It was another uncannily still and baking summer’s evening; the ninetieth in a row and with no sign of a let-up. The muffled report from the state radio, barely perceptible over the relentless symphony of street noise, proclaimed yet another series of deaths from the merciless heat. The mass of people barely noticed or cared as they persisted with their quest to escape the cauldron of city life. They wanted to get indoors for the start of the long-awaited weekend break from the unrelenting and seemingly hopeless cause of mere survival.
Since the end of the viral wars, life had been unforgiving to the majority, who merely existed in this totalitarian city state where no-one was ever far from the watchful eye of the Central Intelligence Bureau (CIB). There was no happy chatter, no smiling, just desperation to return home and seek solace with their loved ones, if they were lucky to have someone. Everyone avoided using the subway; the unrelenting, destabilising attacks on the network by the anarchists and the oppressive subterranean heat have persuaded them to risk the blinding sun and endless queues of people above ground.
Carter, carried along by this conveyor belt of human misery, looked up towards the hazy, sultry sun high in the sky and muttered, “Another wonderful week in paradise ends. God, I can’t wait to sink a cold beer. What a shit week in a shit job!”
Despite the State’s attempts to control the press, some independent papers and journalists had managed to expose a modicum of truth for the people. Carter was one of the best; a very good undercover reporter for the highly acclaimed investigative journal, aptly named Outrage. His latest revelation had been an exposure of destructive, endemic and deep-rooted corruption amongst the ‘freely’ elected People’s Council; a body of fine, upstanding members of the community who were supposed to support the rights of the masses but who had been revealed to be well-paid stooges of the State machine, lining their own pockets at the expense of those they were supposed to champion. All were disgraced by the revelations of opulent lifestyles behind closed doors, sex scandals, corruption and fraud. A few weak individuals had committed suicide rather than face the mob’s wrath; the rest had been secreted away by the CIB to be used elsewhere to prop up the now-nervous regime. Carter’s well-deserved accolade, however, was short-lived. Following his exposés, any hope of news of corruption, intrigue, scandal and dictatorship had all but dried up like the Aral Sea; nothing was going well.
For months there had been little in the way of decent intelligence – no leads, stories, nothing! It appeared the CIB’s clamp-down on whistleblowing and moles, since Carter’s popular exposé, had been successful. This secretive, sinister and very powerful government agency had one single directive from the President; to quell subversive and anti-government propaganda and activities by any means available – in fact, one might even say methods above and beyond the law of the land. Their actions were well known to be highly draconian and murderous; even the leading anti-government underground organisation, the Radical Anarchy Movement (RAM) had been silenced and all Carter’s connections, including the criminal fraternity, had strangely melted into the ether. His recent stories were weak, meaningless and uninteresting and… it had been noticed! The new editor of Outrage, Porky Hollins (“Fat toad!” thought Carter) had had him in and given him a month to come up with scandal and intrigue of note to bolster flagging sales, otherwise…
“Oh, what the hell!” thought Carter. “If I don’t, it won’t matter; I’ll survive somehow. No-one ever remembers the good stuff,” he muttered, his feelings still smarting from the editorial drubbing. “Something’s brewing; I feel it in my bones and I’m sensing it’s about to break. I’ll show that obese pig!”
Carter shivered and looked up at the sky. The normally blinding sun had slowly been sucked dry of its luminance and heat by a thickening haze across the skies above New York. A sudden chill fell on the scantily clad population who were dressed for the searing heat wave. They all raised their heads towards the fading sunlight. As the sudden drop in temperature shook them out of their blind dash for home, they all stopped dead in their tracks. The haze grew denser and darkness slowly devoured what little light remained. Soon a thick, choking fog, reminiscent of the industrial past, had settled across the city. There was a crescendo of screams, shouts and curses from the confused and an unmusical harmony of horns from traffic as it ground to a halt then…. silence as their focus was drawn by a sudden laser show of vibrant splinters of random, multi-coloured lights raining down from above, accompanied by what appeared to be a jumble of background voices as they darted this way and that. The lights hit the ground and danced away through the thick, swirling fog. Each slice of light crackled as it disappeared off to nowhere. Almost immediately, as if chasing the firework display in the fog, came a blackness so deep and so cold it obliterated whatever light remained. A deep malevolent screech accompanied the blackness as it pursued the lights deep into nothingness.
After a seemingly eternal couple of minutes, the darkness faltered, sputtered and lifted and the sun managed to filter through the thick gloom. Everyone stood transfixed by the events, waiting for the next episode, but it didn’t come. As quickly as the fog had arrived with the light show and the chasing darkness, it had dissipated. The heat of the sun bore down relentlessly again as the people of the city took stock of their temporary respite then continued on with the rat race… It was as if a pause button had been released and the migration pressed on as relentlessly as it had before the foggy interlude, but with an added urgency as if precious time had been wasted. If anybody had bothered to look at their watches they would have seen that time had almost stood still whilst they were lost in the fog for what had seemed an eternity.
Carter had experienced the whole event. It was odd, strangely beautiful. He sensed a strong kinship with the lights but his keen natural instinct told him the darkness that followed was portent of something evil and destructive… He didn’t yet know how right he was to be. Carter felt an odd affinity with something physically close yet nowhere to be seen. He stored this in his memory, dismissed his unease and thought, “Bloody global warming; freezing winters and roasting summers. Probably another freak weather pattern.”
Carter decided to press on so he could meet Sophie in Mo’s Bar for a sight of her sparkling eyes, infectious smile and a long-awaited cold beer. As he moved on, his inquisitive mind mulled over the day’s events, threading and unthreading facts and theories to make sense of the spectacular and the unusual. The only clear and persistent conclusion he reached was one of dread and impending doom.
It was early one Saturday morning and the sun was making its way sedately into the sky, the already-hot rays scattering into the bedroom, dissected by the window blinds, dust particles floating in the beams of light like millions of stars in the night sky. Carter and Sophie were spread naked across the bed, their bodies glistening with beads of perspiration from the heat of the night – both physical and from the ever-present humidity.
Air conditioning was but a distant memory for the masses; most made do with fans, for all the use they were. Sophie stirred and gently cuddled into Carter’s back. He moaned and shuffled away, muttering about the time and the heat. She slapped his bare backside hard as she got up to get ready for work and slipped off for a shower. Carter whimpered at the sharp pain. Sophie wandered out of the bedroom and into the lounge, pausing to lovingly stroke Gus, a huge, white, ragdoll cat who was lying sprawled across the sofa, his piercing blue eyes melting your heart as you marvelled at his beauty. Gus, who was Sophie’s most precious companion, purred deeply as he enjoyed the attention. He was a very selfish and highly vocal cat; yes, spoilt rotten by Sophie, but somehow very human in his actions, unlike any other cat. Sophie picked up the large white bundle of fur and planted a massive kiss on his cheek.
“You gorgeous, gorgeous boy, I could marry you,” said Sophie as she held him close in a loving embrace, snuggling her face in his long soft fur.
Gus wriggled to get down, meowing, indignant at being disturbed and given a pink facial where the lipstick had smudged his cheeks. Sophie reluctantly gave him his freedom.
“You don’t love me anymore, Gus,” she mocked, giggling as she knew that wasn’t the case.
Gus proudly strutted across the centre rug flicking his flag of a tail, signifying his disapproval. Sophie made her way into the kitchen and opened the fridge door, standing naked momentarily, enjoying the cool air on her skin before getting herself an orange juice.
“I must make a move,” said Sophie and headed for the bathroom.
Sophie was a government information analyst for the CIB whose role required sifting through masses of data gathered as a result of phone taps, CCTV recordings, computer hacks and surveillance notes. She looked for the slightest sign of terrorist, criminal, subversive or anti-establishment activities and pieced together evidence for future use. Ever since the terrorist attacks in 2012 and the subsequent biological retaliation, all authorities took extreme measures to control everything and used whatever means they had at their disposal, no matter how unpopular.
Now, one might assume Carter is perhaps a bit of a sleaze-ball and was dating Sophie to obtain information for his articles, however nothing could be further from the truth. Sophie had been Carter’s sweetheart since meeting him at Columbia University back in the late forties and, although inseparable since then, they were poles apart in their career paths, being either side of the need-to-know fence – Sophie, the secretive side and Carter, the revealing side. They had always sworn to each other that their work would never cross into their personal lives nor come between them, however Carter had always probed, as was his incredibly inquisitive nature. Sophie, however, was no pushover and frequently cut him dead with one of her steely looks.
It was eight in the morning and Sophie had to be on duty by nine. She was a little queasy from last night’s session in Mo’s Bar.
“Well, what the heck? Bit of a hangover, but a great night! Carter is such fun,” giggled Sophie, thoughtfully, as she skipped naked into the bathroom. “Horrible weekend duty but at least the office is air conditioned.”
She sighed and stepped into the cold shower with a squeal tinged with shock and joy from the chilly water mixing with beads of perspiration and washing away the heat from the surface of her silky, smooth, tanned skin. As always, Sophie started singing in her shower.
Carter stirred on the bed and felt a warm glow in his groin as he heard Sophie’s lilting, sensual birdsong of a voice. “Wasted in that job,” thought Carter. “Should be on stage,” he smiled as he squirmed and rubbed himself in the cool sheet, remembering their loving embrace in the night. Sophie’s pure mellow voice washed over him, exciting his skin. As the sultry tones sent shivers down his spine, he drifted into a sublime semi-coma as his sexual memories took over, pulsing, shifting…
Carter was jolted back into reality by the sudden, eerie silence. As Sophie’s song ended abruptly, he sensed something was wrong. He looked at his watch; time seemed to stutter and stop. Everything happened in slow motion – his movements, the medley of street sounds from outside, the blades of the fan chopping through the thick muggy air – all were amplified by the silence. Then, CRASH!
“Sophie!” he cried as he leapt from the bed, scrambled to the bathroom door and hurled it open… Time had resumed normal momentum. She wasn’t in the bathroom.
“God, Sophie, where are you? Are you OK?”
His instinct told him she hadn’t come to any physical harm but that whatever had happened and wherever she had gone wasn’t normal. Where was she?
The heavy glass tumbler from the sink had fallen and shattered across the tiled bathroom floor. Carter howled as a shard punctured his right sole. He froze.
“Sophie, where are you?” he cried, tears of pain mingling with the sweat of worry on his face, his voice quivering with fear for his little princess. His instinct reminded him something was not right. He hopped around the apartment from room to room, struggling to stem the flow of blood.
“Sophie?… Sophie?” he called, hoping she was somewhere else in the apartment.
Nothing. No sign of her. The front door remained dead-locked shut with the electronic timer.
“Christ, darling, where are you? What’s going on?”
Momentarily forgetting the wound, he ran to the windows but then remembered they had restricted opening due to being four storeys up. He searched everywhere, everywhere!
“What’s happened to you, babe?” he sobbed.
He returned to the bed and crumpled in a heap. Carter shook his head.
“What the fuck is going on here?” he shouted as his mind unravelled the knot of confused senses and thoughts to give him room to think. “Come on, Carter, get a grip. Think! THINK! What is going on in here?”
“Sort the wound,” his mind ordered. “Then look for Sophie!”
He hobbled to the medicine cabinet, taking care to avoid the glass on the floor and took out the first aid kit. He upended the contents on the bed, selected a dressing, rubbed the area of the cut and yelped as his finger found the shard of glass buried deep into his flesh.
“God, that hurts!” he breathed through clenched teeth. He knew he had to remove it and lightly fingered the wound, coming across the proud tail of the glass shard again. He reminded himself that people say it hurts more coming out than going in. He shivered with apprehension and gritted his teeth…
“YEEOOWW! That really is painful,” he cried as he pulled the interloper from his body, rocking back and forth whilst rubbing and squeezing the wound to stem the pain as much as the blood.
He opened the dressing with his teeth and spare hand and applied it in a fashion to his foot.
He sat and called again, “Darling, where are you?”
His foot finally bandaged and the bleeding slowed allowed him to take stock. “OK, think logically,” thought Carter. “Four-roomed apartment – lounge/diner, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. Sophie’s not in any of them. Four storeys up, restricted opening windows, electronic lock on the door, which is timed to open at 08:30. It’s now 08:15. I know she was in the bathroom; I heard everything. Sophie’s a creature of habit; her timing’s always impeccable. Sophie’s definitely not in the apartment nor would she have been able to leave without my knowing…Yes, I was practically asleep when she got up to get ready for work… have a bit of a thick head… or am I dreaming? Did we have a row last night? Has she stopped over at Jasmine’s? Did I go out last night? Is it Saturday? God, so many possibilities…OK, stop! Think back to yesterday – the fog and lights thing. That was real. Start there and trace your steps.”
Carter got out his journal and made notes… Retraced my steps after the fog lifted, continued on to the bar, as always felt uneasy when I noticed the two CIB agents following close behind. Arrived at Mo’s Bar, bumped into old Mr Gayle sat at his usual spot at the end of the bar… “Such a nice guy,” he reflected... Saw Harry and Richie and briefly said hello. Chatted to Mo as he poured my beer and asked if he’d caught the fog? Remembered how I’d thought it was really weird. I spent time with other pals, having a few more cool beers but always checked to see if Soph had arrived... That thought took him away from his note taking. “God, I love her dearly,” he mused. He returned to his notepad… Sophie arrived, smiling. I hugged her and lifted her off the floor. We found a free inglenook table and chatted about the day – the fog, the crap times at work, etc. I went and bought another round and spotted the sinister-looking guys watching us. I remember how sheepish they looked at being discovered. I visited the bar frequently for more drinks, spotted a dealer who gave me the nod. I sneaked off and meet him in the john where I bought a couple of phials of Buzz(1). I returned to find the sinister guys chatting to Soph... “Yes I suppose I was jealous, but, hey, when I found out they were only agents for the CIB, that feeling soon subsided!” Carter returned to his notes… Formal introductions. They had smug grins, Agents Dock and Sallow. Yes, knowing looks. I knew they had planted a micro bug on the table. What were they after? They realised who I was, but why the sudden interest? I slipped Sophie her phial of Buzz, and we both secretly took the dose and had a few more drinks. The CIB left after receiving a call. We carried on drinking and talked about them, events, etc. We had a heated discussion, but agreed to disagree and kissed and made up. We were still nervous about the unwanted interest from the CIB, but we decided to leave and went home even though Soph was a little reluctant… “Typical Soph,” he reflected and finished his notes.…
“OK. Established we went home, so Soph was here with me. Where has she gone? What’s happened?”
Carter stood up. His injured foot caved in with the pain. He hobbled to the kitchen and brought out the dustpan and brush and carefully cleared the remaining glass thoroughly from the bathroom floor, disposing of it in the bin. He inspected the bathroom in detail. “Nothing unusual; clean, sterile even,” he thought.
As he noticed his reflection in the mirror, “God, I look rough,” he muttered, sticking out his tongue.
He noticed how dull the mirror had become yet it had a translucent depth he had never noticed before. He was deeply drawn towards the mirror; it was a strange yearning that he felt. He ran his hand tenderly over the surface and as he did so he noticed something glistening in the sink’s plughole – a clear glass droplet like a smooth crystal. He picked it up and he felt the same sense of belonging he had felt when looking in the mirror. He shook his head. “Must be Sophie’s,” he thought and placed it in her jewellery tray on the bathroom windowsill.
Carter’s thoughts returned to Sophie’s disappearance. “How and why have I been set up? I must report Soph missing.” He picked up his mobile to make the call, just as it rang. “Christ, spooky!” he thought, shivering as he checked the screen for the number. “Withheld! Shit, who is this?”
He answered nervously, “Hello?”
A voice responded curtly, “Hi, CIB Agent Dock here. I’m calling because our colleague, Sophie Drinkwater was supposed to be at work but hasn’t turned up. We’ve checked our staff tracking system and it shows no activity since returning to your flat last night. Can you tell me where Miss Drinkwater is?”
The tone was definitely knowing and accusatory. Carter had to think quickly to avoid attracting suspicion.
“Soph isn’t feeling too good; we both had too much to drink, got up late. No chance she’ll be in until Monday, sorry.”
His mind raced. “What am I doing? If they find out I’m lying, I’m history!” he thought.
“It’s customary to investigate non-attendance of key staff. We’ll call round to make sure all is well. We do, after all, need to be sure our colleagues are safe.” Agent Dock ended the call.
“Shit!” cursed Carter. “They know something’s up!”
The main entrance doorbell chimed and Carter shuffled over to the door, turning on the video link.
The voice on the phone announced, “Agents Dock and Sallow, can we come up?” Their two faces were grinning like Cheshire cats. “Immediately!” barked Dock.
“Heck, they know something. What? Christ, I’m under surveillance.” Carter’s head spun in confusion. He opened the main doors and waited. The knock on the door signalled their arrival. Carter let them in…