Sergei was at that moment in the same Middleton Coffee Bar as the event guests. They were seated and now, all face-mask free, as they ordered from the fine selection of free food and drink available.
Sergei was thirsty himself. But he couldn’t drink now. He was dressed in brown janitors overalls. With a beige hoodie which had the name of one of the major services companies stitched on the back. Even though it was a warm day, and they were inside, Sergei had worn his mask. It was a full face one. Offering better protection from Covid than the blue disposable ones. Or the even worse, almost useless, suddenly popular, home-stiched reusable ones.
Sergei had shown paperwork to the person he took as being in charge of the caterers. They had shrugged and said nothing to do with them. Seek the facilities manager. Sergei told them he just had to remove the plug in air fresheners. It wouldn’t take more than a minute. The woman in charge couldn’t really understand him too well. And was reluctant to authorise him to do anything that wasn’t a part of her remit. So he pulled a marker pen from his cargo pants pocket and wrote on a napkin in large letters, “Stop Covid. Air circulation off.”
She nodded in fright and said something he couldn’t hear. He just waved an acknowledgement. That was the beauty of a pandemic. People were always easily frightened into doing whatever they were asked.
Sergei felt the sweat running along his eyebrows and down his cheeks. It would fill his ears soon. That was the trouble with these military grade NBC gas mask protection hoods. Very, very hot to work in.
Sergei went around the walls removing the simple plug in air fresheners that he had put into the sockets four hours before. The type that could be purchased in any supermarket for just a few pounds. These he was removing were not. They cost several thousand pounds each. They were very specially modified to contain the SarsCovid virus until the heat room the electricity warmed the seal and let it spread round the room.
Removing them, he was very careful. He put each into a padded, self seal plastic bag. And those bags into a larger sealed bag that was also sealed with a glue strip before being deposited in a final, crush proof, thick, plastic bag.
This was the dangerous bit. Actually handling the pathogenic virus. It was very deadly. Though not that contagious. This Chinese SARS modified disease was airborne transmitted. Only over a few feet. It needed the oil based diffusers to spread it around better.
Once Sergei completed his tasks, he left the room to meet Rachel in the ladies. He removed the heavy NBC hood and splashed water over his face to cool and refresh himself. She helped him struggle from his overalls. He retrieved a bag from a maintenance cupboard and removed his own reversible green jacket. It was a navy, blazer like coat, with gold buttons. Rachel didn’t care for it at all. Inconspicuous or unmemorable she had told them. That silly girl Melissa had had a bloody pink jacket. They would all have words later. But for now, she knew they needed praise. All of them. Needed reassurance. It was no easy thing to murder hundreds at a time. Like they had just done by placing the Covid Air fresheners into the coffee bar hours ago.
She helped Sergei dump his gear into the sports bag. She wasn’t worried about contracting the disease by touch. She knew it didn’t transmit that way. Sergei would actually have to pass body fluids into her for it to transfer by touch. Something he might well be doing later, she thought as he pulled on his tight trousers over his athletic, ex Russian special forces buttocks.
As they drove to the airport in the minivan she studied the Will and Testament forms. Any that were not suitable, incomplete, or of little value were shredded. For real this time.
Rachel thought about the crime they had just pulled. As she always did at this time as they drove away. She spoke to them all. A kind of post crime assessment.
“I would guess about sixty of these Wills are going to be good. Have the identities ready. Use all variants. You two guys can mix them up. Peter Lawrence. Lawrence Peters. Jackson Lawrence.” They nodded. She wasn’t saying anything they didn’t know already.
Rachel thought some more.
“The weak link is choosing these Marks in the first place. It’s still too random. We must find a better, more reliable way.”
Bryan nodded. He would think about it. Rachel thought too.
At first they had simply pulled names from the phone book. Wealthy neighbourhoods. Check the addresses. Put an invitation through the door. But it wasn’t much of a filter. People with wealth enough to be worth taking had their own lawyers and legal forms and didn’t need a free lesson.They didn’t respond.
Bryan had come up with the balloon ticket idea.
They tied the free entry ticket for the event to an ordinary, air inflated, party balloon. Then they scouted the right areas of their chosen town or city. Looking for the wealthy, but not too wealthy homes they sought. Placing a balloon at night in garden or hedge or veranda.
In the morning those discovering the balloon thought they had floated down by chance.
Those curious enough to ring the number on the attached ticket for the promised free gift were given an automated message about winning a free tax planning and inheritance voucher worth €300. get in touch using another number to find out more.
Those with wealth enough to want to protect, but not enough to want to pay for high priced lawyers were the ones they scooped up. It took around a hundred balloons to receive a solid gold reply. Not bad. Way better than any direct marketing campaign would achieve. They all took the calls and using carefully worded, innocent sounding questions, narrowed the field to those they thought the most likely.
It was an improvement. The balloon idea had had many advantages.
It made it certain only the right type of person would attend. The fact it was inheritance based ensured the required age was self selecting. A youngster phoning up would not likely be interested in such a seemingly far off eventuality. So only the older aged came along. The curious. The miserly. Those with perceived valuables to leave. They were the targets.
An eighty year old, suddenly dying and leaving a will to strange people would possibly be slightly suspicious. But if hundreds, or even thousands were suddenly dying of this ‘new flu’ then no one bothered about it. Death certificates were stamped with cause of death and a precautionary, ‘With Covid-19,’ and no one thought any more about it. Loved ones could do nothing. They couldn’t even mourn at the funeral. Let alone start an investigation.
But she was sure there would be a way to improve upon it. Start earning some real, real, real money.
There might be a better acetate. She’d speak with Henri Challon, ‘The Chemist,” who had created the inks and the actual virus. Once they went back to Italy. Which was where he lived and where they had started out. After releasing a load in China in Wuhan. Just to kill off some Chinese and sow confusion. They hadn’t tried any inheritance grabbing. Not in communist Red China.
Bryan had told her that the CIA would expend a lot of effort looking there if they thought the Chinese were behind it all.
For now England was working out fine. As had Italy a few months before. In many ways better. Italy had ‘secret wills.’ It was possible to write anything into them. It was only the impossibly slow Italian legal process that had made them leave.
The radio was loud in the vehicle. Interrupting her thoughts.
“The spread of Covid 19 continues. The Kent variant has now spread into Manchester. Two hundred and thirty two people are known to have died this week from the effects of the virus…”
“I’d like a Louie. A permanent one,” Rachel said to Sergei. He was sat beside her in the minivan. “What? Who?” He burped. Long journeys always made him fell little carsick.
“That bald guy today. Louie. I liked him. I look for his type. Use him to make the others more at ease. But I was just thinking. It would be better if he were one of us.”
Rachel moved along the seat and snuggled against him.
Sergei swallowed air. To make himself burp. He found it helped. “Well you can’t have that Louie. He will be dead in a week. Lot of the biological pathogen in those air fresheners. Might be dead already. I think I mixed up the vials on the last one I plugged in. Really high dosage. I expect they are recording major admissions to hospital right now.”
Rachel, whose real name was Miranda, rested her head on his shoulder. He had very broad shoulders. And almost no trace of an accent. She wondered if he really was a former Russian soldier. He didn’t even have that many tattoos. Arms done and a snake on his upper thigh.
Then she wondered, if he wondered, if she was really an ex EU pharmaceutical corporation executive. Then she decided she didn’t care about any of it and put it from her mind while she thought back to the topic at hand.
“ I didn’t mean that Louie. Not the soon to be dead guy. I mean a type of audience participant. A plant. We could script it. I say this. He asks an awkward question. I would have the answer already prepared.”
Sergei squeezed her in his arms. ”You always have an answer. For everyone.” She smiled. Flattery was always appreciated.
“I meant a scripted answer. With the words just the way I like them. The right words. That convey what I want them to hear. It would be easier with an inside man. Or woman, man is better. Can be cheeky. More coarse. Makes it easier. Express doubt. Then banish it. Would be easier. Quicker.”
“ OK. I’ll try and think of someone we can bring along.” Melissa spoke up, without looking up from her tablet screen.
“I liked that Louie guy. When he was filling in his Will and told the woman beside him he was having a heart attack, what did she want to have. Quick..before his strength ran out. Ask for anything from the hen house. Would she like his old navy issue condom. Could use it as a Zeppelin. Funny guy.”
“Not that funny,” said Sergei. “She wasn’t impressed. Sour faced old bat.”
“Doesn’t matter now, they are both dead. Or will be soon,” joined in Bryan from the driving seat. Only a faint trace of his South Carolina accent.
“Shame about that aspect of our work. The mass murder and all.” Melissa, who wasn’t Melissa really, said absently.
“If they don’t die, we can’t cash in, can we?” Said the man who wasn’t Bryan either. Bryan claimed he was ex-CIA. None of them doubted that. Bryan had no qualms about mass murder. All part of the job as far as he was concerned.
“Suppose not.” Melissa changed the subject. “Where are we going now?” “Bolton,” Bryan replied.
“Bolton!” Melissa snorted. “I’ve been to Bolton. It’s a dump. We should go somewhere better. Somewhere more exotic. “ She looked up from the digital magazine on the ipad. “We could go to Barcelona. Or Valencia. Or Casablanca! I always wanted to go to Casablanca. I’ve never been. It just sounds romantic.”
“We need old people with wealth. Not sun spots and Bikini pools,” Sergei told her. “Western Europe. Major cities.”
“Bolton isn’t a major city. It’s a dump. .. .. Why don’t we go to Paris? Paris is rich.”
Bryan chipped in as he carefully overtook an ASDA lorry. Sneaking passed it at 60 MPH. “We are using a virus with flu like symptoms. We created it that way. We should stick to cold countries. North Germany. North France, UK. Denmark. Sweden. Finland.”
“Not Sweden,” said Rachel n a tone that left no doubt this wasn’t a topic for discussion. She saw Melissa looking at her. Bryan’s eyes were studying her in the rear view mirror.
“I’m wanted in Sweden. They have fingerprints, DNA, photographs.Film records. Blood samples. We aren’t going to Sweden.”
She could feel them all thinking about what she might have gotten into in Stockholm, so she moved the subject back to the idea of where to hit next.
“We only have so much Covid. We need it to spread, then stop. Outbreaks. That’s why Bolton. Glasgow. Liverpool. Newcastle. Then we change countries. Leave the panic here. I think Melissa is right. Paris is good. Just what we want. Toulouse. Lyon. And the rest. Then Berlin. Frankfurt. Hamburg. Then I thought we’d switch it up. Split up. One Team for a simple hit to New Zealand and Australia. Just a one off. Spread the fear. But bug out quick. The other team to the South Americas. Especially Brazil. Lots and lots of money in Brazil.”
She scratched her scalp. It itched from the wig. “Then USA and India.”
“We will never be able to cover the whole of the United States,” Bryan said, shaking his head. “Haven’t enough virus.”
“We won’t do the whole country. Just the rich and elderly. Leave the rest.” “Miami. That be sweet,” Sergei said. “Good drugs there. Good fishing.”
“Full of lawyers,” Bryan reminded him. “More lawyers than anything else. Except doctors.”
“Well we don’t want to be near Lawyers or Doctors. Skip Florida. Put some into the airport on a stopover. Spread it around a bit. That’s all. Then head to California or New York take it from there. USA, then India. That should do it. Quit after that.”
They drove along in silence for a minute before Melissa asked. “Aren’t we going to do Africa?” Rachel had just started to feel sleepy. She knew it was the adrenalin that she had been creating in her body. The tension. She would sleep for six or seven hours without moving now it was over.
“No,” she answered.
Melissa thought some more. Then asked another question, “Won’t the authorities think it is a bit odd? I mean..that no African countries become infected with this Covid stuff? Or South East Asia? Or the Middle East? Or Pakistan?”
“Or Russia. Or Ukraine,” added Sergei. “or even the Koreas. The World Health will be suspicious, no?”
“No, they won’t,” said Rachel emphatically.
“Why not?” answered Melissa. She knew they couldn’t cover the entire globe. Not with the limited supplies they had. Not just the four of them.
But why not Africa, she thought.
Rachel told her. In the sleepy voice of someone only just awake.
“Because no one in the rest of the world gives a toss about any of those countries.”
The ever practical Bryan nodded his agreement. The mini van trundled on at just under the speed limit. Bryan was a very careful driver.
The TV screen had the news showing. There was no sound but the Sky News pictures and captions were running.
Covid cases were still rising. There had been reports of toilet rolls being stockpiled until there were shortages everywhere. The News Announcer was also warning that the spread through the Midlands and North of England was in contrast to the relatively few cases reported in London, the south east and south west, or Scotland or Wales. He was asking the Health Minister if there was some ethnic reason for the way the virus was spread. Perhaps that was why it seemed so localised?
The Minister was beginning to answer with waffle to hide the fact he, and all the experts, had no idea how the evil CovidSars19 spread. Nor why it seemed particularly attracted to the elderly in society, when the screen went blank.
A voice announced over the PA system of the luxury retirement home’s main communal lounge area, “We are pleased to welcome some special guests today. Visitors from Perkins-Fry and Davies, Law practice. Who will be here to help us in these difficult times. With some exceptional free legal advice on monetary issues. Which is lovely, isn’t it? So would you please welcome, Miss Amanda Harrison, expert in inheritance taxation and estate planning.” The care home
manageress read the name and title from the card she had been given.
Rachel/Amanda, DeSouza/Harrison stepped confidently forward in her pale blue business suit. Her long red hair held back on one side by an ivory slide, to the light smattering of applause from the elderly residents.
“Thank you. Thank you so very much,” she said “ I ..Er..I wonder…if…any ..of..you..” she said in a too quiet voice.
“Speak up!” An old fellow at the back shouted. “Some of our care workers are very deaf!”
That got a laugh. The Resident’s Home Manageress looked to spot who had spoken. It seemed like the new man. Colonel Godfrey James.The one who had only come in to them this very week.
Rachel/Amanda cleared her throat, hand over mask, over mouth.
“I was just wondering, how many of you here know just what level the Treasury sets the current inheritance tax thresholds at? Show of hands? I see…Not too many. Well let me ask you this. How many of you have children? And how many have grandchildren?”
Many hands were up. Frail and thin and blue veined.
She beamed her best, most suitable daughter-in-law in the parish, innocent smile. The small, perfectly even, perfectly white teeth flashed. Lighting up her pleasantly attractive, high cheekbone face.
She dropped her voice to a pretend mock whisper. “I’m going to let you all into a secret. A few secrets. That the tax Office does not wish any of you to know about.”
* * *
In the dining room that was on the opposite side of the lounge, the tall man in full Covid compliant face and body suit, who had claimed he was doing an electrical circuit test for the council, and had the necessary paperwork to prove it, was already beginning to sweat as he plugged in a series of air fresheners. They had been very popular in the 1990s, and this chap was fitting them into the three pin electrical sockets. To test the voltage.
A different young man, wearing only a pale blue, protective, disposable health face mask was laying tables in there also. He had been told by the catering manager to prepare for the imminent arrival of the event caterers platters that would be available after the talk to the residents, and to all guests and staff, courtesy of Perkins-Fry and Davies. Limited Liability Partnership.
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file