The parcel was about four foot high and about two foot by two foot at the base. It was wrapped in gaudy pink paper and tied up with ribbons of shimmering red silk. The ribbons came together at the top in a large elaborate bow. Tucked under the bow was a card in the shape of a large red heart. The whole package resembled a nauseatingly soppy Valentine's Day gift.
Currently the box was sitting on a table in a grimy, low-lit backroom of a warehouse long given over to activities on the wrong side of the legal spectrum. Four men stood around the table and regarded the box with suspicious stares. They had the hard, craggy faces of men accustomed to violence and brutality on a day-to-day basis.
The box didn't belong. It looked like there had been a mix-up in the Props department, like an oversized gift box meant for a glutinously saccharine romantic comedy had somehow found its way onto the set of a grimy, low-budget British gangster film. Love Actually spliced into Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
"What does the card say?" a man in an expensive suit asked. He had the authoritative manner of someone used to their instructions being carried out without question.
"From your American friend," the tallest man, a man with broad shoulders and a face like a leather punching bag, read off the card.
The man in the expensive suit nodded. "It would be," he said.
"A bomb?" the youngest man in the room asked. He also wore an expensive suit, but lacked both the taste and resources of the other man.
"Not 'is style," the fourth man said. He was the oldest man in the room and had short white hair and a face like weather-beaten crags.
"Yeah, but he is a mother-fucking lunatic," the youngest man said. "Right, Mr Herbert?"
"Our American friend is eccentric, but a lunatic would not be able to command the respect or build the empire this man has. And certainly not maintain it for as long," the man in the expensive suit, Herbert, said. "Open it," he ordered the youngest man.
The youngest man hesitated. He was clearly afraid of the unknown contents of the mysterious box, but that fear was an unknown quantity while the man's fear of disobeying the man in the expensive suit was both known and considerable. He stepped up to the table and took out a switchblade knife from his pocket. The blade popped open with a click and he used it to slice away the ribbon tied around the parcel. The shimmering silk drifted down to the dusty table counter and lay there like a blood splat. The man cut through the lurid pink wrapping paper and peeled it away to reveal a plain white box with a lid.
The man put his ear to the box.
Did bombs tick or was that just Hollywood bullshit?
The man heard nothing. Holding his breath, the man gingerly slipped the blade of his knife under the lid and began to slide it off. When the lid had moved enough for the contents of the box to be visible the man paused. He looked up at the others and his face cracked up in a broad grin.
"Look at this and tell me you still don't think that fat fucker is insane," he said.
Griff Sharpe looked inside the cardboard box. The first thing he saw was the long black hair and his breath caught in his throat. His initial thought was that someone had taken a dead body and squashed it down inside the box. Then he noticed the shiny plastic sheen of the too-pink skin and the empty stare of the glass eyes and let out his breath. It was a doll, he thought, a silly blow-up doll with a mannequin head.
What the Dickens was it doing here? Griff had returned from a late vote at parliament and the parcel had been waiting outside the door of his London flat. "Special Delivery," Tommy Tuchner, the doorman, had told him. Parcelforce had dropped it off late that afternoon.
There must be some mistake ... but no, the paperwork on the lid was all in order. His name, his address, even though he'd never ordered it.
Why was it here? A practical joke? Or something else?
Griff took out his phone and rang Rhys Smith's number. It was just the kind of prank he'd play.
Rhys had to be more careful. They weren't at university anymore. Griff was a junior minister in the government. As funny as the gag might have seemed, politics was not exactly a profession renowned for its sense of humour. This was exactly the kind of thing the gutter press liked to take and twist into stories that demolished careers.
The phone went straight through to the other man's voicemail and Griff left a message.
Griff had learnt that the hard way after an offhand comment he'd made on twitter had been spun out of all proportion in the opposition papers, giving him an extremely uncomfortable first week in office. Griff hated the guarded attitudes of most politicians as he believed it contributed to the current state of cynicism amongst the public, but he quickly learned the necessity of it.
"You get used to it," Jack Newman told him.
Newman was a good man. It was a shame he was on the other side of the Commons. Griff would rather have him in the government than their current esteemed idiot of a leader, that was for sure.
He grabbed the black hair of the doll and pulled it up out of the box.
The gangsters looked at the crumpled form of the pink plastic doll as it lay, unrolled, on the table. The solid mannequin head with shiny painted-red latex lips stared up at the shadowy ceiling with glass eyes. It was a blow-up sex doll, a higher quality one than the usual open-mouth type favoured in ribald comedies, but a sex doll nonetheless.
"'E must be 'aving a fucking laugh," the old man with white hair and a face like a rocky crag said.
"Fucking round the bend," the young man said.
"Is that all there is?" the man in the expensive suit asked.
"Ye--Oh, wait," the young man said. "There's a disk taped to the inside of the lid."
"Go get your laptop and play it," Herbert ordered.
Griff unrolled the crinkly plastic of the doll and placed it in a sitting position on his sofa. Definitely an inflatable sex-doll--the body was made out of shiny smooth plastic, but there was a sheath of softer, spongier material embedded in the crotch. The head was surprisingly lifelike, not at all like the open-mouthed balloons that cropped up in bad comedies. He supposed it must be one of the higher-quality models, if such a description could be applied to such a sleazy object.
Was it expensive? Griff didn't really have any experience with these things. If it was a practical joke, then why send this and not the cheapest piece of tat they could find in their local sex shop.
Unless it was one of the Bullingdon mob. Their families were rolling in so much money they'd never learned the value of it. It was also exactly the kind of stupid prank they liked to play. They hated Griff. They couldn't stand him because he wasn't one of them. He'd come out of a normal comprehensive rather than Eton, and had graduated from Manchester University rather than Oxbridge. People like Griff weren't supposed to go into politics, and they definitely weren't supposed to join the Conservative party.
Prospective MPs from the Conservative party weren't supposed to win seats up in the North either, and Griff had managed that, ousting one of those complacent champagne socialists that thought they could get away with spending more time buggering off to Portugal than attempting to deal with their constituents' problems. Sometimes 'the people' weren't as gullible and stupid as the people in the lofty corridors of power liked to assume.
Griff was glad Mel wasn't around. She was off overseeing a charity project in Serbia. He was sure she'd laugh the doll's presence off as the bad-taste prank it was, but he suspected he'd still light up like one of Lenny Henry's red noses in embarrassment if she saw him with it.
He wondered again who'd sent it.
Oh, it wasn't important. It was Rhys, or one of the Bullingdon mob, or even one of the gutter press out to rake some muck. He had more important things to busy himself with.
He was about to turn away when something caught his attention on the doll.
The head had fallen to the side and exposed the back of the doll. Griff hadn't really looked at it while pulling the doll out of the box. Now he saw there were strange markings he'd missed while laying the doll out on the sofa--strange esoteric runes and symbols scrawled across the shiny pink plastic. He turned the doll around to get a better look.
Griff's brow furrowed. The markings were all over the back and joined by strange and highly intricate circular designs. There was a sinister air about them--a whiff of sulphur. They looked like something a sinister warlock or necromancer might scrawl in an old Hammer Horror film. Griff knew black magic was a crock, but his hair prickled and he felt a strange chill trickle down his spine nonetheless.
He lay the doll back down on the sofa and backed away with a growing sense of disquiet. Perhaps he should let Parliamentary Security know about it. Just in case...
The young gangster opened out the disk tray of his laptop, placed the disk and slid the tray back in. The disk whirred in the drive. Light spilled out from the screen and brightened the warehouse gloom. A close-up view of a man's fat face filled the screen as a video began to play.
.... There is more of this story ...