Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Freedom Fighter II

She found the clothes in the first place she looked: under the mattress.  They were neatly laid out, exactly the way she would have done it, so that they looked almost freshly ironed.  She was dressed and looking for weapons before it occurred to her to wonder why the clothes were under the mattress.  She dismissed the thought.  It was something she'd think about later, when there was time for trivialities like it.  Right now she had to assume that she was the victim of enemy action, and she needed to get out of here.  It would have helped if Montague had been ready with the extraction, but he wasn't essential.  He, too, could be dealt with later.
There was a feeble choking sound from the other bed, and Sylvie paused her search to check on the dying woman.  Her skin was pallid now and her eyes rolled back up in her head.  Sylvie estimated that she had maybe three or four minutes before the machine started its alarms and summoning the staff.  Which meant she needed to think faster.

The alarms blared on the machine for a few short seconds, then shut off.  A little light in the corner of one display continued to flash though, a subtle indicator that the alarms were still sounding in the nurses' station elsewhere on the ward.  For nearly thirty seconds there was stillness in the room, a prayer to the Angel of Death as they took up residence, and then a clicking sound as the door was frantically unlocked.
"Oh God, oh God, she's killed her, that bitch, bitch, that bitch!"  The first person through the door was a man in a pinstriped suit with spectacles disarrayed on his face, thinning blond hair in a comb-over starting to come loose and a red flush that suggested he was getting ready for his next heart attack.  The keys to the room were in his hand, and his legs were trembling with the effort of having run up several flights of stairs to get there first.  Behind him came two nurses, a third pushing a crash-cart, and a muscular male orderly with tattooes on his cheeks and forehead.
"Who are you?"  His question, gasped out from burning lungs, was addressed to the middle-aged woman sat at the bedside in a state of shock.  Her eyes were wide and tears were running down her cheeks; she held the hand of the woman in the bed loosely, her thumb rubbing back and forth on it like she was stroking a kitten.  She was staring at the window: it had been smashed outwards using the other chair in the room, and a breeze was ruffling the curtains.
"Elizabeth," she said.  She blinked, and seemed to see everyone all of a sudden.  She gasped, and her free hand rose to her mouth. "Jenny's niece.  I was visiting when, when...."  She tailed off, staring at the window.  The orderly followed her gaze and strode over to examine it, and then look out of it.  "Oh my," she said.  "You put my aunt in a room with a lunatic.  I'm going to sue."
A nurse picked the chart up off the end of the bed and checked it.  "What year was Jenny born in, dear?" she asked.
"1928," said the woman at the bedside straight away.  "She said that you wouldn't listen when she told you though, and you put 1948 on the chart.  Oh, I suppose that incompetence.  No, what's the legal word? Malpractice?  You wrote important data down wrong so you could poison her didn't you? And you put her in a room with a lunatic so she could kill her.  You know she flung herself out of that window right?  Right?"
"Shut up!"  The man in the suit was on his knees on the other side of the bed, bent double and wheezing horribly.  His face was purple.  "Dear God, yes, Jenny has a niece and she's every bit a bitch.  God only knows what you're doing here today, but get her out!  Get her out of here!"
"She got the chart right," said the nurse softly to the doctor.
"There's no body down there," said the orderly.
"Look up," said the doctor.  "I bet she climbed.  There are guards on the roof though, so they'll either have her, or she's going to have to break another window to get back in, and all the others are reinforced."
"You should go, dear," said the nurse to the woman at the bedside, taking her hand.  The woman stood.
"I'm still going to sue," she said uncertainly.  "Even if my cousin did authorise this."
"Get. Her. Out. Of. Here."

They put her in the lift and pushed the button for the ground floor, and Sylvie relaxed a little.  Not too much – lifts these days all had cameras in – but a little.  She still needed a weapon: her palms itched without something to hold that she knew was lethal when used correctly, but she was away from the main staging area.  The light on the floor-panel reached 5 and a sudden memory surged into her mind, closely followed by another. She hit the 5 button almost reflexively, and the lift shuddered to a stop, the doors sighing open after a moment or two.
"You're too old for this," said Ludovic, in her memories.  "It's time you retired."
She pushed the thought away.  That clearly wasn't one of her memories, they must have had her on drugs up in the ward.  She should take that in account if she needed to fight.
"The Director has an office on the 5th floor.  The people with the keycards are the secretaries in the blood-transfusion offices, but they can't use them.  You'll also need a fingerprint from one of the Executives; they all have offices on the 18th floor.  And armed guards."
That memory was hers alright.  Damn, she was doing things in the wrong order, but she'd get the keycard first. There had to be something she could weaponise in the blood-transfusion labs.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Freedom Fighter

There had been so many wars, although she'd realised after a while that she wasn't thinking of them as wars anymore.  They were opportunities, challenges, and occasionally boring.  She'd found herself sitting down with her latest contract and studying the background material like any corporate businesswoman, or even entrepreneur (could she say entrepreneuse?  Did she want to?  The word felt like it was describing an entrepreneur in a dress) and looking for the key points, the places to make a difference, to obtain leverage.  She'd even changed her title eventually, from Mercenary to Consultant until she realised how much more mercenary it sounded.  Now she called herself a Freedom Fighter, which still had a whiff of patchouli about it, but everything came round again so maybe it was time.  She'd contemplated Business Manager for a while, but could she really describe a small conflict in the oil fields of Kuwait a business?  When she decided that she could she knew that she'd never be a Business Manager.
She'd even hired her own team eventually, as the contracts became more lucrative and she found that it was getting easier and easier to see how to achieve a quick resolution or turnaround.  Very often the trick was identifying what one side or the other was actually after: while revenge was very popular still (she had to stifle a yawn at that point, did people still have to get excited about revenge?  Really?  Sure, it never ended unless you wiped the other side out completely, and that was as easy to do as killing a cockroach infestation, but there were so many better reasons for a war), oftentimes it was really more about returning some piece of antique junk to the antique junksite it had come from, or apologising insincerely in front of enough people.  Although at least one of those staged apologies had started another war, but she'd been hired by both sides then, so it was hard to count that as a real failure.  Except in humanitarian terms.
She reached for her phone automatically; she always did when she was thinking of her team.  It wasn't there; it had been moved again.  She sighed, softly.  The wars never ended, and this one was a bloodless thing, a war of attrition that she was getting heartily sick of.  She'd been lazy, she'd let it get to this point because she'd let herself be preoccupied by other things, bigger wars and the needs of her team, instead of paying attention to what was happening around her.  It was time to focus on what was closest to home and deal with this once and for all.
Looking around the room she found the phone on a small table near the door.  Conveniently placed for an accomplice to slip in and steal it, as had clearly been the plan.  She'd had suspicions for a while that there was a cabal working against her here, and this just added fuel to the fire.  She pulled the sheets on the bed free, swung her legs over the side, and limped over to the table to retrieve the phone.
"Nurse said you're not to have that!"  The voice from the other bed in the room was querulous and scratchy. "She said it makes you agitated. You put that back!"
An infantryman in the war of attrition, but you had to start somewhere.  If you took enough away from the enemy they had to pull back in and start thinking about defence, and when you'd got them to that point you were ready to attack.You just had to make sure that you're plans were all in place, there was never any time to lose.  And she'd wasted long enough as it was, lying here reminsicing.
She tapped speed dial on her phone and walked over the bed.  The owner of the querulous voice was an eldery woman with skin as wrinkled as a Shar Pei's and a packet of cigarettes on the table next to the bed.  It was clear that she was a collaborator from that alone; tobacco was always contraband and desirable in a war zone.  She was hooked into a couple of machine; cuboid beige boxes with plastic knobs and green LED displays, and a long transparent plastic tube led from a half-full bag of liquid on a stand into her arm.  Rheumy eyes, crusted with sleep at the corners, stared at her with a hint of confusion.
"You're not allowed near me!" she said shrilly.  "Get away!  Get away!"
She ignored the screeching harpy in the bed and twisted the valve in the bag until it tore loose and the bag dumped its contents down the tube.
"What are you doing?  Help!"
A pillow over the face to muffle the cries, but not pressing hard, not suffocating.  At her ear the phone was answered.
"Montague," she said, a feeling of relief suffusing her.  "I need an extraction."
"Sylvie...," his voice was gentle, and there was something wrong there.  The hand holding the pillow tensed and pressed harder involuntarily.  "Sylvie, there's no extraction.  You need a rest.  You've been fighting these wars for too long no–"
She hung up.  She pulled the pillow up and checked – almost too late, but not quite.  The woman was still breathing; let the potion in the plastic bag do its work and finish her.  Sylvie pulled the covers out around her to allow that she'd been thrashing around and caused the damage herself, and then retreated to her own bed.  She was on her own, and she'd have to escape from here by herself.
She started to hum softly as she searched for clothes, picking the theme to The Great Escape.  Naturally.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

The family that slays together

The family that slays together

The family that slays together stays together.  When I look back over the last couple of weeks now, it's clear that that wretched little homily started it all off.  And worse than that, I still think that grandmother copied it wrong when she was stitching it on to all the cushions in the living room.
Her living room existed in a perpetual semi-twilight: the curtains were always half-drawn in front of heavy grey pre-war nets that contained the dried carcasses of incautious flies and wasps.  The carpet was heavy but hadn't been cleaned in the last fifty years, so instead of the fibers giving way beneath your feet as you walked they resisted and pushed back and it was almost like walking on concrete.  There were pictures on the walls that grandmother told us were long-dead relatives, but when I studied art-history at school I recognized most of them.  I suppose it's like those people who buy picture frames and leave the default picture of a random stranger in them, only done a hundred years earlier.  Either that or I've got relatives who were a lot more distinguished than anyone in the family has become since.  The wallpaper was probably flock once, but now I suspected that any fuzziness to the touch was just mould growing quietly in the dark.
On the couch were cushions; far too many for any one couch to hold, and really far too many for any sane person to put in a single room.  But grandmother had hand-stuffed and sewn each one, and we'd learned to identify them because they weren't all equal.  Sure, they were all embroidered with the same homily: "the family that slays together stays together" that grandmother said she'd taken from the Sunday supplements back when she still got a Sunday newspaper.  But some were stuffed with popcorn, some with cotton wool, some with actual cushion stuffing and a couple were stuffed with old newspapers.  They ranged from uncomfortable to disturbing (we think there were things living in the cushions eating the popcorn), and they weren't even the worst part about that room.
But I digress.  On Tuesday morning mum told dad that she wanted a divorce over breakfast.  Dad was eating kedgeree and he just nodded and seemed to take it quite well.  I was trying to boil tomatoes and it just wasn't working, and I was more upset than either of them seemed to be.
"Any particular reason?" asked Dad, poking at a slice of hard-boiled egg.
"It's June," said Mum and Dad just harrumphed as though that made sense, and I was left wondering if we were talking about the month or a person.
On Wednesday morning Mum told Dad that she wanted to take the dog and didn't want custody of Harvey, my little brother.  That's what started it.  As soon as she left (Mum left the house every morning and I only realised that day that I had no idea where she went or what she did or how long she was gone for) Dad muttered that wretched homily and packed us all into the car.  Dog included.
You'll have read a lot about what happened after that in the newspapers, the True Crime magazines and the Whiston Evening Post (Special Edition) so I'll summarise a little.  We ended up at the Little Dorrit Primary School where parents with enough money to not want to care about their children's social disorders sent their children and Dad took a school of about two hundred children hostage.
"I have demands!" he emailed to the police department, who'd turned up en masse outside the school only when the parents had made their views on the matter clear.  I was expecting him to demand custody of the dog, or an explanation of who June was, but no.  At the time I was mystified, but now I realise that Dad needed to make impossible demands in order to justify killing people, because... the family that slays together stays together.
"Four hundred bottles of Ukrainian dill-pickled gherkins; the bones of Thomas Bayes, numbered and labelled for articulation and assembly; the legal right to urinate in the lift of every London hotel; a random selection of books from the Bodleian library to be used as toilet paper..." is how his list began, and I was astounded that he could even think of these things, let alone ask for them as though it were the most natural thing in the world.  It carried on for another four pages though, with the second-to-last page containing things he felt were blasphemous in one regard or another.  I found myself having to google several different gods while I was reading the list to understand how they were blasphemous, and at the end of it I was impressed and educated.
"The gherkins might be a problem," came back the email from the police and Dad grinned.
"I thought so," he said.  "The rest of the list was really just insurance."
He found a collection of party bags in a cupboard in a classroom, the kind that they give out to children at the end of parties that typically contain a slice of Victoria Sponge with sickly icing and coconut sprinkles together with some cheap plastic toy, a thank-you note for attending and a handful of boiled sweets.
"Perfect," he said.  "Pick a child, and we'll begin."
All I'm willing to say about what happened next is this: people are very hard to cut up, no matter what the films make it look like; dogs do not make good assistants when attempting butchery; I don't believe it was Stockholm Syndrome that had the rest of the children helping us, I think there was something deeply wrong in that school to begin with; and a party bag isn't supposed to contain what we put in it and sent out to the police.
"We're going to burn you and the school to the ground," came back the email from the Police.  I didn't blame them.
Dad sent them another party bag, this one containing only teeth and bones.
You're all aware that the escalation continued for twenty-hours I suppose, but you won't know that when it got dark I sneaked away with the dog, crept through the cordon pretending I was a student from the school, and went home.  Mum was in having an orgy with a lot of the neighbours, so I went to bed without disturbing her and thanked my lucky stars I wasn't Harvey.
Mum got her divorce and burst into tears when the decree nici arrived.  When I asked her why she was crying, she explained that she felt that Dad's insane murder plan had been very romantic.
The dog and I left two days later to make a life of our own.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Merchant adventurer

The small group of highly trained killers had stopped.  Again.
Agamemnal was stood in front of a heavy tapestry that reached from floor to ceiling, his torch playing over it.  He was peering at it so closely that his nose nearly touched the fabric, and now and then he would stroke the tapestry, or rub a particular spot.
“Will you hurry up?”  Lydia folded her arms.  She was tall and thin, graceful in an anorexic way, and wearing soft grey wraps that wound around her like bandages and left her with the slightly unfortunate appearance of an animate mummy.  Her eyes were the same grey as the wraps and they were staring at the back of Agamemnal’s head as though she wished she could make it explode.  “We are supposed to be locating the Duke and assassinating him.  Not valuing wall-hangings!”
Next to Lydia was Darleen.  She was built far more robustly and was wearing a black-and-grey padded jerkin and a blindfold that covered her eyes and nose.  Despite her apparent lack of vision she was leading the group through the echoing halls as though she’d lived there her entire life.  She lifted her head as though to stare at the ceiling, and a moment later she spoke.
“There’s no point Lydia, dear.  We need fifteen minutes for the Duke to reach his bedroom anyway; you might as well let him look at it.  The guard patrols won’t come in here for 22 minutes, and we’ll be gone by then anyway.”
Lydia snorted and turned away, her back pointedly to Agamemnal, and looked at the fourth member of the squad: an albino man who looked like a boy of fourteen. His eyes and nose were pink and wet, and his fingernails were black and sharp.  He was wearing a torn shirt and ragged pants tied loosely about his skinny waist with rope.  His bare feet were hairy.  “What say you, Ratty?”
Ratty shrugged, his shirt slipping from his shoulder and forcing him to pull it back up before it fell off completely.  “He’s got an eye for it,” he said.  “Those candlesticks he looted last tim–“
“When we were supposed to be setting fire to an information storage bay.”  Lydia interrupted with the arrogance of a natural leader.
“As I was saying,” said Ratty amicably.  “Those candlesticks fetched a nice sum.  We’d barely have broke even without them.”
Lydia turned her back on Ratty now.  “As if this is a for-profit enterprise,” she said to Darleen.
“It is for me,” said Darleen.  “You can’t negotiate, Lyds.  You should let Ratty do it, he’s got a silver tongue.”
“He’s got fleas.”  There was a viciousness in her tone that made Darleen flinch, but Ratty seemed unaffected by it.
“It’s genuine,” said Agamemnal as though the entire conversation around him hadn’t happened.  “Definitely fourteenth century.  Let’s take it down and pack it up.”
“Twelve minutes,” said Darleen, her head tilted up again.  “No change in patterns.”
“This is ridiculous!” Lydia spun to face her squad, her face contorted into something ugly; Ratty considered for a moment that this must be what a banshee looked like when it was screeching the death of its victim.  “We’re killers!  Assassins!  We have a job to do, we’re not picking up tawdry tat at the sodding flea-market!”
“George said usual rules apply,” said Agamemnal.  “That means I can loot and you can carry.”
“I. am. not. a. pack. mule.”

“Of course not,” said Agamemnal with a broad smile that showed his three remaining teeth.  “Pack mules have more meat on them.  But you are the only one who doesn’t need to be able to move quickly or keep everything free for when we meet the Duke.  So you do the carrying.”  He reached up, stretching to the top of tapestry to find the ties that suspended it from hooks in the wall.  “Brace, bitch.”