Nothing is going to come between George Sanderson and a quiz. Not even gunfire, sirens and a baying mob. His eyeline shifts from the live TV scenes to the window, as if to confirm the events aren’t playing out on his street. The world is an uncertain place these days and it pays to be aware of your situation at all times. But Buckinghamshire folk don’t go in for that kind of thing. Unless, perhaps, a proposed bypass, solar farm or Amazon warehouse threatened a chunk of beloved green belt and a rare species of orchid. Besides, he concludes, the torrential rain would have kept them indoors.
He switches channels from the twenty-four-hour news to the cosy world of game shows. And the potential danger to George’s wellbeing, already filed in his cerebral cortex under Not My Problem, is averted.
While he waits for a commercial break to end, he opens his laptop and selects the ChessManiac app. A chess board fills the screen, a game in progress.
‘Your move,’ says a calm, neutral male voice.
George finds the instruction irritating. He’s well aware it’s his turn and doesn’t need his digital opponent to remind him. He pops a boiled sweet into his mouth and studies the board.
‘If you are struggling, I can enable hints. Would you like me to enable hints?’ That voice again.
‘Good grief, give me a chance,’ says George. ‘I’m thinking. And no, I don’t need your hints any more, thank you very much. I’m not a child.’
George slides his knight into what he believes is a confident attacking position.
‘Now let’s see what you––’
‘Really? Really?!’ George sucks hard on his sweet, assessing the situation. His tactic isn’t looking quite so clever. The TV screen comes to his rescue, exploding with sparkling computer graphics over a brash theme tune. He collapses the laptop with a shrug and settles back into the chair.
But even as the quiz show’s slick presenter introduces the contestants, the riot in a minor African republic shows no signs of going away. A rabid horde, accompanied by two ancient British-built armoured vehicles, surges towards the presidential palace – a half-size replica of the White House. Placards, many written in English, read like slogans from a bygone age: Punish the corrupt! Our land is raped! Death to foreign interference! Mines for the people, not the filthy infiltrators!
As a news camera pans across the mob, a slight, dark suited Asian man, briefcase in hand, can be seen slipping away against the tide of rage. He glances in the direction of the lens and doesn’t look happy. Why would he? Eighteen months negotiating a mega natural-resources deal for his employer, a mining corporation based in one of those huge Chinese cities no one’s ever heard of, and just twenty-four hours for it all to fall apart.
A loyal soldier with a death wish confronts the horde. The crack of a single rifle shot rings out. A protester falls to the ground. After a momentary pause in the chanting, the rioters bay for the soldier’s blood and stream forward like a shoal of starving piranha. He disappears beneath their stamping feet. With far better judgement, his ill-equipped colleagues throw off their vintage helmets and join the crowd as it approaches the palace gates. A loud metallic clatter breaks through the din. The rioters stop, turn their attention to the sky. A helicopter that looks fit for the scrap heap rises from behind the domed roof.
Goodbye, Mr President. So long to your share of a billion-dollar cobalt deal.
The Asian man leaves for the airport in the back of a taxi, expression impassive as he barks into his mobile. Before he takes off on a private jet to an uncertain future, he’s going to make someone else equally unhappy.
Four thousand miles away, uncertainty is filling the thoughts of another Englishman who is not watching a quiz show. In front of him are two computer screens, one showing a live stream of the riot, the other displaying some kind of financial statement. It’s the latter that’s holding his attention – the former is too painful to watch. Keen eyes are fixed on a particular column of figures that for the past hour have been far too static. Despite refreshing the web browser again and again, the numbers refuse to budge. The man is all too aware that it’s something numbers do unless, like obstinate children, someone plays with them. He starts tapping his fingers in random rhythmic patterns on the desk.
In his opinion, he’d fulfilled everything the mining company had hired him for – to discredit the increasingly popular opposition leader prior to an impending election. After hacking the bank accounts of a notorious local gangster he’d transferred the money into the politician’s personal account. To complete the scam, he sent an anonymous message to the press leaking the politician’s corruption.
It wasn’t his fault that a Dutch undercover reporter had recorded a damning conversation between a Chinese fixer and the president’s right-hand man. During it, they’d struck an agreement to give the President himself a valuable cut of the cobalt revenues in return for long-term mining rights at a knockdown price. Within hours of the news breaking, the sizeable opposition on the streets is now making its feelings clear.
For the Englishman, the situation is critical. The balance of his fee – $250k – has yet to be paid. The finger tapping continues, joined by knee trembling and intermittent shushing through pursed lips. When his patience runs out, he puts the unruly fingers to good use and sends a message to his contact.
There’s a three-minute pause before he receives an unequivocal response.
$0. Failure to deliver.
He thumps the desk so hard a pen rolls to the edge, teeters, and falls to the antique Persian rug beneath his feet.
Beyond my control, he types. Your security was lax.
Failure to deliver, comes the immediate reply.
Impasse. He can’t push back without risking his own life. These people are powerful, and wouldn’t hesitate to silence him if that’s what it took. Still, he’d earlier scribbled down the reporter’s name and the Dutchman would soon join the list of past troublemakers, non-payers and last-minute re-negotiators upon whom he’d wreaked dire retribution. While he viewed vengeance as a poor substitute for cash, it went some way towards redressing the balance.
He checks his watch and saunters over to an oak sideboard on top of which sits a half-full decanter and a single whisky tumbler. He pours a generous measure and downs it in one. Berating himself for a tragic waste of a good malt, he pours another. This time the liquid lingers on his tongue while a warm, cosy sensation builds in his stomach. It’s been a long day. A long year, even. He yawns, his mouth revealing a gold tooth adorned with a sparkling globule of spittle. It’s time for some fresh air.
As Goldtooth walks towards to the double doors, he contemplates the Tudor-style ceiling. Intricate lattice work crafted in oak, and gilded. Each panel is decorated with a starry sky. It’s not the real thing, but he imagines the pleasure this perfect copy has brought to all those who’ve owned this house. The thought has a calming effect. His home, when he considers it, is the only part of his life that offers him contentment these days.
Even the sensation of winning had lost some of its potency over the past few years. Decades of tension, subterfuge, multiple identities, and the constant threat of discovery by Interpol and those he’d victimised, had left their scars. Any friends were long gone, that’s if they were ever real friends. Women arrived, women departed. No children, at least none that he knows of.
He unlocks the doors and steps out onto a terrace bathed in the burnt ochre of a sun preparing to dip below the distant trees. Long, hard shadows from the vine-covered pergola form a distorted checkerboard on the Yorkstone paving. He skips from one space to another, avoiding the lines as if re-enacting a child’s playground game. The moment is bittersweet, and he wishes he could share its simple joy with someone. Is this what it feels like, he asks himself, to be alone? To be detached from the rest of humanity in his mid-fifties. The next few decades looked bleak. Detecting a moistening in the eyes and a lump in his throat, he tries to banish the thought from his mind. It’s a sign of weakness and that would never do.
Perhaps I should take a sabbatical, he thinks, return to work refreshed? He’d spent more than half of the past three years away from his beloved home. Wouldn’t it make sense to kick back and enjoy it for a while without the stress of single-handedly juggling complex projects? Money isn’t an issue, so what’s stopping him?
The challenge, though, would be to find something to fill his days. What do normal people do? Don’t they just jog along from day to day, hypnotised by routine? Work, watch TV, shop, play golf, go to the gym, the pub, the same sunny holiday destination year after year. Sheep. Where’s the ambition? A week of this nonsense would drive him crazy, let alone a few months.
What he needs is an activity that involves his heart as much as his mind. To forge a new, meaningful relationship, perhaps. Start a business. Write his memoirs. Maybe donate some time to a worthwhile cause. He pauses at the latter. It would bring him good karma, a part down-payment to readdress the chaos and terror he’d reaped on his victims over the years. Karma offset. Still, no rush to decide right now. The best ideas always float to the top if you give them some air.
‘Spare the price of a sandwich, please?’ The fag and booze voice is thirty years older than the man it belongs to, and comes with a tinge of hopelessness.
George interrupts his study of the pattern of sprinkled chocolate on his cappuccino and looks up. A damp begging hand invades his personal space. The hand is attached to a damp hooded man. Worse, he has in tow a damp dog of indeterminate breed that’s licking George’s suede shoes, cleaned only this morning. George wishes there’d been an empty table inside the coffee shop when he arrived. Sitting outside, behind the waterfall that pours over the awning, he’s a sitting duck.
He clears his throat and opens his mouth to say something. Then closes it. His gaze moves from the hand to an unfixed point somewhere above and to the left of him. George’s fifty-eight-year-old hard drive is processing, and it won’t be hurried.
Then he says, ‘Hmm. Do you play a musical instrument?’
The man, unprepared for the question, raises his eyebrows.
‘Or perhaps you can sing or do a magic trick? Take it from me, it would give some value to your potential benefactors.’
There’s undecipherable muttering from behind an unkempt beard.
‘I’m only trying to help. It’s like those third world charities who don’t use their donor’s hard earned cash to buy food for poor people. It’s all about encouraging them to grow their own. Makes sense if you think about it.’
The man perks up. ‘I could tell you a joke, mate,’ he says with new found optimism. ‘A sandwich walks into a bar and the bartender says sorry, we––’
George holds up his hand and looks pleased with himself. ‘We don't serve food here.’
The man’s shoulders slump and his sleeping bag slips into a puddle on the pavement.
‘Here,’ George says, reaching into his trouser pocket and fishing out assorted coins to the value of twenty-six pence. ‘We’re both in the same boat, really. No job and all that.’
The begging hand fails to collect the donation as if to say it’s not worth the effort.
‘To be honest, that’s a pretty good return for an old chestnut, you know. As I tried to explain, it’s all about value for money.’
‘You want me to do half an hour’s fuckin’ stand up for you, then? Twat.’
He shuffles off to the next table where a slight, well-dressed man has a twenty-pound note in his hand, ready and waiting. Although George can only see the back of this man’s head, he can imagine an expression of such revolting smugness it almost causes him to gag.
‘Cheers, mate,’ says the homeless man. ‘You’re a gent.’ He swivels around to throw a fuck you grin at George.
‘Good luck,’ says Goldtooth.
‘Mug,’ says George under his breath, and turns his attention back to the homeless man. He can’t be that hard up if he can afford to keep a dog. It’s all about living within your means. His logic triggers a painful pang of guilt, and the coffee, despite being constructed to George’s exacting specifications, holds no joy for him anymore. He knows he’s the last person to lecture others about living within your means. After no income for six months, his savings have taken a terrible battering. He’s about to leave when the man with more money than sense turns to face him.
‘It’s a problem, isn’t it,’ says Goldtooth.
‘That man who was begging. Hard to believe we still have homeless people here in the twenty-first century.’
George wonders whether to engage. He doesn’t want a public argument about begging. On the other hand, he agrees with what the man has said. ‘I blame it on the councils for lack of social housing, and successive governments for lack of funds. Mind you, there are jobs to be had, so the homeless aren’t totally blameless.’ Has he gone too far?
‘All fair points. It’s good to hear people’s views on such complex matters. Do you live nearby?’
There follows the longest conversation George has had with anyone for months. And despite his earlier snap judgement, he revises his opinion of the chatty man. Intelligent, a good listener, interested in others. When George leaves the café, it dawns on him he’s missed human company. Any company, for that matter. He even wonders if he should buy a dog. The idea is dismissed in an instant because of the running costs. Then he castigates himself for being irrational. Get a grip, George. Get a grip.
He fails to spot Goldtooth following him at a discreet distance. And even if he had, he would have thought nothing of it. They’d got on so well, they’d exchanged email addresses.
Earlier, sitting outside the café, Goldtooth had been pondering on ways to punish the Dutchman for his damaging exposé. A week after the events in Africa, the story was still running and the journalist’s status was increasing daily. Word had it he might be up for some kind of international award. Goldtooth isn’t troubled with this. The higher his achievement, the more spectacular his fall would be.
His musings, though, had been interrupted by the behaviour of the thoughtless idiot on the next table. He could barely believe what he witnessed. Asking a homeless person to perform for money as if he was some kind of Victorian fairground freak? What new breed of pettiness was that? Unwelcome memories resurfaced: scavenging through supermarket bins, freezing shop doorways, invisibility.
And there it was. The distraction his new sabbatical had been screaming out for. If only that insufferable man knew what suffering is – when your life starts to slide away and no amount of pumping the brakes will slow it. What a game this could be. No risk, no pressure, and with all the time he needed to get creative, to push some boundaries, to enjoy the journey. It wouldn’t be the karma balancing act he’d envisaged, but that was his head talking again. Maybe he should give his heart a chance. See what it could do. But first things first, and that always meant research.
He followed his prey to the multi-storey car park on the ring road. As George drove off, he noted the car’s registration number on his mobile. Then he copied it onto a text and sent it to a high-ranking police officer who owes him a favour.
The information he needed arrived ten minutes later.
42 Claremont Avenue
That would have been enough for Goldtooth, but there was more. Some bonus features.
02771 611 347
And a comment from the sender.
The guy’s a pain in the arse but no record. Always complaining about speeding cars and noisy kids.
This is almost too easy, thought Goldtooth. He pinged back a quick reply.
Let me know ASAP if anything else turns up.
Once home, he settled in front of a computer and downloaded an image of a British ex-Prime Minister in magisterial pose. He sniggered, one hundred percent certain he’d judged George’s character correctly. With Beethoven’s Ninth thundering in the background on repeat, he carried on working until dawn. When his work was done, he reviewed and tested it across multiple electronic devices. Satisfied, he sent an email to George and headed off to bed, confident that by the time he woke up his target’s life would be laid bare before him.
Karma could wait. Game on.
There’s something insidious lurking in the nether regions of George’s laptop. If only he knew it. A string of code as long as your arm has allowed remote access by another computer. The hacking began with an innocuous email that arrived in his inbox at 6 a.m. today. Purportedly from a major consumer website, it contained the kind of invitation a certain type of person can’t ignore.
FREE EBOOK: 10 EFFECTIVE WAYS TO COMPLAIN ABOUT ANYTHING. CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD!
George clicks the inviting button. Within a nanosecond, the code secretes itself within the laptop’s system software.