Night Shift

It wasn’t really a party per se. More of a business like reunion between old friends with individual careers. And he wasn’t actually using as such – he just accidentally accepted some substances that were offered to him, that only later turned out to be slightly illegal. How was he to know that? He was frigging drunk for heaven’s sake. And last time he checked, that – at least – was something he was entitled to be whenever he so chose.

David tried telling all this to the police, but they didn’t listen to him and he was forced to spend the night in an embarrassingly small and unsanitary cell at the local station. Luckily, his feeling of hurt indignation at this didn’t last long. He fell into a drunken stupor almost right away and didn’t wake until morning.

He tried telling all this to his loving parents as well, but of course they didn’t listen either. Instead they told his older brother, who then called him for a long and provoking talk about life, choices and consequences. Then they sent him back to Edinburgh for the autumn semester in disgrace.

He would get no more money from them until he proved that he could make grown-up decisions, and they in no uncertain terms made it clear that they would send him to a boarding school in Berlin if he made one single mistake from here on. How unspeakably bothersome. Thinking about it, his current situation is actually all their fault.


There’s blood on David’s hands. Luckily, he’s professional enough not to have forgotten to bring the rubber gloves. Their blue surface stands in sharp contrast to all the red as he works the shivering flesh with his instruments. He’s read about this but never seen it being done – much less so done it himself. His heart races in pace with the man’s frantic breathing.

What’s taking you so long, man? He’s dying here, for fuck sake. What’s wrong with you? Glen told me you’re a doctor, aren’t you?” The short, smoking man pacing around with his gun drawn isn’t helping one bit.

Shut the hell up, can’t you see I’m busy?” He hopes his voice doesn’t give away his fear.

The man on the table screams. David can see the tall one, the inked muscle brute, stepping forth from the corner of his eye. “I’m not hurting him, I’m trying to find the bullet!” The fear is clear in his voice now and he is starting to sweat. Are they going to kill him if he’s not quick enough? But the man behind him stops. Towers just close enough that David can hear his heavy breathing. And then he sees it.

With a sigh of relief he starts working the bullet out of the injured man’s leg. The poor bastard should be given heavier sedatives, but this call was sudden and David didn’t have time to bring more than the very basics. Some aspirin and moonshine had to do. Now the man screams again and David is glad that the third guy is holding him down. Just as he gets a firm grip around the bullet and pulls, the doors of the warehouse are thrown open and all hell breaks loose.


Eddie whistles softly along with the music in his headphones as he makes his way down the corridor. He can’t afford Spotify so this is FM radio. He moves slowly, carefully. Wouldn’t want to miss a spot, this is a hospital and people would notice. Eddie is a helpful and empathetic person, everyone knows that. And hygiene and cleanliness are imperative in a place like this, he is doing important work. Or fuck it, who is he trying to fool? Everyone, apparently.

If people find out he works as a janitor here at night he will never hear the end of it – and that would be the end of it. Being a nightly cleaner at the same hospital where he does his medical training by day is not something he is proud about. The rest of his class come from wealthy backgrounds and probably have all their expenses covered by rich parents or impressive scholarships. Eddie has nothing, but they can’t know that. Can’t know that even though his school fees have already been paid by his parents, he’s forced to do this in order to afford living in Edinburgh at all. He has to make due and keep up the pretence.

He shivers as he thinks about what would happen if they found out – if David found out. David Cowen who is always so perfect, who has everything and knows everything. David who fits in so well and who has condescended to becoming Eddie’s best friend despite their severe differences. Eddie would die of shame if David found out about him cleaning toilets every night as the others study or party or do whatever it is the pretty people do when he’s not around. That would probably be the last drop that would make David give up on their friendship out of embarrassment once and for all.

Eddie quickly passes by the locked door of the main medicine storage. It has been cleaned once today already and doesn’t need another go. Only medical staff ever enter that door and the hospital is restrictive with giving out clearance to unlock it. And even though Eddie’s intern status gives him such clearance, as a puny janitor he certainly isn’t supposed to go there. He has heard rumours about stuff vanishing from in there the last couple of weeks, and he definitely doesn’t want to be connected with that.

He thinks about his parents as he doubles back through the corridor to get the cleaning supplies he left by the elevators earlier. A sting of shame always goes through his body when he remembers what they did for him. He can’t even relate to the size of the land they sold in order to pay for his education, to enable him to be here. It has been many generations since the Llwellyn family was actually wealthy, but this “investment” has probably sealed the line’s fate once and for all.

They say they’ll be able to buy everything back in time, but Eddie knows that’s just talk. They’re buying him a future and he’s too slow and stupid to make any good use of it. He can’t even read properly, for fuck sake. The letters just keep jumping around and he has to go over every page four times to make any sense of it at all. Thus far he’s made due in school by watching informative YouTube channels, but he knows they’re getting farther ahead of popular science every day. He’s already aware that there isn’t any video instructions online for the subject they’re going over next week. He’s screwed. He picks up the bucket and swears as dirty water sloshes over the edge and soaks his left pant leg. He’s really glad David isn’t here.


The pain is so severe that he can’t even think straight. There is chaos all around him and people are screaming in horror, anger and agony. The man on the table tried to rise, only to fall and hit his head on the concrete floor. He’s the only one not panicking right now. David certainly is. He’s been shot and the police are going to take them all away. Everything is over.

He pictures his parents’ faces as they find out about this. He can almost hear his brother William’s voice in his head, preaching to him about decency and morale. Hello, Berlin, he thinks bitterly as the short man with the gun is forced onto the floor by one of the armoured cops.

I am arresting you for armed bank robbery. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention…” David zones out, doesn’t want to hear the rest.

He crawls further in behind the stacked boxes he has thrown himself behind, hoping against all odds that they will not find him here. Then he sees the bloody trail his bleeding leg is leaving behind and all such hope dies. They’re going to think I’m one of them, a simple bank robber. The shame at the thought out voices the pain for a second and gives him new strength. And that is when he notices the door.

The crates have been stacked so high as to make the small back door invisible from within the room, but from this new vantage point it’s impossible to miss it. David crawls towards it as new gunshots echo on the other side of his fragile barricade. It’s only a matter of moments before the police get their maths together and realize one person is missing from the room. He has to act quickly.

He crawls the last couple of steps towards the door. It has a turning knob that looks rusty and he suddenly becomes afraid that he won’t be able to open it. He hears the muscle brute bellow something incoherent on the other side of the crates, followed by more gunshots. One of them goes straight through the crate to the left of David and burrows deep into the wall only inches above his head. His heart races and he has to collect himself before he even dares thinking about reaching for the knob. He has lost a lot of blood and his field of vision is shrinking with every shallow breath. I will go into shock soon and then everything will be over.

His brain starts replaying a myriad pieces of medical knowledge that he’d rather be blissfully unaware of right now. He doesn’t have a plan as he finally struggles into a sitting position and reaches for the door handle. It gives resistance as he tries to turn it, and for a moment he almost despairs. Please, please, please, open. Dying from blood loss outside would be a mercy compared to what will happen if the police catch me here, David’s exhausted mind contemplates. Then the knob gives in and he tumbles onto the wet asphalt outside.


He first met Glen Wilson at a bar. Not the kind of place that he usually visits, mind you, but none of the places he commonly frequents is the kind of establishment where he’d want to be seen drinking his brains out. The bar was called Alison’s and he’d found it by chance by following the sound of the loudest voices and the cheapest music from the old town square. He’d been desperate and lost and all he wanted then was to become so drunk that he wouldn’t remember why the morning after.

Alison’s was – is – a simple place for simple people. At least that’s the image the pub’s owner wants to uphold. But David didn’t know that back then – he didn’t know anything. This was six weeks ago and so much has happened since then. He got a table all for himself and the bartender – a fabulously beautiful girl with red hair with whom he would later fall hopelessly in love – brought him all the glasses he asked for without asking any questions of her own. Before the night was over he would be working for her father, as so many others in the bar. But, of course, he didn’t know that yet either. He just drank and drank, and then Glen Wilson showed up.

David can’t remember any more when he stopped paying for his own drinks that night, but somewhere along the way Glen took over the bill. Another thing he can’t remember is why he ever started telling this stranger in the grey beanie about his problems – but he did. Oh yes, he did.

“…and now my parents won’t pay for my medical studies any more. Or my apartment. Or my car. I’ll have to… you know, pay for it all myself. As if they were never high or whatever when they were young. Fucking hypocrites.”

And Glen agreed and poured him another drink. And another.

Must be hard on you, mate. I know how parents can be. Unreasonable, that’s the word. Wouldn’t you say?” Glen smiled crookedly and chewed on the unlit cigarette protruding from the corner of his mouth. David remember being fascinated by the fact that he did not light it. Everyone else at the bar was smoking openly.

Yeah, I know, right? As if I could work any common job, you know.” He laughed as if the mere thought of it was totally absurd. And it was. “Me, mopping floors? I don’t think so.” He downed another one and felt a brief surge of sulking satisfaction as he heard Glen laughing at his bizarre joke. At least someone understood the ridiculousness of his situation. When he lowered his glass he realised that Glen was looking straight at him, almost appraisingly.

What?”, David said, suddenly very aware of how drunk he really was.

I think I’ve got the perfect job for you, mate”, Glen said.

I’m not working at a bar”, David hurried to reply. “Or anything similar.”

No”, Glen said and his smile returned. “What I have in mind is something much more… in line with your current career choice, so to speak. I know my boss has need for that.”

This instantly caught David’s attention. He almost toppled over his glass as he leaned forward to listen. “I’m all ears”, he said and Glen’s smile broadened. And now he actually lit his cigarette.


He thinks about this meeting now as he floors the pedal of his too expensive car and wishes for the best. He knew so little back then, he was so naive. Somewhere he always knew this day would come – he was just stupid enough to think it was far in the future. Now he knows better.

Reality is a bitch and she was always out to get him. Life isn’t fair. He is being abused by everyone and still has to clear out this mess himself – even though he has done nothing to cause it. This isn’t fair. But so be it. If you want something done you’d better do it yourself. I’m obviously getting nothing for free here, he thinks as he turns to fast onto the parking area of the huge glowing building. And then the car crashes into the damn willow tree and the world grows even more painful.


Eddie walks slowly towards the basement locker rooms after leaving his supplies in all the proper places. The music in his headphones has been interrupted by a news broadcast and now they are going on about some kind of bank robbery and a police shoot out in the harbour. He turns down the volume.

He keeps all his clothes and things down here, even by day. No point in moving stuff around when all his days end in the cellar catacombs anyway. Sometimes he is forced to pretend using his upstairs locker like all of his class mates, but it still only contains his unused extra scrubs. The things we do for the guise of normality, he muses as he rounds a corner and sees the blood.

He freezes in his tracks. Forgets to breathe for a second or two. He steps forward carefully, his heart racing. This wasn’t here half an hour ago. Someone is here. The dark trail starts right in front of the emergency exit and stretches on into one of the basement’s many narrow corridors.

Apart from the apparent drops and slide marks there are also footsteps in that red substance. Dark hand marks on the left corridor wall jump out at Eddie in the eerily flickering halogen light, making him think suddenly of a thousand bad horror movies. Except this isn’t a movie.

He stares, realises that he has stepped in one of the red puddles and quickly takes a step back. His indoors slippers leave even more bloody marks on the floor and he wants to throw up so badly that he can barely hold it back.

But I’m a doctor, a part of Eddie reminds himself. I’m a doctor, and someone is injured. Someone who has come to the hospital but used the wrong entrance. Yeah, that must be it. Eddie starts walking carefully into the corridor, following the bloody trail. He’s going to help whoever is at the end of it. What kind of doctor would he be otherwise?

Or it is a junkie, another part of him counters suddenly. The same junkie who has been looting the medical closet for weeks has returned for yet another hit. But this time he has cut himself on something and is bleeding to death. He probably has a gun – and maybe Aids as well.

Eddie stops. Tries to breathe calmly. This was not what he signed up for when he started working these shifts. Not at all. He picks up his phone and dials the emergency number. Keeps his thumb on the green button that will hopefully connect him with all the king’s men – and their aunt – before whoever is down here jumps out from the shadows to drink his blood. But for some reason he doesn’t press it.

Instead he follows the trail around a corner and sees it end in front of the door to one of the old disused shower rooms. He slowly approaches the door. Now he can hear someone breathing heavily, painfully inside. This someone is in deep pain, maybe dying. Eddie is the only person here. He opens the door and then he can do nothing but stare.

He stares at the man sitting on the floor surrounded by a pool of blood, digging in his own leg with a pair of pliers. For a moment he doesn’t understand what he is seeing. Who he is seeing.

David?”, he stammers. This can’t be real. But it is.

David Cowen looks up at him with shock and fear almost outshining the expression of pain on his face. Their eyes lock for an eternal moment, both terrified about secrets finally out in the light.

Eddie”, David whispers finally. “Help me.” And then he collapses onto the floor, blood still pouring from the gunshot wound in his left leg.


David is dreaming about Bethan Carlingham. Her red hair is all around him and she whispers his name again and again. In this moment he feels completely safe and doesn’t give a single fuck about the stupidity inherent in secretly dating the one daughter of Edinburgh’s most dangerous mobster boss. He simply doesn’t care right now. He’s whispering to her that he’s going to save her. Take her away from all of this, far away. Just like that guy in “My Fair Lady”. She deserves so much better, he just has to sort out his economy and finish his studies. He’s not afraid of her father. Not now, not here. Trevor Carlingham can’t touch him here, because… Because…

David!” He opens his eyes slowly, groggily. That’s not Bethan.

Eddie stands over him with a worried look on his pale face. David can’t remember what has happened. He’s lying on a bed in a room he recognises all too well for Eddie to be here.

What are you doing in my apartment?”, he says and tries to sit but falls right back down, struck by a fit of nausea.

I saved you”, Eddie says sternly. “I plucked that bullet out of your fucking leg and patched you up. What the hell were you thinking? A bullet, David. A bullet.

David just stares at him. Doesn’t know what to say.

Eddie shakes his head. He’s angry, frustrated. “You’ve been shot, David. Who did this to you and why? And why the hell didn’t you go straight to the emergency entrance? Why did I find you bleeding to death in the basement?” He’s not pale any more

Things are starting to come back to David now. About the late night call, about the warehouse, about the four men. The bank robbers. He shivers, his head spins. What the fuck should I tell him?

He clears his throat and swallows hard. “Because I… I couldn’t risk it”, he says finally.

Eddie looks like he is inches away from hitting him across his face. “You couldn’t risk it? Oh, okay. But you could risk dying in a nasty shower hall, now could you? Well, in any case we’re going back to the hospital now. I don’t even understand why I let you convince me to drive you here in the first place.”

David doesn’t even remember convincing him, but he knows he can be pretty persuasive so that’s probably true. He definitely doesn’t want to go back to the hospital. He can’t. That would ruin everything. “No”, he says. “We can’t go back there.”

Oh, and why is that?” The question is rhetorical – Eddie is already reaching to drag him up from the bed. David feels the desperation welling up from inside. I can’t go there –

…because of the –


Eddie has stopped in the middle of a motion. I can’t have heard that right, right? “The… police?”

But David nods. Sinks back into the pillow with a defeated look on his face. “Yeah, the police.”

And why would the police be looking for you?”

A heavy silence drapes itself over the room, over the two of them. Eddie can see how something in David’s eyes gives in, surrenders. David takes a deep breath and then he tells Eddie everything. About the job offer from Glen Wilson, about the stolen drugs, about the shady medical services he has been performing for cash in downtrodden apartments, garages and back rooms the past six weeks. About tonight. He tells Eddie how Wilson called him around ten at night to order him out to the old warehouse where he met up with the fleeing bank robbers.

Eddie is speechless. “So you helped… the bank robbers? The ones from the news?” Of course it’s the ones from the news. How many frigging banks have been robbed tonight, stupid?

David stares at him. “Yeah, I helped them. They couldn’t very well drop by at the hospital now, could they? Oh, hello, I’ve just been shot. Nothing weird about that. A robbery? No, kind sir, we don’t know nothing about that. Now please stitch me up if you’d be so kind. We’ve got some stuff in the car that we’d like to get home with as soon as possible.”

Eddie shakes his head in disbelief. Was David always this stupid, deep down? “And then they shot you?” He holds up his hand when David tries to interrupt him. “David, we must get you to the hospital. You’ve lost a lot of blood and I’m not sure I’ve done all the right things with the wound. And we have to call the police. Seriously, David. You can’t go on protecting these people after they–”

They didn’t shoot me, Eddie. The police did.”

Eddie meets his gaze and suddenly he understands everything. All the pieces fall into place. The basement, the pleading, David’s crashed car at the back of the hospital.

Eddie can’t stop shaking his head. “You stupid mother fucker”, he says silently.

David hesitates. “And, Eddie, there’s another thing.

No, Eddie thinks. No, there’s not. But he doesn’t say anything. Just waits for David to spill the last of it.

I owe these people money, Eddie. I have to keep working for them, they expect me back tonight.”

You can’t work tonight, David”, Eddie says. “And you’re definitely not working for them.”

No”, David says and for a moment Eddie almost believes that he is listening to him. Then that delusion shatters. “No I can’t. You have to help me, Eddie. You have to step in for me.”


He sees Eddie go from shocked to angry to really fucking mad in just a matter of seconds. He listens as he argues, as he tries to reason with David. As he curses and pleads and finally runs out of things to say. And through all of this David is absolutely calm. The initial terror at having revealed his secret has faded, replaced by a feeling of relief at not being alone any more.

And he is entirely content with Eddie yelling at him, because he knows that he will help him in the end. That’s just who Eddie is. And no matter what Eddie thinks right now, David is actually doing him a favour by bringing him into his business. I mean, does he really work as a janitor? Bitch please, you’re going to thank me before this is over.

Then his phone rings.


Eddie falls silent as David answers his phone, right in the middle of his rant. Was he even listening at all? The anger wells up again as David ignores him for the caller, but vanishes in a heartbeat as he hears David utter his name to the person on the other end of the line. Then he hands Eddie the phone.

I think you’d better take this”, he says. “Wilson wants to talk to you about tonight.”

And Eddie wants so badly to kill David right now. To strangle him with his bare hands. To take the phone and throw it straight into David’s face. David can see this in his eyes, but they both know that Eddie won’t do it. He’s too caring for that. Too empathetic and helpful. Their eyes lock for a moment – then Eddie accepts the phone.

Chris Smedbakken, 2017-03-09
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Photo Gallery: Safety Net

The world is seeing an exponential increase in cyber crime. The Swedish police alone receives tens of thousands of infringement reports every year. Simultaneously the authorities lack in both resources, competence and legal means to intervene. What actually happens when technology rushes ahead and leaves law enforcement and prosecutors behind?

These photographs are taken from my recent news article on the subject of digital crime and the failure of Swedish law enforcement to keep up with the evolution of technology. The entire Flickr album can be found here.


Kontakt

“Contact”


Hack

“Darkweb”


Knapplås 2

“Keylock 1”


Knapplås

“Keylock 2”


Musdyrkan

“Mousepick”


Skydd

“Protect”


Rym

“Flee”


Pil

“Towards the End”


Tangera

“Tangent”


Kommunikation

“Community”


Händelser

“Manus”


Anslut

“Connect”


Tjugotre

“Twenty 3”


Kabellås

“Cable Lock”


[Social Engineering]

This text was originally written in Swedish, but I just finished translating it.  It’s a bit longer than my usual short stories, but it’s also one that I am very pleased with. Let me know what you think! 🙂


[2013-20-06, Thursday, 1:17 PM]

He thought about his father and as always it made him mad. That was good. One of the things that scared him the most – and the list was not short – was the thought of waking up one morning and not feeling that burning anger anymore. He knew that the day this happened was the day that they would have won. Judging by the feeling in his chest, however, he had nothing to worry about for the time being.

The bag rested safely between his worn Converse and outside the dirty bus window overcooked plains sped past. They had left even the most solitary casinos behind but every now and then they passed by an adversely placed diner or some dodgy self-storage area.

It felt strange to be going back after two years in light exile but he had realized even before the conversation with Fuse13 that it was about time. He didn’t have time to sit in Vegas building fake ID cards forever. At least not if he was to accomplish anything of what he sometimes spoke a little bit too cockily about when he was drunk. Or if he was ever to find a vent for all that anger.

He opened up the conversation with Fuse again, dated two days earlier.

<@Fuse13> Breakthrough. The videos/proof you talked about, they exist. Solid Source.
<@Nakir> Fuck dude. Mental overload here.
<@Fuse13> Don’t celebrate yet. Only external drive. Offline. But I know where.
<@Nakir> Knew there was a catch.
<@Nakir> Let me guess. Bank safe? Military base? Armored fort? The president’s ass?
<@Fuse13> Chill dude. Was probably that bad before. But the reason I found out about the hard drive in the first place is that it’s already been stolen. The news is all over the VIP aether right now. 
<@Nakir> Eh ok. And this is good news how?
<@Fuse13> Listen. I know who has it, and better yet: who they’re about to give it to and when, where and how.
<@Nakir> Guessing it’s not us.
<@Fuse13> Lol. Player in L.A, selling it to other players. Blackmail guaranteed, easily 6 digit.
<@Nakir> Pleasant idealists?
<@Fuse13> You’re a funny guy. Would have been nice, but no. Heard about Wesconi?
<@Nakir> The Butcher?
<@Fuse13> That’s our man.
<@Nakir> Fuck me. I would have preferred the president’s ass.
<@Fuse13> I hear you man. But they’re sending the stuff via some delivery firm.
<@Nakir> ETA?
<@Fuse13> Saturday according to my source. And that’s as far as I can get from behind the screen.
<@Nakir> Dude. This is sick.
<@Fuse13> Know. But we have to get that drive. Are you still in Vegas? 
<@Nakir> I can kind of see where this is going.
<@Fuse13> Well, I would have done it myself. If I could. But as you know my magic power is my fingers and not my charm.
<@Fuse13> ...and you just so happen to be a true Jagger when it comes to social engineering ;)
<@Nakir> Fuck you dude. Promise me that those magic fingers of yours will write a beautiful fucking poem for my funeral.
<@Nakir> If they ever find the body.
<@Fuse13> I knew I could count on you. Get in touch when you have the stuff and I’ll handle the rest. Kisses.
<@Nakir> Your mother.
@Nakir (Nakir@93.sub-70-186-203.myvzw.com) Quit (Quit)

 

[2013-22-06, Saturday, 10:52 PM]

Jack was exactly that kind of guy that sometimes made him despise humanity. Self-centered without the slightest trace of self-awareness, the stick so far up his ass that it could almost be glimpsed when the dude opened his mouth. Reaching this conclusion had taken less than five minutes. When the headlights of the taxi finally showed up on the other side of the gate they had already been standing there by the loading bay for almost half an hour. Half an hour of his life that he would never get back and that had been filled to the brim with all too much egocentric bullshit from the boss dude’s side. This was actually a good thing, however. The irritation numbed his conscience for what he was about to do.

“Taxi? Well paid job, this?” He laughed nervously and weighed on his feet. On the inside he was dead calm but the role he had taken on for this night´s job was a wimp. A newbie who nobody would suspect of anything ever. Somebody you could trust, if only for the simple reason that he was too harmless to pose a threat to anybody.

Jack-o’-Stuckup laughed meanly. “No, I’m guessing he can’t actually afford that. He’s probably just too drunk to drive himself.”

Shocked he turned towards Jack, the reaction genuine this time. “You’re kidding, right?” What the fuck is wrong with this company?

The hub manager raised a condescending eyebrow. “He’ll just be sitting there, you drive. He just has to be the one signing the delivery, I can’t let you do that until you’ve completed your introduction. Praxis.”

The passenger door opened and a young man climbed out. His stride when he moved towards them didn’t give away much, but the concentrated look on his face hinted about him struggling to walk straight.

Jack donned a superior face and afforded the other a little snort as he handed over the tablet he had been holding under his arm. “Chippie, this is Kamran. He’s new here and needs to learn stuff. Could come in handy when parts of the work force are drinking themselves rat assed every other night, or what do you say?”

The newcomer’s eyes turned dark and he muttered something in reply as he accepted the tablet.

Jack leaned forward. “Did you say something?”

“Chino”, the other repeated himself. “My name is Chino.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said”, Jack snapped impatiently. “Stop bitching around now, you’re late already as it is. Here’s the keys to the unmarked car, the boxes have already been packed. But you’re not driving in your condition, leave that to the trainee. Just make sure to show him how this works so he can step in for you the next time you’re too wasted to work.”

It looked as if Chino was about to say something but then changed his mind. Instead he grabbed the keys and started walking towards one of the cars.

“Tag along with him now”, Jack said with a voice that oozed with theatrical sympathy for the poor trainee who would be forced to share the front seat with this hopeless drunk. “Try to soak up as much as possible and I guarantee that I have some work passes to sign over on you later.” Then he turned and disappeared through the door by the loading bay, apparently done for the night.

 

 

 

[2013-22-06, Saturday, 11:28 PM]

”Are you newly moved in, Kamran?”

“Nah, but I’ve been away from town a couple of years.” Only lie when you really have to. It felt strange to be called Kamran, it was really his grandfather’s name and he himself only had it as a middle name. Using that name now was of course unforgivably stupid, but in a way it felt like a tribute to his father to leave a hand print in the middle of this. He would erase all digital tracks later and only the memory of someone who went by that name would remain.

He felt like an asshole, however. This guy was actually nice and seemed to share his opinions about hub manager Jack. As they drove along the dark road through the woods the not-so-drunk-after-all Chino told him about a skating competition he had won earlier that day and also how happy he was that he would be competing in Seattle in a couple of weeks. The party he had been at when Jack called him in had been to celebrate today’s victory and the work pass hadn’t even been a scheduled one.

The one who called himself Kamran had understood that Chino really needed the money and this didn’t make things any easier. He went through such a moral crisis that he accidentally gave Chino his number – or at least the number to his DIY pager, but of course he didn’t tell Chino that. He had then been forced to clench his teeth and think intensely about his old man for several minutes before he had gathered enough resolve to go ahead with the plan.

The branch remained where he had left it. Not so far into the road that the sparse night traffic would accidentally push it away, but still enough that an unaware driver, a beginner, would get away with running it over. He did just that. The branch passed beneath the car with a painful sound and he hit the brakes.

“Fuck fuck fuck, what was that?” He gripped the wheel tightly and clenched his teeth. Even felt his eyes tearing and thought about his mother who always wanted him to become an actor. If only she knew.

Chino, who had been browsing through his phone, had also jumped from the crash and the sudden stop. He now quickly put his hand on Kamran’s arm and smiled at him reassuringly, even though it was obvious that he had been startled. “It’s alright, no damage done. Did you see what it was?”

Kamran shook his head, entirely in character as the nervous trainee. “No, it kind of just… jumped into the road. Maybe some kind of animal. We should go check.”

Chino at once looked less sure of himself, apparently not so keen at all to leave the car in pursuit of some potentially wounded animal in the dark. He turned in his seat and looked through the back window. “I don’t know, I can’t see anything behind the car. It was probably nothing…”

But Kamran persisted, faking the stubbornness of a person determined to make a good impression on his new boss. ”We have to check. And I thought I heard a crashing sound from the trunk. What if something broke?” He even managed a slight tremble in those last words and his devastated expression finally made Chino relent.

“Alright, let’s take a look. There’s a flashlight in your door, you take that one and I’ll use my phone”, he said and stepped out.

The forest and the night were dark but light pollution from the city center at least partly compensated for the weak illumination cast by the flashlights. Of course they found no traces of a wounded animal behind or beneath the car and Chino seemed relieved when he spotted the wooden branch.

“It’s only a stick, Kamran. It’s okay. Come, let’s go.”

“We should check the delivery”, he insisted. “Jack showed me your terms and they say that we guarantee that everything is in good shape when we deliver it.”

Chino hesitated, didn’t seem to like the thought of standing on a dark forest road and going through somebody else’s boxes. His eyes wandered up and down the road as he seemed to be assessing the risk of them being robbed while they inspected the content of the trunk. If he only knew. “Okay”, he said finally. ”But we can only check the boxes outwardly, we can’t open them.”

Kamran nodded and seemed content with this. Chino opened the trunk and exposed close to a dozen white boxes of different sizes. Kamran took a step forward, felt his pulse rising. He had to handle this well now, didn’t want to be forced to hurt this guy to get what he was after. Chino had begun carefully looking over the boxes to see if anything was obviously broken and Kamran quickly scanned the delivery for the number markings Fuse had instructed him to be on the lookout for. When he spotted them his heart skipped a beat. This was it, this was where revenge begun. He reached for another box, a larger one, and shook it next to his ear. Something rattled inside.

Chino tore the box from his hands. “What the fuck are you doing!”

Kamran took an embarrassed step back and stared at his feet. “Oh, sorry. I thought I would hear if anything was broken…”

Terrified, Chino stared at the box in his hands as if it was about to explode. Then he let out a long breath and carefully placed the box back amongst the rest of the delivery. “Don’t do that again”, he said admonishingly and closed the trunk. “Everything seems intact as far as I can see. Let’s move on.”

Kamran had no objections to that. When Chino turned his back on him he quickly put the smaller box he had sneaked away into his inside pocket and then returned to the driver’s seat. He could barely talk to Chino during the rest of the drive but camouflaged it behind fake embarrassment over his mistakes earlier.

He was an asshole, but there were those who were even worse and the end justified the means. Deep down he knew that someone, probably Chino, would get in trouble because of this, but the angry part of him did its best to write this off as casualties of war. As usual that part of him was very convincing and when he was dropped off later that night exaltation over his completed mission was the dominating feeling. Computers and code were all very well, but real life-hacking – social engineering as it was called – that was a fucking drug. And right then and there the one calling himself Kamran was way too high on that drug to at all think about anything – or anyone – else.

 

 

 

[2013-22-09, Tuesday, 2:41 PM]

He woke up late. The room smelled of warm dust and the fan in his stationary computer did its best to compensate for the apartment’s lack of a sauna. He should build a new computer, this one was almost embarrassing. But the laptop on the floor next to his bed still did its job, so it would probably have to wait a while longer. It had served him well all through the night as he had dutifully put some hours into justifying his paycheck.

His work for the IT-company paid disgustingly well considering that nobody there had ever seen his face. He had been able to continue working exactly as usual even during his years in Vegas. The digital age solved many problems and favored those who knew how to surf it.

He laughed quietly as he filled the electric kettle and washed a worn cup. The suit had sounded so beaten on the phone when he had called three years earlier to confirm that the security flaws in the company’s encryption algorithms he had been so kind as to inform them about were actually something they wanted his help solving. Perhaps their decision had been tweaked slightly by him innocently pointing out that a less moral person could have sold the information about the flaws for quite a formidable price. Since then Ian K. Salimi had been on their payroll and they asked no questions that weren’t strictly related to his job assignments – which they often didn’t even know what they were themselves. In return he made sure that the company didn’t run into problems with others like himself. Win win.

He placed the tea on the floor next to him to cool as he logged into his computer and started his usual routine. He had always viewed it as a kind of patrol round – he fulfilled his duty by patrolling the web in the same way as a soldier on his watch. He made sure to keep up to date with all the news that meant something, had learned to recognize political patterns when he saw them and put quite a lot of time into analyzing why the world’s stock market looked as it did every single day of the year. They were all omens that could be read in order to predict when something fishy was underway. Succeeding here meant having a chance at being active instead of reactive and it was precisely this edge that had helped the hacker that called himself Nakir to stay in the lead in the circles that mattered. It was also that same lead that was to blame for him seldom being able to use his real name and that prevented him from living in the far nicer apartment he rented to keep his real identity separate from his much livelier Internet alias.

One of the application windows flashed and he tabbed over. Today’s first phone record from Stephen Meyer’s office connection had arrived. A perhaps somewhat overstrung safety measure Nakir used was namely to seldom give out his real phone number to temporary acquaintances. Either he gave them the number to some disposable cellphone, or he left them in the hands of estate agent Mayer’s secretary. He or she of course had no idea who it was that people asked for when they called that number looking for him, but that was part of the plan. Nakir kept watch on the estate agent’s incoming calls a couple of times a day and looked up those numbers that seemed to diverge from the rest. If it turned out to be someone he wanted to talk to he called back, otherwise not. So far this filter had served him well. A potential misdial looked better in the eyes of the caller than having to realize that the number they had been given was no longer in use – for whatever reason. Now it seemed like estate agent Meyer had received a call from none other than Cezar Lino Salinas, according to Facebook aka Chino. A cold hand gripped his innards, he knew what this must mean. He drew a deep breath and picked up his phone.

Four signals. “Hello?”

Breathe in, breathe out. ”Hi Chino. This is, ehm, Kamran.”

Silence. ”You took something last Saturday, didn’t you?”

Fuck. “Well, look. I’m sorry if I complicated things for you, I –”

“I’m not sure if those are the words I would have used.”

“Has someone talked to you?”

Talked is probably not the right word either.”

“Look…”

“They like fucked me up entirely and now they are going to murder me if I don’t return whatever it was you stole. Or give them a fuckload of money that I’ll never get my hands on. All in three days.”

Well, what do you say to that. “Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for you to get in the middle of this.”

“I see, well that’s great. But now I am. Kamran, you have to return the stuff you took so they’ll leave me alone.”

“I… I can’t. I don’t have it anymore.” And that was actually true. He had passed the drive on to Fuse the very same night that he had stolen it. By now it had probably been copied ten times and was already on its way to some of the crew’s more militant fractions. It was only a matter of time before its content would have been edited and made ready to be spread through all social media platforms worth talking about. Things would burn and it was Nakir who had lit the fuse. Right now, however, that thought didn’t feel nearly as good as it had done a few days ago.

“Then they will kill me, do you understand that? And it is your fault.”

He thought about the guy who had dragged himself to work in the middle of the night, in the middle of a party, just because he couldn’t afford to say no. The guy who had won a skating competition and was going to Seattle in a couple of weeks – if he was left to live that long.

“I’ll see what I can do. But I can’t promise anything.” He could hear how cold and impassive he sounded and was slightly disgusted by himself, hating for a moment what the struggle had turned him into. He really wanted to help this guy, but at the same time a trifle too big part of him still chanted about ends justifying means.

“Ah, you’ll see what you can do. Splendid.”

“Yeah I will. I’ll get in touch.”

”You do that. No stress. I’ll probably be available for three or something more days.” And the call was ended.

 

 

[2013-22-11, Friday, 00:12 AM]

Chino lowered himself into the chair in front of the screen of the laptop. The light in the room was dim but Nakir could still see at once that the guy on the other end of the line was in very bad shape. His face was broken, his eyes red and his posture hinted about him being in great pain. They had been hard on him, as much was obvious. His throat clenched when he thought about how little he actually had to offer Chino as a reward for still dragging himself to this suspect Skype meeting.

“You found your way here, good”, he said. Had to start somewhere.

“Yeah, your little treasure hunt was very exciting. I hope you have something good to say now that I have reached your little basement.”

Nakir had planted the laptop in an old locale beneath a shabby apartment complex. He had then left a message for Chino at the site where they had originally arranged to meet, in order for him to find his way here. Nakir himself was sitting in front of an entirely different computer in an entirely different room. Saw it as best for both of them that they weren’t seen together and that the things they needed to talk about weren’t negotiated over an insecure phone line. If Nakir had learned one thing from his years on watch it was that you could never know who was listening or logging.

He cleared his throat. “I’ll tell you how it is. I can’t return the hard drive, I don’t have it anymore and the person I gave it to doesn’t have it either.”

Chino’s shoulders sagged somewhat on the other side of the webcam. “Wonderful. Then I’m dead.”

“Wait. I told you I would do what I can and I will. I can help you get away from them, but then you have to do as I tell you.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” The resignation suddenly mixed with anger. This was probably a guy who didn’t give in without a fight, but that wouldn’t do him much good here. Wesconi, the Butcher… Nakir shuddered involuntarily.

“I can help you go underground. Get you a new ID, address. You’ll probably have to hide completely for a while until everything is set up, but then you’ll be able to –“

“And you call that a good solution?” Hell, I can’t just bail. I’ve got my family and –“

Nakir sighed. “No, it’s not perfect, but it’s far more fun than getting yourself killed, don’t you think? I have a place where you can sleep tonight, then I’ll contact you so you can fix a passport photo and some information I’ll need.”

“Seriously dude, you can’t do this to me.”

“Look, it’s not me doing this. I’m trying to help you for fuck sake.”

Chino snorted and shook his head. It seemed to hurt. “It’s you who have put me in this situation and now you’re just trying to dull your conscience. This is no solution. Returning that damned hard drive would have been a solution. This is just bullshit.”

”Yeah but I already told you that’s not possible. It’s to be used for some important stuff and I don’t even have it anymore. Do you want my help or what?”

“Fuck you, Kamran. Or what the fuck your real name is.” Chino rose and slammed the laptop shut. Nakir’s screen went black for a moment before the conversation closed down and he was thrown back to his desktop.

“Well, fuck you too then”, he muttered and went into the kitchen to make himself a new cup of tea. He had done what he could, too bad if the guy didn’t want to accept his help but there was nothing he could do about it. Or at least that was what he tried to convince himself. Casualties of war, soon things are going to burn.

 

 

[2013-22-12, Saturday, 11:54 PM]

<@BaiLouTbill> Dude. Might have done something you’ll not be a fan of.
<@BaiLouTbill> You there?
<@BaiLouTbill> Someone’s after me. Can feel it. Fuckin weird calls yesterday. Didn’t know what to do. Dumped everything on a fuckin usb and mailed it to your fancy place.
<@BaiLouTbill> Hello?

 

Fucking idiot. He closed his eyes, counted to fifty. A little bit too fast. When Bill said “everything” it could mean almost anything but in a worst case scenario this was pretty fucking bad. And as if it wasn’t bad enough that the idiot had dragged him into his damned problems, he had also crossed the sacred line that separated the alias Nakir from the identity on all his authentic ID-papers. The one that all the complicated systems were designed to protect.

Click. The left Shift key suddenly sat in his hand, him having accidentally pried it loose with his angrily tapping fingernails. In his mind, however, the entire keyboard went into the wall and his fist through the computer screen. His pulse was already through the roof but when he opened his eyes a cold mask reflected in the part of the display tinted dark by Winamp’s retro skin. He pressed the abused key back a little bit too forcefully. The scissor mechanism beneath the plastic creaked ominously. He took a deep breath through his nose and had to hold back in order to not continue mangling the keys as he returned his fingers to the keyboard.

<@Nakir> That’s not very good.
<@BaiLouTbill> Lol. Don’t go cranky now.
<@BaiLouTbill> I panicked, ok?
<@Nakir> Obviously.
<@BaiLouTbill> ...
<@BaiLouTbill> Dude
<@BaiLouTbill> Ok, look. Nobody knows that it’s your apartment. You only have to go by and fetch an envelope. Complicated not.
<@Nakir> There’s a reason nobody knows it’s my place. If you missed it. That I never fucking go there.
<@BaiLouTbill> Okok. But chill. It’s as it is.
<@Nakir> Should let it lay there. Your problem.
<@BaiLouTbill> Not if there’s a bust. Fuck dude, you don’t get it, _everything_ is on that stick.
<@Nakir> Ok, I take that back. I should kill you. Fuckin idiot. Do you realize what you’re risking?
<@BaiLouTbill> Lol. I’m not stupid.
<@Nakir> ...
<@BaiLouTbill> Well ok. I get it you’re pissed. And that you probably think I’m a paranoid idiot. But ppl have been strange around here lately. Nobody I’ve ever seen before. To be honest I’m scared. For reals. Better you have those files right now. I’ll get in touch when things calm down. It’s best for everybody, I hope you see that too.
<@BaiLouTbill> Hell dude, you blow??
<@BaiLouTbill> ???
<@Nakir> Ok.
<@Nakir> I’ll fix it.
<@Nakir> But you’re still an idiot.
@Nakir (Nakir@280.sub-76-235-24.myvzw.com) Quit (Quit)

 [20??-??-??, —day, 00:00 -M]

Ian Kamran Salimi was one of the members of the hacker network John Doe. He had no idea how many they were or how many nationalities that were represented. Probably no one knew that. They had no central structure and most of them operated independently with a more or less common goal in sight. The fact that there was also an entire armada of noobs mainly interested in hiding behind a cool name and who most of all enjoyed directing DDoS-attacks toward harmless universities and public transport companies was nothing that bothered him overly. All networks had them and at worst they were a thorn in the side of somebody’s self-esteem. In all other cases these trolls were stupid call-birds that drew the eyes of the authorities away from the action that actually meant something. Useful idiots, in other words.

John Doe’s primary target, however, had always been the military. How much shit that went under the radar in the name of national security Ian almost didn’t dare think about. Excessive violence, war crimes and extra-judicial imprisonments were just the tip of the iceberg. Fuse13, one of his closest partners-in-crime and one of few members he had actually met IRL, was somehow involved in the top layers of WikiLeaks and they ran some collaborations in that direction. But Nakir was of the opinion that the whistle-blower site at best scratched the surface of the problem.

The things happening in the world – and in the US in particular – had to be brought to the surface in a way that ordinary people could understand and absorb. Be pushed into people’s faces until they couldn’t look away anymore. Not until then something would happen, not until then there’d be change. And it would take extreme evidence and measures to wake the sleeping population. This, if nothing else, his observations of WikiLeaks had taught him. Despite all the frightening information available to those interested, the number of people who actually bothered to seek it out was very small. It would take something more, and this was where John Doe entered the picture. John Doe was the hydra whose fire would set the world ablaze.

 

Ian hadn’t always been a destructivist, extreme reformist or any other kind of –ist for that matter. However, he had always had a very strong sense of justice and even as a kid he had stood up for what he thought was right and struck down on what was wrong. More than once this had put him in ugly situations, but with time he had learned to pick his battles and to fight cleverly when it came to that. As far as his mother Carmen was concerned he could well have refrained from fighting altogether, but where she advocated pacifism his father Assim taught him both to fight and to stand up for what was right and just. Ian’s dad was in the military and always told him stories about the American army traveling the world, righting wrongs and scaring away bad people who wanted to start wars and conflicts harming defenseless people. Ian decided early on that he would follow in his father’s footsteps when he grew up.

With time, however, Assim Salimi stopped telling stories about the army and was increasingly seldom his usual, happy self when he came home on leave. When Ian was nine years old his dad didn’t come home anymore at all. Serious men in stiff suits came to their door instead and told them that Assim had done something bad, something illegal. Mother Carmen cried the entire night after the men had gone away, but all that Ian understood at that age was that dad had been put in prison. Military prison. Many years later he found out why, and this was when the hacktivist Nakir was born. Ian Kamran Salimi never became an actor, to his mother Carmen’s great sorrow. His father Assim was a hero and Ian was going to follow in his footsteps.

Not long after Assim Salimi disappeared from his son’s life another man moved into the house. Barely ten months later the by then eleven-year-old Ian got a little brother. When the new man disappeared as well mother Carmen was never really herself again. It didn’t take long after that before strange people came to take his little brother away. Ian remembers how he stood by the screen door and stared up at an unknown man who he would later remember only as “The Spaniard”. He seemed nice, but when little brother went away the entire house somehow went quiet, empty.

Ian wanted to take care of his mom, but somehow the years still only saw him drifting farther and farther away. He couldn’t handle being in the middle of all that terrible injustice that he, however he tried, could do nothing about. His father Assim had taught him how to fight, but nobody had taught him to how fix what was already broken. Ian picked his battles but from mommy’s broken sorrow he chose to flee. To dull the feeling of guilt that only grew over the years Ian, Nakir, set his eyes on a bigger, higher target and sharpened his weapons. He had failed to help his father, mother and little brother, but somebody was going to fucking burn for what had been done to his family.

 

 

 

[2013-22-13, Sunday, 2:36 PM]

The building housing the apartment was so well-kept and fresh as to make him feel like a burglar for just being close to it. Nobody could have imagined that his name would ever be printed on one of the door plates in this entry hall. Were it not for his well-paid job and some lucrative violations he had committed a couple of years ago the name still wouldn’t be printed there. But despite the name on the door this was not his home. This was where his employers sent his paychecks and where he sometimes invited unsuspecting normal people when once in a while he needed to play citizen, but that was all. He avoided coming here as far as it was possible and right now he’d have rather kept his head down a couple of months until the hard drive business had blown over. Bill’s idiotic paranoia had thrown a spanner in the works of this plan, however. In the unlikely event of someone actually checking up on his apartment they could under no circumstances be allowed to find an envelope with this kind of content on his hall carpet. That was a risk that he simply couldn’t afford to take.

Luckily he didn’t meet anybody in the stairwell – he had picked the time carefully to minimize that risk. People had definitely gone about their lunches already and if someone was going to or from work in spite of it being Sunday it would probably not be at this time of day. It wasn’t bulletproof, but at least he had given it a thought. The gun he had tucked beneath his shirt was not intended to be used against potential neighbors in the stairwell, however – rather against the people who might be waiting for him inside his apartment.

He pressed his ear against the outside of the door and listened for a while before he dared put his key into the lock. After entering he still conducted a thorough search of all the rooms before relaxing and putting the gun away. He really didn’t fault Bill for his paranoia, it was a quite legit occupational hazard considering the stuff they fiddled with. It was the way he chose to handle it, however, that made Ian want to break his neck. He could have sent his shit anywhere and still he sent it here.

Sighing, he collected the accumulated mail from the hall carpet. A little pile had formed since last he was here, despite him having made a deal with his work about a temporary solution for his payments while he was working from out of town. Junk mail, some newspapers, postcards from some fossil relative who wanted to know how he and his mother were doing. She was probably just smug about getting an opportunity to write this address on the back of a postcard, he imagined. Without a doubt it was the hot topic in the old lady’s circles. At the same time, he couldn’t entirely repress the flash of guilt that always tore at him with tooth and nail as soon as he thought about his mother. It had been all too long since he had gone to see her. He wondered how she was doing, what she was doing. He knew that he should visit her but didn’t dare to until things had calmed down. She didn’t even know that he was back in town.

The envelope from Bill stood out from the rest, partly because of his terrible handwriting but perhaps mainly because it reeked of weed. Ian guessed that at least one fourth of the paranoia that had made Bill send the envelope here had its roots in smoke and chemicals. He covered his hand with the sleeve of his shirt and picked it up. Walked into the spacious kitchen and put it into a plastic bag. Whatever “everything” meant in Bill’s world, Ian suspected that much of it was the kind of stuff he didn’t want his fingerprints on.

He had just put the plastic bag and its content in his back pocket when the doorbell rang. He froze for a moment before his hand reflexively went for the gun. He remained still, listening, feeling his pulse racing at the same speed as his thoughts. No one knew that he was here. He hadn’t encountered anyone in the stairwell. Could it still be some neighbor who had spotted him though their peephole and wanted to say hello and see how he was doing? Could it be the police, did they have their eyes on him? Or worse than the police, serious men in stiff suits from one of the many acronym agencies he had made it his life’s work to avoid? Or… He didn’t dare complete the thought, but realized that if someone was after him right now it was most likely the people he had recently stolen something very valuable from. He felt cold sweat running down his back. The doorbell sounded again and he jumped. Whoever was on the other side of the door they were not about to give up.

 

With the gun raised in front of him he silently crept towards the door. It was secured with extra locks, but if someone really wanted in they would succeed. The apartment certainly was no Fort Knox; he didn’t have that kind of money. He avoided the peephole, knowing that it was an idiot proof method of getting shot straight in the face if that was what the visitors had in mind. He knew that he should wait them out, just keep his calm until whoever it was tired and went away. That would clearly be the smartest thing to do in this situation. But either because of his irritation about Bill’s paranoid behavior or something else, this was not what he did finally. Instead he hid the gun behind his back and unlocked the door. He took a deep breath and tried to convince himself that he was being silly, that he needed to get his shit together before he turned into a wired wreck. Then he opened the door and all he could do was stare.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”, he exclaimed in shock. He wasn’t really sure who he had been expecting to find outside the door, but it definitely wasn’t this guy.

Chino seemed at least as shocked and his frightened eyes shifted between Ian’s face and the gun the surprise had caused him to let hang limply by his side. “What… what have you done?”

They stood there staring at each other for what felt like half an eternity but was probably really no more than a couple of seconds.

“How did you find me?”, Ian said finally. This was not good, not good at all. If this guy could find him here, all hell was probably on its way as well.

“I… I was looking for someone here. Not you”, Chino added hurriedly. He seemed terrified too.

Ian swallowed. ”Who?”, he pressed forth, but an ominous thought was already forming in his mind.

“My… adoptive father gave me the address, but it must have been wrong. I was looking for someone named Ian K. Salimi. He’s my brother.”

“Your… brother.” Ian stared, felt his hand starting to shake as a heavy nausea crashed over him like a merciless wave of darkness. The Spaniard. Little brother. Mom. He realized that he, in his wild quest for fire, blood and justice had made a terrible, unforgivable mistake. Casualties of war. The end justifies the means. No no no… He wanted to throw up, scream, smash his head against the wall. But he did none of those things.

“We have to talk”, he said to the person he had caused so much pain and suffering when according to all logic and instinct he should have always always always done the exact opposite. The person for whom he should have always been there, the person he should have always protected and loved and fought for. “Come inside.”

He stepped aside and let his beaten-up little brother into the apartment that had his name on the door but had never been his home. And when he closed and locked the door behind them he realized suddenly, from the bottom of his very being, that he had never actually followed in his father’s footsteps, that he was far from the hero he had fancied himself to be. And the insight burned more painfully than fire.

By Christina Smedbakken 2016-11-06

 

#5.3

This is a short chapter from the novel I’m currently proof reading and editing. It’s originally in Swedish, but I translated this part. I know it won’t make much sense without a context, but I couldn’t help myself. Enjoy! 😉


 

The same kind of darkness, the same night. An entirely different room. The walls of the office: stained wooden paneling. The desk: dark oak, probably antique. The style otherwise: so super modern that the wooden details felt like stylish design decisions. Getting inside had not been difficult; the man who owned the office had paid well for his murderer’s education. Soon he, too, would be dead.

Malcolm hadn’t even bothered to hide. This time he had removed the light bulb from the lamp in the ceiling, and the shadows along the walls did the rest of the job. When the sounds of traffic from outside were joined by those of footsteps on the stairs and the rustling of keys, he didn’t even feel nervous. If any feeling at all pierced through his concentration, it was excitement.

The man who opened the door didn’t even look around. With hurried, purposeful steps he moved over to the desk and started unlocking one of the drawers. His movements were stiff, irritated. He had received a call about an hour ago, the higher ups wanted a report. Tonight. He didn’t like being ordered around like this – if they only knew who they were dealing with. He would have liked the situation even less had he known who was really behind that call – and who was now slowly shutting the door behind him.

A click. The man turned around.

“Who the fuck are you?”

Malcolm smirked at him from the shadows. “I’m here to report. Samuel Edmunds is dead, just as you ordered. In his hotel room after the conference. No surviving witnesses.”

The man just stared at him for several seconds. Then he took a step forward. “Are you out of your fucking mind? You cannot come here. You’re not supposed to come here. You know perfectly well how our communication is supposed to work. Are you aware of the risk you have put me in by –”

Malcolm calmly cocked the gun he was holding at his side. The man stopped dead. Something in his eyes changed.

“Take it easy”, Malcolm said. “I’m perfectly aware of the risk I’m putting you in by coming here tonight. The question is, are you?”

The man cleared his throat. Struggled hard to retain his authority. Failed fatally. “And what the hell is that supposed to mean? Are you threatening me? Do you have any idea what I could do to you? You are nobody, and I know everything about you. Everything. If you try to pressure me in any way, I will –”

“I’m not here to pressure you for money”, Malcolm replied. “But you do have a point. You know way too much about me, and that is why we are standing here.”

“Does Nicholas know that you are here?” Fear now, in his eyes and in his voice.

Now Malcolm laughed, he could not help himself. “I strongly doubt that.”

One second of silence. Hesitation, insecurity. He cannot read me. Has no idea what I am planning.

”Listen”, the man said finally. The voice was mimicking that of a confident man, but not very convincingly so. “Nicholas doesn’t need to know about this. In fact, nobody needs to know. If you want to talk retainer, then let’s do that. A phone call or a middle man would of course have been better, but now that we are–”

Malcolm slowly shook his head and the man’s voice trailed off. “We are not going to talk retainer. Actually, we are not going to do anything together at all. I am going to shoot you in the head, and you are going to drop dead on top of that overvalued carpet. Then I am going to take that sheet with account information that you are holding in your hand and walk away.”

The man swallowed hard. His eyes darted nervously. ”This is insane, and you know it. My colleagues will send people after you. You’ll not stand a chance if you do this.”

“Well, yes I will”, Malcolm said. “But only if I pay them a visit as well.” Then he raised his gun and did exactly as he had promised.

With the bloodstained and unbelievably valuable sheet of paper tightly clutched in his hand he then hurriedly left the office. He had two more men to visit before sunrise, and several bank accounts to empty. He still wasn’t entirely sure that he knew what he was doing, but it was too late to back out now. Come morning he would be free, but before that he would have to file a letter of resignation signed in blood. There was no time for hesitation – Nicholas had taught him that.

A Market For Crime

This one is from 2011. I’m just home from Hungrary, and hopefully I’ll get time to write a new text tomorrow. Feel free to leave a comment!


Richard Gimmons had always been deeply fascinated by the dangerous but, as he imagined it, oh so glamorous underbelly of society that hid in plain sight.

He knew perfectly well that reality was not like in the movies, where handsome men in expensive hats drove around in shiny cars and extracted swift but furious vengeance upon their unjust gangster foes in merciless drive bys – and always managed to talk their way out of it afterwards; the police knew that these mobsters were fighting the good fight. But he imagined that the fiction could not have deviated too far from reality.

Rich Gimmons’ own reality, however, deviated a great deal from the fiction. Indeed, the life he led was such that anyone would consider it boring, and your old, half deaf female neighbour would describe it as dull. He went to work every day at eight a.m dressed in his best grey suit (or one of them, at least, since he owned many), did his job as best as he could selling ecological soap to unwilling house mothers, and then went home at five p.m sharp. Well at home he changed into something more comfortable – usually a turquoise robe and a pair of furry slippers – and got down to business watching somewhat exciting TV thrillers from the safe confines of his old, favourite sofa. At weekends he sometimes visited his mother at the home, always bringing her a bouquet of pink roses, watching talk shows together with her until it was time for him to return home. On some, extremely rare, occasions he allowed himself to be talked into joining his colleagues for one glass after work, but lately he had begun to suspect they only asked him to be nice.

This stagnated habit of his, paired with his just as stagnated personality and lack of both courage and imagination, resulted in two immediate reactions when he one sunny Saturday morning opened up his daily newspaper to find this strange add on the middle page:

Is your life boring? Do you sometimes watch the news wishing that was you getting fussed over as a victim or a hero on TV? Let us spice your workday up for you! You only need to grab your phone and dial 555-3369BUYACRIME. And you know what? The first one is on the house! Don’t hesitate, we want to hear from you today!”

The first of his two reactions was excitement – this add could have been written for him personally. The other reaction was fear. Spicing up his workday? Buy a crime? No way he would have anything to do with such obviously dangerous and… strange affairs. An hour later he dialed the number anyway, his hands shaking slightly as he used them both to hold the phone steady against his ear.

After a couple of signals a pleasant, computerised female voice asked him please to wait in line, after which he was entertained with a somewhat catchy tune for a couple of minutes. Just as his fear of the unsafe was beginning to get the upper hand of his patience and curiosity, the music ended abruptly and he heard the sound of a receiver getting picked up.

Welcome to Life Spice Enterprise! How can we assist you?”

The voice on the other end was charming but, thought Rich, held the timbre of a voice capable of selling the apples back to the tree as well as scaring it into retracting them. He hesitated.

Hi…”, he said after a moment slightly too long had passed. “My name is Richard Gimmons, and I would like to… er… I’d like to buy a crime, please.” He blurted the words out, before he had a chance to change his mind.

The man at the other end let out a polite laugh. “Certainly, sir. What kind of crime would you like to order? We have a respectable selection of both services and entrepreneurs.”

Now Rich’s lack of imagination took its toll, and he started to sweat. How stupid he was! Of course he should have thought about what exactly he wanted to order before he made the call! “I… I don’t know really… Do you have anything to recommend?”

Well”, said the salesman, and Rich faintly heard him tapping the keys of a keyboard. In the background could be heard the sounds of other conversations, and Rich was reminded of the soundscape at his own office. “In fact I have. We are actually running a special campaign, today-only. You can get a Mugging and Severe Beating for the price of a Simple Pickpocket, if you sign up today. Or is this your first time here?”

Rich nodded and then realised that the salesman couldn’t see him, so he hurried to answer “Yes”.

Then I have to apologise, sir! Your first order is always for free with us! But I can give you a hint”, he said conspiratorially. “You can choose another kind of crime as your free try, and then also buy the Mugging and Severe Beating for today’s beneficial, heavily reduced price. That way, you can both have the cookie and eat it, so to speak. What do you say?”

Rich knew from his own experience with the salesman-job that he was being talked into something, and that the man at the other end probably got a percentage of every crime he sold. But at the same time he felt that he had taken a big step even calling this number in the first place, and suspected that he would never be able to work up the courage to do it again did he not strike the deal right away. And he had to admit: it sure sounded like a smart and advantageous deal.

Sure, I’ll take it”, he said in a voice that sounded ten times more sure of itself than he felt. “I’ll take that Mugging-thing, and…” He searched his brain for ideas for a crime, mentally going through movies he had seen and books he had read. Finally, he came up with the perfect idea. “And also please add a crime where I am dramatically forced off the road when I’m driving in my car”.

Excellent!” The salesman sounded genuinely rejoiced. “This is a very good choice, especially as it is your free crime; incidents involving vehicles are usually the most expensive ones. Then I’ll just need your name, address and Social Security Number.” Rich gave it to him. “And… Ah, I forgot to ask. Do you intend to benefit from the crimes yourself, or should I write them as a gift certificate for someone you know?”

No, I would like the crimes for myself, please”, Rich hurried to ensure him. “Both of them.”

Excellent, excellent.” The frenetic tapping of keys could once again be heard. “And now remains only the tailoring of your order. Do you have any specific wishes concerning time, place, perpetrator or any other circumstances for us to take into account, Mr. Gimmons?”

No”, Rich answered calmly, his fear of the unsafe momentarily suspended. “Surprise me.”

It was two days later that Rich was jumped on his way home from work. He had just gotten out of the subway station (he sometimes refrained from driving if the weather was rough) when someone knocked him down from behind, snatched his briefcase and started beating him senseless even as his accomplice violently rumaged through Rich’s pockets and removed his wallet and cellphone.

Rich screamed his lungs out, but it was dark and no one was nearby. The robbers left him bleeding on the pavement and took off with his belongings. He must have passed out, because when he came to several people were standing over him with concerned looks, even as a couple of medics were forcing their way through the crowd while yelling for the bystanders to leave room.

He was lifted onto a stretcher and placed in the back of an ambulance. He thought to himself as he saw the last strip of dawn light disappearing between the closing doors that this was probably the first time in his life he was inside an ambulance. This thought felt strangely soothing to him; things were changing.

Two ribs had been broken. And his nose. And three fingers on his left hand. He had suffered a heavy concussion, and a sharp, black field around his right eye made it impossible for him to conceal his sorry state. Apart from all this, he ached all over and had suffered several, less serious injuries that the doctors had said would heal without their intervention. Even so, he had been in hospital for a week and had had to call in sick from work for several days even after he had gotten home. His colleagues sent him flowers, and his insurance company was forced to cough up a respectable sum for his injuries and inconvenience. The TV news even made a small coverage about his ill luck, and the newspapers warned people about walking around alone at night in the area where he had been attacked.

Rich Gimmons began to feel that this being-a-victim business wasn’t so bad after all. His injuries healed pretty quickly, and he could return to work to bask in his new glory. People he had never spoken to before stopped him in the corridor to ask him how he was, and his boss went easier on him than usual – even offered him the first weekend off to rest.

He got in his car after the first work day, smiling as he saw his black eye in the rear view mirror. Maybe life wasn’t so dull and boring after all. He took the highway for a bit, before turning onto one of the smaller mainlines leading to his suburb. The sun was setting and some children were out biking. With helmets, he noted to his satisfaction. He passed them, and steered to the side to let by a pickup truck that was coming up fast from behind. Only it didn’t pass. He only had a moment to get a quick glance of the other driver’s cold stare before he realised what it was all about. He waved and shouted to the other driver to stop, please not now, that he had changed his mind. The driver just shook his head and gave Rich a businesslike smile.

Richard Gimmons’ Sedan was forced sideways off the road, through the crash barrier and down a steep slope. Rich screamed all the way down. He didn’t see the pickup drive away. Neither did he notice when the police and ambulance arrived. Everything went dark when he hit his head on the wheel as his expensive, ultra safe car collided with a beech and turned into a burning wreck.

Do you have any enemies, Mr. Gimmons?” The policeman wore a stern face and tapped his notepad with his ballpoint pen for every syllable he spoke. “Anyone who would wish to harm you?”

Rich shook his head with effort; the supportive collar they forced him to wear, together with the pain in his neck, made it hard for him to move his head at all. “No, sir, not that I know of”.

Of course he could not tell them about his doings with Life Spice Enterprise, that would only be stupid. He wasn’t even completely sure that ordering crimes to be committed against oneself was fully legal in his state. He continued struggling to spoon yoghurt from the bowl on his lap and into his mouth – a real feat when half your face is covered in bandages.

Are you completely sure?”, the policeman insisted, still tapping his notepad. “Because we can’t help but to find it kind of strange that the same man should be attacked and abused two times in one month, and that these incidents should be completely unrelated.” He gave Rich a concerned but stern look.

I’m completely sure”, Rich said between mouthfuls. “I’m a completely ordinary guy. I sell soap, watch TV and visit my mother. I don’t even have many friends – how can I have enemies?” The yoghurt tasted of raspberries.

The policeman seemed to agree; Richard Gimmons didn’t seem like the kind of person who would make enemies, or anything else either for that matter. He thanked Rich for his time, and left the hospital room.

Rich got home from the hospital two weeks later, to find a whole bunch of flowers and presents waiting for him in his apartment. His kindly landlady had obviously been sweet enough to let the deliverymen in with their gods, and he knocked on her door and thanked her for that. Then he spent the whole evening eating chocolate and watching The Godfather I on DVD.

When he got back to work some days later he was greeted with even more attention than the last time, and he felt that he really liked how things had turned out. A reporter from one of the major news channels visited him at work and asked him questions, and later that night he was delighted to see his own face on TV.

Life went on, and for a while his fame held. But as the days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, he noticed that people didn’t acknowledge him as much as they had done in the beginning. He was fear struck when he realised that he was slipping back into his old, boring lifestyle. The first thing he did when he got home from work that night was to call the number from the add that he had saved.

The police was beginning to despair. Richard Gimmons had no enemies, was not involved in any shady activities, had no criminal friends. And still he was repeatedly attacked at seemingly random intervals and under unrelated circumstances. He was on TV several times, and became something of a local hero – even though he had done nothing to deserve it except getting mugged, beaten, robbed, abused and almost murdered more times than a normal person had time to read about in a week. And the police had no means whatsoever to solve the case. In the end they just leaned back and enjoyed the show, hoping that A: it would eventually end, B: the case would solve itself, or C: Richard Gimmons would finally succumb to all the violence directed at him and drop down dead, one less hopeless endeavour to waste resources on. None of this happened.

Rich Gimmons himself was living what he considered the high life, getting recognised in the streets and even receiving mail from a handful of (probably crazed, but what the heck) admirers. People at work had long since begun to regard him as something of a wild card, not knowing if he really was involved in anything or not. Best to be on the safe side, they decided, and Rich found himself nervously shunned by some and treated with almost mob like respect by others. All to his liking.

Therefore he became desperate when he realised one day that his meager pay check, heavily reduced by all his recent sign offs and hospital bills, did not nearly cover his crime expenses. He had been borrowing from his savings account for weeks, and it was beginning to dwindle. And still he needed more crime.

He had thought of the perfect one last night, one where he was threatened by mysterious phone calls for days and then, the evening after receiving a rabbit’s head in a box at his office (for all his colleagues to witness, of course), forcibly tattooed on the back of his neck and thrown off a bridge with a Bible stapled to one of his legs. This would certainly rouse the media’s interest and spice up his life just that extra bit. But he had gotten a rather great overview of the company’s tariff over the weeks, and knew that this kind of crime would cost a small fortune. Maybe if he wasn’t in hospital so much and missed so many days at work, he would be able to afford it. But as things were now, he wasn’t. He hadn’t even been able to pay up for the last installment, and was beginning to worry what would happen if he didn’t pay it soon. He wasn’t afraid they would send thugs to beat him up – that would be getting one for free – but he feared that he would be black-listed as a customer and prevented from placing any new orders in the future. So he called them.

He had learned through experience that there were four regulars working the phones at Life Spice Enterprise, and this time he got number three: a man with a fat voice who couldn’t be anything but corpulent (and probably extremely dangerous, regardless of the pleasant note in his voice as he took the call).

Welcome to Life Spice Enterprise! How can we help you, sir?”

Hello, my name is Rich Gimmons.” He had gotten quite sure of himself over the weeks in regular contact with the company. “I have thought of the perfect crime for me.”

The salesman was quiet for a moment, and then replied: “Ah, Mr. Gimmons! I see here that you haven’t carried out the payment for your last purchase yet. I’m sorry to say, but you cannot place a new order until the previous one has been paid for.” He tapped some keys. “Have you lost your invoice? Shall I send you a new one?”

Rich felt despair bubbling inside of him, threatening to take over; he needed this crime! He held it back with some effort. “No, I haven’t lost it. I just… Could I not please get a discount? I am a returning customer, after all…”

We don’t give discounts on that kind of basis, Mr. Gimmons. We do however have some special offers. Would you like to hear them? You will still need to pay for the previous order, though, of course. Let’s see here…” Rich could hear the salesman going into vendor mode.

And what if I can’t?”, Rich interrupted. “What if I can’t pay?”

The salesman stopped writing on his computer and was quiet for slightly too long. “Well”, he let ring a short, rhetoric laugh, “We couldn’t very well contact the public debt collection, could we. No, we would simply have to kill you.” He resumed tapping his keyboard. “Now, would you like to hear about our special offers?”

Rich grew cold inside. Kill him? That was definitely more than he had bargained for. With stiff hands he hung on to the phone like his life depended on it, but couldn’t think of a word to say. He began to shake all over.

Mr. Gimmons?” The voice at the other end sounded distant and polite. “Mr. Gimmons, are you still there?”

Rich took a deep breath. “Yeah, I’m here”, he said. “Listen. Is there… is there really no way I could get a discount? Or maybe be allowed a part payment?”

No, I’m sorry, Mr. Gimmons”, the salesman replied. “But is there really no way you can pay up?”

Rich didn’t know what to say. Would they kill him right away if he said no? He cast nervous glances towards the door to his apartment. But still, he actually couldn’t pay…

No”, he replied after almost half a minute of agonising indecision. “No, I really can’t pay. I have no money left”. He waited in horror for the verdict.

Hmm… I see”, said the man on the other end of the line, suddenly taking on a completely new kind of business voice. “If you are completely sure…” He tapped his keyboard with a new kind of zeal.

Rich waited and waited, growing more anxious by the minute. “What?!”, he burst out suddenly, too nervous to keep his mouth shut any longer. “What do you mean?”

Ah, here it is”, the salesman finally said, triumphantly. “I have a solution for you. Would you like to hear it?”

Yes! Yes, of course!”

Very well, then. I can sign you up for a possibility to work off your debt to our company, and at the same time open up an account where you can save the credits you earn, for later use on our services. How does that sound?”

Rich didn’t believe he had heard the man right – this was too good to be true. “Yeah, that sounds really great! Sign me up!” Then he came to think of something. “How exactly do you mean, work it off?”

The other man adopted his happy-salesman-voice again. “Well, it’s quite simple, really. You know the services that we provide? They are carried out by independent entrepreneurs hired by us. You could become one yourself, and accept contracts from us. The more advanced the contract, the more credits are deposited into your account.”

So you mean… I can earn money this way?”

The salesman laughed. “No, we do not deal in currency. We deal in services. Don’t you know that it’s a crime to pay prowlers and criminals to commit infringements? It’s called criminal instigation. Instead, all our entrepreneurs have the possibility to cash out their earnings in free services. These services can be enjoyed by the contractors themselves or, more commonly, by other individuals decided by the entrepreneur doing the withdrawal. Most of our employees carry out other business alongside the engagements provided by us, in order to earn their living. Their dealings with us are strictly for the sake of being able to extract services and return favours.”

I see. Well, it sure sounds great. But I’m a bit unsure as to what kind of services I would be able to provide? I have never done anything like this in my entire life.”

I see here that you have purchased no less than thirty seven crimes during the past two months. Is there nothing from those experiences that you can draw inspiration from? What do you want to specialise in? Hit-and-runs? Poisoned beverages? Sharp shooting? Armed robbery?”

Rich thought for a moment. “Hmm… Maybe hit-and-runs? That doesn’t seem all to complicated to start with.”

Excellent, Mr. Gimmons! Shall I sign you up as a private contractor, then? You will have to start at the bottom of our list, working your way up doing more and more complicated assignments – and at the same rate you will of course be rewarded with larger and larger salaries.”

Yes, please”, said Richard Gimmons with a grin. “Will I have to use my own car?”

No, of course not. We will provide you with vehicles suitable for each particular contract you are assigned to. We will contact you on this number as soon as someone places an applicable order.”

Okay, that sound great. Sign me up.”

Splendid! Now you are registered on our list of private entrepreneurs! Your first assignment will of course be a no-payment one, since you still have your unpaid debt to us. But after that, the credits will start rolling in! Isn’t that great? Any more questions?”

No, all is crystal clear.”

Great! Then I want to wish you good luck, and am looking forward to hearing about your progress in our company, Mr. Gimmons! Have a nice day!”

Thanks”, Rich said and put down the receiver.

Over the next six months Richard Gimmons made himself busy executing his assignments as best as he could, picking up cars, stalking his taskmasters, analysing their habits and everyday patterns, striking when they expected it the least and making sure not to kill anyone. He was close once, but luckily it ended well. He only got half his salary for that one, though. In time he perfected his methods and rose in reputation within the company.

He found it hard, however, to keep up with his regular job. He managed, but he suspected that the major reason his boss didn’t let him go after repeatedly coming in late (or not at all, when his moonlight assignments got in the way) and doing a generally crappy job at the sales department, was the fact that he was afraid of Rich. It was obvious that he had shady business going, even though nobody could prove it.

He had to move to a smaller apartment, though, to be able to afford the rent with his reduced income. And he didn’t have as much spare time as before to enjoy the saved credits in his company account, and the free crimes they could afford. But he found that he liked his additional job, and was beginning to wonder if this wasn’t something he could do full-time – weren’t it for the fact that his current employers refused to pay him in cash instead of in credits. He was just beginning to consider starting up his own contractor side-business, when the police came to his office one afternoon and arrested him, to his colleagues’ wide eyed excitement.

They asked him in endless interrogations who he worked for, and if he had anything to say about the accusations that he was a hired killer for a major crime syndicate.

No, you’ve got it all wrong”, he assured them calmly. “I’m only a private contractor under a commercial business corporation that trade in commissioned crimes”.

For some reason they mistook this for a confession, and rewarded him with a five years sentence.

During his time inside the bars of the well renowned state prison, Rich Gimmons made many friends. Dangerous friends and powerful friends. These friends would rather suffer torture in Hell than let Rich be thrown out on the street when he had served his time, and to his delight they gave him all the contacts and resources he needed to start up his own business when he got out. The only thing he would have to do in return was to provide free services to their allies every now and then. Great!

So Rich didn’t even bother trying to get his old job back, and he didn’t go back to Life Spice Enterprise, either. He didn’t need to buy crime anymore; he was crime. And he was surprised to notice that he made ten times the money in this new line of work than he had ever done at the office – and the dramatic incidents that he had previously been forced to pay expensive fees to be able to enjoy now came for free as part of his average workday.

Sure, his old pals from prison contacted him every now and then, wanting him to sell stuff for them or to beat someone up. So high was he in demand by them and his regular customers, that he eventually had to hire extra hands to help him keep up. Soon he was in charge of his own little syndicate, and he felt very proud of himself.

Then came the day when he was required to kill a person for the first time. It was an old player who didn’t have the good grace to pay up for his debts to one of Rich’s new friends. Rich, on the other hand, had the good grace to know when to repay past kindness.

He stalked his prey for a couple of days, until he felt sure about his habits and doings. Then he struck, quickly and mercilessly. He felt as if all the past years since he first saw that strange add in the paper had prepared him, groomed him for this very moment. He felt no remorse, only a sense of being born for this. For days afterwards he followed the police investigation through the news, and was satisfied and more than a little bit proud to conclude that they were getting nowhere. Richard Gimmons truly had perfected crime, perfected murder, perfected himself. And his life was very much spicy, nowadays.

Soon he had made a name for himself amongst the lowermost layers of society. If you’re looking for one of the big ones, Richard Gimmons is your man. Yesterday he even dared discovery just for the hell of it, posting a not-so-discrete add in one of the major papers:

Is your husband boring? Do you ever watch TV wishing that was your troublesome neighbour getting pushed down a roof in that movie? Let us spice your boss’ coffee up for him! You just have to grab your phone and dial 666-137KILLYOURDARLINGS. And you know what? The first one is on the house! Don’t hesitate, we want to hear from you today!”

Did anybody call? Well, that’s another story for another time. The point it that Richard Gimmons had managed to perfect crime. And is there a market for it? Yes, indeed, there is, I can assure you. There is.

A Late Night Distraction

I like writing prompts, as you might have guessed by now. Here is another text inspired by one, and you can find the prompt here.


The night was late and silent. Outside her window the large city was going to sleep and inside her office she was alone. A security guard had passed her door half an hour ago, but since then nothing had broken her solitude. Good. She didn’t like being interrupted in her work, and she had plenty of it. Running a country this size was not a full time job; it was a life. She hadn’t gotten to where she was by wasting her precious time on such petty trivialities as sleep and other useless things.

The clock struck midnight. She looked up. She didn’t have that kind of clock in her office.

”You had me killed.” The voice came from the chair in the corner, now draped in shadow. A tiny glow pierced the gloom and revealed the end of a cigarette.

She remained seated, her eyes struggling against the darkness until she could make out the face of the man staring back at her from across the room. ”Oh, it’s you”, she said and turned her attention back to the screen. She didn’t like being interrupted in her work.

Quiet laughter, not really amused but almost. ”So I’m not the only one? There are others? Jesus, you’re cold.” He rose and walked over to her end of the office. Leaned against the window and continued smoking his cigarette.

A distinct scent of old tobacco smoke started spreading in the room. It had not been easy to get that same scent out of the walls when first she had taken over this office, and now she would have to do it all over again. She sighed. ”What do you want?”

”Sharp words from a vice president towards her superior, don’t you think?”

She almost lost her temper, and abandoned her work to stare at him. ”I would think that, yes, if I hadn’t been promoted and you hadn’t been dead. Now go back to resting in peace or whatever it is that you people do, and let me do my job.”

”Wow. I had expected at least some little show of remorse from you. But I’ll tell you what I want. I want retaliation or an apology, or at least an explanation. I won’t leave until I get one of them.”

She resumed typing on her keyboard, ignoring him. ”Then I’m afraid you’ll have to make yourself comfortable, because you’re not getting any of them from me.”

”I suspected as much”, he said and returned to the chair in the corner. ”That’s why I deliberately chose tonight for my visit.”

”Is that so?” She only listened with half an ear now. She didn’t have any time to spare for ranting, vengeful ghosts. She had to work on her next promotional speech.

”Yes it is.” He blew out some smoke and put one leg over the other. Leaned back. ”That’s quite some campaign you’re running there. Water proof, even. Your opponent won’t stand a sorry chance.”

She met his eyes, surprised and somewhat disarmed. ”Thank you. I guess. That actually means something, coming from you. I know I won’t be losing to him.”

The ghost nodded, a vicious smile playing at the corners of his moth. ”And he knows that too. That’s why I’m not your only visitor tonight.”

She frowned, opening her mouth to ask him what he meant. But then the door to her office burst open and all that escaped her lips was a scream in fear before everything became pain and chaos.

And he did just as she had asked him to and made himself comfortable, as he revelled in the violence that played out before him. She stopped screaming eventually, and the killer left the office as soundlessly as just another phantom.

”Retaliation it is, then”, the ghost of her predecessor laughed quietly from his chair. Then he drifted back into the shadows and the late night became silent once more.

And all that remained was blood and a fading scent of old tobacco smoke.

Nobody Quits

Another new story in response to a writing prompt. A shorter text this time, though. Feel free to leave comments.


Saturday night. A slow paced ordeal in this sleepy backwater town. A lazy rain raps listlessly at my window and the cheap coffee in my cup is too weak to keep anyone awake. Apart from the rain the only sound is made by the Freddie Mercury clock sitting on the wall, overlooking all.

The news pieces in today’s paper are old, having already taken several beats around the net before at long last reaching the printing press. I read them anyway, savor them, even. I am able to read subtle truths in the short notices that I can never find in modern crime novels. However, being in the know is probably the only perk that comes with having led my kind of life – especially since I decided to leave it all behind.

I have almost reconciled with this existence. It’s the price I have had to pay for breaking free of all the things that once weighed me down. That, and the disgrace of soon standing in front of a jury, testifying against my old allies. I just wish living within the federal witness protection program was not so goddamn boring.

The rapping of the raindrops on my window is suddenly accompanied by a far more substantial rapping on the door. Freddie Mercury looks just as surprised as I when I turn to him for an explanation. It’s almost midnight, and I expect no visitors. I seldom do nowadays. Slowly I fold my paper and walk towards the door to look through the peephole. I’m not really afraid of strangers, I don’t think the people who want to hurt me can find me here. But even so, the sight of the man outside the door makes me freeze. I know him very well. He knocks again. I open the door.

”I see you weren’t expecting me”, he says as he lets himself in.

I close the door. ”No, but I don’t see how it is logically possible that I weren’t.”

He is wearing a hooded sweater with its sleeves rolled up. His arms are covered in large, dark tattoos and his face in metal. He also has a huge tribal across his entire back, and an ugly scar disfigures his left thigh. I know this only because I had that very tribal tattoo painfully removed five months ago, and that old knife wound still pains me after long walks. The rain composes a monotonous backdrop to our silence as I stare at him. As he stares at me. Then he walks into my living room.

”So this is what I’ll sell everything out for? I don’t believe it…”

I stand in the doorway, watching him as he pulls out my books and scrutinizes my sparse furniture. ”It became too much. You will see in time.”

He looks up at me. ”No, I won’t. This will never happen.”

I shake my head. This young man has much to learn. ”How old are you? Eighteen?”

”Nineteen, actually”, he says and I suddenly remember getting that snakebite piercing on my birthday that very year.

I nod knowingly. ”Many things can happen in seven years. Feelings change. People change.”

”I won’t change”, he says. ”I refuse to change. I refuse to become… this.” He makes a gesture that encompasses the entire room, and it’s not until now that I realize that he is holding a gun.

I take a step back, but he reacts faster. I stare at the cold piece of metal in front of my eyes just as intently as he stares at me. Fear. All I can feel is fear now, and my entire body is starting to shake.

”They told me that I am going to rat on them. That they can’t let me into the organization for real because seven years from now, I will sell them out. Don’t you see that you have ruined everything? I’ll never be anything, and it’s all because of you!” He puts the gun to my face and forces me to my knees.

I almost cannot breathe, let alone speak. But still I force myself to say something between the panicky sobs. ”But… I am you. For fuck sake, can’t you see that? My choices are your goddam choices. You can’t be serious about this. Please…”

”They have given me one option, though. If I find you and whack you before you go to that fucking trial and ruin everything, they’ll let me in. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. Nobody quits.”

I wonder who ”they” are. I wonder if this can really be happening. I wonder what will happen to me, to him, if he pulls the trigger. ”Fucking idiot”, I say as he readies the gun. ”Don’t you rea –”


The echo slowly dies. Only Freddie Mercury watches on in shocked silence as the impossible unfolds, but being a clock he will never be able to tell anyone. And the slow paced Saturday night wears on in that sleepy backwater town.