Author: Chris Cook
Smooth out today's schedule. Call developers. Make changes to applets. Tote that barge. Lift that bale. Is that the saying? How do you tote a barge, anyway?
Danielle Rosenberg slumped at her desk, tapping a few keys to look busy, while in fact she ignored the windows that popped up and down on her screen. This morning, planning ahead while she brushed her teeth, she had hoped to finish off a troublesome memory allocation bug, but that seemed unlikely. Everything up until midday had been wasted implementing a new feature in a personnel monitoring system that even Danielle, junior as she was in the hierarchy of office management, could see would be absolutely useless once it was up and running. But the client had insisted, and like the proverbial sheep, Danielle grimaced, her boss had agreed and passed the job along.
Danielle mentally crossed off the idea of taking a take-away lunch to the park and reading a book. At this rate, she would be lucky to snatch fifteen minutes before she had to be back for the first afternoon meeting - fifteen minutes in which she would no doubt be graced by Anya's company. Her co-worker seemed oblivious to how little return she got for the ceaseless torrent of opinion and complaint she let wash over Danielle, under the guise of conversation, whenever they shared lunch.
I could pretend I have a cold. A very contagious cold. Flu. Mad cow disease. Scratch that, if she hasn't already got that nobody has.
Danielle felt vaguely guilty about such an uncharitable thought, and threw herself back into her mildly profitable but ultimately purposeless work to keep herself from dwelling on the social shortcomings of, more or less, God help me, her only friend.
One hundred days until the armada.
"Spare a bob, luv?"
Danielle tossed a coin, still in her hand from the change the cashier had given her at the take-away Thai place a block down from the building where she worked. Anya shot a disapproving glance at Danielle as the homeless man caught the coin with a muttered thanks, and ambled off in the other direction.
"You shouldn't encourage them," she said flatly.
"It was fifty p, I won't miss it," Danielle shrugged.
"You know some of them are muggers," Anya persisted, falling into step beside her. "If you walk on by they'll ignore you and wait for someone else. Give them something and they'll follow you and get your purse - if you're lucky, just your purse. I read about it."
"This is a main street in broad daylight, Anya," Danielle replied, turning up the corner of her plastic food container and sniffing at the contents, getting a mildly pleasing whiff of No. 23 With Vegetables. "And I'm not about to turn down some deserted alley."
"Bus fare?" someone asked from where they were huddled against a column in the building's facade.
"Not today," Anya replied smoothly, almost as if she hadn't had to actually engage her brain to say it.
"Mind Jack," the someone muttered, looking away.
"'Bus fare' will just turn out to be a bottle," Anya went on to Danielle. "Just ignore them."
The sun was westering when the struggling figure finished its difficult ascent. The side of the building had proved treacherous, edges worn by time and rain, smoothed and made slick by the accumulated droppings of countless pigeons. Panting heavily the woman lifted herself onto the roof, among droning air conditioning blocks, and turned her eyes north, to Big Ben. She dropped her heavy patchwork coat to the ground and waited.
The clock began to strike five o'clock, and she nodded, picking up her coat and pulling it back over her thin frame.
"I understand," she muttered, alone on the office roof. "I'll do it."
Beep. "Danielle it's me. Can you be in the office at eight thirty tomorrow? We might be having a conference thingy with Berlin, and, never mind, call me if you can't make it." Beep.
Beep. Click. Beep. Hung up when they heard it was a machine.
Beep. Click. Beep.
Danielle glanced again at the clock - Ten, how did I spend that much time at work and not get anything done? - and opened her fridge, unpacking the plastic bags of groceries on her kitchenette counter.
"Oh, darnit," she muttered, spotting an almost-empty container in the fridge door. "Forgot the milk." She mentally calculated the profit-loss equation for a trip to the conveniece store versus not having milk on her cereal the next morning, and reached for her coat.
At 9:12pm, some time before Danielle arrived at her flat half a city away, the man who was going to kill London walked home. He passed by a pub at 9:13pm, still mildly rowdy with patrons and a football match. At 9:15pm he bought a six-pack of lager from an off-license, and on arriving home - 9:23pm - he put five bottles in the fridge, and drank the sixth while watching the remainder of the sports news on TV. At 9:54pm he left the empty bottle where it was on the kitchen counter, and checked his email before going to bed.
Danielle walked quickly back towards her building, keeping to the street side of the pavement. The occasional huddled figure of a homeless seemed more threatening in the dark, with Anya's words still lingering in her head. She told herself not to be silly, but was nonetheless relieved that no-one seemed to pay her any attention whatsoever.
She reached the building's front door and rummaged in her pocket for the swipe card that would open it, noting a new coat of graffiti across the alcove wall - 'below 4ever', a tag she vaguely recalled seeing here and there the past few weeks. She finally found the card, swiped it, opened the door, and was just closing it behind herself when she heard a voice.
Danielle turned, fear suddenly hammering in her chest, reflex pulling the door shut with a resounding tremor from the plate of reinforced security glass set into its centre. The voice had been female; the person it had come from was swathed in rags and at least three coats, buried between two woolen scarves and a beanie with a ragged old pom-pom on top. She lifted a gloved hand to pull down a scarf, revealing a striking, elegant face lit in the most dazzling smile of relief and exaltation Danielle had ever seen.
"Oh by the streets, it is you!"
Then she seemed to hear something, glanced over her shoulder, and in an instant she vanished into the shadows. Danielle, wide-eyed, peered out through the glass into the darkness, but she was gone.