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,” Annette’s calm voice broke the silence.
“Hello, Annette, how did the fight go?”
“Too close for comfort, we nearly didn’t make get out this time. If Rachel and her eagles hadn’t turned up, we would be dead. The evilness had us trapped and exhausted.”
“You sound as though you two deserve a good rest.”
“We're good now, thanks. We came back a week ago and used the extra days off to go over a few things about our relationship.”
“Oh! That didn’t sound good.”
“We needed a good honest talk. We were too close to the end at Wharfemere.”
“I'm glad to hear you are back, safe, if not too sound.”
“The thought of being back home is good and the extra few days off has given us new hopes for the future together.”
“Annette, he loves you and needs you.”
“I am not sure, I can’t connect this week.”
“Does this appear to be a flash-back to another North Moor?”
“No, this is worse! He won't talk about what happened.”
“I'm sorry. He has only gone into these silence spells once or twice and each time you need to let him come around, in his time.”
“I'll do that. I hope the return doesn’t take too long, I miss him.”
“I realize you miss him more than anybody; he needs to realize, we miss him too. I was going to ask; will you be coming over soon?”
“We will probably be another day or two as we would like a bit more time to get over Wharfemere.”
“Take all the time you want. I hope to see you two soon.”
“Phil, we'll look forward to seeing you again. Before you go, Mark said I should 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. He had to endure days of her wining and one day he had enough of her whining; he dropped his camera on the sands and shouted, ‘You think you have problems; you should try lugging these cameras around, hearing you losers whining all day and getting no credit for our work. You never think of the poor people out here, sweating twice as much, so you jerks can be seen by your fans at home,’ he dropped the camera and called to the crews, “Does anybody else feel this way, you are welcome to join me. I’m taking the jeep back, getting a shower and I’m going home.”
“Do you think this is why he stopped filming?”
“This was one of many incidents and a good part of why he became a recluse. He had become 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 learned about the man she loved, “Right. I must go, I have 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 Phil’s mind was slightly at ease, he could start to relax. Yet the startling news that Mark was sliding back again worried him. The last time, Phil had to struggle for weeks to get him out of the darkness which he had allowed to envelope himself in. He 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. The silence got to the point he couldn't bear any more and he decided he had no choice but to drive out to the house.
Phil walked down to where he parked his car and as he did, he wondered, “Why didn't they answer the phone?” He got in his car and drove the journey to Mark's house in silence. The car turned up the drive to the house forty minutes later. Phil got out of the car and walked up to the house; Mark had given him a key for emergencies like this, so he let himself in.
“Mark, are you here?” Phil called out to an empty house.
As he was 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 became too late; looking around the kitchen, he found an old broken broom, “I bet he’s up in the attic again. 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, Mark 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, can we talk this out!”
The hatch opened slowly and Mark stood bathed in sweat hell and panting.
Taken aback Phil asked, “What the hell are you doing?”
Mark replied, “I am trying to find my balance, I'm losing control, 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.”
“The truth is we both consider you are still the man for the job; why didn’t answer my call when I arrived and what were you doing up there?”
Mark watched for a reaction as he replied, “I am trying to find my central core, I used to be good, relying on myself and that kept me sharp.”
“Is this about North Moor, you needed Annette's help to combat your fears, true and you couldn't finish the task without her but nobody else could do the job; as you said, you are the best and if somebody else had gone in; you may not have been able to clear the bigger mess.
Phil looked out of the window and said, “When I pulled up to the house, I didn’t see Annette’s car; do you know where her car is?”
“The car is probably where she is!” Mark said sadly.
“She didn’t tell me, so I can’t tell you.”
“Did she say when she may be back?”
“How long is a piece of string?”
“Why are you answering a question with a question? This is not the Mark Johnson I came to admire.”
“Why are you asking questions; which I can’t answer? All I can tell you is she left this morning, to go somewhere. No hugs, kisses, or goodbyes, she got in her car and left, as you see I don’t know where she went.”
“I'm sorry to hear that; I thought you close.”
“So did I; I guess she took us for fools.”
“Do you fancy a beer to chill? We can chat and try and get through this like we used to in the old days.”
“No. Thanks for the offer but I need to get back on the horse. I fancy a monster to kill,” Mark said with a sadistic laugh.
“In which case, I may be able to oblige you.”
“A juicy essence, calling for my tender mercies mmmmmm,” Mark added sarcastically.
“You may wish to reconsider, when you find out this essence can move through walls as though they don’t exist. The body has many heads with teeth which spring out like man-traps and has talons like Gryphon’s.”
“This certainly sounds like a challenge for the revitalized me,’ Mark joked.
Behind the outward bravado, Phil was seeing the frailty of his friend. A man he had admired since their late teens and who was now showing his vulnerable side, to Phil this was scary. Through the years, Mark had been a little reckless, sometimes crazy and gung-ho; but you always had the feeling, he would pull through, all the caution had gone and a new recklessness had taken charge, more a case of ‘I don’t care.’ This new phase worried Phil; Mark had always been able to sense when something may go wrong; this ability had got him out of so many tight scrapes; by outthinking his opponent. This gung-ho, hell-for-leather attitude would get him seriously hurt or killed, “Had this been brought on since Annette left; or was her leaving the final straw?” Phil thought, “something which started back at North Moor and went on through Parleby -- when he went into the mansion after saying he wouldn’t -- and ended out at Wharfemere last week, when they almost died,” Phil could find no answers to the thoughts racing in his mind. He realized he may lose his best friend, if he gave him the job but he may 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 think you’re up to it, the job is yours but I won’t blame you, if you chose not to.”
“I'll tell you my answer, when you tell me more about this job and then I can get back in the flow.”
“It's at Longfletch house.”
“I remember the area well. Mine shafts and old cottages, they tried to bring them down a few years ago but sinister things happened and the contractors pulled out.”
“You do appear to remember the area. The men tried to get their things from the house; they spotted something moving around the house; I have the video one of the workmen took, before they went in. Turn the lights out and we can see what we are fighting.”
Mark got out of his chair and turned the lights out as Phil played back the video which the foreman had taken, from outside the house.
“How many men went in?” Mark asked.
“How many got out?”
“One got out and he 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, can you give me five minutes to get the things together; I can build my weapons as we drive.”
“I’ll be right with you. Do you have a plan?”
“Sure! This will be the old MJ 1-2-3,” the friends laughed at a shared joke.
“Hit, slash and run like hell.”
“Phil, that's the usual. Only this time, I added a 4.”
“What's the new part?” Phil asked.
“We keep in contact and when I yell for you, come in horns glaring and lights flashing.
“Do you think this plan will work?”
“All I am aiming for is the hope your actions can distract the monster for a few seconds. So I can get out.”
“Anything I can do to give you a chance, I will. Out of interest, what give you the idea to say, Annette should share our joke?”
“We'd been through so much and I owed her my life. I love her and wanted her to realize 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 may not look so pig-headed.”
“You weren't pig-headed; those jerks needed to be brought down a peg or two. I saw trouble brewing, a long time before you blew up.”
“How long before I blew did you realize things had gone bad?”
“Within an hour of you getting the job, the anger began to show. Your body language as you walked into the storeroom said everything; even to people who had little knowledge your body said, ‘Here is another celeb going to get praised and you and the crew are the real heroes. You are doing a job you loved and wanted to be recognized for your work.’
“Back to now, my plan is to go in through the kitchen as there appears to be a blind spot. The monster appears to have the main doors and windows under view, eyes looking in all areas and ears pricked for the slightest sounds; if I can sneak in the kitchen and dash to the stairs, I can be on the landing before I am sensed in the house.”
“What happens if you fail?” Phil said hesitantly.
“In which case the struggle will be a fight to the death; depending on which of us gains a slight edge.”
“How can you gain an edge?”
“I know where I’m going in; hopefully, this may give me time for the first blow. After that there is no telling what may happen.”
“I know, that is the part I'm worried about. I've seen you in tight situations – I even rescued you a few times - but I’ve 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 have 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 about how I feel, I have got to the point of not caring. I know you will miss me and I would hate to lose you but I feel it would be better I go this way, doing something I want to do, than sitting in a corner and moping over the loss of Annette.”
“She loves you and wants you back, she told me.”
“Perhaps 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.”
“Perhaps she wants time?’
“She has as much time 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 and 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 worried about how far this new Mark would go to meet his foes. A Mark Johnson he had not seen before. The car pulled up to the house and Mark got out of the passenger door and went to the boot to retrieve his tools, which, this time included a burnt stake. As he had been asked, Phil stayed out of sight but within shouting range.
Mark muttered, “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 crept through the bushes that circled the house; the sharpened burnt wooden stake scratching his leg as he crawled, “Ouch!” He thought, as the stake bit into his fleshy thigh and blood started dripping down his leg; now he would have to make sure that he stayed one step ahead as the longer the fight lasted, the weaker he would get. He eased the kitchen window open, looking all round wondering if the eyes had seen him or the ears had heard him. The window was about to open, when it creaked. He felt the cold wind as the head came in a wide circle through the door, teeth snapping at him. The edge he hoped for had gone; now it would be all or nothing, “Right, you sod busting, mother fucking, son of a turd. You’ve crossed swords with the wrong guy, at the wrong time and in the wrong mood!” Mark screamed at the head, as he kicked the door shut, when the teeth snapped forward.
Mark took a quick glance around the room and caught sight of a ledge which he thought he may be able to reach by jumping. He kicking the door shut and waited for the creature’s next move, feeling the powers rise and his weeks of training beginning to flow through him. He noticed the head lolled back and the teeth withdrew and he knew the ears were listening for heavy breathing; to judge the next attack. Mark had to regulate his breathing, so as not to give his position away, when he was calmed down, he dashed at the door, slamming it full force and turning on the face. He took a quick glance at the target before he drove the stick deep in the first eye which came into view. He heard the whelp of pain; which stirred the forces in him more; he turned, rolled over the neck and drove the stick so deep in the other eye socket that he had to stick his boot on the eyeball to get the stake out.
He dragged the stick along the back of the creature as he ran up the creature's spine. Mark used the spine as his way to the landing, when he reached the top he stopped and turned to see three snapping jaws. “C’mon, you sucker!” he screamed. He started the attack; wielding the stake like a club, he swung around with total ease; he had returned to the old MJ. Every swing of the stick was hitting harder into the already painfully sore parts of the creature’s body.
Mark had got lost in a haze of glorious sounding cracks, all he sensed was the power of his training flowing. With a sense of total calmness and ease he felt the flow of spirit course through his body, the like of which he thought impossible. Here he had returned to his element, fighting tooth and nail with his old edge back and loving the dangerous thrills involved in the fight to the death.
The creature had fallen below, yelling in agony; its bloody juices burning its skin and the slow burning acids driving the monstrous being crazed with revenge. The creature became desperate to make a last stand; it rose to the full height feet and towered over Mark.
“Come to daddy!” Mark shouted as he took a flying leap at the creature. He hit the slime-covered underside and slowly gripping with hands and knees he climbed the body. The climb was hard as he kept slipping but reaching below the head, he drove the sharpened stick through the lower jaw and then he pulled it out and stabbed the monster with all his hate and power as deep into the belly as he was able to gather. With a kick, he slid down the belly; every foot Mark went down, the agonized and pain-filled cries of the dying monster had become a joy to his ears, realizing his work had gone to plan.
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; he took great pleasure watching the stake pierce both sides and impale the monster. With the creature slowly dying and not able to move he went to the sink to wash the residue off. On his journey across to the sink he had to clear a path through the fragments, as he did, he couldn't help smiling and thinking, “And, I thought I had lost the edge. Mark Elijah Johnson, you are back and on form.”
Phil watched him as he walked out to the van, and called, “Why didn’t you yell?”
Mark called back, “Why should I ask for help? I had gained control and got better every minute. The creature never had a chance.”
“When I saw the head flashing at you, I thought you were a goner!”
“Not a chance. From the moment the head came towards me we were playing my game, my way and I was the only one coming home,” Mark laughed. A laugh so evil, Phil shuddered. “I was not in danger for a single heartbeat. I had 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 had been worried as I thought you may not be up to the fight. Now, I fear you may have crossed over to the dark side which is too much to cope with. Shall I call Annette?”
“Who is she?
“Annette is the lady you love.”
“Do I? Perhaps I missed the chapter on love.” Again, the sinister laugh, and Phil could sense he may be losing his friend.
“C’mon, kickin' ass is good for you but you always calmed down quickly.”
“That was then but this is now!”