After the Jump
by Mark Ward
John Devon had done his Bluecrack walk so many times he could write the Dummies guide, complete with footnotes. This was the starting point for route three of the seven he had laced about the heart of London. Not the most lucrative but in early summer it produced enough saleable passwords, logins, card numbers and e-mail addresses.
He threaded through the crowds headed up Long Acre towards Leicester Square. The earpiece beeped as Bluecrack racked up another victim and buzzed as it grabbed data from a cracked phone. Wasn't his fault if they had no Bluetooth password set. Idiots, every one. That's what happened to idiots, they got caught out. They deserved what they got.
He lingered at the corner of Mercer Street where it joined Long Acre. He unfolded a tourist map of London and pretended to look at it while the laptop in his rucksack bled a juicy target dry.
When the buzzing stopped he rubbed his stiff nipple. A sore left pec meant a good day. As he rubbed he checked the phone. It had a tendency to crash when the memory was almost full.
He cleared out old text messages to lighten the load, deleted all but three. The ones saying Dad, Ian and Paul had died. He had kept their numbers too. The dead were ganging up on him. All gone in a year. No, thirteen months. He did not know why he kept the contacts live.
Again? Paul was calling. Except he couldn't. Paul was dead and could not call.
John stabbed the green button. "Listen, I don't know who the fuck you are, but..."
"Yes, you do."
Something deep within John hailed the voice.
"Err. No. Because you're..."
"Dead? Yeah. That. And yet."
"What? And yet, what?"
"Here we are, chatting."
John looked at the phone. Paul Dean, the readout said. He put it back to his ear.
"Hey, John. You still there?"
"Prove you're Paul Dean. Then I can get to why."
"Okay. No sweat. Thought you'd ask that. The ring tone for me on your Nokia is the bells from the intro of AC/DC's Hells Bells. I chose it to piss you off last time you came up to see me. When I could still walk and talk."
"You know it isn't."
"One more thing."
"Indulge me," said John. "What's my ride?"
"Easy, given I christened it. A piece-of-shit Vauxhall."
John mouthed it with him. He had driven it to the crematorium. Paul was right, it was a piece-of-shit.
"What the fuck is going on here? Is it a scam? An insurance con?" John thought he might be able to help with that.
"No," said Paul. "There's more to it than that. I need to ask you a favour. A big favour. To be honest, you're the only person I can turn to."
"I thought you were dead."
Paul sighed. "I am. It's, ah, complicated."
"It'd have to be."
"We should meet," said Paul.
"Meet! You're not a zombie are you?"
"No, and I'm not going to eat your brains. Not even if you ask nicely. I don't think they exist. Not like..."
"Not like what?"
"Other creatures of the night I could mention. Listen. First job is to drink yourself senseless."
John walked route three in a daze. He completed it and started it again before he came to. He wandered, thinking about Paul coming back from the dead. Footsore and ready for a drink he found the Princess Caroline pub and sat on a tatty bar stool near the cigarette machine. The boozer was empty but for him and the barman. Sunlight streamed in making the bitter in the glass glow. John wondered if Paul's recipe for crossing over would work. He put his hand around the glass and nodded to whatever god made him feel guilty for drinking so early in the day.
"Cheers, Paul," he raised the glass. Sunk a mouthful. The first pint went down easy and dented his powerful thirst. The second made serious inroads and he had only half of the third left before it felt quenched. He smacked his lips, ordered some peanuts and retired to a table scarred by cigarette burns by the one-armed bandit. He lingered over the fourth, had a piss while it was settling, and returned to persuade the fifth to go down. His head swam and the table surged back and forth when he went to set the glass down. Six was a trial, a battle of wills. The table became metaphysical, winking in and out of existence. He closed one eye and swallowed the bitter. Just. John banged the glass down when the table was passing through, winked to the barman, apologised to the door as he shouldered the jamb on his way out and staggered into the street. He scratched, yawned and flung up his arms to welcome the dusk. He cried out as the bottle of Jamesons in his pocket leapt like a fish. No, it was safe, tangled in the cloth.
Ten minutes later he lay against the wall at the end of the alley running behind law firm NBH. Where Paul said he needed to be. He cracked the cap on the Jamesons and threw down a mouthful. He'd always preferred Irish whisky but it still made him yelp. He took another pull, and another. Better to neck it and get it over with while his mouth was still numb. Then he...
...saw Paul, smiling down at him. "Now do you believe me?"
John's head lay on solid stone. He blinked. Didn't feel drunk. He sat up, half-turned and ran a hand over the rough wall. He was on the other side of it. Then he looked at the pristine street and up at Paul. "Suddenly," he said, "I don't know what to believe."
He stood. They shook hands, did the man hug, walked.
"It's the most reliable way to get here. There are other ways, but you've got to believe to make it and I didn't think you did."
Paul stuck his hands in his pockets. Looked at his feet, then back up at. "Truth be told, you're the only link I've got left to the real world. Everyone else has deleted me. I'm well on the way to being forgotten. You're all I've got."
"Hmm," said John. The silence stretched. They stood at a T-junction. The road led left and right.
"Where are we again?"
"Behind," said Paul, gesturing with a thumb, "is Mountweazel Lane. A trap street, drawn on a map to catch anyone that copies it without permission. Look for it in London and you'll look in vain. Not there. Thanks to all those maps being online that fake place exists. In cyberspace. Given the right tools..."
"Like a skinful?"
"...and a dead fella on the inside, you can walk down it."
"Just the one street?"
"No, there's loads of trap streets, parks, churches. All kinds. They're all linked here. It has a lot of names depending on who you ask. The Shadow City, Adocentyn, Urbia, the Paracity. Take your pick."
"Do I look like myself?"
"Residual self image."
"If you like. You'll not be able to check, though, there are no mirrors here."
"Dunno, maybe because vampires founded the place? Big fans of cyberspace your vampires."
"Some of them. There're other supernaturals here, the Lord of the Files, Lady Muck, Touchwood, but I don't know much about them."
"The most worried ones, yes."
"You can stop saying that now."
"Are you a vampire?"
Paul sighed. "No, I'm not. I'm undead, I guess. I just live in their neighbourhood."
"And these vampires, what do they want us to do?"
"They're worried about the real world. They don't like all the snooping, the government monitoring web habits, mapping who talks to who. It's got them worried. They fear they're going to be found. Used."
"So, mythical beings want us to hide them from the spooks? That should be pretty easy. There. Just done it. Should I do it again?"
"Look around," said Paul.
They stood in a large square, a church on one side and a jumble of buildings formed the other three. People milled around. It Looked like the towns John had passed through touring Europe one long vacation. Bruges, Lille, Freiburg, Perugia. There were days when he only knew where he was because he looked in the guidebook. Those anonymous places had one thing in common - the town square was a snapshot of the history that had passed through. Old buildings nestled next to office spaces, shops to churches, cafes to former synagogues and town halls, all snuggled up. The Shadow City had that look, not that great events had been played out there but that it was part of a bigger story.
"Think about it, you're talking to a dead friend about vampires in a place that exists nowhere but on printed maps. I think you need to reset your sense of wonder."
John looked round, swallowed. "But vampires. I mean, really."
"Why's that so hard to believe? You've heard of vampires, right? Before I mentioned them?"
"So, everyone knows about vampires but no-one believes they're real? Perfect cover, if you ask me."
John sighed. "Maybe. What do they want? The chances of us, me, being able to fool the spooks forever are slim."
"They just want us to cause a diversion, so they can set up here permanently. They need a few hours, a day or so, as long as we can give them."
"What do we do first?"
"Organise a party. There's something you need to...Hey are you all right?"
"No, I feel odd," said John. "Light-headed, like I'm gonna fall...
Jesus fucking Christ.
Jesus fucking Christ.
His head hurt so much he was sure his hair was on fire. He dared not look because, if he did, his eyes would fall out and smash.
An apocalyptic headache thundered in his head. His eyes felt roasted. His throat was raw and the rest of him was a wracked and broken wasteland, pitted with craters that steamed following a recent bombing run. If anyone said anything, touched him, dropped a feather on his brow, he would expire, die, with a grateful sigh on his lips because then the pain would end.
He simmered in his suffering on a stiff bed as a hobnailed hangover walked all over him for a medium eternity. Then, like light at the end of a tunnel, he had moments, motes in the darkness, when the pain lessened, when he got his head above the waves and felt less shit. Each mote was a pinprick of light in the darkness and he knew that when enough had gathered he would find his way out.
Then he remembered. He'd been picked up by the filth. Stuck in the drunk tank. He who spent his days stealing from strangers.
Jesus fucking Christ.
Voices in the corridor. Heavy shoes walking in step. He tried to care, but couldn't. The headache was eating his head from the inside out. Until the smell of strong aftershave stuck two fingers up his nostrils. Then he forgot the headache and concentrated on not puking. Saliva pooled in his jaw. He clamped his mouth shut, molars squeaking with the strain, and forced himself to listen to whoever stood in the door.
"Mr Devon. What a pleasure. For me, at least. I'd imagine pleasure is the last thing on your mind, right now. You don't know me but I know you. Oh, yes. No visible means of support yet you keep yourself in enough pizza and jellybeans to choke a horse. How do you do that? Hmm?"
John opened one eye, shut it again as quick. The light was like a slap in the face.
"I'm teasing. I know exactly how you do it. Pretty much. It's my job to know, what with me being a DS in the dear old Met's Computer Crime Unit."
The urge to puke filled John's head. Battered on the doors of his resolution, served a warrant and demanded entry.
"You don't know how long I've wanted to meet you. This will be, I think, the start of a beautiful relationship."
John jack-knifed off the bed, found the toilet by smell, curled an arm round the pan and coughed up one, two, three buckets of watery, whisky-perfumed puke. Strings of bitter vomit tied him to the bowl when he fell back against the low bed wheezing and, oddly, feeling very clear-headed.
"Dear, dear," said the DS, squatting. He grabbed a handful of John's flaming hair, twisted, and said: "You are in a mess, aren't you?"
John stared at the beads of condensation crawling down his glass of water, and wondered if it was deep enough to drown himself in. Jesus, he was so screwed.
The bar, all black leather, whiskery spotlights and standard lamps, was all but deserted. The video phones at each table usually only saw heavy use in the evening when the traders gathered to waste their money and conduct virtual drinking competitions with colleagues overseas. Wankers.
A chime sounded. The screen at his table flickered, then a holding screen popped up. "Putting you through now, caller," said a robotic voice.
"Hey JD. Jesus, you look terrible."
"Good," said John, "because that's how I feel."
"What happened last night? You sobered up pretty quickly..."
John told him, spared none of the details, physical, legal or moral. He filled Paul in on what he did for a living, about all the time he spent strolling the city stealing from strangers. He vented his fears, waved his hands around, shouted and when he was done looked away to stop himself weeping.
"It's probably not as bad as you think."
"Really," said John. "No, you're right. It's worse. The police are on to me. My career..."
"Shut up, you clown. My life is over. I have no way of making money 'cos the police will nab me as soon as I try to clean up some cash or sell on some card numbers. Lucky I stowed the laptop and other stuff in left luggage at Waterloo. Otherwise, I really would be fucked."
"What do they know about you, really?"
John sighed, ran his hands through his hair. His scalp ached from there the DS had grabbed it. He blew out a breath. "I'm a 'target of interest', or so that tosser of a DS said. They know what I am but not how I do it. They're just looking for an excuse to bust me and find out. Jesus, I'm so screwed."
"Just as well I came along, then."
"You pompous wanker..."
"Wait, hear me out. You want to get out from under the monitoring, right? To stick it to them?"
"I want my life back," said John. "It worked, for me. I want to do my own thing. Code is what I know."
"Tough, dude. It's gone. Get over it. All the more reason to go on with the plan. Do what they don't expect."
"Huh?" John had not been listening. "Wait a moment..." A plan was forming. If one life was dead. He had to start another. Like Paul. He swallowed. Wondering if he had the guts to do it.
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing, just thinking that you are right. Maybe, I should go out with a bang. Even if it means jail time. Lots of jail time."
"Unlikely. An open prison for a few months or community service. Fuck, maybe not even that. We're going to make the government look like utter fools, show them up for the paranoid, grubby apparatchiks that they are. You'll be famous, for a while. You'll get a high profile lawyer, get away with it and end up living on a smallholding raising goats with a chick called Jocasta who has a trust fund and thinks the best way to alleviate your suffering is to bang you on an hourly basis."
"I don't know..." But he did. He'd always relied on himself, so why would this be any different?
John stood outside Holland Park tube, trying to work out which exit he had come up so he could find the party at Manda's house. He stepped aside as folk pushed up the steps and onto the street.
Perfume. Giggles. Aftershave. Swearing.
Young people drifted down the street in the same direction. John watched for a moment, then followed.
Poor Manda. John had shared the invite to her 18th with almost everyone on MySpace, Bebo and Facebook. She was about to have lots of new friends.
John joined the second tide of folk crashing the party at the elegant three-storey terraced house. Sash windows buzzed in time to the thumping bass. Shrieks, screams and drunken laughter punctuated the night.
"You've no idea how much I do not want to be here," he said.
"I do, JD. All I've heard through this earpiece for the last fifteen minutes is you grinding your teeth," said Paul. "Relax. It's a party."
"Yeah, but not my kind of party."
John tail-gated the group pushing into the broad hall. Manda stood against the wall frozen in shock. Her mouth a perfect 'O'. At her feet a boy clutched a bottle of Thunderbird and retched on the glossy parquet.
John pushed through the crowd. The noise, the music beat on his face like heat from a fire. Now and then glass broke, furniture fell, girls shrieked and boys whooped. Through the kitchen window he saw people queuing by the pond, taking turns to toss stuff in.
"What am I doing here?" he asked, opening the fridge. Empty. Apart from a goldfish bowl. In it, a fish floated belly up.
"JD. Get a grip. We'll be in and out quickly. Get the encryption key and then get gone. Find the cellar."
John trotted down the stairs from the kitchen to a short corridor with a cobbled floor. Three doors led off it. One had been kicked in.
The room behind looked like it had been murdered. The tilted lampshade swung on its flex, playing across the destruction.
An office chair lay on its side, the desk had lost a leg and papers spilled from its gaping drawers. An upturned whisky bottle glugged its last into the top drawer of a filing cabinet. Pictures lay in pieces, the keyboard was in half and the mouse lay broken in a corner.
A PC lay prone beneath the desk, its wires wrenched out and scattered. A flat panel monitor lay against it, the screen starred around a bootprint.
"Did we start this?"
"Hey," said Paul, "are you confusing me with Jiminy Cricket? Don't. Your conscience is no guide, believe me. Find the access point."
John dragged the desk away from the wall and kicked away the papers and folders behind it. Nothing. He found a phone and followed its lead to the socket. A DSL line led from it to the wireless router. Which had slid behind the filing cabinet. He reached down. His fingertips brushed ridged plastic.
"Fuck it," he said, levering the cabinet over. It hit the floor with a huge crash. The warm scent of whisky filled the room.
He read out the encryption key written on the base of the router. Grunting, he lifted the cabinet and stowed the router in the top drawer.
"Should be safe there."
"Right, let's go."
Upstairs in the hall, Manda and the boy propped each other up, hands linked on the neck of the Thunderbird.
John was striding down the next street as the police lights began stroking the walls of the houses.
Four days later they were ready. The encryption key let them spy on Manda's family. John grabbed logins and passwords and used them to plant keyloggers on the computers, two laptops and a PC, in the house.
"Is this why you called me from beyond the grave? Because of my leet skillz."
"No," said Paul. He had been a constant presence in the earpiece while John hacked the network. "Well, not just that. It's helped though."
"Nice to know I'm useful."
"We all need to find our place in life."
"Spare me the clichés, zombie boy."
"Stop saying that, I'm not a fucking zombie."
Data tumbled past on the screen. Nothing yet.
"You still there?"
"Yes," said Paul. "Why?"
"Thought you got cut off."
The line went quiet again. John listened to the faint buzz in the earpiece. Nothing else. That was... Paul did not breathe. That was it. Something, he must say something. Get some air between them. Fill up the space.
"So, these vampires. How did they...?"
"In the hospice. About a week before, as far as I can make out. I was doped up on morphine, but still suffering, sliding down the slope. No pain but, turmoil. Fucking awful. Eesh."
"They offer you a deal?"
"It didn't take much. They let me see what it was like to be whole again. For it to go. To be free from the tumour."
"I still don't believe we're working for vampires."
"You probably believe more of this than you think."
"You've said 'touch wood' before now to ward off bad luck haven't you?"
"Hardly the same thing,"
"But it is. It's a charm. We invoke it because it helps. Like Catholics making the sign of the cross. They don't question the worth of that. Same with 'touch wood'. It's an act of worship to a power we all recognise and respect. Vampires are kin to that power. Part of the mystery. They want to stay hidden."
"I've got his cell phone, Manda's dad, he must be connecting it to the PC. Updating it, I guess. I'll fire up the packet sniffer. Get into it. Come on, be a crap phone. One with lots of bugs." John watched the data scroll past, looking for the device string. "Hah! It's a Series 60, Nokia something or other. Swiss cheese."
"Good. Clone it and get the key generator."
"Will do. I've got an emulator prepped so when we need to re-write the routing table we're sweet and all that traffic the spooks are sniffing will get broadcast far and wide."
"When, though? We don't have much time."
"A couple of days. At most. We need to nuke your servers so I have an excuse to go to the hosting centre. That'll take some setting up."
"So, do it. Then we can bring the walls down around them and the vamps can walk free."
John hesitated on the step of the Pussy Galore porn shop in Green Court, off Brewer Street in Soho. It looked familiar. Had he bought a video from here one drunken Friday? Maybe. He ducked inside, nodded to the guy behind the counter, pushed through the bead curtain into the back of the shop and headed up the stairs.
The DS perched on the windowsill, looking down at the Soho street. When John huffed through the door, he stood, pointed at a rickety dining chair set on a threadbare afghan carpet. "Sit."
The seat swayed and squeaked as John sat. He braced his legs in case it collapsed. In moments he was lathered in sweat, thigh muscles trembling.
The DS moved around the room re-arranging old newspapers, magazines and cards with pictures of girls on them stacked against the walls. A moan of fake pleasure drifted in the door.
"Now," he said, lifting a stack of yellowing newspapers onto another set beneath the window. "You have something to tell me. Before you do, let me say something. I'm not going to be happy with titbits about Romanian phishing gangs or Iranian spammers. I need concrete intelligence about bad things happening, or about to happen, here in Mother England. Sod gossip, I want headlines. Glory."
"Did I say I had finished? No? Then shut up. If I don't get what I want, you suffer. I will nick you for all the hi-tech capers you've pulled." The DS gave John his full attention. "The evidence will be quite compelling."
"Okay? Is that all? Speak, spill."
John looked at the rug. By his foot lay a tart's card. Lovely Chanelle, it said, over an image of a stacked peroxide blonde in a state of undress and some distress, judging by her expression. Reasonable Rates.
"I do have something," said John.
"Do you now?" The DS, bent at the waist, regarded him over a shoulder. Mirroring the Lovely Chanelle's pose.
"I do. It's big, too. You'll need to be prepared, though. In two or three days time. An attack on the government intranet. An attempt to poison the DNS and..."
"Spare me the details. Just tell me where and when."
"I will, I'll text. You'll need to move quickly. Need backup. The folks I'll lead you to are rough. Killers."
John swallowed. Nodded. "Really."
"You don't strike me as someone who would consort with gunsels."
"Ah, those. Needs must when the Devil drives."
"Something like that."
"Yes. Now, you have my number," said the DS, turning back to the cards. "Go. Make me happy. Be quick about it."
John's finger paused over the send button. Did he have the courage? He remembered as a child, holding his feet to a hot radiator preparing for the day when he would be tortured by foreign powers for the information he possessed. He closed his eyes, thumbed the button, stuffed the phone in his pocket and climbed out of the car. The night was cool. No clouds. He looked up and headed for the doors of the hosting centre.
"Almost morning," said the security guard as he prodded the book and proffered a pen.
John signed in, checked the earlier entries. The last visitor had signed out at 23:55. Two hours ago.
"Trouble doesn't keep office hours," said John, hoisting a canvas bag. "Got a drive that's gone south. Have to swap it out. Be about an hour."
"Take all the time you want," said Bob, waving him away, attention fixed on the movie on his laptop. Keanu was kicking ass.
John swiped his ID card and trotted through the open door. Down the corridor, he turned right, swiped again by a large red door. It rumbled back and out rolled the scent of hot circuitry and sound of humming fans. He found the cage with Paul's servers, opened the padlock and sat before them. He fished out a keyboard, plugged it in and got the server powering down. He put in and switched on the earpiece.
"Good. You got the stuff?"
"I do but I've no idea why."
"Whatever. When do you want to do this?"
"No time like the present." John stood and walked deeper into the racks. High on the walls, cameras swept back and forth.
"Here we are. Row J. Rack 22-30."
The sleek black servers in most of the racks emitted a quiet hum and had a few lights on the front. Not Row J. Rack 22-30. It had wider slots in the racks, noisier servers and more status lights on than off. It stunk of standards, process and procurement. Government.
"This is going to get messy very quickly, you know that. Right?" said John.
"We'll have time. Don't worry."
"Right. So here we are. One problem. How do we get at the router. There's wire mesh and big fuck-off locks in the way."
"Get out the knives and the cheese."
John knelt, swung the rucksack down and dug out a bag of plastic knives and a block of cheddar wrapped in waxed paper.
"What was that noise?" said Paul. "It's not the security guard, is it?"
"No." John coughed. "I brought a plate. For the cheese."
"Didn't want to put the cheese on the floor."
"Okay. Whatever. Right, now. Get out three knives. Lay them next to the plate and then choose one. Use it to slice the cheese."
"It'll just break."
"Just do it."
"It snapped. Nearly cut me. Ooh. I think we've been noticed." Cameras at both ends of the aisle stared at John.
"Try again. Get three more knives. Put them in a line. Grab one and try to hack a lump off the cheese.
"Gah. Same again. Why am I doing this?"
Amber lights flashed. A siren sawed the air.
"You're trying to make a vorpal blade. To cut off the lock and get at the router. See, with more than two knives, you confuse fate. With one it's pretty much guaranteed to break. So, if fate has already picked one to break and you pick another one, that fate is ignoring, it's almost indestructible."
The cheese lay in halves. So did the plate. The vorpal blade had scarred the floor too. "I think it worked."
John plucked the knife from the floor and looked at the blade, then held it away in case the blade proved too sharp.
"Vorpal, see? Use it on the lock."
A slash parted the thick steel hasp. John giggled as he touched the blade to the wire mesh. It slipped through with no resistance.
John cut away the mesh obscuring the router. The knife dragged a little for the last couple of strands. Done, he pushed the knife into the floor.
"This is the police. Move away from the cabinet. You are not authorised to access government equipment designated as critical national infrastructure."
"Any plods about?"
"No, that was the PA, they'll be here soon enough, though."
John pulled a USB drive from his pocket and plugged it into a port on the router. A display leapt to life. He filled in the login details and consulted the laptop for the security key. The display froze.
"This is the police. Move away from the cabinet. You are not authorised to access government equipment designated as critical national infrastructure."
The display showed a set-up menu.
"How we doing?"
"Nearly done." John spun through the set-up screens, chose 'update firmware' and gave the USB drive as the source.
"Done, or will be soon. Lots of people are about to get back their own web browsing history. With government stamped all over it."
Somewhere a door rumbled back and boots squeaked on the tiles.
"Got to go." He left the bag, laptop and cheese but took the blade. He ran, dodged round the end of the aisle and zig-zagged through the racks to the end of the room. Shouts followed, getting closer.
"JD! You still there."
"Just about. I've got lots of company though."
John ran to the end of a row, leapt, and cut the cable of a camera. Then he disappeared back into the racks.
"Sorry about this, they're reacting a bit quicker than I thought."
"Need to ask you something." John smiled. "Will the vampires do me a favour. After this?"
"Sure? Like what? Money? Girls?"
"No. To be like you. Can they get me across. Make the jump?"
"What? Why? You're not dead?"
"Not yet, but..." He surprised himself by how calm he was.
"Don't do this, mate. Really, you die, I die. Simple as that."
"Maybe not. Can they do it?"
"I don't want..."
"Spare me. You owe me. They owe me. Can they?"
John ran as two coppers appeared at the end of the row. He dodged back and forth and scampered away.
"Yeah? Do it, do it now."
John dashed down a row. Cursing came from around the corner. He doubled back.
"Put your hands behind your head and kneel down. Armed police are in attendance. Put your hands behind your head. Now!"
John turned. Two policemen peered round the end of the row, pointing tasers. "No." He sprinted towards them. Cables snaked out. John threw himself beneath the reaching wires, rolling away as they clamped onto the racks. Sparks flew. The lights dimmed, surged and an alarm sounded. Fans shrilled. LEDs strobed.
John stumbled up and flung himself at one officer as the other fumbled the reload. John kicked out and the taser clattered away. He struggled free and ran. The earpiece fell away and shattered as a copper trod on it and went down swearing. Gas seeped out of vents in the floor and ceiling.
"Emergency! Evacuate immediately! Halon fire suppression system has been activated. Emergency! Evacuate immediately!"
John ran for the fire exit, holding his breath as the pale gas surged higher. He fell against the door, flung it open and collapsed into the night.
He was outside the building, around the back.
The door crashed open and two coppers fell out. They dropped, coughing onto paving stones.
A light speared down and rotors thundered overhead. John muttered an apology and grabbed a copper. This was it. He hauled him up and set the blade against his neck. He looked up into the searchlight, squinting in the brightness, then something punched him in the shoulder. Hard. He fell away. His arm did not work. He squirmed, saw the boots of the coppers, flopped on to his back, looked up into the light and embraced it.
Paul looked down at him. Not smiling this time.
"You've killed me, for good, y'know that, right?"
"No, I haven't."
Paul stood over John who lay, he guessed, on Mountweazel Lane propped up against the brick wall forming its end. He sat up.
"Yeah, you have, you were my only link to the real world. You—"
"—just committed a crime that will make me famous forever. Did it in both our names. No chance we'll be forgotten now. We're golden."
Paul looked at him, stunned.
"You sneaky fucker. You set this up, didn't you?"
"Half a mo, I'm still catching up. Did it work?"
"Big style, congrats. The vampires love you, us."
John scratched his head. "So," he said. "I'm in cyberspace." He looked up, the sky above was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.