Chapter 20: Recruitment
Steven’s eyes were blinded as he exited the candle lights of the cathedral into Piazza del Duomo’s bright sunlight, crisping his eyes as he walked into the square littered with people. As his eyes adjusted, he turned and faced the Duomo Cathedral in the most famous square in all of Milan. “Christianity sure inspired people to build nice stuff… they were bound to get something right,” he thought smiling.
It was the biggest cathedral in Europe and Steven had been happy that this one didn’t charge tourists for the tour like they did in St-Peter’s Basilica and the one next to the Pisa Tower, of which he had already forgotten the name.
As he set himself to take a picture of the façade, he noticed that to the left of the main door was a sculpture on the wall. It was a warrior holding the severed head of a man as if proudly showing it as a victory trophy. The lifeless body of his adversary lay at his feet, freshly decapitated. Hmm, interesting message to the worshippers.
As he continued to make his way through the sea of people, he saw a man placing popcorn seeds on the hands of a giggling little girl as a dozen birds descended on her arms. He stopped, took a picture, and proceeded to the direction of some nearby guards.
“Sorry, how I can get back to my hotel from here?” asked Steven, pointing to the address on the room card.
“Spiacente può spostare un po,” answered one of the guards, nudging Steven to the right and continuing to survey the square.
“Take metro to Greco Pirelli, it is face of it,” the guard repeated in broken English.
“Grazie signore,” thanked Steven politely as he retraced his steps across the plaza and along the sidewalk. Soon he was descending the stairs and crossing the tourniquet of the metro, which he found surprisingly well maintained as opposed to the metro in Paris.
The subway ride was no different from the one he took since he arrived in Milan; it was overwhelmed with tourists. Exiting at his destination, he peered up and noticed that the sky had darkened. He felt his stomach growl as he crossed the street into the dense traffic and entered the lobby of his hotel. It was nice and large, as far as Italy was concerned. At the centre, in front of the reservation desk was a seating area comprised of many sofas neighbouring carved mahogany tables. The walls were adorned with beautiful paintings which, in his opinion, seemed to pale in comparison with the massive wood frame surrounding them.
He looked at the restaurant far to the right of the front desk, but couldn’t make out if it was open or not. He walked in front of the clerk, waited for the girl behind the counter to finish her phone conversation–which, to him, sounded an awful lot like a personal call—and asked her where he should go to have lunch other than the hotel restaurant which he assumed to be closed at this hour.
“You are Canadian right?” asked the front desk manager as she emerged from the door at the back of the counter, interrupting her employee in the process. “Room 204, Mr. Mitchell, Si?”
“Yes, I am,” replied Steven proudly.
Looking at her co-worker, she said something in Italian that Steven, who spoke French, understood easily enough.
“Mr. Mitchell, there are two gentlemen—Americans by the sound of them—who are waiting for you in the restaurant. They have been here for two hours already,” informed the manager, her eyes curious to know why two men would come unannounced and wait for hours until a guest returned.
“Thanks,” said Steven not bothering to ask what they wanted.
Steven tried to stave off his nervousness and the plethora of anxieties that kept on racing through his mind as he walked the length of the corridor leading to the restaurant. He found the door slightly ajar and, steeling himself for whatever was waiting for him, cautiously stepped inside. He saw the two gentlemen that the front desk manager was talking about. They were both sitting at a table next to the window on the far end of the room. By their looks, they seemed more military than cops. Both were dressed in dark suit jackets, but no ties on account of the hot weather. One of them threw a glance at his direction and discreetly gestured to his associate. As they stood up, he knew they meant business.
Fighting the urge to turn and run, Steven approached them reluctantly. “The girl at the front desk said you have been waiting to talk to me?”
“Yes, Mr. Mitchell,” replied the taller one. I am Sergeant Gilbert Peterson and this is Captain Landon Brown. We represent the US Army.”
“We need to talk, but we would rather not do it in public. Can we continue this discussion in your room?” asked Brown.
Steven quickly focused his eyes thinking what they could possibly want with him and, more importantly, what he could possibly have in his room that he didn’t want them to know about, but he couldn't think of anything important.
Thinking that at least five people must have seen them in the last two hours, he felt that there was no harm in granting their request of taking them to his room. He would never have done that in Asia, but this was Europe and the two guys look genuine enough. Famous last words, he thought as they passed in front of the Front Desk on their way to the elevator. Steven took the opportunity to motion to the clerk that he was taking them upstairs and the girl nodded in understanding. She scribbled something on a piece of paper. Whether it was for him or someone else, he never had the chance to find out.
Within a minute, they were all squeezed into the small Italian elevator and had exited on the third floor corridor. Steven used the key to open the door of his room and stepped inside first. The room was cramped and only had one chair. Peterson, entering last, turned the chair away from the desk and sat on it backward, his muscular chest leaning against the backrest and invited Steven to sit on the bed.
“Mr. Mitchell,” started Peterson softly, “We have traveled here from the United States to meet you and be able to have this conversation in private. But before we can tell you why we are here, we have a document for you to sign. It is nothing special, just a nondisclosure agreement. It is only a formality, but a necessary one.”
Steven was presented a two-page document by Mr. Brown with his own Montblanc which was lying on the bed, a knockoff he had picked up in Guangzhou. Knowing that his days of computer hacking were long behind him and couldn’t, for the life of him, imagine what two military officers from the mighty United States Army could want from him.
“Do you mind if I read it first?” asked Steven, not waiting for their approval. He read the document but had to re-read the same sentence three times before understanding it. His nervousness, coupled with his racing mind, was making the reading and understanding difficult. In the end, it proved to be a standard non-disclosure agreement. Steven had the feeling that the seal of the United Nations on top of the first page meant that the consequence of disclosing the information would be much worse than being sued. If I tell you, I would have to kill you seemed a little dramatic but more accurate, he thought.
Steven leaned forward and rested his forearms on the bed in a weak attempt to conceal the trembling of his hands as he signed the documents. “Here,” he said, handing the documents back to Mr. Brown.
“First Mr. Mitchell, let me assure you that we are aware of your problems with the Toronto Police Department a few years back and that we are not here for that. Well, not really for that,” observed Peterson.
That’s reassuring, if not confusing. “What do you mean?” asked Steven.
“The crime you have committed has allowed us to learn about you and thanks to our relationship with the Interpol office in Lyon, we have located you, but we are not here for that,” answered Peterson. “You have nothing to fear from us in that regard.”
So I can fear you in other matters? “Pal, you really have an act for making people feel at ease,” Steven shot back sarcastically. “Maybe it would be easier if you just tell me what you need from me and stop trying to reassure me.”
“To the point; I like that,” offered Peterson. “Okay, I can dig that station, how can I put it in ways you will understand… we are United States military personnel on loan to the United Nations and we are here on their behalf. There is a situation in Norway which my superiors believe you could be of service.”
“Okay,” reflected Steven in disbelief. “I am assuming that this is computer-related?”
“The task they want you to perform will involve computers or at least it is something technological in nature,” added Mr. Brown speaking for the first time. “We are recruiting scientists, computer programmers, archaeologists, engineers and military personnel to help on this project.”
“What kind of ancient place have you discovered?” asked Steven.
“Ancient place?” replied Peterson, surprised and looking at the face of his colleague who was as equally stunned. “What makes you believe that this is an ancient place?”
“Well, you seem to be recruiting an awful lot of people from the scientific community, so I assume that it is not just a small object or you would have brought it to them. Hiring archaeologists means that it is old,” explained Steven with a wink.
“Smart kid,” Mr. Brown jested.
“When our people visited your mother's apartment and, incidentally, your room, they discovered that you’re a great fan of science fiction,” observed Peterson, looking at Brown and then at Steven as if looking for something missing. Finding nothing, he continued. “So, let’s just talk Star Trek for a second to make it easy to understand. If Captain Jean-Luc Picard were to invite you on board the USS Enterprise, what would you say?”
“Transporter room, Mr. O’Brian, one to beam up, please,” answered Steven smiling excitedly. “And by the way, I'm not shocked nor am I offended that you have been in my room. After what I've been hearing for the past five minutes, it would take much more than that to surprise me.”
“Smart kid, indeed,” concluded Brown.
“We have a military transport at Milan Airport ready for takeoff. We should have everyone we need round up by tomorrow night,” said Peterson. “We will take care of your bill at the hotel; you will receive a UN international professional salary and benefits starting today. Your contract will be on a temporary basis with a minimum of one year.”
“Where are we going, exactly?” asked Steven, more interested in the project than the money.
“A village in northern Norway,” answered Brown.
“A little late for the Olympics,” replied Steven with a chuckle, clearly excited, his nervousness and fear totally gone.