Chapter 7: Murdoch
“Maybe we should tell a teacher?” Larry said, breaking the silence.
“That sounds like a good idea.”
Seron and Nick nodded. The boys were in agreement.
Natalia also voiced her consent. Meg nodded again and again.
“Happy now, Jenny?” Asked Larry.
“What happens once we show a teacher?” Jenny asked suspiciously.
“I don’t know. “Seron replied. “What did you expect would happen once you showed us?”
Waving her hands, Jenny finally relented and gathered up the pictures. She slipped them back into the envelope.
“We should all go together.”
“I agree with Seron.”
Larry had to think for a moment before he understood, clapping his hands together. The teacher would not believe Jenny if she went alone. However, he did not voice his realization.
Meg tilted her head, still oblivious. Natalia realized the implication and glanced at Jenny’s profiled face.
“Great! First, let’s clean up.” Larry said. The boys quickly took away the trays, teapot, and the cups.
They then returned to the girls, who waited at the table.
“Let’s go to the faculty office. Mr. Murdoch should be there.” Larry suggested.
“All right. You coming, Megmica?” Asked Natalia.
“I-I will come. Please do not leave me alone here now.”
“We’ll have to save the film for another time. Perhaps in the afternoon, if we can.” Nick said.
The six students walked out in a line.
Larry led the way, slowing down slightly to match the girls’ pace. They emerged from the dormitory and into the light, towards the large building that housed the faculty office.
Larry and Seron were in the lead, with Nick, Jenny, Natalia, and Meg following after.
Larry silently gestured to Seron to offer to put him next to Meg in the formation. But Seron shook his head.
Nick was the one who finally broke the silence. His long hair fluttered in the cool northerly winds as he looked up at the blinding blue sky.
“The weather is wonderful today.”
“Though I can’t say it makes me feel any better. I hate ghost stories.”
“Oh? I’m surprised, Larry. Are you afraid of ghosts?”
“I just don’t like things that can’t be explained. Living people are way more terrifying than the dead.”
“There’s quite a bit of meaning to be gleaned from that statement, I think.”
They walked into the deserted building. And soon they arrived at the door to the faculty office near the center of the first floor.
The 4th Capital Secondary School boasted a large student body and a faculty population to match. The faculty office was massive—it took up a rectangular space about half the size of the first floor.
The room was divided into cubicles segregated by subject, inside which were the teachers’ personal desks. Books and documents were piled on most of them even now.
The only student entrance was the door near the middle of the room. The moment they stepped inside, they arrived at the help desk. During the term, students had to speak to the secretary at the desk and wait at the entrance for the teacher to come out. But—
“There’s nobody here…”
Larry was right. The two secretaries were gone for the summer.
“It looks like the staff are enjoying their break as well.” Nick remarked.
The office and its rows of desks was still. Perhaps Mr. Murdoch was somewhere among the desks, but they could not see him.
“Let’s give him a call, Larry.” Seron said, pointing at the white telephone on the help desk.
“Ah, good idea.”
In front of the phone was a note.
‘During summer break, contact Murdoch of the Roxchean department.’
Underneath was written the number for the Roxchean department.
Seron turned the dial and made the call.
From somewhere in the distance, they heard a phone ring.
“He’s not picking up…” Seron said about five rings later. He waited a little more.
“Maybe he’s out patrolling.” Larry suggested. At that moment—
<Yes, this is Murdoch…>
A sleepy voice escaped the speaker.
“Hello, Mr. Murdoch. This is Seron Maxwell, a third-year student. I wanted to speak to you, sir. I’m at the faculty office. Would it be all right to see you?”
<Ah. Sorry to keep you waiting. I’ll be right there.> Mr. Murdoch replied, and hung up.
“What’d he say?” Asked Larry.
“I think he must have been sleeping.” Seron said honestly. Nick shrugged, grinning.
“Is this teacher really all right?” Natalia wondered. No one answered her question.
“I’m sorry, Seron. I must’ve dozed off.” Mr. Murdoch admitted heartily as he stepped out. His hair was a mess, and he was dressed in comfortable brown pants and a blue polo shirt—unthinkable for a teacher during the school term.
He was startled to see so many students gathered by the help desk.
“Well, well. None of you are part of the drama club, are you? I’m surprised to see so many helpers gathered in one place.” He said. “But isn’t practice canceled for the day?”
“It is, Mr. Murdoch. We’re here because we wanted to show you something.”
“What might it be, Seron? You look rather serious.”
Seron turned and held out his hand to Jenny. She quietly pulled out the photograph from her envelope and handed it to him.
Seron placed the photo on the desk.
“What is this?”
Mr. Murdoch frowned, leaning forward and scrutinizing the photograph. Several seconds passed.
“I see. It’s a picture of the old storehouse on the edge of campus.”
“Yes, sir. And if you’ll look between the bars here…”
“A face.” Mr. Murdoch said nonchalantly. The students were floored.
“Er… so about—”
“Yes. It’s certainly frightening. Just like a ghost.”
“This would be your work, Jenny Jones? I’m impressed.”
“What? No, it’s—”
“To be honest, I was a big fan of your newspapers, Jenny. The photographs especially. When I was a young man, I always so desperately wanted a camera of my own. Unfortunately, they were still too expensive at the time. It’s not cheap now, but at the time it was even worse. About a month’s worth of pay, I think. No one ever treated cameras like toys, the way people do now.” Mr. Murdoch explained with a warm smile.
Seron could not continue.
“I think it would have been wonderful if you’d outright written, ‘this is a work of fiction’ on your newspapers. Nothing like some originality to infuse energy into our lives.”
Seron looked back at the others.
Larry pointed at him, urging him to say it. Jenny seemed positively furious. Seron could clearly see her incisor biting into her lip.
Nick put on an enigmatic smile the moment Seron met his eyes. Natalia spurred Seron, gesturing with her chin. Meg stood with her eyes wide like a puppy recently arrived at her new home.
Seron looked back at Mr. Murdoch.
“No, sir. This isn’t a doctored photograph.”
“Jenny is the photographer, yes. But she claims that this one is different from the ones she had altered before. She says that took this picture yesterday, developed it in the evening, and printed it this morning. And she discovered something she hadn’t intended to photograph. She came to show us first to get our opinion, but we couldn’t agree on anything and decided to consult with you.”
Mr. Murdoch tilted his head.
“That’s simply what she claims, isn’t it?”
“Jenny is the one who claims that this isn’t a doctored photograph, I mean.”
“Th-that’s right, sir.”
“And do you all believe her?”
Five of the six students were floored. The sixth—
“Hold on! I’ll—mmph!”
The sixth student tried to run over to the teacher, but was caught by Natalia and her mouth covered.
“Mr. Murdoch.” Said Seron. “You mean—”
“If you can’t beat the prankster, the best thing you can do is enjoy the pranks.”
“You don’t believe her, sir?”
“Of course not.”
“Is that all?” Mr. Murdoch asked with a smile.
Seron was lost for words. Mr. Murdoch continued nonchalantly.
“If it really bothers you, why not go looks at the building for yourself? If you don’t have anything to do, that is. There’s not much to see, but the storehouse holds great historical value. They’re still doing construction on the building, so take care.”
Seron, Larry, Nick, and Natalia walked out in disappointment.
“I-I can’t believe this! He treated me like I was some kind of liar!” Jenny finally exploded the moment she stepped out of the office.
“Can you blame him, though?” Natalia muttered.
Meg was silent all the while.
They walked away with no need for anyone’s urging. They left the faculty office area.
The group reached the building entrance and stood in a circle near the point where the hallway widened. Seron broke the silence.
“After hearing that, I’m starting to think—”
“Hey! You too?!” Jenny cried.
“I couldn’t think of anything to say, either…”
“Not you too, blondie!”
“Jenny.” Said Nick. “Seron and Larry intend to say that Mr. Murdoch does have a point.”
“I wasn’t asking you, princess!”
“But you know, he really does have a point if you think about it.” Natalia noted.
“Even you, four-eyes?! It’s like you’re all against me!”
Finally, their gazes turned to the oldest of the group—Meg.
Meg silently gazed down the hall for some time. But she eventually opened her mouth.
“There is something very strange here.”
Four quizzical looks.
Seron alone narrowed his eyes. He was not smiling—there was a grim look on his face.
“What do you mean?” Natalia asked.
No one noticed Seron’s expression. Meg shook her head again and again.
“I do not know. I’m very sorry. Something is very strange.” Meg repeated herself uncomfortably.
“Foreign girl! You believe me?” Jenny squealed.
“I do not know.” Meg simply said.
“Hm. Make up your mind!” Jenny demanded, turning her rage on Meg.
“Let’s go take a look!” Seron cut in to halt Jenny’s outburst.
“Where?” Asked Larry. “Oh, the old building?”
“Yeah. Let’s take a good look at the iron bars. Maybe there’s something inside shaped like a face. Maybe it was a trick of the light.”
“I agree. Let me go as well. Sometimes you might mistake an old rag for a ghost, or something of the sort. In fact, the storehouse should have been our very first destination.”
“Sounds good to me. But what’re we gonna do on the off-chance somebody’s really in there?” Asked Natalia. Larry responded promptly.
“I’ll nab him!”
“Brave of you. What about you, Megmica? You okay with this?”
“Y-yes, I am…”
“Are you all right with this, Jenny?” Asked Seron.
“Fine. I’ll go see what that ‘old rag’ really was.” Jenny said in surrender.
Seron led the way, and the others followed. Larry ran up to the front and whispered to him.
“What if Hartnett’s around?”
“All the better.” Seron whispered back. “I want to show him the photo.”
“Makes sense. Anyway, are you gonna get involved here? Wouldn’t you prefer to just go watch a film?”
“I suppose. But something bugs me.”
“I don’t know. It’s like what Megmica said earlier. I can’t really explain, but something’s been bothering me.”
“Aha! You two really are meant for each other.”
“I hope you’re right, but…”
“Sorry, man. Don’t get down! So what’s been bugging you?”
“I don’t know.”
Larry gave up and ended the quiet conversation.
When he turned, he spotted Natalia smirking at them.
“What’re you two whispering about over there?”
“Don’t worry, Lia. It’s not what you think.”
They left through the doors closest to the storehouse and stepped onto the back field. There was, like before, no one around. Crossing the stone-paved pathway, where students rarely trod, they arrived at the building.
About 30 meters ahead of them was the old storehouse, standing in the sun. The light lent the building a surprisingly welcoming air.
“It looks very different from the photographs.” Nick commented.
They were standing on the east side of the building.
Seron told the others to wait before walking forward and checking the shaded area at the north side of the building.
“They’re not here.”
He saw nothing but the shadow of the building. Hartnett’s crew was nowhere to be seen.
“Which window was it, Jenny?” Asked Larry.
“It’s on the other side. You can tell from the lighting in the picture, since I took it in the afternoon. Isn’t it obvious?”
“No, it isn’t. Let’s go check it out.”
They followed Larry around the south side, maintaining a distance of about 20 meters from the building. Meg in particular stuck close to Natalia as she took hesitant steps forward.
“The door—it’s locked.”
“It certainly is. Very securely, too.”
Seron and Nick noted the state of the entrance.
In the middle of the building was a short staircase and the entrance, but a bundle of thick chains were wrapped around the large handle. There was a big lock on the chains.
The first floor window was wide enough for people to climb through, but plywood had been installed in crisscrossing formations from the inside, which made it impossible to enter.
Once the group was on the west side of the building, they stopped at a distance.
“Larry and I will check out the other entrance. You wait here, Nick.”
Seron and Larry walked around to the north side of the building.
Natalia spoke up.
“You think there’s something in there?” She asked. Nick turned.
“Who can say?”
“That’s not much of an answer.”
“I’m happy so long as I get the chance to enjoy myself. Whether someone is in the building or not, I am having fun exploring with everyone here.” Nick smiled.
Natalia paused. Then she spoke.
“You… don’t have a lot of friends, do you.”
“I suppose I can’t deny that.”
“‘Cause of your looks?”
“Not at all. I’m quite fond of my hair. Did you know? In the past, the nobler a man’s status, the longer he grew out his hair.”
“Sounds about right. Some kings even wore their hair in braids.”
“And I do not mind being mistaken for a girl. My own sisters treated me like one, growing up. So it does not bother me when people say that I appear feminine.”
Meg and Jenny listened quietly.
“Other boys tend to dislike me because of my rotten character. I always find myself keeping people at an arm’s length. I suppose I’m also at fault, as I prefer to keep things that way. It’s not a trait worth bragging about.” Nick said with a lonely smile. Natalia narrowed her eyes.
“I see. I’m kind of in the same boat here. I think I understand, Nicholas Browning.”
“Please, call me ‘Nick’. I look forward to chatting with you like this more often.” Nick beamed. Natalia chuckled.
“Sure. You and me oughta have a girls’ night out sometime.”
“What was that now?” Nick replied playfully. Jenny shrugged, and Meg chuckled.
A few seconds later, Seron and Larry returned.
“It’s the same on that side, too. Sealed shut. And it looks like no one’s been through in a while.” Larry reported in.
Seron and Larry looked at the latticed windows on the west side of the building and slowly approached them. Nick and Jenny followed, and Natalia and Meg watched from a distance.
Five windows were on the west side of the building, near the ground.
“Which one is it, Jenny?” Seron asked.
“The one in the middle.”
“Are you sure?”
Jenny walked up to Seron and showed him the picture again.
The walls looked the same all the way around the building, but the sections were subtly different in shape and color. The face was definitely in the center window.
“All right.” Seron nodded, kneeling. “Is someone in there? Is anyone inside?” He asked loudly, his hands cupped around his mouth.
Seron’s voice echoed through the basement. Some of the sound came right back to everyone’s ears, or escaped outside through the other windows.
There was no answer.
Seron called out again. Everyone listened carefully, but they heard nothing else.
Afterwards, Seron leaned in against the latticed window and peered inside. Larry did the same from the opposite side.
The iron bars on the window were fixed solidly in the frame, dozens of centimeters inside. Light was shining from the opposite side and made it hard to see the basement interior, but Seron and Larry had a good enough look.
“Same on this side.”
They saw nothing that might resemble a human face even if light was shining into the window. All they saw beyond the bars was inky black darkness. Wind sometimes bounced against the basement walls and wailed eerily.
Seron and Larry rose. They checked the windows to either side of the one in the center, just in case, and stood again.
“Well?” Natalia asked.
“Nothing.” Seron replied again.
“So y’think it might have been a mistake?” Natalia wondered. She was not denying the possibility of Jenny being a liar.
“No!” Jenny retorted.
Seron stepped in calmly.
“I have two possibilities in mind.”
All eyes were on him.
“Yeah?” Natalia said. Meg watched from beside her.
“The first possibility is that the photograph was doctored after all and Jenny is still lying to us.”
“But! After observing Jenny for the past little while, I concluded that the likelihood of this possibility—while not zero—is very low.”
“O-obviously! Though I’d prefer if you’d lower it all the way to zero.”
“I am in agreement with Seron. Jenny is no actress, after all.” Nick said with a smile. Larry shook his head.
“Are you the type who’d die if he didn’t say one clever thing at least once an hour?”
“Perhaps. Why not time me next time?” Nick replied, still smiling.
“So what’s the other possibility?” Asked Natalia. Seron nodded and continued.
“That someone really is hiding in the basement.”
“Hiding?” Larry repeated. Seron nodded.
“We just eliminated the possibility that something that we could mistake for a face might be here. Then there’s only one other option. This person might usually be hiding in the basement, only to have coincidentally been caught on camera thanks to the lighting.”
Nick agreed. Larry spoke up.
“But why would anyone be hiding here? I mean, sure, nobody comes to this building and the basement’s never in use, but the campus is off-limits to unrelated personnel.”
“At the moment, I have no clue.” Seron admitted.
“What the heck.” Natalia shrugged.
“But either way…” Larry said in a hushed voice. “Isn’t this bad?”
“Yeah. I don’t know who it is that’s hiding in there, but things aren’t looking good.”
Larry and Seron exchanged grim looks.
“Hm? What might be the matter?” Asked Nick.
Before Seron or Larry could respond, a crystal-clear voice answered from behind him. It was Meg.
“You are thinking about the employees who are hired to block the windows down here? Seron and Larry, you are worrying about those employees, yes?”
“I get it. Good thinking, Megmica.” Said Natalia.
“I’d forgotten about that.” Nick admitted.
“Yeah. They haven’t started work yet, but once Hartnett’s team finishes, the basement won’t get any light or fresh air anymore.”
“And he’ll die.”
Seron and Larry speculated. Meg looked up in horror.
“Th-that will be terrible! We have to save him! We can not leave him to stay like that!” She cried in a surprising show of passion.
“Yes. But how?” Nick asked. Meg’s shoulders drooped.
“I do not know how. I am very sorry.”
“Not at all. We mustn’t despair, Megmica. We will all think of a way together.” Nick replied.
“But you know, if the guy’s hiding, we can ask him to come out all we like—” Larry said. Natalia continued where he left off.
“—but he’s not gonna come out of here. He wouldn’t be in hiding otherwise.”
“Then—” Seron began, but he was quickly cut off.
“HEY! What’re you doing over there?!”
An angry voice assaulted their ears.
The group turned. In the distance they spotted a man in blue work wear, stomping over menacingly.
It was Hartnett.