Devon vs. the Agents
By Ian Johnston
Devon looked over his shoulder, the wind whistling around his helmet. He could see the other bike behind him, hanging on. He grabbed a handful of throttle, and his Honda roared, leaping ahead through the traffic.
He wove in and out between cars, leaving them blaring their horns in his disruptive wake. The other rider matched him move for move. Devon could see, in his mirror, a car pulling up behind both of them, probably another Agent.
He looked around anxiously for an exit that wouldn't dump him into slow city streets. Ideally another freeway, so he could surprise his pursuers by jumping across to the exit and continuing at high speed.
A likely exit appeared on a sign, indicating a half mile ahead. At the speed he was moving, he figured he had about 15 seconds until the exit would pass by on the right.
Devon checked his mirror again, and saw the other bike edging forward through traffic, trying to get next to him. He swerved erratically, causing a slow-moving Ford to blare its horn at him and slam on the brakes.
That was all the opening he needed, and he dived across 4 lanes of traffic to the sound of tires screeching around him. His timing was impeccable, and the exit opened up like a predator's jaws to swallow him.
He checked his mirrors as he railed the bike around the curve onto the new road; the tailing bike and car were gone. He relaxed for a second, and let the bike come down to a more reasonable speed. It purred contentedly, like a cat being petted.
Devon took the next exit into the city, and headed back for his house.
* * *
The door creaked open in the tiny, cluttered apartment. Empty beer cans rattled out of the way, and mostly-eaten pizza crusts scrabbled down in their nearly vacant cardboard boxes. Devon shoved the door with his shoulder, irritated by the atrocious mess that filled the one-room dwelling.
He pushed his feet through the garbage on the floor, wrinkling his nose at the smell of stale beer, mold, and mouse droppings.
"What a shithole," he said reflectively. The helmet in his hand clattered to the ground as he dropped it disgustedly. His riding jacket, a ripped jeans jacket with metal studs inexpertly crimped to it, soon followed. His cat, Rupert, jumped over a pile of dirty laundry and rubbed up against his leg.
"Hello Rupert," said Devon. The cat purred expectantly, obviously hoping Devon was bringing something for it to eat. "Sorry cat," murmured Devon, "nothing this time. Guess you'll have to stick with whatever you can find lying around."
The cat paused for a moment, then walked haughtily away when it became clear that Devon was not the bearer of delicious tidings.
"Ugh," Devon grunted as he dropped onto the only piece of furniture in the place, a discarded sofa he'd found on the sidewalk outside the apartment building.
The ride he'd just taken echoed around his mind, as he replayed the events. That other rider, who had been chasing him: was that really an Agent? Devon couldn't be sure, although he had a clear image in his mind of the rider on the other bike acting like Devon expected an Agent to act. He wasn't even sure how he knew that, but he knew.
Where had he been coming from? Oh yes, Devon had been at work. His memory of his work day was fuzzy, a jumble of sense impressions that he couldn't connect together in a logical fashion.
His stomach rumbled, and Devon picked up the phone to order a pizza for dinner. As he brought the receiver up to his ear, he remembered: the phone was disconnected. He hadn't had the money to pay the bill for the last two months, and the phone company had finally cut him off.
"Just as well," muttered Devon, thinking of his dwindling finances, and expanding waistline. "Let's see what's in the ol' cupboard." He walked up to the cupboard nailed crookedly to the wall, and opened the door.
"Oh right. Nothing." Devon sighed, looking over the empty jar of peanut butter, mouse-nibbled cracker box, and jar of mustard that had actually turned green with mold.
He turned over in his mind how he could get dinner. He had $3 in his pockets from tips the waitresses had split with kitchen staff, but that wouldn't buy much food. Anyway, he needed $2 of that for gas tomorrow morning.
"Crap!" exclaimed Devon, startling the cat off the pile of laundry it had been curled up upon. Then a crafty look crossed his face, and Devon held one finger in the air, in a "Eureka!" pose.
He picked up the telephone receiver with a suave air, and dialed a series of digits. After a moment, he looked up with a bright smile on his face, and said, "Monique! About that dinner you mentioned the other night..."
* * *
Devon ran his hand through his hair as he walked purposefully toward the resturant. His expensive Italian riding leathers creaked as he walked, while the immaculate Honda Blackbird ticked to itself, cooling after the spirited ride.
He strode up to the restaurant entrance, where Monique was waiting for him, looking slightly anxious.
"Oh Devon!" she exclaimed when she spotted his sleek form splitting from the downtown crowd. She ran up to him with little steps, her tight- fitting sequined gown glittering wildly in the restaurant's lighting. She threw her arms around him, and a solitary tear rolled down her cheek.
"I've missed you so much," she said after a moment, her voice muffled in his shoulder. "It's been too long. You must come inside and tell me how you've been."
"Of course, my dear Monique. Just let me check my riding suit." He unzipped the leathers to reveal a tasteful sportcoat and slacks underneath. He handed the glove-soft riding garment to a wide-eyed youth in the coat-check, who gave him a small paper ticket in exchange. He tucked it into an inside pocket, and took Monique's arm. They walked together into the restaurant.
The maitre d' glided up to them as if on casters. "Greetings, Mr. Armstrong, Ms. Dellafond. Your table is just over here." He guided them to a small, moodily lit table in a far corner. Devon always insisted on a good view of the doors.
"Your waiter will be right with you," conceded the maitre d', snapping his fingers in the air as he slid away toward his next task.
"Monique, you are looking stunning this evening," said Devon, staring into her chocolate-colored, exquisitely made-up eyes. Her black gown sparkled slightly at him as he looked her up and down, taking in the diamond earrings, elegantly coiffed hair, and the swooping line from her ear down to her bare shoulder. "Absolutely divine."
"Oh Devon, tell me, where have you been? I haven't heard from you in months."
"Oh, you know I can't really talk about it," replied Devon. "Let's just say I've been travelling on business and leave it at that. What have you been up to, my sweet flower?"
Monique looked down at the table. "Mostly I've just been lonely. I've missed you, Devon. It's so terrible when you're gone."
At this point, the waiter appeared magically at Devon's shoulder and asked what the couple would drink. Devon picked a modest but flavorful red wine. The waiter scurried off to prepare it.
"Devon, you know I love you, yes?" asked Monique in her faint accent, her eyes darting around Devon's face, searching for reaction.
"Yes my dear, I know that."
"And do you love me?"
"Ah, there's a question for the ages." He paused. "You know I can't give you a straight answer to that question -- men in my line of work don't fall in love. It's a liability, and would put both of us in danger."
"I... I guess I knew that. Well, I know what I feel in my heart, and I'll try to be happy with that. I wish it were different."
Devon leaned over and took Monique's hand. He kissed it gently as he gazed up into her eyes. "You must do as you see fit," he murmured.
The waiter returned with the wine, and dinner progressed. Although their conversation continued, Devon and Monique kept to unimportant topics for the rest of the evening. He knew in a way he was breaking her heart, but at the same time, he couldn't afford the distraction of a lover right now.
As the main course was arriving, Devon felt something was amiss. Nothing he could exactly place, but an uneasy feeling. He'd felt it before -- Agents were nearby, he was almost certain.
Before he could get up, Devon heard a series of loud percussive sounds. Patrons screamed and fell to the floor in terror, and Devon reached for his pistol. He couldn't see the gunman, but the bangs happened again, a series of 5 shots from... over there? There must be two of them!
Devon woke up with a start. The door's chain rattled as someone pounded on it. Rupert was nowhere to be seen, probably hiding in the bathroom.
"Hinklestein! Hinklestein, we know you're in there! Where's the rent, Hinklestein? You're two weeks late, again! This is your last warning, then we're gonna evict your sorry ass! Dammit!" The person on the other side of the door pounded once more, apparently in frustration.
Heavy footsteps descended the stairs outside his apartment, and once they were a safe distance away, Devon shouted back, "my name's Armstrong!"
* * *
"Shit Rupert, what am I doing?" Devon looked dejectedly at his cat, who was busy cleaning itself in a vaguely contorted fashion. "Here I am, 28 years old, and I'm still washing dishes for a living. How can this be? I'm educated! I have skills! What's wrong with me?"
Devon got up off the couch and walked to one of the walls of the apartment, which was covered in newspaper clippings, pictures, and handwritten notes. The general theme was spies, secret agents, and espionnage. Here was an article describing a Chinese spy caught nearby. There was a picture of a car, but something was wrong with it -- then one would see that there were odd protuberances underneath it, one of which was dripping a dark fluid. Over there was a note in a hurried, precise hand in what had to be code: "The badger flies at midnight. Be wary of the moose, it brings tupperware. The book my aunt wrote was sold, but to which bookstore?"
"I know," said Devon, speaking to himself, the cat, or anyone who might have been listening in, "I know that these are important. There's something I'm missing. What is it? Why can't I figure this out?" The cat looked up for a moment from its cleaning, but quickly went back to it.
Devon took down a story about a corporate spy who was found out in one of the local factories. He had been working there for years, slowly gathering data, and apparently selling it to a competitor. The story printed an estimate of $45 million in lost sales and stolen technology.
Devon read through the story and pinned it back up on the wall. With a dejected sigh, he flopped down on the sofa, kicking an empty beer can off with a clatter, and went to sleep.
* * *
The following afternoon, he donned his denim-and-studs riding jacket, pulled on his helmet and went out to his bike. The little Honda scooter was faded red, and there was a small pool of oil underneath it, near the rear tire. The blinkers on the left side were missing, and the body was scraped up to match: he'd slid the little bike after hitting a patch of gravel late one night. The seat was held together with duct tape, which was slowly rolling up and peeling off.
He sat down and said a silent prayer. He turned the key and jabbed the starter button, but was only greeted with silence. "Shit!" he shouted, knowing he would probably be late to work now.
He sat back a little bit and started vigorously kicking the little kick-start lever. After about 10 kicks, the engine spluttered to life. He twisted the throttle, trying to keep it running. Despite his efforts, it died with a shudder moments later. He swore again and resumed kicking. Finally, with a cloud of blue smoke hovering behind him, he got it running.
The fuel gauge, which rarely worked anyway, pointed at E. Devon mentally fingered the $3 in his pocket as he gunned the motor to urge the little bike forward. Finally it caught, and pulled forward with a sudden lurch. Ready for it, Devon was leaned forward and managed to aim the little red missile at the apartment's street outlet.
He cruised down the street, engine sputtering and coughing smoke, to the nearest gas station. He fed the three dollar bills into the pump, one of them naturally being rejected several times before finally reading as a real bill. Devon dared not glance at his watch, perfectly aware that he was now quite late, and would get chewed out by his boss when he arrived at work.
After what seemed like forever, the gas pump had dispensed $3 worth of gasoline into the scooter's tank. Devon scrambled aboard and took off.
Fifteen harrowing minutes later, the scooter was ticking, creaking and dripping oil outside Devon's place of employment, the Rusty Scupper. Devon darted inside, grabbed for his timecard, and punched in. The timecard showed "4:25" on its face as he slid it into its slot, next to the schedule which indicated his shift started at 4.
* * *
Devon looked up from the dishes he was washing as Jonas, one of the cooks, continued talking.
"Dude, you've got to get your head out of the clouds. No way were you being chased by some kind of enemy agents last night. If anything, it was probably cops following you, trying to figure out if you were drunk," said Jonas.
"No way," replied Devon. "I'm sure they were Agents. And they're not 'enemy' agents, they're Agents, with a big A. There's a difference." He sounded a bit petulant.
"What's the difference?"
"Well..." he paused, a perplexed look crossing his face for a second. "I can't tell you exactly; it's just that Agents aren't like Soviet spies or anything. They're not here to bring down the country or the government, but they're my adversaries."
"Uh-huh," replied Jonas, rolling his eyes when Devon looked down. "So, why were they chasing you last night, assuming for a moment that they even exist, and care about you?"
Devon washed the plate in his hand thoughtfully, spraying the food off before putting it in the washing rack and picking up the next one. His hands were shaking a little bit, and he didn't want Jonas to see.
"I guess... I guess they were probably trying to catch me so they could interrogate me. I've got something they want, but I can't remember what it is. Like, I know there's something. I see it in dreams sometimes, but I can't ever remember it when I wake up." Devon's brow furrowed as if he were trying to chase down the elusive fact in his head.
He saw the look on Jonas' face when he looked up again.
"Yeah, I know. It makes me sound crazy. But you know I'm not crazy, right Jonas?" Devon's voice was a little bit pleading, and wasn't helping make his case.
"Yeah, I know you're not crazy," conceded the cook. "But I dunno Devon, this is pretty weird. Just don't talk about it when Mr. Jackson is around, ok?"
Devon nodded, knowing that there were only certain people he could trust with this knowledge, and Mr. Jackson, their supervisor, was not one of them. It wasn't just that he was their boss; something about him felt a little bit wrong. Devon looked back to his dishes, and Jonas walked back to pick up the ticket that had just arrived in the kitchen window.
* * *
Devon stood shivering outside the door, and knocked again. It was a cold night, and Jen wasn't answering her door.
"C'mon Jen, I know you're here, won't you talk to me?" called Devon. "I, uh... I brought you some candy!"
He heard noises on the other side of the door. The deadbolt slid back, and Jen poked her head around the door as she opened it a few inches. "Really?" she asked, with a combination of hope and incredulity.
"Well, kind of," he said, offering her a pack of gum which had only had two sticks removed.
"God!" she exclaimed. "Why do I even bother? Devon, you're such a loser!" She looked angry for a second, but seeing him shivering in the cold night air softened her expression a little bit, and her anger receded. "But, come on inside, you look like a lost puppy out there."
Devon walked inside, each hand clamped into the opposite armpit, trying to warm them up after the frigid ride. His helmet rocked slightly back and forth on his head as he walked, and his denim jacket was darkened from the dampness of the night.
"What did you want to talk to me about, Dev?" asked Jen, impatience warring with tenderness in her manner.
"Well, I don't know exactly," replied Devon, fidgeting. He didn't want to say he was there to talk about the Agents, for she'd surely just yell and him and kick him out. "I just felt like we needed to talk. You know, we've been kind of distant lately."
"Well yeah," she replied, suddenly terse. "You don't seem to have time for me anymore, and when you do, you always look like you'd rather be somewhere else. That doesn't exactly make me want to call you up, you know? Not that I could, since your phone number doesn't work any more."
Devon looked at the floor, which was clean, and free of dead beer cans and pizza boxes. The image of Monique, in her dazzling sequined gown, drifted through his mind for a second, but he quelled the thought.
"Yeah, it's been tough, you know, with work, and your schedule, and my schedule, and...." Devon paused, his eyes wandering involuntarily to her breasts.
"Up here!" She pointed at her face with both hands. "It's not that hard, Devon. I'm getting sick of it."
"Well, maybe..." he cast around for something to say. "Maybe it would be best if we take a break, you know, spend some time apart and stuff, if you feel that way. Not that I want to! But it sounds like that might make you happier." Devon looked morosely around the room, anywhere but at her. He slowly realized what he'd just said.
Jennifer's face hardened a little bit, and after a second she spoke. "Yeah, I think you're right. Let's take a break for a while." Her voice wasn't cruel, but it was clear that she'd reached a decision, and Devon had just talked himself out of a relationship.
He swallowed and looked up at her. "Yeah, ok," he said. He paused for a moment, unsure how he'd gotten himself in this mess, but quite sure he couldn't see a way out right now. "I guess I'll see you later."
Devon stood up, cold still cascading off him like a waterfall in the warm room. He knew, deep down, that this was for the best -- she was a liability, and could be used against him by the Agents. That didn't prevent a lump rising in his throat as he moved toward the door.
"I'll... I'll see you later, 'k Jen?"
"Yeah Devon, see you later." She closed the door behind him, and it closed with the sound of finality.
* * *
Devon inched along the wall, his pistol held lightly in his right hand, aimed up at the sky. The building was guarded, but he knew the roaming guard wouldn't be by this wall for another 3 minutes, and the fixed guard at the door couldn't see this pool of shadow.
He'd scoped out a second-story window a few days earlier, which appeared to be openable. Based on the floorplan of the house, it led into a bathroom, and he'd never seen the light go on in there.
With a practiced grace, Devon holstered the small pistol, and pulled a folding grappling hook out of his jacket. It was attached to a thin but strong synthetic rope. Certainly enough to support his weight. He folded out the hooks and made sure they were locked open.
Devon glanced around once again, and ensured that no one could see him. He measured out a length of line in his hand, then threw the grappling hook. It flew up in a graceful arc, dissappearing into the darkness above. He heard a faint scraping as he pulled the rope down, and then it stopped, and the rope pulled taut.
He gave it a few tugs, and started climbing. In a matter of moments, he'd scaled the wall up to the bathroom window, and tied off the rope to a concealed attachment point on his belt.
Working quickly and quietly, he opened the window, which wasn't even latched. He shook his head and internally tsk'd at the slack security. He dropped in through the window, leaving the grappling line dangling outside. No one would notice the black rope, and he might need it to get out again.
Devon dropped down into the room, which was indeed a bathroom, although it looked like a utility room as much as anything else. Shelves along the far wall supported stacks of toilet paper and paper towels, and neat piles of folded white cloth towels.
He pulled out his pistol again and held it ready as he neared the door. He silently cursed as he realized he'd left his taser at his house -- it would have been much more appropriate for a mission like this. Well, he wouldn't make the mistake again, he quietly assured himself.
He eased the door open. Fortunately, it opened without making undue noise. He looked up and down the hallway, but didn't see anyone. It was dimly lit by light spilling from the large stairwell at one end. Rows of doors lined the hall, unlabeled.
Devon paused and entered the light trance that allowed him perfect photographic recall of the house's plans. His goal was down the stairs, then across to the east.
He padded carefully along the hall, pausing every few seconds to ensure he wasn't causing any disturbance. He hadn't seen any cameras so far, but that was no indicator, in this era of microminiaturization.
Devon froze. The sound of footsteps on the stairs caused him to move quickly backwards and duck into one of the doorways, flattening himself against the door. Glancing carefully past the door frame, he saw an armed, uniformed guard walking purposefully down the stairs. The guard didn't even glance into the dark hallway.
Devon quietly exhaled, unaware that he'd been holding his breath. He'd dealt with this kind of situation countless times, but it was always tense until he got into the flow of it. The guard passed out of view, and Devon eased back down the hall toward the stairs. He silently cursed the architect for not putting a back staircase in this wing of the house -- he hated going down the main stairs.
With a careful tread, Devon eased down the stairs, alert for the slightest sound. He'd already taken in and integrated the rhythms of the house: people talking upstairs, but apparently not coming down; the heating system quietly rumbling in some basement area; a rhythmic throbbing that sounded like an industrial washing machine.
He stepped off the last stair, and looked carefully out the arching doorway into the room beyond. A gracefully appointed living room, fairly large, with a floor to ceiling library on the wall to his left. He saw what might have been the white hair of a sleeping person in one of the upright leather chairs.
Devon edged forward carefully, alert for the slightest movement. The chair remained motionless and silent, and he looked around, taking in the corner he hadn't been able to see from the stairs.
Suddenly, the person in the chair stirred, and Devon froze mid-stride. He ran through his options, and decided to stay put. The person shifted restlessly, and a book fell to the ground. Devon grimaced, waiting for the person to wake up. No further movement came from the chair; apparently, whoever was there was still asleep.
Devon quickly moved across the room, toward his goal, which was still halfway across the house.
* * *
Devon stood pressed against the wall, a position he'd found himself in a lot in the last 10 minutes. Around the wall and down that hallway was the room he was looking for. Behind the door in that room, he'd find the safe that contained the stolen encryption keys. His goal, as ridiculous as it sounded, was a memory card the size of a stick of gum. He figured it was probably better than microfilm, the staple of spy thrillers from his childhood.
He marshalled his breath, and peeked around the corner. There was a guard, but he was asleep, probably figuring there was no way an intruder would get this far into the house without being noticed. Normally, that would be a correct assumption, but Devon was no ordinary intruder.
He ducked back, and reviewed what he'd seen, but hadn't had time to process while he was looking at the scene. The guard was sitting on a chair (why had they given him a chair, if they wanted him to stay awake? Devon tsk'd again). The room was at the end of the hallway, and was intended as a study when the house was built. The hallway light was on, but wasn't terribly bright. There was one doorway between his position and his target door, which lead to a bedroom according to the plans. There was no telling what that room was used for now, so it was best not to count on it as a potential hiding place.
Devon retreated farther back into the shadow, and reviewed the floorplan again. The alarm panel was nearby... A plan began to form in his head.
* * *
Devon worked quickly, having pulled off the fire alarm panel without causing any harm, yet. With a small knife, he scraped the insulation from one of the wires, and, mentally crossing his fingers, touched the exposed wire to the frame of the alarm panel.
Alarm annuniciators lit up like a Christmas tree, and a klaxon started blaring. Devon shoved the panel back into the wall, and ran for his room.
Sounds of panic erupted throughout the mansion. Footsteps pounded and voices shouted. Someone was yelling instructions, trying to get people outside.
When Devon arrived at the door he wanted, the guard was nowhere to be seen. Standard procedure in a fire situation was to get everyone out, and save any unique items possible -- fortunately, and this was part of Devon's plan, the memory card locked in the safe was too difficult to access in time and would be abandoned. It was risky, and he only had a few minutes before they'd realize it was a false alarm and search the house.
He opened the door and a different alarm klaxon started sounding. He hadn't counted on that -- they must not even trust their own people. He revised his time limit to 1 minute, as that alarm was doubtless also relayed to a pager or cellphone.
Devon ripped pictures off the wall until he found the one that would only slide sideways. He slid it aside, and looked at the safe he was dealing with. It was a good one, but he had its number.
He pulled a rope of grey putty out of his sleeve, and pressed it hurriedly around the frame of the door. With a practiced eye, he concentrated the explosive at the hinges and latch points of the safe. He pressed a small device attached to a 9V battery into the C4, pressed a button, and ducked out of the room as it started beeping urgently.
Over the klaxons and shouting, he heard a loud thud as the walls shook. Hopefully, anyone else who heard it would take it as a sign of the fire.
He ran back into the room, and found the safe door on the far side of the room, smoking. The wall oppsite the safe had been pelted with shrapnel. He blew the smoke out of the safe, located the memory card, and grabbed it. There wasn't anything else in the safe.
Devon hurled the safe door through the sole window in the room, then dove after it, into the chaotic night.
* * *
Devon woke up on his couch with a pounding headache. His mouth felt like the Sahara, and his eyeballs felt as though they were rotating in sandpaper sockets. "Ow," he said.
He sat up slowly, and pried his eyes open. It took some doing. The first thing he saw was the cat, sitting and looking attentively at something on the other side of the room.
"What is it, Rupert? You seeing poltergeists again," he muttered. Devon couldn't get his eyes to focus beyond a few feet.
Remembering something, Devon stumbled about the room, staring blearily at the floor, until he located the pants he'd been wearing the night before. He reached in the pocket, and pulled out a small memory card. He looked at it with a boggled expression on his face.
"So it wasn't a dream!"
"No, Mr. Armstrong. It wasn't a dream," said a cold voice on the far side of the room. "And we'd like our codes back, if you please."
Devon could just make out a human form, standing upright and holding something black at waist level. "Oh," he said, "crap."
The object made a tiny "pop" noise, and a feathered dart impacted Devon's chest. He just made out the words, "come to think of it, we'll take you, too," as darkness rushed to envelop him in its velvet roar. Devon blacked out.
* * *
Three men in dark suits approached the door to the apartment. One of them produced a small ring of keys and let himself in. Empty beer cans clattered away from the door.
He took a quick glance around the tiny studio apartment, then stepped into the bathroom. He shined a small but powerful flashlight around, then came back out.
"He's not here, sir," said the man.
The person addressed as "sir" replied, "no, it looks like he's not. Take a quick look around and see if he's left anything. He should have snapped back and been ready to meet us here."
The other two men quickly searched through the meager contents of the apartment. One of them stood up, holding a piece of paper that had been on the musty sofa. "Sir, I think you should see this," he said.
The man took the paper, and stood reading it for a second. "Shit!" he exclaimed to himself. He touched his collar, and said, "Armstrong is gone. He left a suicide note; it looks like the conditioning didn't work like we'd hoped. He signed it, 'Hinklestein.'"
He looked at the other two men, as he carefully folded the note and put it into a plastic bag he produced from a pocket. "Let's go see if we can find the body."
Copyright ©2005 by Ian Johnston, reaper at obairlann dot net.