The bus lurched to a halt and vomited us onto the pavement. The main plaza was a sea of heavy clothes crested with people’s downcast faces. I allowed myself to join that miserable surf and was washed across the square. The damp concrete squelched under my shoes. It can’t have been that loud, but every step made me wince.
Head down; hat tipped forward. Not enough to look like I was hiding, but enough to shade my face. I’d be scanned, but the machines would process the clearest pictures first.
I casually approached my first stop; saw myself in the shop window and checked the time. I looked much calmer than I felt: the city’s equivocal scrutiny raised horripilations inside and out – look away from the glass. I opened the shop door and walked in.
The brassy ring hung in the air as the door closed. It was darker here, and the outside world seemed bright in spite of the drizzle. I shouldered through the racks of designer suits and dresses for hire, up the steps and swept aside the tatty curtain hiding the dressing room. I knelt and ripped away the wallet taped underneath the worn bench. I replaced the curtain and returned to the shop floor.
Alerted by the bell, the owner had appeared, a soft aging gentleman with thin hair and thick glasses. We nodded amiably and I murmured something about how nice the suits were and that I’d be back for a fitting. I smiled warmly at a woman (whom I presumed was his wife), then made the bell ring again.
The sky spat coldly at my feet, giving me a reason to hunch into my coat and tilt the brim again. I went against the flow back across the plaza, but joined a group of be-suited citizens marching with corporate urgency. I was glad of our uniformity, hiding me from the glass-eyed gargoyles clinging to every pole and rooftop.
While we cut through the masses I fished out the wallet. It didn’t feel like cowhide, probably some poor endangered brute worth more dead than alive; not unlike the wallet’s owner. I extracted the cash card and threw away its skin.
I left the business folk with a fraudulent wave and strode upright into the bank. Security stood at precise intervals along the walls, with their dutifully suspicious faces ogling us all. I brushed ostentatiously past one, causing him to apologise profusely. I ignored him and attended to the lonely automatic teller.
This might be trickier. The machine accepted the card and allowed me to enter the twenty-four digit pin number I’d memorised earlier, confirm the owner’s date of birth and then answer a host of security questions. That was the cost of a machine withdrawal and denoted my newfound status. His privacy premium should ensure my anonymity. Other customers sneered enviously from the winding queues. I selected a total withdrawal. Thankfully it was not unheard of for the wealthy to pimp their cash around the banking district for a higher interest rate. And with the market so buoyant it was a risk I could justify.
I tried to enjoy a complimentary coffee while the machine sucked on my card. Eventually the big glossy notes were shuffled and stacked, and began to clutter the table. There was so much that they piled up and some fell to the floor. I immediately leaned over to scoop it up, acutely conscious of their uniqueness: the thick notes gave the denomination next to a large photograph of the card’s owner and details. We wouldn’t even have passed for distant cousins.
But I was hasty and bumped into another customer. The man stepped away muttering to himself. I apologised and straightened his jacket, my back to the table. Out of the corner of my eye I could saw security guards whispering into their headsets. It was time to leave.
I packed the money into the complimentary valise and set off. I caught the eye of a man entering the bank and greeted him effusively. I grasped his arm with a large handshake, twisted and hurled him into the guards by the exit. It was a tiny delay, but all that I needed to dart out of the bank into the street. The rain had stopped.
The banks took pride in their account security and customer privacy, so my withdrawal would remain secret: a thief couldn’t spend their money as its theft would be so obvious at the point of sale. I had other financial plans. The scuffle however would have been noted by state security, and that alone prompt swift action. Abandoning my earlier caution, I ran.
The sun had dried up the square, so I could no longer merge with the crowd. I ducked under a café’s parasol and detached the lower half of my coat, tore off my trouser-bottoms and threw them, with my hat, on an empty chair. Leaving my cover I shook out my hair and forced my run into a saunter. Then I turned into the correct side alley and vanished from their oversight.
Behind me at the café would be a man in a standard grey coat and hat, examining my discarded clothing and demanding information. I didn’t have all day to get away. A few blocks away I picked up my pace and took advantage of another blind spot to slip into a narrow doorway. This was safe, for a moment. I had just enough time to reverse my jacket and add the cap and glasses from the shelf. I swapped the money to a bag on a hook and stuffed the freebie into a drawer, checked the time and left through the other side of the building.
I changed my walk and swaggered down the road. I passed at least two security agents but they showed no interest in me. That wasn’t necessarily encouraging, not if I was doing what they expected. I’d exhausted my disguises and had to be running out of luck. They would be listening for me now, tuning into my walking rhythms, having measured my height, weight and countless other features. It was only a matter of time before they caught up, or I escaped their electronic senses.
Two pairs of footsteps were suddenly loud at my heels. A glance into a window confirmed that I was being followed. But when I turned the next corner the footsteps died away. Had I lost them? Maybe they were toying with me. Maybe they weren’t following me at all. I couldn’t second-guess them and so had to stick to the plan. I had a destination, and a rapidly elapsing time frame. I jogged through a warehouse yard and into the utility landscape beyond.
A sound to my right nearly made me sick with panic. My heartbeat thundered in my ears – I was so close. A welcome shape emerged from a massive pipe and waved. We smiled grimly at one another and I followed her through the maze of machinery until we reached the railway line.
“That’s one more then,” she said.
“How much time do we have?”
“The train’ll be here in time,” she checked her watch, “- just. Get ready.”
We crouched, waiting, and as the train came past we grabbed the railing and pulled ourselves onto the last wagon. A gang of grey-coated men strode urgently towards the tracks we were leaving. The first man staggered, clutched at another before they all toppled to the ground and were still.
She raised an eyebrow at me and I smiled tightly, and raised my bag. In return she nodded and produced a tall glass container. The yellow biohazard sticker protested futilely against the broken seal. She tossed the empty vessel into the fresh rain. We clung to each other as the train sped up, taking us away from the cold, dark city.
We sat, huddled together against the weather and checked our funds. The currency would be bankable, no questions asked, for a day or two. It would fund the rest of our journey. My partner’s rucksack clinked with the train’s motion. Through the drawstring opening I counted our other supplies, their red warning lights jostling in lethal merriment. We would be in our second city by morning.