The dust-laden air was cut by several shafts of sunlight as the rising sun shone through the venetians. Half-closed, they shaded the small room of the State Hotel where he slept. From the streets below could be heard the sounds of another day beginning. Sporadic honks of car horns at the intersection outside the hotel, people greeting each other. There were no children, as no children lived in the area. Long abandoned by families, the area had since been taken over by businesses, most of which failed early. The hotel itself was an almost derelict reminder of the past, a converted apartment block that was now surrounded by graffiti-covered steel doors and burnt-out vacant lots.
The part of Chicago that the hotel was in was no longer a place where people stayed for any length of time. It was both unfavourable and undesirable for anyone to stop. The hotel had a few permanent guests, mostly elderly alcoholics living on veterans’ pensions who couldn’t find anywhere else to live, nor anyone who would want them.
The man in room 401 had chosen the hotel well, and had altered his appearance so as to not stand out. Anonymous, transient and seemingly derelict, he matched the hotel and the district so well as to blend into it without a ripple. The clerk had signed him in with no questions, not even wanting identification. No-one in the hotel was ever asked for i.d., and not many could provide it. For the two days before he had arrived at the State, he had neither slept nor been stationary, always on the move, hiding from attention. Gradually, he had worked his way across town to the State, which had been highly recommended to him by his friends. Once in his room, he had half-closed the blinds over his windows, leaving just enough space for him to see without being seen. At no time did he turn on the light, as that would have attracted attention, as it was known locally what rooms were always occupied, and which rooms weren’t.
From his back-pack he took a small, battery-operated radio, which he turned on, volume low. As he washed himself, he listened to the news bulletin on the Voice of Liberty radio station. Transmitting from a mobile studio on a wavelength that was changed randomly every six hours, the pirate station of the Freedom Movement’s cell network was the only trustworthy source of news, and was also the most popular. It broadcast infrequently, so as to minimise the chance of its location being traced, but it had been broadcasting more often these last two days. He knew that, as it was for his benefit alone that the station took such a risk.
The news bulletin gave him enough information to know that he was on an all-clear to complete his mission. Gone to ground for three days before, and a planned total disappearance, at least officially, after. The isolation and anonymity of the hotel and its district were ideal. Satisfied that the way was clear for his planned day of target shooting, Abraham turned the radio off, lay down and fell asleep almost immediately.
Nine hours later, with the dawn past and the morning under way, the pale bands of light shone onto the wall above his bed, sinking slowly as the sun rose above the rooftops. The bands, cut by the shadows of the blinds, fuzzed out along their edges, widening slowly as they sank down the wall until they lit up the face of the sleeping man. The bright light on his closed eyelids did little to wake him.
Downstairs, outside the lobby entrance, a blind beggar sat on the lowest step, rattling his enamelled mug. The few people who walked past did so hurriedly, trying hard to look ahead or across the road. Some shrugged their shoulders, others spoke to their friends more loudly, in silent hope that their practical indifference would obliterate the beggar’s existence, as if their desire to ignore him would make his absence real. To them, he was street furniture, or did not exist. To him, that was ideal. Across the road, a crew of council workers entered a portable tent, to continue their repairs of the telephone lines. As he waited for his workmate to enter the tent, one of the technicians glanced up at the hotel across the road, where he could see the window of room 401. From the shadows that they cast upon each other, the linesman could see that the position of the blinds had changed. Barely noticeable, he shifted his gaze down to the blind beggar at the hotel entrance. The old man’s clothes fluttered loosely around him in the morning breeze, and as he reached his free hand across his chest to pull his coat closer to himself, he tapped one long, knarled finger against his breast, as if knowing that he was being watched.
The linesman saw the beggar tap his finger, and turned back to his temporary line tent. Lifting back the heavy plastic-covered canvas, he pushed his way into the hole inside. The other technician was already inside, and had unpacked from his tool case what appeared to be a diagnostic meter. Unlike other meters, however, this one had been jacked into one of the several hundred fibre-optic lines that passed through the exposed junction box. Looking up at his partner, the linesman inside cocked his eyebrow, as if questioning his workmate. The newcomer smiled quickly, and signalled with one finger. The seated linesman turned on the meter, and spoke into it. “State Hotel, Sycamore and Fifth. One virus.” Immediately he stopped speaking, a green light flashed twice on the meter box, confirming that the message had been received. Satisfied with their work, the linesmen then busied themselves with what appeared to be regular line maintenance.
Time passed slowly at the intersection, and not at all in the hotel. Down the street, a woman chased away some young men who had set fire to a pile of rubbish in the street outside her apartment. The bar across the road opened its doors, and was soon filled with the regular neighbourhood barflies, both poor and not so poor. The bar was as it and others had always been, a haven from an often cold and uncaring world. The pawnbrokers next to the hotel raised its sheet-steel, graffiti covered front, exposing once more to the daylight the bars and reinforced glass that separated the world from the once cherished personal belongings inside, now for sale, if the price was right. Inside room 401, Abraham slept. The sun had risen above the blinds, once again darkening his room. The dust in the air was no longer lit like so many glittering motes, but it settled nevertheless.
Five kilometres away, three plain, late-model sedans swept off the Joliet freeway, and slowed at the bottom of the off-ramp, before turning to merge into the moving traffic. Skilfully negotiating the late rush-hour traffic, the trio kept together as a group for a few hundred metres before the second two cars turned off down separate side streets. As each car travelled towards the Lake Precinct, none of them were driven in a manner that would attract attention. Less than five minutes after they had left the freeway, each car had stopped, each facing a different part of the State Hotel.
One of the three cars had pulled up behind the linesmen’s tent. The three men inside were each dressed in plain, fashionless black suits. Very well groomed, their faces were as expressionless as their clothes. Dedicated professionals, little else mattered to each of them but to do their respective jobs cleanly, efficiently and with no personal embellishments. Pausing for a few minutes to study the hotel, the leader of the suits felt confident that this was the hit that they had been looking for. The location and character of the hotel closely matched the description that their mole had dug up and traded. Also, the general neighbourhood, he noted with mild disgust, was one that only a hard-core revo would willingly lose himself in. It was always a simple matter for a person to immerse themself into a district and its people, but people would always notice, observe and remember newcomers. Here, in the more squalid part of the Lake Precinct, most residents were too wasted on crack and cheap alcohol to remember their own names.
Satisfied that the lead was hot, the three men casually got out of the car, taking care to lock it after them. As a group, they walked across the road towards the hotel, and climbed its front steps. As he passed the old beggar, the leader dropped a one hundred credit note into the mug. As soon as the third man stopped outside the door and turned to keep watch, the old man swiftly took the note out of the mug and poked it down his sock. He knew that the third man was watching the street, but he acted as if he knew no different.
Inside the lobby, the sound of the two pairs of confident footsteps alerted the clerk, who dashed out of his office behind the desk. Most visitors shuffled, not strode. As he came to the desk, he recognised the two men. He had never seen them before in his life, but he knew instantly who they were from their characterless suits and faces, and their confident manner. They walked and held themselves as if the world answered to them directly, which in a way was true. As soon as the clerk saw them, he also knew why, or who, they were there for. Agents never mucked about, always acting swiftly. The hotel’s business had been remarkably inactive for the last few weeks, the only highlight being the stranger who had checked in last night. But, as certain as he was, he was not going to volunteer information first. Nor would he need to.
The inside of the lobby was little better that the streets outside. The Agent grimaced as he crossed the floor, smelling the twin smells of stale urine and disinfectant rising from the decorative columns that stood either side of the main door. The tiled floor was chipped and stained, and large, brown watermarks stained the faded wallpaper. Above, decades of poor-quality cigarette smoke had stained the once gleaming ornate plaster ceiling a dirty, grubby brown, with the ceiling joists under the plaster standing out in stark contrast to the dingy surroundings. Thankfully, he thought, he would be able to keep his time in this brick cess-pit to a minimum, and hopefully secure his long hoped-for, and thoroughly earned, promotion to Central.
In front of him was the desk, and behind it a pathetic-looking attempt at respectability, the hotel clerk. He couldn’t have been more than nineteen, and his face still bore the last signs of resistant acne. There was a look of fear in the kid’s eyes, and the Agent knew that his occupation had at least been recognised. So much the better, he thought. He hated playing little power games with jerks who should know better.
He reached the desk, and stood squarely in front of it. Openly, with his arms relaxed at his sides, he stared at the clerk who, although obviously scared, stood his ground, expecting the Agent to speak. “How many guests do you have?” He asked the question quietly but firmly, the words coming in a smooth, confident tone. The boy looked at him, his answer prepared seconds ago.
“Twelve, sir. Most of them are on the first floor. Easier for cleaning, y’see.” He grinned nervously, trying to relieve his own tension. The Agent didn’t bother smiling back.
“What about the room on the fourth floor?” His lips barely moved as he spoke.
“Oh, him?” The clerk had expected the question, but didn’t want it. As dirty, dishonest and unwholesome the world may have become, he still occasionally clung to an old idea of loyalty and discretion with paying guests. Still, he knew that he would have little choice. “Single guy, booked in last night. Very quiet, paid in advance for three nights.” The Agent maintained constant, unwaveringly cool eye contact, and the clerk was beginning to sweat. The Agent said nothing, nor did he need to. The clerk answered the questions without them being asked.
“He signed the register. Here...” As he talked, he pulled over the open hotel register, which was chained to the top of the desk, and pointed with an unsteady hand at the last entry. “See, the only one for several days. He’s still in his room. Hasn’t asked for room service, or anything. Called himself Stone.”
The Agent glanced briefly down at the book, and recognised the handwriting. He had seen it before, while studying terrorist manifestos that had been recovered last August in an unofficial raid. The main target, the mid-order cell of the regional Freedom Movement, had escaped at least half an hour before the raid, as no-one had breached the preliminary one-mile cordon around the target. Whoever had tipped off the group had done so recently, as they had left in a hurry, abandoning many documents.
The Service had swiftly analysed their content, and had come to the expected conclusion that the papers were part of a cleverly-crafted disinformation campaign. The true worth of the paper was in the handwriting, which was used to draw tentative identifications on their authors. The Agent was confident that one of the writers was in a room not so far from him. He smiled inwardly to himself, yet not a muscle moved. After a moment’s thought, he reached over and tore the page out of the register.
“Would you like me to call him, Sir? See if he is awake yet? Or, I could take you there myself.”
The Agent looked at the clerk with undisguised contempt. “No. That won’t be necessary. We’ll find our own way.”
“Are you sure? I mean, he’s still asleep.”
“He’ll like the surprise. We’re old friends.” The other agent snorted. “Now shut up, and you never saw us.”
The two men then turned and started up the stairs that curled up to the left of the lobby. The soft plastic soles of their shoes cushioned their steps as they climbed the concrete steps, the faded, chipped linoleum never squeaking once. After several short flights, the pair came to the landing of the fourth floor. Looking each way down the short corridor, the morning sun could be seen lighting the floor under all of the doors, except for one, down at the far end. It was to this door that the agents walked.
Outside, the two linesmen continued to repair phone lines. An old newspaper page was blown its random path down the street, before stopping under the rear wheel of a styleless brown sedan parked behind the linesman’s work tent. An old, blind beggar rattled his enamel mug and smiled a gap-toothed grin at the passers-by. Inside, a lean, unshaven man with receding, black hair slept in the morning shadows. The floor beneath his window was lit by the sunlight that passed through the closed venetians. The air was still, and the only sounds were those from the street below, and from the shallow, dry breathing of the sleeping man.
Until the door was kicked in.
The door burst inwards, banging against the wall so hard as to break the plaster where the inside door handle impacted. With the door came a shower of dust, loose paint chips and splinters from the door frame, through which two black-dressed men erupted, guns at the ready. On the bed, the sleeping man no longer slept; awakened by equal parts training, instinct and reflex, he was already half rolling, half leaping aside off the bed away from the door, onto the floor. A split-second before he would have left the bed, the second agent lunged at him, one arm reaching out to secure Abraham’s arms, the other heading fast across his face. The stinging blow across his jaw stunned Abraham Stein, giving his assailant the briefest moment of time necessary to pull him back from the edge of the bed, away from whatever may be hidden underneath.
As he turned his head, Stein instantly recognised the agents as an operational team of the Central Security Agency’s anti-insurgency unit. Although not expected so soon, his arrest was not a surprise. The entire Freedom Movement hierarchy, infrastructure and method of operation was designed, and functioned, around the basic assumption that the arrest of any of its members was to be inevitable. As such, each member was trained to cope with the physical and chemical techniques that were used by the CSA to extract information from those that the ruling Committee considered to be a threat. Stein knew that at this stage, resistance would be more helpful to the Agency, as it would then justify the use of violence, and the charges of resisting arrest would ensure captivity, whereas co-operation and the lack of eye-witness or physical evidence could manage probationary release. Knowing his options, he gathered his breath, and turned to the lead agent, who was still standing beside the door, his service repeater trained on him. Stein noticed that the safety had been removed, with a small red diode glowing to indicate that the weapon was charged with its maximum, lethal power.
“Okay, you’ve got me.” The Agent remained unmoved, knowing that the situation was totally in his control. He could afford to take his time. Stein fixed his wide-awake stare on the Agent. “Tell your goon to ease up, okay? I won’t be any trouble. Not worth it.” The Agent stood motionless for a few seconds, and then flicked his head to one side. The deputy eased off of Stein, and took a step back. All the time the repeater was aimed at Stein, and he knew it. With his hands up in front of him, he turned and sat up on the bed. “Look, man, can I get dressed, okay?”
The agent by the door cocked his eyebrow. “Yes. Stephens, get this, uh, gentleman his clothes, will you?” The deputy looked around, and saw Stein’s sweatshirt and jeans on the chair in the corner. Picking them up, he quickly and efficiently checked the clothes, emptying their pockets’ contents onto the floor. He then tossed the clothes to Stein, who caught them mid-chest. Stein looked across at the Agent, and without taking his eyes off the intruder, pulled his jeans on. He gathered his sweatshirt, and pushed his arms through the sleeves. He raised his arms so that he had a clear view of the Agent through the neck, which he then pulled over his head.
As soon as Stein was dressed, the Agent flicked his repeater to the side. “Cuff him.” Stephens moved forward, and with his left hand grabbed Stein’s right wrist, and pulled it around behind him. Stephen’s right hand held a pair of titanium security cuffs, which were soon secured around Stein’s wrists. Stephens stepped back, and Stein glared at the Agent, who still had his repeater aimed at him. “I know who you are, not many wouldn’t. But for what charge am I being arrested?”
“We have reason to believe that an attempt is to be made on the life of the Committee Chairman. We consider you to be a suspect.” Stein was surprised that their motive was so accurate, but he kept his emotions hidden. Instead of capitulating, he merely questioned their confidence.
“You don’t even know who I am.”
“Wrong.” The Agent was almost smug in his reply. “Needless to say, you signed in under a false name. We will confirm your identity later. If we prove to be wrong in our work, you will be released with our, uh, apologies. Right now, we have a search warrant to execute.” He looked over to the deputy. “At your convenience, Mister Stephens.”
Stephens then began a meticulous examination of the small room. He had already sorted through the contents of Stein’s clothes, which were few. He emptied the backpack on the bed, and checked the empty bag itself for hidden pockets. The bag held a toothbrush and a paperback novel, with a half-eaten sandwich wrapped in waxed paper. All of the loose pieces were then loaded into plastic zip-lock evidence bags, which Stephens labelled with the date and his unit number. Clearing a corner of the room, he pulled the linen off the bed, and cut open the mattress. He reached inside, and felt around for anything not normally used for sleeping on. Stephens then moved on to the cheap furniture, pulling the plastic caps off the ends of the tube-metal chair legs. After the main room, Stephens briefly searched the bathroom, looking behind the mirror, in the toilet cistern and in the space behind the panel that ran around the bathtub and shower. Before leaving, he squeezed the toothpaste tube empty into a shapeless, white blob on the vanity bench.
The Agent and Stein looked on impassively, as Stephens performed his search. Stein knew what Stephens was discovering. Not only was there no personal identification at all, but there was nothing whatsoever that could be considered to be a weapon of any sort, never mind one that would be used for a professional assassination attempt. He knew that there was little point in saying so. The agents would only agree after they had already searched for what wasn’t there. He also knew that the CSA had a long track record of creating evidence, or reason enough to imprison those that it considered to be a noticeable threat to the Committee’s hold on power. If he had no evidence about him, it would be found, or bought, elsewhere. Before he had left his home to go to ground, Stein had destroyed all of his personal identification, from government i.d. card down to library membership cards. He did not at any time have a weapon, knowing instead the location of just one part of a long-distance dissimilator. With that one piece was an encoded set of co-ordinates, giving the location of the next fragment. And so on. In truth, he did not know where a weapon was. Standard questioning techniques would focus on a weapon. He had a ninety-five percent chance against being asked for a fragment of a weapon, improving the odds against his sentencing for a capital offence. Stephens returned.
“He’s clean, Sir.”
“Fuck.” The Agent glared at Stein. “We’re taking you in, anyway. We’ve only just started with you. No i.d., for a start.” Stein thought that was pathetic. Not carrying i.d. was less than a parking fine. Still, it was a chink in his invisible armour that he knew would be exploited. It was the one concession that the Movement had made against its operatives’ safety. No i.d. was not as bad as false i.d., which set up alarm signals regardless. At least its absence could be reasoned as poor memory.
“On your feet, Stone.” Stephens piled the evidence baggies into a black polythene bag that he had taken from his inside pocket. He stood up, and with the bag in one hand he grabbed Stein’s cuffs with the other, and lifted Stein up backwards from the bed. Stein stumbled to find his feet, and straightened to face the Agent. “Move it. Stephens, you lead.” Stephens released Stein, and stepped around the bed. Stein looked around at the room, and followed Stephens through the splintered doorframe into the dusty corridor outside. He was followed in turn by the Agent, who had pocketed his repeater. Stein did not look back once. To do so may have been seen as a prelude to some other action, and although the Agent was no longer holding his weapon, Stein knew that it would still be fully charged, and with the safety off.
They made their way single-file down the corridor to the steps, where Stephens stepped aside for Stein to lead. Walking in front, he would be unable to kick forwards against an agent. Unhurriedly, they descended the stairs, passing alternately through shadow and shafts of sunlight that passed through the dirty, frosted panes of glass at each landing. When they reached the foyer, the Agent saw that they had gained a small audience. Ten guests and street people, having seen the agents enter the hotel, had followed them in after a cautious wait. The clerk was still behind his desk, chatting idly to a dowdy bag-woman. When the agents and Stein reached the bottom of the stairs, the scattered murmuring quietened, in much the same way as a wave retreats on the ebb tide. The clerk looked up.
“Will you be checking out, sir?”
“I said, shut up, worm.” The Agent had found his prey, and now had no need of being polite to those who may have helped him. The clerk shut up in a hurry, only forgetting to shut his mouth. As he gaped, the three men walked past, the crowd drawing back to allow their passage. The two agents showed not the slightest acknowledgment of the crowd’s existence; Stein gazed around at the faces with the barest trace of a fateful, knowing grin crinkling his mouth. Some of the spectators smiled at him, a couple of them held the middle two fingers of their left hands against their thighs, a modified, covert version of the Movement’s signature gesture. Stein saw these, and felt slightly comforted, knowing that even in the darkest areas of the city, the Movement had the support of the people. If the agents saw and recognised the signals they did not show it; such an open gesture was worth arrest and interrogation at the precinct headquarters. Instead, the two agents swept Stein across the foyer and through the hinged doors, into the morning sunlight.
The agents paused at the top of the stairs to quickly gauge the street activity. Stein took the opportunity to straighten himself and breathe in deeply. He gazed around him at the city as he could see it, and at the people who made the city. It was for their sakes, for their future, that he had willingly entered this situation, and he felt only pride, not remorse, at what was to become of him. To have been even suspected as a member of the Movement was worth indefinite captivity on Earth. At worst, the firing squad in public. Abraham Stein was proud to have been a part of the web, and to have at least tried to change the conditions that decided how people were to live. Better to die for involvement than to live as a number with no control over his own destiny.
Stephens pulled him by the arm, and together they stepped down to the pavement, followed by the leader and the agent who had stayed at the entrance. His presence had been an advertisement to the people who had entered the lobby, and he had only let in those who could justify their entry. As they passed the beggar, the leader dropped another credit note into the enamel mug. The old man grinned, and touched his finger to his hat brim.
Now four, the group walked hurriedly across the road to their waiting car. Several paces before the car, the doorman unlocked the doors with his key remote. The beep had barely sounded before the leader pulled open the rear door, and turned to where Stein was following him. He stepped aside, and placing his right hand on Stein’s shoulder, pushed the prisoner down and into the car. Stephens walked to the back of the car. Opening the trunk with his key, he slung the evidence sack into the trunk and closed it. He walked on around the far side of the car, and got into the back seat. Stein was now lodged, cuffed, between Stephens and the leader. The doorman, already in the driver’s seat, activated the secure-lock system from the dash, making sure that no-one could open the car doors from the inside or out. He then opened the entry panel between the front seats, and entered his security code. Instantly, the on-board computer activated the car, and the central display screen lit up. On it was a map of the city roads, with a bright dot to indicate their current location.
The doorman pushed the red “start” button, and the car’s engine whined into life. He used a small trackball to run down the list of pre-entered co-ordinates, and clicked the ball’s button when the cursor had highlighted the listing for the CSA’s regional headquarters. There was a two-second delay before the route was lit up on the screen. Seeing the display from the rear, the leader spoke. “Push it, Jackson. I’m feeling dirty.” He looked outside the car with unapologetic revulsion. Jackson slipped the shift to drive, and smoothly pulled away from the kerb.