Brent Black made a fist, engaged the biometrically encoded Smartchip ring on the index finger of his right hand with the ATM receptor, and started to key in his access code.
A few moments earlier he had rounded the corner and headed for the Bank of Protos, stepping over the legs of a beggar in his path. The dejected character was emaciated and filthy, flies buzzing around him excitedly, a bowl with a pitiful collection of coins at his feet, shivering as the sun dipped below the buildings opposite, drops of rain water running off his downcast head, dripping from his chin. Brent paused for a heartbeat, not tempted to make a contribution, just briefly considering giving the man an introductory card with the name of his nearest menial employment agency. Today, however, was one of the most important of his life, and such an action would make an infinitesimal contribution to his overall wealth and success. So he passed him by and headed for the bank, as the rain grew heavier.
As Brent continued to key in his complex keycode, he smiled to himself. He was using a platinum ATM, reserved for privileged customers only, and had consequently jumped the queues for the other machines (it had been his own idea to have them ranked in that manner, hence his smug grin). Back down the sidewalk, the beggar lifted his face imploringly to the passers-by, and the unmistakable features of an oriental background became visible. Met by predictable indifference to his plight, he reached out a shaking hand and pointed towards where Brent stood. A fly left its orbit about the beggar's head and shot off towards the bank. As he was about to press the penultimate key, the insect flew at Brent's eye, causing him to blink and press a 2, instead of a 3. The machine's failsafe kicked in immediately, the screen slammed shut and the ring (along with his finger and hand) was gripped by the activation of a group of security bolts. He knew what came next and pulled his finger out of the ring, painfully scraping his knuckle, drawing blood in the process. The old three-attempts rule at keying in pin numbers had been abandoned by B.L.A.C.K. Co., in favour of the added security of a one-shot access code system. Everyone knew that great care had to be employed, although the cheaper the ring, the smaller the code and the less the quantity of money that you would be permitted to withdraw per day. If the incorrect code was entered, then the screen closed and the ring was rejected and invalidated. However, as an extra security feature for the top-end platinum ATMs, the ring was gripped, such that a pair of padded handcuffs would fire out and capture the person, whom the machine would naturally assume was a felon. This all happened in a flash, but he was quick and watched as the auto-cuffs flailed about ineffectually. The security guards ran out of the bank and straight towards him.
'Hold it right there,' one of them bellowed.
'I'm not going anywhere,' replied Brent, tersely. 'I need some cash immediately! Cancel the failsafe, get my ring out and I'll rekey the code.'
'As far as we are concerned, you are not the rightful owner of the ring.'
'Look, would I be standing here arguing with you if I was a thief? How would I know the access code and how would the machine have opened if the biometric check hadn't confirmed my identity?'
'That's as maybe, Sir. However, we'll need to run the biometrics again, as well as inputting all of your passwords, user names and client-sensitive identification numbers .'
'Oh bloody hell...fine, let's get on with it then!'
It was tipping it down by now and Brent was getting soaked. The security guards marched him past the other machines, one each side, and reached the door just as the steel shutters slammed down.
'Bank's closed for the day.'
'What do you mean? Open it at once!'
'We can't do that, I'm afraid. Rules is rules,' came the emphatic reply.
'Right, let's go round the back and go in through the staff exit.'
'We don't have the authority to allow a non-bank staff member through the staff door, plus it's a one-way door which only permits exit movements once the bank is closed.'
'Oh great.' Brent realised that perhaps they'd overdone some of the modern aspects of bank security and he resolved to amend things later. 'Give me the phone number of your superiors and we'll sort this out. I've got to get back to my hotel, get changed into some dry clothes and then get to an extremely important meeting!'
'I can't tell you the phone number Sir, I'm afraid it's...'
'Yeah, yeah I know,' he interrupted, 'against the rules. I probably know them better than you do. Here.' He handed his mobile phone to the guard. 'You enter the number and I'll talk to them, okay?'
'This is highly irregular, I should check first.'
'Look,' his patience was wearing thin, 'you wanna keep your job? Just dial the number. Help me get this sorted out quickly and I can guarantee you a promotion. Okay?'
After a lifetime of subservience, the brighter of the two guards recognised the tone of his voice, as being one that you take orders from. He dialled the number and handed the phone back. Brent was placed in a stacking queue and winced at what he heard.
'Thank you for phoning the Bank of Protos. Your call is important to us. Please hold the line and we will connect you as soon as an operative becomes available to direct your call to the department you require. You are currently number eight in the queue.'
He turned to look back down the road, just in time to see an elderly man getting out of a taxi and the hire light flick back on. He killed the call and grabbed the guard by his arm.
'Right. I don't have time for this crap. We're getting in that taxi and going back to my hotel. We'll phone the bank again from there, while I'm getting changed. Come on then!' The security guard shrugged his shoulders at his colleague and followed Brent, as he snatched open the door and flung himself inside.
'Take us to the Protos Hilton. As fast as possible.'
The cab driver was momentarily phased as the second guard clambered in next to him, but a fare was a fare. 'Certainly, Sir. That will be 20 dollars please.'
Another innovation that had stemmed from B.L.A.C.K. Co. (having taken over the main taxi firm in Protos, two years previously) was to spray the cabs gold and ensure that the customer never got ripped off. However, business was business and they also made sure that the driver never got bumped for the fare. That meant a pay-in-advance policy.
'Pay the man!' By now both guards were under Brent's authoritarian spell and the one in the front did as he was bid. 'I've just remembered, I've got some travellers cheques back at the hotel. I'll pay you what I owe you, plus a fat bonus and a recommendation. Let's go.'
As the taxi sped off, the beggar stood up and shook off the worst of the rain. He brought a tiny remote control unit up in front of his weather-beaten, care-worn face, and fiddled around with it. The electronic flies in his orbit lined up into perfect formation, and one-by-one, landed back in his tattered shirt pocket. As he set off down the sidewalk, the merest hint of a smile played on his lips. With any luck, honour may yet be restored.
Brent Black's tough upbringing had left him with a heart as dark as his name, which had ironically been given to him - at the age of six - by the singularly compassionate family who had found him living down a side alley, living off scraps from their bins, like a mangy dog. His survival tactics had rendered his conscience null and void, turning his unique abilities into an asset and his single-mindedness into a devastatingly effective weapon against other people's weaknesses. By the age of twenty two he had offices across half the world, with deputy directors running each one for him; an empire built on the stooping backs of misfortune. His first takeover was an ailing Japanese electronics company and was more successful than he could have possibly imagined. With growing confidence, Brent Black set sail on the sea of global commerce, his parent company the flagship of a pirate fleet, businesses falling to their attacks; vulnerability succumbing to the cutlass of immorality. So it was that he came to be in the city of Protos. He was about to put the last piece of a plan into action which, if successful, would lead to his ultimate control of the entire world's communication systems. No-one would ever know who was really at the pinnacle of this ghostly empire, but the overall effect would be to make him the most powerful individual on the planet.
Back in the taxi, Brent called up his accomplice. 'Hi Bruce. Things have taken a bit of a swerve this end. Looks like I'm gonna be late for this one, but hey, you're my main man, so if you have to start without me, just go right ahead...yeah...okay...sounds fine. Listen, I'll be with you as soon as I can...yep...bye.' He ended the call and jammed the phone back in his pocket; not noticing that the lock-out symbol had come up on it's screen.
As they pulled up outside the Protos Hilton, the doorman (resplendent in his gold-braided finery and top hat) opened the taxi door for them and was somewhat alarmed as Brent's sodden form flew past him, pursued by security guards from the Bank of Protos. They catapulted through the ornate revolving doors and headed straight for the lift. Punching the button for the prestigious top floor he wasn't about to hold the lift for the couple whom they'd just pushed to one side, and barely noticed their objections as the doors slid shut. It took several minutes to reach his floor and Brent burst out of the lift, squelching off down down the corridor towards the best room in the place, followed by the guards. He fished the keycard out of his inside jacket pocket and plunged it into the electronic lock. Nothing. He tried again.
'Oh for Pete's sake! Doesn't anything work in this damn city?' He kicked the door in a fit of pique. An alarm, on the wall above them, burst into life.
Within moments a turbo express lift expelled an armed guard from its midst, and he drew his gun as he set off down the corridor towards them, a steely expression on his face. He stopped dead in his tracks. What he saw made no sense whatsoever. A bedraggled figure was advancing on him, furiously brandishing a keycard, two bank security guards hot on his heels. He holstered the gun and waited to see what would happen next.
'This is totally unacceptable!' shouted Brent. 'I practically own the executive suite and this damn thing...' he flicked the offending card at the man, spinning it like a playing card; it ricocheted off the lapel of his uniform, '...is bloody useless. We redesigned the whole system five years ago, so that this sort of thing wouldn't happen. Who's in charge of keycard function verification in this place?'
This guard wasn't so easily intimidated. He pulled a black box, the size of a cigarette packet, from a pouch on his belt, patiently bent down to retrieve the card and inserted it into the box. A disturbingly high-pitched squeal emanated from it and a red light flashed enthusiastically on its cover.
'I think you had better come with me, Sir.'
'What? Look, you've got a master keycard in your top left inside pocket, so just open the door, okay?'
The man paused for a second, wondering how Brent knew the precise location of the master, before recovering his composure and returning to well-trained protocol.
'I'm afraid I can't do that, Sir.' He looked over Brent's shoulder to address the other two. 'What is your purpose here?'
'About half and hour ago this...gentleman, attempted to withdraw some money from our platinum ATM. He input an invalid access code and we arrested him. He claimed to be staying here and to have traveller's cheques in his room, as well as proof of identity. He owes me 20 dollars for the taxi fare from the bank and we still need to speak to our senior security officer in order to confirm release and validity of his platinum Smartchip ring, as well as trying to verify his story.'
Brent watched the exchange open-mouthed, shook his head in disbelief and shouted, 'Open the bloody door and I'll prove to you who I am. Now!'
The hotel security man looked from him to the bank guard, shrugged his shoulders, took the master keycard from his inside pocket, pulled it to the full stretch of the chain (which attached it to his micro-mesh lightweight armoured shirt) slid it through the lock, waited for the clunk and green light, shoved the door inwards and gestured for Brent to enter; raising on eyebrow sardonically towards the bank guards.
Mr Black pushed rudely past them and thundered into his room, swung back a silver-framed photograph of an aerial shot of Protos and reached for the combination pad on the concealed safe. The door was ajar! He wrenched it open and grappled around inside, helplessly. It was empty.
'I've been robbed! Call yourself security? Right, I want to see the manager, but I'm getting out of these wet clothes first.' Before the other men could say anything, he threw open the doors of his walk-in wardrobe and stared around him. The immaculate woodwork gleamed, polished to perfection, full length mirrors reflected his dishevelled figure and startled expression. For the first time that day, the bluster was knocked out of him. The perfect dressing room didn't contain a stitch of clothing. The guards leant against the door frame, watching him curiously.
'What the hell is going on?' he managed, weakly. 'I'm phoning my office and getting them to sort out this bloody farce. I'm gonna fire every last person in this godforsaken hell-hole!' He pulled out the mobile, hit speed-dial to the office and held it to his ear. A single note sung out in place of the dial tone, followed by another prerecorded message.
'This handset is locked out until further notice. A credit rating anomaly has tripped the service provider failsafe. If you require further assistance, please telephone our customer services department or visit our web site.' - Another of B.L.A.C.K. Ltd's security measures related to phone contracts. Most people paid their bill at the end of the month, but a few select customers had an instant charge account, so that they could use extremely expensive, but 100% secure, specially allocated network signals for private use; which were totally untraceable. The account was linked to the customer's bank and automated cross-reference credit checks occurred every few minutes to prevent anyone else from using the phone if there was an irregularity. If he'd stayed on the line to the bank, instead of impatiently cutting the call and phoning Bruce soon after, then he could have gone through his personal security passwords, confirmed his identity with the bank, and consequently prevented a lock-out. Brent Black had become too used to getting his own way in life. He only just resisted the temptation to hurl the phone against a mirror and glared at the lock-out symbol on the screen.
'How dare they? That's another bunch of useless idiots who'll be out on their arses once I...' he suddenly remembered the meeting. 'Oh shit! I've got to get to an extremely important meeting, at once. Get a hotel chauffeur round the front of the building immediately,' addressing the hotel security guy.
'What do you make of all this?' The hotel man asked the bank men.
'It's the same story he gave us back at the bank, mate. I really don't think he's telling the truth anymore, do you?'
'Take me to the manager!" screamed Brent.
'Oh I think we can do that Sir,' the hotel security guard grinned at the other two, strode across to Brent and slapped on the cuffs.
'What are you doing?' he protested, with more than a waver in his normally authoritative voice.
'It's for your own safety, Sir.'
'If you make a run for it, I'll be forced to shoot. Now, you don't want me to do that, do you?'
'Just take me to the manager.' His mouth felt dry and he'd started to shiver in his soaking clothes, felt sick to his stomach, and anger gave way to panic. What had started as a minor inconvenience was turning into a full-blown nightmare.
He sat in the hotel's main office, flanked by another pair of hotel guards, the original three standing behind the manager, as he regarded him sternly; over the top of his pince-nez. Algernon Sprate had been the manager of the Protos Hilton for eight years. In that time he'd seen it all, from stolen towels and bars of soap, to unpaid bills, professional complainers, the vindictiveness of dismissed staff, and clumsy attempts to besmirch his fine reputation by competitors. His long, thin face and grey features suited his character. He did not suffer fools gladly.
'So, you profess to be someone called Brent Black, senior director of B.L.A.C.K. Ltd. You were apprehended by these gentlemen,' he pointed to the bank guys, 'when you were trying to withdraw cash from the most exclusive ATM of the Bank of Protos. You claimed to have accidentally miskeyed the access code, conveniently cut short a call to the bank, pretended to talk to a work colleague on a locked-out phone, conned this man into paying for your taxi fare, failed to give him and his work mate the slip, made up some cock and bull story about having money and fresh clothes in the most expensive suite we have, and you still want me to believe that you are the director of one of the most successful companies in the world?'
'I've told you the truth. All of you.'
'What time do you say you landed at the airport?'
'Right, let's give them a call, shall we?' Algernon was on the phone for twenty minutes while he talked to the shuttle jet operator, to check out their passenger list, and then passport control for Protos privileged entry verification.' Once he'd finished, he tutted and looked Brent in the eye.
'Well now, fancy that. The shuttle jet operator and passport control have no record of a Brent Black either having been on that flight, or entering Protos at that time. I'm fascinated to hear how you're going to explain that to me.'
'I travelled under a false name.'
'Oh very good,' he sneered, 'I have to say you're pretty quick-witted, aren't you? What would that name be then? Shall I phone them back?'
'I don't know.'
'Really?' he feigned surprise. 'Well I never. After the rest of this fabulous story, I would've thought that coming up with a false name would be child's play to a man like you. Mr Smith, perhaps?' He laughed, and was rewarded by a chuckling audience.
'I didn't know the name, because my office organised everything on my behalf. I had to travel under an assumed name in order to preserve the secrecy of my real identity. The meeting that I was supposed to have attended, two hours ago, was set up to close an extremely sensitive deal. I didn't go through passport control, because it would have delayed me, plus the fact that I haven't been through passport control for over four years, as I have special dispensation for global travel...what have you done with my belongings?' He rallied, briefly, managing an accusatory tone.
'Your belongings? Whoever checked into that room had pre-booked it on an instant charge account basis. A credit charge anomaly flagged up earlier today and all of the contents were placed in a secure lock-up. This is standard security procedure, as I'm sure you'll know, if what you tell me about your "Company" is true. Hahaha.'
'Exactly. The time that anomaly occurred was the same time as the problem at the bank. Can't you see the connection? I'm telling you the truth!'
'I'm sorry, but I don't believe you, it's just coincidence is all. If it's true, then tell me what name you used when you checked in here?'
'I didn't check in. The keycard was in an information package that had been placed in the limo' prior to my arrival. My office can tell you which name it was under.'
Mr. Sprate leant forward and spoke very quietly, narrowing his eyes. 'There was no name.'
'What do you mean?'
'We check all payments as part of our own security systems. I've no doubt that you're fully versed in our procedures,' he replied, sarcastically. 'When we tried to trace the payment, it linked back through several layers of credit transfers to other accounts, before we lost track of it. It was most irregular. As far as we know, that room was booked for the invisible man.'
'You must have found my flight clothes on the chair in the dressing room. The suits were all bespoke, they fit me perfectly. Get me a suit and I'll put it on and prove it.'
'Who do you think you are then, eh? Cinderella? It looks to me like there was some serious criminal activity going on and whoever booked that room was up to something extremely dodgy,' the guards all nodded in assent, 'probably drug related, or some such. I think you mugged this character, took his mobile phone and hotel keycard off him, frogmarched him to the bank, stood behind him with a concealed weapon pressed into his back and forced him to operate the cash machine. When your victim input the incorrect access code, either through nerves or in an attempt to get away, you panicked. That was his chance to run, leaving his ring in the machine, and you to face the guards. You were quick on your feet, I'll give you that, but we'll let the police get to the bottom of this.' He pressed the intercom button to his secretary. 'Let them in Valerie.' Two burly policemen entered the room. 'Did you hear all that?' The manager pointed to the camera and mini hyper-directional boom mike, up in the corner of the ceiling. They nodded.
'Come with us please, Sir.' Said the taller of the pair, cuffing himself to Brent as the hotel guard slipped his hand cuffs off the other wrist.
Brent Black turned to look back at Mr. Sprate, as he was led away. 'If I've lost the contract from that meeting I will personally make sure that you spend the rest of your life shovelling in a faecal reprocessing plant.'
'That would be a holiday, compared to what you've got in store. Get him out of here.'
At the police station he was allowed to change. The standard issue clothes were rough and scratchy, but at least they were dry. After several hours they took a statement from the prisoner and shook their heads in disbelief, that he was sticking so doggedly to his extraordinary tale. Didn't he realise that deliberately misleading the police would only get him into even more trouble? During the interview he'd asked them to call his office, or his colleague in Protos. When they'd asked him for the numbers he hadn't known them, claiming that they were on speed-dial on his locked out mobile phone, and that he had never made a mental note of the number to his own office. Unfortunately they would never be able to corroborate this, as when the SIM card was removed for analysis no such numbers could be found. The prisoner had broken down, blaming the heavy-handed forensics officer for not checking with the phone company first, in order to evoke a priority mandate to remove the lock-out. Foolishly, the numbers had only been stored on the phone's memory, not on the card, so when the battery was clumsily removed the circuitry had been damaged and all information lost irretrievably. One thing was for sure, they needed to find out who this little toe-rag really was.
A tired and over-worked police doctor set up his equipment in interview room 2. The prisoner was led in and seemed oddly keen to take the biometric scan test. The prisoner settled in front of the eyepiece and waited. Two floors up, a young rookie was making a coffee, to help to get himself through the first half of the night shift. He flicked a switch on the grubby old kettle, the fuse blew with a green flash and he cursed. Two floors down, the scan sweep was in progress. The fleeting power fluctuation from the kettle was enough to subtly alter the results. The doctor scratched his head. According to the machine the prisoner was an unknown, probably from one of those gangs of menial workers from out of town, come into the big city to try his luck with a spot of petty crime. He considered giving it another go, but despite the prisoner's animated protest (and far-fetched claims that he was going to make sure that the equipment was thoroughly overhauled when he was released) he still had another twenty scans to carry out before he could get home to bed. Nah, this was just another loser, like all the others he'd seen over the years.
The prisoner leant against the wall in his cell. He'd been there a week now, but it felt like a month. He was hunched over with drops of water falling from the dank condensation of the slimy ceiling, running off his downcast head, dripping from his chin. Several flies buzzed around him, attracted by the stench of this poor individual, sat in his own filth. Another fly entered the cell between the bars across the window, on the wall, high above. It flew down in front of the slumped figure and hovered for a moment. There was the faintest sound of a click, from a miniature camera, before it flew away and back out through the window, to the figure waiting patiently in the shadows outside.
Bio:David Burnham is a Health Service worker living in Brighton (UK). He recently retired from the exciting sideline of concert promotion, and this has freed up some spare time to get back to the fun of scribbling and artwork.
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