Jack Denton rode up in the lift, as he did every day. He shifted awkwardly on his feet, as did the people around him, all standing in silence. The doors pinged open on the 16th floor and he hurriedly stepped out into the hallway. They closed again and the lift continued its ascent. Apartment 1604 was his destination, at the far right end of the white-tiled hallway. He walked purposefully towards it and gave 3 sharp knocks on the ornate wooden door. He pondered how unnatural the door was in contrast to its surroundings, while waiting for it to be opened.
After a moment, the door did open, but only a fraction, and a man within gazed out to study Jack with paranoid eyes. A moment later, and the man's glare turned to an amiable smile. He closed the door to remove the latch, then opened it fully to welcome his colleague and friend inside.
"On time as always", he said.
"Well, Chris, I'd hate for you to have anything you could use against me", Jack snapped, as part of a time-tested ritual between the two.
Jack stepped into Chris Marsden's apartment, sharing the same white tiled floors as the hallway outside. The walls were also painted white, and adorned with a few cheap paintings which Chris had felt the need to spend hours deliberating over before purchasing. Anna Hubbs sat on a red sofa in the living space, an item of furniture which matched her vibrant hair. It wasn't her natural look, but it was one that she had adopted for the past few months and seemed to like. She beavered away at her laptop, looking up only briefly to give Jack a warm smile and a little wave. He reciprocated both gestures but she had already turned back to her screen.
Chris stood in the centre of the room to address Jack seriously.
"I'm assuming you heard the news this morning?" he asked.
"I read about it on the train ride over. Equinox again?"
"Yes, unfortunately" Chris added. "One of their agents was imprisoned 6 months ago after being ousted as a Consortium intelligence agent working in the government".
"They told us that there was a network of foreign agents but we never got any proof, so naturally I didn't believe it".
"Nor me", Chris said sincerely. "But now it seems that we've got all the proof we need. There were six Equinox agents identified in the breakout at the militia's detention centre".
"And all of them were from the Consortium", Jack confirmed.
Chris looked grim.
"It seems the media speculation has been right all along. The Consortium are ready to take this city back". He turned and paced towards the balcony. Jack knew that he would be required to follow. Chris slid open the balcony door and stepped out, the stifling City air rushing into the apartment. He retrieved his jacket from its place over a chair in the sheltered little alcove. The balcony space was scarcely big enough for a glass table, two chairs, and a withered plant in the corner. The jutting balcony of the apartment above kept the space in the shade all day.
Despite being on the 16th floor, Chris's apartment did not shadow any of the surrounding buildings, all of which were taller. Chris slipped into his jacket, a smart and well-maintained piece, and Jack moved to lean over the edge of the balcony. People were bustling on the street below, on their way to work and school. The little coffee shop opposite was as popular as ever, though most of the orders appeared to be to take away. The tables outside were mostly unoccupied save for one in the shade at which a man sat with a laptop.
"So what's the plan?" Jack asked, staring now into the offices of the opposite building.
"When the first Equinox agent escaped, he killed a police officer. Simon Naire was the man's name".
"Yes, I couldn't figure out what a policeman would be doing in the militia's private facility. The two sides aren't exactly friends and it's their pathetic turf war that put this city on the path to collapse in the first place".
Chris grunted in agreement but returned to addressing the more immediate issue.
"The officer was there to try and talk to a suspect about a murder last week. He never made it beyond the lobby".
"If there's one thing that could galvanise the police into action, it's the murder of one of their own".
"Exactly", Chris boomed, loud enough to set a dog to barking next door. Mrs Forsyth lived alone and had many dogs. She was an oddity, to say the least.
Chris returned to a measured voice and went on. "This brings me to the answer to your question. The police will be after that first agent, and although I don't like to stand in the way of justice, I need to know the whole picture. This is bigger than we thought and if we can offer the guy protection from the police, he may offer us something useful in return".
"We should probably get a move on though. When the police find this guy, it's a safe bet he's not going to get a fair trial. I suspect an accident may occur".
"Precisely", Chris confirmed, returning to the living room. Jack followed. "It just so happens that Anna has found the man's location so there is a chance, albeit a slim one, that we can get to him first".
Anna looked up from her work again and placed the laptop on the coffee table in front of her. The two men gathered around to look at the screen. It displayed CCTV footage of the first Equinox agent climbing into a sewer off of West Blake Street.
"It was my idea to track him from the detention centre", Anna gloated. "Not his".
She nodded towards Chris and Jack smiled wickedly. Anna Hubbs was a very good hacker, not necessarily the best, but certainly the most approachable. She was unflinchingly friendly, and always made people feel welcome. She had been otherwise occupied this morning but when Jack had first been recruited by Chris she spent a good hour introducing herself and warning Jack about Chris's sudden mood-swings. He had seen them for himself since that first day and knew how scary they could be. Anna had designated Jack as Chris' unofficial 'handler'. She had no qualms about the patronising nature of the word, but it was all in good humour. She would goad Chris and Jack would sweep in to clean up the fallout. Realising this, Chris had actually become better at not taking the bait. He still had his moments of rage though.
"Please tell me we don't have to go through the sewer", Jack moaned.
Chris looked at him.
"If the guy's in a sewer, and we need to reach him, it's a safe bet we're going through the sewer".
"It was just an expression, but thank you for pointing that out to me" Jack said bitterly.
Now Anna laughed, her shoulder length orange hair shaking and her blue eyes glistening.
Chris looked at his watch abruptly.
"Fun's over. We need to go". He led the way to the front door, with Jack close behind.
"Are you not coming to the party with us?" Jack asked, turning back to Anna.
"I'm quite happy here, thanks" she chimed. "Sewage isn't really my thing".
"Well, we have some very heroic work to do, so we could be a while".
"No need to worry about me", she said. "You just have fun at your 'party'".
Jack closed the door behind him. Chris had already called the lift. Chris Marsden always looked authoritative in his 3-piece suit with his speckled tie and polished black shoes. His dark hair was slicked back and perfectly ordered. He was beginning to go grey at the temples, but it wasn't all that noticeable. Jack, in contrast, had dressed in black jeans and a short-sleeved blue shirt. He dressed casually as they weren't in a line of work that could be considered 'official'. They were independent assistants of the police, as Chris explained on many an occasion. With the jurisdiction issues between the police and the militia, crimes and criminals were going unnoticed. Chris, Jack, and Anna investigated such crimes and built up evidence files, which they would turn over to the police, who could then make an easy arrest. Chris abhorred the use of force, however. He had drilled that belief into Jack on his first day. The lift arrived, empty, and the two men stepped in. Jack looked at the display. It would take them straight down to the foyer. A newsfeed scrolled past on a separate display built into the side of the lift. Jack and Chris studied it in silence. The Equinox issue was reported, but no new details were given. Another article rolled past entitled Archangel member killed in shootout with militia.
"Damn Archangel", Chris thundered, startling Jack. "They run around this city with guns and a sordid idea of justice and give people like us a bad name. They ceased their operations months ago but you still hear about them in the news". Jack thought Chris had finished, but he went on.
"They're a persistent skin rash on this city".
"What a charming metaphor", Jack said.
"Could you have thought of anything better?" Chris demanded.
"With time", Jack answered. "But I do agree with you. Archangel had garnered quite a lot of public support when they disappeared, which was why the vanishing act was so strange. They had no need for it. The only times we hear about them now are when the police track down one of their number. It would seem that they have surrendered, but with so much influence there's no way they'd just give up".
"Archangel gained their strength from their image; the way they were perceived by the public. As such, they became quite theatrical. Even started smuggling in that Pulse drug just so they could do busts and be seen as heroes. I believe that's why they disappeared. I think they're staging an event that will give them even more public support".
With that, the lift doors parted and the duo stepped purposefully out. A couple of women milled in the lobby, laughing about someone named Gary. Bruce, the concierge was behind his desk, listening to the football game and failing to acknowledge Jack and Chris as they passed. The large glass entrance doors were bordered by lush potted plants. Chris thumbed a button to the right of the door and the lock popped. He pushed the door open and stepped out onto the street, the glaring sun and hot air oppressing them.
"My car's still in the garage after that guy hit me the other week, so we'll have to stick to the tram" Chris announced.
"Not a problem", Jack said. "I don't suppose this would be the guy who hit you after you skipped that red light?"
"I can't recall the colour of the light, but I can recall that he drove into me. As such, it was his fault".
"And yet he receives compensation and you get penalised. The injustice of it all" Jack mocked. Chris would not take the bait, responding only with an innocent "I know".
The tram passed by on the road to the left of Chris's street, and Jack could see it trundling to the stop as they rounded the corner. They hopped on and dropped their money, CT$2.30 each, into the slot. The driver, an older gentleman, smiled. They took up two seats at the back, near a heavyset man with a grey, unkempt beard. He looked like he was about to doze off and emitted a distinct smell of alcohol. West Blake Street was about a 5 minute ride away. Plenty of time for Jack to ask a question that had begun to gnaw at him.
"Chris, don't you think it's a little risky, us confronting this guy, what with him being a professional killer"?
Chris turned to study his friend curiously.
"You're not afraid, are you?"
Jack backtracked hastily. "What, no, not at all, it's just that we've never dared to poke anyone this dangerous with the proverbial stick before".
"What about the Redmond Park ripper? He even changed his MO to include a chainsaw in the later days, before Archangel arranged that little accident for him".
"Okay, he was a worrying individual, but he was less than sane and more of a danger to himself than anyone else. Equinox is an expert and if he tried to attack us we wouldn't stand a chance. It's at times like this we should consider extra protection".
"You mean guns?" Chris hissed. The contempt in his voice did not correspond to the look of fear that had found its way to his eyes.
"Well, maybe not guns. Perhaps we should hire more people".
The tram rumbled to a stop in a small shopping street and a family climbed aboard. Chris turned away from Jack and sighed.
"Having more people on the team would be useful, but there are so few who share my mind-set. People like you and Anna are hard to come by".
Jack smiled at the compliment. Chris did not see his reaction.
"There are those who would work with us and fail to invest themselves thoroughly in what we do, thinking it to be as simple as clocking in and clocking out. Then there are the people who would rather join Archangel, thinking that justice consists of black market weapons. Then there are the people who are too afraid to do this sort of work. I hold nothing against these people, especially since some of them are our benefactors".
Chris turned slowly back to Jack.
"Sorry. I think I had begun to ramble just then".
"Well, yes" Jack admitted, "but you made a good point. Maybe our happy family should consist of only 3 members".
"Happy?" Chris quizzed. "My day entails you and Anna taking advantage of my good nature".
Chris shook his head slowly, disguising the grin forming on his face. Shortly, he gazed up and out the window.
"It's the Icarus Mall. West Blake Street is just around the corner" he said. Jack looked at the morning shoppers, mainly older folk, new mothers and some truant youths, as they bustled in and out of the mall, bags adorned with designer brands clutched firmly in their hands. The tram came to a stop once more, and Chris and Jack stepped off. They walked the rest of the way, cutting through the mall itself. The structure was long and narrow, with two storeys of shops on both sides, and an Ojo coffee shop, an international franchise from Midas, sat snugly in the main plaza area. It was one of the few foreign brands in the City. The shop was quiet and the staff idled, looking bored talking in low tones. The floor around the café and along the centre of the plaza in both directions was sunken, creating a space in which fresh water sat. A small bridge crossed the moat to the cafe so that visitors could come and go. Fountains bearing statues of the Greek god Icarus bookended the two ends of the motionless stream, water gurgling from them without end.
There was no deep reason for the building planners to have chosen the Icarus theme, except that it was quite a marketable image. Reaching for greatness, that sort of thing.
Jack and Chris emerged from the other end of the mall, Chris scanning his surroundings quickly and thoroughly. He spied the alleyway where the entrance to Equinox's hideout lay, on the other side of the road, and pointed to Jack. "Over there", he said, charging ahead across the street. Jack followed, his anxiety rising. Even in the daylight, the alley was dark and dark alleys are associated with all manner of bad things. Chris continued to lead the way, homing in on the drain cover as Jack's mind willed him to go back. Once in the sewer, it would be difficult to escape Equinox, should he be revealed as a raving serial killer. Chris studied the cover as Jack surveyed his surroundings, mainly overflowing bins and brick walls. He turned back to Chris as his friend took a full sized crowbar from his jacket to remove the drain cover.
"Erm, how long have you had that?" he asked warily.
"I assume you mean the crowbar?"
"Yes, that would be what I was referring to".
"I don't know exactly how long. I found it next to a substation a while back, before I met you. I was trying to catch some teenage vandals, you see".
"No, I mean how long has it been in your jacket?"
"Oh, don't worry, I only put it in this morning. I figured it might be useful. And what do you know? I was right".
"Don't you think that's a little… unconventional?"
Chris slid the cover away and stood up to face Jack.
"I'll say. Most people with suits so expensive and beautifully tailored wouldn't ruin them with rusty, not to mention heavy, crowbars".
He studied Jack for a moment after failing to elicit any sort of a response.
"You're fantasising about me going on a violent, crowbar wielding rampage, aren't you?"
"If I'm honest, yes. I'm sure you'd do the same if I were to pull out an assault rifle", Jack responded.
Chris cocked his head to one side.
"Do you actually believe you could fit an assault rifle in your jeans pocket?"
"It was theoretical. In the theory I'm not wearing jeans".
"This theory just became very unpleasant. But never mind that. You don't have to worry about me and the crowbar. I've never used violence against a suspect. I'd certainly never do so with such a crude weapon", he said, slipping the crude weapon back into his jacket.
Chris turned to begin the descent down the ladder and into the sewer when Jack called "I can recall a few occasions when you applied violence". Chris paused his downward climb and called back "a bit of manhandling was all I utilised. I would never do anything that resulted in more than a bruise. With that, he vanished into the odorous darkness of the sewer and Jack hesitantly followed, withdrawing a pocket torch- the sort of thing you would not be surprised to find a person carrying- and flicking it on. He held the torch in his mouth as he slid the cover back into place above him, casting out the buzzing energy of the City.