/ Language: English / Genre:thriller

Panic Button

Frazer Lee

Written by Frazer Lee (Lamplighters)—official nominee for the Bram Stoker Awards ‘Superior Achievement in a First Novel’ Award 2012. “THE SOCIAL NETWORK OF SHOCKS. A CHILLER SO TIMELY, GRIPPING AND SMART” Film4 Frightfest In PANIC BUTTON, Frazer Lee explores timely fears about online privacy and security, cyber bullying and identity theft. Based upon the screenplay of the film praised as The Social Network of shocks by Film4 FrightFest’s Alan Jones, this taut thriller holds a mirror up to our plugged-in society and compels us to peer behind the online personas that hide our true selves. Four young people win a trip of a lifetime to New York, courtesy of their favourite social-networking website All2gethr.com. On board the private jet, they are invited to take part in the in-flight entertainment a new online gaming experience. But this is no ordinary game. Trapped at 30,000 feet and forced to play for their lives and the lives of their loved ones by their mysterious captor, they are about to learn that putting your life on-line can have deadly offline consequences… Reviews of the Feature Film: “A GRIPPING PSYCHOLOGICAL NIGHTMARE. NAIL-BITINGLY TERRIFYING.” Abertoir Film Festival “BRITISH HORROR AT ITS BLOODY BEST.” Sky Movies “THE BEST BRITISH HORROR IN YEARS.” Ain’t It Cool News HAVE YOU READ THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS?

PANIC BUTTON

movie novelisation

by

Frazer Lee

based

upon the screenplay ‘Panic Button’ by Frazer Lee, John Shackleton, David Shillitoe & Chris Crow

This book is respectfully dedicated to the passengers and crew of Deppart Airlines Flight D-665.

May their story be a warning to us all.

Prologue

Viewed from above, the earth is a schematic, a complex network populated with avatars and their constructs. Human beings and animals going about their daily business, their very lives hotwired to a web of their own invention. Every movement, and every choice, a series of variables driven by fateful algorithms — seemingly infinite possibilities narrowed to a fixed set of outcomes.

Let’s open a window on that world.

Let us zoom in and find a city, a termite mound of industry and activity. They look like insects, the people, from this high vantage point. Their buildings are like nests.

Let’s zoom in some more, find one such nest.

Here’s one, a modern redbrick housing block. A black vehicle waits outside, its engine throbbing like a worker drone’s wings. Three insect figures are gathered around, saying their goodbyes.

Full zoom now, and we can see these insects for what they really are.

One

Jo Scott sat back in the limo’s luxurious leather seat as the driver closed the door. She located the electric window button, pressed it, and looked out at the two faces she knew and loved better than anything in the world. Her daughter was the epitome of a miserable eight year-old, frowning and clutching her little pink touch screen phone. Jo’s heart ached. Sophie looked a world away from her already. Leaning out through the limo window, Jo gently held Sophie’s tiny wrists.

“Listen Soph, I’ll bring you back something nice, okay? You’ll have fun with Nanny.”

Jo looked up at her mother, Dawn, with hopeful eyes. Dawn smiled gently and placed a placatory hand on Sophie’s shoulder.

“We’ll be fine, won’t we love?”

Sophie nodded, reluctantly. “When you coming back Mum?”

The driver finished loading Jo’s luggage into the boot, clicked it shut. The sound was too final for Jo, who pulled Sophie closer.

“I’m only away for the weekend darling, I’ll be back before you know it. Really.” She closed Sophie’s hands around the little pink phone. Our lifeline. “Keep it on you all the time, promise?”

Sophie nodded.

Jo hoped Sophie couldn’t see the tear forming in the corner of her eye, or detect the waver of emotion in her voice. “We can keep tabs on each other. It’ll be fun.”

“But I don’t want you to go.”

The driver climbed back into the limo. “Ready, Miss?”

Embracing her through the window, Jo kissed Sophie long and hard on the forehead.

“I love you pumpkin, you know that?”

Sophie stared down at her feet.

“I said did you know that?”

The little girl’s face began to crack.

“I think I know that you know that…” Jo teased.

Sophie was beaming now. “Yeah, I know Mum…”

“Good girl. Well then…”

The limo started to pull away from the kerbside. Jo let go of Sophie, who stepped back into her grandmother’s arms.

“Be a good girl for Nanny, okay? She’ll tell me everything that goes on. Don’t think she won’t!”

Jo winked at Dawn, putting a brave face on things. Her mother smiled back at her, eyes filled with love for her daughter and granddaughter. Jo watched them waving goodbye to her as her limo drove off down the street and turned the corner.

Dawn watched the limo disappear around the corner and looked down at her granddaughter. She had stopped waving and was already playing with the little pink mobile phone. Sophie was such a whiz with technology; it was beyond Dawn how her thumbs could press all those tiny buttons so fast. Only eight, but so sophisticated already. She would become a young woman in the blink of an eye, just as Jo had. It gave Dawn a swell of pride to know how far her daughter had come in such a short space of time. Theirs had been a rocky road, but now Jo was back from the brink. The change in her had had a knock on effect on Sophie too, for the better. The little girl who walked alongside Dawn now was a far cry from the sullen Sophie she’d known when Jo was in the midst of all her problems. For a while, Nanny had to function as mother to Sophie as well as to her own daughter. After much effort and strain, Jo was behaving like the best mum she could be to Sophie — meaning Dawn could enjoy being Nanny again. All their troubles were behind them now and they were a happy family again, Dawn felt sure of that.

They stepped through the front door and up the stairs, heading for the kitchen.

“Okay then missy, what about you and I do a bit of baking?”

Sophie grinned. “Fairy cakes?”

“If that’s what you want, love.”

“With extra butter cream?”

“Of course,” Dawn chuckled, smiling down at her granddaughter.

Beep-beep.

Sophie was playing with the phone, her little fingers conjuring electronic noises from the pink plastic casing.

“Nanny will save some so you can lick the mixing bowl though…”

Beep.

As they passed the wall mirror, Dawn’s voice trailed off. She froze. A man was standing just a few feet behind her, his features hidden by a black balaclava. A grotesque grin was stitched across the woollen mouth. The man’s real lips, just visible through the jagged slit, tightened as he raised his gloved hand and pointed the heavy barrel of a silenced pistol straight at her.

Dawn felt her stomach lurch at the sight of the intruder in their home. A sick feeling crept over and into her body, as she stood there gripped by uncertainty about what to do next. Should she surrender to this man, ask him what he wanted? Or scream and lash out, knock the weapon from his hands?

Beep. Crack. Clatter.

She heard the phone’s casing crack open on the hard floor tiles as Sophie dropped it.

Sophie. Dawn’s lips formed a warning, but no sound would come.

Phut, phut!

Two shots to the chest. Warm rosy stain blooming on her blouse.

The man raised the gun to Dawn’s head. She blinked, incredulous.

Phut!

As she was thrown backwards, a crimson spray of bloody matter spattered across the kitchen wall.

Sophie screamed — her shrill little cry cut off by the leather-gloved hand.

Two

Jo looked up as a jet plane screeched overhead. It had been so long since she’d gone to an airport she’d forgotten how noisy they were. The last time was her friend Jules’ hen party, and what a wild time that had been. We were all slaughtered before we even got on the plane, Jo remembered, feeling suddenly much older than her twenty-nine years. It had been a just over three years since she’d flown anywhere. She felt like a different person now.

The driver took Jo’s luggage from the boot and placed it at her feet. “Here y’are Miss.”

“Thanks.”

The limo driver climbed back inside and drove away. She looked down at her suitcase. It had taken forever to convince Sophie that Mummy didn’t need to take any of her dollies with her to New York. Not even Cowgirl Barbie who, according to her daughter, “Came from America and would like to go visit.”

The deep guilt she had felt for taking time off from parenting, and from her job at the call centre, had taken a while to wear off. Dawn had encouraged her to go, saying the change of scene would do her good — and how often did opportunities like a free VIP flight come up anyway? “You owe it to yourself, especially after all your hard work, after all you’ve been through,” Dawn had said, “It’ll be fun, just what you need right now.” Jo prayed she was right.

As she walked to Departures, Jo found herself fighting the urge to call her daughter, or to text and tell her she’d arrived at the airport. She stopped still in her tracks and pulled her mobile phone from her pocket, checking the little screen. No messages. Better to let Dawn get on with things, she’d only be reminding Sophie of her absence if she kept sending texts, and she hadn’t even checked in yet. She smiled, thinking about how Dawn must be spoiling Sophie to death already. Jo allowed herself a quick All2gthr.com status update before putting her phone away:

‘AT AIRPORT. NY HERE I COME!’

She wished she could have told her sister Maddie about the prize flight. She’d sent her an excited email of course, but it had bounced back unread. Maddie simply didn’t ‘do’ the Internet — a source of much frustration for Jo, especially as her sibling had taken off on a backpacking trip around the globe. Well, Jo was the globetrotter now.

She refreshed the screen, beaming as several online friends within her social network expressed their approval at her status update. To her delight, a couple of her workmates had noticed. They must be so jealous, thought Jo, placing the phone back in her pocket. She stepped through the revolving doors, with a spring in her stride and luggage trailing behind her, into the bright lights and noise of the Departures hall.

The airport concourse was alive with activity. Crowds of people darted this way and that, rushing to catch their flights. Tannoy announcements echoed in Jo’s ears, telling Mr So-and-so and Mrs Such-and-such to go to their gates immediately as their flights were now boarding. Jo’s eyes lingered on a happy family, lining up at their check-in desk, kids decked out in their brightest summer holiday togs. With a pang, she saw the dad lift his daughter high into the air. The little girl giggled as he kissed and tickled her.

Jo didn’t miss Sophie’s dad, he was ancient history, but the sight of the happy family unit still made her feel melancholy. The mum caught Jo staring and frowned at her, looking her up and down. Jo turned away, embarrassed, and walked over to an information screen. She scanned the lines of info. There it was — ‘Deppart Airlines Flight D-665, All2gethr.com private charter’. Jo saw that check-in for the private charter flight was up on the second floor. She headed for the elevators; glad to be distancing herself from the happy laughter of the holidaying family ringing in her ears.

“Hi, Jo isn’t it?”

The soft, mellow voice startled her from her thoughts. She felt a little surprised to be recognised.

“Yeah… Who are you?”

“Max…”

The young man standing in front of her winked. He was in his mid-twenties, a little unkempt and wearing a floppy woollen hat.

“Max Nichols… Another winner?”

“Oh, right!”

Thanks to All2gethr, nobody was a stranger anymore; everyone was a ‘friend’, even if you’d never actually met them before. Jo smiled at Max, pleasantly surprised by his looks. His profile hadn’t included a picture when she’d followed the link from the winners’ email to check him out. Now she could put a face to the name.

Max gestured at her luggage. “Want a hand?”

“Thanks.”

They walked towards the elevators, Max with her suitcase, efficient as a bell-boy.

“So is anyone from All2gethr here?”

“Nope, nobody, all a bit weird. The other winners are here though, thought I’d keep an eye out for you.’

“That’s… very kind.”

“Here we go.” He pressed the call button and the elevator doors slid open with a ding.

Jo followed him inside the mirrored lift. He pushed the button for the second floor and grinned at her as the doors closed and the lift lurched upwards. Jo stole a glance at his reflection in the mirror as the lift halted and the doors swished open. Yeah, he was cute, in that doe-eyed student kind of way.

Too young for me though, she thought, smiling to herself.

They stepped out into a hospitality lounge, Jo’s eyes doing a one-eighty around the brightly lit room. A huge flat screen monitor took centre stage, displaying the familiar all2gethr.com logo, a blue spinning globe with an alligator wrapped around it. The creature was all bright green skin, mischievous orange eyes with black slits at their centres, and gleaming white teeth. Beneath the monitor sat a table stocked with champagne on ice and crystal flute glasses that gleamed under the bright lights. Plush designer seating and tall vases filled with white lilies flanked the table.

The occupants of the seats, a stocky guy and a blonde girl, stood up as Jo and Max approached them. They looked relieved at Jo’s arrival, a welcome distraction from an impasse in their strangers’ conversation.

Max beamed at them. “Hey guys, looks like we’ve got a full team — this is Jo.”

The stocky man stepped forward first, extending his hand in greeting, “Dave.”

He was in his late twenties and looked like a sportsman who had let himself go to seed a bit, with wide shoulders and the beginnings of a beer belly. His fair hair was thinning toward the back and he had grown his fringe a little long to compensate. The comb-over was held in place by a pair of Elvis-style aviator sunglasses. His stripy shirt was straight out of a lads’ magazine fashion column, his slight paunch spilling over the top of his jeans belt.

“Hello, I’m Gwen.” The blonde reached Jo first, leaving Dave momentarily stranded. She kissed Jo on each cheek, her lips glossy with pink lipstick. She smelled of something earthy, which Jo couldn’t quite place for a moment — sandalwood. The scent was in keeping with Gwen’s bohemian, ‘hippy chick’ wardrobe. She looked a good few years younger than Dave and dressed accordingly. She had a long silken scarf wrapped around her neck and her wrists jangled with dozens of bangles and charm bracelets.

“Nice to meet you,” Jo said.

“And you,” Dave echoed.

Dave had a winning smile and friendly, twinkling eyes. He still had his hand outstretched, and Jo reached out to shake it. He had one hell of a grip, squashing her fingers as he lunged in for an air kiss. His aftershave smelled musky and expensive.

“Can I have that back now?”

Dave looked confused.

“My hand?”

“Oh!” He chuckled, apologising profusely as he let go of her hand. Dave was genuinely pleased that Jo was along for the ride. She seemed like his kind of person, down-to-earth, unpretentious. He’d been doing his best to have a laugh with Gwen but was struggling a little with her hippy chick demeanour. Max seemed a bit on the quiet side to him, definitely not the sporting type. Jo looked like she could pull a pint or two, Dave thought, unconsciously eyeing the table filled with champagne and glasses.

Max’s eyes met his, gleaming. Perhaps he was a good sport after all.

“Thirst things first then, eh?” Max grabbed a bottle of champagne, breaking the quiet. He started unravelling the foil and wire wrapped around the cork.

Jo’s eyes widened as she noticed the name on the champagne label: Cristal.

“Blimey, this is all a bit too good to be true, isn’t it?”

Max smiled, working on the cork. “It is a good vintage…”

“Yeah, I mean, New York, the prize draw… I’ve never won anything before in my life. My Mum always says if something sounds too good to be true…”

“Then it probably is,” Gwen cut in. “I was the same, I thought it was a load of old rubbish when I got the email, but then I got the letter, and the phone call… my Dad checked out the booking with the jet company and everything, it’s all legit.” She blushed a little at the mention of her father, realising how childish she must sound to the others.

In truth, Gwen felt blessed to even be there. It had been such a battle to convince her Pastor father that she would be okay flying on her own — he often forgot she was in her twenties now. Telling him that her sister Emily had travelled alone, even hitchhiked, so many times hadn’t helped. Her father disapproved of Em, “gallivanting around the planet like she owns the place,” as he’d put it. But then her tactic had worked out in her favour; as she’d reminded her dad that she, unlike dear Emily, was teetotal, and would only be going along to see the sights — maybe take in a few museums. Her Dad had given her his blessing after that. Gwen wasn’t teetotal of course, God forbid — but what he didn’t know about her wouldn’t give him any cause to worry while she was away.

Pop!

Champagne bubbles gushed from the neck of the bottle and Max quickly poured them each a glass.

“Time to sample some of this VIP treatment I reckon,” Max said. “Try, before you fly.”

He handed Gwen a glass then offered another to Jo.

“No… I…” Jo hesitated.

“Come on, you only live once.”

“Go on girl!” Dave said.

All eyes were on Jo. She conceded and politely accepted the glass, took a sip. The bubbles danced on her tongue, the cool, crisp taste of the champagne kissing her throat. Lovely, she thought.

Max watched her savouring the drink and glancing around smiling, as he sipped his own. He liked the way she carried herself, already warming to the way she seemed to want to get as much as she could out of life. She had a bright face and a lovely smile, just like her profile picture. But meeting her in person revealed something her online persona didn’t. He’d noticed it in her eyes while they were in the elevator. It was as though her eyes had seen too much somehow. Perhaps that was why she looked so eager to enjoy herself.

Dave took centre stage, proposing a toast to their good fortune. They all clinked glasses and then sat down on the pristine leather sofas, Jo next to Dave.

“Probably don’t get out much do you? With a kid and all that?” he ventured. It was quite the conversation opener.

Jo almost spat out her mouthful, throwing a sideways glance at him.

“It’s on your profile.” He looked at the others conspiratorially. “We’ve all been there, right? Checked each other out?”

The tension was back in the room just as quickly as the champagne had broken it. Gwen looked away, or rather, didn’t know where to look. Max just shrugged in agreement. Jo’s eyes were admittal enough — she’d had a look at the others’ profiles too.

Dave nodded sagely, eyes twinkling with triumph at Jo.

“Better go easy — just the one, eh? We know how mental you can get on the sauce. I’ve seen the photos of your mate Jules’ wedding. What a mess!”

“Sorry, that was about three years ago actually…”

Jo let the glass fall from her lip. Her drink tasted a little bitter to her now. Clutching the glass in her lap, her faced blushed with embarrassment.

Gwen giggled, either unaware of Jo’s consternation, or simply not caring about it.

“Naughty girl! N-A-U-G-H-T-Y!” Dave was like a dog with a new bone.

Max shot Dave a reproachful look. “Steady on mate.”

“I’m only messing around,” Dave snorted. He looked at Jo again, over the soundtrack of Gwen’s barely-suppressed laughter. “You’re not offended are you babe?”

“I can tell you’re going to be a handful,” Jo said, trying to regain her composure.

“I wouldn’t worry about him,” Gwen said, still laughing, “He’s getting married next month.”

Dave raised an eyebrow. He looked uneasy in the glare of this particular spotlight.

“Oh? Who’s the lucky girl?” Jo’s voice was loaded with mock-sarcasm.

“Her name’s Sarah.”

“Good for you. I can tell you’re prime husband material.”

Max chuckled at Jo’s comeback.

She laughed along with him. “No really, I mean that.”

Dave shrugged off the joke, swigging champagne.

Gwen fixed Max with an enquiring gaze. “What about you then, Mr. Dark Horse?”

“Me?”

“Yeah. You don’t give anything away on your profile, not even a picture.”

“What can I say? I like to keep myself to myself.”

“Was expecting a real paedo to show up,” Dave cackled.

“He looks fine to me.” Gwen blushed as soon as the words escaped her lips.

“Damn! It’s always the quiet ones!” Dave said.

Max grinned, flattered, but avoiding eye contact. Thankfully, Gwen’s quip may have gotten him off the hook. Max was more of a backseat kind of guy, an observer. If there was one thing he hated, it was talking about himself. He would much rather one of the others were in the limelight — and Dave was proving himself a more than able candidate.

“Here…” Dave grabbed the champagne bottle and topped up Gwen’s drink, winking at her. “This one’s on the house — promise I won’t tell your old man. You must’ve seen him on her profile,” he said to the others, “He’s only a bloody vicar!”

Gwen downed the drink, defiant. Dave draped his arm over her shoulder and poured another, a look of pure glee plastered across his face.

“Promise I won’t tell him about this one either!”

Dave and Gwen laughed raucously.

Jo exchanged a look of wry amusement with Max as they both sipped their drinks politely. That Max was a bit mysterious was a given, and as far as Jo was concerned it added to his allure. What you saw was what you got with Dave; he was a good-time guy out for a bit of fun. She couldn’t quite figure Gwen out though. The girl clearly had a good head on her shoulders, so why the giggling ‘little girl lost’ act with the boys? Maybe she was one of those girls who liked to wind the men up then step back and watch the fire fly. Jo had met more than a few of those in her time. Or perhaps Jo was just feeling jealous about the way Max had blushed at Gwen’s comment. She felt sure theirs was going to be an interesting flight.

A sudden fanfare ripped through the wall-mounted speakers, making them all jump. The music was so loud that it distorted slightly, before decreasing in volume as the all2gethr.com logo on the flat panel monitor changed colour and spread across the full width of the screen.

Gwen put down her glass, clapping her hands together. “Here we go!”

The Alligator unravelled its pixelated body from the globe and peered out at them from the screen. Animated jaw chattering, it addressed them in a tinny voice.

“Welcome! And congratulations to you all for winning the all expenses paid trip to New York courtesy of all2gethr.com, everyone’s favourite social networking site.”

A tiny digital delay between the Alligator’s voice and his snapping jaw created an unsettling resonance. The winners smiled at each other, bemused by this rather unorthodox welcome.

“Too bizarre,” Jo said.

“If you’d like to take a look out of the window to your left…” the Alligator continued.

“Cool — a stretch!” Gwen was at the window first.

She and the others looked down at the sleek stretch limo below. A smart-suited female chauffeur stood waiting for them, looking a little impatient.

The Alligator’s voice grew ever chirpier. “Your chariot awaits, ready to take you to your private jet. We also have some exclusive in-flight entertainment prepared for you…”

“Mile high club?” Dave whispered to Jo, his breath heady with champagne fumes. Jo ignored his cheeky comment.

“…but in order to take part, I must ask you to relinquish your mobile phones for the duration of the flight.”

“Our phones?” Jo looked at the Alligator, his slit-eyes twinkling.  Like he can even see me, she thought.

“It is mandatory I’m afraid as they may interfere with our equipment, and may affect the outcome of the game. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated in this matter.”

The winners looked at each other with a mixture of excitement — and apprehension. Max, in particular, looked concerned and absent-mindedly took his handset from his pocket, thumbing the keypad to check for messages. He looked up and saw Jo looking at him. They both smiled as they noticed both Gwen and Dave were similarly addicted — staring into their little mobile phone screens.

Dave smiled down at the picture text Sarah had sent to him that morning. It was a saucy photo of her wearing black lacy lingerie, blowing a kiss at the camera along with the text ‘SO U DON’T 4GET ME TIGER, MISS U ALREADY! XXX’. Sweet. Whenever his phone vibrated at the car spares shop where Dave worked, his colleague Paul was forever trying to catch a glimpse of Sarah’s photo messages. Dave enjoyed the kudos of course, and likes teasing Paul even more. When the lad had asked him how Dave had landed such a hot chick, he’d delighted in answering, “Charm, mate. Natural charm.” Well, Sarah certainly didn’t love him for his money — not on his wages. At least now he was getting a pre-stag party in New York on the house. Result. And some people claimed social networking was a bad thing — muppets.

As they each got up and headed to the door, Jo took her phone from her pocket and checked it too. Still no messages, but about a dozen more friends had commented on her All2gethr status, expressing their envy. Jo had to admit that it made her feel good.

Outside, Max and Dave helped the stern-faced driver load everyone’s luggage into the boot of the limo.

“Thanks,” Jo said, more to Max than Dave.

Before closing the boot, the driver pulled out a small leather pouch and unzipped it.

“Gentlemen, your phones please.”

Dave took his phone from his trouser pocket, turned it off and dropped it into the pouch. He was a picture of nonchalance. Jo looked on as Max hesitated for a moment, wiping a smear of finger grease from his phone display before doing the same. The gesture was tender, almost loving — he was clearly fond of technology.

“Thank you. Ladies?” The driver shook the open pouch at Jo and Gwen, who were seated inside the limo. Gwen reached across Jo’s lap and deposited her girly-looking phone inside the pouch.  The driver, openly wrinkling her nose at the glitzy handset, held the pouch out to Jo.

“No, sorry I can’t,” Jo said, “I promised my daughter I’ll keep in touch this weekend.”

The driver paused a moment, then cleared her throat. “It is a mandatory stipulation. Phones may interfere with the game.”

“Then I’ll turn it off.”

“Ah, come on…” Dave said, climbing aboard the stretch limo.

“The rules of the competition state that all phones are to be relinquished for the duration of the flight,” the driver continued, “Otherwise the competition is null and void — for all participants.”

“It’s just for a few hours,” Max said.

Jo’s fingers tightened their grip on the handset, a physical manifestation of maternal instinct. Our lifeline.

The driver smiled at her. “It is only a few hours. I can’t change the rules, I wish I could…”

Jo glanced at the limo, Dave and Gwen’s impatient eyes peering back at her. Max gave her a reassuring nod as if to say if I can do it, so can you.

“Okay, okay. Just give me a second.”

Palms sweating, Jo speed-typed a text message.  NO PHONES ALLOWED ON PLANE PUMPKIN. CALL U WHEN I GET 2 NY. LUV U MUM XXX

The driver continued smiling, though her eyes were pencil hard. “Feels like losing a limb, doesn’t it?”

Jo wondered if the driver was enjoying her power trip perhaps a little too much. She nodded solemnly and hit SEND, before turning her phone off and dropping it into the pouch.

Max hopped into the limo after her and the driver closed the door behind them, still clutching the pouch. Moments later, the engine purred and they were off and away from the terminal building.

The interior of the limo was like an Aladdin’s Cave of riches. The seats were upholstered in the finest leather with chrome door fittings and sparkling tinted glass windows. On the right hand side of the limo, running the full length from the driver’s partition to the rear seats, a bar was stocked with decanters, glasses and yet more champagne on ice. Beneath the glass surfaces of the bar, the rainbow colours of ultraviolet mood lighting undulated and bathed the limo interior in a psychedelic party glow.

Max was busy examining a pedestal situated between the bar and the seats, which was topped with a little control panel of shiny chrome buttons. He fiddled with the buttons and, with a click and a whirr, an LCD flat screen television popped up out of the pedestal.

“Whoa,” Max said, awestruck.

The screen flickered into life automatically; displaying the same All2gethr logo the passengers had seen at the winners’ lounge. The animated alligator graphic sprang into life, uncurling itself from the globe and popping the cork on a cartoon bottle of champagne. Computer generated bubbles filled the screen, arranging themselves into a single word: ‘CONGRATULATIONS!’

“The riches.” Max grinned at Jo, who smiled back in agreement.

Dave stroked the soft leather arm of his seat, luxuriating in his surroundings, peering out of the window with glee in his eyes.

“Can you see it yet?”

“Oh-my-God!” Gwen already had her head out the window on her side of the limo.

Max and Jo followed suit, opening the sunroof and standing up to get a better look.

“Check it out!” Jo exclaimed.

There it was, in the distance, the embodiment of material success fashioned from metal, glass and rubber — a gleaming white private jet. As the stretch limo drove nearer, Jo saw the words ‘Deppart Airlines’ emblazoned on the fuselage. She grinned at Max as the crosswind blasted their faces.

“Yeah! Woo-hoooo!” Max hollered, ecstatic.

The others joined in, their gleeful voices buoyant on a collective wave of excitement and anticipation for the adventure to come, as the limousine drove on.

Jo and the others clambered out of the limo, eyeing the jet in awe.  It was even more impressive at this close distance, all sleek lines and immaculate paintwork. The side of the aircraft, nearest the nose, had ‘Challenger 604’ painted on it in fancy gold calligraphy. The cabin door was open, stairs down in welcome. A stocky baggage handler, dressed in overalls and a fluorescent tabard, started loading their bags into a luggage apartment under the watchful gaze of the limo driver.

Dave bounced up and down on the tarmac. “Yeah baby!”

Gwen sidled up to Jo. “Boys and their toys, eh?”

“Yeah, got to confess though, I am just a tiny, weeny bit impressed.”

“Me too!” Gwen laughed. “Who’s going first?”

Dave already had one foot on the steps. He stepped back, gesturing to Gwen that she go first.

“After… me!” He squeezed in front of her and hopped up the steps.

“You swine!” Gwen laughed and followed behind.

“Age before beauty,” Jo said to Max, who smiled, grabbed the handrail and climbed the steps.

Jo followed close behind and paused for a moment before boarding, feeling uncomfortable. She turned, looked back down the steps and caught the luggage man eyeballing her. Jo held his gaze for a few seconds before turning back to the jet entrance. Men like him looked at her like that sometimes, especially when she had to run the gauntlet of the building site around the corner from her workplace, but she’d caught something else in the baggage handler’s eyes. Was it contempt? Maybe he was just resentful that she and the others were flying to New York in style while he lugged their suitcases around on the runway like a lackey. He wouldn’t be scowling if he knew how crappy her day job was, that was for sure.

Goosebumps formed on Jo’s arms and she wasn’t quite sure if they were the product of the man’s stare or the intensifying crosswind. She took a lungful of air and stepped inside the aircraft. It had been such a long time since she’d flown.

Three

The Alligator’s familiar voice greeted them one-by-one over a loudspeaker as they entered the plush private jet.

“Dave, Gwen, Max and Jo — welcome aboard! We hope you enjoy your flight.  This is Deppart Airlines executive charter flight D-665 to New York.”

Classical music lulled through the cabin like a calming breeze. Dave led the way inside. The jet’s compact interior was impeccably stylish, all pristine marbled surfaces and warm lighting. Four stylish beige leather seats, each with a computer touch screen, dominated the central cabin space. The chairs swivelled so the passengers could face each other over polished drinks tables. Each screen displayed the name of one of the four winners in sleek blue all2gethr.com branding. The cockpit entrance was curtained off at the front of the plane. An illuminated sign indicated the bathroom to the rear. A bar area, also at the rear, was stocked with yet more champagne on ice and numerous spirits, next to a wall mounted LCD screen. Unlike the others, this particular screen was off.

“This is incredible,” Gwen said, looking at her name displayed in big blue characters on the touch screen computer monitor.

“So this is how the other half live, eh?” Dave grinned from ear to ear. “They have a bar, oh yes.”

“I could get used to this,” Max said, flopping down in front of his touch screen, “No expense spared I see.”

The letters of his name moved into an animated swirl, forming the all2gethr.com logo. Once again, the Alligator uncurled itself from the globe and stared out from the screens. Jaw waggling in vaguely lip-synched animation, its voice boomed over the speakers as the music faded out.

“As guests of all2gethr.com, you are cordially invited to be pilots in an all-new, exclusive social networking game. There are fantastic prizes to be won, including diamonds from Tiffany’s, VIP tickets for a Broadway show and, best of all, a brand new 4x4 Jeep!”

Jo and the others cheered and applauded.

“Stand by for further instructions. Please make yourselves at home.”

The grinning Alligator faded from their screens and the saccharine orchestral melody returned.

Curiosity, and the need to be away from Dave’s ‘unique’ sense of humour for just a little while, led Gwen to the bathroom. Bright ceiling-mounted lighting flickered into life as she opened the door.

Wow. Just… Wow, thought Gwen. She’d never seen luxury like this. The bathroom even had a shower cubicle as well as the requisite sink and toilet. A big LCD TV screen was mounted on the wall opposite the loo, little standby light glowing. She crossed to the sink and sniffed at the expensive soaps and moisturisers, stroking the soft cotton towels and flannels hanging there. There were even bathrobes, embroidered with the Deppart Airlines logo in heavy gold thread. Lush, she thought, Emily will never believe me when I tell her about this.

Gwen chuckled under her breath, imagining the look on her sister’s face. Always the rebel, Emily would probably have stolen a bathrobe by now and been kicked off the plane, God love her. Gwen checked herself in the circular mirror. The movie star lighting surrounding the mirror was flattering, and she dabbed a little of the complimentary cologne behind each ear. She smiled at herself, playing the part of the private jet set princess for an imaginary prince on the other side of the looking glass. What will my prince look like when he comes? More like Max than Dave I hope, she chuckled to herself. The sudden whine of the engines startled her from her reverie. Remembering what she was about to do she clutched at the sink instinctively, expecting the plane to lurch forward at any moment. The fingers of her right hand fumbled beneath her silk scarf, finding the warm metal of the crucifix pendant, hanging from its delicate silver chain. She stroked the familiar shape, drawing comfort from it.

Her mind raced as she asked herself what she was doing here, alone on this plane, flying to New York with a group of strangers. But that was her father’s voice. She could hear his authoritative tones sermonising in her head, dismissing her hopes, her dreams of working in the fashion industry. Focussing on her reflection in the mirror, she recounted all the reasons why she had to do this trip, why she needed it so badly. New York could open so many doors for her — opportunities that simply didn’t exist at home. One such opportunity had arisen when a friend on Gwen’s All2gethr list had offered to introduce her to a top fashion magazine editor. She’d get herself a meeting at one of the NY fashion bibles while she was there — even if she had to sleep over in a foyer.

Gwen was sprucing up her hair when the engine noise interrupted her thoughts once more, growing from a whine to a roar. Deep breaths. It’ll be okay, she thought. Please Lord above, let it be okay…

Jo and Max peered behind the curtain separating the cabin from the cockpit entrance. A small crew prep area lay between them and the cockpit door. It was dark inside, save for a red LED light set into the solid, shiny door. Jo looked at a wall-mounted numerical keypad next to the door.

“Very high-tech,” Max said, pressing his fingers against the door and peering into the red light. “All very mysterious isn’t it? Not even a flight attendant.”

“Yeah, you’d think they’d have a representative on board.”

Max glanced back at the cabin. “Well, we’ve got the cartoon Alligator for company I suppose — cool.”

He mimicked the creature’s waggling jaw with his hand. They laughed together, bathed in the intimate glow of the red light.

Jo caught a guilty flicker in Max’s eyes as he smiled at her. Easy tiger. The thought was intended for herself as much as it was for him. Remember he’s too young. Yeah, much too young for an old single mum like you. On the cusp of thirty she was far from old of course, but thinking of herself this way kept Jo out of trouble — usually.

From the way he was looking at her, Max clearly didn’t think she was an old maid. His face flushed a little and a question started to form on his lips, when the Alligator’s voice piped up again in the main cabin.

Saved by the bell, thought Jo.

“Please take to your seats, return them to the forward position and fasten your seat belts.”

Dave grinned at Jo, his eyes filled with boyish excitement, as she sat in her allocated seat opposite him. Max kicked back, clicking his seatbelt as Gwen returned from the bathroom, looking pale.

“You okay?”

Gwen nodded, a little subdued. She sat down and fumbled with her safety belt. Max leaned over to help her tighten it. Gwen blushed and stuttered her thanks like a lovestruck teenager. Jo watched Gwen surreptitiously, and rolled her eyes.

“This is it,” the Alligator proclaimed, “Get ready for the trip of your lives.”

“Fucken’ A!” Dave exclaimed, in a not-too-convincing American accent, leaning toward Jo to get her attention.

Jo smiled at him politely. She’d noticed how much of a shine he’d taken to her already and didn’t want to give him the wrong impression. After all, his slightly flirty demeanour was at odds with his online profile — all kisses and cuddles with his beautiful blonde fiancée. Jo figured it must be the drink that was making him ‘fresh’.

Fair enough, if he gets hammered and lays it on too thick in New York I’ll just remind him about his wedding, Jo thought. That ought to do the trick.

The screens flickered off and the jet began to roll forward, taxiing along the runway. The lights dimmed as the jet engines dipped, then roared into life. The whole cabin trembled, fittings creaking slightly as the plane thundered along the runway. The jet’s nose lifted skyward and they were airborne. The Challenger’s landing gear retracted with a distant clunk and Deppart Airlines Flight D-665 soared gracefully into the evening sky.

Jo watched the city shrink to the size of a model village as they climbed into the clouds. Soon, the view out of the window became a swirl of cloud vapour. Climbing further still, the plane began to level out, engines reverting to a constant, low hum.

Ding ding.

At the sound of the start-up chime, the computer screens flickered back to life with the jovial green face of the Alligator.

“Please refer to the onboard safety information cards provided in your seat pockets, which include all our emergency protocols for this Deppart Airlines charter flight.”

At this, Gwen took a little laminated card from her seat pocket. Her eyes darted over the diagrams of emergency exits and the passenger crash position. She quickly put the card back where it came from.

“There is no smoking allowed anywhere aboard this Challenger 604 private jet,” Alligator continued, “You are advised to keep your seatbelts fastened in case of unexpected turbulence.”

Dave clutched his belly. He looked at Jo in mock seriousness.

“I’m experiencing a bit of turbulence already, to be honest…”

He made a trumpeting sound with his lips. The others all groaned at his joke.

Jo frowned, realising that Dave reminded her of Sophie’s father. Like Dave, he’d been the life and soul of the party when they’d met. She’d loved being out with Sophie’s dad in social situations. But as their relationship had progressed, she’d come to know a darker, uglier side to him. The joker her friends adored was a sham, a mask behind which he could hide a selfish, egotistical streak. Dawn had cottoned onto it, but Jo had been blinded by her love for the man’s public persona. If only she’d listened to her mother, or had spotted it sooner herself. But then she wouldn’t change having had Sophie for the world. It wasn’t Sophie’s fault her dad had turned out to be such a complete loser.

The Alligator’s announcements went on. “In the event of loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will be deployed…”

“So, how long ’til New York?” Jo asked, ridding herself of her troubled memories.

“Six hours,” Max said, “Even quicker on the way back with the air stream.”

Jo smiled at Max’s endearing attention to detail.

“There will now be a short break before the in-flight entertainment begins,” the Alligator concluded before fading out from their screens once again.

The plane tilted slightly, adjusting course. Jo couldn’t help but notice Gwen tightening her grip on the arm rests of her seat, knuckles bone white.

“He’s a bit of a character isn’t he? Any of you been to New York before then?” asked Jo, making conversation.

Gwen looked at her, obviously trying to regain her composure. “Not me, this is my first time flying.”

“Really? You seem to be taking it quite well.” Jo tried to sound sincere, but in truth the girl looked terrified.

With a bored sigh, Dave unclipped his seatbelt and stood up, stretching his legs.

“What are you doing? I thought he told us to stay in our seats?” Gwen asked.

Dave made a dumb show, pretending he was being thrown around the cabin by turbulence. He wobbled and fell against the hull, grabbing hold of his seat back for support. Gwen looked even more nervous than she did during take off. Dave stopped still, quitting his act, and grinned at her.

“The look on your face!” He chuckled.

Max cracked up too, and soon they were all laughing along, Gwen included. Much as Dave’s clown-like demeanour might begin to grate after a six-hour flight, he clearly knew how to break the ice in social situations. He grabbed a bottle of champagne from the ice bucket on the bar, placing the little white cotton napkin over his forearm, proffering the bottle to Gwen like a seasoned waiter.

“Nice bottle of the 1985 for the lady?”

Dave’s faux-posh waiter voice was certainly better than his American one. He turned to Max, pointing the champagne bottle at him from his crotch, making a phallus of it.

“And for the gentleman too? Fancy some of this? Eh? Eh?”

He laughed — a dirty great lascivious guffaw. Max swatted the thrusting cork away, laughing along. Max’s eyes met Jo’s again. He looked more than a little embarrassed.

“All right, all right, only pulling your leg,” Dave said, sensing Max’s reticence to play along. “Shall I open it though, yeah?”

The others all nodded and Dave popped the cork loudly, froth spilling everywhere. They cheered him on as he sloshed fizzing champagne into four glasses, then handed them out. Jo hesitated, then took the overflowing flute glass from him, making a mental note to live a little while she had the opportunity.

One more won’t kill me, she thought.

Four

The jet soared above the cloud layer. Sunset rays shone through the windows, bathing the cabin in warm crimson light, the same hue as blood oranges. The winners sat facing one another savouring their drinks. The open bottle of fine champagne stood on the table in front of Dave.

Jo felt warm, and a little giddy from the alcohol. She pictured Sophie, playing with her Nan in the living room at home, wondering if she’d get her to bed on time. There was no chance of that. Jo chuckled to herself.

Ding ding.

The chime sounded again and the monitor screens flickered to life. The Alligator animation appeared, his rich baritone voice making the speakers tremble.

“Are we ready to play?”

The winners raised their glasses triumphantly, cheering. As the alcohol flowed, so too did the party spirit. The screen display changed and a ‘Terms and Conditions’ button appeared.

“Tap on screen to read the Terms and Conditions,” the Alligator instructed.

Without even looking at the Terms, Dave tapped the ‘Accept’ button repeatedly.

“We all accept the Terms and Conditions!” he said, speaking for all of them.

He looked at their amused faces.

“What? No-one reads that crap do they? Load of legal bollocks and disclaimers… Well, do they?”

He looked to Max for support. Max shrugged in agreement.

“You have not read the Terms and Conditions — do you wish to continue anyway?”

The dry officiousness of the Alligator’s voice was rather comical, especially after the champagne. Gwen laughed as Max tapped the ‘Accept’ button, then she followed suit.

“Please note, the rules stipulate that in order to claim a prize, the game must be played out to the very end. Any participant that breaks the flow of the game may face consequences…”

Consequences?

The word pierced Jo’s inebriated bubble.

“What sort of consequences?” she asked.

Dave shot her a look — lighten up. “Come on, let’s get on with it yeah?”

All expectant eyes on her now, Jo’s finger hovered over the button. She hated peer pressure. Jo tapped the ‘Accept’ button and the screens went black before displaying a cool, cobalt blue graphic, which read:

‘ROUND 1: GETTING TO KNOW YOU’.

“Because you all love online quizzes, you will each be asked a few simple questions based upon your all2gethr profiles,” Alligator continued in the amiable tone of a game show host, “Dave?”

“Yes mate?”

“You will go first.”

“Ooohhh!” Teasing laughter from the others, who looked relieved not to be going first.

“Good luck mate,” Max said, putting his fingertip to his forehead and saluting Dave.

Dave rubbed his hands together, up for the challenge and clearly relishing being in the spotlight with a captive audience. The screen displays changed, displaying an online quiz machine style rendition of Dave’s All2gethr profile.

“Oh, I’m looking forward to this,” Dave said. He was a regular in front of the electronic quiz machine at his local pub. This would be a doddle.

“Question one,” Alligator said, “How many goals have you scored this season in your Sunday League football team?”

A jaunty question mark graphic hovered over Dave’s profile page, animated to pulse like a heartbeat. This really was like one of the online quizzes they were all so familiar with, with Alligator’s ‘presence’ adding an extra dimension and making it feel like they were starring in a televised game show.

“He’s the ball boy,” Max quipped, chuckling.

“Oh God, erm…”

“Hesitation!” Gwen giggled, looking round at the others.

“Eight? No… Nine, yes nine. Final answer,” Dave said.

“Question two. Have you ever had any piercings or tattoos?”

“Just a tattoo — on my back,” Dave replied, turning to Jo and whispering conspiratorially. “It says ‘sinner’ in Japanese.”

Dave mimed some wild kung fu moves, almost knocking the champagne bottle over. Jo and Gwen shared a mocking glance at his antics.

“The third and final question is a Picture Round. Please look at the photo on screen.”

The image of a glamorous-looking blonde girl flashed up on all the monitors. The photo showed her sat at the opposite side of a candlelit dinner table to whoever took the photo. She was dressed up to the nines, all fake tan and thick eyeliner. There was a red lipstick stain on the glass of white wine she was holding between her pink-varnished fingernails.

“Can you identify the girl in this picture?” the Alligator pressed.

Dave hesitated. Some of the colour had drained from his face. He leaned closer to the screen, mouth slightly open.

“Having a good think about this one, aren’t you?” Max joked.

“I… can’t remember,” Dave muttered. The laughter had gone from his eyes.

Jo chuckled. “Need to ‘phone a friend’?”

“The picture was only taken a few weeks ago,” Alligator reminded him, “So, who is she?”

“I don’t know.” Dave looked a little flustered now. “Pass. I don’t know.”

Dave’s screen displayed the word ‘PROCESSING’ and a spinning progress wheel. At last, the Alligator spoke.

“All three of your answers are incorrect.”

Dave blushed as the others fell about laughing.

“The answer to question one,” the Alligator continued, “was that you haven’t scored a single goal this season. In fact, you’ve been banned from playing for assaulting a rival player.”

“Yeah, well. The wanker had it coming…” Dave spat.

“Liar.” Max snickered.

Gwen shook her head. “Not very Christian, is it?”

“Well, I’m not a bloody Christian am I?” Dave spat.

“Question two — as well as the tattoo on your back, you also had your scrotum pierced three years ago.”

Dave looked gobsmacked. The cabin shook with surprised laughter from the others.

“Kinky bugger!” Gwen exclaimed.

“You know it love,” Dave purred, rising from his seat into a showman’s swagger borne of his embarrassment.

Max shook his head. “That’s just wrong, man.”

Dave leaned close to Max. “Chicks dig it mate.” He looked at Jo, then Gwen, licking his lips.

Jo groaned. “Not too sure about that one Dave.”

“Question three — the girl in the picture is Aimée, a French student currently studying in the UK. You met her last week for drinks, slept with her, then blocked her on All2gethr the next morning.”

Stunned silence filled the cabin, Dave’s face flushing under the others’ gazes. Max pointed at his wedding ring finger, tut-tutting loudly and shaking his head.

“You may have scored that night, but today you’ve scored in fact — zero,” Alligator deadpanned. “Summary — you’re a cheat in life and on the pitch.”

“What a load of horseshit…” Dave’s irritation was written on his face. He grabbed the champagne, swigging from the bottle in defiance.

Maybe this game wasn’t such a doddle after all.

“Jo, you are next,” Alligator announced.

Their screens now displayed a quiz-style version of Jo’s profile page.

“This should be good,” Dave said, glad the spotlight was on Jo and not him.

“Question one. According to your ‘Virtual Pub’ score, how many units of Virtual alcohol do you drink per week?”

“Oh, I don’t know… twenty units? I don’t pay much attention to those things.”

“Question two — please take a look at this All2gethr ‘Date Match’ profile. Can you identify the person described here?”

A progress wheel span on the monitors as an online dating profile loaded up. The profile picture featured Jo, barely recognisable in heavy make-up and platinum blonde hair.

Dave stood over her, a little too close, peering at the revealing outfit she was wearing on-screen.

“Oh, no…” Jo laughed nervously.

“Looking good girl,” Gwen said. “Your hair looks great like that!”

“Thirty-six double-D eh? You sure about that?” Dave whispered in Jo’s ear, reading the profile text.

Jo crossed her arms, recoiling from his hot breath. “Yeah, yeah, okay. It’s an old picture of me, all right? Very old…” She forced a smile, but inside she felt a pang of anguish. She hardly recognised the lost little girl in that picture anymore. It was like looking at a dead friend.

“Final question. Four years ago, your profile status was set to offline for a period of three months. What was the reason for this?”

The smile dropped from Jo’s face. Her mouth was suddenly very dry. The jaunty question mark graphic pulsed at her from the monitor screen.

“I guess you’re going to say it even if I don’t?”

“Why were you offline?” Alligator prompted.

“Yeah, come on,” Dave pried.

“I was… in rehab.”

Her confession stunned the others into uncomfortable silence. Even Dave, it seemed.

Jo kept her eyes fixed on the monitor screen in front of her.

“Had a bit of… trouble with my drinking, so I got some help. My daughter is my number one priority, so…. I’m glad I did it. With the exception of this weekend, I’ve been abstaining.”

“Whoa,” Gwen said.

Dave smirked, clearly enjoying this new revelation after having his own dirty laundry aired in public.

Jo glared at him and downed the rest of her champagne angrily.

“Thank you Jo,” Alligator purred. “Your answers to questions two and three were correct. As for question one; you drink on average thirty units of virtual alcohol per week — and a lot more in real life. Summary — you find it easier to desensitise yourself than deal with any real life issues.”

Jo shook her head quietly, hand wrapped so tight around the empty glass she felt sure she could crush it. She looked out at the dying rays of sunset over the clouds. They looked like blood and bandages. Her head throbbed with the memory of the warning from Social Services. Drunk and disorderly… neglectful behaviour could prove a danger to her child and others… a care home may be the only option… Jo snapped herself out of it, blinking the well of moisture away from her eyes. She’d paid her dues in anguish and self-reproach during her months in rehab. Sophie had brought her flowers the day she came out, daffodils from Nanny’s garden, her little Pumpkin. They were a family again. No one could ever take that away from them.

Not ever.

Five

The touch screens switched to an online quiz view of Max’s profile page. Unlike the others his page was without a profile photo, a placeholder silhouette image on the screen where his mug shot should have been.

“Max, your questions are next,” Alligator announced. “Firstly, you like to play classical violin — what grade have you reached?”

Gwen looked especially surprised, sitting bolt upright in her chair.

“You play the violin?”

Kiddie fiddler, eh?” Dave laughed.

Max cleared his throat, not sharing the joke. “Um… Grade five.”

Jo pursed her lips, quietly impressed at Max’s hitherto hidden talent.

“Question two — who’s All2gethr profile have you viewed most frequently?”

“No idea. My mother’s? I don’t know.”

“Your Mum’s on All2gethr? Now that’s fucked up mate,” Dave cackled.

“Third, and final, question — what was the first item you ever bought from the All2gethr.com Online Market? And why?”

The animated question mark graphic floated over the space where his photo should have been — a question upon a question.

“Dark horse,” Gwen said. Max glanced at her and the others, looking genuinely thrown by the question.

“How the hell should I know? I mean, I buy a lot of stuff online, everyone does…”

“Allow me to jog your memory,” Alligator cut in, an image popping up onto the monitors for all to see; an advertising pack-shot of an ointment jar emblazoned with the logo ‘TRICHLOWART’.

“I never bought that!” Max laughed.

Dave snorted and guffawed loudly. “Yeah, right!”

Jo put her hand to her mouth. Her eyes could not hide the fact that she was more than a little put off by this revelation about Max. And there was something else in her eyes — disappointment. She felt a little foolish now. What her ego had told her was genuine attention from Max could just have been him thinking of her as an easy target. Perhaps she’d misread him. Maybe the only reason she’d sensed the possibilities of some kind of holiday romance with him was because he was the kind of guy who put it about a bit. Her eyes met his for a second and he blushed, embarrassed. His shame looked genuine enough to her. He was difficult to read though, this guy.

Gwen peered at the picture of the jar on her screen again, brow furrowed in confusion. “What is that?” she asked.

Dave gestured at his crotch.

“What? What is it?” Gwen repeated, making Dave laugh.

The image blinked away, replaced by the word ‘PROCESSING’.

“You have scored — zero, Max,” Alligator proclaimed.

“I honestly never bought that.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Dave teased.

“The correct answers are — one, you are still on Grade One having failed the exam seven times…”

Max shrugged indifferently as if to say ‘win some, lose some’, but Jo noticed he was still blushing.

“…two, the profile you viewed most often belongs to Jenny Phillips, whose photo albums you have viewed 234 times to date…”

“Bloody hell, stalker alert!” Gwen exclaimed.

“…three, you ordered a jar of genital wart ointment soon after returning home from your trip to Poland when you were seventeen. Summary — a dirty mind likes yours attracts disease.”

Max held both middle fingers aloft into the cabin’s thin air, hoping that Alligator could see them.

“Rumbled mate,” Dave cackled, “Nasty.” He rubbed his crotch in mock-genital discomfort. Gwen’s nose wrinkled in disgust.

Max turned to Jo and held her gaze. “I didn’t buy it,” he muttered.

Alligator’s voice boomed from the speakers once more. “Gwen. Your questions begin now.”

Now she was under the spotlight, Gwen now looked unsure about the whole thing.

“I’m not sure I want to play. It’s all getting a bit too personal,” she said.

“To reiterate, please note the rules stipulate that in order to claim any prize, the game must be played out to the very end.”

Dave leaned forward. “Come on, you were happy enough to listen to our answers, weren’t you love?”

Love?!

she thought. Being patronised by Dave was beginning to rile her, but she’d dealt with guys like him before. On and offline. Right. Instead of rising to his jibes, she decided she’d show him up and play the game. Whatever Alligator threw at her, she’d make damned sure she’d deal with it better than Dave had.

Gwen took a deep breath. Avoiding Dave’s gloating eyes, she held out her empty champagne glass, dignified as a princess. Looking smug, he refilled it.

“Yeah, yeah, all right. Go on then,” she said.

“Question one — having always been fascinated by the world of celebrity, which famous figure have you frequently been compared to by your friends on All2gethr?”

The question mark icon throbbed over the quiz show version of her profile page, above the rows of glamorous portraits of her in her photo feed. Dave took the opportunity to look Gwen over, his eyes devouring her. She tightened her silk scarf, shifting under the intensity of his tipsy gaze. She had to answer honestly to score points; she knew that from the previous rounds. Gwen thought hard and took a breath before responding.

“Hmmm… Kylie Minogue?”

She flashed a prim smile at the others, as though daring them to mock her. They remained silent.

“Question two — can you identify the young man in this picture?”

Another progress wheel span, before giving way to a snapshot of a mousey-looking teenage boy wearing school uniform.

A class portrait.

Gwen peered closely at the picture. “No, I don’t think so…”

“Yeah, yeah…” Dave said.

“No, I genuinely don’t recognise him.”

“Question three — who is ‘Guardian_Angel’?”

Gwen groaned, ran her fingers through her fringe, rattled.

“What is it?” Jo asked.

“Gwen?” Alligator prompted.

“All right, all right… She’s me. It’s just a username I use sometimes.”

‘PROCESSING’ appeared on-screen.

“Score — one out of a possible three.”

“Boo!” Max said, giving the thumbs down jokingly. Dave chuckled.

Jo looked a little relieved to hear Gwen’s score. Not so perfect after all, she thought.

“One — the celebrity you have been most frequently compared to is Katy Brooks, the glamour model…”

Dave wolf-whistled noisily over Gwen’s groans of embarrassment.

“…because of the eating disorder you developed when you were fifteen.”

Gwen looked horrified, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. Alligator’s words were like knives, pricking away at her thin armour of defiance. She wanted to disappear into the layers of her clothing now, shrink away so no one could see her anymore. Gwen had spent most of her teenage years feeling that way, seeing herself looking so disgustingly obese in the mirror each morning and every night, no matter how many times she made herself sick…

“Two — the boy in the picture is Neil Harris,” Alligator continued, “You joined an All2gethr page dedicated to tormenting him when you were in school.”

Dave’s jaw dropped. “And I thought you were such a nice girl.”

“That was a long time ago,” Gwen said, eyes glistening wet now.

“Three — you answered correctly. ‘Guardian_Angel’ is your moderator username on the All2gethr Helping Hands counselling forum.”

“You’re a counsellor?” Jo asked, a note of surprise in her voice.

Gwen nodded uncomfortably, wiping her eyes and toying with her fringe again.

“Summary — you are a hypocrite, because you should take a little of your own advice before preaching to others,” Alligator concluded.

“He’s right there…” Dave muttered.

He had clearly hit a nerve. Mortified, Gwen stared at her lap. So much for showing Dave how the game was played — she felt as though she’d endured a whipping.

The Alligator’s voice continued, upbeat as ever.

“That concludes Round One. Remember, some amazing prizes are up for grabs. Thank you all for playing along.”

Ding ding

. The animated grinning green face faded away from their screens.

But for the steady drone of the jet engines an uncomfortable, leaden silence had descended on the cabin.

Six

Max was the first to break the tension that had clouded the cabin.

“Cheers!” he exclaimed, raising his glass.

The response from the others was subdued. The party atmosphere had been well and truly depressurised by Alligator’s opening Round.

“Come on guys, you know it’s just a game,” Max continued, “It’s obviously meant to challenge us.”

“Not sure I want to play another round like that to be honest,” Jo said, “That was way out of line.”

Gwen sighed, reclining her seat. “These prizes had better be really bloody good.”

Max nodded, smiling in agreement. “I guess we have to ‘pay to play’.”

“I’d like to know where they got that photo from,” Dave grumbled, “I definitely didn’t put that on my profile, I know that much.”

“Bet you didn’t,” Max teased. Dave tried his best to ignore the comment.

“They’ve really done their homework on us, haven’t they?” Jo said.

“Got to be in it to win it. Let’s have another drink, yeah?” Max rose and strolled over to the bar.

Popping the cork of another bottle of champagne, he filled fresh glasses and handed them out.

“Not for me thanks,” Jo said, “Is there any water?”

“You sure?” Max said.

“Please.”

Max found some bottles of mineral water. “Sparkling or still Madam?” he said, emulating Dave’s waiter act.

“Sparkling,” Jo replied.

The bottle hissed as Max twisted the cap off. He handed the mineral water to Jo.

She took it gratefully, and hoped he wasn’t somehow disappointed in her. She remembered how much of a stick-in-the-mud she’d felt when she’d first gone out with her friends while on the wagon. After that she’d started making her excuses and it had only taken a little while for them to stop inviting her out at all. Any pride Jo had about not drinking was tempered by the feeling that sobriety had made a social outcast of her. Watching Max offer more drinks to the others, she hoped the same thing wouldn’t happen here on the flight. He was so determined to get the party started again and she began to think that maybe she was a stick-in-the-mud after all. Perhaps I should take his advice, thought Jo, ‘got to be in it to win it’.

“Gwen? Go on…”

Max held out a fresh glass of champagne, beaming. Gwen accepted the glass from him with a flirtatious smile. She took a sip and looked up at Dave, who was standing and stretching his legs by his seat.

Jo watched Gwen, disapproving of the way she was clearly trying to play the two men off each other. In particular, Jo could not deny the fact that she didn’t like how Gwen was flirting with Max. Despite the revelations of the quiz game, Jo felt Max was a genuine, stand-up kind of guy. Knowing that Gwen was a counsellor meant that she knew how to manipulate people. Given half the chance, she’d surely take advantage of Max’s kind nature. Buck yourself up girl, Jo thought. How many times had her own rehab counsellor warned her that low self-esteem had triggered her drinking problems? Jo had lost count. She vowed to herself not to fall into that trap again.

A mischievous look crept across Gwen’s face. “So, Dave… tell us about getting… down there pierced?” she ventured.

Dave tried to hide his surprise at Gwen’s ribald question, but only succeeded in bumping his head on the plane’s curved ceiling. He clutched his bald spot painfully, cursing under his breath. Laughter filled the cabin once more.

“It was… yeah it was great,” Dave replied, still wincing from the blow to his head, “Until one got infected. Hurt like hell!”

More riotous laughter rocked the cabin.

“Nasty,” Max whispered. He was looking delighted that the mood had lifted.

“So I had one removed,” Dave continued.

Jo’s eyes widened. “Ball!?”

“Piercing — Prince Albert.”

“Oh…”

Dave approached Gwen, unzipping his jeans, towering over her. “Wanna see?”

Max laughed and smacked Dave’s butt playfully, like a jockey lashing a racehorse.

“Yeah! Let’s see some of the hard stuff!”

Gwen winced. “No, no I’m all good, thanks.”

“Well stop going on about it then!” Visibly annoyed, Dave turned and stomped to the bar.

“Dave?” Gwen’s voiced wavered. She looked shocked by his sudden change in mood.

He ignored her, opening a bottle of whiskey. He poured a sizeable measure into a glass tumbler.

“All right mate?” Max said, looking up at him.

Dave downed his drink in brooding silence and poured another.

Jo knelt on her seat, head resting against the cool glass of the window. Peering out into the night sky, she watched the wing lights blink amidst cloud vapour like the beam of a lighthouse in thick fog.

The fizzy water had finally begun to offset the effects of the champagne. Her head had cleared a little and she felt at peace gazing out of her little porthole. Just then, a momentary flash of lightning caught her eye, way off in the distance. Thunder rumbled faintly over the drone of the engines.

“Atlantic’s meant to be clear.”

Jo was thinking aloud, her voice barely more than a whisper.

Slumped back in his reclined seat, another large whiskey in hand, Dave shrugged.

“So?”

Jo looked over her shoulder at him. “I checked the weather, you know… before the flight.”

Gwen looked nervous, swallowing hard. “And?”

“And it’s meant to be clear.”

Dave shrugged again, bullish. “Bloody weather men, always get it wrong.” He got up, groaning and stretching, and headed to the bar. Glasses and bottles clinked as he rummaged around, looking for something.

“What are you doing?” Gwen asked. His rummaging was putting her nerves even more on edge.

“Looking for something to eat. You’d think there would at least be some bloody bar snacks on this plane. Bet the business travellers don’t have to ask twice, know what I mean?”

No-one answered. Dave gave up his search with a grunt of frustration and poured himself yet more whiskey.

“Probably left food out of the equation deliberately,” Max said, watching Dave commit further crimes against his liver.

“How’s that?” Dave asked, his speech slightly slurred.

“Get us into the games more quickly,” Max replied, “Lots of booze, empty stomachs…”

“You seem to know quite a bit about it.”

Dave’s statement sounded like an accusation. The whiskey was evidently making the big man surly. Max fell quiet.

Hearing another distant rumble of thunder, Jo turned her attention back to the window. She arched her hands over her forehead to block out the glare of the interior lights. Squinting out into the blackness, another flash of lightning revealed the swirling shapes of storm clouds gathering.

Huge dark forms, like black ships rolling in toward their fragile little island in the sky.

Seven

“Please take your seats. It is time for Round Two.” Alligator’s voice echoed around the jet.

“Any fucking food on this boat?” Dave said, stomach gurgling in concert with his needs, hunger churning the lake of champagne and spirits in his tummy.

The monitor screens flickered to life once more, the Alligator regarding them with his black-slitted eyes.

“Dinner, and desserts, will be served upon arrival at your destination,” Alligator said.

“What about a bag of peanuts while we’re waiting, eh? I’m bloody starving.”

Dave rubbed his ample beer belly and licked his lips.

“I’m famished too mate,” Max said.

“Me too,” Jo said, “I skipped breakfast I was so excited about the flight.”

Dave looked over at Gwen, who clearly did not want to discuss food.

“What about some pretzels then?” Dave ventured.

Only the throb of the jet engines replied.

“Tight bastards.”

The Alligator’s face faded from view, replaced by ‘ROUND 2: KISS AND TELL’ displayed in large pink letters against a lurid backdrop of cascading love hearts.

Dave grinned at Jo, licking his lips. “That’s more like it! Kiss and tell. Nice.”

“I guess we aren’t getting off the hook that easily,” Jo said, frowning.

The display dissolved to a rapid montage of webcam video clips. Dozens of faces appeared one after the other on the screens.

“Millions of All2gethr users are online twenty-four-seven,” Alligator continued, “They share their interests, their passions, their ambitions and dreams…”

People of all ages, races and sexes were shown on-screen, peering into their webcams in offices, bedrooms and lounges the world over.

“For some, it is a place to wear disguises, for others it is the only place they can truly reveal themselves…”

The montage drew to a close, holding on the image of a pretty teenage girl. She stared sullenly into her webcam, teenage Emo band idols on the bedroom wall behind her. Tears had made her black kohl eyeliner run in dark rivers down her cheeks.

Jo peered closer at her screen. The image seemed familiar somehow, but she couldn’t quite place it. Where had she seen that girl before? Jo got the feeling it had been in a music video somewhere. Then the image cut off abruptly, replaced by the Alligator’s rictus grin.

“In this round we are going to find out what you are all like — behind closed doors,” he said.

Dave returned his seat to its upright position. He looked worse for wear, still slugging whiskey from the tumbler. Something resembling apprehension moved across his face. Gwen stretched her arms and ruffled her hair, listening intently to the Alligator’s voice.

A pop-up video window replaced their host’s grinning green face. Grainy hand-held footage was now playing out along with a distorted, echoing audio track.

A figure in torn dirty clothes was on his knees in a dingy cell. A plastic sandbag had been pulled over his head, obscuring his face completely. The terrible whimpering, pleading sounds coming from within the bag were testament to just how terrified he was. The camera tilted and moved, revealing a group of men standing around him, dressed in combat fatigues and balaclavas. They were taking turns to brutally punch and kick the man, some of them gesturing into the camera lens with devil horns and gang signs. As the men goaded their terrified captor, another of their number approached carrying a large gun. Cocking the weapon, he pushed the barrel against the hostage’s forehead.

BANG.

Blood and brain matter exploded from the ruptured sandbag, splashing against the cell wall. The men roared, triumphant, as their victim slumped like a broken doll to the hard stone floor, a dark pool spilling from his head all around him.

“What the actual fuck?” Max said, glancing around at the others.

They looked as shocked as he was and yet, like him, could not tear their eyes away from the footage.

“Jo. You recognise this video.” Alligator’s voice was smooth as silk, heavy as a brick. He was not asking her a question, merely making a statement of fact.

Jo shook her head slightly, mouth shut tight.

“Please answer verbally.”

He can see me, thought Jo, bastard is watching us.

“No, I…”

“That’s not altogether true is it?”

“I… don’t remember.”

The video window snapped closed, the display changing to a list of data. Hundreds of web addresses scrolled up the screen.

“I find that hard to believe,” Alligator countered.

The scrolling stopped and an address, a series of numbers with a secure ‘https://’ prefix, was highlighted.

“You watched this video two months ago. On Tuesday the fifteenth at 22:17 hours, to be precise.”

The list of web data began to scroll again, then stopped abruptly. Another secure web address line was highlighted on the screens.

“You watched it again the following morning at 11:53 hours. You then sent the link to five of your friends in a personal message.”

Jo glanced at the others, incensed at the intrusion into her privacy.

They all looked as disturbed as she did that a stranger could access her web history like this, so easily. But there was something else in their eyes — something accusatory.

“Look, I don’t remember okay? I see a lot of crap online…”

She knew how feeble her words sounded, how hollow an excuse for her voyeurism. Her mouth was bone dry again. The bottle of whiskey was still on Dave’s table, inches away.

“What did your message say? When you forwarded it to your friends?”

Jo fell silent, eyelids blinking rapidly, tongue licking at her dry lips.

“I’ll repeat the question.”

“I don’t remember, Jesus!

Gwen smacked her teeth at Jo’s careless invocation of the Lord’s name.

Jo glared at her, eyes daring her to say something.

Just then, an email window popped up on their screens.

“Well then, let’s take a look.”

Jo and the others peered at the email header, reading the words.

‘OMG THIS IS SOOO NASTY — WATCH TIL THE END!!’

“I didn’t send that,” Jo said in a low voice.

“Then who did?” Alligator asked.

Dave, Gwen and Max all looked at Jo. She lowered her eyes, falling silent again.

“Why did you send the video Jo? Why did you watch it? Was it enjoyable, seeing a man killed before your eyes?”

Alligator’s voice had become clipped, carnivorous.

“No. No, of course it wasn’t.”

“But you watched it again and again, didn’t you? Again and again…”

Jo balled her hand into a fist and slammed it into the armrest of her chair.

“I was just curious, alright!? I thought it was fake!”

The others looked back at her uncomfortably. Gwen raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t you all look at me like you haven’t watched stuff like that as well. People do it all the time,” Jo spat. She’d had enough of Alligator’s ‘games’.

“It’s okay,” Max, his voice a soothing balm by comparison with the Alligator’s.

“I’m sorry, but it’s nothing new. People were turning up to watch executions thousands of years before the web existed.”

Dave opened his mouth to speak. Jo stood up, cutting him off.

“What kind of game is this anyway?” she said.

Dave tapped at his monitor grimly, the display showing the words ‘KISS AND TELL’.

“This is getting too unpleasant mate, we’re not playing along anymore,” Max said to the Alligator.

“If you opt out, you forfeit the prizes. Forfeit — or prizes, the choice is yours,” the creature replied.

The passengers exchanged glances. Jo’s face was still flushed with anger. Screw the prizes, thought Jo, I just want off this plane. Wish I’d never come. Should’ve stayed with Sophie… She watched the others. Dave and Max looked at each other, then Gwen, who pursed her lips. In Jo’s eyes, they all looked like they wanted to play along, no matter what came out in the process.

“If you all care about it that much then go ahead,” Jo sighed. She fixed her gaze on the window and the distant storm clouds gathering outside.

Gwen sensed Jo’s discomfort at the personal aspect of Alligator’s games and shared it, even. In the back of her head, however, her father’s voice echoed, warning her to do this and not to do that. His well-meaning control had stymied her personal growth all her life and she’d often found herself wishing she could have upped and left like Emily did. But now she was partaking in something that even her wild-child sister could only dream of. Her first flight, and she was aboard a private jet, destined for a champagne reception in New York — the halcyon heart of the fashion industry she was so eager to break in to. For Gwen, playing on in Alligator’s games meant something more than just the chance to win prizes. It meant she was finally taking risks. Being on this plane was all the rollercoaster rides she had been denied as a child rolled into one. And there was an element of danger to Alligator’s strange games that she found disturbing, yes, but also kind of liberating. She was usually a dab hand at online tests. She could ace this one — perform better than she had in the first Round.

Alligator’s voice boomed, rousing her from her thoughts. “Gwen?”

“Yes?”

“Do you recognise this?”

A garish web application popped up on the screens — the salacious text and imagery of an online ‘sex personality’ test.

“You recently completed this, another in a long line of online tests.”

“Yes, so?” Gwen’s voice was steely, indignant.

“The test was entitled ‘what kind of lover are you?’ So — what kind of lover are you?”

Dave’s eyes lit up. “Oh yes, do tell…”

“I’ll repeat the question…” Alligator prompted.

“Okay, okay. I think the test said I was a ‘kinky lover’.”

“Knew it! Always the quiet ones,” Dave smirked at Max, who made a whiplash sound, and mimed the crack of a whip.

“It was just a silly test Dave, something to pass the time,” Gwen protested.

“The test was wrong though… wasn’t it?” Alligator said.

“Well, I’m not that… kinky if that’s what you mean?”

“Your answers gave you that result. But you lied on part of the test, didn’t you?”

“I don’t know. I wasn’t taking it that seriously.”

“It was question four. Do you remember question four?

“Of course I don’t.”

“Question four was: ‘How many people have you slept with?’“

“That’s none of your business.”

“None of my business? Yet you filled out on online test with this information and posted it on your public profile.”

Gwen cleared her throat, looking uncomfortably around the cabin.

“You are happy to have people think you are a ‘kinky lover’ but you are ashamed of telling the truth.” Alligator paused. “How many people have you slept with, Gwen?

“I said that’s none of your business!” Gwen replied, anger seeping into her voice.

“Tenner says she’s had loads,” Dave mock-whispered.

Gwen threw him a threatening look. His comment was almost too much to bear and Alligator’s question was proving too personal. Maybe her bravado about the game had been misguided after all. She would much rather talk publicly about anything other than sex. Even her teenage eating problems would have been preferable to this line of questioning, at least she had conquered and compartmentalised those. If nothing else, her experiences with body image had made her a better counsellor. But discussing her sexual self was a different matter. It was hers and hers only — she enjoyed the ability the online world gave her to create a persona and keep people guessing about the ‘real’ Gwen Rhys.

“Gwen?” Alligator pressed.

She felt compelled to answer, to show them all she wasn’t ashamed, but the words dried up in her mouth and she fell silent.

“Okay Gwen, let me help you out,” Alligator said, “You post in a lot of forums, but this one you post on an average of five to fifteen times per week.”

The screens lit up with a clean, white Internet forum page. The page was framed with an austere logo, which read ‘VIRTUE REALITY’.

Dave’s eyes darted across the page, scanning the text, amazed. “Virtue Reality? ‘Abstinence is next to Godliness…’ Ha!”

Gwen was fuming.

“Your avatar depicts a white rose and your username is ‘Cherrybomb’,” Alligator continued, “so, ‘Cherrybomb’ — how many people have you slept with?”

Gwen was now too embarrassed to even look the others in the eye, especially Dave, who was smirking from behind his monitor screen.

“None,” Gwen said, quietly.

A sobering silence descended over the winners and the smirk fell from Dave’s face.

“How do they know all this?” Gwen whispered to Max.

“We all hide behind usernames, behind our avatars,” Alligator said, as if in answer to her question, “But everywhere you go, everything you watch, download, upload, do and say online is logged and stored.”

The winners exchanged uneasy looks, a tense hush descending inside the cabin.

“A trail of information, freely available to those who want it,” their host continued, “In fact, I’m looking at read-outs of every single webpage you have all visited over the last few months. It makes for surprising reading…”

Dave squirmed in his seat, locking both hands around one of his knees defensively. “That’s bollocks. You can’t see all that. Data Protection Act mate.”

The monitor screens flickered, as a data stream showing hundreds of web addresses scrolled across each of them.

“Really? Shall we see how well-protected it is?” Alligator asked. “Dave, just two days ago, you visited a site hosted in Japan. The contents of the streaming videos were depraved and despicable. Some of your favourite titles include ‘Two Girls and a Horse’…”

At this, Max looked highly amused — then quickly stifled his laughter as Alligator went on, thinking better of making a joke about it.

“‘Too Young to Run’, ‘Bukkake Prom 4’…”

Dave looked aghast as Jo shook her head in disgust and Gwen lowered her eyes.

“Shall I go on?” Alligator asked.

Dave shook his head silently.

“Please answer the question verbally. Shall I go on?”

“No,” Dave said, subdued. He looked at the others, “I didn’t…”

Dave’s voice faltered. Guilt was etched in his expression and he knew it. There was no point in denying it; he’d watched those videos. But only because he’d stumbled across them while surfing for the kind of thing Sarah would never do for him. Any real man would admit to being bored of the ‘traditional’ stuff and anyway, his teammates watched far worse than he did. It didn’t make them criminals; it just made them honest in his eyes. And didn’t a healthy appetite for online porn keep men satisfied and on the straight-and-narrow in real life? Dave certainly thought so. The Internet offered him all of the pleasures he could indulge in, with none of the guilt.

“Did you consider the ages of the girls in the videos, Dave?” Alligator’s tone was accusatory, a quiet assault echoing the transgressions of Dave’s videos. “Did you think about that at all? Or did you watch them because of that? Would you care to tell us the title of the video you watched a total of four times that very same evening?”

“I don’t remember.”

Dave leaned forward, perched on the edge of his seat, looking up into the ceiling as though the Alligator was perched upon the roof of the plane above them.

“This is the world wide web you’re talking about mate! I don’t put that stuff out there; anyone can stumble across it… Listen, I pay my taxes, I pay for my Internet connection. And in the privacy of my own home I can watch whatever the hell I like!”

Jo shook her head, moved to the rear of the cabin again, distancing herself from Dave’s presence.

“I’m not a fucking pervert, alright? I didn’t…”

Dave’s voice trailed off. He changed tack, looking to Max for support.

“Max, you look at porn, right?”

“Do not bring me into this mate,” Max countered.

“Oh cheers! You’re a Saint now are you? You definitely do…”

“You don’t even know me.”

“Bollocks, everyone here has looked at something they shouldn’t have in the past. What about you Jo? That execution video?”

Jo glared at him. “Don’t bring me into this either.”

“We all bloody well saw it,” Dave countered, “Anyone who says they haven’t looked at dodgy stuff is a fucking liar!”

He fidgeted in his seat, his agitation palpable.

“Am I right, or am I right?”

No one answered him. No one’s disagreeing with me either, thought Dave, not even Cherry bloody Bomb over there. So why am I the bad guy here all of a sudden?

He unclipped his safety belt. “Fuck this for a game of soldiers.”

“What are you doing?” Jo asked, as Dave stormed to the front of the plane.

He paused at the curtain.

“I want to speak to the pilot,” Dave said, before striding through to the cockpit door.

Eight

Dave banged his fists against the unyielding cockpit door. The red glow from the LED light illuminated his face, accentuating his rage. He’d had enough, more than enough, of their host’s games and accusations.

“Open the door!” he yelled, phlegm rattling in the back of his throat. “Open the bloody door!”

Only mocking silence answered him. He turned his attention to the numerical keypad mounted on the wall next to the door. How difficult could it be? The factory default for anything electronic was 1-2-3-4; any fool knew that. He keyed in the numbers.

Nothing.

“Please return to your seat Dave,” Alligator boomed.

Dave tried more random numbers, little keys beeping as he pressed them with his sweaty fingers. Still nothing. He took a step back from the door, then raised one foot and kicked at it, hard.

“Return to your seat Dave,” repeated Alligator. “This is your final warning.”

“Who’s in there? Open this door!”

He kicked again, but the door would not budge.

Gwen watched from her seat. “Why won’t they answer?” she asked, concerned.

The monitor screens flickered with digital noise as Dave stormed back into the cabin.

“It’s fucking locked,” he fumed, “no-one will answer me.”

Jo shook her head.  “They’re not going to answer with you banging on the door like that are they?”

The on-screen digital noise flickered and bent, distorted, before eventually clearing to reveal the Alligator’s face. His voice followed, as cold as ice.

“As Dave has broken the rules and ignored my clear instructions, I have no choice but to initiate a forfeit.”

“A forfeit? Oh no!” Dave exclaimed in mock terror, “Do I look like I give a crap? I’m not playing your little game anymore…”

Alligator continued, oblivious. “One of Dave’s friends will now be selected from his All2gethr friend list.”

Dave’s profile appeared on all their screens, his list of friends in the familiar sidebar to the left of the page. A lot of little faces and names, scrolling up across the screen. Panting, Dave watched as the scrolling stopped. The name of one of his friends was highlighted — RORY. A window popped up, opening Rory’s profile page.

“What the hell is he doing?” Dave muttered under his breath.

The others looked on in silence as the screens filled with flickering digital glitches. A ghost-image of the Alligator’s yapping face flashed in and out of view. Then a video window appeared, a cursor blinking in the top left corner next to the words ‘LIVE FEED’.

Shaky video camera footage revealed an image of a suburban house. Whoever was operating the camera walked up the path to the rear of the house, panning the lens into a side window for a quick view of the living room. The room was lit by a large flat-screen television, muffled sounds of incendiary warfare coming from the speakers. Rory sat in front of the screen, his back to the window. He was wearing an online gaming headset, engrossed in a violent first-person shooter game and blissfully unaware of the camera-wielding intruder. The camera sailed past the window and arrived at the back door.

Alligator spoke again. “Let’s pay your friend Rory a little visit, shall we Dave?”

Dave laughed in disbelief. “Whatever, go ahead mate, knock yourself out.”

“Very well then,” Alligator said.

The long, thick double barrels of a shotgun came into view on the screen, held by the black leather-gloved hand of the cameraman. The gloved hand pushed at the door handle. It was unlocked. The intruder pushed the gun against the door and it swung open.

The sounds of video game carnage grew louder as the gunman entered the house, still filming. A pizza box lay open on the kitchen table, empty. Following the sound of the videogame gunfire and explosions, the gunman exited the kitchen into a small hallway. The living room door was on the left, ajar.

Smash.

Rory looked up at the camera, stunned, as his assailant burst into the room. He raised a hand, defensively, still clutching the game controller.

Slam.

The shotgun butt came down hard on his forehead, blood spurting from the impact wound.

“Oh God,” Jo whispered, inches from her monitor screen.

The assailant placed a booted foot into Rory’s chest, pinioning him to the sofa, then rammed the shotgun barrels into his gaping mouth. The camera lens whirred, joining the hellish cacophony of Rory’s video game. Rory’s terrified eyes filled the screen as the camera zoomed in on his face. He tried to scream.

Bang!

Both barrels fired. What was left of Rory’s head slumped sickly onto the headrest of the sofa, his blood spattered all over the wall.

Gwen shrieked in horror.

The camera footage skittered, turned to digital noise, then snuffed out.

Dave looked stunned for a moment. Then, perversely, he laughed — a dry guttural sound.

“Bollocks! That wasn’t real.”

“Looked pretty real to me mate…” Max said, his face drained of colour.

“It’s a wind-up,” Dave countered, “Rory is in on it. That was pretty well done though, fair play.”

Jo watched Dave from her seat. He didn’t look entirely convinced by his own words.

He started slow clapping, looking around the cabin as though the alligator was an invisible presence enveloping them.

“Bravo!” he laughed, “What is this? Some reality TV rubbish?”

“Now that the forfeit is completed, let’s get back to the game shall we?” Alligator said, his voice bone dry.

Jo glanced at Max, who was tapping at his touch screen intently.

“What are you doing?” she asked, her voice loaded with worry.

Max gestured at her to be quiet, tapping at his screen.

Jo got up from her seat and crept over to his side, peering into his monitor. He had loaded up his profile page and was trying to log in to All2gethr Chat.

Each attempt was met with a pop-up error message, which read ‘ADMINISTRATOR ACCESS ONLY’.

Alligator’s reproachful voice boomed through the cabin. “Having fun Max?”

Max abandoned the Chat button, tapping the All2gethr E-mail button instead.

‘ADMINISTRATOR ACCESS ONLY’ appeared once again on Max’s screen.

He growled in frustration, hitting the screen with his fist.

“Chat, mail, everything — it’s all blocked!”

Gwen tapped at the All2gethr logo on her touch screen, loaded up her profile page, trying her email. The same admin error message popped up, blocking her.

“No, don’t,” Jo pleaded, “You’ll just piss him off!”

This was a red rag to a bull for Dave, who swivelled his monitor around and, still standing up, tried to access his mail. Just as he was about to tap the email log-in button, all their screens went blank.

“Max has breached the rules by attempting to contact people regarding the game.”

Max leapt to his feet, pleading skyward. “How can using All2gethr be breaking the rules mate? That’s insane!”

“It was in the Terms and Conditions,” Alligator replied, his voice laden with officiousness.

Jo groaned and rolled her eyes.

“To make amends I’m going to have to initiate another forfeit.”

The winners glanced at each other nervously.

“Max,” Alligator continued, “is going to have to lose a friend.”

Max spluttered and ruffled his hair with his fingers in frustration. His All2gethr friend list appeared on the monitor screens, scrolling up the screen rapidly.

“My, you’ve got quite a few to choose from haven’t you Max? You probably wouldn’t notice if a trimmed a few of these people off the list…”

The list stopped scrolling at the name of one of his friends. A profile photo was there for all the passengers to see. It showed a smiling man in his twenties, not much older than Max.

“Alan Williams. He’ll do. Bear with us.”

The monitors snapped off again, black screens reflecting the taught faces of the passengers.

They all turned to Max, looking tense.

Max tried to explain. “Look I had to try something, didn’t I? Thought I could contact someone at All2gethr…”

“And what, exactly? Lodge a formal complaint?” Dave said, incredulous.

“Can’t really blame him — after what they did to your friend Rory…” Jo said.

Dave looked at her blankly. “Come on love! They’re filming this for some reality TV show, it’s just a colossal wind-up! Hello Mum!” He waved into the tiny webcam embedded in the top of the touch screen’s casing then turned back to Jo. “Listen, there are probably a million people out there, laughing their arses off at us right now!”

Jo shook her head. “Dave, shut up! It looked real to me. Really real. I think we’re in serious trouble!”

“‘Serious trouble’?” he mocked, “He’s a bloody cartoon alligator!”

Right on cue, the Alligator’s voice oozed from the speakers again.

“I’d listen to Jo if I were you. She’s the expert. She likes to watch people put to death…”

Dave snorted. “He’s got your number, love…”

Jo lowered her eyes guiltily. “Don’t you start, and if you call me ‘love’ one more time…”

“You’ll what?” Dave said.

“You’re not even worth it. We’ve all heard about the kind of filth you get off on.”

Dave’s eyes glowered at her. For a moment he looked like he might actually raise a fist, then he turned away.

“Gwen thinks it’s real, don’t you Gwen?” Alligator countered.

Gwen remained in shocked silence, body stiffly upright in her seat.

“But still you watched didn’t you?” he went on, “Turned the other cheek like a good God-fearing girl…”

“What the hell is your problem?” Max spat.

Alligator rounded on him again.

“Max. You broke the rules. It is time to catch up with your friend Alan…”

Nine

Max and the other passengers watched as their screens pulled up a video-cam feed.

This time, the cameraman was in the corridor of an office building. Drab utilitarian decor was swamped in cold light from overhead fluorescents. The intruder peered around a corner, giving the passengers a camera-eye view of the corridor ahead. He must have been wearing the device on a headset.

Alan, his face recognisable from his All2gethr profile, was a few metres away, dragging a cleaning trolley up to the closed doors of an elevator. Bottles of cleaning fluid jostled next to cloths and refuse sacks on the trolley. He yawned, scratching his head as he pushed the call button. Without warning, the assailant sped towards Alan, camera-view shaking with each stride.

Whack!

The intruder swung his weapon, a heavy baseball bat, into the backs of Alan’s legs. His victim fell to the floor, crying out in agony.

“No! No!” Alan cried, as the attacker stabbed the end of the bat hard into his face, shattering his nose.

Blood gushed from the wound and Alan wiped at it pathetically as the intruder lifted the bat again. His cries were ignored again as his assailant rained heavy blows down on his legs, sharp cracks echoing across the empty corridor.

Alan lay on the floor, writhing in agony, his face stunned and his body contorted. He tried to move, but his limbs wouldn’t work. His attacker stomped on his shoulder before shaking an object in his free hand. It rattled loudly. An aerosol can — spray paint. He then bent over Alan and sprayed something across Alan’s chest, before roughly dragging him to his feet and shoving him through an emergency exit door to the side of the elevator doors.

The door smashed open, rebounding off the wall loudly as the attacker frogmarched Alan over to a metal railing atop a stairwell. His legs now broken and useless, Alan tried helplessly to beat at his attacker with his fists as the man behind the camera shoved him against the railing, hard. Alan’s throat emitted a terrified yelping sound as the attacker grabbed his broken legs painfully and flipped him clean over the railing. There was a hideous snapping sound and the attacker peered over the edge of the railing, still filming. The gentle whir of the zoom lens accompanied the cameraman’s sharp breaths as he zoomed in on the motionless form several floors below.

Alan’s body was like a broken doll, legs splayed out either side of him, bent back on themselves in a grotesque mockery of the human form. His smashed and contorted limbs were slowly being engulfed in the growing stain of his blood. The camera whirred again as the killer zoomed in on Alan’s chest — the letters ‘ROFL’ spray-painted there.

The video feed clicked off.

Max sat in brooding silence. Dave wiped a film of sweat from his furrowed brow. Gwen made a little heaving sound from behind her hand — she looked like she might throw up.

“How could they…?” Jo struggled to find the words. “You… sick bastards!”

Grabbing the champagne bucket just in time Gwen wretched and vomited, on the rocks.

“Now I assure you that what you just witnessed is very real. Breach the rules again and I will just kill someone else. It’s time to play the game.”

Dave reached out, trying to comfort Gwen.

“Don’t touch me!” She shrugged off his hand angrily, still clutching onto the ice bucket.

“I was just trying…” Dave’s voice was like an open wound.

“Well don’t. Keep your dirty hands to yourself.”

Jo watched Dave as he retreated to the rear of the aircraft; disturbed by the violence she sensed bubbling just beneath his surface.

Max stood up, pacing the aisle and looking up at the ceiling lights.

“You just killed an innocent man in cold blood for no fucking reason,” he snarled, barely suppressing his anger.

“I disagree,” Alligator replied, as calm and matter-of-fact as ever, “You implicated your friend when you broke the rules. And I will kill plenty more ‘innocent’ people if you don’t follow them — to the letter.”

His green face grinned from the monitors. “Thank you for your kind co-operation.”

Alligator’s words hung heavy in the air as the computer displays blinked off again.

Jo took a napkin from the bar and handed it to Gwen who took it and wiped bile from her mouth. Turning to face Dave, Jo narrowed her eyes angrily.

“So you think that was faked too?”

Dave shook his head, eyes vacant. “I don’t know what to believe anymore…”

Jo approached Max, who was glancing around the cabin with an expression of pure paranoia.

“Why are they doing this… to us?” she asked. “What’s going on here?”

Max shook his head, taking deep breaths and drowning his anger in recycled oxygen. He glanced over Jo’s shoulder at the others. Gwen looked dreadful, her face pale and drawn after her ablutions. Dave seemed more on edge than ever — his clown’s facade had slipped and gone.

“Got to keep our heads…” Max whispered.

Jo nodded her silent agreement.

Blink, blink, flash.

Something beyond the darkened porthole window nearest Max caught her eye.

Jo moved toward the glass, zombie-like and numb, peering outside. Her quick breath fogged the window. Through the haze she saw distant lights, glittering in the dark beyond the clouds.

“We’re close to land,” she realised.

“What?!” Max turned sharply.

Dave and Gwen moved to the window nearest them, on the same side of the plane as Jo, peering out, curious.

“We should be over the Atlantic now. But we’re not. Look — there’s land, over there.”

“What does that mean?” Gwen asked.

Max answered. “Whatever our destination is…”

“It’s not New York,” Jo finished.

“So where are we going then?” Dave asked. “Jesus.”

They all looked to one another, mortal fear in their eyes. Alligator’s games had diverted all their focus onto the victims of their forfeits. It hadn’t occurred to them that they themselves might be in danger aboard the jet — until now.

Max turned and looked at the flat panel TV screen on the wall at the front of the plane. Maybe, just maybe, he thought. The thing had been inactive for the duration of the flight so far. He approached the screen, tapping the power button a couple of times. Dead, totally dead — yes, maybe.

His fingertips found the groove behind the screen’s casing. He pressed with his fingers, working them down into the gap, and pulled. The wall bracket moved, only a centimetre or two, but enough for him to get a purchase on it. He twisted and pulled with all his might, wrenching the bracket back out of the cavity wall. The screen tipped forward into his arms, heavy all of a sudden, and he crouched, dropping it to the floor.

Gwen looked horrified. “Don’t! You’ll piss Alligator off and he’ll…”

But Max was intent on his newfound task. “No power cable,” he said, excitement in his voice as he checked both the hole in the wall and the cable ports in the back of the TV.

“What are you doing?” Dave asked.

“This screen should show our flight path, ETA, weather systems, all that stuff…”

His eyes, sharpened with purpose, darted around the cabin and settled on Dave’s touch screen.

“The lead,” Max said.

Dave looked dumbfounded.

“Disconnect the lead,” Max clarified. “Pass it to me!”

Dave disconnected the power lead from the back of his screen and tried to hand it Max. It didn’t quite reach.

“I said don’t! You shouldn’t be doing this,” Gwen said, her voice laden with dread.

Ignoring her pleas, Max wrested the monitor from its bracket and dragged it across the floor, closer to the power cable. Still a couple of inches too far.

Dave yanked at the cable, snapping it away from its wall housing, pulling with all his might until he could plug it into the monitor. The screen fizzed into life, the Deppart Airlines logo appearing briefly before dissolving to a computer-generated map display.

“What?” Max said, as a GPS flight path marker appeared over the map, a little pixelated plane showing their position.

“Where the fuck are we?” Dave asked.

“We’re over Denmark,” Jo said.

Max nodded. “According to this we’re bound for Oslo. What the hell is in Oslo?”

Jo cut in. “All2gethr headquarters are in Oslo.”

“Why are they doing this to us?” Gwen asked, lip trembling.

“I don’t think this is All2gethr,” Max said.

“What?” Dave snapped.

“You think a social network is doing this? No, it can’t be them, can’t be.”

“Who is it then?” Dave railed on, “It’s all legit — this trip…”

“You read it in an email did you? It’s got to be legit then hasn’t it!?” Dave’s idiocy was beginning to grate with Max.

“This is their competition — we were contacted through their site, remember.”

“You think a social network is out there killing people? For what reason? Profit margins not high enough so they’ve moved into hit jobs? Snuff videos? No mate, whoever it is, it isn’t All2gethr.”

Dave shook his head in disbelief. Max looked past him at the cockpit door.

“We’ve got to get to that pilot,” Max said.

Dave looked defeated. “I bloody tried, door’s sealed tight.”

“People are dying because we broke the rules.” Gwen was now at the bar, helping herself to some chilled water. “Maybe we should just think about playing along before someone else gets hurt.”

“They can’t wipe out everybody can they? I’ve got over a thousand people on my friend list…”

“Oh, go you, Dave. This isn’t a bloody popularity contest!” Gwen shouted.

“That’s not what I…”

“Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats…”

Alligator’s voice interrupted Dave’s protest, the reptilian voice making the speakers rattle.

“It is time for Round Three.”

Ten

“Why the hell are we flying to Oslo?” Max demanded.

He was standing in the aisle next to Jo, both of them looking defiant.

“All in good time,” Alligator teased.

Gwen began to sob from her seat, pleading with them to sit down, to just do as Alligator said.

“No more,” Jo said, “We’re not playing any more.”

The speakers crackled faintly, then Alligator made his next move.

“Very well, you give me no choice but to initiate another forfeit. Let’s see…”

The touch screens flickered into life, rifling through Jo’s friend profiles. She watched in abject terror as familiar names and faces scrolled across the screen. So many innocent people.

“No!” Jo shouted. She couldn’t allow him to harm anyone.

“Then take your seats,” Alligator said as the screens flickered into life.

“Please,” Jo said to Max as she sat down.

Last man standing, Max looked around the cabin at the others — at Jo’s pleading eyes boring into his. She’ll be the death of me, that yummy mummy, Max thought as he reluctantly sat down.

The words ‘ROUND 3: DO OR DIE’ appeared on the monitor screens in front of the terrified passengers. An atmosphere of dread fell over the cabin like a dying breath.

Dave shifted uncomfortably in his seat as the animated Alligator returned to their screens.

Gwen glanced out of the dark window at the stormy night sky, biting her fingernails.

Jo and Max exchanged frightened glances — no brave faces to put on this time.

“You will each be given an assignment,” Alligator instructed. “Failure to complete your assignments will result in more deaths. I will gladly kill more of your friends if need be. Or your families.”

Blank terror fell across Jo’s face. She thought of her little Sophie and Dawn, all alone at her home. Her mind conjured screams of terror from her loved ones, and she put her hands to her ears as though to block them out.

Max looked at Jo, concerned. “And if we refuse to play along?”

“Please — don’t cross him,” Jo said.

“Finally, Jo makes a constructive comment. Better late than never…” Alligator purred.

Jo frowned. Why single her out?

“Jo, please report to the ‘diary room’.”

Puzzlement flashed across Jo’s face. She glanced at the others — they looked just as confused as she did.

“My little joke,” Alligator continued, “Please proceed to the bathroom, alone, and close the door behind you.”

Jo had witnessed enough horrors to know it was the best course of action to simply do as Alligator instructed.

She stepped into the bathroom, mental images of the shotgun blast that killed Dave’s friend Rory, Max’s pal Alan’s murderous fall from the stairwell, reminding her that their captor’s threats were far from idle. The vivid recollection of those brutal deaths heightened her anxiety. Her heart pounded as the bathroom light clicked on. Remembering Alligator’s instructions, she closed the door, sliding the lock mechanism shut.

She looked around nervously, almost jumping out of her skin as the Alligator’s sardonic face twitched into life on the big TV screen.

“Locate the headset and put it on,” Alligator demanded.

There were speakers in the bathroom too, his voice permeating every inch of the aircraft like an airborne virus.

Jo’s eyes scanned the bathroom, and then she saw it — a white and silver headset on the little ledge next to the lavatory. She picked it up and put it on, sitting down on the closed lid of the toilet. She sat facing the large TV screen projecting Alligator’s grinning face back at her.

“Can you hear me Jo?” Alligator’s voice boomed through the headset.

Piped into her ears through the headset, his sinewy tones took on an additional air of menace. It felt like he was in the close confines of the bathroom with her, a killer whispering directly into her ear. Jo shivered.

“Yes, I can hear you…” she said, nervously.

“I’m going to give you an assignment. If you arouse the suspicions of your fellow passengers, or if you fail to complete your task, then your daughter Sophie will be killed.”

A video window popped up on the screen opposite Jo.

From the fixed high-angle perspective of a security camera, she could see the tiny form of her beloved baby girl, curled up on a metal cot bed in a bare, low-lit room. Jo leaned forward, feeling for a moment like she could reach into the screen and stroke Sophie’s hair, just like she did whenever her little girl had nightmares at home.

“You bastard! What have you done with her!?” Jo sobbed.

“She is perfectly fine. See?”

“Is this live — what I’m seeing!?”

“Yes. Would you like me to wake her?”

Sophie appeared to be asleep, rough woollen blanket clutched in her little hand. She was, thankfully, fully dressed and bore no obvious signs of any violence. Better to keep it that way.

“Don’t you touch her!”

“Remain calm, Jo. No harm will come to her — as long as you do as instructed.”

Jo was seething. “I swear if you touch her…”

“Remain calm,” Alligator replied, his voice sterner than ever. “Now, I know that you aren’t the sort to take action in a crisis, so I have set you a task that requires very little effort. I want you to look on top of the little mirrored cabinet over there…”

Listening to his instructions, Jo began to feel sick to her stomach.

They all watched Jo as she returned, tearful, to her seat.  Dave looked at Gwen, whose eyes dared him to say anything. Max looked at Jo, concerned.

“What is it? What did he say?”

The others exhaled, shuffled in their seats. It was the question they all wanted to hear her answer.

Jo’s eyes glistened with tears and she shook her head feebly.

“Come on. What the hell did he say in there?” Dave asked, sounding more frightened than aggressive.

No answer came from Jo’s lips. To Dave’s dread, it was Alligator who responded.

“Dave. Please report to the bathroom.”

Dave remained rooted to his seat for a moment, torn between pressing Jo for more information and answering Alligator’s call.

Now Dave,” Alligator demanded.

Begrudgingly, Dave rose and headed for the bathroom. He paused and looked back at Jo before entering. Her face was in profile as she stared blank-eyed out of the window.

A tear trickled down her cheek; an ill omen adding to his already fearful apprehension.

Dave’s tired mind raced.

He’d locked the door behind him and put the headset on just as Alligator had instructed, sat on the closed toilet seat. The reptilian voice told Dave he had a ‘very special’ task to perform. After all he’d seen so far, after the humiliating mind games, he was feeling less than co-operative.

“And I should give a shit about your ‘task’ because…?” Dave said, glaring at the cartoon Alligator on the screen opposite him.

“Ah, you want me to twist your arm,” the Alligator preened. “Very well.”

The on-screen visual turned to digital noise for a few short seconds, before switching to another camera-eye view.

This time, the screen showed the interior of a gloomy garage. The image lurched and flickered as the cameraman took a couple of steps nearer to a figure in the centre of the garage. Dave stood up. He stepped closer to the screen so quickly that the headset was torn from his ears.

“Sarah!” he gasped.

“She can’t hear you, Romeo,” Alligator said.

Dave watched in horror as the image became clearer. Sarah was balanced precariously on a tall wooden barstool, her hands tied behind her back. Tears streamed from her terrified eyes, running over the thick gaffer tape wrapped tightly around her mouth. A noose of thick rope was tied loosely around her neck. A muffled sob escaped from her mouth as she teetered on the stool then regained her balance.

Dave had never seen her looking so distraught, so vulnerable. It chilled him to his very marrow. He recalled how carefree, how happy, she had looked in the raunchy picture text she’d sent only that morning. It felt like an age ago, seeing her like this.

“You fucking bastard! Tell me this is a set-up! You’ve had your fun, now let her go…”

He remembered the headset. It was dangling from its cord, a sick parody of Sarah and that awful noose. Dave grabbed at the headphones with sweaty hands. They slipped from his grasp as he fumbled to put them back on.

“Now, I know this is difficult for you Dave, but I want you to think about the consequences of your actions for once — perhaps for the first time in your life — because they will determine whether your fiancée lives, or dies…”

For all his flaws, for all his bad behaviour, Dave knew he loved Sarah. What the eyes don’t see won’t break the heart, he thought, I’m sorry babe, truly I am. I’ll make it all better; I won’t let them do this… Not to his Sarah. Nothing could get in the way of their wedding, the honeymoon; he had it all planned out.

And so, for once, Dave shut up — and listened.

Gwen sat in agitated silence waiting for the bathroom door to open. Jo hadn’t uttered so much as a single word since she’d emerged from Alligator’s ‘diary room’. Whatever he’d said to her in there just didn’t bear thinking about. And what could he be saying to Dave right now? Gwen had to admit to herself, she couldn’t help but thinking whatever it was, Dave had it coming — his laddish behaviour and smutty comments had been kind of fun at first. Jo seemed to be pretending to have a good time, but Gwen found her edgy mood a bit grating.

Conversely, Max seemed a little too wrapped up in himself, taking his ‘man of mystery’ persona a little too seriously for her liking. At least Dave had been game for a laugh, especially about his piercings and that bump on the head, crazy bastard. But as the game had progressed, and they’d all heard what Dave had been looking at on the web, Gwen had been given no choice but to reassess his personality — and she didn’t like her assessment, not one single bit. His clownish exterior was hiding something nasty, she felt sure of that, a strata of filth permeating his entire being.

The door clicked open, rousing her from her thoughts, and she watched as Dave emerged. To her surprise, the skin around his eyes was red raw with tears. He moved to the back of the aircraft, footsteps dragging on the floor, and leaned against the hull. Gwen craned her neck to glance back at him. He was sobbing into his shirtsleeve. Maybe she had been too harsh in her assessment of him. He was human like everybody else. She felt a little sorry for him.

Just then, Dave glanced back at her, his eyes streaming. He returned her pitying look with a hateful glower that made her break eye contact.

“Gwen. You are up next,” Alligator said.

She shuffled in her seat nervously, then gathered all her strength and walked quietly to the bathroom. Please help me God, she thought, terrified of what she might face beyond that door.

The bathroom had lost all of its earlier glamour, feeling like a cold, threatening place to Gwen now. She sat down on the closed lid of the toilet, hands trembling slightly as she place the headphones over her ears.

“Actions speak louder than words, Gwen,” Alligator intoned, “So I have something to show you.”

His grinning green face disappeared from the big TV screen opposite her, replaced by a video-feed. The camera lens view revealed a drab concrete room, like a storage unit. Audio of muffled cries kicked in over the headphones. The sound disturbed Gwen gravely. And then she froze in her seat, recognising the figure the cameraman was closing in on.

“Emily? No!”

Her sister was tied to a heavy wooden chair. Perversely, the chair was beautifully upholstered, designed for comfort, not the torture for which it was being put to use now. Emily had thick gaffer tape wrapped around her mouth, preventing her from screaming as she struggled against her bonds. The rough rope keeping her arms tight to those of the chair had broken her skin, making livid red bracelets of her wrists.

“Emily… please don’t…” Gwen pleaded.

“It is time for you to take someone else’s advice for once,” Alligator responded harshly, “So I suggest you listen closely.”

On the screen Emily bucked in her seat, terrified, as the cameraman poured petrol from a canister all over her.

“They say being burnt alive is an agonising death,” Alligator continued, matter-of-factly.

“Stop! Please stop!” Gwen sobbed.

“I will let her live only if you manage to complete one simple task…”

Gwen listened intently, her eyes widening with horror as Alligator described what his task would require of her.

Eleven

Max looked on as Gwen returned to her seat in the cabin. Her hands were shaking as she tried to wipe the torrent of tears from her face. Jo and Dave sat in stony silence, lost in whatever dark thoughts Alligator had provoked with his one-on-one ‘chats’.

Whatever it is, it isn’t insurmountable if we stick together,

Max thought, chewing on the knuckles of his right hand. He’d made a fist without realising it. They would be good for the fight if they could just operate as a team.

Max looked around at his fellow ‘team members’. Dave looked borderline psychotic; Gwen and Jo ready to top themselves. Yay, go team, Max joked to himself bitterly. He cleared his throat. Someone had to say something. Might as well face it — it was going to be him.

“Whatever’s going on, we’ve got to stick together. We can’t let them beat us, okay?”

Gwen looked at him with swollen eyes. She looked like she was trying her best to believe his words. Jo avoided his gaze, however, staring at the floor with a guilty look. Dave just shook his head, troubled, taking no solace from Max’s words of encouragement.

“Max. You’re next,” Alligator boomed.

Max stayed stubbornly where he was. Jo glanced up at him, nervous, as he remained sat in his seat.

Dave let out a pained sigh. “Look mate, just fucking go will you?”

Max looked to Gwen for support, finding only regret in her eyes.

Outvoted, Max tousled his hair, headed for the bathroom — and prepared for the worst.

He sees me, thought Max.

The Alligator’s face looked somehow more sardonic in the close confines of the bathroom. Its computer-generated skin and white-fanged sanguinary smile were reflected in the glass of the shower cubicle, the chrome of the taps and the mirror above the sink. Reptilian forms multiplying into a legion of reflected orange eyes, their black slits watching Max from every possible angle within the cloying, clinical space.

Max glanced at his own reflection in the mirror. He could tell Alligator his secret, right now — throw a spanner in the workings of his twisted game. He rehearsed the revelation in his head, his methodical mind mapping possible outcomes if he were to utter the words. Perhaps it would it be better to wait, until he had no other option. And what if their captor already knew — what then?

“I have a very special assignment for you.”

Alligator’s voice penetrated Max’s ears. It felt like the reptile was burrowing through the headphones into his very thoughts.

“Failure to complete it will result in the death of Mike, your brother…”

Max glared at the Alligator on the screen, then looked up at the mirror again.

He sees me,

thought Max, but he doesn’t know me.

The engines droned on, sounding louder than ever, the winners rooted to their seats in dread contemplation. Dave’s eyes darted across the cabin as Jo got up out of her seat suddenly and marched across to the bar area. She turned her back on him as she leaned her hands on the bar, glasses and bottles twinkling in the bar’s built-in mood lighting.

Jo and Dave looked over at the bathroom door as it burst open. Max swayed back into the cabin, tight-lipped. Gwen sat still in her seat, grimacing as the computer screens flickered to life again with the Alligator’s face grinning at them, all white teeth.

“Now that you all have your personal assignments,” he announced, “you have forty five minutes to complete them.”

Max stopped in his tracks, whirling around to look at the monitor nearest to him.

The Deppart Airlines flight path map appeared on their screens, little aeroplane icon showing their position relative to the European landmass.

“As you have already deduced, this plane is bound for Oslo,” Alligator stated casually, “Where your journey will end as you crash into the All2gethr.com headquarters…”

Shock and disbelief resonated around the cabin, all colour drained from the passengers’ faces.

“What the hell…?” Max began.

Alligator’s voice betrayed no sign of any emotion. “You will all die, along with everyone in the building.”

“No, no, no! Wait, please don’t do this — you don’t have to do this!”

Jo grabbed hold of her monitor screen, fingernails scraping against the artificial warmth of its plastic casing.

Gwen looked punch-drunk, leaning against the arm of her chair, head reeling.

“This isn’t real… it’s just a game… just a game…” she murmured, her voice trailing off into silent terror.

The plane lurched, losing altitude in a pocket of air, and Gwen cried out in fear.

They each caught their breath as the jet righted itself with a discernable whine of its engines.

“That sinking feeling,” Alligator quipped.

Dave’s face was red with rage. “Listen you prick, this joke stops now! Right now!”

“On the contrary Dave, ‘this joke’ starts now.” The Alligator sounded on the verge of laughter, enjoying himself. “Are we having fun yet?”

Max shook his head in abject frustration, before dropping his head into his hands.

Gwen glanced across at him, seeing the tears he was trying so desperately to hide. But there was no room to hide such things in the brightly lit confines of the tiny jet. Gwen began to cry too, despair seeping from her eyes.

“Hold it together, please!” Jo said.

She clenched her fists, pushing her arms down each side of her body. It was the only physical act of control left to her. Raising her head to the ceiling, she shouted at Alligator.

“You can’t do this! What about my baby girl? What about…”

Dave regarded her with an impatient look. “Banging on about your kid again. You think that just because you’ve got a daughter, we’ve got less at stake than you?”

Jo’s voice faltered. His words were harshly spoken, but true. They all had someone special to lose from their friend list. Her thoughts turned to Maddie. The last she’d heard of her sister, via a collect call to Dawn, she was in Thailand. Jo hoped she was safe. She should be — Maddie was possibly the only human being alive not to be an All2gethr user. Hell, she didn’t even own a mobile phone.

“Nothing can save you now,” Alligator said, as calm, firm and clear as an onboard safety announcement. “But you do have a chance to save your loved ones’ lives. Discuss your assignments and they will die. Fail your assignments and they will die. Complete your assignments successfully, to the letter, and they will live. You each have your instructions. No conferring.”

The screens fizzed with digital noise, distorting the Alligator’s jaws into a vile gash, before snapping off again. His words hung in the main cabin like a sickness, their weight bearing down on the frayed sanity of the passengers.

“What do we do now?”

Jo looked around the cabin in panic. Dave fixed her with a look, catching a glimpse of guilt in her eyes as she looked away.

“What choice do we have?” he asked, “We have to do what we’re told don’t we? Or else…”

“Why me, what have I done to anybody?” Gwen sobbed.

“Why any of us?”

Dave’s question was loaded at Jo. That flash of guilt in her eyes was the real thing; he hadn’t imagined it. What was she up to?

Jo shifted her weight from one foot to the other, feeling Dave’s gaze bearing down upon her.

“What did he say to you, in there?” he asked, his voice lowered but pregnant with accusation.

“Nothing.”

“Rubbish. You’ve been acting weird since you came out of the bathroom. What did he say?”

Dave closed in on Jo, intent on an answer. She turned her back on him, leaning on the bar again for support, a sea of alcohol inches from her nose. Dave grabbed her wrist, pulled her arm forcing her to face him.

“Get off!” Jo wrestled free from his grasp, rubbing her wrist. “Keep away from me, you have no idea what I’ve got at stake.”

“We all have,” Dave said, “If you’ve got the impression that I don’t care about my fiancée, then you’re dead wrong!” Rage crept into the blacks of his eyes.

Jo swallowed. She’d seen anger like his before, been on the receiving end of a man’s uncontrollable temper — never again.

“He’s got my little girl,” she protested, her voice choked with emotion, “She’s just a baby…”

Jo’s eyes filled with tears.

Dave glared at her coldly, as if assessing her feelings and checking they were genuine.

“No, no, no, no!” Gwen made a fist around her scarf, tugging at it in frustration. “We shouldn’t even be talking about this, don’t you see? He said no conferring.”

Dave ignored her wild eyes. “He said we can’t reveal our tasks, that’s all.”

His eyes bore into Jo’s again. “What did he say?”

Jo slowly shook her head in defiance. “Nothing,” she snarled.

“Bollocks! I don’t trust you.”

Jo took a step back from Dave’s sweaty bulk. Then it struck her.

“You know what I think? You’ve got something to hide and you’re trying to cover up by pointing the finger at me.”

Gwen tried to be the voice of reason. “Guys, please, we should be thinking about how we can get of this…”

Engrossed in their argument, they didn’t notice Max retreat quietly to the crew prep area behind the curtain.

Max bit down on his lip as his eyes scanned the little metal cupboard compartment doors. It had to be there somewhere. He looked again, and saw it, high up above the others. Recalling Alligator’s grim words in the bathroom, Max reached out and popped the catch on the metal door. It read: ‘EMERGENCY USE ONLY’.

Back in the cabin, Dave’s mood had escalated. He looked desperate, cornered by Gwen and Jo who were both trying to reason with him, to make sense of their predicament. But Dave could only see as far as his own concern for Sarah.

“We’re rats in a cage here!” he yelled. “We are fucked! And if we don’t play by his rules, a lot of people we know will be too!”

Jo levelled her gaze. “You give up if you want. But I for one am not dead yet…”

Max burst through the dividing curtain, back into the cabin, with an angry roar.

Jo and the others recoiled.

Max was brandishing an emergency crash axe, swinging it above his head like a berserker charging into battle.

Bang!

He smashed the heavy metal blade into Gwen’s touch screen. It broke away from the cabin wall, showering Jo and the others in sparks.

They all backed off as Max continued smashing with the axe, not stopping until the screen was shattered and its wiring severed like an umbilical cord.

“Jesus!” Dave exclaimed.

Max looked up them, panting. He looked crazed clutching the crash axe, eyes red from stinging tears.

Jo looked at the axe — the main blade formed a ‘P’ shape, with an ice pick protrusion at the back. It looked lethal.

“Where… did you get that from? Jo asked.

“He told me where to find it…” Max moved toward Jo’s touch screen. “Stand back!” he commanded.

“What the hell are you doing?” Dave asked.

“Cutting them off. These things are rigged. Webcams, microphones… so I’m de-rigging them.”

Seeing Dave take a step towards him, Max held the axe aloft.

“I said stand back!”

“Don’t…” Gwen started.

As Max glanced at her, Dave used the opportunity to step forward, blocking Max from attacking Jo’s touch screen.

“For fuck’s sake, sit down,” Dave said. He sounded almost weary.

“No!” Max protested, “If they can’t see or hear us, then the game’s over.”

Careless of the axe, Dave pushed his face right into Max’s.

“Don’t you give a shit about anyone other than yourself? Sit down, now, or I’ll knock you out you little prick!”

Max swallowed dryly, Dave still right in his face.

“I can’t do this…” he muttered, “My task…”

Gwen covered her mouth with her hands.

Jo shook her head. “Don’t say it…”

“That sick fuck told me…” Max went on, “I’m supposed to kill whoever he tells me to — when he tells me to.”

Gwen wailed, hysterical — this was too much for her to bear.

“Don’t you see?” Max said, “He doesn’t just want us dead, he wants to punish us! You think they’re going to let your loved ones go because you followed the rules? You’re idiots if you trust him….”

“Yeah, but he’s got the upper hand here,” Dave said, “We have to do what he says.”

“I don’t,” Max said.

As if in answer to Max’s challenge, the Alligator reappeared on-screen.

The animation glitched momentarily and his smiling face juddered, grotesque slit eyes stretching across the screen like dark chasms.

“Yes you do Max.”

For the first time during their voyage, there was a trace of anger in the Alligator’s voice.

“Put the axe down and return to your seat, otherwise someone else will face the consequences of your stupidity. And we both know who that is, don’t we? Your brother — Mike…”

The remaining screens flickered and a video window popped up on each of them.

Dreading what was to come, the passengers looked at the screens.

Mike, in his early twenties and dressed in a smart white shirt and dark slacks, was tied to a kitchen table. Pots, pans and broken crockery lay strewn on the worktops and floor around him — he’d put up a struggle before they got him. His mouth was taped shut with thick gaffer tape. He made terrified whimpering sounds as the cameraman’s gloved hand moved into frame, making a show of a huge razor-sharp machete. The unseen assailant brushed the flat of the blade across Mike’s cheeks, smearing the polished metal with his tears. The cameraman removed the blade slowly and Mike tried to cry out through the tape again. But he choked on his breath as his attacker lifted and swung the blade without warning, severing his right arm below the elbow. Blood cascaded from the eviscerated arteries across the kitchen table. Mike writhed in agony, his pitiful cries stymied by the thick tape gag.

Gwen wept openly, unable to quite process the horror she had just witnessed as Max, Jo and Dave watched Mike on the little screens.

He was bleeding out, helpless.

“If I take his other arm,” Alligator said, “he’ll bleed to death in minutes. Are you ready to say goodbye to your flesh and blood?”

Max looked at the video window anxiously. “Wait, wait!”

“Then put the axe down and return to your seat,” Alligator commanded.

“I’m not who you think I am. Whoever that guy is — he’s not my brother! Please… don’t do this.”

“Max, just please do as he says!” Jo pleaded.

The screen flickered, showing a close up of Mike’s contorted face. Tense silence fell across the cabin. Max hurled the crash axe onto the bar, shattering glasses and tipping over a bottle of champagne.

“There! Now listen to me!” Max went on, “I’m telling the truth! I don’t even have a bloody brother. Whoever that guy is, he’s nothing to do with me. Please, help him…”

A ghost image of Alligator’s predatory face appeared on the screens, superimposed over Mike’s. With a crackle, the image flickered again and cleared to reveal the killer was moving around to Mike’s other side. Holding onto Mike’s wrist with one gloved hand, the killer brought the machete blade hammering down, severing the other arm. The cameraman stepped back to survey his handiwork through the cold glass of the camera lens. Mike’s torso spasmed in shock as more blood gushed from the open wound where his other arm used to be.

Exasperated, Max punched the hull in frustration. “I’m not going to do a single thing you say — you hear me? Not one single thing.”

Alligator fell silent for a moment. The speakers crackled with static. It sounded like anger, and chilled the very air in the cabin.

“How noble,” Alligator purred, voice controlled once more, “Sit back, do nothing. The mantra of the Internet Generation. Doing nothing is what you are best at, after all.”

The screens went blank, leaving them to consider his words as the engines droned louder.

Twelve

“What is the matter with you?” Jo demanded, “You just left your own brother to die.”

“You trying to screw things up for the rest of us, is that it?” Dave asked.

The winners were gathered in the lounge area of the aircraft, all eyes on Max, their accusing eyes demanding an answer from him.

“Max?” Jo said.

“I’m-not-Max!”

Dave groaned in frustration.

Gwen echoed his sound with a dismissive shake of her head.

Jo searched Max’s face with her eyes, trying to fathom him out.

“Listen. Why couldn’t I answer the questions in the game, eh? Do I look like a violinist to you? I’m not him, I’m not Max. God, I’m not even supposed to be on this flight,” he reasoned.

“But your name was on the list… I looked at your profile,” Gwen said.

“It’s not mine! Max is just some… student. I hacked his All2gethr account, changed his contact details…”

Jo glanced at the others. They looked as unsure as she felt about whether or not to believe him.

“I thought they’d rumble me at the airport,” Max said, “but they didn’t even check.”

“What a crock. You expect us to believe you?” Dave said.

“Believe what you want mate, but I’m telling the truth.”

Jo considered Max’s words for a moment. “So, who are you?”

“Like I’m going to tell you that,” Max replied, exasperated.

This quickened Dave’s anger. “Are you part of all this? You little prick…”

Dave lunged at Max. Jo put herself between the two men, holding her arms out to keep them apart.

“Wait! Wait!” She turned to Max and fixed him with a stare. “Who the hell are you?”

Max glanced at each of them. He could feel their tension, anger and fear. He recalled his own tangle of feelings from just moments ago, watching a stranger die with a confusing mixture of remorse and detachment. It was different for the others; Alligator was dangling their family and friends in front of them like bait. But he had no such limitations, he was operating outside of the rules — and he intended to keep it that way.

“Think about it,” Max said, “If I tell you, they’ll go after my friends, my family.”

“What about ours?” Gwen interjected, “They’ve got my sister. I saw her with my own eyes. She doesn’t matter I suppose?”

Dave’s eyes smouldered at Max. How some jumped up kid could deign to start playing mind games with them when there was so much to lose, he just couldn’t fathom. Just when Alligator was piling on the hurt, now this guy was having a go too. He wasn’t going to stand for this.

“You piece of shit!” Dave lunged at Max again, this time managing to punch Max hard in the nose.

Jo struggled with Dave, pushing with all her might to separate him from Max. Dave took a step back, Jo clutching his shirt at chest height.

“Screw you! I’m still going to die, same as you. Idiot…” Max spat, wiping blood from his nose, “You think I’m involved with this? Killing innocent people?”

“Show us some I.D. then,” Dave said.

Jo was in agreement, loosening her grip on Dave’s shirt.

“If you’re so afraid of telling us who you are, then show us.”

“I would,” Max said, “but I don’t have anything on me.”

This time Jo did not try to stop Dave as he muscled in on Max.

“Turn out your pockets,” Dave ordered.

Max looked at Jo and Gwen. They looked to be behind Dave all the way. Max begrudgingly took a cigarette lighter from his pocket, held it up then placed it behind him on the bar.

“And the rest,” Dave said, grabbing Max and frisking him against the bar, airport security style.

Max turned on him, quick as a flash, shoving Dave away, hard.

Dave raised his fist.

“Calm down,” Jo said to Dave, intent on avoiding further violence. “Let me,” she said, stepping close to Max.

She searched Max’s remaining pockets under Dave’s angry glare, finding nothing.

“His jacket.”

Dave grabbed Max’s jacket from its owner’s seat and rifled through it like a thief. He tossed aside a packet of cigarettes and dug into the inside pockets. Triumphantly, Dave pulled out a British passport. He held it up for Jo and Gwen to see, eyes goading Max the whole time.

“I’m fucking warning you!” Max said, worried, “If you say my name out loud I’m finished!”

Dave opened the passport and peered inside, flicking to the photo I.D. page at the back, stern as a border official.

“Mate, please!” Max pleaded.

“Well?” Gwen asked.

Dave looked Max over with suspicious eyes.

“He’s telling the truth,” he said finally, with a sigh.

Dave put the passport back into the inside pocket of Max’s jacket, returning it to his seat.

Max almost imploded with relief, his identity still a secret from Alligator. Jo and Gwen were still staring at him, dumbfounded.

“Are we done here?” Max said.

Before anyone could answer, Max deftly grabbed the crash axe and marched up the aisle toward the cockpit door.

Dave’s voice could barely contain his vitriol.

“Stubborn prick!” he said under his breath.

Fixing Jo and Gwen with a momentary look of abject frustration, he turned on his heel and marched to the rear of the jet.

“I need a piss,” he grumbled as he went.

Jo felt relieved the two men were apart — for now. She glanced at Gwen, who was rocking back and forth in her seat, her sanity on a knife’s edge. Jo was about to offer some placatory words when she heard a deafening clatter from the front of the aircraft — an axe hitting the cockpit door.

Max.

Jo listened to him raining blows on the cockpit door, then strode up to the bar area with grim intent. She glanced over her shoulder at Gwen — she wasn’t looking.

Jo took a deep breath, steadying herself on the edge of the bar. She then popped open a fresh bottle of champagne — and poured four glasses.

Dave sat down on the closed toilet lid, clamping the headset to his ears.

He felt breathless, elated even, to have completed his task so easily. And he’d had the added pleasure of planting one on that annoying little prick’s nose — pretty boys like him never had it in them to step up to the plate. He’d shown Jo and Gwen who the real man was onboard the plane, Dave felt sure of that. Maybe now Jo wouldn’t be so picky with him all the time, giving him the high-and-mighty just because he’d watched some porno when he was bored.

Then, the TV screen on the wall opposite him flickered to life and the Alligator appeared.

“I said no conferring Dave,” the voice boomed in his ears, “and yet you’ve all been chatting away…”

“I’ve done what you asked,” Dave countered.

“Our mystery guest.”

“Yeah, he’s not who he said he was. He’s a blagger. ‘Max’ is just some student whose account he hijacked…”

“Yes, well I’ll deal with him in good time.”

“I got his passport, his real details…”

Dave pulled the passport from the back pocket of his jeans. It had been so easy to snatch it when the girls weren’t looking.

“It doesn’t matter,” Alligator said, sounding unimpressed. “He’s in the game until the bitter end now.”

“Okay…” Dave faltered.

He put the passport back into his pocket. That was one bargaining chip, now it was time for him to try another.

“He’s going to try and break into the cockpit. With the crash axe.”

“Well, we’ll most certainly have to do something about that…” Alligator mused.

“So, I’ve done your spying — right? Now you’ll let her live, let her go?”

Dave waited, heart in mouth, as Alligator fell agonizingly silent.

The screen flickered, and the green face disappeared, replaced with a view of the dingy garage. Sarah was still stood teetering on the stool, straining to keep her balance on exhausted limbs, noose still wrapped around her neck.

“For God’s sake man, let her go. I’ll do anything. Please…”

Max swung the axe head with all his might into the cockpit door. It bounced off again with a clang, leaving barely a dent, and jolting his wrists painfully for his trouble. The door was apparently indestructible; seemingly fashioned from titanium. Wiping perspiration from his brow, Max tried a new approach and attempted to slide the tip of the axe blade into the slight gap between the door and its frame. The axe skittered down the polished surface of the door — the gap was just too narrow.

Swapping the axe over to his other hand, Max peered down at the keypad. Only ten digits, 1-9 plus a zero; how difficult could it be? His mind buzzed with equations, he’d never have enough time to methodically try them all before the plane made a final destination of the All2gethr.com headquarters. He tapped at the keypad, random sequences of numbers. Each attempt was met with a sombre ‘beep’.

Beep, fail. Game over, the keypad seemed to say.

As he stood in the hot glow of the red LED light, Max thought of the Alligator’s greeting when they’d first climbed aboard. The flight number had been D-665 — that was it. Could it really be that simple? Most people still used ‘password’ as their password despite all the warnings to come up with something less obvious, that was in part what made hacking so easy. He tapped in the numbers:

0-6-6-5.

Beep, fail. Game over.

Hacker’s instinct told him he was onto something, so Max tried again:

6-6-5-0.

Another mocking beep from the keypad.

Maybe he needed to include the ‘D’ in the equation somehow. He pictured the little keypad of his mobile phone, the numbers scratched away from the ‘9’ key through several months of use.

“Of course…” Max murmured to himself.

The ‘D’ would equate to the ‘3’ key. He took a nervous breath, and tapped in the sequence:

3-6-6-5.

Beep, fail. Game over.

“Fuck it!” Max grunted in frustration and slammed the keypad with his fist. Their only chance of salvation lay on the other side of the door, just feet away, and it was being denied them because of something as simple as a lock mechanism. He stared into the red light, picturing a pilot purring into a headset microphone in the cockpit beyond — the very voice of the Alligator.

Flustered, he turned and got the crash axe momentarily entangled in the dividing curtain. Cursing some more, he unravelled the axe from the curtain and stomped into the main cabin.

Gwen was slumped red-eyed and silent in her seat. Teetering on the edge of nervous exhaustion, she barely noticed him as he passed by.

Jo was sipping champagne from a flute glass, staring at the floor. Max could almost feel the tension in her body as he walked through the cabin carrying the axe. He looked at the nape of her neck as he passed her — the tender spot where her hairline met her back exposed. Could he do it after all; kill someone in cold blood? Swing the axe down, severing her head from her shoulders? The thought dried his mouth and made his head throb.

No.

He didn’t have it in him. Not now, not never.

Max walked to the bar and put the axe down on the counter. Three glasses of champagne were laid out there in front of him, bubbling gently along with the droning rhythm of the jet engines. He took a glass and downed it in one, then gulped down a second. Helping himself to the third and final glass, he turned and raised it to Jo in a toast.

“To getting out of this alive,” he said, and knocked back the last of the champagne.

Jo watched him in grim silence, then raised her own glass and drained it dry.

Alligator’s voiced boomed in Dave’s ears.

“You have shown aptitude for your assignment, but that’s hardly a surprise — deception is your forte, after all.”

Dave swallowed. It was a guilty sound.

“So you’re… going to let her go, right?”

“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that. I have an additional task for you.”

Dave shifted his weight on the closed toilet seat, trying to regain his composure, dreading to hear what the bastard wanted from him this time. He swallowed again in nervous anticipation, listening through the headphones intently.

“I want you to kill one of your fellow passengers…”

The image of Sarah on the TV screen flickered for a moment as the cameraman moved closer, stroking her cheek with the index finger of his gloved hand. She recoiled, terrified, almost losing her footing on the stool again. The noose hung heavy and deadly as an anaconda around her neck.

“She hasn’t got much time.” Alligator continued, “I’m going to give you three minutes.”

“No, wait, I…”

On the screen, some urgent red numerals appeared, superimposed over the image of Sarah’s terrified face:

‘03:00’, ‘02:59’, ‘02:58’…

The countdown had begun.

“Tick-tock…” Alligator preened.

Dave’s face was a mask of pure panic.

He watched the numbers counting down, and saw his fiancée, helpless and twitching, strength failing her.

With a pang of remorse, he recalled the photo Alligator had shown him and the others during the game. Dave had felt bad about sleeping with Aimée, the French girl, as even the most seasoned player would — but only briefly. She had made it so easy for him to do with her as he pleased; escorting him to his secret needs like a hollow doll desperate to be filled with his lust. She must have wanted it as much as he did. It was a transaction between two consenting adults dancing to their darkest tunes — that was all. A quick shower, then he had blocked her account on All2gethr, all done and forgotten about. She didn’t have his mobile number or anything, so no worries. Sarah need never know. His dalliance changed nothing and so, in a way was proof that he was ready to commit to her, that he really loved her. Sure, he had deceived her, but that didn’t mean he didn’t care about her.

He knew why he behaved as he did, in his secret heart-of-hearts, painfully aware of the childhood traumas that informed his adult activities. Dave had been the ‘fat kid’ at school, always trying to fight back through wave after wave of adolescent tears as the others had bullied him. His body had been weak and flabby as a child, but his mind resolute. Dave had taken the beatings and swallowed the taunts, absorbing the bitter frustration of the others until it had festered and bloomed into something rotten. No sooner than he was old enough, big enough, to use his vitriol against others he had done so, over and over. Bullies always begat bullies, it was the way of the world. All the feelings of revenge surging within him focused into his weapon in a war on the fairer sex; the weaker sex. Every charm offensive and subsequent conquest rebalancing the equation little by little, until he was the victim no longer.

When he met Sarah, everything had clicked into place for Dave. She’d been bullied at school too, she knew exactly how it felt and had even drawn Dave’s story out of him like poison sucked from a bite. Until Sarah, he’d never confided in anyone about just how humiliating his school years had been; he’d never felt that he could. She was his rock. And now Sarah needed a protector. She needed him. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t to do for her — and only one chance to prove it. No way could he let this bastard win, no way could he allow him to hurt Sarah.

Dave glanced at his reflection in the mirror and steeled himself.

“Okay,” he said, “Who do you want me to kill?”

Thirteen

Gwen, slumped on her seat, drifted into a fitful sleep. Her body was dehydrated from the several glasses of champagne she’d consumed and her limbs were wracked with nerves. Gwen’s eyeballs jittered beneath their lids as her mind descended into a psychosomatic fugue state. She breathed uneasily, deep in the throes of a dream.

She was still on the plane, staring out the window at a bright blue sky. Dave, impeccably dressed in a smart pilot’s uniform, brought over a silver tray filled with flute glasses of champagne. She drank deeply, enjoying the sweet taste of the alcohol as it shimmied across her taste buds. Dave’s twinkling eyes smiled down at her as she took another glass and drank her fill. He took hold of her hand and pulled her gently to her feet. Together, they danced drunkenly in the aisle, laughing as they swayed and whirled. Jo and Max applauded and cheered them on from their seats where they sat, stiff and still as automatons. Then, Dave extended his arm and Gwen span round and around, giddy and laughing as the jet cabin became a passing blur of colours and faces.

Suddenly, dream logic found Gwen sitting on Dave’s lap in her seat. He was nuzzling her neck with his lips, loosening her scarf. The air in the cabin felt hot and close. She looked over at Jo and Max, both using All2gethr at their touch screens. They both sensed her looking at them and regarded her casually before returning to the glow of their monitors. Dave was unbuttoning Gwen’s blouse now, his rough hands caressing her neckline. He moved his lips from her neck to her face and she felt his stubble brushing against her cheek. She liked it. Gwen glanced at the others, to see if they were watching. They were — and Gwen no longer cared. Christ, but it was hot in the cabin — maybe the air conditioning was malfunctioning. Dave’s hands were on her legs now, his fingers exploring the smooth surface of her legs beneath her skirt. Her mind said no, but her physical being was awash with a hot rush of pleasure. She trembled under Dave’s caresses and grabbed hold of his arms, pulling him closer to her, anchoring herself to his frame. He kissed her, long and hard, and she reciprocated, but something was wrong.

She could feel the blood beginning to boil in her veins she was so hot. With Dave’s mouth clamped tightly over hers she struggled to breathe, the burning sensation in her veins coursing through her body like napalm. She gasped for air but found none, Dave’s hot cloying tongue in her mouth making it impossible for her to draw breath. The fire in her veins flooded into her organs, roasting her heart as it pounded a drumbeat in her flaming chest, penetrating her lungs like hot needles. She kicked and struggled but Dave held onto her fast as, hotter and hotter, her flesh ignited and her body burst into flames…

She woke up, gasping for air.

And saw Dave, axe in hand, towering over her.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Panting, Gwen sprang to her feet and backed away from Dave.

A disturbing blend of childlike confusion and murderous intent was carved into his face like the design on a Halloween pumpkin.

Gwen backed up into Jo and Max, who were standing by the seats nearest the curtain at the front of the cabin.

All around them, angry red numbers flashed:

‘02:25’. ‘02:24’…

Their computer touch screens were active again, counting down — but to what?

“Dave…” Jo said.

“What are you doing man?” Max asked, easing forward.

“What ever I have to…” Dave growled.

“Look whatever he’s told you, you still have a choice.”

Jo inched forward too, followed by Gwen. Strength in numbers, but Dave had other ideas.

“Back the fuck off!” He brandished the axe, threatening all of them.

Gwen held her hands out in a calming gesture. “Listen to Max, he’s right, we’ll work this out together…”

Dave laughed madly. “That’s not even his real name! Don’t try your counselling bullshit on me! Stay back!”

He swung the axe at Gwen’s torso, narrowly missing her. She yelped in surprise and stepped back out of range of the blade.

Glancing over his shoulder, Dave saw the countdown:

‘02:00’.

He swung the axe sharply at Jo.

She ducked as the axe blade sliced through the space where her face had been and embedded itself in Max’s shoulder.

Max screamed in agony and collapsed to his knees, his flesh tearing from the end of the blade. Blood pooled just below his shoulder, little red lines running down his arm. Dave raised the axe blade again, clearly intent on finishing Max.

As he took a step forward, Jo grabbed Dave’s arm, trying to halt his progress. He shoved her aside roughly and she banged her head against the cabin wall painfully.

Dave swung the axe at Max again. More by accident than design, Max stumbled out of the path of the blade, which continued its trajectory into a conduit of cables and pipes. Sparks showered over the combatants as the sharp metal bit into the wiring. The overhead lights flickered madly, and then died.

The main cabin was plunged into darkness, Dave’s frantic eyes searching out Max in the gloom.

Seconds later, emergency lighting clicked on, bathing them in the same menacing red glow as the LED light at the cockpit door.

The momentary darkness gave Max his chance and he took it, slamming his body into Dave’s. Knocking the big man to the floor, Max’s tackle also loosened Dave’s grip on the axe. It clattered and skidded across the gangway, coming to halt at the base of the bar. The two men wrestled in the aisle. Glasses and bottles tumbled and shattered in their wake. Max had a tight hold around Dave’s waist, preventing him from crawling for the axe. But Dave wrenched an arm free from under his body and brought his elbow down, sharp, on Max’s shoulder wound.

Max let go of Dave’s waist with a yelp and Dave punched him hard in the back of the head. As he fell, Max’s fingers fumbled for the edge of a metal drinks tray. Dave grabbed an empty champagne bottle and swung the business end at Max. He intercepted the blow with the metal tray and the bottle exploded in a fury of broken glass, cutting Dave’s hand. He recoiled, dropping the broken bottle and cradling his bleeding hand.

Max took the offensive and swung the tray again, smashing it into the side of Dave’s head. The blow seemed to snap Dave from his murderous rage. He let go of his bleeding hand and pawed at the wound on his head like a startled infant.

“One minute,” Alligator intoned.

The words were loaded with menace, and took Dave back down with them. His eyes darkened with grim intent and he struggled to his feet. Max was barely able to catch his breath before he too stood up.

Dave looked at Max, oozing the confidence borne of being the bigger man. He saw red at the corner of his eye and brushed at it, thinking it was blood from his head wound. Then Dave turned, realising the red blur was a small fire extinguisher mounted in a holder on the cabin wall. He tore it from its casing and lunged for Max. Swinging the heavy cylinder, he managed to clip Max’s forehead. With a sickening cracking sound, Max hit the deck. Dave towered over him like a Neanderthal beast over its prey.

Holding the fire extinguisher aloft, he paused for a second, teetering on the precipice of murder.

“Do it right or not at all, Dave,” Alligator said.

A nerve ending pulsed in Dave’s temple. He blinked it away like it was a fly buzzing around his head. A violent whining sound permeated Dave’s eardrums. He gritted his teeth, prepared to bring the extinguisher down on Max’s head.

Max’s fingers found the axe handle. He pivoted his body on the floor and brought the blade up sharply, straight into Dave’s groin. The big man gasped in shock and agony, dropping the extinguisher inches from where Max lay. Dave staggered backwards, screaming, as Max wrenched the axe blade free. Max hopped to his feet, his second chance spurring him on. Dave grabbed another champagne bottle with his ragged hand and staggered towards Max.

The two men swung their weapons simultaneously — the bottle clipping Max’s head as the axe blade landed full-force in Dave’s cranium.

Dazed, Max slumped to the floor. His vision lurched and tilted.

Dave lay flat on his back, dead. Blood leaked from his battered skull.

Somewhere behind him, Max heard the girls’ horrified gasps.

“What have you done?” Gwen said, shocked.

“He… wasn’t going to stop,” Max murmured.

He looked up at Gwen and Jo blankly. They didn’t look so sure.

Little white reading lights flickered into life, cutting through the red haze of the cabin. The speakers crackled gently, and Alligator addressed them once again.

“Thank you for a very enjoyable game. Do, or die. Now you’re getting it.”

Max’s eyes searched Jo’s and Gwen’s for some sign of support; receiving none. He’d done merely what he had to do, even though it meant playing into Alligator’s loathsome machinations.

Jo and Gwen both looked away, leaving Max right next to Dave’s ruined body.

He stood up carefully and navigated around the deep crimson pool of blood that had soaked into the aisle carpet.

“Unfortunately,” Alligator continued, “Dave failed his task — and so poor Sarah will have to go after all.”

Alligator’s words chilled each of them to the bone.

They froze in horror as the touch screen displays switched to a video window showing Dave’s fiancée in the dingy garage, the noose around her neck. Muffled cries of terror came from beneath the thick gaffer tape clamping her mouth shut as the killer-cameraman approached her. He kicked the high stool away from under her feet. Her body dropped violently, stopping just a few inches above the floor with a hideous crack. Her legs twitched in a macabre Saint Vitus Dance, then swung limply above the floor.

Jo removed her knuckles from her mouth; suddenly realising she was biting down on them so hard she was almost drawing blood.

“They killed her anyway!” she said, thinking of her poor daughter all alone in that dingy cell — all alone save for the camera eyes watching her.

Max looked at her, subdued, not knowing what to say.

“He died for nothing. For nothing…” Gwen muttered in disbelief.

Jo reached out to Gwen, placed her hand on her shoulder. They needed to stick together, to make sense of all the carnage. But Gwen brushed Jo’s hand away and retreated to the bathroom, shutting the door behind her.

Jo looked again at Max, unable to conceal her disdain at what he had done.

“What?” Max asked, “You’d rather I’d just let him kill me? Is that it?”

“I don’t even know who you are,” Jo said.

Gwen locked the door behind her and made her way to the sink, splashing cold water on her face. Brushing away her tears, she looked at herself in the mirror. More tears welled up and flowed from her swollen eyes.

How could she have failed Emily so badly? Her task had been simply to seduce Dave, but now he was dead, Alligator would surely kill her sister — just as brutally as he’d despatched Dave’s poor fiancée. Like her, Emily had nothing to with this either. It was she, Gwen, who had been foolish enough to believe the winner’s email from All2gethr. It was she who’d insisted her father check things out and allow her to go, despite his initial misgivings. And now it was she who had signed her sister’s death warrant. And for what — because of her scruples?

Gwen slammed her fist against the bathroom sink. It felt cool, indifferent to her touch; just how Emily had described Gwen on more than one occasion. “You need to lighten up sis,” Emily had said, “life’s too short, you should have some fun for once.” When the offer of the flight came along, Emily had been as excited as Gwen, chatting excitedly over All2gethr Messenger. ‘DON’T DO ANYTHING I WOULDN’T DO!’ Emily had typed, making Gwen giggle.

But Gwen knew she could never do the things Emily did. Going with boys, smoking drugs; those were places Gwen didn’t feel ready to go right now — if ever. But if she had, would she have been able to save her sister? Knock back a few drinks, and seduce that awful sneering lump of a man with his cheap tattoos, dodgy piercings and horrid porn — all for the voyeuristic entertainment of their captor. Gwen’s mind reeled. Her principles of abstinence until marriage had always made her feel better than everyone else, if she was brutally honest. But now she felt worthless, impotent in the face of what Alligator intended to do to Emily.

The big TV screen flickered to life behind her, reflected in the mirror. Alligator’s voice boomed out over the speakers, startling her.

“Put the headset on.”

Gwen looked terrified. So that was it, he was going to light the match, burn her death. And it was all her fault.

“Put it on.”

Reaching out fearfully, Gwen placed the headphones over her ears and sat down on the closed lid of the toilet seat. She looked up at the screen, red eyes glazed with tears.

“I can’t do what you told me…” She tried to find the words. “He’s… dead.”

“Yes, I saw that Gwen,” Alligator said without emotion, “but don’t worry, your sister has a fighting chance. You are being reassigned.”

Gwen bowed her head as Alligator continued his instructions.

“Your new target is Max,” he said.

Fourteen

Max stood in the corner of the cabin, over Dave’s lifeless body.

Jo was sitting on the couch near the bar area, staring at the empty seat in front of her, a haunted expression on her face.

“Will you… help me to move him?” Max asked.

Jo blanked him, staring stoically ahead.

“We can’t leave him there. I can’t… look at him.”

Jo glared at him. Now was not a good time for making such demands of her. All she could think of was Sophie and Dawn.

“You saw him. He was going to kill me if he could!”

“And now they’re both dead,” Jo said, “Why just kill her like that with Dave… gone?”

“I don’t know.”

Max sighed, and stepped over Dave’s dead body. He took a wrist in each hand and started dragging him to the front of the plane, but his own shoulder wound forced him to stop. The axe had gone deep and he was still bleeding out.

Gwen emerged from the bathroom. She looked at Jo, then Max, with tear-swollen eyes. Seeing Max struggling, she walked up the aisle, grabbed hold of Dave’s ankles and helped carry him. Dave’s back dragged on the cabin floor slightly leaving a slick of dark blood trailing after his corpse.

With some effort they lifted him a little higher, through the curtain and bundled him into the staff prep area. Gwen stood back, wiping her hands on her skirt absent-mindedly as Max tore down the dividing curtain and placed it gently over Dave like a shroud. As he stood up, Max moaned with pain as his shoulder twinged beneath his bloodstained shirt.

“Let me take a look at that,” Gwen said.

Max covered the wound with the flat of his hand. “Hurts like hell.”

Gwen pulled his hand away from the wound, took it into hers and led him away from Dave’s body.

“Come with me,” she said, pulling him towards the bathroom.

“What are you doing?” Jo asked as they passed her.

“There’s a first aid kit in the bathroom,” Gwen said.

Jo caught a shifty look in Gwen’s eyes. She looked edgier than ever to Jo, as though she were planning something. Gwen was quick to avert her eyes from Jo’s questioning gaze, shutting the door behind her and Max.

Outside, thunder rumbled as the turbulent weather system rolled in around the jet plane.

All alone in the cabin, Jo stared at the bathroom door. She felt she had no idea who the man on the other side of that door was anymore. When they’d first boarded the flight Jo had felt an instant kinship, a bond, with Max. She’d warmed to his gentle nature and apparently easygoing personality. He had seemed relaxed and unperturbed by anything, just living life for the moment. Jo guessed she was attracted to him because that was how she wanted to be in her heart of hearts — relaxed and carefree. If she was honest, she had hoped to get closer to him during the trip, much closer. But now she wasn’t so sure of her instincts. Max had killed Dave in self-defence; she knew that, but what about her attraction to someone who was still, in the eyes of the law, a murderer? Could she have even let someone like him into her life, which was all about control? Her life had to remain that way, a constant, or she’d unravel and be back at square one.

Maybe Max had simply lost his control as events unravelled around them — maybe, as he’d said, Dave wouldn’t have stopped until he’d killed him. And, in the cold light of day, Max was more important to her than Dave. She had to find a way of working with him to find a way out of the nightmare in which they had become ensnared.

Jo looked at the empty bottle of champagne on the floor and the bloodstain next to it where Dave’s lifeless body had been lying. She picked up the bottle, felt its dead weight in her hand, and studied it in quiet contemplation.

Do or die, she thought grimly, it’ll all be over soon, one way or another.

Tap water swirled into the sink as Gwen grabbed the first aid kit from the bathroom cabinet.

“Shirt off.”

Max removed his torn and bloody shirt, grimacing with pain as he lifted it over his shoulders.

“Sit down.”

He sat on the toilet seat lid, wincing.

“Hold still.”

Gwen soaked one of the plush hand towels under the tap and crouched down in front of Max. She started cleaning his wounds as best she could. The axe cut just below his shoulder had bit deep into the tender flesh between his chest and armpit. The bleeding had slowed but hadn’t quite stopped. Gwen took an antiseptic wipe from the first aid kit and pressed it over the wound.

Max groaned through his teeth at the sudden stinging sensation. As it subsided, his body relaxed and Gwen affixed an adhesive bandage over the wipe, which was already staining with fresh blood.

As she worked, she looked Max straight in the eye.

“Do you think we’re all going to die on this plane?”

Max looked back into her eyes. She looked fearful, but resolute.

“I don’t know… maybe… yes.”

As his voice trailed off, Gwen leaned forward between his legs and kissed him full on the lips. Max felt her warm body against his exposed skin, smelled her hair, her perfumed skin.

He broke away, confused.

“What are you doing?”

Gwen kissed him again, harder this time, then moved her lips across his neck and to his ear.

“Please help me…” she whispered.

Her hands were on his belt buckle now, teasing it open. Max breathed sharply as she unhooked his belt.

“If you don’t do this then my sister will die, and I can’t let that happen.”

Max took in the implications of her words and realised what she was asking of him. This was clearly the task Alligator had burdened Gwen with. It made perfect, perverted sense — force the abstainer to betray her moral code. Max’s head pulsed along with his heartbeat as her nimble fingers unzipped his trousers and reached inside.

“Do, or die,” Gwen whispered, her breath hot in his ear.

She lunged at him, kissing him passionately, her tongue finding his. Gwen kissed clumsily but passionately — she meant to do this.

Max gave himself over to her caresses, responding hungrily as all his guilt, frustration and anger turned to lust for the beautiful young woman before him. They hurriedly explored each other’s bodies, their mouths and limbs weaving together.

Loosening her scarf and unbuttoning her blouse, Gwen grabbed the back of Max’s neck as he lifted her up with him into a standing position. She wrapped her legs around him as, half-naked now; they began to grind against each other within the tight confines of the bathroom walls.

Gwen gasped as Max thrust against her. There was a hollow thud as she slammed back into the bathroom wall. She felt as though she was no longer in control of her own body. She opened up to him, inhaling the faint whiff of antiseptic from his dressing as though it were a drug. This is it, thought Gwen, I can do this, and perhaps this is how it was meant to be all along — the ultimate sacrifice.

She saw herself in the mirror, her arms and legs wrapped around Max. Her reflection looked utterly alien to her, like that of a different person. She imagined Alligator on the other side of the glass, watching them. Perhaps he had a camera hidden there, behind the mirror, recording their every move. Gwen felt as though she were looking Alligator in the eye as Max pressed his body against hers. She could feel his dark presence piercing her reflection like a threat. Her skin crawled with disgust at the thought, even as her flesh beneath burned with arousal.

Then, Max stopped suddenly, pulling away from her embrace. He had lost himself for a moment, adrift on the carnal opportunities afforded by Gwen’s task. The traumatic comedown after his fatal struggle with Dave had numbed his thought processes with shock. But it was the sound that returned his thoughts to crystal clarity. That hollow thud when Gwen’s back had hit the bathroom wall. The sound was pregnant with possibilities.

“What? What is it?” Gwen asked, breathless.

Max wasn’t even looking at her. His eyes were fixed on the wall panel behind her. If it was hollow, then something lay on the other side. He tapped at the panel with his knuckles, then his fingertips, as if checking for a pulse.

“The luggage,” he said, zipping and buckling his trousers.

Gwen looked at him, flustered.

He turned and tumbled out of the bathroom, grabbing his shirt as he went.

“Where are you going?!”

The door closed in answer.

The bathroom glowed green as the Alligator appeared on the TV screen — judge, jury and executioner.

“Your task is incomplete.”

Gwen shook her head in desperation.

“I tried! I tried, but he…”

You…” Alligator interrupted, “must not let him gain access to the luggage compartment, understand? Stop him. You have five minutes — or Emily dies.”

Gwen pinched the flesh between her eyes with her fingers as though she was trying to squeeze Alligator’s voice from her brain. She stamped her foot on the floor in anger.

The anguished sound that emanated from her throat no longer sounded human to her.

Jo was sitting on the floor, near Dave’s blood smear, when Max burst through the bathroom door. He pulled his torn and bloodied shirt back on and Jo glanced at the dressing Gwen had affixed to his shoulder wound. Max had an intense look on his face as he marched up to Jo. Something had clearly rattled him — something new.

“In my bag, there’s a laptop. If I can get to it, I might be able to hack into the onboard network.”

“Okay…” Jo said, getting to her feet, “Then what?”

“We can call for help. Find out who is keeping us hostage on this bloody plane.”

Another possibility dawned on him.

“Get through to whoever’s in that cockpit!”

“You can do all that — with your laptop?”

Max smirked.

Over his shoulder, Jo saw Gwen emerge from the bathroom. She looked even more sheepish than she had before she’d gone inside with Max. Jo eyed her suspiciously.

“Yeah, I… do it all the time,” Max said. He hoped he could do what he was planning. In truth, he’d never attempted anything quite so audacious. He did his best to cover up his self-doubt and looked wide-eyed at Jo, seeking her support.

Jo had only ever used computers to access her All2gethr account, keep in touch with her friends and post photos of Sophie for Dawn to see. All this hacking stuff was beyond her. But Max’s earnest look told her he was serious about giving it a go. She gave a silent but encouraging nod.

They both looked at Gwen to gauge her reaction. The strain was beginning to show on her face.

“Are you both insane? He can see and hear everything!” Gwen said.

Max blinked and retrieved the crash axe. His mind was clearly made up.

“You don’t have to be involved, but I have to try something,” he said, heading for the bathroom.

“Stop,” Gwen pleaded, using her body to block the bathroom doorway, “Please, just stop!”

“I’m trying to get us out of this mess.”

Alligator’s voice joined the party, reverberating throughout the cabin.

“Two minutes Gwen.”

Gwen forced herself on Max, throwing her arms around his neck and kissing him passionately, like a longing lover.

Jo looked on, amazed at Gwen’s wholly inappropriate behaviour.

“What the…?”

Max disentangled himself from Gwen’s lips, pushing her away as gently as he could.

Gwen’s whole body shivered. It looked as though an icy wave was passing right through her, from her head down to the tips of her toes. Her eyes held Max’s gaze. The man for whom she had debased herself in order to save her only dear sister. The man who had then tossed her aside so carelessly.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered softly.

Her words were no apology. She had to focus now, had to do it right for Emily. Her eyes narrowed with spite and she jabbed her fist into Max’s axe wound sharply.

He gagged on the pain, and in a split second the crash axe was in Gwen’s hand.

She shrieked like a banshee, an unholy sound, and stabbed the ice-pick end at Max’s shoulder. He stumbled back to avoid the blow and tumbled to the floor between the seats, his back hitting the cabin wall. Gwen leaped onto him, straddling his chest in a violent mockery of the passionate embrace they had shared only minutes ago in the bathroom.

Max managed to grab her forearms in defence, but Gwen still had a hold on the axe. Holding it with both hands, she was pushing down on it with all her of her body weight favouring his wounded side. It was almost frightening to her how easy it had been to turn the tables on him. But then, she’d degraded herself in the blink of an eye in the bathroom. The ultimate sacrifice, all for her beloved sister. It was Max or Emily, and her choice was clear. Gwen doubled her efforts and Max gasped from the pain of keeping the axe at bay. She was trying to turn the pick head into his face, meaning to impale him with it.

The sharp metal was just millimetres from Max’s eyeball, when Jo joined the fray, grabbing Gwen’s arm and trying to wrestle the weapon free. Gwen turned on Jo now, biting down on Jo’s hand and growling like a feral animal, forcing her to let go. Jo cried out as she retrieved her hand and Gwen returned her murderous attention to Max, who was still pinioned beneath her.

Max grabbed Gwen’s axe arm as tightly as he could, twisting her flesh painfully. She retaliated like a woman possessed, regaining her hold on the axe, and thrust down on it so hard that her knees almost lifted from the floor. The pick blade plunged toward Max’s neck, a hair’s breadth away from his jugular — and stopped.

Max looked up in disbelief.

Jo had Gwen in a headlock, arm wrapped around her neck from behind. She was squeezing with all her might.

“Get-off-him!” Jo hissed through gritted teeth.

Gwen doubled her efforts, her face turning red as Jo cut off her airway. She shoved as hard as she could with the axe, the blade cutting into Max’s flesh.

He gasped as a rivulet of blood trickled down his neck.

Jo tightened her grip, starving Gwen of oxygen. Gwen was struggling to breathe now, her once-sweet face turning from red to beetroot. Jo summoned all of her remaining strength to increase her grip on Gwen’s neck, her nasal passages flooded with the sickly sweet stench of Gwen’s sandalwood and fear.

Max was unable to move, trapped beneath Gwen’s body, neck at the mercy of the axe’s pick blade.

Roaring with exertion, Jo pushed her entire body backwards, thrusting with her legs. She fell back, dragging Gwen with her. As they fell, Jo twisted Gwen’s neck in her vice-like grip.

There was a loud crack, and Gwen fell limp to the floor between Jo’s legs.

The crash axe clattered to the floor.

Shock and adrenalin pumping through her system, Jo spider-legged backwards across the cabin floor until her back hit the dividing wall. She sat there, hand clamped to her mouth, and looked at Gwen’s body, mortified.

She was dead.

Gasping, Max rubbed at the blood on his neck and clambered to his feet. He sidestepped Gwen’s twisted form and rushed over to embrace Jo; a gesture of thanks — and of comfort.

“Oh dear, Gwen failed her assignment too.” Alligator’s voice cut through the tense silence, icy cool. “If you’d just died like a good boy then I wouldn’t have to kill her sister.”

An ominous electronic crackle rattled through the speakers.

“But you’re still here,” Alligator continued.

The touch screens flickered to life again, displaying a camera-eye view of Gwen’s sister, Emily, in her concrete prison. She was still tethered to the chair, her hair, skin and clothing drenched with petrol.

Jo and Max looked on, Alligator’s captive audience, as the cameraman fumbled to light a match. Emily writhed in sheer terror, almost knocking the chair backwards as she watched him try to strike the match a second time. A lens flare blistered across the screen as the match flickered alight. The killer tilted the match carefully, allowing the flame to take hold. Then, he flicked it Emily.

Whoosh. She was engulfed in flames, writhing and screaming in agony as the fire erupted and blistered the flesh from her bones.

Jo looked away, feeling sick.

Max staggered backwards, almost collapsing against one of the seats.

Their eyes had seen too much — too much cruelty, too much suffering and death — both on, and off, the plane through Alligator’s omnipotent camera eyes.

“Come now Jo, you’re missing the firework show!” Alligator taunted. “I thought you loved this stuff? Perhaps you’d prefer it if she was a little younger?”

Jo span around to face the screen.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“Oh, I’m just holding up a mirror,” Alligator chuckled. “You may want to take a good look at yourself. We’ve both got blood on our hands.”

Looking down at her trembling hands, Jo glanced across the cabin at Gwen’s body. Only a few feet away, Gwen’s head lay at a horrible angle, her neck broken. Jo choked at the sight.

Max’s expression turned from one of horror to rage. He stooped, picking up the axe from the floor and smashed it into his touch screen. The monitor clattered to the floor, sparks flying. He then took a step toward Jo’s screen.

She held her hands up to him, blocking him.

“Don’t do it, please! It’s the only way I can see my daughter…”

Squinting fixated at the monitor for a moment, Max appeared to lose his focus. His eyes darkened, then he turned to Jo and took a deep breath.

“You want to see your daughter again?” he asked.

Jo nodded.

“Then we have got to get into that luggage compartment.”

He marched back to the bathroom door, crash axe in hand.

Jo took Max’s jacket from the armrest of his seat and, crouching, laid it gently over Gwen’s face.

“I’m sorry Gwen, I didn’t mean for this to happen,” Jo whispered.

Her words would never be enough, but they were all she had to give. Her head throbbed with remorse. In essence, she felt responsible for two deaths. If she had simply allowed Gwen’s fight with Max to take its natural course, then maybe Gwen and her sister would both still be alive. Maybe Gwen would have turned her murderous rage on Jo next; there was no way of knowing if she could have defeated her single-handed. Whatever the case, Max could be her only chance of saving Sophie — she just prayed he had enough time to do what he could.

She got back on her feet and followed Max to the bathroom.

The wall panel reverberated with the impact of the crash axe.

Max was hacking at it, putting all his might into each blow. He imagined the Alligator’s grinning green face on the other side of the wall, pouring all his rage into it. Anger for all the manipulation, mind games and murder, for all those innocent people who had died. He’d be dead too unless he could do something about it.

Breaking the wall represented that opportunity. Somewhere on the other side was his laptop. He felt sure he could use it to hack into the jet’s network. If he succeeded, cracking the door control for the cockpit wouldn’t be beyond the bounds of possibility. He just had to get the damn thing first. It had to be there — he remembered seeing the stocky luggage guy loading their luggage onto the plane when they handed their phones over to the limousine driver.

Nice moves, Max thought bitterly, making sure we couldn’t contact the outside world once your damn games started up. Well, I’ll prove you wrong you bastards.

He visualised his beloved old laptop, standby light winking at him conspiratorially from the confines of his travel bag. Be with you soon, Old Girl, he thought.

He heaved the axe at the wall panel again. This time it buckled and cracked. Max wrenched the axe free and stared at the wall, not quite believing his eyes.

The crack in the wall was bleeding.

Fifteen

Blood oozed from the crack in the wall inches from Max’s face.

From the doorway, Jo stared at it too — horror beginning to register on her face. The dark red trickle formed an exclamation mark as it slid down the wall panel, communicating its dreadful warning of something too horrible to imagine.

Max took a breath and heaved the axe into the air again, smashing at the wall panel with increasingly heavy blows. The wall gave way beneath his attack, and he jabbed at the supporting beams with the pick head, weakening them. Dropping the axe, he shouldered the last remnants of the supporting beams and splintered sections of wall, breaking through and stumbling into the cramped luggage compartment.

It was hot and humid inside, the small interior space baked by the heat of the engines, which rumbled on noisily, either side of him. He took a step forward, sucking in a mouthful of air, and immediately wished he hadn’t.

The smell was terrible, made worse by the heat of the engines. It was an affront to the senses, ripe and pungent like rubbish bags of mouldy food left to burst open beneath the glare of a hot sun. Max gagged on the stench and bent his arm over his nose and mouth.

Behind him in the bathroom, Jo made a sound registering her disgust. She could smell it back there too.

Max was standing in the rotten belly of the plane. He glanced around at the stacks of suitcases in the scant light from the bathroom. One of the suitcases nearest to him had been torn by the axe blade and was leaking blood.

“Oh God…” Max said, grabbing the case and dragging it back into the bathroom.

He crouched and unzipped the case. Jo watched from over his shoulder, hand over her mouth. She looked terrified of what they might discover inside.

Max lifted the lid of the case, slowly.

It was crammed to overflowing with black refuse sacks. A mess of blood was oozing from the one the axe had torn. Max needed two hands to work now, trying to keep the contents of his stomach down as the full power of the stink emanating from the case invaded his nostrils. Gritting his teeth he tore open the black bag, widening the bloodied slit to see a clump of dark hair.

He jumped back in horror.

Jo cried out through her hand. “What the hell?!”

Max stared at the hair in disbelief.

It was matted with blood and protruded through the opening in the bag. He steeled himself and tore away more of the black plastic. Mike’s lifeless eyes stared back at him. Max gagged and coughed.

He scrambled over to the toilet and lifted the lid, retching his guts up into the bowl. He clambered to his feet and splashed cool water over his face and mouth, regaining his composure.

Jo stood stock still over the suitcase, looking down at the face, the blood, and those dead eyes.

“Who is it?” she asked. Her voice was barely audible through her fear.

“It’s Mike, the real Max’s brother.”

“That’s impossible… are you sure?”

“Yeah.” Max tried not to gag again. “It’s him.”

Jo peered at the man’s face, looking up at her from the bin bag. She remembered the video-cam footage Alligator had shown them. Poor Mike strapped down, his frantic screams as the killer swung the machete down severing his arms.

“But we saw him. That was live footage, wasn’t it?”

The penny dropped.

“They killed them — before we even took off.”

“Jesus,” Max said, staring at Mike’s blood-smeared face, “We’ve been watching recordings.”

They both looked over at the pile of suitcases beyond the hole in the wall. Their thought processes were racing in tandem.

“Do you think… they’re all here?” Jo asked.

It was a fearsome question and the possibilities were too dreadful to consider. But consider them she must — they’d come this far to uncovering the truth. Max dove through the wall and started dragging cases from the luggage hold into the bathroom. Jo helped him, struggling beneath the weight of the charnel cargo.

One by one they cleared the area. Max pulled the final case from the back of the compartment, revealing one last remaining item — a human shape wrapped in black bin bags and bound tightly with thick gaffer tape. Max struggled with the dead weight, managing to pull it around until the feet were at the edge of the hole in the wall. Jo grabbed the feet and helped him drag the body out and onto the pile of luggage. Max emerged from the luggage hold, sweating from his exertions. He assisted Jo in propping the body up against the shower cubicle door. They looked at each other in silent consternation.

Jo turned back to face the bagged body in front of her. She reached out with a trembling hand and tore open the plastic covering the head. Tears gushed from her eyes like a torrent from a broken dam. Two dead eyes gazed back at her, cold, bereft of life and frozen in terror. It was Dawn, her mother. A small entry wound had been punched through her forehead, framed by congealed blood.

“Mum… No, no, no, nooo!”

Jo’s sobs turned into a strangled scream of anguish. Not her Mum, what had she done to deserve that? Jo’s mind boiled. Then, the further implications of what she was seeing exploded in her brain like a gunshot. Sophie, she thought, ohmygodSophie.

She tore her gaze from the horrific death mask of her mother’s face and started tearing through the bags and suitcases, unzipping them, frantic; searching.

Staring down in horror as the vile contents of the luggage were spilled on the bathroom floor, Max grabbed Jo’s shoulder and tried to drag her away. She fought him off and wrenched herself back to her bloody work, fingers already stained dark red. Each and every case was filled to bursting with plastic-wrapped, eviscerated body parts. The need to see, the need to know, Sophie’s fate had overridden Jo’s disgust as she dug through the luggage’s ripe butchery. She knew the merest glimpse of her daughter would unravel the last tenuous strands of her sanity, but she was compelled to search on.

Max stepped back, distancing himself from Jo and the growing pile of dead cargo.

He knew the grim purpose to which she had resigned herself and, while it shook him to the core, he had to focus on getting out of this nightmare and off this plane alive. His eyes darted around the bathroom, searching for his bag. It had to be there, somewhere — had to be.

Then, incongruous amidst the mess of open suitcases and butchered flesh, he saw an elegant little leather pouch. Recognising it as the limousine driver’s, he reached down and grabbed it. Tearing it open, he rooted inside and pulled out a mobile phone. It glistened under the bathroom lights, all fake diamonds and garish pink housing — Gwen’s phone.

He turned it over in his hand and saw that the screen had been smashed. Max rooted through the pouch and pulled out his own phone, also smashed. He removed the back of the phone and saw an empty space where the SIM card should have been. Their captors hadn’t taken any chances.

If they’d been so thorough, so efficient, with the phones — then what about his laptop?

Had they disabled that too, smashed the hard drive to bits? The thought was too much to bear. He started to rifle through the pile of body bags, looking for his own luggage.

“Fuck! Where the hell is it!?” he said.

“I can’t find her!” Jo said, desperate. The stench of human corruption was all around her. There was Dave’s friend Rory, his tattooed arm — hand still connected at the wrist. The same busy hand that had worked the games controller before his attacker blew his brains out across his living room wall. In the next case, Jo’s nostrils protested at the hot meat stink of what was left of Gwen’s sister Emily. Her dismembered body burned to a crisp, eyeballs melted into their sockets. Jo opened another suitcase, engrossed in her frantic search. Sophie had to be there somewhere — she had to be. But the more she searched, Jo found herself looking at the same dead faces, the same severed arms and legs, a second time. There seemed to be so many more body parts than could belong to the people they’d seen killed on their screens. Jo couldn’t be sure, but she hadn’t found any child-sized body parts. It was dreadful to think it, but could she have overlooked Sophie somehow? She was so tiny, just a little girl. Maybe she’d already seen her, but her mind had blocked the trauma of the awful discovery from her very eyes. Her little Pumpkin.

Jo looked down at her hands and arms, slicked red with blood up to the elbows. Strands of someone else’s hairs snapped sickly between her sticky fingers. The fear of finding Sophie, coupled with the deep trauma of seeing Dawn dead, shook Jo to the core. Her entire body shuddered, and she cradled herself in her arms. Rocking like a madwoman, she began to scream and wail through her tears.

Dead eyes looked back at her, an audience forever silenced.

“Got it!”

Max was to the rear of the bathroom, struggling to extract his bag from beneath two heavy suitcases. He heaved, and the cases spilled their body parts as he wrenched his bag free. He crossed to the sink and unfastened the bag, pausing for a moment to prepare himself for the worst. Reaching inside, he pulled out his sticker-encrusted laptop. Elated, he saw it was still in one piece. Thumbing the little catch at the front of the machine, he opened up the screen. Unlike the mobile phones in the pouch, it was undamaged; save for the familiar little dent he’d made a few months back when he’d snapped it shut with an errant ballpoint pen inside. Max pressed the power switch at the top of the keyboard. The little green power-up LED lit up and the laptop clicked and whirred into life. Kissing the machine in thanks, Max stepped over Jo and headed back into the main cabin.

Kneeling down, he placed the laptop on the floor in front of him, cracked his knuckles and got to work.

Exhausted, Jo crawled over the mound of luggage and bodies and slumped down next to Dawn’s corpse. Her mum’s plastic bag shroud crinkled as Jo leaned against it. She stared at Dawn’s face, those eyes frozen in shock and terror. Hope it was quick; hope you didn’t feel too much pain, thought Jo. She reached out her trembling hand and stroked her mother’s cold cheek.

“Is Sophie with you Mum? If there’s still hope, please tell me… please.”

But there was no hope in Jo’s voice. The image of her daughter, so small on the bed in that grubby room, flashed into her head again. And with it came all the nightmare visions of the face that hid behind the camera lens, the eyes that watched her little girl’s frail form, cold as glass. She imagined spiralling with the lens as it turned and focussed. She felt herself falling into the dark oubliette of the killer’s eyes and tumbling, bereft.

Jo broke down, sobbing, next to her dead mother.

Max was poised over the laptop keyboard like a hawk.

His fingers were still covered in blood from the luggage. Tapping away furiously, he left bloody fingerprints on the shiny keys. He jabbed at the trackpad, also slicked with blood, and opened another window. His mind was code now; married to the machine he was interfacing with. He ran the hacking software’s subroutine and watched as a stream of data unspooled across his screen. The bright green digits flickered past his eyes as the program tried to unlock the security protocols that were keeping him and his machine from the jet’s onboard network.

“Come on… come on!”

Machine code scrolled up across all his open windows, hard drive whirring as though the laptop were huffing and puffing with the effort. Max wiped cold sweat from his forehead and coughed. He wasn’t feeling too good. Probably psychosomatic — who wouldn’t feel sick after inhaling the awful stench in the luggage hold?

Another sound penetrated the periphery of his senses, over his coughing.

Jo, in the bathroom a short distance away.

It sounded like she was talking to somebody.

Or some body.

Max shuddered, focussed his attention on the laptop screen again. One of the data streams had narrowed and locked, while the other window ran through the remaining decryption work. The jet’s air conditioning breathed down the back of Max’s neck as he crouched over the screen. He shivered and coughed again. His throat was so dry, the hacking cough made him gag a little. He watched anxiously as the scrolling in the other window stopped. An administration message popped up on his screen, followed by a new window with the Deppart Airlines logo.

“Okay, I’m in!”

Jo appeared in the bathroom doorway. She swayed, as if on the verge of collapse. All the trauma and shock at what she’d witnessed was still etched into her expression.

“The onboard network,” Max said, interpreting the data, “It’s a closed network, hosted by someone on the ground. The webcams are all feeding off to another location.”

He double-clicked on an entry in the list of data and brought up a video window.

Webcam footage of their struggle with Dave played out in front of their eyes, filmed from a high angle. Max glanced upwards — cameras were hidden in the cabin’s overhead lights. The footage paused, then started up again in a loop. Max watched, silent for a moment, as he saw himself plunge the crash axe into Dave’s head all over again.

“If I can get a fix on the I.P. address of the network administrator, maybe we can contact the authorities, at least set off some alarms signposting them our way…”

“We should make it our priority to contact All2gethr — warn those poor people there’s a plane headed their way,” said Jo.

Max continued hacking, pallid and sweating as he went about his work. Jo watched from over his shoulder, clutching one of the seat backs for support. Had he even heard what she’d said?

Neither of them noticed that in the distance, at the front of the plane, the light by the cockpit door turned from red to green.

And neither of them noticed as the cockpit door opened, slowly…

Sixteen

Jo watched as Max worked furiously at the laptop keyboard.

He was rambling, only snatches of what he was saying breaking through. And those brief sentences were unintelligible to her, something about source code and closed networks — techno-speak, gobbledegook. Her mind was a fug, numbed by the shock of finding Dawn among the bodies in the luggage compartment. Only the vague hope that they might contact the outside world was keeping her brain from shutting down completely.

“Give me the laptop.”

The man’s voice cut through the fog of Jo’s thoughts, startling her back into the here and now. He was standing just a few feet away, dressed in the signature smart white shirt and black tie of an airline pilot. He was pointing a bright yellow plastic taser gun at them. His eyes darted from Max to Jo, as though ascertaining which was the biggest threat to him. Brow slicked with sweat, he looked to be full of nerves, but determined to conquer them.

Seeing the taser gun, Max retracted his hands from the laptop keyboard and looked up at Jo. She looked back at him, gobsmacked by the intruder’s sudden appearance in the cabin.

“Hand it over, slowly.”

Max relented — there was clearly no other choice but to comply. He slid the laptop across the floor. It came to a halt a few inches away from the man’s feet.

Not lowering his guard for a second, the man lifted his foot and brought it down on the laptop, hard. Stamping again and again, he smashed the screen until it snapped away from the keyboard. Grinding his heel into the keys, the machine made a pained whining sound then died.

Max winced, looking as crushed as his beloved machine.

Jo watched as the man took a single, bold step closer to them.

Broken glass crunched beneath his shiny black leather shoes. His eyes widened as he took in the carnage. Blood stains everywhere, from the gory mausoleum in the luggage hold and from Dave’s shattered skull. Seeing Dave and Gwen’s partially covered bodies, the man took a sharp intake of breath, tightening his grip on the taser. His gaze rested on Jo’s hands, her skin still slicked with gore.

She placed them behind her back.

“What the… hell has been going on in here?”

Bile rose in Jo’s throat. How the hell could he stand there and ask her that?

“Alligator,” she spat. Every ounce of bitterness she possessed was in her voice.

“Stay back.” The man turned the taser gun toward Jo, retreating slowly.

Jo glanced at Max. Their eyes met and she knew he had reached the same conclusion she had. Together, they launched themselves at the man with all their might, giving him no chance to trigger the taser. The man struggled against their assault, but they were too much for him and he toppled. Jo scratched and bit at him like a feral woman. Max grappled him to the floor and began raining blows.

Max wrestled the taser gun from his hands and scrambled to his feet. The taser was now trained on its previous owner.

Jo backed away from the man, catching her breath amidst the adrenaline rush.

The man scurried backwards until his back was resting against the bar area. He shook his head, dizzy from their blows. Dabbing at his bleeding lip, he looked up at Max, afraid.

Max staggered forward, coughing. His skin was now deathly pale and slicked with perspiration. For a moment he looked as though he might collapse. Then he coughed again and cleared his throat, regaining his composure — and his grip on the taser weapon.

“Don’t move you sick fuck. Stay exactly where you are,” Max growled.

Jo felt the man’s eyes on her, still. She felt naked — felt the blood drying on her hands and arms. Anger and guilt and fear combined into a need to be armed so she could protect herself. Her eyes searched the cabin and she saw the crash axe’s blade glinting under the overhead lights. She grabbed it and brandished it at the stranger, who shifted uncomfortably on the floor.

“You heard what he said! Don’t move! Who are you?”

The man brushed a shard of broken glass from the Deppart Airlines epaulet affixed to the shoulder of his shirt, and then peered up at her. The look on his face was disarming. He looked just as freaked out as Jo felt. She couldn’t risk letting her guard down, for fear that this was yet another of Alligator’s mind games.

“Who the fuck are you?” Her speech was clearer and calmer this time. The weapon in her hand was giving her power, and purpose.

“Callahan… George Callahan. I own this plane. I’m just a pilot…”

Jo lunged forward with the axe, Max training the taser gun right between Callahan’s eyes. The man recoiled, holding his palms up in surrender. Sweat had stained the armpits of his shirt.

“I swear to God.”

Max grimaced, cold sweat gathering around his bloodshot eyes.

“Yeah? Then why did you smash up my bloody laptop?”

“I’m… just doing what I’m told.”

“By who?”

Jo and Max both guessed the answer before Callahan opened his mouth to speak.

“Alligator.”

“Who is the Alligator?” Jo snapped.

Callahan just shook his head. “I don’t know. I haven’t even seen his face — his real face.”

Jo glanced at Max. Could Callahan be telling the truth?

“He’s lying,” Max said.

“So, why shouldn’t we kill you right now?”

Callahan snorted. A pained laugh. “Fly this plane can you?”

“Jesus.” Max looked away, coughing.

“So why are you here? Why are we on your plane?”

The man sighed. He looked deflated, glancing around at the dead bodies and smashed monitors. He looked distant, like he was thinking of someone, somewhere else.

Jo watched him, curious, seeing something of her own predicament in his eyes. Her thoughts returned to Sophie. She had to get to the bottom of this, had to find a way out. Jo turned to Max, but he was leaning on his seat back looking worse for wear. Just hang on in there Max, she thought, we’re almost there…

She looked back at Callahan and caught him watching them cautiously. Clutching the axe, she moved closer to him.

“Alligator — what do you know about him?”

“He’s got my family. My wife and…” Callahan’s eyes welled up with tears. “My son. When I came home day before yesterday, they were gone. The house… Jesus what a mess. They ransacked the place, tore it apart. Then I got the message…”

“Message? What message?”

Jo pictured herself reading the All2gethr winner’s email. Sophie’s excitement when she’d told her she was going to New York. Then she smelled the bodies in the luggage hold, recalled the blank fear in Dawn’s eyes. She blinked away the terrible images invading her thoughts. Tried to focus on Callahan’s voice.

“The bastard left a recording.” Tears were trickling down his face now. “He killed my son, Jacob… he… To show me he meant business. He said he’d kill them all if I didn’t do what he said.”

Jo had no words left in her dry mouth. She could easily imagine Alligator saying those words, and knew how Callahan must have felt. Had Alligator shown this poor wretch the footage of his son being murdered? She felt a pang of guilt at the memory of the execution viral she had forwarded to her friends.

It’s not the same, she told herself, that’s what Alligator wants you to think, that you’re as bad as him. That’s how he keeps you on your toes, fighting for your loved ones.

She stared down at Callahan bitterly. Wasn’t that what he was trying to do? Fight for his loved ones? She glanced at the suitcases, spilling their human cargo out through the bathroom door. Poor fool.

“I can’t let that happen,” Callahan continued, echoing Jo’s thoughts, “I won’t let that happen. I’m only doing what I have to do, to save them.”

His self-pity was beginning to have a negative effect on Jo. Didn’t he care about what they’d been through while he was locked away in that cockpit?

“We’ve all lost people,” Jo said. “My Mother is dead. Everybody he showed us is dead!”

Callahan’s eyes hardened. He glanced around the cabin as if he was reminding himself of some dreaded purpose.

He cleared his throat. “You going to tell me what you did out here?”

Jo felt the look of guilt flash across her face before she could quell it. She glanced at Max, who lurched back toward Callahan.

“We did what we had to, mate.”

The plane dropped suddenly, losing altitude.

Jo cried out and Max fell backwards onto his seat. They steadied themselves as the plane levelled out. Jo thought of the map, the little red line showing their flight path into the All2gethr.com headquarters.

“You have to land this plane. If you crash into All2gethr, you’ll kill hundreds of innocent people.”

“Innocent people I don’t know,” Callahan said. “People die every day… but not my family, not today. He already took my youngest, my Jacob, from me. You don’t have any idea what that’s like.”

“Oh, believe me, I do know. He killed my mother. He has my daughter.”

Jo knelt down next to Callahan. Behind her, Max was doubled over his seat, coughing hard.

“Please,” Jo’s voice was as calm as she could make it. “God knows what he’s going to do with her. She’s only eight years old…”

Her words looked to be hitting home.

Callahan’s eyes softened. But Max’s coughing grew louder still, distracting him. Jo looked over her shoulder at Max, who looked to be on the verge of collapse.

He was in the throes of an unstoppable torrent of agonised hacking coughs. As the coughing grew more intense, he started to gag and splutter. Horribly, specks of blood and bile sprayed from his mouth as he fell to his knees. He dropped the taser gun and clutched at his throat. His eyes looked like bursting plums as he slumped back onto the floor, rasping.

“What’s the hell’s wrong with him?” Callahan asked, afraid.

Still clutching the axe, Jo dashed over to Max. She kneeled over him and placed her hand on his forehead.

“Oh no. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!”

She looked mortified, tears leaking from her eyes as Max tugged desperately at her clothing.

“What-did-you-do-to-me?” he rasped.

“It was… I thought it was the only way…”

Bloody spittle coated Max’s lips in a noxious foam as he tried to draw painful breaths, each intake of oxygen like a knife blade to his chest.

Jo was desperately trying to cradle him, but he used the last of his strength to fight her off, shoving at her like she was attacking him.

She heard Callahan’s outraged voice from over her shoulder.

“What did you do to him?”

Max uttered two sharp, final, breaths. He fell silent, eyes fixed in silent horror at Jo’s guilty face.

Only what I had to do, to save her, thought Jo, to save my baby girl.

Callahan snatched the taser from the floor. He was standing over Jo now.

She looked down at Max, the boy she’d felt so drawn to when they’d first met at the airport. The boy who was now dead from the poison she had poured into the champagne under Alligator’s instruction. Max had downed all the glasses. She’d meant for the others to partake too. Jo gripped the crash axe. Alligator had made a murderess of her. That’s how far she’d go to save her little Sophie.

“Oh Bravo, Jo.” Alligator’s voice, razor sharp, cut through the tension in the cabin. “Beautiful work. You’re the only one who has actually managed to complete their assignment.”

Jo stood up and locked eyes with Callahan. He was pointing the taser gun right at her.

She was ready for the fight.

“Time for the final round,” Alligator sneered.

The claustrophobic emergency lighting clicked on, painting the jet interior a carnal red. Jo’s monitor screen flickered with digital noise, which cleared to reveal a camera-eye view of a shadowy room. On-screen, a terrified middle-aged woman and teenage boy were tied up, back-to-back, on chairs in the centre of the room, their mouths gagged with thick black duct tape.

“Ten minutes to impact, Mr. Callahan. So, the question is, are you going to listen to Jo the poisoner here, or are you going to get back on schedule and save your wife and firstborn?”

Callahan looked at the screen, distraught. The cameraman held a gleaming hunter’s knife blade up to his captives’ eyes. His wife and son’s fear was palpable through their muffled cries for help — help that wasn’t going to come unless he acted.

“Don’t listen to him,” Jo pleaded, “they’re already dead… they’re all here, all of them!”

She gestured at the piles of body parts.

Callahan glanced at her, then back at the screen.

“Which one goes first? Wifey? Or the boy?” Alligator said.

Jo fixed Callahan with imploring eyes. “Don’t listen to him!”

Callahan hesitated, hearing Jo’s urgency but unable to tear his eyes away from the sight of his wife and child on the monitor screen.

They twitched and struggled against their bonds as the camera-killer drew closer to them, knife blade gleaming.

“It’s all pre-recorded. Those suitcases back there… all the people he told us were still alive on the ground. They’re all fucking dead! All of them!”

She grabbed Callahan’s shoulder, forcing him to look toward the suitcases, at the blood and severed limbs.

He looked at her, numb at the sight of so much death and the muffled cries of his family.

“You said he has your daughter.”

“What? I…”

“If your daughter is alive then there’s a chance my family is too.”

“I looked through the suitcases, my Mum’s body was there but not my daughter’s. But all the other people were killed before we even took off — that video he’s showing you…”

Callahan’s face was resolute. “No. If there’s even the slightest chance they’re alive… I can’t take the risk of letting them die.”

“No. No! Please! They’re dead already!” Jo tried desperately to grab a hold of him, but he fended her off.

“Get in that cockpit right now Callahan, or your pretty wife loses her head.”

Alligator’s voice betrayed an anger Jo had not heard in him before. She watched, dismayed, as the pilot began to retreat towards the cockpit.

“No! Don’t do this! All those innocent lives, for nothing!”

“Too slow,” Alligator said.

Callahan’s eyes widened in pure terror as the on-screen killer pushed the tip of the blade into his wife’s neck. Blood trickled over the blade, a little flower of death blooming.

“Now get back in that cockpit or I’ll take her fucking head clean off.”

“No,” Jo said, “Please…”

She searched Callahan’s eyes, looking for that glimmer of hope that he might see reason in what she’d told him. Only pain and regret looked back at her. Callahan turned on his heels and walked back toward the cockpit door. She swallowed an angry breath, forcing it back down into her solar plexus. Jo felt it burning inside her, and drew energy from her rage.

“Stop!”

He turned, and she charged at him, lifting the axe in readiness to strike.

He flinched, trying to lift the taser gun in time, but she’d caught him by surprise. She closed in on him, almost within striking distance. The plane’s engines whined in protest as the jet buckled in the gathering storm, dropping suddenly and knocking Jo off her course. She stumbled and fell against the hull, smacking her head with a heavy thud. The edge of the seat stopped her from hitting the deck, and she pushed herself up into a standing position using the crash axe for support. The plane righted itself once more and she turned to face Callahan again, clutching the axe with both hands now.

Callahan raised his arm, taking aim, and fired the taser at her. She looked down in shock at her chest, seeing the little electrodes that had pierced her blouse and were embedded in her flesh.

Convulsing from the sudden surge of electricity through her nervous system, she staggered back into the hull again and dropped to the floor.

Callahan advanced, finger on the trigger, still pumping volts into her prone body.

Jo lay on the floor watching, sideways, as he crouched down and disconnected the taser wires from her paralysed form. Her vision blurred as she watched his shiny black shoes disappear over the threshold and into the cockpit.

Moments before she passed out, she saw the little LED light at the cockpit door flicker from green to red.

Seventeen

Jo regained consciousness with a start and clutched at her chest, imagining the electrodes were still there discharging their hot white pain into her.

She lurched forward into a clumsy seated position. The plane felt like it was tilting slightly, but she could not be sure if it was an after-effect of the taser. She blinked, trying to clear the mental fog that was clouding her eyes, but not wanting to see.

Carnage was all around her — a mess of body parts and luggage. Spilled blood was daubed across the surfaces of the once-plush private jet. Dave’s corpse was just visible in the crew prep area. Close by lay Gwen, who had helped drag Dave to his resting place beneath the curtain. Gwen, whose neck she had snapped during the struggle. Max’s body lay slumped in the spot where he had taken his last agonized breath. Max, whom she had poisoned at the behest of their unseen host.

I’m a murderer,

she thought bitterly, and this must be Hell.

She clambered to her feet, clutching at her pounding head with the flat of her hand.

Swooning from the effects of standing up too soon, she stumbled back into her seat. Her computer touch screen flickered madly along with the rhythm of the atmospheric conditions outside the plane. Jo could see herself reflected in the monitor, a silhouette fading in and out between the tides of digital noise. She felt like a ghost, trapped in the aftermath of an air crash, dead passengers all around her. Maybe she would drift like this for all eternity when the plane came down, a ghost in a broken machine.

The monitor flickered again and a vague image appeared, blanking out her reflection.

Coming and going through the digital interference, the image looked like it was trying to break through. Jo sat forward, peering closer at the screen — there.

The phantom image broke through again, clearer this time. It showed a bedroom, walls covered in posters of teenage pin-ups and Emo bands. She had seen this before — but where?

The heavy cloud in her brain began to lift as she tried hard to remember. As she searched her thoughts, Jo saw the image sharpen suddenly, freeze, then begin to rewind at speed. The image froze again and Jo realised she was looking at webcam footage. A pretty teenaged girl was sitting in front of the glow of a computer screen, the poster-filled bedroom wall behind her — that girl, where on earth had she seen her before?

Alligator’s solemn voice boomed above the hum of the jet engines — a funereal concert.

“I want you to watch this video again — before you die.”

The footage started playing, and Jo watched the girl typing at her keyboard.

Her despondent face was stained black with eye makeup as tears rolled down her cheeks. Occasionally, the girl stopped typing and glanced up at her screen, reading something there.

“I thought one of you might have remembered. Some guilt addressed, but that is clearly too much to ask of your kind.”

A little window popped up over the footage of the girl, words appearing as if they were being typed out in real time. Jo recognised it as an All2gethr chat window, the same kind she’d used herself countless times — she knew this. She’d seen this.

The footage fast-forwarded, froze then played again. The young girl looked more withdrawn, slumped back in her computer chair with an open bottle of vodka in front of her. She had a plastic medicine container in her hand. Prescription pills. She started to down the pills, singly at first, and then in little handfuls, swigging them back with gulps of neat vodka — Jo remembered.

“She… committed suicide. Online, on her webcam.”

“Lucy Turner, aged fifteen.” There was a waver in Alligator’s voice, a hint of emotion. “You were there, all of you. Online. Watching as it happened. You all saw fit to pass comment. Gwen, with her sermonising, only made it worse…”

Jo watched as more text appeared in the All2gethr chat window next to a thumbnail image of Gwen’s face — her avatar:

‘Not even God can forgive you if you do this. Where will you spend eternity? You’ll burn in Hell.’

“…Holier than thou, a hypocrite hiding behind her religion.”

Jo recalled the awful image of Gwen’s sister being burned alive. Alligator’s vengeance upon her had been absolute and without mercy. The main cabin shook and rattled. Jo grabbed hold of the seat’s armrests as Alligator’s voice continued over the increasing sound of the engines.

“Dave embittered the pill, goaded her onwards.”

Next to Dave’s avatar, more text appeared in the chat window:

‘Another sad attention-seeking trip to casualty and a stomach pump.

Do it right or not at all. Hang yerself and be sure love!’

“And, when Dave saw fit to post it on, his friend Rory just had to comment. That boy had a big mouth. He’s much quieter now…”

Jo remembered the look in Rory’s eyes, just seconds before the camera-killer had pulled the shotgun trigger. On-screen, she saw Rory’s cruel taunts being typed into the chat window:

‘Dumb bitch! If I were as ugly as you I’d probably do the same. LOL!’

The plane bucked like a bronco and Jo glanced out the window. Storm clouds swirled around the flashing lights of the plane, looking like smoke and hellfire.

“And then there was Max, posting it across dozens of sites. Tap, tap, tap. Such busy hands.”

Next to Mike’s avatar, the words, his death warrant:

‘OMG! Emo girl tops herself. Goodbye cruel world!’

Jo shook her head. Whatever anyone had done on this plane, or on the ground, Max was an exception.

“You didn’t kill ‘Max’ though did you? You killed the wrong guy you fucking freak!”

Silence crackled over the speakers. She was right and he knew it.

Then, Alligator spoke again, softly and clearly. “No Jo. You killed the wrong guy.”

Unable to help herself, she glanced over at Max’s body. His last tortured gasp echoed in her ears. What did you do to me? She could see his dying face mouthing the word. Murderer. She bowed her head under the weight of her anger, guilt — and her fear of what may come.

“Don’t worry, I’ll catch up with the real Max soon enough. He’ll suffer too.”

Alligator’s tone was becoming casual again, like he was merely making polite chitchat with her.

“Now, where were we? Oh yes, Alan thought it was all very funny…”

‘Cheer up retard! ROFL!’ appeared in the chat box next to Alan’s avatar.

Jo remembered the gloved assailant, beating Alan and pushing him to his death below the office-building stairwell. She remembered the gloved hand, spraying the letters ‘ROFL’ across Alan’s chest, as he lay there broken and bleeding. Murderer. Max’s death rattle voice echoed in her aching brain. Let the punishment fit the crime.

Jo watched, distressed, as young Lucy gulped back more handfuls of pills. That poor girl — what she’d had to endure. Tears flooded from the girl’s eyes. She was blinded by despair.

“They were all implicit. But you, Jo — do you remember what you did?”

Jo fell silent, recalling that night. She could almost smell the memory of the booze, the wine bottles standing open next to her computer monitor in her darkened bedroom. Sophie had been at Dawn’s, sleeping over so that Jo Scott — ‘World’s Best Mum’ according to the mug on her dressing table — could get shit-faced and chat with people on All2gethr until she passed out.

“You just watched. You like watching, don’t you Jo?”

She felt sick.

She’d watched little Lucy Turner committing suicide live via webcam with the same eyes that were shedding tears for her now. Unsympathetic, drunken eyes. The eyes of a murderer.

“I was drunk… I…”

“Your excuse for everything!” Alligator’s fury made the speakers tremble. “Your excuse for getting pregnant! Your sad pathetic excuse for a life! You’re a mother yourself but you still sat and watched my little girl die! You don’t deserve to have a daughter!”

His words cut deep. Tears streamed down Jo’s face as she remembered the dark months before rehab. She had been a lousy, inconstant excuse for a mother.

“Not one of you called the authorities. Not one of you reached out to push the panic button. All of you are guilty and your punishments both just and fitting.”

But he was wrong. Jo had gotten herself some help. Cleaned up her act. Dawn had been so proud of her. And Sophie loved her. She flinched at the memory of the video showing Sophie in that filthy cell. Her stomach flipped as she remembered tearing away the black plastic bag from Dawn’s dead face. Fresh anger ignited like a flame in Jo — whatever she had done, or not done, she had paid her dues.

“We’re all guilty? Screw you. You killed my mother! The pilot’s family! Pitched us all against each other for your own sick amusement! And what about all the innocent people at All2gethr?”

“Some people were an unfortunate necessity… But All2gethr?” Alligator spat, “They are as guilty as the rest of you. They swept my Lucy’s case under the carpet. We will destroy their servers, their archives and their people. They will become nothing. And the World will watch their bitter end. They’ll wish they had paid attention then.”

Jo cried out as the plane plummeted again, a pure fear reflex. Buffeted by the storm, the jet tilted, correcting its course. This was it; the end was coming for her. It had all been building up to this, the winner’s email, the champagne reception, the lies and the bloodshed — all because of one man’s insane desire for revenge.

“The world will watch?” she said, “No one will give a shit about your reasons, your ‘master plan’… Nobody is even going to know!”

“Wrong again Jo. I’m generating the ultimate viral video, of which you are the star.”

Suddenly, Jo was looking at herself on the touch screen monitor. She looked bedraggled and bloodstained as she peered at the screen. The beady little webcam eye, embedded into the monitor’s housing like a dark jewel, had been watching her all along.

“Of course, anything that implies my part in all this will be removed before the World enjoys watching you die over and over and over again.”

Alligator’s face reappeared on her screen, black slit eyes regarding her like she was a piece of meat on the end of a hook.

“An eye for an eye my dear.”

Eighteen

Jo fought back her tears. The jet engines droned on outside amidst the howling storm. She replayed everything that had led her up to this moment, fast-forwarded it in her mind’s eye like one of Alligator’s sick video recordings. She saw herself kissing Sophie through the window of the big black car, saw herself toasting the others with champagne, then poisoning poor Max, or whatever his real name was, she’d probably never know now, the man she’d killed. It had all led here, to this point in time. Her, alone in this cabin.

And only one thing mattered to her, only one thing in the whole wide world.

“Sophie… is she alive?”

The words felt like an open wound to her. She waited for Alligator’s reply, unable to breathe. He didn’t make her wait long.

“I’m afraid not. I took out her pretty eyes. That is your punishment. She cried out for you Jo, I never thought she’d stop…”

Jo screamed through her tears. “I don’t fucking believe you!”

But Jo did believe him, and that was the most terrible thing for her to admit. For the duration of the nightmare flight, Jo had felt she couldn’t believe a word of what Alligator said. He’d taken lives when he could have spared them. He’d taunted and turned each passenger against the other. And he’d manipulated Callahan into destroying everything for the lie that his family would be spared. Until now, everything that had come out of Alligator’s mouth had seemed to be a lie, or a threat hidden in a promise. She believed only one thing now; that all hope was lost — Alligator’s corrupt gospel of despair. Jo felt it consuming her like a black void.

“I have a family too Jo, just like you did. We’ve been ever so busy. Busy little bees.”

“You,” Jo snarled, “are a fucking monster.”

She looked at the death and destruction all around her, at Alligator’s empire of smashed technology, broken bodies and ruined lives.

“This is how you honour your daughter’s memory? Did you ever stop to wonder why your daughter killed herself you sick bastard? With a father like you — who wouldn’t?”

The touch screen crackled with digital noise. Jo could almost feel Alligator’s rage at the other end of the webcam. A tangible, spiteful presence trying desperately to break through.

“Six minutes to impact,” Alligator said.

Jo’s eyes burned with defiant anger. Her hatred for Alligator had become pathological — and her rage at what he had done was all consuming. She looked up the aisle toward the cockpit door and knew now what she had to do.

For Sophie, for her Mother, and for all those poor people on the ground.

It took seconds for Jo to reach the main door of the plane.

It was her only option, she knew that now, clear as day. She looked down at the curved door panel and saw the transparent Perspex covering, emblazoned with the words ‘EMERGENCY DOOR RELEASE’.

Alligator’s voice quaked through the cabin. “What are you doing, little woman?”

“This ends now, you bastard.”

She lifted the plastic cover, grabbed the door release lever.

“You hear me? It’s OVER!”

Jo wrenched the lever with all her might.

It did not budge. She tried again, with both hands this time, but it was stuck fast. Jo slammed her fist against the door in frustration.

“Five minutes. Goodbye Jo.”

Nineteen

The plane tilted and rocked. Rain lashed the windows. The jet was through the clouds now, bearing the full brunt of the storm below them.

Jo placed her hands on the curved hull, steadying herself. She could feel the plane making ready its descent. The engines roared in concert with her rage and despair as she battled her way, uphill, along the aisle into the main cabin of the jet. Her foot snagged on something heavy and she almost tripped over. Looking down, she saw Max’s dead body, his wide terror-struck eyes fixed open, staring at her. Jo looked away. Disentangling her foot, she glanced around the cabin, frantic.

Then she found what she had been looking for — her last chance.

She lifted the crash axe and stumbled back toward the crew prep area, and the main door. The jet was lurching and rocking now, battered by turbulence.

Jo prayed to the memory of her Mother that she was not too late. Dawn had died for what Alligator perceived as Jo’s sins. If she could make a difference — any difference at all — then that would be enough for her. To know, in her final moments, that she had done the right thing and had not just stood idly by while Alligator destroyed yet more lives. In a way, she had become his protégé. He had shown her the error of her ways by punishing her for her inaction when his daughter, Lucy, had chosen to take her own life. Hefting the axe with both hands at the door seal, she could no longer be accused of inaction.

Slam.

A small crack formed between the door and the hull. Jo lifted the axe and struck at the door seal again.

Slam.

The seal had partially broken away.

“Jo,” Alligator’s voice was terse. It sounded like all the oxygen had been sucked from his body. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Taking strength from his fear, she took a moment to wipe the sweat from her brow — then hacked the axe blade into the widening crack with all her might.

Slam.

“Jo!” Alligator sounded frenzied now.

Slam. Slam!

A couple more hits, and Jo stepped back to assess her handiwork. Her heart was racing but she felt cold and calm as she watched the crack in the door seal bend outwards. The sudden loss of pressure was bending the door from its hinges.

For a moment, Alligator’s vile words came back to haunt her — I took out her pretty eyes… she cried out for you Jo, I thought she’d never stop…

Jo choked back an onslaught of tears. Her little girl really was dead. She’d meet her in a better place; Jo felt sure of that now. All of the pain and struggle of her life was rolling back like a tidal wave. Jo felt only love, for her daughter. Love, for her sister Maddie, wherever she may be. Love, for the strangers on the ground at work in their building, blissfully unaware of her presence. Unaware of what she was about to do for them. When they were reunited, Sophie would know for certain that her Mum had not died in vain. Sophie would know that she had never given up on her. And she would know that despite her flaws, Mummy had done the right thing, finally.

Jo Scott felt peaceful, serene.

She closed her eyes and pictured Sophie’s smiling face. We’ll be together soon, little Pumpkin, she thought.

Slam.

One final axe strike and the door exploded away from the aircraft. Debris began to smash and swirl madly through the cabin as it depressurised. There was an explosion of noise as grinding metal buckled and the jet engines screamed. Jo saw the black void beyond the door, and welcomed it. Freezing cold air sucked her from the doorway, and out into the raging storm, like a final breath.

It felt like freedom.

Twenty

The room was deathly quiet, save for the gentle click and whir of computer hard drives. They lined the space, stacked up on metal shelves, connected by an insane spaghetti of cables. Green router lights flashed, casting an ethereal glow across the dimly lit basement room like stars in a subterranean sky.

The only occupant of the room sat with his back to the little staircase that led to the outside world above. This basement was his world, built with his sweat and toil. He sat facing a bank of computer screens and clicked off the microphone that stood on the desk before him. Staring at the computer monitors, he was mesmerised by the same fuzzy digital noise each one of them displayed. The signal was gone, all communications cut — game over.

The man turned on his swivel chair and surveyed his painstakingly constructed empire. All around him, pinned and adhered to every available inch of shelf and wall, were printouts and photographs alongside lists of surveillance data and jet plane schematics. The entire room was a web of information, a pernicious cocoon from which to exact his revenge.

He glanced, coldly, at the photographs of his victims.

There was Dave, his idiot soldier, gurning into the camera with his arm around the girl he had so easily betrayed. How effortlessly he had been groomed to kill. And Gwen, the religious hypocrite, peering up at the camera she had obviously been holding in her own hand to take the picture. Her look was that of the coquettish tease, her eyes barely concealing the deep conflict within her body and soul. There was the impostor who had pretended to be Max, the grainy photo of him as blurred as the identity he’d projected to his fellow passengers. No matter, he had served his purpose just as well. And Jo. The single mother. The alcoholic. The sad pathetic excuse for a life who had done nothing to save his dear little Lucy, and yet who professed to love her own daughter beyond measure. Even to the point of poisoning another human being to death. He almost admired her for that, he had to admit, but for the fact that she had brought his plane down ahead of schedule… into the sea.

The man stood, weary after too many long hours in the chair, and turned his back on their faces. He felt nothing for them, not even pity. It was over.  He glanced at the wall chart fixed to a section of wall between racks of hard drives. Names, locations, dates and times — stretching back almost forty-eight hours. Each name was crossed out in red marker pen. A grim schedule of executions. Dawn, Rory, Emily and the others — all taken care of. His son had done him proud, getting the luggage ready in time for the flight.

He walked through the tunnel of hardware and intelligence, toward the stairs. Ascending, he paused to turn off the power. His secret world, the Alligator’s lair, was plunged into darkness. Computer cooling fans slowed to a whisper and died, as though mourning their master’s departure.

It was over now. He locked the door behind him.

Just one last job to do.

One name left on the wall chart, not yet crossed out like the others.

Sophie lay on the bed, staring at the grubby old teddy bear.

More than once, she’d thought about reaching out and holding the toy, about cuddling it for comfort. But the bear wasn’t hers, and never would be. If she took it now and held it, and the nasty man came back, he would think she liked it. He would think she’d given up somehow, by cuddling the bear. Its face was dirty and she didn’t like it. Sophie sighed and, still lying down, turned over to face the wall. She heard the bedsprings creak and pop beneath her. The rickety workings of the bed reminded her of the old trampoline in Nanny’s garden. How happy she was the day she’d first played on it, jumping higher and higher, then falling down, laughing and bouncing. But now her Nanny was dead.

Sophie winced as she replayed the muffled gunfire in her head, clenching her eyelids shut in a desperate attempt to blink away the image of the old woman falling to the kitchen floor. Run, her Nanny’s eyes had said. But then the masked man had taken her away, hurting her as he’d bundled her into the back of his van. She could still remember the rank metallic smell inside the vehicle, still feel the sharp sting of the needle he’d injected into her arm before her world had darkened and she’d drifted away.

It seemed like days since she’d woken up on this bed. Maybe it had been days? She couldn’t tell because there were no windows and the nasty man had taken her phone away. She’d hunted for her phone inside the room, just in case he’d dropped it. Then she could have called her mum, or sent a text, or called the police, and someone would come and rescue her. But the phone was nowhere to be found and she’d cried herself to sleep again. Sometimes she woke up crying too, wrenched from pleasant dreams in which she was back with Mum and Nanny baking cakes in the little kitchen. To wake up in the gloomy room, each time with that filthy teddy bear smiling at her, was like a little death.

Sophie felt tears welling up in her eyes again at the thought of her Mum and her Nan. Was her Mum dead now? Had the nasty man shot her too? Sophie didn’t think he wanted to kill her; he kept bringing her horrid lukewarm food to eat and tepid water to drink after all.

She propped herself up on her elbows and glanced over at the door. The red light next to the lock was always looking at her, like an angry little eye. Soon the red light would turn green, the door would open and the nasty man would be there with more yucky food for her to eat. If he wanted her dead, why would he keep feeding her? Maybe it was just a cruel game of his. Maybe next time he opened that door he would kill her.

But she wasn’t afraid of him.  She wasn’t afraid of death — at least that was what she kept telling herself, over and over. Sophie just wanted to be with her Mum again. She lay back and closed her eyes.  Saying a silent prayer that it could be so, she drifted off into a troubled sleep under the watchful glare of the little red light.

Later, while Sophie still slumbered, the light turned green.

Twenty One

“Wakey, wakey, rise and shine.”

The man stood over Sophie’s fragile little body, smiling quietly.

Little girls were so delicate when they slept. He noted the fingers of her right hand were just touching the teddy bear they’d left for her. It was grubby from its exile in the attic, but it felt correct for it to be one of Lucy’s. This little girl had probably never had toys, her slut mother had drunk all their money after all, and the father was nowhere to be seen.

He knew where the father was though. It hadn’t been exactly difficult to track him down via his data trail on All2gethr. Thought he could hide, just like the others. How wrong he was, how naive they all were.

The man recalled the first time he had seen young Sophie, the day that had truly set his plans into motion. Keeping tabs on her mother’s movements, he hadn’t given much thought to the fact that she had a daughter. But when he had seen her holding the child’s hand as they’d walked home, he had been reminded of all that he had lost — more tangibly than ever. The thought that this woman, the same drunken harridan who had sat idly by while his sweet Lucy poisoned herself to death, could profess to enjoy her daughter’s company had simply become too much to bear. He had obsessed over it, night and day, and could draw no other conclusion than that of fate placing this child at his feet as recompense for his great loss. The mother didn’t deserve a child; her actions were testament to that. She couldn’t be trusted to raise a child; her lack of moral values made that much a certainty too.

He’d been a good father to his Lucy, but still she had fallen prey to the evils of the Internet, succumbed to the drink and drugs peddled by the modern world. He’d had to admit to his own failings before he could act, confident that what he was doing was right. This time he would not fail. He would exact his revenge efficiently, without overlooking a single microscopic detail.

Lucy had become lost to him because she had managed to keep her secret world hidden. So he had created a secret world from which his targets could never hide. He knew everything about them, and this knowledge would be their undoing. They were so reliant on technology it had been easy as pie for him to conceal the fact that he’d already had their loved ones killed. The saucy text from Sarah to Dave — sent after she’d been drugged and taken to the hanging room. The All2gethr chat messages from Emily to Gwen — a simple matter of looking at the sister’s chat archive in order to emulate her messaging style. Their bodies were gone now, drowned with the plane. Only Sophie remained.

When he’d laid eyes on Sophie for the very first time, it was as though fate had offered him a second chance to prove himself as a father, and as the moral crusader the modern world so sorely needed. It was then that he knew he must take the child for his own, and dispose of the mother.

The little girl stirred, becoming aware of his presence in the room. She opened her eyes and looked up at him, towering over her like a shadow. He beamed down at her, his new little girl. His prize. How pretty she was.

“Hell-o Lucy. Did you sleep well?”

The girl flinched. Probably still sleepy, poor lamb.

“My name is Sophie.”

Ah yes, still half asleep! He smiled at her, patiently.

“Your name is Lucy now. Do you understand me? L-U-C-Y.”

A glimmer of fear passed over the little girl’s face.

Fear is healthy, fear is good, stops a young girl from growing up to become too much like her whore of a mother.

She nodded at him.

“Good girl. I should like to introduce myself properly. My name is Rupert Turner.”

He grinned down at his new Lucy, his teeth gleaming white as an alligator’s.

“Come on. Now you’ve had a good rest there are some people I’d like you to meet.”

Taking her tiny hand in his, he led her out of the room and up some concrete stairs.

He let go of the little girl’s hand and pushed at a trap door above their heads. He helped Sophie up via a little stepladder and into a garage. Seeing the girl’s nose wrinkle at the strong hospital smell inside the garage, he strode over to the corrugated metal door and slid it open over his head. Fresh air and blinding bright daylight flooded in.

Sophie covered her eyes with her arm in shock.

Rupert chuckled to see her look so pleased to be out and about. My little Lucy.

“Come along,” he said, “Let’s get you cleaned up. Then you can meet the rest of the family.”

“Here she is!”

Rupert Turner grinned from ear to ear as he led his new little Lucy into the kitchen.

His wife turned away from the kitchen sink, grabbing a little hand towel so she could dry off her hands.

Rupert beamed at her. She looked excited. He felt a swell of pride, recalling how brilliantly his wife had played the part of the limousine driver as he’d watched expectantly via his webcam feeds. He felt amused even now at her stern, motherly manner with the passengers, as she’d insisted they hand over their mobile phones. She would be delighted with her new daughter, especially now Soph… no, Lucy, was scrubbed up so nicely.

“Hello Lucy, I’m Annie. I’m going to be your Mum from now on — isn’t that nice?”

She smiled at Sophie, a joyful tear in her eye. Without giving the child a chance to reply, Annie called out into the adjoining room.

“Ed! Come and greet your sister!”

Rupert’s son entered the room. His gait was a little hesitant, borne of the strange tension that existed between him and his father after all they had done in recent days. His father had been judge and jury, and he the executioner. The luggage had been so heavy to load up on the private jet, once it was laden with human effluent. Ed smiled awkwardly at his father, then stooped down to greet the little girl. He ruffled her hair with his big fat fingers. His hand had the same persistent hospital smell as the odour in the garage.

Rupert corralled them into a neat group in the middle of the room.

Then he activated the little digital camera, which lay ready atop the kitchen table next to the fruit bowl. The little red light blinked three times then the room was lit with a blinding flash as the shutter activated.

Rupert dashed, excited, back to the table and picked up the camera to look. The four of them were pictured on the little view screen. A shame, their little Lucy had her eyes closed. She must have blinked when the flash went off.

No, matter, thought Rupert, there will be more family snaps to come. Enough for a lifetime.

He carried the camera over to show Lucy. They all smiled warmly at her, with great pride, as if welcoming a newborn child into the world for the very first time.

“Shall we?” Annie ventured.

Rupert put his jacket on and took Sophie firmly by the hand. He led her out of the front door, into the street. It was suburban road like any other, the branches of blossom trees swayed in the gentle breeze, little white petals raining down on them like confetti.

Annie and Ed walked alongside Sophie and Rupert. To a passer by, they would look like a normal family unit, out for a stroll.

Rupert felt his new daughter’s hand slipping from his fingers. He tightened his grip, holding her firm and thinking, I’ll never let you go, Lucy.

As they crossed the road together and walked to the playground, a plane screamed low overhead coming in to land.

(Extracts from NEWS OF THE PLANET used with kind permission of the publishers)

MYSTERY OF FLIGHT D-665

from

our correspondent

Government officials are reporting that a private jet has crashed into the sea off the coast of Norway. It seems the Challenger 604 aircraft was flying at extremely low altitude in stormy weather when the cabin depressurised. Fatalities cannot so far be confirmed, and no representative from private jet Charter Company Deppart Airlines was available for comment at the time of going to press.

IN-FLIGHT VIDEO GOES VIRAL

by

Technology Editor, David Shilling

A viral video that apparently shows the events onboard Flight D-665 that led up to the crash has emerged online. Outbursts of extreme violence culminating in brutal bloody murder can be seen in the grainy video, which was first made available via online torrent groups. A number of Internet Service Providers have attempted to block the video, following a raft of complaints from child protection agencies and members of the public.

“These deplorable acts of violence are not the kind of material we want our children to see,” said Internet censorship campaigner Marcus Sebastian Shaw at a press conference earlier today, “Anyone watching or distributing this video is part of a larger problem and should be ashamed of themselves. The authorities should be doing more to protect us and our kids from such material.”

FLIGHT D-665 BODIES FOUND — VIRAL VIDEO ‘GENUINE’

breaking

news by Barry Conway

…an air crash investigation team official confirmed that many more bodies were found amidst the wreckage. This would apparently confirm that the air flight video is in fact genuine. With over 2 million views of the video to date, All2gethr is under increasing pressure to respond to claims that they could have prevented loss of life if they had acted sooner. News of the Planet has tried repeatedly to get a statement from an All2gethr representative, but no one has yet come forward…

Epilogue

Let us open a window on the world.

Zooming in, we might find a city — there, there’s one. Let’s look closer. A fleet of black cars is processing towards a large municipal building, a monument of red brick, glass and slate roof tile. Hundreds of insect forms are lining the entrance to the building, dressed in their finery.

Let’s zoom in a little closer.

The insects are mourners, crowds of them, come to share in their collective grief — over people they didn’t really, actually know. The cars stop, and the invited guests clamber out. They trail into the building — it is a church hall.

Why not open another window and take a peek inside?

Floral tributes are everywhere in great stifling bunches, sitting atop pedestals. A huge projector screen displays slide images of the passengers of Deppart Airlines Flight D-665, and their dead friends and family members. Living relatives and friends, some already sobbing into handkerchiefs, take their seats in neat rows.

The ceremony begins, and a man steps up to a lectern to address the crowd. He is in his fifties, and wears the collar and cloth of a priest. His facial expression can barely contain his pent-up anger and emotion. He glances at his dear wife, gaining strength enough to speak from the look in her eyes. He is Father Rhys — Gwen’s father.

“Our hearts go out to the families and friends of those affected by these terrible events,” he says.

He looks almost relieved to be getting the words out, his voice cracked with regret.

The slide changes on the screen to one of Mike, the unfortunate young man who had his arms hacked off.

Look over there, on the front row to the left.

There’s a man in his twenties, just like Mike. His face burns red with anger and grief. He doesn’t look like he’s slept for days, poor lad. This must be Mike’s brother, the real Max Nichols, who carelessly had his identity stolen and so was not aboard Flight D-665. Perhaps he doesn’t feel so lucky to be alive, knowing what happened to the others — knowing what happened to his brother.

“And our prayers are with those lost souls who continue to watch… and share the events via the Internet…” the priest continues, his tone somewhat bitter.

Behind Max, on the very back row, two young boys are oblivious to Father Rhys’ words. They are engrossed in watching something on a mobile phone screen. They each have an ear bud inserted into one ear, so they can both hear the audio.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we? All we have to do is adjust our viewing angle.

There, they are watching the viral video from the plane, whispering to each other in quiet excitement as another passenger dies before their young eyes.

On the projector screen, the slide changes to a portrait of another of the passengers.

“We must pay tribute to…” This time the priest falters, struggling to speak the words. “Jo Scott.”

It’s as if the words are stuck in the poor man’s throat.

“Whose brave final actions saved countless lives…”

He pauses again. We all know why. We all know he’s seen the video along with pretty much everyone else on the planet. Maybe he just can’t get it out of his head, the image of Jo Scott breaking his daughter’s neck. Perhaps that’s how he will always remember her, as a murderer — not as the selfless heroine who crashed the plane into the sea, saving the All2gethr headquarters and its staff.

A young woman weeps silently, seated to the far left of the gathering. She looks up at the image of her sister Jo, trembling with barely suppressed rage. The woman is Maddie Scott, returned early from her travels. It will take a long time for her to come to terms with the fact that she was absent when her entire family were killed. It may take even longer for her to face up to the cold hard fact that she chose not to have any contact with them for weeks.

“We will never forget our loved ones,” Father Rhys struggles on, “Cut down so early in life…”

Tears flood from his eyes now, and he almost collapses over the lectern beneath the crushing weight of his grief. His wife rushes from the sidelines to help him down from the podium. And in the hullabaloo, the slide on the screen changes to one of Sophie Scott, the young girl who is still reported missing…

Let us zoom out now, and leave these people to contemplate the hard-earned lessons of their grief.

From high above, the world can look like such a peaceful, idyllic place. Vast blue oceans kissing the shores of lush green landmasses — a world of infinite possibilities.

But we see a different picture.

We know the world is host to an insect scourge. Their networks of roads and cities crammed with buildings, all conjured from the minds and hands of human beings. They swarm the planet like an infestation, driven by dreams of avarice, fuelled by greed.

And not content with polluting this world, they have seen fit to create another. A virtual world that presents a pathetic fallacy of utopia.

How they wish their second life in that world could be better than the lifetime they spend trapped in their frail bodies. But this virtual world is merely a mirror for their many failures, an extension of their rot and sin, a dumping ground for their basest desires. Like the toxic waste it seeks to bury in the real world, humanity’s virtual crimes will out.

There is an Alligator wrapped around that world, his sinewy tail and razor talons gripping it tight.

His eyes are like orbs of fire, with dark slits at their core, and they see all. He sees us.  He knows what we do, and pieces together the breadcrumb-trails of data we so carelessly leave behind. He is watching, waiting.

He is watching you.

About the Author

Frazer Lee is a writer and director whose screen credits include the award-winning short horror movies On Edge, Red Lines, Simone, and the horror/thriller feature film Panic Button. His short stories have appeared in anthologies including the acclaimed Read By Dawn series and his first novel The Lamplighters is published by Samhain Horror. He lives with his family in Buckinghamshire, England, where he is working on new fiction and film projects.

Official Website: http://www.frazerlee.com

Twitter: http://twitter.com/frazer_lee

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AuthorFrazerLee

Copyright

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