The Weatherman

When Serena Frost starts a new job at the British Weather Centre, she learns about a rival company, Readiweather.com, whose forecasts are uncannily accurate. A chance encounter with Readiweather's founder piques Serena's interest, but she soon finds both her heart and her life in danger, as some people will stop at nothing to discover Readiweather's secret.

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12. Chapter Twelve

The dress haunted Jeff. He knew he should do what Serena wanted – take it back to the shop and get a refund. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He didn’t want the money back. That was Serena’s dress, and he couldn’t bear to think of anyone else wearing it. He had to do something, though. Even knowing that it was in the house was mocking him, condemning him for evicting Serena.

            He found some old newspapers, took them outside and lit the incinerator. Even doing that brought back memories of the last time he’d lit it, to destroy Serena’s contaminated clothing. Her shorts, her T-shirt, her underwear. He paused. She’d been wearing something else, hadn’t she? He tried to recall what it was, but gave up. The fire was burning nicely now, so he went back inside for the dress.  As he stepped outside with it, he saw a figure jogging along the towpath in the distance. He stood there, transfixed for a moment. Ronnie, who had been stood on the doorstep, rushed past him along the path, barking joyfully as the figure came closer. The figure stopped, fussed Ronnie, and waved at Jeff. Serena! Pleased to see her, Jeff waved back and started along the tow path.

 

            Serena saw the dress in Jeff’s hand, and the fire in the incinerator. “I didn’t know you hated me so much!” she called out, with a smile.

            “I could never hate you,” Jeff replied as he drew closer. “I … er… “

            “Looks like I just got here in time,” Serena laughed at Jeff’s embarrassment. An awkward pause. “I’m really sorry for what I did. I deserved to be thrown out.”

            “I’m sorry I was so angry,” Jeff replied, reaching out to hug her.

            “You had every right to be,” she answered, accepting his embrace. Ronnie stood on his back legs and tried to join in, making them both laugh.

            “Some guard dog!” giggled Serena.

            “You must have come here for a reason,” Jeff stated, when they’d broken their embrace. “I gather you’re living at Drew’s now. It’s a long way to come up here for a run.”

            Serena felt like lying and saying she was in training for the half marathon, but instead said, “I know how you do the forecasts.”

            The smile disappeared from Jeff’s face.

            “You’d better come inside.”

They walked together back to Jeff’s home. Jeff made them both drinks and they sipped them together. Although Serena’s revelation had made the atmosphere tense, they were still glad to be in each other’s company.

“How much do you know?” Jeff asked.

Serena told him everything. She expected him to be cross about the scrunchie, but instead he gave a wry smile.

“I knew there was something missing when I burnt your things.” He paused for a beat. “You don’t know how many times I’ve longed to be able to share my secret with someone,” he confessed. “It all started about five years ago when I saw an article in ‘Science Now’ magazine about the experiments at the University of Wisconsin.” He opened a desk drawer and pulled out a page torn from a magazine. Serena recognised the other side as being the last page of the article she’d been looking for and nodded. “Immediately I saw the implications for meteorology. It wasn’t easy to get hold of the chemicals, and the timing hardware was a challenge too, but before long I had enough to start performing my own experiments in my bath tub. Gradually I built up an array of lights and sensors – just like the pool room, but on a smaller scale. I was getting gain times of the order of micro seconds, which whilst good progress, made me realise it would take something the size of the East India Dock to get a useful forecast time. I was just about to dismantle the rig when it dawned on me that provided the time gain was greater than the time needed to send the message, I could keep re-sending it earlier and earlier until it reached the desired total time gain. Obviously I needed to set up an automated rig to do it, but once I’d got that working I knew I was on to something. But it still wasn’t enough. The small time gain limited the amount of information that could be passed back in the system…”

“Kind of like bandwidth?” Serena asked.

“Pretty much. In order to get a greater lead time I realised I needed something much bigger than the bath. About that time, the Council put this place up for sale.”

Serena remembered seeing pictures of the run-down state of what had then been a derelict open-air pool. “That must have cost a bit,” she joked.

“It did,” Jeff confirmed. “Certainly more than a Weather Centre salary. But the system in the bath tub was working well enough that one Saturday evening….”

“…. you passed that week’s Lotto results back in time? I can see now why you don’t want it to fall into the wrong hands. Is there nothing it can’t do?”

“In principle, no,” Jeff answered. “But it would be so easy to disrupt the future that I made it a rule only to pass back information I couldn’t influence.”

“Like the weather, lottery numbers, and what my favourite food is?”

“Exactly. Of course, I could have got stinking rich by winning the lottery every week, but I didn’t build the machine to make money for myself. I built it to save lives and reduce damage and disruption caused by the weather. The money I make from my forecasts is a bonus.” He paused. “Look, I’ll show you how it works.”

He opened up a program on his laptop. At first glance it looked like an ordinary e-mail account, except that several of the messages in the Inbox had “sent” dates that were hours, minutes, or even days into the future. Jeff clicked on one and opened an attachment which contained the following day’s Weather Centre rainfall radar and observation charts. “Downloaded from the Weather Centre website tomorrow. Even the Weather Centre haven’t seen these yet,” he chuckled. He clicked on another email.

It said simply, “Tell Mrs. Harrison it will rain next Thursday afternoon from twelve minutes past two to seventeen minutes past five.”

“What does that mean?” Serena asked. Jeff was about to answer her question when his Android phone rang. John Kettley is a Weatherman…. Serena smiled as Jeff took the call.

 “Mrs. Harrison. I’m afraid I have to tell you that it will rain on Thursday afternoon from twelve minutes past two to seventeen minutes past five, so you may wish to hold your garden party on a different day. And remember, we’re so confident in our forecasts that if the forecast is wrong – in any detail at all - you can call us back within five days for a goodwill payment of five hundred pounds. Thank you for calling.” He pressed the red button and terminated the call.

Serena was impressed.

“I send one of those emails for one of two reasons.” Jeff resumed his explanation. “Either the customer’s called in for the £500 payment so I know the forecast was wrong, in which case I ask the customer what really happened and email that back to myself. Or they don’t call back, so I know the forecast is probably right, in which case I send an email stating what I’ve already told them.”

“What if they lie to get the payment?” Serena asked. “Or just forget to call back?”

“I’ve had very few people lie,” Jeff answered, after a moment’s thought. “Most people, if not honest, are probably overawed by the accuracy of the forecast that they think I’m omniscient! Of course, there are a few who try it on, but the Weather Centre data’s a useful guide..” Jeff opened one of the desk drawers and took out a pack of cards.

“Try it out for yourself,” he said. “Take a card.” Serena pulled one from the pack and looked at it. The Queen of Hearts.

“OK,” Jeff said, standing up so Serena could sit at the computer. “Send an email back in time to tell you what your card is. I don’t want to use too much bandwidth on this so just send it back a couple of hours or so.”

“What address should I use?”

Jeff looked at the computer clock and did a brief calculation. “Try two-double-zero-two-zero-five-two-seven dot thirteen eleven at readiweather dot com.”

Serena entered the address, then in the message body put “My card is the Queen of Hearts” and clicked ‘Send’. Jeff raised his eyebrows when he saw what she was typing but said nothing.

“Now look at the list of emails in the Inbox. Open up the one with a received date of thirteen eleven.”

Serena opened it and read it. “My card is the Queen of Hearts.” “Is it really that simple?” she asked.

“Pretty much,” Jeff smiled. “Incidentally, you did me a really big favour with your swim the other day. It highlighted a vulnerability in the hardware. I had been sending the data through all the lights and sensors in series, which meant that it only took a single light or sensor to be blocked or fail for the whole chain to fail.”

“Like fairy lights on a Christmas tree?”

“Precisely. So I’ve now divided the pool into sections wired in parallel and upgraded the hardware to split the messages over different sections of the pool. It’s cut down the gain time on each pass of course, but the bandwidth remains the same. If there is a failure, the computer warns me in advance and automatically diverts data to the other parts of the pool until I’ve fixed it. I couldn’t do that before because I’d have to use the failed part of the pool to send a message.”

Serena’s eyes glazed over. She’d understood everything this far, but not the last bit.

           

            Jeff was about to explain further when he heard a noise outside the door. Someone was trying to force it open.

            “Shhh,” he said, moving towards the window and peering out round the curtains. Alert to the possibility of danger, Serena stood up and followed him.

            “Looks like those guys are back again,” he said. “And one of them’s armed this time.”      He returned to the desk, unlocked a drawer and took out his own gun.

            They heard a shot fired into the lock of the external door and it burst open. The two men, clad in balaclavas again, stood in the doorway, one holding a gun. Jeff fired off a couple of shots, both of which missed, one burying itself in the door frame. He was about to fire again when Serena launched a kick against the hand of the intruder holding the gun. Jeff held his fire for fear of hitting her. The other man grabbed one of Serena’s arms, pulling her off balance towards him and, grabbing her other elbow with his free hand, drew her across him like a shield. The first pointed the gun at Serena’s head.

            “Put your gun down and slide it to us across the floor,” he said. Jeff did as he was told, then stood up, his hands raised above his head. The man with the gun knelt down, keeping his gun trained on Serena, and picked Jeff’s gun up. Ronnie made a leap for him, but too late. The man let off a shot from Jeff’s gun and Serena squealed as the dog fell lifeless to the floor.

            “Shut up!” the other man commanded. “Or you’ll be next.” Serena fell quiet. It was useless even to try to wriggle free. Even though she could have easily kicked him in the shins, she knew she would be shot as soon as she tried.

            “Show us the laptop,” he said to Jeff. “Show us what you showed the girl just now.”

            “How did you know about that?” Jeff asked incredulously.

            “We hacked your camera system. Thank you for explaining your program so well. Now, get on with it! And no tricks, or the girl gets a bullet in her pretty little skull. And that would be such a shame.”

            Cornered, Jeff turned the laptop round and started to type. “I’ll tell you what to type,” said the man holding Serena. “Don’t want you trying anything silly. Just type the name of a playing card like the girl did.”

            “How about two jokers?” Jeff asked. The men both scowled.

            “Just type, ‘Ten of Diamonds’.” Jeff did as he was told. “Now send it.”

            The email disappeared from the screen.

            “Now show me the e-mail you received.”

            Jeff clicked on the Inbox and opened the relevant e-mail. The man with the guns checked the date. “Doesn’t look like we need you any more,” he said, firing three times into Jeff’s chest with Jeff’s own gun. He collapsed to the floor and a pool of blood spread out on the carpet. His killer, realising Jeff’s gun was empty, threw it down.

            “We don’t need the girl any more either,” the man holding her said.

            “You said she wouldn’t be hurt,” the other protested.

            “She knows too much,” the first replied, grabbing her tighter. “Now pull the trigger!”

 

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