You are Vanguard

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 4 (v.1) - CHAPTERS 10 - 12

Submitted: August 01, 2017

Reads: 72

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Submitted: August 01, 2017

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TEN

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Nicola Rickard was confused. It had become apparent that her Sat Nav had let her down. For the first fifteen minutes everything had been fine. She’d had the roof down, the wind had been blowing through her hair, a cigarette had been pincered between the first two knuckles of her left hand as she drove (even though the wind had blown the cigarette down and she’d only got five or six drags from it before flicking its spent butt into the ether). But now she was lost. She pulled the car to the side of the road and turned her head to look into the back seat.

 “I’m putting the roof up, sweetie,” Nicola said to Gemma, before pressing a button and watching as the roof rose, phoenix-like, from the back of the car. “Mummy needs to concentrate.” As the roof enclosed them, Nicola removed her shades and threw them into the glove compartment, before fiddling with the Sat Nav as if disarming a bomb. Eventually she whipped out a mobile phone and within ten seconds she was speaking to her husband.

“Ed, it’s me. I’m trying to find Ashbourne Rise but the Sat Nav’s messing me around, as usual… Well, I’m on Ashbourne Way so it must be nearby… I came off Bolton Road onto Ashbourne Way, I’ve driven around and found Ashbourne Road, Ashbourne Garth… Well, you’re a man, you’re supposed to be good with stuff like this, aren’t you?… Ed, the whole point in having Sat Nav is so I don’t have to ask weirdos for directions… Yes, I know you’re working, I watched you leave this morning… Well can’t you ask your client?... What do you think I’m ringing for? Ask your client where Ashbourne Rise is… Well I don’t know, maybe he’s burgled a house nearby so he knows the area… Yeah… Mmm… And then… Mmm… Okay, that’s great. Thank him for me, will you?... Okay, see you later on… bye… Yeah, love you too… Bye.”

Nicola put her phone back into her pocket and turned back to Gemma. “We have lift off,” Nicola said to her daughter, before making a U-turn which could be best described as ‘violent.’

Gemma held her mobile phone in her lap and sent a text message to Katie. Thirty seconds later the car screeched to a halt outside number 2 Ashbourne Rise and the roof retracted, revealing the sky above. As Gemma unfastened her seat belt and moved towards the door handle, Nicola turned back to her again. “Oi!” Nicola said. “Don’t leave without giving your Mum a kiss.”

Gemma did as instructed.

“I’ll be back at four o’ clock to pick you up. If there’s any emergencies, tell Katie’s Mum to ring my mobile.”

Gemma left the car and Nicola watched her walk down the drive, before Nicola reversed the car out of the cul-de-sac and headed back home.

Katie was already outside the house, round the back, where Gemma knew she would be. The two girls whispered ‘hello’ to each other and walked quickly and quietly down the drive of the house before turning onto Ashbourne Oval. Katie had told her mother that Gemma’s mum was picking up the two girls and taking them back to Gemma’s house. When Katie’s Mum had looked out of the window and had seen Nicola’s car parked in front, she had been appeased, and had watched Katie leave the house before continuing her chores.

“Have you got your special things?” Gemma asked Katie.

“Yes,” Katie replied.

“Did Erin give you hers?”

“Yes,” Katie replied.

“I’ve got mine and Penny’s,” Gemma said.

“What do we do now?” Katie asked.

“Tara and Faith are doing the same thing that we’ve done. We’re meeting them in town. Then we’re catching a bus to Queensbury to meet Melissa.”

“Do we know where to meet Melissa?” Katie asked.

“I’ve got some directions from Google,” Gemma said, removing the sheet from her pocket. “Penny did them for me.”

“Why can’t Penny come with us today?”

“She’s goes swimming on Saturdays with her Mum and her brother. What did Erin say again?”

“She’s at her grandma and granddad’s all day,” Katie replied. “So how do we get into town?”

Gemma unfolded her sheet. “We walk up onto Ashbourne Way, then we get onto Bolton Road. The buses that are going from left to right take us into town. We’ll catch the 640 or 641 bus.”

There wasn’t much conversation between the girls on the first part of their journey. Gemma was in charge and was glued to her instructions throughout. Katie just followed her. When they hopped onto the bus, the driver didn’t see it as his job to be concerned by the sight of two unsupervised ten year olds, he was just paid to drive the bus, and although an old lady at the front of the bus seemed to notice, she seemed to find it charming rather than worrying. Gemma ushered Katie to the back and when they were sat on the seats their feet didn’t touch the floor. As the bus set off, Gemma rang Faith. Faith and Tara were on a different bus and were about to arrive in town themselves.

When Gemma and Katie arrived in town, Faith and Tara were waiting for them outside what used to be the Early Learning Centre. The sign was still there but the shop had been closed and gutted: the windows revealed only dust and shadow. After it had been established that Faith and Tara had brought their special things, the four girls walked to a kids’ clothing shop which Katie had promised them was a stone’s throw from the Early Learning Centre, but when they arrived, that too was closed down. Its sign remained, as did a garish poster stuck onto the window from the inside, which said ‘CLOSING DOWN SALE – UP TO 80% OFF,’ but the shop was dark and empty. They needed to find some clothes which Oliver could wear once he had been reassembled and revived. They figured Oliver was too small for man-sized clothes but in the end, that’s what they had to settle for. They managed to find Burtons and its workforce of slack-jawed teenagers who spent half of the time staring gormlessly into the middle distance and the other half of the time fiddling with smart phones. After an argument between the girls about what clothes Oliver should wear (an argument which Gemma won), they bought a purple t-shirt with the number ‘8’ on it, a pair of cream-coloured combat shorts and some white pumps. All four girls had pooled together their pocket money in order to buy these items. Socks and underwear were fripperies which they couldn’t afford. There was no doubt that Gemma was bossing the other girls around but it was actually welcome. Tara, for one, felt uneasy about being in town without an adult and doing something she was pretty certain was very, very naughty, but Gemma’s dominating presence made her feel that she didn’t have a choice in the matter, which was less naughty than if Tara had made the choice herself.

Meanwhile, Melissa was stood behind a tree on the same road as the entrance to the stables. Sandra had dropped her off beside the entrance and Melissa had initially walked through the entrance and up the dirt road, until she’d felt confident that her mother’s car had disappeared. Melissa had then turned and looked, which confirmed it, then did an about-face, walked back down the dirt road and looked for an ideal spot where she could hide but would still be able to see the other girls when they approached.

For the plan to work, Melissa would use Gemma’s mobile phone to ring the stables and say that she wasn’t attending today because her mum was (a) too ill to bring her and (b) too ill to ring the stables to inform them herself. The call had to be made before the staff at the stables realised her absence and rang Sandra to enquire. Melissa felt scared but knew that it wasn’t too late to back out. Melissa could have left the tree, walked back towards the stables and apologised for being late when she arrived. She could have disposed of her special things, told her mum that she’d fallen out with the other girls, never speak to them again, and forget everything. But if everyone followed the plan, they would be at Dennis Downs’ house in less than an hour and by then it would be too late to back out.

During the first week after the Leeds concert, Melissa had been charmed by her special things. Not only could she touch a part of Oliver whenever she wanted, but no-one else was allowed to. It was as if Oliver belonged to her and no-one else. Once Melissa had learned that she wasn’t the only one who possessed a part of Oliver, the special things became less special, until they were now just a dissatisfying substitute for the real thing.

Melissa peered around the tree and saw something further down the road. Within a minute she was able to identify what she was looking at: four girls. Within another minute she could tell that the girls were Gemma, Katie, Tara and Faith, clutching bags and back packs. Melissa stepped out from behind the tree and waved. The four girls spotted her and approached. The first thing Gemma did was whip out her mobile phone and ask Melissa to ring the stables.

Melissa had told lies before, but the prospect of lying in the company of four other girls, all of whom would be watching her, made Melissa uncomfortable. She suggested that Gemma, who had probably never been scared of anything in her entire life, could ring the stables and pretend to be Sandra, but Gemma pointed out what Melissa already knew: the staff knew what Sandra’s voice sounded like. It would have to be Melissa who made the call.

She did. What gave her the final push was her knowledge of what risks the other girls had taken today. Now it was Melissa’s turn. Melissa wished Erin was here: Erin always made Melissa feel more comfortable. Melissa didn’t even know if the other girls liked her, and that made her want to do things in order to be liked by them. The phone call was over very quickly. Melissa felt paranoid afterwards, she worried that the person she had spoken to had known everything but was just playing along. Whilst thinking this, Melissa noticed that the other four girls were staring at her.

“So now we find Dennis Downs,” Gemma said.

 It had been years since Melissa’s granddad had stopped his car outside Dennis Downs’ house and told her about the man who lived inside, but that day had still been tattooed into memory years later, when her Mum had driven her up to the stables for the first time. On the way, Melissa had been staring out of the window fantasising about what might happen that day, and not particularly looking forward to it, but a brief image had thrown her back into the real world: the image of Dennis Downs’ house, all on its own, flying past as the car continued its journey. It looked exactly the same as it looked in her memories. Melissa had stirred instantly and had peered out of the back window at the house, becoming smaller and smaller, but the following Saturday when she had travelled to the stables for the second time, Sandra had taken the same route, and Melissa had been ready for it.

Now she was finally going to see inside that house and was finally going to meet the amazing man who lived there.

 

Dennis Downs had found the first two decades of his life to be the most difficult ones. When he was a teenager, he figured out that he was expected to want to socialise, to be popular, to value human relationships. He was expected to be preoccupied with these things. Later, during medical school, a back-breaking amount of work had been expected of him and that felt far more natural and welcome. Despite this though, the pointless whimsy of personal relationships kept seeping in, whether it was the casual sex between students, the pranks or the alcohol binges. He scrutinised but never participated. The only time Downs had tried to make friends was when he’d heard of some illicit drug taking amongst the other students. He’d wanted to feel the effects of those drugs first hand. He tried marijuana, moved on. He tried amphetamines, moved on. He tried acid and found that particular experience fascinating, then moved on. He was keen to try heroin but his student contacts were unable to procure any. Due to this experimentation, some of his fellow students grew to regard him as a nihilistic hell raiser, but they were totally missing the point.

When he became a surgeon, life became more comfortable. People addressed him with respect. Respect was important to Downs insofar as it caused people to repress the social, friendly sides of their personality and revert to practicalities. When people spoke to him, they felt no need to embellish their speech with mannerisms and small talk: they got straight to the point, which was just how Downs liked it. His colleagues seemed to accept him in a way that people outside the medical profession could not. Whilst his parents and his brother told him he should take a break and warned him about getting burned out, his colleagues understood his nature. Downs’ mind had become agile and muscular, constant work created momentum. It was the ‘break’ that would burn him out and Downs saw zero appeal in going on a ‘holiday’ somewhere where he’d be expected to sit in an airport for hours in order to sit on a plane for hours so he could eventually sit on a beach for hours. Without work to occupy himself with, he felt fidgety and his ravenous mind pounced in many different directions at once, threatening to rip itself apart. Once his parents died, then his brother, there were no more dissenters left to give him their unsolicited two-pence-worth.

Dennis Downs’ laboratory was actually a bunker, built into a trench behind the house. Dennis had felt that if the lab caught fire, which wasn’t an unlikely prospect, the fire was less likely to spread to the house if the fire was underground. When the doorbell of his house rang, Dennis was in the lab, but a device had been rigged up so that a green light flashed inside the laboratory to alert him. His ‘visitors’ were always postmen or couriers, who were always there to drop off something which couldn’t fit through his letterbox or something which had to be signed for. That applied to the majority of Dennis Downs’ post.

When Dennis saw the green light, he had a good idea of what had arrived. He was spraying the lab with a disinfectant solution which came in a large, spherical tub with a hose snaking out from the top. He put down the tub and the hose, removed his goggles, wiped his brow, found his spectacles on the worktop and then walked up the stairs to the doorway.

The grass between the laboratory and the house was knee high and he waded through it before removing his boots, which were encrusted with viscera. He left the boots outside before entering the house via the back door. He could now hear the doorbell in the distance and the sound grew louder and more insistent as he walked through the house, unlocked the front door and threw the door open.

He was not prepared for the sight of five young girls. Four of them recoiled as he appeared in the doorway, as if he had startled them. The remaining girl, the one at the front, seemed unmoved. She was taller and burly with red hair. She simply removed her finger from the doorbell.

Downs noticed that the four girls at the back were staring at his overalls uncomprehendingly. He looked down at them himself. They were heavily stained; the layers of old blood and new blood had created a tie-dye effect.

“Are you Doctor Dennis Downs?” the red haired girl asked.

Mister Downs,” he replied.

“So you’re not a doctor?” she asked, before turning her head towards one of the girls at the back, who was clearly petrified, but managed to shrug.

“I’m a consultant surgeon,” Downs said. “Retired.”

The red-head seemed to relax slightly after Downs’ response. “We need to talk to you.”

 Downs felt uncomfortable. If it had been a courier, all he would have had to do was sign a piece of paper and take the item, but what was the protocol here?

“Um…” he began. “Do you want to come indoors?”

 “Yes please,” the girl said.

There was only one chair in the front room: an old armchair whose arms were piled high with letters and scientific magazines. There was nothing else in the room except a fireplace, a wooden table with a tub of salt on it and a cup on the mantelpiece. The carpet had been trampled so much over the years than it was wafer thin and the girls could almost feel the floorboards beneath. The red-haired girl made a beeline for the chair and sat down. Downs and the other four girls stood. The girls stood close together, as if trying to occupy as little space on the carpet as possible.

“We’ve got something to show you,” Gemma said. “Do you have a place which you can get messy?”

Downs was confused and didn’t know how to react. He felt as though the personal skills that he had never been bothered to cultivate throughout his life were now being tested, and he wasn’t up to the task. Maybe he should just do what the red-haired girl said. After a long silence, he looked back at Gemma and said “Okay, follow me please.”

 

The grass was at waist height on the smaller girls and Tara began to whimper. She was imagining all the creatures that might be wriggling in the grass. Maybe there were snakes. Gemma shot her an intense glance and Tara quietened.

It was a windy day, but when the doors to the bunker were flung open, each girl was slapped hard by the acrid stench of disinfectant. Downs entered first, then Gemma. Melissa looked at the black doorway and tried not to imagine what might be down there. Faith, Melissa and Tara all stepped onto a large paving slab in front of the doorway. None of them wanted to go down, even though they’d seen Gemma and then Katie do so. Each girl seemed to be urging the others to go down next. Melissa looked at Faith’s shoes. They were stained with blood. Faith must have stepped on something in the long grass. Faith noticed where Melissa was looking, then looked down. After noticing the blood, Faith looked back at Melissa with a distressed expression on her face. Melissa grabbed a hunk of grass and ripped it up, before using it to wipe away the blood. She tossed the bloody grass away and turned towards the doorway again. After what seemed like forever, Melissa took a deep breath and entered the vortex.

The steps were cold and make of stone. Melissa wished she could have seen Katie or Gemma ahead of her but they’d already gone through the black doorway at the bottom of the steps. Slowly, Melissa followed them until the blackness enveloped her.

The first thing she noticed was the splashing sounds her feet were making. She looked down and saw that the stone floor was coated with a film of liquid. Clusters of suds loitered in two or three areas and the rest of the liquid had an oozy purple tint. Illumination came from one light in the centre of the ceiling. Rather than spread light across the laboratory, it zapped a concentrated beam onto the laboratory’s main feature: an enormous stone altar, rectangular and monolithic, with its own suds and oily film. As Melissa watched, a small oval of suds drifted towards the edge of the altar before tumbling onto the floor below. Dennis Downs emerged from the shadow with a mop in his hand and began to mop some of the fluid, pushing it away from the girls and into the other side of the laboratory. He then disappeared into another shadow and Melissa heard a squelching sound that meant that Downs was draining the mop into a bucket somewhere. Moments later, the head of the mop reappeared, first thudding onto the altar and then wiping away as much of the fluid as it could.

There was a deep humming sound. Melissa peered into the laboratory’s shadows to see if she could spot the source. Squinting, she was able to make out the silhouettes of what appeared to be jars. There seemed to be two rows of jars, one on a shelf to her left and one on a shelf to her right. The jars appeared to have wires wrapped around their lids. Each lid was metallic and was connected to the wires by two metal clips. In the jars there was dark liquid. Some jars had darker liquid than others. When Melissa looked at the jar with the lightest liquid, she thought she could make out a gnarled object inside the jar. She decided not to look at it anymore and looked back towards the altar instead. Gemma was now stood beside it, illuminated so much by the light above her that her skin appeared to have been bleached. A brown towel fell onto the altar and Downs’ hands entered the light. Downs scrubbed the towel across the altar until it was dry.

Katie stepped into the light and stood next to Gemma. Both girls dropped their bags onto the floor and then opened them. As Gemma pulled a wad of papers from her bag and unfolded them, Melissa peeked into Katie’s backpack. There were books, games, a DVD. All decoys. Eventually Katie’s hands reached the bottom of the bag and she pulled out a red lunch box by its handle. The lunch box had ‘Love Letters’ written on it, in the same typeface as their album cover. Below the words was a picture of the four boys; jumping, in mid air, having fun. Gemma then removed a box from her handbag. It looked like it was a box for an electrical appliance. The bottom corner of the box was stained brown and looked wet.

Gemma and Katie opened their boxes and began to arrange the contents on the altar. Gemma kept referring to the sheets in her hands and shuffling the special things around, as if she was trying to create a picture. Gemma then turned towards the three girls in the shadows and caught Faith’s eye. Faith moved into the light, before opening a box of her own and placing her own special things onto the altar. Gemma began to talk to the other girls: “No, that one goes here. Faith, put that one over here, where my hand is.”

Melissa looked across at Tara, who looked petrified and was whimpering softly. Tara’s image was inching further towards the door and was fading as she retreated into deeper shadow. Melissa reached over to Tara and held her hand before both girls walked tentatively into the light.

As Melissa approached the altar, she felt something brush against her foot and she jumped backwards. Looking down, she could see a series of wires and leads underneath the altar’s main slab; one of them had fallen onto her foot. The leads were as thick as a hosepipe but were metallic and ribbed. Regaining her composure, Melissa reached into her own bag, rifled through the riding equipment and eventually found the shoe box, wedged into the bottom of the bag. Tara seemed to be taking her cues from Melissa and dug into her own bag.

Under the supervision of Gemma, the special things were arranged upon the altar. At the head of altar was Oliver’s scalp and hair, above part of a skull which still had a flimsy coating of perished skin upon it. The skull was resting on top of Oliver’s brain, which hadn’t retained its shape and was the consistency of mashed potato. Then there was Oliver’s eyeballs, ears, cheekbones, nose, lips, tongue, jawbone, teeth. Oliver’s spinal cord was in three pieces and snaked down the centre of the altar. Various pieces of flesh and piles of organs were positioned around the spine. Oliver’s right arm came in two pieces (not including the shoulder), but looked almost normal once the hand had been added and Melissa had added the missing fingers. Then there was Oliver’s shattered pelvis and a pair of legs which you wouldn’t have fed to a dog. Both of his feet were there, though some of the toes had gone black. Despite the decay, it was still possible to recognise that these scattered jigsaw pieces had once been Oliver.

Gemma folded her sheet and returned it to her bag. She looked at Dennis Downs, who was in the shadow and had folded his arms. Gemma emptied a pile of other special things onto one of the empty areas of the altar. “We’ve also got these bits,” Gemma said to Downs, “but we don’t know where they go. Do you?”

There was a large pause, then Downs said “Why have you brought this here?”

“We want you to put our friend back together,” Gemma said. “We want our friend to be a person again, not a load of bits.”

Downs’ forehead wrinkled. He looked down at the altar, then back at Gemma. “I could sew and staple these body-parts together, fill in the gaps with tissue samples and skin grafts and so on, and I could give you something that looks vaguely like a completed human body, but why? Do you want to bury your friend and you would rather it was an actual body rather than… rather than this?”

“No, we want our friend to live again.”

Downs exhaled a very deep breath, then he began to speak. “I could join up his right arm there and within a few hours I could construct a completed arm. Then I could use galvanism to apply a current to his bicep and make his fingers twitch… I could make his gut spasm, I could make his toes twitch.” He grabbed an object from the shadows which appeared to be a pen, then leaned across the altar and pointed the pen at an area of the pile of unidentified parts. “These are his vocal cords,” Downs said. “If I connected those to his throat, his mouth and his tongue and if I applied a current, I may be able to produce some sound…”

“Can you make him sing for us again?” Gemma asked.

Downs froze in his bent position and made eye contact with Gemma, before slowly standing up straight again and then putting the pen down on the altar. “When you say ‘live,’” Downs said, “when you talk about him… when you talk about him singing… you mean he would be doing these things himself, don’t you? Voluntarily.”

“Yes.”

“You mean he would be using his brain to produce motion and speech and behaviour, and he would be doing these things himself. Is that what you mean?”

“Yes,” Gemma said, impatiently.

Downs shook his head. “Young lady, your friend is dead. Not only is he dead but he is in pieces. And from what I can see- he appears to have been dead for some time.”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is: no-one can do what you’re asking.”

A new voice spoke up. Melissa’s: “But you’ve done it before.”

Downs froze. How did she know? How did she know about the squirrels? How could she know about his breakthrough, only two weeks ago, when, after a solid week of eighteen hour days, he had managed to revive Ritter: a squirrel he’d seen smashed to death by a Range Rover on Kings Road. Someone must have been there, spying on him, when he’d taken Ritter out into the land behind Downs’ house and watched him scamper around, run and hop and forage, just like he’d acted before his accident. Someone must have seen Downs chasing after his miraculous scientific achievement, the culmination of his life’s work, only to find that he had repaired the squirrel too well and Ritter skipped away every time Downs approached. Ritter teased Downs, sometimes sitting no more than ten feet away from him, sometimes letting Downs creep closer but then darting away when Downs was inches from laying his grip upon Ritter’s soft fur. Someone must have been there, watching Downs yelling in exasperation as Ritter eventually tired of this game and sprinted into the undergrowth, never to be found again. But Downs hadn’t given up hope. He’d stapled a purple tag to the nape of Ritter’s neck, making him identifiable. As Downs had looked round the land at the back of his house he’d seen grass, a few trees, fertile soil full of insects and worms, everything a squirrel would need in its habitat. There was no need for Ritter to flee the area and risk death or injury on the nearby roads. Ritter would surely stay in these acres. Downs was confident he would meet his furry prodigy again.

 Though not a social person, Downs was self-aware enough to know that with Ritter gone, there was no evidence of his success, and Downs could quite easily be considered a man who’d spent the past year stealing road-kill and defiling the cadavers before tossing the remains into the long grass of his back garden. The police were not scientists and as far as Downs was concerned neither were psychiatrists. Those people couldn’t understand a man like Downs but their ignorance wouldn’t stop them from having him imprisoned or sectioned. To Downs, Melissa’s comment ‘But you’ve done it before,’ changed the tone of the conversation. He was now being blackmailed.

Downs composed himself when he realised that his appearance had betrayed him, it had revealed to the girls that they now had the upper hand. Quickly, he regained his composure and began to speak: “But–”

“You’ve done it before,” Gemma said, “So you’ll do it again. For us.”

“I–”

“You’ll do it,” Gemma said, with a steely glare.

“…What are you saying?” Downs said.

“Do you know what people say about men like you?” Gemma began. “Do you know what my mum says about men like you, men who live alone, in a house all on their own? You don’t have a family, do you?”

“What relevance does that have?”

“I didn’t see any photographs in your lounge when we were there just now. That means you don’t have a family. Have you even kissed a girl?”

“What are you trying to imply?”

“I don’t know what that word means, but what I’m saying is that you’re a lonely old man, on his own, no wife, no children. Do you know what my mum says about men like you?”

Downs tried to be bold but it was just a front: “No, young lady, I don’t. Nor do I care about what your mother or anybody else says or thinks about me.”

“You will care what my mum thinks when I say that I was at the stables up the road today and after riding my horse for a while I was waiting outside the entrance for my mum to pick me up when this old man called Dennis walked over and said he had a puppy at his house if I wanted to see it and I really like puppies so I said yes and then he took me back to this old house in the middle of nowhere and then he took me round the back of his house to this underground room in his back garden and it was really dark and I was really scared and I asked him when I was going to see the puppy and then he said ‘I’ve got something better than a puppy’ and he walked over to the corner…” Gemma grabbed Oliver’s mangled, three-fingered hand from the altar  and waved it at Dennis Downs, “…and he found a hand which looked like a boy’s hand and it was so horrible and I thought ‘he brings children here and then he kills them and now he’s going to do that to me’ and I was so scared and I told him I’ll do everything he says but I don’t like the underground room because it scares me so can we go into the house where I would feel safer and he said okay but when he let me out of the underground room I ran and ran and ran as fast as I could and I thought I was lost and I thought he was going to catch me and I was so scared and I wanted my mum and I wanted another grown-up but there was no-one around and I thought he was going to catch me for sure but then I saw the stables again and I knew I was safe and I saw my mum’s car parked outside and then I jumped into her arms and cried and cried and cried and that’s the story.”

Dennis Downs’ forehead wrinkled. His folded arms wrapped tighter around his waist. Gemma stretched across the altar and picked up Dennis Downs’ pen, then found the empty box which had carried her special things. She tore a strip from the box, before lying the strip on a clear part of the altar and writing something on it.

 “This is my phone number,” Gemma said when she’d finished. “Ring me when it’s done. There’s a bag of clothes by my feet. Dress him in those clothes when it’s done.” She then fished a piece of paper from her pocket and slapped it down on the altar. “This is a list of special things which we don’t have. There’s his left hand, his right knee-cap, his tonsils…”

“He doesn’t need his tonsils,” Downs mumbled.

“…The back part of his skull, his septum, his willy, two ribs, his appendix…”

“He doesn’t need that either.”

Gemma left the list and the piece of box on the altar and then picked up her bag from the floor. She gave Katie a look which caused Katie to pick up her back pack. The two girls finally moved out of the light and into the shadows, heading for the exit. The other three girls followed.

Downs spoke up, in a voice one could best describe as ‘defeated’: “Do you know his blood type, his bone marrow type?”

“Work it out,” Gemma snapped as she walked through the doorway and up the stairs, followed by the other girls.

 

Minutes later, the girls were stood beside the tree near the entrance to the stables. Faith, Tara and Melissa were in tears. Katie looked pretty close too. Gemma was totally in control.

“What if he calls our parents?” Faith sobbed. “What if he calls the police? We are in so much trouble.”

“Stop crying like babies,” Gemma said. “Is that what you are? Little babies?”

Her words didn’t seem to have any affect.

“STOP CRYING!!” Gemma yelled at the girls. That only seemed to make it worse.

“Listen to me,” Gemma said, “he won’t ring the police: he’s too scared. And he won’t ring our parents because he doesn’t know who they are.”

“But you told him about the stables!” Faith said, punching her hand repeatedly in the direction of the stables.

“But they don’t know me,” Gemma continued. “I’ve never been. If he goes to the stables and asks about me, I never told him my name, all he can do is tell them what I look like. But they don’t know who I am. What can they do?”

“But they know Melissa!” Faith said.

“Melissa was stood in the shadows all the time we were there. And he doesn’t know her name.”

“We are in so much trouble now,” Faith sobbed.

“No we are NOT!” Gemma said. “Even if he goes to the police, which he won’t, who will they believe? Will they believe some horrible old man with blood all over him who doesn’t have any family and lives on his own in the middle of nowhere, or will they believe some nice little girls who say they’ve never seen that weird looking man before.”

“He’s just going to throw the special things away and then we’ll have nothing!” Tara sobbed.

“I don’t think so,” Gemma said. “I don’t think so at all. Remember, we know more about him than he knows about us. We know where he lives. We’re winning.”

The three tearful girls seemed to be quietening down, but this was more due to exhaustion than calm.

“We’re winning,” Gemma repeated.

Gemma pulled out her mobile phone and looked at the time. “We can’t stand here crying any longer,” Gemma said. “We need to catch buses. Me and Katie have to be back at Katie’s house for four o’ clock. When do Faith and Tara have to be home?”

“Half past three,” Tara said, sniffling.

“Then we need to get moving. Melissa, you wait here until your Mum picks you up. You all should be online at 7pm tonight and we’ll talk some more.”

“I’ll speak to you tonight,” Gemma said to Melissa. “Dry your eyes. Make sure your mum doesn’t know you’ve been crying.” Then Gemma leaned into Melissa’s ear and whispered something: “If you feel sad, or bad, just think of Oliver singing for us again and smiling for us again. For us and no-one else.” Gemma pulled away from Melissa’s ear and smiled. Melissa managed to smile back.

The four girls began to walk down the road together, leaving Melissa alone at the tree. She looked at her watch. Sandra was due to collect Melissa in twenty minutes. Melissa watched the girls grow smaller as they walked further down the road. Eventually, they disappeared completely. Melissa found a tissue in her pocket and wiped her eyes, before walking slowly to the entrance of the stables.

 

 

 

 

ELEVEN

_______________________________________________________________________

 

A phone call had come two days ago, not even from Gary Freeman but from some admin at the record company. It had told Alex that a car would be coming round today to take him to the rehearsal space and there, auditions would be held for Oliver’s replacement. That’s how the news had been delivered. A bombshell. Alex was becoming sick of this. It was him (and Callum and Joe) who was doing all the work, the rehearsals, the concerts, the interviews in which he was asked the same questions over and over again. It was him (and Callum and Joe) who had to constantly seem positive and look handsome and charming. It was him (and Callum and Joe) who had sold all those albums and made all that money for Vanguard. Surely he (and Callum and Joe) had earned the right to have a bit more of a say in things and not just be told out of the blue that Oliver was going to be replaced and that auditions were beginning in two days.

Alex decided to take matters into his own hands. He knew Gary Freeman would arrive at the rehearsal space first and would be there to greet the boys when they arrived. Alex decided that instead of waiting for the car, he was going to make his own way there and arrive early, so he could catch Gary alone. The trip to Manchester had made Alex feel more self-sufficient so he was barely nervous when he rang for the taxi. In the back of the taxi, he texted Joe to tell him that he was making his own way to the rehearsal room so the car didn’t need to pick him up.

The rehearsal building was cordoned off from the public via a checkpoint, through which no cars could pass without proper authorisation. Alex had the taxi stop at the side of the road, paid the driver, then walked to the checkpoint.

“Am I alright to walk through?” Alex asked the man at the booth.

“Don’t know about that,” the man replied.

“You know who I am, don’t you?”

“Nope. Important, are you?”

“That’s not what I meant. You’ve seen me pass through here dozens of times. You know I’m not a journalist or anything like that.”

“If you don’t have a pass, I can’t let you through.”

“Do you have a computer in there?”

“Yep.”

“Do you have the internet on your computer?”

“Yep.”

“Go into Google, put in ‘Alex Love Letters’ and look at some pages. You’ll see that–”

“I’m not disputing that you’re supposed to be here,” the man interrupted. “But what I’m saying is that if I let you through without a pass, then I lose my job. Then my family and I get evicted from our home and we all end up living under a bridge in cardboard boxes and living off scraps of discarded food before we eventually freeze to death when winter arrives. All because you couldn’t accept the rules.”

“…Forget it,” Alex said, walking away from the booth and sitting on the grass beside the tarmac. He could surprise Gary Freeman here if necessary. Alex passed the time by pulling grass out of the ground and tossing the blades up into the air. After ten minutes, Gary Freeman’s black BMW appeared. Alex stood and watched as Freeman’s driver’s side window scrolled down.

“What are you doing here, Alex?” Freeman asked.

“I thought I’d turn up early so we could talk. I’ve told Joe to tell the driver not to go by my house.”

“Okay, hop in,” Freeman said.

Alex opened the back door and stepped in, before closing it behind him. Freeman’s car moved to the booth, where he showed a pass to the operator and the barrier slowly moved skyward, allowing the car through.

“See that laptop next to you?” Freeman said.

“Yes,” Alex replied.

“Open it up. You’ll see the people who’ve applied to be Oliver’s replacement. Photographs, personal details. Most of them don’t know what they’re applying for yet. Only two of them know they’re auditioning for Love Letters.”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” Alex began. “I’ve been trying to ring but your phone always goes to voicemail.”

“I think there might be a problem with it. I’m going to get it seen to.”

Alex glanced at the rows of faces on the computer screen. “Are all these people auditioning?” Alex asked.

“No, that’s the full list of everyone who has applied. It’s been whittled down to four. Two will be auditioned today, two at the end of the week. If those four aren’t up to scratch, we’ll start again.”

Alex had many things he wanted to say to Freeman, but he was distracted by the images on Freeman’s computer. Instantly, he could tell which of the candidates hadn’t made the grade. One was too swarthy, one looked too old, one had facial hair, one had tattoos, one was Asian, one was black. These were obvious rejections. As Alex looked, he noticed an internet explorer icon in the toolbar at the bottom of the screen. Freeman was online but had minimised the internet application. Alex drew the cursor to the icon and clicked, bringing up Freeman’s internet. He was logged on to a betting website. There were garish colours and graphics, pictures of tumbling coins and a series of links on the left side of the screen which offered black jack, keno, roulette etc. Alex had never gambled before and couldn’t make any sense of the page. He minimised it again and closed the laptop’s screen.

The car parked. They had arrived outside the building in which Love Letters rehearsed. Freeman turned around towards Alex and said “Make yourself useful and bring that laptop with you.”

Alex grabbed the laptop and opened his door.

As Alex followed Freeman to the entrance of the building he noticed that Freeman had donned a pair of shades even though they were going to be indoors within a minute. Alex heard the electronic tone which indicated that Freeman’s car alarm had been activated. It startled Alex even though he’d heard it many times before, and it caused him to look back at the car. When he turned back to Freeman, Freeman was walking quickly and Alex was lagging behind.

“Yeah, I just wanted to talk to you before the others turned up,” Alex said to Freeman’s back, raising his voice.

“What’s on your mind, Alex?” Freeman replied, skipping up four steps and arriving at the entrance, before pushing open the doors.

“Well, I just wanted to talk about this whole thing of… erm… replacing Oliver.”

Freeman was now holding the door open for Alex. Alex sped up and arrived at the door. He took the handle from Freeman and Freeman continued his journey. Alex was looking at his manager’s back again.

“What about it?” Freeman asked.

“Well… it just seems very sudden.”

“I know, it’s hard to take, but we all just have to accept that Oliver’s gone and now we have to move on and continue our lives and our careers.” He was now walking past the receptionist. “Hi Jane,” he said to her, before continuing his power-walk towards Love Letters’ rehearsal space. Alex was still struggling to keep up. “If you’re finding this difficult,” Freeman said to Alex. “I can recommend Hazel Wright. She’s really good. Give her a chance.”

“Yeah,” Alex said, as he pursued Freeman down a winding corridor. “I’m coping okay, I don’t think I need Hazel.”

“That’s good,” Freeman replied. “Really good.” He then turned down another corridor and Alex followed.

“I’m just concerned that our fans won’t accept a new member, you know?” Alex said. “Oliver was… well, Oliver was very popular and they might not like someone else just waltzing in and taking his place.”

“Uh huh.”

“I mean… They’re probably still hurting, and they don’t have Hazel Wright to help them. The fans might find it… insensitive if we bring someone else in right away.”

“It’s an interesting thought,” Freeman replied, his voice echoing around a corridor before he turned down another one.

“I was thinking,” Alex continued, turning down the new corridor. “Maybe we could carry on as a three-piece.”

“Boy bands are never three-pieces,” Freeman said. “Frankly, it’s unusual for only four members to be in a boy band. Usually it’s five.”

“Busted were a three piece.”

“Busted were a different type of band. They played their own instruments. Plus, they were only successful for about eighteen months, two years. You should be aiming your sights higher than that, Alex. Everyone else is. I am.”

Finally they arrived at the door to their rehearsal space. Freeman dug into his pocket for a key card. This gave Alex a chance to catch up.

“It just seems odd,” Alex said, reaching Freeman, “that me and Callum and Joe weren’t asked about this. We just got a call, out of the blue, telling us that we had to turn up today to rehearse with people who had applied to join the band.”

There was a clicking sound as Freeman’s key card opened the door. “Uh huh,” Freeman said, before stepping into the darkness. Alex followed him inside.

“… I just think that I’ve… that me and Callum and Joe have worked so hard and achieved so much and made so much money for Vanguard and for you and for so many people… that maybe we should have a bit more of a say in things.”

There was a huge sound, a mixture between a crunch and a whip crack. Freeman had flicked a switch to turn on the lights in the rehearsal space. The lights buzzed into life and the cavernous room was illuminated. Alex was now facing Gary Freeman for the first time. Freeman removed his shades and placed them into the pocket of his jacket. “Alex,” Freeman began. “The success which you’ve had over the past year is due to the combined efforts of hundreds of people. Everyone has a role to play and everyone has to be on top form. Remember the last time you visited Vanguard records? Can you remember how many floors there are in that building?”

“…No, I can’t.”

“It’s a big building, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess it is.”

“All those people in those offices are all working really hard to make artists like Love Letters as successful as possible. So am I. What do you think it takes for a young girl to walk into a record shop and buy a Love Letters CD or go online and buy one? Well, the CD has to get there first, doesn’t it? Big piles of stock have to be couriered around by people who are paid to do that, and if they don’t deliver those goods, no-one can buy them. The CD has to be made in the first place, which means we have to use a pressing plant, and if the pressing plant isn’t well managed, with capable, trustworthy staff and reliable hardware, no CDs get produced in the first place. There are people in the Vanguard offices who work out our timetable. Remember when your album came out? It was in July, wasn’t it? Do you know why it wasn’t in January? Because in January people have spent all their money over Christmas and they don’t have as much disposable income until later in the year. This is all worked out at the Vanguard building. Then we’ve got digital sales. Digital distribution is contracted out to another firm and Vanguard have a legal department to review that contract, and other contracts, and make sure the contractors are complying and any breaches are dealt with efficiently. Vanguard is also looking at doing their own in-house digital distribution once the current contract expires. Vanguard has a small team dedicated to social media: they release content and postings and blogs on behalf of you, Callum and Joe, which keeps the fans in the loop, makes them loyal and makes them feel part of the Love Letters adventure. When you’re on tour, a tour manager makes sure the tour is well-organised and runs smoothly, someone who has the experience to deal with any transport emergencies, money problems or any other emergencies which may arise during that tour. Dancers are hired to perform and a choreographer figures out routines they can do during the breaks when you’re having your costume changes backstage, routines which are bright and entertaining and colourful but not even slightly raunchy because the mothers in the audience will complain and your clean image will be sullied. A practice room is rented,” Freeman continued, wafting his hand at the space around them. “A place big enough to rehearse our stage show but a place secure enough that we don’t have to worry about journalists or stalkers or general nosey parkers. Vanguard has an entire floor in the building just to deal with the press. And Alex…”

“Yes?”

“I haven’t even scratched the surface. What I’m trying to say is that we’re a team. There are more people in that team than you or I could count. Everyone has a job and everyone is really good at that job. If you, Callum and Joe swapped places with three members of the road crew, the stage would fall apart and the records would sound awful. You have your job in Love Letters because you are a good singer and performer. I have my job because I am a good organiser. The man who drives the tour bus is the best bus driver. The people who cater for you on tour are the best cooks and caterers. And the people whose job it is to decide whether or not Oliver needs to be replaced are the best people at making that decision. And they have decided that Oliver should be replaced, for the good of everyone.”

Alex looked forlorn. “But all those people don’t have to smile and laugh and act like they’re loving life all the time,” he said. “They don’t have to put on a front all the time.”

“Yes they do,” Freeman said. “We all do. I, for example, have a hangover this morning. But I’ve turned up and I’ve put on my front and I’m knuckling down.”

“But we always have to act so smiley and shiny and perfect all the time.”

“Is it that hard to smile, Alex?” Freeman asked, before smiling himself. “Try it.”

Alex attempted to smile.

“Come sit down,” Freeman said. “I’ll show you who’s turning up today.” He held out his hand and Alex passed him the laptop.

 

 

 

 

TWELVE

____________________________________________________________________

 

What the girls had not seen was the hidden door at the back of the laboratory which led into a stockroom full of Downs’ apparatus. There were boxes of gauze, rubber gloves, disinfectant, suture, needles, scalpel blades. There were three different incubators and an infinitely expensive contraption with two hair-thin talons which was used for keyhole surgery. There were screens and computers and telescopic cameras. There were too many things to list, half of which were rented, half purchased. It seemed like the one thing missing from his stockpile was the one thing he needed the most at that moment: an incinerator. Without one, how on earth was Downs going to get rid of these body parts? He could hardly toss them into the long grass like so many of the squirrel parts he had worked on over the past year. What then? Drive them to the River Aire and toss them in? And what if he was spotted? Who on earth would believe his story? Who would believe that he had been handed these grim gifts by a group of children he’d never seen before?

How about burying them? No, that was almost as bad as leaving them in his lab. Plus, with all those acres of long grass outside his house, a freshly dug grave would be beyond conspicuous.

Okay, so disposal was out of the question. How about simply calling the police and telling them what had happened?

Again, too far-fetched. They wouldn’t believe him. And he had no idea who those girls were and knew no direction in which he could point the police in a desperate attempt to prove that he was the innocent party in this. Yes, the red-haired girl had admitted she was a patron of the horse-riding stables up the road, but there was something so calculating about that girl that Downs doubted her truthfulness. And if he did call the police, they would want to see the scene where the encounter took place. They would want to see the laboratory. Downs was no lawyer, but he suspected the contents of his lab could get him locked up for a long time, even if he was deemed to not be responsible for the body parts the girls had brought. He should have never let them in the house.

But then Downs’ initial panic faded. He was in a horrible scenario, but he worked best when under pressure. In some twisted way, perhaps this was an opportunity. He remembered how his ambition had rocketed after he had revived Ritter successfully. This was a side of himself which he knew intimately: the compulsion to create a new goal within moments of his current goal being achieved. He had revived Ritter, but Ritter was only a squirrel. Downs had resolved to graduate to other, more intelligent animals. Cats would be next. Despite the joy of seeing Ritter alive again, it had left many questions unanswered. Yes, Ritter appeared to be a normal squirrel again; he was running around, exploring, he was evading the capture of bigger, stronger animals (Downs), but surely those behaviours were driven by instinct alone. What about Ritter’s memory? What about Ritter’s personality? Had he retained those things? Downs hadn’t figured this out by the time Ritter had skipped away into the long grass. Downs’ dream had always been to experiment on a chimp, despite how unlikely it was that he’d ever be able to get his hands on a chimp in West Yorkshire.

Perhaps now he had something even better than a chimp.

Though Downs had spent his life keeping people at arm’s length, he’d retained a fondness for children. He loved their inquisitiveness and thirst for knowledge. He loved their tendency to reject the limitations in the answers given to them by adults (‘But why mum? Why?’) Downs saw these qualities as being the roots of all science, of all discovery and breakthrough. He couldn’t deny he felt something stir within him when the girls had asked him, with a straight face, to restore two dozen piles of tissue and bone to a living human being again. Maybe a child had once asked why her brother’s tuberculosis couldn’t be cured, until a vaccination was created. Perhaps a child had once asked why her mum couldn’t have another baby, until IVF was developed.

How on earth did they get hold of those body parts anyway? Would anyone be looking for the parts? Downs guessed not. It was highly unlikely that a bunch of children could kidnap and murder another child, and besides, if that was the case why would they want their “friend” to be brought back to life afterwards? If the child’s death had not been the conclusion of a crime, this meant that no-one would be looking for the parts. The only possible explanation Downs could imagine was that the girls had robbed a grave. Perhaps their friend had been killed by a car (though frankly, an accident with a combine harvester seemed more likely considering the state of the body) and the girls had waited until the body was buried before sneaking out of their homes and digging it up. The body parts didn’t seem very decayed. Downs estimated that death had occurred between two and three weeks ago. That meant the girls had robbed a fresh grave, a grave which would have looked disturbed before they’d harvested it. So perhaps no-one would notice, unless the girls had done something unbelievably stupid like leaving the coffin wide open at the graveside. When Downs weighed everything up, it suddenly didn’t seem very likely that any of this would come back to him.

And then there was the most important thought of all: Dennis Downs felt that he could deliver.

Downs walked into the stock room and grabbed the handle of the trolley he kept just inside the doorway. Into it, he placed a selection of sterilised specimen jars and three bottles of preserving liquid. He then moved to his sample unit, which resembled a large freezer, and opened its door. Inside the unit there were samples of all types of blood and bone marrow. On the bone marrow jars, a yellow sticker identified the marrow which he had harvested for stem cells and a white sticker identified the marrow which was more-or-less untouched. He found a couple of fresh slides and a drill, placed them in the trolley and pushed the trolley back into the main room of the laboratory.

 


© Copyright 2018 Rueben Holland. All rights reserved.

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