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 The Only Thing That Counts

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Anthony van
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PostSubject: The Only Thing That Counts   Wed Oct 11, 2017 5:13 pm

Chapter nine – Story time

            As soon as he could Steve rode his motorbike home, got into his car and went to the local police station. There was a constable at the front desk. He looked up as Steve entered and then resumed working through some menial task. Steve approached, not confident at all about how to tell his story.

“Can I help you?” he asked before he had actually looked up.

“Well, it’s hard to know where to begin,” began Steve, “You see it’s a pretty weird and amazing story.” He was just about to launch into his sequenced account when the constable interrupted him.

“Start with your name and address,” he said perfunctorily, grabbing a formatted note pad and then looking at Steve with pen poised. Steve gave him his personal details responding to the policeman’s pedestrian patter.

“Now what seems to be the problem?” said the constable in his practised manner. Then fixing his eyes on Steve he added, “You been in a fight or somethin’?”

“No, no... but my injuries are part of the story.”

“Hit ‘n run?” The constable made another stab as if playing a guessing game. Steve shook his head and wished the man would just listen. Maybe he would say ‘Give me a clue’ and then Steve would know he was going crazy. Instead, the policeman seemed to remember his training and suggested, “Why don’t you start at the beginning?” A number of retorts came to Steve’s mind but none were particularly helpful.

            Steve began, “A couple of weeks ago I contacted someone regarding the supply of plants—you see I run a plant nursery, Sunset Nursery. Anyway the deal seemed unusually secret…” Steve went on with his story with his listener looking slightly bored. The constable had stopped writing fairly early into the story. He cut out the detail and went straight to the emails, handing them over to the rather perplexed PC. After reading and then rereading the last email he looked up at Steve as if trying to ascertain his mental stability.

“Why don’t you come to the interview room,” he suggested. “I think the sergeant would like to hear this.”

            Steve was led to a small room and left to sit on a wooden chair. It felt surprisingly like a set from a B-grade movie. There were three wooden chairs and a table, and very little else in the room. Not long after he had settled and started to wonder about his own response to such a story if he’d been told it, the constable walked in with his sergeant.

He held out a hand. “I’m Sergeant McGuiness, and you’ve met Constable Davis.”

Steve shook his hand. “Steven James,” he returned.

“Okay, so what can we do for you Steven?” offered McGuiness in an unconvincing upbeat fashion. Then taking in Steve’s bruised condition said with a little compassion, “You look as though you’ve been through the mill.”

            Steve went over quickly the ground he had already covered, and Davis again took notes, but in a more officious way this time. Steve concluded they were checking the consistency of his story and trying to determine his mental status.

It was when he started on the details relating to the journey into the base, the description of the countless dead bodies and the escape in the submarine that the expressions of the two policemen started to appear incredulous. Steve detected sceptical side glances and an eye roll from the constable when he thought he was out of his peripheral vision. 

“Look,” Steve said as he came to the end of the pertinent events, “I’d be sceptical too if I were you. It is unbelievable, but it happened.”

“What do want us to do about it?” asked the sergeant thinking this was the point where the story may stand or fall.

“Just come with me and check out the factory entrance. If you see what I say is true then, I don’t know, maybe the Federal Police, or even the army.”

Sergeant McGuiness held both hands up and forward in a suppression movement and responded, “Okay now, let’s not jump the gun. We’ll do this step by step. Just wait here and we’ll get back to you in a few minutes.” They left the room quickly. The door which had almost slammed shut, rebounded a little under the influence of a pressure cylinder. Through the slowly closing door, Steve heard the fading comments: “I told you he was a nutter.”

“Shhh… he’ll hear you,” retorted McGuiness.

            While Steve waited impatiently in the featureless room, the sergeant made a call to a superior at the regional policing centre. The superior recommended he hold Steve for psychological testing, something McGuiness found uncalled for at this stage, but he didn’t let on. He also had checks made on Steve’s background, researched with some colleagues about the possibility of top secret bases in the vicinity, had a support squad car called up from off the streets and, all the time, glanced at the closed circuit monitor for any aberrant behaviour from Steve.

            Steve, who wondered whether he’d have a headache for the rest of his life, was just beginning to think they had given up on him, when they walked in.

            “Okay, we’re heading down to the industrial park. When we get there let us handle any investigating. Okay?” he repeated. Almost immediately after McGuiness had reached the first of two squad cars, the police radio was putting out a call. Steve only caught the tail end of the conversation with the sergeant replying.

“Okay, we’re heading over that way so we’ll check it out. We’ll give a call if we need more help. Okay.” He finished off. Steve had already nicknamed the sergeant ‘Okay McGuiness’ for his constant use of that affirmative.

            Having his veracity doubted was not something Steve enjoyed and he was trying to hurry them on to the location in question. But they travelled at normal speed, which to him was far too slowly. Steve felt things were going awry when he saw a pall of smoke thicken as they approached the site. Turning into the last block they saw that the street was congested with fire trucks. The police cars were ushered through and they clambered out to see the remains of what must have been a rather violent explosion and what was still a fierce fire.

            McGuiness gave instructions for the other pair to control traffic near the intersection while they had a closer look. The blaze took almost an hour to subdue. The firemen were mopping up some stubborn embers and a secondary fire that was still burning an adjacent factory when Sergeant McGuiness turned to Steve.

“So this was the factory, right?”

Steve nodded.

“Not much left… everything’s collapsed.”

“I think he might have had something to do with this,” said Davis quietly. “It’s too much of a coincidence.”

            McGuiness told the constable to question Steve further as he wandered off. He had a thoughtful look on his face. Steve’s claims seemed very lame now, with the destruction of his most potent evidence, and he visibly wilted under the questioning of the constable regarding what possible prior knowledge Steve may have had of this ‘conflagration’. He actually used the word ‘conflagration’. He could have said ‘fire’, but having determined from enquiries that Steven was something of a scientist decided to try and impress his interviewee.

            They returned to the police station and Davis went over his story with him in detail. He had an amused smirk on his face as he asked Steve to sign his statement. Sergeant McGuiness popped in to say a captain from regional headquarters was coming over to review his statement and the emails.

 After some ‘be available, don’t go anywhere’ type of advice, Steven fled for his work.

            ‘He could sit around and wait for those threatening him to do something or he could make preparations,’ he thought as he pulled into the nursery.

            Although it was late and everyone had gone home he had to inform John. John and he had always shared their problems. What would he say? He mulled over how their conversation might go. As he walked into the office he saw the computer dismantled. No hard drive. They were destroying all the evidence! He tried to garner his thoughts to evaluate what he had left. Now there was just his home computer and his email provider.

            He dialled the phone and listened as it rang. It was John. “What’s going on Stephen?” he said desperately. “Caz rang me and said she was ‘sent home’. I’ve been trying to get onto you ever since. Are you hurt? If you’ve got some troubles you need to go to the police.”

“I just tried that. It sort of backfired,” he said, realising he’d made a pun, but it was to an unsuspecting audience and was totally wasted. He continued by filling John in on the recent events and responding to his regular queries. At least that indicated he was going with Steve on his story. He concluded with, “John this is really serious stuff and you’re one of the few I can rely on to support me in doing something about this. In fact I may have put a few noses out of joint by leaving them out of the loop.”

            “I think I know what you mean,” replied John thinking of Caz. “If you’re right about this virus, they have to be stopped. I’ll contact some people I know and find out what we can do, but I would bet that they would want a specimen of that virus.”

Steve suggested they fill in Eric about what was happening and bemoaned the fact of the high probability that his submarine exit had literally cleansed him of any residual contaminants. Steve explained that Jimmy and Jodie were keen to get involved, but that he resisted their offers because he worried about the dangers. Before he had finished John told him to keep him informed. In the background Steve heard Fiona’s worried voice asking what was wrong. John said he had to go.

            After that he rang the police to let them know about the computer. They took his details but couldn’t say how soon anyone could come, making some muttered comment about how undermanned they were. Five minutes later he got a call from Sergeant McGuiness.

“Steve, just thought I’d ring and let you know you’re getting a visit from some federal security guy. Seems he’s taking your comments seriously.”

“When?”

“In a few minutes I’d say. Seems our enquiries have ruffled some feathers. He was just going to turn up and surprise you, so I thought I’d warn you, okay.”

“Thanks Sergeant.”

“Okay.” McGuiness ended, and he hung up.

Feeling weary and sore, Steve thought that things were finally looking up.

            Not long after a rap at the door signalled the arrival of his expected visitor.

Steve let him in. The man had dark, close cropped hair, was medium height and weight and his face looked unshaven. Steve could have bet that he had a perpetual after five shadow. He wore a white shirt, red striped blue tie and dark grey suit and came in with a serious expression.

“Steven James?”

“Yes.”

“Let me introduce myself. My name’s Kevin Gratten, I work for a government security division.” He flashed an identity card in his wallet which looked officious, with a photo, a number of capital letters that stood for some government organisation, and an Australian coat of arms. Before Steve could examine it properly the agent replaced it in his jacket.

“I’m here because of the reports you have made to the police,” he continued, “and, firstly, I have to apologise for their lack of action and the doubts they had about you.”

“So you believe me?” Steve was stunned. He hadn’t expected such a turn around so quickly.

“Well, not so fast. I need to explain some things to you that must not go beyond this room.”

“Why? ...Surely, the more people that know the better...”

“Mr James, when you hear what I have to say you will understand.”

Steve nodded in response and the grey Mr Gratten began his explanation.

            “A delegation from a secret US base came to our office today. The base is operating with our cooperation. They know about your visit and wish to prevent any undue panic.” He held up a hand as Steve was about to interrupt. “Please Mr James let me finish. They informed me that a small group of renegade scientists had developed a dangerous biological weapon. However, they were discovered, but in the military’s effort to subdue them the toxic agent was released. As a result many people died. They have assured us, however, that the threat has passed. Because of this the government will be re-examining the role of this base. They hope to continue humanitarian work on a highly technical, and at present secret program.”

            Steve’s response was animated, “That all sounds possible but you weren’t there. The dead bodies, people shot and the place deserted.”

“Yes, they said it would have looked disturbing, especially with the information they discovered you had received. But that is what has happened Mr James. There was some resistance I’m told and, of course, to sterilise the base they evacuated and sealed off the entry which you yourself used.”

            Steve’s head was spinning. It sounded feasible, but there were serious anomalies. Things he couldn’t speak of. Things which, if he did mention them, might find their way back to a callous, murderous enemy. He particularly thought of Malcolm. He couldn’t tell Gratten. They had his confidence... maybe even his support.

            “What happens now?” Steve asked. Maybe he could convince them, through Gratten, that he accepted the explanation.

“Well, first of all you must not breathe a word of this to anyone. The threat is over. The program, which is extremely valuable, will continue at some future time, when safeguards are in place. If you told anyone else you need to explain that there is no problem anymore... that you have received an official explanation.”

“So was it you that informed them about my report to the police?”

“No... not at all, they already knew. They contacted me. It’s obvious they have considerable resources.”

            There was no reference to Malcolm, no comment about the two military officers who appeared anything but guiltless of the mayhem that had occurred. Steve felt that whoever had informed them knew only the police report.

“So can I count on you to keep this strictly to yourself?” Gratten asked as he stood, and by standing indicating that he had said his piece and was ready to leave.

“I don’t think anyone would believe me anyway,” was Steve’s non- committal reply as he also rose and shook the departing agent’s hand.

            When he was alone Steve wondered about what had happened to Malcolm. After an inward groan of despair for one who had been a friend all too briefly, he dragged himself out of his stupor. He grabbed a pen and scrap of paper and he wrote a short list of people who could be responsible for relating his story to the other side? Added to his list of friends and family (which he discounted anyway) were a number of police, the government security agent - Kevin Gratten, and maybe someone at the university. Perhaps Professor Leipstein who he remembered said ‘viral immunology is my thing’. He discounted that almost immediately as he remembered how the professor had mentored him through university. Last of all was a question mark. It may well be someone who was unknown to him, someone just watching.

            He shrugged his shoulders and the action brought tears to his eyes as his left arm ached in protest. He stood holding his arm, and realised that he had to do something about the computer. That might cause more problems. He brainstormed various strategies to minimise disruption at work.

The last thing he did before locking up was ring Jimmy and organise the acquisition of a new computer. Probably because of Caz’s good management rather than anything else, they would have some data key drives containing all the business files.

            Steve slipped off home absolutely wrung out after what had been another long and incredible day. Witnessing the shocking loss of life just one day ago was starting to soak into his psyche. People with families, friends and relationships just snuffed out by some insidious germ. The grotesque forms of bodies twisted by pain as death overtook them, played on his mind. At home he sat at the kitchen table with his head in his hands. The immensity of the scheme, the complex and the sophistication of the technology was overwhelming. Even though he was hungry, he settled for a large drink of milk and then dragged himself off to bed.

            Once he found a comfortable position, sleep came rapidly as the events of the day took their toll. His mind wondered into the strange world of the subconscious.

            ‘Driving along a highway, the car was big but indistinct and the countryside was rushing past. There were passengers going along with him, anonymous, indistinguishable. The double lane highway passed by faster. The surface began to undulate, the car becoming airborne as it careened ever faster, almost out of control on a suddenly rough, lumpy roadway.

The highway evaporated and Steve was conscious of racing along a narrow street, with shops and people. Now he was speeding through a congested market. He was trying to look back to see where he missed the highway; how had he turned off?

Everything had stopped. He had crashed. Into what, he didn’t know. There were crowds.

“You’ve wrecked the car and it’s not yours,” a voice was saying.

“I think I’m lost.” Steve heard himself reply lamely. He was worried about his passengers, but he couldn’t visualise anyone.

I’m lost, I’ve wrecked the car and it’s not mine. Those were his thoughts as he woke up uncomfortably.

He remembered the dream.

 

            He got up and poured himself another glass of milk. That of course stirred up his appetite and he served up a bowl of cereal to fend off his hunger. He must thank Jodie for getting him the cereal and milk.

            Still battered and tender from his ordeal he crawled back into bed. His sleep continued to be restless with other dreams reflecting the anguish he had experienced, but none remained with him other than the car rushing down the highway. And those gnawing thoughts stayed with him; ‘I’m lost, I’ve wrecked the car and it’s not mine.’
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