Excerpt from ‘The Cloak of Steel’
Turning to Peter, I said, “What did you say happened to Tommy?”
“Jessica attacked him,” Peter replied, very slowly and very clearly, and my heart froze.
“No way! Why?”
He didn't answer but instead pulled me out of the way of four men, who hurried up the stairs past us towards the floors above. He didn't let me go but instead dragged me down to the bottom level, where most people seemed to be congregated. It looked as though everyone who had been in the lounge room had been attracted by whatever had happened; they had all run out into the main hall to get a good look at what was going on.
“Oh Christ,” I heard Peter say, and I focussed on the crowd around us. Most of them were looking up, and I followed their gaze. What I saw was the final slap in the face required to wake me up completely: Jessica Thomas, the girl who had been like a big sister to me for most of my life, was standing up there, on the third level just outside Tommy's room. She was staring down at the crowd but seemed not to be seeing any of them. Her face was completely stunned. As I watched, the four men who had passed Peter and me on the stairs emerged and approached her where she stood. She saw them no more than she saw us, and when they manhandled her, actually lifting her into the air and proceeding to carry her back toward the stairs, she made no struggle at all.
The scene seemed to be suspended for about half a minute as the quintet made its way down the stairs, but upon emerging into the open again on the bottom level, a small crowd converged. Naturally, Marge was in front, ranting and raging at the men holding the still-stunned Jessica between them. Felicity and James were right behind her and as they approached, Peter and I followed along closely behind. To cap the scene, Brian Fletcher suddenly emerged before the wall which now blocked in the former doorway to the corridor. It was the first time I'd seen an actual Sorcerer (not counting Marc) for over a month.
“Tell them to let her go at once!” Marge shrieked at the Sorcerer as he approached the gathering, advancing on him, and I had to give Mr. Fletcher points for appreciating the gravity of the situation (in other words, he looked scared of this little woman before him).
“We need to determine what actually happened before we act,” he told her firmly, making to move around her, but she blocked his path to Jessica. The men holding her had also been brought to a halt, unable to move past Marge to wherever they intended to take her.
“How's Tommy?” Marc asked from just behind me—I hadn't heard him approach the gathering. “Will he be okay?”
“There has been no lasting damage,” said Mr. Fletcher. “He'll be fine—in fact he already is fine. He's still a little shaken up though, so we're keeping him in the infirmary for the time being. Again, he'll be allowed to return here once we've determined the cause of this incident. Please bring Jessica into the lounge room so I can interview her,” he told the men over Marge's shoulder, and they changed course, cutting between James and Felicity and heading for the lounge room.
“You're interrogating her in the lounge room?” James enquired; his face was very pale. “Isn't that a bit public for something like this?”
“No bloody way known is he doing that,” snarled Marge. “Isn't my daughter entitled to a bit of dignity?”
“Interviewing,” Mr. Fletcher insisted, “and I wish to do it in public in order to put a quick end to any rumours that might circulate about Jessica's stability. That, I think, is showing her great confidence to begin with.
“Please move into the lounge room, everyone,” he called over our heads to the surrounding crowd, and they moved for the doors, babbling excitedly.
“Don't mince words with me,” said James coldly. “It's an interrogation, and that's insulting my intelligence.”
Jessica had been deposited in a seat at the far end of the room and Mr. Fletcher had used magic, both to keep her still and to keep a space around her clear. People pressed in all around her like a dark shadow and Peter and I had to push and shove to make our way to where she sat, unbound but unable to move around very much. The Thomases had fought to the front of the pack and now Peter and I were able to join them. James and Felicity, both of whom were taller than us, made a space for us to get in front of them, for which I was appreciative.
Mr. Fletcher created a seat for himself and sat upon it, about four feet in front of Jessica. His seat looked considerably less comfortable than the one Jessica sat on, which seemed a strange role-reversal. Jessica didn't remain comfortable for long, though, for the first thing Mr. Fletcher did when he sat down was withdraw a small device from his pocket and point it at her. I recognised it at once as the same thing I had used when interrogating Stella on Mr. Woodward's orders; that had caused her to chuck up and wet herself, such was the effect of it. No wonder he'd avoided directly discussing dignity.
Jessica shuddered as the magic of the thing washed over her. She doubled over and made a horrible gasping sound, trembling all over, beads of sweat appearing on her forehead and running quickly down her face. A disturbed muttering ran through the crowd, as most of them had never seen such magic in their life, and a short distance to my left, Marge screamed at Mr. Fletcher.
“What are you doing to her? Stop that at once!”
Mr. Fletcher obliged, ceasing his continual clicking of the thing and hiding it in his pocket. Jessica now looked up at him, tears in her eyes, but finally they were eyes which appeared to be seeing the people around her. I realised that far from wanting to take away her dignity, all Mr. Fletcher had intended was to bring her out of her stunned state, and it looked like he had succeeded in that at least.
“Can we talk now, Jessica?” he asked calmly.
“Please don't do that to me again,” she wept.
Mr. Fletcher smiled and showed her his empty palms. “No more of that, I promise. Would you like to tell me what happened upstairs between you and Tommy? What you remember of it? I've already had a somewhat hysterical version from him but until he calms down, I ought not to take him too seriously. Did you attack him with a bludginator?”
“I didn't,” she said in little more than a squeak. “I swear I didn't mean to do anything to him. I'm not a violent person.”
And that was true; even through all of this, Jessica was one of the least violent people I knew. She had helped us when it came to a tussle with Moran such a long time ago, but that was the only time I could remember her entering into a physical confrontation at all. The only other time had been the first of the three Chopville High battles, and that had been purely self-defence.
“You were with him in his bedroom, yes?” he persisted. “Were you and he perhaps having an argument at the time? Tommy was unwilling to discuss this part.”
“We weren't fighting—we were just talking,” she said, looking into his eyes, and he nodded, satisfied. He could read her mind, of course, so whatever they had really been doing, she didn't need to say aloud.
“Tell me then,” he said quietly, but not quietly enough that we couldn't hear him clearly in the otherwise silent lounge room, “can you actually remember attacking him? Is it clear in your memory?”
She shook her head—no hesitation at all. He stared at her for several seconds before nodding, but whatever he'd seen in her mind troubled him. He got to his feet and vanished the seat he'd been sitting on.
“What's the diagnosis, doctor?” a voice rang out from the doorway. I couldn't see the owner of the voice, but I knew who it was all too well: Charlie, Jessica's father. He had been due to return from whatever business on the outside tonight and it looked like he'd turned up just in time to catch the end of the incident.
“Something I don't understand,” Mr. Fletcher said heavily, “which is why I must leave this up to the Woodwards. Jessica, as much as I would release you, I'm afraid I can't take any chances where those around you may be in danger. You'll have to be isolated until we understand the cause of this.”
Jessica nodded again, and I felt a great sadness swell up inside me. Jessica seemed to have no better idea what was going on than anyone else but she understood that if she could act involuntarily, she could be dangerous to just about anyone. That showed a great level of maturity, in my mind, for her to be able to accept that fact so quickly.
“Isolated where?” Marge snarled at Mr. Fletcher's back.
She couldn't see his face where she stood, but I saw a faint look of surprise on it before grimness took over. “The prison yard, I'm afraid,” he said heavily. “We have nowhere better for this sort”
Both Marge and Jessica screamed at the same time, cutting him off. Marge's words were incoherent but I heard Jessica quite clearly: “No! They'll beat up on me in there! Don't send me there!”
“Can't we just keep her in our family suite?” James asked loudly. “Just make it so she can't come out. At least she'll be looked after in there.”
“And what if she attacks you next?” Mr. Fletcher asked him. “Or perhaps you?” he added, looking at Felicity.
“We can defend ourselves,” James replied. “Tommy was just caught unawares—that won't happen to us.”
Mr. Fletcher stared at him for a few seconds before nodding reluctantly. “I don't like it, but I suppose you're right. Also, I think I may have to assign a body guard for her, in case she loses control again.”
He used magic to raise Jessica into the air. She was still bound by some unknown magic, so the sight of her levitating a foot off the chair, still sitting as though in it, was extremely odd. He turned and, Jessica trailing along behind him, began cutting a path through the crowd. They parted like the Red Sea before him, unwilling to touch the floating girl. Marge, James and Felicity followed along behind them, and Charlie joined them as they left the lounge room and headed for the stairs. Peter and I turned and attempted to follow them, and now Marc made to join us, but once again, Mum got in our way.
“You are going to bed, both of you,” she growled at the pair of us. “Get up there now and not a backward look from either of you. Understand?”
I shook my head. “I'll go after I've had a quick word with Mr. Fletcher.”
Mum opened her mouth in a snarl of outrage, and perhaps her next words would have had a lot to do with insolent teenagers, but Dad put a resting hand on her arm. I hadn't even seen him but since he and Charlie went on just about all business assignments together, it made sense that he would have turned up at the same time.
“Let him stay here just till Brian gets back down,” he said soothingly. “How do you expect them to sleep tonight after all this has happened? At least Brian can put their minds at ease once he's sorted out Jessica's arrangements.”
“She's like our sister,” Peter said quietly, “and besides, Tommy's a wanted criminal, remember?”
“What are you implying?” Dad asked sharply. “Do you think this was an assassination attempt?”
“I'm sorry, was I too subtle?” he said sarcastically.
“His point is that it could just as easily have been me instead of Tommy,” I pointed out. “Tommy just happened to be closest to Jessica at the time.”
Dad shook his head. “This is Jessica we're talking about. Jessica's a good girl—she'd never stray to the dark side.”
“That's a rather cliché way of putting it,” said Peter distastefully.
“You go and get some rest,” he said kindly to Mum. “I'll send the boys up after they've spoken to Brian. I'll be up myself too—pretty tired.”
She wanted to argue, as always, but she had a hard time getting mad at Dad these days. Whatever faults she had when it came to her children, she understood the danger he put himself in every day as he worked for the Woodwards' cause. Every time he returned safely to base, her relief made her softer than she would be any other time.
She sighed and turned to Peter and me. “Be sure you come straight up to bed when you're done with Mr. Fletcher,” she said sternly. “No loitering around, and especially no trying to go into the Thomases' suite. If I get word from Marge tomorrow that either of you were in there, there'll be hell to pay. You understand?”
“Sure thing, Mum,” said Peter wearily.
She sighed again and headed for the stairs. The four of us watched her out of sight before Dad turned to Peter and me. “Why do you want to talk to Mr. Fletcher?”
“Just want the final word on Jessica's condition,” said Peter, but I shook my head.
“I have something else I want to ask him,” I told him.
“And that would be…?” Dad enquired. “Do I take it that you do wish to speak to Jessica tonight?”
I shook my head again. “No, it's Tommy I wanna speak to.”
“Me too,” said Marc, who had been watching this Playman exchange silently for some time but now felt safe enough to weigh in. “I need to ask him something very important, which I bet it would never occur to Mr. Fletcher to ask.”
He met my eyes and I knew we were both thinking the same thing. Dad looked like he wanted to ask what we were up to but decided against it. Instead he said, “there's a good chance he won't let you speak to Tommy this soon. You do realise that, don't you?”
“Yeah, he probably won't,” I said, “but it can't hurt to ask.”
As the Thomases had been gone for several minutes already, the crowd around us had settled down a little. Some of them had gone off to bed while others had returned to the lounge room to continue whatever discussion they'd been having before all this started, or more likely to continue discussing Jessica's attempt on Tommy's life. Before long, Dad, Marc, Peter and I were the only ones left in the hall, leaning against the wall between the stairs and the lounge room doors where we could wait for Mr. Fletcher to return. It was almost midnight when he did, and he looked very grim indeed.
“How is she now?” Peter asked him at once.
“She'll be fine,” he said wearily. “She's being kept in her bedroom—no keys and no weapons. I'm on my way to speak to Mr. Woodward about assigning a body guard for her now. I would prefer it if you boys stayed away from her though, for the time being. Once we work out what's going on, I'm sure you'll be able to see her again. She doesn't look dangerous at all anymore but we have to be sure.”
“Brian,” said Dad, approaching the Sorcerer, and I was grateful that he was going to back us up—these two were very good friends of old. “Would it be okay for these three to visit with Tommy this evening?”
Mr. Fletcher hesitated, appraising me, Marc and Peter. “I'm not so sure that's a good idea. You did hear me when I said he was shaken up?”
“Yeah, we heard that,” said Marc quickly, “but it's important we see him now. It can't wait for morning.”
“Why is it so urgent?”
“Because I've got half an idea what might be going on here,” said Marc, “and if I'm right, a whole lot worse stuff could happen in the next few hours.”
Now that was a masterstroke from Marc. His words were terrifying, because I knew I was onto the same possible theory, and if we were right, nobody in the base was safe. Nevertheless he had taken perfect advantage of the situation; Mr. Fletcher didn't understand what was going on, and if Marc had any ideas, the one who does not know must bow to the one who does. Best of all, Mr. Fletcher recognised the situation for what it was.
“Fine, just you though,” he said to Marc, but Marc shook his head.
“John comes too—I need to make sure we're on the same wavelength here.”
I'd only been in the Chopville hospital enough times to count on one hand, but even I recognised the feelings that came with finally leaving the living quarters and entering the corridor outside. It was not unlike being confined to a hospital bed for a great length of time and then being allowed to tour the ward for the first time in what felt like ages. It was still in the Woodward base but it was so much better than what I'd had to put up with for such a long time. It was an ironic analogy, I thought, as Mr. Fletcher led Marc and me into the Woodward infirmary.
Tommy had been dozing before the three of us entered his room but came to attention quickly. When he recognised Marc and me, he managed a grin.
“I can only give you—maybe—five minutes,” Mr. Fletcher told Marc and me. “I don't intend to spend long with Frederic and when I'm done, I'll be coming back this way, so make it quick, whatever you have to do.”
“Don't worry, we will,” said Marc, and Mr. Fletcher left the three of us alone in the room.
“You managed to get out,” Tommy said happily as soon as the door shut behind the Sorcerer. “Blimey—I was so sure they wouldn't let any of you guys come down here.”
“He wasn't too keen on it,” I said as Marc and I pulled up chairs beside his bed. He had pulled himself into a sitting position but as far as I could see, he looked unharmed. Whatever damage had been done by Jessica's bludginator had been completely repaired.
“Mate,” said Marc, reaching forward and patting Tommy on the arm, “glad to see it's all worked out okay, but you're so damn lucky she didn't kill you.”
“I know, right?” he said, and then the happiness went quickly out of his face. “She's okay, isn't she? They're not gonna punish her for it?”
“They've isolated her,” Marc told him. “They were gonna put her in the prison yard but Mr. Fletcher agreed her own suite would be good enough as long as there's someone to watch her. Er—can you remember it?”
Tommy hesitated, then said, “I think I can, but—it just seems so unreal. That's not like the Jessica I know—she was totally different.”
“Yeah, she was,” I said heavily, and looked enquiringly at Marc. He and I were probably on the same wavelength, but it was his idea, so I waited for him to ask the question.
“Did…,” he said, trying to think how to say whatever was on his mind, “did Jessica…change? Did you actually see her change?”
Tommy hesitated again, but he seemed to understand where Marc was heading and was doing his best to provide the right information. Eventually he said, “Her eyes changed. I mean—they were still her eyes, same colour and everything, but they looked…different. And then she spoke, and it was her voice, but the way she spoke was different. You know what I mean?”
“What did she say?” Marc asked.
“And where was the bludginator?” I added. “Surely she doesn't normally carry things like that around in here.”
“It was my bludginator,” Tommy said, “and it was in my top bedside drawer. She'd seen it before so she knew it was there. I thought she was getting—er—well I thought she was getting something else out of there, so I didn't think anything of it until she—she lunged at me.”
“What did she say before opening the drawer?” Marc asked again.
“She said something like, ‘I'd like to try something new tonight, honey’, and that's weird enough in itself because she's never called me that before.”
Marc and I swapped another look. Our theory was looking more and more likely by the second. Marc took a deep breath and asked the all-important question. “You say that it didn't sound like Jessica? She spoke differently?” When Tommy nodded, he added, “Did she speak with an American accent?”
That took Tommy by surprise, but he considered carefully, smart enough to make the connection. Finally he shook his head. “Australian accent. Not as Aussie as the way Jessica normally speaks, but still Australian. It sounded—kind of—older, if you know what I mean.”
Now that was significant indeed. It wasn't quite what Marc and I had been thinking, but it was very close. We swapped another look and once again, I knew we were thinking the same thing. The hair stood up on the back of my neck as we sat there, and I knew the three of us weren't alone in the hospital room. I looked around to the right, towards the door, and sure enough, I saw his face there, hidden in the deepest shadows of the room, no more than a shadow himself, watching us. A blink later, he had vanished; there was nothing in the shadows but more shadows, and anyone who hadn't been through all the crap I had would have dismissed it as imagination, but I knew better.
I looked back at Marc, who was watching me in alarm, eyes wide. He hadn't seen what I'd seen, I knew, but he understood what had just happened, and judging by the terrified look on his dark face, Tommy understood too.