Shibboleth ambled off to the bar, leaving Kelly to muse upon the wisdom of her being here. The jukebox stuttered and cut out and the patrons made their feelings felt by pelting it with bottles. Whilst a potman laboured to restart the ancient Wurlitzer, a canny Scotsman, in a kilt and war bonnet, entertained the disgruntled patrons with an exhibition of standing on one leg.
A shaven-headed woman with a padlock through her nose leaned close by Kelly and whispered at her ear. 'That's our Kenny,' she said in a hushed and reverent tone. 'When it comes to the standing upon the single leg, there's none that do it better than him.'
'Is he self-taught?' Kelly asked.
The woman looked at Kelly as if she were quite mad. 'Tish no,' she said, shaking her baldy head and rattling her padlock on her silver-painted teeth. 'He spent ten years in the Potala Tibet, studying under the Balancing Lama, and then another five years in the Monastery of St Timothy the gimp, they're a hopping order there, so he learned that as well. Then he was with the Unipedarian Church of South Korea, they have their right legs amputated, which frankly I think is cheating. Then he served an apprenticeship on the Spanish main, road-testing wooden legs for retired pirates. And then…'
'Here's your red wine,' said Shibboleth. 'They had no pork scratchings, so I bought you twenty Lambert and Butlers instead. You don't have to smoke them, you can just chew the tobacco. It's scented with camomile, or so the landlord told me.'
'The landlord is jealous of our Kenny,' said she of the eggy head and padlock nose furniture. 'He'd give his right leg to do what our Kenny can do.'
'What can he do?' asked Shibboleth.
'He can stand on one leg,' said Kelly. 'That's him over there.'
'Is he hoping to run away with the circus?' Shibboleth asked. 'Or perhaps hop?'
'He ran away from the circus,' said the hairless female with the nasal security-accoutrement appendage. 'Or perhaps he hopped. I never asked him. There are some things you just don't ask a man with a talent like that.'
'Such as, whyT Shibboleth suggested.
The slaphead with the shiny metallic burglar-thwarting-equipment hooter decoration raised a hairless eyebrow and gave Shibboleth the kind of look that a ferret gives a lump of mouse-shaped feta cheese on a cold and frosty morning. 'I know where you live,' she said.
'There's a couple of seats over there,' said Shibboleth to Kelly. 'Perhaps you'd care to sit down?'
Kelly cared and so they went and sat down.
'This used to be a really decent bar,' said Shibboleth, supping something green in a glass and smiling a lot upon Kelly. 'They used to have real entertainment here on a Thursday night. Proper professional single-leg-standers, many of whom also played the accordion. Some of the greatest names in single-leg-standing have performed here. Arthur Gillette. The Magnificent Norman. Wally Tomlin, Prince of the Pedal-elevation. He did songs from the shows. And…'
'Stop now,' said Kelly. 'Or I will be forced to punch you in the face.'
'It's an acquired taste,' said Shibboleth. 'How are the Lambert and Butlers?'
Kelly pulled a strand of tobacco from her teeth. 'Not bad, as it happens,' she said. 'Although Capstan Full Strength are better. But beggars can't be choosers, as my mother used to say, although choosers can be beggars, if they choose.'
'Tell me about your mother,' said Shibboleth, which rang a certain bell. 'Only the good things.'
'No,' said Kelly. 'But tell me about your brother. Have you any idea at all about where he might be now?'
'None,' said Shibboleth. 'You can't hack into go mango. It occupies a different area of cyberspace. One that no man has access to. None perhaps, but one.'
'Remington Mute,' said Kelly.
'The lad himself,' said Shibboleth. 'But whether Mute is still alive, only a select elite knows that.'
'The worshippers at the chapel?'
'You could ask them, but I don't think they'll tell you. Oh dear.'
'Oh dear?' Kelly asked.
'Oh dear,' said Shibboleth and he pointed. 'The canny Scotsman Kenny has toppled over. The days of the great and sterling slanders of the single leg are well and truly over. Still, let's give him a round of applause, you could see he was doing his best.'
Shibboleth clapped and Kelly, shrugging, clapped as well.
The patrons applauded and several patted the canny Scotsman, who was now in tears, upon his shaking shoulders.
'Well done old boy,' they went. 'Nice try. Better luck next time.'
The Scotsman limped away to the bar.
'This place really sucks,' said Kelly.
Shibboleth raised an eyebrow that was dark and dapper and dandy. 'That's rather strong language for a posh young woman like you,' he said.
'I am somewhat stressed at present,' said Kelly. 'What time is it now?'
'Aren't you wearing a watch?'
'Not any more. Mine was digital. A Mute Corp Oyster.'
'Mine's a clockwork jobbie,' said Shibboleth, taking it from his inside pocket and peering at it. 'You can never be too careful. It's nearly half past eleven. We've time for a few more drinks.'
'I'd rather keep a clear head. How far is the chapel from here?'
'Not far.' And Shibboleth raised his glass.
'Just one thing,' said Kelly. 'If you intend to betray me, have a care. I sent a man to his certain death today. My life is in tatters. I wouldn't think twice about…"
'OK. I get the picture. I know you're an exponent of Dimac. You studied that on the Web, didn't you? You did all your university degrees on the Web. You even met your first boyfriend through a chat room.'
'What are you getting at?'
'You're a bit on your own now, aren't you?'
Kelly finished her red wine. 'You can get me another, please,' she said. 'A large one would be favourite.'.
Shibboleth returned to the bar counter. The landlord was now standing upon it. 'Ladies and gentlemen,' he called out over the ugly heads of the assembled patrons. 'It appears that the jukebox is well and truly banjoed.' Someone hurled a bottle, which the landlord ducked professionally. 'So in order that you do not go unentertained,' he continued, 'my lady wife, Spongetex, will perform her much-loved standing-ever-so-still act.'
'I can hardly wait,' said Kelly, munching on a filter tip.
A young-fellow-me-lad, with a stylish Rayban sunglasses facial tattoo, leaned close to Kelly and whispered at her ear. 'The landlord's missus really knows her stuff when it comes to standing-ever-so-still,' he said. 'She used to work as a school crossing keeper. But they dismissed her because of the high mortality rate among the schoolkids. Then she…'
'Go away,' said Kelly. 'Or I'll punch your lights out.'
Shibboleth returned with a bottle of red wine. 'The landlord wasn't looking, so I nicked this,' he said. 'Do you want to move to a seat nearer the bar so you can watch his lady wife?'
'I'd like to go,' said Kelly. 'I can't take all this excitement. '
'We can't go yet,' said Shibboleth. 'We have to wait for someone.'
Kelly's hand reached up towards her hair. A frown turned down the corners of her mouth.
'You don't have to worry,' said Shibboleth. 'I haven't led you into a trap.'
'So, who is this person I'm going to meet?'
'Oh, you're not going to meet him. He's the Reverend Jim, high priest of the chapel. He always comes in here for a swift half before the service. We're going to follow him.'
'Why?' asked Kelly. 'I thought you knew where the chapel is?'
'I do, it's here in Mute Corp Keynes.'
'And "whereabouts, exactly?'
'Ah, that I'm not entirely certain of
'You lied to me,' said Kelly, rising to take her leave.
'I didn't He exactly, please sit down.'
Kelly sat down and glared at Shibboleth.
'That really spoils your looks,' he said. 'I didn't lie. I know it's here. Somewhere. And somewhere close. I've followed the Reverend before. Many times, but he always gives me the slip. Which is why I asked you to come. With the two of us on his case, I'm sure he won't be able to vanish away.'
'Vanish away,' said Kelly. 'I'm going. This was all a waste of time.'
'No, wait, stay. And don't look now, because he's just come in.'
If ever there was a haunted-looking man, a fearful man, a timid man, a man far gone in nervous trepidation, then that man was not the Reverend Jim… The Reverend Jim was big and broad and jolly. Avuncular, that was the word. Ruddy of both cheek and barnet, smiley all about the mouth regions and given to great bouts of belly-hugging laughter at the very drop of a hat.
But then, let's face it, hat-dropping can be funny. Especially when performed by one of the greats of the Art who had all played the Tomorrowman Tavern during the golden era of hat-dropping, less than a decade before (on Friday nights). Showmen such as Harry The-Hat-Drop' McFadayen. Or Tommy 'Tip-the-Topper' Thompson. Not to mention Ben 'There-Goes-my-Bowler' Bradshaw.
'That is a high priest?' asked Kelly, peeping towards the Reverend Jim. 'He looks more like some jovial uncle. Or one of those old hat-drop artists. Ben 'There-Goes-my-Bowler' Bradshaw, for instance.'
'Don't mention him,' said Shibboleth. 'But the Reverend Jim is the high priest. Let's face it, looks can be deceptive. My mother always looked like a total moron, but then she was the exception that proves the rule.'
'You haven't spoken about your mum,' said Kelly. 'Only your brother. Your mum vanished as well, didn't she?'
'Frankly I'm glad to see the back of her,' said Shibboleth. 'I'm only looking for my brother because he owes me money. This is a hard town to live in and it's full of bad people. I know, because I'm one of them.'
Kelly sighed. 'I really have wasted my time coming here,' she said. 'I think I'll just beat you unconscious, avail myself of your stolen car and drive back to Brentford.'
Great gut-rumblers of laughter echoed from the bar counter area, much to the annoyance of those patrons who were trying to concentrate upon the landlord's lady •wife's standing-ever-so-stillness.
The Reverend Jim and the landlord were sharing a joke about a knitted woollen hat at a bus stop in Penge in the year of 1972.
'I really am going,' said Kelly.
'I'm coming with you,' said Shibboleth. 'The Reverend Jim is leaving.'
'That was quick.'
'He's a real professional. He always leaves them wanting more.'
Kelly followed Shibboleth, who followed the Reverend Jim. She bid the Tomorrowman Tavern a silent farewell, vowing that she would never ever return there under any circumstances. Or at least until they put on some decent entertainment.
Such as a sitting-down-and-staring act.
Or a moving-quietly-in-no-particular-direction spectacular.
But the secret really is to leave them wanting more.
'There he goes, on his toes,' said Shibboleth.
And indeed the Reverend Jim was moving very fast for a fat lad. He fairly bounced along.
'Did he just outrun you before?' Kelly asked, as she trotted along behind Shibboleth. 'He's very light on his feet.'
The light was uncertain. Which is to say that there wasn't much of it about. The occasional security searchlight, turning above a bungalow gun turret. A single streetlight bound in a barbed-wire cocoon. The Reverend Jim moved in and out of the uncertain light and bounced along on his way.
'I'm not surprised he keeps losing you,' whispered Kelly. 'I can hardly see him most of the time.'
'Put these on,' said Shibboleth, handing Kelly a pair of goggles.
'Yes and Mute-chip free.'
Kelly put the goggles on. Shibboleth did likewise with another pair. The bouncing redly-hued image of the rotund high priest went bob-bob-bobbing before them.
It never seemed to be doing any looking back. Which might have meant any number of things. That he didn't care. That he did care, but knew that it didn't matter. That it did matter and he did care, but he knew that he didn't have to care, because whether it mattered or not, it didn't matter whether he did care or not. Or possibly a combination of any of these. Or no combination at all. He just bounced and bobbed along, taking odd little sidesteps, then dancing forward, then steps backwards and dancing forward again.
'And there he goes,' said Shibboleth. 'And there he's gone.'
And he was.
'He has gone,' said Kelly. 'But where did he go?'
'That's a question I've been asking myself ever since I saw him do it the first time.'
Kelly followed Shibboleth to the approximate spot where the Reverend Jim had vanished and stood looking into the darkness that spread all around and about. 'Where are we?' Kelly asked. 'What is this place?'
'It's nowhere,' said Shibboleth. 'Just a bombed-out car park. No buildings and no trapdoors leading into subterranean workings. I've been all over the place in daylight. It's paved solid. There's nothing. You tell me where he went.'
Kelly took off her goggles and stared at Shibboleth. What there was to be seen of his face looked genuinely baffled.
'Let me get this straight,' she said. 'The only evidence you think you have that the chapel is here, is that the man you think is the high priest of this chapel always vanishes right at this spot when you follow him.'
'Nicely put,' said Shibboleth.
'You idiot,' said Kelly. 'You clown. You stupid…'
'Easy,' said Shibboleth.
'You have no evidence. Absolutely none.'
'I wouldn't go so far as to put it like that. It is here. I know it's here. I'm not messing you about. I'm on the level. I know it's here.'
'Hold on,' said Kelly: 'Say that again.'
'I know it's here.'
'No, before that.'
'I don't remember exactly what I said. I'm on the level, I said that.'
'Exactly,' said Kelly. 'That is what you said.'
'I'm baffled,' said Shibboleth. 'What did I say?'
'Level,' said Kelly. 'You said, level. As in levels in a computer game. This is what all of this is about. Well, some of it anyway. Most of it, as far as I can make out. Games. And in computer games you go up from level to level and you do that by scoring points and gaining energy and reasoning things out. Bear with me on this. What if the chapel is here? Right here.'
'It is,' said Shibboleth. 'I'm sure of it.'
'Then what if we cannot gain access to it without some kind of password? Without knowing the cheat. We have to find the Easter Egg. The secret way onto the next level.'
'Go on,' said Shibboleth. 'I'm listening. What do you think the Reverend Jim did, then?'
'He did something,' said Kelly. 'But then he might have had something. Some electronic key. Some remote-control unit. Something.'
'Nothing computerized works around here,' said Shibboleth. 'Mobile phones don't work. Laptops, nothing.'
'Give me a moment,' said Kelly. 'I need to think about this.'
Shibboleth gave her a moment.
'Any joy?' he asked, a moment later.
'Yes,' said Kelly. 'I think I know how he did it. Let's walk back to where we were when he vanished.'
Kelly and Shibboleth retraced their steps as best they could.
'OK,' said Kelly. 'We were behind him here, and what did he do?'
'He bounced and bobbed along in front of us and then he vanished.'
'No, he did more than that. He danced along. He took little sidesteps and went forwards and backwards.'
'A pattern,' said Shibboleth.
'On the paving stones,' said Kelly. 'He danced out a pattern from one stone to another. No doubt without stepping on the cracks. It's hopscotch. The oldest game in the world.'
'I thought that was prostitution.'
'That's the oldest profession. But I'm sure that whores played hopscotch too.'
'They'll play anything you want, if you pay them enough. I met this girl once who…'
'This is neither the time nor the place,' said Kelly.
'That's what she said at first, but money talks.'
'I will hit you,' said Kelly. 'I have very little patience left.'
'So what do we do?' Shibboleth asked. 'Follow the high priest again tomorrow and try to dance on the same stones that he does? We could sprinkle talcum powder over them earlier in the evening. I saw that done in an old movie. What are you doing?'
'Just watch me through the goggles,' said Kelly. 'There's an old hand-held computer game called simon. It flashed lights on different squares and you had to copy what it did. I shall do as the Rev Jim did, you do what I do and let's hope for the best.'
'All right,' said Shibboleth. 'But I'm no great dancer.'
'Nor conversationalist,' said Kelly. 'But we can't all be good at everything, can we? Are you ready?'
'Ready,' said Shibboleth.
'Then here I go,' and Kelly bounced and bobbed away. She took the odd little sidesteps, then the dancings forward, then the steps backwards and then the steps forward again.
And then she vanished.
'Brilliant,' said Shibboleth. 'You did it.'
'No I didn't,' called a voice in the darkness. 'I just tripped and fell on my face.’
‘Only my pride. I'm coming back to have another go-'
And so Kelly had another go.
And not to be beaten, she had another go too.
'This really isn't working, is it?' Shibboleth asked.
'There'd be a knack to it.'
'Not one you've mastered quite yet, by the look of it.'
'Perhaps you'd prefer to have a go yourself.'
Shibboleth shrugged in the uncertain light. 'I'd probably only fare as well as you,' he said. 'Although if I was going to do it, I'd probably do it exactly the same way the high priest did. By taking three steps to the right instead of the two you keep taking.'
Kelly returned to Shibboleth and punched him hard in the face.
'Oh, ouch, damn,' wailed Shibboleth. 'There was no need for that.'
'There was every need for that. If this is the way to get into the chapel, the service will be over before we even arrive. Do the dance. Go on, or I'll hit you again.'
'I think you've broken my nose.'
'I haven't. I could have done, but I didn't.'
'It really hurts,' moaned Shibboleth.
'Do the silly dance.'
And Shibboleth lined himself up, said, 'OK,' and did the silly dance.
And then he vanished. Just like that.
'Have you fallen over?' Kelly asked.
But there was no reply.
'Oh,' said Kelly. 'You did it. You actually did it.'
She stood alone there in the uncertain light, looking down at the pavement slabs through her infra-red goggles. They shone faintly, offering up the heat of the day that they had stored within their ancient granite pores. A giant chessboard? A game board? An entrance? To what?
To the chapel of It.
Kelly drew draughts of healthless Mute Corp Keynes night air up her nostrils. This was to be it. Possibly a confrontation with It. Possibly anything. And this Shibboleth had gone before her. Was he on the level? Or was he leading her to her doom? Should she go on, or turn away and run? That was an option. Not much of one, but it was an option.
'I have to see this through,' Kelly told herself. 'Innocent people have been hurt, killed. I don't know what I can do about it. But I have to do something.'
She glanced all around and about. She was all alone.
If she was going to do it.
Then now was the time.
To do it.
Kelly took another breath and blew it out into the night. And then she too did the silly dance.
From paving stone to paving stone and never stepping on the cracks.
And she, like Shibboleth, vanished.
The moon appeared from behind industrial clouds-. It shone down upon the great paved space, turning the paving stones the colour of a silver without price.
And out of nowhere, or so at least it seemed, a fat man appeared. He was the fat man who had leaned upon the lamppost opposite the Swan and studied Kelly through his macrovision spectacles.
The fat man crossed the wide open space. And then the fat man stopped. And then he too danced forward. Taking sideways steps, and three instead of two, and moving forwards and backwards.
And presently and under the eye of the moon, the fat man vanished too.