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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Death · #1960478
Take care when handling stolen property
Howard had always felt that his life was without aim and purpose, or rather that any aims he had were perpetually being dashed at the planning stages. He often wondered if somehow this faltering passage through destiny might be due to interference by mysterious and cruel scientists who could determine which doors opened to him and which remained barred. He wasn't sure why such a campaign might be waged against him in person, nor whether anyone else might also be the subject of these callous experiments. The vague hypothesis persisted however that his misfortunes since birth were the results of decisions to lead him, Howard the human laboratory mouse, down a path to ultimate decrepitude; the objective of the experiment clearly being to see how much pain and anguish a plain man could withstand before breakdown of an irreversible kind was accomplished.

So far, he thought he had managed fairly well. He had reached 30 years of age without becoming a casualty of this process. He was, on the other hand, now increasingly occupied by the feeling that he was heading for catastrophe. He had become obsessed with the fact that he had no mental image of himself as an older man. Not only could he not see his stooped and elderly self. He also failed to envisage a portly middle age; and even faltered at the years between then and his present age. 

People didn't often take to Howard. He didn't quite understand why this was so. He vaguely saw that he disquieted them somehow, but the root of that disturbance evaded him. He felt like an ordinary, run of the mill person, had none of the obvious traits, no off-putting habits, nor facial tics. He kept his discourse short and to the point, never feeling inclined to lecture monotonously on esoteric trivia. He understood perfectly the subtleties of the conversational, the contextual minefield of the simple 'How are you?". Yet he seldom had the satisfaction of people singling him out to talk to. He didn't get it. Something nestled up there in that corner of the graphic that disclosed what other people knew about him, but he didn't.

He had spoken with the new girl, Emma, a few times. Emma believed in giving people a fair break. She had taken time to engage everyone in conversation about the weather, the coffee that spat from the vending machine in the kitchen, even the pigeons that clung to the windowsill and eyed the captive office workers throughout the day. Though she was told on her arrival that her fellow worker was inclined to be a little 'dull', for want of any other description, these chats were still occasionally directed at Howard. He didn't give much away about himself and he usually struggled to keep up with her banter that would seque into different topics, even though these were often banalities that didn't need much thought. She suspected that he was wary of opening up with so many people around. She had some empathy there. Much of her conversations in the office were on generalities, which she forced herself to come up with rather than be thought of as shy, or the quiet one. She thought of herself as 'chatty', having resolved not to consider that she might actually be called 'ditsy' by the others.   

Howard did indeed dislike the atmosphere in the office, and the discussions of sports, TV and night's out left him mute, not because he didn't understand them, but because they were always conducted within a clique to which he did not belong. He noted that Emma, oblivious to the unwritten protocols that stymied Howard, happily breezed into these conversations, declaring a general dislike of sports or a particular character in some soap.

In order to take his mandatory break away from the screen, Howard had to pass Emma's desk. On one particular day, Emma sent forth an exasperated wail.

"Oh, no! I'm going to have to call IT. My screen just went blank."

In passing, Howard noted that the power cable to her monitor had worked loose and pushed it back in.

"Oh thanks, Howie. Thought I'd lost everything. You should work in IT."
"You won't have lost anything. It was just the cable to your display."
"Are you sure? Oh well. Thanks anyway. Wait a minute, I'll come with you. I want to ask you something."
"Oh. Right. OK."

As he stood there waiting for her to go through the ritual of saving her work and locking her screen, he was aware of a couple of glances directed his way and felt that this chat would almost certainly be the next subject to be discussed among 'the guys'.


"So there's this old laptop that someone gave to me and I can't get it to turn on. Do you think you could have a look at it. My boyfriend has tried but he couldn't get anything out of it either."

That would be the boyfriend, Craig, that she hadn't seen for three weeks, since he had rushed in, packed a bag, and stormed out without a word, leaving behind some unwashed clothes, two pairs of trainers, and a laptop hidden in the wardrobe. It was probably stolen goods. There had been a few odd boxes that drifted in for a couple of days here and there, to which she had turned a blind eye. The less she knew, the less trouble it might cause her. But then, she figured, why couldn't she take advantage of a laptop that had landed in her apartment? She had originally thought of asking one of 'the guys', but decided that she couldn't face all the macho nonsense that might entail. She'd had enough of boyfriends for now.

Howard thought about her request. He knew very little about computers in general.

"If your boyfriend has had a look, maybe I won't be able to..."
"Him? He's useless with everything. Can't even use the washing machine."
"Well. How do you want me to..,"
"Can you come round? I'll write down my address for you. Tonight OK?"

This arrangement suited both of them. Howard hadn't been keen on being seen to fail, fixing the machine in the open office, and Emma had been very reluctant to carry it around with her, fearful of being arrested in the street.

The afternoon suddenly felt good to Howard. So good that he managed to start a conversation in the general office, emulating Emma in pointing out that the inquisitive pigeons had returned in more than their usual numbers. Best of all was that, when it came to the round of habitual "See you later"s that accompanied clocking off time, someone actually meant it when they said it to him.


When she let him in the door, Emma immediately noticed that Howard had not changed out of his office clothes but had simply removed his tie. It was bulging out from his jacket pocket. She was pleasantly surprised to note that all this wasn't accompanied by any smell that she might have expected after a day at work. She used to hate it when Craig came home, stinking of sweat. In fact, she had swiftly come to realise, she had hated him being there at all, well before he left.

"I'll get the laptop and make you a coffee while you cast your expert eye over it."

Left alone with the machine, Howard was initially lost for a place to start. To begin somewhere, he attempted to plug the power adaptor into the slot at the side. He immediately spotted that the connector did not fully fit. Two easy fixes in one day, he mused. An unfamiliar run of good luck.

At first, he thought that it simply wasn't the correct adaptor but it was whilst peering at the connector that he noticed that the central pin was bent. Someone had been clumsy. He cast around for something that would be thin enough to engage the pin and straighten it out, and found a pair of nail scissors. The problem was solved and by the time his coffee was ready the laptop was showing a logo and asking for a password.

"LifeCycle Solutions?" pondered Emma. "I wonder where he got this thing from."
"Do you think this might be stolen?"
"I suppose that is a possibility. Craig works on the trains, fixing the electrics. Maybe someone left it behind."

They both stared at the blinking cursor for a while.

"We can help." Emma broke the silence, reading the strapline that marqueed across the screen just below the logo. "LifeCycle Solutions. We can help." She reached out and pressed the Return key. "It would be odd if the password was blank..."

The screen cleared to reveal a grey page with white text. This was clearly some sort of index of filenames. There were one or two recognisable words among all the other apparently random sets of letters.

"Disposed Assets? Leverages? Coercions?" Howard read from the screen. He moved the cursor, unusually in the shape of a dagger, across to the nearest name. "Shall we see what is in Disposed Assets? As we have got this far. You can tell a lot about a business by what it throws away."

"It'll be desks and chairs and things." suggested Emma.

In fact, 'it' turned out to be a list of names.

"I recognise that name," said Emma. "The third one down. He fell out of his office building last year. See, there's the date. And the address of his office building. All the names have dates, but look, that one just says Junction 6, M23. That one there is the new Shopping Mall. Strange thing to put in a file... Didn't that one there disappear without trace a while ago?"
"The date is 3 years back. And it says Barkhams Wharf."
"What are they saying?"
"Don't know. Lets look at Leverages."

This file was of a similar format, but the comments alongside Name and Date spoke of affairs and various other activities, with columns headed Third party names and addresses. Looking at Coercions again revealed Names and Date, but comments there spoke of violence.

"I think," said Howard. "That these are records. I don't know what business LifeCycle Solutions is into but we should be careful."

The door was rattled by a loud knocking. Three heavy blows from a strong fist.

They sat and stared at each other. After 10 seconds, the door was pounded by the same pattern of three.

"We're looking for Craig!"

This was like a scene from a movie. Someone very violent was standing the other side of a flimsy door. Unfortunately, there was no script to speak from so neither of them could think what to say. Howard stood up and methodically switched the laptop off, stashing it into its case and putting it on the floor. Then he moved to the door.

"Howard, they'll kill you." Emma could barely speak with terror.

"No they won't"

He opened the door, and decided that he might be due to die after all. Filling the hallway were two men, straight from hell. Large men, impassive faces, big hands. He took these details in as he was pushed firmly aside. Just one of the men stepped past him. The two of them would not have fitted into the apartment together.

"Craig?" The man was addressing him. "Are you Craig?"
"No. Howard." It sounded lame.
"Howard eh? That was my dad's name." The man turned to Emma. "Craig?"
"No. Craig left three weeks ago."
"Ah right. Only kidding. We know where Craig is. We found him."

There was a snort from outside the door. "Yeah. We found him alright."

The inside man looked at the laptop bag. "Ah. Just what we were looking for. Safe and sound, like Craig said it was. Surprisingly quickly too. Didn't help him though. Thanks for looking after it anyway. I'll take it now."

He shouldered the bag, which in proportion looked almost effeminate on him, then looked at them both as if sizing them up. "Well, I'll leave you two lovebirds to it. Take care." He clapped a large hand on Howard's shoulder. It felt as if a sack of coal had settled there momentarily. "See you, Norman. Take care of your girlfriend. She deserves better than that loser, Craig."

With that, they were strolling back down the hallway. Howard closed the door quietly, afraid to offend them with too great a slam. Hearing an uncontrolled sob, he turned back to find Emma in tears and pulled her to him. His own heart was beating so fast it seemed possible that it might burst. They stood, clinging to each other, for a minute or so.

The two men didn't bother to knock this time. Nor did one of them wait outside.

"Well, hello again Norman." said the talkative one from before. "Perhaps you can explain why this laptop is warm!!" 

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