Three years and ten months until takeover
I first met Bossman at a club. Outside, not inside. I can’t picture him inside a club, and the idea of him dancing is just bizarre. There was a place called Crush, where I worked as a bouncer for a while. I stood at the door and checked ID and dealt with occasional troublemakers, until real trouble arrived.
It was a Wednesday night, and Crush was medium-busy when I first saw him, standing a few metres away from the entrance and staring openly at me. I didn’t mind. Anyone my height is accustomed to being stared at.
He walked towards me and stood off to the side of the entrance, and he never once stopped staring.
“How tall are you?”
“Six nine. How much do you weigh?”
He grinned at that. “Six nine, huh? Same as Ed Kemper.”
“Serial killer. Murdered ten people. He targeted female hitchhikers and did a lot of decapitating, dismembering, that sorta thing.”
The guy had an American accent and definite psycho vibes. I was starting to feel nervous about letting him into the club. I didn’t fancy seeing any of the regulars on the evening news, having been murdered and mutilated. It was a moot point, though, because he still seemed uninterested in the club and more interested in me.
“D’you have any martial arts training?”
He frowned, and sounded impatient, like I was wasting his time instead of it being the other way around.
“Look, if you wanna make small talk come back after my shift’s over and we’ll spend some quality time together.”
“Oh my God, I wasn’t hitting on you!”
“Well, I’m working here so make your mind up. Either show me some ID and get inside, or bugger off.”
Weirdly, he did bugger off. Gave me one last look, up and down, then turned around and marched off into the night.
The following night, there was an Incident. I caught a guy with a can of spray paint, drawing a large, circumcised cock on the side wall of the building.
“Aren’t you a bit old to be drawing dicks on walls?” I said, and he froze.
He backed away from the wall, drawing himself up to his full height. He was a pretty big bloke, maybe 6’ 3” or 6’ 4”. Probably accustomed to being the biggest guy in the room. The stubble on his chin and neck was exactly the same length as the stubble on his head.
“You’re only as old as you feel,” he said, in a perfectly friendly tone. He dropped the can of spray paint to the ground and kicked it behind him. As it rolled away, I recognised the look of someone seeking a fight and felt my own muscles tensing in response.
“Come on, clear off. No need to make this diff-”
He obviously intended to make things difficult, because he swung at me. I dodged, but not completely, and his fist got my shoulder instead of my chin. I managed to block a second blow, aimed at my stomach, and grabbed his arm. I pulled him towards me and hit him with an upper cut that was, honestly, pretty weak. He shook it off easily enough, wrenching his arm free before I could twist it behind his back.
He took a couple of steps backwards, and I thought maybe that was it. But instead of retreating, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a flick knife. Everything changed. Before, I was dealing with a troublemaker at work and had to figure out how to get rid of him without either of us ending up in hospital. Now, it was a matter of survival and things were simpler. I was almost relieved.
When he came at me, I kicked him before the knife could get anywhere near me. Booted him right in the chest, knocking the breath out of his lungs and the knife out of his hand. He took one more swing at me, but his heart wasn’t in it and I managed to use his momentum to spin him around and shove him decisively away. He stumbled, landing superhero style on the ground – one foot, one knee, one hand. I had a choice between kicking the knife behind me so he couldn’t get to it, and kicking him in the head. It was touch or go for a moment, but I chose the former. The man recognised a lost cause when he saw one, and made a run for it.
I picked up the knife, then felt like an idiot for picking it up. I’d have to hand it in to the police and now my prints would be all over it. I pictured the knife, held in the man’s fist, and realised he’d been wearing gloves.
A week later, the doorbell rang and I opened the door to a tall woman in a black suit. I looked for clues that might explain why she was outside my door, but there was no lanyard announcing which charity she was raising money for; no colourful rosette suggesting she was there on behalf of a local MP; no pamphlets to educate me on religion.
“Morning,” she said. Then, without preamble, “I’m here to talk to you about a job opportunity.”
“Oh…kay. I already have a job.”
“Yes, you work as a doorman.”
I went from thinking she was dodgy in a pyramid scheme sort of way, to thinking she was dodgy in a much more unusual way. And I was intrigued. Still, it seemed like a bad idea to let her know that.
“That’s not really any of your business.”
“You can tell me to piss off if you want, but my boss is interested in paying you a shitload of money to do some pretty basic stuff.”
“How much is a shitload?”
“I’m not gonna talk money here in a doorway. You want to invite me in, or what?”
I invited her in. I didn’t believe I was about to receive a shitload of money, but I accepted that this shitload of money probably existed somewhere, and I wanted to find out more about it.
The woman sat down on my settee, swinging a leather satchel off her shoulder and dumping it beside her. I asked her if she wanted a cuppa and she said “Please!” in a charmingly desperate voice, so I went into the kitchen and made tea. While the kettle boiled, I attempted to process the limited information I had about the stranger in my living room. My first consideration was, inevitably, whether or not she was fit. I came to the conclusion that she was, but in that frustrating, probably-a-lesbian way. I also tried to place her accent, which definitely wasn’t local. I couldn’t pin it down to anywhere more specific than “Midlands”.
After I’d handed her a mug of tea and sat opposite her in my slightly battered armchair, she finally told me her name.
“What’s Em short for?” I asked.
“Wow. You don’t look like an Emmylou.”
“I know. Sounds like a seven-year-old with ringlets. That’s why I chucked most of the letters.”
I took a swig of my tea, trying not to look rattled. Whatever else she knew, I was going to act like it didn’t matter. Like every detail of my life was common knowledge. If this was about to turn into a blackmail situation, I had to come across as unblackmailable. “So what else do you know?”
“All sorts. I know that both your parents are dead, you have no siblings and no other family to speak of. I know which gym you go to and how much you can deadlift. I know your employment history. By the way, what’s it like working in a slaughterhouse?”
“Grim. I take it you already know I grew up on a farm?”
“You take it correctly.”
“I thought it wouldn’t be much different to farm work, but it is.”
She nodded, and put her mug of tea on the floor (I didn’t own a coffee table). Then she reached into her bag and pulled out a plastic wallet, from which she extracted a sheet of paper.
“The boss wants me to ask you about a gap in employment,” she said, running her finger down the paper. “What were you up to between November 2007 and September 2008?”
If I’d managed not to look rattled thus far, I probably failed at this point. Em gave me a reassuring smile and added, “It’s alright. I’m guessing things went off the rails after your mum died.”
“Mm. Dad was in debt. I didn’t have a lot of options.”
“Everyone has to eat. And you probably have to eat quite a lot, right? So you did whatever would bring in some money.”
I got the impression she knew more than she was letting on about November 2007-September 2008. I said nothing, wondering if she would drop the subject. She picked up her mug of tea, took a sip, and asked “Did you ever hurt people for money?” as casually as if she were asking if I had any biscuits.
“It wasn’t like that.”
“Mm. I s’pose you didn’t have to use your fists much. Just intimidate people, right?”
“Been doing that all my life. Doesn’t matter much if you’re doing it for a nightclub owner or a drug dealer or whoever, the way I see it.”
“Fair enough. So, let me give you the job description.” She took another sheet of paper out of the plastic wallet and handed it to me. “The role’s a bit of security, a bit of helping out in the lab, a bit of everything really.”
“Is that what you do?”
“D’you like it?”
She frowned, obviously not prepared for the question. She stared at me for a moment, like she was figuring out whether or not she could trust me. I thought it ought to be the other way round.
“The money’s fantastic,” she said. “Other stuff is shit. The boss is … extremely demanding. And if you sign up, you’ll be doing things that are dangerous and that don’t make a whole lot of sense.”
“Sounds interesting.” Em gave a short, sharp exhale that was almost a laugh. “So who exactly is your boss, and why does he want me to work for him?”
“Let’s call him a scientist. And I don’t know. He’s just taken a shine to you for some reason.”
I thought of the man outside Crush. Not the man I’d fought with, but the American who told me I was the same height as that serial killer bloke.
“Are you a loyal person?”
The question snapped me out of my own thoughts. Em was staring at me again.
“Oh. I don’t know.”
“Ha! At least you’re honest.”
“I could try. I mean, I could probably be loyal if I was paid enough.”