I did surprisingly well at school, considering how little time I spent there. I went to university, as anyone with half a brain was expected to, but after three years all I had to show for my time was an £80’000 debt and a Desmond in Computer Sciences. That’s a 2:2, by the way. And you think my debt sounds big? Try studying medicine for seven years. That’s why there are no doctors any more. It’s a tax on intelligence.
And that’s how they get you.
Fresh out of university, drowning in debt and with no career prospects, I was wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life. Then I got the email.
‘How would you like to pay off your student loan within one year?’
I had a hefty government loan, four maxed-out credit cards and I also owed substantial amounts to at least three different drug-dealers.
So, of course, I replied, “Yes! Where do I sign?”
They act like you have been headhunted, like you’re special, that they have singled you out and they HAVE to have you working for them. But you soon realise you’re not their trophy or their prize. You’re simply another acquisition.
Okay, so I did manage to clear all my debts within my first year. And you can work whatever hours you like, wear whatever clothes you want and there is an unlimited supply of free coffee and jellybeans. Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?
Ah, but what did I actually do?
Well, the company has four departments: Cleanse, Spike, Flip and Erase.
Still none the wiser?
They provide discreet technical services for people with money. Lots and lots and lots of money.
I worked in Cleanse. This is where everyone starts, cleaning up the digital detritus that people leave behind during their lives. This can range from sanitising a dumb rich kid’s social media profile, to retrieving tit-pics that some silly young actress sent to her ex. If you have ever been caught speeding, been arrested for shoplifting, made a sex tape, got into a fight, vandalised a shop window or been captured in a delicate position outdoors-style, and you want it gone, they can make it happen. In these days of 24 hour digital surveillance and facial recognition software, a Cleaner can pull all your best bits together in one place. A handy memento of your misspent youth, which you can then watch at your leisure, or destroy however you please.
Which brings me to the next department: Spike. Spikers get paid more than Cleaners, but to work in Spike you have to have no morals. None.
Spike does the opposite of Cleanse. They can ruin your life through the medium of zeroes and ones. For a vast sum of non-traceable cash, Spikers can plant any number of incriminating and devastating things within the digital footprint of your enemy; kiddie porn, illegal bank transfers, non-existent affairs, there are a thousand ways that Spikers can royally fuck up someone’s day. I know a few Spikers, and they are all the same. And boy, do they love their job.
But there are rival companies, and it could be a constant battle between us and another Cleaner or Spiker. They plant a picture, I take it away. It’s all about timing. That’s why every department has field officers. Mostly ex-military intelligence or law enforcement, now getting paid private sector wages to be professional snoopers. When is the best time to send a text message from a made-up mistress? When the case’s wife is right next to his phone. When is the best time to deposit millions of pounds of mystery money into a case’s account? When the taxman wants to have a look at her bank records. The field officers can plant physical evidence too, in order to support the digital stories the Spikers weave. Field officers make more money than Cleaners and Spikers put together, due to the amount of risks they take.
So what’s my problem?
I have almost zero risk, I earn amazing money and I can come to work in my pyjamas if I want to. Up until last year I had no problem at all.
That was until I met Jake. We went on a few dates, and when he asked what I did, at first I just told him, “Something boring in computers.” But we started to get more and more serious, until one day the thought of keeping such a mammoth secret seemed not only impossible but incredibly hurtful.
So I told him the truth.
I didn’t take the decision lightly. As you would imagine, the powers that be are not too fond of their employees blabbing about our particular line of business. But I realised I was falling in love, and wanted to be honest from the start. I thought he might be curious, maybe slightly perturbed.
He was horrified, and begged me to quit.
“These are people’s lives you’re messing around with. I can’t be with someone who does that.”
I told him I was only a Cleaner. I tried to improve people’s lives, not ruin them. It was a pathetically thin justification, and I knew it. He gave me an ultimatum. The job or him.
But of course, it’s not that simple. You can’t just leave a job like this. You know too much about them, and they know everything about you. I had never heard of anyone asking to leave the whole time I had been there.
I arranged to have a discreet chat with a friend of mine in Flip. Outside work, of course, in a very noisy bar, sitting behind a column to obscure the view of the cameras. I still wasn’t sure if I could trust her, so I broached the subject carefully.
Flip were responsible for creating identities. A case wanting to start a new life could be furnished with a whole digital life history, completely fabricated by the Flippers. They also provided the paperwork necessary to flip your identity; hard stacks, we call them. A hard stack always consisted of birth certificate, National Insurance card, passport and driving license, but depending on the creativity of the Flipper you could end up with an open water diving license, a lifetime membership to The Groucho Club, a yellow fever vaccination card or a backstage pass to the Sydney Opera House.
After getting her guard down with a few glasses of mid-price shiraz, I asked if she knew of anyone ever getting out. She raised her eyebrows so high I thought they were never coming back.
“Wow,” she whispered into her wine. “You know you shouldn’t be asking things like that.”
“I’m just curious,” I assured her. “You’ve been there longer than me.”
“Well, there was one guy, in Cleanse, like you…”
She proceeded to tell me about an employee who squirrelled away small packets of cash in different secret hiding places, withdrawing different amounts from different cash points each time, so as not to draw any attention. Eventually he had enough money saved to buy his own hard stack, and approached a Flipper from our main rivals.
“Did he get out?” I asked.
“Well, I never saw him again, that’s for sure.”
After that, I let the matter drop. But her tale inspired me, so the next day I took £200 out of a cash point, took it home, and stuffed it in an envelope. Over the next three weeks, I repeatedly withdrew some smaller, some larger amounts, but it all went in the same envelope. I then took the envelope on a short walk to the local park. I knew there were no cameras near a small wooded copse at the far end of the park, so I wrapped the envelope in clingfilm and buried it in the under the gnarly roots of an old tree.
I repeated this cycle ten more times, hiding envelopes crammed full of cash in different, camera-free places across town, all the while having to plead with Jake to give me more time, more time, more time.
Eventually, the day came when I was happy that I had enough stashed away in various nooks and hidey-holes to make my approach.
I had already decided on a freelance Flipper that I had found on the Dark Web, accessed through my neighbour’s Wi-Fi. She always left it open. The Dark Web was not a fun place to hang out; too many hitmen for hire and only one font, but it did the job.
I called work and told them I wouldn’t be in. I needed to retrieve my envelopes before anything could progress. The initial trade had to be made to set the wheels in motion; hard cash for hard stack. From then on everything was strictly button clicking by my Flipper.
I kissed Jake on the top of his head on the way out. I didn’t say goodbye. I knew I would be back soon, and then we had the rest of our lives.
As I pulled the front door shut, my friend from Flip was walking down the garden path towards me.
“Hi,” she called out. “Just wanted to see if you were OK. You called in sick today.”
“Dodgy tummy,” I said as she carried on walking closer. “Probably a virus, I’m heading off to the Doctor’s now.” I hoped the idea of catching something might send her packing. “What about you? Haven’t seen you at work for ages.”
“Yeah. I got a promotion,” she said, as she reached into her handbag. The thick leather looked creamy and expensive.
“Wow, well done. Where are you now?”
The silencer felt cold and heavy as she pressed it to my temple.