun explode behind me. But the bullet didn't pierce my skin like I expected. Instead, it ended in the ground. I reached a police car, and the engine came on without anyone doing anything.
Then I started driving.
The police radio came on, and I could hear them putting out an all points warning. They were to capture me. Dead or alive.
I turned into a shopping centre, and got out.
Then I lost myself in a large crowd.
For the moment I was free, but I needed to get into fresh clothes, that weren't so distinctive. I walked over to a cash machine.
“Nigel, make this machine give me money.”
And, somehow, he did.
Then I went into a store and bought black trousers and a white shirt. Got changed. And walked out of the shopping centre, expecting to be caught at any time. In my pocket there was five hundred dollars. That was all I had in the world, except for an insane ghost.
I decided it was time to go to the library. After chatting to the librarian for a few seconds, she walked me over to a computer which had copies of the local papers for the last twenty years. I typed a search. At first I found nothing, but as I expanded the search back I found him.
According to the interview, he was found murdered in his bed. He had been asleep. His wife had been charged and convicted of his murder. But she said she was innocent.
I opened up notepad.
Is that you? I typed.
I was expecting him to answer, but still shocked when he did. YES. came the response.
Did your wife kill you? I asked.
Who did kill you?
Nothing came in response. I knew that would happen. It was too much to hope for. It was getting late at night. The librarian was fussing near me. It was time to go.
When you are a fugitive, it isn't as simple to find a place to stay as booking a room in a hotel. I walked round, looking for an empty house. It took me an hour. Occasionally a police car would go past. It made me nervous.
Eventually I found the house.
At one time it would have been a posh bungalow. But whoever had owned it had been taken to a care home, and it was covered in weeds and neglect. I walked up to the door, and it swings open. That is one of the advantages of your own private poltergeist.
Inside it was a mess. But dry and water proof. There was a wood burning stove in one room. The power was off, and Nigel didn't turn it on. But the water was only off at the mains. It was easy enough to get it working again.
I fell to sleep.
In the morning I would have to start the process of searching for Nigel Slater. I knew roughly where he lived. I fell asleep, and woke up hungry and cramped.
Outside, I could hear rustling. I peeked through the window, and could see a man dressed only in black. He looked like he was not very friendly. I ducked down, but he must have seen me. He edged towards the door. It was locked, but he slammed it open.
“Where are you?” he shouted.
I hid behind the sofa. it didn't help. He walked towards me. I noticed he had a poker in his hand. There was no way he wouldn't find me. I stood up.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I'll ask the questions. This is me Nan’s house.”
I looked over at him. He had a long scar down his face. it seemed like he was used to trouble. And he was straining to start a fight.
“I... am homeless. Just looking for a dry place to sleep. I haven't done any damage,”
“You'd best get out.”
I did what he said. He followed me. I thought he might hit me at any second. or recognise me. They must have put my picture out into the news by now.
“And stay out!” he ordered, slamming the door behind him.
I sighed with relief, but knew that my location might be passed onto the police. I decided it was time to get out of the town. I caught a bus, and tried to hide my face. Since I hadn't had a bath for a few days it was easier than you might think. People did not want to look me in the eyes.
I arrived at Nigel’s house six hours latter. It was a solemn house. A plane front garden laid to grass, brick frontage, and white windows. It didn't look like anyone had ever cared for it. It looked like it was a place to sleep and not to stay.
It took me a few minutes to settle down, and watch the street. There was nothing extraordinary about it. A few people walked past, taking little interest in the stranger. After watching for half an hour, I knew there was little information here for me.
Talking round the local shops I found out that Nigel had been a quiet man. Few people knew him, past his saying hello. he didn't seem to have been involved in anything wrong. or indeed in anything at all.
Who would have killed such a man?
I decided that there could only really have been one source of trouble. He must have found out something at work. Something that made him worth more to someone dead than alive. I got some annual reports from his company and studied them. Amazing what is available on the internet these days. There was little of interest.
It was a security IT company, did audits, checked companies could not be hacked into. While Nigel must have had some skills to work there, it was hardly the kind of company people would kill for.
There was only one thing for it.
I applied to work at Nigel’s company as a cleaner. it was a big risk. I supplied false references, and knew they would not check them for months. That's the thing about cleaners. No one takes any notice.
So I got the job, and examined the work place thoroughly. It looked like an office. The computers were always on. Once or twice I looked over the shoulder of someone working but it was all gobbledygook to me.
“How am I supposed to find your killer, here?” I asked.
No one responded.
To make it worse, I saw my face on the newspaper when I went for food. Sure, I looked a lot different now. I had grown longer hair, a beard, and was thinner. But it was still me. I grew suspicious of other people.
Sooner or latter I knew I would be caught.
Then came my big break. Several people were working in the office late. I overhead them speaking about a billion dollar deal. The company was getting bought out. I checked the internet, and there was something in the trade section.
That night I took a great risk.
The routine was the same every day. But one of my colleagues had not turned up to work. So I was asked to clean the main office. I did so. But I did more than that, I broke into the file cabinets, and started reading company secrets.
I didn't find my smoking gun, but I did find out that Nigel had been working on a project for the government. A project named Sigma.
Every moment I was in the office was I risk, so I couldn't read for long, and went back to work.
But that didn't save me for long. The next day I arrived at work a few minutes earlier. Something told me that things were wrong. The security guard on the gate was new. He told me to go out to the bosses office.
As I walked, I felt a tug on my arm.
I walked into a small lab, and looked around. There was a window, and I tried to open it. In the distance I could see five police cars. The window wouldn't open.
There was only one way out. And I knew that by now, there would be police officers between me and the door. I looked round to find a chair. Then used it to break the window. The alarm went, and I slid through the empty hole. But I caught my shoulder on a shard of glass. I was bleeding. The police gave up their pretence. Dozens of sirens started up, heading towards the building.
I ran through a green space. I knew that there was only one way out of the compound except the front gate. A hole in the fence I had noticed a few days earlier. But over head their was a helicopter. Although I ran like the wind, it wasn't enough. I could hear the police men getting closer and closer.
I turned around and saw two police officers. They both had guns pointed at me. I raised my hands, and they soon had me on the ground.
“You're under arrest.”
A few moments latter, they had me in the back of a police van. I knew that this time it would not be so easy for me to escape.
In short, I thought I might never find Nigel’s killer.
I arrived at my destination a few hours latter. This time they were taking no chances. I arrived at a super maximum prison. Surrounded by barbed wire, dogs, and armed police officers it was obvious I'd never get out.
They locked me in my cell.
That night, I had bad dreams, and for once they were not caused by Nigel.
The next day the interrogation began. Again and Again. Asking me where I had gone. What I had done. I eventually broke down and told them everything. But that didn't stop them continuing. Maybe what they were doing was no crime. But it was a form of torture.
Each night, I ended up in my cell. They checked me every day. A suicide risk. Apparently.
Eventually, the interrogations stopped. They gave me paper. They wanted to go back to how it used to be. But by that time I had got so angry, even when I did have a dream I kept it to myself.
It could have stayed like that for years.
But Nigel had different plans.
I wasn't there. So all I can do is repeat the report that was made to me. No guarantee it is what happened. Apparently the director of the FBI had been having an extramarital affair. He was in bed that normal, and engaging in exercise at the same time.
Until, the lights went on.
This was not expected, but what was even more unexpected was the windows opening wide. And the explosions of a gun. The director of the FBI's gun.
No one was hurt.
But the first cop on the scene saw the assistant director of the FBI naked, with a mistress, after he had fired his gun. And the only sign of what happened was the NIGEL written on the wall in chalk.
No, I don't know where the chalk came from.
But I do know that it made the national news. The assistant director of the FBI resigned. And, to be frank, most of the people in the FBI did not care much about that. But it was fair warning.
The director of the FBI came to me once the hullabaloo had died down.
He didn't seem to be exactly happy about what had happened. In fact, he stormed in to the visiting room, and let loose a barrage of swear words. I sat there passively, listening to him. When he calmed down sufficiently, he sat down.
“What was that about?” I asked.
The director of the FBI glared at me, “Congratulations, your stunt cost the FBI one of its ablest staff members. Plus causing me --”
“Again, what are you talking about? I'm in prison. Unless you hadn't noticed. I can't do any stunts.”
He explained what had happened. I admit, it was hard for me not to laugh.
“Well, Director. Nigel is not in my power. And - well maybe it's not my place to say anything...”
“Doesn't stop any other fool doing it.”
“Nigel was right. All he wants is his murderer found. But he isn't going to stop. Not until that is done. Not even if he has to kill someone else to do it.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“No. I am not. Nigel is a threat to you. If you stand in the way, that is. He is a ghost. What can you do to get rid of him?”
The director of the FBI thought for a few seconds. An hour latter, a priest turned up with bell, book and candle. it didn't work spectacularly. The power went off, the candle blew out, the bell rang, and the book was thrown across the room.
“I guess it didn't work,” I said smugly.
The director gestured to the mirror and two toughs walked in. They carried some rope. They tied me to the chair, and lifted a cosh over their heads.
“You can stop Nigel. Or you can suffer.”
Then all hell broke lose. The cosh swung back by itself. it raised into the air, and came down, laying out one of the thugs. The other caught me a glancing blow, but something unseen lifted him from the floor and threw him against the wall.
“You have a choice. Director. Help find Nigel’s killer. Or, I think, Nigel will chase you down and gut you like a fish.”
The directors face was pale.
“Which one do you choose?”
“I am making no threats. Just telling you how it is.”
Eventually the Director settled down again. He sat in his chair, silently looking at me. I wasn't a pretty picture. Thin, and in prison coveralls. I must have looked like a real criminal.
“OK. You have a deal.”
“You're going to help us?”
They let me go that afternoon. Put me in a suit, and told me I was seconded to the FBI. I was even given my own agent. He was tall, thin, and looked every inch the government man.
“Sir, what are your orders?”
“You know the case?”
“Good. Well, what do you suggest first?”
The agent shook his head. He gave nothing away. That was when I knew he wasn't sent to help me. Just to keep an eye out on me.
Nevertheless, I decided that I could use him. Like he wanted to use me. I looked over to him, and told him to get a warrant. We were going to search Nigel’s company. And read every damn bit of paper they had about Sigma.
I didn't expect him to do it, but we were driving out a few hours latter.
When we arrived at the door, they had their lawyer sorted out already. Someone must have leaked it. He looked like he had cost a lot of money.
“I'm sorry. You can search the company. But you can't take the papers.”
“They are classified. National security.”
He handed over the document. I couldn't read it, but the FBI agent looked like he was eating his liver.
“Fair enough. I'll tell my bosses. But in the meantime, I wonder if you can answer some questions?”
“I'm afraid we have the right not to incriminate ourselves. We are asserting that right. Both as a company, and as individuals. So, no, you can ask any questions but we will not answer them.”
The search was pointless. But we went right ahead. If only to annoy them.
I was surprised when I found the clue. It was something no one else would have noticed. A single envelope in the bin. It contained an address. I think Nigel must have been helping me. I was drawn to it. But the thing I noticed was the fact the address had a Sigma stamp.
I didn't let on what I had found. Just stuffed it in my jacket pocket.
Once we were out of the building, I decided to break away from the FBI agent. I knew some things would work better on my own. it was easier said than done. When I tried to go for a walk that night, he insisted on staying right by me.
I finally decided to crawl out of the window that night.
Getting to the address was difficult. I didn't have a car, I had to take the bus. Most of the journey there wasn't even that. And it had began to rain. I must have looked odd, walking around town that late at night, soaked. In fact, I surprised no copper stopped me.
But I arrived at the address just before five.
As I looked at the building, wondering how I would get in, their was a cough right behind me. I turned round and saw the FBI agent.
“I thought I'd got rid of you.”
“It isn't that easy,” he said, smiling thinly.
“It's not like you can help me here. I'm gonna break in.”
The FBI agent shrugged, “How good are you at that?”
“Good enough,” I said. Knowing I was lying as I said it. It wasn't like it was my strong point. The expression on the coppers face showed he thought not either.
So I walked towards it.
He stood there behind me his mouth opened, as I shimmied the lock. it opened. I walked in. This was a mistake, I didn't notice the small CCTV camera, the camera that was hidden in a plug socket. But it was sending my picture right up to the security office.
They were phoning their security company within minutes.
I worked quickly, going up the stairs to the office. I don't know what I had expected to see. But what I did see looked just like any other office. Even down to the half drunk cup of coffee.
It was dark in the room. Suddenly the lights went on. I looked behind me, and two armed security guards were pointing their weapons at me.
I raised my hands.
“I surrender” I said.
“A pity,” said one of the guards, as he hit me hard on the back of my head, and I fell down unconscious.
I woke up in the boot of a car. I could feel the engine running, and smell burning petrol. It was pick black. The car started off, bumping along the ground. Hitting me from side to side.
My hands were tied behind my back. It was lucky I knew a little magic. I got the knot loose without much effort. Then I grovelled around the car to find something, anything that could help me. There was a wrench, which I picked up.
Soon the car stopped.
I put the rope around my wrists, hiding the fact I was loose. And put the wrench in my pocket. The boot of the car swung open. One of the security guards lifted me out of the boot. He was covered in muscle.
“The boss wants to speak to you.”
“Slater. Nigel Slater.”
My mouth opened wide. That was the last thing I expected to hear. They marched me along the ground and I saw him for the first time. Nigel. Alive.
“Why are you looking into my business?” he asked,
“Err, because you asked me to?”
Nigel smiled, and raised his hand. The security guard gave me a wallop. So hard I could almost hear my rib cage cracking.
“Try answering my questions without the jokes.”
“I'll try. You see, though, my answer wasn't a joke.”
Then the room went strange. Something turned the lights off, and opened the windows. It even raised a chair off the ground. The security guard looked worried for the first time.
“Nigel... meet Nigel.” I said.
“What on earth?” He asked.
“For the last month, I have been searching for the person who killed Nigel Slater. You, sir, are Nigel Slater. But it seems your ghost hasn't got the information you are alive.”
“This is preposterous.”
I looked around at the furniture. It was hovering. But Nigel had stopped moving it.
“I guess the question is... who killed you, sir? Who would want to kill you.”
“No one! I am just a computer hacker.”
“Your ghost would seem to disagree.”
Just then the FBI agent rushed into the room. He had his gun out. Pointing right at Nigel. Who looked shocked.
“Agent, please put that down.”
“But, you're in danger, sir!”
“I don't think so!”
The agent put his gun down, and Slater sat down. He pulled a half drunk glass of whiskey from his desk, and sipped it.
“Sir, stop drinking that!”
I noticed his voice had started to slur. It seemed like he was finding it more difficult to stay awake too. I did the only sensible thing.
“Call an ambulance!”
But it didn't work. By the time that the ambulance arrived, Nigel was in a deep coma. It took only a short time after that until the first homicide detective got there.
“I'm sorry, Nigel, I should have realised what was going to happen.”
But the truth is, it was fate. No ones fault. Except the murderer. After all, how can Nigel Slater’s ghost come into my dreams unless he is actually killed?
“One good thing about this, sir,” said the FBI agent.
“Now the murder has happened, maybe their will be some clues.”
“Maybe. Maybe there are some clues right in this room,” I said.
What happened next surprised me. The cops arrested me. Told me I was being held on suspicion of murder. I told them not to be idiots, but they wrote it in their notebooks and not their minds.
I guess the only thing that saved me was the way the FBI agent had been there.
Even so, they only released me after a day.
By that point the clues would be getting stale, so I drove right to the company. But they wouldn't let me in. it was a police investigation, they said. No dice.
So I did the only thing I could think of.
I called the FBI agent and asked him to run the full scan on Slater. By the time he had finished I would know every single family member. And all I had to do was interview them.
He came back with a mother, and a father, both dead. And nothing else of interest.
The only clue left to me was Sigma. The company was closed for a few hours, but the managing director wasn't. Again the FBI came to my rescue. They had the address, and I wasn't afraid to use it.
“I guess you should come with me,” I told Mr FBI.
“For your warrant card.”
We walked up the garden path. It wasn't the most luxurious house that a managing director had ever lived at. But I knocked on the door anyway.
A man opened it.
“We've been waiting for you.”
I walked in. Behold, the group was all there. The director of the FBI himself. The attorney general. And a four star general. I could feel the back of my assistant straightening up.
“I won't introduce these people.” the managing director said. “But you have some questions for me.”
I opened my mouth. To this day I still don't know why I asked it. “Who killed Nigel Slater?”
“Why, I thought that would be obvious.”
The Managing Director pressed a button on the TV. It switched on. Nigel Slater’s office. I saw him pick up his glass. Put the chemicals in it. The MD fast forwarded. Nigel killed himself.
“Any more questions?”
“Why did he do it?”
The Managing director leaned back. He looked old at that moment. The simple question aged him a dozen years.
“Sir... if you knew the answer to that question, you'd follow Nigel’s lead.”
I could feel the room getting colder as he spoke. Nigel was listening. He was getting angry.
“Sir, I have to insist. it isn't just for me. In fact, it is not about me at all.”
“OK. What do you know about Nigel Slater?”
I shook my head. Damned little, I realised.
“He was a genius. A certifiable Genius. Of the insane variety. We hired him to do a job of work.”
“Oil. We got him to produce computer models. All the oil reserves. He was so great... well, he could produce a program that told us exactly where oil was, just from satellite images.”
“Worth a fortune.”
“Worse than that. You see... he found the mother load. Trillions of dollars of oil. All in one place.”
“But why would that cause him to kill himself?”
“Because the only way we can get it is global thermonuclear war,”
He pressed a few buttons, and the map showed up. Right there. Right on Taiwan’s borders. I could feel myself about to vomit.
“Yeah. If we try to get the oil rights, China will go to war. We'll back Taiwan. And then... Kaboom!”
“But surely we can just keep it secret?”
“That's what Nigel tried to do. From the look of it, that is what he is still trying to do.”
“But it might be too late.” I guessed.
“Someone may have leaked it to the Chinese,” the managing director said,
The director of the FBI smiled at me.
“We think you must have done it,”
Just at that moment a dozen armed guards came into the room. Their guns were pointed right at me. I raised my hands, and was soon plunged into the carpet. They searched me. Didn't find anything interesting.
“If I were guilty, why would I warn you of Nigel Slater’s death anyway?”
“You didn't, son. All you did was lead us on a wild goose chaise.”
“Yeah. But I don’t think you did it. I don’t think you were that smart. But I don't know what this being who calls himself Nigel Slater is,”
I didn't struggle. By now, them putting handcuffs on me was almost routine. I just wish I had been able to continue my life as a charlatan.
“He's a ghost”
“A ghost from the future?”
I didn't know what to say to that. it was true. it was obvious when you think about it. Nigel had told me he was murdered when he was still alive. but no one ever said the soul was bound to the arrow of time.
Which was in any case about to start running out.
The phone started ringing. The director of the FBI picked it up.
“Sir? yes, sir. I'll bring him right back with me,”
He beckoned to the armed guards to pick me up. Soon I was in the back of the armoured limo.
“Take me to the white house.”
Within a few minutes we had picked up an escort. From what I could tell, they had closed the road down. Only we were travelling that evening.
“China has just issued a press release. They are starting military exercises. 100 miles from the coast of Taiwan”
I gulped. It looked like things were just about to head for the worse. The trip to the Whitehouse was the most fraught I had experienced in my life. The director of the FBI was reading faxes and emails in the car. His face was getting more and more pale.
“We have very little time.”
“I guess... we need Nigel more than ever.”
“We need to convince the Chinese this is all a hoax.”
It seemed obvious to me. But the mouth of the head of the FBI opened wide in shock.
“And how do you propose to do that?”
“I guess like the English did in WWII. With disinformation. We need to get an Chinese agent and feed him bad info. And I guess Nigel might be your best hope for that.”
“What do you mean?”
“He is our only invisible agent.”
I guess the FBI director caught on quickly. Because he could go anywhere, Nigel could listen to the Chinese chatter. He could find Chinese agents. Maybe he didn't know Chinese, but he knew enough to listen in to the English language conversations.
It wasn't a new concept. The CIA had investigated it in the sixties. But they didn't have a real life ghost, so their experiments failed.
This time we had a real ghost. I asked them to pick out the Ouija board again. The séance room was a sight you had never seen in your life. The president and the director of the FBI holding hands, in a dark room.
I put on dramatic music, and we began.
“Nigel. Nigel. Are you there?”
N - O.
“He's always a joker. Nigel, Did you hear what we were planning?”
Y - E - S.
“And you'll do it?”
Y - E - S.
The president of the united states shook his head. You could tell he couldn't believe what he was seeing. He got up from his seat, and you could almost hear his bones cracking.
“We don't have long.” he said, scratching his head.
Over in the corner of the room I could see a computer with satellite images. I could watch the Chinese fleet mobilising in real time. The number of dots that represented aircraft carriers alone was scary.
“I think we have a week. If that.” I head the director of the FBI's bass tones say.
“It will only be a few days before we have to mobilise our own navy.”
The wait was excruciating. But suddenly five hours latter, the board started spelling out a name. The FBI director went to work. Within minutes they had the file out. He didn't look like what you would expect of a Chinese agent. He had long, blonde hair, was dressed in a respectable suit, and had a respectable job.
He worked in the old navy base. His job was to work on the files, reading sensitive military information. Including information about resource allocation. Once they checked his bank account the truth became obvious.
“He's our man. He's the one that leaked the Taiwanese oil. It was restricted to only a few dozen agents.”
I shrugged, “How do we proceed?”
The FBI director stood up, and paced down the long thin corridor. Then he arrived back in the meeting room with a young woman. She was dressed in military uniform.
“I think it's time to fill you in,” he said, and then told her everything we knew. As he told her the story, her eyes got wider and wider.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked at the end.
“It's time for you to give a disinformation campaign”
He explained the plan. It was simple. The Chinese agent needed to think it had all been a hoax. But for that to work, he would have to eat a pack of lies.
The exercise started two hours latter.
I wasn't there, so I can report only what I have been told. The female agent I had been introduced to worked in the old navy headquarters. She worked in the files there. It is a room full of top secret papers. Room might be the wrong word; it was the size of an aircraft hanger.
She worked there, and had spent months being bored. So naturally, she had struck up a conversation with the handsome blonde military attaché. And, the conversation was reciprocated.
It did not go unnoticed on the reports by the taciturn, tall supervisor who ruled the old navy headquarters. He had put it on the computer, like a good agent, and the computer had spurted out this report on command.
The director of the FBI looked at her. She didn't look like much to put the freedom of the world onto. But she was eager. And after being told what to do, she didn't complain. She saluted.
She was the best chance.
I stood at the back of the room, watching the Director of the FBI feeling out the officer, and knew I would have to talk to Nigel alone. I didn't trust her. She looked too good to be true with her starched uniform and willing smile.
“Nigel, Keep an eye out on her,” I whispered.
The new agent went into a staff car, to be driven to the headquarters. She looked very lonely in the back of the car. Meanwhile, we walked to the operations room. There was a banks of monitors the length of the room. We could see satellite images of the build up of the Chinese fleet, as well as real time updates of our spies.
The FBI director looked over at me. “Don't tell anyone what you see here,” he said.
I nodded. Then looked back over to the screens. I could see our agent depositing the papers in her draw. She phoned up the Chinese agent, and set up dinner. It looked like a glorious feast. Roast duck, with all the trimmings.
The doorbell went. She walked over to it, and opened it. She said something, and the Chinese agent walked into the room. After ten minutes of conversation, she walked away. To go to the toilet.
If we still had any doubts about the agent, what he did next would have dispelled them.
He walked over to the draws, and started rummaging. After a few minutes he found the file our agent had left. He took out the smallest camera you have ever seen, and clicked the image. After that, he put the files away.
“We have him,” the director of the FBI said.
After he left, the confirmation came thick and fast. The Chinese fleet disbanded. It was amazing to see, but they split up within a matter of hours. Soon the sea around Taiwan was empty except for commercial shipping.
“I guess when they found out it was a trap, they didn't want to go to war for the sea bed.”
I looked over at the monitor, “But what happens when you start to drill the ocean?”
“We won't. Not for many years,”
I guess that if this had been a story that would be it. I would have been given a party, a celebration, and been allowed to leave. After all, I had saved the day. Well, Nigel did leave. I haven't heard from him since.
But I knew too much.
After they had finished celebrating, a guard collected me, and drove me in a prison van to here. It is a cold concrete cell. I am allowed a TV, and to write carefully vetted letters. I'm not sure how I will post this, my story. Maybe I will write it under the postage stamp.
I guess for an old crook like me, it is fair. But I wish I had been sent to jail for something I did. And not for some trumped up terrorist charge.
Sometimes they come, ask me for help on their investigations.
Maybe one day I will give it.