“That’s the place, over there.” Bachman pointed to an attractive three-storey house situated on the other side of the canal. “Hardly a man of the people, eh?”
“And there’s only one exit?” asked Mitchell. “Only one way in and one way out?”
“Of course there’s only one exit, you idiot! The rear of the building backs onto another arterial waterway.”
Frowning, Bachman took out a crumpled newspaper clipping, carefully unfolded it, and smoothed it out on his lap.
“Look.” He jabbed a red, nail-bitten forefinger at a smudged headline: LEADING ACADEMIC CALLS FOR GOVERNMENTS TO FINALLY NEGOTIATE WITH TERRORIST GROUPS. “He’s complacent. He thinks that he can live here, in this peaceful little suburb, and be immune from world events. He’s a hypocrite.”
Mitchell nodded in agreement and half shielded his eyes from a glint of bright sunlight that momentarily dazzled through the windscreen.
“So what’s the plan?” he asked, lowering his hand. “How are we going to get to him?”
“Each morning, without fail,” said Bachman, “he leaves the house at nine-thirty, walks approximately two hundred yards to a little café on the corner—a busy establishment that caters for office workers, young professionals, students and various artists. He sits in the same corner seat, orders a large black, takes out his little computer and writes nonsense like this.” He lifted the newspaper clipping and waved it around in the air.
“And we plan to take him down in the café?”
“No, no—far too dangerous. We must intercept him en route. At around a quarter past nine, therefore, we’ll get out of the van, walk to the corner of the street and wait. From there, we’ll be able to see him approaching.”
“And what of pedestrians, potential eyewitnesses?”
“I doubt they’ll present us with any problems,” said Bachman. “Fear for one’s life is a powerful immobilizer. Besides, at that hour of the day the area should be relatively quiet. But if any passersby choose to be heroes, we will have no other option than to eliminate them.”
“And our getaway?”
“If all goes well, we run back to the van, drive approximately two and half kilometers out of the city to a prearranged rendezvous point. Once there, our associates will provide us with another vehicle—a clean vehicle. Then onwards across the border.”
“Excellent.” Mitchell checked his wristwatch, a battered Casio diver’s watch with a scratched face and chalky, discoloured strap. “All we can do now is wait, then.”
They fell silent for a few moments. A cycle bell trilled. A heavy vehicle thudded over a loose, clunking drain cover.
“It’s a little strange, though, isn’t it, Bachman? How we 8 sit here, outside this bastard academic’s house, waiting to put an end to his life, while he’s indoors, completely unawares. What do you think he’s doing at this exact moment? Taking a shower, taking a piss, fucking his wife?”
“It’s of no importance,” said Bachman.
“No. Not in the greater scheme of things. But it’s intriguing, is it not? From a philosophical point of view, if nothing else. For he has no idea that this is his last day alive, but we, complete strangers to this man, do. It’s an irony: how we know and he doesn’t.”
“I see no irony only the natural flow of life, and death. How is he any different to a man who gets knocked down by a bus or an old woman having a heart attack?”
“Because, respectively, they are accidents and unfortunate medical conditions, everyday occurrences, whilst this…”
“… is no less philosophical? God, fate, mortality. At any moment any person in any part of the world could be struck down, be it by a bullet to the head or a brain aneurysm. The moment of death is the same as the moments that preceded it, and the moments that will immediately follow – minus one insignificant individual. No more, no less.”
Arthurs shifted halfway down the bed.
“You look so beautiful,” he whispered to Nina, rolling onto his side and gently running his fingers up and down her great swollen belly. From his vantage point, with bolts of grainy morning sunlight creeping in through a gap in the thick curtains, her distended stomach looked like a wonder of the world, as breathtaking and spectacular as a great Himalayan mountain range, or mysterious and wondrous as one of the pyramids. “I can’t believe we’re going to be parents soon.”
He rested an open palm on her stomach, stroking the warm, soft cocoon that had nourished, sustained and protected their unborn child for the last seven months.
“Well, we better get used to it,” said Nina, stirring slightly, brushing a few strands of tangled blonde hair from her face. “In eight weeks our lives will never be the same again.”
Every time he thought about parenthood, the idea of becoming a father for the first time at fifty-two, it terrified him. He worried about complications, birth defects. He worried that something awful might happen to Nina during labour. He worried that he might keel over and die without seeing the child born at all. He worried about the kind of world they were living in now, and the state of society in twenty years’ time.
“Right.” He shifted back up the bed, touched the side of Nina’s face, and then planted a soft kiss to her lips. “I better go and grab a quick shower now. Do you want me to bring you a cup of Chamomile when I’m done?”
After showering and towelling himself dry, Arthurs shuffled over to the sink, wiped the steam from the mirror, leaned close, and stared at his reflection. Not for the first time these last seven months, he wondered what he saw staring back at him, he wondered what kind of man his child’s father really was: moderately successful in his field, some would say renowned, a little controversial, well off (but that had more to do with his inheritance than his own academic work—no matter how acclaimed), a little overweight, undoubtedly, a little bleary eyed and blotchy skinned (he liked a glass of wine or two each evening), a mop of scruffy greying hair (he had always had an aversion to barbershops, not the actual hair-cutting process, but the waiting around and interminable chit-chat with the barber himself), hobbies: not many, friends: few but faithful, achievements: few but frivolous. Momentarily discouraged, he felt as if he had already let his unborn child down, that he hadn’t led the most exciting or worthy of lives. Then it struck him: I’m in love, and am loved in return by your mother. That’s my greatest achievement, and that’s why you’re here.
“Yes, that’s why you’re here.” He picked up his toothbrush and studied the bent, broken bristles. “New toothbrushes, must remember to pick up new toothbrushes today,” he said to his reflection, while absently squeezing paste onto a brush head that was some weeks past its best.
Downstairs in the kitchen, he boiled the kettle and took a packet of chamomile tea out of a cupboard. A creature of habit, Arthurs never had anything at all for breakfast. Nothing passed his lips until his regulation large black at the café on the corner. Not until one o’clock would he ever consider eating anything solid.
As he waited for the kettle to boil, he sorted through some papers on the kitchen table, notes he had made last night concerning the rights of terrorists to commit atrocities, that to all intents and purposes they were soldiers in a war, not a bunch of armed fanatics. To give his theory more weight, he had used case examples from Northern Ireland and Palestine.
The kettle boiled.
He filled Nina’s cup with boiling water. While the tea brewed, he opened his laptop and quickly checked his morning emails. Amongst the usual interdepartmental circulars, interview requests and junk mail, was a message from the parents of a bomb victim, a fifteen-year-old girl murdered in a recent terrorist attack in Manchester.
My wife and I were appalled by your comments regarding last month’s bomb attack which robbed us of our beloved daughter Jade. How can you espouse such dangerous views when people of all ages all across the globe are being indiscriminately slaughtered? There can be no, I repeat no justification for terrorist activities, for the use of such violence. Maybe if you suffered at the hands of a terrorist, if your son or daughter were, God forbid, a victim, you would feel very differently.
Yours With Complete Disdain
It wasn’t the first time Arthurs had received such a message. As much as he sympathised with the families of terror victims, he knew there was a much bigger historical and geopolitical picture to consider, he knew their stance was far too subjective and emotional. They miss the point, he thought to himself, as he spooned the teabag out of Nina’s cup, placing both spoon and saturated bag on the draining board near the sink.
He took the cup of tea upstairs.
“Here you are, darling.’ He placed it on the bedside table.
“Thank you,” said Nina, leaning forward, dragging a pillow around to support her back. “Are you going soon?”
“Yes,” he replied, absently slipping an arm into a suit jacket. “Do you need anything before I leave? Are you sure you’ll be all right on your own?”
“Of course. And I have my cell phone right here.” She picked it up off the bedside table and waggled it around in the air. “Besides, you’re just up the street. If anything happens you could be here in two minutes—maybe less.”
“Okay.” He walked back over to the bed and pressed his lips to her forehead. “I’ll be back around lunch-time.”
“There he is,” said Mitchell, nudging Bachman’s elbow. “Over there. He’s heading our way.”
Both men looked right and left. The streets were almost deserted; traffic thin, only a few pedestrians were spotted up and down each side of the sun-drenched pavements. One of whom was renowned academic Professor Nathanial Arthurs.
“You ready?” asked Bachman, reaching into his inside pocket for his gun.
“As I’ll ever be,” Mitchell replied.
“Let’s do this—”
“Wait.” Mitchell tugged at Bachman’s sleeve. “Look. He’s stopped to talk to someone.”
Arthurs swung round to see his old friend Wilf Krieger’s smiling face and wide-open arms.
“How’s things?” They shook hands warmly. “How’s Nina getting on? They say those last few weeks are the hardest.”
“Pretty good, thanks. A bit tired, a bit fed up—but otherwise we’re both very excited, can’t wait to meet the new arrival.”
“Glad to hear it,” said Krieger. “Can I tempt you with a quick coffee upstairs?” He gestured over his shoulder. “It’s a long time since we had one of our famous chats, our discussions about the inherent evils of the modern world.”
Arthurs hesitated, checked his watch—09:26—thought about the article he was contracted to write for New Politkura magazine, weighed it up against how much he enjoyed Krieger’s company, his conversation, especially.
“Erm, I think I’d better take a rain check on that one, Wilf. I’ve got an absolute mountain of paperwork to get through, not to mention an article to write.”
“Not time for just one cup?”
Arthurs smiled, felt close to relenting, but knew from experience that one cup of coffee would inevitably lead to another, that the conversation would flow, and before he knew it it would be gone one o’clock and Nina would be wondering where he had got to, and a whole working morning would have been wasted.
“No, really, Wilf, I can’t—not today. I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do, unfortunately.”
“Okay, no problem, I understand, Nat.” He shrugged. “Don’t be a stranger, though, eh? And you take care of yourself now. Nina and the baby will be relying on you in a couple of months’ time.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me, Wilf. I think I’m what they 14 call one of life’s survivors. It would take an army of millions to hold me back.”
“Shit,” said Mitchell, edgy, impatient. “When’s he ever going to stop talking to that—”
“Now,” Bachman hissed under his breath, reaching for his gun and striding down the pavement.
At first, it wasn’t clear if Arthurs actually realised that a man was approaching him drawing a silenced pistol from his inside pocket. The academic carried on walking at the same brisk pace. There was a level of distraction, of challenge almost, as if he was aware of his fate, and fully prepared to face it head on. Only when Bachman was almost on top of him did Arthurs stop and look up with a puzzled, uncomprehending expression upon his face.
“What? Who are—?”
“This is for the children of Manchester. This is for all the victims of terrorism all around the world.”
Bachman shot Arthurs clean through the top of the head, blowing off a large proportion of his skull. A cloud of blood, bone and brain spattered high into the air. The laptop wedged under his arm fell smashing to the pavement, splintered shards of plastic scattering across the concrete. A moment later, he too crashed to the ground, slumping lifelessly over onto his side. Dark blood poured from the top of his head, forming a thick syrupy puddle that glistened ruby-like in the bright morning sunshine.
Two pedestrians and a cyclist happened upon the scene.
“Get away!” shouted Bachman, pointing his gun at them. “Run. Go or I shoot, I shoot all of you.”
The cyclist performed a hasty, clumsy U-turn and pedalled off as quickly as he could. The two pedestrians sprinted across the road.
A far-off siren wailed. Cars slowed.
“Come on,” said Bachman. “Let’s get out of here.”
Neil Randall is a novelist and short story writer. His debut novel A Quiet Place to Die (Wild Wolf Publishing) was voted e-thriller Book of the Month for February 2014. His historical novels, The Holy Drinker and The Butterfly and the Wheel (both Knox Robinson Publishing) have been widely praised. His latest thriller, The Girl in the Empty Room (Crooked Cat Publishing) was released in September of last year. His debut short story collection Tales of Ordinary Sadness (Knox Robinson Publishing) has received much critical acclaim: Darkness Reigns at the Foot of the Lighthouse was short-listed for the prestigious Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2009, and Hands long-listed for the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition 2015. His newest novel The Nine Lives of Jacob Fallada will be released in August.