Changeling’s Island – Snippet 01

Changeling’s Island

Dave Freer


It had been the most terrifying, miserable day of Tim Ryan’s whole miserable life.

He’d just done it to show Hailey. Because…because she said he was too scared. He was. Every time he tried anything it always went wrong. Horribly wrong. And he wasn’t a thief. Well, he didn’t want to be. It was one of the few things his dad had ever really got angry with him about. And then he’d only been a little five-year-old kid helping himself to a chocolate bar in a store.

But Hailey…she said…and he’d do anything to get her.

He’d been just short of the door of the store when a big hand had closed around his upper arm. He’d looked up into the face of the store security officer. “Come along with me, you,” said the man, his hand like a steel band around Tim’s arm. The security officer had looked at Hailey. “He with you, Miss?”

“Him?” Hailey had said. “As if I’d hang out with that little creep. He’s a loser. I think he’s stalking me.”

The security officer looked at her with slightly narrowed eyes, and Tim’s mouth had been suddenly too dry to say anything. “Off you go, then,” he had said, and he’d marched Tim along back through the store to the security office. Every cringing step Tim had been aware of the eyes of the other shoppers on him, on his school uniform. The office door had been slightly ajar, and they’d pushed through it, into a plain windowless room, with filing cabinets, two big CCTV screens showing the shoppers, and a desk, at which sat another security officer, who was talking on the telephone.

“Hand it over,” the big security man with designer stubble who had dragged him there had said. “You might as well know our policy is to prosecute.”

“I haven’t done anything!” Tim had protested, his voice going shrill as it did sometimes, still, when he was scared or upset. The weight of the DVD hidden in his inside pocket felt like half a ton of lead. If only he could have dropped it or something…

The store security guy, his big hand still tight around Tim’s upper arm, had looked down at him. “It’d be a lot easier on you if you just come clean. And I must tell you the store is covered by closed-circuit TV.” He pointed at the black-and-white screens, showing the shoppers. “Even in here — the camera is in the corner. When the police get here, you’ll be searched and charged.”

“And then things will be really rough for you, sonny,” the guy at the desk, who had a long nose almost like a beak, had said, while staring down that nose at him. He’d sounded viciously pleased about that, as he’d put down the phone. Actually he’d sounded just like Brute Meldrum at school, when he told you he was going to beat the stuffing out of you after class. Tim had half expected the guy to get up and start hitting him. Instead he’d said to his fellow officer, “The cops say they should have someone here in about ten minutes.”

In the corner, a large filing cabinet had suddenly flung itself open with a loud clang, and vomited a fountain of paper onto the floor.

“Blast it!” big stubble-face had said, as he’d looked crossly at the mess. “What made that happen? It’s going to take me an hour to sort out those files.”

“Must have been something jammed in it when you closed it,” long-nose had said with a sigh, as he’d started to get up. “Hello. Whoa, Nellie! You’re a quick little thief, boy,” he’d exclaimed, pointing to the DVD now lying on the desk.

“Won’t help you,” designer-stubble had said, derisively. “Your prints are on it, and…” He stopped and sniffed. “Have you been smoking in here again, Johnny Belsen?” he’d snapped at his fellow security man.

“No. I told you, I’ve quit,” the other store security officer had answered.

Tim — at a different angle to both of them — had seen it first. Numb with terror, he’d watched it crawl like some live thing out of the gridded duct behind them. It was, he realized, smoke. Heavy, oily smoke, and it was cascading out of the duct and down the wall. Tim swallowed. “Uh…” he’d pointed at it with a wavering hand.

“Good try, brat,” the stubble-faced one had said, his eyes narrow, his gaze locked on Tim, not following the pointing hand for an instant.

But his long-nosed companion had looked. “Marx! Smoke!” he’d yelled, pointing too.

Abruptly, the wall-duct had spat a gout of crimson flames.

Its plastic cover had suddenly melted and dribbled in burning tears, spitting and bubbling black smoke, as they oozed down the wall. A piece of the burning plastic had exploded, sending a sticky trail of flaming goo across the desk, onto the scatter of papers there. The pointy-nosed one had slapped at it and screamed, clutched his hand. Then a siren began to yowl. On the black-and-white CCTV screen, people had looked up from their shopping in alarm.

“Fire! Fire! Everybody out of the building!” someone, out in the store, had shouted.

Then, finally, the store-security man had let go of Tim’s arm, and Tim had done what seemed obvious right then, just stupid later. He’d run and snatched a fire extinguisher from the bracket in the corner. Pulled the pin, like he’d been shown in the fire-safety lecture at school. He’d let loose a blast from it at the burning duct.

It had hissed, gushed steam and a shower of crackling sparks…and the partition wall had collapsed, showing burning struts, and the store beyond, full of yelling running people. More flames blossomed instantly, and Tim had winced as the savage heat of it hit his face.

The grimacing long-nosed security officer, still clutching his burned hand, had staggered to his companion and pushed his arm down with an elbow. “Electrical fire, kid. Wrong extinguisher! Come on! We gotta get out.”

Tim had just stood there, frozen, in the middle of the room.

The big guy had rushed for the door…and then turned and grabbed Tim’s arm in the same viselike grip. “Come on, kid!”

His long-nosed friend had fumbled at the lock, and they’d spilled together out into the store, full of smoke and sirens. “Run!” the security officer had yelled in his ear. And, half-dragged, Tim stumbled along with them, out to the pavement, still carrying the little fire extinguisher.

It had not ended there, either. They had not let him go until the two police officers had arrived. That part on the pavement was now all a big confusing terrifying blur in his memory. Tim could still remember the police woman’s words, though. He’d never forget them, or the shame and the relief. “Did you see him take the DVD?” she’d asked the security officer.

“Not actually,” the store security man had admitted. “I picked the behavior, asked him to come with me to the control room. Marx and I were there, but the kid’s a quick one. He took advantage of the filing cabinet flying open to dump it on the desk as we looked away, I reckon. Clever, but not clever enough. His prints will be all over it, as I said to him, and the CCTV record…

The other police officer had looked at the store security man. At the firemen working. “You might be lucky. It’s a pretty hot fire. Did he start it?”

The store security guy had shaken his head. “I’d like to say yes, but Marx and I are professionals. We had him on CCTV, told him so, and we were both with him. He didn’t try and run away or anything when the fire alarms went off. He actually tried to use the extinguisher, which I hadn’t thought of. No, he didn’t start it. It was just his lucky day. But you can still prosecute on a witness statement.”

The female officer pulled a face. Shook her head in turn. “We could. If you had seen him take the DVD, or found it in his possession. As it is…St. Dominic’s kid.” It was said with obvious dislike. “His parents will hire a lawyer that’ll probably get the spoiled brat off. We’ll just take him back home.”