Headhunter by Steve Bridger
TODAY’S BREW: So much. So very very much. Damn Christmas beer.
Steve has another story up, Happy Horrordays, which is so much fun, you should read that too. Go.
“Damn” Rosie Sheppard screamed to the leaden sky venting her totally stressed rage bringing her blood pressure down below the level of: “Danger! Veins about to burst!!”
She cursed the rain, the freezing spray hurled from passing wheels. Her normally calm demeanour snapped at the same instant as her left shoe heel splintered, a tragic millisecond before Rosie reached the pavement. She’d survived the early morning dice with death when her momentum was instantly frozen as in a game of statues. Her balance went completely, toppling backwards falling helplessly into the insane racetrack of early morning traffic. The squeal of tortured rubber, the slient shouts from onlookers their stunned faces mouthing slow-motion cries seemed comical to Rosie. Unseen hands pulled her up and through the door of West One Recruitment. “Monday bloody Monday,” thought Rosie as he finally made it to the safety of her desk. Strange, she couldn’t work out why her workmates were running headlong to the front window. Some starting to scream.
At 22, she’d left university and went on to pass her Human Resources exams. Rosie regularly surpassed her monthly targets and was seen as a great prospect by West One. She kept in touch with her mates from Norwich and looked forward to inflicting regular liver damage on their Friday night bingefests. Work hard, play harder. She loved it, not so keen on the Sunday detox though, and even less pleased with Monday mornings, especially when she’d booked an interview for 9.30am on 16th November, which gave her precisely one minute to prepare. Actually, no time, as he was already there, sitting quietly across from her waiting for her to acknowledge his presence. His intelligent eyes flickering left and right taking in every movement, his lips holding an amused smile as he watched Rosie wrestle with the top drawer to grab a pen.
“Sorry, about this. A pig of a journey this morning”. Rosie speaking the words automatically, a robot recording, not yet making any human connection with her first appointment of the day.
“Hey, no matter, take the time you need, I made it without any hold-ups at all, luck or what?” The stranger spoke, his East London accent distinct but yet not rough or hard, but helpful and understanding, taking the pressure from Rosie making her feel at ease. She smiled, taking in his dark blue suit, cream shirt, his blue and white polka-dot tie. Nice, clean appearance cropped dark hair, handsome yet rugged face, wide, dark-brown eyes which shone like polished glass. Hmmm, good start.
“Right, let’s get going”. I believe you’re looking for a move up west. I need to take some details.” Rosie was suddenly all business, straight into the same groove of a thousand past interviews.
“Name and Date of Birth”. Her fingers hovered over the keyboard, tensing, ready to start the process, and as he didn’t respond immediately to her instruction with the rapid speed she expected, she paused and looked sideways. He was holding a piece of stained yellowed and badly creased parchment, rolled and tied with a red ribbon. Rosie, a master of ‘upside-down reading’ saw the title written in a fine hand ‘Sheppard Family Tree’. He smiled as her forehead creased, her eyes a question mark.
“You could call it my CV”. He answered, white teeth flashing in amusement. He unlaced the ribbon and spread the parchment flat on her desk. “Let me introduce myself. Jack Sheppard, apprentice carpenter and petty thief. Also known as Harlequin Sheppard, escaped from Newgate Prison four times. Prostitutes, highwaymen, scoundrels and vagabonds were my best mates. Born 1702 hung at Tyburn 16th November 1724, not thirty paces from where we are now, aged twenty-two. 200,000 people witnessed the journey from Newgate and my execution by the hangman’s noose. I was famous, super-famous, and bigger even than Posh & Becks!”
Her curled fingers froze above the keyboard. Jokes were not on Rosie’s agenda.
“Very funny, very funny, very not funny”. Rosie sneered, could this morning get any worse?
Jack continued, “We’re related; yeah really, I am your great-great- great- great- great grandfather.
“See!” Jacks index finger expertly navigating the journey down the chart, fording swirls of ink and a long list of names.
“I’m here, way back in 1724 and here you are in 2007. You’re thinking I’m looking for a job but I’m not – I’m here to offer you a job.” Jack said, speaking slowly and deliberately, looking without blinking.
“You were interviewing me, but I’ve got a position open which could suit you down to the ground it’s with my outfit. Spiritlevel is the name of our organisation. It’s made up of ex-plumbers, builders, brickies, carpenters like me, DIY deaths, you get the idea – we thought the name had a bit of humour about it. We are a kind of spiritual rescue service. I don’t expect you to believe me – just yet – but if we slip out of the side door I’ll prove it to you. It looks as though your fellow workers are otherwise engaged all looking the other way for some reason. It’ll only take a second; you’ll be back before they notice you’ve gone.”
“You must think I’ve just fallen off the Christmas tree”. Rosie was the most cynical person she knew, and had that arrogance of a streetwise London sophisticate.
“Do you think I’m totally stupid?” For a start, if anything you said was true and you were hung at Tyburn, how do you know about Posh & Becks? How do you know we’re related and why did you choose today of all days to come into my chaotic life?” Rosie was performing as her dismissive best.
“Good call” Jack was encouraged by her disbelief, it showed a strong questioning attitude, all the better for what was to come. “Tell you what, first I need to explain a few basic facts about the meaning of life”. Rosie suspected that Jack has given this particular speech many times before.
“And I’m not talking about the Monty Python version!” Jack started to laugh at this own joke – a bad trait in a comedy performer. “You see we lead two lives. One where you wear a body, like a suit of clothes. Your inner-self peers out the holes in your eye sockets to take a look around at the world. You feel the rain on your face, the wind in your hair; smell the smokey garden leaves burning in autumn, the crisp clean taste of Pinot Grigio on your lips. “The other life” Jack was perfecting his timing for this second part. “Is where you shed your skin and join us other flies-on-the-wall, outside looking in. We see and understand the real world, but we don’t have to take aspirin for a hangover or come down with flu, or in my case, cholera, typhus, dysentery and the Black Death!”
Jack had this chuckle which spread warm feelings like a convector heater all around him.
“We see all the changes, the way people dress, the digiboxes, the different styles of music, can’t understand all that Rap music stuff. We see it all but at a different pace from a different perspective. We can focus on say, World War I or watch the latest entrants to the 2006 UK Music Hall-of-Fame in splendid isolation without paying to get in! Sometimes, we can even take a daytrip back to the material world to see and be seen by people we know. I did this with those corrupt bastards at the Old Bailey who sentenced me. Drove them mad. But what a laugh, what larks! It was like Charles Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’ but for real – with deadly consequences for those bastards their weak hearts, I really scared them to death.”
Jack’s body laugh had him nearly doubled-up crying with laughter. He stopped as quickly as he started, composing himself; he left the 18th Century and snapped back to the 21st.
“Anyway”, Jack said taking a fresh lungful of air. “I left my mischievous, naughty self in the past, made up for my mistakes, and got this new assignment and that’s why I’m here.”
Rosie slowly became aware of a total stillness around her. No ringing phones, no loud voices, no road noise, just the sound of Jack’s calm, reassuring voice filling her consciousness. She was intrigued. Well, she’d been thinking about her next career move. Okay, this was not quite what she had in mind, but hey, a break from the Monday morning office routine would do her good. She reached for her coat and accepted the invitation.
“C’mon then, show me – but I must be back for my next appointment at eleven.”
Jack paused by the door. “This won’t take long, a mere fragment of time. You’ll get a glimpse of my work then you can decide whether the time is right to make a move.”
Jack held out his hand. They slipped over the threshold, and back in time. Jack’s blue suit switching to a torn stained leather jacket, brown breeches, calf length boots and a three-pointed hat. Rosie’s chic office suit became a faded cotton dress, a pair of thin leather shoes squelching in the stinking putrid mud, a brown woollen wrap pulled tight around her shoulders. They were walking amid a huge crowd, around them, people jostled to reach the front, elbows striking ribs, shoulders shrugging the weak aside to get the best view of the prison cart lumbering up the last slope toward Tyburn on the final stretch of its two and a half hour journey from Newgate. The hopeless, hapless, convicts, wide-eyed with fear grateful for the anaesthetic of strong ale from Inns along the way. Condemned men easing the pain of their last moments.
Jack Sheppard waved to the adoring crowd. He stood at the front of the cart accepting the cheers and well wishes from the rabble. Women pressed forward throwing flowers and blowing kisses. As the cart drew alongside Rosie, the cart stopped. Two sets of identical dark brown eyes locked together in silent understanding, one in the cart the other holding Rosie’s hand.
Rosie saw the hangman’s noose of filthy worn matted hemp, the hooded executioner preparing for yet another day’s work. She wanted to vomit, her stomach about to erupt but just as that moment of involuntary release something sailed over her head. Her arm shot out in a lightning reflex action catching the yellow rose, flung from the man about to die.
“Enough for now.” Jack broke the gaze with his Tyburn bound self and took her arm leading her away from the seething crowd.
“That was a little taste of things past, but now you’ve work to do. Look at it as a trial period to see how you fit in. No stress, no bother. I need the help of a living, breathing human being to do a little convincing, a little persuasion.”
They walked past a makeshift kitchen. It’s amazing how a good hanging makes folk hungry. Bad for those on the gallows tree, great for business. Acrid smoke stung their eyes and engulfed them as another portal opened.
The smoke thinned to reveal a wide expanse of short grass, edged by massive camouflaged hangers bordering on an endless cement runway. “Right this is it, RAF Bradwell Bay in Essex.” Jack was looking around trying to pinpoint the position of the crew he’d come to meet. “Ah! There they are.” The Mosquito pilot and navigator were sitting on 40 gallon oil drums chatting away, happily lost in conversation, trying to decide how long it would take to land, have a bath, a hot meal and get down the Dog & Duck in time for a pint and a game of darts. Their voices carried over the airfield to Jack and Rosie as they drew closer.
“Now, this is a tricky one.” Jack began his preparation. “This is Flight Lieutenant John Latimer and Sergeant Wilson; they’ve been together for six months and flew on countless sorties over occupied France. What they don’t know, is that a Messershimdt 109 was circling above the aerodrome, lying in wait for planes returning to base. It was a highly effective Luftwaffe strategy. After the rush of adrenalin in combat, crews relaxed as they got close to the airfield and saw the distant lights of the airfield winking a welcome home.
Naturally, their attention wandered from the heat of battle to the promise of the night ahead. It only took an instant for the armour piecing shells to pierce and rip through their fuel tanks. Only a second for the plane to erupt in a ball of fire, their uniforms and skins melded to bone. They didn’t know what hit them.
And that is the problem. The attack was so sudden, so unexpected, so complete, that Latimer and Wilson had no warning, no time to die. They’re convinced that they are still on the Darts Team; they can buy five fags and a pint of beer and still get change from a shilling. On top of it all, Sergeant Wilson is certain he’s going to get lucky with Lucy behind the bar tonight. It’s our job, or rather your job to put them straight, make them realise that times have changed and they are no longer in the land of the living but have now joined of a totally different squadron in the sky”.
They were so caught up in conversation that Jack and Rosie were standing by them before they realised they were there. The shock on their faces was priceless; the sight of Rosie was a picture. She was now in her office outfit, white blouse, dark suit, wavy chestnut hair, stunning dove grey eyes, looking like a young Liz Taylor. They were speechless.
“Good evening gentlemen”. Rosie spoke softly, keeping her voice deliberately slow to make an even greater impact. They were all attention. She held the moment in a heartbeat pause before speaking.
“Guys, I really fancy a lager, then a couple of Tequila slammers followed by a tasty Chicken Tikka, and unless I’m mistaken you two look as though you could murder a pint down the Dog and Duck”. By the look on their faces Rosie was speaking in tongues – they couldn’t understand one word, but they finally got the gist, after the gesture of a hand holding a glass and a twist of the wrist. All four began the short walk from the airfield to the pub.
Apart from the Public Bar being knocked into the Saloon, the layout was pretty much as it was in 1943. But there were subtle changes and non-too subtle changes. A picture of Lucy on her wedding day arm in arm with that smarmy creep from the Ops Room was pinned behind the bar. Their first-born child, now in his forties, was pulling pints, his bloated belly and almost perfectly circular face ruddy from drinking the profits. He was shouting at someone playing the ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’ game machine, all Tarrant and flickering lights. It was just as Rosie had hoped.
They hovered behind the clever clogs trying not to put him off. They read the questions and heard the know-it-all answer.
‘What’s the name of the First Person to walk on the moon?’ – Yep, Neil Armstrong. ‘
Where does the Channel Tunnel come ashore in England?’ – Easy Folkstone.
‘What was the top flying speed of the Word War II Mosquito fighter-bomber?
Latimer and Wilson yelled in unison – “380 mph!!!!”
They were jumping up and down, really getting into it, but not realising exactly what was going on, unaware of Rosie’s plan, the significance of the last question not striking home.
The thin white-haired man, his cigarette burning unattended in a nearby ashtray, pressed 380 mph and moved on to the next question. Up it came on the machine
‘What type of aircraft shot down Flight Lieutenant John Latimer and his navigator Sergeant Willie Wilson over RAF Bradwell Bay airfield on 17th May 1943?
Now, there’s always a millisecond delay from the brain registering information and the message reaching the rest of the body and startling the eyes. There’s a brief pulsing expansion of the eyeballs as understanding dawns. The knowledge hit the airmen simultaneously.
They reeled as if they’d received a crushing punch from a heavyweight boxer. They crumpled. The air sucked from their lungs. They reached for each other, arms shooting out, grabbing shoulders pulling them together in one last embrace.
The white haired man looked at the options on the screen, Focke Wolf, Messershimdt 190 or Heinkel. John and Willie guided the white haired man’s index finger for their final answer; they whispered “Messershimdt 190”.
Rosie hugged them close. Jack whispered. “Look, this is not bad news. You can now leave that cold, godforsaken airfield for good. Leave the past behind. And anyway, who wants to live in a world where fags are a fiver and beer nearly three pounds a pint!” The airmen pondered then nodded. They were all in agreement. “Let’s get out of here for good.”
Her workmates had rushed to the window when they heard the squeal of tyres and crash of metal. They screamed as they saw Rosie lifted high into the air and flung onto the pavement, her Starbucks cup spraying hot Latte. The car swerved to avoid her; the second the heel snapped and she had started to fall backwards into the oncoming traffic. It was just a glancing blow.
She laid, eyes closed and unconscious for only a second, then groggy and dazed she started repeating over and over, “damn, damn, damn”.
Fellow commuters helped to her to her feet. Rosie chucked away the broken shoe, smoothed down her coat and checked her nails to make sure they were all in one piece. She was feeling better already. Rosie finally made it to the safety of her desk and flicked open her desk diary to check the time of her first appointment for Monday 16th November.
As the page turned, a crushed yellow rose fell from the page, spun absurdly slowly through the air and settled perfectly on the floor.
The Real Jack Sheppard
Jack Sheppard (4 March 1702 – 16 November 1724) was a notorious English robber, burglar and thief of early 18th-century London. Born into a poor family, he was apprenticed as a carpenter but took to theft and burglary in 1723, with little more than a year of his training to complete. He was arrested and imprisoned five times in 1724 but escaped four times, making him a notorious public figure, and wildly popular with the poorer classes. Ultimately, he was caught, convicted, and hanged at Tyburn, ending his brief criminal career after less than two years. The inability of the notorious “Thief-Taker General” Jonathan Wild to control Sheppard, and injuries suffered by Wild at the hands of Sheppard’s colleague, Joseph “Blueskin” Blake, led to Wild’s downfall.
Sheppard was as renowned for his attempts to escape justice as for his crimes. An autobiographical “Narrative”, thought to have been ghost-written by Daniel Defoe, was sold at his execution,was quickly followed by popular plays. The character of Macheath in John Gay‘s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) was based on Sheppard, keeping him in the limelight for over 100 years. He returned to the public consciousness in around 1840, when William Harrison Ainsworth wrote a novel entitled Jack Sheppard, with illustrations by George Cruikshank. The popularity of his tale, and the fear that others would be drawn to emulate his behaviour, led the authorities to refuse to license any plays in London with “Jack Sheppard” in the title for forty years.