A chill ran down Tom’s spine, followed by a rasping inhale of breath that drew the cold air of the night into his lungs. Had he imagined an echo that sounded like footsteps in the distance, or caught a glimpse of something in the corner of his eye that could easily have been movement? Tom couldn’t be sure because the mind always played games in the dead of night. Especially since he was waiting anxiously within the shadows cast by empty buildings that lined either side of the alleyway he was standing in.
The alleyway was fairly sparse, with large rubbish bins decorating the sides. The bins were pretty much full to the brim, with smaller bags of rubbish piled up on all sides. Among the rubbish was a family of rats doing its best to noisily scavenge for left overs; any rat lucky enough to find a scrap quickly having to fend off the others, all eager to share in its rotten bounty. The smell from the rubbish bins and it’s inhabitants should have been rancid and overpowering, but the weather was cold, obvious from the icy vapour that Tom exhaled as he slowly let out the breath he had been holding.
The alleyway was as suitable a place as any as he waited to meet with Ed, his erstwhile purveyor of all things black market. Ed was Tom’s ‘goto’ man for anything and everything. If you needed a little pick me up or something to ease the pain, Ed was your man. Need someone leaned on or roughed up, Ed could put you in touch with the right people. Of course, Ed’s line of business could make him a little paranoid from time to time. Therefore he always insisted on meeting somewhere quiet and out of the way, to ensure discretion from prying eyes. The alleyway offered this in abundance, as well as an easy getaway in the form of adjoining alleyways and roads. Tom’s car was parked in one of these nearby roads, on the off chance he needed to leave in a hurry.
Checking his watch, Tom wondered what was keeping Ed. Ed was running at least ten minutes late and if nothing else was very punctual. He had called Ed late at night, a hasty phone call that had been answered with Ed’s normal lack of conviction before demanding to know what he wanted. The answer was pretty obvious, at least in Tom’s mind; the usual fix, as soon as possible. Tom didn’t think he was predictable, but all Ed asked for was an address, a time and to make damn sure he was good for the money.
Money for Tom was never a problem. Tom worked in high yield derivatives for one of the big Investment banks in the square mile. He was pretty good at it and while he didn’t earn the big bucks like some, his yearly bonus would easily have covered the deposit on a sizeable house. Of course having lots of money didn’t mean much if you forgot to bring a nice warm coat, he thought to himself, as the biting cold really started to hit home. Wrapping his arms around himself, Tom shifted his weight from side to side, trying to warm himself up. His whole body was starting to shake, but whether that was due to the cold or withdrawal symptoms, it was hard to tell.
The first signs of withdrawal had started to kick in a few hours before, much earlier than was usual. He had been enjoying a night out on the town with Jimmy, an old work colleague from back in the day, when he had noticed the telltale shaking of the hand.
Ignoring the signs, Tom and Jimmy had continued moving in and out of bars for a couple of hours before hearing about a party at the Shard. Conniving as ever, Tom had bet his friend there was no way he could talk his way in, which just spurred Jimmy on even more. Jimmy could work his magic anywhere, gaining access to most parties in London, but this one would require something special for it was invitation only.
Charming his way past both security and doorman had not been easy, but after calling in a few favours, Jimmy had come up with the goods. This came as no surprise to Tom as Jimmy worked on project bids, also plying his skills among the trading and investment houses of London. Getting his foot through the door and talking people round was his nine to five.
The party had been in full swing when they arrived, a hundred or so people crammed into a penthouse apartment that took up a whole two floors of the Shard. The place was littered with money, both old and new, whilst women and drugs were passed round like cheap champagne at a wedding. Ever the optimist, Tom had promised to behave, but as always the lure of alcohol and women soon took over, driving Tom down a very dark and well trodden path.
Pressing a finger as carefully as he could against the swollen side of his face, Tom recalled with regret how the rest of the party had turned out. The area just under the eye was pretty sore to touch, the result of some guy having taken a swing at Tom. How was he to have known the hot looking girl had been the guy’s fiancée. A fight had broken out, Tom giving as good as got, before he had been unceremoniously turfed out by the resident bouncers.
The sound of a car engine in the distance forced Tom to focus on his current situation. Deciding to step out of the alleyway and into the main road, Tom saw that the car had stopped maybe a block or two away, a male figure having gotten out of the car. Squinting really hard, Tom tried to get a food look at the person who was now walking toward him. It looked like Ed, but It was difficult to tell at this distance.
Whoever was walking toward him had picked up the pace, but gave no outward sign of having spotted Tom. Ed might not be the most switched on, but he was normally clever enough to give some sort of signal. His Modus Operandi was usually a tip of the head, his way of saying ‘I’m here, now let’s get on with it’. Whoever this person was, Tom didn’t think it was Ed.
Starting to feel uneasy about the whole situation, Tom briefly wondered if maybe he was worrying over nothing. Whoever this was could have nothing to do him. Or Maybe Ed was too busy to deal with Tom himself and had sent someone in his place. Things however just didn’t add up in Tom’s mind.
The man was close enough now that Tom could make out his features. He looked disturbingly familiar but for some reason Tom could not place him. Not being someone to sit quietly and wait for something to happen, He decided to take action for himself.
‘Hey buddy’, he shouted, ‘got a light?’
The question was innocuous enough but served its purpose, causing the man to stop walking and look directly at Tom. His face was a blank slate, refusing to reveal any clue as to his purpose. A moment passed and then an almost imperceptible smile, or possibly a sneer, formed in the corner of his mouth, barely noticeable before it was gone. Yet however short it had been, something about that expression lodged itself in Tom’s mind, a memory from earlier in the evening.
Then it hit him. He had been at the party.
‘You don’t know me Mr Jacobs, but what I have to say could mean life or death to you and your family’
Tom’s heart skipped a beat. Was that a threat? He noticed then that the man had casually reached a hand inside into his coat. Damn it he thought, no time to run. Taking a deep breath he prepared himself for the inevitable.
‘No cause for alarm, Mr Jacobs’, said the man, chuckling to himself, ‘I have something for you, compliments of our mutual friend!’
The man pulled something out of his coat and threw it at Tom. He caught the object before realising it had been thrown, a small package wrapped carefully in brown paper. Deciding to open it in a hurry, Tom eagerly suspected what the contents might be.
The contents of the package caused Tom’s sense of anticipation to skyrocket. Resting within was a type of computer chip that he was intimately familiar with. The small chip, called ‘Bliss’, was designed to be inserted into a jack implant at the base of his neck, something Tom normally used to interface with computer systems. Not everyone had a jack, as the procedure came with a hefty price tag, but they were starting to become mainstream as people realised the edge this new piece of technology could give. Like every new technology however, there was always a way to abuse or misuse it. ‘Bliss’ was certainly one of these, an incredibly addictive and illicit use of the implant for those willing to pay the price.
‘You should have mentioned Ed sent you’, Tom mumbled as he took the chip and pushed it into the slot in the back of his neck, ‘How much do I owe you?’
The man smiled and shook his head, ‘Well Mr Jacobs, Bliss can be an expensive recreation, especially for an addict like yourself’.
Tom would have frowned at this comment, had it not been for the feeling of euphoria that was cascading through him.
‘However, In this instance we can forgo the usual payment in lieu of a small favour, if you are interested?’
‘Favour?’, replied Tom, struggling to give the conversation his full attention.
‘it’s simple really, just give me a moment to explain’
‘What the hell’, thought Tom as he struggled to comprehend what had happened.
The scene before him looked like the reenactment from some horror film, with bullet ridden corpses lying on the floor and a panicking mass of people running as fast as they could away from him. One little girl he noticed, dressed in a pink butterfly costume, kept looking back over her shoulder at him, open mouthed with bewilderment. Her mother, at least Tom thought it was her mother, had hold of her arm and was pulling the little girl along as fast as she could whilst trying not to be trampled by the rest of the crowd.
Tom’s focus switched to his hands, noticing the automatic rifle there for the first time. In shock, he stood staring at it, before throwing the rifle away like a hot stone as soon his brain caught up and put the second piece of puzzle together.
What concerned Tom most was he couldn’t remember anything at all. The last thing he could recall was talking to Ed’s friend and plugging in the chip. The next thing he knew, he was standing in the middle of what looked like a shopping complex, covered in blood and surrounded by a bunch of people he could only conclude he had shot.
Things were starting to get all too much for Tom. He collapsed to the ground, a cry of anguish issuing forth as the overwhelming weight of responsibility forced his knees to buckle. His hands came up to cover his face and hide the shame when he heard heavily booted footsteps running toward him. The footsteps were followed by a clear female voice shouting at him to lay face down on the ground with arms out wide. Struggling to comply, Tom’s vision started to waver as he began to black out. The last thing Tom would ever feel was a sensation of burning in the side of his neck, accompanied by an acrid smell, before everything went dark.
Looking down over a railing to the floor below, a lone man watched as the events continued to unfold, his expression uninterested as the SWAT team moved in on their now prone and very dead target. Stepping back from railing, the man’s thoughts were elsewhere, taking part in a conversation whose other participants were far away from his current whereabouts.
‘Congratulations Mr Smith, on a job well done. I believe I speak for everyone here when I say that your subject exceeded our wildest expectations.’
The lone man simply nodded his head. There was no need to reply to the speaker. He was not one to acknowledge any form of verbal plaudit. Instead, his silence was answer enough.
‘However, can I remind you that our project is falling behind schedule due to your past failures. It is more important than ever that we move to the second phase of our plan.’
This time, the lone man answered, his sub-vocalized response both calm and measured.
‘The delay was inevitable considering the resources available. Be grateful that today was met with any form of success. With luck, today’s result will more than make up for any lost time.’
‘We can but hope Mr Smith, but I would prefer not to rely upon luck and providence. Do not disappoint us, Mr Smith lest we are forced to withhold payment or more. Just remember, we will not tolerate any more delays. Goodbye.’
The irony of the speaker’s last statement was not lost on the lone man. As he walked away from the massacre below, he could not help wondering if the speaker’s conviction matched his words. Only time would tell if that was the case, but to the lone man, it did not matter. The role of executioner was reserved for a select few, and there was always someone willing to pay for his services.
© 2014 Alan Weltch