Masters stared back, unflinching. "You won't work for me, fine. That's your choice. I respect that. But I can't allow you to work for the enemy. And have no illusions, if you fall into enemy hands, they won't give you a choice, they don't have concepts like freedom of choice, they'll force you. And I can't take that risk. You're too dangerous, far too dangerous to be allowed to fall into their hands."
"Always comes back to that with you, doesn't it." the guy with the red hair challenged him.
"Freedom and democracy have to be defended. Whether that is against fascism, or communism, or terrorism, or whatever comes beyond that, there will always be a threat. That is the nature of humanity, the nature of the species. I don't want a war. No one wants a war. But we have a war, whether we like it or not. And I do not intend to lose that war. So if you won't fight on our side, I'll make damn sure you don't fight for the enemy. "
"By killing innocent children."
"If killing a handful of innocent children protects the freedom of the majority, yes, I would do that. Collateral damage, war is hell."
"New watch? That to replace the one that got stolen?" Damon asked.
Jake was confused. "What do you mean, stolen?"
"Stolen. I got to watch that one. Lot of weird shit going on that time. Particularly the stuff about owls."
Jake nodded nervously, he was feeling more than a little uncomfortable at the revelation. "You know, it doesn't much bother me that you can read my mind, see things I wouldn't want most people seeing. Creeps me out that you saw stuff I don't even remember. Creeps me out that my watch was taken while I was just lying there unconscious."
Damon handed over the open file. "You weren't unconscious, if you'd been unconscious then there's no way I could have seen what happened."
"Right. Guy with red hair. I just don't remember." Jake was staring at the notes. "He took my watch, not my wallet, not the booze. The watch wasn't valuable or anything, why the hell did he take that and leave the rest?"
Jake was still shaking, shock rapidly setting in, but the arrival of Damon seemed to have kicked his mind back into working. Damon wasn't going to get him out of there, and there was nowhere they could go they could explain bullet wounds. His best chance of survival was to stay and be found by the police.
"Police on the way. They'll get him. Nothing you can do. Just go." Jake managed to stammer out through clenched teeth. He was too far gone to be able to handle telepathy.
"That won't stop the bleeding, should slow it. Shit, this isn't happening."
"Go, get back, drive back, get Kath to report me missing. Take my cellphone, crush it, dump it by the school, they'll know."
"I'll sort out the rest."
"You can't sort anything out, you're bleeding to death."
"Thanks for that reassurance." Jake managed to gasp angrily.
"You think you can just talk your way out of this one?"
Damon had his one chance to make sure the guy didn't escape, didn't get a chance to kill again. Disarming Stellman wouldn't achieve anything, and Stellman was right, Damon knew there was nothing he could do with the gun. That left one chance, one moment while the gun was pointed away from him, he threw himself towards where Jake had dropped the dart gun, and grabbed it. Not the most effective weapon, but non-lethal, that was good enough. Without hesitating he fired the dart straight into Stellman's leg.
Stellman twisted round, trying to steady the gun, trying to aim, fighting the tranquilizer drug. Trying to pull the trigger, and failing. Damon could sense the desperation, the panic, Stellman couldn't handle the fact that his plan could fall apart so quickly, not when he had been so sure he had won.
Damon could feel the anger, the desperation. Stellman's legs were starting to give way, he stumbled, fell to his knees and managed to steady himself. Damon could see the racing mind, trying to think through options, trying to work out how he could escape, interjected with visions of facing trial, of being locked up; of acknowledging failure, Stellman couldn't handle that. His mind flashing through a dozen scenarios within a fragment of a second. Each idea grasped at as if it were a real chance, a hope of turning the situation back around, each hope discarded, each possibility rejected, each fading into darkness, until there was only a single thought, a single hope to cling to, until that too faded into hopelessness, and there was nothing left.
Damon watched as Stellman turned the gun on himself, watched as Stellman swayed to stay upright. Watched the bullet penetrate Stellman's skull just below the ear, pass through upwards and blow bits of brain out the other side of his head. He watched the gun fall as the limp body slipped forward into the mud.
"Alright, I don't want ordinary. I like the idea of being different. I guess what this is about is I just feel like I could do with a little bit less attention."
"Tell me about it. I didn't even dare visit you at the hospital with all the press camped outside. But what do you expect? You're a hero, you're front page news."
"Hey, you were the one who saved the day, all I did was lie there and bleed."
"You were trying very hard not to bleed quite so much."
"I couldn't bleeding stop though."
"Not funny. Anyway, I prefer the anonymity. I wouldn't ever want to be the hero." Damon pointed out.
"You're a hero to me. And I don't mean that in a gay way. You saved my life. I know that, even if no one else does."
"So I guess that makes us even."
Jake shook his head gently. "It's not a debt I ever would have held you to."
"And we know he was working with someone. Someone that the police in their infinite wisdom won't even believe exists."
"Not that they'd find him anyway." Damon was cynical.
"Certainly not without us doing all the work for them again."
"Stellman was the dangerous one though."
"You sure of that?" Jake asked.
Damon was acutely aware of how wrong he'd been about Stellman the last time he'd made any prediction. "No. Not completely."
"So we both still need to watch out."
"All four of us do."
"You get anywhere checking on that last tracking chip they couldn't account for?"
"No luck yet, I'll keep on trying.
"Where do the lies end, and where does the truth begin?" Kath asked Jake. She'd been burning to ask the question for days, but hadn't figured the hospital was private enough she would get an honest answer.
"Only one lie. I wasn't abducted. I went after him. The rest is true. I really was next on his list anyway."
"I'm not going to ask." Kath decided to make it easy for him. She wasn't sure she wanted to know the truth anyway.
"Thanks. You're not missing anything. The truth is pretty screwed up to be honest."
"I can believe that. You live in a crazy, screwed up world Jake."
Jake frowned maliciously, an evil glint in his eye. "My world crazy and screwed up? You split up with Dean. Now you're seeing Mike. That is the world gone totally sodding crazy," he changed the subject.
"Shipping out?" Damon stepped over the packed bags outside Nick's bedroom.
"Tomorrow. Flight leaves for Najaf in the morning."
"How's that working out with your parents?"
"Better. Jake was right. They went totally apeshit at first, but they're calming down now. I don't think they'll ever like the idea, but I think they understand why I'm doing it. I think they're starting to respect my right to choose at least. So, been watching him on the news. How's Jake doing?"
"Hating being on the news. Almost as much as I did. He's okay."
"Anything?" Masters was asked by the undistinguished figure wearing black gloves who was waiting for him as he got back in the car to leave.
"No. Unfortunately it seems Stellman took his secrets to the grave with him."
"And was he working alone?"
"Stellman was intellectually half baked, he couldn't have pulled all that off on his own. Plus there remains the matter of the disc and those prion samples missing from his house, someone had to be responsible for that, and it wasn't Stellman."
"What about our friend with the red hair?"
"It does not benefit us to jump to conclusions. He certainly has the means and motive to be connected with all this, the missing items could be his work. But that is idle speculation. For now it is important we keep an open mind."
"Keep them under discreet surveillance. And I mean discreet. If our red headed friend was involved he'll be going after them soon enough. And he really is dangerous, unlike that idiot Stellman."
"I recognize that face." Damon grabbed for the photograph.
"You know my therapist? Well, my ex-therapist who did a runner." Misako asked curiously.
"Jake does. That's the guy who stole his watch. The guy with the red hair."
Jake was worried. "How exactly did he end up as your therapist? And what exactly did you tell him?"
Late For The Circus
The sound of rapid gunshot splintered the silence. Damon tensed up and pressed himself flat against the mattress in a futile effort to minimize the target he was presenting. He frantically glanced around to see where the threat was coming from but there was nothing to see in the darkness. Quickly, instinctively he snapped his eyes tightly shut and reached out with his mind instead, but that didn't help much either, it wasn't like he was Luke bloody Skywalker or something. Telepathy in reality was never as cool as it was made out to be in the movies. Anyway, he certainly didn't need some all powerful force to tell him he was in the shit again.
And not just because finding himself in the shit was a normal occurrence for him these days, there really was something seriously wrong. The glow of streetlights outside leaking round the edges of the curtains, it was somehow the wrong color, it was in completely the wrong place. Damon's eyes darted around desperately, searching for the feint red flicker of an LED clock display, but there was none to be seen. With nothing to latch onto he felt like he was drowning. He still had raw memories of being chained up and tormented by a lunatic firing bullets at him as part of some grotesque experiment to test his reflexes. This wasn't the same, though, it couldn't be the same, Stellman was dead. Damon twisted around in bed, determined not to lose control. Why wasn't there a clock? There had to be a clock. The unpleasant truth started to sink in, this wasn't his bedroom. His hand tightened round the hard metal tubing of the bed he was sleeping in, it was a sodding hospital bed, he was back locked up in the abandoned hospital where he'd been imprisoned and tortured. Was it possible that Stellman had escaped death somehow and had now come back for him? Was it possible that this really was time to panic?
He buried his head in his arms and tried to shut out the whole of reality, shut it out before the rapidly escalating fear overwhelmed what ability he had left for rational thought. Only one thing mattered, he had to get out of there immediately. He had to jaunt, that meant he needed somewhere to jaunt to. He needed Jake, where the hell was Jake?
Damon forced his eyes open again. Was it also possible that he was being a twat? Getting himself wound up just because he might be in the shit. He didn't know that for sure, he was jumping to conclusions. Okay, maybe it had sounded like a gun, but maybe he'd imagined it, that had to be one possibility. It wasn't unimaginable either to think that he might have dreamed it. The dream he'd woken up from had certainly been on the bizarre enough side, something about teddy bears, strange sentient teddy bears on a world with two suns. One of those dreams that if you ever stop long enough to wonder exactly why you were dreaming it then you'd quickly start to question whether you were disturbed in all sorts of ways that concealed some painful childhood trauma. But Damon had a fairly solid handle on all his childhood traumas, the therapy was helping, and anyway, there hadn't been any guns in the dream. So whatever was happening, it wasn't anything to with the dream. Which meant that like it or not he was awake and the noise had been real.
But what kind of noise, and what kind of real?
Damon's answer came in the form of three more loud knocks on the bedroom door. His head was way too close to the door for comfort, that was why it sounded so loud. Yeah, bloody simple explanation really, nothing to freak out about. He lay back on the camp bed and forced himself to breathe normally. As he started to piece together what was going on he was slowly able to bring the tension under control.
Mostly he had the panic attacks under control, but waking up in the mornings could still be a bugger at times. Oh well, at least he hadn't wet the bed this time. He'd done that once or twice after his escape, and for a sixteen and a half year old that was seriously embarrassing. Would have been even worse on this occasion because he was sleeping over at a friend's house. Not that Jake would have made a big deal of it. Jake understood.
So, anyway, Damon had spent the night on a camp bed on the floor of Jake's bedroom. That was why the curtains were wrong and there were no clocks. No impending doom, just Damon once again waking up and failing to get his head around the fact that Stellman was dead and that the threat the guy had once posed was long gone.
There was something still wrong though. The alarm clock hadn't gone off and Jake was still asleep, so what the hell was the banging on the door all about?
On cue, the banging at the door came again.
From the angle Damon was lying at there was no way he could see the alarm clock. Was it due to go off in one minute? Or ten minutes? And why the hell did Jake's mother feel the need to go banging on the door? Was it just to give them prior warning that the alarm was due to go off soon and they'd have to get up when it did? And how the hell could Jake sleep so peacefully through banging like that anyway? Snoring lightly, totally oblivious, dreaming about... okay, not tactful to go looking there. It was rude.
Damon buried his head deeper under the pillow. He wanted to go back to sleep. He was desperate to cling on to every last fleeting moment that he could delude himself into thinking he didn't have to get up. The prospect of the day ahead filled him with little enthusiasm. He was also bloody tired still.
It had been a late night, a stupidly late night. First time he'd ever stayed over at Jake's house and they'd completely lost track of time, stayed up until all hours talking, which was crazy as hell because the two of them could talk telepathically any bloody time they wanted, it wasn't exactly like they were starved of contact. The truth was, it was more about Jake not being able to sleep. The poor guy had been nervous as hell all evening, and understandably so, the day ahead was one he'd been dreading for months.
Damon's thoughts were interrupted by more banging on the door. He consigned himself to the inevitability of having to get up, the banging wasn't ever going to stop. Jake had warned him about that, Jake's mother was interminably persistent when she made her mind up about something. Yeah, exactly the bloody same as Jake was, no guesses where he got that from.
So when was the alarm going to go off? What the hell time was it? Alright, if he was that desperate to know then he could just sit up and look to see, but that kind of felt like surrender.
The banging on the door started up again, this time accompanied with shouting. "Your breakfast is on the table. We leave in thirty minutes." Then after another short pause, "Get a move on in there."
The words wrenched Damon into being fully awake. Thirty minutes? That would make it 7:00AM already. The bloody alarm clock should have gone off an hour ago. They were in deep shit. Only... Only there was no way the alarm clock could have been set wrongly, not after the big argument he'd had with Jake about the stupid thing the night before.
Jake continued to sleep soundly.
Confused, Damon gave in and pulled himself around so that he was sat on the side of the camp bed. The clock said the time was 4:29AM. Damon immediately lay back down on the camp bed. Too bloody right Jake was still fast asleep. What the hell was Jake's mother doing banging on the door at 5:45AM acting like they were late? Something didn't fit.
The alarm was set for 4:44AM. They still had fifteen minutes. That made sense, didn't it? Bloody, bloody stupid, silly alarm clock, Damon's head objected to the mental arithmetic he was being forced to do this soon after waking up. Why the hell did Jake insist on having an alarm clock that was deliberately set to the wrong time?
The banging came one last time and was followed by the handle of the door being turned. Damon hurriedly pulled the blanket back over himself, Jake kept the room warm enough that Damon had kicked the covers off during the night, so warm that he'd kicked his pyjamas off during the night as well, and he didn't need Mrs Laris getting to see that much of him.
She swept angrily into the room and flung open the curtains. "Half an hour, Jacob, and you aren't even up yet," she shook Jake, who looked pained to be dragged from his dreams so abruptly.
"What time is it?" Jake moaned.
"What do you mean, what time? It's seven o'clock. I don't believe you, Jacob. This is important. Today is important. The inquest, remember? You have to testify in a court of law."
"The alarm didn't go off, I don't know what happened," Jake's words stumbled out as he stared at the alarm clock trying to puzzle out what time it was showing.
"Half an hour to get washed, get dressed, get breakfast. Well forget the breakfast, you'll have to eat that on the way."
"I don't give evidence until eleven, even if we're late we'll be there in plenty of time for that," Jake defended himself somewhat groggily.
"That isn't the point, Jacob. Now out of that bed, and come with me to the bathroom. We haven't got time for you to spend half an hour getting yourself washed. I'll be so happy when you get that cast off next week and you can shower on your own again."
Damon sensed Jake tense up at the instructions he was being given. No, tensed up was an understatement, what Damon could sense was more of an overpowering discomfort.
"Damon can help me wash and get dressed. We'll be ready, I swear it. Wouldn't it save more time if you used the time to box up the breakfast to take with us?" Jake argued urgently.
"I wouldn't need to do that if you hadn't slept in. Alright, have it your way, but no short cuts, you have to give evidence in court. You are going to smell clean and look smart. And you will be ready to be out that door in thirty minutes, or that's it, you don't get that car you're planning on buying."
"That's not fair, that's..."
"No arguments, Jacob. You want the car, I suggest you head for the bathroom, now. You have twenty-eight minutes," she turned and stormed out.
Damon tried to keep a straight face, but his amusement leaked out telepathically, and that conspired to piss Jake off even more. "I love the way she calls you Jacob," he gave in to temptation and went for the wind up.
"Stop, Damon, alright, it's not bloody funny," Jake wasn't seeing the joke, he wasn't happy. "I knew this would happen if I didn't wake up early enough, What the hell happened to the alarm? I don't get it. Sod it, Damon what did you do to it? You just, don't bloody mess with other people's shit, right," Jake lashed out angrily.
Damon wasn't in the mood to put up with Jake getting all pissy. "I said I was sorry already, what more do you want? I set the clock back to the wrong time, just the stupid twat way you like it, that's what you wanted, that's what you told me to do. If you've still got a problem with it, just piss off. I don't know why it's screwed up."
Jake shifted uncomfortably, Damon's protestations of incomprehension sinking in. Damon quickly worked out what must have happened: Damon had corrected the clock thinking he was being helpful, they'd argued the toss, Jake had insisted Damon set it back, then he'd gone and reset it himself anyway, so now it was doubly wrong. Alright, Damon shouldn't have messed with it in the first place, but Jake should have trusted him to put it right. So who the hell's fault did that make it?
"I could lose the car, Damon, that was no empty threat, and you just don't give a shit, do you? Alright, it's not about the car, I don't give a shit about the car specifically," Jake tried to rationalize, "I mean, I do, but sod it, we're running out of time. Look, can we just get this bloody shower thing over with."
Damon was in even less of a mood to take it. "I don't know, can we? Maybe you're right, maybe I don't give a shit. You tell me to sod off then you expect a favor? You know what, I've had enough. Shove it, Jake, just shove it. You want a shower, go ask your mother."
"I can't." Jake swallowed back his anger.
Damon was exasperated. "What do you mean you can't?"
"Can't deal with getting washed and dressed by my mom at this particular moment in time. I've had to deal with things that are embarrassing enough over the last four weeks, but it isn't an option right now on account of how I was woken up from a really good dream, a really, really good dream, and I really don't want..." Jake broke down trying to get the words out. "Alright. There's some things I just... Sod it, I just hate being stuck in a bloody buggering wheelchair. Please, Damon, don't ask, I need you, I need you to do this for me."
"It must really suck to be you." Damon stared blankly at the guy, infuriated how Jake could piss him off one minute then be begging for help the next.
"Please," Jake repeated helplessly, his frustration evident.
Damon desperately didn't want to give in to another sob story, but in fairness to the guy there were a lot of things Jake couldn't do for himself, and he only ever asked for help as an extreme last resort. The only frustration in the burden was that the stuff Damon got asked to help with was always by far the grossest. "It's not fair, Jake, you pull that sympathy card and you can get away with bloody anything."
"Sometimes it's all I've got," Jake whispered. He took no pleasure in the confession.
"Still not fair," Damon complained. Then he stopped and shook his head, he felt sorry for the guy. The loss of dignity, the loss of control, he could sense Jake found it unbearable at times. Damon relented, he would help, just didn't didn't want Jake to think that he was consenting to help with any enthusiasm. "Alright, come on then, let's get this over with," he echoed wearily.
Damon could sense the relief Jake felt. Not that Jake ever admitted to that, the thanks Damon received as they headed to the bathroom were the usual, which was somewhere between scant and none.
"Look," as Jake argued, "if you think me having a broken leg is unfair, I've got a baseball bat back there, there is a way I can fix that problem for you right now."
Thirty-five minutes later Damon hesitated as he reached the bottom of the stairs. He wasn't particularly anxious to head into the kitchen alone, they'd taken a good ten minutes longer getting ready than the ultimatum had allowed for, and Damon could sense Jake's mother was in a particularly volatile mood right now.
Jake was still hobbling his way down the stairs on his crutches, refusing help. He could have jaunted down, sure, but Jake was obstinate, he seemed determined to do it the hard way. Said it was good exercise. Bloody masochism was what it was. Damon wasn't impressed.
So Damon's job was now to keep Jake's mother distracted, convince her they were ready to go, even if Jake still wasn't there yet. Get her to stop counting how many minutes late he was. Jake was figuring that she'd give him a little slack and that ten minutes wasn't going to completely screw his chances of being allowed to buy the car. Damon wasn't so sure. From what he'd been told of her, Mrs Laris came across as pretty uncompromising about things like that, but he had to figure Jake knew what he was talking about.
Damon took a deep breath and walked in. Walked in to the midst of a storm, Mrs Laris was arguing intensely with someone on the phone and was not getting any satisfaction from the answers she was hearing. Damon wasn't sure what to do, he really wasn't good at dealing with situations like this.
"Well we'll try, but if you can't control the crowds, that's your problem. Don't be surprised if we're late then, that's all I can say... And good day to you, too," she shouted, not even attempting to sound like she meant it.
Damon froze up. Whatever he said, he felt like she would jump down his throat, and he'd already had enough of that from Jake that morning.
"Oh, there you are Damon. Good morning," she smiled at him with a warmth of personality that was the antithesis of the demeanor she'd just demonstrated on the phone.
That confused Damon even more.
"Good morning, Mrs Laris..." he stalled, his mind going blank for a moment. "Is there a problem with the arrangements for the inquest?" he tried asking politely. Stupid bloody question, he already knew the answer, of course there was a bloody problem. Then again, offering her the opportunity to rant, that had to come under the category of keeping her distracted.
"Oh, please, Damon, call me Judy. Seriously, Mrs Laris makes me feel old, and it reminds me I'm related to Jacob, which is even worse. Not that he's the problem here, which makes a pleasant change. I'm sorry to have to tell you that they're just useless, completely useless, the people organizing the inquest. There are protesters surrounding the courthouse, so we are going to have to park and walk, walk through the protestors, I'm quite serious, they're forcing us to run the gauntlet. I can't believe they're that insensitive. We'll have a police escort, but really, this is turning into a complete farce. There'll be reporters, and I promised your mother I wouldn't let a single reporter anywhere near you. Well, I'll pack a few tins of baked beans in my handbag, any of them point a camera in your direction and I tell you, that camera will take a direct hit from my handbag, and I'm not joking. I know exactly how she feels, Damon, I've had my fair share of reporters lying in wait to pounce on anyone who walks through through the garden gate. It's disgusting, I don't see why they can't just leave you and Jacob and that poor Misako alone. I mean really, didn't the three of you suffer enough? But I don't want to talk about that, I know today is going to be difficult enough for you and Jacob with all the reminders without me adding to it. But really, the incompetence of the coroner's office has me absolutely speechless."
Damon had no clue what part of that he should respond to, or even where to start. And the idea that anything could leave her speechless was, well, definitely not supported by the evidence. He stared at the TV on the counter by the wall, tuned to some news channel. Over the last month the news coverage of the kidnappings had gradually faded to the point that Damon had been able to watch the news and read newspapers without getting himself all wound up. But today, for one day only, the frenzy had returned with a vengeance. He stood there watching the scenes of chaos on the news.
"Which protest group is that at the courthouse?" Damon asked carefully. He only needed to sustain the distraction for a few more moments, he could sense Jake had finally reached the bottom of the stairs. Provoking another rant seemed like overkill, but he couldn't think what else to say. "Is it the lot who want to bring the death penalty back, or the lot who want guns banned?"
"All of them, Damon, all of them, there's even a bunch protesting about global warming, seem to think that Stellman was motivated by global warming. Nutty as fruitcakes that lot. The lot of them would do anything to be able to shake hands with you three kids, pass it off as some kind of endorsement of their lunacy. Honestly, I'm sorry you have to put up with all of this. Anyway, sit down, breakfast is ready. You can't go on an empty stomach."
They were fifteen minutes late already; heading out on an empty stomach was an expectation Damon had resigned himself to. He wasn't exactly sure what had changed, why they were now leisurely being offered a sit down breakfast, but he kept his mouth shut. Her prompting had made him keenly aware of the enticing aroma of a hearty fry up wafting it's way from the stove, and he politely sat down at the table and helped himself to the bacon and eggs she was serving.
Damon munched on his bacon, not wanting to look uncouth and shovel it down his throat too quickly, but he was worried breakfast would be over the moment Jake arrived, and they were expecting a late lunch, so he wanted to eat as much as he could and as fast as he could get away with.
"... and this is just for the inquest. Heaven knows what kind of insanity the inquiry will turn into..." Jake's mother continued. Actually, Damon wasn't entirely sure there was any point at which she'd stopped talking, he just wasn't paying enough attention any more. Jake had said he would find himself doing that pretty quickly.
She was right though, Damon wasn't looking forward to the insanity of the inquiry at all. That was scheduled early in the new year, and it was scheduled to last two weeks. Today's hysteria would be mild in comparison.
It would also be a lot worse because Damon would have to give evidence at the inquiry, he just knew that was going to be uncomfortable and unpleasant. Thankfully today he was just there to watch, the inquest was only interested in the circumstances of Stellman's death and Damon hadn't been present when Stellman had died, well, at least not officially. The only reason he was turning up at all was because Jake had asked him to come along. Of course Jake had made the invitation sound like a casual token of just being polite, admitting that he was absolutely desperate for the moral support wasn't his style, but that didn't matter, he'd been thinking it, and Damon could read his mind well enough.
So Jake was scared shitless. There were times that was an opportunity to take the piss, and times to be there for your friends, and Damon knew the difference, he owed Jake this one. No way was any bunch of deluded protesters going to get in the way of that.
Damon tried to ignore the TV and helped himself to another plateful of bacon and eggs much to the delight of a Judy Laris who obviously appreciated the sight of a boy with a hearty appetite.
"I thought we were in a hurry to leave?" Jake's voice came from the doorway. He'd finally made it to the kitchen, and lost no time launching straight into the question Damon hadn't dared ask.
Jake's mother swung round brandishing a frying pan full of eggs. "None of your lip, Jacob. We'll leave when we're good and ready. Now sit down and eat."
~What the hell wound her up?~ Jake asked silently.
~Don't knock it, Jake, she's completely forgotten about us sleeping in. Keep your nose clean the rest of the day and you won't have a thing to worry about, you'll get that car after all. As wound up as she is, you could even insist on getting hookers and blow as well and I actually think you'd get away with it.~
"I packed the wheelchair in the boot, and that's it..." Jake's mother was ticking off her final departure checklist. They'd taken a leisurely twenty minutes over breakfast, but now she was hurrying them again, and winding Jake up in the process. Then again, Damon noted, Jake had a tendency to go off his trolley these days any time the subject of the wheelchair was brought up. In three weeks his mood had flipped from him being numb and depressed to where he was unstable and in denial. Damon wasn't sure which was worse.
Jake was convinced that taking the wheelchair was overdoing it, and wasn't afraid to voice his opinion. "I can get around well enough on crutches now, and we only need to get from the car to the courthouse, I can handle that much easily."
Damon watched the exchange in brooding silence. Jake was deluding himself totally, he'd barely even made it to the breakfast table on crutches. He kept on hiding behind the euphemism that it was just a broken leg, but the damage went way beyond that. The wheelchair was a necessity, not a a luxury, but there was no point trying to tell Jake that.
"We don't know how close to the courthouse we're going to be able to park, we don't know how far we'll be walking, and we're already running late, we're taking the wheelchair..."
"I'm not a cripple, you treat me like I'm a cripple." Jake struggled to contain his exasperation. "I'll be fine when I get the cast off next week. Look, I'm sorry I got myself shot, I know it's inconvenient, but I didn't mean to, I just had other things on my mind at the time."
"Don't be flippant, Jacob. Yes, I would have preferred it if you could have avoided ending up in a wheelchair, but nobody is perfect, I don't expect you to be perfect. I'm proud of how you managed to escape."
"Then please just give me some credit for knowing what my limits are."
"I'm not arguing, Jacob. You can hobble about on crutches the whole time we're there if you want, but we're stil taking the wheelchair."
Jake bit his lip. Damon could see the guy was completely unrepentant, but at least he knew when to cut his losses.
Damon didn't know what to do about that one. It was frustrating. Jake had this idea that everything would be fine once he got the cast off, which was bollocks and Jake should have known it was bollocks. The guy had an overdeveloped capacity for denial that wasn't helping him. Damon had tried to tackle the subject more than once, but Jake wouldn't listen. Any attempt to make him see sense had only pushed him into getting more and more defensive. There was nothing more Damon could do for now, except have patience, and be there for his friend when the guy was finally ready to face up to reality.
"Now I called your father," Jake's mother continued. "He'll meet me at eleven so we can both watch you give evidence..."
"This isn't like a piano recital..." Jake once again tried to object.
"This is important, Jacob, this is about justice. I still have nightmares about that day you didn't come home from school. I've never been in a panic like it and I pray I never will be again. I realize that joking about it is your way of dealing with it, but I need to see this, Jacob, I need to see that Stellman is gone, finished, I need to hear them officially declare him dead, I need that justice."
"It isn't about justice," Jake argued. "There wasn't a trial. This is about retribution. This is about parading his corpse through the town square, it's about burning his effigy at the stake."
"Well that may be so, Jacob, but In case you weren't aware of the fact, Stellman kidnapped my son and tried to kill him. I for one would happily watch him burn at the stake."
~It's a lovely day for drinking and for watching people die,~ Jake quoted angrily. Thankfully he had the sense to keep the comment telepathic. Damon tried to keep a straight face. It was a good sign though, Jake was lightening up a little.
"And then afterwards we'll all go out to lunch. I spoke to Misako's grandmother, Charley, and they would be delighted to join us as well. Very sweet lady, she is..."
~Charley Grace, who used to be a special operative for MI6 and can still kick serious butt in unarmed combat even if she is a pensioner.~ Damon jumped in to observe wryly, forcing Jake to be the one to struggle to keep a straight face.
"And you look very smart in that suit, Jacob. I don't see you looking that respectable nearly often enough, very grown up," Jake's mother went on, unabated.
"You should take a picture, you don't know how long it will be before you manage to get Jacob to wear a suit again," Damon suggested with an evil glint in his eye.
Mrs Laris agreed enthusiastically. "Excellent idea, Damon, I'll grab the camera and pack that as well. Okay, both of you in the car. We need to be out of here, now."
Jake glared silently at Damon. ~If we were capable of violence, I'd kill you for that.~
What Is The Problem With The Truth?
For a public inquest there weren't exactly many members of the public around. The coroner, anticipating the kind of attention seeking mob that would likely descend on the proceedings, had, in her wisdom, insisted that it be an invitation only affair. Exactly how that still qualified it as a public inquest, Misako didn't pretend to understand, but anything that kept the lunatic public at a safe distance was a good thing as far as she was concerned.
Actually, the mob outside the courthouse hadn't looked half as intimidating as they had on TV. Seemed to be a lot fewer protesters out there than the TV reports had implied as well. Any reasonable observer might have suspected a cynical over-exaggeration of the facts by a news media who valued ratings above truth. Misako, for her part, was more pissed of because as a consequence of the irresponsible reporting her grandmother had been convinced that they needed to get there early. Painfully early, Misako and her gran had turned up over an hour before the inquest was scheduled to start. Unnecessarily early, even if there'd been a horde of ninja surrounding the building it wouldn't have taken Misako's gran that long to battle her way through them. Misako couldn't figure what threat the woman thought a bunch of suburban middle class weekend hobby protesters could possibly be, they'd have scattered like sheep after Charley Grace had snapped the first couple of necks. Misako loved her grandmother, but sometimes the woman had a tendency to overestimate the challenges of civilian life.
Getting past the security on the door to get into the building had turned out to be the more demanding task. Not that the security guards were belligerent, they looked almost as pathetically ineffective as the protesters outside, but what they lacked in physical stopping power they more than made up for in bureaucratic pen pushing. Everyone going in and out of the building was being checked for identification, searched for concealed weapons, and signed for in triplicate.
Now Misako was stuck waiting in the lobby for things to get underway. The coroner wasn't there yet, the star witness wasn't there yet. Misako's grandmother had suggested that the coroner was probably still stuck outside arguing with security because it hadn't occurred to her that she would need an invitation to attend a hearing she was supposed to be presiding over. It was supposed to be a joke, but Misako was suspicious there might just be some hidden truth in it. The star witness, Misako had found out from Damon, had slept in. Absolutely bloody typical behavior for Jake, not that she knew him that well, but, from what Damon had told her, the guy wasn't exactly reliable when it came to timekeeping.
So, two sodding hours she'd been sat there and there was no sign of proceedings getting under way any time soon. A cellphone, Facebook, and an endless ability to find amusement in watching people come and go was all that was managing to keep Misako from getting bored silly right now. Her grandmother had long since succumbed to impatience and had headed off in search of someone who could actually tell them what was going on. Misako had to admire the blind optimism of Charley Grace there. She hadn't seen her since. No surprise there.
Misako was staring up at the ceiling tiles when the sensation of being freaked out had hit her. There were seven thousand four hundred and twenty three tiles in the ceiling of the lobby, she'd counted them twice before getting distracted by... It was no good, she couldn't isolate what exactly had happened, because equally as abruptly the sensation had faded.
She spent a confused moment or two trying to make sense of it all before her attention was drawn across the lobby to where the makeshift metal detectors were set up at the entrance. Metal detectors that were now having an altercation with Jake's wheelchair. Well, at least she had identified the source of the freak out, even if the reason for the outburst was still unclear. Damon and Jake certainly weren't acting like they were in any danger still.
Misako wondered what kind of mood Jake would be in this time. He'd been incredibly downbeat at half term, kind of understandable when he was stuck at home while she and Damon had headed off for a long weekend in Ireland. Stuck because because the only bed and breakfast they'd been able to find hadn't been wheelchair accessible. She knew from Damon that that had just about sent him over the edge. He wasn't dealing with the wheelchair thing nearly as well as he liked to make out.
This would only be the fourth time Misako had met him, and so far she hadn't had much luck getting any kind of a handle on what he was really like, the best that she'd been able to conclude was that he was unpredictable.
Not that it was any consolation to Jake, but he hadn't missed anything. Before he'd died, Stellman had identified a potential fourteenth victim. That was why they'd gone all the way to Ireland, finding this Number Fouteen had turned into something of an obsession for Misako, Damon and Jake. Only it had turned out to be a completely wasted trip. Other than, Misako had to admit, she had got to see Damon naked, that had been pretty funny. Well, other than her grandmother finding out and completely getting the wrong idea about what had been going on. Misako hadn't been sure how to even begin trying to explain that one.
Anyway, the arrival of Damon and Jake at the court house had provided Misako a much needed escape from her isolation. She'd watched as the security guards had entered into a battle they could never win against an already more than irritated Judy Laris, a battle that lasted precisely seventeen seconds before the security guards relented, probably worried for their own personal safety, and allowed Jake to be wheeled around the metal detector.
"I'm sure they're all very nice people if you meet them socially, and I'm not wanting to imply that they're sexually frustrated in any way, but really, they need to get out more." Jake's mother muttered under her breath as she was finally permitted to cross through into the lobby to join the rest of them.
"Are you talking about the weirdos outside, or the weirdos guarding the door?" Misako asked conspiratorially, jumping up to greet them, relieved to have someone to talk to again.
"I agree completely my dear, they're all as mad as each other. So nice to see you again, is your grandmother around? I take it they haven't started yet."
"Still waiting, I don't know what for. My gran went to try and find out." Misako replied, trying to sound chatty even if she didn't feel it. The immediate danger might have passed but she could sense that something still had Jake and Damon spooked, and the last thing Misako needed right now was to get stuck in a long, polite conversation with Jake's mother.
"Well, it looks like there's a machine over there to get bottles of coke, Jacob, you were complaining that you needed something to drink, but don't overdo it, remember it won't be easy for you to get out of the hearing to go to the toilet in that wheelchair, and you'll need help as well, so that's two people who'll have to leave the hearing. Well, no sense us wheeling you all over the place until we know what's going on, you three stay here and I'll go and find Charley. Between the two of us I'm sure we can sort things out..."
~And pity the fool that gets in their way.~ Damon observed silently, although he didn't sound much in the mood for humor.
"Back soon, don't wander," Judy Laris cautioned uncharacteristically briefly as she headed off.
Misako waited just long enough for Jake's mother to get out of range. "Okay Damon, it takes more than a bunch of protesters to freak you out this much, what the hell is going on?"
"It 's him, the guy with the red hair. He's out there right now, I saw him stood in the middle of the crowd of protesters, just staring at me," Damon answered, his discomfort evident.
Misako shivered. Her own encounters with the guy had been, well, pretty messed up. The guy was creepy, no doubt about it, but she felt the need to try and be rational, practical. "Was he staring at you out of curiosity? Malice? Was he trying to intimidate you? I mean, is he trying to work out whether we can prove anything? Trying to work out if we really are a threat that he needs to deal with? That's what we need to work out."
Damon shook his head. "I don't know, I couldn't read him, too many people around, too much distraction, and I was more focussed on running the gauntlet out there. Which wasn't exactly easy with the bloody wheelchair. Anyway, whatever he's after us for, it isn't going to be anything good."
"I apologize for being the bloody wheelchair," Jake interrupted, coldly reminding Damon he hadn't gone anywhere.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to..." Damon realized his mistake.
"And what the hell was that shit you were thinking about ditching 'the wheelchair' and walking off? Because I didn't find that bloody funny either."
Misako frowned at them, irritated. The two of them clearly had some unresolved issues this morning. "Can you both just grow up, we have more important things to worry about right now."
"It wasn't about you, it was about the bloody protesters," Damon argued, "I thought about getting some momentum going, pretend I lost control, launch the wheelchair into the crowd, see how many of the bastards I could take out."
Jake looked pensive for a moment, then smiled. "You think anyone would notice if we sneaked out to try that now?"
Misako looked at them in disbelief. Jake was half serious and he might just be irresponsible enough to try. Damon should have known better, but even he was already trying to work out trajectories.
Jake's attitude frustrated Misako, but it was Damon she was disappointed in. Away from Jake she knew he was more than capable of acting with a degree of maturity and independence that she actually quite admired, he'd proven that on their trip to Ireland. Now the two of them were together again, and Damon was acting like a typical teenage idiot again. Jake was not a good influence on him. But what the hell could she do? It wasn't like Jake was inherently bad or anything, Jake was resourceful, intelligent, daring, but just too bloody childish for his own good at times.
Somehow she had to pull them back to reality. "Guys, we don't need to be drawing attention to ourselves right now, however much fun it might be. This is serious."
Damon frowned. "Tell us about it."
"Look, I don't like this mess any more than you guys do. One of the protesters tried to take a picture of me on the way in, I was not happy either."
"And you weren't just a little bit tempted to get pissed off with him?" Jake challenged, he seemed to have this idea that Misako was incapable of expressing emotion.
"He backed off abruptly, I think he thought my gran was going to jump kick him in the groin, and he was right to be scared, she has been known to do that."
Jake started to grin at the images Misako was conjuring, and Misako found the grin infectious in spite of herself. Jake was like that, he wasn't someone you could stay pissed off with for long. That was a lot of why he was so frustrating to deal with.
"So what are you saying? What should we do about the guy? Ignore him, hope he goes away?" Jake asked sarcastically.
"I think we need to take a longer term view, we have to think about how we protect ourselves in a wider context," Misako told them. "It's not just about this guy, he's just the first, the first of many weirdos to come, and believe me, they'll come."
"You're right." Jake agreed unexpectedly. "But in terms of priority, this guy is a problem now. The police have no interest in pursuing him, and if he doesn't know that already then he's going to work it out soon enough. And when that happens, I don't know, as far as I'm concerned he's bold enough already."
Misako listened intently. Damon had defended Jake on more than one occasion, pointing out that she was misjudging him, but this was the first time she'd seen it for herself. Seen the guy serious for once. So Jake was capable of a great deal of maturity when he had a mind to it. His only problem was that he didn't often seem to have a mind to it.
"Bold enough to come after us here?" Damon sounded worried.
"There's security at every entrance," Misako didn't see any sense in dwelling on the pessimistic.
"It took my mom seventeen seconds to intimidate them into letting me through without a search. You want to count on security like that?" Jake pushed her.
"Fine. What's he going to do in a crowded building?"
"Come up to us and introduce himself, make small talk, for fun," Damon suggested.
"You think he'd come up to us and introduce himself just to scare the living shit out of us?" Misako questioned disbelievingly.
"Why not? I wouldn't rule out the possibility. I mean, it's exactly the kind of twisted thing I would do," Damon reminded her.
"Alright kids, finally, we've found our seats." Judy Laris's voice cut across the lobby, causing more than the intended audience to turn their heads. "And could you possibly have managed to get larger drinks? Well, they don't allow you to take those into the court room so you'll have to drink up now, all of you. Oh, and Jacob, there's someone here who wants to have a quick word with you before you testify. Wouldn't tell me what it was about. I mean, like telling me would be prejudicial to the hearing or something? I can't imagine what he could say to you that I'm not meant to hear, but no, it's all secret. Anyway, when you're done talking to him it's up two flights of stairs, follow the corridor around, go through the door numbered 306, walk around on the left hand side, and you'll be sitting in the front row, the rest of us are stuck in the second row..."
"Don't worry about me," Jake managed to interrupt her, it was something of a rare achievement for him. "Go on ahead and get your seats. Damon and Misako can wait for me here, they can help me get up there."
"You need both of them to help?"
Jake stared at his mother, trying to work out if she was really that clueless. She got the message for once.
"Please yourself. You need to be up there in fifteen minutes, we need to be in our seats and settled before they start so don't take long. You know, I hate to say it, but turning up late might well have been for the best, it's saved us a lot of time stuck sitting around waiting. As to what is holding your father up, I do not know. And Jacob, fix your tie, you can't possibly take the witness stand with your tie half undone like that."
Jake politely contained his exasperation as his mother ran out of things to remind him about and departed towards the staircase. He seemed unsettled.
~You ready for this?~ Damon asked supportively as he returned from dumping the empty coke bottles. Even he had to admit that the drinks had been overkill in terms of size.
~I always figured I was good at bullshit, but this is going to be the performance of my life,~ Jake confessed.
Misako twisted sideways to avoid a newspaper reporter who was headed past on her way up to the hearing. The photographer accompanying her glanced at Misako, who glared back at him for daring to make eye contact. "I hate the reporters and photographers more than I hate the protesters," she hissed.
"Weren't you the one just telling us a minute ago that they're not allowed to take pictures, not allowed to report anything about us?" Damon reminded her. "All they're allowed to report on are the details of Stellman's death as presented by the inquest ."
"Doesn't mean I have to like them." Misako replied coldly.
Damon grinned at her, and Jake shook his head in amusement as he turned to try and look for whoever it was that wanted to talk to him. He didn't get very far, the whoever it was had found him.
He was late middle aged, in his late fifties, early sixties maybe, grey hair, wearing a pinstripe suit. There was something anachronistic about his whole demeanor, a distinct air of retired old imperialist about him.
The man nodded to acknowledge them as he approached. "I'd appreciate a quick chat with the three of you," he spoke formally, his words precise.
Something about the guy didn't add up. Damon eyed him suspiciously. "You want to talk to the three of us, not just Jake?"
Misako caught on to Damon's suspicions, the coroner's office would only have been interested in Jake. ~He's nothing to do with the inquest then.~
~That's what bothers me. He could be a reporter,~ Damon suggested.
Jake took no chances. "We have nothing to say."
The man smiled disarmingly at them. "You haven't heard what I have to offer yet."
Jake wasn't playing. "We're not interested."
"People are interested in you."
~He does sound like a reporter.~ Misako agreed.
"I can't speak for their delusions." Jake stated dismissively.
"You're a hero, young man. You stopped Stellman."
Misako stared at the old man, tried to stare through into his mind, tried to see what he was thinking. ~This guy is a bit freaky,~ she reported, ~his thoughts are way too vague to get a proper lock on.~
Jake played safe, went for a non-reply. "What I did wasn't as big a deal as you seem to think."
"The police were incompetent, they'd completely failed to make any progress. Then you come along, Stellman is stopped, the credit is all yours. The crowd cheers for you, Mr Laris."
"I don't appreciate the credit or the applause," Jake was dismissive. He was starting to doubt the old man was a reporter, he wasn't asking enough questions to be a reporter.
"You may not appreciate their admiration, but you deserve it. You did your duty, you showed bravery. This country needs more people like you."
~Sorry guys, I have to ask this,~ Damon cut in. "You're not one of those global warming nutcases managed to sneak past security are you?"
He shook his head curtly. "I'm Masters. Colonel Masters."
"Military?" Misako asked, immediately apprehensive. ~I'm sensing truth here, but what the hell interest do the military have in this?~
"Retired. Whitehall desk job these days."
Jake got to the point. "And what exactly do you want?"
"Suspicious aren't you?"
"Given that crowd out there? You surprised?" Misako replied. ~I'm really struggling to read much of what he's thinking.~
"No, I'm not surprised," Masters concurred. "And it doesn't matter. The crowd out there is the least of your worries right now."
"Then what should we be worried about?" Jake asked sarcastically, still half expecting a lecture on global warming.
"The fact that Stellman's accomplice is still at large."
Jake, Damon and Misako stopped dead, punctuated by a shared discomfort. ~What do we say? How the hell does he even know about that?~ Damon asked, making no effort to hide his concern.
Misako caught a feint undercurrent of satisfaction in Masters' thoughts. He was more than pleased with the reaction he'd provoked. They didn't know what he was up to, but Masters certainly had their attention.
"The police have investigated that possibility, they found no evidence to corroborate it." Jake played it cool and stuck with the official line, he wasn't sure what else to do.
"Unlike the police, I happen to believe you about Stellman having an accomplice. You described him in your evidence as having red hair, and someone fitting that description has been following you for weeks, there has to be some kind of link, and you've already worked most of that out, haven't you?"
Misako could sense that Masters was completely certain of his facts. He wasn't asking a question, he was making a statement. ~He's not a reporter, he's not one of those fruitcakes outside. I don't know what his role is in all this, but whoever he is, he's not bullshitting us.~
~So no point at all going for denial, then,~ Damon noted. "Yes, we know about the guy with red hair," he responded cautiously.
Masters smiled gently. "Then it seems we do have something to talk about."
~I'm still not comfortable with where he's going with this,~ Misako objected, the conversation was escaping from them too quickly for her liking.
Jake acknowledged the concern. "I don't quite see what there is to talk about. I think we can take care of ourselves."
"Can you? Are you sure?"
Damon was puzzled. ~What exactly does he mean? You think he heard us talking? What the hell else did he hear?~ Damon questioned nervously.
~Lets not panic just yet,~ Jake cautioned. "We're doing alright," he casually reassured Masters, although Misako was fairly sure that for once Jake's lies didn't have any effect.
"Fine," Masters handed them a business card each. "But if you change your minds, this is where you can find me."
Misako glanced down at the card. Name and number only, nothing to identify who Masters was working for. It was also odd that he seemed willing to give up the argument so easily. She could sense he was holding something back.
Masters turned to leave, then paused. "Oh, and I'll give you something for nothing, a gesture of good will. Her name is Kristen Walker and I arranged for her to attend the hearing today, just in case you wanted to meet her."
~Huh?~ Damon prompted.
"Who's Kristen Walker?" Jake voiced the question a little more eloquently.
"I've been paying close attention to the police handling of this case. It hasn't been all that impressive. No progress at all in tracking down what happened to that last, unaccounted for GPS tag. They cited that the logistics involved were insurmountable, and yet I assigned a junior office clerk to the task and she was able to identify Miss Kristen Walker in less than two days. One might almost think the police weren't even trying."
~He's telling the truth.~ Misako confirmed.
"What do you want?" Jake shouted after Masters as he started to walk away.
Masters spoke without looking back. "I want the man with the red hair. I intend to find him, I think he's after you, and I can help. You may not think you need help, but I assure you, whatever advantage you think you have over him, think again. He's dangerous, you're going to need my protection." He hesitated a moment longer, letting his warning sink in, then walked silently off.
Misako huddled down in her seat, they'd only barely managed to make it there in time. The three of them had been the last to arrive, and the whole court room had stopped to watch their grand entrance. Misako wasn't happy, they really needed to avoid drawing attention to themselves like that.
The inquest was called to order, and as it got underway Misako quickly gave up hope that there would be any insight provided into Stellman's state of mind. Jake was right, the court wasn't in the slightest interested in why Stellman had concluded there was no way out. The verdict would be suicide and it would all be over by lunchtime. No one was anxious for the proceedings to drag on any longer than they needed to.
Until then, Misako was immensely thankful for the gift of telepathy, so she could chatter to Damon and Jake all she wanted and there would still be silence in court.
Right now, Damon was giving his take on the conversation with Masters. ~I picked up some uncertainty in his thoughts when he was talking about there being a connection between Stellman and the guy with red hair, I mean, he wasn't lying exactly, he thinks there's a link, he just doesn't have any idea what the link is, that's part of what he's looking to find out.~
Misako agreed. ~A lot of the time his thoughts were confused, and he was nervous like he was afraid of something, which he kept well hidden, and he wasn't nearly as sure about a bunch of things that he pretended he knew about, but I didn't get any sense at all that he was outright lying.~
~He was also telling the truth when he said he believes us about Stellman having an accomplice.~ Damon continued. ~He's out to get the guy with red hair, that was the absolute truth as well. And he's convinced the guy is dangerous. If anything he was understating that part, the guy with the red hair gives him the serious heebie-jeebies.~
~What about this Kristen?~ Jake asked. ~I couldn't make much sense of what he was thinking there, but it felt like he had definite hidden agenda going on.~
~It was pretty convenient the way he found her that quickly. I suppose it could be a set up,~ Damon agreed.
~He thinks we'll automatically trust her, tell her everything, so even if we do get to talk to her today, we can't risk telling her a thing, not at this point.~ Jake was frustrated.
Misako shook her head, then realized there was no point as neither of them could see her. ~Look, guys, we'll know if this Kristen is real within six seconds of talking to her, telepathy isn't exactly something you can fake.~
~Right. Of course if she is one of us then it's potentially even worse that Masters got to her first, ~ Damon responded pessimistically. ~Think of the stuff she might have inadvertently told him already.~
Jake frowned. ~Which would not be good.~
~You know, Jake, I love your penchant for understatement,~ Damon fired back acerbically.
~So somehow we need to find out whether she's genuine or not. Either way, we still need to talk to her,~ Misako tried to keep the two of them on track.
~And if it turns out she really is genuine, what do we do about Masters? ~ Jake questioned.
~Jake...~ Misako interrupted.
Damon ignored the interruption. ~I don't know. I guess it wouldn't hurt to listen, see what he has to offer.~
~Protection, he said, whatever that means.~
~Jake,~ Misako interrupted again.
Jake sounded impatient. ~What?~
~Bloody pay attention, they're calling for you to take the witness stand, or whatever that is they call it.~
Somehow Jake managed to hide the fact that he was oblivious and not paying attention, managed to make his hesitation look deliberate, like he was nervous and trying to get his courage up. That immediately earned him the sympathy of the courtroom. The struggle to make his way up to the witness stand was less calculated. Jake had been determined not to rely on the wheelchair, and that meant limping up there on crutches. Misako could understand why, even if she thought it was bloody stupid to put himself through that much pain just to make a point. And he was in a lot of pain, each step was a challenge. He hid that part from the court, but he couldn't hide that from Misako and Damon.
An eerie hush fell over the room. Misako could sense the anticipation as Jake took the stand. This was the moment pretty much everyone was there to see, their hero Jake speaking in public for the first time about the death of Stellman.
~Can you see anyone that might be her?~ Damon asked, realizing Jake now had a perfect view of the whole court room.
Jake stared round the room. his gaze seemed to linger. ~Maybe.~
~Where, visualize, show us,~ Damon prompted him.
~There, other side of the courtroom. What do you think?~
Misako closed her eyes to pick up the image. The experience was a little disconcerting. She had no problem with the visualization thing normally, but this time she was seeing the room that she was in, only from a completely different angle. Something about that left her feeling slightly nauseous. She was able to see enough to get an answer though. ~Must be her. She's the only one in here our age, other than the three of us.~
~You tried talking to her?~ Damon asked.
~Yeah, trying, but she isn't picking me up. I don't know if that's a bad sign or not. She's paying attention, but she's not paying attention telepathically, I can sense when you guys are doing that, and she isn't. I don't know.~
~I do see she's got a bandage on her arm,~ Damon noted. ~Nice touch if she's fake.~
They lost the image, Jake broke eye contact as the coroner addressed him. ~Sorry guys, you're on your own. See what you can find out, I need to focus on my unwanted fifteen minutes of fame here.~
Jake remained an enigma to Misako. Damon she just about understood, but Jake confused her totally. Like how someone with such an absolute respect for the truth could stand up there in front of the court and lie so easily. Like how someone who acted so childishly half the time could be so absolutely serious when it counted. And for all he irritated the hell out of her most of the time, she could never forget that she was only alive because in the end he was completely dependable.
She was also stuck with him, so she was just going to have to make the best of it. Try to be a positive influence, see if she could convince him of the benefits of planning ahead, get him to acknowledge that at some level he had a responsibility for the future of humanity. Because from what Damon said, Jake was in as much denial about that one as he was about being stuck in a wheelchair the rest of his life.
There was no doubt though, the guy could tell a good story, Jake had his audience hanging on every word in raptured silence. He was recounting the part where Stellman was shot with the tranquilizer dart. Misako couldn't restrain herself any longer. ~They have no clue at all that he's lying to them, do they?~
~If he tried to tell the truth they wouldn't believe him.~
~So this is justice based on a lie? How do we let go and move on, how do we put this behind us if the whole inquest is just a charade?~
~When was this ever supposed to be about justice? It's a public relations exercise. And when did you ever think it would change anything? I was the one with that delusion, and I realized how stupid it was when I saw the guy with the red hair on the way in here this morning,~ Damon sounded cynical.
~How does that affect your therapy?~ Misako wondered.
~It doesn't help much at all. I've got nothing. I don't know what it's going to take to get past the fear, I really don't.~
It wasn't an answer that Misako much liked. ~So that's it? We give up trying, and we give up on the truth?~
~We can't tell the truth, that was never an option. The truth is awkward, inconvenient, people don't want that.~ Damon responded dispassionately. ~They want their heroes, they want their clean cut Disney morality. Life doesn't often hand out happy endings with no loose ends, but they don't want to hear about that. They like their make-believe. It's a human thing.~
~Which is why no one wants to believe us about the guy with red hair.~
~Except Masters,~ Damon reminded her.
~So you want to hear Masters out?~ Misako could sense the burning curiosity.
~I'll go with whatever consensus the three of us reach.~
Damon was selling himself short again. ~You mean you'll go along with whatever consensus Jake reaches?~ Misako argued. ~You know you don't always have to do what Jake says. You weren't like this three weeks ago when he wasn't around.~
~I don't always do what he says. Except when he makes sense. Sometimes he does makes sense.~
~Well I'm asking what you think about Masters, and you're avoiding the question,~
~I think, if he can deal with the guy with the red hair for us, yes, absolutely we should hear him out. I want to Masters to turn out to be on our side, I'm sick of being ignored by the police, I'd really like to feel like we weren't completely on our own. You think I'm crazy?~
~I'd be happier if Masters wasn't ex-military,~ Misako had to be honest.
~Your grandmother is ex-military...~
~And the stories she tells about the good old days are exactly why I feel a need to be cautious.~
~I agree, but he did say retired. I just think it would be useful to have the help.~
~You don't think we can handle this ourselves?~
~I'm just worried, we stopped Stellman, but that was more luck than judgement. One day our luck is going to run out, and I don't think I want to be around when that happens.~
~Cover for me,~ Misako instructed Damon.
Jake's testimony was over and there was a going to be a short recess before they announced the verdict. Once that was over then they'd all be dragged off to lunch. Misako figured this was the only chance she'd have to make a break for it and see if she could get over to where they'd seen Kristen Walker sitting.
"I'm just going to sneak to the bathroom, I'm bursting," Misako whispered across to her grandmother. No lies were involved, she really did need to go. In retrospect, the extra-large cherry coke before the hearing hadn't been such a good idea.
From the bathroom she quickly looped around and headed back in to the court room through the doors over to the other side. She counted three rows forward and managed to sit herself down directly behind Kristen.
Misako hesitated, her mind was a blank. The decision to head over had been largely spontaneous, she hadn't really stopped to think about what she was going to say when she got there. She was usually pretty good at small talk, at breaking the ice, but this wasn't exactly your everyday social situation.
~Hi, I'm Misako. Are you Kristen Walker by any chance? Are you picking up a single word of this?~
There was no reply. It wasn't really a promising start to the conversation. At this range telepathy usually worked regardless of whether you had someone's attention or not. At least, that was the way it had always seemed to work before. But then Misako had very little real experience, so she couldn't be sure of anything.
The lack of a telepathic response was a big problem, there was very little Misako was willing to risk saying to this Kristen without some positive indication that she was genuine. Until then Misako had to assume every word might be reported back to Masters. So what the hell was there left to say?
Misako leant forwards. Procrastination wasn't helpful and she didn't have much time left before the proceedings started up again. "Are you Kristen Walker by any chance? I'm Misako," she whispered.
Kristen didn't look around, Misako could sense she was intensely suspicious. "Hi. Masters said you'd probably come find me. He didn't say why, and it didn't seem to make much sense, but I guess he knew what he was talking about."
Misako could sense a certain ambivalence towards Masters in the comment. Kristen hadn't made her mind up about him yet, which had to be a positive sign, but it wasn't conclusive. So much for being able to work her out in six seconds...
What Misako needed was simple, factual stuff, true or false answer stuff. Something that it would be impossible to fake a reaction to. Her eyes fell on Kristen's bandages. "How's your arm doing? Mine hurt for days after they pulled the chip out."
"Still hurts. But the pain is the only thing that feels real right now. Messes with your head, knowing how close you came to being kidnapped and murdered. I suppose, I guess you can understand that."
That was a cautiously encouraging answer. Kristen was telling the truth, so that meant she really was their missing Number Fourteen. Now if Misako could only establish why Kristen wasn't picking up on the telepathy. "We've got a lot of stuff in common like that. I guess that's why we wanted to talk to you."
"Talk about what?" Kristen turned slightly and lowered her voice even further. "Talk about why your friend Jake was up there lying to the inquest? Did you know he was doing that?"
Misako could sense that bothered Kristen. No one else in the room had even questioned Jake's story, but Kristen had seen right through it. And it wasn't just a case of having been told that by Masters, Kristen was way too sure of herself for that.
It was a very encouraging sign. Misako felt comfortable enough to take a few risks. "Jake is complex, I won't deny that. But I was kidnapped, if it wasn't for Jake I'd have been murdered. So I cut the guy a lot of slack."
Kristen's response was one of incredulity. She certainly hadn't been expecting an answer like that. "You're in on this?"
"There are things we told the police, things they didn't want to hear, didn't want to believe. They ignored us. What's the point telling the truth if no one wants to listen?"
Kristen was shaking her head. "If you want people to listen then why did your friend up there just throw away a chance to tell his story in open court where he couldn't be ignored?"
"The truth isn't always as simple as that."
"You sound about as coherent as the mob outside..."
"But?" Misako could sense there was a but.
"Most of the crazies out there are convinced they see a truth that no one else sees as well. But when they talk about it, their words, their emotions are always more about faith than understanding. You, you come across like you understand what you're saying, it's just... I don't know," Kristen admitted.
Two minutes and six seconds it had taken. Misako was now completely sure that Kristen could read minds to some degree, even if Kristen didn't seem consciously aware of the ability.
It was time to make a choice. Misako chose to trust. At least up to a point. "So you know Jake's lying? You seem pretty certain about that. I mean, what? You think you're telepathic or something? You know how crazy that makes you sound?"
"He's lying. And no, I'm not claiming I'm telepathic or anything, I just know lies when I hear them, and I can tell when people are telling the truth. It's just something I can do. And it doesn't matter whether you believe me or not, it's the truth."
"So then you know I'm telling the truth as well, even though what I'm saying sounds a bit on the crazy side."
"That's my problem, pretty much," Kristen agreed.
"So if I told you Stellman had an accomplice, you'd know I wasn't imagining things. And if I told you that we were all still at risk, then you'd know whether you had reason to worry or not."
"Why are you telling me this?"
Misako was blunt. "Because you need to know. Because it's possible your life just might depend on it."
~Er... Misako...~ Damon started hesitantly. The inquest was over, the verdict was suicide, and everyone was milling around trying to get out of the place.
~What's up?~ she responded immediately, she could sense the guy was a little, well, confused would be a polite way of putting it.
~Just had a really weird conversation with your gran.~
~Oh. Okay. Not sure I like the sound of that.~ She had a pretty good idea why Damon was so confused.
He didn't pursue the subject. ~So, anyway, about Kristen, what's the story?~
~She's one of us alright. She isn't really aware of being telepathic, she doesn't have much control over it. I don't think she's broken out yet.~
~That would make sense. So you think she'll talk to us?~
~I managed to freak her out just enough to guarantee that much, but I was still being careful, until we're more certain what her connection with Masters is. I think we need to make a call on that, I tried connecting with Jake but he wasn't answering...~
~He's stuck talking to the coroner. Which he's finding painful.~
~The coroner that bad? She seemed okay to me.~
~The pain is on account of drinking a liter of cherry coke that he hasn't had a chance to relieve himself of yet. He'll catch up with us when he can.~
~So how do we make a decision?~
~It's your call, isn't it? You're the one that's had the chance to talk to her.~
~So I decide, just like that?~
~Why not? You planning to make the wrong decision?~
~No. Great. Lot of bloody help you are.~
~Cool. Pleased to be of service. Anyway, I'll be there as soon as I can get away from your gran.~
~Good luck with that.~ Misako tried to be reassuring.
~Yeah, talking of which, she's been asking all sorts of these odd questions. I was just wondering, does she think there's something going on between us?~
~I think she's hoping that,~ Misako confessed.
~Oh, great,~ Damon sighed. ~That explains a lot...~
Looking For A Way Out
Jake stood there balanced precariously, his weight distributed between his one good leg and the crutch. He'd managed to pull himself out of the wheelchair alright, then he'd hit problems. Right now he had the crutch jammed one end up against the wall so that he could butt up the other end against his chest and lean forwards on it. Somehow he'd managed to get himself into that position, now he was stuck there.
He needed to turn himself around, but in the confined space he had available there wasn't any obvious way of achieving that goal. It was his right leg that was messed up and only his left arm that was strong enough to handle the crutches, which made maneuvering impossible. It would have been so much easier if Stellman could have just shot him in the other shoulder instead.
What Jake really needed was help. He needed Damon. But he'd also had enough of having to rely on other people. More than had enough. This time he was determined to manage on his own. He still had an idea or two, he was not going to be defeated by this, not by something as trivial as going to the toilet by himself.
Telepathy, teleportation, telekinesis, all his special powers were useless right now. Two working legs, that would be the real miracle. His right arm had been out of the cast for over a week now, but it was still too stiff and weak to be of any real help. Without hands, urinals were right out, and dropping his pants to use the stalls was not all that easy either.
Maybe if he could lean sideways enough then he could shift his weight and... and he was as likely to slip trying to do that and hit his head on the stone floor. That would make for an amusing headline in the papers... Jake Templeton Laris dies trying to take a piss on his own. Well, he figured cynically, if he had the option to die in a manner of his own choosing, he'd rather die like that than throw his life away dying heroically for a noble cause.
This was stupid. There had to be a way of doing it. And fast, because he couldn't hold it in much longer.
A thought occurred to him. He awkwardly managed to drop his pants and underpants, then took off his jacket. He hooked it round the peg on the back of the cubicle door and prayed that the peg would hold his weight off the crutch long enough for him to swing around and lower himself onto the toilet seat.
It worked. The relief of finally being able to urinate was out of all proportion. Life wasn't meant to be this difficult.
He was recovering fast, he just wasn't recovering fast enough to keep his impatience under control. Still, it was only one more week and he'd finally get the cast off his leg, then everything would be a hell of a lot easier. He needed to think of something crazy to go do to celebrate that. Hang gliding or waterskiing, or, something, anything dangerous. The more insanely dangerous the better, he figured.
Jake got done and pulled himself to his feet. He didn't even try to shake himself off, doing that without falling over was well beyond his capabilities. Oh well, catching the last drip was what underpants were for. He flushed the toilet and struggled to pull his pants up again, which turned out to be harder than getting them down had been in the first place. Fine. Now he just had to go and rinse his hands. He left the wheelchair in the cubicle, it would get in the way otherwise.
It was as he was stood at the sink he became aware of someone lurking over his shoulder. He glanced up at the mirror in front of him to see the reflection of a woman's face staring. A woman in the mens toilets, there was something you didn't see every day.
"Lost?" Jake suggested sarcastically.
"No, this is where I want to be," she replied without taking her eyes off of him.
"You hang out in the men's toilets a lot?"
"I follow the story wherever it takes me. Laura Shepherd, East Riding Gazette."
"All the way from a sewage farm to a gent's toilets? That's taking the piss, Ms Shepherd." Jake really didn't need to be dealing with a reporter right now, he wasn't exactly hopeful she'd take the hint though.
"You, Jake and Misako seem pretty firm friends."
Jake didn't particularly want to gratify her with an answer, but somehow needed to keep her distracted while he washed up. "Some experiences in life are difficult to discuss unless you have a common frame of reference."
That had been a bad mistake, she was feeling encouraged. Jake had to stop it right there. "I'd say that's none of your damn business. Now if you don't mind, I have my life to live."
"There's a police cover up going on here. I would have thought you of all people would want the truth to come out."
First Masters, now this reporter. Seemed like today was the day for everyone who believed them to suddenly come crawling out of the woodwork. Jake was unconvinced by the convenience of it all.
"I don't know anything about the police investigation."
"Maybe you should take an interest, before it's too late. Once the investigation is over they'll throw you to the wolves, you do know that, right?"
"Thanks, but that isn't any of your sodding business, just stay away from me, alright," he didn't need to be dealing with crap like this right now.
Jake grabbed his crutches and hobbled straight for the exit, he didn't even bother to pause to dry his hands. As the door slammed shut behind him he noticed there was an electronic keypad on the other side. That was a gift. He wasn't exactly sure what he was doing, but he could usually handle jamming an electronic lock. A loud banging noise came from inside the toilets. Feeling inappropriately amused, Jake ignored the banging and limped slowly away on his crutches.
~You guys out there? I need directions, I've been tackled by one reporter already, I've managed to delay her a little, but I need a way to lose her permanently.~
He could sense Damon smiling. ~We're in the courtyard talking to Kristen. Head around the East side of the building, there's a bunch of exits into the courtyard round there, all with electronic locks, and I've figured out how the key coding works...~
"So, it's bullshit, right, I mean, the newspapers, they made that stuff up to sex up the stories, please tell me that stuff they're printing about the eugenics experiments isn't true..." Kristen sounded unsure of herself.
Jake managed to tune in to the conversation telepathically as he tried to struggle across the courtyard. Walking that far wasn't easy, he was tiring himself out, but there was no way that he was gong to give in and admit that the wheelchair would have helped, that would be like admitting his mother was right. Anyway, listening in to the conversation helped distract him from the pain.
"Seriously, if just knowing you were next on the list messes with your head, you really want to think carefully before you ask about the rest," Misako was cautioning Kristen.
Kristen didn't want to know any more, but her instinctive response didn't reflect that wish too accurately. "What the hell did he do to you?"
Damon and Misako remained silent, the emotions that question dredged up were still too raw. Kristen picked up on that, she glanced away, their uncomfortable silence as much of an answer as anything they could say.
"So if you knew it was Stellman, why go after him yourselves? You really mistrusted the police that much?" Kristen diplomatically changed the subject.
Jake wanted to answer but he wasn't close enough yet. Not unless he shouted, which wouldn't exactly have been a good way to contribute to an otherwise whispered conversation.
"We had no proof," Damon explained. "They wouldn't have listened. To them I was a borderline basket case at best, if I'd told them how I knew about Stellman, I'd have been the one that got locked up, in a mental home. Jake was the only one that believed me."
"Jake, right, except Jake hadn't even been kidnapped at this point." Kristen stared at them, not even attempting to conceal her puzzlement. "How did you know about Jake?"
"Damon knew about me because he worked out what the link was between the victims, something the police still haven't managed." Jake revealed as he finally caught up with the others.
The conversation was punctuated by the sound of an alarm going off. Not a siren or a bell, it sounded more like a door alarm. Jake glanced nervously around, looking for the source of the interruption. "No, it's not my fault," he preempted Damon's unspoken challenge.
Misako and Damon exchanged fatalistic glance. "I'll find out," Damon announced, breaking away to head back inside.
Jake was about to argue that he should go, but the speed of Damon's departure had pointedly reminded him that Damon was slightly more mobile right now.
"You expecting trouble?" Kristen asked.
Jake shrugged. "Usually."
"Right," Kristen frowned, clearly starting to wonder if all three of them ought to be locked up in a mental home. "Look, I thought the whole point was that there wasn't any connection between the victims. At least that's what the newspapers said."
Jake smiled. "The truth might have been, you know, a touch problematic to print."
"What truth?" Kristen persisted.
"The four of us are telepathic," Jake answered simply. He wasn't sure if the others had primed her enough for that, he certainly hadn't had long enough to make any judgments about her for himself, but they'd have to tell her sooner or later, sooner would just have to work.
Kristen laughed out loud. "Telepathic, right."
Jake remained silent.
Kristen stopped laughing. She'd picked up that he wasn't joking, that he was telling the truth, she just had no clue how to react to that truth. "You guys make the looney tunes bunch outside look balanced and rational, you know that?"
"Right," Jake noted patiently. "So now you understand why we didn't tell the police..."
~Problem, guys.~ Damon interrupted.
"What's up?" Jake asked quickly, he was irritated by the timing but he didn't like the tone in Damon's thoughts.
"What's what up?" Kristen was puzzled.
"It's Damon, he said something's up," Misako explained.
"But he's not here."
"No," Jake answered patiently.
"But you're talking to him?"
"Telepathy is real," Misako smiled gently.
"You're all totally batshit insane," she stared at them and frowned. "Only, you guys are totally serious, aren't you. Shit. You guys might be telepathic, alright, but don't include me in your delusions. I mean, look, I might be a lot of things, but I'm definitely not telepathic."
Jake was happy. It was progress, kind of, well, she was still engaged in the conversation at least. "Stellman thought you were. You wouldn't have been on the list of victims otherwise."
"This is not happening. This is one of those bloody TV shows with a hidden camera where they try to wind you up."
Damon interrupted the conversation again. ~Can you guys shut up a minute. We've got a real problem. Look, the protesters have broken through the cordon and have made it into the building.~
"Shit. Protestors are in the building," Jake relayed for Kristen. "Where in the building, what's our best option?"
~Across the courtyard, I'm on my way around, I'll get you through the doors on the other side. There's a bunch of locked rooms here we can hole up in.~
"I see you." Jake pointed the others towards where Damon was stood waiting behind plate glass doors that lead back into the building.
Jake resigned himself to the inevitability of another day spinning out of control. Still, it wasn't much of a loss, it had been a pretty shit day to begin with.
Kristen stared at them. "You act like this kind of crazy is normal for you."
Jake shrugged. "I'm not saying I'm proud of the fact or anything, but you're right, it is. We are kind of messed up like that."
They lead Kristen around the side of the courtyard, making every effort not to draw attention. They could hear the disturbance coming from not far behind them, the protesters were getting worryingly close, and Jake's lack of mobility wasn't helping. He was out of breath, in pain, and lagging behind.
"You think it's the guy with the red hair?" Misako asked.
"Creating a distraction?" Jake suggested. "We have to assume the possibility." It was always safer to assume the worst.
Everything was moving too quickly for Kristen. "Who?" she asked.
"Stellman's accomplice. We didn't quite get to that part of the story yet. Damon spotted him outside here earlier." Misako filled her in as they waited for Damon to mess with the lock.
"And it's entirely possible we are totally over-reacting here, but there's no sense taking chances," Jake added, he wanted to keep things in a little perspective.
Damon held the door open for them. "Pick a room, any room, they're all locked, all empty."
Jake headed for the nearest. He looked at the lock, it was fairly simple, he figured he could work it out given time, but they were in a hurry, he gestured to Damon to open it while Misako kept watch on the courtyard.
"Move it, they're headed this way," Misako warned.
The four of them darted into the room and Damon locked the door behind them.
"You think that'll keep out the guy with red hair?" Jake asked uncertainly. He wasn't convinced.
Damon shrugged. "I don't know. Wouldn't really keep out a determined gerbil, would it."
Misako glanced around the room, looking for ideas. "Pull the desk there across, we can barricade the door."
"Leaving us trapped in here," Kristen pointed out.
Jake could sense that part of her still wanted to cling on to the hope that this was all just one big hoax. Deep down, though, she'd already accepted the truth. Not even Channel 4 would make a show that exploited torture victims quite so tastelessly.
He tried to encourage her. "Don't worry, this is us," Jake sounded almost cheerful. "We're never trapped anywhere. Damon, check the window, see what you can see."
Damon moved fast. "Good view. All the way across to the canal on the other side."
"Misako, pull up a satellite map, from the canal we need to loop around so we can come in from the other side of the protests."
"On it," Misako took out her cellphone.
Jake tried to contain the inappropriate excitement he always felt when things went tits up. "Kristen, yeah, well, you're just going to have to take the rest of this on faith, we're out of time for any more explanations right now."
~You just going to leave her here?~ Misako asked.
Jake had no intention of leaving anyone anywhere. ~I thought we'd find out if she can jaunt out with us.~
Damon was skeptical. ~Get real, Jake, there's no way she's broken out yet, even if she is one of us. This is nuts.~
~I jaunted you across a river before you broke out. Come on, we know it's possible.~
Misako was more practical. ~Surely she can just walk out of here, the crowd doesn't know who she is.~
~I'm not worried about the crowd, I'm worried about the guy with the red hair.~ Jake explained. ~We have to assume he knows all the names that were on Stellman's list, we have to assume she's in as much danger as the rest of us. We have to get her out of here safely.~
"You guys have kind of this look on your faces. What are you talking about?" Kristen was watching them closely.
Her reaction reassured Jake. If she already took the existence of telepathy seriously then that made the next challenge easier. "We were talking about getting out of here. You want to come with us or take your chances here?" Jake asked her.
"Protesters have broken into the building, not good, I can see that. But dangerous?"
Damon nodded. "Then stay. But us, it's just, after what happened, you'll find the three of us get a bit paranoid at times. So we're leaving."
Kristen still looked unsure. "Right. Only you just barricaded us in here, and the people we want to avoid are right on the other side of that door, remember?"
Damon smiled. "Getting out of here is easy. Explaining how we got out of here, that's why we keep Jake around even though we don't really like him."
Jake shrugged dismissively, Damon was going to have to try harder than that to wind him up right now. "We got out a side door, managed to sneak around behind the protesters who had all their attention on the main doorway. No need to embellish it any more than that."
Kristen stared at them, not quite connecting with the sudden jokey mood. "Who the hell are you guys?"
"We're the Tomorrow People." Jake answered simply, finally starting to feel in control of the situation, then he addressed Misako and Damon. "You two ready to go?"
"How exactly do we do this?" Misako asked.
"Try it. You two try and jaunt with Kristen across to the canal, I'll wait up here. If everything works out, I'll follow right behind you. If she stays here with me, you guys make for safety, I'll find another way out with her."
Damon stepped away from Kristen. "Bad plan, Jake."
Jake frowned, this wasn't any bloody time for Damon to get awkward. "What's your problem?"
"I don't have a problem, you do. You're the one stuck with all this denial bullshit. I'll tolerate it up to a point Jake, but not if it puts people in danger. I'll wait up here. I'll do that part because f things go wrong, at least I can help Kristen make a run for it. You can't even walk."
Jake glared angrily. He'd been on the edge of blowing up at Damon for days, then just when things seemed to have finally calmed down, the guy had to go and come out with a bunch of crap like that. Who the hell did the guy think he was?
For a moment Jake felt like punching Damon in the face, but that wouldn't help, Jake was empathic, it literally would hurt him as much as it hurt Damon. He settled for hitting him with blunt language instead. "I'm not a bloody cripple, how many times do I have to tell you?"
"Jake, damn it, just listen to yourself."
"If Kristen needs to run to survive, what are you going to do? Will pretending you're not a cripple keep both of you alive?"
"You are sodding way out of line, Damon."
Damon reached out and grabbed Jake by the wrist of his left arm. Jake tried to pull away, but there wasn't much he could do, that was the only arm he had that worked and he had nothing to lever against. What the hell was Damon playing at?
Jake's hand found itself pressed against the left side of Damon's forehead. Physical contact like that always amplified the telepathic connection. Damon's thoughts came through with an uncomfortable clarity.
~How's your knee, Jake?~
~The bones are fused, the nerves partially severed. None of the moving parts work, and I couldn't control them even if they did. No I can't walk. I'll never walk again. You know that.~ Jake fought the words, but they came out anyway. Damon wouldn't let him hide from the truth and he so badly wanted to hide. It wasn't that he cared about Damon or even Misako hearing what he was saying, he just desperately didn't want to hear it himself.
Damon gently let go of his arm.
There was no further remonstration, no need for apology. Nothing left but Jake's frustration, and that was entirely with himself. Was it really possible he'd been that blind?
Kristen shifted nervously on her feet. "You guys have me, kind of, completely freaked out here."
"You trust me?" Jake asked, reaching out his hand.
"After that scene? Bugger knows why, but, yes, I do."
"Damon is going to wait up here," Jake notified the others. "Misako, how's it looking?"
Misako was stood on a chair by the window looking down at the street in the distance. "There's a doorway there, just set back a little, gives us a little extra cover."
He turned to Kristen and smiled reassuringly. "Then take my hand, relax, and welcome to tomorrow."
Jake, Kristen and Misako linked hands, and four seconds later were stood in the doorway down by the canal.
Jake smiled, that had been easier than he had expected. Kristen had a look of total incredulity on her face. Well, that was kind of expected under the circumstances. She was also a little unsteady on her feet, which was a common reaction until people got used to jaunting. She reached out to steady herself against the doorway.
Then came the stabbing sensation, her face contorted.
Jake glanced up, he could sense the intensity of the pain, and he recognized the feeling. He looked across at Misako, she had worked it out as well.
Misako called back to Damon. ~Get down here now.~
"What went wrong?" Damon asked as he materialized.
Kristen was leaning against the wall, her head in her hands, her face twisted in agony.
Jake awkwardly managed to sit down on the ground next to Kristen, it wasn't easy, but it was easier than standing, he just couldn't handle the crutches any more. This was obviously going to be one of those days where everything just went from bad to worse to sodding atrocious. "I don't know how or why, I don't think she was ready to break out yet, but jaunting her down here like that seems to have triggered it. There wasn't time to warn her."
Damon put a hand on Jake's shoulder. "We can handle this, Jake, we've done it before. We know how to stop the pain, we know how to get her through this."
"Right. Let's get her sat up against the door. Misako, you'll have to be the one who goes in to her mind."
"I don't know, you're the one who's done this before, wouldn't it better if you..."
Jake shook his head. "I'm not trying to be sexist, but it has to be you. You see things when you go in there whether you want to or not, I've shared thoughts with Damon that, seriously, you don't want to know. She has no control over what she's thinking right now, and that makes her vulnerable, and it would be completely inappropriate for me to go inside her head right now."
Misako understood. "What do I do?"
"Control the flow, get her stabilized. The rest is easy, we can talk her through it," Jake told her.
"I lost consciousness for twenty minutes, we can't really afford that out here," Damon reminded him.
Jake shrugged. "We'll deal with it. We don't exactly have a choice."
"Yes, I'm fine." Jake was trying to talk to his mother on his cellphone and was exasperated with the conversation already. Exasperated after three words, was that a record? "We're all fine. Have you passed on the message to Misako's grandmother?... Right... No, we're fine... Fine." How many times did he need to tell her that? "We're two blocks away from the courthouse, and there are no protesters in sight, they're all still inside the building, We sneaked out right past them, no I don't think anyone knows we sneaked away... Yes, I have my cellphone, I have maps... Right, we'll be careful, don't worry... No, it's just a bunch of protesters, they're not dangerous... no, just a bit creepy, no." She wasn't listening to a single word he was saying. "At the car, we'll meet you at the car... Oh, we have this girl Kristen with us, she's the one... No... Look..." It was no good, she wasn't going to allow him one word in edgeways, he gave up trying. "Look, we have to get moving... I'll explain when we get to the car... Yes... I promise... Right.... Bye."
"I always feel I should have razor blades handy for you at moments like this," Damon observed with a dark twisted logic that was exactly what Jake needed at that moment to help him hang onto his sanity.
Jake glanced across at Kristen. She was sat slumped against the wall, her eyes were open, but she was staring blankly into space. Misako was stil kneeling down beside her, trying to get her to drink some water from a bottle.
"How's she doing?"
"Cold, groggy, light headed. Still half in a state of shock I think," Misako answered. "Also hungry, very hungry. But, she's conscious, that's a good start."
"It gets easier every time, I think we're starting to get the hang of this shit." Jake observed. It was the truth, but spoken with more than a hint of sarcasm. "Anyway, if the coast is clear, we need to head back to the car. Is she in any shape to move?"
"And if we get her back there still in this whacked out state, you have a cover story already worked out for explaining that away?" Damon asked even more sarcastically.
"Not yet," Jake conceded. He was still working on it, being hurried wasn't going to help.
"Best thing we could do for her right now is getting her somewhere she can eat," Misako pointed out.
Jake considered their options. "We're all headed to that pizza restaurant for lunch, we just take her along with us. As soon as she's recovered to the point she can string seven words together, she calls her mom, arranges to meet up there."
"Right," Damon agreed, waving a hand in front of Kristen's face. "So only about six more words than we're going to get out of her any time soon."
"You have a better idea?"
Damon shrugged. "No."
Jake held out a hand and allowed Damon to help him to his feet, he grabbed for his crutches and managed a couple of unsteady steps. The car, he contemplated, was half a mile away.
Misako stared at him, she didn't look all that reassured by the effort it had taken him to stand up. "You going to be okay walking that far?" she asked hesitantly.
It wasn't meant as a wind up, Jake kept his cool. The temptation to lie was still strong, but it wouldn't fool anyone, not even himself this time. Walking was a problem. He couldn't jaunt either, there was too much risk of being seen. He had a long, long walk ahead of him and no amount of denial was going to make it any easier. "No," Jake admitted. "But I don't have any choice."
"So what the hell did happen to your wheelchair?" Damon asked, trying not to sound too provocative.
"You volunteering to go back and get it?" Jake joked. "I think I left it in the bogs with that reporter."
All You Need Is Pizza
Breadsticks. There were breadsticks on the table. Sticks made of bread. You could eat them. Crunchy. Made of bread...
Hold on, there was something odd about that last thought, like she'd already thought it once before. Some time recently.
You could eat them... that was another thought that felt oddly familiar. Why couldn't she remember?
Kristen reached out and grabbed all the breadsticks. She was hungry. Hungry like she'd never known before. Well, except once, after this insane party, severe case of the munchies. Dry throat. There was water on the table. No, the dry throat had been after the party, her throat was fine now. She had breadsticks. There had been this time she'd had this weird shit morning and had wound up at a restaurant desperately clinging onto the only reality that made any sense to her, and something about breadsticks. She just wasn't quite sure what the reality part was all about.
How the hell had she wound up at a restaurant?
"We were barricaded in this room, hordes of protesters slamming against the door like zombies. It felt like we were in the middle of a scene from 'Night of the Living Dead'. We got out through a window. She's a little bit freaked out is all."
Kristen didn't recognize the voice of the girl who was talking, but she had the strangest feeling she knew who it was that she was talking about. Only Kristen couldn't quite connect something, something was missing there.
There were people sat at the table with her. She didn't have a clue who any of them were. Usually she struggled to cope when there were so many strangers around, usually she just wanted to run and hide in a corner, but it wasn't like that this time. She was sat at a table in a restaurant with strangers, eating breadsticks. It kept on coming back to the breadsticks.
There was someone in the restaurant, two tables across to her right, who didn't like breadsticks. Someone over by the door who was sad, missing a friend who was wasn't there. Someone behind her who was trying not to laugh at an accidental inappropriate joke, desperate not to offend the parents of his new girlfriend. There was a kid across the room who was bored and neglected, sat with a mother who was more interested in texting. A table away was an old man who had lived through starvation in a war zone who was savoring the food with a passion that only someone who had suffered starvation could begin to understand. Emotion after emotion after emotion was washing over her. Unfocussed thoughts and ideas coming at her from every person at every table in the restaurant.
She could turn it off. She could turn it back on again. She could turn it off. Turn the volume up and down. Listen in on a single thought, or sit in perfect, silent isolation from the maelstrom. There was something about being telepathic that was beyond weird shit.
If she concentrated, she could even tune in to and out of the individual conversations going on between the people she was sat with. And some weird conversations they were too.
"Baked beans? What an absolutely inspired idea," Charley Grace was exclaiming. "I can see exactly where young Jake gets his resourcefulness from now."
Judy Laris was animated in her demonstrations. "Aim squarely on the middle of the lens, that's what I imagined I would do, swing with my arm extended and really carry through on the swing."
"Oh I agree, the lens is the most expensive part of the camera, that's the part you want to damage."
"Which would have been fine if the problem had been the reporters and the photographers. It was the protesters I seriously ended up wanting to strangle to death, especially after that idiotic stunt they pulled, storming the courtroom."
Jake acted a little taken aback by the intensity of the emotion underpinning that revelation. ~I never realized my mom was quite the homicidal maniac.~
Misako smiled. ~I knew my grandmother was. But I wouldn't worry though, not unless your mom starts asking my gran for advice on how to dispose of the bodies.~
Kristen didn't understand, she really couldn't see how anyone who had suffered the way they had could joke so casually about disposing of the bodies. She could feel their every thought still tainted by the shadow of that suffering, it wasn't funny, none of them found it funny, so why were they joking?
The murders had given Kristen nightmares, and really weird nightmares at that. The nightmares had led to insomnia, and to counter that her doctors had put her on Eszopiclone. Which had turned out to be great, mostly because one of the side effects was amnesia. So although the drug hadn't stopped the bad dreams themselves, it had at least stopped her remembering any of them.
At least, that was, until they'd freaked themselves out thinking that she might be getting addicted to the treatment and they'd taken her off the drug rather abruptly. She'd had seriously bad insomnia after that, but by then the the killings had stopped and the nightmares had gone away. So it had all kind of worked out in the end.
Kristen finished the last of her breadsticks, feeling like she was tantalizingly close to making sense of the situation. She remembered attending the hearing now, and meeting Misako, Damon and Jake. She remembered escaping, how she'd been barricaded in a room one moment and then outside in the street the next, transported miraculously in the blink of an eye. And that ought to have felt pretty strange, but in this world she'd stumbled into, that was the kind of normal shit that happened every day.
Kristen could also hear every word they were thinking to each other right now. So, they were right, turned out she really was telepathic after all. In a twisted, masochistic kind of way, this was the most fun she'd ever had in her life.
~That disappearing thing, what did you call it?~ Kristen framed the words in her mind, she had no clue if she was doing it right.
~Jaunting,~ Damon answered her, welcoming her back to the land of the living.
So she must have been doing it right.
~That would so have saved my life three months ago,~ Kristen tried to explain slowly, thoughtfully. ~I went to this party, no problem sneaking out, I never have a problem sneaking out, it's the sneaking back in I can't seem to get right. I don't know why that is, she never heard me leaving, but the moment I get back and my key goes in the lock, that's it, busted. Grounded for a bloody month. So I've taken to doing this thing, on my way out I leave a note on the hall table saying I headed out early, going to the shop or something, don't want to disturb her. Then when I get back I spend the rest of the night in the garage, which is not comfortable, and when I hear her getting up I pretend to arrive back from the shops and act like I've only been out fifteen minutes. But if I could just jaunt through the front door, that would be so cool.~ She stopped talking telepathically long enough to take a breath. ~Could I do that?~
~It takes a bit of practice, but you'll learn,~ Misako answered simply.
~Next time you get busted, you could also just try calling Jake, here,~ Damon suggested. ~The guy has an excuse for absolutely every occasion.~
Kristen closed her eyes and for a moment she was afraid to open them again. Was any of this real?
~Take your time, don't worry. It's all a hell of a lot to think about, we know,~ Jake reassured her.
Kristen opened her eyes and looked around the people sat at the table with her. There were a several inane conversations going on simultaneously, and no one seemed able to make a decision about what it was they wanted to eat. These were just normal people having a normal meal at a normal restaurant. Except nothing about how she'd ended up there had any bloody business being normal. It was crazy, it was insane.
On the other hand, Kristen considered, she'd been invited out to lunch, and she was getting free pizza. She'd have to be even more crazy and insane to object to that.
There were odd moments when Kristen felt like she didn't belong there. Which made no sense at all, she didn't belong there any of the time, the feeling was completely back asswards. More so because Kristen had never been one of those people who felt comfortable talking to a bunch of strangers, and yet somehow she'd found herself at the center of an unusually forthright conversation with a bunch of people that she barely even knew. Instinctively, though, she liked these people, something about them made her feel safe.
A lot had changed with the arrival of the pizza. Kristen had started to recover her strength quickly once she'd been able to stuff herself with something nutritionally more substantial than bread sticks. As she felt stronger, she also felt her confidence returning, and with that came an ability to relax more. She still wasn't sure at all exactly what it was that had happened to her, it was tough to get any kind of rational answer out of anyone about that. They were trying the best they could to explain, Kristen couldn't fault them for that, she was starting to understand that the problem was with her own comparatively narrow concept of what constituted a rational answer.
Thankfully they were also being incredibly patient with her, kept saying it was going to take time. Which was a problem, Kristen's time was strictly limited. She'd managed to call her mother just before the pizza had arrived and her mother was now on the way over to the restaurant; half an hour, maybe an hour then Kristen would be headed back to the hotel. And she had to be realistic, it wasn't exactly likely that she'd see any of these people ever again. All she could hope to do now was to make the most of what little time she had left.
~Three days ago, that was the first I knew about any of this...~ Kristen started. Misako had asked her what she could tell them about this Colonel Masters, and Kristen was conscientiously trying to remember as much as she could.
~The police turn up, and my mum, she's immediately thinking I've been caught shoplifting or doing drugs, I mean, thanks for believing in me, mum, but no, they'd gone through the company that manufactures the tracking chips, activated the one that was unaccounted for, found me. So then they wanted to talk to me, trying to work out where and when I'd been tagged, and forensics wanted to get their hands on the chip. For the last three days there's just been one more thing after another that they wanted to talk about, an endless parade of police officers, doctors, trauma therapists, you name it.~
She hadn't enjoyed it much at all. No peace, no privacy, no escape. Kristen stared at the faces of Misako, Damon and Jake as they listened. The shit she'd suffered the last three days, they'd suffered that and worse every day for months now. She started to appreciate just how awkward their lives had become.
~So, this Masters. At first he was just another faceless bureaucrat I had to repeat my story to,~ she continued. ~And it wasn't much of a story, I don't know how I got tagged. Sounded like a load of bullshit to me, I didn't really believe them, not until they went and pulled the chip out of my arm. The pain there...~ Kristen could sense that she didn't need to explain any more, the three of them understood perfectly how much it had hurt. Misako had been right, there really was something to the idea that they were all inexorably connected by the shared experience.
~Then Masters told me there had been all this controversy about police incompetence, he was investigating the police handling of the case. He wanted to know if they were listening to me, or whether they'd already reached their conclusions and were just trying to fit my evidence into that. Oh yeah, and of course he didn't want me mentioning any of that to the police, said it was important his investigation remained confidential. And that's it. I noticed he was at the inquest this morning, but I didn't talk to him.~
~What did you feel about him, about what he told you? Was he telling the truth or not?~ Jake asked. Kristen found the question curious. She'd always had the ability to see some of what people were thinking, but she wasn't used to the matter of fact way that Jake just took it for granted.
~The truth, as far as it went,~ she answered, desperately wishing that there was more she had to offer. ~There was definitely a whole bunch going on that he wasn't telling me about, though. You weren't joking about the truth being complex, I'll give you that.~
Misako was more than satisfied with the information they'd been able to learn from Kristen. ~So Masters is investigating the police, that would make a lot of sense. Especially given how we know he suspects that there's an element of corruption involved.~
~I can see now why he'd want to go after the guy with red hair. The guy is proof the police were ignoring evidence, and he could be the key to working out what it is they're still trying to hide,~ Damon speculated.
Jake was more cynical. ~Masters says the guy is dangerous, and he knows a lot more than he's telling us there. He wants our help, but I've been thinking and there's only one way we could be of any use to him; that's as bait.~
~Hence his reassurance he could protect us, and why he'd want to leave us feeling nervous and afraid of the guy,.~ Misako cautiously agreed.
Kristen listened intently, but kept silent. This was one of those moments she felt like she was intruding on the conversation. It really wasn't her place to have any opinion on Masters, whatever conclusion they reached about him wasn't going to have any bearing on her at all, but she was still curious.
~I'm okay with being used as bait, just for reference,~ Damon stated pointedly. Kristen could sense he was feeling marginalized. ~I also want to remind you Masters had done more for us in one day than the police have done in months.~
~Stellman escaped justice, he killed himself, I wanted to understand what fear drove him to do what he did, and we'll never get that.~ Misako argued thoughtfully. ~We discussed this already, seeing the guy with the red hair strung up by his balls isn't going to help us either. What we need are answers. There's a whole load of shit going on here we don't understand. So is helping Masters going to give us that? If it is, then I'm open to hearing him out.~
Jake was less pragmatic. ~I'm just worried about this spinning out of our control, like how everything we touch seems to spin out of control these days. The guy with the red hair freaks me out, none of us disagree there, I want to see him dealt with as much as anyone, but if we get too involved with Masters, I'm worried there's a serious danger of too many people finding out a bunch of things about us that I'm not comfortable with them knowing. That's all I'm saying.~
"Oh... you must be Marion Walker." Judy Laris stood up and waved. Kristen was immediately wrenched away from the telepathic conversation. Somehow she'd been so focussed on the discussion about Masters that she hadn't noticed her mother's arrival. It was a pity, the conversation was balanced on an uncertain and downbeat note, crap place for a cliffhanger, and now she'd never get to hear how it ended.
Kristen smiled diplomatically and stood up, this part wasn't going to be easy. Her mother would be polite, but she'd insist on leaving immediately. It wasn't even likely she'd allow Kristen time to finish her pizza. There wasn't any point getting frustrated, for what it was worth this was one pizza she'd never forget, this was probably the closest her life would ever get to being exciting.
~Sorry, guys, it's been fun, but it looks like it's time to go.~
Misako frowned. ~You're kidding right?~
~You haven't finished your pizza, we haven't had ice cream yet. Have you seen the ice cream this place does?~ Damon expressed his own disbelief.
~Look, seriously, Kristen, ask if you can stay a while longer. There's a lot more we need to talk about.~ Misako encouraged her.
Kristen had no need to answer, these people could read minds, they'd figure her mother out soon enough.
~Chill out, people, no one's leaving just yet.~ Jake announced telepathically, his mouth stuffed with more pizza.
Kristen stared at him suspiciously. Damon had pointed out that Jake could be oblivious at times, but it was his confidence that was disconcerting. He genuinely believed what he was saying. Only it wasn't possible, no way was staying going to be an option.
"Nonsense, pull up a chair," Judy Laris insisted. "After what you've been through this morning you deserve ice cream. And Kristen I see hasn't even finished her pizza yet. So that's settled. Anyway, I'm so pleased to meet you, we were starting to think the police were too incompetent to make any progress at all in tracking you down..."
Kristen stared in disbelief as her mother sat down. Something very wrong was going on here. All she could sense from her mother was a feeling of relief that her panic was all over. Against the odds, Jake had been right.
~Do you have some telepathic way of making people do things against their will?~ Kristen asked suspiciously.
~No, telepathy definitely doesn't work like that...~
~Seventeen years of experience, learning how the world works. My mom said she was looking forward to getting a chance to talk to your mom. Nothing was going to get in the way of that. Seriously, if the four horsemen of the apocalypse turned up right now, my mom would make them wait until she was done, she's scary like that.~
Kristen wasn't sure what to make of any of it. But the evidence was undeniable, Jake's mother had an apparent ability to both steamroller any objections and to make people feel completely welcome at the same time. Somehow that helped Kristen make a whole lot more sense of Jake as well.
Unfortunately any hope Kristen had that the reprieve would give her more time to talk to the others was quickly torn away. The arrival of her mother had instantly changed the dynamic at the table, the spoken discussion was drawing everybody in and it became frustratingly difficult to keep the telepathic discussion from being anything more than a platform for side jokes that the older generation would likely not appreciate.
It was also a form of conversation that Kristen was struggling with a little, she didn't have much experience keeping the telepathic and non-telepathic comments separate.
"So you live in Eastleigh?" Judy Laris was asking. "You heading back there today?"
"They put us up in a hotel just outside of town, we're heading back home tomorrow morning," Marion Walker replied.
~Not a bad hotel, but I wouldn't say it was just outside of town, it's more like miles from bloody anywhere,~ Kristen clarified.
Judy Laris nodded as she tucked into more pizza. "They offered us a hotel as well, which at first we thought was nonsense, I mean we only live an hour's drive away. But then I thought, if we could just get rid of Jacob, night away from home, romantic dinner, a movie..."
~Please don't say sex, please, please don't say sex,~ Jake sounded genuinely worried.
Kristen tried not to laugh out loud, she couldn't see how these people managed to keep a straight face half the time.
"What movies are playing?" Marion Walker asked. "I actually tried to get tickets to the ballet tonight, but it was sold out. Then again, after that debacle after the inquest, I'll probably be just as happy to stay in the hotel room and make do with room service."
"You like ballet?" Charley Grace enquired thoughtfully.
"Love it. Kristen used to take ballet classes, she was quite good at it, but her real skill is for languages, so she's more focussed on the academic life these days."
~I hated ballet.~ Kristen clarified. ~I still hate ballet. I was so pleased they were out of tickets, sitting through four hours of watching that would have been worse than having my fingernails pulled out.~
~There are far worse things in life that having your fingernails pulled out. I know, I've experienced a few of them~ Damon observed dryly,
Kristen stared at him, more than a little uncomfortable with the revelation. He was completely serious and way too matter of fact about it.
Misako's grandmother smiled graciously at Marion Walker. "My dear, you shall go to the ballet tonight. I have two tickets, my husband was going to take me, bless his soul, he positively hates ballet. He would much rather stay home and peruse his stamp collection, and personally I would much rather go with someone who actually appreciates the experience."
"Well, thank you for the offer, but I don't know, I mean, what would Kristen do?"
~With my mum gone to a ballet? Sneak down to the hotel bar for a drink...~ Kristen contemplated enthusiastically.
~Or sneak out the hotel altogether and come to a party?~ Jake suggested.
Kristen looked across at him. ~Party?~
"Well, I'm surprised young Jake hasn't invited her to his party yet." Charley Grace short circuited the telepathic discussion.
Kristen wasn't quite sure how to respond. "He mentioned it, I didn't know..."
Misako's grandmother didn't wait for her to finish. "Well there you are, problem solved. Kristen goes to the party, Marion, you can come with me to the ballet."
"What kind of party?" Kristen's mother asked suspiciously.
"Not that kind of party," Judy Laris assured her.
Jake frowned. ~Yeah, well, would be if I had my way.~
"We're staying at the hotel tonight, and we agreed to allow Jacob to invite a few of his friends around while we were gone..."
Kristen's mother said nothing, but she must have raised her eyebrows enough to make the point even to those people there who weren't telepathic.
"Oh, don't think for one moment that I trust him. Really, no. I'm not that deluded..." Jake's mother continued.
~Oh, great, thanks for that vote of confidence,~ Jake observed coldly.
Kristen was trying not to laugh again.
"He wants a car. He needs a car, can't exactly walk anywhere on his own any more. But whether he gets that car or not is entirely dependent on his behavior for the next six days, and particularly his behavior tonight. The party won't get out of hand, he won't let that happen, he wants the car too much."
~Problem is,~ Jake conceded, ~she's right.~
"That's settled then." Misako's grandmother declared.
"Kristen? Are you alright with me going to the ballet without you?"
~You serious, I'm invited to the party?~ Kristen felt the need to double check.
"Sure," Kristen answered her mother, trying diplomatically not to sound as relieved as she felt. Then she nodded at Jake. ~Yeah, okay,~ she answered, not sure whether to speak out loud or not. "I'd love to go to the party..." she started, then hesitated. ~Although, are you sure, I mean I don't know anyone else who'll be there.~
Damon reassured her. ~Half the people coming don't know anyone else there.~
Misako agreed. ~And you know the three of us, and we didn't get nearly enough time to talk yet. I should have figured the lunch would turn out like this.~
"Well in that case, I suppose..." Marion Walker still didn't sound entirely convinced.
Misako's grandmother interpreted the maybe as a yes. "Give me the address of the hotel, I'll pick you up at seven."
"How do I get to the party, I can't really teleport all that well yet, right?" Kristen asked. For a moment she wondered why everyone was looking at her strangely, then she realized she'd gotten confused and said that out loud.
"Be ready at six," Charley Grace told her. "My husband will drive you to the party, then drop me and your mother at the ballet. Can't have him perusing his stamp collection all evening, he'd get far too excited and his heart isn't up to it these days. Anyway, I don't want him too tired out for when I get back..."
Misako quickly closed her eyes. ~Shit, now even my grandmother is going on about sex...~
On this occasion Kristen couldn't stop herself from laughing out loud.
Kristen's mother paused as they headed out of the restaurant. "I can call and cancel if you want, you know. I mean, you don't even really know these people."
She was right, and for a moment Kristen wondered if walking away was the sensible option. Misako, Damon and Jake didn't exactly lead the safest of lives, waking up every morning afraid of what the day might bring, afraid for very good reasons. Was it really so sensible to hang out with people like that? At least Kristen could reassure herself that her own life was safe.
Safe and boring. Boring and empty. It wasn't that she didn't have dreams, she'd always had dreams. But that was all they were, unattainable dreams. Her mother had always taught her that dreaming was okay but that it had to be balanced by practicality. If she kept her ambitions in life realistic and manageable then there was a seriously good chance she could achieve those ambitions. If her expectations became unrealistic, well, she was destined to live a life of disappointment. As a philosophy it made sense, it just left little room for any fairy-tale endings.
So wasn't this exactly what she wanted then? A chance to spend time with people who lived in a world that was everything her world could never be, a chance to learn about who she was.
Or would learning more just frustrate her more? She knew that she was telepathic, that she could jaunt, that was bad enough. She probably wouldn't be around them long enough to learn how to do the jaunting thing. Walking away from all that when the party was over was going to be torture. How much more did she want to know about a life that could never be hers?
Then again, it was just one night, she'd never get an opportunity like this again. She couldn't walk away from that. Kristen closed her eyes and made her choice.
"They saved my life. I need to know who they are. I need to know everything about them. I can't really explain why, but it's important...." She hesitated. "You know, I think it just hit me, all this stuff over the last few days. I was supposed to be Stellman's fourteen victim. I was on the list to be tortured and killed and to have my body dumped in a hospital incinerator."
Kristen looked up at the shocked expression on her mother's face. The reality of how close she'd come to losing her daughter had only just hit Marion Walker as well.
Kristen tried to smile reassuringly. "Most days you wake up in the morning, the sun comes up, everything works out okay. You think it always will, because it always has. But that's not true. There was a day I very nearly didn't survive. And I have to know exactly what happened. I have to know, because I can't live life forever afraid of tomorrow."
It's My Party And I'll Hide If I Want To
Damon paused, staring at himself in the mirror in Jake's bedroom. It was like staring at a train wreck, he wanted to recoil in horror, but he couldn't tear his eyes away. The wounds had healed, the bruises had faded, but his body was still a mess of scars and he still looked anorexic. No matter how full of pizza he stuffed himself he hadn't been able to put on any weight. The scars he knew would never heal completely, he'd just had to deal with that, but he hated looking so bloody skinny. Damon always got depressed looking in the mirror. So why the hell was he stood there staring at himself again?
Stellman was dead. Totally dead, the coroner had publicly declared it, Damon should have had his closure. Instead he was still obsessing about the mess his body was and desperately wonder how he'd ever get a decent night's sleep again.
He forced himself to stop looking and turn away from the mirror, dwelling on his thoughts wasn't going to help. And anyway, if he didn't get dressed and head downstairs soon then Jake was going to start wondering what he was up to.
Damon glanced at the clock. 4:35 PM it said. Alright, what the hell time was that? Jake had said that Kristen was due to arrive any minute now, Damon did the math, that made it 7:07 PM, and the clock ought to say 5:51 PM. Bloody simple really. Damon reached for it and for a moment thought about setting it back to the correct wrong time, but that would likely just confuse the hell out of Jake all over again, his best option was to leave well alone.
Jake hadn't been exaggerating, waking up that late really could have cost the guy his new car, and Damon had no desire to piss Jake off even more. Wind him up, sure, just not piss him off.
He ignored the clock and headed over to the bed where he had the clothes he was changing into for the party laid out. As he reached down to grab his underpants he became acutely aware of someone watching him. He glanced nervously around. The room was empty, but the curtains were open, it was someone out in the garden he could sense. That wasn't quite so bad, there was no way anyone could have witnessed anything inappropriate from that angle. But who the hell would be out in the garden on a freezing cold night like this? He quickly finished dressing, turned out the light, and went across to the window to peer out. It was dark, he couldn't see anything much, but he could sense someone out there for sure, someone who didn't want to be seen.
Damon nervously closed the curtains and was hurrying out of the bedroom when he ran into Jake.
"I know," Jake replied. "There's someone out there, I don't know who."
"You want me to head out there and see if I can scare them off?" Damon asked, desperately hoping Jake already had it covered.
"Don't worry about it, I already called the police." Jake reassured him.
"You think it's him again?"
"Come on Damon, assuming the worst every time isn't going to help. It might just be a reporter, might be one of the protesters..." Jake's words certainly sounded good, but they didn't exactly reflect what he was thinking.
"I'm not arguing, Jake," Damon whispered sternly, he made no effort to conceal his exasperation, there wasn't any point. "You think it's him too. You're worried, and you're afraid. Do we have to go through your whole bloody denial thing again?"
Jake was defensive. "Denial is all I've got, and you seem determined to take that away from me. Can you please just give me a break. Forget the guy with the red hair, forget I'm stuck in the wheelchair. Just for tonight, how about you let me enjoy the party."
For a moment Damon contemplated letting the matter drop, they did have a party to go to, it was a legitimate excuse. But then Jake could always come up with an excuse that sounded legitimate, it was what the guy was good at.
"I want to enjoy the party as well, Jake. But how do we do that when we're both scared shitless of whoever it is out there lurking in the shadows?"
"I told you I called the police already. They're still reeling from the bad publicity they got this morning, tonight at least we can be sure they're going to be making an effort. Longer term, I'm working on it, I just haven't come up with any ideas yet."
"Masters?" Damon tired suggesting, without much hope that Jake was in any mood to listen.
"Can we talk about this another time?"
"Fine. When?" Damon accepted he would have to let go, but he was determined to force Jake to make at least some concession. "The guy with red hair is crowding us, Jake. One of these days you'll wake up and he'll be standing over your bloody bed. We can't go on and on ignoring this for ever."
"No we can't. But we can't solve all our problems at a party, and we can't cancel the party because that would be like giving up. And I'm not giving up Damon, that's not what I do."
"So, what then, tonight we just get pissed and pretend everything is fine?" Damon pushed.
The response was a shrug. "I know, Damon, I know. It's what you oughtn't to do but you do anyway..."
Damon stood in the doorway of the living room nursing two cans of Boddingtons. One half full, one half empty, and his was the half full one. He wasn't really all that interested in drinking it, he wasn't having much success engaging with the party. His attempt to get through to Jake hadn't really worked, and Damon was feeling isolated and alone.
It wasn't exactly a big party, less than twenty people, enough to keep things lively without there being much risk of things getting out of control. Jake had encouraged Damon to invite a few people along, which Damon had found something of a challenge. He'd never really had that many friends, these days he seemed to spend pretty much all his time hanging out with Jake and Misako, and they didn't count, they were already invited.
Nick returned from the bathroom and Damon handed him back his drink. Nick grinned, "I swear, little boy, you don't know what a luxury toilet paper really is until you've lived in a war zone."
"Never thought of you as the kind of guy that had a thing for soft bog roll, really," Damon joked back, finally cheering up a little. Nick was probably the only close friend that he had other than Jake, and it was pretty cool that the timing of the party had coincided with Nick being back in the country for a few days.
Back from six weeks doing aid work in Iraq, although, as Nick had shared, it had felt like a lot longer than six weeks.
"There's a lot of things I missed that I never expected to. One or two little pleasures that I thought I'd be starved of that I turned out not missing at all. Some things you get so desperate for that it's scary the lengths you'll go to compensate. But then however shit you think you've got it, you just open your eyes and see a whole lot of people who are making a better job than you of much shittier lives."
Damon took a swig of beer. There was no irony in Nick's words, Nick meant it. Same old Nick in a way, and yet there was something different about the guy, Nick had stopped trying to conceal who he really was beneath a veneer of bravado.
Jake could seriously do with learning that lesson.
"It's hard, the stuff you see," Nick continued, "the challenge it is for these people just to make it through to the end of the day and stay alive. The days you're working and kids you expected to see don't turn up, and you never know why, and you hear the gunfire in the distance, and you start to wonder. Luck runs out for all of us in the end, I guess."
"And yet, you did your six week tour out there, and then you're back for one weekend and you've signed up for another three months. You still got that death wish?" Damon asked, genuinely curious.
"No. Shit, Damon, you know I don't. I actually feel useful for the first time in my life. Not very long ago I tried to get myself caught dealing drugs because I was tired of being stuck in a life I didn't want. Now I finally feel like there's point to waking up in the morning."
Damon grinned. "Hope you're better at helping people than you are at getting arrested, because that really was a sodding useless attempt."
Nick shrugged. "Seemed like a good idea at the time, you know. Worry about what it costs you if you do get caught, never underestimate the consequences, and consider whether what you were doing was worth it, never overestimate the benefits."
Damon shook his head and laughed for what felt like the first time that evening. "What's disturbing is that the advice still makes sense in a messed up kind of way."
That was why he liked Nick. The stupidly helpful advice.
Then he got serious for a moment. "So if you don't have a death wish any more, how do you wake up hearing the gunfire every morning and rationalize the thought that today might be the day your luck runs out?"
Nick was coldly pragmatic. "You get to a point where you can't live every day in fear of something that might never happen, or you just wouldn't live."
"Just like that? I'm missing a leap of logic somewhere."
"Logic doesn't come in to it. I don't know." Nick paused contemplatively. "This is about that guy who was helping Stellman isn't it?"
Damon nodded. Nick always had been irritatingly perceptive for someone who wasn't telepathic. "You think I'm being a right pussy?"
"Yeah, worse than tarts who like soft toilet paper." Nick observed bluntly. "So what are you going to do about it?"
Damon looked up, thought for a moment, then downed the rest of his beer. Maybe Jake did have the right idea. "I don't know. Jake thinks I should stop caring, stick my head in the sand, get pissed." It was a start anyway.
"He's a complete arsehole. He also tends to know what he's talking about. I'd listen." Nick seemed happy that Damon had seen some kind of sense. He flicked Damon's empty can. "You're going to need more beer though."
They were interrupted by a fit of giggles erupting from the sofa. Moments later a head popped up. "Hey, I think I just worked out how to plug this old Wii thing into the TV. Who wants to play 'Super Mario Cart'?"
That was followed by some cheering that Damon just wasn't quite drunk enough to feel comfortable with yet.
Damon and Nick exchanged glances. Nick gestured in the direction of the kitchen, continuing to talk as they departed. "So, anyway, have you had a chance to talk to Pete, how in the hell did he end up shacked up with that Anna?"
Damon smirked. "Well, it certainly isn't anything to do with the size of her ambitions, you already know that much."
Jake was determined to enjoy the party. It wasn't that he was oblivious to Damon's arguments, he didn't blame the guy for being worried, but Jake had no intention of letting any of that get in the way of a rare chance to get drunk and have a few laughs. Opportunities to go crazy and have fun like this were getting pretty scarce with his A-levels approaching.
Jake was taking the exams more seriously than he cared to admit, maybe his brush with death really had knocked a certain amount of sense into him. If anyone challenged him he argued that studying for his exams didn't make him responsible, which was bullshit, but he could usually convince people of it anyway. Anyone but Damon that was, Damon was a problem, Damon was frustratingly immune to bullshit. Misako too. And probably Kristen. Bloody Tomorrow People were all awkward.
So, anyway, party. He consulted his mental checklist. Everyone was there, the drinks were flowing, the music was loud, or at least as loud as he figured he would be able to get away with, someone had even managed to figure out the Wii, and all that remained to be done before he joined in and got himself completely rat-arsed was a little matter of keeping a certain promise he'd made.
He lurked in the doorway to the kitchen, waiting his moment, waiting to catch Kath on her own. She was in there talking to Mike and Dean. Catching her on her own was going to be easier said than done.
Kath looked up and spotted Jake. Mike and Dean were polite enough, they acknowledged him, but then made a hasty retreat. Jake could sense definite ulterior undertones there.
"Thanks for letting me invite Lisa," Kath made an attempt to distract him. "Exam stress is doing her head in, and the exams are still six months away. She seriously needed a night away from her books."
"Not a problem. Good to feel able to do something for you. I owe you more than a few favors, and you seem pretty reluctant to call them in."
"You don't owe me a thing, Jake, seriously."
Jake deferred graciously. There was something he needed to get out of the way first. "So is it just me, or are Mike and Dean are avoiding me?"
Kath sighed, she'd clearly been hoping to avoid that topic of conversation. "They're afraid of talking to you, Jake. Afraid that whatever they say to you, you're going to blow up on them, and I can't say I blame them. You need to talk to them, you need to sort that out."
"Point taken," Jake conceded. He had been pretty short with them the last time he'd spoken to them, even if they had been asking for it.
"Whoa, where did that come from?" Kath stared at him. "Are you actually admitting I have a point?"
Jake took a deep breath, this wasn't the direction things were meant to be going. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It's not just Mike and Dean, it's been just about impossible for anyone to talk to you without you going apeshit. Three weeks ago you were acting like you were about ready to slit your wrists, you got over that by sticking your head in the sand and biting peoples heads off if they tried to make a point. It's good to see you facing up to reality for a change. It's good. Feels like forever since I go to talk to the Jake I remember."
Kath never pulled her punches. Jake admired her for that, even when it pissed him off
"Damon, he's got this way of forcing people to see themselves from a different perspective. Bloody irritating."
"So, how are you really holding out?" she risked asking.
Jake shrugged. "Impatiently. I'm waiting for medical technology to improve to the point they can do a prosthetic knee replacement for someone whose leg got as badly fragmented as mine did. It could be a long wait. I still refuse to believe that I'll never walk again, though."
"Yeah, well, you're too bloody minded to let it beat you, all I was looking for was realistic expectations."
"Does waterskiing next week count as realistic?"
He handed her two glasses from the table and grabbed a bottle of vodka.
"Waterskiing?" Kath asked.
"Er, yeah." Jake hadn't particularly intended to commit himself to that, but actually, now he thought about it, it was a far more realistic option than hang-gliding. "You think I'm off my rocker, don't you?"
"Yes I do. Where the hell are you going waterskiing around here?"
"I'm still working on that," he conceded, pouring two large measures into the glasses.
Kath grinned. She'd decided he was joking. "Like you're still working on those Wimbledon tickets you promised me?" she challenged playfully.
"Oh those." Jake restrained an evil grin, he couldn't have twisted the conversation to this point any better if he'd tried. He eyed Kath suspiciously. "Come on Kath, the Wimbledon tickets were a joke. I was joking. Tell me you understand that was a joke."
Kath half frowned, half smirked at him. "I don't know Jake, it's just, sometimes it's really difficult to tell when you're joking..." She stopped, staring at the poker face Jake had just assumed. "Shit, Jake, why are you looking at me like that?"
Jake expression slowly transformed into a smug grin as he waved the two tickets right in front of Kath's nose. He could sense the confusion, the disbelief, growing into a cautious elation. Kath reached out and grabbed the tickets out of Jake's hand, looking at them, savoring the excitement as she convinced herself that the tickets really were real. Nothing gave Jake more of a thrill than the reaction he got when he pulled off the impossible, the empathic kick he got from making people happy, these were the moments that life was all about.
Then Kath pulled back, momentarily uncertain, something about wondering if the tickets were stolen but not wanting to accuse him outright. "So did you sell your soul to the devil for them or something? Getting these can't have been easy, even for you. What's it costing me?"
"Like I said, I owe you more than a few favors, you seem pretty reluctant to call them in, and getting the tickets was a lot easier than organizing another Foo Fighters reunion concert."
"How Jake?" Kath persisted.
"The tickets are legit," he reassured her. Which was true, they were. "I cynically abused the sympathy I get from people for being stuck in a wheelchair to get them. It's pretty easy when you don't have any shame."
"Is there anything you can't do?"
Jake was thoughtful. "Saving the world from total nuclear armageddon, heralding an era of world peace, saving humanity from itself, those could be pretty tough. I'm careful, though, I only promise if I think I can deliver."
Kath snorted a half laugh. "Thanks for the tickets."
"Not a problem."
Kath eyed him sarcastically. "Promise me you'll save the world if needed?"
"Sure." Jake shrugged offhandedly as they downed the vodka.
"I know it's insane, but in a perverse way that actually does reassure me."
Jake didn't quite know how to take that, and for once he found himself unable to think of a witty retort.
Kath turned to head back to the party, then found herself looking back at Jake. "By the way, there was something I wanted to ask..."
Jake read her mind to save time. "Right. You want to ask me all about Nick, and you want to try and make it seem innocent curiosity, but you know I'll see right through that."
"Yeah, and I hate it when you do that." Kath reminded him. "So what are my chances?"
"He makes me look promiscuous."
"Right. And you make the Pope look promiscuous. I've got no bloody chance then. Sex is the one thing you actually fail at."
"Hey, the list of my sexual failures is short."
"The problem is that the list of your sexual successes is shorter."
Jake laughed, ignoring the insult. "Look, Nick, he's a good guy. Better human being than I am, and I mean that. But he's not the casual type, you want to go after him, you better be serious."
Misako was puzzled to see Jake leaning against the wall in the hallway. He gave the impression of someone who had too much on his mind to be totally able to enjoy the party.
She hesitated. She'd never really had a chance to talk to Jake alone, not since the first time they'd met, sat in the hospital waiting for Damon to have his tracking chip removed, and that had been a pretty weird conversation.
Right now she could sense he was tired of standing up and he needed to sit down, a need he was fighting, Misako could pretty much guess what that conflict there was all about.
She had no real clue what to say to him, but it felt like this was an opportunity she couldn't waste.
"Did they recover your wheelchair in the end?" she asked.
"They had to break down the door to the bathroom, I didn't just jam the lock, I must have completely screwed the lock. The reporter was stuck in there for over an hour."
"You need more practice with locks is all."
Jake smirked. "Absolutely. I need to be able to screw the lock so badly it takes them two hours to open it."
"Jake," Misako was exasperated by the casual cruelty of the statement. This was why she had a problem with him.
"You always have to take all the fun away?"
Misako stared at him. He'd been taking the piss. Alright, she'd missed that. Still wasn't funny. "I can read minds, Jake, but with you, it just isn't always obvious when you're joking. "
"Who says I was joking?" he joked.
"You see my problem?"
The conversation stalled again.
"So you set for your trip to Prague then? Sounds like it'll be fun," Jake tried asking politely.
"The trip will be great, but my grandmother is flying on to Singapore, so I get stuck at the airport, have to make my own way back to school on the Monday night, not looking forward to that."
"Hey, I'll have my car by then, I'll pick you up at the airport, drive you over."
Misako looked up, the offer didn't make much sense, but it would certainly save her a lot of effort. Was he serious? "You sure, that'll take hours, won't it?"
"Exactly. New car, driving, I'm looking for excuses."
He was pretty matter of fact about it, the offer was genuine enough. The guy could be awkward as hell, and yet at the same time he was generous to a fault. No bloody wonder she couldn't get a handle on him.
"So what are the rest of your plans for the bank holiday weekend?" Misako asked politely.
"You're joking," she laughed.
Jake was pointed. "No. Not joking."
"You thought that through?" Misako wasn't convinced.
"I think everything through."
"Like you thought through the plan to get Kristen away from the court house this morning?" She could see he was already getting defensive, but if the guy still thought he could go waterskiing then he'd completely lost his connection with reality.
"I'm not usually a dick-head like this morning," he told her bluntly. "Denial's more fun than depression, that's my only excuse. But either way, what is killing me here is that I just don't need people continually reminding me what I can and can't do."
"Except when you do?" she risked the challenge. She wasn't used to Jake being this abnormally serious.
"Damon thinks half the things I do are stupid. I know, I can see it in his mind. But he lets me get on with it. So if he ever gets in my face about something, I know I crossed a line. He's got me worked out pretty well. He's been inside my head, he knows."
"I thought he was afraid of you, I guess I was wrong. He acts the quiet type, but he's got balls," she admitted.
"Big ones, I've seen them. Not a kid to underestimate."
Misako stared at Jake for a moment. It totally wasn't the way she'd expected the conversation to go. "You know, when you actually manage to stop and get serious for a moment, you're not all that arrogant at all. It's all just a big pretense, isn't it?"
"It's a way of hiding," Jake conceded pensively.
"Why are you hiding, Jake? What the hell have you got to hide from?" Misako was confused, and it wasn't just Jake that was confusing her any more. "What the hell have any of us got to hide from? Why are we hiding, Jake?"
He didn't reply immediately. She could see in his mind that he didn't really know the answer.
"Probably just paranoia," he suggested finally.
Misako felt a certain sympathy there. "That's one thing I can't criticize you for."
"Thanks," Jake replied, without a hint of sarcasm for once. "So, enjoying the party then?"
Misako shrugged, Jake was clearly done with being serious. "Yeah, not bad. Kath's fun. Mike and Dean, you have some weird friends, Jake. Mike was hitting on Kristen, getting absolutely nowhere..."
"That sounds like Mike."
"But Kristen appreciated the attention, made her feel less of the outsider which is good. Let's face it, it's an odd mix of people, but it's working pretty well. That guy Pete is insane, two drinks and he was pissed out of his head already, you want to see him playing Wii hula. And Damon's friend, Anna, she's now hitting on that Dean," Misako continued.
"Shit," Jake laughed. "Wait till I wind Damon up about that."
Once again Misako found herself completely at odds with Jake. "Damon told me what happened between him and Anna. After what that kid went through, how can you go on winding him up like that?"
Jake was unapologetic. "Someone has to. No one else will, they keep feeling sorry for him because of what he went through. And he hates that. He doesn't need sympathy, he just needs to get on with his life." Jake looked up at Misako. "Same as me. I get sympathy because I'm stuck in a wheelchair, and I admit I play on that at times, but I still hate it."
Misako was frustrated by his answer. She wanted to be pissed off with Jake for coming out with crap like that, but he was just being honest. And much as she wanted to dismiss what he was saying, she couldn't, because at some level it made too much of a twisted kind of sense.
"So then they have him blindfolded, tied up to this thing, you can see what it looks like, no subtlety there, and they're talking about sacrificing him to this Crom Cruach, and Damon is desperately trying to tell them he isn't a virgin, and they just won't believe him. I mean, I can't blame them, he does look the type." Misako had her phone out and was showing Kristen holiday snaps of her trip to Ireland with Damon.
"Well, I wasn't going to say anything," Kristen agreed conspiratorially, "but, Damon does come across as being a bit of a geek."
Misako laughed. "He's a total geek. Jake's been trying to teach him some basic social skills, but, it's still early days."
It was fun talking to Kristen. She wasn't complex or confusing like Jake, or as deep and angsty as Damon. She was straightforward, honest, and she had a sense of humor that was playful without crossing the line into being acerbic like Damon and Jake could be at times. Misako liked her.
"So, you thought I might be in Ireland?" Kristen asked.
"We didn't know where to start looking, it was the best lead we had. It was the only lead we had."
"And that kind of stuff happening, getting tied up, burned at the stake, that's just everyday shit for you guys?"
Misako thought for a moment. "I wouldn't say every day. More kind of a weekly thing really."
"And it doesn't weird you out?"
"No. Not any more. You get used to it."
"So, the pattern is, shit happens, you get locked up, and you escape by jaunting," Kristen asked, somewhat flippantly.
Misako leaned back on the bean bag she was sitting on and shrugged, still grinning. "Exactly right, if you've worked that out then I don't know there's anything more I can teach you."
"Fish and chips and teleportation," Kristen sounded intrigued by the idea that jaunting could be so normal. But Misako could sense that Kristen still wasn't completely convinced she had any business being a part of a world like that.
"Seriously, though, practice jaunting," Misako figured the best thing she could do was to offer encouragement and reassurance. "You spend any time around us, you're going to need to learn sooner rather than later."
"Right. Only I'll never be any good at teleportation or telepathy, so I guess that's it, hanging out with you guys would be a really bad idea. Just as well I get to call it quits at the end of the evening."
Misako frowned, she'd totally screwed up the reassurance part there. Kristen clearly had some major insecurity issues, she also had a tendency to severely underestimate her own capabilities. Convincing her any different was going to be a more difficult task than Misako had anticipated.
"What I don't get is you guys," Kristen continued. "I mean, you're good at jaunting, you can escape for anywhere any time you want. Why the paranoia still? What are you afraid of?"
"We may have incredible powers but none of us are invulnerable," Misako admitted. "Damon still came close to getting burned at the stake a few weeks back, being able to jaunt didn't stop Jake getting shot and left for dead, stuck in a wheelchair the rest of his life. As long as there are people like Stellman and the guy with the red hair out there, there's still a threat. That's why we're afraid. And the paranoia is just what helps keep us alive."
The answer made Kristen uncomfortable. "And that applies to me as well, doesn't it. That's what you said, my life might depend on it."
"So when the party's over, what am I supposed to do? Hire a bodyguard? I mean, I appreciate the warning, don't get me wrong, but how am I supposed to handle this on my own?"
Not for the first time that evening, Misako found herself confused. "On your own? How do you mean?"
"I live in bloody Eastleigh. That isn't exactly close to any of you guys. I mean, I would love to hang out with you, but, it just isn't practical. It's not like we can jaunt over to see each other, works line of sight only, you already pointed out that limitation."
Misako smiled gently, determined to get the reassurance right this time. "You're still thinking like a human. Where we are doesn't matter, the four of us are connected in a way that might be weird shit, but it's real. It doesn't matter how often we get to hang out, we're permanently connected and nothing can change that."
"So, I'm stuck being a part of your world then, I don't get to walk away, even if I wanted to," Kristen started to understand.
"So Jake and Damon, then, they're gay, right? I mean, that scene between them when we were locked in the room at the courthouse, that was definitely gay, wasn't it?" Kristen couldn't think of a delicate way of asking, and anyway, as down to earth as Misako was turning to be, asking didn't seem like a problem.
Misako laughed. "Damon, no, definitely not. Jake, well, he isn't gay, he just doesn't seem to be straight either. I don't pretend to know what the hell that makes him."
"I think I read an article on people like that in a magazine once. A bit weird is what I'd call them. I mean, he's a lot more complex than the average guy, I'll give you that. Lets be honest here, most teenage guys are just a complete waste of scrote..." Kristen didn't bother to conceal the whole heap of emotional baggage underlying that statement.
"You've had some bad experiences?"
"A few. Well, more than a few," she confessed. "The only decent guys I ever meet always turn out to be gay, and you know, that's great for them, but what about me?"
"And Jake and Damon are decent, therefore they must be gay."
Kristen laughed. "I know, it's shallow. But, you know, I'm just used to thinking of guys as air headed sex objects."
"I noticed that about you," Misako tried to hint politely.
"Shit, are you reading my mind the whole time?" Kristen felt more than a little uncomfortable at the possibility.
"Not the whole time, but often enough. That's something you might have to watch for. I can tell you now, all the teleportation, telekinesis shit, that's easy. Telepathy is the one you really need to be careful about."
There was a lot more to this telepathy shit than met the eye. Kristen got the message, she'd have to watch her thoughts a lot more carefully from now on.
Kristen was enjoying the party a lot. She'd learned an enormous amount in a very short time, and not just about Wii hula. She'd learned her connection with these Tomorrow People wasn't about to end any time soon, and she knew all about the jaunting and the telepathy now, but there was still something missing. Kristen was still struggling to understand exactly why things had happened the way they had, why it was she was still alive. She just wasn't sure how to ask the right question to get there.
"Jake acts a bit arrogant at times, comes across as a little full of himself, but he's still a decent guy," Kristen continued.
"He's more than a bit full of himself. And don't be afraid to push back there, if you think he's talking bollocks, tell him. Because he does talk bollocks at times." Misako admitted. Kristen sensed an underlying frustration there, but didn't want to pry. Anyway, Misako went on to qualify the insult. "He also risked his life to stop Stellman, saved my life. He did that because it was the right thing to do, no other reason. And I know that, because I could see it in his mind. There are definitely some advantages to being telepathic there."
"He went after Stellman without so much as a plan. I don't know..." Kristen hesitated, plan or no plan, Damon and Jake had still stopped Stellman.
"Jake is impulsive," Misako understood Kristen's concerns absolutely. "He takes insane risks at times. He's not irrational though, he does usually think things through, even if he can be dangerously over-optimistic about his chances sometimes. Damon's the pragmatic one, and Jake's aware enough to know that, he wouldn't do a thing without Damon's approval. Their endless bitching aside, they work well together as a team."
"They definitely don't agree on what to do about Masters, I noticed," Krisen observed.
"Damon's desperate for Masters help. He jokes about it, but he has real trauma issues still. Jake's opposed to Masters because he hates asking for help from anyone."
Kristen watched Misako, reading the telepathic undertone in the words. "And you side with Jake from a rational point of view, you think that fixing this yourself is the preferable option, even though you have personal issues with Jake's arrogance there. Emotionally you'd rather side with Damon, because you share a lot of what he's going through, and you can't bear to watch him go on suffering like this."
Misako was impressed. "Exactly right. And you seriously think you'll never be able to handle telepathy?"
Kristen hadn't been sure she knew how to talk to Jake, so she figured her best chance of getting the answer she was missing was to quiz Damon. She found him in the kitchen.
"How's it going?" Kristen asked, not quite sure how else to start the conversation.
"The usual," Damon shrugged,
"That bad?" Kristen joked.
"I don't know. I survived the inquest, that's a milestone, as my therapist Doctor Jim would say."
Damon didn't seem much in the mood for talking, Kristen tried to keep it light. "Doctor Jim? Odd name for a therapist."
"Is there a good name for a therapist?"
"Probably not," Kristen conceded. "So you tried playing Wii Fit yet? Watching people trying to manage the balance board after six cans of beer, it's pretty funny."
"Not yet. I'll think about it," Damon responded vaguely. He was feeling nervous, unable to stop staring out the window. Kristen saw her chance.
"Still someone out there?" She asked, peering into the darkness.
"I don't think so," Damon answered with as much confidence as he could muster. He pulled himself away from the window and helped himself to another beer from the fridge.
Kristen reached out with her mind, trying to sense whatever she could sense outside, which was nothing. That either meant Damon was right and there wasn't anyone out there, or she wasn't doing it right. "So you think the police scared whoever it was off?"
"Maybe unintentionally," Damon answered cynically.
"Not a big fan of the police, are you?"
"If it'd been left to the police then you, me and Misako would be dead and Jake would be, well, he's bloody minded enough I don't know."
"Corrupt or incompetent, what do you think?" she pushed.
"Probably just incompetent. You saw the way they acted when they responded to the call tonight. They didn't believe a word we said. They were polite enough but you could see it in their thoughts, they were just humoring us."
Kristen could sense the frustration there, it was fairly easy to understand why. "I suppose that explains why you want to talk to Masters."
"I want to see their incompetence exposed publicly for what it is. Masters is the only way I see right now that I'll get that."
"So why am I alive, Damon, what was the turning point? What changed that made the police incompetence not matter any more?"
"It changed when two of the intended victims made telepathic contact. When we started working together."
Kristen was frustrated, the answer was logical, but there was too much that she didn't understand in the context that held the answer together. "I'm not getting it. I thought, telepathy is like, at short range you just hear thoughts. At long range you need to know how to tune into someone, and the only way you can do that is to make the connection at short range first. That's why you couldn't just reach out telepathically and call me, you had to find me first. So how did you and Jake make contact?"
"I ran into him at a party."
"Literally, I was drunk, totally paralytic at a party and accidentally crashed into Jake. Sent his drink flying across the floor. Thought he was going to kick my head in."
"So, let me get this straight. I'm only alive because you and Jake were both piss-heads at some totally random party?" Kristen really wasn't sure she wanted to know any more.
"That's pretty much it," Damon confirmed.
Kristen stared blankly back at him. "You know, I thought knowing would help, but actually, knowing makes it worse. If our survival was based on that random a chance, how can we have any confidence we'll make it through the day, any day?"
"We can't. Welcome to my world," Damon intoned bleakly. "So what do you think? You totally freaked out yet?"
Kristen was struggling, and there was no point denying it. "I think I'm still on information overload. And that's despite the fact I can tell there's a hell of a lot you aren't saying."
"I think half our problem is that there's so much shit happening that we're having so much trouble processing it ourselves, we don't even know where to begin trying to explain it to anyone else." Damon could at least reassure her there.
Kristen smiled back. Damon's reassurance was sweet, but it didn't help much.
Damon had nominally given in to the idea of getting rat-arsed, but for all his good intentions he was still way too sober. Far, far to be sober to be talking to Anna right now.
"So you and Misako?" Anna asked playfully,
Damon frowned. "No. You're obsessed."
When he'd asked Anna to the party, he'd kind of expected she'd make her usual excuses and decline, so when she'd said yes it had completely caught him off guard. Then she'd turned up with her new boyfriend Pete, and alright, who she turned up with wasn't any of Damon's business, but he couldn't help feeling a little uncomfortable. Pete was a friend of Nick's, and Damon had introduced Anna to Pete at Nick's big party. Pete was okay, but there was something incestuously wrong with how few degrees of separation there were in that whole equation.
Anna fluttered her eyelids at him. "Obsession is part of my charm. Alright, look, I just want to feel like you're happy."
Damon didn't much know what to say. He'd known he wouldn't be able to avoid Anna at the party, not after inviting her, but he'd been hoping to avoid this particular conversation. The conversation where Anna gave him the third degree on what he'd been up to since they'd split up.
"I am happy," he tried to sound like he meant what he was saying, then quickly gave up because there was no way of making bullshit like that sound believable. "In a crazy, screwed up kind of way," he was forced to qualify. "Look, life isn't perfect, I won't pretend it is, today would be a good example of all the ways in which it's still more than a bit messed up, but you know, it's always been messed up. I'm making progress."
Anna was looking at him in a way that made him uncomfortable. "I sometimes wonder if letting you walk away was the biggest screw up I ever made in my life."
"Pete not measure up?" Damon tried to diffuse the risk of the conversation getting too serious. "Anyway, I thought you dumped Pete about twenty minutes ago and you were after Dean again now that he's split up with Kath."
"What Pete lacks in size, he makes up for in kinky. And I don't know if I've dumped him completely or not yet. Dean, I don't know either. You tell me, you're the one who reads minds. Is he twisted enough, or am I wasting my time?"
"Twisted enough for what?" Damon asked, then regretted the question. Sometimes being able to read minds could be disconcerting. "Right. You're still trying to talk guys into doing that? I don't know. I don't want to know."
Anna smirked. "Has to be something extreme, some people are a hard act to follow."
"Why do conversations with you always head in this direction?"
"You used to like it once."
He still liked it, that was the problem. But he'd walked away for a good reason, going back wasn't an option, there was no need to torture himself. "I liked it because it made me feel good, because I was so insecure that I couldn't believe anyone would think I was worth having those kind of thoughts about. But there was a moment in the darkness when I gave up, when I accepted I was dead. When I came back from that, I didn't need the validation any more, it was enough that I survived."
"Can't compete with that, can I." Anna admitted. "Problem is, I don't know that anyone can," she challenged him.
Damon didn't appreciate the accusation. "It's not a competition. And I'm not looking for anyone right now because life's still too uncertain."
Anna wasn't going to be convinced so easily. "Life never gets that certain, Damon, at some point you have to take risks. I don't see you taking risks any more."
"I once thought that telling a dirty joke in front of a teacher was the most insanely risky thing I would ever do. I have a very different appreciation of what risks are now."
"Bollocks. What you have now is a completely twisted appreciation of what risks are. You wake up, and you treat every day like it's a struggle to the death. Well not every day is like that, Damon. Get real."
"I know, alright, I know I can't live every day in fear like that. But what's it going to take to change how I feel when I wake up in the morning? That's what I'm missing."
"I don't know, Damon. I wish I could tell you, but that's something you're just going to have to work out for yourself."
She smiled at him, and the smile was frustrating, because just for a moment he remembered what it had been like when she was the only thing that mattered to him in the entire world. Before everything went wrong. Before Stellman.
Jake was helping himself to another beer. It wasn't going so bad. He'd beaten Misako at Wii Golf, one of the few games he could cope with single handed. She'd slaughtered him at Wii boxing, but that took two good hands, so Jake hadn't really stood a chance. Meanwhile Kath seemed to have vanished, Pete and Lisa were turning out to be the life and soul of the party, and even Damon was making a believable effort to enjoy himself.
Mike and Dean wandered wandered into the kitchen. Jake was looking into the fridge, so he didn't see them, but he could sense them hesitate and then turn to try and make a discrete exit for the second time that evening, it was getting beyond a joke. Jake snapped. Forgetting the beer he headed after them, grabbed Mike and Dean and dragged them through into his dad's office.
"Don't freak out. I just want to talk," he launched into his speech before they had any time to get too defensive.
They didn't panic immediately, it was about as good a start as he could have expected.
"Alright, here it is," he continued quickly. "I'm pissed off because I thought we really were going to go for it and do this trip up the Amazon, and I was really looking forward to it, and you guys, I don't care what your reasons are, I'm not going to blow up at you, I just want to know if there's any point in me continuing to get my hopes up. So. Are you backing out?"
There was an embarrassed silence.
Dean was the one who finally spoke. "I don't know, Jake. All we wanted to do was talk about it, but you've blown up at us every time we tried."
Jake kept his temper under control. He didn't appreciate being blamed him for everything, although in this case it entirely was his fault. "Alright I know. So, get it over with. Here's your chance. Just say what you want to say."
Dean stared back, still convinced Jake wouldn't listen. He finally gave in and got to the point. "Hiking the Amazon. How exactly does that work with the wheelchair?"
"It doesn't," Jake answered simply. It was pretty much the objection he'd expected.
"So we're not backing out, but the trip isn't going to happen, is it?" Mike sounded a little confused.
"Maybe, maybe not," Jake answered cryptically. "Look, the trip is ten months away. That's a long way off to be making any assumptions about wheelchairs. We can't even book it for another four months. Give me those four months and then we can argue about what will and what won't be practical. There'll be limitations, I accept that, but if we can work something out, I seriously still want to go. All I'm asking is that you don't completely write me off before then."
Again his words provoked an uncomfortable silence.
Dean was contrite. "We're not writing you off, Jake, if that's how it sounded them I'm sorry. But you didn't want to talk about it, and I thought you'd given up on it. And... It's just you seem to have a whole different bunch of priorities these days, I sometimes don't feel like we fit in any more."
Jake could sense the frustration. And Dean had a fair point, a lot of Jake's priorities had changed, but Mike and Dean were dead wrong about one thing. "So you think I was only still doing this because I feel sorry for you? Well sod off guys, you really think I'm that big an arsehole? Look, I'm doing this because the three of us have been friends since we were seven years old, because school is over in six months and everything is going to change after that whether we want it to or not, and because I think the idea is completely mental. This is it, guys, it's supposed to be a celebration of friendship, and we sodding deserve it."
"You don't think you're overdoing the sentiment a bit there?" Mike challenged, sounding somewhere between uncertain and embarrassed.
"No," Jake answered pointedly. "Whatever you guys think, we're still friends, and I do still give a shit."
"So you want us to take a flight to Puerto Maldonado, then catch a boat up river, and what exactly are we doing when we get there?" Dean looked for clarification.
"I haven't really worked that part out yet."
Mike shook his head. "I think you're batshit insane and that's the most impractical idea I ever heard."
"Exactly. And when has that ever been a problem before?" Jake felt hopeful. He could sense Dean was still skeptical, but he'd almost sold Mike on the idea. More importantly he'd got them past being fixated on the wheelchair as a show stopper.
He watched Mike thinking, looking for something in Mike's thoughts he could use to prod the guy with. "Didn't you always have a secret fantasy about going skinny dipping in piranha infested waters?"
Mike blushed. "Only to wind Dean up again," he defended.
"Piss off," Dean retorted.
Jake smiled. Just for a moment he remembered how much fun he'd used to have, when he would sit back and watch them wind each other up like this. Echoes of a life long gone, sometimes he missed the simplicity of it all.
"Dean at least is a bit more realistic," Jake continued. "He secretly wants to go so he can discover a lost city of the Incas. Which, is, you know, if only everyone's deepest darkest fantasy was that easy to fulfill..." Jake made a mental note, there had to be some way he could pull that one off.
"Why does it always have to be deep dark fantasies with you, Jake. Can't people just have normal fantasies once in a while?"
"They can, it's just boring. Have some imagination Dean, what do you really want?" Jake challenged. He caught a fragment of something buried more deeply in Dean's thoughts. "So, is 'flying saucer' a euphemism for whatever it is that Anna's managed to talk you into?"
It was Dean's turn to blush. "No, and I didn't say yes yet, we were just talking about it.
"Flying saucer?" Mike frowned, like he wasn't in on the secret and figured he ought to be.
"You know..." Dean tried to sound offhand.
Mike stared back blankly. "No, I don't."
"Not Anna. Flying saucer like in Indiana Jones. Aliens," Dean persisted.
Jake followed the exchange in bemused silence. This was off the wall even for Dean. But that didn't matter, Jake had his answer, as long as he could come up with some workable compromise on the wheelchair, they were sold on the trip. His work was done. A moment of doubt caught him, what if he couldn't sort out the wheelchair? He fought it, this was his bloody party and he wasn't going to get himself all depressed again.
So, much more important, lost Inca city... how the hell was he supposed to organize that? Admittedly it was easier than arranging flying saucers, Jake had some limits. He prided himself on having an open mind, but there was no way he was ever going to believe in flying saucers, that was just one step too silly.
"Dean, are we going to have a scene here?" Jake deadpanned. "You cried for three days when I told you the truth about the Easter Bunny. I hate to have to do this to you again, but you do realize, there's no such thing as aliens, right?"
"Cold out here," Jake observed, stating the bleeding obvious. He pushed the kitchen door closed behind him and joined Damon on the garden bench.
"Yeah," Damon barely even acknowledged Jake's arrival.
They sat there in silence, their slow breathing clouding the the cold November air.
"No offense, I wanted to be alone," Damon continued to stare at the ground.
Damon finally looked up. "This is your house, Jake, couldn't you just, like, go up to your bedroom?"
Jake snorted, less than amused. "Tried that."
Jake's abbreviated emotions broke into Damon's solitary contemplation. "You caught Kath and Nick making out in there?" he asked. "Okay, that kind of making out..." Damon noted, reading far more of Jake's thoughts than he intended.
Jake grinned in spite of himself. "Seriously."
"Seriously too weird," Damon agreed.
The conversation stalled.
Jake tried to distract Damon from his frustration. "Anyway, how's Pete dealing with being dumped?"
"Snogging that Lisa."
"Hell of a party," Jake noted wryly.
Damon picked up on the evident despondency. "Seems everyone is enjoying it except us."
"Where did we go wrong?"
Damon had no immediate answer.
They continued to sit in silence.
Jake tried to kick start things again. "So why are you out here, what's your problem?"
"Anna and Dean."
"That bother you? I didn't think you were that shallow."
Damon had no intention of rising to the provocation, Jake was just taking the piss.
"You think Dean is more cute than me?" Damon asked, knowing he risked any magnitude of snarky answers from Jake.
Jake didn't rise to the bait. "That's one of those questions I'm buggered however I answer."
"What's he got in common with Anna then?" Damon persisted.
"Same species. Which, is more than you can lay claim to."
"Sorted then. So what's your real problem here?"
Damon hesitated as long as he could, then realized Jake would drag it out of him one way or another.
"There's no escape," he confided helplessly. "I'm still afraid of waking up in the morning, and until we can do something about the guy with red hair, that's not going to change. And we're not even trying to do anything about it."
"You want us to talk to Masters?"
"I'm not mad keen on going to Masters for help, but unless you've got a better idea..."
"I wish I did." Jake hated admitting defeat.
There was more silence. A minute or three passed.
"So why are you out here?" Damon asked finally.
Damon wasn't about to allow vagueness like that. "You want to be more specific?"
"I just spent the last few hours convincing people to give me a break. Told them I'm trying to face up to things, trying to be realistic. Just like you said. And that's great. But what if I'm wrong, Damon? What if I'm still selling a delusion?"
"There's a risk of that. Sometimes you have to take risks."
"I'm still fighting the depression, Damon. What if I can't go waterskiing? What if I can't ever go camping in the Amazon jungle? What if hang gliding is right out for the rest of my life?"
"You're afraid of heights, Jake."
Jake ignored the attempt to inject some reason into his rant. "What if I can't play Wii fit again. Not ever. You know how sad that would be?"
Damon looked puzzled, for a moment he couldn't read the emotion. "You looking for sympathy or taking the piss here?"
"I'm not interested in sympathy, and I've had enough of bloody telling people that," Jake exploded. "You know, I can deal with being a cripple, I just can't deal with being treated like one."
Damon thought carefully for a moment. He didn't want to be cruel for cruelty's sake, but if there was ever a time to push Jake, this was it. "So are you going to stop playing on it? Playing on the sympathy. You can't have it both ways."
Jake understood. "I'm not used to having to rely on other people just to get me through the day, I'm not comfortable with it, I just want to stand on my own two feet, Damon."
"Turning down help from other people even if it makes things easier."
"Sometimes, yeah, that's what it means."
"And that's why you don't want to talk to Masters?"
"I guess so." Jake could see where this was going.
"So do I have to beg?"
"No," Jake shook his head slowly. He could sense the desperation Damon was feeling, the same desperation he'd felt himself that morning. "Not much of a friend am I? All the times you helped me out, I never once said thanks. I didn't mean to piss you off. It's just hard to feel thankful for help I wish I didn't need."
"You didn't need to say it, I could read your mind."
"Okay, you can piss off being so bloody forgiving, alright," Jake pushed back. "So here's the deal. If I can't come up with a better idea by tomorrow, we'll go talk to Masters."
Hang The Bastard High
~Guys? Is there anybody there? Hello? Am I doing this right?~ Kristen called out, her thoughts fractured and uncertain.
Jake was startled by the interruption, he'd nearly been asleep. He'd sat out in the garden talking to Damon for over an hour, until the chill out there had started freezing their assets, and he couldn't quite remember what he'd done after that, or how he'd ended up in the laundry room. He went to check his watch, which was missing. Damon had it. Damon who was passed out on a pile of dirty towels. Jake had a vague memory of showing Damon the watch and telling him the story about the Swedish phrase book he'd once bought his sister for her birthday, it was a long story. He gave Damon a shove to wake him up, then grabbed the watch back, it was nearly 4:00AM, what was Kristen doing still up?
Jake tried to get his mind in gear enough to respond, but he was beaten too it. ~That's fine, you've got it.~ Misako answered from the kitchen, managing to reassure Kristen. ~What's up?~
Damon propped himself up against the dryer, looking completely out of it.
~I know you guys are all paranoid, and I don't want to make that worse, but, there's someone here doesn't feel right. Made out she knew Pete, but she was lying. I mean, alright, I know I can't prove that, I just...~ Kristen was genuinely worried.
"Is bloody everyone still up?" Damon asked groggily.
~This is us, Kristen, you don't need to justify anything,~ Jake interjected. He had a few pessimistic suspicions about what was probably going on. ~Can you see her right now? Can you show me?~
Kristen was uncertain. ~Yes, and no, I don't know how.~
~I'm on my way, you can take a look.~ Misako responded.
Jake closed his eyes and looked through into what Misako could see as she walked through into the living room, cynically noting that his pessimism hadn't been misplaced. ~That's the reporter that accosted me this morning,~ he informed them with more than a little irritation.
~How did she find out about the party? How did she know where to find you?~ Kristen asked, understanding a little more of their paranoia.
~The press know exactly where we all live, they're just not meant to come here. This one obviously didn't get the memo,~ Misako answered bleakly.
Damon looked across at Jake, looking apologetic as he put two and two together. ~I'd lay odds that was her we sensed outside earlier.~
"It wasn't just you, Damon, I really did think it was the guy with red hair as well." Jake confessed. Then he addressed Kristen, ~this reporter, what's she doing?~
~Asking questions, discretely, trying to avoid you three I think, but she didn't know about me.~
~She's persistent, I'll give her that.~ Jake observed.
~Call the police again?~ Misako asked.
Jake disagreed. ~She'll be out of here before they arrive, and then we'll look like idiots again for over-reacting. Screw it, this is my house, I'll just go confront her, tell her to leave. Threaten her with contempt of court of something. It just pisses me off that these people can't leave us alone.~
"You figure we should search the place, check that she's here alone?" Damon suggested.
Jake frowned. "It's not him, at least not this time, let go Damon." he whispered.
"Thanks," Damon replied coldly, but he had no intention of backing off so easily. "I still stay her turning up here is too much of a bloody coincidence."
"There I agree with you."
Damon stared at Jake, reading his thoughts. "You think she's something to do with Masters?"
~You guys still there?~ Misako asked, the telepathic silence unnerving her.
~Just thinking.~ Jake responded quickly. ~Just trying to keep some perspective and be rational about what the danger really is here.~
Kristen was confused. ~What do you mean by danger? I mean, she's just a reporter, right? A reporter who can't even print any story she does find here.~
~Right, and that's the part that's got me nervous. Turning up today of all days, ignoring the reporting restrictions, believing everything we say.~ Jake argued.
~Like Masters?~ Misako asked, catching on to Jake's suspicions.
Jake grabbed his crutches and pulled himself to his feet. ~I don't know. But I'm sure as hell going to go and find out.~
There was no easy way of doing it. After six cans of beer and a couple of double vodkas, Jake was far too unsteady on his crutches to stand any chance of being able to walk through into the living room. So he was stuck with the wheelchair, which was anything but discrete. He squeezed himself awkwardly through the doorway and quietly nodded for people to clear the room.
The reporter pulled a chair out from under the table and placed it in the middle of the floor. She sat backwards astride it, leaning her arms against the back rest.
Jake positioned himself directly facing her. stared through her eyes and into her thoughts. Mostly what he could sense was vindication, she was thinking her bloody minded persistence had paid off. And that was going to make her more bloody minded than ever, getting rid of her was going to be an interesting challenge.
Jake waited for everyone to go. He wasn't in any hurry, and it gave him time to prepare himself. He had two objectives, to find out if she really was connected with Masters, and to piss her off so that she didn't leave thinking she'd won.
The living room door closed.
"They won't talk to you," he broke the silence. "None of them will."
"So I noticed," she observed. She pulled a voice recorder from her pocket, showed it to Jake as a professional courtesy, and turned it on. "How do you inspire that level of trust in people?"
"I offer them dominion over the world for twenty-four years in return for their immortal souls." Jake said simply. "It's a good deal, most people settle for a bar of chocolate. Do you like chocolate, Ms Shepherd? What would you sell your soul for?"
There was no doubt she was a real reporter, he'd picked that up quickly. That still left the possibility she'd done a deal with Masters, and Jake wanted to try and provoke her into thinking about it. He didn't quite provoke the response he expected.
"I'd sell my soul for a good story. You have a good story?"
"None one that I'd share with the East Riding Gazette, Ms Shepherd, sorry. So we're finished here, you can go now."
He smiled wryly to himself. That had worked, she was feeling a lot less confident that she'd get anything useful out of the interview.
"You come across as a very arrogant young man. Is that why you're afraid to be interviewed, afraid your fans would get disillusioned if they knew the truth?"
She was trying to provoke Jake into defending himself, she was clever, but not clever enough.
"Since when did truth matter in journalism?" he hit back.
"You know how much of my day I spend fighting cynicism like that?"
Curious, she meant every word, she really saw herself as an honest reporter trying to fight a corrupt system from within. Jake felt a moment of sympathy for her, before coming to his senses.
"If you're such an honest reporter, then what the hell are you doing here?" He challenged her. "The judge issued a protection order, which you're willfully violating. Isn't that contempt of court or something?"
"It's a reporting restriction, I'm only in contempt if I violate that by publishing anything, which isn't bloody likely to happen when you obviously have no intention of talking."
And that was exactly the part that had Jake puzzled. "So if you can't publish the answers, then why are you still asking questions?"
"My job is to ask questions."
Jake had to concede that it was the kind of circular logic that even he'd be proud to wind someone up with. "That you can't publish the answers to, right?"
"You want an example?" she offered provocatively.
She was really good. Jake had to admit that she had him somewhat bemused. "Sure."
Laura Shepherd turned off her voice recorder.
"Then answer me this one question, knowing that I can't print a word of what you say without earning myself a three year prison sentence. Did Stellman commit suicide, or did you kill him?"
Jake hesitated, but then his curiosity got the better of him. "No I didn't kill him, that's insane," he responded suspiciously. The accusation was ludicrous, what the hell was she up to?
He could sense she was very satisfied with the answer. "You see," she explained, "half the reporters out there think you did. That there's been a cover up to protect you. But I know that's not true now, I know you're innocent. That gives me a good head start on finding out what the police cover up is really about. That's why it's worth asking."
"Right, because if you uncovered a cover up, that's a story you could print." Jake was actually kind of impressed.
Laura Shepherd stood up. "So I guess we're finished here, I'll go now."
"Fine, get out," Jake agreed, although he didn't entirely mean it, he hadn't achieved either of the things he'd wanted to yet.
A parting wind up occurred to him. Maybe he could rescue one of those objectives. "But tell me this. If you wanted to know about the cover up than why didn't you ask about it? I could have given you hell of a lot more than a head start. I granted you one question, and you wasted it."
It worked, pissed her off so much that he didn't even need to be telepathic to see it. The whole confrontation hadn't gone exactly the way he'd wanted, but he was happy enough with the result. She wouldn't be hounding him again, he could read that much in her thoughts as she reached the living room door.
It was only unfortunate that she was only one of many reporters and protesters and any number of other weirdos who still wanted to make his life a misery. And it wasn't bloody fair, he'd been mobbed from every side that morning while the bastard with the red hair had been able to wander through the crowd in complete anonymity. Some day of justice.
Jake blinked, his mind racing, an idea forming, a crazy messed up idea. No, it was too messed up, even for him. It would require walking a tightrope between Laura Shepherd and Masters to pull it off, not exactly the kind of scheme to be committing himself to on the spur of the moment. But she was at the door, he didn't have any time left for thinking.
"Look, it's nothing personal, but all I want in life is to be left alone. By you, by the police, by the public."
Laura Shepherd hesitated. He had her attention.
"I would do practically anything I thought would help me achieve that goal," he told her, setting up the offer, hoping he wasn't just about to make an enormous mistake.
She turned ever so slightly, just enough she could hear him better.
"It's funny, you know, how you aren't allowed to talk to me. Stops me telling my story just as much as it stops you reporting it. Makes you wonder who exactly the protection is meant to gag."
He could sense that he more than had her interest.
"So, hypothetically, if I did tell you everything, how would you make sure the revelations never, ever got traced back to me? What if I told you stuff and they demanded to know where you got the information from, how would you protect my anonymity?"
Jake fell silent, waiting for an answer, his mind still racing. He was playing with fire. He could still back out. The others would go apeshit that he didn't run the idea past them first. He had to be sure he was making the right decision for the right reason.
It was a moment or two before Laura Shepherd responded. When she did, she thought her words out carefully.
"If I refused to hand over my sources, it's possible they could hold me in contempt of court, there's precedent for that. There's a limit to journalistic freedom in this country, let's not kid ourselves. But if I do reveal it was you, I'm in contempt of court for talking to you in the first place. So I'm screwed either way. At least if I got held in contempt for refusing to reveal my sources then I'd keep the moral high ground, and the publicity boost that would give my career would more than offset the cost."
It all sounded very plausible. Maybe his idea wasn't quite as crazy as he'd thought.
"And say I did tell you stuff," Jake continued, "what happens to that information?"
Laura Shepherd turned to face him. "In the short term, nothing. I know my job, nothing gets reported unless I have at least two independent sources I can corroborate."
"That won't be easy," he pointed out.
"No, it won't be. So this better be something good."
"And no voice recorder."
"I took a class in writing by hand once, figured it might come in useful one day." She pulled out a notepad.
Jake hesitated, trying to string the moment out. He was at the point of no return. He made his decision.
"It's fairly obvious that the police botched the investigation from the start..." he explained cautiously.
"That's not exactly news," Laura Shepherd reminded him.
"What isn't news yet, is that Whitehall are conducting a formal, secret investigation into the police handling of the case."
"That's not entirely surprising, given the circumstances," she tried to sound dismissive, but Jake could sense otherwise.
"They're also keeping quiet about how Stellman was using the ContactPoint database to select his victims. That was how he was doing the profiling to make sure there was no link between them, to make it impossible for the police to establish any pattern."
"ContactPoint?" Laura Shepherd digested the information. "That's the police's own child protection database. Access is strictly controlled. You sure?"
"Stellman had access to information about me that could only have come from my private medical records. How did he get that stuff? Someone needs to ask, and it isn't going to be the police, they're too busy covering their arses."
"That's beyond incompetence. No bloody wonder they're keeping quiet about it."
Laura Shepherd was starting to get excited, and Jake was starting to enjoy himself inappropriately again.
"Stellman had friends in high places, they've all been cleared of any direct involvement of course, but it would turn out pretty embarrassing if one of them were to have inadvertently given him access to that database," he pressed on.
"There'd have to be resignations. Any idea who? Is that part of the Whitehall investigation?"
"I don't know."
"So what exactly do you know about the Whitehall angle?"
"Whitehall's main focus is into whether potentially crucial evidence was ignored. Like, there's evidence that Stellman wasn't working alone, that he had an accomplice, but the police for some reason deliberately chose not to follow that line of enquiry. Question is why?"
"Deliberately ignoring evidence? Bloody hell, Jake. You didn't mention any of this at the inquest, why?"
"It wasn't relevant to Stellman's death. Look, the official line is that the police investigated the possibility that there was an accomplice, but they found no evidence to corroborate it. They don't want to believe it, what am I supposed to say?"
Jake couldn't completely conceal his bitterness, but sod it, it didn't matter that the police didn't believe him, because he could sense that Laura Shepherd did. His gamble was paying off.
"This accomplice, what do you know about him?"
"He's in his late twenties, red hair. We all saw him, the descriptions match." Jake ventured, injecting a little creative hesitancy. He wasn't being completely truthful here and he had to spin his answer cautiously, it had to match whatever facts she'd be able to check up on. "What's even more creepy is that he's still following us. He's been stalking Misako, she even managed to get a photograph of him. I saw the picture, it's definitely the same guy, we are not imagining this."
There was silence for a moment, Laura Shepherd's mind was racing too fast for Jake to keep up with.
"That's a hell of an accusation, Jake..."
"No," Jake interrupted, "here's the accusation. This guy, whoever he is, is being protected by elements within the police force. Whitehall aren't investigating incompetence here, what they're investigating is corruption."
Jake sat back to to watch, and Laura Shepherd's reaction didn't disappoint.
"When I said I'd sell my soul for a good story..."
The story was all she cared about. There was nothing layered or complex about her thoughts, her enthusiasm was genuine. There was no way she had anything to do with Masters, He had achieved his second objective.
There was also something about her enthusiasm that bothered Jake. "I would say your soul is the least of your worries," he cautioned. "This guy is an accessory to the torture and murder of ten kids and right now he's effectively above the law. Keep in mind he might not appreciate you printing a story about him."
"Reassuring little bugger, aren't you You don't think you're being over-melodramatic?"
Jake shook his head gently. She didn't get it, she thought he was being paranoid. For his own peace of mind he had to make her understand.
"You're lying on the ground, immobilized," Jake whispered. "Try to imagine what it feels like, a bullet tearing through your knee, another bullet tearing through your shoulder. Smashing bone, ripping muscle, cutting through nerves. Blood everywhere, you can't stop the bleeding, too much blood, too much pain, you only have one arm that works anyway, and you're too weak to use it. You're losing consciousness, and you don't ever expect to wake up again. It's funny the things that go through your mind at times like that. I was beyond frightened, but you know, there was a moment where I did wonder if maybe I was just over-reacting."
He allowed the words to wash over her. He hadn't intended to get quite so confessional, or quite so bloody honest, but he needed her to know what she was getting herself into.
"You think you're still at risk?" she asked cautiously.
"We saw the guy standing in the crowd outside the inquest this morning, watching us. What do you think?"
The revelation made her more than a little nervous, but she tried to hide her concern. She wasn't nearly nervous enough for Jake's liking still, but he'd tried, so he let the matter drop.
"I think your story is worth checking out," she kept her words upbeat and practical despite her nerves. "You mentioned you had a photograph of the guy, I don't suppose there's a chance I could get a copy of that is there?"
Jake thought for a moment. He didn't particularly want to hand anything over that might be traced back to him, but without that picture she wouldn't be able to make like uncomfortable for the guy with red hair, and that had after all been his primary objective. "You have bluetooth on your phone?"
"Couldn't you just send it by MMS?"
Jake shook his head. "No way, there'd be a record, the phone companies store that kind of information for years. Anyone checks, and they'd immediately know I'd contacted you. Bluetooth drop-box, on the other hand, that's near enough untraceable. And if they investigate, I can claim you hacked my phone."
"Does the paranoia ever get tiring?"
Jake laughed out loud, finally starting to feel his confidence coming back. "Yes, yes it does," he conceded.
Laura Shepherd put her notepad down, signaling she had a question she needed to ask as a human being and not as a newspaper reporter. "So what happens when they catch the guy? What is it you really want?"
"To see them to hang the bastard high."
"You don't mean that."
"No, I know." Jake shrugged. "What I want is justice, but I don't trust the system to give us that. So I'll settle for peace of mind. Lock him up, throw away the key, and we'll all get to sleep a hell of a lot better."
The party was over by the time Jake escorted Laura Shepherd to the front door. It was getting on for 7:00AM, Jake had no clue where the time had gone. He wandered quietly back through the house. There were discarded cans and glasses littering every surface where there'd been space to put something down. Assorted items of clothing were strewn about the place. Someone had upset a packet of peanuts on the floor in the hallway that were now trodden in to the carpet. He'd have his work cut out for him cleaning up before his parents got back, but it could have been a lot worse. No signs of anyone having thrown up anywhere. Of course he hadn't checked the bathroom yet. Now wasn't the time. Several people had managed some sleep at least, he spotted Pete and Lisa were unconscious under the table in the breakfast room. Nick and Kath were conspicuous on account of not being anywhere obvious, and as a consequence Jake was in no particular hurry to be heading back to his bedroom.
He headed for the garden where Kristen and Misako had joined Damon. It was dark out still, although the dawn couldn't be far off. Still bitterly cold, even more so than earlier, but there was no chance of them being disturbed out there, and they wanted to talk. Jake knew instinctively that they were going to overreact when he told them what he'd said to the reporter, so Misako's outburst came right on cue.
"You did what? Were you completely out of your stupid mind?" She shouted angrily, finally losing her patience with him.
Jake frowned, unsure how to respond. The problem was that he didn't entirely disagree with her, he'd always been a little out of his mind, to a degree. But he was also pretty sure he'd made the best decision that he could under the circumstances.
He made no effort to look for moral support. He had no desire to force Damon to have to take sides and there was no point involving Kristen, she was staying nervously silent, she wasn't even sure she was welcome to participate in the conversation. No, this was a battle Jake had to fight on his own. "I made a judgement call, I took advantage of an opportunity."
"You had no clue what you were doing," Misako retaliated. She wasn't trying to be sarcastic, she didn't hate him, she was just trying to understand. Jake could see her point.
"No, I didn't know. I was reaching, I know. But that's what I always do, Misako, I improvise. It's worked so far."
"It has, I accept that, but that was when it was just you. There are four of us now. You make snap decisions and it affects all of us."
"You think I don't know that?"
"I think you know. I also think you get reckless at times. I mean, you had no plan, no forethought, and how exactly is this supposed help us?" Misako' argument was relentless, brutal.
"It puts the guy on notice that we aren't going to let him intimidate us any more," Jake fought back. "And that beats the hell out of doing nothing. Beats the hell out of letting the police get away with not believing us, beats the hell out of letting everyone treat us like a bunch of bloody helpless kids. I'm sick of it."
"Everything's that easy with you, isn't it?" Misako sounded exasperated.
Jake was struggling. "Alright, I'm not perfect, I know that, but think about the odds all of us are fighting here. The police aren't interested. Masters wants to help, but lets face it, we can't ever tell him the real truth. We can't tell anyone the truth, we're on our own. We need to make the most of every opportunity that comes our way. That's what I did. I made the right decision, I know I did, and I'm not going to apologize for that."
"And what happens if he doesn't back off. What if all you've done is wind him up even more. What if he decides he needs to hit back?"
"Then we give in, we go crawling to Masters and beg for help. But let's not give up before we even try. You said it yourself, Misako, we're afraid and we don't even know what it is we're afraid of. How dangerous is he, really?" Jake pushed.
"Masters said we should worry," Damon reminded him.
Jake accepted the point. "Masters has an agenda though, he wants to scare us into helping him. He's also judging the danger in human terms, not in our terms, he can't be. I just think we're in danger of loosing our perspective here."
Misako nodded slowly, finding herself reluctantly swayed by Jake's argument. "Worst case, the guy with red hair can't be any worse than Stellman," she admitted.
"And we beat Stellman," Damon concluded her thought.
Jake relaxed a little. They were starting to see sense. "So what are we worried about? I mean, who the hell else can pull off shit like we can? Come on, guys, who else?"
"We have our good days," Misako conceded. "And I agree we have to push ourselves, because that's the only way we'll learn what we're capable of. It's just..."
"Look, I'm serious, I will never, ever do anything that might endanger any of us. You have to give me more credit than that."
"You're an arsehole, Jake," Misako told him bluntly, "but you're an honest one. It's possible I might have misjudged you."
"Thanks. I think. You know, that's got to be the most offensive compliment anyone ever paid me. "
Misako finally broke a smile. No, no one could stay pissed at Jake for too long. She waited a few moments before resuming the conversation. "So you think your reporter friend will convince anyone to run the photograph?"
Jake shrugged. "She wants her fortune and glory. If there's a way, she'll find it."
"I wish I could be there to see the look on his face when he wakes up and sees himself on the front page. I hope he likes the publicity," Damon grinned, finally feeling able to put the day's events behind him.
"Isn't there a danger of you pissing the police off as well, though?" Kristen found the courage to join in the conversation.
"Only if they find out it was us. And the way we've been acting towards the press," Misako considered, "we're the last people they'll suspect of leaking the information."
"Bunch of useless twats, I don't care if we do piss them off." Damon suggested somewhat less charitably.
"So are we agreed? We face our fears?" Jake challenged.
Misako nodded. "We're never going to be completely safe, but I agree, if we're going to be afraid, let's at least be afraid of something real."
"And not live every day in fear of something that might never happen," Damon concurred.
"Right," Jake punctuated the sentiment. He lay back on the grass, looking up at deep red dawn sky. "Most days you wake up in the morning, the sun comes out, everything works out okay. You think it always will, because it always has. But you can't ever be sure of that, not totally. Sometimes surviving the day has to be an act of faith."
Nothing More To Say
Laura Shepherd was nervous.
The nameless official who was escorting her along the featureless corridor had a blank face, a face so anonymous you wouldn't look twice at him. His whole appearance was unassuming, he was making her feel uncomfortable, but then that was probably quite intentional. That was his job.
He'd only spoken to her once, and that was to suggest she didn't leave anything in the reception area in case it got stolen. Armed police on the door, metal detector searches to get in and out, surveillance cameras everywhere, and this person was suggesting that reception wasn't a secure place to leave anything, yeah, right.
She was lead silently to a room and waved inside. No name on the door, no name on the desk, not a single identifying feature anywhere in the office, but there was little doubt as to where she had arrived.
"Thanks for agreeing to see me, Colonel Masters."
Masters stayed seated, barely even looking up from a file on the desk that he was staring at. "You left me very little choice, Miss Shepherd. You're making some extremely serious accusations here. I suppose I have more sense than to inquire about your sources, but you must be extremely confident of them if you're willing to risk the consequences that you invite should you proceed with publishing this."
His words made her uncomfortable, it was difficult to interpret them as being anything other than a threat. Life as a rookie reporter on the East Riding Gazette had never really prepared her for a confrontation like this. But she had to face him down, this was her initiation into the world of real journalism. "I'm extremely confident of my sources, Colonel. So you can skip the part where you try to sow seeds of doubt there."
"I have no interest in sowing seeds of doubt, as you say. I'm not with the police investigation, I have no interest at all in defending their mistakes."
"So you're admitting mistakes were made?" she asked suspiciously. "Is that why you're investigating their actions?"
"I have made no statement nor any denial regarding the conduct of the police themselves, my comment refers only to my own personal interests. And if you publish anything that interprets those words as a non-denial denial then I assure you, your reputation will not survive that mistake."
She smiled, that very definitely was a threat.
Masters remained remained inscrutable. "My remit, to clarify, extends only to matters of national security."
"National security? There's a national security angle here?" Laura Shepherd was rapidly feeling out of her depth.
"I cannot comment."
He was playing games. So, that was how the conversation was going to go. "I see," she paused. "So there is a national security angle."
Masters gave no indication he was even listening.
If she wanted her story, she was going to have to fight for it. "What about the suggestion Stellman killed himself because he knew he was as good as dead anyway. Whoever he was working with wasn't about to risk being exposed. Conspiracy?"
"Your sources may be reliable as far as they go, but they're just a bunch of kids. Don't assume they know everything."
He knew. How the hell did he know? He was playing a game with her, and she had to play along. "I have made no statement regarding the identity of my source, and I thought you indicated a moment ago that you had more sense than to pursue that discussion. I'm not making assumptions about anything. Maybe you need to pay more attention to your own advice."
Masters closed the file on his desk and made eye contact with her for the first time. Her outburst had won her his attention.
"Assumptions are so dangerous, aren't they Ms Shepherd. So you're assuming there's a conspiracy. Answer me this, if Stellman was working with someone, who do you think that someone might be?"
"So there was someone else involved?"
"You're the one saying that, I'm merely encouraging a little journalistic speculation."
He was going to make her work for every tiny scrap of information she got out of him. "National security is your interest, Colonel. Stellman was working in bio-genetics research, had several research grants turned down. Next we know, he's performing illicit experiments that no grant committee would ever provide funding for, and he wasn't funding that out his own salary as a college lecturer. I'd say his associate was the intermediary. I'd say there were various possibilities. Maybe he was being funded by a foreign power or international crime syndicate that wanted access to the biological weapons he was researching. Or maybe the answer lies closer to home, maybe just a sociopathic drugs company wanting to test out dangerous experimental drugs without a lot of red tape."
"All interesting ideas, Ms Shepherd. But that's not constructive speculation, that's uninformed guesswork."
Masters was no easy ride.
"The police don't seem interested in catching him, that much is not guesswork. You want to tell me why?"
"You tell me."
"The police claim he doesn't exist. Officially they considered the evidence there was someone else involved and found it lacking. Someone inside the police force was either blackmailed or was paid off. And it has to be someone high up. And you have no evidence as to who that is, or you'd have acted against him already, you wouldn't be sat here talking to me right now..." she left the thought hanging.
"Keep going," Masters prompted.
"So you need another way to flush him out."
"Or her," Laura Shepherd acknowledged her mistake.
"The general public, of course, are more interested in vengeance than justice," she continued. "They like to see their enemies paraded through the streets and burned at the stake, the need for evidence and the process of law is a inconvenience when it comes to a lynching. And you know, Colonel, with public opinion as skewed against the police as it is right now, if they're told the police failed to investigate the existence of an accomplice, they won't be bothered by the need for evidence, they'll demand a witch hunt."
Masters remained silent.
Laura Shepherd worked it out. "And that's what you want, isn't it? For me to do your dirty work for you. You aren't here to deny any part of my story. You actually want me to publish."
"You might think that," Masters smiled a thin lipped smile. "I, of course, couldn't possibly comment."