Here are 3000 words from a novel: the premise is this. Martha has been seen walking through solid objects by a journalist who is collaborating with a colleague to get a story. This moment is pivotal to switching the book from being about how Martha comes to terms with being, technically, dead, to whether she will be exposed an lose control of her 'Life'.
I would like to know if this is:
1) compelling enough to keep you reading,
2) fluid enough to make it easy to read.
All comments welcome. Many thanks
Chapter 17: Confrontation and risk
Trevor returned Julie’s call from late on Sunday.
“Hi Julie, Trevor here, thanks for the update. So, you want to talk to her directly?” he said straight away.
“Oh, hi Trevor. Yes, I had a good long talk with my friend at the University. He might be willing to take us seriously, but he needs incontrovertible evidence. So, we’re going to have to persuade, rather than trick, her into taking part. I think the only way that’s going to happen, is if we can find something on the police tapes and put it in front of her. Can you come up here and help out? Two pairs of eyes are better than one.”
“Sure, when do you want to do it?”
“How about tomorrow: about two?”
“Fine, I’ll call you when I am nearing the station.” Trevor disconnected.
Julie looked up the number for a police press officer, the very prickly Maggie Barton.
“Hello Maggie, Julie Merchant here, Oxford City Press, may I come in and review the security tapes? I’d like to get some pictures for an article.” She cringed and waited for the officious response that came as curtly as expected.
“You may see the tapes that have been assessed and released. They’re in download format. The others are being reviewed for evidence and are not available to you yet.” The "you" was pointed but at least there was something.
“OK, and the questions the police want help with from the press? When can I come and talk to the Detective Inspector?” It was worth a try.
“That won’t be necessary, thank you,” said Maggie. “We are looking for the missing woman as you know, but other than that the details are still not clear enough to involve the press.”
“OK, well let me know if that changes.” Good, she had offered to meet the DI through the official channel. That would make it harder to accuse her of withholding evidence if it came to that. Maggie said nothing more.
An email arrived from the press office shortly afterwards with a link to several video clips. They were timed and dated, but rather disappointing. Julie slumped back at the prospect of wearisome hours of close inspection on each frame.
Early clips showed the exterior of the building for several hours before the explosion. There were interminable minutes of nothing happening. The police had deliberately removed any that showed the explosion itself and the immediate aftermath. They had, however, left in a couple of smoke-filled camera angles, post destruction, of the building’s South Parks Road elevation. Long minutes of billowing clouds made Julie feel utterly bored and demoralised. She peered at the gloomy, white and grey pictures and their poor, grainy resolution.
In frustration, she grabbed the scroll bar with her mouse, rolling it rapidly back and forth four or five times; something caught her eye. The faintest grey vertical line appeared in the corner of the shot, waited and then moved across the white background. The line continued to be visible and then after a few seconds, when there was less dense concentration of smoke, it momentarily reformed into the outline of a figure. Scrolling forward quickly the shape showed itself again, peering into a glass wall on the corner of the building. Then Julie gasped. The picture was still very white and pale grey, but the figure was clearly wearing athletic clothes and after about twenty seconds it stepped forward and vanished.
Julie ran the tape again and again. The more quickly she ran it the clearer the events became. She kept going until at last she had her proof; she was sure. The figure crossed right to left and vanished. The smoke cleared again shortly after in front of the building; there was nowhere else and no time for the figure to have moved out of shot without going through a solid glass wall. She had seen her; first hand. She could speak to Martha with confidence. When Trevor arrived the next day at two, her excitement showed.
“Trevor!” she said, jumping out of the car and waving, “Trevor, over here!”
He spotted her quickly and headed for the passenger door.
“Hi, has something happened?”
“Not as such,” she replied, “but I have some video footage from the police. There’s something there. It’s her. At least I think it is, and if I’m right we’ve got something to talk to her about.”
In the long, front to back living room, of Julie’s Oxford townhouse, they sat with two mugs of tea peering at the video evidence on a laptop. Light flooded the space from the big sash windows in the front bay.
“Nope, can’t see a thing,” Trevor said, “where is this line again?”
Julie traced it on the screen with a finger and ran the clip very slowly. He shook his head. Only after several rapid scrolls back and forth did the patterns of light begin to take shape; suddenly he saw it too.
“Oh! Wait! What? There?” he said leaning in closely to the screen. “Run that bit through again!”
There was a pause and he squinted, “Yes!” he exclaimed. “I see it. She moves from the edge of the shot towards the corner, then she peers through the window, moves right and vanishes. Oh my God! Julie! It’s on camera.”
They both sat back staring before Trevor asked, “So, what are we going to do about it? This is evidence. We have to tell the police.”
“Well, her presence at the scene is no mystery already, so it’s not urgent,” said Julie, “and the police have released these tapes. We don’t have to say anything. We could just go and talk to her and ask her to cooperate; get her facts aligned.”
“Hmmm. But she doesn’t have anything to gain from telling the world what she is, does she? Not as far as I can see, anyway.”
“Possibly, but don't we need to confirm that? Look, it’s Christmas week, she could be going home at any time.”
On the way to the hotel, they ran through various scenarios. If she agreed, they would just set up the appointment with Matheus. If she didn’t, they would take their time and persuade her that they were not a threat.
At around eight in the evening Martha stepped through the big revolving doors into the lobby of the Hilton; she was planning a swim. Relaxation was a state of mind now, not a physical benefit, but Polly and tight deadlines could still get to her. When Julie appeared in her peripheral vision accompanied by a man who seemed vaguely familiar, she felt a jolt of alarm, but standing in the wide, thick carpeted reception area offered no easy means of escape.
“Martha?” said Julie walking deliberately into her path, “Martha, hello again.”
She looked at Julie, then at Trevor. There was something wrong; this was no coincidental meeting.
“Hello, Julie. You seem to like this hotel a lot,” she said, “or am I missing something?”
“Forgive me, Martha. I know all these chance meetings seem strange, but I think I need to talk to you about a thing I’ve found. Do you have some time now?” Julie gave a slightly pleading look that was calculated not to threaten, but Martha filtered out the emotions as she assessed what was happening.
“I was about to go and take a swim after a long day,” is all she offered in return.
“I promise not to take long. I just need to tell you who I am and what we’ve discovered. Then you can judge whether we should continue,” Julie replied.
“OK,” said Martha with a sigh, not moving or committing.
“Can we sit?” Julie asked indicating some circular tables and soft chairs set out for impromptu business meetings near the entrance.
Martha looked over and back, “It’ll take that long?” she said, but moved towards them anyway and took a seat with her back to the reception desk.
“Let me introduce Trevor Payne,” Julie said.
“We’ve met before,” Trevor said, smiling.
“Oh. Where?” Martha asked.
“Fleet Street, the bus incident with that woman and her little girl. I was the guy in a taxi,” he said leaving the point to sink in.
“Right. Well that was a lucky escape, but it’s all finished with now?”
Julie decided to expedite the situation, “OK, let’s make this quick. I’ll explain why we're here and what we have seen and how we want to help. Martha, I’ve seen you before too, long before we met in the Street the other day. So, has Lucy.”
Martha looked at her employing a quizzical squint, encouraging her to say more.
“There are four events that have led us to this point,” said Julie. She elaborated on the sightings by Lucy, her husband and Trevor before describing the link up via newspaper articles and blogs.
“So, you are both journalists?” Martha asked, still keeping control.
“Yes,” replied Julie, while Trevor nodded and looked into her eyes.
“And you want a story about me?” Martha added.
“Well that is our job, but it’s not quite so binary as to write a story or not. We think you may want some help, Martha.”
She looked surprised and disbelieving, wrinkling her nose and frowning simultaneously.
“Well, maybe more support?” Trevor said, hoping to mollify her.
Martha’s frown increased and she stood to go, shaking her head. Julie watched her walk away before adding a little more loudly, “We’re also covering the story about the explosion at the Rothermere.” Martha stopped. “I have been reviewing evidence and the police are keen to identify a woman they know was at the scene and who saved the life of a security guard. The thing is, Martha, I think you were there not long after the building exploded,” Martha was still silent.
“I don’t mean you were there at the time of the explosion, I think you arrived later to help. I have security camera pictures of you at the side of the building looking in through the smoke and dust,” at last Martha looked like she wanted to say something.
“OK, yes, I saw the security guard and called over to a fireman and the police to let them know he was there. So, what?” she said.
Julie looked at Trevor and sighed. Then she pulled out a slim laptop from of a neat little case and put it on the table in front of her. She flipped it open, clicked on a link and enlarged the screen view, hovering over the play button. Martha looked at Julie, held her gaze, then sat down again.
Julie ran the images quickly five times, then slowed them down to trace the image for Martha’s benefit. She denied seeing anything, but Julie was firm , “Martha, the clothes are yours. I saw them myself when you helped me pick up my lipsticks and coins the other day; you simply vanish in the smoke and you couldn’t have gone anywhere else. You had to walk through that wall.” Martha looked up and shrugged. She said nothing.
Trevor tried a new approach, “Martha, look, it’s clear to us that you are still a living thinking human being. You fulfil criteria like “I think therefore I am,” but what we don’t understand is how you have changed; after you fell into that quarry. Why are you different? Of course, we want the story, but not at the expense of leaving you exposed and alone. We want to offer you something better; we want to suggest a way of trying to help. That’s why we’re here.”
Martha felt herself cornered but remained calm. They had declared their hand, well almost, and they certainly had part of the secret, but they still needed cooperation. Perhaps the best defence here was to make them look like fools. On the other hand, there was this sense of relief and emotion; the sensation of tears welling up was there again. It would be wonderful to be understood, to be able to prepare the world for who she was and just live in it again; but trusting a pair of journalists? It didn’t feel right.
Thoughts were processing very fast through her head: faster than a super computer. Martha’s hyper speed functions ran scenario after scenario. Outcomes were assessed and forecasts given a probability. In the middle of it all there came that extra human ingredient of intelligence: the ability to discard the best logical outcome. Martha stopped thinking and looked up.
“This is very difficult,” she said, “I don’t know what to do. If you publish this, I become a media sensation. I’m not keen on that and all the perverse social media viruses that would spread unchecked.”
“But we wouldn’t publish anything: not until we had a better grasp of the facts and could explain how you have changed,” Julie said, sensing Martha was turning in favour of their plan.
“How on earth could you do that?” Martha added.
Julie sensed she was ready.
“I have a friend,” she said, “He is the leader of a cross-discipline academic institution in pursuit of scientific integration. The institute’s work covers the fields of mathematics, biology, chemistry and physics: and branches associated with them. They are a division of the University. I spoke with him and he has accepted that if a brand new scientific phenomenon were discovered, the University would want to sponsor projects to understand more.”
“You want me to become a guinea pig?” Martha said mockingly.
“Well, if that’s how you want to see it, yes,” Julie answered, shortly. This was too important to get deflected by emotional sparring; best to cut through that nonsense.
Trevor jumped in again, “Or you could see it as an opportunity for you to know more about you. You could see it as the chance to have access to the top minds in the world on your case. You must be curious and worried yourself, Martha.” The two journalists kept quiet while she thought that over.
“I’m not really worried,” Martha said, “no, but I am curious about your approach.”
They stayed silent. This was a buying signal. They waited: just like a good salesman, closing a sale.
“What would I have to do?” Martha continued.
Julie grabbed the opportunity, “Come and talk to Professor Matheus Dakere at the Mathematics, Physics & Life Sciences Division of Oxford University: just a talk. He knows something already, but let’s fill him in on more of the details. . We could ask him to help identify what has happened to you.” She was careful not use to the phrase “what you are”, it had connotations of the unearthly and sub-human; much better to acknowledge that Martha had changed rather than become a new life form. It was a good decision, because, after a little thought, Martha launched in with her misgivings.
“Look, Julie, Trevor, I can see that you have some evidence about me that is unusual. But I am not comfortable at all. These could all be a completely unnecessary set of tests. I’ll admit that I fell from the cliff and had to crawl out of the water. You will even find that I had to go to hospital in Edinburgh to get myself checked out because things were not right, but as far as I am concerned nothing else has changed. You can even talk to my Mother and Father, if you must. I went straight home after the accident. They would know if there was anything wrong with me.”
“So, you haven’t found you can suddenly walk through buildings or objects?” Trevor asked directly.
“Well that would be a completely preposterous situation, wouldn’t it?” Martha said defensively. “But, I’ll admit things have changed that I can’t explain.”
“And you want to know more?” Julie asked.
Martha paused and looked at them both. Trevor was still looking at her quizzically. Julie was clearly on the edge of her seat with anticipation.
“Yes. Yes, I do,” she said and watched them both relax, “I have had a lot of flash backs to that moment. I don’t recall the fall or the water at all, but I do remember crawling out and the tingling sensation when I touched things. There was a man who helped me. I found it hard to grip objects, like the car key or the foot pedals. Everything felt spongey, as though I was only part there.”
Julie and Trevor both shifted forward on their seats. They explained how she could meet Professor Dakere; how he would find a way to investigate her situation, then, if it came to it, how the story could be created and under what circumstances.
“How can I be sure I won’t become a media frenzy for the rest of my life?” Martha said, her voice expressing concern.
“It would be intense for a while, almost certainly, but it would recede. News is transitory. It has to be refreshed or people lose interest. But, Martha, your situation is one that will become known one day whether you want it to or not. Not through us, but through someone else who sees something they don’t understand and starts to investigate.” Julie was certain on this point.
They agreed an appointment could be made to meet Matheus. Julie would present the photographic evidence and, subject to his agreement, Martha would visit him alone. Later they would have an opportunity to share what was happening to her and, if necessary, follow any further investigation.
Trevor and Julie were excited after Martha left. It had gone well, and they congratulated each other over a glass of wine to celebrate. Their banter turned to how they could protect Martha while still grabbing this fantastic story. Neither of them mentioned that Martha had not admitted that she was dead.