Business As Usual

The hand on the shoulder. ‘If you’ll just come this way, sir.’ Sir. As if have a choice. I try to protest, but the hand squeezes just hard enough to make the point.

I’m led round a corner and into a café. It’s empty except for a middle-age woman behind the till and a man in a suit over in a corner. I am placed, firmly, in a chair opposite him.

‘What the Hell is this about?’ I say, with a great deal less confidence than I intend. I know exactly what this is about – there’s only one thing it could be about. ‘Who are you?’

The man opposite me smiles.

‘My identity is not relevant,’ he says, with a voice that puts my inner Marxist in a murderous mood. ‘I am here today as a representative of an individual whose identity I am sure you know, in relation to the contents of a memory stick in your possession.’

‘It’s somewhere safe,’ I say. ‘If anything happens to me—’

‘Naturally.’

He pulls a tablet from out of his jacket and places it face-up on the table. He pushes a button on the side and the screen turns on and it’s like someone just shoved an icy needle into my gut.

‘Huntfield’s Syndrome is a terrible thing.’ I recognise the hospital room, though not from the angle on the screen. ‘The treatments currently available through the National Health Service are, as I’m sure you are aware, only slightly more effective than prayer.’ Julie. Julie. ‘However, there is an option that is not available to the general public. It is technically considered experimental, but so far it has shown an eighty percent success rate.’

‘Is this a threat?’ I manage, just barely. I force myself to look up from the recording, from Julie sleeping and the doctor checking her chart.

‘No. This is an offer.’

You bastard.

‘Have you seen it? The video? Because I have, and I can’t get it out of my head.’

‘I am aware of the contents.’

‘They can’t have been older than eight. They were fucking. Terrified.’

The mask slips, just for a second – not even a second, just for a moment. The man’s bottom lip twitches. But then he breathes out of his nose.

‘Men in positions of great power are subjected to unusual and intense pressures—’

‘And that makes it all right?’ I imagine myself spitting the words and reaching across to strangle the bastard, but when it comes to it I can barely manage a whisper. Julie. Oh, God.

‘Please consider my offer. Your daughter will be given the very best medical care, she will have every chance of a full recovery—’

‘Fuck you,’ I say, surprising myself. ‘How dare you. How dare you use Julie’s condition as a bargaining chip to cover up your filth.’ Tears blur my vision. It would be so easy. But, if she found out, she would never forgive me – no. No. No. No.

‘Sit down,’ said the man opposite me, and then there was the hand on the shoulder. I was sat down again. The man in the suit got out a phone – a dumbphone, with real physical buttons – and dials a number.

And the doctor in the recording picks up his phone.

And it’s not a recording.

‘Hello, Tim. Yes. Yes. Yes, that’s right. Yes. I am about to pass the telephone over to an acquaintance; I would like you to explain to him the effects of neosaxitoxin, please.’

I want to scream and shout and kill. I take the phone when it’s offered to me.

‘Hullo,’ says the doctor. ‘Neosaxitoxin is a paralytic produced by certain kinds of algae. It is a major cause of seafood poisoning; in high doses it is fatal, with symptoms such as diarrhoea, abdominal pain, and respiratory failure. Administered orally, it would be virtually undetectable in the system of a sufferer of Huntingfield’s.’

He goes on at some length, describing in detail how the poison works at a cellular level. I don’t take any of it in: he’s made his point. He’s standing at the foot of Julie’s hospital bed, telling me just how easy it would be for him to kill her. He asks me – very politely – to hand the telephone back over.

‘For the avoidance of doubt: this is a threat,’ says the man in the suit, once he’s finished his conversation with the doctor.

‘You will be held to account,’ I say. I’m shaking, I feel sick, but I say it. He raises an eyebrow.

‘Perhaps, one day. Will you be the one to do it, though?’

I look at the live video on the tablet. I clench and unclench my hands. There’s no choice… no. No, there is a choice, like there always is: Julie, or those other children whose names I do not know.

‘No,’ I say.

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