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.
Why do they call it a burner phone? He wondered. It’s not like we set fire to them afterwards.
He put it in his pocket, shook his head and thought, £14.99 for one phone call to a free number?
It had 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.
Every day 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.
Would they 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 himself.
Fingerprints 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.
Am I overthinking this? he mused.
The sun 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.
A half-smile 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.
As the first rays breached the horizon, he pulled the handle and stepped out.
“Should 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.
He walked 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.
He took 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.
The number 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 trouble.
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 way inclined.
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.
Distractions. Procrastination. Delay. Visual excuses.
A back-and-forth 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.
Like the 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?
He pressed the last number, noticed the screen confirming it was eleven minutes past five, then hit the little green telephone button.
It rang once, then twice, then a voice said, “This is the confidential telephone…”
There was 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.
He sighed, 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 felt relief.
He held 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.