I've told you before about Jodi Malenger and how he was a kid with the sharpest eye for an opportunity that ever I've seen, especially when it was a chance to give a girl an unforgettable experience. I'll tell you another story about him and his gang - including me - which I've sometimes tried to tell before and which nobody will believe is true. Not that I blame the skeptics one iota - if I hadn't have been there I wouldn't have believed it could have happened.
As I've also said before, these things happened a long time ago, in England. Which matters only so far as Jodi had access to wheels when the UK was very much a one car per family country - assuming you were lucky enough to have a car at all. But Jodi's old man was a builder in a good line of business, and one of his company vehicles was a battered old Ford van that Jodi had taught himself to drive. Better yet his Dad didn't mind Jodi borrowing it at the weekends. Not that Jodi was old enough to have a licence but it was well worth the risk of getting pulled over by the coppers for a chance to mark out some new territory.
So it was a weekend, and we were in a town twenty miles or so from our usual haunts. I guess that doesn't sound very far, but in a place as small and crowded as England it meant that being seen by anybody who knew us was about as likely as winning the football pools. We'd travelled in that direction for absolutely no reason at all, and our luck seemed to be pretty good because in a field just outside the town a travelling fun fair had pitched its tents. It was dusk, all the bright lights were coming on and a steady stream of vehicles were being parked in the next field as the locals came to ride the dodg'em cars and sample the candy floss.
"Hey, let's have a look at this," Will said. "Maybe we can have some fun."
"Fine by me," Jodi replied and turned in to follow white tapes in the grass which led to the parking area.
All the usual suspects were in the van with him. Will, Micky, Jacko, and yours truly, Andy. The hard boys, the guys who had been there and done that and would have jumped into a ring of fire if Jodi had led the way. We'd long since found out that if anything really exciting was going to happen Jodi would be the one who made it happen - aye, and kept us out of trouble as well.
Not that this seemed to have much in the makings of special night out. There were plenty of girls around but mostly young ones acting silly, and as for the fair itself I'd long since gone past being interested in throwing balls at a coconut shy or riding on a big wheel. It wasn't even worth trying to hit anything at the shooting gallery because everybody knew the stall holder would have fiddled with the rifles' sights so you couldn't aim straight.
Then we came across something we'd never seen before. A circular tent, a perfect half dome about thirty yards across, dark around the bottom and the top two thirds of the dome lit up, flickering images showing in the lighted area and loud music coming from inside it. A small generator was driving an air compressor which was feeding into a pressurized canvas tube attached to the side of the dome. The air was keeping it blown up, like a big balloon. Another generator was connected to a tangle of cables going into the dome.
"What's all this then?" Will asked, not there was any need to, because there was a big enough poster outside explaining it all.
'THE NEW SENSATION IN CINEMA EXPERIENCE!'
'THE SCREEN SURROUNDS YOU - THE SOUND SURROUNDS YOU - YOU BECOME PART OF THE FILM!'
'RIDE ON THE HIGHEST ROLLER COASTER IN THE WORLD'
'DRIVE IN A GRAND PRIX RACING CAR'
'LOOK DOWN ON NEW YORK'S SKYSCRAPERS FROM A HELICOPTER'
'FLY OVER THE GRAND CANYON'
'CONTINOUS SHOWINGS - STAY AS LONG AS YOU LIKE'
"Hey, Jodi, how about taking a look inside?"
"Yeah, why not. I've never seen anything like it before."
None of us had. The only sort of cinemas we'd ever heard of were the ones were you sat in rows watching a screen in front of you. This seemed different and interesting. So we paid our money and went in.
First off, I'll tell you what I saw - and then I'll tell you what Jodi saw. If nothing else it shows up perfectly the difference between an average Joe Blow and a real operator.
What I saw was a whole lot of people standing on the grass inside the dome staring up at a scene of huge office buildings rising out of busy city streets that seemed miles below. The picture was so wide and so close you couldn't help feeling you were actually there, drifting over the edges of the skyscrapers and about to fall down into those streets so far underneath you. Even though I knew I was perfectly safe my stomach still curdled every time the camera viewpoint drifted across one of the gaps between the buildings. It sounds crazy, I suppose, to be looking up and feeling you were going to fall, but that was the sensation I got and I think everybody else did as well.
I wondered how the film was being projected and worked my way through the crowd far enough to see a wheeled trailer in the middle of the tent, leveled off with a built in jack at each corner and the top removed to reveal six projector heads. Each of the lenses was aiming a beam of light at the roof and somehow all the different films were being run in sequence to make up the big picture overhead. I thought it was real clever. Then I went back to gawping up at the film again.
What did Jodi see? I guess the first thing he noticed was that although the reflected light from the projectors made it clear enough to move around, that only applied to the area directly underneath the area of the dome the projectors were shining on. Around the outer edge of the tent was an rim of almost total darkness, tall enough to stand up in and five or six paces deep. The only illumination in all that area were the luminous strips that surrounded the doorway.
Another thing Jodi noticed was that there were around fifty people in the crowd, some leaving after they'd seen all the film clips, others coming in. Especially he noted that everybody standing inside was completely concentrated on watching the scenes above them, almost oblivious to whatever else was going on. Jodi also noticed that a lot of the crowd were girls - Jodi would have noticed those if he'd been in the waiting room to Hell.
Another matter he considered was the music. Classical stuff, being played loudly enough to match and heighten the excitement of the movie scenes. Jodie was starting to become excited as well, though not because of the films. As the Grand Canyon sequence started the camera angle passed over the edge of the highest cliff I'd ever seen and a big gasp rose up from the watchers. But not from the one person in the place who was looking sidewards instead of upwards, circling the inside of the dome and exploring its shadowy perimeter.
What Jodi found were four speakers, each three feet high, set up an equal distance apart in the darkened area. In the corners, I guess you'd say, if they'd been any corners. The speakers were painted black and virtually invisible until you were close enough to touch them. What was even more interesting was that they were standing on equally black supports. But when Jodi ran his hands around these supports they turned out to be nothing more than ordinary folding trestle tables, each one with some black curtain material draped over it.
'Neat', Jodi concluded. 'Even if any of the customers take a real close look around they won't see these crummy tables, not with this black material on them. But I guess the speakers would still work just as well if they were put down on the ground. Maybe they'd get wet from the grass but that's not my problem. I think it's time for a little experiment.'
The first I knew about his plans was when somebody tugged on my arm and I looked down, irritated at being disturbed when I was fascinated by the movie - irritated that is until I saw it was Micky. He pointed towards Jodi and jerked his head. I went over as the rest of us came together and put our heads close to Jodi to hear what he wanted to tell us. But he stepped back into the shadow area, so we had to follow.
The first thing he did was to tell us about the speakers and the table. I guess we were all puzzled as to why the hell he was interested in them. We were even more puzzled as he kept on talking.
"I'm going to show you where the nearest speaker is. Will and Andy, you lift it off the table and then Micky and Jacko, I want you to pick up the table and move it to the side a few steps. Then put the table down again. I want the black material left on the table. Then Will and Andy will put the speaker down on the grass and leave it there."
Jacko asked the obvious question: "Why?"
"It's an experiment. I want to see if anybody notices what you're doing. If there's any trouble bunch up and move slowly to the door."
OK, if that was what he wanted. We didn't know why he wanted us to do it but we gave it a go, and it turned out to be a piece of piss. The nearest in the audience to the speaker were a family. Big stocky guy with bright red cheeks and a check jacket, his wife wearing a headscarf, two young boys. None of them were more than three or four steps away. I thought sure one of the kids would notice something - and I was wrong. They had their heads tilted back, their jaws hanging open and their minds in neutral just like everybody else. Nobody saw what we'd done.
Then Jodie gave us the word.
"Right, we're going to wait here until we see a couple of decent looking birds on their own. Then we'll lift them and bring them over to the table. Everyone carrying their flicks?"
No problem there - we'd made some enemies in our time and we never went anywhere without our knives. No, if it had been a fight Jodi had been organizing that would have been plain and simple. But to snatch a girl - two girls - and have some fun with them in here! It was crazy!
Crazy like a fox though. Everybody in the gang except Jodi looked like stunned mullets but gradually we began to understand the way he was thinking. Girls didn't wander around on their own and if somebody disappeared from a group sooner or later it would be noticed and their friends would start looking around for them. But a pair of girls on their own - one minute they're there, the next minute they're not. So they've left, walked out of the tent, who would notice?
But what about the actual snatch? From the fringe of the crowd, everybody looking up, plenty of noise from the speakers. Grab the girls' arms, hold blades against them and slip backwards into the dark area without anybody else noticing - if we were quick and smooth enough we could probably do that. It was certainly the kind of work we'd done before, though never in such a crowded situation. It would be like taking roosting pheasants out of a tree under a gamekeeper's nose.
Even if it went wrong we'd just cluster together, show our blades and move off through the doorway. Nobody was going to risk starting anything on his own and outside the tent there were hundreds of people wandering around in the dark - we'd be among them and gone in seconds. But what if we got the girls?
Jodi explained that as well.
"We'll bend them over the table. I want their arses to the walls. Then we'll throw that black material over them and nobody will see a thing. The music from the speaker will cover most of the noise but if we get a real screamer give her a good tickle with a flick. If that doesn't shut her up we'll just have to walk away from it. Outside, we break up and meet back at the van. Everybody got that?"
Yeah, we'd got it.
"OK, Will and Andy, you're one team. You take the one I tell you too, bend her over the table on this end of it." He pointed.
"Micky, Jacko, you take the girl I show you, put her over the other end of the table. Will, as soon as yours is down you'll grab her hair and keep her across the table. I want her under control and quiet. That's your job, stay with it until I tell you different. Jacko, you do the same with yours. Micky, Andy, you're the blademen. You put the steel against them in the lift. As soon as the other two guys have have got a grip on their hair I want your knives pricking the tarts' backsides to let them know that screaming is not a good idea. Don't worry about looking around to see if you've been noticed, I'll be watching your backs. Get the birds over here, get them down and then we'll sit quiet for a while and see if there's any comeback."
I guess I'd decided by then that Jodi was finally becoming over confident. It didn't seem to me there was any real chance at all of getting a couple of chicks onto the table. Where I did agree with him was that there was no real danger in trying something on - if things went wrong we'd be out and away in a shake of a duck's tail. At the last resort we could just slice the tent wall open with our flicks and step through it.
So, we waited - and waited. There were plenty of girls coming in, often in couples, but none of them came near us. Not near enough, anyway. Jodi stood and watched them like a crocodile on a river bank, eyes glittering and never stirring a muscle until he was ready to spring his trap. Pretty soon I was leaving it to him and looking up at the movie again. The roller coaster ride was showing now and the audience were gasping every time the car dropped down into another dip on the elevated track.
Then a hand slapped sharply against my arm and I looked around me. Oddly, the first thing I noticed was something the whole audience was doing as the roller coaster car went round a corner - they were swaying like wheat stalks in a breeze as the car tipped over, unconsciously trying to balance with it, their brains fooled by the big picture which surrounded them. The second thing I noticed were the two people who had just arrived and were moving around the edge of the crowd towards us, their attention almost totally taken up by the overhead scenes. But it had to be a false alarm because they weren't two birds, it was a guy and a girl.
A second look though and I knew she was going to be the target - she was irresistable. Classy, good looking, a sneer on her lips directed at all the unwashed working class she was slumming it with. To know where she came from you only had to look at her escort. Handsome, tall, broad-shouldered, slightly overgrown black hair underneath a flat cap, tweed hacking jacket, knitted cable pullover with a green and gold silk cravat at the throat, twill trousers. if there'd be a label hung off him it would have said: "Rich landowner's son, probably heir to a title: if lost, please return to nearest hunt ball."
The girl was just as much a walking example of the top people but in a far more flamboyant style, a real surprise to come across in a tatty fair in a rural backwater. For a start she was beautiful, with a nose and mouth a painter would have needed genius to bring to life, and no painter could have caught the essence of her vivid blue eyes or the perfection of her teeth. Her hair was shiny blonde, short cut and styled in the casually ruffled kind of look which costs real money to achieve. She was wearing a shimmery black dress, low cut, with a velvet collar almost halfway to her waist, cleavage heaving up out of it in a double half crescent - the Mountains of the Moon, I remember thinking. Her throat was bare but four or five gold ornaments were clipped to the left side of the collar and her belt buckle at her slender waist was studded with pearls. A small black bag hung from her left shoulder and she swayed through the crowd with long necked grace, a head taller than most of the men in the tent. I'd have put her age at about twenty one or twenty two, and I'd have bet my balls it had been about that long since anybody had said 'no' to her.
Like I said, he and her were a matched pair: the sort that have known from birth that life was always going to be served up to them on a silver platter.
I also knew immediately what was going on in Jodie's mind. These two were the kind of well to do snobs he hated as instinctively as a rat hates a cat. The difference with Jodi was that he was a rat always ready to bite first. But he wasn't going to get a chance this time, not unless he could get rid of the guy, and there was no way we could knock him down and drag him away without being noticed. If Satan had arrived on the scene right then waving a power of attorney we'd all have happily signed off our souls, if only he'd have agreed to take the Hooray Henry in the hacking jacket back to Hell with him.
It would have been a bad bargain, but. We didn't any help from the Prince of Darkness, not with Jodi around. I heard him speaking to somebody though I couldn't see who, or hear what was being said. Then the pair of rich bastards were next to us, still moving slowly, still looking up - she was leading, he was following and suddenly there was a third person in the convoy. It was Jacko, and he put up his arm and grabbed the hooray Henry's flat cap off the guy's head.
Naturally, he turned around and looked at Jacko, completely surprised. Just as surprised as when Jacko offered the cap and then jerked it back again as the Henry made a grab at it. The surprised look became an angry one and the scion of the aristocracy stepped forward with his fist clenched. Jacko danced back, turned and started stepping quickly around the crowd to the doorway. The Henry went in hot pursuit as Jacko cut a trail which made it obvious he was going to leave the tent. One or two people in the crowd had noticed what had happened, but I guess they must have thought it was a bit of horseplay amongst friends - certainly nothing to keep looking at compared to the movie. They went back to gazing upwards again, and oohing and aahing as the roller coaster shots heaved up and down.
The girl had picked up on the hat hi-jacking as well - partly so, anyway, because she'd stopped and was looking back over the crowd at the puzzling sight of her now bare headed escort heading for the tent doorway as if a fire alarm had suddenly gone off. She stood where she was for a moment, clearly baffled. Then she took a few steps back along her original path - which put her as close to us as she was going to get.
Jodi stepped out into the light, put his fingers together as if pretending they were a gun and aimed them at the walking Barbie doll. Maybe it doesn't sound much but the way he did it was like the way the way the deck handlers signal a jet launch off an aircraft carrier - 'GO!'
We came out of the gloom like a pack of starving wolves coming out of the Siberian winter. Jodi's gang had no room in it for wimps who dithered - when Jodi gave the signal you went in with everything you had, no pissing around. I'd been assigned to use a knife so it was open in my hand and I pressed the point of it right up again the bottom of Barbie's spine as Will and Micky grabbed her arms.
"One shout, one fucking shout, and you're dead!" Jodi snarled, leaning forward to make sure she heard. "Get her back!"
Will and Micky stepped backwards, dragging her with them, my legs carrying me with them as I kept the blade penetrating that nicely tailored dress. As soon as we were out of the light I hooked my arm around underneath Barbie's chin, cutting off a protesting sqawk deep in her throat. I could feel Will and Micky changing their hold on her arms, twisting them around until she twitched with pain.
For a second we looked back at the spot where we'd just been, the place two steps away in the pale light where Barbie been standing. Three young girls in jeans and tee-shirts had been the closest to her. None of them seemed to have noticed a thing - not a bloody thing! A middle aged guy in a suit with rolls of fat overflowing his collar was still holding a toddler up in his arms and hadn't even looked around. No bugger at all had seen a thing - it was wonderful - great timing, everything happening as the roller coaster had plunged down the deepest dip on the track. Bloody fantastic!