Spoil the Kill (Excerpt)

In the future of Oisín McGann’s Spoil the Kill, WatchWorld owns the city of London, tracking its inhabitants’ every move with cameras, drones, and heat sensors.

Teenage self-proclaimed criminal nerd Scope and her friends work for Move-Easy, the city’s biggest thug. When Easy wants an old enemy found, his rat-runners search through social media and by slipping in and out of the city’s Voids, or blind spots where they can’t be detected by Safe-Guards—the part-human, part-robot police.

Scope and her fellow rat-runners know not to make an enemy out of Move-Easy. But what if the target is innocent? Can Scope spoil the kill, or will doing so make her Easy’s next mark? Spoil the Kill is a prequel novella to Rat Runners, out January 13, 2015 from Open Road Media.

Chapter 1: Horribly Orange

Move-Easy has never asked me to help kill someone before. He has experts for that kind of thing. I’m a criminal nerd—I’m good with chemicals, biology, forensics. Normally, it’s my job to check if stolen merchandise is genuine, or lecture knucklehead thugs on how not to leave traces of themselves at a crime scene. Sometimes I even create fake evidence to leave at the aforementioned crime scenes to help put Move-Easy’s competitors in prison. But violence just isn’t my bag.

I’m summoned to Easy’s audience chamber, and find two other kids my age waiting for me. I know both of them. FX and Manikin; they’re brother and sister. Like me, they have unusual skill sets for kids their age. FX is the younger one—younger than me—he’s a hacker, a wizard with tech. Manikin is a chameleon, combining the skills of an actor, con-artist, and thief. I don’t think I’ve ever seen what she really looks like—there’s something different about her every time she shows up.

My boss, Move-Easy, could do with taking some tips from her.

You don’t talk about Move-Easy’s orange skin in his presence—not unless you fancy being scarred for life. Years of living underground, hiding from the law’s surveillance, made him horribly pale, so he started using a sunbed. Now he’s horribly orange—all the more disturbing with his gargoyle’s face. The last guy to suggest he lay off the UV got beaten to a pulp with one of those scented Yankee Candles. It was the nearest thing on hand.

“Ah Scope, there you are my Little Brain,” Easy greets me, puffing on a pungent cigar that sends clouds of smoke curling toward the ceiling. “Come on in, luv. Now, I’ve gathered this clever bunch of young vermin together to take advantage of a rare opportunity that has arisen, all of a sudden like.”

He holds the cigar in his left hand. The right is fondling the gold medallion that sits in the forest of grey hair visible on his orange chest. He’s wearing an expensive suit that he makes look cheap. There are three buttons open on the pale pink shirt to show off the gold. He waves me over to him, and I sit down beside him, where he likes me to be. My skin tightens at being so close to him. My fear of him never really goes away.

I’m what’s known as a rat-runner, though I’m not as hard boiled as a lot of the others. Like Manikin and FX, I’m under sixteen, which means I’m not subject to the same insane levels of surveillance as adults in London. Most rat-runners are just couriers or petty thieves, underage foot soldiers—they’re chosen for having quick wits and even faster feet, but are otherwise unexceptional. Some of us, however, are more specialized.

“I have a job that requires some … delicacy,” Move-Easy declares in his East London accent. He runs his hand through his slicked-back, dyed-black hair. “A task that demands your unique skills, and a certain degree of mobility. I want you to find someone, an’ we ’aven’t much to go on. An’ this investigation, such as it is, shall start wiv you, FX.”

FX is doing his best not to squirm nervously under Easy’s gaze. He hates coming here. He’s in his usual combats with a black t-shirt printed with a poster from some film called War Games. His curly dark hair is a bit too long to be gelled up the way he’s done it, making his freckly cherub face look even younger. He seems naked without his everpresent console to hook him into the digital world. The doormen take that off him as a precaution whenever he comes into Easy’s place.

He may not look like much, but FX once hacked into the Prime Minister’s personal computer to win a bet. He left a virus that played a video clip of Barney the dinosaur singing the “Clean Up” song every time the PM tried to open his emails.

“You reckon you could track someone down through their MyFace page?” Easy asks FX.

“Yeah, I think so,” the boy answers tightly. “MyFace has decent security, but hardly any of the users get the privacy settings right—and that’s assuming they want to. Half of ’em think the world needs to know which hand they wipe their arse with. If I can get onto this person’s page, there’s bound to be something that’ll give away where they live.”

“This lad’s birthday is comin’ up too,” Easy tells us. “So if he’s got any friends at all, there’ll be traffic online about it. More likely to catch him out in public too.”

“Who are we looking for?” Manikin asks. Today, her hair is red and curly—though I’m pretty sure it’s really straight, and as black as her brother’s. Her makeup gives her skin a paler tint than normal to go with the red hair, and I’m not sure those freckles are even real. She’s wearing a burgundy suede jacket over a white t-shirt with a pair of skinny jeans. Manikin always dresses with style, unless she’s playing a character who doesn’t. She only steals designer labels. Easy’s eyes linger on her longer than necessary before answering.

“His name’s Jonathan Grodin,” he says. “He’s older than you—nearly nineteen. I want to find him, ’cos I want to find his dad. His old man’s name is Charlie Grodin— people used to call him ‘the Duke.’ He was an accountant who grassed up my brother and got ’im banged up. Twenty years in that hell-pit, Shoreshank. I want to find the Duke and thank ’im personally … by cuttin’ off his arms an’ legs, nice an’ slow, before I finish wiv his ’ead.”

The walls of Move-Easy’s audience chamber are like something out of the 1970s. The walls are decorated with geometric patterns in orange, brown, maroon, and white, and we’re sitting on couches in the sunken center of the room. On the nearest wall is a large wide-screen television displaying a webpage.

On the screen, there’s a pair of bare arses mooning us. The arses belong to two teenage guys who’ve had too much to drink at some party, and thought it would be a great laugh to drop their pants in front of somebody holding a camera.

Naturally, that photo got posted on somebody’s MyFace page, which means that the picture will probably be available for the rest of their lives and beyond. Nice one, lads. Good luck at your next job interview.

There is one backside that Easy is particularly interested in. A spiky, reptilian tail curls down around the left buttock from a tattoo that is partially visible on the guy’s lower back. It’s a black line drawing of a dragon.

“When the Duke shopped my brother, the ol’ bill put him into a witness protection program,” Easy explained. “We’ve bin lookin’ for him ever since, but wiv no luck. The boy, Jonathan, is his only family, but he and the dad didn’t get on. Young Jonathan didn’t go into witness protection wiv his dad, so we thought we might bring him in, work on ’im a bit … y’know, put pressure on the Duke to come out of hidin’. I mean, he may have a beef wiv his son, but he’s not about to let me pull the boy apart, is he? But Jonny just took off on a round-the-world trip and dropped off the map in India for a year, so we couldn’t find him.”

FX is staring down at the floor. Manikin is digging at the knee of her jeans with one fingernail, trying not to look at the photo on the screen. They know what’s coming next.

“I am reliably informed,” Easy tells us, pointing at the screen, “that the arse with the dragon tattoo is that of the young Jonathan Grodin. He apparently designed it himself a few years back, so it’s unique to ’im. But we know the photo’s recent, ’cos the t-shirt he’s wearin’ is from a concert tour that only started two months ago and we reckon he’s in the UK or Ireland, ’cos that’s a British three-pin plug on the wall in the background. We ain’t got much else. This photo was found by accident, really, and most of what’s on the MyFace page isn’t open to the public—or us. We can’t find any photos of the boy’s face, and this isn’t his page. It belongs to some girl. So that’s all we’ve got to go on. FX, my boys’ve already emailed you a link to the page.”

He leans back and spreads his arms over the back of the couch, his left lying across behind my shoulders, the cigar’s smoke wafting into my face. I’m taking in the expressions on the faces of Manikin and FX. They’re like me; they only ever got into this business because they were trapped into it. They’ve had their share of rough stuff, but they’ve always steered clear of hurting people when they could. They’re as freaked out by this as I am, and trying not to show it. They may be freelancers, but you don’t say no to Move-Easy.

“It’s not much to go on,” Manikin says hesitantly. “And you’ve got good hackers here, good players. Why us?”

“I’ve got great confidence in your abilities, luv,” Easy assures her. “Gotta strike while the iron’s hot, an’ all that. And not all of this can be done online; it might be necessary to move around a bit to chase up leads, maybe hang out with some of the innocent young civvies out there—hence the need for rat-runners. Now if you’re done questionin’ my judgement, ’ow about you do what you’re bloody told? I’m sending Scope here off wiv you, to bolster your investigative powers, seein’ as she’s such a little Sherlock. You look after ’er, and she’ll keep an eye on you.”

He gives me a glance like a father who’s letting his child get on a bus on their own for the first time. He doesn’t send me out on jobs much. He juts his chin toward the door, indicating it’s time for us to leave.

“You’ve got to the end of the week to find the boy,” he tells us as we file out.

“Uncle Easy expects great things from you, children. Don’t disappoint me.”

The thing is, I’m already trying to figure out how we can screw this job up and get away with it.

 

Chapter 2: The Watchers

Move-Easy’s lair is an old underground bunker beneath a hospital. It’s what’s known as a Void—a space the law doesn’t know about, a hidden gap in London’s pervasive surveillance network. Easy is extremely careful to keep it that way. I grab my bag, join Manikin and FX, and we make our way through the Void’s security checks to get outside. I can feel the weight of tension lift as I leave that nest of gangsters. I can breathe properly again. Like I said before, he doesn’t let me work outside much, so I’m grateful for whatever fresh air the city can offer. It’s Saturday too, so nobody’ll be wondering why these three kids aren’t in school.

I don’t look the part of a gangster and I’m not as anonymous as a rat-runner should be. I’m the kind of oddball that people always notice, black but albino with my blonde hair bound in cornrows. I’m blind in my right eye too, but most people don’t spot that.

We want to put some space between us and the hospital before we find a place to sit down and look over what we’ve got on Charlie “the Duke” Grodin and his son. We trot at an easy pace down alleys and grotty laneways and sneak through buildings to avoid the street cameras. We follow the rat-runs. Every now and then we stop when we come upon a camera or a surveillance post. Timing the pass of each scan-cam as it turns, we flit past like ghosts, unseen, unrecorded.

This is why criminals are so reliant on kids like us. Rat-runners can go where others can’t. You have to be fast and agile—and being small enough to fit through narrow gaps helps too. We’re nearly a kilometer from Easy’s bunker when Manikin pulls up short. She’s out in front, as usual, leading the way through this gloomy lane lined with wheelie bins. Waving to us to hold up, she holds two fingers against her forehead, just above her eyes. The sign for a Safe-Guard. Then she points the fingers away. It’s not looking in our direction.

FX and I take a quick peek. Sure enough, there it is in the side street we were about to cross—a figure in a blue-grey cloak with a helmet that sits all the way down on its shoulders, fronted with a long, smoked-glass visor. There’s a human being under there, but every effort has been made to make this figure as impersonal as possible. The helmet is bigger than it should need to be to fit over the person’s head, because it is loaded with surveillance equipment. You won’t see a face behind that dark visor—just camera lenses and sensors. The helmet’s various cameras offer telescopic, x-ray and thermal vision, among others. It has sensitive microphones that can pick up the soft footsteps of ratrunners creeping past, or conversations a hundred meters away. It even has a chemical analyzer to detect suspicious smells.

I have a real urge to hide behind one of the wheelie bins, but the other two stay where they are, and I do the same. This thing can see through plastic. We’d just look suspicious if it turned around and saw us all hunkered down, trying to get out of sight. Even so, this is a funny spot for three kids to be hanging out.

But this is the one serious advantage of being under sixteen in a city like London, where WatchWorld and their infamous Safe-Guards are everywhere. Manikin walks straight out across the side street in full view of the peeper, and we follow her. It turns to bring its cameras to bear on us, but we keep walking. We’re not doing anything wrong, after all—not yet, anyway. We just don’t like people seeing where we’re going, or where we’ve come from.

Being under sixteen means it can’t stop us, question us, or follow us unless we’re actually involved in a crime. Once we turn sixteen, all that will change. It could follow us all day if it wanted. It could come into our homes and watch us eat or sleep or go to the toilet. When you turn sixteen in London, you surrender your privacy to the law, and they can watch you any way they like.

The peepers are trained to move smoothly, to glide like machines. We’re supposed to think of them as walking surveillance posts, not humans. Its whole body swivels slowly as its cameras follow us across the street. A stray beam of sunlight glints off its visor, obscuring those unblinking eyes, the camera lenses that are the only things normally visible behind the glass. After we’re a block away and around another corner, it’s probably not watching us anymore. But there’s something about the peepers that leave an impression on you long after you’ve left them behind. Like they’ve marked you.

It takes a long time to shake off that feeling.

We make our way to a café that offers wireless access and no security cameras. Placing our orders for coffee and sandwiches, we grab a table in a quiet corner and take out our consoles. By the time our lunch arrives, FX has found the MyFace page with the picture, slipped past the clumsy privacy settings and invited himself in. The girl’s name is Kim Jordan, and she’s what FX refers to as a prize ASSOL—an Attention-Seeking Simpleton Online. She clearly thinks the world needs to know about her life, and her friends definitely hear all about it. Once he’s on her page, FX can get into all of theirs, too.

It’s really hard to stay hidden these days, especially if you use a phone or computer. For someone who knows how—someone like FX, for instance—a person’s activity online can be traced like a slug trail back to its source. Most people have some idea that they’re leaving traces of themselves whenever they go online, but very few realize how much. Even fewer people know how much all these digital footprints can tell others about their lives.

But then, if you bring in people like me and Manikin, to dig up stuff in the real world, protecting your privacy becomes an absolute bloody nightmare. I’ve never wanted to be anybody’s nightmare, but I work for Easy because if I don’t, my family will get hurt. FX and Manikin work for him because they’re in debt to him, and if they don’t work it off, they’ll get hurt. In the end, we all just get on with what we’re doing and try not to think too much about all the people we’re doing it too. Even so, none of us sleep too well.

“You gonna keep it all for yourself, or do you feel like sharing?” Manikin scowls at her brother.

“Funny how you girls all have equal rights,” he sniffs back, “but you still expect guys to hold the door open for you. So, you actually going to do some of the work then?”

With a few taps of his screen, FX gets me and Manikin into the girl’s network and we begin combing the material for more information on Jonathan, each of us working on our own console. Apart from a few photos from the party where the mooning took place, nothing useful has been posted recently. Nobody’s saying much while we search. We are friends, sort of, but they’re wary of me because they see me as one of Easy’s gang. What we all really want to be talking about is how we don’t want to do this job. If we succeed, Jonathan—and probably his father too—will end up in Move-Easy’s “guest-rooms.” Soundproofed, concrete rooms with tiled walls and floors to make them easy to clean.

The stuff Easy has provided includes a few old photos of Jonathan when he was ten or twelve, and some pictures of the Duke too. We check Jonny’s pics against the guys in every photo we come across, trying to find a face for the tattooed arse.

FX is also running facial recognition software that’s comparing the photos we have to all the photos and clips of video on the MyFace pages. It’s not always reliable, but it can search much faster than we can do by eye. FX is tapping incessantly on the table with his teaspoon and I have to put my hand down on it to stop him. It’s that or hit him over the head with his console. God, he’s such a fidget. He stops, but he looks a bit miffed. Manikin smirks, but doesn’t say anything.

It’s been driving her mad for years.

The ongoing conversations, updating even as we read, are filled with the casual, day-to-day trivia you find on every part of MyFace.

“OMG, these girls are just so, like, y’know … absolutely fabulous!” Manikin waves her hands around her head. “Bloody hell, I wish my life was so slow I could have whole conversations about lip gloss …”

“I just want to know why people talk about reality TV shows as if they’re … well, real life,” I reply, skimming down the page of another girl, Alice. “Apparently Sharon found out last week that Nigel was actually her mother. Alice is bleedin’ devastated. She fancied Nigel. Is there anyone who doesn’t think this stuff is scripted?”

Most of this chat is abbreviated in text-speak, as the circle of friends do most of their updating from their phones. It could take days to read down through it all—we could go back months—so we each take a friend from Kim’s crowd and start scanning down through the lines of text. I wonder what they’d think if they knew their private conversations were being read by the likes of us.

And we’re only getting warmed up.

We’ve been sifting through the profile pages for about half an hour when I come across a short video that makes me stop and peer closer. Kim, a chubby blonde with heavy mascara around small eyes, is being filmed by one of her mates. She’s walking along a street at night with a gang of her friends. They’re all dressed to the nines; it looks like they’re out for the evening. Kim has her phone up, and she’s filming the one who is filming her. Funny how often people do that now.

“Where are we going?!” she’s shouting, laughing. “Does anybody know where the hell we’re going next? Jesus, are we lost? Hey, honey … you know you’re walking backward right? Watch out for the–”

The person filming her obviously steps off the curb, and topples backward. The phone flies up in the air, the video spins and becomes a whirl of dark colors. There’s a sudden shriek and several others laugh before a jarring impact cuts to silence as the phone hits the ground.

“Hey, take a look at this,” I say to the others.

I rewind the video. Behind Kim, as she’s talking, two guys are horsing around. The clarity’s not great, but we can see that the taller one has grabbed the shorter one’s cap and is holding it up while the shorter guy is jumping up trying to reach it. The tall guy has his back to the camera, but as he holds the hat out of the other lad’s reach, his jacket and tshirt lift up, revealing the back and hind legs of the dragon tattoo. We only get a glimpse of him before the girl filming falls over and the picture’s lost.

“Okay, so he’s tall and he’s got brown hair,” FX shrugs. “That’s something else at least, but still no face. It doesn’t give us much more than the first photo.”

“No, look again,” I say. “We couldn’t see his hands in the photo. Here, take a look.”

They both lean in, staring at the frozen image showing the guy from behind, holding up the blue cap.

“I’m sorry, I’m not getting it,” FX mutters. “What are we looking at?”

“His nails,” Manikin says, lifting her head. “He bites his nails. Like, really short. Ouch.”

“Yeah,” I say. “He’s bitten them down to the quick—the index and middle finger especially.”

“So we go back through the images …” FX starts to say.

“And see if there’s a face to go with those badly bitten nails,” Manikin finishes for him.

“Keep an eye out for any guy with plasters on the tips of more than one finger too,” I add.

It doesn’t take long to find him. In a group shot of what is obviously this circle of friends, he stands in the middle with his arms on the shoulders of the girls on either side. He’s tall with brown hair and his short nails are clearly visible. When I hold the cursor over his face, the name “Joey Rodin” appears above it.

“Jonny Grodin becomes Joey Rodin,” Manikin snorts. “Right … nice alias there Joey.”

You can see the resemblance to the younger kid in the photos Easy gave us. But his pale, freckled face is longer and his nose has been broken and healed crooked at some point. And in every new picture we find of him, he’s got a big stupid grin on his face. All of these things combined were probably enough to stop FX’s facial recognition from finding him.

“Okay, so we have his mugshot,” FX says. “But he’s not on MyFace—at least he’s not linked to any of these pages.”

“Maybe he’s not a complete idiot, then,” Manikin comments. “He’s got to know Move-Easy’s still looking for him. What next?”

“We need to get his phone number,” I say and FX nods.

“If I have his mobile number, I can track him down, wherever he is,” he says.

“Kim or one of the others might have it on their phones,” Manikin murmurs, looking off into the distance. “We should be able to find them easily enough now.”

FX and I both nod. That awkward discomfort is back, as our minds turn from the job to actually finding Jonathan Grodin. Manikin hisses through her teeth and she looks at me as if measuring me up. I can guess what she wants to ask.

“I’m not wired up,” I tell her. “Easy only puts cameras or mikes on his seniors. He says rat-runners attract less attention from the law that way.”

But I’m still careful. I don’t want to make the first move here. Easy would go harder on them than on me. Manikin nods at me, gazing at me for a few seconds.

“All right, I’m going to say it,” she sighs, sitting back in her chair, the anxiety written on her face. “Are we really going to do this? I mean, give this guy to Move-Easy? We all know what’s going to happen to him if we do. How about it, Scope? Could you live with that?”

Even as I’m about to answer, I wonder if somebody’s listening in. Easy could very well have had us followed to keep an eye on us. I haven’t spotted anyone, and presumably neither have the other two, assuming they’ve been looking. I take a deep breath and let it out.

“No, I don’t want to do this,” I tell them. “I just haven’t figured out how to get out of it. I don’t think any of us want to double-cross Easy, do we?”

“We could just say we couldn’t find this guy,” FX offers.

“He wouldn’t buy it.” Manikin shakes her head. “Besides, he’d take the failure out on us, and then put somebody else on the job. It’s taken us less than an hour to find a face and a name. That means somebody else could do it too.”

“The only way I can see out of this,” I say quietly, “is to find Grodin like we’re supposed to, and then tip him off somehow before Easy’s trolls can get hold of him, so they take the blame, not us. We need to spoil the kill. Drive him out of the country again… but we’ve got to find him first.”

“Okay,” FX adds. “So how do we tip him off without it looking like we’ve totally cocked up the job? ’Cos I’ve gotta tell ya, I’m sweatin’ my kacks just talking about this.”

“The less I know about your kacks, the better,” I tell him. “Anyway, we get som outside help. I think I have someone I can call, but we need to suss this whole thing out first.”

“Right then,” Manikin says, running her hands through her red hair. “Let’s find this Kim Jordan, and then figure out how we’re going to steal her phone.”

 

Excerpted from Spoil the Kill © Oisín McGann, 2014

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