Birthday FishThis is not a city for sissies. Or Jessies, which is what most folk around here would call a weaker breed of man. Even after ten years of owning these streets, I still can't seem to shake off the American in me. Not that I've ever really tried. I think I enjoy the mundane novelty of being known as The Yank. It's not like I'm the only one from across the pond who landed on these Scottish shores, but in times like these a wise man has to make a name for himself. You either stand out from the crowd or go down like a thousand tonne boulder in a swimming pool. Sink or swim. Who knew the once quaint cobbled streets of Edinburgh would turn into such a cliché?The cramped alleys teem with the desperate and the diseased, drug-peddlers in greasy overcoats ply their trade on every corner right beside girls whispering promises of pleasure to anyone walking past with five minutes to kill and five bucks to spare. Loud music spilling out from the cheap bars provides an out of place soundtrack to the chaos. Any observer unfamiliar with recent events would be forgiven for thinking it was the eighteenth century all over again, not the middle of the twenty-first. Then they'd notice the buildings whose facades doubled as translucent screens advertising all sorts of brands, the soundless motorbikes which hovered over the ground as their impatient riders maneuvered them into every available space, and the skyline filled with Zero Gravity cars which streamed to and fro on the overhead highways. It was an odd yet mesmerising sight. An unlikely marriage of people forced to survive together in the last refuge for outcasts, those who lived outside the law, on the run from The President's crackdown on crime down south and in the Americas. Not many Scots who’d signed up for the fight for Independence all those years ago could have imagined that this cauldron of vice would be their legacy. Autonomy wasn't the promised utopia, but who had time for regret? Any sucker pausing for contemplation in this life got run over by the next guy hoping to make a fast buck. Welcome to the New World.I wasn't always at the top of the feeding chain. I still don't know if it was fate or just blind luck. Most men either have brains or brawn, I have both. In my first year here, being able to throw a mean left hook got me enough dough to buy into the poker games run by the Russians. It was at one of those games that I met Jim. He was a pretty boy who'd left London in a hurry after daddy found out the discrepancies in the family bank's books and traced the scam to his son. Jim was found of single malt and married women, a wild card who went on tilt faster than he put away the whisky. That night he was down almost six grand and about to make a spectacular crash landing. Boris, the pitbull of a man who run the room, was getting restless. Jim already owed him another twenty and, not being one to deny his impulses, went all in with what was clearly a bluff. I had never pitied an opponent before, certainly not a spoilt English brat who was down on his luck, but I'd never ignored my gut either. I folded. He took the thirty thousand pot. I left the table and exited into the crisp November air, a sharp contrast from the stale atmosphere of the windowless underground room. It would have been an even more painful loss if I didn't have an inside track into the bare-knuckle fights that happened every week in the Irish section of town. It would take more than a couple of fights, but I would earn enough to buy in again and win it all back. I headed for the nearest bar. The sky was clear, the moon bright. It was the dead of night but the streets were alive with the desires of the lonely and the schemes of the greedy, mixtures of faces and languages, bright street lights and dark rooms. Everyone running from something or someone, mostly from themselves. Malones was cheap and full of fighters who would hook me up for sure. I ordered a pint and scanned the room. It was loud and rowdy, just the perfect crowd full of big egos and loose mouths willing to spill the goods about where the best fights were. The door opened and Pretty Boy walked in. He scanned the room, looking for someone. Great. A gloater. Just what I needed. I ducked and tried to mind my own business. “Glenfiddich,” Jim shouted to the barman from behind me. “Large and neat.”Damn. I continued to act like the surface of my beer was revealing the secrets of the universe. Maybe the kid was smart enough to take a hint.A tap on my shoulder. “May I join you?” Jim said.Now my beer was a crystal ball revealing the next lotto numbers. Jim leaned in and attempted to rapture my eardrum. “Excuse me, Mr. Walker. MIKE WALKER. May I join you?”His breath could have knocked out a bear. “Put his drinks on my tab,” he said to the barman.I remained silent as he rumbled on. I didn't know then that Jim was like a puppy, the more you ignored him, the more he vied for your attention. “...not only have I heard about you but I've seen you play. You're a real professional. And I may not be able to read my opponents half as well as you, but I know for a fact that you knew I was bluffing. Well, perhaps not 'for a fact' as I do not actually have any submittable evidence but that's totally beside the point. The issue is that you deliberately let me win that pot and I would like to know why.”I finished my drink and stood up to leave. Jim grabbed my arm. I looked at his manicured hand on my worn leather jacket then looked him straight in the eye. He let go of me. “I'm terribly sorry, Mr. Walker. I just...” he sighed and run his fingers through his hair. “It's just that you threw me a lifeline back there and I would like to return the favour. You must have heard about me, how I almost run my father's bank into the ground? Well, I was investing in something that I believe in, something that I know is going to be absolutely massive in the next few years. If I could just have a few moments of your time, I believe that I can repay the kindness you just showed me one thousand times over.”I'd never been a dreamer. I worked hard and kept my feet firmly on the ground. Yet I had just thrown a hand and lost a large pot of money to this kid, money that I could have used. My own behaviour baffled me and Jim's offer aroused my curiosity, if nothing else. Besides, I had a feeling my reticence would only make him more persistent.A little over twelve hours later and I was beginning to have twinges of regret. I'd agreed to meet Jim after I'd rested and freshened up. I'd taken my motorbike to his flat which overlooked the Firth of Forth. It was as good as it got on the Ground Level of the city, complete with a doorman and a butler. After the best cup of coffee I'd had in a long time, we entered the service lift which delivered us to the basement. The car park was rammed with the latest models of ZG cars. We got into a shiny red one and glided sideways into the Car Transporter Unit which took us up to Level Six. He programmed an address into the GPS and put the car into auto-drive. We were headed south and Jim just kept on talking. I only half listened. The panorama of the city below us was an eclectic display of lights, skyscrapers, and motorways. I'd lost count of the times I had travelled high for fights or card games but each trip was as mesmerising as the last one.We arrived in what felt like five minutes. Jim found a CTU and we started our descent to what I thought would be Ground Level but we kept going down into a basement level and beyond. Jim must have seen the look of confusion my face. I never knew it was possible to go this deep underground. His smile was self-satisfactory. “This is just the beginning. Edinburgh has thousands of secrets and I have the key to all of them.”I frowned. “Fine. I may be exaggerating the breadth and depth of my influence but what I am about to share with you now is no joke.”I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.We were met by some serious looking dudes in black suits and dark glasses. Sunglasses? In an underground basement? Boredom started to vie with regret. A sideways elevator took us to a set of doors which led to a large warehouse that had been converted into a state of the art laboratory. We went up a spiral staircase then turned left onto a balcony that overlooked the entire operation. I couldn't make out what was in the hundred of test tubes that the guys in white coats were playing with. Drugs? Great. How original. A right and two lefts later we entered a spacious and opulent office. Its walls were Ambience Screens displaying all manner of art. It stunk of old money and arrogance. I started to plan an exit strategy. If this was some drug baron looking to recruit a new foot soldier, I wasn't interested, thank you very much. Guys like these weren't good at handling rejection but I could pull off Prince Charming if push came to shove.A distinguished elderly gentleman emerged from a door behind the large oak desk and approached us. He was impeccably groomed and clearly the leader of this outfit. “Jimmy, old boy, glad you could make it,” he said. He came round and stood in front of me. “And you must be Micheal Walker. A pleasure.”His handshake was firm, his eyes a clear blue. He lacked the air of subdued ruthlessness that most drug dealers I'd had the misfortune of encountering in my past life possessed by default. He seemed quite genteel and harmless, like a favourite uncle. “Mike, this is my uncle William Archibald-Braithwaite. He and I have been working closely together in the hope of creating the most advanced form of--” I interrupted. “Listen, Jim, I don't know what kind of operation you're running here but I'm pretty certain that, whatever it is you want done, I'm not your guy. I don't do drugs and I'm not interested in being anyone's mule or foot soldier or whatever other vacancy needs filling. So if the robot twins over there would be kind enough to show me the way out, I'll be glad to get back to my life and forget this ever happened.”William's eyes had not left my face the entire time. “Actually, Mr. Walker, I think you are exactly the man for the job,” he said. “Look, I'm not looking for any trouble. I just want to get back to Ground Level and --” “I'll make a deal with you, Mr. Walker. If I could just have a few more minutes of your valuable time to show you exactly what it is we're trying to achieve here, then, if you still feel the same way, Jim will take you back to your flat and we'll never bother you again.”I'd had enough experience with liars to tell when a man was telling the truth. William Archibald-Braithwaite was telling the truth. He planned to let me go after his show and tell. “You have five minutes,” I said.The old man smiled and turned around with the enthusiasm of a teenager.The door behind his desk led to a spacious room with a large viewing area. One of the walls acted as a two-way mirror which allowed us to see into what looked like a surgery room. The rest of the room had about six desks with state of the art computers, each manned by technicians. William hadn't stopped talking since we left his office. If I'd had any doubts that he was related to Jim, his fondness for the sound of his own voice put them to rest. “So you see, Mr. Walker,” he was saying, “this is not at all what you think it is. We are not thugs peddling drugs nor are we trying to make a quick buck, as you American's are fond of saying. No, not at all. What we have here is a sophisticated product with the ability to meet a potentially unlimited market.” “I'm sorry but you've lost me,” I said.William walked to the viewing area and pressed a button located on the wall. Three chairs rose up from the ground, facing the two-way mirror. “I don't have the patience for theatre shows at the best of times, and certainly not for horror shows if that really is an operating surgery on the other side of this mirror,” I said. “Please, Mr. Walker,” William said, indicating one of the chairs. “I can assure you you'll not be disappointed.”What had I walked into? Those clear blue eyes emanated trust. I sat down.Almost immediately two women and two men entered the room. Three wore scrubs and one of the men was dressed in a white patient’s gown. He was bald, eastern European-looking, with a distinct nose and a scarred face. He was muscular and carried himself with a confidence that said he knew how to handle himself in a scuffle. The man in the scrubs indicated the chair to the patient and then retreated to one corner to look at a series of large strip-glass computer screens. Baldy sat down and looked around the room like a monarch surveying his kingdom.The ladies then joined the man at the computers. Suddenly, the left of the two way mirror sprang to life with an image of Baldly. As one of the nurses started to attach wires to different parts of his body, his vitals appeared on the screen. She administered something through a syringe and after a minute Baldy started to nod off. The nurse pressed a button on the side of the chair which then rose higher and flattened out into a bed. An intimidating piece of equipment lowered from the roof and the nurse positioned it right above Baldy's face. Our screen then displayed his vital statistics including everything from the depth of his sockets to his brain temperature.The man in the corner was tapping furiously on his keyboard. The nurse stepped back from the patient as six evenly spaced computer-operated poles with large syringes attached to the top end of each arose from underneath the bed. They rose high above the patient's face and then lowered, piercing his facial skin and pumping all their contents into his head. As I watched I couldn't help but lean forward for a closer look. Excitement vied with disbelief. Could this really be what I thought it was?An hour later, I stood in William's office staring at the simulated sea on one of his office walls. Jim came over and handed me a whisky which I accepted and downed. There was only one thing that I really needed to know. “Why me?” I asked, turning to face William.He was sitting behind his desk, sipping his drink with the ease of a man who'd seen it all. There was no way they'd entrust this knowledge to me without wanting something in return. “What exactly do you want from me?” I asked again. “First and foremost, Mr. Walker, let me say that what we are--” “Just save the speech,” I said, my anger rising. “It's clear now that Jim wouldn't have brought me here if you both did not know who exactly I am, and you certainly would not have let me see what I just saw if you didn't want something from me. So you either tell me what the hell I'm doing here or I'll see myself out.” “We do know exactly who you are,” Jim said. “I've been trying for the past six months to get close enough to you to gain your trust, but you are a master at elusiveness.” “But you do have a weakness, Mr. Walker. You empathise with strays, with the underdog, and we knew that Jim's predicament would somehow get your attention.” “You still haven't answered my question.” “We picked you because we are looking for someone to partner with us and you, Mr. Walker, fit the bill perfectly. We know how you served the government faithfully all these years only to have them disavow you for the very things they ordered you to do.” “You know nothing about me,” I said, with a calm I did not feel. No one in this town knew anything about my former life but William clearly did. “We know things because we have the means to know them, not because we want to use them against you. So please, Mr. Walker, sit down and hear us out. Think about it, if we wanted to harm you, we would have already handed you over to either the English or the Americans by now.”I sat down and William continued to speak. “You of all people, Mr. Walker, understand the times we are living in. Sooner or later there will be a Union between Europe and The Americas and the little man is not going to come out on top. You’ve spent most of your life fighting in the military, be it covertly, for the rights of the ordinary man, only to be branded a traitor by the very people whose orders you followed faithfully this entire time. You are not alone in this predicament, Mr. Walker, and we strongly believe that what Jim and I have invented here can be lead to a mutually beneficial partnership.” “I don't need you to tell me what I already know. It’s my life, remember? I'm capable of recalling the details.” “What Uncle Will is trying to say is that we--” Jim said. “You know, kid, for someone who talks a lot, you don't say much.” I said, exasperated. “We know about the money, Mr. Walker,” William interjected. “What you just witnessed is not a magic trick. We have found a relatively noninvasive method to manipulate a client's bone structure and essentially give them a new face and a new life, something we know that you could desperately use given your history. We know that when the government tried to put you on trial to cover their backs, you made off with a substantial amount of money to cover yours. We need funds, you need a new life. It's that simple.” “Even if what you are saying were true, and I'm not saying it is, I can simply walk into any of the plastic surgery clinics in this city and come out with a new face in a few hours.” “Then why haven't you, Mr. Walker?” he said. “I'll tell you why. Because none of those procedures have the technology to alter the dimensions of the facial structure at their core. That means they can’t fool the facial recognition software used by the government to track fugitives like yourself. We are giving you a real chance at a new life.”I conceded a little and told them I couldn’t get to the cash. The government had tracked it to the Swiss bank I'd chosen and I knew they were using it as bait. That William and Jim knew so much about me set off enough alarm bells in my head loud enough to wake the dead, but I was a desperate man and luck or science seemed to want to play a part in my salvation. Jim knew hackers who could move the money, the same guys who'd helped him in London. But he was a thief and a liar, why would I trust him? “What choice do you have?” Jim replied. “Fifty-fifty, “ I said. If I was going to do it, I wanted a say in how things were run. Scotland didn't exactly attract folk with the highest of moral standards, but we had to draw the line somewhere.The two men exchanged a look and the elder nodded in agreement.Had it actually been ten years? I checked my watch and quickened my pace. Two hefty doormen tossed a well-dressed and loud-mouthed man onto the street just a few yards ahead of me. The mop of blonde hair was unmistakable. Jim. I had hoped to arrive before he'd consumed half the contents of the bar. A light drizzle started as I stopped by his side. I stared down at him as he swore at the doormen who’d already disappeared back into the bar. His once pretty face was already showing the wear and tear of endless partying. When we'd entered into business all those years ago, I knew his penchant for the finer things in life. But seeing my good friend like this left a bitter taste my mouth, regardless of shiny accolade of being at the top of our game in a city where most folk were living like rats in a barrel. I stretched out my hand to him. He tried to slap it away but missed. “I don't need your help,” he said, staggering to his feet. “You're late.” “I’m sorry,” I said. A reprimand sat at the tip of my tongue but I knew it would go down like a hog at a ball. “We still need to talk, Jim.”It would have been easy to dismiss his lack of eye contact as mere shame at the state he was in but I knew better. He'd been trying to avoid me for months now and when I'd voiced my suspicions to Uncle Will, he'd agreed to put a tail on Jim. We knew that he had massive debts with the Russians. His gambling woes were hardly headline news. What was worrying were the rumours that he'd been paying them off steadily for the past three months. I’d bailed him out on more than one occasion and Jim had no qualms in begging for money, whether he knew he could get it or not. But he hadn't asked me or Uncle Will for anything and yet his creditors were getting paid. Jim kept babbling on, not looking me in the eye. I hated that it had come to this.I talked him out of fighting his way back into the bar and dragged him to the tram. Three stops to the car park. The limo took us up to Level Three. “What are we doing here?” Jim said. He seemed to have suddenly sobered up. “We don't have any offices here.” He was squirming in his Gucci loafers. “We don't, but you do,” I said. “I haven't the slightest idea about what you're talking about,” he said. Beads of sweat broke out on his brow.The car stopped in front of a large building where two of my guys were waiting for us. They opened the limo doors and Jim bolted. I strolled to the main door as they as dragged him back and led the way inside. The front of the building was a run down warehouse and we walked through it to the back. Jim was pleading and moaning. We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into, he said. He’d only done what he needed to do, he said. At least he wasn't denying it any more. We entered the elevator which would take us to the sub-basement level where I knew Jim had been working on his 'project' in secret for a long while. I caught my reflection in the elevator doors and blinked. I still couldn't get used to the face that was supposed to be mine. Only the eye colour reminded me of the person I used to be. I was a walking and talking testimony of Jim's and Uncle William's brilliance. What would we do without Jim? I refused to think about it. What had to be done, had to be done.The basement was a smaller duplicate of the one we owned at our larger facility in the heart of the city although I couldn't recognise some of the equipment. My guys placed a now silent Jim in a chair in the back office and left the two of us alone.When three minutes had passed and he still hadn’t spoken, I said, “Just tell me what's going on, Jim. Why didn't you come to me or Uncle Will?” “You think I don't know what the two of you think of me? Well, I was tired of being nothing but a liability and a burden,” he said.He still wouldn't look at me. “What? You’re still an equal partner, and you know we couldn’t have made it this far without you. Why would you think--”“You have no idea what it feels like, “ Jim said, his anger apparent. “I was the one who brought you in and yet you prance around like it was all your doing! I’m not just a pretty face, you know.”He was sitting up and staring me right in the eye. I had never seen him so defiant. I remembered my incredulity when the Private Investigator we'd hired had uncovered this place. Even when Uncle Will seemed resigned to the changes in Jim, I‘d still defended him. Now I wondered who this man in front of me really was. I switched on the computer screen which occupied half of one of the walls. It showed a camera feed from one of the holding rooms in the facility. A little girl, no more than twelve, with long dishevelled hair and wearing a pair of white pyjamas, was sitting on the floor in the corner of what was clearly her bedroom. She was playing with her computer tablet whilst rocking back and forth and muttering to herself. “This is not what it looks like, Mike.” “Isn’t it, Jim? Tell me you're not using kids as test subjects for whatever the heck it is you're concocting in this place.”He started to shake his head in denial and I felt my temper rising. I picked him up by his collar and shoved him hard against the wall. “I'm going to ask you one more time, Jim. What the hell is going on here?”Jim had never had the stomach for violence. His face reddened and he couldn't quite catch his breath. “Please, please, I swear on my mother's grave, I'm not using kids to test anything.”I slammed him harder against the wall.“Okay, okay,” he said, shaking.I let him go and he slunk to the floor. “Please, you have to understand, I owed the Russians and they came to me with an idea and the science to pull it off. You know me, Mike, I'm not the kind to hurt children but what this child represents is something unprecedented. Please, you have to believe me.” “What exactly are you saying, Jim?”He crawled to the computer, touched the screen and brought up the keyboard. He typed his password and accessed a file which contained the history of the girl. It was all there, dates, formulas, and videos. What I was seeing didn't make sense. The dates were all wrong. The girl, Tricia’s, file said she was only a few months old yet the girl in the room was almost twelve. There were pictures from eight months ago. She was just a baby then. I felt my mouth go dry. “What have you done, Jim?” “You and Uncle Will thought Bone Alteration Surgery was the future, but this is the future. This is not mere cloning but a true rebirth. Imagine it for a second, will you? Our clients don't just get a new face but an entire new lease on life with a brand new person who grows to adulthood in months rather than years. Then the clients entire life's memories and personality are implanted into this new person. Don't you see it, Mike? This is the fountain of eternal youth, right here in Scotland.”I watched the girl as Jim kept talking. I remembered my twelfth birthday. My dad took me fishing and I caught my first ever fish. Dad put it in my hands and asked what I wanted to do with it, have it for dinner or put it back in the river? I was undecided. I was hungry but at the same time the incessant flapping of the fish was distressing me. “Mikey, my boy,” he’d said. “What you're feeling is entirely natural. You’re at a crossroad with the life of the fish in your hands, literally. Whatever you decide to do will determine the fate of the fish. But remember it will also determine the kind of man you are, the kind that values life or one that is merely concerned with satisfying his own basic instincts. The choice is yours.”I remembered the feel of the fish’s scales against my skin. The sun was in my eyes as I looked up at dad. He was smiling at me, patiently waiting for my decision. I turned around, walked the few yards to the river, and threw the fish back into the water.