“You have a match!”
Bob Heckleman looked up from the document he had been working on. He immediately felt the all-too-familiar pang of nervousness as he re-read the notification that had popped up on the screen of his smartphone.
Cautiously, he looked around. Nobody seemed to have noticed the rather loud chime of his phone. Of course, why would they? He was just one of the 79 ‘plain Joes’ who worked on this floor. A number crunching, document-proofing geeky looking employee who clocked 19-hour shifts almost every day and kept largely to themselves. Or at least that’s what’s they all thought of each other. But the truth was slightly different. Yes, he was definitely one of them. But he was also the only one who had special access to some of the most confidential information that countless people across the globe would, quite literally, kill for. The reality, as harsh as it sounded, was that his “plainness” was his security. That and according to his boss, the fact that his brain worked like it had been wired with Red Bull. Always alert and almost always the sharpest person in the room.
His phone buzzed again, the computer-synthesized voice announcing the arrival of a text message. This time, he spotted two of his colleagues look up from their laptops, the act a silent acknowledgment of the fact that something had dared disturb the otherwise monotonous humdrum of their laptop hard drives and keyboard clicks.
Muttering an inaudible cussword, Bob slowly slid the phone towards him and slid the button that turned off all audible tones. Nervousness was putting it loosely. The actual feeling was one of anxiety, beads of perspiration already starting to slide down the sides of his cheeks. He bit his lower lip, as he always did when he sensed the signs of an impending panic attack. They had become far too frequent of late.
He glanced at his phone once again. There was a rapid flash of colour as it unlocked using the facial recognition system. He then quickly pressed a series of codes on to the popup that had subsequently appeared, serving as the secondary unlock mechanism for this phone. A sigh escaped his parted lips as he deftly swept his chubby fingers over the screen and dismissed all other notifications except the one at the very top; the one that had caught his attention in the first place. It was from an online dating service that he had signed up for many moons ago but never had a match before.
‘And why would I?’ he thought, as his index finger hovered over the notification for a brief minute, as he contemplated the next step. In his late 40s, with a paunch that could put Santa to shame and numerous patches of alopecia areata where his hair should have been, Bob Heckleman knew where he stood on the dating pyramid. In fact, given his deplorable track record with women, he often thought that it was a surprise that he was still on the pyramid at all. Signing up for the blind-dating app had been his last resort. A Hail Mary, if you would. He was not going to die alone. And definitely not as a virgin.
He felt his body stiffen as she called out his name. He didn’t even need to look to know who it was. The way the R’s of his name rolled off her tongue was a dead giveaway. Flipping his phone, screen down onto the desk, he swiveled his chair around to face her. The intent had been to execute the action with a certain amount of stylish charm. However, a part of his tie that had gotten stuck in the top drawer, had other plans and his chair toppled.
Despite the fact that he was suddenly sprawled on the floor with sheets of paper all over him, he couldn’t help let out a sheepish grin as he watched Margot burst out laughing at his state and mumble something in Italian. Taking a moment to calm herself, she placed a small brown envelope, marked with the words CONFIDENTIAL, on his desk, before leaning forward to offer her hand to help him up.
‘Take her hand’ screamed a voice in his head, ‘Take it. This will probably be the only time you get to touch any part of her’.
For a moment, Bob thought about it. He wondered how her petite hand with those perfectly manicured nails would feel in his chubby, ape-sized clammy ones. His overworked brain even ran a parallel scenario in his head where he pulled her on top of him, her burgundy skirt lightly fluttering as she fell and the gentle whiff of spearmint-fresh breath that escaped her full lips as they brushed against his.
There was now a firmness to her tone that he had not heard before. It snapped him out of his reverie, and he blinked twice to clear his blurry vision. Margot was staring at him, the angelic smile on her face now replaced by a stoic expression and her hand no longer extended towards him.
‘Are you okay?’
Bob nodded and picked himself up off the floor using the desk for support. He was vaguely conscious that some of his colleagues were staring at this awkward exchange between him and their boss’s assistant. He pulled up his chair and cursed under his breath as he noticed the lower portion of his necktie missing. He quietly wished the earth would open up and swallow him that very moment. Not only had he made a complete fool of himself, he had done it in front of the one person he thought about constantly.
‘Gary would like you to do your magic on the contents of this envelope.’ said Margot, gesturing towards the nondescript package she had placed on his desk. ‘It’s top priority, Roberto. He’s asked that you deliver it to him in person before you leave for the day’.
Bob tried to acknowledge the message with an ‘okay’, but all that came out of his mouth was a raspy wheeze. He nodded again, as she spun around effortlessly on her nude high-heels. As she slowly sashayed her way back to her desk, her jet black hair bouncing with each stride, Bob once again found himself wondering about them. Together. Dreaming dreams that would never be fulfilled.
Bob’s mouth widened into a grin, as the soles of his shoes landed hard on the wet cobblestone road and the muddy water splashed everywhere. A low rumble rang loud, momentarily silencing all the other sounds of the otherwise busy city center. To others, it signaled that a heavy downpour was imminent. To him though, it felt like the sky was roaring with happiness. Out the corner of his eye, he saw everyone rushing to take cover. But not him. He never really understood why people complained about the rain so much. Especially in a city like London, which seemed to be a particular favourite of the rain gods. He loved the rain. Everything about it, in fact. The whispering hum as raindrops mustered more strength, the constant drumroll as the rain pounded the rooftops, the rolls of ominous thunder and the intermittent flashes of lightning. There was nothing more romantic than when it all came together. Even better if you were huddled with someone you loved. He found himself hoping that the date would go well.
Her name was Rebecca Craye. According to her profile on the app, she was a paralegal at a firm in Croydon and it had matched their profiles on the basis of their interests and responses to the detailed questionnaire they had both answered. The app had automatically emailed the responses of the prospective dates to each other, as soon as both of them had accepted the match request. There was only one glitch. It did not show the prospective dates any photographs of the person they were meeting, so as to keep the whole match process, quite literally, blind.
Bob had initially been skeptical about the whole ‘blind date’ concept. But the more he thought about it, the more it felt like a good idea. With his many physical flaws, he had the most rotten luck on some of the most popular apps. In a whole year of using them, he had only gotten swiped right, once. Which then subsequently turned out to be a transsexual man. At least with this app, the prospective dates had to meet before they rejected someone on the basis of their looks.
As he turned the corner into Friary Street, he reached into the jacket to take out his phone. He would need to rely on his trusty maps to find the restaurant that his date had suggested. The location had struck him a little odd. After all, there was no dearth of fancy restaurants in London. However, his date had insisted that they meet at a less prominent location. Even Google had trouble locating the restaurant. But when he did eventually locate it on Page 29 of a popular restaurant app, the reviews largely described it as a ‘charmingly quaint place with sumptuously decadent food’.
‘It’s better if it’s away from the crowd.’ he’d thought to himself. He hadn’t been out on a date in years and given his nervousness around women, it served him better if fewer people were privy to his social awkwardness. The images of the place seemed to suggest that it was a dimly lit eatery with little cubicles offering enough privacy for couples. And it wasn’t too far from his apartment either if the night went well.
‘Drats!’ he exclaimed loudly, as his fingers met the cold steel cover of the flash drive in his pocket. His mouth suddenly felt parched, and despite the cold breeze, he could feel sweaty patches start to form under his shirt. In his eagerness to be on time for his date today, he had committed a cardinal sin. The high-security flash drive in his jacket contained extremely confidential data and plans. Ones that could not just jeopardise his career or life, but the security of the very nation he served. And he’d forgotten to hand it back to his boss before leaving.
He quickly pulled out his phone from another pocket. He’d call Gary, and tell him about his mistake. His boss would understand; after all, he had been Gary’s go-to person for a number of years now. As he started to dial the code that would put him on a secured line, he cursed again. His phone had lost network connectivity.
‘Oh, well. It’ll have to wait. I’m late.’ he said, opening up the offline map feature. Fortunately, he had pinned the location earlier and the indicator on the map had directions to the restaurant.
“Due to unavoidable circumstances, pending inquiry from the Ministry of Food and Hygiene, we regret to announce that Ristorante De Palazzo will remain closed until further notice.”
Bob frowned as he re-read the dilapidated sign that hung in front of the restaurant. It appeared to have been shut for a while. Perhaps even a few years. The walls had started to crumble and the glass door was shattered. He moved a bit closer to the sign announcing the closure, scanning through the yellowing piece of paper once again until he found what he was looking for. It was dated two years ago.
A wry smile formed on his lips as it dawned on him. He had been played. He’d read in the papers about the rising number of cases where seemingly innocent dates soon took a nightmarish turn where the victim was either mugged or kidnapped for ransom. According to the report, an alarming 96% of these cases were ones where the victim had been lured on the pretext of a date or sex and then attacked by groups of thugs. He remembered chuckling about the stupidity of the victim for having fallen prey to this age-old, almost textbook, ploy.
‘Not so funny now, is it Bob?’ He heard a tiny voice inside him say, as he looked around for signs of unusual activity. The rain had started to beat down mercilessly upon the heart of the city, and the strong gusts of wind that accompanied it repeatedly threatened to blow his umbrella away. To make matters worse, he was at the end of a long, dark curved alleyway, the only light being the weak yellow beam of an old lamppost at the entrance a few hundred yards away.
Bob heard the voices before he saw their shadows appear on the wet stone wall diagonally opposite him. Desperately, he looked around trying to find a place to hide. But no matter where he looked, he only found stone. Glistening wet cobbled stone. He heard their voices getting closer now. If it wasn’t for the pelting rain, he was certain that they could have heard the loud thumping of his restless heart from miles away.
The first thing that caught his eye was the broken door to the restaurant. Although the glass was shattered, it didn’t offer a big enough gap for a person of his size to pass through without the jagged edges of the broken glass causing some serious bodily harm. And who knew what had made the restaurant its home in the years it had been shut. Spiders, perhaps. He shuddered at the thought of entering the abandoned restaurant whose walls were perhaps adorned with cobwebs of a million spiders. He shook his head trying to shut out the vivid imagery of a giant hairy spider slowly crawling over his body that was entangled in an intricate cocoon made of a material so strong that he couldn’t break free.
He looked around once again trying to find a dark spot suitable enough to cover his large body. He spotted a large dumpster in one of the poorly lit corners, diagonally opposite to the restaurant. He huffed his way as quickly as his short legs would let him and slowly opened the lid, half expecting something to jump out at him. The only thing that hit him was an overpowering rotten stench. He couldn’t be sure but it smelt like some kind of meat gone bad. As he contemplated getting into the dumpster to hide, he noticed what he had missed all this while.
In the far extreme corner, right next to the large stone wall that sealed the end of the alley, on the same row as the restaurant, was a narrow but deep recession. It was as if a part of the wall had been carefully carved out and replaced. With what looked like a black London phone booth.
Bob held his breath as he heard the thugs move about, dangerously close to the dumpster but unaware of this inconspicuous telephone booth that he had somehow fit his body into. The rain had dropped to a drizzle now – polite and hesitant, though engulfing everything in a gentle mist of water. As he hunched on the floor of the phone booth, his curiosity was piqued by the fact that these people weren’t looking for him. In fact, they seemed to be unaware of his presence. As he peeked through a hole in the door of the phone booth, he saw two men, behemoths by any definition of the word, drag something large across the wet, muddy and bumpy road towards the dumpster.
There was momentary silence, disturbed only by the gentle strumming of the raindrops as they fell from the sky to join the rest. And then he heard it. It sounded like a muffle at first, and Bob’s immediate reaction was to huddle lower, away from sight. However it seemed to be coming away from him, and closer to the dumpster. He took a peek again. The bag was moving. In fact, it seemed to be rising off the ground. Suddenly, it dawned on him. It wasn’t a bag; it was a woman.
A low but shrill scream reverberated through the alleyway as the woman broke free of her gag. There was a swooshing sound as one of the thugs brought down a large steel pipe on her, and then the sickening crunch as it made contact with her skull. A tiny squeal followed, and then, silence once again. He struggled to fight back the bile that had suddenly filled up his mouth. He watched quietly as the men picked up the woman and tossed her body into the dumpster, where it landed with a muffled thud.
Bob held his breath once again, as the men started to walk away, the sound of their boots becoming less noisy with every stride. They’d disappeared as suddenly as they’d appeared. As Bob started to breathe a little easier, there was a loud ring.
He quickly fished out his phone, determined to put it on silent before someone else heard it. The ‘no coverage’ message still flashed on his screen, but the ringing continued. And that’s when he realised the sound was coming from the phone in the booth.
His voice broke as he answered the phone, the knuckles of his hand turning white from clutching the receiver too tight.
“Is that Robert? Robert Heckleman?”
The voice on the other end of the line seemed desperate, yet a sense of hopefulness prevailed in the tone with which she spoke. It helped Bob relax.
“Yes. Who is this?”
“Oh, thank god! Robert, it’s me Becky. Oh, god! I’m so glad that you answered the phone.”
“Becky? Do I know you?”
“Oh, sorry! It’s Rebecca. Rebeca Craye. We were meant to meet tonight. But….”
Her voice trailed off, dead air slowly taking over their conversation. He cleared his throat as if to indicate that he was still on the line.
“I’m sorry, Robert. It’s my fault. I had been to this restaurant once a few years back and had loved the food and ambiance. I thought it would be nice to go there again, which is why I suggested the place. I didn’t realise the place had shut down until just before our date. I tried calling you on your mobile, but the line wouldn’t connect.”
“How did you know I’ll be here?”
His voice climbed an octave or two. Something didn’t add up, and his mind had gone into overdrive trying to catch her lying. Inadvertently, he patted his breast pocket again. The flash drive was still there.
There were a few seconds of silence as she seemed to contemplate a response. A shy giggle followed quickly.
“I didn’t, actually. I remembered that there was a phone booth near the restaurant. I had to dig a little, but I found the number. I wasn’t sure if it was still working though. Apparently, it still does.”
Her voice flew freely now, taking on a slightly mellifluous tone.
“And if I’m honest, I was really looking forward to meeting you today. It’s been a while since . …. “
Bob remained silent, his brain processing the new bits of information that she had offered. He’d read about it in books, but had never ever thought it possible. The lengths that someone would go to, in order to meet a potential partner. Heck, most times, his dates never even turned up. This, well, this was a different experience. And truth be told, he quite enjoyed being the pursued.
“Do you think we could meet?” she continued.
“Where?” His response was curt.
“I know it sounds a little forward, especially for a first date, but maybe somewhere a little private. Perhaps, at your place? I promise, I don’t bite. Unless you want me to.”
She giggled, as she added the last part as an afterthought.
A lone tear escaped his eye, as he lay on his bed staring at the luminescent star shapes on the ceiling. The evening had gone better than he could have ever imagined. It hadn’t even felt like they were strangers, meeting for the first time under rather different circumstances. Conversation flowed easily and so did the wine. And before he knew it, they were in bed.
He was vaguely conscious of his nakedness. But for the first time in his life, he didn’t care about it. Because he was more aware of her touch. He felt the electricity in his skin as she carefully navigated the contours of his body. He even felt the hormones shut down the parts of his brain, the very ones that had assessed that this was so unlike his usual self. He could still taste the mellow sweetness of the wine she had consumed before their tongues entwined in a kiss. He felt her skin against his, both moving softly together, like the finest of silk. He felt the rise of his animal self. It was as if a switch had been flicked, and he had lost all inhibitions.
He loved that she had taken charge. He loved her dominance, as he felt her guide him in gently, and their bodies moved together like partners in a dance written just for them. Despite all that had transpired earlier, this was the happiest day of his otherwise sad existence.
His eyes still shut, Bob extended his arm towards the bedside table to turn off his alarm. He then spun around, reached over to his right and slowly pulled at the duvet. He grimaced as his hand hit the cold sheet.
‘Where is she?’ he wondered. Where was the woman who had finally accepted him as he was? His lips widened into a silly lopsided grin, showcasing a dimple that was otherwise lost in the folds of his chubby cheeks, as he thought about her. Warm sunlight streamed in through the parted curtains and he suddenly felt a little hot. But most of all, he felt intoxicated. He’d heard the term drunk in love used many times before. Finally, he had experienced it.
‘Rebecca?’ he called out loud, sitting up on the bed. He pushed off the rest of the duvet and stood up, oblivious of his nakedness. He looked around and smiled as he spotted his boxers carelessly strewn over a chair. But there was no sign of her. Or her clothes.
‘Where on earth is she?’ he wondered as he wrapped his robe around him. He could start to feel his brain going into overdrive once again, calculating all the possibilities. Perhaps he had been awful in bed and she didn’t want to see him anymore. Maybe he’d done something the wrong way and didn’t realise it. And then it suddenly hit him. What if all of this had been part of a setup? Where was his jacket? What if all of this had been part of an elaborate plan to steal the flash drive from him?
He had to admit. It sounded pretty audacious. Even to him. But, what if it was the truth?
He rushed to the living room and breathed relieved when he spotted his jacket on the coat stand behind the door. As he started to reach into the pocket, he heard his mobile buzz again. He retrieved the phone and scanned the messages. There were a few missed calls from his office and a very curt message from Gary. He knew what it would be even without opening it. He was going to have to cook up some story for taking the flash drive from work. There were two others that caught his attention. The most recent one was from the dating app, requesting feedback about the date. The other just showed an unknown sender.
‘Hi Robert, This is Rebecca. I’ve just discovered that the restaurant is closed. Let’s meet there anyway and we’ll head somewhere from there! Look forward to meeting you! Becks. Xx’
Curious to find out more, he clicked on the details of the message. It had been sent to him at 5:23 pm yesterday. No wonder he hadn’t seen the message. His phone had lost network coverage around then.
‘But then, why hadn’t she been there?’ he wondered, his brain starting to feel like he was solving a crossword puzzle. ‘You’re overanalysing again!’ admonished his inner voice. Bob briefly thought about calling the number she had texted him from. He frowned when he realised that he couldn’t. The message had been sent via the dating app and it refused to display the number.
He cursed loudly as he glanced at the time. He needed to get a move on. Trying to divert his mind from her absence, he switched on the TV and tuned it to his favourite news channel. A large headline in bold talked about an impending investigation of a major political figure on the other side of the Atlantic. The entire political scene there had become a joke.
A smaller newsticker caught his attention. His mouth felt like sawdust as he read the information. It was about a murder that had occurred in an alley around the corner of Friary Street the previous. He felt his chest constrict and the breathing be more difficult as he continued to read. Despite the rain, the cops had found some fingerprints and shoe marks near the dumpster and forensics were investigating the area.
Panic started to set in as Bob thought about his fingerprints on the receiver in the phone booth. He was having trouble breathing now, as he realised the implication of his presence at the scene of the murder. As the news anchor started to talk about the investigation, he remembered about the flash drive. He needed to make sure it was still there. Oh god! What if he’d dropped it in the phone booth when he had contorted himself into those weird positions to hide. He definitely remembered taking off the coat before hiding.
Panting and wheezing, he ran towards the coat hanger again and put his hand into the inner pocket. He fished around, searching every nook and corner of the pocket for the tiny drive. But no luck. The flash drive was missing.
He tried to take a deep breath to calm himself. In the background, he heard the news anchor announce a piece of breaking news.
‘This just in. The police have confirmed the identity of the murdered victim. It’s a Ms. Rebecca Craye from Croydon.’
Bob stared in shock as the picture of the woman he had slept with flashed on the TV screen.