The Do Not Disturb sign had been hanging outside the door for three days and the room had inevitably taken a turn for the worse. Not that it mattered much to Slater – his interest was location not aesthetics. Plates of half-eaten food lay in a jumble on the spare bed along with the contents of the mini-bar. Slugs of discarded tissue paper were scattered across the carpet, into which Slater had been steadily jerking away the boredom. Apart from the voices on the telephone and the boy who occasionally delivered food to the door, Slater had seen or spoken to no one since booking into the hotel. The isolation was beginning to affect him. “Fuck-king amateurs!” he angrily repeated to himself again and again. “Fuck-king amateurs!”
This job was doomed from the start: According to the itinerary, Slater should have been able to book straight into The Holiday Inn upon arrival. He couldn’t. The hotel was somehow full and he’d had to carry his bags through the streets until he found an alternative location. He ended up in a place called The Phoenix, which just about gave him a clear view of the contact point. If that wasn’t bad enough, Griffin had failed to show at the allotted time – he’d come a day later and Slater had committed the cardinal sin of not being fully prepared. It wasn’t professional. He wasn’t going to make that mistake again. No Sir.
Slater had now fixed his rifle to a portable tripod for pinpoint accuracy. But although he was ready for action he didn’t feel good. Slater had a headache from the alcohol and couldn’t stop farting. His stomach wasn’t used to what they ate here: the sticky sugars, the saturated fats, the dangerous free radicals. Slater peered through the digi-viewer and idly targeted a passer-by in the street, a young mother pushing a pram. His finger brushed the trigger. “Bam!” he said aloud, imagining what the E2.02 bullet would do to her skull. The E2.02 was a significant upgrade: it was designed to explode within 1/1000 of a second of hitting the target. It would burst the woman’s head open like an over-ripe melon.
The thought of melon made Slater feel hungry. He called room service.
“Now this, young Winston, my boy, is what you might call a 24/7 wanker,” said Lester Barnes, flicking on the speakerphone with his stubby fingers. Barnes’s torso was lodged behind a desk in the reception of the Phoenix Hotel; standing next to him was seventeen-year-old Winston Young, who, besides lugging bags and trays of food up and down the stairs for twelve hours a day, was also expected to laugh at Barnes’s weak jokes whenever the need arose.
“I’m surprised that his little winkle hasn’t withered away and died,” continued Barnes, carefully aiming his voice away from the speakerphone, his eyes demanding Winston’s approval.
This was only Winston’s third week at the Phoenix – just about long enough for him to get used to the smell of fresh paint and decaying food that permeated every brick in the building – but it seemed like he had been there forever. Lester Barnes himself had interviewed him for the job: stale sweat, cheap cologne, hands a little too friendly. Winston felt himself instinctively recoil when Barnes placed a meaty arm around his shoulders and told him that he could start straightaway. There was a self-indulgent smile on Barnes’s face as he said the words – like he was handing Winston the keys to a gold Porsche.
“Hello?” Hello?” called the voice in Room 42.
Barnes liked to keep the guests waiting when he was on reception. He liked to sit at that desk with a big wad of gum between his teeth and take his time answering their calls. Winston imagined that doing this somehow made Barnes feel important. But then Winston had probably never met anyone quite so unimportant. Loathsome as he was, it was difficult to begrudge Barnes even the mildest opportunity to boost his ego.
Sometimes the guests really lost it. They would get so fed up of waiting that they would storm downstairs and demand to see the manager. That was when a sickly smile would appear on Lester Barnes’s face. “I am the manager, “ he would proudly proclaim, daring them to challenge this blatant lie. This morning, however, Barnes was obviously feeling benevolent. He made the man in Room 42 wait for only twenty seconds or so before lowering his lips to the speakerphone:
“Good morning to you… Sir,” said Barnes, in a voice that somehow managed to both antagonise and ingratiate. “What can I do for you this fine and pleasant day?”
“I want the same as last night,” said Room 42.
“I’m afraid I’m going to need just a teensy bit more information… Sir,” grinned Barnes, covering the speakerphone with a fleshy palm and winking at Winston Young, who was listening in on the conversation.
Winston Young appeared to like that one. He let out a high-pitched chortle but was immediately shussed by Barnes.
“I want to eat what I had last night.”
“And what might that be?” asked Barnes, even though the man in Room 42 had ordered precisely the same meal for three days’ running – breakfast, lunch and dinner. “We have a very extensive menu, you know.”
The man in Room 42 put down the phone and rummaged around for a few moments to find the menu. Since his arrival at the hotel he had become the main focus of attention at reception. Barnes and Young had been using the booking computer to monitor his activities. For the first day or so the man had sat in his room watching whatever happened to be on Pay TV: a Disney film… Jurassic Park III… Then on Saturday night he’d discovered the porn channels and had been watching them around the clock ever since, never venturing out of the hotel. He’d have almighty shock when he saw his bill.
The man in Room 42 returned to the phone. “I want a Philadelphia Steak Sandwich,’ he said in monotone. “Medallions of beef fillet served in a white baguette with a rich Philadelphia cheese, mushroom and cream sauce.”
Winston collected the tray from the kitchen and carried it to the stairs. It was a hot day and the cheap nylon uniform he was obliged to wear clung to his body like a second skin. Winston was up and down those stairs at least forty times a day and he found it hard to conceal his hatred of the people he served. As far as he was concerned if this was what working for a living was all about you could stick it.
Room 42 was located on the fourth floor. Winston carried the tray through the twisting corridors and tapped on the door. The man was standing in the doorway before the third tap, his big frame blocking out any view of the interior of the room. “Your order,” said Winston, not for the first time slightly taken aback at the sheer size of the man in Room 42. He must have been at least six-four/six-five. He towered over Winston.
Slater took the tray from Winston and laid it at his feet. Then he fished into his pocket and pulled out a clump of banknotes. “Take this,” he said, awkwardly handing Winston a brand new ten. Winston pocketed the money and tried to stay calm: the man in Room 42 was certainly a generous tipper but he made Winston feel nervous. Winston was determined not to show it.
“Thank-you very much, Sir – shall I take away the trays from last night?”
Slater ate the food with his fingers, grimacing at the taste. He checked his watch again. It was 11.46. Three hours and twelve minutes to wait before Griffin was due to appear. On the TV mounted on the wall a man was penetrating a woman from behind and Slater tried to keep his anger in check. Right now he needed to stay cool and professional but he was going to let that weasel Phillips have it when he got back to the Bunker. Jobs like this rarely ran 100 percent smoothly, but to have to sit and wait for three days, well that was just plain shoddy work on Phillips’s part. Recon was by its very nature notoriously imprecise – but even so. Every second that Slater spent in this place only increased the danger of his being discovered, and he wasn’t about to let himself become another statistic. He’d have Phillips up against the wall when he got back – and he was going to claim compensation. Yessir. Time was money in this game.
“Well?” said Lester Barnes on reception.
“He wouldn’t let me in the room and he still wouldn’t let me clear away any of the plates,” replied Winston Young. “It smells pretty bad up there, too.”
“I bet it does… said Barnes, with what Winston took to be a determined look on his face. “Right…”
Barnes called Room 42. The phone rang for a few moments before it was answered. “Good morning to you once more,” announced Lester Barnes. “Terribly sorry to bother you but we were hoping that at some point in the distant future we might be able to send a maid up to clean your room.”
“The room. It hasn’t been cleaned for three days – it’s plain unhygienic. We’ll have the Health And Safety after us. Are you intending to pop out at all today – we could do it then perhaps?”
“Well maybe Margaret could just clean up around you. You’d hardly know she was there.”
There was silence for a moment before the man spoke: “Listen, you fat fuck,” he growled. “Don’t call me again. You can clean your shitty room when I’m ready.”
“I beg your pardon…”
“…And tell that boy to bring me more drinks – I’m thirsty.”