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— ONE —
There comes a time when you look into the mirror and you realize that what you see is all that you will ever be.
Fuck. I have to search the internet on how to clean up a crime scene.
My gaze follows the trail of blood from the doormat into the corridor. Thick, and nearly black against the tiles. A few drops are stuck to the guy’s combat boots. I untie them and pull them off his feet, grab two corners of the rug he’s lying on, and drag him into the kitchen where the lights are brighter and the tiles smoother, easier to scrub. I stumble, and with a sickening clonk his head hits the floor again. Shit.
My knees tremble. There are red smears on my index and middle finger. I clap my other hand to my mouth and race to the bathroom, yank up the toilet seat and roar at the bluish puddle of water and cleaning agent. I roll my tongue around in my mouth, spit a glob of acid into the toilet bowl, and blow my nose.
Okay. I’m done barfing. Back to work.
FIVE DAYS EARLIER
Horst plops a bucket of bird food on the floor and slams his rubber-booted feet on the table. That’s his usual opening ceremony to a coup planning session.
His stupid ostrich zeroes in on the bucket and goes slam! slam! slam! straight at the sunflower seeds like a machete. Floh can’t take her eyes off the bird. I think of my hands on her tits, and how very white her skin is beneath mine. I love the contrast between her and me. Most of the time, anyway.
‘The map,’ Horst says and snaps his fingers at Chris, who raises his eyebrows at the mess on the table. There are bits of ostrich droppings that have fallen from Horst’s boots, several bags of weed, papers, shreds of cardboard, pencils, markers, mugs, scattered bird feed, and a thermos that looks like a mortar shell. Horst drops his feet back to the floor, bends forward, and with forearms as thick as my shins, ploughs a clearing through the mess. ‘There.’
When you clap your eyes on Horst, you wouldn’t believe the old man had been in the military. Twenty-two years total, twelve in Military Intelligence. He scared the shit out of us when he contacted us three years back. Walked straight into headquarters, grinned like a madman, and announced our name and our mission. Called us “little anarchists,” the fucker, then showed us how to get into PHATE. We’d dug into that program until our fingers bled, and he just connected his ToughBook, typed a few lines of code, leaned back and waited for us to stop hyperventilating. He didn’t give a wet fart about the gun I’d pressed to his temple. Said I couldn’t hit an elephant point blank.
Now he knows better.
Chris unrolls the maps — half-transparent sheets of paper with fine lines in red, grey, and black. Gingerly, he weighs the corners down with mugs, a stapler, anything that’s less filthy than Horst’s rubber boots. Chris is an aesthete, like a brother to me, and my girlfriend fucks him. In that order.
‘Give me a vertical section of the thing,’ Horst says to Chris, and then taps his index finger against the top floor. ‘Hmm. Nice. Floor plans, please.’ He makes it sound like getting the plans to headquarters of the West Bank was a piece of cake and no reason to strut. Shut up and be glad no one was taken prisoner — that’s Horst’s motto. To him, getting killed is part of the game, but capture is intolerable. Our enemies know how to peel your skin and scrape the secrets off your bones. Right down to the last time you jerked off.
‘This,’ Horst says, as he draws a small rectangle on a corner of the top floor office, ‘is a metal filing cabinet on the outside, and most likely a safe box on the inside. Any other metal surface would do, but he’ll avoid them. So that’s our best shot. Area plan, Chris.’
‘Wait, what?’ Floh cocks her head, eyes narrow. ‘How the hell do you know there’s a metal filing cabinet? How the hell did you get in there, Horst? What the hell are you even talking about? I thought the plan was to break in? Parking garage, second level basement is our point of entry. That’s what you said. Not a word about the top floor. So, what the…’ she flaps at the plans and at Horst.
‘Change of target.’ He kicks back his chair and rummages in a pile of newspaper clippings. ‘Must be here. Um. Somewhere,’ he mutters. ‘Did you eat it, Karl?’ he says, eyeing his ostrich. The birds bats its long lashes and poops on the floor.
Horst stretches his back, squeezes his eyes shut, rumples his hair, and slowly nods. ‘Ah, yup.’ He covers the kitchen in long strides, leaving tracks of dried mud and manure. He yanks open a cabinet and brings out a glossy magazine. ‘I thought I cut it out. Seems like I didn’t.’
He wets thumb and index finger, and leafs through “Life of the Rich.” I see blondes with large tits, race cars, swimming pools, mansions.
‘I didn’t know you read that crap,’ Floh says, and sits back down.
‘Read? Hell, no. I look at the pictures. Here it is.’ He pushes an article toward her. It shows Gregor Lange, CEO of the WholeGreen Foundation, in profile, hands in trouser pockets, the city’s skyline blurry behind him. ‘It’s the only publicly available picture of his office. See this?’ He points at the floor-to-ceiling glass window.
My pulse gives a hitch. ‘Is this what I think it is?’
He smiles at me. ‘What do you think is it?’
‘Lange’s office is at the top floor of the West Bank Tower.’
‘What?’ Flow jumps up and grabs the magazine. She compares the out-of-focus buildings behind Lange with the maps on the table. She turns and turns them, freezes, then sinks to her chair with a huff. ‘Did you know this when you asked us to steal the plans for West Bank Tower?’
Horst shrugs, and Floh looks at him as if she’s just centred him in her crosshairs.
‘The Pope is a nudist,’ Chris mutters.
Floh snorts. ‘Really? That’s all you can come up with?’
Chris shrugs. ‘I’m out of f-words.’
She shakes her head, and turns to Horst, ‘So you used us. That’s nice. Builds trust and all that.’
Horst chews on that for a moment, then nods. ‘I’m just making sure we are all safe.’
The ostrich folds its head under a wing.
Floh leans her fists on the tabletop and pushes her face closer to Horst. ‘You are full of bullshit.’
He smirks at her, and taps his index finger against the plans. ‘Tell me, fartheads, how many people did you involve when you stole the plans of the building? Five? Ten?’
‘Two, plus us three,’ Chris says.
‘So it’s five in total now. What about your digital traces?’
‘Ugh, stop it, Horst. We’ve done this for years.’
‘And I’ve done this for more years. There is precisely one person in this world I trust not to leave a trail of breadcrumbs. I see him when I shave.’ He scratches his long beard. ‘Or brush my teeth. The fewer people who know we’re targeting Lange himself, the better. Now, can we get back to what’s in those windows?’ He points his furry chin at the magazine.
There’s a chilly silence in the room. The ostrich begins to snore, and our eyes are pulled back to the picture.
‘Gregor Lange, huh?’ Floh squints. We all squint. And then collectively shake our heads. ‘All I can see is him, the window, a strip of the floor and the ceiling. Not helpful,’ she says.
‘Blind as moles. Look closer. Feel free to rub your noses on the paper if that helps any.’
Floh moves her fingertip over the photo. ‘Can’t say what it is. A line, maybe?’
‘Aren’t you a lucky bunch that you know the guy who dated the sweet girl who took the shot. She gave me the original file.’ He fetches his ToughBook, an awfully thick and heavy thing. Bulletproof, waterproof, and hell knows what else proof. ‘RAW image. Wonderful resolution.’ Horst punches in a long password, then waits a moment. ‘I played with the file a bit, and voila!’
He turns the screen to us.
‘Holy shit!’ I grunt.
‘Keep in mind this is a reflection and all the windows are at a slight angle to one another. However, I played with it a bit more.’ A few clicks and he brings up a mosaic of images that shows Lange’s office in its entirety, plus Lange himself and a sliver of the photographer. ‘There’s your metal filing cabinet, Floh.’
My eyes fall on the date of the article. ‘The photo is four years old.’
‘Yep. We can’t know if the layout is still the same, or if Lange’s still there. But I’m pretty sure he is.’ Horst sits down and puts his feet back on the table.
‘Why did it take you four years to show this to us?’
‘Floh, that’s usually not how one gets information out of Horst,’ I say.
‘It took me two months. I didn’t know about this photo until Camilla mentioned she’d met Lange in his office a while back. I almost lost my prosthesis when she told me.’
‘Your prosthesis.’ Floh’s expression is incredulous. Ever the untrusting type, she’s just getting started on Horst.
He opens his mouth in a wide grin, runs his tongue over his upper front teeth, and flicks them out with a squelching noise. They plop into his lap. ‘Did you know fhat a lack of front teefh gives oral fhex a completely new dimension?’
‘Well, fhank you.’ He pushes his prosthesis back in place. ‘I’m must confess I’m not terribly fond of how I lost those particular items to the Crimean Secret Service. Where were we? Ah, yes. Area plan, Chris.’
Chris flattens the map and Horst points to a building northeast from the West Bank Tower.
‘Here’s main problem number two: WholeGreen Foundation’s headquarters. The one known to the public, that is.’
‘What’s main problem number one?’ Chris asks.
‘I’m getting to it. Let’s begin with the lesser evil. Main problem number two is that Lange’s office is near the top of the tallest building in town. West Bank Tower is four-hundred fifty-six metres high. Lange’s office is at four-hundred fifty-one metres, measured at floor level, which is where we find the metal filing cabinet which will serve as our passive resonate audio cavity. Now, the next tallest building is this one.’ He keeps his index finger flat on the map.
‘The WholeGreen Foundation Tower. Four-hundred and one metres tall and two-hundred fifty metres from Lange’s office. That means we break into WholeGreen, get to the top of the building, and spy on its CEO, who sits more than two hundred metres away. We’ll fire a microwave beam at the metal filing cabinet in his office. The beam will have an angle of incidence of 101.421 degrees with a tolerance of 0.15 degrees, depending on where on that building you stand, or hunch. That’s a deviation of more than eleven degrees from the ideal angle of incidence. Plus, the building movement will cause the signal to oscillate. And that’s only if we have ideal conditions. Which we won’t have. We have main problem number one.’
He grabs paper and pencil, and begins to sketch the target. ‘WholeGreen Tower, here. West Bank Tower, here. The top of West Bank is egg-shaped and behind a glass facade. The official story is, this makes it the greenest building in town, because of passive solar and all that bullshit. In reality, the design is to make it impossible to eavesdrop using energy beams, because they have to pass through two double-glass panes set at an angle to one another. There’ll be a shitload of scattering. The facade also serves as a Faraday cage. I found no information on the exact composition of the glass or if a metal coating has been used. However, we can safely assume that all top floor offices are acoustically proofed.’
I watch Floh fidgeting on her chair. She wants a solution on a silver platter. Now. Horst, on the other hand, enjoys tickling people’s brains, pushing them to figure things out by themselves.
‘You have a prototype.’ I’m guessing.
Floh’s gaze narrows in on me. I wiggle an eyebrow at her. She’s totally riled up. Tonight will be epic.
‘My man Alex. Yep, I have the prototype of a new microwave gun.’ Horst hits my back so hard, I cough and gasp for air. ‘Reconnaissance 24/7 for the next two weeks, starting Tuesday. Or Wednesday, if we run into a snag. First we have to figure out if and where they’ve installed fixed wireless between these two buildings, and what kind of connection it is.’ He clicks his tongue and looks up at the ceiling. ‘Personally, I’d find that too risky. If I were Lange, I wouldn’t want one. Anyway. Who’s going in?’
Floh lifts her mug, and nods to Chris and me.
‘All three of you. Good. You can sleep in the barn tonight. Tomorrow I’ll show you how to work the gun and where to install the receiver. I need to do a few adjustments first. Once on location, you guys…and, uh, lady…rotate every six hours. Send a daily pigeon with the recordings.’
The sun’s barely up when Horst passes me a joint. He rolled it for Floh, but we pretend we all want a toke. I pull in a mouthful and hand it to her, hoping the deep end of bi-polar won’t hit her too hard this time.
The microwave gun looks gigantic in her arms. The strength she hides in her skinny body gives her an advantage over most men: we don’t believe girls like her can hurt us. She killed a guy who tried to rape her. Broke his nose with two punches, then stuck a knife in his belly and watched his blood curdle on the asphalt. It happened before my time.
Horst explains all the variables that could influence the quality of our recordings. We listen, trying to cram all his geeky tech shit into our heads. Well, Chris and I do. I’m not sure Floh’s still with us. The composition of the glass panes and their coatings, the angle at which each surface is hit, the paint on the metal cabinet, even the humidity in the air — just a handful of the many factors that might make eavesdropping on Lange difficult, or even impossible. Horst sketches numbers and lines on a big piece of cardboard, directs Floh and the gun this way and that, teaching us how to best modulate microwave frequency, intensity, and incident angle to reduce energy loss and background noise. ‘Malus’ Law,’ he says and shrugs, as if it’s taught in first grade.
We discuss who should fly the drone that carries the small receiver, and when to fly it. Problem is, the drone is easily visible during the day. It’s the end of summer. There’ll be a gap of fourteen to sixteen hours in our recordings, depending on cloud cover. The plan has as many holes as a rusty colander.
‘We stick it on the glass facade,’ I hear myself say.
‘What?’ Horst coughs a big cloud.
‘We fly a drone to the tower around midnight, test different angles, find the best one, then stick the receiver to the glass. Um…shit. The thing is black. Forget it.’ I’m getting frizzly-brained from all Horst’s information. Thirsty for a dose of caffeine, I try the thermos. It’s already empty.
With a grunt, Horst hands the joint back to Chris, crumples his forehead, and disappears from the kitchen.
‘It’s never going to work,’ Floh says softly.
I take her hand in mine and run my thumb over her skin. Slow, gentle circles to calm her. But she’s already trembling. Chris passes her the joint, and with her free hand she cradles it like a junkie. She’s not, though. She’s just staring into a deep black hole.
Chris and I know not to look at her now or ask her how she feels. We would unravel her in seconds.
Horst is clomping down the basement stairs, and I think of the first time I saw his cellar. The amount of explosives he’s storing down there, plus the assortment of ammunition, assault rifles, nano GPS trackers and other surveillance gadgets, and stuff I’ve ever only heard rumours about, gave me the creeps. None of it traceable. None of it registered. I almost shot him right there and then with one of his own rifles. ‘Take it or leave it, boy,’ he said, and waggled his head a bit. Told me he enjoys a special kind of immunity, because he’d found a lot of skeletons in the closets of people who weren’t supposed to have even a corpse’s toenail clipping there. And then he left and I was alone with all the stuff. I could have blown up his farm, no problem.
Floh stubs out the joint on the floorboards and sinks against Chris’ shoulder. ‘I’m tired,’ she whispers.
‘Bed, hon?’ he asks.
I’m not surprised she wants Chris, but it still feels like she just stabbed me with a knife. She told me on our first date that she’s a sexual freelancer. From a logical angle, I should be fine with that. I can’t handle her extremes — all the energy, personality, the happiness and depression that bubble out of her. The steep ups and downs. I should be glad she’s sharing it around.
But it makes me feel unwanted, unneeded. Betrayed.
I watch her and Chris go, then I follow Horst down to the cellar.
‘She any better?’ he asks.
‘No. Chris is with her now. She’ll be okay in a few days.’
‘Who will take her shifts?’
‘Chris and I will figure it out. What are you doing?’ I point at a gutted receiver.
‘I thought I should try to build a near-transparent metal wire sheet thingy that can serve as a receiver, and be taped to the glass facade.’ He hums and nods, waving his hand at me. ‘Step out of the light, boy, and let me tinker a bit. You take care of that girl of yours.’
‘A sheet thingy?’
Horst grunts. He’s not the chatty type when he’s building stuff. So I leave him to it, go up to the kitchen and tackle the chaos. I don’t care how filthy his house is, but I need something to do. My mind is a mess.
I give the sponge a good rinse, scrape handfuls of slimy leftovers out of the sink, and — too lazy to make a fire — fill it with cold water.
My neck aches with tension. I lean on the counter and stretch my shoulders. Gregor Fucking Lange. I don’t think we can handle the guy. What are we, really? A bunch of thieves and hackers, squatters and insurgents who started off as a weird version of Robin Hood’s gang. Take from the rich and give to the poor. Sort of. That’s why we’re called the Providers. And that’s what we were until we stole data. It was an accident, really. The hard drives were in a box with burner phones. When we saw what the drives contained, we couldn’t believe it. It’s like when the doctor tells you, you’ve got cancer and there’s nothing they can do for you. At first, you don’t believe it, you are in shock. You ask for a second opinion, do your research, and finally learn that it’s true: you are fucked. And from that point on, your life, the whole world, looks radically different. But only in your own eyes. Everyone else is just as blind as you were the day before.
Damn, I want to live in the woods. In a small hovel far away from all this.
‘Bullshit,’ I mutter, and scan the kitchen for a piece of soap. The dried-up, unidentifiable stuff Horst has left in small bowls around the sink is so gross, I’m tempted to chuck them all out the window.
I pick them up and fill them with water. They can soak until he finds them. Which might be Christmas two years from now. Horst is a pig. How can he be so messy and careless with everything else, but when it comes to intel, he keeps it under such tight control, it’s almost paranoid? The way he wants us to to this — with only a handful of people — is not going to work. We’ll need to man the microwave gun and the receiver. An audio team has to work on the recordings, because they’ll be pretty low quality. We’ll also need a team ready to clean out headquarters if Chris, Floh, or I get captured. And hopefully, we’re soon going to need an army of hackers.
One would think Horst learned the term “teamwork” in the army. Seems he didn’t. That guy has two weaknesses that can put every mission at risk. One, trust no one. Two, when encountering any female, get between her legs.
Not my problem. I’ll call in a meeting for tomorrow night at the bunker. We have to bleed Lange of information to get anywhere with him. But what then? Release all the evidence and let the world know what Lange is doing? He’ll just cover it up. He practically owns the world. And I don’t think blackmailing will work on him.
Abruptly, I look up. Lange has two children. How old are they now? Ten? Twelve? No, that can’t be right.
I huff. I’m not the guy who condones the abduction of kids. Nevertheless, we’ll have to discuss this option. All options, up to and including assassination. If we end up killing the man, who will do it? Horst? No, he’s too old, too slow, when it comes to it.
I stop and gaze down at the grey wash water. Shells of sunflower seeds idly float among soap bubbles. A few are stuck to my arms.
I can think of only one person who fits the job description.