An excerpt from

January Man

Buck Mulligan

Day Zero

This wasn't the first time that Mark had found himself with a bag over his head, in a vehicle moving in an unknown direction. It wasn't even the second. Much like the second time, his hands were tightly bound and dry blood in his hair. Much like the first time it was a Sunday, and he'd been drinking. But unlike the previous abductions, this time he had no idea who the fuck had taken him or why the fuck they would. He was a nobody and everybody knew that. He lay face down in what he presumed was a small van, with significant pressure on top of him, which he also presumed to be a large man.

“Who are you?” he shouted, his words slurred, “And what do you want from me?”

What could anybody want from him? He received no response other than a knee in his back, pinning him deeper to the van's floor. The knee pushed the air from his lungs and the last six hours of drink from his belly. He vomited into the bag around his head, the fluids seeping out on the floor that he lay on. His nostrils and the van were filled with a mixture of beer, spirits and vile-smelling digestive juices.

“Fuck,” a voice spoke.

The accent was pure Birmingham, unmistakably Brum. Mark had briefly lived in Birmingham, and had once done a job in Birmingham—not the job he was famous for or infamous or whatever—just a job. It was a nice accent, a sound with no sharp edges..

“Brummmmmmm” he said, he was getting more drunk by the second, or was it the blow to the head? It might have been the blow to the head.

“He's sick back here and he's thrown up,” said the Birmingham accent. His nose whistled every time he spoke or breathed heavily.

Mark had boxed back in the day, and was used to taking the odd knock to the head, but not like that. It was definitely a metal bar; he heard it fall to the ground with a solid “Clank!” moments before he followed it. That's when they bagged him.

“I'm not cleaning it up. I always get the shit jobs, I'm not cleaning it up!” His nose whistled again. I must have broken it, Mark thought.

One had pulled him to his knees and a second bagged. He still managed to throw some heavy punches though, and Christ were they heavy. And they sure connected. Christ did they connect. He had blindly jumped one of his kidnappers and pummeled him, fist connecting with face, head bouncing off the concrete, only to meet Mark's bloody fist again. He punched until they piled on top of him, cable-tied his wrists behind his back and dragged him into the back of the van. He still managed to throw one last headbutt, which he suspected broke Brum’s nose.

They wouldn't have taken me if I wasn't so drunk, he thought to himself. The story of my life, he cursed.

“What's he doing now?” a second voice said from the front driver’s side of the vehicle. London. East End London. Mark had been there once briefly, although he hadn’t spoken to anyone. But it was just one of those accents that everyone with a TV knows.

“Apples and Pears,” Mark murmured.

“He's out; he just muttering to himself.” Birmingham said.

“Good, make sure that animal doesn’t choke on his vomit,” London said.

“How's Greg?” Birmingham asked

“Don't worry about Greg! We have one hour to pick up the carpet and prepare him for the boat.” London replied.

Mark was not totally out, but he wasn't far from being catatonic either. He had so many thoughts, so many questions.

So they're Brits. British Army probably. Special Forces maybe, Mark thought.

But the abduction had been so amateurish. What if he had left with someone or someone had left at the same time as him, ordered a taxi or not left at all. So many possibilities, and nothing but stupid fucking luck. They are going to pick up a carpet, probably a codeword, a codename. He had a code name once.

“What the fuck would Special Forces want with me?” he muttered, as the dark became darker. “What would anyone want from me?”

He passed out.

Carpet had not been a code-word after all, when London had said they would collect the carpet, he had meant it. Mark had woken up to find that he was wrapped tightly in one. They weren't just transporting him; they were smuggling him. He knew this as he once done it to someone else. His hands were still bound, with the bag over his head gone, and he was still gagged. Claustrophobic did not come close to describing how he felt over those hours. It was unbearably hot, it stank, and he had pissed himself. But he'd been through worse before. Hour-long beatings, solitary confinement, and being locked in a prison cell bloody, naked and cold. It had been years since he had last thought of Stephen Woods. He'd spent his last two days on earth wrapped in a carpet like this. Stephen screamed until his voice gave out and cried like a girl. At the time Mark had though of him a pathetic coward and hated him for his weakness, but now looking back on it, Stephen was probably just normal.

Hours passed and he didn't scream, didn't shout and didn't move unnecessarily. He just lay there, accepting his fate as penance. Anyway, he knew it would do no good. They do this to animals, put chickens in tiny cages for their entire lives, tortured so we can have cheap eggs. But we pretend they're different, that their pain is different, so we can sleep.

They were probably driving down a motorway, for he felt like they had been driving on straight roads for hours. They would have to give him water soon or he'd die. It was summer now, but it had been winter when he had wrapped up Stephen. You'd survive longer during the winter.

Dehydration and lack of movement caused cramps, and he began to scream. The pain was enormous, like nothing that he had ever experienced before. In fact, he may have passed out with the pain. He wondered if Stephen had been cramping, and that maybe it had been why he was screaming. Between the head injury, dehydration, cramps and hangover, he probably wouldn't survive much longer. He didn't care who it was that had taken him or why. He just wished it would be over already. He passed out again.

When he came to, he was wet, soaking in cold water. He’d been bagged again, but only one hand was handcuffed to a steel rail.

“Wake up!” he heard.

It was London again. He wasn't alone. Mark could hear movement in the background and other voices too far away and muffled to distinguish

“Get up!” London shouted, this time landing a kick into Mark's ribs.

With his free hand he pushed himself into a seated position and tried to find his bearing. His back was to the staircase, and he was handcuffed to the railing of the stairs. The floor was wooden. He straightened himself up.

“What time is it?” a new voice asked in a quieter tone.

“It’s 3:30. No, it’s 3:31” London replied. The new voice was London as well, but posher.

“Right,” Posh replies, before turning his attention to Mark. “Your name is Mark Woods, am I right?”

He was right. It's important to confirm these things. Mark himself had once broken into the wrong house and abducted the wrong person. It was a complete fuck up and a total waste of a night. Posh started again.

“Mark Woods born on the 12th of May 19—” He paused again, as if waiting for a response. “Mark Woods, Explosives Officer of the Provisional I.R.A,” He paused once more.

“Who's asking?” Something metal pushed into his chest; it could've been a gun. In his experience simply speaking loudly enough with confidence and force, and pushing your index finger into some unsuspecting individual’s back was enough to make them piss their pants, enough to make them switch off the part of their brain that allows them to think reasonably and believe without question that it was a loaded pistol forced between their shoulderblades.

“Are you that Mark Woods?” Posh placed emphasis on each word. “If you are not that Mark Woods, I'm going to kill you."

Mark followed the voice and although he could see nothing, looked directly at location of the voice.

“You see the problem there is, if I'm not that Mark Woods, you've removed any incentive for me to be honest with you. In this position, any sensible person would just say yes, I am that Mark Woods and there you would be with the wrong person nonethewiser.” Mark explained.

Click. It was the unmistakable click of a gun, followed by the unmistakeable feeling of that gun being pushed into his forehead.

“Yes, I am that Mark Woods,” Mark replied dryly. “Who are you and what do you want?”

“I want you to make me a bomb, Mark.” Posh replied.

Mark had just been kidnapped, wrapped in a carpet ,and he assumed transported across water. He now sat handcuffed to some railing, cold, wet and reeking of B.O. and his own stale piss. It was annoying. He was in pain, hungry and thirsty, but not entirely shocked. These sort of things happened to people and more often to people like him. He'd had a rough idea of who had grabbed him but didn't know what they could want with him. He could make sensible educated guesses, but with that one sentence that was all gone now and replaced with a heavy mist of doubt.

“What?” Mark asked.

Posh repeated himself, this time slower as if to let the request sink in easier. “I want you to make me a bomb.”

Mark sat quietly trying to process the information. He felt as though he'd been woken from a dream. He just sat still, trying to understand the world again.

“Who are you?” Mark asked. Silence followed.

“That's not important right now Mark. What’s important right now is that you answer my questions.” The gun was pushed into forehead with more force, pushing his head up against the railing.

“Can you build a bomb?” Posh asked.

Mark let out a sigh. “Can I build a bomb? Yes.” Mark said. He couldn't see anything but he could almost feel his captor’s smile, like his smugness was resonating through the room despite the bag over his head. He didn't know who he was or what his plans were, but he knew at that moment that he was going to kill this man.

“Good, well...” Posh began to speak again only to be interrupted.

“But, you see, I can build a bomb, I can build a really good bomb, but the thing is I'm not going to. The way that I see things is that all you can really do is beat me about, starve me, threaten to kill me, and I've been there before.” He paused to add his own dramatic effect.

And slowly, with extra emphasis on each syllable, Mark said, “I have done that.” Again pointing his head in Posh's direction, he continued, “And then you'll have to just kill me and quite honestly and quite frankly, I don't give a single solitary fuck.”

The bag was removed.

And then there was light. It burned. After hours of darkness light really burns the eyes. He was temporarily blind but knew automatically that wherever he was, it was old. The damp musk that he had smelled had not been the bag over his head but the entire room. His sight slowly returned to him. Shoes, two pairs, one expensive and polished and the other a worn out pair of Nikes.

He was fairly confident whos was who at this stage. He pushed his hand against face and gently massaged both tired eye balls with his thumb and forefinger. He sat up again and opened his eyes to see the faces of his abductors.

“Oh,” he muttered.

Some of the puzzle pieces clicked into place. Several more had just been added to the whole puzzle. Both men were brown, Arab probably, ranging from mid to late twenties probably. The smaller of the two dressed well in an expensive woolen suit, while the other dressed as if he'd just come back from football practice. He assumed that the latter was Birmingham and the former was Posh.

“I'm not making a bomb for you. Nothing personal of course. I’m just out of that business.” It was important for him to appear calmer than he actually was, important not to give anything away. “So you may kill me now, because you're wasting your time with me.”

The well-dressed man retrieved a thick brown folder from his bag.

“I've read all about you, Mark.” He had to be Posh. “I assumed you wouldn't do it for us, because then again, why would you? It's not your cause.” He smiled but showed no teeth. “But you might do it for them?” Posh dropped several printing sheets on his legs.

“What the fuck!” Mark exclaimed.

The message was very clear. The sheet were pictures of two small children, probably taken over the last few days, in school uniforms, playing outside their house.

“I can get more recent photos if you’d like? I have a man currently living very close by, approximately eight minutes from the house and fifteen minutes from their school.”

Hiding emotions was important at this part—not showing your cards. But Mark failed, and his face said everything. His nostrils flared, his lips curled, he took short, sharp breaths, and his eyes fixated on Posh. He was going to kill him but didn't say anything.

“Your brother leaves the windows open at night.”

Mark shook with anger, still saying nothing, still trying to control himself.

“Now let me explain to you how this is going to work if you refuse to build the bomb. We kill them. If you, for any reason, fail to build the bomb, we kill them. You kill yourself or any of us, we kill them. You try to escape, we kill them.”

Posh pointed to a phone on the wall.

“He’s going to sit outside their house or their school or the park that they go to on Saturday morning and if for any reason we fail to answer, he kills them.” Posh leaned over him and whispered, “Do you understand?”

Moments passed and apart from Mark’s heavy breaths of rage there was silence. He could’t think. All there was now was rage.

“Do you—” Posh began to say.

Mark cut in and through his teeth replied “Yes, I understand.”

“Good, if you do everything you are asked, your family will be unharmed and you will be free to go.” He instructed the larger man to take him downstairs.

“And Mark, there is a deadline,” he said. “You have 6 weeks”

*

The Inspector

Monday 0800 Hours

David sat staring at his monitor, wondering how people pretended to do work before computers. He wouldn't have to pretend much longer, for in just three weeks he would retire, at which point he could stare at a screen at home instead. But for now, he would just have to stare and occasionally and gently bounce his head off his computer screen just to pass the time. He wasn't built for a desk job. He didn’t have the brain or the will for it, but he sat there because the world had changed, his skill set and knowledge were for the most part obsolete, and his  office  was  now  filled  with  younger  people  with  degrees  and  skinnier  ties  who  talked  about  political correctness a lot. This office had changed a lot over the year. David was there because he had to be somewhere, and this somewhere paid the best and expected the least. Plus they owned him. It was just him now, and he was the last of the hangers on. The men that he had worked with were now either retired, dead or worse.

Something caught his eye. It was one of the new people who were walking his direction, with eyes fixated on him. David tried to hide behind his screen but it was no use. The young person kept moving towards him. He was one of the new people. The man wore probably the skinniest tie he had ever seen, and his name was something like Nathaniel or Neal or Jack or something—he couldn’t remember.

“Shit,” he thought to himself. “What is his name?” He was just out the door.

“Morning Dave” he said with a smile. “Morning,” he hesitated. “Big guy!”

Both men seemed awkwardly for a moment, but attempted to ignore it and move on. They were professional after all.

“Mm, Brown wants to see you in his office, said he couldn’t get you on your phone.” the young man said.

David automatically looked to his phone. The receiver had been removed and obviously had been deliberately been set to the side. There is nothing he hated more than when his staring at a blank computer screen was disturbed by phone calls.

“What does he want?” David asked.

The young man had to think again. “He didn’t say.” David stared blankly at him.

“Some inspector has come into see you.”

A chill ran down his spine. David knew it was nothing, but it was just the way he said it. “Who is he?” The tone in David’s voice had changed.

“Um,” The young man thought for a while. “I don’t know. I think I overheard them say something about Northern Ireland.”

This didn’t surprise him. Any time anyone wanted to talk to him it was with regard to Northern Ireland. It’s where he had cut his teeth, where he’d made a reputation for himself. He was one the last of the old-schoolers, and people were constantly coming to him with regard to some Sinn Fein counsellor or some old, noisy, do- nothing, dissident republican. They’d talk for an hour or so, he’d tell them what he could, get some drinks after and share with them some war stories. Well, at least the stories that he could share with them.

“They mentioned something about a January…” the young man said.

A cold sweat broke out on David’s neck at the mention of the month. David interjected. “January Man?”

The young man nodded “Yeah, probably that, I don’t think I was meant to hear them talk about it, so you know what that is?”

David ignored him now, but Jason, or whatever he was called, kept talking anyway. There was no reason for anyone to bring that name up, unless… It was always a possibility that this day would come.

David looked to his drawer. That’s where his gun was, and once this dickhead left the office he’d top himself. No point putting his family through the whole ordeal. Maybe if he were dead they might shelve the investigation. It would probably be for the best. The gun was loaded and once he walked out the door, he’d do it himself.

“David.” The young man with the skinny tie waved to get his attention. “David!” David awoke from his daydream of painting the wall with the inside of his head. “Yeah, I’ll be in with him in five minutes.”

No he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t be anywhere in five minutes. The young man just stood there looking awkward.

“Brown told me not to leave here without you,” the young man winced. “I’m sorry, but he told me to walk you to his door. I’m sorry.”

David looked back at his desk. “Fine then,” he replied, with a clear level of indigence in his voice. “Just treat me like a child.”

He probably could have put up more of a fight, but he probably didn’t really want to kill himself that much.

The blinds of Brown’s office were closed, which always meant he had a visitor. Visions flashed in his head as he got closer of a nice conversation, of a detective pretending to know less than he does, asking lots of little questions and digging for inconsistencies in his story. Maybe he’d leave and come back later. Maybe he’d arrest him there and then. He was having heart palpitations now.

“Breathe.” he told himself. “Don’t go in there looking guilty. Maybe if I play this right I’ll have time later to kill myself, and make it look like an accident.”

It seemed like his best option. His wife would get his pension, his children wouldn’t have to deal with the embarrassment, and he could be one more precautionary story as to why you should never text while driving.

He walked to the office. Brown was chatting with the detective that had come to see him, a young brown-skinned looking Indian or Pakistani guy with a suit that didn’t quite fit. Brown smiled.

“Morning David,” he said.

David’s heart raced. That bastard knows. They all know. “Morning” he replied.

Brown pointed him to a seat in front of the desk.

“This is Detective Abad. He wants to have a word with you.”

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” he thought to himself as he took his seat. “What’s all this about?” he asked, trying to look as innocent and confused as he could.

Abad took over. “I’m from the anti-terror division.”

David head immediately reset. “Anti-terror?” he asked with genuine confusion.

“Let me explain. Around sixteen hours ago a missing person report was filed for a Mr. Mark Woods. The names set off some alerts for us and now we are doing some follow up. Do you know him?”

David nodded.

“The January Man?” the detective asked.

David nodded again. It was he who had given him that codename, but he didn’t say that. He sat there and waited to hear what they knew.

“What exactly was your relationship with Mr Woods?”

He took a moment to think. He could be in the clear here, for one of the few who could actually pin him was missing. This could be positive, but he’d have to play this right. he was suddenly grateful he didn’t kill himself.

“My relationship with him?” He dug for his own answers before speaking. “Don’t you have that on file?”

“We haven’t had a much time to search but there do seem to be some serious gaps in the reports. I think some are some things missing.”

David nodded along, as if didn’t know that already.

“Well I was his handler and he was an informant. We paid him for information. It was a common practice, as I’m sure it still is,” he said almost defensively.

No one said anything.

“You were in Northern Ireland last year, am I right in saying that?” the detective asked. David nodded again.

“Nothing to do with the January Man though, as I didn’t have any contact,” he lied. He kicked himself. He shouldn’t have lied.

He tried to rescue himself, saying “But from what I hear the guy is a drunk, and he’s probably in a ditch somewhere. Probably got drunk and fell into an open manhole somewhere, I bet.”

It was Abad’s turn to nod now. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Do you think he’s reactivated?” David asked, now genuinely curious, as he seemed to be in the clear. “Think he went on the ground, and is working with one of the dissident groups? Maybe he went to South America, training some Leftist guerrilla groups. They’re always looking bomb makers.”

Abad choked. “Bomb Maker?” He really did know nothing.

“Yeah, he was one of their explosives engineers.” Abad’s face turned. The worry was apparent. “Christ, you have lost a lot of files” David joked.

No one laughed. Abad looked over to Brown and back to David. “There has been Buzz.”

David looked to Brown then back to Abad “Buzz?”

“First in London, then in Londonderry, just some whispers, the sort of stuff you don’t take too seriously. Apparently some Islamic extremist types have been trying to recruit an ex-IRA bomb maker.”

David laughed, but no one else did. He kept laughing.

“No, not that guy,” he said. Neither man seemed reassured “He’s an atheist and a Marxist. ‘Religion is the opiate of the masses’ he’d say.” David laughed again. “He’d never shut up. There is about as much of a chance as me joining the fucking Taliban.”

None of this seemed to change Abad’s expression.

“He got drunk and chocked on his vomit. I’m telling you, you’re worrying over nothing.” Abad looked back and forward again

“Regardless, I’m flying into Belfast tonight and I’d like you to join me,” Abad said.

“Fair enough, but you’re wasting your time, he drunk or dead somewhere,” David laughed. “How long has he been missing for anyway?”

“About, 6 weeks.”