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Universal Language

by Spanx 

Posted: 17 January 2004
Word Count: 11422
Summary: Gary Price doesn't know that he is insane—totally unaware of the twelve-year old personality that co-exists with his adult identity. Carlin has two sides to his sexuality, and one of them is a sadistic killer. Dr Jones carries within him the ghost of a dead school friend. Across Internet chatrooms and continents, Carlin hunts Gary Price, to deliver him to the doctor, who will make Gary pay dearly for a crime that is thirty years old.

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Content Warning
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.


In a visceral way he is aware of her pain—as if the ropes around her wrists and ankles are

biting into his own flesh, the bruising around her throat is cramping the passage of air to

his own lungs, and the damage to her genitals is translated to a thick ache in his own

groin. He is appalled to see her suffer, even though he is the cause of it.

She’s done with her whimpering now; the pathetic sobs. She’s done with every attempt to

stop him from doing what he had to do. It’s finished and there’s no going back. For either

of them. He supposes that they will both find a way, eventually, of accepting what they’ve

become, and the mistakes they made to bring this terrible thing into their lives.

He thinks that look on her face shows disgust at herself. She understands that she’s been

dirtied in a way like never before. Maybe part of her believes she could have prevented it.

The bloodied smut, like handcuffs around her wrists; the bruising to her collarbone, the

welt on her cheek, the tears dried in mascara clots beneath her fragile eyes. The sheets

torn; the pillowcase shredded—Jesus, was it really that manic?—and the floor littered with

broken furniture. He daren’t look upon himself, knowing that the evidence of this crime is

written in the streaks of sweat, the sore knuckles, the panic throbbing in his groin. There

are professionals who can itemise all that filth and proof.

> Yes, a scraping of skin, hell, not even that much, just a molecule of a cell, and they’ll

process their inarguable DNA tests, and nail you. What’s the bitch doing now?

He turns away from the keyboard for a moment, takes a long hard look at her before typing

his reply into the flashing window of the Internet message program.

> She’s not doing a damn thing, not a thing. She looks dead, with her eyes open and

staring, but her pulse is there, I can see that, skipping across her neck. What do I do

with her?

> Leave her. She’s finished. She’s paid for her stupidity. Focus! You have to think about

yourself now.

He is thinking about himself. He’s thinking that his friend’s advice isn’t going to be

worth a damn when this girl stumbles into a police station, battered and bloody, and says

the one filthy word which will condemn the rest of his life.


He’s looking at the computer screen, watching the modem timer tick away the minutes of his

normal life, for the first time not worrying about the cost of his excessive Internet use,

not caring for the pitifulness of endless hours trawling chatrooms and community bulletin

boards, the cyber sex in U2U message panes which substitute for real life loving—not caring

about the sadness of it all because he knows that what happened tonight will make it


Tonight he met a girl from his favourite chatroom. He met her IRL—the biggest step he has

taken in an effort to crawl out from behind the keyboard and rejoin the human race. He met

her and raped her. Now he’s on-line with GiftHorse, his mentor and advisor. A man whose

Internet handle he carries with arrogance, but which he deserves for all the help he has

given people within this artificial world they have created for themselves.

IRL—in real life—he took the big step out from behind the keyboard and over the threshold

into reality. He brought her here and all she wanted to do was go on-line and into the

chatroom and tell everyone that she’d met him and dated him and he wasn’t anything like he

pretended to be. She wanted to tell them all how pathetic he was.

He couldn’t let her do that.

So maybe he didn’t live up to his on-line persona, and maybe photographs he sent out to

people in the Room were touched up to make him look better than he really did. So maybe he

had a sparkling wit only when he typed flirtations in chatrooms. The truth of it? . . .

Maybe he was nothing in the flesh—IRL—one big damn disappointment.

All the same, she didn’t deserve what she got.

But he knows that he will.


It doesn’t matter what the venue is, the size of stage, the volume of audience. The

lighting can be a sad washed out splash from a single overhead bulb or a river of

coruscating colours from strobes and floods. Nothing matters but the music.

Bass and beat, waterfall harmonies, bloody-fingered guitar licks—all that voodoo which

makes the fire in your gut. And that fire transports you to any venue you dare to imagine

in the trapped moments on stage. The music is all; it makes you a star, a legend, a god.

Feedback from the crowd ebbs and flows. The show from top to finish is a rascal, teasing in

its unpredictability. Nothing matters but the music.

A crack rang out above the cacophony of rhythm. It sounded like a rimshot. I turned back to

look at the drummer. I knew where those shots were supposed to come in and that place

wasn’t one of them. I mean, it didn’t matter; it didn’t spoil anything. It just wasn’t

meant to be there.

The drummer’s head lay sideways across the snare drum. On the tour bus this player slept on

a snare for a pillow and used a carriage case as a mattress. You couldn’t separate the

player from the kit without surgery. So the music pounded against the drummer’s right ear,

transported from the stage monitors to resonate back through the kit.

I smiled, with some nostalgia of the affection I once felt for her. She often laid her head

across the skin of the snare to feel the reverberations: it had a childish charm about it.

Tracy couldn’t get close enough to the music; I swear to God she’d wear the music if you

stitched it into a pit-stained sweatshirt.

A pool of crimson spread from beneath her cheek and across the drumskin.

Another wrong thing in another wrong place.

Again, it really didn’t matter if the lighting director had fouled a cue. One splash of red

over the drummer was not about to ruin the show. But I was puzzled now. That was two

out-of-place things in as many seconds. We were too tight for those kind of mistakes.

I suppose the understanding came over me like the selfish ecstasy of a hot lick in a

middle-eight break. It’s when the skin prickles as though needles are pushing outwards from

within you.

I saw the puncture in her temple, briefly highlighted by a passing laser. I saw the crimson

pool spreading, running down the barrel walls of the drum. I saw the blood whips streaked

across the high cymbal. And I finally understood Tracy was dead.

Some madman in the crowd had shot my drummer and Tracy was dead on the snare drum,

sweat-lined sticks resting limply in her hands.

I was subliminally aware of the commotion as Security raced for the killer at the back of

the hall, and the rest of the band looked on as Tracy bled the music from her soul on to a

Tama drum.

This is hard to believe—I know. But scarcely three minutes later the band kicked off again;

a click track on a hastily set-up drum machine running alongside us, to fill the gap

Tracy’s death had made.

The crowd thought it was all stage stuff. They applauded, complimenting our ‘dramatics’.

Because we played on.

Are we heartless, godless, mercenary? I don’t think so. No. True players are none of those

things really. It’s just that when you cut right through the hype and ego, the tantrums and

traumas, forget the melodrama of the circus ring, don’t even think of it in terms of

performance art, you’ll understand.

You’ll understand that nothing matters but the music.

That’s how I see it. But considering where I ended up, my philosophy could probably use

some adjustment.


We closed the show with three more songs. Tracy was removed when the lighting engineer

blacked-out the hall between numbers. A smoke machine clouded soothing disguises around the

drum kit.

All part of the stage stuff.

Frantic signals from stage-right insisted we keep playing. Security must’ve figured that an

abrupt stop could cause a riot: crowds want their tickets’ worth; and of course they didn’t

understand something was actually wrong. So we rattled out three stomping R&B

twelve-bars—the kind you improvise on the spot, no thought required—and we played in dumb

shock, our music as staid and automatic as the synthetic beat of the drum machine’s loop

which replaced Tracy.

Then we were in the dressing room. And no one said a damn thing. No one knew what to say.

We drank mechanically from the complimentary crate of Lowenbrau. And waited for the police

to come and tell us why four of us were now three.

Death becomes her.

That stupid, inappropriate phrase was running through my mind, maybe because she died on

stage snuggled into her music, caressing her precious kit.

The questioning was both aggressive and conciliatory. The police are like that when they’re

confused. Detective Inspector Whatever (name lost in the foggy fields of my memory now)

wanted to know: “Why did you play on?”

“Because Rock and Roll is theatre and the curtain wasn’t down.”

He didn’t like my flippancy but let it go with a raised eyebrow and a scribbled note in his

pad. “This is not the kind of thing we expect to happen at Newcastle City Hall.”

I laughed without humour. “This is not the kind of thing anybody expects to happen


“We didn’t get him, or her, the killer.”

“We know. Heard your guys cursing.”

“Gut instinct tells me it was a pro. The precision of the shot. The clean, fast getaway.

Even caused a diversion with a couple of rats—let them loose near the main exit. There was

pandemonium. Not the kind of thing—”

“. . . You’d expect in this country let alone a Newcastle concert hall. Yes. I gathered

that. So much for gun control. Guess your assassin didn’t take advantage of the amnesty.”

DI Whoever cleared his throat, looked briefly at his colleague, and frowned at my opening

another beer. “That won’t help.”

“Nor will it hurt.”

I suppose my sarcasm is a defence thing. He was right. The drink wasn’t helping. My guts

were rolling nausea and I was cold all over and no one else in the band had yet said a

word. Perhaps they couldn’t. I think at least one of them was crying in that stubborn way

that shows no tears; just chokes off all the words somewhere in the throat.

I was staring at Tracy’s camera. Hooked over the dressing room door. Her beloved Canon A1.

An old SLR. It went everywhere with her. It looked lost and disowned. Who was going to take

our pictures now?

“Needless to say we will have to take statements from all of you at the station.”

I looked at him, and made no effort to disguise the pleading in my voice. “Christ, man—not

tonight.” My head was shaking, trying to make it all go away. “It’s late, we’re out of it,

we’re probably pissed. Any doctor would tell you we’re shocked right down to our socks. And

before you ask the inevitable, the answer is no—we don’t know of any reason why someone

would want to kill our Tracy.”

And then my own tears reached right up from the belly and poured embarrassingly down my

cheeks. Out of focus, water-blurred, I saw the detective nod, sombrely, maybe

sympathetically. So they took some details, names and addresses, what to them is probably

‘the usual paraphernalia’.

“It can wait till morning.”

And they departed quietly, leaving us to grieve. And drink. And weep like mute children.


“They’re going to ask me tomorrow, about my relationship with Tracy, aren’t they?”

Flapjack nodded. “So what. It’s history. Got nothing to do with anything.” His delicate

little hand flicked the cap off another Lowenbrau with a rusty bottle opener.

“I know. But I treated her shitty. They’ll judge me. They’ll talk to her parents and

they’ll say I treated her like dirt.”

Ian stood up, wiping his eyes with the back of a sweaty hand. “Gary. Get a grip. And stop

being so fucking selfish. You’re worried the police might call you a cad? Tracy is dead.”

I hung my head. “Sorry, man. My brain’s all over the place.”

One of the road crew came in, gently, as though he were walking on broken glass. Which he

was: we were all nerve-shattered and edgy. He looked at us steadily. Then just said,

“Gear’s stacked and racked. We’ll be off. Probably see you tomorrow at the cop shop.”


“Thanks,” Ian said.

The roadie nodded. “Bad timing, huh?”

The three players looked at him.

“I mean, you’re this close to a record deal. Maybe a big deal. And this happens.”

Joe was a slow-witted man-mountain with arms like gnarled branches and a heart bigger than

heaven. He didn’t mean to be clumsy. But he was right. A band of middle-aged blues players,

no-hopers in the big scale of things, right there on the brink of celebrity. We’d won a

local TV talent contest, had a pretty good response to a demo, a moderate hit on local

radio, and prior to this showcase gig at City Hall, a record signing with the sweet

attachment of an advance on royalties. It all happened in a year. After two decades living

out of a Transit van, trailing the club circuit country-wide, juggling marriages and

divorces, kids and careers, and miraculously sticking together through all of it, the clock

was finally ticking round to our Fifteen Minutes. Things were going so well I recklessly

thought I might even get Jeanette back.

But now Tracy was dead. The needle had skidded off the record and the music stopped.

I looked around the dressing-room and saw my thoughts mirrored in the faces of the other


yes, bad timing.

When nothing matters but the music, you get incredibly selfish.


It’s 6 AM, and he’s worn down, exhausted by his own fears. So much of what happened through

the night is blurred in his memory, as though it all happened a long time ago. But he knows

he has a lot to be afraid of, even if those fears are clotted in his half-crazed mind. Of

course, he has only to look at the girl, half-lidded eyes as she fades in and out of sleep,

or consciousness; and the machine on his computer desk could display a full History of the

conversation throughout the night between Scaly and GiftHorse. But does he really want to

remember it all? No, he would rather leave unanswered the question ‘How could I do that to

another human being?’

He’s afraid of the answer.

> Thanks for staying with me.

> No problem.

> You shouldn’t have done. You could be traced.

> Hey, never look a GiftHorse in the mouth <s>

Lenny permits himself a wan smile. It quickly fades. His head aches with confusion. He is

desperate to make sense of what happened—how it happened. Why can’t he remember the actual

doing of the dirty deed? Why is it he can only be certain that he did do it?

> I don’t know how it happened. I mean, maybe I’m just too tired to visualise the

specifics, but somewhere in the last six hours I seem to have the whole thing muddled up.

I’m sorry I dragged you into this.

> Scaly, don’t worry about it, m8. You got yourself into a mess, you reached out for a

friend. I’d have done the same.

> You wouldn’t have got yourself into this mess in the first place. Oh Jesus, man . . .

what do I do now? If I let her go she’ll run straight to the cops. But I can’t keep her

here indefinitely.

> She led you on. Just remember that. These teasing bitches are all the same. Is it any

wonder it turns out like this? As to what you should do—let me give it some thought.

> I appreciate your understanding, m8. When I told you what I’d done, I fully expected you

to condemn me and half-expected you to run for the police. Why didn’t you?

On the screen Lenny receives the alert: UNABLE TO SEND MESSAGE NOW. RECIPIENT HAS

DISCONNECTED FROM SERVER. AUTOSEND LATER? He clicks the OK button. And feels suddenly very

alone. It’s unlikely that GiftHorse would have deserted him at a time like this, after

staying with him the whole night. Most likely his Internet connection just timed-out. He

rubs his clammy hands across his eyes, leans back in the chair, and prays that GiftHorse

will hurry up and reconnect.

“Let me go. Please . . . let me go.”

Lenny swings around in the office chair, startled by the frail voice which cut the silence.

Tied to the bed, fresh tears running, congealed makeup like pimples on her stricken face,

and blood . . . Where in God’s name did the blood come from? He can’t remember.

“I can’t let you go,” he says. “Because I know what’ll happen.”

She struggles to shake her head. “I won’t. Honest, I won’t tell anyone.”

“Of course you will. And I couldn’t blame you.”

“You can’t keep me here forever. What happens when . . .” Of course her voice trails off

then. Because she is arguing him into a corner. She is negotiating for her freedom, but

giving him no way out other than to kill her.

He can’t let her go and he can’t keep her.

“My God,” she says, “you’re not thinking of—”

He stands up, stretching the ache out of his bones. He has sat at the computer typing

frantically to his on-line mentor for hours. He has ignored cramps and nausea and the

gradual numbing of limbs.

“Please don’t kill me. You’ll make things worse for yourself. Let me go now, and it’ll be

the end of it. I shan’t tell. And even if you think I will, remember it would be your word

against mine. But if you kill me, they’ll catch you. And then you’ll really pay.”

“I’m not going to kill you,” he says. “I’m not a killer.”

Not a killer? He didn’t think he was a rapist this time yesterday.

“My word against yours?” he says. “That’s a joke. When it comes to rape, a man is guilty

until proven innocent.”

No matter how much he struggles, he can not recall the actual deed . . . this ‘rape’ word

he just used. Rape is an act of violence, yet he has no memory of that, either. But the

proof is there before his eyes. He does remember making love with her. But it wasn’t


Of course it was! It had to be. But his mind doesn’t want to accept it. So the memory

fudges the filthy deed and pretends it to be innocent lovemaking. It does that so he can

live with himself. (Some chance!)

“Who have you been talking to, on the computer all night?”

He can’t tell her that. Can’t make GiftHorse an accessory to the act. He reminds himself to

scrub the hard-drive before he lets her go. Not just format it . . . you can still recover

deleted files from a formatted disk. He’ll have to wipe it thoroughly with a magnet, make

it as permanently damaged as this poor girl’s mind. And stupidly the idea of doing that to

his precious PC is heartbreaking. That computer, and its desk and surrounding

attachments—it’s the centrepiece of his home, the heart of his life. The only thing he took

out of his failed marriage was an Advantage P120 and what little was left of his pride.

Bitterness kept him company for a while, but gradually the overpowering decay of his life

became unbearable. He looked for all manner of ways to escape the confinement of

loneliness. Only Internet chatrooms provided that escape. In chatrooms he made friends till

his eyes stung from screen glare.

He doesn’t remember which was the first Room. Or what he said to break into their

community. There were a lot of people in his life suddenly, a lot of new friends, a lot of

foolishness and fun, romantic and sexual nonsense typed in this boundless non-committal

world of cyber relationships. It was innocent and inane. Harmless escapism which didn’t

hurt a soul.

Until he agreed to meet someone—InRealLife. And raped her.

Now he sits in the tattered armchair, with a bottle and a cigarette, looking over at the

gateway to his artificial reality, then over to the bed at the ruined girl. She’s closed

her eyes, seems to have collapsed, or given up any hope of survival.

Perhaps she’s silently raking through the ashes of her spirit for courage. He wonders if

she’s trying to do that thing women do in these situations—detach the mind from the body,

sacrifice the flesh to spare the soul.

He drinks, and smokes, and waits for GiftHorse to ping him on the PC.



Crude, unwelcome daylight flushed the sleep out of my eyes. The front door clicked with a

determined finality when I pulled it shut. I had the sense that the house was glad to be

rid of me.

The police could wait. First thing I had to do was see Tracy. It was an awful, compulsive

need. Wouldn’t be dismissed.

Despite the mental exhaustion, and the alcohol still glued to my white blood cells, I had

arisen at the ungodly hour of ‘mid-morning’. Then I left home, my brand new lavish little

place, and headed for a hellish place I don’t ever want to see again.

Would they let me see her? Could I stomach seeing her? Was she already embalmed, laid out

in her eternal box, cold meat served up with a garnish of flowers? Was she ready for

visitors and was I cynical enough today to look upon the corpse of a loved one without my

legs folding beneath me?

The summer sun had failed to crack this day open yet. Maybe it had retreated out of respect

for my black mood. It rained lightly, from grizzled clouds massing like celestial threats.

I wasn’t going to drive—probably still too damn drunk to drive. So I walked to the

hospital, hands buried in the sizeable pockets of a duffel coat, collar turned up. Rain

found a passage through the crooked fold of the coat collar, chasing down the curve of my

spine, made easy by the slack way my head hung. It didn’t matter. I was already soaked.

Soaked in defeat. Throughout most of the night I’d struggled to believe it, to accept it.

Life’s a bitch and then you die, that sort of rubbish. Half the night I’d sat up watching

videos, and the movie Bladerunner gave me the line: the candle that burns twice as bright

burns half as long.

Well, Tracy did burn bright, briefly. But clichés and movie dialogue didn’t aid the

struggle. So I’d had a few hours of unquiet sleep, and awoke defeated. Because no way could

I find a sanity in which the event of last night could possibly have happened. Seeing Tracy

was the only way I could be certain that I was sane—that it really did happen.

My stomach rolled peas of sulphurous acid, and when I belched, a taste like rotten eggs

exploded in my mouth.

The walk took about ten minutes. It was one of empty faces, hollow babble, alien textures.

Everyone I passed seemed indifferent and I felt angry because they didn’t share my pain. I

didn’t belong on their pavements. I moved through the chattering streets with a dislocated

impetus. Something made my feet move, but they only moved for lack of a better idea.

As I approached the ambulance bay, shortcutting to the main entrance, I thought of Tracy as

more than a lover, more than a friend and a player that I’d lost.

She had been my nurse. An emotional medic who skilfully tended my injuries after the

marital wreckage.

The first sense of feeling when something slams into your face takes a few moments to

arrive. Initially there is a blank haze, as though the brain has been switched off at the

mains. Gradually the nerves and chemicals stutter back to life. Like they’ve got their own

emergency generator. And then you know you’ve been damaged. When that knowing came, an

ambulance’s rear doors were open before me, a collection of hands dragged me upright and

forced me towards those doors, and pain began an insistent thud through my head.

“You’re late for school, Mr. Price. Can’t have that.”

The words crawled through the throbbing in my ears. But I was deaf to the meaning in them.

So the generator in me went spastic. I lashed out. A thud came down hard on my shoulder. I

tried to spin round, but something held me. Panicked, confused, scared, I kept swinging my

fists. But I was swinging at faces I couldn’t see. I kicked out at phantoms. Punched

blindly and head-butted nothing but fresh air.

Arms strangled my chest, bleeding oxygen from my lungs. A thump in my lower back sent a

shuddering pain through the kidneys. A clammy palm covered my eyes, and my mouth when I let

out a grunt intended to be a cry for help. There were too many fucking arms and too much

confusion. Some part of my brain still hadn’t responded to the danger, seemed to be slowing

me down with the leaden weight of shock.

I hadn’t time to be shocked.

Maybe for just a heartbeat I snatched a moment of lucidity. Because I understood that this

was a clumsy attack. Not a co-ordinated assault; not efficient.

I’ve been efficiently attacked before. I know the difference.

Maybe it was a fist or a foot or some weapon thudding into my jaw, but I lost precious

seconds of lucid thought. When I reassembled my mind, dragging a sliver of reasoning from

the puddle of mess in there, I saw three men stood before me in a half-circle. My back was

against one of the ambulance’s doors. A smile flickered across the face of the nearest man

when he stepped forward and threw his fist at my chin. Before it made full contact I

slammed my head back against the door, as hard as I dared. Pain roared in my skull. But

adrenaline purged the dizziness.

I slumped, fell to my knees, groaned good and loud, drew a hand across my eyes, pretended I

was losing consciousness. Arms reached under mine to lift me to my feet. I let my body hang

as a dead weight in the man’s grip.

“Feisty little shit, isn’t he? Think he’s going to take a nap now?”—Laughter.—“Get his

legs, throw him on the gurney.”

Through half-lidded eyes I peeked at the man who bent to grab my feet. He looked back,

satisfied I was groggy. Bent lower.

My foot swung up fast and viciously. I heard bone crunch. I stabbed an elbow into the other

man’s forehead. He squealed. It sounded pathetic, almost made me laugh.

Adrenaline. The magic of chemical temper.

And now I had broken free . . . was running like a lunatic sprinter. Didn’t waste a second

looking back. Energy pumped with the blood through the muscles in my legs. The assault had

made me delirious. Like a mad sod I thought I could run forever. Some crazed part of me

hoped they would chase. I wanted to outrun them and leave them crippled with exhaustion,

watching the ‘feisty little shit’ disappear across the horizon.

But they didn’t chase. And as it turned out, I didn’t run away. Because after slowing up,

stopping, taking a few moments of calming-breaths—I found myself wondering: were they just

after me, or trying to keep me from seeing Tracy?

Only one way to find out. I made a decision I would live to regret.

I ran back.

As though I were sneaking across deserted school grounds, I ran light on my feet. I was

afraid, but I was desperate to understand. Who wanted to hurt me?

The rain-clouds peeled open a little. Sun struggled through, to light the arena for the

gods. For their spectator sport.


. . . I’m damned if I can think of a suitable nickname for myself—said Lenny, soon after

joining his first chatroom. GiftHorse came up with ‘Scaly’. Why that?—Lenny wanted to know.

GiftHorse said: You told me once that your ex-wife had a phobia about snakes? Used to say

why would God make such an evil slimy scaly creature, and put it in the Garden Of Eden? So

pick a name . . . Evil—Slimy—Scaly—Creature—etcetera. And Lenny typed LOL—laughing out

loud—and replied: Well given those choices, I guess Scaly is the most useable . . .

Lenny’s dream meanders through chatroom memories, part-remembered conversations distorted

by the subconscious. But the dream slams shut when . . .

Ping. The computer.

Lenny snaps open his eyes, rushes across to the desk, praying it’s GiftHorse. A quick

glance at the girl, but she seems preoccupied with the spilt contents of her handbag,

strewn across the bed. He vaguely remembers searching the bag for a condom at some point

last night, but is damned if he knows why. It’s not the kind of thing you worry about when

you’re intent on rape.

It isn’t GiftHorse on the PC—it’s a crazy pattern of checkerboard squares. Dissolving into

the centre is a dialogue window. A message crawls across the window, in each corner of

which is a skull and crossbones.

The girl can see the screen and she begins laughing. “You’ve been hacked. I’ve seen that

program before. Ha! You might as well let me go now. Someone else must know what’s going

on. I wouldn’t—”

“Shut up!”

He sits down, gripping the table’s edges, staring at the message repeating itself over and

over. It makes no sense. And yet he feels that it ought to. It pesters at his memory, as if

the message means to nudge something loose inside his head. Then GiftHorse comes

splashing across the screen. His message window obliterating the intruder.

> You were hacked!

> I know. Who was it?

> Didn’t get a trace in time. That’s why I broke our connection, to try and nail him.

Sorry. Couldn’t get a fix.

> Thanks for trying. It’s the least of my problems at the moment.

> How’s the girl?

> Close to hysterical. One minute she’s in a trance, next minute she’s laughing like a

demented hyena.

> I’m sorry, m8—but it gets worse. The police are on their way.

Lenny’s fingers freeze over the keyboard. The police are on their way. How the hell could

that happen? How could they know?

GiftHorse might have been reading his mind to spare his fingers the effort of typing.

> We’ve been talking all night and I thought we were secure. You’ve got your firewall up,

haven’t you, Scaly?

Of course he had. But a firewall doesn’t provide complete protection. Although the odds of

someone listening in on this particular night were ridiculous. The odds of that someone

also having the technical knowledge to crack a firewall were even more so. Yet someone did

hack him. Someone called Jackson who threw a crazy message across Lenny’s screen. Had he—or

she—called the police?

> Must’ve been the hacker called the cops.

No. Doesn’t make sense. GiftHorse is wrong. The hacker’s message suggested he was on

Lenny’s side, suggested he was trying to warn him about something.

Lenny turns to look at the girl, because she has started to laugh again. Only now she’s

laughing quietly, as if she knows something Lenny doesn’t, as if she has her own precious


He gets out of the chair, walks to the bed, pulls at her left arm, which is securely tied

behind her head to the board railing. He pulls at her right arm, and it comes away, the

butcher’s string frayed where it has snapped. Her wrist is bruised and bloody. She must

have been tugging at the string all night while he typed.

“Fucker!”—she spits in his face. And from her hand drops a palm-sized mobile phone.

He picks it up. It’s an Eriksson T20S. The flip-lid is closed. But on the screen it says

‘Message Sent’.

“It’s a WAP phone, you bastard. I sent an e-mail to four numbers in the memory. You’re


Oh Jesus . . .

He can hear the thunder of feet on the floors below. No sirens; but they wouldn’t use

sirens on their approach, would they? The building is being evacuated. He rushes across to

the window, and the vista in the street below is straight from a movie clip.

He is surrounded by armed police. And he understands that whatever options he had have just

been simplified. Give it up or die.

> I’m finished, Carlin. I’ve got no way out now.

There’s a pause before GiftHorse replies. Within which a demanding voice is issuing

ultimatums to Lenny through a bullhorn. The police shouldn’t do that, should they? Aren’t

they supposed to talk him down carefully? They must know he has a hostage and he might very

well be insane . . .

> I’ll stay with you, friend. Whatever happens. I’ll stay.

The girl is laughing and sobbing, a strange mixed-up noise from the back of her throat.

> No. No. Disconnect! They’ll find you. This is not your problem. Pull the plug and get

away from your computer.

> No. I’m staying. I’m worried what you might do.

Lenny is glad that Carlin refuses to leave him. He is too bloody terrified to be alone with

this hysterical bitch. She’s too clever. She feigned stupidity and fear all night, working

her right arm loose from its restraint; she got hold of her mobile phone; she e-mailed for

help. The very technology that brought so many new friends into Lenny’s life—that brought

her into his life—has been turned against him.

> I have to let her go. She scares me.

GiftHorse is perhaps confused at this. But he will understand eventually.

> She’s all you’ve got to bargain with, m8. Are you sure?

> Yes. It’ll only make things worse if I keep her.

> So you’re giving yourself up? Just like that? Is there no way out?

> I’m not giving up. I couldn’t handle prison.

> Oh shit, Len. You’re not thinking the unthinkable, are you?

> LOL—(He pretends to be amused by Carlin’s suggestion. He doesn’t want him to worry about

the ‘unthinkable’.) He tells him—

> —I’m too much of a coward to kill myself. No, my friend. There’s no way out. They’ll have

the building locked up tight. But I’ll not make it easy for them.

Carlin—aka GiftHorse—doesn’t reply immediately. Not too often you can leave GiftHorse

speechless. But he finally makes it back to Lenny’s screen with what seems like a shopping

list of instructions.

He has no better ideas. And Lenny trusts GiftHorse. A lot of people trust him because it’s

easy to trust strangers when they’re on the other side of a screen and you feel protected

by the privacy of your anonymity, and no one can see your eyes, nor hear a voice that might

betray secrets—no matter what lies, truths, or evils you might confess to the Room.

Lenny reads again the advice from his friend. Then he leaves the keyboard, goes to the

girl, pulling a lock-knife from his trouser pocket. One last triumph as terror strikes a

pose across her face. But he only cuts the butchers’ string, steps back, nods at the door.

She doesn’t run. Her legs are probably half-numb. Rather she hobbles, looking sideways at

him, glaring fear from her bloodshot eyes. She turns her back on him a moment, to navigate

the cluttered stairs that lead from his flat to the ground floor. That’s when he hits her.

Clumsily, but hard enough across the base of her skull.

Her pulse is ragged, but stubborn. She’ll live.

He carries her unconscious body down to the cellar. A mould-lined grid allows broken

daylight and whispers of air into the musty storeroom. He pushes the grid out from the

wall, and lifts her body, shoving it through to the outside yard, and a freedom she can not

yet appreciate. She will wake up in overgrown grass, amid trash and overflowing garden

skips. She’ll gag at the smell clinging to her skin—until she realises that she’s no one’s

prisoner any longer.

On the way back up to his flat, doing the other thing GiftHorse told him to do, he wonders

if he was only protecting her from some part of himself over which he has no control. He

wonders if he might have got so desperately indifferent to the situation, that he would

have killed her. But she’s gone now, and Lenny is relieved that he won’t have to test his

own humanity.


There was only one of them still there in the ambulance bay. Which was a relief. One was

all I needed to get some answers and probably all I could handle, even with the element of

surprise as my advantage.

Stooped down by the ambulance’s rear off-side wheel, a psi gauge pressed into the valve,

checking the tyre’s pressure, he didn’t notice me slide up behind him.

I had taken the belt off my jeans, had it stretched between my hands like a garrotte. In

one swift movement I looped it over his neck and yanked him back. I let go of the belt and

he fell, banging his skull on the tarmac. Before he was able to recover, I stood over him,

put my left foot on his throat, and applied just enough pressure to make him gag.

“You’ve got precious little time, mate. And even less breath. So for every question I ask,

I’ll release my foot just long enough for you to answer. Fuck me about, and I’ll drain your

lungs dry. Got it?”

He stared up at me, goggle-eyed. I realised at that moment that I didn’t recognise him from

our earlier encounter. But considering the madness of that assault, I probably wouldn’t

have recognised any of the three who attacked me. Maybe the one who slammed his fist at my

face. Maybe him I’d recognise. But this man wasn’t him. He was late-forties, stockily

built, dark hair thinning and greyed at the temples. I quickly scanned the ambulance bay,

and thanked a god I could never decide whether to believe in for the fact that it was

deserted. I knew it wouldn’t stay that way for long. I needed answers quickly.

“Why did you attack me?”

I released the pressure on his throat enough for him to answer. He tried to shake his head

but gave up when I exerted a little more coercion.

"One more chance. Why?”

He coughed dryly and with a gagging sound. “Didn’t. Don’t know what . . . you

mean.” His words came out as though each was balanced on the thinnest edge of a breeze. I

pressed again. And his hand slapped down on the tarmac, as if submitting in a wrestling



“I . . . didn’t do anything. I swear it, man. Not me.”

I wondered for a moment. Obviously my attackers had been posing as ambulancemen.

And if this guy was one of them, would he still be here now, bothering to check tyre

pressures? Yet, how do three fake medics get away with an attack in broad daylight; three

men who had intended to hustle me into that ambulance? This ambulance. I recognised it from

the deep metal scar on its rear bumper: an image subconsciously noted in my memory when I’d

been bundled towards it.

“What’s your shift?”

His choked response came back, “Eight . . . to . . . four.”

I relaxed my foot a little. “Your job. What’s your job?”

“Maintenance. I clean them, check tyres, oil, water. Routine . . . stuff.”

“How many others work your shift?”

I fired these questions at him fast, alternately pressing and releasing my foot

against his throat—with the full weight of my body behind it. He was starting to pale,

probably going to vomit.

“Two. One. One other.”

“Make your mind up.”

“Normally two. One is off sick.”

“Where is the other?”

“Supply room.”

“For how long?”

The man hesitated. He couldn’t look at his watch so he had to guess. “About, about

. . . an hour.”

I did some guessing of my own. From leaving the scene of the attack, to

returning—fifteen minutes at most. “So you’ve been on your own a good half hour?”

“Yeah. Honest. I don’t know what your problem is, man. There’s just me—”

“Precisely! Just you. So if three impostors dressed up as ambulance medics and

messed with your vehicle, you’d know about it.”

He didn’t answer. In fact he closed his eyes for some reason. I wondered if he’d

passed out. On the radio in the garage I heard a clip of a News report about some guy in

another part of the city, holding a girl hostage. Something about Internet date rape. A man

who frequented chatrooms—(well, you and me both, pal, I thought). It was a man known on the

Net as Scaly.


I must’ve misheard. Either that or someone had chosen an unfortunate nickname. A

painful flash-memory reminded me what I didn’t want reminding of: the name Scaly died

thirty years ago. But they repeated his name. “Lenny Mitchell, also known as Scaly in

Internet chatrooms, where he enticed the woman, who can not be named at this stage, to a

meeting . . .” And so on.

Police marksmen were “attending” the scene. Well good for them! I could have used

some police marksmen on the scene about fifteen minutes ago. Tracy could have used some

last night.

The man’s eyes were still shut when he flapped his hand again. I let up on the

pressure. “Okay. Alright. I was paid to take a walk,” he said. “I’m part-time. I don’t earn

a lot and I don’t give a shit what goes on around here. Some guy shoves fifty quid in my

hand and tells me to disappear. I . . . I just went to the toilet. I have a bad gut. Spend

half my days in the toilet.”

I could see more than greed in his eyes. I saw fear, and I didn’t think it was only

me he was afraid of. “Wasn’t just the money, was it?”

“No. One of them . . . he . . . he was a fucking gorilla. He’d have hurt me. Worse

than you’re doing. I could see it in his face. The kind that enjoys hurting people. They

don’t pay me enough to be a hero.”

“No,” I muttered. “Don’t suppose they do. Shut your eyes again. Count to thirty.

Open them at the wrong time and I’ll crush your windpipe. Understand?”

He made a pained effort to nod.

I was gone and making my way through the main building by the time he would have

reached fifteen.

I still had to see Tracy. Maybe I’d find some answers there. Maybe I’d find nothing

more than the refreshed pain of losing her. Confusion was settling like thick fog.

I’m sceptical about coincidences. Tracy dead. I’m attacked on my way to say goodbye

to her corpse. A name I hadn’t heard for over three decades was probably going to get

professionally executed for going Chatroom-Crazy . . . and the weather had shifted from

drizzled grey to white heat!

What the hell was going on in Newcastle?


A crisp blue sky like ironed linen allowed a few drifting clouds to move across the sun:

they were quickly digested by the fierce yellow ball. Beaded sweat broke out on the exposed

flesh of a crowd enjoying the perfect summer’s morning and the madness on Lassiter Street.

Peterson was late getting to the scene. He ran over to where the negotiator

squatted, and behind the safety of the vehicle, doubled up to draw in some air. Finally he

got enough breath to spit on the ground, a couple of inches from Bill Reece’s left shoe.

Reece frowned. “For a skinny runt you ought to have more energy. And that’s a

disgusting habit, by the way.”

Peterson grinned. “It’s a disgusting world and I’ve got a disgusting taste in my

mouth. So fuck off.”

“Serves you right for piling French mustard on your dogs. Told you before, that

stuff’s not suitable for English bellies. Let me guess, were you on the shitter when the

shout went up?” The two men were crouched behind the bonnet of an ARV, a pistol in

Peterson’s fist, a bullhorn in Reece’s, the sun beating down mercilessly on their heads.

“His name’s Lenny Mitchell. And he’s got himself a young female hostage. That’s about all

we know at the moment. Unfortunately, the Media know it, too.”

“Already? How?”

“We’re the ringmasters in an electronic circus.”


Reece shook sweat off his head, smiling without any real humour. “You’ll see.”

Until the armed response units, the local squad cars, the anti-terrorist unit and

the bomb squad had bludgeoned their way into this road, it had been a poor but relatively

quiet residential suburb of Newcastle. Now, police tape and uniformed officers had cordoned

off the area. Officers trained in the use of firearms, and siege analysts trained in the

use of psychopaths, were waiting. The crews of six ambulances and four fire engines were

also waiting. They sat in or near their vehicles, variously sipping coffee from thermos

flasks provided by neighbouring householders, updating their superiors through hand-held

radios. To what degree of patience they waited varied greatly with each individual.

Peterson was not one of the patient ones. He was all for storming the building and

shooting at anything that moved. It was the first situation he’d been called in to deal, in

which he had been authorised to draw a weapon. He was itching to make the most of it.

The voice, hoarse from shouting, came again through the upstairs front left window.

“We’ll burn in hell, you bastards. I mean it. The bitch will die and it will be your


A balloon of thick grey smoke tumbled over the roof of the end terraced house,

breaking into snaking ribbons as it rose. The fire crews could only look on as the fire

worsened. The hostage-taker had made it plain, he didn’t trust any of them. No firemen; no

hoses, no water, no nothing. Or he’d kill the girl.

The two adjoining houses had been converted to flats some years back. Today, by the

ill-conceived actions of a delinquent, they had been converted to a crime scene. Peterson

would like to have relocated this scene to somewhere more glamorous. A high street bank

maybe. A major office complex.

Of all the mundane places to find yourself in your first siege situation . . .

As far as Peterson was concerned, this perp wasn’t too bright. Almost sure to be a

product of foster homes and detention centres, a man who’d rode the bus of misdemeanour

felonies all the way to the terminus of rape, kidnap and arson. Peterson already had him

pegged as a pathetic figure, made even more so by the futility of being one excitable

villain surmounted by an army of highly-trained police officers.

In truth, Peterson couldn’t have been more wrong in his appraisal of Lenny

Mitchell. But he would never know just how wrong he was.

The windows were smog-blackened, and flames were eating a steady track from the

rear of the building to the front. The top floor still remained fire-free, and there was no

apparent fire to the two floors below. But although the fire had evidently been started on

the ground floor, it was only a matter of time before the flames crawled up to the roof.

Assuming the dump didn’t fall flat on its haunches first.

The muffled sobs of the girl’s mother could be heard, despite the comforting of the

young constable, despite the splintering and buckling of timber and plaster. A light breeze

whispered through what was left of the building, and more ribbons of smoke breathed at the


Peterson prayed for a glimpse of the lunatic before the fire consumed him, so that

he could put his firearms’ training to good use. It would be a real strike to beat those

stolid-faced marksman on the trigger.

“We have confirmation on the gun,” said the negotiator. “But it’s only an air

pistol. Guess that’s why he used the fire.”

Peterson looked around. “You’ve seen the gun?”

“No. The silly bugger has as good as told us—and anyone else listening. Welcome to

the circus. Get this—he’s on-line, on a computer. He’s chatting away to an accomplice.” The

black man shrugged. “Can you believe the stupidity? These computer nerds can jack into the

World Wide Web and make microchips dance. But they haven’t got the brains to avoid getting

themselves into this kind of no-win shit. They—”

“Okay okay. Spare me the sociopath profiling.” Peterson had precious little

interest in the psychology of criminals, and his interest in computers was strictly for

entertainment. “Chatting, you said?”

Bill Reece was a big man, round-chested and thick-necked. His ebony skin was

streaked with sweat. Yet despite the heat, and the effect it had on his huge build, he

still emitted an air of lazy calm. Even in squat position, when he sighed it seem to crawl

up leisurely from his ample gut to his bulbous face. “He’s got an open line to a friend.

We’re monitoring from the van.” He nodded at the command vehicle. “Seems he’s asking for

advice. He didn’t plan on the fire getting so big. Set a small blaze going to make us back

off—then lost control of it.”

“We got anything we can use yet? Family, wife, girlfriend?”

The negotiating officer fiddled irritably with the radio receiver in his ear.

Plastic was hot; felt like it was melting into his head. “So far only what we’ve picked up

from the computer. And these nerds use so many aliases it takes a while to track down a

genuine ID. But we’ll get the rest soon enough. The girl’s e-mail gave us his name. Her

friend who called it in knew of him, from some Internet chatroom. Then the switchboard lit

up with this guy’s chat buddies calling to say they knew he was on-line. So we brought our

specialists along to see if they could listen in.”

Peterson looked exasperated. “How’d these ‘buddies’ know he was on a computer?”

“Our bad guy is using a fairly simple chat program—a direct messenger service.

Anyone on the same service logged in his computer address book knows when he’s on the wire.

Like I say, our boys tapped in, and that’s how we know about the air pistol. His friend

just told him to wave it around, and maybe we’d back off. Trouble is, our kid is losing it.

The fire has panicked him and he can’t see a way out of this mess. Despite his big threats,

he’s terrified out of his wits.”

Peterson looked back up at the window. And with no little sarcasm said, “So how’s

the negotiating coming along?”

“Not too well,” Reece mumbled. “He’s too hysterical to negotiate. Hold up.” A voice

crackled in his radio earpiece.

A few moments later he said, “Well, at least we now have a clue why he’s gone over

the edge. The girl was an Internet date. It went wrong. The girl was teasing about him not

being anything like he’d made out in the chatroom. He flipped, and the poor lass found

herself the victim of an Internet date rape. He’s been spilling his guts to his on-line


“So what now? You haven’t even got a line of communication with this lunatic.

Unless you’re planning to go negotiate in a bloody chatroom with him.”

Reece had the patience of a man used to far more testy customers than this

over-zealous newbie. It was well-known that Peterson was a moody sycophant who had no time

for his colleagues but all the time in the world for the superiors who could promote his

career. Some high-level arse-kissing must have brought Detective David Peterson into this

traumatic situation today. And he was the last man Reece would want waving a gun around,

with license to pull the trigger at will.

Still taking info from the radio feed in his ear, Reece breathed out his

irritation. “Seems the man is being encouraged by the accomplice. Bargaining for his

freedom. Wants us to back up out of here or he’ll keep the girl and they’ll go down in


Whilst the two men watched the fire spreading, the smoke thickening, waiting for

the next move from Lenny Mitchell, the technicians in the command vehicle were busy at

their computers. In addition to eavesdropping on the messenger chat, they had also traced

the accomplice, over four-hundred miles away in North London. Met police were on their way


Outside, in the hazy stagnated street, Peterson looked up. He stared into the

crowd—looking for a face he knew he wouldn’t see.

If Sandra could see him now, it would validate everything she’d ever complained

about. She had left him three months earlier, as soon as his move to armed-response was

finalised. She wasn’t happy him being in the force in the first place. So the fact that he

seemed to get high on any part of the job which involved violence, showed a side of him

that frightened her. Peterson remembered the earlier days, when he’d get home from a nasty

crowd-control duty at a football ground . . . and he knew it showed—he couldn’t help it—the

glow, the high of the adrenaline rush that hit him when the riot gear went on and the

batons came out.

“Maybe I’ve got a death wish,” he muttered.

Reece heard him. “Why? You itching to charge in there? Because if you are, kiss

your career goodbye and don’t expect any sympathy from me.”

Peterson ignored him. No, of course he wasn’t ‘itching’ to charge into a

fire-ravaged building and risk the life of the hostage in the hope of putting a bullet into

the head of a misfit. But if Reece and his crew didn’t get something happening soon, they’d

all be blaming themselves for the girl’s death because of their inaction. Sooner or later

somebody was going to have to go in. And later was running out.

Peterson looked beyond the barricades, at the main street which carried on with its

business in an unconcerned way. The traffic rumbled listlessly on roads which looked wet

with heat-haze. And the pavements stunk. Obviously it was ‘rubbish’ day, because black bags

were piled all along the kerbsides, waiting to be gathered by the bin wagon which wouldn’t

now be coming.

What a miserable setting for his first armed operation.

But, despite that . . . supposing he did somehow get the man, and bring the hostage

out alive? What would Sandra think then? Maybe she’d finally understand that it does

sometimes take a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Beyond the cordon, Peterson saw inquisitorial faces, anonymous and sweat-wet.

Maybe she wasn’t there, in amongst them, but this was a live scene—it was all over

the News already. More than one cameraman had been pushed back beyond the cordon. But they

had those zoom lenses, didn’t they? They could be focused on him right now. Sandra was

likely watching this on TV.

The onlookers swiped perspiration from their brows. They had ice creams melting in

their fists. They gawped with poised excitement. The open door of a pub on the High Street

let out the strains of Radar Love—an old classic rock track Peterson remembered from his

courting days.

The atmosphere contrived to make him feel as though he were on a stage.

A small fair-haired girl—maybe eight or nine years old—plaited hair and short

summer dress, stared intently at him. He became self-conscious for a moment, but that

didn’t stop him admiring the pencil-thin lightly-tanned legs beneath her dress. Aware

suddenly of his role in this drama, Peterson looked back at her, smiling. Then,

ridiculously, he winked, and twirled the pistol around his trigger finger.

He looked away quickly when Bill Reece laughed. His face flushed with

embarrassment. Yet despite being caught off-guard for that moment, still he felt that the

part he was casting for himself in this stage-drama . . . well, it suited him! And no one

else was doing a damn thing except playing with bloody computers.

Good God Almighty—let the snotnosed brat poke his head out of that damn window for

just five seconds.

Peterson was overwhelmed with a sense of his own heroic role. In moments that

flooded his brain with a brief chemical madness, he became the only hope that poor girl

had. He is the hero that isn’t supposed to belong in the modern police force. He is dubbed

by the media ‘Dirty Harry’—the man that defies the book, but gets the job done.

If only!

The modern force didn’t allow for ‘Dirty Harry’ policing. Showing a little

initiative these days was the fastest route back to uniformed beat patrol.

The shrill chime of his mobile phone broke into his thoughts. “Shit. Hang on a


Bill Reece laughed. “Sure. We’ll hang on while you take your call. Do let us know

when the situation is okay to proceed.”

Peterson, still squatting, turned his back to lean against the vehicle. “Hello?”

“Hello, Detective. My name is Carlin. It is most important that I speak with you.”

Peterson tapped the phone with his knuckles. There was something wrong with the

connection. The voice in the earpiece sounded robotic, like one of those synthetic

computer-generated voices. “Listen, mate, this is not the best time to sell me

double-glazing. I’m in the middle of—”

“I know what you’re in the middle of, Detective. In fact I can see clearly what

you’re in the middle of. Look up to the traffic lights. You’ll see a small security camera

watching over this fascinating scene. And I’m watching over you.”

Peterson glanced up, saw the camera. “Who the hell are you and what do you want?”

he growled.

“Well, as to who I am, you may call me GiftHorse—a pseudonym I borrowed for this

situation, which allows me to impersonate the friend of a confused and frightened man in a

burning flat. By the way, I’m sorry to have disappointed your officers who by now will

undoubtedly have raided a deserted apartment in Wembley, finding only the notebook computer

I left behind. But as to what I want . . . well, here comes the candle to light you to bed.

And here comes the chopper to chop off your head.”

Peterson’s mind raced through a gallery of flashing memories and scattered phrases,

none of which made sense. But they were important. He knew they were important. He saw a

man in his mind’s eye, typing sick suggestions into a chatroom screen. Here comes the

candle to light you to bed, and here comes the chopper to chop off your head…

That sick paedophile was himself.

“I must inform you that I am well aware of your little hobby.”

Peterson pressed the phone close against his head. “What do you mean, my hobby?”

“Your penchant for visiting certain Internet chatrooms, in which you sweet-talk the

naïve little children who have no inclination of the kind of pervert you are.”

David Peterson had shivers sprinting the length of his spine. “How do you . . . I

mean, what in God’s name are you talking about?”

“Don’t waste time in denial, Detective. I have proof. And if it weren’t too late to

warn you, I would suggest that for future reference you protect your computer from

intruders. Intruders like me, who can rearrange the duty roster on the mainframe of a

constabulary system to make sure that you were called to this particular scene.”

Peterson’s mind spun. Good God! When he got the call it had seemed to good to be

true. But could this jerk truly have done that? Broken into the police computer

network—fixed it so that he, Peterson, ended up here today? “What do you want from me,

apart from the opportunity to brag?”

“What I want is for you to do only what you’re desperate to do anyway. I want you

to ignore the fumbling reticence of your black colleague. I want you to get into that

building and do your duty. The man, Lenny Mitchell, is a menace to society. And the only

effective way to remove this menace is to shoot the little devil’s brains out the back of

his head. Do this for me, Detective Peterson, and you will never hear from me again. Your

tacky sexual orientation shall remain your business, and your business alone—though I

suspect your wife has some inkling of it but that’s no concern of mine.”

There was a pause, within which Peterson was unaware of the bustle in the crime

scene around him, unaware of the TV News’ cameras panning, unaware of everything but the

terrifying realisation that someone knew of his personal and demanding desires which he had

always been sure were secreted on his hidden laptop computer.

Understanding that he was being blackmailed, by a man whose voice was disguised by

some kind of distortion gadget, a man who wanted—truthfully—what he wanted himself . . .

Peterson felt his anger turn to fear. His career, his marriage, his very safety in an

intolerant society, were all in jeopardy if this man was prepared to expose him. Was he

bluffing? No—Peterson didn’t believe he was. It had come as one hell of a surprise to find

himself assigned to this detail, so fresh from the training program that permitted him to

carry a weapon. This man had arranged everything, but for what purpose?”

“Why do you want him dead?”

The synthesised voice replied: “Because there is a much bigger picture here than

you could possibly imagine, Detective. Now do your job. Go in there, take the rapist down,

and make sure that our atrociously ineffective legal system doesn’t allow a man like that

to ever walk the streets again.”

“Hey, when you’ve quite finished, you want to get your arse over here a minute,

lad. I’m getting an update on the situation. You haven’t time for sweet-talking your bloody

wife or mistress or whoever the hell it is.”

Peterson waved his hand dismissively at Bill Reece. “Yes, yes, I’m coming, get out

of my face. This is important.”

“Detective,” the voice said insistently, “think of this, if it helps. As a

policeman you have dabbled in the madness of mankind as though it were some kind of idle

past-time, a fancy with which to pass a few empty hours. But now you have a gun—and the

authority to use it at your discretion. Now you have the power to eradicate this madness.

Yours are unique skills, David Peterson. In a society which relies so heavily upon its

advanced technology for survival and progress, you possess the one gift which is beyond

compare. The courage to act upon your convictions, no matter the consequence or criticism.”

“It’s not that simple,” Peterson whispered. “I can’t just blaze a trail into that

building, no matter how much I’d like to. There’s rules, protocols. And I need—”

“You need do only what your conscience suggests—and what I insist!”

The line went dead.

Peterson knew that he had no choice but to follow the urgency in his blood-thirsty

soul, and the demands of the mysterious caller. He looked up at the camera again, knowing

that somewhere some clever bastard was watching over him, had been watching over him for

God-knew how long, and that his life was in this voyeur’s hands.

So now he is walking hurriedly towards the side-door of the building, whilst the

upstairs window is flooding with smoke, blinding Lenny Mitchell to Peterson’s movements. He

is ignoring the yells from Bill Reece—“What the fuck are you doing?—for God’s sake get back

here and . . . ”

He is unconcerned with Reece shouting. Reece has been informed by a confused

technician that someone called Jackson has hacked into their system, and delivered them a


<<< Lenny is going to kill himself. His so-called friend, GiftHorse—has arranged things to

end that way. Lenny doesn’t know it but he has no choice. Unless you stop him. >>>

Reece has also been informed that they lost the accomplice. They found a computer

in an abandoned tenement flat in Wembley, still hooked to the web. But no accomplice.

Peterson is unaware of all this behind-the-scenes stuff. Unaware too that the girl

hostage has stumbled from the back yard of the house, walking like a shell-shocked war

veteran into the throng of madness on the street.

He is in the building now, kicking broken door frames aside, heedless of the

approach of flames, picking his way up the broken staircase, gun extended, safety off,

blood-red veins pulsing in his eyes, holding his breath from the toxic fumes.

He has found the room and stepped through the wreckage of its doorway. The man is

sat on the floor, knees drawn upto his chest and his arms locked around them. He is rocking

back and forth, oblivious to Peterson’s presence. The girl has gone. She must have

escaped—leaving the crazed nerd to nurse his own insanity.

There is just David Peterson and Lenny Mitchell. And Peterson has a firearm that

mocks the silly air pistol discarded by the man’s feet. The policeman understands all of

this in moments of fury. He has been robbed. Robbed of the chance to save the girl. Robbed

of the chance to be a hero.

The man looks up at Peterson, staring in dumb stupidity at the pistol.

Peterson raises his arm to fire. He will put a precise hole in the forehead of

Lenny fucking Mitchell and say he had no choice. Because even an air pistol can do serious

damage at close range. Peterson will say he was protecting his own life. And Peterson will

pray to God Almighty that the man who called him on his cellular phone will honour his

promise. No one must ever know of his depraved appetites, diagrammed in Internet Chatrooms

which he has been penetrating for months, masquerading as a fourteen year-old, trying to

lure naïve young girls into IRL meetings.

The lighted match which Lenny has been holding for just a few seconds falls from

his hand.

Peterson notices too late that he is standing in a pool of paraffin. A small heater

lays on its side, and a canister has spilt its contents across the charred floorboards.

Flames streak, suddenly and brutally, toward the policeman. He never gets to see the

computer screen which lays on the floor by the villain, nor the message text scrolling left

to right, repeating itself over and over . . .

<<<Scaly??? Lenny Mitchell??? My name is Thomas Jackson. Don’t let this happen. You’ve been

used by GiftHorse, and by myself. I am so sorry. I had to protect someone, but I never

meant for you to get so involved. You didn’t rape anyone. You were set up. There’s been too

much blood . . . too much. And there’ll be more. I don’t want your death on my conscience.

It was all my fault—my fault! GIVE YOURSELF UP BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!>>>

There is an explosion, which to Peterson is like the detonation of applause after a

stage show. It’s the last thing he ever hears.

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