The Number Crunchers

I’m in the pub when Shakti gets grabbed. A South London library crawls with yellow jackets, and Shakti getting muscled into the back of a car. No need for sound on rolling tv news.

Six weeks ago I had a job, a pension and a five year plan. Then Shakti steps out of a wall of breakbeats in a smoke filled box in Bow. She wears mainly glitter and sweat and switchblade heels that could pin you to a post, but she slithers across the brew-washed floor like she’s barefoot – on the speakers, the tables – always back to me. We leave in the rude glare of dawn. No discussion. I just go with her. And stay.

There had been girls before. Most of them overeducated department giraffes and the odd bedazzling, b’Jesusing Saturday night slapper. But, the sparklers like Shakti, the girls I ached for in the throws of a Tuesday morning meltdown, stepped around me to get to the bar. The ‘guess what, I’m a procurement clerk at the MOD’ line doesn’t usually swing it with the dubstep honies. Though not entirely sound, I had been reasonably safe. Twelve hours in a Hackney loft later and my horizons had fled.

The next day, I’m tagging along behind the wagging finger of Shakti’s pony tail. ‘Keep up’ it says, flicking and switching through the London lunchtime crush.

We hop the barrier into the path of a 38 bus and for a moment I consider the wisdom of this, but she stops it with a single raised palm. The driver looks at his brake, then at Shakti, as if a magic tiger’s just stepped onto the Euston Road. She may have been raised in Stepney but she’s all Bengal. She’s slight, 22, but could pass for 19. I have two years on her, five from where he’s sitting. He looks at me as if I should know better. He has no idea that the truth is she’s light years ahead of me. I offer an apologetic shrug.

“How many bites of this cherry we got Lenny?” she aims it at me, but it’s as much for the faces now crowding the bus’s top window. She sparkles, etched out from the city by the low winter sun. “Tube, work, lunch, bus, sofa, TV, sleep. Tube, work, lunch. I’m amazed more people don’t crack up…” She locks me with her opals and I begin to spin. She steps to me and steadies me with a hand at the elbow, tickled by the effect she has, “…or go on killing sprees”, she whispers her cheek to mine.

I wonder why the driver doesn’t honk his horn. I wonder if I’ve signed up for a killing spree.

“How many chances? How many lives?”

Is she trying to unsettle me with a theological side swipe? I’ve never struggled for words before.


“Just one,” she says. “And instead of getting on with it, we spend it measuring ourselves against her next door or that prick off Hollyoaks.” Shakti gestures somewhere towards the top of the bus. The growing crowd of stalled shoppers craning at the barrier all look up. “Then we’re gutted when we suck in our last lungful cos all we got is a set of regrets and the realisation we stacked it.”

I open my mouth but, luckily, she stops me her with the palm trick.

“It’s a choice,” she says. “See?”

I don’t.

“And we can just as easily choose not to beat ourselves into an early grave paying for a fucking TV that tells us we’re inadequate cos our arses don’t look like Kylie’s.”

She looks at her arse, then at me. I wonder if she’s aware she now occupies the pedestal I once kept for Kylie.

Ten faces that don’t look like Kylie stare out from the bus. Shakti notices them, as if for the first time. Her frown melts into a smile. Driver and passengers beam back witless dog pound grins.

“People are just too used to doing what they’re told Lenny.”

She throws her arms wide and lets out a long low rolling yowl. We all watch her. She folds herself in half – squeezing the whole thing out and then she’s chuckling. She throws her head back and sucks in another great lungful and lets out an even bigger, brighter yowl. I join in. I yowl too. We yowl together, faces skyward, fingers splayed. And then we’re laughing. Upstairs, some kids have slid the bus windows open and hootered lips join in our yowling, and the street echoes with the sound of the pack.

“In the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty!” screams Shakti, her brilliant, black eyes blazing. “The jails are full of petty thieves, and the grand thieves are running and robbing the country!” And we’re gone, vaulting the barrier and running eastwards into the city.

“That was good,” I pant, catching her as she slows for a corner a half mile later. “That bit about poverty and war and grand thieves robbing the country.”

“Yeah I know” she croaks. “I stole it.”

Shakti describes herself an “only child in a family full of children”. Her parents, Bengali Hindus who could afford to swerve Bangladesh’s bloody liberation, swapped Sylhet for Stepney in 1975. They had wanted a son and got one, but “for some reason kept procreating”. Shakti was number three or four, she never seems quite clear how many they are. She says she never managed to care enough about the economics, the exams or the egg white folding techniques that bound the rest of them together but I think the rejection came from both sides.

The carpet is too thick and too red for computer sales. Shakti digs an elbow in my side. “Don’t worry Homeslice,” she says in a mock gangster whisper. “I is packin’.” And she hitches up her top, and tugs down her waistband, to reveal the giant pistol tattooed on her curvy coffee hip. She gives me a devious sparkle and scuttles candy apple fingertips across the display laptops. An assistant with a fat tie and a feathery haircut scurries after her.

“Er…can I help you?” He’s a northerner, Yorkshire, Leeds maybe, but he’s been south too long. His tie matches his trousers and bears the same logo that’s on the breast pocket of his shirt. He looks like he should be carrying a lunchbox. Shakti saunters. He looks at me. I look at Shakti. We both look at her fingernails.

“Maybe.” She loves creating unease. She leans back against the display case, pony tail twitching, elbows resting on the cabinet top. She’s coy, “I suppose you can,” then curt. “My friend wants a laptop.”

It has the desired effect. Feathercut can’t read her. He looks to me, but I can’t help him.

“Er…” he says. “These are very popular.” He gestures to a black box just south of Shakti’s elbow. He makes as if to touch it, but that would mean getting closer to Shakti. “It has a dual core processor and comes with…er…”

Shakti has moved right up close to the assistant. Beads of sweat are forming at his hairline and beginning to curdle with the products in his hair.

I’m at least two meters away from Shakti, but I can smell her like she’s just turned on a tap. She smells of marzipan, aniseed, cumin, amber and a forestful of Sundurban spices I couldn’t even name.

“Do…” she breathes in a deep jungle whisper, “you…” She shapes each word with hypnotic precision, the mangrove roots of her accent deliberately exposed.

“…have it in another colour?” She says confusingly bubbly and Stepney once more.

The assistant fails to stifle a whimper.

“Orange?” says Shakti. She looks at me. “Or…stripes.” She bares her teeth and snarls at him. “With a dedicated 64 bit graphics card and an independent minimum CPU speed of 3GHz, L2 cache and at least four, no eight gigs of D-Ram. Linux ready, wireless with…” She looks at me. “… a nice comfy bag you can ride a bike with.”

Feathercut looks ready for a career change – there had been none of this shit in in-house training. Shakti dismisses him with an open palm and he scampers off in search of a loading bay and a Silk Cut.

“Juice?” asks Shakti.

I shrug the bag from my shoulder and pull out the carton of juice she’d asked me to buy.

“Blood orange.” She gives a smirk of approval, fixes me with the midnight marbles and rubs her head against my neck.

Shakti takes the juice and places it behind the nearest display laptop. She folds back the edges and tears the top from the carton with a precision I couldn’t manage at the breakfast table. She picks up the alarm hub – a shiny black block that connects the display machines to the alarm system – and drops it into the juice. The liquid bubbles and squeals almost inaudibly, then the hub coughs up a twist of black smoke and dies. Shakti puffs the smoke away, takes the wire cutters from my hand and snips the alarm cable sticking out the back of a two thousand pound laptop. She hands it to me and, as we practiced, I drop it into my bag. She chooses a second, repeats the process and, unhurriedly, selects a third.

Fifteen minutes later, after our laughing gets the better of our running, we fuck hungrily in an alleyway leading to some private gardens, the pack full of computers bouncing clumsily against my back.

It seems crazy now to claim I wasn’t in on it. I’d been a number cruncher in the civil service, killing time till the weekend where I could hide in darkened rooms doused in dancehall music and mdma. I never set out to work for the Man, I grafted to get into uni cos I didn’t want to follow my old man behind the wheel, but the hoped for revelation of where to go next never happened. I probably would have worked harder if I’d known what for. I was lucky to get a job at all.

“What about your part in it?” says Shakti looking down at me from a propped elbow one morning in the Wick Lane warehouse she may or may not pay rent on. I watch the sweat on her hip evaporate in the sunlight coming through the wall of glass at my back. She shields her eyes and says she can’t make me out.

I guess I’d thought it didn’t matter – just a department scribbler mapping performance indicators for sustainability in procurement reports. Sustainability – it impressed my mum. But less packaging on yer cluster bombs still don’t bring yer baby back. I guess I’d justified it to myself, churning out reports no one was expected to read, I was a small cog – but, as Shakti liked to point out, ‘in a great big war machine’.

I could have climbed out of that bed and sloped back to the pensionable shadows. But we sealed the deal in the shower and the following week I began bleeding access codes off the army’s procurement systems onto a flash drive on my keys.

We started gently. Reduced orders on metals, chemicals, pushed component part deadlines back – just enough to make the supplier lose it with his kids after work, but never enough to spark a letter to his Parliamentarian. We worked across the board, not just armaments, but all kinds of ancillary military gubbins – bearings, kitchen parts, clothing. We never went in direct through Ministry portals, always on one of the laptops we’d piked, via a link in a café or a car at the curb. And we didn’t touch anything that’d be felt for six months or more.

“Do you think they’ll spot the savings?” We’d been at it for nearly three weeks, but this thought had only occurred to me that afternoon listening to some ministerial lackey bitching about the spiraling cost of killing.

We’re sat by the river, just close enough to the pub to connect for beers and wi-fi. It’s probably the first warmish evening of a nascent spring. Shakti, barefoot and a computer open on her crossed knee, has just spiked a £3million missile remote guidance system software update.


“Yup. Y’know, like if we keep canceling things, then the invoices stop n’all.”

Shakti considers, a finger at her lip. “An unseen side effect eh?” She shudders, and laughs. “I suppose we’ll have to spend some money then.”

And we did. We dished out pay rises for departmental cleaners, placed orders for some dialysis machines, we bought back the playing fields and okayed the building of two new primary schools and a cancer unit. It wasn’t hard going inter departmental, we just tagged all requests ‘MOD supported’. We withdrew offers of flight training for Israeli military pilots and gave medical school scholarships to ninety Congolese students. We slid money into training and staffing and advocacy for disengaged kids – all kinds of shit. There were plenty of takers.

The ripples spread surprisingly slowly. The companies who lost the contracts were generally amazed the bubble hadn’t burst before, and anyone that got a windfall knew better than to flap too much and risk getting it clawed back. We commissioned one bomb maker to explore the hydrogen engine and another to reroute research into reduced impact solar cells.

No one seemed to question any of it. People are used to doing what they’re told, especially within the state’s apparatus – and they’re used to getting and giving instructions on screen.

I’m stood at the bar of The Silver Cross, I’d gone there after work with a couple of lads from the Ministry. They split half an hour ago but I’m transfixed by the screen. On TV paramilitary cops with machine pistols bustle about with self important sneers, mobile units unfold cordon tape, helicopters hover. It’s a grand day out. We keep returning to Shakti getting gloved into the back of that car. I’d never had clammy hands that weren’t drug induced before.

“You alright mate?”

“Yeah…um, sorry. A brandy, a good one. Make it a double.”

I guess I’d presumed we’d go together. I check the door, the clock, empty the glass. But no blue lights. I order another. I expect they’re outside. I leave the pub. Nothing. I walk about. I go to an internet café. I haven’t been in one in years. I wait for ten minutes next to the moody attendant who yaks into a headset in a language I can’t place.

“Just take one,” says an Arab lad busy offing marines on a machine near the door. I find a free computer and fish through the newswires – terrorist plot yaddayaddayadda. AP leads with, ‘Britain’s fighting Capacity Severely Compromised’. I look round the room to see if anyone’s impressed, but no one’s watching my screen. The adrenaline and the cognac begin to ebb out of my shoulders and I feel tired, stoned on their absence.

I don’t go back to the Wick. I go back to my flat. I haven’t been there in weeks, but neither has anyone else. There’s a pile of mail and a note from my neighbour saying he’s been drinking my milk.

I boil my too shiny kettle and make sweet black tea in a glass.

I sit on my albums, like I would never have dared three months ago. The mixer’s been on standby since I was last here. I go to switch it off, but instead drop the needle onto the record collecting dust on the deck. “Are you working? What kinda work do you do?” Premier’s beats jangle and Guru tells me: “I’m gonna be a Jedi – that’s how my eyes can see.”

I wander round the flat like a prospective buyer. Why did I ever need all this shit? What kind of asshole buys a TV that big? I change my clothes and struggle to find something that sits right. Mike D stares moodily down from the wall in aviator shades. On the sound system GangStarr insert a Full Clip. “Big L rest in piece.” That’s about right. I fake sleep. They’ll be here soon. “Fresh out the gate again, time to raise the stakes again.”

I don’t go to work the next day. I hunch over the TV but the news is flaky. Shakti’s a Pakistani militant, part of an Islamic terror cell. It’s bullshit. The blatancy of the misinformation shocks me. I don’t know why, I should know, after all I am part of the machine. In truth, Shakti’s parents are Bengali Hindus – lucky enough to afford to swerve Bangladesh’s bloody liberation and swap Sylhet for Stepney in 1975.

The next day Holt rings me to ask why I haven’t been in.

“C’mon Lenny. We need the steel report finished so they can start cutting in Portsmouth.” I consider saying something smart for the wiretap. But I don’t.

There’s no food in the flat but it doesn’t matter. I drink more tea. I don’t sleep.

The next day I go to work. I presume I’m followed. I expect to get jumped on the elevator, plugged on the tube. I have a kind of speech prepared for the drop when it comes, but it doesn’t. It’s like this for a week. We finish the steel report. I sleep. I’m sinking back into the shadows.

A week ago I would have chased Shakti into the grave. It was like she opened a window for me. Hell, you can read about the killing and the global theft of land and power in your Saturday Guardian, but somehow, coming form Shakti, it all seemed less a devine act – less someone else’s responsibility to fix. Anything, everything could change, could be changed.

The next day it rains. I struggle out of bed. Shakti’s out of the news sections, replaced by the Portsmouth contract – three new attack subs. I log on and scan the procurement lists, gas centrifuges, distillation plants, sonar spheres. I could just walk away.

I find the sourcing requests for the 235. Enriched uranium. I clear access and mark a memo Highest Priority. I type: ‘Due to terror cell infiltration we think it prudent to cease production of Uranium235 for the time being.’ I sign it off as top brass. For the first time in a week I take a proper deep breath and I hold it. I hold it til my head spins and my lungs are fit to split and that’s when I smell her – amber, annis, marzipan and a thousand other spices I can’t even name.