What will happen after coronavirus? What if the cure is worse than the disease? What if after COVID-19 we have COVID-21, COVID-35 and COVID-42?
Lockdowns, flight bans, school closures, contact tracing – coronavirus has changed society in ways inconceivable twelve months ago. What will our world look like after the pandemic?
My new novel Corona Crime explores the world after coronavirus. One of the rock stars of the future, Hope Deadman, sums it up:
I told my gal the future looked a scary place to be.
She said, don’t worry Dad, it’s cancelled.
I saw it on TV.
A thriller, a comedy and a love story
Corona Crime is a thriller, a comedy and a love story. In a future world where universal contact tracing and advances in medical technology have created a society of oppression, corruption and injustice, one man and one woman must defeat a system which makes 1984 seem as menacing as a teddy bears’ picnic.
Two prologues that went missing
An earlier draft of Corona Crime included two prologues, both set in the period after coronavirus. I later abandoned these to help the story flow more smoothly. Instead, I folded them into the “Appendix” to the novel, where you can still find them in abbreviated form.
In “Corona Crime” the sun has set on life as we know it.
The first of the two prologues considered how Coronatime, the precious life exchange fluid at the heart of Corona Crime, first came to be banned in the United States of America. It is the story of García vs Stein.
CORONA CRIME: GARCÍA VS STEIN
Why swap wives when you can swap lives? New York Times, 7 July 2041
They rang the doorbell to collect María García’s life at 09.00, right on time. María knew to expect it, but the sound set her heart racing so fast she thought her chest would burst. Her hand was trembling as she pulled back the faded curtain and peered outside.
Angel Guerrero was the man designated to deliver the letter. He stood two steps away from the door, the gold badge on his blue police uniform gleaming in the sun, the letter held out in front of him on his separation stick. They always had a cop deliver the letter, since people started resisting. She pulled on her gloves and opened the door.
‘For you, María. I am sorry.’ Angel smiled. ‘If you want company, I’m off duty soon. Got a fresh C-42 test.’ He touched his corona bracelet and she felt the warm pulse of safety on her wrist. ‘What else are you going to do, all on your lonesome tonight?’
María took the letter, sanitised it, and placed the envelope to dry off in the sunshine on the windowsill. Seven years ago, when she had first received her money, Angel had made a play for her. He had looked dashing in his police uniform in those days, but was essentially the same sleazebag: the first thing he’d ever said to María was that he was free of C-36. Back then, the bracelets had been better, she’d known he was safe before he told her, it was automatic. María had told him to get lost. Now the uniform had filled out, and what was left of Angel’s rough-cut charm was buried deeper.
‘No, thanks.’ María touched her bracelet to acknowledge receipt of the Termination Contract redemption letter. Then she closed the door, slumped at the table in her tiny kitchen, and burst into tears.
Angel had been right when he said María had few options for her final night. She had read the letter over and over. Twenty-four hours later, as she tidied away her breakfast and braced for the doorbell to ring again, the paper was crumpled and stained. She picked it up and fortified herself with a sip of coffee while the print swam into focus. Her eyes ached from the long night.
Life had become too precious to waste on sleeping.
Dear Ms Garcia Flores, the letter opened. On behalf of Doktor Faustus Life Exchange Luxembourg (DFLEL) I am pleased to inform you that your seven-year Termination Contract is due for redemption. Please attend Central Contribution, Avenida Jalisco, Tacubaya, Mexico City, by 0900 hours tomorrow. Thank you for your co-operation.
That was all. The letter did not say what would happen if María did not make her way to Jalisco from her shack in the Ciudad Perdida. But everyone knew that once the deadline expired, the contract was always enforced.
Escape was impossible with a corona bracelet clamped to your wrist.
This morning, Angel would not be so charming. He would bring reinforcements and, if necessary, a sledgehammer. If the police thought a delay was likely, they would summon a mobile contribution unit. All the neighbours would witness her final humiliation.
The kitchen was silent. In the distance, a cock crowed. A hot square of sunlight framed by the window crept across the tiled floor. She could smell the warm polish from where she had scrubbed the tiles last night. Suppose the next tenant thought María Sofia García Flores had not kept a clean and tidy house? The clock on the kitchen stove, next to the cross her aunt had insisted she put up, clicked on another minute. Soon, they would be coming.
Even if she could somehow shield or remove her bracelet, what could she do? The $500,000 she had received from Doktor Faustus seven years ago had all been eaten up. Most had gone on mama’s medical bills, before she was late. María did not possess a single cent. Why should she? She would never need money again.
María sighed as she thought of her mama. Some of her friends had organised Termination parties to make the most of their last few hours. Others had held an all-night wake with their families. She, María, had no-one left to share her final moments.
Outside, she saw Jose check the time on his bracelet. A police cruiser had drawn up further down the street, at a discreet distance; Jose must have told them María would not make a fuss. Five minutes of her life remained to her. She returned to the kitchen table, sipped her coffee, and placed her head in her hands.
How would her Life-Swapping partner be spending his or her day? She imagined a room full of sophisticated people, elegantly dressed, raising their glasses to the lucky recipient of her C-Time. Who was he, or she? María realised she had pictured the party guests as white people, maybe in New York or Los Angeles. But they could be Chinese, or Indian, or even from Mexico City itself. She would never know. Whoever it was, her life was now theirs.
She went into the bedroom and threw back the curtains. Outside in the yard, the leaves of the mango tree gleamed in the morning light. She stripped and put on clean underclothes. Her ankle-length skirt was fresh from the dry-cleaning: chemical fumes lingered in the air as she pulled it on. The white blouse was crisp from her ironing the night before. She buttoned it up in front of the mirror and allowed herself a smile. The fabric made her skin look supple and lustrous.
The doctor at Central Contribution had remarked on her complexion when María went for the medical exam seven years before.
‘Even for an eighteen year old, you are glowing with health,’ the doctor had said, a reassuring smile creasing his face. He must have been used to dealing with people for whom the slightest physical deficiency could cripple their future. ‘Your vital signs look good so far.’ He had tapped the display showing the output from her bracelet with his fingernail, as if he did not trust his equipment. ‘But I will take a blood sample and do a physical examination, also. Medical technology is not what it was.’
Half an hour later, the doctor had called her back in from the waiting room. ‘I have good news for you,’ he had said. Based on my examination and actuarial tables, I estimate you will live to seventy-five years. Doktor Faustus pays ten thousand dollars per year life of expectancy. You start contribution at twenty-five, they will pay you five hundred thousand dollars – and you will have seven years to spend the money, starting today if you want. You can make your mama’s last days comfortable with that kind of cash. I hope you can be comfortable, too.’ His eyes sparkled. ‘Sure this Coronatime thing is new. But it makes sense for everyone to make the most of their lives.’
So María had signed a Termination Contract to supply DFLEL with fifty grams of C-Time, starting on her twenty-fifth birthday.
The time was 08.58. She stood for a moment in front of the small bedroom mirror, her trusted calfskin shoulder bag hanging at her waist. If she had to go, she damned sure wanted to look her best.
At that moment she heard a heavy knock on the front door. María took a deep breath and gritted her teeth. After seven years, twenty-three hours and fifty-eight minutes, they had come to collect her life two minutes early.
David Stein shivered as he felt the slush working its way through the soles of his worn leather shoes. Flurries of snow filled the air of Pitt Street, casting a deceptive patina of purity over the filth of the Manhattan winter. Beneath a tenement window, a leaking pipe had built a stalagmite of ice like a frozen waterfall, big enough for a seagull to perch on, its feet apparently oblivious to the cold. It cocked its head and seemed to examine Hans as he hobbled by, his walking stick sliding on the icy paving stones.
He turned to Ruth to make a joke about the gull, but then he remembered she was in the hospital in an induced coma with C-36.
A reassuring pulse from his bracelet told him that no one, infected or not, was within distance. He grimaced: the street was deserted. But the ten-year old design was one of the best, fully automatic and connected to everything from the security system at his 47thStreet workshop to his doctor at Gotham Health.
Why was each year’s new model corona bracelet less sophisticated than its predecessor? It sometimes seemed as if the virus had killed off the brightest and best innovators, worldwide. But he, David Stein, still lived; and so, for now, did Ruth.
As a dealer in diamonds, Stein had travelled from Australia to Zimbabwe via Siberia, Botswana and everywhere in-between, searching for the stones he adored. He had made countless visits to the diamond exchanges in Antwerp, from where his father and Ruth’s mother had emigrated years ago. He knew for a fact that nowhere on earth felt colder than the Lower East Side in February.
Home would not be much warmer. The heating had been cut off months ago. Walking back from his visit to Ruth helped stir his tired old blood. But the trembling of his limbs made his gait so ponderous he sometimes wondered if his blood was flowing at all. Today it had taken an hour to complete the half-mile journey. Now, with the wind howling in from the East River, it felt as though his very heart had frozen.
He scrabbled in his pocket for the key. To close his fingers around the chilled metal required patience and concentration. The front door of the house was like a bank-vault; the windows were thickly barred from the days when he had kept the stones here. The high-security shaft, longer than Stein’s middle finger, was the only copy in existence bar Ruth’s, kept in a safe inside for the day she left the hospital. A lifetime of mistrust made a spare copy with a friend or a bank unthinkable. In any case, most of Stein’s friends had died long ago, and his bank no longer wished to speak with him.
That had been his secret: trust no-one. The only way to judge a diamond was to see it and hold it in your own hand. The day you listened to someone else’s opinion, you were finished. He grimaced as he struggled to guide the key into the lock and turn it. They said this was the beginning of the Coronatime era, C-Time, young people were calling it. How ironic it would be if he, the canniest and most cautious of the traders, had fallen victim to the biggest swindle of all.
The narrow lobby was icy. He left the damp shoes by the door and padded down the hall, still wearing his outdoor jacket. Doktor Faustus had promised an update on his Coronatime supplier at 10 o’clock.
The bedsit was on the ground floor. Long ago, this space had been a dining room: he and Ruth had hosted gala dinners for his fellow diamond merchants and their wives. A picture of Ruth on their wedding day stood on the mantelpiece, lit by a night-light Stein strove never to allow to go out. Next to it, a picture of his father outside the Beurs voor Diamanthandel in Antwerp had fallen over. Stein propped it up again. He had not ventured up the steep stairs to the upper storeys for two years, since a deterioration in his early-onset Parkinson’s had led to depression, dizziness, a fall and a broken hip. It was a reminder, he had joked with his doctor at Gotham, that death was nature’s way of telling you to slow down.
Not necessarily, nowadays, she had replied.
The clock showed 9.55. Time for a cup of tea. Stein shuffled into the kitchen and put on the kettle. Ruth smiled at him from the mantelpiece. He blinked, took off his bifocals and polished the thick lenses on a piece of kitchen-towel. Would it have made a difference if she were still conscious? Could she have talked him out of sending his entire fortune to Doktor Faustus? No. Even if Coronatime had been available before Ruth had become so ill with the C-36 virus that she was placed into a coma, he would still have paid everything he had to keep her alive for a single day longer, let alone the ten years he was buying for her now.
Ten years of the precious life-exchange fluid would change everything.
Stein had never trusted the middlemen who sprang up when the new technology had first appeared. The legislative framework was non-existent: like drugs and prostitution, lawmakers in most countries preferred to pretend Coronatime did not exist. In the legal void, so many old people had fallen prey to fraudsters that they’d coined a term for them. Time-Expired Dotards. TEDs. People at death’s door would pay anything to stay alive. When a Life-Swapping agent promised to put you in touch with a Coronatime donor, usually in a distant country where life was cheap, few TEDs could resist.
The kettle boiled. Stein concentrated as he poured. Nearly as much water seemed to slop onto the cracked granite worktop as ended up in the pot.
When Stein had first considered investing in Coronatime, he’d applied the lessons of a lifetime of caution. He had sought advice from men he trusted. The recommendation of DFLEL from the President of the New York Diamond Dealers Club had come shortly after Stein broke his hip. Within six months, Stein had signed a Life-Swapping contract with the Luxemburg-based company.
The tea was ready. Stein added a dried-up slice of lemon from a saucer in the fridge and checked his messages. It was nine o’clock.
Any moment now, Doktor Faustus would confirm that the Coronatime reserved for him had come on tap.
Then everything would change.
Once Stein’s donor had produced his or her first cent of Coronatime, DFLEL would air-freight the product direct to the Harlem Life Extension Clinic. The instant Stein or Ruth consumed it, each would cease to age for 3.65 days, arresting the progress of any disease, illness or condition – even C-42, or any future mutation of the virus. Given enough Coronatime, a terminally ill patient, or anyone else, could live forever.
Maybe one day they would find a cure for the coronavirus, and Ruth would recover consciousness.
He prodded the screen with the tip of his finger.
It was 10.05. Could Doktor Faustus have ripped him off again?
Was he himself a desperate TED?
The price of Stein’s C-Time had been nine hundred and eighty thousand dollars a gram, plus DFLEL’s commission. The terms had seemed reasonable. Without Coronatime, Ruth would be dead; and his money would be worth nothing.
Stein’s fortune from a lifetime in the diamond trade had been nearly twelve million dollars. He had calculated that he could buy ten grams and have enough to live on. DFLEL had insisted on payment in advance. The donor, they explained, would sign a Termination Contract, and would need the money up-front. The Coronatime would be provided once the donor entered terminal contribution in seven years’ time. Stein had transferred nearly ten million dollars.
Then he had sat back to wait.
The nightmare had lasted seven years.
Almost at once, Stein’s Life-Swapping partner had demanded more money. Doktor Faustus had been clear that this was illegal. But enforcing the contract with a donor who, they hinted, lived in a country with a corrupt judiciary, had taken sixteen months. Legal costs of over a million dollars had fallen to Stein.
Each year, costly new complications had arisen. Stein’s health had declined. Ruth had grown weaker. Three months ago, the doctor had told Stein that without access to Coronatime she had no more than a few months to live.
He looked at the screen and saw his breath clouding the air. Why was there no news?
Suddenly, text appeared on the screen.
URGENT INFORMATION FROM DOKTOR FAUSTUS, the heading said.
Stein frowned as he slowly made out the words.
WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT A SERIOUS PROBLEM HAS ARISEN WITH YOUR LIFE-SWAPPING PARTNER.
In Ciudad Perdida, pounding shook the flimsy wooden panels of María García’s front door.
Two minutes early.
María hesitated. Suddenly, the thought of skulking within her house seemed intolerable. She would open the door. Perhaps she would stand on the threshold for those two minutes, and look up and down the street, to show the world she was still mistress of her own destiny.
She took a deep breath; gripped the handle; stood up straight; and threw the door open.
‘It is not yet time,’ she said.
‘No,’ the woman standing outside said. ‘It is not.’
María saw eight nuns in her front yard, clad in identical blue-and-cream habits. Her bracelet pulsed to tell her they were all free of infection. ‘Who are you?’ she said.
‘I am Mother Hope, from the Church of Christ is Risen. The priest at your aunt’s church says you have a problem.’ Mother Hope reached out a hand criss-crossed with deep wrinkles. ‘Come with me, child.’
María took a step back.
‘You want to rescue me? From what? And why do you call me your child? I never met you before in my life.’
The nun smiled. ‘You are full of spirit. Come with us.’
María examined the nuns. Their eyes seemed friendly. Several of them were tall and broad enough to be more than a match for Angel Guerrero. But what was God’s position on breaking a contract María had signed of her own free will?
She saw movement across the road. Angel was making a call. He covered his mouth and bracelet with his other hand as he spoke.
Then she saw them. Behind the nuns were camera crews. Two had their lenses trained on María. The third was filming Angel. Nearby, a small crowd had formed, holding up their bracelets to record and perhaps to transmit the scene.
The presence of the media made María bold. She stepped forward and addressed Mother Hope.
‘How am I doing right if I come with you?’ she said. ‘If I do not go with Angel, he will be in trouble; and I will be breaking the law.’
‘The law is wrong, my child.’ The nun bowed her head. ‘Many people in our country are cheated by these companies. Maybe your life swapping partner is paying more than you are receiving.’
María frowned. Five hundred thousand dollars was a lot of money. But she knew nothing about the person buying her C-Time. She looked at the cameras. Then she reached out and embraced Mother Hope.
‘I am ready to shelter with you,’ María whispered. ‘But only if you stop calling me your child. And only until we find out if this contract is fair or not.’
‘Bless you, my – María.’ Mother Hope smelt of soap. ‘I think you will find that the contract is not very fair at all.’
Two days after the message from Doktor Faustus, David Stein found himself looking out of an aircraft window at a strip of sand where the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico met the blue of the ocean.
He felt ready to die.
In front of him on the fold-out tray, bubbles rose lazily in a flute of Champagne. The cold liquid had frosted the sides of the glass. Stein had neither ordered it nor touched it.
‘You ever noticed that? Since they invented C-Time, planes are getting slower? No wonder no-one wants to fly anywhere.’ Willow, the blonde journalist from Wolf News, was perched in the seat beside him. What kind of name was Willow, anyhow? ‘They say it’s because rich people aren’t in a hurry any more,’ she added, peering at Stein for a reaction.
‘I am in a hurry,’ he said. ‘But I am not rich.’
‘That was my point.’ The journalist sighed and held up her bracelet, a bulky modern version with limited functionality. ‘So, let’s do the final piece.’
Stein shook his head and stared out of the window.
‘Mr Stein. Do not forget who is paying for this flight.’
Stein said nothing. Wolf News had led the pack when the story broke of his connection to the drama playing out in Mexico City. Was the contract he had signed to sell them his story more harmful than the one he had agreed with DFLEL, and through them with the Coronatime supplier in Mexico City, María García? Both felt like they were killing him. But without the media, he would never have been able to pay for the journey.
Her bracelet was in his face. ‘What are your feelings as you look down on the country of the thief who has stolen your C-Time?’
Stein’s neck ached from sitting still. His stomach was bloated from the low air pressure and the airline food.
‘María García has not stolen my Coronatime,’ Stein said. ‘She is simply refusing to enter contribution until she has talked to me.’
‘What do you think about the rumours that the nuns at the Church may be armed?’
‘They are nuns. I will not criticise them.’
‘Of course, you are a man of faith. How do you square that with buying someone else’s life expectancy?’
‘Maybe it is wrong. I do not know. But my wife needs the Coronatime or she will die. And the contract says that María García sold it willingly.’
‘What about the refusal of the police to enter the church to take Miss García into custody? Will you criticise that?’
‘I do not advocate policemen storming churches.’
‘Very worthy.’ The blonde journalist shook her head. ‘So: are you optimistic that María García will hand over your C-Time when she sees how you and your wife are suffering?’
Stein felt nausea rising in him.
‘I cannot see how either María García or I can emerge from this sequence of events with any dignity.’
‘That is so powerful.’ Another journalist, sitting across the aisle, had risen to her feet. ‘Could we film you saying it again?’ She nodded to a colleague, who began to wrestle a late-model video camera out of an overhead locker. ‘We should move that Champagne out of shot.’
Stein was hemmed in by the window and betrayed by his body. Two other camera crews were closing in. When Stein tried to remove the unwanted glass of Champagne, his hand shook and the chilled liquid splashed the trousers of his suit. He smelled sweet wine and mothballs.
He saw the cameraman smile.
The recording light was on.
What would the viewers see? A Time-Expired Dotard spilling his drink in the business-class cabin of an airliner as he flew to confront the beautiful, vibrant woman who controlled his Coronatime.
Could humiliation be any worse than this?
Two hours later, Stein was beginning to understand that his humiliation had barely begun. In the sweltering minibus on the way to the Church, Willow explained what she called the paradigm of Wolf TV’s coverage.
‘We are casting you as the victim. That makes it good if you arrive at the church looking weak and exhausted. Keep your mask on, even if the Mexicans are not wearing theirs. It is also good if your old, thick suit makes you sweat, or if your Parkinson’s is making you tremble. If you look like a powerful American businessman coming to enforce a contract against a poor Mexican girl, our viewers will hate you. Actually, everyone will hate you.’
‘I have nothing. But people hate me anyway,’ Stein said.
‘That is why we are calling you the Flying Dutchman.’
‘I told you. Antwerp is not even in the Netherlands.’
‘We’re trying to stir up sympathy for you, for God’s sake, and sell your story.’ Willow rolled her eyes. ‘Remember: when we reach the church, people must see you suffering.’
The Church of Christ is Risen was a modern concrete structure with a tall, angular spire. News crews crammed the road. A row of nuns sat blocking the stairs up to the entrance, singing hymns and praying, none of them wearing masks.
Stein blinked. The music was beautiful.
Close to the nun-barrier a group of police officers sat under an awning, fortified with a cold-box full of drinks. A news team was interviewing a cheerful, thick-set fellow holding up an empty leather holster.
When Stein climbed down from the minibus and leaned his weight on his stick, the heat hit him like a hammer. He staggered. His mask felt like a gag. A dozen cameras turned towards him.
They sensed fresh meat.
Journalists surged forwards, yelling questions. The nuns on the stairs sang louder.
Stein’s suit, made for the New York winters of twenty years earlier, felt intolerably hot. His legs were sticky from the spilled drink.
He closed his eyes. How good it would be to die here, now. To retreat forever, to a place of peace. To leave Ruth to a dignified end in her hospital bed.
To confront the nuns seemed unthinkable. Yet to walk away was impossible.
He opened his eyes. Everyone was still shouting questions at him.
Then he realised. He did not need to answer.
He reached his foot forward, leaning on his cane. A single step. Then another. The crowd of cameras parted. Hunched and trembling, Stein approached the nuns on the steps, who were singing and swaying to the rhythm.
‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘I wish to see María García.’
One of the nuns rose to her feet. A dark mountain of a woman, she towered over Stein as he leaned on his stick.
‘I am Sister Truth,’ she said. ‘I am sorry, old man. No-one can pass.’
Stein fingered the Star of David around his neck. ‘Tell María that David Stein has come to see her.’
‘I will tell her that.’ The nun turned and whispered to a girl standing behind her, who ran up the steps into the church. For a long moment, nothing happened.
Sister Truth reached out a hand and held Stein’s bony shoulder. ‘Take off that mask,’ she said. ‘Everyone here is free of the virus.’ She held up her bracelet, an elegant foreign model of a type Stein had never seen before, with a green indicator light. ‘At least until C-43, or C-45, or whatever comes next.’
Stein stared at her. Could Mexico City really be safer than New York? Willow had told him to keep the mask on. But what could she do to him, now? He reached up to take it off, fumbling with the straps.
The nun reached forward to help, her big fingers nimble. ‘This C-Time, this life exchange that can stop the virus, it seems like a blessing,’ she said. ‘But it is a curse. It is too strong. It risks destroying us all.’ The nun squeezed his shoulder. ‘But it exists. So we must learn to live with it.’
‘Let him in!’ There was movement by the church. An older nun, her face as creased as Stein’s own, stepped into the sunshine. ‘It is time.’
The new arrival spread her arms and the sisters blocking the stairs opened up a passage for Stein to pass. He struggled with his stick to mount the first step, then felt merciful support as Sister Truth put a huge arm around his bony shoulders. He sensed a hubbub on all sides as camera-crews forced their way up the stairs behind him. He entered the Church. Ahead, the nave was packed with people, staring at him. None wore a mask. He saw anger in their eyes.
He turned to face the altar.
María García stood with her back to him. She wore a white top and a long red skirt, with a black leather bag over her shoulder. Stein took a few steps down the aisle, still supported by the burly nun. A sigh went up from the congregation.
María García turned.
Stein could see that her face was wet with tears. Her fists were clenched. Yet he could only think how beautiful she was. And how young.
At first, María García did not see the old man. Ever since she had arrived at the church, crowds had been gathering. Mother Hope had placed her with three other “children” the Church had persuaded to renege on their Termination Contracts. But since this David Stein, a rich diamond merchant from New York City, had announced he was coming to meet her, it seemed every man, woman and child in Mexico wanted to see the scandalous fugitive from justice, María García.
Sometimes, María wondered if she had been right to let The Church of Christ is Risen embrace her. Maybe it would all have been simpler to lie down on the slab and give Mr Stein his C-Time. How would all this end?
She had turned away from the altar because she sensed something was happening. But in all the mass of well-wishers, journalists, priests, lawyers, nuns and protesters who had crammed into the church, she could not see what was going on. Somewhere, she could hear a group of people who called themselves One Lifers shouting that Coronatime was the work of the devil and should be banned.
Then she saw him. The pale, shrunken bundle of bones was barely visible, tucked under the mighty arm of Sister Truth. Only when the nun had dragged the old man almost to the altar rail could María see him properly.
Could this really be David Stein? He looked older than any man María had ever seen. The sagging skin of his face was sheathed in sweat. A dribble of spittle hung at the corner of his mouth. How could this man have afforded to buy her C-Time? His ancient, soiled clothes seemed to have been made for a bigger man.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Is it you? I am so sorry.’
The man stared at her. His mouth hung open. When a dozen camera teams jostling on a pew crashed backwards onto the concrete floor, he did not seem to hear it.
María saw flies were settling around the old man’s eyes, as though he were dead already. Sister Truth waved them away.
Stein’s silence triggered a stir among the media.
‘Come on, granddad! Say something!’ a journalist shouted. ‘Cat got your tongue?’
‘Let him be,’ María said. ‘He is sick.’
Stein took another step forward, his hand quivering on a stick. He peered up at María. ‘Are you her? Do you have it?’
‘I am María García,’ she said. ‘Yes. I have your life. You have purchased it.’
‘I thought I was buying only the part you did not want.’
‘Yes. But now I find I do not want to give it to you.’
María stood up straight and was blinded by a blaze of camera flashes. Her words rang harsh in her own ears.
‘I need your Coronatime or my wife will die of the virus,’ the old man said. ‘Is it true they paid you only half a million dollars?’
He shook his head. ‘But how old are you? Surely you have more than ten years left to live?’
‘I am twenty-five years old. I sold you fifty years of my life for ten thousand dollars a gram.’
‘Fifty years? Ten thousand dollars?’ For a moment Stein looked as though he would slump to the ground, but Sister Truth held him firm. Instead, the old man opened his mouth and wailed. His voice rose, thin and shrill. There was madness in it, María thought. What had he said about ten years left to live? Was it possible that she had sold her whole life to Doktor Faustus and that Stein had paid for only a few years? And for a higher price?
This was not life swapping. It was robbery.
But to whom could she turn?
She looked around the church. Hundreds of lenses were pointing at the old man as he howled out his hurt. It was as if every news channel on earth had put out a tendril to suck the life out of David Stein – and to paint her as a thief.
María felt tears in her eyes. If she kept the C-Time, the world would hate her. If Stein took it, the media would crucify him.
She looked again at the cameras.
Perhaps there was a way to make good come of this.
She might get Angel Guerrero into trouble.
But Angel had always been good at explaining why he could not be held responsible for anything.
She would break the old man’s heart.
But David Stein’s heart had already been smashed to pieces.
She would show the world the evil of C-Time.
And Doktor Faustus Life Exchange could do nothing about it.
She lifted the soft leather flap of her shoulder bag and reached inside.
David Stein felt the darkness begin to lift. DFLEL had robbed everyone. He had paid the Luxembourg-based swindlers nearly a million dollars a gram for ten years of Coronatime and they had given this beautiful, helpless girl a fraction of that sum for forty-seven years of her life. But he would not take his share, now. He and Ruth would die with dignity. All that remained was to return his poor old body to Harlem. He would pass his final days there, then lie in peace with Ruth.
‘I do not want your Coronatime,’ he began to say.
But no-one was listening. A gasp echoed round the church, followed by an avalanche of noise as cameras flashed, clattered and zoomed.
Stein turned to see where they were pointing.
María García had taken a handgun from the bag at her waist. It was a squat, stub-nosed weapon that had once belonged to the police officer Angel Jose Guerrero Castro.
She looked down at Stein and shook her head.
‘I am so sorry,’ she said again. ‘But C-Time is wrong. The nuns are right. I must do what I can to stop it.’ And without waiting for a response, she lifted the barrel of the gun to her head and pulled the trigger.
In the enclosed space, the explosion of the revolver was immense. A gout of gore shot sideways from the head of María García, spattering the altar and some of the camera crews who had taken up position there. The sound resonated as she fell to the ground. Her slender fingers still clasped the pistol grip.
Stein could see her face. Her beauty had been obliterated by a massive wound where one eye had been. He felt the pressure ease around his shoulders as Sister Truth rushed to aid the girl.
So many camera crews were converging on the altar that there was no space for all of them. A team who had been crowded out saw Stein leaning on his stick.
‘So,’ a red-haired interviewer said. ‘There goes your C-Time. What will you do now?’
‘I’m going to go to hell,’ Stein said. He paused, aware of other cameras closing in. ‘Because I killed her. She was going to die so I could live. But now she’s gone and I’m following her. She’s gone to heaven. I’m going to die, and go to hell.’
‘You saying C-Time is hell?’ the interviewer said.
‘Coronatime is hell.’ Stein turned, and began to walk out of the church. ‘Coronatime is hell, and this is only the beginning.’
If you’ve enjoyed this first chapter, do look at my post The world after Coronavirus: CORONA CRIME.