Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Baptism of Jon (story 1)

This is the first installment of the 'appendix' to my post Shadows of Science: finding a new voice ...

Only Sara noticed when the side door opened and a non-descript man diffused into the room, every inch the IT support guy. She was careful to ensure that her gaze didn’t dwell on him in case others should begin to pay attention. His timing was perfect; the final speaker before lunch had easily survived the few shallow, notice-me questions at the end. This was a weary audience all aching to stretch their legs, or pee, or just to be able to refocus their eyes away from the screen; there was much shuffling of chairs. It had been a long morning session of technical talks; yes, she thought, catching his unremarkable movements reflected in a window, this is the time. Her fingers moved, almost unconsciously, to the small blue lamb tattooed high on her neck and under her hair; she thought of his, a dolphin.

Jonathan Whistler is a man who habitually walks through the corridors of his life with eyes cast down lest the betrayals and disappointments of his past reflect themselves in the faces of others. He’s not a man to be noticed, never stands out in the crowd; even his clothes would only whisper apologetically of their middle-of-the-road chain-store pedigree. No-one notices Jon, no-one remembers him; except Sara, maybe.

He walked around the edge of the small conference room to the podium. Climbing the three steps he moved quietly across the carpeted platform, behind the session chair’s table, and knelt down behind the lectern. An audio system, lighting panel and various projector controls faced him, all interconnected through a snake’s nest of cables – a surprisingly large feature given that most devices had communicated with one another wirelessly since his refit of the room. Now at least there was no confusion: this was his territory; here he was lord. He reached towards the far left corner of the shelf, his fingers feeling under the useful mass of mostly redundant cables. He only needed the small matt black box, which he slipped into his pocket. All morning, and all of yesterday, speaker after speaker had connected their laptops to the system in the assured belief that everything was contained within the four walls of their venue. And since yesterday morning, Jon’s little black box had been watching and listening more attentively than any delegate. It had also been digging: excavating into the recesses of each and every laptop haplessly delivered into its unfelt embrace. A great deal was entrusted to the hard drives it welcomed; data, yes of course, but so much more: desire, motive, deceit – all of it now in Jon’s pocket as he stood back up and retraced his steps.

Once back in the corridor, Jon walked towards the stairs and began the two-storey climb. The door onto the flat roof which hosted the company’s microwave communications equipment was locked to all staff, except for those in the IT team of course. He walked gingerly to the parapet, but peered over only momentarily – just enough time to verify that the truck was there, its back covered in the sticky netting they’d talked about. With almost palpable relief he gently lobbed his little black box over the side. His sacred task, his longed-for baptism into Sara’s world, was entering its final stage.

The lighter steps he took as he descended the stairs would not have been noticed by anyone who didn’t know Jon well, and so few did, but in a passing glance which nevertheless took it all in, Sara noted them as he turned onto the final flight. He was about six steps from the end when he allowed himself to look up for long enough to see her; she was smiling as she waltzed through the scanner and left the building with half a dozen other hungry delegates. She’ll make her excuses and split from them once she’s out of site he thought. So far, so good.

It took two finger-trembling attempts to key in his code for the staff scanner before Jon could swipe himself through the barrier and leave by the less obvious rear door. Turning left into the alleyway he walked towards the road at his habitual moderate pace but then speeded up, keen to get to their café. Maybe he’d find one of the leather sofas was free – a perfect place for the promised debriefing conversation and his payment. The money was neither here nor there; he’d even toyed with the idea of donating it to some charity or other. No, Jon’s hoped-for reward took the less defined shape of acceptance: acceptance by Sara into her life, acceptance as a person worthy of a place at her side as she fought to right the wrongs around them. His mind was still in full flight when he stepped through the café’s door and saw her already seated. She had evidently bought him his usual mug of Earl Grey, but she was not alone.

Not knowing quite what to do, Jon smiled weakly and followed her eyes as they directed him towards the empty wooden chair at their small circular table.
“Please sit down Jon. This is Cynthia. I work for her.”

Cynthia was a neatly dressed woman who could have been in her late fifties but might equally pass for a forty-something were it not for the greying hair and the deep creases around her fathomless eyes. She looked first at Sara and then at Jon. Here was a person accustomed to having all eyes on her, all of the time.
“Allow me to congratulate you Jon: you did well; the information you gathered is already with our analysts; they’re pleased, very pleased I hear.”
Cynthia paused for long enough to allow her voice to register with him, and to take a sip of coffee. 
“I apologise for the subterfuge, but in the circumstances it was necessary. Don’t reproach Sara: she was under orders to recruit you, which she so evidently achieved of course. Once you’re properly on the payroll there’s so much more we can share with you.”

Jon had been sinking, but was propelled back towards the surface by an ill-defined anger derived from one too many perplexing betrayals.
“What are you talking about? Sara, what’s going on? I’m working with you; the tattoos, what about …” 
His voice faded as realisation dawned.

Sara stared at her cup; she didn’t speak. The impasse was over only when Cynthia signalled her to leave, which she did in silence, eyes averted. Cynthia continued
“There’s no turning back Jon, like it or not you work for us now. We’ll be in touch in due course; carry on as normal in the meantime.”
She paused, this time to finish her coffee before rising.
“Au revoir Jon.”

Half an hour later, Jon was still staring at a cold tea when two fresh mugs were set down. The chair opposite was drawn back and she sat down, just as she had done three months before.

© R.J. Newport, 27/5/16

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