Denise kept standing for a few moments after Gabriel’s car had turned into the main street. Finally she gave in to the undeniable truth that she had to play along in the voice-owner’s mean little scheme.
She slung the strap of her handbag over her shoulder and got into gear, stumbling occasionally on the poorly maintained back alley tarmac. The main street came closer and would lead her directly to the city centre, if Denise chose so. She did by turning right, as mandated. On smarting feet and with an empty stomach she followed the avenue, which was living up with traffic. Buildings housing small shops in their ground floors were gradually replaced by larger edifices. Nearby banks and law firms pushed up the number of suited drones on the pavement, so Denise felt less and less overdressed. By now she had gathered a rough concept of where she was, although her own workplace was located at the other side of the centre. In her mind she recapitulated the instructions Gabriel had drummed into her during the drive – annoyingly dubbed by his baritone voice.
At the south-eastern corner of Winterpark Crossing you will find a bakery. Buy a croissant and go into the park. Sit on the bench facing the pond, across from the aviary, and have a little breakfast.
Whilst sitting and eating her croissant, Denise scanned her surroundings. The park was neither deserted nor exactly crowded. A reasonable number of joggers were attending to their laps, some office workers seeking either shortcuts or deliberately delaying their arrival at their cubicles. An elderly man slowly walked the pond’s grassy perimeter, stopping now and then to throw a handful of birdseed to the resident ducks. The mallards weren’t the only ones hungry. Although her pastry was insufficient for the most important meal of the day, it took care of the worst. As per order, Denise had placed its empty paper back upright between her and the free seats of the bench. Sitting still, she began to feel a bit chilly in her slightly too short skirt. That Denise was still going commando didn’t improve her situation either. She didn’t have to wait much longer, though. The old man limped across the grass towards her.
“G’morning, miss,” he greeted and doffed his hat, “do you mind if I sat for a minute?”
“Not at all,” Denise replied insecurely.
With a groan he seated himself next to her on the bench, putting his hat in his lap and the bag with birdseed between them.
“Doing this every morning, you know, my round around the ‘pound’. Keeps the old ticker ticking. Just need a moment for my back, though.”
They sat in silence for a short period of time.
“I used to feed bread, but they say it’s not good for those little guys. That new stuff I buy at the pet shop. It’s so healthy I should eat it myself.”
With a sigh and another groan the pensioner rose from the bench. He took one of the paper bags and put his hat back on, only to tip it again.
“You have a wonderful day, miss.”
“You, too, sir.”
Denise watched him hobble away. Then, trying to make it look as inconspicuously as possible, she grabbed the remaining bag and left the park.
The nearest facilities are at the Hotel Winterpark. The lobby might not be busy enough for you to sneak or stroll in unhindered. If that’s the case, feel free to be creative.
It was the case. A couple was about to check out, a man in suit and tie was sitting in a lounge chair, reading a newspaper. Two receptionists, one female, the other male, were on duty. Denise deliberately chose the male one. Being confronted with a faked lady emergency, he turned pale and immediately directed her to the desired location.
Worked every time. Denise had never met a bloke who didn’t cringe at the mere whisper of liquefied uterine wall lining exiting the female body via the vaginal canal.
The powder room was classy, with no shortage of white polished marble. Denise put the paper bag on the stone counter with its three basins and paused. She had to make sure she was alone; wouldn’t that be what a real spy would do? Carefully she walked further into the room, to where the three toilet stalls were situated. Denise tried to peek underneath the first door to see if somebody was hiding, but unwilling to kneel or prop herself on one hand she wasn’t able to look far enough. A trained enemy operative would be standing on the bowl anyway to avoid being spotted. Therefore only one course of action presented itself.
After taking a moment to find an acceptable footing on her heels she kicked the door to the first stall open. It slammed against the side panel and closed again as a counteraction, yet granting enough time to confirm the stall was empty. Denise took a side step to her right and repeated her brute-force approach on the second door.
She positioned herself in front of the third and final stall. After a deep breath she brought her leg up and stomped the hidden-platform sole of her shoe against the door’s surface. It vibrated heavily, but remained in its closed state.
“Oi, knock it off!”
Denise literally jumped back.
“Sorry! I just― Sorry!”
Indignant murmur followed her from the occupied stall as Denise retreated to the array of basins. She wondered if any secret service field manual suggested to first check whether the lock’s indicator showed red.
The toilet flushing and the snap of the bolt startled her. She quickly busied herself with washing her hands as a stern-locking middle-aged woman with short grey hair stepped to the basin next to hers. With an air of an English headmistress she cleaned her hands as well whilst gazing at Denise’s reflexion in the mirror. The redhead kept her eyes down and meekly mouthed another “sorry”. Finally the creepy woman dried her hands and left the facilities.
Denise groaned in relief and grabbed the paper bag. It was the one with the bird food, but hidden underneath the seeds was a small plastic bag and in it a plastic container the size of a match box. Within the container, at last, she found a set of contact lenses.
Surely it has not escaped you that the inner city has become a CCTV mine field. We cannot make you invisible to the wrong human operator who happens to look at the wrong monitor at the wrong time. But we can protect you from that tedious facial recognition software. Put the contact lenses in. They sport a special coating which creates lens flare of sort in optical systems. Your features will be rendered unrecognisable to automated surveillance.
Æquinoctium might hold disagreeable views on world politics, hospitality and common decency, but Denise was with the lot on this one. Even a person as carefree as she had taken to develop a queasy feeling at the plethora of closed-circuit sentinels. To such heights the population of cameras had grown that it had become impossible to untangle who was watching. Who was remembering. And who was being remembered. If a radical transport safety party were to seize power, she might very well be imprisoned for crossing a street at a red pedestrian light ten years ago. Not to mention what would happen to her if somebody were to outlaw checking out cute boys at street cafés with Gina.
Denise had never needed glasses and therefore never worn contacts (she was more than happy with her natural eye colour, too). So it took her several attempts to even overcome the reflexes of her eyelids. Upon succeeding in the end, the sensation of having a foreign object sticking to each eyeball had a mildly nauseating edge to it. She blinked a few times and bent closer to her mirror image. The contact lenses did not affect the blue of her irides, but at certain angles to the light they caused a mysterious eyeshine. Kind of cool, but in a very outré way.
Leaving the hotel, Denise disposed of the paper and plastic bag in different rubbish bins, but kept the box. Her whole day would be filled with little tortures like this one. Gabriel could have easily given the lenses and anything else she would be needing whilst they had been in the car. This scavenger hunt’s only point was to make her jump through hoops.
Enter the nearest subway station and take the no. 12 to city centre at 08:54. Don’t bother buying a ticket – there won’t be any inspectors on the train.
She descended a broad stairway down to the metro station in question. Already belonging to the highly-frequented inner grid, the station was a prime achievement of modern infrastructure in every aspect; clean, well-lit, fully surveiled. It put Denise new augmentation to an immediate test as her formerly defuse worries turned into acute anxiety. She forced herself to not constantly look down or shield her face with a hand. Later, when the Housekeeper and his posse would put the pieces together, they would surely recognise her on footage by parts of her face still visible, by her posture or her hair. But non-conforming behaviour could draw attention to her right away.
CCTV wasn’t the only element bound to raise Denise’s blood pressure. Security had obviously been tightened. At strategic points policemen had taken up post. Beefed up with bulletproof vests and submachine guns, the constables could be divided in two distinctive groups. Tough-as-nails guys ready to empty a clip into anyone who wasn’t standing behind the yellow line when a train arrived. And hyper-nervous wrecks ready to faint the moment somebody let a bubble-gum bubble burst.
Denise entered the no. 12 train unhindered and squeezed her slender self between the lucky breed of commuters with flexible working hours.
Get out at the Karl Ranseier Memorial Station and leave via the western exit. Turn right and follow the street until facing a coffee shop. Enter the shop at exactly 09:37. Look if somebody is sitting at the table closest to the door. If so, give no indication whatsoever you’ve noticed them.
Denise hadn’t been wearing a watch to begin with, and since Gabriel had sacked her mobile phone, she had no means to tell the exact time. Hovering within striking distance to the coffee den she resorted to asking passers-by in regular intervals.
“It’s precisely…” the final man flashed his showy chronograph, happy to assist, “… 09:37, love.”
“Thank you!” Denise replied and set off towards the shop. Upon entering she stole a quick glance of the nearest table. A well-groomed gentleman was sitting behind a newspaper. Was this the same guy as in the hotel lobby? Damn, Denise scolded herself, she had to pay closer attention to things like that!
Order a small white coffee to take away, then change your order to a cortado and brush through your hair with your left hand when the table next to the door is empty. Use your right hand when the table is occupied. Leave with your coffee.
Agitated by the newspaper reader’s presence, Denise managed to express her orders correctly, but mixed up left and right at first. It resulted in her right hand awkwardly brushing away a strand on the opposite side of her face.
She hurried to leave the shop, checking at every other step if she was being followed. The man with the newspaper had risen the moment she’d gone through the door, so Denise headed back to the area around the subway station. She had considerably better chances to lose him in the crowd. Unless―
Maybe she was bugged! Maybe a tracking device had been planted on her stuff during her stay at the safe house. No, her new friends with Æquinoctium would have thought and taken care of that lest their headquarters’ location be revealed.
Denise threw another glance over her shoulder, with inconclusive outcome. At least Newspaper wasn’t behind her. He was in front of her. Turning around the corner towards the metro entrance, she literally ran into him. The still hot beverage bounced against the cup’s lid, sending stinging drops through its small opening and onto her hand. Her bag performed a wide swing, hitting the man with some force. The melter inside had granted the harmless Gucci item additional momentum.
“I am so sorry, miss. This was utterly my fault.”
He pulled out his pocket square and offered it to her. Denise, too shocked to do anything else, took it to wipe her coffee-stained hand.
“Have a nice day, miss.”
But he had already vanished within a new wave of subway travellers emerging from the underground.
Her confusion about this incident only lasted until she noticed the message on the pocket square:
Enjoy your cortado. Gabriel.
Of course. Funny. Let’s yank the ginger Yank’s chain a bit. And she had played along; enter at exactly 09:37, brush through your hair with this or that hand – what a load of bullshit!
Denise brought her arms down in frustration, only to send another small gush of coffee across her hand.
Ignoring the indignant looks from those within earshot, she cleaned herself again and finally managed to actually drink her coffee. Ironically the hot stimulant calmed her down a bit. Denise wasn’t nearly through with the mental list Gabriel had handed down to her, and henceforward she would be far more wary with each point on it. And even more importantly, she would not allow to be badgered further with immature tasks!
Go to the bookshop at the Symphony Plaza and look for a saleslady named Ms Olsen. Ask her for a pre-ordered copy of From Anal Beads to Zip Ties – 69 Naughty Ways to Improve Your Love Life.
There went that resolution…
The bookshop in question was a multi-storey affair in the best location, not some cosy and crammed antiquarian bookseller hiding in a side street. Therefore it took Denise about ten minutes to scan every name tag until she finally found a young woman of the desired name on the non-fiction floor.
“Hi, I would like to pick up a book.”
Ms Olsen, not much older than Denise herself, made an inviting gesture towards a counter.
“Of course. What is the title?”
Denise mumbled again, only a bit more slowly.
“Sorry, I still―”
Denise sighed in defeat.
“69 Naughty Ways to Improve Your Love Life.”
Ms Olsen smiled knowingly.
“On which name, please?”
She was already behind the counter and heading towards a separated storage area, so Denise had to speak up.
She interrupted herself, only to start again with less vigour in her voice.
At this time of the day still too few customers were at the bookshop for her and Ms Olsen’s interaction not to be noticed anymore, but already too many for it not to be heard. Just to confirm, the saleslady shouted a follow-up question back from the storage.
“From Anal Beads to Zip Ties?”
Denise was now ready to receive euthanasia:
Ms Olsen re-emerged and handed her not too discreetly a book with a jaunty cover design. Denise especially liked how the Ls of Love Life were formed by happy-coloured sex toys (the first even had a pair of fluffy handcuffs dangling from its phallic horizontal bar). Oh, look, there were even some actual anal beads, too!
“Thank you, and do have fun.”
Denise threw her a glance that could corrode glass, and a slight flinch went through the saleslady. It was only after Denise had stridden away that she accounted Ms Olsen’s reaction to the eyeshine effect in her – Denise’s – look.
Upon recapping Gabriel’s instructions on the next step, Denise felt her attention being drawn towards a section of shelves full of globes, atlases and travel guides. Deciding that a little bit of moonlighting was in order, she strolled along the phalanx of book spines until finding a guide book dedicated to this very city.
She had spent roughly two cuffed and hooded hours in the car after leaving Æquinoctium’s subterranean lair. Which meant equally roughly 200 kilometres. Denise opened a map showing the city’s location in relation to other urban areas. There was some rocky topography in the north-west as well as were the foothills in the south, all within the estimated radius. Any guess would be as good as the next, but it had been worth the try. Yet Denise hesitated to put the book back on its shelf. Instead she flipped through the leaves until she found detailed maps of the city itself. She took her time studying the pages dedicated to the harbour.
Denise had walked the short distance to the city’s art museum and taken cover behind a column of its neoclassical façade. It was warmer by now, and she could have done it like numerous students and tourists and seated herself on the broad front steps. But that would have unnecessarily exposed her to CCTV – and to pervs trying to peek under her skirt.
The sex book had already been paid for, and it was holding more than just tips for inserting inventively formed objects into various orifices. Chapter 18, Mind-Blowings and other Tongue-in-Cheek Stuff, had the centres of its paces neatly cut out in the shape of a key. Which was a great example of planning ahead, for the cut-out had been fitted with an actual key afterwards.
This key will fit to a locker at the central station. Within you will find a clean mobile phone and an envelope.
This scenario was kind of classic. But so had been R’s electrical play. And for both the phone and the envelope the same demeaning truth applied as did for her contact lenses: This all was part of an infantile punishment. Denise didn’t even know with absolute certainty that Mr Balance between Darkness and Light would not sent her to her doom after all in the end. She could only hope that Gabriel’s real intention wasn’t to drive up her price before cutting a lucrative deal with the “local intelligence community”. That she had indeed become even more popular Denise learnt the moment she entered the station concourse. Every single one of the huge screens for real-time arrival predictions sported a news ticker at the bottom, and every entry revolved around one topic: the Tristanium crisis.
In the waiting areas smaller monitors with audio output were showing a news programme explaining how to react in case of an attack with weaponised this or radioactive that.
All over the place police officers were on the look-out, fitted with ballistic vests and automatic weapons just like their colleagues at the metro stations.
Denise slipped past them, hoping to attract as little attention as possible. The clicking of her sky-high red-soled heels on the station’s stone floor surely did its vital part of keeping a low profile. Whenever she noticed somebody – uniformed or not – looking at her, she told herself they were only admiring her legs – or her taste in footwear. The news had held no indication that she was openly wanted by the police. Æquinoctium itself was mentioned minute-by-minute, but her name never came up so far. Nothing about a burnt-out car underneath a flyover, either.
The lockers were installed in a side wing. A random act of vandalism had left the cameras in the storage facility covered in spray paint. No need to make it too easy for her hunters, Denise reckoned. The key fit to locker no. 1317, and she helped herself to its content. Stuffing the mobile and the strangely dark envelope into her handbag, she had to back-pedal a bit on her earlier rants. The prank at the coffee shop was still as mean as it was not funny, but having her collect these two items as late as possible made sense in the light of the escalation around her. It had minimised the risk of the secret service getting hold on what Gabriel called a clean phone, and of her divulging what she would learn from the envelope.
Go outside and take the note out of the envelope. The paper is UV sensitive. You have about thirty seconds to memorise the phone number on it before the sunlight blackens it. At the station’s south-eastern side are public telephones. Snort not, they will fulfil their purpose. Use one to dial the number. It leads to a virtual relay station, cloaking your real position. Despite this, do not use the clean phone for it!
Denise eyed the exotic apparatus sceptically. There was a row of them under a common glass roof, no separate booths. Still, privacy issues were not to be expected. Were people even allowed to still use one of those? In her current flat she hadn’t even bothered to install a landline. Denise picked up the receiver and granted herself a moment of doubting. If she pulled this through, she would be a huge step closer to the point of no return. If she did not – then what? Begging Gabriel to give her life back to her? Testing how much water she could inhale strapped to a sloped table?
She punched the numbers in. Odd digital sounds piped up, then silence, then the usual dial-tone. Then a slightly puzzled male voice.
Denise swallowed hard and took a deep breath. JCTO. Joint Counter-Terrorist Operations.
“This is Denise Carlisle. You may be looking for me.”