John walked down the slowly quietening street. It was a pleasantly warm spring day, though the sun was now sitting at that annoying height where it was impossible to shield one’s eyes from it, and shops were preparing to close. It had been a long day, but he was still smiling widely. The meeting had gone far better than he’d expected. He couldn’t wait to get home and begin making the necessary preparations.
But he could’t fight that nagging feeling that he had forgotten something… maybe it was just paranoia. He patted his pockets to be sure. Train tickets, check… wallet, check… keys, check… phone… shit.
He immediately stopped and spun around; he must have left it on the desk after rejecting the unwelcome call from his current, soon-to-be-ex, boss.
He quickly surveyed the streets. What was the quickest way back? He’d taken the scenic route here, and his train was due to depart in just half an hour, but he was sure he could make it if he ran through the backstreets of the industrial district.
He turned right and headed down the shadow-cast alley between the postal sorting office and a carpet superstore and crossed the road, timing his dash between moving cars. He turned left at the bottom, jogging beside a very quiet road, proceeding until he passed by an abandoned grey concrete warehouse. He already felt like he was off the beaten track. This certainly wasn’t a place one would expect to find a big city flier wearing a posh suit, but he needed that phone. His whole life was on there.
He soon reached an open street, realising he had no idea where he now was. He tried to find a point of reference, but everything was so unfamiliar.
How can that be, I’m not that far off the beaten path…
The best way forwards appeared to be a narrow alley before him. Once he started up it, he realised it was much darker than it had first seemed, crushed between a discount supermarket and a massive graffiti-covered brick wall and emerged opposite a red-painted metal roller door. It was eerie; there were paths either side of the marked asphalt road before him, but buildings had been constructed either end, blocking off the road. It felt like an area that was meant for something else but had simply been forgotten.
Ahead, a little way off to the right, he saw another alley. He ran that way, turning left into a dark passage, passing beneath a concrete beam into what looked like an old car park. He narrowly skidded to a halt as a forklift carrying concrete tubes crossed his path, the driver shouting indecipherable obscenities at John as he swerved, almost losing his load.
John resumed running, heading into a multi-storey car park, annoyed to find the only way forwards was down. A panting man in a thin black jacket brushed past him as he ran the other way, glancing over his shoulder frantically. There was a single gunshot, and this man went down.
John froze in terror. What the fuck? Shit! He pressed his back against a square pillar as the shooter calmly approached his fallen target. John desperately tried to remain silent as his panic grew. The shooter passed and John carefully slipped around the pillar, keeping it between him and the gunman as he approached a ramp to the floor above. He arrived unseen at the top, only to find a dead end. A car had been parked right against the only door. What had he unwittingly walked into? Never before in his life had John wanted his phone so badly.
He crouched beneath the corner of the parapet overlooking the floor below, wondering where the hell the nearest exit was, when he spotted two men approaching from another passageway behind the killer. He guessed that was the best way out.
John waved his arms to signal them, and one spotted him. John raised his hand to his face as though holding a phone, pointing in the direction of the shooter with the other hand. He held both hands up, revealing all five digits on the left and tucking his right thumb in, pushing his hands forwards three times: nine, nine, nine.
One man didn’t react and the other looked bewildered. As they got closer, John whispered, “Call the police!”
In an instant, two shots rang out, echoing deafeningly, and the two men fell down. One was instantly silenced, the other howled in pain. Another shot stopped his moaning.
Shit! Oh shit oh shit oh shit…
“Who are you?,” the gunman called, his booming voice filling the air with an echoing malevolence. “Are you with this traitor?”
John looked around, hoping one of the few cars up here was unlocked. He could hear footsteps approaching the ramp. There was no way out, and he wasn’t brave enough to leap to the floor below.
He opened the passenger door of a black Beemer and slid inside, suddenly realising he couldn’t close the door without making a noise. He pulled it so it just caught on the catch. His heart was beating so fast he thought he was going to have a heart attack. I guess this is the price of drinking too much coffee and eating too many donuts.
Before he could crouch, a shot pierced the window and skimmed his throat. The searing pain hit him immediately and he fell across the seats, the clutch digging painfully into his side. He raised his hand to his throat and pulled it back to see it covered in blood. Oh shit…
The gunman reached the driver’s door and wrenched it open, pressing his pistol against the top of John’s head. “Who are you?,” he demanded.
John was panicking too much to answer. If only he’d paid more attention… surely it couldn’t end like this?
The shooter sighed, “Fine, whatever. If you won’t tell me, you won’t be telling anyone.”
John quickly screamed, “I’m nobody! I’m just a city worker! I only came this way because I forgot my phone!”
“Who do you work for, city boy?”
“Baldus. Well, I hope so. He seemed to like me.” For some reason he expected this revelation to seal his fate. In a way, it did.
The pressure against his head disappeared. “Humph. Baldus would never forgive me if I killed a pen-pusher. Get out of here. If he asks, tell him Jimmy has spoken to Sammy, and he agreed.”
The shooter put the gun in his shoulder-holster as he walked around the front of the car. He then took John’s hand and pulled him upright. John was clutching his throat tightly. “Let me see it,” the shooter insisted. “Relax, it’s just a graze. You’ll be fine.”
John stepped out of the car feeling faint. “I, uh… how do I get to the office from here?”
“Go out where those two guys came in, turn left onto the street and just follow it north. You can’t miss it.”
John nodded. “Okay… er, thanks.”
“Don’t mention it. Now get going. I need some answers from this guy, and it ain’t gonna be pretty. You keep on pushing the pens. Let us overheads deal with the ugly work.”
John nodded again, jogging weakly towards the exit, never taking his hand off his throat.
He didn’t want to consider what might happen if he didn’t pass the message on, not thinking clearly enough to realise he’d likely never see this man again. He guessed the message was a code, the names far too generic to be real. And what were these ‘overheads’ exactly, anyway?
Once he was back out in the fading light of day, what he’d just witnessed suddenly hit him, and he had to take a moment to sit on a low wall near the bank.
He put his head in his hands and wondered, What the hell have I gotten myself into?