Ministry of Pandemonium III (sample)

6

SMS SOS

 All around town, around the rest of the country too, phone-related casualties were on the increase. Most injuries, Mr October explained during the shift, were caused by texting without due diligence.

‘And what exactly does that mean?’ I asked as Lu steered us along Highgate Road, past a long queue of rock fans shivering outside the Forum.

‘Simply that the injured, or those who cause injuries, pay no attention to what’s happening around them,’ he said. ‘They’re unaware of fellow pedestrians or fellow travellers. Their eyes are sucked into their miniature screens, and where their eyes go their minds naturally follow. They cross busy roads with their text fingers working overtime, oblivious to traffic. They blunder into crowds without the slightest inkling of who or what is coming their way. It’s a wonder we haven’t seen more cases like this 129936 on our list.’

Just then, as if to illustrate what he’d said, a girl in a pink tracksuit ran out in front of the rickshaw, her eyes fixed on the phone in her hand and not on the traffic. Lu swerved around her, almost colliding with a Hackney carriage, but because of the treacherous road the taxi was idling along and Lu had time to accelerate past it.

Mr October was right. During my time with the Ministry I’d seen more than one newly-departed who’d jumped into the street or off a platform to rescue a phone from in front of a bus or tube train. I’d seen the driver of a blue Peugeot crushed behind the wheel after meeting a heavy goods vehicle head-on on the Westway. The driver was still clutching his phone when we found him, and on its screen were the last words he’d sent:

CU soon.

In Ministry speak, this was an SMS SOS. But this shorthand didn’t take into account all the other complicated factors. There were always other factors, death was a complicated business, and the 129936 in Dartmouth Park we would soon meet was a more complicated case than most – so complicated that Mr October had to explain as we went.


***


Some numbers were hard to decipher and didn’t give much away. Others told us so much that it boggled our minds. According to Mr October, the 129936, Jeremy Stark, was a bean counter with a head full of numbers and nothing in his heart. For six days a week he worked long hours with flow charts and graphs, shuffling figures, snipping and slicing budgets. Like a magician, he snapped his fingers and lights went out – small businesses folded, offices closed, work forces halved. He signed his name to a form and a library would be emptied of books, its doors bolted and barricaded. He ticked a box on another form and a hundred office staff found themselves jobless. Jeremy Stark lived for his work.

He may have been a genius with figures but there was one number he knew nothing about. This was the 129936 that was about to catch up with him on this frozen December evening as he turned out the lights in his Henrietta Street office and went out to hail a cab. He never saw this one coming.

At six-thirty when Stark left the office, the blizzard was still ripping through the streets and taxis were scarce. The ones that passed him on Southampton Row had their lights out and were crammed with passengers. Stark was heading to the Strand – the Strand would be busier, a better chance of catching a ride there – when a black minicab crept to the curb beside him. The minicab stopped and the back door opened. Someone inside called to Stark, offering him a lift.

There were three men in the cab. Their faces shadowy until a passing car’s headlights threw them into sudden bright relief. The driver looked craggy with a long lined face and a jaw that rolled around a lump of gum. The passenger beside him was older, weary-eyed and wearing threadbare clothing. The one in the back, the youngest of the three, motioned for Jeremy Stark to join him. Stark may have hesitated before getting in. He didn’t know these three men, he wasn’t comfortable around strangers, but how else would he get home on a night like this? It wasn’t until he’d settled in the back that he realised he’d made a terrible mistake. As the car moved into traffic, the passenger beside him lurched forward, and Stark felt the cold barrel of a gun pressing into his ribs. Stark was now riding towards his inevitable end, but a 129936 didn’t mean death by gunshot. It meant something else.

The three men introduced themselves one by one, but their names meant nothing to Stark. He never remembered names, only numbers. The younger man with the gun spoke first. His name was Hudson. Today, this very morning, Stark had initialled a document that would ensure the break up and sale of the company Hudson had worked half a lifetime to build. His print factory business had a good portfolio with clients that ranged from entrepreneurs to rock stars and major publishing houses, and produced everything from business cards and headed stationery to full colour posters and illustrated children’s books. There had been good and bad times, highs and lows, and during one particularly rocky low four years ago Hudson had sold the business to a larger company, Clusterworks Inc., who were owned by an even larger company, Monolith Ltd., who in turn were owned by the giant conglomerate who were employing Jeremy Stark on a freelance basis when he initialled the document.

The print business would be wound down, its small but dedicated staff given their notices, its machinery sold for scrap. Hudson had invested most of his savings in the business and now faced personal ruin. He would struggle to pay the mortgage. The family home – the family itself – was under threat. He would pick himself up and move on eventually. But he’d given his heart to what he’d built from scratch, and with a flourish of his pen the bean counter had ripped his heart out.

Jeremy Stark flinched as the gun barrel twitched. He had approximately fifteen minutes left to live.

Now the driver spoke. His name was Whitelaw. Unlike his armed companion, he didn’t have a bleak future ahead of him. He was living it now, today. Unlike his armed companion, he had never owned his own business. He’d worked for a major high street retailer, and had worked his way up from shop floor to middle management to become head of the music department just before that branch of the business was lopped off with another swish of Stark’s pen. Soon and without warning, the retail chain was carved up and sold off piece by piece. Whitelaw hadn’t worked since. He’d entered a long spell of depression, hiding from the world, avoiding job interviews, frittering away his savings while the growing piles of unpaid bills were replaced by prosecution and eviction notices. For the last eighteen months he’d been on the street, sleeping sometimes at a homeless shelter off Piccadilly and sometimes in a bed of newspapers under Waterloo Bridge. The taxi he drove, the taxi escorting Jeremy Stark towards his death, had been borrowed from an old friend who owed him a favour. As he steered the vehicle through the clogged Bloomsbury traffic, his palms were moist and slithering on the wheel. There was a hint on madness in Whitelaw’s eye.

Jeremy Stark thought he saw it in the mirror, that madness. Just a glint, like a flash of light across a blade. And he thought he saw something else besides. In the red and green wash of Christmas lights, the driver’s lined face reshaped itself into a living, grinning reaper’s mask.

He gasped for breath, panicking, flinching at the pressure of the gun.

‘I was only doing the job I was told to,’ he said.

‘Weren’t we all?’ Whitelaw said.

The passenger in front was the last to tell his tale. ‘But it isn’t what you’re expecting to hear,’ he said. ‘I don’t have a personal grudge like these other two. In fact I owe you an apology.’ He turned to face Stark, the high street lights drifting across his face. ‘Do you know me? Do you recognise me?’

The terrified Stark shrank into his seat, trying to think. The long slack face with small dark eyes planted slightly too far apart, the deep round voice, the pale crescent scar above the chin like a smiling second mouth. There was something familiar about this man. They must have crossed paths at some time.

‘Suppose I jog your memory,’ the passenger said. ‘Does the name Creswell mean anything?’

Creswell. It did ring a bell, but at first Jeremy Stark was at a loss to place him. A memory was fluttering around him, but wasn’t sure he wanted to be reminded. He didn’t want to go where Creswell was leading him.

‘Stop,’ he said. ‘Please stop and let me out.’

‘You need to hear this first,’ Creswell said. ‘Someone has to explain why you are the way you are.’

Stark wanted to cover his ears, but the pressure in his side made him afraid to lift his hands. ‘Let me out,’ he repeated.

‘I don't think so,’ said the man with the gun.

No one spoke for a time. The driver headed through wintery streets with the windscreen wipers squealing against a deadweight of snow. Outside the cab, white-faced pedestrians waving inside-out umbrellas floundered around like phantoms.

‘Hear me out,’ the passenger said. ‘Hear me out and then this will be over. Just one more name you need to hear…’

‘Please don’t.’

‘Melissa.’

And with that, the dreadful picture was complete.

‘We were in the same class at school, you and me,’ the passenger said. ‘Not exactly bosom buddies, but we knocked around some days after school, got off the bus at the same stop by that poky little row of shops. Remember? They’re all gone now, demolished. The shop on the corner was a newsagent’s. I had an evening paper round, and this particular evening when we left the bus I went to collect the papers while you went to the charity shop next door. When I came out you’d bought a book. Something to pass the time, you said. It cost you next to nothing, still more than you thought it was worth but the shop didn’t have anything else you fancied. You didn’t have the slightest idea what you’d bought, but I did.

‘It was Bradbury’s Dark Carnival, a signed first edition, published by Arkham House. I wasn’t a collector but as soon as I saw it I wanted it. The book was a rarity, worth a small fortune, and I decided right there and then that I had to have it. But I couldn’t let on, so I didn’t show any interest, made a fuss about being late for my round. I said I’d take a look at the book later, if you’d bring it over to my place. And then I took off.

‘We lived about ten minutes away from each other. My family had a big old house on the outskirts of town with high walls and a long sloping lawn. The night you came to visit, my parents were at the theatre and I had the place to myself. To my shame, I’d hatched a plan before you arrived. If you forget to bring the book it could wait for another time. I broke open a pack of playing cards on the table on the patio and raided my father’s wine collection in the cellar. I took two bottles of red from the darkest part of the cellar, thinking he wouldn’t miss them, opened them both and put them outside. If I’d known that corner of the cellar was where Dad kept his most highly prized wines I would never have taken those bottles of Margaux. I was in serious trouble when he found out – but that’s another story.

‘When you rang the bell I was still fitting playing cards up my sleeves. Everything was set, the plan was in place, and you’d brought the book, as I’d hoped. You were dubious about drinking the wine at first – you’d never tried it before, and this wasn’t something you were allowed to do at home – but it wasn’t too hard to persuade you…’

Jeremy Stark didn’t want to hear what came next, but he couldn’t stop it now. He couldn’t speak. His throat felt swollen and a tightness was spreading across his chest as Creswell went on.

‘The wine was excellent, of course. You were groggy and glassy-eyed in no time, and only too happy to play when I suggested a few hands of poker for real money. You didn’t even mind losing, and when all your change had gone you were deflated. You wanted to go on, but you had nothing left to play for except the book. There it was on the table. I’d ignored it all evening, pretending it meant nothing, but this was where the plan came together. I was about to suggest one more hand, and this time we’d play for the book, but you suggested it first. I couldn’t believe my luck.

‘It wasn’t long before it belonged to me. I put it aside as if it didn’t really matter. Soon, I thought, I’d auction it and make a huge killing, but for the time being we’d play a couple more hands just for the sake of playing. I didn’t want you to suspect the book was the only reason I’d wanted you there.

‘The wine ran out. Three hours had passed. We were both the worse for wear, and you’d stayed out much later than usual. Your parents would be missing you now. Maybe they’d be phoning friends, trying to trace you, but you hadn’t told them where you were going when you left that evening. If you had, things would have turned out very differently. If you’d called from my house this terrible thing wouldn’t have happened, but you didn’t want them to hear you slurring on the phone. If only you could wind back time.

‘By the time you left, your parents were no longer worried. They were frantic. They were out in the car, driving around town in search of you. You were always punctual, always did what you were told and came home at a reasonable hour, so it’s no surprise they were so alarmed.

‘But they couldn’t leave your sister Melissa in the house. If they’d been thinking clearly, one would have taken the car and one would have stayed. Instead, they asked a neighbour’s girl, Chloe Miller, to babysit while they were gone. Chloe was tired and dressed for bed when they called, and the minute she flopped down on your parents’ sofa she fell fast asleep.

‘She didn’t hear Melissa waking, thumping out of bed and downstairs, drawn by the sound of her parents’ voices and the revving car engine leaving the drive. She was curious about the commotion, but not curious enough to wake the sleeping Chloe when she saw her there in the lounge. She had something else on her mind, something she wanted to investigate outside. A week earlier, Chloe had discovered a family of frogs living around the pond at the bottom of the garden. They had become her new best friends, she’d decided, she would do a school project about them, and she wanted to check they were still there and that all was well. Barefoot, she crossed the lawn and went down to the pond in the moonlight.

‘I won’t go into detail about the rest,’ Creswell said. ‘How your parents spotted you stumbling drunkenly on a street corner and brought you home to find Chloe asleep and the back door open and Melissa, the sister you loved more than anything, floating in the pond. Word gets around quickly in small towns, and everyone knew the story by the next day, perhaps embellished it a little as they passed it on. I’ve always been sure it happened that way, but I’ve only been able to guess what happened to you.’

Stark didn’t speak. He stared brokenly through the window at bright lights in Camden, wishing his fellow passenger with the gun would pull the trigger.

‘My guess is, you blamed yourself,’ Creswell said. ‘You always have. It never crossed your mind that I was the guilty party. I was the one who lured you away, took your money and cheated you out of that precious book. If I hadn’t wanted it so badly you wouldn’t have been there, you would’ve been at home, everything would’ve been just as it always was.

‘You loved your kid sister so much. You never loved anyone again after that night. You closed yourself off, hardened your heart, built a wall around yourself, and gave yourself up to a world of numbers. Numbers can’t hurt you – they’re easy to control. It’s people that hurt you, and you couldn’t face that kind of pain again. Melissa’s death made you what you are today, but I wanted you to know you weren’t the cause of it – I was.’

As the taxi slowed along Kentish Town Road, Stark realised two things: the pressure of the gun against his ribs had faded, and the ride was bringing him close to home. Trembling, he hung his head.

‘Are you going to shoot me or not?’ he said.

‘Not likely,’ the man sitting next to him said. ‘Not with this.’

He pushed the thing into Stark’s hands and Stark felt its surprisingly light weight. The weapon was plastic, a child’s toy. Stark looked up at Creswell, dazed and confused.

‘I don’t understand,’ he said, but Creswell was about to explain.

The three men had met by chance at a greasy spoon in Kilburn, and while idly chatting over breakfast they’d realised they had one thing in common – Jeremy Stark. The others, Creswell said, had wanted to teach him a lesson, give him a good kicking he’d never forget, but Creswell had persuaded them to think again. Even hard-hearted bean counters had a back-story, he said, a reason for behaving the way they did. So they were here to give him a second chance, a chance to face the past and make a new start.

Creswell then reached for a package down by his side and offered it to Stark, the copy of Dark Carnival he’d taken from him in the card game all those years ago. He’d never tried to sell it, although he’d seen only one thing when he’d first set eyes on it – a price tag, an enormous profit. What he hadn’t see was its value, the riches inside, the power of its words.

And Stark had never read it, had he? Perhaps now was the time. Who knew, it might even change his life for the better. It was never too late to change.

The minicab pulled to the curb, letting Jeremy Stark out below the brow of the hill on Churchill Road. The terrifying journey had taken him in a straight line across town, ending outside the house where he’d lived alone for the last twenty-five years. As the door closed and minicab pulled away, Stark stood in the falling snow watching it go, weeping for his long-lost Melissa as the pain came roaring back at him out of the past, but weeping most of all for himself.

 

#

 

While Jeremy Stark was standing there on the street with a rare first edition of Dark Carnival tucked under his arm, a woman named Deborah Raines was making her way up Dartmouth Park Hill from the tube station. She was on her way to meet friends for dinner at Laz on the edge of Hampstead Heath, running late because of the severe delays on the Northern Line, and texting furiously as she went.

She hurried uphill, fast as she could in the driving snow, seeing nothing but the phone in her hand, unaware of the traffic rushing past as she crossed a junction without checking. Her friends ought to know she would be ten minutes late. This was the only thing on her mind just at that moment. Finishing her message and pressing SEND, she looked up into the headlamps of the tow truck making straight for her.

Deborah Raines froze halfway across the street. For several seconds, time stood still. Numb fear filled her mind as the driver of the tow truck floored the brakes, fought the wheel and skidded past her, demolishing the brick wall outside a brightly painted day care centre.

The crash could be heard streets away, even with its sound muffled by snow. The truck jack-knifed against the wall with such force that the vehicle it had been towing, a mobile library carrying several tons of books, tore itself free and went hurtling away down the steeply sloping street.

Nothing could stop it. The loaded vehicle, a Ford transit, had been collected less than half an hour ago from Caledonian Road after its brakes had seized. And here, children playing on the slope after school with sleds and toboggans had smoothed the ice and snow until the road’s surface gleamed. Driverless and propelled along by its cargo of reading materials, the mobile library sped rear-end first down the hill, picking up speed as it went.

Outside his gate further down the street, Jeremy Stark wiped his eyes and took his door keys from a coat pocket. Tomorrow it would be as if he’d dreamt it all. The three ghostly passengers he’d met tonight couldn’t really change him and they couldn’t hurt him now. So he would bury Melissa’s memory all over again. He would go on as before. It was easy enough to talk about change, much harder to alter a lifetime’s habits. Flipping the book around in his hand, he glanced at the cover. How much would this thing sell for now anyway? He hadn’t read made-up stories since he was a boy, he was above that kind of thing now, and the book meant nothing to him at all. He saw as Creswell had seen it at first, as an easy way to make a killing.

Stark lifted the latch on his gate, but then turned back, marvelling at the silence. No, not quite silence. He heard something rushing over wet snow not far away, but he didn’t see the transit van until the last minute, and by then it was already upon him. The rear doors crashed open, forced by the weight of books pressing against them, and instinctively taking a backwards step, the bean counter drew his last breath.

‘So you see,’ Mr October said as Lu hauled the rickshaw towards Gospel Oak, ‘sometimes the numbers give very little away and you can’t be at all sure what lies in store. And sometimes they’re a veritable mine of information. I’ve taken a little poetic licence in the telling, but I’m fairly certain that’s how it was with this 129936.’

‘So in the end it didn’t matter whether he had a change of heart or not,’ I said. ‘He might’ve decided to make that new start, be good to people instead of mean to them, but he still would’ve been crushed by the van.’

‘Exactly, because his name and number are right here on our list.’

Five minutes later we found Jeremy Stark’s mangled remains under the mountain of library books, the rare first edition still clasped in his hand. The transit had slammed him back through the gate, squashing him against his own front door before shedding its load. His ghost now stood among a small group of neighbours who’d been drawn outdoors by the noise and now stared at the scene in shock and disbelief. Spotting us through the crowd, Stark gave a little nod as if to show he knew why we were there and moved aside to meet us.

‘Do you know where I’m going?’ he asked Mr October.

‘Oh, yes. Not that I’ve ever seen it for myself,’ Mr October said. ‘I’m just a keeper of the key, so to speak. Are you ready?’

Stark sighed and looked away, then back again. ‘Suppose so. I don’t have any choice about this, do I? I mean, can we negotiate?’

‘I’m afraid this is non-negotiable.’

‘OK, then,’ Stark said. ‘Let’s get this thing over with.’

And Mr October opened the door.    
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