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Ulterior - Darryl Sloan

Ulterior - Darryl Sloan

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Published by Darryl Sloan
A boy breaks into his school at night, with criminal intent, only to discover that he is not alone. This leads to the revelation that the school's elevator is able to descend to a mysterious location deep underground.
A boy breaks into his school at night, with criminal intent, only to discover that he is not alone. This leads to the revelation that the school's elevator is able to descend to a mysterious location deep underground.

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Published by: Darryl Sloan on Nov 23, 2009
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UL TERIOR
Darryl Sloan

Midnight Pictures
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Copyright © 2002 by Darryl Sloan First published in the United Kingdom in 2002 by Midnight Pictures The right of Darryl Sloan to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. This PDF ebook may be copied and distributed freely in this format, provided no changes are made to the text. All characters in this publication are fictitious, and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. The featured news items from the Portadown Times are also fictitious. ISBN 0-9543116-0-4 Midnight Pictures 32 Enniscrone Park Portadown County Armagh United Kingdom BT63 5DQ www.midnightpictures.co.uk

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To the pupils of the real Clounagh Junior High School, who make it a special place to come and work in each day. This is for you. Enjoy the ride.

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News item from the Portadown Times, Thursday, 22 March 1973:

What happened to the children?
Book closes on the Brownstown disappearances
On the evening of 18th September 1972, three children from the Brownstown area of Portadown were reported missing to the police: Martin Hanna, Raymond Blair and Kirsty Metcalfe. Aged between 12 and 14, all were pupils belonging to nearby Clounagh Junior High School. Attendance records show that the children were present in school on the day in question, but also reveal a very strange occurrence common to all three: Martin attended only his initial three classes, Raymond was present for just the first four, and Kirsty failed to attend her final class of the day. Was this a case of three troubled children making a strange pact to collectively run away from home, or something more sinister? Were they abducted—taken out of school against their will, in broad daylight, with no shortage of people on the premises to witness such an act? The police questioned teachers, supporting staff and pupils, but found no evidence of any suspicious persons entering or leaving the building. All three children had been getting consistently good results in school exams, and were well liked among peers and staff; all three came from stable families who are respected in the community. Perhaps the strangest aspect of this affair is that, although the three children went missing on the same date, they each disappeared at a different time of day. Did a stranger visit the school and kidnap the children, or did they walk away of their own accord? The mystery remains, and to this day no satisfactory explanation for the tragic incident has been put forward. Six months have passed since this chilling event, and police are finally ceasing their investigative efforts. Detective Sergeant 7

Brian Neville at Portadown RUC Barracks commented, “In cases of this nature, it is extremely unlikely that a child will be found after two months, let alone six. I believe it is now time for the parents to allow themselves to grieve for their children.” A special memorial service is being held in Clounagh Junior High School on Friday evening. This may provide some sort of closure, but it looks as if the question of what happened to Martin, Raymond and Kirsty is one that will haunt the lives of their parents forever.

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MONda y
2 April 2001
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Friends could be cruel. That wasn’t a lesson you would find on the school curriculum, but it was one that Eddie Morton was about to learn in class today. And it began with the unobserved action of a leather wallet slipping from the boy’s trouser pocket and landing on the floor. Eddie, who was fourteen years old, was rising to his feet at the teacher’s request when it happened. He made his way to the front of the room, too nervous to notice something missing from his pocket. The rest of the class, known as IY, talked amongst themselves. “All right!” Mr. Devlin said, raising his voice over the chatter. He was a rugged-looking man in his early forties, with greasy black hair and a heavily lined face that was never quite cleanshaven (Eddie always thought this made the teacher look like a criminal). “Settle down or we’ll spend the rest of the period hearing all your essays.” No, you won’t, Eddie thought. It’ll just be me who’s forced to read, and I haven’t even done anything bad. But if he was honest with himself, he felt a sense of pride. Out of the whole class, Mr. Devlin had singled Eddie out as the best writer. And he was determined to be a real writer too, someday. The noise level faded out. Eddie turned around to face his classmates, with his back to the blackboard. “Now, I want you all to listen carefully,” Mr. Devlin 9

explained. “Far too many of you are leaving out important details that help the reader get a sense of atmosphere. Most of you are fine with visual descriptions, but remember, there are five ...” He held up his hand, palm out, fingers extended. Rebecca Steele, at the back of the room, began flapping her hand about, as if Mr. Devlin was prompting her to return a friendly wave. “Hello, sir,” she chirped. “What about ye?” There was scattered laughter. Mr. Devlin hung his head and frowned for a moment. “Remember!” he yelled, putting a plug in the class’s joviality. Then, more quietly: “There are five senses. What are they? Sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch.” A finger disappeared for each sense. Eddie’s eyes roved over his classmates. It felt like there were a hundred butterflies swarming in his stomach. His mouth was as dry as if Mr. Garrett, the PE teacher, had just made him sprint four laps of the track. His eye landed on Dean Willis, his best friend. Dean was sitting beside Eddie—or the empty chair to which Eddie longed to return—peering at the floor between the two seats. He leaned over his large stomach—an act which never failed to make Eddie wince; he was sure that someday the buttons on that shirt were going to pop under the strain and launch across the room like bullets. Any amusement Eddie felt at this quickly drained away when he saw what Dean retrieved from the floor. Eddie’s hand strayed to his pocket, but the familiar bulge of the wallet’s presence was gone. And the one hundred butterflies in his gut suddenly multiplied to a thousand. Don’t open it, Eddie wished. Please don’t open it. Dean unfolded the wallet, and his initial look of mild curiosity turned into one of wide-eyed amazement, as he glared at the contents. He gazed up at Eddie, mouth breaking out into a huge grin. Eddie shook his head ever-so-slightly, eyes pleading. 10

Dean’s grin turned upside down into a mockery of pity, and he nodded gleefully. “... Eddie!” Mr. Devlin’s voice slashed across Eddie’s narrow focus. “Are we awake?” Eddie realised he hadn’t heard a word his English teacher had said for the last minute. “Er, sorry.” Chuckles from the class. “Now, I don’t want anyone putting him off,” Mr. Devlin warned. “All right, Eddie, let’s hear your piece.” Everyone’s eyes homed in on Eddie. As he opened his mouth to speak, Dean passed the wallet to the person adjacent to him, being careful to hold it under the desk out of Mr. Devlin’s sight. Eddie felt panic rising within him, and he found himself unable to speak. The faces of his classmates began to sprout with amusement, like a wave blowing from the front of the room to the back— all except Jill Morrow and Nikki Beck, who were peering down at the spot between them where they held Eddie’s wallet. They grinned up at him mischievously, then passed the wallet to the desk behind. Eddie felt a lump in his throat forming. He coughed, fought back his panic, and began to read. One paragraph later, his classmates were trying desperately to hold back a giggling fit, and Mr. Devlin looked at him as if he had grown a second head. I guess I’m reading a little fast, he observed. By the time Eddie finished, at least fourteen people had seen the wallet—half the class. “Well,” Mr. Devlin concluded, “if there was such a thing as the English Olympics, you’d get the gold medal for the one hundred metres sprint.” Eddie strode down the aisle to the back of the room. “That is mine.” Gary Reid gave the wallet up without hesitation, and with an immense grin. 11

“What’s going on?” Mr. Devlin wanted to know. “Give it here.” Eddie rolled his eyes. “Sir, it’s just my wallet. They were passing it around.” The teacher extended his arm, palm up. “I said give it here.” Eddie sighed and reluctantly walked to the front of the room. “Pervert!” somebody muttered under their breath. Eddie slapped the wallet into the teacher’s hand. Mr. Devlin opened it up and looked at the contents with a blank, unreadable expression. Using his finger, he extracted a piece of paper from beneath a clear plastic flap in the wallet and showed it to Eddie. “What’s this?” It was a photograph of Jade Rodgers, a girl from class IB, standing in her PE kit, holding a hockey stick in front of her rather short skirt. The paper was thin and the image grey like newspaper print—not a real photograph at all, but something produced by a laser printer. Eddie shrugged, red-faced. “I dunno. I’ve never seen it before.” The class erupted in laughter. Eddie glared at them. “What?! You think this is mine?” He snatched the photo out of Mr. Devlin’s hand and tore it up, letting the pieces fall to the floor. “There! If it was mine, would I do that?” But this only made the class laugh all the harder. “Enough!” Mr. Devlin shouted. “I won’t have my classroom turned into a stand-up comedy show! Morton, you get back to your seat. And the rest of you, any more of this behaviour and we start talking about detention.” Eddie sat down and punched Dean in the thigh with his knuckles. But there was enough meat on Dean for him to take it without even flinching. Mr. Devlin announced, “Now, you all know the hand-in date for your next essay is tomorrow.” Groans all round. 12

“Remember, this one’s an assessment, so it counts towards your final grade, which means it counts towards where you end up next year. I want a three-hundred-word story about a robbery. I want to see plenty of description; I want your characters to have motive. And please, folks, if you can, try to think of something more original than a bank to rob. Surprise me.” Mr. Devlin picked up a piece of chalk and turned to write on the blackboard. Eddie leaned across to Dean and whispered in his ear, “I thought you were my friend.” Dean returned the remark with a confused expression, the corner of his mouth creased in an affectionate smirk. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

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Five minutes after the final bell of the day rang throughout the building, when the corridors had cleared and the exit doors had spewed out most of the six hundred pupils who attended the school, Eddie headed upstairs and made his way to Mr. Sloan’s office. The door was open and the school’s ICT technician sat in the cramped interior, surrounded by a hazardous amount of disused computer equipment and paperwork, everything stacked in a seemingly random fashion. Mr. Sloan swivelled on his chair to face Eddie and smiled disarmingly. “Yep?” Eddie felt nervous. It wasn’t that he was about to do anything bad—barely even mischievous—but just plain embarrassing, if this situation went the wrong way. And he’d already had his fill of humiliation for one day. “Miss Hogan wants me to print out another copy of my Geography assessment,” Eddie lied. “Could you let me into the computer room?” “Sure.” Mr. Sloan got up, grabbed his keys, and the both of 13

them headed down the corridor to room twenty-five, the main computer suite. The technician turned his key in the lock and stepped inside, kicking a peg under the door to keep it from closing. Please don’t stay, Eddie wished. “Just close the door when you leave,” Mr. Sloan advised, and headed out. “Thanks, sir.” Eddie breathed a sigh of relief and headed quickly over to one of the many PCs, being careful to choose a monitor that faced away from the doorway. He typed in his username and password then opened up the Internet Explorer program. The familiar title page of the school website, www.clounagh.com, popped up. He clicked the hyperlink marked Sports, then Hockey. A quick scroll down the screen, and there she was, standing in her yellow and blue sports kit—vibrant colours that would sadly turn to murky shades of grey in just a moment. He clicked the Print button and hurried over to the laser printer at the front of the room, foolishly worried that someone would come in and get curious. He snatched the page, barely giving it time to slide out of its own accord. Gotcha! Sitting down at the desk again, Eddie put his face up close to the screen and gazed at Jade Rodgers. His heart thumped faster, partly because of the way he felt about her and partly because of how humiliated he would be if someone spotted him doing this. She was smiling. In fact, she was smiling pretty much any time he’d ever seen her. That was one of the coolest things about her; you hardly ever saw her sulking or being nasty, like a lot of girls. Of course, there was that time she got so mad that she almost made Simon McLoughlin cry, but I guess she had good reason, since he had put chewing gum in her hair. And then there was that other really cool thing about her— those slender, athletic legs. Eddie sighed, put his hand on the mouse and logged off. He gazed down at the fuzzy photo in his hand, wishing he had 14

his own computer so that he could make his own printout, in colour. And besides pursuing his fantasies, there was word processing. While others were concerned with checking out the latest World Wrestling Federation news or multi-player Unreal Tournament, Eddie cared more about writing stories, and about the inspiring possibility of getting them published. He’d have to spend tonight writing his English assessment, he recalled, with no lack of enthusiasm. Try to think of something more original than a bank to rob, Mr. Devlin had said. How about “The Clounagh Robbery”? Eddie mused, slipping his printout into his schoolbag. Nobody else would think of that. He slung the bag over his shoulder. Trouble is, what’s worth stealing here? Eddie sighed again, and walked across the room to the door. Once there, he suddenly stopped in his tracks and turned around, gazing back into the room, eyebrows raised. He came back inside, letting his eyes travel along the four neat rows of computers. “Twenty-eight,” he counted, walking over to one PC in particular and examining a small square label on the side. “Twenty-eight Pentium III computers. And seven more in the library too—that’s thirty-five.” Eddie felt excitement starting to bubble inside him at the prospect that he had just hit a jackpot idea for a story. “Let’s say I could get four-hundred quid for each machine,” he thought aloud, “minus keyboard and stuff, because they’re too cheap to bother with. That’s ...” Frustrated, he took a calculator out of his schoolbag and tapped in the equation. “Fourteen thousand quid. Whoa.” Now, I’ve gotta do this right, make it accurate. So, how’s my robber gonna get in here? Eddie walked across to the far side of the room and leaned over a desk to push a curtain out of the way. Behind it was a window which Eddie discovered he could open only a few 15

centimetres. Break the glass maybe? he considered. However, directly below was not open ground but an alcove surrounded on all four sides by an extension to the main building. OK, scrap the ladder idea. Eddie turned around and scanned the high windows at the opposite side of the room. Unfortunately they were too small for someone to crawl through. Near the left-most window, right in the top corner of the room, Eddie noticed a curious device—a little white plastic box about the same dimensions as a Nintendo Game Boy. There was a translucent plastic panel in the centre. Eddie stepped forward for a closer examination, causing a tiny red light to instantly come on at the bottom of the box. He stopped in his tracks, and after waiting a couple of seconds, the light went off again. Don’t tell me this is what I think it is, Eddie feared. He took at step forward. Light on. He halted. Light off. Some kind of motion detector, Eddie deduced, no doubt connected to an alarm system that gets turned on after school. He put his hands on his hips, causing the light to come to life again. Scowling at the device, he said, “You needn’t look at me like that. I’ll figure out a way to beat you.” Eddie walked out, leaving the motion detector to its lonely sentinel’s vigil.

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Walking along the bottom corridor en route to the exit doors, Eddie saw a group of third-year girls. They rushed past the assembly hall into the foyer, dressed in sports kits and carrying hockey sticks. Must be a match on, Eddie surmised. Wonder who they’re playing? 16

As he neared the hall, he had just enough time to catch a flash of blue and yellow out of the corner of his eye before the person coming out of the adjacent corridor bashed clumsily into him. “Oh sorry!” the girl said, putting her hand across her mouth to stifle a laugh, as Eddie regained his balance. He blushed, not so much from the embarrassment of almost falling over, but because of who collided with him. “It’s all right.” Jade Rodgers grinned. “I’d better get going.” Eddie nodded. “Bye, Eddie.” She turned away and jogged off into the foyer. She said my name, Eddie noticed, full of excitement. She hardly knows me, and she could have just said “Bye” or nothing at all, but she said “Bye, Eddie.” He felt suddenly robbed of the ability to speak, but mustered all his willpower and ran into the foyer. “Hey, Jade!” At the door to the playground, she turned back. “Who are you playing?” Eddie asked. “Killicomaine,” she answered, stepping through the door. “Good luck.” “Thanks.” Jade sprinted off to join her team-mates on the all-weather pitch. You could watch the game, Eddie suggested to himself. Others will be doing that; you won’t look out of place. Killicomaine was a junior high school at the other side of town, and a match between local rivals meant there would be more supporters than usual—which in turn meant more of a likelihood of his classmates turning up. And after what happened in English today ... No chance. Frustrated, Eddie headed for the exit.

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Eddie headed along Brownstown Road, happy to be away from the daily conflict that was school life for another few hours. He began whistling, unaware that he was doing it, feeling uncommonly happy. Another uncommon thing—for Northern Ireland at least— was that the weather had become too warm for anyone to feel comfortable in a school blazer. It was April, and barely a month ago there had been a brief snowfall, but now the atmosphere was close to tropical. It was great to be able to smell the grass and plants and flowers again—scents Eddie always associated with the two-month summer break from school which he would soon enjoy. Today the sun beamed relentlessly, burning skin and raising spirits. The real source of Eddie’s delight was his brief encounter with Jade. It was a kind of ice-breaker, and now his heart grew excited by the possibility of getting to know her better—maybe eventually getting the chance to have a date with her. Tomorrow I’ll find a way to ask her how the game went, he decided, whether someone has already told me the score or not. Eddie strolled on. Right now, just thinking about her felt like the best thing in the world. Jade would be playing hockey now and had probably forgotten all about bumping into Eddie. She was totally unaware of what a profound effect she had on him; he was crazy about her, and she knew nothing about it. Several high-pitched voices suddenly burst into song, somewhere behind Eddie. “Eddie and Jade ... up a tree ... K-I-SS-I-N-G!” He spun around. It was his sister Tara with two of her giggly friends, about thirty metres from him. They were first-year girls—only two years younger than Eddie—but they might as well have been another species, the way they behaved. “Get lost!” Eddie replied. 18

“Get lost yourself!” Tara shouted back. “Oh Eddie,” one of her friends called passionately, putting her hand to her heart. “Eddie, I lovvvvve you!” The other two girls erupted in raucous laughter. “Cut it out!” One girl pretended to sob. “Don’t you love me any more, Eddie? It’s that girl, isn’t it? That Jade Rodgers. Oh, Eddie, you’ve broken my heart!” She swooned, while her friends doubled up, cackling uncontrollably. “Shut up!” Eddie felt suddenly furious. Since Tara clearly knew about the photo, then there was no question that everyone would soon know, including Jade—which pretty much made his chances of getting a date with her a big fat zero. But there was nothing to be done here. It was impossible to reason with vermin like these. Later, however, when Tara got home, there would be plenty of payback, oh yes indeed. And revenge would be sweet. Eddie turned and began walking away from the group with haste. They proceeded to follow, chanting over and over, “Eddie and Jade ... up a tree ...” Eddie had hoped that today marked the start and finish of any trouble over the photograph, but clearly his problems were just beginning.

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The last rays of the evening sun gave the bedroom a deep reddish-gray hue. Vague impressions of posters and model cars and various items of junk rose partially out of the shadows. Eddie lay on his stomach, elbows raised, totally absorbed in a sheet of paper. Finally thrust out of his imaginary world by his inability to make out the words on the page in front of him, Eddie got up and turned on the light. 19

He yawned, rubbing his tired eyes, and began pacing the room, reading over some of what he had penned. Slade peered into the back of the van, at the rows of neatly stacked computers, feeling a mixture of guilt and hope. Fourteen thousand pounds—just enough for the operation that would save his brother’s life. “Ready to go, Dad?” Barry called from up front in the passenger seat. “You betcha.” Slade slammed the doors shut, walked around the van, and climbed in. “I could never have done it without you, son. I would have set those alarms off for sure. We make a great team.” In the next room Britney Spears was busy singing about how she “did it again”—and again and again and again. The song was OK, but Tara had been playing this CD at least three times every evening for the past three weeks. There was only so much a guy could take. Tonight, however, he had barely noticed until right now, because he was in The Zone. That was Eddie’s term for writing a story—shutting the world out and shutting yourself into your own imagination. He felt the urge to urinate, badly. His bladder had probably been calling out to him for the past hour, but he hadn’t been aware of it. He dropped the essay, opened the door, and headed for the bathroom, thinking, I’ll kill her if she’s in there. But he reckoned he had tortured his sister enough for one day. He had practically tickled her to death when she got home after school (there was only so much tickling the recipient could find funny), and when that only served to enrage her, he had threatened to destroy her precious CD collection, piece by piece. Westlife, Backstreet Boys, etcetera, etcetera. He broke an old Shania Twain album Tara hadn’t played in over a year just to prove he wasn’t kidding. She wouldn’t be doing any Eddie-and-Jade-ing tomorrow, if she knew what was good for her. 20

Eddie had finished tormenting Tara before Dad came home from work, of course. They both had some painful memories of what it was like when Dad got angry, and neither of them were particularly eager to feel that kind of pain ever again. Eddie flushed the toilet after him and headed back along the landing. Over the noise of Tara’s stereo he could hear two voices coming from downstairs, which meant Dad had a visitor. Normally Eddie knew better than to be curious about any of his father’s business, but this time was different. It was impossible to hear what they were saying, but it was equally impossible not to perceive that both parties were raising their voices in anger. Eddie, growing steadily worried, leaned over the banister, craning his ear. The shouting seemed to come from the kitchen, behind the closed door. He frowned at Tara’s bedroom for a moment and considered asking her to turn the music down, but he knew she would only slide the volume up louder instead. Eddie took three steps down the stairs and froze as the words, “No! You can’t do this to me!” came from his father’s lips, full of rage. Something big was happening here, something big and scary, and Eddie changed his mind about going down. He took one step backwards, hearing the stair creak sharply under his weight. More muffled speech came from his father’s guest, then light spilled into the living-room as the kitchen door swung wide, out of Eddie’s line of vision. At that very moment the visitor’s voice returned to crystal clarity, and Eddie heard the tail end of a sentence that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. “... that is, if you don’t want your pretty daughter to end up at the bottom of the River Bann.” Frozen with fear, Eddie watched as the man strolled into view at the bottom of the stairs. He was in his late thirties, tall and muscular, wearing a black leather jacket. His hair was cut very short and a cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. 21

Don’t let him see me, Eddie wished. “You’ve got two days,” the stranger continued. “I’ll be back here Wednesday night, and you know you don’t want to disappoint me.” He made his way to the front door and opened it. Then he took one glance back at the kitchen and just noticed the boy out of the corner of his eye. He turned towards Eddie and fixed his gaze on him, with a grin that was wide and affectionate. If Eddie had only looked at the man’s mouth, he might have been fooled by it, but the eyes gave the game away— they were stone cold. It was a contradiction that gave him the creeps. “Hi there, kiddo,” the visitor said. Eddie simply stood there, unable to speak, grateful that he had just emptied his bladder in the toilet a few moments ago instead of right here and now on the carpet. He shivered, sensing gooseflesh rising on his arms, and his legs gradually turning to jelly. The stranger chuckled, drew hard on his cigarette, then simply turned and left.

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The front door of the house swung slowly shut on its hinges. Click. Eddie sat down on the stairs, feeling relief flow through him. Everything seemed deathly silent—even though he could hear the constant throb of pop music emanating from behind his sister’s door. Who was that man? What did he want with Dad? Why did he speak that awful threat about Tara? And why hadn’t Dad come out of the kitchen yet? The answers were down there, but Eddie was reluctant to move. Dad had been shouting, and Eddie had far too many vivid memories of what his father’s temper was like at times. Best to go back upstairs, finish that 22

essay and forget he heard anything at all. Maybe get an early night’s sleep for once. Except Eddie didn’t really believe he would be able to get any sleep at all tonight, or tomorrow night, or the night after. In fact, he didn’t think he would get any sleep until ... The voice of the man in the leather jacket rose out of his imagination. Until your pretty sister ends up at the bottom of the River Bann, and you don’t have to worry about her any more, because she’s DEAD! A horrible sense of panic swelled up inside Eddie, and it was enough to get him moving. He cast all thoughts of his father’s anger aside and bounded down the stairs, across the living-room and into the kitchen. Blake Morton, a tall, muscular man in his early forties, was sitting on a stool at the far end of the room, one arm resting on top of the refrigerator, the other bringing a bottle of beer to his mouth. After taking a swig, he looked into his lap, not noticing Eddie in the doorway. “Dad?” Eddie whispered. Morton spoke without raising his head, face covered with strands of greasy black hair. “What?” Eddie thought he sensed anger bubbling under the surface, but he continued nonetheless. “Who was that man?” Morton looked up sharply. “Did he speak to you?” “Aye, only for a minute.” Morton put his beer on the refrigerator, got up, and strode purposefully across the room. Eddie flinched as his father grabbed him by the shoulders. “What did he say to you?” Morton demanded. “Nothing! He just said hello.” “That’s all? Nothing else?” “That’s it, I swear. You’re hurting me, Dad.” Morton relaxed his grip. “I’m sorry, son. I didn’t mean to.” He walked swiftly back across the kitchen, swiped his beer from the refrigerator and took a gulp. “Dad, what’s going on?” Eddie asked. 23

Morton ignored him. “Are you taking drugs again?” Morton glared at his son, then a sense of shame quickly overpowered his anger. He composed himself and answered, “No. Not for two and a half years. You know that.” Eddie really didn’t know, only that there were no longer any signs of white powder on the coffee table, and no strange, discomforting visitors—until tonight. But something in his dad’s tragic expression told him that it really was over; Eddie was reading in his father’s face that Morton harboured a longing for his son to be proud of him, and Eddie felt suddenly thrilled, despite the situation. “That man,” Eddie said, “is he a drug dealer?” Morton looked away and was silent for a moment, then he met his son’s gaze and shook his head. “He’s a loan shark.” “What’s a loan shark?” “He’s the man you turn to when the banks won’t give you a loan.” Eddie wasn’t sure he understood. “Why is he here, Dad?” Morton sat down on the stool and sighed. “Because, son, when you’ve lived like I have, the past comes back to haunt you.” “What’s going to happen?” “Forget about it. I owe him some money, that’s all.” Morton gazed at the floor between his feet, the bottle in his hand quivering. Dad didn’t have much money, Eddie knew. Nothing worth talking about anyway. “We can sell something, can’t we?” Eddie suggested. Morton’s hand shook so hard that the bottle clattered to the floor, spewing beer over the tiles. Eddie winced. “You’ll sort it out, won’t you, Dad? ... Dad? ” Morton’s face was hidden in shadow, and he refused to look up. What came from his lips was a sound that Eddie had never heard Dad utter in all his life, a sound that made this the most 24

frightening moment of the boy’s existence. It was the sound of despair. Blake Morton—the man who always gave as good as he got, and then some; the man who had solved every problem life threw at him, with brute force when necessary—was weeping.

7
Eddie was sitting bolt upright on his bed, unable to relax. The words of the loan shark kept coming into his mind. ... that is, if you don’t want your pretty daughter— Eddie covered his eyes, but of course that was no use at all. —to end up at the bottom of the River Bann. A tear came to his eye and he rubbed it away. This was the sort of thing that happened to other families, not to his—to people you didn’t know in places far enough away that you could put them safely out of mind. But of course there was Mum—last remembered as a beautiful woman in her mid-thirties called Angela. Then one night, two and a half years ago, a house in Oakleigh Park burned to the ground, probably through something as insignificant as a cigarette not being properly put out. A man named Bill McCauley and his lover Angela Morton died in the blaze. For a long time after that, Eddie lived with a constant inner turmoil of anxiety, rage and depression, knowing so little about life and trying to figure out how such a terrible thing could happen. Now that he was fourteen, the only answer he had found any comfort in was that there was no answer. Eddie was now one of a minority of people his age who had very few illusions about life. There was no divine magic in the air protecting people from harm, and the only thing this 25

revelation could do for him right now was make him feel sick to his stomach. Abruptly the stereo in Tara’s room stopped playing, casting an uncomfortable quietness everywhere. Eddie heard his sister moving about, probably getting ready for bed, and all he could think about were the people at his mother’s funeral, shuffling about quietly and trying to maintain as much of the traditional uncomfortable silence as possible. Tara’s little cocoon of sound had protected her from all knowledge of tonight’s visitor. She would sleep calmly tonight, and there was no point in spoiling it by telling her what had happened. Eddie was no stranger to making his sister cry by one means or another, but this was different. Trying to put the whole thing out of his mind, he picked up his essay and began to read through it from the beginning. At first it was very hard to focus, then, about halfway through, Eddie’s eyes widened as a curious idea struck him. He scanned through the remainder hastily—you could almost say hungrily, by the intense look that had come over his face. Finished, Eddie put the paper down and stared off into space, lost in thought. After a few minutes he decided to get up and leave the room. Moving slowly but decisively, he walked along landing, down the stairs, and into the living-room. The lights were off, and Blake Morton sat in the flickering glow of the television. He was on the sofa, with a bottle of beer resting between his thighs, his eyes looking through the TV instead of at it. He had turned the volume right down. “Dad?” No answer, not even an indication that Eddie’s father knew his son was in the room. Eddie spoke softly, carefully. “Dad, will you tell me how much money you have to pay that man?” “Go back upstairs,” Morton answered. “Please, Dad. It’s important.” This time Morton looked at his son. He retorted in almost a 26

whisper, but Eddie could sense the anger building. “Didn’t you hear me? I just told you to get upstairs.” In any ordinary circumstance Morton’s tone of voice would have commanded instant obedience from Eddie, but not tonight. What he had come to say to his father right now was vital. “Please, Dad, don’t be angry.” Eddie’s voice trembled. “I can’t help it. I heard what the man said he would do to Tara.” Morton’s eyes shot wide open, and Eddie braced himself for a beating. Instead, his father raised a finger in front of his mouth, pursed his lips and shook his head slowly, glancing at the ceiling. Eddie moved closer to his father and whispered, “Would he do it, do you think? Would he really do it?” Eddie faintly hoped that his father would shrug the incident off as a bit of heated banter. Instead, Morton’s expression grew extremely grave, and he answered with a simple, “Yes.” Eddie’s heart was pounding and his stomach seemed to tie itself in knots. A tear spilled down his cheek, and it felt as if there was a tidal wave of them ready to spill out. “We can go to the police,” he suggested. The corners of Morton’s mouth turned up in a smile that wasn’t a smile. “That doesn’t work with these kind of people. When they don’t get what they want, they hurt you. And if you try to hurt them, they have friends who will be only too happy to hurt you more.” “What can we do?” Eddie saw tears welling in his father’s eyes now. “I don’t know,” Morton admitted, almost breaking down again. “I really don’t know.” Eddie put a hand on his dad’s thigh. “Dad, tell me how much you owe him.” Morton rubbed his eyes. “Fourteen thousand quid.” Eddie gasped. The figure was almost like a special message from above, a confirmation that the idea he had come up with was the right thing to do and would work. Despite the death 27

of his mother, some part of him could still believe in such things—at least a little bit. He recalled the words he had written earlier in the evening: Slade peered into the back of the van, at the rows of neatly stacked computers, feeling a mixture of guilt and hope. Fourteen thousand pounds—just enough for the operation that would save his brother’s life. “Dad, I’ve got an idea.”

28

Tuesda y
3 April 2001
8
Eddie pressed his ear against the door of room twenty-five to find out if there was a class inside. Satisfied that he was alone, he curled his hand around the handle, turned it, pushed. The door wouldn’t budge. Eddie muttered a curse, not really surprised. It would be no good giving Mr. Sloan the same excuse today. Nevertheless, he walked slowly up the corridor towards the technician’s office, thinking hard. By the time he got there, he had an idea of what he would say—something triggered by the memory of an errand he had once been asked to do. Mr. Sloan’s door was open, and he was, as usual, peering into his monitor. “Sir, could Miss Taggart borrow your key for room twentyfive? She forgot to bring hers.” Eddie was extremely nervous, because this was a bold-faced lie, and if Mr. Sloan somehow called his bluff, there would be serious consequences. The technician snatched his key-ring off the desk and handed it to Eddie. “There you go. It’s the green key. Bring it back straight away.” Eddie took the bunch of keys and walked off, breathing a sigh of relief. What a pushover, he thought, striding back along the corridor. With haste, he took three pieces of chewing gum out of his pocket, stuffed them into his mouth, and chewed ravenously, as though this was his first meal in two days—not that he would get much nourishment from a lump of flavoured rubber. Eddie slotted Mr. Sloan’s key into the lock and turned it. 29

There was a satisfying click. He glanced nervously down the corridor to see if anyone was about, then darted into the computer suite, letting the door swing shut behind him. With not a moment to lose, Eddie immediately spun around and gazed above the door. The white box on the wall glared back at him, mocking Eddie’s presence with its red light. It was like an irritating child constantly blowing a raspberry. Finally satisfied with his stillness, the light went off. Eddie wheeled a nearby chair over to the door (out popped the little red “tongue”), stepped up onto the seat, took the gum out of his mouth and pressed it firmly onto the box’s sensor. He rubbed hard, spreading as much of the lump over the surface as possible. Finished, he hopped off the chair, slid it back to its original position, then stood facing the door. The light was off. Eddie moved his limbs in a foolish dance that would have made him the laughing stock of the end-of-term party. The motion detector didn’t respond. “Gotcha!” Eddie exclaimed, grinning triumphantly and sticking his middle finger up at the device. Just to be doubly sure, he strolled around the room, waving his arms about, keeping his eyes focused above the door at all times. The “child” was bound, gagged and out cold. “Told you I’d beat you, didn’t I?” Eddie mocked. Anyone could look up and see the great big lump of sticky rubber clinging to the motion detector, but Eddie was counting on nobody’s eyes straying in that direction. He himself had certainly never noticed the device until yesterday, and he had used the room countless times over the past three years. It would take a little luck, Eddie reckoned, but not much of it. This part of the job was the least of his worries. Later he would find a way to investigate the school library for another of those devices, but now it was time to return Mr. Sloan’s key before the man got suspicious, and to get back to 30

class before Miss Taggart started imagining he’d fallen into the toilet. As Eddie left the room, he gazed over his shoulder at the four rows of computers, feeling a pang of guilt.

9
The school day was split up into nine periods, and the classes generally changed rooms after each thirty-five-minute lecture. Eddie spent these precious few moments after each bell rang scanning the corridors for more of those motion detectors. The whole school had a strange texture about it today, as if Eddie had never set foot in it before. Every time he paced down a corridor, gazing along the walls and ceiling, he felt as if he didn’t belong here—that he was an impostor. Thus far, Eddie had found no sensors in the corridors, but he spotted something important that had slipped his mind— something that would not catch him in the act but would certainly give the police a field day later: a closed-circuit television camera, designed to record his every movement. There were two of them. The first one wasn’t a problem; it was mounted in the foyer and pointed at the main entrance doors of the school, spying on a very small amount of the interior. Its purpose was merely to allow the office staff to see who was coming and going, and stop them if necessary—like when somebody enters the building with a whopping great flame thrower (something which was not entirely unheard of in this world). The second of the two cameras did pose a problem. It pointed directly along the main downstairs corridor. There were no computers behind these doors, but there was one particular room, foremost in the camera’s field of vision, that Eddie needed to check out: the caretaker’s store. On an errand for a teacher some time ago, Eddie had noticed a huge rack full of keys on the wall of the store—so many keys that it looked as 31

if there could be one for every room in the school. And of course it made sense. Part of the caretaker’s job was probably to check everything after school and lock the place up tight. Eddie came to a standstill right outside the door, which was open just a crack. His breath stopped in his throat as it occurred to him what a blunder he was making. Later, the police would check the videotape and they would find a boy standing staring at the very door behind which important keys were stolen. Mind racing, Eddie quickly reached up and knocked the door, pretending to be looking for the caretaker. He hoped the man would be elsewhere in the building right now, because his mind had gone blank, and his gaping, speechless mouth would no doubt later be viewed as suspicious. Thankfully there was no response. Eddie turned and strolled off past the camera, taking care not to even so much as glance upwards out of the corner of his eye. His heart hammered as he began to realise just how close he had come to ruining everything. If he had waited another few seconds in front of the camera, he might as well have been writing a confession note to the police. Any longer and he may have had to quit the whole operation and come up with another plan—or leave his sister to a cruel fate. Eddie shuddered. Somehow he would find a way to deal with the camera. And more than that, he would have to check the store for a sensor. Who would have imagined robbing a school could be so complicated? Anyway, he had the rest of the day to figure out a solution. Right now the corridors were empty and it was well past time to get to class. Eddie sprinted up the stairs and headed along the upstairs corridor, past Mr. Sloan’s office, past room twenty-one, twentytwo ... Outside room twenty-three, a class known as IB was lined—or rather scattered—along the corridor, waiting for the teacher to arrive. As usual there was a lot of noise and playful horsing around, which Eddie ignored, concentrating instead 32

on the walls and ceiling, paranoid that he might have missed something on his previous reconnaissance. So focused was Eddie that he didn’t notice the schoolbag that lay in his path. His left foot unwittingly slipped into one of the straps and his right toe clipped the bag itself, sending him off-balance. Eddie fell flat on his front, much to the delight of the other pupils. They crowded around him, laughing and jeering. He quickly rose to a sitting position and glared at the class, feeling pure bright rage rush up out of his heart. Here he was, doing his best to deal with a life-threatening situation, and all they wanted to do was hold him back and mock him. All those grinning faces, so carefree, so content—God was up in his heaven, and all was well with the world, hurrah. Gazing from face to face, Eddie spotted Jade Rodgers among the crowd. A lump formed in his throat, as he witnessed her giggling at him just like the rest, and the image of her that he treasured in his heart began to crumble. It was the last straw. He had had no sleep the night before; he had been a bundle of nerves all day, and he couldn’t take it any more. At that very moment Eddie cared about nothing and nobody. He leaned back, rested the palms of his hands on the floor, stared at the ceiling, and let out a gut-wrenching roar which echoed several times along the corridor. When the reverberations had finished, it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Something in Eddie’s tone had communicated a very solemn message to everyone—that Eddie was not well, that he was perhaps a very short distance from putting you in hospital. Someone several metres behind Eddie broke the silence. “Whoa! King Kong lives!” Eddie spun around in time to see Stuart Todd beating his chest like a gorilla. Nobody dared to laugh. They were all looking very worried, like this was dangerous new territory best left unexplored. Stuart was not part of this class, but belonged to JB. He 33

had stumbled upon the scene in the last few seconds, probably on his way to the toilet—or to the bike-sheds for a smoke. He was a thin boy with a severe acne problem and an even more severe attitude problem. Eddie sprung to his feet. He crossed the short distance between himself and Stuart, hearing doors opening as curious teachers leaned out to investigate the noise. Eddie wanted to lash out, and here was someone happy to oblige. Stuart’s grin lasted right up until the very moment that Eddie’s fist connected with his face. Maybe he thought Eddie didn’t have it in him to be a tough guy—something which was ordinarily true. You just picked the wrong day, Eddie thought. Stuart’s body performed a brief arc through the air before he landed square on his back with a loud thump. After a moment’s disorientation, he felt his cheek, then gazed up at Eddie, not quite believing his eyes. His stunned expression quickly transformed into anger, and he rose awkwardly to his feet, muttering and cursing about what manner of awful things he was going to do to his assailant. Somewhere up the corridor a teacher started bellowing, but in this circumstance it seemed like a voice calling from far, far away. Eddie stood his ground, meeting Stuart’s gaze with equal fierceness, not caring about what was happening or how far this might go. Stuart twisted his face into a snarl and drew his fist back. Then a very strange thing happened. The boy’s expression softened into one of puzzlement, then puzzlement changed to concern, and concern evolved unmistakably into fear, complemented by a noticeably whiter skin-tone. Stuart’s eyes focused, not on Eddie, but on something beyond Eddie’s shoulder. Eddie spun around, not knowing what to expect. But there was nothing there—nothing except the twentysomething pupils of IB. Beyond them a few faces peered out of a classroom. The only thing remotely out of place was a 34

woman at the far end of the corridor, heading their way. She was attractive, in her mid-twenties, had curly blond hair, wore a green business suit with dark tights, and deep black sunglasses covered her eyes. She wasn’t any teacher Eddie recognised, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. The glasses did make her look like quite an uncommon character, but there was nothing remotely menacing about her presence; if anything she was just plain sexy. Eddie looked back at Stuart. The fear had vanished as quickly as it had come, and now Stuart was scratching his head and rubbing his eyes, looking extremely bewildered. Eddie’s anger had also somewhat subsided in those few eventful moments. “What’s wrong?” Stuart glanced at him hatefully and cursed. “What’s it to you?” The woman in green was closer now. Stuart turned and walked away in the opposite direction, without another word. The stranger passed by Eddie without a glance, as far as he could tell—which wasn’t far considering the sunglasses. But she was certainly very disinterested in the drama of the past few minutes. Eddie breathed deeply, regaining some control of himself. Everyone from IB was staring at him with very sober expressions. His eyes picked out the girl of his dreams. Jade looked away from him.

10
Eddie wasn’t long in the classroom before a second-year boy arrived with an ominous request. “Could Mr. Lyons please speak to Eddie Morton?” When Eddie arrived in the foyer, the headmaster was 35

waiting, with his arms folded across his chest and a cold, angry expression on his face. Mr. Lyons was a stout man in his fifties, with a bald head surrounded by forests of curly white hair which sprouted comically over his ears. But he had never looked less funny than right now. Stuart Todd showed up a few seconds later, ambling along with his hands stuffed in his pockets. The principal remarked on how surprised he was to find this boy as the victim instead of the attacker. To Eddie he gave a longer speech, in a much louder voice, about how shocked and disappointed he was; how Eddie was heading down the wrong path, one that ultimately led to the dole office or a prison cell. He didn’t ask any questions about Eddie’s motive, much to the boy’s relief. All Eddie had to do was stand there, wincing as his ears absorbed the impact of the man’s booming voice. The headmaster debated sending him home for the rest of the day, and Eddie realised that he had come very close to blowing his whole operation a second time. After an enforced apology and a handshake between the two boys, the ordeal was over, and Mr. Lyons ordered them back to class. Some time later, Eddie was able to work out a straightforward but risky solution to the problem of the CCTV camera outside the caretaker’s store. It involved staying in the foyer after school. Should anyone enquire, he was waiting to be picked up by his dad—a simple, thoroughly believable lie. He could probably hang around till 5.00pm if it came to that, and no one would bat an eyelid. As it turned out, his stay lasted a mere fifteen minutes. At 3.00pm all three women who worked in the general office walked out, carrying their coats and handbags. Eddie glanced through the glass panel on the office door and peered up at the spot where he knew two television screens were mounted. As he had hoped, they were now switched off. 36

No doubt there was a tape still running, but that was where his next step came in. The corridors reeked of the smell of bleach, which meant the cleaners were already at work. None of the workers were in sight, but they could come around any corner at a moment’s notice, so Eddie would have to be fast. Inside the assembly hall was a long pole with a hook on the end, used to open and close the high windows. Eddie brought it out into the corridor, stood directly under the security camera, and raised the pole above his head. The camera appeared to be on a swivel-mount, and Eddie was able to turn it ninety degrees with ease, so that it stared at the corridor wall. He was relieved he didn’t end up having to bash the electronic spy into submission, and make a lot of noise in the process. After returning the pole, it was time for a quick wander around to find out what the caretaker was doing and, when the coast was clear, to check the store for a sensor. And sure enough it was up there in the corner, mocking him with its little red light. But not for long. As before, a piece of gum did the trick. Eddie walked away feeling a great, but certainly not complete, sense of relief. The complicated part was over; he could take it easy for a while. Then he would face the most dangerous part of all.

11
At precisely 5.02pm Eddie crossed the point of no return. The moment arrived in the form of a sound—the dim clunk of a key turning in a lock. Next, Eddie heard the tapping of footsteps outdoors, fading and fading until all that was left to listen to was his own breathing. He was utterly alone. And there was no turning back now, because he was locked in. Clounagh Junior High was no longer a school but a prison. 37

Eddie felt a wave of fright come over him. He wanted to rush over to the window and bang it furiously before the caretaker reached his car. He forced himself to take slow, deep breaths in an effort to calm himself down. There were plenty of windows and plenty of heavy things that could be thrown at them, if it came to the point of panic, he assured himself. The place where Eddie had chosen to conceal himself was the stage of the assembly hall. A few months ago, pupils taking part in the school musical had sung and danced up here, and the set pieces hadn’t been taken down. There were four high walls made of painted cardboard, two at either side of the stage, each forming a thin aisle which was angled away from the hall itself to hide the off-stage cast—and right now, to hide one lonely schoolboy, sitting in the shadows. The silence was eerie. What made it worse was that Eddie had a lot of time to kill. And what made it intolerable was that darkness was on its way; there might be four hours of daylight left, but the coming of the night was unstoppable. In an effort to take his mind off his situation, Eddie opened his schoolbag and took out Z for Zachariah, the novel his class was reading in English—a story about a girl who survives a nuclear war. It was one of the precious few enjoyable books he had been forced to read at school. That was all right for an hour or so. Then, feeling hunger pangs, Eddie opened his lunchbox and tucked into the cheese and ham sandwiches that he had left uneaten—he had been too consumed with anxiety to have had any appetite at midday. Eddie took his mobile phone out of his blazer pocket and pushed a couple of buttons to activate the Snake game that was built in. It occurred to him that he had left this device switched on the whole time he was hiding, prior to the caretaker leaving. If someone had phoned ... Well, they didn’t, Eddie reflected. So there’s no need to worry about it. You got lucky again, and here you are. Eddie guided his rapidly growing digital serpent around the little screen again and again for about half an hour. Snake was 38

fun, but there was only so much of it you could take in one sitting. He gazed at his phone, wishing he could just dial Pizza Palazzo down town and tell them to deliver a big fat number eleven to Clounagh Junior High School. The thought of all that cheese, tomato, bacon, pineapple ... Eddie groaned. He wanted desperately to get up and go for a walk around the school, despite the place’s ever deepening creepiness. Anything was better than this waiting. But it just wasn’t safe. Someone might see him—perhaps a man out walking his dog on the playing fields, or some kids hanging out in the playground with their skateboards. Eddie began scanning through the contacts list on his phone. He thought of an idea that would kill another few minutes, and decided it was safe enough to try. He pressed the call button and held the phone to his ear. A few moments later Dean Willis introduced himself with, “Yo.” Eddie could hear the familiar explosion noises of Dean’s favourite computer game, Quake III: Arena. “Hi, Dean. What you up to?” Eddie enquired. “Well, I was beating this idiot from New Zealand to a pulp, until you showed up.” “New Zealand?” “Sure, what’s so weird about that? It’s only the net. Global communication and all that lark.” “That’s cool.” “You know, we could play this against each other, from our own houses, if you would hurry up and get yourself a PC.” “Easy for you to say, you spoilt brat.” Dean chuckled. “Hardly! Hey, you’re not still sore about that business with the photo, are you?” “Aye. And you didn’t even apologise.” “What! I did you a favour.” Eddie snorted. “Oh right. Explain that one to me.” “If you want to go out with a girl, what you do is make sure 39

everyone knows you fancy her. Then she’ll know. And if she’s interested, she’ll find a way to let you know.” “Of course, you’re speaking from your extensive dating experience here,” Eddie mocked playfully. “Well, I am certainly not speaking from my extensive butt.” Eddie burst out laughing. That was one of the cool things about Dean Willis—no matter what you said, you just couldn’t offend the guy. Dean’s large body was an obvious target for the verbal abuse of his peers, but unlike others of his size he was always able to give as good as he got. Eddie had seen selfprofessed tough guys homing in on Dean like vultures, only to walk away red-faced, ears ringing with home truths about how pathetic they were. “Hey, look, I’ll make a deal with you,” Dean announced. “I’ll tell you I’m sorry if you don’t get mad when I call you a pervert.” “So you think I’m a pervert?” “Nah, I’m just kidding. Besides, with the new poster I’ve got up, I’m hardly one to judge.” “Who is it this time?” “Well, I took that wee photo off the school website and blew it right up. Jade Rodgers, full colour and life-size.” “You’re a liar. You haven’t.” “Have so. And surely this is another good reason for you to get yourself a computer.” “I don’t believe you. Your mum would kill you.” “Of course she would. That’s why I’m selling it to you. Ten quid.” Eddie chuckled. “You know, if you were telling the truth, I almost would.” “And who could blame you? After all, she has great legs.” “I had noticed.” “Well, Ed, I have to go. This New Zealander is shaming me big-time. Talk to you later, OK?” “OK, see ya.” Eddie put the phone away and lay down, using his blazer as 40

a pillow, irritated by the hard wooden floor underneath him. He thought of Jade, imagining the both of them standing outdoors in the sunshine. She was wearing cut-off jeans and a skimpy tank-top that showed her waist. Her arms were around his neck; his hands were around her middle, resting on the warm skin at the small of her back. The fantasy made Eddie feel both happy and sad at the same time.

12
Eddie recalled an occasion some four years ago when he had spent several hours at Craigavon Area Hospital, in the Casualty waiting room. Tara had sliced her hand on a piece of glass—nothing too serious, just in need of a few minor stitches. In fact, the little girl who was then seven had spent most of the time dancing around the other people in the room, barely paying her blood-covered hand any attention at all. The waiting had been excruciatingly tiresome, with nothing to do but leaf through boring magazines for grown-ups. But it was nothing compared to this. Reclining on the school stage for the past five hours had felt like undergoing some cruel and unusual torture. Eventually the shadows around him grew reddish as the sun made its crawl to the other side of the world. By the time his watch read 9.15pm, Eddie decided that it was safe to emerge. He stood up, knees popping with the inactivity, put on his blazer, grabbed his schoolbag, and headed off the stage via the side exit, feeling his way along with his hands where shadows prevented him from seeing. School had felt strange earlier in the day, but the feeling was ten times as strong now. All the lights were off, and everywhere Eddie looked was shrouded in darkness. Rays of moonlight shone in through the windows at a very acute angle, giving a vague impression that this was still the familiar geography of Clounagh Junior High School, not some strange 41

and foreboding building. The shadows could have concealed anything—maybe horrible black rats that would come scuttling along the corridor with huge glistening fangs, their sleep awakened by the squeaking of Eddie’s shoes on the recently polished floor. Stop it! Eddie scolded himself, regretting every horror film he had ever watched. He breathed deeply, taking in the smell of the floor polish—grateful that at least one of his senses was willing to give him something familiar. The caretaker’s office was thankfully a very short walk away. Despite his fear, Eddie stayed focused on the job at hand. First, a quick glance above. His eyes, now well used to the dark after his interminable wait, made out the shape of the CCTV camera. It was still pointed at the wall, his handiwork having gone unnoticed. All he needed now was just a little more of this good luck he had been consistently having today. Just one more tiny piece of it. Eddie reached for the door handle, turned it, pushed. The only movement came from Eddie’s lips as he swore vehemently. Why did the caretaker have to lock his own door at night when he never locked it all day? Was this the end? Eddie wondered. When he was this close to winning, had he hit a brick wall that he wouldn’t be able to break through? Well, he thought, this isn’t made of brick, and “break” is really the operative word, isn’t it? An open cloakroom area on the opposite side of the corridor afforded a couple of metres of a “runway,” so Eddie made use of it. He sprinted forward, then brought the sole of his right foot up to connect with the door at the last moment. An almighty boom reverberated along the corridor, but the door remained stuck fast. Come on, Eddie urged himself. You see this in the movies all the time. He tried again, and this time felt a sharp pain in his knee. Wincing, he sat down on the floor, hoping he wouldn’t end up having to hop around the corridors on one leg. 42

After rubbing his knee for a few minutes, Eddie got up with renewed determination. “You won’t stop me,” he told the door. “If I have to break every bone in my body getting past you, then that’s what I’m gonna do.” And with that he rushed towards the door with all his might, shoulder first, mouth twisted into a snarl. The wood around the lock gave way with a crunch, and Eddie’s momentum propelled him into the room. He let out a yell that was one part exhilaration and another pain, as his body collided with a table at the far end of the store. He slid into a nearby chair, groaning and holding his aching stomach. When recovered, Eddie gazed up at what he had come in here for—the key rack. He scanned the forty-something keys and snatched one marked 25 and another REAR FOYER. There was nothing for the library, which was room nineteen, but a key marked MASTER looked suspiciously relevant in that regard. Wasn’t a master key something that was used to open lots of doors? He took it, feeling hopeful. Fingerprints! Eddie suddenly realised. You should have worn gloves, you dummy. Well, as long as he didn’t leave the keys behind when he left, he could destroy them later. And besides, if the police were going to trace him, didn’t they already need to have his fingerprints on some kind of criminal record file or something? Eddie left the room and headed upstairs. There were more windows along the main corridor of the upper floor, and that meant more light, but somehow it was just as spooky as ever. Eddie could see right down to the very end of the corridor, about a hundred metres distant. In his mind he pictured a woman standing down there. She was wearing a white dress that billowed in a non-existent wind. Her skin was every bit as pale as her clothes, and her eyes stood out wide and full of hunger. She raised her arms as if to embrace. And when she started moving towards Eddie, she glided, not walked. Eddie shook himself and kept going, hearing the sound of his own heartbeat over his footsteps. 43

He inserted the relevant key into the lock of room twentyfive and heard a satisfying click. There was no point entering the room yet, so he headed back up the corridor. Once he arrived at the library, he tried the master key. Click. Breathing a sigh of relief, Eddie entered the room. The library was one area of school that had a unique odour, one that right now served to remind Eddie of the many good times spent here hunched over a novel or surfing the internet. The smell was a mixture of old books and healthy plants—a pleasant ambience. Eddie closed the door behind him, shutting out the menacing atmosphere of the corridor. He glanced up at the motion detector on the wall. Sure enough, no one had noticed his earlier handiwork; the gum was still in place and the little red light was in a deep sleep. The library was located at the very front of the building, on the upper floor, and featured immense towering windows. These allowed you to peer out over the huge lawn and beyond that to the rooftops of Portadown town centre. Right now the windows helped illuminate the room with the glow from an outdoor security floodlight. Eddie walked past the bookcases and desks—places he had often sat which now looked unfamiliar to him. Seven computers formed a row in front of the windows. Eddie walked around them and stood with his face against a pane of glass. It was not impossible to be seen, but highly unlikely. For once the sky was free from clouds, and the stars shone bright and majestic. Gazing at them had a calming effect. There was the frying-pan shape of The Plough, the only constellation Eddie knew how to recognise, glowing at him from light-years away. Somewhat closer, about a mile distant, the tower of St. Mark’s Church rose above the surrounding haze of light from the town centre. The gothic architecture was stunning, especially at night, where it appeared to glow with unearthly 44

beauty. But of course, it was only an illusion of divinity created by lights on the ground that pointed up at the building. “If you’re there, God,” Eddie prayed, against his better judgment, “help me to do this. I know it’s wrong, but please help me anyway. Because of Tara.” It was the first real prayer he had spoken in a long time, and saying it felt like rubbing sandpaper across his heart. He didn’t much believe in God, mostly because of what happened to his mother, but right now he wanted to believe more than ever. The faint whirr of traffic could be heard coming and going along Brownstown Road, the headlights of vehicles zooming from left to right and right to left. All those ordinary people going about their ordinary lives. Eddie felt an immense yearning, and it was enough to bring tears to his eyes. Adjacent to the road were houses, many of them illuminated from within, looking very warm and cosy. The scene was a mere hundred metres in front of him, but to Eddie it seemed like a far-away world to which he might never return.

13
The lights behind the windows went off one by one at random intervals, as the occupants of the houses retired to their safe, warm beds. Now that there was much less traffic on the roads, the bells of St. Mark’s Church rang out with acute clarity—twelve strikes signifying midnight. It had been another tiresome wait since entering the library, but at least Eddie could move around. Better still, there was a wealth of books with which to occupy himself. He wished he had brought a flashlight along, but still, it wasn’t impossible to make do with the glow from the outdoor floodlight. A book which he might have passed by without a second thought on another occasion, The World’s Greatest Robberies, made fascinating reading for a while, until he came across numerous vivid accounts of people who got caught. 45

At eleven minutes past twelve, as Eddie was impatiently pacing up and down the floor, a flash of bright light suddenly illuminated the whole library for a split second. The very same thing had happened an hour ago, and it had merely been a car doing a U-turn at the entrance gates of the school. Nevertheless, hearing the sound of an engine, Eddie raced for the edge of the window, his heart thumping. He hid his body behind the curtain and peered out. A white Ford Transit van raced up the driveway towards the building. Eddie almost cried out, not with alarm but with exhilaration, because Dad had arrived, and Eddie would no longer be alone. Halfway up the driveway the headlights went off and the van completed its journey in the pale glow of the moon. As the vehicle went out of sight around the side of the school, Eddie took to his heels and dashed out of the library. The school, from a bird’s eye view, was vaguely U-shaped, with the playground occupying the centre of the letter. This was ideal for tonight’s purpose, because it meant the van could be parked completely out of public view. Eddie bounded down the stairs, taking them two and three at a time, ignoring the dull ache in his knee. He arrived in the foyer just as the van came to a standstill in the playground, right outside the glass doors. Eddie pulled the key marked REAR FOYER from his pocket. He was almost unable to insert it in his excitement. Blake Morton climbed out of his van, dressed in black jeans and a black sweatshirt, in stark contrast to the van’s exterior; he couldn’t have owned a vehicle with a worse colour, but who could have predicted he would end up using it for this purpose? Eddie got the door open, allowing cool air to rush inside, carried on the peaceful night breeze. It felt like being set free from a cage. Morton stepped indoors, looking left and right, surveying 46

his surroundings. It was a place he had only been inside about twice a year, for parents’ evenings and Christmas carol services. Eddie had the mad urge to hug his father, but held back. Hugging just wasn’t something they did any more. Besides, they had work to do, and do quickly. “Let’s go,” Eddie said, turning away. A hand gripped his shoulder tightly, spinning him back around. Morton gazed into his son’s eyes and spoke with uncharacteristic softness. “This is awful, you know. I never in a million years imagined dragging you into something like this.” Eddie shrugged. “It was my idea.” Morton closed his eyes briefly. “And that worries me. I just ...” There were tears forming. “I don’t want you to turn out like ... like me, do you understand?” Eddie didn’t allow himself to nod out of courtesy. He felt his own eyes filling up. “You’re not a bad person, Dad.” Morton laughed and shook his head. “You don’t know the half of it, son.” Eddie said nothing. Morton shook himself, took a deep breath and clapped his hands together. “So, did everything work out OK with the sensor things you were talking about?” Eddie longed to tell him all about today’s adventure, but there was no time right now. “Aye, everything’s cool. Be careful about that though.” Eddie pointed at the CCTV camera, which was craftily shrouded in shadow. “It’s pointing at the main entrance doors. As long as we stay out of that area we’ll be all right.” “OK. Lead the way, son.” Morton ruffled Eddie’s hair, sending a burst of gladness to the boy’s heart. They made their way up the stairs and along the corridor to room twenty-five. All of Eddie’s phobia had vanished; walking in the dark with someone beside you was a totally different experience to going solo. On entering the computer suite all they could see were the 47

dim rectangular outlines of the PCs, until Eddie opened the curtains a fraction, letting in the moonlight. “Leave all the wires behind, and the mice and the keyboards,” Eddie instructed. “They’re not worth anything. All we take are the computers and the monitors.” He felt a surge of pride. It had taken a lot of hard work to get this far, and a lot of luck, but they were going to make it. Morton peered through a glass panel in a side-door that connected this room to an adjoining one. “Hey, there are more computers in here,” he announced, taking hold of the handle. “I know, but they’re—” A vital piece of information dawned on Eddie at that moment. “STOP!” he yelled. Morton quickly took his hand off the door, as if it had tried to bite him, and turned to face his son. If Eddie had reacted a split second later, the whole operation would have been ruined. He put his hand to his chest, relieved. “I didn’t fix the sensor in there,” he explained. Morton looked incredulous. “Why not? It’s another goldmine in there.” “No it’s not. There’s nothing but a bunch of ancient Apple Macs. You probably couldn’t even sell them for scrap.” Morton looked sideways and winced. Eddie chuckled, then put a hand over his mouth in case it made Dad angry. “What?” Morton looked back at his son, puzzled. “Nothing,” Eddie replied, but what he thought was, This is the first time I’ve ever given you a telling off, Dad. And I even lived to tell the tale. They got to work, first leaning over the desks and pulling out all the cables. Morton was able to carry three PCs at a time, neatly stacked in his arms, while Eddie brought one monitor, which was heavy and awkward enough for a fourteenyear-old boy. Back and forth they went from the room to the van, Eddie feeling so good he almost started whistling. His mood didn’t 48

last, however. The more empty the room looked, the heavier Eddie’s heart grew. Eighteen minutes later, with the task competed, Eddie took one long last gaze at all the bare desks strewn with wires and keyboards. He imagined Mr. Sloan’s wide-eyed, incredulous expression as he opened the room tomorrow morning. He thought about all his friends’ sour faces when they were told that there would be no more computing—and, in particular, no more internet access—for some time to come. This room was one of the best places in school, far more interesting than sitting in a normal classroom with a pen and paper. And Eddie was destroying it for everyone. However, now was not the time to be overcome with guilt; they had only completed part one of their operation. It was time to deal with the library. Only seven computers this time, and the room was situated right beside the stairway to the foyer. Easy pickings. As Eddie came out through the library door carrying the final PC, he discovered Morton gazing intently along the main corridor. “What’s wrong?” Eddie asked, with some anxiety, approaching his father. Morton pushed him gently back, so that Eddie couldn’t look down the corridor, and put a finger to his own lips. “Listen.” Eddie could hear a very faint whirring noise coming from an indiscernible distance. The sound hadn’t been there before, Eddie was sure of it, because they would have heard it even louder over at room twenty-five. His heart began thumping. “What is it, do you know?” Morton whispered. Eddie put down the computer and considered. After a moment his eyes lit up. “Hey, there’s an elevator down there. Do you think—?” “Does it maybe go on automatic or something?” Morton asked, keeping his eyes firmly peeled. Eddie shrugged. “I think maybe we should just keep—NO!” 49

Eddie almost jumped out of his skin at the sound of his father’s booming voice. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, Morton sprinted down the corridor towards the source of the sound. “Dad!” Eddie shouted after him. It had all been going so well, and in the space of a moment, everything was enveloped in a curtain of confusion and terror. Eddie was sure of only one thing—it was better to be with Dad than to be standing here on his own. He bounded after his father, imagining all manner of horrors chasing after him and more waiting ahead. Morton darted right, into a small inlet beside the central stairwell where the lift was located. Panic gripped Eddie at losing sight of his father, and he ran harder. Don’t let anything happen to him! he prayed over and over again. When he reached the stairwell, he found Morton frantically pushing the call button on the lift. “Dad, what’s happening?” Eddie cried. Morton ignored him and ran a few steps down the stairs. He leaned over the railing so that he could see the ground floor section of the elevator, then looked sharply up at his son. “Eddie, how many floors are there?” Eddie was confused by the simplicity of the question. “How many floors?!” Morton shouted. Eddie snapped to attention. “Two.” Morton moved halfway down the stairs and gazed at the ground floor, looking like a panther getting ready to spring on its prey. “Dad,” Eddie called, “you’re scaring me. What’s going on?” Again Eddie’s father ignored him. Moments turned into minutes, and Morton’s posture relaxed a fraction. “What is this? He has to come out somewhere.” He turned to Eddie. “You’re sure there’s no other place this lift can go? Like a basement ... or rooftop?” Eddie thought for a moment. “I’ve been in the elevator before—that time Dean sprained his ankle and couldn’t use 50

the stairs. I remember two buttons. Just two, I’m pretty sure ... Dad, why did you run? Did you see somebody?” Morton nodded. “Darted back into the lift before I could catch him.” “What did he look like?” Eddie asked, but what he really wanted to know was, Did he have horns or fangs or glowing red eyes? “Too dark,” Morton answered. “Must be a teacher working late, I suppose.” “Can’t we just get out of here?” Eddie pleaded. Morton shook his head. “I’m worried he got a better look at me than I got at him.” “What are you going to do?” Morton raised a finger to his lips, walked back upstairs, and approached the lift. Putting his face right up to the door, he called out loudly. “Hey, you in there.” No response. “I just want to talk; work something out.” Eddie felt a sudden chill at his father’s choice of words, knowing they held a more sinister meaning. Again, silence. “You can’t stay in there forever.” But of course whoever it was could certainly hold out until morning—an experience no worse than Eddie’s earlier ordeal. Morton tried pressing the call button again, but it was futile. “He must have pressed some emergency stop button that’s jammed the whole thing between floors.” “Let’s go, Dad. We’ll never get him out.” “We’ll see about that. Find me something to hold these doors open.” Eddie went into room twenty-five, which was nearby, and looked around. He didn’t like being alone in this strange room, even if Dad was only a few metres outside. It had been tolerable before, but now it felt as if anything could jump out at him from anywhere. Eddie grabbed the nearest chair and got out. It suddenly occurred to him that the elevator door was key51

operated, and tonight he had access to every key for every lock in the building. But Morton had already managed to get his fingers into a tiny gap at the edge of the door. That was the hard part, and now he forced the door the rest of the way open with relative ease, revealing total darkness within. He used his feet to push the chair into position, then relaxed, letting it brace the door. A flashlight was a dangerous item to use in these surroundings, but right now it had become essential. Morton fished it out of his pocket and shone its beam down into the lift shaft. “Holy ...” Morton finished the sentence with a whispered curse. Eddie grew agitated. “What is it?” Morton turned to look at his son with eyes that shone with awe. “Dad,” Eddie said, “what did you see?” “Come and look.” Eddie squeezed into the doorframe beside his father and let his eyes travel downward. Morton shone the beam into the shaft again. Eddie gasped, the sound of his voice reverberating below as though some creature lurking in the dark were trying to imitate him. All he could see was a bunch of metal cabling and four cramped walls. What made the sight so shocking was not so much what he could see but what he couldn’t. For there was no sign of the bottom of the lift shaft, only a mysterious darkness that might have stretched to infinity for all he knew.

14
“What are we going to do, Dad?” Eddie asked. Blake Morton had been pacing back and forth for the last few minutes, lost in thought, while his son sat with his back against the corridor wall. 52

“This is too weird,” Eddie reflected. “We should call the police. We haven’t really done anything wrong. Not if we explain why we—” Morton grabbed Eddie by the shoulders and hauled him to his feet. He leaned forward, putting his face very close to his son’s, and looked at him with a kind of angry desperation. “Listen to me,” he instructed. “If there was ever a moment in my life when I needed you to believe in me, it’s now. You understand?” Eddie swallowed hard and nodded. Morton gripped Eddie’s shoulders tight and spoke very gravely. “If we tell the police, your sister is going to die. Do you want that?” Eddie, quivering, shook his head. “If I’ve learned anything over the years it’s that these people are never to be underestimated. They don’t make empty threats. They’ll take Tara away and slaughter her. Do you want her to end up like your mother?” Tears spilled down Eddie’s cheeks. A horrifying question occurred to him. Was Dad implying that Mum’s death hadn’t been an accident—that she had been murdered? Eddie’s eyes searched his father’s face. Morton nodded once, slowly. Eddie’s eyes opened wide with shock. His father relaxed his fierce grip. “So I don’t want any more talk about the police. Agreed?” He stuck out his hand. Eddie took hold of it limply in his own. Morton pumped his son’s hand once and, satisfied, resumed his pacing. Some minutes passed, which Eddie spent resting against the wall with his mouth agape and his eyes unfocused, looking like a patient from a mental institute. All this time he had thought Mum’s death was an accident, but it was murder. “I think we’ve stumbled onto something big here,” Morton announced finally. 53

Eddie snapped to attention, forcing his thoughts away from his mother. “I mean, just think about it,” Dad continued, pointing at the elevator shaft. “A thing like this doesn’t appear out of thin air, as if by magic. The shaft was built by whoever put the lift in here. And it’s not like it could have been done in secret. This is a school, for crying out loud. There are people here all the time.” “Not in summer,” Eddie corrected. “True enough, but one person can’t build an elevator shaft. There had to be a team involved. And they had to have permission from the people who run the school.” “You mean Mr. Lyons, the headmaster, knows about this?” Eddie clarified. Morton spread his hands. “I don’t see how he couldn’t know.” Eddie shuddered when he thought about how Mr. Lyons had looked at him with that cold anger earlier in the day. This revelation certainly put the plump old principal in a whole new and sinister light. “But why?” Morton queried. “Why build a basement—if that’s what it is—so far underground? We don’t even know how deep it goes.” Eddie thought hard, but could come up with no answer. “And that bloke,” Morton continued, “the one who spotted me—what was he doing here at this time of night?” Eddie got to his feet. “You know, all evening when I was waiting, the school was dead quiet. I’m sure I would have heard somebody come into the school, no matter what door they used.” Morton’s eyes widened. “You mean ... like he was already in here, all the time? Like he’s living under the school?” Eddie hugged himself. “Dad, let’s get out of here. I don’t like this at all.” Morton cursed and looked at the building all around him. “What kind of a place is this I’m getting my kids educated in?” he exclaimed. 54

As if in answer, a loud clunk erupted from the lift shaft, startling both of them. The noise was followed by the soft whirr of the elevator carriage in motion. Morton looked sharply at Eddie. “Get out of sight,” he whispered. “This guy didn’t see you the first time, and I want to keep it that way.” Frightened, Eddie darted out into the main corridor, and hid behind the railing. Morton grabbed the chair that was holding the elevator door open, allowing it to slide closed. He stood to one side, with his back against the wall, holding the chair like a baseball bat, ready to swing. He glanced at Eddie, then rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Get out of sight now,” he snapped. Eddie quickly crawled along on his hands and knees until the railing ended and the corridor wall began. He sat behind it, now completely out of sight, his back against the concrete and his knees drawn up to his chest. The whirring grew gradually louder, seeming to go on for ever. In moments of tension it was common for minutes to feel like hours. But this was no ordinary elevator; who could tell what great distance the carriage might have to travel in order to get back up here from whatever mysterious dungeon lay far below. Eddie could hear the sound of his breathing coming in sharp gasps, and he tried in vain to control them, hoping he wouldn’t give himself away. Not long ago, everything had been going so smoothly that almost all of Eddie’s apprehension had vanished. Now he was gripped by a horrible sinking sensation. Something they couldn’t possibly have accounted for had happened, and now they were no longer in control. Sitting here in the stillness of the corridor, he felt like he was surrounded by chaos—that the floor underneath him could open up and swallow him whole. He was almost overpowered by the impulse to get up and run as fast and as far as he could. Clunk! 55

Too late now. It was awful not being able to see. Eddie balled his hands into fists and held them to his temples, picturing in his mind a dark figure coming out of the elevator, and Dad swinging the chair in an arc, slamming it into the figure’s abdomen. Instead of the thump of metal against muscle, Eddie heard a simple exclamation from his father’s lips, full of dread: “Oh my—” A noise like the brief whoosh of a Bunsen Burner being ignited, only ten times louder, cut off the remainder of the sentence. Then there came a thud that had to be a body falling to the floor—but whose? Eddie covered his mouth, almost hyperventilating. He desperately wanted to call out for his father in panic, but somehow he was able to keep his head. He heard footsteps, a hissing noise—not like a snake, but the sound a body might make being dragged along the floor. But whose body? Eddie felt the truth in his heart, and started sobbing. His father was being taken away from him—by whom and to where, it was impossible to know. Sheer terror made him pull himself together, before the sounds coming from his throat gave him away. He wanted desperately to look, but couldn’t. The sound of the footsteps changed to a more muffled tone, and Eddie had the mental image of the figure moving into the elevator, which meant he would be out of sight. Eddie dared to crawl alongside the wall and peer through the bars of the railing. The elevator door was open wide, spilling light into the corridor. Curiously the bulb was dim, only about a quarter of its expected strength, but still bright enough to illuminate Blake Morton’s legs on the floor of the corridor. The upper half of him was already inside the lift, out of sight. Eddie opened his mouth to scream, but nothing would come out. He could only watch in shocked silence as his father’s thighs, knees, ankles and feet disappeared, inch by inch, 56

dragged out of sight by some mysterious figure whom Eddie had not once glimpsed. The door slid closed with a soft thump, striking despair to Eddie’s heart. That awful whirring began again, loud at first, then getting softer, until eventually there was no sound but Eddie’s weeping.

15
The minutes dragged on. All Eddie could do was sit in the dark corridor, scared out of his wits, staring at the call button on the elevator with a sense of guilt, knowing he could never bring himself to push it. He clung to the illusion that if he somehow waited long enough, everything would work itself out. Dad would come back up, they would grab the last computer, and get out of here. It was a shallow fantasy. In his heart he felt like he was standing on the edge of an abyss, and at any moment he could slip and fall. Eddie thought he had prepared himself for the worst that could happen, and in his mind’s eye he had pictured police cars surrounding Dad’s van, with officers pointing guns and ordering the two thieves out of the vehicle. But nothing could have prepared him for this insane situation. Dad was gone, and there was no telling if he would be back. In fact, there was no telling if he was even alive. I need to go to the police now, Eddie thought, rising to his feet. They’ll know what to do. But the memory of his dad’s grave voice came to mind. If there was ever a moment in my life when I needed you to believe in me, it’s now ... If we tell the police, your sister is going to die. As the implications of his father’s words filled his mind, Eddie felt as if someone had tossed him into a deep lake with a huge boulder tied around his ankle. He couldn’t involve the police, and that meant the only person who could help Dad now was Eddie himself. It also meant the only person who 57

stood between Tara and the man who threatened to kill her was Eddie. The sensation of drowning almost made him faint. He gripped the railing and tried his best to breathe normally. This was all too much for a fourteen-year-old boy to bear. Eddie raced down the corridor, running as if the devil were at his heels—which didn’t seem entirely out of the question at this moment. He took the stairs three at a time, dashed through the foyer, and burst through the doors into the playground. When the cool night air hit him, it felt like being transported into another dimension. The claustrophobic interior of the school changed to the infinite expanse of the night sky, cloudless, with clear bright stars from edge to edge. Eddie came to a halt in the middle of the playground, drinking in the fresh air and staring at the heavens, allowing himself to pretend for a moment that he had just woken up from an awful nightmare—that Dad was really home in bed and Eddie was merely out for a night-time stroll. But even out here he saw evidence that his father’s abduction was all too real. Dad’s white van was parked here, its rear doors hanging open revealing the dim rectangular shapes of the computers within. Leave it here, Eddie thought. It was my idea to steal the computers in the first place, and now I’m being punished for it. He started walking briskly towards the thin exit road at the corner of the playground, and got halfway there before stopping. He couldn’t afford to simply walk away. The police would connect the van to Blake Morton and pay his house a visit. Eddie would be interrogated about his father’s whereabouts. In his desperation he might end up telling them about the elevator and about why they were stealing the computers; Eddie had seen enough police interrogations on TV to know that he didn’t dare trust himself in such a situation. The police would learn about the threat on Tara and become involved. Then the loan shark would make good on his promise, and Eddie would be all alone in the world—no mother, no father and no sister. 58

Eddie clenched his fists, fighting back despair. All right, it can’t be that hard, he reasoned, and ran across the playground to the van. He slammed the back doors shut and climbed into the driver’s side. Fortunately Dad had left the key in the ignition. Eddie turned it. The engine sputtered to life, casting a ray of hope through his anguished heart. He glanced over his shoulder at the neatly stacked computers. There was one less than he planned, but nothing on earth could make him go back inside the school to get it. Eddie released the handbrake, then tried to move the gearstick, but it wouldn’t budge. He recalled an occasion when he had queried Dad about why his feet kept pressing on different pedals when driving. With luck, enough fragments of the memory remained to carry him out of here. I won’t let you down, Tara, Eddie promised himself, sinking his foot into what he hoped was the clutch pedal, and pushing the stick into reverse.

16
The bedside clock read 4.48am. Eddie, totally exhausted but unable to sleep, slipped out of bed and walked to the landing. He opened Tara’s door and padded softly across the carpet towards her bed. The curtains were open, spilling moonlight into the room, illuminating the face of the young girl who lay sleeping with her head turned to one side on her pillow. Eddie sat down on the carpet and gazed into his sister’s face. She was beautiful, he saw, for perhaps the first time in his life. All of a sudden he wanted to cry, the emotion seeming to bubble up out of him from some place in his heart that he hadn’t known existed until now. There was a time, several years ago, when hardly a day went past that they didn’t hug each other. Those times were gone, 59

and now they didn’t touch each other at all, except when fighting. Eddie supposed it was just part of growing up, but he couldn’t help feeling there was something tragic about it. Right now he wanted very desperately to hold her, to cling to her and never let go, for fear that she would be taken away. He reached out and touched one of the curls of Tara’s hair, then her cheek. She murmured slightly. You’ve got two days, the man with the cold eyes had warned, which right now meant less than twenty-four hours. Eddie had a van-load of expensive computers parked outside the house, and he hoped this would cancel the debt. But nothing was certain; there were only possibilities. And one possibility was that Tara Morton might sleep again tomorrow night—a deep and dreamless sleep from which she would never awaken.

60

Wednesda y
4 April 2001
17
The last thing Eddie wanted to do this morning was go to school. He wouldn’t have gone if it wasn’t for Tara, who had no inclination to play truant for the day. And asking her to skip school would only have prompted questions that Eddie didn’t want to answer, so he reluctantly put on his uniform. The events of the previous night seemed like some elaborate, feverish dream. Even Dad’s absence from the house this morning would not ordinarily have been any cause for anxiety; it wouldn’t have been the first time Morton went out for the evening and didn’t come home until the following day. Eddie felt the unquenchable need to look inside Dad’s van, and when his eyes fell upon the stolen computers, the awful reality clicked into place once again. Tara left the house first, and Eddie followed at a distance. Some minutes later, as his sister walked up the school driveway alongside other pupils, Eddie stood back and watched, quivering with tension. The entrance doors seemed like the jaws of some immense monster waiting to swallow Tara. He wanted to call out, to shout at her to come back home with him, but he knew she would only look at him as if he were crazy. Maybe he was. After all, this was the building that six hundred kids walked safely into and out of five days a week. “No,” Eddie thought aloud. “This place is full of lies. And I’m not leaving Tara alone in it.” Walking cautiously up the driveway, he spotted two parked cars that looked very out of place among the teachers’ vehicles. 61

They were white, with orange and yellow stripes painted at the back, and blue and red lights on the roof—the police. Eddie walked through the entrance doors, feeling like he was heading into a trap, but there was nothing else for it. The headmaster announced last night’s theft to six hundred gasping children during assembly. Mr. Lyons’ eyes roved from face to face as he spoke, and Eddie was sure they would fix on him. If he looked anywhere near as guilty as he felt, it was game over. But assembly passed without incident. Between each period, as the corridors briefly buzzed with activity—pupils changing rooms like a swarm of flies—Eddie spent as much time as possible standing at the railing opposite the elevator on the upper floor. School felt utterly strange today. Despite all the people that he knew milling around him, he felt a sense of alienation, of not belonging here. They would all feel it too, if they knew what I know, he thought. His eyes kept shifting from the elevator door to the floor. My dad is down there, he reflected, over and over, scarcely able to believe it. Eddie spent much of the day in a constant state of anxiety that was uncomfortably close to panic. He sat in classes, staring at blackboards and notebooks with unfocused eyes, unable to concentrate on normal schoolwork. The hands on the clock seemed to move three times as slow, stretching the hours to what seemed like an impossible duration. To everyone but Eddie, this was just a normal, unremarkable school day. And like every day before it, whatever secret lay underground was determined to remain secret.

18
No one noticed Eddie’s obsession with the elevator until the end of period six. “Yo, Mort!” Eddie looked in the direction of the voice and saw the last 62

person he wanted to see—Stuart Todd, the King Kong impersonator, watching him from about ten metres away. Eddie ignored the other boy and continued his silent vigil. The traffic in the corridor was getting sparse now, as everyone made their way to class. “Hey, I’m talkin’ to you.” Stuart’s tone was nervous and aggressive. “Get lost,” Eddie replied. Stuart advanced. “You’ve been taking a big interest in this here lift. Why is that, I wonder?” He said it more like a statement than a question, as though he knew something. Stuart came to a halt uncomfortably close to Eddie. Eddie tensed. “None of your business.” “What if I make it my business?” Stuart leaned nearer and whispered through clenched teeth. “You’re in on it, aren’t you?” Eddie’s curiosity flared up. “In on what?” he demanded. “Tell me what you know.” Stuart let out a short laugh. “No. You’re gonna tell me what you know, or there’ll be hell to pay.” Eddie fought back the insane urge to tell this bully everything about the robbery and his father’s abduction. Instead, he put his hands on Stuart’s chest and pushed hard. Stuart took a step back to keep his balance. An unexpected look of fear crossed his face for a moment, quickly turning to anger. “You’re one of them, aren’t you?” he hissed, and raised his right hand, ready to deliver a blow. Eddie tensed, preparing himself to dodge. Then Stuart did a very strange thing indeed. Instead of punching Eddie in the face, he sent the palm of his hand on a collision course with his own cheek. It connected with a loud smack, leaving a red mark in its wake. Stuart shook his head violently and blinked several times to recover. Eddie could only stare in astonishment, presuming that Stuart had just lost the remainder of what few marbles were bouncing around in his head. 63

Stuart watched Eddie closely, his malevolent expression gradually softening. Eddie, more afraid of him now than ever before, turned away and began walking down the corridor, which was now unfortunately empty. “I’m not finished with you,” Stuart declared. Eddie kept going. “Wait!” Stuart called after him, his tone revealing a hint of desperation. “Listen, I’ll make a deal with you. Tell me what you know about the lift, and I’ll tell you what I know.” What does this fool know about the elevator that could possibly be of any use to me? Eddie thought. Nevertheless he halted, desperate enough to clutch at any available straw. Turning back around, he admitted, “I ... do know something about it— something nobody else knows. But I won’t tell you unless you tell me first.” Stuart considered this for a moment, then gave in with a shrug. He crossed the short distance between himself and Eddie and began talking animatedly, all trace of his previous anger gone, almost as if he had been able to literally slap it out of himself; he was one weird guy. “Do you remember yesterday, when we were fighting, there was a woman—this total babe with dark sunglasses?” “I remember. What about her?” “She’s not what she seems.” Now it was Eddie’s turn to get excited. He remembered the woman walking past them, ignoring all the trouble, heading towards the elevator, of all places. Could she be the person who kidnapped Dad? “Go on,” Eddie urged, containing his excitement. “She’s ... how can I put this?” Eddie gripped Stuart’s wrist. “Whatever it is, just tell me.” “I came across her earlier today when I was mitching French. I decided to follow her—don’t ask me why; you don’t want to know. I kept my distance, watched her go into the lift over 64

there. I could hear it starting up, like she was heading downstairs, but the thing is—” Eddie finished the sentence. “The lift didn’t arrive at the bottom.” Stuart’s eyes widened in surprise. “Yeah,” he whispered. “It was like she just disappeared. I waited for a while, but she didn’t come out. And it gets weirder. Fifteen minutes later, there’s a guy who walks out of the lift—another smartly dressed business type—only I never saw him get into the lift in the first place.” Eddie said nothing. “So, tell me what you know about this,” Stuart prompted. Eddie felt at war with himself, unsure whether to trust Stuart. If he told him about the underground shaft, Stuart was sure to question Eddie on how he came to possess this knowledge, and that meant telling him about the robbery and about his father. “Come on, Eddie, we made a deal.” Eddie sighed. “I’m sorry. I can’t.” Stuart cursed. “What’s wrong with you? I told you what I know, and now you won’t tell me. What have you got to hide, huh?” He prodded Eddie’s chest with his finger. “Stop it.” “Are you working for them, is that it? Standing guard here all day, telling them when the coast is clear?” “No!” “Sure you are,” Stuart decided. “You make me sick.” He turned and began pacing away. For a brief few minutes Eddie had actually felt good. Here was someone to talk to—even if it was bad-tempered Stuart Todd—and Eddie’s sense of isolation had abated. Now he panicked at the thought of being all alone in this nightmare again. “There’s something under the school,” Eddie announced at last. Stuart turned back. “Go on.” “Look, I’m going to tell you what I know,” Eddie said, 65

trembling, “but you have to promise me you won’t ask me how I know.” Stuart nodded. “OK, I promise.” “There’s some kind of basement under the school. Except it’s not like a normal basement; it’s way, way down—I’m not sure how deep. As far as I know the only way to get to it is this elevator.” Stuart’s eyes gleamed with excitement. “You have to listen to me now, and you can’t tell this to anyone.” Eddie took a deep breath and exhaled. “My dad is down there. He was taken prisoner.” Stuart’s expression lost some of its zest. “I’ve never been down there, so I don’t know what kind of place it is. I don’t know what they want with my dad either. In fact, I don’t even know if he’s alive.” “You’re not kidding, are you?” Stuart asked. Eddie shook his head. Stuart gulped. Clearly this wasn’t the kind of news he had been hoping for. A silence hung in the air between the two boys for a moment. They gazed at the elevator door. “Who are these people?” Eddie wondered. Stuart opened his mouth to speak, then shook his head. “If you know something, then tell me,” Eddie pleaded. “I’ll do better than that,” Stuart replied. “I’ll show you.” Eddie was puzzled. “How? When?” “Not now. I don’t know when. But it’s better this way.” Stuart turned away and began pacing down the corridor. Eddie swore at him, frustrated. “Trust me,” was Stuart’s only reply.

66

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Eddie leaned against the railing, supporting himself on his elbows. For the first time since his father’s abduction, his tension became bearable. The knowledge that people were coming and going from this mysterious underground place gave him a sense of renewed hope. It opened up the possibility of finding out more, of maybe even getting down there himself, however he might manage it. The awareness that it was merely people coming to and fro strengthened his confidence further; until this moment he hadn’t entirely ruled out the possibility of monsters and demons. No more Stephen King for you, he thought. Eddie became aware of two girls walking down the corridor in his direction. Their pace was slow, because one girl moved on crutches, with a thick cast around the lower half of her leg. Eddie recognised her as Charlotte Moore. The other girl was none other than Jade Rodgers, walking slowly for her friend’s sake and absently spinning a key-ring around her index finger. Eddie felt a different, altogether more pleasant, tension, just as he always did when Jade was near. It only lasted a few seconds, however, until the significance of the key-ring hit home. Then his stomach grew heavy with anxiety. The two girls made their way toward the staircase, stopping in front of the lift, about ten metres from where Eddie watched. Jade glanced disdainfully at him for a moment, then slotted her key into the lock below the call button. Eddie chewed his lip before finally speaking in a hushed whisper. “Don’t go in there.” Jade didn’t look around this time, just pressed the button and waited. Eddie’s heart leapt, as a dull clunk emanated from behind the door. Then, whirrrrrr, like a swarm of deadly insects flying up out of the darkness, eager to plant their stings in soft human flesh. Eddie shivered. 67

The door slid open, spilling harmless light into the corridor. Eddie knew that nothing short of grabbing the girls would stop them using the elevator. But if he did that, what was to stop them using it next time? Surely the limping Charlotte had used it yesterday, and the day before, without incident? And what about that other guy—the one in the wheelchair—who used the lift probably five times every day? He hadn’t vanished without a trace. The girls would be fine, Eddie assured himself. Jade and Charlotte entered the carriage, and Eddie watched the door slide shut like the teeth of some immense metal monster. The whirring noise began again, and the image of food travelling down a digestive tract came to the front of Eddie’s mind. He moved along the railing and peered down through the bars to allow himself a view of the other elevator door— the one on the ground floor. He waited. The whirring grew dimmer. Eddie was aware of how strange the passing of time could feel when you were on edge, so he waited some more. The sound kept fading until he could no longer hear it. He stayed still until the panic-meter inside him, which had been edging gradually forward with every passing second, hit the red. Eddie sprinted over to the lift, slammed his fists into the door, and yelled at the top of his lungs, “JADE! COME BACK! COME BAAAACK!” But Jade Rodgers and her friend Charlotte Moore were far away.

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It took two teachers fifteen minutes to drag the hysterical schoolboy away from the elevator, and another ten after that to calm him down. When Eddie grew quiet—more out of 68

exhaustion than because of anything Mr. Devlin or Mr. Murdock said—they started asking questions. “Eddie,” Mr. Devlin began, in a tone that was uncharacteristically gentle, “will you tell me why you were hitting the elevator like that?” He stood at the front of the classroom, leaning on the teacher’s desk and towering over the boy. There was no one else in the room but the three of them. Eddie opened his mouth to speak, wanting desperately to acquire the help of someone grown-up, but his father’s words came to mind. One person can’t build an elevator shaft. There had to be a team involved. And they had to have permission from the people who run the school. Mr. Devlin was the head of the English department, a senior figure at Clounagh. Could Eddie really be sure that the man didn’t already know about the mysterious elevator shaft and was involved in its secret purpose? The teacher seemed friendly enough right now, but wasn’t it possible that this was just an act designed to find out how much Eddie knew? “Are you listening to me, Eddie?” Softly spoken—a wolf in sheep’s clothing. “I asked you a question.” Eddie refused to meet the man’s gaze. He brushed the sweat off his forehead and folded his arms, staring blankly at the blackboard. Where are you, Jade? he wondered, his body seething with hidden anger and fear. What do they want with you? The bell rang throughout the school, signifying the end of period seven. Eddie listened to the sounds of scraping chairs and rustling schoolbags beyond the adjacent walls. Everyone in school would be changing rooms now—all but two girls. Mr. Murdock, a very tall, gaunt-looking man who taught Maths, spoke up. “I heard about you fighting with that lad Stuart Todd yesterday. I was so surprised; it’s just not like you at all. And now all this shouting and screaming today. Eddie, I have to ask you this—and please be honest with me—is everything all right at home?” 69

No comment, Eddie almost said. A nervous chuckle escaped his lips at how crazy such a reply would be in this circumstance. Mr. Devlin sighed. “Eddie, we can’t help you until you’re willing to talk to us.” “And we want to help you,” Mr. Murdock added. Mr. Devlin walked over to the edge of the room and beckoned Mr. Murdock to follow. They stepped into a little cramped store and shut the door behind them. Eddie could only make out snippets of their muffled conversation, but he was sure he heard the phrases “pity the kid,” “single parent family” and “bad-tempered father” mentioned. After a few minutes, the two teachers emerged, armed with another barrage of questions. Mr. Murdock spoke first. “Eddie, why were you screaming about Jade Rodgers? Did you believe she was trapped in the lift?” Eddie looked away. Mr. Devlin added, “Did you see her get into the lift?” Eddie’s lips were sealed. “You know, Eddie, if Jade got stuck, we would know about it. The lift has an alarm.” Mr. Murdock stepped closer and got down on his haunches beside Eddie. “Would it help if we opened the lift and showed you, Eddie?” It would prove nothing, but anything was better than sitting here in this “interrogation room.” Eddie got to his feet. The two teachers ushered the boy along the empty corridor, walking slightly behind, one on each side of him. A first-year girl wandered past, ignoring the party. She carried a folder under one arm, obviously on an errand. Mr. Devlin touched her on the arm, and she came to a halt. “Jessica, would you do me a small favour? Go and find the caretaker and tell him I need the key to the elevator, OK?” “OK, sir,” she replied, and trotted happily away. The three of them stood by the railing outside the lift. Eddie had the feeling this was a terrible mistake. It was bad 70

enough looking at this door when he was standing on his own, but it was ten times worse when he was hemmed in on both sides by two adults he didn’t trust—who might just bundle him into the lift at the first opportunity, because he knew too much and could blow the lid on their evil plans. Eddie felt the urge to run, but held himself back with a promise. If they make the slightest move to put their hands on me, I’m out of here. He looked straight ahead, keeping alert for any sudden movements on either side of him. Mr. Devlin and Mr. Murdock seemed quite relaxed. Innocent teachers or confident predators, Eddie couldn’t tell. Four long minutes passed before Jessica returned, with the message, “He says he loaned the key to a girl—somebody who was helping a friend on crutches. She didn’t bring it back.” Eddie glared at Jessica for a moment, as the implications of what she was saying clicked into place. He almost let out a victorious yell. Instead, he paced forward and turned around to confront the two adults. It was Mr. Devlin he put his sights on. The English teacher regarded him with puzzlement. It was the first time Eddie had ever spoken boldly to a teacher. He gritted his teeth and asked a simple question, his tone mocking, eyes blazing. “Why don’t you go and fetch her?” Mr. Devlin sighed, unfazed. “If we bring Jade Rodgers up here—” The choice of words—up here, not over here—made Eddie’s skin come out in gooseflesh. “—will you please tell us what’s going on?” Eddie nodded confidently. Mr. Devlin turned to the first-year girl again. “Jessica, would you be a dear and do me another favour? Go to the office, find out what class Jade Rodgers—” “She’s in IB,” Eddie said. “OK. Ask the office staff where IB are at the moment, then go to that room and tell the teacher I need to speak to Jade right away. We’ll be waiting here. All right?” 71

“Got it, sir,” Jessica said, and headed down the stairs with a smile on her face, obviously happy to be able to skip class without having to feel guilty about it. Eddie folded his arms, stomach quivering with anticipation, the corners of his mouth turned up ever-so-slightly, half smiling, half sneering. He couldn’t wait to see the look on Mr. Devlin’s face when Jade failed to show up.

21
Eddie imagined what was about to happen, playing it like a movie in his mind. First the tapping of feet on the stairs below, out of sight. Jessica comes into view, alone. Mr. Devlin asks, “Where’s Jade?” The girl replies, “She didn’t turn up to class. Nobody has seen her since period six.” Mr. Devlin gazes at Eddie with new-found respect, waiting for him to tell the rest of the tale and ready to believe. Just as Eddie predicted, he heard the sound of shoes on the tile steps. But that was as close as imagination got to reality. Instead of Jessica, a tall third-year girl called Jade Rodgers walked the rest of the way up the stairs to join the waiting group. All Eddie could do was stare, mesmerised by this impossible vision. Jade returned his gaze with a measure of nervousness. “Sorry to bother you about this, Jade,” Mr. Devlin said. “Eddie’s upset, and we just need you to help us clear this up.” She look puzzled, but nodded her consent regardless. “Well, Eddie?” Mr. Devlin prompted. “Have you anything you want to say?” Eddie shook himself out of his trance and cleared his throat. “You went into the lift, Jade,” he stated, trembling. “You and Charlotte. I saw you.” Jade looked at Mr. Devlin and Mr. Murdock for support. Mr. Murdock explained the situation. “Eddie has somehow 72

gotten it into his head that you got stuck in the lift.” Then, to Eddie, he said, “As you can see, Eddie, she’s right here, and she’s fine.” Jade shuffled her feet. Her gaze darted from person to person, eyes shining with wide-open youthful innocence. To Eddie, reality seemed to be tearing itself apart at the seams. Well, he assured himself, it was no illusion that this elevator had swallowed his father last night, and he refused to believe that Jade’s disappearance happened to be the product of his over-active imagination. As he clung to this reasoning, only one conclusion presented itself, and it chilled him to the bone. Jade was in on it. Quivering, Eddie dared to confront the girl. “Where did you go when you went into the lift, Jade?” he demanded through clenched teeth. “I was watching. I know.” Jade hugged herself and scowled, taking a step backwards. “You give me the creeps.” Mr. Murdock took charge. “I’m sorry about this, Jade. You can go on back to class now. Thanks for your help.” Jade smiled briefly at the teacher, turned away, and began to descend the stairs. “Oh!” Mr. Devlin called. “It nearly slipped my mind. The key—you forgot to return it to the caretaker.” “Oh, sorry,” Jade replied, going slightly red-faced. You’re a wonderful actress, Eddie observed. An Oscar-winner in the making. Jade fumbled in her pocket and handed the key-ring over. As she walked away, the two teachers gave their full attention back to Eddie. “All right,” Mr. Devlin began, twirling the elevator key around his finger, “I did what you asked. Now it’s your turn. Tell us what’s going on. Why were you screaming at the lift?” Eddie said nothing. He had lost, he realised. Everything was confusing and everyone around him potentially dangerous; there was no way to know who to trust. And without help, how could he ever figure out a way to rescue Dad? He stared 73

at the key in its rapid orbit around Mr. Devlin’s finger, sensing that this was perhaps a very important moment—that his actions in the next few seconds might change everything. Fuelled by an overwhelming sense of desperation, Eddie reached up and snatched the key. Moving swiftly, he shoved the two teachers out of the way, both of them too surprised to react in time. That gave Eddie the few seconds he needed to turn the key in the lock and slam his fist into the call button. He spun around, heart hammering in his chest, and realised he wasn’t going to make it before they grabbed him. He pulled a pen from his pocket, tore off the cap, and held it out in front of him like a knife. “Don’t come any closer!” Eddie warned. Mr. Devlin and Mr. Murdock stopped in their tracks, alarmed. Eddie felt tears coming at the thought of where he was about to tread, but he fought them back. “Stay away! I just need to use the lift!” Mr. Devlin held up his hands in a defensive, placating gesture and edged forward. “Now Eddie, we just want to help you,” he assured the boy. “Please, put the pen down.” The elevator door slid open. “Now I’m gonna show you,” Eddie declared. “Don’t try and stop me.” He stepped into the lift. The door slid back into place. Not allowing himself the luxury of contemplating his fate, Eddie gritted his teeth and punched the button marked with a down-pointing arrow. As the carriage whirred into motion, Eddie felt the sickening sensation of weightlessness that you came to expect with lifts. He started breathing erratically, unable to help himself, hearing his pulse thumping hard and fast in his ears. Eddie was not normally claustrophobic, but for once in his life he had a very good reason to be. What am I doing here?! Eddie thought. But it was no good regretting his actions now that the wheels had been set in motion. 74

Time dragged on, and the carriage continued its unwavering descent. Eddie supposed he must be at least twenty metres underground by now. Even through his own terror, he was somehow glad that he didn’t have the ability to reverse the lift, because he knew he would have bailed out. He felt like he was a coward at heart. The only thing that made him appear courageous right now was a bunch of half-crazed thoughts that had run through his mind for no more than a few seconds; the idea of sustaining an act of bravery for longer than that was an illusion reserved for movies and books. Right now he would have given anything to be able to go back. The interior of the lift was pale green (a colour normally associated with rest, according to what they taught you in Art class) and was featureless except for a tiny plaque on the doorframe bearing the word Rydell—presumably the manufacturers. Eddie leaned against the wall and let his body slide to the floor. He sat there, hugging himself with his hands clasped around his knees. How far now? Thirty metres? Could it even be forty? Time played tricks on you when you were scared. The carriage ground to a halt with a loud clunk. Eddie held his breath and waited for the door to open. Light flowed in. Sunlight. Stretching out before Eddie were the familiar tiles of the ground-floor school corridor. Yes, time played tricks on you when you were scared.

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For the second day in a row, Eddie found himself seated in the foyer, waiting for the principal to invite him into his office for a complimentary verbal thrashing because of his behaviour. He felt especially nervous this time round, because he had given away the fact that he knew something strange was going 75

on with the elevator, and Mr. Lyons was most certainly knowledgeable about the secret under the school. Stay cool, he commanded himself. Nothing’s gonna happen to you. There are three women working in the general office right next door; you’re nowhere near the elevator; and the place is seething with people. The old guy just wants to give you a grilling about pushing those teachers around. Nevertheless, it took an awful lot of willpower to keep himself from dashing out of the building. There were a lot of windows here, causing Eddie to squint in the intense sunlight—it seemed Northern Ireland was in for an early summer. The main entrance doors were open, letting in a welcome cool breeze that betrayed the near-tropical illusion of the cloudless blue sky overhead. It was the sort of day you wanted to spend playing outside instead of being imprisoned in school. The open doors were an almost overwhelming invitation—but to a false paradise, Eddie knew; his dire circumstances would not go away by ignoring them. A smartly dressed man in his thirties, wearing a dark grey business suit, came into the foyer via the main corridor. In his hand he carried a briefcase. He was the sort of person who could pass by and you wouldn’t even note his presence in your memory, if it wasn’t for the pair of large black sunglasses on his face. There was nothing especially strange about the glasses themselves, except that he was wearing them indoors. Eddie had seen the movie The Matrix, where all the heroes constantly went around with groovy shades on, even at night. Visually it looked cool, but seemed kind of silly in real life. The man stepped out of the building into the sunny outdoors. There, not so daft now, Eddie told himself. The man had obviously put them on just before he came into the foyer. But hadn’t that strange woman whom Stuart followed—the one who went into the lift and didn’t come out—been wearing glasses just the same? Eddie sprung to his feet and crept over to the entrance for a better look. 76

All he could see was the man’s back as he paced down the path away from him. One of these cars must be his. Get his number. Eddie was filled with anxiety, but was more excited than anything else at this moment. The dice were rolling again. They could land anywhere, good or bad, but at least something was happening. It was much worse when time stood still, because it meant Dad stayed imprisoned. A hand gripped Eddie’s shoulder from behind. He spun around, startled. “Did you see him?” Stuart Todd asked. “You scared me!” Eddie exclaimed, taking a deep breath. Stuart’s expression was dark and serious. “Did you see him?” he asked again, more intensely. “Sure,” Eddie replied. Stuart studied Eddie for a moment, carefully reading the other’s expression. “No you didn’t,” he stated. Then, to Eddie’s utter surprise, Stuart drew his fist back and launched it at him. Eddie’s head jerked back, as hard knuckles struck his face. He almost lost his balance, but put a hand on the doorframe to steady himself. A moment later his head cleared and he gazed incredulously at his attacker, too disoriented to return the blow. With his free hand he stroked his jaw, which had turned numb. Stuart was seemingly satisfied with his handiwork and had no intention of any further restructuring of Eddie’s facial tissue. He stepped back and folded his arms, his expression uncharacteristically businesslike. “OK,” Eddie said, shaking himself. “You got your revenge. Now we’re even.” He held out his hand, palm open. Stuart declined to take it. Instead he said, “Eddie, that woman I followed yesterday—you’re probably wondering what made me follow her in the first place.” “Yeah, I was wondering about that,” Eddie said, continuing to caress his jaw. “Eddie, take a look at the man,” Stuart said. “What?” 77

“The man who just left the building—look at him, quickly, before he’s gone.” From left to right, Eddie scanned the school car-park, which was littered with around fifty vehicles. At first he saw nobody. On his second pass, he realised why. His eye was unconsciously looking for a dark suit, but the man was no longer wearing a dark suit; he was inexplicably naked. And more than that, the man’s flesh had become a shiny reptilian green. He didn’t look like a person who had any business walking along a school car-park or any other place on this whole earth for that matter. There was a row of short bone-like spikes that covered the top of the head like a Mohican haircut and stretched down the back to the base of the spine, where a two-foot-long tail protruded, whipping to and fro as the creature walked. The stature and build were similar those of a normal human being— a little wider at the shoulders and thinner at the hips. The hands were alarmingly longer than normal, especially the fingers, which looked more like the sharp talons of a bird of prey. One of them still gripped the briefcase it had been carrying. On its head two horns protruded, curling backwards. Stark in the sunlight, the creature’s shadow followed, complete with a weaving shadow-tail, adding weight to the idea that this beast was not a figment of the imagination. The thing was here, living and breathing, and walking towards a vehicle in the school car-park. Eddie stood with his mouth agape in stunned silence. Right up until this moment he had taken solace in the knowledge that the only thing he had to deal with—regardless of how scary things became—was a bunch of normal human criminals. Now that belief was blown to pieces, replaced by something infinitely more terrifying—the understanding that all those movies and books about monsters and demons were to be taken seriously. No longer could you enjoy a good fright-flick and tuck it safely away in that place in your mind reserved for make-believe; the border that separated reality from fantasy 78

had disintegrated. Eddie leaned against the doorframe, feeling drained, sensing his knees beginning to buckle under him. The beast slotted a key into a silver Ford Mondeo and opened the door, tossing the briefcase inside. Eddie realised, to his horror, that the thing was going to turn around to face his direction in order to get into the vehicle. The face was the least human-looking aspect of the creature. The cheekbones were unnaturally high, the chin exceptionally sharp, and the mouth much too wide. However, if this had been a movie, the audience might have roared with laugher instead of cowering behind their popcorn, for the monster was still wearing sunglasses—the only remnant of clothing left— perched on its short stubby nose. Eddie didn’t laugh, however. Instead, he shivered at the manner in which the sun sparkled off the thing’s razor-sharp teeth. When the beast climbed into the car and slammed the door shut after itself, Eddie felt a measure of relief. At least the reflection on the windscreen partially obscured its hideous features. The Mondeo’s engine growled into life, and the car reversed out of its parking space. As it turned, the side window caught the sun and deflected its searing glow in Eddie’s direction, obscuring his view of the creature. Then the car crept forward, and Eddie was able to see again. In the driver’s seat of the Ford Mondeo was an ordinary looking man wearing a business suit and sunglasses. Eddie turned to face Stuart, mouth still hanging open. Stuart studied Eddie and nodded to himself. “I was half thinking I might be going nuts. But you saw, didn’t you?” Eddie was speechless. An old and familiar voice came from the other side of the foyer behind the boys. “Edward Morton, I want to see you in my office.” Both turned to face Mr. Lyons, the school headmaster, who was standing five metres from them, arms folded above his 79

large stomach. Stuart’s expression showed mild curiosity, Eddie’s wild terror. The man’s skin was not green but white; he had no devilish horns protruding from either side of his bald head, just the usual comical white tufts above each ear. Nevertheless, Eddie ran.

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By the time Stuart caught up with Eddie, he had sprinted the whole way across the car-park and out of the school grounds, onto Brownstown Road. Eddie slowed to walking speed only with Stuart’s insistent grip on his blazer. “Why did you run?” Stuart wanted to know. Eddie looked back the way he had come, to see if anyone was in pursuit. His panic began to fade, and he took a moment to catch his breath. The sun beamed down from the sky with its harsh but pleasant gaze. A cool wind blew around Eddie’s body, carrying with it the scents of trees and hedges—familiar smells of the real world. There was a building adjacent to Clounagh Junior High School, residing in the middle of an acre of lawn, its driveway marked with a large sign saying The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Eddie allowed Stuart to guide him into the grounds. They sat down at the edge of the lawn, hidden behind a thick hedge that ran alongside Brownstown Road. “Talk to me,” Stuart prompted. Eddie took a deep breath, calming himself. “You were scared of Mr. Lyons,” Stuart reflected. “Why? He’s clear.” Eddie regarded Stuart quizzically. “What do you mean?” “I mean he’s not one of them. I checked.“ “What?” 80

“Think about it. That dude with the briefcase—when did he turn into the monster? When exactly?” Eddie thought for a moment. “Right after you hit me?” he suggested. “Bingo.” “So what are you saying?” Stuart rolled his eyes. “Yesterday, you punched me. And I was about to punch you back, but I didn’t.” “You were looking over my shoulder,” Eddie recalled. “You looked scared out of your wits.” “Well, how would you look if you saw a monster walking down the corridor towards you?” Eddie’s eyes widened. “The woman.” “All I saw was a big green thing with horns and teeth. Except, by the time it got halfway down the corridor, and my head was clearing after your punch, the monster had changed into this hot-looking chick.” Eddie recalled how the creature with the briefcase had turned back into a human as it drove out of the car-park. “For a while I thought I was seeing things,” Stuart continued. “But I spotted her again this morning, and I had this crazy idea that there was some connection between me getting my head together and—” Eddie remembered Stuart’s strange words earlier today. You’re one of them, aren’t you? Spoken just before he had slapped himself hard on the cheek. “Pain,” Eddie deduced, shivering. “That’s how you see the monsters ... Whoa, this is weird.” “I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The way I figure it, these things are walking around among us, and they’ve got some way of fooling everybody’s eyes into seeing them as normal human beings. Except when we’re hurt.” Eddie nodded. “It’s as if feeling pain affects our brains in some way that allows us to see through the illusion. Kind of like pinching yourself to stay awake.” Stuart shrugged. “It’s the only thing I can think of that makes sense.” 81

“What are they?” Eddie wanted to know. This time it was Stuart’s turn to shiver. “Who knows. Demons? Aliens? They don’t seem to know I’m onto them, thank goodness.” “The headmaster—you said he was clear.” Stuart nodded and pretended to slap his own face. “It wasn’t hard to check.” “That’s weird.” “Why?” “Something my dad said, about the elevator. He said a thing like that just doesn’t appear out of thin air; it couldn’t have been built without the people who run the school knowing about it.” “I never thought about that,” Stuart admitted. His expression became grave, as the implications of Eddie’s words dawned on him. “You mean there’s, like, some big secret conspiracy going on?” Eddie nodded. Stuart shook his head in disbelief. “I’ve been walking around all day, hitting myself, trying to figure this out. I thought those monsters were just intruders. It never occurred to me that regular people like Mr. Lyons could be involved.” Hang on a minute, maybe not, Eddie thought. Wasn’t there another principal of Clounagh before Mr. Lyons? Wasn’t it possible that the previous headmaster was responsible for building the elevator and Mr. Lyons knew nothing about it? Possible, certainly, but probable? “What did you see?” Eddie asked. “How many people are normal?” “Everybody. It’s just those strangers who come and go from the lift.” “You couldn’t have checked everybody,” Eddie reasoned. “No,” Stuart agreed. Eddie was silent, lost in thought. “Why, what are you thinking?” Eddie took a few minutes to explain what he knew about 82

Jade Rodgers’ mysterious disappearance and reappearance. “We should question her,” he suggested. Stuart paused to consider. “Aye, it’s not like we’d be in any danger; she’s just a girl.” The two boys looked at each other gravely, both thinking the same thing. “Well, we’d better make sure of that before we do anything,” Stuart added.

24
At 2.55pm, ten minutes after the final school bell, the daily stampede of pupils heading for home was pretty much over. Eddie and Stuart, keeping a careful vigil behind the hedge, were beginning to wonder what had become of Jade Rodgers. “Does she get a bus?” Stuart asked. “No, she lives locally—Dawson Green.” “Maybe she’s staying behind for sports or something.” “Not today. There was a match on Monday, and her usual hockey practice is on Fridays.” Stuart chuckled. “You seem to know a lot about this Jade Rodgers.” Eddie glared at him. “So?” Stuart glanced sideways, listening intently, then put a finger to his lips and peered through the hedge. Eddie saw a pair of ankles that he instantly recognised. “It’s her,” he said, tensing up. “OK, let’s do it.” They allowed the girl to walk ahead before emerging from the driveway of the church, twenty metres behind her. Eddie felt very ambivalent about Jade at this moment, as he contemplated that the girl of his dreams might possibly turn out to be a hideous monster. “OK,” he whispered to Stuart, keeping his eyes fixed on Jade, “are you gonna hit me first or am I gonna hit—?” 83

Eddie staggered backwards, unable to finish his sentence, as Stuart’s fist slammed into his jaw. He regained his balance, cursing at the other boy. “I’m gonna kill you!” “Do it quickly!” Stuart advised. “She just spotted us.” Eddie looked ahead and saw that Jade Rodgers had turned around and was facing them. He felt a moment’s sheer terror, until it clicked home that he was looking at a normal human being. If Stuart’s theory was true, then Jade was no hobgoblin, because this second punch was, if anything, more painful than the first. Eddie felt relieved. “Come on, dude, hit me!” Stuart commanded. “It’s all right,” Eddie advised. “She’s clear.” “If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to see for myself, just in case I didn’t punch you hard enough. Now do it, before I lose my nerve.” Stuart tilted his head sideways. Eddie rolled his eyes and punched him lightly on the side of the jaw. “What kind of a sissy punch was that?” Stuart complained. He turned to face Jade, gritted his teeth, and slapped his own face so hard that even Eddie winced with the loud crack. Jade looked at both of them as if they had gone stark raving mad. “Aye, she’s OK,” Stuart conceded. Both boys began walking towards Jade. She took a step backwards, knuckles tightening around the strap of her schoolbag, eyes darting from Stuart to Eddie with some concern. “I know this looks crazy,” Eddie explained, as they approached, “but we just want to ask you—” “Stay away from me!” Jade exclaimed, taking another few steps backwards. She matched the speed of their approach, but made no attempt to run. She looked like a cat that had been backed into a corner by a couple of nasty dogs—more likely to extend its claws than cower in fear. The boys stopped, realising this was a futile approach. 84

Eddie looked at Stuart, raised his eyebrows and shrugged, as if to say, What now? Stuart’s eyes narrowed in return, and he shifted his gaze slyly in Jade’s direction. Eddie understood the message. We grab her. He took hold of Stuart’s shoulder and shook his head decisively. Then he turned to Jade. “We want to know about the lift,” he demanded, voice trembling. Jade looked at him with disgust. “What are you talking about?” “As if you don’t know,” Stuart said. “I don’t,” she retorted fiercely. “All I know is, you’re a couple of weirdos.” She turned her back on them and began walking briskly away. Eddie felt like his heart had been stabbed. It was a comment he could have shrugged off with ease if it had come from anyone else but her. “OK,” Stuart whispered to Eddie, “the subtle approach failed. Now it’s my turn.” Eddie held him back. “We don’t even know if she’s really in on it.” Stuart rolled his eyes. “It was you who suggested it.” “I know, but ... she’s so convincing.” Stuart put his hands on his hips and frowned. “If she went underground like you say, then how could she not be in on it? I mean, what other explanation could there be?” Eddie’s eyes lit up. “Maybe ...” He turned to face Jade, who was now forty metres away. “Jade, wait!” She didn’t turn back. Eddie dared not approach, so he raised his voice instead. “Where were you period seven, Jade? Do me one favour, and just think about it. Think about what you were doing period seven.” Jade continued on her way, ignoring Eddie. “I get it,” Stuart said. “You’re thinking she doesn’t remember—that they took her memories away.” Eddie shrugged. “It’s an idea anyway.” 85

“Do you realise that if you’re wrong, you’ve totally blown our cover? They’ll be on to us, and who knows what they’ll do.” They’ll take us underground and never let us go, Eddie thought, shivering. Just like Dad.

25
Outdoors, darkness had descended. For the past few hours, Eddie had been in his living-room, sitting bolt upright on the sofa, unable to relax. His muscles ached with tension. The reason—this was the night that the debt collector would come. Every half-hour or thereabouts, Eddie got up and walked across to the window, where he peered out, just to make sure Dad’s van was still there. Tara lay on her stomach in the centre of the floor, eyes glued to the television, oblivious to Eddie’s odd behaviour. Dad’s favourite armchair was sitting next to Tara, devoid of Dad’s presence. Looking at it made Eddie feel cold, as if a draught was blowing through the room. “Why don’t you watch that upstairs,” Eddie suggested, “on your portable? There’s another programme I want to see.” “You’ve got a TV in your room as well,” Tara reasoned, not looking round, “and I was here first.” Nice try, Ed. It was going to be impossible to shift her, he realised, without a kicking and screaming session. If only we had an aunt or an uncle I could take her to. But the Morton family was pretty much as small as they came. The doorbell rang. Eddie’s breath stopped in his throat, and all his muscles froze. Ten seconds passed and the bell rang again. Tara sighed and began to rise from the floor. Her movement was enough to finally put Eddie in motion. 86

The last thing he wanted was for his sister to come face-toface with the loan shark. “Stay there, I’ll get it,” he instructed, darting into the hall before Tara made it to her feet. Maybe it’s Dean, he thought halfheartedly, swallowing hard. He pulled the snib and opened the door wide. The light from the hallway spilled out onto the path, falling over a pair of suede boots, blue jeans, and a black leather jacket. Eddie trembled. “Hi, kid,” the man greeted the boy, teeth bared in that same cold smile Eddie remembered. “Where’s Daddio?” Eddie cleared his throat. “Out,” he said. The man’s eyes grew fiercer, but the smile never faltered. There was something unspeakably disturbing about the expression that Eddie couldn’t put his finger on. “That’s the wrong answer,” the man responded. “It’s OK,” Eddie said quickly. “He’s left me in charge. We’ve got your money.” The loan shark snorted a quick laugh. “I knew old Morty was a coward, but I never guessed he would sink this low. Unless ...” Eddie felt anger building up inside him at the man’s casual mockery of his father. “You wouldn’t be trying to trick me, would you, kiddo?” “No,” Eddie replied. “I just can’t tell you how unwise that would be.” “I said no,” he repeated firmly. The shark regarded Eddie for a time, eternally smiling, then finally nodded to himself. “All right, let’s go inside,” he ordered. Eddie held his ground. “It’s in the van.” “Is it indeed?” the man said, pausing to evaluate the situation. He slipped his hand into one of his jacket pockets. Eddie guessed, to his horror, that the shark was probably reaching for a concealed weapon of some kind. The hand didn’t emerge; the man simply held it there. “Lead the way,” he suggested, with a short bow and a wave. 87

Eddie edged out through the door, carefully closing it behind him, relieved to be able to put something between this man and Tara. He walked towards the van, fishing a key out of his pocket. His awareness of the loan shark walking close behind made him shiver. At the rear of the van, Eddie inserted his key and swung one of the doors wide open. If a neighbour or passer-by saw what was inside, Eddie was likely to end up in juvenile court, but it was a chance he had to take. “What’s this?” the man wanted to know, his eyes scanning the rows of neatly stacked equipment which filled the interior. “Computers,” Eddie explained. “You can have all of these and the van too. If you sell them, you can make your fourteen thousand quid easy.” “I see.” The shark withdrew his hand from his pocket and flicked open a pack of cigarettes. The seconds ticked unbearably by like hours, while Eddie waited for the man to strike a match and light up. After taking one long hard drag on his cigarette, the shark stepped back and ruffled Eddie’s hair with his hand, as if showing affection. Eddie felt his skin crawl. “OK, we’ll discuss this inside,” the shark instructed. Eddie locked the van, not knowing whether to take the man’s words as a good sign or a bad one. He didn’t like the thought of the shark being in the same room as his sister, but things had gone as well as could be expected so far, and denying the man this simple request might have brought disaster. They entered the house—Eddie first, followed by the loan shark. Tara was still lying on the floor. She glanced up momentarily, just to see who had arrived, then returned her gaze to the television. “Have a seat,” the shark offered. That’s what the person who lives in the house is supposed to say, Eddie thought, but he didn’t argue. He sat down on the edge of the sofa. 88

The shark continued to stand. He dropped his cigarette onto the carpet and ground the heel of his boot into it. “Well, I have to say I’m impressed,” he admitted. Eddie’s heart beat faster, hopeful. “The thing is—” The man’s grin widened, like a lion preparing to maul its prey. “—I’m not—” His arm lashed out and grabbed Tara by the wrist. Unsuspecting, she squealed. “—a damn—” The shark yanked Tara off the floor violently and drew her towards him. “—computer salesman.” Eddie felt sheer terror flow through his body. The shark had Eddie’s sister in a tight hug, with his muscular arm around her small chest. Both of them faced Eddie, Tara with her eyes and mouth wide open in alarm, the man still grinning, wider than ever before. Eddie shot to his feet. Before he had taken one step, the shark used his free hand to pluck a gleaming knife from his pocket, which he promptly held against Tara’s throat. “Ah-ah!” he said in a forbidding tone. “Sit, kid!” Tara moaned, tears streaming down her cheeks in rivulets. Eddie did as he was told, his heart thumping hard and fast. “Leave her alone,” he whimpered, his eyes watering. “She’s my sister.” “There, there, now,” the shark said in a falsely comforting manner. “You misunderstand. I’m impressed, I really am. Credit where credit’s due, kid.” He kissed Tara on the cheek, causing another dam to burst behind her eyes. “Tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna give you till Friday night to come up with the cash.” Eddie felt a rush of partial relief. “If you don’t ...” The shark took hold of Tara’s earlobe in his teeth and chewed it gently. Eddie’s sister squirmed vigorously, unable to dislodge this fiend’s arm. The struggle proved unnecessary, however, 89

because all of a sudden it was over. The loan shark moved the knife away from her throat and relaxed his arm. Tara slid to the floor, unharmed. Eddie stared at the shark’s back as he turned and walked out the door, leaving his sentence unfinished. It didn’t need to be completed; the sexual overtones in the man’s behaviour had been obvious, and Eddie was unable to shake the new sense of horror he felt. Crouching on the floor with her face in her hands, Tara wept. Her brother went to her.

26
Eddie lay on top of his bedclothes, staring at the ceiling, hands linked behind his head. It was 1.30am, and he felt emotionally exhausted but unable to sleep. It seemed as if he was living in a nightmare world, and that he ought to awaken at any moment. First the threat on Tara; then his crazy scheme to steal the school’s computers; then the mysterious abduction of his father; then the two girls vanishing and reappearing; then monsters posing as human beings; and finally, almost losing his sister tonight. It was an awful lot for one human heart to take in the space of three days. A loud snore came from Eddie’s left. Tara was asleep beside him. She had been afraid to stay in her own room tonight. Eddie smiled at her. He took no delight in what his sister had been subjected to earlier, but he couldn’t help feeling somehow glad about the change it had affected in her—in both of them. Eddie had wanted to hug her, and she had let him, just like when they were little kids. He loved her. Despite all the screaming and shouting they had done at each other over recent years, despite the hot anger he felt towards her at times, and despite his own cowardly 90

feelings, Eddie felt like he would give his life to save her in an instant. Today had been a strange and somehow successful day. Eddie had made important discoveries, however crazy and fragmented, about the school’s ominous secret, and tonight he had managed to keep his sister alive, at least for a further two days. If Dad was here, he’d know what to do, Eddie thought with sadness. He formed a picture of the elevator door in his mind. Surely there had to be some way to get down below. He thought of the lock beside the call button; the panel inside the carriage with its two buttons, one for each floor; the smooth, featureless interior walls. All of a sudden Eddie’s eyes lit up. He sat bolt upright, snatched his mobile phone off the dresser, and punched in a number. Holding it to his ear, he prayed he wouldn’t hear the lifeless pre-recorded voice of the BT Cellnet lady advising him that the phone he was trying to reach was switched off. From the other end of the line came a grunt. “Dean?” Eddie prompted. “Ed.” “Listen, Dean, I need you to do something for me.” “Do you know what time it is?” Dean grumbled. “Me and Jennifer Lopez were just getting down to the good stuff when—” “Shut up for a minute and listen. I want you to get a pen and paper.” “What, right now?” “Yes, of course right now.” Dean sighed and fell silent for a moment. “OK,” he said. “Write this word down—Rydell, spelt R-Y-D-E-double-L. You got that?” “Uh-huh. What’s this about?” “You’re going to look it up on the internet for me. I saw the word on the inside of the elevator at school. Must be the name of the company who made it.” 91

Dean yawned. “Do you know the URL?” “The what?” “The website address, dummy.” “No. I don’t even know if there is a website. But most big companies have one these days, don’t they? And you can find it, right?” Dean groaned. “Is that a no?” Eddie asked. “Surely you’re not about to tell me I’ve thwarted your genius with something as simple as this?” Dean took the bait. “Of course I can find it.” “And you’ll do it tonight? Right now, before you go back to bed?” “What?! You can look it up yourself in school tomorrow,” Dean suggested. “No, I can’t.” “Why not? ... Oh aye, I forgot. Some eejit stole all the machines.” Eddie felt a pang of guilt. “Tonight, Dean,” he repeated. “What’s this all about?” Eddie paused, thinking over his choice of words carefully. “If I told you that doing this might help save somebody’s life, would you do it?” “You’re kidding.” “I wish I was.” “Whose life?” “My dad’s.” “Whoa! What the heck’s going on, Eddie?” “Not now, Dean. But I really need you on this. You have to help me out.” “All right,” Dean conceded. “So, what exactly do you want me to look out for on this website?” “I don’t know,” Eddie admitted. “Just keep your eyes peeled for something weird—something out of place. This is a long shot, but I really need you to try.” “I don’t know what you expect me to find, Ed, but I’ll do what you say.” 92

Thursda y
5 April 2001
27
Motivating himself to go to school on Thursday was easier than the day before, partly because little pieces of the mystery had been broken, but mainly because Eddie’s home had become a place every bit as dangerous as Clounagh Junior High, if not more so. At the breakfast table, Tara questioned Eddie on Dad’s whereabouts and about the man who had held a knife to her throat. Eddie played dumb on both counts; the truth would only have upset her. Besides, when it came to the part about the monsters, he didn’t expect her to believe him. Who would accept such a tale, especially from a brother who took great delight in torturing his kid sister with tales of horrors that lurked under the bed and behind the closet door? However, Tara wasn’t satisfied with no answers, and nagged Eddie incessantly, making them both late for school. First period for Eddie was PE. He was alone in the changing room, the others of his class already in the gym. He got changed into his shorts and t-shirt as quickly as possible, eager to be in a wide-open space with some human company—and more than one exit route. In the gym, badminton nets had been erected along the centre of the huge room, splitting it into two halves. The only sounds were the squeaking of track-shoes on the smooth floor and the whooshing of shuttlecocks back and forth. There was no talking or cheering or booing; Mr. Garrett, the PE teacher, ran a pretty tight ship. Eddie scanned the room for his best friend and walked over. 93

He put a hand on Dean’s shoulder, interrupting the game. “Did you find anything?” “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming today,” Dean remarked. “In fact, after what you said last night about your dad’s life being in danger, I was beginning to think—” “Keep your voice down,” Eddie ordered. “Keep your hair on,” Dean retorted. “So? Did you find anything?” “No.” Dean’s partner, Tony Marshall, called from across the net. “Hey, Mort, get lost. We’ve got a game going here.” “Shut your trap, Marsh,” Dean replied. Then, to Eddie: “I printed out everything on the site, so you can look at it for yourself.” Eddie touched his friend on the shoulder. “Nice one.” Just then a loud adult voice rushed across the gym from the far wall. “Morton! Willis! This isn’t a chat show you’re on.” Mr. Garrett was a tall man in his thirties, who sported a crewcut and always wore skin-tight t-shirts that showed off his well-defined abdomen. He stood with his muscular arms folded across his chest. “Ten press-ups!” The gym had gone completely silent, as everyone paused their games to view the spectacle. Eddie sighed and obediently got down on his hands and knees. Dean remained standing, scanning the room from left to right, gazing coldly at all the grinning faces who couldn’t wait to see him straining to lift his huge bulk off the floor. “What are you waiting for, Willis?” Mr. Garrett said with a cruel smile. “You won’t lose much weight standing still.” There was a smattering of laughter throughout the hall. Eddie felt sorry for his friend. This was totally unfair. Dean fixed his sights squarely on the teacher. “Tell me you’re not enjoying this,” he dared to say. Mr. Garrett’s smile vanished and his eyes hardened. “What did you say?” 94

“You can’t, can you, sir?” Dean continued. “Because you are enjoying it.” The teacher began pacing across the floor towards Dean. His expression was calm, but you could tell that beneath it there was a dam ready to burst in a flood of pure rage. The faces of most pupils grew tense. Dean went on, getting as much out as he could before Mr. Garrett reached him. “And do you know what that makes you, sir? It makes you a bully.” “That’s enough!” Mr. Garrett shouted, walking faster. But Dean reckoned it was far from enough. “You’re a sad little man whose only pleasure in life is to make others miserable. And you know what? It’s pathetic.” Mr. Garrett stopped directly in front of Dean, his fists clenched at his sides. Eddie had never in his life seen anyone’s face become so red. Before this moment, he would have thought it impossible to achieve this shade of colour, except in cartoons. There was a brief silence, where Dean Willis stood short, fat and proud, and Mr. Garrett towered over him like a smoking volcano. Everyone else’s faces were struck with awe. It was unthinkable for a pupil to speak to a teacher in such a way. Eddie held his breath, sensing that anything might happen— verbal or physical. Thankfully it was the former. Mr. Garrett released a booming “GET OUT!” from his lungs, causing most people in the room to wince. Dean turned away and walked leisurely towards the door. The teacher took a deep breath, and his pallor lightened a fraction. “All right, everybody,” he said, in as casual a tone as he could manage, “back to the game.” Eddie took Dean’s place opposite Tony Marshall, and things gradually returned to normal. Tony ended up winning most of the matches because Eddie couldn’t keep his attention on the game. He kept thinking about Dean, and couldn’t help smiling. 95

His friend had taken a no-win situation and, using nothing but his wits and his mouth, had somehow turned the tables. This was more than just an insignificant victory. Eddie could see in the faces of those around him that Dean Willis had just won a serious amount of respect in the eyes of his peers. Dean, you are The Man, Eddie thought.

28
“What do you want?” Dean asked, irritated by Stuart Todd’s approach. It was break-time. Eddie and Dean were outdoors, sitting on the concrete steps behind the gym, keeping as far as was reasonably possible from the crowd of six hundred pupils shuffling about the playground. “It’s all right,” Eddie told his best friend. “Stuart’s in on this.” Stuart got down on his haunches, facing the two boys. “You’re kidding me,” Dean said. “This guy’s a lunatic.” Stuart ignored the insult and looked at Eddie, disappointed. “How many people have you told?” “Just Dean. And only because I had to.” “I don’t believe this,” Dean interjected. “Are you two friends?” This time it was Eddie who ignored Dean. “I had an idea how Dean could help, Stuart. Look at this.” Eddie took hold of the sheets of paper that Dean was holding. Dean refused to let go, glaring at his friend. Eddie sighed. “OK, Dean,” he said in a weary tone, but his eyes were flickering with anger, “you can sit here and whine all day if you want, and then I’ll hold you responsible for whatever happens to my dad, how’s that?” Dean gulped. He released the paper without a word, deciding that this was one occasion when a verbal backlash was well and truly uncalled for. There were nine pages in total, which Eddie divided equally 96

between the three of them. “This is stuff from the internet about the company who built the school’s elevator,” he explained to Stuart. Stuart nodded. “Nice one. I never thought of that.” Eddie’s eyes gleamed. “Maybe we’ll find something.” “You know,” Dean said, “if you’d tell me what’s going on, I might have a better chance of finding something.” Eddie and Stuart looked at each other. After a moment’s hesitation Stuart shrugged and nodded. Eddie turned to Dean and told him the bare facts about the elevator shaft and about his father’s abduction. He omitted the robbery and the monsters; there was only so much a person could believe, even if he was your best friend. Dean gaped. “You’re not lying, are you? I mean, you wouldn’t go to all this trouble just to play a practical joke on me, would you?” His expression was hopeful, as though he would be quite relieved to discover this was a prank. But hope disappeared when Eddie looked back at him with a stone-cold gaze. “How did this happen?” Dean wanted to know. “How do you know all this?” “Be quiet,” Stuart said. “If you want to help, try to find something in here.” He tapped the sheets of paper. The address of the company’s website was a very straightforward www.rydell-elevators.ie. The firm was based in the Republic of Ireland, more specifically in County Monaghan, not far over the border. The site was professionally designed, with icons in the shape of elevator buttons, bearing labels such as Company Profile, Products, Brochures, Sales, Distributors, Parts— just what you would expect on a regular commercial website. “Nothing,” Stuart concluded, after ten minutes of careful reading. “Same here,” Eddie said. Dean shrugged. “Well, I have one suggestion.” Eddie and Stuart looked at him with keen interest. Dean pointed at a line of text on the top sheet he was holding. It was a telephone number. 97

Eddie sucked in air between clenched teeth. “I dunno.” “Why the heck not?” “It’s a good idea,” Stuart added. “I wouldn’t know what to say,” Eddie admitted. Dean smiled. “Pretend you’re grown up. Tell them you want to talk to the manager or something. You can hide the number on your phone, so there’s no risk.” “He’s right,” Stuart said. “We’ve nothing to lose.” Eddie fumbled in his blazer pocket for his mobile phone and looked at it nervously, as though he was holding a bomb. Then he held it out to Dean. “You do it.” Dean raised his hands defensively. “Hold on, now.” Stuart laughed. “Coward.” “You do it then!” Dean retorted. “Come on,” Eddie urged. “You’re Dean Willis, The Fastest Tongue in the West. You know it has to be you. Especially after what I saw you do this morning.” Dean smiled—a sucker for praise. He accepted the phone. “Put it on hands-free,” Eddie advised. “And don’t forget to hide my number.” Dean frowned. “Please ... give me some credit.” The three huddled together whilst Dean dialled the number. After four rings, an adult female voice came on the line, with a strong Southern Irish accent. “Good morning. Rydell Elevators. How can I help you?” “Good morning,” Dean replied, putting on a gruff voice that Eddie instantly recognised. Stuart had to clamp a hand over his own mouth to resist laughing. “I’d like to speak to the manager, please.” “I’m afraid Mr. Rydell is not normally available on call. If you’d like to leave your name and telephone number, I can make sure he—” “Oh, that is a shame,” Dean interrupted. “Perhaps I better explain myself. My name is Mr. Lyons, and I’m the principal of Clounagh Junior High School. Some years ago your company fitted a disability lift on our premises.” 98

Eddie held his breath, hoping Dean wouldn’t say too much. “I’m afraid it has developed a rather serious problem lately.” Dean let the words hang in the air. “What’s the problem?” “To put it bluntly, miss, your infernal elevator almost killed one of our pupils. It was very lucky indeed that the young boy came out of it with a mere broken leg ... Now, are you going to put me through to the manager, or shall I have our solicitor call you back?” “I’ll put you through right away, sir,” the woman responded. Stuart punched the air excitedly with his fist. The line went dead for just a few seconds—thankfully too short a time for the receptionist to explain anything to her manager—then a man’s voice broke the silence. “Hello, Patrick. I thought you would have used the direct line. How can I help you?” “Hello, Mr. Rydell. I’m afraid we have a problem with our elevator.” Eddie tensed. “It has developed a certain scraping sound, which appears to be coming from underground.” Eddie was in awe of Dean’s ingenuity. His friend had spoken just the sort of sentence that could be taken as an innocent remark and yet might just elicit a damning response from Rydell Elevators. “OK, I can be there within the hour.” Dean sat up straight, ready to panic. “Oh, there’s really no need to rush, Mr. Rydell. Tomorrow will be fine.” “Well, if you’re sure. I have to tell you, I don’t much like the thought of those people ending up trapped under there—” Under there! Eddie almost shouted. He said under there! “—especially with the kind of money they’re paying. I could get into a lot of trouble.” Mr. Rydell sighed. “Shame this whole operation has to be kept under wraps.” Dean kept his cool. “Well, secrets have their price.” 99

“Yes, they do,” Mr. Rydell agreed with a hint of sadness. “So, I’ll expect you tomorrow, Mr. Rydell?” “I’ll be there 8.30am sharp.” “Thank you. Good day.” Dean hung the phone up and let out an immense sigh of relief. Eddie had hoped that Rydell Elevators would turn out to be the source of the conspiracy. Instead, he had merely discovered a man who was apparently being paid a lot of money for the installation and maintenance of the elevator. So, the creatures, regardless of where they came from, had money— ordinary human currency—and lots of it. But this in itself was unsurprising; the very monster that Eddie had witnessed was carrying a briefcase and driving a car. Whatever kind of beings they were, they were fitting in. Even Mr. Rydell had revealed his own ignorance by referring to them merely as people. The three boys looked at each other with eyes that glowed with triumph. Bit by bit, they were piecing together the jigsaw. Stuart’s eyes focused on something beyond Eddie’s shoulder, and his expression grew tense. Eddie heard the tapping of feet on the concrete behind him, and he spun around. Jade Rodgers was standing there, towering above them, her face twisted with hostility. Eddie stopped breathing, realising that confronting the girl yesterday had been a very big mistake. He had been wrong about Jade after all; she was part of this conspiracy. And now, he and his friends would pay. Jade glared fiercely at Eddie and crossed her arms. “Yesterday you told me to think about what I was doing period seven. Why did you say that?” Eddie couldn’t seem to find any words. Jade’s expression softened a little, revealing anxiety under the anger. “If you’ve got something to tell me about yesterday, then tell me ... please.” Relief washed over Eddie. He’d been fully expecting a 100

barrage of threats, but now Jade appeared to be an innocent victim after all. “I watched you getting into the lift, remember? Jade, you didn’t come out at the bottom.” She looked at him incredulously. “What?” “Well ... you did come out eventually, I guess,” Eddie said, getting to his feet, “because here you are right now. But you didn’t come out right away. You were down there at least twenty minutes.” Jade looked confused. “Down where?” “You really don’t know?” Jade shook her head. “To be honest, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this ever since you mentioned it yesterday. I was supposed to be in Miss Preston’s room period seven, but I can’t remember anything about it. And according to my friend Jill Dougan, I wasn’t there.” “I knew it!” Eddie exclaimed. “You obviously know what’s going on,” Jade said in a harsh tone. “Tell me.” Eddie nodded. He opened his mouth to speak, but when he met Jade’s narrow calculating stare, nothing would come out. How do you tell a girl there are monsters under the school, when she’s looking at you like this? Eddie wondered. The obvious answer was, you didn’t. It was Stuart who said the only thing that could be said. “We can’t tell you. You have to see this for yourself.”

29
Eddie sat in room thirty-nine, the science lab, beside Dean. Miss Hendron was explaining something about bending rays of light, but Eddie couldn’t concentrate. Getting another glimpse of one of the beasts was taking some organising. It was no good the four of them waiting in reception for someone in sunglasses to wander by; the principal was certain to emerge from his office at some point and ask 101

them what they were doing here. Oh, just keeping an eye out for demons, sir. So they came up with a plan. After break-time everyone had gone back to class, except Stuart who, being a pro at truancy, was the natural choice to stand guard at the elevator. It might have taken hours, and even then there was no guarantee of success. As it turned out, a mere twenty minutes into class-time, the lab’s door opened and Stuart Todd peered in, ready to spout his carefully prepared lie. “Could Mr. Lyons please speak to Eddie Morton and Dean Willis?” Miss Hendron sighed. “Very well.” There was some muffled jeering as Eddie and Dean made their way out of the room; being called to the headmaster’s office usually meant trouble. I wish that was all it was, Eddie thought. Once in the corridor, Eddie put his hand in his blazer pocket and took out Jade Rodgers’ phone. He had loaned his own phone to Jade, because it could be programmed to vibrate silently in your pocket instead of ringing (mobile phones were banned in school, but as long as they were kept out of sight, the teachers didn’t seem to mind). Jade, in turn, had allowed Eddie to borrow her phone. Running along the corridor, Eddie punched his own number into Jade’s phone. This was her signal and, from wherever she was in the building, she would now ask her teacher if she could go to the toilet. The teacher would hopefully let her go, knowing nothing of the secret message she had received. The three boys slowed down when they arrived at the foyer. “I hope we’re not too late,” Stuart commented, walking up to the entrance doors. They all peered out into the dull, cloudy morning. “Gotcha!” A woman in a business suit, carrying a briefcase, was walking down the path away from them. Eddie heard the noise of running feet behind him, and turned to see Jade, her eyes wide with curiosity. 102

Stuart stepped out of the way to allow her to see past him. “That woman over there—take a good look at her, Jade.” He took a step sideways so that he was standing behind Dean, then glared intently at Eddie as if to say, You know what to do. Eddie realised he was standing directly behind Jade. Oh no, he thought. I can’t do this. I can’t hit a girl. Especially not this girl. “Now!” Stuart roared, and swung his fist at the side of Dean’s jaw. Eddie looked at his hands, which were shaking. If he didn’t do something quick, he was going to ruin everything. Jade was the only person Eddie knew of who had gone down below and somehow come back up again. They might have a lot to learn from her, if they could just get her on their side. Dean was disoriented from the punch. Stuart grabbed his head and pointed it firmly in one direction. “Look!” he exclaimed. And then the solution came to Eddie—a move he’d had plenty of time to practise on his sister over recent years. He reached around Jade, who was fortunately wearing a sleeveless shirt, and grasped the flesh of her forearm between his fingers. He allowed himself one very brief, absurd moment to reflect that he was probably blowing any remote chance he might have had of getting a date with this girl. Then he twisted Jade’s flesh hard. She let out a yell and turned to face Eddie. This was the easy part. Without wasting a moment, Eddie took her by the shoulders and spun her back around. And all at once, two believers became four. While Dean and Jade were gaping at the spectacle, a voice came from behind the group. “What on earth are you doing?!” It was Miss Grimley, one of the receptionists, peering angrily over her bifocals. “I have never seen such behaviour in all my life!” Eddie realised, to his horror, that their little group had been in full view of the security camera mounted in the foyer behind them, and Miss Grimley had no doubt watched the whole 103

spectacle on the monitor in the general office. And not only Miss Grimley, but anyone else who happened to be in there at the time. Mr. Lyons stepped into view from around the corner and touched Miss Grimley on the shoulder. “Thanks, Joan, I’ll take it from here,” he said. Eddie felt a creeping sense of dread. We’re done for. Miss Grimley gave the group a final angry glare and walked away. The headmaster looked more weary than angry. “I want you all to go back to class,” he requested, in a calm, calculating tone, “except you, Eddie.” Eddie stepped backwards, his stomach heavy with fear. Stuart faced him and put his hands firmly on the other boy’s shoulders. He gazed intently at Eddie and spoke in an almost silent whisper. “Do what he says. You’ll be all right.” Eddie shook his head. “Think about it. What’s he gonna do—shoot you? In his own office? ... We’ll be right out here, waiting.” Eddie did think about it, and what Stuart said made sense. The principal’s office was a long way from the elevator and was right next door to the well-populated general office. Unless Mr. Lyons was out of his mind, he was not about to abduct Eddie, or worse, murder him. And maybe, just maybe, this was a chance for Eddie to find out something that might help bring his father back. He took a deep breath and stepped forward.

30
The atmosphere of the headmaster’s office made Eddie feel as much at ease as was possible in his circumstances. It was spacious, with large windows lining one wall. These provided an unrestricted view of the huge lawn outside, where a gardener could be seen riding a mower. The buzz of the 104

machine’s blades penetrated the glass, helping Eddie to feel connected to the safety of the world beyond this room. More importantly, anyone passing by could see in. And there were two doors in the office, one of which led to the corridor, the other to the general office, from which Eddie could hear the welcome sounds of clicking keyboards, ringing phones, and muffled conversation. Mr. Lyons took a seat behind his bland, tidy desk. He still wore that weary expression on his face, but the words he spoke were chilling and to the point. “I know why you were hitting each other out there, Eddie. And I know why you were screaming at the elevator yesterday ... Sit down.” Eddie did as he was told, but sat literally on the edge of his seat, ready to make a break for it at any moment. “All these years I’ve managed to keep it a secret, but somehow I knew this day was coming. That’s why I made preparation.” The headmaster’s hand disappeared into a drawer on his desk. This is it, Eddie thought, suddenly feeling too deflated to move. Stuart was wrong; this is the end. He waited for Mr. Lyons to bring the gun into view, the hairs at the back of his neck standing on end. The principal lifted his hand out from under the desk. In it was a cheque-book, which he tossed casually in front of him. Relief swept through Eddie. “Listen to me now, because I’m going to explain it all to you,” Mr. Lyons began. “The beings you saw—do you know what they are? Can you guess?” “Demons?” Eddie suggested. The headmaster smiled. “That’s what people thought when they arrived here in 1702.” Eddie’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Their average lifespan is around one thousand two hundred years. Don’t look so surprised, Eddie. They are not us; they live longer than us in the same way that we live longer than, say, cats and dogs.” 105

Eddie didn’t much like the analogy. “You said they arrived here. From where?” Eddie asked, though he had a gut-feeling for where this was heading. “We call it Rigel 5—the fifth planet in orbit around a star that our astronomers refer to as Rigel—also known as Beta Orionis. Rigel itself, the sun, belongs to the constellation of Orion, which you can look up and see on any clear night. You can pick out Rigel easily because it’s the brightest star in the formation. But don’t let that fool you—it’s over nine hundred light-years away—impossibly far for a human being to travel in one lifetime, even if we had their technology.” Aliens, Eddie mused, filled with awe. You spend your life expecting little grey men with big black eyes and it turns out to be big green men with pointy horns. He felt a measure of relief at this revelation; even if the beings were from halfway across the galaxy, it was better knowing they were living, breathing, flesh and blood creatures than supernatural demons from the depths of hell. “The craft they came in was merely a small scout ship; their purpose no different than the purpose of our own primitive attempts at space exploration—scientific curiosity. Unfortunately the craft collided with an asteroid and was forced to make a crash-landing. Most of the crew survived—twelve in total. Many are alive and well today, three centuries later. “Our first contact with an alien civilisation did not go well, to our shame. The mindset of eighteenth century man could see nothing but evil in the faces of these visitors. They knew nothing of the concept of space travel, of the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. All they saw was what you saw, Eddie— demons. The religious climate of the era did nothing to help matters. History calls it The Burning Times, in reference to the tradition of burning witches at the stake. To our credit there are very few historical references of this ghastly practice in Ireland. However, this was a time when people believed that the devil could be mocked by portraying him with horns and fangs and a tail. And so, when the Rigellians came, the 106

people believed only what their narrow minds would allow them to believe.” Eddie’s fear had abated somewhat, as he became more and more captivated by the story. He even felt a little of the shame Mr. Lyons was talking about. “The people wanted to kill them,” Eddie surmised. The principal nodded gravely. “The ship was still in one piece, but unable to fly. It had made a large crater for itself, at least fifty metres deep. The Rigellians salvaged what they could and ran for their lives. When they had left, the people made a grave out of the crater, burying what they thought was a source of unspeakable evil. “In order to survive, the Rigellians used their technology to create a device that would allow them to blend into human society. They are able to project some kind of energy field from themselves which affects the human brain, causing us to ... hallucinate, for want of a better word. The illusion can be broken for a short while, as you and your friends discovered, when your brain receives an overload of sensory input, such as when you feel sharp pain. “The Rigellians’ strategy proved a great success. They immersed themselves in human affairs, and over the centuries acquired great wealth. Their purpose, however, always remained the same—to get home.” Eddie’s eyes lit up. “Their ship is under the school, isn’t it, sir?” Mr. Lyons nodded. “It was blind chance that Clounagh was constructed on top of the crash-site. And good or bad luck, depending on which way you look at it. For the Rigellians it made the job of getting down into their ship more complicated, but it also provided great cover for them. For the school, it has also been very profitable.” “I don’t understand.” “Where do you think we got the money for all those computers? And for the new technology suite that we plan to build next year?” 107

Eddie didn’t like the sound of this. Lately, money was not his favourite subject—particularly when great amounts of it were being discussed. “The Rigellians approached me in 1972 and requested only two things, the construction of the elevator shaft that would allow them access to their ship and the freedom to come and go as they pleased. In return, they provide a handsome amount of finance for the school on a regular basis.” “How are they supposed to get the ship out, sir?” Eddie asked. “They won’t. A second ship is being built at a secret location. Special materials not found naturally on earth are being transported from the old ship to the new. That’s why there has been so much coming and going lately.” Eddie felt the urge to believe and rejoice, but held himself in check. “What about Jade?” he enquired, with healthy scepticism. Mr. Lyons smiled warmly. “A simple mistake, that’s all. And not the first time one of its kind has happened. Jade and Charlotte happened to be in the elevator at the very moment one of the Rigellians called it from below, seeking to come up. Have you spoken to the girls about it?” “To Jade, yes.” “And she has told you she doesn’t remember a thing, yes?” Eddie nodded. “This is true. I’m sure the girls arrived at the ship and were quite frightened. But there was no need. The Rigellians simply escorted them aboard and erased their memories.” “How?” “I don’t know how it works, but I’m told it’s a metal dome of some sort that’s placed over the head.” Eddie shivered. “It’s really quite a rudimentary operation. In fact, I’m loathe to use the word operation at all, because it’s not as if they needed to open the poor girl up. Within twenty minutes Jade and Charlotte were returned to us, no worse for the wear.” 108

It made perfect sense. Eddie was buzzing with excitement. He wanted to throw caution to the wind and ask Mr. Lyons about his father, but something held him back—the memory of seeing Dad’s legs being dragged along the floor into the elevator. Right now his head was spinning with all these revelations, and it was impossible to think clearly. So he bit his lip and played it safe. “Now, Eddie, I’ve taken a big chance with you today; I’ve respected your curiosity and told you the truth. So, I hope we have an understanding. The Rigellians have never once taken advantage of the school, and I in turn am not about to take advantage of you.” He flipped open the cheque-book. “I know how you must feel, that this is the discovery of the millennium and that everyone should know about it—I myself fought against the impulse to go public with this information for many years—but you have to understand that the utmost secrecy is essential to the Rigellians’ plans. If their presence becomes known, can you imagine what would happen?” Eddie kept silent. He was staring at the blank cheque on the desk in front of Mr. Lyons, his heart beating fast, imagining the words Fourteen thousand pounds written there. “The government would want the spacecraft for itself, and would no doubt take it, by force if necessary. Alien technology—a wonderful new toy for our scientists to play with. As for the Rigellians, they would be questioned and studied and compelled to stay and help. There would be no returning home.” Eddie shook his head. “I can’t believe we would be that bad.” “No? Well, Eddie, what happened in 1702 was true. We might be living in more enlightened times, but human nature is still the same—greedy and cruel.” Eddie said nothing. “Are you going to tell the world about this, Eddie? Are you willing to take a deadly chance with the lives of these visitors who have been nothing but kind to us?” 109

Suddenly it came to Eddie. He doesn’t know! He has no idea they took my dad! Eddie wished he could stop time itself, just to be able to pause and think for a minute or two. This was all too much information to process at once. Mr. Lyons lifted a pen. “Have you any plans to go to university in a few years, Eddie?” he asked. Eddie shrugged. “Well, whatever career choices you make, it’s always useful to have some capital behind you. I’m going to write four cheques. One for you, and one for each of your friends. Do you understand why I am doing this?” Eddie nodded. The headmaster penned the words Stuart Todd on the cheque, and below it the sum of Three thousand pounds only. Eddie gasped. Mr. Lyons chuckled. He penned similar cheques for Dean and Jade, giving Eddie some much needed time to get his head together. “Now, since I’m entrusting you with the additional labour of relaying the gravity of the situation to your friends, a bonus is in order.” Mr. Lyons placed the nib of his pen on the cheque. “Fourteen thousand,” Eddie announced, his voice trembling. “And leave the name blank.” The headmaster’s smile vanished. “I thought we had an understanding, Eddie.” “Fourteen thousand,” Eddie repeated. Anger flashed in Mr. Lyons’ eyes, but only for a moment. What replaced it was an unmistakable look of dread—as if his life depended on making this situation turn out the way he wanted. His bottom lip trembled as he spoke. “All I had to do was tell the Rigellians about you and your friends, and let them wipe your memory clean,” he explained. “But no, I decided to respect you. What a fool I’ve been.” Eddie’s heart raced. “Sir, you don’t understand!” he cried. “I need the money! I need it now!” It seemed there was no option 110

but to tell Mr. Lyons about the man who was planning to murder his sister. “You disappoint me, Edward Morton.” If he had picked Dean instead of me, Dean would know what to say, Eddie thought. Mr. Lyons folded his arms. “All right, ten thousand,” he announced. Take it! Take it! Eddie urged himself, but the cold eyes of the loan shark came to the front of his mind, and he knew it would be a mistake. “No,” Eddie dared to reply. “Fourteen thousand.” Mr. Lyons slammed his fist on the desk. “Sir, I wouldn’t ask for this if I didn’t need it,” Eddie explained in a flurry. “Please don’t ask me why. And I promise I’ll never breathe a word of this to anyone, not ever.” The principal glared at Eddie for another few moments, his anger fading. “Human nature,” he said with a weary sigh, then looked down at the cheque and scribbled the words Eddie longed to see—Fourteen thousand pounds only. Eddie felt like yelling in triumph, but held his exultation inside. The headmaster signed and dated the cheque, then handed it to Eddie along with the other three. “Get out of my sight, boy,” he instructed. Eddie got up out of the chair and left the office in a hurry. Relief washed over him as the door whispered shut behind him. He felt as if he had just woken up from a nightmare, but was somehow still dreaming. He gazed at the cheque in his hands, marvelling at his unbelievable good fortune. This small piece of paper was going to save Tara’s life. Eddie thought again of the loan shark, and his confidence became tainted with a shadow of doubt. Stuart, Dean and Jade were seated in the foyer, faithfully awaiting Eddie’s return. They stood up in unison, looking both relieved and curious. “What happened?” Stuart asked. 111

Eddie sighed and leaned against the wall, exhausted. Stuart impatiently took him by the sleeve of his blazer. “Come on, let’s find somewhere we can talk.”

31
When the four of them were safely hidden from view behind the bicycle-shed, Eddie recounted everything. Not just the headmaster’s revelations; he began with Monday evening, and the threat on his sister’s life. Then he explained his involvement in the theft of the school’s computers, and the resulting abduction of his father. And finally, the alien spacecraft buried beneath the school. When he was done, everyone was too astonished to speak. Eddie felt a lot better after the telling. Having Stuart on his side had been great, and now there were two more companions to share in the nightmare. Dean eventually broke the silence. “Do you believe Mr. Lyons was telling the truth?” “It makes sense,” Eddie replied, “but I don’t think we’ve got the whole story. Lyons looked scared, for some reason. And it was like he didn’t know anything about what happened to my dad.” Jade gazed at her three-thousand-pound cheque. “This isn’t right,” she said. “Old Lyons might have dressed it up nice,” Dean commented, “but it’s just plain and simple bribery.” “It smells more like, Don’t tell anyone, or we’ll suck out half your brain through a straw,” Stuart said. “I take it we’re not planning on keeping quiet,” Dean queried, “not with Eddie’s dad down there?” “And I want to know what happened to me,” Jade added. “Even if they really are friendly aliens just trying to get home, they had no right to mess with my head.” Stuart grinned. “So, what’s our next move, guys?” 112

“I’ve got an idea,” Dean said. “It might work, and it might not, but it’s sure worth a try.” “What is it?” Eddie wanted to know. Dean tapped the side of his nose with a finger, gesturing for patience. “All of you meet up at my house—that’s 24 Drumannon Park—after school at, say, four o’clock.” “All right,” Jade said. “Cool,” Stuart agreed, grinning. No, this was not cool, Eddie reflected. None of this was cool in the slightest. But of course, for the others there was nothing really at stake, whereas Eddie’s whole family was in jeopardy. I might be an orphan very soon, Eddie speculated. The very thought of it had him fighting back tears. “Eddie?” Dean asked. Eddie suppressed feelings of envy, telling himself to be grateful his companions weren’t just walking away from everything in fear. “Of course I’ll be there,” he said.

32
Eddie had been in Dean’s house so many times it was like a second home, but today it felt strange. There was nothing remarkable about this observation, however; everywhere seemed somehow unfamiliar, as though Eddie were wandering through a world to which he didn’t belong. Dean’s younger brother Luke reclined on the living-room carpet, eyes glued to the TV set, just like Tara often did. An episode of Round the Twist currently had the nine-year-old boy entranced. It was a programme Eddie himself enjoyed, but the idea of watching television didn’t appeal to him any more. It was something that people with normal lives did. Eddie understood his feelings of isolation to some degree. It wasn’t so much that he was living in a dream (although it sure felt like it); it was more that he was one of the few people who were well and truly awake. Eddie and his friends had 113

uncovered secrets, and this had set them apart from everyone. People went about their daily routine, completely unaware of the hidden danger that lurked beneath their feet. But perhaps somehow the four of them could find a way to change that. The doorbell rang, and Dean went to answer it. Stuart and Jade arrived together. Eddie felt a pang of jealousy, which he quickly tried to discard, telling himself that romance should be the last thing on his mind. But he was only human. After all, it wasn’t every day that the girl of your dreams met up with you in your best friend’s house. But she’s not here for you, dummy, an inner voice scolded him. She came to hear Dean’s idea. “Let’s go,” Dean urged, leading the way up the stairs. The four of them entered Dean’s bedroom. It was spacious, although made less so by its untidiness. The floor was littered with items of clothing, magazines, videotapes. Against one wall sat a desk with a computer. On the wall above it, pride of place was given to a large poster of Angelina Jolie, wearing sexy black shorts and thigh-holsters— her outfit from the Tomb Raider movie. There were four chairs ready and waiting in a semi-circle around the desk. Dean was last to sit down, first taking a moment to flick the power switch on the computer’s monitor. “Have a look at this,” he invited. After a few seconds, the dark screen grew brighter, revealing an internet web-page crammed full of text, with the heading Hypnotic Regression Therapy. Eddie had watched enough science fiction TV shows in his time to understand immediately what the phrase meant. “I grabbed this stuff off the net,” Dean began. “The way I see it, maybe we can hypnotise Jade to uncover her missing memories.” He looked at the girl and his cheeks flared red. “If you want to, that is.” Eddie gazed at the screen. It was astonishing what information you could find on the internet. Everyone knew the rumours that you could use the net to learn how to hotwire 114

cars and make bombs, but most of the time Eddie just saw the worldwide web as a source of a few minutes fun now and again. It took a well-versed computer junkie like Dean to recognise the net as the goldmine of knowledge it really was. Stuart looked uncertain. “I know where you’re coming from, but don’t they use hypnotism to, like, find out if you were Napoleon in a past life, and all that jazz—or to make you prance around with your elbows sticking out like you’re a chicken?” Dean looked disappointed. He shrugged. “What have we got to lose?” On the internet site Eddie spotted links to other pages. One was marked with the ominous phrase The Dangers of Hypnotherapy. “I dunno, Dean. I mean, do you really think we could actually make it work?” Stuart added, “And can we really be sure we’ll get to the truth, not just some elaborate fantasy going on in Jade’s head?” “And do we even know if it’s safe?” Eddie said. At last Jade spoke. “It’s my decision ... I want to go through with it.” She looked at Dean. “Tell me what to do.” Dean grinned. “First off, Eddie and Stuart, out you get.” “What?” Eddie said. “You must be joking,” Stuart said. “I don’t want secondhand information; I want to hear this from the horse’s mouth.” He looked at Jade. “Not that you look like a horse—far from it.” “You don’t even believe in hypnotherapy,” Dean reminded him. “I didn’t say that,” Stuart replied. “I just said I wasn’t sure. I’m staying.” He folded his arms defiantly. “Look, if this is going to work I need to rid the room of all distractions—and you’ve just proven yourself to be a major one. I rest my case.” “You can’t make me leave, fatboy.” Dean’s eyes narrowed. “From what I hear, diet plans are a lot cheaper than plastic surgery,” he advised. 115

“Will you two stop it?!” Jade exclaimed. “You’re like a couple of five-year-olds.” Eddie wanted to see this as much as Stuart, but he had an idea for an honourable compromise. “Dean, you’ve got a tape recorder. Use it. We’ll go keep your brother company. Let’s go, Stu.”

33
Eddie and Stuart sat through the last few minutes of Round the Twist, then an excruciatingly long commercial break, then several headache-inducing minutes of Socky and Dustin, the two puppet presenters of Den 2, mouthing off. Meanwhile, Dean’s brother got on with his trance-like stare at the screen, not once acknowledging the presence of the two older boys. When Dean finally called them back upstairs, Eddie reckoned the little guy hadn’t even realised they were there. “Well, did it work?” Stuart asked, stepping into the bedroom. Dean’s pale complexion was answer enough for Eddie. Oh, it had worked all right, his face said. Jade was lying on top of the bed, the best place in the room for relaxation, and therefore hypnotism. She swung her legs off the edge and sat up, looking really tired. Her forehead was covered in beads of sweat. Snap—the sound of the tape recorder finishing its rewind. Dean fast-forwarded past several minutes of an attempt at putting Jade in a trance, then he hit the play button. “Listen to this,” he said with a hint of awe. It was a hiss-filled, muffled recording, but audible nevertheless. Dean’s voice was the first to be heard. “Where are you, Jade?” Now Jade’s voice, calm and collected. “I’m in the corridor, upstairs; I’m outside Miss Doran’s room.” “Is someone with you?” “Aye. Charlotte.” 116

“And what are you both doing?” “I’m taking her to the lift.” “Why?” “We need to get downstairs to our next class. Charlotte’s got a broken leg and she can’t use the stairs.” “OK, Jade, tell me what happens when you get to the lift.” “Eddie’s there, in the corridor. He’s telling me not to go into the lift. He looks kind of crazy, and it’s making me nervous.” Eddie felt his cheeks flush. “Tell me what happens next,” Dean instructed. “I just ignore him. The lift comes, and me and Charlotte get inside. I press the button for the ground floor. We’re moving.” “What happens after that?” “This is strange. It’s taking so long.” Jade suddenly let out a little gasp. “I can hear somebody shouting my name. I think it’s Eddie.” “Where’s the voice coming from?” “Above. It sounds weird, like he’s far, far away. I’m getting worried, because we haven’t stopped yet. Charlotte asks me what’s going on. I tell her I don’t know.” “Does the lift eventually stop?” “Yes.” Jade gasped again. “The lights, they just went dim. I’m scared. I think the lift has got stuck ... Hang on, the door’s opening.” Jade swore breathlessly. “Tell me what you see, Jade.” “This isn’t school. I’m in some kind of cave or tunnel. The walls are made of rocks. It’s dark, but I can see a little bit— there’s a weird orange light on the ceiling.” “Is anyone else there, besides Charlotte?” “No.” Here was proof positive, in Eddie’s estimation at least, that the headmaster hadn’t been entirely honest. There was supposed to be a Rigellian here, accidentally encountering the two girls. “What happens next, Jade?” “Charlotte’s pressing the button to get the lift moving again, 117

but it’s not working. I think I can see a door up ahead, but the light’s so dim it’s hard to be sure. We wait for a while, and Charlotte keeps trying to start the lift. No good. I’m terrified, but I want to know what’s going on ... so we head out into the tunnel.” Jade let out a deep sigh. “What’s wrong?” “It’s the weirdest feeling with all these rocks—suffocating.” “What happens when you get to the door? Can you describe it to me?” “It doesn’t look like a regular door. It’s too—I don’t know— meaty.” “Meaty?” “It gives me the shivers just looking at it. I want to go back to the lift now; I’ve had enough.” Suddenly Jade cried out in fright. Her breathing could be heard, fast and sharp. In a few moments it started levelling out again. “Can you tell me what you see?” “The door’s open. Two of those things are behind it.” “Rigellians?” “Yes.” “What are they doing?” Jade’s breathing became rapid again. “I’m running back to the lift. I get inside and turn around. Oh no! Charlotte—the crutches—she’s too slow. I want to go back and help her but I can’t; I’m so scared.” Jade moaned in anguish. “Get up, Charlotte! She’s fallen down. She’s crawling now. I want to help her but I’m already in the lift, and I can’t go back, I just can’t.” Eddie felt a lump in his throat. It was a feeling of cowardice he understood all too well. “They’re coming towards her. Those horrible faces. Don’t you touch her! ... No! Stay away from me! ” Jade made a conscious effort to breathe more slowly. “It’s got its fingers under my armpit—all bony and awful. I’ve got my eyes closed; I can’t bear to look at it. I can feel its other hand under my knees. It’s lifting me.” Jade let out a long shuddering sigh before continuing. “I’m 118

on my back now—some kind of table. There’s an orange light above me. I don’t know how I got here. I think maybe I might have—” She inhaled sharply. “It’s the thing again—looking down at me. Awful black eyes. I can’t move.” “You’re paralysed?” “No. I’m strapped down. It moved! ” “What moved, Jade? The Rigellian?” “No, the strap. But it’s not a strap. It’s alive.” Jade went quiet for a moment. “He’s got these awful long teeth. Ow! What are you doing?!” “Tell me what’s happening, Jade.” “He put a needle in my side. Get it out! Get it OUUUUT! ” Jade let out a sob. “I want to go home ... He’s got something— like a football cut in half ... Wait, it’s like a jellyfish ... No, no, don’t put it on my head! Stop it! Please, stop it! ” Jade let out a shriek. This was apparently the very straightforward memorywiping device the headmaster spoke of. Stuart may have been closer to the truth than he realised when he used the phrase suck out half your brain through a straw. “Jade, are you all right?” Dean wanted to know. “In the lift ... floor. Don’t know how I ... Moving ... Charlotte’s asleep ... Can’t ... So tired ... Can’t think ... Door— it’s opening. Have to—to get out of here ... Charlotte’s waking up. I have to help her ... Crutches ... Head’s starting to clear now. I’m helping Charlotte out of the lift.” “Where are you?” “School.” Dean reached over and hit the stop button on the cassette recorder.

119

34
Jade was crying silently, her face buried in her lap. Eddie sat down beside her, not knowing whether to hold her hand or put his arm around her. He did neither. “Jade, what’s wrong?” She looked up, revealing cheeks that glistened with tears. Wiping them away with her fingers, she said, “I feel awful. I just left Charlotte there. I never thought I would ever do a thing like that, but I did.” “You shouldn’t feel bad,” Eddie said. “It was the first time you saw those creatures, and it must have scared the life out of you.” “You’ve all seen them too,” Jade argued. “Don’t beat yourself up about it,” Stuart advised. “We saw them from a distance, aye, but what you went through was in a different league.” Jade shook her head and looked at Stuart angrily. “Don’t you understand? I abandoned my friend. She needed my help and I left her there to—to die, for all I knew. I don’t know how I’m ever going to forgive myself.” Dean changed the subject. “We need to talk about what happened to Jade. What do you think it means?” “It means Lyons wasn’t telling the whole truth, for a start,” Eddie said. “The only thing that matches his version is the dome-thing the aliens put over Jade’s head.” Jade shivered. “Hardly. It had all these little feelers inside, like it was alive. Makes my skin crawl just thinking about it.” “Still,” Dean said, “it seems like it’s the thing they used to take away your memories.” “They injected me too,” Jade added. “Don’t forget that.” “Did it leave a mark?” Stuart asked. Jade’s eyes lit up, and she touched her side. “I noticed something on me yesterday; now I know where it came from.” 120

“I want to see it,” Stuart said. “It’ll prove one way or another if there’s anything to this hypnosis lark.” Jade pulled up the bottom of her sweater, revealing the flesh around her waist. The three boys gathered round. Ordinarily Eddie would have been pretty excited at the prospect of getting a closer look at Jade’s bare waist, but right now all he felt was a lump in his throat. There was a small red dot above Jade’s right hip, where the needle had gone in, and it was surrounded by several tiny white lumps that rose out of the skin like acne, confined to an area about an inch in diameter. “What do you think it means?” Jade asked. “Just something to do with the memory thing maybe?” Stuart suggested. “I don’t think so,” Dean answered. “Memory has to do with your brain. And this is nowhere near it.” “You were saying you felt tired,” Eddie said to Jade, “when you were going back up in the lift.” He turned to Dean. “Sedative maybe?” “Could be,” Dean said. “It would explain how Jade found herself back in the lift without knowing how she got there. But what the heck are those white dots all about? I don’t like it one bit.” Jade looked worried. “It’s hard to believe I knew nothing about this when I was walking to school this morning,” Dean commented, pacing the room. “Feels like a million years ago.” “What do we know?” Jade said. “I mean, what’s going on really? What do they want with Eddie’s dad? What did they want with me? And how many other people have they abducted like that?” “There’s something I have to show you all,” Stuart announced. All eyes fixed on him. Stuart removed a folded piece of paper from his pocket. “The idea hit me when Dean showed us the internet stuff. My gran has this huge scrapbook that she’s been keeping from, 121

like, the beginning of time—full of old newspaper clippings and stuff. Mum went to Clounagh, so I figured maybe there’d be some stuff about the school. I wasn’t really expecting to find anything useful, but I thought, what the heck.” He unfolded the paper carefully in his fingers. “Check it out.” The news clipping was brittle and yellowing with age. The heading said, What happened to the children? and below this, Book closes on the Brownstown disappearances. The article told the story of three pupils from Clounagh Junior High mysteriously disappearing without a trace from the school, each one at a different time of day, but all on the same date, 18 September 1972—almost thirty years ago. Their names were Martin Hanna, Raymond Blair and Kirsty Metcalfe. The news article was dated six months after the event, and the children hadn’t been found. Eddie felt an overwhelming sadness, so intense that it almost brought tears to his eyes. He was not grieving for these children whom he didn’t know, but for his own father. Jade had been captured, then released, for whatever reason; these three had not, and neither had his dad. Reading the article was like putting nails in his father’s coffin. I’ll have to go to a children’s home, Eddie thought. So will Tara. We might get fostered by different families and not live together any more. Then again, she might not live at all, after tomorrow night. “It has to be the aliens’ doing, doesn’t it?” Stuart prompted. “I mean, what other answer could there be?” Dean had gone pale. “This is heavy stuff. I was kind of secretly hoping that somehow, when we figured it all out, these aliens were gonna turn out to be on our side.” Stuart chuffed. “I scratched that idea the first time I laid eyes on them.” “That was pretty short-sighted, don’t you think? We didn’t know anything about them.” “Catch yourself on, Dean. Aliens walking around in a junior high school wearing human disguises—what could be more suspicious?” “What do we do now?” Jade wanted to know. 122

“We should go to the police,” Dean suggested. Panic gripped Eddie. “No chance! My sister’s life depends on keeping them out of the picture—I’ve already told you that.” “I think you’re crazy,” Dean responded. “We’re just kids. What can we do?” Eddie got to his feet. “I’m telling you, you’re not calling the police,” he warned. “I’ll tie you up if I have to.” Stuart let out a short laugh, then touched Eddie on the shoulder. “Dean, what are you gonna tell the cops—that there are aliens under the school in a buried spaceship? Think about it.” Eddie felt relieved to have Stuart taking his side, even if it was for a different reason than his own. “We have the cheques Mr. Lyons wrote for us,” Dean explained. “They’ll take our story seriously when we show them those.” “Well, we’re not gonna show them anything. You think the cops’ll know what to do? There’ll be an investigation. It’ll take time. And all it’ll do is give the game away and give those alien scumbags time to cover their tracks.” Dean crossed his arms. “Well, what’s your alternative?” Stuart opened his mouth, but it was Eddie who got the first word in. He said the only thing he could say to fight back the despair inside him. “We do it ourselves.” “What do you mean?” Jade asked. “We break into the school; we climb down the lift shaft; and we do whatever it is we have to do to after that.” Dean’s pallor grew whiter. “You’re not serious?” “Oh, he is,” Stuart said, quivering with excitement. “When?” Jade asked. Eddie paused a moment before speaking. “Tonight.” “You are crazy!” Dean exclaimed. “I don’t think they know about us yet,” Eddie reasoned. “The alien who took my dad on Tuesday night didn’t see me, and the ones we’ve seen in school haven’t paid us any attention. 123

The only person who’s on to us is Lyons, and I get the feeling he’s as scared of the Rigellians as we are.” “So you think we’ve still got the element of surprise on our side?” Stuart said. Eddie nodded. “Today, I think we’ve found out as much as we’re ever likely to find out. And the more we pry, the closer we come to being caught. Let’s not forget, the guy from Rydell Elevators is supposed to come to school tomorrow morning. And when he finds out somebody faked that phone-call from Lyons, I don’t know what’s going to happen.” Stuart slung an arm loosely over Eddie’s shoulder and grinned. “Looks like it’s tonight or never.”

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It was one of those typical Northern Ireland evenings— dull and wet. The stars were hiding behind a thick blanket of dark grey clouds from which fell an incessant drizzle. Eddie, Dean and Jade met up at 11.00pm in the grounds of the church next to the school, taking shelter beneath an overhanging porch outside the building. Eddie carried a length of rope, wrapped around his shoulder so many times that he looked ready to faint with exhaustion. Jade carried a flashlight and a long broom handle. Dean held a camera and a brick. Stuart arrived, carrying a second length of rope over one shoulder and a sports bag over the other. The contents of the bag made a clinking noise as he walked. Entering the shelter, he shook his head violently, sending a spray of water towards his companions. “There goes a thousand brain cells,” Jade said, wiping her cheeks. “He never used them anyway,” Dean remarked. Stuart scowled. “What have you brought?” Eddie asked. 124

“Something that might just save our butts.” “Drinks?” Jade suggested, incredulous. Stuart chuckled. “Such naivety. But I have to admit, it’s what makes you so darn lovable.” This time it was Jade’s turn to scowl. She switched on her flashlight and pointed it into Stuart’s bag. What she illuminated were several milk bottles. The colour of the liquid they contained was not white, however, but clear like water, and the tops were stuffed with rags. If there was any remaining doubt about the purpose of these bottles, the smell gave it away. It was one they all recognised from any filling station on any street. “Those are petrol bombs,” Eddie whispered. “Are you crazy?” “I believe Molotov cocktail is the proper term,” Stuart corrected. Dean took a glance and frowned. “You had these in storage for Drumcree 7, I suppose? Just waiting to do your bit for peace in Ulster, eh?” Stuart shot him an angry look. “You think you’ve got me all figured out. You know nothing about me, you idiot.” Jade sighed. “Are we going to go through this again?” “No,” Eddie answered for his friends, adjusting the heavy bundle of rope on his shoulder. “Let’s get moving before I cut off my circulation.” They made their way across the muddy lawn. Eddie felt water leaking through his trainers and irritating his feet. Rain fell on his face, light and persistent, like an itch you couldn’t scratch. Any other night he would have been glad to get indoors out of this awful weather, but not tonight—not to the place they were going. He would rather have stood out in a thunderstorm. A gap in the wire fence gave the group access to the grounds of Clounagh Junior High School. There it stood, once a welcoming and familiar building, now as ominous and foreboding as Castle Dracula from a horror movie. 125

They hurried across the tarmac of the car-park and made their way through to the enclosed playground. Once there, the building seemed taller, more menacing. A hundred windows looked out at them from three sides, with only darkness behind the panes. Eyes could be gazing out from behind any one of those black squares. Stuart led the way, herding the group towards the foyer’s rear entrance—the door Eddie and his father had used on Tuesday night. “OK, Dean, do the honours.” Dean hesitated, then held the brick out to Stuart. “You do it. Can’t say I’ve had much practice.” “And you think I have?” Stuart snatched the brick and turned towards the building. The wall of the foyer was hardly a wall at all, more a framework of window-panes. Eddie felt a pang of guilt, which was perhaps a little pointless considering what he had been up to here on Tuesday night. The glass of the bottom pane on the door cracked with Stuart’s first blow and shattered inwards with his second. He held on to the brick, using it to break away several dangerous triangles of glass that were still clinging to the window-frame. Why didn’t I enter this way on Tuesday night, Eddie wondered, instead of hiding all evening in school? Stuart handed the brick back to Dean, almost punching him in the gut with it. “After you,” he suggested. Dean’s face filled with uncertainty and dread, but only for a moment. He turned towards the building, got down on his hands and knees, and crawled quickly through the hole, cursing as some glass crunched under him. “Hurry up, you lot,” he said in a quivering voice. “It’s not a lot of fun being alone in here.” Jade stepped forward. “Take my flashlight,” she said, holding it into the hole. Once Jade was through, the two remaining boys quickly passed the rest of their inventory into the foyer and scuttled inside. 126

36
There was no visible moon tonight, making the interior of the school much darker than it had been on Tuesday. The layout was familiar enough for them to find their way half blind, but that wasn’t the point. The darker it appeared, the more frightening it became. Usually fear of the dark was an irrational thing, where the mind imagined something awful lurking in the shadows, waiting to grab you. But not here in this place. Here the fear was justifiable and real, because there was something lurking. Still, there was comfort in company. Eddie led the way, taking care to walk where he would avoid the gaze of the security camera. The brief journey from the foyer to the elevator would have been more bearable if they switched Jade’s flashlight on, but there was a small risk of the beam of light being spotted from outdoors. It was a luxury, not a necessity. As long as they were putting one foot in front of the other, however slow and cautious they advanced, they would make the distance. Eddie began to ascend the staircase. “Where are you going?” Stuart whispered. “We need to open the lift at the ground floor. Remember the plan?” Eddie pointed along the ground floor corridor. “Bad idea. There’s a camera outside the caretaker’s store.” “Ah.” Stuart joined him on the stairs. Huddling close together, the four of them ascended the staircase, then crept along the main corridor, taking small, silent steps. The only sound was the pitter-patter of raindrops on the roof. A few minutes later they reached the railing where the second stairwell was located, and a few metres away was the inlet where the elevator awaited. The door was closed, as expected, but this didn’t stop Eddie’s pulse from quickening. After what happened to his 127

father, he knew the elevator could open at any moment and spell doom for all of them. Without wasting any time, he made his way down the stairs to the ground floor, where they could put their plan into operation. After setting down their inventory, Eddie and Stuart worked their fingers into the rim of the door and pulled with all the strength they could muster. Meanwhile, Dean stood nearby, ready with the broom handle. The door wouldn’t budge, and Eddie felt almost relieved. At least you can walk away knowing you did your best, he thought. But in his heart he knew the truth—it was relief born out of cowardice. Angry with himself, he gritted his teeth and pulled harder. The door slid back enough for Stuart to get an arm through. After that, he had all the leverage he needed to get the door fully open. The interior was pitch black, the carriage parked elsewhere. Dean quickly fitted the broom diagonally across the gap, preventing the door from sliding back, and allowing Eddie and Stuart to take a moment’s rest. Jade was busy fastening Eddie’s rope to the railing beside the stairs. She had already knotted both Eddie’s and Stuart’s ropes together in order to double the length. “Jade, give me your torch,” Stuart said. She handed it over. Stuart turned on the flashlight and pointed it down into the lift shaft. “Whoa,” he whispered. “This is really something.” Dean and Jade crowded in beside Stuart and gasped in unison. Hearing about this from Eddie was one thing, but seeing it for themselves was another. Eddie went over to the railing to inspect the rope. It was much thinner than the ropes in the gym, and climbing would be difficult. However, earlier in the evening both he and Stuart had spent time tying knots along the length, one every half metre, to aid their climbing. “You can’t see the bottom,” Jade said. 128

“Well, it can’t go on forever ... I guess,” Stuart said. “What if we haven’t brought enough rope?” Dean worried. “Then we climb back up, or die trying.” Stuart looked at Dean’s physique from top to bottom, grinning. “Think you’ve got it in you?” Before Dean could reply, Eddie broke in with a vital question. “Stuart, can you see the lift?” Stuart angled the flashlight through one hundred and eighty degrees and looked into the shaft above his head. “There she is. Right where we wanted her.” Eddie breathed a sigh of relief. Having the elevator carriage above them was vital to their success, and they had played on a thirty-three percent chance of it being there. If the carriage had been in any other position they would have ended up climbing down the rope and landing on its roof. And as far as Eddie could remember, there was no ceiling trapdoor in this particular model, as was common to elevators. Eddie tugged the rope hard, testing Jade’s knot. “Let’s get moving,” he suggested. Stuart helped him to carry the rope towards the mouth of the shaft and toss it inside. The length stretching from the railing to the lift went taut, as the rest of the coil fell into the darkness and disappeared. Eddie watched and waited, hoping to hear the thump of the rope—however little of it might be left—hitting the bottom. But there was no sound. It could either mean that the end of the rope was dangling over mid-air somewhere down there, or that the distance was too great for the rope to make any sound. It was better not to think about it. Eddie took a deep breath and let it out, shuddering. “I’ll go first,” he said. Dean turned and walked a few metres away, shaking his head. “Dean?” He spun around and suddenly announced, “I can’t do this.” Stuart grunted. “Coward.” 129

Ordinarily Dean would never have let Stuart’s remark go unchallenged, but for the first ever time, he had nothing to say. He merely leaned his back against the wall and allowed himself to slide to the floor, where he sat with his knees huddled to his chest in defeat. It was alarming for Eddie to watch. He walked over to Dean and got down on his haunches. “We can work something out— make a sling at the end of the rope and lower you down.” Dean refused to meet his best friend’s gaze, his own eyes glistening with tears. “Eddie, I said I can’t do it,” he repeated. “I’m sorry.” Eddie understood what he meant. It wasn’t that Dean was overweight and unlikely to be able to climb a rope; it was that he was scared out of his wits, and had been doing his best to hide it until now. Eddie was terrified too, but there was his father to think about. Dean, on the other hand, had nothing to lose—had no other reason to be here tonight except sheer curiosity. It was too much to expect a friend—even your best friend—to risk life and limb in a half-suicidal rescue mission. Eddie touched him on the shoulder. “Dean, look at me,” he said. Dean raised his eyes reluctantly. “You’ve nothing to feel ashamed about,” Eddie said. “I mean that.” Jade and Stuart watched in silence. Eddie turned to them. “If anyone’s to blame here, it’s me. I rushed you all into this.” “Aye, well, don’t think I’m about to walk away,” Stuart said. “You’re not getting all the credit for the find of the century.” “Shut up, Stuart,” Eddie said. “This isn’t some stupid game. Three kids disappeared thirty years ago and never came back, remember? You should think carefully about whether you want to do this, both of you. I’ll admit I don’t want to go down there alone, but it’s my dad who needs rescued, not yours.” Jade took a deep breath and exhaled. “I want to do it. I 130

want to know why they abducted me ... and I owe it to Charlotte.” She turned to Stuart. He shrugged and grinned. “Why break up a great team?” It really was just a game to Stuart. He seemed to have no sense of the danger they were facing. But still, three was better than two, even if Stuart did have a few marbles running around loose upstairs. So Eddie held his tongue. Dean got to his feet. “I’ll stay here and wait for you. I can do that at least. Here.” He handed Eddie the camera he was carrying. Eddie felt a flash of anger, which he did his best to hide. They were not here to obtain photographic evidence of the existence of extra-terrestrial life; all Eddie cared about was getting his father back alive. But, not wanting to argue, he took the camera without comment and slipped it into his pocket. Eddie walked over to the mouth of the lift shaft. This was one of those moments, like the first time he jumped off the top diving board at the swimming pool. You just had to stroll on out and not look down. Stop and think about it for ten seconds and you invariably ended up heading for ground level via the ladder. He had used that ladder on seven occasions before getting it right. This time he had one shot. Eddie got down on his belly, gripped the rope in both hands, then manoeuvered the lower half of his body over the mouth of the shaft. There was a moment of panic when his centre of gravity passed over the edge, but the adrenaline coursing through his veins kept his fingers firmly clamped around the rope. He shifted his legs, positioning the rope between his feet the way they showed you in PE class. And a moment later he was beginning his long descent into the darkness. The rope vibrated above Eddie. He looked up and saw the silhouette of Stuart’s legs dangling over the edge of the doorway. As long as their hands kept moving, inch by inch, and as long as their strength held out, and as long as the rope had enough length, they would make it. And as long as nobody calls 131

the lift down on top of our heads. Eddie worked his hands a little faster. Lower and lower they climbed; weaker and weaker they became. The sounds of their incessant groaning and gasping reverberated up and down the shaft. It wasn’t long before they were climbing blind, the darkness so complete that they couldn’t even see the rope they were clutching. Eddie chanced a look up and saw a little smudge of grey that was the mouth of the shaft, very far away. Don’t look down was the usual advice in this kind of situation. But here it didn’t matter, because there was nothing to see. And somehow that made it worse; you could never tell how far you had left to go—two metres or two hundred. Every few seconds Eddie’s body wanted to go rigid; he wanted to close his eyes (not that it made any difference), keep still, and pray for the nightmare to go away. But he knew that this reaction would be every bit as fatal as letting go of the rope—not just for himself, but for Jade and Stuart who would not be able to get past him. So onward he climbed, in constant anticipation of the last few centimetres of rope slipping between his ankles.

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There was light at the end of the tunnel after all. From Eddie’s precarious perspective it was a thin horizontal line of brightness below, which began to widen into the shape of a rectangular opening as he grew closer. The glow was a dull orange colour that pulsated slightly every few seconds in a very ominous fashion. Nevertheless, it filled Eddie with renewed hope; anything was better than pitch black. “Guys, I can see the end!” he shouted. “Keep your voice down,” Stuart whispered from above. Within the next minute Eddie’s feet touched the bottom of the lift shaft, where he almost tripped over bulky cable-pulling 132

machinery. A sprained ankle was the last thing he needed right now. However, there was no way of knowing if Dad would be in any condition to walk, let alone climb out of here, assuming they were able to rescue him. Still, there was no point in thinking about it. They were about to enter the unknown, and there was no way to form to plan of action any more detailed than get in, get Dad, get out. The tunnel in front of Eddie looked as if it had been made with nothing more advanced than a pickaxe. The walls were roughly cut stone, glowing ominously in the dim orange light which came from a round disc in the ceiling. It wasn’t exactly a light-bulb, and when Eddie looked closer, it appeared to swell in time with the pulsating glow. A thick wire that looked more like a snake protruded from the edge of the disc, twining along the ceiling towards the far end of the tunnel, where something even more hideous awaited. Stuart came down the last few metres, closely followed by Jade. He felt the ground and picked up the end of the rope. “Look at this. A couple of metres deeper and we’d have been ...” His voice trailed off as he looked at the far end of the tunnel. Meaty was the word Jade had used to describe the door, but that description didn’t do it justice. “It looks like some weird kind of mouth,” Eddie said. The door was made of two immense bloated lips, standing vertically, laced with thick dark veins. Eddie had been taking comfort in the belief that they weren’t dealing with supernatural demons, but now he realised how unimportant that distinction was, because this was something completely and utterly other. No X-Files episode had ever prepared him for this moment. Don’t think about it, Eddie reasoned. Just walk. He took Stuart’s hand in one of his—too scared to feel embarrassed—and Jade’s in the other. The three of them stepped up out of the shaft and into the tunnel. 133

“This is like being buried alive,” Stuart remarked as they advanced. Eddie shared Stuart’s claustrophobia. It was a combination of the stale, dusty air, the dim light, the close walls, and fifty metres of rock above their heads. They were all breathing hard, out of sheer exhaustion. Eddie knew he could never climb back up that rope, and it was doubtful whether he would even be able to run. All of a sudden this seemed like a fool’s errand, but there was nowhere to go except forward. A couple of metres from the door, the ground developed a soft, springy texture. Eddie looked down and realised he was standing with one foot on a crudely shaped cushion of fleshy material. There were other patches of it on the walls, where it appeared to grow right out of the rocks, with more and more of the stuff closer to the door. Little tentacles grew from the edges of the patches, forming a random network. Eddie’s flesh crawled. “I don’t like this one bit,” Stuart whispered. “I thought it was supposed to be a spaceship down here.” “Maybe it is,” Eddie said. “You must be joking. This place is alive. Look at it.” “Jade, you were inside. What do you think?” “I don’t know,” Jade said. “I only remember being tied to a table. The room was dark, but it was just a room. I don’t think we’re gonna be, like, eaten alive by this door, if that’s what’s bothering you.” “Mind you, it doesn’t exactly have a handle,” Stuart observed. “How do you suppose we get in?” “Try touching it?” Jade suggested. Both of them looked at Eddie. Eddie fixed his eyes on the long vertical slit in front of him and took a step forward. As though sensing his presence, the lips of the door sighed open and began to roll back like a scroll. 134

There was a figure standing on the other side, shrouded in shadow. Eddie felt his legs go limp. The element of surprise was the one thing they had been counting on, and they no longer had it.

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When the figure stepped through the opening, there was just enough light to make out the black jeans and sweatshirt— the very clothes Eddie’s father had been wearing on the night they robbed the school. “Dad!” Overcome with emotion, Eddie rushed forward, arms outstretched. Blake Morton held his son back by putting his hands on Eddie shoulders, then he laughed joyfully. “It’s good to see you, son.” “We came to rescue you,” Eddie explained. Morton looked over Eddie’s shoulder with a quizzical expression on his face. He walked past his son, then strolled by Stuart and Jade without acknowledging their presence. Tugging at the dangling rope, he peered up into the lift shaft. “You climbed all the way down here?” “Aye,” Eddie said. “That was stupid. You could’ve got yourself killed.” Eddie felt suddenly angry. “I didn’t know what happened to you. I even thought you might be dead.” “Well, there’s no need to worry now. Everything’s all right.” “Everything’s not all right. Why didn’t you come back? That awful man came to the house on Wednesday night and almost took Tara away, and you weren’t there. Why weren’t you there, Dad?” Morton licked his lips. “I should have realised how painful my going away would be for you, son. I’m so sorry, but you 135

have to believe me—there was never a single moment when Tara was in danger.” “How can you say that?” “Because our house is being watched.” Eddie’s breath caught in his throat. “If that loan shark had made one move to kidnap Tara, he would have found himself face-to-face with some very ugly monsters with very sharp teeth.” Eddie’s head spun. “Don’t be fooled by appearances. They’re our friends, Eddie,” Morton explained. “I’m helping them. And they’re returning the favour ... Tara was safe. Do you believe me?” Eddie closed his eyes for a moment and felt a huge burden lift from his heart. All along he had felt as if he were carrying the world on his shoulders—that saving his father and his sister depended on him. Now it appeared that regardless of what he did or didn’t do, everything would have been all right in the end. Dad was here, and Dad had the answers. “I believe you,” Eddie said. Morton beamed at him. “Dad, this is Stuart and Jade,” Eddie introduced. “Hi, Mr. Morton,” Jade said. Stuart simply nodded. “Pleased to meet the both of you,” Morton replied. “Can I ask you a question, Mr. Morton?” Jade enquired. “Sure.” “Do you know why they injected me?” “Yes, I do.” He grinned. “And you’re gonna be very glad they did, when I tell you the reason. But first let me ask—why do you think they did it?” Jade fidgetted. “I don’t know. There are these white dots around the needle mark. I was worried they had put some disease into me.” Morton looked amused. “Why would they do that?” “I don’t know. Because they’re evil. At least, that’s what I thought.” 136

“Tell me this—when you’re ill, and you have to get an injection from the doctor, what’s the injection supposed to do?” “Make you better.” “Precisely. And that’s all the Rigellians did to you.” “But there was nothing wrong with me.” Morton’s expression became serious. “Yes there was, Jade. It’s the same thing that’s wrong with the whole human race— our susceptibility to disease. What the Rigellians gave you was a precious gift, one they intend to give the whole human race very shortly. You’ll never catch another cold; you’ll never get, say, cancer; and when you’re old and wrinkly—by the time you’re a hundred and fifty or thereabouts—you won’t have to worry about arthritis pains.” Jade looked stunned. “I can’t believe it.” Morton walked away from her, back to the fleshy door which was still coiled open, and stepped inside. He turned to the three adventurers, grinning widely, and beckoned them with his hand. “Then let me give you the grand tour.” Full of nervous excitement, Eddie stepped through the opening, closely followed by Jade and Stuart. Morton began walking away from them, talking animatedly. “This is their ship. It’s been here since 1702—almost three hundred years. Same crew, you know. They live a long, long time.” Looking behind, the opening through which they came appeared to be a crudely cut hole in the hull of the craft, judging by the frayed edges of dull orange metal that jutted out— orange because the light in here was the same kind of light as outside. And thank heavens for the presence of something as familiar as metal, although the whole interior seemed to be constructed of some strange fusion of metal and flesh— smooth surfaces interwoven with worm-like tentacles. Eddie thought of a picture he had seen in a science textbook once—a laboratory rat with a human ear growing out of its back—some freakish experiment with cloning. His surroundings 137

looked very alien indeed, but maybe the human race was only a century or two behind. Maybe this was the direction we were going in. A shiver ran down his spine at the thought. The group followed Morton along a tube-like corridor. The floor was inclined at an odd angle that made walking slightly difficult—an observation which strongly supported the story of the hasty crash-landing. It was impossible to see very far ahead, because there was a constant curve to the right, as though they were walking along the inside of an immense bicycle tyre. Flying saucer-shaped, Eddie surmised, and big, judging by the subtlety of the bend. Mr. Lyons had referred to the craft as a scout ship, and that gave the impression of something small, but this was at least the size of the school’s four-hundredmetre racetrack. Eddie thought of all the times he had strolled through the school playground since knowing about the elevator’s secret, oblivious to the sheer scope of this vehicle parked underneath his feet. A faint thumping sound kept a slow, constant rhythm from somewhere to the right—the centre of the ship. Little circles of orange light along the ceiling pulsed marginally brighter with each “heartbeat.” “Not even the government knows about this,” Morton was saying. “It has to be that way. Once a single country gets hold of something special, they tend to keep it to themselves, or try to sell it as a commodity. That’s not what the Rigellians want. This gift is for the whole human race.” The air was as stale inside the ship as it was in the tunnel, if not more so. Eddie could see dust floating in the dim glow of the overhead lights. His throat and eyes were constantly irritated by the particles. For all their technology, the aliens appeared to have very little regard for healthy living conditions. But then, they weren’t from this planet; life could be very different on Rigel 5. Stuart, who was walking at the rear of the group, came 138

forward, leaned over Eddie’s shoulder, and breathed two words into his ear. “Pinch yourself.” Eddie tensed. This could mean only one thing, and he prayed that he was wrong. Reaching one arm across his body, he gripped the flesh of his other arm between his finger and thumb, then twisted hard. The sudden burst of pain made him wince. All hairs on his body stood on end as he watched the sweatshirt on his father’s back dissolve into shiny reptilian scales.

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Despite the intense panic that gripped him, Eddie somehow managed to keep himself from crying out. It was as though he had been swimming in calm waters one moment, then was pulled under by a dangerous current the next. His feet froze to the spot. Stuart deliberately bumped into him from behind, hard enough to get him moving again. And once in motion, a strong instinct for self-preservation did the rest. The beast in front of them faded into Blake Morton’s clothes and skin once again. It was talking, oblivious to the minor drama that had just taken place at its heels. Eddie’s heart was beating too fast for him to be able to pay attention to what the creature was saying. But the information didn’t matter; he could now trust the alien’s words about as much as he could trust the honesty of its human guise. Eddie turned and looked at Jade. She seemed calm, as if unaware of the plight they were in. It was too dangerous to warn her right now. Stuart’s expression was tranquil too, but his eyes were narrow and cunning. Eddie felt suddenly very glad that he could hear the clinking sounds of those bottles in Stuart’s bag. No doubt they were walking to their doom, like convicts on Death Row, but at least the journey gave them time to think. 139

They passed an open doorway to their right. The light was every bit as dim in the room beyond as it was out here. Eddie’s heart leapt as he caught sight of two Rigellians moving about the room, naked and without disguise. One of them glanced over at the humans, then looked away again without any sense of alarm or even curiosity. Of course, there was no reason for the creature to appear surprised; Eddie and company had been expected visitors—this little charade was evidence enough of that. But we’re not visitors, Eddie understood. We’re prisoners. And that thought begged another question: Why didn’t they just kill us at the entrance? The Blake Morton look-alike came to a halt at the next doorway, beckoning the three adventurers to look inside. Eddie tensed, getting ready to fight for his life. Jade stepped through the circular arch like an unwary mouse eager to nibble at the cheese on the trap. Eddie’s breath caught in his throat. “Take a look, guys,” the disguised alien said. “This is one of the labs.” Eddie looked inside without stepping forward. There were four Rigellians, each busy at a machine of some sort. The room contained items that were both familiar and strange. There were ordinary glass beakers and test-tubes full of liquid and something that looked similar to a Bunsen Burner from the school science lab. But then there were pieces of equipment that looked like computer circuit boards infested with writhing worms—more of this gruesome bio-mechanical technology. “This is where the magic happens,” the alien tour-guide said, “and we’ll all be able to benefit from it someday ... Let’s go.” Eddie was glad to be walking again. At the next doorway the alien didn’t stop, but walked inside. Eddie came to a cautious halt in the corridor, noting that there appeared to be no one else in the room but their guide. In the next few seconds the tables turned so fast that Eddie’s 140

brain barely registered it happening. Stuart shoved past him, swinging the bag off his shoulder, sliding his hand inside the flap, drawing out a Molotov cocktail, all in one smooth, graceful motion, like a gunslinger from the Wild West. Before the alien had time to turn and face its adversary, Stuart launched the bottle into the air like a baseball, sending it on a collision course with the back of the creature’s head. There was a crisp explosion of shattering glass and the immediate stench of petrol. The beast crumpled to the floor without so much as a yell, and lay very still, pretending to be Blake Morton even in unconsciousness. Eddie felt a sense of panic at seeing his dad lying there, even though he knew it wasn’t his dad. The disguise was so convincing that in a moment of weakness his eyes tried to make his brain believe what they were seeing. Jade yelled, “You hit Eddie’s dad! Stuart, why did you—?” Eddie clamped his hand over Jade’s mouth and glared at her. “It’s not my dad,” he whispered. Her eyes widened into big round moons. Eddie took his hand away. “Get in here, you two,” Stuart instructed, keeping his gaze firmly fixed on the body. Eddie glanced both ways along the corridor, noting that the coast was clear (but for how long it was impossible to know), then he and Jade stepped inside. The room was lit with the same dim orange lights as everywhere else. There was a single wall, forming a complete circle about ten metres in diameter. Embedded in the far side were nine large protrusions—shiny bullet-shaped structures standing seven feet tall. Apparently they were hollow, because on three of them, the silver shell was split vertically in two halves, drawn back like sliding doors. The interiors were vacant apart from several tentacles that weaved to and fro—blind limbs searching for something to grasp. Three open chambers, Eddie noted. And three of us. 141

“We need to hide,” Stuart said. “See if you can find a way to shut the door.” Jade gazed at the archway through which they had come. “Um, I don’t think it is a door.” “Well, see what you can do anyway!” Stuart snapped, full of anxiety. Jade looked scared. “I need to find something to tie this dude up,” Stuart thought aloud, eyes darting about the room. But it was an empty place, and they had no more rope. “Stuart, check this out,” Eddie suggested. Stuart walked over to Eddie, who was gazing at the tentacles inside one of the chambers. Eddie tentatively held his hand out. One of the weaving limbs brushed against it, and he drew back reflexively. Stuart put his hand forward, allowing one of the tentacles to begin wrapping itself around his index finger. He pulled away, unharmed. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” “Think it’ll work?” Eddie wondered. Behind them the creature emitted a guttural groaning sound. “Who knows,” Stuart answered. “Either way, we’re out of time.” He reached both hands into the chamber and tugged hard. There was a hissing sound and a puff of steam as two of the tentacles were torn loose at their roots. Without hesitation, Stuart went back to the alien, carrying what now looked like two dead snakes. With professional efficiency that was almost unbelievable to behold, he rolled the body over and began to wrap one of the tentacles around its wrists. “Come on!” he called. “Don’t just stand there!” Eddie grabbed the other tentacle. It felt like a cold uncooked sausage and was covered with tiny hairs in the same manner as human flesh. His other hand touched the creature’s ankle below the trousers. It looked like ordinary human skin, but was hard and smooth to the touch. The alien’s legs began to move slightly of their own accord. With mere seconds left before the beast came to, Eddie 142

wrapped the tentacle around its ankles and tied a firm tripleknot. Eddie, Stuart and Jade stood side by side, safely two feet away from the alien, as it opened Blake Morton’s eyes. It struggled wearily for a few moments. Then, as it grew more aware of its surroundings, it began thrashing violently. Eddie was terrified that the tentacles would tear. After all, it had been easy enough for Stuart to pull them loose. But thankfully the appendages appeared to be made of more durable stuff than their roots. Eventually the Rigellian seemed to realise this too, and became still. Eddie had seen plenty of nasty emotion on his father’s face over the years, but nothing compared to the expression of pure hatred he witnessed now. Then the creature switched tactics. Its eyes narrowed and its mask of hatred softened. “Eddie, what are you doing?” it pleaded. The imitation of Blake Morton’s voice was perfect. “I know you’re not my father,” Eddie said, trembling, “so you can cut that out for a start.” “Very well,” the alien replied. The flesh of its face immediately dissolved, just like a simple cross-fade from one scene to another in a movie. This was the first time Eddie had seen a Rigellian up close. Its scales were small and tightly packed, its nose somewhat flat with two small nostrils. In its mouth was a full set of long needle-like teeth and two extra-long incisors like a vampire. The worst thing was the eyes, which were small and completely black. Human eyes had so much expression, but these appeared almost soulless. The rest of its body was completely naked— a close match to the human body in shape if not texture—and also curiously sexless. Without warning, the alien let out an immense roar, like a lion. It was more to raise the alarm than to frighten the group, but it achieved both. Eddie and Jade drew back in fright, but Stuart had other plans. He took a cigarette lighter out of his pocket, knelt down 143

over the alien’s head, and held the flame a few centimetres in front of its nose. “Do you know what that stink is?” he prompted. The creature closed its mouth and started blinking profusely. “Well, I’ll tell you. It’s petrol, and there’s about a pint of it all over your head. Now, let me explain something to you. If a whole bunch of your friends come running through that door in the next few seconds, I’ve no doubt it’s game over for us. But you can bet I’ll light you up like a Roman Candle first. So you’d better pray nobody heard you.” Eddie and Jade stood with their mouths open in awe. Stuart and the alien gazed at each other over the flame. Eddie thought he saw fear in the beast’s eyes, but he couldn’t be sure. Stuart gave it a few more seconds, then extinguished the lighter and stepped away. “You won’t get out of here alive,” the Rigellian said, in a harsh, rasping voice. Eddie noticed that it spoke with a perfect Northern Irish accent, even with its natural, undisguised tongue. Three hundred years on Earth would do that to any alien, he supposed. “We’ll see,” Stuart replied, grinning. “I mean, you didn’t expect to be lying there all tied up now, did you?” This all seemed to be a great big adventure to Stuart, Eddie observed. It was as if he were getting high on the experience. Still, it was better this way. Left to Eddie and Jade, they would probably be dead by now. Eddie stepped forward. “Where’s my dad?” he asked the alien. No answer. He decided he didn’t need one. Walking over to the chambers on the wall, Eddie suspected he was about to find out. Beside each capsule was a small, semi-electronic, semiorganic panel. It contained a triangular-shaped pad split up into four smaller triangular buttons, and above it a round bulblike protrusion about the size of a golf ball. 144

Eddie tried pressing one of the buttons. Nothing happened. He tried another. Again, no response. On the third try there was a hissing sound. Gas escaped from a line which was forming down the centre of the capsule, and the two halves began revolving back into the wall. Inside there was nothing but more of those groping tentacles. Eddie went to the next chamber and tried the same thing. Again it was empty. But there was something different about the third capsule. The little ball-like protrusion on the panel glowed a dull red colour. With some trepidation, Eddie touched the keypad. The chamber split in half, revealing the stuff of nightmares.

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At first all he saw was something he recognised from The Blob—an old horror movie about a huge mass of wobbly jelly whose only purpose was to devour people. And there was indeed somebody inside this real-life version of the monster; you could just make out the human shape through the translucent surface of the stuff. It appeared to be a girl, judging by the long hair and the skirt. On closer inspection, Eddie almost cried out in horror. The girl’s face was what you might expect someone to look like if they could somehow live until they were three hundred years old. Every millimetre of her skin was creased in wrinkles, and the flesh clung to the bones so that you could see the harsh outline of the skull on every curve. All used up was the phrase that came to Eddie’s mind to describe the girl’s condition. Tentacles were visible, looking not quite so harmless any more; several of them appeared to be supporting the girl’s limbs while another was coiled around her neck, with the end disappearing into her mouth. The only mercy was that her eyes were closed and she seemed blissfully unaware of her plight—assuming she was alive at all. 145

Jade and Stuart stood on either side of Eddie. “Look at her clothes,” Stuart said. The girl was wearing a shirt, tie, blazer and skirt—a school uniform no less. The badge on the blazer was the familiar crest of Clounagh Junior High School, but there were subtle differences to the norm in other areas. The skirt was black instead of blue, the tie had an unfamiliar pattern, and very few girls these days wore their socks pulled right up to the knees. Eddie had looked at old photographs on the school’s website, and this girl had a distinctly 1970s look. “It must be Kirsty Metcalfe,” Jade said, covering her mouth, “the girl who disappeared.” Eddie looked sideways. There were another three chambers to check. One for Martin Hanna, one for Raymond Blair ... and one for Blake Morton. “Let’s get this over with,” Eddie said. It was as they expected. Two more shrivelled up schoolchildren—male—each encased in jelly with a tentacle rammed down his throat. The light on the panel of the final chamber glowed a healthy bright red, which gave Eddie hope. He punched the button and waited for the capsule to open. Blake Morton was there, asleep inside his own cosy cocoon of jelly. Eddie’s heart raced and he felt strangely relieved at the same time. He half expected his father to bear the same withered appearance as the other prisoners, but for whatever reason, Blake Morton was still as fresh as a forty-year-old. At long last Eddie had found him, but things weren’t looking very positive. Eddie turned around and looked hatefully at the Rigellian on the floor. A great many questions sprung to mind, but he stuck to the most important. “How do I get him out?” The alien declined to answer. “That’s my dad,” Eddie explained. “And I want him back.” Stuart added some weight to Eddie’s demand by kicking the Rigellian in the stomach. 146

It bared its teeth and tried to curl up into a foetal position, obviously hurt. “Answer the question,” Stuart said. “If you want to remove the human,” the alien replied, “remove him.” “How?” Eddie asked. “However you wish.” “Will he die?” “He may.” “Tell me how to do it so that he won’t die.” “I can’t.” “Why?” The Rigellian laughed. “You’re hoping for some kind of removal procedure ... There isn’t one.” “So, you were just going to keep my dad in there forever, is that it?” “Until he was expended.” Expended, Eddie thought. All used up. “What do you mean, expended?” Stuart wanted to know. “What are you sucking out of these people?” “Energy.” “For what?” “For the ship.” “You’re lying. You expect me to believe you can fly a spaceship halfway across the galaxy on people-power?” The creature declined to reply. “Well? Answer me. Or would you rather I made a barbecue out of your head?” “The ship will never fly again,” the alien explained. “That’s not what the containers are for. They’re a rudimentary power source.” “What do you mean?” Jade apparently understood. “They’re using people to power the lights and stuff,” she said, gazing at the orange glow on the ceiling, “that’s what he’s saying.” Stuart took a long look at the capsules, then glared fiercely 147

at the alien. “Let me get this straight,” he said. “You kidnap Eddie’s dad, and the only reason is so you can run a few extra light-bulbs?” No comment. “You mean to tell me,” Stuart continued, growing angrier, “that you could have trailed a big extension cord down here from the school, and it would have done the same job?” “NIE isn’t reliable enough,” the alien answered. “NIE? What’s that?” “Northern Ireland Electricity.” “Why the heck not?! It’s good enough for us.” “We couldn’t risk the power supply being interrupted by weather conditions and equipment failure. It happens, as you know.” “So rig up a backup generator, like they have in hospitals.” The alien shrugged. “You humans are just as reliable.” It filled Eddie with horror that these beings could have so little regard for human life as to use it in this manner. But of course, these weren’t human beings. Eddie was impatient to get his father out. “Well, we’re going to interrupt your power supply,” he said, walking away from the group, towards his dad. “I must advise against it,” the alien warned. “Advise all you like,” Stuart said, and went to join Eddie, along with Jade. Before he lost his nerve, Eddie reached out and put his fingers on the surface of the jelly. It was warm to the touch and smooth like soap. He made a fist and pressed it into the mass. Eddie’s internal panic-meter rose a fraction, as the jelly accepted his hand and closed around his wrist. He was worried about one of those tentacles unwrapping itself from around his father and offering him a dubious handshake. He kept pushing. By the time half of his forearm had disappeared into the stuff, Eddie was able to snag his fingers under Morton’s belt. He needed to put his arm into reverse 148

gear now, but it was impossible to get any leverage without pressing his whole body into the jelly. Worse still, he had the sensation that his arm was still being sucked into the mass, millimetre by millimetre, as if it had a mind of its own. “I think I can get him out,” Eddie said. “Grab hold of me and pull.” Stuart took hold of Eddie’s outstretched arm, while Jade grabbed him around the waist. They pulled, but Morton wouldn’t budge. “Come on,” Eddie urged. “We’re not leaving my dad here. I don’t care if you have to pull my arm out of its socket, we’re gonna do this.” “You bet,” Stuart concurred. “Step aside, Jade.” He stood facing Eddie in the small space between his friend and the jelly, then he bent his knees and pounced forward, as if performing a rugby tackle. Winded, Eddie sensed his body sailing backwards, while he kept his fingers coiled around his dad’s belt. Eddie hit the floor with the weight of Stuart on top of him. A split second later an even heavier weight landed on Stuart’s back. Eddie found himself staring up into his father’s face, which was a few centimetres above his own. Morton’s eyes were closed. Chunks of jelly clung to his face and hair, and a tentacle protruded from his open mouth like a monstrous tongue. Eddie yelled in fright and rolled to the side, sending Stuart and Morton to the floor. Both boys sprung to their feet. Morton was now sprawled on his back. In addition to the tentacle in his mouth, others hung from his outstretched arms and legs. They were now limp and harmless, torn from their roots. Eddie, Stuart and Jade gazed at Morton in shock. The man didn’t stir. Eddie mentally slapped himself. “We have to get that thing 149

out of him.” He got down on his knees and gripped the tentacle that protruded from Morton’s mouth. “Be careful,” Jade warned. Eddie began to pull gently. There was little resistance. The tentacle was about two centimetres thick in his fist, and as he drew it out, it tapered gradually to a point. A length of half a metre came from Morton’s throat. Eddie tossed the gruesome appendage across the room, never taking his eyes off his dad. Morton remained dead to the world. “Is he alive?” Stuart wondered. “I don’t know,” Eddie replied. “Well, find out.” Panic clouded Eddie’s thoughts. “I don’t know what to do.” Jade knelt beside Morton’s head, bent down, and put her ear over his mouth. “Is he breathing?” Eddie wanted to know. “Please tell me he’s breathing.” “Shut up,” Jade said. She raised her head, then placed two fingers on Morton’s neck, next to his Adam’s apple. Jade’s eyes widened. She sat up straight and cupped two quivering hands over her mouth. No words needed to be said; it was obvious what condition Morton was in. No breathing and no pulse meant you were dead. But assuming TV shows like ER contained at least a shred of realism, Eddie knew you always had a couple of minutes to try and bring somebody back—literally back from the dead. And Jade apparently had at least some of the knowhow. A tear escaped Eddie’s eye. “Jade, don’t let him die,” he urged. “Bring him back. You can do it.” She stared at Morton over her hands. Stuart knelt down in front of her and grabbed her hands away from her face. “Look, you obviously know more about this than us, so do something. Do anything.” 150

Jade began flapping her hands in panic. “They taught us this at Girls’ Brigade,” she said. “I’m not sure I remember, but I ...” Without finishing the sentence, she put her head down over Morton’s again. This time she used the fingers of one hand to pinch his nostrils shut, and the fingers of the other to tilt his head upwards by the chin. Then she cupped her mouth over his and exhaled into him. Eddie felt a ray of hope as he watched his father’s chest expand, the lungs filling up with Jade’s oxygen. She gave a second breath, then shifted her position so that she was leaning over Morton’s torso. Placing her hands on the centre of his chest, she straightened her elbows, then pushed down rapidly fifteen times, counting each one aloud with gasps. Without wasting a moment, she went back to the mouthto-mouth routine. Then the chest compressions again. Doubt began creeping into Eddie’s heart. He had heard of people having to do this procedure for up to half an hour, maybe longer, until an ambulance arrived. Well, there would be no ambulance coming down here, that was for sure. While Jade was busy working on Morton’s chest for the fourth time, beads of sweat standing out on her forehead, Morton suddenly let out a cough. Liquid spurted out of his mouth in a wide spray. Startled, Jade stood up. Tears of relief erupted from Eddie’s eyes. He grabbed his dad around the shoulders and hugged him fiercely. He could hear Morton’s breathing, rapid and shallow. When he let go and looked Dad in the face, the older man’s eyes were open, but they didn’t meet Eddie’s gaze. They were sleepy and unfocused—a look Eddie remembered all too well from Morton’s days as a drug addict. “You did it!” Stuart cheered, lifting Jade off the ground by the waist and swinging her around. When she came back to earth, she was in no mood for celebration, however. She put a hand over her mouth and wept, overcome with emotion. 151

“Is he all right, Eddie?” Stuart asked. “I don’t know,” Eddie replied, waving his fingers in front of Morton’s eyes. But Dad’s gaze was a million miles away.

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“Oi!” Stuart exclaimed. “Where do you think you’re going?” The bound Rigellian had managed to crawl soundlessly three quarters of the way to the exit while Eddie and company were preoccupied with Blake Morton. Stuart grabbed the creature by its ankles and began to trail it back across the room, inch by inch. “Come on, people,” he urged. “This beast weighs a ton.” Eddie and Stuart took a leg each, while Jade knelt down beside Morton to keep watch on his condition. A few seconds later the boys deposited the alien back in its original spot. “Naughty, naughty,” Stuart said, delivering a swift kick to the beast’s abdomen for good measure. Again the Rigellian tried to curl up into a foetal position, groaning in pain. Regardless of their terrifying appearance, the aliens were almost as squishy as regular human beings when you got right down to it. “Hey,” Eddie announced to his friends. “Do you feel that?” Stuart stood still and quiet. “Aye,” he whispered. The floor seemed to be trembling slightly. Eddie could feel it in his feet, a tickling sensation that got right between the toes. “The lights too,” Jade said. “I could swear it’s darker than before.” “I dunno,” Stuart said. “You think so?” Eddie shrugged. “Maybe. Hard to tell. Listen ... that weird heartbeat sound—it’s faster, isn’t it?” “We’ve done something, pulling your dad out of there.” Stuart looked down at the Rigellian. “Hey, what did we do?” 152

The alien let out a guttural chuckling sound. “They’ll feel it all over the ship, and they’ll know to come here. Then you’ll all die.” Panic gripped Eddie. “What are we gonna do?” Stuart grabbed his sports bag, raced over to the doorway, and peered out cautiously, looking both ways. “All clear so far. We have to get out of here.” “What about the others?” Jade asked, pointing at the three remaining jelly-coated bodies. “They’re still alive. They must be. We can’t just leave them here.” Stuart’s face was cold and serious. “Yes, I believe they’re alive. But I’ve a feeling they won’t survive once we take them out of that goo. Look at how much trouble we had with Eddie’s dad.” “I can’t believe you’re saying this,” Jade reacted. “We have to at least try.” “Jade, look at them. Even if we could get them out, what kind of a life do you think they’d have? Besides, we don’t have the time.” Jade got up, turned her back on Stuart, and approached one of the capsules. The Rigellian spoke up. “He’s telling you the truth. These three are almost expended. That’s why we used the boy’s father, and why we were planning to use you three. Take your friend’s advice and leave while you’ve still got the chance.” Stuart’s eyes narrowed. “Very helpful all of a sudden, aren’t you? Why is that, I wonder?” The alien declined to answer. “What did you mean when you said, I must advise against it? What’ll happen if we take them out of there?” Again, no answer. “Eddie, some help over here, please,” Jade requested. When Eddie looked in her direction he was surprised to see that she already had one of her arms immersed in the jellied mass, right up to the elbow. Eddie went over and began tugging Jade’s arm. 153

“Stop,” the Rigellian instructed. “This won’t help.” “So tell us what will,” Stuart invited. What was left of Kirsty Metcalfe slid free from her prison much easier than Morton had done—perhaps something to do with the amount of time she had been encapsulated. Her wrinkled, skeletal body slapped into Eddie, who recoiled instinctively, pushing Jade backwards with him. Kirsty fell in a heap, and it seemed as if the ground itself recoiled from her; the shuddering of the floor stepped up a notch, so that you could not only feel it but see it all around you, like a slightly blurred photograph. Jade reached down and took hold of Kirsty by the arm. “Eddie, help me lay her flat.” The room hummed like a swarm of bees, and Eddie could feel it all over his body now, not just in his feet. It was like an itch you couldn’t scratch. Reluctantly, he took hold of Kirsty’s sleeve and began to drag her, careful to avoid touching the withered skin of her hand. It was hard to think of this girl—or woman, when you considered that she’d been here since 1972—as a real human being at all. Jade’s really going to give mouth-to-mouth to this—this ... Eddie suddenly lost his balance and fell on his back. There he lay, still clutching Kirsty’s arm in his fist. Kirsty herself was a metre from him. The blazer’s sleeve, and the arm within it, had unexpectedly torn off at the shoulder. Dark blood gushed out of the open wound. Jade screamed, dropping the rest of Kirsty Metcalfe. Shocked and repulsed, Eddie threw the severed arm away from himself. “I hate to break up your party—” Stuart announced. He was standing by the doorway, holding his cigarette lighter in one hand and a Molotov cocktail in the other. The rag in the neck of the bottle caught fire. “—but we’ve got company.”

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By the time it took Eddie to recover from the shock of the accidental amputation, Stuart had already tossed one petrol bomb down the corridor to his right and another to his left. He stood in the doorway, bathed in the bright orange glow of the fires. Eddie peered out and almost screamed with terror. It was like looking into hell itself. Ten metres down the corridor was a wall of fire created by the spread of petrol. And behind it was a gathering of six Rigellians—only now they looked more like demons than they had ever done. Their faces were illuminated with a fierce glow, constantly flickering in the firelight; their clawed hands were upraised in an attempt to shield their eyes; their fangs were bared in a grimace of pain—or perhaps rage. Jade gasped as she joined Eddie. At the other end of the corridor Stuart had created a similar spectacle. Eddie felt a sinking sensation as the consequences dawned on him. “There’s no way out of here,” he realised. “You’ve sealed us in.” “I know,” Stuart replied. “Well, what did you do that for?!” Stuart’s eyes blazed. “What did you expect? Did you want me to let them walk on in here and grab us?” “Of course not! But how are we going to get out?” “Maybe you could have made me a white flag,” Stuart mocked, “and I could have stood here waving it for you.” Eddie looked away momentarily. “All right. How many more of those have you got?” Stuart opened the bag, revealing two remaining bottles. “I don’t think the fire is spreading,” Jade announced. “Look.” To Eddie it seemed not only as if the fire wasn’t spreading, but that it was dying fast. 155

“This is not good,” Stuart said, commencing to light another petrol bomb. “Look at them,” Jade said. “Why don’t they just jump through the fire? We could do it, I’m sure we could.” “Who knows,” Eddie said. “Let’s just be glad they’re staying put for now.” Stuart tossed the cocktail and it exploded close to the original fire, giving the prisoners a little extra time to think, if nothing else. He did the same to the other side of the corridor, then tossed the empty bag aside. “What now?” Eddie wondered. Stuart walked back into the room and began pacing to and fro, taking stock of all the items: the capsules, the jelly, the tentacles, the bodies, the alien, and Blake Morton. Eddie and Jade followed, watching Stuart with hopeful interest. “What are you thinking?” Jade asked. Eddie glanced down the corridor. “Whatever it is you’re working out, don’t take too long.” “Shh!” Stuart whispered. His head was lowered and he gripped his chin with one hand, deep in concentration. Outside the room, the flames continued to perish. Finally Stuart looked up at his companions with a face that was devoid of emotion. “We’re gonna die down here,” he announced. Eddie hadn’t realised until this moment just how much he had been depending on Stuart and how much faith he had in him. To hear him speak like this was shocking and terrifying. “No,” Eddie said weakly. “There has to be something—” “There is.” Stuart looked at the two remaining bodies wrapped in jelly. “We can bring the roof down on this place.” As if confirming that such a thing was possible, the alien on the floor let out a growl of frustration and struggled against its bonds. Stuart grinned menacingly at the Rigellian. Eddie felt a whole new kind of terror flooding his soul. 156

Tears spilled down his cheeks. Oddly, his state of mind still left room for him to feel a moment of pointless embarrassment about turning into a crybaby in front of the girl of his dreams. Then he saw that she was crying too. “You know as well as I do what they’ll do to us, if we let them,” Stuart said. “They’ll put us in those capsules and drink us dry, just like the others.” Eddie managed a nod of agreement, his whole body quivering. Stuart continued, “We never really found out for sure what the aliens are doing here, but whatever it is, we know it’s not good. And right now we have a chance to stop them, once and for all, so that nobody else will ever be brought down here and turned into that.” Stuart pointed at Kirsty Metcalfe, lying dead on the floor like an unwrapped Egyptian mummy. Eddie and Jade turned and faced each other. Eddie watched in amazement as Jade’s tormented expression gradually softened and became calm. It was like watching a beautiful flower open. In that moment Eddie did something that he would never have dared to do in ordinary circumstances (when you were about to die, things suddenly took on a whole new perspective)—he reached out and touched her cheek, wiping the tears away with his thumb. And she smiled. Even in the face of death, she smiled. Eddie closed his eyes and consciously let go of the last shreds of his faint hope of survival. When he opened them again, Jade was staring at him with awe, and he realised she was probably watching the same transformation on his face that he had witnessed on hers. They turned to Stuart. Eddie was more afraid than he had ever been in his life. Nevertheless, he said, “So be it.” “So be it,” Jade echoed. “So be it,” Stuart finished, as though sealing a pact. The three of them walked across the room to the capsules. 157

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Whether this was Martin Hanna or Raymond Blair they were tugging out of the jelly, no one knew, but it would all be over in a few minutes just the same. The trembling of the floor increased another fraction, becoming even more unbearable, while the incessant thumping noise of the craft picked up speed. It’s like the ship’s a living thing, Eddie thought, and we’re giving it a heart attack. Must be doing a hundred and twenty beats a minute. The Rigellian on the floor had been yelling at them for the last couple of minutes, but they weren’t listening. Something about a proper shut-down procedure for the ship. They placed the body, which was still alive by some crude definition of the word, carefully on the floor. Then the trio moved on to the next, and final, capsule. Eddie gazed at the poor guy within. He thought about the thirty years that were wasted here in a state of unconsciousness. He thought about the parents whose lives must have been ruined by the disappearance of their son. How cruel it must have been for them to go through all those years not knowing what had become of him, always hoping that one day he would turn up on the doorstep—hope gradually turning into despair as the years passed. “Well, this is it,” Stuart said. The three of them intuitively formed a circle, each holding the hand of the other. “I never thought it would turn out this way,” Jade said. “Me neither,” Stuart agreed. “We find three missing kids, and then we become three missing kids, eh?” “Please don’t talk like that,” Jade said. “I can’t bear to think about what this will do to my family.” “Well, I think my mum’ll be glad to see the back of me.” “You don’t mean that.” “Sure I do. Hey, Eddie, you’re—” 158

“Ow! Eddie, that hurts!” Eddie was squeezing the hands of his two friends very tightly in his own, and if it hadn’t been for the orange light down here, they would have seen that he had gone a very pale shade of white. Jade’s words echoed in his mind. I can’t bear to think about what this will do to my family. Stuart and Jade wrenched free of Eddie’s grip. “What’s wrong with you?” Stuart complained. Eddie turned to him, looking even more scared than he had been when faced with the inevitability of their deaths. “Tara,” he said. “I know, she’ll miss you, but—” “You don’t understand. The guy who wanted all that money from Dad ...” Eddie imagined Tara in the house tomorrow, not overly anxious about her father’s disappearing act (because Dad was Dad), but now quite concerned about why her brother hadn’t come home the night before. Darkness arrives, and soon there’s a knock at the door. She rushes to answer it, hoping that it will be Eddie. Instead, it’s that dreaded man in the leather jacket. He invites himself in, asks for Blake and Eddie. And when she says she doesn’t know where they are, he looks at her with a charming grin and cold, hungry eyes. “Oh Eddie,” Jade said fretfully. Eddie couldn’t bear to think about it. “Don’t you see? We can’t die! We just can’t! I couldn’t live with myself if ...” Eddie suddenly let out a nervous laugh. Jade looked at him, worried. “Well, I won’t have to live with myself, will I?” Eddie paced the room, feeling close to panic. He had looked death squarely in the eye and stood proud, but now it seemed that there was such as thing as a fate worse than death. He had come down here with his friends, full of bravery, not daring to believe that they could to fail, because if he had allowed for that possibility, he knew he would never have had the guts to go through with it. And so, he had made no preparation for Tara’s safety 159

tomorrow night. But fail they had done. And it was his innocent kid sister who would ultimately pay the price. Eddie felt enraged. There was only so much cruelty life could throw at you. First the killing of his mother; now the imminent death of his father and himself (not forgetting his three friends); and the murder of his sister, scheduled for tomorrow night. One whole family wiped off the face of the earth, Eddie thought. What a nice tidy package. Blake Morton was still sitting quietly in the middle of the room, looking stoned. Eddie could have blamed his dad for all this—after all, it was Morton’s drug abuse that initially got them all into this mess—but he didn’t. Despite the drugs and the frequent hot temper, Eddie only had one dad, and he loved him despite these faults. The Rigellian had grown quiet and was watching Eddie intently. “What are you looking at?” Eddie asked through gritted teeth. It didn’t answer, only continued observing with its beady black eyes. Eddie strode over and stomped on the creature repeatedly—in the gut, in the face, anywhere his shoe happened to land. It was all the aliens’ fault really. If it wasn’t for their interference, Eddie and his dad would have sold the school’s computers, paid the loan shark, and got on with their lives. Eddie let his rage take over, not caring whether the groaning, thrashing thing under his foot lived or died. Only moments ago Eddie, Stuart and Jade had made the most unexpected and courageous decision of their young lives. But for one of them, courage just wasn’t enough. Stuart and Jade made no effort to join Eddie or to stop him. This was Eddie’s pain, and they could only stand and watch. And when a hand finally did grip Eddie’s shoulder to pull him away, it was not a hand at all but a claw.

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Eddie, Stuart and Jade were hemmed in against the wall, surrounded by eight Rigellians. Morton sat meekly on the floor by the feet of his would-be rescuers. Across the room, the alien that had been held captive was now being untied. As soon as it was free, it approached Eddie, cutting a path through its comrades in order to get close. Its first action was to punch the boy in the gut. Pain exploded in Eddie’s stomach, causing him to double over, moaning. The beast gripped Eddie by the hair and yanked his head up. It moved its face to within centimetres of Eddie’s, bared its immense teeth, and snarled. Any fear that Eddie felt at that moment was suffocated under an intense weight of frustration and guilt and anger. His only reaction was to send a huge gob of spit towards the alien’s stubby nose. The creature’s eyes widened in surprise. It touched the saliva with a finger, as if unable to comprehend how this bravado could be real. Then its eyes narrowed, and it drew back its fist once again. Another Rigellian restrained the beast’s arm and spoke in tones that sounded very much like a warning. This was the first time Eddie and his friends had heard the Rigellians’ native language. It sounded crudely Cantonese, mixed with other weird sounds that seemed impossible to form with a human tongue. Whatever was said, it had a calming effect on the angry creature. It gave one last hateful glance at Eddie, then stepped back a pace. The Rigellian who had spoken now gave its attention to the little group of humans. “We should have searched the building on Tuesday night,” it said. “Instead, we assumed the thief to be alone. That was a great folly on our part. And all 161

this”—the alien gestured to the two shrivelled corpses on the floor—“could have been avoided.” There has to be a way out of here, Eddie reasoned. Think! “I’m impressed that you dared to come down here at all. We’ve grown to expect cowardice from your kind over the centuries. Not to mention ... thievery.” The Rigellian glared at Eddie. Jade spoke up, stammering with fear. “Y-You don’t kn-know why Eddie stole the computers from the school. You don’t know anything about him.” “It’s not important. What is important is that we were careless. Not only did we fail to notice this human on Tuesday, but we were unprepared for your arrival down here tonight, and consequently our plans could have been ruined. That can never be allowed to happen again.” “What are you going to do?” Jade wanted to know. The question needed no answer. The alien simply glanced at the empty capsules at the other side of the room. In a movie, this was the sort of moment where the missing member of the team showed up—in this case, Dean—with a plan to save his friends and redeem himself from his earlier cowardice. But this was no movie. And in all honesty Dean was no coward; he was the only one of them who had any sense. Still, Eddie wished his best friend was here right now. Dean was The Fastest Tongue in the West, and he could talk his way out of any situation, even imprisonment in an alien spacecraft. If he were here, he’d say something like, We’ve got friends who know we’re down here. If you let us go now, there won’t be any trouble. But if you don’t, there’ll be hell to pay. That’s it! Eddie realised. Say it, just say it! “The adult first,” the Rigellian instructed its comrades. Two of the creatures stepped forward and leaned over Blake Morton, gripping him under the arms and raising him to his feet. Stuart made an effort to push one of the aliens, and found himself being rudely slammed against the wall by another. 162

Eddie felt panic clawing at him, and he stammered over his words. “If you l-let us go, it’ll be all r-right. But if you don’t, our friends will come—the ones we told about this place. They know we’re down here, and if we don’t come back—” “Well then,” the alien interrupted, “it’s a good thing none of us will have to stay down here very much longer, isn’t it?” “What do you mean?” Eddie wanted to know. The Rigellian let out a guttural sound very much like a chuckle. “Tell us,” Stuart groaned, recovering from the blow. “Come on. Tell us why you’re even here in the first place.” The alien gazed at Stuart, but kept silent. “You’re going to wire us up to your ship anyhow,” Stuart continued, “so why not just tell us. Let’s make it like one of those James Bond movies, where he’s held prisoner, and the bad guy can’t resist telling him all about his master-plan to take over the world.” The alien laughed. “Just before Mr. Bond escapes to save the day, yes?” “I’m not James Bond,” Stuart pointed out. Eddie and Jade looked at each other incredulously. Aliens watching terrestrial TV? It was a crazy concept, but then the Rigellians were quite adept at posing as human beings. It stood to reason that they led partially human lives on the occasions that they emerged from this hell-hole. “You seem surprised,” the Rigellian observed. “Do you think we would spend three hundred years on this planet without sampling your culture? Yes, I’ve watched your films and television programmes; I’ve read your books. The thing that amuses me most is the manner in which you often portray the great invasion from outer space. You insist on us arriving in immense war vessels, armed with an arsenal of sophisticated weaponry, ready to tear your planet to shreds; you use your own primitive experiences of war to portray how you think the wars of an advanced race are fought. Consider H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds—a book which you hail as a classic of 163

literature, and yet a book which is most guilty of this very fault.” Eddie had read this novel some years ago, and recalled giant tripod machines, taller than houses, stomping along the countryside, destroying everything in sight. “Did it not occur to Mr. Wells that his Martians might have something more useful than a heat-ray with which to wipe out the human race? And yet it is this book above any others that perhaps comes closer to the truth of the matter, though I doubt Mr. Wells realised it at the time ... Tell me, how did the human race win the day? Do you think it was with tanks and planes and missiles, or even with atomic bombs?” “No,” Eddie answered. “The aliens just died. We didn’t beat them at all; they just died.” “And why did they die?” A sense of dread crept over Eddie as he spoke his next words. “They caught our germs, and they didn’t have any natural resistance to them.” “And it seemingly did not occur to Mr. Wells that a species far in advance of the human race would know something of diseases and their effects and their cures and their ... uses.” So here was the truth at last. And it was nothing more remarkable than plain simple alien invasion—to wipe out the human race and make a new home. “What have you done to me?” Jade said, horrified. “What?” The alien seemed puzzled. “The injection. I know all about it. My friends hypnotised me, and I know you injected me and then hid my memories. What have you done to me?” “We saved you,” the alien declared. “Stop lying!” Jade exploded. “I don’t believe all that rubbish about curing me. That was just a story you made up to keep me happy.” “Call it a half-truth then; those are the most convincing kind of lies. But save you we did. You see, the extinction of the human race is not what we have in mind. There are simply 164

too many of you, that’s all. When we release our toxin into the atmosphere, the majority of you will perish. All except those few we’ve selected. And you are one of them.” “Why me?” Jade asked. The alien shrugged. “Convenience. You and your friend stepped into the elevator, just like all the others. And now you will live because of it ... At least, you would have done, if you hadn’t interfered.” Just like all the others, Eddie reflected. He had used the school’s elevator on a rare occasion himself, and it was likely that he had his very own version of Jade’s ordeal tucked away in some hidden pocket of his memory. It was horrifying to imagine that he had gone about his life afterwards, never knowing—he and all the others. “You expect me to be grateful?” Jade wondered. “Of course not. We’re planning to end the lives of most of the people you know and love. We understand the emotions associated with such things.” “But you don’t care, do you?” The alien sighed. “There is so little you know. The story you heard from the principal of your school, much of it is true. How we crash-landed, how the people of that time believed we were demons and sought to kill us. Tell me, how much respect would you have for the human race if you were in our place?” “But we’ve changed,” Eddie said. “No one believes stuff like that any more.” “Eddie’s right,” Jade added. “Surely you could make a home here among us. It’s not too late.” “You haven’t changed,” the alien countered. “The reasons are different but the reactions are the same. Your governments would hide us away from the world.” “But why would they do that?” “To steal our technology; to learn from us, and at the same time prevent other nations from learning. Surely you know this is true?” 165

No one spoke. “There’s no place for us here. You have made it so.” “So you’re just going to kill us all because you’re mad at us, is that it?” Stuart suggested. “You don’t know why we came here in the first place,” the alien continued. “Our home planet, the one you call Rigel 5, was about to perish; an immense asteroid, fifteen miles in diameter was on a collision course.” “Pull the other one!” Stuart said. “We’ve all seen that movie.” “Then you ought to know that occasionally your fictions are based on fact. An asteroid crashed on your planet once, a long, long time ago—and it will happen again, make no mistake. Every planet suffers such collisions, though they are fortunately rare.” “Go on,” Jade urged. “We developed space-travel a long time before the event, so escape was possible for many. But there would be no planet to return to. All that was left to do was to venture into the unknown. A huge fleet of ships set sail through the stars, with no destination.” “Aren’t there any other aliens?” Jade asked. “Other races, I mean?” “If there are, we have never encountered them, nor have we encountered another planet capable of sustaining life. We travelled for hundreds of years, and when the fleet’s resources finally began to run low, it was decided that the remaining supplies would be given to several of the smaller ships who would continue the journey alone. Our people sacrificed themselves in order to give a few of us a better chance. And their sacrifice wasn’t in vain; in the end we found Earth.” “What about the other ships?” “The one in which we stand is the last ... So you see, by asking us to lie down and die, you ask us not only to dishonour the memory of our ancestors but to make ourselves extinct. Every species has the right to live.” 166

“Except the human race,” Stuart added. “Your kind will go on. What I said to the girl was the truth.” “But what kind of a life will we have?” Jade asked. “This will be our world, and you will be in the minority. Your purpose will be to serve us.” “Slaves!” Stuart exclaimed. “This isn’t right,” Eddie said. “I don’t believe what you said about us. We wouldn’t hide you away. Your existence would be the greatest discovery ever.” “Yes, a wonderful science exhibit,” the alien clarified. “That’s not what I meant. It would change the way we think about everything.” “And that’s exactly what your governments want to prevent.” Eddie sighed in exasperation. “So there’s nothing we can say to change your mind? You’re just going to kill us all then? Kill us all in cold blood?” “I understand your resentment. It’s only natural that you should feel cheated, just as we felt cheated. We do this only because we have to.” Eddie thought of his sister Tara. “You don’t understand anything,” he said. “The talking is finished,” the alien declared. It then spoke a few words in Rigellian to the two who were holding Blake Morton by the arms. The creatures began guiding Eddie’s dad across the room toward the capsules.

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In the dim light, one metre seemed like a mile distant, and the Rigellians had barely dragged Blake Morton that far before Eddie cried, “Wait!” But the aliens paid no heed and kept going. Morton seemed able to walk for himself, although he veered from side to side 167

like a drunk and appeared to have no awareness of the fate that awaited him. His two guides kept him on the right course. “Please! Just listen to me a minute. Let my dad go and take the rest of us. There’s bound to be enough energy in us three to restore your ship.” It hurt Eddie to say this, but all he could think about was some means of getting Tara to safety tomorrow night. But the talking well and truly was finished. The one who’d been so talkative about the Rigellians’ plans now refused even to meet the boy’s gaze. Eddie felt pure hatred for these beings. They walked among us, pretending to be us, strutting back and forth from the school in disguise—only they ended up sticking out like a sore thumb because of those cool-dude sunglasses they insisted on wearing. Now they were getting ready to take our planet. It occurred to Eddie that the sunglasses weren’t really a part of the illusion. He had initially noticed this when Stuart punched him in the school foyer and he witnessed his first alien in its native skin. The disguise—a human face and a smart business suit—had vanished, leaving behind only a briefcase and a pair of shades. The significance of the glasses was unknown then; now it was perfectly obvious—the Rigellians didn’t like the light. Not only the dim lighting of the ship gave it away, but Eddie now recalled Jade speaking of the light in the elevator turning dim during her abduction. If Eddie and company had initially taken a little more time to think through all the little details, they might have ventured down here more prepared to take on the enemy. But it was too late now. The two Rigellians spun Morton around and pushed him gently backwards into the open chamber with its swaying tentacles. Oh Dean, Eddie wished, where are you? Eddie played over in his mind the last moments of his earlier conversation with his friend—how Dean had shoved the camera into his hand and Eddie had resented him for wanting photographic evidence. That was probably the last time he would ever see his best 168

friend, and it was not the kind of goodbye he would ever have wished for. Eddie felt inside his pocket and touched Dean’s camera. Two thoughts connected in his mind at that moment, forming an idea so simple and powerful that he gasped. He also felt like kicking himself for being so stupid. Stuart and Jade turned and looked at him. All of a sudden there was hope. It was as dim as the lights in this place, but it was still hope. And if there was ever a moment to do something, it was now. The two Rigellians stepped clear as tentacles slid around Morton’s thighs, waist and arms, supporting the man’s weight. One thicker tentacle emerged from behind Morton’s left shoulder and slithered snake-like towards his mouth. “HEY!” Eddie shouted at the top of his lungs. All eyes turned towards him. Eddie pulled the camera out of his pocket, pointed it across the room, and clicked the button, praying that the flash was already charged. Getting your photograph taken was an irritating experience for human eyes, and if Eddie’s suspicion was correct, it was going to be a lot worse on Rigellian eyes. Simultaneous howls of agony blared from every alien mouth in the room, as their claws shot to their faces, too late to protect themselves from the blinding flash. “Yeah!” Stuart exclaimed, immediately rushing forward and knocking into a couple of Rigellians. The two beasts tumbled and fell. Another tripped over them and landed with a growl. Several others went to their knees voluntarily, clutching their eyes and roaring. Eddie darted across the room, dodging past the aliens and joining Stuart at the far side of the room. They each grabbed one of Morton’s arms and pulled hard. The tentacles fell lose as soon as they were dislodged from their roots, with a burst of steam. There was no time to lose. Eddie and Stuart half-carried 169

Morton towards the doorway, grabbing him around the waist, each of his arms slung across their shoulders. The Rigellians wandered around with their ar ms outstretched, stumbling into each other, grabbing hold of each other, barking out their frustration in their own strange language. A couple of times one almost ran into Eddie, but Jade managed to shove it out of the way. I’ve blinded them! Eddie marvelled. But for how long, it was impossible to know. The adventurers made it through the doorway and into the corridor. The fires that Stuart started earlier had died down to small flickering flames no higher than a few centimetres. “Here, take this guy,” Stuart said, grabbing Jade by the sleeve and pulling her close. He then removed Morton’s arm from his shoulder and stepped away, back towards the room. “Stuart, what are you doing?” Eddie wanted to know. “We have to get out of here.” “You heard what the dude said. They’re planning to murder the whole world. And if we leave now, they’re just gonna go right ahead and do it.” “There’s nothing we can do about that.” “You two go on ahead now,” Stuart said. “Stuart!” Jade exclaimed. “You can’t.” He laughed. “You don’t get rid of me that easily. Listen, I’m only point-three of a second off the one hundred metres school record, and I’m planning on sticking around to beat it on Sports Day.” “This place is falling apart,” Eddie said. “How do you know you’ll make it? You don’t even know what’s gonna happen when you—” “I’ve made up my mind! Now go on, get out of here!” Eddie was in absolute awe. Here was a troublemaker from school whom Eddie would have avoided at all costs on any normal day of the week. And all it took to make him bloom was the end of the world. 170

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“We’re going the wrong way!” Eddie realised. Jade kept walking, groaning under Morton’s weight. “It’s a circle. It has to take us back to the start.” Eddie tensed each time he and Jade passed by an open doorway, expecting a group of Rigellians to pounce at them out of the darkness. He kept the camera flash charged and ready. Eddie couldn’t wait to get out of this nightmare, but when he glanced into one room in particular, something he saw made him stop in his tracks. The chamber was circular and the floorspace empty, just like the room with the human containers. The wall was entirely covered with softly glowing hexagons, each about a foot in diameter. There was a dark mass at the centre of every one of them, in the vague shape of an infant curled up in a foetal position. Eddie had barely two seconds to gaze upon this new mystery before Jade rushed him onward. The exit was distinguishable by its crudeness—a gaping organic hole. They carried Morton through the fleshy lips— still suspended—and into the rocky tunnel beyond. There was the lift shaft, and there was their rope, still dangling. Climbing was impossible, but thankfully there was a simple call button set into the stone wall, which Eddie immediately pressed. A loud clunk came from high above, sending a bolt of joy through his heart. We’re gonna make it! We’re actually gonna make it! Over the whirring sound of the elevator Eddie could still hear the thumping of the ship’s heart and the angry roaring of the Rigellians. Looking back into the craft felt like looking at the door to hell, and it chilled Eddie to know that the hell in question was merely a quick stroll along the corridor. A deep rumble caused some small rocks on the wall to come 171

loose and fall to the ground. The sound didn’t dissipate, rather increased. “Stuart’s done it,” Jade whispered. Dust fell from the ceiling. It had felt like being buried alive when they first came down here; now there was a whole new sense of reality added to the feeling. “Come on, Stuart. You have to make it.” Eddie had gotten used to the vibrations in the ship, but now it felt as if all the teeth in his skull were being shaken loose. A large boulder to his left came free of the wall and almost crushed his foot. A stone that looked big enough to knock someone out fell from the ceiling half a metre in front of Jade’s face. The waiting was intolerable. How long could a dash down the corridor take? Clunk! The carriage arrived. Eddie and Jade led Morton into the elevator cabin, grateful for the dubious safety it provided. Stones drummed continually on the thin metal roof. Looking back towards the corridor, Eddie saw a bolt of electricity that stretched from floor to ceiling staggering past the doorway, inside the ship. A picture formed in his mind of Stuart lying dead in the corridor, just metres away from them, a black mark on his body where the electricity bolt had struck him. Questions came to Eddie’s mind that were sickening to consider. How long could they wait? How long could they assume Stuart was still alive and on his way to them? How long could they risk their own lives before deciding he was dead? Rubble continued to fall. Soon it would be impossible for Stuart to get to the lift without being knocked unconscious. Eddie’s finger hovered over the button. The worst question of all came to the front of his mind: How do you live with yourself if you push it? Stuart skidded to a halt in the corridor, turned and dashed 172

into the cave. It was immediately raining pebbles on him, so he covered his head with his arms and sprinted for the cabin, narrowly managing to avoid tripping over the carpet of loose rocks. As soon as Stuart was safely inside, Eddie punched the up button, hoping that the elevator hadn’t been shaken so hard that it was out of action. The door slid shut on the nightmare, and the carriage began to move. “Wow,” Stuart said, between breaths. “For a minute there I thought I might have made a pretty bad choice.” “You’re completely insane,” Jade said, “you know that, don’t you?” “Sure,” Stuart agreed, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. They all held their breath (except Morton, who was still worryingly half asleep) as the carriage ascended. This was no normal journey for such a vehicle; it trembled continually, and every few seconds rocked violently from side to side with a deafening screech. And worst of all, the rumble from below didn’t seem to be getting any less intense.

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The elevator stopped abruptly, causing a momentary feeling of weightlessness as the group’s feet almost left the floor. Eddie felt sheer terror, certain that the machinery had failed under the constant trembling. He imagined forcing the door open and being confronted with a wall of crumbling bricks. All they would be able to do was wait until the cables snapped and they fell to their deaths. The door slid open, albeit with a stutter, and Eddie had never before been so happy to see his school. They made their way down the main corridor, feet crunching on glass all the way. The shaking was every bit as bad up here 173

as it was below, and it seemed as if almost every pane of glass in the building had shattered with the trembling. No sooner had Eddie thought, They’ll have trouble putting this one down to vandals, than a huge rip formed in the concrete wall beside him, winding its way from bottom to top like a snake. Stuart shouted something, but it was impossible to hear with the constant rumble. They dashed past the security camera, in too much of a panic to care about being recorded, as ceiling tiles began to fall around them. Dean came into Eddie’s thoughts for a moment. His best friend hadn’t waited for them in the end, but could anyone really blame him? Once into the foyer, the fastest way out of the school was by the main entrance, but like some cruel joke the glass was still intact, so they about-faced and headed out by the same route they had entered, crawling through the lower panel of the door to the playground. Hands and knees bleeding from broken shards, they made a dash for the centre of the playground and stopped to catch their breaths, grateful to be under the stars. Eddie let go of his dad for a moment and made a complete turn, surveying the walls of the school all around him. Bricks were coming loose and falling onto the tarmac with a clatter. There was a tremendous crunch to the right, and when Eddie turned, all he saw was a cloud of dust where he expected to see the boys’ gym. Seconds later the wall of room seventeen on the upper floor fell away and collapsed in a heap. The classroom itself was still intact—it was like looking into a doll’s house with all its tables and chairs. The playground was surrounded by walls on three sides, but at least it was spacious enough for the group to stand well away from any immediate danger. “Look!” Stuart shouted, pointing in the direction of the girls’ cloakroom. 174

The wall was holding—for now—and it took Eddie a moment to see what Stuart was so alarmed about. It was on the tarmac just outside the building, a dark crack in the ground, yawning wider and wider every second. As the group watched, a searing white light beamed up through the tear, only to vanish a moment later under a hail of falling bricks. But its disappearance was momentary. The crack reappeared as a bright line racing across the playground, zigzagging like a bolt of strange electricity, branching off in several directions as it advanced. “Come on!” Stuart shouted, getting the group moving again. Another crack appeared in front of the all-weather pitch, curving like a wicked smile, as if daring them to try and get past. The only way out was by a thin roadway next to the bikesheds—also next to a two-storey wall that was by some miracle still standing. They ran past, trying to judge a pace that was fast enough to minimise the danger but slow enough to keep Morton from tripping all over himself. Stuart cried out as a brick smashed into his shoulder, but kept right on going. From here, it was a very short journey across the school car-park to the fence that separated Clounagh from the adjacent church. Jade found the opening and pulled the wire back. Just then, all heads turned back to the school as a deafening crunch assaulted their ears. The building was still there, at least this side of it—one long wall of featureless classrooms, with the staff-room jutting out in a semi-circle. Above it were the tall windows of the library, where Eddie had sat on Tuesday night, scared of the dark (it seemed like something that had happened centuries ago, to a different person). A broad curtain of white light shone up into the sky from beyond the walls, as if Shamrock Park— the local football ground with its towering lamps—had suddenly been relocated to Clounagh Junior High. The rumbling ceased, leaving behind a deafening silence. 175

The ground stopped shaking, causing a sense of floating on air. The light faded to nothing, giving the moon back its duty. You could almost believe this was an ordinary night on an ordinary world. And then, slowly, the whole building collapsed in on itself, like a piece of unwanted paper being crushed in a fist. Eddie, Stuart and Jade watched, mesmerised, as the dust from the broken bricks swirled upwards in a thick cloud. Eddie blinked several times, as if expecting the school to magically reappear. But this was no illusion. Clounagh Junior High School was one hundred percent obliterated. “What did you do?!” came a voice from behind the group. It was Dean, standing in the shadows behind the fence, his expression a mixture of shock and relief. He had stuck around after all. Eddie hardly knew where to begin. Stuart put on a sour face and shrugged. “Oops,” he said. Jade (who was a member of the school hockey team, the choir, the drama club, the art club; a girl who probably had more respect for the school than all of the others put together) burst into uncontrollable peals of laughter. Stuart quickly joined in, hugging Jade around the waist and spinning her around. There was nothing malicious in this revelry—just tears of relief streaming down their faces. Eddie might have joined in, if he had been able to feel the same way. He and his friends had unexpectedly saved the world, but there was one person who was still in imminent danger. “Eddie, what’s the matter?” Jade asked, breaking away from Stuart. “Tara,” Eddie replied.

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They got moving quickly, cutting a path through the grounds of the church in order to avoid suspicion. When they made it to the main road, a glance along Brownstown Road in the direction of the school revealed people standing on their doorsteps in their dressing gowns and pyjamas. The police would no doubt arrive within minutes, so the more distance they put between themselves and the “crime-scene” the better. Eddie calmed his anxiety with the observation that they didn’t look much like vandals—more like four uncommonly responsible teenagers helping their dear old drunk dad to get home from the pub. An unlikely story, but perhaps no more unlikely than, say, four kids and a sleepwalking adult armed to the teeth with enough explosives to demolish an entire school—which was the only other plausible scenario that came to mind. Everyone went to Eddie’s house, where they had their first real opportunity to examine what was wrong with Morton. Eddie’s dad seemed awake, at least in some rudimentary fashion. He could sit up straight; he could walk, as long as you led him; he was able to sip a glass of water, if you held it; but he seemed completely unaware of where he was, and completely uninterested in anything around him. They decided to call an ambulance. Dean came up with a simple cover story: Morton had been gone since Tuesday night, and he arrived back home tonight in this state. That was all any of them knew. Later, at Craigavon Area Hospital, the diagnosis was simple: an unknown toxin in Blake Morton’s bloodstream. When Eddie heard the word toxin, he feared the worst; it was the word the Rigellian used for what the aliens had been preparing to unleash upon mankind. Fortunately, whatever flowed through Morton’s veins didn’t appear to be life-threatening. His body was combating it just fine, and there would be no need for anything 177

as drastic as a blood transfusion. Within three days he should be back to full health and able to go home, said the doctor. Three days, Eddie mused, feeling sick with worry. That’s too long, Dad. We need you tomorrow. Eddie and Tara wanted to spend the night in the waiting room, but one of the doctors started asking a lot of questions, and was persistent when he didn’t get enough answers. So, to prevent things getting any worse, Eddie spent the night at Dean’s while Jade took responsibility for Tara. Both sets of parents were angry about their kids being out so late, but they cooled down once they learned about Eddie’s father being “ill.” Stuart was the only one who went home alone. “You’re welcome to stay,” Dean said, from the doorstep of his house. There was no disdain in Stuart’s reply. “Nah, it’s all right.” He turned away and began walking down the path, then laughed suddenly. “What?” Eddie said. Stuart looked back over his shoulder, smiling. “I was almost gonna say, See you in school.”

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Eddie stood outside 8 Dawson Green, bathed in the sharp glow of the morning sun, and pressed the doorbell. Jade answered, smiling radiantly. But her face fell as soon as she saw Eddie’s tortured expression. “Are you OK?” He shrugged. “I will be, when I get this day over.” “That man you talked about—he’s coming tonight, isn’t he?” Eddie nodded. “Surely you can call the police. I don’t understand.” “If you’d seen the way my dad reacted when I suggested the cops—he said it would ...” Eddie lowered his voice. “Is she in there?” Jade nodded. “She’s upstairs.” Eddie spoke in a whisper. “He said it would be the same thing as killing her myself.” Jade gasped. “How?” “I don’t know. This loan shark—he’s supposed to have powerful friends or something. Dad said if you try to hurt them, they only hurt you back—and worse.” “So they stay out of jail because everyone’s afraid to turn them in?” “Something like that, I think.” Jade’s eyes lit up. “But if they’re only living off other people’s fear, then you should make a difference—go to the police.” Eddie’s heart quickened. “No. I think their threats are real. 179

And I’m not playing games with my sister’s life. Don’t you dare even think about taking this out of my hands.” Jade blushed. “I won’t, I promise ... Will you come in?” Eddie shook his head. Jade looked disappointed. “I’ll get Tara,” she said, turning away. Eddie touched her on the arm. “No. That’s what I really came round to tell you. I don’t want Tara to come home today. Not until this is over. Will you let her spend the night here again?” “Of course.” “Have you told her anything?” “Just a little. I’m afraid to say very much, in case she thinks I’m teasing. It’s all so fantastic.” “It is,” Eddie agreed. A burst of loud music drifted down from upstairs—Britney Spears singing “Oops! I Did It Again.” Eddie rolled his eyes and laughed. “That’s all I’ve been hearing for the last three weeks.” A sudden sadness crept over him, as he imagined what it might be like to never hear that irritating song emanating from his sister’s bedroom again. Jade reached out and cupped Eddie’s cheek in her palm, as he had done to her the night before. It was the first time a girl had ever touched him in this way. And it wasn’t just any girl, it was this girl. Eddie closed his eyes, feeling like he had been transported to heaven, at least for a moment. He sensed his eyes beginning to fill up, more through feeling overwhelmed than sorrowful. And when he looked again, he saw tears in Jade’s eyes. “Isn’t there something I can do?” Jade asked. “I could be there tonight, if you want.” Eddie marvelled that she would do such a dangerous thing for him, but he shook his head. “It’s better if you’re not; it’s better if everyone stays away. I think it could go badly if he sees other people there.” 180

Jade’s eyes filled up with fresh tears. She took hold of Eddie’s hand tightly in hers. “Don’t go home. Stay here with us.” The idea of hiding away from the problem, especially here of all places, was attractive beyond words. “Don’t,” he said. “I have to go through with this.” “Why?” “Because if I don’t, he’ll come after Tara. And we can’t hide her away forever.” “Will you be all right?” “Yes. All he wants is fourteen thousand pounds, and I have it. What could go wrong?” He tried his best to smile, but it was unconvincing. It felt like there was a ball of lead lodged in his stomach.

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Eddie sat in the armchair, alone with his thoughts, staring out of the window and listening to the ticking of the clock. The shadows in the living-room began to change, growing deeper and longer as afternoon passed into evening. The room glowed with orange light, like an omen warning of danger to come. Eventually the sun disappeared over the tops of the houses to the west, turning the sky a greyish blue and allowing the first stars to shine. Finally the last of the colour drained from the heavens, and darkness reigned. Eddie watched it all, his body crying out for rest but unable to relax, fingers constantly reaching for his jeans pocket, caressing the texture of the fourteen-thousand-pound cheque, just to keep reaffirming that it was real. He wished there was something he could have done to make the sun stand still in the sky forever. At eleven twenty Eddie heard the familiar creak of the garden gate. His heart raced. Then came the sound of footsteps, slow and even. He almost cried out when the doorknocker rapped, a single harsh blow that sounded twice as loud as 181

normal, since Eddie’s ears had been attuned to silence for such a long period. He stood up, took a deep breath, and composed himself. It’ll only take a few minutes, he thought. And after this, it’s all over. Tara will be under no threat; Dad will be home in a few days; and let’s not forget the whole world is now safe from the invasion of a bunch of very nasty ETs. Heart thumping, Eddie pulled back the snib and opened the door. There the loan shark stood, hands stuffed into the pockets of his leather jacket, smiling that familiar cold smile. “Hi, kiddo,” he said. “Can I come in?” A question that wasn’t really a question at all. Eddie stepped out of the way, allowing the man to pass into the living-room. “Morton!” he called. “Get in here, boy.” He made a clicking noise with his tongue, as if calling for a dog. Eddie kept his anger in check and spoke evenly. “Dad’s not here.” The man’s smile disappeared, and he looked around suspiciously. “I’ll give you a compliment, kid, you don’t look stupid—” Eddie didn’t much care any compliment from this kind of scum. “—and I wouldn’t want to be proved wrong in my estimate of you ... You’re not stupid enough to try and trick me, are you?” “No. Dad’s ... in hospital.” The shark’s eyes narrowed. Barely thirty seconds into the encounter, and this was going badly. “I’m not lying!” Eddie burst out, his voice cracking. “You can go and see for yourself if you want. Ward 4 North.” The smile returned, as if the man enjoyed seeing Eddie suffer. “I believe you, kiddo. You’re too scared to lie to me, isn’t that the truth?” Eddie looked at the floor. “Yes.” 182

The shark walked over to Eddie and lifted the boy’s chin. “Don’t feel ashamed, kid. Being scared of me is smart.” The caress of the man’s fingers was loathsome—a mockery of affection—but Eddie endured it without complaint. “So,” the shark said, letting his weight fall into the sofa nearby, “are we here to do business then?” “I have your money,” Eddie explained. The man raised his eyebrows. Eddie pulled the cheque, now crumpled, out of his pocket, and handed it over. The shark gazed at the piece of paper quizzically, held it up to the light and looked through it, then let his eyes rove over the surface. His puzzlement faded, replaced by an expression of blankness that was impossible to read. “Who’s this Lyons?” Eddie twitched. “He’s the headmaster of my school.” “What school? Clounagh?” “Yes.” The shark’s eyes widened into big circles. “Is that a fact? And would you like to tell me how on earth you managed to squeeze fourteen thousand quid out of your headmaster?” Panic gripped Eddie. It was all going wrong; the shark was supposed to take the money and go. “I blackmailed him,” Eddie admitted, fearing that this man would be able see through the most convincing lie. The shark’s eyes lit up with amused astonishment. He crossed his legs, leaned back, and spread his arms over the back of the sofa. “Really? Then maybe you could give me a few tips,” he suggested, his tone tainted with mockery. “I mean, if I’d had your kind of skill when I was a kid, I’d be living on an island somewhere in the Caribbean right now instead of sitting here resolving people’s financial crises.” Eddie said nothing, his lip trembling. The loan shark leaned forward and spoke gravely. “The only thing more surprising than seeing a kid with a fourteenthousand-quid cheque from his school is seeing the same school 183

blown to pieces all over the news ... on the same day. Now are you gonna tell me you had nothing to do with that?” Eddie took a deep breath. “My dad owed you fourteen thousand pounds. Now you’ve got it. I’d like you to leave, please.” The man leaned back, linked his hands behind his head, and let out a long whistle of amazement. “I sure underestimated you, kiddo.” “I gave you what you wanted,” Eddie said, growing impatient. “Please, I want you to leave.” The man put on a theatrical expression of hurt. “We’re getting on so well, and now you want to go and ruin it.” He straightened the creases out of the cheque and examined it. The moments of silence dragged out torturously for Eddie. Finally the loan shark folded the cheque in his fingers and said, “Go and put the kettle on, there’s a good lad.”

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Eddie stood by the kitchen sink, watching the steam begin to form around the spout of the kettle, listening to the rumble of the water as it began to boil within. Why on earth did the loan shark want to stay for a cup of tea? Eddie couldn’t think of any sane reason, and this frightened him. He likes watching me squirm, Eddie reasoned. Maybe he just wants to see some more of it before he goes. I’ll make it easy for him—that sure won’t be a problem. Just as the kettle turned itself off with a click, a shadow fell over Eddie. Fingers gripped him tightly around the neck. He barely had time for a cry of surprise before the shark slammed the boy’s upper body onto the kitchen bench. The man put his hand on the back of Eddie’s skull and pressed the boy’s cheek firmly onto the cold Formica worktop. He kept his body pressed against the boy’s, preventing any movement, and causing Eddie’s feet to dangle an inch off the floor. 184

Eddie moaned loudly, fearing the worst. The loan shark, his mouth hovering beside Eddie’s ear, spoke in a whisper that filled the boy’s head. “Hush now. Hush and you’ll be all right. I promise.” Eddie began sobbing uncontrollably. He thought about screaming, thought about the next-door neighbours who would hear it, thought about the time it might take before help would come. The terrifying image of a gleaming knife being thrust into his gut was foremost in his thoughts. And so, he kept silent. “Good boy. And now, I want you to call that sweet little sister of yours down here.” Eddie struggled, filled with renewed horror, but certainly not with surprise. After all, this was the way the scene was supposed to play out if things went wrong. And apparently they had. Eddie watched with some puzzlement as the man used his free hand to reach for the plug that was dangling on a chain around the neck of the cold tap. He fixed it into place at the bottom of the sink. Then he reached for the kettle and began to pour its contents into the chrome bowl—a litre and a half of water at one hundred degrees Centigrade. “What are you doing?” Eddie asked, trembling. But the answer was obvious, and he knew it. “Call your sister,” the man repeated. “She’s not here!” Eddie cried, then laughed in a half-crazed kind of triumph. The shark put down the empty kettle, grabbed Eddie’s wrist, and hauled it towards the sink. “I’ll call her! I’ll call her!” Eddie said. “Tara! Taaaraaaaa! TAAARAAAAA! You see?” The man continued to hold the boy’s hand above the sink. Eddie’s fingers were extended, with nothing but air to grasp, and it took all his strength to keep his hand from being plunged into agony. 185

The shark’s fingers tightened on Eddie’s neck. “Where is she?” “Why are you doing this?” Eddie pleaded. “You have the money. You said if we—” Suddenly the man let go of Eddie’s wrist. He produced the cheque and held it in front of the boy’s face. “You call this money?” He crumpled it up into a ball before Eddie’s eyes and pushed it into the boy’s mouth. “A cheque leaves a trail. You can always find out where it comes from and into whose pocket it goes. Don’t you know anything, kid?” Eddie spat the paper out, thoughts racing. “No, no! Dad can put it into his account, then we’ll take it out again as real money and give it to you.” “It’s a nice thought, kid, but no thanks.” “What?! I’m telling you, you can have your money. It’ll just take a couple of days.” “I already gave you until tonight.” “It’s fourteen thousand quid!” Eddie exploded. “Don’t you want it?!” “Sure, I want it ... tonight.” A startling realisation crept over Eddie. The money didn’t matter to the man; he had come fully expecting—maybe even wanting—Morton not to have the money. This was all just some elaborate game, and fourteen thousand pounds was maybe just the consolation prize. The loan shark took hold of Eddie’s wrist again and held it over the sink. “Now ... you were about to tell me something about that sister of yours.” Eddie closed his eyes and took a deep breath to calm himself. He hadn’t saved the world just to be beaten at the hands of a creep like this. So he gritted his teeth and answered calmly, “Go to hell.” The man plunged Eddie’s hand into one and a half litres of boiling water.

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It took one very brief moment for the nerves in Eddie’s hand to transmit the signal along his arm, across his shoulder, up his spine, and into his brain. Then his whole world turned into a blaze of intense agony, the likes of which he had never imagined possible this side of hell. All he could do was scream his lungs out. The shark kept Eddie’s hand submerged for two seconds that felt like two hours, and even after he let go, Eddie could barely stop himself from shrieking. He pulled his hand out of the water and stared at it. His flesh was perfectly intact, but red as a beetroot and refusing to get the message that it was now out of the scalding liquid. Eddie had a vague memory of once touching a lit match, and how the pain could irritate you for hours afterwards. Well, this was no match. He fumbled for the cold tap, panting like someone who had just crossed a desert without water. The loan shark grabbed Eddie by the wrist and wrenched the boy’s fingers from the tap before he could turn it. Eddie stared in horror as the man pulled his hand towards the water again. “I’m still waiting,” he said. Eddie’s head felt light and the edges of his vision began to darken. This must be what it feels like to pass out, he thought with some hope. But the bright agony remained and so did the pressure on his wrist. Four centimetres to go before his flesh made contact. Three. “No!” he cried. “I’ll tell you! I’ll tell you! I swear, I’ll tell you!” Anything to give him another second of partial relief. Two centimetres. One. The last shreds of Eddie’s courage broke, and he shouted out what the man wanted to hear. “Jade’s house! She’s at Jade’s house!” 187

The tips of Eddie’s fingers hovered over the surface of the water. “Where is Jade’s house?” the man asked. Eddie’s voice rose an octave. “Please, don’t! ... Dawson Green! EIGHT DAWSON GREEN!” And as quickly as Eddie had been trapped, he was released. All it took was the simple betrayal of his sister.

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With the weight of the man no longer pressing against him, Eddie started to slide to the floor. The strength had all but gone out of his legs. Somehow he kept his stature, thinking only of the cold water just within arm’s reach. He spun the tap with his good hand and held the burned— or rather burning—one under the nozzle. He moaned loudly with relief as the cool liquid soothed his aching flesh, causing the loan shark behind him to laugh with amusement. “There now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” A crushing sense of guilt flooded Eddie’s heart, and he began to weep. He had handed his own sister over to the man who planned to murder her. And yet what else could he have done? The pain had been so intense that nothing in the world mattered but avoiding it—not honour nor loyalty nor love. Eddie could tell himself that there was nothing he could have done, that it had been impossible to hold back his confession, that no amount of courage would have been enough—and it felt like the truth. But the truth wasn’t enough to expel his sense of shame. He formed a picture of Tara in his mind and tried to beam a message to her—just two words over and over: Get out! Get out! Get out! He had heard stories about brothers and sisters sharing a special bond that was almost supernatural. Maybe it was somehow possible for Tara to hear him; it was certainly the worst possible time to be a sceptic about such things. 188

When Eddie finally turned around, the shark was leaning against the doorframe, arms folded casually across his chest, smiling. Eddie glared into his cold eyes, then looked away, frightened and defeated, not wanting to give the man reason to initiate another session of torture. This is worse than under the school, Eddie realised. Beating the Rigellians was child’s play compared to this. “Please don’t kill my sister,” Eddie begged, panting for breath. “Tell me, kiddo, do you love your sister?” “Yes,” Eddie answered. “Well, if you love her, then why did you tell me where to find her?” Eddie groaned. “Answer me.” “I couldn’t help it!” he burst out. “That’s not the right answer. Tell me the truth now.” Eddie’s mind reeled. What did the man want him to say? The shark strode across the kitchen and leaned over Eddie in a threatening posture. “You don’t love her enough to protect her. And what kind of love is that? Not love at all. That’s the truth, isn’t it?” Eddie turned his face away. “Isn’t it?!” the man demanded. “YES!” Eddie admitted, bursting into a fresh load of tears. The man went back to the doorway and watched Eddie with a thin smile on his face, apparently pleased with his handiwork. “Don’t cry, kid,” he advised. “In fact, you should thank me. I’ve taken away your illusions; you’re more enlightened than most people get to be in their whole lives.” For the first time in his life, Eddie wished he had never been born. So much for enlightenment. Just then the doorbell rang.

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The loan shark was quick off the mark. He took something small out of his jacket pocket, pressed his thumb to it, and a short gleaming blade sprang into view. “No noise now,” he instructed, wagging the knife back and forth in front of Eddie as you might wag your finger to warn a little child. He strode to the rear of the kitchen, opened the door, and peered out into the back yard. Nothing but a tall hedge and houses beyond it on all three sides; no exit. The shark swore and came back indoors. He grabbed Eddie by the arm and guided him through the doorway into the livingroom. Eddie could feel the tip of the blade touching his back. The pain in his hand flared up to an agonising degree, now that it was away from the cold water. The bell rang again. Eddie and his captor continued to wait in silence. It sounded a third time, followed by a muffled voice. Eddie couldn’t identify the speaker, but the words were audible. “I know you’re in there.” The shark whispered a curse, glancing around as if hoping an exit would materialise out of thin air. “OK, this is very simple. Whoever it is, get rid of him, or I’ll sink this into your spine.” He prodded Eddie very gently with the knife, making him gasp. “Put on a good show now.” Eddie allowed himself to be led over to the front door. Maybe I’ve got a chance, he dared to think. The man stood at Eddie’s left side, out of sight, while Eddie reached up and opened the door, just a crack. When Eddie recognised the visitor, the last of the energy drained from his legs, and he collapsed to his knees, barely feeling the knife slide up his back, tearing his clothes and grazing his skin. 190

The loan shark’s plan had gone wrong, and now there was nothing for him to do but peer outside through the gap. When he did so, he abruptly stepped back a pace, forgetting all about his prisoner. The visitor’s fingers gripped the edge of the door, long and green and covered in scales.

55
The Rigellian stepped into the house, snarling like an angry dog and baring its long fangs. It fixed its predatory gaze on the boy. Eddie let out a quiet croak of terror, then fell from his knees to his back in a vain effort to put a small amount of distance between himself and the intruder. He had seen them this close before—closer, even—but never in normal lighting conditions. The creature was twice as frightening—twice as real—when you could see every crease in its scaly hide. He recalled the dinosaurs from the movie Jurassic Park, computer-generated beasts that were quite realistic, but never truly real. In that film and others there was usually some little tell-tale sign that you were watching an illusion—some very subtle inconsistencies in the movements or textures or lighting. No such flaws were visible here in Eddie’s living-room. This was one hundred percent living, breathing alien. The beast now looked away from the boy and fixed its gaze on the man. The loan shark backed himself into the corner of the room, his mouth and eyes wide open in shock, as the alien stepped across Eddie and approached him. When the man’s back touched the wall, he let out a surprised, nervous laugh. “Whwh-what are y-you?” he wanted to know, his knife outstretched in one trembling hand. The creature stopped about half a metre before the blade. It gazed at the knife and made a guttural sound in its throat. 191

“What do you want?!” the man demanded. “Youuuuu,” the beast growled. A cool breeze swept around Eddie from the open front door. He could easily escape, but the thought barely crossed his mind. He was completely transfixed by the scene unfolding before him—a drama which, confusingly, didn’t seem to involve him at all. The man’s face was twisted with horror. “What do you want with me?” he cried. “It’s time to go,” the alien said, holding out its hand. The shark stared at the open palm, eyes looking as if they might pop out of their sockets at any moment. “Go?” he asked, with considerable anxiety. “Go where?” The creature tilted its head sideways a fraction, studying the man’s response. “To HELL!” it roared, raising its other hand and curling the fingers of both as if ready to pounce. Eddie’s mind reeled. All the things he and his friends had witnessed—the inside of the spacecraft, the strange chambers that provided the power, the Rigellians themselves and the explanation they had given for their presence. Could all of that somehow have been an elaborate lie to cover up a much simpler truth—that the creatures weren’t aliens at all but demons from hell? “No!” the man shouted, letting his body slide down the wall a little. “You’re not real! You can’t be real! I don’t believe in you! ” The beast grabbed the man by the wrist, as if to reaffirm its presence. The shark screamed and let the knife fall from his fingers. When the demon released its grip, the man’s body slid the rest of the way to the floor, and he cowered there, knees drawn up to his chest. Eddie wanted to get up and run, but feared that the slightest movement would attract the creature’s attention. So far, the thing from hell wasn’t the slightest bit interested in him. But for how long? 192

“I’m sorry!” the man cried, saliva covering his chin. “I’m so, so sorry! I didn’t know! I’m so sorry!” The demon threw back its head and laughed. “That’s what they all say. They’re all so very, very sorry.” “P-Please,” the man begged. “I didn’t know it was all for real.” He got to his knees, daring to move closer to the beast. “I’ll change!” he suggested, eyes bright with urgency. “I’ll make amends for everything. I can do it! Just give me a chance! ” “Why should I?” the demon wanted to know. “So you can go to heaven?” It spat the last word out with distaste. The shark’s face filled up with despair, and he began to weep like a little child. The creature turned and walked away from the man. “Get out,” it instructed. “Wh-what?” When the beast reached the other side of the room—leaving a clear escape route to the front door—it turned to face the shark and stood there with its arms folded. “Go and do as you say.” The man’s face brightened. “You’re letting me go?” “The fire that is prepared for you already burns brighter than most, but perhaps you are not ready for it. Go and mend your ways. Go and fail, for men like you always fail. Then, when you have spat in God’s face often enough ... then we shall have a fire more fitting for a man of your potiential.” The shark’s eyes filled up with resolve, as he got to his feet and began edging across the room. “I won’t fail,” he declared in a whisper. Suddenly he made a dash for the door, leaping over Eddie on the way. And in a flash he was gone, leaving nothing behind but a cry of triumph as he bolted down the street. “You’ll see! I WON’T FAIL!” The demon stepped forward, then sat down roughly in one of the armchairs. It crossed its legs and yawned, as if it belonged here in this room—in this world. Then it fixed its eyes on Eddie, who was still sitting on the carpet by the door. He trembled with a fear unlike any he had experienced. 193

Before, there had been the fear for his life, and now there was the fear for his very soul. He would surely be called to account for the betrayal of his sister, with an eternity of suffering in front of him that would leave him begging for something so bearable (relatively speaking) as his hand in boiling water. Once aliens, now demons; it didn’t make any sense. The only certainty about these creatures was that they were masters of deception. Then a logical explanation began to form in Eddie’s mind: what if the beast had been lying to the loan shark, only pretending to be a demon in order to get him out of the way? The man was just a distraction; now that he was gone, the Rigellian would have its vengeance on Eddie, uninterrupted. The realisation of this offered little relief to Eddie. He might not be going to hell after all, but he was surely going to die. “What about ye, Eddie?” the Rigellian growled. Just what kind of a question was that?

56
Stuart and Jade came in through the front door, after stepping out of the bushes in the garden where they had been hiding. “Hey, Ed,” Stuart said, “check this out.” He looked at the Rigellian. “Go on, show him my baby ... This is so cool.” The creature’s body dissolved, revealing an attractive blonde woman in a smart business suit, with short skirt and sexy black tights included—the same woman who had frightened Stuart in the corridor three days ago. Eddie felt like his head was about to explode—too much was happening to comprehend in such a short space of time. What were Stuart and Jade doing here? How come Stuart was giving the Rigellian orders? And why on earth was the Rigellian obeying him? “All right,” Stuart said, “now pull up the skirt. I want to see if everything’s accounted for.” 194

The woman rolled her eyes and spoke in a feminine voice. “It’s still me in here, you know.” “I know,” Stuart replied. “Do you think I’d treat a real woman like this?” “You perv!” Jade said, punching Stuart gently on the arm. “Gimme a break,” Stuart responded. “I just want to see how real these disguises are.” “I’ll bet you do.” Eddie got to his feet and backed towards the door, very frightened and barely able to think straight. “Whoa, Ed! It’s only us,” Stuart said, at last noticing something was wrong. He turned to the woman. “Get yourself back to normal, quick.” “I can’t,” the woman said. “I’m ... you know.” “Just do it. Eddie’s freaking out here.” Jade took Eddie’s hand in hers to reassure him. The woman on the chair uncrossed her legs, then lifted a nearby cushion and stuffed it between them, level with her groin. She closed her eyes, creased her forehead in concentration, and began to fade away like a ghost. As she was fizzling out of existence, the much larger and friendlier form of Dean Willis materialised in her place, as naked as a Rigellian, only looking much too embarrassed to be anything from another planet. Eddie gaped in astonishment. Dean held onto the cushion as if his life depended on it, his face growing redder by the second. “Doesn’t work properly unless you’re, you know, naked. Clothes are part of the disguise ... And I’d like mine back now, Stuart, if you don’t mind.” Stuart had a small sports bag slung over one shoulder, which he ignored. Eddie laughed with relief, despite the torment that his hand caused him. “Show Eddie the doofer.” The doofer, as Stuart affectionately called it, was a little semi195

organic, semi-metallic blob about two centimetres in diameter, protruding from the back of Dean’s neck. “When we were on the ship,” Stuart said, “and I went back to finish what we started, I ended up getting into a bit of a scrap with one of the aliens. That”—he pointed at Dean’s neck—“came loose.” “And you put it on Dean?” Eddie said. “My choice.” Dean reached behind him and tugged at the protrusion. Eddie watched in silent horror as an elastic pink tentacle revealed itself, connecting the alien object to the top of Dean’s spine. Dean grimaced, like someone sitting on the toilet with a bad case of constipation, then relaxed as the worm-like tentacle wriggled out of his body and disappeared into the doofer. All that was left behind was a tiny bead of red blood where it had been connected to Dean. “You let that crawl into your brain?!” Eddie exclaimed. “You know me,” Dean said, smiling. “Always love to try out new technology. Just took a bit of practice to figure out what it is and how it works. It can disguise you as anyone it has already been plugged into. All you have to do is listen to the information it puts in your head when you attach it to yourself.” “How did you know it wouldn’t kill you?” Dean’s smile disappeared. “I let you down, Eddie. I wasn’t going to do it twice.” Eddie didn’t know what to say. His heart filled up with overwhelming respect and gratitude. He had the urge to go over and hug his best friend, but Dean was just a bit too naked right now. If it hadn’t been for this risky experiment, Eddie dreaded to think what would be happening to himself right now, or what would be happening to— “Tara!” Eddie exclaimed. “Where is she?” “At my house,” Jade said. Eddie felt a burst of panic and made for the door. 196

Stuart grabbed him by the arm. “Whoa! Hold on there.” “Get your hands off me!” Eddie demanded. “Hang on a minute,” Stuart said. “Didn’t you see the state that man left here in?” “Stuart’s right,” Jade agreed. Dean grinned. “I reckon you’re more likely to find that guy shaving his head in a monastery for the rest of his life than anywhere near your sister.” “You don’t understand,” Eddie said, shaking his fists. “It’s not just the loan shark. He’s got friends, remember? That’s why we couldn’t go to the cops.” “These friends of his won’t do anything,” Dean declared. “He won’t let them. He’ll be too scared of what’ll be waiting for him in the afterlife, if he lets any harm come to Tara—or anybody else he terrorized.” Eddie considered the implications of what his friend was saying. In a stroke of creative genius, Dean had achieved something that not even murdering the man would have done. “That guy’s off your back for good,” Stuart said. Eddie exhaled, feeling the tension within him begin to subside for the first time since this whole mess began, four long, long, days ago. At last it was all over; Tara was safe. Dean, still clutching the cushion between his legs, held his free hand out to Stuart. “My clothes, please.” Stuart held the bag out just beyond Dean’s reach. “Ah, go on,” he urged. “Let me see my baby, just one more time.” While Dean and Stuart argued, Eddie headed straight for the kitchen and the cold tap.

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As the four of them walked up the garden path to Jade’s house, Tara came bounding out of the front door, arms outstretched. She rushed into Eddie, almost knocking him off his feet, and gripped him tightly around the waist. 197

Eddie felt an unbearable hurt, and it was nothing to do with having the wind knocked out of him. The damning words he had screamed echoed through his mind, accusing him: Jade’s house! She’s at Jade’s house! “You’re all right!” Tara marvelled. Eddie put his arms lightly around his sister, being careful not to touch her with his burned hand. The pain was still drilling into him, and he almost wept with the constant intensity of it. Jade’s parents would have to take him to Casualty, and very soon. He couldn’t stand much more of this. Another thing Eddie couldn’t endure was his sister hugging him, or even looking at him. She loved him so much, and it hurt, because he felt so unworthy of it. Eddie met Jade’s gaze over Tara’s shoulder, and the older girl could see that something was very wrong. Tara looked up at Eddie and gasped. “You’re crying,” she observed. Don’t cry, kid, the loan shark had advised. In fact, you should thank me. I’ve taken away your illusions; you’re more enlightened than most people get to be in their whole lives. Eddie felt like screaming in frustration, but held it in. “I’m all right.” “What happened?” Tara asked. “The man’s gone ... for good.” Tara stepped back, beaming with admiration. “Come on, let’s get inside,” Eddie suggested. Stuart and Dean went through the door, followed by Tara. Jade gripped Eddie by the sleeve and stopped him on the step. She closed the door, keeping the two of them outside. “What’s wrong?” she asked. Eddie turned and paced along the path, then came back again wearing a tortured expression on his face. “You don’t really know what happened, do you?” he asked. Jade shook her head. “Tell me,” she said. “Let me help.” “You can’t. No one can.” “Why?” 198

“Because when you do something—something awful—you can’t take it back.” “What do you mean?” Eddie sighed mournfully and held up his throbbing hand. “I told him where Tara was. I gave him the address of your house.” Jade closed the distance between herself and Eddie. “I know how you feel.” Eddie let out a short laugh. “How can you?” Jade’s voice was laced with anger. “Because I did something awful too, don’t you remember? When I was abducted, I left my friend Charlotte with her crutches. I left her to die. And only because I was frightened.” There was a self-loathing evident in Jade’s tone. “Just frightened. Nothing more.” “I’m sorry,” Eddie said. “I never thought.” “What about Dean too? Think about how he must feel, letting us all down at the last minute, when we were about to go under the school.” “At least he got to make amends; he saved my sister. You got your chance too; you went with us because you felt you owed it to Charlotte. But me, I can’t do anything to make it up to Tara. I’ve just got to live with it.” Jade touched his arm. “Please stop this, Eddie. All right, we got the chance to make amends, and you didn’t. But it doesn’t change the fact that we still did what we did. If you could put Tara back in danger again, just so you could rescue her—just so you could feel better about yourself—would you want to do that?” “Never.” “Then there’s nothing to be done. We’re all the same, Eddie. And if you ask me, I think we all did pretty good.” “He said I didn’t really love Tara, and that was why I gave her away.” “How can you believe that? Eddie, how could you not love her? For the last four days your whole life has revolved around finding a way to save her. And she knows this too, whatever 199

else she might not know. If you believe what that man said, you’re believing a lie—a stupid game he was playing with your mind.” Jade hugged Eddie, then kissed him hard on the mouth. He wasn’t alarmed. At some point—Eddie wasn’t sure when— this crash-course of a relationship with Jade had slipped into a very subtle romance. “I’m not ashamed of you,” Jade admitted. “I think you’re cool.” Eddie’s spirits lifted a fraction. His torment wasn’t something that was going to evaporate in a moment—it might never go away. So, the only thing to do was either let it consume him or grit his teeth and carry it. Tara and Eddie had changed so much in the past few days from the two people who argued and fought all the time. In a way, they had lost each other over the last few years, and now that Eddie had found her, he didn’t want to lose her ever again. When he carried his heavy heart indoors, he went over and hugged his sister every bit as tightly as she had squeezed him.

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Sa turda y
7 April 2001
Epilogue
Eddie, Jade and Stuart were seated on the grass bank just inside the entrance to the grounds of Clounagh Junior High School. When they had arrived, they found the gates locked, covered in red and yellow striped tape which bore the message DANGER—NO ADMITTANCE over and over again. But the gates were only chest-high—not much of a challenge. Fifty metres across the lawn lay a mound of rubble—bits of red-brick wall and fragments of concrete jutting out at random angles, thousands of shards of glass glinting in the sun, the occasional desk and chair visible among the debris. Eddie could almost believe it was some unknown building, if not for the letters CLOU poking up from the ground at fortyfive degrees—a tiny portion of a huge blue and yellow sign that had spanned across the front of the building. He gazed at the blue sky above, listened to the birds singing in the trees, breathed in the fresh air, smelled the pleasant aroma of the plants, felt the ticklish sensation of the grass between his fingers. And for the first time in his young life, he didn’t take it all for granted. “What’s going to happen, do you think?” Jade asked. “They were talking about it on the news this morning,” Stuart said. “They’re gonna build another school.” “Already?” “Well, it’ll happen over summer, I guess.” “I suppose they’ll have to. Can’t fit everybody into Killicomaine next term.” 201

Stuart leaned back on the grass and put his hands behind his head. “We’re lucky. We get a massive summer holiday.” “You don’t mean that.” Stuart leaned over on one elbow, facing Jade, and grinned. “Oh, I forgot—you’re one of those strange people who actually like school.” Jade scowled and turned away. “Eddie, how’s your dad doing?” Eddie’s eyes lit up. “Me and Tara went to see him this morning. He’s talking a little now. I’m sure he’s gonna be all right.” “How’s the hand?” Stuart asked. Eddie held his hand aloft, which was now covered in a cotton wrap. “Still hurts like mad. I have to put stuff called silver nitrate on it for the next ten days and keep it wrapped up like this. The doctor said it’ll be OK.” There was a sharp click to their right. Someone was standing behind the entrance gates, pointing a camera at the wreckage. This was the fourth person to do that since they had sat down here. “Guys, do you believe in God?” Jade asked. The question irritated Eddie, like a splinter in his mind. “I don’t know,” he answered. “I’ve never been able to make my mind up.” “I keep thinking, How on earth did we do it? We must have been insane to try what we tried. But somehow—like some kind of miracle—we made it.” But sometimes you don’t make it, Eddie voiced inwardly, not daring to speak his thoughts. Sometimes your mum gets murdered and you have to learn how to go on living without her. “What about you, Stu?” Jade said. Stuart shrugged. “You get to figure that sort of stuff out when you grow up, I guess.” Jade looked Stuart up and down with a mischievous smile. “Like that’s ever gonna happen.” Stuart grabbed Jade playfully, making her squeal. 202

Eddie didn’t laugh or join in the fun. He was thinking about Stuart’s answer, and he had a suspicion that there wasn’t much more growing up left to be done, at least not in any way that really mattered. “Hey, guys!” a voice called. It was Dean, parking his bike against the gates. He climbed over, raced across the grass to his friends, and sat down, gasping for air. “Look at this,” he invited, pulling a paper pouch from his pocket. All three gathered round. Dean flipped open the package and took out a photograph. It was the interior of the alien ship, taken when Eddie had used Dean’s camera as a weapon against the Rigellians. The orange tint of the chamber was gone, obliterated by the white glow of the flash. Six of the creatures were visible in the frame, looking calm and menacing, frozen in time a mere fraction of a second before they howled in agony as the light stabbed their eyes. In the background, several of the capsules could be seen, including the one which housed the last remaining human. “I never imagined it would look anything like this,” Dean said. “It’s incredible. And it’s real.” “I don’t know,” Stuart said. “It looks just like a still from a sci-fi movie to me.” “How can you say that?” Dean retorted. “You were there.” “I know, but I’m just telling you what it looks like—a bunch of people in costumes on a movie set.” “It gives me the creeps,” Jade said. “That’s only because you were there. Nobody else will see it that way.” “I thought you’d be thrilled,” Dean complained. “This is hard proof that aliens are real.” “Nobody will believe it,” Stuart predicted. “We’ll see about that,” Dean said. “I think we’ll be famous.” Eddie spoke up at last. “You have to destroy it, Dean,” he instructed. Dean’s eyes widened in disbelief. “No way! Why are you saying that?” 203

“If the man who wanted to kill Tara ever sees this photo— ever figures out that what he saw last night was anything other than a demon from hell—he’ll be back.” “I hadn’t thought of that,” Stuart realised. “Eddie’s right.” Dean’s look of protest gradually merged into sorrow, as the gravity of the situation hit home. Stuart produced a cigarette lighter from his pocket. Dean took one last look at the photograph and nodded. “If it has to be this way, then it has to be this way.” Stuart flicked his thumb, and a thin column of fire sprouted from the lighter. Dean touched the corner of the photograph to the flame. The four of them watched the fire take hold of the paper and crawl across it, turning the brightly lit Rigellians into shrivelled black ash. Dean held onto the photo until the last possible moment, then let the remains float off in the wind. Stuart kept the flame going. “The negative too.” Without hesitation, Dean lifted a thin strip of plastic out of the pouch and held it over the lighter. In a moment it was gone, melted into oblivion. “I don’t think anybody’s gonna know what really happened,” Eddie speculated. “The ship was so far underground. They’ll just clear away the rubble and start to build again.” “And even if we did tell people,” Jade added, “they wouldn’t believe us. It’s too crazy.” “We’re unsung heroes,” Stuart reflected. Jade looked towards the school. “Do you think we did something terrible?” “Hey, girl, I didn’t mean to blow up the school,” Stuart explained. “Not the school—the Rigellians. We killed them all— murdered them all.” The Rigellians, despite the fearsomeness of their appearance, were so unlike anything on earth that it was easy to think of them as something from a science fiction comic, and so feel nothing for them. And now that the adventure below the school 204

had become a memory—albeit a very recent one—the experience was so fantastical that you could almost think of it as a terrible nightmare that had never really happened. The only testament to the reality of the ordeal was the wreckage in front of them, and even that wouldn’t be here for very long. “We didn’t really know them,” Eddie commented. “That’s right,” Stuart agreed. “They just showed up, threatened to take over our planet, so we blew them to bits. What else could we have done, right?” His lip was trembling slightly as he spoke, and for the first time Eddie realised that Stuart probably had his own personal demons to deal with, just like rest of them. After all, it was Stuart who had stayed behind to deliver the final blow. “Here’s a worrying thought,” Dean said. “How do we know they’re all dead? I don’t mean under the school; I mean up here. They’ve been on the planet for three hundred years, living among us in disguise. We’ve seen them come and go from the school. They even own cars. Do you really think they were all down below when you blew them up? All of them?” “Lyons told me there were twelve who survived the original crash,” Eddie said, “and that most of them were still alive today. When Stuart started the fires in the corridor, I’m sure I saw at least ten.” “But they’ve been here three hundred years,” Dean retorted. “Don’t you think they’d have had a few kids by now?” “How?” Stuart wondered. “They don’t have any ...” He pointed at his groin. Jade raised her eyebrows. “Plumbing?” she suggested, with a smirk. Stuart laughed. “Stop it,” Dean ordered. “Don’t you see how serious this is? Maybe we haven’t saved the world at all. Maybe all we’ve done is put the end of the world on hold for a while.” Three grave faces regarded Dean. “OK,” Stuart said, “let’s think about this. All the aliens we 205

saw looked the same; they weren’t male and female like us. I guess they had to reproduce somehow, but how?” “I saw a weird room on the way out of the ship,” Eddie announced. “The walls were covered with cocoons. Not like the one Dad was in—much smaller, and shaped like honeycomb. There were so many of them I couldn’t count. And there were babies inside them—Rigellian babies, I guess.” Jade looked alarmed. “Babies ... and we killed them.” “It’s like they were in storage,” Eddie went on, “for the new world maybe. My point is, I think what we destroyed was more than just a spaceship. I think we killed their mother.” No one spoke for a few moments. Eddie felt it too. This was nothing like a typical science fiction film, where the evil alien race gets wiped out and everyone says hip-hip-hooray. The possibility that they had caused the extinction of an intelligent species was a burden they all would carry. And even if the Rigellians were evil, you couldn’t really say they were any more evil than the human race. If the roles had been reversed—if it had been humanity travelling the galaxy in search of a new home—Eddie had little faith that his own kind would have behaved any better. “It really is over, isn’t it?” Jade asked. Eddie sighed. “It’s what I believe.” “It’s as good a theory as any,” Dean agreed. “Besides,” Stuart added, “I want to be able to sleep at night.” The four of them heard the rumble of a car engine as it ground to a halt beyond the gates. No, not a car; a blue van. They turned their heads to look, seeing the top half of the tall vehicle beyond the hedge—another hungry tourist, no doubt. This particular sightseer was somewhat more intrepid than any of the others, because he was climbing over the gates—a man in his fifties dressed in blue overalls. A camera was noticeable by its absence. The tourist—if that was what he was—strode along the driveway towards the wreckage, oblivious to the presence of the four teenagers on the grass bank to his immediate left. 206

Stuart let out a startled, whispered curse. A moment later Eddie spotted the cause. Across the back of the man’s overalls, in white bold print, were the words RYDELL ELEVATORS. “Don’t do anything daft, people,” Stuart advised his friends. “We’re just four ordinary kids sitting in the sunshine, right?” Eddie pinched himself, being careful to use his good hand. Diagnosis: human being. “We should get out of here,” Dean suggested. “Relax, Dean,” Stuart said. “All right, you talked to this guy on the phone, but he’s never seen any of our faces ... I want to see what he does.” Dean calmed himself. The man in the overalls veered onto the grass and kept walking towards the shattered building. “I thought this guy was supposed to come yesterday,” Jade recalled. “Well, I get the feeling he’s not here to fix the elevator,” Stuart said. The man came to a halt about ten metres from the debris. He stood silently with his back to the group, hands on his hips. After a short pause his shoulders began to quiver, then his whole upper body. “What’s he doing?” Stuart wanted to know. Eddie’s heart filled up with dread. What new mystery was about to unfold before their eyes? Jade chuckled. “Can’t you tell? It’s the same thing we were doing on Thursday night, when we made it out of school. He’s laughing.” It was true. Eddie listened carefully and was able to pick up a fraction of the man’s merriment. Stuart looked puzzled. “Why?” Eddie understood. “Remember I talked about how Mr. Lyons looked scared when he was writing that cheque for me. I don’t think he was our enemy really; I think the Rigellians were just using him. They needed his cooperation so that they 207

could come and go from the school. So they gave him some major threat to live with.” “That makes sense, I guess,” Stuart said. “Well, I think it’s the same with Mr. Rydell here. The Rigellians needed someone to maintain the lift, and to fix it if it ever broke down. So they had a contract with Rydell Elevators ... He’s laughing because it’s over; he’s free.” Mr. Rydell composed himself, lit a cigarette, and began strolling along the side of the wreckage, stopping often to gaze up at the debris, like an art lover admiring a gallery. When the grass ended and the car-park began, he stopped abruptly, his attention distracted by something on the tarmac. From fifty metres away Eddie could just make out the tiny shape of the man’s cigarette falling out of his mouth. For a moment, Eddie allowed himself to believe this was merely an accident. Then Mr. Rydell put his hand over his mouth and slowly shook his head. Eddie stood up, growing more anxious by the second. His friends arose on either side of him. “What’s he looking at?” Jade wondered. From Eddie’s acute perspective it seemed as if there was nothing at all on the ground beside the man. Mr. Rydell looked rapidly all around, as if fearing he was under observation. When he spotted the four teenagers staring at him from the bottom of the lawn, his eyes looked ready to burst from their sockets with fright. Eddie’s heart thumped as he watched the man slowly and decisively reach across his body, draw his sleeve back, and twist the flesh of his forearm. Mr. Rydell’s expression then grew calm. “He thought we were aliens,” Stuart realised. The man cast one final glance at the ground beside him, then headed straight for the entrance gates, taking long, purposeful strides. He had to pass quite close to where Eddie and company stood, but never made eye-contact. At the gates, he hoisted himself up and over, and disappeared from view. 208

Eddie fixed his eyes on the spot where Mr. Rydell had been looking at the ground, but could still see nothing. He heard the van’s engine sputter to life, listened to the tires squealing on the road as Mr. Rydell sped away from whatever had frightened him so much. “Come on,” Stuart urged. The four of them walked side by side across the lawn, full of apprehension. When they neared the building, Eddie spotted the source of Mr. Rydell’s fear, and a sickening sense of dread came over him. Nevertheless, he kept walking, drawing strength from the presence of his friends. The four of them formed a circle and gazed down. They were looking into the mouth of an open manhole, its metal lid lying a metre from the gaping black orifice. “Maybe the cover came loose with all the vibration on Thursday night,” Dean suggested. “Aye,” Stuart said, “or maybe this is the emergency exit.” “How will we know?” Jade wondered. Eddie walked a few metres away, lifted a brick from the hundreds that were scattered around, and returned to the circle. He held it out in front of him, directly over the manhole. “Sewers aren’t very deep, right? So, we’ll hear it hitting the bottom in a second or two.” “And if we don’t hear it?” Dean asked. Stuart grasped Eddie’s outstretched hand firmly. “We’ve got two choices here. We can walk away and go back to our lives and believe it’s all over, or we can find out for sure. The question is, do we really want to know? Because we might not get the answer we’re hoping for. And if that happens, then it’s never gonna be over.” Eddie looked at each of his three friends in turn. “If you’re not up for this, you should walk away now. There’s no shame in it ... But I want to know.” Moments passed by. “I’m staying,” Jade decided. 209

Dean nodded his consent. “Do it,” Stuart said, releasing Eddie’s hand. Eddie took a deep breath and opened his fingers. Gravity took hold of the brick, pulling it towards the mouth of the manhole, where darkness snatched it away from the gaze of human eyes. Eddie and his friends waited for the sound of the brick hitting the bottom.

210

News item from the Portadown Times, Thursday, 12 April 2001:

“I thought it was the end of the world!”
School decimated in Act of God
The people of Portadown were rudely awakened from their sleep last Thursday night as items fell from shelves, tiles came crashing from roofs, and windows shattered. This was Northern Ireland’s first ever recorded earthquake. Seismologists have determined that the tremor measured 3.9 on the Richter Scale. Leading expert in the field, Professor Gary Richmond from the United States, was quick to allay fears: “There are no geographical faults on or near Ireland, making this the last place you’d expect such a thing to happen. I don’t think there’s any real cause for worry. 3.9 is relatively minor; we’ve had quakes as high as 7.9 here in California and lived to tell the tale.” Local resident Martha Cooper of Rectory Park said, “I thought it was the end of the world. I’m just glad it happened when it did, and not during the daytime. Imagine what could have happened to all those children.” Her comment was in reference to Clounagh Junior High School, which was sadly at the epicentre of the quake. The building, which housed over 600 children five days a week between the hours of 8.30am and 2.45pm, was completely demolished by the tremor. Another resident, who wished to remain nameless, expressed a radical opinion. “All this talk about earthquakes is nothing more than a government cover-up. This isn’t the first time the IRA has set off a bomb in our town, only now the truth’s being hidden to keep the so-called Peace Process going. They must think we’re stupid. Earthquakes don’t happen in Northern Ireland!”

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