Harmless Escapism – Charitable endeavours

Something about the image was wrong. Again.

Having adopted my usual camouflage, already slick with mud, I was hurtling once more towards the trees at the foot of the hill, upon which my house resided. As they imposed themselves, extending higher with each thundering step, I realised some element was distinctly out of place, though it remained elusive. For weeks, now, there had been no inconsistencies in my routine, so this disruption screamed at my cognition, barbed with inevitable danger.

No further mail had arrived at my house. No further break-ins had transpired, or had even been attempted to my knowledge. I had fallen back into ritualistic isolation, determined to channel myself into creativity without disturbance to my solitude. It was wonderful. I was largely comfortable with myself and appreciated any chance to reconnect. The difference a few days of measured contemplation delivered to my psyche was astonishing, though would undoubtably be forgotten once the ardours of civilisation seeped back into my life, as a damp stain infesting rotten discordance. Evidently, it had already returned in some degree.

I suddenly realised the issue. It was selfish to have been so self-absorbed as to have initially been ignorant. The problem was the bird song. Rather, its absence.

I ran as the bleak Winter dawn laboured across the frost-bitten fields, before the translucent, white sun blinked itself into existence. Typically, the trees were alive with cheerful chirps signalling the imminent arrival of warmth, delicate squeaks warming their throats in preparation for the day’s melodies. With each run, several birds always exploded through the branches, startled by my abrupt, hustling arrival, foolishly forgetting I meant no harm. Any still slumbering experienced minor cardiac episodes. I was probably doing them a favour. The early bird, and all that.

Except today, they were all gone. The trees, towards which I recklessly tumbled, were bare, of not just leaves, but all the regular adornments of colour and life. At the moment I noticed, I was mid-air, with legs braced, anticipating the sloshing impact of unstable ground. It could have been nothing.

Various predators presumably occupied the woods. Anything from a fox to a hawk might have been responsible. I could have been misremembering the reliability of fickle birds, perhaps still comfortably ensconced in cosy doze.

I hit the ground and stopped, skidding with immense difficulty. The quiet desertion prickled against my skin, as the wind died, and a bizarre silence fell flat against the land. I looked to the sky, and received a blank, vacant stare. An all-consuming grey seemed to squat nonchalantly on everything that was, suffocating any hint of noise. I almost started running again.

Betrayed by a momentary glint in the pale light, my attention was directed towards a strange object partially buried in the grass.

Instinctively, I ducked, before quickly spinning, scanning the horizon. I felt violently naked, exposed, in extreme danger. Ignoring the penetrating cold, I dived into the mud, hoping to be absorbed into the dense soil. Several beats passed. Nothing.

Ultimately, I had to remind myself that, if someone wanted me dead, there would be easier ways. Hardly reassuring. I vowed to never enter a deep sleep. But I couldn’t afford to hand irrational fear complete governance over my actions. Standing slowly, I identified no immediate threats. Well, excluding one. Probably.

Unless closer inspection proved I had been mistaken. The glint might have been an ancient, metallic can, discarded by a careless passer-by. I was, however, right to be afraid.

Huddled into a snug nest of soil clumps and grass lurked a thin wire, serrated viciously at the edges, and apparently extending ten meters further in each direction, as I traced it along. A tripwire, seemingly only in the literal sense, and mercifully not attached to any explosives. Instead, each end was wound tightly around a tree, at the roots. Once before, I had encountered something similar. Stretched across a doorway, it had been attached to an alarm signal, to warn the occupants of the building I helped to raid. But this was just a wire. No strings attached.

Again, I was lost for understanding. What was the point? I mean, I would have been sent flying into the trees at full pace. Touching the wire experimentally drew blood, so I supposed it might have severed my foot or ankle. Perhaps, the intent was to leave me injured, and to hopelessly succumb to any wounds, never to be found. It was a curious method of orchestrating a murder, but I guess it might have been as effective as any.

It brought closure to the disappearance of the birds, and further insight into the mind of my antagonist. They were not a genius. They were an overly-convoluted maniac, insistent upon contrived nonsense. Assuming, of course, this most recently visitor was my unknown fan-mailer.

On the chance they were watching, or listening, I turned a slow circle, proclaiming ‘What do you want?’. I did half imagine I’d receive an answer.

Spinning another circuit, surrounded by a complete vacuum of existence, something suddenly caught my attention. I sprinted back up the hill to my house, burst inside, and was churning through the soggy earth towards the trees once again within minutes. Where I had probed the wire, my skin had been instantly penetrated, trickling blood before the sensation had even been delivered to my brain. A pool of vivid scarlet now stained the grass. It wasn’t alone.

At the base of one of the trees, where the wire met the trunk, was another, partially dried, droplet of blood. Whomever had spent so much time tormenting me had betrayed themselves, cut by the unnecessary severity of their own plan. Using the combination of cotton buds, wire cutters and a glass collected from my house, I obtained a full sample. They were definitely not a genius.

The essence of that final thought was my thinking on the drive into the city. The remainder of my morning routine had been unworthy of comment, save for the added haste born out of excitement. I was going to the police station to have the blood tested. For weeks, now, this intruder had haunted me. I had decrypted their mysterious note, to little avail. Nothing about their methods made sense. All now with the added confusion of attempted murder. I could envisage the principle – my not seeing the wire, my foot briefly sinking into the soil, catching the wire, off-setting my balance and sending me headfirst into an immovable tree. It fit with the note, too. A short piece of vacuous prose, with high-minded intent but no definitive execution.

What did they want? Only the creator could know. That is, the creator of the puzzles, not ‘The Creator’. Yeah. It was forced. Annoying.

Everything conspired to place me in a bad mood as I reached the lab technician’s office. Despite my efforts to remain inconspicuous, several people I recognised had nodded past me, which would compel me to head upstairs, to justify the visit. I didn’t feel like socialising.

At the door, confirming through the small pane that he was alone, I entered without knocking.

           “Damion.”

           “No way, Howler! How goes it, my man? It’s been too long bro, come here!”, pulling me into an awkward hug I barely reciprocated. It was uncomfortably over-familiar. That, I supposed, was the trade-off with celebrity status. He spent half his life watching my music videos and reckoned that constituted a friendship. The reality was only one of us had been present, in those hours of burgeoning affection. At least it made him easy to manipulate.

             “You know how it is. Life never stops, does it?”

             “Totally, mate. Listen, mate, if you’re free we could hang out now? Like a coffee, or a beer, mate?”

            “Before 9am? Sorry, but I’ve actually gotta run. I did, however, have a big favour to ask. This,” I exposed the blood sample, “is something pretty important to my next project. No questions why, I’m afraid. Any chance you could run it without interference from the higher-ups? Mate?”

               “Oh, yeah, mate. Of course, the usual, mate.” His childish grin was pathetic, as was the handshake he attempted, to conceal our exchange, ironically imitating an illicit drug deal from TV. He definitely did not experience enough human contact. Not my problem.

               “Cheers, Damion. Talk later”, and I departed before he could embrace me again.

My hopes of Fairfax being upstairs were shredded when I spotted his empty desk. Oh well. I decided to give the chief a quick chat.

               “Howler?”

               “Always.”

               “Well, well, well. Seem a bit teste. Something drag you out of hibernation early?”

               “I was starting to miss you. But there’s that beautiful smile we all know and love”. He was not smiling.

               “To be honest, we were missing you, too. Walked out on us. I spent a week hunting John Carter. All dead-ends. Thought we’d never see justice for Ben Moore. Until, that is, a certain Mrs. Zara Biswas came in with a full confession. Apparently, a victim of her own conscience. Know anything about that?”

               “Sounds like you got lucky. Neatly resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.”

               “Seems that way.”

            “Nothing to do with me.” Wink, wink, Vance. In an aside, just before dipping out of sight, I added, “Also, it’s Dr. Zara Biswas.”

I wondered momentarily how much of his week had been spent in pursuit of the insatiable Janice Buckingham. He had her number, after all. She occupied my brain once more, though only until my phone rang, upon exiting the building. Why I ever bothered planning my days, when the dictates of some new adventure seemed always to arrive pre-packaged. My third conversation in as many minutes. It was almost a disease.

               “Hey, Matt”

              “Hey, Vance. Listen, I didn’t want to disturb you – I actually thought I’d get voicemail. No hurry, only something interesting just happened to me.”

               “It’s no problem. You caught me at in an agreeable moment, I’m just leaving the police station. They called me in, but it was nothing.” He didn’t yet know about the emergence of my stalker.

           “Oh, awesome. Basically, I bumped into a guy I used to work with in my early construction days. Graham Sheeves. We split when he started his own charity oversees, building schools in regions of Northern Africa. Super impressive work, really. No tuition fees, all funded by the charity. Classrooms ventilated, well-staffed, provided free resources like books and pens. One of the best operations going.”

               “Sounds incredible. Unfortunately, also sounds like you might be waiting to unload the problem. If I had to guess, too expensive.”

            “Yeah, from what I gathered, that would be it. But only recently. See, he’s had a couple of great investors, covering all the costs. But it seems they’ve now fallen out, placing the charity in jeopardy.”

               “Yikes. Did he say why?”

               “We actually never got to that.”

               “Fair enough. What’s the charity called?”

               “Also, not actually sure.”

               “Any idea of the previous investors?”

              “Sorry, Vance. I literally bumped into him for, like, a second. I asked how he’d adjusted to the move, not much else. He asked how my projects were going, and joked over any of them making me rich. He’s pretty laid-back, at least he was, but I could tell he was tense today. But trust me, I’d love to help him. I’ve known him for a long time.”

               “We could make a sizeable donation.”

               “I was thinking something better. We could help procure a new investor.”

               “Ah, that might be fun. Hitting the streets, shaking down stockbrokers like the old days.”

               “Exactly. Plus, he’s even drawn up a list of potential targets. It’s comprehensive.”

               “Wow.”

               “Trust me, he does his due diligence.”

               “Sounds good to me. Come outside, I’m turning onto your road.”

Matt, for all his charms, did have one major failing in common with most of the population: a fixed, easily identifiable home address. By the conclusion of our conversation, I had managed to walk there. Our timing was such that he exited and met me without either of us breaking stride. Given the comprehensive nature of the list, we planned on examining it whilst stationary, in the small park that brightened the corner of his road, one of the many spotted about London.

I was struck by how precisely curated the list was. Though it covered most of the generic, large options, additional requirements had been carefully applied, weighing and ranking each by a projected estimation of the company’s likelihood of increasing their annual, charitable donations. Naturally, through our gentle debate, we completed further pruning, eliminating outliers on the spectrum of being too small or too large.

Sheeves was himself networking through other, old construction contacts for help, so we took the initiative of arranging meetings. Matt’s name was amongst Sheeves’ own targets, so he was willing to do as much as possible to help.

Somewhat remarkably, two companies responded with warm interest, agreeing to meeting us that very same day. Pleasingly, this expedited the action, eliminating any awkward downtime. Not that we had too much action to report from the first meeting. Afforded a generous five minutes into our first investor’s schedule, he produced a greater volume of words than us, managing to say nothing of any value. That was the grind. Not so many years ago, we’d have compensated our time by stealing something from his desk, just to be annoying. But today was all about good deeds. Ironically, despite the failure, my mood was improving.

               “What did you take?”

               “Oh, Matthew. So juvenile. Are we not beyond petty theft?”

               “I took the vowels from his keyboard.”

               “I like it. I did actually take his mouse, but only because it was wireless. I was trying to send some e-mails for him.”

               “He did talk a lot. Anyways, next up?”

               “Peters & Stevenson. Private corporate law firm, reported thirty mil in charitable donations last year, up fifteen percent from the previous. Website bio managed to use ‘dynamic’ and ‘passionate’ three times each.”

        “I love hearing you talk business. I’m guessing two, youngish dudes, riding daddy’s money and connections but too cheap for an editor.”

               “Seems about right. Their office is this building, fifth floor.”

               “Perfect. Wait, sorry Vance, I’ve got to take this. It’s from the Kind Foundation – probably Graham.” It was aptly named, Sheeves’ charity. Luckily, we had now learnt the name, helping promote it and all.

               “Want me to wait?”

               “Nah, go ahead. There’ll be plenty more meetings to satiate my kleptomania.”

For all my loathing of capitalism, it made for swanky offices. White, polished floors, with dark grey walls. Very modern and minimalist. Past the lobby, I opted for the stairs, eventually stepping into a muted buzz of self-important activity governing the fifth floor. The receptionist waved me towards a private room at the rear.

I was immediately suspicious, and almost tempted to wait for Matt. This time, cause for my alarm was obvious. The entire floor was open plan, except for occasional, polished, transparent dividers. Even their conference room, in the opposite corner, promoted visibility above comfort. Each zone had a clear line of sight. Except my destination.

The glass door into what was presumably a head office looked awkward, built into wooden panels, obscuring the members inside. I caught a slither of desk, but nothing more.

It was irrational, obviously. The boss evidently enjoyed secrecy. Suspicious transactions no doubt transpired behind those walls, exempt from the prying eyes of the bull-pen. Worst case, I backed myself to handle a pair of lawyers. Though lacking in excessive formal experience, I’d passed police combat training, just for fun.

At a polite knock, the door was pulled inwards, separating from the wood, and exposing a tall, nicely framed guy. He wore regular, but not dedicated, exercise in his shoulders, accentuated by neat tailoring. Short black hair was slicked up, without over-doing the volume of product. The precisely manicured look of a modern businessman. Strikingly similar to his partner, he was only differentiated by an inch of height, perhaps less. Even their bone structures bore rough resemblance. Peters and Stevenson. They could have confused themselves for each other.

Before any conversation began, I noticed an additional oddity. As the door closed, the general outside hum had been sucked into nothing. Inside, the glass theme had extended to the walls, granting a spectacular vantage over the city, though it was partially blocked. By a third, unidentified figure. He was also tall, wearing much longer, curly brown hair, untamed just before his shoulders leaving a thin line of tanned skin untucked from his collar. From my angle, his face was veiled, and turned to match my walk as I entered. Watching my reflection, I guessed. I waved. It was unreturned.

               “Mr. Howler, your reputation precedes you.” Peters opened. Unless it was Stevenson.

             “Delighted to hear it. Saves time on my part.” Smiles all around. Well, not the guy at the window. I could have gone with the classic ‘All good things, I hope’, but that was unoriginal. I sensed a limited desire for small-talk, “And you have an interest in discovering more about the Kind Foundation?”

Unusually, Peters flinched momentarily, before catching himself and guiding me towards a seat in the left of the room. He circled behind an extravagant mahogany desk, whilst Stevenson perched against the back of a chair, both still facing me. Stevenson initiated proceedings.

             “Of course. No doubt you’ve done preliminary research. We always love a bit of pro bono over here. Currently representing a class action of mango farmers from Kenya.”

               “Avocados.”

               “Avocados. What exactly are the vested interests of Kind?”

They clearly took a hands-on approach. As I quickly cycled through our rehearsed sequence of points, they gazed with pretended focus, murmuring assent when appropriate, occasionally nodding. At one stage, Stevenson even tapped a ponderous finger to his chin. Only upon reaching the numbers, and figures for publicity, did their attention return. Start to finish, everything was finished in a conservative three minutes. I then paused, awaiting feedback. Clapping his hands, Stevenson shrugged and offered,

               “All sounds great, right? Tell us how much, and where we need to sign. Give a trainee the thrill of drawing up a contract, but that’ll be a formality. Mr. Howler, I’m sold. Peters?”

To that point, Peters had uttered one word. Avocados. Not especially profound, this Peters. Though something was affecting him greatly. Apparently, my speech had delivered him into a bout of profuse sweating, and rapid blinking. He was clutching the desk for support. I motioned to inquire as to his health, but Stevenson interrupted me again.

               “We’re sold, right Peters?”

               “Perhaps, we’re being rather hasty. Howler, might we confer with your office two days hence?”

               “No need. We love it. It’s a great charity.”

               “All the same, an increased level of assurance might be beneficial.”

               “Why escalate threat of hostilities? Let’s just give them our money.”

               “Renegotiating might be conducive to everyone’s satisfaction.”

               “The terms are unanswerable already!”

               “We can’t just give them what they want!”

I had no part in weighing in. Neither, it seemed, did our mystery man at the window. Throughout the exchange, we had both of us been unmoved, as Peters and Stevenson drew closer to direct screaming. Tension was resonating violently, beginning to shake the walls. Mouths virtually frothing, their anger was laced with something deeply unsettling. Fear. Wholly gripping, seizure-inducing, debilitating, visceral fear manifesting as absurd, desperate panic. Both men were shrieking.

The silent figure at the window was a picture of calm. I was tense. At any stage, they might have exchanged blows. I wanted to quickly duck into safety, should it become a necessity. Something much worse happened.

Peters had remained crouched behind his desk, as Stevenson stepped increasingly closer, both breathing spuriously into the other’s proximity. Had terror not so possessed them, it might have been entertaining. Any hint of humour soon vanished.

It was far from a clean motion, but brutally effective. Everything it needed to be.

From its concealment under the desk, Peters drew a gun. At first glance, I couldn’t discern the exact make. But it was the fatal kind. Which Peters proved. With an immense, crashing echo, he sent Stevenson launching backwards, a jagged hole ripped through his chest, sending a veritable eruption of blood into the air, forming a dense mist in place of the man. His eyes still burned with ire, emboldened by torturous anguish, as the body crumpled to the floor.

The man by the window failed to even flinch. I had a problem.

Agonisingly slowly, I processed the barrel swinging a clumsy, inexperienced arc in my direction. It was a beast, this weapon in Peters’ hand. Certainly a revolver, I deduced, probably in the upper echelons of firepower, closely resembling Dirty Harry’s Smith and Wesson Model 29. Good and bad.

It practically made for a big game companion. It explained the gaping hole in Stevenson’s chest. At close range, I would be eviscerated. If I was hit.

The sheer size was one drawback, making it ill-equipped for manoeuvrability. With a full magazine, it exceeded two kilograms, an issue compounded by Peters’ inexplicable decision to remove his supporting hand. Mid-swing, the barrel was beginning to dip, whilst he overcompensated by raising his arm. I was already prepared to hurl myself either side. With the gun circling leftwards, throwing my body to the right would avoid the shot, especially given the gun’s wild trajectory.

I paused.

Which would leave another problem. I’d still be trapped in the room. I was in no doubt the shot would be heard, but couldn’t guarantee a convenient response time. Leaving me pinned into a corner, with a shorter distance for the gun to cover. Not ideal. I had to get hit.

My best hope was to mimic that red fountain, assuaging any fears I might have survived, mitigating the possibility of a second shot being directed at me.

Theoretically sound. Spot the problem. Yeah.

The gun was on me, but still in motion. Had I propelled myself on time, the original plan would have been successful. Instead, I faltered, timing my jump, trusting some internal judgement over calculated vision. I couldn’t afford to over-think the trigonometry. Everything depended upon a glancing blow appearing severe.

Ultimately, he fired sooner than anticipated. Somehow seeming to predict my lunge, he fired into me, as I attempted to shift counter-directionally. In flight, I was hurled off balance, feeling a deadening kick in my shoulder. A numbing thud of pure impact, no grace or elegance. In a perverse flash, I contemplated how disappointed my unknown nemesis would be, for me to die so carelessly. Heroes didn’t die. I had scarcely begun. This couldn’t be it.

But I knew it was bad. The reverberations rattled through every part of me, sending my shuddering mass hard into the floor at an unfortunate angle. My head snapped back up briefly, stopped by my neck, leaving confused eyes gawping hopelessly at the ceiling. My legs were tangled and twisted, contorting my waist and torso. I was silently weeping, a thin sheen of moisture minutely blurring my vision.

There was no pain. Extreme nerve damage? I must have died. That was the only possible solution. The idea had been stupid, the execution wanting. Vance Howler. Killed by some random lunatic with a gun. Glorious.

I had contingencies, assuming I was still alive. For now. My survival had to remain undetected. I was inhaling small sips of oxygen, barely enough to sustain me, but sufficiently reducing the expansion of my chest. Holding my breath would have been more dangerous, buying no more than two minutes before I was conspicuously gasping. My eyes stayed open, mercifully lubricated by tears. More than any single desire I’d experienced before, I had to inspect my shoulder. From the lack of sensation, a chunk was missing, between my left shoulder and my heart. In swelling waves, the pain grew inexorably, but could be handled. It was my inability to glance about, assess the situation, that was unbearable.

The echoes slowly faded, until a creeping silence entered the room, interspersed by intermittent grunts. I waited for alarms, for calls of help. But there was nothing. All I could do was keep bleeding to death. I suddenly remembered the instantaneous quashing of noise once the door closed. But no soundproofing could be that effective, surely? A sigh of frustrated exertion splattered about the room.

Then I was grabbed under the arms, my head lolling to within an inch of Peters’ face, snatching an involuntary blink. His eyes swayed, thankfully being fixated upon the floor at that second. I tried to adopt a blank, lifeless stare. I realised what was happening when I was placed into my same chair. Stevenson sat opposite me, limp, utterly shredded, truly half scattered about the carpet. His barely-intact right arm rested, gun in hand. Peters was constructing a crime scene.

No matter that both ballistics and blood reports would be inconsistent with this pantomime. I was hardly about to interrupt. As I was being arranged, slumped into my own chair, Peters’ hands kept slipping, as if oily, continually wiping against my lovely suit. I couldn’t believe I’d chosen to look presentable for this. Well, I always looked incredible. But today, I was extra dashing. I could see the room, now, but still had yet to examine my shoulder. The man by the window hadn’t moved. I wanted to look at my shoulder. I could only imagine I’d have that chance when Peters finished.

Presumably, he would run out, claiming we’d somehow shot each other. It was very stupid thinking. Again, no notes from me. But, all the physical evidence aside, what possible motive was there? That being said, what motive did he have for killing us? That was on the back-burner for the immediate future. I was almost fully positioned.

Peters pulled at my hand, perfecting the finishing touches, when his blood-slimed grip lost its hold. He reached instead for my wrist and squeezed.

Uh oh.

I could feign death in some regards. I could hold my breath; I could abstain from blinking. I could go pretty limp. My metabolism, however, was a separate consideration. Like it or not, I still had a pulse. It had probably been throbbing from the blood loss. Peters squeezed my wrist, and froze. I did not.

As his stumbling neurons pieced together this newfound and likely relevant information, I launched upwards, driving my right elbow through his chin as I extended with my legs. He was briefly air-born, before collapsing into the centre of the room. The same second Matt walked in.

               “Matt! Look out!”

Confusion was plastered so thick across his face it was laughable. My forceful urgency was slightly unnecessary. Stevenson was dead. Peters was out stone-cold. And, as I finally looked around, the third man had vanished.

Overcoming his initial shock, Matt entreated me to sit back down, and assumed definitive command, first coordinating a building-wide lockdown through the already-present security teams, then debriefing the police once they arrived at his call. He was questioned first, whilst I was subject to blissful medical treatment. It had been a fortuitous graze, though a huge portion of my left shoulder was still missing. Lucky? Fortune had no part. That had been the most important jump of my life, excuse me. Masterful timing. The paramedic took some unfathomable issue with me, eventually declaring my case a minor flesh wound and refusing to offer further assistance. Very rude on her part, I thought.

               “Howler?”

               “Always.”

               “You okay?”

             “Yep. Great. Incredibly okay. Very happy to be here, in fact. Could not have enjoyed this afternoon more. A special insight into the world of corporate law. Had this been my work experience, I might just have joined Peters & Stevenson. Lovely place.”

              “Take a moment to recuperate. We want to hear from you, eventually. Mind if Fairfax drives you to the station?”

               “That would be terrifying.”

               “I’m sorry?”

               “I’m joking. Sounds great. Incredibly okay. Alright, I’ll go and find him. Cool.”

It was cool. I could talk to Fairfax about the trip wire. Unless he found this little incident to be more engaging. Either way, it seemed I was in possession of a few good stories. Very cool.

Fairfax was easy to locate. He’d been placed on a sentry detail at the front door. I grabbed him, and had the unique honour of driving his car back to the station. Silences were no issue between us, so it failed to concern me that he did not speak. I had assumed, however, he might have wanted to prompt me into conversation. Excluding a fleeting exchange of small-talk pleasantries, his mouth had remained closed. Until he went straight to the big talk.

               “There’s a distinct lack of any real point, isn’t there?”

               “What’s that? To investigating?”

          “To life.” Cheerfully, I found myself wishing he’d stayed quiet. The shiny embellishments in his language were gone, too.

          “Oh dear. That’s unusually morbid from you. I hope this isn’t an attempt at character development, because I’m sure it will be unpopular. What’s troubling you?”

         “I have done nothing, but try, to no avail. In anything. I know your expression, but it’s true. My endeavours shall all inevitably crumble to dust.”

               “Okay, Ozymandius, what are you talking about?”

               “What of my legacy? I shall be but another unremarkable name amidst an eternal ocean.”

               “Right. You know, you aren’t dead yet.”

               “For all my life left, I could well be.”

               “You want me to drive us into that lamppost?”

               “If you had the promise of a painless death, to blink, and never exist again, would you not seize that opportunity?”

               “In a heartbeat. But then again, I’d never actually do it.”

               “Why?”

Though I wasn’t ready to swerve into oncoming traffic, it gave me pause. I had no satisfactory answer. Barely an hour ago, my imminent death made an inelegant loop towards my head. My actions saved me, but only when driven by an underlying instinct. I mean, variations of sentimental dribble could have escaped from my mouth in some half-hearted attempt at reassurance, but none consistent with my values. I couldn’t explain what compelled organisms to survive. Fundamentally, I supposed I lived for myself. If that was enough. To enjoy any moments of fleeting triumph, isolated they might be.

I cared for remembrance. I wanted to be heard, through the annuls of time. My voice to echo wisdoms through generations. To preserve those crucial elements responsible for the essence of my soul. What more is there?

I left the car inexplicably angry. Typically, I prided myself upon acute emotional self-awareness, to recognise whilst accepting if necessary, the source of any rogue feelings. I was not a machine, but I was not petty, or unpredictable. Fairfax hadn’t upset me. Yet, I found myself anxious and irritable. At my side, pronouncing slumped shoulders and limping feet, Fairfax was a picture of apathy. Quite the hot-shot pair we were.

It was our first dispute to ever leave the vehicle. I didn’t like it. But Fairfax stubbornly shuffled of his own accord back to his desk, unwilling to interact further with any human. Each time I tried to think, the haunting whispers of gunshots stung at my ears, so I focussed on simply waiting. The chief returned quickly, but first wanted to interrogate the apprehended Peters, allegedly cleared of concussion. Their interview lasted an hour, before I was invited by the chief into his office, alongside a despondent Fairfax.

Inside, both men sat opposite me, behind the chief’s desk. Before either spoke, the chief turned on a screen by way of introduction, which encompassed much of the wall to my left. Peters, seeming to be suffering rigour-mortis, was centre stage, and motionless, staunchly upright. With reference to him, the chief began,

               “Unsurprisingly, our new friend hasn’t been so open to cooperation. My guess would be shell-shocked. Nothing the whole time.”

               “You couldn’t battle one solitary word from him? Not even ‘hello’?”

               “Not every civ is as charming as you, Howler. Hoping you can shed some light instead.”

I briefly recapped every detail, fronting a monotony verging on boredom, concluding with the disappearance of the silent window man. Our theories converged compatibly. By all estimates, Peters must have been decorating his office into a make-shift crime scene, though irrefutable proof identified him as the murderer.

             “A narrative will definitely help. No doubt we can press charges. What troubles me is motive. I’m running the books later, see if any money disputes arose between the partners. Still wouldn’t explain why they wanted you present. Doesn’t feel premeditated.”

             “Well, it must be connected to our third figure. Could he have been threatening them? I left a good description, so he must be in holding now.”

The chief glanced uncomfortably at Fairfax, who did not look up from the floor.

               “Howler… what third figure?”

            “The guy I just mentioned. Stood by the window the entire meeting, never speaking. Didn’t even flinch at the gunshots. Sadly, he guarded his face the whole time. But definitely male, Caucasian, age range twenty-five to fifty. Wasn’t that enough, with the on-scene report I gave?”

            “We had that place locked down. Checked ID’s on everyone leaving, and anyone trying to enter. All three exits. Howler, no one fit that description.”

               “No one was reported. He could be hiding in the building, still. Found an upper-floor corner to camp out, until it was safe to manoeuvre.” He shook his head slowly.

               “We canvassed witnesses. Listen, Howler. This must have been unimaginably difficult.”

               “Oh dear. Just stop.”

              “Anyone would be shaken up. I’d be babbling, had I just been shot. We’ll talk tomorrow, just grab some rest. I can have Fairfax escort you home. Or somewhere you feel safe?”

             “Nice try. I’m not hallucinating. He was there from the outset, before anything became too ‘stressful’ to be accurately recalled.”

           “Howler…” but I was already gone. It was indignation, not anger, propelling my legs. Unbridled self-righteousness. Nothing could overshadow one vital facet from that meeting. The raw panic undercutting the partners’ dispute. Peters was petrified of that third figure, beyond any rational thought. He had killed Stevenson, an ally, before even contemplating turning the gun at the window. There had to be a connection. I spun in the doorway and watched the monitor.

               “It was more than money. Their fear was visceral.”

           “Howler, I’d love to believe you. But we can’t prove Peters was under threat from a man who didn’t exist.”

               “Well, what if I told you he just swallowed a bunch of suit buttons to choke himself.”

               “What?” I gestured to the screen. Pretty ingenious really. Maybe he was thinking rationally.

After the chief sprinted from his office, I accompanied Fairfax to his desk, morose as ever. I couldn’t leave before inquiring into his state of mind.

               “Will you be okay?”

               “I believe you.”

               “About the third guy?”

              “Why they entrusted the front entrance to me, I do not know. For all my worth, he might have pranced over my toes, leaving me still foolish to his presence.”

That was disconcerting. He rarely confided any open admission of his blindness, opting primarily for an illusion of unperturbed vision. His frailty far from defined him, but must have been difficult to ignore, especially during periods of doubt. I could only squeeze his shoulder, and bid a fond, if shallow, farewell.

Matt afforded me little respite to ponder my aging friend, calling as I walked downstairs. He uttered one syllable before terminating the call. We both knew exactly what it meant.

I walked again from the station, fearing a lack of parking. An evening chill had plummeted from the inky, cloudless sky, the welcome briskness keeping me focussed.

Frosty. Ice in my veins. Cool as a cucumber. That was me. I felt the need to alter my brand. Not a complete reinvention, rather a minor tinkering of various details. I couldn’t afford for people to believe they could shoot at me and survive. Whomever was playing games around my house definitely needed to appreciate that. I knew who I was. I was unsure exactly of what I needed to portray, however. What outward figure to conjure, to impress or inspire, to be feared or loathed. I could be dangerous. The world should know I was not to be trifled with. Maybe a catchphrase. That would be good.

Turning onto the next street, I saw Matt waiting outside or regular pub. A debrief was undeniably suitable. Stepping inside, we in equal measure lapped up the sweaty warmth, mingled with beery breath and lingering cigarette smoke. As predicted, parking had been limited, filling the bar close to capacity. For close to ten minutes, we jostled for a pint, before gratefully ascertaining a cramped corner table. With our chilled prizes collected and partially downed, Matt asked the obvious.

               “What the fuck happened today, Vance?”

          “Good question.” I was forced to elaborate once more on the day’s events, concluding in the same manner. Now separated by hours, I could admit how harrowing it might have proved, to anyone unaccustomed to such violence.

               “How’s your shoulder?”

               “Surprisingly alright. The muscle at the top was clipped, but no important structures were damaged. Should heal within the week.”

               “I just wish I’d been in with you.”

               “Yeah. What did your friend say in the end?”

               “Actually wasn’t even him on the phone. An assistant called, asking mundane stuff about our contact details.”

               “Even though they clearly had your number? Weird.”

               “Very. They kept breaking up, too. Pretty frustrating. Not within the realms of your meeting, though.”

               “We all have our battles.”

               “Quite. Hope you don’t mind, but I actually invited Graham too. Should be here in about thirty.”

            “Nah, of course. Though, Matt. There is something I need to tell you. A few weeks ago, I received a letter. At my home address.” His eyes widened, whilst I paused to enable his processing. “I was delivered a note. An unintelligible piece of code. I translated it to English, only for it to make little more sense. Then nothing, until today, I spotted a tripwire outside my house.”

               “Sounds dangerous, dude. On top of today. Any idea who’s doing it?”

               “None. I reviewed the tapes; seems a ghost came to my door. Nothing.”

He lapsed into an abrupt and unexpected silence. Though something plagued his mind, he was as yet unwilling to part with it. I reclined, feeling the grimy ambiance wash over in cleansing ebbs. A pretty bartender proposed table service, and as she departed, I noted every male eye follow her into the kitchen. A fine species we are. Matt suddenly turned and waved at the door.

His friend, I guessed, headed to our table. Nice looking. Wore the African sun on his creased face, but sported a youthful glint in his eyes, bursting from a wind-battered forehead. His smile was broad and unforced.

               “Alright, Matty.”

               “Graham. This is my buddy, Vance.” We each nodded curtly at the other.

               “Matty tells me you’ve had quite the day. How you holding up?”

               “Great, thanks man. What’ve you been up to?”

               “Pfft, just hanging out really.” He nodded again. “Just, yeah, catching up with some friends. Been out the country a while.” No other chairs were available, leaving him to stand, claiming it was not to his dissatisfaction.

Our conversation morphed from amicable platitudes into enjoyable anecdotes concerning numerous shared interests, proving to be an entertaining evening. Sheeves certainly fulfilled Matt’s earlier promise of being ‘nice’, pumping out enthusiasm in each wild tale of adventure. As he regaled us with wondrous, exotic escapades, Matt and I couldn’t help but compare our own, far superior, but essentially secretive, stories. They resided in my memoirs, to be released long after my eventual demise.

I broke away momentarily, to grace the urine-drenched loos, and returned to Matt seated alone.

               “Bar?” Matt nodded. “I like him. I agree, he seems like a nice guy. Lived something of an adventurous life, I’ll concede.”

               “More interesting than some.”

           “Very true. The craziest thing, when he mentioned that Windhoek trip, that must have roughly coincided with… Matt, the dude turned from us. Standing next to the bar. That’s him.”

               “Yeah, I told you he was at the bar.”

               “No, to the left, that’s him. The guy by the window. That’s exactly how he was standing.”

           “Where are you looking? That’s Graham.” At which point, Graham turned, as if to reaffirm Matt’s conjecture, cradling three, fresh pints. In a lurching, rapid whisper, Matt hissed, “Vance, what are you talking about? Was he in the meeting earlier?”

               “I’m sure of it. Didn’t you see him leave?” He was approaching earshot. My heart was fluttering.

               “Vance, I never saw this third guy.” A pounding started against my ears.

               “He was there. It’s him.”

The three glasses clunked onto the table, as Sheeves smiled again.

               “What’re we saying?”

               “Thanks, but I was actually just saying I’ve got to head off.”

               “Aww, no way Vance. It’s still early!”

               “Yeah, well. Traumatising day, and all. Standard advice seems to be getting some rest.”

               “At least see it off.” Matt smirked at me. Never one to disappoint, I duly did as requested, draining one glass, before waving a final goodbye.

That Matt now found himself unable to believe me as well was obvious, though I was resolute in my convictions. My observations had to be entirely sound. True, it wasn’t uncommon for my theories to be denounced, but never so flagrantly. This was not the police force doubting my speculations. It was my best friend questioning the reliability of my testimony. The idea I would simply rest was ludicrous. Leaving the bar, I had only one goal in mind.

Realistically, it was lazy to have neglected it from the outset. Researching this unknown character, that is. He did his due diligence. I failed to do mine. For that, I was burdened by partial responsibility for the day’s events.

Approaching the station was natural. Once more, my alibi, my reason for arriving, was organic and easily accessed: my car. Provided I was not caught stepping inside the building, I could account for my movements. My break-in would therefore need to be undetected.

My preferred method of investigating suspicious individuals of personal interest was piggy-backing off police resources. All the information was right there, easily obtainable. The sheer volume of data was staggering. Even without official access, one could mine a substantial portion of a subject’s life from their online presence with little difficulty. My method crossed over the threshold into the truly thorough, whilst additionally removing the manual work otherwise required, automatically pouring forth anything I might want to be informed of.

Thankfully, the second floor would be abandoned at this hour. Though a night-shift team occupied other desks across the building, my detective friends would all be home. It momentarily flickered through my mind that Damion, last name unknown’s clock-out time was an additional variable I might have to contend with, but I paid it little regard.

Sneaking into the station took surprisingly little time or effort. Timing my arrival behind another’s exit, I slipped through the automatic doors, and strode purposefully upstairs. Deserted as expected, I marched directly into the chief’s unlocked office, and settled behind his computer. My search started in various desk draws. For security reasons, he was required to update his password weekly. Unfortunately, from a security perspective, it meant he consistently failed to remember the latest version, so kept a paper list of each one close-by. After a few minutes of rummaging, it seemed it had at least been hidden beyond the realms of a cursory glance. I stared instead at the window on his screen. Guessing the random sequence of letters and numbers would be impossible. The username, however, I could do – ‘WSharp’ was unchanged from my previous forays. After which, the password auto-filled for me.

Huh.

Very convenient. Granting access to anything I might desire. A few searches were compulsory, if I wanted to understand exactly what had transpired. First, I downloaded the full transcript on Sheeves, followed by the history of his charity. Also pertinent was Peters & Stevenson, information I had in brief, to be accompanied by Westminster Fortune, the company previously responsible for funding the charitable endeavours of the Kind Foundation.

Whilst the printer dutifully whirred, I looped a sequence of blank footage from the front cameras over my arrival, and anticipated departure, affording a thirty second window in which I could slip out. Tightening my exit strategy threatened my ability to leave on time, but mitigated the risk of the footage being flagged. I had to hope no other authorised movements overlapped with my own.

With multiple documents in hand, I erased the chief’s recent search history, and ducked back downstairs, hovering in the darkened stairwell. Twenty seconds until I could safely leave, my existence set to vanish. By the precise letter of the law, I was close to committing a serious crime with no ramifications. Ten seconds. Shit.

Who should appear, but Damion. Did he never go home? I suppose I’d virtually sign-posted his appearance. My thirty seconds had started.

He stood at reception, but let his eyes drift about aimlessly over the room. I was twenty paces from the door, which was situated almost immediately to his left. With the window closing, I had two options. I could have waited and repeated another loop of blank footage. It would have been safer. But, considerably less fun.

A hint of alcohol cackled at my recklessness, as I sprinted upstairs, bursting into the office. Grabbing a stapler from the first desk, I was back down in an instant. Waiting until Damion’s eyes left a section of wall vacant, I threw the stapler, which cracked open, spewing metallic shrapnel. Both he and receptionist jumped, then ducked in quick succession, wholly transfixed by the empty space. Lowering my head, I skulked outside with barely a second spare. Successful mission.

Matt called before I could reach the car.

               “Vance, we have a problem.”

               “Uh oh.”

               “Yeah. I’ve been robbed. My flat’s been gutted.”

               “Were you inside when it happened?”

               “Well, no. It wouldn’t have happened if I had been.”

               “Then you’ve been burgled. Not robbed.”

               “Shut up.”

               “On my way over.” I was anxious to begin my reading, but I could allow the paper to rest. I doubted I’d allocate any time for sleep, opening the possibility of a studious night. My mind during the short drive to Matt’s was pre-occupied instead by the other, ongoing problem in my life.

After he let me in, I found it as advertised: gutted. In every conceivable way. The mattress was upturned, the bedding strewn in all directions. Every chest and cupboard, from cutlery to clothing, had been emptied, though nothing appeared broken at first glance. Almost as if it had been carefully arranged into a tableau of destruction. Water was gently trickling from every faucet, too.

               “Love what you’ve done with the place.”

               “Thanks. My new interior designer. Want their number?”

              “Mmmm yes please. Wonderfully relaxing ambiance of constructed chaos. Anything missing, slash any idea what’s happened here?”

              “Sadly not. It’s all untouched since I got back. You arrived quickly, I thought you’d have been at home.”

               “Maybe home’s closer than you realise. Were you with Sheeves the whole time?”

            “Yes. I don’t not believe you, I’m just struggling to picture Graham embroiled in any controversy. Unless he’s been corrupted, he’s as good a guy as any I’ve met. I ended up asking him about his previous investor – said he split over reported insider trading. Didn’t want anything to do with a shady company.”

            “I get you, it sounds far-fetched. I could be misremembering. I know there was a third guy in that room, though.”

               “I’ve been thinking about that. What if he was a ghost?”

               “I’m sorry, Matthew. What?”

           “Not a literal ghost. But the same person who delivered you a letter, whilst evading cameras he shouldn’t have known about. Your nemesis. Could he not be connected here, somehow? Capable of disappearing, without a trace. Plus, I’ve been broken into now.”

               “Not sure this is their MO. They broke into mine, but left it untouched. All except a spiral they carved into my door.”

               “Why?”

               “Think it was a Fibonacci spiral. Referencing the letter. That’s how I decoded it. Wanton vandalism just feels wrong, somehow. Lacks any degree of subtlety.”

               “At any rate, we’re living through exciting times.”

               “Absolutely. I’ll help you find a hotel after we’ve cleaned up.”

               “What, even this doesn’t warrant an invite to the palace?”

It was in jest; he wasn’t offended. We filled the restoration of his flat to habitable cleanliness with light-humoured chatting about nothing at all. My favourite kind. Ultimately, he felt content to stay, declining a hotel for the evening. I didn’t blame him. The property would be safer with a resident guard inside, whilst Matt had long-since proven capable of defending himself.

I drove home instead thinking of Fairfax, awash with indulgent melancholy, apparently resigned to despair. It occurred to me that I had neglected to update him on the puzzling matter of my letter. Perhaps he believed I had forsaken the quest. Reminding myself to consult him the next time, I conducted the remainder of the journey drifting between pleasant daydreams. I could not be productive again until I applied myself to the documents retrieved from the police station. So why not reminisce in warm summers and luxurious romances?

Arriving home, I bravely shouldered the day’s exhaustion before casting it aside. An acknowledgement it existed, whilst recognising I could not let it control me. Luckily, we’ve discovered drugs.

Turning on my coffee machine, I stepped into an icy shower. I was briefly startled and horrified by the red at my feet, before remembering both my injuries, and those of Stevenson. I had been expecting at least some form of dull ache from my shoulder, but it appeared at present all nerves must have been shredded. Since the initial outpouring of agony, I seemed now to lack any sensation. Perhaps the pain would come, no doubt in excruciating waves, later.

Taking a moment to savour the vacant fields, alive with shimmering droplets pouring from the moon’s ethereal soul, I shuttered the blinds over the windows before turning any lights on. Basic precaution. Through drinking the first of many cups of coffee, I organised my evening reading and began in earnest. First came Sheeves.

He graduated with a First-Class Mechanical Engineering degree from Imperial College London, immediately founding and managing the same construction company employing Matt in his youth. Presumably where they met. Barely five years later, despite turning a healthy profit, he sold his company, opting to branch out into charitable work. That was following a commissioned project in Kenya for what sounded like royalty. Though the train of hard numbers gave no sense of his developing emotional cognisance, one could reasonably trace his development from aspirational business owner to selfless hero. It was quite remarkable.

Included in his charity’s expenses were his own modest wage, alongside several other listed individuals. Since moving to Nigeria, he had established sites spanning the entire African continent, and had evidently collected tales of adventure to share. Somehow, despite his good deeds, I found myself trusting him less and less.

He would book regular trips back to the UK, attending major charity conferences, most likely for networking purposes. The most recent, last month, involved a three night stay at what, from a cursory internet search, appeared a repulsive hotel. No expense spared on himself, I supposed. The conference had only lasted two days, which wasn’t inherently suspicious. I just simply couldn’t imagine anyone voluntarily spending more time than necessary in a place boasting ‘we have sheets’.

All that free time perhaps also indicated that he and Matt weren’t so close as my friend would like to believe. Not that I was jealous.

Moving quickly to the Kind Foundation I scanned for any irregularities. With their respective finances compared, nothing was unusual. In fact, it was almost unusually usual. It screamed mundane normality.

Each year, the charity received a regular income from various donors, distributed across their different sides. The report then broke down, in meticulous detail, each expense – building utilities, classroom materials, teacher salaries, free school meals. Besides how stunningly expensive textbooks proved, the soothing, rhythmic order of it all might have lulled me to sleep. Imagine someone attaching a stamp reading the word ‘boring’ to sledgehammer and hitting you in the face with it.

Westminster Fortune, the original investor, was an entirely different matter. Numbers lurched from one extreme to the other, following an intensely convoluted narrative seeming to imply the company was simultaneously making billions, and on the verge of bankruptcy. Struggling to interpret the congestion, I occasionally found references to the charity, in the form of donations, though always in wildly differing amounts, far from the alternately consistent level reported by the Kind Foundation.

My resolve was waning, numbed by tiredness. I could sense a peculiarity lurking behind the numbers, but it was deviously coy. The discrepancies might have been explained by illegitimacy, alluded to in claims of insider trading. Really, it was a miracle the company had survived undetected for so long. Uninspired, I glanced at the records of Peters and Stevenson, immediately wishing I had initiated my search there.

An unprejudiced mind would identify nothing. They maintained their accounts as fastidiously as any other rising legal firm, compelled by the imperative of their perfectly understanding the full ramifications of the law should they fall into disarray. Innumerable sources of income, from several clients holding retainers, enhanced by hundreds of billable hours sprinkled in various places, made for unimpressive reading. One such client, newly signed last month, was the ‘Bush fund’. Established to represent investment in emerging markets, it had unremarkably taken on new representation.

The same fund, however, had also been featured making payments to Westminster Fortune. Quickly checking again, they were annual, though always on different dates, and always for lucrative sums.

Strictly speaking, it reflected nothing on its own. It could have been my confirmation bias leaping to conclusions. But I had known something was strange. The sanitised charity records, Sheeves’ finances speaking to an unnaturally modest existence, seeming to extend to all his staff. Taken in isolation, rare, but far from criminal. The opposite, really. They weren’t just good people; they were angels.

Except, Peters and Stevenson had been emailed two days before signing the Bush fund, the same day Sheeves would have been in the UK. The same day a conference was no longer scheduled. Plus, I remembered Sheeves insisting he had forged no prior contact with any of the companies whilst in the bar.

Coupled with my certainty he had been in that meeting earlier, to either threaten the partners, or ensure proceedings were orderly, his plan was unravelling. Matt was absent from the meeting for good reason: distracted by the charity, but only an assistant, who deliberately stalled him.

With enough evidence, conjecture though it was, I could approach the chief tomorrow. Well, today, actually. Eurgh. Today in not very long. It was already past five.

Torn, I secured thirty minutes of light dozing, before charging down the hill, as was standard, this time my coordination impaired by lack of sleep. Progressing through the motions, I was soon driving again, feeling unrested since my last journey. Worse, creeping pangs were beginning to emanate from the shoulder, conjuring a morbid discomfort in clutching the steering wheel. It would all be redeemed through justice. Arriving at the station, I was beginning to lapse into agony. Half-limping upstairs, seeing Fairfax prompted me to honour my earlier pledge.

               “How you holding up today, Mr. Frown?”

               “Fantastically, Mr. Howler. Do I not radiate exuberance?” He did not.

               “You do not. I have something that might cheer you up. Remember that little riddle I was left a couple of weeks ago?”

               “That single puzzle plagued my mind in unending torment for days.”

           “So, yes, I assume? Anyways, I solved it. I forgot to tell you. ‘Only in death do we attain our true potential. I hope you might one day join me’ – that’s what it converts to.”

               “How contrived. And pompously vacuous.”

        “And ludicrously over-developed. Sorry it took me so long to tell you. I imagine it’s rather underwhelming, following the suspenseful build-up.”

               “Something to that end, indeed. Thankfully, I’d already committed the time to solving it.”

               “At any rate, I’m sure it will be referenced again, and not simply forgotten. This nemesis will feature in another arc. But onto the matter at hand, I’ve got to go. Delighted to see that smile’s back, buddy.”

               “You’ve enraptured me once more, dear Howler.”

That was my job. My next customer looked just as exuberant to see me.

               “Howler.”

               “Always. I come bearing gift.”

               “Sure.”

          “Hear me out first, before any hasty dismissal. The mystery man was at my meeting yesterday. I unequivocally know that he was present. He existed. Just humour me for a moment. Can we scan cameras in the area for facial recognition?”

               “Sure. I suppose we owe you that. Whose face?”

Armed with the name, we began. Somewhat poorly. From the interior cameras inside the building housing Peters and Stevenson, nothing matched. Manually filtering through different rooms, we caught my arrival. A suave gentleman in a fine suit, effortlessly gliding across the polished floors. But no indication of our suspect. The bad news continued. Whirring through the countless pedestrians harassing the street outside, finding a match proved fleeting.

            “I’m sorry, Howler.” I knew he had been there. Perhaps Matt was right. Could I have mistaken Graham? Could I, instead, have merely been searching for my invisible home invader, projecting my insecurities onto an unfamiliar face? Except, the money never lied.

               “One last chance. Give us a perimeter of three streets.” To his credit, he made no complaints. He’d have been a fool to. Because we found him.

Graham Sheeves, located within fifty meters of my shooting. Materialising from thin air onto the street, and into view. Only one shop-front camera detected him. Emerging from the ether, he apparently stepped into existence and drifted, contained by the great hulking mass that was the crowd, a writhing organism spewing him between connecting roads. The chief was perplexed.

               “One last chance. See if anything covers either roof.”

               “What?”

          “The roof. He couldn’t actually teleport. My theory, with the building on lockdown, he escaped up. Reached the roof, hopped across to safety by entering a non-suspicious building. Then just left. If we went back a few hours, we’d see him arriving in building number one.”

Widening the parameters, as predicted, Sheeves entered, virtually hand-in-hand with one of Peters or Stevenson. Still didn’t know them apart. Hardly mattered, with one dead, the other self-choked into a coma. He spent approximately five hours with the partners before Matt and I arrived. Pretty irrefutable if you ask me.

               “But why?”

               “Perhaps we can find out. Wait. Go back… that one. Look, in the top corner.”

               “Phone line?”

               “No, it’s too thick. Have you ever seen a phone line stretch across two buildings?”

               “Some kind of rope?”

               “Exactly. He ziplined.”

               “Ziplined?”

               “He was bragging last night at one stage, about some canopy tour he took. He’s comfortable ziplining.”

             “So we have an exit strategy. He was threatening these two guys, enough for one to off his partner then attempt himself. But, still. Why?”

             “Look into something called the ‘Bush fund’. I’m relatively confident it’s traceable back to Sheeves, and touting exorbitant funds. Whatever he’s doing, something’s proving incredibly profitable. But not legitimately. Which is why he needs an investor, only to cover some genuine expenses, maintaining this charitable pretext. Whatever it is, he’s a wealthy Samaritan, with good reason for infiltrating impoverished regions with few records.”

It wasn’t long before we had our answer. Resolutely accepting I had merely ‘acquired’ my information, the chief capitalised upon my night of work, soon delegating with unmatched skill and perseverance. The methods of solving cases were irrelevant. They just needed solving. As the unit prepared their arrest, my final influence was to inject some flair into the proceedings. I called Matt and Sheeves, asking them to meet at the bar, which they duly agreed to.

With the three of us assembled not long after, I began.

               “Ladies and gentlemen, I have gathered you for the grand finale. The closing tableau of an adventure well-lived, a journey well-travelled.” Matt sighed. Sheeves looked confused. “My friends, a picture speaks one thousand words. But one thousand words speaks a picture. So, let’s commence proceedings.

               “You thought, Graham Sheeves, that you could embroil the greatest detective alive in some devilish scheme, and escape unharmed? Perish the thought, you fiend! My bumbling apprentice, no doubt, but not I! Allow me to lay bare each rotten inch of your heathenish intent, to conclusively document your unparalleled descent into woeful horror. Indulge me, if you will, in a sordid narrative born of vile hate against your fellow man. A repulsive–

               “Vance, what is this?”

               “The unbridled truth, my dear friend!”

               “Could you speed up?”

               “Justice, sir, will never be thwarted nor expedited! But, yes, I’ll get to it. Sheeves, here, is not quite the image of a saint as he depicts. Since its conception, the Kind Foundation has operated in conjunction with the imaginatively named Bush fund. Basically like ‘hedge’. To be fair, ‘Kind’ can be Afrikaans for ‘Child’, which I did believe was clever, however. Nice. But, not nice, for building schools under false pretences.

               “Admittedly, in most senses, your charity represented a force for good. You built good schools, sparing no expense, diligently endorsed by Westminster Fortune. Except, as always, there existed an ulterior motive. Something so despicable, you truly were forced to distance from the investigation into your former investors, lest it cast light over your practises. So you manipulated a new source of official revenue, in Peters & Stevenson, to disguise once more these hideous deeds. You even procured an external limb to complete the final arrangements, further removing your own presence. Until one of your guys cracked.

               “You might have fled safely, but in doing so abandoned this thread to carelessly unravel beneath my scrutinous eyes. Now, the root of your impropriety shall be exposed.”

               “Should I get a round? Feels like you’re still winding up and I already know this story.”

               “No denial then, Sheeves?”

               “You’ve got it all figured, haven’t you? I mean, I’m sure at some point you’ll accuse me of something. Otherwise, I can’t understand why you’d waste so much time.”

               “Hmmm. I could be bluffing. Seems awfully convenient that your big plans could have been exposed so easily.

               “We’re all tired, here. Finish it off.”

               “I will, but not on your terms. I shall persist in–”

               “Vance, dude, please stop.”

               “Human trafficking. It’s human trafficking. Matt he’s doing human trafficking I know because everywhere he travelled, he met with smuggling rings. He’s kidnapping from his own schools and shipping them out. He’s been orchestrating unregulated human shipments into Europe, capitalising upon the pre-existing migratory networks, and relying upon the locals to be too fearful, or simply unable to protest.”

Their exasperation had been stomped on by dumbfounded horror, likely for different reasons, I mused. Time to stick the landing. Time to nail the catchphrase.

               “That’s right, Sheeves. Guess you’d better hope the police are feeling charitable.” The audience reaction was tepid. Their mutual shock was still reflected.

               “Should have invested in a stronger alibi.” Matt winced. Sheaves still looked confused. Yeah, the first one had been my best.

               “Ready to be schooled in prison?” Matt shook his head. Okay, that didn’t really make sense. Sheaves flipped the table in my face, stinging my shoulder as I tried to block it, and sprinted from outside. Not a fan of awkward quips, I guessed. Probably for the best. The quality was about to seriously decline. Eh.

               “Ummm, was that true? And, if so, should we chase him?” Matt was kind enough to ignore the ending.

               “The police are waiting outside. We should catch him being driven away.”

               “That was the nicest guy I’ve ever known. Responsible for the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

               “It’s a strange world.” He needed more time to process. Understandable.

We went outside to wave Sheeves off. The chief was full of congratulations. Strictly speaking, I had been bluffing. All we suspected was some wrongdoing, potentially breaching the realms of illegality. Mine was entirely speculation. Whilst he had met with known smugglers, it was only in the context of wider gatherings. Besides completely lacking details, he could have been moving any number of things, given the construction contacts. Thankfully, propelled by a calculated and educated guess, his actions had now proved sufficiently suspicious to warrant a wider investigation, mobilising international resources. The truth would be uncovered. Before stepping away, the chief remembered,

               “Howler? Some crime tech wanted to call you.” Oh. Great secrecy, Damion.

               “Interesting. Know why?”

               “It was the weird kid always humming your songs.”

               “Ah. I don’t have his number, can I borrow your phone?”

               “Really? You give him the time of day?”

               “I’m feeling charitable.”

               “Good one. Here you go.” Damion answered on the first ring.

               “Sir?”

               “It’s Howler. You have something for me?”

               “Oh, Vance, wow, mate. Sorry, mate. I thought it was the chief.”

               “Yep.”

               “Are you calling from his phone? What happened to yours mate? I was going to call you, but I realised you’ve never given me your number. We need to get connected, mate.”

               “Damion, you said you had something for me. Mate?”

               “Oh yeah, mate. I finished the blood for you. Double-timed it, mate. Anyways, we got a name. Is it for a game?”

               “No. Why a game?”

               “Sometimes the upstairs guys do, like games, mate. Thought you might have been invited.” I went inexplicably cold.

               “Damion. Whose name came back?”

               “Thomas Fairfax.”


Thanks for reading! Vance Howler will return again in another instalment, so stay tuned. If you missed Part I, find it here – Harmless Escapism: The Solace of Death. Additionally, Part III, ‘Harmless Escapism: Unspoken Actions‘, is live too! I also write regular short stories, travel blogs and contemporary commentaries, if you’re interested.

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12 thoughts on “Harmless Escapism – Charitable endeavours

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    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I’m hoping to make each part relatively episodic, so the central mystery will be new in each story, but some things might not have made sense I should have said so at the beginning… Hope you enjoy part 1 too!

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  1. I love your contemporary yet witty and crisp way of writing; it suits the setting of the story and complements the characters so well!

    “I suddenly realised the issue. It was selfish to have been so self-absorbed as to have initially been ignorant. The problem was the bird song. Rather, its absence.”

    I love these lines. I am a big fan of the little clues and silent realizations that scream so this pulled me right in.
    The banter at the end I did not want to finish so may the words flow! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m delighted you enjoyed it, and thanks. I feel like we’ve all got one of those ‘friends’ who’s a bit too much, glad it could be relatable. Thanks for reading!

      Like

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