The corridor was long and had no doors on either side of it to break up the grey-green walls. The only window was at the end where the staircase arrived; it looked out onto a narrow expanse of grass and then a security fence. The steel mesh of the fence was too dense to see through, and the barbed wire coils atop it were rumoured to be electrified. No birds landed there, or perched and cheeped; no rabbits ran on the grass, even at night. The window had been painted shut years ago, and then painted and repainted ever since, until there wasn’t even a crack between the sill and the frame to show where they had once been separate parts. The glass was warped and dirty, and there seemed little hope of anyone coming up here to clean it. People coming up here had other things on their mind.
The floor of the corridor was tiled in a red-and-blue diamond pattern, and the sound of shoes on it were hollow and echoing. Michael walked along it, wondering if the sound carried into the office at the end of the corridor, if this was how a visitor was forced to announce their presence. He castigated himself mentally for thinking like that, that was old school. That might have been true in the days when he first learned this craft, before technology took over and consumed the world. Now it was taken for granted that any visitors were seen by camera when they approached the doors to the building, and were probably tracked the entire time that they were inside. Microphones small enough to be disguised as buttons in your clothing, or the centres of flowers in floral arrangements could pick up whispered conversations and convey them back to computers with Terabyte sized hard-drives on which to record them, ready for playback to you with just a simple search command. Doors could be remotely operated, and speakers and screens could pass messages to you without ever allowing you close to the person who was giving instructions. Hell, they didn’t even have to be in the same building as you; you could be discreetly delivered to a death-chamber and you’d sit there placidly listening to the voice explaining to you what you’d done wrong while the air filled with lethal gas that gently overwhelmed you. Then it was down to the clean-up teams to come in and deposit your body where the message it sent would be understood by everybody.
So why was he in this building, walking down this corridor?
At the end of the corridor was a wooden door. There was a circular handle for it, chipped. It looked as though it was made of plastic, bakelite perhaps. Another anachronism in an age where steel and glass were the norm. He reached for the handle and then hesitated. His hand clenched into a fist, and he knocked on the door instead.
“Come in,” said a voice from beyond the door immediately. Michael almost looked around for a speaker, but his brain kicked in and pointed out that the voice had definitely been attenuated by the door in the way. Strange.
The handle turned loosely as though the screws holding it in place were starting to slip, but the door opened and beyond it he saw a tiny office, barely big enough for the desk and three chairs that were in there. The desk reached to the whitewashed wall on one side, and left a gap for a thin man to sidle round on the other. The two chairs on Michael’s side were pulled slightly out from the desk, and the arc of the door only just missed hitting them. There were no bookcases, no pictures on the wall, no carpet on the floor, and no signs of human comforts at all. The desk was chipped like the door-handle, revealing chipboard underneath a thin, plasticky veneer, and there were papers laid in an orderly fashion across it All of them had been turned upside down so that he couldn’t see what was written on them.
Behind the desk, watching him through unrimmed glasses with golden arms, was a man who looked as though he might be in his late fifties or sixties. His hair was mostly gone, with just tufts at the sides above his ears still remaining. They were trimmed but bushy, as though kept as a memory of what the full head of hair might once have been. The face was lined, the lips were thin and white, and the nose was long, sloping, and had flaring nostrils. The eyes were hard to make out; whatever lenses were in the glasses, they were blurring the eyes beyond them. Michael was sure that this was deliberate. The man was wearing a pinstriped suit, the kind that wouldn’t have looked out of place on an accountant or banker, and a high-collared white shirt with a tie that had the muddy colours and broad stripes suggesting that it was a sign to people having the same academic background. Michael didn’t recognise it.
“Michael,” said the man. “Come in and sit down please.” His voice was papery and crackly, as though he hadn’t spoken much for a while. Michael’s eyes looked over the desk again; there was no sign of a glass of water or cup of coffee. He closed the door and sat down in the closest chair. It squeaked a little and shifted slightly, suggesting that the bolts holding it together were loose.
“Welcome to the House of Whispers,” said the man. Michael stiffened slightly, and the man nodded. “This has been known, unofficially, as such for over eighty years,” he said. “I called it the same thing when I was… not what I am now. No shame attains.”
That’s an odd thing to say, thought Michael, but he said nothing. He sat still in his chair, his handed folded in his lap, his legs crossed at the ankles, and his eyes on the man on the other side of the desk.
“You have been sent here for a briefing,” continued the man. “But you have not been told what the briefing will be about, or why you are receiving it, or why you had to come here.” Michael nodded, but the man wasn’t looking at him. Instead he was looking down at his desk and opening a drawer. “You are probably wondering why, given the technology available to us, we aren’t doing this via anonymised video conference,” he continued. “This is only because such signals can be intercepted and copied, and though encryption technologies are excellent, the best encryption is the one you never have to use.” He opened a drawer and Michael noticed that the desk was so cheap that it wobbled as that happened. The man took a single sheet of white A4 paper out and passed it over to Michael. There were boxes and lines drawn on it, and names written inside the boxes.
“That is the organisation chart,” said the man. “You will recognise some of the names on there, I expect. Do not tell me which you recognise.” He waited while Michael read the paper, and when Michael’s eyes started going over it a second time he spoke again.
“The name I want you to pay attention to is in the third row,” he said. “Rosa Lindenbaum. You can see what her role is from there. Rosa died yesterday. The official report is that she had a heart attack while on her way to her job and that she collapsed and died in the lift as she was ascending to the floor that she worked on.”
Michael looked up from the paper, his gaze now sharp. The man behind the desk met his eyes with ease. “The official story is so much bullshit,” he said, and Michael found himself surprised that the man would swear. “Your first task,” said the man, “is to find out how she died. Once we understand this, there may be further work for you. You may keep that piece of paper provided you keep it securely.” The man dropped his gaze and his hands moved across the desk, twitching pieces of paper, seemingly looking for something. Michael stood, recognising that he was dismissed, and opened the door to the office. As it closed behind him, it was a relief to be out of there. He resisted the urge to turn suddenly and open the door again and see what the office looked like when no-one was expecting him and he set off down the long corridor again.
It was only as he reached the stairs to go down that he paused and looked back, and wondered what else was on this floor of the building, given that there were no doors from this corridor or the office he’d been in.