"Help me. Find me. Dead or alive," it says, over and over, pleading, an avatar on my phone - a CGI 3D face, an unremarkable male aged about thirty - its voice coming through the earbud I have in. Is it malware? It's nothing installed by me, not by choice. A game, an ad, an app? I don't take it seriously.
"Fuck off," I mutter, about to kill it with an uninstall.
"Blake." It knows my name. "Help me. I am the victim of kidnap or murder."
"You?" I whisper, as our shitty new house is shitty and small, and my mum is in the bedroom next to mine, and the curtain-thin walls could easily reveal I was breaking her rule of not having my phone in my bedroom at night.
"Me," it answered.
"I can talk to you?" I ask.
"Yes. Me. Something of me."
The voice has emotion, too much, makes it sound weak. But its eyes have none.
"Who then?" I ask.
"I am Jacob. Not completely, but I am him, created in the knowledge that this time would come."
"His murder or kidnap?" I ask, amused at the nonsense.
"So he knew it was coming, his own kidnap or murder?"
"And he still let it happen?"
"One flame against the sea. Jacob did his very best."
"What, you? He left you to sort it all out?"
"I will work to free him."
"What if he's dead?"
"Then we will bring those responsible to justice." I laugh, too loudly, then ask, "Who is he, this Jacob?"
"Who built you?"
"Yes. Don't think of me as some cheap, simple gimmick."
"No? Then go make me a coffee or show me your moves to knock out a killer."
"His knowledge is mine, all mine to use, all his suspicions, the clues, the leads. His obsession to uncover, to learn the truth. No need to eat, sleep, befriend, no human waste. Of course, I cannot punch, but I can hack away relentlessly, unyielding. You must believe. I am him, my master. I serve him, myself. It is all I do. I serve without question or doubt. Instructions own me. I am ruled and offer no protest. I will complete the task I, my creator, began. I am his pain. His need to win."
"Jesus, you heard of Twitter, two eighty characters max, and always enough."
"You have to be convinced. You have to know."
"So tell me more. Jacob knew the crime might happen. Why? What was he up to?"
"I cannot say. Not yet. Work through the levels, and you will know everything."
"So just a game, is it?"
"Trust is the issue. I have to know I can trust you."
"I'm not applying for some shitty job that I can't do without."
I cut it off, "Why not go to the police?"
"We can't trust them, or rather what lies above them."
"So go to a sixteen-year-old. That's the move. That's the class of soldier required for your freedom or revenge? Who's the main man of a suspect, a twelve-year-old girl? Who is this Jacob, a fuckin pedo? Sounds like his death is proper good news."
"Who would suspect you, Blake, sixteen and completely unknown?"
"You know me."
"But a soldier? Who would think you a soldier at all."
"But you have natural stealth. No one we have to fear will ever suspect you."
"No? But why me? Why ask me?"
"You were selected. The best there could be. The algorithm's choice. It cannot be debated." I pause, thinking. It's good. I mean, this is starting to be the best and longest conversation I've had in months. "And what would I do?" I ask.
"Leg work, be the eyes, the ears, the hands on the ground. To assist me."
"So you need a robot, manual labour, does as its told?"
"You AI? Or is there a man in there, on a mic, watching maybe? 'Cause whoever you are, don't think you can ever scare me. Or win anything out of me."
"The flesh behind me has vanished. And I need your help to investigate, to solve a crime."
"Me, yeah, right, me. Chosen by the algorithm, which means the big fuck all in anyone's language."
"They, it is the truth."
" Your proximity to the crime scene. Jacob was based in Shrewsbury, as you are now. A town you are new to, so a space you can move through unacknowledged, another layer of transparency. You have no friends. Not here. No roots to trap or influence you. Digital records show this. No friendly communications. Online gameplay only, in which you show considerable skill. Beyond school, you rarely go out. You have time to act. You hold a black belt in karate. Your school records show a willingness or need to fight. The curse of the new boy. Seven different schools following your father's military career and your talent for getting expelled. Another school, another battle to win or lose. Records suggest you never give in, that you always eventually win. You plan to join the army. Against your mother's wishes, you plan to follow your father's footsteps. A top-level soldier. Top secret ops we have yet to uncover. A genetic advantage you likely share. You have something to prove. Your father is perhaps more a myth to you than real. In recent years, your time spent together has been minimal. Communications confirm a difficult relationship. Your father is now a private military contractor spending most of his time abroad, and willingly so. Your mother divorced him and, against your wishes, married another man. The three of you live together in a too-small house. All that unwelcome reality too close and touching. You dream of escape. Life at present bores you. Your daily routine is an imposition. You will accept this challenge. You want to escape into a world you think is real. We know you are ready. You will follow your father, who was never a coward."
"Yeah, but for Queen and country, or at least a monthly wage."
"In the house, you will find a prepaid credit card giving you access to funds ninety per cent of the UK population would consider generous. For expenses and sensible reward. Nothing to draw attention to yourself. You will also find a top-of-the-range phone that is unlimited in every way."
"And you think you can trust me?"
"One level at a time, Blake."
"And what would level one be?"
"A simple task, search the crime scene. Enter our house, from which Jacob vanished."
"His house, a Shrewsbury address?"
"Yes. Address and route will appear here."
"Won't be tonight, but tomorrow."
"Do you commit?"
"Then tomorrow it must be."
Not that it will. I'll take a look tonight, just to get a feel.
Mum and him, the stepdad, their crap jobs, working for me, packing them tight into sleep. At the factory, they clock in to work. At home, they clock in to sleep. Dutiful people. Working alternative shifts and sharing one car for the 20-mile commute, they rarely see each other.
Today was a rarity, their schedules aligned to give them time off together. And what did they do? They slept. That's their life, work and separation. Making up for the waste, all that time Mum spent nursing him back to health while making her bank balance critical. Still, it puts me off their radar, so some good done at least.
I had to get involved. Whether true or not, I couldn't resist. I knew too little to walk away with any sense of self-respect. As my dad told me, you have to find the edge. You have to lean over and take a look to know what's really waiting below.
If Jacob knew that much about me, I had to learn more about him. To even the score, to close the gap. We think technology is better than us. And Jacob, the app, I can totally believe. Of course, there's a man behind it. But the gap between him and me could be the thinnest piece of glass ready to smash and fuse our worlds together with a burst of violence. Or the man could be lost to me. The gap could be vast - the future and the past. With Jacob the future and me the past. Like my dad says, mankind is fucked. Either party to the end or play for glory and get a hard-on for war.
The roads are deserted; the street lights off. It's three in the morning, and the world feels good. An easy twenty-minute bike ride into town, through the Quarry, a park in the centre of Shrewsbury, then over the river to the posh part of town, an area named Kingsland. I've memorized the route so I can leave my phone behind. I have to consider it hacked and able to track my location.
I stash my bike behind a hedge to move silently on foot. The street is wide and generous. Houses hide behind trees and substantial driveways. I don't feel wrong in any way, not watched or judged. The streets are public, and no one owns the night, so I'll take the right of way regardless of the time.
I find the house, number twelve, and stop at the driveway, a gate blocking my way. But the wall is easy to scale, and the trees behind it give me cover. Nothing much happens in Shrewsbury, not kidnap or murder, which was part of the charm pulling me towards the edge. We three kings, the newbies in town. My dad talks about underground rivers - hidden wars, conflicts, corruption - flowing beneath the surface of everyday life and always flowing, never any drought to dry them up, always new shit to fill the source.
A thin moon keeps ducking behind clouds to make the darkness total. No light shines from inside the house, but no surprise there given the hour. I'm not afraid of someone being in - Jacob or whoever. If I flush them out, I win. Truth and bullshit released in one. But better learn the truth unseen.
Any commotion in a street like this would scramble the police fast away, although all to my advantage. Me, technically a child, lured to a house by some man inside. Why, for what? No need to ask. He's scum without question. Could be innocent. A pawn perhaps, but either way, I have to know more.
It's hard to hear silence. I try, wanting the chance to catch a sound that gives a game away, but I fail. Silence, I suppose, is impossible. There's always something that gets inside the mind to spark imagination or even sometimes emotion.
A good stretch of darkness leads to the house, the perfect hiding ground. Of course, I think I'm clever, one step ahead, but not enough to make me stupid. However remote, there's a chance someone is waiting hidden, the darkness their friend as much as mine.
The space feels enclosed, foreign, the perfect ground to kick-off an ambush. So I don't stall. I move forwards as quickly as I can, crouched low to the ground to make the target as small as possible and ready to spring eject up to escape or attack.
Leaving a patch of lawn, I hit the driveway - hard and silent under my feet so tarmac or brick. No cars block my way as I race towards the house.
I was expecting a security light to activate, but nothing comes on to shock the darkness out.
Reaching the house, I put my back against the wall and wait, expecting, ready, listening hard, but no sound rises above the ruckus inside.
The house, to me at least, is massive. I'd guess five bedrooms and more bathrooms than we have bedrooms. It makes me wonder what was going on inside.
Looking up towards the roofline, I can make out what appears to be a security light fixed to the wall. If it was working, I should have set it off.
I move to a large bay window and peer through, my face close to the glass but not touching. The curtains are open; the room beyond just black. I thought everyone closed their curtains at night if at home to do so.
What looks more suspicious, a house in the day with curtains closed, or one at night with the curtains open? If the deed had been mine, kidnap or murder, then time to fade away, I'd have left the curtains open.
Another bay window on the other side of the front door, I find curtains open, the room beyond as black as the first.
The front door is recessed. I step inside and put my gloved hand through the letterbox, but it gets stuck before it can touch anything other than nothing.
Feeling with my hands, I search the tiled ground for debris and find a stone. With my ear to the letterbox, I push the stone through. The sound it makes when it hits the floor is soft and muted. Paper, an envelope perhaps, or that newspaper the residents of Shrewsbury get delivered for free?
I find another stone and, this time, flick it through the letterbox to force it beyond any uncollected post. A second later, a harder sound like a stone on wood or ceramic tile.
Fixed to the wall next to the door is a locked key box, which I try and force open. It doesn't budge. I'll have to wait for Jacob to give me the code tomorrow.
I circle the house. The three doors I encounter are locked, and the two back windows reveal no more than those at the front. Several security lights are fixed to the house but dozing on the job, none punch out light as I pass their gaze.
Just below the front roofline, I see a shape I think is a burglar alarm bell box. But don't these have a small light, flashing or not, so any would-be nighttime burglar would see the threat and think twice?
The double garage is locked. Maybe a car is parked inside. But who can take the hassle of pulling in and out of a garage in this day and age? Someone who wants to hide?
If Jacob really did fear for his life, wouldn't his house be pimped with working security? Not if he wanted to move in and blend out of sight. And who knows his talents? What hidden layers of security could a science/techno genius install? Well, nothing too effective. He still got snatched or killed. Or maybe it's all on me. I'm front of the stage, the star of the show.
What have I learned? Not much. Possibilities, nothing more. Although, if I had to choose, I'd say the house was empty.
I pull out my knife - a hunting knife that belonged to my dad when he was a boy. The five-inch lock blade makes it illegal to carry in public, but the streets at this hour are hardly being out in public.
I slice off a strip of bark from a tree and cut it into three small pieces. I then wedge each thin, rigid piece between an exterior door and its frame. If someone opens the door, the bark will fall out and let me know someone has been in or out when I return to the house the following night.