The Shipping Forecast

theshippingforecast

The Shipping Forecast by Chris Green

I am listening to the Shipping Forecast when the phone rings. Not that I am a seafarer. I don’t have a boat or even live by the sea. It does not matter that much of the detail goes over my head. I find the poetry of the teatime forecast captivating. All those lyrical names like Lundy, Dogger and Fastnet. Rockall, Viking and Cromarty. German Bight. I do not want to be interrupted. I am not expecting a call. I leave the phone but it keeps on ringing. On the basis that it must be important, I finally answer it. No one is there. Another of those automated calls. When I put the receiver down, all the lights in the house go out.

The laptop goes over to battery so the Shipping Forecast continues uninterrupted. In fact, it is more atmospheric listening to it in the dark. It is easier to concentrate. Perhaps this is something to bear in mind for the future. It could be my imagination but the reports from coastal stations seem to be clearer. Even Stornoway and Lerwick have good prognoses for later.

At first, I put the outage down to a more widespread power-cut. We have had one or two of these since the November storms. But I can see the lights from neighbours’ houses are still on. Dan isn’t a very good electrician so I figure it is probably down to something he has done, or not done, when he fitted the new sockets under the stairs. We only used Dan for the work because he was Ellie’s cousin. He was a fairground worker before he became an electrician. He is in what is referred to as the gig economy. I do not have a number for Dan so I will have to wait until Ellie gets home from her class. Meanwhile, I can practice some tunes on my duduk. Light My Fire needs a little work. Then I can have a go at Mary Jane. And perhaps, Marrakesh Express. Omar feels this would sound good on the duduk.

Without warning, two tall dark figures dressed in black let themselves in through the back door. I can’t see who they are. Paranoia take over. I don’t imagine they have come to listen to me playing the duduk. Over the years I have seen one or two noir films about unsuspecting victims being taken off for interrogation so I feel I know more or less what to expect. They will threaten me a little, perhaps point a gun at me, tie my hands behind my back, blindfold me and bundle me into the back of an unmarked vehicle. They will take me to a dark basement somewhere a twenty minutes drive away, tie me to a chair and leave me to stew for a while. Later on, the principal interrogators will arrive. For simplicity let’s say they will be Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta lookalikes. They will tell me they know I know why I am here so I might as well come clean. They will ignore my protestations of innocence, threaten me some more and perhaps club me round the head.

Why are you sitting in the dark, playing that flute thing, Dad?’ Matt says. ‘By the way, this is Andy.’

Hello Mr Lorenzo,’ Andy says. ‘That flute thing is a duduk, isn’t it?’

Oh, I see,’ Matt says, having tried a few light switches. ‘The electrics have gone. What happened?’

With a sense of relief, I explain the chain of events.

That’ll be a trip switch,’ Andy says. ‘Unusual for all the rings to go at once though. ‘Where’s the consumer unit?’

I show him. He puts the switch back on. I thank him and think no more about it.

The following day, I am listening to the Shipping Forecast again when the same thing happens. The phone rings, I answer it and the lights go out. Once again two dark figures appear out of nowhere.

Hi, Matt. Hi, Andy,’ I say.

This time it is not Matt and Andy. It is a pair of gangsters and they appear to have read the script. They threaten me a little, point a gun at me, tie my hands behind my back, blindfold me and bundle me into the back of an unmarked vehicle. They take me to a dark basement somewhere a twenty minutes drive away, tie me to a chair and leave me to stew for a while. Later on, the principal interrogators arrive. Pulp Fiction’s Jules and Vincent lookalikes. They tell me they know I know why I am here so I might as well come clean. They ignore my protestations, threaten me some more and club me round the head.

If I knew why you’d brought me here, I’d be completely co-operative. I’d tell you everything you want to know’ I say, taking the initiative. ‘But as it is, I have no idea.’

OK. We’ll try it another way, shall we?’ Vincent says. ‘Let’s start at the beginning. You’ve been listening to the Shipping Forecast.’

Regularly, Mr Lorenzo,’ Jules says. ‘We know because we’ve been keeping tabs on you.’

But you don’t have a boat,’ Vincent says. ‘So tell me, Mr Lorenzo. Why have you been listening to the Shipping Forecast when you don’t have a boat?’

I find it relaxing,’ I say.

You find it relaxing, do you?’ Jules says, coming at me with the butt end of his pistol. ‘Let’s see if you find this relaxing.’

Now, why do you like listening to the Shipping Forecast when you don’t live by the sea?’ Vincent says.

It’s like a mindfulness meditation,’ I say. ‘I just like listening to those mystical names. Shannon, Lundy, Sole, Fastnet.’

And why exactly is that, Mr Lorenzo?’ Jules says. ‘Why do you like those mystical names? It’s to find out where our shipments are coming in, isn’t it?’

So you can intercept them,’ Vincent says. ‘Like your people did with the last shipment three weeks ago. That didn’t go down to well with the boss.’

What shipment?’ I say. ‘What are you talking about?’

Our shipment from Morocco, Mr Lorenzo, as if you didn’t know,’ Jules says. ‘You somehow found out that we have been sneaking coded instructions about our drugs drops into coastal stations’ reports on the teatime shipping forecast for the benefit of our runners. And you have been listening in to crack the code.’

I don’t know what you are talking about,’ I say. ‘I know nothing about any drugs.’

And obviously, clever though you might be to crack the code, as you don’t have a boat, you too must be part of a larger operation,’ Vincent says. ‘So you’re going to give us names.’

What about those two young bucks that arrived the first time we called round for instance?’ Jules says. ‘The ones dressed in black.’

We would have taken them out then,’ Vincent says. ‘But the boss said, deal with you first. But we can always call back.’

Perhaps Mr Lorenzo needs a little more time to think about it,’ Jules says. ‘Let’s leave him to sweat for a couple more days. I think he might decide to be more talkative then.’

With this, they are gone. It takes me a while to spot it but I notice Jules appears to have left his phone. Can I somehow reach it? Is it perhaps a trick? Are they trying to find out who I might contact? I need to be cautious and if I ever get out of this hell hole, I need to be more careful about how I operate. Perhaps there is another way to find out about future shipments from Morocco to make sure my people are in position to intercept them.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Dog Gone

doggone2

Dog Gone by Chris Green

It is Friday evening. Zoot has gone out with his friends and Stacey and I have the house to ourselves. Outside there is the persistent drizzle you often get at the end of a working week when you’d like to go for a walk on the hill. Not that we go for a walk on the hill that often since the dog died. Once in a while, we make it to The Belted Galloway and sit in the garden with a pint or two. This gives us a pretty good view of the common. It’s probably a mile there and back. Just the right amount of exercise. We did talk about joining the gym but decided to put it on hold. I might get the bikes out of the shed instead, once Man with a Van has collected the old mattresses. Then we will be able to go a little further afield, perhaps as far as The Pallbearers Arms.

While we wait for a break in the drizzle, we are watching a documentary about obesity in taxi drivers. There seems to be very little on in the seven o’clock slot to entertain us these days.

What’s the date?’ I ask Stacey. The linking of taxi drivers’ obesity with road accidents is jogging my memory.

May 26th,’ she says.

Oh shit! I think Geoff said he was going to kill himself round about now. When we spoke, he said if Abi wasn’t back in two weeks, he was going to end it. …….. Or was it three weeks.’

When did he phone?’

I can’t remember. I thought I’d get the chance to check him out before he did it, but with Gnarls having to be put down, it just slipped my mind.’

You’d better ring him then,’ Stacey says, taking a large pull on her brown ale.

Although she has never said as much, I get the impression that Stacey is not keen on Geoff, even though she has never actually met him. ‘Your friend Geoff called she will say if she comes home to find he has left a message, in the same tone she might use if it was the Yorkshire Ripper that had called.

As the dialler is ringing, I try to piece together Geoff’s distressed phonecall. Abi had left him for a Bulgarian plastics entrepreneur and he had lost his job at the fishing tackle museum. He was anxious about the bank repossessing his house and was being driven mad by the round the clock drum and bass music from his neighbours. His doctor had put him on anti-depressants but the anti part seemed not to be working. And to cap it all his ulcer had flared up again. He could take no more.

Hang on,’ I had said, ‘I’ll give you a list of things worth living for. Pick any letter.’

B’ he had said.’

OK. The Beach Boys, Breaking Bad, big boobs, barbecues, BB King …….’

He was dismissive of all my suggestions, even big boobs. They got in the way he said. He ranted on for a bit and said he would give Abi two weeks, or was it three weeks, and if she wasn’t back, he was going to run his car into the side of a truck. Not any old truck mind you, he had one particular truck lined up. A DHL Iveco Stralis, I seem to recall. If I were so inclined, this is not the way I would want to do it. An overdose or a lethal injection would be much more comfortable. But Geoff seemed to be quite determined about the collision and always one to concentrate on the detail, as well as the vehicle, he had worked out a date and time.

There are a lot of self-help sites on the internet,’ I remember saying.

He said he could not connect to the Internet since he had gone with CheapNet. I remember feeling a little guilty that I had recommended CheapNet. After I suggested it, however, we had nothing but problems with CheapNet. I finally cancelled our contract with them just two days ago, having become exasperated by the slowness of the connection and the language barrier when dealing with their helpline in Turkmenistan. Now we are with FreeSurf, which of course is not free but it does seem quite speedy.

At the time, I did not take Geoff’s suicide threat too seriously. But perhaps I should have. He is not picking up. Am I too late?

I think I ought to go round to see if things are …… all right,’ I say to Stacey, who has finished her brown ale and is now opening a bottle of advocaat. I have to admit that I have no idea what I will do if things are not all right.

I get the Fiesta out of the garage, tie the front bumper back on and set off, wondering if I am over the limit. True, Stacey drank the lion’s share of the Belgian cider earlier, but there is always that risk. Geoff’s place is about fifteen miles away, so just in case any police might think a brown Fiesta with no front number plate, a dent in the side and the bumper hanging off looks suspicious, I decide to go the back way.

The Fiesta coughs and splutters as it makes its way up Prospect Hill. At the summit, perhaps summit is an extravagant description for a rise of a hundred feet, a cyclist in rain-drenched Day Glo Lycra eases past me. The Fiesta coughs and splutters as it makes its way down Prospect Hill. Its days are numbered. I have seen a lovely little Daewoo for sale, but what with the extra hours at the balloon repair workshop and Zoot’s problems with his Maths teacher, I have not had chance to look at it. I resolve to make time over the weekend.

Ashoka’s, the new store on the roundabout has a board saying 20% OFF SNAKES. I make a mental to note to check if we need one. Perhaps it didn’t say snakes, but you never know. Ashoka’s seems to sell just about everything. Someone at work bought an Alan Titchmarsh garden gnome there. They have a whole range apparently, Monty Don, Diarmuid Gavin, even Percy Thrower. BUY ONE GET ONE FREE, says another sign, although I cannot make out what this is for. Inflatable Buddhas, perhaps.

I have to wait at the temporary traffic lights in Long Lane where they are rebuilding the railway bridge. The lights have been there for months, if not years. How hard is it to strengthen a bridge? I try to get something on the radio to distract me. There is a choice between teeny pop, Wayne Rooney’s Desert Island Discs, Brahms, or a discussion on downsizing. I switch it off. We were forced to downsize a year ago when Stacey’s eldest, Irie, moved in with Mojo. Irie’s money from her job at Morrisons had helped keep us afloat. It does not seem likely that Zoot will ever pass his GCSEs let alone be in a position to leave home. But perhaps I am being a little unfair. He is only seventeen.

The lights change and I drive on. The Fiesta seems to run along nicely so long as I stay in third gear and use the wipers sparingly. ALL NIGHT HAPPY HOUR the sign outside The Bucket of Eels says. I remember that Geoff and I used to play skittles there years ago. When it was a real pub, with a choice of twenty real ales, with expressive names like Feck’s Original and Old Badger. Before it was taken over by Wicked Inns. The year Geoff and I were on the team, The Bucket nearly won the County Skittles League, losing narrowly to The Pig in a Poke in the final match. Admittedly the season was quite short that particular year as only four pubs entered, but we were proud of our achievement.

In the four years I have been with Stacey, I have only seen Geoff two or three times. When you are in a relationship, there is a tendency to neglect old friendships. Geoff and I speak on the phone occasionally and agree to go to the dogs or go fishing but something always comes up. It is probably ten years since we went to the dogs, and nearly as long since we went fishing. What a strange contrivance time is. It does not seem to follow a linear course, certainly not when viewed retrospectively. The memory constantly plays tricks. On the one hand, Geoff’s cry for help phonecall, if that is what it was, seems like it had happened months ago. Could it have really been only two or three weeks? On the other hand, it seems only last year that Geoff and I went boating in France to celebrate his forty-fifth birthday, and my divorce from Donna. But now Geoff is fifty-one or perhaps it is fifty-two, as he is two years older than me. The folding of time, the inability to identify the correct order of events relative to one another is something that becomes more worrying with age. Temporal confusion will presumably happen more and more with each passing year. I will have to accept it, along with receding gums and decreasing libido. I am dreading being fifty. This is only a few months away. Fifty is a watershed. Did hitting fifty mark the beginning of Geoff’s decline, I wonder?

Even if one should feel the inclination to end it, there are the ethical implications to overcome. Committing suicide in western culture is regarded as a crime and in Christianity a mortal sin. Not that Geoff was particularly religious, but he had been brought up as a Catholic. I try to speculate how suicide might this affect one’s life after death status? Because you are in essence taking a life, do you go to hell? Purgatory? Are you perhaps allocated a shabby damp basement in Rotherham with fifties furniture, a shared kitchen and the lingering smell of yesterday’s cabbage?

My mobile rings, breaking me out of my reverie. Perhaps Geoff has got the number and is phoning me back. Why do I always put the thing on the passenger seat? Now it has fallen down the side. I have to pull over to retrieve it. It is not Geoff, but Stacey asking if I can pick up some eggs, and if I pass an off-license, a bottle of ouzo. I tell her I will lookout for a farm shop, but it is unlikely that they will sell ouzo. ‘Pernod will do,’ she says. ‘Just a small bottle.’

Before Gnarls was put down, Stacey would buy a bottle of Lambrusco with the shopping and this would last her a week. Gnarls was a sweet dog. He was a cocker spaniel retriever cross. He was just seven years old. An inoperable tumour. His passing has affected Stacey badly. She has all his doggy toys lined up on the mantelpiece and she keeps getting his basket out from under the stairs. Last week I got home to find her cuddling his blanket.

I arrive at Geoff’s, having passed nowhere that sells comestibles. The Fiesta retches and rattles as I bring it to a stop outside the house. I notice immediately with a degree of alarm that there is an estate agents board in the front garden. SOLD by Jackson and Pollock. Has it been more than three weeks since Geoff’s phonecall? Why didn’t I phone back sooner? Maybe there would have been something I could have done. My heart racing. I get out of the Fiesta and look around. There is no car on the drive. Is Geoff at this very moment ramming it into the side of the truck? Or has he already done so? The yard is tidier than I remember it. There are no dismantled motorcycles. And where are the geese? Maybe I got the date wrong and it was May 16th or something and things have moved on. I fear the worst. I feel sick in my stomach. There is an eerie silence.

Not sure exactly what I am expecting to discover, I sidle over to look in the front window. A translucent waxy green film is forming on some of the bricks around the front door. I remember in an earlier conversation Geoff referring to this. In his paranoia, he wondered if it might be radioactive. Perhaps Geoff had been on the slide for a while and I had failed to notice.

At this moment, a blue Seat with tinted windows approaches and pulls in. Geoff and Abi step out, looking fit and tanned.

Hello Al,’ says Geoff, striding over to shake my hand. ‘Long time. What are you doing out here?’

I am lost for words. Eventually, I mutter something about the phonecall, three weeks ago. ‘I thought I might have been too late’

Have you started smoking the wacky-baccy again, Al? What phonecall? Anyway, three weeks ago Abi and I were in Dubai. Had a brilliant time as it happened. Magnificent architecture! You should go. Tell you what Al; I think that our life is starting to take off. When Abi and I got back from Dubai, we found we’d had a big win on the premium bonds and decided we would sell up. Fantastic, eh? House was on the market for less than twelve hours and we got a cash buyer offering the full asking price. What about that? From Bulgaria, he is, some sort of entrepreneur.’

I am flabbergasted.

Good thing you caught us. We’re moving next week. Anyway, how are you, must be six months at least. You better come in and have a drink.’

Fine,’ I say. ‘Just a little bit shell shocked.’

Last time we spoke you sounded pretty desperate,’ Geoff says. ‘I was quite worried about you. Thought you might do something silly. The bank didn’t repossess your house in the end I take it.’

I kept saying that Geoff should phone you to make sure you were all right,’ Abi says.

No really. I’m fine,’ I say.

And how’s Stacey?’ Geoff says. Although he has never met her I have formed the impression that Geoff in some way disapproves of Stacey.

I stay and have a beer with Geoff and Abi while they show me a VideoSpin film that Geoff has put together consisting of photos of staggering post-modern skyscrapers.

Those are the Dubai Emirates Towers, that’s the Burj Al Arab Hotel, and that is the Etisalat building.’

These are punctuated with photos of dramatic mosaics and water features from the Dubai marina. He has even dug out some authentic oud music for the soundtrack. I feel it is a little self-indulgent. I don’t imagine that they listen to a lot of oud music in Dubai these days. I am relieved Geoff is in good spirits but at the same time, confused. I can think of no explanation for the misunderstanding and Geoff offers none except that I seem to have been overdoing it lately. As soon as it seems courteous to do so, I take my leave.

I decide to drive back along the main roads. It is late. There won’t be any police on the roads at this time of night. I am making good progress and have just passed the Crossroads Motel when the phone rings. It is Stacey. She sounds excited, but before I can make out what she is trying to tell me the line goes dead. Probably my battery. I keep forgetting to charge it. Whatever it is will have to wait. Up ahead there is a blanket of flashing blue lights. As I draw closer, acutely aware that an old car doing forty-five in third might seem a bit conspicuous, I see that there has been an accident and that all the emergency services are in attendance. A car has driven into the side of a truck. A DHL Iveco Stralis. My mind races. What on earth is going on? Why is there so much strangeness in my life?

When I get home Stacey is still up. She has found a bottle of homemade fig schnapps and is watching Celebrity Big Brother on catch-up. Anne Widdecombe has just been evicted, which leaves Ayman al-Zawahiri, Paul Gascoigne and Vanilla Ice in the house.

I’ve just bought a dog on eBay,’ she says. ‘How was Geoff?’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

 

ODDS

oddsOdds by Chris Green

Having worked at BiggerBet, Rick O’Shea knows a little about odds. Rick knows, for instance, the bookmakers’ odds of West Ham winning the Premier League are 1,000 to 1. The mathematical odds of being dealt a Straight Flush at five-card Draw Poker are 72,192 to 1. The odds of winning the jackpot on the six ball Lottery by getting each number correct are roughly 14 million to 1. But the odds of Billy Chance turning up on his doorstep in his Tottenham Hotspur strip bouncing a football are incalculable, especially as Billy doesn’t appear to have aged since Rick last saw him over thirty years ago. As far as Rick knows, Billy is dead. He heard Billy met his maker when his Sierra Cosworth came off the road at Fiddlers Elbow, a notoriously dangerous bend that over the years has claimed many lives.

If Billy is dead, he doesn’t seem to realise it because he wants to know if Rick is up for a kick-around in Farmer Flynn’s field. This is not going to work out as Farmer Flynn’s field has long since been built upon. It is now a mixed development of three and four bedroomed town-houses and deceptively spacious starter apartments. In any case, Rick’s arthritis means that kicking a ball around is all but impossible these days. He has an appointment with the doctor later.

You’d better come in, Billy,’ he says, hoping that something will come to light to help solve the mystery.

It looks different,’ Billy says once they are in the hallway. ‘What happened to the poster of Gazza?’

Billy doesn’t look different. He still looks ten years old. He is exactly how Rick remembers him. The same ginger hair parted harshly at the side. The same scar on his left cheek which has not quite healed, this from the scrap he had had in the playground with Johnny Keating. He isn’t sure how he should play it. There is too much of a gap between logic and what is happening here. Can Billy not see that he is no longer ten years old? That things have moved on? Rick tries to explain to him that this is not the old house he used to visit. That all happened a long time ago.

Oh! I see. You’ve moved, have you, Rick?’ Billy says. ‘When was that?’

Rick tells him in the simplest way he can that he has moved several times. And furthermore …..

If you like, we could go along to the double bridge instead,’ Billy says.

Rick recalls they sometimes used to go trainspotting in the old days. The double bridge was a place you could see the trains coming in both directions from a long way off.

No. I don’t fancy that, Billy,’ he says, hoping he will not need to explain railway developments over the last four decades.

OK,’ Billy says. ‘But I think I’ll go along. The express will be coming through soon. I’ll leave the ball here then, shall I?’

With this, Billy is gone.

……………………………………….

Too much sitting at a desk,’ Dr Baccarat says. ‘You need to get more exercise. But I have an under-the-counter spray that I think might help. And I’ll see what I can do about that other matter.’

Rick is pleased he was able to see Dr Baccarat. He is always more helpful than Dr Hopper or Dr Bolt. They usually send him away with a flea in his ear.

After the appointment and a blast of Dr Baccarat’s spray, he stops off at The Gold Cup for a Special Brew. He has a chat with his former colleague, Dean Runner. Dean has also lost his job with BiggerBet. Dean says the problem is you can bet on anything. Bog snorkelling, cheese rolling, the discovery of life on Mars, when the end of the world would be. How can you honestly offer objective odds on unusual bets? It is easy to see how Rick made a mistake offering odds on the winner of the Home Counties Conker Semi-Finals. While he probably shouldn’t have accepted such a large bet at such long odds and certainly not to someone he was acquainted with, BiggerBet could afford the payout. Besides, they themselves had not done too badly. Both Rick and Dean had frequently taken advantage of insider knowledge and backed unlikely winners.

When Rick returns home, he finds an old Fiat Uno parked on the drive. A rare sight these days but the car seems somehow familiar. He assumes it must belong to a friend of Amy’s. Amy has probably returned from work early. Since Brexit, there has been a reduced demand for eyebrow tinting. People can no longer afford such luxuries. But there is no sign of Amy’s Mini.

Inside the house, he becomes aware of a sweet perfume he doesn’t immediately recognise. Someone is shuffling about upstairs.

Is that you, Ricky?’ a female voice calls down. ‘I hope you don’t mind. I let myself in.’

It takes him a while to recognise the voice. He has not heard Donna’s voice for a long time. But it certainly sounds like her. It is then he remembers she had a Fiat Uno back when he used to see her. As he recalls, it kept breaking down. But he hasn’t seen Donna for years. What can she possibly be doing here?

He goes up to the bedroom. Donna is slipping out of her dress. She looks exactly as she did years ago. Lithe and youthful.

Shall we get in?’ she purrs, gesturing towards the bed.

Dr Baccarat’s under-the-counter spray has offered some relief to Rick’s arthritic limbs and the Special Brew has perked him up. But an under-the-sheets romp with a twenty-something Donna is an altogether different proposition. He remembers she was always what one might describe as lively. Also, it might be difficult to get Amy to be understanding if she comes home early from the salon. Meanwhile, it is difficult for him to understand what is going on. This isn’t merely a question of the odds being incalculable. They have somehow entered the realms of impossibility. What crazy shit is going down in his world?

To buy some time, he tells Donna he is going to take a quick shower. He urgently needs to gather his thoughts.

Don’t be too long,’ Donna says. ‘I’m feeling very horny.’

Rick goes into the spare room and calls Amy, this on the pretext of asking her to drop by Tesco on her way home to buy plum jam as they have run out. She tells him she is meeting Nicky after work. She told him this morning. Doesn’t he remember? He tells her not to worry, he will go out and get the jam. On the plus side, she isn’t going to suddenly come through the door.

When he goes back into the bedroom, he discovers Donna is no longer there. He hears the sound of a car starting up outside. He looks out the window and sees the Fiat disappearing up the drive.

……………………………………….

Years ago, Rick’s psychotherapist, Hoagy Platt taught him the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Remembering this, he uses it now to try to calm himself. It seems to work. As the minutes pass, he feels more centred. He questions whether either of today’s curious visits actually happened. Perhaps he was simply mistaken. This has happened before. The mind can sometimes play tricks. If you give it free rein, imagination is apt to run wild. Perhaps the visits were nothing more than illusions brought on by stress.

He checks the bedroom again. At first glance, nothing appears to be out of place. It looks as it usually does, the bed neatly made, the pillows on either side correctly stacked and the sheet folded over the duvet at the top. But then he notices a large pink hooped earring on the floor. This is not the type of thing that Amy would wear. She only ever wears studs or discreet dangles. This is a younger person’s jewellery and pink is Donna’s colour. There are traces of perfume lingering in the air, the same one he caught a whiff of earlier. While neither of these things in themselves is conclusive, together they present a strong case for Donna’s having been here. Billy’s football on the floor by the coat-rack in the hallway suggests that he too was here.

Weird though the day has been, Rick tells himself that no actual harm has been done. Whether real or not, these were his own private experiences and so long as he can put them behind him, life can return to normal. He has overcome lapses in reason before. When you consider it, life itself is strange. Many things happen to people every day for which there is no plausible explanation. Why would he be exempt from the whims of unpredictability and strangeness? Who can tell what is real and what is imaginary anymore? What is genuine and what is fake?

How’s the job hunting going?’ Amy asks when she comes home.

Rick tells her he has applied for a senior position at YouBet. He hasn’t. He had thought about putting in an application but with everything else happening, this had taken a back seat.

That’s good,’ Amy says. ‘All this sitting around at home is not good for you. Haven’t you noticed you are putting on weight? By the way, someone called Donna came in to have her eyebrows done earlier. She said she remembered you from years ago. Knew you quite well, apparently. It seems strange you’ve never mentioned her. Around fifty, I’d say, although she dressed much younger. Skimpy little dress, bleached blonde hair, lots of make-up. Mutton dressed as lamb, to coin a phrase. Ring any bells?’

No,’ Rick says. ‘I don’t think I know anyone like that.’ The Donna that Amy is describing seems to have little in common with the vision he caught a glimpse of earlier. And yet ……

……………………………………….

I wonder who that creepy old fellow is that’s been hanging around outside,’ Amy says at breakfast the next morning.

Who?’ Rick says. ‘I haven’t noticed anyone.’

The one with the long ginger hair and the scruffy white football shirt,’ she says ‘Every time I go out, he seems to be there. He talks to himself. He’s definitely strange.’

No. Can’t say I’ve seen him,’ Rick says.

Mutters to himself, Gazza’s great or something like that,’ Amy says. ‘I always give him a wide berth. Perhaps you might have a word.’

I can’t see him,’ Rick says, going over to the window. ‘Where is he?’

He’s doesn’t seem to be there at the moment but he was first thing when I got up,’ Amy says. ‘Look. I’ve been meaning to ask. Where did that football in the hallway come from?’

Don’t know,’ Rick says. ‘Your nephew, Adrian?’

But Adrian hasn’t been here for months.’

Don’t know, then. Perhaps it’s that crazy old man’s and he’s been looking for it.’

Very funny! Anyway, I have to get to work. Hope you hear about that job.’

Hoping for a less traumatic day, Rick settles down to do some research. He isn’t sure what terms to use but time shifts and false memory seem like good starting points. He finds pages and pages of results, each repeating the same things, no matter what he types in as qualifiers. Time shifts are more related to science fiction than hard science and false memory is a self-explanatory psychological phenomenon. Not exactly revelations. The internet is so frustrating. He is glad he has the cat to keep him company.

But wait, they don’t have a cat. Amy must have accidentally let this one in when she left for work. Yet Rick can’t help thinking the cat looks like Zorro. But don’t all black and white cats look the same? And Zorro died over twenty years ago. He would be about forty by now. That would be two hundred and eighty in human years. The cat has the same red collar that Zorro used to have. With a name tag. It is called Zorro. The odds against there being more than one black and white cat called Zorro with a red collar would have several noughts on the end.

Granted, these are short odds compared to the appearances of Billy Chance and Donna Betts. But still. This can wait until later. The cat is not doing any harm. It is time to find out what he can on Billy and Donna. He is about to try some targetted internet searches when he is interrupted by the arrival of a white van and a knock at the door.

You’ll have to give me a hand with this one, guv,’ the delivery driver says. ‘You’ll see why.’

The package turns out to be a three-foot by three re-enforced cardboard box. It is addressed to Rick but he feels he would remember if he had ordered anything this bulky. It is clearly not the windcheater jacket he bought on eBay or the DVDs from Amazon. The package has no return address. Rick is reluctant to accept it but the driver hovers over him threateningly and mouths something about having come all this way. Between the two of them, with a lot of huffing and puffing, they manage to get it inside the house and Rick signs for it.

Nor is it simple to open the box. Rick has to call upon most of the items in his toolbox. To his puzzlement, despite its huge size and weight, the box appears to be empty. He tries to turn it on to its side but it takes all his strength just to move it a few inches. How can an empty cardboard box be so heavy? Science and sensibility are out the window.

As Rick sits staring at the box wondering what to do with the thing, the hidden contents begin to emerge. Slowly at first. A smell, a taste, a pattern. Then a trickle. A song here, a picture there, a candle, a potted plant. A flip-top mobile phone, a new book about a boy wizard, a family pack of Honey Nut Clusters. Soon there is a settee, a chair, a CD rack, laughter and chatter. A card table, beer cans, a stack of newspapers, open at the sports pages. A TV in the corner with a chef shouting abuse at the others in his kitchen. Someone buzzing about saying something about taking the children to see Shrek. The news channel showing live pictures of planes hitting New York towers. The desktop computer is slow and clunky but it has the Internet and the facility to bet online. You can get odds of 6 to 4 on there being a third plane. A good price for a certainty. A no-brainer, Rick thinks.

He attempts to make a large bet. The site won’t accept any of his credit or debit cards. Is this a bad thing or a good thing? He cannot decide which. If, on the one hand ….. But, there again ….. The box in the room is still regurgitating the past. More clutter. The room is filling up with stuff. Tables and chairs, a backgammon set, half-empty coffee cups, discarded clothes, wine bottles, overturned ashtrays. The dog is barking. He doesn’t have a dog. Alarms are sounding. There are intruders. Everything is closing in. He feels claustrophobic. There are more shots of the burning towers on the TV. He finds it difficult to breathe from the smoke inhalation. He needs to go outside to get some air.

He makes his way out onto the street. To his relief, there are no suspicious people from the past hanging around. There are no unexpected cars on the drive. The traffic on the street is flowing orderly in both directions. A normal day here. A number 28 bus passes. It has an advert for YouBet on the side with their tag-line, you’ll get the best odds.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Invisibility

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INVISIBILITY by Chris Green

I discovered I could make people invisible. I found out by accident when I was working at the Ministry of Science and Technology. The Board refused to believe my evidence and summarily dismissed me. They could not see what was staring them in the face, or in this case not. They claimed it was a trick. That I was a cheap illusionist trying to get one over on them. There was no room for charlatans in the Ministry, Sir Fred Jessop said. But it seems to me, it was simply that they didn’t want something this important to get out. They wanted to keep the discovery under wraps. They were scared of the implications. Presumably, they were acting on instructions from on high. Their paymasters were people whose interests it was to make sure people were visible.

But perhaps the world should be made aware of my discovery. Things can only move forward when knowledge is shared. It’s not as difficult as you might imagine to make someone invisible. No specialist training is necessary. No background in Nuclear Physics or anything like that is needed. No scientific equipment is required. None of this quantum stealth invisibility cloak nonsense that the American military has been looking into is involved. No secret wisdom from reading the Upanishads. Nor any wand-waving Harry Potter mumbo-jumbo. It seems you just have to put the intention in place with sufficient emphasis and the victim vanishes.

After my initial success making one or two of my colleagues in Room 404 invisible, I held back for a while. After all, this was so groundbreaking that I could hardly believe it was happening. And if it was, what if it was something that only worked in a controlled scientific environment like the lab on the fourth floor of the Ministry? Eventually, I felt I had nothing to lose by testing it out elsewhere. Firstly, I tried it on my cat, Ralph. It worked a treat. Ralph disappeared. As soon as I got the chance, I tried it out on to the annoying next-door neighbour. The Manchester City supporter with the Cairn Terrier who was forever having barbecues on warm summer evenings. He too vanished. Next, it was the Conservative candidate who came around to canvas for votes in the upcoming County Council Election. Gone, in a flash. Just like that. These results were encouraging. Clearly, I was on to something.

As yet, invisibility was not permanent. So far as I could tell, it lasted from between two to three hours. Before I knew it, Ralph was back for his meaty chunks and my next-door neighbour was once again lighting the coals and cranking up the Country music ready for a barbecue. I’ve no information about exactly when when the Conservative candidate re-appeared but he must have because he was duly elected.

Perhaps my method needed a little tweaking to get it to last longer but for the time being, I reasoned that two or three hours ought to be sufficient time for many of its potential uses. At least the more nefarious ones. It would be enough time, for instance, for a burglar to rob the average house, probably quite a large house or perhaps several houses. It would be enough time for someone to sneak into a big match or an event without a ticket. It would also be useful to some old lag who wanted to get out of prison. Now I was out of work, at least I had a marketable product. At a later date, perhaps I could aim higher.

Griffin, the protagonist in the H. G. Wells novel, having made himself invisible, was unable to make himself visible again. This despite considerable efforts to do so. I found myself with a different problem. Although I was able to make others disappear, I was not yet able to make myself invisible. It seemed this was going to be the biggest challenge of all. Rosicrucians, Theosophists and The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn had all claimed success here. They maintained that with practice, you could become invisible by learning to spiral your personal grid to a higher frequency.

Was I trying too hard, I wondered? Was I putting too much pressure on myself? I went to see Dr Hopper. He must have felt it was something to do with the drugs because he put me on some different ones. Take four of these three times a day, he said. At least, I think that’s what he said. When you added the mg up, it did seem quite a large figure but they worked a treat. Dr Hopper seemed to have cracked it. My ex-wife walked straight past me on the High Street. Maddie had never done this before. She was never exactly warm and welcoming but up until now, she had always acknowledged me when we met accidentally. And when I called round to ask my friend, Geoff, if he wanted to go for a drink at the Cat and Fiddle, he told me he could not see me today. Geoff could not see me. The driver of the black BMW with the tinted windows who drove straight at me when I was crossing Gulliver Street obviously couldn’t see me either. It seemed that at last I was invisible.

There is a good chance I can make you invisible too. I am going to call in at the Community Resource Centre later to see if I can hire their hall to hold Invisibility classes. Who knows where this could lead? What is it they say? Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

South by Southwest

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South by Southwest by Chris Green

I have been sitting around the house all winter waiting for the call. I have been waiting so long that I have had time to set up a profitable giclée printing business. ‘Just be ready,’ I was told. That was last October. I have frequently wondered whether the phone they gave me actually works. It looks very basic. I don’t even know the number. When I try to find out by phoning my landline from it, it comes back with number not recognised. Like everything else in this game, anonymity seems to be the key. I’m wondering whether the people who have signed me up, whoever they might be, have changed their minds about giving me a mission. They may have decided that as I was dismissed from the service that I am a bad risk. But there again, they must realise I am cheaper than others who might have similar experience in the field.

I am in the middle of my morning ablutions when it happens. I hear Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head playing. At first, I wonder where the tinny tune is coming from, but quickly track it down to the black Nokia.

Meet me at the railway station at 1100,’ says a female voice, with a trace of an accent I cannot place.

How will I recognise you?’ I ask.

She replies that there is no need for me to recognise her. She knows what I look like. ‘And bring everything you might need for a week away from home,’ she says.

I take this to mean I should include the Glock in my luggage. While I would not describe myself as a hitman, in the field it is important to be armed. It gives you that extra sense of security.

Laura does not know I am a sleeper agent. I phone and tell her not to expect me around for a few days. She seems to take it well, too well perhaps. She does not even ask why. As we have been seeing each other for three years, you would have thought she might have shown more of an interest. I have the feeling it may be because she wants more commitment. Or perhaps she feels I have been drinking too much lately.

I make a habit of arriving for a meet ten minutes early. This gives me the opportunity to do a reccy. If I do not know the person I am meeting which is frequently the case, I challenge myself to spot them before they introduce themselves. I have quite a good success rate. On this occasion, I not able to. The concourse is crowded. Most of the people milling around look suspicious. They are all dressed like extras from North by Northwest. Perhaps there is a fifties overcoat and hat convention somewhere. Eventually, a woman in a fashionable dark suit with a wide-brimmed hat seems to come out of nowhere. She hands me a black folder.

The instructions are here,’ she says. She looks me in the eye. It is a firm stare. ‘You will find a number to call when it is done. Phone from a public call box. You will notice a deposit in your bank account.’

Before I know it, her shapely silhouette is disappearing into the throng of passengers. I make my way to a quiet seat outside the station complex. I open the folder and carefully read the instructions. I am to liquidate Maxwell Pagan. So it is a hit after all. But, what was I expecting my clandestine mission to involve? Recovering a stolen bicycle? Helping a cat down from a tree? In the murky world of undercover operations, it’s never likely to be a walk in the park. If there were not an element of danger, they would not be employing my services.

There is a grainy close-up of Pagan wearing a trilby and a mid-range shot of him in a blue double-breasted suit. All very old school, but how could anyone recognise him from these? Pagan is believed to be somewhere in the South West of England. There are details of several sightings in Devon and Cornwall. I should check out these locations as a starting point.

They have provided me with a rail ticket to Exeter. Second class. And booked me into a hotel under the name, Foster Grant. Who thinks up these names? I check my bank account on my iPhone. The deposit could not be considered generous for a hit but what did I expect from these cheapskates? Their initial retainer ran out in the first week. What do they imagine I’ve been living on all this time while I’ve been waiting for the call? I’ve no doubt they would argue that as I am freelance, I am open to other offers. But they must realise it is difficult for an out of favour agent to find work. In this business, there seems to be a zero-tolerance towards drinking and word quickly gets around. It’s a good thing that I have been able to apply printing skills to counterfeiting to keep the wolf from the door.

I do not know the South West well, so on the train, I get the laptop out and take a good look at Google Maps to acquaint myself with the lie of the land. Devon and Cornwall have hundreds of miles of spectacular coastline. There are worse places to find yourself for a week. The downside is that with the sightings of Pagan being so far apart, there is a huge area to cover, much of it wild. I decide that when I get to Exeter, I’ll hire a four by four.

Who exactly is Maxwell Pagan? The dossier is short on facts. I have no age, no address, no phone number, no car registration, no profession, no family information, no character traits, no clubs or organisations, no affiliations, no interests. Just a couple of photos and a list of sightings. Apparently, he is five foot nine. I look around the train. Nearly everyone is about five foot nine, even the women. Unsurprisingly, an internet search is of no help. There are several Maxwell or Max Pagans across the pond, but the search engines give me nothing closer to home. I search the UK Electoral Register, onlinelandregistry and DVLA. Not a single Maxwell Pagan.

People assume that undercover agents work for security organisations like MI5 or MI6, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. None of the organisations I have worked for has any monikers. We are just loose groups of individuals given instructions from people we don’t know. We don’t have colleagues. We don’t work in open-plan offices where we talk about Champions League football in our breaks. Nor do we go out on ops together in unmarked cars with gizmos and gadgets. We are merely operatives paid for doing a job that might or might not be legal.

I am at the Café Alf Resco at the harbour-side in Dartmouth, enjoying an afternoon cocktail. It’s quite relaxing listening to the jazz playing and looking at the boats. But wait, isn’t that man in the unseasonable trench-coat with the dark glasses the same one I saw at Exeter station? If it is, it could indicate that I am on the right track and someone else is looking for Maxwell Pagan. Perhaps they are tailing me thinking I know what I am doing. But it could mean they are after me and waiting for the right moment to strike.

Does that man come here a lot?’ I ask the well turned-out barista. His name badge says, Mario. He doesn’t look Italian.

Which geezer would you be talking about, guv?’ he says. He doesn’t sound Italian.

The one with the big coat on,’ I say.

Couldn’t say, mate,’ he says. ‘We get so many weirdos around here that I don’t take a lot of notice. Know what I mean. It’s the Naval connection, innit.’ He’s not from around here, either. He’s probably from my neck of the woods.

So you wouldn’t have noticed this one either,’ I say, showing him the photos.

No, ‘fraid not, squire.’ he says with a practised air of distraction. I get the impression that he would say this even if he had seen Pagan. Perhaps I should have left the enquiry until after I’d tipped him and slipped it in on the way out.

Trench-coat does not appear to follow me when I leave Café Alf Resco, but here he is again at Tangerine Tree in Totnes. He is tracking me somehow. Should I search my hired Freelander for a GPS tracker? He must have realised that it is going to be warmer than yesterday because he has got rid of the coat. He has a summer jacket on but I wouldn’t be betting that he isn’t packing a gun. Perhaps he thinks the Rayban sunglasses render him unrecognisable. Doesn’t he realise that I have been on courses? I debate whether to approach him and ask him politely why he is following me, whether to point a gun at his head in the car park or whether to suggest we pool our resources to find Pagan.

None of these happens. I don’t know how I come to be tailing him in his big Nissan, but I manage to stay behind him all the way across country to Mortehoe. Technically speaking, it is not my fault he drives over a cliff, but testimony to my driving skills that I do not follow him. I do not think there are any witnesses, which is handy as there is bound to be an investigation.

Witnessing an accident in the field is always traumatic. It is something you come across time and time again in this line of work but you never get used to it. You can never be sure of the facts and there is no way to go back and check. What’s done is done. That’s it. Move on. But still!

I find some suitably cathartic music on the radio, Sibelius I think, and take a B Road back to Exeter. This takes me through Exmoor National Park, a unique landscape of moorland that goes on forever. I am not in a sightseeing frame of mind. I might as well be on the moon. I have a medicinal shot or two at Cullompton Services. When I get back to my room at the Travelodge, I find a woman in my bed, which is nice, but I wasn’t expecting one.

Room service is improving,’ I say.

Save the smartass for later,’ she says. ‘Now, let’s get you in a good mood then we can discuss how we’re going to find Maxwell Pagan.’

This is certainly a surprising offer but not an unwelcome one, and she seems particularly adept at cheering a lonely man up. Half an hour later I feel much more optimistic.

I’m Olga,’ she says, by way of a belated introduction. Whether or not this is her name doesn’t really matter.

I’m Foster,’ I say. Whether or not this is my name doesn’t really matter. ‘I guess it’s time to review the case then Olga, wouldn’t you say? What have you got?’

She takes out a folder similar to the one I have but red and hands me a wad of large-format photos of Pagan. If you saw this person, you would recognise him easily from these pictures. They are clear and sharp. Also, they look as though they might have been taken around these parts.

This one’s in Penzance,’ she says. ‘And, there’s Fowey. Then we have Plymouth, I think. This one’s Truro. …..’

This one is Exeter,’ I say. ‘And is that one with him in front of the estate agents, Torquay?’

Babbacombe,’ she says. ‘Then there’s Bude and Padstow.’

He moves around a fair bit,’ doesn’t he?’ I say, examining a photo from force of habit to see how much it has been Photoshopped.

While I am doing this Olga unfolds an A3 spreadsheet listing all the locations where Pagan has allegedly been sighted within the last month, along with the times of day. She is a mine of information. Why she needs me is not obvious.

It is not until the next morning that I discover why. Olga has disappeared, along with my gun. This might be a staple of spy thrillers but it has never happened to me before. I have never been done over like this. I must be getting rusty. At least, I have avoided the other clichés, like being knocked unconscious, interrogated and tortured, or tied up and left in a dark room. But how could I have been so trusting? What was I told all those years ago? Trust no one, not even me. I can hear, my instructor, Boris Whitlock saying it.

I cannot face the thought of breakfast at the Travelodge. Perhaps this has something to do with all the supercilious drones there will be sitting around in their business suits, checking their Outlook calendars and tweeting away on their smartphones. More likely though it is to do with my hangover. How much did I have to drink last night? Instead of breakfast, I take the Freelander for a drive down the estuary with the windows open to the little town of Dawlish, home of the black swan as it advertises itself.

In the field, you constantly face the risk of things going wrong. You have to brace yourself for setbacks, accustom yourself to occasional misfortune. You establish procedures which minimise the risk. This is something you learn over time. Perhaps you never stop learning. So, what is the lesson here? There’s no such thing as a free lunch, perhaps.

I need to go somewhere quiet where I can regroup and decide what to do next. After all, I have been in difficult situations before. I just need to compose myself. My rule of thumb is to give it fifty-five minutes to adjust to any new situation. A new strategy should then present itself.

I settle on a table outside a café on the Strand and order a full English breakfast. It is then that I catch sight of him. It is definitely Pagan. He is going into Pearson Ranger Estate Agents. Might this explain the sightings? He is buying property in the South West. I realise that land and property ownership can be a contentious issue, but it is not usually a reason to kill someone. On the other hand, someone must have a reason or I would not be here now. I do not know who has ordered the killing. Mine is not to reason why. I am being paid, however badly, to do a job. Why do I do it? I don’t know. I suspect that I am just a bad man.

So, to the task at hand. Now that I have found Pagan I can tail him, but Olga has my gun. There are other ways to take someone out, but in my line of work, the bullet is by far the most popular method. Olga may, of course, appear anytime and do the job for me. She might be hiding around the corner, or in the back seat of his car waiting for him to return for all I know. It seems likely she is being paid by a different agency to the one who is paying me. My people don’t appear to be the type to pay two hitmen. But what the hell! Is any of this important? Why don’t I just hand the money back and go back to my giclée printing?

I hear the great Boris Whitlock’s booming baritone, from all those years ago in the underground bunker in the secret location that wasn’t even on OS maps, saying, ‘failure is not an option. No matter what difficult circumstances may arise, you must always complete your mission.’

With this in mind, I sidle down the street to Pearson Ranger and look in the window. I cannot see very much of the inside but I can’t help noticing that all the houses advertised in the window except for one have been marked, SOLD. What an odd situation! I realise that property has been on the up and Dawlish might be a popular location, but surely the market can’t be that buoyant. I remember some friends of mine telling me only last week that they had had to drop the price to get a sale. Boris Whitlock’s voice starts up once again. I begin to wonder how I can complete my mission. Could I strangle Pagan with my tie or my belt?

Pagan emerges from Pearson Ranger. He does not appear to notice me but then why would he? Why would he be aware of my existence? I keep an eye on him as he crosses the road. He is exactly how he looked in Olga’s photos. Displaying an air of self-confidence he goes into the estate agents on the other side of the road. Placing myself outside, I can see at a glance that except for one, all the houses advertised have big stickers on saying SOLD.

I can’t just go in and strangle him. I have to wait for him to come out and then …….. Before I can work out my strategy, Olga drives up and parks her car. I don’t know whether to be puzzled, shocked or angry.

How did you know I would be here?’ I say. ‘Or for that matter, Pagan?’

I’m guessing you don’t even remember the conversation we had last night,’ she says. ‘When I saw the empty whiskey bottle this morning, I didn’t think you would be up for much today, so I went on ahead to do a reccy. I’ve been all around Dawlish and Teignmouth this morning. You’d be surprised just how many estate agents there are here.’

What!’ I say.

Last night we reasoned that this morning we would discover Pagan buying up property in Dawlish and Teignmouth.’

We did? How did we work that out?’

I told you. ……….. Don’t you remember? I had a call from my …….. researcher. And from his information, we worked out that Pagan would be here today. ……… Perhaps you felt bad at having brought so little to the table.’

Well, I must have remembered something about Dawlish at some level. I mean, I came here, didn’t I?’ I say, trying desperately to recover some ground.

You do remember us finding out the reason that we have been given the task of getting rid of Pagan, don’t you?’

Do I?’ I say, trying to remember something, anything, of last night’s drunken conversation.

He is buying up Devon and Cornwall house by house, little by little, piece by piece and we have been assigned to stop him. You don’t remember saying you couldn’t understand how someone who had been making such obvious moves had left so little trace.’

It does ring a bell, now you come to mention it, yes.’

Pagan, of course, is not his real name. But, Foster, and I don’t suppose that is your real name either, the fellow in there already owns large chunks of Devon and Cornwall. He is rich beyond belief and yet no-one seems to know who he is. He might have made his money out of mining or telecoms, gas pipelines or media ownership, currency manipulation, pharmaceuticals, illegal drugs even. Nobody knows. Anonymously, he is building an empire down here in the South West. All I can tell you is that my people don’t want him to build an empire down here in the South West.’

I don’t suppose you know who your people are either,’ I say.

Do you know who your people are?’

No, I don’t. I’ve absolutely no idea. But if what you say is true your people and my people, whether or not they are the same ones, must stand to gain from getting Pagan out of the way, or they wouldn’t be doing it.’

And they pay us peanuts.’

Same old, isn’t it?’

Let’s get on with it then.’

Well, Olga, and I don’t suppose that is your real name either,’ I say. ‘You’ve got the gun.’

What gun? I don’t have a gun. Why do you think I teamed up with you?’

But you have my gun,’ I say.

What! I don’t. …….. Oh no! You mean you’ve lost your gun too.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Room 404

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Room 404 by Chris Green

I wasn’t supposed to see the information. Room 404 was strictly off-limits. I shouldn’t have been in there, let alone be logged on to the server. Everything on the Level 4 Server was Top Secret. No-one at my pay grade was allowed access to Classified documents. Maybe there was an oversight in staff rotas but security on the base appeared to be remarkably lax that day. My access to the room was somehow tied up with confusion over the fire drill. There was uncertainty about whether Level 4 was scheduled to be evacuated. At the last moment, it seems someone may have decided it was on the schedule. I’m not even sure how I came to be on Level 4. I must have absent-mindedly got out of the lift on the wrong floor. I found myself alone, with access to Room 404. I couldn’t resist taking a peek inside.

I quickly read the document on the screen and was found I was able to open others. The IT department appeared to have messed up because information of this sensitivity would normally have been encrypted and password protected. Yet here was the information on the screen in front of me. In English. In 12 point Times New Roman. I even had time to copy the files to a flash drive that I had inadvertently taken to work that day. The drive, which was the one I was using to store some mp3s on, had inexplicably escaped the scanners at the gate. It was an impulsive move to copy the files and certainly risky. But by the time the Fire Marshal came around to check that Level 4 had been cleared, I was long gone.

I speculated that perhaps only a handful of people would know what was being planned here. Ж, Ђ, a few senior people in GCHQ perhaps, a Minister or two and some Heads of State. But, once you have seen something you cannot un-see it. Having stumbled on the information in this way though, what could I do with it? It would be foolhardy to think I could put something like this into the public domain. You only had to look at what had happened to other whistle-blowers who over the years had spilled the beans on sensitive issues, all of which would be considered far less sensitive than this. What I had been reading was shocking, heinous, apocalyptic. It would be suicidal to share it. There would be an immediate witch-hunt and it would not take long to discover where the leak had come from. I would be on camera in Room 404. There was nothing I could do about that.

The question was, would it only come to light if they realised there had been a security breach or would they be alerted to my action, anyway? Hopefully, there would be no reason for anyone to check the cameras so long as no-one was aware that anything was wrong. But would they not investigate the mix-up over the fire drill? I agonised about this for the rest of the day. No-one came to apprehend me. But did this mean I was in the clear? Whether or not this was the case, the burden of knowing about the plan and not being able to tell felt like it would be a heavy one.

When I got home, I found Sara in a buoyant mood. She had had the day off and was playing her Billy Joel CD.

Good day at work, pet?’ she asked.

So-so,’ I said, hoping that I didn’t seem too out of sorts.

Never mind, Rob,’ she said. ‘I’m going to cook samphire and lemon salmon linguine.’

Sounds good,’ I said, although I had no idea what linguine was. Or samphire.

I’m really looking forward to our holiday in Italy,’ she said. ‘It’s not long now, you know. I’ve ordered some new sun-dresses. I’m having them specially made from those fabrics we saw. Suki says they will take about two or three weeks but that’s plenty of time. Would you like to have a look?’

How could I tell her that the dresses might not arrive or that we might not be going to Italy? I muttered something non-committal.

And later I might show you the new underwear I’ve bought,’ she said. ‘That is if you are interested.’

As it wasn’t all about to go down just yet, I felt I should oblige. Making love to my beautiful wife could only help my fragile state of mind.

Perhaps we might do that now,’ I said.

…………………………………..

That night, while Sara was dreaming of sunnier climes, I lay awake wondering if the knock would come. Would burly men in dark coats bundle me into the back of an unmarked van and take me to a dank cellar for interrogation? While reason suggested that interrogators would need to be in on the secret and in themselves might present a security risk, it did not stop the dark thoughts from coming. They would be instructed to extract a confession. By any means necessary. I tried to recall what waterboarding was. They could of course just take me out and have done with it. Given what was in the pipeline, it wasn’t as if there would be any consideration for propriety. Unless they thought I had already passed the flash drive on or stored the information in cyberspace. Once they had got rid of me, this would be more difficult to establish.

I tried to take stock. If it had come to light at all that I had been in Room 404 and copied the files, that was it. There was no doubt I was in grave danger. But this may not have come to anyone’s notice. My prospects rested on whether anyone had taken a look at the security footage. In light of this, I realised I needed to do something with the drive. There was no sense in just destroying it. They would not believe that I had. Then there would be the waterboarding. There was no sense in wiping the drive. They would just assume I had copied it beforehand, which of course I would have been a fool not to have. Just in case.

Perhaps it was best to give it twenty-four hours to allow me to fully consider the options. To see where I stood at the end of the day. It was a tough decision but having weighed up the pros and cons, I decided to go in to work. At what point should I tell Sara, I wondered as I edged the Qashqai through the morning traffic? How much did she need to know? Who else should I tell and when? Might it be possible to trickle out the information little by little without being found out? Not that there was a great deal of detail. It would be all or nothing.

I had skim-read the documents in the night. They were marked Draft and did not yet have the Top Secret watermark on. There were large gaps on some of the pages. This suggested there was some way to go in the planning. But while they were short on specifics, the intention was clear and the project aim was chilling. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide were to be wiped out through contamination of food and water supplies. It was to be a synchronised operation with the bare minimum of administrators briefed at the last minute on a need to know basis. It would be over quickly. To avoid a major revolt, it was expedient to conduct the preparation in complete secrecy. Genocide was hardly the kind of thing you could be open about. Many had accepted that some adjustment to numbers was needed. The planet could not support seven billion people. But no-one had yet been willing to act on it. Reduction of numbers required subterfuge, treachery and callous indifference.

…………………………………..

I said hello to Dmitri, Lorenzo and Ruth and nervously settled at my desk. Everything seemed to be as I had left it. There were no notes lurking there and my laptop booted up as normal. My phone rang. I looked at it for several seconds hoping this would somehow stop it ringing. Finally, I answered it. It was Phil Dark from Level 3.

Is that Robert?’ he whispered.

Yes, it is,’ I said.’

Can I run something past you?’ he said. ‘It won’t take a minute.’

Sure,’ I said, looking around to make sure none of my colleagues was listening. ‘Go ahead.’

I was surprised to hear from Phil as over the years, I had had very little to do with him. He kept himself to himself at work and so did I. Also, he had long hair and dressed like someone on his way to Glastonbury. I did not want to draw attention to a drugs conviction I had from years ago. I had not declared this on my job application.

I don’t know if you are aware that I am a bit of a writer in my spare time,’ he said. ‘Speculative fiction, mostly.’

I had vaguely heard of Phillip C. Dark, the science fiction writer. I think perhaps my friend Zoot had read something of his. But I had never made the connection with this fellow. I asked Phil about it

Yes, I am,’ he said. ‘Look, Robert! This is a bit delicate. But please bear with me. Why I’m calling is that yesterday I was changing a couple of bits and bobs in one of the chapters of my stories at my workstation. Yes, I know I shouldn’t use office computers for private matters. Anyway, in the middle of this, we had the fire drill. In my haste, I accidentally saved a draft of my files to the Level 4 server. I only realised what I’d done once I was outside the building. I managed to delete it all later and I was hoping no-one had found out. But while it was quiet early this morning, I was able to check the CCTV footage for Level 4 and you came up on camera in Room 404. It looked as if you might have been reading the draft of my story. If you did, I just wanted you to realise what it was. A story. That’s all.’

No worries!’ I said. ‘I figured it must have been something like that. I mean, come on! No-one is going to go around killing billions of innocent people, are they?’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Cor Anglais

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Cor Anglais by Chris Green

I’m guessing many of you haven’t had someone following you in the fog playing The Diabelli Variations on the cor anglais. Beethoven piano pieces aren’t something you expect to hear on a double reed woodwind instrument in a concert hall, let alone while you are taking a morning walk along the coastal path. You will be able then to understand my puzzlement. Here I am on my way to Red Rock and so is the mystery cor anglais player in pursuit. Sea mists have been building in strength throughout the year in these parts and this is the worst one we’ve had. It’s a solid sheet of dense grey. Visibility is down a matter of feet. It is foolhardy to be walking along the narrow path at all. But the dogs next door were barking furiously. I could no longer concentrate on the chess video I was watching. The so-called game of the (last) century, Bobby Fischer versus Donald Byrne. We had reached Fischer’s famous Queen sacrifice on move seventeen. There were only four moves to go but I had to get out of the house.

When I stop to allow my pursuer to catch up so that I can catch a glimpse, he stops too. But he continues playing. I have only a rudimentary knowledge of music but my understanding is that the range of the English horn is a little under four octaves while the pianoforte spans seven octaves. As Beethoven was one to make full use of the keyboard, you would have to say this interpretation of the Diabelli Variations falls short.

My phone rings. ‘Bonjour Monsieur Gibson,’ the caller says.

He continues speaking in French but slowly, as if it is not his main language. Not that this helps. My knowledge of French is almost non-existent. I blame this on my old language teacher, Mr Coot. I don’t think his heart was in it. He spent whole lessons talking about cricket or telling us about the time he met Harold Macmillan. I wasn’t able to learn much French. But argent means money, doesn’t it? And I can make out the words, fils and tuer. Son. Kill. I don’t much like where the conversation is heading. I was wondering why Paul hadn’t phoned me but I had put it down to his being too busy with his Environmental Science assignment and not because he was being held hostage. It appears he’s been kidnapped. There’s not a lot else that kidnappé can mean, is there? I can’t understand much of the rest though. What’s the point in him issuing a threat in a language I don’t understand?

I try to get the caller to speak English but he clearly wants to call the shots. When he hangs up, I still have no idea who he is, how or why he might be holding Paul or exactly what his demands are. Why does he imagine that I have any money, anyway? Since I lost my job at the software company, I have been living on handouts. Could the phonecall even be a hoax? Someone pretending to be French? To confuse the issue, shift the emphasis? Might it even be something Paul has for some reason cooked up with his friends? Probably not. It does not seem like the kind of thing Paul would do. In any case, it would be irresponsible for me to let the matter go. For the time being, I have to assume my son is being held to ransom and it is not a hoax. I need to phone the police. Unfortunately, the Emergency 999 service has been suspended and I don’t have enough credit to phone the 118 Directory Enquiries services to get a number.

It is getting murkier by the minute. I need to take stock and get to a phone I can use. I remember my old chess buddy, Krzysztof lives close by, in a static home in the holiday park. He rents it cheaply during the winter months and I haven’t seen him for a while. Krzysztof is a resourceful man. He is one of those fortunate people that know how to get out of difficult situations. I’m certain he will be able to help. He will know what I should do.

I give him a call and explain my predicament.

Strange things are happening to us all, my friend,’ he says. ‘These days, day is night and black is white.’

I agree with him. Things are indeed upside down. Until recently, Paul’s future seemed guaranteed. The world was crying out for environmental scientists. But how quickly things change. Unlike climate, which is officially not now changing, even though everyone can see it is. I am not a great one for reading the papers but the outlook hasn’t looked good since the big squabble started. Then there was that other business. The one we voted on. It’s a shame the young did not get out to vote because it is going to be worse for them. Wherever you look now there is doom and gloom. Censored internet. Less choice. Poor prospects. Smaller horizons. You probably remember those days not so long ago when you could book a holiday in the sun. You could fly anywhere. Chess players from my club can no longer play any of the guys from overseas. Sundays have been replaced by Mondays, they are fracking in the park, packs of dogs are roaming the streets and a bottle of red wine costs an arm and a leg.

When I arrive at Krzysztof’s, I find to my horror that he has no face. I look at him but no-one is looking back at me. Between the collar of his shirt and his hat, there is a void. No eyes. No ears. No mouth. He did not warn me about this. Would it have been better if he had given me the heads-up? I don’t know. It would still have been a shock. Some of you may not have experienced it but until you get used to talking to a hat bobbing up and down and stranger still, the hat talking back, it can be disorientating. I try not to draw attention to it but Krzysztof detects I am uncomfortable and tries to put me at ease.

It’s not as unusual as you might imagine, Bill’ he says. ‘Many people from my country living here have no faces now. It’s one way we are able to stay put since that vote.’

On the other hand, they’ve made it easier to stay put,’ I say. ‘There’s not even a rail link to the continent anymore.’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved