Nicky was lying uncomfortably on a rickety trolley provided by Bert.
"How old is this thing," he grumbled, more to himself than to his strange companion.
"Oh, bout a hundred and something years," Bert said cheerfully, "the boss likes period pieces."
As he spoke he was covering Nicky from head to toe with musty smelling sheets with the assured precision of a surgeon. It could have been his medical background, or he might once have worked as a chambermaid making beds in hotels - perhaps as a summer job during his studies. It really wasn't important - the main thing was that Nicky was disguised. As a cadaver.
Nicky wrinkled his nose distastefully. He'd had better smelling costumes. Like when he went to a school fancy dress party as a bunch of flowers, and his mum had sprayed the roses with rose water to make it more realistic.
He frowned. That didn't seem right. Mum never helped him with school stuff. And if Steve had seen him dressed up as a bunch of flowers, he'd either have dissolved in fits of laughter or skelped him. Steve was not a man of half measures.
"Are you ready?" Bert was asking from the relative comfort of not under an ancient sheet.
"As I'll ever be," Nicky replied through his nose, even though it sounded clichéd.
"Good. Now remember you will have to stay very still, and not speak or get up or sneeze or do a wee until I give the word."
"I'll remember," promised Nicky, although he doubted that such a promise was going to have much of an effect. He'd seen enough movies to be pretty convinced of their imminent capture and subsequent horrible murder. Not that he'd ever seen any evidence of actual violence with his own actual eyes, but the place just had that aura about it.
Bert nodded, then realised Nicky couldn't see him. He winked instead.
"You'll be alright, son," he said with confidence. It felt nice to be a dad, he thought. "Now, if we meet anyone of the other side of the door, I might say some things that sound a bit odd. But I need you to trust that I know what I'm doing. Can you manage that?"
Nicky thought he would probably find this quite difficult. There again, what choice did he have? Sit in the blue walled room waiting for something to happen, or take his chances with the crazy old guy. It was one of life's classic dilemmas, like daddy or chips.
"Yeah," he said eventually, "I can do that."
"Great," Bert grinned with a painful sounding crack of his jaw. "Ow," he added, rubbing it with his crinkly fingers. He had some ibuprofen in the car, it’d be fine.
He opened the door using a swipe card with a picture of a blue and white cat on it, and maneuvered the trolley out into the corridor. Nicky couldn't see this of course, but his new surroundings were made entirely from intricately sculpted, highly polished marble. There were even ornately carved Greco-roman pillars outside of Nicky’s cell.
"Three," Bert said in a low voice, swinging the door closed behind them, "two," he punched in a security code that exploded the alarm system in a shower of sparks, "one! GERONIMO!"
He took a run up and jumped on the back of the trolley, sending it hurtling down the corridor at the speed of a puma.
"Wheeeeeeeeeeeee," he exclaimed with enthusiasm.
Still unable to see what was going on, Nicky clung to the sides of the trolley, closed his eyes, and prayed to Richard Dawkins for his survival.
“WHAT,” came a predictable voice only seconds later, “do you think you are doing, Doctor Sprinkler?”
“Bert Sprinkler?” Nicky thought, “that’s a weird and unusual name.”
“Sorry,” Bert said, catching his breath cheerfully, “I have always wanted to do that.”
Nicky could almost hear the stranger’s eyebrow raise.
“Who’ve you got on the trolley?”
Bert showed no hint of surprise, although he was actually quite shocked.
“Come on man, which one? We have got three, after all.”
Nicky bit the inside of his mouth very hard, drawing blood. He swallowed it with a quiet grimace.
“Nicholas,” Bert replied evenly, smoothing first his tie and then his hair, because he felt he ought to be doing something with his hands.
He hadn’t known there even were three McCrackens. Was he father to them all?
“And what might you be doing with the unconscious body of Nicholas McCracken,” the other voice asked suspiciously. “He isn’t due in the chamber for at least another week.”
“Had word from her that it was time to speed things up,” Bert said ominously. “And you know how she reacts when you keep her waiting.”
“Don’t I just,” the voice said bitterly. Nicky decided it must just be one of the guards. Ha, just. Like they weren’t modeled on the Kathy Bates character in the film Misery. “You know how she likes her coffee at exactly 10:03? I once went in at 10:04, because my watch battery was running slow. She threw it in my face.”
“What, your watch?”
“No you crabstick, the boiling coffee.”
Bert examined the woman’s face. It bore signs of angry purple scarring underneath the eye mask that the guards were all forced to wear.
“That looks painful,” he said sympathetically.
“It was,” she reported. “Very.”
A look passed between them. Nicky tried very hard not to cough. It was the kind of look that might result in another subplot if things got too boring and he didn’t want to spoil the moment. Even though he couldn’t see it.
“Well,” she said, reddening slightly in a not completely unattractive way, “I’ll let you get on.”
He smiled sadly.
“Thanks,” he said, “I think.”
She swayed empathetically.
“Do you ever wonder whether what we do here is…” he began.
She started to say something in reply, but then looked up suddenly and a shadow passed across her brow.
“- in the name of science,” she cut across him instead, a warning note in her milky voice.
Bert turned, to see a familiar mink cloaked figure behind him.
His blood went cold, like that of an alligator, snake, or other reptile. Because he was a mammal, this was uncomfortable to him and made the hairs rise up on the back of his neck and the top of his head as if he had plugged himself into the mains.
“Does she ever wonder whether what we do here is…?” The figure repeated darkly. The weird voice box that he or she used to disguise his or her speech could not render his or her tones completely emotionless, Nicky noted. Apparently Bert’s doubts about the operation were a matter of concern.
“Go on, Bert. Finish your sentence.”
“Oh, I can’t remember what I was saying now,” Bert said airily, forcing a short laugh.
“Seeing you unexpectedly like this has completely put it out of my mind. I’m getting old, you see,” he added hopefully, knocking the top of his head in a comic fashion as if to suggest it was empty of thought.
“Yes,” the big boss agreed, “you are old. But not forgetful. It’s clear to me that you’re trying to hide something, and don’t think for a second that I’m not going to find out exactly what that is.”
Bert smiled coldly. His heart was racing like the clappers, but he maintained a calm outer exterior.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” he replied demurely, accidentally fluttering his eyelashes. He made a mental note to stop watching BBC adaptations of Jane Austen novels to help him get to sleep at night. It worked, but there was some form of mental conditioning that went along with it which led almost exclusively to embarrassing consequences.
“You know exactly what I mean,” the caped authority snapped with an angry swish. “But never mind that now. Take Mr McCracken and go, before he wakes up.”
Bert narrowed his eyes. He didn’t have permission from the head honcho to take Nicky anywhere.
“At once,” he replied, bowing his head as if before royalty.
Nicky felt the trolley start to move, much more sedately this time. He did his best not to exhale too big of a sigh of relief. They weren’t out of the woods yet, metaphorically speaking as it were, and now would not be a great moment for the sheet to go flying off him and for them to see he was awake.
‘Although,’ he thought to himself, ‘I could always shut my eyes and pretend that I really was unconscious.’
He smiled. Maybe, if he kept his wits about him, escaping wouldn’t be so hard after all.
“Right Nicky,” said Bert very quietly and almost without moving his lips, “slight change of plan. I’ll have to actually take you to The Chamber right now, and I will need to leave you there alone for a bit.”
Nicky had no idea what that meant, but he guessed from context that it was bad.
Another door opened, and the trolley stopped.
He was alone once more, but this time he was also in the dark.