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About this book
The People's Story is a collaborative book written by many authors, each getting one page to follow on from one another.
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The story starts on the next page, and when you reach the end of the story, you can carry it on for yourself.
This story begins with a box. It is a large wooden box, the size of a packing crate, and it has three words printed on the side in inky black capitals: HEARTS AND MINDS.
At the time the story starts, a Saturday morning in mid-September, the box is sitting on the patterned tiles of a hallway, surrounded by four of the five people who share the spacious, comfortable house at 121 Green Street. None of these four have the faintest idea how the box got there – or indeed, what it contains. Their attention is so fixed on the box that, for the moment, no one has noticed that their fifth housemate is absent. For these few minutes, it is all about the box.
‘Wine,’ Mia says. Mia is an optimist who attracts secret admirers. An unexpected gift of wine, or flowers, or even, once, memorably, a diamond bracelet, is not unknown.
‘Guns,’ Sam says, ‘sent here by mistake.’ He is part-way through a Netflix series all about international espionage. It has excited his imagination, particularly after the several pints of craft beer he enjoys every evening.
‘Could be anything,’ Naomi says. She is already losing interest. The arrival of the box has interrupted her six-hour marathon of writing code for a new client. Her head is full of semicolons and algorithms, and the box, being actual rather than virtual, is an irritation.
Amrik gives it a shove, and a tentative attempt at a lift. ‘Whatever it is, it’s suspiciously heavy.’
He frowns. Amrik sees disaster round every corner. This box situation, he thinks, is unlikely to turn out well.
‘Jude will know what to do with it,’ Mia says.
And it’s only then, when they look around for some guidance from cool, logical Jude, that they realise their fifth housemate is missing.
The wind cut through Jude's skin. He checked his watch before pulling at the collars of his coat, dipping his head to tuck the tip of his nose between them. He felt like he was a dead man walking. Ever since he got that note he was not himself, his calm collected manner was erratic as he checked over his shoulder, crossing the ancient stone bridge with a quickened step. His mind was racing against him, for the first time he felt fear. Deep, dark, unsettling, fear.
He ducked into an alley, the note had advised him to take this route to the meeting point, he reached into his pocket and crumpled the rough, thick card like paper in the palm of his hand. He was angry, angry that he had been the one to wake, angry that he had fallen victim to his hunger which led him to get out of bed, stalk downstairs in the dark and ultimately find the note. Now he was running through the streets like a mad man looking for that ridiculous meeting spot. There it was a shoe shop.
He stood before the front door not convinced, the windows were draped in a heavy red curtain, there was a measly display of shoes, definitely not something that would entice the public. Everything in his body told him to throw the note away, burn it if he had to and just walk away. But he couldn't not after he had read it, not after what it said would happen to the others if he didn't reply. It had crossed his mind that it could all be one of Sam’s pranks, he was always looking for creative ways to amuse himself. But there was something in his gut telling him he had to take this seriously, he had to see it through. He took a deep breath, regretting not showing the note to Amrik, he would have talked him out of this for sure. Instead, Jude walked through the door.
Something clutched at his face as he walked into the shop. He fought in blind panic against smothering tendrils until he realised it was nothing more than a massive spider’s web.
A sudden crawling sensation at the back of his neck sent a shudder down his spine. He pulled off his coat, fully expecting to see a beast the size of a tarantula fall to the floor.
But nothing. He took a long deep breath, all the while clawing the last sticky threads away from his mouth and nose.
The torch on his mobile revealed racks of neatly ranged shoes lining the narrow shop. All were layered in dust and at least ten years out of fashion. Their leather scent was overlaid by a mustier smell as cloying as the web. He spat onto the floor and only then noticed a set of footprints tracking through the dust towards the rear of the shop and a large poster, bright against the shabby walls. It depicted two young children, hand in hand, walking away from him into the distance along a country road. Was he meant to follow?
Jude was a rational man, but the box, the note and now this shop had unsettled him. And the web, of course. He remembered his grandmother’s tales of a mischievous god who took spider form. He could hear her deep laugh and feel her belly rock as she pulled him on to her knee to soothe his tears after she had scared him with a particularly savage Anansi tale.
‘A story is a story boy. Let it go.’
That’s what he should do. Let it go. There was nothing in all this. Just a hoax. He wouldn’t fall for it online. Why should he believe it because it was delivered in a box?
He looked at the footprints again. They were adult and sturdy enough to belong to a pair of Doc Martens. This was no fairy tale. Time to go.
‘Can I help you sir? Size 9?'
Jude spun around wildly, dropping his phone and all chance of illuminating the face that uttered the words. "Damn." "Maybe I can help you with that Sir."
A rhythmic metallic tap, silence, tap, silence initially close by Jude's shoulder, receded followed by a buzz and the momentary flash of a horizontal shaft of artificial light. "Bear with us Sir. The electrics aren't what they used to be.
Refusing to be held to ransom by a vintage fluorescent, Jude squatted and proceeded to pat the floor. The motion disturbed the accumulated layers of dust forcing Jude to sneeze. "Bless you Sir." Jude, ignoring the disembodied good wishes of his assailant, continued to search for his elusive phone. "Not long now Sir. The longest it's ever taken was five minutes."
Jude rolled his eyes redundantly and spoke for the first time, "No hurry, pal." "Thank you, Sir. Very gracious of you." Accepting that his phone was currently out of reach and the geriatric lighting was in no hurry to shine, Jude abandoned the search.
"So, size nine. You were right on the mark there, pal. Is that like your superpower? You can tell people's shoe size in the dark? Cos, I hate to break it to you pal, but that's not a great superpower. See, if I was yous, I'd at least have been able to guess a woman's bra size without a tape measure. That's a job for life in M and S." "Very droll Sir." "Aye, I thought so."
Jude was accomplishing a degree of nonchalance that he was not currently feeling. He mentally high-fived Sam. "So, have you worked here long?" "Well, Sir. That all depends on your definition of work." "Pal, do you get paid to hang out in the dark surrounded by patent leather pumps and kitten heels?" There was a sigh then a buzz, the tube spluttered into life.
While Jude fenced words with his mysterious assailant, at 121 Green Street the box remained untouched. By now it had been an hour since its discovery.
"It's in the way," said Naomi, putting her coat on to go out.
"We ought to move it," said Amrik.
Sam said, "Staring at it won't help. Get a crowbar or something. Or call the police."
"Has anyone seen Jude?" It was Mia at the top of the stairs. "I've listened at his door."
"That's an idea," said Sam, "Let's listen to the box." He came over and kicked it. "Hey, Jude, you in there?"
"Sam, you stop that!" shouted Mia hurrying down the stairs. "You don't know… it could go…"
"Bang?" answered Sam, grinning.
"It's not funny." Mia walked round the box.
Everyone was left wondering and thinking, until everyone jumped as mail shot through the letterbox and skittered across the tiles to lodge against the box.
Naomi stuffed a letter into her pocket, opened the front door and was gone.
The others stared at the rest. Sam gave a cursory glance and grunted. Amrik looked but found nothing. Mia said, "What is it with you two?" She reached down and to find one letter addressed to her. But something made her pause. She looked at the others, they were the other side of the box, staring back at her silently. "What is it?" she demanded.
"I think it's the box," said Sam before turning to go to the kitchen.
Amrik nodded, "Yes, it's the box," and he too left.
Alone now, Mia tore open her letter. There was a note inside, it read:
HEARTS AND MINDS
Yours and mine
She gasped, stared again at the label on the box. It was then that she noticed it was stuck over an older one that if she looked carefully, could just make out…
SHOES AND BOOTS
FOR DISCERNING GENTLEMEN
Mia, who was into shoes, what fashion-conscious girl isn't, faintly remembered a shop in town with that name. She remembered it because she was looking for shoes for her Dad, and this oddly name store and it's even odder façade had shoes in the window that she knew her Dad would love. Vintage leather Oxford shoes, her Dad always joked an “Oxford Shoe was the closest he would come to a university education” hmm Dad jokes. “Why would Jude send this letter to me, it makes no sense, maybe it’s a treasure hunt, and this Shoe shop was the first location, Idiot Jude, he could have waited until the weather picked up, it's cold today”.
Grabbing her coat and scarf Mia set out convinced this was one of Jude's fanciful acts of randomness. As she walks, she thought yes Jude is random, but a treasure hunt takes planning, Jude is spontaneous but has little patience and drive to commit to something like this. That is when her doubt kicked in, she got the odd feeling that something may be wrong.
Mia found the shop, it was as she remembered a very old weather scared Façade, grubby windows that have not seen a chamois in a number of years. The same pair of shoes she eyed for her Father was still in the window, nothing seemed to have changed with the exception of a dusty red curtain, which Mia could not remember seeing last time she browsed outside this shoe shop.
Was Jude in the shop? Or was there a clue, scanning the window, door, and wall she saw nothing, no note no riddle, the usual thing you would see on a treasure hunt, ok Mia thought, with trepidation, I have to go in and if Jude is in here, I'm going to give him a piece of my mind. So, with concern for Jude and a growing feeling of unease Mia approached and opened the door, “Yuk cobwebs...”
Amrik and Sam stood in the kitchen. Sam was fiddling with the new coffee maker, pressing buttons, watching the tiny lights blinking.
'You need to put water in the bin, mate. At the back.’
'Ah c'mon Am', you do it. I don't get these gadgets. Good at pulling pints though, me. Eh?’
'Perhaps,' said Amrik, 'so you say ...'
'Jeez, are you goin' to make this coffee?’
Amrik raised his eyes to the ceiling, then filled the water-bin with one hand whilst slipping a capsule into the machine, closing the lid and pressing the start button with the other.
'Y'know you're so good at these mechanics. Maybe you've put one of your stupid inventions in that box.’
'Hah! or you could have put the dead body of that waster, your father, in it!’
The two young men glared at each across the kitchen table. Then the ends of Amrik's small black moustache curved upwards as his mouth opened into a huge grin. 'Let's open it and see,' he said.
They strolled back into the hall, the coffee machine was buzzing, spitting out brown steamy liquid into a mug.
There were no locks on the box and no handles. The grubby iron-banded wooden lid couldn't be lifted.
'Solid ain't it?' said Sam, 'Best leave it alone. Call the p'lice, Eh?’
'Wait there's a little button here, just near the base, very odd but...' Amrik pressed the button, the lid slowly rose at one end, just an inch.
'Christ you would find it. Go on. Keep pressing it!’
Amrik held his finger on the button; the lid opened jerkily, a 'clunk' from inside with each jerk. Sunlight shafting through the window above the hall door slowly revealed the contents of the box. The two men peered inside.
'Jesus Christ!' said Sam.
'So what happens now?' Amrik cried.
All her life Mia had arachnophobia, fear of spiders. The cobwebs almost made her collapse in fear but the three-legged dark stained bentwood chair was sticking out as if to catch Mia. She leaned on it and growled seeing it had one leg missing.
‘Why would you put a broken chair at a shop entrance!’ She quickly thought. Brushing her clothes off, checking no spider anywhere on her hair, Mia looked around. The darkness is bothering her and she felt strange. Perhaps a little afraid.
‘What am I doing here’, Mia cried aloud with a quiver in her naturally husky voice which muses her fans at the jazz club she sings on Sundays. Did she hear footsteps? Or was that a cough? ‘Hello, anybody here?’. She waited. Stood there. She touched her face trying to see if it’s all real. Then pulled out the letter from her coat pocket she received with the most bizarre cryptic words. Yours and Mine Jude, Mia whispered.
Unnerving as the afternoon has turned out to be, Mia closed her eyes, took a deep breath as she took off her yellow crochet scarf. Oh, what was that smell? She sniffed, twice. Ah, she knows! She squinted and looked around in the dark dusty shop.
A flickering trail of sadness came over her. Such a familiar perfume. It was Jude’s favourite when they were in love with each other and travelling through India. Jude wore it every day in the hot summer evenings and walking the streets holding Mia’s hand, humming catchy local Bollywood tunes together. That was 7 years back and Jude never wore that perfume again after the horrible breakup at the airport.
‘Jude are you in here? Where are you?’
‘Ahem. Madam, size 7, I think or is it size 7.5?’. The shop owner startled Mia. ‘Where is Jude?’ she asked.
Naomi walked quickly down Green Street not turning back once towards the house she shared with four others. It occurred how little her housemates knew about her. It was easy to keep her distance and give little away and Naomi realised she had the perfect cover for her future career.
At her first interview in an unremarkable building, in an unremarkable street, in an unremarkable London suburb, she was told to stick to the truth as much as possible. And she had. It was very true that she was highly skilled at writing code. It was even true that she wrote code for clients who were prepared to pay. But no one knew the direction in which Naomi wished to travel.
Naomi stopped in a doorway. She buttoned up her coat as the September days were turning cooler. The doorway led to a small newsagent which appeared empty apart from a woman behind the counter who looked both bored and watchful at the same time. Naomi decided to enter, walking over to a rack displaying magazines and newspapers. From where she stood she could see outside into the street and was relieved to see that no one was following her from Green Street. Naomi picked up a magazine about houses and interior design and as she did so she slid out the letter she had picked up earlier before leaving Green Street. Using the magazine as a shield, she opened her letter and began to read its contents.
The sender’s address suggested a civil service department that might be part of the Home Office. The letter advised Naomi that she had passed her latest interview but made no mention of the fact that this interview had consisted of a gruelling code making exam. Then Naomi was shocked to read ‘ Solve Hearts and Minds. Report tonight!’
Naomi had suddenly been dropped into a new reality; a reality where her hard-earned skills were now being put to the test.
She had already built a cover with the four other housemates she lived with, but it was a risky move. Living with one of the targets could destroy everything she had already worked for; and Naomi was not a people-person.
Code however, was like second nature, a second language, or even an art form for Naomi. “That’s it!” she muttered almost too loudly. “I need to break down their code, find a weak spot to get to Jude. That’s my way in! I just need to read them in the same way I read code.”
She trudged through the data in her mind.
Sam; a half-baked practical joker with almost no respect for Jude’s authority as head of the house. Despite being friends, I doubt he has any involvement with Jude. He’s not the one.
Mia; always follows the pecking order, does her bit to keep things together in the house and pines after Jude like a schoolgirl. If I ask her about Jude, I’ll be bombarded with irrelevant material and I need solid intel.
That just leaves Amrik; with his crazy inventions, I thought for sure that Amrik was a target. He could still be involved? If he is, there’s the risk that he might blow my cover. I can’t think about that now though. It’s clear that Amrik is the only option available. I’d better make my move…
Naomi made her way back to the house on Green Street.
When she reached the steps to the house, a strange glow caught her eye.
Naomi rushed up the steps and burst through the door. Sam was startled and nearly fell six feet across the hallway as Amrik slammed the box shut, but just a fraction too late.
“Is that…” Naomi composed herself. “Is that what I think it is?”
The man held out a pair of expensive pale grey calf shoes, seeming to offer her one, like Prince Charming before his Cinderella. Mia shuddered knowing they would fit as if made just for her.
Her mouth was dry and it was difficult to speak but she managed ‘I’don’t want shoes. I want to know where Jude is and who you are?’
‘Such a hurry. It would be better if you sat down and we’ll see if we can find you something suitable if you don’t like these. Mia felt sick but something else as well. Reminded, reminded of someone from the past, before Jude, before Sam or Amrik or Naomi , before 121 Green Street.
His hands, cradling a pair of black ballet pumps, were smooth and pale and on the little finger of his right hand was a gold band with a tiny diamond at its centre and Mia knew.
‘I know! You were the caretaker at the hall. The tango classes.’
She saw again the pale hand pressed against the door letting everyone out at the end of the class and the tiny speck of light on the little finger.
‘Oh, I have more than one job.’ The sharp perceptive eyes were watching her intently.
‘For Christ’s sake will you tell me what’s going on. Where’s Jude.?
‘Please don’t get upset. I only wanted to be part of it?’
‘Part of what? For God’s sake!’
Your lives but it got more involved than I had anticipated.
Naomi glared at Sam and Amrik. A deep-seated anger bubbled inside her. She could not believe that Sam and Amrik had decided to open the box.
They looked at Naomi like two naughty schoolboys then both tried to blame each other.
Trying to ease the tension and the furious look on Naomi's face, Sam pulled up a chair told Naomi “take a chill pill” and poured her a cup of coffee.
Naomi knew she needed to calm down or the boys might become suspicious, she held the cup of warm liquid in her hands to ease the shaking.
Both boys were now concerned and enquired if everything was alright, Naomi knew she must act fast. She explained that she had received upsetting news in her letter. An elderly Aunt whom she was very fond of had been rushed into hospital.
This had diffused the situation and taken everyone’s mind off the box.
Naomi now felt calmer the colour returned to her cheeks and she had stopped shaking, she thought this experience would stand her in good stead for far worse situations she would inevitably encounter in the future.
A mischievous grin spread across Naomis’ face and she casually exclaimed “well boys what did you discover in our mystery box?"
‘Well err-um “ Shall you tell her or shall I?’
Neither boys spoke for a moment then Amrik began
‘Um, okay’ interrupted Sam. ‘It appears to be to do with all of us’
‘Yes, all of us with each of our powers and influences accounted for’
‘I don’t understand any of this. Sam, are you sure this isn’t one of your so-called pranks?’
‘Some of my tricks took planning and manipulating to come off. But this is in another league’
‘Well, whatever it is I am not staying with it for a moment longer.’
Amrik looked flustered, impatient.
‘Where did Mia disappear to? Is she missing now too?’ Naomi pleaded.
Both boys shrugged and Sam muttered something about Mia “dangerously seeking Jude”
‘This is no longer a joke, Sam.’
‘Uhh…do either of you guys know a place or a themed experience, or a club perhaps called ‘Hearts & Minds?’
‘That rings a bell’ Amrik began
‘Yes, for me too!’ shouted Sam. ‘A bell in a shoe shop!’
Suddenly odd noises were heard from somewhere very close by. They all looked from the box, towards the window, at each other and back to the shuffling sounds, growing louder and more insistent. A dazzling light seemed to be trying to escape.
Sam broke first ‘Woah! What’s happening? I feel as if I’m falling backwards, tumbling down a hill’
Amrik sat down hard on the floor and began to weep.
With one jump Naomi grabbed the box and forced it to open fully.
‘Our priority has to be to find Jude and Mia’ begged Sam.
‘We are all grownups. This is man-made, a machine. I am convinced of that’
Amrik used his inventive head to calm the situation.
A loud rat-a-tat startled them.
‘Who-who are you’ squeaked Naomi, nearest the door.
A hand reached around as she opened it very cautiously
On its little finger was a gold ring with a tiny diamond''
It was Jude. He looked dishevelled and was covered in cobwebs.
'We haven't got much time', he said as he rushed towards the now fully opened box, extending the hand in which he held the ring. 'Is everyone here?'
A warm, slowly pulsating gleam lit up his face as he leaned forward to look inside. Amrik could have sworn that his mouth curled into a satisfied grin for a split second, but when he looked again, Jude's expresion was that of a serious concern.
Amrik, Sam and Mia all followed Jude and gathered around the box. Enveloped in its orange light, they marvelled at the object inside.
None of them knew what its purpose was. It was a half-sphere with an uneven surface made of a dark metal. There were many irregular crevices and pin-sized holes through which the light was escaping. On closer inspection, the metal exterior was full of miniscule and intricate detail. None of them could recognize any of the shapes that appeared to have been meticulously carved into the dome. There were patterns, some of them unique, others repeating, seemingly carefully planned and placed in a precise order.
'Mia is gone' Naomi said, moving her gaze away from the mysterious object to look at Jude.
'Rats. We'll have to do this without her' he answered as he reached in and grabbed the glowing object.
There was an audible gasp, as none of them were expecting Jude to actually touch it.
He slowly turned the half-sphere upside down, to reveal its flat base. It was embellished with the same patterns as the top, and at its centre was a small cavity.
Its shape perfectly matched that of the ring Jude was holding in his other hand.
As Jude started to shift his other hand containing the ring towards the mysterious object a loud humming sound was felt vibrating throughout the room. The vibrations were bone chilling and forced everyone to their knees.
'Jude stop!' Cried Naomi, however at this point Jude was almost dazed and fixated on the strange device apparently immune to the effects everybody else was feeling.
Jude continued moving the ring closer to the cavity ' I just... I have to...'
The light intensified from the device casting a projector effect on the wall, a pattern was emerging... it was an image of a heart and a brain.
Amrik, the first to observe the projection screamed to the others 'What is that?'
'HEARTS AND MINDS' Naomi screamed, recalling the letter from Green Street.
Suddenly there was an intense flash of white light. The vibrations had stopped. Amrik still dazed glanced around the room. Everything felt different, however, some how the same. The strange object now lying on the floor however Jude was nowhere to be seen.
Naomi was the first to break the silence 'What on earth just happened. Where is Jude?
A soft, steady whirling noise started to get louder and Naomi’s gaze shifted to the floor where the gold ring Jude had been holding came out of spin; wobbling around on its edge and clunking loudly to a stop. The three friends gawped at it for a second, as if staring at a ring in a Tolkien novel.
Jude’s arms were outstretched as he slid along planks of dusty wood on his back, feet first, at great speed. He was shooting across the floor of a very large, unfamiliar room. Terrified and frantic, Jude flailed for anything that would slow him down. His fingers raw from where he had been trying to claw them into the ground.
“Try not to ruin the brogues when you land.” He remembered. “They’re a nightmare to shine up again.”
Jude tilted his toes towards the ceiling, wincing and blindly hoping that he was doing the right thing. His heels pressed hard into the wood, sparks emitting from both shoes. Quickly, and with great relief, he came to a comfortable stop.
He laid on the floor gazing up at an extremely high ceiling interlaced with colourful stained glass. The giant room was dark and shadowy but sunlight played softly, high above him, illuminating the gothic figures from years gone by.
“I can’t believe it”, he thought, shaking his head and laughing under his breath. “Mr Astaire was bloody right!” Amazed, Jude slid his hands through his dark hair which was splashed with what he termed as “sexy mid-30s shimmery grey”.
Mr Astaire, the strange man in the purple velvet waistcoat at the shoe shop, had been telling the truth the entire time. He referred to the rings, of which there were five, as “ Revolvers”; they would take you there. The shoes, well the shoes were the only way to stop once you arrived.
Jude slowly pulled himself up off the floor, brushed dust from his clothing, and stood, hands on hips surveying his new surroundings; his eyes soon adjusting to the shadows that were cast around him.
"Where am I?" He thought to himself. The place looked oddly familiar, like a dream the freshly awakened mind clings to, barely recalling what happened during the brain's nocturnal visions.
An ice cold draft blew through the abandoned building, as foot steps echoed all around - the great dome of stained glass on the ceiling accentuating the acoustics. Jude shuddered. His spine tingled, feeling as though a finger had been traced down it. He flinched. "Is, is anyone there?" He trembled, unsure as to whether it was the cold, or his own fear that was causing him to shake.
"Mia? Are you there?" His words bounced off walls, and returned to him fainter than when they left his lips, yet no one else returned his calls. I must be alone, he figured. Ahead, he saw an altar adorned with chalices and old leather books. Curiosity got the better of nerves, as Jude cautiously made his way past crumbling gothic statues to investigate.
This place was starting to spook him. Jude was sure that he could see figures standing in the darkness. He glanced over his shoulders, then carried on, eyes darting from left to right. Another glance over his shoulder. Picking up speed he rushed the last few feet until he was stood at the front of the raised, dust covered structure. Warily, he climbed the marble steps until he was over looking the books that had been strewn across. In the chalices, were the remaining few sips of red wine. An imprinted kiss on the the lip of the cup caught his eye. That shade, it was so rare, and undeniably belonged to Mia!
The dark blue Nissan had been parked across the road from 121 all morning. The weak September sun was beginning to break through the windscreen, giving some welcome heat to both Geoff and Di. They were quietly happy that that hadn’t been given the night shift.
Di flipped through the notes she has been given. It wasn’t easy to say, with any confidence, who, if anybody, was still in the house. They had certainly not seen any movement in the three hours they’d been on duty. Di looked across at the drawn curtains hoping for at least a little twitch. A little excitement. Nothing. The house was as still and as quiet as the warehouse they’d been watching last week. That had been a waste of time. Three eight hour shifts and all they had to report on was the removal of one large wooden box. They’d tried to follow the driver, but the less said about that the better. Let’s just say that their boss wasn’t too happy. They were lucky that they weren’t immediately rewarded with the night shift.
“This Jude guy. Is that the same one who was caught up with that...?” Geoff suddenly stopped talking. He nudged Di and pointed with his chin. The door to number 121 had been opened. There was no sign of anyone but they both knew that it was closed only a couple of minutes earlier.
They sat in silence, hunkered down in their seats, regretting that the sun was now throwing a spotlight on them.
“Do you think we should go in?” whispered Di.
Geoff gave a few seconds of thought to the question.
“Might be our only chance.”
synchronised, they both bent down , picked up their clipboards and pens, swung open their doors and stepped out into Green Street.
Di led the way up the short garden.
Just before Di and Geoff reached the open door, Di stopped and nudged her partner.
"Idiot, look, we've staked outside the wrong house. 121 is next door - where all those people have been in and out all morning!"
They jumped over the wobbly, wooden fence and knocked loudly on the correct door.
What followed was, to Di, probably the most complicated story she had heard for quite a while. The notes she had taken on her clipboard did little to clear-up the situation.
'Mysterious Chest from nowhere. Jude has gone missing. Jude's ex-lover gone to look for him(?), but Mia, Amrik and Sam can't remember if she returned (need to check this out). The words Hearts and Minds have some meaning (??), Naomi (who had left and then returned) seemed very interested in these two words. Jude had suddenly returned, wearing a ring that nobody claimed to recognise. Sam and Amrik had opened the chest - something weird happened with Jude - and they haven't seen him since'.
As clear as mud.
Geoff instructed Sam, Amrik and Naomi to wait in the lounge. He and Di found some privacy in the kitchen, where there was a faint smell of coffee.
"This Naomi girl knows something. She was too interested in the Hearts and Minds thing." Geoff paused and Di jumped in.
"You're right. All we seem to know is that they say Jude was here and isn't anymore. Mia was here too, may have been back, but is not in the house now."
Geoff takes the lead again. "We need help. Call The Boss".
Di takes out her phone and is just about to dial The Boss when Naomi appears at the kitchen door.
"I have to go, my aunt is very sick". Without waiting for a response, she dashes down the corridor, past the chest and out.
The phone in Di's hand starts vibrating...
Naomi was flustered and spiralling through too many thoughts rushing through her mind all at once, trying to make sense of how she had fallen so deeply into her first investigation. She kept trying to call her superior, who she only knew as ‘The Boss’ up until this point. With each call it beeped out, no voicemail option and it wasn’t routine to leave a message anyway.
Taking refuge in a bus shelter off the corner of Green Street, she tried once more. Success!
Naomi thought the words would gush from her brain and off her tongue, but she stopped.
‘Agent Naomi Walters reporting in…’
‘What’s your location?’
Moments later, Naomi was stepping out of a sleek black car and back into 121 Green Street with a slender woman in a pristine white suit.
‘Boss’ followed by a nod from Geoff and Di as they stood firmly in the hallway.
Before anyone could speak the woman presented herself.
‘You may all have questions and in due course you will be granted the opportunity. To answer your first question before you feel the need, I’m Jane. I am an agent for a secret organisation known as The Bureau. We have been watching you for some time and for the moment you are not in any danger. You will however need to come with us to our headquarters.’
Jane gestured to the door and the gang reluctantly followed like children who had just been scolded.
The household emptied into the streets where more black cars were lined up with men standing beside them. Amrik and Sam were signalled to get into the nearest car. Naomi followed Geoff and Di to the next. A team of men in black suits carried the box to another large car and placed it in the back.
Doors closed and the gang made a last glance at the house before the cars pulled away.
The sleek motorcade drove steadily through central London, prompting curious glances from pedestrians.
Sam shifted in his seat. "Not particularly subtle are we?" he remarked. Amrik stifled a laugh and the driver shot them a severe look.
The car came to a halt and the two men peered through the window at the Orwellian building looming above them.
"Out," the driver barked.
Naomi was already standing by a pair of sliding glass doors at the foot of the building as Sam and Amrik approached. She clenched her jaw. Things were escalating fast and she knew her cover was wearing thin.
"Hey genius," said Amrik quietly, "Do you know what the hell is going on?"
Just as Naomi opened her mouth to reply, the sliding doors parted and Jane emerged, flanked by Geoff and Di.
"We're ready for you now," Jane announced coolly.
Naomi's heart pounded as a small-but-elegant lift carried them up through the building. Her stomach sank as they climbed higher and higher. Was she really cut out for this?
"You okay?" whispered Amrik.
"You look pale, Naomi," added Sam, peering at her over Geoff's broad shoulder.
"She's fine." Di's voice seemed too loud for the confined space.
A few uncomfortably quiet seconds later, the lift doors opened to reveal a gleaming open-plan room.
"Well isn't this swish!" Sam exclaimed, rushing over to the huge windows. "You can see everything! There’s Tower Bridge! And over there! It's that pub we went to for Amrik's 25th! Love that place. And there -" he stopped as he turned back to the group. Jane glowered at him. "Sorry."
"Agent Walters," Jane began.
Amrik guffawed. "Agent? What is she on about Naomi?"
Jane sighed. "A little respect perhaps, Mr. Bakshi? You quite literally owe Agent Walters your life."
"Yes, I'm Agent Walters," said Naomi. "As if it has anything to do with you!"
The housemates stared at her.
"Come on, guys, what was I to do? You have to be a millionaire to afford anywhere to live alone in London and when your advert came up. A nice quiet, unobtrusive address. I wouldn't have bothered you if you hadn't bothered me, but there you were, all so pally, some to Amrik's twenty-fifth birthday bash, take it in turns to cook Sunday lunch for everyone. You're such a naive, innocent set of kids. I owe you nothing but you know what? I made the first mistake in the book, I began to care about you. Your welfare mattered to me and once you got involved, I couldn't just throw you to the wolves. I do apologise, Boss. I should have found some grungy room by myself, I thought I could do it but I couldn't."
"All is not lost, Agent Walters," said the Boss levelly. "But now these people are involved, would it be best to detain them or recruit them."
"Please don't detain us," said Amrik, aware he was waffling. "It's my parents' wedding anniversary next week and they'd never forgive me if I wasn't home."
The Boss swept cool, cynical eyes over them. "There are more important things at stake here than any of your families or friendships. But we'll see. Can you meet a challenge?"
They each nodded, although they were quaking a little.
"Can you be confidential? In my experience, few people really can. By confidential I mean that any information dropped into your mind is as if dropped into a dark, still well. You will look normal on the outside, preserve your normal demeanour whatever happens. If you refuse, or any one of you does, you will be returned to your house and watched.
Meanwhile, the obscurities of Jude's situation didn't hesitate to complicate things much more. Jude examined the grimy piles of books. Most of them were irrelevant and useless. The titles included the following: 'How to fight a Giantortoise' (a giant tortoise, as the name suggests) and 'How to find Griffins' ,which seemed just as unnecessary. Jude continued the investigation; little did he know that these books would save his life very soon.
Light leisurely lingered in the minute crevasses and slowly procured the will to penetrate. A creak like a rusted swing set vibrated across the floorboards and a chill steadily trickled down Jude's spine. Suddenly, he was aware of a sinister presence. Plods echoed around the room and Jude felt like he was inside a drum. A car-sized, scaly creature emerged from around the corner. Black beady eyes gazed ravenously. A thick shell clung to its back. You guessed it: it was a Giantortoise.
Jude -as any being with any sense would have done- kept discreet. In the eerie tranquillity, subsided by the disturbing sniffling of the Giantortoise. The unfortunate victim silently crept towards the books and meticulously slid 'How to fight a Giantortoise' out of its compact compartment. He flicked through the pages and realised immediately that there was only one page. On that page was one sentence: 'Find a Griffin'.
"Well that was helpful," Jude thought.
He fumbled for 'How to find Griffins'. Much like the other book, there was only one sentence: 'Face a fear and a Griffin will be near (hold up the book as you do so)'. Jude flamboyantly strutted up to the monster and held up the book. Nothing happened. Then his stare fixed on a skirt, which draped from the beast's chin. It was queerly familiar.
Jude suddenly remembered why the skirt was so familiar. It reminded him of his great-aunt Ermintrude's curtains, the ones that hung drawn tightly together in the musty old drawing room of her home. The edges were faded where the chinks of sunlight had weedled their way into the room quietly not wanting to alert the sentries at the window of their presence. From inside of the room the floral pattern looked rigid as it stood in neat rows of blue and pink floral sprays. It was the flowers on the fabric of the skirt draped around the Beast's chin that most resembled the curtains. Suddenly Jude remembered that great-aunt Ermintrude gave the surplus material to the vicar's wife so that she could sew skirts for the summer fete. Jude began to worry that the Beast had devoured Reverend Jolly's wife and all that was left of her was her floral skirt.
Jude reached into his pocket and found a mouldy bit of biscuit covered in bits of fluff and some small pieces of tissue. He offered it on an outstretched hand to the Beast. He hoped that the snack, all be it a bit gross would be enough to distract the Beast while he tried to see if it had indeed swallowed Reverend Jolly's wife Matilda or had just managed to snatch one of her floral creations as it snaked around the vicarage.
The Beast was enjoying the mouldy snack and didn't seem to be displaying any signs of having eaten anyone. To Jude's amazement, he seemed a well mannered Beast who chewed carefully, removed all the fluff and tissue and used the floral skirt as a napkin to catch any crumbs. The mystery remained as to how the Beast managed to have a skirt remarkably similar to the ones Matilda Jolly had made for the church fete and why he was using it as a napkin.
The beast had finished the mouldy biscuit and was now looking longingly at Jude in hope of another, "sorry beastie that's all I had", Jude was tentatively making his way along the wall past the beast and toward the back corner of the dank dingy dungeon-like room where he could see an orange glow emanating from a box, not unlike the one he had just encountered at home.
On reaching the box and with one eye on the beast whose gaze was still fixed upon him and had now spun around to face him full-on, "it's ok beastie he whispered as calmly as was possible whilst holding his breath at the same time", Jude leaned over and peered into the box and at that moment he finally understood, he knew he had to retrieve the other box and reunite the two.
"It's ok beastie I know where it is", Jude wondered if he were to touch the glowing object would it return him, only one way to find out he muttered and just as before, without hesitation he thrust his hand upon the brightly lit object.
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