THE PAPER ALCHEMIST
He held it tight, then opened his
hand and looked at it for only the second time, knowing today would probably be
the last. It wasn’t fancy like those smartphones with the seven-inch screens,
or ten-inch, or forty-two inch, or whatever; it was a £14.99 burner phone with
a tiny grey screen about one-inch square and black plastic buttons with big white
numbers and little letters below for texting, but it was all he needed.
they call it a burner phone? He wondered. It’s not like we set fire to them
He put it in his pocket, shook his
head and thought, £14.99 for one phone call to a free number?
been an impulse buy some five or six weeks ago, but on reflection, not all that
impulsive when he had worn a heavy coat with the hood up, glasses he had bought
in a pound shop and a scarf pulled over his mouth—in July? Still, he had picked
a rainy day and nobody paid him any attention, or if they did, what of it, it
was weeks ago.
he thought about it hidden on top of the kitchen cupboards gathering dust.
Every morning he wondered if today would be the day he used it, but it never
was—until today when he had stood on top of a chair and retrieved it.
Day one he
had inserted the sim card and charged it, so it was ready to use. He had bought
it with cash and made sure he didn’t speak to the cashier, just handed over a
twenty, took the change and left.
have a video of the purchase? A video of him at the checkout handing over the
money? He doubted it, and even if they did, he doubted he would even recognise
wouldn’t be a problem as other than the phone and the money, he had touched nothing,
and loads of other customers would have passed through anyway, so he was confident
he was safe.
overthinking this? he mused.
wasn’t even up yet; not dark, but with the promise of light to come, so he sat
in the car park waiting, questioning whether he should go through with it.
confirmed the conflict.
I wish I’d never met him, he
thought. Life was straightforward before he appeared, before he insisted
boundaries be pushed, dissolved, ignored.
first rays breached the horizon, he pulled the handle and stepped out.
I?” He whispered to the top of the sun, which was already eight minutes older
due to the distance, but not unsurprisingly, it just kept rising slowly as the
earth rotated and ignored the question.
down the steps and started along the concrete path. The sea was at low tide and
the gulls were squawking overhead. As far as he could see, there was no one
either in front or behind, no cyclists, no dog walkers, and at just after five
in the morning, no lovers walking hand-in-hand. No, it was just him and his indecision.
the phone from his pocket and turned it on. It lit up and beeped four times as
if to say, seriously, are you sure? Realising the time, he wondered if anyone
would even answer the call, then decided it would either be monitored full time,
or be a recording, either way it was confidential.
had been memorised every morning since the purchase of the phone in case that
was the day, so there was no hesitation punching the first nine numbers, but
when it got to the tenth, he stalled.
He looked out over Belfast Lough
thinking; if I do this, it’s definitely going to cause one hell of a lot of
A ferry was slowly leaving Belfast
harbour on its way to Scotland. Scotland was millions of miles away; at least
that’s what he thought when he was a kid. You had to take a boat to get there
and it took hours, so it was obviously a long way off. Twelve miles at the
closest point someone had told him recently. Twelve minutes in a car travelling
at sixty. So close you could jog it, or even swim it, well, if you were that
He looked across at Holywood, where
those with money lived. Big houses, some with helipads, and a five-star hotel
and spa on their doorstep.
Delay. Visual excuses.
battle took place in his mind as he walked. One step and he was sure he had to
make the call, the next he was sure it was the wrong thing to do.
The plaque read, Stephen Henry Ivan
Thompson. 1960-1999. Loved life, loved this beach, loved his dog, loved his
family. Deeply missed. It was gold coloured, but he suspected it was brass,
then he realised they were both born in the same year. “What should I do,
Stephen?” he said, collapsing onto the bench. He turned to ask again, then
noticed the first letter of each name. He grinned. S. H. I. T. Did the parents
do it on purpose, or was it done without thought? Had he been taunted, or had
nobody even noticed? Either way, Stephen was dead at thirty-nine and somebody
had cared enough to sort out a bench and plaque. Too early, but not too bad.
sun before, Stephen Henry Ivan Thompson ignored the question. Two magpies
landed on the wall separating the path from the water. Two for joy; that was
what the song said, and how bad could it be anyway?
the last number, noticed the screen confirming it was eleven minutes past five,
then hit the little green telephone button.
once, then twice, then a voice said, “This is the confidential telephone…”
a hesitation for perhaps a second as he realised it was a recording, then he
said, “There’s a guy printing fake money in Belfast. He’s printing sterling and
euro notes of exceptional quality in his garage. His name is,” he paused, “Lawrence
Wray. His address is…”
He hit the
end call button. The screen confirmed the call that would change everything had
lasted exactly forty-one seconds. Less than a minute was all it took to ruin a
life, or possibly lives.
then inhaled through his nose, his lungs filling with air tinged with salt and
possibly sewage and a little bit of regret, but as another sigh escaped, he
the button to turn the phone off, then turned to the lough intending to throw
it into the deep, but the tide was still out, and the sun still watched, but
again offered no opinion as the magpies took flight.