© Stuart Martin
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The severed finger rolled across the concrete floor and rested against Karl Daugherty’s left shoe. His eyebrows drew closer together. “They are Burberry brogues…”
A man in white paper overalls dropped a pair of cable shears onto a bench and plucked up the offending digit. “Sorry, Boss.” He rubbed the shoe with a wad of tissue.
In the centre of the room, flanked by two large men, a man was tied to a straight backed chair. Teeth clenched, and breathing in staccato snorts, he pressed a cloth against the stump of his little finger.
The man flinched when Daugherty edged forward and leaned in close. “I watched the recording of our previous conversation before you arrived.” Daugherty straightened and spoke louder, “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t me, that I hadn’t been vague.” He started to pace. “I didn’t think it would be. I am never vague.” He spread his arms, palms facing out. “Am I ever vague?”
“No, Boss,” chorused his subordinates.
He prodded a finger onto the man’s forehead. “I told you to sell your assets and repay your loan to me without delay - and you agreed.”
The man avoided Daugherty’s stare as he spoke, “But I’m on the verge of a breakthrough.”
“Not,” Daugherty thrust the finger forward, jolting the man’s head back, “interested. I’m a financier, and I made it clear it was a fixed term loan – and your time is up.” He resumed pacing. “My advice is to accept Rathyon’s offer.”
The man looked up. “How did you know Rathyon wanted my research?” A fist from behind slammed into his jaw.
“Mr Daugherty asks the questions, not you.” The heavy gripped the man’s hair and jerked his head straight.
The phone in Daugherty’s pocket vibrated, it would be Lisa, his daughter. He gripped the man by the throat. “Start a fire sale.” With a tilt of the head he indicated the cable shears. “One week, or we cut you out and start negotiating with your wife, understand?” He released his hold. The man swallowed and gave a silent nod. Daugherty shrugged his jacket straight. “Go to the police and we move straight to the end game.”
Outside, Daugherty looked across the manicured lawns toward his large detached house. There was movement in his daughter’s bedroom. Even the thought of interacting with Lisa while in business mode felt uncomfortable. He drew in a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, and closed a lid on his thoughts. His intense expression relaxed into a slack smile as he exhaled. A simple technique he found online that worked better than any of the expensive medical advice. He read Lisa’s text. His smile broadened as he called her, “Of course I want to see you in your new dress.”
“Don’t be long then, Daddy. I have to set off in ten minutes,” she said, her voice a mixture of excitement and irritation.
“I won’t be long; I’m just coming back from the workshop.”
Daugherty brushed flecks from his jacket and realigned his gold rings before tapping on Lisa’s bedroom door. “Wait a minute,” came her voice from inside. “Alright, come in.”
Framed by the floor to ceiling window, Lisa stood in her schooled model pose. Her dress had red and silver bands of sequins that angled down from a single shoulder strap to a matching hem. Her blonde hair was pulled up into a tight bun. She wore lipstick that matched the red of the dress, and dramatic black eyeliner. “Wow! Don’t move.” Daugherty took out his phone and took a picture. “You look fantastic.” Without seeming to move her feet, Lisa did a full turn. Daugherty crumpled one side of his smile as he moved a little closer. “But that is a lot of make-up.”
Lisa thrust out a hip and rested a hand on it. “Daddy – I’m nearly twelve, old enough to make my own decisions on make-up.”
“Mmm, eleven going-on fifteen.”
She sat down in front of the curved dressing table and tucked stray hairs into place as she spoke, “And anyway, this is just for the show. We’re testing for the new production today,” she gazed up at a distant point, “and I so want the lead.” She popped open a mascara. “And, do you remember the Bustin Jieber concert?”
“How could I forget, you mention it every day?” Daugherty sat on the bed.
“Well, Mr Leon, our new performance coach, he knows someone who works for Bustin, and he gave him a VIP backstage pass. And Mr Leon is running a performance competition to win it.” Lisa turned; the mascara brush held an inch from her eyelash, her face a beaming smile. “Mr Leon says I stand a good chance of winning - how exciting is that?”
“I can see that it’s very exciting, and I’m sure you do stand a very good chance.” Daugherty rotated his rings as Lisa returned to her make-up tinkering. “Someone told me your mother has a new boyfriend. Is that true?”
Lisa twisted her head left and right, inspecting her work. “Yes, but I’m not telling you anything about him, I promised.” Her phone played a snippet of a Jieber song. “Got to go,” she snatched up a pair of heels, “the car’s waiting.” She offered the side of her face for Daugherty to kiss. “And before you ask, no, he doesn’t stay when I’m there.”
Daugherty wrinkled his brow. “Am I that predictable?”
Lisa stopped in the doorway, a hint of mischief in her grin. “Mummy says you are. Mummy says she knows all your secrets and little ways.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” He flicked a hand, indicating the stairs. “Go on, off and get your part. It would be a shame to waste all that preparation.
She scampered down the stairs. “Laters…Wish me luck.”
“You won’t need luck,” he called after her, “just show them what you can do.”
In his home office Daugherty stared at his laptop. A picture of his ex-wife, Lisa’s mother, filled the screen. She was stunning, but their history had tainted the attraction there once was. He sighed - you ungrateful bi—. His phone started to play the Pink Panther theme: Jake. Jake was young, sharp and switched on, and after just five years had become his trusted Mr can do. “Yes?”
“Sorry to disturb you, Boss. A courier dropped off a parcel and a note, both addressed to you, and marked personal. I would say the parcel is a book.”
“Get someone to open it, then bring it to the office.”
Daugherty swirled a large measure of single malt and watched the golden liquid settle before raising it to his lips. Jake tapped on the door and opened it in one movement. Daugherty indicated the screen with the glass, cutting him off before he could speak, “I pay for everything that bitch has because she’s Lisa’s mother. Does she appreciate my generosity? No, she makes bitchy, picky remarks to Lisa about me.”
Jake looked at the screen, grimaced, and put the book on the desk. “I think you better look at this, Boss.” He turned it to face Daugherty and slid the note on top. “It’s weird.”
The book had a plain white cover with a typewritten title – Nanotechnology and its applications in brain surgery. Daugherty put down his glass and picked up the note:-- Call 97791616229 if you want the headaches to stop --:He flicked through the book which was a confusion of technical detail. “Headaches, what’s that about?” Jake shrugged. “No sender?”
“No, Boss, just that…I thought Rathyon, but why would they?”
“They wouldn’t.” Daugherty picked up his glass and took a thoughtful sip. “Someone who knows us is behind this. Go down to the courier’s office, grease some palms, see what you can find out.” He rolled the rest of the whisky around his mouth before swallowing. “I’m going to see a toy boy about a backstage pass.”
Without looking up from her phone, the receptionist at the Nova Performance Academy answered Daugherty’s inquiry by waving a finger at a distant door. The nameplate on the door read – Leon Flood. Performance coach. – He walked straight in. “Mr Flood.” He thrust out his right hand.
Leon Flood wore a tight fitting T-shirt which showed his lean, muscular physique. He matched Daugherty’s firm grip. “You must be Lisa’s father, I’m very pleased to meet you.” As he spoke his eyes drifted to Daugherty’s companion.
“This is Tarquin, an associate of mine. But he prefers Quinn.” Daugherty stood six foot; Quinn was a head taller and had unnaturally wide shoulders. He looked down at Leon with a smile that was more of a threat.
“Tarquin,” said Leon, moving his gaze up the colossus. “Sorry, Quinn.” He snapped his look back to Daugherty. “Please, call me Leon. You wanted to talk about Lisa.”
Quinn stood, sentry-like, as Daugherty relaxed onto the chair, twisting his rings as he eyed Leon. “Sort of. I’ll come straight to the point. I know you’re banging my ex-wife.”
“We are in a relationship.” Leon’s eyes flicked to Quinn. “Do you have a problem with that?”
Daugherty gave a tug on each of his shirt cuffs. “Not in the way you mean. I wouldn’t try to come between star crossed lovers.” His smirk switched to an intense stare as he added, “As long as you don’t perform your toy boy duties while Lisa is around.”
Leon straightened in his seat. “What do you want, Mr Daugherty?”
“The fact that your pupils refer to you as Mr Leon tells me something. It tells me that you are a man who understands the importance of perception. Mr Leon – a lot friendlier than Mr Flood.”
“I think so.”
“That got me thinking that your ‘relationship’ with Lisa’s mother could make things difficult for you here, a bit of a moral dilemma so to speak.”
Leon gave a twitchy shake of the head. “How so?”
“Well, if Lisa were to win this Bustin Jieber backstage pass you’ve come into possession of, as we both know she should, it could look like favouritism. And I wondered if you might not declare her the winner to avoid that.” Daugherty leaned towards Leon making pointed eye contact. “Which would be unfair - wouldn’t it, Quinn?”
“Very unfair, Boss.”
Impassive, Leon interlocked his fingers and rested his hands on the edge of the desk. “I’ve only been here eight months, but already had a number of parents telling me, in subtle and not so subtle ways, that their children should get parts or win contests. This is a little different, but I’ll tell you what I told the others - all casting and competitions will be judged on merit.”
“A noble stance.” Daugherty stood up. “But you’re right, this is different. I’m guessing none of those other parents have someone like Quinn here in their employ. He could end your teaching career and my ex-wife’s interest in you inside thirty seconds.” Leon showed no reaction. “Ha haaa.” Daugherty gave an exaggerated smile. “I’m joking.” With his lips close to Leon’s ear he spoke in a coarse whisper, “Or am I?” He moved to the door. “You be the judge.”
Quinn raised an eyebrow and mouthed, “Thirty seconds.”
The message – Jake calling – appeared on the display of the black Lexus LS 600H as it crunched along the drive. Daugherty accepted the call. “Jake - found anything?”
“Not much, Boss. The guy paid in cash, and gave his name as Bob Smith. I got a look at the CCTV, but he was obviously expecting it. He wore a loose fitting hooded top, and never looked towards the camera. All I can say is he was average build and about six foot. There were two women on reception. One said he had black hair, the other said brown. One said he was mid-twenties, the other put him over thirty. Almost makes you feel sorry for plod. Anyway, I’ve got a recording, thought you might want to give it a look.”
“God I hate people jerking my chain.” Hands clasped behind his head, Daugherty flexed his neck in a circular motion. “Bring the CCTV over tomorrow…Good work, Jake.”
The front door opened as Daugherty approached. He draped his coat over the maid’s outstretched arm as he stepped into the hall. “Is Lisa in the TV room?”
“Miss Lisa took herself off to bed, Mr Daugherty. She had a bit of a headache.”
The maid took in a sharp breath when Daugherty grabbed her wrist. “A headache! Is it bad, when did it start?”
“Just a bit of a headache.” He tugged her arm. She recoiled, her voice faltering, “I’m not sure, about an hour ago. I gave her a painkiller.”
Daugherty took the stairs three treads at a time. Outside Lisa’s bedroom he took a composing breath before cracking the door open. “Hello, Princess.”
Lisa pushed out an arm and turned on the lamp. “Hello, Daddy.”
“How are you feeling?” He went down on one knee and rested a hand on her forehead.
“My head still hurts.” A shaky finger pointed above her right eye. “In there.”
“Did the painkiller do any good?” He stroked her hair back.
She lowered her head onto the pillow and closed her eyes. “Not yet.”
He kissed his fingertips and touched them onto her cheek. “You have a nice sleep, I’ll check on you later.”
In his office, Daugherty planted the Nanotechnology book on the desk and stared at the note, mumbling as he entered the number, “If you’ve - my daughter - I’ll kill you, you fu–.”
A robotic, synthesised voice came on the phone, “Karl Daugherty – do you want to know why your daughter has headache?”
Daugherty clenched a fist and spoke in a suppressed growl, “You listen to me you prick. If you’ve done something to my daughter I will slice you up a square inch at a time.” He paused, there was no response. “She’s eleven years old, a child. If she comes to harm you are a dead man, do you hear me, a dead man.” He waited, breathing in time with his surging pulse.
“You seem to find the threat to your daughter offensive. Strange, given that threatening people and their families is your standard business model…Call again if you want to know why she has a headache and how to stop it.”
“Wait….” The call had been ended. Daugherty grasped the phone and made to smash it into the desk stopping an inch short, he needed the contacts. He sat down and pressed the mobile against his forehead. This prick, this whoever, had brought Lisa into a compartment of his life where she didn’t belong. He called Jake.
“Bring that CCTV recording and get the team up to the house, now.”
“Has something happened, Boss?”
Daugherty laid the phone on the desk and twisted his signet ring as he spoke, “When I got home Lisa had a headache. I can’t remember her ever having a headache before, so I called the number on the note. Somehow he got to my princess.”
“Are we talking one bloke here, Boss?”
“Not certain, the voice was disguised, but that’s my gut.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Something he said made me think it’s personal - revenge.”
“Has he said what he wants?”
“Not yet. Listen, I’m going to call him back so I should know more by the time you get here.”
“Right, I’m on it, Boss.”
Daugherty pulled at each of his rings in turn as he hunched over the phone. On the eleventh ring the voice answered, “Do you want to know how to save your daughter?”
“Save her from what?” The silence seemed to compress his chest…. “Yes, I want to know.”
“First, you need to understand how your actions caused this situation.”
In his mind Daugherty reached through the phone and ripped out his tormentor’s throat. He exhaled. “Go on.”
“Do you remember Fredrick Waters?”
“Waters?” Daugherty pressed his fingertips onto his temples. “No – wait, yes – miniature robotics.”
“Fredrick Waters was my father, and my inspiration. Seven years ago he handed all his work on nanotechnology to Rathyon because you threatened my life. He died of a heart attack eighteen months later. I would say the stress of having your son’s life threatened, and giving up your life’s work must be a factor, wouldn’t you?”
“Possibly,” Daugherty whispered.
“He told me the story after his first episode, about a month before he died. I finished university and got a job with Rathyon. I even had some minor input into the document I sent you, which is derived from my father’s work. His name is not mentioned in the credits.”
“What about Lisa?” Asked Daugherty in a low voice.
“I am going to keep this simple, but the detail is in the document if you want to examine it.”
Daugherty had a moment of clarity and started to record the call. “I’m listening.”
“Over the last year your daughter ingested billions of microscopic devices. Meeting friends at Mega Burger, school, your delivered groceries, it wasn’t difficult. As they were programmed to do, the devices have congregated in her brain and come together to form a Nano-bot the size of a grain of rice. The pain she is experiencing is the bot moving to the right frontal lobe. I can signal it at any time to destroy tissue that will result in permanent brain damage.”
“You’re telling me there is a robot inside my daughters head?”
“Yes, and it can’t be removed. I can command the device to disassemble and reassemble. And sedating your daughter would trigger cell destruction. As proof, I’m going to shut the device down. The headache will stop.”
“Say I believe you, what do you want to stop this?”
“You have twenty-nine million pounds in a Swiss bank. Tomorrow, when you are ready to transfer those funds I will give you my account details. When the transaction is complete I will deactivate the device.”
Daugherty snatched up the phone as he stood. “That can’t be done, I need more time.”
“Don’t bother lying to me - I know your account protocols. I will reactivate the device at nine tomorrow. At eleven it will start destroying irreplaceable brain cells. I know you can transfer the money before that happens.”
Daugherty pulled at his own hair. “I owe some of that money.”
“Then you will have to sell your personal assets to replace it.”
He pulled a clenched fist to his chest. “Why Lisa, why not me?”
“I want you to have the same experience my father did - being forced to give up what you value most because of a threat to your child. And if you choose not to act, you will have to live with the fact that the vacant look in Lisa’s eyes is due to your reticent greed. I’ll be waiting if you decide her sanity is worth it. And as you said to my father, go to the police if you want to move straight to the end game.” He rang off.
Daugherty let the phone slip from his fingers onto the desk. The locked door between the rooms of his life had been kicked open: his stomach contorted.
He hauled himself upstairs and eased the bedroom door open, trying not to make a sound. The glow from a tablet screen lit up Lisa’s face. She gave a warm smile. “The painkiller must have worked, its stopped hurting.”
A scratch of the nose and a cough masked his anguish. “Good.” A trembling hand reached out and stroked her cheek. “When did the pain stop?”
She glanced at the clock. “About five minutes ago.”
He took a deep breath and exhaled through his nose. “Don’t go to school tomorrow, the pain might come back.”
Lisa flicked at the tablet screen. “But I feel fine now, and I can take a painkiller to school with me in case it does.”
“No, take the day off.” He kissed the top of her head. “You can’t be too careful with headaches.”
“Okay, Daddy.” She tapped the screen with a fingernail. “I’ll Facebook the girls and let them know.”
Back in his office Daugherty sat, head in hands, listening to the recorded call on repeat until a pulsing red light on the CCTV monitor caught his attention: a car on the drive. With the nanotechnology book and an envelope in hand he hurried outside.
Jake and Quinn stepped out of the car. “The rest of the boys will be here soon, Boss,” said Jake as Daugherty approached.
Daugherty thrust the envelope toward him. “This is all to do with a mark we worked seven years ago, Fredrick Waters. The ‘person’ behind this says he’s Waters’ son. This is all the info I still have on them.”
“Waters, I remember that dude,” said Quinn as Jake passed the papers on to him. “Rolled pretty easy.” He looked down at Jake. “A bit before your time.”
Daugherty took out his phone. “I’m sending you a recording of the last conversation I had with him.” He handed Jake the book. “Get over to Rathyon and find someone who knows if that,” he tapped the book, “and what he says is possible.” Jake winced. “I don’t care about the fallout - just get me an answer.”
“And find out as much as you can about the son, Noel. He doesn’t have a social media profile, I already checked. His old uni address in London is in there, that’s all we had.” Daugherty glanced at the black SUV stood at the security gate then pointed from Jake to Quinn. “Split the team however you want and let me know as soon as you have something.”
Quinn held up the envelope. “Boss, what I don’t understand is why this Noel would bother disguising himself if he was going to tell you who he was?”
Jake held up an acknowledging hand to the SUV driver. “Probably planning ahead, to avoid the backlash.”
Daugherty considered for a moment. “Makes sense...Anyway, get me some answers.”
Jake touched Quinn’s arm as he started towards the SUV. “We’re on it, Boss.”
Daugherty paced his office, checked his phone, and stood watching Lisa sleep in an anxiety fuelled loop. His phone vibrated as he entered her room for the ninth time: Quinn. He backed out onto the landing, speaking in a hushed voice, “What have you got?”
“The people with the big brains say yes, it is possible. Apparently they do something similar all the time. They inject the gadgets, but they can’t think of a reason why getting them in with food wouldn’t work, it would just take longer.”
With faltering steps Daugherty edged down the stairs. “Anything on Noel Waters?”
“Not yet, Boss. No one at Rathyon can find any record of him - could have changed his name of course. Jakes’ gone off to that address to try and dig something up.”
“Right – right, keep looking.”
“Anywhere - everywhere.”
The next morning the maid refilled Daugherty’s coffee cup and hurried off into the utility room. He took a sip and went back to grinding the cygnet ring against his middle joint. A vision of Lisa with hollow eyes edged around the kitchen table. He twisted harder; a smear of blood tainted the gold. A twitch from the long handle of the wall clock drew his eye, eight forty-eight.
“Morning, Daddy.” Lisa bounced into the kitchen and sat down at the table.
Daugherty pressed his mouth into a smile. “Morning – how are you feeling?”
“I’m fine now.” The maid delivered a choice of cereal. “I think I should go into school after lunch, I don’t want to miss art class. That would be alright, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes - as long as the headache doesn’t come back.” He fought to maintain the smile. “I’m just going to the office, I’ll be back in a minute.
“Did you stay off work because of my silly headache, Daddy?”
“Yes, just wanted to make sure you were alright.”
“You’ve never stayed at home before when I’ve been sick.”
He turned his back as his smile withered. “As I said, you can’t be too careful with headaches.”
In his office Daugherty called Jake again: straight to voicemail. He called Quinn, “Have you heard from Jake?”
“Where the fuck is he?”
“He’s probably still in London, it’s quite a drive down there, Boss.”
“He isn’t answering his bloody phone.” He checked the time: eight fifty-six. “You keep trying to get in touch, and tell him to call me.”
“Okay, Boss. Boss, I’m not sure -” Daugherty ended the call.
He slid onto a chair opposite Lisa, hands under the table picking at the split skin under the cygnet ring. She tapped and swiped her smart phone between spoons of flakes. “Thanks, I’m finished,” she called to the maid.
Eight fifty-nine. Lisa stood, still concentrating on the phone. Daugherty peeled off a centimetre of skin. “Don’t go, tell me about yesterday’s audition.”
Lisa snapped into a balletic stance. “Well, first we all did the same dance steps for the director. Then we were put into groups of three and……..” The clock was silent, but as the hand jinked round to two minutes past nine it cut out all sound except his own laboured breathing. Eyes fixed on the long hand, but aware of Lisa demonstrating her performance, he watched three more long minutes pass. She was still full of exuberance, no sign of discomfort. Breathing became easier and he was aware of her voice again, “And then I had to act as Brian’s girlfriend - as if, and….” She followed his eyes to the clock. “Are you even listening, Daddy?”
“Of course I am, you were Brian’s Girlfriend - what’s wrong?”.” Lisa slumped on a chair holding a hand to her head.
“I think I need a painkiller, it hurts again.”
Her eyes seemed to widen and lose their colour. Daugherty pulled a piece of skin that opened a strip of flesh to his fingertip. The maid approached with a glass of water and a pill. He jumped up and barrelled past her. “Go and lay down when you’ve taken that.”
In his office Daugherty opened a laptop while making a call. The disguised voice answered, “Have you decided which is more valuable, your money or your daughter?”
“Turn it off, I’ll transfer the money.” He typed in a password. “I’m completing the process right now.” Clear liquid leeched from his finger onto the keyboard.
“The device will be turned off when the transfer is complete, I made sure I wasn’t vague on that. You should now have a text with the relevant bank details. Call again on completion.” Daugherty hammered a fist on the desk.
An hour and a half later he paced the landing while on hold. Lisa’s moans were painful to his ear. “Hello - yes, I know these are the measures I requested. I’m just asking you to carry them out as fast as possible. Yes, I have it here.” He read a code from a slip of laminated paper. “Text me as soon as it’s done. Thank you.”
Lisa covered her eyes with the pillow when he turned on the light. “Turn it off, it makes it worse.”
He flicked off the switch, knelt by the bed and stroked her head. “I’m sure the painkiller will work soon.”
“I don’t think it will, it’s getting worse.” She started a low whimper.
Daugherty worked a thumb nail into the open sore on his finger as he watched her. His phone pulsed: a text – Transfer completed as instructed – Out on the landing he made the call. “I’ve sent the money, all of it. So turn it off, turn it off now.”
“I will clarify the transaction and call you back.”
An anguished cry from Lisa’s room pierced through him. “Stop it now, you-” There was only a steady tone. He sank to his knees. “Make it stop.” The Pink Panther theme played – “Jake, not now, I’m expecting¬–”
The robotic voice choked off his words, “Put the phone next to Lisa’s ear.”
Daugherty staggered to his feet. “Jake? You? You know my Lisa, how could you?”
“If you want this to stop take the phone to Lisa.”
“You piece of….” Lisa was moving her head side to side as he held the phone close to her ear. “Try and keep still, Princess.”
There were heavy footsteps on the stairs and landing before Jake, breathing heavily, flung the door open. “Sorry, Boss.”
Daugherty’s brow furrowed as he stared at him. “Jake,” he pointed at the phone, “I thought you were-”
“I couldn’t call. Some scroat slashed my tyres and lifted my phone, and I couldn’t remember your number.” He swallowed then said, “Noel Waters didn’t study science, he took an acting degree. His stage name is Leon Flood.”
“Really?” Lisa snatched the phone from Daugherty’s hand and sprang into a kneeling position on the bed. “Yes, yes, yes. Thanks, Mr Leon.” She dropped the phone, bounced to her feet and punched the air with both hands. “I won the backstage pass. Mr Leon said my performance was fantastic, isn’t that the best, Daddy?”
Daugherty grabbed her by the shoulders. “Performance! You don’t have a headache?”
Lisa’s mouth quivered. “No. Mr Leon told me to act as if I did, and when to do it - that was the competition.” Her eyes watered up.
He loosened his grip. “You really frightened me…”
“I’m sorry, Daddy. But I won, so it was worth it - wasn’t it?” Her face couldn’t decide to smile or cry.
Daugherty held her at arms-length, then pulled her into an embrace. “Of course it was worth it.”