GRYLA Winner 2020

Pay Grade

Written by Robin Bedward, Year 10

Gurney weaved his way through the bustling crowd along the platform, already feeling the familiar, unrivalled sense of excitement prickling through his frame. He felt no guilt, no reluctance, nothing which an ordinary person might feel when presented with his task.
His quarry was now riding serenely up the escalator, seemingly unaware of her pursuer, utterly absorbed in her phone. Gurney knew better than to assume that she wasn’t on the lookout for the likes of him.
She reached the top and stepped off the escalator, pocketing her phone as she did so. A few seconds later, Gurney too stepped off the escalator and moved after her. She was a safe distance in front of him, separated by the crowd of commuters, and paused to read a train’s destinations off a nearby screen before coming to a decision.
Gurney moved discreetly in her wake as she headed towards another escalator, this one leading down to another platform.
God, he had missed this.

Gurney’s old boss dropped by the flat on Monday morning. Gurney wasn’t surprised to see him; in fact, he’d expected to hear from the Firm much earlier.
‘Mike,’ his boss said, nodding and smiling while standing in the doorway. The old man had barely changed since they had last seen one another, the same worn but friendly face, the same brown cardigan and driving gloves he always wore whatever the weather.
Gurney stood aside and let him in. ‘Cocoa?’
‘Ah, yes,’ his boss said, seating himself on the sofa. ‘That would be wonderful.’
Gurney returned from the kitchen with two steaming mugs a minute or two later and sat next to his boss, placing them both on the coffee table. His boss reached into his pocket and produced a white envelope, which he handed to Gurney.
‘I’m sorry sir,’ said Gurney. He handed it back.
‘Mike,’ said his boss again. Gurney didn’t look at him, just drank his cocoa, noisily. After all, it was his home and he drank his cocoa how he bloody well liked.
His boss sighed. ‘I don’t know why you’re being like this. We both know it’s going to end.’
‘Sir, I left five years ago.’
‘So we noticed.’
‘There’s no reason why I should do anything for you now.’
His boss thrust the envelope back in his direction. ‘Come on, Mike, what are you afraid of? That you’ll be found out? You know that won’t happen, it’s not how we operate.’
Gurney took the proffered envelope but didn’t open it, just massaged it gently with his fingers. ‘I happen to have a conscience, sir.’
His boss laughed. ‘No you don’t, you pretend to have one, but you can’t give this up permanently. You’re an addict. If you don’t take the job now, you’ll give in to the urge some other time, and there’ll be nobody around to protect you. Besides, the money’s good and I hear the bills have started to pile up lately.’
A pause.
Gurney peeled the envelope open, reached inside, removed the photograph.
His boss smiled. ‘I knew you’d come to your senses.’

Another platform, just as crowded as the first, with periodic announcements requesting that customers please stand behind the yellow line.
Gurney’s target had stopped behind the yellow line and was waiting patiently, an ordinary commuter, nothing to see. She still hadn’t looked once in his direction, but he couldn’t let his guard down. He was so close.
The train rushed into the station, grinded to a halt. The yellow double-doors on the nearest carriage slid open, and Gurney moved towards them as quickly as he could while being discreet.
Let the target out of sight and she’s as good as lost.

The photograph showed a young woman, in her early twenties at most, with shoulder-length black hair. Gurney studied the photograph carefully, finding the distinctive details and beginning to imprint them in his memory.
‘Just a routine case for someone with your experience,’ said his boss. ‘She saw something she shouldn’t have, whether she knows it or not. You know we can’t take risks.’
Gurney looked up from the photograph. ‘Why me?’
‘I’m sorry?’
‘You’ve got plenty of others who could do this job, why go to the trouble of fetching me?’
His boss shrugged. ‘Not many of them are as quick and tidy. Besides, I thought you’d enjoy it.’

Gurney’s quarry had taken one of the few remaining seats in the carriage, next to some middle-aged man lightly dozing away the trip home from work, and was obsessed as ever with her phone.
Gurney now stood only a little over a metre from her, clasping one of the safety straps that dangled from the ceiling. He looked away, glancing around the carriage. It was possible that he’d gone completely undetected by her, and he couldn’t let her notice at this point.
After giving the dozen or so other passengers in the room a quick once-over, he stole a glance at his quarry. She wasn’t looking at her phone anymore, but at him, only a serene neutral expression showing on her face. The eye contact lasted about a second, but felt much, much longer.
Then it was over, and she glanced around the carriage disinterestedly before returning to her device. Perhaps she doesn’t know, Gurney told himself. She was just momentarily looking at a fellow passenger who she didn’t know and would never see again. Or she’d noticed, but he could still handle it if she was prepared, couldn’t he? What if he was more out of practise than he thought?
Stop panicking, Gurney told himself. For God’s sake, you’re a professional. How many times have you done this before?
The driver announced the next stop over the speaker, and Gurney’s quarry stood, putting her phone away.

‘All your debts will be sorted,’ Gurney’s boss told him. ‘And there’ll be a decent bonus in there too. After the deed is done, of course.’
Gurney didn’t need this explained to him, he knew the procedure off by heart. He just nodded, studying the photograph again.
His boss stood. ‘Time and place is in the envelope as usual. That’s all there is to it really, I won’t take any more of your time.’ He made for the door.
‘You forgot your cocoa,’ Gurney said from the sofa.
The boss didn’t turn around. ‘Ah, help yourself to it, I never could stand that muck.’
‘You wanted it when you came in.’
‘I was being polite.’
The boss walked out and shut the door behind him.

Gurney walked along the pavement a few metres behind his quarry, keeping another pedestrian safely between them. It probably wasn’t enough, but it was the best he could manage at this point.
She crossed to the pavement on the other side of the road and quickly ducked down a narrow alley. God, she must have noticed him, and he knew next to nothing about the suburb’s geography. Oh well, he’d just have to do without it.
Gurney crossed the road and broke into a run towards the alley, then ducked inside, thrusting his hand into his jacket.
‘Mike Gurney.’ She was standing there, calm as ever, something small and shiny glinting in her left hand.
‘I’m sorry,’ Gurney said, and he almost meant it. Almost.
‘No need to explain. I know what you need to do, Mr. Gurney. And for the record, I’m better at it than you.’
She lunged at him with the knife just as he brought out his hand. There was a single muffled pfft, and she collapsed.
‘No, you’re not,’ Gurney said, stroking the sleek, silenced pistol. ‘Total bloody amateur.’ One shot and it was over. And he’d been worried he’d lost his touch!
Gurney took out his phone and began dialing the Firm’s number. His boss was right, he’d never had a conscience and probably never would. To tell the truth, he wasn’t entirely sure why he’d ever tried to grow one. True, his work with the Firm would strike most people as heartless, but if he didn’t do it, someone else always would instead, and everyone needed to pay the bills.
He made the necessary call, keeping it concise and business-like, then pocketed the phone and exhaled heavily. It was getting on to five thirty, and he could do with a cup of tea and a biscuit.
Gurney gave his unmoving quarry one last look, then walked off into the mild suburban afternoon, humming cheerfully as he went.