The briskness of the Russian air manages to skulk through the car door before I even manage to unlock the door. It is not a welcoming embrace. A half-hearted exit is forced as the frost wraps around my body, the exhaust fumes coat Mother Nature, a grey cloak on the silk-laden land. At my side, the leather briefcase tags along, it follows as I sink two inches into the mounds of crisp flakes. The strange little man with the enormous head follows behind, rolling in from the other side of the car with the driver.
Small talk ceased about twenty minutes ago, we’ve been sitting with eyes on the horizon since. It makes him uncomfortable, sweat has bundled around his chest and beneath his ears. “I…” he stammers: a silence killing technique. “I think this is our destination,” he dons a wool hat and a latex nose fit with moustache, more convincing than it sounds. Individual hairs release themselves upon my person, dragging through the westerly wind. “I don’t like this.”
“We don’t have enough time to talk about it,” I respond, there’s a damn good chance we’re already too late for stage one. “We’re moving the plan up, start with stage 3.”
“The hit is now priority one, it’s all that matters. Got that?”
“You’re being too reckless now, Allie.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Are you listening to me though?” he checks his phone, “their flight lands in about 49 minutes, you’ve still got time to prepare.”
On that note, I plug a receiver into my left ear as directed by the driver. The man squirms as I test the frequency with a yell, “I’ll put some distance between us. Don’t get lost, or killed.”
A difficult topic is approached with caution, “the aftermath,” he pesters, “what are you doing about that?”
“I don’t really know, if I’m honest.”
“I’m not thinking about it, y’know?”
His watch signals the hour and with it comes the clean death of the driver. We leave the body in the snow, placing my ungloved hand across his face, shutting his eyes with a trail of DNA evidence. The strange little man removes the driver’s gun from his waistcoat and steps backwards over his body. “Are you ready to go?”
“Have you taken your pills yet?”
I nod, telling the same lie twice.
“Well then,” a hand stretches towards me, “good luck Alexis. See you in a couple of hours, no?”
I keep myself in character and refuse the handshake with a silent… pout thing, staring off into the distance. I’m not an arsehole, but I don’t want to leave a wound when the inevitable happens. These are dangerous games, that’s what I like about it. “Codenames only from here on out, all right? Do you copy Wormdrink?” He hates that nickname, I can’t really blame him. Computer generated nonsense, funnelled from one end of the internet to our own, stolen from some deep web forum user’s handle. I don’t particularly like my own, if I’m honest. It’s insulting.
Clothed and fed, Pudding sits in the middle of my couch watching the day go about its business through the wide windows of my flat. Uninitiated, I started pestering her about how she had collected her winnings in the first place. With a mouthful of my cereal, she told me “it’s just put straight into your account. No need to actually do anything except withdraw it.”
“So, you didn’t receive an email about some woman?”
“Some woman?” she chortles, “you didn’t like, sign up for BottleTop dating or anything, did you?”
“That sounds like a joke, is that a joke?”
“I don’t think I got anything about a woman, just an email and… hold on.” Pudding hops up and plods over to a small bowl of rice sat on the kitchen counter. In it, her phone waits patiently to dry off after being soaked overnight in the bathtub. “It works!”
“That’s impressive. The wonders of technology, eh?”
“Look, this is what I got…” she hands me her phone, still damp from the night before. The display has gone wonky and bubbled but yeah, it still works. The email she’s showing me is simple with no real formatting, some artist probably wasted weeks working on it. A beige background and a fuzzy image of Bess planted in the centre. Beneath the old girl is Pudding’s name and her winning code, as well as a congratulatory message. There’s certainly something going on here, is somebody pranking me?
“Ah,” I say, “makes sense. Maybe they’ve changed it or something…”
“Who’s information did you get?”
“Ah, just woman’s phone number. I’ll give her a ring in a moment, do you want to get some air?” Ms. Natal has started to play on my mind a little bit, I think I’m stressing. Desperate to Google her or call her up, I offer Pudding the door.
“Oh!” she calls out, “I must’ve completely forgotten but I have a friend sleeping on my couch this weekend… You should meet him, his name is Craig and he’s a comp-“ she pauses, thinks for a second and then takes back her statement. “He’s a little bit of an ‘acquired taste’,” big words for Pudding, it takes a moment for her to recover. “You two might not get on.”
I brush her off my couch like crumbs, rushing her out of the door as she panics about her friend and sending her off to prepare her home for this ‘weirdo’. Without her clouding up my apartment, I can finally arrange my thoughts about the place, decoration-style. Sticking plans to the fridge, taping Natal’s address to the floor, her photograph replaces my own in frames nailed to the wall; I don’t want to see this woman, do I? Is the money that important to me? That one’s not a real question, of course it is.
I should take a walk as the whole room is covered now, I can hardly breathe. My pill bottle calls toward me, asking whether I’m feeling symptomatic yet. I’m not but, whenever I consider my mindfulness, I remember the horror stories in the news recently: bedridden rock stars and children who can’t go outside anymore. That’s what’s scaring me at the moment, I think… The pill jumps down my throat with no resistance, it’s just part of life now. The ritual process has become nothing short of muscle memory, despite those few cheat days, and the very shape of them has become embedded in the tangible flesh of my oesophagus. With a swig of old coffee, I take leave of my home and head to the outside world where the air is fresh and leave my troubled thoughts inside.
The people of Brog - Brogians, I assume - step beside me on the street like I’m some kind of speeding vehicle, moving on with their lives without a care in the world. No smile, nothing. Nobody you come across on the street is friendly here, they’ve all got ‘pissed-in-my-coffee’ expressions and ‘burnt-my-home-down-with-my-partner-and-child-still-inside’ attitudes to life plastered across their ‘dad-never-hugged-me’ faces.
I wish I was back in America. I guess I’d still be there if medical treatment didn’t cost an arse and a half… Treating serious, uninsured Lyme disease is like setting your life savings on fire and trying to save it with dimes and quarters, it’s just not going to be pleasant. The doctor rings me but I don’t pick up. He leaves me a text message about a run-in with a couple of police officers asking about me but decides against going into the details in digital wording.
My mind wanders with me as I slip deeper into Brog’s inner city and fall into the outer workings. The warehouses appear out of nowhere, as do the mountains in the distance and the well-disguised offices of dorky post-graduates with start-ups and Kickstarter applications we’ll never understand. Roof-tops with gardens, towers atop buildings, vantage points for self-destructive cigarette smokers. I take a seat beside an old sports car, probably under the ownership of some old man visiting his niece and her online-only costume shop.
The sky is filled with blackened clouds, they coat the sky like tar on lungs. God, do I crave cigarette smoke right now? Not even the act of smoking, just the secondhand monoxide exhaled adrift of my direction. Did you know they put chocolate in some cigarettes to make them more palatable to children? I don’t know where I read that, it sounds like the truth though, doesn’t it? Fortunately for my craving - not for my internal organs - a young woman decides to join my venture and begins to suck down the first of three pre-rolled cigarettes tucked behind her ears.
She ducks into the sports car, picking up a lighter from the glove compartment before sitting beside me on the bench. The sticks hold a perfect and unnatural conical shape, machine-rolled on the way out. The tip of the device sticks out of her pocket showing a lack of motor skills, a light smattering of pulled tobacco leads the way to her other pocket. Attached to her belt loop is a badge showing an unflattering photograph and her name in bold and italics, no capitals: it’s jennifer natal, ceo.
This woman is thirty two years old? She looks younger than Pudding, and she’s CEO? Does she work for BottleTop then? There’s no logo or information around, no other wording on her badge. Jennifer catches me staring and breathes smoke in my face, probably by accident but the sentiment is still there. Then, she stands and heads onto the roundabout laden street, leaving me on my own.
I greet the empty air aloud, missing my opportunity to speak to the woman in front of me. She turns back to me occasionally but I can’t tear my eyes away. Scopophillia, I knew that media studies course wasn’t a waste of time. There’s a pleasure in watching somebody, isn’t there? She follows the roundabouts across the warehouse district, weaving in-between cars like a small child lost in the urban jungle. Several people catch her adventure in progress but only I stay until the end, after she stops a white van in the middle of the road for a chat. She makes a quiet phone call beside me before returning to the unlabelled building, the impulse to follow ends there.
I know that this might seem a little bit odd, like an obsession or a stalking. I couldn’t help myself coming back every day, the thought wouldn’t have even occurred to me if I hadn’t seen her driving home from work whilst I was shopping. It’s been a week now, she still hasn’t approached me and I’ve been getting the same notifications on the BottleTop website since that day, you would think she’d have taken notice of me now, right?
Sitting on that bench has become routine, it almost moulds to my shape now. I’ve worn myself into it and… I’m avoiding the point, again. It’s just that, she takes the same route everyday without fail: she’ll follow the roundabouts, weave in-between the same cars and stop at the same white van for chat. Today, as I sit on the bench, she’s decided to change it up a little bit. She’s done the walk-around, I’m eating a sandwich and she’s sat beside me, instead of returning to the innards of her warehouse.
Glaring at herself in a pocket mirror, inhaling the sights around her, feeling the wind in her hands in front of her, it’s all unusual behaviour for Jennifer Natal and… should I even notice that by this point? I should just pluck up the courage to speak to her, ask her about the BottleTop company… Yes? No?
“Excuse me?” that’s not my voice, I haven’t asked anything yet. It’s Natal, staring at me from across the bench like a quizzical crush at a Year 6 disco. Big brown eyes, masked in coloured eye-shadow, envelop my person: “do you have a minute?”
Of course, I do. She smiles and we walk a little onwards, she leads and I bathe a little in the smell of her perfume. That’s when she takes me by the hand, then the throat and I’m sent into an alleyway between two all encompassing warehouses. Scramble, I pull myself away from her but before I can actually escape, her foot trounces my larynx. “Why are you following me?”
I can’t breath.
Clearly not in the mood to spill blood on her leather boots, Natal lets me speak. Her hand replaces the foot, but at least I can talk. Truth is, I don’t know why I’m following her, I don’t know what it is she has that I need or why I was given her details but I manage to get the right words out at the time and she releases her grip somewhat. With a hurricane of snot and tears I beg her to understand, I’m innocent.
“Shit, all right. Okay, well…” Natal, whose posture and attitude have evolved, takes charge of the situation. “There’s something bigger going on here, either you’re just playing the fool or we’re both buggered, and I don’t want to take any chances.” Her boot finds my head again, knocking my limp lump to the ground again.
Air escapes my lungs, blood vessels audibly pop in the right side of my face. Tears stream, shocks shoot down my arms making it impossible to even attempt to grab this woman, but she stops.It does take a few moments for the blood-related ringing in my ears to ceases, overtaken by an explosive-based ringing. Natal lays down in the foetal position and I ask if she’s all right, did she just snap? I pull her towards me but pieces of her drip and detessallate.
I look up to the sky, the two buildings that oppose each other beside me create the perfect alleyway and a shadow, tall and fearsome stares back at me with a rifle in tow. I escape with my life for now, hurrying down the empty streets with shots flying left, right and centre as I move towards the busiest part of the town. He cannot shoot me there, too many people would witness, they’d be able to save me. The perfect plan comes to fruition when I see the bandstand and the park in the open but… nobody is there.
The people have been funnelled out, only a single shadow remains.
Thank you for taking the time to read this chapter.
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