Pretend

On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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Pretend

It had definitely been a mistake to go for the quarry. The man whose name was currently James Arthur could have told you that immediately. But for him, it was a stroke of good luck. For the man he was following, it would be fatal.

Arthur grimaced as the looked around the lip of the quarter-mile-wide open pit where so much granite had been cut. It wasn’t the best cover identity he’d ever had, and it annoyed him each time he heard someone say it.

Two first names, he thought. Like the opposite of an American kid.

If you put James Arthur together with Harrison Taylor or Mackenzie Simpson or whatever the hell the yanks were naming their children these days, well, you’d end up with the makings of two actual, proper names between them.

His own curmudgeonliness amused him. Indeed, it was the Americans who had provided the final piece of intelligence that allowed his own agency to connect the unassuming-looking Eastern European man who was about a hundred metres ahead of Arthur right now, and the fragmentation bomb with the remote detonator that had claimed the lives of twenty-nine patients and staff at a London clinic that provided abortions. The press had received a packet in the post, with an anonymous party claiming responsibility; it said that if unborn children weren’t allowed to live, then neither should their mothers. There had been little else in the news for weeks.

If you asked Arthur, inventing air travel had been a poor idea. People were better off staying at home, complete with their own stupidity and ideology and politics and religion. Mixing them was as bad an idea as switching to whisky after your fourth pint. But no-one was asking Arthur, as usual.

He was officially tasked with bringing the man in, but he wasn’t going to do that. He was going to try very hard not to fatally shoot him, though. Arthur had an ice pick in his inside jacket pocket, and he was going to drive it into the man’s brain several times, and watch very attentively as he lost his higher functions, motor control, and then his life.

Pursuing quarry into quarry, his mind said, but it wasn’t really funny. Arthur went over the lip, quickly finding an access ramp for industrial vehicles. His target wasn’t too far away, and the man had no chance of escaping. Arthur was content to take his time, because he really wanted this one to feel it coming.

He’d read the target’s file several times, just a couple of days ago. A lot of it was the usual stuff. Strong but distant and then absent father. Overworked mother who had tried her best. Abusive stepfather. Petty crime, then prison, then resentment. Online groups that had been flagged and tracked. But no-one had been aware of just how far gone he was. Throwing red paint and slurs outside clinics, yes; but the bomb had been a genuine surprise.

Arthur’s agency didn’t like surprises at all, under any circumstances, and the critical piece of info that would never make it to the press was that someone on the seventh floor was a relative of one of the young women who had been torn to pieces in the blast. She’d been there as moral support for her friend, not even a patient herself. Tragic and sickening.

Of course, the man on the seventh floor had taken Arthur aside and said that it wouldn’t be held against him if the perpetrator never made it into police custody. He’d even said, straight out and casually, in his Oxbridge accent and his ten-grand shoes, that it would be appreciated if the death was painful, and took place in terror. Arthur was a professional, and he was glad to comply.

The man ahead was limping, of course; Arthur had nicked him with a bullet, being exceptionally careful not to take an artery or to cripple him. The whole point was to chase him down. To ensure that at the end, he was stinking of sweat and fear, already half-resigned to his fate. The point was to make him feel it.

Arthur snapped off a shot just for the hell of it, keeping well wide of his target, and he saw the man jerk to one side in shock then break into a loping half-run towards an earth-mover that was parked in the shadows up ahead. Another poor move. Those vehicles were kept locked, with keys removed, and immobilised as a condition of lease. Nobody wanted a drunk teenager creating havoc with hundreds of thousands of quid worth of heavy machinery in the dead of night, even assuming a would-be thief could figure out the tricky gearing system.

The lights of the town had dwindled to nothing now. The man obviously thought he’d be safer away from the cities, but that was only marginally true these days. Arthur had caught up with him in a local pub, and had taken both care and pleasure in making himself known whilst also letting the other man believe he still had a chance to see the sunlight one more time. The chase, which was really more of a running-down, had taken most of the night, and already there were birds chirping in the distant trees. Arthur picked up his pace, readily able to continue this game well into the coming day, but he had no intention of doing so. He broke into a jog, and closed the distance to the unarmed man in minutes.

His target was moving with difficulty now, and on a whim Arthur picked up a small chunk of rock and threw it at his leg, hitting the back of his knee. The man went straight down, then he rolled over in the dust and the dirt, scrambling to regain his footing. He gave up on that idea when he saw that his pursuer was only a few metres away, looking at him in a detached and almost robotic way.

“Please,” the man began, and Arthur just shook his head. They looked at each other for several seconds, and the pale and sweating man on the ground looked up at the faintly brightening sky. “Quickly then,” he said at last, his accent thickening in this moment of finality.

“I’m afraid not, mate,” Arthur replied, taking the ice pick from his coat and turning it so it would catch the light. He watched the terror bloom on his target’s face, and Arthur felt the well-trained depersonalisation take hold of him. The man pushed against the loose fragments of rock with his functioning leg and his damaged one, but he only managed to withdraw by half a metre. There was a noticeable smell of urine in the air. Arthur stepped forward abruptly, kicked the man in the celiac plexus, and began the task at hand.

By the time another forty minutes had passed, there was a wash of yellow-pink light over the horizon, and Arthur was once again up above the lip of the quarry, sitting on an incline near the drop. He thought that watching the sun come up from the irregularly-cut and geometric stone peaks and troughs might seem like dawn on a whole new world, somewhere else among the stars.

It was the same world, though. The same big barrel of misery, even with one fewer killer of innocents still drawing breath, his screams no longer reverberating against the harsh surfaces. Different day, same old shit, because for men like Arthur nothing really changed.

But he could pretend.


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