A PRIVATE JOKE REVEALED
Phil was sitting at his desk, wondering if his close friends Mark and Annette had returned from their latest quest, when the phone rang.
“Hi, Phil, we're back.” It was the calm voice of Annette which broke the silence.
“Hello, Annette, how did it go?”
“Too close for comfort. We nearly didn’t make it this time. If it hadn’t been for Rachel and her eagles, we would be dead. The evilness had us trapped and exhausted.”
“It sounds as though you two deserve a good rest.”
“We're good now, thanks. We've been back a week and have had time to go over a few things about our relationship.”
“Oh! That didn’t sound good.”
“We had to have a good talk. We were too close to the end at Wharfemere.”
“I'm glad to know you are back, safe, if not too sound.”
“It's good to be back and the extra few days off have given us new hopes for the future together.”
“Good to hear that, Annette. He loves you and needs you.”
“I don’t know, I can’t connect this week.”
“Is this another incident like North Moor?”
“No, this is worse! He just won’t talk about it.”
“I'm sorry. I've only known him do that once or twice and each time you have to let him come around, in his time.”
“I'll do that, I just hope it doesn’t take too long, I miss him.”
“I know; we all do. Have you any idea when you may be coming over?”
“It will probably be another day or two; we need a bit more time to get over Wharfemere.”
“That's okay. Take all the time you want, I hope to see you two soon.”
“Phil, we'll look forward to it. Before you go, Mark said I can ask you about the joke you shared-
“Oh! That goes back to one of those charity walks the celebs do. Katy Morgan was always complaining about the heat, sweat and dirt. After he had enough of her whining, one day he dropped his camera on the sands and shouted 'You think YOU have problems. Try lugging these cameras around, hearing you loser whining all day and getting no credit for our work. YOU never think of the poor people out here, sweating twice as much, just so you jerks can be seen by your fans at home.' Then he dropped the camera and called to the crews, “If anyone else feels like I do; join me. I'm taking the jeep back, getting a shower and then going home.”
“Was that why he stopped filming for years? And then went out of sight.”
“A good part of it; he was also sick of the whole scene, parties, papers and celebs-that to him is not why he is a photojournalist.’
Annette laughed, at the thoughts of what she had just learned about the man she loved, “Right, I must go, things to do. Thank you for explaining the joke for me, I bet it caused a stink, in more ways than one.”
“Okay, give me a call when you want to me to come over. Bye, Annette.”
Now that Phil's mind was slightly at ease, he could start to relax. Yet, the startling news that Mark was sliding back again was so worrying. The last time, it took Phil weeks to get him out of the darkness that he had wrapped himself in. Phil had something he wanted to ask Mark and Annette, he called the house phone and all he got was the engaged tone and a background hiss. All day, the deadly silence played on his mind. When it got to the point he couldn't bear the silence any longer, he decided to drive out to the house.
Walking down the stairs to the car park Phil was wondering, “Why didn't they answer the phone?” He got in his car and drove the journey to Mark's house in silence, so worried he forgot to put the radio on. The car turned up the drive to the house forty minutes later and he got out of the car and walked up to the house. Having been given the front door key by Mark for emergencies like this, he let himself in.”Mark, are you here?” He called out to an empty house.
Walking around the ground floor, Phil saw signs that Mark hadn't been himself; cups on the table, papers left out with strange equations written on them. Phil decided he needed to get his friend back to normal before it was too late. Looking around the kitchen, he found an old broken broom. “This will be good to tap on the hatch,” he thought.
There was no answer, which was more worrying. In past times, this meant he was locked in the attic, a place he only went when things were so bad he had to be alone. Slowly walking up the wooden stairs, Phil thought he heard a noise in the back bedroom. He was tempted to investigate but thought better of it. His friend was far more important to him. Standing under the loft door, he gave it a hefty thump “Surely he would hear.” He thought, as he hit the hatch twice. But there were no signs of the hatch opening. “Mark, this is Phil. Can we talk?”
Slowly, the hatch inched open. And Mark stood bathed in sweat and panting, “What the hell, have you been up to?”
“I'm losing it, Phil!”
“No chance! You're as sharp as ever.”
“Thanks for the confidence trip. But it's true. In the last few quests, I had to rely on either Annette or Rachel, or both, to get out.”
“True as that may be, you are still the man for the job. We know it. What were you doing up there, anyway?”
“I was trying to find my central core. I used to be good, relying on myself and that kept me sharp.”
“If this is about North Moor, you needed Annette's help to combat your fears, true. You couldn't have done it without her but nobody else could have done it. As you said, you are the best. If someone else had gone in, you would have had to clear a bigger mess than you did.
“I didn’t see Annette’s car when I pulled up to the house. Do you know where it is?”
“Probably where she is,” Mark said sadly.
“How do I know?”
“When is she due back?”
“How long is a piece of string?”
“Why are you answering a question with a question? This is not the Mark Johnson I know and admire.”
“Why are you asking questions to which I have no answers? All I know is she left this morning, to go somewhere. No hugs, kisses, or goodbyes, she just got in the car and left.”
“I'm sorry to hear that. I thought you two were getting close.”
“So did I; I guess she took us both for fools.”
“Do you fancy a beer to chill, and perhaps a chat to try and get through this like we used to in the old days?”
“No. Thanks for the offer but I have to get back on the horse. I fancy a monster to kill” Mark said with a sadistic laugh.
“In that case, I've got just the thing, for you.
“A juicy essence, calling for my tender mercies mmmmmm,” Mark added sarcastically.
“You may wish to reconsider, when you find out it can move through walls as though they don’t exist. It also has many heads, teeth that can spring out like man-traps and talons of gryphons.”
“This certainly sounds a good challenge for the revitalised me,’ Mark joked.
Behind the outward bravado, Phil was seeing the frailty of his friend. A man he had admired since they were in their late teens; who was now showing his vulnerability, this was scary. Through the years, Mark had been a little reckless, sometimes crazy, gung-ho. You always had the feeling he would pull through. Now, it was recklessness, more a case of “I don’t care.” This is what was so worrying. Mark had always been able to sense when something could go wrong. That is what had got him out of so many tight scrapes, the ability to outthink his opponent. This gung-ho, hell-for-leather attitude was only going to get him seriously hurt; or worse.
Had this been brought on since Annette left? Or had that just been the final straw? Did this start at North Moor, went on through Parleby-- when he went into the mansion after saying he wouldn't-- and ended out at Wharfemere last week, when they had almost died.
Phil had no answers to the thoughts racing in his mind. All he knew was that he might lose his best friend, if he gave him the job. But he could lose him, if he didn't and what of Mark? The longer he was inactive, surely the worse he would feel. “Okay, Mark. If you feel up to it, the job's yours but I won’t blame you, if you chose not to.”
“I'll let you know once you tell me more. Let's get back in the flow.”
“It's at Longfletch house.”
“I know the area well; the area is riddled with mine shafts and old cottages. They tried to bring them down a few years ago but sinister things happened and the contractors pulled out.”
“It does appear that you know the area. They tried to get their things from the house. Then they spotted something was moving around the house. I have the video that one of the workmen took, just before they went in. Turn the lights out and we can see what it is we are up against.”
Mark got out of the chair he was in and turned the lights out as Phil played back the video that the foreman had taken from outside the house.
“How many men went in?” Mark asked.
“How many got out?”
“One, and he was very lucky to escape.”
When the tape ended Mark got out of the chair and went to his desk, “I'll get my gear and you can drive. While I get the gear rigged up for battle as we travel, give me five minutes.”
“Be right with you. Do you have a plan?”
“Sure! The old MJ 1-2-3” Mark and Phil laughed at this shared joke.
“Hit, slash and run like hell.”
“That's the usual. Only this time, I have added a 4”
“What's that?” Phil asked
“We keep in contact and when I yell for you, come in with horns glaring and lights flashing.”
“Do you think it'll work?”
“All I'm looking for is that your actions can distract it for a few seconds. So I can get out.”
“Anything I can do to give you a chance, you know I will. I have your back this time. Just out of interest, what give you the idea to say Annette should know about the joke we shared?”
“We'd been through so much and I owed her my life. I loved her and wanted her to know that. I'm not sure if she wants me. I thought she had the right to know. I had nothing to lose and all to gain. I thought if you told her I might not have looked so pig-headed.”
“You weren't pig-headed. Those jerks needed to be brought down a peg or two. I could see there was trouble brewing long before it blew up though.”
“How long before things went sour did you know?”
“Within an hour of you getting the job; I could see the anger. Here was another celeb, going to get praised and you and the crew were the real heroes. You were doing a job you loved and wanting to be recognised for it.”
“Right; back to now, my plan is to go in through the kitchen window as that appears to be a blind spot. It has all the main doors and windows covered, eyes looking in all areas, ears pricked for the slightest sounds. If I can sneak in that way, then dash to the stairs, I can be on the landing before it realises I am even in the house.”
“And if you fail?” Phil said hesitantly.
“I'll have a fight to the death or a death struggle. Depending on which of us has a slight edge.”
“How can you have the edge?”
“I know I am going in and where. Hopefully, that should give me time for the first blow. After that there is no telling what can happen.”
“I know, that's the part I'm worried about. I've seen you in tight situations – I even rescued you a few times - but I have never seen you go in and not have an escape plan. It's almost as if you've lost the survival instinct since Annette left. I’ve known you longer than almost anybody else and believed you can pull through most things. This time I am really scared. You've crossed into the dark zone and that is spooky. When you came down, there was a look of benevolent malice behind your eyes. That is something I haven't seen before.”
“If I did cross over, that takes me one step closer to being able to beat what we are up against then, doesn’t it!”
“Does it, Mark? Or does it just mean you lost the will to live? And you are willing to lose it all. In a fight you know you won’t win but just don’t want to back away from!”
“Honestly- I don’t know and when I think of it, I have got to the point of not caring. I know you will miss me and I would hate to lose you. Better I go this way, doing something I want to do, than sitting in a corner; moping about the loss of Annette.”
“She loves you and wants you back. That's what she told me.”
“Well, maybe, but I wasn't getting that type of feedback from her recently, when she left with no hugs, kisses or goodbyes, that said it all for me.”
“Maybe she wants time?’
“She has as much as she wants. And I have a job to tackle.”
“I don’t think you are in the right frame of mind and that worries me.”
“ “I’ll be Okay, Phil. After this is over, we can have a pie and pint at the Frog and Newt up the road. I hear they do a lovely lamb stew up there. We can celebrate and get drunk.”
“I don’t like this new you. He is scary. I've known you for over twenty years and you have never been a heavy drinker. You always watched what you did. Here you are going into battle with no escape route and talking of getting drunk.”
“Maybe this is the real me and I have been hiding from myself all this time.”
“Or the loss of Annette has just unhinged you and you have lost your sense of focus.”
The drive out to Longfletch was quiet. Phil was worrying about how far this new Mark would go to meet his foes. A Mark Johnson he had never seen before.
The car pulled up to the house and Mark got out of the passenger side and went to the boot to retrieve his tools, which, this time included a burnt stake. As asked-, Phil stayed out of sight but within shouting range.
“Okay. Here I go! Kitchen and stairs; then see what we can do.”
“Don’t forget the signal!” Phil shouted as Mark headed for the gate, praying his friend had not crossed the line and gone sinister. Yet half-thinking, “I know you won't call.”
Mark slowly crept through the bushes that circled the house-, feeling the sharpened burnt wooden stake scratching his leg as he did. “Ouch” he thought, as it bit into the fleshy thigh, and blood started dripping down his leg. Now he would have to make sure he had that one-step lead. The longer he went on, the worse the injury would be. Slowly, he eased the kitchen window open, looking all round to see if the eyes had seen him, or the ears had heard him. It was just about open, when it creaked. He felt a cold wind as the head came circling through the door, teeth snapping at him. The edge he hoped for had gone; it was all or nothing now. “Right, you sod busting, mother fucking, son of a turd. You’ve crossed swords, with the wrong guy, in the wrong mood at the wrong time!” Mark screamed at the head, as he kicked the door shut, just as the teeth snapped forward.
Mark took a quick look and saw a ledge he could jump to, kicking the door shut he made a leap for the ledge as the creature yelled in pain. Its face smarting from having the door slammed into it. Mark waited for the next move, feeling the powers rise and knowing that his weeks of training were beginning to flow through him. As the head lolled back and the teeth withdrew, he knew the ears were listening for heaving breathing, to judge the next attack. Regulating his breathing, Mark dashed at the door, slamming it full force, and then he turned on the face. He took a quick glance at the target before he drove the stick deep in the first eye that he saw. Hearing the whelp of pain stirred the forces in him more, and he turned, rolled over the neck and drove the stick so deep in the other one, he had to stick his boot on the eyeball to get it back.
Dragging the stick along the back of the creature, he ran up the creature's spine. Using this as his way to the landing, he turned to face three snapping jaws. “C’mon,” he screamed. Wielding the stake like a club he swung around effortlessly and with total ease as if this was the old MJ; each swing connecting; each crack resounding more than the last.
Lost in a haze of glorious sounding cracks, all he could feel was the power of his training flowing. With a sense of total calmness and ease he felt the flow of spirit course through him, the like of which he thought impossible. Here he was in his element, fighting tooth and nail, his old edge back and he loved it.
The creature was below, yelling in a mass of agonised. Its own bloody juices burning its skin, the slow burning was driving the monstrous being crazed with revenge. It took a last stand, raising its bulk to its full height feet and towering over Mark.
“Come to daddy!” Mark shouted as he took a flying leap at the creature. He hit the slime covered underside, slowly gripping with hands and knees he climbed the body, reaching just below the head. Here he drove the sharpened stick through the lower jaw, he pulled it out and stabbed the monster with all his hate and power as deep into the belly as he could. Then with a kick, he slid down the belly, each foot of agonised, pain filled cries was a joy to his ears, knowing his work was going well.
Twenty feet from the end, he dropped to the floor, leaving the stake in. The creature fell to the floor in a mass of burning skin and bone. Mark enjoyed watching the stake pierce both sides and impale the monster. Walking to the sink, kicking broken jaw fragments as he did, he couldn't help smiling to himself and thinking. “And, I thought I had lost the edge. Mark Elijah Johnson, you are back and on form.”
As he walked out to the van, Phil called to him “Why didn’t you yell?”
Mark called back “Why should I ask for help? I was in control and getting better every minute. It never had a chance.”
“When I saw the head flashing at you, I thought you were a gonner!”
“Not a chance of that. From that moment, it was playing my game, my way and I was the only one coming home.” Mark laughed. A laugh so evil, Phil shuddered.
“Tell me, truthfully was there any time you thought you were losing?”
“Not for a single heartbeat, Phil. I was in total control of the situation from the creak of the windows to the washing its slime off. MEJ has returned to form.”
“Now I am worried. Before I was worried as I thought you might not be up to it. Now, I fear you crossed over to the dark side and that is too much to cope with. Shall I call Annette? To see if she can calm your spirits.”
“Who is she?”
“Annette-the lady you love.”
“Do I? I must have missed that chapter in my life.” Again the sinister laugh, Phil could sense he was losing his friend now.
“C’mon, kickin' ass is good for you but you always calmed down quickly.”
“That was then, this is now!”