It was ten minutes into the IT lesson when someone put up their hand to complain the computer had frozen up. Mr Rogers went over and tried to help, but soon more and more pupils begun having the same problem. Moments later every screen in the lab went blank, and skull and crossbones appeared along with the words: CAN YOU HACK IT?
This was not the first trouble to occur with the computer system at Woodsboro High. First someone had hacked into the student files and caused havoc by changing grades and medical details, and messing up timetables. Then there had been several incidents of school work being deleted, and now a virus had been uploaded into the network, wiping the hard drive and leaving the computers out of action.
As a team of technicians worked to repair and reboot the computers, down on Jump Street a team of young police officers looked over the case file.
“I want you on this Hanson,” Captain Fuller said, handing the paperwork to Tom. “Go in, hang around the lab, interact with the kids and find out if one of them is behind this.”
“Hanson: a computer geek?” Doug Penhall teased. “That could work!”
Tom ignored him and asked Fuller; “You think it’s one of the kids?”
“The principal does,” Fuller explained. “And he’s had it up to here.”
“I bet,” Judy Hoffman said, shaking her head. “Deleting their classmate’s work, tampering with permanent records? That’s low. Who would do a thing like that?”
“That’s what I’m gonna find out,” Tom replied.
By Monday morning Tom Hanson, or rather Tom Haddon was enrolled at Woodsboro High and heading for his first IT class. With the system down, computer theory lessons were temporarily replacing the regular ones. When he got to the classroom he introduced himself to Mr Roger, the head of the department.
“I’m kind of worried about joining so late in the semester. I’m not that good with computers at the best of times,” Tom explained, with a chuckle of embarrassment. “So could you pair me up with someone who can help me out?”
“Sure,” Mr Rogers smiled. “I’m glad to see that you take your schoolwork so seriously.”
Tom liked Rogers; he seemed like a good guy. He took Tom over to meet a student called Eddie, who he described as one of his best students. Eddie was seventeen, tall and lanky, with long brown hair and a cartoon-like grin.
“Hey man, how’s it going?” Tom asked, taking a seat.
“I’m good,” Eddie replied. “You just get into town, huh?”
“Yeah,” Tom said.
“Maybe I’ll introduce you to some people,” Eddie offered.
“Cool,” Tom thanked.
They were joined by another boy; he had black hair and deeply tanned skin, and was wearing a back-to-front baseball caps.
“Hey, any word on the computers yet?” He asked Eddie, as he sat down.
“No, not yet,” Eddie replied. Then he turned to Tom and said; “Let me introduce you to Sandman. Sandman this is Tom, the new guy.”
They exchanged hellos and then Tom asked; “How come they call you Sandman?”
“Because he’s always nodding off in classes,” Eddie explained, elbowing his friend in the ribs.
Sandman gave an excepting grin, and then he asked Eddie; “Is Alex in today?”
“No man; didn’t show again.”
“Alex doesn’t like computers?” Tom asked.
“Like them? Loves them!” Eddie explained. “Or rather they love Alex; totally computer whiz.”
“Alex could give these lessons,” Sandman bragged.
“Then why the no-show?” Tom said.
Eddie shrugged his shoulders; “Boredom, I guess,” he said. “Doesn’t want to waste time in these half-baked classes, isn’t interested in anything else at this school, thus, a no-show.”
“But won’t that mean a fail?” Tom asked.
“Alex; the high school dropout,” Eddie said. “Sadly, it has a ring to it.”
The class worked through textbook exercises for the whole lesson. Eddie and Sandman tried to explain it to Tom as he furrowed his brow at nearly every question, but they only ended up confusing him even more. By the end of the period his head was spinning.
“You really don’t know much about computers,” Sandman laughed, as the class started to pack away.
Tom let out a weary sigh, and admitted; “You’re not kidding. But you guys; you’re like pros!”
“It’s our thing,” Eddie said with a shrug. “Some guys go in for sports, some join the drama club, and we do this.”
“Is there a computer club here,” Tom asked. “Maybe I should sign up, learn some tips.”
“There’s no club,” Eddie said, shaking his head.
“Even if there was, it wouldn’t be much good at the moment,” Sandman added.
“The virus, yeah, I heard about that,” Tom said. “Pretty crazy, huh? How do you guys get your techno fix now their out of order? You got home computers?”
They nodded, but from the expression on both their faces, Tom sensed they thought it a strange question.
He did not press them for anymore information that day. Instead he concentrated on getting to know them both. It paid off, and a few days later, over lunch, he was invited to a house party.
“You can meet Alex,” Eddie said as they sat together in the canteen.
“Great,” Tom replied.
“Any suspects yet?” Fuller asked when Hanson reported back to headquarters.
“A few,” Tom replied. “There are two guys in the class who seem pretty sharp on their technical skills. They’re capable and they don’t seem impressed with the current IT teacher; maybe it’s their way of putting him through his paces.”
“Pretty twisted way,” Doug said with a snort.
“They also mentioned another guy; Alex. I haven’t met him yet, but from what I’ve heard, not only is he the resident bad-boy, he’s also some kind of a computer genius. Apparently so good he doesn’t feel the need to show up for classes on a regular basic!”
“Not a big fan of Woodsboro High?” Doug asked.
“Maybe he gets a kick out of screwing up the system, it’s not like he wants to use it himself. I’m meeting him tomorrow night.”
“Good work,” Fuller said. “Get close to this Alex and see what you can find out.”
Tom arrived early for school the next day, he wanted to drop by the computer lab and check it out. It was a square, sparse room with windows on the north side that looked out onto the staff car park. Fifteen computers lined the walls, and in the centre there was a table which held another ten. There was a bookshelf filled with computer manuals and theory textbooks, a couple of printers; it looked like every computer lab Tom had ever seen.
“So much for looking for clues,” he muttered.
He turned on one of the computers and it rumbled into life, but when the screen lit up it showed only a message from the hacker.
“Can you hack it?” Tom read aloud.
Who was the message to, and what did it mean? Can you hack it? Could who hack what?
“What are you doing in here?”
Tom spun around to see a short, bald man in a technician’s uniform, standing in the doorway. He came into the room, his face like thunder. He looked fierce for a man so small.
“The lab’s out of bounds! You kids have messed up these things enough already!” He said; pushing passed Tom and switching the screen off. “What were you doing?”
“Nothing,” Tom replied.
“Nothing,” the man mirrored, putting on a whiny, high-pitched voice.
Tom clutched his fist, trying to control his temper. Why did this guy feel he had the right to be so rude and disrespectful to people, just because they were students?
“Maybe you and me oughta pay a visit to the principal’s office?” The man threatened. “Look’s to me like I found the person responsible for all this.”
“I had nothing to do with it. I wasn’t even a student here until this week,” Tom replied. “I was just checking to see if they were up and running yet. I’m sorry, I’ll leave.”
Tom left the room and hurried to his first period. He met Eddie in the corridor.
“Hey Tom,” Eddie greeted him. “What’s up? You look like you’re about ready to swing for someone.”
“I just had a little run in with one of the technicians,” Tom replied.
“Let me guess,” Eddie said, with a knowing smile. “A short guy with no hair and really bad breath?”
“Sounds familiar,” Tom nodded.
“That’s Mr Marsh,” Eddie explained. “Don’t take it personally; he’s always on someone’s case. The teachers don’t even like him.”
“He didn’t strike me as a very likable guy,” Tom agreed.
“He knows his stuff though,” Eddie admitted. “No one knows more about the system, but they’ll never make him a teacher.”
“Let me guess why,” Tom said. “Poor people skills?”
Eddie laughed and said; “He’s living proof that you can know everything there is to know, but that don’t mean you can teach it to others.”
Tom nodded in agreement, as they filed into the classroom and headed to their desks.
Tom - dressed in jeans and a denim jacket over a black t-shirt – sat nursing a chocolate milkshake. He had arranged to meet Eddie and Sandman at eight, and they were ten minutes late. The diner, a run down little joint called ‘Fluke’, was three customers and two staff members away from being empty. Tom considered going home; maybe he had been ditched, or they had decided not to go, but just as he was about to get up and leave, he saw them walk in the door.
“Hey,” he beckoned them over.
They slid in opposite him and called over the waitress. They both ordered cokes and then Sandman asked Tom how he was.
“Looking forward to tonight,” Tom replied. “I still don’t know that many people in town.”
“You will after tonight,” Sandman said.
They all finished up their drinks, paid the bill and headed outside. Tom followed them down the street, asking; “How far is it?”
“Just at the end of this block,” Eddie replied.
Tom heard the party before he saw it; heavy rock music was blaring through the streets. A disturbance of the peace, he thought, in every sense of the word. There were kids hanging out on the front porch, and Eddie and Sandman greeted a few of them as they passed. Tom smile politely and inclined his head towards those who made an introduction.
When they were inside Eddie wanted to get a drink, while Sandman insisted on hitting the dance floor. All Tom could think about was meeting the infamous Alex. He waited twenty or so minutes, before bringing up the subject. By this time, Sandman was devoting all his attention to some giggly blonde called Nancy, and Eddie had completely disappeared from view.
“When do I get to meet Alex,” Tom called over the music.
“Huh?” Sandman said.
Tom repeated himself.
“Alex? Oh, I don’t know.”
Tom watched as Sandman whispered to Nancy.
“Alex?” She said. “Upstairs I think.”
“You alright on your own?” Sandman said.
Tom knew it would not matter either way; Sandman was not about to leave Nancy’s side. So he just gave a sarcastic smile, and replied; “Yeah, you two kids have fun.”
Tom managed to push his way through the living room and into the hall. As he went, he kept asking people if they had seen Alex, and finally found himself standing outside one of the bedrooms.
“Alex in there?” He asked one group of kids, who we clustered together just inside the doorway.
“Alex?” One guy called into the room.
”Yeah,” came a reply.
Tom did not know what he was expecting of Alex. Maybe he had some idea of a James Bond style villain, with a thick European accent, and a Persian cat sitting on his lap? Maybe he expected a weedy seventeen year old with glasses, greased back hair, and Star Trek posters on his walls?
Since he had been working at Jump Street, he had learnt not to prejudge situations, but as he looked down at Alex, sitting barefoot and backwards on a swivel chair, he realised he had prejudged this one. For starters he had assumed Alex was a guy.
“Hey,” she said, with a smile. “You Tom? Eddie said you were coming.”
She was sitting in front of a computer, in the process of shutting it down, and now she swung the chair around to face him. Her eyes were green, and her hair was jet black hair and cut in a close crop. It was a style that might have looked boyish and unflattering on another girl, but because she was so pretty, she carried off. It made her cute and funky looking, Tom thought to himself. Like a pixie with a punk twist.
“Hi,” Tom said. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“What?” She said, eying him suspiciously.
“That you’re some kind of a computer genius,” Tom replied, shifting nervously under her cat-like gaze.
She arched an eyebrow, and there was an uncomfortable silence as she looked him over, as if trying to figure him out.
“Want a soda?” She said finally, hopping up from her chair.
“Yeah, great,” he replied.
Like the rest of the house, the kitchen was crowded, and Tom had to push his way through the mass of talking, laughing, shouting kids. He lost sight of Alex somewhere near the microwave oven, and stood looking about the sea of faces, hoping to catch sight of her again. He felt a hand wrap around his wrist and pull him gently through the confusion, and then he was standing opposite her, pushed so close up that he could smell the scent of her shampoo clearly. She did not seem uncomfortable at all, and causally handed him his drink before yelling to him over the noise.
“What?” He called back.
“You wanna go somewhere we can hear each other!” She screamed.
They both laughed and then she took his hand and led him to the backdoor and out onto the patio.
It was starting to turn cold as the heat of the day was lost to darkness, but a few people were still hanging out in the garden, huddled together in small group, or paired off and making out. Tom followed Alex to a vacant swinging seat, and the two sat down and opened their cans.
Tom was not sure where to begin; it would be impossible to bring up the subject of the computer virus without it rousing her suspicion. He decided to wait for her to instigate conversation, deciding that he would just have to learn what he could about her, without asking too many direct questions.
“Enjoying the party?” She said, taking a sip of her soda.
“Yeah,” he replied, with a lop-sided grin. “It’s fun.”
She gave a contemptuous grunt.
“What were you doing up there,” he said. “Who comes to a party to play on a computer?”
She looked at him, the eyebrow arched again; “I wasn’t playing,” she said.
“What were you doing?” He asked carefully.
“What do you care?” She countered.
“Just wondering,” he said, with a shrug and a hurt look. “I was just asking a question. You know; making conversation. Jeez, you don’t have to be so touchy about it!”
“You’re cute when you’re cross,” she said, her mouth curling into a smile.
“Yeah?” Tom replied without even thinking. He tried to compose himself; flirting with your main suspect was not the appropriate course of action.
“I’m gonna go back inside,” she said, standing up. “It’s too cold.”
“You can borrow my jacket,” he offered.
“That’s okay, lets go find Eddie,” she replied.
He nodded and they went back inside, they pushed their way around for a few minutes, and finally found Eddie in the den and on a computer.
“If you spill anything on the keyboard, my dad’ll kill me,” a boy, obviously the host, was telling Eddie.
“Would you relax,” Eddie dismissed him.
“Why do you have to be on that thing now?” The host demanded.
“I work better surrounded by chaos,” Eddie replied, as somewhere off in another room there was the sound of breaking glass. “It gets my creative juices flowing.”
The host was on his way to the door, no doubt to investigate. “I don’t see why you can’t use my computer,” were his parting words, as he disappeared into the throng of the hallway.
“Cos Alex is on it!” Eddie called after him.
“No she isn’t,” Alex said, and Eddie glanced back at her and Tom, noticing their presence for the first time.
“Give up already,” Eddie scoffed.
“Hardly,” Alex replied.
“What you talking about?” Tom asked, feeling as if he had missed something.
“We had a little competition to see who could get inside the main database of Woodboro Bank,” Alex explained.
“You did it already?” Eddie said in disbelief.
“Like twenty minutes ago,” Alex said, cocking her head to the side.
“Unbelievable,” Eddie slammed his fists on the table. “I had one more security wall to break through and I was there!”
His head snapped towards Alex, he was pouting like a sulking child. Then suddenly the pout dissolved away, replaced by his comically grin.
“You are the undefeated champion,” Eddie laughed.
“Yes I am,” Alex teased.
“So you guys actually hacked into a bank?” Tom said.
“Well I did,” Alex replied, giving Eddie a playfully shove.
“Amazing,” Tom said, shaking his head softly. “So you actually get inside the bank, into peoples accounts and stuff?”
“I would have,” Eddie put on the spoiled boy act again. “If I had a few more hours.”
“So you guys could – I don’t know – say, transfer money from some rich guys account, into yours?”
Alex gave him a curious look, and said; “Theoretically; yes.”
“Have you ever done it?” Tom said. “You guys could get into anywhere, right? You have the world at your fingertips. Accounts, government files, it’s all up for grabs.”
Eddie gave a snort; “Don’t be an idiot,” he said. “That’s illegal.”
“Come on, you’ve never been tempted?” Tom pressed.
“It’s not like swiping a pack of smokes from the mall, or copying your Mother’s Milk album for a friend,” Alex said, as if explaining it to a toddler. “The government gets pretty pissed if you go hacking into their systems. They’d send you to the slammer and throw away the key.”
They could be lying, Tom thought. Maybe they did get their kicks causing chaos in cyberspace, but he got the impression that they were telling the truth. These were smart kids, they were not about to mess up their lives with a jail sentence. But maybe they would cause chaos for a bit of excitement; maybe in some light, the virus could be seen as a practical joke that got out of hand. The principal was threatening to have the guilty party arrested, but maybe it was a buff and the kids knew it.
He thought back to the hacker’s message: Can you hack it? Who was it to; the students at Woodsboro? Mr Rogers? Could Mr Rogers ‘hack’ being head of the department, was that the question? Tom already knew that Eddie, Sandman and Alex were not impressed with Mr Rogers’ technical abilities, but why would they want to sabotage their own computer lab? That was the only subject any of them seemed remotely interested in, so it did not make sense for them to do it. Then who had done it? Who had motive and means? Who was the hacker targeting? Perhaps it was some disgruntle school librarian, who was trying to ruin the digital encyclopaedia in a bid to force the students back into the library.
“How you guys getting on?” Eddie whispered to Tom, nodding towards Alex.
She had thrown her self, gracefully, across an armchair on the other side of the room, and was flicking through a PC magazine.
“Okay,” Tom said with a shrug. “She seems nice.”
“I think she likes you,” Eddie said, elbowing him playfully.
Tom could not stop a small chuckle escaping his lips; he would never get use to teen crushes and locker room gossip. It had been unappealing first time round and now it seemed beyond puerile.
“You think?” He said.
“Yeah man,” Eddie said with a nod. “What do you think?”
“She’s pretty cute,” Tom admitted, glancing over. “But I’m not looking to hook up with anyone right now,” he added, feeling guilty for being attracted to her.
When Tom arrived at IT class the following day, he was pleasantly surprised to see Alex sitting with Eddie and Sandman.
“Hi,” Tom greeted them all, taking a seat next to Alex.
The lesson began; Tom become confused, Alex rolled her eyes at the easiness of it all, Eddie cracked jokes, and Sandman nodded off.
Tom was impressed by the depth of Alex’s intellect; she finished her work in no time and then set about helping him do his. He listened intently, relieved to finally have someone make sense of it all.
After the lesson, he said goodbye to his friends and started to make his way to his next class. He passed through the corridor that led to the computer lab, and he could not help taking a look inside. Through the door’s window he could see it was empty, the shades were pulled down and the lights were all out. Maybe he would take another look around, while the coast was clear.
“What you doing?”
Tom recognised Alex’s voice right away. He turned to see her looking up at him, her pretty head cocked to the side, her cat-eyes watching him carefully.
“I’m sneaking into the computer lab,” Tom replied. “You see, there’s a girl waiting in there for me; Nancy – do you remember Nancy, from the party last night?”
Alex laughed, and then said; “Yeah, I heard she was hot for you. You guys got a little make-out session planed?”
“Yeah,” Tom replied, trying his best to keep a straight face.
“Seriously, what you up to?” Alex whispered, hurrying over to join him.
“I just wanted to take a look,” Tom replied, opening the door and slipping inside.
He looked at her through the window, as her eyebrow shot up in the endearing way it did. He pushed the door open again and taking her hand, he asked; “You coming?” He pulled her inside, and the two ducked down so they could not be seen from outside.
“This is so dumb,” she said.
“I just want to take a look,” Tom replied, with a shrug. “It burns me that I’m learning all these new computer skills and I haven’t actually got to use any of them yet.”
Tom moved to the back of the room and switched on one of the computers. The familiar message came on.
“Can you hack it?” Alex read. “Cute.”
“How long do you think until they’re up and running again?” Tom asked.
Alex shrugged; “Depends.”
Tom heard the click of the doorknob and pulled Alex down under the central table, with him. They crouched in the gloom, listening as someone came inside.
“Who’s there, I know someone is!”
“Not this guy again,” Tom muttered, recognising Mr Marsh’s voice.
“I’ll go out, you keep your head down until we’ve gone,” Alex whispered to him.
“No,” Tom replied, in a hushed snap.
“Look,” Alex replied. “It’s your first week, this isn’t gonna look good. What do I have to loose? Nothing.”
“Is that what you really think?” Tom could not believe his ears. “Alex you have everything going for you.”
“Come out!” Mr Marsh snapped as he switched on the light.
“Stay down,” Alex instructed, and kissed Tom on the mouth.
He was so taken back, he did not stop her as she stood and went out to confront Mr Marsh. He listened as Mr Marsh ordered her outside, muttering about damned kids all the way. The light went back out and the door closed, leaving Tom listening to the low hum of the computer.
Tom could not even pretend to concentrate. He drifted through the rest of the day, wondering about Alex and how much trouble she would be in. She was certainly capable of unleashing a virus on the computer system; it would look very suspicious for her to be hiding in the computer lab. He felt sick to think of her being expelling when he was so sure that she was innocent. Then there was the kiss. He would be in an enormous amount of trouble himself, if anyone found out.
As the bell to his last class rang, Tom climbed wearily from his desk and walked mindlessly out into the buzzing corridor. Then he saw Alex, stood at her locker, loading her bag up with books. He felt a wave of relief; she had not been expelled after all. She caught sight of him and smiled warmly.
“Hey,” he said. “You’re still standing then.”
“Yeah,” Alex said. “I had to go to the principal and explain why I was in an out-of-bounds area, though.” She laughed.
“You wanna go to Fluke for a bite to eat,” Tom asked her, leaning against the lockers.
“I can’t, I got a detection to get to. I interred with the computer lab,” Alex said, with a contemptuous giggle. “That is a detection-able offence.”
“Alex, no way! It was all my idea!” Tom protested. “I’ll go explain it was my fault.”
“No it’s fine,” Alex replied.
“No it’s not,” Tom argued. “I’m not gonna let you take the fall for me.”
His stomach did a somersault as she took hold of his arm, and then she told him; “Look, if you tell them you did it then they’ll keep you here, and they’ll still keep me here for lying about it, and then no-one will go to Fluke, and Fluke will go out of business, and do you really want that on your conscious?”
Tom could not help laughing.
“But you owe me a burger, okay?” She added, squeezing his arm.
“Absolutely,” he replied, softly.
He watched her walked off down the corridor.
“Hey!” He called after her.
She glanced back.
“How long you in for?” He asked.
“Til six o’clock,” Alex replied.
“That’s uncanny! That is exactly the time I was thinking about walking by the front entrance,” Tom said. “If I happen to see you, maybe I can walk you home.”
Alex’s lips curled into a smile, and she nodded her head.
At six o’clock Tom was sitting on the stone steps outside the school entrance, waiting for Alex. He heard the doors open behind him and a moment later she was sitting next to him.
“You want to come over and hang out tonight?” She asked.
He looked at her, knowing he shouldn’t, and said; “I don’t know.”
“Come on,” she said. “We’ll rent a video, pop some corn. I’ll even let you pick the movie. Not the popcorn though, I must remain firm on the popcorn. I like salty, not sweet.”
Tom laughed, and before he could stop himself he had said; “Okay, sounds great.”
They walked together, first to the video store, then to the apartment block where Alex lived with her older sister.
“This is home,” she said, as she turned the key in the lock.
The door opened into a kitchenette, with wooden cupboards hanging from it walls. A small breakfast bar with two stools tucked underneath; separated if from the living room, which was decorated in soft blues and pale greens. There was a couch and armchair pointed towards a portable television, and a window with a pot plant sitting on its sill. Three more doors, one on the north wall and two on the west, Tom guessed, led into bedrooms and a bathroom.
“It’s nice,” Tom said. He turned to watch her pull a bag of popcorn from one of the cupboards. “I’ll make it,” he said. “I’m an expert.”
Alex laughed, then told him; “I’ll ready our viewing area.”
Tom watched her prance through to the living room, where she moved a cushion from one side of the sofa, to the other.
“It’s ready!” She called out.
He laughed, turning on the hob and putting the popcorn onto heat. Ten minutes later, the smoke detector sounded, confirming that it was well and totally ruined. As Tom apologised repeated, Alex shuffled through the rest of the cupboards, searching for a snap replacement. They settled on a bag of potato chips and a half empty pot of salsa dip that she found in the fridge.
After the movie was over and the chips were all gone, they sat cross-legged on the floor, their backs to the sofa, talking about nothing in particular. Tom kept telling himself he would make an excuse and leave, just as soon as he could.
“Where’s your sister tonight?” He asked.
“She works late most nights,” Alex replied. “Gotta pay the rent.”
“What about your parents?” Tom asked.
“They passed away. When I was little,” she explained.
Tom was quiet for a moment, then he said; “My dad died too.”
He regretted it the moment it left his lips. What was he thinking, disclosing personal information like that? He could end up blowing his whole cover!
“How?” Alex asked.
He knew he should make something up, but he just could not bring himself to lie to her. There had been enough of that already.
“He was a cop and he was killed on duty,” he told her.
“Sorry,” she said.
“Me too,” he replied. “I can’t imagine losing my mum too. You’re so brave.”
She let out a bitter laugh.
“What?” He said.
“Nobody’s ever called me brave before,” she said.
“Well you are,” Tom replied. “You’re wonderful.”
He could not stop himself now, the words just spilled from his lips.
“You have so much going for you; you’re beautiful and smart, and funny.”
He saw her blush, and it was as if someone had shaken him from a dream. He was filled with a sudden urgently to get out of there. Glancing across at the clock on the VCR, he saw it was nearly three in the morning.
“Jeez, I better get going,” he said, scrambling to his feet. “This was really fun though.”
He pulled on his jacket.
“I guess I’ll see you in school.” Alex said.
“Yeah,” Tom replied, giving a lop-sided grin.
When Tom got to school on Monday morning, there was a near-riot going on in the corridor. A crowd of kids and staff members had gathered around, and as he got closer, Tom saw Alex, Eddie and the Principal were at the centre of it.
“This is bull, man!” Eddie shouted at the principal.
“If you don’t moderate your behaviour and your language, you will find yourself in hot water too!” The principal said crossly. “This is a very serious matter Ms Tyler.”
“I didn’t do it!” Alex shouted back.
“What’s going on?” Tom demanded.
“Tom,” Alex looked at him, a mixture of fear and hope in her eyes.
“They’re trying to pin this virus thing on Alex,” Eddie said. All trance of good humour had left him, and his voice was filled with anger and disgust.
Tom heard a cry from behind the principal, and for the first time he noticed Mr Marsh, face flushed in fury, jabbing a finger in the air. “She did it!” He was shouting.
“I caught her red-handed,” he continued.
“No,” Alex replied, her voice cracking, revealing traces of raw emotion.
Mr Marsh came to wave his finger in her face, shouting; “You’ve done it this time, Tyler. I always knew you were a good-for-nothing!”
“That’s enough!” Tom bellowed, stepping in between them.
“Mr Marsh,” the principal said, clearly trying to calm the man. “Let’s take a step back and talk about this rationally.”
“What’s to talk about?” Mr Marsh shouted.
Tom did not move from his protective position in front of Alex, and he felt he hands creep up to clutch his waist. He could hear she had started to cry.
“You are such a loser!” Eddie shouted at Mr Marsh. “You come out here, shouting accusations, upsetting everyone, claiming you got proof. Well what damn proof!”
“I found her in the lab on Friday afternoon,” Mr Marsh said with a sneer. “Took her to the principal.”
“Yes,” the principal confirmed.
“When I went to look at the computers this morning there was a virus in the system.”
“I don’t know if you noticed,” Eddie said. “But it’s been like that for a while now!”
“No it hasn’t,” Mr Marsh continued. “Because I fixed them on Friday. They were fine before she went in there.”
He was lying. It hit Tom like a thunder bolt.
“You’re lying,” he spoke it for everyone to hear.
“Excuse me?” Mr Marsh sneered.
“I was there that afternoon,” Tom said. “I saw what state those computers were in, you saw it too.”
“Idiot boy,” Mr Marsh replied dismissively.
“Why are you lying? Why are you trying to blame Alex? What do you have to hide Mr Marsh?”
“This is outrageous,” Mr Marsh shouted, but Tom recognised a guilty look when he saw one.
“Do you really think people will take your word over mine?” Mr Marsh said.
“I love this part,” Tom shot back with a smirk, as he reached for his badge.
“So the technician did it,” Doug Penhall said, stretching his legs out on Captain Fuller’s desk.
“Yeah,” replied Tom, watching as Fuller knocked Doug’s feet back onto the floor.
“Apparently he was less than thrilled when Mr Rogers was made head of the department, and he was overlooked.”
“Can you blame them?” Fuller replied, dryly.
“He’d have made a lousy teacher,” Tom agreed. “Poor people skills.”
“Well at least you can stop being a computer geek now,” Doug said. “And go back to being just the regular kind.”
Tom knew he would be in trouble if Fuller found out, but the following week he returned to Woodsboro and made his way to the newly restored computer lab. He looked hopefully around the room, searching for Alex. When he saw Eddie and Sandman, he gave them a shy wave. Both boys blanked him, returning their attention back to the screens.
“Hey,” Tom said. “How’s it going?”
They ignored him.
“Come on guys,” Tom pleaded. “I was just doing my job.”
“And now you’ve done it,” Eddie said. “So you can get the hell out of here.”
It was useless arguing with them, Tom realised. If they did not want to talk to him, he could not make them. But he had one final question.
“No-show,” Sandman replied.
Tom’s heart sank. Had he made any difference in these kids’ lives? Had it all been a waste?
Just as he reached the door, he heard Eddie call after him.
“Yeah?” He said, turning back.
Eddie and Sandman looked at him for a moment, then Sandman said; “You really don’t know much about computers.”
Tom let out a weary sigh, and admitted; “You’re not kidding. But you guys; you’re like pros!”
“It’s our thing,” Eddie replied, the slightest hint of his cartoon-smile, showing on his lips.
Outside the school entrance, Tom sat on the stone steps and looked about the grounds. He had caught the bad guy, so why did he feel like he had lost? He heard the doors open behind him and a moment later someone had come to sit next to him.
“Hey,” Alex said.
“Hey,” Tom replied, a smile creeping across his lips. “I was looking for you.”
“I’ve moved classes,” Alex explained. “Starting this Wednesday, I’m going to the college three times a week to do an advanced computer course.”
“That’s great,” Tom beamed.
“I’m also tutoring some kids,” she added. Then she asked; “How come you’re here?”
“To say goodbye. I went to see the guys,” Tom said, jabbing his thumb back at the school. “They were pretty mad. I guess people don’t like to think they’ve been lied to.”
He paused for a moment, wondering if he really wanted the answer to the question that was forming in his mind.
“Are you mad at me?” He asked.
She shook her head and smiled.
“So you didn’t tell me your real last name,” she said, with a shrug. “You can’t fake the good person that you are. When we were hanging out, when we were talking; that was real.”
“It was,” Tom said firmly, looking her straight in the eye.
“You’re still the guy who walked me home and burnt the popcorn,” they both laughed and then she said; “I knew who you really were.”
He stared at her, surprised. Was that a figure of speech, or was there more implied in the way she was looking at her? Then he remembered his own words to her: ‘You have the world at your fingertips’. He had been beyond stupid; Alex could get inside any computer system.
“How long have you known?” He asked.
“Mmmm…” her eyes looked towards the sky, her tongue curling up and out of the corner of her mouth, as she pondered the question. “The day after we first meet,” she admitted.
“That long?” Tom said in disbelief. He closed his eyes and pressed his fingers against the lids.
“Yeah,” she replied.
He shook his head and let out a chuckle.
“You know,” he said opening his eyes. “Hacking into police personal files is illegal. Someone who did that would get into a lot of trouble.”
Alex looked at him with a perplexed expression.
“Who would do a thing like that?” She said innocently.
“Certainly not you,” he replied, with a sarcastic smile. “You’re just an excellent judge of character.”
“Call it woman’s intuition,” she said with a smirk.
“I guess this is the part where you leave, huh?” She put on a booming, theatrical voice and added; “More teens to save, more mysteries to solve.”
“Well Officer Hanson,” she said thoughtfully. “It was nice knowing you.”
She reached out to shake his hand and Tom felt like hugging her, kissing her on the cheek even, but decided it would be inappropriate. It was best to leave it like this and not dwell on things too deeply, he thought.
“Bye Alex,” he said, flashing his lop-sided grin at her, and realising it was probably for the last time. “Take care.”
“You too.” And with that she turned and went back into the school.
Iris held the copy of ‘Everybody Drops The Dime’ close to her chest, as she walked along the country lane. Every so often, she opened it up and took a look at the author’s picture; black and white, Mort Rainey wearing a wide brimmed hand, his hands folded beneath his handsome face.
This was the revised edition, with the re-edited version of the title short story. She had the original, of course, but the ending in this new copy was even better; it was perfect. Mort had faced much criticism over it; those no-good reviewers had claimed he was cheating his fans. They said he was a medico writer who got lucky, and now, unable to produce anything new, was prolonging his career by recycling his old stuff.
These comments made Iris angry; the rumours about his private life had upset her even more. She would tell him how it hurt her to hear the lies people told. She would tell him that she trusted, and believed in him. Most of all, she would tell him that she was in love with him.
In her mind she saw them cradled in each others arms, locked in a passionate kiss. She would take care of him; bring him cups of coffee while he worked on the new book that she knew he had in him. She would fix his meals, run his bath, slip in next to him and make love by candle light. She would go with him into town, ignoring the suspicious eyes of the local people. They would wander through thrift stores, and he would buy her anything she desired, because he loved her, like she loved him.
When she reached the house, (she knew it because she had seen it on the News on television), she decided to take a look around before going in.
The garden was wild and overgrown. The grass reached up her slender calves, the flower beds were chocked by weeds, it would need her attention first. Scanning the ground, she saw only a spade, she would need to go into town and pick up a few gardening tools. The house was in good condition, though it could do with a coat of paint, she would start pestering Mort to do something about it. She smiled to herself.
“Can I help you?”
Iris turned to see him standing on the back porch; “Mort,” she smiled.
“Yes?” He said. “I’m Mort Rainey, and you are?”
“Iris,” she said, walking towards him. She saw him back away, and so asked; “What’s wrong?”
“Why are you here?” said Mort, and then seeing the book in her hands; “You want me to sign that for you?”
“Let me just get a pen,” he said, glancing at her over his shoulder as he went back into the house.
Iris followed him and found him in the living room, searching through a sideboard draw. He jumped a little when he saw her.
“Here,” he said reaching for the book. He signed the inside cover, handed it back; “There you go.”
“Thank-you,” Iris hugged the book tightly to her chest. “Thank-you, so much.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, smiling awkwardly. They stood in silence for some time, their eyes locked, until he finally said; “Well, I’m sure you need to be getting on.”
“Yes,” Iris said, suddenly remembering the garden. She stepped towards him; noticed his body tense up as she kissed his cheek. “You get some work done,” she smiled.
Iris walked back along the country lane to her car. She spent over half an hour looking at the signature, running her fingers over the page. Then she drove into town and spend the rest of the afternoon looking around the shops. She picked up some things for the garden; a lawnmower, a trowel, some plants, a small cherry blossom tree, and a stone bird bath. She also bought some new underwear; black lace, and when she got back to the car, she opened the trunk and put them into her suitcase along with the rest of her clothes.
Night was approaching by the time she reached the house. Not wanting to walk alone in the twilight, she parked in Mort’s drive.
Looking through the window, she saw him asleep on the couch, his back to her. She got the lawnmower out of her car, and in the failing light, she began work. She cut the grass, and picked out a spot for the bird bath, lugging it into place. She planted the flowers she had bought, as well as the tree, which was little more than a twig, but would flourish and blossom, she was sure.
When it was finished, exhausted, she crawled into the back seat of her car, covered herself up with a blanket, and drifted off to sleep; satisfied with a job well done.
Iris was woken the next morning by someone banging on the car window. Frightened, she sat up, but on seeing Mort’s bemused face staring in at her, she relaxed. Winding down the window, she said; “Morning honey.”
“Did you do this?” He said, pointing at the garden.
“Do you like it?” Iris said. “I worked really hard on it.”
“Why?” He said shaking his head.
“Because it needed doing,” Iris shrugged her shoulders.
“You had no right to do this,” Mort said. “You had no business noising around!”
“What do you mean ‘noising around’,” Iris said, confused.
Mort lean in through the window and, in a low voice, said; “You shouldn’t have been digging up my garden.”
“I was just trying to make it nice for you,” Iris said, she could feel the upset rising inside her.
“If I want my lawn mowed, or a tree planted, or anything on my property made ‘nice’,” Mort said with a twisted smile. “I’ll do it myself. Thank-you.”
“I’m sorry,” Iris said, and she began to cry.
Climbing into the front seat, she started the engine and drove away.
Once she was out of the drive and down the road, she screeched the car to a haut, folded her arms on the steering wheel, lay her head against them, and wept.
She did not understand why he had reacted like that. Didn’t he love her? She didn’t know what to do; if Mort didn’t want her, life wasn’t worth living. She let out a tortured scream, and cried harder, squeezing her eyes, her head beginning to throb.
Suddenly, Mort was there at the window again, rapping softly on the glass this time. She hesitated before winding down the window.
“Look,” he said, calmer now; more tender. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I was just trying to help,” Iris wailed.
“Okay, okay,” he said quickly, then he made a ‘ssshhhh’ sound. Reaching through the window, he placed his hand on her shoulder. “Please stop crying.”
“I can’t! You’re mad with me,” Iris chocked on the words, her breathing coming in hurried, sharp gasps.
“No, no I’m not,” Mort said, and he made the ‘ssshhhh’ sound again and he rubbed her shoulder. “Look,” he said again. “I’m very grateful that you enjoyed my book and I’m sure that this… gesture,” he pointed back towards his house. “Makes some kind of sense in you’re own head, but I just wanna be left alone. Please, please don’t get upset, but please, please stay out of my garden.” He turned to go.
As he was walking away, Iris climbed out and called after him; “I don’t believe any of the things there saying… about Amy!”
Mort stopped, turned around; “I asked you politely to leave me alone,” he snapped.
“You don’t mean that!” Iris said. “I know you don’t. I can see you’re hurting, why won’t you let me help you?”
“I don’t need any help, and I don’t want to have to call the cops; so please.” He walked away.
“Mort! Please, don’t shut me out!”
He kept walking.
Iris checked into a motel. The room was small, with a red carpet and cream walls. She flicked through the television channels, then decided to take a bath. As she sat submerged in the hot water, she thought of Mort; his handsome face with it’s high cheekbones and five o’clock shadow, his endearingly scruffy hair, and his piecing, dark eyes. She would make herself presentable, have a good night’s rest, clean herself up, and then she would try again in the morning.
She felt so sad; Mort had been through so much, he had built up so many defences. She would make him see that he could love again, and trust again, and be happy again. She had worked so hard for this; she was no longer the fat, spotty seventeen year old she had been a year ago. The plain undesirably who spent all her time living in books because no-one in the real world wanted to know her. She had slimmed down, worked out to get a body she could be proud of. Revelled in the excitement of walking down the street and catching men staring at her. She had her hair cut and dyed, changing her from a lank and forgettable brunette to a sleek and sexy blonde, because she was sure that Mort preferred blondes. She was sure he found her attractive, even if he had tried to hide it.
Yes, she thought, smiling to herself. She would get up early and go back to his and plan the next step from there.
Mort came out of his house at around noon, and Iris followed him as he drove to New London. He was dressed in a brown V-neck sweater, over a white t-shirt and jeans. His hair, the blonde tips, stuck out from beneath a black beanie, and on his feet were a pair of beaten up boots; scratched and worn. He went to a grocery store first, and came out carrying two brown paper bags back to the car. Then he wandered about the thrift shops; just looking, not buying. He had coffee at a small café, sitting at an outdoor table, eating a pastry with it, and reading the paper.
It was while he was in the video rental shop that he caught sight of Iris. She ducked behind one of the stands, and watched him through gaps between the shelves. He didn’t come over to her, didn’t even look her again, and she began to wonder if he had actually seen her, or if she had imagined it.
Mort finished browsing, and made his way out of the store. Iris waited a few moments before straightening up and heading for the door. She wondered where he was going next. It was a shame he hadn’t rented anything; it would have been interesting to see what movies he was into. Never mind, there was plenty of time to find out all that kind of stuff.
It was as Iris was leaving the store, that she was pulled into an alleyway and pushed against the wall.
“Why are you following,” Mort demanded.
“I just want to see where you were going,” Iris said.
“Just wanted to see where I was going?” Mort repeated. “Stay the hell away from me!”
He stormed off.
Iris went back to her car, then she drove back to Mort’s. She decided to give him some time to cool off, and to speak to him when he got home. He did not come home for another two hours, and went he did, he did not seem any calmer.
Striding up to the car, he pulled open the door, leant inside, and said; “Lady, who are you? Why are you trying so hard to piss me off?”
“I’m not,” she said.
“I beg to differ,” said Mort.
“I don’t get what the problem is,” she said. “I did my hair nice, my make-up, my outfit. Don’t you find me attractive?”
“What?” Mort said, his face dropping.
“Don’t you want me?” She said, reaching out and stroking his cheek. He was silent for a while, staring at her, then his eyes widened, like he was waking from a dream, or a trance.
“Lady, you’re fucking crazy; digging up my garden in the middle of the night, following me round town, sitting outside my house. I just want you to leave me alone. I don’t know what the hell is going on in your head, but if this is how you try to pick up guys, I think you need a new approach. Normal people go out for drinks.”
“Would you like to go for a drink?” Iris said, trying her best to please him.
He let out a wearily sigh, shaking his head he said; “Don’t come back here again.” He slammed the door shut, then skulked into the house.
Iris went back to the motel.
Over the next few days, she sent Mort letters telling him how much she loved him, how she would wait until he was ready to be in a relationship again. He never sent anything back, but she knew he got them because she hand delivered each one and watched him through the sitting room window as he read them.
She was overwhelmed by the kind of passion she could provoke in him. The kind of heat she caused to serge through his veins, making him explode in such a tremendous way.
One afternoon, having just received another letter, without even opening it, he overturned his coffee table and knocked over a floor lamp. He ripped up the letter, and Iris breath caught in her throat. Then he paced the sitting room, glancing over at the letter from time to time. Finally he picked up the lamp and the table and sat down to reconstruct the letter. Piece by piece he fitted it together and read it.
After six days, and six letters, Iris drove up to Mort’s house just as night was drawing in. She looked in the window to see him asleep on the couch. She went into the garden and wandered about, admiring the work she had done. Time passed, and Mort came out to join her; he was dressed in jeans and a green t-shirt.
Iris gasped as he seized hold of her waist, pulled her against him and pushed his mouth down hard on hers. His hands groped cruelly at her curves, reached between her legs, tore at her clothes, forced her against the wall of the house. His lips snapped at the flesh of her neck, his fingers dug inside of her, brutal and shameless.
“You’re hurting me,” she said.
He covered her mouth with his hand, the fingers of his other hand still inside her. He was fast and ruthless, but still her body responded. She felt the rush of hot waves, banishing all inhibition, so that she found her brain screaming out for more; never stop, never let go, you can do what ever you want to me, I’m yours. Then it was over, and she was giddy, and her legs felt shaky, giving out beneath her.
Mort let go, and she slide to the ground, crawling away on hands and knees. Then he was behind her, unzipped, mounting her in an animalistic frenzy. She listened to him grunt and groan, over and over again; one hand gripping her breast, the other tangled in her hair, pulling at it until she whimpered.
When he was finished, Iris lay curled up on the grass listening to him panting. She looked at him; he was sprawled out on the ground, his eyes shut, one hand resting on his chest, as it rose and fell rapidly, the other was pressed to his forehead.
“I warned you not to come back here,” he said in a slurred mumble.
Iris moved over to lay beside him, wrapped her arms around him; he opened his eyes, turned his head towards her.
“Why are you doing this?” He said. “Why do you keep haunting me?”
“We’re meant to be together,” she said.
She stroked his hair, and then traced the lip of his mouth with her finger.
“You must see that, you must have felt it when we made love.”
“That wasn’t making love,” he laughed.
“Oh Mort, why do you keep resisting this. Why can’t you just except it. I know that Amy…”
“Don’t you say her name!” he warned.
“Oh Mort,” she said again. “She hurt you so much, didn’t she? And now you have to deal with all the rumours, all the gossip.”
Mort got to his feet and zipped himself up.
“Get dressed,” he said. “Then go away.”
Iris stood up, threw her arms around his shoulders and kissed at his lips. He kissed back but then pushed her away. She went at him again, and again he kissed her, then pushed her away, this time shouting; “No!” She watched as he stretched his jaw in an alarming fashion.
“I believe you, trust you!” She said. “I love you.”
“Fuck off!” He shouted.
“No, Mort!” She grabbed at him. “Please! I’ll do anything!”
He had picked up the spade now, the one she had seen in the garden earlier, and he used it to try and warn her off.
“Mort, I need you, we’re supposed to be together.”
“Listen you stupid bitch,” he said. “I don’t want you, need you and I certainly don’t love you.” His jaw stretched again, and then he smiled.
“I know you had nothing to do with her disappearance,” Iris said.
“Yes I did!” he said, the twisted smile playing on his lips.
“Then I forgive you,” Iris cried out; none of it mattered, she just wanted to be with him.
“I killed her,” Mort said.
“I forgive you,” Iris said again.
“Listen to me, bitch! I killed her, and now I’m gonna kill you.”
Iris ducked as he swung the spade at her head. She threw her body against him, and they both tumbled to the ground. He lost his grip on the spade and she straddled his waist, slapping him hard across the face, three times. He struggled, bucking his body as he tried to throw her off. His hips rolled, over and over again, and she felt the familiar excitement rise up between them.
His hands reached out to squeeze her. She unzipped his pants and pushed herself down around him, grinding her hips against his. She came twice, and when he came, he stretched his jaw as he had before, then lay panting, his hands roaming across her skin. She smiled as she watched him admiring her body in the moonlight, his fingertips fluttering across her flesh. His hands ran down her back, around her buttocks, and he gave five steady, stinging smacks. He grinned, his arms fell back into the grass above his head, she felt his body relax, and he closed his eyes. She picked up the spade and hit him in the head, twice, to make sure he was out cold.
Mort didn’t wake up until late in the afternoon of the following day. By then Iris had tied him to the bed.
She made him sandwiches, and opened the window to let in some fresh air.
“Hello Sweetheart,” she said. “Did you sleep well?”
“Let me go,” he said, tugging at his restraints.
“But you tried to kill me,” Iris said; she was still a little upset about the whole thing.
“And I’ll fucking do it again it you don’t untie me,” he grinned manically.
“Oh Mort, why don’t you just calm down? Look, I brought your laptop in here so you can get some work done.”
She pointed to where she had put it on the bed, next to him.
“How am I gonna type if my fucking hands are tied up?” He said, the manic smile still on his lips.
“Well, you say it out loud and I’ll type it for you,” she said.
She settled on the edge of the bed, and when she had given Mort a bite of one of the sandwiches, she switched on the computer and opened a new document.
“Come on,” she said. “How does the story begin?”
Mort pushed his head back against his pillow. His eyes roamed across the ceiling as if the words were written there, waiting to be spoken aloud. He glanced at her, pressed his lips together; thinking.
“Okay,” he said, after some time. “I’ve got it. Iris held the copy of ‘Everybody Drops The Dime’ close to her chest, as she walked along the country lane.”
Hours later, as they lay side-by-side in the grass, sweat and spent-love sticking to their naked bodies, Ichabod asked; “Do you think the hotel is haunted?”
“I don’t know,” Katrina said, “Eleanor seems convinced. What do you think?”
“You know I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“After everything you’ve seen?” Katrina questioned. “Are you sure you don’t believe?”
“I’m certain,” Ichabod replied.
“Are you always so certain of everything,” Katrina asked.
“Let’s not start all that again,” Ichabod sighed. “Come here, and let me sample your charms!”
Back at the hotel, Ichabod returned to the bedroom to change. As he buttoned his shirt his eyes fell on Katrina’s sketch of the hotel and he smiled.
“Quite lovely,” he said to himself. “But there is a mistake… or is there?”
His eyes continued to stare, as the wheel of his mind turned faster and faster.
Downstairs in the study Ichabod found Masbeth, his trusted apprentice; speaking to a man he had not met before.
“Hello,” Ichabod said. “I’m Ichabod Crane.”
“Marshall Green,” the man replied.
“You’re out of bed,” Ichabod smiled.
“Yes, I’m much better thank-you. My wife and I are going home this evening.”
“Well I wish you a pleasant journey,” Ichabod said. “Masbeth, can I please speak with you?”
Masbeth nodded, pushed back his chair and followed Ichabod out into the hallway.
“Masbeth, I need you to be my look out,” Ichabod whispered.
“Your look out?”
“Shhh! Yes, I need to go in somewhere, and look around someplace, and find something. And I need you to keep a watch for anyone coming.”
“You’re not going to get us throw out like you did in Texas, are you?”
“This is nothing like Texas,” Ichabod snapped back in a hush. He began climbing the staircase, and said; “Now no more questions, I have a theory to check out and not much time to spare.”
Twenty minutes later, Ichabod and Masbeth where back in the hallway.
“Gather everyone together,” Ichabod told Masbeth. “I think I’ve solve the case of the ghostly footsteps!”
Another twenty minutes later, Ichabod, Masbeth, Katrina, Frank, Eleanor, Rebecca, Marshall and Mr White were all gathered in the hallway.
“What’s this all about,” Mr White demanded. “Your son says you know where my silver is.”
Ichabod rolled his eyes.
“And you know about the ghost!” Eleanor wailed. “Did you see it?”
“No,” Ichabod replied. “And we aren’t going up there on a ghost hunt. We’re going outside, come along.”
At the back of the hotel there were a number of hay bundles, and as the group watched, Ichabod began digging through them; pushing them aside to expose the wall behind.
“What on earth are you doing?” Mr White scoffed. “Hunting for a needle?”
“Actually,” Ichabod replied, feeling his fingers press against cold metal, “I’m hunting for treasure.”
With a gentle pull he recovered a silver goblet from the depths of the hay stack.
“My silver,” Mr White gasped, pushing passed the others and snatching it from Ichabod. “It’s all here,” he confirmed, “hidden behind the hay; my missing money as well!”
“Oh Ichabod, how ever did you know?” Katrina smiled, her eyes dancing with adoring pride.
“Come,” Ichabod said, heading back into the hotel, “I rather suspect the answer is the attic.”
Eleanor refused to venture into the attic, so Ichabod asked Katrina to take her back to her room and stay with her. The rest of them, each armed with a candle, disappeared one by one up the ladder and into the dark space above.
“They shouldn’t be up there,” Eleanor said, as she sat at the foot of her bed, fingers picking nervously at her skirt.
“Ichabod will keep them safe,” Katrina assured her. “I promise.”
“Mr Green shouldn’t be going up there,” Eleanor continued as if she wasn’t listening. “Not with his leg still healing.”
“He seemed to manage it just fine,” Katrina replied, trying her best to put the woman at ease.
“And an old man like Mr White, and a young woman like Rebecca, and my Frank, with his heart, no, no, they shouldn’t be up—“
The woman’s voice caught in her throat, as both her and Katrina’s head snapped upwards.
“Oh Lord,” she gasped.
Step, scrap, step, scrap, step, scrap, step, scrap…
“It’s the ghost!” Eleanor cried; her eyes still wide and fixed on the ceiling.
Katrina tore out of the bedroom and down the hallway.
“Ichabod!” She called, racing towards the ladder.
“Katrina, no,” Eleanor begged, chasing after her. “It’ll get you as well!”
Katrina didn’t listen; she would sooner face a thousand ghosts than not run to the aid of her dear beloved.
She felt Eleanor’s hands around her ankle, urging her back down the ladder, but she resisted.
“Oh my Frank,” she heard Eleanor wail from below.
Moments later, Eleanor was on the ladder as well, climbing and eager to check on her own husband. The two of them scrabbled mindlessly up and up, finally heaving themselves through the hole in the ceiling and collapsing in a tangled heap on the floor.
“What’s this fuss here,” Mr White demanded, looking down at the pair of near-hysterical women.
Katrina and Eleanor began to calm themselves as they noticed their husbands, fine and fit, approaching with concern on their faces. They were followed by Rebecca and…
Step, strap, step, strap…
“Mr Green!” Katrina and Eleanor said together.
“The sound of him stepping and then dragging his broken leg, that’s the noise that Eleanor was hearing!”
Katrina noticed the proud smile on Ichabod face and knew she had come to the correct conclusion.
“Marshall?” Rebecca said. “There must be some mistake.”
“I’m afraid not,” Marshall replied, hobblingly quickly to the ladder. “I married you for your money, and after I had spent it all on beer and whores, I decided to make some of my own by selling stolen goods!”
Katrina and Eleanor let out a squeal as he kicked them out of the way with his good leg and then started down the ladder.
“Stop him!” Mr White cried.
However, there was no need to worry, for in his haste Marshall Green miss-stepped and fell, consequently breaking both arms and his other leg. He lay groaning in pile on the floor.
The next morning, after the police had been to take Marshall away, Ichabod and Katrina sat with the others, enjoying the sunshine and cool lemonade.
“So Marshall was only pretending to be unwell,” Frank reflected.
“Well he had a broken leg,” Ichabod replied, “But it wasn’t as bad as he made out. Whenever everyone was out, he would use the attic trapdoor in his room to go up into the roof, and then he could drop down into the other rooms and steal bits and pieces.”
“Genius,” Eleanor breathed.
“A bit far fetched,” Frank said.
“Shut up Frank,” Eleanor snapped.
“Then, the day Rebecca went out walking with Frank and Eleanor, he was able to sneak downstairs and take the silver from the dining room. What he didn’t realise was that Katrina was outside, drawing the hotel. I suppose I really discovered the truth after looking more closely at the drawing. We all thought she was taking artist liberties, but she drew a trapdoor because she saw a trapdoor. You see, as she was looking up, Frank was disposing of his horde, through the secret hatch in the wall of his bedroom – I found it a little while ago, as Masbeth was acting as my lookout. Marshall dropped the silver down behind the haystack, planning to secret it away this evening and sell at a later date.”
“Secret hatch in the wall, ah?” Frank said. “You’d have thought you’d know about that, Mr White.”
“You would’ve, wouldn’t you,” Mr White replied. “But I didn’t have a clue!”
“Oh look Ichabod, the sea!” Katrina said, squeezing her husband’s hand.
Ichabod leant forward in his seat to look out the carriage window and onto the beautiful coastline, which stretched the length of the island leading down to deep blue waters. Katrina had never been to the coast before, and Ichabod had only been once, during his childhood, so this trip was a welcomed experience.
“Will you be working the entire time we’re here,” Katrina asked. “Surely we will get some time to ourselves?”
“There’s very serious work to be done, Miss,” Masbeth, Ichabod’s trusted apprentice, said.
Katrina gave a small nod, her eyes drifting sadly to her lap.
Seeing this, Ichabod leant close to her, placed a loving hand on her shoulder and said; “I’m sure there will be time to spare for a walk on the beach.”
Katrina smiled at him.
The carriage climbed the winding cliff path until it came to the Seaview Hotel.
“We’re here,” Katrina announced, and Ichabod helped her from the carriage, followed by Masbeth with their luggage.
The manager was sitting at the front desk, he was at least seventy years old, and had more hair growing from his ears and nostrils than he had on his head.
He passed a suspicious eye over them and then said; “You’ll be expecting a room, no doubt.”
“We’re booked in,” Ichabod replied, “Under the name Crane.”
“Hmmm,” the man said, leaning his ancient head down to look closely at the guests register, “Mr. I and Mrs. K?”
“And is this your son?” The manager asked.
“No,” Masbeth said indignantly, “I’m Masbeth, Ichabod’s trusted apprentice!”
The man said; “After you’ve been shown to your room, if you would like to go through to the dining room, dinner is being served-“
“Actually,” Ichabod said, “We only just ate a few hours ago. We were hoping to go on the local tour.”
“The tour?” The manager said.
“Yes, you see, the main purpose of this trip is-“
“But the tour is leaving now!” the manager snapped.
“Oh,” Ichabod said, turning to Katrina, “We had better be on our way then. Will you be okay, dear?”
Katrina smiled; “Yes, I think I’ll wander the garden for a while and then have a read,” she patted the pocket of her skirt, which held her novel.
“Garden’s that way,” the manager, thumbed the direction.
“Thank-you,” said Katrina.
She kissed Ichabod on the cheek and then left for her walk.
After she had gone, the manager said; “So you won’t be wanting any dinner?”
“We’ll probably want something when we get back,” said Ichabod.
The manager let out a disgruntle sigh and said, “Oh, very well! We do have set dining times but I wouldn’t want that to get in the way of your fun.”
Ichabod was taken back by the manager’s tone, but he still mustered a polite smile.
“Actually sir, we’re not here for fun. We are on a very important business trip. You see—“
“Yes, yes,” the manager said dismissively. “If you want to go on the tour, you had better hurry, they’re leaving right now!”
“You already mentioned that,” Icabod replied with a tight smile, “Come Masbeth.”
They were halfway to the door when the sound of the manager’s voice brought them to a halt.
“Oh, we’ll be taking those upstairs for you then?” he said, pointing to the luggage.
Ichabod’s face dropped.
“Only if it’s not too much trouble,” he said.
“Oh no, no,” the manager grumbled, “Don’t you worry.”
“Thank-you,” Ichabod said, swallowing a lump in his throat.
“The horseman is out front,” the manager said.
Ichabod felt a chill spread through his stomach.
“Yes,” the manager said. “He leads our tours.”
Ichabod and Masbeth exchanged a look of anxious horror. Ichabod pushed his young apprentice towards the door, and waited as he slowly peered outside.
The young man turned back to them, a relieved smile on his face.
“It’s okay,” he said. “He’s got a head!”
Ichabod let out a thankful sigh and chuckle, but quickly composed himself when he noticed the look of curious confusion on the manager’s face.
When the tour was finished and they had returned, Ichabod met Katrina in front of the hotel. She was sitting on the grass, pretty as a picture, her sketch book on her lap. As he came closer he could see her drawing, it was of the hotel.
The details of the cobblestone structure were beautifully captured in the lines of her work. Each window and doorway and portion of the thatched roof was careful accounted for, drawn with confident pulls of the pencil. It was quite lovely. There was however, something sincere in the way the sun threw a long, deep shadow of the building.
There was also something strange about the portrait that had caught Ichabod eye. It must have also come to the attention of the hotel manager, who had appeared behind them, because he said; “You’ve made a mistake.”
There was a middle-aged couple and a young woman of about Katrina’s age, sitting together on a bench in front of the hotel.
The older woman called out; “Don’t you be so rude Mr White!”
“Yes,” added the young woman. “We’ve all taken a look at it and think it’s simply wonderful.”
It was the man’s turn to have his say; “Don’t you listen to him Katrina, he’s an old fool!”
Mr White’s cheeks turned scarlet.
“I didn’t say it wasn’t a good drawing,” he grumbled. “I said she’s made a mistake.”
“Show me,” Katrina said in interest, holding the picture up so that her error could be pointed out.
“It’s nothing really,” Ichabod assured her. “Not worth mentioning at all.”
The manager gave a grunt.
“Show me, Ichabod,” Katrina pressed, her voice light and even.
Clearly she had taken no offence to what Mr White had said, and so Ichabod decided not to either.
He knelt on the grass beside her and indicated with a long, slender finger.
“Just here dear,” he said. “See? You’ve drawn some kind of a hatch, or a trap door, but there isn’t one.”
He pointed to the hotel, to the place where the opening should have been, but instead there was only solid stone.
“Oh,” Katrina said, her eyes narrowing as she looked. “I was sure… I must have made a mistake after all; how strange.”
“It’s still a beautiful drawing,” the young woman on the bench said.
“Yes, it artist license,” the man added. “Sometimes the imagination takes over and changes reality for the better.”
Mr White rolled his eyes, he had clearly had enough.
“Thank you Mr Robinson,” he said. “Thank you for enlightening us all. Now you,” he turned to Ichabod, “I want a word with you.”
Mr White stomped back into the hotel and Ichabod followed.
“Where’s your son?” Mr White asked.
“He’s not my son,” Ichabod replied. “He’s Masbeth, my trusted apprentice, and he went with horseman to tie up the horses. I would have helped, but I’m not good with them.”
“Not good with sons or with horses?” Mr White asked.
Ichabod resisted the urge to roll his eyes and said; “What is it you wanted to speak to me about?”
“Some sliver’s gone missing from the dining room,” Mr White replied.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Did you take it?” Mr White stepped towards Ichabod, jabbing him several times in the chest, with an old bony finger.
“No!” Ichabod was astonished by the accusation. “Don’t be ridiculous. I haven’t even been here,” he added.
“I can check that, with the horseman,” Mr White said, taking another step forward, giving Ichabod a sharp shove.
“Please do,” Ichabod countered, straightening up.
“Okay,” Mr White replied, obviously satisfied that Ichabod was telling the truth. “You weren’t here, but your wife was.”
Something snapped inside Ichabod; how dare this awful little man accuse Katrina of such a thing.
“Look here,” Ichabod snapped, knocking Mr White’s hands away, and stepping towards him, his own finger wagging in the man’s face.
“Oh thank goodness!” Mr White suddenly wailed.
Ichabod jumped when he noticed Katrina and the others, including Masbeth, standing in the doorway.
“He turned on me,” the old man said, faking a tearful tone, “Like a madman!”
“Ichabod!” Katrina said in shock.
Ichabod swiftly retracted his finger and backed away from Mr White, embarrassed. Mr White turned and left the room without a word.
“You should have knocked his block off,” the man from on the bench said. He stepped forwards to shake Ichabod’s hand; “I’m Frank. And this is my wife Eleanor.”
“Hello,” Ichabod greeted them.
“And I’m Rebecca Green,” the young woman said, “And Katrina, what ever was going on, I’m sure Mr White started it.”
“We’re just about to go for a drink,” Eleanor said. “Perhaps you would like to join us.”
“Yes, thank-you,” Ichabod replied.
“I’ll just go and put my sketchbook away,” Katrina said, and both she and Rebecca headed for the staircase.
“Rebecca won’t be joining us,” Frank explained. “Her husband’s unwell and in bed, and she worries if she’s away from him for too long. We somehow managed to drag her away for a walk today, and we met your lovely wife on our return.”
“What bad luck to fall ill while on holiday,” Ichabod said.
“They are not on holiday as such,” Eleanor said. “They were passing by this way when he had a fall and broke his leg. They were forced to stay here while he recovered. Poor lamb’s been laid up for weeks, can barely sit up in bed to take meals.”
“How long have you been here,” Masbeth asked.
Frank and Eleanor let out a laugh.
“We’ve lost count of the months,” Frank chuckled.
“It’s the sea air,” Eleanor added, “One breath and you’re hooked!”
Katrina returned from upstairs and the group went into the hotel’s tavern. There was a young man with thick, curly brown hair serving behind the bar.
“This is Ted,” Frank said. “He’s the hotel’s barkeep, luggage handler, maid,” Frank laughed, “Did I miss anything out Ted my boy?”
“No, I think you mentioned it all,” Ted replied with a good-hearted chuckle. “Mr White likes to keep me busy.”
“Ted and a young lady called Alice - sweet girl - are the only employees of Mr White,” Eleanor explained.
“He wouldn’t like to fork out for any more wages than that,” Frank added with a wink.
“And he’s given her the heave-ho,” Ted said.
“Caught her stealing,” Ted explained, shaking his head, “Money missing out of his room, jewellery missing from another room; terrible business. And he’s been on the rampages today on account of some sliver’s gone missing out of the dining room. But he can’t pin that on Alice, she’s been gone since yesterday.”
“He, um, tried to ‘pin it’ on me,” Ichabod said.
“Yes,” Ted said with a small nod. “I understood he was going to have a word.”
“How ridiculous,” Katrina said, “Ichabod’s a man of the law. Besides he hasn’t been here.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Ted said. “But Mr White got it into his head that you arrived today and the silver disappeared today, and so the two must be connected. He’s probably misled it somewhere himself and is too embarrassed to admit it.”
When they had given their orders and taken a seat, conversation turned swiftly from Mr White to everyone’s plans for the following day.
“We were hoping to find an interesting nature trail of some kind,” Katrina said.
“It depends on whether you’re planning to go on horse or foot,” Frank said, mulling over the request.
“It doesn’t really mat—“ Katrina began, but then catching Ichabod’s stern eye she quickly said; “Foot! Not horseback; we’ll be travelling by foot.”
Ichabod let out a relieved sigh.
“Keys Cross is a nice route,” Frank said. “Lots of flowers and wildlife along that way – what do you think dear?”
He turned to his wife, but she didn’t seem to be following the conversation at all. Her eyes were hazy and her mind was miles away.
“What?” She said finally, as if waking from a trance.
“Keys Cross; a good walk,” her husband repeated.
“Oh, yes, yes,” she agreed.
Frank turned his attention back on Ichabod.
“So Katrina told us that you’re on some kind of business here; what exactly is it you’re doing?” he asked, lighting his pipe. “I’m sure what ever it is, it makes for interesting conversation.”
“Yes, I suppose it does,” Ichabod replied, “The main reason I’ve come here is—“
“Your drinks,” Ted said, appearing at the table with a tray in his hands.
“I’ve been waiting all day for this,” Frank said, taking a long drain of his ale, “Best in the country if you ask me.”
As the clock ticked on, Ichabod noticed Eleanor Robinson, who had seemed distracted all evening, was becoming more and more anxious. Soon he felt compelled to comment on it.
“Are you quite already Mrs Robinson?”
“Yes,” she replied, a little too quickly.
“Are you sure,” Katrina asked, concern in her voice.
For a moment it seemed as if Eleanor was wrestling with something; trying to decide whether to confide in them or not.
She said finally; “I become a little nervous around bedtime.”
“Ellie not this,” Frank said.
It was clearly something he had heard a number of times before.
“Oh please,” Ichabod said, “We’re all ears.”
“Perhaps, what ever it is, we can help you in some way,” Katrina added softly.
Again Eleanor seemed to be suffering some inner turmoil, her eyes darting between her husband and her hands, which picked nervously at her skirt.
Frank let out a sigh that seemed to be a signal of acceptance. As if he were telling his wife that if she was going to tell, she should just get it over with.
Eleanor leant across the table, the candle light dancing on her features, “Do you believe in ghosts Mr Crane?” she asked.
Ichabod sat bolt-up, straight.
“Ghosts?” He laughed nervously.
He felt Katrina squeeze his hand, and managed to compose himself.
“There are many strange things in this world,” he concluded, his face serious, his tone sober.
“She’s convinced herself that the hotel’s haunted,” Frank said, knocking back more ale.
“I hear noises at night,” Eleanor explained, “Coming from above our bedroom.”
“What kind of noises?” Katrina whispered.
“They’re almost like footsteps, I suppose,” Eleanor replied, “But there’s a strange scraping sound as well; step, scrap, step, scrap.”
“Here we go,” Frank muttered, pouring the last of the ale down his gullet, and reaching for the jug for a refill.
“Like chains rattling and scrapping across the floor,” Eleanor continued, “Ghostly footsteps they are, and no mistaking.”
“I’ve never heard anything,” Frank said.
“That’s because you’re always drunk and out like a light!” Eleanor snapped.
“I resent that,” Frank replied, swaying drunkenly in his seat.
“Perhaps there are rats in the attic, they make more noise than you’d imagine,” Ichabod suggested.
“That’s what I thought,” Eleanor replied. “So I set Mr White up there to check, but there wasn’t a thing there. Not a living thing.”
After they had finished their drinks and retired to their rooms, Eleanor’s words were still ringing in Ichabod’s ears.
“What’s wrong my love?” Katrina asked, glancing over her shoulder at him in the dark.
“Oh, I’m sorry my darling, this business with the ghostly footsteps is troubling me greatly,” he replied.
“You need to relax,” Katrina told him, sitting back.
“I’m sorry,” he apologised again.
“Would you like me to put on the French accent,” she asked, “Or one of zee costumes?”
“No, no my sweet, I’ll be fine in a moment,” he replied
“Perhaps it would be better in a different position?”
“No, you were fine where you were,” he replied, losing patience slightly.
“Very well,” she said, letting out a sigh and sinking back onto her knees, in front of him.
“What could be making the noise above the Robinson’s room?” Ichabod wondered aloud, “And if it’s emp– Katrina!”
“Sorry, I thought that if I took you by surprise—“
“Let’s just go to sleep,” Ichabod said crossily, settling back on the mattress.
He lay awake worrying about the ghostly footsteps, finally falling asleep a little before dawn. He slept in late, and when he finally woke, Katrina had already gone downstairs for breakfast.
He was very disappointed to find her side of the bed empty, for the inhibition he had suffered the night before were long gone, and he was yearning for a loving hand.
Gathering up his washing-things, he headed out of the room and along the corridor towards the communion bathroom.
As he past one of the bedrooms, he couldn’t help but over here raised voices coming from within. One of the voices he recognized as Rebecca Green’s.
“Why can’t we just send for a coach?” Rebecca was shouting.
“We can’t afford it,” a man, whom Ichabod took to be her husband, shouted back.
Not wanting to eavesdrop, Ichabod hurried on his way.
After breakfast, Masbeth retired to the study to write up the notes Ichabod had made on the tour on the previous day, and Ichabod and Katrina went on their walk.
They crossed the beach, where Ichabod got sand in his boots. They climbed the rocks, where Ichabod grazed the palms of his hands. They walked through the long grass and into a meadow, where Ichabod was chased by a small herd of cows, and had to jump two fences and crawl beneath a bramble bush to escape.
“Oh my poor Ichabod,” Katrina soothed, as they later rested next to a babbling brook.
“It’s been a trying morning,” Ichabod agreed with a slow shake of his head.
With a touch of her hand and a look in her eye, Ichabod knew things were about to get much better.
“Read ‘em and weep,” Doug Penhall said, laying down his winning hand.
“Great,” Tom Hanson replied.
They were sitting cross-legged on the hard-wood floor and, due to the storm putting out the electricity, playing by flashlight.
“It’s time to swap over, guys,” Harry Ioki called over his shoulder. He took off the headphones and tossed them down on the table, before running a hand through his black hair and letting out a yawn.
“Good,” Judy Hoffs sighed, “If I don’t lie down soon, I’m gonna fall down.”
Doug began packing the playing cards away, as Tom went to take Judy’s place at the surveillance screen.
“Anything at all,” he asked, staring into the television, which was hooked up to a camera aimed on the rainy street outside.
“Nothing,” Harry replied.
“You guys wanna play?” Doug asked Harry and Judy, waving the pack of cards in the air.
“No thanks,” Judy said, sprawling out on a couches.
“I think I’m gonna try and get some sleep,” Harry confirmed, dropping down into an armchair.
The dark apartment was suddenly lit by a flash of lightning, and a few seconds later a deafening crack of thunder sounded out across the night sky.
“Well, good luck,” Doug quipped. He turned his attention to the surveillance screen and remarked; “What a way to spend Halloween.”
“If you weren’t here, you’d only be at home rotting your mind with some lame, slasher movie,” Tom shot back.
“Says who?” Doug challenged.
“Said you,” Tom countered. “Remember? Before we got stuck with this case, you asked me to come over for Halloween, ‘cos you have a whole stack of horror movies,” he mimed Doug’s voice, “That I just have to see!”
Doug looked at him blankly.
“Horror on Elm Street, and the A Candy Nightmare, and The Amityville Man,” Tom gave a contemptuous snort.
“I never invited you,” Doug replied.
“There’s no need to get defensive about it!” Tom said. “It’s nothing personal; I just don’t like horror films. If you must know, even mentioning them freaks me and gives me nightmares.”
“You’re being so weird tonight,” Doug remarked. “Why are you being so weird tonight? Perhaps,” he put on a booming theatrical voice, “it’s the full moon! Whoooaaa!”
“Can we just work?” Tom snapped.
“Yes sir,” Doug replied, giving him a salute. “Let’s see what we got here,” he slipped on the earphones.
After a while Tom nearly nodded off, but he was so startled when three figures appeared on the screen, he jumped up in his seat.
They were dressed completely in black, and each was wearing a ghoulish, white mask. The masks were smooth, like the face of a porcelain doll, with holes cut out for the eyes and the mouth.
“They look a little old to be trick-or-treating,” Doug said, narrowing his eyes.
“What are they doing in this neighbourhood anyway,” Tom replied.
They watched the screen as the two masked figures crossed the street, and for a second Tom could have sworn that one of them looked right into the camera. Though he knew it was impossible it was as if they had seen him. Then they disappeared into the building.
“They’re coming in here?” Doug said in disbelief. “But we’re in here! And we ain’t got any candy!”
“We should check it out,” Tom said, although he really did not want to. These guys were creepy.
“Okay,” Doug said, getting up from his chair. “I’ll go, you keep a visual.”
“Right,” Tom breathed a silent sigh of relief, and handed Doug a walkie-talkie, adding; “Keep in touch.”
“Don’t worry, I promise to call,” Doug quipped, heading for the door.
Tom got himself a cup of coffee, and sipped it slowly as he watched the screen. There was nothing happening and he nearly drifted off again; he was feeling so tired. He should have taken a nap while Judy and Harry were on duty, but it had seemed too early, and Doug had insisted on playing cards. Now as they were coming into the early hours of the morning, the day’s excursions were catching up on him.
Suddenly Doug’s voice came over the walkie-talkie. Through the static, Tom heard the muffled message; “Man, get out here!”
At the sound of fear in his partner’s voice, Tom felt wide awake. He leapt up from the table and raced to the door. He was in such a hurry he forgot to grab a flashlight, but there was no time to go back for it; Doug was in trouble. He ran down the corridor, barely able to see where he was going, and nearly fell down the stairs, only just managing to grab hold of the banister and steady himself.
He took a second to compose; he would not be any help to Doug with two broken legs. He bombed down the steps, gripping the banister as he went; it seemed to take forever to reach the bottom.
The door to the street stood open, and Tom raced outside into the rain, bracing himself for what he might see.
All he saw was Doug, standing with his back towards the building, alone on the dark street.
“Doug?” Tom called over the sound of rainfall.
Doug did not hear him, and Tom was suddenly filled with anxiety. For a moment he was afraid of Doug, and it took every effort not to run back inside, and up to the apartment.
“Doug?” Tom called again, louder this time.
“What?” Doug said, spinning round to face his partner.
“You okay?” Tom said, using his fingers to rake the wet hair back off his forehead. “What happened?”
“I thought I saw something,” Doug replied. “But I guess I made a mistake.”
“Come in, out of the rain,” Tom told him.
Once they were back inside and the door was firmly shut, he asked Doug; “Did you find those guys?”
“No,” Doug replied, “they must have heard me coming and run for it. Probably just trying to get out of the rain.”
Tom noticed that Doug was now looking past him, over his shoulder, his face twisted in surprised. Tom spun around to see a figure standing at the bottom of the stairs, hidden in deep shadow.
Tom let out a sigh of relief, as he recognised the voice as Harry’s.
Doug said; “You scared the hell out of me, man.”
“What’s going on? I woke up and you guys were gone,” Harry said; his voice thick with sleep.
“Sorry,” Tom replied. “I must have woken you when I came racing down stairs for,” he looked at Doug, “a mistake.”
“I thought I saw something!” Doug protested.
“Like what?” Harry asked.
Doug shifted uncomfortable under their glaze, and said finally, “A movement in the trees.”
“Of course you saw a movement in the trees,” Tom replied hotly. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a raging storm out there! Look at me, I’m soaked!”
“Sorry,” Doug replied, bounding up the stairs, two at a time. Harry gave a small chuckle and went after him.
Tom let out a sigh and followed on; “There were some guys out there,” he admitted.
“Trick-or-treaters,” Doug added, and then reaching the top of the stairs he shouted out; “Hey!”
“I didn’t leave that like that,” Tom heard Harry say, and pushing passed him, he saw the door to the apartment was wide open.
As he went inside and scanned the room, Tom felt his breath catch in his throat; Judy was gone.
“Judy!” Tom called out, rushing through the apartment. They searched all the rooms but she was no where to be found.
“You think those masked guys did this?” Harry demanded, hurrying to look out of the window. It was so streaked with rain, Tom wondered if he could even see out of it.
“We need to find her,” Doug said, and at that moment Tom caught sight of her on the surveillance screen.
“She’s outside!” he said.
“What?” Harry came running over to take a look. “Why?”
“Does she sleep walk?” Doug joked.
“She looks okay,” Tom decided. “She must have woken up, found we were gone, and then went to look for us.”
“It’s my fault,” Harry said. “But I was worried about you guys; I needed to go check you were alright. I didn’t think she’d wake up.”
“We better go get her,” Tom laughed. “She’s gonna be pissed. Who’s gonna go?”
“Don’t look at me,” Harry said, holding up his hands, “I’m off duty.”
“And I went last time,” Doug pointed out, folding his arms across his chest.
“Fine,” Tom said, letting out a sigh, he went to the door. “What the hell?” he said, tugging at the handle. “It won’t open!”
“What?” Doug came to try, but no matter how hard they pulled on the door, it would not budge.
“It’s an old building,” Harry told them. “Old doors, in old buildings, stick.”
“Well now what?” Tom demanded. “She can’t get in. We can’t get out, and that could prove a big problem if the dealers actually show up, and we can’t get out there and arrest them!”
“You could go out the window,” Doug suggested, “Then down the fire escape.”
“It looks like the only way,” Harry added.
Tom could see both of them were trying to suppress their laughter at the thought of him undertaking the task.
“Great,” he said sarcastically, snatching up his flashlight and tucking it into the back pocket of his jeans.
Tom opened the window, letting out a grunt as icy cold raindrops splashed against his face. He climbed out and dropped down onto the fire escape. He could not see the street below, only blackness. But what choice did he have? He started the climb down to the ground.
When he finally reached the bottom, Tom took out his flashlight and clicked it on. With a thin beam of light to guide him, he followed the wall around to the front of the building. That is where the camera was filming, and so that was where Judy would be.
At least that is where she should have been, but when Tom got there it was deserted. He carried on around the other side of the apartment block, feeling his way along the wall, softly calling out her name. He circled the building twice in total but could not find her.
He went back to the front entrance and peered through the window, into the foyer. It was empty, but then he noticed a shadow moving across the wall. A pair of feet, walking down the steps, came into his view.
“Gott’ya,” he smiled.
He was just about to go inside when he noticed something familiar about the black outfit the person was wearing; it was not because he had seen Judy wearing it earlier. He stumbled backwards as he saw the white mask appear in the window.
He turned and fled; running back around the building, feeling his way along the wall and scrambling back up the ladder. He climbed, all the time dreading the feel of a hand grabbing hold of his ankle. He climbed, and prayed Judy was safe and sound. He climbed, and when he reached the window he flung it open and tumbled inside.
Before he even hit the floor, someone had jumped on him; pining him down.
“Tom?” Doug exclaimed, climbing off of him, and helping him to his feet. “What are you doing coming in through the window? You scared the hell out of me!”
“The door’s stuck,” Tom reminded him crossly.
“What?” Doug said. Tom watched as he went over to the door and opened it with no trouble at all; “It’s fine,” he said.
“Guys, can you keep it down?”
Tom spotted Judy on the couch, propped up on her elbows, he was unable to control his temper as he snapped; “You’re here?”
“Where else would I be?” She replied, yawning.
“Tom, what’s going on with you man?” Doug said, putting a hand on his shoulder. Tom shrugged it off; upset that they were playing him for a fool.
“I’ve just spent the last fifteen minutes running around in the rain looking for her,” he said pointing at Judy, “and she was up here all the time! What’s the score? Did you rig up the door, wait until I had gone, and then all have a good laugh at me?”
Tom’s shouting had woken Harry, who was now sitting up and looking questionably at him.
“Tom, buddy,” Doug said, speaking softly, “Nobody’s been laughing at you. Judy was never outside; you went down to look for those mask guys.”
“No, I didn’t,” Tom replied, shaking his head. “You did. Then I came down, and then Harry came down and…”
“I’ve been asleep since you guys took over the shift,” Harry interrupted him.
“Tom, what’s the matter with you tonight?” Judy asked.
“Yeah,” Doug said. “You’ve been acting really weird, I’m kind of worried about you man.”
“Oh whatever,” Tom replied angrily. “I’m going to take a shower.”
Tom stomped off into the bathroom, picking up his overnight bag as he went. If they wanted to play silly mind games with him, he was just going to ignore it and not take the bait. He was sick of it; he was sick of Doug teasing him about being too uptight, and he was sick of them thinking he was hot-headed. How did they expect him to react when they had played such a childish trick on him?
He stripped off his wet clothes; he was shaking with cold, but also with anger. If he got ill, he was blaming it on them. He looked into the mirror; his black hair was stuck to his forehead so he pushed it back, before running the tap and splashing warm water onto his face. It felt good, and he could not wait to get under the shower. He reached to turn it on and then returned his eyes to his reflection.
As the water heated up, the room was filled with mist, clouding up the mirror. It was quite a relief for Tom not to have to look at his tired, hanging face anymore.
After he had taken a long, hot shower and towelled himself dry, Tom pulled on a fresh pair of jeans and a black sweater. He dried off his hair, took out his comb and wiped the mirror with his palm. He let out a cry of surprise when he saw the masked figure standing behind him. He spun around but there was nobody there. He must have imagined it; he repeated this over and over in his head, but he was still frightened by it, and he sank to sit on the floor.
“Tom!” Called Doug from outside, and there was a hammering on the door. “Tom, are you alright in there?”
Tom climbed slowly to his feet and went to unlock the door.
“Why’d you shout man, what’s wrong?” Doug demanded.
“I burnt myself on one of the pipes,” Tom lied. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you.”
Doug stared at him for a moment, and then he said in a hushed voice; “You are scaring man, what’s the matter with you tonight? Maybe you should go home, one of us could give you a lift, make sure you get there okay.”
“Doug, I’m fine,” Tom insisted.
“Yeah, well okay,” Doug said. “But I’ll be happy when tonight is over.”
“Me to,” Tom agreed.
They went back to the table and returned to their surveillance work. Doug had said Tom was scaring him; well Tom was scaring himself. What Iwas/I up with him tonight? Was Doug right, did it have something to do with a full moon? It bis/b supposed to bring out the crazies, Tom thought. But who’s crazy; the men in the white masks, or the guy who keeps seeing them?
There had been two figures on the screen; could it have been Judy and Harry dressed up in those masks? The apartment was dark; the only light was coming for the glow of the surveillance screen. Could they have slipped outside, changed into those outfits and walked in front of the camera?
He tried to think back; had he seen them as he was leaving the apartment to go find Doug? He could not remember; he had left in such a hurry. Maybe they had been outside and hiding in the shadows. Then when Tom came out of the building and was talking to Doug, they could have slipped back inside. Then Judy could have hidden somewhere; a cupboard, or something, and Harry could have waited for them to come back.
That was exactly the kind of thing Doug would think up, and Harry would be quick to go along. Tom was surprised Judy had agreed to it though, she had always stuck up for him in the past, and childish pranks really were not her thing. Or so he had thought.
Tom let out a sigh and reached up to wipe his hair back off of his forehead again. Then it came to him; his hair, his wet hair. If Judy had been outside, her long brown hair would still be wet! But how on earth was he going to check?
“Doug, do you want a coffee?” Tom asked.
“No thanks,” Doug replied, his chin was rested on his crossed arms as he watched the surveillance screen.
“I do,” Tom said, getting up. “I’m gonna get a cup.”
“Ooo-kay,” Doug said slowly. “Good for you.”
Tom went to the kettle, then picking it up, he announced; “Needs water.” He headed for the kitchen and on the way he took a quick look at Judy, curled up asleep on the couch.
The apartment had become cold, and Judy was obviously feeling it because she had her coat on, the hoods putted up and hiding her hair. Tom swore under his breath.
As he stood at the kitchen sink, he tried to work out how he was going to get a look at her hair. He would just have to take a chance, reach under the hood and have a quick feel of it, he decided.
Kettle filled, he crossed the room, pausing once again at the couch. This time he silently reached out a hand towards Judy, trying not to attract Doug’s attention.
Suddenly Judy jerked away from him, sitting up and shouting in surprised; “What are you doing?”
Doug was looking over now, his face twisted in confusion. Tom frantically searched his head for an excuse; he had just been caught trying to stroke a colleague’s hair as they slept. How the hell was he going to explain his way out of this one?
“I was just checking to see if you were awake,” he took her, trying to make it sound convincing.
“Why?” she said, obviously not impressed.
“Because I wanted to know if you wanted a cup of coffee,” Tom lied.
“I want to get some rest, and I can’t rest if people are looming over me, okay?” Judy replied, wearily.
“Okay,” Tom said. “So, that’s a ‘no’ to the coffee, then?”
“Yes,” Judy snapped.
“Do you think I should wake Harry and ask him?”
“No,” Judy snapped.
“Okay,” Tom said.
That did not go well, Tom thought as he waited for the kettle to boil. He just needed to sleep, he thought. He could not make sense of anything at the moment; he was too tired. Who cared if Judy had been outside, who cared if they had all played him for a fool? He was just going to keep his head down, get through this nightshift and go home. Once he was tucked up in his bed, none of this would matter, he decided.
Tom made the coffee and returned to his post next to Doug.
After a few minutes, Judy let out a cross sigh and said; “Well, I’m never gonna get back to sleep now.”
She pulled up a chair between Tom and Doug.
“It’s so cold,” she said, rubbing her hands together.
“I’ll go check the boiler if you want,” Doug offered; it was obvious he needed a break from staring at the screen.
“Thanks Penhall,” Judy replied. “You know where it is?”
“The basement, I guess,” he shrugged, reaching for his flashlight.
“That’s where it is in my apartment block,” Judy said.
“Mine to,” Tom chipped in.
“Then it’s agreed,” Doug announced dramatically, leaping up from his chair.
Judy giggled at his antics, but Tom was too tired and shaken-up to appreciate Doug’s brand of humour.
“I’ll see you guys in a bit,” Doug said, heading for the door.
“I guess I can cover for him for a while,” Judy said, slipping into his seat. “Tom, are you okay? You’re so quiet tonight?”
“Just tired, I guess,” Tom replied, with a weak lop-sided grin. “Sorry I woke you.”
“It’s okay,” she smiled, then she said; “Tonight’s been a bust; we haven’t seen anyone dealing drugs, or… at all.” She laughed.
Tom struggled to laugh along, but all he could think about was the two masked figures on the television screen.
Judy shivered, and said; “I hope Doug can fix the heating.”
They both fell into silence, eyes fixed on the surveillance screen. Tom took a quick glance at his watch; two-thirty. Judy was right, tonight had been a waste of time. Captain Fuller had given them this assignment at the last minute, convinced that there would be a big deal taking place tonight. The building across the street was supposed to be the arranged venue, but so far it looked as though Fuller’s tip off had been a hoax.
“Come on Doug, where are you?” Judy thought out loud.
Tom glanced back at his watch, and to his surprise, saw it was nearly three in the morning; “I must have zoned out. He’s been gone a long time.”
“You better go check he’s alright,” Judy said. “I’ll keep watch.”
“Thanks Jude,” Tom said, picking up his flashlight.
The apartment block was like a maze. Tom was taken down dark corridor after dark corridor, turn after turn after turn.
Lost in the darkness, a mind has a tendency to wander, and Tom found his head suddenly filled with all manner of fiendish notions. He imagined someone crouched down, somewhere along the hallway, watching Tom’s flashlight beam as it got closer, closer. As Tom swept the light back and forth, across the floor, it would suddenly illuminate that crouching someone, and they would leap up and grab him.
He imagined that his flashlight would go out at any second. He found himself chanting; “Stay on, stay on, stay on”. It felt like if he stopped, then the light would go out and he would be lost in the darkness forever.
Tom finally came to a door that was not like the others; it was black and made of metal. The word ‘basement’ was painted onto it in white, precise, uppercase letters. Tom pulled it open without hesitation. Usually going down into a basement filled his with a sense of dread, but he was so anxious he find Doug – to not be alone in the dark any longer – that he went straight through and down the stairs without even pausing.
“Doug?” He called out, sweeping his flashlight across the room.
The piping that ran the length of the basement in a complex, interlacing system, emitted squeals and groans, and between it there hung heavy cobwebs. Most of the bare brickwork was exposed, and in the places that were painted, the paint had begun to bubble and peel.
“Doug!” Tom called out again, making his way through the basement.
Tom let out a shout of surprise as something fell onto the back of his neck. From the feel and the sound, he knew it was a rat. He reached up and grabbed hold of the thing by its tail, and it tried to wriggle free and scurry down the back of his sweater. Tom yanked it off of him, and with a scream it dropped to the ground and darted out of sight.
“Oow!” Tom exclaimed, wiping his hands feverishly on his jeans. “Doug, where are you?”
He had had enough. He turned back towards the basement steps and taking them two at a time, he went upstairs. He moved through the corridors, turn after turn after turn. His flashlight did not go out, he did not come across anyone crouched in the corner, and he did not see Doug.
He finally reached the apartment, wondering exactly what he was going to tell Judy. He could not tell her he had been spooked by a rat!
Tom went to open the door; it would not budge. He tried it again, and again.
“Hey,” he called, hammering on the wood. “What’s going on with the door?”
“It’s stuck, remember?” Doug’s voice called back.
“Doug, you’re in there?” Tom asked. “I’ve been down in the basement, looking for you!”
“Why?” Doug called back.
“Did you find Judy yet?” Harry’s voice came through the closed door.
Tom stumbled backwards. What was going on? This did not make sense! They had already found Judy; she was in the apartment. He had sat next to her for half an hour, spoken to her, why were they trying to tell him different? Were they trying to drive him crazy?
“You’ll have to come in the window again,” Tom heard Doug call.
Tom turned and ran blindly back down the stairs, around the building and to the fire-escape. He climbed up the ladder, through the darkness, and when he reached the top he push open the window and clambered inside.
“Tom!” Judy gasped, a hand clutching at her chest, as if to steady her heart. “You scared me.”
She was sitting at the screen, wrapped in her coat, just as he had left when he went to find Doug.
“What the hells going on!” he shouted. “Where’s Doug?”
“You didn’t find him in the basement?”
“Jude, stop it! I don’t know why you guys are doing this but it’s really freaking me out!”
“What’s going on?” Harry asked, yawning as he sat up on the couch.
“You tell me,” Tom snapped. “One minute Judy’s missing, then Doug’s missing. You planning on pulling a disappearing act too?”
“Tom, calm down,” Judy said.
Why were they both looking at him like he was mad?
“I’ve had enough of this,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady. “Where’s Doug?”
“Stop fucking around Jude, where the hell is his?”
“Hey Tom,” Harry said, moving to stand next to Judy, “Cool it man!”
“Why are you doing this?” Tom said; it was too much, and he could feel tears welling in his eyes.
“Tom, I’m gonna call someone,” Judy said slowly.
“Who?” Tom asked.
“A doctor, maybe,” she replied.
“A doctor? What are you talking about?”
“I think that’s a good idea,” Harry said.
“I’ve got a good idea, why don’t you call Doug. Call Doug and tell him this stupid little game of yours is over! I’ve had enough!”
“Calm down, man,” Harry said.
He was approaching Tom now; approaching him like he was a wild animal that might strike at any moment.
“Why don’t we sit down and talk about this,” Harry said.
“That’s a good idea,” Judy said. “I’ll go find Doug and…”
“You stay where I can see you!” Tom shouted, and he threw his flashlight at floor; it landed with a crack and a crush.
Harry lunged at him, pulling him down on to the couch. Tom twisted and kicked, breaking free and climbing to his feet.
“Leave me alone!”
He ran to the bathroom, filled the sink with warm water and began splashing it onto his face. He stood to look in the mirror, and saw that it once again showed the white masked figure, standing behind him. He squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head. It was not real; he would turn around and it would be gone, just like last time.
He spun around, but the masked figure remained. It stepped inside the room, followed by another, and then another. Tom pulled his gun from its holster and took aim.
“Stay away,” he shouted out, tears stinging his eyes. “I’ll shoot if you come any closer!”
They carried on towards him; their arms stretched out, their hands groping menacing at the air. Tom swallowed hard.
“I said hold it!” He warned, but they kept coming.
He winced as he squeezed the trigger, and the gun fired with a bang. Once, twice, three times. A shot for each of them, aimed at the chest. It felt like he was in video game, shooting at zombies, or something equally as surreal. They all came crashing to the ground, left to right, one-two-three. They lay sprawled on the floor.
Before he could stop himself, Tom had knelt over one of them and ripped off the mask.
He let out a strangled cry and fell backwards. It was Judy; he had shot Judy! Frantically he crawled to the next, and fearfully pushed the mask aside, to see the face of Doug, his glassy eyes staring blankly ahead. Tom did not need to check under the third mask to know that it was Harry, but found himself doing so anyway.
With an agonised scream he threw his gun across the room, and then hid his head in his hands and cried. What had they been doing? Did they not realise how much they were scaring him?
He had pulled a gun on them! Why had they not revealed themselves, stopped him before…
What had he done; he had killed his three co-workers, his three friends. He sobbed; the despair and guilt was consuming.
He did not want to get up; he knew if he did, he would go over to the window and jump. Throw him self down, down into the darkness. So he pressed himself hard against the floor, clutching at his face and crying for his dead friends.
Then there was a creak of hinges. Sitting back on his heels, Tom looked to the doorway. There stood a figure, like the others; dressed in black and wearing the same blank mask. Who was this? Fuller? Was he in on the joke? Had the stakeout been a setup from the very start?
Tom rose shakily to his feet; “I didn’t realise,” he said. “I thought they were going to hurt me.”
The masked figure looked down on the bodies of Judy, Doug and Harry; then back at Tom. Tom watched as the figure came closer; coming to stand right in front of him. Unconsciously, Tom’s hand reached out and drew away the mask. He let out a gasp, as he found himself looking into his own face.
“What’s happening to me?”
The double wrapped his hands about Tom’s neck and behind choking him. Tom dropped to his knees, struggling to breathe. The double opened his mouth to speak. As he did, the voice was not like Tom’s; it was like Judy’s, and it called out his name over and over again.
Tom Hanson sat up with a start and blinked his drowsy eyes until the chapel came into focus. He saw pretty Judy Hoffs smiling down at him, softly calling his name as she shook him by the shoulder.
“Hey sleepy head,” she said, “Time to call it a day; although it looks like you already did.”
Scanning the room, Tom saw that everyone else had already packed up for the day, and gone. Captain Fuller was just coming out of his office, and he called, “Happy Halloween; I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Bye,” Judy replied, then looking back at Tom she asked, “Are you okay? You look a little pale.”
“I had the craziest dream,” Tom replied, his breathing was ragged, and he could feel his heart pounding inside his chest.
“Yeah?” Judy said, with a giggle. She pulled on her denim jacket, and asked; “Are you coming over to Penhall’s for his annual slasher-fest?”
“No thanks,” Tom replied, giving a weak lop-sided grin. “Those movies give me nightmares.”