Mark Ward‘s a new writer from the United Kingdom with a lot of talent. His Futurismic début “Cycle Thieves” is a moody mystery that wonders if life makes sense if you know too much.
[ IMPORTANT NOTICE: This story is NOT covered by the Creative Commons License that covers the majority of content on Futurismic; copyright remains with the author, and any redistribution is a breach thereof. Thanks. ]
by Mark Ward
“You know what I’m sick of?” Trev said.
“No,” Duffy said, pawing through his rucksack, “I don’t.”
Duffy stopped rummaging, looked up, and saw that George, El and Chrissy were as nonplussed as he was, not least because Trev was going through a messy divorce.
“What?” Duffy said, speaking for all of them.
“Look,” Trev said. “I’ve joined all these online dating networks that hook you up with people that you’re bound to fancy based on your likes and dislikes, who your friends are, your aspirations, personality, salary. The lot. We’re all members of them. I’ve got accounts at Taxa, Umfriends, Benco, Lulot…”
“Lulot?” El said. “Don’t think I know that one.”
“Stands for ‘Love you long time’. Well, almost. Anyway, I’ve joined loads of them but when I’m on one of these dates there’s nothing to talk about. I know everything about her, and she knows everything about me. What music, what books, fave films, pet peeves, where we went to school. Collar size. Everything. The social network side of it means you can’t lie either. There’s no surprises, no mystery, nothing to discover. You’re perfectly matched and bored stupid. It takes all the fun out of dating, I can tell you.”
“You just miss getting your face slapped a few times a night,” Chrissy said.
“I do. I really do miss regularly being told to fuck off,” Trev said, almost wistfully. “I miss the uncertainty of it, y’know spotting the quarry, the thrill of the chase, the risk, the whole…” He searched for the word. “Event.”
“You make it sound like a fox hunt,” Duffy said.
They all looked at him.
“Oh,” he said. “Fox. Right.”
The five of them were sitting at a table in Snow’s beer garden that was a café early in the day. The drizzle had lifted but on his way in Duffy had seen clouds lining up at the city’s edge like they were being delivered.
“Vic!” they said in unison.
“Gang’s all here,” he said, sitting down. “Now, where were we?”
“Sex,” said George. “And relationships.”
“Same old, same old,” Vic said, getting out lighter and cigarettes. “Here’s one for you.”
“Here we go,” said George.
“Thalidomide victims,” Vic said. “How do they wank?”
Uproar. Chrissy choking on her coffee. Trev smiling so much his glasses fell off. Patrons at other tables looked over at them, frowning.
“Think about it,” Vic said, when the noise had died down, fag hanging out the corner of his mouth. He had the backs of his hands laid against his shoulders, fingers wiggling. “Those little arms. They can’t reach can they? Cappuccino and a croissant, please love. Do they get it on the NHS, do you think?”
“Flid fiddlers,” Trev said, grimacing.
“That’s a bit near the knuckle,” George said, setting them all off again.
Duffy sat back and let the laughter wash over him. This was what it used to be like, when they started out. Meeting up at Snow’s, long loud conversations, just fun being around each other. Shooting the breeze, better than work, letting the sparks fly. Drunk on the possibilities, where they would go, what they would do. And no doubt that they would do it. Dotcompadres, Dotcognescenti, Dotconquerors. He’d never known a dynamic like it.
And probably never would again. This one hadn’t lasted longer than one long, glorious summer and now when they met they were trading on memories, not making new ones. He just hoped that what he had to do strengthened rather than weakened the bonds between them. He still wasn’t sure what he had the courage for – to betray them or condemn himself. He was worried by the fact that he couldn’t work out which would be harder.
He tuned back in to hear Chrissy say: “I just want a break, that’s all. I’ve had enough of coding for a lifetime. It’s not a state of being for me like it is for some guys. I want to go travelling, dyking around, do the gay trails with Berta. Maybe write a book about it.”
“What’s it going to be called?” Vic said, tapping his ciggy on the side of the ashtray. “Travels with my cunt?”
Uproar. Again. This time Duffy saw a shiny suited someone at another table grab a waitress and point at them, telling her to sort them out. Duffy caught her eye and mimed signing the bill so she’d know they were leaving.
“It might at that,” Chrissy said, smiling widely at Vic. “Thanks for the idea.”
He raised an eyebrow at her then looked away as he ground out his fag then took a swig and a bite. “Ahhh,” he said, “cigarettes, coffee and croissants. The breakfast of champions.”
“I thought that was sex,” Duffy said.
“Can’t be, Vic said, shaking his head, “doesn’t begin with ‘C’.”
“Does in my book,” Chrissy said, waggling her tongue at him.
“Cheeky,” Vic said.
“Too rich for my blood,” George said, standing and picking up his briefcase. “Gotta go, meetings and all that.” He rummaged in his pocket, brought out a handful of change and dropped most of it on the table. Then he kissed El, murmured something to her and walked off, one hand raised in farewell.
“Was it something I said?” asked Vic, around a mouthful of crumbs.
“No,” said El, “Hubby’s just got a big day. Places to go, people to see.” She looked at her watch. “Eek, and so do I. Laters, boys and girls, we should do this more often. We really should.” She wanted to stay, just like they all did, to make it just like the old days.
And then she was gone.
The others finished their coffee, licked the crumbs off their fingers, dropped some cash and drifted away. Vic was last to leave, saluting Duffy as he stood, lighting a ciggy as he walked away.
Once the bill was paid Duffy fired up the laptop hoping that it would have nothing to tell him. Instead, the screen was clogged with reports about the traffic they’d generated and all the data that had been ripped off from other customers at Snow’s. Someone, one of his closest friends, was a thief, a good one, and he had to find out who.
Cycle theft the police had called it, when they were interrogating him the night before. He’d been grabbed by two plain-clothes coppers just as he’d stepped out of the pub. He been on his way to Tee’s party but spent most of the night in a dank cell tiled like a public toilet. He sweated himself hollow trying to work out what he’d done. Was it the porn on his PC? Had he become an unwitting relay for some hideous kiddy porn ring? His life could have ended already. Might’ve been the last free pint he’d ever lift.
He lay on a mattress so thin he could count the springs with his back, one arm across his eyes keep out the bare bulb’s bright light that speared him like an accusation, going over and over the ways he might have broken the law. By the time they took him to be interrogated he was as edgy as a box of knives.
It started well.
“You’re a very important person,” the smiling detective sitting at the other side of the battered table had said.
“Yes. Well, not to me.” The smile was gone. “Frankly, I don’t give a flying fuck whether you live or die. But your friends make you important. Whenever you meet these friends, crimes are committed. Mobile phones, PDAs and laptops are ransacked, passwords and login details are stolen, ID tokens are duplicated, credit card transactions copied and, soon after, money disappears out of bank accounts. Databases are spirited away in the night, trojans and keyloggers are planted on corporate intranets and viruses are let loose. You’re very well connected so you’re a perfect conduit for this, ah, activity.”
“And you think I know who’s doing this?”
“Oh, dear me, no,” said the detective. “We know exactly who is doing it.”
“Provably so.” The policeman placed a sheaf of papers before Duffy. “And this is the evidence. You, well, your phone, is the key. When it meets other blocks of code spread around the gadgets of your mates those strange things start to happen. We think the code was crafted from some brutal utility turned out by a People’s Republic propaganda unit turned spam outfit. Very clever stuff. Different attacks get kicked off when different people are together. That’s why it took so long for us to work it out. It also grabs any spare processor cycles to crack away at any passwords or security software it finds. Cycle theft, that’s what it’s called. Among other things.”
So the detective had given him an ultimatum, looming over him, resting on his knuckles like a gorilla would. He had 24 hours to find out which of his friends was the cycle thief. Do it and they’d let him go. Fail, and they’d fuck him four ways from Sunday.
“Especially on Sunday, in the nick,” was the parting shot.
Which is why Duffy found himself at 0630 on the 2/10, the date like a grade he felt so rough, sat at the rentware conference table in his office, staring at the crowded screen of his laptop.
The police had told him to use the iGod software he’d been developing, making him realise how long he’d been under surveillance. Slumped in the chair it occurred to him that a day spent failing to find the cycle thief would frame him even more perfectly.
He started up the iGod and adjusted the settings to gather the information he’d need. It was designed as a help-all that sat in the background and catalogued every digital trace a person left. All the phone calls, texts, e-mails and instant messages. The digital or phonecam snaps, blog entries, blog comments and websites visited. All the purchases, downloads and updates. Everything catalogued and searchable, plottable any way you wanted. Your life cast into a binary box. Hence the iGod name, it was supposed to be invisible, inscrutable, all-knowing.
While it chugged away he used the office shower and changed into the clean clothes he kept in his locker. He was dog tired but the half-wrap of whizz he found in the pocket of his ancient combats helped him pick up the pace.
When he got back to conference room the laptop screen showed a map of London thick with symbols representing his friends, how they’d communicated and where they’d done it. At max elevation the scatter of icons looked like a whirlpool. Its five arms spiralling into a black clot of symbols at the centre where they lay too thick to pick out individually.
He almost gave up there and then, zooming in and out of the image, confronting the mountain of data and feeling powerless, like a teacher at the weekend, when he gazed at the sheer mass of it.
But if there was a way out of this that would let him survive with a small corner of his self-respect untainted, it would be to catch whoever was betraying them all. He hoped he was doing it because of what he felt for his friends, but at the same time he wondered if it wasn’t just selfish fear driving him. Either way, he had to get on with it.
And he had one more problem to solve today. Tee. The coppers had made sure he missed her party, which was pretty much unforgivable. He wondered what she’d demand as recompense. Marriage? He could handle marriage, though the way things were going he’d be lucky to get away with a card at Christmas.
Duffy looked at the mood ring he’d left lying on the tabletop while he showered and changed. The chunky ring was black but the night before had been rosy red. The pair of rings Tee and Duffy wore were the most expensive things they owned. The ring’s radio-sensitive alloy changed colour depending on how one partner told their phone how they felt about the other. Switched off the thing was a pearly grey. Black was as bad as it could get.
He sighed, stood up, massaged his jaw, put on the ring, collected his belongings and got on his way. First step was breakfast. The iGod told him that if he was strolling along Farringdon Road between 7:43 and 8:09 he’d pop up like a happy accident on the You-Who? buddy-watching software that he, George, El, Chrissy, Vic and Trev used to let them know when they were a street or two away from each other. Then he could suggest they meet for breakfast at Snow’s on Clerkenwell Green. He hadn’t known why, but he’d wanted to look them all in the face, maybe one last time.
Now sitting among the debris of a breakfast at Snow’s, with time ticking on, he had decisions to make.
Chrissy would be first because he didn’t think such a diligent dyke-about-town would be a thief. And if he eliminated her quickly he’d feel like he was making progress.
Setting the laptop on the table in Snow’s he fired up the You-Who? software, feeling twinges of guilt as he turned his profile to stealth mode so he could see her but she couldn’t see him, and got it tracking where she was going.
The laptop chimed. Instant Messenger was flashing. He brought the window to
the front of the screen as the words “Teegirl has signed in” scrolled across the bottom of it.
“Bollocks,” he said. He thought, hoped, Tee would be sleeping late and he wouldn’t have to deal with her so soon.
Teegirl [so who is she?]
He had to think quickly. Delay and she’d think he was making something up. IM was pitiless.
Duffer [theres no one else. you know that]
Teegirl [i do. do you?]
Duffer [something came up]
Teegirl [first time ive heard it called that]
Teegirl [dont what. last night was a big night for me]
Duffer [i know. im sorry]
Teegirl [are you? really? i thought that this time you would make it because it was so important]
Duffer [i am. really. i cant tell you why i wasnt there. not yet]
Teegirl [it had better be big. bigger than us]
Duffer [its pretty serious]
Teegirl [it had better be. because im beginning to wonder how important i am/we are to you]
Before Duffy had finished replying, a message saying: “Teegirl has signed out” scrolled across the IM window. It was better than walking out the room and slamming the door, he thought. More final. The mood ring stayed as black as her tone.
He got out his mobile to ring Tee, glancing at the You-Who? map as he called up the number.
“Fuckit!” Chrissy was on the move but not where he expected. She was heading for the tube not her office. Fucking great, he thought, two minutes into the chase and already it’s getting complicated.
He shut the laptop, stuffed it in to his rucksack and ran out of Snow’s, sprinting towards Farringdon. Trying not to hope that the tube would be delayed because that would jinx his commuter karma and make it arrive early.
Once through the ticket barriers he paused on the bridge overlooking the station to try to spot Chrissy. A train was on the Metropolitan line platform and he prayed that she wasn’t on it. No. There she was waiting for a Westbound circle line train.
He hid behind some late commuters to get on to the platform without being seen. Watching Chrissy from behind a pillar he realised that he needn’t have bothered. She seemed distracted, scuffing her boot against the leg of a bench, lost in thought. Her head bobbing, her hands twitching like she was rehearsing or reliving a conversation.
Odd, he thought, where is she going?
When the train arrived he sat a couple of carriages away, watching at every station to see if she got off. Wondering what he’d say if it all went wrong and he bumped in to her. He felt bad enough about it himself without having to justify it to someone else. Though he’d lied to these friends before to avoid going to parties, dinners or meet friends-of-friends he didn’t like. Lying about this was worse, maybe because the lies demanded he do something rather than parrot excuses.
Between stations he paged through the data the iGod had gathered about her. E-mail and text messages, blog entries, iPod playlists and pictures. Pictures. Here was something odd. Running the images in Chrissy’s public Picstore album as a slide show Duffy realised that almost none had been filed in the last month or so. There were far fewer than normal and almost all of them were static shots taken with a cameraphone. None of Chrissy, Berta and their ‘bo mates leering at the camera.
The iGod software also grabbed some recent snaps from Berta’s album, some on the same dates as the ones Chrissy posted, and those showed the usual beery crowd.
And Chrissy wasn’t in a single one.
Duffy compared the cell-ID data from the cameraphone pics from both albums. In a few cases, five now he counted, Chrissy and Berta were out on the same nights in different parts of town. One drinking and dancing, the other taking moody shots of the Thames, buildings and clouds.
“They’ve split up,” Duffy said, realising what he was seeing. “They’ve bloody split up.” He was incredulous. They were, had been, so devoted. A perfect pair. Bought a flat together and everything. Just now, he thought, just now she said they were going travelling. But he guessed they weren’t. And she hadn’t told anyone. No-one. Her closest friends and she hadn’t told any of them even though it had been over for weeks. Weeks. And now he knew. Only he knew and he couldn’t let on, couldn’t comfort her or help her through it.
Looking up he saw Chrissy trudging past the window towards the exit at Cannon Street station. Her hunched shoulders making her look smaller and more vulnerable than usual. He waited until the last second before following, dodging through the door as it closed, so he could stay well back.
He needn’t have bothered she was so sunk in herself. Scuffing her feet on the flagstones, mooching along. He found himself getting closer and closer. Ten, five, two metres away, wanting to reach out and hug her, do something rather than just let her go through it alone. But he couldn’t. Not yet, he consoled himself, when this was over. Maybe. He hung back and watched her cross the street and go into an estate agent. Saw her shaking the hand of a tall, thin man with red braces and a combover.
Returning to the tube he sat on a bench on the Cannon Street concourse. On the laptop he called up You-Who? and, piggybacking on the privileges his friendship with Chrissy gave him, got hold of all the data it had about Berta. For the last month her phone had spent the night close to a base station in Finsbury Park. Not Docklands where Chrissy and Berta had bought a flat together.
Then he realised that the cycle thief could be Chrissy after all. She knew enough about coding, needed cash to buy out her former lover and was thinking about leaving the country. He sat back and watched the rain start to fall again realising that though he knew more about Chrissy than ever, he’d never felt less sure of who his friends and enemies were.
Sitting thinking Duffy brought up the map the iGod had plotted, looking for a hint as to what he could do next. He zoomed in to the street level view and saw that close to the estate agent was a spot that Trev seemed to frequent. There was a wi-fi hotspot and some Community Chest public storage associated with it even though, by the look of the map, it was round the back of a pub.
Maybe, thought Duffy, visiting it while Chrissy is close will trip some trigger in my phone and help me work out who I’m chasing. It might even turn up a chunk of code I can decompile for a clue about who wrote it. Anything would help.
Finding the pub yard took longer than he thought. But just as he was getting frantic and expecting You-Who? to tell him Chrissy was out of range, he found it. Pushing open a rotting wooden door on the busy street he found a short alley that led to a dank courtyard dotted with trestle tables. Propped up against the boarded up door opposite the alley opening was an old pub sign. The Hammer and Tongs – Duffy could just make out the name in the gloom. The buildings forming its walls were so high that it was even escaping most of the drizzle falling elsewhere on the city.
What did Trev do here, he wondered? Maybe he was negotiating to buy the pub, renovate it and turn it into offices. He was the man with the money after all.
Sitting at the sturdiest table he set up the laptop to grab any code floating by, then switched on his mobile.
Grim-faced, he snorted, pursed his lips and then almost dropped the phone as it rang. It was Trev.
“Duffy you rogue. You dog, you.”
“And so early in the day too. So that’s why you think sex is the breakfast of champions. The energy of you youngsters. I don’t know. Does Tee know about this?”
“Oh, come on. You can tell me. We’re old pals. Go all the way back. Well, almost. And anyway you can’t deny it. I know exactly where you are and people only go there for one thing.”
“Trev, really. I don’t know what you are talking about.”
The silence stretched between them. Duffy furiously figuring out what he could get away with saying. Especially if Trev was the thief. Could he record the call?
“So you’re there by accident are you?” Trev said, his tone sceptical.
“No, but I really don’t know what goes on here. What you do here.”
Trev sighed. “Do me a favour will you? Look up ‘Hammer and Tongs’, EC4 and London on Google.”
“Just do it, will you?”
While tapping in the query Duffy could hear a voice near Trev calling a name over and over again. But before he could ask Trev where he was, his attention was grabbed by what popped up on screen.
“Exactly. And pretty regularly too.”
“I’m in a dogging pit.”
“Bingo,” said Trev. ”There are even pics and movies in the Community Chest.”
Duffy stood up. Sitting at a table that was a stage for people that like to fuck in front of a crowd didn’t appeal, who knew what had touched the pitted wood. He walked round the courtyard, avoiding touching the walls, taking shallow breaths. Maybe I’m not as liberated as I thought, he said to himself.
“Hang on. So you come here and fuck people you…,”
“I do. But not often and not in front of others. Strictly solo. Well, almost. And don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. It’s one of the most honest things I do.
“Yeah, honest. Everyone knows what they are there for. There’s none of the lies, deceptions and compromises you get in most relationships.”
“You don’t think you’re a little jaded because of your, err, divorce. Maybe Mary just didn’t understand you?”
“Didn’t understand me?” Trev snorted. “She understood me perfectly, that was entirely the problem. Anyway this isn’t about me. You’re the one with the explaining to do.”
“How did you know I was here?”
“I had one of my boys set up a text message alert that told me if someone I knew was in the vicinity. Didn’t think it’d be you though. Vic? Yes. You? No.”
“Why not me?”
“Oh, come on. You and Tee were made for each other. You don’t need anyone else. Everyone seems to know that but you. But as long as she knows it that’s alright. It’s like I always say: A woman won’t shack up with a man smarter than she is.”
“You were always good with people Trev,” said Duffy. “That’s why I stopped working with you.”
“You worked for me not with me, and anyway you don’t any longer. That’s why I can say these things. But look, what are you doing there. You going to tell me or not?”
“I’m not sure I can.”
The voice in the background came again. Now Duffy could make it out. It was calling Arthur Trefor Samuels aka Trev.
“Are you in court?” Duffy asked.
“Bollocks, they’re asking for me. Look, I can’t talk now. Bit busy. Cards on the table time. Promise me you’ll tell me why you’re in Tongs yard and I’ll tell you where I am now. Quid pro quo.”
“Deal.” Empty promises were easy to make.
“Lunch tomorrow then and you tell me everything. I’ve got to go. I’m in court, bankruptcy court. Winding up one of the businesses. Bit of a bugger all round. If it goes badly you might be paying.”
I think I already am thought Duffy as Trev hung up. This was getting worse and worse. Now he knew that Trev had a sudden need for cash, not just for the divorce settlement, but for his holding company. What else had Trev said? That dogging was one of the most honest things he did. That one of his boys had set up the alert. All of them, George, El, Chrissy and Vic had worked for Trev at one time or another. All Duffy knew was that he hadn’t written the code. But it could be any of the others. Any of his friends. Suspicion was so corrosive, he didn’t feel like he could trust any of them now.
The clatter of approaching footsteps roused him. A young couple were staggering down the alley, struggling to walk as they kissed and pawed at each other. He was wearing a well-cut charcoal grey suit, dazzling white shirt and patent brogues. She was equally well turned out in a black fitted jacket and figure hugging black skirt. Both had world class hair. Seeing Duffy they shrugged, giggled, looked each other in the eye and lurched towards the nearest bench. Duffy gathered his gear and fled, their laughter chasing him all the way back to the brighter, busy streets where the sun was now drying all the pavements.
Walking back to Cannon Street tube station he rang Tee. Just to see how bad it was. Got her on the first ring.
“Hey,” Duffy said.
“If I could tell you I would. You know that.”
“I hope so.”
“And last night was hugely important for me D. You knew that. It was the second gig I’ve done for NBH and this was for its Creative Litigation team. Lots more people. Catering. Performance artists. Mimes.”
“I know,” he said. “But you must know if I could’ve been there, I would’ve been.”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“I trust you to be honest.”
The words were like an anchor.
“Meaning you’d tell me if there was someone else. If we were over. You wouldn’t let me live a lie.”
“There isn’t and I’d tell you why I wasn’t there if I could. Believe me, I’d much rather been with you.”
“So it’s not another woman?”
“No,” he said. ”But that’s all I can say.” He hesitated, then said: “You just have to trust me.”
She hung up.
“Just when I thought we were getting somewhere,” he said, staring at the phone. Looking round he found he was outside the station. He got a coffee he didn’t really want in the café on the concourse to give himself time to work out where he should go next.
George and El, the perfect couple, were the next targets. Browsing what the iGod knew about them he found that they were spending a lot of time on Borough high street. Odd, when neither worked anywhere near and both commuted via Waterloo. So off to London Bridge it was. He gave the coffee to a homeless guy sitting by the ticket barrier.
Sitting on the tube, listening to the carriage couplings complaining like children he realised that the last encounter had knocked all the motivation out of him and now he was completing his investigation, if it could be called that, just because he thought he should. His hope of salvaging anything from the day was evaporating but he still felt he had to try, because he didn’t want the fucker that was doing this to get away with it completely. Trying was all he had left.
At London Bridge station he got lost as usual and by accident found himself emerging on Borough high street, exactly where he wanted to be. He was looking up and down the road for a café to sit so he could plan his next move when he heard his phone chime with the You-Who? ringtone. Someone was close by. George according to the handset. And Duffy hadn’t switched back to stealth mode after finding Tong’s yard. If George had his phone on he’d know, and wonder, why Duffy was so close. Panicked Duffy turned left, walking down Borough high street wondering how long it would take to get out of range. He couldn’t pull out the laptop and fiddle with settings on the street.
Looking up he saw George standing at the top of a short flight of steps that led into an imposing building set back from the street. Above the solid wooden doors was a discrete sign reading: “The Bessemer Clinic For The Study and Treatment of Infertility”. In Garamond, Duffy noted absently. To one side of the door a nurse in scrubs smoked a cigarette, shoulders hunched against the wind.
George looked as shocked as Duffy felt but he recovered first. Then said: “Fancy meeting you here.”
“No, me neither.”
For a moment George had looked like he was about to bolt back into the building, but now he smiled, shrugged, and came down the steps to Duffy’s side.
“I think we need to talk,” he said, taking Duffy by the arm.
They found a pub round the corner and didn’t say another word until they were both sitting behind pints of bitter. Duffy’s rucksack on the bench between them like a chaperone.
“So,” said George.
“Shouldn’t you be at work?”
“I work for myself so I keep my own hours. What’s your excuse?”
“Field work. Putting the iGod through its paces in the real world. That kind of thing.”
“No,” said Duffy, the weight of his sordid task too much to bear. The trust of his oldest friend too valuable to cheapen this way. “Not really. I’ve got myself into trouble and I’m trying to get out of it.”
“It’s not the police is it?”
Once they’d mopped up the beer that Duffy had been about to swig, the story came out. One of the bank accounts for George’s consultancy had been behaving oddly and when he’d reported it to his bank they’d got the police involved who’d found the lead they needed to work out what was going on. The account was used intermittently so any money moving through it stood out.
For a moment Duffy was suspicious. Was this a double bluff? To throw him off the scent? The thought sickened him and even if it was true, he didn’t want to believe it. At least he had that.
“So I know it’s not you then,” said Duffy, after telling George what the police wanted him to do.
“Nor El either. We’re clean.”
“But you do have some secrets though,” said Duffy, taking another swig.
“Hey, we’re the perfect couple. We know what people say about us. E and G, the perfect example to us all. Childhood sweethearts, married young and sickeningly devoted ever since. Can’t expect us to be having problems conceiving can you?”
“I can now.”
“Look,” he said. “It’s not that uncommon. And you should know we’re not infertile. We’re what they call sub-fertile. More than 40% of couples that have problems conceiving do so for unknown reasons and… Oh, Christ, I’m sick of trotting out all the excuses. I sound like an apologist for Bush or something. Defending the indefensible. I tell you. Long as El and I have been together, this is testing us out.”
“Really? I dunno, you and Tee seem so good together. You’re the ones El and I call the perfect couple. There’s so many pictures of you two in your flat it must be like living with a replicant. But if you are having a rough patch then if you do nothing else today you should make your peace with Tee. Especially if it looks like you’re going down for this bike snatcher.”
“I’m not sure we are so good together,” said Duffy. “I can even put a price on how much I love her. Up to a rate of $6 per minute.”
“That’s pretty precise.”
“I’ll tell you for why. Remember in the summer I went off to that Emerging Tech conference in Washington?”
“Well, the morning I flew out I was in a real hurry and didn’t say goodbye properly to Tee. Just thought I’d ring her from the departure lounge. But my cab got stuck in traffic, I was late and last on the plane. Only just made it. Didn’t get a chance to call.”
“So, I thought I’d call her from the plane. But a call through those seat-side handsets costs six bucks per minute and I thought then that I couldn’t love her that much if I wasn’t prepared to spend a bit of cash to tell her. Since then I’ve noticed that there are loads of things she does that irritate the arse out of me. The iGod’s helped to show some of the ways she manipulates me too.”
“Such as her only asking my opinion if she wants someone to blame if something goes wrong. Such as handing out advice after something has happened, when everyone can see what went wrong, and claiming she knew it would happen that way anyway. Such as calling people on the things she does herself.”
“That all sounds pretty human. And stuff you’d never have noticed if you hadn’t started using the iGod. And, by the way, don’t you think using the iGod is a little obsessive? What are you? A freaking robot? Where’s the trust?”
“I started using it to help smooth out the bumps, settle arguments by knowing who said what when. Get past the petty details and help us find out how much we do care for each other. Find out if she was worth more than $6 per minute. Make it better.”
“And do you feel more secure using it?”
“To be honest, I don’t know.”
“To be honest I think you do. Look, people don’t just argue over misunderstandings, they argue for all kinds of reasons. Especially women. And you wouldn’t take that trouble, wouldn’t use the iGod, wouldn’t pore over her words, if you didn’t care. A lot. If you didn’t want to make it better. Maybe you should turn the iGod on yourself. See if Tee should be aggrieved with you. You might be as bad as each other.”
George just looked at him.
“Oh,” said Duffy. “Right.”
“I’ve got to go,” said George. “there’s a man waiting with a plastic cup for me to wank into. Take care. Let me know how it goes.”
“You know it,” said Duffy.
Once George had gone, Duffy fired up the laptop one last time and turned the iGod’s text analysis tools on himself. He was shocked by how many times he used the word “sorry.” He always seemed to be putting people off and letting them down. The number of people that invited him to parties, launches, or just down the pub was on a long steady decline. Soon Tee would be all he had.
It was almost addictive having this much information about what people said and did, though he realised that it took a bit of work to find out their real secrets. A glance at Vic’s details probably wouldn’t tell him much without a bit more field work.
But he did it anyway, fiddling around with the text and mapping tools. There didn’t seem to be much there except that Vic had a habit of quoting what other people wrote in his own e-mails and instant messages. Cheeky fucker, thought Duffy. He wasn’t even stealing jokes, just snippets of information about UCL where they all studied. His pulse rising, Duffy called up Vic’s biography and deconstructed it with the iGod. It looked like it had been put together from everyone else they knew. A qualification here, a minor public school there, a teacher’s nickname, an injury, a kiss with a pretty girl at a sixth form disco, cornet lessons — everything could be traced to someone else.
Duffy tried to convince himself it wasn’t suspicious that Vic had done this. Tried, but failed. Firing up Taxa he looked for friends-of-friends that might be able to help. A couple of phone calls later and he had the name and number of someone who was still at UCL and worked in the registrars office.
Another phone call, another pint and an interminable wait for the laptop to chime to let him know an e-mail had arrived.
“Gotcha,” he muttered when he read the message. There was no record of Victor Lambert Cassidy studying Computer Science, or any other subject, at UCL.
Twenty minutes later and Duffy was dropped off by a black cab in Soho. He’d bounced a test text message off Vic’s phone to find him meaning to tip the police off. But now he was here he wanted to confront Vic and find out why. Why them?
Walking down gloomy alleys studded with sex shops and private clubs Duffy reached a part of Soho he didn’t know existed. The area was often sleazy but this seemed menacing in some way. There were a lot of lock-ups, anonymous offices and warehouses.
Struck with indecision Duffy hesitated, not knowing what to do next. Then four people stepped out of one of the offices towards the end of the street. There was a fat man, a little boy, a thick set bloke in a tight suit and, Duffy realised, Vic.
Duffy followed them down the road, Vic seemed to be holding court, the others laughing at what he was saying.
They turned into the open loading bay of one of the office buildings, disappearing from Duffy’s view.
He waited a moment when he got to the building to give them time to get ahead. Peering round the corner he found he was looking right at Vic.
“Hi,” said Vic, a broad smile on his face.
Before Duffy could react the fat man grabbed him and lifted him into the bay. Duffy was pushed against a wall, the fat man and the man in the suit blocking the route to the street. Vic told the boy to go and get cups of tea for everyone.
“Took you a while. How did you find me?” said Vic.
“With a little help from my friends,” said Duffy.
“You betrayed us,” said Duffy. “We trusted you.”
“Spare me,” said Vic. “I did it because I can, because it’s what I do. Because you were too trusting and made it easy for me. Happy to overlook the misgivings when someone’s funny, flash with money and a bit dangerous. Everyone wanted to know me. Fuck you. All of you got what you deserved. It’s payback for all the entertainment I’ve given you. And cheap at the price too. But this next bit, that’s just for you.”
“This,” said Vic, nodding at the fat man who punched Duffy in the face.
Duffy staggered into the man in the suit who held him while the fat man went to work. Duffy heard the snick of his nose breaking and felt blood gush over his lips but soon it all seemed to be happening far away.
The fat man punched Duffy until only the man in the suit was holding him up. Vic stepped over, looked closely at Duffy for a moment before saying: “One more.”
He knew what he was doing. Before Duffy was punched in the stomach and dropped to the oil-stained concrete he still had the will to flee. That final punch extinguished it and left him lying in his own blood, snot and tears unable to do anything but watch Vic and his friends swagger away.
Duffy concentrated on just breathing again then dug out his phone, took a picture of his face and sent it to Tee.
He smiled, then winced, when his phone rang moments later.
“Duffy,” said Tee, her voice shrill. “Jesus. Fuck. What happened?”
“Tee,” he said, “it doesn’t matter. Listen to me. I need to tell you something. I love you and I trust you and I know now what that lets us do. It lets us take the risks that make life possible. Without it we’re nothing. We wouldn’t have the space to exist if all we did was watch each other. No-one, nothing can survive such scrutiny. So I’m sorry and I love you for all your quirks and I cherish them as much as I cherish you. Now, come and get me, the picture will tell you where I am.”
Then he shut off the phone, smiling as he felt the mood ring warm up as it changed colour and laughing at her closing comment: “Waddya mean quirks?”
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