Action is required. The Shell People are multiplying! Infiltrating to higher and higher positions in organisations – political, social, and industrial. I turn to my controller, Digby. He is tall, gaunt, wearing a heavy brown woollen overcoat and matching Homburg hat, as is his wont.
“What’s the plan?” I ask.
Digby smiles and I’m reminded of his uneven, yellow, smoker’s teeth. “The Magician’s on his way, and we’ve two drones patched into the security screens.” He indicates a row of monitors, currently scanning the football crowd. The Director has decided we need them alive, find out what makes them tick, dissect them while they’re still breathing if we have to.” He gestures to my ‘rig’ – in an aluminium flight case propped in a corner. “This time you’ll have M99 cartridges. Etorphine.”
I shrug. I just do what I’m paid to do. Even so, I know the heat is on. The rumours are spreading. The papers are stamping them down, ‘wild conspiracy theories, vile trolls,’ all the rest of it, but how much longer can they keep the lid on?
Yvonne, my wife, knows I’m with security, but she doesn’t ask too many questions, just smiles and raises her pretty eyebrows. “I wish I knew what you’re up to, John, you don’t have to tell me everything you know.”
The door crashes open. Wild grey hair and a grey beard surround a lined, leathery face. “Hello, Digby, sorry I’m late, bloody car battery was flat.” Piercing grey eyes look me up and down. It’s the Magician. “I see a lot of yellow and red in your aura, John, you have a nice energy today.” He smiles a smile that knocks decades off.
The volume is building outside, Dire Straits’ Walk of Life is playing over the PA. I take my rig outside and up a fire escape, the noise of the crowd hitting me like a slap to the face.
Earlier, I tell Yvonne, “Look I’m not supposed to speak to anyone about this. If you tell anyone, anyone at all, and it reaches the Director, well, they’ll be fishing me out of the canal. Understand?”
She nods earnestly.
“Well, there are these … ‘people,’ we call them the Shell People, cos that’s all they are really, a shell, they’re not … human.”
“Just listen. We don’t know where they’re from, whether they’re aliens or from another dimension or whatever, but they’re masters of identity theft. And they’re telepathic. They’re infiltrating organisations and putting antisocial ideas into people’s heads. Some may even have been elected to parliament.”
“Well, we’re not sure what they’re up to, but their aim seems to be to cause instability, to make people unhappy with their lot, in short, to foment unrest.”
Yvonne sits open-mouthed.
“And our job is to stop them.”
“Well, one thing we’ve learned, they don’t have an aura, you know, that psychic coloured thing around us. So, we’ve got this guy, The Magician, he’s got incredible psychic abilities, he looks for people with no aura. Crowds are good for that.”
I mime, pointing a pretend rifle at Yvonne and pull the imaginary trigger.
There’s a roar from the crowd and the thud of the ball being kicked. Up here, it’s windy, but I’ve got a sheltered spot. I’m lying down on a thermal rug and I’ve got pads on my elbows to protect them. After what seems an age, I scan the crowd through the telescopic sight, feeling bored. I observe a good-looking girl in red. She leans forwards, and I adjust the rifle to look down her dress, pleasantly surprised to see she’s not wearing a bra. As her heavy, bare breasts swing forward, a burst of radio in my ear brings me back to earth.
“John, The Magicians spotted one. He’s ninety-nine per cent certain. Up in the second box from the right at the far end. Young woman with a white fur jacket and hat.”
Well, she’s easy to spot. Attractive, looks well-to-do, but seemingly ordinary otherwise. I’m worried about the other one per cent. “Is he sure?”
There’s a short delay, then. “Sure enough. Go for it, John. We’ve got our St. John’s guys ready.”
Yes, I bet they had. Ready to rush in and ‘rescue’ a lady who had mysteriously ‘fainted.’
I get her neck in my sight. There’s a fellow gesticulating next to her. I recognise him as a club official although I forget his name. Owns racehorses if I remember correctly. I tense, finger on the trigger, waiting for the moment.
The moment comes very soon. There’s a deafening roar as a goal is scored. On autopilot, I pull the trigger. Watching through the telescopic sight, I see the dart hit her cheek, I’ve misjudged the wind. Her pretty smiling face collapses inwards like a punctured football and for a split-second I see bulbous red eyes, and the glistening, waving legs and antennae of something that resembles a five-foot-high earwig. Then the human form returns and she’s fainting into the arms of the concerned official. I see our guys entering the box in their St. John’s Ambulance getup.
What I saw makes me feel sick to my stomach, but she’s in the hands of the dissection boys now. Job done.
Featured in the book and audiobook, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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