It was exactly eleven fifteen when the phone rang for the first time that morning.
Jack Campbell was sitting at his desk in the spacious but dingy office of his house, eating toast, with his feet resting on the polished desktop. He snatched up the receiver on the second ring, still chewing.
"Morning. It's Rhys."
"What do you want? This better not be another phone call telling me all about how you lot have screwed up again, or…"
"Well, uh…actually…" Rhys' voice faltered and died out.
Jack felt a tightening somewhere near his temples, and knew it was the beginning of a migraine. "What is it this time?"
"We knocked over a shelf and woke the people upstairs. We had to make a run for it."
"Brilliant." Jack muttered under his breath. Only those idiots could manage something like that on a job so easy. "For God's sake, can't you people do anything right? This was the easiest job you could've done and you couldn't even pull it off properly. All you had to do was get into the shop, grab the cash drawer and get out!" He took a deep breath to steady himself, and paused before continuing. "Please tell me you managed to get away with something, at least."
"About a hundred and fifty."
"Sure wasn't thousands of dollars."
"Why do I bother with you people? What do I pay you for, Rhys? To make me money. Proper money. Not to knock over shelves, and bring back a hundred and fifty dollars. That is not going to help me when Big Eddie's debt collectors come to call, is it, Rhys?"
There was hurried muttering from the other end, Rhys talking to his three idiot cronies with his hand over the receiver. "We're sorry, boss. We won't let it happen again." Rhys said, trying to make it sound as if he actually were sorry.
"Yes, because I've never heard that from you before. Only last time, and the time before that, and the time before that, and so on and so forth. I'm getting just a tiny bit sick of hearing it over and over. Maybe I should just consider uh, terminating your employment?"
"No, no!" Rhys said quickly. "Don't do that. We'll do better next time."
"Yes, you will. Get yourselves round here this afternoon. I might have something for you. Hopefully something even you idiots can't mess up."
"Yes, sir. We'll be there."
Jack slammed the phone down, his peaceful mood gone, and massaged his temples with his fingertips. Damn those stupid fools. When would they learn to do something right?
And speaking of people who couldn't do anything right…
Jack got to his feet and leaned his head out into the hallway. "Lauren!" He called.
There was no response, but before he could take further action, the phone began to ring again, and he ducked back to pick it up.
"Jack. It's Brian."
Brian. Who was Brian? Was he supposed to recognize this person? Before he could ask, the Brian person went on:
"I'm calling on Eddie's behalf."
Oh, that Brian. One of Eddie's numerous cronies. As if Jack was supposed to be able to remember all of them by name. "Oh, yeah. How is Eddie? Not dropped off from coronary heart failure yet then?"
"Don't be a smart-ass, Jack. Eddie wants his money. Fifty grand, remember? You got a week. And then Eddie says he ain't gonna ask again."
"It's fifty grand now? It was forty-five this time last week."
"That's compound interest, Jack. You don't pay on time, you gotta pay extra. You know how it works."
"Yeah, I know. One second." Jack covered the mouthpiece and shouted out the door again. "Lauren!" Into the mouthpiece he continued, "Okay, but suddenly I'm on a deadline? Fifty grand in a week?"
"Eddie's getting sick of waiting." Brian said darkly.
"Eddie's losing his mind if he thinks I can come up with that much money in that amount of time." Jack replied sarcastically, leaning back in his chair.
"Well, you're gonna have to, unless you wanna wind up eating through a straw. Stop giving Eddie shit excuses and come up with his money. Or he'll be hanging your kidneys on his wall."
"How attractive." Jack muttered, but Brian had already hung up. He put the receiver back into the cradle, and sat back, templing his fingers thoughtfully in front of him.
If only those four British twits would just pull themselves together and get a job done properly for once… But then what kind of job could get him fifty grand that quickly? Jack shook his head, a fruitless attempt to shake off the mounting pain behind his eyes.
Where the hell was she? Wasn't his job stressful enough already, without having to run round after her all the time. She was supposed to his assistant. She should be waking him up in the mornings, not the other way around.
He'd had enough. Jack got to his feet and stormed down the hallway to a door at the end near the dining room. He thumped on the door with his fist, three times, hard. "LAUREN!"
Jack took several deep breaths while he waited. He had to stay calm. He was going to end up having a heart attack or a stroke or something if he wasn't careful. Calm, Jack, stay calm.
With a slow creak, the door inched open and Jack's assistant, Lauren Matlock, appeared in the gap. The short nineteen-year-old looked up at him, her brown eyes wide and blinking in just-woken confusion. Her round face was framed with layered shoulder-length mousy hair, rumpled at the moment from sleep. She bit her lower lip, taking in the sight of her angry boss standing in the doorway.
Jack folded his arms and tapped his foot against the carpet. "Have you seen the time?" He asked, his voice low with controlled irritation.
Lauren considered this for a few moments, cleared her throat and smoothed her hair, before replying. "Time…is a relative concept." She began, waving her hands in the air. "It's simply a name given to the invisible force, of the passage of seconds and minutes, hours and days. Nobody has ever seen time." She raised an eyebrow at Jack as though he was supposed to be impressed by her quick thinking and clever evasion of the question.
Jack rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Lauren. Do you know what time it is?"
Lauren shot a glance over Jack's shoulder at the clock on the dining room wall. She grinned sheepishly at him. "Yeah, I slept in, huh?"
Lauren made to go past him, then stopped and stared, her head cocked to one side. "You look a little stressed this morning. You should get more sleep." Then she wandered off into the office, still in her pyjama pants and oversized t-shirt.
Jack stood for a moment, thunderstruck. He looked stressed? And was it any wonder? He wheeled around and followed Lauren, who was now perched on the edge of his desk, swinging her legs idly.
As he dropped into his chair, which shot back toward the wall from the force of his landing, Lauren half-turned to face him. "So, what'd I miss?"
"The end of the world." Jack muttered slowly, tilting his head back against the headrest to stare at the ceiling.
Lauren gave a snort of laughter.
"I'm being serious." Jack said, raising his head again and running a hand through his mop of curly black hair. "Rhys called to say they've messed up the shop job – big surprises there, but all they got was a hundred and fifty bucks, which is no help to me at all. Then one of Big Eddie's cronies called to say if I don't pay up by this time next week, I'll be paying in broken bones and smashed kidneys instead of in money."
Lauren's brown eyes widened, but she quickly smiled comfortingly. "Well, that's not the end of the world. That's just…a hiccup. A speed bump on the road to fortune and glory."
Jack leaned forward, and gave her a look of disbelief. "A hiccup? I have exactly one percent of the money I need to pay Big Eddie, Lauren. One percent! It's not going to be "just a hiccup" when you're wiping my blood off the walls, is it?!"
Lauren looked taken aback and slightly frightened by the outburst, and hurriedly shook her head. "Okay, so it's a bigger deal than I thought." She shrugged. "Question is, what are we gonna do about it?"
Jack flattened his palm against his forehead and leaned his elbow on the desk. "I don't know. I don't know what to do. I'm so screwed."
"We're so screwed, you mean. We're a team, remember?" Lauren nudged his shoulder with the back of her hand.
"Yes, of course we are." Jack replied sarcastically, brushing her off. "Let's see if you still feel that way when some thug has his hand round your throat, crushing your windpipe."
Lauren turned pale at this comment, and shifted around so she was facing him fully. "So what are we going to do then?"
"I told you, I don't know." Jack squinted and rubbed his temples. "We'll talk about it when Rhys and the rest of them get here. Right now, I've got a headache and I'm going to go and lie down."
Lauren nodded and slid off the desk.
"And since I've had to do everything so far this morning, you can stay here and think of something we can do to save our arses."
"Yes, sir." Lauren mock-saluted as he headed out the door.
"And answer the phone if it rings!" He called over his shoulder.