The cop had one hand on his gun at his right hip, while he used his left hand on his radio to check in. Frank felt his heart pounding and realized that he, too, was gripping the gun he had taken earlier. He glanced down at the weapon and then back out of the window, and something caught his eye. Beyond the cop, a shadow had just raced across from the left to conceal itself behind the police car. And another one, over beyond the manager’s office to the right. A tall figure was standing next to a black SUV parked there. Frank knew that he had to do something, because this thing was just escalating. ‘I think you’re right, Paul,’ he called out. From the bathroom, he heard a muffled ‘What?’ as he went to the door and turned the handle. As he opened the door, the cop raised his gun and Frank realized that he was still holding his. ‘No...wait!’ shouted Frank.
‘Drop the gun!’ the cop shouted. ‘Step out and get down on the ground!’
‘It’s not safe!’ Frank shouted back as the cop came even closer. ‘They’re here!’
‘Drop the gun!’ the cop repeated, ignoring the warning.
From behind the police car, the shadowy figure stepped out and a weapon was raised. In response, Frank raised his own gun, preparing to protect himself and the cop as Paul decided that he couldn’t wait in the bathroom any longer. It was a recipe for disaster.
Now Frank was a walking disaster as it was, so he was very much the main ingredient in this particular dish, and whether or not a disaster would ensue depended entirely upon his perception of the situation. Any normal day, Frank’s alcohol levels would inhibit him from even spelling ‘perception’, but this was a special day. Sure, he’d spilled a lot of his coffee earlier, but he had taken enough to at least invite his long-lost cousin, Sobriety, to join the party. And Sobriety was much better with these sort of situations. With his good friend Adrenaline, Sobriety helped Frank to interpret the expression on the cop’s face – warning him to get down – as one intended to protect him from an impending alteration to the playing field. So Frank dropped the gun and Paul stepped out of the bathroom as a succession of gunshots were heard from around the parking lot. The cop rushed towards the door shouting ‘Down! Down!’ as Frank saw the shadowy figure struck by gunfire and collapse to the ground. Frank and Paul stepped back as the cop closed the door behind him. A bullet went through the door and just narrowly missed Frank, whizzing past and ending up embedded in the wall over the bed. All three men were quickly on the floor, and the sounds of the gunfight gradually died down outside. ‘What’s going on?’ Paul shouted. ‘Who’s shooting out there?’
‘We’ve got the place surrounded,’ said the cop, as he got to his feet. ‘We got here before them.’ The shooting had stopped and now there were sounds of orders being given, in voices which were approaching the motel room.
Paul was quicker than Frank on the uptake, which shouldn’t come as any surprise. Frank’s experience of perception had exhausted his capabilities for the day. In the psychological marathon of life, Frank had just hit his wall, and he probably wouldn’t get his second wind for at least 24 hours. Paul gestured to Frank to gather up his gun as he asked the cop, ‘How did you find us?’
The cop was about to open the door, but he recognized the distrust in Paul’s voice as he replied, ‘Traced Frank’s car here. Wasn’t hard.’ He turned around to see Frank pointing the gun at him as Paul pressed on: ‘I don’t think so. Your guys managed to set themselves up pretty quick, considering we only just got here. And you were ready for those other guys out there. What’s going on?’
The cop raised his left hand but reached back for the door handle with his right. ‘Look, we’ll explain everything, but there’ll be more of those guys on the way and we need to get you out of here…into protective custody.’
‘Cos you took the switch.’
Paul hesitated. Remember that this is the first time he’s actually heard it referred to this way. ‘The…switch?’ he asked. ‘How do you know about that?’
‘That’s one of the things we’re going to explain. Believe me, we could just take you and Frank out of the picture right here and now, but we’re sick of dancing to their tune.’ The cop turned the handle as he said, ‘So do you want answers or not?’
Paul looked at Frank, who really had no desire to shoot this guy, and he lowered the gun to indicate as much. Paul nodded. The cop opened the door and heavily-armed police swarmed in, prompting Frank to wisely drop the gun on the bed and raise his hands. Within minutes, Frank and Paul were bundled into police cars and a convoy headed back towards the city, leaving the motel quiet again. The manager found himself lost for words and sarcasm as he took in the aftermath of giving Frank and Paul a room. There were four dead men around the parking lot, all taken down with a precision that left blood oozing from head wounds. The manager found himself noticing that no blood had stained their white shirts. Which was nice.
A few hundred miles away from all this, another switch was about to go off which would really get people talking. Don’t get me wrong, Fran’s death was important and she wouldn’t be soon forgotten. It was just that this one involved a family unit and...let’s face it...tragedies like that always sell papers. How many times have you seen someone looking at a picture in the newspaper of a beautiful girl or a good-looking guy who died and heard them remark that it was such a shame because she was so pretty or he was so handsome? When did you last see an ugly victim make the front page? Not that Fran was ugly. I do hope I made that clear. My point about Fran was that she wasn’t missed on as big a scale as a media-fueled switch victim. Which brings us to the Astons.
Harry and Bernadette Aston had just built a new playhouse for their six-year-old daughter, Becky, and, even though it was late and Becky should have been in bed, all three were playing in the well-lit garden around the back of their house as the moon shone and a warm breeze took the edge off the night. The Astons were envied in the neighborhood. They were a loving family with everything going for them, and it was such a pity that all that had to change. Like her mother, Becky was dark-haired and beautiful, with big brown eyes that could convince anyone to do anything. Everyone said that Becky would have men wrapped around her finger when she grew up. Bernadette laughed at that, swearing good-naturedly that she had never used such methods on Harry. If Harry disagreed, he certainly never said anything, because he was so in love with his wife that he cared little for dwelling on the methods she had once employed to get him. He was glad that she did. Harry freely admitted that he would be lost without his beautiful wife. He was also quite vocal on the issue of his little girl ever having anything to do with boys. But then, that was his job.
Harry worked for a major power company. In fact, he was the Head of International Sales and Marketing, and as such, his handsome mug was readily recognizable around this world. His was a chiseled face designed especially for tabloid cynicism. Bernadette, with her long, wavy, luxurious hair, her breathtaking smile and those ‘Who...me?’ eyes was as much suited for beauty magazines as she was for the front page of the papers.
Unfortunately...relatively speaking, of course...neither of them were the victims of this switch incident.
There was a slide attached to the playhouse, and Becky went inside the house with the intention of ascending the two plastic, child-friendly steps and looking forward to giggling down the slide as both of her parents waited with open arms to catch her. Harry and Bernadette waited, thinking for the shortest time that perhaps she was playing a hiding game. But just for the shortest time. Harry called her from the end of the slide, and the waiting in silence for a response was the longest wait of his life. Bernadette darted to the open door of the playhouse and saw her daughter laying on the soft, child-friendly floor. At this point, there’s no need for more information. I’m sure you get it.
Becky’s death altered the momentum of a process which had begun with the Fran Redmond incident. And because so many people wanted answers, Karl Wright – fully apprised of the incident – found himself forced upon a path of unprecedented decision-making. Two switches had been exposed. One was being kept from his people by those who thought that they ran the show, so that containment was becoming highly improbable. The other switch was being extracted from a six-year-old girl and that would further complicate the matter. They could have lied about Fran. They could have covered it up. But this one changed everything. I’ll take you back to Paul so that you get closer to understanding what I mean. But first, you need to see one of the consequences of Wright’s unprecedented path.
Rachel had just poured herself a glass of wine, and she was wondering why Paul wasn’t home. Sure, he went for a drink after work sometimes to unwind, but he never did so without letting her know. He also could have been asked to work late if there was an emergency in the hospital, but there had been no call or text from him, and by now she was getting worried.
Rachel was blonde and pretty, and was often mistaken for Paul’s sister, which didn’t go down too well with Rachel, I can assure you. Mainly because it also implied that she looked like Paul’s mother, and that old witch was only one nose-job away from Eastwick! She worked in a coffee shop that sold the same coffee as most other places, but charged more, automatically making the coffee taste better. That and the ambience. One had to have ambience. Rachel was getting a bit sick of the ambience in that particular coffee shop, because it now attracted the sort of guys who felt it was their duty to hit on the girl serving their table. You know the sort of guy. For him the mirror was his best friend and perfect partner. It looked exactly like him and never talked back. Except to say ‘Ohhhh…yeah!’ just before he hit the town.
There were days when Rachel would put up with the lecherous narcissists in the hope that the tips would be good, but today hadn’t been one of those days, and now she just wanted to see Paul. He always made her forget about guys like that and days like today. All it took was his arms around her and she felt like they were in their own safe little world. All that was about to change, because this world would never feel safe again.
She dropped her glass as she heard the back door of the house being kicked in, and she screamed out and ran for the front door. But there were two man standing in the hallway, waiting for her. The other two closed in and she was trapped, and Paul had never felt so far away.
Now, for those of you who have never been in the back of a police car – yes, I said ‘you’ and not ‘us’ – it’s really an experience that depends on a number of factors: whether or not it’s a serious offence you’ve committed (mine wasn’t, of course!); or whether you’re on your own or you’ve got company; and whether or not it’s for your own protection. Paul was experiencing confusion on all three counts, because he’d no idea what was going on and wasn’t entirely sure whether he was in trouble with the law or not. This was not a case of ‘I fought the law and the law won’, because Paul had done nothing of the kind and, anyway, he considered himself a lover and not a fighter. Of course, ‘loving’ the cop who came for him might have gotten him in more trouble than fighting him.
There was also the matter of company in the back of the car. Frank had certainly turned out to be a big help to Paul in his short-lived flight from civilization, but he had also revealed himself to be a man in need of alcohol in order to survive the day. Right now, Frank hated everyone and everything and was not afraid to vocalize his resentment for Paul and reminding him of his contribution to the particular circumstances in which the men found themselves.
‘Shoulda gone straight to the bar, man!’ he was hissing. ‘Wouldn’t have met your sorry ass and gotten into this mess.’ Paul tried to block it out, as a certain Stanley Laurel might have done, and he focused instead on the cops in the front seat. However, just as he was about to ask them something, he felt a sudden sharp pain at the back of his head. Immediately, he thought of the switch they’d taken from Fran, and his fear was total. But then he heard a voice as if a surround-sound system was embedded in his brain. ‘Don’t panic, Paul!’
He gasped and Frank looked at him. ‘What’s your problem, nursey boy? Finally figured out what an idiot ya are?’ When Paul didn’t reply but just kept a wide-eyed stare in place, Frank stared right back like it was a competition. Perhaps he’d win a beer.
The voice in Paul’s head said clearly, ‘If you give the switch to the police, you’ll never see Rachel again.’
He gasped again, and Frank punched him in the leg, shouting at him, ‘Snap out of it, will ya? Ya didn’t do anything wrong, remember?’
‘Hey, keep it down back there,’ one of the cops shouted.
‘That’s not it,’ Paul said quietly as he leaned towards Frank. ‘I just heard a voice…in my head.’
‘Ha. And I thought I was nuts!’ Frank laughed.
‘I’m serious. It said…’ he lowered his voice again. ‘It said if I gave the switch to the cops, I’d never see my fiancée again.’
‘You’re imagining it, man. Since when can people talk to you in your head?’ Frank moved back. ‘Or are you one of those…skitzafrellics?’ Believe me, this is how Frank would have spelled it.
‘No, I’m not.’ Paul moved back too and sat quiet for the rest of the journey while Frank stole fleeting glances of increasing discomfort. One would be forgiven for having tumultuous thoughts of world-shattering implications running through one’s head at this point, but Frank wasn’t so complicated. There was only one thought running through his head, and he needed no external voice to hear it clearly: Man, I need a drink!
Karl Wright sat down in his chair in the operations room. ‘Did he get the message?’ he asked. A young woman working at a station to his right turned on her chair. ‘Well, he heard it, that’s for sure,’ she replied. ‘Whether he understood it or even accepted it was real…’ She shrugged.
‘Let’s hope he does. I don’t want anyone else dying unnecessarily.’
‘Are you certain they’ll kill him?’ the woman asked.
‘Without a doubt,’ said Karl. ‘This is the first extracted switch that we haven’t been able to lock down, so they can keep the situation clean and still hold on to it. If Paul hands it over to them, they’ll kill him to shut him up.’
‘But what about the girl…his fiancée…aren’t we involving too many people?’ She rose from her chair and approached Karl, asking quietly, ‘I mean, won’t we have to do the same to those who know the truth?’
Some of the staff heard her and turned to listen in as Karl shook his head and replied, ‘No. I’ve been talking to the Foundation. They’ve agreed a new way of dealing with that.’
Paul and Frank sat on either side of a table in an interview room in the police station. Armed with automatic rifles, two cops guarded the door…and their two guests…as they waited for some senior guy to turn up and spill the beans. By now, Frank was so thirsty he would have licked the condensation off the window if it had been cold outside. And if it tasted like beer. He decided to do the right thing for his body and he turned to the cops and asked, ‘Any chance of some water, man? I’m dying here.’
The two cops stared straight ahead with concentrated aggression, as if a terrorist might suddenly materialize on the opposite wall and insult their mothers. Paul shook his head. ‘Look, you guys have got this all wrong,’ he told them, trying to appeal to their better nature. You know, the thing they left in the locker room before strapping their guns to their belt. It was usually kept in storage next to common sense and a willingness to question the ethics of orders. ‘We didn’t do anything here, remember?’ Paul wandered on. But it was a bit like Hansel and Gretel trying to reason with the old witch who wanted to cook them and eat them. Sure, the butcher’s was only down the road and they had a special on filet mignon, but there really was nothing like oven-roasted children. Not that Paul had any intention of kicking these guys head first into an open oven by way of punishment for their evil ways or anything. That witch should have spent more time reading her tea leaves that morning. Then she might have seen that one coming. You just can’t trust kids these days. I mean, I wasn’t exactly an angel myself, but I didn’t roast old ladies in their own houses.
The cops remained silent, but Frank interrupted in his rasping, beer-deprived voice, ‘They just want that…switch thing, man. Just give it to them.’
Paul made that face that said, ‘I can’t believe you just said that. I mean, what have I told you about speaking out of turn? I can’t bring you anywhe…’ Ahem…sorry about that. Flashbacks. But he made that face, and Frank responded with many successive faces that said, ‘What? Somebody had to say it. I’m not going down for this, man! I’m not taking the blame for something I didn’t do! You threw that brick and I’m telling my M…’ Well, you know what I mean. So the body language continued until the cops thought they were in a room with two mime artists, and began to get a little uncomfortable until one of them said, ‘If I get you some water, will you just sit still and keep quiet?’
Paul was going to argue that their silent conversation couldn’t get any quieter, but he decided against it and just nodded. Frank sat back in his chair, feeling the intoxicating sense of triumph tinged with the sobering disappointment of water. At this stage, however, his throat wasn’t up to arguing. The cop who had spoken left the room and Paul leaned across the table towards Frank as the door was being closed by the other cop. ‘I left it out in the car,’ he said quietly.
Another face was presented that said, ‘You heard me,’ and Frank realized that he had, and he shook his head in despair, holding his face in his hands. ‘You were told to keep quiet,’ the remaining guard reminded them.
‘I ain’t got my water yet,’ Frank argued brilliantly, feeling for a fleeting moment like the hot-shot detective on that badly-acted primetime show, where the only reason he was so good was because everyone else’s character got the script written by the weekend guy. The cop approached them as the door was opened behind him. ‘If you don’t shut your mouth…’ he threatened, interrupted in mid-sentence by a suited man who was clearly his superior, who shouted: ‘That’s enough!’
The cop stepped back as this man handed both Paul and Frank a plastic cup of water and ordered the guard to bring him a chair. ‘My name is Agent Dick Harding,’ he introduced himself.
Now, let’s just take a moment to enjoy this, shall we? I mean, names like this don’t come along every day, and we all need a bit of adolescent levity every now and then. Just as long as we express it in a more mature manner. So that we don’t look like complete planks, I mean. Ah, if I had a Dollar for every time I heard the words, ‘You’re so immature,’…well, I’d…I’d change them into Euros, for a start. Frank’s natural reaction to this introduction was to waste his water in a manner reminiscent of Old Faithful, but he was so desperately thirsty that he fought this involuntary urge and downed his water in one, saying afterwards, ‘I feel safer already.’ Paul struggled to contain his amusement, to the point of sporting a painful smirk that looked like someone had spiked his water with a laxative, as the chair was brought in and Agent Dick Harding – sorry, I just had to say it again in full...it’s ridiculous – sat down and glared at Frank. ‘Let’s get straight to the point, shall we?’ said Harding. Okay, listen up, people, because this is where it gets serious.
Paul swallowed his smirk and nodded. ‘I just wanna know what’s going on,’ he said. ‘Who were those guys back at the motel…and the hospital?’
‘We’re not entirely sure,’ Harding replied, in his deep and authoritative voice. His hair and his face said 40 but his voice said 60, like there was a wealth of wisdom in there and you’d have to live a few lifetimes before you’d see what he’d seen. ‘All we know is that they operate outside the law, outside government, outside everything.’
‘Outside everything?’ Frank asked. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘What it means is that we’ve no idea where they’re based or how they operate or who runs them or anything. Officially, they don’t exist.’
‘What do they have to do with the girl who died?’ asked Paul. ‘Did she work for them?’
Harding stared at him for a moment, as if trying to decide how to continue. Which was pretty much what he was doing. ‘We believe that they’re responsible for killing her, yes, but we don’t believe that they have anything to do with her, Paul. In the same way they couldn’t have anything to do with a six-year old kid who died a couple hours ago.’
‘What?’ Paul gasped. ‘The same way?’
Harding nodded. ‘A switch,’ he confirmed.
‘So these guys are putting these things in peoples’ heads?’ Frank snapped. ‘They’re killing people and ya can’t catch them?’
‘It’s not that easy, Frank. We’ve only recently discovered them and we’re still trying to get a handle on their resources. Believe me, they’re everywhere, and they’re capable of tracking us.’
‘Tracking us?’ asked Paul, recognizing that fear chill again. ‘How?’
Harding sat back in his chair and looked at them both. ‘How do you think?’
Paul didn’t want to know this. He realized that now. He was much more content to be left in the dark. They could have just let him go home. Of course, there was Rachel to consider, but this…this changed everything. Frank took a little longer to get it, but when he did, he jumped back and his chair went across the room. ‘No!’ he shouted, his right hand reaching up to the back of his head. His horror was evident. ‘Oh…oh, no! No!’
Harding sighed and nodded. ‘I’m afraid so,’ he said, in that deep voice that knew too much. ‘We’ve all got switches.’
Frank had been so close now that someone as well-trained as Harding should have seen it coming. He rushed the agent, throwing him back off his chair and slamming his head against the wall in one swift motion that made Paul reassess Frank’s wearing of combat trousers. He relinquished the dazed agent of his gun and then dragged the man to his feet, wrapping an arm around his neck and holding the gun to his head as the armed cops burst back in.
Paul was stunned to silence, but Frank would never be. ‘How long have ya known?’ he roared at Harding, as the armed cops came back in. The agent raised a hand to calm them and he shook his head. ‘We couldn’t be sure,’ he said. ‘We thought something similar to you…that the girl might have worked for them. So we were digging into her life when the kid died. Needless to say, that theory didn’t hold up.’
‘And then ya started looking into peoples’ heads?’
‘Pretty much,’ said Harding. It all sounded so ridiculous now, but Paul would help them to understand without causing too much of a panic. ‘We need you to do something for us, Paul.’
‘I’ll explain in private.’ He gestured to the guards. ‘Get him out of here,’ he said as he pointed to Frank.
© Ronald A. Geobey 2018