The buzzer cut into my consciousness for the tenth time that day. I ignored it again as I had the previous nine times.
“We’ll be back again later. We know you’re in there. You can’t keep us out forever,” a man’s voice yelled up towards the window.
“Oh yes, I can, you bastards,” I thought, and continued to sit on the floor and out of sight. I heard the letterbox clatter and the dull thud of something heavy hitting the hallway floor. I was curious but gave it five minutes before I sneaked downstairs to see what it was.
I knelt onto the hallway carpet and looked at the thick booklet that had been posted through the letterbox.
“NOTICE OF INTENTION TO ENTER & SEARCH YOUR PREMISES – REMOVAL NOTICE.
Due to your failure to pay an outstanding Magistrates Court Fine a Bailiff, under the instructions of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has attended your premises today with the intention of levying distress and removing your goods.
The Magistrates Distress Warrant empowers the Bailiff from Lawson & Associates, by virtue of Schedule 4A of the Domestic Violence, Crime, and Victims Act 2004, to enter your premises by force should you wilfully refuse to pay the outstanding fine and costs.
To prevent the removal of your goods and the expensive additional removal costs you must make immediate payment to the Bailiff. Failure to do so will result in the Bailiff re-attending your premises with Locksmiths and the Police to remove your goods even in your absence.
No further notice will be issued.”
I slammed the booklet down onto the floor and held my head in my hands. What the hell was I going to do now? Ever since I’d settled into the centre of the city, I’d had nothing but trouble. I’d thought that it was just because it was so bloody expensive to live there. But something about it was weird. I’d got into debt before and yet it had taken a very long time before any of the companies had taken any action. I’d only been here a few months and missed a couple of payments and nothing major as far as I’d seen but almost straight away these thugs had been sniffing around and trying to gain access to the flat. It was happening at all times of day and night too.
Gingerly, I held open the letterbox flap to see if I could recognise my tormentors for the next time they came to visit. I could just about see across to the opposite side of the road and noticed a couple of men standing there. One of them was a tallish, wiry figure. He was wearing square-rimmed glasses that glinted slightly in the sunlight. He leaned nonchalantly against the lamppost next to him and looked straight towards the flat. He didn’t seem like he had much intention of moving. I crawled on my hands and knees towards the small chest of drawers where I kept a few odds and ends and pulled open the top drawer. I immediately found what I was looking for, a small pair of binoculars that my adoptive dad had given me. I put the binocular string around my neck and crawled back towards the letterbox. Just before I reached it, the brass flap flew open. Instinctively, I flattened to the ground and willed that the bailiff wouldn’t notice me there. My breath caught in my throat and I willed myself not to panic. I could see from my position a pair of bespectacled, beady eyes, looking right back into mine.
“So, there you are,” the man hissed through the letterbox, “if you’ll just let us in and pay what you owe, then all of this unpleasantness will just go away.”
I noticed that when he spoke, one of his teeth also gleamed in the light. I found it almost as disconcerting as what he had to say.
“I haven’t got it,” I spat, “and I can’t understand how I can owe so much? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Well, maybe you aren’t quite as good with money as you think you are,” the man replied.
The letterbox flap clattered shut, I heard footsteps walking away from the door, and then everything went silent for a few moments and I thought that the bailiff had maybe given up for the day and disappeared. Gradually, I pulled myself up onto my haunches and opened the letterbox flap once more. That pair of beady eyes were staring back at me. I sprang backward away from the door as if I’d been burnt and crawled away as quickly as I could.
The flap opened one last time.
“We’ll be back,” the man yelled through the hole, “and next time we won’t take no for an answer.”
“Sorry that I couldn’t come round to yours,” I said, looking at Ellen sadly, “my shout as soon as I can sort all of this out.”
“Don’t you stress about it,” Ellen replied, “it’s the least I can do when you’re having to worry about the demon bailiffs from hell.” She reached over and poured some cheap wine into a plastic cup, “at least the gits don’t hang around at night.”
“They do, but just not tonight, for some reason. I just don’t get it,” I said and shook my head slightly. “There’s something weird about all of this. Firstly there was all of that stuff with the bank…”
“Yeah, but they’re going to sort that out for you though,” Ellen replied.
“Ellen, it’s been three months now and there’s no sign of that money,” I replied between mouthfuls of fried rice.
“You know how long these things take. It’s like waiting for Christmas,” she replied.
I looked at her and nodded but I wasn’t convinced. It wasn’t the first time that I’d ever had any fraudulent activity on my account but it was the first time that it had ever happened multiple times by different fraudsters. At first, I thought that maybe I’d accidentally clicked onto a phishing link in a junk email but that just didn’t ring true. In the background, I heard a distant ping. I set down my plate and grabbed my bag. Taking out my phone, I noticed that it was blinking with a new notification. It was yet another from the bank. There’d been a further unauthorised withdrawal and for fifty quid this time. As I tried to log in, my fingers hardly worked at all. They didn’t feel part of my hands anymore and it took several attempts before I could successfully gain access to it again.
“Here we go again,” I said and ran my fingers through my hair in frustration.
“Who is it this time?” Ellen asked.
“It’s just a nonsense combination of letters and numbers, 5T3LL4. The cheeky sods have even added a transfer fee because the withdrawal wasn’t in pounds,” I replied. “I’m beginning to feel like someone’s got it in for me.”
Ellen looked me straight in the eye.
“Oh come on now, I know you’ve had a bit of a run of bad luck but now you’re starting to sound paranoid,” she said, taking a large gulp of wine from the cup.
“A run of bad luck?” I laughed bitterly, “can you honestly say you’ve ever known anyone else who’s had this happen to them? This level of fraud, I mean, so often and by so many different people?”
Ellen looked thoughtful for a moment and didn’t answer immediately.
“No, I can’t honestly say that I have,” she replied and looked uncomfortable. “But what you’re suggesting sounds like something out of a book. I mean, that sort of thing doesn’t happen in real life does it? And even if it does, why on earth would they pick you?”
I looked back at Ellen and then down at my bank statement again.
“I don’t know, Ellen. I really don’t know.”
I hadn’t slept at all and when the sunlight broke through the curtains the next morning, I felt as if I’d been awake for a week. Ellen had already gone and left a hastily scrawled note on the drawers in the hallway,
“Stop stressing. See you later.”
I straightened up and looked at my pasty reflection in the mirror.
“Easy for you to say,” I replied and was about to turn away to leave when I noticed a leaflet on the doormat. I was sure that I hadn’t seen it the day before and was about to throw it away when I noticed that it was a flier for a recruitment agency. I picked it up and looked over it. It was certainly eye-catching as it featured a red background and black lettering.
“S.T. Ella Recruitment. Specialists in city recruiting. Wide range of employment opportunities available. Extremely competitive rates. Enroll @ www.st.ella.bs.com.” I thought that I had already signed up with all of the local employment agencies and so I was surprised to find out that there was another. I wondered if it was recently opened or I’d just missed it as a result of my recent difficulties? Either way, it sounded like it was worth a shot. I was willing to try anything to keep Lawson and associates from breaking down my door and it seemed like I was running out of time.
The S.T. Ella Recruitment website wasn’t very subtle, it employed the self-same colour scheme as the flier had, a deep red background with black writing. There was only one small difference, the website featured a photo of a black swan in the centre of the page. I wondered what the significance of the picture was, but then batted my curiosity away as it was likely to be some kind of corporate branding and because of the situation I was in, I didn’t have time to question further. I merely registered with the website as quickly as I could, uploaded a CV, and hoped that I would at least have a couple of hours before the bailiffs started to ring the buzzer again. I had only just sat down when I heard my phone ping once again. Expecting it to be yet another fraud notification from the bank, I almost didn’t check it but when I did, I saw that it was an email forwarded by S.T. Ella Recruitment. Puzzled, I looked at the time on the phone display. It was only ten minutes since I’d uploaded my CV. It surely couldn’t have been an offer already? And yet, it was.
It was an offer to work as a cleaner for a city-centre office, Nemo and Co. When I read through the email so much of it was strange. The CV that I had uploaded made no mention of having any cleaning experience. It was far more suited to working in an admin role, but when I saw how much money was being offered, I began to feel persuaded. A small part of me felt slightly wary of what was being offered as it seemed too good to be true, but a larger part of me didn’t give a shit. Hiding from the bailiffs was starting to get very old and I wanted to get things sorted out with them and the bank as quickly as I possibly could. The sort of money that Nemo and Co. were offering meant that even if the security issues with the bank weren’t immediately sorted, I would have enough to open another account and sort out what I owed the bailiffs. And all within a couple of weeks. I sent off a quick email of acceptance to the recruiters and hoped that I hadn’t just agreed to another kind of scam. I placed the phone back into my bag and went into the kitchen to make a coffee hoping that it would enable me to at least function at a basic level for the rest of the morning while I divided my time between tidying up and hiding from the bailiffs for the rest of the day.
When I reappeared in the lounge again, I noticed the phone’s blue light blinking. I picked it up and saw that there were three notifications, one from the recruiters, one from the bank, and one from Nemo and Co. Not wanting to open anything from the bank, I resolved to check that notification last. I began with the message from the recruiters.
“Congratulations, your application to work for Nemo and Co. has been accepted. The company will contact you in due course.”
Once I had read this, I was fairly certain what the Nemo and Co. message would be about. I was right that it was the job offer, but the terms of employment were bizarre, as was the insistence on secrecy. How many secrets would I be a party to as a cleaner anyway? Yet the weirdness of the offer was far less of a problem than anything else that was happening in my life and so I decided to just forget about it and take the money.
At that moment, the buzzer to the flat sounded and instinctively shot to the floor. There was silence for a few moments and then I heard the same voice who had shouted through the letterbox the day before.
“You don’t need to come to the door. Your account has been settled. We won’t be visiting you again.”
I wondered if I was hearing things or if it was even a kind of trick to encourage me to open the door, but when I looked out of the window, I could see the bespectacled man crossing over the road and opening the driver’s side door to a waiting people carrier. Before he got in, he turned to look up at the window and I thought I heard him shout,
“Check your bank,” then he nodded and drove away.
Out of curiosity, I did just that and was astonished to find that not only had every fraudulent payment had been repaid, but they had also been erased from the accounts altogether. It was as if they’d never existed.
This is a prologue of the dystopian Nemo & Co series by J.E. Clarkson. You can find more information about the series here and you can find J.E. Clarkson on Twitter.