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THEY ARE WATCHING YOU. THEY ARE WATCHING YOU.
Jack read the simple message twice over. It was typed in standard Arial font on a small square of simple white paper. The paper itself, he’d found between the second and third pages of the short story, Death of a Lion, part of the collected short stories of Henry James, a book that he had just borrowed from the public library.
Jack picked up his still steaming Latte, sipped it, and surreptitiously surveyed the coffee shop. He saw nothing suspicious. No one was paying any attention to him. As was his ritual, he had chosen a corner seat near the fire escape door, his back to the wall. It was his preferred position in this coffee shop. He had two other seats, in order of priority that were acceptable alternatives, if he found his usual seat taken. If none of these were available, he had two other coffee shops, each with three preferred seats, to which he could go. Jack liked the number three, it was his favorite prime. Jack closed the book and placed it with the other two in front of him on the table. He stretched, faked a yawn, and tilted his head back. There was no camera or other visible spying device affixed to the wall above or near him. Jack studiously avoided CCTV cameras. He picked up the book again and opened it at the perplexing bookmark.
The paper was still present but now quite blank, completely unmarked.
Jack pretended to read the book, turning pages, the text unseen, and sipping his Latte. To anyone observing his usual Wednesday routine, it would seem completely normal. Anyone observing more closely would see that Jack seemed unseasonably warm, perhaps feverish. They might notice the bead of sweat running from his hairline, down the side of his face, to soak into the crisp collar of his shirt.
Jack returned to his home at the usual time, exactly three fifteen in the afternoon. The large house was afforded total privacy in its leafy suburban lane by tall hedges and a large, wooden double gate across the entrance to the drive. Unusually, Jack walked straight across the neat, manicured lawn, his feet kicking through the sparse covering of fallen autumn leaves, rather than follow the gentle curve of the gravel drive to the front door.
Once through the heavy oak front door, his demeanor changed. Jack threw down his satchel, while wrestling with the buttons on his coat. The insistent bleating of the alarm system drew his attention halfway through this operation and he paused, one arm still in a sleeve, to enter the pin number at the security panel. Such was his agitation that he entered it incorrectly. The bleating became louder. Taking a deep breath, Jack forced himself to calmness and entered the number again. The alarm system was silenced. As usual, he felt distaste for an alarm system that required a four digit pin code but was resigned to the fact that a three digit pin would be much more insecure.
Leaving his coat where it had been discarded, Jack took up his satchel, ran to the kitchen and opened the cupboard door. Pressing firmly on the Coriander pot in the spice rack affixed to the inside wall activated the mechanism that opened a secret door. The rear wall, shelved with tin goods and packets, swung silently back revealing the staircase to his secret laboratory. Jack took the steps two at a time, which disturbed him greatly as three steps would be his preferred number but he doubted he could take so many steps at a time without danger. Two felt wrong but his anxiety would not let him dawdle.
Jack took the small square of blank paper from the book in his satchel and held it beneath a large fluorescent lamp with a built in lens on his workbench. The paper appeared normal under magnification. Jack moved over to another work area, where he normally conducted chemical experiments, and began a more detailed analysis.
By the next morning, Jack had learned the following; the paper was chlorine free, unbleached, the wood used to make it was Pine with a small quantity of Birch, and the slightly higher than usual radioactivity it exhibited indicated its possible manufacturing location as Scandinavia. It was, in all ways, perfectly normal paper. There was no chemical residue to indicate it had ever had writing on it, no indentation of pen stroke nor printhead. It was pristine and virginally blank.
The only thing of interest about the blank square of paper was that it was exactly nine point nine centimeters on each side. Nine being the square of three, this struck Jack as significant.
Jack had spent the hours waiting for spectrometers and other equipment to complete their tasks reviewing the digital footage from his own surveillance cameras. They had a complete three hundred and sixty degrees of coverage around his house. Apart from the accelerating fall of leaves from the trees in the garden and his own excursions there was nothing out of the ordinary.
The following Wednesday, Jack followed his routine as usual and hoped his heightened paranoia was not apparent to those around him. The silent bookshelves of the library seemed closer together than he remembered. The cul-de-sac of the classic fiction section seemed gloomy with threat. Forced from habit, Jack browsed the Horror section, a row of bookshelves out in the open, and chose three books at random. He shook each book, fanning the pages so anything loose would fall out. Satisfied that they were empty of hidden notes or messages, he checked the books out at the desk.
Uncomfortable about changing any more of his routine, Jack varied his routine within his own self-imposed parameters and chose his third preferred seat in his third preferred coffee shop.
Between the second and third pages of the short story, Dreaming Not Sleeping, in the collection Touched By Darkness, was another square of paper.
DON’T LOOK UP!
Jack stopped himself, his head jerking, his eyes quickly flicking from the text in front of him and back again.
ACT CASUAL. GET UP AND WALK AWAY.
THEY ARE ON TO YOU.
Jack closed the book and placed it with the others in his satchel. Leaving his half-finished Latte he walked calmly out of the shop.
He took three trains, three buses and three taxis, each of them in a different direction, before returning home. He walked three times around the block to check for spies, treating each parked car, each window that he passed, and every stranger with suspicion. Finally, he entered his gate and ran across the lawn to the door.
Once in his secret lab, he took the square of paper from between the pages of the book. It was perfectly blank now, like its predecessor.
After another night of exhaustive testing, Jack discovered nothing new. The latest square of paper was exactly the same as the first. The same dimensions, the same composition, the same level of radioactivity, and just as unblemished and untouched.
With shaking hands, Jack used a small magnet to fix the blank note paper to the large white board that dominated the wall of the lab. He placed it next to its predecessor on the far left, careful not to obscure the dense and complex formula that covered the rest of the white board. Jack let his eyes follow the formula. Every cursive symbol, digit and expression was intimately known to him, his life's work, and his singular obsession. It calmed him as he read it, the computation unfolding in his mind’s eye. And still, after all this time, after every waking moment he had spent going over and over and over it, it was still wrong, still broken, still defective.
With a tired shake of his head, Jack took a small vial of pills from a shelf by the board. He shook out three small, yellow pills and dry swallowed them. Stretching and then shaking his head, the amphetamine rush hit him harder than ice water. Jack focused his attention on the formula again.
After three days without sleep and only three short foraging missions to the kitchen in the house above, Jack started to hallucinate.
When he took his eyes off the whiteboard, he saw the symbols of the formula floating across the walls, across the floor, across the strange and complex machine in the corner of the lab that he had constructed to embody it. Jack slumped back in a swivel chair, rubbing the heels of his hands into his burning eyes until white and red sparks erased the formula from behind his eyelids.
When he opened his eyes and focused on the whiteboard again, he noticed immediately that something had changed. The two squares of note paper were no longer blank.
On the first:
YOU HAVE TO FINISH IT. YOU HAVE TO DO IT NOW.
And on the second, a short section from the formula, so familiar and yet, at the same time, subtly different.
Jack snatched the second note from the board so fast the magnet that held it went flying across the room. Keeping the paper in his visual field in case the writing should disappear, Jack scanned the formula for what felt like the millionth time and found it, the error, the mistake that had frustrated him so long he could barely remember a time when it had not. So obvious, so very obvious. The smallest superscript digit hidden in the depths of complex mathematics. On the whiteboard the digit was a one but on the note in front of him-
“Three.” said Jack out loud. His voice cracked and husky from lack of use.
“Three,” said Jack again, louder and stronger.
“Three!” He shouted, his voice hysterical and his eyes bulging and bloodshot, his expression maniacal.
Trembling with excitement and exhaustion, Jack licked his index finger and erased the offending digit from the board and, with the marker squeaking loudly, replaced it with a bold and emphasized number three.
The formula was complete, it was perfect. Jack sat down in his swivel chair and spun around. Laughter bubbling from him uncontrollably.
And with an outstretched hand grabbed the corner of a workbench to bring himself to an abrupt stop.
He stared in shock and disbelief at the empty corner of his lab. The floor was spotless, the walls blank. It was as if his carefully constructed device, the time machine he had spent most of his adult life creating and the physical expression of the formula he had just perfected, had never been. As if it had never existed.
Jack looked back to the whiteboard. It was pristine and clean. In mounting horror, he looked at the note paper still grasped in his other hand.
COULDN’T HAVE DONE IT WITHOUT YOU.
DON’T LOOK BEHIND.
With a cry, Jack started to turn his head. Too late. It would always be too late.
From the Ely Standard, 14 September, 2012:
WORKMAN FIND SECRET DRUG LAB
Police and forensic examiners were called in when workmen renovating a house found what appears to have been a secret drug manufacturing laboratory in a hidden basement. Various chemicals, equipment and machinery were found along with a small quantity of the class A drug amphetamine.
The house had been long abandoned by its previous owner, a Dr J. Russell, whose disappearance was not discovered for many months due to his reclusive nature. The house was recently sold at auction. The new owner could not be reached for comment.
The police are now treating the disappearance of Dr Russell as suspicious.
micheledutcher - I really enjoyed the suspense in this, leaving the reader to wonder what was really happening and what was just in Jack's mind. Good Story!
mark211 - Great story
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Timothy O. Goyette