Exit Strategy

 

It was the same dream again. The same nightmare.

The corridor stretched before him as he ran. It wasn’t just that he couldn’t see the end – somehow he knew there was no end. The walls were formless, and the light… the light flickered as it was sucked backwards.

Then he heard the wights. “We’re coming. We’re coming for you, Harris Marchender. You stole from us… stole… stole…

He glanced over his shoulder; bright blue eyes looked out from above a silent scream of a mouth. He knew the face well. It was the face of his boss.

*

Harris woke up sweating, as usual. Sitting up, he put his hand on the copy of A Game Of Thrones lying next to him in bed. “Goddamn wights. This is all your fault,” he muttered to the book, and flung it into the corner of the room. It would not be going into his luggage.

He’d slept for five hours, far longer than he’d meant – but sleep had not been coming easily these last few nights, hence the evening doze. Now it was almost 10 o’clock, and he had to be in a taxi by 11 to make his flight. This was no problem – he’d finished almost all his packing last night, and it was only the final odds and sods left.

In point of fact, he’d barely had any packing to do; he’d been living out of suitcases in his hotel apartment for three weeks now. There hadn’t seemed much point unpacking, when he knew exactly when he’d be leaving.

Harris had been planning this departure for months.

Almost as soon as he got to Dubai, Harris Marchender had worked out a detailed exit strategy, just in case things went badly wrong. The way he saw it, in a country where you could be jailed for bouncing a cheque, or saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, it would be nothing short of negligent not to have a contingency plan. All it would take was the wrong combination of circumstances, and you would be totally screwed. Granted, said circumstances probably would never come about, but still – better safe than sorry.

He’d made it through five years, though, and hadn’t even come close to needing his out.

Not until he’d taken his escape plan and added the minor detail of large-scale fraud, anyway.

Now, though, it was time to go. Harris shoved the last of his cables and chargers into his backpack, and did one last scan. Everything was clear – wardrobes ajar, drawers open, the space under the bed free of errant socks. Only the book remained, randomly open and leaning against the wall in the corner.

He hefted his pack, grabbed the handle on his suitcase, and went forth.

*

Sitting in the back of the taxi, Harris finally felt some of the tension ease. He’d been disappointed to discover, in this last week, that far from being capable of the super-spy levels of cool he’d always imagined he’d exhibit, he was instead wracked with nerves almost continuously.

The evenings hadn’t been so bad, but the working days had been hell. He’d been terrified everything would unravel – all it would have taken is someone else to start making calls, and it would have been all over. As cover he spun a tale about a rocky patch with his girlfriend (also invented), and blamed the combination of this and the impending show on his overly tense state.

Up until the last week, though, everything had been so smooth.

It had been nine months earlier that Harris first realised how easy it would be to defraud his employers. He’d just recently taken charge of the Events department, and was now responsible for the not-inconsiderable budget his publishing firm lavished on regional trade shows. Stands, models (human and otherwise), flyers, props, award shows – close to five million dollars every year went on this stuff, all to promote magazines and sell ad space.

He’d worked in the department since arriving in Dubai, starting as a lowly co-ordinator, then becoming a manager within the year. There he’d stayed, until the Deputy MD for Events managed to get overly lubricated at one particular event, and disgrace himself in front of – and indeed, all over – the CEO at the closing awards ceremony. That was a Thursday; by Sunday morning, the still-hung-over unfortunate had gone; by Sunday afternoon, Harris was moving into his office.

“Know you’ve pretty much been doing the job anyway, old boy – only a matter of time before you moved up,” the CEO told him. “Needed a shakeup around here. All for the best. Long as you can hold your booze better than that last prick, anyway!” The CEO laughed and slapped Harris on the back. That had been the interview.

He’d made his way through two shows smoothly and competently, and was gearing up for a third when he decided to change one of the suppliers. The ease with which this happened – the required approval from the COO pinging back within 90 seconds of sending the email – surprised him. Still, he was a long-serving employee, and a “safe pair of hands” – perhaps it wasn’t so shocking that they trusted him.

But if it was that easy…

Harris quickly formulated his idea. Within a month he’d set up three shell companies, based in other UAE free zones, and two more based around the world. He’d quickly realised that the long con was better than just siphoning off a few thousand bucks here or there – and he had his eye on a very big prize.

Over the next six months, he moved almost every contract over to the shell companies – from there, it was easy to use them to pay for the previous suppliers, with the pretext that all the events were going through third-party management agencies now. The suppliers shrugged – the rates were the same, and they were still dealing with Harris and his team, so who cared?

After the six months, everything was in place – and 90% of the events budget flowed through Harris’s companies.

Now, it was time to reap what he had sowed.

*

The taxi pulled up at the airport, and Harris paid the driver with the cash he’d just taken out on his credit card. The card was only three months old, one of several he’d applied for as he came into his endgame. He’d used them normally for a couple of months – paying for meals and so on, and clearing the balance in full every month – and then had started to withdraw large amounts of cash over the last couple of weeks, staggering them over time between the cards.

He’d also put two plane tickets on the cards. One was a return economy flight from Dubai to Bahrain, and the other was a one-way business class flight Bahrain to London, leaving a few hours after his first flight arrived. He didn’t want to risk a direct flight from Dubai, and Gulf Air was a hell of a lot cheaper at the moment, which meant more cash in his wallet.

The sweat started to flow as he got out of the cab. It wasn’t the heat and humidity – his heart was racing again, and he felt like every tendon in his body was going to snap.

He made it through check-in quickly, and parked himself in the food court with a tray of stuff from McDonald’s. He didn’t have the appetite for anything at that moment, let alone the shit in the cardboard cartons in front of him, so he nursed his Diet Coke and stared out at the taxiway.

Where had all this tension come from? He had been fine until this last week. There was no rational reason…

Ah. But that wasn’t quite true.

He had seen the man when he was queuing to transfer money to one of his offshore accounts at 9am on Saturday morning. The man had been staring directly at him – but this was not uncommon in Dubai. He was of medium height, with close-cropped light-coloured hair, and a neat blond goatee. He had a serious face. When Harris had glanced back for a second time, the man had lowered his gaze to a magazine, and continued to shuffle forward in his own line.

At 1pm on Saturday afternoon, he saw him again. This time Harris was at a bank, again to transfer money. It was the merest chance as well: as Harris was walking out, he had glanced around – and as he did, two people parted, and there was the man again. He had been staring straight forward, not making any eye contact, but Harris had a good look at his profile, goatee and all, and there was no doubt.

It wasn’t even a question of denial – he had been too afraid even to think about it, had done his best to shove the terror to the back of his mind. There was no going back now – the truth was, even if he wanted to stop the fraud, he couldn’t.

His plan had hinged on taking advantage of the largest show in the firm’s calendar – he’d very simply just not booked anything, while continuing to process everything as normal for the last three months. All the payments had been flowing straight into his various shells, and then straight out to his hidden accounts. This was why a single call to a supplier would have been fatal – none of them were working on anything for the firm this year.

Harris tiptoed round his terror, telling himself it was normal to get worked up, normal to see things which weren’t there. But now he was here at the airport, past Immigration, past the security checks – now, he could start to process his feelings.

So this was it. The man was just a coincidence. He’d made it, right? He was on his way out – they couldn’t stop him now, they couldn’t do anyth–

“Harris! Good to see you, old boy. Mind if I have a seat? Think you and I have a few things to talk about, eh?”

The CEO pulled out one of the metal chairs and sat down. He had no food, just a bottle of mineral water.

Harris’s mouth went dry. “H-hello, sir. W-what, what can…” He took a deep breath. “This is a surprise. Sir.”

“Yes, well – I saw you sat here, thought it would be ungentlemanly not to have a chat face to face, given the circumstances. But come on, man – did you think you could fool us all?”

Oh, fuck. This was it, then. The confrontation, and then what – police around the corner? Then a prison cell… for a very long time.

“I… I…”

“Now, don’t be like that. I want to help you. Best come clean, eh?”

Harris looked down at the table. He couldn’t say it was a relief – the knowledge of his imminent future pressed too heavily for that – but he felt a certain freedom now. The other shoe had dropped. It couldn’t get worse than this, whatever else happened.

He took a deep breath. Still, he wasn’t able to make eye contact with the other man.

“Ok. Ok, I’ll tell you. But don’t say you can help me. Let’s be realistic.” He finally looked up, tears pricking his eyes. He’d come so damn close! “You want the truth? I…”

Harris stopped. What could he tell the man? That he was greedy? That he was amoral? That he’d spent too many years watching too many people more stupid than himself make out like bandits? He was due a turn. When was it his chance to wallow in barely-earned success?

He took a deep breath to start again – and the CEO laid a solicitous hand on his arm. “Come on, you can talk to me – just let it all out. Admit it, things are rougher than you’ve been letting on, aren’t they?”

“I… what?”

“Between you and, what’s her name? Julianne? Is that it?”

Julianne. The fake girlfriend. Named for Julianne Moore, a longstanding fantasy crush.

Wait – was he serious?

“Um… yes, I guess… they are. You’re right.”

“There, you see – know I look like I’m just an arse in a suit, but I do have eyes in my head. You’ve been a wreck this week. Now, I know it’s a busy time, but you can’t let work get in the way of this stuff – trust me, two divorces and I know this now. Need some balance in your life, need…”

Gods be good, he actually bought it – the old duffer believed me, thought Harris as his boss rambled on in clichés for another few minutes. He scrambled to collect the pieces of his mind that had been so recently shattered. And when he thought of how near he’d come to confessing everything…

“Now, where is it you’re off to?” asked the chief exec.

“Bahrain – just for the weekend. I’m staying with some friends.” That was as far as his cover story planning had got, but he felt like he needed something more. “I just… needed some space for a couple of days – and my friends could do with the company out there, at the moment.”

“Jolly good – just the sort of thing you need, by the sounds of it. A bit of time away to get your head straight. Well try to enjoy yourself – have a few drinks, that sort of thing. Off to Switzerland, myself – have to see a man about a woman, if you know what I mean…” The CEO gave Harris a sly wink.

“Haha – of course.” Harris didn’t know what he meant, and didn’t really want to.

With a slap on the back and another platitude, the other man was off, leaving Harris to his tray of inedible food. He slumped in his chair and deflated with a sigh. Then silently, he laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

*

The hop to Bahrain was shorter than the waiting time in the airport. Harris was in a window seat, with a pale-faced Eastern European man next to him, and an Indian-looking lady on the aisle. As the adrenaline left his system, he managed to fall asleep shortly before takeoff, waking a few minutes before landing in Bahrain. But no dreams this time.

Even after collecting his bags and leaving the airport, then coming back in to go through check-in for his London flight, he had time to kill – but this time with lounge access. He installed himself in a deep leather armchair in the corner of the business class lounge, along with a sandwich and a large whisky on the rocks.

This was much better – and he was finally starting to relax. He looked around, this time taking comfort in spotting several familiar faces from his earlier flight. Most he’d only seen while boarding, but there was a woman from the row in front, and there was the European man who’d sat next to him. Like him, they’d all opted for economy for the short leg, and business for the long one.

You’re all cheap, too, thought Harris. Since the troubles, Gulf Air was the savvy choice, as almost no-one in the rest of the world was apparently willing to fly through a civil war – despite the fact that the airport was perfectly safe. At least, Harris hoped so…

*

Now Harris was ensconced in his wide seat up near the front. This was only the second time he’d ever flown business class, so there was still a certain novelty value. He regretted throwing away his book, though – wight nightmares aside, he’d been enjoying it.

There was only one hurdle left now: the authorities at Heathrow. But that was a minor risk, as far as Harris could see – unless someone tipped them off before he got there.

As he prodded his seat controls and TV screen, the occupant of the next seat arrived – his neighbour from the flight before, the dark-haired Eastern European guy.

“Oh – hello, again,” said Harris.

“Hello? Ah, you were on the flight from Dubai…?”

“Yes, that’s right. Coincidence, eh?” Harris smiled. “I’m Harris.”

“Peter. Nice to be meeting you again.” Peter held out his hand, and Harris shook – it was rather cold and clammy. He remembered his first boss, back in the UK – he’d had the same handshake.

Harris guessed he should be at least a little bit worried – but what was there to be worried about? He was away and clear.

The jet took off, and after the seatbelt sign dinged out, Harris undid his belt and reclined his seat half-way, staring out of the window at the distant spots of light below. Over the Gulf now, most of them were oil rigs, with their big jets of flame waxing and waning randomly. He found it rather soothing.

“They are beautiful, no?” Harris looked round to see Peter staring out of the windows as well. “The oil fires, I mean. They look almost like living things from here.”

“I guess they do…” Maybe something from under the sea. He turned to Peter. “Do you work in oil, then?”

“No, not oil – too dirty, too dangerous I think. I am in electronics.”

“Computers, that sort of thing?”

“Something of the sort, yes. Mostly I am in communications, but sometimes I do computer programming.” He shifted in his seat to face Harris more. “You know, it is remarkable what we can do these days. For example, you think your phone is secure, yes? Perhaps the government could listen to your calls, but no-one else?”

Harris decided to humour the geek. “I suppose so.”

“You suppose wrong, then. With a $500 laptop and some radio equipment, I can hack any normal mobile phone in just a few minutes. Calls, text messages – data is harder, but not impossible…”

Harris settled back in his chair. The whiskies had given him a buzz – and listening to Peter ramble on was almost relaxing.

“Now, computers themselves – if you have anti-virus installed, you are safe, yes? Again, wrong! All one has to do is send an email that looks like it’s from a trusted source. Say, your boss, with new guidelines for a project? Or say your best friend Andrew, and a funny video from a football match?”

Harris smiled. In fact, he did have a friend called Andy, who had sent him…

Peter carried on. “Then, we can have full control of your machine. Every website, every email, every password – every time you make a transfer, say, we are watching. Clever, no? And, people are always so easily fooled…” He shook his head, as if in sorrow at the frailty of humankind. “But I’m afraid my time here is up, Mr Harris. It was good to meet you.

Peter stood up, and with a brief nod of his head was gone. There was a thin film of sweat on Harris’s brow, but he was having trouble moving from his seat. He just managed to turn his head as another figure sat down next to him.

It was the man from the queue. The man from the bank. The man with the close-cropped hair and blond goatee and – Harris could now see – pale grey eyes that were the most frightening thing he’d ever seen.

“Mr Marchender. Hello. Yes.” The man’s voice was deep, and sounded Russian. “You must excuse my colleague for his vanity. He loves to show off. But he is very good at what he does, yes? There is never any shame in having pride in your work.”

Harris tried to shout, but could only gape feebly.

“Peter has given you a paralysing agent – nothing too severe, but it will stop you moving. Or speaking. Handshake is always very effective with British people. Much less messy than a drink.” The man leaned forward and steepled his hands in front of his face. “Now then, Mr Marchender, let me explain what will happen next…”

“Nnnn… wwww…”

“Oh, are you wondering about your CEO in the airport?” The man laughed, apparently genuinely. “Would you believe that really was just chance? Would we toy with your emotions like that? No, your CEO is, how should we say, a fool, a dunderhead. He has no idea what you have done. But others, Mr Marchender – others are not so stupid.”

The man pulled a bottle of water from the pocket in front of the seat. “People see things, people spot things – people talk. So when suddenly your firm is using suppliers no-one has ever heard of…” He sighed, and poured a sachet of white powder into the water bottle, then tightened the lid and shook the bottle slowly.

“Now then, my friend, as for you. In a little while you will drink this, and you will fall asleep for the rest of the flight. We have arranged a wheelchair to meet you when the plane lands, and then we will take good care of you.” Another sigh. “Unfortunately, Mr Marchender, your employers – my employers – are not forgiving people. They are still deciding what to do with you. Maybe in a week or so, a quiet little suicide, a drug overdose perhaps? Pressures of work – relationship problems, yes? I think it could work.”

Harris writhed in the seat next to him, making an effort to stand.

“No, my friend, I’m afraid escape is not possible. I am sorry, Mr Marchender – Harris – but you brought this on yourself…” The man held Harris’s head, and brought the water bottle to his lips, dribbling the contents slowly into his mouth. Harris tried to resist, but the man rubbed his throat as if he was a dog, and made him swallow. None of the crew were in sight.

Soon it was all gone. Harris started to feel drowsy almost immediately.

“There. You will not see me again, Mr Marchender. If it makes you feel better, though, your plan was quite good – quite good. Sleep well, my friend.”

Harris’s last view before he passed out was of the man’s blank grey eyes.

 

*

 

Peter wheeled the chair carrying the still-unconscious Harris from the plane and up the air bridge.

Behind him, the blond man stood in the galley and, after thanking the crew again for their help, watched the two figures. After a minute he was joined by a figure from the first class cabin – Harris’s CEO.

“Very smooth. Good job. You can tell Max to expect a call about that other little task shortly.”

“Thank you, sir. I will let him know.”

The pair headed up into the airport, the last to leave the plane.

“Do you really think it’s helpful to make people think you’re going to kill them, though? It seems a little…”

“Cruel? Dramatic? Perhaps – but for the coward, it is much cleaner than mere torture, we find. When he wakes up, Harris will be begging to give back the money, if only we spare his life. No need for broken fingers or needles or anything like that. And also no evidence, if Mr Marchender decides to go to the police.” The man smiled. “And, would you deny us our little pleasures?”

“Pleasures, yes. Speaking of which, what did you describe me as again… a ‘dunderhead’ was it?”

“Purely for deniability, sir. We cannot have Mr Marchender thinking you were involved – better he imagines some hidden person.”

“Well. Ok. But be careful. Man can’t have fellows calling him a dunderhead in public too much. Might be consequences.” The CEO walked ahead.

“Of course, sir. I quite agree.” The blond man followed behind. A cold smile crossed his face.

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