The flick-knife snapped open with frightening ease, its serrated edge glinting in the light of a passing street lamp. The weapon was standard issue for CODEX operatives, along with most of the contents of the canvas bag that sat in John Kennedy’s lap.
One by one, he scrutinised each item of equipment — preparation was vital, and nothing was being left to chance. The first object was a transparent bag containing an assortment of plastic ties, designed to restrain his victim and bite into her flesh if she struggled. A length of rubber tubing was next, followed by duct tape, and a can of spray paint — everything he required for the job.
Vincent Trevellion sat next to Kennedy in the driver’s seat, navigating the blue Mercedes through the dark, quiet streets of Hersham. A right turn led into a long tree-lined road that stretched around a gentle corner and there, the 1930s pebble-dashed house they sought, came into view.
Trevellion pulled the Mercedes up alongside the pavement a few houses down from their destination. Apart from a few parked cars, the street was quiet, intermittent street lamps illuminating the darkness.
From his jacket pocket, Trevellion pulled out a handheld electronic device. The screen blinked, and a menu of options appeared. With a stroke across the screen from his index finger, an intelligence file on the ‘target’ containing a photograph of a woman appeared on screen, smiling, walking hand-in-hand with her husband, their daughter running along behind. The photograph, taken several weeks before, was from a long-lens camera. He didn’t need to look at it again. He knew what she looked like. Her image etched in his memory.
He scrolled down past the photograph to the text below about Colette Robertson, a technical director at a leading web technology company. Past the biography, his eyes scanned the last line of text accompanying the picture: “Objective: Colette Robertson to be eliminated under Phase 1 of CODEX operation OP09/ST”.
Trevellion closed the file and opened a second intelligence report attached to the data on Colette Robertson. A picture of her eight-year-old daughter, Clare Robertson, flashed up on the screen, a pretty girl, with long blonde hair that fell over her shoulders and down her back. Once more he scrolled past the image to the biography and objectives. And again read the same order: “Objective: Clare Robertson to be eliminated under Phase 1 of CODEX operation OP09/ST”.
Trevellion closed the files and placed the electronic device back in his jacket pocket. The murder of a child might be distasteful, but it would guarantee the nationwide media coverage they required.
Even if a camera or passer-by captured their registration plates, any investigation wouldn’t be meaningful. The stolen plates would only lead to a long deserted warehouse in rural Scotland, and whilst the police were chasing their tails, they would vanish.
Trevellion tapped his opposite jacket pocket to confirm the two high-capacity flash drives were still there. They were special issue for CODEX operatives, not the standard multi-gigabyte versions you could buy on any high street. These could handle terabytes of data and weren’t for public consumption.
Kennedy nodded, a slight sneer crossing his face. With his equipment replaced back in the bag, he used the vehicle’s mirrors once more to be sure they could approach their destination.
Content they were alone, the two men exited the Mercedes and began their approach to their victim’s house.
Colette sneezed for the umpteenth time that day and reached for yet another tissue. She winced as she dabbed her nose, red and sore from wiping away the non-stop proof of her cold. If only she had bought some of the balm tissues that were always being advertised, she thought, now stroking her nostrils with care.
Colette hated being ill, and this was the third cold she’d picked up in as many months. She was thinking maybe it was the flu since she’d begun feeling worse as the day had gone on. Her muscles ached, the throbbing headache was pounding now more than ever, and her streaming nose showed no sign of stopping. With her best aim, she tossed the damp tissue in the general direction of the bin, watching as it bounced off the side and landed next to her cat. He eyed her with suspicion, awoken by her latest sneeze.
She hoped she’d be well enough to return to work tomorrow. But she doubted it as she felt her head, bunged-up with cold, throb again.
The TV remote control sat in her lap, and she began channel-hopping, looking in vain for something half-decent to watch.
Maybe she ought to do some work, she wondered. There were always meetings to prepare for, reports to compile, and strategic IT problems to solve. Now more so than ever. Yet the thought of sitting in front of her high-powered tablet device just seemed to make her aching head throb further.
What she needed more than anything was a bit of TLC. But everything seemed to have gone wrong. On today of all days. It was their wedding anniversary, after all. But where were all the people she cared for?
She welled up again as the bitter exchanges around breakfast that morning came flooding back. Deep down, she knew it hadn’t been Michael’s fault that his company’s Managing Director had invited him to an important corporate dinner.
“Look, you know what these work functions are like, I have to go. I can’t get out of it. I’m really sorry,” he said.
“If you were sorry, you would have said no and made some sort of excuse.” Her eyes flared and her voice grew louder with each word. “I can’t believe you didn’t realise what day it was.”
“I’ll make it up to you, I promise,” he had said, before returning to his toast and avoiding her probing gaze.
Attendance hadn’t been obligatory. They never were, were they? You only didn’t go if you wanted to stay in the same old job for the rest of your career. Michael hadn’t mentioned the fact that she’d done the same many times in the past on her way up the career ladder at SW Technologies. She’d remembered and had kept that fact to herself.
It hadn’t mattered this morning. It was their anniversary, and it had pissed her off. With her horrible cold too, it seemed the entire world was conspiring to ruin their special day.
She couldn’t even seek comfort in their daughter. She was at an important ballet rehearsal. The performance was on Saturday, after all. The mother of one of Clare’s friends would pick her up after the rehearsal tonight. Any other week it would’ve been Michael. But not tonight, all because of that bloody dinner. It just wasn’t fair.
At least she had Harry with her, she thought with a little more comfort when he jumped onto her lap and began purring.
Her eyes, heavy with the weight of her cold, began closing again, her thoughts drifting away to happier things. Before they reached very far, she was aware of a distant ringing, somewhere in a different consciousness.
Have I started dreaming? Am I asleep or awake?
She didn’t care until Harry leapt from her lap, clawing her thigh as he used it as his launch pad.
The ringing was much louder now, and much nearer. Her eyes opened with a start, and it took her sleepy mind several moments to realise the doorbell was ringing. Maybe Michael had forgotten his key in the heat of their argument in the morning?
A quick glance at the antique clock on the mantelpiece told her it was too early. Unless he’d skipped the function after all. Had he come home to surprise her on their anniversary?
In the hallway, she could see two figures through the glass of the front door. One was tall, the other shorter and stockier. The shorter man was carrying some sort of case.
When the porch failed to illuminate, she blinked with surprise. The figures on the doorstep remained in darkness as she flicked the light switch.
Colette opened the door far enough to see who was standing on her doorstep. The men, who had been looking away, turned to face her. For a long moment, all she could see were their silhouettes and the slight outline of their faces. Just before the taller man spoke, she noticed the porch light bulb was missing.
“Mrs. Robertson? Mrs. Colette Robertson?” The voice was low and unfamiliar.
Within a moment of confirming her identity, the stocky man’s fist crashed into her mouth and nose. A ring tore into her top lip. She felt herself career backwards and impact with a dull thud on the oak floorboards. Unconsciousness took her, and she was aware of the tall man closing the front door and bending over her.
Sometimes she would have a terrible nightmare and wake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Michael would be there to cling to for security, and she’d soon breathe an enormous sigh of relief she’d been dreaming. Colette knew this wasn’t one of those times.
Even through the semi-consciousness of waking she could feel the intense burning of her chest, although she felt cold and restricted in her movement. Before she opened her eyes, she knew they had bound her to something.
Her eyes shot open as the rasping pain burned into her waking senses again. Through bleary eyes, she could see a figure hovering above her. The flash of metal, the spectral white hands, the pain getting unbearable. Sleep replaced with frightening consciousness.
Her eyes were open now and she could see everything. A stocky man in dark blue overalls.
The blade of the flick-knife snapping shut.
It’s my blood.
The white surgical gloves were coated, her blood running everywhere.
She tried to scream, but her mouth could not move.
Her panic threatened to escalate out of control. She lifted her head to look at herself. Her feet taped together around the ankles, preventing any movement. Hands tied to the bedstead with white plastic restraints.
It wasn’t that which most concerned her. It was the pools of blood running from her chest, staining the white sheets of the bed. Her screams echoed in her head as through wide, frightened eyes she looked at the bloody mess which had once been her chest. She felt sure she could make out a handful of individual wounds as her eyes flitted between the blood and the man in the dark blue overalls as he circled above her, his gaze tracing a line over her.
John Kennedy looked down at Colette’s bloody, restrained body, his expression blank. Vincent Trevellion watched with no discernible interest from a chair to the right of the bed. Kennedy was quite pleased with his handiwork, although the full effect wouldn’t be visible until she was dead and the bleeding had stopped. It served his purpose. Trevellion’s suggested mutilations had been inspiring and would send out a chilling message.
He studied the bloody mess, a thin smiled crossing his lips. It wasn’t bad at all, considering it was the first time he’d carved a message in human flesh.
His eyes moved across her exposed, blood-drenched breasts. Above them, he read: ‘Fuck the Net’ in jagged letters. His gaze rose above her stained body to the message he’d smeared on the wall. Daubed in her blood, it said: ‘Reclaim the World’.
Trevellion stood up from his seat seeing his colleague had finished his task and approached the bed, peering at the message carved in flesh, admiring his own macabre suggestion. Their work was nearing its conclusion. Whilst his accomplice had been securing Colette Robertson to the bed, he’d copied all the SW Technologies state network tender project data, and wider semantic web development information from her tablet. The priceless flash drive sat in his inside pocket.
The ransacking of the house had also yielded a few more useful hard-copy files for him to study. The final satisfying act had been to format and infect her tablet device, removing all the SW Technologies data forever. It was too risky to steal the machine. He knew it would contain a tracking device given her line of work, and they didn’t have the time to locate and remove it. He smiled as he tapped a second flash drive in his jacket pocket that contained the virus that had forever wiped her computer clean of all its secrets.
All that remained was for the others to complete their jobs. A break-in at SW Technologies’ premises would be a formality. Once the information was theirs, they would torch the building. And the anti-net activists would be on the run for her death. After tonight’s events, there would be nowhere for them to hide.
Trevellion turned to his right, checking the digital video camera erected on its tripod was still recording. He smiled as the red light continued to beam, the intrusive lens capturing the death of Colette Robertson.
He turned to face his colleague and nodded before returning to his seat to watch the last rites. As he sat, he saw the flash of the flick-knife blade snapping open, blood sticking from its earlier work.
Colette struggled, pulling in vain against her restraints, as the bloody blade flicked into position. This couldn’t be happening. She’d wake in a minute and wrap a comforting arm around Michael’s sleeping body. But she knew this was it. No waking up in a cold sweat. No relief at the vividness of her dreams. No escape.
She struggled more violently than ever as the man leant over her, careful to avoid the bloody sheets, the blade moving towards her face.
The tears streamed down her cheeks as for the first time she studied the face of her attacker and then to the man sitting nearby. She didn’t recognise the assailant in the overalls, but the other taller man was a different matter. The dark hair, well-defined features and high cheekbones made him about 40. It was difficult to be certain. His manicured black goatee beard made him seem older.
She couldn’t be sure where, but there was something familiar about him. She’d seen him before. As sheer terror overtook her senses, her heart pounding in her ears, she couldn’t remember where or when.
The blade was at her lips.
She sank back into the mattress as far as it would allow. It wasn’t enough. She closed her eyes and winced as the sharp blade flashed in front of her mouth. She waited for the intense burning pain, but all she felt was a slight trickle of blood seep into her mouth.
Collete opened her eyes again to see the stocky man in his overalls had moved away to one corner of the room. Her wide eyes scanned across, stopping in alarm as she saw her digital video camera propped up on its tripod.
All her muscles tightened, burning from the effort, and she clenched her fists. Her eyes narrowed into tiny windows as her anger rose. As if what was happening wasn’t enough. They were going to kill her. She was certain of that. But the sick bastards were filming their work for all time.
What sort of fucking animals are you? What are you going to do when you’ve left me butchered on the bed? Go home and get a hard-on watching this?
Her gaze once more fell on the taller man and her anger faded as tears spilled down her cheeks. She would never see Michael or Clare again. That was the most painful thing. Not the wounds on her chest, which would have healed in time. She was going to die alone, never having the chance to hold them again.
Her sorrow evaporated as she looked back to the familiar-looking man, aware of him moving to her right. He was placing something in a leather-bound briefcase, open on the dressing table.
Is that a flash drive?
Her confusion at the situation rose even further. She needed to be rational despite the waves of terror and nausea rushing over her. She had to understand why this was happening to her.
The bastard must have copied something from my computer. But that’s all work-related. How that could be of interest?
Her thoughts trailed off. The bell in her head was ringing more loudly. So this is what it was all about.
This is about my work. And the tender I’ve spent so many hours on.
She knew industrial espionage was a dirty game, but this was beyond anyone’s worst nightmare.
And now she realised why the man looked familiar. She had a vague recollection of meeting or seeing him at an industry event the year before. He’d been presenting on advancements in…
The answers and images in her mind faded as the stocky man approached the bed again. This time it wasn’t the knife menacing her, it was a long length of rubber tubing and a large white plastic container. Her eyes flicked from the man to the plastic container, attempting to read the words on the label.
The man forced the rubber tubing through the slit in the tape across her mouth, in between her swollen lips, and she caught sight of the label.
White Spirit. He’s trying to pour White Spirit down my throat and burn out my fucking insides.
She clenched her mouth shut, shaking her head from side-to-side. The rest of her body continued its losing battle to break free from its restraints.
Within seconds, the fist which had first greeted her at the front door had smashed into her face three times. Unconscious consumed her before she could register her nose being smashed, her septum splitting, and teeth breaking. If she’d been able to think, she would have welcomed it rather than face what was coming.
As she succumbed to the black unconscious, she never felt the rubber-tubing slide into her throat.
The light bulb for the porch was missing. It was the first thing Michael Robertson noticed as he approached his front door. Frowning, he reached into his jacket pocket for his door key, groping about in the darkness, sure in the knowledge the bulb had been there the night before. Perhaps it had broken that evening and Colette just hadn’t got round to replacing it yet, he wondered.
Another thought crossed his mind, one he hoped was too petty to be true. Was Colette still pissed off enough with him to have removed the bulb just to annoy him when he arrived home from his work’s annual dinner?
Michael dismissed the idea and exhaled, hoping the bunch of red roses and bottle of Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay, one of Colette’s favourites, would help smooth over their fight at breakfast. Even now he couldn’t help but feel Colette was a little hypocritical in making a fuss about him attending. How many meetings, conferences and overnight stays had she been on in the last few manic months for her job?
Trips to London for emergency meetings with zero notice were almost as commonplace as her going into the office. There were some weeks he wouldn’t see her at all, and not once had he made a fuss, or made her feel guilty about it and the fact that their eight-year-old daughter Clare missed her so much when she was away.
Although, as Colette had been keen to point out, none of those meetings had taken place on their wedding anniversary. And not only was it their anniversary, but she’d got a nasty cold, or maybe even the start of the flu, and needed looking after. If she had the flu, it was no surprise given how hard he knew she’d been working. She was likely to be run down and all too vulnerable to picking up something.
He knew the timing had been dire, but there was nothing he could do about it. The Managing Director had made it clear she would take a dim view if all the senior insurance brokers didn’t attend the annual dinner. And he’d towed the line, incurring Colette’s wrath.
The key slid into the lock, and the front door opened up into the dark hallway. Glancing at his watch, lit-up by the full moon, the time was a little after eleven. Most evenings, Colette would still have been awake, working on her laptop, but all the downstairs lights were off. The only illumination came from the upstairs landing.
Michael flicked the hall light on, and his gaze dropped to the assortment of letters strewn across the carpet, just beyond the doormat. Colette prided herself on her tidiness. Letters and bills to respond would be in a neat stack on the side of the hall table, not lying in a mess on the floor. Maybe Harry, their cat, had taken a walk across the narrow table, he thought, closing the door behind him, careful not to let it bang shut.
For a brief second he thought about calling out to Colette, but rejected the idea in case she’d gone to bed. Despite the recriminations at breakfast, he hoped she was still awake. Perhaps they could still enjoy some of the remaining evening together with a pleasant glass of wine.
He placed his keys on the hall table, and headed in the kitchen’s direction to retrieve two wine glasses. Before he reached there, he stopped, his gaze honing in one of Colette’s slippers, discarded on the bottom step of the staircase. Several steps further up, one of her gold encrusted earrings, a present from their last wedding anniversary, lay unattended.
A quizzical look crossed Michael’s face as a slight frown formed before he turned and climbed the stairs. Even when she was ill, Colette wouldn’t just dump things on the stairs, especially not her favourite jewellery.
With the roses in one hand and the bottle of wine in the other, Michael walked up the stairs, careful to avoid the creaky step at the top.
The upstairs of the house was just as quiet as downstairs. Too quiet. There was no sound of life from the bedroom. No quiet mumblings from the television. Not even the quiet whistling of the wind coming in through the bathroom window, which was always open, even in winter. And no sign of their cat Harry keeping guard at the top of the stairs, which was his nightly ritual.
Upon reaching the landing, one more thing wasn’t as it should have been. Their bedroom door was closed. They never closed it, just in case Clare ever needed something in the night.
Without further thought, Michael turned the door handle to his bedroom. The room, like the rest of the upstairs of their house, was in darkness. But there was something else. The smell. A metallic chemical cocktail hung in the air, invading his senses as he grappled to decipher what it might be.
His heart pounded, and he could feel himself perspiring. There was something wrong, and he reached for the light switch, his sense of dread rising by the second.
He felt the air being sucked from his lungs as artificial light bathed their bedroom. For a few long moments he stood, staring, unable to move, a sea of blood filling his vision as he looked at what had once been their bed.
Even as he stared at the sight before him, his confused thoughts couldn’t process what he was seeing. The duvet was on the floor at the foot of the bed. The sheets were stained crimson, not a spot of white remaining. On the bed was Colette, her wrists fastened to the bedstead, her ankles taped together.
Michael could feel numbness and nausea creeping through him as he took in every detail of the horror before him. Bloodied duct tape was over Colette’s mouth, and what looked like a piece of rubber tubing was hanging like a limp rag from her swollen lips. A discarded white plastic canister was on the floor next to the bed. The words ‘White Spirit’ just visible from where the container lay on its side.
The acidic taste of bile burnt the back of his throat as his gaze dropped to Colette’s exposed chest, her shirt torn open and crumpled beneath her. Savage markings and lacerations marked her pale flesh, the blood now dried into a gruesome message that made no sense.
‘Fuck the net.’
And on the wall above the bed, more blood, smeared in large letters, spelling out another message.
‘Reclaim the world.’
Unable to hold back the nausea any longer, Michael vomited onto the floor in front of him before hyperventilating.
“That can’t be Colette,” his mind was pleading.
But he knew it was as his eyes traced the lines of blood running from the wounds in her chest, matting portions of her long brown hair together where it had impeded the blood flow.
And as unconsciousness crept up on him, and he slumped to the floor, one more terrible thought filled his head.
Where was his daughter?