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.
The man was grotesquely overweight and looked like an acid-sozzled holdout from the sixties. His small, close-set eyes were hidden behind a pair of rose-tinted spectacles. Underneath a small piggy nose two fat and fleshy lips came together like a pair of mating slugs. His pudgy cheeks had an unhealthy pasty sheen and looked to have the same constituency as slightly-off dough.
"Greetings from across the pond," the man said, giving them a toad-like smile. "I hear you have a little problem."
Griff rubbed his eyes. The words on the documents in front of him were starting to run together and blur like tears on freshly written ink. It was late. The debate on that stupid internet security bill had been long and frustrating, at least for the MPs that had bothered to do their job and actually debate it rather than buggering off to the pub. Griff didn't agree with it. Just like the last one it was ill-conceived and impossible to enforce legally, but it was a pet project of one of the Prime Minister's friends, so they'd put out a three-line whip. Even though Griff thought it was a turd put out by someone with only a passing familiarity with how the internet worked, he couldn't even abstain, let alone give the stupid thing the fiery death it deserved. As much as he hated the stain on his voting record, he knew he had to pick his battles.
Griff looked at the documentation on his table. This was a battle he could fight.
The Lightbore Project was a crock. Cut past the flowery legalese and scientific jargon and the whole thing stank. Griff had spent most of the last month trying to convince the other members of the Defence Procurement Committee of the obvious flaws with little success. He couldn't understand how the bid had even got this far, let alone be on the cusp of rubber-stamped approval and the millions of pounds of taxpayers' money that entailed. The whole thing reeked of under-the-table cash in little brown envelopes.
Griff also really didn't like the involvement of Richard Dean Herbert.
Herbert claimed to be an upstanding and respectable London entrepreneur. A couple of the committee members even vouched for him personally. That didn't tally with the results of the digging Griff had done on the side. Mr Herbert was a man with his fingers in a lot of pies and not all of those pies were legal. There were even rumours of connections to organised crime.
That was enough for Griff. As long as he was on the Defence Procurement Committee there would be no potentially sensitive defence contracts awarded to the dodgy Mr Herbert. The others could squeal about him dragging his heels all they liked. He was going to make sure proper due diligence was carried out.
Griff got up, walked over to the kitchen and pulled a can of Red Bull from the fridge. It was going to be a long night, but he would find enough holes that even the bought-off committee members--and he had his suspicions who they were--would be unable to continue supporting this without losing all credibility.
He passed the deflated doll resting on his sofa. The mannequin head continued to stare at the ceiling with empty glass eyes. It creeped Griff out. The uncanny valley effect in action, he supposed. It was silly. It was just a sex doll--a toy for sad and lonely men.
He knew he should shove it back in the box, but he was reluctant to touch it. Those markings on its back set his teeth on edge at a completely visceral level. Yes, he'd get security to check it out tomorrow.
The doll stared up at the ceiling. The plastic smile on her lips looked like a smirk.
Griff went back to his desk. He was still poring over the documentation when the lights went out.
The fat face spoke out of the laptop.
"Idealistic young politicians are such a nuisance. They haven't been around long enough to learn how the game is played. The fires of hope and duty still burn brightly within them. They won't allow themselves to be bought, there are no skeletons in the closet to blackmail them with and threats only encourage more defiance.
"Of course, we can always have them killed, but that's crude--messy--and seldom works as intended. Kill a man for his ideals and you magnify those ideals in the eyes of the world. The rest of the herd gets nervous, less pliable. More nuisances, inspired by the man's resistance, spring up to get in the way. Rather than solving the problem, a little bloodshed can make it even worse.
"A rare honest politician can be a most vexing conundrum."
The fat man smiled like a child molester proffering a bag of sweets.
"I sent you a gift.
"Oh, I know it doesn't look like much. That's because it's inert now. That will change at ... oh, two a.m. on the night of the 31st. You might want to make sure she's in the possession of your 'little problem' by then. Unless you fancy a little ... fun with her yourself."
The fat man gave a high-pitched titter.
"I really wouldn't recommend that."
Griff looked up as the flat was plunged into darkness. What now? A power cut? The other buildings outside didn't seem to be affected. It didn't take long for his eyes to adjust to the ambient light of the neighbouring buildings flowing in through the wide windows.
One of the switches must have tripped. Now where was that fuse box?
His heart gave a flutter as the antique clock in the hallway chimed twice for two in the morning. Griff hated that clock. He'd taken to naming it after a particularly pompous colleague on the Defence Procurement Committee. Just like him the clock was large, overly intricate and only barely practical. Mel liked it for some reason.
As the chimes died away Griff heard a strange hissing sound. It was faint and sounded like gas escaping or maybe air being let out of a balloon. It was coming from the sofa.
The blow-up sex doll was inflating. In the dim light he could see her rumpled plastic skin was filling out and expanding. Arms and legs were unfurling and becoming the limbs they resembled.
He knew of some inflatable items that had mechanisms for inflating themselves--life rafts, flotation devices, some beds. He supposed a deluxe doll might have a similar mechanism, although it seemed a little fancy for a sex toy. Why now though? What had triggered it?
The doll continued to fill out. It was expanding into the tawdry cartoon impression of a highly stylised and fetishised female form. Mountainous spherical pink peaks rose up out of the chest and long legs stretched across the carpet. It was an adolescent fantasy of a woman--all legs, ass and tits. He could see how it would appeal to some men, but it seemed so ... tacky to him.
The mannequin head turned ninety degrees and stared right at him.
"What is it? Oh ho, that would be telling."
The fat man on the laptop screen tittered again.
"I think you already know, or suspect. I know you've been researching me. By now you will have discovered I'm a man of varied and esoteric interests. My sources tell me you have a similar entity locked away and have been studying it over the past year.
"This is not quite the same thing, but it will serve your purposes just as adequately."
Griff stumbled backwards in shock.
The eyes still had a glassy hardness about them, but now they looked like dark rubies. They'd gained depth. As he stared at them Griff had the unnerving fear if he looked too long he'd fall into them to be trapped forever between plates of unyielding glass. The doll's glossy red lips turned up in a vulpine smile. It floated upright in a movement that seemed unnaturally smooth. The ambient light of the city outside reflected off her shiny pink skin.
"Okay, okay," Griff said. "Nice prank. I don't know which paper or TV channel you're from, but you can drop the act. I'm not falling for it."
The doll turned so her body was facing Griff. She glided over the floor towards him. Her movements were wrong--too smooth. She was floating not walking. Floating ... like a balloon.
Wires. That's what it was. Wires. A special effect.
His mind tried to spin and rationalise. It couldn't fool him. He spent his days in the Houses of Parliament. He knew all about spin and deception, even when it was coming from his own brain.
He looked away from the ghostly doll gliding towards him and stumbled over his feet, falling to the floor like the clumsy victim of a hundred horror films. The doll was upon him. Air hissed from its lips and sounded like giggles as the doll hooked a hand around Griff's trousers and underwear and tugged.
The doll's face unsettled Griff. Too plastic-perfect to belong to a human, it was an object--a thing--and yet it was animated with an uncanny semblance of life. On a living breathing woman the face would be exquisite; on a plastic facsimile that beauty transformed to creepiness. Griff didn't want the thing anywhere near him.
He kicked out and scooted backwards across the carpet. The doll kept a tight hold on the waistline of his clothes.
Griff didn't waste any time. Let her have them, he thought. He undid his trousers and wriggled out of both them and his underwear. He continued to scoot backwards on his ass until he bumped into the wall and a small table standing next to it. His heart skittered in his chest. The doll dropped his discarded clothes and continued to glide forwards. Its fake pink nipples skimmed the surface of the deep pile carpet.
Griff let out a nervous laugh at the absurdity of it all. Here he was, cowering from ... what, a balloon with tits. It was ridiculous.
He stood up, swinging a fist at the doll on the way. Well, it definitely wasn't a woman in makeup. His punch connected with a rubber object that felt hollow like a balloon. Unfortunately, that also meant his blow did little more than temporarily knock it back. Almost immediately it bounced back and was crowding right up against him.
Griff kept moving backwards from the bobbing plastic doll and stumbled over the small table. A vase fell to the floor and thankfully only bounced on the deep carpet. Griff followed it as he lost his balance and fell back down on his ass. The doll swooped down and put rubber arms around him. Her shiny fake skin squeaked as she pressed those ludicrous balloon tits against his chest and rubbed them up and down.
What? Was she trying to have sex with him? Long plastic legs split and then folded around his waist. The doll continued to bob against him and his limp penis, exposed now, rubbed against her shiny vinyl skin.
It, Griff amended. It was an out-of-control toy. A sophisticated toy, clearly, but still a confection of plastic and circuitry. He stood back up with the doll still wrapped around him. For an inflatable, with little actual mass, she clung to him with surprising force.