Snow

Snow by Chris Green

It’s getting very cold. I wonder if it’s going to snow,’ the text message reads.

It’s an odd message and I do not recognise the number. But to get into the spirit of things I reply, ‘It’s only August.’

This appears to strike a chord because immediately I get a reply which reads, ‘Meet me in Providence Park by the lake in twenty minutes, the third seat in.’

I am now curious as to what this is about. Perhaps it is someone I know playing a prank. Perhaps not. But whatever it is, there is a sense of intrigue about it. As I am close by and not due to pick Hannah up from the hairdressers for an hour, I make my way along to the park. I approach the lake, trying to make the best use of the trees for cover. I don’t want to walk into some kind of trap. The third bench is the only one that is occupied. Beneath the fedora and dark glasses, the woman sitting there looks as though she might be quite attractive. Surely, there is no need for the overcoat at this time of year though. Curiosity gets the better of me. Throwing caution to the wind, I go across and say hello. She gestures for me to sit alongside her.

I think it is going to snow very soon,’ she says, deadpan, as she slides me a large brown envelope. With this, she gets up and leaves. I call after her, but it seems the lady is not for turning.

This appears to be textbook spy-spoof behaviour. Cloak and dagger stuff. With all the electronic media available, this cannot really be how espionage is carried out in this day and age. And what could it possibly have to do with me? Where would I fit into the clandestine world of the secret service? I’m a heating engineer.

The envelope contains a 12 by 8 black and white photo. A name, Grigoriy Zakharov. An address, 19 Len Deighton Drive. An instruction, use the Glock.

I am perplexed as I have never heard of Grigoriy Zakharov, have no idea where Len Deighton Drive is or even what town it is in, and as far as I can remember I don’t own a Glock, which as I understand it is some kind of handgun. There is not much need for small arms in central heating installation or boiler maintenance. Admittedly, since the downturn in the economy, money is tight and people are struggling to make ends meet. But we have not yet had to resort to such drastic measures to collect our fees.

If it’s not someone having a lark, it must be a case of mistaken identity. It’s easy to get a digit wrong when you are keying in a mobile phone number. I found myself talking to Ed Sheeran once. It turned out Ed didn’t need his Baxi combi-boiler serviced. I expect the woman who contacted me has by now realised she has slipped up. I don’t imagine I will hear any more about the matter. It would be too embarrassing for her to admit her mistake and contact me again. I feel it is sensible not to tell Hannah about the incident though. In case something is awry. I know if I mention it, she will worry. Hannah hates strange.

While I am sitting in the car outside Cutting Edge waiting for Hannah, I decide to change the CD in the car player. The Coldplay one has been in the player for several days. Perhaps we could have Snow Patrol instead. I am one of those old-fashioned people who has not yet embraced the digital revolution of in-car entertainment. For one thing, I have hundreds of CDs at home that I have paid good money for. What would I then do with them?

To my astonishment, in the front of the glove compartment instead of a selection of CDs, I find a gun. I don’t know much about guns. I’m more used to handling pumps and valves, but this matt black Glock pistol looks and feels like the real deal. The odd thing is, it somehow doesn’t seem out of place. It’s a scary idea, but it is almost as if I expected to find it in the glove compartment. My head is reeling with conflicting thoughts. Who, why and how? But speculation is difficult once logic goes out the window. I don’t have time to dwell on these matters. I need to conceal the gun before Hannah gets into the car.

Perhaps it is the sign of a skilled hairdresser, but Hannah’s hair looks exactly the same as when she went in. It never seems to look any different after her appointments. I tell her it looks lovely. I have learned it is always a good idea to compliment a woman emerging from the hairdressers on her coiffure.

Three text messages ping in quick succession on my phone as we are driving along Tambourine Way.

Shall I see who that is?’ Hannah says.

No,’ I say, trying hard not to show signs of panic. ‘I’ll pull in at the supermarket car park. We need a few bits and pieces, don’t we?’

I did the shopping first thing this morning. Don’t you remember?’ she says, giving me a quizzical look.

I come up a few things that weren’t on the list. Things that I know Hannah won’t have thought of. Garibaldi biscuits, Baby Bio, shaving soap, drawing pins, WD40, and Special Brew. The quizzical look morphs into a contemptuous look. I can tell she does not want to be doing this after an arduous hour or so at the hairdressers. If it comes to that, neither do I want to be doing it. There are better ways of spending a Saturday afternoon. But this is a situation that needs careful handling.

While I am getting a shopping bag out of the boot, I check the text messages. To my relief, they are all spam. But while I am looking for a more suitable place to hide the gun, I get an incoming call.

It is nearly September. Is it going to snow?’ the caller says. She does seem to want it to snow.

To pacify her, I tell her that it might still snow.

I do hope so,’ she says. ‘A lot of things depend on it. You won’t be able to ski if it doesn’t snow.’

Before I have the chance to respond, she ends the call.

Hannah says she will pop into the art supplies shop next door while I tackle the supermarket. This gives me breathing space to contemplate my course of action. Should I inform the police? Not such a good idea. While I still have the gun, this could easily backfire. Should I let Hannah in on what is going on? Probably not, if I can avoid it? Especially as I don’t have a clue what it is. At the supermarket checkout, I buy a new Sim card and put this into my phone. If my mobile phone is the perpetrator’s only means of contact, then this should be sufficient. If it is not, then who knows?

Hannah seems cheered by her visit to the art shop. She has several packages.

Let’s go to Mangia e Beve for lunch, Nick,’ she says. ‘Emma in the hairdressers says they do an excellent involtini di melanzane ripieni di uva passa, capperi e noci.’

Sounds complicated,’ I say. ‘What is it?’

Rolled aubergines stuffed with raisins, capers and walnuts,’ she says. ‘But I’m sure they will have some tasty meat dishes too.’

While I am still looking through the menu, the woman from the park comes in and sits down at a nearby table. She seems to have ditched the overcoat but is still wearing her hat and sunglasses. She looks across at me. It is not a happy, smiley look. I feel a chill run down my spine. She keys something into her phone and I receive a text message about the snow clouds forming. I’m not sure how this can be happening. How can she have found out the new number? It should be impossible. I suppose, in my confusion, I may have accidentally put the old Sim back into the phone and disposed of the new one. This is the kind of thing anyone might do when they are under stress. The message is followed by another, saying that unless it snows soon, there will be no tobogganing.

Hannah is busy texting one of her friends so I take the opportunity to google Grigoriy Zakharov. The only two matches it comes up with are a Soviet architect and a commodities trader from Minsk. Perhaps the world of international espionage has changed, but it would be stretching the imagination a little to think that spooks would be interested in this pair. Especially as according to Google, Grigoriy Zakharov the architect died in 1982. I can find no-one with that name closer to home. But, perhaps I ought not to expect there would be. The whole point of secret services is that they are secret. They operate undercover. If he were an agent, whoever Grigoriy Zakharov is would use a code name.

Having delivered her message, without further ceremony, my handler gets up to leave. But there is no reason to suspect that this means she is letting me off the hook. I get the impression she will keep appearing until the deed is done.

That was Rosie Parker from number 42,’ Hannah says. ‘She says there’s been a lot of strange activity outside our house. Men in dark suits and dark glasses getting in and out of black BMWs with tinted windows. She is worried one of them might have a gun. She wonders if we have any idea what might be going on.’

I decide that I have no choice but to come clean. I explain about the text messages concerning snow, the woman in the overcoat and dark glasses, the mysterious Grigoriy Zakharov, and the Glock pistol in the glove compartment.

You fool,’ she says. ‘What have you landed us in? If you had ignored the original message, none of this would be happening.’

We don’t know that,’ I say in my defence. ‘She does seem pretty persistent.’

So, how do you account for it, Nick?’ she says.

I don’t know,’ I say. ‘But it looks like we are in trouble.’

There is a protracted silence while Hannah seethes. I stare at the menu in the vain hope that by avoiding her gaze, the problem might somehow disappear.

I think I may have an idea about what has happened,’ Hannah says, finally.

You do?’ I say, looking up. Is she going to offer me a lifeline?’

Do you remember when we went to see that Tim Burton film at the multiplex?’ she says.

That was months ago,’ I say.

I know, but as we were leaving, you picked up a flyer about the new cold war thriller that the production company were planning to make. Don’t you remember?’

Vaguely,’ I say. ‘It was going to be based on an Ian McEwan novel.’

There was a competition in the flyer, wasn’t there?’ she says. ‘As I remember it, you had to answer questions about spy films, and this gave you the opportunity to become an extra in the film and have dinner out with the stars. It mentioned some of the ones they hoped to cast. Benedict Cumberbatch. Liam Neeson. Emily Blunt. Scarlett Johansson. ……. You didn’t happen to fill it in by any chance, did you?’

I may have,’ I say. ‘Now you come to mention it, I believe I did.’

Well, that explains it,’ she says. ‘You are slow on the uptake, you know, Nick. Don’t you see the connection? Snow. Cold. Cold War thriller. It all adds up. She couldn’t have given you more obvious clues. She’s telling you that you’ve won the competition. I expect they are ready to start shooting the film. This is probably your audition for the part. Perhaps it’s even part of the film.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Room 404

room404

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

It Doesn’t Matter Anymore

itdoesntmatteranymore

It Doesn’t Matter Anymore by Chris Green

I have just taken delivery of a large pot of gloss sealer when the call comes through on the burner. I was not expecting to be back in action so soon. I was hoping to finish off some painted ornamental stones, a hobby I’ve taken up to keep me mellow and mindful in between assignments. Art therapy, I suppose you would call it. Then perhaps spend the weekend with Sakura in Juan-les-Pins. But this is the way it is with sleeper agents. A few weeks of leisure in quiet surroundings followed by what might be weeks of uncertainty, dicing with death.

I send Sakura a text message saying I’ve been called away on business and then I turn off my personal mobile. I do not go into detail. I tell her, it’s a last-minute thing and my phone will be out of range for a while. Sakura doesn’t know what I do for a living. She thinks I’m a reclusive writer. When the time is right, I will tell her but for now, it’s best to observe the security procedures that go with my position. In my world, everything is on a need-to-know basis.

Although I have been signed up for three years, I have never met Ж, the head honcho of Department Z but rumours circulate. It is said Ж is famous for his riddles. Perhaps they help him diffuse the seriousness of the business we are in. He tells me I am to rendezvous with Buddy Holly at Gloucester Services on the M5 in Southern England. I don’t imagine that Buddy Holly is his real name. For that matter, I’m not sure that Buddy Holly was Buddy Holly’s real name.

I have no difficulty in finding my contact. I can see right away why Ж referred to him as Buddy Holly. With the trademark thick black spectacles, charcoal nineteen-fifties suit and slim red tie, he is the spitting image. I expect him to pick up a Stratocaster and start belting out Peggy Sue at any moment. He doesn’t. With the Department’s bear’s paw handshake, he introduces himself formally as Ћ. We sometimes never get to be on last name terms with our associates, let alone first names. The degree of familiarity depends on the level of security needed for a particular operation. This one is Category X, the highest category. There will probably not too many opportunities then to discuss the durability of Winsor and Newton acrylics here or the new exhibition of Cornish Modernists that is starting at Tate St Ives. Significant upheaval must be taking place.

A phonecall from Ж establishes what we are being assigned to investigate. It is indeed a biggie. North of Gloucester, he tells us, it is no longer getting light in the mornings as it should in April. The further north you go, the later the dawn is. In Birmingham, the clouds peel back after 9 and by the time you get to Sheffield, the dawn chorus arrives around 10:15. He says it is a mystery what might be causing this. Surprisingly not everyone in these areas has even noticed the anomaly and for some reason, it is not being reported in the press. Not even the weather-obsessed Daily Express is covering it. The implications are huge. Our remit is to find out what is happening and why it is happening.

I can’t help but be curious as to why I have been selected as I do not have a scientific background. Certainly not one in Physics. My background is in the Arts. Literature to be specific, magical realism. I can conjure up a carnivorous jungle or a bottomless well out of nothing. Talking cats are a speciality. So why has Ж selected me? Perhaps that is it. Perhaps it is precisely because of my creative credentials. But, surely Ж should know, magical realism is not the same as sci-fi. The essence of the puzzle would seem to sit easier with the latter. I don’t know how I should interpret it but Ћ says he only reads sci-fi. He tells me he has been recruited from Black Ops. To put it crudely, he eliminates people.

I find I can’t get on with addressing my companion as Ћ. Sometimes all this cloak and dagger seems too oppressive. I tell him I’ll call him Buddy instead. It seems only fitting. He says he will reciprocate by calling me, Ray. On account of the Ray Bans I’ve taken to wearing on assignments I assume. Or perhaps it is an allusion to Ray Charles.

Where do we begin on this one?’ I ask. ‘Everything seems a bit vague. To add to this, there’s the oddity that apparently people are split on whether anything is happening. Some say it is dark in the mornings but yet others say it isn’t. In fact about fifty-fifty according to the report I’ve just downloaded.

Fifty two-forty eight to be precise, Ray,’ Buddy says.

I might be wrong but those numbers seem to be familiar,’ I say.

I thought I’d heard them somewhere too,’ Buddy says. ‘But I can’t place where. Anyway, best we start asking some people what’s going on. Let’s see how their experiences differ as we move north.’

It hasn’t been a sudden thing, by any means, bab,’ Les Yardley tells us in Wolverhampton. ‘For the last two years or so, every morning things have been just a little greyer than they were the day before. Not the kind of thing you notice at first, mind, particularly in winter but when spring comes round you think to yourself, hang on, the streetlights are still on. It is still dark. The trees aren’t coming into leaf and the birds aren’t singing.’ Father McKenzie in Stafford is more emphatic. He says it has been so dark that businesses have begun to move out. All the automotive assembly plants have now gone. The queues at the church food banks, he says, are colossal. In a word, the future’s looking grim. May Loos in North Norfolk tells us it doesn’t get light until the afternoon and when it does, it usually rains. But, she says, oddly enough, the people in her parts don’t seem to care. They seem to like it this way. It’s as if it’s what they always wanted. Either this or they haven’t noticed that all the other cars they meet on the A149 have their lights on all day and the big skies over the county reflect the title for that erotic novel everyone was reading a while back.

It’s a strange situation. I realise it is part of the human condition that everyone sees things differently. A Rothko painting, for instance, might be seen by some as blots of blurry colour, perhaps painted by a myopic child but to others, it is a transcendent statement, a work of true genius. But even so, it is difficult to explain the staggering variation in existential perception Buddy and I are coming across as we make our way up-country. As the figures suggest, opinion about what, if anything, is happening is split down the middle. Although it now seems more people are able to detect that there has been some sort of change for the worse, whether it be the delayed dawn, the increased rainfall or the astonishing job losses. Many of those we speak to tell us it is now a rarity to see a smile on the street. Children no longer play in the parks. Perhaps if you were to take stock now, the numbers might now come out at seventy-thirty.

I tell Buddy that while some of the people we are speaking to will inevitably be prone to exaggeration, the North is not at all how I remember it. It is a shadow of its former self. It is as if the colour has been drained from it, its vital energy sapped. Buddy agrees. He’s only been up this way once before but the thing that struck him then was how friendly people were. They don’t seem so friendly now. They are sullen, dispirited. Like those matchstick figures in those Lowry paintings, he suggests.

We drive on, still puzzled by what exactly our mission might be. How on earth could our respective fields of expertise be put to any use in this bizarre situation? There’s possibly not going to be much need here for a parallel universe filled with kites or, for that matter, all that ordnance Buddy has brought along. What course of action are we meant to take? We decide for the moment to hold off in reporting back. Perhaps there is something we have not yet grasped about where our skills might come in.

We arrive in the north-east, Tyne and Wear. It is lunchtime. The streets of Sunderland are still dark. There is a steady drizzle. A queue of drenched downtrodden looking locals are queueing outside a boarded-up Morrisons supermarket. Word is going around that there has been a delivery and it will open its doors soon. They will be able to buy bread and maybe potatoes.

This is all down to a big mistake we made two years ago, kidder,’ a thick-set man tells us. Despite the wintry drizzle, he is decked out in builders-cut jeans and t-shirt. ‘In that voting malarkey. We thought we was being canny by saying we wanted out. Thought it would stop the flow of foreigners. That’s what The Sun was saying. They were giving out free copies of The Sun at Morrisons. And then there was that red bus with all that bollocks written on the side. Parked it in the square over there, they did. Anyway, we can’t go back now, can we? If only we could. I guess it doesn’t matter anymore. ……. Wait a minute! …….. You’re Buddy Holly, aren’t you? Not Back to the Future or something is it?’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved