Charlie walked swiftly down the garden path keeping his head down and hiding his face with his hand. He got into the car and started driving, heading instinctively down Bedford Road into town. It was dark now and the evening traffic was heavy. He heard a police siren and braked hard in reflex; tyres skidded behind him and horns blared. He drove around the edge of town, carefully avoiding the police station, and parked in a twenty-minute slot beside a pizza parlour. A dozen yards down the street was a bus shelter and a man was pasting up a flier on the side of it. When the man finished and left the area, Charlie got out of the car and went over to look. The face was a plasticky computer-generated image adapted from the shop’s CCTV picture, but it was still an excellent likeness. The caption read: WANTED- for armed assault, robbery and criminal damage. Have you seen this man? Call Belswill Police on…
Charlie fell into a state of chronic panic. His thoughts were silent and his survival instincts took the helm. He forgot his future, his family, his work and his home; his entire mental being was focused on how he was going to survive the next hour. London! he thought. I can disappear there! He drove out of town onto the M-Twenty-five, scrupulously keeping to the speed limit. He headed east and turned off at the next junction to follow the main road south into the metropolis. The traffic became thicker as he drove through Enfield and Edmonton, the glare of headlights and tail-lights dazzling him. The buildings grew taller and more closely packed until he was in London proper. Big, red buses passed him and pedestrians packed the broad pavements. Charlie turned off the main road and parked in a little side street. He stopped the engine and lay back in his seat, letting his exhaustion and fear soak into the silence. He reached into his jacket pocket and took out the familiar yellow book, The Key to Life. It was crumpled and dog-eared from his constant reading, and was also stained and water-damaged from his previous night’s activities. He stared at it blankly for a few minutes, turning it over and over in his hands and felt tears bud in his eyes. He suddenly began to weep. He cried and cried more than he’d ever done in his adult life before. “Oh, God!” he sobbed. “What have I done!? What am I going to do!?”
Sometime later he sat back drained of tears and felt desperately thirsty. Across the street was a small, garishly-lit café; he got out of the car and walked towards the door. He ordered himself several glasses of Pepsi from the counter and then noticed that there was a row of computers along the far wall; a crude handwritten sign said: Internet access- £150 per hour. Charlie let his eyes blur as he looked at the sign and it took him a few seconds to reach the idea. Quick as a flash, he reached into his pocket and pulled out The Key. He opened the back cover where the author’s website was printed: www.thekeytolife.com. He bought an internet token from the counter and dropped into a chair by a terminal. He feverishly opened up the browser and entered the website address into the search box. He clicked Search and the results appeared at once. He immediately selected the website of the book and the introductory graphics appeared. Anonymous photos of bright-eyed, smartly-dressed and successful-looking young people scrolled across the monitor screen accompanied by text in quotes: “If life seems difficult is that because I’m not up to it?”, “All I’ve ever wanted to do is achieve. I can be the best!”, “A man with nothing is not a man at all.” The animation was eventually replaced and swallowed up by a single full-sized portrait of a thin-faced man with black eyes; his dark hair fell to his earlobes. Underneath the portrait were the words: “Jared Ariston- Author of The Key to Life.” Then the homepage came up. It was an extensive and well-designed website, more up-market than the book, with numerous options, articles, downloads and links. There was a secure shop for ordering copies of The Key as well as affiliated titles by other authors. Charlie returned to the homepage and clicked Contact. There he found an email address and telephone number which he wrote down on the back of his hand; and then he jogged back to the car. He dialed the number on his mobile phone; it rang for a long time before it was picked up. “Hello?”
Charlie gasped. “Hello? Is that Mr Ariston?”
“Oh, thank God! Listen, I’m in a spot of bother and I need your help.”
“Who’s calling please?” The voice was robotic and toneless, not what Charlie had expected. It had a hint of a foreign accent.
“My name’s Charles Doughty. I’ve read your book; I’m a big, big fan of yours!”
There was a pause and then the voice continued, totally unmoved by Charlie’s compliment. “Very well, Mr Doughty, what’s the problem?”
The address he gave Charlie was in Kingston-upon-Thames; Charlie had to buy a street-map from a late night shop to locate it. He crossed the river at Hammersmith Bridge and worked his way through the south-western boroughs to his destination. The cul-de-sac was dark and winding; trees obscured the streetlights. The houses were all big and detached, set back from the road behind neat gardens. At the end was an oval and at the head of it was the house he was looking for. It was surrounded by a high red-brick wall with a dense hedge behind it. Charlie got out of the car and approached the driveway. A double gate blocked his path with a small side-entrance for pedestrians. It was a heavy steel affair which Charlie was not surprised to find locked. There was an intercom on the side pillar, but as he went to press it the gate swung inwards with the hum of electric motors. He wondered how they know he was there until looked up and saw a CCTV camera; it rotated on its bracket, its dusky eye following him as he passed inside the property. The back of his neck prickled as he walked up the garden path. The garden was covered by a closely-mowed lawn as smooth and flawless as a snooker table's baize. It was dotted with stone statues scattered randomly like bizarrely-shaped chess pieces, looking eerie in the darkness. The house’s walls looked old, but the building was fitted with modern windows and skylights on the roof; most of them were lit and uncurtained. Charlie stepped into the porch and rang the doorbell. The faceted oak door opened immediately and a slim, blonde woman stood before him. “Come in.” she said woodenly and beckoned.
Charlie followed her into a broad vestibule. She turned to him without meeting his eye and pointed to a door at the far end. “Please wait in the library.” Then without another word she walked over to another door and entered the room beyond. There was the sound of many voices in the room beyond that door and Charlie got the impression that a party was in progress; the woman was in eveningwear too. She shut the door behind her and he was alone in the vestibule. His footsteps echoed loudly on the checkerboard floor, making him feel self-conscious and vulnerable as he walked along to the door she had indicated. The vestibule was decorated by expensive-looking ornaments and paintings. He pushed the door open.
“Hey, I wouldn’t mind living here.” he muttered to himself. This room was long and broad and ended in a row of patio doors, beyond which nothing was visible through the black of night and reflection of the interior. A fake coal fire blazed in the near corner and several high-backed chairs faced it. A grandfather clock ticked loudly next to the door. There was a top-of-the-range PC set on a desk, a bar and a collection of armchairs in the centre of the room. The walls were almost completely covered with bookshelves and Charlie walked along one of them looking at the contents. There were a few old antique volumes with leather binding, but most of the books were shiny, new paperbacks. None of titles familiar to him: Body and The Beast, The Scarred and Depraved- the World of Marquis de Sade, Arthur Machen and Lovecraft’s Legacy, The Psychology of All and One, The True Story of Aleister Crowley. Then he came upon some books on science and philosophy. He spotted a book about Albert Einstein and a whole series about the Buddha. There was a Bible, a Koran and a shelf full of other various religious texts. At the end of the bookcases on the meagre free wall-space were a set of pictures in gilt frames. Charlie frowned. There was a photograph of Adolf Hitler in pride of place; next to it was one of Josef Stalin. There were a few more of individuals he didn’t recognize. There were also a series of prints depicting grotesque creatures: dragons, huge earthworms, beings that looked as if they might be from Mars and monsters that looked like crossbreeds of various animals. Some of the beasts even looked like human chimeras, including a sinister being that looked half-man-half lizard. Charlie drew back in disgust. “My God!”
“Yes, in a way they are.” said a voice from behind him.
Charlie yelped aloud in shock and spun round. Jared Ariston was sitting in one of the high-backed armchairs facing him. He must have entered the room quietly while Charlie was engrossed in the books and pictures. Charlie’s heart was pounding; he opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out.
“You must be Charles Doughty.” The expression on his face was as blank as his voice, but his eyes stared intently at Charlie as he held out his hand. They were strange eyes; dark, intelligent shiny and liquid, but somehow lacking liveliness. Charlie suddenly remembered that the woman who’d met him at the front door had a similar quality gaze. Ariston looked very much as he had in his online photo, only his hair had grown and now reached his shoulders. Even though he was fairly young, no older than thirty-five, he dressed like an elderly country gentleman in a tweed suit and waistcoat. His handshake was gentle, cold and dry. Charlie filled with emotion as he looked at Ariston. “It’s an honour to meet you, Mr Ariston.”
Ariston’s face remained uncommitted and he simply gestured to an armchair opposite him. “What can I do for you, Mr Doughty?”
Charlie sank into the comfortable upholstery. “I’m…in terrible trouble, Mr Ariston. I’ve…”
“I know what you’ve done.” Ariston interrupted.
“I know about the loans, your debt, the threats you’ve had. I know everything.”
“Yes, I know about the robbery too.”
“There are ways and means of finding out if you know how to.” Ariston shrugged dismissively. “I know why you did that shop over. I can guess what was going through your head.”
Charlie felt an intense mixture of embarrassment and relief. “I never meant this to happen. All I was doing was following The Key.”
“I must say I’m impressed by the level of commitment you’ve shown to realizing The Key to Life. I’ve never seen such… faith… in any of my other students.” His tone changed ever so slightly, revealing just a hint of feeling. His foreign accent was very slight, barely noticeable.
“I know I’ve never met you before.” said Charlie. “But you’ve been like a friend to me. I’ve read your book over and over. I’ve lived your book!... That’s why you’re the only person I could turn to.”
Ariston was looking down at the floor now and didn’t seem to hear him.
“Will you help me?”
Ariston raised his eyes. “What would you like me to do, Mr Doughty? One of the elements of The Key is to teach people to be self-reliant and not need assistance from others.
“But you wrote The Key! It’s your book!”
“Please! If you don’t help me I’m finished. I languish in jail for the next ten years, my wife and kids leave me and I lose everything I’ve ever earned!”
“How can I prevent that?”
“I don’t know… get me a good lawyer! Explain at my trial that all I wanted was to improve my life the way you devised and didn’t mean to harm anybody.”
Ariston hesitated. “This is highly irregular, but…”
Charlie’s eyes widened in hope.
“I feel that you have important qualities, despite your background, that deserve... attention.” He picked up a telephone lying on the table beside him and dialed a four-digit number. It was answered immediately. “Hello this is Hintergrund.” He said to whoever was on the other end of the line. “Yes, he’s here… I think so… No, there’ll be no initiation other than is necessary for his role… I’ll assume full responsibility; tell that to the Chairman… not at all.” He put down the phone and studied Charlie with the hint of a smile. “It’s done, Mr Doughty.”
“Then… you’ve got me a hot lawyer?”
“No need. The criminal charges against you have been dropped.”
Charlie gaped. “What do you mean ‘dropped’!?”
“You will not be prosecuted for the armed robbery in Belswill last night.”
“I’ve also canceled all your debts, paid off your mortgage and given you enough funds to complete all your plans for The Key.”
Charlie was speechless.
“There’s one condition.” Ariston said in a sharper voice. “From this moment onwards, you work for me. Agreed?”
Charlie paused then nodded fiercely like a child. “But… I don’t understand… How…? Why...?”
“That’s one other condition, Mr Doughty.” Added Ariston. “You never ask the question ‘why?’.”
(Definite major chapter/section break here- Ed)