The next morning, a pleasant surprise. Nicholas had flown in, probably on some kind of damage-limitation exercise following the recovery of Jon Nash’s body. Answering the blinking pod, Eric received a summons to lunch. It was sort of an in-joke between him and Nicholas, going out to lunch. It had been one of their normal person exercises for a long time, until Eric could bring himself to open his eyes, look at the menu, actually imagine eating something without the urge to run from the restaurant or lock himself in the bathroom. In-joke, because most food tasted pretty much the same to him: indifferent. Under Nicholas’s patient tutelage, he had got used to remembering to eat regularly, but he still didn’t really care what he ate. Nicholas, by contrast, enjoyed going out to eat what he called “good food”, a phrase that Eric found baffling save for the evident care and attention with which the food in “good restaurants” was presented. Good restaurants, to him, meant low lighting, minimalist decor and preferably no other patrons. He doubted that going out for lunch in Amsterdam was going to qualify on any of those counts. But it would be good to spend some time with Nicholas again.
A message flashing unheeded on the pod some two hours before he surfaced indicated that Robin had taken a car to the local Int Ops offices. Try to get something useful out of the films, the message finished, tersely.
He felt oddly light-headed this morning, a sensation that did not entirely dissipate after some eighteen-year-old, skinny Dutch boy with a crystal zirconia lip-stud, wearing grey flannel trousers six and a half centimetres too short, brought him breakfast. Some kind of bread-rolls, and hot water, with several individually-wrapped infusions apparently indicating that hotel catering were determined to try and change his mind about wanting just the hot water with nothing else in it. He opened the burnished steel pot, the mushroom-cloud of steam blurring the weave of the white linen tablecloth behind it, and peered in. Just hot water, no caffeine stains whatsoever. That would do.
He toyed with the idea of taking another visimorphine, but he’d already used up one of his spares, and it would leave him with just one for emergencies. He’d leave it ‘til he got outside. Maybe. He fingered the phial, considering.
He called up a street-map of the city on the room’s screen, located the street with the restaurant. The clock in the corner of the screen told him in fifty-seven blue-white pixels that he had a little under two hours before it would be time to meet Nicholas.
Down the corridor, he knocked on Dan’s door. The shadows under the door shifted and grew as Dan opened it, all stubble and disheveled hair, but dressed and evidently in the middle of cleaning up more of Judith’s films. As he shuffled back into the room, inviting Eric in with a vague nod of his head, Eric saw the screen, frozen in a single still from Schiphol airport, zoomed in on a pixellated fragment of tattooed arm. Jon Nash’s arm? The face was out of shot.
Dan sat back down in the brown leather hotel armchair, apparently about to continue with his work, but Eric said “Wait,” and Dan put down the stylus, eyes focused somewhere near Eric’s feet.
“Judith met me at the airport yesterday.” Dan said nothing, but his eyebrows twitched. Eric continued, “She was ... upset. She tried to warn me off the case. She told me Jon Nash was the one who sent her the films. She said that the people who killed Jon Nash would be after her, and then come after us.” And at that, Dan did look at him, surprise evident in his eyes and the angle of his neck. “She looked as though she was losing it.”
Dan sat still, evidently waiting for some clarification or direction, or something. But he didn’t know what, so the best thing seemed to be to say “I don’t know whether to believe her or not. But don’t leave the hotel on your own.” Dan nodded, apparently still absorbed in the carpet, but Eric knew him well enough to know that he understood.
What possible information was there, in those films, that could get them killed? He didn’t know anything. “Can you bring up Judith’s films and run them together?” Dan nodded again and set to work.
Eric sat in the other chair and closed his eyes while Dan wrangled the database. He didn’t know how long it took, but then the room seemed to get brighter beyond his closed eyelids, and he opened them to see Dan taking a soda out of the ‘fridge before shuffling back to his chair. Eric sat up and shuffled his own chair forward.
Dan nodded towards the screen, which was his usual way of indicating that they were ready to go. “Seventy-five minutes.” Quite a lot of film in one go. Eric sighed and took the phial out of his pocket.
He didn’t see anything unusual in the first clip, or the second, aside from the people Judith had asked him to pick out. Midway through the third clip, from about a month ago, he thought he remembered, he caught sight of a lick of black tattoo on a neck, and gestured to Dan to pause the screen. The face atop the neck looked odd. Not just unfamiliar, but actually not like a usual face at all. Shades and colours all subtly wrong, like a painting by a blind man. Or a blind woman.
“Can you zoom in here?” Dan obliged, and as the face grew larger on the screen, Eric saw that the pixels making up the face had been scrambled, or perhaps their values had all been changed, while still preserving the basic order of eyes, nose and mouth. It was a non-face.
He looked at the rest of the man’s body, mostly visible except for where his left leg was obscured by some middle-aged woman shopper in the foreground, wearing an unflattering red coat. On the short side, this man. Quite small hands.
Jon Nash! It was certainly a good fit for the body in the morgue and the man on the transit platform. He was short and slight, though not as short as Robin, helped in part by unusually thick soles on his shoes. But what possible reason could there be for changing his face? He saw Dan looking at him out of the corner of his eye, waiting to see whether he should roll the next segment of film.
“I think that’s Jon Nash.” He saw Dan’s eyes widen. “But they’ve changed his face somehow.”
Dan peered at the screen, and his stylus worked methodically across the pad. “P-pixel values are all within the n-normal range for the frame”. A careful job, then - designed to go unnoticed. Or almost unnoticed.
He gestured for Dan to continue, and they carried on, stopping six more times as Eric identified the same man, four times more with a fragment of tattoo showing at the neck or wrist, and two with it obscured, either by passers-by or the man’s own clothing. Each time, Dan tagged the important frames for later reference and Eric stared, compelled, at the man’s pixellated non-face, different every clip, the pixels shifting slightly within each clip, from frame to frame, with the same apparent sprinkling of noise as the rest of the picture. A very careful job.
The white pixels in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen ticked over and reminded him that he was meeting Nicholas in half an hour. He would need to come back to this later.
He left Dan with instructions to comb through the tagged frames to see if there was any way the man’s face could be reconstructed from the scramble of available pixels, and went down the stairs and through reception, managing to remain focused on the dark wood and glass of the front doors and ignore the glittering chandelier.
Outside, though, his focus dissipated completely, fracturing in the face of a busy lunchtime crowd thick with tourists. The sun gleamed from over a dark brown tiled roof, the pale yellow light bouncing off the shining glass buildings by the canal, off the water, and off three hundred and fifty-seven pairs of sunglasses. Bracing himself, shades turned all the way up, he pushed through the crowd. This had better be a good lunch.