Masterson was getting bored. If it wasn’t for the fact that the guy was producing the highest quality recreational pharmaceuticals in the Northern hemisphere, he wouldn’t have given him the time of day. “Look,” he said. “Stop fannying around. If you need to upgrade your equipment to meet production targets, just come out and say so. Don’t bother me with the details. Remember: I’m the entrepreneur, you’re the chemist. I don’t pretend to understand what you do and I doubt if you have a clue what I do. So let’s keep it that way, right?”
The little man gave a nervous laugh. “S-so it’s OK, then?”
Masterson spread his arms wide. “Sure,” he said, “Whatever you need.” He was interrupted by a knock on the door, and Dmitri came in, dragging the bloodied wreck of a human being behind him. As the bodyguard dumped the man on the floor in front of his desk, Masterson raised one eyebrow.
“Intruder,” said Dmitri, by way of explanation. “Near boathouse.”
“Leave us,” said Masterson to the chemist, who scuttled out of the room. He stood up and walked over to where the man was lying, wondering who could have sent him. There were so many.
“Oh, Dmitri, what have you done to this poor chap?” he said. Dmitri responded by shrugging his shoulders. “I know,” he continued with a sympathetic air, “I know. I understand. You tried to use reasonable force, but he put up such a fight, and one thing led to another?” Dmitri shrugged again. Whilst Masterson had been talking, the intruder had managed to raise himself onto his knees and was coughing up blood in short, hacking bursts.
“Pick him up,” he ordered. “And give him something to drink. I want to talk to him if he’s still capable.” Dmitri grabbed hold of the prisoner and dumped him in a chair, supported by cushions. He was breathing fitfully, and when they brought him a glass of water, he almost choked on it.
“Well, what have we here?” said Masterson, walking slowly around the stranger. “What sort of person tries to sneak into my grounds at this hour of night? Was he armed?” He looked at Dmitri, who produced a small knife. “Is that it? A crappy little pen-knife? Not much of a murder weapon, is it?” He continued to circle the intruder. “Has he talked yet?” he said. Dmitri shook his head, and Masterson gave a sad smile. “Well, we have ways, you know,” he said. “Dmitri does enjoy his work.” He smiled indulgently at the bodyguard, and then turned back to his prisoner. “If it were me, well … I don’t think I’d manage to keep quiet for long, if the truth were told.”
Masterson squatted down and looked the man in the eye. “Do you actually understand what I am saying? Do you even speak English?” There was no reaction whatsoever. “Who sent you? Just tell me that, and we’ll make it nice and quick.” The intruder maintained his silence, holding Masterson’s gaze.
At that point, Masterson noticed the fob watch in the man’s waistcoat pocket. He detached it and took it out.
“Well, there’s a nice piece,” he remarked, dangling it idly from its chain. He took the watch in his other hand and examined the back. There were three letters inscribed there in curlicued writing. “H C N,” read Masterson. “Now, what can that stand for? Horace Catchpole North, perhaps? Harry Cornelius Nesterton? Henry Charles Nowell? Hmmm? Yes, I think we’ll settle for Henry Charles Nowell,” he decided. “Would you like that inscribed on your gravestone, Mr Nowell? ‘Another stupid bastard who tried to kill Frankie Masterson and paid the ultimate price for screwing it up’? Is that a suitable epitaph?”
Masterson took the watch and swung it from its chain in front of the prisoner. “You are feeling sleepy,” he said. “You will tell me everything you know. You will tell me who sent you. You are feeling sleepy …”
There was still no reaction at all, and Masterson slapped the man hard across the cheek in frustration. “Damn you!” he shouted in the man’s ear. “Damn you to hell!” He walked back to his own chair, deep in thought.
“All right,” he said eventually. “This is what we’re going to do, Mr Nowell. It’s one minute to midnight. You have sixty seconds precisely to tell me who sent you and why. If midnight strikes and you still haven’t told me anything, I will hand you back to the care of my good friend Dmitri, who will take you apart, limb by limb, cell by cell, atom by atom. Understood?” Masterson was getting sick of the man’s blank stare. “Am I fucking understood?” he screamed, “Sixty fucking seconds!”
He leaned back in the armchair and began fiddling with the watch. When he finally worked out how to flip it open, there was the tiniest puff, followed by an overpowering smell of almonds. As he struggled to breathe, he noticed that the intruder had begun to smile, and a vague memory surfaced in his dying brain that HCN meant something significant. If only he’d paid a little more attention in Chemistry lessons …
Jonathan Pinnock was born in Bedfordshire, England, and – despite having so far visited over forty other countries – has failed to relocate any further away than the next-door county of Hertfordshire. He is married with two children, several cats and a 1961 Ami Continental jukebox. His writing has won a number of prizes, short-listings and long-listings, and and he has been published in such diverse publications as Smokebox, Litro and Necrotic Tissue. His unimaginatively-titled, but moderately interesting website may be found at www.jonathanpinnock.com.