A single thread of red light shone through the darkness. Shrouded in night, the hard angles of a brutalist fortress could barely be seen against the sky. The faint vapor cloud of a man's breath pushed at the stillness of the air.
He was in position.
The flat had been bugged by an advance team; in through the window, five minutes in each room, and then quietly out. Completely undetected. They had been monitoring the conversations for weeks from a nearby flat. That was the beauty of the Barbican: a giant complex of flats, on top of each other, where nobody knew each other. Everyone was anonymous. Everyone could be a sitting duck.
It would be clean; easy; professional. Despite his civilian clothes - dark jeans, a black sweatshirt - he was a soldier.
Nobody would be harmed who didn't need to be.
Through his earpiece, beyond the crackling static, came his target's conversation. Through his gunsight, the shape of a man in a suit, pacing through his kitchen, his telephone cord trailing behind him.
"I don't know what else to tell you. I simply can't budge on this matter. It's far too important, and you people need to get it through your heads that I'm not going to --"
The soldier recognized the crack in his target's voice. He was struggling to regain his composure. His Scottish accent was slight - the result of years of work to hide his working class upbringing, to make his voice more neutral for a mainstream audience - but anger brought the Glaswegian through without fail.
He cleared his throat and started again, his voice moderated.
"-- excuse me. I'm not going to back down on this. This isn't about some parochial bylaw."
"Mr Johnson," the telephone itself was tapped, and the voice on the other end came in loud and clear. Pretentious condescension dripped down the line unmistakeably. "You know full well this isn't personal. It's about our contributors. We don't have a chance of competing in the general election without their backing. If we lose them, we will lose it all. You know this, and I'm afraid I just think you're being difficult."
"I'm not being difficult for the sake of being difficult. I'm being difficult for the sake of the country."
"If we can't see eye to eye on this, I will have to take it up with the party chairman."
"Mr Willow, this is about far more than the party or our election. This is about our responsibility to future generations."
"How very noble of you, Mr Johnson."
The soldier glanced at his watch. 1:47am. Hours beyond the intended time, and he still hadn't been given the OK.
There was a rustling near the pond, and without moving his gun sight, he quietly turned to check. Nothing that he could see. Nobody except the most important of the higher-ups knew he was here. He hadn't been set up; he was sure of it.
Mostly sure, at least.
"Surely you see that if we don't win the election, we're barely going to be able to help anybody at all. Frankly, it's disturbing to me that we're even having this conversation. We put so much faith in you, Mr Johnson."
"Mr Willow. Lynton. You seem to have forgotten that I, not you, am the Leader of the Opposition. If we win the election, I will be Prime Minister. And I will be the one who has to stand up for our policies, and look myself in the mirror every day while I do so."
"Very nice. Drop the pledge, Daniel."
The rustling was much closer, now, and the soldier turned to face his assailant. Nothing he could see. But the sound hadn't stopped, and seemed to be getting closer still.
He swung his gun around.
"I will do no such thing," Johnson said, his voice raising over the static.
"Then we will need to take appropriate measures," Lynton Willow said.
"You and your appropriate measures can get to fuck," Johnson said, slamming the phone down. The deafening impact reverberated down the line like a firecracker.
The rustling was on top of the soldier now, right here on the edge of the garden with him, and he couldn't see who or what it was.
He remained as still as he could, his breath heavy, his finger trembling on the trigger, his assailant invisible. He was alone with the sound of an unknown foe, the still of the night, and the static crackle of his mark.
He tightened his finger on the trigger.
A voice in his earpiece, clearer, above the static because it came from the local base station and not from the listening devices in his target's flat: "fire when ready".
And then a figure emerged from the bushes, the black of its eyes reflecting the sliver of the moon.
A fox. Just a fox. The soldier caught his breath, and for a moment, they stared at each other. Then it silently ran back into the night, lost in the matte darkness with everything else.
The soldier turned back to the window. The thread of red light lit a path to the window, his breath returned to steadiness, his finger ready.
He squeezed the trigger.
And just like that, David Johnson was down.
"We're Uber for lamps."
Cris sat back in her Italian mesh-backed office chair and looked across the boardroom table with intent. This was her fifth startup pitch of the day, and the quality had not improved. "Can you explain to me what that means?"
"Sure," her smiling visitor said, without missing a beat. "We combine the convenience of Uber - one touch ordering from any mobile device, wherever you happen to be - with the kind of high-end lighting that you would normally have to order from a specialist store. That takes days if you're lucky; if they don't have the particular designer lighting you want, it could take weeks. With our product, it takes an hour."
She smiled back at him. She wasn't sure if this was the dumbest idea she'd ever heard, but it couldn't be more than a short walk away from it. Still, it was important that every visitor had a good experience while they were pitching her firm; it all reflected back on their reputation. In an industry like venture capital, everything depended on what people said about you. One bad experience for the wrong person could hurt your ability to make deals forever.
"Are there .. are there a lot of people who need a designer lamp in an hour?"
"Absolutely. Do you know what majolica is?"
"I don't. Please tell me."
"Absolutely. So let me tell you a story. My mom owns a chain of restaurants up and down the peninsula. Italian food, fresh ingredients, beautiful, artful stuff. And the decorations have to be just right. The kind of people who eat at these restaurants, they're not just buying food - they're buying an experience."
Cris smiled outwardly.
"Majolica is a kind of Italian ceramic with a metal finish. It's unbelievably beautiful. Perfect for fine dining. My mom's restaurants are entirely lit with these gorgeous majolica lamps. But one morning last week, the cleaning staff nudged against one of them. It was careless and stupid, and of course, they were fired immediately, but it was too late; the damage was done. In the old days, she would have waited weeks to replace it, and she would have had to have this hole in her restaurant décor. It would have put people off and had a real impact on her bottom line."
He smiled and pulled his iPhone from his pocket. "But now with Lamply, she was able to find the lamp she needed, hit a button, and have it delivered within 45 minutes. Meal service was saved."
"That's incredible," Cris said. "I bet your mom was pleased."
"She was. We saved her business."
"So where do you deliver lamps to?"
"We're starting in Marin."
"Hey, what are you doing after this?"
Another long day. Her hard work making connections, getting the word out about her firm, soliciting referrals and researching intersecting industry trends had led to six lousy hour-long pitches.
It was a necessary part of the process. First, she would be sent a "deck": a presentation deck that usually had twenty or thirty slides that described every aspect of the business. When she was helping first-time founders, she described it as being a lot like a picture book for investors. If there were any startups that sounded promising from the deck, particularly if they had a great team, she would invite them in to pitch their business to her. It was in her interests to see as many startups as possible, so inevitably many of them wouldn't be ready to realistically take investment.
Still, not a single one of today's sessions had led to a recommendation to even progress to a second meeting.
There was a time that Cris was excited about the technology industry and the effect it was having on the world - the idea that somebody could build a new tool in their basement and democratize an entire industry was intoxicating. But those days felt very far off; more often than not, people founded startups to get rich quick. The idealism that had characterized the early days of the internet was gone, replaced with a determined soullessness that felt a lot like Wall Street. Except Wall Street was much more honest about it.
At least only one of them had hit on her today. It was never charming, never nice, never flattering; always a relentless reminder that the tech industry was loaded with immature boys who didn't know how to act around an adult woman in any setting. She had sometimes thought about quitting tech, but that would be concession. She couldn't let them win. And for every entitled asshole she had to suffer through, there was someone out there who did have a truly innovative spark, who was doing this for the right reasons.
As soon as she walked outside, a torrent of water hit her in the face.
Somehow, it was raining. The bright sign their Managing Partner had insisted on reflected in the puddles that were beginning to form at the side of the road. Nothing in San Francisco was designed for rain; even though it was a literal inevitability of the water cycle, whenever it happened the water would just pool everywhere. There was no real drainage anywhere. This was the only city she had ever lived where the bridges would regularly flood, but sure, they were building the future, or something.
At least the sign would be gone soon. Something Ventures was a ridiculous name - something ventured, something gained, was meant to be the joke - but a larger firm had swooped in to acquire their team before their next set of investments. It would be something new, at least. And hopefully more understated.
Her phone buzzed into life as soon as she hit the corner. She lifted her wrist to read the notification on her watch. "It's dinnertime! Normally you like to visit YayGreen about now. Do you want to order in advance?"
"Yes," she tapped, swiping off the beading rain with her thumb.
"You've ordered this salad 74% of the time. Do you want to order this tonight?"
"Your salad was bought for $10.99. YayGreen is an 8 minute walk. It will be ready for you when you arrive. The rain will stop in 4 minutes."
Cris allowed herself a smile. Sure, the technology industry had lost its shine, but this was still pretty clever shit.