‘Seriously man.’ Ede said between swigs of dark ale. ‘Do you think I could get her number? How much of a shot do you think I have?’
‘I swear I thought she was called Lisa or something…’ Benn looked into the last of his first pint of ale. Scottish beer just never seemed to cut it with him, but it was either pint, whiskey or an American bottled beer which tended to be much stronger, meaning it wasn’t a good idea before three in the afternoon.
‘You mean Laura? She works mornings, Barbera takes over at noon or so. Man, you need to pay more attention.’ He pointed to the full beer sitting between Benn and his first drink. ‘Also, you’re double parked.’
Benn shot an impatient look to Ede, he didn’t like being hurried, but he downed the remainder of his first pint anyway and moved on to his second. ‘It’s my round next so why do you care?’ He said after taking a new swig of a relatively fresh beer.
‘Because I’m not waiting around while it takes you forty minutes. Now, important things…’ Ede leaned forward and talked slightly more quietly. Benn was ready to give him another smack to the head if he mentioned dating Barbera again. ‘What do you think’s going on?’ he almost whispered.
Benn gave an inquisitive look with his eyebrows, the rest of him busy catching up to Ede’s drinking. He made a mental note to get a nicer beer next time.
‘You know…’ Ede rotated his hand, attempting to put his point across without words. ‘I mean, don’t you think it’s odd…? First Alys then William? I mean I know we’re told it’s all random but something seems off, doesn’t it?’
Benn set his almost-empty glass down and quietly belched. ‘I know what you mean, and it’s been bugging me too. But it shouldn’t matter too much, the price for defection is immediate listing, one person dies or two do, I can’t imagine anything seedy going on. And if there were it would be none of our business and I don’t want to think about the consequences of publicly questioning it.’ Benn left Ede to consider whether continuing the conversation was worth the potential risks. After remembering Celeste Noore spying on them in the office, Ede piped down and sipped in silence.
‘I’m really going to miss her.’ Benn said after a pause, ‘Sometimes I wonder if the world Nan told me about was really all that bad. The sickness, the early mortality, it sounded so awful when I was a kid. But the older I get the more I feel like maybe not that much has changed. All we’ve done is replace illness with murder.’
Ede couldn’t quite believe what his friend was saying. From childhood they’d been told about the horrors of cancer, measles, Ebola and countless others. Like most people, Ede had spent a good portion of his school life learning about life before the Panacea. The idea of anyone pining for that life was a thought Ede had never considered, and he never believed he would consider it.
‘Man, that’s heavy.’ He started off, attempting to appear empathetic, ‘But are you serious? We’ve all been haunted by seeing people in their death beds, lives and bodies fading away in a painful, bloody mess. I get that you miss Alys, we all will, but cold as it was you did the right thing and we’re all better off. Keep those thoughts to yourself, okay? If you ever appear on the list I’ll want it to be random, not a direct hit, okay?’ He reached across the table and grabbed Benn’s shoulder.
Looking up Benn saw the genuine concern in his friend’s eyes. Of course he thought Ede was faking it, but they’d been friends for so long that maybe there was some truth to the worry. Knowing he was just talking out of grief, Benn simply smiled and nodded. Ede mirrored him and they both drank to the silent agreement to never talk about such things again.
‘Look…’ Ede began, ‘I’ve got some assignments down south and you’ve been given some vague time off, how about you join me?’
‘Down south?’ Benn asked, ‘Shouldn’t the London office be dealing with those contracts?’
‘Nah,’ Ede waved his hand ‘It’s just past the border on the west side, Penrith or thereabouts. About an hour or two by train.’
‘So… you have a contract in the north, not the south.’ Benn said impatiently.
‘It’s south of here.’
‘But it’s the north of England.’ Benn finished his drink.
‘Jesus. I am not getting in to this again. I’ll be leaving in the morning. You coming or not?’ Ede put their empty glasses to the side and gave the bar staff a thumbs up. He occasionally tried this to see if they could get table service, but all it ever got him were dirty looks.
‘This isn’t The Black Fox.’ Benn got annoyed. ‘They don’t do table service on drinks. Maybe if you were a little nicer to people you wouldn’t keep getting served with a warm glass.’ Benn stood up and grabbed the empties from the table.
‘What are you doing?’ Ede looked bewildered.
‘Helping.’ Benn went to the bar and returned shortly with two fresh beers, he smugly slid one in front of Ede. ‘Chilled glasses.’ He said as he took his seat, ‘That’s what happens when you’re nice to people.’
Ede gripped the frosted glass with a small shiver, despite the warning he hadn’t been expecting the cold. ‘Being nice, huh?’ He thought out loud, ‘I’ll drink. But not to that.’
Benn eventually agreed to Ede’s proposal to join him on his assignments in England. A holiday would be nice and if a job came up he’d always have his phone on him. Benn had a hand on the mobile in his pocket all afternoon, but he had to stop after Ede made several masturbation jokes. So, like a lovelorn kid waiting for a reply from a recently texted crush, Benn had a watchful eye on his phone every few minutes. He hated how vague his orders were, was he just supposed to sit back and relax? Would leaving town go too far? Benn had become so accustomed to being given the specifics of everything to an exhausting degree that he now found himself completely without direction, lost on what to do.
He found himself itching for an assignment, a throat needed to be slit before he’d begin feel alright again. It had to be a stranger though, someone he didn’t know or have any reason to care about. He wasn’t psychopathic, nor did he enjoy his job all that much, he just wanted something familiar, something that wouldn’t leave him questioning how things were going to change once it was done. Just one normal assignment, one mundane kill, that was all it would take to make life feel normal again.
Benn set the book Ede gave him on his desk and, for lack of anything better to do, he opened it and managed to read ten pages without absorbing a single word. Conceding to his own inability to focus on much of anything, Benn took to reverting back to an old hobby that he had been meaning to give up on. With no hesitation Benn took his father’s old revolver from the top drawer of his desk and held it to his head. There was a single bullet in the chamber, though Benn knew he would never have the courage to pull the trigger even if it was empty. Something about the ritual made him remember that death held a firm grip on the world, more so even than the days before the Panacea. And so he sat with the barrel mere inches from his temple, wondering if ever there would come a time when he would test his luck and pull the trigger.
The ritual was more habit than anything else, something he started so that he could occasionally feel as though he had control over his own life, power over his own death. It was stupid and he knew it, but it always made him feel a little better in a morbid sort of way. With his index finger trembling over the trigger, Benn wondered if he really was going to do it this time. All he would hear would be a click and then life would go on or whatever death had in store for him would unfold. Either way Benn was fine with it, though still he couldn’t work up the courage to just get on with it. The self-imposed impasse was brought to an unexpected close when his phone vibrated suddenly in his pocket, making him jump and set the gun down almost immediately, allowing a wave of relief to wash over him. Benn realised then that he had been sweating a lot more than he had thought, his heart was pounding out of his chest as the adrenaline in his veins slowly gave way to allow self-awareness to seep slowly back into his consciousness. With an eagerness he didn’t fully understand, Benn answered his phone.
‘Benn. I assume your afternoon off was enjoyable?’
‘Y… yes ma’am.’ Benn said quickly as he realised who he was speaking to. As though Doctor Celeste Noore could see him, and for all he knew she could, Benn stood to attention.
‘No need to be so formal, dear, you have done some great service these past few days.’
‘Thank you ma’am…’ Benn said, stuck between wanting to honour her wish for informality and not wanting to breach any kind of etiquette line. Celeste Noore was the head of the GDLA initiative worldwide, the most powerful woman in the world. Benn wasn’t even close to calling her by anything less than ma’am, he had heard through the grapevine that she did not like being called ‘Doctor’, though whether or not that was true Benn didn’t want to test.
‘You must be tired so I’ll cut to the chase. I assume Moiles has told you about his assignment in Penrith tomorrow?’
‘Uh, yes. Yes he has.’ Benn sat back down, he couldn’t stop his body from tensing up but he realised just how stupid he must have looked standing up straight for a phone call.
‘Good. I want you to go with him, I’m sorry to make you get back to work so quickly but there are some tasks we need you to take care of.’
Benn didn’t respond. Something about her use of the word ‘tasks’ made him feel uneasy. Jobs, assignments, hits. These were the words they used to describe their work, the word task implied something more than a simple name, location, date and shoe size.
‘We expect you on the eleven thirty four train from Waverley.’ She said, a finality in her tone, ‘You’ll receive instructions when you arrive. And Benn?’
‘Keep a close eye on Moiles. His motives supersede his profession and I wouldn’t want you tangled up in anything… immoral.’
‘O… of course. Will do.’ He said, ready to punch himself for using such a casual phrase.
‘Excellent. I’ll be in touch soon. Enjoy the book.’ Celeste hung up. Benn did not set his phone down immediately, instead he sat back down and listened to the air as a faint static showed that the line wasn’t directly connected to anything else anymore.
Benn had not really taken Ede’s words in the bar to be serious, he hadn’t really thought that something strange may have been going on with his orders or within the GDLA at all. But vague directions, strange warnings and all coming via a direct call from the head herself. Something definitely wasn’t right at all, but it was not Benn’s job or inclination to question the whims of his superiors, indeed the whims of the world. He was not one to dwell on such unnecessary things, at least not consciously.
He checked the time, it was only eight o’clock. Benn had not been drinking quickly and found the phone call oddly sobering anyway. He allowed himself his favourite chair, if nothing else because he felt completely exhausted.
Benn had always imagined himself as a solitary creature, enjoying his own company and generally finding solace in silence, but in truth he was more of a social butterfly than he’d like to believe. People liked him readily, found him easy to talk to and get on with. He didn’t understand why, he hated meeting others. But when it came to hatred Benn responded with a joking, sarcastic nature that came off as charming rather than standoffish. It perplexed him but he wasn’t about to complain. He knew he had forced himself into a lifestyle he didn’t want, and whatever pride he had stopped him from ever finding a new one. He had chosen to live alone despite Alys’ insistence that they rent a place together, he often made excuses to not go to the pub with Ede because he’d rather be the kind of person who didn’t say yes to everything even though he wanted to. Benn had forced a loneliness upon himself in the hopes that it would make him a solitary person, but all it did was reinforce the truth that he hated being alone and longed for the company of others.
He considered calling Ede to see if he was still up for a drink after a power nap, but all that would do would prove Ede’s theories on Benn’s pretences correct, and Benn hated it when Ede was right. Besides, he had an early train to catch and the view of his bed from his armchair was far too enticing to ignore.
Without thinking about it for another second Benn put his father’s revolver back in the drawer and marched into his bathroom with a sudden and inexplicable sense of purpose. Benn left his pyjama shorts in his bathroom when he showered, one of the small pleasures he got from living alone was being able to leave whatever he wanted wherever he wanted. He went into the bathroom wearing the shorts in the morning and went back in to get changed into them in the evening. Benn remembered attempting to do the same thing in his university halls, but a flurry of passive aggressive sticky notes had forcibly discouraged such behaviour.
As he brushed his teeth and got changed for bed Benn noticed that he had reverted back into his habit of not looking directly into the mirror, a habit he thought he had kicked years before. In an action that required an odd amount of willpower, Benn forced himself to look into his own eyes. As he stood there shirtless before the glass he could manage but a fleeting glimpse before he shook his head quickly, mumbled under his breath about how stupid he was being and left the bathroom in a hurry, slamming the door behind him as he did as though trying to prove a point to his own reflection.
The outside was only nearing twilight but Benn felt as though it could have easily been the early hours. He had been on a forced autopilot for so long that his mind was suddenly completely drained of all energy, it was a feeling of such absolute fatigue that he hadn’t had since he graduated to intensive combat lessons at the GDLA training facility.
The room seemed so much quieter as soon as his head hit his pillow, like someone had suddenly turned off the music playing from a particularly loud speaker. A dull, almost muffled silence surrounded him and he couldn’t even hear the traffic outside. It was these moments he hated the most, the moments of complete solitude that left him with nothing but his own thoughts. He spent most of his days figuring out how to escape these moments. Drinking, socialising and diving head first into every assignment he was given were his ways of making sure he never really had to think for himself. He wouldn’t let himself mourn Alys’ because he didn’t believe he deserved to, he didn’t let himself think he was any kind of real person, good or bad, hero or villain. The silence invited only introspection, and Benn hated that more than anything else in the world.
He believed for just a moment that his ceiling was leaking. With his index finger he dabbed at the wet spot on cheek. He wouldn’t admit that it was a tear, not even to himself.