Jack Effra was never aware of the voices. But they were everywhere: speaking about his walk in Londis in Milton Keynes, speaking about his taste for the continent in Cafe Rouge in Chiswick; talking about his possible-love-of-S&M in seedy underground clubs in Glasgow. All the month long the voices stretched the length and breadth of the UK, even in places spilling over the Channel into Europe. At airport lounges at Schiphol young girls discussed his jawline and dimples in great detail. Night time didn't stop the voices: they nestled down fibre optic cables to password-protected inboxes, to convulsing phones on bedside tables. Even through letter boxes in carefully hand-addressed envelopes.
On August 12th 2012 Jack headed down the steps into his basement flat. The door rucked up two letters on the mat as it opened, one about changing internet providers, the other one asking if he wanted to renew his membership with the British Spy Society. He shoved the latter on a metal hall table.
He logged on to his computer, then his email, then twitter. He clicked the cursor on the blank field and began typing: "I'm proud. Your salvation is near. Rgrds, @moontide."
New message: "Task 2: Befriend the man who stands outside Exit 2 of Holloway Road Tube by the kebab shop reading Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Introduce him to the polka dot dress wearing girl from Dorset who enters by the main exit at 5.18 each evening. I require £50 the rest is yours."
Within ten minutes the message has been read by 30 people.
"@redstalker The job is yours, inform results. Rgds, @moontide"
The next morning in Palmers Green, North London, Richard Hugues awakes, switches on his bedside lamp and picks a diamond of sleep crust from his right eye. He takes a swig of water and places the mug back on Tess of the D'Urbervilles adding to its ever increasing constellation of mug rings. By 7.10 he has left his flat, walked free of the cul-de-sac, and touched in his Oyster card at the station, his finger keeping his place in the book during the process. He boards the train, 2 minutes delayed in arriving. Brushing pastry crumbs off his lap, he eventually disembarks at Holloway Road 40 minutes later, and is lifted up the great escalator's tongue into the cool, fume-scented air of Central London. Turning to Exit 2 he feels a tap on his shoulder. He jumps.
"S'cuse me pal, sorry to bother you, do you know if there's a chemist near here?"
"Er... Yeah I think if you go up those stairs and to the right."
"Up those stairs?"
The man points in the wrong direction.
"No I think it's up there."
"Only I'm not feeling well and could do with some advice from them you know."
Richard Hugues puts his hand in his pocket and checks for his wallet as he's heard about these types, and knew that such occasions called for him to counter his naturally trusting nature. He treads the stairs carefully behind a wafting polka dot skirt and two neatly arched heels.
"Over there, you see between Cash Converters and that dodgy looking takeout joint?"
"Ah yes, amazing. Thanks so much, pal."
"No problem, hope you feel better."
It was then he noticed out the corner of his eye something fall to the ground, and hit the pavement with a soft slap. Flickering between the shuffling feet he saw a brown parcel, and above it, a canvas bag, one strap over a shoulder, another trailing alongside a polka dot skirt making the bag's mouth gape widely.
Richard bent down and picked up the package. "Helen Marlott, 5 Totland Avenue, Christchurch, Dorset."
"Excuse me, madam." (It was no use, physical contact must be made; he tapped her shoulder) "Uh sorry, is this yours?"
"Yes, yes yes it is. Thanks! How did that happen, oh god my bag! Oh no please don't tell me, no please don't tell me they've taken..."
"Here let's move out of the way." Richard placed a guiding hand carving a path clear of commuters into a damp, chewing-gum freckled doorway smelling thickly of urine.
"I can't find my purse. They've taken my purse!"
"Oh no, do you have your mobile? You should cancel your cards, they'll be doing nasty shenanigans as we speak."
"Oh buggeration so they will. Oh no, oh no, oh dammit."
"Here use mine. Lets take a seat over there."
Gallantly he googled the visa stolen card number and dialed it handed her the phone. She placed it against her ear jogging her knee with impatience as it connected. He noticed her profile, traced his eyes down the curve of her soft neck as it disappeared whitely beneath a red blouse embossed a few inches in by a bra strap beneath. He consciously pulled his gaze away, it landed again on the parcel: "Helen Marlott, 5 Totland Avenue, Christchurch, Dorset."
"Argh the flipping line's flipping well flipping busy. Argh god. They've probably done it now. My wages went in yesterday too."
"Oh no I'm sorry. Keep trying, though." (His mind still on the parcel, Richard opened his book.)
"Yeah...ah here we go." The phone conversation was curt and short, a slight relaxation descending at its conclusion.
An ambulance edged slowly down Holloway Road prolonging the time before Richard could respond.
"That parcel of yours. That name, 'Marlott'."
Richard opened the book to a point held by his finger.
"I'm reading Tess of the D'Urbervilles - and it's set in a place called Marlott... in Dorset"
"Tess of the D'Urbervilles! It's one of my favourites. Marlott is an old Dorset surname. I'm from Dorset. Hardy used the names of local townsfolk as pseudonyms for the settings in his books. My ancestors are bakers from the town where he lived. Here look..."
The girl pushed aside Richard's finger aside and grabbed the book as the thought of weddings momentary flashed into, and out of her mind, unbidden. It left her with a strange, glazed feeling she only just had time to shake off before suspicion was aroused.
"Here - Tess's friend's shop - it's basically my great grandfather's bakery through and through. This house described here is where my parents live now. It's really cute. This is crazy.'
She circled her finger around a particular paragraph at the top right of a page.
"Wow that's unbelievable. Really? You're not having me on?"
She shuffled an inch closer to him on the bench. He could feel her pleasant warmth contacting with his lower left side.
"Anna Marlott". Such was their proximity now that she had to bend her hand back sharply on itself to shake his.
"Aw, Richard. How about we just stay here, and forget work?"
He felt her head begin to rest softly on his shoulder.
"Yes", laughed Richard Hughes, mouth agape, who would 14 months later, be making a wedding speech thanking the "Enigmatic Effra".
"Yes. I'd completely forgot I was going, Anna Marlott."