Prologue / Agent Ai

‘Tell me, an autodidact such as yourself,’ he said, carefully enunciating his words, ‘you must be familiar with The Thirty-six Stratagems?’

‘Sun Tzu?’ I asked, assuming a reference to The Art of War.

‘No. In fact there is no known originator. They were simply passed down, a word here, a paragraph there, a shared conversation in an imperial hallway, all of it over hundreds of years.’

He clicked his fingers, at which point a gas lamp flickered into existence in front of me. My eyes struggled in the faint light but I made out the contours of a uniform, perfectly formed oblong patches of sweat under each armpit.

‘Deception, you see, lies at the heart of business, politics and war. Even pleasure, wouldn’t you say? Everyone practises it, from the President of China to the whores on Lockhart Road. The Stratagems document this, rather beautifully in fact.’

He started pacing around in the shadows, the sound of his leather soles echoing off the walls. ‘Stratagem three,’ he continued, ‘jiè dāo shā rén, kill with a borrowed knife. To attack with the strength of others: astute don’t you think? You see my friend here, my borrowed knife, has powerful backers indeed.’

This was not what I’d expected. Suspended by my wrists, toes making scant purchase on the tiled kitchen floor, slippery with sweat, water and blood, it took all my strength to hold myself upright. The obese figure sat on a stool by the door, watching through cruel narrow eyes, dark and soulless. The other, his hatchet man, stood near me, twisting electrical flex between his fists, its frayed copper ends protruding, bloodstained, like the tail of some hideous beast.

‘What have you done with it? Where is it?’ They repeated the same question on loop and had done since we started, hours ago, days ago, I could no longer tell. I groaned, desperately asking myself how I was going to play this one.

The events of the past weeks spun through my mind as I tried to assemble a narrative in my sleep-deprived state. Torn by my ambivalence, I wished I’d never met her, yet even in this dark, painful place was craving the sight and touch of her body again. Each beating took more out of me and I began to fear the worst. I had to feed them something to buy me respite.

I started to piece together the story.

Copyright © 2014 by Michael Wreford.