Æquinoctium — Chapter One

ÆQUINOCTIUM

CHAPTER ONE

The name of Denise’s double-date share was Thom, and for the better part of two hours Thom was dwelling on his favourite topic: Thom.

Denise was running out of ways to fake interest, and help was nowhere to be seen. By now Gina was solely concentrating on her own entertainment for the night. Thank goodness the four of them were sitting in a booth, or the display of pre-carnal tongue tussle would have them thrown out of the restaurant. Most likely it had been part of the deal for What’s-his-name to bring someone for Denise in return to get cosy with Gina. Well meant, Ginny, but badly executed…

“… which was where I met the Dalai Lama for the second time. The world really is a village. What about you?”

“What? I mean I beg your pardon; what about me?” Denise snapped out of her conversational auto pilot mode.

“Gina told me you’d used to travel.”

“I did, yes,” Denise confirmed, baffled by the golden ray of interest suddenly falling upon her. “But not recently. You know, the economy and all.”

For a fashion piece huntress like herself it was the ultimate goal to overcharge her credit card on five different continents – but you know, the economy. Especially her own.

“Yes, she mentioned you have overdone it a bit with your latest shopping sprees and have to lay low now.”

Denise threw a glance across the table that could corrode glass, but her blonde friend was too busy exchanging saliva samples.

“Actually,” she replied, not happy with her friend’s indiscretion, “there’s quite another reason for me to stay beneath the radar.” She granted herself a dramatic pause and a sip from her drink, only to continue in a conspirative volume. “All those easily traceable credit card data can compromise my mission.”

“And what exactly is your mission?” he asked, his eyes suddenly agleam with morbid fascination.

Denise lowered her voice even more to squeeze every last drop of attention out of him.

“Normally I am not supposed to tell you without killing you afterwards…”

Thom raised an eyebrow, a mannerism he certainly had practiced in front of the mirror for many hours.

“You are some kind of spy?”

He made it sound quizzical, but he couldn’t fool her – he was hooked up by her make-believe.

“We do not use the ‘s’ word. I prefer HiRMO.”

“A what?” Thom was forced to ask, just as intended.

“Oh sorry, it’s not often that I talk about such things with non-assets: High Risk Mission Operative.”

In her mind Denise congratulated herself. HiRMO – that nonsense had been a stroke of genius.

“Oi, you two! What’s there to whisper about?” Gina giggled whilst her boy toy was nibbling the nape of her neck.

“Nothing, Ginny. Just discussing recent security policy.”

Denise turned back to a flabbergasted Thom. Brushing a copper strand out of her face (a mannerism she had practiced in front of the mirror for many hours), she closed in for the kill.

“Maybe I will need you to cover me at some point. Helping me infiltrate a reception at an embassy, just for example.”

She could almost see all worn-out spy flick clichés reeling before his inner eye. Ostentatious casinos owned by flamboyant villains. Exotic British sports cars pulling up in front (and miraculously not breaking down halfway). A micro camera hidden in the heroine’s ample cleavage. Walther PPKs that never needed to be reloaded.

“And your current mission is a high risk one again?”

“Quite so. Two tonnes of weaponised Tristanium are being smuggled into continental Europe as we speak.”

“What’s Tristanium? Sounds radioactive.”

Denise was about to confirm, going for a cool-sounding isotope Tristanium 999. But then she decided against it, just to see how far she could push two tonnes of bullshit.

“Not as such. It’s what we call meta-stable. But it becomes super-instable when exposed to a certain type of electromagnetic radiation. It cannot be detected by Geiger counters, though, which makes it so hard to find.”

“I’ve never heard of Tristanium. If it’s an artificial element, it has to be radioactive,” Thom mused, putting real thought into the matter.

Denise tried to remember the documentaries she would half-listen to whilst doing the chores. Like the one about all those fancy rare metals.

“Tristanium isn’t geologically native to Earth. The whole batch that is en route comes from a meteorite having crashed in the Arctic some 100,000 years ago, been covered by amounts of ice and found by a Nazi expedition in 1944.”

“And the Nazis tried to turn that stuff into a wonder weapon?”

The power of deduction was strong with him…

“Exactly. But the U-boat transporting the payload was depth-charged and barely managed to reach the neutral port of Dunseverick in Ireland.”

Gina once had sent a post card from there whilst visiting Giant’s Causeway, stating that she’d been cold, generally miserable, and that she’d wanted to be in Ibiza instead.

“The crew was interned and the cargo simply stored away, as nobody knew what they were dealing with. Until…”

She let Thom fill the gaps, and he did so happily.

“Until somebody has gained the knowledge and the means to secure the payload and bring it here at last.”

“You do understand that you are not allowed to reveal any of this intel to third parties?”

“Yes, of course! Do you know yet who’s behind it?”

“That’s classified. Strictly need-to-know.”

“Sure.”

Denise, feeling rather smug with herself, took a mighty draught from her cocktail. Who would have thought that her vivid imagination and a – at least in her opinion – amiable fondness for fibs would be able to take a guy in so easily. She brought her mouth close to his ear.

“The operation is run by a clandestine organisation founded by former top-notch spies – I mean operatives – who are determined to shift the unilateral balance in their favours.”

“Does that organisation have a name?”

Denise hesitated for the slightest moment. She had to come up with something cocky…!

Aequinoctium.”

Mission accomplished!

“Huh.” Thom sounded genuinely impressed. “Good to know that the government has such a charming HiRMO on its side.”

Time to deliver the coup de grâce:

“Who said I was with the government?”

If there was anything that sounded cooler than being a regular agent, it was being a rogue agent!

<~>

The ringing of the phone reached Denise in a particularly delicate phase of waking up after a night out – the stage in which she had to determine how bad the hangover would turn out to be.

A strong six on a scale from zero to ten. Fair enough.

Annoyingly, the ringing from underneath her pillows lacked the common courtesy to stop. She kept digging blindly with one hand for her mobile and finally managed to answer it. Sort of.

“Meh…”

“Rise and shine, sweetie!”

Gina had drunk twice as much as Denise – how could she be sober again a mere nine hours later?!

“Go away.”

“Why so grumpy? It’s a beautiful day! You’ve got a beautiful hangover!”

Denise retreated under the blanket.

“Your night went well, I trust? Yours, his, or did you two consummate your love in the alley behind the restaurant?”

A coy giggle from the other end of the line told her that Gina knew exactly why Denise was flashing her slut shaming licence.

“I may have been carried a bit away a bit too soon.”

“It was disgusting. Geez, Ginny, families go there to eat!” Denise scolded her best friend playfully.

“How was it with Thom?”

Denise managed to put it diplomatic:

“Most of the evening I’ve hoped for some roofies to kick in.”

“That’s odd, because you have left a lasting impression on him.”

“Have I, now?” Denise asked with only the mildest of interest.

“Maybe you want to check his blog.”

“Why?”

Giggle.

All of a sudden Denise was sitting upright in her bed, suspecting the worst.

Why? Ginny, I swear, I will dip every last thong of yours in chili oil―”

“Just look at it, I promise it’s hilarious!”

Denise fished for her tablet PC, and Gina told her the address.

Thom’s blog, “TheHunkyPhilanthropist”, was a digital shrine to its creator’s ego. Thom in Tibet, Thom swimming with whales, Thom solving the Mid-east conflict. His latest post was dedicated to last night’s dinner at Le Hussard.

“It is with great unease that I share the details of a looming doom, trusted to me by a person deeply involved, the identity of whom I am not free to reveal…” began the paragraph that followed a lengthy description of his choice of food including photo. She remembered him pondering the perfect angle for minutes.

“Over a very light-bodied Sauvignon Blanc…” (his ordering the wine had been a piece of art in itself) “… she disclosed the pending arrival of a deadly fright. Tristanium, a bane from dark days of a century gone, will make landfall shortly, thus enabling a sinister organisation to wreak havoc untold. Said cabal, a consortium with unlimited resources only known as Æquinoctium, seeks to overthrow the political structures in Europe and establish its own reign of fear and terror.”

Denise’s one-time sort-of date continued to wrap up her yesterday’s humbug in pretentious phrases, not shying away from embellishing many parts with additions of his own. The effects of Tristanium. The U-boat’s call sign. Her admiration of him. Every good story deserved exaggeration. And snappy hashtags…

#Tristanium

#weaponised

#Æquinoctium

#Nazis

#Sauvignon Blanc

#…

“He is serious about it,” she half asked, half stated into her phone whilst still being confounded by Thom’s spelling of Aequinoctium.

“I think it’s kind of adorable. Disturbing, but adorable. Mostly disturbing. There’s a guy who believes every word a pretty girl tells him, as long as it sounds cool and confidential and shaken, not stirred.”

Right now Denise was finding herself more in the neighbourhood of being baffled than of adoring. It told her a lot about the male mind if it was so eager to believe a story made up from pieces of bad spy flicks she had been forced to watch with back-then boyfriends. Gina provided an explanation of her own:

“You know what they say about you gingers…”

“That we love anal?”

“That you are enshrouded in an air of Celtic mystery.”

Denise had been born and raised in Chicago. The greatest extent of Celtic mystery she’d encountered so far had been a shitfaced leprechaun barfing into her handbag at St. Patrick’s Day.

<~>

“C’mon, another lap,” Gina cheered from over her treadmill.

“No way! I had to go back to the locker room to get my towel – that counts as cardio!”

One could tell that Denise had reached the limit of her endurance by her not commenting on mismatched workout gear anymore. The fitness centre was living up a bit, and Denise was longing for an omega 3 cinnamon power smoothie at the bar. What’s the point in working out if you didn’t gossip about the other gym folk in style and grace afterwards? She was about to pant an according suggestion, but for some reason Gina’s attention was caught by the news programme on the array of flat screens mounted underneath the ceiling.

“Look!”

Denise glanced at the telly her friend was pointing at.

“Wow. That’s an unfortunate tie…”

“Forget the tie! Listen!”

“Could you decide on one order?”

On the screen the newsreader with the tie situation just had finished his announcement, whereupon a corresponding clip started. A man in an unfunny suit and with an unfunny haircut, consequently occupying the unfunny position of a spokesman, was addressing waiting journalist.

“We can confirm that at no point hazardous material, neither suitable for nuclear devices nor for so-called ‘dirty bombs’, has crossed the external frontiers of the Community. Any alternative information has shown to be solely speculative.”

Denise’s eyes grew big as she let herself carried backwards by the treadmill belt.

“What the frog…?!”

“That’s your bollocks story,” Gina rejoiced. “You broke the news!”

As a quick check via portable web-enabled devices confirmed, Denise’s little hoax had met in the course of the last forty-eight hours the fate of all utter nonsense in the age of omnipresent verification and digital enlightenment, where reliable proof of nearly anything – if so wanted – was literally a few mouse clicks away.

It had gone viral.

As shares were piling upon likes, the social networks went berserk, and the media were happy to follow. On the morning after gym night the generic statement of a spokesman wasn’t deemed sufficient anymore. And so a politician showed up on TV, declared that he had no knowledge about any shipments of a substance called Tristanium, that his ignorance connoted safety, and that the internet should go back to kitten videos.

Unsurprisingly enough, not everybody was content with this comment. And whilst brainy people with glasses explained with endless patience that there was no room in the periodic table for an unknown stable element, that there were no records about a German expedition to the Arctic Circle in 1944, and that Dunseverick lies in Northern Ireland, rather than in the Republic of Ireland, and therefore hadn’t been a neutral port at all during the war, the real wise and true opinions were formulated elsewhere. Like in Denise’s office kitchen.

“There’s that guy on the Internet,” Guus from IT threw in, “who says that the Russians tried to breed Tristanium in Chernobyl. And that the metal roof doobrey they rolled over block no. 4 in 2016 was especially designed to deflect that electromagnetic stuff, so the reactor won’t blow up again.”

Denise, cleaning her coffee cup at the sink, tried to act unsuspicious. But she could feel her ears quickly turning the colour of her hair.

Penelope from Accounting, hobby nuclear physicist that she was, remained unconvinced.

“How can it be bred and weaponised if it is said not to be radioactive to begin with?”

“I tell you how: Because there’s something the government and all those eggheads don’t tell us. It’s a classic conspiracy!”

“I dunno, Mulder. The whole Arctic meteorite story doesn’t add up for shit, and they are painfully thin on facts about those Æquinoctium chaps.”

Guus brushed her objections aside.

“Facts prove nothing.”

Penelope sighed.

“Denise?”

Denise almost jumped. She turned to her colleague in a manner she hoped looked nonchalant.

“Huh?”

“Don’t you need to be somewhere?”

“Wha―?” She looked at her watch. “Oh, crap!”

She had planned to meet with Gina at Bianchetti in her lunch break. The boutique to end all boutiques! First day of sale! An occurrence rarer than a full eclipse! No time for further explanations! Under Penelope and Guus’ amused looks she shot out of the kitchen to fetch her blazer and handbag.

<~>

Late, late, late! She was going to be so late! Again her phone chimed. Denise let it chime. If she stopped now to start a search and rescue mission through her handbag to answer Gina, she would be even later. Bianchetti was only a couple of blocks away from Denise’s office tower, but her heels were barely safe for work, let alone for running. Today might have been a good opportunity to exchange style for speed.

The black Geländewagen came out of nowhere. With squealing tyres it skittered to a halt across the pavement. Even before Denise could fail to skitter to a halt herself and run straight into the car, its passenger doors flew open. Two burly men stormed out, clad in dark clothes and balaclavas. Gloved hands grabbed her, and one of the blokes pressed a sinister device against her side. Denise’s muscles were immediately turned useless by the electrical discharge that followed. The debilitating pain would have brought her to her knees if she weren’t already been sized. With neither fuss nor effort the second man hurled her into the off-roader and climbed on the backseats as well. The one who’d tasered her resumed his place next to the driver. With no regard for pedestrians or traffic the car set off, back onto the street. Inside a fourth member of the grab team was forcing Denise down whilst his comrade zip-tied her hands behind her back. Denise, recovering from the jolt, started to struggle in vain.

“Get off me!”

“Silence,” the fourth grabber barked.

“You can’t do this! I’m an American citizen!”

He produced a lightproof hood and pulled it over her head.

“Welcome to the free world…”

<~>

Orange did not go well with her hair. But Denise hadn’t got much more to wear than the prison-like scrub after being made to take off her normal clothes. The longish chain between her handcuffs rattled through the ring in the table top as she shifted on her chair. Both table and chair made of metal and bolted to the floor. There was no way for her to tell the time, but her abduction and subsequent processing must have taken several hours. Once she had been put into the unfortunate attire with a big black “207” on the back, she had been locked into this windowless room – for softening up, as she reckoned. She was tired of waiting, tired of being in permanent anxiety.

“Hello! Anyone? I know you can hear me!”

Sure as shite there were mics and cameras hidden in the room, although it was missing the large one-way mirror so obligatory in telly series. Denise groaned in frustration and shifted again. Her back hurt from the forced position, as she could neither sit straight nor fully stand up.

With a metallic noise the door was unlocked. It swung open, then closed again, granting just enough time for a grey suit to enter. Said suit was housing a deliberately plain-looking man who wordlessly seated himself opposite her on a second, non-bolted chair. He spread out a file on his side of the table and pretended for some minutes to read in it. Was Denise at first feeling unsettled, then deeply uneasy in his presence, her attitude was changing more and more towards irritation with every passing second.

“Did you enjoy your body cavity search, Ms Carlisle?” he asked without looking up.

It hadn’t been so much a search than an epic quest.

“Your colleague better have herself checked for circulatory disorder – hands this cold can’t be healthy.”

The suit person closed his file and finally raised his head.

“Anything else you want me to pass on?”

“I want a lawyer.”

Suit-Man emitted a staged sigh.

“It’s always amazing how quickly you people demand the comforts of a rule of law state once you are nicked.”

Denise wasn’t sure what to make out of that comment. She had never been you-people’d before (well, other than in reference to her hair colour).

“And who are you again to deny me my constitutional ‘comforts’?”

“I am just an interpreter assigned to your case.”

Not only did Denise speak the country’s langue just fine, she had also read enough spy novels to know “interpreter” to be a euphemism for “interrogator” – which in turn was a euphemism for “torturer”.

“What do you want from me?” she treated more carefully.

“There are just a couple of questions we would like to ask you.”

This is what you do to people whom you just like to ask ‘a couple of questions’?”

“You should be glad. If the situation were not being contained on several levels, you would now be having a wet cloth over your face.”

The allusion made Denise turn ash-pale, even for her complexion. Her change of facial colour did not go unnoticed by her host.

“You finally gain awareness of the repercussions which follow terroristic attempts, I see.”

Denise hadn’t got the slightest idea how to repeat to that, so she settled for a classic:

“Wha―”

“Did you really think that blog wouldn’t put us on your tracks?”

Thom, that git! For a do-gooding philanthropist he wasn’t too concerned about protecting the identities of his sources.

“You took that seriously?!”

“We take threads against our nation very seriously.”

Denise rested her forehead on her arms in resignation, long tresses spread over the table top.

“Look…” she lifted her head, “it was a joke. A hoax.”

“We are not stupid, Ms Carlisle―”

“You may want to get a second opinion on this.”

“We know there isn’t an element called Tristanium…”

With a sigh of relief Denise straightened up as far as her restrains allowed.

“…which leaves us faced with the conclusion that Tristanium is an artificial substance, designed by the Axis Powers as a last ditch effort to turn the outcome of the war.”

“Ugh…!”

She allowed her head to fall back down on her arms.

<~>

“Why do you hate our democracy so much?”

“I dooon’t…” Denise groaned, at the end of her rope.

In a seemingly random sequence he had asked countless questions, presumably in an attempt to catch her off-guard. At what Irish harbour elusive U 723 really had arrived. How she felt about her plans having been thwarted by a vigilant citizen (Thom again, obviously promoted from accessory to national hero). Why she hated democracy so much.

“We know you are a sleeper under deep cover.”

“You blokes really talk like that?!”

“Considerable sums have been transferred from credit cards issued to your name.”

“It’s called shopping.”

For the tenth time in what might be five hours the interpreter opened his file.

“So tell me, Ms Carlisle – if this is your real name – …”

Denise rolled her eyes.

“… do you shop for weapons of mass destructions often?”

He pulled a print-out from the stack of papers before him.

“Because our system red-flagged a device codenamed ‘rascal rocket’ showing up on your credit card bill.”

Denise’s face performed another drastic change in colour, yet this time towards the crimson end of the spectrum.

“Purchased on the 27th October of last year,” Suit-Man recited, “together with a copy of How to break up without breaking down, three pints of Häagen-Dazs ice cream and a set of rechargeable batteries.”

No sooner had he finished that it dawned on him where that rascal was meant to aim its warhead at.

“I-ehm…”

He cleared his throat.

“I’ll have that double-checked by our analysts.”

“That’s private!”

“Think of it as privacy 2.0.”

Despite all distress that came with her current situation Denise felt her Gaelic temperament surfacing again.

“Okay, that’s it. I’ve had it with you muppets! You kidnapped me in broad daylight, you are keeping me detained without a warrant, denying me a lawyer and subjecting me to sleep deprivation!”

“I do not believe that keeping you awake till…” he checked his watch, “… a quarter past midnight counts as sleep deprivation.”

“I have a very sensitive body clock!”

“Mind your voice, Ms Carlisle, we are far from being done.”

He held up a large black-and-white shot of a cargo ship. Certain that this intel was better researched than the last, the interpreter continued.

“Thirty hours ago the Siobhán berthed in Rotterdam, coming straight from Cork. Inconsistencies in her manifest as well as the more than coincidental timing give reason to believe that she had a certain payload aboard.”

“Let me get that straight: Something not being aboard some random Irish vessel in the biggest port of Europe proves the existence of something else that has been made up to begin with?”

This was a prime example were facts were made to fit the assumption. Following this logic, an anti-elephant spray for your fridge works because there’re no elephants in your fridge.

“We can play this game for another couple of hours. But we both know what you were up to.”

“Making myself interesting during a date. You have no proofs to the contrary.”

“I get my proofs, Ms Carlisle. I always get my proofs. You do realise that if you are not starting to cooperate very soon, we are entitled to employ stronger methods on you?”

Allowing his threat to linger between them, he shoved the photograph back into the folder and rose.

“When I return you better have opened your mind, or I make sure you’ll disappear to some secret prison in a hell-hole country not even Google Maps has ever heard of.”

<~>

Her cell sported the same breathtaking view as the interrogation room: Concrete, bathed in gentle neon light. Lying on the narrow bed, a sleepless Denise was pondering her options, trying to come up with something before her hosts decided that this was a ticking bomb scenario. She had long since given up on the hope that a lawyer would find their way into this “black site” or “alternative location” or whatever the politically correct term was these days.

Denise performed a jump as the door lock snapped open. Okay, that’s it. They were coming to get her now. And there wouldn’t be any politically correct term for what would happen next.

Nothing happened next. The door just stayed where it was, unlocked and ajar. Denise fully rose and made some careful steps towards it. There was no door handle on the inside, so after some more moments of courage-gathering, she pried it open with all fingers. The corridor behind the door was empty. Denise had been hooded again when being thrown into the cell, but could remember to have been dragged in from the left. Question was: Was this the direction she wanted to go in now? The answer arrived in form of another door snapping open, at the corridor’s right end.

“Okaaay…”

The corridor ended in some kind of intersection which offered several possibilities. Denise froze as she finally noticed one of the CCTV cameras securing the area. But the absence of any guards performing pain compliance stuff on her in this very moment gave reason to believe the invisible key master knew what they were doing.

Again an electro-mechanic sound told Denise where to turn to. Door no. 3 opened to a semi-dark storage room of some sort. Rows of racks reached up to the ceiling, each of their compartments fitted with its own hatch. Denise wasn’t too surprised anymore as one popped open in a ghostly manner. She was rather delighted, though, to find her clothes, shoes and handbag inside.

The hint was unmistakable, and it was very welcome. Within seconds Denise had freed herself from the loose orange top. She was stopped by a muffled chime from the pile of her belongings. The chiming continued as Denise looked insecurely at her bag. She rummaged through it, only to discover her mobile phone to be actually lying on her folded suit, encased in plastic. Those spooks must have bagged it after pulling out any data worthwhile. More strangely, it seemed to be still turned off. After another second of pointless hesitation she answered the call with a wipe across the dark display.

“Can you hear me, Ms Carlisle?”

“Who are you? What’s going on? Are you opening all the doors?”

“A simple yes or no will do.”

“Yes, I can hear you. Evidently.”

“Your mobile came with a hands-free kit. Use it,” the male voice advised.

Raiding the depths of her Gucci handbag once more, she re-discovered her ear piece and put it in.

“Okay, I’ve got my hands free.”

“Grand. Are you dressed yet?”

Her ethereal conversation partner showed bad timing with his question, as Denise had just wriggled out of those dreadful orange trousers moments earlier – and therefore was in the buff.

“Uhm… yes.”

“I will guide you out of the complex, but you have to follow my every order to the dot.”

Denise hurried into her own attire.

“Not that I have any choice.”

“No. Now go to the room’s far wall, between those racks, and start running towards the door on my mark.”

She lowered her brows.

“Why?”

“Humour me.”

Exhaling, she tip-tapped to the end of the room and faced the door.

“Run.”

“Uhm―”

“Move it!”

Denise set off towards the closed door as fast as she could manage in her heels. Did the mysterious voice want her to knock herself out? Closer and closer the door came, five metres, four, three then, and still Denise didn’t dared slow down. Two metres, and the door began to swing open. Even if she’d had the presence of mind to stop, her legs were on autopilot now. Denise was by no means a heavy girl, but 55 kilogrammes remained 55 kilogrammes, and the impact was enough to slam the door back full force into the face of the guard attempting to enter the storage room. In perfect trajectory he was pushed back into the intersection and smashed onto the floor, unconscious.

“Good girl.”

Denise staggered out, holding the shoulder she had hit the door with.

“Was that me?!”

“Better you than him.”

“Well…” she stepped towards the prostrated body, “kinda makes sense.”

“Hide him in the storage room.”

Denise grabbed the guard’s legs and pulled, exhausting what little grip her court shoes were providing on the linoleum floor. The picture of her dragging a tree trunk across a frozen lake came to her mind.

“I shouldn’t have wimped out on that crossfit class…!”

“C’mon, put your back into it.”

A panting Denise finally managed to stow the knocked-out man between the racks. Her gaze fell upon the 9 mm sidearm.

“Shall I take his pistol?”

“Do you know how to use it?”

“I’ve watched John Wick 2 the other day…”

“So you are able to switch gracefully between Weaver stance and C.A.R. method?”

“Uuuhmmm…”

“Just leave it.”

Denise uttered an indignant sound and slipped off her shoes. They hadn’t been actually helpful during her high-acceleration sprint, and even less so during the towing.

“Where to?” she asked, closing the storage room door from the outside. A clonk told her that her benefactor had locked it remotely.

“Through the corridor to your left.”

She complied.

“Left again, around the corner…”

“Ouch!”

“… careful, glass door.”

Rubbing her smarting nose, she noticed a sweep card thingy.

“I’ll take care of it,” the voice announced, as if knowing her thought.

True to his word the glass door buzzed open. He repeated his party piece again on yet another door, this one a sturdy metal construction. Behind it the structure radically changed its appearance. Had the surfaces been grey-white to the disturbing point of asylum-sterile till here, the predominant elements were now yellowish bricks and rusty steel beams. Naked light bulbs dangled from the low ceiling in regular intervals, by far not all of them working.

“What the―?! Are you luring me deeper towards some dungeon?!”

“Some octaves lower, please. Have I ever misguided you in all the half an hour we’ve known each other?”

“Known, my arse,” she murmured under her breath and renewed her grip on her shoes in a way she could use the already murderous heels as weapons. She wasn’t much of a fighter, but the first guy trying to drag her back would get it. After an ascending staircase this latest corridor ended in front of – who had thought? – another door. Though metal again, this one offered a normal handle and was unlocked. Denise took a deep breath and pulled it open. In clear surprise she stepped out onto a steel gallery of some sort, overlooking an abandoned factory hall. More bricks and rust between high windows with most of their square glass tiles smashed in. Below her the fundaments of long-dismantled machinery. Above her dangling chains. Although sinister in their own right, they didn’t look as if they’d ever been used to hoist up anything else than inanimate objects.

“The scenic route, Ms Carlisle: across the platform and down the ladder.”

Whilst crossing the gallery Denise arrived at the conclusion that she had been detained in something like a safe house, hidden in an old industrial area. Through the broken windows she could see the city’s skyline against the early morning sky.

At the foot of the ladder an open fire escape let her out into the cool night. She crossed a pair of railway tracks blocked by desolate goods wagons, squealing as the ballast bit into her bare soles.

“Once you are behind the next building, I have no eyes on you anymore. But I can follow your progress via your phone’s signal.”

She carefully circumnavigated an array of burnt-out barrels.

“Is there a kind of, you know, extraction point?”

“Why of course, Ms Carlisle, one extraction point coming up. 400 metres due north a car is hidden for you reach a rendezvous location.”

She moaned, yet soldiered on, past walls decorated with flamboyant tags and graffiti. What little she could decrypt made Denise wonder how many gang bangs she had missed out on. Truth be told, she would have looked less out of place in the orange scrubs than she was looking in her high end office outfit. The sky to her right was now clearly brightening, but the paths between the decaying warehouses and industrial buildings remained mostly in the dark. Here and there a forgotten sodium lamp threw in a cone of orange light.

“I’ve got activity near the exfil spot,” her guide informed her. “Hope you don’t mind a bit of improvising.”

Denise involuntary hunched behind a boiler carcass.

“What activity? Good activity or bad activity?”

“See those steam pipes to the north-east? Try to reach them.”

The large overground pipes marked the border to a newer part of the area. Not that it was much busier, but the plain buildings followed a more non-post-apocalyptic approach: self-service storage, a car wash, a recycling firm. Panting heavily by now, Denise reached the artificial landmark and crossed over at a near expansion loop. She followed the recycling firm’s fence in an attempt to get as much distance between her and the “activity” as possible. Moral support in this endeavour came from the still bodiless voice in her ear piece.

“Faster, Ms Carlisle. You are not moving very quickly, young lass like you. Whatever happened to cardio?”

“Whatever happened to my omega 3 cinnamon power smoothie?!”

Behind the recycling compound the area opened up to a car park. It was poorly attended, mostly by company vehicles and rides of an assumed night shift.

“You need to find a car with an internet connection.”

Denise crossed the square, poorly taking cover wherever possible.

“And how would one recognise such a conveyance?” she complained. For being the “extractee” plus innocent in the first place, she had to do quite a lot of grunt work.

“Look for something posh.”

A contemporary Mercedes-Benz saloon some rows away appeared promising. She flit towards it, but did not dare touch anything lest she trigger the alarm system.

“Will a Merc do?”

“Let’s find out; if you were so kind as to read me the number plate.”

She phoned it in and waited. For half a minute nothing happened, then all of a sudden the Benz came to life. The door locks snapped open, the engine started with a pretentious vroom and the tarmac in front flared up as the headlights auto-adjusted themselves. Denise jumped back with a startled yelp.

“Stop making squeaky noises. Get in.”

<~>

Her seemingly omnipotent guardian directed Denise through the city’s more treacherous boroughs for some time. To make sure nobody was following her, she reckoned. A greyish dawn had conquered most of the sky as she finally rolled to a stop underneath a motorway flyover. A nondescript white van parked near one of the pillars, and leaning against it was a slender man. Denise categorised him as the “smart-casual” type of guy. Gina would have categorised him as “generally doable”.

“Ms Carlisle, I presume,” he greeted her in a known voice as she got out of the car, whose engine had stopped running as ghostly as it had come to life. Her phone connection had ended some moments ago, too. Actually, her whole phone had fallen dead again.

“Please tell me you are here to help me!” Denise sighed as she limped towards him.

“Absolutely.” He, too, came closer. “Those government henchmen miss basic skills in treating a lady rightly, as you were so sadly forced to witness.”

He slowed down almost to a stop and scrutinised her.

“Why are you holding your shoes?”

“I can’t run in them.”

“I believe that. Why didn’t you just leave them behind?”

Denise looked at him as though he had escaped from the loony bin.

“Leave them ‘behind’? I have you know: These are limited edition Louboutins.”

It took him a second to file that information.

“Very well.”

He went past her and glanced through the open driver’s door.

“And this is your Gucci handbag?”

“Yes.”

He retrieved it from the passenger seat and hooked it on one of her shoes’ heels. With his other hand he produced a small cylindrical gadget from his jacket.

“Nice whip.”

He threw the cylinder in and returned to Denise to walk her to his van. Behind them a hissing sound swelled up inside the cabin. She turned around and saw the car’s whole inside illuminated by erratic white light. Thick steam or smoke avalanched out of the driver’s entrance. A wall of heat washed over her.

“Neat device to melt down evidence,” he anticipated her question. “In a couple of minutes the sand underneath the car will have turned into glass.”

Denise flinched as the first tyre burst. He gave her a hand as she awkwardly waddled onwards.

“I’ve stepped into something on those railway tracks.”

He let her to the open tail gates.

“Probably just a heroin needle.”

The voice-owner helped her sit down on the rear bumper. Denise put her shoes and bag aside.

“What was that place?”

“A ‘halfway house’, halfway to a proper extrajudicial detention facility, that is. Can also be utilised for in-depth interrogation.”

Denise could not help but swallow. Hearing those fears confirmed by a third party made them all the more distressing.

“Nobody knew where I was. I wasn’t even granted a lawyer.”

“That’s how this kind of detention works…”

“And they assaulted me with a taser.”

He nodded sympathetically whilst fishing something from his other pocket.

“Yeah, that’s a shitty thing to do.”

Denise felt him pressing the pocket-something against her side, but only managed to emit a guttural noise as a blast of electricity surged through her system for the second time within twenty-four hours.

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About Venom

Bloke from Central Europe; Petrol Head; Observer of Human Depravity View all posts by Venom

5 responses to “Æquinoctium — Chapter One

  • Absolutist

    Wow, that was quite the ride. From a boring date to conspiracy theories, alleged Nazi wonder weapons, black ops, super hackers and last but not least high fashion… And as the not quite unexpected twist at the end proves once and for all: chivalry is indeed dead. Popcorn!

    • Venom

      Glad I’ve struck the right note, obviously using clichés for the fun of it. Sadly, though, I’ve had to split the story up into two, maybe even three parts. The economy, you know…

  • Venom

    And of course WordPress’ formatting hasn’t accepted my symbols between sub-chapters, which accounts for some odd jumps in time and places during the story (one moment Denise is in her bed, the next she’s working out in the gym). I’ve fixed it now — let’s hope it will stay that way.

  • Vandalay

    I’m hooked.

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