Chapter 27 – Loose Connection
After drinking a surreptitious cup of tea, Tom lugged his mop bucket and brushes to the highest floor of Elixium’s pyramid building, where Reuben Fenwick worked in the luxurious executive suite.
“Good morning, Tom,” said Kathy, Reuben’s personal assistant, as he entered the foyer. A strange character, she dressed in long flowing dresses like a warlock and burned incense at her desk when nobody was around.
Panting after trundling up ten flights of stairs with his cleaning equipment, Tom gave her a thumbs up.
“It’s another scorcher,” said Kathy, wafting papers to fan herself. “I’ll be glad when autumn comes.”
“Indeed,” replied Tom with a wry smile. Kathy and Reuben would find the office particularly uncomfortable today, as he’d severed the wires supplying electricity to the air conditioning unit that cooled the top floor of the building.
Tom set to work sweeping the foyer and was almost finished when Reuben stormed out of the executive lounge, his shirt dripping with sweat.
“Why is it so dammed hot?!” Reuben yelled at Kathy.
Tom cleared his throat. “It’s much cooler downstairs, sir. Perhaps the air conditioning is on the blink up here.” It was bold of him to speak out of turn, and he half-expected Reuben to pick up one of the crystals that littered Kathy’s desk and hurl it at him.
Fortunately, Reuben focused his frustration on Kathy. “Get on the phone to estates. I want it fixed right away.”
“Yes, Mr Fenwick.”
“I’ll be downstairs in Marketing, if there’re any calls.”
In a huff, Reuben marched into the lift. The gold-plated doors slid together, hiding his disgruntled face.
“That man disturbs my vibrational energy,” Kathy muttered under her breath as she picked up the phone. Reuben promoted Kathy to the highest paid administration role in Elixium after foiling his attempted break-in with Hazeem. Despite regretting how they treated her that day and having grown to like her in the intervening years, Tom couldn’t help but enjoy a little schadenfreude as she grumbled about Estates never picking up the phone.
Nobody was supposed to enter the executive suite without Reuben’s knowledge, but Tom crept over to the door, as if part of his normal cleaning routine. His stomach clenched when he discovered the door had locked behind Reuben when he stormed out.
He remembered Kathy had a spare key, if he could convince her to let him in. While he waited for her to finish her conversation, he set to work dusting the multiple levels of concentric door frames, which resembled the entrance to a Pharaoh’s tomb.
After much hemming and hawing with the Estates Department, Kathy slammed the phone down and placed headphones in her ear. In the corner of his eye, Tom watched her open Ronald Sykes’ website.
“You listen to Ron Sykes?” Tom asked her.
Gasping, she minimised the browser, probably concerned that he’d grass her up for using the internet on work’s time, which Elixium strictly prohibited.
“Don’t worry,” said Tom. “I won’t say anything. He’s great.”
Kathy smiled. “Such a calming voice. Just what I need to relieve stress.”
“Yes,” said Tom. “Did you hear his theory about the aliens living beneath the polar ice caps?”
Kathy’s eyes lit up. “I’d say it’s more than a theory. He interviewed an ex-MI5 agent who confirmed the whole thing.”
“Really? I must have missed that episode.”
“I have them all transcribed and stored in leather-bound books. You know, the Chinese have a giant electromagnetic pulse weapon they could launch at any moment. It’ll wipe anything digital! I can make you a copy if you like.”
“That’d be great… Oh, and Kathy?”
“Do you have a spare key for the executive suite?”
“I do, but—”
“Reuben seemed very upset, and I know he likes his floor polished every day. I wouldn’t want to make matters worse when he comes back later... For you.”
Kathy adjusted her bottle-top spectacles, deep in thought. “You’re right, he can be so grouchy. Let me open the door for you.”
Once Kathy let him into the executive suite, Tom dropped his cleaning equipment and marched over to Reuben’s oversized desk. He rummaged in the pockets of the tweed jacket abandoned on the back of his bonded leather chair until he found Reuben’s talisman: a creepy wooden skull. He chuckled to himself thinking of how hot and bothered Reuben looked when he rushed out of the suite.
Now for phase two. Tom returned to his cleaning gear and upturned the mop bucket. Instead of dirty water, an assortment of plastic pieces—screws, blades, motors, a hook and a battery pack—scattered on the floor. He set to work, trying to recall how all the components fit together.
I knew I should have bought the instruction booklet!
He screwed the pieces together, his sweaty hands fumbling. He worked with dogged enthusiasm and smiled with pride when he completed his creation: an aerial ‘quadcopter’ drone. He attached his mop bucket to the hook underneath the gadget and loaded Reuben’s skull talisman inside as cargo.
He headed out outside on the balcony, mindful that Kathy could peer around the door at any second to offer him a cup of camomile tea.
From the balcony, he had an amazing view of Elixium’s science park and the surrounding countryside. Winding paths garlanded the modern offices and employees ate lunch alfresco in the landscaped gardens. He prayed that nobody would see the ridiculous flying contraption.
After switching the device on and sending a quick text message, the drone buzzed into life in his hands, the four blades spinning. After a few wobbles, the drone steadied and ascended into the sky.
Josh had been waiting beneath the Egyptian obelisk, the crowning jewel of Elixium’s science park. As soon as he got the message from Tom, he turned on the drone from his remote controller. He tried to steer the device smoothly. The mop bucket swayed precariously on the hook, and any sudden movement could spell disaster.
He guided the drone to an inelegant, but successful, landing. Grabbing the device and the bucket, he ran from the obelisk. In his prime, he’d have sprinted the distance with ease, but his legs felt like lead weights and his lungs wheezed. Gasping for air, he reached the white transit van parked outside the science park entrance and wrapped his knuckles on the back door.
The door opened, revealing Jack, the craftsman he’d paid a king’s ransom to help with their scheme. He reached into the mop bucket and handed the talisman to Jack.
“That it?” The craftsman frowned. “I thought it’d be bigger.”
“That’s what she said,” joked the craftsman’s assistant.
“Is there a problem?”
“No, I’ll get it done,” said the craftsman, “but you’ve got me over a barrel here. It’s gonna cost you extra.”
“Fine,” said Josh through gritted teeth. “Can you hurry, please? Time is of the essence.”
“Keep ya wig on,” said Jack, snatching the artefact. The van was kitted out with a workbench and power tools. Jack lumbered further into the van and placed the talisman in the vice attached to the work bench. He tightened the vice slowly, then rifled around in his toolbox, his fingers rummaging amongst the rusty screws and wrenches. He pulled out a selection of drill bits, one of them extremely thick, then placed a finger to his lips and scratched his head.
Josh’s heart was in his mouth. “It’s got to be flawless. There can’t be any suggestion that someone has tampered with it. And please hurry!”
“Either you want it fast or you want it done right.”
“I want it done right.”
“Then stop nagging and let me get on with it.”
The craftsman cut open the base of the talisman and implanted a GPS tracking device and a battery inside. The plan was to follow Reuben to Venom Empire. Josh had suggested tagging Reuben’s car, but Tom said that limousines ferried Venom Empire members to their dirty little shindigs. He doubted Reuben would be foolish enough to take a mobile phone to Venom Empire, leaving the only option to attach the GPS tracker to Reuben himself or something he always carried around with him.
“Here we are,” Jack said, handing him the talisman. He’d done a good job concealing the join and firmly glued the tracker inside to prevent any rattling. There was a subtle difference in weight, however, which worried Josh.
Tom paced around the executive suite, brushing the black metallic tiles. Now and then he glanced at the balcony, hoping to see the drone approaching. What was taking so long? He applied a layer of polish, the strong solvent smell conspiring with his nerves to turn his stomach. He was about to burnish the floor by hand—Reuben disliked machines—when a reassuring buzzing met his ears.
“Back so soon, Mr Fenwick?” Kathy’s mellifluous voice, from outside the suite, froze his heart. He heard Reuben’s muffled reply and raced to the balcony.
The drone, with his mop bucket in tow, hovered a couple of metres from the balcony. Risking a four hundred foot plunge to the ground below, he climbed on to the steel balustrades, stretching out his arms to reach the drone and nearly losing his balance.
The drone lurched forward; Josh must have seen him struggling. He reached out and clasped the swinging mop bucket, pulling the gadget towards him.
Fumbling, he pulled the bucket off the hook and dashed inside, leaving Josh to manoeuvre the drone out of sight.
He shut the balcony curtains and pulled the modified talisman from the bucket.
The door opened. He quickly hid the artefact in the pocket of his work gilet and sank to his knees as Reuben bounded into the suite.
“Thomas? What are you doing in here?”
He produced a fresh cloth from his gilet and started polishing the floor.
“Oh, hello, sir,” he said, as if butter would not melt in his mouth. “I wanted to make sure your floor was sparkling. I thought you were working downstairs.”
A whirring sound resonated through the suite—the air con system kicking into life.
“They fixed the air con. Loose connection apparently.”
“Thank heavens,” said Tom, wiping the sweat from his brow.
Reuben retreated to his desk, but then stopped and turned. “Nobody should be in here alone, okay. I thought I told Kathy that.”
Tom bowed his head submissively. “Sorry, I didn’t realise.”
“Also, you missed a bit.”
Tom’s heart pounded as Reuben ambled over to his desk and sat down on his executive chair. On his knees, Tom crawled forward. Reuben’s jacket hung limply on the back of his chair. Could he slip the talisman into the pocket?
He burnished the floor as fast as he could, with broad sweeping arcs, inching closer to Reuben’s desk.
“Slow down, Thomas,” said Reuben. “Otherwise you’ll have to start again.”
Reuben settled back in the chair to observe him, slipping his hand into his jacket pocket. The blood rushed out of Tom’s face. For a split second, he considered handing Reuben the artefact and saying he’d found it on the floor while he was cleaning, but fortunately the phone rang and Reuben pulled the chair forward and picked up the receiver.
The phone conversation quickly became heated. Tom guessed the call was about the Elixiflu scandal.
“Don’t you dare,” said Reuben. “There’s no way we’re accepting responsibility at this stage… I don’t care what Marion thinks! It’s not happening… Tell her I said so!”
Tom shuffled closer, daring to skip a patch of floor while Reuben turned to face the wall. He plucked the skull artefact from his pocket and secreted it in Reuben’s jacket pocket. Moments later, Reuben settled back in the chair and plunged his hand into the pocket. Tom studied his boss’s expression, praying that there wouldn’t be a sudden frown. To his relief, Reuben yawned and pulled his hand out of his pocket.
“Why have you stopped?” barked Reuben.
“Sorry, sir.” He resumed his cleaning routine, his lips curling into a faint smile.
Tom joined a circle of recovering addicts and alcoholics in a grotty community hall on a muggy August night. The coordinator passed biscuits around and they took turns to moan about their lives. Amanda told the group about her relapse last Wednesday. After breaking up with her scumbag boyfriend, who regularly stole from her and slapped her around, she consumed a bottle of Lambrini, slashed her wrists and ended up in A&E.
“Well done for reaching seven days,” said Karen, the group’s coordinator. She was a recovering alcoholic too, but Tom struggled to imagine her drunk. Everything about her was grey and lifeless. “And how are you feeling today, Amanda?”
“Much better,” she replied. “I’m back together with my boyfriend too.”
Tom sighed audibly, although he did not intend to.
“It’s going to be different this time,” protested Amanda.
“We’re always here for you,” said Karen.
Next to speak was Graham, a bespectacled and softly spoken man in his late 40s, who emanated an aura of kindness. He’d been picked on his entire life—in the playground by bullies, in the office by managers, and in the home by his wife, who eventually divorced him and ran off with his younger brother. Graham detailed his spiralling debt problems and the horrors of withdrawing from benzodiazepines.
“What about you, Tom?” asked Karen. “Would you like to speak?”
Usually he declined. The group mystified him. They talked of ‘higher powers’ and Karen told him he’d only recover if he accepted he had no control over his impulses. She said he’d be an addict for the rest of his life. He was weak. He had a disease. The rehab group’s doctrine almost reminded him of the Grandmaster. Still, he attended every evening to keep himself on the straight and narrow—and away from the pubs. He needed to keep his wits about him to carry out the next phase of the plan.
“Ok,” he said. “My name is Tom.” He was supposed to say he was an addict but the words wouldn’t form.
Karen smiled. “How long have you been sober, Tom?”
Murmured congratulations rippled through the circle. Measuring the passage of time obsessed them, as if sobriety was a prison sentence that needed to be endured.
“Drugs?” asked Karen.
“Yes,” Tom replied. “Alcohol, too. It blotted out the shitty parts of life and made things awesome. It worked, for a while, I was taking this designer drug—”
“I took stuff like that,” said Kev, a crusty in a leather jacket. “2-CB and 2-CI. Experimental shit you buy off the dark web.”
“Try not to crosstalk,” said Karen. “Go on, Tom.”
“Anyway, while I was busy getting high, I let people down. Lost some genuine friends. And a girl. Not just any girl. She was one in a million. I loved her.” His eyes glazed with tears. Graham reached over and gave him a pat on the back.
“Keep coming back, Tom,” said Karen. “Have you thought about doing the steps?”
He shook his head. “I’m not like you guys. It’s like there’s a loose connection in my brain. I’m only staying sober because I have something important to do.”
“It’s good to have goals,” said Karen. “They help focus the mind.”
“It’s hatred that keeps me going,” said Tom. The eyes of the rehab group fixed on him. “I have an enemy.”
“Embrace the love flowing all around you, Tom,” said Karen. “Stay positive.”
Tom smiled politely. The sober lifestyle sucked, but it was a means to an end. After all, he didn’t intend to live much longer. Once he’d killed Reuben and pissed on his grave, there’d be nothing to live for.