“Do not move a muscle.”
The muzzle of a pistol pierced the darkness, lamplight reflecting off it.
It slowly moved towards him, bringing with it a steady hand, index finger poised over the trigger. Behind it, an arm, and then a man appeared, half-naked.
“Identify yourself,” said the man with a gun.
“Hold on. Allow me to laugh first,” the visitor chuckled.
“William,” said the other man, slightly exasperated, as he lowered his gun and guard.
“Sorry about that. I knocked but I heard no response. I thought you might have crept out again. Anyway, I was going to leave this file here,” said William, holding up a dark red file.
“What is it?” enquired the man. It was the first time he had been approached with a Dark Red. He had heard about them. However, after clocking so many years, the Dark Red classification had become nothing but a mere tale. So, this was a surprise. Clearly, this could not be good.
“I was hoping I would not be the one to deliver this information. Honestly, I was hoping that this would never happen.”
“Or even the dead of night.”
“Get to the point Wordsworth.”
William’s associate turned on a floor lamp, illuminating two oxford blue armchairs facing each other across a round wooden table. A second table, hosting five glasses and a whisky decanter, lay on the divide of shadow and light.
William sat on one of the chairs as he was poured a glass.
“Original,” responded William.
His comment was met with a glare.
“Right. Well, take a sip if you would like to spit it out for dramatic effect.”
“Get to the point.”
The glaring continued but softened with curiosity. If there was any concern, it was well hidden.
There was no response. William decided to continue.
“Satellite is compromised.”
“Satellite was taken out of orbit, by force.”
There was still no response.
“Edan. For goodness sake, say something!”
“Who’s doing?” Edan replied calmly.
“Who else could it be?” said William, frustrated now.
“Where is Satellite now?”
Edan leaned back. He knew Satellite’s whereabouts were unknown. He was simply looking to find out what was being done about it.
“Jed is in the pipes.”
“Good choice. When will we hear from him?”
“And how long has it been?”
“We have an hour before he is off the radar for good. You know them.”
“All too well,” said Edan, getting up, glass in hand. He had not even taken a sip.
For a short while, things were silent. Edan tapped his glass as he gazed out of the window, through the tree line, at the lake as it shimmered in the moonlight. William stared at the floor, a little afraid. But he knew Edan had a plan.
“ I do not have a plan,” voiced Edan.
‘Fuck me,’ William thought.
Edan glanced at his colleague.
“Hand me the file.”
The file was suspiciously light.
Edan flipped it open.
It was empty.
Edan looked at William as if this were a joke.
“Does the Dark Red classification even exist?”
“This is one of three files classified under that colour,” confirmed William.
“And are the other two as informative as this one?”
“The other two are the largest files we have. They each have their own rooms.”
“Amusing. So this one here…Satellite…was this always like this?”
“Then that means – ”
“– Exactly,” William interjected.
Edan breathed heavily.
“We’re not going to do anything. This was too careful. We had nothing on Satellite. There was no way they could have got to him through us. We don’t even know where he has been all this while. Hell, we were the only two who knew he was still even alive! They are definitely prepared for any move and lack of it, on our part.”
“So you expect us to sit tight and shit our pants as Satellite plummets?” asked an annoyed William.
“Calm down William. I expect us to sit tight, yes. Let the mouse scout. Let us see what he picks up. As far as I am sure, no harm shall befall Satellite. As far as I am concerned, he will end up here, sooner or later. This is definitely written.”
William gulped down his whisky, placed his glass on the table, and stood up.
“You sound like a pretentious oracle who couldn’t give a shit. In your eyes, everyone has their lines. All right then Jacques!” he spat.
He stormed out with an expression of disgust.
Edan stared at the door, unmoved. He wasn’t bewildered. He expected this.
He took a sip and turned his focus on the view through his window.
“Everything is written.”
A cold wind blew.
The bag was pulled off.
Someone began a slow-clap.
“Marvelous job, Satellite. Absolutely brilliant.”
It was too dark to see anything.
“Or should I call you by your real name?”
The voice was definitely coming from somewhere inside the room. Judging by the echoes, it was fairly large.
“Thomas, was it?”
‘Clearly, this person has walked out of Cliché-ville.’
“No. That’s not right.”
‘The 12:15 for Confident Recognition is right on schedule.’
“It’s been a long time.”
Light flooded the room. It was cavernous. It was empty; save for two men and their guest, the latter being bound to a chair.
The man who had been speaking wore a white shirt, sleeves rolled up, with black pants and brown formal shoes. His shirt was half-tucked in and half-out.
The second man was in a suit with a loose-fitting blazer, to conceal an intriguing amount of weaponry.
Their guest had been put in a hoodie and jeans. He was barefoot though. His own clothes had been burned sometime back.
“Quinn?” asked the guest, a little confused.
“Have you forgotten?”
“Umm…I think you have the wrong guy.”
“Maybe you should stop thinking then. I am never wrong.”
The third man failed to suppress a grin, releasing a snort that welcomed a scowl.
“Do you have something to contribute to this gathering, Jacob?” spat the first man.
“No sir,” was the immediate response.
“Good. Now, Quinn, I find it difficult to believe that you have forgotten me – ”
“No. It’s just that I honestly have no idea who you are. And, you have a mistaken idea about who I am,” his guest interjected.
“And, my name is actually Arthur. Arthur Bard.”
The first man paused, facing away from his guest.
“Well then, Actually Arthur, perhaps a little reminder…”
With that, he took off his shirt.
“Woah, Mate! I don’t do this on first dates. And, I have a girlfriend. Maybe we should grab a bite, watch a movie, or go bowling. Then we can see how things go from there. We can be friends,” proposed his guest.
“Friends…Family…meaningless,” muttered the first man to himself, before speaking out loud.
“How are you not afraid?”
“Well, I am, it’s just that I use humour as a form of self-defense.”
“Okay then, Chandler.”
The man turned around. His front was peppered with the scars of bullet wounds. His skin was a deathly white, with pockets of red around each wound. His right chest was partially distorted with never-to-recover burn marks.
His guest was now – if not earlier – incredibly afraid.
“Look…I honestly don’t know who you are. I don’t know why I’m here. Please…”
“Does your head hurt? Can you recall anything now?”
His voice got louder.
“Tell me you remember, goddammit! Tell me that you fucking remember!”
His guest was witless. Not a sound issued forth from the tied man’s slightly parted lips. His eyes, however, were wide, and his body delicately shivered with fear.
“How can you sit there, after seeing what you did, and not remember? How?”
“Sir,” attempted Jacob, “You need to calm down.”
“Don’t tell me what to do, you bloody half-wit!”
Jacob backed off.
“Please…you have the wrong guy! Just let me go home! Please…I beg you!”
“Quinn. Thomas. Arthur. Satellite. I don’t give a shit what you call yourself. Whoever you are now, it doesn’t matter. That person doesn’t really exist,” he said, steadily calming, “There are not enough layers in the world to cover up who you were; who you truly are. You are laundry: seemingly insignificant, but with time, you rise up enough to truly need sorting out. Except, you were hidden in a room of a mansion, every room of which was locked, and all the keys were unmarked and on a chain. But I found the key. And here you are. Try erasing yourself from this situation. I’ll tell it to you now: you can’t. You never will.”
He paced around the chair before halting in his guest’s direct line of sight.
“I am going to keep you here until you remember every single detail. I am going to keep you here until you torture yourself with every second that you forgot. I am going to keep you here until you kill yourself for me.”
He smiled. It was menacing. His face was thin and as white as his body. He had prominent jawbones. The host’s brown hair was slick and parted. There was a small streak of grey hair that stood out near the front. His face was clean-shaven. His brown eyes glinted.
He would have once been considered quite handsome. But something had changed. And that change, however difficult to believe, happened overnight. The atmosphere around him was cold. His face told a story.
It was a story no one wanted to read.
“You may get him some water,” he said, gesturing to Jacob, while he put his shirt on again.
The host turned around and headed towards a door, dimly outlined by a light from outside.
“The name is Henry, by the way, Henry Colfer. That is a name you cannot afford to forget.”
At the entrance he stopped. He began tapping his fingers against the frame, as if playing a piano. He turned and stared at his tied-up guest. Henry’s face wore an indiscernible expression, the shadows adding to the difficulty.
He opened his mouth to speak.
As he breathed in, he reconsidered. He ran his tongue along the inside of his teeth, and exited, shutting the door behind him.
Outside, an elderly man in a waistcoat and trousers handed him his jacket and a gun.
“You should be glad you did not take your gun in,” claimed the elderly gentleman.
“Oh, I’m glad,” replied Henry.
He put on his jacket and adjusted it.
“It would not have been satisfying enough.”
It was daytime. No one liked daytime at the Workshop. In fact, when the sun was up, not a soul would be in sight. It was only once the sun had nestled into the horizon that the world woke up; or at least, their world.
Jed paced. His stopwatch had ticked past twenty-four in the hour slot. It had never ticked past three. His record time was seventeen minutes and forty-one seconds.
He had looked. He had listened. The pipes had not peeped, much less, sung. As far as he was concerned, twenty-one hours ago, this was a lost battle. But, the folks on Floor 7 had given him orders.
He hated orders.
“This Satellite chap’d better be worth the work,” he muttered to himself.
Jed was a big guy. He was more round than muscular. Then again, his strength lay in his brainpower. He was one of the smartest Couriers at the ‘shop. He could get anything, anywhere, at anytime.
Except right now. Right now was proving to be a pain in the ass. Jed hated pains in the ass.
Twelve of his Errand Boys had returned empty-handed. There was one left. And he was late, twenty-one hours late, to be precise.
‘Thirteenth time’s the charm.’
He sat down. He was in an express mail center, one of the many fronts for the ‘shop. Express mail centers were what Couriers usually used as they were convenient. In addition to that, they were well versed with the workings of these centers, adding to them authenticity while being able to run them as legitimate businesses.
Jed cracked his knuckles, straightened his blue shirt, and adjusted his jeans. Despite being round, he was quite fit. He pushed back his dark hair and scratched his chin.
‘I need to shave.’
He glanced towards the door.
“Where is he?” he thought out loud.
Within a few seconds, a young lad, wearing a flat cap, a grey round-neck t-shirt under a chequered shirt, and jeans, drifted into view on a bicycle. As he hopped off, he threw his cycle to the ground, and stumbled in.
He was bloody, grimy and bruised.
“What the hell did you poke your nose into?”
“Uh…” sputtered the boy.
“You’re twenty one hours late!”
The boy fell back into a chair. He took a few minutes to catch his breath. Jed, a little annoyed, was nonetheless worried. He handed the boy a glass of water.
The boys had names. However, Jed had assigned them all numbers in order to maintain a sense of privacy as well as to establish a layer of security in case there was any trouble. His true reason for number assigning was he did not want to get attached. He had once regarded the Errand Boys under him – to an extent – as his children. But one time, he paid the price. Since then, professionalism took over. The only relationship that now remained was that of student and mentor. This was his ninth batch. He had started out like them, but he rose quickly up. He could have gone farther, but he found Couriering to be his calling.
This boy’s designation was Six.
The boy looked up. He was clearly shaken. His pupils quivered in a bad hangover of fear.
Jed felt a little bad for being so hard on him earlier. Six was thirteen years old, the youngest of the batch. He also happened to be the best. But Jed knew such a dangerous encounter was to come sooner or later. Six’s had just happened earlier than had been expected.
“Six, tell me, what happened?”
It took a few minutes.
Then he spoke.
“I followed my Markers…”
Markers were persons of interest. Each Errand Boy had three Markers that they were charged with shadowing over the course of their training to be a Courier.
“I followed Six-One to the airport. He left on a flight to India. There was no way he did not get on that plane. As for the other two, you won’t believe it.”
“What?” enquired Jed.
“Six-O and Six-Two are on the same side.”
“That cannot be,” Jed exclaimed in disbelief.
“They are! I followed Two, right? And he met up with O. I was as shocked as you are. I thought they worked for different families. But they aren’t! O is definitely an informant for Two. It just didn’t surface till now. O was giving Two updates that could only be insider information.
Anyway, I followed them. They were talking in hush tones. They went into this hotel, The Wright Dawn, and I snuck in after them. They got a private conference room that was guarded. I managed to get to its window after creeping outside again. They left the room eventually after chatting for sometime. I couldn’t understand exactly what they were saying. They seemed to be discussing dancing or something. Some first step had come off exactly as directed, the music had begun, steps two and three had to come in quick succession, and there was some whisk and chase…I have no clue what they were up to. Anyway, they left the room and I got in. I was lucky to find this paper. My luck ran out when they walked in on me. Two fired shots. I don’t know how, but three grazed me.
I ran really fast.
I was scared. They chased me all across town to a construction site, swearing at the top of their lungs. At the site, I hid in the muck and did some crazy SAS camouflage. They almost got me. They scoured for hours. They left someone behind in case I emerged. I could hear them cursing. I managed to get myself into a good hiding spot between pipes and this hole in the ground. Eventually I dosed off. Only two hours ago was the coast clear but I didn’t feel safe until forty odd minutes ago. Even then I was careful. And now I’m here.”
“Quite the adventure.”
Six gulped and nodded in agreement.
Six had calmed down. He was still shaken from the experience but over the course of his narration, a little excitement had subdued the fear.
“If the information you have acquired does the job for us, then you may just as well graduate.”
Six smiled half-heartedly and handed Jed a slip of crumpled wet paper.
Three words were typed across it:
OPERATION WRITER’S BLOCK
But that wasn’t what caught Jed off guard.
In the corner of the slip, there was a crest, quite faded. The image in the shield was clearer than the rest. There was a wolf holding up a quill.
The boy looked at him.
“I’m not apologizing.”
“I know,” said Six.
Jed stared at the paper.
“This is bad. This is very bad.”
“So…do I graduate, or what?”
It did not look like it was going to let anytime soon. That came as no surprise. It poured every other day. The cobblestones were coated in puddles. It was cold. The rain formed multiple ripples as it bore down. The sky was grey, clouds lined in black, as if someone had run charcoal over them. In the distance, the sky growled, seemingly alive. There was going to be a thunderstorm. She was sure of it.
She was standing outside the door of a mansion. It was centuries old. What was more impressive than that was the fact that it had been home to the greatest crime family since its construction nearly three hundred years ago. It was glorious, and in this weather, intimidating. The dark atmosphere added to its personality. She could not clearly make out the entire structure, but she had been here enough times to picture it in her head.
It was somewhere between a mansion and a castle. The plot was very large. Lawns sprawled behind it. There were two tennis courts, a badminton court, a covered pool, a small football field and more than enough lawn to host a party of four to five thousand people. Tall brick walls ran around the entire estate, on top of which a hedge ran, encasing electric barbed wire. There was one giant black gate that led to a curved driveway. A garage housing forty-two cars lay out of view, behind the mansion. Ornaments, flowers, and hedge decorated the landscape. The family had always been strict about appearances. The gardens and lawns were tended to with great care. When the sun was out, it was a delight to spend time roaming, picnicking, and sleeping outside.
When it came to the structure itself, it was brilliant. The family had called up on the expertise of the finest architects when it was first constructed. Ever since then, the finest architects were always called upon for renovation and expansion.
The mansion spanned three floors and had two basement levels. There were about eighty rooms. She could not remember exactly. The walls had initially been made of grey stone, but with renovation, it was brown. It had a feeling of both old and modern about it.
The façade projected towards the driveway on either side. From a bird’s eye view, it looked like the letter C, if it consisted of three straight lines. For some reason, it reminded her of Versailles. Though the latter was a lot more posh. This home had a grounded feeling about it. Then again, this was because of familiarity. A stranger, on the other hand, like she was on her first visit, would be quaking at the entry.
It had taken time, but the family’s reputation preceded it. And like their home, it was a mighty one.
She stood before two sturdy doors, carved onto which was letter C. She had rung the bell. Now she was waiting. It had been a long time since she had last walked up these stairs, and faced this door. They had once been friendly. But they were no more.
She adjusted her overcoat. When she had heard, she had immediately slammed the phone down. She did not want to believe it. She did not want to be a part of it. Long ago, she had pushed everything to the back of her mind. She did not want to be here. Yet she had done what they had requested of her. And here she stood.
Someone began to unlock the door.
The doors opened slightly. There was a figure hidden in the shadows of the interior.
“The other two?” probed the silhouette.
“Taken care of,” confirmed the woman. She had a French accent.
The silhouette let her in. There was little lighting. After some adjustment of the eyes, she discerned the silhouette to be an elderly gentleman. He beckoned her to follow her in a made-to-fit waistcoat and trousers. He was the butler. He had been for four decades now.
She followed him down several corridors. They were heading underground.
After a few minutes of walking, they stopped outside a door.
“He is inside. Of course, he is not expecting you.”
If that was meant to be a joke, she did not find it funny.
She tensed before she placed her hand on the door handle. This was not like her. She possessed a very solid personality. She took a deep breath, and entered.
His head hung low. He was sweating and shivering. They had taken away his clothes. At a gradual pace, they had begun altering the room temperature from freezing to boiling and back. It had taken a toll on him.
At the sound of the door opening, he violently shook.
He looked up. There were tears in his eyes. He could not remember how long he had been here. Everything else, however, he remembered.
He was one of the greatest Smiths there had ever been. He had achieved a great deal at a very young age. He remembered his family. He remembered every word he wrote. He remembered his friends and his mentors. He remembered his emblem, his coat of arms, and his favourite pen. His success rate, before he left, had been the highest in decades. He remembered every plan he had written. He thought he was okay. He was actually brilliant.
His name was Quinn.
At first, he could not make her out. But as his eyes came into focus, he caught his breath.
“Regarde ce que la mort a vomis,” she said.
“Mais, pourquoi es-tu ici?” he stuttered.
“Tu as oublié,” she laughed, disappointedly.
She looked him up and down. She was both pleased and concerned. She would never have thought that she would see him again. That day, as much as she would have prayed for him to be alive, she had quickly accepted that he was gone forever.
Before she could remind him of what he seemed to have forgotten, a man burst into the room. Henry.
“You filthy liar! You do remember! And, what about ‘It is written?’ Maktub. Do you remember? All of us – every guild was founded on that belief. There is a myth, that there was one who rose above Maktub, commanded it, moulded it to his wishes. You may think smiths, tailors, engineers – whatever you call them – write their own. But even they are governed by Maktub.
As for you, well, you’re special.
Do you remember that?”
He did not wait for a response.
“Of course you do. Everyone always told you that you were special. Well then, it’s time you learned why you are here. You’re going to work for me. You are going to do everything I tell you. You know why? Because if you don’t, then every one you’re close to will get a bullet through the heart.”
On the wall opposite Quinn, several live recordings appeared. There were people from his true past and people from his current life.
“Emily,” whispered Quinn.
“That’s right. Emily,” smirked Henry, “Though, we’ll save her for the grand finale.”
Quinn’s eyes widened with fear. His exterior read broken. But inside he was determined to end this, once and for all. He was going to kill Henry. But he was going to take his sweet time.
“Maktub,” he whispered to himself, “And I am going to pen it.”
Henry laughed hysterically while exiting the room.
“You may have your privacy now.”
As the door shut, Quinn turned to Diane, quivering in rage and fear.
“Et, pourquoi es-tu ici?”
“T’as baisé la mort, et tu ne pouvais pas t’enfuir assez loin,” she wanted to say.
Instead she chose not to. She could not bring herself to believe that even after remembering so much, he could not remember such an important thing.
She steeled herself and reminded him. The words she spoke softened the pain in his eyes and eased his pressured heart and mind. He remembered now. He really did.
“Jusqu’à ce que mort nous sépare.”