we are POD

by Christian Vassie

2

Vicki Gutner makes a show of tidying her desk. Not that there is anything much to tidy. No photos of loved ones; there are no loved ones, unless you include her extravagantly expensive Scappa mountain bike, with its bespoke made-to-measure carbon fibre frame, or her lime green Porsche 911, or her Aster Cucine kitchen with its lacquered walnut cabinets. Gutner loves things not people. Photos of things are not what you put on your office desk, and her things are nobody else’s business. She has no pens or paper to stash away other than the dossier she has just printed, which she slides into her briefcase. She writes everything on the writing tablet she carries with her at all times; Gutner has learned the hard way never to put waste paper in a litterbin.

The organisation’s motto is Trust no-one. New recruits take this to refer to 3-TEC’s many enemies: terrorists, nosy governments, old clients, peaceniks, international courts, and so on. The motto does refer to them but, most of all, it is a reminder that even within the organisation you are on your own.

She drops her lukewarm black coffee and the plastic sushi box in the bin. As she reaches the door she checks her watch. Ten minutes early.

Standing in the descending lift, clutching her briefcase, Gutner reflects on the dullness of the building. An air-conditioned void that smells of nothing and belongs nowhere. Her blurred reflection in the lift wall sums everything up perfectly, a soft-focused shadowy and anonymous functionary dressed in blue entombed in a grey polished metalled surface.

Gutner steps out into basement level 5 and takes a seat facing the twin doors. The receptionist glances up then returns to filing her nails until the buzzer sounds.

‘They are ready for you now.’

Gutner pushes the double doors and crosses the threshold.

Ten of the other eleven chairs are occupied by the intelligence committee which includes three other members of her department: Watson, Kovacs, and Messi. Gutner sits down and pulls the report from her briefcase.

In the twelfth chair, at the far end of the table, sits the Head of Operations, Major Tenebris. A night photograph of the organisation’s headquarters projected onto the wall behind his chair leaves him in silhouette except for the top of his bald head which glows the same colour as the screen. A thin laser light set in the ceiling points down at his notes. The light reflecting back from the paper lights his face from below, lending his face a ghoul-like appearance.

Aside from the second focussed beam of laser light that hits the rich orange mahogany surface of the table just in front of her, and into which Gutner pushes her report, the rest of the room is lit only by the giant screen, leaving all of the faces around the table largely in shadow.

‘The short version, thank you,’ says the figure at the other end of the table.

‘Yes, Sir.’ Gutner glances at her notes. ‘It is now twelve days since the Dauntless was sunk in a harbour on the island of Lipari, with the loss of thirteen lives. These included Major Richards, Ruth Winters, and the vessel’s crew and technicians. The incident happened roughly ten hours after the capture of Michel Blanchard, his daughter Sam, and one of the assets stolen by Blanchard several weeks previously. The explosion on the Dauntless originated in the moon pool room where, it is believed, Blanchard and daughter were being interrogated and where the asset was situated. Forensic examination has confirmed the deaths of Richards and Winters ...’

‘Their bodies have been identified?’

‘Small fragments of flesh were found on the sea bed and …’

‘Understood, thank you.’

‘We believe that Richards and Winters were killed by sharks rather than ...’

‘Carry on.’

‘The rest of the crew died in the explosion.’

‘Blanchard, the daughter, and the dolphins?’

‘One dolphin, Sir. They only captured …’

‘Were their remains identified?’

‘No, Sir. The explosion itself and the sea compromised the scene. Several crew members have not been formally identified either.’

‘So you abandoned the search?’

‘No, Sir. I checked the listings of all passengers on the ferries leaving the island of Lipari and …’

‘What if they didn’t leave by ferry?’ Tenebris cuts her off.

‘I raised the same issue,’ Gutner counters.

She glances at Major Watson. What she can see of his thin-lipped smile is like a ragged tear in a sheet of paper; he has been itching to see her fail from the moment she arrived in Sicily. Beside him is Paolo Messi, a jowly-faced specialist in disinformation, who sports a thin moustache like a caterpillar on his upper lip. They have set her up. Messi’s face is expressionless. Cowards. Apparently Watson isn’t intelligent enough to realise that, as her line manager, any failure on her part will also be his.

‘The island has no viable airport,’ Gutner continues. ‘All visitors and the locals travel by sea. Since Blanchard and his daughter, if they survived the explosion, were fugitives with no transport of their own they would have …’

‘Stolen a boat perhaps?’

‘There were no thefts reported,’ she says. ‘All boats sold or hired have been accounted for.’

‘How many other boats went down in the explosion that night?’

‘Three. All small fishing vessels moored close to the Dauntless. The owners reported the losses.’

‘And you investigated?’

‘Debris floating in the harbour. Satellite imagery before and after the explosion. Both confirmed that three boats were missing.’

‘On the seabed.’

‘Sir?’

‘You checked the seabed?’

He senses her hesitation. Behind him, the screen changes to show an ugly harbour, an abandoned pumice mine scarring the hill behind an old factory, its glassless windows staring blindly out to sea like the empty sockets in a skull. A long rusting jetty juts out into the grey winter sea like a broken tibia, offering partial shelter to a cluster of cowering fishing boats.

‘You identified the wreckage of four vessels on the seabed here at Porticello; the Dauntless and three other boats? You didn’t assume that the owners were telling the truth. Insurance claims by opportunistic fishermen don’t slip past you, do they?’

As Tenebris moves his head to glance at the screen, Gutner catches sight of the long scar that runs down the left hand side of his face from the top of his head to the corner of his mouth.

‘The satellite imagery clearly showed that three boats, plus the Dauntless, were missing the morning after the explosion,’ she says. ‘As I explained the evidence was compromised by …’ Tenebris lifts his hand to silence her. ‘Within the next twelve hours I want to know which of those other boats moored near her did not sink. I want photographs, owners’ names, length, draft and beam, paint colour. Everything, including how many forks there are in the cutlery drawer in the galley. Do I make myself clear?'

Across the table Watson parades his thin smile.

‘Yes, Sir,’ Gutner replies.

‘And when we have that information, I want the missing vessel found and destroyed, along with its occupants.’

The screen behind Tenebris changes again, to show close up photos of Michel Blanchard and his daughter, Sam, on board the Dauntless. Gutner stands and opens her briefcase.

‘Before you go.’ Tenebris turns to the others in the room. ‘These dolphins carry implanted GPS tracking devices, do they not?’

Glances are exchanged between several members of the committee.

‘So why haven’t we found them?’ Tenebris shouts at the top of his voice.

Several faces flinch involuntarily.

‘It is my understanding,’ Gutner says, ‘that both tracking devices are currently situated off the coast of Libya and have not moved for seven weeks. We must conclude that either both animals have died and that the dolphin captured two weeks ago was a different animal, or we must assume that the implants have been physically removed and abandoned on the seabed.’

‘Why wasn’t I told about this?’

Gutner doesn’t answer. She doesn’t have to. She pushes the report back into her briefcase and stares at Watson, who is pulling uncomfortably at the collar of his shirt, the smile having vanished from his lips.

Copyright © 2014 Christian Vassie