Termination Notice

By A.D. Phillips

Crime & mystery, Thriller

eBook

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741
6 mins

Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven

Suburban Philadelphia was a different world from the inner city: low-rise detached houses, leafy cul-de-sac lanes, and serenely peaceful. Except for the occasional SUV driving past or excited dog bark, it was a quiet evening in this wealthy part of town. Moonlight pierced silvery clouds, adding a shine to the Taurus bull decorating Adrian Pryce's front garden. There were no signposts outside the mini-mansion, but the layout of the road-encircled lawn and horned statue was identical to the scenic approach of the Taurus Studios tower. If the palatial, white-brick home with the classical-pillar facade, iron-fenced front yard, and arched windows wasn't the private residence of the company president, it belonged to a very obsessed fan.

The garden and pool at the house's rear were fully enclosed by a picket fence, slatted white panels attached on the inside with rigid steel brackets. The wooden planks were ten feet high with only hairline gaps between, and the sharpened-to-a-point tips made it clear trespassers weren't wanted. The swimming pool was just as unwelcoming: a sheet of still, impenetrably black water within a moderately lighter, tiled border.

The back yard was monitored by a surveillance camera fixed to the temple-like pediment that covered the patio. Motors whirred as the lens box swivelled in a pre-programmed arc. It took approximately ten seconds to complete a sweep of the pool area, then the reverse rotation started.

A white plastic sheet flew up into the air, thrown by someone beyond the fence. It landed atop the spikes, and flattened against the wood. Even if the camera had been directed the right way - at the corner immediately right of the patio - the blink-and-miss-it movement would have been tough to spot for even the keenest-eyed observer.

A fence panel creaked under the tarpaulin. There was a grunt of exertion - faint and muffled - and two leather-gloved hands gripped the sheet. A balaclava-masked head came into view, slowly rising until the eye slits cleared the fence. Shrouded by darkness and almost impossible to see, the killer held position, completely motionless as the camera rotated toward the corner. There was no alarm siren, or any indication the masked intruder had been detected.

As soon as the camera started to turn away, the killer mounted the tarpaulin-covered fence, used a powerful push to gain altitude, and swung a booted leg between two cushioned spikes for leverage. For someone so physically fit, clearing the ten-foot obstacle was no real challenge. The intruder dropped down into the garden, and sprinted across the frost-hardened grass to the patio. By the time the camera reversed again, the masked figure was stood in a blind spot under the pediment.

Pausing for the lightest of breaths through the mouthpiece veil, the killer opened a metal box mounted on the house's exterior wall. An insulated cable linked it to the security camera, making it obvious what the numeric keypad inside controlled. The intruder typed in a six digit code, and a message appeared on an LCD screen: SYSTEM DEACTIVATED. The camera stopped rotating, lens pointed at the swimming pool.

The killer closed the control box, and threw a nearby electrical switch. Underwater light discs along the pool bottom powered up. With the gloom dispersed, the water was transformed from black to clear, turquoise blue. The intruder flipped a second switch beside the first. Steam rose from tiny vents around the pool's edge, generating a fog effect that reduced visibility to mere inches.

***

A flashy sports car - a sleek, yellow convertible with its roof covered - drove through the front gates of the Pryce residence, around the bull statue, and stopped just outside the front porch. Sophie exited wearing a milky-white evening dress with a short skirt and string-thin shoulder straps, glittery high heels, and a pearl necklace. Her lips were so heavily coated in gloss they appeared almost bloody.

Sophie closed the car door, and stopped to check her appearance in the side mirror. She made a minor adjustment to her dress, pulling it tighter around her waist to expose even more cleavage. Smiling in satisfaction, Sophie strutted up the porch steps, heels clacking the polished marble. She reached for the buzzer - a simple button set in a carved brass, bull-headed fixture - and was about to press it when she noticed a rather obvious note taped to the door frame.

Sophie gently raised the bottom to read the message typed on the yellow paper: Waiting in the pool. Warmed the water up just for you. A.

"Adrian, you naughty boy," Sophie said affectionately. She peered into the security camera above her. "All right. I'll play your game."

Sophie gripped the doorknob, gave it a deliberately slow, drawn-out turn, and pushed. She stepped through into the hallway: a long corridor decorated with silver-framed posters of Taurus Studios games. The wall lights were on. Candle-shaped bulbs glowed yellow in crystal pyramids, lighting a straight path from the entrance to the rear patio. The doors at the far end had been left half-open, windows steamed up by the artificial mist.

"Out... here." Adrian's voice came from the pool area, words broken by a jarring pause.

Sophie seemed not to notice the odd speech. She stepped out of her high heels, and slid them under a coffee table with a toe-prod. "I'm coming," she said, walking barefoot down the hall. "Don't want to be late for an appointment with the boss."

Four sliding, black-glass-panelled doors led to ground floor areas of the house, and a chrome railed staircase to the upper landing. Sophie ignored those and proceeded directly to the patio, dress rustling against her knees. Water vapour condensed on her face as she stepped through the swirling steam. She wafted the air, looking around the foggy garden.

"Adrian?" Sophie called out.

There was no reply.

"Adrian?" she repeated, more apprehensively.

"Take your... things... off!" was the pieced-together response. The three snippets were all different volumes, the last word shouted dramatically as if part of an edited speech.

Sophie jerked back. She looked round again, but the steamy mist made it difficult to see anything other than shifting, blurry shapes.

"Why do you sound so weird?" Sophie asked tentatively. "So... scary?"

Nothing could be heard except Sophie's heavy, irregular breathing. Her dress was wringing wet, starting to stick to her knees. She made no attempt to pull it loose. Water dripped from her damp hair as she swivelled on the spot.

"Adrian!" Sophie wailed in fright. "This isn't funny. And it's freezing cold." She shivered as if to make her point.

"Taurus Studios invite you to play a new kind of game." It was Adrian's voice again, but the sentence sounded normal, without any gaps or change in tempo. Faint cheering was audible in the background.

"Stop it!" Sophie shouted. "You're freaking me out."

"A game without checkpoints or continues."

Adrian's voice was louder now. The mist parted, and Sophie saw a dark, vaguely human shape. A fully black figure, little more than a silhouette. The steam thickened, obscuring the mystery stalker. Sophie slipped on the tiles, almost falling back into the pool. She clumsily regained her footing.

Sophie saw the shadow again, larger and more clearly defined. The masked, leather-clad killer stepped through the steam toward her, approaching from the direction of the house. Sophie looked on, quivering in fear as a gloved hand lifted up an object. It was made of white plastic, flat and oblong in shape.

"A game with true consequences," the voice said, now obviously a pre-made recording. "Where death is permanent. Just like real life."

The killer shut off the playback, and threw the MP3 player down on the frosty grass. Sophie backed away, mouth open in an expression of pure terror. Her feet were now dangerously close to the drop-off. She was trapped, with the pool at her rear and the menacing figure in black obstructing her path forward to the house.

The killer's eyes moved across the oval slits, observing the environment, and then focused directly on Sophie. Looking at the balaclava, she saw the wearer's lips press against the mouthpiece veil, twisted into an evil smile.

Sophie screamed. She made a diagonal run toward the house corner in an effort to evade the killer. The black figure crouched down, and vanished into the mist. Pausing to look around, Sophie retreated toward the perimeter fence and rubbed her watery eyes.

The masked killer rose behind her, grabbed her necklace, and yanked it taut. Gloved fingers pulled the pearls apart, forcing them along the threading. Thin steel wire bit deep into Sophie's windpipe. Her scream turned to a choked gasp. Eyes bulging, she squirmed in the killer's grasp, toenails scraping up frost and dry mud.

Sophie's hands flailed at the garotte, but she couldn't even get a firm grip, let alone pry it off her reddening skin. The killer was much stronger than her. Boot heels dug into paving stone cracks, the masked figure dragged Sophie across to the swimming pool, spun her about so her feet dipped in the water, and then let go. With the necklace loosened, Sophie managed to scream for about half a second. Then she landed with a splash, and her desperate cry for help was literally drowned out.

Sophie coughed, spitting out water as she surfaced. The killer was waiting, gloved hand in position to snatch the necklace. The assailant inserted an arm through the gap at the rear, gloved palm sliding down Sophie's lubricated back into the water. Increased tension made the wire tighten round Sophie's neck. Loose pearls rattled together on the threading.

Sophie pounded the killer's arm, screams silenced once more. Her blows were timid, made even less effective by water resistance. Still smiling behind the veil, the killer forced Sophie down, dunking her head underwater.

Air bubbled from Sophie's nostrils. She watched helplessly as the killer took out a tablet phone and used its camera to record her dying moments. After another failed attempt to loosen the necklace, Sophie reached up at the kneeling killer. Her wet hand slipped on the leather jacket, unable to get a grip. Sophie reached higher still, pulling at the balaclava. It stretched, and came away in her hand.

A large air bubble rose from Sophie's open mouth, and popped on the surface. The shock upon recognising the killer's face was clear in her eyes, every detail recorded by the phone's camera. Sophie's limp hand slapped down on the paving stones, splashing water over the assailant's boot. Then it slid back into the pool, and her struggles ceased.

The killer reached into the pool to reclaim the floating balaclava, and pulled free of the necklace. Sophie's face-down body floated away from the edge, her drowned black hair waving like tangled seaweed.

The black-clad figure placed a Taurus-logo-headed letter on the paving stones. Water soaked the paper, but the typed words were perfectly legible.

Sexual liaisons between Taurus employees are strongly discouraged, and could bring the company into disrepute. You behaved inappropriately, Miss Gallier. Consider your employment terminated.


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