Stevie pulled his car up a block and a half from the Royal Plaza Hotel in Heartsfield. The hotel was busy with activity out the front with camera crews and curious onlookers jostling for position on the sidewalk and threatening to spill out onto the main road and interrupt the traffic. It would not have mattered too much as there was a traffic jam from the inconveniently parked vans and two separate car crashes – not to mention a slight majority of the onlookers appeared to be a rag-tag band of protestors who saw interruption as their main objective.
“Hey look, The Strays are out there,” Phil said brightly. He was seated in the passenger seat and craning his neck to get a better view of the scene.
The pair had driven two straight hours to arrive in Heartsfield shortly after seeing out the end of the Tony Holdsworth special. They had hoped, rather foolishly in the end, to be able to intercept Walter before he was taken away by Citadel Inc for what Stevie imagined to be an unpleasant final chapter. On the way, however, they had heard the news reports, that there was an altercation outside the hotel between two men and Lucy Blues. Dr Blues reportedly claimed she was to escort Walter from the premises and, after getting I her car with Walter she sped off down the street, running red lights and causing the two major incidents.
“Who are The Strays?” Stevie asked, though he had a good idea. Phil was a good kid – dirty, but kind at heart. But he was at that age of romantic idealism, where the fate of all that is beautiful rests upon the shoulders of a few dedicated individuals. They seek to right the wrongs of society by reading old Russian literature, creating inspired but terribly untrained artwork, and ceremoniously taking whatever drug is available – all the while sleeping in 7 days a week and forgetting to vote once every four years. But Stevie didn’t want to condescend – he had been like that once.
“The Strays, man! We’re a band of loners brought together by the necessity for change.”
“What instruments did you play?” Stevie asked.
“Fuck off. I should introduce you to my dad.” Phil said, before appending with a more cheerful sense of humour, “Mainly just guitars. Acoustic.”
“And bongos, no doubt.” Stevie said, trying not to laugh. Phil rolled his eyes. It was nice to have the point blank target of Phil’s hippy agenda to take shots at. Phil was well spirited about it and even got some of his own back, but age is rarely triumphed in banter.
The practice helped Stevie from facing the reality of the news about Mark. Every now and then he would slip back into the negative swirl of thoughts and then have to jolt himself out of it again. It was like falling asleep on the train, afraid to miss your stop. He needed to keep his mind active because a deep sleep would be hard to wake up from.
“Let’s go.” Phil said suddenly, “Let’s go talk to some of them, The Strays.”
Stevie was cautious to respond. It was too risky to-
“And don’t give me one of your Slow No’s, OK? What are we gonna do? Sit here and watch something we coulda seen on the news or are we gonna investigate?”
Phil was already hopping out of the car when Stevie agreed, “OK.” He said, stepping out and looking over the roof of the vehicle, “but show some discretion. Who do you know and trust in this group? Who might have been able to read into the situation?”
Phil paused and thought for moment. “There should be one or two who could help,” he nodded.
He and Stevie crossed the road, zig-zagging between the stationary cars as the driver’s leant on their horns in vain. Some were even getting out their vehicles to see what was happening.
They made their way down the sidewalk, approaching the thickening crowd of people. Stevie would have preferred a lower profile but Phil was intent on striding into the fray like the host arriving late to his own party. “Phil,” Stevie said sharply, “Phil! Discretion. Phil! Fuck!” The crowd was becoming increasingly agitated. He had lost sight of the top of Phil’s dreadlocked head, and worse still was the fact that those dreads became less of a defining feature amid the scattered Strays.
Stevie continued to push through the crowd towards the centre of the gathering. It opened up to a small perimeter of police officers interviewing hotel staff and reporters who pushed to have the best shot. Stevie saw that Phil had somehow managed to weave through to the opposite side and was chatting openly with some of his kin. It was then that Stevie’s heart tightened into the form of a golfball. He was convinced for more than a moment that he was staring up into the face of the agent who had almost killed him. The tall, well dressed man stared back at him with a blank expression. Stevie was just waiting for recognition to dawn and then he would be finished. He couldn’t survive another altercation.
The tension was broken by the splash of a soda can across the agent’s face. There was a big cheer from within the crowd.
“Get that into ya, ya fucken wanka!” An aggressive laugh followed and Stevie tracked it back to a tattered looking youth. He raised two fingers up to the agent, but not in the more commonly associated gesture of hippy-folk. The agent swiped at him but the youth was already melting back into the ruckus. Another drink whizzed past the agent’s head and then a single sandal hit him square in the face. Another cheer erupted.
The agent passed by Stevie which gave him a clear look into the opening. The officer’s were aware of the growing danger and moving the witnesses up the hotel stairs towards the entrance. One tried to calm the crowd down but he thought better of it and made for his radio, backing up the stairs as he called for support. It was then that Stevie’s heart stalled for a second time. The media had been more than willing to take up the vacated space and were filming the crowd in various angles. Right at the centre was Phil talking with a reporter, lapping up the attention. He had a small group of band members in his wings and as Stevie edged closer he managed to catch a few words.
“I’m a wanted fucking man, but they didn’t catch me. This whole business is a scam. It is Citadel fucking Inc and Channel fucking 8, Tony Puppet-Fuck Holdsworth spinning this shit every which way and we stared at it for so long that we’ve finally all been hypnotised. Fuck what Doctor Wank says, Walter Wallace is a fucking hero for even trying to do what he’s done and now we’re supposed to cut his balls off and suck the happy juice like a fucking gobstopper.”
The reporter was fearless in holding his mic out to the onslaught of fuck, but Stevie couldn’t argue that this was compelling viewing. Phil had managed to start a chant with the help of his backing vocals.
WAL-TER WALLACE! WAL-TER WALLACE!”
The chorus picked up throughout and the crowd was almost a mosh pit – soon it would be a riot.
“UP THE FUCKING STRAYS!!” Phil yelled. The crowd responded with a deafening cheer. The agent had picked up Phil’s scent and he and his partner were working back towards him.
Stevie had almost reached Phil and caught his eye. “Stevie!” Phil yelled.
“Phil.” Stevie replied and gestured with his head towards the two agents.
Phil’s eyes lit up. In a flash he had worked his way over to a parked black sedan on the street. He climbed onto the roof and let out a piercing whistle. “Oi! There’s the fucking robots who tried to kill me! Citadel Robots. Fucking get em!”
The crowd zeroed in on the agents who retaliated violently. A couple Strays were dropped but eventually the masses overcame the agents. Phil had dived back into the action, wanting to get another piece but Stevie grabbed him and dragged him against the current towards the edge of the mob. They made it out and ducked down the side alley adjacent to the hotel. The alley was abandoned and no one seemed to follow them.
“What the fuck?” Phil cried.
“Phil.” Stevie said with a fatherly caution. He stared at Phil with a stern brow.