Chapter Thirteen - Hiding
There’s a police car in the driveway, blocking Charlotte’s access to the garage. She parks on the road, her hands shaking as she turns off the ignition and grabs her bag. There’s only one reason why they would be here. They know it was me! The two officers, a man and a woman, are standing at the front door, thumbs tucked into their wide, black leather utility belts, legs at ease, watching Charlotte clack up the path in her new boots. The officers look suspicious and skeptical.
Be brave! Charlotte sucks in a breath and smiles.
“Hello. Can I help you?”
The female officer speaks. “Good afternoon. I’m Constable Fisher, this is Sergeant Hallows. Are you Miss Charlotte Campbell?”
“Yes,” she replies in a small voice.
“We’re here because of an anonymous tip-off. We’re wondering if you could assist us with our enquiries.”
“Into what, exactly?”
“An incident at the Kingsgate Mall today. About an hour ago.”
“An incident?” Charlotte shifts her weight to her left hip, re-adjusts her handbag strap. Her stomach is twisting and churning with fear. Are they talking about Ruby, or Shona and those girls? Did the couple in the lift make a complaint? Hang on, how would they know who I was and where I live? Charlotte glances around nervously. Elvet Hill is a high income suburb of Harlington of smooth, wide streets lined with hundred year old oak trees. The houses are tall and imposing. The residents equally regal. But there’s always an appetite for gossip, no matter how posh the address.
“Would you like to come inside, please?”
The officers nod. She fumbles in her bag for the house keys, opens the front door and taps the security code on the panel to turn off the alarm. They follow her through to the kitchen. The clock on the wall, near her mother’s portrait, says it’s 4.30pm. At least Dad won’t be home for a while. She looks at the officers. Their uniforms are sturdy, sensible navy coloured fabric, precisely pressed. Their shoes are black and shiny, the rubber soles squeaking on the tiled floor. They remove their hats and are hold them lightly by the white brim. Sergeant Hallows has a close cropped head and heavy-featured face, making him resemble a time-weathered mountain. Constable Fisher’s blonde hair is caught at the nape of her neck in a neat bun. Not a strand out of place. She seems more like a dancer than an officer of the law. They’re both so sure of themselves, so utterly at ease, while Charlotte is struggling to keep her knees from shaking. Manners. At a time like this, manners matter.
“Would you like a glass of water? A coffee?”
“No, thank you,” says Constable Fisher, answering for both of them. Sergeant Hallows is yet to speak, but his expression says a great deal. He surveys Charlotte’s house like he’s on a black ops mission, taking in every detail, watching her facial expressions closely, for signs of deceit. Charlotte feels extremely uncomfortable in his silent, hyper-vigilant presence. She slides onto a stool at the breakfast bar, hides her shaking hands on her lap. The officers remain standing, their legs slightly apart, their hands holding their hats, front and centre.
“Er... how can I help you?”
Constable Fisher reaches into her inside pocket and produces a notebook. She flips it open.
“According to Mrs Jean Reynolds, her daughter has identified you as her rescuer. Young Ruby reportedly fell from a fifteen story balcony a few days ago. According to the witnesses, she should by all accounts have died. However Ruby insists that someone intervened and saved her. When she saw you at the Kingsgate Shopping Mall, she identified you as that person.”
Sergeant Hallows crosses his arms and snuffs disparagingly.
“Physically impossible, of course, but it’s procedure to follow all leads.” He flicks a look at his partner. “No matter how trivial or unlikely.” Constable Fisher flushes with embarrassment and clears her throat.
“So, Charlotte, did you recognise Ruby Reynolds or her mother today?”
“Well, I saw them on the news.”
Sergeant Hallows nods, his mouth pursed.
“Yes, but did you recognise them from the day of the incident? They both maintain it was you who saved Ruby.” Constable Fisher smiles, a smile designed to disarm and charm, but it feels more like a Cheshire cat’s cunning grin. Charlotte looks from one officer to the other, a sick feeling rising in her stomach.
“But that’s ridiculous, right? How could I save a girl falling fifteen storeys and then drive off before anyone saw me?”
Sergeant Hallows’ eyes squint and he leans forward.
“Constable Fisher did not mention that the rescuer drove away in a vehicle. Were you there? Did you witness the event?”
“I...er... no. I wasn’t there!”
“But the apartment block is on your normal route home, correct?” Sergeant Hallows has taken over the questioning.
“Well, yes... But that doesn’t mean I saw anything!”
“Can you verify that at the time in question you were not in the vicinity, say, at the nearby petrol station, filling up?”
“Well, yes, I did fill up. But that was before I...” Charlotte gulps down the next words. “It was raining heavily. I couldn’t see much at all.”
“But if you had seen something, you would have stopped to look? Something extraordinary? Something... not quite normal?” Sergeant Hallows is searching her face like a spotlight. Any second now Charlotte will blurt something.
“One moment, please,” says Constable Fisher. The two officers withdraw to the hallway to confer. Constable Fisher whispers quietly, jabbing her notebook with her pen. Sergeant Hallows towers over her, his expression determined, his voice an urgent whisper. Finally they re-enter the kitchen.
“I’m sorry for troubling you, Charlotte,” says Constable Fisher pleasantly, replacing her notebook in her pocket. “We’ll be on our way. Thanks for your time.”
Charlotte watches the two uniformed officers march down the driveway to their car parked on the road. She picks up her phone and dials Gabe’s number.
“Hey.” He says. “What’s up?”
“I didn’t know who else to call. The police were just here. Asking questions about what I did. Saving that little girl.” The phone goes silent.
“That was you?”
“Der! Didn’t you guess already?”
“Oh, come on, Gabe! A kid falls fifteen storeys and survives and goes on national TV saying a lady in fancy jeans rescued her?”
“Why didn’t you say anything, when we had coffee?”
“I didn’t want to talk about it, ok?”
“Any particular reason?”
She sighs. “I’m scared the police will find out it was me. I don’t want to be some freak.”
“Charlotte Campbell shunning the spotlight? This can’t be happening,” he jokes.
“Sorry. What can I do to help?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know anything anymore! My life is shit!” She sniffs, wiping her nose on her sleeve, glad he cannot see her.
“Look, it’s probably nothing. The police have to follow leads, that’s all. There’s no way they can link you with that event. It doesn’t make sense.”
“I guess,” she agrees slowly.
“So, was it like the first time? Do you remember how you did it?”
“I remember thinking I have plenty of time to figure this out. Once I’d already created the bubble. She was falling so slowly, in a blur. All the cars were driving by like they were pushing through goo or something. It was truly weird!”
“And then what did you do?”
“Well, I just let her fall into my arms.”
Gabe chuckles. “You make it sound so easy, like putting on your shoes or something.”
“But it was!” Charlotte feels excited, just remembering. “But afterwards I started to worry that someone would recognise me. That there were witnesses.”
“Didn’t you say you saw Ruby Reynolds at the shopping centre?”
“She recognised me and her mother was desperate to talk to me about it. I couldn’t own up to that!”
“No. The press would make your life a living hell.”
“I don’t even know why I did it really. It just sort of happened.”
“Well, now that you have these powers, you will be tempted to use them. There will be situations where you react. Because you can.”
“You really think so?”
“Yeah. Of course. No one else can do this but you.”
“I guess. But...”
“Look, Charlotte, there’s no need to worry. Your space-time bubble distorts everyone’s perceptions. The only possible reason Ruby recognised you was because she was inside it, with you.”
“I was afraid you’d say that. So I’d better be careful, I guess. If this happens again.”
“I think you’ll do it again. You won’t be able to help yourself. You’re a super hero now.”
“Huh, whatever.” Charlotte is wracking her brain for something else to say, to keep the conversation going. Chatting with Gabe seems to help her nerves. “You’re a bit of an enigma, aren’t you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something not quite right about you. You hide among the geeks, but you’re not really one of them.”
“I’m not hiding.”
Charlotte snorts. “Oh yes, you are! It’s obvious. I’ve seen the way other boys are around you.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re scared witless every time you walk past. I’ve never seen anyone bully you or even say anything the slightest bit demoralising. As a geek, you’d normally be picked on day and night by Corey and the others.”
“He’s an idiot. And his mum smokes dope.”
“You’re missing my point. You’re no geek. I know it. So, what are you? Why are the boys scared of you?” There’s another pause. Charlotte is beginning to think that she has crossed some kind of line, that Gabe has a terrible secret, that perhaps her trust is misplaced.
“Let’s not talk about me.”
“I told you I was adopted.”
“And that my parents weren’t around.”
“I was... removed when I was ten. Fostered by the Murrays and then adopted a year later. I was lucky. Most other kids end up on the street, caught up in drugs.”
“Doesn’t explain why you’re hiding.”
“I just... want my old life to stay in the past.”
“Is your past that dangerous?” She says, remembering the scar on his arm.
“You just… Don’t need to know.”
She frowns. “That’s so unfair!”
“What do you mean?”
“You want me to trust you, but you can’t even be honest with me about your past.”
There’s a silence on the line. Charlotte can almost hear Gabe’s struggle whether to trust her, to let her in.
“All right.” He takes a big sigh and swallows. “My real name is Justin Barker. My nickname was ‘Sparky’ because I electrocuted myself at age eight. We lived in a small working-class town. My Father, Harry, was a war hero, fought in the Middle East, but he came back injured and addicted to morphine. I hardly remembered him from before. And when he came back he was scary. Angry, depressed, in pain all the time. Didn’t take him long to move on to harder drugs. Couldn’t find a job. Which made things worse. No one would hire an ex-soldier addicted to painkillers. But there was one group who accepted him – a biker gang called The Kings.”
Charlotte gasps, trying to think of something to say that won’t sound trite.
“Wow. That’s so… I can’t express it. It sounds like something you read about in the newspapers, but you never actually see in real life.”
“Well, it was real to me.”
“But what about your mother?”
“My mother, Bec, was never one for standing up to my father. She was very young when she had me. Seventeen. Easily led. She joined the gang too.”
Charlotte struggles to picture a younger version of Gabe, living in a trashed house surrounded by motorbikes, beer cans, loud horrible music and violent, drunken brawls. And I thought my life was bad.
“So how did you end up being adopted?”
“They neglected me, exposed me to dangers a little kid should never have known. My first memory is playing with sticks in a dirty stream. I didn’t really have toys. A couple of the gang members sometimes took pity on me and gave me sweets. When I was five I remember riding on the back of Buffer’s bike. He was this huge guy who had a soft spot for me. All I can remember really is shirt stank of sweat but that I got used to it. My worst memory is hiding from my dad, especially when he was angry. He’d come looking for me, his belt dangling from his hand.”
“Oh my God. I’m so sorry,” Charlotte says softly. “Your life sounds like hell.”
“Yep.” He sucks in a shaky breath. “But I was lucky. I was fostered out to wonderful people. And so I had a chance at a better life. I could grow up like a normal kid.”
“So you feel… Lucky?”
“Yes. I don’t know that I’d still be alive if I’d stayed in my old life.”
Charlotte chews her lip. “But you’re still hiding.”
“Yes. But as long as they don’t know where I am, they can’t hurt me.” He pauses, then adds meaningfully, “Or anyone close to me.”