Read the opening chapter of Influence the debut novel by Stuart Johnstone. Lizzie Dean is drawn into an occult murder mystery after the death of her friend. The police investigation is not progressing and Lizzie must take matters into her own hands uncovering shadowy secrets of the world around her.
From the sanctuary of her headphones Lizzie could not hear the insults being thrown at her by the three boys as they passed her in the corridor; but she could guess, with accuracy, their nature. They varied, but not greatly, usually centring on themes such as mutant, or lesbian, or mutant lesbian, rarely carrying much venom or imagination.
Lizzie raised a nonchalant, but defiant middle finger over her shoulder and continued on her journey toward the library. The three boys sneered at her over their own shoulders but didn’t bother to stop, or come after her. These daily corridor exchanges were tiresome, but largely harmless.
Mondays were normally a time for despair and dread, but this morning found Lizzie in an unnaturally good mood. The idiots passing her in the corridor weren’t about to change that, they simply couldn’t compete with the unseasonably warm sun rebounding off of the white walls of Queen’s Grove House, blazing through the windows like searchlights. The whole weekend had been lovely and, now that it had continued into the new week, Lizzie found that the trepidation usually accompanying the first school day of the week had been somewhat lifted. Her mood was further lightened since she would normally, at this time, be heading for double maths, but since the usual timetable had broken up for exams she was no longer required to attend. Pupils were now freed up for personal study, although they could still attend class for quizzes and mock exams if they wanted to. Lizzie, though, could only stomach maths study for short bursts and so the library was the obvious choice.
Lizzie swapped discs in the CD player in her bag, and clicked “Play”, Hard Rock filled her head. The short periods between lessons were always an opportunity for pupils to make up for the silence they kept in class; and the corridors were an assault on the ears with countless conversations battling to be heard, but the music drowned out all other noise as she slalomed past students finding their next class.
The library was on the first floor, which was accessed by the grand sweeping staircase facing the front door of Queen’s, an area that also served as the school reception area. Queen’s library had changed little from when the building had been a stately home many years ago, and was easily Lizzie’s favourite room in the school.
As she had hoped, she had the place to herself. There was one desk in particular which was always popular. It had a great view of the grounds and on a sunny day like this one she knew she would have to be lucky to claim it, but luck was on her side. The school librarian, who doubled as the school receptionist and trebled as the headmaster’s secretary, smiled at her as she slung her bag over the back of the chair and sat.
She unpacked, selected the large Maths book from the pile and pulled it towards her. She opened it to the appropriate page, paused, and then pushed it away from her – so not in the mood for Maths, she thought taking off her black framed glasses and pinching the bridge of her nose. But it was her first exam next week, so it left little choice. She procrastinated, pulling her CD player from the bag. She clicked open the top of the machine and removed the Sonic Youth disc and replaced it with R.E.M, much better for study. She clicked the player into action and pulled open the tedious tome to practice a few problems, but soon found herself daydreaming. It was easily done surrounded by the library’s old volumes and dark polished wood. She imagined previous occupants of the house, lords and ladies, leafing through the books which remained here. It would have been easy to picture sitting in this place in a different time altogether were it not for a solitary desktop computer awkwardly pushed into one corner in a futile attempt to hide its incongruity. The trailing wires and noisy printer were considered a necessary assault on the otherwise preserved façade. Still it was now 1993, and this was a school when all was said and done and Queen’s would have to move with the times, kicking and screaming if necessary. Six desks skirted the edge of the room with brass reading lamps on each. Tiny staircases, which appeared almost etched into the wood itself, gave access to a small balcony where older books and journals were stored, and were strictly off limits to students, one of these days… Lizzie often thought.
Four songs and as many equations later she felt the impact of a body dropping itself into the chair opposite her. She lifted her head to find her friend smiling and talking away to her, apparently oblivious to her earphones. She dropped them around her neck.
Sorry Vic, I didn’t catch what you were saying.’
‘Hi Liz, said Vic looking around and then swinging his feet up onto the desk. ‘I was just asking what you were listening to?’
‘Just some music.’ Lizzie had learned this was the best way to tackle this particular question which Vic had asked more than once. The first time he enquired Lizzie had launched into a monologue on the subject of 90s rock music only to be met with a face plainly sorry to have asked the question. Lizzie no longer wasted her time.
‘You’re looking nice,’ he said, ‘cool t-shirt, Nir…vana,’ he read across her chest, making Lizzie feel a little uncomfortable. ‘Is that a band or something?’
Lizzie wanted to say – just about the biggest band on the planet right now, but instead she went with ‘yeah.’
‘Cool, cool,’ he said sounding anything but.
‘I thought you had a class?’ asked Lizzie putting her pen down and pulling her school blouse closed over the t-shirt.
‘I do, but like yours we’ve sort of been disbanded for personal study with the exams coming up.’
‘Shouldn’t you be studying then? Where are your books?’ Vic swept a stray strand of dark greasy hair behind his ear.
‘No need, I plan to just cram beforehand. Nothing I study stays in for long so I don’t see the point.’
‘Vic,’ said Lizzie exasperated, ‘the exams start next week, I think we’re already well into cramming territory, don’t you?’
‘It’s very sweet of you to worry Liz, but I’ll be fine.’ Vic placed his hands behind his head and swung his chair back. Lizzie nudged the desk forward making him panic that he would be sent backwards, he grabbed the edge and righted himself, putting his feet back down.
‘I’m not trying to be sweet Vic, I’m trying to get you to take this seriously, you’re only going to get one shot at this you know.’ The bell rang for lunch, saving Vic from a familiar lecture.
‘Do you want a hand with your studying? What is that, Maths?’ He took hold of the book on the table and spun it round to examine the cover.
‘Yes, you any good at it?’
‘Then don’t worry about it,’ she said turning the book back towards her.
‘I could just check the answers for…’ Vic drifted off, his attention was drawn to something over Lizzie’s shoulder. She turned wondering where his gaze was pointing. A girl had run into the library, looking distressed or perhaps excited. Lizzie recognised her, but couldn’t recall her name.
‘You coming?’ he asked Lizzie. Lizzie nodded and dumped her headphones on the desk. The pair slid quickly out of their chairs and followed the girl out of the room and down the staircase. She led them towards the main corridor of the school where the majority of students’ lockers were housed.
Lizzie and Vic rounded a corner and were met with a sea of bodies, jostling for position to gain a better look. This could mean only one thing. A fight.
‘Not again,’ said Vic. Lizzie took him by the wrist and used her small stature to good effect squeezing through to the front of the throng. Vic, who towered above Lizzie, could see perfectly well over the heads of the other students and he stood behind her with his hands on her shoulders.
The semicircle of students formed around one wall, where Blair Timmins had Robe backed up against the lockers. Blair’s friends, the insult throwing corridor cretins, stood directly behind him, goading him. Lizzie was surprised to see a pretty relaxed looking Robe, his hands at his side, not at all fearful.
‘You stink Adams,’ spat Blair rolling up the sleeves of his scarlet blazer. ‘It’s got to be twenty five degrees today and you’re still wearing this?’ Blair took a handful of Robe’s dressing gown, a robe that somewhere, at some distant time had probably been some shade of blue, but now was a motley of that blue mixed with indiscriminate shades of grey and brown. He pushed Robe hard against the lockers, much to the delight of his friends and took a sniff. ‘Oh my God, you smell like a putrid monkey turd.’ One of Blair’s friends erupted into disingenuous laughter while Tabby Pilkington yelled:
‘Just hit him Blair, before a teacher shows up.’ This spurred a few of the other onlookers to join the demand for things to get physical. Peer pressured, Blair grabbed Robe by the neck, pushed him back against the lockers once more and raised his fist.
‘We need to get in there,’ said Vic pulling Lizzie to one side, but Lizzie held his arm.
‘No, wait for a minute.’
‘I can’t let Blair hit him.’
‘There’s no way in hell Blair is going to hit your brother, have you ever seen one of these actually come to blows? Of course not, so relax a second.’ In Lizzie’s previous school a situation like this would have ended in a vicious brawl, but here, at Queen’s? Not a chance.
Robe stood unperturbed, his lank chin length hair covering half of his bemused face, he made no effort to protect himself. The noise from the crowd began to gather fervour, a chant of ‘fight, fight, fight’ was collecting voices.
Blair launched his fist forward, stopping centimetres from Robe’s nose. Robe never flinched. A disappointed drone erupted from the assembled students.
‘Told you,’ said Lizzie turning to a nervous Vic.
‘If you’re quite finished Blair, I really do have things to get on with,’ said Robe. A chuckle was heard somewhere from the crowd. Blair released him, but stared into his eyes contemptuously.
‘What are you doing? Bloody hit him,’ shouted Tabby, her overly rouged lips pulled back over her teeth. Robe had stepped aside him and made toward the crowd before Blair grabbed the back of his dressing gown and pulled hard, sending Robe onto his backside. Blair then started wrestling the dressing gown off of him.
‘I’m taking this stinking rag and burning it you freak,’ he growled at a now deeply distressed Robe who screamed in panic, clutching his gown with all his strength.
‘Shit,’ said Lizzie pushing her way into the centre of proceedings. ‘Get off him you fat bastard,’ she yelled getting in between the two boys. She pushed Blair backwards with a strength that surprised him. Vic stepped forward and helped Lizzie bring Robe to his feet. One of the arms of his gown had ripped badly and the sleeve hung awkwardly. Robe’s breathing was quick and anxious and tears welled in his eyes.
‘Aw, did I do that Robe?’ said Blair pointing at the dangling sleeve. ‘Never mind here’s the other Adams freak and your mummy to come help you.’ The boy with the fake laugh bellowed.
‘Why don’t you piss off and mind your own business Little Dyke,’ said Blair, puffing his chest out. Lizzie ignored him and rolled up Robe’s sleeve so it didn’t get in his way. Blair stepped forward, unsatisfied that this was the end of the matter. He made to grab hold of Robe once again.
‘Where you going Rain Man?’ he snarled at Robe. Vic’s temper broke and he turned on Blair; however Lizzie stole in.
‘Why don’t you go and pick on someone your own size?’ she said looking Blair up and down.
‘What are you talking about? He’s like a foot taller than me.’
‘I didn’t mean height, I meant girth.’ Lizzie stabbed a finger into Blair’s belly, just below the polished Prefect and HeadBoy badges on his blazer, drawing another chuckle from the crowd. Blair flushed red and brushed her finger away.
‘I’d sooner be big boned than a scabby little dyke like you. Little dyke.’ Blair sucked his considerable gut in, and swept his brown wavy fringe out of his face.
‘Oh yes, very clever Blair, Lizzie Dean – Little Dyke, I get it; so droll, so inventive. But trust me Blair Tompkins, or maybe I should call you Bitch Tits, since you have a bigger cup size than your trampy little girlfriend over there, just because my hair’s quite short and I wouldn’t touch you with a cattle prod does not necessarily make me a lesbian; you ugly fat oxygen thief.’ Lizzie’s counter assault drew a mixture of gasps and laughter from the crowd. There was no immediate comeback from Bitch Tits, who stood, mortified. Tabby stepped through the crowd, which was still growing in depth, her immaculate long blonde hair following her a split second later.
‘Just you stay out of it you little slut,’ Tabby said venomously. Lizzie threw her head back and raised her arms in exaggeration for the benefit of the onlookers.
‘Will you two please make up your minds, am I a slut or a trampy little dyke? And besides Little Miss Perky Tits you ought to be careful about throwing the name slut around since Bitch Tits here has made a point of bragging to the entire school about your sex life. Although it utterly beats me how on earth you two manage to get it on, how do you hump a whale exactly?’ Raucous laughter was now heard throughout the crowd, even from Bitch Tit’s corner.
‘I am not fat,’ he exploded, spittle flying. ‘It’s bloody water retention.’
‘It’s fucking cake retention big boy,’ said Lizzie taking hold of the Adams brother’s arms and leading them through the crowd, which parted victoriously.
‘Are you okay?’ asked Lizzie, retaking her seat in the Library and closing her books over, resigned that no work would be getting done while the boys were present. ‘Is your robe ruined?’
‘I’m fine,’ said Robe, as if nothing at all had happened. ‘I can mend this.’
‘So what did you do Rob?’ said Vic using his brother’s proper name, the only person to do so other than the teaching staff, and even then there were one or two who slipped up now and again.
‘Why do you assume I did something? I can assure you whatever has vexed Blair had nothing to do with me.’
‘You must have done something,’ said Lizzie.
Vic and Robe had taken the seats opposite her at the table, which Lizzie was glad of, she liked the guys, between the two of them they amassed her sum total of friends not only in school but really anywhere these days, but Blair did have a point. On a good day Robe emitted a certain funk, but on a bad day, that is to say a hot day such as this one he, or rather his robe, was utterly pungent.
‘Did you have a run in with him today?’ asked Vic.
‘No, the first I saw of him today is when he slammed me against a locker.’
‘What about Tabby? Did something happen with her?’ said Lizzie suddenly understanding why she was spitting mad today.
‘Tabby? No, at least not really, I had a class with her this morning, Physics. But I can’t fathom why she would be upset with me.’ Robe’s eyes searched the air thinking back to his class. Vic looked upwards too, wondering where his brother’s gaze was pointed. Lizzie shook her head at him. To look at the boys they could quite easily pass for twins, both tall, clearing six feet with identical hair: straight, dark brown, chin length and slick. Both had the same habit of pushing fallen strands behind their ears at least twice in every minute. Physical appearance, though, in addition perhaps to their social awkwardness, was just about where their similarities ended. Robe was two years younger than his brother, but before Lizzie had gotten to know them she would have guessed that he was the elder. He was an inch or so taller than Vic, but it was his eyes that aged him; an intellect lived there, which did not habit his brother’s.
‘There was one thing,’ said Robe drumming his fingers on his chin. ‘We were doing an exam quiz in class and were divided into groups, Tabby was in mine. We were given worksheets with a series of astronomical observations, from which we were to identify the appropriate stellar phenomena based on the information provided. All simple enough, until Tabby insisted the answer to one was a binary star. Well, long story short, she was wrong. According to the data provided it was quite clearly a variable star, most likely a Cepheid Variable based on the regularity of the pulse cycle and its magnitude behaviour, which in this particular scenario was-’
‘This is the short version?’ interrupted Lizzie, ‘please tell me you have a point, and that you’re getting to it?’
‘Well yes, Tabby was quite resolute in her ignorance, and I was forced to point out exactly where she was deluding herself. Anyway she got quite cross as the class stopped to listen to the debate. Well, hardly a debate since there was no point to discuss, she was wrong and that was that.’ Robe shrugged his shoulders and fished two cellophane wrapped sandwiches from his bag and handed one to his brother.
‘Thanks, what’s on them?’
‘Do you want half of mine?’ Vic thrust a sweaty looking sandwich at Lizzie.
‘Not really hungry, but thanks,’ she said trying to stop her nose from wrinkling. ‘So Tabby obviously didn’t take kindly to your correction then, and went running to Blair.’ Robe shrugged again, chewing furiously. ‘You should be careful,’ she said. ‘They’ll take any excuse to start things with you. And if you go around embarrassing his girlfriend, he’ll never leave you alone.’ Robe’s eyebrows shot up incredulously.
‘She embarrassed herself, by being grossly misinformed. I merely… educated her. If anything she should have been grateful.’ Robe was either unaware, or didn’t care that particles of his cheese sandwich were escaping his mouth as he talked. ‘I don’t understand why they keep coming after me anyway.’
‘It’s because you’re different Robe, you’re two years younger than everyone in your year and you’re more intelligent than most of the teachers here. You shouldn’t have to, but it might be easier for you to try to keep a lower profile.’
‘You don’t,’ countered Vic, pointing at Lizzie’s chest. Lizzie looked down at her attire, the uniform was there, as was required of all students, the black skirt and the red and yellow checked blouse, but Vic’s point was the bright t-shirt blazing through the open front.
‘Yeah, but it doesn’t bother me,’ she said. ‘I was only ever going to be here for a year, so there’s no point in trying to blend in. And besides, if those idiots want to waste their time thinking their bullshit upsets me, at least they’re leaving someone else alone.’
The bell rang again and the boys started to gather their things together. Lizzie pulled open her books once more; she had another study period before her afternoon class. Vic wrapped up the remainder of his sandwich and handed it to his brother, who opened his satchel wide to repack it. As he did Lizzie caught sight of an open envelope sitting brazenly amongst the other contents, stuffed full of cash. She wondered if she could ask about it, but as she debated with herself the moment passed and the boys slung their bags over their shoulders and made to leave.
‘See you this afternoon?’ asked Vic.
‘Sure,’ she said.
‘Thanks for your assistance earlier Liz,’ said Robe glancing over her shoulder at her maths equations. ‘The first one’s wrong, but the other three are fine,’ he said as they left. Lizzie threw her pen back into the fold of the book once again and pushed it away from her in frustration.
Text Copyright © 2014 Stuart Johnstone. All Rights Reserved. Book covert florian-k.deviantart.com
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part two
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part three
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part four
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part five
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part six
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part seven
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part eight
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part nine
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part ten
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part eleven
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part twelve
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part thirteen
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part fourteen
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part fifteen
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part sixteen
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part seventeen
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part eighteen
Influence by Stuart Johnstone – Part nineteen
Read the next chapter of Influence next week. Can’t wait? You can download the full novel at Amazon.