As we have mentioned in some of our earlier posts, it has been a long hot summer in Hong Kong with week after week of hot weather warnings, followed by weeks of torrential rain. It had made hiking difficult, if not dangerous. This year alone there have been a number of fatalities due to hikers ignoring the warnings and venturing out regardless. Sadly, the day before posting this story another two fatalities were reported.
The Spirit of the Matter concerns such a tragedy. I was commissioned to write this short story for a Hong Kong-based lifestyle magazine in 1989. Unfortunately, in the time that it took me to write it, the management changed, and the new editor decided that, not only that she wasn’t going to use the story, but that she was not obliged to honour any of the commissions that her predecessor had ordered.
I was reminded of all this a few weeks ago when I saw the report on the latest hiking fatality in Hong Kong, which, occurred on the island of Lantau, where this story takes place.
(Author’s Note: The reference to the ‘PC’ and ‘floppy disks’ may appear somewhat dated but, please remember that this story was written in 1989 when 5 1/4 inch floppy disks were still in wide use. Indeed, 3 1/2 disks were only just becoming popular and the first hard drive I ever came across in 1985 was an unheard of (for then) massive 10 Megabytes).
(All characters and locations mentioned in the story are entirely fictitious and any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental)
And finally, the story:
The distractions and social life of Hong Kong had proved a sore trial to James Harris. He was, he believed, a man on the brink of fame and fortune. All he needed to do was finish the novel he was working on. A feat that was turning out to be considerably harder than he had first thought possible.
It was to be his second novel, the first he had completed a year before. When he had presented it to his agent the man had been so impressed that he had secured for Harris, an advance on his next. He took the money and the praise, which did his ego irreparable damage and set out to write his second book.
His first had been written over the period of a year while he had been employed in a security firm. It was an easy job that had left him plenty of time in which to write. However, writing full time had not been as enjoyable, or as easy, as he thought it would be and the novel was now three months overdue. He decided to make a concentrated effort to finish it and through an agency, rented a bungalow on the island of Lantau. It was there, he hoped, the solitude and peace would allow him to finish his work.
He made the move one blistering July day. He took with him one suitcase, an overnight bag and a cardboard carton containing his word processor.
He was met at the ferry pier on Silver Mine Bay, by the agent and driven out to the bungalow which was on a beach near the far end of the south coast. She helped him carry his things into the house and started showing him around, but noticing his impatience, she cut short her normal welcoming speech and left him to unpack.
This he did by throwing the suitcase onto the bed, and the overnight bag into the wardrobe. The cardboard carton he placed on the dining room table in the large central room that served as both living and dining room. Unpacking the IBM compatible PC, purchased in Shum Shui Po for a fraction of the cost of the genuine deal, he set it up and then, having arranged everything to his satisfaction sat down on the settee and relaxed. The PC was ready, he was ready, this place was perfect, here, he would complete his masterpiece.
He was too excited to remain still for long, he switched on the computer and while it was warming up he went through the pile of floppy disks. He found the one containing the final chapters and inserted it in the drive. Each file on the disk held a separate chapter and he called up the current one. He waited for the text to appear on the screen and when it did he instructed the computer to bring up the page he had been working on. There was a split second delay while the computer found the page. The screen went blank, and stayed blank.
Odd, thought Harris. It had never happened before. He went to the previous page, it was there and all in order. He moved the cursor to the bottom of the page and, crossing his fingers, moved back to the last. It was blank. He went back to the previous one again. The text was cut off in mid sentence; the rest of it had somehow been erased.
“Damn,” said Harris. He had not lost a great deal of work but the fact that it was gone concerned him. He had always had a nagging fear that one day, something would go wrong with this electronic marvel. Fortunately, he thought, he had only lost a few paragraphs. He decided to go back and reread the last page in order to get back into the story and this he did. He then moved once again to the new page to start writing. But now there was something on it. Harris stared in confusion at the words which appeared on the screen before him.
“PLEASE HELP ME”
“Where the hell did that come from?” He asked himself. He sat back and thought. There was obviously something wrong with this disk. Perhaps it had been damaged during the trip. He had other fresh disks, that in itself was not a problem, what worried him was the thought that if this one malfunctioned completely he would lose months of work. He had printouts of about two thirds of his story, but the thought of having to start these last few chapters, which had proved to be the most difficult of all, again, appalled him.
He withdrew the disc and carefully set it aside. At the earliest opportunity he would return to Hong Kong and have the remaining contents printed out. For now though, he was anxious to start work. He took a new disk from the pile, inserted it and gave the instructions to open a file. After a few seconds the information on the screen advised him that the file was ready and he brought up the first page. The screen went blank for a second and then the cursor appeared at the top of the left hand corner signifying that all was ready.
But, before he could put his fingers to the keyboard the cursor started moving of its own accord. It flashed across the screen leaving block capitals behind it. The letters became words and Harris looked in wonder, amazement and then anger, as the message appeared.
“PLEASE HELP ME”
“What the hell is going on?” He shouted. He stared at the words. One disc going wrong with months of work on it was bad enough, but for all of his disks to suddenly go faulty when he was stuck out in the far reaches of Lantau, miles away from the nearest computer shop, was too much. Angrily he pulled the disk out of the drive and inserted another one. Again he went through the rigmarole of setting up a file and then he moved to the first page. It was clear. The cursor sat blinking steadily against the top left hand corner.
This disk was alright. He started typing and his words appeared across the screen. Soon his frustration vanished and he was lost in his story.
He worked until his eyes began to hurt and then decided to take a break. Closing down the computer, he went into the kitchen and found that it had been nicely stocked by the agent. He put the kettle on to make some tea and then for the first time since his arrival, walked around the place, taking note of his surroundings.
Harris drank his tea and ate the quick meal that he had prepared. It was late now and he felt tired but at the same time excited about the work that he had accomplished. It would be good, he thought, to review what he had written that day.
He switched on the computer and waited for it to warm up. When it was ready he called up the new file. The computer hummed and clicked, the screen went blank and then the writing appeared. It was his text. Absolutely no problem this time. Harris moved the cursor to the last line of the last paragraph and sat bolt upright in shock. Underneath the last line, in the centre of the screen, were the words:
“PLEASE – – – HELP ME”
Harris had not written anything else that evening. He had ripped out the disc and hurled it across the room, switched off the computer and stalked into the bedroom. In his overnight bag there was a bottle of malt whiskey and he had drunk a good portion of it.
The following morning after coping with a headache, he went for a walk along the beach in front of the bungalow. He was depressed; any progress he had made in motivating himself had suffered a severe setback. He spent most of the day walking back and forth before returning to the bungalow, now determined to continue. He turned on the computer and retrieving the disk, inserted it. Moving quickly to the end of the text he saw that the words were still there. But underneath there now appeared:
“WHY ARE YOU IGNORING ME? I NEED YOUR HELP!”
Harris leaned forward and put his head in his hands. “Oh brother,” he said to himself. He was beginning to wonder if this was not perhaps a very elaborate hoax.
“OK.” He said to the screen. “I’ll play. What exactly is it you want?”
He shook his head in disgust. When he started talking to his computer it was definitely time for a holiday. He started to get up when the screen went blank for a second. Then the text, his text, reappeared. This time, under his last paragraph he saw the words:
“I NEED YOU TO FIND MY BODY!”
Harris stared at the screen, speechless. Then gathering his wits he shouted. “This is a bloody joke isn’t it?” He looked up at the ceiling. “Who’s messing around here?” He glared at the screen, then he reached out to turn off the power. “This is it pal!” He shouted. “It’s been a laugh but it’ not funny anymore.” His fingers were just on the power switch when the screen flashed once and then with incredible speed new words flashed across its width.
“STOP STOP STOP STOP PLEASE STOP”
Harris stopped, his spine tingling. The first inkling that perhaps this was not a joke crept into his mind. “Who are you?” He asked.
There was a pause, the cursor moved and a name appeared.
Harris sat back and thought, the name meant nothing to him. He found his spiral notebook on the table and wrote the name in it.
“What do you want me to do?” He asked. The cursor started moving again and wrote:
“I NEED YOU TO FIND ME.”
“Why?” Asked Harris. “Are you lost?”
And the cursor moved again.
“NO — I”M DEAD”
Harris cursed. “You almost had me going there for a minute. All right, whoever you are, it’s been a lot of fun but I’ve got a great deal of work to do so I would appreciate it if you would just go away.”
He got up from the chair and started to move away from the table. Then he remembered remembered to turn off the computer. In one quick movement he flicked off the switch and in the instant that it took for the screen to go blank he saw the cursor moving rapidly across it. The letters ‘PLEA’, just had time to appear. Then, as the screen went blank all hell broke loose in the room. The first thing Harris noticed was a whine that seemed to come from everywhere. It rose in pitch and stopped abruptly as the bulb in the ceiling lamp exploded.
Then the dining room table started moving. It ground across the floor, its legs shuddering, slowly at first and then it rushed forward hitting him in the groin. He fell backwards, over the low coffee table onto the settee and the standing lamp that had stood to one side fell over on top of him and with an unnatural force, pinned him down. The whole room was vibrating. He watched in horror as the computer’s power cable stretched tight. If the table moved any further it would be pulled off and he had no illusions about it surviving the fall.
Fortunately the plug fell out of the wall socket. The sliding door of the balcony opened with a rush, and the windows on the opposite side of the room slammed shut. The glass in one of them shattered and littered the room with its fragments. As Harris lay there half across the coffee table, his upper body pinned down on the settee by the lamp, the kitchen door opened. The refrigerator moved forward of its own accord, grinding along the floor as the table had done. Its door burst open and the contents shot out into the room. And then everything was quiet. The computer flashed to life. This time there was one simple message displayed on its screen.
“PLEASE — HELP ME”
Harris took one look at the power cable, its plug lying on the floor, several inches away from the wall socket, and just managed to croak, “OK”.
Instantly the pressure of the lamp eased and he was able to sit up.
“What do you want me to do?” He asked again. He might have expected the answer.
“FIND MY BODY”
“And how am I expected to do that?” He asked. In response the screen went blank. It was as if the entity, or whatever it was inside the computer, was considering the answer. Then the cursor started moving again and some figures appeared.
“GE 956 651”
They started to fade and Harris quickly reached for his note book again. No sooner had he written them down than they began to fade out altogether and the screen went dark. He looked at the figures on the page before him. There was no question in his mind as to what there were. The numbers stood for a Grid Reference. They denoted an exact location on a survey map.
He went through to the bedroom and pulled out his suit case. Throwing the clothes out onto the bed he found what he was looking for at the bottom. Still in its sealed plastic envelope was the government issued map of the Lantau. He had purchased it the day before he had come with the thought that a few hill walks might be good for him.
Returning to the living room he spread the map out on the coffee table and using a ruler located the position. It was a point about a hundred metres below the summit of Lantau Peak.
The next day dawned hot and humid. Harris left the bungalow soon after 7:30 and made his way to the Shek Pik Reservoir.
For the next few hours he toiled up one of the five ridges that lead to the peak and it was nearing 11 a.m. when he reached the point where he would start his search.
The ridge in front of him leveled out for twenty metres. Then it dipped before rising sharply up into the clouds that obscured the summit. Just at the point where the path dipped was a sign set on a metal pole. It warned hikers of the extremely dangerous nature of the path ahead and suggested that inexperienced walkers turn back at that point.
Harris stopped and looked around. The path was indeed very dangerous. To his right the hill side disappeared in an almost vertical drop that leveled off only shortly before the reservoir. In front of him where the path dipped the slope was not quite so steep and there was a deep gulley in which vegetation had taken root.
Moving carefully he went into the dip and looked down into the bushes in the hopes of seeing something. Suddenly, his foot slipped on a wet rock. He tried to throw himself backwards, but his body slid over the edge. His hands grappled in the weeds beside the path and he scrabbled with his feet to find some purchase. He had almost succeeded when the weeds pulled out by their roots and Harris was sliding, uncontrollably downwards. He tried to grab at the shrubs that flashed past him but the only one he caught came out in his hands. Then his fall was halted abruptly. He had landed in the bushes at the head of the gulley.
Dazed, scratched and bleeding, Harris took stock of his surroundings. He was in an extremely precarious position. There was no way he could climb back up to the ridge; he would have to make his way down. Hopefully, at the foot of the gulley the slope would be easy enough to allow him to make it back to the road.
He had only gone ten feet through the tangle of undergrowth when his ankle became hopelessly caught up in something. Harris cleared away the vines and grass and almost screamed out loud.
Grasping him in a firm grip was a skeletal hand, its bony fingers curled around his ankle.
Harris allowed himself to fall back into the brush around him and waited for his pounding heart to slow down. Then he reached forward and overcoming his revulsion, unhooked his leg from its ghastly trap.
When he was sure that he wasn’t going to have a heart attack, he reached into the undergrowth and pushed back the creepers. The shallow roots pulled free easily and in a short time he had revealed the skeletal remains of what had been a man.
The clothes had mostly rotted away and he could see that several ribs had been broken. But what must have been the worst injury was one of the legs. The tibia was broken and lay at an angle to the body. Whether it was because of how the man had landed or whether it had fallen this way as the body settled he had no way of knowing. Finally, Harris found the courage to look at the skull, but it was featureless. Wisps of hair still clung to the back of it.
It did not take him long to work out what had happened to the poor man. Obviously he had been walking along the ridge above, had fallen into the bushes, broken his leg and eventually died here; alone and in agony.
It had taken Harris four hours to make his way down to the main road where he had managed to stop a car. He was taken to the police post near Silver Mine Bay where he was treated for his cuts, and then asked if he would lead a team back up to the location of his find.
Determined to see it through to the end he agreed, and a Royal Airforce helicopter was called in to drop them on the ridge. Harris stayed on the path in the now late afternoon while a team roped down into the gulley to retrieve the skeleton. They had only been gone a short time when they reappeared carrying between them a surprisingly small canvas body bag. Then within minutes they were back on the helicopter, and returning to Silver Mine Bay.
In the cramped rear compartment he sat between two policemen. The canvas bag lay at their feet. One of the officers asked Harris how he came to find the body and he explained about falling off the ridge into the gulley. He didn’t think it wise to recount his experience with the computer. The other officer was looking through some personal belongings that they had managed to find. One of the items was a wallet.
The man turned to Harris and over the noise of the, machine said. “I remember this chap.” The officer was a young man; the gruesomeness of the find had not disturbed him at all.
“It was just after I was posted out here.” He continued. “We had a missing persons report on a chap that went hiking, never turned up for work and his employers made the report. Poor bugger what a horrible way to die.”
Harris nodded his head in agreement. “Any identification?” He asked. The officer held up a Hong Kong government identification card for him to see. Harris did not want to look at the name which appeared on it, but he saw it all the same. It was John Adam Mundy.
It was late that evening when a police Landrover dropped him back at the bungalow. Wearily he let himself in and collapsed on the settee, wondering whether he had imagined the whole affair. The debris from the refrigerator still littered the floor. Underneath his feet he could feel the crunch of the glass fragment from the exploded light bulb. He got up and pushed the dining table back to its former position and plugged in the computer. The disc was still in the drive. He would have lost a great deal of work by not removing it before turning off the machine, but it did not seem that important anymore. He switched it on and waited while it warmed up. Then the screen came to life. And there, in its center, was the last message that Harris knew he would receive.
As quickly as it appeared it started to fade. When it had gone completely the screen went blank for a second and then the text of Harris’s story appeared. He got up from the table and returned to the settee, placed his head in his hands, and wept for the soul of John Adam Mundy.
Thank you for visiting stewartgoeswalkies. I hope you enjoyed this post. Please feel free to leave a comment and if you would like to submit a story about a past experience it will be greatly appreciated. You can contact me at stewartgoeswalkies
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