Kennedy Galbraith spun his swivel chair around, bored to his very soul as light jazz music oozed from the computer’s playlist and into radios all over town. He wondered what would happen if he blasted out some Soundgarden or Alice in Chains. That would sure as hell wake the night owls up! It would almost be worth the reaming out he’d cop from his old man, the proud and surly owner of this shabby one-man radio show.
Kennedy looked around, the very familiarity of the premises adding grey depth to his boredom. Once a service station, the echoing vastness was still strongly perfumed with the smell of old tyres and oil spills. The manager’s office had been repurposed as the radio station centre of operations; the tough glass walls overlooked the dim interior, the impenetrably dark corners giving the illusion of eternal night.
Once in a while a sharp blast of sleety wind would rattle the doors, leaving Kennedy uneasy and fidgety. Part of him wanted to bravely check the dark recesses for intruders, the rest of him was quite happy to spend the next four hours in the warm safety of the office.
He yawned and stretched, joints popping and crackling after sitting idle for so long. The jazz track wailed to a close, and Kennedy paused the songlist before the next track could start.
“And a good morning to all you late-nighters,” he crooned in his best radio voice. “It’s just on midnight now, the witching hour some might say. Although even the witches and ghosties stayed at home on this wild night. And here’s some Coltrane to keep you company in this loneliest of hours.” Kennedy unpaused the playlist, and what sounded like exactly the same tune as before filled the quiet office.
The light on the office phone glowed red, quietly announcing a caller. Kennedy made himself count to three before he pounced on the receiver and lifted it to his ear. “Yo, this is the midnight DJ. With whom am I speaking?”
“Hi Midnight, it’s Bethany.” Kennedy grinned. Bethany was the police dispatcher, and he prayed that she had some breaking news that might liven things up.
“Hey, sweet thang. What’s up? What have you got for me?”
“How’s a prison escape sound?” he could hear the smile in her voice. Dammit, one day he was going to meet this chick and see if she was as hot as she sounded.
“Sounds good to me, at least it’ll give me something interesting to say between songs. What’s the deets?”
Bethany laughed softly. “Not as exciting as it sounds, sorry. A pair of low life, low end thugs. They were locked up for petty theft, assault, drug offences, stuff like that. People should be alert but not alarmed … you know the drill.”
Kennedy rubbed his hands in glee. Hehe, he could have some mad fun with this. “Thanks Bethany, talk to ya later.” He cleared his throat. “Actually, I was wondering if you’d like to …” But he was speaking to a dead phone line. Rats.
A sudden silence as John Coltrane finally bled out. Kennedy quickly paused the auto-cue and grabbed the microphone.
“Okay folks, this is the Midnight DJ, keeping you company through the night.” Kennedy adjusted his voice to serious. “Now, I don’t want to scare anyone out there, but I’ve just had word from police dispatch that there has been a prison break. Several felons are now on the loose and headed this way. They are described as armed and psychotically dangerous, and should not, I repeat, SHOULD NOT be approached. If you see them, call the police immediately. And make sure all your doors and windows are locked. I will keep you updated through the night, but let’s hope these criminals, these vicious animals! are soon back behind bars where they belong.”
“In the meantime, sit back and relax to the dulcet tones of Mr Myles Davis.” Unpause. The same track again, surely!
Somewhere in the dark, a door rattled. It sounded like someone trying to get in. A bang on the side of the building made Kennedy jump to his feet before remembering the small forest of shade trees out the back. That wind was probably just about ripping the branches off, banging them into the side of the building. Yep, that must be it. No point going outside just to check on a few broken trees.
With trembling hands, Kennedy prepared himself a mug of coffee, the warmly familiar smell completing the illusion of a brightly lit oasis in the midst of black chaos.
In town, Bettina Walsh waited grimly at the kitchen door for her husband to stagger home from the pub. She clutched a cast iron skillet in her hand, and practised her lines. “Oh my Lord, officer, I thought he was one of them escaped criminals. Oh what have I done?” She settled her wide, padded bottom on a kitchen chair and listened to the radio while she waited. She prayed that the escapees weren’t captured before she’d had her chance to belt nearly twenty years of marital frustration into her husband’s head.
“Oh my God,” she whispered in a theatrically trembling voice. “I thought it was one of them criminals breaking into my house. My poor husband!” Sob.
Ashleigh Kiel lay in bed, her book laying forgotten on her chest. The radio crooned softly in the background, her only companion on this wild night. Her heart thumped with fear as she listened to the occasional scraping noises from downstairs, a heavy breath, a soft thump. She could barely breathe as her body seized up in terror. Of all the houses in town, why would those vicious felons break into hers? Did they know she lived on her own? And what would they do once they found her??
Tears formed and ran down Ashleigh’s face while she tried to think what to do. Maybe she could squeeze out the bedroom window without making too much noise?
She quietly slid out of bed, her trembling legs barely supporting her body. She softly closed the bedroom door and jammed her long-back chair under the handle, hoping that the manoeuvre worked as well in real life as it did in the movies. There was a sudden, ominous silence from the front of the house, and she backed away, convinced that the bedroom door was going to burst open at any moment.
The window slid open with a slight grating noise. To Ashleigh’s sensitive ears, it sounded as loud as a brick building falling off a cliff. She held her breath as the intruders started moving around again, muttering and moaning under their breath.
The window screen unclipped easily enough, but fell from her nerveless fingers with a loud clatter. Ashleigh quickly crawled through the opening, screaming as someone grabbed her dressing gown.
She wrenched herself free, falling clumsily to the ground and painfully twisting her ankle. She scooted backwards, looking wildly back at her bedroom window to see if she could spot the intruders, but there was no-one there. Her dressing gown must have got hung up on the window frame! Maybe …
Ashleigh got to her feet and limped to her neighbour’s house, banging on the front door until the cranky and sleep-rumpled occupant appeared. He said nothing, just opened the door and watched in bewilderment as Ashleigh fumbled for his landline phone and called the police, her harrowing ordeal garbled out between sobs.
The police were there within minutes. They knocked sternly on Ashleigh’s front door while Ashleigh and her neighbour clung to each other behind them. One police officer used the key that Ashleigh had given him and swung the door open, calling out his occupation and an invitation for persons unknown to make themselves visible.
Suddenly, a large black shape hurtled towards the police officer. He staggered back and fired off two shots, one of which broke Ashleigh’s porch light, the other one heading for the moon as the officer fell on his back. He wrestled desperately for a moment with the large black Labrador who was thrilled to pieces that so many people had turned up to play. Luckily, the Labrador spotted Ashleigh and bolted towards her before he could damage the policeman’s dignity any further.
The case of the mysterious and noisy intruders was declared solved, and the gathering crowd drifted back to their homes.
This was just one of many hysteria-driven call-outs that night, including one woman who had beaten her husband half to death with a frying pan in the mistaken belief that it was “one of them escaped felons” trying to break into her house.
Kennedy thought he heard what sounded a lot like a gunshot, and he turned down the volume output in the office until the music was barely audible. He left the auto-cue to do its job while he stepped out of the warm office into the dim frigidity of the main building, listening intently to the world outside. He heard another gunshot, someone screaming. It sounded like every police vehicle was out on the street this night, distant wails audible between gusts of wind.
Fear pooled in his lower belly and trickled towards his chest. His mouth was dry and tasted of bitterly stale coffee. Just what was going down out there?
He thought of the escaped convicts. Maybe they were more dangerous than Bethany had given them credit for? It sure sounded like they were causing some major mayhem out there! And how many had actually escaped?
Kennedy grabbed his torch and walked the perimeter inside the building, testing every door and window. Twice.
He went back to the cosy brightness of the office, feeling very much like an actor spot-lit on a theatre stage. He quickly dimmed the lights to make himself less visible, and waited for the current track to finish before pausing the music and picking up the microphone with a shaking hand.
“Hey there, night owls. This is your old pal, the midnight DJ, telling you to be careful out there. I can hear gunshots, I can hear sirens, I can hear trouble plenty. Please, stay in your homes, keep the doors locked, stay safe. And if one of those police units wants to swing by the radio station, I wouldn’t say no.” He thought for a moment, then continued on in righteous anger. “These escaped criminals are obviously more dangerous than we were led to believe. And more numerous, judging by the chaos out there! Why didn’t the police tell us that large numbers of dangerous criminals were at large, did they think we wouldn’t notice? Well here’s some more damn jazz to calm us all down. But call the police immediately if you see or hear anything. Anything! Better to be safe than sorry,” he finished darkly.
The midnight DJ’s message worked. The calls ramped up, and police were run ragged investigating cats rummaging through bushes, dogs barking at shadows, tree branches knocking on windows. The local homeless man, Dirty Pete Bouvier, was hunted out of his various hiding spots so often that he asked to be put in jail so he could sleep in peace for what was left of the night.
Kennedy sat in the dim office chewing his nails. Every sound, every rattle, made him jump until he felt like a nervous wreck. He imagined twenty hardened criminals, maybe more, gathering silently around the service station, ready to savagely attack the sole occupant.
When he did finally hear the side door open, he felt physically sick with fear. It wasn’t his imagination, someone else was in the building.
Kennedy grabbed an old tyre iron and crept out of the office, the air cool on his sweaty face. He swallowed, feeling something click in his throat.
He saw a shadowy figure briefly walk past the back window, a dark shape blotting out the moon and stars.
Kennedy tiptoed into the dark, intending to sneak up on the intruder. But his sneaker brushed against a cobwebbed hub cap, sending it spinning to the floor in a cacophonous racket that seemed to last for hours, but was probably only half a minute.
Silence from the back of the room, then the shoof shoof shoof of a man running across a dusty concrete floor.
Kennedy realised the intruder was trying to get behind him, so he quickly circled around to where he’d heard the footsteps.
He could hear the man breathing heavily, and he held his own breath as he quietly slid into place behind him.
Kennedy hefted his weapon into the air and brought it crashing down on the intruder’s head, screaming victoriously. He kicked the prone body onto its back, and shone the torchlight onto the man’s face.
His father, who had come to check on his son’s welfare, glared up at him through a mask of blood.