Hired for Secrets

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Prepare for the worst

Sofie had been looking forward to her date with Phillip. But in the cold hard light of the day her ‘date’ looked more like a trap. She wanted to trust Philip. But was she naive for doing so? In unclear situations like these, Sofie resorted to collecting more intel. But there wasn’t more to be found out about Philip. So instead she put her trust in technology, equipping herself with gadgets that could get her through any hairy situation she might encounter tonight.

The doorbell of the little hardware store played the theme song of X-file as Sofie entered. She found this place on the internet. It was on the outskirts of London and suitably small to not be asking uncomfortable questions or requiring identification. The only online review read ‘dodgy and strange’. It was a great endorsement for a spy-store, especially one that could serve Sofie’s unusual and borderline legal requirements.

An unpleasant mixture of mildew and soldering fumes hit her as she stepped over a mountain of old mail into the one-room shop. The place was stuffed to the ceiling with boxes containing radio-transmitters, surveillance cameras and computer chips. Looking around the windowless room, she noticed a half dead indoor plant in one corner and a life size mannequin with a baseball cap and bulletproof vest in the other.

An oversized glass vitrine took up most of the dingy room. It displayed the shop’s more pricey items. Sofie recognised the CSR-PRO-3000, a counter surveillance receiver developed for the Israeli military to locate any types of bugs, video transmitters, and tape recorders. With this bad boy, Elandra would have had no problem spotting her remaining camera. Luckily, this device was not part of the standard equipment for security personnel, at least not in this country. Sofie didn’t recognize any of the other devices in the display case. They presumably had similarly left-field application areas. Half of them even looked custom made, with wires and oddly shaped antennas sticking out of the open casings. ‘Strange’ wasn’t even covering how this place looked.

“I’ll be out in just a second…” a male voice called from the back room.

With a sudden loud bang, several cardboard boxes came tumbling through the curtain that separated the back from the shop’s display area. The shopkeeper let out a pained groan.

“Are you ok?” Sofie tried to peek through the gap in the fabric but it was too dark to see.

“Fine, fine,” the voice shouted. “Maybe like this… Um, no… Ah, darn. I’m stuck... They delivered the shipment to the wrong entrance, and now... Sorry, not your problem... Do you mind coming to the back? I cannot get out.”

Sofie smiled, ‘dodgy’ was also a very accurate description. She carefully stepped over a wild tangle of power extensions and cables that crisscrossed the room to various monitors and machines. This place was a mess and a fire hazard on top of it. But given that nothing seemed to have exploded so far and the monitors weren’t even flickering, the person running this place knew what they were doing. This certainly was the right place to upgrade her gear for tonight’s assignment.

She pushed the blotchy green curtain to the side to find an elderly man surrounded by hundreds of little boxes containing GPS trackers. Clearing up this mess without crushing any of the fragile content would take a while. No wonder he summoned her to the back instead of trying to forge a path out of it.

“How can I help you, tod- …,” his milky-blue eyes landed on Sofie and he let out a loud sigh. “I don’t have time for this today, dear. Tell Mike his jokes aren’t funny anymore.”

“I don’t know any Mike,” Sofie huffed. The old man’s eyesight seemed to not be the best and he must have confused her with somebody else. “I need some Dal Model 2 motion sensors...”

“Yes yes, ...baked into a cheesecake, I suppose? Or installed inside a ship in a bottle? Look, you’re obviously an actress, and I’m obviously busy. So let’s skip to the part where you tell Mike that I’m now working on the ridiculously time consuming thing you supposedly commissioned. Yes?”

“What? Why would I be an actress?”

The old man studied her for a second, genuinely puzzled by her question.

“You are well dressed, attractive, and you know what you want.”

“And that’s unusual?”

“Yes. Dear. People who come here are… well… not normal.”

“I see…” Sofie checked her watch. Only six hours left until showtime and there was so much more to do. “Just tell me where I can find the sensors and how much you want for 20 of them. Then you can go straight back to what you were doing.”

“20? Are you sure? Dals are top of the range sensors. Wide angle, 30 meters range, night vision... What could you possibly need 20 of them for?”

This unusual request piqued the old man’s interest. Sofie suddenly fitted in with his ‘not normal’ clientele.

“Surveillance.”

“Yes, yes, but what area are we talking about here. A room? A courtyard?”

“A Meadow.”

“Oh wow, ok.”

There was excitement in his eyes. It was an interesting scenario and he enjoyed putting together the perfect solution. “How are you planning to connect them?”

Sofie was pleased that he didn’t probe deeper about the reasons or specifics but instead talked shop about the technical details. This place was perfect.

“Wifi, with a booster every 50 meters.”

“Sure. That could work. But I have something better… Let me show you.”

He went down on his knees to gently coax the GPS-tracker boxes to the side. After several armfuls he had created a path for him to leave his paper prison. He got up and hobbled on unsteady legs out to the showroom, motioning for Sofie to follow him. He unlocked the vitrine with a key that was dangling on a chain from his khaki cord pants. It all felt very last century, which probably was when the heydays of his career were.

“There.” He held up a device that wasn’t much larger than a mobile phone. It had a thick antenna on one side and a screen on the other. “I made it last year, it connects to the Dal sensors and makes them talk to each other.”

Sofie took the little machine, it was light and portable. The old man hooked both his thumbs under the pair of suspenders that held the pants over his round belly and rocked back and forth on his heels. He was proud of his invention.

“You can triangulate the object moving through the sensor net. Estimate the size and speed. I even have a little experimental AI running that judges properties, like if someone is crouching or walking.”

“This is perfect!” Sofie was impressed. The machine even looked more put together than the other prototypes. “Are you sure it works with 20 Dals though?”

“Never tested that. But I can’t see a reason it wouldn’t. Let’s set it up and try.”

The excitement in the old man’s face was heart-warming. He was a true inventor. Building devices just because they were technologically possible. So coming across a use case that needed the features of his creation must be the best validation for his genius he could ask for.

But this man was more than just a genius inventor. There was a wistfulness in him that came from years of experience in the field.

“This is not just surveillance, dear. Is it? You are expecting hostiles.”

The old man studied Sofie, as she counted out the 20 Dals for the test and debated with herself how much of her mission she wanted to share with him.

“Why do you ask?”

“I understand that you don’t want to share details. I don’t mean to pry. But I think you should get protective equipment as well.” He nodded over to the mannequin with the bulletproof vest.

Sofie shook her head, “Yeah, that’s not an option, I’m afraid.”

She had to chuckle at the thought of Philip undressing her only to find her wearing Kevlar-laced underwear instead of tempting lingerie.

“At least...” The old man hesitated but decided to go ahead with his statement after all. “Get something for self-defence.”

He propped open a hidden compartment underneath the glass vitrine. He opened it just a crack, only enough for Sofie to see tasers, pepper sprays and ear-poppers. All of this was illegal in the UK, no wonder he hesitated to show her. God knows what else was hidden in that drawer. What kind of damsel in distress did he think she was? Or did he put her into the hot-headed thrill seeker category, like Philip? Either way, this wasn’t her style.

“I don’t think I’ll be needing this.”

“Think or know?”

The concern in his voice made Sofie consider his question.

“I don’t know, but I also don’t plan to stay around if things go pear shaped.”

“Not everything can be controlled, child. But what you can always do is prepare for the worst.”

His droopy blue eyes held hers. They had a sad intensity to them that spoke of lived experience. It reminded Sofie of her father. He would have been his age now. Sofie suddenly felt the overwhelming urge to hug him and tell him that everything would be fine, just like she did twenty years ago in the hospital, when her father’s scarred lungs wouldn’t fill with air anymore. Her father had been a construction worker and years of asbestos exposure made his lungs give out when he was just 53.

His disease progressed so fast that there was little time to say goodbye, let alone get justice for what the company did to him. They knew that the material they used was contaminated, yet they never protected him or any of the other workers. But no one took them to court. Why would I want to spend my last days being angry? That’s what he had said. But Sofie knew that the real reason for him not seeking justice was because he didn’t think he could win. And he was probably right.

After his death Sofie felt helpless and alone, just a pawn in an unjust world. That’s when she vowed to never feel vulnerable like this ever again. To never back down from a fight and to bring justice to those who could not take it for themselves.

She looked at the old shopkeeper, wondering what wrong he had to endure. Who he had lost to become so weary. A wife, a daughter perhaps?

Maybe he was right? Breaking the law suddenly did not feel like such a deterrent. If it gave her the chance to protect herself and fight her fight for longer, why not take it.

“Ok fine, I might get the taser.”

A relieved smile whisked over the old man’s face, like he had managed to save her from a preventable evil, just like someone should have saved his loved one in the past. He handed her the taser. It felt heavy, cold and foreign. She instinctively knew that if she had to use this weapon she would be fighting for her life. It drove home how dangerous tonight could get.

Sofie left the shop an hour later, after they tested the sensor net and confirmed that everything was working as intended. But the old man’s words and the weight of the taser stuck with her on the drive home. You can always prepare for the worst. She certainly was physically prepared. No one would move in that meadow without her knowing and the taser would take care of the rest. But was she mentally prepared? How would she feel if Philip turned on her? If he revealed that he was the head of Elandra and had been working with MP Kerry just like her sources claimed? That the first person she’d wanted to trust in years was a criminal.

There was only one way to find out!

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