‘Bottletop’: [6] - A Heist, A Greetings Card, And A Phone Call

I don’t mean to be a cunt but I think I read that Aristotle said, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Craig takes this sentiment in its most literal form which, I suppose, is how it was probably intended. If you wanted to make a movie, you’d go on set at Pinewood. If you needed to learn how to fire a gun, you’d walk into the woods and knock over a few cans. If you fancied learning how to drive a manual, you’d get behind the wheel with an instructor so, I suppose, if you wanted to learn how to kill you would break into a PCP laboratory and take down the head of production.
    My life continued to be in danger as we waited for a suitable contract to arrive; the bottle tops piled up atop my desk in three piles of ‘no’, ‘maybe’, and ‘check’. Craig displayed his computer wizardry on my zombie of a laptop, performing detailed background checks on every ‘client’ but no matter what, I had the last call. 
    Tuesday turned up nothing, while Wednesday brought an ‘attempted murderer’ which I refused.
    “Why not?”
    “I… I mean, it’s just attempted, right? What if it was all a misunderstanding?”
    “It’s usually not a misunderstanding, but fine.”
    On Thursday came the cheater, the private investigator, and the banker. 
    “I wonder if those two are connected,” said Craig as he scrolled through the P.I’s unprotected Facebook page as I stared over his shoulder at this stranger’s blaze and shock advertising technique in which he posts photographs of those he’s caught in the act of adultery. 
    “So far,” I told him, “the banker’s the only one I’ve considered.”
    “They are the real villains of the 21st century.”
    “This got topical.”
    “Let’s keep looking.”
    It was Friday that brought us to the laboratory, housed within a small, boarded-up apartment room on the eighth floor. According to the background check, four police raids had taken place in the past two months without a single successful arrest, causing the premature deaths of fourteen officers. As of last month, the unofficial word from the police was simple surrender, leaving it up to one client with a large bank account to sort out the mess. 
    As it turns out, the main selling point of the organisation is that its contractors never fail but how hard could it be? Walk into the building, taking additional care to look as though you know what you’re doing, fire a single bullet into the villain behind the desk, and leave as the world loses another scumbag, right?

    NO, NO, NO, NO, NO.

When it comes to studio apartments on the eighth floor, you don’t have many options for entry. At my insistence, we busted through the front door like a riot squad sans battle armour or powerful weaponry. It was a mistake, all right? I’ve got— I had a pistol, while Craig got to keep his cool, collapsing machine gun. It didn’t do us much use against the fourteen lab coat-donning scientists who were, before we barged in, happily making PCP at their desks.
    I figured they would be like slaves, crying tears of sweaty joy as we saved them from a terrible life. They all seem pretty content on giving up their lives for the steady, above minimum wage income they must be getting. According to Craig, the act of firing upon an employee of the organisation negates the innocence clause but that’s no good if my weapon is halfway across the room.
    Unlike in the movies, firearms tend to run out of ammunition after a hot minute. I looked up to the ceiling as the silence fell to be greeted by our target, and his sniper rifle. I slide, crab walk, and shuffle backwards as the stick-thing is pulled backwards, sliding a bullet into the chamber(?). 
    “Mikey,” says the target, “stick another notch on the desk, will you?”
    I’m not sure what happened to Craig but he hasn’t exactly come to my rescue yet, has he? If I could just reach my gun from between this man’s khakis, I might have a shot at survival but I keep crawling the wrong way automatically as though my brain is sabotaging my own body. 
    “Craig!” I call out, sending such vicious and confusing shockwaves through the target’s body that he has to look away from his scope, “detonate the bomb!”
     “Bomb? Shit, let’s take a minute here, okay?” He takes a step backwards, lowering the sniper rifle out of my direction. Now, he can’t kill me without killing Craig first, that should give us enough time to get back on even ground. “There’s no need to blow up the entire building now, is there?”
    “The organisation never fails.”
    I’m so cool.
    “Sir!” calls one of the minions, “they’re not going to blow up the building! Just kill her!”
    I make the move first, sensing imminent demise, casting my shoulder into the target’s ribcage to knock him to the ground. As we tumble, he gets a couple of clean blows in, knocking the front half of a porcelain incisor straight down my throat. A swirl of blood acts as a chaser as the jagged ceramic gouges my palate, fists continue to pound into my cheeks as I scramble further onto his body, forcing the point of his nose back into his skull with my forehead. 
    He scratches at my back, hunting for a concealed weapon I conveniently forgot about as I push elbow after elbow into his eye sockets. I feel that warm breath on my neck as I stretch around, reaching for either gun, morphs into a set of jaws pressed against my jugular. Shake, writhe, but nothing gets him off quicker than the accidental press of the sniper’s trigger.
    The stray bullet finds itself through the wall behind us, drilling a peep hole in to the neighbour’s living room. The squeal from 89 year old lungs is enough to cover another gunshot, fired with intent to kill. He was the one doing the slide, the crab walk, the shuffle backwards but all movement has ceased bar the dripping of milky tears from bruise eyes. 
    His head collapsed from the inside out, spraying the anterior wall with aptly named grey matter. By the time he slumps to the ground I am no longer shaking, a new Alexis has been born to hold the former’s hands, to wrap around the old one like she’s Demi fucking Moore. The scientists put down their empty weapons and, one by one, Craig allows them to leave the building unscathed. 
    I can almost hear the cash dropping into my account behind the ringing in my ears. “This job is done,” I tell Craig, “I can handle myself from here.”
    The certain specific elation which followed the pressing on an index finger fell within minutes like the kind of rush you get when you crash your car, only to remember the whiplash. Oozing, the flesh is bare against my neck, it trickles and bubbles as I move and breathe, deep enough to cause a serious infection depending on what had previously passed through those sinister lips of his.
    “Let’s go to the doctor,” says Craig, “the organisation has one in-house.”
   Did you expect to see that Australian again? Because I certainly didn’t, I had hoped his illicit advise would be the end of our time together. Upon laying my eyes on his scraggly little face, his tooth brush moustache, and wandering fingers, I let rip an audible “fuck this” and attempt to leave. 
    “Oh, have the two of you already met?”
    “I did not see this coming,” states the doctor, his room still plastered with archaic Australian stereotypes as though he hasn’t returned to his home in forty years.
    “I’m glad the sentiment is shared, Dr. Daniels.” 
    “Is there a reason for this sudden case of the moody blues?” he asks, stretching back in his leather office chair, peeling back the loose fabric from the edges of the seat to its breaking point. Surrounding him are tiny fragments of previously torn hide where he’s picked at the chair during phone calls or office hours, a sign of stress or preoccupation, perhaps? It’s not the sign of a good doctor, I can presume that much. 
    “Alexis has just been broken in,” says Craig.
    “I’m not sure I can blame you for your antagonism then,” he tells me as he picks himself up from his forced reclining position. “Tell me, how’s progress on your Lyme Disease?” 
     “I think it’s getting a little bit better, I couldn’t tell you.” I lift my shirt up for him, revealing the three-toned mark sitting just as vividly above my belly button like last time. “The mark hasn’t gone anywhere, and neither have my symptoms.”
    “I put you on a 10 day course, didn’t I? Haven’t 9 already passed?”
    “Aren’t there more pressing matters?” said Craig, interrupting our unpleasant chat as I figure out where it’s leading. I’ve not been feeling any better, but have I been feeling worse? I can’t remember my last ‘worst case’ day, maybe I am getting better. “Could you stitch her up? We need to send the invoice to the organisation before it’s too late.”
    “Oh yes, of course,” he dives into a cupboard behind me, removing the back board to reveal a secondary collection of items, stored away for official organisation use only. “As part of the organisation, I get a hefty budget to spend on new kit. I mean, just last week I got to replace an entire leg with a robotic prosthetic! They’re not even on the market yet, doesn’t that just make you want to lose your leg?”
    “Would you be able to swap mine out for prosthetics?” asks Craig, “theoretically, of course.”
    “You couldn’t afford the opt-in price mate,” he replied, still neck deep into his stash. “Plus, she only got it because she was so banged up under specific orders, she was worth a lot to the company. I suppose you could say it cost her an arm and a leg in the end.”
    Doctor Daniels pulls himself out of his cubby hole, needle in tow. He flicks it, pushes out the excess, and plunges the thick rod beneath my skin. 
    I lose my cool and yelp.
    “You might’ve felt a sharp prick there, don’t worry about it.”
    “There’s certainly a sharp prick somewhere…”
    I’m sorry.
    That was so poor, the two behind me didn’t even take notice of it. “Now,” the operation continues as an unbearable chill affixes itself to the four gaping holes in my neck, “this is going to feel quite cold.”
    “It’s no use warning me after you’ve done it, you fuck!”
    “Calm down, if you get agitated you’re just going to undo all the effort I’m putting in to this. The spray is going to act like a second batch of flesh, it’ll wrap and wash your wound, then it’ll heal over. Don’t tell… y’know, NASA or anybody about this stuff. It’s under wraps, got it?”
    “I feel as though I should be questioning my eligibility for this medication, y’know?”
    “Yeah, you could do that…” says the doctor, “or you could try not to think about it, because you certainly cannot leave, right? Now, let me make this clear: if your symptoms aren’t getting any better, please let me know. You’ll require a hospital stay, the length of which is still TBD, okay?”
The exact speed at which the previous four weeks have passed is unmeasurable and impossible to recollect, despite mountains of digital evidence residing in my bank account(s). The money hasn’t helped along the search for Gareth Zumthor; he doesn’t have a Facebook page, personal address, or digital footprint of any kind. 
    All hope of a university education has been flushed away, not that it matters.     At this point, I could buy the building and have every member of staff lecture me in private on a rotating spit if I wanted that insignificant bit of paper. I’ve developed the perfect screening method, I’m taking the scum of the Earth on at a pace of one villain a day, acting quicker than my cohorts each morning.
    There’s not been another incident since the raid on that apartment building, just simple single bullet shots. In, then out. No preparation or clean-up involved, I no longer even need Craig’s direction. If anything, his presence has become a bit of an irritant but I appear to still owe the man a favour of some description.
    Oh, and I’ve taken up smoking. 
    Just menthols, only once a day.
    I keep my health in check and, speaking of which, there’s be a significant increase in my energy levels. I’ve since ceased taking medication but the detox regime has stuck in ritual as though a drill sergeant had stapled it to my forehead. 
    The next client has been screened; a scorned ex-musician who’s been funding terrorism right on our doorstep. It’s straight out of a comic book, which makes it perfect for our goal. There’s a knock at the door just as I reach for the handle and, shocker, behind the door is the milk man: David. He’s sweating, a new but now common occurrence brought on by my almost offensive order of four milk crates from the company. 
    It mostly becomes an inedible yet homemade yogurt, my distaste for milk continues. 
    “Thank you.”
    He doesn’t leave, he doesn’t even give me room to leave for him. 
    I repeat, “thank you.”
    “It’s just…”
    “I’ve got a letter for you,” he tells me, “well, not for you.”
    “Aren’t you a milk man?”
    He stumbles, “yes, that’s what I said but she was insistent that I hand it to him in person.”
     In shaking hands, he passes over a small envelope handmade from white card stock, it had been taped shut in a hurry but no finger prints seemed visible on the adhesive at first glance. A name sat on the front, embedded into the card in a carved ink stamp: GARETH SCHNELLE.
    That’s not a name I recognise, I might have to take a moment to consider this. 
    “Slip it under the door, tell me about this woman.”
    “I— I can’t say much,” he told me. 
    “But you can say something? That’s not the case for most violent letter-writers, is it? What’s going on?”
    “She bumped into me on my way into work,” he explained, “earlier this morning, she joined me on the entire run. It’s strange but you always get the crazies when you work early hours, right?”
    “Y— yeah, so… she helped me out with every delivery up until this one when she gave me that letter. Then, she gave me sp— specific instructions on how to describe her and, if I was to go off script, she’d ‘slaughter me’.” 
    “I suppose that’s all you can say, right?”
    “I can tell you that she’s been watching you through doe eyes for a long time, but she’s been watching this Gareth for much longer.”
     “Great. Thank you for the added complexity, Dave, I’ll be sure to send you a postcard from beyond the grave if I get the chance.”
     One pit-stop to pick up Craig later, and we taxi down about two hours towards the local highway where our latest client is expected to arrive with his ‘friend’. According to the dossier, this musician’s favourite past time is a lass… lady called Sarah whom he frequently visits beneath the overpass on the edge of town. It’s a simple job, another single bullet situation which brings Craig’s appearance into question.
    “Is there a reason for me being here, Allie?”
    “Don’t call me that, and yes.”
    “Can I know it?”
    As we converse, I start to unpack my gear in our chosen spot. “I need you to use some of that computer wizardry to find somebody for me, can you do that?” The dossier contained CCTV footage of their predetermined meet-up spot: pressed up against the east-most ramp of the overpass.
    “Don’t you still owe me a favour?”
    “You haven’t called it in yet.” I’ve chosen to set up on the opposite side, pushing myself into a tight sewage pipe just large enough for both our bodies to fit without possibility of being seen from such a distance. 
    “It’s not time yet but does that mean you can ask for another?”
    “Are you going to turn me down?” The only plausible downside is my inability to move in open fire so, if we’re somehow spotted first, we’re fucked. 
    “I need you to do as much digging on the name Gareth Schnelle as you can, as fast as you can.” 
    “Schnelle? Is this your star-crossed lover who turned you into this monster?”
    “Don’t push you luck.”
    “Aren’t you pushing yours? You’ve been looking for this guy since it happened and now what? He’s been using a false name? Why can’t you admit that it’s very likely he’s dead?”
     “Because another member of the organisation is looking for him too, have you checked the listing lately?” 
    “The word’s ‘doe eyes’ came up in conversation today, I’m hesitant to believe that’s a coincidence.”
    “I guess you could be right, that’s not exactly a common phrase. In what con—“
     A car begins to pull up in the expected position, we no longer have time to talk context. “Look, you just need to know that somebody is watching my every move: it could be Doe Eyes, or Doe Eyes might be Gareth. I just need you to look into that name with your fancy hacking, or whatever.”
    “Roger, I’ll do my best. This really has you frazzled, I don’t think I’ve seen you like this in a while.”
    “I was happy thinking he was dead to be perfectly honest,” I tell him, “now, I can’t wait to make that thought a reality.”
    The target steps out of the car, but another man follows him. “This is unexpected,” says Craig, “did the dossier say anything about another man?”
    “This is odd… people like this aren’t odd, they’re creatures of pattern and they hate odd.”
    “Maybe he likes to switch it up a little bit?”
    “I don’t think that’s what’s going on,” I snap. “It doesn’t matter, as long as I take him out when he steps into position, it doesn’t matter who he is with.”
    There’s a quiet hum, echoing from the sewerage pipe.
    Rhythmic, tuneful, pulsating.
    “Did you bring your phone to this assassination?” I ask him in the strictest of terms, “did you really do that?”
    “If I had, I would’ve hung up by now, I know what you’re like. I’d be the next target, and I’m no fool.”
    “Oh…” I pause for a second, letting the noise continue. “That must be mine then,” and with that, I answer the call, keeping a careful eye on the client. 
    “Hello? Sorry, I’m quite busy at the moment, is this urgent?”
    “Is this Alexis Walker? You might remember my voice, this is the nice police officer from a few weeks ago?”
    “Oh yeah,” I feign polite memories, “I remember, wasn’t that great fun? Did anything ever come from that, I don’t remember seeing it in the papers.”
     “I can’t discuss that unfortunately.”
    “That’s a shame,” Craig is signalling me from across our pipe as though I can’t see the client moving into position with the unmarked man.
    “What I would like to discuss is your friend, Gareth. Do you have a moment?”
    “Not right now, why don’t you call me back in half an hour?”
    “Sure thing, don’t worry about it.”
    “Do you have a name, Mr. Nice Police Officer?”
    He’s in position, I have to hang up.
    “Bernie,” he tells me, “Bernie Odan. I’m looking at my schedule right now and it looks like I might be busy, but why don’t you give me a call when you’re free? You can find my number on the Trunchbull Initiative website.”
    He hangs up, leaving me in the darkness on an empty line and a familiar phrase. I recognise that name, why do I know what the Trunchbull Initiative is?
    “Craig, I hope you got all of that.”
    “Does it matter right now? Just shoot the guy, this is giving me the willies.”
    I hit the trigger on instinct, letting the weapon do all of the work. The bullet swerves through the air, cascading into the client’s skull, sending a fractured body backwards and away from the unmarked man. Blood is cast upon his suit but he barely even reacts as though he saw the bullet coming from a mile away. 
    Shit, he can see us. 
    Did he know we were here this whole time? Craig’s already squirming for the entrance of the sewage pipe as I tell him that we have to move, right now. The strange little man makes it out with all his bits and pieces intact, we’ve not yet been fired upon. 
    But there’s a rumbling in the distance again, forty times as violent as before. In fact, the Earth itself quakes as some great impact tears into its crust and a deafening roar tears through my body, followed by smoke and dust and stink from deeper within. 
    The ground sinks, pulling me inwards as an arm stretches out to reach my own before its trapped in the cataclysm. Eight further, circular explosions propel the surrounding foundations into the Earth below, swallowing me whole.

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