I thought it would be good to give you a free book to read. It’s called “Weber, Marya & Din”. It’s a dystopian novel set in England in the future. You can find some of my other stuff at my bookstore on this site. I hope you’ll enjoy ‘WMD’ and feel that it says something about where we are going unless we do something about it. I first published it in 2011 and since then we have had Snowden …
Weber, Marya & Din
© Phil Cosker 2011
The truth is … what’s the phrase? A tissue of lies … that’s what we gave them, nothing but that. I have tried to imagine what happened – later, when I knew exactly what had taken place, it was no easier to explain how we’d allowed ourselves, perhaps willingly, perhaps absent-mindedly – certainly carelessly – to forget our ordinary day-to-day humanity.
I really can’t be certain what ‘they’ all thought because even though ‘we’ knew pretty much everything that citizens did, we couldn’t get right inside their heads – at first I thought that was a shame; later, I changed my mind.
I was working as assistant to a very senior Hierarchy bureaucrat called Owvane. Let’s say I’m called Veronica. I thought I was on my way up. I was first rate – or should I say I had convinced myself of that. Day-to-day working for Owvane gave me quite another image of myself. Once you’re stuck with doubt it’s hard to conjure up the nerve to prove to yourself that you’re first rate after all.
This is what happens.
Is this the dying of the light, Sander wonders? He curses himself for lacking the courage to rage against its dying and settling for flight. Leaning against one of the concrete columns beneath the motorway he rests his face against its cold smoothness and feels a momentary relief from the stifling heat. Wiping his forehead with his hand he sees, even in the gloom, that it’s covered in grey dust. Above him traffic relentlessly booms and drums. His heart pounds. He has no time to waste; needing to be on his way he scurries on, stomach churning, on the verge of collapse, now regretting his refusal to comply.
The self-inflicted wound caused by the removal of his Personal Identification Device (PID) chip from his arm still throbs but has finally stopped bleeding. He knows it won’t have taken long for them to realise that the cat he forced to ingest his PID is not moving at all like a man moves – not even a man on the run. From nowhere hope surges. I’ll make it, he thinks. I just need to be vigilant.
Tiring, he stops again to rest, to take a deep breath. He hears his heart pounding in his head. Suddenly alert at the sound of a footfall on gravel, Sander turns and looking back at the way he’s come, thinks he sees a movement in the darkness. He stands very still and stares; nothing moves. Sweat rolls down between his shoulder blades. His heart thunders in his chest. Continuing on his way, faster now, he convinces himself that he’s imagined the barely audible giggle that he heard as he stared into the darkness. He stumbles into a trot. Looking at his watch he guesses it will take him another hour to reach where he hopes to find sanctuary – ‘Out There’.
Panting from uncustomary exercise, he stops. The intersection ahead is surveilled by at least twenty cameras at all heights and vantage points overlooking the roads. Even at three in the morning the traffic is heavy; there’s no cover. Sander stands in the shadows next to the ramp that leads up onto the motorway slip road trying to work out the best way to get to the other side of the brightly illuminated junction without being recorded on camera: none of the authorised crossings are possible as using them necessarily means being photographed by APNR camera units. As he considers his options he coughs from the heat and fumes that swirl around him; he makes up his mind. As he’s about to turn left he sees the blue flashing lights of a squad car approaching and rapidly dashes back under the ramp where he sits hunched up trying to regain the composure he lost some time ago; he needs to piss. He hears the giggle again – this time it’s nearer. His heart races as he zips up his flies.
Sander stares into the darkness. His voice trembles as he asks if there’s anybody there. There’s no reply, only a stifled giggle. “Who’s there?” Sander asks again.
After a moment a boy comes out from behind a column. The boy is tall and big enough to be a man but Sander knows it’s a boy – he’s not sure why he knows this. The boy wears a black woollen hat on the front of which is mounted what looks like a caving torch that radiates a red light.
“Was that you giggling?” Sander asks. The boy says nothing – just stands very still smiling back at him. “What’s that on your head?”
“Is my eye,” the boy says.
“It’s a camera, isn’t it?”
“Is infrared nano digital, is state of the art, innit?” the boy explains.
“How long have you been following me?”
“Is about an hour, Professor Sander.”
“How do you know who I am? How did you find me? I took out my chip.”
The boy giggles. “You’s shoes is chipped, innit? Is as your watch is, like is everything you is wearing. Don’t you know nothing, Professor?”
“I put everything through the scanner; there weren’t any chips.”
“Pig shit ignorant is no excuse, yeah? Don’t you be knowin’ there is chips and then there is chips, innit? Is like there is scanners that’s not so good as people think they is, innit? You is easy to find, yes, after I is assigned. Is all on here,” the boy explains holding up his smart phone for Sander to see before he puts it back in the left pocket of his black zip-up bomber jacket.
“What do you mean ‘assigned’?”
The boy takes something from his right hand pocket but it’s too dark for Sander to see what it is. The boy points at the camera, “You is live, you is webcast, innit?”
“What’s your name, boy?”
“Din, Professor Sander.”
“That’s a strange name.”
“Is my nicked name.”
“You mean nick name,” Sander suggests.
“No, I know what the meaning is, yeah. Is nicked, stolen, is made up by someone other, innit? I thought professors was supposed to be brainy.”
“What do you want, Din? I have money.”
Din giggles. “You is doing the classic, right, prof? Is doing the keep him talking jibe, is building rapport bullshit, is playing for time, innit?”
“Why have you been following me?”
“You is being streamed as we is speaking,” Din explains.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Reality TV, innit?”
“I don’t understand. What are you talking about?” Sander asks.
Din’s hand moves so quickly that Sander barely has time to register what’s happening – what’s already happened. The pain in his chest is extraordinary. He sinks to his knees gasping as he watches the stub of the bolt embedded just above his breast bone juddering in time with his convulsions. Blood pumps from the wound. Sander gasps for air. He wants to scream but makes no sound. He watches, frozen, transfixed, as Din takes a long silver needle from the sleeve of his jacket and pushes it, slowly, but firmly, into Sander’s right ear. Sander screams and keeps screaming until the needle has completely disappeared.
I looked away. Owvane concentrated as the scene unfolded.
Sander is quiet. Din stands back. “Is goodbye, professor,” he says keeping his head very still as the camera watches Sander die. Din pulls the needle from his ear and cleans it on the sleeve of Sander’s shirt; he leaves the bolt where it is.
Owvane was delighted – no that’s not right – he was ecstatic. He said something like ‘that’s more like it, that child has real promise’. He made it obvious that it was my task – it was to be my pleasure – to realise Din’s potential. Oh shit, I thought, as I looked back at the screen; this isn’t what I had in mind; this wasn’t in the job description – but at this level there weren’t job descriptions, just functions and outcomes expressed in the most general of terms, such as – ‘you will embody, personify and demonstrate the core values inherent in the management of the Social Context by the Hierarchy’.
Din switches off the camera and walks away into the darkness pleased with himself, he likes the ‘voice’ he’s used; they’ll think I’m ‘feral’ and ‘stupid’, which is far from the case, innit? He giggles.
Weber hears the buzzing of his official Engineer’s digital clock: I don’t need to be told it’s time to get up, shower and dress for Christ’s sake, I’m not a bloody child. He’s been awake for hours and is more than usually irritated; the PID embedded in his left upper arm has registered his insomnia and this, correlated with all his other data sets will continue to provide a complete profile of his every waking moment. Why did I say yes? he asks himself even though he knows he had no real choice in the matter. For an Engineer to be fitted with a PID is called ‘leading by example’ providing proof that those who manage the Social Context are subject to the same rules as every other citizen. This is nonsense but is used as evidence of good faith: ‘those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear’. Oh yes? He sighs. There is talk of ‘Advanced Deep Sleep Intelligent Sensors’ (ADSIS), to be called ‘dream catchers’, but Weber doesn’t care, or rather he does care, but hopes to be long gone before they’re introduced and before he’s expected to set yet another good example – but before all that there’s an investigation to complete.
When Weber graduated from university with a good honours degree in Applied Social Pathology he’d been only too pleased to secure the position of trainee Engineer within the Hierarchy; for a kid from an orphanage this was quite an achievement even though he’d been a member of the Young Engineers. Once you were admitted as a state bureaucrat it was a job for life but Weber made three fundamental mistakes: he applied his intelligence without fear or favour; allowed his ambition to provide focus for his life; and took the role of investigator seriously. Had he accepted the role of diligent, but anonymous, career Engineer then all would have been well – he would have been bored but he would have been safe and on this morning he would have felt – I don’t know, he thinks, what I would have felt, if I’d given up and acquiesced, if I hadn’t tried to stop it going on?
Din has slept well following his deletion of Sander; now, in the early morning, he watches the rain falling softly, gently, on the overgrown grass outside his cottage window. Looking closely through his binoculars he sees raindrops held, teetering, glistening against the shiny deep green V of the blade of grass on which he focuses. It’s a shame that no one knows what grass thinks. He laughs. A large black crow, or is it a rook, he wonders, triggers the CCTVs’ movement sensors and the floodlights, quite unnecessarily, it being daylight, crash into life and destroy the beauty of his moment. He thinks that if he could catch the crow/rook he would pluck it while it lived and then – he stops thinking about it, he knows he can’t catch the crow/rook; he’s making progress, maturing.
He’d asked me why I called him Din. I’d explained that ‘Dinge’ (his mother’s name) sounded dreary whilst ‘Din’ was a loud noise that caused distress. Din had objected that this didn’t precisely describe what he did, but after some thought, he agreed that as he wanted to cause extreme distress and create a lot of metaphorical noise, then he would call himself Din; what did you need a real name for anyway?
He puts down the binoculars and studies the grass, fascinated that it appears that many blades of the clump he studies are going in one direction when he knows for a fact that statistically such could not be the case. Equally enthralling is that when looked at from a distance, i.e. without the binoculars, there is little or no variation in the hue, in the tone of their viridescence, whereas, when inspected more closely, no two blades are exactly alike. Then there’s the matter of counting. Today is a rest day that he can devote to developing his mind so that when it stops raining (which will be soon if his smartphone can be believed, and it can) he will measure out a square metre of turf and count the number of blades and thus extrapolate to calculate the exact number of grass blades in the plot. He shakes his head: that won’t work because there is no guarantee that there aren’t variations in habitat that will render such a calculation invalid. That’s typical. How is it possible to know anything precisely when there are so many variables I can’t control? There is always a flaw, but it affords him pleasure that he can play a small part in creating order; he smiles, perhaps removing flaws from the Social Context is akin to mowing the lawn. He dislikes this analogy: the more you mow the grass the more it grows and the stronger it becomes; that wouldn’t be such a good idea if the same worked for people. Din turns his attention to counting the hairs on his chest to see if any more have appeared since they were subject to his last census the results of which are recorded in his black book of squared paper labelled Din’s Secret Stats.
Marya, known as Mayhem by fellow radicals in her youth, was the product of an approved secular union of a woman from a once-upon-a-time Roman Catholic family and a man with a distant Jewish heritage evidenced only by his lack of faith. Now old, this woman slowly swings her thin but sturdy legs out of bed and sees the movement sensors (fixed in the four corners of her bedroom) flicker red. She stands straight – what was the phrase – straight as a pike staff – no, it wasn’t that – straight as a die – what was a die, how did you spell it? So you think I’m alive, do you? All you really know is that something’s moving in here, it could be anything: a tiger, a rhino, even an elephant. No, the elephant isn’t in the room; it’s outside in my hall where your bloody CCTV camera will know it’s me. No, I’m the elephant in your room. Why can’t I walk naked from one room to another like I once did a lifetime ago before you locked me up? Tits firm and proud, the arse of a forty year old and with the wind, well the draught anyway, blowing through my pubes? What would be wrong with that? Just because I’m an old lag – you’ve no idea, not a fucking clue! You think longevity equates with senility, with a lack of self-awareness, with a lack of the will to live and keep fighting to take my revenge. You’ve forgotten that I’ve been waiting for so long. She knows that if she does walk naked in the privacy of her own so-called home then they’ll see her, classify her, assess her and send her a ‘well-being-counsellor’, conclude that she’s dangerously pathologically demented and return her to prison instead of this ‘Transitional Rehabilitation Facility’ (once known as an ‘open prison’). Bastards, she concludes. If I’m going to do it, finally be able to do it, to bring off the impossible, then now is not the time to rock the boat, but she finds such restraint, hard.
In the kitchen she turns on what she still calls ‘the TV’ knowing that it’s far more than that, not only broadcasting but also incasting data about her computing, internet, shopping, ‘meals in fridge re-ordering and automatic delivery service’, audio and televisual choices; logging the hours she views or interacts with the machine; photostores images of herself and any visitors (of which she has none) as well as sending her customised messages tailored to her risk assessment. It is one of her great joys that the Hierarchy confuse behaviour with thought; she has spent many years throughout her long life doing one thing and thinking something quite otherwise, being someone quite otherwise – pretending. She huffs, you just think I’m someone to be watched, an ancient troublemaker, a nutter, nothing to really worry about as you constantly survey me, whereas in fact I’m even worse than an elephant in the room or even a bull in a china shop or Patti Smith or Patti Hearst, whichever I mean, or good old Boadicea. But you don’t even know who I really am. Bastards, she concludes again as the continuity announcer suggests that she watch ‘Learning to live with senility’. “Fuck that!” she shouts, half expecting the TV to frown and the sprinklers in the ceiling to erupt in cataracts to drench her anger.
Weber inspects himself in the wall mirror; it returns his gaze, its ridge light glowing green. His dark grey uniform is perfectly arranged, the words ‘Engineer Commander’ machine-embroidered in scarlet clearly visible on its front and back as well as upon each arm. He wants to spit on the glass but that is as pointless as the idea that it’s possible to put on such a uniform other than in the prescribed way. He continues staring at the glass wondering if the mirror recognises hate, not of himself but of the nation state of which he is the embodiment and the antithesis. He switches off the mirror; his dressing data will already have been processed. He turns back to look again: how do I know that you don’t watch me even when you’re switched off – can you be switched off?
He pulls the taser weapon from its charger and inserts it into the polypropylene holster he wears at his waist. He puts on peripheral vision protective eyeglasses and ‘her’ familiar voice wishes him good morning through the microphone in the side temple arm sitting over his ear. He returns the greeting, substituting the word ‘control’ for ‘commander’ and asks if he’s to go straight to HQ or out into the Social Context; it’s the latter. For the first time on this ordinary day his spirits rise; maybe, just maybe, today will provide me with the opportunity I need? The trouble with being an investigator in the Social Context is that he is subject to as much scrutiny, more in fact, than those he investigates and if the investigation concerns those above him then it’s hard not to be noticed; this almost makes the task impossible; it’s probably supposed to make the task impossible.
After completing his self-census Din turns his attention to those limited elements of the Hierarchy’s ‘Dictionary’ to which he’s allowed access. The Dictionary, a massive computer that mines, monitors, analyses, interprets and stores all cable and virtual telephony and telecommunications, multiscale spatiotemporal tracking and mapping information allied with dataveillance functions that integrate data with and from: credit cards, bank cards, mobile phones, smartphones, internet traffic, web logs, all physical and on-line retail purchases, customer surveys, focus groups, product information requests, call centre usage, web site cookies, internet search engine data, consumer credit checks, wireless intercepts, and PID GPS all overlaid with data from other state agencies including the NIS (National Illness Service), Electronic Patients Records (EPR), the Bi-annual National Citizen Census, National DNA database, DVLC, ANPR, National Automated Fingerprint Identification System (NAFIS), the Violent Offender and Sex Offender Register (ViSOR), Facial Images National Database (FIND), all nationally held biometrics from electronic borders, HMRC and National Taxation Register, the Criminal Justice Exchange (CJX) System, National Golden Shield CCTV and Geolocative Positioning System to produce an Individual Risk Assessment Profile (IRAP) for every person from before birth until after death.
All that Din can access is the IRAP of the citizen to whom he is assigned. At the beginning I assured him that as he matured and was given more and more important assignments sanctioned by the Supreme Council he would move up the Hierarchy and with such movement he would be given access to non-operational data. For example, if he found a male or female to whom he was attracted, in actual or virtual space, he would be allowed complete access to their IRAP in order to facilitate a sexual encounter and exercise power over the chosen one; this was to be one of the promised benefits of being a First Dispatcher or FD. At the time I also promised that when he reached the age of sixteen he would be allowed to see his own IRAP from which he would be able to learn of his own origins; he thought the latter element of intelligence much less exciting than the possibility of possessing a woman.
His smartphone buzzes and, looking at the screen, reads the words Your next assignment is Engineer Commander Weber. He’s impressed; this is a significant step up from deleting a professor, no matter how eminent. He sets about finding out all there is to know about EC Weber over and above him being a senior investigative officer of the Hierarchy.
It’s a cliché, but Owvane seemed like a spider at the centre of his web, in contemporary terms – the web master of web masters. He wasn’t a big man but his authority was intimidating – this was only partly due to his age – he was over seventy but as sharp as a tack.
Out of the blue one morning he asked if I’d check on the status of a prisoner, one Marya Heim. I checked her out in The Dictionary and reported that as she was coming near to the end of her forty-year term she’d been transferred to an open prison in preparation for her full return to the Social Context. That was wrong – I should have called it a Transitional Rehabilitation Facility – I apologised. Then Owvane said he wasn’t sure if putting her in a TRF was a very good idea. I asked him if he wanted me to do anything about it and he said his influence didn’t go that far – which was clearly nonsense. I didn’t ask why he wanted the information about Marya but I assumed that he had a motive because he always had a motive. I found it impossible to tell what Owvane did and didn’t know – often I felt he asked me questions to which he already knew the answers, like a deity testing a mere mortal; I wondered if he thought himself omnipotent.
Marya breakfasts on muesli and long-life milk from the refrigerator and sees the bar code reader register the need to replenish her stock of milk that will arrive within three hours from the central warehouse without her even having to ask. She wonders if those significantly younger than herself are also allowed long-life milk in anticipation of achieving longevity or if it is now policy to only supply such a commodity to those who have already had a long life and … what defines a life as ‘long’? But today is not a day for irritating conundrums but for action.
It had taken her some considerable time and effort to work out how to hack into The Dictionary to access her IRAP because passing through the numerous firewall protocols had been challenging. None of her hacking would have been possible without the skills she’d acquired from her B.Sc. in Computing and the M.Sc. in Advanced Programming she’d secured in prison. Her difficulty is that if she uses her laptop within her ‘home’ she will be detected as the record of her Internet traffic will give her away. All her searches and invasions of the Dictionary need to be made from different locations and cannot last for long if she wishes to avoid discovery, arrest and return to a high security prison unit.
In her bedroom she dresses in the pale green twin set, Harris tweed skirt, silk stockings, good court shoes and cultured pearls that she regards as one of her most beguiling disguises even though the clothes had been supplied from a travelling Salvation Army recycling unit. She looks every bit the dowager denizen of a respectable sheltered community for the elderly – even her white permed hair is perfect. In her kitchen she puts the laptop in her plaid shopping bag on wheels. She’d been asked why she needed a computer when she was on day release. She’d explained that she didn’t want it stolen and they understood that and having determined that it was just a regular prison issued machine they took no further notice of it; the fact that it had immense processing power due to the leniency of the governor who had allowed her to complete the M.Sc. was missed, in all likelihood because she was old – one of the few benefits of being subject to an ageist mentality.
“You do know there’s no need for you to go outside to shop, don’t you?” the guard asks.
Marya stares at the ornate wrought iron gates that control access to the open prison and bestows the guard with a beatific smile. “Try to remember, young man, that I’ve been locked up for nearly forty years. I’ve adored shopping since a child; so indulge me. Though what you say is true, the retail experience offered here doesn’t approach the therapeutic beauty, the tension, the excitement of a full-scale mall with its plethora of opportunities to choose.”
“Some of the others have been caught shoplifting,” the guard says.
Marya continues to smile, wondering how Lady Bracknell or Diana Athill would have responded to such an implicit criticism and warning.
“Have you got your tracker card?”
“Of course I have,” Marya lies, as a prisoner of age she’d never been fitted with a PID and was required to carry a tracker card instead; but no one checked she did – there was no need – she was old. “Can I go now?”
The guard presses a button and the gates slowly open. “Make sure you’re back on time, will you?”
“Too kind,” Marya smiles and sweeps out through the open gates.
Seated in his car Weber asks where he is to go.
“The coordinates are already on your GPS,” the voice replies.
“Is there particular intelligence I should know?”
“The delete was webcast.”
“It was webcast?” Weber asks, straining to disguise his shock.
“There are visitors at the site. They are unwanted.”
“Relations?” Weber asks.
“It is possible that one or more dissidents may be present.”
“What sort of dissident?” Weber asks.
“I don’t understand your question, commander.”
He frowns but doesn’t pursue this line of questioning. “Is the site secure?”
“There are police in attendance. There’s a cordon,” she says.
“So what’s the problem?” She doesn’t respond so Weber asks the question again, but again she doesn’t reply. Weber says, “Start.” The car’s electric motor quietly whirrs into life. The GPS screen pops up out of the dashboard showing his destination.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, commander,” she says.
“Is there a problem?”
“The death needs to be fully corroborated.”
“That’s usually done by a junior engineer, someone of less rank than me.”
“Verification of all elements of the deletion need to be confirmed and, most importantly, evidence of dissident presence recorded.”
“When did this take place?”
“It should have been done there and then,” Weber says.
“Nevertheless. That is your instruction. Would you like to see the webcast now?”
“I would not.”
She repeats her question and he once again declines her offer.
“It contains evidence,” she persists.
“I have no need to witness the process; the outcome is sufficient.”
“If that is what the commander wishes.”
“What is the name of the deceased?” Weber asks.
“Professor Arthur Sander.”
“Are there any suspicious circumstances? Was the deletion fully authorised?”
“All deletions are fully authorised.”
But not normally broadcast, Weber thinks as he presses the accelerator and the car moves away from its charging station. How is it possible in the course of my lifetime that technology, that had once been a means of enlightenment, has now become the means of oppression?
Din isn’t in a hurry. This is one of the nice things, one of the many nice things about being a First Dispatcher, he can take his time until he’s given the final command to ‘delete’; then it has to be done without delay. His instructions for the Weber assignment – only actually his second delete – surprise him; the process is to be protracted and it’s intended that Weber will know that he’s been assigned. Din asked me why this was the case. I just followed Owvane’s orders and told him to ‘enjoy’. He also asked how long he was supposed to ‘enjoy’ before Weber’s death? I didn’t like his use of the word ‘death’ but was unable to answer his question, as Owvane hadn’t yet told me.
By late morning Din is bored. He’d worked out on his cross trainer, taken his steroids, eaten a healthy breakfast and established Weber’s place of residence, his qualifications and his record of achievement; Weber appeared to be an exemplary EC but Din has no doubts as to the necessity of his deletion.
Din was eleven when his IRAP identified him as a child of outstanding anomic intelligence and amorality. He made extraordinarily fast progress in the seminary so that by the time of his thirteenth birthday he was put to live alone in the Social Context. Though he sometimes missed some of the other children (most of whom he thought pretty odd) he found the freedom provided by solitude wonderful. Lacking the need to take into account the feelings and needs of others and having no need to imagine himself in the place of the ‘other’ caused him to develop a particular sense of self; a sense of independence and confidence in the centrality and importance of his own selfish needs unmediated by anything except the developing requirements of becoming an FD (which was exactly what Owvane expected). Though solitary for most of the time he had two types of consistent relationship: one with his EM (I was his second mentor) and, secondly, potentially with those to whom he was assigned and stalked as part of the deletion process – though with these latter the relationship was almost entirely one sided and time-limited: Sander was his first deletion. Over and above these relationships his dealings with the citizenry in the Social Context were largely vicarious.
He decides to go for a bike ride to break the boredom of the day. In his bedroom he selects what to wear and chooses a plastic panda facemask and black hoodie. He inspects himself in the mirror and laughs so much at his own reflection that it takes him another ten minutes before he’s calm enough to leave, get his bike and lock up. He giggles as he sets off down the lane that runs from the cottage to the High Street believing that his PID will prevent the PFPUs (Police Force Protection Units) from subjecting him to an ISAS (Invasive Stop and Search) as they habitually conducted on any other teenager similarly dressed.
As he cycles along the main road he decides to make for the newly opened mall to see what mischief he can cause. He’s read the ‘Guest Conduct’ protocol that’s displayed at all ten entrances and he easily contravenes the rule not to: ‘Wear any item of clothing which restricts the view of the guest’s face (e.g. hoods) with the exception of religious headgear’; he hopes for more outrageous contraventions of good behaviour than this.
On the railbus Marya sits next to another woman of similar age to herself and innocently suggests that it’s a lovely day.
“It’s disgusting,” the passenger replies.
“What is?” Marya asks, somewhat taken aback.
“That!” the woman hisses, gesticulating at the abundance of tags and graffiti daubed all over the inside of the coach. “Are you blind or something?”
Marya says nothing but studies one piece that covers the entire ceiling, reproducing, or more correctly, satirising Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ – the disciples are dressed as police and appear to be eating naked children. That’s rather good, she thinks with its references not only to Leonardo was also to Breughel. She’s perplexed: the quality and detail of the work means that it would have taken days, probably weeks, to complete – how could that have been possible if it was graffiti?
“It’s everywhere,” the passenger continues. “Outside. Inside. Outside. Inside. Everywhere. Look at it. Why don’t they paint it out?”
“I don’t know,” Marya says, regretting having entered any sort of conversation with this woman.
“It’s a prisonable offence – you do know that, don’t you? I blame those young people.”
Marya hesitates but then thinks, what the hell, and asks, “You know it might not be young people that do it?”
“Who else would it be?”
“Well … it could be the state doing it to suggest that the Social Context is more dangerous than it actually is.”
“Are you mad?” the woman asks.
“No. You see if we, the citizens,” she likes using the word ‘citizens’ because speaking as a convict she’s denied the right to be called a citizen, “think our world is dangerous then that makes us accept draconian laws such as locking up graffitiists without trial.”
“What else would you do with them? Solitary confinement wouldn’t be good enough if …”
Marya interrupts, “Have you ever seen anyone actually doing graffiti on one of these vehicles?”
“But have you ever seen anyone actually doing it?” Marya persists.
“They only do it when there’s no one here.”
“It might not be graffiti at all,” Marya says. “It could be part of a retro design, to remind us of the old days.”
Marya doesn’t hear the passenger’s reply as the automated coach voice announces that they will shortly be arriving at terminal four, adding, “Please ensure that you take all your belongings with you when you vacate this vehicle. Any items left after your departure will be confiscated and eradicated. The vehicle is now stopping. Have a happy day. Please mind the gap.”
I hate these bloody voices, Marya thinks. Have a happy day. What crap.
The railbus stops.
As Marya and the passenger stand, the passenger says, “I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t you that did the graffiti with views like yours; you’re a deviant.”
“Thank you. That’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me in ages,” Marya chuckles.
The passenger shakes her head in disgust and strides off as the coach cameras record Marya’s happy face.
Marya makes her way to the far end of the right hand section of the northeast quadrant without incident; her passage is recorded and stored along with the images of thousands of other shoppers having happy days. At the far end of the blue corridor she enters the ladies’ toilet, sits in a cubicle until she is convinced that she’s alone and then quickly pushes open the emergency exit bar on the door and hurriedly scuttles towards the overgrown wasteland beyond the loading bays.
Hiding between a rampant buddleia and elder bush she pulls out the laptop, switches it on and logs on to the portal that leads to her IRAP. She calculates she has no more than ten minutes to make the latest alteration to her risk assessment that will enable her to be re-stratified and re-designated thus giving her access to the higher levels of The Dictionary normally forbidden to all but the elite few. Her heartbeat increases as she makes the necessary keystrokes registering her new password as butterflies fly about her; a butterfly settles on her hand: she continues typing, the butterfly continues to sit on her hand; she can’t believe how easy it has been to make the changes. She terminates the connection, shuts the machine down and hides it back in her shopping trolley.
As she emerges from her hiding place straightening her skirt and brushing away the seeds and grass that now stick to her, a voice asks, “What you been up to in the bushes, grandma?”
Marya, alarmed, looks to her left and sees a tall boy on a bike wearing a hoodie and panda facemask. “Oh! You made me jump,” she says. “I came to see the butterflies,” she lies. “Aren’t they beautiful?” Din gets off his bike and walks towards Marya. “Look, there’s a Red Admiral,” she says.
“That’s a Painted Lady, Vanessa Cardui to give it its proper name. It’s different to the Vanessa Atalanta or Red Admiral.”
“You know a lot about butterflies.”
“I like their names.”
“I don’t know anything about butterflies,” Marya says. “I just like them and they like the butterfly bush, the buddleia, that’s the one with the flowers.”
“How did you know there was a buddleia here?”
“There are always buddleia on waste ground,” Marya replies.
“So you came here to find a buddleia and see the butterflies?”
Din laughs from behind his mask. “You’re putting me on, gran. What are you really up to?”
“I’m an old lady, I’m allowed to do odd things – I came to find a buddleia and see some butterflies. There aren’t any where I live; weeds aren’t allowed.”
“Is buddleia a weed, then?”
“They do say it’s a weed in China so I suppose if it’s a weed there then it’s a weed here as well.”
“I didn’t know that,” Din says, nodding his head. “That’s interesting. Don’t you want to know why I’m wearing a panda mask?”
“Because you like pandas?”
Din laughs from behind his mask. “I like you, gran. What’s your name?”
“That’s not your real name.”
“It’s what I call myself.”
“I like your name. I call myself Din.”
“How do you do, Din?” Marya holds out her hand.
Din takes it and shakes it rather too furiously for Marya’s liking as he says, “How do you do, gran Mayhem?”
“I’m very well, thank you, Din.”
Din laughs and climbs back on his bike. “I like you, gran Mayhem. See you around and enjoy the butterflies,” he concludes and cycles off.
Marya smiles, congratulating herself on her composure. Yes, she thinks, not all young people are bad – but then again some are very bad indeed – it’s good to meet one who isn’t.
By the time Weber reaches the site of Sander’s death he’s calm; he’s in professional mode. Three young PFPUs stand as far away from the body as they can manage without appearing to abandon it entirely. Weber is perplexed; there’s no one else at the scene except the three police officers. “Control?” he says.
“You said there were unwanted visitors at the site. That it was likely that one or more dissidents might be present. There’s no one here except the police and me. What’s going on?”
“I do not originate intelligence, commander, I merely communicate it.” Fuck you, Weber thinks. “To be clear,” control continues, “I said ‘possible’ not likely.”
“The implication was that a dissident would be present and that’s why I was being sent when someone of a lower rank should verify the deletion, especially in the circumstance where the event has been recorded on camera.” The protocols for deletions were new – as was the practice – so Weber was trying to establish a principle he thought to be at risk – his status as an investigative engineer – at the same time wondering why the hell he was trying to make sense of madness.
“Perhaps you have not yet recognised the dissident?” control suggests.
Is there no end to this idiocy, Weber thinks as he continues walking towards the red and white striped cordon tape and tells control he’ll let her know if he finds a dissident. He wonders if she knows he’s lying. Thank God they don’t know what’s in my head. Arriving at where the police stand at attention he asks if they’ve checked the remains.
“We’re not authorised,” a male officer replies.
“No, of course, you aren’t,” Weber sighs and ducks under the tape. It’s only then that he looks at the corpse. It takes all his will power not to retch. The pool of blood in which Sander lays has dried black but that isn’t preventing flies feasting. The heat is sweltering. The insects’ noise so immediate that it drowns out the sound of the traffic above. He breaks out into a cold sweat waving his hands in an attempt to disperse the swirling cloud of flies. More feeding flies cover Sander’s face. Weber takes a handkerchief from his pocket and tries to waft them away. A maggot oozes out of Sander’s left ear. Weber turns and vomits. The watching police turn away. Shit, Weber thinks, I recognise you, I know you, but who are you? The flies return to Sander’s face as he wonders why they wanted him dead like this?
Weber asks the police if any of them has anything to drink and he’s handed a bottle of water. He swills out his mouth, says thank you, returns to the corpse and pulls on a pair of surgical gloves. What did they want me to confirm? The bolt sticking out of Sander’s chest is probably sufficient cause of death and what did it matter anyway? Weber struggles to remember who Sander was, where he had met him and in what circumstances; he’d seen too many faces down the years. After a while they all melded into one. The insects hum as they circle, settle, fly again, swarm, settle and feed. The hot air seems to creak as he kneels down next to the body. Perhaps I should have watched their footage, he thinks. His only task is to search the body for identity or clues to the identities of others. Once he’s finished they’ll send the mortuary van for the body. He opens Sander’s shirt and jumps back at the sight of pulsing maggots. He speaks into the mouthpiece of his communicator. “I’m checking his pockets now.” The stench overwhelms him. At screaming point he checks the man’s trouser pockets – they’re entirely empty except for a single dirty handkerchief wrapped around a bloodied penknife. “There’s nothing here,” he says and puts the penknife in his pocket.
“Have you looked everywhere?” she asks.
“What do you mean everywhere?”
“Chains, identity bracelets, tattoos, bodily signifiers,” she says.
“Surely that could be done in the morgue, in fact it should be done in the morgue where it’s sterile.”
“It is important to make as much verification as possible at the site of deletion,” she says.
“Look, it’s clear that no one has touched the body, it’s as it was when killed. There are no obvious signs of identity or any link with any other human that I can see.”
“And the dissident?”
Weber hesitates. “Why was I sent here? You know how he died. You know his name. Why am I here?”
“Did you know Arthur Sander?” she asks.
“You are formally stating that you did not know Professor Sander?”
“I know no one called Arthur Sander,” Weber says, but he knows he does in some way.
“But you recognise the corpse.”
“That’s a lie, commander. There is footage of you in the company of the deleted dissident known as Sander.”
Weber turns off the device and shoots a quick glance over his shoulder at the police: they’re already taking their weapons out of their holsters – she’s told them. By the time he fully turns towards the officers he’s already firing his taser on full power: they don’t have a chance and he knows they’ll be unconscious long enough for him to make his escape. Well, he thinks, this isn’t how I thought it would be, but at least now I don’t have any choice. He discards his communicator, tears off his jacket and shirt, and then using his knife he cuts open his left arm just above the elbow and eases out his PID chip. Shit, that fucking hurts, he gasps. Using one sleeve of his shirt as a tourniquet to stop the blood he realises that he’s the dissident they had predicted and that he’s been set up – but why in this way? This has got to come from the top. He pulls his jacket back on and places the bloodied chip next to Sander and runs off as fast as he can.
After his meeting with Marya, Din spent a happy hour in the car park at the mall spraying high-density lubricant on the windscreens of cars that weren’t blue. A PFPU had seen him doing this and had attempted to make an arrest: he was lucky that Din only gave him a superficial dousing of lubricant though it did render the officer temporarily and painfully blind. What was not as comforting to Din as the man’s distress was the fact that the policeman had failed to recognise Din’s status and immunity from arrest as proven by his PID – the idiot deserved the punishment Din had administered.
When I next joined Owvane he was watching CCTV footage from Din’s cottage.
It was another boiling afternoon as Din returned to his cottage hot and sweaty and in need of a shower. Standing under the torrent of water he washes his hair and soaps his body paying particular attention to his testicles and penis that stiffens in response. Caressing himself he’s mystified that his penis hasn’t grown in size like the other muscles in his body that have grown in strength and volume the more he’s used them; with the amount of exercise he’s given his penis he’d expected that it would have at least doubled in length and girth. Disappointed, he decides to persevere and put in even more effort.
I asked Owvane why it was necessary to have this material and he explained that it was impossible to know at this early stage what might be needed later. Like everyone else charged with managing the Social Context I’d been exposed to such material before but seeing ‘Din at play’ only made my task of managing him even more stressful. There were some things one really didn’t need to know; I wondered if Owvane’s interest was ‘normal’ – but what the hell was that supposed to means as applied to him?
After eating a protein and nutrient rich ready meal from the fridge and heated in the microwave it’s time for a bottle of lemonade. Din checks his messages: there’s only one – mine: ‘Weber has absconded. You may begin. The methods of deletion are of your choice. The timing is a matter of command. You are not to complete the assignment until given precise instructions to do so. All your work on this task must be camera recorded for potential web cast.’
Din sits at his computer and uses the satellite feed to zoom down onto the road where Weber lives. At the same time he logs onto ‘Tracking Services’ to get them to conduct a chip data search to ascertain Weber’s current location. It takes only a few seconds to find Weber’s IRAP showing that he’s not only visited the scene of Sander’s execution but has remained there. Din frowns; from what he knows of Weber, it’s impossible that he’d still be at the scene especially as he’d absconded. Din turns back to the view of Weber’s road and decides to pay a visit. He giggles.
Marya’s journey back to her compound was uneventful. She was buoyed up by her conversation with the ‘panda boy’, as she thought of him. Entering her hallway she curtsies to the camera knowing that at her weekly meeting with der weibliche Kommandant (as Marya calls her, whose actual title is ‘Head of Rehabilitation’) Eveline Sfega, she will be asked to explain this eccentricity to an apparatchik who is utterly devoid of imagination and humour. In the kitchen she unpacks what she’s stolen from the mall: a large tube of super-glue, a variety pack of assorted plastic cable ties, and a roll of black dustbin liners. In her bedroom she changes out of her twin set and skirt and into a pair of old jeans and a sweatshirt not dissimilar to the hoodie worn by ‘panda boy’; this amuses her, as did being called ‘gran Mayhem’.
In the corner of the kitchen‘s dining area she settles herself at the little desk that houses the official workstation terminal that came as standard with the accommodation: it’s time to test her handiwork. From the drawer beneath the work surface Marya removes a roll of gaffer tape and using a pair of orange scissors snips off a small piece and places it loosely over the tiny web cam embedded in the centre of the perimeter of the flat screen, switches it on and logs in using her new password. She removes the tape from the camera and sits smiling at the screen, after a few moments an error warning appears. She follows the on-screen instructions and her face is aligned, registered and re-stored with the name she uses for this new transaction: it’s worked. She has another new identity, or rather, an additional identity to the one she already has created: The Dictionary now knows her as ‘Senator May Hemming’ as well as Marya. As the latter she only exists as a prisoner in the stratified database and she’s confident that the disconnection she’s established by creating a firewall between the two versions of herself is unlikely to be discovered until the damage has been done. She logs off and then logs back in again as ‘Senator Hemming’ to confirm her new identity. The camera recognises her immediately and the computer voice says, “Welcome Senator Hemming. Please enter your password.” Marya types in ‘ur5882ordinary9i9’ and the voice thanks her.
She now accesses the Transactions of the Senate Committee of which she is now a newly admitted member and, as such, she needs to make an intervention in one of the on-line sub-committee meetings to establish her credibility; she chooses Deviance in the Social Context and re-enters her password. A few moments later a man’s face appears on screen, who says, “You are welcome Senator Hemming. Congratulations on your elevation. I have accessed your data set and it will be a pleasure to work with someone of your experience.”
“Thank you. And you are?” she asks, in spite of immediately recognising the man on screen. She can hardly believe that it’s been this easy to get to him. This is the moment of truth – will he recognise me – but how can he? I never met him. Now, if he saw me as Marya then that might be another matter, then he might just wonder, even after all these years.
“I am the deputy first secretary supervising, amongst many other duties, the DSC sub-committee. My name is Richard Owvane.”
“What do I call you?” she asks thinking, I know what to call you all right, you bastard.
“The protocol is the use of the family name, so, Owvane.”
“Thank you, Owvane,” Marya replies. “May I have sight of the recent deliberations of the DSC?”
“They are already in a folder on your desktop, senator.”
“Thank you, I shall read them and then be better placed to make a contribution to the debate,” Marya says.
“Senator,” Owvane clears his throat, “if I may?”
“It would be well for you to read the papers in off-line mode to prevent any possible illegal intervention in the working of the DSC. In other words, to keep your on-line communications brief and to the point, reducing risk to a minimum,” he advises.
“Are you saying that there are hackers who can penetrate our protocols?” Marya asks, hardly able to disguise her pleasure.
“This is not known to citizens,” Marya says.
“It is best kept from them.”
“Well, thank you for the advice, Owvane. I shall do as you suggest. Goodbye.”
She sits staring at the screen where his face had so recently been and knows that her next task is to find some help if she’s to achieve her ambition.
Weber runs easily but his mind is in turmoil. As he emerges from beneath one of the many avenues of artificial poplar trees, he slows to walking speed; to have continued running would have drawn unwanted attention – engineer commanders in uniform didn’t run for pleasure but only in pursuit of their prey and he realises that is exactly what he now is. Though he’s acutely aware of everything around him the image of the corpse’s face is inescapable as is the question: how do they have footage of me with the man they called Sander? Perhaps they don’t have such footage? Perhaps it’s a case of mistaken identity or even just a lie? Perhaps just to show that even someone of my status can be made a felon within the blinking of an eye? Then it hits him: what if they have designated me as sufficiently dangerous to be deleted? The idea is so frightening that he stops walking without realising it. Shit, he thinks, what if it’s that? How do I tell them they’re wrong when what’s in my head makes me exactly what they say I am? But being a closet dissident isn’t sufficient cause for this – whereas – if they think I’ve found the culprit and the culprit is one of them, someone powerful within the Hierarchy, then they might need an excuse to …
As he crosses a road in a space between two cameras he keeps his head down fearing that his image is already being broadcast as a fugitive. He keeps to the small lanes, usually devoid of cameras, that intersect with arterial and minor roads that crisscross the city. After an hour he finds the second-hand clothes shop he sought – as good as then – and goes inside. At first the shopkeeper is fearful of Weber – he is after all an Engineer – but when Weber offers cash, even though he’s in the uniform that would usually exempt him from a direct payment, the shopkeeper is pleased. Weber selects an old pair of Rohan trousers, Paramo outdoor shirt, walking socks and some trail boots. The shop’s CCTV system sees him leave.
In a back alley he uses his knife to cut out the chips embedded in the clothes he’s bought; he guesses that they’re already ‘dead’, being old clothes, but doesn’t take a chance on that. Behind a row of dumpsters he undresses and checks that his underpants aren’t chipped though he wonders why, when he’d done the very same thing as he’d dressed that morning. Bloody hell, he thinks, was that just this morning? The incision in his arm looks clean and he removes the tourniquet; the wound doesn’t bleed. He dresses in his new clothes and boots and goes through the pockets of his discarded uniform to see what he can retain: everything can be tracked so he pushes his ID card and credit card down the grating of a drain and throws the clothing into one of the dumpsters. Reluctantly he stamps on his taser until it’s unusable and throws it, along with his watch and knife into another dumpster. All he keeps is Sander’s penknife and the keys to his own apartment. The only pleasure he gets is from crushing his peripheral vision communicator under his foot; yes, he thinks, that’s the last I’ll have of the bitch bleating in my ear.
He’s hungry and finds a small foodomat in a quiet square. The few customers pay him no attention and he’s pleased to see that one of the food dispensers takes cash: he selects vegetarian chilli con carne and while he waits the prescribed five minutes for the meal to cook manages a smile at the ridiculousness of labelling a meat free dish ‘con carne’, but then most of the labels they use are lies. The machine disgorges his meal; the polystyrene dish is hot in his hands as he takes it out into the square. The food is as good as it gets from an automated kitchen but it assuages his hunger as it simultaneously assaults his taste buds. He regrets leaving the empty dish in a doorway but the trashcan is surveilled by a CCTV camera.
Din’s smartphone ‘giggles’ (he’d recorded his own giggle and uses it as his ring tone); he taps the screen: Tracking Services have found Weber. He turns the phone to GPS mode and tells it to find the quickest cycle route to Weber’s coordinates; he hopes that when he’s older he’ll use a car but for the moment he’s happy enjoying the simplicity and ordinariness of riding a bike in the process of conducting authorised executions. He wonders if any other FDs use bikes. As he checks his tyre pressures he realises that he’s never met another FD: are they all young like me or are there grown ups as well? For a moment he wonders what they think about, how they ‘do for’ their assignments, or if there any tricks they could share. He shrugs. I don’t care about them; I’m just fine on my own.
The late afternoon sun is hidden behind thick low cloud. The air is intensely hot and humid and he knows there’s a storm brewing. ‘A storm brewing’, why is that the phrase to use? But it’s right, he thinks, it’s like being in a cauldron riding in thunder and lightening, it makes my brain scramble and churn like I’m going to shit myself but in my head. But FDs aren’t supposed to be afraid of anything. He tucks a lightweight transparent cycle cape into the little satchel slung beneath the saddle; the panniers carry his weapons of choice, and sets off down the lane enjoying the whirr of the chain and the sound of the wheels on grass.
It takes him nearly eighty minutes to reach the dumpster where Weber had discarded his uniform. Even before he arrives in the alley he knows that Weber isn’t going to be there; there’s no way a commander would wait to be found. As he dismounts from his bike thunder cracks overhead and, as lightening sizzles searing the building tops surrounding him, he flinches. The thunder rolls nearer and electricity makes the sky bright. He cowers. A clap of thunder explodes right overhead. He sinks to his knees. Lightening lances. He smells shorting electricity. He smells fear. For a second he sees his terrified face reflected on the side of the stainless steel dumpster. He smells of fear. I’m a coward, he thinks, and now angry, hates himself. Suddenly it rains – not any sort of rain but rain at speed – rain as hard as flint. With no time to get his waterproof he pushes up the lid of the nearest dumpster and jumps inside; as the rain drum-rolls above him a man’s voice shouts, “Oi! You! Get the fuck out of here! This is my gaff.” Din’s unsure if the stench belongs to the voice or is just the dumpster’s normal smell. Din holds his breath in the dark. “Did you fucking hear me?” the man shouts above the pounding rain. “This is my gaff. Get the fuck out!”
Din waits. Eventually he has to breathe. “Where are you?” he gasps.
“Here,” the man says and grabs Din around the neck with his right arm. “Got you!” the man shouts, his foul breath bathing Din’s face as his left hand grabs Din’s crotch and squeezes. The rain batters down on the lid of the dumpster. Din screams. “You don’t fuck with me!” the man bellows as he crushes Din’s testicles in his fist.
Din comes to life, arches his back, kicks his feet on the side of the dumpster and thrusts himself upwards forcing open the lid. The man tries to grab his feet but Din kicks him in the face before he leaps out over the dumpster’s side into the pouring rain and calmly walks through the ankle deep water to where his bike leans against the wall. He opens the right hand pannier.
Looking back inside the dumpster he sees the man rubbing his forehead where Din’s kicked him; he’s wearing Weber’s uniform jacket. Din climbs back onto the rim of the dumpster and sits on the edge with his feet dangling inside. The rain stops. Steam billows from the surfaces of the metal dumpster and the still warm tarmac of the lane beyond. There’s a dull silence.
“What the fucks that you’ve got?” the man asks.
Din tells him what it is – a pneumatic bolt gun. The man gapes. Din pulls the trigger. The bolt passes through the man’s open mouth and out through the back of his neck nailing it to the dumpster’s steel wall. Din giggles as he jumps to the ground, into a black puddle of water in which rubbish floats, and shuts the lid. His momentary euphoria evaporates: his balls ache; he feels dirty. He sent me a text message explaining that there was no sign of Weber. He cycles home standing on the pedals all the way; it’s too painful to sit on the saddle.
Marya opens the folder Owvane had placed on her desktop, studies the index and selects: Exemplars in dissident, disaffection and deviance engineering solutions. Beneath the title of the anonymous report there’s a further single line – An ordinary citizen has no need to be afraid. Marya’s elation vanishes. How can I, a solitary woman of age, be able to – she hesitates – to do it? She says out loud, “An ordinary citizen has no need to be afraid.” Where do I begin, she thinks, how do I …? Just that one sentence is almost too much to understand. What is ‘ordinary’? She shakes her head: every single word needs to be redefined to construct a new humane lexicon; but such revisions are not her purpose. She hasn’t waited a lifetime to worry about words; it’s the legacy of action that matters but she also knows it’s just as well to know how he thinks.
The first sentence of the actual text is no less problematic: In making policy one has to choose usually between two bad choices. My god, she thinks, they can’t even write in English. She presses on. On page 17 she finally gets to the nub of the paper.
From time to time it is necessary for examples to be made and these must be communicated to citizens to encourage and support their conformity with the manifest and latent values of the Social Context or state. These examples need to be compelling and full of resonance for the citizen viewer. There are a number of main ways of achieving this:
- the citizen who is exampled must be of a representative and sufficient status and importance or notoriety to provide strong testimony of the need to conform;
- the punishment of the example must be universally shown to, and watched by, all levels of the Social Context through the use of live web casting and other means of mass communication;
- these citizen viewings will be recorded, calibrated and incorporated into individual risk assessments;
- the example must demonstrate that the Social Context, and its embodiment and defence – the Hierarchy – is not afraid to address dissidence, disaffection and deviance even from amidst its own engineers;
- there is no, and can be, no escape from legitimate scrutiny in the Social Context;
- the process whereby the example is deleted must:
- terrify the victim
- wherever possible be protracted
- terrify the viewer.
She wants to laugh at both the insanity and quality of the writing but can’t because they’re actually describing what they do. She thinks that such hubris courts disaster; no, she says to herself, it deserves disaster.
When managed – engineered – citizens typically react, or behave, in four main ways. They conform, ritualise, innovate or rebel. Exemplar management consists in maximising behaviours that promote and sustain conformity or ritualised bureaucratic behaviours whilst engendering general fear of any forms of social innovation let alone rebellion or revolution.
“Cod sociology!” Marya grunts, closes the desktop and switches off the machine. She turns off all the lights and in her bedroom sits on the end of the bed; though it’s time for her to go to sleep she’s too agitated for that.
She locks her front door behind her and steps out into the night; not a single other residence shows a light, all the other inmates having obediently locked themselves in – Eveline Sfega will be pleased, but not with me, Marya thinks and smiles. The exercise pathways are well lighted even though inmates do not normally use them at night. The illumination, as bright as daylight at noon, enables the surveillance cameras to record the presence of intruders, thieves, rapists, thugs and other types of miscreant (who are not already prisoners) from whom the residents are allegedly at risk, thus providing them, and the authorities, with a sense of security. She doesn’t understand why inmates of the facility need to feel secure when they themselves might be seen by others as the threat. She sniffs the air and it’s good; the thunderstorm has cleared the heat and humidity – at least for a while.
As Marya walks, lost in thought, she’s startled when a male voice asks, “Excuse me, but should you be out?”
“I couldn’t sleep. I needed some fresh air. It’s Ronnie, isn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s me. Are you okay?”
“Thank you, yes, I am. You’re on the gate sometimes, aren’t you?” she asks.
“Only when they’ve got no one else; I don’t like working the gate. I like the nights best.”
“Why is that, Ronnie?”
“I should be patrolling not standing here talking to you. I’ll get a bollocking. Sorry, bad language, we’re supposed to set an example to inmates.”
“I could walk with you while we talk. How would that be?”
Ronnie thinks about this for a moment. “Yeah,” he nods, “that ‘ud be good. I’ve got to go down to the back first, if that’s alright?”
“Do you have to go the same way every night?”
“And at the same time?” she asks.
“Isn’t that boring?”
“Oh, no, not boring,” he checks his wristwatch. “Routines make a man secure, don’t you think?” Marya says nothing. “I ought to get moving.”
“Lead on, Macduff.”
Marya chuckles. “It doesn’t matter. Tell me why you like working nights?”
They set off at a gentle pace as Ronnie says, “There’s not normally anyone about. I can just get on with my job and I don’t have to keep looking over my shoulder.”
“Who do you have to keep looking over your shoulder to see?”
“Well … you know,” Ronnie says.
“Our beloved Eveline Sfega,” Maria chuckles.
“Shush!” Ronnie whispers. “Someone might hear. I wouldn’t want you getting into trouble.”
Marya touches Ronnie’s arm as she walks beside him. “That’s very sweet of you, dear, but I can look after myself.”
“That’s what they say.”
Marya is surprised. “Who does?”
“Everyone – those that work here.”
“I am the subject of gossip?” Marya asks.
“Not gossip exactly, but you’ve got to admit you’re different from the rest of them, aren’t you? You’re speaking to me like I was just another human being and not just a screw.”
“Well, you are a human being.”
“Yeah, but I’m an official, a guard; that makes people treat me different,” Ronnie says. “Hang on a minute, please.” He stops in front of one of the posts that carry the cameras. “I got to log in,” he explains as he swipes his ID card across the security recognition pad on the post. “We can go on now.”
“I’m curious, Ronnie. What else do you all say about me?”
“I shouldn’t have said anything; I need this job.”
Marya frowns. “You think you could lose your job because of what you say to me?”
“If I told you stuff and then you told … if you told Ms Sfega.”
“Why on earth would I do that?” Marya asks.
“People are like that.”
“That’s what they say. They say you’re not like the others.”
Ronnie is silent for a few moments as they reach the perimeter fence at the south end of the compound. “Just between us?” Marya nods. “Like when you went out shopping; no one says stuff like – ‘the retail experience offered here doesn’t approach the therapeutic beauty, the tension, the excitement of a full-scale mall with its plethora of opportunities to choose’. You, like … well … you have attitude.”
Marya is dumbfounded. “If that’s what I said, and I can’t remember, how come you know what I said and have remembered it?”
“I remembered it because it was memorable.”
“Memorable? Why?” Marya asks.
“People don’t say stuff like that.”
“But how did you know I’d said it?”
“Because we look at the tapes when we start a shift so we’re briefed, so we know if anything unusual has happened, or if any of you present a risk,” Ronnie explains.
“And my behaviour was deemed unusual?”
“There you are – deemed – see what I mean? Yeah, just like when you curtsied to the camera in your hall,” he says.
“You saw that too? … I just suppose I thought no one ever bothered to look at such endlessly tedious footage.”
“We have to be protected from risk.”
Marya stops walking. “Look, Ronnie, would you mind if I went back to my place now? It’s been lovely talking to you and perhaps we can do it again one night?”
“It’s been good talking to you. Do you want me to walk back with you?”
“No thank you, Ronnie. I’ll be just fine.”
“Just so you know,” Ronnie says. “I don’t think you’re a risk at all.”
“Thank you, Ronnie. That’s very nice of you,” Marya says and thinks something quite otherwise.
From my initial study of Weber’s IRAP it looked as if it had taken him nearly three years to amass a considerable amount of cash; what wasn’t clear was why. In his official role every virtual pound of income and expenditure was recorded in such detail that it was impossible to save without being noticed and questioned as to why saving was necessary. I was in the same situation. Cash was a commodity that no longer existed in the Social Context; it wasn’t required; every transaction was conducted through the use of an ID and credit card and for state required purchases, such as a car, a scan of the PID secured the product. These economic processes were central to the privatised nation state that we in the Hierarchy engineered. Cash equalled corruption.
As an Engineer Commander he was in a position of some power to influence the destinies of ordinary citizens; as an Investigative EC he was imbued with even greater gravitas. This status, and the opportunities it provided, had not gone unnoticed by the other world – ‘Out There’ – that ran in parallel with that of the Social Context. At first Weber had rejected all overtures that suggested that he might like to earn some actual money – cash – by doing a few favours for criminals who were ‘better as friends than enemies’, as they put it. It looked like he’d kept them waiting for some time before he agreed to make himself useful to his new friends. From an initial study of his profile I couldn’t understand why he’d made this decision; there had to be a reason other than money – Weber wasn’t that sort of a person. I had yet to find out what he was actually doing. Anyway, ‘they’ valued his assistance. I assumed he’d saved the cash he’d been paid as there was no evidence of illegal spending.
Weber enjoyed the thunder and lightening but sheltering from the downpour delayed his passage across the city. By the time he arrives at his destination he’s tired and anxious. It’s one of the peculiarities of the Social Context that the Hierarchy actively preserved large tracts of terraced social housing from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for ideological purposes and potential use in the case of emergency, such as if housing enclaves, towers or dormitories were damaged by natural disaster or war. These properties were well managed and maintained but kept empty of occupants and as such only required light surveillance.
43 Splott Street is situated at the top end of such a terrace near to the old biscuit factory that lay at the other side of the railway line. As Weber crosses the bridge and looks at the Biscuit Museum he wonders what it must have been like to be a boy way back when steam trains ran along the lines; when workers waited for the factory whistle to let them go home. He remembers the example of the factory whistle given in Kingsley Davis’ Subliminal control within workforce environments which explains how workers were trained to work and ‘rest’ at the sound of a factory whistle blowing. But most importantly of all – he wonders if the air did smell of biscuits? He feels good. He’s on his way – maybe now he can bring the case to an end. The sound of a far off police siren brings him swiftly back to the present.
As he reaches the top of Splott Street the weather changes; the benefits of the storm haven’t lasted long; clouds cover the moon and the sapping humidity is back. The street is pitch black; none of the old lamp standards are lighted. Weber stands very still, his eyes straining to see any movement in the long narrow street that lies before him. He listens intently for the slightest noise. He takes off his trail boots, ties the laces together, slings them around his neck and walks on silently in his socks. He steps in an unseen puddle, unlocks the front door of number 43 and, with a wet right foot, goes inside.
With the front door closed behind him he leans back against it waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. There’s a sudden scurrying sound ahead of him as something runs across the bare wooden floorboards; he knows it’s a rat; he shivers and sighs. I hate rats, he thinks. Wherever the rat has gone it no longer makes a noise and he settles for being content with that. He inhales deeply. Oh God, he shudders, I know what that is, now aware of a smell that makes him gulp. It’s only been two weeks since his last visit; what could have happened since then? no one came to this place except him, or did they? If it weren’t for the money, his money, he would have left there and then.
As he climbs the stairs the stench intensifies. He opens the door to the box room at the top of the stairs cautiously just as the clouds part and moonlight bursts in through the window illuminating rats eating the rotting corpse of a man. No flesh is left on his face. Weber swallows hard, holding his nose against the smell. The moon continues to shine. The floor of the room around the corpse is covered in banknotes. He kneels down beside the corpse with sweat breaking out all over his body; it drips off the end of his nose. He looks at the man’s right hand. It’s still intact, and he recognises the death’s head ring on the index finger. Shit, he groans to himself, it’s Louix, who the fuck did this? He looks at the floor; there’s no blood, just money; he knows Louix wasn’t killed here. My money, he gasps out loud. He goes to the cupboard in the corner, where his money was stored, opens it – it’s empty. That’s my fucking money, he says to the rats. He kicks them; they scuttle off. As he looks at the body he’s both angry and frightened; his secret isn’t a secret at all. He doesn’t understand how anyone could have known where he’d hidden the cash and who would have killed his informer Louix and left him here as well as the money? He knows it’s a warning. Some of the notes are damp with rat piss, on others rat droppings nestle but it makes no difference to Weber; he hasn’t come this far, done what he’s done, to give up now. Nevertheless, his hands shake as he gathers his earnings in. Finally, standing erect, the stench of putrefaction overwhelms him; he vomits. Spitting, trying to clear his mouth he shakes his head; throwing-up twice in one day is a bit much.
Walking down the stairs he hears the rats returning to eat his warm vomit before they move back to the cold collation that is Louix’s corpse. Jesus, what a world, he thinks. At the foot of the stairs he has a sudden thought: is it going to be as hard to survive their world, as it is to bring justice and retribution to those at the top of the Hierarchy?
Din stands under the torrent of water in his shower longing to feel clean: why did the old shithead have to do that? Shouldn’t be touched by shit like that, scum … fucking sick shithead! Din snarls, that’ll teach him to keep his mouth shut. He sees and hears the bolt nailing the old man to the dumpster wall and begins to feel better. He inspects his cock and testicles in the mirror; there’s no obvious bruising but his balls ache too much for him to masturbate. This angers him as he dries himself. Standing naked he checks out the data in his book – it’s the first time in 361 days that he’s missed his evening wank.
His phone giggles: Weber has been seen in a foodomat near the dumpsters and also been seen leaving a clothes shop carrying a carrier bag. A text message from ‘Tracking’ instructs Din to return to the area to make enquiries.
He called me to ask if he had to go there and then as it was the middle of the night – he sounded more childlike than usual, a bit pathetic in fact. I told him he could go in the morning and that he should get a good night’s sleep. He wanted to know what he was supposed to do when he went to the shop – he said he wasn’t a detective. I smiled and told him that it would be good for him to talk to people as he didn’t do much of that; just ask friendly open questions and see what you get, I said. But of course he wanted to tell me about the tramp in the dumpster. At first he didn’t say he’d killed him. I got on my high horse and told him in no uncertain terms that he was not to kill people because they annoyed him, that he was only authorised to carry out fully sanctioned deletions. He was adamant that he understood this but as the tramp had sexually assaulted him he was justified and the tramp was wearing Weber’s jacket. Wearily I asked for the location of the dumpster and said I’d get it cleared up. I made it clear I was cross and, surprisingly, he seemed contrite.
Normally, Din would have treated himself to some explicit pornography to cheer himself up but in his tender condition he logs on to a site devoted to British Butterflies. He vividly remembers when he was about eight years old and a butterfly, a friend, a kindred spirit, had landed on his nose as he lay in the long grass in the meadow beside the orphanage. He had lain very still and concentrated so hard on looking at the little creature that he feared his eyes would be forever crossed when it flew off. The butterfly just sat there, he hardly dared breath such was his delight, its presence but a gentle tickle so ephemeral that he closed his eyes to see if he could still feel it without seeing. There was a sudden gust of wind; Din opened his eyes; the butterfly was gone; Din wept. He was angry.
Later, he’d discovered that it had been the most common of all British butterflies – the Small Tortoiseshell. At first it was the Latin names that fascinated him: how did you pronounce Hesperiidae, Lycaenidae, Nymphalidae, Papilionidae and Pieridae? He found out, but the English names were best: Brimstone, Adonis Blue, the Queen of Spain Fritillary, Grizzled Skipper, Bath White, Black Hairstreak, Dark Brown Fritillary – he decided then that fritillary was the most beautiful of words.
He thinks of Gran Mayhem and her confusion about whether it was a Red Admiral or a Painted Lady. What had she really been doing? If she’d really gone to see the butterflies she would have known more about them. He concludes that she’s suspicious but that’s true of everyone; even so, I like you Gran Mayhem, with a name like yours you can’t be all bad, or can you?
As he scrolls down the screen he comes to the description of the Dingy Skipper. On screen he reads, … its fluffy head and big eyes make it a charming character … will often rest with its wings wrapped around a dead flower head or stem where it is perfectly camouflaged … behaviour unlike most other butterfly species which rest with their wings closed over their backs … prefers open sunny habitats with areas sheltered from high winds … and thunder and lightening, Din thinks. He’s pleased with the description and thinks it could be me they’re talking about. He stands up and goes to look at himself in the mirror. Well, he thinks, I has de big eyes but this ‘ere stubble man ain’t no fluffy but I is always the perfectly camouflaged when I be laying on the dead – behold the skipper Din! If I’m the Skipper Din then I need to find a new voice for when they see me deleting; something more mature, more grave – he giggles – grave is the right word, he thinks, that’s where Weber’s going, his grave, innit? He giggles.
Not a risk, eh? Like hell I’m not, Marya thinks as she walks away in the opposite direction to Ronnie. She stops, turns and checks that he’s out of sight. Standing very still she stares at the camera; she notes a mark on the path for reference. From previous careful observation Marya knows that each surveillance camera rotates through a one hundred and eighty degree arc with the obverse angle being covered by another camera. She also knows that each pan of the camera across its arc of coverage lasts exactly eight minutes. Extraordinarily, none of the cameras is sequenced with any other camera; this makes it possible to traverse a blind spot if one was careful in judging the right moment. Marya continues to stand very still until the camera that’s recording her swings away. She darts from the path across the grass and passes beneath the next camera in the same way. By the time she reaches the perimeter fence she’s out of breath and her heart’s beating fast. For a moment she hunches down under the branches of a vigorous cotoneaster and gathers herself for the next part of her plan; there’s no time to waste.
None of the cameras has a wide enough lens to see what’s happening right at the base of the column on which it sits. As the camera looks away she’s at the base of the column undoing the panel that provides access to the mechanism than manages the camera’s movements. She takes a hairgrip from her hair, quickly smears it with the superglue she’d stolen at the mall and glues the pin in the centre of the main plastic cog. She replaces the cover and checks that the camera is again looking away. So far so good, she thinks as she makes all possible speed back to the spot on the path where she had previously stood staring at the camera. She’s back in place, right at the edge of its angle of view, just in time; she glows with pleasure. When they ask what I was doing in the middle of the night standing staring at a camera I’ll say I was just thinking and they’ll conclude that I’m as odd as they already think me to be and that’ll do very nicely, thank you very much.
Standing outside 43 Splott Street Weber is traumatised by Louix’s murder and the fact that someone knew he had money hidden there. He’d told no one because there was no longer any one to tell. His only certainty is that he needs to move forward; if I go on an endless inward spiral of speculation in search of a convincing explanation I’ll get nowhere useful and will end up utterly inert, crushed by my own fear, he concludes. Whatever happens I need to make the most of being out here; it’s the only way I’ve got left of bringing them down.
Once again keeping to back alleys and roads where cameras are less frequent Weber makes his way slowly and carefully from the centre of the conurbation towards what had once been called suburbs. It’s daylight when he reaches Almeida Avenue. The cameras at the entrance to the road hang useless from their masts like rotten fruit. As he walks past well-kept lawns, neat privet hedges, rose bushes and hydrangeas he’s just as amazed as on the first occasion that he’d visited Paul Middleton; his relationship manager – as the crook insisted he be called; Weber had even asked how it was possible that the garden village estate was allowed to remain a no-go area for all state agencies. Middleton had laughed at his naivety and asked if he thought that he, Weber, was the only corrupt engineer in the Social Context. Weber was glad that Middleton thought him corrupt – if he was ever to get to the real power behind Middleton’s empire then it would have been little use if he’d been thought honest – nevertheless, it wasn’t a description that gave him pleasure.
Weber stands outside the front porch of number 712, aka ‘Mya Casa’, and wonders if Middleton will be up this early. He rings the doorbell and from inside hears an electronic peal of Westminster chimes. After a few moments a woman wearing a pink candlewick housecoat, curlers in her hair, large fluffy pink slippers fashioned as poodles and a cosmetic white face pack that gives her the appearance of a startled marmoset, opens the door and asks him what he wants.
“Is Mr Middleton available? I’ve come to see him.”
“He’s in the shower. Had a late night. Who are you?” she asks.
“I’m an associate.”
Weber hears an upstairs door creek. A man’s voice shouts, “Who is it Florrie?”
“I don’t know, Middleton,” she shouts back.
“Then why don’t you ask him, my pet?”
Weber says who he is and wonders why she doesn’t use Middleton’s first name. Florrie shouts this information up to Middleton. Weber wants to laugh.
“I bloody heard,” Middleton shouts back. “Give him a cuppa and something to eat – he’ll be starving after walking all night. I’ll be down as soon as I’ve had a crap and a shave.”
“Rightee ho, Middleton,” Florrie shouts.
Too much information, Weber thinks, but at least he knows I’m on the run; that’s good.
“Come into the breakfast room. Builder’s or Earl Grey tea?” Florrie asks.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Weber says as he follows her.
“You look like an Earl Grey. Bagel, toast, cereal – what would you like?”
“Could I have a bagel please? I haven’t had one for years,” Weber says.
She nods. “You’re from in there then, aren’t you? Poor bugger. Sit there,” she says pointing at a large wicker basket chair with attendant glass side table with wicker bound legs. “Make yourself comfortable; it won’t be long,” she instructs with an obvious wink in his direction as two tabby cats purr up to Weber and rub against his legs; he’s shocked at the realisation that he hasn’t seen a domestic cat for years and wonders why on earth Florrie winked at him.
Weber has finished his second bagel, cream cheese and strawberry jam and is pouring a second cup of tea when Middleton joins him. The gangster smells heavily of aftershave, hair pomade and toothpaste. It’s not a fortunate fusion but Weber pretends not to notice as Middleton asks, “Weber, to what do I owe the pleasure?” Jesus, Weber thinks, how could I have forgotten the air whistling through your teeth as you speak, anyone who didn’t know better would think you utterly harmless.
Before Weber can reply Florrie joins them and asks, “Bagel, Middleton?”
“Thank you, my pet,” adding, “isn’t she a treasure?” as she leaves the room. “You were saying, Weber?”
“I haven’t said anything yet.”
“Then perhaps you better had,” Middleton says as he sits back on the sofa adjusting his suit trousers so that they wouldn’t crease at the knee. One of the cats jumps on to his lap and he clips it hard, sending it bouncing on to the floor where is squeaks before rushing off with its sibling. Middleton says, “Fucking cats.”
Weber assumes this is for emphasis and ignores it. “How did you know I’d been walking all night?”
“Stands to reason, Weber. What else were you going to do? You couldn’t drive. You couldn’t use public transport.” Florrie comes in carrying a bagel on a plate and a mug of tea. “Thank you, my pet,” Middleton says and blows a kiss in her direction. Turning to face Weber his expression is more sombre, his tone almost revelatory. “Walking is a very obvious method of transport for someone on the run as running is both conspicuous and tiring.”
Weber waits for a moment trying not to laugh. “But how did you know?”
“How long do you think I’d survive in business if I didn’t know what you lot were up to?”
“You’ve always said I’m naïve.”
“At heart you’re not a criminal, Weber. You’ve behaved in a criminal way but you aren’t that sort of a deviant, though of course you’re deviant as otherwise you wouldn’t be sitting here with your pockets full of your ill-gotten gains,” he whistles accompanied by a condescending grin.
“How did you know about the money?”
Middleton laughs. “Just look at your pockets.”
Weber sees that a number of notes are sticking out of the top pocket of his shirt. “Do you know where I got it?”
“For Christ’s sake, Weber, you got it from me.”
“I didn’t mean that.”
“What do you want? Why are you here?” Middleton asks.
“Can you just tell me what status I have?”
“What do you mean,” Middleton asks as he bites into his bagel and strawberry jam.
“What are they going to do about me?”
Middleton chews, swallows and drinks some tea before he replies. “Not good news I’m afraid. You’ve been assigned.”
“Oh shit, I knew it,” Weber groans, but thinks, so far so good, but also knows that his is a risky game.
“I think they want to make an example of you.”
“I’ve been assigned a first dispatcher?” Weber asks, wringing his hands.
“Do you know who?”
“Sorry, Weber, no one knows that. That’s the sort of secret that even money can’t buy.”
Weber takes a deep breath. “Well, I guess that answers your question ‘why am I here?’ I’ve saved every penny you’ve paid me and I want to use that money to buy my way into your organisation – I’ve been planning to do it for months. Now I’m out here I can devote all my energies to the business. How much is it going to cost me?”
“Um,” Middleton sighs. “Pity you didn’t get things in motion before you were assigned.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Weber asks.
“Being assigned – it makes things more difficult; certainly more expensive.”
“I don’t want to die.”
“Come on, you need me, don’t you?”
“Florrie!” Middleton shouts. “Make us another pot of tea would you, my pet?” Turning his attention back to Weber, he says, “I have to say I’m not optimistic that I can be much help in your circumstances – though – there is something you could do for me; a small favour that might help you,” he chuckles.
Weber realises that the whistling accompaniment to Middleton’s speech is caused by ill-fitting dentures.
Din arrives at as good as then just after it opens the next morning. “Have you seen this man?” Din asks the shopkeeper, using his phone to show him a photograph of Weber after he’s switched on the phone’s voice recorder.
The man is suspicious. “What do you want to know for?”
“He’s my dad. He ran out on my mum and me. I want him to come home,” Din says, wiping an imaginary tear from his eye.
“I’m sorry, sonny. He was in uniform. You don’t argue with anyone in uniform like that.”
“Did you sell him clothes?” Din asks, and thinks, don’t call me ‘sonny’.
“Some walking gear. He said he was going on a walking holiday.”
“Was it chipped?” Din asks.
“Did he pay by card?” Din asks.
The shopkeeper hesitates. “He paid in cash.”
“And you took it? You know that’s illegal.”
“It’s hard making ends meet.”
“That’s my money, my mum’s money, our money. I want it back,” Din says.
“Sorry, sonny. I can’t do that.”
Din raises his phone and takes a photograph of the shopkeeper and giggles as he says, “The money or your life.” Din taps in some numbers on his phone.
“You’ve been watching too many old movies, sonny. Just bugger off.”
“Just playing, innit mister? What sort of clothes were they?”
The shopkeeper describes the garments he’d sold to Weber and then asks, “Has your dad really run off?”
“That’s what I said.”
“But engineers, and commanders especially, aren’t supposed to do that, they’re supposed to set an example,” the man says.
Din giggles. “Is that right?”
“You don’t seem very upset anymore, sonny.”
“I’m really upset. If you really want to know I’m really upset about you calling me sonny all the time. It’s really pissing me off, innit?” Din says and giggles.
“You out of a home or something? One of the bewildered, are you?”
“Is you callin’ me names, man?” Din asks as he fiddles with the flick-knife in his trouser pocket.
“You’re weird, sonny,” the man says leaning forward with his hands flat on the melamine counter top.
In his imagination Din drives the blade of the knife through the man’s hand, fixing it to the wooden counter top.
Two PFPUs came in through the shop door. “Who dialled emergency?” one of them asks.
“I did,” Din says.
“So where’s the emergency?” the other officer asks.
“He’s weird, this one is,” the shopkeeper says.
“He’s been trading illegally,” Din explains.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” the first officer asks.
Din asks them if they know who he is and what he is and that if they do they should keep it to themselves for security reasons.
“He’s a psycho,” the shopkeeper says.
“So who do you think you are?” the other officer asks Din.
Din’s dumbfounded; something has gone wrong; they don’t know who I am. “I have a recoding of him on my phone admitting that he sold clothes for cash; that’s illegal.”
“He claims he’s looking for his dad – an engineer commander,” the shopkeeper says.
“What’s your name, son?” the same officer asks.
“I’m no one’s son,” Din says.
“Like I said, he’s a weirdo,” the shopkeeper repeats.
“I’d shut up if I were you,” Din says as he points at the man.
“A right psycho,” the shopkeeper says.
“You shouldn’t be making threats you know,” the second officer says.
“Why haven’t you arrested him?” Din asks.
“I told you,” Din said.
“If we arrested everyone who dealt in cash they’d be ten to a cell,” the officer explains.
“Instead of four,” the other officer laughs. “Right,” he continues staring at Din, “what are we going to do about you, son?”
“Put him back in the psycho ward,” the shopkeeper says.
Din makes for the door as one of the police tries to grab him; Din kicks him in the shins and is out. As he jumps onto his bike he hears one of them say, fucking kids, followed by their collective laughter. As Din cycles away he wishes he had stabbed the man in his hand. He smiles knowing that there will be plenty of time for that later. He doesn’t understand what has gone wrong and why they haven’t shown him the respect he deserves as a First Dispatcher.
When he was a safe distance away he stopped in a pedestrian underpass and dialled me to ask why the police didn’t recognise him from his PID but he only got my messaging service. It occurs to him that they might not have been real police, but impostors. Perhaps, he thinks, from now on I’d be better assume that everyone is my enemy? A child, a girl of about ten on a scooter rolls down the slope to where Din sits on his bike leaning against the wall. When she’s parallel with Din he slaps her across the face and she falls off her scooter. Cycling away giggling he hears the echoes of her sobbing from the mouth of the tunnel: his teachers had been right – it was always better to express one’s anger rather than keeping it locked inside where it could fester and cause untold harm.
Owvane looked at me as he finished watching the incident and asked whether I was out of my depth. I said I wasn’t, but secretly I was having my doubts. Owvane made it clear that Din’s behaviour needed to be more carefully managed if he was to fulfil his potential. It wasn’t obvious how that might be achieved. I guessed I was going to have to spend more time with Din and it wasn’t a prospect that gave me any pleasure whatsoever.
Though she’s loath to admit it, the next morning Marya is tired after her adventures of the previous night and hasn’t finished doing her hair until nearly ten o’clock. After breakfast she logs on in her kitchen and sends an email to Owvane; within moments he’s on screen beaming inanely; she thinks him unctuous.
“The thing is,” Marya explains, “I’ve always been a fiercely practical person and though I find the transactions of the committee and the theories they embody both fascinating and compelling I’m minded to ask for practical examples of the application of the principles so ably expressed in the documentation.”
“Thank you, senator. I have always taken great pride in ensuring that the English used to express – what are very challenging ideas – is fit for purpose.”
Marya beams benignly, her face masking her true judgement of the man, let alone his prose. “Are there case studies that can be made available to enable me to understand the efficacy of the exemplars?”
“Would that be from the historical record or from the present, Senator?”
“The historical record provides compelling testimony to the success of deviant and dissident management and would form a more than adequate background to current practice,” Owvane suggests.
“I’m sure that’s true, Owvane, but I’d rather like to see what’s being done now and then judge that against the past if that’s agreeable to you?”
“It is for the senator to determine her requirements and it’s my duty to assist her in that.”
Then why don’t you just bloody well get on with it and tell me what I want to know, she thinks, but says, “Thank you, Owvane. What is currently being done? Is there an exemplification in progress?”
“One has just been completed, namely the deletion of one Sander – it was webcast, the first of its type – perhaps you watched it, Senator?”
“Was it on for more than one night?” she asks hoping that this would excuse her from a failure to watch such horror.
“No, just the one night. But we are right at the beginning of what might well turn out to be a substantial narrative. I will supply you with the files and alert you when broadcast of the exemplification begins.”
“Excellent, I shall look forward to it,” she says, knowing that nothing could be further from the truth.
“The files and supporting materials including video footage are already on your desk top – might I suggest that …”
“Yes, I know,” Marya interrupts, “I understand about the risk of hackers.”
“Thank you, senator.”
“Thank you, Owvane. Goodbye.”
Marya downloads the files to the hard drive and logs off. As she’s about to open the first of the files she’s filled with a sense of excitement and foreboding; her plan depends as much on luck as judgement; if they discover that I’m an impostor then I’ll be – she puts this unpleasant thought in a box and turns the key where it can be safely kept out of harm’s way. Instead she looks at the surveillance footage relating to Sander.
A wide shot from a hand held camera depicts a meeting taking place in what appears to be the dilapidated upstairs room of a pub. Marya thinks it’s probably one of the old public houses that had been abandoned, to be replaced with new soulless hygienic state managed themed hostelries, eateries and licensed foodomats (that she’s only seen on television whilst in high security) and now exist in limbo between the criminal underworld and the illegal opposition. The room could have accommodated as many as sixty people but there are under twenty in attendance – most are middle aged, as is the speaker, Sander, whose message is very simple: the state feeds its citizens falsehoods to keep them docile and fearful of threats that have no basis in reality causing them to acquiesce in their oppression. Marya thinks he’s putting his case rather well, though he obviously underestimates the threats, when he turns and looks directly into the camera lens and asks why he’s being filmed. For a moment there’s no response and the camera keeps recording. Sander repeats his question. The camera wavers as its operator explains that he’s making an historic record of Sander’s speech. Sander accuses the cameraman of lying and the audience begin to boo and accuse the cameraman of being a state spy.
The screen goes black for a moment before a new scene opens as another camera shows that the cameraman who’s just stopped filming is Weber.
Marya smiles approvingly as she looks at Weber and thinks, well, there you are; once a boy and now a man: Weber Heim. It’s clear that Weber has absolutely no idea that there’s a secret camera in the room and that he’s being recorded. Ah yes, she thinks, the bigger fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite them; my god, what a world – the spied-upon are spied upon themselves; this makes her chuckle.
Within a further five minutes she knows that Weber is to be exemplified and that the boy, Din, has been assigned the task: she also now knows that the challenge will be even greater than she’d imagined. She logs into Weber’s IRAP and comes to know everything about him, or at least as much as is contained in the IRAP to which she’s gained access. She’s pleased; with what she already knows from all those years ago along with what she now knows she has enough to play her role; the pieces are beginning to fall into place. She rehearses a line, “Well, I would have thought you might have told me that, Weber – after all I am your mother!”
“What do you mean about some sort of favour that might help me?” Weber asks.
Middleton sucks air in through his teeth, takes out the top set of dentures and with a handkerchief wipes strawberry seeds from the metal plate on which the false teeth are mounted, and mumbles, “That’s the only trouble with strawberry jam, Weber – pips. I love it but it plays havoc with the roof plate … you just can’t get the orthodontists these days.” He puts his teeth back in, swallows some more tea and clicks the teeth against each other to ensure they’re properly in place, they aren’t, for he continues to whistle as he speaks. “It’s a sensitive matter, Weber, delicate and sensitive. Are you married, Weber?”
“I was once. I’m on my own now.”
Weber hesitates. “No.”
“You’re not batting for the other side are you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Weber asks.
“You’re not a puff.”
Weber has no idea where this is going but plays along. “No I’m not; though what that’s got to do with anything beats me.”
“You’ll have noticed that Florrie is younger than me.”
“No, I hadn’t,” Weber honestly replies.
“She’s not at her best first thing, but I can tell you she’s a real cracker, a real cracker.” Middleton lifts up a little brass bell, fashioned as a crinolined milkmaid and rings it. Florrie joins them and asks what Middleton wants. “I think Weber may be able to help us, my pet; if he plays his cards right he may be joining the firm.”
“Do you think so?” she replies as she stands in front of them. “That would be nice,” she purrs and winks at Weber.
“Show him,” Middleton says. “There’s my pet.”
Florrie shifts from foot to foot; Weber thinks she’s embarrassed but doesn’t know why. “But I haven’t done my face yet, Middleton,” she says
“Show him!” Middleton orders.
“Middleton?” Florrie queries. “I’m shy …”
“You’re not bloody shy! Show him!” Middleton commands. Florrie opens her housecoat to reveal her naked body. Weber looks away. “Look at that, Weber, I told you she was a cracker. Phew,” he whistles through his teeth. “They cut me up, down there,” he gently pats his crotch, “the bastards. I can’t use the block and tackle anymore but she still needs it, don’t you, love? A woman in her prime needs servicing, and I like to watch, don’t, I my pet?”
“You do, Middleton.”
Weber takes a deep breath. “The favour … you expect me to …”
“I’d regard it as an honour if I were you, Weber.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Weber protests.
“I’ll go and get ready, fix my face and hair. Will you bring him up, Middleton?” she asks as she re-ties the belt around her housecoat.
“Do you want to wear that nice basque I got you?” Middleton asks.
“I’m not going anywhere with you, Mrs Middleton,” Weber says. “No offence to you, but the idea is …” Weber is unable to control a rising sense of hysteria and bursts out laughing.
“What you laughing at?” Middleton shouts.
“I’ve just learnt that someone’s trying to murder me and you’re asking me to sleep with you wife.”
“Not sleep with her,” Middleton says.
Weber stops laughing.
“You won’t even notice he’s there – I don’t,” Florrie says.
“Do you know why you’re not laughing anymore?”
“Tell me,” Weber says.
“Because you’ve had it and there isn’t any way out; you’re shitting yourself, and so you should be, because you’re on your own. You’re no more welcome in my world than you are in yours,” Middleton says.
Weber sits very still staring at him.
“You’re a bastard, do you know that?” Florrie asks as she disappears into the body of the house with a scowl on her face. Middleton follows her out of the room. He hears them shouting at one another from upstairs.
“You still here?” Middleton asks as he returns to find Weber still sitting in his chair.
“Like I told you I want to buy my way in, become part of the inner circle, meet …”
“Then you know what you’ve got to do,” Middleton interrupts as he sits down and adjusts his trousers.
“I need to know something.”
“Was it your people who put Louix in Splott Street?”
“Where?” Middleton asks.
“Did you kill Louix?” Weber asks.
“I don’t kill people.”
“But you have them killed don’t you, you twisted bastard?”
“You’ve lost it, son,” Middleton says and stands up. “Fucking lost it.”
Weber springs forward, grabs Middleton by his shirt as he shouts, “You’re a liar. Tell me the truth, or I’ll …”
Middleton knees Weber hard in the groin who doubles up as Florrie bursts into the room screaming, “Fucking bastard!”
“It’s alright, love, I’ve got it under control,” Middleton says as Florrie rushes towards them both brandishing a claw hammer above her head.
“You prick!” Florrie bellows as Weber groans and backs off.
Middleton says, “It’s alright, pet,” as Florrie swings the hammer in a huge wide arc and smashes it into the side of Middleton’s head. As he topples towards her, eyes wide and with a rasping gurgle coming from his mouth, she drives the hammer’s claw end into the top of his head.
“Shit!” Weber gasps as Middleton hits the carpet with a dull thud; his mouth opens in a silent scream as his dentures fall out.
Middleton’s body shudders violently as his gaping mouth lets out a long last breath. The hammer, still embedded in Middleton’s head, is still. The pool of blood on the patterned Axminster carpet spreads. Florrie turns to Weber and asks, “Now why did you do that?”
“Do what?” he asks as one of the cats walks through the blood and out through the door leaving behind a trail of bloody footprints.
“Kill my lovely Middleton, why did you do that?”
“You killed him.”
“Now who’ll believe that?”
“Your fingerprints are all over the hammer.”
“We don’t do fingerprints here, and anyhow, it’s my word against yours. No one’ll believe you now you’re on the run.”
“This is ridiculous!”
“If I was you I’d be out of here as fast as I could and get back to where you belong, which isn’t here.” She chuckles. “I wouldn’t have minded screwing you; you look like you’d be able to keep it up.”
“Mad,” Weber sighs.
“We could have a quick one before you go if you fancy it?” Florrie laughs.
“I wouldn’t screw you if my life depended on it.”
“It did,” Florrie laughs, tears dissolving her white facemask.
She’s still laughing as Weber quietly closes the front door behind him. He looks left and right; there’s no one on the street. As he walks his head throbs, he wants it all to stop, wants to go back to being ordinary … he doesn’t any longer know what ordinary that might mean.
I rang the doorbell of Din’s cottage and waited. When he answered the door he just stood there staring at me, he didn’t seem to have a clue what to do. I asked if I could come in and said it would be a good idea if I made a few things clear. He led the way into his small living room that was dominated by a television that took up almost an entire wall; the TV was on and showing Sander’s deletion. Din seemed surprised when I asked him if he’d turn it off. He stood next to the screen and asked me if I thought using the needle in Sander’s ear was overdoing it a bit. I didn’t reply. I was terrified. He switched the set off. Christ, I thought that was the easy bit. I suggested we sit down on his sofa – there weren’t any other seats – and he sat down with a shrug and I sat near him, vainly trying to build some sort of bond with him. I took a deep breath and asked him why he’d slapped the little girl. He was astounded that I knew; I thought he would have been more aware of his PID, street cameras and overhead drones. I told him that his behaviour was unacceptable for a First Dispatcher. Our conversation went like this.
“Why did you do it?”
“I was angry. I’d been insulted – no one seemed to know what I am.”
“You were angry?”
“I just said that, didn’t I?”
“Anger management is about channelling your feelings into behaviours that are useful to you in your role as a FD,” I explained.
“That’s what I did – I had to get it out of my system; that’s what they told me.”
“Yes, but not in ways that draw attention to you; you’re supposed to be invisible.”
“I called the police and they behaved like they didn’t know what I was; they showed no respect.”
“It’s my fault, Din. I obviously haven’t made it clear what your situation is. Your PID identifies you as an FD but that identity is only known to me, inanimate drones and the person I work for, my boss, Mr Owvane.”
“I thought I was supposed to be known to the police so that I’d be immune if something went wrong with a deletion,” Din said.
“If something went wrong like that, then they’d be informed and you’d be allowed to get away. Normally, in everyday life, they won’t know what you are, or who you are.”
“Not at all?”
“No, not at all. You are supposed to be invisible, anonymous and therefore – terrifying.”
Din thought about this for a moment. “But they’re going to show me doing Weber.”
“Not if you go around slapping little girls.” I paused to let this sink in. “The audience will never see you, all they’ll do is hear you and see what you do. They’ll never know who you are. No one will ever know who you are because if they did you couldn’t be a First Dispatcher any more, could you?”
“But how will people know I’m important?”
“They will know what you do is important. But you, Din, will be an unknown threat in the shadows, someone’s worst nightmare.” Looking back I can’t believe I actually said that; I was mindlessly repeating what Owvane had said to me.
“But I’d like people to know it was me.”
“I’ll know, the Hierarchy will know and you will know, and that you know is perhaps the most important thing of all. Being anonymous gives you immense power, Din; very few people ever have such power.”
“I don’t want to stop being a First Dispatcher.”
“Then there’s no reason why you should have to, but you must stick to the rules,” I said and put my hand on his shoulder. This wasn’t a good move, he was suddenly excited, his neck flushed red.
He stood up, flustered. “I’ll stick to the rules.”
“Good. Can we turn our attention to Weber?”
“I just need to go to …” he said and left the room.
I had no doubt as to what he was doing in his toilet. I imagined him wondering how he’d proposition me. But I had no time to waste; the other reason I was there was because the hidden camera in the front of his TV was malfunctioning and I was supposed to check the connection. I hadn’t even started when I hear the toilet flush and I hurriedly sat back down – shit, I thought, I’m going to have to come back when he isn’t here.
He returned to the living room and sat down beside me. “Before we talk about Weber, can I ask you something?”
“Yes, of course,” I said, wondering what was coming next.
He hesitated, “It doesn’t matter.” He blushed. “The shopkeeper in the clothes shop insulted me, called me a psycho.”
“I know; you sent me the recording.”
“Yes, I did, didn’t I? I’d like to make him sorry for that,” Din said. “Can I?”
“No, not for insulting you. You should try to learn to be more tolerant. If someone is beneath contempt you must dismiss them from your mind. You don’t have to do anything about them.”
“What about for being corrupt and breaking the law?”
I gave in. I said I’d ask for authorisation – what possessed me to do this I don’t … well, I guess I do know, it was for an easy life; no, it wasn’t, it was because I was frightened and wanted out of there as fast as possible. He actually said thank you. I then told him that Weber had been sighted entering the outer territories.
“I’ve never been out there,” Din said.
“You will soon enough. In the meantime I suggest that you have a good look at where he lives.”
“I’ve already done that,” Din said.
“But only virtually, I think.”
“I don’t know your name,” he asked.
“Why do you need to know that?”
“Because you know mine.”
“You can call me Veronica.”
“But that’s not your real name, is it?”
“Like you, Din, I’m anonymous.”
Marya laughs. “Oh bollocks!” she says out loud, what a bloody idiot. I’m still thinking like a prisoner and not as a Senator. It takes her no time at all to find the protocols that apply to the free movement of Senators in the Social Context. She has free access to state controlled private transport to all geographical locations, zones and territories except those defined as ‘Out There’ and thus in the control of the criminal underworld. She turns her attention to Weber’s IRAP and is soon using the CCTV network, satellite and multiscale spatiotemporal services to inspect the location of his residence and the sector in which it’s located.
Standing at the compound’s gates dressed once again in the pale green twin set, Harris Tweed skirt, silk stockings, good court shoes, cultured pearls and with her shopping trolley in tow she sees that Ronnie’s on duty and wishes him a good day explaining that she’s going shopping. Once outside, she walks as far as the railbus stop, waits, boards the next vehicle and disembarks after one stop near another compound. After a few minutes walk she arrives at the private taxi rank, where the driver checks her identity on screen before she tells him where to go.
At their destination, an area once designated as ‘social housing’ but gentrified even before the Hierarchy took power, she instructs her driver to return and collect her in one hour. As the car speeds away she looks up at the façade of Wilberforce House where Weber has his apartment on the third floor. Turning around she sees the foodomat and hypermarket that serve the needs of the engineers and their families who are also housed in the long four-storey block of flats. As she walks to the central external staircase she counts thirty-two cameras focused on the flats, road and shops opposite; there’s little chance I’ll not be noticed, she thinks, manages a smile, puts her shoulders back and strides forward exuding confidence.
She’s impressed; the stairs into Wilberforce House are clean and the white paint on the edge of each step looks as if it had been painted only moments earlier. As she reaches the first floor (the ground floor being taken up with garage spaces) she comes to a small office window on which is written ‘caretaker’ and behind which sits a man dressed in navy overalls who’s playing chess on an IT tablet. She taps on the glass and he springs to his feet and nervously asks what she wants. Marya explains that she’s inspecting state properties on behalf of the select committee on which she sits. At his terminal he verifies her identity and status and wants to accompany her on her tour but she insists that he return to his game of chess and reassures him that it’s not an offence to play chess whilst on duty so long as he keeps a weather eye on the bank of monitors; he seems surprised and grateful for not being admonished.
Outside the caretaker’s office she looks first to the left and then to the right where the elevated pavement runs for four hundred metres in each direction and realises that she’ll have to walk every inch of the public walkways if her inspection is going to be credible.
On the third floor she stops outside number 3541 and wonders what Weber’s apartment contains. She hurries on hoping that she’ll have enough time to ask to inspect a number of apartments including Weber’s. At the top of the stairs to the fourth floor she turns right and comes to a sudden stop: a boy on a bicycle is riding towards her. She stands stock-still as he races forward. She’s fearful that he will crash into her but his brakes screech bringing the bike to a stop a millimetre from her stockinged legs. She gulps. Her heart races. She knows who it is.
“Hey, gran Mayhem! What you doing here?” Din asks.
“Din? Is that you?” she asks hoping that he doesn’t sense her fear.
“Yeah! It is I, the magic Din, innit?”
“I didn’t recognise you without your panda mask,” Marya lies, realising that he’s also checking out where Weber lives.
“That’s what masks are for.”
“Yes, I expect so. I didn’t think I’d see you again. Do you live here?”
Din giggles. “No, gran. I got my own place. I’m just having fun.”
“That’s nice. I wish I was still young enough to play.”
“I asked first – what are you doing here?”
“I’m just looking around, that’s all.”
“There aren’t any butterflies here, gran, not any. So what are you looking around at? You know, if you weren’t a gran, I’d say you were up to no good. Is casing the joint, innit? You a burglar gran, gran?”
“Do I look like a burglar?”
“You didn’t look like a butterfly fan when you came out of the bushes at the mall either, did you? You were lying to me then and you could be lying to me now.”
“Now look, young man,” Marya says with as much firmness as her anxiety enables her to muster. “I am inspecting this property on behalf of the select committee.”
Din bursts out laughing. “You’re putting me on, gran. If …” His phone giggles. He pulls it out of his pocket and reads the message. “Sorry, gran Mayhem, I got to go, business to do. Enjoy your inspection bullshit,” he calls as he hoists his bike onto his shoulder and runs down the stairs.
Marya leans on the stone balustrade for support; she’s badly shaken – she hadn’t expected to meet Din again so soon and when that time did come she had hoped it would be on her own terms. After a few moments he emerges at ground level and cycles off at great pace without looking back. She remains leaning on the wall looking at the road until she has sufficient composure to continue. She walks on uncertainly continuing with the farce of inspecting Wilberforce House. She’s about to ask the caretaker to let her in to Weber’s apartment when her taxi arrives. How could I still think that boy was charming, she wonders as she walks back down the stairs, was it just because he had a panda mask and knew about butterflies or was I just being a stupid old fool just like I feel right now? She tells herself to pull herself together remembering that on their first meeting she’d no idea who he was or what he did – now she did. As she sits in the taxi on her return journey she recognises that Din really terrifies her.
The bell above the door of as good as then tinkles as Din opens it and goes inside. The shopkeeper looks up from the counter where he’s unpacking a shipment of second hand shirts, sees Din and says, “Well, if it isn’t the psycho. Let you out again, have they?”
“I’ve come to do you a favour, Mr Shah,” Din says.
“The psycho has manners,” the shopkeeper chuckles, and then more suspiciously asks, “How do you know my name?”
“It’s on here,” Din says pointing at his phone. “It’s on my authorisation.”
“When I was here last you made me look stupid, you called me names like just now when you called me psycho again. That wasn’t respectful, Mr Shah.”
“Respect has to be won, sonny.”
“I told you before ‘sonny’ is not what I am – don’t call me sonny.”
“Is there something you want?” Shah asks. “You said something about a favour. I’m busy so why don’t you tell me what you want?”
“You don’t look very busy.”
“Just tell me what you want.”
“I want to show you this,” Din says holding out his phone for Shah to see the screen.
“I haven’t got my reading glasses, so why don’t you tell me what it says?”
Din explains that he’s been given authorisation to punish him for trading illegally and that he, Din, is allowed to act as he sees fit in administering this punishment. Din also says that the recording he made has been added to Shah’s IRAP and to the IRAPs of the two police who participated in his humiliation.
For a few moments Shah stands open mouthed, then he laughs – he laughs so much he almost chokes. Finally gaining control of himself, he asks, “And your favour is?”
Din takes a deep breath. “I was going to let you off.”
Shah chuckles. “You were going to let me off. What do you think I am, a schoolboy? What from – staying in after school?”
“From punishing you for humiliating me.”
“You’re a psycho. How long did it take you to make all that up?”
“Mr Shah, I came here because I’m trying to … Listen, all I want is for you to treat me just like you’d treat anyone else, with a little respect, that’s all.”
“You’re a kid with problems up here,” Shah says tapping his forehead.
“I don’t understand you. I wanted to do you a favour.”
A door at the back of the shop opens and a young woman walks to the counter. “I was watching you on the CCTV, Dad, is there something wrong?”
“It’s the psycho kid I told you about, he’s back,” Shah says.
“You really shouldn’t speak about people like that, dad; it’s disrespectful.”
“That’s what I was saying to him,” Din says.
“What’s your name?” she asks.
“Din, and what’s yours?”
“It’s none of your business,” Shah says.
“I’m Alicia. What did you want with my dad, Din?”
“I was playing a game,” Din says.
“He admits it at last; like I said, he’s a psycho.”
“Dad! What sort of a game, Din?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Din says.
“He has a cock and bull story about being authorised to punish me for trading illegally but really because I called him names like, sonny.”
“And psycho,” Din adds.
“This was a game and made up?” Alicia asks.
“Yes.” Din said.
Din struggles to find the right answer. “Because I want to be famous and have people respect me.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that, Din, but don’t you think there are better ways to get that than to go around frightening people?” she asks.
“I expect you’re right, Alicia. I’ll be going now. Good bye, Mr Shah.”
“Bugger that,” Shah says and murmurs, “bloody psycho.”
“Take no notice,” Alicia says.
“I won’t,” Din says. “Thank you, Alicia. I like you.”
“That’s nice. Goodbye, Din.”
As Din closes the shop door behind him Shah says, “Why did you treat him like that? He’s not right in the head.”
“He’s just a mixed up kid,” Alicia says.
As he cycles away an image forms in his mind; he giggles and whispers to himself, retribution is the way of the mighty Din, innit?
Ronnie is no longer on duty when Marya returns to the compound and no one questions her at the gate so she’s soon indoors. She logs on as Senator Hemming and finds a message tagged with a red exclamation mark waiting on her desktop. Reluctantly she clicks on the icon to discover a sombre looking Owvane who asks, though it sounds more like an instruction, that she contact him as a matter of urgency. Even more reluctantly she taps his face in her directory and they are soon virtually face-to-face. Having exchanged the usual courtesies Owvane gets straight to the point and asks her why she’d visited Wilberforce House.
“I thought it important that I saw where our engineers are habitated,” she explains, trying to use the same ghastly language that characterises everything that comes from ‘on high’.
“To assure myself that their accommodation was of a standard commensurate with their role and status.”
“Why would it be otherwise?”
“Sometimes the evidence of one’s own eyes is helpful.”
“Yes, of course. Why did you tell the caretaker that you were officially inspecting state properties on behalf of the select committee?” Owvane asks.
Her heart thumps. She longs for an old fashioned phone that allows one’s face to register alarm in private. Her left hand grips the chair leg hard out of sight of the machine’s camera. Shall I bluff it out and pull rank or shall I try another way? “I was concerned that he might think me an unwelcome guest, so I lied,” she says.
“Caretakers should never think Senators are unwelcome guests even when they’re caught playing chess on duty,” Owvane says, obviously pleased with himself. Oh shit, Marya thinks, they really do look at everything, know everything – what next? “Your frankness does you credit, Senator. If I might be so bold as to offer you advice it would be that you don’t explain yourself to anyone – except others of equal status and myself, that is – there is no need, and it confuses those whom we manage. Any suggestion that we might not be in total control should be avoided. You don’t mind me saying this, do you?”
“Not at all,” Marya says and silently sighs with relief.
“You had a conversation with a youth,” Owvane says and her relief evaporates. “From both of your body languages it looked as if you knew one another, is that so?”
“No, I was doing my best not to look afraid. I’d never seen him before.”
“I can understand your apprehension; youths like that can be very problematic. Did he threaten you?” Owvane asks.
“Not in so many words. He wanted to know why I was there and what I was doing.”
“Oh dear, such effrontery. He appeared to run off rather suddenly.”
“He had a message on his phone; I’ve no idea what it was about,” Marya says.
“If you see him again it would be wise to report him immediately; that sort of deviant youth needs to be removed once and for all. It’s deeply regretful that we haven’t yet been successful in achieving that aim – but we will.”
“Yes, we must all play our part in that. Is there anything else, Owvane? Your message was marked as urgent.”
“I merely wished to provide you with guidance on the direct exploration of the Social Context. I shall wish you good day, Senator. Goodbye.”
With the conversation over, she wonders why it had been thought necessary to let her know that he knew where she’d been and what she’d done. Then she frowns: they know a lot but they don’t know everything as otherwise they’d know I live here and am a fake, then again, perhaps they do and I’ll only know when they come for me. There was an even bigger question: why did Owvane pretend to be ignorant of the boy’s identity? She switches off the computer and sits at the kitchen table staring into nothing – how am I going to find Weber?
Marya turns on the TV to find out if Weber’s status has yet been made public. The rolling news cuts to a long shot of War Memorial Square. She shudders at its prospect: helmets, weapons, shards of wrecked lives and shattered vehicles of war crushed and flattened for the purpose are embedded in the asphalt floor of the square that forms the ceremonial central city venue for the annual celebration of the state’s victories over armies defeated in great wars fought in far-away countries for far-away reasons long forgotten and their purposes re-written for the preservation of the Hierarchy. She sighs. It is also the place of the ‘massacre of the innocents’, the fortieth anniversary of which will be very soon – how could I have forgotten? The shot cuts to a medium close up of a body lying in the middle of the square surrounded by red and white striped hazard tape; there are no police and in the background people walk by. As the camera zooms in the voice over is joyous: another outer-world gangland killing has removed yet another criminal from circulation. A close-up shows the hammer still embedded in Middleton’s head as the voice explains that such violence is all that can be expected from those who stand outside the protection offered in the Social Context. Marya wonders how long they’ll leave the body on view this time. She watches the rest of the newscast and when it once again returns to Memorial Square she turns off the set; Weber isn’t on the news.
Sitting at her computer she once again trawls through Weber’s early life and suddenly she’s certain she knows where he’ll go; she remembers being told how happy they’d been there. It’s a hunch but she has nothing else to go on.
The one benefit of being on the run in the outer territories is that it’s believed that technology based surveillance is almost non-existent there; all that Weber worries about is being identified as an outsider and being hunted by Middleton’s gang as the murderer of one of the leading underworld moguls. Despite having worked for Middleton, Weber’s knowledge of the working of the organisations that run the outer world is limited. That they are beyond the Hierarchy’s law is obvious as is their ability to invade and pillage within the supposedly protected Social Context. What isn’t obvious is the extent to which they act together or are in conflict with one another in a constant turf war. As he walks Weber grows calmer, believing that it will only be Middleton’s thugs who will come after him and that as he moves further and further away from the dead man’s patch he will be less likely to be caught.
Remembering the geography of the vast conurbation Weber reasons that if he takes a circular route to his destination then, though it will take him a long time to get there, he will always be beyond the surveillance of pretty much everything except the airborne drones. He’s surprised to discover that each district has its own thriving shopping area that’s bustling with people buying and selling. What surprises him even more is the realisation that such a quantity and variety of goods could not possibly have been stolen from the Social Context because much of what’s on sale out here he’s never seen in any of the shops ‘in there’; it’s only source could be from beyond the national border; this gives him hope.
He passes unnoticed and without challenge through busy streets patrolled by what he assumes are gang members as even though they are without uniform people defer to them. He buys food from street vendors and a bottle of beer from a street-side café. In a clothes shop he purchases a long waterproof coat and wide brimmed hat. The shopkeeper laughs when Weber searches the garments for ID chips explaining that such goods are not sold within the outer territories.
He pulls his coat around him for extra warmth for it’s getting ever colder, but he feels good; the cold out here is better than the stifling heat inside the Social Context. His euphoria evaporates as he turns a corner and reaches his destination. How can my memories of where I’d lived, even for just a little while, be so different from what I see before me now? The canal is just as dirty as it had ever been and still full of rubbish. He wonders if the supermarket shopping trolley that sticks out of the oily water is the same trolley that was there when he was young. It’s the building that shocks him most. In his memory the tall, six storey high red brick warehouse, narrower at the end nearest to where he stands and wider at the far end three hundred and six metres away (he remembers being told that as a small child) had seemed like a great ocean-going liner; now it had little chance of sailing in anyone’s imagination.
When the industry that the warehouse served had collapsed developers had bought the property and turned it into swish apartments. Their timing was bad and as the recession had deepened they had been unable to sell or lease a single apartment. That was when the squatters, his mother was one of their leaders, had moved in and occupied the building. He and his mother took an apartment of great scale and grandeur on the fourth floor with a bedroom for him that was almost as big as his entire flat in Wilberforce House. Weber had arrived there at the age of three and left at five when they were finally evicted and his mother arrested; in retrospect he found it all very confusing: sometimes it was impossible to distinguish between what he had been told about what had happened and what he thought he knew. He was put ‘in care’ that contained about as little care as it was possible to imagine. The apartment was the only place he’d ever thought of as home. He’s shocked when he realises that he’s unable to conjure an image of his mother’s face from his memory. God, he thinks, I can’t remember what she looked like at all but I can remember that the building is three hundred and six metres long.
He makes his way to the front doors but they’re locked and barred. Windows on the ground floor are boarded up against unwanted intrusion. Signs on the walls forbid entry, warn of extreme danger and ‘risk of death’ if entered illegally. At the rear of the building, at the canal side, he finds the old steel fire escape still intact but rusted and covered in barbed wire.
When the building had been ‘sensitively’ re-developed into accommodation some of its original features had been retained to capture the romance of heritage providing a set of cultural references enabling an understanding of how the past impacts on our lives today as the promotional brochure for Canal Apartments had said. One of these features had been an internal large dumb-waiter lift that the children had used as a means of transport up and down the building. Weber had clear and happy memories of frantically pulling on the ropes that powered the lift in an attempt to beat the record for travelling from the basement to the top floor. As the evening began to pass into night he struggles to find the wooden hatch that leads directly to the lift. He’s cold and tired and wants to scream, where is the bloody hatch? He kicks a brickbat in frustration and it rockets through an overgrown patch of weeds and hits wood with a dull thud. He rushes forward and pulls the weeds apart and there it is. He sighs with relief. Using Sander’s penknife he works away at the grime and weeds that fill the edges around the hatch; it’s hard to see in the dark. As he works he doubts that the ropes will still be in working order but there’s only one way to find out. He sticks the blade of the knife in the lower edge of the hinged hatch and works along the bottom edge, frees it and lifts it to look inside; it’s pitch black but, to his relief, and surprise, it only smells dusty and old. It’s impossible to tell if the lift is still there. He pulls himself into the opening not knowing what to expect but it’s still there. He crawls inside, letting the outside flap crash shut behind him, curls up, wrapping his coat tightly around him and, using his hat as a pillow, lays down to sleep, exhausted.
It only took me a few moments to fix the loose wire that had caused the malfunction to Din’s TV camera and I hoped that I’d have been long gone before he returned home, but as I was about to go out into the hall I heard the sound of his back door closing. I’d left all the lights on so that if he did come back it wouldn’t look like someone was up to no good. I sat on the sofa and braced myself. I could hear very slight sounds coming from the back of the cottage and the kitchen.
He burst into the room, bolt-gun at the ready, shouting, “Move and you’re dead!”
I screamed; it wasn’t hard to be frightened.
“What are you doing here?” Din demanded.
“Shit! What did you want to do that for?” I asked.
“You could have been anyone.”
“You could have killed me with that thing,” I said, desperately trying to sound as if I was in control.
“I saw it was you.”
“Din, put down the gun.”
Din lowered the weapon. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to see you about Weber.”
“This is my place; it’s private,” Din said
“You weren’t in and I didn’t want to wait outside, so I let myself in.”
“You’ve got a key?”
“Yes, of course I have a key.”
“This is my place. You shouldn’t have a key. This is my place. Mine! It’s private!”
“Calm down, Din. There’s nothing to get upset about.”
“You taking the piss or something?”
“What do you mean, there’s nothing to be upset about? This is my place, not yours.”
“This is where you live,” I said.
“It’s private! This is mine, just mine.”
This was going nowhere. I told him he needed to face up to the fact that the cottage didn’t belong to him, it was on loan, it was ours, he was allowed to live here but that didn’t mean that we didn’t have the right to come in here when we needed to. We kept going round in circles getting nowhere. He didn’t get any happier.
“I thought you understood your situation,” I said.
“My situation? What’s that supposed to mean, my situation?”
“Now, you’re being foolish, Din.”
He stared at me. I could see his fingers tightening around the handle of the gun and his index finger stroking the trigger. He looked like he wanted to kill me, but from his smirk I guessed he had something more in mind first. “What are you thinking, Din?”
“I was thinking about my situation. About me, about what I do, about who I am and I don’t know who I am, do I?”
“Would you like to see your IRAP?” I asked.
“You said I can’t see that until I’m sixteen.”
“I could ask if an exception could be made.”
“Why would you do that?” Din asked.
“To show you that I’m your friend not your enemy, Din.”
“Are you going to come here again without me knowing?”
“Only in an emergency, only if you were in danger.”
“Why would I be in danger?”
“Weber might decide to fight back.”
Din looked surprised. “I didn’t think of that.”
“Do you want to see your IRAP?”
“I’ll see what I can do. Why don’t you put the gun away in a safe place and then we can talk about Weber?” I suggested and explained that there was information to suggest that Weber had murdered an underworld boss by driving a claw hammer into his victim’s head; Din looked impressed. I told him to start Weber’s deletion and that he must keep his head camera on at all times to provide a record of what happened. He looked worried and was concerned that it wasn’t going to be webcast; I explained that would depend on what happened and how successful he was in carrying out the deletion. By the time I left I hoped that Din was back under control but I suspected that he was wondering how best to punish me for invading his space.
As I left I knew I was going to have to tell Owvane that in the future I wasn’t prepared to act as a technician and that one of his infinite number of technical staff could service the technology embedded in Din’s cottage – it was just too risky for me to be doing such work – it was only at that moment that I realised that Owvane knew about the risk and that was why he’d exposed me to it – it was a test; no thanks, I thought, I can do without that.
Marya lies on her bed and waits. She finds it paradoxical that even though she knows she’s made the right decision she has a small degree of regret in losing the pleasure of railing against authority from the relative comfort of an open prison. Her shopping trolley is already packed with clothes, currency she’s kept hidden for years, and the photographs she’d down loaded onto her laptop. She hopes these will verify her identity. She wonders how Owvane will deal with the fact that she’ll be operating outside her approved context; she smiles.
Unable to wait any longer and telling herself that 01.30 is as good a time as 03.00 she stands up wearing clothes she hasn’t worn for a generation: black Levis, black roll neck sweater, and black suede boots – she’s pleased with herself; she’s the same size now as she had been in her heyday. Yes, the new Mayhem is reborn, she chuckles. Taking her slate grey duffle coat out of its plastic bag in the wardrobe she inhales the smell of the mothballs and remembers her grandmother’s wardrobe that smelt exactly the same. Putting the coat over her arm she goes to the kitchen and drapes it over the shopping trolley; she thinks it’s probably going to be too warm for such a coat but hears her gran advising that it’s better to be prepared than … she struggles to remember the phrase and is disappointed that she can’t.
Standing on a kitchen chair beneath the CCTV camera in the hall she cuts its connecting wires and almost whoops with joy. Within moments she’s in her duffle coat outside her front door and, with the shopping trolley behind her, on her way. She keeps off the path and moves slowly and carefully in the shadows and then dashes through the blind spots between cameras until she reaches the point where she had her conversation with Ronnie. She stands very still and listens with her eyes shut; there’s nothing to hear other than the wind in the trees beyond the fence. She takes one final look back and then darts forward. Once again she hunches down beneath the cotoneaster and gathers herself. At the fence she pulls out heavy-duty wire cutters from the back pocket of the trolley and cuts through the mesh fence as quickly as she can. Her heart races; by now they’ll know something’s wrong with no feed from her camera but her hope is that they’ll first make for her flat thinking that’s where the problem lies but once they’re inside they’ll look everywhere else. She keeps cutting until she’s peeled back the fence and the hole is big enough for her to lift the trolley out and scramble through herself. Without looking back she trots away into the darkness and thinks of the scene where Chief Bromden from ‘One flew over the cuckoo’s nest’ escapes; perhaps, like him, nothing will ever be heard of me again? She takes off the duffle coat and forces it into the trolley – it’s too warm for such a coat.
When Weber opens his eyes he’s uncertain where he is. Sleep had not come easily but once it had finally arrived he’d slept deeply but it had left him anxious and confused. As he moves he hits his head on the wall of the dumb waiter and knows exactly where he is. Early morning light filters underneath the flap through which he’d crawled the previous night. He leans forward and smells the air; it isn’t good – the canal stinks of rotten vegetation, or at least he hopes it’s that rather than anything else.
He climbs out into the yard, stretching his aching limbs and from his pockets pulls a squashed bread roll and a bottle of water and breakfasts as he tries to stamp some life back into his feet. Hearing a drone approaching overhead he dives back into the hole and curses himself for being so forgetful. It’s time to see if the dumb waiter still works or whether the ropes they used as kids to haul it up and down have disintegrated along with the rest of the building.
He puts his hands through the opening and feels for the ropes, he chuckles, they’re still there. He gives them a gentle tug and then a good hard pull; the ‘up’ rope remains in place. He starts to haul himself up the building expecting that at any moment the counterweights will come away and he’ll plummet down. It takes him four times as long to get to the top floor as it had done when he was a child but he’s happy as he crawls out of the lift into the corridor that leads to the apartment. Looking at the dirt and debris on the floor he doubts that it had been the best idea to come back here; his anxiety angers him. This is the perfect place to hide; who else would guess that I would come back here? Making his way to the far end of the corridor he trudges through old newspapers, junk mail and an extraordinary number of polystyrene trays that had once contained take-aways; his stomach rumbles. I could kill a Chinese right now, he thinks, and manages a smile at the double meaning.
He stares at what had once been his front door, fearful of going on, but there’s no point in coming unless I go in he thinks as he turns the handle. The door’s locked. He shakes the handle knowing that it’s futile and struggles to remember something about the latch: was the curved lever set back-to-front? He takes Sander’s penknife from his pocket and inserts the end of blade behind the retaining shield and pushes hard – to his amazement the lock springs open and he pushes the door but it’s stuck on something on the inside. He manages to get his fingers around the edge of the door and sees that the reason for the door being so hard to move is because some sort of adhesive has been sprayed all the way around the doorframe to provide a seal between the inside and the outside. Weber pushes hard and the seal gradually and reluctantly fractures and then suddenly gives way – he almost falls into the enormous open-plan loft in which he and his mother lived. He leans back on the door until it clunks shut behind him. He sinks to the floor and stares, unbelieving, doubting his sanity: everything is as it had once been. It’s perfect. It’s clean. It hasn’t changed. It’s impossible. It’s exactly as it had been when he’d left aged five. Weber starts to sob, salty tears rolling down his face. As he weeps he tries to understand what is happening to him. He fears he’s losing his mind.
It’s early morning as Din reaches Almeida Avenue, rings the doorbell and waits, holding his bike by its saddle. Florrie, once again dressed in her housecoat, her hair in curlers and wearing another white facemask, opens the door and asks what he wants.
“I’ve come to say sorry about Mr Middleton.”
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No, Mrs Middleton.”
“I wasn’t really his wife. You can call me Florrie. What do you want?”
“I want to say sorry about what happened.”
“Why would you want to do that?” she asks as she picks up one of the cats that’s been rubbing against her ankles.
Din had been practicing crying on demand for some time and he feels that now’s the moment to try it out for the first time. A tear rolls down his cheek as he splutters, “I can’t tell you out here.”
“Then you’d better come in.”
“My bike, if I leave it out here it’ll get nicked,” Din says wiping his nose and eyes with the back of his hand.
“Bring it round the back. I’ll go and open the back gate for you.”
She sits on the sofa where Middleton had sat and Din sits in the same chair as Weber, as the two cats make a fuss of Din. “I haven’t ever seen cats before, except in picture books, of course” he says. The carpet on which Middleton had expired is no longer there; it had been used to wrap up his body prior to delivery to the Square.
“You’re from in there then.”
“Yes,” Din confirms as more tears roll down his face.
“How old are you?” she asks.
“You got any tissues, Florrie?”
She hands him a box of tissues, “You’re in a bit of mess, aren’t you, love? What’s your name?” Din gives her his name. “Do you want to tell me all about it?”
“What about, love?”
“Mr Middleton,” Din says and begins to shake uncontrollably.
“Come and sit next to me,” Florrie says, patting the sofa next to her.
Din sits bolt upright next to her and blows his nose in yet another tissue. He looks at her, wide eyed, “It was my dad.”
“It was your dad, what?”
“That killed him with the hammer.”
“That was your dad, was it?”
“Is this where he did it?”
“Yes, just there,” she says pointing at the parquet floor.
“He’s a bad man,” Din says wondering where all the blood had gone.
Florrie puts her arm around his shoulder, “But that’s not your fault is it, love?” He leans against her warm body. “Not your fault at all, but it’s nice of you to come to say sorry. Thank you,” she says and squeezes him tight against her. She takes her arm from around his shoulders, stands up and says, “I won’t be a minute, you just sit tight and I’ll make you some breakfast. Are you hungry?”
His excuse for coming here was to see if Weber had left any clues behind but he’d really just been curious to see the site of the killing but now, he thinks, there’s Florrie. I’m not very keen on that facemask thing, what’s it for anyway, but I’ve never smelt anyone who smells like her, and she was warm; she’s a real woman. He kneels down on the floor and plays with the cats.
“Din,” she calls from the doorway. He looks up at her. She’s not wearing curlers, or her facemask, or her housecoat: she’s naked. “Come on, up you get, if you seen what I mean?” she chuckles. “You come with me,” she says as she turns and walks away. Din gulps as he follows her upstairs ogling her pink dimpled buttocks.
“Was that your first time?” Florrie asks.
“So how old are you, Din?”
He no longer sees the point I evading her question. “Fourteen.”
“You naughty boy.”
“Can we do it again?”
“I’ve been practicing.”
“Good boy, take it more slowly this time. There’s no need to rush.”
“How was that?” she asks.
“Wicked. Florrie, can we do it different ways like I’ve watched them do it on the porn movies?”
“Of course we will, but we won’t need any films when we’ve got the real thing, but it might take a lot of practice before you master everything. Do you think you can manage that?” Florrie asks and yawns.
“I can manage that,” Din says as his fingers search her pubic hair for her vagina as he starts to giggle but immediately stops when Florrie begins to snore. Din feels that snoring isn’t right in the circumstances; snoring isn’t erotic.
Marya is surprised that her journey to the Outers takes so little time; she’d misjudged the distance between the edge of the Social Context and the prohibited territories. She was even more surprised that her escape had not caused a hue and cry and that she’d made her way unchallenged by anyone at all; this lack of attention was welcome, but it perplexed her – perhaps they really did think that a woman of age was not worth bothering with? She also wondered if they were just happy to see her go. After all she would be one less mouth for the state to feed. As she ponders these matters she realises that she’s already in the Outers and hasn’t noticed the transition; no barrier prevented movement in either direction.
By 05.00 the Outers are beginning to come to life. She stops in the doorway of a greengrocer’s and studies her old map; she’s tired and it’s going to take her some time to reach her destination. She needs to find somewhere to rest, get a hot drink and possibly sleep, though she thinks it unlikely that she’ll find a room to rent this early in the day and anyway, she thinks with alarm, I don’t know if there are still B&Bs or hotels. Well, if there aren’t I’ll just have to sleep rough. As she completes this thought she looks down and frowns; there are three long cylindrical white objects lying together on the pavement. She bends over to look at them more closely and laughs – my God! Dog turds, the old fashioned sort when there was no man made processed dog food and dogs lived on bones. Who would have thought it? That means there must be dogs out here, I’d completely forgotten about dogs; it will be nice to see dogs again.
Her reverie is interrupted by a man asking if she could move as he’s expecting a delivery of fresh veg for the shop.
“Where from?” she asks.
The man laughs, “From the countryside, my old love. Where else would it come from?”
“That would be the exotics: the spuds, parsnips, carrots, all the root veg come from the countryside and cabbages and the like which ain’t root vegetables, of course.”
“Parsnips … I haven’t had a roast parsnip in years.”
“You must be from in there,” he says jerking his thumb in the general direction from which she’d come. “What are you doing out here?”
“I escaped. I’m never going back.”
“It’s probably safer in there.”
“I’d rather be here … where exactly is the countryside where the veggies come from?”
“From the lorry that delivers them.”
“But you’ve never been to the countryside yourself?”
“Never had the time, my love. There aren’t any holidays to be had out here, it’s work, work and more bloody work.”
“I’m sorry, I’m in your way,” she says as the lorry arrives. “Is there anywhere I can get some breakfast?”
Marya sits at an oilskin tableclothed table in the café the shopkeeper had recommended. She’s eaten a fried egg sandwich with tomato ketchup and drunk a vast mug of very strong tea and she feels wonderful. This isn’t the present as I know it, she thinks, but somehow the past, even though it’s still the present. How can this be? Is everything out here in some sort of suspended animation? She looks at the other customers in the café; they don’t look quite like the people she sees in the shopping mall but from an earlier time. They are of the same range of diversity, ethnicity, beauty, ugliness, dress and demeanour but they just don’t feel the same – she doesn’t know why. She has the odd feeling that she’s stepped onto a film set. She puts these thoughts aside and, fortified by her breakfast, she once more sets off on her journey.
Walking along the high street she notices that though it isn’t pedestrianised there are very few cars and those few are far from new. There are plenty of people on bikes but most are on foot. She leaves the high street and follows a road between parallel rows of semi-detached villas built, she guesses, in the 1930s; all of them need a good coat of paint. She studies her map and decides upon a short cut through what looks like an industrial estate but turns out to be a set of empty derelict buildings. The cables that run from the overhead CCTV cameras to the ground below flap and rattle in the wind, obviously cut before the digital switchover. She walks on trailing her trolley behind her. She hears the unfamiliar but unmistakeable noise of horses hooves. She turns and sees a woman sitting on a cart pulled by a large piebald horse coming towards her.
“Whoa!” the woman cart driver instructs the horse and pulls hard on the reins. The horse stops next to Marya who immediately puts out her hand and strokes the front of its head. “You want a lift, darling’?” the driver asks.
“What’s he called?”
“Betjeman,” the driver replies.
“Betjeman, the poet?”
“No, Betjeman, the horse,” the woman says and bursts into laughter.
“Have you other horses named after poets?”
“The only other one I’ve got is Motion, which is a better name for a horse, don’t you think? I once had a Tennyson but he passed away.” Now Marya laughs. “Do you want a lift then?” the driver asks again.
“Yes, please,” Marya says, lifting her shopping trolley onto the back of the cart and wedging it between several bumpy mounds of canvas tarpaulins that protect and cover the cart’s cargo, and climbs aboard. She refrains from expressing her amazement at seeing a live horse. “This is very kind of you,” she says as the driver shakes the reins and Betjeman moves off.
“Where are you heading?” the woman asks. Marya shows her on the map as the horse walks on.
“I can only take you as far as this,” the driver says pointing at a spot that’s about half way to her destination. ‘What you going there for? It’s all derelict, no one there no more.”
This news greatly comforts Marya. “I used to live in a squat there, many moons ago,” Marya says, feeling the need to try out her new identity.
“You don’t look much like a squatter, a bit too, how can I put it, posh, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
Marya laughs. “And you don’t look much like someone who names her horses after poet laureates.”
“I like poetry and horses; seem to go together nicely to me. So why are you going back to your squat?”
“I’m getting on. I was happy there with my son and I’d like to see it again, just for old time’s sake, before I die,” Marya says.
“Well, good luck to you then,” the driver says and falls into silence as the horse clip-clops along.
After about fifteen minutes Marya’s curiosity gets the better of her. “What are you carrying under those tarpaulins on the back?”
“Dogs, I’m a dog butcher.”
“This is a joke, isn’t it?”
“They’re a good source of much needed protein.”
“So are horses,” Marya says.
“Horses are useful, aren’t you, Betjeman? Dogs aren’t, given that we don’t have sledges and live in the arctic.”
“You can’t eat dogs,” Marya says.
“What have you really got under there?”
The driver reins in the horse. “This is where you need to get off, love. That’s your way over there,” she concludes pointing down a hill that leads into the main shopping street of yet another suburb. “You be careful now, not everyone is friendly towards incomers,” she warns as Marya lifts down her trolley. As the cart pulls away she laughs, adding, “Betjeman, say good bye to the lady.”
Marya is slightly disappointed that the horse doesn’t whinny, says thank you and she watches the cart and its cargo trundle away, listening to the driver’s laughter until she turns a corner and is out of sight. Marya wonders what was really under the tarpaulins – they must be big dogs and they didn’t smell quite right for dogs, but I haven’t smelt an alive dog let alone a dead one for years – and why the woman made up such a ridiculous story; it was more Pinter than Betjeman – and what was all that about – naming horses after poet laureates?
Weber crawls across the painted wooden floor towards the first of the rugs that are strewn higgledy-piggledy about the place. He stares intently at the first rug he comes to; it’s circular, Middle Eastern in origin, its silken threads every shade of blue except for one dark blotch just off centre. He sits on his haunches and stares at the stain; shit, he thinks, I can remember, that’s where Mum dropped her cup of coffee, she was really cross. He struggles to make sense of this. He’s not sure if they’d had time to remove their possessions before they were evicted.
Finally on his feet, he walks to one of the high windows and pulls up the blind and there’s the familiar view of the canal. He thinks he might let in some fresh air but, on closer inspection, sees that the window’s security screws are tightly in place and there’s no key on any of the windowsills beneath any of the windows. Looking out at the wasteland he fears he might be seen and lowers the blind; even closed it lets in more than enough light. At the wall he flicks the light switch up and down; there’s no electricity. He inspects the kitchen; the cupboards, fridge and freezer are bare. The bathroom and shower room are pristine. He pushes the button down on top of the cistern and the toilet flushes; he’s so surprised he almost runs from the room from the noise of the rushing water.
Back in the main space he forces himself to walk to the door of what had been his bedroom, hesitates, and opens the door. The room’s empty. There’s nothing of his childhood, nothing at all. He looks behind him just to check that he hasn’t imagined the fully furnished room through which he’s passed; it’s still there. Why is my room empty when everything else is just as it was? He walks along the broad corridor until he reaches his mother’s room and without hesitation opens the door; it’s also empty, as are the two spare bedrooms, one of which she’d used as a study.
Back in the main space, the public space as the brochure had called it, he sits on one of the two white sofas that are set at right angles to each other and looks around to see if anything is out of place but, given his state of mind and the age when he left this place, he wonders if he can be certain of anything at all, let alone whether something is missing, has been added or is in the wrong position. I’ve been trained to be rational and if there ever was a time when I need clarity of thought it’s now, he thinks. He hangs his coat and hat on the empty coat hooks near the front door, sits back down and tries to work it out.
He thinks there are two possibilities: everything in the apartment is the original artefact or everything is an exact reproduction of that original. If it’s original has it been in place all the time or has it been re-installed at a later date, possibly recently? Surely nearly forty years of neglect would have taken their toll? If it’s been re-installed where has it been and who had kept it in pristine condition? If it’s all a reproduction was it possible to have the knowledge, the information, to reproduce it all and why would anyone want to do such a thing? It can’t be a reproduction – who’d reproduce a coffee stain? Who’s done this and why? Does this mean that someone knew I would come back here to be safe and if so why have they gone to so much trouble?
As he puts on his coat he sees that the key to the apartment is hanging where it had always hung on a little nail just by the coat hook on which his hat now hangs. He takes off his coat too afraid to venture outside, lies down on the sofa and closes his eyes.
“It’s not … well … natural,” Din says.
“What’s natural?” Florrie asks.
“I’m not a queer.”
“Did I say you were? You are a funny boy, bit of a prude aren’t you?” she asks and starts to laugh.
“Don’t laugh at me.”
“I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you,” she says turning over lifting her arse in the air. “Come on, do it doggie style, you’ll love it just you see?”
“I’m not a dog.”
“Come on, boy, Florrie’s waiting,” she says smacking her right buttock with her hand.
“Do the cats have to be in here?”
“They’re just cats, Din.”
“I don’t like them watching me.”
When Weber opens his eyes he has no idea how long he’s been asleep; the dream in which he’d been enmeshed so vivid that the reality of the apartment is even more traumatic than when he was fully awake. Peering at the outside world from behind a window blind it’s impossible to tell what time of day it might be; it’s all monochrome grey. Rain gently falls. Instinctively he looks at his wrist for the umpteenth time and remembers, yet again, that his watch is in the dumpster. He looks at the large red and silver clock on the wall; its hands had stopped at 7.30 and hadn’t moved since his arrival; had it stopped at 7.30 in the morning or in the evening? What the hell does it matter? he wonders. Whatever this place is, I’m in it and it’s no less safe than anywhere else out there and … there was no ‘and’. He checks the pockets of his coat but, as he knew he would, finds no remaining food. I’ll have to walk back to the nearest food shop and stock up. Whatever happens I’m not going to starve to death in here.
Emerging from the flap that shelters the dumb waiter from outside he pulls his hat down hard on his head as the wind picks up. He walks through the rear car park, head down against what is now heavy rain, towards the bent and twisted gates that hang open at the entrance and is vaguely aware of someone or something standing in the rain. He looks up and sees an elderly woman holding an umbrella over her head, who asks, “Weber, is that you?” as a sudden gust of wind wrenches the umbrella from her hand and sends it tumbling back across the car park that Weber has just crossed; as Weber runs after it he tries to make sense of the question. He traps the umbrella under his right foot and returns to where the woman still stands, now wet and bedraggled. He offers her the damaged umbrella but she doesn’t put out a hand to take it, asking, instead, “Weber, don’t you recognise me?”
For no good reason Weber takes off his hat and stares at her as the rain lashes ever harder. He runs his hand across his face wiping the rain from his eyes, finally responding, “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m your mother, Weber, your mother Marya.”
“Oh yeah? I haven’t seen my mother in going on for forty years.”
“Is there nowhere to shelter?”
“Look, whatever you’re after, I’m not your son,” Weber says.
“Somewhere out of this rain.”
“There’s a covered area at the back; it used to be for bikes.”
“I remember that,” she says.
Standing under the leaking roof, but out of the worst of the rain, Weber asks, “So who are you?”
“I’m your mother.”
“You don’t quite look like I think I remember my mother looking …”
“It’s been a long time. I was old when you were born and I’m very old now,” she says.
“Okay, just for a moment let’s assume you are my mother – why have you come to find me now, why have you come here to find me and why haven’t I seen you for most of my life?”
“I’ve come because you were on the news – they’re trying to kill you. I had to stop them. I knew you’d come here. I couldn’t let you down all over again,” she says and starts to weep.
“Why are you crying?”
“For god’s sake, Weber, why do you think I’m crying?”
“I don’t believe you, but we might as well go inside rather than drown out here. This way,” he says and sets off pulling her shopping trolley behind him.
“Do you really expect me to get in that thing?” she asks when Weber shows her the inside of the dumb waiter.
“It’s the only way in. You get in and I’ll pull you up. When you get to the top crawl out and give the rope a tug and I’ll follow you and I’ll bring your trolley. Will you do that, please?” She climbs inside. “When you get to our corridor just wait for me there; I’ve got a key to the apartment.”
“You kept a key all this time?”
“No, I’ll explain when we get there; you need to get dry,” he concludes and easily pulls her up the shaft; she’s even smaller than he remembered. Joining her on the top floor he leads the way, opens the door and stands aside for her to enter first. She crosses the threshold and screams. He rushes in behind her, “What’s the matter?” he asks. Silently she stares at the room. Weber looks at her and then the room; nothing has changed since he’d left half an hour earlier. A pool of water begins to form around Marya’s feet. “Come on, let’s get you out of those wet things before you catch your death of cold,” he says. She doesn’t move. “Have you got some dry things in your bag?”
“What did you say?”
“I asked if you had any dry clothes – you could change in the bathroom.”
“This is very wrong – it’s just the same as …” Marya says, waving her hand at the room incredulous that the room is just the same as in the photograph she’d seen in Weber’s IRAP and that of his deceased mother.
“I don’t understand how it’s this way.”
Marya peels off her duffle coat. “It’s okay, I’m perfectly dry inside, it’s waterproof.” She feels her jeans. “These will soon dry out. Could you hang it up to dry please?” Weber hangs their coats on the hooks by the door. “I don’t suppose there’s a hot drink?”
“Sorry, but there is cold water, and it’s good. I was just going out for food.”
“I have something to be going on with,” she says and zips open the large side pocket of her shopping trolley. “Here,” she says, pulling out a bread and cheese baguette, “we can share this.” She tears it in half and passes Weber his share. “I don’t suppose there’s a towel is there? If I don’t dry my hair I’ll look like I’ve been electrocuted.”
“You always did,” he says remembering that about her. “I haven’t looked, there might be, but the only place that’s fully furnished is in here; our bedrooms are empty, completely empty.”
When he returns empty handed, Marya is sitting on one of the sofas eating her half of the baguette. Weber goes to the kitchen, opens the cupboards again but there are no glasses, cups, mugs or anything else he could fill with water but then remembers the empty bottle in his coat, fills it at the tap and hands it to Marya who nods her thanks, drinks and hands it back. He sits down at right angles to her; they study each other as they eat in silence.
Weber finally asks, “Continuing with the assumption that you are who you say you are – why did I never see you again after the day they came for us?”
“They arrested me, defined me as a sociopath and locked me away in one of their so-called hospitals, a prison hospital at first. By the time I convinced them I was safe you were fifteen and I was still locked up.”
“You could have tried to find me then.”
“How could I? Anyway, I thought it would be better if you just got on with your life.”
“Better for whom? You or me?”
“To be honest, Weber, for both of us. You were already in the Junior Engineers – what was I going to say, you shouldn’t work for the state, you shouldn’t become everything I loathed – a Hierarchy bureaucrat? What would have been the point in saying all that?”
“I would have told you to piss off.”
“And you’d have been right to do so,” she says.
“And now you’ve come to find me because I’m finally the dissident you would have preferred?”
“No, I’ve come to find you because I don’t want you to be murdered by the state you’ve so loyally served,” Marya says.
“There might be the small matter of proof.”
“I can prove who I am but we can’t talk here.”
“Because this place is like this and … you said there’s nothing in the bedrooms, is that right?”
“It’s not safe here,” Marya says.
“It’s the only safe place I’ve got right now.”
“Weber, I’ve come a long way to find you and to try and help you and I’m telling you we can’t stay here – it’s too dangerous.”
“Why is it so dangerous?”
“Are you telling me that you think this is kosher? Because if you are then you’re an idiot, Weber.”
“Of course I don’t. I’ve been tearing my hair out trying to make sense of it and maybe if you’re my mother, which I sincerely doubt, you can answer some simple questions.”
“I will,” Marya says as she walks to the coat hooks and retrieves their still soaking coats, “but not here. Please don’t argue any more and come with me out of here.”
“Could you fetch me that cream off the dressing table?” Florrie asks. “My you know – fanny’s – getting a bit sore.”
Din climbs out bed thinking that he doesn’t want to know if her cunt is sore or not. Standing naked in front of the dressing table he asks, “Which cream, there’s hundreds and there’s a bloody cat sitting here fucking purring.” Din swipes the cat’s head with the back of his hand; it meows loudly and falls to the ground.
“Don’t hurt the bleeding cat,” Florrie says. “It’s the cream in the big tube – says Aloe Vera on the side.”
Din picks up the tube and turns back towards Florrie as the cat jumps back onto the dressing table and in one movement launches itself onto Din’s naked back as he moves away holding the tube. The cat’s claws hit him above the shoulder blades and then drag all the way down to his buttocks ripping and cutting as it tries to prevent itself falling to the ground. Din screams, grips the tube of cream too tightly so that its top blows off and a great spurt of cream shoots into the air as he bellows, “Fucking cat!”
Florrie chokes with laughter.
Din grabs the cat by the scruff of its neck before it can run off. ‘See if you think this is funny,” Din says.
Florrie shouts, “What the hell are you doing?” as Din snaps the cat’s neck and throws the dead body at Florrie who screams, “You’re a fucking psycho, you are.”
Din turns back to the dressing table and looks in the mirror to see the claw marks on his back; he’s covered in bulging rips that ooze blood. He tears the top sheet from the bed and uses it to wipe away the blood.
Florrie shouts, “Don’t use that! I’ll never get the blood out.”
Din picks up the nearest jar from the dressing table and hurls it at her with all his might hitting her on her eyebrow and breaking the skin. She screams, “You little prick!” dabbing at the cut with the pillow that she now uses as protection from the next jar that Din throws at her.
Din, much to his surprise, sees that his penis is erect. He jumps onto the bed and rips the pillow from her face.
“Stop it!” Florrie screams. “Get off me!”
Din punches her in the mouth and forces her over onto her stomach where she struggles to prevent him entering her. He pushes her face hard down into the pillow as he rapes her; she struggles. He doesn’t hear her last breath as he ejaculates inside her anus.
For a few moments he stands naked at the end of the bed wiping his penis with the bloodied sheet and checking in the dressing table mirror that his back has stopped bleeding. He gets dressed for the first time in three days.
As he cycles away up Almeida Avenue he giggles – she’d been right, I did like it up her arse.
Weber leads the way up out of the valley and away from the canal; the rain has ceased and the sun is breaking through the clouds.
“Slow up, Weber,” Marya says.
“When we get to the wood, we’ll be out of sight from drones: then we can slow up.” Standing at the edge of the wood Weber waits for Marya to join him; she’s out of breath and needs to rest. “There used to be some sort of hut in here near the top of the hill – it might still be there,” he says after Marya is ready to move on. The hut is a ruin but is sheltered beneath a canopy of beech trees.
“Let’s sit here,” Marya suggests pointing at a number of tree stumps.
They sit in silence, neither is certain how, or where to, begin. Eventually Weber suggests, “Let’s start with our apartment: why was it like that – how was it like that?”
“I can only tell you what I know. When we were evicted from the apartment and they arrested me they confiscated everything we had, absolutely everything; that’s what they told me anyway.”
“If they took it all away then how did it come to be there now?”
“I don’t know, Weber. They stole it all!”
“Okay … so was it our stuff or just – shit – some sort of fake? I’ve been through this in my head and I don’t understand.”
Marya waits for a moment knowing that she needs to play this carefully. “Do you think it was our stuff?”
“Yes – the stain on the rug – you spilt your coffee, didn’t you?”
“I never could get it out.”
“The tear on the underarm of the sofa that I made when I was … you went crazy.”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have been cross with you. It was an accident – it doesn’t matter … it was our stuff … there’s no doubt about it,” she says with a sense of relief; it was easier than she had feared.
“That would mean that they’ve kept it all this time and they’ve put it all back just as it was – why?”
“Because they expected you to go back there, or at least they guessed that you might.”
Weber sighs. “But for what reason? Even if you’re right, and that’s frightening enough, it doesn’t explain why they kept all our things for all these years – it’s impossible that they were planning this back then – Jesus, think of the implications of that.”
“Do you believe me now?” she asks.
“I’m keeping an open mind.”
Marya looks up at the leaf canopy – the rain has returned and gently drips down on where they sit. “In here,” she says, patting the shopping trolley, “I have my laptop and it may offer you a little more comfort in believing who I am – but I think it would be better if we were somewhere dry and warm.”
“I know somewhere but it may not be that warm,” Weber says.
“You do know that there’s a First Dispatcher after you, don’t you?”
“Oh yes, and the good news is that there may be others who are just as interested. Come on, let me carry that for you,” he says taking the trolley. “The ground’s too rough for these little wheels. We need to find some shops on the way. We should stock up with some food while we can.”
“Is this it? Is this where we’re going?” Marya asks looking at the drab monolith of crumbling concrete and broken glass windows that is the colossal façade of St Loyola Hospital; this is an unexpected destination and she has no need to act her part.
“I was investigating something that was happening here; it’s huge inside and there’s plenty of room to hide.”
“I can’t go in there,” she says quietly, almost to herself.
Weber carries on, oblivious to her remark. “It’s vast, almost like a city itself. There are parts where no one goes; I’ve been in them. We’ll be okay there.”
Marya stops walking and stands staring at the hospital. She takes a deep breath. “Wait, Weber, wait.” She starts to shake and her breath comes in short rasping gasps. “You do know what this was, don’t you?”
“It’s a derelict hospital.”
“It had a wing for the, so-called, mentally ill – until they decided that mental illness wasn’t an illness but a crime committed by sociopaths like me.”
“I thought St Loyola’s specialised in surgery?” Weber asks.
“Oh no. That’s where they locked me up when they took you away.”
“Oh yes, in there, in Brixton Ward – the prison wing. They redefined everything not just illness; I was ashamed to be put in there even though it was only because my politics were anathema to the bastards; defined as deviant, sociopathic, criminal, punishable. In the end, I lied, I reformed, I convinced them. They thought I was safe enough to be put in a normal prison.”
“I had to make a new life inside.”
“Yes, necessarily without you in prison, but anyway you were better off without me. I’m sorry, perhaps I should have trusted you, trusted that you might feel something for me even though I didn’t deserve your love, but after what I’d been through – I had to be selfish for a time, then that time became years and then … well, here we are and I’m back staring at this place and I want to run away all over again.”
Weber looks at her; despite himself he’s moved. “We’ll find somewhere else out of the rain.”
“No, we’ll go in; if I could cope back then on my own I can cope now,” she says and fleetingly kisses him on his cheek. “It’s good to be on the same side.” I meant that, she thinks, tears forming in her eyes as she remembers the love she once shared.
“There’s so much we don’t know about each other. We’ll avoid ‘B’ sector; that way you won’t have to go anywhere near Brixton wing; H is always deserted.”
Needing a shower and a change of clothes, though he’s supposed to be in the Outers hunting Weber, Din decides to go home. As he cycles he realises that he hasn’t turned on his phone for days, but, calculating that he’s going to get a bollocking from me anyway, he decides not to turn it on until he’s clean and ready for battle once more; he wonders if he’s caught anything from Florrie; an old slag like that – I’d better get some antibiotics from Veronica just in case, but that’ll mean telling her – he giggles – I’d like to see her face – oh yeah, the power of the mighty Din, innit?
His reverie comes to an abrupt end as he nears home. A large saloon car, my car, with opaque black windows blocked the entrance to the lane leading to Din’s cottage. As he climbed off his bike I opened the driver’s door and stepped out in front of him. “And where the fuck have you been?” Din ignored my question and tried to push past me. “I asked you a question,” I said, putting my hand on his chest; he brushed it aside. “Din, I’m warning you, there’s a lot at stake for you.”
“And for you too, so don’t warn me.”
“You have a job to do, remember?”
“Then what have you been doing for the last three days?”
“I need a shower and to get cleaned up. If you want to talk to me then it’ll have to be after that; you can wait out here or you can come in – it’s up to you,” Din said as he climbed back on his bike and cycled up the lane.
“Don’t you think it might be a good idea to put on a few more clothes?” I asked as Din joined me in his living room; he was only wearing a pair of boxer shorts that owed little to discretion; his pubic hair was clearly visible through the partly open flies of his shorts. What was more fascinating was the large birthmark on his stomach that looked exactly like a butterfly – I’d never seen it before.
There’s no point in lying: not only was I intimidated by his aggression but embarrassed by the fact that I found his body provocative. Christ almighty, Vonnie, I thought, get a grip, the boy’s dangerous. I averted my eyes, but looking away doesn’t always make you forget what you’ve seen.
Din continued drying his hair with a towel. “Did you know that the Dingy Skipper can’t be seen when it’s resting?”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“It’s perfectly disguised, just like me, but it’s got to be careful of getting its wings wet in bad weather.”
“What’s a dingy – what did you say?”
“Dingy Skipper. It’s a butterfly; it’s rather like me.”
I wondered if this had anything to do with his birthmark. “Din, I’m not here to talk about butterflies,” I said as he sat down too near me on the sofa. I edged away. “I sent you explicit directions that told you where you could find Weber so you could begin.”
“My phone was off.”
“I know that! There were instructions about how you were to begin. There was an expectation that you were ready.”
Din stretched, stroked his stomach, and scratched himself just beneath the waste band of his shorts. “I thought there was supposed to be no rush.”
Then I noticed his neck and shoulders. “What are those marks?”
Din giggled. “She called them love bites.”
“Are you trying to show off or something?”
“Well, that’s what they are.”
“Is that why you’re sitting there trying to look like some sort of a stud out of a porn movie?”
I remember just trying to sound dismissive; this was not going in the right direction. “Do I really need to know what you’ve been doing?”
I cut him off. “That was a rhetorical question.”
Undeterred, he continued, “You asked me where I’d been and kind of asked me why my phone was off. Well, it was off because I didn’t want her to know anything about me, not with her being part of Middleton’s gang and me being an FD.”
“Who were you with?”
Din giggled. “Middleton’s so-called wife.”
Jesus, I thought, this gets worse. “She doesn’t know what you do, does she?”
“It wouldn’t matter now anyway.”
“Why are you sitting there half-naked? Are you working under the misapprehension that I’m going to be turned on in some way by an adolescent boy?”
“I turned her on …” Din stopped smiling. “You,” he said pointing a finger at me, “listen … boys don’t do what I’ve done and boys don’t do what I do, so don’t go calling me a boy because I’m a man now. Florrie said so.”
“Florrie? Florrie?” I laughed, hoping to regain the initiative. “You’ve been screwing an old woman – how good does it get?”
Din joined in my laughter. “She was a bit of a slag but she couldn’t half …”
“Stop! Where’s your toilet?” I asked, knowing full well where it was having been there before he came home to prepare.
“I thought you’d know that having broken in here before.”
I do, you little bastard, I do, I thought, but said nothing.
When I rejoined Din my face was red (I’d rubbed it) and I appeared flustered. Din was still in his boxers. “I think there’s a bit of a problem with your toilet,” I said, “it made the most dreadful noise and it seems to be leaking now.”
Din jumped to his feet and rushed out of the room, I followed him, smiling. He pushed open the door to the wet-room that housed the shower, sink and toilet and shouted, “Oh shit!” which was an accurate description of what he found: faeces and toilet paper floating in the water. “It must be the macerator, it must have broken,” Din whimpered, almost in tears shutting the door and standing trembling in the corridor. “It must be blocked. The pipes, the drain must be blocked. What do I do?”
“Shutting the door won’t get it cleared up, Din.”
Din stared at the door to the bathroom as we watched effluent seep out from under the door. “It’s shit!” he bellowed. “I can’t go in there!”
“It’s only shit,” I agreed.
“Is it your shit?”
“In that quantity? Hardly,” I said. “It must have been building up for some time.”
“It’s evil!” he shouted and started to back away; his forehead was covered in beads of sweat.
“Why are you in such a state?” I asked knowing from his IRAP his history of soiling himself when he was in the orphanage.
“It’s filthy, disgusting, shit, dirty. Me, I’m clean. I don’t want to be … I want it to go away.”
“Would you like me to call someone and get this sorted out for you?” I asked.
“I’ll do that if you’ll go and get dressed,” I said. I didn’t add, there’s a good boy. With Din in his room I got straight on my phone, “Did you get all that? … Good, yes in the circumstances I think I can retrieve the situation … Yes, it can go with all the other footage of the little prick … Yes, just make sure you get someone here quickly to get his bloody toilet fixed so that I can get out of here in one piece.” Hearing Din opening his bedroom door, I said, “That’s great. Thank you, you’ll be here in thirty minutes, thank you,” and hung up. Turning my attention to Din I said, “Right, now we need to get down to business and see if we can get you on Weber’s case before they decide that you’re not ready to be a star.”
“They will clean it all up, won’t they?” Din asked. “So that it never happened.”
“We’ll go this way,” Weber says in a whisper, “but we need to be cautious just in case they’re now operating out of this sector.”
“Who?” Marya whispers back.
“Later,” he says and leads them forward into sector H and Harrogate Wing.
The sound of dripping water echoes in the long wide corridor. Their feet wash through oily pools of stagnant water and crunch on broken glass; each sound they make seems deafening in the hollow silence. Anything of any value right down to the wiring in the walls has been stolen. An occasional glimmer of daylight catches the edge of a fractured windowpane, sparkles for a moment and then is gone. Weber gently touches Marya on her left arm, puts his finger to his lips and mouths ‘shush’ as he guides her into an empty side ward and closes the door. She frowns and is about to speak when she hears the sound of voices coming ever nearer to where they hide. Weber indicates they should squat down just in case the men stomping down the corridor look into the ward.
“How many we got in today?” one of the men asks.
“Four blokes and an old girl. She looks like she’s got half a bleeding gold mine in her mouth.”
“Where’s this lot come from?”
“She brought ‘em from the old Jewish cemetery.”
“Good spot is it?”
“Not half. Bleeding yids is loaded with stuff and what’s more …” the man says as his voice tails off as they walk past where Weber and Marya hide.
When all that they can hear is the dripping of the water and wind imperceptibly juddering and whistling along the corridor outside where they’re hiding, Marya says, “I don’t think I understand what that was about – an old woman’s mouth?”
“Her teeth,” Weber says. “The gold in her teeth.”
Marya takes Weber’s hand and stands up with difficulty; her legs are stiff from squatting in the cold. “Are you telling me that they’re looting the bodies of the dead for gold?”
“Not just gold – artificial hips, knees, everything – the metal in prosthetics is of the highest quality; it’s scarce and therefore valuable. The jewellery the dead wear – the stuff the living leave in coffins – but mostly they don’t bring the coffins here, just the cadavers.”
“Oh my god.”
“They steal the bodies from their graves and bring them here to harvest,” Weber says. “They use the old operating theatres.”
“Not so loud. It’s not my word, it’s what they call it – body harvesting.”
“Is this what you were investigating?”
“Yes, everything out here – and in the Social Context – has a price.”
“But why were you involved? You have no jurisdiction in the Outers,” Marya asks.
“That’s the point; I had a suspicion that someone from our side of the fence, someone important, from within the Social Context, was involved, but I got taken off the case and now I’ve been assigned.”
Marya looks at him and frowns. “Didn’t you think there might be a connection between the two things?”
“Maybe that as well, but I think it’s all because I was somehow tied up with a dissident called Sander.”
“You were in a way,” Marya says, “but it might not be the only, or even the main, reason you were assigned. How much had you found out?”
“Not much, it was just a hunch on my part … Hang on a minute, how do you know about Sander – who was he, what was I supposed to have done. No, no, no – don’t answer that. First tell me how you knew I’d been assigned?”
“Could we find somewhere a little more secure than this; those men might come back this way?”
“Can you manage fourteen flights of stairs?” Weber asks.
“I’m as fit as a flea … tell me, they don’t just loot Jewish graves, do they?”
“No, any grave will do, so long as the victim is old enough to contain metal parts or to have been buried wearing their jewellery.”
“How long has this been going on?” Marya asks.
“Since the looting of the pyramids in the Valley of the Kings, I guess.”
“Somehow this feels different,” Marya sighs, as Weber looks out into the corridor to make sure the coast is clear.
Despite Marya’s assertion that she’s fit as a flea she’s out of breath when they reach the fourteenth floor. She asks, “What was this used for?” looking at the vast open space devoid of any internal walls or partitions apart from one small office in the far corner. Wind and rain blow in through the broken glass of the windows.
“So far as I can tell it was never fitted out. Don’t know why. I just climbed up the stairs one day and found it like this; there’s a spectacular view.”
“Will it be a bit warmer in there?” Marya asks pointing at the office.
“There’s even a few empty packing cases to sit on.”
“That would be good,” she says as they make their way across the open floor. “Does anyone else ever come up here?”
“If they do, we’ll see them coming. The harvesters do their business on the ground floor where the theatres are – I don’t think they’re very interested in sightseeing.”
Marya sits down, opens her shopping trolley and pulls out her laptop.
“I’d better tell you what I know.”
“Yes, and how you know it,” Weber says.
He listens intently as she describes her life over the years and how she’s used her skills to create a false identity as Senator Hemming because she wants to finally take her revenge on the Hierarchy. “That’s it,” she concludes, “that’s as much as I know about your current circumstances, but I need to see if there’s an update for me as a Senator.”
“Amazing … and you discovered me and my situation purely by chance?”
She’s surprised that Weber doesn’t ask how she intends to take her revenge, so simply answers his much easier question. “No, I saw it on the news,” she lies, “then I found out as much as I could about what was going on. There’s something else … do you think there’ll be a network out here?”
“You know there will be. What’s bothering you?”
“I accessed your IRAP.”
“I’m impressed,” Weber says.
Marya stares at him for a long moment. “You’ve asked why I didn’t try to find you, so why didn’t you try and find me?”
Weber looks taken aback, “No one knew where you’d gone. By the time I was old enough to be able to try and find out on my own … I guess I hated you for abandoning me. Like you, I decided to look after myself, make something of my life – I’ve not been good at relationships.”
“Is that why you abandoned your son?”
Weber sits down. “My what?” he asks, clearly shaken.
“Your son, Weber. You can’t have forgotten.”
Weber averts his eyes and sits silently staring out of the doorway of the little office. He gets up, walks out into the space to the exterior wall and stares out as squally rain blows in on him and remains like that for what seems an eternity to Marya who sits on a packing case, the laptop on her knees, patiently waiting for him to return. The gamble has paid off; she’s pleased but doesn’t show it. He walks back in, sits down and says, “Ralf would be about fourteen by now.”
“I thought you knew what happened,” Weber snaps.
“Only a little, only the fact …”
“… that there’s not much to tell. I hadn’t been with his mother for long; I don’t know whether we were in love or not. She fell pregnant. I wanted to get married but she’d have none of it. Then, after he was born, she got very low, very depressed, wouldn’t talk to me, there was nothing. She could barely look after the baby and wouldn’t let me anywhere near him. It was terrible. She left with Ralf when he was three months old. She didn’t even leave a note – just vanished into thin air, into what became the Outers. For a while I tried really hard to find her, him, then, as usual, I gave up: I didn’t forget, I just chose not to remember. Do you know what happened to him?”
“There’s little information. It would seem that – she was called Florence?” Marya asks.
“Florence abandoned him. Ralf was put in an orphanage,” Marya explains.
“Shit! What a fucking mess; just like me – he didn’t deserve that.”
“Feeling guilty isn’t going to help you find him.”
“Do you know where he is?”
“No, but with this,” she says patting the computer, “we should have a reasonable chance of finding him – at least we might when we can get you out of the mess you’re in.”
“You’ll help me?”
“Why else would I be here?” Marya asks.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Then don’t say anything,” she says.
“What are we going to do, Mum?”
“You just called me, Mum.”
“Let’s just say it was a slip of the tongue.”
Marya shrugs. “If there’s a network out here then they’ll be monitoring it, so we need to watch our time before they track us down – so what do we want to know first?” Marya asks.
“Who’s after me?”
I opened the door to my office to find Owvane sitting in one of the armchairs that surrounded a wood and slate coffee table on the other side of the room from my desk. He was reading. “Ah, there you are at last,” he said closing the book. “How did you get on with our young Din in the end? Back on the straight and narrow, I hope.”
I asked if I could sit down.
“It’s your office, Veronica. There’s no need to be nervous. I’m not here to chastise you, but to emphasise the importance of the project of which you are such a crucial, even central, part.” He waited while I sat down. “Is the boy now back under your control?”
“As much as he will ever be under anyone’s control; yes, for the moment, he’s under control.”
“If he were other than what he is he would be of no use to us. I need to ask the most basic question: is he convinced that he’s a First Dispatcher?”
“Excellent. However, I sense a ‘but’ in your tone of voice; you have doubts?” Owvane asked.
“He’s been upset that the police don’t recognise his status but I’ve dealt with it and explained the need for his identity to be secret.”
“Is he convinced?”
“Probably; with Din it’s very hard to know. I’ve told him that I’ll seek permission for the early release of his IRAP as one of the privileges associated with his role.”
Owvane smiled. “An excellent idea, Veronica.”
“I will approve the release of, let us say, an appropriately edited record, one that will aid our purpose rather than confuse the boy. It may even spur him to even greater acts of attrition.”
“I think it would be helpful if I could give him something sooner rather than later,” I said, wondering what Owvane meant, but already guessing that Owvane was playing more than one game – I just hoped he wasn’t playing with me as well.
Owvane chuckled, “There’ll be no delay, my dear – Din’s IRAP will be almost immediately available.” Owvane paused for a moment. “Did he admit where he was when absent and what he did whilst there?”
“He was with Middleton’s woman, and I mean ‘with’ in the biblical sense.”
“Yes, I know, he’s somewhat precocious but I suppose it’s a development to be welcomed; endless footage of him masturbating is quite tiresome after a while. Did he admit murdering the woman known as Florrie?”
I was shocked. “How did you know? I haven’t reported it yet.”
“Because I need to know such things, Veronica. You deserve to understand a little more of the context. When the association between Weber and Middleton became known to me it was necessary to put surveillance in place that counteracted the danger presented by such an association.”
I couldn’t hide my surprise. “You installed cameras in Middleton’s house; how was that possible in the Outers?”
“The idea that the Outers are beyond our reach is an urban myth and not necessarily true. We have excellent recordings of everything that happened in Almeida Avenue including the visits of both Weber and Din as well as the murder of the gangster by Florrie and her subsequent brutal murder by Din; I must admit I was surprised by the extent of the boy’s violence.”
“Shouldn’t I have known where he was and what he was doing? It’s just that he’s hard enough to manage as it is … being kept in the dark doesn’t help.”
“Mea Culpa,” Owvane replied putting his hand over his heart.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cause offence.”
“Listen, Veronica, I’m grateful that you have the courage to manage him but you must take great care for I suspect that you, as a woman, might well be on his agenda.”
“Thank you – yes, I’m beginning to realise that.”
“The use of the blocked toilet was masterly – I shan’t ask how you managed it – the boy is quite paranoid about certain bodily functions.”
“It was a diversion,” I said. “Can I also have access to the IRAP you give Din so I can try to predict his likely responses?”
“Of course. Now, let us turn our attention to Weber. There’s been a change of heart; Weber’s deletion is now a matter of some urgency.”
“I was told it was to be protracted because of the potential serialisation of his deletion.”
“The serialisation may be protracted but Weber’s demise needs to be brutal and short; the drama will be built during editing and we have ample footage with which to embellish the back-story,” Owvane said.
“May I ask why his deletion has become urgent?”
“The more I know of Weber the more disturbed I am by his deviance; there is strong evidence to suggest that he has played, and still plays, an important role in the outrage of body harvesting.”
“There’s nothing on his record that shows that,” I said.
“Perhaps our conversation has brought it home to you that you are not privy to everything that is known to me?”
“Forgive me, Owvane, I didn’t mean to imply … Do you know where Weber is?”
“In all likelihood at the centre of the harvesting trade: St Loyola’s hospital.”
After the plumbers had finished repairing the macerator in his toilet and the cleaners had finished their work Din gets on his bike and rides into the night; he not only wants to escape the lingering smell of bleach and disinfectant that reminds him so powerfully of the orphanage and the constant humiliation of shitting in his bed, but also because the prospect of seeing his own IRAP is too exciting for him to be able to sleep. He cycles for over thirty minutes before he knows where he wants to go.
At three o’clock in the morning War Memorial Square is deserted except for the infrequent passage of a car. Din’s delighted, for even from a distance, he can see Middleton’s body still lying in the middle of the square surrounded by red and white striped hazard tape and illuminated by a bright over-head light mounted on a heavy steel tripod; he wonders if the body will stink or if they’ve injected it with some sort of preservative. He wonders how the Egyptians mummified their dead as he padlocks his bike to a lamppost at the edge of the square. As he walks out of the gloom into the light a large black car slowly trundles in his direction. Within moments the car is beside him and slows to his pace. Din looks at the car but its tinted windows prevent him from seeing in; he keeps walking; the car stays beside him. Din stops. The car stops, the driver’s window slowly rolls down and a woman’s face smiles at him from within – there’s strong smell of musky perfume; the woman is heavily made up and seems to Din to be about the same age as Florrie.
Din asks, “What do you want?”
“Isn’t it a bit late for you to be out on your own, darling?” the woman replies.
Din likes her voice; it’s husky. “I’m often out late,” he says.
“Now what could a handsome young man like you be doing wandering all alone in the middle of the night in this god-forsaken place?”
“I just came to have a look around.”
“What a waste – you could be somewhere warm having fun.”
Din giggles. “What sort of fun?”
“That’s a wicked giggle you’ve got. Why don’t you climb in and we could find somewhere nice and quiet so you can find out?” Din climbs into the car and sits beside the driver who asks as she drives off, “And what’s your name, handsome?”
“Rod,” Din giggles.
“There’s that naughty giggle again,” the woman says resting her hand on Din’s right thigh. The car turns left, its wheels crunch on gravel, an owl hoots in the distance, a gentle wind scurries dead leaves; it’s a cooler than normal and a gently quiet night. Within moments they’re parked up under the dark shadows of the vast chestnut trees of Freedom Park. The woman takes Din’s face in her hands and kisses him passionately, her tongue thrusting and poking in his mouth. With one arm around his neck she continues to kiss him as her other hand slips down the front of his jeans, under his boxers, until she’s squeezing his already erect penis. Din groans with pleasure. “Is that good?” she asks. Din groans again. “Don’t you want to feel mine?” she asks. “I’m not wearing any knickers.”
Din eagerly puts his hand up her skirt until his fingers touch a very large stiff penis. He pulls his hand away, “You’re not a woman! You’re a fucking man!”
“Come on, there’s a handsome boy, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” he says still rhythmically squeezing Din’s penis. Taking his arm from around Din’s shoulder the man lifts his skirt; even in the darkness Din sees that the swollen glans is already glistening with moisture.
“Nothing to be afraid of,” the man repeats as his fingers now caress Din’s testicles.
“It’s so big,” Din murmurs staring at the man’s phallus.
“What did you say?” the man whispers. “Would you like it in you?”
“What?” Din gulps.
“Or you could come in me if you like.”
“I’m not a queer,” Din said.
“Oh no?” the man chuckles. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of, sweetie.”
“It’s illegal,” Din says.
“But very nice … we can go to my place, be comfortable and do this properly.”
“I’m not queer,” Din says.
“Then why did you get in my car?”
“I thought you were a woman.”
“No you didn’t, but I’ll take it as a compliment.”
“I need to go,” Din says opening the passenger door.
“I’ll blow you off.”
Din stops and, half leaning out of the car, puts his hand in his pocket.
“What are you doing?” the man asks.
Without further hesitation Din takes the Stanley knife from his jeans pocket, pushes the blade out of the end of the knife and as the man stares incredulously, frozen with fear, Din draws the honed knife blade across the head of the glans and right down the shaft of the still erect penis. The volume of the man’s scream shakes the car as blood gushes from his wound. As Din slams the passenger door shut, he shouts, “Fucking queer!” and continues to mutter this as he runs from the park. As he slows to a walk at the park gates he can still hear the man’s screams and there is the ever-nearer sound of a police siren.
Reaching the square Din’s no longer interested in viewing Middleton’s body. As he unlocks his bike all he can see is the man’s phallus; all he can hear in his head are the man’s screams. For a moment he asks himself why he did that … what it would have been … what a massive cock … what would it have been like? But as he rides away he knows he’s right to do what he’s done and that there’s nothing to be worried about.
“Could you find something to use as a background, backdrop, so that when I use this thing,” Marya says pointing at her laptop. “Owvane can’t see where I am.”
“Pardon?” Weber says. ‘What did you just say?”
“Could you find something that …”
“No, I heard that,” Weber interrupts. “The name, what name did you just use?”
“Owvane, he’s the …”
“… one I think is involved with the body harvesting.”
“Are you serious?” Marya asks, genuinely surprised.
“Oh yes, deadly serious.”
“Who knew about your suspicions?” Marya asks.
“My superior, and ultimately Owvane given how bloody omnipotent he is.”
“I thought he was just a senior bureaucrat,” Marya lies.
“I think he’s much more than that – he’s Deputy First Secretary. There’s only one person any higher: Zira Madoor. I think he’s trying to develop the resources for a coup where he becomes … where he replaces the current dictatorship with his own.”
“Why would anyone so powerful be interested in me?” Marya asks.
“But more importantly, why would he get involved with something as loathsome as body snatching?”
“He needs money and body harvesting won’t be the only way he gets it – you have to remember that people like him, and me, we don’t have money because we don’t need it. The only way he can overcome his enemies inside the Hierarchy is by buying help from the world out here … what exactly is your relationship with Owvane?”
“A relationship it isn’t. As I explained, when I created my new identity as a senator I got Owvane; he was in charge of the virtual committee that I joined and he provided access to secret files that included yours – which is how I knew what was happening to you.” I could have said that I chose that committee because Owvane ran it and that chance had nothing to do with it, but I hadn’t realised that Owvane had risen so far and why was he apparently managing a committee and dealt with people like me?
“But he doesn’t know you’re my mother?”
“No, not unless he knows that Senator May Hemming is a fake and that he’s actually dealing with Marya Heim.”
“And if he knew that why did he give you access to secret files? Wait,” Weber pauses. “To what exactly has he given you access?”
“Idiotic cod sociology. Hierarchy twaddle about exemplification and terror, acres of it.”
“What secret files? What IRAPs?” Weber asks.
“We can look; it’s all on the desktop, He told me I should read stuff off-line because of the fear of hackers.”
“Or because he feared the Hierarchy’s own security systems would pick up on the fact that he was passing you prohibited documents.”
“It’s possible, I suppose,” Marya says.
“I don’t know … what files did you actually access?”
“Sander’s and yours.”
“That’s all?” Weber asks.
“Yes.” They sit very still in silence until Marya finally asks, “So what do we do now?”
“I’ll see if I can find that backdrop you wanted.”
“I think we ought to call his bluff,” Weber says.
“Are you sure?”
“No, but what have we got to loose?”
“Our lives,” Marya suggests.
“It can’t get anymore risky than it already is. Let’s see what’s in these packing cases to rig up the backdrop you want.”
“I see that you’re not at home, Senator,” Owvane says from the laptop’s screen. “Where are you?”
“I’m in the Outers.”
“What on earth are you doing there?”
“Seeing how the outcasts live.”
“I’m not sure that’s wise, Senator Hemming.”
“Wise or not, it’s what I’m doing. I need your help.”
“My purpose is to support you, Senator,” Owvane says looking puzzled. “What do you need?”
“It’s regarding the current exemplification of the dissident deviant, Weber.”
“You would be wise not to get involved with him; he’s dangerous.”
“I know, I’ve read the file you provided.”
“The file is not up to date – Weber is now guilty of murder,” Owvane says.
“Murder? Is that potential in his character profile? His IRAP doesn’t suggest it is.”
“I’m not an analyst, Senator, I’m merely an administrator who facilitates your access.”
“Am I right in assuming that Weber has fled to the Outers?” Marya asks as she looks up, past the screen and sees Weber holding up three fingers and mouthing to be quick.
“I share that assumption, Senator. What of it?”
“I’ve met someone out here who says they’ve seen him.”
Owvane’s face registers shock. “How extraordinary that you should have mentioned Weber’s name to a stranger.”
“I’m interested in seeing him being brought to justice,” Marya says.
“We have professionals doing that, Senator.”
“And I’m an amateur.”
“I wouldn’t be so rude as to say such a thing but perhaps a degree of caution would be wise? … To whom were you talking?”
“My battery’s running low, I’ve only a minute more. Yes, someone who appears to think that Weber is connected with body harvesting.”
“I‘m not all surprised.” Owvane says, but she thinks he looks just that. “The person’s name?”
“He called himself Pewter but I think that’s false. He suggested he takes me to a place called Canal Apartments; Weber’s IRAP says he lived there as a child with his mother but the file doesn’t say where it is and I’m not sure I trust this Pewter chap. He said there’d been a lot of people in and out of there – looking for Weber, I suppose. I’d be grateful for directions. Could you have that ready for me when I log in next?” Marya asks.
“Senator, please desist from any further of these enquiries.”
“Sorry,” Marya says, “battery dead,” and shuts the computer’s lid.
“Well done,” Weber says.
“I’m not really sure what that was supposed to do, Weber.”
“It’s just like throwing a stone into a pond – you just never know how far the ripples will spread.”
“Are we actually going to go back there?”
“I am, you’re not; it’s too risky,” Weber says.
At 08.30 Din has been sitting at his computer terminal for nearly three hours waiting for his IRAP. He has only thought of the man in the car now and again; he has decided not to think about the mutilation he inflicted or tried to imagine its consequence; he has more important matters to consider. At exactly 09.00 the computer pings and a new icon, titled Dinge Escottt arrives on his desktop. At 09.50 he’s still staring at the icon too afraid to open it. I kill people, he thinks, why am I afraid of finding out who I am? At 09.57 there’s another ping announcing a message from me; he immediately opens it and reads the instructions that will lead him to Weber; he copies the co-ordinates onto his smart phone. At 10.02 he clicks on Dinge Escottt and a menu pops up on screen. At the top of the list is the word Mother; slowly he moves the cursor onto it and once again stares at the screen; he let’s go of the mouse just in case he clicks before he’s ready.
Mother – what does it mean? He has only the faintest memory of his mother and, he realises, he has no idea of her first name, just his second name ‘Escott’. The word ‘mother’ signifies so little to him that it’s almost meaningless. If she’d been a real mother, he thinks, then I wouldn’t have been in that orphanage, I wouldn’t have gone to the seminary and then I wouldn’t have been able to be a First Dispatcher so I should be grateful to her for not being a real mother, but she’s still my mother and I don’t know, except what I’ve read or been told, what mothers actually do except make you do what they want you to do instead of you deciding what you want for yourself. Perhaps she died? That might be why I was put in the orphanage. If she died then it wouldn’t be her fault, would it? I don’t remember even hearing the word father; she never said father to me – all I can remember is the word mother being said and that’s about it. I was on my own then and I’m on my own now, but now I’m someone, someone with power, someone to be feared; that’s right Mr Weber – you better be afraid Mr Weber cos the mighty Din he’s a comin’ for you, yes, so he is, comin’ to cut you up, yes so he is, so be afraid. Din grips the mouse and clicks on the word Mother.
A woman’s face fills the screen. He stares at the face. He reads the words under her face: Florence Escott. He gawps – mouth wide. Mouth bone dry. He whimpers. It couldn’t be. It’s Florrie, younger, but Florrie. Middleton’s Florrie. He spasms, shaking uncontrollably from head to foot. He feels like one of the bolts from his gun has been driven into the back of his head. He stares at Florrie, she smiling, she isn’t dead. She isn’t dead with my cock up her … He picks up his phone and dials my number.
“Yes, Din, did you get Weber’s co-ordinates?” I asked.
“I got my IRAP.”
“Not good – you looked at it?”
“No, not yet. I just forwarded it,” I said.
“You got a copy?”
“Open it, click on ‘mother’. I’ll wait while you do that.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Just fucking do it!”
I looked at the photograph but it didn’t mean anything to me so I asked him what was wrong.
“You see her, yeah, you see her alright, and I see her, and do you know who she fucking is, she’s my fucking mother, she’s the bitch, Middleton’s bitch I fucked. I fucked my own mother. I killed my own mother. I’m … I’m …”
His scream that came down the phone was deafening and unintelligible. “O shit!” I gasped. “Stay there; I’ll come right over.”
“Tell me it can’t be true.”
“I’ll come right over.”
“Don’t bother. I won’t be here, I got stuff to do, in I? Tell you something, Veronica, all you women bitches is bad.”
“We need to talk, Din. I’ll check there’s not been a mistake of some sort and you’ve been given the wrong IRAP. Din? Din, are you still there? Din? Shit!”
I sat in front of my computer and clicked the word mother on Din’s official IRAP menu to discover it was completely blank. I was astounded. I didn’t know if the IRAP Owvane had sent Din was fact or fiction and there was no way I could find out. I had better luck with father – there was nothing exceptional; the lineage of his male ancestors was clear. I logged in to the National DNA register that was supposed to ensure there was no doubt as to the parentage of every child born during the previous fifteen years to see if I could find out about his mother down that route; I couldn’t – all it said was ‘mother unknown’.
I picked up my phone and pressed Owvane’s icon, “Good morning, Veronica, what can I do for you this glorious sunny morning?”
“It’s about Din’s IRAP that you sent me. Are you sure that it’s his as there are a couple of real issues with it?” I asked to see how he would react.
I explained my concern about the effect the information about his mother was having on Din.
“As to the unfortunate circumstance of his relationship with his mother – what can I say? If that is what the record shows then that is what the record shows – unfortunate though that might be for the boy’s sanity,” Owvane said.
“It’s just so horrific.”
“Would you like me to get someone to check its authenticity?”
“In the meantime,” Owvane said, “see what you can do to get the boy back on Weber’s case – his exemplification needs to be delivered and if Din can’t do it then I’ll have to find someone else who can.”
“Thank you, I understand.”
“Good bye, Veronica.”
I tried to remember exactly what Owvane had said about Din’s IRAP. I remembered: an appropriately edited record … it may even spur him to even greater acts of attrition. There was no doubt in my mind that Owvane had given Din a false IRAP – why?
As I was trying to make sense of this my phone rang, it was Owvane and he was angry. There was footage of Din in War Memorial Square entering a car subsequently found in Freedom Park containing the maimed dead body of Senator Gottschalk who was chair of the Hierarchy Foreign Affairs Committee; the Senator had been sexually assaulted and his genitals mutilated; he’d bled to death. There was every reason to suspect that Din committed the crime. A warrant has been issued for his arrest and he was to be immediately removed from Weber’s exemplification. Owvane instructed me to deliver the news in person. I didn’t escape his anger: I was to be subject to a formal evaluation of my performance and until then I was suspended from all duties.
I got in my car to drive to Din’s cottage.
Despite all his arguments Marya refused to be left at the hospital while Weber went back to Canal Apartments to see if the pebble they’d thrown in Owvane’s water would cause a ripple.
They leave the hospital under cover of a torrential rainstorm and arrive at their destination wet, but without incident. They had planned to find a safe place near the apartments from which to watch the building but as they stand on the high ground beyond the far end of the apartments they see that the main front door, previously boarded and locked against intruders, now stands open.
Inside they find much hustle and bustle as people mill about talking and laughing. Marya asks a middle-aged man what’s going on and is told that the building has suddenly been made available for occupation and that the homeless are moving in.
“Just like the old days,” Weber says.
“Not quite – we weren’t given permission.”
“Let’s see if anyone’s in ours,” Weber says. The door to their apartment is still locked so Weber takes the key from his pocket and opens it, stands aside and says, “After you, Marya.”
She steps inside and gasps, as does Weber: the apartment that had been so meticulously furnished with their possessions is completely empty – there is no furniture, no rugs – nothing at all.
“Surely they didn’t have time to clear this since I spoke to Owvane,” Marya says.
“If we’d ever told anyone who’d listen what we’d found here they wouldn’t have believed us – but if they had, they sure as hell wouldn’t believe us now.”
“It didn’t make sense before but it makes even less sense now,” she says.
“Except that if I’d been on my own, if you were right in thinking that they’d guess I might hide out here, if I didn’t have a witness then would it make me doubt my own judgement?”
“Even if it didn’t do that, it might mean …”
“… it might mean that Owvane doesn’t know who you are or who you’re with,” Weber says.
“Or he didn’t until I told him I was coming here.”
“We ought to be away from here as quickly as we can,” Weber says.
“I just need to use the bathroom before we go.”
“That’s fine,” Weber says and stands in the doorway looking down the corridor to see what’s happening. Marya’s scream sends him running to the bathroom where he finds her standing in the corridor leaning against the shut bathroom door. ‘What’s happened?” he asks.
“There’s a corpse in there.”
Weber opens the door and walks to the bath where a woman’s naked body lies face down. He takes a deep breath as he takes her right shoulder and gently turns her half over. “Jesus! It’s Florrie.”
“Middleton’s woman – I told you …”
“The one who … what on earth is she doing here?” Marya asks.
“Who killed her?
“Like you said, Weber, we need to get out of here, right now,” she says, grabbing his hand and dragging him away from the corpse.
“Whoever did it certainly expected someone to come here – maybe me or even somebody else.”
Din cycles through the rain oblivious to the chaos he causes by weaving in and out of the speeding traffic, the sound of screeching brakes and blaring horns a celebration of his rage. By the time he reaches as good as then he’s very wet and his heart beats as fast as it ever has. The bell jingles as he goes inside and shuts the door behind him. As he stands dripping he mumbles, ‘fuckingmotherfucker’ over and over again until Alicia enters from the back of the shop.
“Can I help you?” Alicia asks, then, recognising him as he raises his head, adds, “Oh, it’s you. What do you want? You look very wet.”
“I is very wet, yeah, de wings of de skipper Dinge is soaking man, so they be in truth – wet.”
“Why do you talk like that?”
“Why de old fucker what’s your dad call me a psycho for?” Din asks.
“He doesn’t know what a psycho is and nor do I.”
“So why he call it me then?”
“I don’t know.”
“So be getting him out here and not be skulking out de back there and be telling me why he abuses me with de psycho shit.”
“He’s out,” Alicia says. “Do you want to borrow some dry clothes?”
“You proposing me?”
Alicia laughs. “You mean propositioning me – and no, I’m not propositioning you – just offering you dry clothes.”
“Behold! Alicia, de brave bitch, fanfare of de trumpets, yeah.”
“Din! Don’t you dare speak to me like that.”
“I like you, Alicia.”
“Is this another of your games?”
“Game’s over,” Din says.
“Why are you here, Din?”
Din’s body begins to shake uncontrollably. He wipes his face with a shirt hanging on a nearby clothes rail. Tears rolls down his cheeks.
Alicia moves nearer to him. “Are you in trouble?”
His scream is so intense that it makes Alicia jump back a step before moving forward again as Din fills his lungs and screams, “Trouble!”
“What is it?” she asks.
“I killed her – I killed my mother!”
“No, no, no – you’re not well, Din, you wouldn’t do that.” Alicia puts her arms around him. “You poor boy – what’s happened to you?”
Din buries his head on her shoulder and sobs.
The shop door opens. The bell jingles. The shopkeeper charges at Din shouting, “Let her go, you bastard!”
Alicia turns her face to her father, “It’s okay, Dad, he’s in trouble.”
The shopkeeper punches Din in the face. Alicia screams. Din throws her aside.
Now, the shopkeeper recognises Din. “What you doing with my Alicia? You fucking psycho!” he bellows his face barely an inch from Din’s.
“Dad! Stop!” She screams as Din takes his Stanley knife put of his pocket. Din jabs, stabs once, twice, three times into Shah’s eyes and face. Shah screams. Alicia jumps at Din bellowing, “Stop!” Din slashes her across her cheek. As she falls to the ground he drives the blade into the Shopkeeper’s neck and rips it wide open. Alicia screams as she clambers to her feet impervious to the blood pouring from her wound. She clutches at her father as he lurches forward, toppling to the floor gurgling, his blood gushing over her outstretched hands. She doesn’t hear the bell jingle as Din leaves. As he cycles away Din wonders why he thought Alicia was his friend
I parked a mile from Din’s cottage, logged onto my smart phone and switched off all the surveillance devices embedded in the cottage. I was about to get out of my car when my phone rang – it was Owvane. After a moment I decided to take his call.
“Veronica,” Owvane began. “I owe you an apology. My reaction to the news of the senator’s death was premature. Din was not seen on camera in the square, it was a case of mistaken identity. It would seem that Gottschalk committed suicide – no one is quite sure why … are you still there?”
“Yes, I’m still here, just trying to come to …”
Owvane interrupted, “… terms with the situation, yes, I understand. You are of course reinstated and Weber’s deletion is to continue as planned.”
“Thank you. Given Din’s likely mental state following the revelation in his IRAP wouldn’t it be better to assign another First Dispatcher?”
It was Owvane’s turn to be silent for a moment. “Din is unique.”
“Amongst First Dispatchers?”
“No, Din is unique.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Public executions have been popular throughout history – that we have sought to dramatise the delivery of justice is an attempt to engage the citizens with the notion that deviance is to be avoided; in a sense wanting them to side with the person being deleted, to envisage themselves as victims, and thus cause them to fear our ability to punish them as we see fit.”
It was the first time I’d heard it explained so succinctly. “I don’t understand what you mean about Din,” I said.
“There are no other First Dispatchers, there is only Din.”
“I didn’t know … there have been other programmes – I saw them.”
“They were fictions, the broadcasters call them pilots, Veronica. They were made to see how the citizenry responded.”
“Sander’s death was the first real deletion?”
“Yes, and Weber’s will be the second. That’s why we want it to be as dramatic as possible,” Owvane said.
“Was Sander guilty?”
“Yes, as is Weber – there would be no justification for their deletion otherwise … do I sense a sudden reticence, Veronica?”
“No, of course not,” I lied. “I’m just a bit thrown by what you’ve told me. I’ll set off for Din’s cottage in a moment.”
“Oh, I thought you were less than a mile away already.”
I was glad that he couldn’t see my face; of course he knew where I was, I had a PID in my arm just like everyone else. “That’s what I meant, I’m parked and will set off again after your call.”
“Din is an experiment. He was carefully chosen or should I say groomed – for a while he will be the only one of his kind, but as time goes by there will be others and he will be their model.”
“I didn’t know any of this,” I said.
“You do now. Keep me in touch with progress and if you need help with the boy just ask,” Owvane said. “He’s precious but he needs firm handling. Goodnight, Veronica.”
The rain stopped. I rolled down the electric window and smelt the air – I wished it could have smelt fresh. I walked to the cottage hoping that exercise would clear my mind. By the time I arrived I had a plan – of sorts.
I’d guessed that Din had meant what he said and would be out causing pain somewhere. His bike wasn’t in the shed. I almost jumped for joy. Using my key I went into the cottage. In the kitchen I rummaged in the drawers until I found a really sharp filleting knife. I took towels from the airing cupboard, went to the wet-room and stripped naked. Gripping the handle of a toothbrush between my teeth to stop myself crying out, I cut into my upper arm and eased out my PID. I still don’t know how I did it, tears poured down my face and without the toothbrush I would have screamed, the pain was so bad. I used one leg of my tights as a tourniquet to stop the blood and showered fearing I’d faint at any moment and Din would return to find me naked and completely vulnerable. I dried myself using my shirt as a towel, used the other leg of the tights to apply a new tourniquet, dressed, cleaned my PID and put it safely in my jacket pocket along with the other leg of the tights. Thankfully there was still no sign of Din. I locked up the cottage and ran back to my car – my arm throbbed. Using my phone I restarted the cameras and recorders in the cottage; they’d only been off for less than twenty minutes – just short enough to be seen as a temporary malfunction.
It’s humid and twilight as Weber and Marya arrive at the other side of the square leading to Wilberforce House.
“Are you sure it’s wise to come back here?” Marya asks.
“I’m not sure about anything but if we’re going to see this through then I need to get inside my apartment.”
“What about the caretaker?”
“The resident chess master? He finishes at eight and we’ll just have to hope that we can get in and out before someone checks the CCTV footage,” Weber says. As they walk nearer to the stairs that lead to the third floor Weber explains that they must appear normal, behaving as if they didn’t have a care in the world and of being exactly where they had every right to be.
“What if we meet someone you know?” Marya asks.
“Bluff it out.”
Outside 3541 Weber asks Marya to stand between him and the adjacent camera and runs the blade of Sander’s knife between the doorframe and the door until he prises out a long sliver of thin white card. “No one’s been in here,” he says, “or it looks that way.” He turns his key in the lock and they both quickly step inside. He makes his way to the windows in his living room, draws the curtains and does the same thing at every other window and then turns on the lights.
“I wondered what your home would be like,” Marya says. “It’s … well …”
“Bland? Lacking a human touch? Boring? This was never my home – just where I … was going to say lived, but that wouldn’t be true either. Time to get on. I’m just going to pack some underwear and stuff in a back-pack and then we’re away.”
“You surely didn’t come back here just to collect underwear?” she asks as Weber leaves her alone in the living room.
After a few minutes he returns holding a Smith & Wesson M&P compact .40 handgun and three clips of bullets. “No, this is what I came for. If I’d known what was going to happen to me I’d have taken it with me when I went to inspect Sander’s body.”
Marya laughs. “Just look at us, mother and son, two renegades on the run – how much else about you don’t I know?”
“As much as I don’t know about you, I expect – let’s hope we have time to put that right. We should go.”
“Should we contact Owvane before we leave? I asked for directions – wouldn’t he expect me to try and get them?” Marya asks.
“Christ knows – but if it’s from here it’ll need to be quick – if they get a trace on it then it won’t take him long to work out who you are … but go ahead.”
“Ah, senator,” Owvane says. “I wondered when you’d be back for those directions.”
“Well, I’m here now.”
“There has been an incident,” Owvane says. “I would advise against a visit to Canal Apartments.”
“What sort of incident?”
“You will recall that Weber murdered the criminal, Middleton. His wife, or more precisely, his concubine, has been found dead in the apartment in which Weber once lived with his mother. The woman, one Florrie Escott, has been murdered.”
“Oh,” Marya gasps, genuinely surprised and perplexed at the revelation of Florrie’s family name – Escott.
“Investigations in the Outers are hard for us and it would be wise if you were to keep well away lest any harm befall you whilst you are on, what I have to say, is a thoroughly unwise escapade.”
Marya’s voice trembles as she asks, “Is Weber suspected of being her murderer?”
“Why else would he have taken the body there?”
“You’re right, it’s too dangerous out here, I shall go home,” Marya says. “I’ll contact you from there in due course. Goodbye.”
“Did I hear that right?” Weber asks.
“Owvane identified the body as that of Florence Escott. Weber – Florence Escott was the mother of your son, Ralf.”
“Yes, I know that! Florence’s family name was Escott. But Florrie, the dead woman, wasn’t Ralf’s mother, even if her name was really Escott, which I doubt. The first time I ever saw her was when I went to Middleton’s. Owvane’s up to something and it won’t be something good,” Weber says.
“How did he know the body was there?”
“Because he put it there? Did you mean it when you said you were going home?” Weber asks.
“No, of course not … I couldn’t even if I wanted to. It’s a prison, remember? We need to get out of here.”
“Yeah, we certainly do … Do you know who’ve I’ve been assigned to?”
She hesitates. “Yes – I do.”
“You do? Why didn’t you tell me before now?”
“I was afraid to, Weber.”
“What do you mean afraid? Who is he?”
“He’s called, Din – but that’s not his real name; he’s only a boy.”
“A boy? For Christ’s sake, mum, tell me who he is.”
Marya looks down, “I think Din may be your son, Ralf.”
Din has no memory of his bike ride as he leans his bike against the shed’s inner wall; he doesn’t know where he’s been or how long it’s taken him to get home, but now it’s night. His wet and bloodied clothes steam as he opens his front door. He strips naked on the threshold leaving his clothes in a pile outside as he shuts the door behind him; he decides to burn them later.
He turns on the TV and flicks to Rolling News to find Alicia’s talking head, her left cheek covered by a surgical dressing, explaining that a young psychopath calling himself Jackson has murdered her father without provocation. The newscast cuts to a close-up of a young man’s face; the newscaster’s voice-over identifies this person as the murderer. Who the fuck’s that? Din asks. He stops the broadcast, presses replay and watches again as the newscaster warns that the murderer is dangerous and should not be approached. “I killed the fucker! Not that – what is that – who is that? That’s nothin’, that’s a fuckin’ lie,” Din screams at the screen. “I killed the fucker not that no-one scumbag cunt!”
Suddenly, and unexpectedly, very cold he starts to shiver uncontrollably and runs to the bathroom where he immediately gets under a very hot shower. After fifteen minutes he’s warm but his anger is undiminished. Dripping with water he walks to the cupboard in the hall where he keeps his towels, takes one out and starts to dry himself as he walks into his bedroom to get dressed. Turning on the light he sees an envelope on his bed. He picks it up, opens it and reads:
First Dispatcher, Din,
My name is Owvane; I am a superior officer of the Hierarchy and head of the department of which your mentor, Veronica, is a member. She has been suspended from all duties whilst an investigation of her behaviour and your management is conducted.
In this unfortunate circumstance I must ask you to report to me directly – you will find instructions at the bottom of the page – and ask that you continue with your assignment – the delete of the traitor Weber – as soon as possible. I believe that you already have the co-ordinates for his location – in case that isn’t clear he will be found at St Loyola’s hospital in the Outer territories..
I am aware of the recent unfortunate incident in Freedom Park but would like to assure you that your role as First Dispatcher protects you from prosecution but would advise that you refrain from any other ‘free-lance’ activity until Weber’s delete is complete.
Under no circumstances should you trust Veronica – her intent is to harm you and help the dissident Weber escape justice – BUT she must NOT be killed – UNTIL I give you that instruction.
Finally, be assured that your service will be fully and honourably rewarded.
You are directly instructed to destroy this letter as soon as you have understood its content.
Din has no idea how long the letter has been there and he’s impressed that Owvane prevented his identity being revealed. Despite being asked not to conduct any further ‘free-lance’ activity – he likes the phrase. Ah, he thinks, that’s why they showed someone else had killed Shah.
Dressed in clean clothes Din sets about putting together a range of his favoured weapons. Both bolt-guns and additional bolts are stowed in his panniers whilst his small backpack contains a machete, two pruning knives, three Stanley knives and several long hatpins knitting needles wrapped in cloth. On his belt he wears a hunting knife protected by a leather pouch. He mounts his web-cam on his forehead and checks that he has sufficient batteries for at least two days of continuous recording.
Din feels good; his worth has been recognised at a senior level and it’s time to put recent events behind him; he smiles – beware the mighty Din.
As soon as I left Din’s cottage I realised my plan wasn’t really a plan at all; I’d cut out my PID in panic – I needed to focus. I walked to my car and drove back to my apartment in a block similar to Weber’s. I took my PID from my jacket and put it on the table next to my computer where I stared at it for some time; then I got down to work. I needed to see what the Dictionary said about Owvane. I’d always taken him at face value but after what he’d said and done I needed to know more. I logged on and found him easily enough – there was a superficial description of his role but when I drilled down into the archive I discovered a detailed record of everything he’d done in the last thirty-nine years but there was nothing before that. It wasn’t that information regarding his early life had been embargoed, it simply didn’t exist; Owvane’s origins and his years before he joined the Hierarchy were a complete blank.
Once again I checked Weber’s IRAP, I knew about the sorry tale involving his son but these facts weren’t what I was looking for. As far as I could tell Weber was an exemplary engineer and a tenacious investigator and yet Owvane had selected him for exemplification; perhaps this was a route I should follow? I skipped looking at Weber’s current situation and the official legitimisation constructed by Owvane and found myself looking at reports Weber had posted over the three and a half year period leading up to the present. As I think I’ve explained before, Weber was working for the underworld boss Middleton and I had assumed that this was part of the underlying reason why he’d been chosen for deletion but on reading his reports it became clear that this was a means to an end; Weber was after someone inside the Social Context, possibly someone inside the Hierarchy itself. Weber was meticulous in anonymising his reports; no names were given. I soon discovered what he was investigating – body harvesting.
It had all begun when Weber had intercepted an illegal consignment of titanium that was being imported into the Social Context by one of Middleton’s minions called Louix. Weber had put pressure on the latter – the report didn’t say what sort of pressure – and turned him into an informer. The nub of the matter was that the previously random looting of graves by miscreants in the Outers had been formalised and organised into ‘an industry’ (Weber’s words). This industry hadn’t been created by the underworld but by someone working from within the Social Context who had developed a relationship with criminals within the Outers, and Middleton in particular, to operate the body-harvesting programme. Weber spent little time in trying to understand the motivation for the industry; he was only interested in trying to find out who ran it – though in at least one report he does wonder about motivation, concluding that it couldn’t just be about money – though the profits were immense and in cash – but had to be about something else as well, something odd, something obsessive. Leaving aside the personal motivation of whoever was masterminding the operation the implications of the import of precious metals from cadavers so that they could be used for legitimate manufacture was enough to bring the whole edifice crashing down. It meant that legitimate industries, though few in number, were operating using illegal metals. Why in God’s name couldn’t Weber have simply said who he was after? But then again if it was someone extremely powerful … I sat back in my chair astounded by the thought that had just come to me – what if that someone was Owvane – I rejected the idea – what motive could he possibly have? He was as powerful as it was possible to get. Well, no, he wasn’t the supreme authority, he wasn’t First Secretary – I laughed; it was too ridiculous to imagine. I was beginning to wonder if I was just drifting into fantasy.
What the hell was I going to do next? My PID was still registering that I was at home. If Owvane looked he might wonder why I was there when I should have been looking for Din – but why would I look for Din? Owvane would know exactly where he was from Din’s PID. What I wanted to do was to get beyond the Dictionary security firewall that would allow me into the next data levels but I had no way of knowing how to do that.
As I understood it Weber was going to St Loyola’s and I’d given Din the coordinates to find him there; though I didn’t relish the prospect I didn’t think I had much choice other than to go there as well. I packed a day backpack with provisions, changed into clothes I normally wore for orienteering and ensured that my taser was fully charged.
“Prove it! Prove that Din is my son, your grandson, Ralf,” Weber demands. “What’s he look like?”
She holds herself together; he mustn’t know she’s met Din on two occasions. “I’m sorry, I should have tried to tell you earlier. I don’t have a recent photograph of him,” she lies.
“Stop fucking apologising and prove it!”
Marya opens her laptop. “I have Ralf’s birth DNA on the hard drive as well as yours and Din’s IRAP that show your respective DNA profiles,” she says and within a few moments Din’s profile is on screen. She clicks a button and a menu appears. Marya clicks on the word ‘mother’ and a photograph appears on screen.
“Yes, that’s Flo,” Weber says. “Jesus, yes, that’s Flo – you see it’s not Florrie.”
Marya clicks on the word ‘father’ and Weber’s photograph appears.
“That proves nothing,” he says, “anyone with half a computer brain could have put that there.”
Marya flips to three screens. In the first screen she clicks back to Din’s IRAP and his DNA profile. In the second screen she brings up Ralf’s birth data and his DNA profile. Using the mouse she drags Din’s profile onto Ralf’s – they match absolutely. “I’m sorry, Weber, but Din is Ralf,” she says. On the third screen she returns to Weber’s profile, drags it across and drops it on top of the merged screen showing Din and Ralf’s profiles – again there is an absolute match. “Ralf, now known as Din, is your son, Weber, there’s no doubt about it. Why she called him Dinge rather than Ralf is not explained.”
Weber is unable to speak. He turns his back on Marya and stands with his face against the wall. Without warning he head butts the wall. He doesn’t make a sound as he butts the wall again.
Marya rushes to him and throws her arms around him. “Stop, Weber, stop.”
He pushes her away.
“We need to leave here before they find us,” Marya says.
Weber looks at her. “You know who assigned me to my son, don’t you?”
“Who was it?”
“Owvane,” she says.
“Why do you hold these things back?”
“I didn’t want to make it any worse than it already is,” she says.
“Worse? Owvane is after me because of my investigation into body harvesting – that’s clear – now I know what needs to be done … yes, you’re right we need to leave here right now.”
“Where are we to go?”
“To find Owvane.”
“We’ll never get to him,” Marya said, “he’s too well protected.”
“I’ll get to him.”
“How?” she asks.
“I don’t fucking know, not yet.”
“Where do we go next?” she asks.
“To find someone I should have talked to a long time ago.”
As they walk it seems to Marya that Weber grows – not in size but in an invisible anger that seems to make him jagged; it wasn’t the right word but his intensity, his hardness, stopped her complaining of the pace he set as they made their way back into the Outers.
“I’m tired,” Marya says.
“We’re almost there.”
“I’m sorry – I need a rest, and I could do with something to eat.”
“I just said we’re nearly there.” They walk on in silence, turn a corner and Weber stops to study a row of deserted shops in front of them. There’s a café situated in the middle of the row; the light from its windows spills out into the darkness, making it look most inviting. ‘That’s it, we’re here.”
“You said you were hungry,” Weber says.
As they enter the café Weber notices that the man behind the counter looks less than pleased to see them; he’s in his early sixties and has a couple of days stubble on his chin. Weber suggests a table at the back of the café and Marya sits down pushing her shopping trolley tight in against the wall out of the way. As Weber goes to the counter she looks at the other customers, all seven of whom look what she thinks of as ‘normal’ except one who she decides is ‘shifty’ because he can’t keep still, is much better dressed than any of the others and is a type she’d seen in prison many, many times.
Weber asks the man behind the counter if he can order some food from the chalk written menu on the wall; the man ignores him.
“I’m sorry, perhaps you didn’t understand.” Weber tries again. “You do speak English, don’t you?” Weber leans forward and whispers, “Mandle, it’s me, Weber.”
“I’ve stopped serving food,” Mandle says ignoring Weber’s whisper.
“I presume you’re about to serve that to someone,” Weber says pointing at a tray with two toasted sandwiches.
“They ordered before I stopped serving,” Mandle says, walks round the counter and delivers the tray to a table in the window where an elderly couple sit with their pot of tea.
Weber waits for him to return. “Could we please have a pot of tea while we wait for you to start serving food again?”
“I’d rather you left my café.”
“What?” Weber barks drawing everyone’s attention and particularly that of the ‘shifty’ man.
Marya joins Weber at the counter. “What’s the matter?”
“He won’t serve us,” Weber says. “He wants us to leave his fucking café.”
“Don’t speak like that!” Marya says and turning to Mandle asks, “Why won’t you serve us?”
Mandle opens his eyes wide and with a slight inclination of his head indicates the ‘shifty man’. “Why don’t you just fuck off?” the man almost shouts.
“How dare you!” Marya huffs.
Weber has his back to the shifty man. “It’s okay, Marya – just leave it,” adding in a whisper to the man, “Do you want me to deal with him?”
“Later might be better,” Mandle whispers back.
“Sorry if we’ve given you a problem,” Weber says.
“Get out of my cafe,” Mandle says loudly enough to be heard by everyone in the cafe.
“Come on,” Marya says taking Weber’s arm. “We can find somewhere else, can’t we?”
As they walk away from the café Marya asks, “What was all that about?”
“We know each other,” Weber says. They walk for a hundred yards Marya pulling her trolley until Weber pushes them into the doorway of a deserted shop. “Just make sure the low-life doesn’t see you looking,” he says as she squeezes as far back as she can go.
Five minutes later the ‘low-life’ leaves the café and walks off at some speed. They wait for five more minutes until they’re fairly sure he won’t come back and return to the café. It’s empty and the sign in the door reads ‘closed’. Weber knocks and after a few moments Mandle looks nervously left and right out of his windows and then lets them in.
“Into the back where you can’t be seen,” the man says leading the way through the now darkened café.
In the untidy back room that doubles as a food store Marya asks, “What’s going on?”
“Weber, I thought I’d never see you again.”
“Me neither, Mandle. How the hell are you?” Weber asks.
“Better than being on the run from the Hierarchy and wanted out here for killing that bastard, Middleton.”
“How do you know that?” Weber asks.
“Because of these,” Mandle says and pulls out a flier depicting Weber with the words ‘Wanted – Reward Paid’ printed underneath his face.
“Just like the bloody wild west,” Weber says with a grim laugh.
“It’s not funny! Why did you let us back in?” Marya asks.
“Because he killed Middleton, but really because we used to be on the same side and in a curious sort of a way we still are. I owe him.”
“What’s your name?” Marya asks.
“Mandle, Engineer Commander Mandle – feared dead lost on active service.”
“Did being dead work?” Weber asks.
“For a while but not for long enough,” Mandle says.
“Would someone mind telling me what you two are talking about?” Marya asks.
“There isn’t much time for this – the guy who was watching you worked for Middleton and now he works for an arsehole called King – he’ll be back with others – they want Weber – honour amongst thieves and other crap like that. Just like Weber I also worked for Middleton but I got caught. I did a deal, shopped a dozen others and was allowed to disappear out here – officially I committed suicide. I had enough money hidden away to set up this place and for a few years I was okay – Middleton also thought I was dead; then he found me – you don’t need to know the rest … I’m glad he’s dead.”
“That’s all true,” Weber says, “but it’s not the whole story, just the story that was put about to cover the whole mess up – isn’t that right?”
Mandle laughs. “You remind me of me – long ago.”
“I need your help, that’s why I came to find you.”
“You knew I was here?”
“Yes, for the last three years. I want to know what you had on Owvane that kept you alive – will you tell me?”
“The little shit who works for King will be back and he won’t be alone,” Mandle says.
“How far away is Middleton’s … I mean King’s patch from here?” Weber asks.
“Not far enough.”
“Then we’ll just have to wait for them to arrive,” Weber says.
“So are we just going to sit out front and wait?” Marya asks.
Weber doesn’t reply immediately. “Yes, that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Mandle, do you think we could have a pot of tea and something to eat? I’m famished and Mum was on her last legs an hour ago.”
“What?” Marya asks.
“Would a couple of toasted sandwiches hit the spot?” Mandle asks.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Marya asks.
“What do you think, Mandle?” Weber asks.
“I think your mother should stay out here in the back, out of harm’s way,” Mandle says.
“Are you going to help me?” Weber asks.
“I’m thinking about it,” Mandle replies. “I guess it depends on what happens next.”
Marya and Weber sit together facing the café door. They’ve eaten their toasties and are on their second pot of tea when the door opens and a thin man in his early forties wearing a double-breasted pin-stripe suit comes in followed by the ‘low-life’ and two other men; two more are stationed outside the café door.
Before any of them can speak Marya turns to Weber and asks, loudly enough for the men to hear, “Why is that idiot wearing fancy dress? Does he think it makes him look intelligent?”
The thin man walks forward. “I’m King, Weber. I’ve …”
Weber fires the Smith & Wesson from beneath the table. The bullet hits King just above his open mouth and just beneath his nose; he almost somersaults backwards from the force of the shot as Marya screams. Weber, immediately on his feet, rushes forward firing four times in quick succession as the gang members struggle to react, each are hit in the head, rushing further forward he fires through the glass door and hits the next man in the back of the neck; it takes two shots to finish the last man. Weber clicks on the safety lock and replaces the clip of bullets with a fresh full clip.
Marya remains sitting exactly where she was. “Are you okay, Mum?” Weber asks and gently puts his hand on her shoulder.
“You didn’t say you were going to do that,” Marya says so softly that he can hardly make out her words.
Mandle comes from behind the counter carrying a small glass. “It’s brandy, it’ll do you good,” he says passing Marya the glass.
As she drinks it, Weber asks, “Will you be alright here after this?”
“I will be if you get me in the back room and make me a victim of your brutality,” Mandle says.
“Do you have to do that?” Marya asks.
“You need to be quick,” Mandle says.
As Weber ties Mandle to a chair in the back room, he asks, “Why didn’t Owvane just kill you?”
“Because of what I had on him.”
“Sorry,” Weber says as Mandle winces at the tightness of the cord lashing his wrists to the chair, “it needs to look kosher. Do you want to tell me what you had?”
“No … for all I know this place has been bugged.”
“If it has you’re a dead man anyway,” Weber says. “If you won’t tell me what it is at least tell me where it is.”
Mandle thinks about it. “Okay,” he whispers, “put your ear to my mouth and listen – it’s in one of those floor mounted electric units that take plugs, just pull the whole thing out and it’s under there on a memory stick, under the floor in the ward office in the hospital.”
“Brixton Ward, St Loyola’s,” Mandle whispers.
“Why there?” Weber asks shocked that it’s where Marya was interred.
“I’ve nothing to add,” Mandle says.
“Okay,” Weber says. “Thanks. You sure you don’t want to come with us?”
“No, thanks. I’m just another innocent bystander caught up in your crusade against evil – you know some people round here will think of you as a hero.”
“Sorry,” Weber says before he punches Mandle in the face.
As Weber and Marya leave the café they find a small crowd gathered on the pavement. In the glow of light from the café two men are going through the dead men’s pockets. The crowd are silent and make no attempt to stop Weber and Marya from quietly going on their way but when they’re few yards distant they’re aware of the excited buzz of conversation behind them.
Weber and Marya have walked together in silence for nearly twenty-five minutes and there’s one question she really wants to ask but instead asks, “Why did you massacre them like that? They didn’t have a chance.”
“That was the point, they didn’t deserve a chance.”
“But nothing. This isn’t a movie; there doesn’t need to be dramatic tension. I needed to kill them before they killed me. Simple.”
“Yes, if you like, brutal – but you’re still alive and so am I. The time for thinking in shades of grey is over – now it’s black and white.”
Finally she asks what Mandle said when he whispered to Weber.
“We’re going to the hospital,” Weber says.
“Where in St Loyola’s?” she asks.
“Oh,” she says.
“Me? Oh, yes,” she says feeling a lot less than ‘alright’. “It’s just that hospital, that ward, you know where …” her voice trails off but Weber doesn’t pursue the matter and for that at least she’s grateful. “Why are we going back there?”
“To recover what Mandle had on Owvane.”
“Which is?” she asks anxiously.
“He didn’t say.”
Din finds St Loyola’s without difficulty. Having found a suitable place to hide his bike and backpack of weapons he enters the cavernous main entrance of sector ‘G’ holding a primed bolt-gun. Standing very still he waits as his eyes become accustomed to the gloom. His every sense is alert. The air smells of old rusted metal. He wrinkles his nose; it isn’t quite metal. It’s more than that – it’s blood; he knows the smell well enough. It’s blood and metal, iron filings and … he struggles to find the word … it can’t smell of fear … but it does: fear, metal, dust and blood. He could have used the light in his head camera to see but is afraid that it may give him away if Weber is watching and waiting. He kneels down and smells the floor, he runs his fingers across the grimy surface, he smells his fingers; the smell isn’t from the floor. Standing up he sees that five corridors lead off from the half-circular space that’s the main entrance. He walks to the corridor on the furthest left and reads the sign Outpatients & X-ray. Din enters the third corridor leading to Operating Theatres and walks slowly into even denser darkness. Sudden draughts blow past him as if a door has been suddenly opened and hastily closed but the smell doesn’t go away. The sudden draught disappears – his tension doesn’t.
Feeling his way along the right hand wall he bumps into a large heavy bin, feels its rough plastic side and further up the lip of the lid that covers the bin and at its centre a handle. He lifts the lid and slams it down as fast as he can; he’s discovered why there’s the smell of blood. He stands beside the bin wondering what he should do; perhaps someone has already killed Weber and dumped his body in the bin? Despite the risk he switches on the camera light and lifts the lid; the bin is three quarters full but all that’s visible are a number of severed hands, a forearm, an entire leg – folded at the knee – and several hundred human teeth scattered on the top just like the breadcrumbs he puts out for the birds in his garden back at the cottage. Din presses the button and records the contents of the bin before switching off the camera and its light.
He leans against the wall and is lost in trying to work out why the bin is full of body parts when he hears the distinct sound of voices; they’re far off but coming in his direction. The light of electric torches strafes the floor as the voices come nearer. He pushes open a door just past the bin and almost falls inside. Switching on the camera light to get his bearings he sees an operating theatre and at its far side two further doors. He runs across the room, opens the first door, fearing what he might find inside, but is relieved that it only contains many linen garments hanging from hooks. Quickly shutting the door behind him he rolls under one of the slatted wooden benches fitted against the far wall and lays very still.
He just makes out the sound of a door shutting followed by voices and the sound of something being dumped on the operating table that he’d seen in the middle of the theatre. The voices grow louder and are accompanied by laughter. Din waits, rolls out from under the bench, crawls forward, and turns the door-handle very carefully until there’s a gap wide enough for him to see what’s going on inside the theatre.
The room is lit by two men pointing powerful torches at the body of an old woman. She’s lying naked on the operating table while a man pulls out her teeth with pliers and drops the extracted teeth into a metal bucket. A fourth man quietly whistles as his watches the teeth being ripped out of the old lady’s mouth. The man pulling out her teeth announces that she’s got more gold in her head than in Fort Knox as the extracted teeth clink into a metal bowl. Din doesn’t know what Fort Knox is but he’s offended by their behaviour and this surprises him almost as much as seeing what they’re doing.
“If we’re going to get the joint out of her hip we’ll need some gowns,” the whistling body harvesters say, walking towards the door behind which Din hides. “I’ll get ‘em.”
Din switches on his camera. As the man enters and the door shuts behind him, Din jumps on his back simultaneously wrapping his legs around the man’s waist and dragging the serrated blade of his hunting knife across the man’s neck; the severed artery spouts blood as the body harvester collapses. Din pushes the knife back into its pouch, pulls open the door and fires the bolt gun at one of the men holding torches; the bolt hits the man in his right eye – he screams and clutches at the steel bolt as the second bolt hits his partner in the chest. Din drops the now empty gun, pulls the knife from its scabbard, forward rolls across the floor as the one remaining man tries to defend himself. He drives the blade of the knife into the man’s open mouth, twists, pushes and wrenches it back out. Hearing a raging guttural roar, Din turns, and is astounded that the man with the bolt in his eye is still alive and staggering towards him brandishing a machete. He ducks in under the flailing blade and, using one of the throws he’d been taught at the seminary, grabs the man and throws him; he lands face down and the point of the bolt now protrudes from the back of his head. That’s not coming out of there, Din thinks. Back in the room with the linen gowns Din cleans the bolt and his knife, removes a few gowns from their hooks, returns to the operating theatre, covers the old lady’s body and is pleased with the retribution he’s delivered to those who had defiled her. He turns off his camera.
Using one of the men’s torches he makes his way out of the theatre but switches it off as he emerges into the corridor for fear of being seen, makes his way back to his bike and helps himself to one of the energy bars he’s brought with him.
Returning to the hospital building wheeling his bike he explores until he finds a small side ward in which there’s a bed; it doesn’t have a mattress but the baseboard is good enough. He unrolls his sleeping bag and settles down to sleep.
I left my PID just where it was – on the table next to the computer – along with my phone.
It was dawn when I arrived at St Loyola’s. I’d never seen it before and was unprepared for what I found – it was enormous, a relic of the period when it was believed that all medical services for a local area with a population of four million people could be provided in a single hospital. When I thought of an old style hospital I imagined something of human scale within which the patient would feel valued and be at the centre of their treatment – how this could be achieved within what was a city in itself was obviously impossible despite the best intentions of the medical staff involved. None of this matters except that it made the prospect of finding Weber and Din within its vastness more difficult. The only lead I had was that the record showed that body-harvesting took place in the ground floor operating theatres – the question was which ground floor within which wing within which sector.
There’s little point in describing my frustration or the amount of time it took me to get absolutely nowhere. I looked at my old mechanical chip free watch that I’d brought with me and saw that it was nearly ten o’clock; I’d been searching for almost five hours and had only explored Colchester, Cambridge and Cheltenham within the six towns that made up ‘C’ sector. It was then that I had my first bit of ‘luck’. I suddenly became aware of men shouting. It was hard to work out where the noise came from. It wasn’t from within ‘C’ and it didn’t feel as if it was coming from a westerly direction but from the east. I ran back to the entrance and then the four hundred metres to ‘D’ sector and ducked down around the corner of its entrance. I heard noises coming from inside. Very carefully I edged my way in and crawled behind what had once been the reception desk and listened. As I had discovered in ‘C’ the towns formed a circle around a central thoroughfare.
I was about to move when I heard the totally unexpected but unmistakeable sound of a horse’s hooves. Hiding in the shadows I watched as a horse and cart entered through the permanently open front doors. At first the horse was reticent about coming inside but the woman driver urged it on with cries of ‘Come on Betjeman, come on, boy. Betjeman! Move it!’ I would have laughed in any other circumstances.
I took a chance. The noise and volume of the cart moving through the corridor allowed me to follow it by keeping to the centre of the corridor behind it. As the cart reached Dorking the driver urged the horse to stop; she dismounted, tied the reins to a bracket that had once held a fire extinguisher and went into Dorking at which point the shouting started up again as she demanded to be told what the hell was going on.
While they were arguing I slipped into the corridor and hid in a cleaners’ cupboard with the door slightly ajar so I could try and make out what was going on. It was hard to understand but it seemed as if body-harvesters had been attacked and murdered. It was clear that the woman, who seemed to be in charge of the men, was very angry. Then she, and three men, were walking back along the corridor in my direction: one man carried a heavy bucket from which metal parts protruded whilst another carried a smaller bowl – I couldn’t see what was in it. They were too agitated to realise they were being overlooked. The woman said they’d simply move their work to another sector. The man who was not carrying anything asked about dealing with the bodies of their dead colleagues. The woman stopped, grabbed the man by his jacket and said, “If they couldn’t fucking look after themselves when they were alive then we’re not going to fucking look after them now – and they’re too young to contain anything useful.” At which point she laughed. She spoke fondly to the horse as she manoeuvred it so that she could return the way she had come. I remained in the cupboard until I could no longer hear the clip clop of the horse’s hooves.
Emerging from my hiding place I walked down the corridor passing the wards until I reached the four operating theatres at the end of the corridor. The first three were empty; the fourth contained four corpses and a body on the operating table covered in surgical gowns; I lifted the corner, it was an old woman her mouth gaping and toothless. Instinctively I knew that Din had killed the men but when I saw the bolt from his gun embedded in one of their heads I was certain; it was the first time I’d been remotely pleased about him taking matters into his own hands – but I wasn’t that pleased – I needed some very fresh air.
Standing at the edge of the open-air square that was the hub of St Loyola’s Weber asks Marya if she needs to rest before going in. She says she’s fine even though she’s hardly slept a wink in the deserted shop they’d used en route; she had been far too agitated for sleep.
“This is B,” Weber says. “Are you ready for this?” Marya doesn’t reply but sets off dragging her shopping trolley behind her. “Wait!” Weber says. “We need to be careful; keep to the edge.”
“The sooner we’re out of the open the better,” Marya says and strides off at pace.
Within a couple of minutes they’re at the entrance to B and then inside. Weber puts his hand on Marya’s arm and mouths for her to be quiet. He stands listening – there’s just the sound of the wind blowing along the corridor and through the broken glass of the windows.
“This way,” Marya whispers.
The entrance to Brixton wing is the third entrance on the internal circular hub. Marya stops in front of the doors afraid to go on.
Weber puts his arm around her shoulders, “It’s alright, Mum. We’re in this together. We’ve got to stop Din and to do that we need to get Owvane.”
Marya continues to stare at the doors. Eventually she says, “I wish it was as simple as that, Weber.”
“Are you afraid to go in because of what happened in there?” Weber asks.
“I would have thought that was obvious,” Marya snaps.
“I’m sorry – I can’t imagine what it must have been like, what it felt like.”
“No, you can’t … I’m sorry, I’m finding this very hard … but we need to get it over with,” she says, and with that pushes the left hand door open and goes inside followed by Weber.
There’s very little light in the corridor that stretches ahead of them for what looks like infinity but is only eighty metres. The air is full of dust and the lingering smell of institutional disinfectant.
“Christ, it’s dark in here,” Weber says.
“In every sense,” Marya replies. “The light used to come from windows inside the ward.”
They walk on until she stops in front of a door over which there’s a sign: ‘Secure Unit – Strictly No Admittance’.
“Is this it?” Weber asks.
“Yes, this is where she was held,” Marya replies.
Weber looks perplexed – why is she referring to herself like that, he wonders, or was it just a slip of the tongue? Weber pushes on the door; it’s heavy and hard to move.
“It’s a prison door,” Marya explains.
Weber gets it open and holds it that way as Marya enters. Though there is more light in this smaller corridor it’s still unmediated grey.
“I was in number six,” Marya says and points down the corridor. All there is to see is a series of closed doors. “Where did Mandle say the evidence was hidden?”
“In the ward office, which has got to be one of these four at this end,” Weber says. “It doesn’t look like a hospital in here.”
“Weber! Shut up!”
“Let’s look in here first,” Weber says as he pushes open the first door.
Inside it’s entirely empty but brighter with light from a broken window. On the floor the lids to electricity supply boxes are missing, as are the sockets they once contained. Nevertheless Weber gets down on his knees and explores the cavities – there’s nothing but dust and a couple of paper clips. The second room is the same, as is the third. Neither Weber nor Marya say what they’re thinking: their one common thought concerns what they may find.
In the last room Marya watches as Weber prises open the lid to the supply box with Sander’s penknife. He curses as the blade slips and cuts his finger. Finally he pulls up the lid, unhinges it and tosses it aside.
“Is there anything?” Marya asks.
Weber doesn’t reply but keeps exploring the cavity. He lies on his side to try and get his hand further inside and struggles to push his way deeper into the space. “No – not a bloody thing – shit – all this effort and there’s nothing,” he groans as he sits up.
“Let me have a look, my hands are smaller than yours – maybe it’s right at the back.” Marya sits down on the floor and rolls up the sleeve of the right arm of her coat.
“You’ll need to get you hand flat to get right to the back,” he advises.
Marya continues and inserts her hand into the cavity and eventually gets deep inside to just above her elbow.
“Well done,” Weber says, “you’ve got further than I did – any luck?”
“Wait,” she says, “yes, I think there’s – yes!” she gasps and pulls out her hand holding a memory stick; her knuckles are grazed and bleeding. “We’ve got it, we’ve got it!” She sits up and hands the memory stick to Weber; she radiates pleasure at her achievement.
“You look pleased with yourself,” Weber says.
“I didn’t know if I’d be able to …”
“What’s the matter?”
“I need to know what it contains.”
“Where’s the best place for us to look at it on your lap top?”
“Not in here,” Marya says.
“How about on the fourteenth floor where we were before in sector H?”
As Marya and Weber make their way back out into the open air Din is on his phone in the side ward where he’s spent the night. The signal isn’t brilliant but it’s good enough.
“Yes,” Owvane answers his phone, “Is that you, Din?”
“Yes, it’s me. You told me to report to you – so I’m reporting.”
“Excellent – what are you reporting? Is Weber deleted?”
“No. I haven’t found him yet. I’m at the hospital where you said he’d be.”
“I know that,” Owvane says. “Your PID is working perfectly.”
“I killed some men that were looting from an old woman’s body. I didn’t like them.”
“I’ve been shown your footage. You’d be wise, Din, to apply your considerable skills to liquidating Weber rather than indulging in gratuitous acts of violence,” Owvane says.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“What it means, boy, is get to the task in hand.” Din holds the phone away from his face and looks at it, makes a face and thinks, don’t call me boy, you pompous prick. He can just about hear Owvane asking if he’s still there. Din smiles. Owvane is getting increasingly angry.
Din puts the phone back to his ear. “Is there something the matter, Mr Owvane?”
“You’d be wise, young man, to realise that you work for me and that I expect …”
Din interrupts him. “I’ve got something to ask you. My IRAP, did you send it me?” Owvane says yes, so Din continues. “Was what it said true?”
“Of course. IRAPs would be useless unless they were true, wouldn’t they?”
“That would depend,” Din says. “You see, I’ve been thinking; well, I would wouldn’t I? Wouldn’t you be doing some if you thought you’d fucked your mother as you killed her? Wouldn’t you find that a bit upsetting?” There’s silence on the end of the line. “Well? Did you hear what I said?”
“Of course I would, Din, but I have no reason to doubt the truth of your IRAP.”
“But I do … I’ve been thinking … if Florrie really had been my mother, don’t you think she’d have realised who I was?”
“It had been a long time since she’d seen you, since she abandoned you and you were put in the orphanage,” Owvane says.
“So you think she’d have forgotten what I looked like?”
“You’re thirteen now, Din.”
“Fourteen,” Owvane agrees, “that’s a long time – she’d been through a lot. I suppose that could make her forget what you looked like when you were three.”
“Do you know I have a birthmark?” Din asks.
“What has this to do with Weber, Din?”
“This is to do with me – get it? Me, just me.”
“I don’t think I’m following you, Din, and I don’t like your tone of voice. What are you talking about?”
“I have a birthmark on my stomach; it’s quite big. Someone at the seminary thought it was a tattoo, it looks like a butterfly; it’s unique, it’s not the sort of thing you’d forget, it’s not the sort of thing a mother would forget, is it Mr Owvane? I think my IRAP is a heap of shit and I want to know why you sent me a lie. Why would you do that?” Din asks. “Come on, tell me.” Din realises the line is dead.
Standing in front of the cracked mirror in the little side ward Din lances open his upper left arm and eases out his PID, wipes it clean of blood and puts it in his track-suit bottom’s pocket. He fixes a cable tie from his pannier around his arm to stop the bleeding and looks at his head camera – without a moment’s further thought he puts it on the ground and smashes it to pieces with the handle of his machete. For a moment he hesitates but then gives his smartphone exactly the same treatment.
When they are safely settled in the little office on the windswept fourteenth floor of sector H Marya puts her computer on top of one of the packing cases and switches it on. Weber holds out the memory stick she’d found under the floor. “No, you put it in,” she says.
“What on earth’s the matter? You look like you’re at the end of your tether.”
“I’m just tired, Weber.” Unlike Weber, she’s guessed what the memory stick may hold – she tries to remain calm, telling herself that all that matters is that Owvane pays the ultimate price and that Weber is still her best chance of achieving that end, but, and it’s a big but, he still needs to be managed until it’s done – then he can be told the truth – whatever is stored on the memory stick. “You put it in,” she repeats.
Weber inserts the stick and the computer’s media player immediately opens; the recording has no ID. Weber presses the play button and playback begins – it’s not a good recording, it’s crackly and the recording level is low. “This is a crap recording,” Weber moans as he hears a chair, or something like a chair, scraping across the floor.
“It was made almost forty years ago,” Marya says.
“Nevertheless, I would have thought that Mandle …”
“Shush!” Marya hisses as they hear Mandle saying, ‘just tell me that again, would you? This time I’ll record it.’
A woman’s voice replies. “For Christ’s sake, Mandle, not again.” Mandle pleads. “Where’s Sarah?” the woman asks.
Marya is wide eyed.
“What’s she got to do with it?” Mandle asks.
“Where’s Sarah?” the woman asks.
“What’s she got to do with it?” Mandle asks.
“Nothing … I just love her, that’s all.”
“Okay … You don’t have to tell me it all, not how it all … not how you were put in here … just tell me it very simply and clearly – then maybe something can be done about it all,” Mandle suggests.
“Okay,” the woman sighs. “The simple facts. Up until three years ago Owvane was the leader of Gale Force 12, the terrorist organisation defeated and eliminated by the Hierarchy after their putsch. As the leader of Gale Force 12 he was personally responsible – he set the bombs and detonated them – for the massacre of two hundred and twenty five men, women and children at the inauguration of War Memorial Square – the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ as it came to be called. He was never caught and his identity remains unknown to the police and the Hierarchy.”
“How do you know this?” Mandle asks.
“Because I was his partner – I was there – God forgive me. I was there, I helped him do it.”
“Can you prove this?”
“It’s the truth,” she says.
“Saying it’s the truth may not be good enough. What happened next?”
“We went on the run … then he abandoned me as soon as he knew I was pregnant – he’s never seen his son – never even asked his name – we would have gotten in the way of his mission to bring down the state by any possible means.”
“Where is your son, his son, now?” Mandle asks.
There’s a long silence. The woman’s voice cracks with emotion as she explains that the boy was taken from her when she was arrested at Canal Apartments.
Weber looks confused.
Mandle speaks again and asks for further clarification. “Was Owvane his real name when he was the leader of Gale Force 12?”
“Yes, Richard Owvane.”
“Are you certain that he was personally responsible for the massacre?”
“Yes, I was there!” she replies.
“Are you the sole survivor of Gale Force 12 who could identify him?”
“The others are all dead.”
“How has Owvane become such a rising star within the Hierarchy?” Mandle asks.
“Perhaps that’s why all the others are dead? I don’t know …”
“But you’re alive,” Mandle says.
“If you can call this being alive – if it wasn’t for Sarah I would have killed myself by now. Isn’t this enough?”
“One last question – do you know what became of your son?”
“Weber’s in an orphanage.”
Mandle says thank you and the recording peters out.
Marya stares at the floor while Weber stares at the computer, presses rewind and listens again as the woman says, “Weber’s in an orphanage.”
Marya stares at Weber. She takes several deep breaths in preparation for what she now knows must come.
Though he already knows the answer, Weber still asks who the woman is so quietly that it’s hard for Marya to hear above the sound of the wind whistling through the empty floor around them.
“She was your mother, Marya.”
“But you’re …” Weber begins.
“No, the real Marya died. I took her place – it was the only way to hope that one day I’d be able to take revenge for what your father did to her – I loved her, Weber, I’m sorry – I loved her.”
Weber struggles to both understand and to control his increasing desire to scream. “Perhaps you ought to try and tell me what happened – starting with who you are ?”
“My name is Sarah. I was locked up in here along with your mother and many other women – in my case because I forged false papers for comrades on the run – but all that doesn’t matter. Marya was beautiful, inside and out, we began to depend on each other – at first she just wanted you back then realised that she’d have to settle for you being safe and never see you again – she needed love, warmth – we fell in love – I’m sorry if this offends you.”
“Your love doesn’t offend me,” Weber mumbles.
“We were moved from here to a conventional high security prison – it was a complete shambles, a mess; there weren’t any decent systems of ensuring there wasn’t identity theft and fraud amongst the prisoners – it was early days for the Hierarchy and they just thought of prisons as places to lock people up and out of the way – but that was just as well as it turned out. One day, we’d been in there for a couple of years by then, Owvane turned up to see Marya, she was scared stiff. I never met him. She said he was dressed in uniform, that doesn’t matter either – but within two hours of him leaving Marya fell ill. The guards wouldn’t take it seriously – she died in my arms that night. I don’t know if it was anything he did to her but I thought it was. I think he poisoned her, I know he poisoned her … We were the same height and similar in appearance – I took her identity – swopped prison clothes, papers, cells – it was easy, there was hardly anything needing to be forged – Sarah died and Marya lived – I served my time – her time – they put me in an open prison and finally I had the chance to take my revenge.”
Weber stares at her and she’s unable to return his look and averts her eyes. “Why am I here?” Weber asks, but another, more significant question is beginning to form in his mind, but he’s not yet willing to articulate it.
“Because I couldn’t do it on my own – and when I found out how much trouble you were in and that trouble came from Owvane then … it seemed … right.”
Weber now knows one of the questions he needs to ask but holds back. “My mother, on the tape, says that Owvane never saw me and never even asked my name.”
“That’s right,” Marya says and wonders if Weber is going in the direction she fears.
“So that would mean he wouldn’t know anything about me – wouldn’t know where I grew up – what I became?”
“I don’t know – but given that he seems to know everything – then … perhaps you should ask him, Weber?”
“How am I going to do that?”
“You’re willing to carry on?”
“Willing to do what? Take revenge on my father – by doing what exactly? At the same time I’m supposed to deal with the incidental matter that my abandoned son, who has been set on me by my father, is trying to kill me. My father doesn’t know I’m his son and my son doesn’t know I’m his father – if you were plotting this wouldn’t you think this was overdoing it a bit?”
“But I’m not plotting it,” Marya says.
“Aren’t you? You’re not even my mother.”
“You’ve heard the recording – I didn’t know we’d find that,” she lies.
“No, that’s true, but what is also true is that you knew that Owvane was my father all along – if that’s not plotting, what is?” Weber asks. “Was I ever going to know or was I just going to – what – kill him – and then you’d tell me what I’d done and who he was? Are you trying to punish me as well?”
“No, Weber, I don’t want him dead, that would be too simple. I want him brought down, ruined, shamed – I want him to live for as long as possible in the mire that will be the remains of his life.”
“Did you know I was investigating him for his connections with body-harvesting?” Weber asks.
“No, I didn’t know – but it’s ironic that you were after him anyway.”
“What about Ralf – Din – does Owvane know that he’s my son?”
Marya waits for a moment considering how she should answer. “No, I really don’t think he does. I think it’s pure chance – how Ralf came to be Din and how Din became what he is – I don’t know anything about this.”
Weber is about to ask another question but is interrupted by the sound of shouting echoing up the stairwell to the fourteenth floor.
“What’s that?” Marya asks.
Weber puts his finger to his lips before he runs to the open doors to the stairs and listens to the arguing voices. He runs back to Marya, “You stay here. Do you understand? Stay put!” and with that runs back across the floor and into the stairwell.
By the time Weber reaches the second floor the shouting has ceased but he remains vigilant as he continues to the ground floor. If the shouting came from body-harvesters then it’s likely that they’ll be somewhere further inside but he has no way of knowing this.
As Weber cautiously stepped out into the open air of the square I saw him running in my direction.
I ran as fast as I could towards and only came to an abrupt halt when I saw him crouch with his gun aimed directly at me. “Don’t shoot! Please don’t shoot. Just give me a moment to explain – I’ve come to warn you about Din, he’s …”
“I know about him,” Weber said.
His gun was perfectly still and remained pointing directly at me. I walked forward with my hands above my head. “Do you know who Owvane is?” I asked. Weber nodded. I kept walking forward.
“That’s far enough,” Weber said. “What about Owvane?”
“I used to work for him,” I said as I pulled up the sleeve of my shirt to show the wound in my arm. “I cut out my PID.”
“He’s dangerous,” I said and Weber laughed, but he wasn’t amused. “He’s set you up. I don’t know why but it could be because of the body harvesting, if he thinks you’re on to him.”
“Does he know who I am?” Weber asked.
I was mystified by the question. “He showed me your confidential IRAP.”
“Did it say who was my father?” Weber asked.
“No, just your mother, Marya; she’s in an open prison.”
“Is she indeed? What else is on your mind?”
“It’s really hard to explain … but I think Owvane’s been creating false IRAPs and Din thinks he killed his own mother – she was called Florrie …”
“Middleton’s Florrie wasn’t Din’s mother,” Weber said. “Move,” he commanded using the barrel of the gun to point inside.
As I stepped towards him Weber dashed forward and crashed into me, pushing me aside, as a large block of concrete thudded into the ground just where I’d been standing. He pulled me to my feet and dragged me inside before he asked if I was okay. I felt remarkably calm as I said, “That’ll be Din –thank you – you probably saved my life.”
“Don’t speak too soon,” Weber said. “There’s someone you need to meet.”
Marya was sitting on a packing case when Weber and I walked across the expanse of the open fourteenth floor. She stood up as we entered the little office and asked who I was – for a moment I didn’t recognise her, then I did, “Senator Hemming – what on earth are you doing here?”
“Senator Hemming is a fake – this is Marya Heim,” Weber said. “Well, she’s not that either – never mind. Marya – this is Veronica,” Weber continued. “She used to work for Owvane but has come to think better of it. Din just tried to kill her so I think we’d better make ourselves ready.”
He then asked me if I knew much about Din and I told him what he needed to know – which came down to: Din’s fearless, vicious, vindictive, resourceful and determined. “We really shouldn’t have come back up here – Din will have worked out where we’ve gone – and we’re sitting ducks stuck up here,” I said.
“So, shall we be on our way,” Marya asked, “before the little monster joins us?”
I was amazed at the speed with which she packed her laptop into her shopping trolley and her pace as she led the way down the stairs. Weber overtook her and told her to take it slowly as he took the lead and I followed at the rear carrying the trolley.
Din is amused; he’d known that the likelihood of hitting me with the concrete block was very slight but it had been fun. What is more exciting is that he now has Weber and me in the same place. He thinks his vantage point on the roof is perfect as he sits with his feet dangling over the edge waiting to see if Weber or I might try and escape. After twenty minutes of waiting he begins to wonder if it was such a good idea after all; he realises that he has only a slight awareness of how internal movement within and between sectors inside the hospital is possible – he begins to think it likely that people could move between sectors without having to come out into the open. It starts to rain and the wind picks up. As he stands he looks down and sees a woman driving a horse and cart into the square followed by three men. The cart is laden down with coffins. The horse struggles with the weight of the load, raises its tail and shits; Din laughs – he’s never seen a horse shit – in fact he’s never seen a horse, at least not in the flesh.
He frowns. He doesn’t want the body-harvesters to get in the way of what he intends; it’s a dilemma but by the time he reaches the ground floor he’s made up his mind. With great care and making sure that he stays in the lengthening shadows as a wet afternoon turns into evening he makes his way into ‘D’ sector and to the side ward where his weaponry is stored.
“Which way?” Marya asked when we reached the ground floor.
“B – we know what it’s like in there,” Weber said.
Inside B we walked right to the end of the corridor that might allow us to escape or perhaps prevent a surprise attack from the rear.
“Aren’t we rather conspicuous standing here in full view of anyone who comes in here?” I asked.
“What about Brixton?” Weber suggested.
“Do we have to? Marya asked.
“Take your pick,” Weber said.
Marya led us into ‘Bath’.
By the time Din reaches the ground there’s no sign of the cart and the body-harvesters but that doesn’t matter to Din; he can follow the trail of manure left by the incontinent horse.
hen we were inside Bath ward I asked what we were to do now.
“Wait patiently,” Weber said. “Why are you here?”
“That’s a good question – I guess from looking at your IRAP I knew that you couldn’t be guilty of the body harvesting that Owvane accused you of – your character profile didn’t fit and when I told him that he was clearly angry and wouldn’t discuss the matter any more. Then I took the trouble to look back at your reports and it looked more like you were after someone who was masterminding the trade rather than the other way round.”
“Did you make a guess as to who that certain someone might be?” Weber asked.
“No … well, yes I did – I thought it could be Owvane,” I said.
“I see,” Weber said uncertainly. “What exactly did you do for the Hierarchy and for Owvane in particular?”
I précised everything and within a couple of minutes I’d outlined my functions and my relationship to Din – Weber wasn’t impressed. I told them I’d defected because I thought Owvane was up to no good especially when he set Din up to believe that the woman he’d killed was his mother. Weber said he thought that it was fucking obvious that Owvane was up to no good but didn’t say more than that. Marya said nothing.
“Look we may not have long – you’ve seen my IRAP – I need to know something,” Weber said.
“Is Owvane my father?”
I gasped – this wasn’t what I’d expected.
“Yes, Weber, I’m sorry but he is,” Marya said.
“I didn’t ask you,” Weber snapped. “Is he?” he asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve looked at his history in the Dictionary and in his Hierarchy approved IRAP and there’s nothing about his life before he turns up as a rising star of the bureaucracy.”
“You heard what your mother said, Weber,” Marya said. “He’s your father.”
“As far as I know,” I said, “there is no evidence that he has, or had, a son.”
“And there’s no evidence that he was responsible for the massacre in War Memorial Square either – but he did that,” Weber said.
I was about to say something about Owvane when we all heard the sound of horse’s hoofs coming along the internal corridor towards us inside the ward.
“That’ll be the body harvesters,” I said. “I saw them earlier.”
“With a horse?” Weber asked.
“And a cart,” I replied.
“And with a woman driving it?” Marya asked. “She gave me a lift – she said she was a dog butcher.”
Weber laughed, briefly; he looked as if … have you ever looked at someone and known that they might just erupt at any moment? He stood up, opened the door and walked to the end where it joined the main corridor. Marya and I looked at each other and opened the doors just a little so we could see what was happening outside. The cart had stopped and the woman was sitting on its bench staring at Weber who, though we could only see his back, was presumably staring back. Betjeman whinnied and the driver tugged his reins and told the beast to be quiet. The three men I’d seen earlier were standing beside the cart on the back of which were dilapidated and partially rotten coffins.
“Hello, darling, who the bloody hell are you?” the driver asked.
“Yeah, who the fuck are you?” one of the men demanded as he swished a machete at his side.
“Easy, give him a chance,” the driver said. “What you after, darling – precious metals or industrial?”
Weber was about to reply when the man holding the machete fell forward with a bolt embedded in the back of his neck. As one of the other two men span around in surprise a second bolt hit him in the forehead shattering the bone into a myriad spinning bloody shards.
The driver jumped down off the cart and hid in front of the horse which was now beginning to struggle in the shafts that held him in place. The third man flung himself beneath the cart and tried to crawl forward as Betjeman tried to escape. As the man reached the front of the cart the horse reared up pushing the cart backwards and inadvertently stamped on the man’s face and chest – he screamed. This spooked the horse even more and he trampled the man’s already lifeless body as the cart veered backwards; the shafts shot up into the air as the leather fixings snapped and the horse was free. It turned and bolted up the corridor in the direction of the entrance. As if in slow motion the coffins on the up-ended cart slowly tumbled off, splitting like husks, shells disgorging their dead and withered fruit into an untidy heap on the ground.
The woman driver shouted, “Hold it, whoever’s out there, just hold it – I’ve got plenty of cash, there’s no need to get arsey, take it easy, yeah? Can you hear me?”
As the sound of the horse’s hoofs died away Weber heard a giggle. He seemed to be in trance and this must have been the reason why the woman grabbed him so easily from behind and held a knife to his neck.
Marya said, “We must help him.”
“By doing what?” I asked.
“If you’re anything to do with this one I got here,” the driver shouted, “come out where I can see you so we can talk, otherwise I’ll do for him.”
Without warning Weber stamped on the woman’s foot whilst simultaneously driving his elbows back into her body, squatting down, grabbing her by her coat and throwing her over his head where she crashed into the ground; she groaned and was clearly in some pain and winded from the fall. I rushed out of the ward shouting ‘stop’ but Weber took out his gun and shot her in the face.
“Weber!” I shouted, “Why did you do that? She was defenceless!”
Weber didn’t reply but turned to look up the corridor at the echoing sound of laughter. Din cycled out of the shadows laughing; his hands weren’t on the handlebars but carrying a loaded bolt gun. Marya emerged from the ward.
“Hey! Weber! You is de mean s o b and dat be de truth, man, blew the bitch’s face to pieces, yeah right on, bro Weber.” Din saw Marya. “And it be the Gran Mayhem – up to no good as ever, gran? For an old bitch you gets right in there with the shit and dat’s no lie.”
“Hello, Din,” Marya said, clearly much to Weber’s surprise.
“And de bitch of bitches, Veronica – you know the bastard Owvane lied to me?”
“No, not at first,” I said. “But, yes I knew. I cut out my PID – I’m free of him.”
“No shit, Vonnie – you want a fuckin’ medal?” Din asked.
“Do you know who I am?” Weber asked.
Din giggled. “What is it with you dumb fucks dat you ask de question that only you can answer? Okay – you is de engineer commander Weber -assigned to be deleted by yours truly – the mighty Din.”
“He means what relation are you to him,” Marya said.
“I ain’t got no relationship, gran, except he’s for deletion and I’m doing de deleting.”
“I’m your father, Din, but your real name’s Ralf,” Weber said.
I was too shocked to do anything except gape.
“You is takin’ the piss, yes?” Din asked. “You doin’ just like de Sander, tryin’ to escape your end, innit?”
“I can prove he’s your father,” Marya said. “I have your DNA and Ralf’s and they’re the same, exactly the same, and it’s the same as Weber’s – he’s your father, Din.”
Din didn’t say anything as I watched him fingering the trigger of his loaded bolt gun, “Is dat de truth?” he asked.
“You can’t kill your father,” Marya said.
He raised his gun in Marya’s direction, “Shut it, gran!”
“And don’t forget Owvane lied to you about your mother,” Marya said.
“As you could be lyin’ to me now,” Din said.
“I have proof on my laptop – I’ll show you,” Marya said.
“Hey, gran, for an old lady you’s not as wise as you could be – don’t you know computers can lie just like the rest of us?”
“It’s even possible that Owvane knew you were my son when he assigned you to …” Weber said.
Din interrupted, “Leave the Owvane out of it for now – this is between us – right – you got a gun and I got a gun. Yours is better than mine but youth is on my side – so – how do you want to do this?” Weber tossed his gun in Din’s direction. “That won’t stop me if I want to do you,” Din sneered.
“What would stop you?” Weber asked.
“I don’t have any proof – she does,” Weber said pointing at Marya.
“I never had no father and I don’t need one now.”
“I never had a son and I’m not sure I want one now either, certainly not one like you.”
“Mutual disrespect,” Din laughed. “You is on the button there, Weber.”
“What are you going to do about Owvane?” Marya asked.
No one had time to reply as we heard a shot followed by a bullet whining past Din and hitting the wall just beside where Marya was standing. In one move Din did a forward roll, picked up Weber’s gun and tossed it back to him as he sheltered behind the end of the upturned cart where Weber joined him. I pushed Marya back into the ward out of harm’s way and shut the door behind us.
“Listen,” Din says, “I don’t give a shit who you are – that’s for later. Right now it’s those bastards we need to deal with.”
“Why do you talk in the fake voice – you aren’t doing it now?”
“This is serious, that other shit is just that – shit.”
“Is there a back way out of here?” Weber asks.
“How the fuck am I supposed to know? Who’s out there?”
“Two possibilities – more body-harvesters or some of Owvane’s people – which might amount to the same thing.”
“He’s a bad bastard is Owvane … you any bright ideas how we get out of this shit?” Din asks.
“They say attack is the best form of defence but to my mind retreat is the best way of being able to fight another day.”
“We should ditch the bitches – they’ll slow us down,” Din says.
“We’re in this together.”
“Give me your gun,” Din says.
“Give me your fucking gun – you get the bitches out the back somehow and I’ll warm the fuckers up out there.”
“No, we need to stay just where we are – it’s their play,” Weber says.
For a few moments I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that Din was Weber’s son. Marya seemed completely calm and not at all phased by her circumstances; suddenly she seemed less like a helpless victim.
“What was said out there wasn’t true,” I said.
“What wasn’t true, my dear?” Marya asked.
“Din isn’t Weber’s son.”
“You said you have proof, DNA proof that Ralf and Din are one and the same person and that Weber is the father,” I said.
“That’s right, I have that on my computer.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “that’s not possible. Ralf died when he was just over five, and that’s a fact.”
“Is it?” Marya said with a smile. “Don’t you think you’d better take a look to see how they’re getting on out there?”
“Weber can’t possibly have the same DNA as Din – Din’s father was Indo-European – it says so on his IRAP – though I’m beginning to …”
“Look, it’s like Din just said – computers can lie just like you and me,” Marya said.
“Which is the lie?”
“Don’t you think it’s better that Din and Weber are working together rather than trying to kill each other?” she asked.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Marya, I don’t think you get it. Din isn’t some ordinary kid – he’s all anger – he’s not stable or reliable.”
“It’s a risk worth taking,” Marya said.
“So your proof is a lie.”
“Whether it is or it isn’t, Veronica, do you think that now is the time to expound your theory?”
“It’s more than likely that Din will kill Weber because he believes he is his father than if he didn’t think that,” I said.
“But not before they’ve got Owvane.”
“Is that all you care about?”
Marya just smiled.
I was about to follow this up when I heard gunfire. I opened the door a little and was about to ask what was happening when I saw the beam of a torch coming towards us down the corridor. I slipped out through the door and joined Weber and Din behind the upturned cart.
“It’s okay, they won’t be giving you any more cause for concern,” Owvane said as he walked towards us – a torch in one hand and an automatic short barrelled machine gun in the other. “It’s strange how the criminal classes always seem to think that if you appear to be on their side that you are actually on their side – fundamentally stupid.” Weber, Din and I came out from behind the cart. “My word,” Owvane said, “here we all are together and with one intent in mind.”
“And what might that be?” Weber asked.
Owvane shrugged. “To bring this little farce to an end?”
“The moment where we all get to understand what the fuck is going on?” Weber asked.
“That would be really tiresome, don’t you think?” Owvane replied as he raised his weapon and squeezed the trigger – a salvo of fire ricocheted off the ground around Weber’s feet. Owvane told Weber to drop his gun; he did so but almost simultaneously Din grabbed it and pointed it at Owvane.
“Hey,” Din laughed, “Dis is like the Wild West – for an old shit, Owvane, you have attitude, but have you the bottle? Your bullets travel at the same speed as mine so it’s down to who shoots first.”
“Are you my father?” Weber asked.
“What?” Owvane asked.
“I have a recording of Mandle interviewing my mother – it says you’re my father.”
“Marya’s child, my child … she miscarried … it was never born,” Owvane said. “That’s what Marya told me.”
“But I have the recording,” Weber protested.
“It’ll be like everything else about her – fake,” Owvane said.
“This is good shit,” Din said. “That would mean that Owvane is my grandfather – heavy, heavy, heavy – I know killing your father’s called fratricide but what’s killing your grandpa called?”
“Or the word for killing your grandson,” Owvane said as he walked forward until he and Din were about eight feet apart, Weber remained standing next to Din.
“Why don’t we stop this now?” I asked, “before someone else gets …”
“For fuck’s sake,” Din said, “you think this isn’t going to end in tears?” He turned his face towards Weber. “So you’re my father, are you?”
“Unfortunately, yes, I think I am.”
“It’s not true – the evidence is forged – you two aren’t related in any way, your real father was Indo-European, Weber can’t be your father,” I said.
“Pity,” Din said, turned the gun away from Owvane and fired it at point blank range into the side of Weber’s head. The bone and blood splattered all over me as I staggered backwards; I used my shirt to wipe my face clean as I felt in my pocket for my taser.
“Now that was dramatic,” Owvane said.
“Now it’s just you and me,” Din said.
Owvane laughed. “Now you have your Western stand-off – ready when you are,” he said as he raised his weapon so that it was once again pointing at Din.
Din raised Weber’s Smith & Weston as I fired my taser into the back of Din’s neck – the effect was instantaneous – he convulsed, dropped the gun, and collapsed.
“Nicely done,” Owvane said.
I bent down and retrieved the Smith & Weston and made sure that the clip was still almost full.
“Well, Veronica – it would seem that you’ve finally decided where your future lies,” Owvane said as he lowered his gun to his side.
I didn’t say anything but watched as Din sat up on the floor and rubbed the back of his neck but within a second he was on his feet, knife in hand and roaring ‘bitch’ as he leapt towards me. My first shot hit him in the chest, the second in the throat and the third in his forehead; he looked like a broken puppet now that he was dead and I suppose that’s all he had ever been.
When I looked up Owvane was walking away down the corridor into the darkness. I raised the gun and carefully took aim. I waited until I could no longer see him. I knew that if I was going to deal with what Owvane represented then it wasn’t going to be enough to kill him – there needed to be a more positive outcome than death.
I looked back at Din and Weber’s dead bodies and wondered how I was ever going to be able to explain, let alone understand, why they were what they were and why I cared – and why I cared enough to want to do something other than hide for the rest of my days; the time to be second rate had passed.
The door to the ward opened and Marya walked out and knelt down beside Weber’s corpse – I’d completely forgotten she was there. “I’m sorry, Weber. I really had come to think of you as my son.” She looked up at me and smiled. “Now, Veronica, would you agree that we haven’t quite finished as yet?”
“Would any of this happened without you?” I asked.
“Weber was always going to die.”
“You’re …” I didn’t have the right words; she was so cold. “I’ve just killed someone and I …”
“You put the boy out of his misery, Veronica,” Marya said. “Look at it this way – a mercy killing.”
I didn’t say anything because I didn’t have anything to say – I did, but my mouth wouldn’t form the words in my head – I would have screamed but I was afraid that Owvane might be within hearing distance.
“Do you agree that we still have unfinished business?” she asked.
“Yes, of course – who else?”
Owvane is pleased. It wasn’t quite how he’d expected the problem to be resolved but both Weber and Din were dead and he hadn’t even had to deliver the coups de graces himself – splendid! He smiles, satisfied that a lesser man might have experienced a moment’s compassion, gratified that he stands apart – above – those whom he manages, and amused that the reticent Veronica had finally shown decision making powers and been fierce in their execution – he laughs – the pun unintended. It is time to allow himself a little pleasure.
His Hierarchy apartment is spacious: a broad hallway hung with portraits of ‘patriots’, a large kitchen, a dining room, a living room, bathroom, toilet, his bedroom (with shower room and toilet en suite) and a further guest bedroom (that had never been used), all Spartan chalk white and minimal except for the largest room of them all (originally two spacious reception rooms), his Musée de la Mort. Each vitrine is twelve metres long and divided into compartments. Their shelves – half a metre deep – are covered in tightly drawn yellow silk and protected by glazed hinged glass doors that allow easy, but careful, access to their contents which are to be viewed, but touched, held, and caressed.
The floor is furnished with deeply rich silk hand woven Persian, Afghani and Turkestan rugs rescued from the homes of their disgraced and expropriated original owners. The carefully controlled air in the room carries the delicate scent of jasmine. Owvane stands in the centre of his museum and, like the objects within the vitrines, glows. He breathes deeply and sighs wondering where he should begin; there is considerable choice. CCTV cameras surveil the museum but no one looks at this footage except Owvane – very much like the footage that Din had gathered of his killing of the body harvesters.
As time passes he is ever surprised by the variety and value of the objects interred in the coffins of the dead. It is to be expected that bodies would wear rings (ears, fingers, nipples, navels, labia and penises etc.), necklaces, brooches of all sorts and periods, identity bracelets, studs (facial and bodily), watches and teeth made from and containing every conceivable precious metal and jewel (though teeth tended to be mostly gold and platinum but he did have a number of examples of diamond filled teeth). It is obvious that cadavers will contain further precious materials – titanium, stainless steel etc. – used in the manufacture of replacement body parts including joints and strengthening pins – but only single examples of a particularly impressive kind are in his collection – the vast, and it is vast, majority having been sold on to support the manufacture of luxury objects (such as the very vitrines in which the collection was displayed).
What he finds most engaging is the range of other keepsakes and personal memorabilia that those left behind have buried along with the deceased: books, photographs, perfume dispensers, walking sticks, snuff boxes, ornaments, paperweights, carriage and mantle clocks, cigarette cases, fountain pens, erotica, mirrors, money, mobile phones, wallets, guns, bibles and prayer books, credit cards, knives, guide books, icons and incunabula, swords, dried flowers, bottles of rare wine, teddy bears and toys that included dolls, model cars, aeroplanes and music boxes. As time passed he only kept the best, selling on (via the outlawed antique trade) items as they were replaced by better and more valuable examples.
Owvane is never certain what he will choose but his first task is to replace the machine gun he’d used at the hospital to the vitrine from which he’d borrowed it. This done, he stands and looks, humming as he decides what to pick as he walks scanning the shelves. His eyes fall upon a decorative silver frame that contains the photograph of a small boy and a woman, from the resemblance she is obviously his mother – this is not the first time he’s held this piece – they are posed standing in front of many other people and in the background, the bunting that celebrates the inauguration of War Memorial Square. Owvane knows that the photographer, the husband of the woman and the father of the child, had miraculously survived the explosion he had caused so many years before. He searched for years until he found the site where what remained of mother and son had been buried – he had hoped for some sort of relic and his expectations were fully realised when Middleton brought him the framed photograph. He breathes on the glass in the frame and, using his handkerchief, polishes it. He allows himself a small smile – the irony of Middleton being laid out in the square doesn’t escape him. He replaces the photograph in the vitrine and closes the glass front.
Standing back he surveys the museum; his sense of joy evaporates as he is overwhelmed with anger. Why this, he asks himself, when there could have been that? How could I have turned from the worm in the apple to being its core? Then again, he muses, I’m not done yet and his mood lightens.
I asked Marya if she was sure she could de-commission the surveillance system embedded in Din’s cottage; she was sure. As soon as we’d found a spot – actually an old motorbike repair shop – she settled down to the business of hacking into the system. I told her that I thought it wouldn’t be a good idea to do that as Senator Hemming and asked if she could do it anonymously; the answer was yes, but it would take longer and she was worried about being tracked. Our second location was a couple of miles further out in an abandoned church hall and the final work was completed in a doctor’s waiting room – long since defunct.
When I’d first suggested ‘hiding’, or as she put it, ‘regrouping’, at Din’s cottage Marya was very unimpressed with the idea but acquiesced in the lack of an immediate alternative. My first concern was that Owvane would come looking for me and I reasoned that Din’s place was the last he’d think of as a hiding place I’d willingly choose. I said as much to Marya and she posed an interesting question – why would he come looking for you when the last thing you’d done was kill Din and he’d thought you were still on his side? I didn’t have a complete answer but believed that Owvane wouldn’t want to leave any loose ends – what’s more – he would have known that my PID indicated I was in my flat when I was actually at the hospital, so, at the very least he’d have been suspicious and that would be enough for him to take pre-emptive measures.
“It’s all clear,” Marya said.
“How did you do it?” I asked.
“If one can configure then one can disfigure just as well,” she said.
That was one of the most distinctive of Marya’s features; when she said something you actually believed what she told you, her words and manner had a certainty that seemed incontrovertible even though, as it turned out to be the case, her truths were usually falsehoods.
“When do we set off?” she asked.
It was early evening and I’d not had any sleep for over twenty-four hours. Marya said it was the same for her but she was full of energy and I wasn’t. As we had to wait for nightfall before we could risk going to Din’s cottage we had time to rest and talk. It was time for her to fill me in all the bits I didn’t understand about who she was and what she was doing; by the time she’d finished telling me I realised that it wasn’t ‘bits’ I’d missed but just about everything about her. Though I knew her as Senator Hemming and then Marya, I couldn’t call her Sarah – so I’m going to keep referring to her as Marya – if that’s too complicated, I’m sorry. I was certain of only one thing: her determination to bring Owvane to his knees.
We arrived at the cottage at about three o’clock in the morning and I used my keys to let us in. Though I knew he was dead I expected Din to appear at any moment. We closed every curtain and blind and then only switched on the minimum of lighting. Marya was curious. I was terrified and haunted by the expression on his face as I’d finally killed him. When he was alive, as I’ve said before, he produced contradictory emotions in me; I was horrified by his sadism, confused by his naivety, alarmed by his anomie and attracted to him physically. Now that he was dead I wondered what he might have become, wondered if he would have found a route to redemption or whether as he matured he would have evolved into an absolute monster. It was probably just as well that I would never know.
The first thing Marya did was to plug in her laptop to charge it; the first thing I did was to search everywhere just in case Din had left any booby traps. When I arrived back in the lounge Marya was sitting on the sofa flicking through the pages of a pornographic magazine; she stopped at one page turned it upside down and then sideways before she said, “Extraordinary,” shut the magazine and tossed into the corner where it joined a pile of many more. I bolted all the doors and suggested that she sleep on the sofa while I curled up on the floor – there was no way I could sleep on his bed – and fell into a deep sleep after I’d adjusted to Marya’s snoring.
The next morning we breakfasted on some of his high protein foods and turned on the television. I was desperate for news of what was happening inside the Social Context. To my great surprise there was no live rolling news: sombre marshal music played as a caption ‘rolled’ from right to left across the screen over a live shot of War Memorial Square where workers erected stands and adorned poles and scaffolding with bunting and flags. I had completely forgotten that in two days time it was the fortieth anniversary on June 4th of the War Memorial Square Massacre – the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ – that was ‘celebrated’ by a public holiday and speeches from the balcony just like in the past as depicted int the antique pictures of Stalin, Molotov and other murderers in Moscow’s Red Square. Marya and I stared at the screen and read:
All programmes are suspended until further notice. The people of the Social Context mourn the sudden and unexpected death of First Secretary to the Hierarchy, Zira Madoor. Nevertheless, the honouring of the martyrs of War Memorial Square will take place as normal. The newly installed First Secretary Richard Owvane will deliver the valedictory ovation on behalf of the Hierarchy, to honour the dead and the people.
We watched and read it through twice until we were both sure of what it said.
“How do we stop him now?” I asked. Marya didn’t say a word – she just stared at me. Eventually I said, “I thought you wanted to bring him down, take away his power, bring an end to his corruption.” She continued to stare; it was obvious what she was thinking. “And now you want to kill him?”
“Is there anything else to do?”
“Even if I agreed with you, how on earth would we do that – he’s untouchable where he now is – I didn’t realise he was so near to the top.”
She smiled. “Shit floats, Veronica – it needs flushing away.”
“You have the memory stick – you have the proof,” I said.
“The only place we had to go was above Owvane – now there’s no one above him.”
“There’s the Supreme Council,” I protested.
“Don’t be silly, child. The council is a sham. The one place where Owvane will be easily seen is when he delivers the ovation.”
“Yes, from a balcony up high and protected by hundreds of soldiers, police and body guards.”
“You accept defeat too easily, my dear,” she said. “Sometimes one just gets lucky and right now I feel lucky.” I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about. “I think it would be a good idea if you made yourself scarce, Veronica, as I expect we’ll be receiving guests in the near future.”
I asked her what she was talking about. It was simple, she explained, she hadn’t turned off the surveillance in Din’s cottage despite having told me she had done so. She calculated that Owvane would be sending some Fumigators to clean up the place before too long. I just sat there with my mouth open.
“I decided what to do when Owvane walked away in the hospital – that was, of course, before I knew of his elevation – I need to get him on his own,” she said.
“Don’t you think it’s more likely that he’ll simply kill you?”
“Maybe not. I’ve been very frank with him on-line while you slept – I’m sure he’ll want to meet me once again,” she said.
“He’ll kill you and he’ll never be stopped,” I said.
“Take Weber’s gun and get out of here while you can – if you’re brave enough you could take a pot shot at him in the square.”
“Did you really leave all the cameras and recorders on?” I asked.
“That’s why I’d like you to go right now – I don’t want the responsibility of your arrest. You seem like you might become a decent person – eventually.”
There really wasn’t much to say. I packed my small backpack, took the Smith & Weston and Din’s binoculars, shook hands and left her alone in the cottage – she looked perfectly at ease.
As I was very familiar with the security in the area of Din’s cottage I decided to find a safe place to wait and see what happened next. The entrance to the lane that led to the cottage was on the High Street of the old village of Higham and the best vantage point – as it was above the street level CCTV cameras – was in the tower of the fifteenth century church – St. Anselm’s. The church had been deconsecrated even before the Hierarchy took power and had seen a variety of uses over the years – at the time I hid there it was used as an occasional venue for the quarterly official citizens’ meetings. It was never locked as there was nothing left to steal. The tower top housed communications antennae but one of the stair windows afforded an excellent view of the entrance to the lane. I settled down and waited.
After three hours I began to wonder if this was another of Marya’s lies but after another twenty minutes two vehicles drove along the High Street and into the lane; there wasn’t any doubt that they were Fumigators. I kept the binoculars to my eyes and after a few minutes the vehicles returned onto the High Street – Marya was clearly visible in the back of the second vehicle as they drove slowly away – it seemed that Owvane was in no hurry.
It was time to give my own situation some careful thought; my choices were limited and really came down to two options: stay in the Social Context and find somewhere to live without papers and probably with an arrest warrant against my name or try to make a new life in the outers – it wasn’t much of a choice … but, maybe I did have a third option – in fact I was sure I did. My first priority was to get through the next couple of days and join the many thousands who would gather in War Memorial Square.
Marya, much to her surprise – and delight – is taken directly to Owvane’s apartment and not to an Interrogation and Appraisal Facility. There she waits in the hallway attended by a male guard who refuses to speak at all. It is dusk when the front door of the apartment opens and Owvane steps inside and hangs his coat and hat on the hallstand. He looks at Marya and smiles – she returns his silent welcome. He speaks to the guard and asks if she has been searched for concealed weapons or electronic equipment – she has and she’s ‘clean’. He dismisses the guard and when he leaves Owvane says, “So, we come to this, Senator, or would you prefer that I call you Marya?”
“I think Marya would be nice.”
“Have you eaten?”
“I expect that dinner is waiting to be served – would you like to join me?” he asks.
“Is this my hearty meal before execution?”
“I think we can manage a stay of execution in the circumstances.”
It had been a long time since Marya had been served such excellent food and wine by such an attentive butler – in fact a butler, let alone one of such courtesy, had never served her. Hmm, she thinks, so this is how he lives – a long way from the firebrand who led us. The butler serves coffee and asks if that ‘was all’. Owvane says yes and they are left alone.
“He doesn’t live in?” she asks.
“No, I live alone – the staff come and go as I need them – but you haven’t come here to discuss my domestic arrangements.”
“So why have you brought me here?”
“I assumed that it was what you wanted – was I correct?”
“Do you know who I am?”
“I know whom you say you are – or rather, I know two of the identities you inhabit much like a hermit crab,” he says. “Senator May Hemming and prisoner Marya Heim, carapaces within which another creature exists.”
“You always did have a flowery way with your words.”
“Until the hospital we had never met in person … I’d like to show you something – will you come with me?” he asks and she agrees.
He opens the door to the museum and leads her in. The vitrines glow; there is no other light in the room.
She looks perplexed. “What is this? Why have you brought me in here?”
“This is my Musée de la Mort.”
Marya moves towards one of the vitrines and peers through the glass, “What is this stuff?” she asks thinking she has a pretty good idea where it’s all come from.
“I have something to show you – it’s over here,” he says walking across the room to the furthest vitrine from where she stands. She joins him, he opens the glass door and takes out a silver chain on the end of which hangs a silver ankh with a garnet embedded in its centre. Marya gasps as she recognises the piece of jewellery. “Yes, you’re right, it was Marya’s,” he says as he offers it her.
Marya takes the ankh and stares at it. “Where did you get it?”
“From her coffin just before she was cremated,” he says. He waits and watches her as she fondles the ankh and its chain. “Now, tell me, Sarah, why have you been impersonating her all these years?”
“How long have you known?”
“Since the day after she died and you took on her identity.”
“Why didn’t you expose me?” she asks.
“You amused me.”
“For forty years?”
“No, not for forty years – to tell you the truth I forgot all about you until you popped up as May Hemming – that was a bad idea using your family name as a pseudonym.”
“How did you recognise me?” she asks.
“When you introduced yourself I was suspicious – I’m always suspicious – so I had you checked – facial recognition software – and there you were all ready to be released and playing the role of senator. By the way, I am most impressed with your technological skills.”
“Why did you take her ankh?”
“For remembrance of times past – sorry – that does sound somewhat Proustian.”
“I loved Marya.”
“So did I,” he says.
“Then why did you abandon her and your child?”
“She abandoned me – our child was still-born.”
“No,” she says. “She lied to you.”
“I saw the coffin.”
“But not inside – the coffin was real enough – there was a rabbit inside it,” she says.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Yes, you do. You know she didn’t want you to bring up your son in your own image. She wanted to keep Weber but she couldn’t. He was put in a home.”
“Weber?” he says. “You’re saying Weber was my son?”
“Log on to the Dictionary – you’ll find it all there, all the proofs that aren’t mine.”
“This is why you waited so long … this is your revenge.” He nods in recognition. “There’s more, isn’t there?”
“What would you think if I told you I had a recording of Marya made by Mandle identifying you as the man responsible for the massacre that will be honoured in two days time?”
“I’d say it was fake … for two reasons. The first is that the recording made by Mandle is here on that disc,” he says pointing at the open vitrine, “lying next to where the ankh just was. The second reason is that it wasn’t me who set that bomb – it was Marya – I begged her not to do it but she wouldn’t listen. It was the wrong thing to do.”
Marya laughs, “And is that the reason you betrayed her, why you handed her over to the Hierarchy?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Aren’t you ashamed?” she asks.
“I’m ashamed of what she did. You see all this?” he asks indicating the museum with a wave of his arm. “In memoriam sancti.”
“You’re insane,” she says.
He shrugs. “And what you’ve done isn’t?”
“These relics – what are they for?” she asks.
“So that I would never forget what she did.”
“All this didn’t come from the victims of the massacre – there’s too much – and it would have been destroyed in the explosion anyway,” she objects.
“It was how I began,” he says as the door to the museum opens and three men in uniform walk in. “Take her away,” he says, “and if any harm comes to her you will answer to me – is that understood?”
“Is this the end?” she asks.
“No, there is something yet left to do.”
On the night of June 3rd I slept in the church tower. On June 4th I was up at dawn to make my way to the square amidst the crowds that would begin to walk there as soon as it was light. I hoped I wouldn’t be noticed amongst the throng. Despite the solemnity of the occasion the people were in high spirits for it was a citizen’s holiday and these were few and far between. I joined a group of happy sweatshop workers; none of the women were older than about twenty and several carried babies. Though I was clearly not one of them no one asked me what I did or from where I came – those were the questions habitually asked of them and I assumed they felt ill at ease subjecting others to the scrutiny they habitually received – on the other hand, I was an irrelevance to them and, as long as I did them no harm, I could be tolerated.
When I arrived at the square nearly three hours later the crowds were already swirling, massing, shouting and pushing for what each individual believed to be the best vantage point. Marshall music blared from vast loudspeakers mounted on high columns around the perimeter so that the music came at you from all directions; it was oppressive. Police and soldiers were already posted ten deep in lines protecting the great balcony from which Owvane would delivery the valedictory ovation; it was decorated with a hundred or more vast red wreaths of red paper poppies. I didn’t try to make my way to the very front but was happy to remain invisible in the midst of the thousands who surrounded me – despite Marya’s suggestion that I might be brave and take a shot at him I’d left the Smith & Weston hidden in a nook in the church tower. By 11.30 the crowd was so dense that I would have been unable to leave even if I’d wanted to. At 11.50 the stage began to fill with members of the Supreme Council. At 11.55 a tall gaunt woman made her way to the microphone and called the crowd to order. By 11.58 they were almost silent; there was just the slight murmur of anticipation and the muted sounds of babies crying. At 11.59 Owvane walked on to the platform. I gaped – he wasn’t alone – Marya walked behind him accompanied by a soldier in dress uniform at either side. The crowd roared. I swallowed hard, my mouth dry, my heart thumped hard. The crowd cheered and roared its approval. Owvane raised his hand and the crowd fell silent – even the babies were quiet. He began.
“We are gathered here today to honour those massacred on this day June 4th forty years ago in this very square – the Massacre of the Innocents. Anniversaries are an important part of our heritage as citizens made free by and through the authority of our Supreme Council dedicated to the health, wealth and happiness of the citizens of this state. Not only do we today mourn the victims of terrorism but also our lately departed First Secretary, Zira Madoor,” he stopped and started to clap his hands – the crowd followed suit and continued until he raised his hand once more for silence. “The burdens of leadership are great. I trust that I will be able to carry them on my shoulders as did my predecessor. My name is Owvane and I have spent the last forty years attempting to find the person, the perpetrator of the Massacre of the Innocents all those years ago. Finally, I have achieved my ambition. I have found the murderer!” The crowd roared. I was dumbfounded. He raised his hand. The crowd fell silent. He turned, and with an outstretched arm and pointing finger, said, “She is here. Behold the murderer – Marya Heim.” For a moment the crowd was silent until a rumbling hiss turned into a baying booing and shouts of ‘death’. Marya was brought forward to the front of the stage. Single voices shouting ‘death’ became as one; all chanted ‘death’ and within a second the chant was accompanied by rhythmical clapping – it was deafening. Owvane let it run for several minutes before he once again raised his hand and the crowd murmured angrily. “I hear you, citizens, I hear you. The Hierarchy law states that in exceptional circumstances the citizens have the right to pass judgement by their collective affirmation – that circumstance is now.” I watched Marya’s face; she was calm, in fact she was smiling. “I ask you now,” Owvane said quietly, solemnly, into the microphone, his voice whispering and echoing over the loudspeakers, “for your verdict … is it death?”
As one, with one exception, the crowd roared, “Yes!”
Marya was told to kneel which she did without protest. Owvane stood behind her. A soldier placed a revolver in Owvane’s hand. The crowd were silent. Owvane placed the gun against the back of her head and pulled the trigger. Her head exploded over the backs of the guards who stood below the platform protecting Owvane and the Supreme Council from the people. For a moment here was total silence. Then the crowd roared its approval. I shut my eyes and pretended I was somewhere else. Marya’s body was dragged away.
Owvane raised his hand. It still held the revolver, and for the last time the crowd fell silent. “This brings to an end an epoch of sadness. This act of justice closes the book. Now we shall move on, together; together we will write a new history as we bury the hurt of the past and look to a better future for all, free of dissent, where justice will always be seen to be done.”
The crowd cheered.
I had to wait for an hour before I was able to get away.
It took me nearly six months to write this all down; it should have taken less time but I was either in hiding or finding somewhere else that felt secure. As you may have gathered by now I had resolved to try and ‘make a difference’ even though I thought the likelihood of doing so was slight. I thought that Owvane would come looking for me but he didn’t; he had bigger things on his mind than an inconsequential second rate nobody. That was where he was wrong.
I did two things when the story was complete: I posted it on The Dictionary and I delivered a copy to Eveline Sfega, the ‘Head of Rehabilitation’, or Governor, of the open prison from which the woman, calling herself Marya, had escaped. From what Marya had said about the Governor I knew that there was no one more bureaucratic, more the prefect apparatchik, than Ms Sfega; she was someone who could be relied upon to do the ‘right’ thing. I hoped I could rely upon her not to let the matter rest.
Living, quietly and unobtrusively, in the Outers I’m waiting to see what happens next. I’m beginning to feel a lot better about myself.
‘Weber, Marya & Din’
Copyright © Phil Cosker 2011
First published in 2011 by:
Laughing Horse Books, Heighwood House, Timms Lane
Waddington, Lincoln, England, LN5 9RQ
Phil Cosker has asserted his moral rights under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All rights reserved; no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted by any mean, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, with out the prior permission of the publisher.
The characters portrayed in this literary work are entirely fictitious and are not based on any person, or persons, living or dead.