When he showed up six months later, his skin had a weirdly bluish tinge. The jerking had mercifully stopped, but he now had a disconcerting tendency to hum continuously, the same note, over and over.
“Hey, what’s this? You discovered Buddhism or something?”
“Wha?” He looked at me with utter comprehension. I didn’t blame him. Buddhism and Kenny were two concepts not easily put together.
At different intervals over the next year or so, Kenny arrived in the shop (a) bursting into spontaneous song, (b) wearing a red eye patch, (c) speaking a language which sounded like Russian or (d) weeping controllably (not a sight for the weak of stomach, believe me). He told me he’d acquired the ability to puke in seven different colours, and to sleep while walking backwards.
I asked again if he knew what the drugs were for and he said he didn’t, hadn’t asked and the money was fuckin’ great etc.
I began to be pricked by something I assumed was my conscience. It whined that even if Kenny didn’t care about what was happening to him, someone else must. I tried interrogating these impulses.
How did it follow logically that someone ought to be concerned about Kenny? Would he experience the same worry on my behalf? How was this in any way my business? Against all this logic, my conscience simply kept on whining.
UROK’s shares were quadrupling in value, and many of its savvier employees were among the beneficiaries. Swank cars of makes unseen for decades – Mercs, Alfa Romeos, Jaguars – began appearing on Loonford’s bottlenecked streets. My conscience agreed to let me off with a phone call.
I was shunted around six different extensions in the office of the local health authority before I finally reached the Secretary of someone who had something to do with public health. She told me in clipped tones that Doctor X was out of the office for a couple of weeks. She asked me to leave details of my concern, along with my name and address, and she would have him contact me when he got back.
Needless to say, I never heard from them again.
I mentioned Kenny’s case over a few pints with an acquaintance of mine who worked for the Loonford Gazette. She nodded sympathetically and said she’d heard of a few similar instances.
“So surely it’s worth a story then?”
“Are you nuts? Have you opened the paper lately? We’ve just done twenty different stories on how great for Loonford the UROK Corporation is, about all the extra businesses they’re bringing to town. They’re worth a fortune in advertising. No newspaper’s ever going to mess that up. Also, and don’t say I told you, but I think our owner has shares in the place. After all, how are we to know there’s anything really wrong with the RAPs? I mean, it’s not as if anyone has died yet, is it?”
I didn’t even leave it there. Kenny had taken to wearing green wellies and calling himself grandpa. The local TD being unavoidably detained on one of his prolonged drinking bouts, I went to the next best thing: the Councillor regarded as most likely to take the seat once the old sot finally died of alcohol poisoning.
He sat in his office, his gleaming Merc parked outside (‘start as you mean to continue,’ he’d proudly proclaim), his hands and neck dripping with bling, and listened to me for fully four seconds before exploding.
“Jesus Christ get out o’ here. Are yeh tryin’ to roon yer own town? What the fuck’s the matter with yeh? Jesus, I never took you for one o’ dem troublemakers.”
Oh well, I told my conscience, I genuinely did try.
The argument which the Councillor didn’t have to put to me was this: could it be truthfully said that Kenny was in any way worse off than he would have been without the UROK Corporation? After all, he seemed in pretty good form in spite of all the bizarre stuff that was happening to him.
In the unlikely event that UROK’s discoveries began a new era for mankind, then would not Kenny’s life have had a value out of all proportion to its estimated potential? I shrugged it off and tensed myself for Kenny’s next visits, which happily didn’t arrive for at least a year. Maybe someone had warned him off me, who knew?
When he did come crashing through the door however, things were altogether different. He looked drawn and frightened, great grey blotches now highlighted his hair.
“Kenny, long time no…”
“You gotta close de shop dis afternoon,” he told me without preamble.
“Why? What’s the matter?”
“I’ve no time to explain. You just gotta.”
“But what’s this about?”
“Lookit. I shouldn’t even be tellin’ yeh. I can’t explain. Somethin’s gonna happen, and yev gotta close de shop. Yeh might be killed if yeh don’t.”
I weighed things up. The sight of Kenny this frantic was disconcerting enough on its own. What exactly was he trying to tell me? Had UROK hired some goons to try and do me mischief? It seemed unlikely, but then so did a lot of things.
I invented some excuse and closed at lunchtime. The cost to the business, in all likelihood, was less than miniscule. By that stage, the mere act of staying open was probably losing us money.
Curious, but feeling more than slightly ridiculous, I borrowed a friend’s flat for the afternoon. It was an upstairs set of rooms which commanded a clear view of the street and the shop.
I positioned myself, unseen I hoped, near the best window and waited, and waited. Had the lunacy of my home town finally pulled me down with it, with Kenny in the unlikely role of singing Loonford siren; or was something indeed about to happen, the long awaited fire or explosion perhaps? Damn. I’d forgotten to check if we were properly insured.
By 4.17 I had gone way past the ridiculous thing and was now seriously pondering the notion of quality time with a psychiatrist. It would have to be somebody far away, I reasoned. The last thing you could do in Loonford was let word leak out that you might be batty. This seems more and more like the weirdest paradox of all, the longer I spend away from the place.
There had to be lists of them somewhere, I speculated, catalogues that let you know what such and such a bod specialised in; but what speciality was I looking for? Was there a cure for Loonford?
I was unable to pursue this line of thought any further, because things had started to happen in the street below.
I suddenly heard three or four very loud bangs, like a group of cars backfiring in symphony. There followed a silence, not like an ordinary silence, more an expectant hiss of shock and dread, as if the very air was recoiling from what had just happened inside it.
The silence was broken by a hail of guttural shouts, curses aimed at nobody, and then I heard fast, heavy steps. A shambling, hooded figure turned the corner into my street, stumbled against a lamp post, then lunged at the door of the shop.
He fumbled with the lock, kicked against the door, then shouted something lurid but essentially incomprehensible, before running off towards the opposite end of the street.
It was only when he had passed that my throat and bladder began undergoing scary synchronised contortions. What I had imagined to be a crowbar in his hand looked, on closer reflection, morbidly like a sawn off shotgun.
This was no pistol that made discreet, James Bond sized holes in valiant shopkeepers, this was something intended to blast off whole chunks of you and embed them firmly in the back wall.
I looked away and thought seriously about fainting. Police sirens began to scream in the street below.