2. Little Black Box

By David Christopher Johnston

WARNING: Contains adult themes and violence

On the fourth floor of Hartman Sharp Solicitors LLP, in Birmingham City Centre, Charlotte Harrington pondered the little black box on her desk. The young solicitor was a rising star in the criminal legal circuit – her temperament solid, fighting spirit impressive, success rate phenomenal – but the box in front of her was perplexing. She had only nipped to the kitchen to make coffee and when she returned there it was, wrapped in black paper and bound with a crimson ribbon.

It was Saturday evening at the office and Charlotte was the only one working (as usual). The only other person in the building was the security guard, Arthur, but she knew the box wasn’t from him: he was old enough to be her father (and didn’t seem the romantic type).

Tucking her ash blonde hair behind her ears, she picked up the phone and rang the security desk. There was no answer. She pictured Arthur asleep in his chair with his legs on the desk, snoring loudly – a sight she had seen a thousand times. He was a polite and dutiful man, in his mid-sixties she presumed, with thick glasses that perched on the end of his nose, but he was more inclined to fall asleep than provide any actual security. He’d worked for the firm for thirty-four years – probably wearing the same uniform dusted with cake and tea stains. The lingering smell of sweat that followed him around as he wandered from one vending machine to the next made Charlotte nauseous. She assumed the firm continued to hire him for sentimental reasons, as he certainly wasn’t the most suitable person for the job. She wasn’t even sure why the firm needed a security guard: the only valuable items in the office were the legal textbooks, but a thief was more likely to steal the antique computers (which were worth next to nothing).

Charlotte picked up the box. ‘Where did you come from?’ she said aloud to the stacks of paper and empty desks. She wondered if it was a present from her fiancé, Louis, but he wasn’t one for surprises. Plus, he was currently in New York on business and they hadn’t spoken in over a week. No, the mysterious box wasn’t from him.

She suspected it might be a gift from an overzealous client – a reward for keeping their miserable backside out of prison. It wouldn’t be the first: all of her clients seemed to want to either fuck her or strangle her – sometimes both at the same time, she thought with a wicked smile. A few years ago, a client had sent her a pair of knickers and a dildo sprayed with copious amounts of rancid perfume; the smell had lingered in her nostrils for weeks. No, she much preferred the clients who threatened to kill her as they were dragged from the dock: at least those idiots had some semblance of self-respect left in their pointless little lives.

The clock on Charlotte’s computer read 19:40. She was meeting a colleague at Jive Bar in the city centre at eight and would need to leave soon to avoid arriving late – Charlotte was fastidiously punctual and did not hide her irritation for those who played light and fast with her time or the time of others. To make matters worse it had been snowing intermittently all day, so the walk to the bar would be treacherous in high heels. Charlotte did not know who the little black box was from, but of one thing she was certain: she didn’t have time to sit around all night playing guessing games.

Charlotte took a pair of scissors from her desk drawer, cut the red ribbon and removed the black wrapping paper, which revealed a small, white box. Opening the white box, she found a Nokia 8210 and a passport photo of Lauren Summers: the victim in one of Charlotte’s high-profile cases from two years previous. The case had helped cement Charlotte’s ruthless reputation as a defence lawyer and her innate ability for helping the guilty walk free. After that, every wannabe gangster in the Midlands was knocking on Charlotte’s door, and as the Louboutin’s on her feet attested, her salary had increased to match the demand. As Charlotte picked up the photo and examined it the Nokia started to ring; it was the last noise that Charlotte Harrington would ever hear. The force of the subsequent explosion that erupted from underneath her desk shattered the windows of the fourth floor, sending a rush of flame and shower of glass into the night sky.

In the streets below, a crowd gathered to watch the unfolding chaos. Flames bellowed from the fourth floor of the office building, the sky a sea of burning paper. A group had forced open the building’s entrance doors and rushed inside to search for survivors, others made impassioned calls to the emergency services, but the majority stood and gawped, recording the tragedy on their phones to share on social media.

Away from the crowd, Arthur watched the chaos through thick glasses perched on the edge of his nose. The fingertips of his right hand were stained red, and he wiped them on his trousers absently. He had left the box on Charlotte’s desk as instructed, then got the hell out of the building before the bomb went off. In a few moments the fire brigade would arrive, then the police, but Arthur would be far away by then. He had done his part for the Revolution (and been well paid for it). Thirty-four years of his life he been lost to that miserable firm, thirty-four years of smiling and hiding his contempt for those self-absorbed solicitors who defended murderers, rapists and violent criminals, exploiting legal loopholes and pulling every trick in the book to keep them out of prison. Those egotistical pricks didn’t care about right or wrong, all they cared for was money. Well, money would be no use where that bitch, Charlotte Harrington, was going.

The sound of sirens grew louder. The fire had spread to the floor above and Arthur could hear loud pops as electrical equipment exploded in the heat. The streets around the building were littered with broken glass, which shimmered in the moonlight like diamonds spread across a cloud. By Arthur’s feet, an antique legal textbook lay charred on the ground, it’s pages still burning despite the four-storey fall.

Arthur pulled his cap down over his eyes, put his hands in his jacket pockets, and walked away. Behind him on the wall, a large letter T dripped down the brickwork in red spray paint: the sign of the Talion Revolution. As he passed the entrance of the burning building, he noticed a young woman on her knees tending to an injured man who must have been hit by falling debris. The rag she held against the man’s head was soaked with blood. Arthur walked over to the woman and passed her his white handkerchief.

‘Thank you,’ she said, pressing the handkerchief against the man’s wound. She glanced curiously at Arthur’s red fingertips.

Arthur nodded and continued down the road. As he reached the end of the street, a black BMW pulled alongside him. The passenger door opened, Arthur climbed inside, and the car sped away into the night.

~

End of Chapter 2.

Copyright © 2024 David Christopher Johnston.

David Christopher Johnston hereby asserts and gives notice of his right under s.77 and s.78 of the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work of fiction. All moral rights are asserted.

All rights reserved. No part of this work of fiction may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author. This story is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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