(4200 Words)

“Plenty of warm bodies at home. The debtor and the donor should be in there, with any luck.”

Colin looked up from the infra-red image on his laptop and grinned at Greg. The roll of the River Thames was making him queasy. If the Haywards were home, he wouldn’t have to sit in the boat and wait for them.

He guided the quadricopter camera drone back to the boat. When he stood to stow it, Ellen nudged the throttle and sent him staggering against the donor cage in the stern.

“Careful there,” said Ellen.

Colin turned his face away from her to hide his scowl. If he challenged her, she’d say she thought he could manage the motion of a boat. Her words would be deferential, but her tone would convey how little she cared if he believed her.

Junior loan facilitators like Colin didn’t get to choose their own security personnel.

They were heading for a red brick building that had been a Bankside squat since the rising estuary swallowed every ground floor in London. Colin sat down before Ellen nudged the boat alongside the building’s floating jetty. If he hadn’t, she’d have hit it a lot harder.

“Guess I’d better stay with the boat,” said Greg as he tied up.

Ellen cut the engine. “Fair enough. We won’t need both of us up there.”

Colin looked up at the building. He couldn’t tell how many people lived there, but the cluster of canoes and rowing boats tied to the jetty suggested most of them were in.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “There could be trouble…”

His voice tailed off. Ellen was looking at him as though he was explaining the tooth fairy.

“I expect I’ll manage, Mr. Hooper. I think we should be more worried about whether the boat will be here when we get back, or whether the local anarchists will have found a way to entertain themselves with it.”

“There’s narchs round here?”

“Possibly.”

Something in her tone let Colin know his question amused her, though he couldn’t have said exactly what it was. He stepped on to the jetty and looked back at the clasped hands logo of the Bank of Friends on the donor cage. Among the weed-coated walls of buildings that had become islands, the motorboat’s unchipped paint stood out. If there was a place where people had reasons to join the anarchists, he had to admit he was floating in the middle of it. A boat belonging to a bank would draw them like magpies to silver.

“Ready?” asked Ellen.

Of course he was ready. Did she think his shoelaces needed tying? He brandished his briefcase and hoped his smile didn’t look as idiotic as it felt.

Ellen turned to the building’s fire escape, which was now the main staircase. Why couldn’t Ellen have stayed with the boat, leaving him with the more personable Greg? The steps put his eyes level with Ellen’s backside as it undulated under her trouser suit. He found it hard not to look, even though he was convinced she knew it.

They entered the building on the fifth floor, beside the lift shaft. The lift hadn’t run in decades, so all the shaft did was funnel the brackish smell of the estuary into the corridor. If he’d been with Greg instead of Ellen, Colin would have mentioned these flats had once been worth a couple of million pounds each, back when that was real money. As he wasn’t, he said nothing and followed Ellen to the door marked ‘52’.

The man who answered his knock bore the sunken-eyed look of someone introduced to poverty late in life.

“Mr. Hayward?” asked Colin.

The man nodded. He didn’t look as though he had much fight in him, which was a relief. Colin already had the uncomfortable feeling a biomedical repossession put in the pit of his stomach. It only made it worse when they made a fuss about it.

“I’m Colin Hooper from the Bank of Friends. This is my associate, Ellen Reid. We’re here to help you with the repayments on your loan.”

“Help me?”

“Yes, of course.” The hardest part was getting through the door. Not that it would stand up to the gadgets hidden under Ellen’s jacket, but he’d resorted to assisted entry a couple of times this year. It would look bad on his next appraisal if it became a habit.

“Our policy is to provide our valued customers with every assistance in meeting their commitments.”

The trick was to make the smile friendly without overdoing it.

“If we could just come in for a few minutes, Mr. Hayward, I’m sure we can settle everything to your satisfaction.”

Banksiders didn’t get called ‘Mr.’ very often. A little deference was often a good investment.

“It’s Doctor Hayward, actually,” said Hayward.

“Ah. I beg your pardon, sir.”

Hayward stepped back. Colin strode in before Hayward changed his mind. He found himself in what had once been half of a large lounge. Someone had put a chipboard partition across the floorboards, splitting one penthouse into two squats. Colin hadn’t been able to see that with the infra-red camera, but a hasty calibration with the plans he’d memorized confirmed he’d seen two people on this side of the partition.

The original owners must have taken everything when they left for a drier part of the country because the only furniture was a pine bench that Hayward probably liberated from a park. Hayward had placed it at the window, angled so he could gaze at the dome of St Paul’s. The cathedral loomed over the drowned city from the top of Peter’s Hill, the only ground in central London that stayed dry at high spring tide.

“Please, have a seat,” said Hayward. “I’ll just call my accountant in and we can get started.”

Colin looked at Ellen. Banksiders squatting in unfurnished flats didn’t have accountants. If Hayward left the room, they would never see him again. Ellen sidled toward the door. She was a head shorter than Hayward, but he’d have more luck trying to go through the wall.

Hayward rapped on the partition.

“Coming,” called a woman’s voice from the other side.

Hayward smiled amiably. Colin allowed himself to relax and sit down. She hadn’t sounded like a gang of narchs. Hayward’s ‘accountant’ was probably just a helpful neighbor, but he wouldn’t be calling her an accountant if he didn’t have something to negotiate with. Perhaps it wouldn’t come to repossession after all.

Ellen stepped aside to admit a woman whose salt and pepper dreadlocks placed her a world away from the Bank’s dark suited accountants. She was the shortest person in the room, but her straight back and level gaze betrayed none of Hayward’s air of being ground down.

“This is Ulrika Philby.”

The empty room made Hayward’s voice sound flat.

Colin stood up to shake her hand. She gave his fingers a quick squeeze without looking at his face.

“You said your name’s Colin Hooper? H-O-O-P-E-R?” asked Philby.

Colin suppressed a frown. What did the spelling of his name have to do with anything?

“Yes,” he said.

“As you can see,” said Philby, “my client’s resources are limited.”

In spite of her Bankside looks, Philby spoke with the accent Colin had spent years trying to cultivate.

“I appreciate that, and there’s some scope for flexibility,” he said. “However, I have to point out that Mr. Hayward has been in default for over a year now.”

“My client no longer owns the house he took out the loan for. He sold up and moved here, paying most of the money he received to you.”

“I know he did. Unfortunately, it covered less than half the value of the loan.”

Colin shuffled the papers in the briefcase. He hoped they’d take the hint that he could back up what he was saying and wouldn’t make him waste time leading them through the documents. You didn’t get into management by letting clients talk you round in circles. You made sure you knew the facts.

“Well of course,” said Philby. “Property prices in London have been in freefall since the Thames topped the Flood Barrier. That was entirely predictable when you granted the loan.”

Colin wanted to roll his eyes at the word ‘you’. The loan had been granted twenty years ago, when he was a toddler. He knew clients saw him as an extension of the bank, but he went out of his way to be courteous. It wouldn’t hurt them to do the same once in a while.

“The terms of the loan make no provision for changes in property prices.”

Didn’t people ever read the terms and conditions?

“Besides,” he said, “the loan was granted on the assumption that Mr. Hayward would remain in full employment. He’s been out of work for eleven years now.”

Doctor Hayward lost his job through no fault of his own. He developed cancer and Caxton Limited replaced him when the laws mandating sick leave were rescinded.”

Colin arranged his features into the appropriate expression of sympathy while Philby blithered on about Hayward’s recovery and his wife’s unexpected death. They didn’t seem to realize a sob story only made it obvious they had nothing to offer. Hayward had met with a run of bad luck, but it wasn’t Colin’s job to worry about that. He’d taken out a mortgage, not insurance against bad fortune.

Colin waited for Philby to pause.

“I’m happy to hear Doctor Hayward’s cancer was successfully treated,” he said. “Now, if we can come back to the matter of the loan. The Bank’s made every effort to be lenient since Doctor Hayward lost his position at Caxton.”

“I’m sure you have,” said Philby. “Are you aware of what Ken did for Caxton?”

“He was their director of research and development.”

A hint of exasperation dislodged Colin’s carefully nurtured accent. He couldn’t help glancing at Ellen, just as her lips twitched into the inevitable smirk. Easy for her to mock. Security didn’t have to worry about how they sounded, but the days when talent found its own level were long gone. Colin’s grandfather had never lost his Dagenham glottal stop, but it hadn’t stopped him retiring as a company director. These days, if you talked Estuary, you stayed Estuary.

Hayward spoke before Colin could get all his consonants in place to bring the conversation back on track. He cursed Ellen for putting him off his stride.

“Your suit came from a tridee printer?” asked Hayward, as though the Bank paid the people sent on house calls enough to buy cotton clothes.

“Well, yes. From a Caxton store as it happens.”

“I designed the system that scanned and tailored you.”

Finally, perhaps they were getting somewhere.

“So you still receive royalties?” asked Colin.

“Oh no, Caxton retained all intellectual property.”

Colin sighed through his nose, hoping they wouldn’t notice.

“I just thought you might be interested,” said Hayward.

“Fascinated. Perhaps we could return to the point. There’s a biomedical clause in your loan agreement. The purpose of my visit is to inform you that unless we can arrive at an arrangement for resuming payment, we’ll have to act on it.”

Colin kept his voice level, as though he was continuing an ordinary conversation. The right tone of voice could go a long way to keeping clients calm when the biomedical clause came up. He flicked his eyes to Ellen, who had a hand under her jacket, caressing one of the persuasion tools on her belt.

Hayward and Philby exchanged a grim look, but neither ran for the door or tried to strangle Colin.

“Let me be clear,” said Hayward. “You’re going to take one of my kidneys to settle the loan?”

“I’m afraid it’s gone beyond a kidney,” said Colin. “For one thing, even a complete set of organs wouldn’t cover the loan, although the Bank’s willing to write it off when we receive them. For another, you’ve had cancer, so your organs aren’t eligible for donation.”

For once, Philby had nothing to say. She confined herself to raising an eyebrow.

“The biomedical clause includes a next-of-kin sub-clause,” said Colin. “Your next-of-kin is your son. He turned sixteen last month, so he’s eligible. He’s at home now, I believe?”

Best to say he knew the boy was in before they had a chance to deny it.

Hayward nodded. “In his room.”

“Good. If you’d be kind enough to call him, we can settle the loan now. I’m sure you’re keen to be free of it as soon as possible.”

Colin smiled his friendliest smile. He didn’t look at Ellen.

“Before I do,” said Hayward, “I’d like to be absolutely clear about this. You’re going to take my eldest son to pieces to cover the loan.”

Colin restrained himself from frowning. According to the paperwork, Hayward only had one son.

“I assure you the process is entirely painless. It’s all done under anesthetic.”

“But he won’t wake up. He’ll be dead.”

“That’s right. Naturally, the Bank will return any non-valuable remains to you.”

“How thoughtful of you.” Hayward pinched the bridge of his nose. “I have a few questions.”

There was something strange about Philby. A friendly neighbor would be dismayed if she failed to fend off a repossession. Philby glared at Hayward as though he’d said something wrong. Colin didn’t know what to make of it, but he’d put up with a few questions to keep Hayward compliant.

“Of course,” he said.

“I’d like to know how you feel about a job that involves taking a teenager to be carved up.”

So much of customer relations came down to choosing the right smile. Colin assumed the most professional smile in his repertoire. He couldn’t understand why so many of them asked that question. Did they think he’d have some sort of existential crisis and walk out on a job he’d been damn lucky to land in the first place? Or that he’d reveal himself as some sort of emotionless automaton after he’d put so much effort into making it easy on them?

“I’m just a functionary.” He gave his standard answer. “You signed the loan agreement, and my job is to represent the Bank’s position.”

The first time he’d been asked, he’d explained he needed the job because he’d met the woman he loved and he wanted to raise children with her in a decent home. He’d wanted the client to understand he had feelings and aspirations of his own, that he didn’t do the job for the fun of it. It hadn’t gone down as he’d hoped. Since then, he’d never told a client anything personal. Better to keep a safe distance.

It seemed to be working. Philby’s face was a study in dislike and Hayward didn’t look any happier, but neither reached for his throat.

“Mr. Hooper, you’re a young man,” said Hayward. “Twenty-three? Twenty-four?”

Colin tipped his head in a minimal nod. He was twenty-three, but that was more personal information than he cared to share.

“About the age I was when I signed that contract,” said Hayward. “I didn’t have kids then and I thought I had a job for life, so it seemed safe to mortgage my future. I was wrong, but it taught me that if you make a decision when you’re young, you have the rest of your life to regret it.”

Was Hayward trying to talk him out of doing his job by playing the ‘I’m older and wiser than you’ card? Sometimes it was hard to keep a straight face with these people. Colin lifted his eyebrows, letting Hayward know that if he had a point, he hadn’t made it.

“I made a mistake.” Hayward didn’t change his theme. “A big mistake. All I’m asking you is to let me pay for it. Take me with you.”

“Ken!” Philby gripped Hayward’s arm.

“No, Ulrika,” said Hayward. “I mean it. I’m willing to meet my obligations.”

“He won’t let you, Ken,” she said.

At least Philby grasped the situation.

“I’m afraid she’s right,” said Colin. “The recipients expect reliable organs and you simply can’t provide those.”

Hayward sighed. “Well, it’s your decision. Your regret.”

Philby squeezed his arm. The look she gave Hayward struck Colin as more triumphant than sympathetic.

“I’ll get his birth certificate,” she said.

That was odd. Why would Philby have Hayward’s son’s birth certificate? Not that it mattered. He could summon a copy on his laptop if there was any dispute. He handed Hayward the release forms.

“If you’ll just sign here, sir? These will end your relationship with the Bank of Friends. I’m sure that will be a relief to you.”

Colin expected Hayward to spend the next half hour scrutinizing the forms for a loophole, but he’d signed them before Philby returned with the birth certificate.

“And now, if you could just call your son?”

Things could still go bad, but a shot or two from Ellen’s taser would settle things. There wouldn’t even be any property damage to explain.

Hayward and Philby hadn’t moved. They were both looking straight at him. The corners of Hayward’s mouth betrayed regret, though not as much as Colin expected.

“But you’re already here,” said Philby.

“I’m sorry?”

“The biomedical clause states Ken’s next-of-kin can be called to fulfil it in his place,” she said. “Ken doesn’t have a will so the next-of-kin is automatically his oldest child. You.”

Colin chuckled. That was why they’d been taking it so well. They’d had this trick up their sleeves, for all the good it would do them. He took the birth certificate, catching sight of Ellen as he did so. She winked. Did every little effort to put him off balance amuse her?

“I’m sorry, this isn’t even a good fake.”

As he said it, Colin realized it wasn’t true. He couldn’t see anything to criticize, even though the certificate must have been printed since he’d entered the room. They couldn’t have known in advance who the bank would send.

He remembered Hayward was an expert at tridee printing. The raised printing under his fingertips felt definitive. Something about seeing his own and his mother’s names printed alongside the name of Kenneth Hayward, named as his father, sent cold footsteps scuttling up his spine.

Banksiders could vanish by moving from squat to squat, seen only by people who were struck blind, deaf, and dumb by a question from a loan facilitator. Sometimes it took Colin months to track down a client. Hayward hadn’t moved. He’d laid a trap, and only a fool would let bank security into his squat unless he was confident of the trap. Whatever Hayward was, Colin was sure he was nobody’s fool.

He didn’t want to laugh at these people anymore.

“Look, I know who my father was,” said Colin. “He lived in Essex his whole life and never learned one end of a tridee printer from another. A forged certificate doesn’t change the public records. I’m not your son, so can we move on?”

Philby touched Hayward’s elbow.

“I’m afraid you are my son.” Hayward stared over Colin’s shoulder, trying to look fascinated by something out of the window. He was a poor liar and knew it.

“No, I ain’t!” Colin took a breath. “I have my birth certificate at home. Your next-of-kin is in that room there.”

Colin waved at the closed door of the Hayward boy’s room.

“Your birth certificate is in your hand,” said Philby.

“You printed it while we were talking.” He pointed at Hayward. “Forgery would be easy for you. That’s why she got me to spell my name. So your friends in there would know they got it right.”

He jerked a thumb at the partition, wondering how many people were listening from the other side.

“Please, go on,” said Philby. “This is better than a novel. Presumably the sole point of our conversation in here was to give them time to print it?”

“Yes!”

Philby met his eyes with the indulgent look of an adult being lied to by a five-year-old. She was as bad as Ellen.

“Well, perhaps your associate would like to look at the certificate,” said Philby.

The last thing Colin wanted was to involve Ellen’s warped sense of humor, but he couldn’t stop her sauntering over. It was unprofessional to give a direct order in front of clients so he let her take the certificate. The corners of her mouth twitched as though she’d read a joke so bad it couldn’t help but entertain.

“Looks like the real thing,” she said.

Colin glared, hoping she’d understand it as an order to stop fooling around.

“Perhaps you’d like to check your bank’s records,” said Philby.

Ellen joined Hayward and Philby in looking at him.

Philby’s expression hit him like a punch in the stomach. She was certain of what he would find. Somehow he couldn’t stop his hands from opening the laptop and his fingers from tapping keys. When he’d checked Hayward’s records two hours ago, the name in the next-of-kin field had been ‘Daniel Hayward’. Now it was ‘Colin Hooper’.

He didn’t have a smile to cover the situation.

Philby took the laptop from his hands. “There we are.”

She passed it to Ellen and took the forms Hayward had signed.

“And all the paperwork seems to be in order,” she said.

She turned to Ellen. “I think it’s your job from here.”

“Yes. I see it is.”

Why did he have to be working with Ellen when someone tried this? She seemed to think the whole thing was a piece of theatre for her benefit.

Colin turned to Philby. “You’re a narch. You must have someone inside the Bank to pull this off.”

“I’m sure I’ve no idea what you’re talking about,” said Philby. “But unless your systems are very unsecure indeed, I’d need more than one person on the inside to fake something like this. Even if I had them, your bank would never admit their people were so unreliable. Just imagine what it would do to customer confidence.”

“I assure you our security is extremely tight,” said Ellen.

“Thank you,” said Philby. “That is reassuring.”

“Ellen…”

She’d overstepped the mark this time. She didn’t have to like him to back him up. She just had to do her job. Now he couldn’t move forward without admitting a breach in the Bank’s security. All she’d had to do was keep her mouth shut until someone needed tasering.

Then he looked at her face and saw she had no intention of letting him move on. Her job was to protect the Bank of Friends, and a bank was nothing if its customers lost confidence in it. Backing him up had become more difficult, and less amusing, than accepting the evidence Philby and Hayward had manufactured. Any of the security personnel would make the same call, though Greg probably wouldn’t be struggling to suppress a smirk.

Fear churned like strong coffee on an empty stomach. Once in the donor cage, there was no way out before he got to the John Radcliffe Hospital’s operating theatre where donors would say anything, so everything was ignored.

He made himself look straight into Ellen’s smirk. He had one chance to talk her out of this.

“My wife’s pregnant,” he said. “She’s due in a couple of months. Please let me see my child.”

The silence grew heavier as seconds ticked past. He’d never understood the depth of Ellen’s contempt for him until that moment. She had even less regard for Colin than she did for a client.

“We’ve heard that one before, haven’t we?” said Ellen.

“I imagine it’s often true,” said Philby.

“I asked you not to do this,” said Hayward. “I was serious when I said I’d go in your place, and you’d regret it if you refused me. You made your choice readily enough when you didn’t realize you were making it for yourself.”

Colin sprinted for the door. He didn’t expect to make it, but anything was better than meekly walking into the donor cage. He managed three strides before taser pain seared his back.

Things got rather indistinct. He was vaguely aware of being dragged out of the door and manhandled down the fire escape. The first thing he saw clearly was a patch of light, sliding across dents left by feet and fists on metallic walls. It took him a moment to recognize the light was coming through the grilled window in the donor cage and that it was moving as the boat rolled. He leapt to his feet, cracked his head on the ceiling and landed on his backside.

Ellen’s eyes appeared at the grille. The tiny window was too small to see any more of her face.

“Not to worry,” she said. “I’ve heard you tell donors it’s entirely painless at least a dozen times. I’m sure you said it to my husband, the day I didn’t get home in time.”

image009In between a long monologue of rejections, D.J. Cockburn’s fiction has been published in various venues including Buzzy, Interzone, Stupefying Stories, and most recently in the Qualia Nous anthology, and won the 2014 James White Award. He’s supported his unfortunate writing habit through medical research on various parts of the African continent. Earlier phases of his life have included teaching unfortunate children and experimenting on unfortunate fish. Check out his website at cockburndj.wordpress.com.

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