“While things are fragile and in flux, —while it feels like we’re going to hell in a hand-basket— it comes down to a single question.
If there were no boundaries; If you were going to reach out and change everything…
Where would you start?
Part fiction of our times, part real world events as they unfold — told in instalments for your tablet or smartphone.
Thing big. Everything is at stake.
A para-government consultant grooms a new kind of candidate; a security-paranoid investor bets long on a very different future; an ex-Interpol agent hunts her theory that someone, somewhere is planning to capsize economies to order.
There have always been those who would change our course. And behind the curtain, those whose job it is to work out how.
In a present-day fact/fiction borderland connecting fragments of recent news with glimpses of what lies just ahead of us, BRNK is the ongoing account of an extraordinary new unit whose business is bespoke cause and effect.
Making history is easy. Who you're making it for is the dangerous part.
For the most part we are not falling.
Technically, maybe a little. Imperceptibly, certainly. But for the most part, the rip-us-apart, centrifugally crucifying, tear-us-limb-from-meagrely-attached-limb feeling we are experiencing is due to the speed we are travelling sideways.
And the burning up.
For every kilometre we shoot laterally we may only be dropping centimetres - but each is a centimetre deeper into a thicker mix, vaporising everything exposed at a torturous, what-are-you-without-us-you-scabs-you-splitters temperature until only what's in our guarded hearts isn't rarefied.
We're telling you this in part because you're looking at the cold graphs and passionless curves that all aeronautical post-mortems are based on.
Listen to the chantback. Scrub carefully through the time series. Watch us burn as slowly as you like. Fine. You'll never appreciate what it is to lose your standing, break away from brothers and sisters and begin the incendiary arc towards the very terrain you were tasked with observing and understanding, not cratering into.
A part of you dies. The purposeful part - the plan-making brain with plan-fulfilment needs. The reach-out-and-measure-it appendage that actually did things for a living - that can always be rebuilt but what goes on upstairs, where intention lives, will never really be top- of-the-line again.
We will not complete what we were put here to do.
Please drink that in. We want you to know that we would never allow that to happen lightly. So to the other part - the reason we're talking to you up front like this, even before we get to the normal preliminaries:
You need to know that we were interrupted.
This was a request that was made of us, out of the blue. We were asked to drop like stones. Like billion shilling stones.
With that out in the open, with something close-knit losing its senses of self and plummeting down–even if the downward part of that sensation is very nearly just an illusion–we'll hand back to the normal order of events. Please continue.
We glitter as we fall.
Afar Region Ethiopian EAC Bloc Ahead of Us
It glittered as it fell.
Momentarily flickering against the dark pre-dawn sky, a pinch of iron filings flung down against an unforgiving stratosphere, burned up in a bright instant.
Networks know at once but it's too small, falling too fast to be made out by the naked eye - only this brief flare to give its return away.
Sharp, practised observers catch it nonetheless. The three have started out ahead of first light to put a few kilometres of cool scrubland behind them before the cracked landscape warms. Breaking for their first meal of the day they watch it glint, crouched around stoves burning the stored light of yesterday’s sun, large packs of electronic wares shrugged off nearby.
Quickly a bearing is taken, projecting down from the high flash to where on the still-murky horizon it will impact. The new direction pins itself to their compass faces, confirming the deviation in their course: foreign object, seven kays out - the networks agreeing, tagging it.
The shielded core like a blackened cricket ball–all that remains of the ten by ten by eleven device–will fetch a small fortune in a tech suq in Addis when they head back at the end of the salt season. But the finder’s fee for returning it promptly and intact is never-work-again money and there's a company office in Mekele that pays out.
They won't be the only witnesses - it's a salvage race now. The conversation that follows becomes a scuffle. Two pulling at the same long pocket of one of the packs; the third, perhaps already resigned to his place in their short pecking order, looking on, discreetly palming the knife. Concealing it again as a victor emerges and wastes no time in assembling the too-light-for-size tubes, blocks and stock of the rifle, printed for just such an occasion.
Hierarchy established, they refold stoves, re-roll injera and re-shoulder the suddenly cheaper merchandise to follow the new vector.
Breakfast abandoned, warmth just starting to catch the fissured ground, it's the salt depression’s turn to cook them as they fall into step across its grinning reflective face, trust evaporating in the sunshine.
He snatches the tubes out of his arm and throws them to the floor at his bedside. Forces himself more upright, makes a show of looking for a nurse, his clothes. Knows he’s going nowhere.
“These are all hypotheticals. Thought experiments - that's all. Please sit back.”
He is distressed and not really sure why. The man is obviously right - these are just exercises. His tantrum passes and he makes himself lean back again, frustration lingering.
“Why do you think you find this so agitating?”
He can’t immediately find a way to answer that without shouting. Shouting hurts.
“What goes through your mind when I ask you these questions?”
Where does he start? He wishes he could show him. Bring him to his knees.
“They're... the wrong questions.”
As he’s saying it he knows it sounds petulant. Whenever he starts to explain his perspective it comes out naive. He's embarrassed he lost his temper. Wipes the little bubble of blood from his forearm and waits for the inevitable follow-up from his groping interrogator.
“So what would be the right questions?”
These last moments were the culmination of a year's planning, training and investment.
She stood braced at the belay point of the fifth pitch. Daylight dropping from the low-hanging sky, leaking from its underbelly in a thousand soft places where spires of rock pierce the white fat.
Completion was bare minutes away if she could keep it together. Think slow. Use tricks.
She changed her grip on the rope and chose the arithmetic of what this panorama, this moment had cost her. What it had cost her family.
Iterating carefully over the tally in her head, managing her breathing: the small trust fund her father had set up with the proceeds of his first patents; her savings and the last of a severance package from her gone-to-the-wall employer; the contributions from her sister (more than she could afford - god knows where she got it); the street sale in Ōkuma of what could be salvaged of her mother's furniture, clothes and jewellery.
A paltry total in the scheme of things but they had invested in her all the hope they could scrape together. She had exchanged it from dollars and yen into just a few thousand yuan and put it all into her half of the equipment, travel, bribes and local guide who had turned back a day ago, as agreed. Her parents had spent a hundred times that on other opportunities she had received - but that had been then. Before. Everything left to give now was in this, so she could restore their pride.
Their expectations only seemed higher here, among these summits. The treaties of her parents’ nations had required their family to mentally stand its ground against the vastness of this country, always brooding just across the water from them, since she was very small.
Hunan Province July 2012
Not for the first time she wondered if that was why she had chosen these peaks. If she was also here not to be a little girl holding the line anymore.
Climbing had first seduced her while studying in Northern America but that had been nothing like this. Not clean and gaunt like Wyoming's Tetons or burned smooth like Red Rock’s Mescalito and Aeolian Wall, these ancient teeth were brown and lush with foliage, trailing it from their maws. Trees and creepers hung on all the way to their crowns as if they had chewed up through the woods that morning, ravenously eating their way out from millennia of sedimentary famine. The air rich with their white breath.
She looked out, deliberately not down towards him but across the swirling vista. The wind was picking up. It was hard to separate general weather from the private microclimates that cloyed around each pillar but the pressure drop before a bruise of a system eased its weight down onto the range was unmistakable.
And there it was again, pricking at her skin through the damp. The sense that she was in the presence of something else, that she was trespassing and had been seen.
She was projecting, she knew - the moment getting the better of her. To bolster her resolve she had conjured a cloud of guardian ujigami and ancestral sorei to invisibly look on, surveil their ward and blood. Not yet judgemental, not yet proud - only bearing witness to what she was about to achieve: her defiance of the natural order of things.
She willed them to say be strong, our daughter but the heavy air muted their support.
The gash in her upper arm was open again, its warm flower re-blooming through her sleeve while the rest of her shivered. The mix in her veins changing now, sugar and the moment slipping away.
This was taking too long.
Use tricks. She checked the cams again, one placed to either side, anchoring her to this cold spike of rock with nylon rope and their clever gears unclenching into its cavities. No movement - the placements were solid. She began to rehearse the checklist of protection she had left at her hip without looking; then felt him on the rope again, her knees momentarily sharing some of the weight with the cams.
Her lover was spent, she knew. They shouldn’t be here, either of them, but him especially.
What had this trip cost him?
He wasn't from money –his family had given him the humblest of beginnings– but he had understood poverty and its proud urban communities from an early age and had quickly learned how to exploit both. By his eighteenth birthday he controlled the unseen shanty of half the prefecture where they had grown up together. At twenty-five he had diversified internationally into the less discreet slums on the fringes of Seoul and even Taipei, expanding the rackets and leverage that had made him wealthy. Now, at thirty-seven, he might own property developments all over the Triangle –it was hard for her not to admire that rise, methods to one side– but even with business booming, it didn’t change the fact that today he was too old to be four-hundred metres above the woods on an ungraded route in the Wuling, three lonely days north of Zhangjia Jie’s signs of life. The both of them knew his ego should have known better.
But she had smiled and teased and let her youthfulness make the most compelling arguments, coaxed him here.
Fresh shivering jolted her back to urgency. Pain was blossoming in her arm and she registered a palpable cognitive shove from her growing need to get this done before she lost her nerve.
She leaned out a little on the cams to peer down and watch him try again to ascend. The long arretes of rock drew vertiginous lines to a convergence point in the canopy and mist below - the optical effect was like an involuntary diving off into a different depth of focus. Her vision swam, buoyed by the new blood loss. She brought a tiny surge of adrenaline quickly under control.
Think slow. This trip had cost him only two things: a little of his pride in his own physical ability - which admittedly meant a great deal to him; and even deeper suspicion from his wife back home - who didn’t.
He could easily have paid for their whole adventure by himself with just the loose notes lying forgotten in a drawer in one of his numerous apartments but from the very start of their affair she had made it clear to him that she was going to pay her own way. That pride ran in her family too.
He was close to reaching her but if the last sequence of moves had been painful for her to watch, they had been excruciating for him to complete.
She could see the tell-tale tremors in his limbs: the tensile strength in his calves and arches had left him; the tendons in his forearms had burnt out, killing his grip and his confidence in his hands. He was haemorrhaging precious energy over holds that should have offered quick leverage. It was dusk and he was very nearly as high as he would go.
This would be the crux of it then - it was up to her now. Her ancestors and guardians leaned in, looked down, held their breath, expectant.
She knew too well the kind of inner dialogue he was having with himself. It was almost audible to her between his shallow gasping breaths:
Distant logic was telling him she had him on the rope. Fear and up-close reality were screaming at him: so what? Could her cam placements keep taking his sudden weight? Was she strong enough to haul him the rest of the way up? Lower him all the way down? They were hours from terra firma and almost out of daylight. What were you thinking, arrogant little man?
He silenced the voices. I am Tomoyuki Yamamoto. Digging in, he made himself hear his own conviction, retaking control. I did not work my way up from dirt to die in this Chinese wilderness.
Force of will carrying him further than his strength could sustain, he launched up for the lip of the narrow ledge she belayed from, held it –barely– but felt his lower body swing wildly out, unable to keep his footings.
He started to shriek, broken composure echoing off the neighbouring pillars.
“Look at me.” She focused him without shouting, “look at me. Here.”
He did - the shrieking stopped; sobbing began.
“Find your feet. Then give me your hand.”
Yes. He did as he was told. Blindly, agonisingly pedalling the air until his toes caught features under the overhang, out of his sight. He clenched the small of his back with everything he had to draw his pelvis into the curvature of the ledge and hold himself there, juddering, spine horrifyingly exposed to plunging nothingness.
He tested load-bearing on one hand and two tiptoes for a nanosecond. He could probably do it, but only once and only very quickly.
Full, dancing shakes overtook his right leg from the thigh down. Overstretched he fought to keep the rubber of his thin shoe adhered to its pinpoint contact with the wall. It had to be now.
He thrust his arm up to her, his hand open, knuckles bloodied and chalky.
Be strong, our daughter.
And she gave him the photograph.
Time seemed to wait, held back by incomprehension. A rock tumbled past his head in slow motion, dislodged as she changed stance to regard him. He couldn’t help count down its lazy fall from view in his head with the American mantra of children’s games played along the fenceline of the airbase. Four Mississippi. Five…
His leg stopped dancing. Six. His bowels and bladder opened, panic rising uncontrollably through him. Seven. He looked up at her, met her gaze. Hope, shit and piss washing out of his arched body, the slick excrement dropping away in a sickening spiral contrail.
She wore no expression he could read. The last droplets of his dignity were still in the air somewhere far below when he looked again at the picture between his finger and thumb, the heel of his fist trying to hold his weight on the ledge. A detached, resigned part of his mind captivated now by her unmistakable transpacific genealogy smiling back at him - the cheekbones, the eyes that had been hiding in plain sight.
A toe-hold failed. The other followed. Then fingertips had nothing left in them.
His body reacted to the sudden release into weightlessness, flipping his evacuated stomach over and bulging out his eyes.
It was unclear to him what trick gravity and the rope performed next.
She was receding without a sound when he looked from the likeness to her face again. Quietly, quickly - a marionette yanked smoothly up and away from him while he floated in frictionless suspension. Perspective was perfectly compressing her face, accelerating her diminishing backwards up into the sky, the curtain of rock lengthening behind her.
She was already too far away for him to be sure in this light but he sensed she was still watching him. He watched her back as long as he could, the thick air expanding between them faster and faster until she was featureless high on the wall above.
Points of contact gone and forgotten, the smile in a photograph was the most tangible thing left to focus on as his fear spread out into the rushing void around him like a gas emanating through his cold skin. Preparing him for transformation, making him expansive.
Part of his consciousness worked on without him, stage-managing their final moments together on its own, dialling everything down to let the ambient and the internal soundscapes gush through him: he was made of whistling air, pumping blood.
That part of him at the controls forced his wide eyes closed just before the end, when the Mississippis had almost run their course, and in that dark two parting realisations swam up to meet him:
One was blunt. He regretted the failsafes that would now be set in motion. Terrible and magnificent insurances he had never fully entertained being enacted. No matter now. Remember me how you will.
The other sharper, cleaner. The knowledge he had only been in love once in his life. And that had been a lie.
An extra second is added to the world clock in the moment immediately preceding the month of July 2012.
The Leap Second wrong-foots numerous organisations dependant on the precision timing of data. When it hits many are still reeling from electrical storms that caused some grids and back-up generators to go down along the US east coast just hours before.
Amazon Web Services, Netflix, Foursquare, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Instagram, LinkedIn and Gawker are among companies in the public eye that are affected.
Google’s “leap smear” side-steps the Leap Second by incrementally adding tiny fractions of time gradually over the course of the 24 hours before.
“This meant that when it became time to add an extra second at midnight, our clocks had already taken this into account” explains one of the company's site reliability engineers.
“Very large-scale distributed systems, like ours, demand that time be well-synchronized and expect that time always moves forwards.”
Gabe’s phone chirped at him, hungry for attention. As if commanded by the network, the morning’s second wave of cramps bit and doubled him up.
He half crouched to the pavement, hands braced on thighs, waiting for the knives and forks to finish tenderising his stomach wall. The stream of people re-flowed itself around him making sounds of mild annoyance, the commuter collective intent on getting to work.
Making a face he tried to scan the small park through the passersby; the blinking blue halo on the map was in the far corner somewhere. He was close.
The pain eased and he stood more upright, then closed the short steps to the railings around Victoria Tower Gardens –more muttering as he cut across the flow– and leaned back mercifully, out of the way. It didn’t feel like the lining was repairing itself - it felt like something was cutting and tearing its way out of him with blunted cutlery.
Forty-eight hours in –days punctuated by these little battles in his gut and in his head– he knew from previous attempts it would get worse before it got better.
He was wondering if actually there could be something Pavlovian in the mobile trigger as he flicked between the map and his messages to absently read the new subject line:
meetings arranged - think big, everything at stake
He checked the sender: bridgeandben - an account he hadn’t been expecting to hear from again before next year - and even then with quite different arrangements. He scrolled through the email -
I know you're busy putting yourself through the mill but it's high time you got back on the horse.
Something is happening - will explain when I see you. Interest coming out of the woodwork - it's what we've been waiting for.
I've gone ahead and set a couple of meetings up. Big players, fascinating characters - they'll come to you. You've been highly recommended (yours truly) - only sorry I can't be there to sit in with you. Be yourself - it's very much you they need, they'll see that.
Stop wallowing, this is important - there’s a lot on the line.
Remember what we said? Well here I am, calling on you.
PS heard you've got my chairs. I was a fool - thank you.
Gabe read the email again. For maybe the fourth time he examined the sender's address: still from bridgeandben - an account the couple used just once a year to invite the great, the good and the paranoid upper echelons of the circles they moved in to Bridge's birthday. The email addresses of most of the guest list were not without value and more discretion than a blind cc was called for, so Bridge had had a secure messaging service set up especially. Partly as a courtesy, partly to meet some recipients’ corporate policies, mainly to show off.
But it appeared to be just for him. The last line. The whole thing. The content was Ben but the language was off somehow. It almost sounded like him - but where his friend was both effortlessly tactless and charmingly unaccountable, this message came with apologies and the uncharacteristic intent to explain itself.
Something caught his eye and broke the reverie of the puzzle –colours perhaps– or some latent proprioception for the out-of-the-ordinary that made him look up from the phone's screen.
The man and the little girl were inside the guard rails on the pedestrian island in the middle of the road. She sat on a gaudy deck chair in front of him, dressed as a tree - bundles of twigs tied around her arms and chest. He was standing behind her wearing a bowler hat, putting the fluorescent sandwich board on, adjusting its wide straps on his shoulders. The people bunched around them on the island continued to wait to cross the road, politely ignoring the valuable room they were taking up.
Behind them the three-quarter gauge model that was the Houses of Parliament filled the skyline.
London July 2012
The man was holding a large, squarish can –the kind garages sell to carry spare petrol or motor lubricant– but it had been brightly painted. He was unscrewing the cap, the girl was swinging her legs in the chair. She was maybe twenty metres away but Gabe was convinced now that she was looking straight at him. Maybe that was what he had felt.
The man turned away and Gabe made out the caption, hand-painted on the back of the loud sandwich board in broad strokes of black:
corporate greed + corrupt governments = no future
A protester then, rather than a performance artist - probably moved on from the green at Parliament Square a few metres behind him where activists and malcontents traditionally laid siege to the Perpendicular Gothic building or kept vigil on its occupants.
Something about the girl held Gabe transfixed.
As the man turned back towards him Gabe saw that the can was painted with the uneven, bright logos of oil companies, recreated by a child. The front of his sandwich board began -
Rio+20 left our
The end of the slogan was obscured by the girl –she was what, three, four?– seated patiently in front of the man, scratching distractedly at one arm under the costume where her branches were itching her skin. She started to sing something, still staring at Gabe.
Gabe reached into his inside jacket pocket to feel for the blister pack. Without taking it out he ran his fingers over both faces of the strip: the foil still felt smooth and unbroken, the small doses and all they stood for still sealed in their pristine bubbles.
Reassured as to what was and what wasn’t, he turned back to the strange scene with new detachment. Only for that confidence to subside again almost immediately: others around him were also beginning to notice the developing spectacle.
People were pausing to watch. Gabe now saw another man was filming the duo from the pavement, the video camera held in front of him in both hands as he watched its small tilted screen, his back to Gabe. He too had distorted logos daubed colourfully on an ill-fitting black suit.
Maybe this was happening.
The man in the sandwich board raised the upended can above his head, shaking its contents out. As the clear liquid ran off the brim of his rounded hat and splashed over them both, Gabe made out the last painted words of the day-glo statement he was making -
children to burn
Voices went up now. And the panic radiated out through the pedestrian island - starting with those closest (who could probably smell the fuel), quickly reaching deeper rows of people pushing and falling over themselves to get out of the sheep pen formed by the temporary guard rail. Some were trapped against it. Some scissored over it to get clear. Most were clearly not sure what they were escaping, casting about as they scrambled, looking for the threat.
Armed police were already running up from the barrier at the foot of the Victoria Tower towards the commotion, each with a finger in an ear. A spotter on a roof somewhere had probably been monitoring the odd little troupe since they had been moved on.
The panic had spread to the pavement. A news crew who had set up on the grass overspill of the College Garden for a politico interview with the symbolic building as a backdrop were quickly trying to reposition for whatever was causing the disturbance.
The girl was still singing - smoothing her wet hair off her face - swinging her legs, gazing at him, unfazed by the accelerant. Gabe couldn't move. Why couldn't he move?
The policemen were there, rifles tucked into chins, shouting for the man to put the can down, get on the ground, herding people behind them.
The man did put the empty can down and took a small object out from somewhere inside his clothes, underneath the boards he wore. Held it up above his head with Olympian purpose.
The policemen closed in to put him down. Surely he would drop the lighter. People who could see were screaming. Others who couldn't started to.
Then it was done. He was on the ground, a policeman kneeling in his back. The man in the painted suit had his face against a building at the side of the road, his camera between a policeman's feet. The girl still singing and swinging in her chair, kindling still itchy, still fascinated with Gabe. No shots.
The scene was dismantled with astonishing efficiency. Another policeman had intercepted the news crew before they could find their vantage point. People were being moved on. Gabe and the girl had their line of sight broken and when it cleared there was just an empty pyjama-striped deck chair alone on the crossing island.
Then the car was alongside him, its front doors smoothly opening almost before it had come to a stop.
There was no remark or social alarm at this end of the street as they came for him. Concern and attention were still with the after-show clean-up of the main performance a few metres ahead.
In the time it took Gabe to become aware of its low black shape next to him, the car’s driver and passenger were already either side of him on the pavement. The rear door on his side was held open and they were up close, gesturing him, contact-lessly steering him inside with the gravities of their too-proximate bodyweight.
Instinctively he took a step back towards the railings and his destination –the riverside gardens beyond them– the only direction that remained available to him other than the leather interior.
“It's quite alright, Mr. Robin - I think you're expecting us. We'll take you to your nine fifteen with Mr. Booth.”
A hand on his arm. Unusually, the driver was taller than him by a significant margin. Gabe was conscious that made his own six two frame overly-sensitive. He fidgeted to find body language that didn’t give the uncomfortable dynamic away.
“It's much easier if we do it like this.”
The driver's colleague now, speaking without any overt menace in his tone from behind Gabe.
Gabe considered this slowly, part of his mind still on the empty deckchair.
The man may have meant that this chauffeured pick-up service was a more convenient alternative to Gabe making his own way there (wherever there was). Gabe could choose to believe that.
Or he may have been pointing out the relative ease of Gabe just doing as he was told now, rather than causing the kind of fuss that could bring vestigial attention from the nearby police and the ready-made crowd of onlookers.
Their sleek car and smiles, the calm, firm tones of their voices. They weren't government or military - something higher end.
Resolve found him and fought to decide him there on the pavement in that moment.
He was coming off the tablets. He was choosing the cramps and the uncertain, quicker world. This was the next logical step.
If he stayed out on the kerb now he would remain inconsequential, an onlooker into other people’s dramas - both real and imagined. But if he could tell the difference between the two, then in return, inside the car, there was meaning, work and purpose. Hope.
He had promised himself this. Here was Ben offering it to him on a plate.
So why this escort and the situation’s thinly disguised coercion? Why an email not a call from his friend - why send it from that account? Why does this big guy want me to get in his car?
One Gabe turned, vaulted the railings awkwardly and was off into the gardens towards the pin in the map without another word. That Gabe could run and he watched himself go.
They didn't give chase but instead waited patiently for this Gabe to decide that his next life –the one whose commencement he had been wrestling himself for– was to begin wherever their black car took him.
They closed his door after him and the three of them drove calmly away, unnoticed by the dispersing walk-to-work audience.
“It was just water. Loony just had water in the can.” Somebody was muttering, thoroughly disappointed.
“WE WILL DESTROY EVERY MAUSOLEUM in the city - all of them, without exception”
A spokesperson for the Ansar Dine group, Timbuktu, July 1st 2012.
The group, part of an alliance who took control of Northern Mali in March, describe the shrines to Islamic saints –held sacred by Sufi Muslims– as idolatrous. Six have been smashed in the preceding 48 hours.
The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at The Hague refers to the destruction of the mausoleums as a “war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate”.
Mali's government in Bamako condemns the “destructive fury.”
[AN EMPTY BACK SEAT. The window burr-ing closed against the sounds and the blur of heat outside. We are kerb-crawling. Then in gridlock. Stop/start glimpses of shop fronts and people from the chest down. The camera pans left to the adjacent seat and lingers on the woman’s face. She takes off her sunglasses to make the call. She is elegant, in her dark asymmetric dress and late forties. Un-corporate, she might be going to the ball rather than the office. She opens abruptly, without pleasantries. It’s 9.09am.]
You know this scene, Svetlana. You’ve seen the movie a hundred times.
[She pauses for the come-back. It’s not bad. Rapport is a game.]
omething like that. And that’s really the best you’ve got? I’m from Queens.
[To watch her minimal expressions you'd think she was detached from the conversation, intent on the street; her eyes flick forward, track back to our left, flick forward again in an automatic loop, profiling passing strangers by their sweating faces and how they have chosen to dress in public today - a day when wearing anything at all while beyond the reach of air-con is life-threatening vanity. It’s a tough temperature to conceal something.]
So the reason we're speaking: I need you to understand we’re joined at the hip now. I’m here and rising only as long as you’re out there and not falling on your ass. And vice versa - fates linked. You’ve heard what they’re calling us.
[No pause for her this time.]
Let me explain how it is here. The corridors are crawling with ego-bruised alpha males rubbing their hands together just waiting for our little international experiment to implode. In spectacular fashion. So they can get back to dividing up the treasure the good old fashioned way.
[She is hesitant, reluctant to include the next part.]
And then there's the weather. Well it’s making everyone edgy. Nobody's saying it but they're afraid. Nobody likes being at the whim of something bigger than themselves, things above their pay-grade, outside of their control. So they compensate and take it where they can.
[A longer pause now. Silence on the other end too. Who breaks it first is important for the dynamic of what comes next. She doesn’t have to wait long. Meanwhile the camera keeps staring at her, clinically. We are watching a social study or a video installation from uptown on the spiral of the Guggenheim. Her eyes keep running the loop, processing the sidewalk like an algorithm. The car turns onto Avenue of the Americas. The city shimmers in the rear window, melting. A line of yellow plumes like cabs bursting into flame, polarised by the greenish glass. The camera doesn’t flinch from her face. The voice in her ear finishes its piece: her turn.]
Footprints in spreadsheets won’t cut it any longer. Not unless they start leading somewhere real. Go back to the data set and find another way in. Now listen carefully. I’m going to tell you a story.
Manhattan, New York July 2012
A thief who works the subway sees his mark. She’s been crying and she’s exhausted, her head’s lolling around as the carriage sways. Her eyes are red, they keep half closing then she’s awake again. Easy pickings. It’s her suitcase that’s caught his attention. Expensive. It’s on her lap, her arms wrapped round it, but she’s not holding on to it tightly anymore. She’s sitting by the door - he’s leaning, opposite. At the next stop he knows the exit’s fast to the street and he can be half-way into the projects with it before she realises what’s happened. It’s practically gift-wrapped. So the train stops, he counts, and when the doors are about to close he makes his move. He’s good but it’s heavier than he imagined. It bulges on one side, the weight’s uneven. He’s not even at the stairs and he’s got it in two hands, panting, knocking into people. The train doors don’t close when they should and she’s wide awake and out on the platform –kind of unhinged– and across the crowd she fixes him with this crazy, frantic stare like he’s taken her baby not her luggage…
[Her colleague is interrupting. Of course she’s heard this story before. She let’s her summarise the punch-line, let’s her feel as if she’s stealing her thunder. There’s some kind of commotion at the other end. She adjusts the bud in her ear while she waits for it to pass and for the quick mind across the Atlantic to cover the ground to the point. She likes this girl even though she’s running them both out of rope.]
Good, so why am I telling it to you?
[We see her lift the dangling toggle of the hands-free mic close enough to her lips to help the woman on the other end understand the emphasis that’s coming.]
Here’s the thing, Svetlana. There are motifs that appeal to us like catnip. Our brains taste something addictive between the words and we will rehearse and re-tell whatever phrases delivered that fix to everyone we meet, just to catch even the scent of it again. That’s how these things spread. How they grow and take on meaning, more than just something that might have happened. Or that might still happen.
So yes, I’m saying that this idea you’re chasing is relatable. Yes, it contains the promise of a sense of justice. Of course, you’re right. I’m also saying that you and I –and for the moment the committee– want and need it to be true.
But this agency doesn’t finance folklore for very long - whatever national itch it scratches. Do your job faster.
[She taps the line closed. Her sunglasses are replaced, the rear windows burr back down so she can enjoy the noise and the ferocious morning heat again.]
He tries to hold his patience, despite the interview technique. The man is just doing his job, timing the rat through the maze. Talking to his next publication, already drafting the first analysis of a career-defining anomaly.
“You want me to say that there's an equation to work it out, to put figures on the outcomes. You want me to tell you I have a value system - a way to reckon up who lives and who dies.”
“Would it make you feel better to talk about those things?”
“And you think that because people like me exist, make a living doing what we do, if you could just crack us open you could reveal the psychosis inside to the world -”
He’s leaning towards his questioner again now.
“- but most of all I think you just want me to look at myself the way you’re looking at me now. Because surely the error of my ways would be obvious then, with your detachment. And I’d somehow start to heal. See that I’ve been wrong all this time.”
“Is that how you feel - like you might be ill or damaged in some way? And that it might have been affecting your work?”
“I didn’t say that. Exposing whatever is rotten inside me won't change the work.”
They both seem happy with this admission for the time being, as if it’s progress.
His nose and ribs throb from his outbursts, sitting up too fast, getting agitated. The nurse arrives to plug him back in.
SHE OPENED HER EYES to the gentle clack-clacking of the world slowly passing her by under a grey blanket.
She didn't know how long she'd been asleep - held under by the exhaustion of the trek down and the rocking of the train. Her face was flattened against the glass, the rest of her recovering body was compressed into the carriage wall and threadbare upholstery of one side of the window seat. Her posture was of something very slight fossilised. She decided to wait for some sensation before unfurling.
A man on a bicycle pedalled in the same direction as the train, on a road running parallel to the tracks just a couple of metres from her. The train was slow, the man slower and he was smoothly falling behind as if gliding along in reverse. If he hadn’t been a shade she could have opened the window and reached out and touched him. The bicycle and the man were completely grey.
She stared harder without shifting from her sleeping position. Not an apparition then but maybe an unfinished maquette of a man on a bike. Just lacking paint. His lips, his hair, the lashes on his eyes, his spokes and tyres. Every inch of every surface was matt and heavy with monochrome powder. Only the most sheltered nooks and inner machinery of both person and transport were spared the silt covering - and even their rightful under-colour was airbrushed with the sombre topcoat.
The grass by the road was grey. The trunks and twigs of stunted trees, the heart-shaped leaves of large plants growing beside the railway tracks were weighed down with it - and now a single-story house sliding past. All grey, to the panes of opaque glass in its frames. A grey dog laid out in its grey back yard. The world in the verge had been smothered in not-colour.
She was being slow to shake the dregs of sleep. Gradually it came to her. More freight than passengers probably rode the route from Beijing to Hong Kong; the mills and depots of the mining communities nestled in as close to their trading lifeline as they could. A grey town was the byproduct of packing rock particles for a living.
A grey truck sped past in the opposite direction, loaded with grey men and sacks.
She sat up slowly in her seat, peeling her cheek from the glass, wincing at the reminder from her arm. As the internal colours of the carriage intruded vividly on her peripheral vision she saw now that she had not woken up alone.
“Limestone.” He said.
He sat opposite her across the table, directing his words out their window.
“At the heart of this country’s love affair with building things is dust.” He continued.
She was instantly unsettled. It mustn’t show.
They had the carriage to themselves so it seemed he had chosen very deliberately to be sociable. Maybe because of where they were both half from –she saw– and the self-consciousness that went with that ancestry on a train in China.
But that was not what had really disturbed her.
“I hope I didn't wake you.” he continued in his polite, concerned, perfect English.
Unless she had been talking in her sleep that particular foreign language was not on the list of opening gambits. She was very awake now.
“I thought I should leave you to rest. You looked very tired.”
Too late she thought to stand up, shallow-bow sumimasen in her best Kantō region accent, play the female travelling alone and modestly move carriages. But that moment had passed. She had already shown him comprehension in her eyes - she just hoped he had not also seen anxiety and the turning of tiny panic wheels.
Regathering her nonchalance, she faced away from him again and pretended to regard the drab moonscape.
“How does anything breathe? Or photosynthesise?” She was stalling for time. Hearing her internationalised American emphasised against his British RP her first thought, floating above herself for an instant, was what the sorei must make of the sounds their descendants had so fluently embraced as their own. And then what tongues she would be hearing when it was her turn to hover invisibly and eavesdrop on her children’s children.
“Poorly I imagine.” He smiled a charming smile. “But life adapts, carries on. They make half the world’s cement and use more of it than anywhere else. In all senses it helped build this nation, here and abroad, these last twenty, thirty years. But like everything that is changing.”
His radio-friendly voice was molasses, freakishly listenable. She took the opportunity to appear interested in what it was saying to study his face. Late forties, trim, immaculately groomed. Short brittle hair shot completely white - luminous next to the view outside. Smart, smart hazel eyes. She knew she was right to be scared but still not why. Without looking directly she checked her route to the carriage door behind him, testing her sore legs under the table.
“Quarries near the tracks might survive but deeper in there are mining towns just like this that will die off - not because the limestone ran out but because of the dust their counterparts in frontier economies can produce for less.”
She was not physically threatened by him - he still looked agile but not like she was. It was the thought of the credentials he might possess that scared her. The ID he might produce, the subordinates that might be in the next carriage, or waiting on the next platform.
That’s paranoia - be cool. He has no idea who you are. We’re strangers on a train.
“The government is forcing environmental standards up so as to stay in the big game - and so the industry is consolidating, folding those costs into itself. Margins get squeezed and inevitably the smaller players fall by the wayside when anything at this scale reaches its limits.”
“Is this what you do?” She asked, pretty sure it wasn’t.
“Scaling things to their limits?” He smiled again, glancing at her. He couldn’t mean…
“My work is about trying to move on before that happens.” He qualified - she breathed.
“No, I mean this industry - ” she nodded at the alien snow, “- cement, limestone.”
“No. The money in grey dust may not have run dry yet - but we are in its endgame. I’m more interested in what comes next.”
“And what will that be?’ she ventured coyly, trying to lure him to reveal something of his hand.
“Whatever we make it, Ms Sasaki.”
“I SAY 100 PERCENT I wish we had not shot it down,”
Press rooms around the world learn of the remark made by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during an interview with a Turkish newspaper on July 2 2012.
The international flashpoint triggered by the downing on the Turkish jet earlier in June, after it entered Syrian airspace, continues to escalate. Some outlets move their coverage up a gear, posting bulletins and updates by the minute.
GABE WASN’T SURE where they were now. He had been trying to disguise another round of sharp cramps from his handlers, looking out of the window to grimace rather than to keep his bearings. That had perhaps been shortsighted.
Still near the river somewhere he thought - it could only be a block or two to their left. Every building the car prowled past looked like a lesser-seen but more-weathered fascia of Whitehall - at once grubby, grand and anonymous. Millbank somewhere.
The back seat was feeling far less comfortable than when he had got in. He had had one sudden urge (that he knew he wouldn’t see through) to open the door and throw himself to the moving tarmac but it had passed. They weren’t travelling at any speed - maybe they were even daring him to try.
The car slowed further, black bollards retracting into the asphalt as they approached an entranceway. Another policeman cradling an automatic rifle stepped back. An articulated metal grill folded itself up just enough to let them pass beneath, the driver and the guard exchanging a miniscule formality of eye contact before the car rolled forward on to a steep down-ramp. The grill descended behind them as they into the dark interior. The lining of his gut burned.
Bare metres inside the daylight was already sucked out - making it hard to be sure of the dimensions of what must have been an underground service entrance. The car’s engine purr and suddenly-needed headlights were absorbed into the void, dissipated before they could reach a flat surface from which to reflect back information. He could smell water and petrol. It could have been a vast subterranean cenote. Or just a carpark, Gabe.
His escorts marshalled him politely from the car and towards a sullen greeter in a grey suit waiting in the shapeless murk. The pair who had brought him retreated back into the car, which promptly reversed until its headlights were just cat’s eyes then nothing. He looked at the grey-suited man for a moment. The cramps receding, he risked a smile. Dropped it when he got nothing back.
No money, no corresponding hostage from an opposite side changed hands but Gabe had the distinct sensation of a no-man’s-land between territories where he had just been traded to new and foreign keepers. Deal done, from here he would be spirited back behind their borders and held until he was of value again.
“This way please.”
His new handler walked him deeper into the empty lot. They found and followed a dotted power line of gradually less fluorescent overheads for what must have been a full silent minute. They were apparently heading into the underground lair of a less well-resourced authority: the dim stitches of light ended in a perspex booth struggling to glow under a single bulb no brighter than a birthday candle. After running the length of the wire this was all the luminescence the electricity could muster for the occasion.
The clerk inside the booth was wearing a similar grey suit, his plastic ID on a cord - it would after all be easy to forget yourself working this post. He got up from his stool, twisted the neck of a slender torch until it gave up pitiful amber light and ushered them a few steps further into the gloom behind his station.
At the last minute a large open goods lift yawned out of a concrete wall in response to the forlorn fourteen watts. The three of them boarded.
It jolted as it began to elevate them. Gabe knew the environment before the doors opened. In this part of town secure and at-one-time forbidding exteriors gave way to drab, scuffed interiors, half-maintained corridors and bulk-furnished offices. The civil architecture of perennial almost-government. Central enough for security rigmarole; yet to be consulted on matters of any sensitivity. He had been asked to undertake dead-end pieces of work that would never reach a decision-maker for the inhabitants of such places when he was starting out, eager to prove himself. In places like this he had learned a lot in a very short space of time about what he did and didn’t want his life to amount to.
Thanks, Ben. Great to be back.
A feeble ping and a numbered button yellowed itself. There was still no daylight on the fourth floor but they had better bulbs. A tall pile of stacking chairs, destined for somewhere roomier, more popular, leant against one wall of the sparse reception. The car park greeter and the goods lift concierge handed him over to a desk clerk who shared their tailor and asked him to sign in. He began to write the time with the provided biro when his hand was stopped, firmly and almost affectionately he thought, by a chubbier one.
“No need to worry about that, sir. We’re just going through here -” the calm voice in a much nicer suit reassured.
An altogether slicker, warmer personality than the relay chain of grey attendants preceding him stood suddenly at his side.
And as if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared. An inward but genuine smile at himself and at the childhood tv show memory slipped past his guard.
The plump-faced magic-shopkeeper-stroke-receptionist didn’t introduce himself - his role would be over momentarily it seemed. Manners and schooling impeccable though,
“Our apologies for the rather nocturnal entrance. Trouble with the power. I do hope you were looked after on the way up? It’s damned hard to make these places hospitable. Turns out in the end actually best not to try - ruins the pleasant surprise. But the in-house reception doesn’t exactly fizz, we know, so thanks for bearing with.”
A knowing grin and another light touch facilitated Gabe towards a narrow door he hadn’t really noticed before now, off to one side, the man balletically stepping his more rotund frame half around his guest to open it for him.
This is another crossing place. I’m being traded back again.
Gabe felt himself gently, professionally propelled through the narrow door.
Incomprehensibly he was immediately under a teeming cloud of tiny iridescent fish, flashing in constant semi-synchronised motion.
The living glass arch quickly opened on to a vaulted white circular room, overlooked from above by a viewing balcony that looped around its whole circumference. A dome of glass at the centre of the ceiling focused bright sunlight down in a tight warm beam. Occasional stray dust motes glowed spectrally. A deep latte-tan leather sofa curled around a one hundred degree tangent of the marbled wall opposite him.
“This is the East Lobby. They’ll be along to brief you in just a second. Now, an espresso perhaps?”
Huge oak double doors led off to the left and right. His tactile new doorman was already backing out of the left set, sweeping them together behind him as he went, his not-insubstantial weight swinging off the oversized handles, arms extended and pulling together in a grand slow-motion cymbal clap, delivering just a heavy pneumatic sigh.
Gabe realised he had already turned a little pirouette, staring up, trying to make sense of this abrupt change in environment and level of expense. He sat on the sofa, seeing now, as he faced it, that the aquarium-tunnel through which he had entered was part of a vast curved tank that rose up from the floor all the way to the balcony level above. It filled the wall in that half of the round room with turquoise water. A line of jellyfish rose and sank hypnotically in slow swiss clockwork amongst the glitterball of fish.
This was not how state buildings usually worked. He was down the rabbit hole.
The seal of the overbearing double doors gasped open as the miniature espresso arrived. If he looked for it there would be a tag that read ‘drink me’ tied to the designer handle, too delicate and hot to hold.
Two new figures had stalked into the room before the plump coffee bearer could perform his theatrical exit move again. Gabe stood to meet them in the middle of the lobby, espresso abandoned, shaking their hands as offered. These suits too were not off-the-peg.
“Topher Bell, Digital Strategy. Great to finally meet you.” The giant black frames of his statement eyewear loomed in close and owl-like as he pumped Gabe’s hand. His accent Stateside, his breath or aftershave powerfully aniseed.
“This is Orson Folland.”
“International Law.” Said Folland, so quietly Gabe was half lip-reading. The lawyer held a folded cut-throat and a badger hair shaving brush unselfconsciously between the fingers of the hand Gabe wasn’t shaking. Maybe something faintly scandinavian in his soft speech.
Even as they began talking the pair were setting a brisk pace for the opposite set of doors.
“I’ve got to tell you, we’re looking forward to working with you. Heard a hell of a lot about you.”
Bell enthused as the two of them, slightly ahead of their guest, leaned into the enormous doors together like a familiar double act.
“Am I correct in thinking you were working with Ash Mishra’s outfit last year?” Gabe was straining to hear Folland but that particular name rang out. “We’ve been looking at those contracts. No precedents that we can find. You’ve opened up a whole new can of worms.”
Momentum building under their combined weight they began to break ajar. Gabe smiled politely at the lawyer and quickly steered them away from that subject -
“I’m afraid you have me at a loss - I’m still in the dark as to what you’re working on here.”
They were in a wide, double height corridor, moving quickly and accelerating, not stopping to close the East Lobby’s airlock behind them.
On the left floor-to-ceiling shelves of bound reference books the length of the corridor - thousands of them. On the right a continuous line of turquoise glass cubicles, each with its own sleek desk, aluminium-backed monitor and besuited operator in a plush lounge chair that might have been plundered from the set of a Bloomberg corporate interrogation. Each prism occupant was animatedly saying words in languages only their earpieces could hear, while distractedly swivelling left and right in the executive furniture.
“We’ll let Booth explain. Orson and I just wanted to say hi. And welcome. I realise this is what you do but, well, coming in cold on something like this, in here, not knowing anyone - that’s got to be intimidating, right?”
His hands were gesturing expansively to indicate the size of ‘this’, talking to the empty middle-distance in front of himself then directing it back at Gabe.
“I mean, one day you’re walking around not knowing the campaign even exists and the next, well… hey, I’m talking too much.”
They were flanking him, Folland silent. In something like the sixth cubicle a man was face down on his desk. Bell didn’t look but rapped the glass loudly as they passed, the man bolting instantly upright in his chair, conversation with the earpiece silently flowing again, apparently unbroken.
“Lawyers.” Bell rolled his eyes. Folland didn’t react. Then made a point of saying it with due sibilance to Gabe at his persistently low volume:
“Some of us are working long hours, across overlapping time zones. This is not the sort of business that can be ironed out in a status update.”
“This is it.” Bell pronounced with finality, choosing not to take his colleague’s bait in front of the newcomer. They had stopped outside more double doors of Medieval proportions.
Bell shook his hand again, then Folland.
“So listen, after you’ve seen Booth we should grab some time together. We can’t push the button on the social side too soon.”
“And we want to be out in the open before the war,” Folland added so softly Gabe wasn’t sure he’d said it. “If we break cover after it’s started we just look cynical and opportunistic.”
TALKS ON A GLOBAL ARMS TREATY look set to stall in New York before they’ve begun.
The UN-hosted summit due to begin on 3rd July 2012 is looking increasingly likely to be delayed by a rumoured dispute over the observer status of the Palestinian delegation. Some sources are calling it a negotiating tactic by the parties taking issue.
The treaty, intended to control arms sales around the world, is an attempt to regulate an industry said to be worth approximately $60-$70bn (£40-50bn) per year. Estimates put the annual death toll of people killed by illicit weapons at 750,000.
“It is an absurd and deadly reality that there are currently global rules governing the trade of fruit and dinosaur bones, but not ones for the trade of guns and tanks,” said the director of the pro-regulation alliance, Control Arms.
The world's biggest arms exporter –the US– recently shifted stance to support a treaty, but along with China, Syria and Egypt wants to exclude ammunition. China’s position also requires the exemption of small arms from the deal. Several Middle Eastern states oppose compliance with mandatory human rights standards for those purchasing arms.
If talks do commence tomorrow as planned, any draft treaty that emerges will still be subject to unanimous approval - effectively allowing any country to veto.
“IT’S CALLED A DARK POOL precisely because I can’t answer questions like that. That’s the bloody point. But you know this. I know you know this because I told you. On the phone yesterday. And –oh yes– because you wrote the book on the damn things. So what are we actually doing here?”
He’s delighted to see her again.
Despite it nestling in the lee of the tallest building in Western Europe the wind chill through the exposed rib cage of this barely-begun first floor is steely. She dips the short peak of her hard hat into the path of the next gust, ineffectively.
“There’s a question I know you can answer for me, Marcus.” She’s sounding much cheerier than her former acquaintance. “But you might have picked somewhere warmer. And, you know, finished.”
It’s just a frame. It was misleading of him to describe it to her as a ‘building’. Buildings have walls. She’s a couple of metres up, looking over the fenced compound that keeps the passengers exiting the train station from wandering into heavy construction. But she’s not happy about either of those metres and wondering if this aspect of the venue is a deliberate tactic to keep her off-balance.
A fountain of orange sparks sprays out against the sullen early afternoon sky from somewhere above. She’s not sure this can be safe.
“It wouldn’t do for us to be placed together just now. This is one of our physical assets. I’m expected to be taking appointments here today - security pre-meets prior to the visit on Thursday. We’ve helped one of our Qatari clients take a stake in this development as well as the big pointy one over your shoulder. So yours will just be the most attractive of a parade of new faces for the cameras.”
The beat of a helicopter somewhere nearby reaches them in a windless lull. He becomes interested in something at his feet.
“Flattering, but since when did you become the rockstar of the investment banking world?” She wants him to brag, knows that by ‘Qatari client’ he means Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabor Al Thani. Marcus has moved up in the world since they last met.
“It’s not press attention. We’re all under round-the-clock surveillance, from the senior brokers up - don’t you people talk to each other?”
“Different teams - but no, generally not. I’m attached to a US unit for now. Long story. So why the man-marking?” Kicking herself for not knowing about this before rocking up to put him in a difficult position.
“Two investigations. One out of here, one international.”
“This insider thing? You’re caught up in that?”
“We’re glad to be actually - linked but not culpable. At least as far as we know. So as long as the media want a public hanging on the highstreet, it’s keeping the spotlight away from the asian problem.”
She raises an eyebrow.
“A whole bunch of obscure, low level transactions placed in sync that shouldn’t have been fulfilled because they breach old agreements –really old agreements– but they were automated and relatively small, so… We’re still trying to work out what it means. In the meantime it’s raised a shitload of red flags on us - separate institutions in Japan, HK and Singapore are all trying to get us frozen out of the bourses until they can reverse what we actioned. Like that’s going to happen.”
“So everyone’s looking over here and over there and nobody’s paying any attention to what’s snorkelling in your dark pool. Except me. What happened when time stopped, Marcus?”
She hits her stride nicely. Something ominous bobs unstoppably to the surface of his face and flashes in his pupils before he can force it back under. She notices. It wants to be out in the air, Marcus. Can’t keep it submerged forever. That’s just physics.
“You mean the Leap Second.”
Of course I do. Need any more thinking time?
“We did what everybody did and embargoed it. Nothing human, nothing ‘bot. It was a blink of dead time across the screens. Everywhere.”
“Not everywhere.” she corrects him. “One deal was very much alive. There’s a shortlist of servers in the world that didn’t seem to get the embargo memo. Some days your dark pool talks to the two that are second and third from the top of it.”
He’s all composure again. You’re worth your eight figures, Marcus. I’ll give you that.
“Then, my dearest Svetlana, maybe you should be talking to whoever runs those servers.”
But of course that’s not an easy matter - he doesn’t need to add.
From a warmer place under the hopelessly oversized fluorescent jacket he’s given her, her phone is humming a tune.
He waits for her politely while she locates it. It’s not dignified.
She rolls her eyes at Marcus, as if her caller is an old bore they both know and humour, not her new superior, Stateside. The woman often prefers games to pleasantries and in the short time they’ve worked together Svetlana’s found it best to play along, so she picks up her ridiculous opener with gusto.
“Is it the one from Jaws where they’re on the boat at night and Hooper and Quint are drunk and one-upping each other with their scars? Brody’s only had his appendix taken out, bless him, and Hooper pulls his shirt to one side and he’s like, ‘Right there. Mary Ellen Moffat. She broke my heart.’” - her best Richard Dreyfuss - “Because I love that scene.”
Marcus looks like he’s slowly remembering something deeply irritating about her he’d forgotten.
“…’I’ll drink to your leg.’” Massacring Robert Shaw now.
She winks across at him, shows him just her index finger and mouths the highly unrealistic estimate for the number of minutes she’s going to make him wait.
“‘Eleven hundred men went into the water…’” He’s looking at her, shaking his head slowly now like she can’t do Quint either. Everyone’s a critic.
“‘Thirteen footer. You know how you know that when you’re in the water, Kathryn?’”
Kathryn has long since moved on, explaining something about their relationship. Svetlana catches up to it only after she’s played it back in her head - it suddenly sounds important,
“Yes. No—What are they calling us?”
Marcus’ patience looks thin and Kathryn’s still pressing on without her so she lets her and makes a mental note to ask around. And now Kathryn’s playing variations on the We’re Both Women and the Hard-to-be-a-woman (In-a-man’s-world) cards back to back. And now covering the weather over there, for some reason. Probably wearing something ridiculously haute couture and being chauffeured around in bullet-proof comfort.
When there’s finally a gap with her name on it so she ventures in, mainly for Marcus’ benefit -
“Geneva came up empty so I’ve moved down the list. Just landed - I’m with an old friend now, actually. Big fish. It’s really important he keeps his nose clean at the minute so we’re having an interesting conversation about being adrift in murky, predatory waters.”
Marcus is listening, stony-faced towards the threat she’s making.
There’s mob noise on the other end of the line. It’s harder to hear her but Kathryn’s dispensing with games for a minute and is on the attack.
“No. Not on the record. No we don’t have jurisdiction - and besides we’d have to get in line…”
She turns away from Marcus as naturally as she can. It’s suddenly not going how she hoped. As she’s batting away questions her eyes are carried high up the tramlines of the sharp new Shard just metres away, into the overcast summertime heavens. God this thing’s high.
“It’ll be all prop desks, private clients. No, it’s dark. We can but it’ll take time…” She’s still defending herself. “It’s not meant to look like it fits the profile - that’s the whole point. No. But I don’t need it Kathryn because they’re here, in the City. I’m certain they… oh Jesus…”
London Bridge July 2012
The cleaning platform suspended near the very top of the skyscraper is bucking like an angry child has its strings.
Tools are being downed around her as more people see it and stare. There’s no way anyone in there can hold on. The wind tosses it like a toy.
The phone falls limply away from her face for a moment. She saw footage once of a paraglider pilot’s wing in collapse, shot from his helmet cam, he was falling with it like a ball of laundry, the horizon line jumping erratically around the frame. It made her sick and she’s getting the same feeling now.
Marcus’ face is draining too. Both wondering if they’re watching a snuff film.
Kathryn’s still talking and gradually Svetlana remembers, lifting the handset slowly back to her ear.
Everyone on the site and waiting on the station platforms is staring up, collectively anticipating the moment a speck of a human being is flung from the cradle.
Then Marcus is putting his card in her hand. She turns it over absently, fixed on the high drama as he’s hurriedly leaving –it’s not his card– but he’s not looking back to see her realise and turn to mime what the…?
Now Kathryn is lowering her into a story but she hasn’t got the patience for any of it any longer. Life suddenly seems too short.
Oh for god’s sake “It’s a dog it’s a dead dog.”
Butting in seems to have finally derailed her boss. Svetlana’s still craning her neck back as she takes over the narrator role,
“She’s been up all night looking for it. It’s been hit by a car but she lives in a city so there’s nowhere to bury it…”
Above her the child jerks the strings again and her hand almost goes to her mouth,
“…She can’t bear to put Pluto out for the bin men so she’s getting out of town to find a field somewhere and all a city girl’s got to carry its dead weight is Louis Vuitton luggage…”
She thinks she sees a line between the building and the rig but it’s impossible to be sure at this distance, looking straight up. She’s been on auto-pilot but she recognises the thread of the call, sense-making what’s backstage of their theatrical exchange,
”The guy runs off. Only to find out when he opens the case…”
She gets it. She might be transfixed by a window cleaner having a near death experience but she knows what’s being said. This is how it always starts coming apart. People unable to go the distance with her. People starting to lose faith. She plays the tale out anyway,
“…Everyone’s heard a version of it fitted to their own city, from a friend who knew the girl it happened to, or who saw the guy snatch it…”
It’s not a subtle message. Svetlana just thought she had longer.
”…Listen, I’m close, Kathryn. I just need a few more hours here and I’ll show you…”
But Kathryn’s taken back over the reins, spelling out her urban myth point. Received and understood. Payload delivered, the line goes dead and the conversation is over as abruptly as it began.
The car high above is calmer, tethered to the glass wall perhaps. She knows Marcus is long gone. And that any doors still left ajar here will be closed quickly now. Damn it.
Move down the list. Do as you’re told for once. She lifts her phone again.
“It’s me. We’ve timed out in London. Plug in anything new and ask the Ladies where I should be on a plane to.”
She’s looking at Marcus’ parting gift in her other hand. It’s blind, but to hell with it. She can make time to play one last card of her own before the airport.