Thursday, 30 May 2013

The numbers station

It was cold in the car; Edward refused to let him turn the heater on in case it drained the battery.  Martin rubbed his gloved hands together and pushed himself further back into the passenger seat, trying to get warm.  His coat was supposedly rated for Arctic conditions but he was rapidly losing faith.  His ears hurt, both the tips from the cold and the insides from the after-effects of listening to Odnose-B.  Next to him, dressed in a parka that Martin had laughed at when he first saw it, wearing thin leather gloves and a pained expression, was Edward Demarche.
Edward was nominally in charge of this situation, but both he and Martin knew that Martin had much more practical experience, while Edward was essentially a theorist who felt like getting his hands dirty now and then.  Even so, Edward had insisted on picking out the rental car, and had gone for something so nondescript that it wasn’t a reliable starter and had dodgy tracking.  Martin, who would have picked something newer, smaller, and more corporate had held his tongue and waited to see what would happen.  What had happened was that they’d driven to this building and then sat outside it, in sub-zero temperatures, for over ninety minutes.
“Where did you get that coat?” asked Edward.  His breath produced a rapidly dispersing white cloud in the air.
“High street,” replied Martin.  It had been a couple of days ago and he’d gone into the first outdoors-and-camping store that he’d seen and asked for a coat for cold conditions.
“Huh.  They never sell anything that really keeps the cold out.  You should go to army surplus.  If your soldiers freeze they can’t fight.  The army gets it right.”  This was the longest speech Edward had made since Martin had met him, and he waited to see if he’d continue.  When he didn’t the silence dragged out further and further.
“Movement,” said Edward, his head flicking to the side like a startled bird.
“Third-floor, daughter of the couple in 18,” said Martin, whose head didn’t move.  “Should be going off to see her school-friends at this time.”
Edward shot him a glance, clearly annoyed by Martin’s casual know-it-all attitude.  “She’s carrying a bag,” he said.
“Most likely a change of clothes; she tells her parents that she’s studying and then she goes out with her friends.  To lots of places.”
“You read the background material then.”  It wasn’t a question, just a blunt statement.  Martin nodded still not looking over.  He seemed entranced by the end of the street.  “You wrote it,” he said.
They waited another twenty minutes before a short man wearing a trenchcoat and an oversized fedora left the building.  Edward sat up and leaned forward immediately.
“Good to go!” he said hoarsely.
“Not yet,” said Martin, tapping a tooth with one of his fingers and listening to the slightly hollow sound it made.  “Give him a chance to remember he’s forgotten something and come back.”
“That doesn’t happen,” said Edward, frowning.
“More than you’d think,” said Martin.
Only after another five minutes had passed did Martin agree to leave the car.  He and Edward checked the street and then crossed to the building.  The front doors weren’t locked, and led into a lobby with a set of wooden postboxes, each numbered in brass, and a single pass-card controlled elevator.  Edward produced a pass-card from his pocket, and called the lift.  When it arrived it also needed the card before any of the floor buttons would light up.
“Third floor, second door on the right,” said Edward as the lift ascended.
“Do we have a key?”
“As in, do we have any?”
“As in, are we expecting any?”
“Not exactly,” said Edward.  “There’s been no evidence that he has to disarm anything when he comes back.”
“Hah.”  Martin said nothing else until they were stood outside the apartment door: number 13.  Edward produced a key, but Martin held up a hand and listened at the door first.  After a moment he produced a slim rod and pushed it into the lock.  When he was satisfied the lock wasn’t booby trapped he pressed his ear against that and listened again.  His whole head throbbed.
“Voices,” he said.  “Definitely someone talking in there, maybe two or three.”
“You’ve got a gun.”  Not a question, just a flat statement.  Martin stared at him.
“Yes, but we don’t want a shoot-out.  The gun’s insurance, a way of making sure we can get our own way.  We don’t want everyone firing and bringing in the neighbours and police.”
“Then why bring it at all?”
“In case.”  Martin felt the Edward’s reluctance to talk was rubbing off on him.  “What are we expecting in here?  Apart from the guys having a chat?”
“Books,” said Edward.  “Important books.”  He slipped the key in the lock and turned it before Martin could say anything, and then flung the door open.  Straight in front of them was a spacious living room, with a small desk set up in the middle of it.  Sat at the desk, manacled at the wrists and ankles was a young-girl with rat’s-tailed hair and blood from old nosebleeds crusted around her nostrils and across her face.  In front of her was a microphone and a notebook, and with sudden shock Martin realised that what he was hearing wasn’t conversation at all, but numbers being recited in Odnose-B.  The entire room seemed to swim before his eyes, and he collapsed, falling to his knees and then forwards onto his face.  He was dimly aware that Edward was doing something, but the words were ringing in his head and drowning out all conscious thought.

No comments: