THE BITTER END
He’s never known such cold, such merciless, pervasive cold. It is enveloping him completely, like the embrace of a wraith, and he is being crushed in its grip.
His limbs are useless, still twitching in spasms, tiny echoes of the convulsions that rendered him helpless, and he can see his stilted, strangled breaths escaping from his mouth as tiny wisps. Pain is still pulsing through him, a pain he can feel from his internal organs to his every extremity. There is a buzzing in his ears, tiny explosions dancing in his eyes like a miniature firework display.
The temperature is so low that it feels as though the air itself is biting him, but worst of all is what lies beneath. The floor is like a giant radiator in reverse, draining warmth from every point of contact, and given he is lying flat on his back, that means close to half the surface of his body.
His assailant is standing over him, staring down from the blank smiling face of a Guy Fawkes mask.
He thinks he sees a fleeting gleam in a black-gloved hand, there for a twinkling, then it’s gone. It’s hard to tell among the flashes he’s seeing, the after-effects of the electroshock device.
‘I want you to know why this is happening to you, and I want you to understand why it’s happening now.’
There is such anger in the voice, an anger that speaks of years of hatred; years of waiting.
Why didn’t he see this betrayal coming? How could he have walked so blind into the jaws of a trap?
‘You thought you had reinvented yourself, didn’t you: turned your reputation around. I wanted you to touch that better future. I wanted you to believe you could once again be what you used to . . . before I took it all away.’
High on the wall he sees the dark glass of a CCTV camera lens, and with it comes a realisation colder even than the floor. Too late, he understands the significance of the mask, and that it is practical rather than symbolic.
It is the mask that confirms what he thought he glimpsed is indeed a blade.
It is the mask that tells him he is about to die.
CELL BINDING (I)
I was always afraid that this story would end with me in prison. Turns out I was right.
Not exactly a major spoiler though, is it? I mean, we both already know that part, so it’s how I got here that really matters.
I’m going to tell you everything, and I’m not going to hold back to spare anyone’s feelings. I have to be totally honest if I’m looking for honesty in return. I’ll warn you up front, though. Much of what I’m about to say is going to be difficult for you to hear, but there are things about me that I need you to understand. You’re not going to like me for some of what I did and said, and the way you personally come across isn’t always going to be flattering either, but it’s important that you get a handle on how everything looked from my point of view.
It doesn’t mean I feel that way now, or that I was right to think what I did back then. It’s just how it was, you know?
There are a lot of places I could start, but I have to be careful about that. Certain choices might imply I’m pointing the finger, and I’m not. I know who’s to blame for everything that happened. No need for any more deceptions on that score. So I’m not going right back to childhood, or to when my dad died, or even to when the police raided the flat and found a shitload of drugs and a gun.
Because this isn’t about any of that stuff, not really. To me, this all starts a few weeks ago, with me sitting in a waiting room, looking at a human time-bomb.
I know the man is going to explode several minutes before the incident takes place. It is only a matter of time.
He is sitting opposite me in the waiting area, shifting restlessly on the plastic bench, his limbs in a state of constant motion: sudden jerks and twitches beating out a code I can read only too clearly. His head is an unkempt ball of hair, his matted locks merging with enough beard to kit out a whole bus full of hipsters. He looks across at me every few seconds, which makes me scared and uncomfortable, though I know he’s not picking me out specifically. His eyes are darting about the room the whole time, not alighting on a single sight for more than a second, like a fly that won’t land long enough to be swatted.
I am afraid of catching his eye, so I keep my gaze above him, where a row of posters glare back at me from the wall. They all seem intended to threaten, apart from the ones encouraging people to grass on their neighbours. ‘We’re closing in,’ says one. ‘Benefit thieves: our technology is tracking you,’ warns another. ‘Do you know who’s following you?’ asks a third. They feature images of people photographed from above at a steep angle, making them look tiny and cornered as they stand on concentric circles. To drive the point home, another poster shows an arrow thwocking into a bullseye: ‘Targeting benefit fraudsters’.
I have done nothing wrong but I feel guilty and intimidated. I feel like a criminal simply for being here. I have rehearsed what I am going to say, gone over it and over it in front of the bedroom mirror. I know my arguments, and have tried to anticipate how the officials might respond. I was feeling ready when I left the house, coaching myself all the way here, but now I think I’ve got no chance. I’m wasting my time. I want to leave, want to run, but I can’t. I need the money. I desperately need the money.
I glance towards the counter. Above the woman on reception there is a poster stating ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest.’ Bold text proudly announces there were ‘86 arrests last week in this area’. There are no people on this poster, but if there were, I know what they would look like. They would look like me.
One nation, I think. The Big Society.
I know the poster they’d really like to print. It would say: ‘Are you white enough to live here? If not, fuck off back to Bongo Bongo Land.’
A woman emerges from the interview rooms and shuffles towards the exit without looking up. I can tell things didn’t go well for her. She is followed shortly by one of the staff: a grey-haired white bloke.
There is also a Chinese woman doing interviews. It’s already half an hour after my appointment, and both she and Grey Hair have each come out a couple of times since I arrived. I’ve been watching them very carefully.
I hope I get the Chinese lady. She seems relaxed, if a little tired. The grey-haired guy is like a coiled spring.
He calls out a name and the twitchy bloke opposite stands up. He walks towards the interview rooms, following Grey Hair, who has barely looked at him. Part of me is pleased that Grey Hair is now occupied, as I must surely be due in next, but the part of me that reads people knows something bad is about to happen.
The Chinese lady comes out again and I sit up straighter in my chair, willing my name to be called. It isn’t.
More people drift in and take up the empty spaces on the benches. There has to be a dozen people in here, and the only one talking is a woman in the corner trying to stop her toddler from kicking off. But, to me, there is a growing cacophony in the room, ratcheting up my anxiety. They ain’t saying anything, but I can sense all of their tension, anger, fear and hurt.
I have always been able to gauge people’s true states of mind, regardless of what their faces or their words are trying to say. I can read their expressions, their micro-gestures, their body language, the tone of their voices. It comes so naturally that it took me a long time to realise other people didn’t see all these things too.
Sometimes it’s a blessing, but right now they might as well be shouting at me. I am in a room full of desperation, all of it telling me that my efforts here are doomed.
I hear a growing sound of male voices dampened only slightly by thin walls. One is getting increasingly angry, the other low but insistent, authoritative. One rising up, the other not backing down.
Unstoppable force, immovable object. I hear a clattering, what sounds like a chair skidding across the floor. An alarm sounds and suddenly members of staff I have never seen appear from side offices and rush towards the interview room. One of them is a security guard. I hear several thumps, the sound of feet on furniture, voices raised in rage, in command, in panic. Someone shouts, demanding that the twitchy man calm down. This is like trying to put out a fire with lighter fluid.
I am terrified. I feel the tears running down my cheeks. I want to leave but I know that if my name gets called and I’m not there, I’ve blown it.
The shouting grows louder, the twitchy man’s angry words degenerating into nothing but roaring, which itself gives way to a low moan as his rage exhausts itself. He is led out shortly afterwards.
He looks numb and dazed, like he barely knows where he is. He is crying.
Grey Hair stands watching him retreat for a few moments, letting out a long sigh and supporting himself with a firm hand against a doorframe. Someone asks him if he wants a break. He shakes his head. He definitely does need a break, but I can tell that what he wants is to unload his frustrations, to exercise his power. He disappears into the interview room then comes out again a few seconds later.
‘Samantha Morpeth,’ he barks out.
WANT YOU GONE is available in hardback and ebook from 20th April 2017.
The eighth book in the Jack Parlabane series, from author Christopher Brookmyre.
The award-winning, million-selling author of Black Widow brings a twist-filled story of secrets and lies.
What if your deepest secret was revealed?
Sam Morpeth is growing up way too fast, left to fend for a younger sister when their mother goes to prison and watching her dreams of university evaporate. But Sam learns what it is to be truly powerless when a stranger begins to blackmail her.
Who would you turn to?
Meanwhile, reporter Jack Parlabane has finally got his career back on track, but his success has left him indebted to a volatile, criminal source. Now that debt is being called in, and it could cost him everything.
What would you be capable of?
Thrown together by a vindictive and mysterious mutual enemy, Sam and Jack are about to discover they might be each other's only hope.