Cassie took a deep breath. The bank of television screens beckoned to her. Her nerves flickered, sympathetic to the enthralling invitation.
Cassie took a deep breath. She spoke.
"I've got a story for you, Brian. A big story."
Brian turned away from the control room. Behind him the technicians tended their switches, occasionally speaking. The voices that controlled the station's output became a murmur to Cassie. Could she convince him?
"A big story?"
"Yes - but I think we should discuss it elsewhere."
He turned to the operators. "Just make sure you're listening this time." He left the bizarre room and led Cassie to his office.
Cassie remained standing. Another deep breath steadied her, and she faced the News Producer.
"Do you have any doubts about my sanity?"
Brian began shaking with laughter.
"Oh no," he spluttered. "Don't tell me you've been seeing pixies from Mars!"
Cassie remained calm.
"Please, Brian. It's important that you believe me. Do you doubt my sanity?"
The man settled into his chair and looked steadily at Cassie.
"No," he finally said.
"Then listen to what I have to say. I have an important message - one that the whole world should hear." Cassie chose a seat in front of the embattled desk.
"You know better than any-one what a mess the world is in. If we don't do something soon . . ." Cassie did not finish the plea. "I have a story for you that could make the people of the world sit up and think about what we're doing."
Cassie was convinced in what she was doing. Her anxiety was only that she may not be believed. Brian had always trusted her judgement in the past. He did now.
"How do you want me to help?"
"I have your word?"
Cassie told him about the rats from outer space. He sat, stunned, moored in reality by the desk in front of him.
"Oh Jesus!" He looked hopelessly at Cassie. She paused, then reached into the bag she carried. Brian leaned forward abruptly, keenly observing the glistening globe.
Cassie reached the sphere towards him. When he took the object, he gasped.
"It has no weight! But it's solid?" He explored the globe with his hands, finally removing them, leaving the alien artifact hovering above his desk.
Cassie captured the globe and returned it to her bag. For a moment the clatter of the studio outside pervaded the office. A voice harshly demanding, the dustmarks of feet, a telephone jarring all. Brian reached for his phone.
"Joe! Get the studio set up for a live broadcast during the news. . . . I'll clear it. . . . Just make sure you're ready!" He cleared the line and dialled again. "Dianne? Is Toby there? . . . Well who is, then? . . . O.K. Send her up here straight away."
He turned to Cassie. "Will it behave like that for the cameras?"
"Yes," she stumbled, "I'll have to have a friend there, though, to take the globe straight into safe-keeping."
"Yes. Get it away from the mess. Then produce it - only make it so that people will believe what they're seeing." He stopped, enthusiasm gleaming from him.
"We can do this!"
Cassie was glad.
"By the end of the evening you'll understand more. For the moment you will just have to trust me. It's necessary, and it isn't dangerous."
Cassie was not convinced. During the last two days a great deal had happened. She felt swept along by an irresistible current. Throughout this, Zeke had been with her.
There had been so much to organize. Cassie's appearance on the evening news had only been the beginning. There had followed a round of interviews and negotiations until a site was chosen for the unveiling of the alien gift to the world. There had been little time for the lovers to meet in communion.
But Cassie's mind, once linked to Zeke's, had never fully let go. She feared that the distance would leave her alone again. And tonight would be the final preparation for the phenomenon that she would present to the world. She wanted Zeke to be with her.
"We'll be together again, soon," Zeke whispered in her ear, oblivious to the crowds in the airport. Cassie hugged him, and smothered her tears on his chest.
"I'm needed at home, just as you're needed here. When the battle is won, I'll return," he said, lifting Cassie's head so that she could see the smile on his face that mocked his pretentious statement.
They embraced and stepped apart. Now conscious of the people who observed them curiously, the couple smiled at each other. Their minds linked. The brief sharing of consciousness made further words unnecessary.
Zeke turned and walked through the door to board his plane.
By the time Cassie arrived home, the house had been transformed.
"Annie's been cleaning up," replied Linda. "I think she's really serious about this bloke."
Cassie studied Linda's face.
"I don't know," said Linda with a shrug. "There's something funny going on here. My skin keeps on kind of creeping. I can understand why Annie's boyfriend is coming here tonight, what with the fire and all, but I thought we were going to talk about making sure everything goes all right tomorrow. Why is he bringing his friends? And why are Jason and his Dad coming?"
Cassie took Linda by the shoulders.
"I don't fully understand it either, but Zeke says it's the right thing to do. Morgan's father will explain it all."
"And what if Zeke's not right?" Linda was glad her mother had found a man, but everything that had happened in the last two days had her feeling edgy. The jealousy that she knew she shouldn't feel had found its way, grudgingly, to the surface.
Cassie hesitated, looking into her daughter's face. Finally she replied.
"Zeke isn't an easy person to understand - I don't expect you to trust him the way I do. But I know that I can trust him." She paused. "Linda? Does loving Morgan make you love me any less?"
"No Mum," said Linda, reaching out to embrace her mother.
There was a knock at the door and Annie raced from the kitchen to answer it. She paused for a moment when she saw the silhouette in the glass beside the door. For a brief moment she was reminded of the spare figure that had haunted Richard's door. The weirding feeling passed as she remembered that night. While she was doing her "second-shift" of correction and battling sudden fires, Cassie had decided to become an internationally-famous UFO-spotting nutter. A lot had happened in two days.
Caution overcoming her eagerness for Richard's arrival, Annie carefully opened the door. John and Morgan Sortilege stood on the porch, smiling at her in greeting.
"I'm sorry my wife could not attend," John apologized. Annie could not help wondering whether she had somehow fallen into some sort of time warp. This surprising man was behaving as though this were some kind of gala social occasion. "I'm afraid there was urgent family business which required the attention of one of the more responsible members of the clan."
The deprecating glance that he cast towards Morgan provoked no more than an impish grin from the youth. They entered the house and Morgan greeted Cassie formally, then went to talk to Linda in the kitchen.
Annie stood uncomfortably in the lounge-room, trying to think of small talk. This man always made her uneasy. She had no sense of danger, only something she didn't understand. She was relieved when someone else arrived at the door.
Jason stood in the door, his shoulders hunched in what had become a permanent shrug of belligerent misery. Next to him stood the man that Annie assumed must be Ralph Larsen, Jason's father.
"I'm pleased to meet you," she said, although doubting the sincerity of her words.
The gaunt man stepped into the house, a fragile insect. Cassie leaned towards the kitchen.
"Jason is here, Linda. Why don't you three talk while we're waiting for Richard to arrive with his friends?"
Linda untangled herself from Morgan, straightened her clothes and walked into the lounge, with Morgan close behind her. He nearly knocked her down when she abruptly froze. He followed Linda's gaze and saw Ralph Larsen.
"You!" he gasped. "You!"
He stepped towards Larsen, but instead turned to Linda who had collapsed into a nearby chair. He put his arms around her.
"It's all right. I'm here. You're safe," he murmured, searching for something that would comfort her.
"What's going on here!" demanded Cassie, standing firmly between Linda and Larsen.
The man turned as though to leave, but John Sortilege's sinewy hand prevented him.
"You must meet justice."
"Yes, justice," snarled Larsen. "Aren't I sorry enough without being dragged here to see the kid upset like this?" He turned to Linda. "Look kid, I'm sorry. All right? The guy paid me well. I knew it was wrong, but," he faltered, "I needed the money . . ."
Linda refused to look at the man.
"Sit there and listen," John Sortilege said to Larsen. "Your role tonight is to observe and to then carry out your orders. What you have done, cannot be undone, but we have looked into your heart. Your deepest desire is to change - to do good, not evil. We can help you - but you must help us."
He turned to the others in the room.
"I'm sorry I could not explain everything to you before tonight, but it seemed safer that you should understand less than there is to know." He stepped over to Linda and placed a hand on her forehead. Her sobs eased as calm returned to her body. She looked up at John Sortilege, and he spoke.
"Please, could every-one make themselves comfortable. This will be a taxing evening - we must reserve our energy." He chose a well-placed armchair and accepted the cup of strong tea that Morgan suddenly brought from the kitchen.
"Cassie, I must first speak to you. Your daughter has kept a secret from you."
Linda looked at Morgan accusingly. Morgan shrugged, his face showing his discomfort. "Dad told me before you did."
Before Linda could speak, John Sortilege's ringing voice again demanded their attention. He spoke to Cassie.
"Your daughter and her friend Ang have been the victims of an unnatural man who delights in tormenting adolescent girls." He reached towards Cassie and placed his calming hand on her forearm. "This man," he said, looking at Larsen, "helped your daughter's attacker."
Cassie glared at Larsen and tried to rise from her seat.
"It's as well that looks can't kill, child," Morgan's father said gently. Cassie halted for a moment and changed her course to go to Linda. She took her in her arms.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
In answer, Linda shook her head.
John Sortilege allowed the women to comfort one another for a moment, and then continued.
"Your daughter has been able to heal her scars. Her injuries were not physical, but the mind is the most difficult thing to heal.
"The man who molested your daughter will pay, but not merely for what he has done to her. Sometimes, however, justice does not meet our need for revenge. He will suffer, but he will also become a part of what will be. We must all remember that rehabilitation is more important than punishment."
John Sortilege's mind seemed to wander for a moment, then returned to the people who watched him intently.
"Events move quickly. Right now Angelica is approaching."
"Ang! Where?" Linda leaped up and ran to the door. As she flung it open, Cassie heard a car door closing on the road. Linda ran down the path. Through the open door every-one could hear the joyful reunion of the friends. Annie walked to the door and looked out.
"Richard! You've brought Ang back!" She stepped onto the porch to greet him. "And these are the friends you've told me so much about. Bring them in and we can introduce everybody." Annie suddenly felt this was a gala occasion.
She led them into the lounge-room, eager to introduce Cassie to this man who had become so important to her. Cassie stood on the other side of the room, immobile.
"You! . . . You!" she gasped, horror plastered on her face.
"Oh no! Not again." Annie was not sure that she liked this development.
"Please, let me introduce myself. I'm Richard Rank, Private Investigator. This is Toby O'Meary, aspiring television journalist and Harvey Haroldson, a youth worker with the Salvation Army."
Cassie's jaw gaped. She turned to John Sortilege. He answered her unspoken query.
"Yes, this is "Tom, "Dick" and "Harry". But, as you can see, they have mended their ways."
Toby stepped forward.
"We really appreciate this opportunity to apologize to you. We are sorry for what we've done. I fear that the three of us owe a lot of explanations to a lot of people. We just hope that our help with all this business will somehow make up for it."
"It's a beginning," said John Sortilege.
"But?" Cassie turned abruptly to him. "How do you know who they are? You know that I've met them before, don't you?"
"Great! Now will someone let me in on this!" interrupted Annie.
"I think we had all better sit down again and let me finish my cup of tea," remarked John Sortilege. The company did so, all except Ang and Jason, who had been oblivious to everything since they had found one another in the small crowd of people. "You two as well, please." They reluctantly eased their grip on one another and listened.
"The story you have been a part of, revolves around B.B. Raven." He raised a hand to quiet Cassie.
"Dad doesn't like to be interrupted," commented Morgan. His father flashed him a grim look and continued.
"It begins before any of us met this man. I fear that the details are too ghastly, too boring and too many. I will save us all unnecessary pain by merely saying that the man has, in his brief stay on Earth, been guilty of lying and deceit, treachery, greed, wanton destruction and contamination, murder, rape, arson, pollution and failing to pay income tax." He raised his eye-brows. "Of course, I may have missed one or two things. But I think that's enough to give you a general idea of the man. And, of course, that was all before he came to Australia.
"Some of what he has done is known to you, in this room." He looked around the room. "I must leave, soon. Later you can tell each other the tales of woe that you have to share. Use them to make you strong. More than others, these men understand the wickedness that we must all fight." The four men who had worked for Raven hung their heads.
"Richard knows. He was hired by Raven to kill Jack Beau."
Cassie looked at Richard Rank, shocked. He averted his gaze.
"I don't do that sort of thing any more," he said.
"No?" whispered Cassie.
She groped for words, but could find none. John Sortilege spoke instead.
"Jack was sent to audit the books at the F.I.S.H.E., only he never completed the audit. By the time another person could do the audit, the books were all in order - even if the organization was not.
"And then you delved into matters that upset our friend Raven. Which, of course, is when these three gentlemen paid you a visit. It is indeed fortunate that Zeke happened to be where he was." A brief, unfathomable smile flickered around the corners of John Sortilege's mouth.
"Since then they have become changed men. Richard has devoted himself to investigating crime and helping people who require his special talents. Toby has made use of his education and is aiming to work in a similar field to you, Cassie."
"I'm very impressed by your work, Cassandra. I hope I can learn half the skill that I see in your work," Toby said quickly.
Cassie found herself almost liking the man. John Sortilege continued speaking.
"And, of course, Harry. He's been working with the Salvation Army, mainly dealing with street kids. Since he found Ang, he's been taking care of her, waiting until it was safe to bring her back home."
"Yeah. Harry's ace. When I saw him first I thought I was a goner, but he took me in and took care of me. He's got this really ace house, and there are all these other kids living there . . . "
Although Sortilege cleared his throat quietly, the request was obvious. Ang halted her rushed speech. "Sorry," she said, grinning and sitting back in the chair so that Jason could put his arm around her shoulder. "I've just got so much to tell you and I already know all about Harry."
John Sortilege laughed. "Peace, child. Once I have finished you may speak until your tongue wears out." He took a sip from the cup of tea, still full and steaming hot, from which he had been drinking since he began his speech.
"Unfortunately you also know Mr Larsen." Ralph Larsen listened sullenly. "He helped B.B. Raven in more than one way on more than one occasion. Richard will help to tell you that story.
"And then, of course, there is Cassie's incredible alien visitor.
"We have cared for your globe, Cassie. And tomorrow you will present it to the world."
The man who represented the Ancient People stood, using his imposing stature to advantage as he spoke to the children of Earth who would soon try to change the world in which they lived. His voice rang in the crowded space, chiming the message of peace.
"You have come along separate paths to reach this meeting-place. You will leave to follow separate paths which will work together to bring about a new hope for the world." He paused emphatically.
"B. B. Raven is an important part of the puzzle you must solve tomorrow. People can change. Temper your need for revenge with cautious forgiveness.
"We of the Air cannot provide you with a solution to your own problem. That can only be done by those involved. We can give you pieces to work with: we cannot help you to assemble these fragments. But please heed my advice."
John Sortilege allowed his eyes to slowly travel the faces of his companions.
"A single drop of water does not seem a powerful thing, but when joined by other drops of water it can wear away a mountainside. As it flows to the ocean it carries life to the land it passes through, as well as changing the landscape as it travels. It provides food, drink, transport, and sometimes, a home.
"Mankind can harness the power of the river to provide energy for his homes and industry. He can also pollute it so that instead of bringing life, it brings death.
"You must be the river of your people, flowing to the ocean, clean and full of hope."
John Sortilege paused, looking at the people around him. He seemed to weigh them with his eyes.
"One person cannot save the world.
"You must teach your people to work together. A few individuals crying in the wilderness will not be effective. When a whole society works towards a common benefit . . ." He stopped, enraptured at the thought. "My people have learned that through co-operation we can gain strength, but we have also learned that co-operation must have a worthwhile goal. You have a worthwhile goal.
"Now you must convince the people who profit from the destruction of the environment or the suffering of others that their ways are wrong." The wizard stopped for a moment, casting his eyes about the room as though he would find a way to make them understand. He absently picked up a potato chip from a nearby bowl, but instead of eating it, he studied it fiercely.
"Think of the ways in which you may be contributing to the pollution of the Earth without even thinking. A potato chip! It suggests the kind of questions we must ask. How was the potato grown? Were chemicals sprayed on the plant that could be harmful to the environment in any way? Was the land being properly cared for to avoid soil degradation? Was the factory that produced the chip clean? Did it pollute the environment or misuse resources in any way? And then we must consider the packaging."
He ate the chip.
"Of course, we are generally familiar with the problems associated with packaging. Yet despite this, companies continue practises that damage our world," he paused. "Because they make money out of doing it. And consumers don't always have the option of doing without. They may not want to harm the environment, but they have to eat."
He paused, enjoying his speech.
"We have questioned the ideological purity of a potato chip. We could ask the same questions about a loaf of bread! Who would think that a hamburger could be responsible for the destruction of precious rainforests?
"Should we count the suffering of animals that may be involved in the production of eggs? And what of products that may be gained through human suffering? Is it worse to buy ivory that may lead to the extinction of a species or to buy another product which may lead to the destruction of our environment? Is eating a chip a moral dilemma?"
Ang began to giggle.
"Yes, it seems like a joke, doesn't it? It should be." He became grave. "But there are people polluting our world at this very minute who are doing so simply because it makes them wealthy. We must not allow this immorality to continue.
"It is time to stop . . . and begin anew."
Larsen looked about the office. He hated it. He hated B.B. Raven. He hated himself.
His mouth was rancid with his corrupt life. He had been dragged back among people who cared whether or not there was suffering in the world around them. He had lost his taste for deceit. This hasty midnight meeting was like too many Larsen knew. He wanted to leave behind his ignoble past.
Stella admitted B. B. Raven to the room.
"Aah, Larsen." B. B. Raven's cobra eyes held the helpless man. "Didn't expect to see you again!"
Larsen adjusted his position, finding the strength to cringe into his role.
"I didn't do anything! That's why I'm here. I don't want any trouble with you. You've been a good boss to me." He rapped out his breathless defence. His fear was genuine, and B. B. Raven relaxed, enjoying the feeling of power over another.
Larsen found the strength to go on. "I didn't squeal on them - or you."
"Yes, I know," was the calm reply.
The cold-blooded creatures regarded one another. Larsen often wondered what "B. B." stood for. "Bloody bastard!" he thought, waves of fear and revulsion dumping him in a seat in front of Raven's desk. One hand tried to sweep the anxiety from his forehead.
"So. Want to work for me again, huh?"
Larsen forced himself to nod.
"What can you offer?"
Larsen hesitated, and B. B. Raven smiled lewdly.
"You have a beautiful daughter."
Larsen was ice as he challenged Raven's gaze.
"Yes, but there are more beautiful young girls here." He unsheathed the folder he had been carrying in his pocket. Raven snatched the folder, greedy for the papers. He stopped to linger over the photos of young girls that made up most of the persuasive resume. B. B. Raven swayed over the papers on his desk, wanting to strike.
"Ooh. What a pity," he crooned to himself. "This looks better than the trip I had planned."
"Excuse me." Stella had been forgotten by both men. "Mr Larsen showed me this before you arrived. It would take very little to change your travel arrangements. Your plane would leave at a later time, I believe."
Stella was the best assistant that Raven had ever found.
"Aah, Stella! You could do anything, couldn't you?"
"Yes," said Stella, her face a Mona Lisa of mystery.
Her beauty struck at B. B. Raven, then she leaned over to his ear and whispered. He smiled.
"Good of you to come, Larsen." He reached into his drawer and took out a titbit of cash.
"No hard feelings?" he concluded, tossing the money at Larsen.
Richard Rank, private detective, was worried. He lit another cigarette. He slumped restlessly in Bertha's front seat. What was keeping the felon?
This whole business made him uneasy. How could this help? If you want to nail someone you don't hand them a ticket out of the country. And the fire . . . Richard Rank was still thinking that evening through. He was suspicious as hell. But there was no evidence. No evidence at all, now. You could trust evidence.
A furtive figure dodged its way through the rain. Larsen pulled open the passenger door and slipped himself into the car.
Richard's questioning stare provoked only irritation.
"Well come on. Let's get the hell out of here!"
"Not until you tell me. Did he take the bait?"
"Yes! Now drive!"
The car leaped away from the kerb. Inside, a shaken miscreant spilled his guts. Richard Rank took careful note. He wouldn't be so enthusiastic next time. There was no need to frighten that much out of some-one.