The Silent Neighbours
The stars hung brightly in the sky, a thousand fairy lights connected by an invisible mess of tangled wires. Sam Becker hunched his shoulders down in his Berghaus jacket and pulled the collar up an extra few inches to try and keep out the biting cold sea breeze, which felt like a frozen blade against his skin. Steadying the tiller on the small, four-horsepower Honda engine, he gunned the twist-grip throttle until it reached the stop. As the small Honda maxed out, he whipped his wrist away from the engine, instantly killing the motor by activating the emergency cut off.
Eyes fixed firmly on the approaching shore, Sam focused on the rhythmic sound of the water lapping at the aluminium hull, and the continuous distant whistle of the biting wind. He tried his best to relax. Just as he began to think he'd killed the engine too soon, a breaker picked up the rear of the boat and fired him toward the shore, faster than the feeble outboard could manage at full revs.
As the bow hit the shingle beach with a satisfying crunch, Sam was on his feet and jumping ashore, a spiked tie-off rope clenched in his cold, gloved hand. Driving the spike down hard into the shingle, he heaved the front of the tender onto the beach, leaving the rear end bobbing in the shallow water, resembling a cork in a bath tub. Satisfied the small boat was secure, he hiked his kit bag onto his back and scurried up the shingle bank, making more noise than he would have liked.
The large chateau that was Sam's folly, lay in a blanket of ominous darkness at the edge of the beach, surrounded by long grass scrubland to either side. The chilled breeze stirred the unkempt plants and they swooshed softly and invisibly in the night, a multitude of whispering voices announcing his arrival.
Reaching the edge of the shingle beach, Sam hunkered down by the wire perimeter fence and slid the backpack off his tensed shoulders. Removing the damp thermal gloves, he dove an icy hand into the bag and removed a pair of latex ones. They offered nowhere near the same amount of warmth, and the cold sea air blowing in off the English Channel felt as if it were slicing right into his flesh. Satisfied that they were fitted correctly, he closed the bag and removed a small pair of wire cutters from a pocket on the side. Starting at the base of the fence, he began snipping at the thick wire, one section at a time. Each time a thick strand of plastic-coated wire gave way, it sent a shockwave of pain through his icy fingers.
Satisfied that he'd created a hole big enough to gain access, he pushed his backpack through and lay down on the coarse grass springing up through the fringes of the beach. With small wriggling movements, he squeezed his way through the breach and emerged on the other side. He was in.
Bending the wire back and disguising the hole as best he could, Sam collected up his bag, dusted himself down and ran in a half-hunched position across the grounds toward the building, his soft-soled shoes almost silent on the well maintained grass. An impressive fountain lay to his right, the water switched off; it seemed as if the concrete gargoyle perched proudly at the top had his stone-cold eyes on Sam the whole way.
As he reached the back wall of the magnificent beachfront property, Sam breathed for the first time in what felt like an age, feeling exposed despite the cover of night. Back pressed to the masonry, he silently slipped along the building line until he reached the door. It was precisely where he'd estimated it to be when he studied the satellite image of the house. Utilising the kit in his pack once again, he removed a small screwdriver from the same pouch and proceeded to pop out the beading from around the bottom UPVC panel. Timing the removal of each bead with a strong gust of sea air, he snapped all four panel-retaining beads out of place. Despite the wind helping to disguise the noise, each time one popped out it seemed alarmingly loud.
Pausing for a second to slip the screwdriver back into the pack, Sam removed a small electronic pass-card reader from his bag and gripped it in his teeth. With hands too numb and cold to be performing such a delicate operation, he tapped the loosened panel with his fingers, right at the base, causing it to fall in. With a swift and surprisingly accurate movement he caught the top before it could clatter to the tiled floor on the other side. Allowing himself another deep breath, he climbed headfirst through the gaping hole he'd made.
The warmth of the chateau hit him like a deliciously snug blanket, but there was no time to enjoy it. The alarm panel immediately began beeping angrily, as if annoyed by the intrusion. Quickly scanning the kitchen, Sam located the box from its flashing red light. He had precisely twenty seconds to deactivate it. The soft black plimsolls made almost no sound as he padded briskly across the darkened kitchen, which looked big enough to host a TV cooking competition – camera crew, celebrity chefs and all. Such shows were a thing of the old world, however; the world before The Reaper.
Reaching the panel, he removed the pass-card reader from between his teeth and slid the credit card-sized section into a slot at the base of the panel. Holding the LED number pad in his shaking hand, Sam watched as the small electronic device worked its magic. Ten seconds, he thought to himself. The seconds ticked by like long, drawn out minutes as the each of the six-digit deactivation code numbers appeared on the screen in bright red. With no time to spare, the full code blinked up at him. Sam hit the enter key on the control box and instantly relaxed a little, when the main alarm control box stopped its low-pitched rhythmic beep and the light pinged to a welcome green.
Awash with a mixture of relief and elation, for the first time he noticed the smell of freshly-ground coffee, mixed with the scent of bread that had no doubt been baked the previous evening. It made him yearn for a mug of the hot liquid and something to eat –one, to help him get some heat back into his cold bones, and two, to take away the salty taste of the spray which had continually assaulted him on his trip from the cruiser to the shore. But there was no time.
Removing the card reader, he crossed the vast kitchen and hooked his hand through the hole in the door, scooping up his bag. Putting away the reader, he removed two syringes from a netted pouch at the top of the bag and slid them into his jacket pocket. Making his way toward the reception hall, a large clock, big enough to display the time in a Victorian railway station, told him it was fast approaching midnight. In less than five minutes the job would be done and with luck, he'd be back in that god-forsaken launch and on his way to the cruiser, which would be at full throttle and pointed firmly toward the English coast within minutes of his return.
Sam knew the layout of the chateau well from the plans he'd studied the previous day, and without pausing for thought, he reached the right-hand side staircase which led to the first floor. Tiles gave way to plush cream carpet which looked almost grey in the gloom. He was in no doubt that all welcomed visitors would be asked to remove any footwear before even going near it. He had no time for such etiquette. Taking the stairs two at a time, he was soon on the landing and looking at a line of white painted, Georgian-style doors. A mirror image of the layout was just visible on the opposite wing of the entrance lobby. For a split-second, Sam wondered if he'd picked the correct side, but he brushed the thought away in an instant, certain he was exactly where he needed to be. Stopping at the third door he carefully depressed the handle, the coolness of the brass seeping through the thin latex glove. The large child's bedroom was empty. Bright moonlight streamed in through a grand window on the far wall, casting strange shadows and highlighting the neatly-made and empty replica race car bed. The Lighting McQueen duvet cover seemed somewhat out of place in this grand and overly lavish home, but the image of the bright red, grinning race car smiled enthusiastically at him all the same. The intelligence had been right, much to his relief; the family were away for the weekend. Despite Sam holding no compassion for his target, the thought of carrying out his task with a child in the house made his blood run cold.
Leaving the door slightly ajar, he continued down the landing, arriving at an identical door which brought the passage to an end. With the same level of stealth, Sam unlatched the door and slid inside.
The cream carpet gave way to an impressive wooden floor, which still seemed to shine ever so slightly in the dim light. At the far end of the room was the king-sized bed, where Sam expected, and hoped, his target would be.
He drew closer one tentative footstep at a time, his breath almost clogged in his dry, parched throat. This was the tenth such target he'd taken out, then tenth time he'd been in this situation. It never got any easier.
The rhythmic rise and fall of the mounded bed covers told him his target was exactly where he wanted him to be – in bed and fast asleep. Removing one of the syringes from his jacket, Sam bit the end cap off with his teeth and tucked it away in his trousers. He was close now, he could hear the guy breathing; that slightly laboured sound of someone slightly overweight or not in the best physical condition. The guy's leather Armani wallet was on the bedside table, Sam carefully placed the syringe on the ornate looking table, collected it up and thumbed through the cards. The target’s French driver's licence was there; pulling it halfway out Sam looked at the name and the photo, confirming this was his man. Just before he closed the wallet something else caught his eye – tugging the three strips of white card free from the section where you'd usually keep your bank notes, Sam removed a single airline ticket. The destination listed was Lima, Peru, the flight due to leave the following morning. Not a cheap purchase in this recovering world, but he reminded himself his target was a wealthy man. No matter what the cost of the ticket, it was one flight that this sleeping guy would certainly be missing. Sam slid the ticket back, replaced the wallet carefully onto the night stand and collected up the syringe.
Standing over the sleeping body, Sam whipped one hand down over the target’s mouth, and in the same instant he slid the needle into the man’s exposed neck and depressed the plunger. Instantly the target's eyes flew open, wide and panicked, a muffled cry of fear reverberating from the underside of Sam's hand; at the same instant, he felt warm saliva through the thin latex.
“Shush!” Sam said, in a soothing and sympathetic tone, “shush.” But the sympathy was only evident in his voice; his eyes told a different story.
The Pancuronium took seconds to work, the dose just enough to send Sam's target into a state of complete muscular paralysis. Beneath his gloved hand, the man's tense jawline relaxed, confirming that the injection had worked its magic. Holding one hand to his lips to gesture for the target to stay quiet, Sam gingerly removed his hand. A long trail of saliva formed a strand between the target's bottom lip and Sam’s thumb, stretching out for a good six inches before finally breaking and falling back onto the target’s stubbled chin.
“Mathis Laurett?” Sam questioned in a low voice. “Is your name Mathis Laurett?” Sam knew he had the right man; he'd studied his target's picture more than once and seen his somewhat chubby face on the driver’s licence. Despite his dishevelled appearance, the man before him was undoubtedly who he was after. Despite this certainty, some small part of Sam still liked them to confirm it verbally.
“Ye-yes,” the man croaked, struggling to speak when he had virtually no control over his throat muscles.
“Do you know who I am?” Sam asked calmly.
“Ye— yes,” Laurett repeated, as if it were the only word he could manage.
“Good. Then you know why I’m here?”
“Ye— yes,” Laurett replied, his eyes wide and full of fear. More drool had joined the web-like strand on his chin, giving him the appearance of someone who'd just suffered a grand mal seizure.
“Mathis Laurett,” began Sam. “Under order of the Arkkadian Council you have been sentenced to death for your part in The Reaper Virus, which twenty-nine months ago, led to the deaths of almost one billion people. It has been identified that you are an Earth-Breed. Investigations have shown that you were employed in the staff of Jacques Guillard, an Arkkadian Watcher. During that time, you were responsible for helping to identify him and ultimately, that identification led to his death.” Sam paused; he’d read out charges like this on ten previous occasions, however the man before him was without doubt, the biggest player he'd executed since shooting Robert Finch back in the bowels of the Pyramid, over two years ago. Laurett offered up no comment other than a choked attempt to swallow. “Further to this, we have information to suggest that you were travelling out of Heathrow Airport on the day that The Reaper Virus was released into the population, and we believe you were responsible for releasing one of the four vials of pathogen.”
“Please,” croaked Laurett. “Please, I ha— have a f— family.”
“And what of the millions and millions that virus killed – didn’t they have families?” spat Sam. “Do your family know who you really are?” A deep rage burned in Sam’s chest; if he had his way, he would have beaten Laurett to death then and there with his bare hands. But that wasn't how things were done.
“No,” Laurett croaked, swallowing deeply to regain control of his voice. “P— please, I have useful information, if you s— spare my life.”
“I'm listening,” Sam replied. Laurett’s words had taken him off-guard, none of his previous targets had begged for their lives, or offered up anything in trade.
“The one— the one you seek. he is here, and he has plans.”
An icy cold hand ran its spidery fingers down the length of his spine. For a second, he saw a wicked smile flicker in Laurett’s eyes before he continued.
“Your silent neighbours are many in number, and they are coming for you!” Despite the Pancuronium coursing through his body, Laurett managed to spit the last word out with considerable venom. Beads of sweat were forming on his wrinkled forehead, and they ran down into his eyes and backwards, into his messy grey hair.
“Bullshit,” Sam replied, his voice sounding higher than he felt comfortable with. They were alone in the house, but he still felt as if the walls were listening.
“Believe wh— what you want, Mr. Becker. Y— you will see.” Laurett's gaze darted around wildly, as if he were searching for something – or someone – and it made Sam uneasy. Sam had only administered a miniscule amount of the drug, diluted down in a saline solution, and the effects were fast wearing off. This time Sam did see him smile, an unmistakable hint of it on the bastard's chubby face. His lips drew back, exposing his yellowing teeth, “E-n-o-l-a,” he gurgled.
“Who the hell is Enola?” Sam demanded, biting the protective end cap off the second syringe.
“You – will see,” Laurett croaked, grinning like a loon.
Sam refused to listen to anymore craziness and plunged the needle deep into Laurett’s neck. The smile disappeared from Laurett's mouth. The second syringe contained a second, larger, much stronger dose of Pancuronium – a deadly one. This dosage would be enough to paralyse every muscle in Laurett's body, including his heart. A cry of fear spewed out of Laurett's drool-covered mouth when the needle plunged deeply into his fatty neck. Five seconds after the plunger hit the stopper, his body convulsed violently before falling back against the sweat-drenched covers, dead.