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Short Story Sleeping

Sleeping by Paula K. Randall Thriller short story

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Nathan sits down on the same bench he sat on almost fifteen years ago. Today the market square has been prettified with decorations for Christmas. He wonders if his contact will be the same as last time, or just another grey man, in a grey suit, with an MCC tie. A man called Charles, terribly British sounding. Nathan wonders if they are all called Charles.

When the call had come, late last evening, he had gone into a state of shock. Nicola had been out at her art class. To be honest, he had forgotten, almost, about that day fifteen years ago, when he sat here, in the square, while the town flowed round him. Then it was high summer, now it is snowing. He pulls his overcoat tightly round him against the chill, as flurries of whirling snow begin to whip his face. Here and there a patch of white gleams as the flakes glue themselves to the shoulders of passers-by. He wonders, irrelevantly, if it will be a white Christmas. He is cold, and slightly damp, and suspects he makes a ridiculous figure, sitting there on the bench as the snow falls.

A sudden burst of jangling, Christmassy music startles him and makes him jerk up his head. A large plaster Santa in the middle of the square has just burst into life, adding loudly ‘Ho ho ho!’ ‘Christ!’ he thinks, ‘the state of my nerves!’

Fifteen years ago, it had all sounded thrilling, and also very far away. Some people, he was told, were never called upon. ‘Just there as a sort of, well, insurance policy, if you like,’ Charles had said. And of course the regular cheques, while small, have come in very handy. In case there were ever any checks on his income they have been made to look like an annuity that pays him a monthly sum. During that first meeting, just before he left Cambridge, they told him to go into a low-profile career, nothing flashy, like the media. Nothing that could possibly put him in the public eye.

‘And don’t marry anybody too flashy, either,’ added Charles at that meeting with a bit of a wink. ‘Nice girl next door type. One that won’t ask too many questions.’ So now he is an actuary, well aware of the joke that actuaries are people who find accountancy too exciting. And he has married Nicola, who doesn’t exactly fit the bill, but who can legislate where love will fall? He’s done well: with two good salaries, no children and his little bit of supplementary income they have a nice house, two cars and foreign holidays twice a year. A pleasant life. But now, he realises, it is pay-back time.

The trouble is, as well as being shocked and, frankly, terrified, Nathan’s politics have been considerably modified. In fact, truth be known, he’s not terribly political at all these days. It was all very well at twenty-one, sitting in endless bedsits and discussing Marx and Lenin and the French philosophers and so on until the early hours. Then it was just an intellectual exercise, fuelled by a great deal of beer, cheap wine and the occasional bit of blow. Now the horror of that fifteen year old commitment grows on him as he sits and waits, casting his eyes over every middle-aged man in an overcoat, wondering which one is coming for him.

His mobile buzzes. He’s been told to keep it on. The voice on the other end is urbane and crisp. ‘Meeting aborted, dear boy. Something’s come up. Sorry about that. Just go home and we’ll ring you later with more details.’

Nathan’s immediate reaction is relief. A stay of execution is what it feels like. But as the days pass, he alternates between terror and a vague hope that it has gone away. One of his immediate concerns is what he will tell Nicola. She’s not supposed to know of course, and if she finds out she’ll go spare. He supposes they tell you what to say.

He tries to recall what he actually promised to do. Nothing specific. Just to wait until he was called. He has nothing in writing, just the blasted cheques, which he’s been receiving for all these years. He fantasises about just saying no. What if he says, ‘Look mate, sorry to do this to you, but that was some other guy. The past is another country, and all that. I’m just not that person any more. I don’t even think like that now. Besides, I thought the cold war was over years ago.’ And they would all laugh together and the current Charles would say ‘Of course that’s alright old chap. It was just a silly mistake.’ What if? But deep down he knows what if, at least in some scary, non-specific way. Thoughts of Bulgarian umbrellas, letter bombs, even a sniper fill his dreams. Or could he simply repay the money? He doubts if he could, or even if they’d allow him to.

He struggles to think what he could possibly offer them. He doesn’t know anything in his job, doesn’t have access to secrets or official papers of any kind. Recent projections he’s made for the Bank of England were pretty dry stuff. He’d tried to say that when they contacted him, but was told ‘Oh, don’t worry about that. We know what your special skills are.’ What if they wanted him to go over there? That would be unthinkable. He becomes taught as a straining-wire with anxiety.

Suppose he agrees to do whatever they want, and is caught? He goes on line and googles the penalty for treason, because that’s what it would be. A minimum of five years imprisonment at best, life imprisonment at worst. While shaving, his tongue slithers around the ‘s’ word, then finally he looks in the mirror and says it out loud. Spy. He would be a spy. If discovered, his name would be uttered in the same breath as Kim Philby, or Burgess and Maclean. His parents would die of shame.

Christmas comes and goes, along with the snow, and there is no call. Nathan begins to relax, to think they must have found someone else. Someone more suitable. Some other poor sod whose chickens have come home to roost. He can even laugh about it a little. Who does he think he is? He says to himself repeatedly ‘But I don’t know anything. I’m just an ordinary chap. Wouldn’t even know how to find anything out.’ Surely they’re having a game with him, just reminding him they’re there. But then again, and he can’t rid himself of this nagging thought, there’s the money. They don’t give it to him for nothing, do they? And the worries start over again. Each time the phone rings his nerves jangle. At work, he is convinced his colleagues are looking at him oddly. Could the new Charles be one of them? Could it be a woman, maybe even the woman who comes in with the coffee? Didn’t he see her talking to some chap in a suit outside in the street that morning? Perhaps she has been hired to keep an eye on him for the time being, make sure his nerves don’t crack.

Well, they bloody well soon will. Could it be….Jesus Christ, no………could it even be Nicola? After all, he’s read about that sort of thing: spouses hired to monitor the other partner. His mind is a pit of writhing snakes. How did they meet? He thinks back to the art gallery where they’d met. Who had first made contact with whom? Wasn’t she the one who had approached him? He is sure of it. But no, he’d picked up the catalogue she’d dropped, and that had started them discussing Braque. It had been one of those block-buster exhibitions at the Royal Academy, where everybody is herded round, and you don’t get proper chance to view the work. But maybe she’d dropped it on purpose. Don’t be stupid, how could she have known he was going to go. But perhaps they’d been watching him, maybe for years. Maybe she’s been assigned to him.
Nicola is at her art class when the next call comes. ‘I’m afraid we’ve been rather neglecting you’ purrs the voice, ‘but we’ll be putting that right very soon.’

‘Sorry’ says Nathan, ‘can’t talk now. Bad time.’

‘My dear boy, this is a perfectly good time. We know you’re on your own. This is little wifey’s evening out. How is she, by the way? Haven’t had a chat for simply ages.’

Nathan’s blood runs cold. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Why, nothing at all. Just being pleasant. Anyway, you know the score by now, after our little trial run. Same time, same place. This Saturday morning. See you!’

The line is dead. Nathan, turned to stone, holds the receiver in his hand for a few moments before replacing it. He rushes to the bathroom, hangs his head over the lavatory bowl, and is violently sick.

To see more of Paula K. Randall's work, click the link to her website or scroll down to the bottom of the page to view her member details Visit Paula K. Randall's Website.

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Nathan sits down on the same bench he sat on almost fifteen years ago. Today the market square has been prettified with decorations for Christmas. He wonders if his contact will be the same as last time, or just another...

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