Fifteen minutes till showtime.
Waiting doesn't bother me, never has. It comes with the territory. Killing time... yeah, I'm good at that. The room is oppressive and smells of disinfectant and piss, rented by the hour rather than the day and not much bigger than the bed. There are no Gideons in the bedside drawer, no mints on the stained pillows. The mattress is lumpy and covered with a dirty, grey sheet. No duvet. The headboard is screwed to the plasterboard wall to stop it banging, the screws going in at all angles. Paper thin curtains hang raggedly across the window, the hint of a floral pattern barely visible; tracings in pink, red and green. A garbage strewn alleyway can be glimpsed through the crack. There's no wardrobe, no chest of drawers, no point, really. You come to a place like this to fuck or die.
I'd rented the room for two hours and paid in cash. The desk clerk was caged behind the wire mesh and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a baseball bat or a gun hidden back there. A shock of electrified white dreads hung halfway down his back and a fat joint was clamped between his bluing lips. Late sixties or early fifties, difficult to say. He was staring through the sweet smelling smoke at a black and white portable, screwed up bloodshot eyes taking it all in. On the screen, Arnie was waving a big gun. Half man, half cyborg... come with me if you want to live! The clerk took the money and shoved a key through the slot without turning from the TV.
'Uhm,' I said. 'A friend... a female friend. Uhm she'll be turning up shortly. Could you send her to my room?'
The clerk turned slowly, toked long and hard then gave me a look as if to say what the fuck do you think this is? The motherfuckin’ Hilton? He exhaled and grinned through the smoke, his teeth yellow and gold. 'Sure thing, mon,' he said. Still grinning he turned back to the TV. The clerk had looked at me for all of two seconds, looked but didn't see. The man on the other side of the mesh was already forgotten. Just another horny white businessman indistinguishable from the dozens of horny white businessmen he saw each and every day.
A glance at my watch. Eight minutes to go. Further down the hall a whore is earning her next fix. Moaning and groaning and on the home straight now, telling the punter what he needs to hear: he's a bad, bad boy... and sooo big. I ignore the noise, boot-up the laptop. A click and a purr as the fan spins to life. I type in the password, fingers click-clacking across the keyboard. Hacking into London Underground's main computer system, I quickly access the security cameras. The screen shows a grainy CCTV image of a crowded platform: Leicester Square. It’s a realtime feed, the picture coming via satellite into my mobile, into the laptop. There are three cameras positioned to give a complete view of the platform, with a single click I can bounce between them. It’s amazing what you can do with technology.
Rush hour is in full swing, the platform crowded with suits. White faces, black faces, yellow faces. The colours vary but the expressions are the same: tired, stressed and bored. A train pulls in and the crush on the platform momentarily eases. The doors shut, then open again to let another couple of businessmen squash inside. I’m not sure who the lucky ones are. Those whisked away by the train or those left behind.
Within a minute the platform is crawling. I scan the faces, searching for the girl. Everywhere I look little dramas unfold... haikus of humanity. A Pakistani in a crisp suit is standing near an exit, briefcase in one hand, laptop bag slung over one shoulder. His tongue subconsciously moistens dry lips, eyes making love to every square inch of the woman in front. She senses something, turns suddenly. His head jerks away too quickly and a slender smile slides across her lips. She runs a hand through her short mannish hair, secretly flattered by the attention. I click to another camera. A backpacker is moving through the crowd like an astronaut, in slo-mo, the gravitational pull of the platform sucking him down. A rucksack is strapped to his back, greasy hair tumbles over his shoulders. He’s wearing cut-off denim shorts; there are piercings in his ears, nose and lip. The one word logo on his T-shirt says it all: LOSER.
The deal was for the whole sum up front, all two million of it, the fee non-refundable. It’s the only way to do business. That half now, half later nonsense is strictly for amateurs. It crosses my mind she might bottle it. Wouldn't be the first time an op had gone tits up at zero hour. I tell myself to be patient.
Seconds tick by, slowly turn into minutes. I know what they call me behind my back: a dinosaur. They mean it as an insult but I don't see it that way. The word dinosaur has its origins in Greek. Deinos meaning terrible; sauros meaning lizard. Terrible Lizard. People should choose their words more carefully.
I click between the cameras, scanning the crowd, checking the faces against the photo lying next to the laptop. A heavily pregnant Arab woman is standing beside the chocolate machine. She's glowing, radiating a righteous light. Her head moves from left to right, searching for the best place to stand. She presses towards the middle of the platform. The crowds part to let her through, like they know she's something special. She treads carefully, hands resting on her bump, moving with the waddle of a woman whose waters could break any second. She's smiling at the businessmen as they move out the way, smiling at women who are obviously mothers. They keep giving her sympathetic glances. Poor thing! Pregnant in this heat, that can't be any fun! She shrugs and smiles. What can I do? A telepathic conversation taking place between the members of an organisation every bit as mysterious as the masons.
She stops near the yellow line and her eyes flick to the digital display hanging from the roof. The next train is due in one minute. She turns her head and for a brief moment she's staring directly into the lens. Even in monochrome she looks glorious. Barely out of her teens with long dark hair and exotic skin. There’s no tension in her face, no regrets in those dark, smoky eyes; she’s perfectly at peace with herself. Her lips are moving as she silently recites verses from the Koran to herself. **STAND BACK TRAIN APPROACHING**, flashes the sign. The train pulls in, the doors slide open. A tidal wave of bodies spews onto the platform and I lose sight of her. A heartbeat later the screen becomes a blizzard. If I didn't know better I'd suspect a technical fault.
If I didn't know better.