Chapter 1

It was cold that night, too. A cold that clamps your breath inside your chest until it hurts. Deep breath in. Crisp wet air spills in displacing hot carbon dioxide, a giggle of exhaust said the mouth.

I stepped expertly over a gash of frozen puddle, it's hair-thin layers of ice, air and impurities delicately suspended over wet cigarette butts and pigeon shit. Wisps of miniature crystalline snowflakes collect in small pocks across the sandy asphalt walkway toward the road.

Intersection ahead, City Park behind. No cars moved about the barren roadways, nor were any parked in sight. No people stirred. The trees rubbed in thousands of small ways, its singing static wrapped the skull.

Wind bit sharp pits through the cheeks, swaying depleted branches cast the only motion save for the giggling breath. On the inhale I thought about the aching cold in my shins. Exhale brought me to focus on the path ahead.

An inert traffic light hung limply from the cable between the ornate oversized Victorian-era street light post and the squat stone church. No smoke rose from the chimney. No lights within. A halo of monosodium ions cast sickly yellow to the collecting cover of snow, crunching beneath each careful step.

A row of muted finery shops add to the concrete stillness of the narrow downtown street, the openness of the park a softening hiss decaying behind.

The air seemed to stiffen and close in. Dull brick facades of last century stood defiantly in the face of their obsolescence. Their clean bay windows reflecting silent snow, glistening licked stamps settling to envelope-white sidewalk.

Around the corner where midnight drunks puked in line for kebabs, only silent snow claimed the streets. Absent the clouds of diesel and tangy-sweet alcohol fumes from lines of cabs hoping to rob the ladies before the drunks finish them off.

A sign wailed a soft protest to a gust spiralling down from the mini office blocks: MetroBranding Social Consultants in an annoyingly brand-familiar font.

Grey slate stacked by expert craftspeople a century before my birth towered at the corner. Incandescence back-lit the hand-painted art-deco “156” on frosted glass above the door. A bank originally, now home to a division of the Department; a skeleton crew inside. During active outbreaks they tend to keep to themselves, if you keep to yours.

Cold hands searching pockets come up with the piece of paper from two days ago. It was cold two days ago, too. The address of my destination was a given, but the door code I need was written in street scrawl no Father could decipher without a committee. It's on the next block, next to the Wrestling memorabilia shop and Zucchini Jake's cafe, I remembered, stuffing the paper back into my pocket.

You can leave your home town, but you can never truly return.

The wrestling shop windows shimmered like insect wings in the streetlight, catching the polycarbon armature of the display windows, inert, dead, beyond which a layer of dust coats discarded display stands and construction debris, polystyrene coffee cups.

A sound, but far off. You can hear a car door 40 blocks away on a night like tonight. Not that anyone is out slamming car doors while under orders. Anyone out tonight would be walking, and probably just their dog to the nearest community green and back. Zip, out, in.

Between the entrance and the cafe was a small alley where I once slept as a teen, running away from my parents who voted for the Company on that hot June election night.

I hit the code. Electromagnets silently displaced a slug of metal, allowing the door to open at my pull.

Black. Two steps forward, there's the desk. Slide down to the end. I feel the opening to the counter with my foot and hook a right. Acrid smell of ancient rancid deep frying fat singed the nose, as I pulled up a waft of dull mildew, descending the hatch to the pantry.

I know the way. I don't need a light at all. It always creeped the hell out of everyone I came through with. “Can't you turn on a damned light? How the hell do you see?” All this time and they still aren't comfortable walking around in the dark. How will they ever...

Light warms out around the frame of a doorway, though the door is barely that – 4 slabs of wood slated across with boards and a peppering of nails. The wet ancient concrete underfoot gives the impression of being dangerously slippery, even in my good walking-about shoes. Great on the snow, not so good on oil. You can't win a mall.

The tunnel is lit at 3 metre intervals with blue LED lights that always remind me of subway trains arriving at station when I was a kid, though back then the platforms were lit flat white. If you bothered to look just beyond, down the endless tunnels like the arms of Gods connecting this place to that, you'd see the impossible blue glow of the bioLEDs, softly pulsating at the rate of rotation of the earth times 2Pi, or something like that. “Sing soft of Blue Monday”, my mother would sometimes sing when she though she was alone – staring into some nostalgia that probably wasn't hers – that probably predated her.

They were already pouring the coffee, and the whiskey when I stepped into the sanctuary.