The shop was on a busy street, sandwiched between a music superstore and a small electronic shop with lots of coloured lights on display in the window. The Tailor’s shop had a couple of dusky mannequins in the window wearing pinstriped suits, and a desultory display of ties on a hanger behind them. The door pushed open and a bell jingled and the carpet just inside the door was threadbare and the brown of a mongrel dog. Martin Lewhide looked around, wondering where the Tailor was.
“I’ll be with you in just a moment, Sir,” came a voice from the other side of what looked like a cupboard door. It was quiet, slightly refined, and the words were crisp and clearly enunciated as though the speaker was used to being on stage.
“No hurry,” said Martin. He looked around at the short racks of suits with a sign at one end: For display purposes only. All suits made to measure. Behind a small counter was another rack holding other suits that looked… well, tailored for want of a better word. Martin walked over to have a closer look, wondering for a moment if he’d got the wrong shop.
“Please don’t touch,” said the voice, halting Martin’s steps. His hand fell back to his side and he felt inexplicably guilty. He turned; there behind him, closing the cupboard door with one hand and holding a wicked looking pair of cloth-shears in the other was a short man, well-dressed in a shirt, waistcoat and expensive-looking dark trousers. His shoes were probably leather and shinier than any Martin had ever owned. “Those are awaiting collection and as such, are already sold. I doubt you want a bill for dry-cleaning.”
“You’re the Tailor,” said Martin, his eyes scanning the Tailor’s face. It was plain, simple, nothing stood out. His eyes were grey and looked like they saw a joke that Martin didn’t. His nose was small, pointed and unremarkable. His lips were thin, his chin was slightly dimpled. Everything about him rang a bell, but all because he looked like the generic description people gave when they actually hadn’t been paying attention.
“That’s very observant,” said the Tailor. “You must be the customer. What are you looking for today?” Eyes flicked up and down him. “Everything? A wedding perhaps?”
“You. I’m looking for you,” said Martin. “I know who you are.”
“I’m a tailor, Sir, yes. And though I might suggest that I’m very good as discerning a man’s intentions when dealing with his suit preferences, I am not a mind-reader. Could you perhaps be more specific why you’re looking for me?”
Martin paused, uncertain again. The man was as nondescript as he’d been told, and this was definitely the right shop. Could he be making a mistake?
“Do you have a partner?” he said.
“Someone I work with? No, this is a sole-proprietor enterprise, which is possible by the bespoke nature of my business. If you mean a romantic partner, then I’m afraid you’re simply not my type, but I am, naturally, flattered.”
“Then you’re the Tailor,” said Martin, wishing that he felt more confident. “You’re running the numbers station.”
“What on earth is a numbers station?”
“A list of numbers, recited, at regular intervals,” said Martin. “Why am I telling you though, you already know. We’ve tracked the signal to here, you’re definitely running the numbers station. And you have to be the Tailor, because the Tailor is the only person who would run a numbers station in Odnose B.”
“What’s an odd nose got to do with this? This is very interesting by the way, but if a genuine customer should come in I’ll have to ask to leave, I’m afraid.”
“You don’t have any real customers! This is all just a front. You’re well aware that Odnose B is a language, a dead one, that probably killed off all its speakers. You’re the only person in the world who’d pick it for a numbers station, and that’s just one of the things that’s going to have to stop.” Martin pulled a gun from the inside pocket of his mac; the pockets there were tailored specifically for him to provide him with quick access to his weapons and other little tools that helped him with his tradework.
“Oh dear,” said the Tailor, sounding unconcerned. “Is this is a robbery?”
“Dammit, stop pretending! I know you’re the Tailor, I’ve been looking for you for the last three weeks. People are dying because of your numbers station, you know! Do you know how many people have died because of you?”
“Fewer, by an order of magnitude, than the number of its citizens that your country remanded into special custody to Guantánamo-like camps in the last calendar year.”
Martin stared at the Tailor. The Tailor nodded. “Oh yes. Have you been doing this for so long now that you think you’re one of the good guys? You’re not; everything I do is for the good guys, the improvement of the situation of the people I’m working for. I never sit down and ask myself how I can be evil today, only what I can do to make life better for people. Do you ever sit down and ask yourself anything?”
“I am too a good guy!” Martin stumbled over his words in his rush to get them out. “You’re the one with a lethal numbers station!”
“You should really think about the intent of that,” said the Tailor. “You might surprise yourself and understand something. And while we’re at it, your government designated me an enemy combatant over eight years ago. What did I do to deserve that?”
“I… I don’t know, I wasn’t working for the – for my employer then.” Martin felt his face flush as he almost admitted who he was working for.
“Then you should have done your homework,” said the Tailor.
“I did! We’ve been after you for six years, and you keep getting away. But that’s not going to happen this time – we have this shop surrounded, front and back. We’ve been watching it for three weeks now, and we broke in a couple of nights ago to check for hidden exits and secret passages. There’s no way out this time, Tailor. We have you, and I think you should just come quietly and make it easy on yourself.”
“Is there a book of clichés somewhere that they make you read and memorise? You sound like a parody of yourself, you really do.”
“Just give up, Tailor!” Martin felt quite proud of himself, sure now that he had the right guy and that he was going to walk out of here with the Tailor in handcuffs. He’d be a hero, having finally caught the man they’d been after for so long. “Hey, what are you doing?” The Tailor had walked behind the counter.
“Turning the radio on,” said the Tailor, smiling faintly. A tinny voice suddenly came out of the speaker system saying something utterly horrible. It sounded like the word had stuck in the speaker’s throat and had had to be vomited out. Syllables cracked where they should have resonated, phonemes seemed to melt and acidify in Martin’s ears. He slapped his hands over his ears reflexively, but the Tailor just turned another dial and increased the volume.
As Martin sank to his knees, unable to pull his hands away from his head, and feeling his brain pulse with the intensity of a migraine as the words spoken in Odnose B echoed around the room. The Tailor placed a piece of paper in front of him, and the writing on it swam before his eyes until he made himself blink and bring them in focus. There are High and Low forms of Odnose B, read the note. Be grateful that the numbers station is only using the Low form. Martin blinked again and his vision turned red. With a sudden cold feeling in the pit of his stomach he realised that his eyes had started bleeding, and he tried to get to his feet. His feet, and his knees, wouldn’t obey him, and he just slowly fell over to one side. He remained there until his team came in, wearing ear-protectors normally used on building site and shot both the radio and the PA system to put a stop to the words. They had to carry him out between them.