Monday, 1 August 2016

Imminent Baby Writing Challenge Day Nine: "Toxin"

Just in the nick of time, with 90 minutes to spare, here's Day Nine!

Today's word was suggested by my sister-in-law who gave me the word 'tea party', which I suspect was influenced by the bellowing toddler she was playing with when it came to mind, which then got the random genre 'suspense'.

 Tomorrow's word is 'Circassian circle' - because my brother-in-law is a jovial pain in the arse - and  'dieselpunk': two things I know virtually nothing about. I'd best start reading up then!

If any more of my blog readers want to suggest a word, I'll write you a story too! (as always, the genre will get randomly picked out of a list).

So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you - "Toxin".


There is a poison here, but it's difficult to spot where it is.

Perhaps someone's dripped arsenic into the brewing tea in the silver teapot, but I doubt it. There's a cleverer game than that going on here with this particular poisoner.

Charlotte knows, but she's not telling. She's the poisoner you see, no mystery there, though it's the first time she's ever been contracted to attempt something on this scale. Earlier this morning, she'd slipped into one of the hotel's rear entrances while a cook was having a crafty cigarette in the alleyway. Finding a spare waitress' uniform was easy: a pretty young woman wandering around with a puzzled expression on her face tends to find help very quickly. If they'd known her actual intention here today, they would've called the police or, at the least, warned the people she was here to poison.

Perhaps the toxin's in the macaroons. She brought plates of rainbow cakes in as the hotel set up for this meeting. Is it inconceivable that she could've sprinkled an invisibly fine powder over the sweet treats? But no: any damage they do is purely down their sugar content.

The ballroom has been cleared of all but a few chairs and a single table. Today, there will only be one service with two VIPs and a handful of vital underlings, though many more pawns will ring the circumference, watching carefully. This limited service will lose the hotel a considerable sum from the afternoon tea trade, but the owner has been lavishly compensated for the inconvenience. All this extra space makes it easy for Charlotte and the hotel's real waiters to move around, though the heels of her waitress costume make actual walking difficult on such thick carpet. She usually works in soft-soled trainers – better for sneaking around and better for running when everything goes wrong. Hopefully, all will go well today. She avoids thinking about how much more difficult it will be to run in heels if it doesn't.

Black Jack stands to one side of the ballroom, by the grand mirror. He is a squat and muscular like a small bear, except that bears have better control over their aggressive instincts. It is a combination of that strength and that aggression that enabled him to seize large chunks of the city's underworld. He talks quietly to his chief lieutenant, perhaps discussing 'disciplining' a business owner behind on their protection money. Mind you, given how tense things have become between him and 'the Medusa', his main rival, any aggression is out of the question until that rivalry is settled.

Charlotte knows this too: the whole underworld is bitterly divided, a powder keg ready to blow.

The Medusa stands directly opposite the Black Jack, across the vast acre of snowy white linen that is to be their conference table. They cannot see each other yet – the huge plume of purple and white flowers that is the table's centrepiece prevents it – but soon they'll sit and talk and reconcile their differences they hope: who controls which brothel, who gets the illegal casinos, that sort of thing. They hate each other with the rabid intensity of equal opponents, but perhaps that can be a thing of the past. Perhaps tea and macaroons is a starting place.

Reconciliation can't be allowed to happen. The city floats on the antagonism between the two mob bosses: if they patch things up, it's sunk. Charlotte's anonymous employer was very keen to emphasise that.

Who to poison first, though – the Medusa or Black Jack? For all of Charlotte's confidence, the Medusa scares her. There have been stories about the people who've crossed her that made the national papers, usually under the headline “GRUESOME INDUSTRIAL ACCENT”. Black Jack then, though his record is hardly cleaner.

Charlotte walks neatly across the room, discreetly counting how many of Black Jack's thugs are here. There are a lot; Jack seems to think that no-one can see the pistols concealed beneath their jackets. Perhaps it's because Jack is even more of a thug than the worst of his men. Many of them stiffen and nonchalantly slide their hands over their jackets as she approaches. They're tense, anticipating the worse.

“Would sir like to take his seat for afternoon tea?” she says demurely, averting her eyes as she imagined a humble waitress might do.

“Don't recognise you, girl,” Black Jack grunts, running his hand through his formerly jet black hair. “New?”

“Yes, sir,” she replies.

“Pretty, ain'tcha?” he says, sidling closer. The profile Charlotte made of him suggested that he had a thing about blondes so, today at least, her hair is blonde. The profile also indicates that he's not picky about his liaisons, though Charlotte prides herself on being able to seduce a statue.

As the gap between them diminishes, his minders all get ready to pounce at the slightest hint of trouble.

“Sir,” she whispers urgently. “You have to listen to me now!”

Black Jack blinks in surprise but doesn't respond. He has, or at least he believes he has, ice-cold water in his veins. A discreet twitch of his hand keeps his advancing lions back.

“Sir, your life's in danger!” she whispers with false desperation. “I've been sent to protect you.”

Thankfully, Black Jack is too egocentric to consider for a second who might want him alive: clearly, in his mind, everyone does.

“How?” he mutters. “Who?”

His bodyguards lean in closer despite themselves, itching to hear.

“I don't know who, but it's poison!” she says. “Something here is poisoned! Don't eat or drink anything and don't act strangely. If the assassin's here and they think you're on to them, it might a bullet in your back. Act normally!”

She slips away before he can say anything else. As a mob boss, his paranoia has already stacked plenty of dry wood around the pillars of his mind. A baseless accusation like this is a spark to the timber.

Yes, he'll try and ID her, Charlotte knows. Already he's whispering urgently in his lieutenant's ear and his thumbs are already dancing over the keypad of his smartphone as his eyes flicked between her and the search display on the screen. He won't find anything in time; he won't find anything ever. Her internet profile was non-existent. When she'd begun this line of employment a few years ago, she'd spent a lot of money on a lot of specialists to ensure that level of anonymity.

The lieutenant shrugs and puts the phone away: nothing. Black Jack bites his lip. He won't want to believe her, but he will.

She walks back into the clashing chaos of the kitchen, collects a silver tray of exquisitely decorated pastries and returns. There is a strange feeling in the atmosphere now, like a gathering storm. Jack's men are staring at their equivalents with undisguised hostility; the Medusa's men are reacting with increasing confusion.

Charlotte slides the tray of pastries onto the centre table. Black Jack looks at them like them like they are land mines. She smiles at him and nods, confirming his suspicions. His jaw sets and the conversation with his lieutenant seems to increase in urgency again.

There might be poison in the pastries, but there isn't. Her implication is even better than the fact. It misdirects them from where the real poison is.

On the other side of the room, the Medusa is talking to her own lieutenant, frowning as they discuss the sudden cooling of attitude from her rival mob boss. Charlotte treads a wide circuit of the room as if she was going to leave by a different door and that orbit, coincidentally, takes her by the blade-faced woman in her sharp suit.

“He's trying something,” she whispers without varying her pace across the thick carpet in the slightest. “He's given orders that the ballroom doors be locked in a few minutes. Once you're all trapped, he'll gun you all down.”

Charlotte is gone before the woman can do anything but glare. She's dodged any difficult questions the Medusa might have had, negated any need for cumbersome explanation or clarification. The Medusa didn't get to this far by trusting people, but between trusting a tip from a stranger and trusting the good intentions of Black Jack, she'd only ever choose one way. A whisper to her own lieutenant and the Medusa's own thugs start securing the doors leading from the ballroom. Jacket buttons are discreetly undone, revealing tiny glints of metal under the dark fabric.

It feels like it's getting colder in the ballroom, even though it's very carefully climate-controlled. Charlotte smiles: her job here is almost done.

“Look!” she whispers to Black Jack as she cuts a line across to the kitchen doors. “She knows that you've found out about the poison and she's about to make her move!”

Everyone is trying to watch everyone else now and failing; they are all resting their hands on their jacket buttons, one quick snatch away from grabbing their hidden guns. Black Jack and the Medusa glare openly at each other. The entire scene is pure frozen potential, just waiting for an ill-considered footstep to start the avalanche. The temperature is ice-cold now and Charlotte half-expects her breath to mist in front of her eyes.

She slips out through the kitchens. The poisoning is complete; the atmosphere is the ballroom is utterly toxic. A minute later, she's out on the street dressed in unremarkable casual clothes and smiling to herself.

She's thinking about the squibs she glued under the main table when she placed the pastries there. The little squibs that, though harmless, sound exactly like pistol shots – movie-grade special effects, naturally. She's thinking about the timer that'll set them off. In fact, it'll go off right about...


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