When times are hard I buy coffee that smells like wet dog. I’ve been surviving on caffeinated wet dog for ten days now. Working on the Weir assignment has seen me spending my nights in a dingy portacabin ostensibly guarding a vacated office block while structural repairs are underway to stop it toppling for another decade.
I’ve been wandering among diggers and mixers, brushing dust off my epaulets, looking every inch the grey man while keeping a close eye on the run-down apartment across the street: the lair of Dale Weir.
A man called Sebastian Hodor is paying me (on completion) for my investigative troubles. Hodor is CEO of Nano Domini, a tech firm specialising in devices beloved of nonexistent government departments. I met him two weeks ago in his spacious office at the company’s suburban premises. I recall our consultation one last time…
Hodor folds his arms and looks at the floor as he talks. Or else he looks up and appears to address someone a little to the side of my chair, all the while leaning against the front of his desk. He’s almost tall, looks like a Russian oligarch or a Silicon Valley high riser with his parted blond hair and natty spectacles framing a boyish face.
“We make the finest nano-devices in the world,” he begins, breaking no doubt into pre-crafted patter, “finest in a literal sense.”
He lifts what looks like a sleek book of matches from his desk and flips it open to reveal a glossy inner tray. The tray is pockmarked with minuscule white dots. Hodor places it back on the desk, still open, and taps his phone. The white dots quickly disappear. Behind him the screen, which seconds before served as a mirror, now muddies with colour. Close up images of my neck, ears, nostrils swim in and out of view.
“They’re swarming and combining single light receptors to create 3D captures.” he beams. “Quite invisible when they’re airborne. We call these ‘floating-point chip sets’.” He grins at me and, half getting the joke, I half-smile back. After the white dots return to their tiny ports the demonstration is over. Hodor becomes serious. He gets down to business.
“Dale Weir was here a month before he went awol. He worked in quality control, but was also on rota for the hospitality suite, which is where visiting investors wait to be impressed. While he was here we were experimenting with a prototype nanodrone that introduces a temporary mood enhancer into the bloodstream through the nasal cavity.
“Harmless in small doses I can assure you, and flushed from the system in hours. We’ve been exposing visitors to trial swarms in the suite before meeting them.”
“Has it helped to seal a deal?” I ask. Hodor ignores the question.
“Unfortunately for Weir his supervisor, Thompson, knew nothing of this. And despite our insisting that he alternate the rota he had Weir working the suite almost every day for the last two weeks he was here.
“I suspect that, unlike our visitors, Weir has been exposed to the toxins too regularly to clear them properly from his system. He began to display signs of psychosis; he’d talk to staff who weren’t there and if they were there he’d talk to others who weren’t.
“Two mornings ago we planned to address the issue but he didn’t turn up. Now his phone is dead and he’s no longer at his registered address. As he’s only 26 we’re wondering if he’s staying with his family who live out of town. But we’re not sure, and we don’t want to worry them – or anyone else – right now.
“Ordinarily I wouldn’t require your expertise but you see we have government contracts pending, and Weir is a top class engineer who, despite having limited access to our network, has the know-how to get in deeper. Given his current condition there is, understandably, a lot at stake. I need to know our work is safe. I need peace of mind and – discretion.”
“You don’t want to spook the spooks.” I say. He almost smiles.
Thus nightly I have been studying Weir’s window amid the other lit tiles facing my cabin. Several times I have changed into civvies and loitered in the darkness near his rooms to gauge their accessibility, listening out for his departures which, mysteriously, occur after midnight and can last between fifteen minutes to an hour, sometimes longer. Tonight I wrap things up. I can’t stand another shift in the cabin.
Weir’s apartment is accessed through two locked doors. The first opens onto a staircase which leads to his front door proper. I’m through the first in seconds (tricks of the trade), and find myself ascending a stone flight beneath a blue neon glow. My footfalls are met with gritty crackles indifferent to stealth, but Weir has been gone five minutes so time is more my concern than perfect silence. The second door opens for me as readily as the first and I step inside. All is abject bareness. There is no carpet here either, just more stony floor, grainy with fallout from ceiling cracks. The front room is small and empty but for a computer desk near the window on which rests and hums an old PC. A heavy monitor sits beside it, switched off. The waning moonlight adds to the gloom.
I approach the monitor and switch it on. If there is anything Weir has here relevant to ND it would surely be on the computer’s hard drive. The screen glows with a fizz and my face tingles. The monitor shows an open document with no title. A quick scan reveals it to be an unhinging epiphany. Phrases catch my eye:
“I am a wretched, hunted, hound…the world is closing in…people make houses…I know everyone…I know no one…I can’t breathe…houses make people…”
As I stand back from the screen layers of dust statically leap off and scatter. My phone beeps and two messages flag up: the first from my bank confirming a payment from ND; the second from Sebastian which reads “we have what we need, get out of there NOW!”
I pocket my phone then notice a thin pile of paper resting on the keyboard in the monitor’s glow. The top sheet is dated today. Weir has drawn numbered squares on it. Some of the squares are ticked. They look like the camera checks I do in my cabin across the street. The pattern looks oddly familiar and I’m suddenly aware of how silent the building is. As I turn a croaking voice freezes me.
“Switch that off and step away. You shouldn’t be here.”
Weir stands in the doorway, holding a gun. His appearance unsettles me as much as the pistol’s muzzle. He’s barely recognisable from his application picture. His red hair is now Moon-white and his once full face is drawn and pained. His unwashed suit makes for haggard garb. He looks lost. I do as he says.
“You’re new.” He mutters. “I can fix the light and electric in apartment 80 if you’re staying, but there is one rule that everyone who lives here must follow: my room is out of bounds. Understand?” I nod.
“Now, I need to update the lighting roster.” he says, and waves me out. I brush past him into the stairway and make my way down, ready to dash for the main corridor. I feel a sense of foreboding as gentle flakes of plaster fall from the ceiling now creepily creaking. Halfway down the walls start bursting and the steps tremble. Concerned for Weir’s safety, despite his being armed and deranged, I turn to call for him to come with me, but he cuts me off with a shrill bark:
“I told you to step away from there! You’ve been assigned room 80, go there now. I’m not joking.”
Moments later shots ring out. It appears I have already become part of Weir’s hallucinatory neighbourhood. He is too dangerous for me to help now. I flee down the remaining stairs and wells and leap across the rubble-raining threshold. I keep running and don’t stop until I reach my own apartment block almost a mile away. After racing to the top floor I crash through my front door, staggering, gasping, towards my office window which gives a clear view of the top of Weir’s crumbling ghost house. I watch as the structure topples. Silvery dust clouds billow over the silent ruin and I wonder which came first. I feel stunned, outraged, used, obsolete – and yet necessary.
I open the window and the smell of fresh coffee from the kiosks far below stirs in me a sensuous lust. Submitting to its urgency I let myself out and head into the street. Whether through shock or love of life my senses are heightened and I follow my nose like a rain dog straying into a new world.