Jan Shipp felt the hot residue of the cocaine line slide down the back of his throat. The analgesic burn and aspirin bitter-sweet taste carved a numb trail through his voice box and down to his stomach. He opened his watering eyes and cracked an idiot grin. Dear Christ, this stuff was good. He’d had a feeling, earlier that day, that somehow tonight was going to be a night to remember, a feeling that was increasingly becoming more valid by the minute as the visceral rush of this quality coke kicked in. He looked down at the cistern head in front of him. Earlier had wiped away the dust with a wad of toilet paper before employing his ID card to crush and regiment his precious crystals of freedom. Now his portrait starred up at him from the plastic slab, the bottom edge of the card lightly iced with white. The face in the picture wasn’t the one he wore now, a messy divorce and reactive preoccupation with work had left their traces on his flesh. No immediate abrasions, no scars just the occasional deep line etched through worry.

      He considered the one consistency between himself and the young man sporting an earring in the photograph – a compact, inch long scar across the cheekbone under the right eye. He always said that he’d received it duelling, but the reality of running into a family table as a child was the less glamorous truth. His mind focused upon it now, marvelling at how a division of the flesh could allow for the growth of something new, even if that new tissue wasn’t as pliable as the stuff that surrounded it. Break down, grow/repair, become less flexible… Life encapsulated and on display for all to see. Man, this coke was the purest…

      Jan quickly cleaned up the assorted drug paraphernalia, ran a damp finger along the bottom of the ID card and then pressed it against his gums in a quick teeth cleaning manoeuvre. He was uncertain, in his current rising high, whether this had any benefit other than making his mouth feel numb. But the guy he’d shared his first line with had done something similar and Jan, out of a mutual sense of disobedience, had mimicked the procedure ever since.

      There was a heavy thud against the cubicle door and Jan’s already racing heart immediately shifted up a gear. He scanned the cistern, patted the remaining wrap of drugs in his pocket, rotated the lock on the cubicle door and peeked outside.

      “Woahder.” The man waiting staggered back and kept on staggering until he sat down in the pan of one the tastefully lit urinals. Although obviously surprised by Jan’s emergence, he was incapable of making eye contact or even pulling himself out of his current predicament. The tails of his expensive shirt hung out while, in one hand, he resolutely clutched a half drunk bottle of neon coloured beer.

      “You alright?” Jan was loathed to waste the joys of his Charlie rush on good Samaritan work, but he simply couldn’t just leave this guy sitting there like that.

      “Jusss need a pisssss.” The man mumbled through spittle glossed lips.

      “Well,” said Jan, valiantly grabbing an arm and hauling the drunkard to his feet, “The cubicle’s free now. You’ll probably be more comfortable in there.”

      Using the man’s haphazard momentum, he somehow managed to lever the figure through the toilet door before pushing him gently in the general direction of the bowl. The man hesitated, swayed and then shook his head. Looking down, he gingerly placed the beer bottle on the head of the cistern and began to fumble with his zipper. Jan needed no further indication that this unfortunate was, once again, under his own volition. With a growing sense of well being he strode over to the exit and threw open the door. A wall of heat, perfume and noise welcomed him like some home coming hero and he stepped back into the cluttered atmosphere of the bar.

*****

      He wasn’t sure how he became separated from the rest of his work party, only that he ended up standing near the front of a night club queue with only a vague notion that his friends were somewhere inside. He cautiously eyed those around him. Jittery teens in spray on trousers and E-moticon loafers, the odd older couple feeding off the freely given energy of youth, kick seeking business men much like himself – although still in their suits for whatever reason. All in all the usual Friday night crowd with him still grinning in their midst.

      The queue shuffled forward and Jan popped his head to one side to count the number of people between himself and the red ropes and bouncers. The scene ahead was one from time immemorial; the scowls, the archaic and ineffectual piece of braid… The only difference being that the monolithic doormen now carried throat mics and barcode readers. A trio of them stood a few feet away, waving spiralled red lazers over punter’s ID cards and muttering either to each other or to their control centre.

      Jan thrust a hand into the pocket of his overcoat and pulled out his wallet. Most of the people around him were doing the same, drunkenly fiddling with catches and clasps in order to retrieve their cards. It was then that the commotion started.

      “You’re barred.” A simple statement. No malice, no sense of job satisfaction, just fact.

      “Awww cumm-on. It was just a class two. All I did was go for a piss behind a lorry.” A gentle ripple of amusement at this. “Cumm-on, just this once, huh?”

      “Sez ‘ere national three year bar. You’re not coming in sunshine. The gun sez no.” The doorman gave a cautionary wave of the barcode reader. “Now if you’d be kind enough to step aside, we’ve got a club to run.”

      “Awww cumm…” In one fluid motion the doorman unhooked the rope and nodded to a companion who then slipped a leather clad thumb inside the cheek of the complainant. Jan had never seen such a technique employed before, but the effect was instantaneous. With complete control of the protestant’s head the bouncer gently began to manoeuvre him to one side. Unfortunately, for the rest off the queue, one of the man’s flailing arms set off a sudden domino effect. The next in line stepped back, the step turned into a stagger and, before he knew it, Jan was laying on the pavement amid a pile of bodies.

      There was scrabble of hands as those sprawling retrieved cards and half opened wallets and purses, before pushing, pulling and – in the case of the most inebriated – clawing their way back onto their feet. Two of the bouncers were immediately on hand to dust the nearest down before placating everyone involved by doubling their efforts with the scanners. The result was Jan being borne up on a wave of punters and quickly swept inside. The last thing he heard as he sped past the tacky gold posts was the third doorman saying “See what you’ve done there, prick? Just turned your three year ban into a five year one haven’t ya?”

*****

      The drugs were gone, the pavement before him deserted and the sky an orange purple shot through with the first spokes of a cyan dawn. Jan’s knees complained with every step and his back felt bruised. It wasn’t like him to dance, but the allure of Miss Jaleff from the auditors was enough to make him do a lot of foolish things. So dance he did and now, as he approached the front door to his apartment block, he silently suffered.

      He blinked once to focus on the keypad to the side of the overly wide and ancient portal, and then punched in his access code with instinctual dabs of one thumb. There was a buzz, and then a click and he was through onto the black and white tiles of a lobby that smelled exactly like all other lobbies. Jan ignored the mustiness and carefully climbed the four flights of steps to his front door rummaging for his wallet as he went.

      He slid his ID card through the wall-mounted reader and shouldered the door. Nothing happened. He swiped the card again, and this time shoved his open palm against the heavy grained wood. Again nothing. He woozily peered at the magnetic strip and realised it was impossible to see any kind of defect or grease mark in this light. He licked a finger anyway and began to massage the plastic before wiping it clean on his thigh.

      Ever since their introduction a percentage of the cards had been selectively faulty, and Jan was increasingly convinced that his was one of these. “Some isolated cases of intermittent failure”, was how the spokespeople and spin doctors put it, but “a temporary glitch that would soon be irradicated thanks to the introduction of the latest printing process”. Bollocks, all of it.

      Jan slid the cleaned plastic back through and instantly realised his mistake. Three failed scans would immediately lock the security latch into place, meaning… Jan frantically scrabbled to retrieve his keys before shoving the familiar sliver of metal into its home. The latch turned but the door held firm.

      “Shit,” he whispered and then thought for a moment about his predicament. “Shit!” Louder this time.

      He could have over-ridden the reader, used his keys, nipped inside and punched his security code into the apartment’s central processor. But, instead, he stood there like an idiot and swiped his card three times. Now, at – he peered down at his watch – 5am he was properly locked out.

      “Shipp you fuckwit.”

      Jan stepped back and took a long disgruntled look at his door. He glanced left down the dark corridor and wondered if the Fairlings were in, and how they’d react to a clubbed out Jan leaning on their buzzer at five in the morning. He looked right. The Wollenskys. He’d never had any dealings with them, except the odd passing nod on the stairs. Which left him two options. Wake the Fairlings up, climb from their balcony onto his own and pray that he’d left the sliding doors unlocked. Or, head down the local SecCom station for an hour or two of form filing and a hefty fine as a chaser. He ran a hand down his careworn brow in an attempt to smooth the lines there, and failed. Was there no other way out of this?

      He’d heard tales of forgers who could cook up a perfectly acceptable replica for a fraction of the official penalty. All it took, though, was one diligent member of the constabulary with a state of the art hand scanner and you’d be facing a criminal sentence within seconds. Then there were the rumours that, for a price, certain people could get you a completely fresh start, if that’s what you were after. New card, new ID, everything. The only stipulation being whether your conscience could deal with the idea of someone, somewhere missing (at best) an eye and a finger (at worst) the rest of their lives.

      But these were just daydreams, idle displacement activity to dodge the cold, dark reality that he wasn’t getting any closer to his bed. Jan sighed, swallowed his pride and reluctantly walked across to the Failings’ front door.

      “What? Who is it?” The second try finally got a response on the intercom from a groggy sounding Mrs Fairling.

      “It’s me Mrs Fairling. Jan Shipp, your next door neighbour.”

      “Jan who?”

      “Jan Shipp. Look, is Ralph – I mean Mr Fairling – is he home?”

      “No, my husband’s not home. Now go away.”

      “Wait Mrs Fairling, you don’t understand. It’s Jan Shipp, your neighbour. I’ve…

      “Go away.” And with that the intercom went dead leaving Jan alone in a corridor filled with early morning shadows and silence.

      He stared at the intercom, willing it back into life, and then at the buzzer, in an attempt to summon enough bloody mindedness to press the thing again.

      In the end he stepped away and moved back towards his own door, certain that something karmic was under way, that he was now paying for his earlier highs via a series of universal balancing lows. Perhaps he was destined to go to the authorities. Perhaps he should just get his credit card out and surrender the fine. One thousand pounds, for what? For being an idiot.

      Just then, a dim light leaked into the corridor and the wiry head of Mr Wollenski thrust into view.

      “Who’s there shouting at this time in the morning?” The old man’s eyes were bright and confrontational despite his obvious frailty.

      “Um…” Jan mumbled, somehow shamed at being discovered like this.

      “What are you saying?” The retort from Mr Wollenski was almost a shout itself.

      “It’s your neighbour, Mr Wollenski. Jan Shipp.”

      “So what are you doing out here in the dark? Get yourself inside.”

      “I can’t.”

      “Why ever not?”

      “My card.” Jan apologetically waved the offending article, “There seems to be something wrong with it.”

      The old man appraised him with a tired but astute stare, his eyes moving in and out of the shadows of his unkempt brows as he rocked gently from one foot to the other. Jan noticed a pair of shoes adorning the Mr Wollenski’s indistinct form and found himself puzzled by the choice of footwear.

      “Did I wake you?”

      “No, no my boy,” The old man seemed to be warming to him, “I always wake early these days. My wife, she sleeps. I, however, get restless.”

      Jan moved a pace towards the dark figure and realised that he was fully dressed as if ready to go out for a stroll. His black waistcoat lay pressed against a crisp white shirt, and some kind of close fitting cap perched towards the back of his head.

      “Have you just got back from somewhere as well?” A stupid question, but Jan was determined to keep this one route to salvation open as long as he could.

      Mr Wollenski gave a clipped laugh, “Yes, like you I have been drinking and dancing and chasing the ladies all night long. Now, what are you planning to do about that card of yours, eh?”

      “I was hoping I could climb from your balcony onto my own and see if I was smart enough to leave the back door unlocked. That’s the only option I’ve got, other than heading down the nearest SecCom station, or trying to break in through the front.”

      “You know how well made these doors are?” Mr Wollenski starred incredulously, “You know what it would take to break one of these things down?” He patted his own doorframe, “You’d make enough noise to wake the entire building, let alone my wife.”
Jan shrugged dejectedly. He was out of ideas.

      “I’m sorry my boy, but I can’t help you.”

      “But Mr Wollenski…”

      “I can’t help you,” The old man continued, cutting Jan short, “because today is the Sabbeth. I can, however, invite you in. Once you’re inside I might then take it upon myself to open the balcony doors to sample the morning air. This I can do. Possibly.”

      Jan looked at the wry smile on the old man’s face and gratefully smiled back.

      “Thank you,” he said.

      Mr Wollenski simply nodded an acknowledgement and then stepped back inside his apartment. Jan followed.

******

      The dim and cramped hallway – less cluttered, but almost exactly like his own – finally opened out into a well-lit kitchen. Jan squinted slightly against the light and looked down at the sliver of plastic in his hand. What the hell was wrong with the thing? He tilted it slightly to reduce the glare on the fascia and as soon as he did, he wished he hadn’t. A stranger’s face stared unappolagetically back at him.

      He read the name. Paul Reynor. Disbelieving he read it again, hoping beyond hope that it might magically transform into his own name, his own face. But Reynor remained, implacable to Jan’s rising sense of dislocation.

      How on Earth did he end up with this man’s card? Images of the tussle outside the club sprang unbidden to the forefront of his mind – an unconscious upwelling as explanation. He tried to recall the faces of those he’d seen around him, but only ended up stumbling through mental library filled with blurred images.

      “You okay?” Mr Wollenski’s form emerged from the relative dimness of the living room,

      “The balcony doors are this way. But, then, you know that already don’t you. Can’t imagine there are any differences between our two apartments, eh?”

      “No, not really.” Jan’s reply was distracted. He automatically followed the beckoning old man into another minimalistically furnished room, and felt his face deadpan as his mind struggled with a rush of incomprehension. What was he going to do now? He’d never heard of anyone accidentally ending up with someone else’s ID card. Losses and crippling fines, yes, but not this.

      Mr Wollenski stood in front the open balcony doors and took an exaggerated breath in.

      “Ah, the air morning air is always good. Although I sometimes wonder if there are now enough hours in the night to truly let the city shake its pollution.”

      Jan moved alongside him and took in the view. The sky was already starting to brighten and a few staggered lights in the houses opposite gave a greater sense of depth to the cityscape. The old man had fallen silent, caught in some personal reverie, and Jan, with no better idea about what to do next, stepped out onto the concrete platform.

      As with everything else in the Wollenski’s house, the balcony was completely free of detritus. He looked across the small divide to the acclimated crap stacked by his own back door and, again, felt a momentary pang of shame. He was so obvious. A slob, an idiot and, what his mother still called, a gadabout. He stretched his right leg first over the Wollenski’s railing and then his own, then turned and looked back.

      “Thank you Mr Wollenski.”

      “I’ll wait and make sure you get in.” The old man, half in/half out of his living room waved encouragingly as Jan shifted his weight and dropped onto his side of the divide.

      One of his plastic chairs had fallen over in the wind, and Jan had to slot it onto its partner in order to get to the double doors. The seat’s surface was caked with something that looked like a dusty mould, or possibly some kind of lichen, that left a green stain across his palms. He looked for somewhere to wipe them, then realised that he could wash as soon as he got inside. He tried the handle. There was a reassuring click as the numerous locking mechanisms in the frame gave way and the door swung outwards.

      “I’m in,” Jan shouted more for himself than the benefit of the waiting Mr Wollenski.

      “Good, good.” Came the faint reply followed by the muffled lump of the old man’s doors closing.

*****

      Jan resealed himself in his own personal haven, threw his jacket and wallet onto the kitchen table and began scrubbing his hands in the nearby sink. He rinsed, looked up through the window in front of him and stared at the waking world outside. Slices of orange were seeping through purpling cloud that hung above the silhouetted buildings opposite. The structures were strangely darkening, their details fading, their outlines becoming more pronounced against the warming sky.

      He’d just picked up a grubby looking towel, and was half way through drying himself, when a horrendous splintering sound began to emanate from the hallway.

      Adrenaline laced through his system, countering his obvious fatigue. He quickly scooted through the still dark living room to investigate and was puzzled and shocked at the sight that confronted him. His door appeared to be bending inwards, bowed in the middle as if a tremendous pressure were building on the other side. Another loud crack of complaint spoke of reinforced plastic being torn asunder, and Jan began to take an unsteady step back towards the living room. Suddenly there was a huge thump and the door leapt towards him down the corridor. Jan turned and fled the conflagration, but only managed a couple of feeble paces before something heavy smashed into his back and pinned him to the floor.

      “You didn’t want to do that.”

      Jan, assuming that he’d been hit by some form of debris, was confused. Debris didn’t talk, unless he’d just received a blow to the head.

      “Lights!” said a second, more distant voice, “Get the lights!”

*****

      One of Jan’s eyes burned in the new glow while only a hazy red tinged with white was visible in the other. His one good iris quickly adjusted and he was able to focus on a lost and fluff strewn coin hiding somewhere beneath his sofa. He was obviously on the floor with one eye pushed into the carpet, hence the partial loss of vision. He tried to get up and failed. There was the pressing weight of something vast on his back and something smaller, yet equally as weighty, stuck to one side of his head. He groaned involuntarily.

      “Shut it.” The thing pinning him to the ground spoke again and Jan realised, from the cadence, that it was a man. But that didn’t make any sense at all. Why would someone, some ‘man’ break into his house and then sit on him? Unless…

      “Clear?” The voice above him asked in tone that was almost indistinguishable from a statement.

      “Clear,” came one voice.

      “Clear,” came another.

      The next thing Jan knew the weight had vanished from behind him and he was standing on his feet in front of two expressionless men in full SecCom assault gear.

      “Just you is it?” The two men in front of him were identical in appearance, equipment and clothes and it was impossible for Jan to tell who had asked the question. The grip of the third officer, currently holding Jan by the shirt collar, tightened.

      “I don’t know.”

      “You don’t know what?” This obviously came from the policeman on the left as his face guard jiggled up and down in time to the words.

      “You don’t know whether you’re the only one breaking and entering this apartment?” the officer continued, “Or you don’t know what the fucking question was? Would you like me to repeat it?”

      Breaking and entering? The revelation gave Jan a swift punch to his solar plexus and caused a cascade of unease to tumble through his bowels.

      They think I’m a robber, he thought “No, sorry. You see this is my apartment. I’m Jan Shipp. I live here.”

      “Where’s your ID card?” The one on the left asked and immediately began looking about the living room as if he might find it lying about somewhere.

      Jan, in a fresh wave of panic, stared directly at the kitchen table and the discarded wallet that contained the ID card of one Paul Raynor.

      “You don’t need my ID card. Look I’ve got loads of pictures, evidence that…”

      “What we’ve got here,” said the one on the left holding up some kind of glowing tablet PC, “Is a disturbance of the peace complaint, attempted false access to this residence using an invalid ID card and a report of someone breaking and entering via the rear of the building. That,” and with this the officer pressed the device right up against Jan’s face, “is more than enough reason for us to lock you down for all of next week and fine you onto welfare. Brown?”

      “Sir?” It was the one behind Jan that replied.

      “Hold the fucker tight. Simpson?”

      “Yes sir?”

      “Go see if you can find his card. Actually, Mr ‘Shipp’ is it? Fancy saving us all a lot of time by telling us where it is?”

      “I… I… I really don’t know.” Brown began to move towards the kitchen. “That’s why I climbed in through the back. It’s lost. Look just ask Mr Wollenski next door, he’ll explain.”

      “I’ve got a wallet here sir.” Brown quickly opened it up.

      “Hey! Are you allowed to do that?” But Jan’s protests fell on deaf ears.

      Brown’s nameless superior nodded once in the direction of Simpson, and a crushing force of the man’s hand settled itself across Jan’s throat. Through watering eyes he then watched in horror as Brown retrieved a compact card reader from his utility belt and slotted the ID card into it.

      “Sez Paul Reynor here sarge. Nothing about a Shipp.”

      “Any record?”

      “Yes sarge. Two counts of civil disobedience.”

      Jan did his best to protest, but only managed a strangulated sentence in which the words ‘am’ and ‘Shipp’ were intelligible.

      The sergeant fractionally shook his masked head and said, “Let him go Simpson. Step away.”

      A surge of relief washed through Jan the instant the third police man relinquished his hold. Somehow ‘sarge’ had been astute enough to figure out what was going on. There’d still be a fine, sure. But at least he wouldn’t be arrested.

      “Picture doesn’t look like ‘im, though.” Brown handed the card over to his superior who looked from it, to Jan, then back again.

      “Zap ‘im Simpson. It’s way too late in our shift for all this Agatha Christie shit.”

      Somewhere behind him there was a click followed by a whirring/crackling sound and a bite-like pain in the back of his neck. Jan immediately fell stricken to the floor, his head swimming, fighting to retain awareness. Far above him two disembodied voices began to talk, one saying,

      “We’ll let he grunts on front desk sort it out,” while the other began a liturgical chant that ran,

      “You have the right to remain silent…” It was about then that the picture an sound quality finally gave out and Jan’s brain relinquished consciousness.

*****

      When he awoke, it remained dark. He blinked. Once… twice, and tried to get some sense of orientation, but the action only resulted in an ice crunching headache of industrial proportions. He shut his eyes and focused on the cool, hard object that was pressed against this left temple. He was lying down, that much feedback his body gave him gratis. As for where he was, or what had happened to him since he’d been knocked out, he had no idea. He tried opening one eye rather than both – this seemed to help – and saw that the room he was in, although dark, was not completely devoid of light. A thin and sickly grey illumination spilled from somewhere behind him, which then proceeded to lose its scant brilliance the nanosecond it encountered the chipped blue wall opposite. Jan shut the eye and breathed hard. What had happened? How had he ended up here lying here facing this badly decorated wall? He pressed a hand against the surface below him and prepared for the agony that would accompany propping himself up. Immediately a voice behind him said, “You awake?”

J      an froze. He remembered another voice talking behind him and the crushing force of a hand across his throat. He swallowed hard and the new, different voice continued.

      “Man, they zapped you good.”

      Jan quickly shoved off with his hand, went to slide away from this stranger and was surprised to find his legs slipping away under him until they dangled over a precipice. His assumption that he’d been laying on the floor had been wrong, but the one about the pain in motion had been right on the money. Sharp, fang-like shafts pinned his brain to his shoulders and a wave of nausea broke against his stomach sending bile-flavoured tendrils into his throat. He opened his eyes to a blur while his lungs struggled for fresh air.

      “Hey, easy fella. You don’t wanna be chucking yourself around like that after you’ve been zapped.”

      Jan blinked hard, once, twice and tried to orientate himself. He was sitting on a raised slab of steel; his feet suspended an inch from a dark, grey concrete floor. Registering the low risk nature of the drop, he hesitantly stood up, turned and surveyed his location and the owner of the voice.

      He was in a cell. Actually, he was in half a cell as a wall of bars had been erected to divide the already cramped area into two. To his right was another latticework of steel, only this one had a sliding door fixed into it.

      Jan shook his head, trying to clear it, and then woozily focused on the metal slab he had just left. It was a foldaway bunk that had been crudely welded onto the metal divider. An identical bed was mirrored within the opposite pen and on it, his back to the rear wall, sat his fellow detainee.

      The broad hood of his sports top shaded the majority of his features, but Jan could still discern a prominent jaw covered in dark stubble, a toothsome grin and the mischievous glint of two intelligent eyes.

      “How you doin’ now?” The hooded head nodded, “Dizziness’ll go soon, so will that feelin’ like you’re gonna gip your lunch. Probably breakfast for you, though, eh? You look like a night crawler rather than someone who got picked up mid morning.”

      “What?” Jan’s tongue felt like a fat grub caught under a log.

      “Well you were in here when I arrived, and they’ve given me lunch. So, I’m guessing your last meal must’ve been breakfast. What’d you get pulled in on?”

      “There’s a problem. With my ID card.”

      The figure leant forward from the wall and laughed. “Isn’t there always?”

      Jan put a shaky hand to his head and rubbed at a sore spot on his scalp. Flakes of something dry and hard caught beneath his fingers.

      “DNA test.” It was his neighbour again. “They’re supposed to do a mouth swab, but prefer to rip your hair out – adds to that all important sense of intimidation. How’s your backside feelin’?”

      Jan looked between the bars and gave the stranger the coolest appraisal he could muster in his current state. The young man’s smile widened and he pushed back his hood to reveal a cluster of crimson hair stripes that ran backwards across his scalp.

      “I mean, these SecCom guys get bored like you wouldn’t believe,” he continued. “I bet it wouldn’t be beyond one of ‘em to slip you some ‘baton rouge’ while you were out cold.”

      “And what makes you an authority on all of this?” Jan was beginning to dislike this interloper in what was easily turning out to be the worst day of his life.

      “I’ve been in before. Not this place, for sure, but plenty of places like it.”

      “And have you been ‘zapped’ to coin your term? Have you ever sampled the business end of a policeman’s night stick, so to speak?”

      Now it was the young man’s turn to dish out the cool appraisals. He tilted his head back slightly, half shut his eyes then burst out a raucous blast of laughter.

      “You’re good.” He managed in between his giggles. “You’re real good. I like you.”

      Jan started to pace up and down on his side of the bars, then stopped as he realised that there really wasn’t enough space for this kind of activity.

      “What’s your name boss?”

      “Jan,” Jan said in a quiet voice.

      “Pleased to meet you Jan. Tag’s Walon, but my given name’s Carl Taplin.” A paint stained hand extended through the bars. Jan shook it gingerly and was instantly grateful for this simple, friendly form of contact.

      There was a short silence and then Jan said, “So why are you here?”

      “For being politically active.”

      “How active?” Jan felt his wariness spike again. The last thing he needed was an association with someone headed to a detention camp.

      “Relax, I’m not one of those spurious terrorists the government likes to make a very public example of. I’m just a painter.”

      “A painter? But painters don’t get arrested.”

      “They do if they use official buildings as a canvas.” Another bolt of laughter burst from Carl then died away, his head shaking in mock disbelief.

      “A graffitist then.”

      “I prefer,” Carl said, adopting a comic pompous tone that stood at odds with his street slurred accent, “the term ‘spray agitator’. Although I approve of your use of the Italian. At least you don’t get a picture of some shitty little scumbag spraying his name, only for some other shitty little scumbag to come along and spray theirs over the top.”

      “And you don’t do that?”

      “No way. My stuff’s different by design. Plus the fact that it has somethin’ more to say than ‘I was here’.”

      “Like…?”

      “Like the piece that got me arrested. Stencil work. A tightly suited businessman swaps his briefcase with an old lady’s carrier bag of shopping. She’s looking back over her shoulder as if they’re both up to something illicit. Something unsavoury…” Carl’s grin was almost radiant.

      “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

      “What you should be asking yourself, Jan, is what it means to you. I just get off on the fact that it has the power to disturb, to unbalance. One minute park railings, the next home made spears carried by the mob.”

      “You’re a fucking revolutionary!”

      “Someone has to be. The more politics shifts to the right, the greater the unrest at the bottom of the pile. The only spark needed is the revelation that there are more of us than there are of them.”

      Jan looked frantically into the corners of the cell. “They’re probably monitoring us right now. Me and ‘the revolutionary’, having a chat about politics. I’m never getting out of here again, am I?”

      Carl refused to answer and, instead, just filled the brief pause with his pervasive grin.

      “You’re wrong, by the way.” Jan continued.

      “’bout what?”

      “About the shift to the right upsetting the people at the bottom of the pile. Look at Nazism, whole lot of workers happy with the new order there.”

      “And a whole lot of dead Jews.” Carl paused. “Jan, the bottom of the pile is never where people like you believe it is. If there’s a lesson to be learned from that god awful part of history, it’s organise quickly, organise well. Anyway, you’re wrong yourself.”

      “How so?”

      “They don’t monitor the cells. Just the interview and interrogation rooms.”

      “And you know this because…”

      “I’m a government plant placed to radicalise borderline cases like yourself.” Again that radiant grin, “Nah, I’m just messin’ with ya. I’ve got a friend in the surveillance industry that ran a few government contracts. He used to sign me up to the odd trade show. An enlightening experience, I can tell…”

      A heavy clunk on the external door silenced them both. There was some scratching, then a metallic fumbling and finally another clunk. The door swung outwards and two tall SecCom officers stepped into the slim gap between the door proper and the sliding one that opened into Jan’s pen.

      Carl instantly became agitated, his voice rising to a near shout, his accent thickening.

      “Don’t tell ‘em nothing, man. Even when they squirt contact gel on your nuts and slap them electrodes on, you keep stum. And make sure you ask for a fuckin’ lawyer, first thing.”

      “Shut it daddy’s boy.” Was all the first guard said as he unlocked Jan’s door. His face was passive, instantly forgettable and focused only on the task in hand. Uniforms were obviously designed to make everyone look the same, but these two were indistinguishable. Compulsory buzz cuts, peaked caps pulled down to shadow the eyes and high-laced boots shined like polished obsidian.

      The first said nothing else. Just slid open the door, stood to one side and glared his intentions.

      “What?” Jan shouted, his frustration and anger finally breaking loose.

      “A difficult one.” Was all the other officer said, before moving one step towards his partner in support. The next move was obviously Jan’s and the fear of what being ‘difficult’ might actually entail, forced him to leave the relative safety of the pen.

      “Don’t worry,” the voice was Carl’s, calmer now, “You’ve done nothin’ wrong.”

      “I haven’t.” Jan said, before being roughly escorted through the reinforced steel door.

*****

      The punches, when they came, were like two flesh-coated pile drivers – a swift and decisive reply to his enquiry about the chance of seeing a solicitor.

      Jan hung now like a sack of body parts slung between the two guards; his toes turned in, his chest feeling tight and explosive, that ‘kicked in the nuts’ sensation aching its way from his anus to his heart. Below him the floor seemed to fly by, a cascade of grey that blurred in and out of focus as he laboured for breath. They halted while a door was opened. Then, after a bone rattling drop, Jan found himself sitting in a hard plastic chair facing a desk and a sinewy middle aged man beyond.

      His eyes would have been grey and watery had it not been for a thick dark ring that encircled both irises. Jan dropped his head, unable to ignore the burning sensation and focus for any great length of time. When he looked up again, the man had steepled his fingers in relaxed consideration.

      “Why am I here?” he said.

      Jan shook his head and gave a confused huff.

      “That would be your opening question, wouldn’t it Mr Reynor? What have I done to deserve the attention of the Metropolitan Security Commission? Or other, similar sentiments along such lines.” His voice was combination of nasal tones and clipped annunciation.

      “What you’ve done, you see, is enter into a dialogue where one has no right to exist. The voice of authority should be internalised, parental and one that the state and the law take up once you have flown the family roost. By deciding to question this inner voice of caution and control, you’ve ended up here. Do you understand?”

      Jan breathed deeply, then said, “Do you refine that speech,” he paused for more breath, “with every one who passes through here?”
The man’s cool smile came nowhere near his eyes. “Don’t mock me Mr Reynor.”

      “My name’s not Reynor. It’s Shipp.”

      The man leant forward and inspected some precisely positioned paperwork on his desk. For the first time, Jan became aware of the nameplate sitting directly in front of him. Questioner Doresh.

      “Not according to your file. It says here that you’re one Paul Reynor. You live at Flat 8a 135 Westberry Avenue, you’re up to date with your taxes and have no congenital illnesses listed within your immediate DNA profile. Despite these factors in your favour, you have been cautioned on two previous occasions for civil disobedience, and your blood test this morning showed high traces of cocaine. You also appear to have a proclivity towards unprotected intercourse and have visited a STD clinic twice in the past 18 months. All of which makes you a cause for concern.” Doresh looked up.

      “Is there a picture of me there?”

      “Yes,” The Questioner became suddenly animated, “There *is*. And yet it looks nothing like you. So my dilemma, you see, is do I add breaking an entering to Mr Raynor’s series of misdemeanours? Or identity theft to the previously well behaved Mr Shipp? Intriguing, isn’t it?”

      “Do you have my file there?”

      “You mean Mr Shipp’s? No, we’re still awaiting the arrival of that from records. We already seem to be at odds here, don’t we?” Doresh forced his face into another tepid smile. “What you need to realise, is that this is your one and only chance to explain yourself. From this point onwards you’ll simply be verifying aspects of this initial explanation. So what you need to do now is pause, collect your thoughts and tell me, in your own time, the events that led to you sitting before me now.”

      Jan leant forward in his chair and weirdly relished the shift of pain in his chest. He made eye contact with Doresh. This was one of those watershed moments, those infrequent points in life where he could either make a stand or acquiesce. What Doresh was actually asking was, are you a fighter? Jan knew that he wasn’t. He was more a schemer, the extractor of slow, calculated…. Who was he trying to fool? He was a marketing executive, a glorified salesman peddling drugs for a minor pharmaceutical company. If he made a political stand now, became occluded from public life by an endless spool of red tape, who would notice his passing? Who would protest? Who would mourn?

      He sighed, broke his stare with the Questioner and began to explain all the events of the previous evening.

      Doresh listened patiently. Occasionally he would ask for clarification on a point but, for the most part, he sat in an approximation of attentiveness. He showed particular interest in the exchanges between the arresting officers, but then returned to a more passive state of listening. When Jan had finished, Doresh said nothing. He merely sat in contemplation for a moment, as if weighing up the facts, and then lifted a finger to the touch screen that sat to one side of his desk. Immediately the door behind Jan opened and two SecCom officers – maybe the ones from before, maybe not – entered the room.

      “Take this idiot back to the cells and tell Jackson to sort out a fine and the correct paperwork for a replacement ID. Then tell him to get Brown on line one. This is the last time those pricks in Acquisition waste my time.” And with that Jan was removed, hoisted from his chair like a doll, his perspective a blur of half captured images until… The semi-familiar scene of a passing corridor established itself and his body involuntarily tensed ready for the body blows that never came.

      “Why did that guard call you Daddy’s boy?” Jan was lying on the pen’s bed, propped on one elbow. Behind him Carl sat, his back towards him, his legs dangling over the edge of the metal slab.

      “You what?”

      “When I was taken for questioning. Before I was told I was a waste of time. Before I had to fill out all this shit.” Jan looked at the stack of papers trapped under one hand and the blunt pencil held in the other. “The guard said, ‘shut it daddy’s boy’.”

      “So?”

      “So, what did he mean?”

      Carl’s shoulders slumped. “He meant my old man’s a minister and that, as long as he continues to put up with my ‘disruptive’ behaviour, it’s unlikely I’ll ever get prosecuted for my art.”

      “Your dad’s a member of the government?”

      “Yeah, but that doesn’t make what I’m doing here any less important. This isn’t just some stage I’m going through. I really do believe in what I, what we’re working towards. Look, give me your hand.” Carl spun himself round in place and again the paint stained fingers extended through the bars.

      Jan sat himself up and held his hand just short of the other’s. Carl pulled a wry face and then grabbed at and caught Jan’s wrist.

      “Yeah boy, it’s just like we’re married. Now shut your eyes, you need to visualise this.”

      “What?” Jan tensed his arm ready to pull away.

      “No, seriously, you’ve got to trust me on this.”

      “Why should I? And, come to think of it, why are you so trusting of me? Perhaps I’m an officer, in disguise. A… a… what is it? Deep cover operative.” Carl stifled his laugh into a snigger.

      “You ever meet a plain clothes policeman?” Jan shook his head, “See, if you had, you’d know that they’re all terrible actors. You, if you are faking it, would be the best I’ve ever come across. And anyway direct infiltration’s not SecCom’s style. They prefer to target the most vulnerable members of a group and then use a combination of bribes and coercion.” Carl paused and slightly eased his grip on Jan’s wrist. “Talking of which, you got any kids? A girlfriend? Stop me if I’m being too personal. Wife? Any immediate family?”

      Jan smiled despite himself, “My dad’s in a veterans’ home on the outskirts of town. I usually get round to visiting him about once a fortnight. As for my mum, I haven’t seen her in years.”

      “Good. Now shut your eyes.”

      “Can’t we just write or draw it or something?”

      “No. You need to understand it. Feel it.”

      Jan, suddenly a boy waiting for an injection again, screwed his eyes tight shut and winced as Carl placed a finger onto his palm. The small, squat figure with his arms pressed between the bars paid no heed to the amateur dramatics. His only focus was the symbol that he methodically traced time and time again across his palm.

      “Sorry. I’m not getting it and I don’t really understand what you’re trying to achieve.”

      “Don’t open your eyes,” Carl said, his voice a flat disembodied tone, “Just relax into it. You’ll see.”

      Jan did his best to relax and translate the senses from his palm into some form of mental image. A semicircular stroke, two parallel straight lines… An image burned itself across the dark and blank canvas inside his head.

      “I’ve got it, I’ve got it. It looks like a…”

      “Hey, slow down. That’s always the first perception, but look at it again. Turn it in your mind’s eye like one of those old optical illusions. Do you see the real image beneath?”

      “Oh wow. Yeah. That’s so clever. How’d you ever come up with that?” Carl stopped his drawing and pulled his hands back through the bars.

      “I didn’t,” he said.

      Even after the contact between them was broken, Jan left his hand extended, eyes still shut, a closed mouth grin plastered across his face.

      “Do me a favour, will you?” Carl slid his way back down the bunk until he rested, once again, against the far wall. His movements shook Jan from his reverie.

      “Depends on what you’re asking.”

      “Regardless of where your home is, walk the length of Commercial Road for me when they finally kick you out of here.”

      “What?”

      “Commercial Road. You know where that is, don’t you? Runs outside here, stretches all the way down to the commercial district…”

      “Yeah I know where it is.”

      “Walk it for me, will ya?” Carl hunched himself forward slightly as if to emphasise his request.

      “It’s not the way I usually go…”

      “Why not think of getting arrested as the first of many new experiences. Just walk it.”

      “Okay, okay.” Jan’s reply coincided with the lights going off in the cell and, for a moment both men sat in silence while their eye’s adjusted to the gloom.

      “What,” Jan’s voice suddenly sounded too loud, “do you think the time is?”

      “Around 10 I’d say.”

      “Really?”

      “Yeah really.”

      “Do you think they’ll let me out tomorrow?”

      “Who knows. They are, quite literally, a law unto themselves.”

      “How about you?” Jan felt rather than saw the other man shift on his bunk.

      “Depends.”

      “On what?”

      “On how long my father thinks it’ll take before I’ve ‘learned my lesson’.”

      They talked for a while longer, trivialities, small pockets of fact about each other as they killed time, waiting for the kind of tiredness that allows a person to sleep on cold, hard reinforced steel.

      The last thing Jan heard was Carl mumbling something about park railings and spears, and then…

*****

      They came for him about an hour later. Dragged him from the pen before he could properly wake up. He looked back at the receding cell door in the hope of seeing Carl, thought he might have heard him shout something, but it was too late. The lights were starlight sparkles in the underwater haze of his eyes, the men escorting him implacable and mute.

      He clumsily signed a his name a dozen times at the reception desk, pocketed his few, scattered possessions – useless keys, his battered wallet, a couple of crumpled business cards – and then staggered back onto the street.

      It was about 2 o’clock in the morning and the city was as subdued as when he left it; the orange tinted cloud cover seeming to deaden the noise of occasional cabs, the odd solitary figure moving quickly from one friendly pool of light to the other.

      Jan shivered. A chill leaked deep into his bones and he found himself wondering whether two-day grime could somehow undermine his jacket’s ability to insulate. Was dirt, was sweat less insulating than soap powder, than cleanliness? At least the police station had been warm.

      He scuttled over to the nearest street corner and scanned both sides of the road in hope of locating a cash machine. Nothing. Not even a friendly corner shop bathed in bleak white neon.

      Where could he go? He was unfamiliar with the area and had only a vague idea about which direction was the quickest home. He stamped his feet, took in the imposing facade of the SecCom office and then noticed the street name riveted to one of its walls. Commercial Road. Carl’s words immediately reverberated in his mind. Surely he hadn’t expected him to walk this road at 2am.

      Jan thought of discarding the conversational memory, and was about to risk a shortcut in the general direction of home when Carl’s grinning face came back to him. Of course the capricious little fucker had expected him to walk this street in the cold and the dark. He could imagine him right now grinning away beneath his hood. Or perhaps he was in a debriefing room, with Duresh congratulating him on another successful undercover operation. No. No, that just didn’t sit right. With a sigh Jan wrapped his arms around himself and considered which direction to go. The route out of town looked somehow darker, less inviting and took him even further out of his way. So then, the commercial district it was.

      Awareness of his surroundings became more and more sporadic as the journey lengthened and his tiredness dug in. If Carl had some hidden intention to this detour, some higher purpose then Jan was proving the most lowly of investigators. He was washed out and shattered, he was half lost and even the anger and indignity of the day before couldn’t generate a spark in this pervading cold. Then he looked up and saw it.

      There, tucked back from passing street front – currently a run of uniform trade buildings and what looked like warehouses – was a door. And on this door was the symbol that Carl had described on his hand.

      Jan quickly crossed the street marvelling, as he went, at how much more impressive the optical illusion was when rendered in red paint. Not that it was obvious; not that he would have or should have noticed it if casually passing. Here he was, though, standing before it wondering who or what lay beyond. Probably nothing and no one at this time in the morning, but that hardly seemed to matter.

      His palm suddenly started to itch. He looked down and saw that he had made a fist, felt Carl’s traces burning across the inside, felt a tingling shift take place somewhere just below his heart. He raised the fist high, took a step forward and knocked.

— THE END —

(Copyright © 2005 by J. E. Bryant. All Rights Reserved.)