“There is only one truth, and that truth is beauty. There are no ethics within nature, only pragmatism -that which functions to best serve the collective- everything, man or beast, is given an equal chance, but nature itself provides a strainer. That which is without function falls through the strainer, and loses the evolutionary arms race.”
The doctor’s eyes lit up as he read aloud the pages of his diary. The sedate body on the table looked dead already. The life had faded from his face, leaving in its wake dark sunken eyes, sallow cheeks, and a set of pale, cracked lips.
“Does it frighten you?” He asked, looking down on me, under thick black eyebrows.
I shook my head in response.
“Good,” he snapped his book closed, “It shouldn’t frighten you, we won’t hurt him.”
I nodded, my gaze fixed on the body.
“Will he wake up?” I asked.
“Eventually, yes.” He nodded, “But he’ll be… different.”
I broke my gaze on the body, looking up at the doctor.
He looks down at me, and throws me a wry but comforting smile.
“I’m going to heal him,” He smiles, “I’m going to reach inside and take away all of that anger, all of the resentment that clouds his mind, I’m going to cut it all out.”
I turned to face the body once more.
“Will it hurt?” I asked.
“I told you before!” He snaps, “I won’t hurt him.”
The doctor turns around, rummaging around in the wash basin, cleaning his equipment. I reached out, holding my hand over his mouth, feeling an almost negligible amount of breath lightly brush my palm. I withdrew my hand quickly, before the doctor noticed.
The doctor turned back to the table, holding a tray of implements, which he laid out on a table at the side of the bed.
“Is he breathing?” The doctor asked, glaring at me.
“I don’t know,” I said, looking down at my feet.
“So you didn’t just check?” He asked, aware of my lie.
I paused for a moment.
“He’s breathing.” I said, lifting my head up once more.
“Jolly good.” He said, “Did you check his pulse?”
I looked at him, unsure of how to answer this.
“His heartbeat,” he said.
I reached out, placing my hand on the centre of his chest.
“His heart is on the left side.” The doctor nodded.
I moved my hand to the left.
“No, on his left.”
I switched my hand once more, and felt a feeble but steady heartbeat. Holding my hand there for a moment, I looked up at the doctor.
“Will he bleed?” I asked.
The doctor rummaged around with the tray of implements once more.
“It’s easier to check somebody’s pulse by putting two fingers on the side of their neck, like this,” he raised his fingers to the side of his neck, “never use your thumb, your thumb has it’s own pulse.”
I pushed my fingers to the side of my neck, and felt my own pulse, which was beating in rhythm with his.
“Will he bleed?” I asked, letting my hands drop limp.
The doctor stopped rummaging and looked at me, tilting his head slightly.
“Is his heart beating?” He asked.
“If his heart beats,” he said continuing to rummage, “then he will bleed.”
My head dropped once more, and my eyes scanned his limp, pale body.
“Art is as essential to the advancement of civilization as science and technology –always remember that- never view them as mutually exclusive entities at odds with one another. Art, science, medicine, technology and religion all have the same objective; to find salvation.”
I looked up at the doctor once more.
“During the renaissance, to be an anatomist was to be an artist; a marriage of artistry and science, reviled by the white light religious powers of the day as an abomination. It was through this union of scholarship and the arcane that there came about a profound knowledge of the mortal coil -hitherto obscured- and allowed us to forge our own weapons in the evolutionary arms race.”
The doctor furrowed his brows, leaning forward and staring into my eyes.
“You will not appreciate what you are witnessing today, until you are much older.” The doctor nodded, “You and your brother are genetically identical in almost every way. Not many people have the opportunity to bear witness to the image of themselves as a cadaver.” He said, rubbing his chin, “The artistic merit of viewing oneself in a state of eternal rest is worth more than all of the Rembrandts, Picassos and Renoirs in the world.”
I reached out once more, placing my hand on his chest, feeling the steady beating of his heart.
“But he’s not dead. His heart is still beating.” I muttered.
“Now that our instruments are clean, we are ready to perform what some people call surgery. I do not like the depreciate the work I perform by brushing it off as such as cold and calculated procedure. What we are doing today is creating through the act of destruction. We are so much more than surgeons, we are artists.”
The doctor reached into the tray and produces a long, thin metal spike, with a flat handle at the end of it.
“Do you know what this is?” He asked, raising the spike in his hand.
I shook my head nervously.
“It’s a Leucotome,” he says handing it to me, “and you will need to hold it steady.”
I gripped the Leucotome in my hand and began to examine it.
“In 1888, a brilliant and innovative psychiatrist by the name of Gottlieb Burckhardt discovered a way to cut mental distress entirely out of the brain of a patient, leaving them in docile comfort and placid tranquility.” He gripped my hand, raising it into position so that the spike of the Leucotome was pointing close to my brother’s eyeball.
“We are going to enter the brain through the tear duct, then sever the prefrontal cortex. I need you to hold the Leucotome still as I guide it in.”
I steadied my breathing, and lightly held the Leucotome, trying not to shudder as he began to drive the spike into my brother’s eye socket. I watched as the spike pushed deeper and deeper into the socket. A trickle of blood escaped and meandered out of his eye and down the side of his face, almost as if he was weeping. The coppery smell of blood invaded my nostrils and my arms shuddered slightly, causing the Leucotome to shake abruptly.
“Ivan!” The doctor snapped, “I thought I told you to be careful with that Icepick!”
“You’ll forgive me -I’m sure- for the uncomfortable setting of our meeting Sparrow.”
Albert Sparrow looks around the empty courtyard apathetically.
“I’ve been to worse places Sergeant,” he says, “I’m sure we both have.”
Sparrow’s casual indifference to almost every situation is a quality which I both admire and loath in equal measure. The pragmatic and calculated manner in which he conducts himself affords him a great deal of respect among the Paramilitaries. Many of my underlings implied that I should take him under my wing, with a view to making him my successor. Sure, he was clever enough, and he commands the respect of the Paramilitaries, but he’s never fought for his country the way I have. His cool-headed pragmatism is not without merit, but his sheer lack of emotion is something I cannot abide. Paramilitary policing is not a job one enters for the money, nor the power; being a paramilitary police officer is about putting your life and soul on the line to defend and protect the people of our nation at any cost. It’s about standing in a regimented formation, the vanguard of purity and justice, the final line of defense against the savage hordes of nihilism and chaos. To perform such a task requires great control of one’s emotions and impulses, but to be entirely devoid of emotion can make a man weak. Utilitarians and pragmatists can be predicted, tricked and foiled just as easily as those who are driven exclusively by reactive emotion.
“I know I’ve seen worse,” I state firmly, “The Balkans in the fourth. Cer Mountain and the battle of Šabac” I look at Sparrow’s uncompromising face, “You heard about what happened, I’m sure?”
Sparrow nods, maintaining that same facial expression.
“The Serbs retreated, regrouped and counterattacked,” he surmises, “that’s what I’ve heard.”
I shake my head at Sparrow slowly.
“If it had been that simple, it wouldn’t have been a massacre.” I explain, “You see, when we drove the Serbs off the mountain, they fled through the city of Šabac in the night. By the middle of the following day, we had occupied the whole city.”
Sparrow squints and nods lightly, in a manner that conveys either respect or indifference.
“By nightfall, the Serbs emerged from the basements and sewers of Šabac, armed with guns and rocket launchers. They’d hidden their munitions in the homes and schools of the city. They had a stockpile of rockets seven foot high, hidden in the local creche.”
“You see, during a battle, if you are outnumbered or outgunned, it is wise to head to difficult but familiar terrain. If you have the advantage, you can win by bringing the battle to a more friendly environment. When the Serbs fled from the mountain, we thought we’d won. We thought our superior weaponry was enough to bring them to their knees. Had we known the real situation, we’d have stayed on Cer mountain.” I sigh, shaking my head wearily.
“We tried to retreat back to the Mountain, but the Serbs cut us off in a pincers formation, pushing us back to the river Sava. Over four hundred soldiers were swept away by the river to their deaths.”
Sparrow peers across at me vacantly for a moment.
“Please forgive my curtness Sergeant Heston, but what does this have to do with me?”
I reach into my pocket and hand him an envelope.
“There have been reports up north of unusual fumes coming from abandoned warehouses on the edges of Hurworth-on-tees and Neasham. I want you to go up there with Richie and scope the place out. The improvised explosives they used from the hijacking had to come from somewhere. Take the express lane and you’ll be there within two hours. There is a very good chance that Prince Randian has bugged all of our compounds, which is why it is absolutely paramount that you conduct as much of your investigations as possible away from the headquarters.”
Sparrow folds his lips tentatively, takes the envelope and slides it into the pocket of his beige trenchcoat.
“Are you sure I couldn’t be of more use here?” He says, folding his arms.
“My decision is final Sparrow, I want you to leave immediately, and report directly to me on everything you find. Don’t tell anyone where you are, or the purpose of your mission, don’t even mention it to me when you’re on the phone. You’re a master of tact, make sure you put it to good use.”
“As you wish Sergeant,” he nods, “as I say, I’ve been to worse places.”
I turn, leaving Sparrow in the courtyard to make my way back to the office. Maybe there really was a munitions stash in Darlington, who knows? I wasn’t taking any chances keeping Sparrow and Richie around the headquarters, better to send them away on a rogue assignment until I could figure out a plan.
I awaken with a start. For a moment, I can still hear the doctor’s cold voice. For a moment, I can still smell the blood. I shake off the lingering memories of the previous night’s dream, snort a bump of Vicky from the end of my knife, and tune into what is presumably the end of yet another one of Indy’s schemes to create mass-havoc.
“So we knock together a bunch of flying drones,” Indy says passionately, “load them up with bombs and shit, vials of nitro-glycerine or whatever,” he continues, shuffling about in the back seat uncomfortably, “then send them straight towards the Houses of Pain in every city in England,” he says, “X Faction doodlebugs!” He sniggers, “Blow their houses to bits, force the Boots out into the open, make them fight on the streets, the war would be over in days.”
I turn around to look at Indy, sprawled out across the backseat with his foot hanging out of the open window. Indy was quite the innovator when it came to dreaming up plans for attacking the Big Boots, but often his plans were overly simplified, and he underestimated the defensive capabilities of the enemy.
“Good idea Indy, but it wouldn’t end the war, not by a long shot.” I explain, “For a start, the Houses of Pain are surrounded by electronic Iron-dome scramblers, it means that any aerial attack is nigh on impossible,” I continue, turning to look out of the window at the endless countryside, “the drones would fall out of the sky before they even got close. Or worse, they could turn the drones back on themselves.”
I pluck the cigarette out from behind my ear and light it.
Indy shuffles uncomfortably, arching his back.
“Yeah,” he says, “So we just set them to a pre-destined route, then there’s no need to control them remotely.”
Brass turns his face away from the road to speak to Indy.
“They have lasers, gun turrets, catch nets, all sorts of shit that they can deploy to stop an aerial attack,” Brass explains, oblivious of the road before him, “If attacking the Houses of Pain was easy, they’d be a smoking crater by now.”
Relief washes over me, as Brass turns to face the road ahead once more.
“Besides, the Houses of Pain have been attacked numerous times, it’s never ended well for us.” I continue, “The Boots will fall one day, but they won’t burn in the fires of vengeance, they will crumble from within.”
I look at Brass, who is hunched over the steering wheel, snarling angrily. His eyes are red from fatigue and his mouth hangs open slightly in a constant half-pant.
“You okay big lad?” I nudge him.
Brass sighs wearily, “Another fucking day in God’s country.” He grunts, looking out at the endless green fields, “This little slice of heaven is pissing on my cornflakes.”
The hills stretch on for miles, vivisected by lines of dry stone walls.
“Where are we?” I ask, handing Brass the cigarette.
He snatches it and inhales sharply.
“Fuck knows,” He exhales, “two miles east of incest village, four miles to ferret-fucking farmer town.”
“Oh good” I grin, “Because I thought we were lost.”
Last night the car ran out of fuel, we pushed it into a field, and started walking. We came across a small cottage, which appeared to be empty, so we kicked the door through and stole a set of keys for a new car. We drove on for a few miles, then slept in a barn on bales of hay. Brass stayed in the car the whole time slumped over the steering wheel. We only stayed there for about four or five hours before I woke him up and insisted we move once more. I’d acquired some eggs from a chicken coop nearby, and had cooked the three of us a meagre meal on the car engine. Brass wouldn’t let anybody else take the wheel, even though I was confident he didn’t know where he was going. I’d noticed he’d been travelling north east in the morning, and north west in the evening. He said that he was zig-zagging deliberately to make it harder to trace us. Aside from my dream about the doctor, I hadn’t slept; every time I felt the subtle hand of fatigue take its grip on me, I’d snorted a little line of Vicky. Oddly, Brass seemed to be suffering from the lack of sleep more than I was.
On the other side of the road, I notice a woman riding a horse heading in our direction. Brass begins to beep the horn loudly, as if to startle the animal. I turn to face Indy, watching as he listlessly picks up an egg and hurls it out of the window, striking the equestrian in the chest.
Brass laughs manically as we drive past.
“Why are we even going to Manchester anyway?” I ask, “We’d be better off holing up in a barn somewhere. Much safer than the city.”
“Nah fuck that” Brass snorts, “I fucking hate the country, and we’d be safer disappearing into the sub-cities than out here in the sticks”
He hands the cigarette back to me.
“Amongst the horses and cow shit we’d stick out like an infected cock,” Brass continues, “especially with hop-along Bill over there” He points to Indy.
I take a draw on the cigarette before casting it out of the window.
“Our best bet is to go back to the squat I was in before.” Brass says affirmatively, “Maybe Zero came back, maybe Cuckoo is still there, maybe Sadie or Pogo went back there.”
Brass eye twitches sharply.
“Well Sadie’s on her way to Darlington with Eggy and Pyrus,” I explain, “and as for Zero, I think he’s the last person on this earth you want to see right now.”
Brass looks at me, scowling.
“Why’d you think that?”
“He sent you to steal a case, and you lost it,” I explain, “How do you know he’s not gonna skin your bones?”
Brass grips the steering wheel tightly, his face flushing red. He grits his teeth tightly for a moment, then exhales wearily.
“I don’t know what the fuck this is all about.” He mutters, “Let’s just get to Manchester and find Cuckoo.”
Indy removes his foot from the window and sits up in the back seat.
“Why do you want to find Cuckoo?” He asks.
Brass grins widely.
“He’s got an arsenal that boy,” He nods happily, “an arsenal that could blow the arse off the word arsenal. If we get our hands on those goodies, nobody’s gonna try to fuck us, not the Boots, not Zero, not the weak, the strong or King-fucking-Kong.”
I turn to look at Indy, whose leg has already begun to bleed through the new bandage I put on it.
“Firepower is good, but it won’t keep us safe forever,” I say, “we need to find a place for him.” I point to Indy.
“We need to jack another car soon, we’re running on fumes here.” Brass says pointing to the fuel gauge.
“Maybe we can get to Manchester in a combine harvester” I say in jest.
“I’d rather just siphon some of the petrol out of one” Brass says, oblivious to the fact that my suggestion was not a serious one.
“They don’t run on petrol.” I respond.
Of course, nothing really runs on petrol anymore. The majority of cars run on a petrol substitute that’s been pumped full of additives to make them go further.
“Well, wherever we end up, we need to contact Randian when we get there.” I say tentatively.
“Fuck that” Brass spits, “He’s a spy.”
“How do you work that one out?” I ask him.
“He took off with the case without a peep.”
“The case that he helped us to steal from the Big Boots!” I say angrily.
“He didn’t really do much to help if you think about it” Brass retorts.
“You were the one who vouched for him in the first place,” I snap, “Plus, he stopped the van, and ran over one of the drivers.”
“But he didn’t kill him!” Brass says, “Sadie took the top of his head off with a gun.”
I sigh wearily, “Brass, I know you don’t trust him, and neither do I,” I say rubbing my face with my palm, “but without him the van would have escaped, and Indy would have died.”
Brass looks across at me, squinting.
“I find it pretty suspect that he drove us back to the squat he was staying at and then left us there without the case.”
“You think he’s working for the Boots?” I ask.
“No.” He responds, “I think he’s working for someone even worse.”
I stare at him blankly.
“I think he’s on the payroll of the IIC.”
“The IIC?” I say, “I highly doubt it.”
“Think about it Pick” He starts, “He’s clearly intelligent, he knew more about the case than any of the rest of us did, he barely touched the joint at the campfire meeting, and you know the IIC are always banging heads with the Boots. We can fight the Boots, but the IIC? Once they’ve got you in their crosshairs, they will get you.”
He had a point, albeit a tenuous one.
“So here’s my theory” Brass says, raising his finger like a lecturer, “Randian was captured by the IIC, they saw he’s got a brain in his head, and they cut him a deal. Now he’s trying to bring down the Boots, whilst at the same time, paralyze the Insurgency.”
I think about this for a moment.
“It’s still unlikely,” I continue, “all we need to do is get to a Crystalnet hub in a sub-city, and find a way to contact him. Maybe he took it to Zero himself” I say, “Probably thinks he can curry favour with him or something.”
“Maybe.” Brass sighs, “Who knows? Who the fuck knows?”
I look across at Brass’ reddened eyes, he begins to grind his teeth angrily.
“Maybe Zero didn’t trust any of us with it” I suggest, “I mean, would you trust the likes of Pogo or Brain with it?”
Indy shuffles about in the backseat.
“Maybe,” He says lifting his foot from the window ledge, “he found something in the case, a tracker or something, and fled.”
“Then why would he fuck off without telling us?” Brass spits.
“Yeah, it doesn’t make sense” I say, “If there was a tracker on it, we’d have been raided in hours.”
“Or maybe Pogo stole it,” Indy says, “he was missing too.”
“Pogo would have probably tried to fuck the case or something.” I respond, looking at Indy’s bloodied leg, “Put your foot back up on the window, you’re supposed to be keeping it raised.”
“Fuck that Pick” Indy whines, “It’s fucking freezing, it’s numb as fuck, I can’t even feel it.”
“Yeah well get used to not feeling it” I spit, “Because a peg leg has a lot less feeling.”
Indy grumbles, muttering some obscenity or other, as he hangs his leg back up on the window edge.
“None of this makes any sense” I say in dismay.
The fields give way into a sleepy town, and I notice a small shop on the corner.
“Pull up here Brass” I impetrate.
“What the fuck for?” He says irate.
“The morning paper.”
“Tell me again why I’m here?” I ask in protest as we approach the offices of Ludwig Associates. Martin turns to face me, his face tilted and his eyes squinting in that way that tells me I should already know the answer to the question I’ve just asked.
“Because I’m the smart one, Aaron.” He nods, pushing his glasses back.
I shake my head in disbelief.
“So what do you need me for, if you’re so smart?”
He tilts his head once more.
“Don’t give me that look.” I say, raising my index finger at him.
He grins at me, “Because you’re the funny one”
I shake my head once more, “Oh I’m the funny one am I? I’m funny?”
“Well not right now, no”
“I don’t think these lawyers want to hear jokes, do you?”
“I think it’s only fair that we tell them one or two” he grins, “the letter they sent to Amelia was full of jokes, isn’t that right Amelia?”
She looks up at her father apathetically.
“See?” He points to her face, “Hilarious.”
The three of us ascend the stairs to the front door of the building, Martin reaches out and presses the intercom button.
“Hey Martin, you’re right, you are the smart one”
He looks at me and nods conceitedly.
“And I’m the handsome one.”
He frowns at me momentarily, then quickly switches back to a firm but unassuming face as a voice crackles over the intercom.
“Ludwig associates” The receptionist says in a voice which sounded unusually chirpy for a Tuesday morning.
“Good morning, I’m Martin Harman, I’m here with my daughter Amelia and my unsightly but quite humourous friend and colleague Aaron Fold.”
Amelia tips her head and clasps her face in embarrassment.
“I can’t believe you just said that dad.”
I look at her and we exchange a look of hopelessness.
“Yeah,” I nod, “I’m not unsightly and I’m not his friend.”
After a few moments of conversing, the door clicks open and we enter the reception area. The reception is minimally decorated, with a glass coffee table and few plastic plants. Next to the coffee table is a strangely designed orange leather sofa, which seems to resemble a pregnant cat lying on its side. The receptionist, a man in his early twenties, greets us as we approach the front desk.
“Hi.” Martin says, extending his hand.
The receptionist, probably not familiar with shaking hands over the desk, awkwardly grips Martin’s hand and shakes it.
“My daughter received a letter from a Harris Jerry or possibly Jerry Harris, I’m not sure whether he got his name the wrong way around or not.”
Martin hands the letter to the receptionist, who skim reads it quickly, before returning his attention to Martin.
“Feel free to take a seat, I’ll be right with you.” He motions for us to sit down, before disappearing through another door. I take a seat on the strangely designed leather sofa.
Amelia sits next to me, her face looking somewhat defeated.
“Don’t worry Amelia,” I say, “You’re dad really is the smart one.”
“It’s just been going on for so long now.” she moans.
“I know, honestly I went through the same trouble with landlords when I was your age.”
“It’s really stressing me out, I’ve barely slept.”
“I know it’s tough, but your dad’ll sort them out.”
“I wish I could just get my own place”
“Well dreams are free,” I giggle, “But houses are not. There used to be a time when almost anyone could get a mortgage, but unfortunately those days are long gone.”
The receptionist returns.
“Hi, Mr Harman?” He asks.
“That’s me, we met three minutes ago”
“I’m afraid Mr Jerry is out of the office at the moment”
“And where is he?”
“He’s on business”
“That’s okay, so am I” Martin nods, “So if you wouldn’t mind telling me where he is, I’ll go and find him.”
“I can’t give out that information I’m afraid”
“When is he due to return?”
“Not until 9 o’clock this evening, I’m sorry.”
“Oh I see.” Martin nods.
He moves away from the front desk and sits down next to Amelia on the leather sofa. The receptionist stares at him blankly.
“In that case, a cup of tea would be lovely.”
“Brass” I gulp loudly, “He was the first one I recruited. Big scary looking bloke, almost as scary as you.” I say nodding, “I asked for him by name, he was very eager to get his hands dirty. Of course, he mistakenly believed that he was talking to you at this point.” I nod.
Zero breathes out heavily through his nostrils, his eyes twitching angrily. The scars on his face seem to pulsate in time with his breathing.
“Be patient.” I say, “I’m giving you the answers I can give you.”
His face burns red with rage, which he tries to contain.
“There was a girl too, Sadie.” I continue, “A pretty little thing, very cocksure,” I say laughing heartily. Looking up at Zero, I can see he is not amused.
“You’d find it funny if you knew her habits.”
Zero’s head jerks sharply.
“You wouldn’t find it funny, if you knew mine.” He growls coldly.
I smile at him broadly.
“Let’s see, there was the Clown.”
“Pogo.” Zero states firmly.
“Yes, the one from the papers last year. He too was very eager.”
Zero grunts, spitting on the ground.
“Those were the only ones I needed from London central. There were only two in Sussex.”
“What were their names!?” Zero barks impatiently.
“Prince Randian. I found him in a CrystalHub. He volunteered” I say looking away, “He was a Hacktivist from Ethiopia.”
Zero’s nostrils flare up.
“I know who Prince Randian is.” he says through gritted teeth.
“There was another one with him, Brain.” I say raising my eyebrows, “Followed him around like a lost little lamb and did everything he said. He would have made him look like a real prince, if they didn’t happen to be living in a squat under a bridge.”
I shuffle backwards in my chair and arch my shoulders back to stretch my back out, the wire digs deeper into my wrists in doing so.
“And one final one, I found him in Walthamstow. Long haired bloke, Pyrus was his name.”
I relax my back, but find that the wire remains as tight as when I’d stretched my back out.
“But I knew he’d outsource the job to somebody else.”
“And you knew that, how?” Zero asks.
“I just knew.”
Zero steps backwards towards the table behind him, reaching backwards and instinctively gripping the handle of a bone knife. Raising it up to his face, he stares at it reverently.
“This is a Cassowary Bone Dagger” He says, holding the weapon out for me to inspect.
“There’s a lot to be said for Bone weaponry. Most people prefer steel, but for me, there is nothing quite as pure and primal as a weapon forged from bone. This is a weapon from antiquity, excavated from an ancient tribal site in New Guinea” He says, tossing the weapon into the air and catching it deftly in his other hand.
“Bone is the one true weapon of the warrior. There is no victory more sweet -or defeat more brutal- than to kill a man, eat his flesh whole and shit him out, turn his bones into blades and use them to gut his brothers.”
He points the weapon at me threateningly.
“If you can turn your enemy’s body into a weapon against his own cause, then in death he is your ally.”
I stare at the dagger, crooked and blackened, smattered with congealed blood.
“But my favourite thing about bone is that, unlike a wound from a steel blade, a wound made with a bone weapon will always get infected, and will always leave a scar.”
He steps towards me, dipping his head towards mine.
“I will cut you five hundred times before I kill you.”
I grit my teeth tightly.
“If you tell me who you’re working for before I’ve finished, I’ll kill you immediately, and then turn you in to my ally.”
I take a deep breath through my nose.
“Hardly an incentive.” I say.
“For every time I cut you, I will cut myself too” He states, tapping the blade against his heavily scarred arm.
“After fifty cuts, you will cry.” He grins,
“After one hundred cuts, you will beg for your life.” He says, holding the blade to my nose.
“After two hundred cuts, you will beg for death.” He tips the blade towards my eye.
“And after three hundred cuts, maybe you will fear me, more than you fear your leader.”
The receptionist toddles back into the room, carrying an ornate tray containing a tea pot, a small pot of milk, some sachets of sugar and some biscuits. He sets it on the table before us, and Martin begins to pour the drinks.
“Tea Amelia?” He asks, “Oh no that’s right! You prefer coffee don’t you?”
He looks up at the receptionist once more.
“If you wouldn’t mind, could you get my daughter a pot of coffee as well.”
The receptionist’s face screws up as he tries to conceal his irritation. Silently, he departs the reception forcefully pushing opening the exit door.
Martin begins collecting the sugar sachets and putting them in his pocket.
“Aaron, collect up those biscuits and put them in your pockets”
“What? Why?” I ask in disbelief.
Amelia looks at him with the same confused look.
“Yeah dad, you can’t even have sugar, you’re diabetic remember?”
“It doesn’t matter Amelia, first we take their sugar, then we take their money,” Martin grins, “we’re winning, we’re already making progress.”
I laugh at the absurdity of Martin’s victory.
“And I thought I was the funny one”
The door to the reception opens once more, but it is not the receptionist. A smartly dressed man in a double-breasted suit walks through the door, smiling broadly. He walks over to the coffee table and extends his hand.
“Good morning, is it Mr Harman?”
“Yes. Would it be easier if I wore a name tag?”
The man laughs heartily, as Martin reaches out to shake his hand.
“Well Mr Jerry, I heard you were out of the office today.”
“I was, I was,” He nods reassuringly, “I’m on my way to Essex actually, I thought I’d stop off back at the office before I head out again”
“But you decided to come in through the back door?”
“Yes, it’s closer to the staff car park. Shall we talk more in my office? I have about ten minutes”
“Oh, that’s not long enough I’m afraid. We’re still waiting for your receptionist to come back with the coffee.”
Harris blinks nervously and begins to rub his hands together.
“I’ll have him bring it to my office”
Mr Jerry’s office is -in stark contrast to the waiting room- decorated with all manner of framed certificates of commendation. Mr Jerry sits on a large leather chair, which is visibly raised higher than the smaller, plastic chairs on which Amelia and I are sat. Martin did not take a seat, and is busy inspecting some of Mr Jerry’s certificates. He stands for a few seconds in front of one particular certificate, screwing up his face and adjusting his glasses.
“Fishing champion eh?” Martin says, turning to face Mr Jerry.
“Yes,” Mr Jerry nods, “I won that award five years ago”
Martin’s eyes widen.
“Funny thing to display in a lawyer’s office isn’t it?”
“Not really,” He shrugs, “I encourage all of my staff to take pride in their achievements, both professional and personal”
Martin begins to pace about the room slowly.
“You enjoy fishing?”
“Of course I do.”
Martin stops suddenly and turns to face Mr Jerry.
“I was never any good at it myself, but then again I don’t have many hobbies, save for sleeping, if you can call that a hobby.”
Mr Jerry looks at Martin, tapping his fingers together in a pyramid.
“Well, we all need to sleep, I suppose.”
Martin smiles at Mr Jerry warmly.
“You’re absolutely right Mr Jerry,” he nods, “It’s curious, but in my line of work, some people think of me as something of an enigma, but I’m nothing more than a boring old man when it comes down to it.”
Mr Jerry nods condescendingly at Martin.
“And what is this enigmatic profession you practice, Mr Harman?”
Martin begins to pace about the office once more.
“I’m a Senior Investigator. And my colleague Aaron here is a junior investigator,” Martin says, pointing towards me. “But don’t let him hear you say that, he utterly abhors the term junior, says it makes him sound juvenile!”
I shake my head at Martin apathetically, as Mr Jerry casts his eyes on me.
“Do you enjoy your work, Mr Harman?” He says, returning his focus to Martin.
“Of course! Investigation is the only thing I’ve ever been good at -other than sleeping, of course- and I’m only good at it because I enjoy it.”
Mr Jerry smiles at Martin warmly.
“Investigation is a big part of what we do here at Ludwig Associates.”
Martin walks towards the desk, puts his hands down on the desk and fixes Mr Jerry with a long stare.
“Investigation is all we do at the IIC.”
Harris’ face drops, and turns a deathly shade of pale.
“In fact, I took a little time to investigate you before I came here Mr Jerry, I always investigate people before I meet with them.” Martin says, standing upright once more.
“However, I see that you did not take the time to investigate me. So let me explain what it is that I do, I am responsible for the investigation of unethical conduct within the government and the public sector, but I’m also charged with the unenviable task of investigating malpractice within the private sector as well. I imagine you’re familiar with the Nepotistic Influence act of 2027?”
Mr Jerry leans back in his chair, feigning non-chalance.
“I’m very familiar with it. I’m a lawyer, it is my job to know the law”
Martin begins pacing about the room once more.
“It is my job to help to write the law. You’ll know then that the Nepotistic Influence act makes it illegal for the owners of one business to provide unfair advantage to another based on social or familial relationships. I’ve noticed that Shorestar Lettings -the letting agency you are representing- is owned by a certain Harold Pullman, formerly known as Harold Jerry.” Martin says, turning once more to face Mr Jerry.
“Mr Pullman is a cousin of yours I believe.”
Mr Jerry fidgets awkwardly in his chair, as if suddenly it has become uncomfortable.
“Now it would be unethical of me to use my position to help my daughter, but it’s also my duty to investigate corruption when I see it. So you see, I’m in something of a bind. Do I launch a formal investigation into the business relationships your company has with other companies? Or do I assign this task to one of my junior investigators?”
Mr Jerry begins to fiddle with his watch, focusing on it as though he has to be somewhere else.
“There is a third option. You could ensure that your company and the companies you deal with are acting within the law. This would save me a lot of paper work. Oh, and of course this would also spare you the headache of having your business liquidated, your assets seized, and your licence revoked.”
At once, the door of the office opens, and the receptionist enters, carrying a tray with a pot of coffee and some biscuits on it. Martin walks towards the receptionist, and begins lifting the biscuits and sugar sachets off the tray and stuffing them into the pockets of his jacket.
“We’ll take that coffee to go, thank you” Martin says to the receptionist, before turning back to face Mr Jerry.
“I’ll be visiting you again in six weeks Mr Jerry, and I do hope that my next visit is more amicable.”
Mr Jerry nods, as beads of sweat begin to form on his brow.
“Oh and one last thing, thank you for the tea”
“There’s a story from back in the old country,” Fishbone says rasing a finger, “It’s about a young boy trying to learn how to play golf. His father shows him how to swing, but every time the boy tries, he makes a mistake. The first time he swings, he misses the ball entirely. To punish him, his father grabs him by the jaw and plucks one of his teeth out. The boys swings again, this time, he hits the ball straight into the lake. The boy’s father grabs him by the jaw again, and plucks out another one of his teeth. The boy swings a third time, this time he hits the ball straight into the bushes. His father grabs him once more and plucks yet another tooth from his mouth. Finally, the boy sets up his shot perfectly, lines up the ball, takes aim, and swings the golf club straight into his father’s mouth, knocking every one of his teeth out in one go.”
I‘d heard this story before, but I nod along anyway as though I hadn’t.
“You see Astill,” Fishbone states, “You have to take pride in your mistakes, because every failure is another step towards victory. It may even transpire that your mistakes change the very object of victory itself.”
I nod, folding my arms.
“How long can we keep this here?” I ask, looking out at the crates. The warehouse had become a veritable candy shop of synthetic drugs over the past few days. Saccharine sunrise, Victory powder, Coke, Horse, Kikashima blue. You name it.
“The boys in Durham will be collecting it tomorrow,” Fishbone nods.
“And the met?”
Fishbone waves his hand lazily. I look at him skeptically. He was a charismatic man, but he’d made mistakes before, and sure enough, he’d make them again. That’s how he got his nickname; years ago before his confirmation into the brotherhood of Omerta, he’d hijacked a lorry coming out of North Shields. He’d had a tip off that the van contained a shipment of cigarettes; never took it upon himself to question why cigarettes would be transported in a freezer lorry. En route to Darlington, the cooling fans failed, and an overwhelming stink began to radiate from the van, a stench so ungodly that it drew the attention of the met. When they pulled him up on the motorway and opened the lorry up, there was nothing but three tons of rotten fish.
“Paid off?” I nod, “Good. And what about your friends in the Paramilitary patrol?”
Fishbone turns to me, squinting.
“They won’t be in the area. I can assure you of that.”
The Darlington branch of our brotherhood had grown steadily under Fishbone’s leadership. Arrests were down, but then so were profits, such is the correlation between risk and reward. Too many risks left Old Jerry with an extended stay in one of His Majesty’s Hotels, and when Fishbone took over, he decided to reform things. Now we had contacts in the police, and even the Paramilitaries, a demolition company that had access to a great bounty of unattended warehouses, and a whole array of small companies through which to launder money. But it all feels so wrong. I’ve been uneasy about what Fishbone calls ‘The new ways’ –a departure from the old principals of Omerta- collaboration with law enforcement. But who could trust the law these days? It wouldn’t be long now before the castle came crumbling down.
“You’ve tested the produce?” Fishbone asks.
“Not myself, no.” I say, shaking my head.
Fishbones nostrils flare up.
“You must always test the produce, at every step of the journey, from laboratory to the warehouse to the bag. It’s the only way to make sure everyone is throwing straight dice. It’s the only way to manage quality control”
I nod, “Yes Fishbone,” I say pointing to Heavy Vincent who is standing by the window, “I had Vince test it for me. You know I don’t touch it.”
Fishbone grins, “That’s good.”
Heavy Vincent turns away from the window, his eyebrows creased heavily.
“We’ve got trouble boss.” He says hurriedly.
Fishbone turns to face him sharply.
“No.” He grunts, “Grimesters.”
Sun Tzu said that one bushel of the enemy’s provisions is worth twenty of your own. In the sixth century, this applied to weaponry, foodstuffs and other provisions, which -if looted from the enemy- effectively outsourced the effort to replenish and maintain supply lines, to the enemy themselves. Times have changed since then, but the lesson is still relevant.
The queue of cars approaching the Ferry crossing had come to a standstill. I stretch my legs, a welcome break from the constant driving. Liverpool had become tired and grey over the years. The city had been bombed repeatedly during the wars, and whole swathes of the city were still in ruins. I look down at the note on the dashboard, and survey the image of King George. His face is stiff and solemn, with eyes gazing off into the distance. The image was supposed to look majestic and regal, firm and wizened. To me, he looked disheveled, crestfallen and despondent, his eyes were not staring into the future nor the past, but a place that was anywhere other than England. Perhaps he knows that he will be the last monarch of England. Maybe he knows that it will not be his name that echoes our times; this age shall be known as the New Dark Age of technological, social and economic repression.
I think back to the night of the hijacking, and think about Brass’ intoxicated ramblings about flying cars and robots. His words were less than eloquent, but beautiful words are seldom true, and true words are seldom beautiful. In his inebriated rant, he’d touched upon a stony truth. Under the wartime government, many new laws had been rushed through parliament to massively restrict the development of new technology. This in turn brought about a new dark age, where scientific discoveries of any kind immediately became property of the government. New ideas could not be sold, used or even talked about without express permission from the government. This not only strangled initiative, but lead existing technologies to recede in their development and refinement. The justification for this was that technology was developing so rapidly that legislation could not keep up, and this would inevitably lead to compromised national security. The truth of the matter was that new technologies, much like the invention of the Watt engine and the advent of the industrial revolution, posed a threat to the established order. Potentially, new developments could lead to the emancipation of the common man from the leadership of the oligarchs; and much like the Industrial revolution, this could only be controlled if the fruit of such labour could be invested into a cause that furthered the interests of those at the top, and distracted the attention of those beneath them.
Sun Tzu’s teachings still applied today, and as the party find new ways to create systems of self-repression, we in turn subvert their systems to work against them.
The line of cars begins to move slowly, as the checkpoint opens up. This process always takes a long time because most of the cars here would be registered as stolen; of course, most of them weren’t stolen, but as a result of constant hacks which scrambled the register of stolen, uninsured or written-off vehicles, the whole system had become thoroughly unreliable. We did the same thing with CCTV cameras, shutting them down, scrambling the images they showed, or merging them with others. As long as the party kept building bigger and more comprehensive systems of surveillance, we would continue to frustrate and subvert them.
Eventually, I pull up the checkpoint. The paramilitary presence is double the amount it would usually be. I look around at their stony faces, and their trembling fingers, which hover over the triggers of their fully automatic machine guns. The terror alert has gone up by two points since the hijacking. Anybody trying to leave the country would come under immediate suspicion, but in order to allay suspicion, one must first arouse it.
My window is already wound down, and I hand over my passport and tickets. The officer leans over me, his eyes glaring like a gorilla engaging in threat behaviour.
“Name?” He barks.
He leans down to look at me sceptically. The response is always the same.
“When did you buy these tickets?”
“Three weeks ago”
“What is the purpose of your trip?”
“Work?” He says impatiently, “What kind of work?”
I reach into the glove box and pull out some papers which I hand over to him.
“I’m going to Dublin on a three week OOC permit, I’ll be working in a nursing home looking after an elderly man privately. He suffers from a rare condition called Scleroderma, which I have great experience in treating. It’s an autoimmune condition in which the body attacks healthy tissue. There’s no cure as of yet, but it can be treated. The problem is that he’s recently developed Dysphagia as a result of the thickening of the skin in the Oesophagus, which makes it hard for him to eat or-“
“-What’s his name?”
The officer cuts me off, glaring at me cynically.
I look him in the eye and nod.
“Where’s the nursing home?”
“It’s all on the papers,” I say, pointing to the documents I gave him earlier.
“Yes, I know that,” He bares his teeth, “I wasn’t asking the papers, I was asking you”
I nod at him again reassuringly.
“Beneavin House Nursing Home, Beneavin Road, Glasnevin North”
He leafs through my documents, before turning to another officer, who takes the documents and begins to sort through them, scanning copies of them into his machine. He turns to face me once more.
“My colleague is just verifying your documents, but we’re going to make some calls before you can board”
I tap the wheel of the car impatiently.
“I understand, absolutely” I nod at him.
“Whilst my colleague calls the nursing home, I need to check the vehicle” He leans forward, “So what’s in the car?”
“Seats, a clutch, a steering wheel, a handbrake, an accelerator-”
“-Don’t play fucking clever buggers with me, darky,” he spits, reaching in through the window and opening the door, “get out of the car.” he orders.
I step out of the vehicle, keeping my head down.
The officer climbs into the car and begins roughly rifling through the glove compartment, knocking things out on to the floor of the car. Satisfied that there is nothing to hide, he reaches under the steering wheel and pops the boot open before clambering out of the car.
Walking around to the back of the car, he pulls a black case out of the boot.
“What have we got here?” He asks smugly, lifting the case up for me to inspect.
“It’s a medical kit”
“Open it up” He demands.
“I can’t” I respond blankly, “It’s not supposed to be opened unless we’re in sterile conditions, it could lead to contamination of the equipment, and endanger Mr Sully’s life”
The officer furrows his brows at me angrily, setting the case down on the boot of the car.
“You’re endangering your own life, if you don’t open this case right now. I don’t give a fuck about contamination”
I look down at the ground in defeat.
“It’s a combination lock” I nod, “349-564”.
The officer examines the case, entering the combination before popping the case open. He looks inside for a moment, before turning to face me again, with a roll of bandage in his hand.
“This will have to be confiscated” He states, closing the case.
I look up at him imploringly.
“But I need that for Mr Sully”
“Then you should have properly declared this upon arrival. You didn’t do that, did you?”
I nod in agreement.
“It’s not suitable for use now anyway” I mutter.
The officer cups his ear and leans towards me aggressively.
“Got something to say?”
I look up at him.
“I said I can’t use it now anyway!”.
He sniggers at me, then walks off with the case in his hand.
His colleague hangs up the phone and the two confer for a moment, as I return to the driver’s seat of the car.
The officer leans in through the window once more.
“Not often you see a coconut-basher working as a nurse” he grins.
I look up at him and grin.
“And it’s not often you see a Paramilitary police officer who can tie his own shoelaces, but I see today is full of surprises”
The officer’s face flushes red with anger.
“The fuck did you just say to me you black cunt?” He barks, “I’ll drag you out of that car and shove my gun so far up your arse you’ll be coughing up bullets, you hear me?”
I dip my head submissively.
“Sorry officer,” I say softly, “slip of the tongue.”
He raises his head up proudly.
“Better not let it slip again, or I’ll cut it out and feed it to you.”
I close my eyes and nod several times.
“My colleague is satisfied that everything checks out at the nursing home. Now piss off.” He points towards the ferry.
I drive towards the ramp, and suppress the urge to snigger. The case they were looking for was already on its way to Dublin, along with my laptop. I’d dismantled them and sent each piece individually to locations around Europe. The postage system was one of the easiest to compromise, and parcels could be redirected remotely, simply by hacking into their system and changing the forwarding address. The parcels would travel out of England, through the NSR, then through south east Europe, and then into Dublin.
“How many of them are there?” Fishbone says, trying to remain calm.
“At least forty.” Vincent nods, “No guns as far as I can see, just bottles, bars, and bats. They’re closing in.”
I withdraw the pistol from my pocket, “Get out there, fire a warning shot.” I order.
Vincent looks at me, drawing his pistol and moving towards the door.
“Stop!” Fishbone orders before Vincent can leave the warehouse, “Do not fire on them. Guns make noise, and noise brings the law.”
“So does the smell of rotten fish.” I mutter under my breath.
“Get everybody out, now.” He orders.
I glare at Fishbone wildly.
“You can’t be serious!”
Fishbone turns to face me.
“Think about it Astill, there are forty of them and nine of us, only three of which are armed. If we engage them and they flee, the police will be here straight after. If they don’t flee, they will overrun us.” Fishbone says, climbing into the front seat of the car, “Vince, open the shutters and get in, you too Astill.”
I look at the crates, stacked up neatly.
“What about the produce?” I ask.
“We’ll make more.” Fishbone spits, closing the door, “Now get in.”
I rush over to the car, with my gun still raised, and climb into the back. The shutters slowly wind up, and I look out at the horde of grimesters rushing towards the warehouse. Vince rushes towards the car, jumping into the passenger’s seat.
I look behind us, as our remaining associates look around, unsure of where to flee. The grimesters charge forward, roaring violently as they approach the warehouse. Fishbone starts the engine, and charges out of the warehouse towards the horde. The grimesters jump out of the way of the car, hurling bottles and swinging their bats as we pass. Every half a second, a dull crack of glass is heard as another missile hits the car. I look out of the shattered back window at the warehouse, as the grimesters converge on the remaining assosciates, beating them with bars and dancing on the crates.
Steel reinforcements protruded out of the top of the tower block like shards. At one point, this building had been used for student accommodation. After years of economic mismanagement and austerity, the university students had been vacated and the tower block abandoned. Shortly thereafter, disciples of destruction had taken residency in the tower block, and decorated it with all manner of graffiti. Among the rubble, the walls which remained were covered in X Faction symbolism; the Totenkopf with the symbol of Phobos scrawled across the forehead, the twisted Ankh, the Infinite Yin Yang, the bloodstained Sabot, the Black Cat, and the Circle-A. The most common symbol shown was the mark of the X Faction; two upward pointing arrows intersecting a Circumpunct in the centre to form an X. Most noticeably, across the base of the building is a quote written in red spray paint.
Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy.
The tower block had been raided over a year ago, and a demolition order was hastily pushed through, but with short timeframes and a shoe string budget, the demolition had gone awry, and a protruding shard of steel amongst a stem of rubble was all that remained.
Far from erasing the tower from history -and all of their art with it- the failed demolition only made the tower look more menacing. It resembled an alter to anarchy and nihilism.
I’d read my fair share of literature on the X Faction, and even their many predecessors. It seemed to be born of an emerging youth subculture of anger, married with an armed rebellion. It was hard for some to understand why so many young men and women were throwing their lives away to spend their lives living in squalor and violence. For most people, it beggared belief that anybody in their right mind would do such a thing; but in a world where our youth are forced into military service at eighteen years of age, where the youth are born with a debt to pay, where the poor have almost no chance to improve their lives, it provides a fertile breeding ground for the rebellion.
The unsavoury relationship between the Independent Investigatory Commission and the Paramilitaries is a palpable one. They often insinuated that we sympathised with the X Faction, and that our non-partisan approach to investigation of the X Faction allowed them to thrive. What they couldn’t seem to understand was that the X Faction was not a bug they could simply crush under their heel. They could not be beaten -or even weakened- through force alone. For every squat they burned out, two more sprung up in its place. If a grimester was reported and arrested in the street, a squat would spring up days later. If the X faction was a bug, it would be a cockroach; only in the sense that stamping on a cockroach helps to spread the eggs which become embedded on the bottom of your shoe. The only way the X Faction can ever be dismantled would be through diplomacy. This too is nigh on impossible to achieve, because they do not have any political wing, or spokesperson for their cause. There is no ambassador to liaise with or representative to make their demands. Unlike terrorist organisations which preceded them, they do not follow a doctrine or conform to a religion. The movement is composed of a multitude of different ethnic backgrounds. The only thing that seems to pervade the entire movement is hatred, directed outward in so many directions, it was hard to determine exactly what cause they were fighting for. A cause plagued by such diffuseness stood little chance of succeeding in their self-proclaimed struggled. Ironically, the lack of structure of the X Faction is the one thing keeping them alive, and the one reason that they would never win.
I reach into my pocket and call Aaron Fold. He answers after two rings.
“Are you ready Aaron?”
“Give me ten minutes, are you picking me up?” He asks.
“I’ll pick you up in five minutes, be ready by then.”
“You’re the boss, I’ll see you there, Senior Investigator.”
“Cu è surdu, orbu e taci, campa cent’anni ‘mpaci” Sparrow murmurs quietly, leafing through a document silently.
“Latin?” Little Dick asks, chewing noisily.
“Italian” Sparrow nods.
Little Dick spits a wad of tobacco onto the ground.
Sparrow looks down at the brown glob of wet tobacco on the ground in disgust.
“I don’t know how you chew that shit”
Little Dick nudges Sparrow in the ribs lightly.
“Yeah well it’s not like I can smoke it, the big man would throw me a beating if I came to work stinking of smoke.”
“That’s the least of your worries Richie” Sparrow says, folding the papers in half and tucking them into his pocket.
“If he finds those Teetotal tonics you have squirrelled away, then you’re bang in trouble”
Little Dick looks at Sparrow fearfully.
“Keep that firmly under your hat Bertie, don’t even say it out loud”
“Quaking in your little boots, eh Richie? Don’t worry, your surly sordid secrets are safe with Sergeant Sparrow.” He responds mockingly, “It’s not like half the boys aren’t out drinking and smoking at home anyway, and we’ve all seen the big man’s cigar case”
Little Dick’s frown breaks into uneasy relief.
“So, what happened here? Looks like a rebel squat to me”
“Nope.” Sparrow nods, pointing to a space in the corner of the warehouse where the floor is only lightly dusted, with thick footprints in the dust surrounding it.
“That spot over there, and the stains on the wall above it, do you see those?”
Little Dick looks over to the corner of the room, noticing the strange stains on the wall.
“A still was kept there, those stains are from steam. Based on the smell of the place, I’d say they were distilling Vodka. Looks like the place was cleaned out in a hurry. But this…”
Sparrow reaches into his pocket and hands Little Dick the piece of paper he’d folded away.
“…This is a scrap of paper I found upstairs. It’s the first page of notorious gangster Antonio Puzo’s manifesto, written on death row and smuggled out. It’s considered subversive propaganda, and is blacklisted, but it tends to circulate in the criminal underworld.”
Little Dick scrutinises the Italian words for a few moments.
“What does it mean?”
He looks up at Sparrow.
“It means these weren’t Grimester Insurgents, these were Omerta mobsters.”
Little Dick nods, “No, I mean, what do the words mean?”
Sparrow snatches the paper out of Little Dick’s hand, folding it once more and placing it back into his pocket.
“He who is deaf, blind, and silent will live a hundred years in peace”
Little Dick grins at Albert.
© JC Axe 2015