The Contractual Obligation

by R. MacInnes


Steve tilted the binoculars on their tripod and scanned the city below and tried to remember how he’d got from the factories down there in the city to up here in the house on the hill. He was unable to find an answer. He remembered lying dazed in the back of a limousine and he remembered that afterwards he had travelled in an elevator with two men whose faces he could not remember. But he couldn’t recollect much more than that. He wasn’t even sure how many days he’d been up here.

The section of the city that he could make out through the binoculars was a visual cacophony. Vehicles of different sizes swooped and manouevred over the roofs of the factories and the networks of alleyways that were teeming with workers surging in all directions.

He’d never made much money in the factories when he’d grafted there, but after he’d finished his shifts he’d carried out projects with a crew at night, trying to earn themselves a bit of extra security. They’d never made profits that were huge, but they were more than he could have made from the shifts that dragged on from nine to five, or nine to nine, or even nine to twelve.

He knew of course that something was wrong. Just the fact that he was up here in this sumptuous accommodation had to mean that something bad was approaching. He knew that this degree of luxury was not paid for by working overtime in the local library. This house belonged to someone high up in the game.

He ran his fingers over the back of his head and the row of stitches. He didn’t know how he’d got them. He remembered being in the middle of a job, just about to take the money off a dealer who was begging for them to stop, when everything had gone dark.

Short-term memory loss caused by concussion was what it had to be. Someone must have intervened in the situation. Someone from one of the other crews must have sabotaged the project. Whoever it was, whoever had done this to him, Steve was going to get revenge. In order to do that, all he needed to ensure was that he got out of here alive.

He tried to tell himself that he should enjoy the comfort up here in the house on the hill while it lasted, but he was too nervous for that. He slumped back down on the sofa, which was upholstered with white leather matching the colour scheme in the rest of the room: white carpet, white walls, white curtains. He watched a news report on the television about an orbital hotel and its celebrity guests.

He would have liked to have the opportunity to stay in a place like that, but it seemed impossible. Those resorts were only for the rich and famous. He’d never be wealthy to that extent. The need for money was why he’d started in the rackets. He’d wanted to improve his lot in life and to rise above the struggle for survival.

Robbing drug dealers was never going to be the safest line of work. But he’d been careful in selecting targets. He’d picked on those he had intelligence on, the dealers who had incurred disfavour or suspicion from their bosses. In this way, when he picked a target, he minimized the chance of repercussions. Usually, breaking fingers was enough to get the job done. But the last job had been different.

Tat tat tat

And then there was that noise again outside the door. It had happened throughout each day he’d been here, but it was becoming more frequent, as if someone was becoming impatient. It sounded like something made of metal tapping on the door. It sounded ominous. It didn’t sound good.

So far he had resisted the temptation to open the door. He’d not said anything in response. He didn’t want to open up the door until he knew who was outside. He wondered why they didn’t just come in. Whoever owned the house had the means to take him here and keep him held in here for several days at least; why did they not just come in through the door? They had him semi-conscious in the limousine. If they’d wanted to kill him, they could have done it then.

Tat tat tat

The noise was preventing him from concentrating on the television, and the television was his means of trying to forget what was going to happen next, whatever that might be. The infomercials on the television told him that he was relaxed and that he was happy.

Tat tat tat

On the screen a line of words shimmered into focus and a voice lingered over every syllable.

‘You are having a great time. You are having the best time of your life. You know you are.’

He had to admit someone here understood his requirements. On the table was a metal tin full of cocaine and a rolled-up banknote beside it. He decided he would wait for half an hour before he took another line. The fact that the tin somehow replenished itself whenever he was asleep had slowed down what he had thought was a compulsion bordering on addiction to the substance.

Instead he poured himself another glass of the red wine, of better quality than any he had ever drunk before. He adjusted his position on the sofa and the sofa creaked. He ran a bare foot across the deep-pile carpet. It was still warm as if there was a source of heat in the room below.

Tat tat tat

The knocking made him uneasy. It had to be someone from another crew. They were almost certainly going to question him and a lot of people had a grudge against him. He must have have had a mole in his team. He knew who’d stuck him here. It was that traitor Ron that he’d worked the steam hammer with in the factory.

He knew he’d been wrong to get Ron involved in the jobs. When one time an apprentice had an accident, Ron hadn’t even hurried but seemed to amble over as if there was no urgency to pull the emergency lever to stop the machine. The lad would never work again.

Steve thought that Ron’s soul resided in an wasteland of indifference to the human race. Grassing someone up, if it gave him some advantage, would have been something that he’d have done without a second’s thought. There was always someone there to mess up Steve’s life for him, just when things were starting to go well. There was always someone around to sabotage his plans.

Again there was the noise of an object that suggested from the brevity of time for which it resonated after hitting the door that it was small. He wondered if it was a pen. The sound of the pen reminded him of the pen and clipboard of his supervisor, Sneaky Jones, down at the factory.

Sneaky used to chew with vigour on a biro that was old and twisted while he was deciding who he should exclude from the shifts for the next day if they had shown any signs of daydreaming or slacking. He was envious and seeing Steve coming into work better dressed than he was could have provoked Sneaky to suspicion and a visit to one of the local captains of the gangs.

Now there were two potential targets for revenge, Ron and Sneaky. He would track them down if he got out of this place in one piece. He tried to stay positive. Once he got out, then he’d find them and elicit the truth. One of them had ruined his life. That sort of misfortune had dogged Steve as long as he could remember. His plans were always perfect and then someone had come along to create a glitch in his project.

He tried to remember the events of the last robbery that they’d carried out, to see if they would provide a clue as to how he’d ended up here.

The target had been a prosthetically enhanced low-level drug dealer, but someone who was dangerous due to his modifications. A gun-handed man was always going to pose a hazard. So they had felt that they were justified to be proactive in the use of aggression against the man, and Steve had rubber-stamped the plan.

Ron had sourced the corrosive liquid from the factory. But Steve knew that what Ron had done to the victim was too severe. His own mother wouldn’t have recognized the man afterwards. Ron was a loose cannon. It was Ron who had jeopardized the whole endeavour in advance.

A flourish of trumpets from the TV shifted Steve’s attention. A documentary had begun. It showed the surface of Mars. The surface of the planet was desolate. He’d always been interested in space travel but had never had the money for a ticket for the tourist shuttle or the cruise ships. He’d never had a job that paid enough to do that. These were the recreational activities of the elite, travelling round the Solar System. He’d had to be content with filling his nose with cocaine and his gullet with wine and whiskey.

But watching tours of the planets on television was the next best thing to actually being out there. A view in ultra close-up of the terrain came on the screen and the pebbles among the dust resembled boulders. Steve remembered hearing from a workmate years ago that the micro-cameras that prowled the surfaces of other planets looked not unlike ants made out of metal.

Steve thought about ants and their system of social organization and their lives of work without respite and wondered if it was very different from the factories. Thinking of his workmate’s comments dragged him back in time.

He remembered working in the factory. He remembered everyone working at one task without interruption from morning until evening.

He remembered people drinking at a Christmas party one year. Everyone was at the relaxation centre and the company had put some money behind the bar to show appreciation of the workforce.

He’d met his wife at the relaxation centre. She used to work in a factory down the road. But then one day she’d met somebody else, the manager and owner of a factory, someone who earned a lot more money than Steve and who liked to talk about his holidays in space. She’d walked out of Steve’s life one day without a warning.

Maybe the man she’d gone to live with had informed on Steve. He was afraid of Steve. He added another suspect to his list, someone else whom he’d have to investigate. It was an example of yet another person who’d tried to trip him up. There might have been a life of happiness for Steve in an alternate world, if that other man hadn’t come along and destroyed everything for him.

Tat tat tat

Outside the door a voice began to speak. It sounded strangely sexless, neither high nor low in pitch. There was no intimation of friendship in the voice but Steve still felt relief at hearing another being.

‘Let me in. I need to come in now. Don’t waste my time. I’d like to start before too much time has passed.’

He didn’t understand. They had imprisoned him here. Why did they not just open the door and do what they wanted to do?

An infomercial interrupted the documentary. ‘Could you imagine a better place to be than this? Of course you know you can’t because there isn’t anywhere.’

Tat tat tat

‘Let me in. Now. There isn’t that much time.’

Steve knew that he had to say something.

‘Why?’

‘Let me in. You know you signed a contract accepting all of this. You know a contract cannot be broken.’

He had a recollection of signing a contract, but the memory was vague. The word contract made him think of work and stress and noise and in contrast this place was for the most part quiet other than for the muffled sound of the elevators that he could hear operating at different times of day and night above and below the room. Earlier in the day he had also heard the sound of music, perhaps the sound of a piano or maybe a harp, but it was quiet and indistinct.

The voice jolted him back to reality. ‘Let me in now. I need to start de-briefing you.’

Steve wondered if there was any means of escape from the room. He knew from his use of the binoculars that the house was high above the city and the slopes of the hill were steep and rocky. No human being could navigate across them. Only birds, which he occasionally saw passing the window, were able to alight there. He wished he could fly away and take himself to a place of safety. He stopped the thought developing: It seemed like the beginning of hysteria.

Tat tat tat

‘You know your contract is legally binding. We’re not playing a game.’ The voice paused as if it was thinking how it might persuade him.

Steve tried to think of a question. ‘Who are you?’

‘Do not try negotiation. You know who I am. You know you’ve got to go through with this.’

The voice was speaking faster. Steve tried to connect the voice to someone from one of the other teams, someone from his past, but he couldn’t make the link. He tried to think about the actions of his past.

The voice berated him. ‘You signed, you know you signed a legal contract. You owe a duty to us.’

The mentioning of contracts made him queasy. The word had some significance.

He remembered regaining consciousness in a police cell. Around him were six surfaces that were polished and unyielding inside which the authorities had confined him like an animal in a trap. And he knew they’d caught him red-handed, leading the team that was robbing the small-time drug dealer, employing the corrosive liquid which he knew had been a step too far. He knew that he was in trouble. And all the years of cocaine and alcohol had made him paranoid. And suddenly he couldn’t stand it anymore and his resistance had crumbled.

Leering as he spoke, the recruiter had made an offer.

The concussion seemed to be wearing off. He found he could remember more.

Tat tat tat

The tapping on the door was accompanied by the TV declaiming one of its mantras, but now it sounded out of tune. ‘Now you’re having the time of your life.’

He was comfortable up here. There was no way he’d deny that. In that sense, he was receiving his entitlement under the contract.

But he realized that now he had to pay a price that was monstrous. He thought about the agreement that he’d made.

Informant. Witness protection.

Steve realized that there was no one to blame. He was responsible for this. No one else was. He had signed the agreement.

The handler knocking at the door was keeping up the pretence and maintaining the etiquette designed to afford those who sold out their colleagues the illusion of dignity. They were allowing Steve to feel as if he was still free to make choices in his situation. Maybe they thought it would help to facilitate his co-operation.

Years stretched out in front of him. For the remainder of his life he was going to live up here. His occupation would be to confide the secrets of the life he’d led, to whatever individual they had sequestered up here with him in the house on the hill. He would share his existence with a person whose only role in life was to question him and to note and record the information and feed it back to the authorities. If he tried to change his mind and resist the process all they had to do was take him back down to the factories in order to confront the friends of his former colleagues who would by now be in detention.

Tat tat tat ‘Let me in... I need to start...’

Steve knew he had broken the one rule that he thought that he would never break. He had informed on his colleagues. Maybe his fate was fitting. Perhaps it was right that he should spend his days in exile from the city.

‘Remember... once you have completed the first section of your obligations under the contract and supplied us with all the initial information required, we will facilitate a recreational journey for you on a cruise-ship around Mars.’

But now he no longer wanted to travel in space. He was no longer the person that had dreamed of travelling to Mars. One thing remained that he wanted. He wanted to travel back in time. He wondered if this was the true meaning of regret and he waited for the knocking at the door to begin again.


Copyright © 2013 by R. MacInnes

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