panacea · Uncategorized

Panacea – Chapter One

Early afternoon pub crowds often produced odd vibes. Tourists, alcoholics and locals with nothing better to do peppered the bar. Each person lost in quiet conversation or silent contemplation depending on the reason for their drinking. No one really cared about anything there, not at that time of day, which was exactly why Benn liked it.

The television had been muted as they often were in bars, though the text-to-speech subtitles still let onlookers know with varying accuracy what had been said twenty seconds earlier. Benn had been keeping an eye on the news as he sat alone at the bar, only half paying attention in the anxious hope that he would get a glimpse of whatever consequences he was to face from his actions the night before. He wondered how they hadn’t reported it yet, surely the world wasn’t so bleak that a dead body being found off South Bridge wasn’t considered newsworthy?

It caught his eye as he ordered another bottle of American larger, a shot of the old festival theatre on the news, they were finally reporting it.

Images of police tape flapping in the wind were swiftly cycled through as blurry shapes of police officers convened in the background. Benn considered risking attention by asking for the volume to be turned on, but he decided against it and settled instead for the delayed words at the bottom of the screen.

A grim discovery was made early this morning as the body of Alice White was discovered. The young PHD student of Napier University was last seen by her classmates on Friday evening.’

            The image cut to a decorated officer who was doing his best not to look too perplexed. Fake confidence was always easy enough to spot for Benn, especially when he had time to examine man’s face while he waited for the subtitles to catch up to what was being said. When Alys’ name was once again misspelled Benn considered risking attention again.

Given the nature of the body and some communications we have received regarding the case,’ The officer said, ‘we can assume this to be a surprisingly careless job of the GDLA, meaning there is absolutely no reason to panic. Our investigation into this case will simply be to discover why the body was left in the open.’

            Without so much as a closing statement the story quickly changed to images of a traffic jam with reports of growing congestion replacing the murder investigation. Benn glared for a while at the television, not only had they reduced Alys to a thirty second piece, but they actually had the nerve to call him careless.

Still, he had seen what he needed to see and finished the whisky he had been nursing for almost forty minutes. A bored bartender approached Benn the instant his glass was empty.

‘Another one for you, Jon?’ He asked. Benn was about to politely decline before when he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket, making him change his mind, ‘A double, please.’ The bartender nodded and grabbed a new glass. His phone continued to vibrate, meaning it was a call and not a message. Benn wanted to put it off, but knew it would only lead to more problems. As a fresh glass arrived in front of him, Benn smiled politely in thanks and answered the call without checking who it was. He cursed under his breath before lifting the phone to his ear.

‘I saw the news, Benn.’

‘Of course you did…’

‘What were you thinking!? Leaving the body out like that. Are you insane?’ Benn said nothing as he paid for his drink with his free hand, he knew his lack of response was the only answer needed. ‘Some of us can’t quite believe you did it. There’re whispers around the office, man, apparently there were even polls going. Can you believe that? Shame I didn’t get it on it.’

‘You know the rules, Ede. It’s not like we can-’ Benn stopped as he noticed that a few people were looking at him warily. He didn’t make it obvious that he noticed, but he figured he wasn’t the only one who had an eye on the news report.

‘Benn? What’s wrong? You there?’ Ede began talking louder.

‘Look man. It’s my day off, y’know?’ Benn pulled on his hair as though annoyed.

‘Huh? I know but I just thought-’

            ‘I’ll order the coffee beans by e-mail when I get home, okay? Don’t worry, it’s not like we’re going to run out.’

‘What the hell are you-’

‘If Sandra complains just tell her it was me, okay? She tends to go easier on me than you. Don’t worry, I got this.’ Benn hung up quickly, apparently Ede didn’t get the hint that he wasn’t free to talk.

Benn’s job was not illegal, nor was it anything he was ashamed of, he just didn’t like advertising what he was. He didn’t want to be treated any differently, for better or worse, because of his job. He didn’t know why he bothered with a fake name, though, it just slipped out and he stuck with it. Fortunately his local never asked him for ID.

‘Everything alright?’ The bored bartender asked.

‘All fine. I leave the café for a day and they lose the order sheets.’ Benn pretended to sigh. He noticed that those who had been looking at him had since lost interest. ‘Nothing to worry about.’ He said, holding up his glass, ‘Cheers!’

 

***

 

          Maybe it was some form of guilt, or maybe it was the two extra drinks he had before returning home, but for some reason Benn’s flat didn’t really feel like home that night. He was safe from unwanted attention or calls for the time being, but he knew that first thing in the morning the backlash would really come down. The problem wasn’t the trouble he’d get in, nor was it the wrath of those so far above him. He could live with his remorse, that much he was sure of. If guilt had any sway over him then he knew he wouldn’t be very good at his job. Benn knew he was mostly worried about the time it would take him to work off whatever debt the GDLA felt he owed them.

Benn’s flat was large for a studio. He knew he could easily afford something better, nicer, but living alone meant more space was useless. He had a comfortable bed, a functioning kitchen, a bathroom and a hot shower. Aside from the occasional want for a treadmill Benn had just about everything he needed. And then there was a chair, the chair, the one item of furniture that didn’t come with the flat. It was a large, leather monster of a recliner that Benn always felt he had to earn. He hadn’t sat in it since he had taken out the loner alcoholic up in Locholly a few weeks before. Poor guy had recently lost his partner and was driven to drink by depression. Benn liked those contracts, they made him feel like his job was having a more positive effect on society, ending misery that the man would have had to live with for up to eighty years had his name not come up on Benn’s list.

With a heavy sigh Benn fell into the chair more than sat in it. It took a few second of consideration before he decided against reaching for the hipflask nestled in the side pocket. An alcoholic Benn was not, but a drinker he certainly was, the distinction was important to him. It was the same distinction often ignored between an efficient thinker and a psychopath, a cold-hearted murderer and someone who prided their work.  It was a shame that most people overlooked the good in favour of the bad, though that was the world they lived in, and Benn had more or less gotten used to it. Though some days were harder than others.

          Besides, everyone needed something to take the edge off. Profession didn’t matter, nor did gender, lifestyle or even point of view. Everyone has something they turn to when they just want to feel good, or at least ignore the bad. It was those who didn’t need such methods that Benn didn’t trust, the kind of people who never took to alcohol, drugs, masturbation or any other coping mechanism. Something about people being so in control of themselves, so able to brush anything off without any kind of help that made Benn truly uncomfortable.

 

***

 

Soft piano music slowly and delicately invaded Benn’s dreamless sleep. A song translated to the piano from some kind of J-Rock that Benn remembered hearing a lot as a child. Without shutting off the alarm Benn sat up slowly, elongating the word ‘fuck’ for as long as his lungs would allow while clinging to his bed-messed hair with a clenched fist. The taste of whisky still burned in his throat and in his head thumped a dull pain just short of a real hangover, made no better by the normally welcome and nostalgic music that he had set as his alarm.

Six o’clock, his first alarm, a warning that he only had one hour left in bed. Sometimes it was more annoying than helpful. Still, the knowledge that the day was yet to really begin was a small comfort to him, enough of one for him to take two painkillers from his night stand, shut off his alarm and close his eyes once more. He knew he wouldn’t sleep again, but an hour or so of dozing was perfect. The coffee pot in the kitchen had been placed so Benn could easily see it from bed, providing something of an incentive to get up on those mornings where getting up felt too daunting a task, and as the seven o’clock alarm rang, Benn found himself more willing to get up and face whatever hell was to welcome him that day.

With his coffee finished and the shower used, Benn felt surprisingly ready to begin the day as he donned his grey shirt and red tie, fixing his short black hair in the mirror so it didn’t look too messy, but not too neat either.  It felt like another work day, no pain, no guilt. The worry remained but even that managed to force itself to the back of his mind as he straightened up his tie. Formal uniforms were not a requirement of his job, but Benn enjoyed the separation that a professional appearance allowed him, it let him imagine that his work-self and usual-self were two completely different people. It wasn’t true, of course, but there was nothing wrong with a bit of self-delusion.

Plus a tie made him feel important. More so than the gun and knife strapped to his belt.

As he grabbed his jacket Benn stopped to look at a picture hanging on his wall, a picture he saw every day. It was of him and Alys in the park after work one day, it had been unusually sunny and Alys wanted to go for a picnic in the Prince’s Street Gardens. The photo had been taken by a kindly gentleman who had come to visit his wife’s memorial bench. It had been a wonderful day, one Benn was sad they would never get the chance to re-live. There was always something nice about drinking cheap-beer with some store-bought sandwiches outdoors, something that made him happy on the most basic yet most profound levels.

With a nod and a shaking smile, Benn acknowledged the memory and headed out the front door.

 

***

 

The tram was packed with people on their way to the airport. Benn had always marvelled at the idea that the tram still remained unpopular as a work commute even when it had grown and stopped at most major workplaces in the city.

Edinburgh had begun to lose its appeal for Benn, aside from brief stints in England he had spent his entire life in the city. Though recently he felt as though he was beginning to see sides of it that other people either ignored or simply didn’t notice. Pick-pockets, day-time alcoholics and shady figures were in every corner of every public space, homeless people who weren’t actually homeless and mob-controlled ‘charities’ had suddenly been more omnipresent to Benn as he noticed more and more of the city’s darkness, and how much it truly overshadowed its light.

As a result, Benn had taken to spending most of his life either working or in his flat, leaving only for social calls or pub-trips alone when he was in the mood. He couldn’t imagine staying in the city for much longer, but he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else until that day. Alys was dead, so now Benn had one less reason to not request a transfer to somewhere else. He had no idea where he would go or if he would ever even do it, but entertaining the thought was interesting enough to him for the time being.

The tram exited the city centre, taking a left after its stop at the newly-rebuilt Haymarket Station. In a few minutes there would be a staff-only stop with many warnings about fines and possible incarceration for any civilian attempting to alight. It was made to look like an office building for employees of the transport company that owned the tram, and many people looked around curiously at the forbidden stop as most people did when confronted with curiosity at an unknown, as though looking around would offer them some kind of insight as to what went on beyond the employee-only platform.

Benn was the only one to disembark, a usual circumstance at that time of the morning. Most of his colleagues who weren’t out on assignments likely wouldn’t be arriving for another thirty minutes or so. Before Benn was his work office, the Scottish chapter of the Governmental Department of Legal Assassins disguised as a transport office. The building was huge and white with completely tinted windows that Benn always thought made it stick out as suspicious and worthy of questioning. Though even if someone had the idiocy to follow up on a suspected GDLA location, the violation of a government building was punishable by immediate listing. Benn wasn’t even really sure why they wanted to hide so well, though he could spend more time wondering the same of himself.

As he walked through the plain white doors, wondering for the thousandth time just who managed to keep the white building in the city outskirts so clean, Benn entered the large reception hall that held some comfortable sofas and a large wooden desk where a young woman sat, working diligently on a computer. She looked up as he entered and smiled a happy smile.

‘Good morning Benn.’ She beamed.

‘Morning Lara.’ Benn smiled back as best he could. As he said her name he saw a brief flash of disappointment on her face. Benn began to worry that he got her name wrong, but didn’t see how. He had greeted her every morning for years.

‘You’re earlier than expected.’ She said, looking back to her monitor, ‘Mister Wells said for you to go right up. He wants to speak to you.’ She smiled even wider and motioned to the double doors as though Benn had never been there in his life. With a thankful and apologetic smile, Benn walked through the doors and into the main office.

Many times had Benn stepped many times into the multi-story glass cubicle farm that was the GDLA office, but every time he did, he felt the same harsh, cold wall that one would feel when walking outside to find the chill of the outdoors to be just a few degrees lower than expected.

If someone were to see a picture of the large, clear office space they may think of a particularly fancy insurance company or a call centre for a large software conglomerate. As it stood no one outside of the GDLA had ever seen this building nor could they access it even if they had for whatever reason left the tram at the forbidden platform and wondered past the secretary. Most people, when they considered a division of professional killers, thought of smoke-filled rooms behind dodgy restaurants and meetings filled with secret terminology. A place where the passing of a photo and the slight nod held precedent over any form of real conversation. Some people thought of dojos full of weapons and practice dolls with experienced masters teaching new recruits the ways of a true killer. The department had the last one, of course, but the teachers were far younger and nicer than the age-old sensei types often seen in movies.

The desks were on a floor just a few meters below a walkway that divided the middle of the room in two, with small staircases allowing access to the cubicles below. It was an odd design, but a practical one. The office was so well and subtly lit that it was often easy to forget that the entire soundproof complex was void of any natural noise.

Above this floor, on the far end of the room as a transparent box suspended from the ceiling, this box housed the office of Mr. William Wells, the district manager for the Edinburgh division of the GDLA.

Of the one hundred and twenty desks housed in small, glass squares Benn assumed about forty of them to be empty from people either out on jobs, on holiday, sick, or not at work yet. The remaining, manned desks had men and women dressed from afternoon casual to strictly business, depending on their own preferences, all typing up reports of their last jobs while waiting for their pagers or computers to go off with a name and details of the next mark, or a summons to the head office to discuss a discrepancy. Benn figured some of the missing may well be in the training rooms, but he doubted it. It was far too early and most of the co-workers he spoke to kept their training for the weekends.

At the end of the walkway was a lift guarded by a three-foot high pole that acted as an ID scanner. If the boss wanted to see someone, he would press a button to allow access to that person for a period of time, if your name was not activated an attempt to scan an ID to enter the lift would place a call directly to the head secretary’s intercom, with a chance to talk to the boss only if your reasons were considered worthy of his attention.

Benn’s card scanned without a problem, and the lift doors opened with a particular kind of hushed swooping noise that always came across as a little too science-fiction. The entirely silent three-second trip to the upper floor didn’t require elevator music, but Benn kind of wished there was some, the same piano track that woke him every morning would be nice even for a few seconds. If the department contained a suggestion box, Benn would likely consider requesting some nice music for the lift, but he knew he’d never do it. A pointless thought, the kind he was used to having, ignoring and forgetting until having them again. It was the curse of an over-thinker, that’s how his mother used to put it anyway.

As the doors opened, Benn was surprised to be greeted by the boss himself, William Wells had been seemingly waiting for him in the large seating area – complete with coffee machine and newspapers actually purchased that day – that made up the foyer to various meeting rooms and, of course, William’s personal office. A coffee sat opposite William’s seat and a sealed file – most likely Alys’ – sat beside it.

William was a tall, slender man in his late thirties; he had held his post in the Edinburgh office since Benn was only a new recruit. In the nine years they had been working together, they had crossed paths many times and had come to know each other quite well. William had transferred in from the Seattle office and Benn had found his accent annoying at first, but quickly became used to it. Blaming his initial distaste for the American twang on the general worldly ignorance possessed by most sheltered youths of seventeen, Benn liked to feel he had grown a lot as a person since then.

Unlike his predecessor, William had once been an assassin himself, and got his job through loyalty, diligence and tireless footwork, rather than the social schmoozing and coattail-riding methods used by most other superiors. Because of this, Benn, along with most others in the department, respected him as a good leader.

‘Benn.’ William smiled from his seat, motioning to the coffee on the table in front of him. Upon hearing the sound of his name, Benn felt that familiar feeling of dread that always came before a chewing out. He didn’t get in trouble often, but when he did it was often for very big reasons that often landed him in more hot water than was necessary. William’s welcoming smile somehow did nothing to relax him.

‘Good morning, sir.’ Benn nodded as he walked out of the lift and over to the sitting area. The sofa was a more comfortable seat than could be found on the platform, and Benn reached for his coffee with a little too much anxiety. Whenever he made a cup at home, Benn found it hard to take a first sip without spilling a drop or two. While this normally wasn’t a problem, the entirely white furniture in his superior’s office made him nervous enough to lift his perhaps overfilled cup with great caution. Benn had a steady hand when under most forms of pressure; his job required it, but sitting face to face with the boss? One tiny brown stain on the immaculate setup could mean a black mark on a record, a black mark that couldn’t be scrubbed away so easily. His thoughts were exaggerated, of course, but he was nervous none the less.

‘Benn, I know the other day was hard for you.’ William began, sitting forward in his seat he clasped his hands as people often do when emphasising understanding. Benn began to talk but was cut off. ‘Don’t pretend it wasn’t. You’re a great worker here, one of the best I’d say. I’ve seen far too many people in your position simply duck out of it, but you understand your duties here. It’s a one in a million chance her job fell to you, and I am sorry for that.’

‘My hands were tied, sir. When a name is called nothing can be done. I’d rather  have done it myself and know it was quick than have someone else do it and consider the possibility that she suffered.’ Benn said, trying to act like he hadn’t been rehearsing.

A small smirk appeared on William’s face. ‘Cold logic spoken with emotion. Admirable.’

‘I won’t pretend it wasn’t hard.’ Benn looked up from his coffee, enough of it having now been drank that spillage was no longer a primary concern.

William sat back and nodded, pausing for a moment to consider Benn’s response. Benn took another sip of coffee, extra strong with some milk. The perfect cup. As he caffeinated himself, Benn wondered just why the boss had elected not to hold this meeting in his office, before realising that William’s secretary wasn’t there.

‘Wondering where Jamie is today?’ William asked, noticing Ben’s slight glance to his secretary’s empty desk. Taken by the unexpected question, Benn swallowed his coffee a touch to quickly, burning his throat.

‘Well sir, I…’ He stifled a cough.

‘It’s okay.’ William said.

Benn had heard those words too many times, enough times to know that they rarely actually meant that things were okay. He was rarely nervous, and therefore was very inexperienced in handling nervousness. Benn had to keep telling himself why he left her body there, why he hadn’t called in a squad or at least hid the body until he could. GDLA protocol dictated that the public should never be faced with the aftermath of an assassin’s work. Order and control needed to be maintained, the peaceful masquerade that hid a death-riddled society. The job of a GDLA employee was similar to that of a cleaner or garbage man, people only knew they were doing their job right if no one ever had to think about them.

When a name came up the family of the victim were informed, and the victim themselves were not to know about their fate until it had been carried out. Any of the informed were allowed to tell their relative of the circumstances, but few chose to do so, instead allowing them to live what little was left of their lives in ignorance. It was the correct choice for most.

Benn, however, had chosen to warn Alys. He thought she should know. When the deed was done he allowed her to remain where she lay and the police treated it as a murder before someone -likely William himself – informed the authorities that the killing had been sanctified and, probably with some form of apology or aid in cleaning and disposal, allowed the case to be closed.

In allowing an assassination target become a point of a police investigation – not to mention public news – Benn had made a huge violation of protocol and a breach of ethics that could land him in more than just hot water. Honestly, he expected William to scream the roof down before killing him himself.

‘Jamie is out dealing with the police.’ William said, still calm as he ever seemed, ‘The investigation is closed, but there is some… red tape involved in what happened.’

Had he still been a newbie, Benn would likely have apologised for his actions then and there. But he had long since learned that apologising for an action of negligence that caused trouble unto others was a one-way ticket to even more yelling. Somehow unsolicited apologies always tend to lead to more trouble. Besides, in the business of death saying sorry normally amounted to nothing at all.

‘You see Benn, the reason I’m having my secretary do it and not, say, you, is because I don’t believe in sitting behind a desk. Occasionally everyone has to do a bit of footwork. Of course Jamie will be rewarded for going beyond his duties, but I believe the work he’ll do today will be just as much of a bonus as the slight bump in his pay.’

Benn said nothing; instead he used the energy he would have put into talking towards composing himself. His actions the last few days had weakened him, but that was no reason to allow himself to fall so low as to be hiding behind a coffee cup. He had been a hard-working member of the GDLA for a decade, one slip up could not break him. It took only a few seconds of mental pep-talking to have him straightening his back and acting like a damn adult.

‘I see your actions in the same regard.’ William continued.

‘Sir?’ Benn asked, confused. He had finally regained his composure, though William never seemed to notice that he had lost it. Or at least he hadn’t shown that he had.

‘Alys was amazing at what she did, she danced the dance better than most I’ve seen, no offense.’ William stood up as he spoke and walked towards the glass wall that overlooked the cubicles, ‘We’re both too young to remember when the GDLA was first sanctioned.’ He sighed, ‘ My father would tell me how the people protested it at first, but once the effects of the Panacea became known, the population slowly realised that they, we, were the only recourse for the world, painful as our existence may be. Alys accepted her place just as you accept yours, you both understood that what you do is not just important, but necessary.’ William clenched his hand into a fist and held it in front of him, as though he could snatch his feelings right out of the air.

‘What you did was remarkable, there are those that would call you a monster and there are those who would seek to reprimand you for the major rules you have broken.’

Benn bit his bottom lip as he often did when called out. It was just a habit, he told himself, not a sign of weakness or shame.

‘I am not one of those people.’ William continued, ‘And nor are my superiors. In fact, we’re all impressed with you.’

There was something about the way William was speaking, something off. There was more to why Benn wasn’t being punished, that much was nothing to complain about, but he spoke solemnly, sincerely. It was as though his words were more than just a reminder of their duties. There was something eerily important in the way William spoke, something that put Benn slightly back on edge.

‘Sir? Is there something wrong?’

‘Your next job is in that file. If it were up to me you’d have more time between assignments but I’m afraid, like most things, this is out of my hands.’

Benn wasn’t as agitated by a new assignment as William seemed to think he would be, if anything he was happy. The sooner he was back to work the sooner he could go on. In time Alys would be a happy memory, with any luck soon enough to prevent their dance from becoming a regret.

The file was sealed with a thin metal strip, meaning it had not been read by anyone other than the sealer if anyone at all. Jobs were normally given via direct message to an assassin’s work station, the idea of using paper files seemed outdated, not to mention expensive when you considered how many jobs were given out each day. Paper was recyclable, but who really bothered to recycle anymore? The world was fucked, and that made humanity not want to care anymore. It was an oddly free way to live, if not a touch unnerving.

‘Our targets often don’t know how lucky they are.’ William spoke as Benn removed the strip and opened the letter, ‘To not know what’s going to happen, or when. Just simply being able to live, like the rest of us, forever ignoring the knowledge that their lives would be compromised at any moment. Although-‘

William had been unable to finish his sentence, he never truly expected to be allowed to carry on before Benn took the gun from the holster on his belt and shot him square in the head. The reinforced window before him vibrated violently for a second as it absorbed the exit impact. The bullet hit the ground before William did.

The file before Benn was a print-out version of the mission briefings normally received electronically. Of the target, there was a short biography which included details such as address, blood type, most visited locations, profession, average daily itinerary and shoe size (which Benn always assumed had been included for no other reason than a certain higher-up having some sort of foot fetish.) Clipped to the inside of the file was a file photo of William Wells. In this instance Benn saw only the photograph and the name, he needed nothing else. Hesitation had not taken him, all he did was his job.

Employees of the GDLA were not granted any more right to live than anyone else, nor were they to be given any special treatment. It seemed that William had been allowed to become aware of his own contract and he faced it just like Alys did, so great was their loyalty that they happily faced death in the interest of fairness. Benn always assumed he would act the same way, but he figured he’d have to experience it before he knew for sure.

Benn was at a loss. William’s office was now down one boss and up one corpse and a lot of blood. Benn had always hated using guns, he only kept one on him for runners or emergencies, he wasn’t sure why he’d used it for this job. Maybe it was to make it more painless? Quicker? Or maybe his prior nervousness had simply given him an itchy trigger-finger. Either way, Benn had no idea what to do.

‘Fuck…’ he said out loud, putting the gun back in its holster and falling backwards onto the sofa.

His reports were already going to be a major pain for that day, now he had to write up and justify killing William with a gun instead of something cleaner. All Benn could do was hope that Jamie liked cleanup detail. He took some amusement in the idea that the office he had been so scared to drip coffee in was now soaked in his boss’ blood.

 

***

 

With no idea what to do about the body, Benn had called a cleanup crew. He felt sorry for the man on the other end of the phone who asked several times – in horrendous, yet understandable disbelief –  the location of the body. Benn had given up on explaining time and time again that yes, the body was located in the Edinburgh head office and yes, the body was of William Wells, former chair of the same office. So he had simply given the location one more time, hung up, and retreated to his desk where he went on to spend over forty minutes staring at the blank monitor without any real idea what to do for the rest of the day. Workers were always given a day or two per job at least, so Benn wasn’t even sure if he would get another assignment for that day. He figured he probably would, but he still hadn’t quite brought himself to turn his computer on and see if anything else was ahead of him. Hadn’t he done enough already? It had been a tiring few days, and he just wanted some time off.

After nearly an hour – far longer than it should have taken – a crew of four people came in through the platform entrance and walked quickly to the main lift to the late William’s office. Whispers surrounded Benn at his workstation as his colleagues finally pieced together that the loud thud and sudden blood stain on the window in head office was not some weird new interior decorating style, but was in fact evidence of their boss – or at least his secretary – being rendered recently deceased. Benn found it odd how the whispers only started when the crew arrived, but then again death and gore were things these people witnessed (i.e. caused) almost every day of their working lives.

Though there was always a level of solemnity, worry and even a silenced fear that went on when it was one of their own. People of the GDLA didn’t generally like to be reminded that at any time, by any co-worker, be it friend, neighbour or wingman, their lives could be over because of an invasive file and a photograph.

No one was safe from the list.

 

Benn remembered his grandmother telling him about life before the Panacea. He had grown up spending many a Thursday night being told what it was like to fear bacteria and avoid strangers who showed even the slightest amount of illness. He had to try his hardest to even imagine what it would be like to be in a hospital with people who had things growing in their lungs or problems with their stomachs. His grandmother had even told him that hospitals would be full of people in their seventies who had long since accepted that they didn’t have much time left.

To Benn it sounded like hell, to be constantly worried if eating something would make you sick because what if you didn’t get better? He remembered laughing out loud when she told him that their used to be huge, expensive campaigns to get people to stop smoking or give money to help treat people in hospitals for life-threatening illnesses. She hadn’t found it funny, she remembered what it all used to be like.

‘They’d warn us to never try things like that.’ She would tell him as they sat by her fireplace, ‘They told us how smoking was addictive and deadly. They told us certain foods were a one-way ticket to an early grave. People as young as ninety were being asked how they managed to live so long, their answers would be published in newspapers and on the internet. Oh, you should have seen it Benn, everyone was so scared!’

Benn remembered the looks she gave him when he chuckled, and the silent nods of clarification when he didn’t believe it. Benn’s grandmother was only forty three when the Panacea had been introduced. She had already said goodbye to her father who died of kidney failure when something called dialysis didn’t help. It sounded complicated so Benn didn’t want to ask how it was to go through something like that, much less wonder aloud at the idea that an organ could fail. He had heard of heart attack, but having an organ do something that required some kind of treatment terrified him, he imagined just how scary it really would be to fear pretty much everything. Every tiny little thing coming with health warnings and allergy advice, it must have been hell to have to be careful about every minute detail.

‘Nothing was safe, but we got by. We would joke about wrecking our livers with alcohol and getting diabetes from sugar.’

Another word Benn didn’t know, he decided not to ask. He was never sure why he didn’t ask.

‘When the Panacea came out people ran to buy the patent. Doctor Nostrum was all over the news for months. A cure-all they called it, an elixir. Some even called it a miracle. The world changed so fast then… so fast.’

Benn had learned about Doctor Alphonse Nostrum many times in school. The man the world had thought a genius, and some argued to be an idiot. He had created the Panacea and as companies were lining up to buy the patent, he opened clinics all over the world and gave it away for free. Anyone with any kind of ailment could show up with a doctor’s note and have access to a formula that would heal anything they had. There were sceptics, of course, but when everything from the common-cold to brain haemorrhages vanished without a trace, people the world over agreed that it they been saved.

Soon there were deliveries all over the world and the formula was made public. People would wake up, swallow a pill and know nothing bacterial, viral or otherwise dangerous could touch them. Mankind became like gods, nothing short of accident or murder could wipe someone out; and the human race was finally in control of its own destiny.

‘Then things got… strange.’ The story would go on. This was Benn’s favourite part. ‘People were living almost twice what they thought, hundredth birthday parties were no big deal and hospitals were only for injuries. Illness was dead, life was long. But that didn’t mean our resources grew… the economy went south, the retirement age couldn’t be agreed upon. Strikes came from doctors, pensioners, workers, farmers, just about damn near anyone with a voice. But still we feared the time before, we knew we couldn’t go back. There was no real answer.’ She would always pause here, Benn thought it was because she knew how much it excited him, though looking back he believed it may have been fear that always caused her to stop. A fear that only forty years before was thought to have been left behind.

‘When the GDLA was approved, Doctor Nostrum killed himself.’

 

And so it was decided that all people from the ages of fifteen to eighty were added to the GDLA list, a random selector that decided who lived and who died. Mankind still had its enormous lifespan and perfect health, but their control was gone. Death was more present than ever.

The GDLA was worldwide but functioned differently depending on the country and how its government decided it should be handled. In Spain people were given warning and were killed immediately if they attempted to flee. In America the victims were given the opportunity to pay in order to make their deaths more painless, while in Canada people were allowed to live a year with expenses paid before meeting their demise. Benn’s office in the United Kingdom meant he had to function on complete secrecy and absolute cleanliness wherever possible, though he had recently wavered on the latter standard. Had he been elsewhere he likely would have been awarded for efficiency, though having never left Britain he could only really guess.

The day ticked on slowly and Benn got no news by the time the team had cleaned everything up. Forty minutes, oddly slow for them, Benn had left a lot more mess than him and his co-workers usually did. As the cleanup crew were walking quickly down the path Benn hid his head behind his hand, hoping not to answer any more questions. With one hand covering the left side of his head, Benn rapped his desk impatiently with his knuckles and turned his monitor back on, discovering it to be as blank as it was when he set it to standby mode.

‘Either give me a job or send me home.’ Benn growled through his teeth. As he tilted his head to see if the cleanup crew had vanished a loud thud on his desk made him start.

‘Killer work, killer.’ A playful voice chimed, ‘Who’s next, the pope?’

Benn didn’t have to look up to know that he had just fallen for the work of Ede Moiles, the stealthiest bastard ever to slit a throat. When working with killers it was common to come across the odd person who was so suited to their job that their talent for ending lives teetered between absurd professionalism to down-right psychopathic levels of glee. Ede wasn’t exactly bloodthirsty or intimidating, but the pride in his work went beyond William’s altruistic views, extending instead to an egocentric happiness at having found one’s true calling.

He was creepy, but in a sort of funny way.

‘Maybe. Anything could happen at this rate.’ Benn said as he examined the source of the noise on his desk. Ede had managed to get up close and slam a book on the worktop in the few seconds Benn was distracted. ‘The Fourth Day?’ Benn asked, scrutinising the surprise gift.

‘Yeah, it’s about some loser down south who moves home and realises it’s not what he remembers or something. It’s about loss, figured it would be a good read for you. I’m uh… sorry about Alys by the way.’ Ede did his best to not make their mutual friend look like an afterthought. Benn knew he wasn’t heartless, just a touch thoughtless sometimes.

‘Thanks, but a job’s a job, y’know?’ Benn examined the blurb; ‘Looks good, thanks for the read.’

”A job’s a job?” Ede smirked. ‘And they call me heartless!’

‘I don’t want to talk about it Ede. Is it lunch time yet?’

‘Screw lunch, we’re taking a personal day.’ Ede grabbed Benn’s arm with surprising strength and hoisted him from his seat. Benn shook himself free.

‘I need to wait for more assignments.’ Benn went to return to his chair, which vanished before he had a chance to sit; Ede had already sat down by the time he turned around.

‘More assignments? You take out your best friend and the boss man,’ Ede made a gun with his finger as he said the last part, ‘and you’re waiting on more assignments? Like you don’t deserve one day at least. Come on man, I know you drink after every dance, as do the bosses, so you were probably expected to be hungover at least after last night.’ He put his hand flat by his mouth, pretending to hide his speech. ‘I think you can justify taking an early one…’ He stage whispered.

Benn was about to reply when a quiet chime played from his computer. Ignoring the stolen seat, Benn leaned over his desk and switched his monitor on to open the message.

Ede rolled his eyes and swivelled in Benn’s chair impatiently while blowing raspberries into the air.

‘Huh…’ Benn stumbled over what to say.

‘So who’s blood are you washing off your hands with cheap whisky this time?’ Ede sighed.

‘It’s not an assignment.’ Benn didn’t look away from the monitor. ‘It’s a message from Doctor Noore…’

‘The big cheese?’ Ede leapt from the seat and leant beside Benn. ‘What’s she saying?’

‘She’s asking what I’m still doing in the office. Apparently they weren’t even expecting me to show up today. Then why the Wells assignment?’ He reclaimed his chair while Ede invasively read the e-mail.

‘Woah man, she even mentions The Fourth Day, says she’s been meaning to read it. It’s scary how they watch us like that.’

‘Are you surprised?’ Benn leant back, finally able to relax a little.

‘A little, the head of the GDLA worldwide watching one office in Edinburgh. I mean I know you killed the boss but still, shouldn’t she be busier than-‘ Ede was interrupted by the computer jingling again.

‘What does it say this time?’ Benn knew he wouldn’t be able to stop Ede from taking a look first.

‘It says you should go for a drink.’ Ede turned to Benn with a smirk.

‘Be serious for once, would you?’ Benn rolled his seat forward towards his desk to discover that the e-mail did, in fact, contain the sentence:

 

People weren’t meant to work this hard. Get a drink for God’s sake. We will be in touch.

 

After that there was a postscript about the legal ramifications and potential dismissal of employees who read the private messages of their colleagues. A part Ede had understandably omitted.

‘Well I’ll be damned…’ Benn switched his monitor off and turned to his friend, who was still grinning in gleeful anticipation. Benn rolled his eyes, not wanting to display his own relief at some time off; he didn’t like Ede to be right.

‘But no cheap whisky.’ Benn held his index finger towards his friend, ‘I’m thinking pints.’

‘Now we’re talking!’ Ede grabbed Benn’s arm and dragged him up to the pathway, Benn had shaken free by the time they were at the exit to the secret platform.

As Benn and Ede walked to the waiting train, the receptionist of dubious name ran to Benn. ‘Mr. Salva?’ She asked in that way only unsure people ever do. Now that she was close enough Benn was able to read her nametag, Barbera – he was way off. He also noticed that her hair was a fair red, not blonde, and her glasses were thinner than he had thought. He wasn’t that distracted that morning, was he?

‘I have a message for-‘ She began to say.

‘He’s on break, can’t this wait? Come on Benn, the tram won’t hang around forever.’ Before Ede could grab Benn’s arm for a third time, Barbera delivered a swift kick to his left ear, knocking him flat on his side and groaning in pain before he could even react.

‘I was told I could do that if he tried to interrupt…’ She chuckled and fixed her glasses. Benn was too dumbstruck to reply. She was faster than Ede, could kick a man a full foot taller than her and knock him out cold with almost no warning, warm up or even grunt. Why was this woman a secretary?

‘Anyway.’ She coughed and composed herself, barely managing to stifle a smile, ‘I was told to give you this from Mister Wells if you should come out before him, he said to open it whenever. And… um…’ she paused, ‘I was sorry to hear about Alys, she was cool.’ With that Barbera held her clipboard to her chest and nodded a quick goodbye before returning to her desk.

Benn examined the envelope as Ede righted himself.

‘God damn…’ He held his hand to his ear and checked it for blood, there was none. ‘Where has she been all my life?’

‘Are you concussed?’ Benn pocketed the note, ‘Because I’m not buying you a beer if you’re concussed.’

‘Nah man, I’ve had worst.’ Ede stumbled as he stood up, but managed none the less. Benn didn’t want to correct his wording. ‘I think I’m in love though…’

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