The Kills by Richard House – Extract

The Kills

SUTLER

AMRAH CITY

1.1

John Jacob Ford’s morning began at 3:03 with a call from Paul Geezler, Advisor to the Division Chief, Europe, for HOSCO International.

Listen. There’s a problem and it can’t be solved. You need to disap­pear.

Five hours before Geezler’s phone call, Kiprowski came to Ford’s cabin and presented him with a Mason jar. Stopped at his door, Ford lis­tened without much interest – until Kiprowski tilted the jar and what Ford had taken to be a nest of beetles unsnagged one from another, and he could see without trouble that these were scorpions, some ruddy-black, some amber, some semi-translucent. Most, except one, with bodies smaller than a quarter. The largest scorpion, black, brittle, almost engineered, took up the entire width of the container from claw-tip to tail.

Unwilling to touch the jar, Ford managed not to recoil. He asked Kiprowski what he wanted and Kiprowski said he didn’t rightly know. He’d found them under a tarpaulin close to Burn Pit 5, and while they were dead he didn’t trust the other men not to use them for some kind of a joke, Pakosta especially, and he didn’t want them winding up in food, in cots, on seats, in pockets – and besides, he said, I thought you’d be interested. They look like toys, he said. Like clockwork toys. And they light up under blacklight. They fluoresce, honest to god. They glow.

Throughout the conversation Kiprowski called Ford Sutler, a name still fresh to Ford’s ears. Strictly speaking Sutler didn’t exist. Stephen Lawrence Sutler, the name Ford assumed on his arrival at Camp Liberty, was an alias, an invention set up by his employer, Paul Geezler, to satisfy company policy. New contracts require new contractors. Ford understood Sutler to be a useful conceit for Geezler, certainly some­thing more valuable than a quick-fix solution to a sticky contractual arrangement. More useful and more complex than he wanted to know. On occasion Geezler asked for favours, ideas on this and that, news on what was happening at the burn pits or at the government offices.

His six weeks as Sutler were not without interest. While Sutler and Ford were one and the same person, he’d noticed a growing number of differences, most of them small. Sutler, for example, spoke his mind and honoured his word. Ford dissembled, avoided stating definite opinions. Sutler applied himself to his work. Ford just couldn’t focus. Sutler endured practical jokes, and given Kiprowski’s gift, appeared considerably less queasy about handling venomous insects. Ford was familiar with many small disappointments and failures, but Sutler had no such history and as a consequence felt competent and free.

Ford took the jar into his cabin but couldn’t bring himself to throw the contents out, and set it on the floor, far from the bed, shrouded with a T-shirt with a hardback book on top, although he knew the lid to be secure and the scorpions to be dead.

For an hour after Geezler’s call Ford sat on his cot while time slipped from him, head in hands as he attempted to reason through Geezler’s message.

Listen to me. There’s a problem and it can’t be solved. You need to dis­appear. Tomorrow, go to the regional government office as planned and submit the transfer requests as if everything is normal. I’ve set up four new operation accounts, and opened a junk account. Give the transfer requests and the account numbers for all of the accounts to Howell. Make sure he attaches the four operation accounts to the Massive, and make sure he completes all of the transactions by midday. Then leave. The money in the junk account is yours. Once it’s transferred no one but you can touch it. Do not inform Howell about your plans. Do not stay at Southern-CIPA. Do not return to Camp Liberty. If you return you will be arrested. Do not pack your belongings, you are being watched. Make no attempt to contact me. Disappear. Avoid military transport and per­sonnel. The warrant will be issued for you and Howell at noon: I can’t guarantee more time. You have nine hours.

Geezler read the numbers out twice, and Ford scribbled them on a sheet of paper rested on his knee: each number eight digits long, four prefaced with HOS/OA, one with HOS/JA. Geezler had him repeat the numbers back to him.

Under these instructions lay an understanding that Ford would follow precisely what was asked of him. This was their agreement. Geezler guaranteed employment under two qualifications, you go as Sutler; you leave when I say, and the money, a tidy two hundred thousand, was good enough for him to agree to these terms without question. The warning of arrest alarmed him, although the possibility had occurred to him many times. Geezler’s instructions were clear. Proceed as normal. Leave by midday. Tell no one. Make no contact. Go.

Ford kept his passport and credit cards (all under his own name) safe in a plastic bag in a slit cut into his mattress. He ran through the possibilities. He could do exactly as Geezler advised, meet with Howell then manufacture an excuse to leave before midday – or, simpler still, leave immediately, take one of the vehicles, fuel up, drive and not stop.

A series of scratches brought his attention back to the room. Tiny and complex, and without any particular location.

As soon as he lifted the T-shirt he could see movement inside the container as one by one the smaller ginger scorpions appeared to revive. With a certain horror he raised the glass to the light and noticed how the smaller scorpions struggled to burrow and hide under the larger bodies, and this seemed strange to him, how something natu­rally armoured would seek the security of cover.

Listen. There’s a problem and it can’t be solved. You need to disap­pear. You have nine hours.

1.2

20:30 at the regional government offices at Amrah City, the Deputy Administrator for Project Finance at Southern-CIPA, Paul Howell, walked through Accounts and told the last late workers to leave. Howell stood at the centre of the office and pointed at the computer screens and said there’s a deep-clean scheduled for tonight. Log out, and unplug the terminals. I know, he said, I know. I just heard myself. Tomorrow we’ll have an updated system, maybe even something that works. Tomorrow, when you come in, you’ll need to change your password.

Howell considered himself a smart and logical man, and he under­stood that if any of the officers paused to think through the situation it wouldn’t make sense. So he stood in the office, chivvied them along, and waited until the last of them were gone. This gesture would cause fresh trouble: a delay in payments to utility workers, a delay in pay­ments to the Oil Ministry, a delay in reports to Baghdad. But in one day, he could be certain, none of this would be his problem.

He sent his officers back to their quarters, knowing there were no bars or facilities within the compound, no place to relax, and that a night off work meant a night without air-con and a night without com­puters. While most worked late through necessity, others stayed by choice to contact their families back in the US.

Alone, Howell returned to his desk. He shut the blinds, he took out a bottle of malt and poured himself a generous measure. He settled behind his desk, drew a note from his pocket, placed it beside the phone and considered his options – he could shoot himself, he could attempt to disappear, he could destroy the records, he could burn down the office – but knew, in seriousness, that he didn’t have that kind of character or commitment. Instead, he waited until the time written down on the paper, then called Paul Geezler, Advisor to the Division Chief, Europe, for HOSCO International.

‘I have your note.’ Howell spoke softly, as if this were an ordinary discussion. ‘There are rumours about who might be the new director. I’ve heard that David is interested?’

‘We need someone in post. He’s preparing his bid.’

‘You’d move with him?’

‘I haven’t decided.’

‘Everyone knows he depends on you.’

‘I haven’t decided.’ Geezler drew in a long breath. ‘We need to speak frankly, Paul. About the border highway. About the transfers. I found the requests – and I wouldn’t have questioned them – but the money never arrived. Out of interest, Paul, why Al-Muthanna?’

‘Because it’s desert. Because no one goes there. There was a one­time project when I arrived, building roads. The project finished two years ago. Right now it looks active, but it’s only live on paper.’

Geezler cleared his throat. ‘Just out of interest, how close was my estimate?’

‘A little low. It’s closer to five, five and a half.’

‘All from the same accounts?’

‘About eighty-five, ninety per cent.’

‘And all of it money allocated for HOSCO projects?’

Howell said yes, if anyone was going to build highways through a stretch of desert, it would be HOSCO. ‘We had money ready for dis­bursement to HOSCO accounts sitting without movement. The figures were small in proportion to the overall budget.’ These reasons, he knew, came only after the fact. He hadn’t deliberately meant to take money, not at first. What started as a modest one-off loan to cover a shortfall quickly became a habit, and once he figured out a ruse, build­ing roads through deserts no one would use, he saw no reason to stop himself. Every day he handed backpacks, suitcases, briefcases, even brown-paper bags packed with cash to ministers, contractors, and project organizers, all of it a legitimate part of his work. Losing a little, allowing a little backward flow to smooth the edge off his own discom­fort, seemed natural, easily within bounds.

‘How much of this is refundable?’

‘None. How did you find out?’

‘The transfer requests. Eventually, they’re all tracked. There was movement where there shouldn’t be movement. Road building is smart. I looked right at it and thought it was ours.’

‘How did you know it was me?’

‘This could only come from a government office. Only you can authorize transfers over ten. Only you can attach accounts to projects.’

Howell pushed the note away. ‘You should know, I can’t pay it back.’

Geezler allowed a long pause. ‘I’m not looking for you to pay any­thing back, Paul.’ Sounding weary, Geezler said he needed time to think. He’d call back in twenty minutes and make only one offer. Did Howell understand?

Howell said he understood.

‘This isn’t a negotiation, Paul.’

Twenty minutes later, Paul Geezler called back. In the interim, Howell had attempted to total his spending, but overshot Geezler’s estimate and came up with a new and larger figure. He apologized for taking up Geezler’s time.

‘I’m interested in the Massive, Paul.’

‘What do you need to know?’

‘I take it the funds are still in place?’

‘Something in the region of fifty-plus – but it’s barely started. The money hasn’t been transferred. The project hasn’t moved beyond paper yet. Nothing has been spent. I’m seeing the budget holder in the morning.’

‘Stephen Sutler.’

‘That’s right. You know him?’

Once again Geezler cleared his throat. ‘Paul,’ he said, ‘have you heard the story about the gorilla and the basketball game?’

Howell said he hadn’t.

‘It’s all about a simple bluff. It’s from a test. A number of subjects are taken to a basketball game and asked to count the passes. An incentive is offered to sweeten the activity and make it competitive. Halfway through the game a man in a gorilla suit walks onto the court. There’s no explanation for this. He stops right in the middle of the court with the game going on around him, beats his chest, then he walks off. None of the players, none of the commentators, nobody in fact gives the gorilla any attention. Do you know how many of the people counting passes notice him?’

‘I can’t imagine.’

‘Less than fifty per cent, Paul. Less than fifty. And do you know how many people raise this in a discussion after the game? How many ask about the gorilla once everything’s settled?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘No one. Not one. Because they’re too busy trying to get something right. They’re anxious, Paul, they want to know if they’ve done every­thing they were supposed to. Because, if they can help it, nobody likes to get anything wrong.’

Howell struggled to see how the story applied to him.

‘We need to perform something a little different. We don’t want the auditors counting passes, we want them to look out for the gorilla. It’s very simple. If they look for one thing, if they focus on one task, they won’t see what matters. They won’t see things right. You understand?’ Geezler cleared his throat as he came to the point. ‘Does anyone else know about the highways?’

‘No.’

‘That’s how we’re going to keep it. Everyone is going to be looking for missing money, but no one is going to be looking at those high­ways. There’s no reason to. Now, Paul, I want you to do something very straightforward. Can you change the codes on those transfers you made? Can you make them look like cash payments?’

‘I’m not following you?’

‘Change your transfers to cash withdrawals against the Massive. Change the codes. Make it look like you supplied Sutler with cash. Can you do that?’

‘It’s possible, but why that account? This project has a high profile.’

‘Monkey, Paul. Think monkey. Change the codes, those codes are yours, no one else will notice. That’s the first step. Second and this is important I want you to erase all of the personnel information you have on Stephen Sutler, anything non-financial, anything extra­curricular, private emails, anything like that, and when he comes in tomorrow, I want you to follow his instructions and divide the funds marked for his project into four new operational accounts. Sutler has the details for the new accounts. He has it all worked out. Do exactly what he asks. Make those transfers, and make sure the full amount assigned to HOSCO for the Massive leaves your holdings. Divide it however he tells you into the four new accounts: one, two, three, four. Load them up. In addition, he has a secured junk account, and I want you to attach that junk account to your dummy highway project. Fatten it up with two-fifty, let him see the amount. Show him the trans­fer. That’s five accounts, Paul. Four accounts attached to Stephen Sutler, and one to the highways. I want all five of them loaded. Do you understand me?’

Howell said he understood.

‘Attach Sutler’s junk account to the Saudi border project. Keep it buried. I don’t want it found. If you have to route it through other accounts then go ahead and do that. Don’t keep any record of these new accounts yourself. You understand? It’s important they can’t be found. Once this is done, after Sutler has gone, Central-CIPA will catch any irregularities with HOSCO’s holdings regarding the Massive. Leave everything to Baghdad.’

Howell said he didn’t understand.

‘It’s simple. All you have to do is delete Sutler’s records. Delete all of the information you have about him, and transfer the money into the new accounts. Tomorrow morning, when Sutler makes his visit, you’ll do exactly what he asks, which includes making a deposit to a junk account for his personal use. Hide that account with your road­way project. Once you’re done just let him leave.’

‘But I handle funding and disbursement, they’ll know I’ve had a hand in this. Sutler will tell them he has nothing to do with it.’

‘Paul.’ Geezler spoke carefully. ‘To my knowledge you’ve helped yourself to four hundred and fifty thousand dollars of HOSCO’s money. You’ve spent this on your family, on visits and vacations you did not need – and you tell me the money is gone. I also understand you have a considerable stockpile of equipment at Camp Liberty, which includes military vehicles and hardware. Whichever way you look at this your work with Southern-CIPA is over. Now, you can try to fix this by yourself, I don’t mind, it’s up to you. You can continue to move money from one place to another until someone else finds out what you’re doing. You can keep on going as you are, Paul, and dig yourself a little deeper. You can hope that no one else is going to check those fraudulent transfer requests or the empty accounts – or – you can let me help you. I’m not saying this won’t be painful, but I can offer you a respectable exit. I guarantee. No prosecution. You keep what you’ve taken, no one will be looking for it, and if everything goes well, you’ll see a future in the civil sector, which will keep you as comfortable as you could hope to be. That’s my offer. A solution. If you do exactly what I’ve asked, everyone will be looking for Sutler. You understand? Sutler. And Sutler is going to disappear and no one will find him. Sutler is the monkey in this scenario, Paul. So you need to think carefully about how you’re going to manage this. Like I told you, this isn’t a negotia­tion. But I can promise that nobody will see the game while they’re looking for Sutler.’

‘Does David know about this?’

‘Paul, we aren’t discussing what the division chief does and does not know. We’re discussing the decisions you need to make.’

Howell worked through the night, certain that Geezler was turning this to his advantage, although he couldn’t see how. For three hours he sought out and shredded documents and deleted files and correspon­dence from his computer. He drank while he worked, sensing the night about him and the limits of the compound. No stranger to revising the past, he collated HOSCO employment files, design-build bid sheets and qualfication statements, site-reports, and requisition sheets – every scrap relating to Sutler – and document by document he removed the staples, separated the pages, and fed them into the machine. The way the paper jerked into the wheels, the way the information could still be read along the cuts, until the strips started to curl, held his attention. The paper would need to be burned. There were people, in archives, in Europe, who spent their days reconstructing shredded doc­uments, undertaking a tedious archaeology of a culture, reconstituting petty deeds and business piece by piece. Everything here would be sent to the burn pits. Everything here would become smoke and ash.

Done, he called Paul Geezler. ‘He’s gone. Sutler doesn’t exist.’

Geezler’s voice sounded ghost-like, distant. ‘Did you change the codes?’

‘I have.’

‘Is there money for him?’

‘I’ll do that tomorrow.’

‘Make sure it happens.’

‘And you trust him?’

‘He carries no risk. Even if he’s caught.’

Howell emptied the waste into a sack marked ‘confidential: secure/ burn’. Tied the neck and took the sack to the outer office where it sat with other such sacks. All quiet, unusually so; he walked about the office with a kind of envy rising in him. Tomorrow, at midday, Sutler would walk out of the office and evaporate. It wasn’t often a man could make a clean start. Shortly after, Central-CIPA would raise the alarm about the misappropriated funds, and Howell would step back and watch everything unfurl. The next four weeks would be difficult. He would be suspended, without doubt, moved sideways, while every expenditure the authority had authorized would be inspected – but he wouldn’t have to pay back the money.

1.3

The first convoy arrived pre-dawn. A gut-rumble of thirteen trucks packed, brimful, with nine to eleven tons of industrial, medical, and military waste, alongside two supply trucks with food and equipment. The ruckus stirred Ford into action. Inside this early chaos he could distinguish the sing-song voices of the men, the hiss, crank, and slam of gears, of brakes and cab doors. The desert busy with industry as the trucks were dispersed to the burn pits: black rectangular craters into which the waste would be dumped and incinerated. The hot stink of aircraft fuel and scorched rubber overpowered the air and mingled with a deeper faecal stench. No more than four of the five pits burned at the same time, each sending up a roiling column, red at the base and bright with sparks, black fat-thighed legs stomping through a colourless sky. The smoke leaned first then flattened out as an alter­nate horizon, a skirt-line haze. Everything depended on the wind: the pits being set two to the west, three to the south-west, and two east of the living quarters, nothing more than a straight row of Portakabins that faced the machine shop, a grey-barrelled Quonset hut.

Ford had followed Paul Geezler’s advice and packed only two changes of clothes and what money he had into a black backpack. He changed his shoes for boots and left his room with laundry strewn over a chair, with three books and bottled water beside the bed, his papers and drafting equipment on a small table with rulers, pens, protractor, a long roll of paper, a manual of instructions from HOSCO – and on the floor a stack of toilet rolls and the sealed jar of scorpions. He began to consider excuses, reasons to leave: trouble at home, bad news, a fail­ing relative or business, but none seemed credible as everything about Ford spelled out his solitary nature. Ready at the door he watched Gunnersen and Kiprowski unload the two HOSCO supply trucks, which needed to be emptied before the sun hit the wagons and the containers became too hot to work inside. Gunnersen hauled packs of canned and boxed supplies to the tailgate then tossed them down to Kiprowski, his gestures glib and swift however heavy the package. He called out the items as he threw them, wiped his brow, and instructed Kiprowski on where they should go. Samuels, Clark, Pakosta, and Spider still worked the pits, and the trucks returned one at a time, motors droning as they climbed the hill.

Ford decided on Kiprowski as his escort to Southern-CIPA, this being necessary business and Kiprowski being the only man he could trust.

The sun hit at an angle, pink on the huts and the side of the truck, already severe, hot enough to sear, and not yet midsummer. With the vehicles unloaded the men returned from the pits. Clark ran ahead, shrieking with a hoarse cat-call, naked except for his boots, and shot into the sunlight, his thighs and backside covered with HOSCO stickers (Manufactured in Virginia with Pride). The men whooped and hollered as Clark, white and skinny with red hair, red arms and a red neck, ran in breakneck circles, kicked back dust, and punched his fists into the air.

With Kiprowski in the seat beside him, Clark and Pakosta in the bucket seats ahead, Ford worked hard to keep his thoughts ordered, but understood nothing more about why he needed to leave Camp Liberty than when Geezler had made the call – and suffered four long hours of if s and whats and counting down. The promise from Geezler of two hundred thousand, in sterling, seemed unimaginable. Two hundred thousand: enough to climb out of any trouble, enough to pay off a few debts, and then some, just as long as he did exactly what was asked. With this money Ford would settle his conscience and start over. He knew Geezler well, and trusted that some kind of clarity would come as soon as he arrived at the Regional Government Offices: Finance Division, Southern-CIPA. The craft rode up, steep and unsteady, broke through the grey smokeline and levelled out above the haze. Beneath him lay a last glimpse of the burn pits, five hard black oblongs with a sooty trails dusting the desert, the cabins and Quonset already lost to view.

He saw no chance of escape. As they approached Amrah City the craft dropped in stuttered steps to avoid attack – a message came to Ford via the pilot: business at Southern-CIPA would need to be brief. Howell had other appointments. He had time to make the transfers, just about, but any discussion of the project, that over-view he’d asked for, wasn’t going to happen today. Kiprowski and Pakosta bickered over a small backpack, some fresh awkwardness breaking between them. He regretted his decision to allow Pakosta and Clark along. He also regretted his decision that they should wear the uniforms Howell had provided. On landing, Kiprowski became so restless that Ford began to wonder if he was somehow involved.

The offices for Southern-CIPA sat in the grounds of a former school in the centre of Amrah City. A perimeter fence and blast wall followed the rough circumference of the playground and nominally protected the offices from the covered market and a row of businesses – although most were empty, the glass shot out of the fronts, the walls blackened in a recent attack, the owners returned to Kuwait and Saudi, some to Iran. The school itself was long gone, firebombed then blasted with rockets until nothing remained but a level lot. The painted outline for a mini-soccer pitch still visible on the concrete slabs.

HOSCO had provided the buildings, the same prefab units as the cabins at Camp Liberty, dropped onto blocks and welded one to the other. Ford didn’t like to think about the kind of people who would bomb a school. Burn it down then blow it away. The fact that the new regional government sited their offices on the very same spot seemed ironic and prescient. An invitation. A school smell haunted the new offices, a sourness, not quite the end-of-day musk of unfresh bodies, but some reedy tang that stuck with the place. In meetings he felt this odour creep up on him. The longer the meeting, the more he held his breath, the less he talked.

*****

Ford unravelled the plans across the Deputy Administrator’s desk and took care not to displace the many objects or damage the paper – Howell, with his practised mid-Atlantic accent, loved his tat: the glass pen-holder, the fountain pens, the name plate, the weathered base­ball, the photos of his wife, son, and daughter, and more framed on the wall behind the desk (Howell shaking hands with heads of state, Howell beside the few celebrities that paused on their way to Camp Anaconda or from Camp Navistar). Everything set just so. In all of his visits Ford had yet to see the Deputy Administrator sit at the desk. The man liked to pace. He’d heard stories about Howell at Camp Liberty from Pakosta, rumours that didn’t match what he knew.

The maps demonstrated Ford’s craft as a draughtsman and his serious approach to the project. Howell unrolled the sheets one by one, and muttered ‘Ah, our legacy,’ a little sarcastically. ‘The Massive.’

The plans sketched in soft blue pencil, a pleasing exactness to the lines. Layer one: the existing camp with the huts and burn pits. Layer two: the proposed work quarters and fabrication huts. Layer three: the burn pits dug out and in-filled. Layer four: the basic structures for water, power, sewage. Layer five: the airfield expansion. In a series of twelve overlapping sheets a small compound for remote waste dis­posal became the basic structure for a new military base and new city.

Howell, owlish, white hair and wire glasses; cool, disinterested, moved around the table and leafed slowly through the plans despite the earlier warning that he would be busy. He muttered a complaint that Ford should not have allowed his men to wear uniform. ‘Not here,’ he said, ‘they only wear these uniforms when they accompany me. They aren’t legitimate officers.’ Uninterested in a reply, Howell read then raised his hand, indicating that Sutler should wait as he left the office.

Ford waited, first he leaned against the table, then he stood upright with his arms folded. He took in the room. Two iron safes backed against the wall, designed to be built into vaults, they were set instead side by side and took up a quarter of the space. Beside them a row of glass cabinets of sport trophies and more framed photographs. A wall clock mounted opposite the desk. Already eleven o’clock, barely one hour left. He expected Howell to return with the military police. He wondered if they knew his name, and how they might have discovered him. The warrant will be issued at noon.

Ten minutes later, Howell came to the door alone and asked if Ford had set up a junk account. ‘You’ve done this already?’ The man could

not remember. ‘And the other accounts, is everything set up?’

‘Yes,’ Ford appeared surprised.

‘You have the details?’

Ford searched through his documents and found the handwritten list of numbers.

‘Have you spoken with Paul Geezler about the accounts? You know the restrictions on the operation accounts? I can make the trans­fers but anything above over twenty-five is automatically flagged to Central-CIPA. Payments or transfers.’

Ford nodded, although he appeared uncertain.

Howell held out his hand for the list of account numbers and transfer amounts. ‘One moment.’ His mouth tightened in thought. ‘Four operations, one junk. How much did Paul agree for the junk account? Two? Or two-five?’

Howell retreated back through the door saying he would make it two-five. Two, or two-five? All a little freakish to be speaking in single numbers and mean not two dollars, but two hundred thousand dollars; not two dollars and fifty cents, but two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. A tidy two-five. Handsome payment for six weeks’ work.

Ten minutes later, at exactly eleven-fifteen, Howell returned smiling, pleased with himself. ‘I’ve written the default access codes next to the account numbers. Don’t keep the account numbers and the pass codes together. Have you set the security level before? Do you rotate your pass codes?’

Ford said he didn’t understand, and Howell winced.

‘Unless you set the security your accounts will be vulnerable. This is all the information you need to access them, unless you set an addi­tional line of security.’

Ford thought there was some mischief in Howell’s tone. He looked blankly at the numbers. Howell drew his laptop round to show him, and asked Ford to open the HOSCO website and sign in. ‘To stop anyone else from gaining access you need to set the security to an appropriate level.’

Ford opened the site, checked into Finance. Howell pointed at the screen.

‘Click there – Privacy. Enter. Type in the number that starts HOS/JA.

That’s your junk account. There at the top. Click Hide. Only you can see the account now. Click there for security.’

The screen turned black, then the account number reappeared, and then the balance.

‘See. In a minute that zero will change.’ They watched the screen, but the figure didn’t change. ‘Give it a moment.’

Howell checked the account number against Ford’s note. ‘While we’re waiting you can set the security level. You can set up to eight sets of codes to access the account, anything between four and twelve characters.’ Howell straightened up. ‘I’ll leave you to it. If you take too long it will lock you out.’

Ford stared at the screen. Kiprowski waited behind him, and he sensed a hostility toward Howell. At the bottom of the screen a clock ticked down from ninety. Anxious to complete this, Ford set the secur­ity at level four, which opened four screens, demanding one new code per screen. Struggling for an idea, Ford used the numbers for the new operational accounts.

Once the codes were entered the screen again turned black, and Ford closed the laptop.

While he waited for Howell, he began to wonder if the money was transferred. If Geezler was as good as his word. He opened the computer again, entered Finance, and checked the Accounts tab. He clicked on the junk account and the first screen appeared. 1 of 4. When he mistyped the site immediately shut down and the screen went blank.

Nervous now, he went to try again, but Howell returned.

‘Did you manage?’ Howell looked at the laptop screen. ‘What are you doing?’

‘I set the security level. I typed in a wrong number.’

‘How many times?’

‘Just the once.’

‘You only have three attempts before it locks you out.’ Howell straightened up. ‘They used to call these hostage accounts. They’re designed to be secure. If it locks you out you won’t have access. The transfer’s been made, so the money will show in the account soon. It’s supposed to be instant, but the connections aren’t as fast as we’d like – like everything else around here.’

Howell again excused himself and Ford shut the computer down, then folded the paper back into his pocket, aware that if he was going to leave the opportunity was right before him. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars came close to the fee that Geezler had promised. Dollars not sterling, but close enough to be good enough. He began to sense a design behind Geezler’s call, a design which looked to his best interests.

With no sign of Howell returning, Ford turned to Kiprowski and noticed that the boy was sweating, looked ill-at-ease, unwell, his hand to his stomach. Every occupant of Camp Liberty succumbed at some point to flu-like symptoms, chills and shivers and night-sweats, a stomach that cramped and couldn’t hold water. Each one of them suffered skin irritations and nose bleeds. Ford blamed the fumes from the burn pits. The men blamed toxic agents, biochemical compounds. He told Kiprowski to sit down, but the boy signalled that he wanted to remain standing, he just needed a moment.

The boy’s anxiety increased his own. Still, Howell did not return. Would they arrest him now? Was this all some elaborate delay? Howell appeared to have no awareness of the impending arrest.

Kiprowski leaned back against the second safe and clutched a kitbag to his stomach, his face white and damp.

Ford hooked his backpack over his shoulder – there would be no better opportunity – and walked to the door. A corridor cut between the offices, at one end a wall, at the other an emergency exit. He thought to say something to Kiprowski, but found himself walking before he’d properly considered what to do, knowing that if he used the door an alarm would sound. The pressure of time, a desire to be out, gone from Southern-CIPA, away from smarmy Howell, the baby-sick stink of the offices, from Kiprowski’s sweating – everything compounded the fact that he was running out of time. Thirty minutes, less perhaps, now twenty-eight minutes: no time at all. Almost at the door, ready to push the bar, he turned to see Kiprowski running toward him full-pelt, arms beginning to rise to shield his head. And then chaos.

The blast came as a pulse, a punch that knocked Ford off his feet and battered him through the door, throwing him out so fast that he did not know what this was: inside and upright one moment, and in another rolled and shoved, flung pell-mell – the air about him a soup, a welter of heat, of collapsing walls, of plasterboard and ceiling tiles, of powdered glass. The atmosphere, even as it blackened, sparked about him.

He landed on his back, his boots stripped from his feet, his hands and face bloody, his ears raw with shrieks, his body numb, clothes ripped and pecked. With chaos descending he scrambled out of the smoke, deaf to the rapid crack of gunfire.

Listen. There’s a problem and it can’t be solved.

Visit thekills.co.uk for the multimedia content of The Kills

Excerpted from The Kills by Richard House. Copyright © 2013 by Richard House. First published by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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