Playback

by Jacqui Pack


Inside, the diner looked exactly like the ones you see in the movies. Glass fronted, door at one end, a row of tables with those built-in padded seats along the window and a polished counter stretching all the way down the room. There was even a television mounted high on the wall. It was hardly welcoming, though to be honest, it didn’t have to be. Having spent the last eight hours hitching I was glad just to see furniture.

The place was pretty much empty. I walked to the counter and ordered a coffee. There was the usual moment of hesitation from the waitress: Too young to be travelling alone, quickly replaced by: Not my problem. She handed over the change without speaking and moved away. I hung my jacket over the chair back, sat down and turned my attention to the TV.

“However, residents are still reporting sightings. Retail and leisure businesses are severely affected, with restaurants particularly suffering their worst slump in trade for over fifty years. I’m joined in the studio by Gilda Caulton, Mayor of Woodruff.

“Ms Caulton, thank you for joining us.”

Gilda Caulton looked like an old-style schoolmistress. Not old exactly, but bony with sharp features and a chest that caved inwards. Not the sort you instantly warmed to, although you had to respect the fact that she’d made it to Mayor. It’s never easy to be taken seriously doing what’s seen as a man’s job. I can testify to that. She gave the interviewer a politician’s smile, the sort that doesn’t reach the eyes, and looked far too sincerely into the camera when she spoke.

“It’s a pleasure to be here, Clifford. And it’s also a pleasure to reassure the people of Woodruff that this situation will shortly be resolved. Last night I was able to negotiate the release of an extra $500,000 of funding, which has been made immediately available. My office is currently inviting tenders from various specialist agencies and...”

I rolled the dregs of my coffee around the plastic cup. That kind of money would not only keep me travelling in style for a long time but prove to my father I really could hack it alone. Not that he’d said anything. He didn’t have to. I’d been picking up a bit of work as I travelled, but only enough to keep me afloat. The last couple of weeks though, well, let’s say opportunity hadn’t come knocking.

I paid my bill and plugged into my iPod. Nope, opportunity had made herself pretty scarce lately. Now suddenly here she was, hanging off the doorbell and hollering through the letterbox, demanding to be let in. I had a call to make.

Looking around, I spotted a pay phone at the end of the counter. As I walked toward it, I noticed the diner’s only other customer, a narrow, wiry man, his hair slicked back from his pointy face. He looked up as I passed him. His eyes followed me across the room. I could still feel his stare crawling over my back as I dialled the operator and asked to be connected to the Town Hall. As it turned out, once I’d gotten through, it wasn’t a long call.

“Hey, gorgeous,” the man called over as I replaced the receiver. “No one home? I could give you a ride someplace if Daddy’s too busy.”

He laid on the innuendo as thickly as he’d greased his hair. The creep was sleaze personified, but I’d handled worse vermin than him. Maybe some people are born that way; others, well, maybe life does it to them. Either way there’s no excuse. People like that, they see a young girl alone and think they can take advantage.

They can’t. And things aren’t always the way they seem.

I debated whether to reply but in the end decided just to ignore him. He wasn’t worth the effort. I’d only been able to leave a message at the Town Hall but a verbal contract is a contract all the same. It wasn’t as though they were going to get a better offer.

I had things to do and a long night ahead of me.

* * *

The next day I made my way up the Town Hall’s gum-daubed steps and into Reception. It hadn’t been easy to get an appointment with Ms Caulton, but charm, persistence, and a little lying had finally paid off. On the way in I’d picked up a copy of the local rag. The morning’s headline confirmed everything I needed to know.

Caulton’s office had a thick carpet, magnolia walls and a flattering portrait of the President which smiled benignly down onto the large mahogany desk. Despite the imposing flower arrangement by the window, the only smell was furniture polish.

Ms Caulton was at her desk. She didn’t get up to greet me.

“Do come in, Miss...”

“Elinham. Piper Elinham.” I stretched out my hand, let it hover and then withdrew it, unshaken. So much for sisterhood.

“I’m afraid I’m rather in the dark as to the reason for your visit.”

She wasn’t, and we both knew it. But that’s how the game goes. Rule One, never reveal your hand until you’ve sussed your opponent’s cards.

“I called yesterday, and I explained everything to your secretary again this morning. Basically, you had a problem and a budget of $500,000 to deal with it. I’ve solved your problem. I’m here to collect my money.”

She gave me a blank look. A real pro. No wonder she was Mayor.

“A cheque would be fine,” I prompted.

Her eyes narrowed. “Who sent you, Miss Elinham? Father? Boyfriend, perhaps?”

That old chestnut again. “I don’t need men to look after me. I work alone.”

“I don’t believe you for one second. Just as I don’t believe you have anything to do with our recently resolved problem.”

“It could be unresolved, you know,’ I laid the newspaper out on her desk. ‘You had a problem. Now you don’t. Thanks to me. You owe me.”

She pushed the paper aside and cleared her throat. Looking up she blasted me with one of her politician’s smiles and in a voice as cold as her eyes replied, “Miss Elinham, you’re fifteen, sixteen? Perhaps you are unaware that such matters are handled and dealt with through proper channels. Run along back to your boyfriend, or whatever low-life put you up to this. Please don’t waste my time. And don’t think that you will achieve anything with such outlandish attempts to extort money.” She pressed a button on her intercom. “Security, to my office please.”

In these situations I’ve found it’s best to just narrow the eyes and drop the voice a notch. Whoever you’re talking to generally gets the message.

“Who exactly do you think you’re dealing with? What do you think happened? Where are the bodies? You know it wasn’t your agencies. Those amateurs with their coumatetralyl and bromadiolone, zinc phosphide or,” I laughed, “ergocalciferol? Useless.”

The President didn’t seem fazed but Caulton looked worried. Finally. I was getting through, but I hadn’t finished yet.

“Clear your debt to me,” I intoned, leaning over the desk.

She rose, her thin frame trembling. Fear, anger, adrenaline? Whatever it was, I wasn’t expecting what happened next. I thought I had her on the ropes.

“You, you... fantasist. Get out of my office. Security!”

The door burst open and two burly gorillas pinioned my arms.

“Fantasist!” I spat back, struggling to keep upright. I didn’t shout. There was no need to lower myself. I held all the aces even if she didn’t know it. “You’re the one who depends on men to get by. You’ll pay me, Caulton, one way or another. You’re going to regret this.”

Her scrawny little chest heaved up and down and her knuckles turned white as she gripped the desk. She looked like she might hyperventilate but I didn’t see much more. At that point I was dragged away by her hired thugs, my heels leaving twin tracks in the shag pile.

* * *

I dusted myself down outside the town hall. Caulton hadn’t even had the courtesy to listen properly. Mine’s a traditional family business and I’ve got a reputation to maintain. My father had warned me about this type of situation. “Always keep your side of the contract,” he’d said, “if someone chooses to break theirs then they also choose the consequences.”

Well, I’d as good as made a contract with Caulton even if she did refuse to honour it. She hadn’t left me with a choice. It was consequences time. I fished out my iPod, flicked on its external speaker and scrolled down the playlists. I call it an iPod, it’s easier that way. To be honest though, my machine’s got a bit more to it than Apple’s.

Take the playlists for example. Every species of animal hears at different frequencies. Beluga whales go right up to 123,000Hz but your average human starts to lose things around 23,000Hz. Everyone knows how a dog can hear things people can’t, right? But there are also frequencies, vibrations if you like, unique to each species, which bypass the ear and connect straight to the primary neo-subneural cortex. That’s what my iPod’s playlists consist of, and I knew exactly which one I was going to use.

As I walked through the town the streets became busier. People, men, started appearing in shop doorways, getting out of cars, coming out of offices. Postmen, bank tellers, mechanics, journalists, teachers, orthodontists, bailiffs, policemen, tailors, salesmen, they all fell in line behind me.

There was an advert I saw once where a guy used a certain deodorant, and then had women trailing around after him. Apart from reversing the roles this looked much the same. It was just on a far larger scale.

Onwards I went, trailing my army of admirers. Still more joined, still they followed; park keepers, house husbands, opticians, road sweepers, surgeons, hobos, butchers. With satisfaction I noticed the Town Hall Security Department join the throng. Oh yes, come on, boys!

About a mile out of town I stopped and turned. Storm clouds had clustered above us, a consequence of the frequency’s use, and I surveyed the expanse of male humanity that had gathered: suits, stained overalls, young, old, tall, short, husbands, fathers, sons. I knew there’d be some left behind, the bed-ridden or lame, but effectively I’d collected in my wake Woodruff’s adult male population. Power is an incredible thing. It shouldn’t be abused. But then again, neither should I.

The breeze whipped up the roadside dirt into swirling eddies. Above us the clouds grew darker and the air became heavy with static. Sparks crackled through my hair, making it look like the halo on some Russian icon. With the force of a biblical storm the sky opened and the rain came in hard, hot drops. I raised my hands to meet them as they fell. Thunder vibrated like a drum roll. Forked lightning split a jagged course through the clouds, illuminating, then plunging us all into darkness.

For a moment it seemed that there was nothing solid, above or below, at all, just empty space. And silence. Then, suddenly, clamouring movement filled the void. As one the crowd turned and began to run back towards Woodruff. But it was no longer a crowd of men.

Instead a vast ratty horde scurried over the highway. Norway Rats, larger and more aggressive than the Roof Rats that had originally plagued the town: strong swimmers, consummate omnivores, mentally agile enough to work together and able to contort their bodies through the tiniest of spaces. The movement of their spines rippled across the ground. The furry tsunami undulated over rocks, splitting around tree trunks before merging together again, flooding its way back to Woodruff and Ms Caulton.

I watched until they disappeared from view, leaving behind only a patchwork of confused tracks and the occasional dropping. They would reach Woodruff within the hour. Naturally I’d let Ms Caulton use her proper channels to deal with them.

Satisfied, I replaced the iPod in my bag, then turned and continued walking. Gradually the rain stopped and, as the vibrations faded, the clouds began to clear, allowing the sun to return. Feeling warm,I took off my multicoloured jacket and draped it over my shoulder.

No doubt opportunity was kicking her heels and waiting for me somewhere ahead. All I had to do was catch up.


Copyright © 2010 by Jacqui Pack

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