That’s a small?”
“Tell me about it. There’s people wheeling bathtubs full of coffee around in there... and those are the mediums.”
“Large is a swimming pool, yeah?”
“Olympic sized, Jonny. Olympic sized”
Samra Habib, Sammy to her friends, passed Jonny his pint of Americano. It was too hot. He set it down. She drained her espresso in one gulp.
They were sat in Great Northern Square, better known to Mancunians as the bit in front of the AMC. It was evening and cyclists were hanging off each seat and leaning post. Most wore the cyan branding of Deliveroo, with fat black carrying cubes hanging off their saddles. There were a couple of Amazon carriers and some from companies Sammy had never heard of, but she presumed they had an app. Most put-upon were the rickshaw cyclists. They were on day rates, cycling drunks to Spinningfields as a piece of cheap, hopeless promotion. Everyone was wearing their company’s garish colours. They rode in, hitched their ride, waited for the next call and then saddled back up. If you squinted, the square could almost be the stables at a medieval court.
Sammy and Jonny were in formal attire. Instead of a bicycle they’d a sputtering moped slung with camera gear. Sammy was vigorously swiping her phone. Switching between apps, refreshing the feeds, all on the hunt for a party. It was a specific party. A legendary one. She’d not been invited, but she was damned if she’d miss it. This one, surely, would be the story that made her.
Jonny, by contrast, blew on his coffee and waited. He’d mastered the art of waiting. A rider sidled up,
“Who d’you ride for?”
“I write for the Bantz Testament,” Sammy replied, not looking up. Jonny nodded.
“What, like the Facebook page?” The riders’ eyebrows furrowed. He wore the red and yellow stripe of a Chinese competitor to Just-Eat. Jonny sighed, sipped, sighed again;
“She’s a journalist, mate. I’m her cameraman. We’re waiting on a story. Some rich kids having a party or something...”
“I thought Banz Testament was just cat videos and stuff,” he shrugged his shoulders, half-turning to leave, “Didn’t know they had reporters on staff. Thought it was just, y’know, a bunch of teens copy-pasting links and that”
“You wouldn’t be far wrong, mate” Jonny replied, blowing and sipping, “We’re freelance. No story, no pay. I ride with Deliveroo three nights a week to pay for all this.” He waved his hand vaguely at the Japanese-branded equipment bags hanging from his moped. He tried to ignore Sammy prickling up next to him. She didn’t like to admit the freelance thing. “Everyone’s freelance nowadays!” she’d soon be shouting, “It’s not worth commenting on!”. The rider nodded at Jonny’s kit. He’d recognised a fellow traveller. Nice one, mate. Gave a last bit of advice before he went,
“You should join Sineasy, mate. Pay’s better than ‘Roo. Not as many jobs, like, but on a good day you’re up”.
“Cheers for the tip. I’ll check them out.”
As the rider ambled away Sammy tutted. She was flicking between four fake Insta accounts and a Corrie-star’s Facebook which someone in the office had hacked. The party was clearly in progress. The messaging had stopped and pictures had started to be posted. Where the hell was it though? She was furiously cross-referencing the decor with Google image searches for exclusive Manchester clubs. Why do all these places look the fucking same!?
Jonny went back to staring. Dark didn’t fall here. Night was switched on with the streetlights and off again when the shops opened up. Darkness in the city is a private luxury. A locked room with blackout curtains. Then, once it’s dark, the bloody loudness creeps in. Jonny sipped again at his megacoffee. He’d barely made an impression on it,
“You know, I hear that if you ask for a large tea at Neros they give you a teabag and throw you in the river...”
“Pretty funny that, Jonny,” Sammy’s swiping was getting erratic. Was she sweating? “Why the FUCK is no one saying where this is? Why the FUCK aren’t they posting locations with their pictures? Don’t tell me these posh bitches all learned about privacy settings on the same fucking day...”
A tinny fanfare buzzed onto the screen. She instinctively swiped it away. Then, panicking, realised her mistake. She opened her breaking news app and read.
“Oh, what the hell?!”
“Something up, Sammy?”
“Helmet on, Jonny, we’re riding. And chuck that piss away.”
The moped whined off into traffic. A caffeinated puddle waited for the neon coloured cleaners.
Sammy was right about her hunch; something strange really was going down. The story started when she found a decent cashcow in the celeb beat. She could make ten times as much with footage of drunk C-listers and shocking drug revelations than she could with the political stuff. Made for fewer clicks, but better clicks. Better ad revenue. Politicos don’t buy like gossipers buy. It was the network of fake accounts, hacks and “inside sources” (dealers) she’d made in covering this beat which had given her the tip off about tonight’s party. The most exclusive in town. Party of the year. A Hollywood character actor might even be there. Turned out it was at a private suite in the Beetham Tower Hilton, but the story doesn’t stop there.
Back when she was at a real newspaper, Sammy worked on the crime section. They waited for the police to send press releases then wrote them up with a bunged-in quote from some griever. She’d not lost that habit and over the past few months her bloodhound senses were tingling again. Disappearances. Celebrity disappearances. At first she thought the obvious – secret rehabs and superinjunctions – but then the cases started coming up in police memos. Not public, yet, but something was up. Celebrities were disappearing and nobody was saying a damn thing about it.
A month before the party Mel Ditty, minor London R&B star, was found wandering the countryside naked. She’d been missing a month, though no one had noted it, then reappeared and wasn’t saying a word about what happened. Bantz Testament sourced footage of the incident from a local stoner’s Facebook page and made a killing off it. They gave it a drugged up sex party spin but Sammy wasn’t sure. These celebs were going somewhere. God knows where, but there was money in finding out. It’s practically a fucking public service, Sammy reasoned, the world needs to know and all that.
Which brings us back to tonight’s shindig. In the hacked DMs the tastemakers had been calling it a “going away party”. Who for? Where were they going? Sammy and Jonny revved past busses and BMWs in their evening gown and tux, set on finding out.
Only one problem. A rather major one. The story had already hit the nationals; shootout in exclusive Manchester party. Police had cordoned off the building only ten minutes ago and shut down the lifts. Two Tactical Aid Units were en route, loaded up with MP5s and combat shotguns. A total clusterfuck, Sammy figured, watching it all play out on the feeds. But the party was still going on. Something was happening up there. All the Evening News hacks were content to sit their vans out front and point their cameras at the police cordon. No thanks, Sammy thought, she was going to get the proper story. Any means necessary. That’s freelance, baby.
Sammy had already realised Jonny would hate the plan, so she’d have to get him in there before he realised what was going on. She knocked on his helmet like it was a front door,
“Hey! Jonny! Use the Affordable Homes Initiative entrance, round back. You can get to it through the freight depot.”
They’d made a big deal of including rent controlled flats in part of the luxury tower during planning. During construction they’d changed the plans, halved the floor-space and built a separate entrance so the commoners wouldn’t track mud across the marbled foyer. The plebs also didn’t have a lift... but they did have access to the fire escape stairs. Sammy had used them to sneak into many a footballer’s coke orgy. Now the same stairs would get them past the police line. The entrance didn’t even have security. Jonny’d be up on the thirteenth floor before he had any idea what they’d got into. And by then, Sammy hoped, his instincts would have kicked in and he’d be all camera and no cares anyway. Solid gold footage.
They pulled up at the poor door. Abandoned as predicted. Grim as fuck too.
“Alright Sammy, where are we headed?”
“Corridor thirteen, door four my man. That’s eight storeys up in normal terms, and stairs all the way up. Hope you didn’t bring your heavy camera.”
Jonny dusted off his knees where the bike had been sputtering oil. He had in fact brought the heavier camera. It had the big lenses for shooting in nightclub lighting conditions. He stared up at the mighty tower, trying to count out eight sad storeys, hefting up his second equipment bag,
“Couldn’t give me a hand with this could you, Sammy?”
She was already at the door, “Have you seen this dress, man? It cost a fuck-ton. As if I spent all that just for sum’t to soak up my sweaty pits! Tchhh... you don’t know your born, man.”
“Fair enough, Sammy. Fair enough. I just point the cameras, you’re the one that’s on them.”
They were six storeys up when they heard the screaming. It was indistinct, but present. Shrouded behind ever deepening bass and shout-talking. The party was still going on. Glasses smashing, maybe windows. But something was also wrong.
“What kind of party is this, Sammy?” Jonny was wheezing. His suit jacket was slung over his shoulder and sweat drew a dark line from his pits to his belt. Jonny’s face never looked frightened, but Sammy saw more than curiosity in his eyes as he looked up at her.
“The kind of party where people disappear,” she said, turning to rush upwards, towards the noise, “The kind of party the world needs to see”.
As they turned up from the seventh floor they realised the party had already spilled out onto the stairwell. A blonde teen was hacking his guts up all over his expensive suit and even-more-expensive trainers. A group of girls were shout-talking at each other. Shocked about something. Sammy rushed over to them, “What’s going on in there? Has something happened?”
“It’s crazy!” said one, “Oh my God!” another.
“Someone’s been, like, shot!?” a third girl said, her eyes stretched wide in bewilderment.
Sammy turned back to see Jonny approaching. He hadn’t heard them, good. “Come on!” she urged. She’d get him into the party and work from there.
Inside the music was pounding. The suite was rammed and it was hard to tell if movement was panicked or jubilant. Jonny, catching his breath, fell to snapping. A leather sofa, torn. Rolled fivers and coke residue. Some groups of partygoers did genuinely seem in a state of panic, but they were with others who were dancing and yelling and keeping on with their labyrinthine coke-brags, so no one seemed to actually be leaving. Sammy walked over to a smashed window. The wind tore in and out. She looked down over the flashing police lines. Maybe a chair had been thrown out, perhaps it was gunshots. She couldn’t tell. Jonny was clicking away.
Just then a tall young man, blonde as the last, same floppy hair, stumbled out of a bathroom with blood down his shirt. Sammy leapt at him, “What’s going on? Where’s that come from?”
His eyes wouldn’t focus. He was squeezing his shirtfront like he’d only just noticed the blood himself. Didn’t know if it was real or not. Totally mashed.
“Where have you been?! Who did this?!” she shouted.
He lifted his hand vaguely towards the bathroom. Sammy was about to leave him when she realised Jonny was pointing the camera her way. She arranged herself at a better angle for an action pose. Held it as four flashes brushed her cheek. Turned to go. But then, a hand. The high boy’s hand on her wrist,
“Men. Black suits. Black suits and sunglasses...
“Thanks, yeah” and she brushed his hand off and ran to the bathroom.
In there was the kind of scene that made her day back on the crime desk. A giant of a man, strapped in a too-tight suit, lay in a wrecked mess on the floor. He was cradled in the arms of a young medical student, shirtsleeves rolled, pocket medical supplies scattered across the linoleum, pushing with all his might on the prone body’s neck and upper torso. He was trying to staunch a thick pour of blood, splashing from three or four bullet-wounds, the body spurting out blood like holes punched out the bottom of a full bucket. He had about a pint of living left in him.
“Stop gawping! Pics! Now!” and Jonny snapped back to clicking. Sammy screamed at the Doc over the music, “What’s happened? What’s going on?”
“Who are you? You need to ring for help! I just found him like this and...”
“What?!” and she turned her attention to the dying man, waved her hand before his eyes, “You! What’s going on? Who did this? Where are they?”
His eyes wouldn’t focus. He was slipping away. Wasn’t seeing this world, only the twinkling of the next...
“Oy!” Sammy yelled, snapping her fingers. Getting no response she slapped him. The Doctor, horrified, made a grab at her hand; “Keep your hands off me, Doc!” and she slapped the fallen hulk again. This time his eyes came back a bit, started to see the bath he lay against, ran along the red-slicked tiles, looked up into Sammy’s face. “What happened? Can you tell me? Who did this?” she yelled. He flinched. Tightened his eyes. Made as if to answer. Opened his lips and from his mouth came a huge, expanding bubble of bloody phlegm. It swelled to the size of a grapefruit, then popped. The mist splattered all down Sammy’s front. The dying giant’s eyes went back to searching the air.
“Fucksake!” she spat, straightening up. The Doc, shaking, crying a little, jumped back to staunching the hopeless flow. “Stay here and keep shooting!” Sammy yelled at Jonny through the bass, “I’m going to find out what’s going on”.
She waded through the blood and out the door, her dress trailing red. The young medic looked up at Jonny, pleading. Jonny sighed and shook his head. Lifted the viewfinder. He better make extra for this.
The next room was empty. Trashed, smashed and overturned tables evidenced a struggle, maybe a full-blown gang fight, or maybe just been the mad rush for the door. Bags were strewn across the floor, a couple of phones and, spinning itself around on a stained sofa, a yapping Chihuahua. Sammy crept forward carefully. Noticed a series of bulletholes in the wall. Noticed a blast of crimson, perhaps where the big man next door had first been hit. The bass next door dropped and a strobe light kicked into life, sending Sammy tumbling, screaming to the floor.
She checked herself. Alright. It wasn’t a machine gun. She looked up. From this angle she could see shadows, flashes of reflections from the next room, all moving on the scattered silverware by the doorway. “This is it,” she realised, “either I go now and get the story or I stay here and probably don’t get shot...” and she was already on her feet and running. Don’t think. News doesn’t think.
She skidded round the corner, found herself in the kitchen. The lights were blinding white. She raised her hand, shielding her eyes. Through her fingers she saw it. Time seemed to slow. She knew she’d made a mistake then, but... time slowed to a halt, she was turbo-charged, she was there.
Between her fingers, dazzled by the lights, she saw a tiny Pakistani baby. It wore an impeccable suit and tie. It wore sunglasses. In its tiny hands it held a combat shotgun. It fired at her once, and missed. It pulled back the pump-action. She had lost her footing and started to fall. The baby fired again. She felt percussion in her belly, a punch in the left of her guts. She hit the floor. Bashed her head. Blinked. Blinked. And the baby was gone.
“JONNY!” she remembered screaming, “I’VE BEEN FUCKING SHOT!”
and then darkness.