A persistent, muffled thumping roused me from sleep, and I rolled over, bleary-eyed, on my sweat-dampened pillow. Heavy footsteps plodded down the stairs. I sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed my eyes in the bright sunshine and intruding heat of the open window. Nearby cockatoos screeched. The thumping stopped. Last night’s pizza and beers had left my head with only minor discomfort, but I had not escaped totally unscathed: my throat was as dry and rancid as month-old roadkill, and my bowels squirmed and gurgled in anticipation of a violent evacuation. As I walked along the hall to the upstairs toilet, I heard LaShawn call from downstairs, “Oi! Get up! It’s eleven-thirty already!”
I didn’t see the problem—Rory’s party wasn’t until six—but from the bedrooms I heard groans and cursing as the others forced themselves out of bed.
I was in the toilet about twenty minutes. I will spare you the details; suffice to say I flushed twice and doused the tiny room with air freshener before I headed downstairs.
Rory was sitting on the couch in the lounge room, eating leftover pizza and playing video games. Though his skin was still pale, he looked healthier and even seemed to have put a little weight back on.
“Happy birthday, Rory!” I said.
He paused his game and screwed his face up at me before happy realisation restored his features.
“Oh yeah, it’s my birthday. Forty today. Ha!”
How about that? He had been planning his birthday party for six months, with secret schedules and supply lists and maps, as though he were organising the D-Day Normandy landing, and now when the day arrived everything had slipped his mind. I had to laugh.
“I’m glad you’re doing better,” I said. “You had me worried yesterday.”
I gave him a hug, leaning in at the shoulders, not the waist, to ensure we didn’t accidentally bump penises. He rubbed his hand on the top of my head as though he were ruffling my non-existent hair. He had never done that before; he usually just gave me a slap on the back. It was a bit strange, but it was his birthday, so I wasn’t going to deny him an imaginary hair ruffle.
In the kitchen, Budgie paced back and forward biting his thumbnail, his knotted hair flowing behind him. Nils sat at the table looking grumpy.
“Morning lads,” I said, filling a glass of water and taking two aspirin from the packet on the bench. “That was fun last night, huh? How ya feeling, Budgie?”
He glanced at me, though his mind was elsewhere. “I’m all right,” he muttered.
I took the aspirin and drank the water, then turned to Nils. In front of him on the table lay a thick, impressive notebook—oh sh**, it was his diary.
“Have a seat, Miles,” he said.
“No, I’m good,” I said, leaning against the kitchen bench, and not at all liking the way he addressed me like a detective interrogating a suspect.
“Please sit down,” said Budgie, with a nod.
So that’s how it was. Good cop, bad cop. I took my time, finished another glass of water, and then sat down opposite Nils. I folded my hands on the table, mimicking his arrogant posture.
“Did you read the book?” said Nils.
He spoke almost in a whisper. Classic power move. I stared right at him.
“What book?” I said, after a pause.
He smirked and tapped the notebook with his giant forefinger. “You were reading this, weren’t you?”
Up until then I wasn’t sure what to make of Nils. But now I knew. Smug prick. Well, he wasn’t going to get any satisfaction from me. I may be a bad liar, but I can be a stubborn one when the mood takes me.
“No,” I said, returning his smirk.
He nodded in thought. “I know when this notebook has been opened, and I can tell which pages it has been opened to.” He opened the book and flipped the pages. “Here… and here… you read these pages, didn’t you?”
“Be honest,” said Budgie. He had stopped pacing and was watching me closely.
“So, you think your book was opened,” I said, “and you assume I opened it. Hmm. Nope. Sorry. If you want me to look at your book, though, I’d be happy to. What’s it about anyway?”
He sighed and leaned back in his chair. “It’s a diary.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” I said.
“Do you read many diaries?” he asked.
I cleared my throat and shrugged. “No… not really.”
“Miles, if you read it,” said Budgie, “we need to know. It’s important.”
Rory came into the kitchen, grabbed another slice of cold pizza, and then went back to the lounge room.
“Sorry Budge,” I said, looking down and scratching the back of my neck. “I wish I could be more help.”
Nils shook his head and looked at Budgie. “This is pointless.” He slammed the notebook shut and pointed a fat finger at me. “This diary is none of your business. You have no right reading it. From now on, stay out of my stuff!”
I could feel myself turning red, part angry, part embarrassed. The front door swung open and LaShawn strode in, mopping sweat from his face.
“That was close,” he said. “Nearly overcooked the lot of ’em. Managed to save them though. We’ll be right for tonight. Oh, hey Miles.” He looked from me to Nils, and from Nils to Budgie. His eyes lit up like it was Christmas morning (I’ve never met a man so excited about Christmas as LaShawn did). He raced over to the table and leaned down near Nils, almost pressing his face against him. “Well?”
Nils leaned away from LaShawn and shook his head. “Sorry mate, it’s no good.”
“What? No, no, no. I’m telling you Miles is the guy.”
He put his hands on my shoulders; I shrugged myself free from his grip.
“Miles, tell them,” said LaShawn. “You read it, didn’t you? Guys, trust me.”
I felt bad about lying to Budgie, but I just couldn’t do it to LaShawn. “Fine, yeah,” I said, getting up from the table and kicking my chair back. “I read his diary. It was lying open on top of his bag, so I had a look. Who wouldn’t? Look at it, look at the handwriting—of course you want to read it.” I marched indignantly around the table. “I wasn’t going to mention it, I was just gonna let it be, but since you insist… maybe you should all have a read of Nils’s work. He’s a bloody psycho!”
Nils watched me with narrow eyes; Budgie stopped biting his thumbnail; LaShawn grinned.
“I know you’re all best mates, but this guy,” I said, pointing at Nils, “this guy’s mad. He’s a regular Jim Jones.”
Nils shook his head. “I told you.”
“Wait a minute,” said LaShawn. “Slow down, Miles. What exactly do you mean?”
My chest heaved. I looked at the guys; they were waiting for me to speak.
“Go on, Miles,” said Budgie.
“All right then. Well, if Nils here had his way, he’d take over the whole bloody world and kill anyone who stood in his way.”
I don’t know what exact reaction I was expecting, but the only one I got was LaShawn smiling and nodding for me to continue.
“Yeah, and he uh, he has a pretty high opinion of himself. Fancies himself as some kind of religious-political leader. Wants to divide the world up into saints and sinners—save the saints and they’ll worship him, destroy the sinners and there’ll be no one to give him any trouble. He wants everyone to think he’s God.”
Budgie glanced at Nils.
“And once he’s God,” I said, “he can do what he likes. He can make the rules. He gets to say what is right and what is wrong, and that’s how it is. You won’t have to worry about police and courts and justice then—he will be the law. And you’d think people wouldn’t go for that, but they will. They’ll love it. They’ll thank him for it. They’ll cheat and rob and kill, and then they’ll go to sleep without a care in the world. It will be a nation of Cains all thinking they are Abel.”
It was a bit of a rant, but I felt some momentum and decided to go with it. Nils looked at me with keen interest. LaShawn gave me a wink and a nod.
“What do you reckon?” said Budgie.
Nils rubbed his chin and nodded slowly. “Okay,” he said finally. “How would I make half the world sinners? Who would believe that?”
“Tell him, Miles,” said LaShawn.
“What?” I said. “I don’t know.”
“Yeah you do. Have a guess.”
“No, seriously,” I said. “I don’t.”
“Come on, Miles,” said Budgie. “Tell us.”
“I really don’t know.”
“You’ve got this,” said LaShawn.
“Piece of cake, bro. Let’s hear it.”
“Give me a break, man,” I said. “This is getting weird.”
Nils sneered at me. “You don’t have a clue what you’re talking about, you loony.”
“Me a loony?” I said, raising my voice. “All right, how about this? You’d pick out all the people who disagree with you, everyone who doesn’t want to bow down to you, and then you’d separate them from the rest of the population—tell everyone it’s a safety measure—and then you give them some defining feature, paint their faces red or something—no! Infect them with a disease, something you can control, so it’s only deadly when you want it to be. Or better yet, make it a disease of the soul, the intellect. You can diagnose whoever you like. That way there is no such thing as dissent, only illness. Yeah, and then you preach night and day—television, social media, music—hell, make school children recite it like a prayer—get everyone thinking the disease is a curse, divine judgment. Make the infected seem like animals. There’s no guilt in killing an animal. Soon they’ll all hate everyone with the disease, and they’ll feel righteous for hating them.”
I stopped and caught my breath. LaShawn gave me a thumbs up, and then he and Budgie watched for Nils’s reaction. Nils sat staring at me. His shoulders rose as he inhaled a long breath, and then he took out his phone and typed a text message. For thirty seconds the only sound was the soft clicking of the phone’s electronic keyboard (that and the gunshots and screams of Rory’s video game from the lounge room). Nils set the phone down. Ten seconds later his phone chimed, and the screen lit up. He read the reply.
“Well?” said Budgie.
Nils sighed and looked at me. “So, I separate the sinners from the saints, then how would I control the saints?”
LaShawn and Budgie looked at me.
“The internet maybe,” I said.
“Yeah. You’d take it. Confiscate it, in the name of saving civilisation. Make yourself boss of the internet. And then you could ration it. See, right now it’s a free-for-all, but you’d limit it, so you could sell it. People are already addicted, so they’ll do anything to get their fix. You’d be the benevolent king who provides for them. They need entertainment, gossip, porn, fifteen minutes of fame, a feeling of superiority—whatever—and you answer their prayers. In exchange for obedience, of course. And since you own it, the internet will say whatever you want it to say. They think they’re being fed, while you mould them as you please. Or something like that.”
Nils went immediately to his phone, composed and sent another text message. The reply was quick.
“What did you say?” asked Budgie.
Nils stared at his phone. “Holy sh**,” he whispered.
“I was right, wasn’t I?” said LaShawn.
Nils looked at him, half-wonderstruck. “Operation Egg is a go.”
“Yes! I knew it,” said LaShawn, leaping and punching his fist into the air. “I told you, didn’t I?”
Budgie laughed. “Yeah, you called it.”
Nils collected his journal, got up from the table and approached me. He put his hand on my shoulder and smiled. “You surprised me, Miles.” He held up the notebook. “If we survive this party tonight, I’ll need you to read this book cover to cover.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I have to make a phone call,” said Nils, and he went outside.
“What the hell was all that about?” I said.
“That book—” said LaShawn, “Nils didn’t write it.”
I felt awful, having misjudged Nils as a psychopath.
“Yeah man,” said Budgie. “That diary looked like it was written by an angel. Have you seen Nils’s handwriting? It’s atrocious.”
“Well, who’s diary is it?” I asked.
LaShawn and Budgie looked at each other.
“We haven’t got time to get into it now,” said LaShawn, “but let’s just say it belongs to a bad guy. Real bad. Nils got his hands on it and then, well, it sort of needed deciphering. I told him you could do it.”
I felt an unrequested weight of pressure upon me.
“LaShawn and Rory told us about it,” said Budgie. “What happened with you and LaShawn, the things with Rory in New York… You see things.”
“Oh man,” I said, “I don’t know if I do. I co-signed a loan for a conman. I only finished paying that off last year. And I joined three pyramid schemes. Three.”
“We’re not looking for financial advice,” said Budgie. “We’re looking for insight—something no one else can see. You have a gift for that.”
“This is a bad idea,” I said.
LaShawn slapped me on the shoulder. “You know what? Forget about it. We can talk about it later. For now, let’s get ready for the party. All that stuff with the diary—don’t even worry about it.”
He smiled, and he and Budgie went outside to begin setting up.
Don’t even worry about it. I got nervous when LaShawn used those words. I had heard him use them before.
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