Ah, the human race. If we aren't tired of the tried and tested ways of hurting one another, we'll invent some more just for the sheer hell of it. Give me a vampire or a werewolf any day of the week. At least I understand and can make sense of what motivates them.
Still, it all keeps me in a job, I suppose, so I can't really complain. It made for an interesting day if nothing else. The sort of day that reminds me why I got involved in this business in the first place.
It had been a slow morning which I had spent scouring the internet, in my local library, to see if there were any rumours of anything interesting going on that could benefit from a guy with my unique talents and experience but it was all as quiet as the grave. (That's quite a pejorative term in my line of work, so I should probably stop using it, really). Nothing was presenting itself, and just when I was starting to fear the worst, that I might be reduced to a day of shopping or other "normal" activities (shudder), something shimmered its welcome way into my thoughts. It was the telepathic equivalent of a polite knock on the front door. A little nudge at my mind, just to let me know he wanted my attention.
Charlie Summers, an old mate of mine. (Well, actually, he prefers Charles but I just can't bring myself to call him it). Charlie is one of the politest telepaths I know and always plays by a strict set of rules. He won't ever enter someone's mind without being invited first. Mind you, I still wouldn't want to play a game of poker with him, though.
Sat on an uncomfortable plastic chair, the silence in the library proving an ideal spot to "zone out" in (even if the seating left a lot to be desired), I leant back and closed my eyes. I hear you I thought.
Hello Jim. The thought sauntered into my mind, like a smart breeze. It even came in that posh, cultured accent of his. Ah, Charlie. To him, culture and refinement are like breathing. His family is quite well-to-do and he went to Eton and Cambridge. So, for starters, he's clever and has had access to certain advantages that I certainly didn't but he doesn't let it work for him. I like the guy, but anyone who has ever met him always feels the same. You meet him, shake hands with him, and he gets this glint in his eye and a smile on his face and you just know...you know, in that moment, that, for some reason, he knows you...Knows all about you. Every thought and every secret you've ever had and you don't know why you think it, but you do. I know why, of course. He can't help it. Like I say, he would never pry, but sometimes things seep out and you aren't even aware that you're even doing it; it depends on the strength of your mood at the time, and like any telepath, he just soaks it up, like a sponge. Whatever is really going on behind your frame of mind, whether you're depressed or exhilarated, he'll know what lies behind it. Of course, he's too polite to say but he knows, which can be every bit as disconcerting. And I wouldn't ever tell him this in case it makes his head swell, but he is good. One of the best telepaths I've ever met. Not many can project their mind and thoughts over such a vast distance.
Charlie boy. Long time no thought. What can I do you for?
Do you have time to come over? This was followed by a noticeably pregnant pause. I have a bit of...business...to put your way. Another pregnant pause. If you know what I mean. I was aware that that richly cultured voice of his had a tinge of panic in it. So, my interest started to pique.
Still, I feigned reluctance. It never pays to be too keen. People are a lot less forthcoming with information if you're too keen. Mind you, in Charlie's case, he would be able to tell if I'm lying but old habits die hard. I've learned the hard way with Charlie that it's best to keep your mind as uncluttered and clear as possible around him. Never have any dirty thoughts around Charlie. Like I say, things have a habit of seeping out and he has a twisted streak in him sometimes when it comes to things like that and, in those circumstances, likes nothing better than embarrassing his friends.
Well, I do have a lot on. Can't it wait? I lied and hoped for the best.
I saw him shaking his head in my mind. There was a vehemence to it that, again, piqued the old interest. I also felt it as well. Psychically speaking, I mean. It was like my thoughts had been tugged. No. It would be good if you could come over now. Something nasty is going down.
I gave a mental shrug. There's always something nasty going down.
Not like this. The psychic turbulence alone is giving me a migraine.
I feigned a mental sigh. Can't you tell me what it is now?
He gave another mental shake of the head. No. You'll need to see it in person.
Oh, like that is it...My interest was positively aroused now. Hiding the enthusiasm from my thoughts, I replied. Okay. Give me an hour, then.
Thanks, Jim. Knew I could rely on you. And then, he went away, the telepathic conference closed down and my thoughts once again my own. I was feeling a bit dazed when I felt a harsh tap on the shoulder and saw the annoyed face of the male librarian who wanted to know if I'd fallen asleep and to remind me that others also wanted to use the equipment.
"Sorry. Just thinking things over".
A tube ride later and I arrived at Charlie's swanky penthouse apartment in Chelsea. God knows what the place costs, something eye-watering no doubt. Charlie only rents it but even that must set him back a pretty packet. The building itself is a vast, glass and metal structure, making me think of a shrine to some rich, affluent god. Charlie makes a good living, but then with his "talent", he's going to. He might come across as a bit of a champagne socialist but he can be very shrewd when he wants to be. I don't actually know what he does, though. I did ask him once, at a party, but I didn't quite understand it. Sounded a bit boring to be honest, so I did drift off. Something to do with "resourcing" whatever that is, but no doubt is very lucrative. Still, for me, normal life is something that happens to other people.
He looked the same as ever. Always brilliantly done out. A well-tailored pink shirt and white jeans. His blond hair was coiffured into that modern style that young blokes seem to like nowadays. If I tried it, I'd probably look like mutton dressed as lamb. He always manages to make me in my old black overcoat, black jacket and trousers, and a plain white shirt looks like an old frump. (And then, of course, there's my black fedora hat but I wear that for sentimental reasons, of course. So, don't go dissing it). His cosmetically enhanced teeth sparkled at me in a friendly smile that made my own teeth ache back. I don't really trouble with my appearance that much. I find I don't really have time to worry about it too much in this line of work. Even so, those teeth...Next time, I'll bring sunglasses, I thought.
Tea or coffee? "said" Charlie, his lips never moving once, after he welcomed me into his plush hall. He moves with a positively catlike grace.
"Tea. But none of that herbal stuff you drink. Just give me something plain and simple".
Earl Grey? I think I remember you like it. Milk or sugar? I forget. His words sifted into my mind like rolling on satin sheets.
"Just milk. Sugar is an insult to good tea".
He gave a wry smile and shake of his head. How're things anyway?
"Can't complain". I can but I doubt Charlie wanted to hear it. He was just being polite. Charlie is the quintessence of politeness.
Make yourself at home in the living room. I won't be long. He winked at me and he had that knowing smile on his face. I got suspicious at that smile. In Charlie's case, it could mean anything.
Anyway, I went in, after removing my overcoat and hat and placing them on the coat hooks on a wall in Charlie's hallway. I raised an eyebrow as I noticed, with some interest, that a brown suede jacket and a woman's red leather coat were also hung up there, too.
Charlie's place is nice like I said. His living room alone is positively palatial. I'd like a few more books and bookcases about, of course, but each to their own. I suppose a latest model TV is fine if you like that sort of thing. The walls have an understated lemon-coloured wallpaper on them with absolutely no blemish, mark, or ripple in it whatsoever. An orangey-beige carpet that you can feel the softness of even through your shoes, like treading on tufted air, coats the floor upon which rests a glass coffee table with a basket of wax fruit on it. Encircling most of one side of the room is a cream coloured leather settee and seated in front of a set of sliding glass doors that lead on to a balcony was a well-upholstered brown armchair. A lovely large pot plant sits in one corner to complete the look. I have a feeling it's artificial but you can't tell. It all just about sums Charlie up: expensive but tasteful.
As I had prepared myself, I wasn't surprised to see two people sat down already in there. A young woman, who I took to be in her mid-twenties was sat nearest the door on the settee and an older man, who I thought I recognised, was sat on the armchair. The woman wore a set of red spectacles and had long dark hair, tied in a ponytail at the back. I noticed with mild curiosity that she was also dressed in a style similar to me, with a dark jacket, white blouse, and smart dark trousers and shoes. The guy was the same age as me, in his late thirties, or possibly early forties, and had on a ripped pair of jeans that were far too young for him to pull off and a woollen polo-neck dark jumper. He had beard stubble, unkempt dark hair, and red-rimmed eyes that spoke of sleepless nights. I hear you there, mate, I thought.
OMG! The psychic blast of it blared in my head like a klaxon and made my temples ache. I stumbled a little bit due to the full force of it. Oh, sorry came a sheepish thought in response.
I looked over at the young woman. She looked a little red-faced and embarrassed. Now I looked at her, and thought about it, her get-up was very similar to mine...
"That's okay". I found myself smiling. "Do you think we can continue with speech, though?"
She beamed an enthusiastic grin at me. "Of, course. Sorry. I couldn't help it. It's just...I'm a bit of a fan! I've heard all about you. A lot of us in the life have. You're a bit of a legend" she gushed. Her beaming smile flickered with embarrassment, again. "Sorry. I bet you get that a lot".
Not really, I thought but didn't say. "That's okay" I found myself smiling again.
She swung her hand out for me to shake and she had a firm grip. I felt the bones of my hand wince. "I'm a paranormal investigator, too. Not as famous as you, of course. You've been a bit of an influence". Her eyes gave me a focused, earnest look.
That explains the get-up, then, I thought. (And people say I'm not a trend-setter). I wondered if I should be bothered or pleased. I decided pleased. There was something about her I was starting to like, anyway. She radiated energy and enthusiasm which perked up this miserable old, jaded soul. I realised she was still shaking my hand and I looked down at it.
"Oh, sorry," she said, again. "I'm a bit, well, I've always wanted to meet you. The things they say about you. Did you really destroy the Blood Ruby before the vampires could use it?"
I opened my mouth to answer. I didn't get far.
"And, did you really defeat a bogeykind? I thought those things were just urban legends?"
Again, I opened my mouth to speak but she continued.
"And, are you really on first name terms with the Faerie Queen?"
I looked at her. "What's your name?"
"Um. Kate. Kate Barrington. I'm a telepath".
I nodded. "Well, Kate, would I be able to have my hand back?"
"Oh god!" she said and let my hand drop from her grip. She held her hands to her mouth and blushed pure crimson.
"Don't mind, Kate. She's a bit star-struck" said a husky voice from behind me. I turned and looked at the guy in the armchair. He had got up and come over and gave me a good-natured smile.
"We've met," I said. Now I allowed myself to think about it a memory came back of me holding a step ladder with him at the top, talking to an apple tree, as apples flung themselves, hither and thither, about our heads, seemingly of their own accord.
He also then started to stare at me with pleased eyes and actually licked his lips, as if they were dry. "You...you remember me?" he said. His voice croaked a little.
"Yeah...Barry, isn't it? Barry Cross? We met a few years back. You helped me with that poltergeist that was haunting a cider orchard".
"Yeah," he said and the pleased grin on his face stretched wider. "We helped lay the poor thing to rest, didn't we?" Telepaths have a great connection to all things spiritual and are very helpful in situations like that. A friend of a friend had put me on to him. The owner of the orchard gave us some cider afterward as a way of saying thanks. My memory is a bit hazy after that. I wanted to ask Barry about it but thought better of it.
"Good to see you again, Barry. Couldn't have managed that day without you. How have you been keeping?"
The smile fell from his eyes straightaway like I'd pulled the plug on him, and he just stared at the floor. I realised now how tired he looked, drained almost. "Well...um...that's, sort of, why I'm here..." he said, with an insolent shrug.
"Oh..." I began. I didn't know what to say then. I'm no good with situations like that. I did turn to Kate, hoping to get some help from her but she was still flushed with embarrassment and I could tell wanted the ground to swallow her up. Thankfully, Charlie salvaged the situation. Probably already sensed the potential social embarrassment with his little talent and, always the consummate host, he came sweeping in within seconds.
Here you go, Jim said his voice in my head. I turned around and he held a steaming cup in a saucer out to me. Exquisite bone-china, of course. I took it. I see you've met my two friends, Kate and Barry. Are introductions in order? He raised a socially proprietary eyebrow.
I shook my head. "No need. Already taken care of. Perhaps we should just get on to what this is all about?" I asked, raising my own inquisitive eyebrow. I had clocked that, for some reason, there were three open laptops in the room. Kate and Barry each had one where they had been sitting and there was one resting in another. Charlie's presumably.
Take a seat, Jim, and I'll explain everything. Now that he was up closer to me, I could see the lines and bags under his eyes, too, which also looked quite bloodshot. Very un-Charlielike. And the way he'd thought just then...there was a real weary heaviness to it. His telepathic conference from earlier that morning came back to me and I allow myself a sense of unease, then.
"Okay," I said, sitting next to him while he sat next to Kate on the settee. He picked up the laptop and put it in his lap. "But do you mind...we're talking with tongues. You know how I like to keep this just to myself" I said and I tapped my head.
"Of course, Jim," he said. He knows I'm paranoid to a fault, but then, I have to be. When you deal sometimes with creatures that can kill with a thought and use your own thoughts against you, you're going to become a little bit cagey.
"Well, then?" I said and I blew on the cup and sipped on the tea. The heady hint of orange peel tickled my taste buds. God, it tasted good. Charlie knows how to brew a mean cuppa.
I looked over at him. He looked uncomfortable and moved in his seat like he had a cramp. "Well, Jim, it concerns...trolls".
"Trolls?" I found it hard to keep the obvious incredulity out of my voice.
He just nodded.
I shook my head. "There are no such things". I sipped my tea. "The fairies got rid of them all, eons ago," I said, to qualify my statement. I mean, everybody knows that, don't they? If he'd said goblins, I'd have believed him but trolls...
He nodded. "Sorry. I didn't mean actual trolls...I forgot I needed to be more specific with someone like you...I meant human trolls. You know, internet trolls. Or internet trolling, to be more precise".
I put my cup of tea on the coffee table and tried as hard as I could not to sigh. To say I was underwhelmed was an understatement. Internet trolling goes beyond me (but, then, a lot about modern life goes beyond me but that's beside the point). Why people want to waste their lives, get themselves so worked up, or just have the sick desire to want to reach out to somebody otherwise having a pretty good day and upset them by posting hurtful, aggressive, and downright evil comments online is something that I've never been able to get my head around. "Nasty stuff, I know, but it's not really my bag, is it? What would this have to do with me?"
Charlie shifted again, uncomfortably. "I think, that is, we all think..." and he proffered his hand to indicate the others, "...that it's starting to have a negative impact. Psychically speaking, I mean". He gave me an innocent stare to invite questions.
I shrugged. "Well, surely trolling has been around ever since the internet began? Why would it be affecting telepaths now?"
"Because, Jim, and you'd know this if you kept a better eye on human affairs, trolling is starting to get out of control and becoming a real epidemic. There is a real mass of hate flinging around out there right now. You can't go on a social media page these days without someone wanting to inflict a torrent of abuse at you. Whether it's the political climate in this country and across the world, or the rise of social media, with people getting jealous of other people's lifestyles, I don't know. I'm not a sociologist or psychologist. But what I do know is that trolling is in danger of becoming part of regular human behaviour. The sheer amount of vitriol being spilled out there right now on the internet...I mean, people are killing themselves because of it for God's sake!" Anger flushed in Charlie's face. His teeth gnashed together. At a raised eyebrow from me, he gave an embarrassed cough and took a deep breath. I clocked a worried look in Kate's eyes. I also realised that this was the first time I had ever really seen Charlie lose his cool. I did get quite nervous, then. "Anyway...all that negativity is bound to upset the finely balanced Psychic Harmonics of society". It's always comforting speaking to somebody involved in the life. I can have a sensible conversation where everyone is grown-up about the paranormal and things are just taken at face value and they use all the technical terms, too, so there's no dumbing down. It makes life so much easier than dealing with people who still think the supernatural isn't real.
I started to get a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach, though. Even though I haven't got one (more's the pity), you get a kind of sixth sense or intuition in this line of work. I call it my Trouble Antenna and right now it was signalling out loud that I was on the cusp of dealing with some pretty major weirdness. So, typical, run-of-the-mill stuff, then. For me, anyway. And what Charlie said about Psychic Harmonics was right. Worryingly right. I chastised myself for not expecting something like this to happen. Maybe he was right. Maybe I do take my eye off of the ball when it comes to ordinary human affairs. This life, though...It just makes the everyday look tame.
I looked over at him. "Okay. You've got my interest. What's the story, then?"
Charlie swallowed hard, nodded his head, as if coming to some sort of decision, and began. "Lately, I have been suffering from what I can only describe as...psychic trauma". He closed his eyes and a dark look of pain shivered over his face. I didn't press him. Kate looked uncomfortable too, and her face took on a slight glow of red. Barry's red-rimmed eyes just stared at the carpet. Charlie opened his eyes again, gave a dry cough, and continued. "We all have". Charlie and Kate gave pained nods to one another. She also gave him a nod of encouragement to continue. Barry remained staring at the floor. "It started a few months ago" continued Charlie. "At first it was minor things, things that you'd write off. I'd wake up in the morning with a headache and feel a little negative and depressed for the rest of the day, that sort of thing. As time went on, though, I began to find myself getting irritable for no real reason. Well, I know what the reason is now but I didn't then. I would snap at people when it wasn't justified to do so, that sort of thing".
Kate took up the cudgel as she could see Charlie was struggling. It was almost as if what he was about to say was painfully embarrassing to him. I know it's wrong of me, but seeing someone like him lose his trademark cool did make me feel better about myself. "The same thing was happening to me. I would wake up some mornings with a banging headache, and then would be major league grouchy at my family and friends for the rest of the day for no real reason".
I looked over at Barry and he nodded his head in weary confirmation but his eyes still never left the carpet. I narrowed mine in curiosity.
Charlie gave another dry cough. "Things came to a head a couple of days ago. I had popped into my local delicatessen for a bit of shopping. There was a long queue, lunchtime rush, but I waited my turn, responsibly. I had just reached the counter, after an interminable wait, when this old lady pushed in, rushed right in front of me, and demanded to be served. Now anybody would get annoyed in such circumstances but for some reason, I found myself becoming really irate. I mean really angry. I actually found myself gritting my teeth, digging my nails into my palms, and even growling, can you believe it? I felt such rage that...I wanted to...It was all I could do to stop myself picking up this large salami that was lying on a nearby display and battering her over the head with it. Over and over and over..." He winced then, closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I really, really wanted to, Jim. It was like some insane bloodlust came over me. I managed to control myself, I don't know how, and I wandered out of the shop in a bit of a daze. When I got home, I had a crippling migraine". He swallowed hard and looked away from all of us.
"The same thing happened to me," said Kate, with embarrassed reluctance. "I was on the bus, the other day, and some lager lout was on there, mucking about and making noise, the way they seem to feel they have to do. At one point, just to be annoying, he let out this massive fart. I mean really bad. The smell was horrendous. I found myself getting really angry, though. I mean angry like Charles said. Having to breathe in his noxious arse fumes, I...I..." She gritted her teeth, then, and twisted her hands with a violent motion, like she was wringing somebody's neck. "I just saw red! I wanted to...to rip into his thoughts and make his head haemorrhage..." She bit out her words as she continued to wring her hands. When she noticed that we were all looking at her, she stopped and fully blushed.
"Oh-kay..." I said. "It's always the little things, isn't it, that set people off?" I had hoped to lighten the mood but badly misjudged it.
Charlie shook his head. "It's not funny, Jim".
No, it wasn't. I was starting to get an inkling of where this was going. And if it was going where I thought it was going, then it was deadly serious. I turned to Barry. "Something similar happen to you, Barry?"
He swallowed hard and gave another weary nod. During the whole time, his eyes never looked at me once. "I keep...I keep having rows with my girlfriend. I love her to bits. She's so good to me and so good for me. Not many would, well, let's face it, be comfortable living with someone like me..." He closed his eyes and sighed. "God, I love her...", then he opened his eyes again and stared at the floor, "...But lately, I keep snapping at her, raising my voice, being a general arsehole to her, and, the other day, I...We were having a row, you know the sort of silly thing couples fight over from time to time. It was over whose turn it was to do the dishes and I...It got very heated...it...I..."
"It's okay, Barry. It's not you. Remember that" said Kate.
He sniffed and nodded but I could tell that he didn't believe it. "I...I nearly lashed out and hit her. I...Oh, God..." He wrapped his hands over his face and sobbed a little.
Nobody said anything for a while. Kate got up and put a hand on his convulsing shoulder.
Charlie turned to me with an earnest, if sardonically smug, look. "You see the problem then, Jim. Perfectly ordinary and reasonable telepaths are getting murderous rages. At the moment, we can keep them in check but what happens when we can't. And, let's face it, there are members of our community that does not have such a...restrained attitude...when it comes to using their abilities. What do you think would happen if one of them started behaving like it? How do we know it hasn't happened already?"
I nodded. "And internet trolling?" I raised a curious eyebrow. However, I think I'd already figured it out. Still, I needed to know I was on the right track.
Charlie smiled at me. Despite everything, he loved to show he knew something I didn't (or thought I didn't). "We got to talking to each other and realised something was going on and decided to pool our resources and try and find out what. And we think we have. Allow us to demonstrate". He turned his attention to the laptop by his side and handed it over to me. The screen was opened on a page that appeared to be Barry's social media profile on his M@tesWeb page. There was a picture of him stood next to a woman in denim with long blond hair. A scene from happier times, I thought. I know how he feels.
"I want you to troll Barry," said Charlie. He gave me a look that was injected with as much meaning as he could muster.
"Oh-kay...but I don't have a profile on here. Don't you have to have to do that?"
I suppose to an outsider, the idea of the supernatural and social media doesn't really gel. I mean you wouldn't expect to see Count Dracula showing off the latest snaps of his loft conversion at Castle Dracula, would you? (I mean, the camera wouldn't be able to capture his image for starters). But, the supernatural is as adaptable as anything else. It's a stereotypical myth that everything supernatural is all old-fashioned. I blame cinema and literature, myself. Most supernatural entities have quite modern outlooks and want the same things out of life as a "normal" person (whatever that is). I mean, take me. I have a website, too. It really is the only way to do business these days. Most of my contacts used to contact me by letter, landline, or telepathy. Nowadays it's email and texts. Life evolves. The website is a great way of finding things out. I encourage people to post comments reporting any unusual activity they see. Most of its bunkum and cranks along the lines of "I'm pregnant with a zombie's baby" but some genuine stuff does slip through. Most of the time though, my comments page is clogged up with people's attempts to rubbish my beliefs. People don't want to believe. I get that. But why do they feel the need to have to tell me about it?
"I've logged you in on my account. Just comment on Barry's latest posting, say something really nasty and trollish and then Barry will read it. He's logged into his account on his laptop".
"I don't know...I don't usually go in for such behaviour..."
"I know," said Charlie. "That's what will make the result even more interesting".
Oh, well, I thought. I'm game for anything. You have to be in this life.
I selected Barry's latest comment. It was just some innocuous thing about his looking forward to his upcoming holiday. A few people had already responded, mostly well-wishers. I found myself wondering if the holiday was still going ahead now. I looked at the picture of the couple from happier times and felt a little sad but, I realised, it also gave me a way in.
So I typed. It was mean and nasty but then I'd been told to make it like that. It is worrying, though, how I was able to do it with comparative ease. It just shows you, doesn't it?
"Do us all a favour and don't bloody come back. Useless domestic abusing wanker".
There was a pinging noise on Barry's laptop which showed he'd received the comment. He dutifully read it. And that's when things went a little...crazy.
At first, his eyes closed and he massaged his temples as if he was in pain. A little shudder went through him like someone had walked over his grave. (That's another pejorative term I really shouldn't use). I began to get a little worried for him and looked over at Charlie and Kate. They gave one another nervous looks. A few long drawn out seconds went by and then his eyes flicked open as if he'd been jolted with an electric shock. The good-natured person I had met was gone. This new person's eyes were aflame with pure rage. The fury in them was incandescent. He even gnashed his teeth at me, spittle forming at the corners of his mouth, while his face flushed the colour of arterial spray. I half-expected steam to come out of his nostrils as it does in cartoons, to be honest.
"You self-righteous, know-it-all, smug...prick!" he snarled at me and before I could even move, he had leaped out of the armchair and lunged at me. His hands locked tight around my throat as he growled and hissed like a rabid animal.
I was a bit taken aback, to be honest with you. Well, you would be, wouldn't you? My windpipe instantly felt like it was being compressed by a boa constrictor (and that's actually happened to me, so it's not me just being whimsically metaphorical). I also felt like the air was disappearing from my lungs quicker than if it was being sucked up by a hoover and I could feel the rough coarseness of his hands and fingernails scrape against my skin. It's funny...the thoughts that go through your head at a time like that. Somebody needs to use some moisturiser, I thought. Still, levity aside, panic did start to take hold. My lungs felt like they would burst.
"Barry!" I could hear Charlie vaguely shout.
"Mr. Cane!" shouted Kate.
I wrapped my hands around his and tried to remove them but his grip was as firm as solid iron. I could just make out, in my dulling vision, Charlie trying to drag him off but, in his rage, Barry was immovable. "Prick!" he growled.
Everything in my vision was starting to turn grey and I did think about trying to give Barry a swift kick to the nadgers when I felt it: a splash of something cold and chilling. I felt Barry's grip release instantly. Air rushed back into my lungs and I doubled over, coughing. I opened my eyes and saw a torrent of water had splashed in Barry's face. It dripped and ran down his cheeks and forehead in rivulets and I noticed that some of it had dappled my own jacket. I could feel the coolness of it as the shiny patches started to soak into my skin. In that moment, it felt bloody good, to be honest with you. Barry swayed a little, managed to stand upright, and move away from us all and rubbed at his eyes before flopping himself down, a spent force, back into the armchair.
Charlie and I looked around and saw Kate stood there, looking proud and a little pleased with herself, with a large, now empty, glass in her hand. She looked back at us and shrugged. "Thought it was for the best," she said.
"Thanks," I said, sounding more than a little hoarse.
She gave me a little shocked smile of pride, before going red and staring at the floor.
I rubbed at my throat which felt as sore as buggery. I decided to down the rest of the tea, which had sufficiently cooled by now, to help lubricate my throat as my tonsils felt like they had been strung out over a rack.
"God...I'm so...so...sorry, Mr. Cane" whimpered Barry. He must have finally come to his senses and looked dreadful. Tears brimmed at his eyes as he stared down at Charlie's plush carpet, unable to even look at me.
I was more shocked and scared than angry or upset. Just think, just a few choice words had been enough to send him into a rabid frenzy...I looked up at Charlie who was staring down at me with an "I told you so" sardonic look on his eyes and lips. Can't blame him, really.
"You were right to call me in," I said with another hoarse whisper. "Could I get a drink of something cold?"
Charlie nodded and took the glass from Kate and walked off to his kitchen. I coughed a bit.
"Are you okay?" asked Kate. She had a genuine look of concern on her face.
"Well, I'd be lying if I said I was" I gave a brave laugh but it hurt like hell.
"I...I'm sorry, Mr. Cane. I...I just saw red...I...don't know what..." said Barry, who looked ashen-faced. I thought he might be sick. I bet Charlie boy would have loved that over his lovely carpet. I really understood Barry's red-rimmed eyes now, though. I tried to give him a reassuring smile to show there were no hard feelings. After all, he hadn't fully been in control of his actions. The guilt in his tearful eyes was palpable. It was a look I recognised. I've seen it on my own face many times before now when I've looked in a mirror. I also knew there was nothing I could say to make him feel better.
Kate tried to break the awkward silence that had followed. "It's like me with the guy on the bus. The things I felt like doing to him...They make me feel so ashamed". She looked at me with guilt-ridden eyes, too. Somehow it seemed worse on her enthusiastic face than on Barry's. It just felt wrong being there.
Things were getting seriously out of hand it seemed. The potential for a load of telepaths to go on a murderous rampage was a stone-cold certainty. Well, you can't have that sort of thing going on. Enter James Cane, I thought.
Charlie came back in with a glass of water. It had ice cubes in it, which looked heavenly, and their tinkling away was like music to my ears. I downed it. It was like nectar from the gods (and, again, with me, that's not just a metaphor).
Charlie mopped up the water from the carpet and seating with a cloth and swift, fastidious strokes while the rest of us continued to sit in embarrassed silence. When he was finished clearing up, he sat back on the settee and flicked at some imaginary dust on his knee. He gave a dry cough and spoke. "We started to carry out experiments. See what we were doing when things got nasty. I began to realise, Jim, that my periods of...irritability...came soon after I'd been on a computer and, particularly, if I happened to be on social media and someone had sent me anything hurtful or hypercritical. I'd been browsing my own Mates page shortly before the incident in the deli".
Kate sat back down and gave a firm nod. "Same with me before the knuckle dragger on the bus".
I looked over at Barry but he was still mired in his guilt and embarrassment to say anything, so I didn't bother to ask.
"And now if I even touch a keyboard or connect to the internet on my phone or tablet, I get a...prickling sensation...in my mind, in my thoughts. That's the only way I can describe it" said Charlie. "It's the same for all of us. That's how I knew what was causing it. We all did. That's why we've called you in".
They all looked over at me with expectant looks, even Barry now. I get this a lot. Kate looked at me with particular hopeful interest. She even licked at her lips. Probably wasn't even aware she was doing it.
Of course, I'd already figured it out. The benefits of a lifetime of experience in dealing with the supernatural. Still, I nodded and leaned back in my seat and put my fingertips together, like a steeple, and appeared to ruminate. I find things like this comfort and reassure people. There was only one thing it could be, though.
I cleared my throat, which probably wasn't a smart move in the circumstances as it still felt very raw. "It's the Plane. The Astral Plane, the repository of all psychic phenomena and magic. Every thought, every dream, every imagining...it all passes through there and ends up there. That's how it generates the magic that wizards and witches feed off. It's where you guys draw your talent from, too. Think of it as the hard drive for the human race. However, sometimes, like Charlie said, and it's simple Psychic Harmonics, I'm afraid, the Astral Plane gets so saturated with mental energy, either negative or positive, that it overwhelms it and so it decides to chuck some of it back, like vomiting up something that's disagreed with it. Only, what it chucks back, what it births and releases on to the world...well, it can be worse than what went in in the first place". I gave them a knowing look. I thought it was called for. After all, if they weren't scared by what I had just said then they weren't paying attention. "I imagine all this hate and bile from people trolling has probably clogged it up good and proper. It's probably created something out of all that negative energy to get its own back on the human race for filling it up with so much hate in the first place".
"The Plane can do that?" said Kate.
I nodded. "Oh, yeah. The Plane is almost a sentient entity in itself. That's magic for you. Always tends to have a life of its own". I leaned forward. "Whatever its spat back, I imagine the Plane is using it to feed off of the negative energy that trolling creates, sort of siphon it off so that it doesn't find the nasty stuff come floating its way back again. The trouble is the human race is providing this entity with so many tasty morsels of hate, in such vast quantities, that it's gorging itself like a pig at a trough".
Charlie cut in. "But, why would something like that be affecting us?"
"Well, you said it yourself. Psychic harmonics. Like the Plane before it, this entity that's been created is so saturated with all that hate, it's giving off some very nasty psychic vibrations. I mean, it is psychic energy itself, after all. Vibrations that you guys are picking up on. Telepaths are psychic weather vanes for this sort of thing. Still, that's gluttony for you. A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the psychic zeitgeist". I narrowed my eyes to show I wasn't trying to be funny. "That's my theory, for what it's worth". I wished I still had a cup of tea to drink from. Sipping from it then would have created a great effect.
They all looked at one another.
It was Charlie who spoke up. "Suppose what you say is true, how would you even defeat something like that? " I noticed, very definitely, that he had said the word "you".
"Well...there are two ways of going about it," I said. "Firstly, we could stop the entire world internet trolling. That would cut off its food source".
Kate scoffed. "Yeah. Like we could do that!"
"Oh, we could do it," I said. "It's quite easy. Get a load of telepaths, such as yourselves, together, find the right equipment or magical spell to act as a broadcaster, and put the entire human race under mass hypnosis to encourage them to treat each other more nicely from now on".
Kate's eyes boggled. "We can do that?"
I nodded. "Sure. But there are a couple of problems with that plan. For starters, there's the pesky niggle that we would be robbing everybody of their own free will. I don't know how you feel, but that's not the way I really like to roll. What's the point in saving the human race from itself if you're just going to turn them into a load of mindless automatons? And, of course..." I said, with a shrug, "it would be very time consuming and laborious. By the time we've completed it, God knows how many telepaths may have gone off the deep end in the meantime".
"So, what's the second solution?" asked Charlie.
"The easier one," I said. "We drag it out into the open, get it to manifest itself and then we kill it". I gave a nonchalant sniff. Again, I wished I had the tea to sip from.
They all gave one another nervous looks. A very sensible thing to do, in the circumstances.
"And how..." said Charlie, after a while, licking his lips with a nervous gesture and the confidence in his voice fading fast, "...would we draw it out?"
I sniffed another nonchalant sniff. "Whatever it is, to soak up the hatred of internet trolling the way it must be doing, it must be holed up in cyberspace itself," I said and let my fingers dance over the keyboard of Charlie's laptop. "Stands to reason. So, I'll use this laptop to troll, offer it a feast of hatred so tantalising it'll have to have a taste. It won't be able to resist it. You guys will link your minds, focus on me, and the laptop, sense for any psychic disturbance. Once you feel it, you'll concentrate your power and use your abilities to pull it out and make it manifest, like extracting a rotten tooth. Like I say, it's just psychic energy and you guys manipulate that all the time. The three of you, with your minds combined? It'll be a doddle". I gave them a confident grin. I always find this helps when trying to sell someone a risky plan.
"It's not that bit that worries me," said Charlie. "What do we do when it's manifested?"
I gave him a wink. "I'm sure I'll think of something". I don't think he was reassured, though. I don't think any of them were. Not even Kate, whose enthusiasm had taken a holiday if the look on her face was anything to go by. But what choice did they have? It was either this or end up as babbling murderous psychopaths leaving Yours Truly to have to take them down anyway. A point I was at pains to point out to them. I think that sold them on the idea.
Which is why I was sat with Charlie's laptop open in front of me, in the armchair, while the others sat on the settee with their eyes closed. It looked quite eerie, for some reason, to be honest with you. I suppressed a shudder and concentrated on the task at hand.
I had decided that my tactic wouldn't be to troll myself but to wind up the trolls I came across and let them generate the hate for me. I was sure they'd be willing to oblige. Like I say, on my comments page, there is always someone wanting to leave some odious or obnoxious comment or two on there or rubbish my belief system in general.
Just the latest opening comment alone was a perfect example.
"You sad, pathetic LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSEEEEEEEEEEEER!" Speaks for itself.
Not much potential there, I thought. Just malicious sarcasm. I needed something more explosive and, boy, did I get it.
A few comments down was the following pleasant little missive:
"I HATE PEOPLE LIKE YOU. WANTING TO BELIEVE IN A LOAD OF OLD (Expletive deleted). YOU'RE NOTHING BUT A (Expletive deleted) ATTENTION-SEEKER! YOU'RE A LIAR AND A (Expletive deleted). I HATE LIARS AND FANTASTISTS LIKE YOU! YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF, YOU SICK (Expletive deleted). I HOPE SOMETHING HORRIBLE HAPPENS TO YOU. I HOPE YOU GET CANCER. I HOPE YOU GET CANCER IN YOUR DICK AND IT DROPS OFF YOU SICK FREAK. (Expletive deleted) YOU!"
Charming, isn't it? What is it about cancer and private parts that obsess these people so much, I wonder? Still, I had my "in". This guy's level of deranged irrationality would be pure catnip for the thing we were hunting. My response was to rile him up by making him believe he hadn't offended me. (And he hadn't. It just made me sad. It would take a lot more than that to offend me. After a conversation with a demon, its water off a duck's back).
"Thank you for your comments. They have been duly noted and will be given my fullest consideration at my earliest opportunity. Please feel free to comment further if you have anything else you feel may be of importance in bringing to my attention" I typed. And hit send. And grinned a cheeky grin to myself. That's the way to do it. Kill them with kindness.
I waited. It didn't take long. Like I say, I don't think these guys have lives. A suitably pithy response came winging its way back.
"YOU (Expletive deleted) (Expletive deleted)! YOU WANT TO WATCH YOURSELF. I'LL FIND OUT WHERE YOU LIVE! IF I DO, AND YOU DON'T STOP YOUR (Expletive deleted) RUBBISH, I'LL CUT YOUR BALLS OFF WITH A SHARP, BLUNT KNIFE. (Expletive deleted)!"
You know you've got them worked up when they type in capitals.
I heard a slight groan from Barry and looked over. His eyes were tightly pressed shut and I could see sweat glisten on his forehead. Charlie and Kate also looked suitably uncomfortable. I gave myself a mental pat on the back. I knew having the three of them plug themselves in that they'd sense it and it wouldn't take long. Like lightning rods, the lot of them.
I didn't say anything, didn't want to disturb them. Still, I decided a change of pace was in order to move things along. To generate the level of hatred I wanted, to get people so worked up and be prepared to lose control and spout all sorts of bile, to do that...you needed a really good political debate. Nothing fires up the insanity like one of those. Just ask the MPs in the House of Commons.
I went on to NewsTalk. It's a new website that allows users to leave short little comments on the major issues of the day from anywhere in the world. You can either start your own debate or join in a trending one.
I tapped my chin for inspiration. I smiled a cruel smile. I typed.
"Ghosts: Are they real? I believe the disembodied spirits of the dead walk among us. It's the only thing that makes sense when you think about it. Surely all that human thought, energy, history, life, don't just burn up when you die. It's too wasteful. Life after death follows like night after day. There's too much evidence out there for it not to be the case."
That ought to get them going, I thought.
It started quite good-naturedly enough, with people genuinely interested in discussing what I said but didn't take long before the trolls came sniffing, like sharks scenting blood in the water.
"You'll be saying Father Christmas is real next".
"Evidence? Don't make me laugh. You do know what evidence means, right? People like you make me sick. The world's got enough problems without people like you making stuff up."
"Ah, does the man still believe in his widdle little ghosties and the scary-wary things that go bumpy in the nighty. Bless...You great nonce".
So, I riled them up by standing firm and ignoring them and just arguing my point in a restrained and reasonable way with the genuine debaters. That got them more and more angry. The posts became more aggressive as a result. I started to be called all the names under the sun, and my lifestyle started to be called into question as well, as the debate shifted to being about me as a person.
"Weirdo Freak. Bet you like to play with yourself and pretend it's a ghost, right?"
"You probably get off on this. You little saddo".
"YOU AGAIN! UP TO YOUR (Expletive deleted) TRICKS AGAIN! I (Expletive deleted) WARNED YOU! YOU WATCH YOURSELF! (Expletive deleted) (Expletive deleted) (Expletive deleted)". (I think I've made a friend for life there).
It was now a punch-up with words. Still, it was working...
With each passing little zinger and stinger, I could hear the three telepaths groan and mutter. I would occasionally glance up. They were all sweating now.
"I can feel it" murmured Kate at one point. "God, it's...it's just like a wall of...of rage..."
Good, good, I thought.
It's funny but I never realised I could type so fast. Or that people would respond so quickly. Don't any of these people have jobs? My mind felt like it was in need of a good, long shower. I noticed that it had got darker outside, too, which was, quite frankly, depressing.
I looked over and saw Kate shiver, Charlie screw up his face, as if in pain, and Barry let out a small yelp.
The air felt heavy then...even I could feel it...
A spark flared across the keyboard, like static discharge, stinging my fingers. They went briefly numb. Bingo, I thought.
"It's here Jim! God, it's, it's inside the keyboard" shouted Charlie, but, always a true professional, kept his eyes closed.
So, one last big push was needed. Really draw it out. And who better to pick on than the guy with the orchiectomy obsession from earlier. I selected his last comment on my website and typed.
"Thank you once again for your extremely helpful and useful comments. Please feel free to keep getting in touch with more advice that I would find beneficial". Red rag to a bull. Red rag to a bull.
It didn't take long for one of his incoherent rants to come flying back.
"(Expletive deleted) YOU! (Expletive deleted)! (Expletive deleted)! (Expletive deleted)! I'LL CUT YOUR BALLS! (Expletive deleted)!"
Sigh. I love it when you can get others to do the dirty work for you.
Just like that, the screen of the laptop fizzled out and went blank. I decided to place it on the floor, to be on the safe side. And to be doubly sure, I kicked it softly across the room with my foot, so it was far away from any of us. This job gives you a very good survival instinct. Of course, I had kicked it into the doorway, blocking our exit, but beggars can't be choosers.
I looked over at the guys whose eyes were all still closed in rigid concentration. Kate and Barry moaned. Charlie let out a strange grunt. It was like, well not wanting to be rude, it sounded like he was passing something on the toilet. Psychic manipulation does take it out of them. They have to focus and really "will" what they want to do what they want. It's heady stuff. Pun intended. (What? So, I like to lighten the mood a little).
I could hear a crackle come from the laptop. Blue energy, like electricity, started to course and pulse all over it, like it was alive and had a mind of its own. I hoped for Charlie's sake the laptop was still within warranty. Mind you, do warranties cover supernatural possession?
"It's manifest," I said. "Pull it out".
Their eyes locked tight and they all moaned. They needed a pep talk. That's what I'm here for.
"Come on guys, you can do it. I have faith in you". That would work for Kate, I thought. "Show this thing whose boss. One more push and it won't make you hurt others ever again". That was for Barry. "And, anyway, the energy coming off this thing could seriously damage the soft furnishings". That would press Charlie's button.
They all screamed and stretched their bodies and...
There was a discordant boom, like thunder, only I was reminded of those controlled explosions you see on TV. It was followed by a flash of bright, retina-burning, blue light. I closed my eyes but that didn't stop me from being able to sense what was happening. The air suddenly became heavy with the thick, acrid smell of burnt chlorine. It burned my nostrils while an irritating high pitched buzzing noise set my teeth on edge.
There was another loud crackle which shocked my eyes open and I realised that something was now stood on the carpet, right in the doorway to the living room. Smoke whiffed up as its presence seemed to scorch what it touched. Charlie would not be pleased, I thought.
When I allowed myself to finally fully take it in...I actually went slack-jawed. I had never seen anything like it before. It's days like these that I live for. "Oh, you...look...amazing!" I said.
It was a being of pure energy, that's the only way to describe it. A mass of blue, shimmering electricity that had taken the trouble to take on a bipedal shape. There was the distinct outline of a largely built, very tall, man, with vague arms and legs and body, although, as it constantly shimmered, everything was fuzzy around the edges, so it was difficult to get a fix on what it fully looked like. I could make out three holes or gaps at the top of its "head" which must have been what passed for eyes and a mouth. The crackling noise it emitted constantly buzzed away now and the air reeked even more of burnt chlorine.
The holes that must have been eyes seemed to regard me and its "face" sniffed at me if that was possible. It sounded like something fusing.
Everything went dead silent for a bit. I became vaguely aware that the others had snapped out of their trance. Its snapping into existence in front of them must have made them nearly collectively cack themselves because they went bolting off behind the settee after the three of them yanked it a little of the way out. I decided to follow suit, though. It seemed to be the sensible thing to do. Especially as it had decided to "rear up" at me and let out what must have passed as a loud roar but sounded like a large computer firing up. I dived behind the armchair.
"Bloody hell, Jim" wheezed Charlie, poking his head out from behind the settee at me.
"Mm," I said and took a sneaky look, peering around the armchair, at the creature. I tried to make my eyes focus on its shifting form, hoping it would reveal more about what we were dealing with. I thought I could see, amongst that shimmering blue haze, what looked like large, pointed ears and a bulbous nose. The vague "hands" and "feet" appeared to have claw-like nails, that sparked and flared from time-to-time.
I couldn't help myself. I found myself laughing when I fully took in what it looked like.
"What is it?" snapped Charlie, irritated.
"Well, look at it!" I said and pointed a finger towards it. "Look at the outline of it! The pointed ears and all that! Don't you see what it is?" I shook my head. "The Astral Plane really does have a warped sense of humour".
"Well, what is..." snapped Charlie again but stopped because I think he'd worked it out.
"It's a troll. You must know what a troll looks like from storybooks and fairy tales, right? You must have read the Three Billy Goats Gruff as a child? The Plane has shaped it in the form of an actual troll". I scoffed. "Huh. It's an actual internet troll". I shook my head, again. I probably should have been scared, I know, but I was just so damn fascinated by it. (And strangely amused).
It roared the sound of a large computer terminal buzzing as its hardware worked away. It would be the sort of computer that could control the arming of nuclear warheads, I think. It was followed by a distinct hissing noise that sounded like radio feedback. Then it pointed what resembled a "hand" and "fingers" at us, except they buzzed, shimmered, and crackled like a fly being zapped.
"01010000 01110101 01110100 00100000 01101101 01100101 00100000 01100010 01100001 01100011 01101011!" it droned at us.
"It speaks in binary," I said. I noticed my voice had a fair amount of glee in it. Of course, it would speak in binary, I thought. I cupped a hand to my ear. "Sorry? I didn't quite catch that, my old son" I said.
"For God's sake, don't anger it!" said Charlie.
"01010000 01110101 01110100 00100000 01101101 01100101 00100000 01100010 01100001 01100011 01101011!" it hissed, like static feedback, once more.
I just shook my head in incomprehension.
It made a low rumble, like a small belch of thunder, which I took to be annoyance. Suddenly a brief flare of light came off from it and the text alert sounded on my phone. Quite an inopportune moment, I thought. I wasn't going to answer but I noticed that the calling number was strange. The numbers on my phone display...shimmered. I eyed the troll and the gaps for eyes seemed to be staring at me with intent. At least that's what I thought they were doing. I opened the text and then raised my eyebrows.
"PUT ME BACK!" it read.
"Neat trick," I said. "You can communicate by text". I shook my head at it. "Sorry, sunshine. No can do. Can't have you causing any more psychic disturbance".
It growled the computer firing up noise again and thrashed and flailed its electronic arms around, like a toddler having a tantrum.
"Is it going to be dangerous?" said Charlie and his eyes darted with distinct nervousness at the furnishings.
As if in response, it swung one of its arms forwards and a mass of blue energy stretched out and extended itself outwards. We both ducked down, again, as blue electrical flame whizzed past my head and struck the wall behind me. My follicles could feel the heat coming off it, though, as it passed. It singed a dark burn mark on the wall. I heard Charlie give out a little gasp of dismay. The creature must have turned and done the same to the wall next to Charlie's settee as I heard another flash as something struck it, followed by another yelp from Charlie.
"I'd take that as a yes, Charlie boy!" I said.
"What are we going to do?" he said. He sounded scared. He had every right to be.
One thing I always pride myself on is that I can think on my feet. If I couldn't, well, let's face it, in this business, I would probably be dead by now. "Do you have any USB sticks, flash drives, that sort of thing, about the place?" I shouted over and peered round at him again. I had to shout quite loud to be heard because the creature roared that pants-wetting sound again like some large computer bank was once more thrumming into action. I also realised time was of the essence. Right now, it was probably deciding who was the weakest link to take out and show the others it meant business. It would need the telepaths to put it back but not all of them. Taking one of us out meant encouraging the others by putting the frighteners on us.
Charlie tried his best to ignore the creature. I have to hand it to him. He didn't panic. "Yes", he said, in answer to my query. "I think so. Why?"
"Very useful things are USB memory sticks. What sort of capacity are we talking?"
He shrugged. "I think about 128gb, something like that".
"That should do nicely".
"Why, what are you planning?"
"I want you to go and get me one".
"But, it's in my study. I'll have to go past that thing!" he shrieked. He turned around and gave a worrying look at the doorway to the hall. Then he quickly ducked behind again.
During our little conversation, there had been these disconcerting swoosh noises. The noises crackled as well, like electricity being earthed. It was followed by another set and another and yet another. I had a nasty idea what those noises meant. I peered out following Charlie's display of fear and saw I was right. The swoosh noises were the pattering of its feet as it burnt its way across Charlie's lovely carpet. I'm not sure what Charlie was more in fear of his life or the bill afterward. However, it appeared to be heading towards me. It obviously realised I wasn't psychic. Ideal fodder to take out first. Prejudiced git, I remember thinking.
Still, fast thinking and action were required. Psychic energy the creature might have been but it had made itself electrical. I'd be fried to a crisp. So, I had to grab everyone's attention and be as succinct as possible in getting my ideas put into practice. No pressure then.
"Kate! Barry!" I yelled. Swoosh, swoosh, crackle, crackle came closer.
"Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit" I heard Barry say.
"What is it, Mr. Cane?" That was Kate's voice. There was determination in that voice. That was the voice of a person you could rely on and wasn't about to go to pot in the face of a mind-buggering creature of unreality manifesting in front of you. Hearing her filled me with the hope that we might make it out of this without getting singed to death by a creature of pure cybernetic electrical energy. (No other career in the world allows you to make a sentence like that).
"We're going to make it sick". Swoosh, crackle. "It's manifest now which means it should be able to feed off of any old plain hatred. You, me, and Bazza will stage a mock row with one another. We'll fling insults and shout at one another like we mean it. Channel some of our guilt, anger, and fear. Trust me, it'll be hellishly cathartic". Swoosh, crackle. I started to speak faster. "If we really go hammer and tongs, hopefully, it won't be able to resist and gorge itself on it. Hopefully, we'll overload its stomach. Charlie will make a break for it once I tip him the wink and fetch me a USB stick".
"Are you sure about this?" Barry shouted back. He sounded petrified. I began to get mixed signals as to whether we would survive this. "What if the vibrations it gives off affect us?"
"Well, I'm kind of making this up as I go along but I'm hoping if you're the ones chucking it the hate to feed off of, you won't receive the same back. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction type thing". I tried to inject as much know-it-all confidence into it as I could. I find it helps.
"Sounds like a risky venture, Jim," said Charlie.
"Doesn't matter" I said. "It's a moot point now, anyway". The swooshing had stopped. I could really feel the heat coming off of it now, and part of me started to condense with sweat. The crackling noise coming off of it was also incredibly intense. I looked up and saw a wall of blue light peering down at me. The holes for eyes flickered and distorted, constantly shifting around. Not that I kept my eyes open long. It was far too bright to stare at. I shunted my head back down and blinked at the brown after-images that swirled in my vision. I could hear it, though. It was hissing that static noise at me, again. It was now or never. "When I tell you to bolt for it Charlie, then you run, okay?"
"Okay, Jim," he said with a dry gulp.
"Okay, guys," I said to the others. "Let's go for it". And quick, I thought, before a blue hand of electrical energy sears my face off. "Barry!" I shouted out, spitting as much venom into it as I could muster to grab the creature's attention. "You are about as much use in a crisis as a fart on a date. If you're not cowering in fear, then you're beating your friends up. To you, bravery is taking your nastiness out on those you love. You coward". It came out like a torrent. Like I say, it's surprising what you can do when you put your mind to it. Still, I had to make it personal and nasty. Strike at his self-doubt and guilt. I needed to make him mad. If he was riled, it would make what he would need to do easier for him. I could tell the creature had stopped, though. I mean, I hadn't erupted into flames for one thing but where it had no doubt been about to lunge at me, all I could hear was the crackle of its shimmering body. It made these strange noises like white noise and I think...I think it was sniffing the air. Barry was taking a while to answer, so I thought I should gee him along. My life depended on it, really. "And don't get me started on your dress sense. Ripped jeans? You should be ashamed, a bloke your age!"
"Yeah..." shouted Barry. He sounded riled. Good, I thought. The angrier he is, the more the creature will be convinced by it. As for me, well, I could channel years' worth of bitterness. "Well, you know what you are, Mr. Cane, o great paranormalist. You're just a know-it-all bloody great ponce! Flitting through the world thinking you're so ruddy clever, you smug prick! You know what you're problem is? Do you? You're just jealous. That's right! Jealous. Because I have a genuine paranormal ability and you're nothing. Do you hear me? Nothing. Just an ordinary human. No powers, no abilities, nothing! And you don't like that do you? You'd love to have some sort of magical ability. I bet you hate waking up every day and realising you're trapped in just a regular, dull, human body. See? I can make jibes about people's personal problems too, you twat! What gives you the right anyway to interfere with us? Who the hell do you think you are?!" He was really getting going, as I hoped. His voice was raised and was shouting itself hoarse. If nothing else it would give him the chance to vent his spleen and offload some of his guilt. I did briefly let myself wonder if he might have even meant some of what he said but I became too distracted. Having a creature of pure psycho-electrical energy hovering next to you can do that. It was working, though. It was taking the bait. I allowed myself a quick glance and could see that it was stood in some sort of trance. Was that the trace of a smile on its shimmering lips? "And you talk of my dress sense! The bloody nerve! Have you seen yourself lately? That hat makes you look a right tit!" Barry was really getting into the flow of the thing now.
Of course, that succeeded in making me mad then. Nobody disses the hat. "It was bought for me by somebody who loved me. Do you remember what that was like?"
"Arsehole" Barry growled. I think he was genuinely pissed off with me, I really do. I wondered if it was me he was shouting at or himself. Do I know how to rile someone up or do I know how to rile someone up?
Kate then tried to get in on the act. "Yeah, well, the pair of you can...um...er..." she struggled. "Um...er..." I really don't think this was her arena. It is difficult, shouting out nasty things when it isn't in your nature.
She needed a little nudge. "Remember the lager lout on the bus who couldn't keep his personal issues to himself?" I shouted over.
That seemed to get her going. "Remember him? I'd like to have stuck his nose right up his own bum if it was possible! See how he bloody liked it. Let him smell his own feculent shitty stink!" She started to growl and I could actually hear the saliva slicker around in her mouth as she gnashed her teeth. I started to become more frightened of her than of the creature, in that moment. "I hate blokes like that! Treat everything like it's there for their own personal pleasure and to hell with anyone else. I'd like to have kicked him up the arse, only I would have been frightened to have put my foot anywhere near it! I would like to...like to...have cut his ruddy bollocks off!" she snarled.
I glanced back up at the creature. The "holes" in its "face" had closed. The "mouth" was open in a wide "O". It was clearly enjoying itself. Hope you choke on it, I thought. The crackling it was giving off, like some kind of electrical fire, was getting really loud. Which helped, actually, because it meant we had to raise our voices to be heard over it.
"Here I am again" I shouted. "Muggins here has to pull other people's fat out of the fryer! I have to be the one that puts my arse on the line to save a load of no-hopers! And do I ever get any thanks for it? Do I? Do I shit?!" (I think I really was saying something there. Like I say, I had years of bitterness to channel. Bit scary really, when you think about it).
"Ah, shaddup you great know-it-all ponce! Shouldn't bloody meddle in things that don't sodding well concern you, then, should you?" shouted Barry. He was really hitting his stride. Like I say, it's surprising what you can do when you get going.
I allowed myself another glance upwards but the creature still seemed to be in its state of bliss. It was curious but the blueness of its "body" seemed to be getting a darker shade of blue. I poked my head out at Charlie, who was waiting for the signal with expectant eyes. I gave him a firm nod and he shot to his feet and bolted like a rabbit from the trap, literally diving through the living room door, before you could blink. The creature didn't move once. It was working.
I turned my attention back to Barry. After all, even though we were play-acting (or so I kept telling myself), I couldn't let these little rejoinders pass. I opened my mouth to say something but I struggled. I appeared to have run out of ammunition. So there really was only one way to take it now. "Oh yeah? Well, do you know what? You stink. Did you know that? You...you've got BO, and breath like someone's arsehole and...and...crabs!" Where did that come from? "And...And so's your mum!" It had descended to the level of the playground. Didn't take long.
"Oh yeah?" came back a coldly sarcastic voice. "So has yours! You know why? The number of bloody blokes she went with. I heard she charged twenty pounds an hour. I bet you don't even know who your father was!" Ooh, now that's getting really nasty, I thought. I did genuinely find myself getting riled up, which was no good as I needed to keep a cool head and keep an eye on the creature. I forgot to factor into my plan that that might happen. That's what happens sometimes when you have to do things on the hoof.
Thankfully, Kate saved the situation. "Both your mums should have been locked up for bringing the pair of you morons into this world!" she shouted.
"Ah, shut up, Miss Goody Good! Haven't you got any hero-worshipping to do?!" shouted Barry, turning his ire now on to her.
"At least he's a real man, not like you, cry baby!" said Kate.
"You couldn't telepathise your way out of a paper bag!" shouted Barry.
"You can't even use your own mind, let alone someone else's!" shouted Kate.
"Oh yeah...you...you..." he was struggling. "You...telepathic deficient!" Hmm. A bit passé that one, I thought.
"Wanker!" shouted Kate. Short, but to the point, I suppose.
I had decided to stay out of it. Let them channel their guilt and regret because I think they needed it and it would allow someone to keep their cool and an eye on the creature. I became aware that the creature had started to emit this strange sound. If its tantrum-esque roars had sounded like a computer firing up, this sounded the opposite. It was like a computer was dying. It's "body" was so dark blue now, it was practically black and it seemed to sway, like heat shimmering off of the ground on a hot summer's day. And then...it just collapsed and fell down with a roaring crackle.
"Guys..." I shouted over.
"You can keep your nose out, you self-satisfied..." began Kate.
"No, no, it's alright" I quickly shouted over, in a light, friendly tone and laughed a little, to try and emphasise the point I was making. "You can stop now. Look..." and I got to my feet and pointed at the creature.
"Oh, sorry" she let out a little laugh and got to her feet, too. Her face was blushing. "Got a bit carried away there". Barry also got to his feet. Do you know what? It was the first time I had seen him that day that he didn't look like he wanted to burst into tears.
Anyway, the creature had dropped to all fours and was burning a lovely hole in Charlie's carpet. Its "mouth" was open wide as if it wanted to be sick. The "hands" were folded over where it's "stomach" would be and it kept growling out that horrible noise that would have made an IT expert cry with desperation.
I walked around the armchair and stood over it, like a hunter standing over its prey. "Well done you two. I think its eyes are too big for its belly". I looked over and grinned at them both to show there were no hard feelings and that it had all been an act. (At least, I think it had been).
They looked a little awkward at one another but let themselves make eye contact and gave one another embarrassed smiles.
I looked over to the door and saw Charlie stood there, waving a small, white plastic USB stick around like his hand was on fire. He does have this uncanny knack for making an entrance when the situation becomes socially awkward.
"It's okay, Charlie. I don't think it's in a fit state to hurt anyone right about now. It should be safe for you to come over". He didn't look sure but tip-toed over, anyway. He shook his head with much sadness when he saw the scorch marks on the carpet. He held the stick out to me in a shaking hand and I took it, with a smile. It felt warm and moist. I unclipped the small, plastic cover and held the stick out in front of me, with the USB point towards the creature.
"Now, then, matey boy," I said to it. "When you boil it all down, you're just psychic energy, really. And psychic energy can be controlled. Can't it guys?" I said to the trio of telepaths. They nodded back. Charlie gave me a look as if to say, 'What are you up to?" Barry gave me a grim nod. Kate gave me an enthusiastic smile and her eyes stared at me in anticipation. She knew I was about to do something clever. Not that there was much to it, really. The form the creature had taken had decided its own fate. "See? There's a famous incantation for it. It's as old as the hills. You don't even need to be a witch or wizard to cast it". I took a deep breath. And I intoned familiar words in Old High Enochian. I always love the sound the words make. Like nightingales singing.
The creature let out a whining groan that resembled metal scraping and then...it lost its troll-like shape and became a large mass of blue, pulsating, and shimmering energy. It then started to elongate and pulse outwards and stretch towards me. I could see it struggling as it shook and trembled in the air but it was just psychic energy and it couldn't resist the pull of those ancient words of power. It didn't take long before it flowed towards me and then, for want of a better description, slowly, but surely, oozed its way towards and into the USB stick. Like air being sucked into a fan, it drifted in, until all of it had "downloaded" its way inside.
The stick pulsed between my fingertips, like feeling the flutter of a small heart, and it crackled with a strange blue light that soon went out. "Voila!" I shouted and held the stick aloft. A bit showy-offy perhaps? Well, I think I'd earned it.
Charlie came over and shook his head once again at the burn marks in his carpet. He stared at the USB stick. "Well done, Jim. Very clever. How did you know it would work?"
I shrugged. "I didn't. Not really. Sometimes, though, you have to go on gut instinct. It had taken the form of some kind of digital life-form. That meant to me that it was no more than a piece of data or a string of code. Well, I figured, what is a nice handy way of storing digital information? A USB stick. Perfect repository to keep something like that locked away so it can't get up to any more mischief".
Kate came over and looked at the stick. "Cool," she said.
I smiled at her.
"What will you do with it?" she asked.
I shook my head. "I don't know yet. Technically, it's not this thing's fault. It can't help the way it is. Maybe with a little gentle persuasion, it might be able to get up to its activities without harming others. Maybe it can be persuaded to feed on positive energy instead. I'm sure there are all sorts of magical spells out there that could help. I'll take it to some witches I know. They'll know what to do". I pocketed the stick in my pocket and patted it. "In any case, hopefully, you guys shouldn't have any more problems. Well, until the next time the Astral Plane gets bunged up and decides to chuck something back, I suppose." I looked at the three of them. "Still, you know who to call".
Kate beamed me a hearty smile that showed all her teeth. "It was...er...it was awesome working with you, Mr. Cane".
"Call me Jim, Kate. All my friends call me Jim" I said.
She let out an excited little gasp which made me smile. I held out my hand and she took it, after swallowing hard a little. "It was a pleasure working with you, too," I said.
She just blushed.
I turned my attention to Barry and put a hand on his shoulder. "And you, Barry". I shook his hand, too. "Are you feeling a bit better now?" I raised an enquiring eyebrow at him.
He thought about it but I could see that his face had indeed lightened. He nodded and smiled. "Yeah. I do, actually".
I nodded. "It does you good to vent your spleen every so often, doesn't it? Good luck with repairing things with your girlfriend, though. That probably won't be as easy to fix".
He nodded and his face became more solemn. "Perhaps...I don't know...Perhaps there might be issues there, deep down which is why I...well, you know. Perhaps I might suggest relationship counselling. If she still wants me, of course".
You're asking the wrong bloke there, I thought. "If you love her Barry and want to show her you're serious about the relationship, I think it can't hurt, can it?" It sounded the right thing to say. I mean, I'm hardly the expert on "great relationships" but I felt I had to say something because he was looking at me for approval. That's the trouble with being the smartest person in the room. Everyone thinks you have the answer to everything. I squeezed his shoulder and he gave me a thin smile.
I quickly turned to face Charlie and slapped him on the back. "Thanks, Charlie boy! Best fun I've had in ages".
He just shook his head but his eyes and his lips were laughing. "You're mad, Jim".
I shrugged at him. "Beats working the nine to five".
I was feeling pretty good about the whole situation when I heard a ping noise and realised it was coming from Charlie's laptop which was still on the floor and must have thrummed back into life, having managed to survive coming into contact with the entity.
I walked over to it and could see my website page displayed on the screen and, as I reached down and picked it up, I saw that the website had had a new comment posted to it.
I read it. My smug sense of self-satisfaction evaporated straightaway.
"Why don't you stick a magic wand up your arse, you crazy freak!" it read.
Like I say, give me a vampire or a werewolf any day of the week.