In a city where all rail, road and underground traffic are computerised, Hugh Ryan, a Transport Authority controller, generally has a very boring job.
In his wildest dreams he couldn’t have envisioned it’d be his job to drag the hijacked city out of absolute gridlock by outwitting Akila Kama, an African terrorist who’s taken the city and kidnapped foreign heads of state. While all traffic inside the city is at a standstill, a local crimelord working with the terrorist has decided to make matters worse by double-crossing Kama…and there’s no doubt that there’s a mole somewhere in Transport Authority helping him.
GENRE: MYSTERY/TECHNO THRILLER
Word Count: 78, 696
The sun was high in the sky. Even through the soles of my shoes, I felt the heat rising from the sand. In the distance, a couple of lonely trees shimmered in the haze.
An eerie, high-pitched shriek made me look upwards. I used a hand to block out the sun. Far away, I could just make out the dark shape of a vulture, circling lazily. As I watched, it started to swoop down towards me, but then it veered and caught another thermal. I shuddered involuntarily.
The sheet in the doorway flapped as a warm breeze stirred the air. I stepped through gingerly, trying to keep from making any noise. They had warned me that the patients tended to sleep through the scorching African afternoon.
My wife, lying peacefully in an ankle high bed, and covered by a single white sheet, was deathly pale. The mosquito net, hanging from crude wooden bedposts, surrounded her like a ghostly shroud. Seeing her like that made me want to hold her and tell her everything would work out. A net might be a thin barrier against mosquitoes, but for me, it was like a prison wall. It tore me apart to see her like that. She held on by a thread, a strong will to live. The doctor had stressed that one more mosquito bite would sever that last thread.
It was my fault. She had not been particularly keen to come to Africa. It had taken me a week of cajoling to convince her that a month-long Safari trip would be an unforgettable experience. Well, unforgettable it certainly would be.
Beads of sweat formed on her forehead, then gently trickled down over her eyebrows and onto her cheeks. She moaned once, and her head fell to one side. I reached out to touch the mosquito net. For a long time I stood there, staring at her while she fought the fever.
She moaned again, and her arm fell from her side, hitting the floor. I bent down, gently taking her hand in mine. It was very warm and slightly clammy.
Suddenly, she gripped my wrist. My head snapped up, and our gazes locked. The crazed look in her eyes curdled my blood. Her mouth curled into a horrifying, lop-sided grin.
The sweat on her forehead drenched her face. She must have seen the fear in my eyes, but kept on grinning. The skin on her face was rapidly reddening, and my wrist felt as if someone had poured boiling water on it. I tried to pull away, but she only tightened her grip, and pulled again.
Blisters began to form on her cheeks, then on her forehead. Tears flowed in continuous streams, her nose began running, and she opened her mouth. Her tongue, bloated beyond recognition, was a sickly shade of grey. I began sobbing while I scratched frantically at her hand.
Then the blisters burst.
I sat up and felt around me. Beneath me was something soft and yielding. The ambient darkness disoriented me. My heart was pounding out a frantic rhythm, and I could feel the sweat trickling down my back. It took several seconds for my brain to make sense of the last few minutes. The panic receded as the rush of adrenaline stopped, and my racing heart slowed to a walk. My bedside clock displayed 06:30 04 April 2022.
That nightmare would be the end of me one day. It was still as clear as the first time, and still as painful. I rose and headed toward the bathroom, where I splashed water on my face, then drank some from the tap.
Back in the bedroom, I found the newspaper cutting, and read it for the thousandth time. It always devastated me, but it was the only way I had found for facing another day without Sarah.
“Mrs. Sarah Ryan died on Tuesday of a malignant form of malaria that she had contracted on a Safari trip with her husband, Mr. Hugh Ryan. Medicines needed for the treatment of her ailment were unavailable at the lodge where they were staying. Some had been ordered and flown in from the capital but they had arrived too late.”
I flopped back onto the bed. For a year and a half, I had that nightmare every day. Nowadays, it was a bit less frequent, but I no longer have any tears left to shed. Lifting my hand to look at the picture, I sighed.
I had been the perfect incarnation of the tourist, with my flowery silk shirt covering my protruding belly, and my camera hanging loosely around my neck. At the time, I had sported dark, shoulder-length hair at the back, accompanied by sideburns. My blue eyes seemed to sparkle, and my round face had radiated happiness.
A week after the picture had been taken, everything had changed. The only thing that remained nowadays was my height. On long sleepless nights, the loneliness and guilt had driven me to exercise. Carefully keeping away from fitness centres where I would be forced to meet other people, I had taken up running and home training. The excess weight had been replaced by muscle. My face had thinned, and I had started to keep my hair in a crew cut, along with a well-trimmed beard. I had to buy a whole new wardrobe to compensate for the change in sizes. When I had gone shopping, I had chosen only smart clothes of good quality, and had vowed never again to dress carelessly.
I must have spent twenty minutes or so, reliving the guilt and the sadness. Up until now, I had been like an automaton, losing myself in my work, but today was going to be a step forward. I put my morbid thoughts behind me and got up to prepare for court. I tried to dress better than usual – white jeans, black cord belt, mustard yellow shirt, and a pair of suede shoes. The jacket was one I had bought while Sarah was alive, so it was several sizes too big, but I wore it for her.
For the first time since Sarah had died, I had a goal in my life. It was one that would have made her proud of me.
I arrived early to avoid the crowds that would once again descend upon the trial. The trouble was finding a suitable parking space far enough away from the entrance so that I could depart unmolested by journalists. The trial took place inside one of the most majestic sights in Brussels. The Palais de Justice was an impressive work of art by the famous Belgian architect, Joseph Poelaert. From the outside, it was difficult to judge the daunting size of the building, and the big cupola sticking up from the centre was reminiscent of the Capitol in Washington D.C. Entry to the law courts was up an enormous stone stairway and through tall marble pillars. In contrast, the back entrance was rather simple and mundane; it looked just like any other building entrance. There were already a few clever journalists gathered nearby. I darted past them. In the courtroom, I quickly took my place near the front row of benches. Ten minutes later, all the benches were full, and only the jury was missing.
The murmur of whispered conversations slowly died away as the jury trudged back in. Clearly imbued with the importance of their role, they were playing out their brief moment of fame for all it was worth, making a show of solemnly resuming their seats.
Photographers, who only seconds before had been quietly chatting amongst themselves, went berserk. They pushed and shoved to obtain the best shot of the accused, to get the picture that would be splattered over all the papers the following day.
At the back, the fake marble pillars graced the room more with the air of a Roman senate than a contemporary court of law. Beside these and slightly more demure than the photographers, were the journalists. They promptly powered up their laptops while trying to avoid the judge’s disapproving glare, as a chorus of beeps, buzzes and whirrs disrupted the silence.
Media coverage, in the first few weeks, had superseded virtually all other stories, both at the national and international levels. However, as it soon became apparent that the case would be a long, drawn-out one, other news items began taking precedence. The reporting had been relegated to weekly hour-long updates on only a few major networks.
From the start, the case had been full of surprises, but even the moguls of the TV stations were stunned. The weekly shows soon afforded them the highest ratings ever recorded for a non-fiction programme. They even rivalled the most successful soaps; so much so, that on Friday nights popular shows were reprogrammed into other time slots.
The tabloids had tagged the case with the unsuitable name of ‘The Bank Holiday Fiasco’, although it had taken place on a normal working day and, for maximum effect, during rush hour. Some clever-dick reporter had written an over-the-top sarcastic criticism of the security forces, suggesting that the police force as a whole had taken the day off. That the reporter and his editor were subsequently fired for placing the paper in an untenable position, and that the following day a disclaimer was published did nothing to alter the fact that the unfortunate name stuck.
Again, the courtroom was jam-packed. The Mayor of Brussels or the Bourgmestre in French, as well as various high-ranking city officials, crammed the two front rows. Twenty-odd people were squeezed onto hard wooden benches, built to hold half a dozen. They bore the discomfort stoically.
The accused slouched in his chair, calmly observing the chaos of photographers in front of him, like a child watching a magician performing tricks everyone has already seen many times. His round fleshy face had, in the past few months, been splashed on every magazine cover, newspaper front page and prime-time television news show in the country, despite his having long ago given up according interviews.
Since then, an amazing transformation had taken place. The Saville Row suit had been traded for a pair of faded black jeans, the shirt and tie replaced by a dark blue T-shirt featuring a gun-wielding actor and the words ‘Make my day’. The expression now on his face was a sardonic smile that he did not even bother concealing from the photographers.
The attack had been meticulously planned and executed, with two distinct objectives. Stunned military strategists had participated in a top security meeting with a government intent on avoiding a recurrence of such an embarrassing event. They were rumoured to have said that ingenuity, co-ordination and sheer bravado had not been heard of on this scale since D-Day.
Ironically, though, the professionalism of the police force, outstanding as it was, did not succeed in preventing what happened. The attack was a beautiful mechanism, a masterpiece, and a living work of art. Not something usually attributed to the criminal mind. Still, it failed.
If anyone was to blame for the debacle, or to be congratulated, depending on your point of view, it was Murphy, who, when he expounded his law, ‘If anything can go wrong, it will’, really knew what he was talking about.
The plan fell apart, only when it seemed the ‘bad guys’ were going to get away with it. In the end, a few of them escaped, unsuccessfully, I hasten to add; the others were killed in a peculiar set of circumstances that to this day remain, at least partially, unexplained.
In sharp contrast to his client, the lawyer was a small nervous man, who frequently had to remove his glasses to wipe perspiration from his tiny forehead with a monogrammed handkerchief. Throughout the trial, he had not stopped fidgeting, and during moments of extreme tension, when the testimony of a witness was hurting his client’s case, he took to frantic scribbling on his legal pad. For my sins, I must say that I have followed this case assiduously, never having missed a single court appearance. I know how many pads that lawyer went through in the last eight months: one hundred and thirty-four.
The lawyer for the accused glanced over at the jury, as he had done many times during this case, with a defeated look. The faces of the jurors said only one thing–
The judge seated himself.
Flashes went off in every direction, while whistles and cries reverberated off the walls. The defence lawyer flopped into his chair, then dropped his head onto the table in front of him, placing both hands on the nape of his neck. His client, seemingly unaffected by the ruckus, laughed aloud and clapped him on the back.
The judge banged his gavel, and glared at the reporters. “Could we next time dispense with such a lurid display? And,” he turned to the audience, “if I hear any more noise, I’ll clear the court.” As silence settled, he motioned the prosecutor to continue.
The whole thing had started nearly a year ago. At the time, I didn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle but these court proceedings were clarifying it all. Now, I had virtually the whole picture. To fully understand all the events that led up to today, I needed to go back to the beginning. For my purposes, I had to have to replay it all, and include the actions of certain people that I only learned about here, in this courtroom. Like that scumbag, Wellens.
Most heavyset men tend to have a slow ponderous walk, a kind of waddle, as if they have to swing their weight around to give the necessary momentum for each step. Others manage to stride around with a light step and no outward sign of being hampered by their weight or the mass of large muscles. Wellens fell into the latter category. Short, as well as stocky, he impressed more by the thickness of his body than his height. The only apparent part of him that consisted of something other than perfectly toned muscles were his flabby jowls.
His appearance had long been a stumbling block for his senior management staff that he regularly thrashed at their weekly squash tournaments. He insisted his employees make use of his company’s gym, and regularly used his favourite quote ‘Healthy body, healthy mind.’ With that company policy in effect, he made it a point of honour to be in better shape than any of his employees. However, it was more for personal satisfaction than to set an example that he worked out four hours a day.
The lift door opened, and he stepped out, greeted his secretary cheerfully, and entered his office. A cup of hot coffee sat on his desk, placed precisely where his right hand would be once he sat down in his chair. He sipped the coffee, and smiled. This was the kind of efficiency he had taken so long to foster.
Twenty years ago, he had started a small services company that filled a niche no one had thought of before. He had noticed that few computer centres spent any time, or money, on the cleanliness of their equipment. He offered a cleaning service for computer-heavy businesses, cleaning blackened keyboards, and wiping dust and greasy finger stains from screens.
His success had been immediate, but it had taken more than hard work to start up. A combination of events had plagued his fledgling career. His wife ruined him in a nasty divorce settlement, and then his brother had come to him for help in paying off gambling debts to a loan shark.
The small profit he made stretched only so far. Just as he was about to declare himself bankrupt, one of the companies he worked for made him a proposition that would change his fortunes. They offered to pay him handsomely for any type of insider information from their competitors, who Wellens also happened to work for. With nothing to lose, he jumped at the chance. Initially, he only passed on confidential internal memoranda that careless employees had left lying about, but he soon progressed.
Often in computer centres, access to sensitive systems was protected by passwords. Employees tended to find this restriction a nuisance and, in blatant disregard for even basic security measures, taped their passwords to screens and desks nearby. Wellens took advantage of this human foible. He copied the passwords, thereby giving away access to competitors’ systems. He never looked back after that.
Slowly, but surely, an increasing part of his revenue came from this less than legal sideline. Being a cautious man by nature, he quickly understood that he had to watch his step. Up until then, none of his clients had initiated legal action, not even those who suspected he was responsible for leaks of insider information. He knew that, sooner or later, he would grace the benches of a courtroom.
Wellens hired Sam, a close personal friend, as security advisor whose skills he had immediately put to work finding a trustworthy lawyer. In the course of the following year, Wellens’ new-found friend and employee successfully staved off three potentially damaging lawsuits from former clients. Aside from that, his considerable advice and meticulous rewriting of the company’s standard contract permitted Wellens to streamline his activities, and drastically reduce the risk of legal retaliation.
With a rapidly growing clientele, the company had been forced to expand. Wellens set about forming a core of highly competent people around him, then had Sam carefully check the background of each to look for two vital qualities. First, he had to be able to trust them implicitly, safe in the knowledge that they would keep confidential information to themselves. Second, and probably most important, he had to be sure they had a healthy amount of greed. With the help of Sam’s screening, he was able to weed out several undesirables. He then spent time with the remainder, talking, questioning and generally getting a feel for each individual’s character.
Once he was sure of their loyalties, Wellens set up a training camp in a secluded place in the country, where he taught his employees the skills they would need. They began with simple things like industrial espionage, but their success in this enterprise led them rapidly onto other competencies.
Over the years, with the jobs becoming more and more complex, the necessary skills had changed. He now had at his disposal mechanics who could hot-wire a car in under one minute, security officers who could in an emergency convincingly act like police officers, accountants who could simultaneously create two sets of books–one with real expenses and incomes, the other doctored to suit the requirements of the taxman.
He sighed as he reminisced about his former successes, then glanced at his schedule for the day. At 10:00 a.m. he had an appointment with a Marion Grayson, a visit he had been looking forward to for a week.
“Sandy, why isn’t Sam here already? I thought I made it clear to him I had to go over something with him before my meeting with Marion Grayson.”
“He will arrive in ten minutes. He just phoned.”
“OK. Thanks, Sandy.”
Wellens still had a few minutes before his visitor was supposed to arrive. Sipping his coffee thoughtfully, he mulled over what he knew about her.
She had contacted him two weeks ago, suggesting they meet to discuss a lucrative proposition. That kind of contact usually made him extremely suspicious and this time around was no exception. Obviously, Sam had immediately started checking up on a Marion Grayson. He was able to glean very little from his usual sources, but what he did learn was surprising, to say the least.
She worked for the British Ministry of Defence. A contact Sam had in the British civil service was able to dig up an interesting story. Several years ago, an enemy agent had successfully defected with incomplete blueprints for a new type of radar, and had been handed over to the Ministry of Defence for interrogation. A week later the agent had been found hanging from the radiator in his room, dead. At first Grayson had been a suspect, but once she handed over a working prototype of the new radar, the whole debacle was quickly forgotten.
It was Sam’s contact in the civil service who had referred her to Wellens. He had warned Sam that, although he did not know her personally, what he had been able to glean from the records was interesting. What little he learned of her past was useless, but her actions since she had joined the Ministry gave the impression of a self-serving, ambitious woman. Armed with this knowledge, Wellens still knew he was in for a tough time. He had no idea what the British might want with him. Not only that, but he had to watch his step, it was going to be a tricky conversation. Maybe they had something in mind that required his services, but just as likely, they were setting him up.
“Marion Grayson is here.” His secretary announced over the intercom.
“Please let her in, Sandy.”
The door to Wellens’ office opened, and his secretary held the door open long enough for a woman of medium height to walk in. Like Wellens, she had a wide build, but she carried a layer of fat where he only had muscle. Her matching, loose-fitting trousers and shirt jacket hid her surplus weight effectively, but Wellens noticed the way her shirt stretched momentarily as she sat down. She was in her mid-forties, he guessed, as he studied her round, smiling face. He was surprised by the amount of wrinkles he noticed under the make-up on her forehead, but tried not to show it.
She nodded her greeting, and settled herself comfortably in the chair, dragging the corners of her jacket round to cover the front of her shirt.
“Mr. Wellens. Before I start, maybe we should clear up something. I’m sure you’ve done your homework; you know who I work for, et cetera. I am not here on behalf of the British Government or the Ministry of Defence. This is strictly a personal affair.”
“We don’t normally deal with individuals. Our services are mainly for businesses. Is the British Ministry of Defence recruiting spies now?”
“I knew before I even contacted you that you would never be prepared to accept me at face value. I needed a gesture of good faith, and it wasn’t easy to find one. What could I, a complete stranger, offer you that could in no way be construed as being a set-up, a double-cross? Unfortunately, I was absolutely unable to come up with anything remotely convincing. I was relying on your sources to vet me.”
Wellens raised a hand, and buzzed his secretary. “Sandy, is Sam here yet?”
“Yes, sir. He’s gone to his office.”
His office? Wellens thought. Sam had never required an office before. What was she talking about? A few moments’ thought brought the answer. Sandy was not being facetious; she was trying to explain to him in code. Marion Grayson could not be allowed to hear where Sam had gone. Of course not. Instead of joining them, he had entered the adjoining room, where the most sophisticated eavesdropping equipment available monitored the interior of the office. Sight and sound were relayed and automatically recorded.
Good man. Wellens mentally applauded Sam. With the array of sensors in the chair opposite him, they would be able to take Marion Grayson at more than just ‘face value’. The weapons detector, capable of recognising the shape and composition of objects, be they metal, wood, plastic or a combination, would warn them of any hidden microphones or recording devices. The sensors in the armrests would monitor her heart rate, arterial tension, and would detect excessive sweating through her hands. It would act like an informal lie detector. Once again, Wellens proudly congratulated himself on having found an employee of such amazing qualities as Sam. Without letting any of his thoughts change the expression of puzzlement on his face, Wellens continued the conversation.
“I must say, at least, that I am intrigued. Can I offer you something to drink? Coffee? Tea?”
“Just a glass of water, please. I’m on a diet.”
Wellens leaned over to his intercom “Sandy, could you bring a bottle of water for Miss Grayson, and a coke for me, please?”
“Right away, sir.”
More to put her at ease, Wellens decided to put their talk on hold. She might not like the idea of Sandy hearing what she had to say. He had no such problem. Sandy had been with him for fifteen years, and she had become invaluable. She was among the stock of employees Wellens used for his ‘other’ activities, as they put it. As his secretary, it had been necessary, very early on, for her to be aware of the full extent of his activities, and she shared his need for absolute secrecy.
Sandy put a glass next to the bottle of water, and handed Wellens a can of coke, then ducked back out of the office quietly.
Wellens waited for the door to click shut before proceeding.
You will be aware, I hope, that in nine months’ time there will be a NATO conference here, in Brussels.”
“From a source in Washington, I learned that the Americans are ready to spring a surprise on their allies. They have finally developed a working, practical laser weapon. The technical details are irrelevant at this point. The only thing that really matters is that the Americans will be bringing it here to present at the conference. For security reasons, they will take it apart and transport the four pieces separately, to be assembled only at the conference itself. Several marines will escort each piece, which can fit into a relatively small suitcase. They will cross the Atlantic, in normal passenger planes, and once they arrive, will remain in their respective hotels until the time comes to move the pieces to the conference hall.
“I want that laser. I have a buyer who is prepared to pay enough for it to make us millionaires for the rest of this century.”
Unruffled, Wellens said, “And where do my company and I fit in?”
“I am prepared to share a quarter of what I’ll get from selling the laser with you, if, between the time the pieces land at the airport and the time the laser is assembled in the conference hall, you can get your hands on it. Of course, if you agree to help me, I’ll give you all the details about the couriers’ flights, hotels and anything else I can find.”
“You realise that what you have said is practically a crime in itself. I’m toying with the idea of calling the police. After all, I am a law-abiding citizen, and this is a law-abiding company. I don’t see how I could help you, even if I wanted to.”
“What I do realise is that you have to keep the pretence up until you are sure I’m not setting you up. If you hadn’t been so diffident, I would have suspected you of trying to frame me. You are no doubt taping this conversation, and have some monitoring equipment directed at me at this moment. Once you analyse all the data, you will find that I am not lying. You have investigated my past, although the information you have will be of little use.
“Naturally, I checked up on you, as well. Let me just say that in ten minutes I have to send an SMS on my GSM mobile phone. If I do not give the all clear, then my assistant will forward proof of your leaking the plans of the Eurofighter II. I am sure that NATO would be interested. They must be dying to get their hands on the person who gave Central European fanatics a way of shooting down the latest military planes.”
“Yes,” murmured Wellens, “that was bad judgement on my part.”
“I see we understand each other. I will call you back in two months. So, until we meet again, goodbye.”
After she left, Wellens collapsed into his armchair. He breathed heavily for a minute until he felt his heartbeat return to normal.
Sam came in and sat down, smiling at his boss’s expression. “Surprising day, isn’t it?”
“That’s an understatement,” whispered Wellens.
Sam laughed quietly. “Thought you would appreciate.”
Wellens rubbed his chin, thoughtfully. “Makes me nervous.”
Sam’s mouth curled into a sly grin, “That’s unlike you.”
“It sounds much too easy. After all, we’re talking about stealing from the Army of the United States. Technically, I think we can do it, but it will have to be the last job we do with this company for at least a year. The media exposure will be high, and there will be repercussions. It will be impossible to operate in Brussels after this for quite some time. On the other hand, I was thinking of retiring this year, and what better way than going out in a blaze of glory? But before we do anything else, we need to be sure Grayson is for real.”
“Don’t worry about that. As far as I could determine, she was being truthful all through your interview. She was slightly nervous at the beginning, but nothing untoward.”
“Before I take her seriously, I want you to dig deeper, get that contact of yours in the British civil service to check her out thoroughly. I want to know everything, down to her bra size.”
TWO WEEKS LATER
The building in which I work loomed large above the saplings lining the Rue de la Loi, and I rolled up to the automatic gate twenty minutes before shift handover. It had been an easy ride, the road being clear of traffic leaving the city. On the other side, in the lane going in the opposite direction, into the city, the cars were beginning to reduce their speed as they joined the budding queues.
Brussels consisted of two concentric ring roads. The outer one, a three-lane motorway, circled what had come to be known as Greater Brussels. Encompassing the city centre, the inner ring road’s twin double lanes, two in one direction, two in the opposite, handled an exceedingly high load of traffic. In French, one of Belgium’s official languages, the inner ring road was called the ‘Petite Ceinture’, the small belt. Large radial roads linked up both ring roads.
Seven years ago, back in 2015 at the inception of the Authority, the Bourgmestre had made a choice. In a moment of uncharacteristic lucidity, she had decided that the Transport Management Centre would be situated in the outskirts of the city centre for ease of access, just off the ‘Petite Ceinture’. Centrally placed, but not locationally challenged.
Rumours had immediately scrambled up and down our internal grapevine to the effect that her reasons had nothing to do with access. It was only by pure fluke she had actually come to a decision that made sense. Personally, I doubt whether deciding where to place another government authority was one of her most important decisions. Whatever the reasons, all of us who worked here were glad that it saved us a lot of grief and unnecessary stress.
Our work consists of monitoring transport inside Brussels. Some people call it telematics, but we find, when talking to friends or relatives, that telematics is too close to television, and people think we repair TV sets.
Without the Bourgmestre’s fortuitous decision, we might have become the butt of media ridicule. Just one employee arriving late would have left us wide open to criticism. I can just see the headlines that would have engendered: ‘Traffic controller stuck in jam during breakfast.’
I lowered my window with one hand as I steered towards the gate, and stopped, fishing around for my access card. This always happened when I did morning shifts. Still in the process of waking up, it invariably took me a while to locate my card. No matter where I placed it, by the time I arrived at the office, I had forgotten where I had put it, and as usual, it turned up in the last place that I looked.
Were I to be more organised, I suppose this would not happen. However, at a quarter to seven in the morning, my brain has a tendency to lie dormant until its wake-up call in the form of caffeine.
Anyway, I finally passed through the entrance gate, having placed my access card in my mouth. I used to put it on the passenger seat beside me. Sadly, it was amazing how, in the time it takes to get from the front gate to the one at the garage, all of thirty metres, you can misplace something inside my car. At any rate, I can.
In the underground garage, empty but for three cars, I parked as near as possible to the door to the lifts. An action that was not as easy as it sounded, since all the places beside it were reserved for the big bosses and visiting dignitaries, like the Bourgmestre.
Today I decided to take the lift up to the ground floor. It was only one floor, but my body warned me that it was not quite up to any exertion just yet. It only submits to this type of abuse, walking about at this time of the day, because it knows it will get its caffeine fix before I do anything else. That was why I found myself in front of the coffee machine, with no recollection of having seen the security guards, whose inspection I must have passed. They are picky about whom they let in, especially at this unearthly hour.
I grabbed my coffee, and let myself into the Transport Management Centre with my access card. Every door in this building, apart from the doors to the toilets, has a card reader on it. A door remains locked until a card with the proper authorisation is swiped through the reader. This was for security, the Audit department said. For consistency, though, they added the readers everywhere, and if they had their way, there would be some on the toilets, too.
Laying deep in the chair, with his legs on the desk, my colleague, Stephane, yawned. His bloodshot eyes lazily swivelled towards me, then widened in surprise. He glanced quickly at his watch, then sat bolt upright. A bit taken aback by this uncharacteristic behaviour, I approached him carefully.
Stephane had started working here the same day I did. This was his second job, but my first. We had both turned up in sober suits and ties. Our future colleagues had been seated in a disorderly circle in the middle of the room, laughing. They had acknowledged our presence long enough to say ‘You’re the new guys? Sit.’ The next day, we both abandoned the ties. I gave up the suit, too; I have never really felt comfortable in one. Stephane, though, traded his suit for a sports jacket, which he still wore occasionally. With no one else to talk to, we got to know each other better than most of our colleagues ever do. That had been our introduction to the Transport Management Centre.
Nowadays, Stephane and I tend to welcome newcomers in the same light-hearted manner. Usually at seven in the morning, the rush hour has not yet begun, and we have about twenty minutes to chat, to spread new jokes or relay gossip. Later in the day, social intercourse is more limited, even impossible on especially bad days, so we make the most of it.
I mumbled a hello in response to his greeting, and sat down next to him. On one of the screens was the shift handover, a written report of the unresolved problems. Not much going on, apparently, so I relaxed and turned back to my colleague.
He looked a mess, hair ruffled, sweatshirt hanging out of his tracksuit bottoms, and the baseball cap he wore pulled forward, practically covering his face. As much as he tried to dress well during the daytime, at night he made no effort whatsoever. I had seen him in football shorts with a flimsy vest, walking about barefoot. It was as if he had to compensate for decent clothes in the daytime by shabby ones at night. Come to think of it, today he was quite smart. The ubiquitous slippers were missing, replaced by a sturdy pair of hiking boots. There’s no accounting for taste.
Normal dress code rules did not apply during night shifts, so this kind of attire was quite common. Myself, I drew the line at the slippers, but I have been known to wear shorts during summer. There was no problem, really; night shift started at eleven the evening before, so there was no one left in the building, except us nocturnal workers, and it ended before anyone came in, at seven.
No matter how long you slept during the day, at the end of the night shifts you always ended up looking like my colleague here. In fact, I am known here as Old-Sleepy-Eyes, the one who looks the worst at seven, whether I did night shift or morning shift. Either my body was dying to get to sleep, or, like today, it was not yet awake. Everyone felt the same, even if they did not show it. Although we usually liked to sit and chat during shift handovers, to get an update on any gossip, some people did not take night shifts so well. When the relief shift came in, they were off like a shot: eager to get home before they passed out.
“Hugh, I’ve got to go,” Stephane muttered as he got up, quite energetically, for someone who looked as tired as he did, and slightly out of character, too. Normally he stayed about ten minutes, and never failed to explain all ongoing problems.
“Got something planned for today?” I asked.
“No, why do you say that?”
“No reason. It’s just I’ve rarely seen you in such a hurry.”
At this, he tried to smile. “Bit tired today, that’s all.” With that, he was off.
Maybe he had someone on the boil at home.
Once the door closed behind him, I swivelled around, ready to start work. On the screen beside the handover, I brought up the problem-reporting system and cross-checked everything. I liked to check the problem reports themselves for a more detailed explanation, just in case something had been forgotten.
I then glanced at the screen stuck on the wall above me, the largest one in the room, a massive 5×4-metre flat LCD colour display. On it was an outline of the city, the graphical representation of our jurisdiction, our area of responsibility. From a distance, it looked like a connect-the-dots puzzle, many dots linked by thin green lines.
A large, green spider’s web.
At all crossroads and other strategic points there are what we call waystations. They consist of unmanned computers that receive, analyse and transmit information coming in from the sensors in traffic lights. Each waystation, or signal box, through which we can regulate traffic, was represented by a node, a small green dot on the overhead display. These turned red when communications with them failed, or signal quality of the telephone line dropped.
The through roads were depicted as green lines, linking the nodes. These highlight the traffic density by a colour code. Green meant there was little or no traffic on the road; yellow was a moderate, but acceptable amount of traffic. Red indicated that the traffic density exceeded the road capacity; in other words, a traffic jam had occurred.
The train and metro networks were on the map, as well. They consisted of the larger dark green nodes, connected by dark green lines, and followed the same colour-coding scheme. On a screen any smaller than the one up there, the many interconnecting lines would complicate the issue, making it hard to distinguish separate roads. At the moment, the screen was completely green; in other words, no problems just yet.
Ten minutes later, the new trainee came in. Patrick Dierickx was a youngster of twenty-three, of medium height, and skinny, but not just any kind of skinny. Patrick appeared borderline anorexic. He did not wear his clothes; he floated about in them. Under his protuberant proboscis, his neatly trimmed moustache looked painted on. He wore a dark sober suit that must have seen countless interviews with aplomb, but his shirt collar seemed to disagree with him. His red face and stiff-necked attitude bore witness to the dangers of tight collars. Although nature had not handed out good looks to everyone, it seemed to hold a grudge against some of them.
But then, who was I to talk? I was no Adonis, either.
Patrick was hired last week, fresh out of university, with the superior attitude innate in graduates. He would soon learn how the world really went ’round. Whatever he might have learned at university would not help him here. Given the importance of our job to five and a half million people, we only used the most advanced systems, putting us at the vanguard of technology, a place most universities, unfortunately, still had to visit.
Deciding to take advantage of a calm morning, I started his education.
“Bonjour, Patrick.” I spoke in French; that much I can handle. It was a well-known fact that many Belgians only spoke one of the official Belgian languages, French or Flemish, and cannot handle the other. However, they all seemed to be able to muddle through in English. Although not an official language in Belgium, English was one of the three languages used at the European Commission.
Brussels, with its many European or international institutions, was a multi-lingual capital. Many of the suppliers of the high-tech equipment, used throughout the city for traffic management, were English speaking. Most documentation we received, when we did get some, was in technical English, and our problem reporting system was American. For simplicity, so that everyone, no matter what nationality, could follow the conversations, the language most frequently used at the Transport Authority was English. Which was handy for me, as I have learned French since I arrived, but I’m still not comfortable with it. Most of my colleagues are Belgian, though, and their English often included Americanisations. They picked up American expressions, and made no difference with English ones. Unfortunately, I could no longer make the distinction, either.
“The Transport Management Centre, or TMC for short, is a place of raw power, both political and financial.” Glancing at him, I satisfied myself that I had his attention. “Patrick, if you’ve got any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. OK?” He nodded eagerly. “After taxes and law and order, what do citizens use as an indicator of government efficiency?”
I found when training new staff, that this approach, giving the trainee the opportunity to arrive at his own conclusions, worked wonders. Our job required brains, not so much intelligence, but a certain flexibility of thought. Initiative and creativity did not go amiss, either. There are no fixed procedures for us to follow, and the problems we come across can have several distinct causes.
To work efficiently here, a full understanding of all the parts of the network and the way they interact was necessary. With time and much experience, we practically knew immediately where a problem originated, what the real cause was. Between us we have discussed this, but have never found a rational, scientific explanation. When a problem occurred, we just had a feeling: the real problem is–THERE! It was more mystical than anything else.
I have discussed this with friends in jobs where there are no set procedures to follow and this kind of sixth sense existed. Most people put this down to experience, but it’s more than that.
I tried to get trainees to think from day one. That’s why I get lugged with all new staff for the Transport Management Centre: someone up there thinks I do it well.
“Traffic?” he said, rather uncertainly.
“Exactly. Traffic congestion. If a voter is regularly caught in a traffic jam, he will risk losing his job, arriving late all the time. He will also be submitted to unnecessary stress and aggravation. Taking the electorate as a whole, traffic congestion leads to loss of work hours. Who will the voters blame? They will blame us or, more usually, our ultimate boss, the Bourgmestre. When we make a mistake here, everyone jumps to attention because we all know the Bourgmestre will be over shortly to vent her anger at us for damaging her re-election campaign.”
His jovial face suddenly paled, but I hastened to reassure him. “Don’t worry, we’re too far down the ladder to matter. Managers are paid to take responsibility. Very few assume it, but our department head is good; the buck always stops with him.”
I laughed, reminded of a meeting I was forced to attend between the Bourgmestre and our head. Each time the former wanted to blame us for tarnishing her image, our head threw back that we were working under harrowing conditions. The personnel shortage and an almost total lack of good training were due to restrictions imposed by her office. The head had always told us that he was amazed at the quality of service we attained, despite such insufficiencies. Happily enough for us, he remembered this at the end of each year when it was time for Christmas bonuses.
“I’m digressing. Now, one thing that needs to be clear. From here,” I waved at the room lazily, “we control all communication between any computers involved in traffic regulation, be they in traffic lights, at train stations or on board vehicles. We only intervene when the smooth flow of information fails.” I paused for breath before continuing. “Have you got a car, Patrick?”
“No, but I got my licence last year.”
“Well, then, you’re familiar with the onboard traffic computers. As you know, they can help you determine exactly where you are in the city at any given time. You can also find the shortest route between two points. There are many more functions, but the only other one that we need be concerned with is avoiding accident sites and road works.
“The basic principle we labour under is that we are here to regulate traffic inside the city centre, where the traffic density is the highest. At any given time, we ensure that a motorist arriving at the edge of the city is given all the relevant information. Any ideas what?”
Patrick’s brow knotted as he thought it out before venturing an answer. “Where the traffic jams are, and where there are still parking spaces in the centre.”
I would definitely have to watch out for this kid. He was too quick for his own good.
“Yes, but it’s more if AND where. If there are any traffic jams, he’s given alternate routes to avoid them. However, if there are no alternate routes, that is, too many traffic jams, then his onboard transport computer will direct him to the nearest P&R terminal, proposing that he make use of the public transportation system.”
“Hugh, what’s a P&R?” Now that was different.
“What? You’ve never used one? Most of the cities have at least three.”
“No, I come from a little town in the country.”
“Yes, but you went to university, didn’t you?”
“I lived in the university district, where everything was within walking distance.”
It is amazing that these days, twenty-two years into the 21st century, with technology running rampant in nearly every domain, someone can grow up without being subjected to the major facilities of a modern city, even if he was a country boy.
“A P&R, or Park and Ride terminal, is a vast parking lot next to a train and/or metro station. A motorist, to avoid taking his car into the city, can park it at the terminal, and take either the train or the metro in. Each terminal has excellent security systems, so there is no need for anyone to worry about car theft.”
“But what if there are no parking spaces left in the city?”
I smiled at him, motioning for him to finish the thought himself. Doubtfully, he glanced at his notes, then said, “Send him to the P&R anyway.”
Easily faking a thoughtful look, I nodded. I cannot help it. Explaining the full implications of my job always boosts my ego, giving me an inflated idea of my own importance. At least I was aware of it, and that was already half the battle.
For the three million motorists and the two-and-a-half million other commuters who use public transportation, the Transport Authority was just another faceless government institution. They probably had no idea of the hard work we put in to ensure they have a trouble-free ride into town every day. They tended to take us for granted, until the day they got delayed in a traffic jam, in which case they suddenly remembered whom to blame.
“Yep. We don’t want him driving around town all day, spewing horrible things like carbon monoxide into the city air. By the way, that’s another thing we have to monitor.”
“Pollution?” he spurted incredulously.
Imitating the clipped monotone of contemporary newscasters, and putting on a grave face, I intoned, “EEC directives specify acceptable limits of pollutant emissions inside a city centre.” Then I dropped back to my normal voice, “When air inside the city reaches the limit, we must direct all motorised traffic to P&R terminals immediately. Environmental groups are always quickest to blow the whistle the moment the limits are exceeded. You will probably find a Greenpeace activist, at this very moment, testing air quality at the roundabout up the road. However, they are not just a nuisance. The city gets fined for every hour above the limits.”
Smiling as he overcame his surprise, he asked “How much?”
Standing up, I said over my shoulder, “I have no idea, but it’s enough to make senior managers tremble when it happens. We’ve been working for twenty minutes. It’s time for a coffee break.”