The morning air feels cool and crisp, just how I remember November in Los Angeles. The pier is quiet other than the waves lapping onto the shore and the occasional jogger passing by. I wait at the bottom of the short staircase, leading from the boardwalk to the beach for Agent Chandler. She takes this route religiously. I stand immobilized, staring at the giant Ferris wheel as the memories flood my mind. Right now, it sits motionless, but I know in a few hours’ time it will be brought to life, as will this place. This boardwalk will be overrun with all manner of people. I called this place home for quite a while after leaving my final foster home. I know what it attracts in the darkest hours of the night. Nothing good ever happens to the weak after dark, and I’ll leave it at that. It’s surreal being here now, if only I’d known the evolution of my life back then. I still wonder; would I choose the same path. I’m free from the worry of: will I have a warm bed in at night, but never from the worry of: will this be my last night.
Seeing Agent Chandler coming around the corner towards the boardwalk breaks my reverie. Her black compression workout pants cling to her like skin, showing every curve and flex of muscle. Her dark grey jacket fits loose, so I can’t see, I can only imagine what she’s got going on underneath. I’m forcing myself to refocus as my mind stays loosely clinging to the past.
I time our introduction to look like a chance encounter. As she hits the first step down to the beach, I begin my ascent up the stairs. On my way up, I pretend to roll my ankle in front of her, hoping she’ll take notice. I hop up the last few steps, taking a seat at the top to get a clear view as Agent Chandler continues down the last few steps. As soon as her feet hit the sand, she stops, turning to look up at me. I sit looking down, rubbing my ankle. My black Ray-Ban sunglasses are hiding her full view of me. My hair tickles as the breeze causes it to brush against my brow where it meets my sunglasses.
“Tighten your shoelaces,” Agent Chandler yells from the bottom of the step.
The melodic sound of her voice carries, and I immediately look up. “Excuse me?”
Agent Chandler makes her way up the stairs toward me. When she reaches me, she repeats herself.
“You need to tighten your shoelaces. It will slow the circulation to that foot. In turn, reducing the swelling,” she explains.
I act like I don’t know what I’m doing as I follow her instructions. I begin re-tying my shoelaces when I notice her making her way back to the sand.
No, no, no, you’re not getting away from me that easily.
“Thank you,” I yell, making her stop. “Are you some sort of medical professional?”
She turns around, heading back up the stairs. I smile inwardly.
“No, I’ve just rolled my ankle a time or two. Practice makes perfect, as they say,” she smiles at me, and for the first time, ever, I have to keep myself from staring.
“Is that what they say?” I ask coyly, still rubbing my ankle.
Her picture didn’t do her justice, and when she smiles it triggers things in me I’m not ready for. She stands staring at me for a moment as I hold her gaze, never wavering. The bun she’s sporting doesn’t quite contain all her hair. A few strands have escaped and are blowing loosely across her eyes in the fall breeze. As she lightly tucks the definite pieces behind her ear, I find myself wondering what she’s thinking, something I never do. She’s an FBI agent, so I know her wheels are turning. She extends her hand.
“Here, let me help you up off the ground. Let’s go to that bench over there and sit for a minute.” She indicates with her head to a bench to the right of the stairs.
“Thanks, but I think I can manage. I don’t want to hurt you, as well,” I reply, and find myself meaning it. I keep up the charade by swaying a bit before Agent Chandler catches me.
“You can manage, huh? Let me help. I’m stronger than I look, trust me,” she says.
She loops her arm around my waist as I put my arm over her shoulder, and we walk slowly to the bench. She’s sweaty, but still somehow smells incredible.
Definitely a worthy opponent.
“So, who may I thank for showing me such kindness?”
“I’m Shyira . . . Chandler,” she pauses. “Shyira Chandler,” she says again with more confidence, sticking out her hand in greeting.
I think I make her nervous.
“Well, thank you again, Shyira . . . Chandler,” I reply, shaking her hand while mimicking her first response.
“You’re welcome-” she let the rest fall waiting for me to give my name, I suppose. When she concludes I’m not playing along, she prompts my response.
“Well?” She asks. “Are you going to reciprocate?”
I smile at her, removing my sunglasses making eye contact for the first time. She takes a visible deep breath, sitting back a little further on the bench.
And there it is, ladies and gents.
I know that look very well.
“Michael,” I finally say.
Her composure returns. “That’s all I get? You’re not going to give your last name?” She complains.
“Why is it important you have my last name?” I prompt.
“Is it a secret? Are you some kind of criminal?” she asks, half joking.
“And if I were? Are you going to perform some sort of citizen’s arrest?”
I can’t help myself. I want to keep the conversation going. She stands, reaching into her pocket, pulling out a badge that reads: FBI.
“I’ll do you one better,” she says, flashing it at me. “I’m a federal agent.”
I put my sunglasses back on to hide the amusement in my eyes. I turn my head, looking off in the opposite direction of her as I speak.
“There’s power in a name, and I’m not sure I trust you with that kind of power yet, Agent Chandler,” I say, quietly. “But, at the same time I don’t want you to think I’m hiding something. It’s Varro,” I relinquish, returning my gaze to hers. I need her to trust me.
“You’re welcome for the save, Mr. Varro,” she says, getting to her feet. She puts her badge away and starts back towards the steps.
Damn, this girl’s slippery.
I call out, “Agent Chandler!”
She stops shy of the first step before turning to face me, still jogging in place. “Don’t worry, Mr. Varro, if I have any further questions I’ll find you. I’m very good at what I do,” she replies as she disappears down the steps.
That, you are.
I stay seated on the bench, watching her until she’s no longer visible. Slowly, I get to my feet, walking off without as much as a limp.
“Did you get that, Vivian?” I ask.
“I got it, Michael. Looks like you’re in,” she responds.
“I’ll let you know when she calls,” I state, removing the comm unit from my ear.
It would be so much easier if they’d just let me do my fucking job without this incessant checking in. I get why they do it. Not every operative is a fan of how we do things here, but I’m not just any operative. I’ve been on board with every mission from the beginning.
Pulling out of the public parking area, I remember there’s a few things I need from the store, and head in that direction. There’s a local grocery store at the corner of my complex. It’s still early enough in the morning that the store’s pretty much empty, except for a few shoppers getting one or two items. I grab what I need and stand in line. The woman in front of me is leaning on her basket while looking through a social media app. Her cart contains only a few items. She appears as though she’s just returned from the gym. Her black form fitting stretch-pants stop just below her knees. Her tight white t-shirt accentuates her obvious fake breasts. She turns around, eyeing me before shutting off her phone and placing it in her purse. She turns full frontal facing me, beaming from ear to ear. She looks to be in her late forties, early fifties. Her tone is high pitched and bubbly as she offers to let me go in front of her. My basket is a bit healthier in size than her three or four items. I get where she’s going with her offer, and I’m not interested, but I’m nice about it. I smile, thanking her before declining her offer.
“Are you new around here? I’ve never seen you here before,” she comments. It’s an odd conversation starter in my opinion, but hey, it’s L.A., where weird is the norm.
“Yes, I’ve been here for about two days now,” I reply.
“I knew it. I shop here all the time. I would remember if I had seen you before. Well, if you need someone to show you around, I know where all the hotspots in L.A. are,” she offers, jetting out her chest a little further.
“No, thank you. I’m not interested,” I reply out loud, trying to keep my answers short. I have no interest in carrying on any sort of conversation with this woman. I just want to get my groceries, and get back to the apartment without incident. I’m hoping she’ll take the hint. She doesn’t.
“Oh, you’re one of those quiet types, aren’t you? You like to stay indoors. In a more intimate setting,” she continues to probe.
I look her in the eyes before speaking. I want there to be no misunderstandings when I tell her how uninterested I am.
“On the contrary, ma’am, I’m just not interested in doing any of those things with you,” I say, continuing to look her in the eyes. I don’t blink. Her head jets back slightly as her eyes dart from side to side. She looks sufficiently humiliated, unable to utter a single word. She turns back around, paying for her groceries and leaves. I could’ve been nicer about it, but I just couldn’t take her aggressive need for attention. The clerk behind the counter, late teens, early twenties, starts laughing as soon as the woman leaves the store. He looks at me and nods.
“That was so cool, bro. Did you see her face? She didn’t know what to do,” the kid continues to laugh. I’m not here for his amusement. He quickly realizes that when he sees there’s no humor in my eyes. The young man swallows audibly after looking at my face. He’s quiet the rest of the time he’s ringing up my groceries. This is all I want, silence as I shop for my fucking food. Is that too much to ask? When the clerk is done, I leave without a word.
Two days pass, and not a word from Agent Chandler. I’m thinking I need to take a different approach. I know from reading her jacket she won’t be easily seduced.
I haven’t made my daily call to the Collective as I glance at my watch, noticing the late hour. There are specific times they expect to hear from me. First thing in the morning, during the day--if there is anything to report--and, of course, before I go to bed at night. If I miss even one check in without authorization they will dispatch damn near the whole Collective to locate me, and bring me in. No one wants that. There’s no place on the face of the earth you can hide. Our numbers are too vast.
I activate the comm unit, but it isn’t Vivian’s sweet voice on the other end this time, it’s the General’s. The General runs the London branch of the Collective. He was an actual five-star general in the American Armed Forces. General Marcus Tyrion Wroth was a highly respected, highly decorated general who commanded a small Special Forces unit. He insisted on accompanying his team on a deadly mission about twenty-five years ago. During this mission his team was systematically executed, leaving him for dead in a small town outside of Kosovo. He was rescued by a covert agency, even more clandestine than the C.I.A., Mossad, NSA or any other government agency one could think of. They called themselves: The Collective. They told him he was dead, K.I.A. as far as the rest of the world was concerned. He was now a ghost. He was told they were starting a new branch of the government. A completely deniable branch, and he was charged with heading up the London location. He’s been running the London chapter of the Collective ever since, or so the story goes.
“Michael, tell me something useful.” The General’s tone is harsh and demanding.
“There’s been no word from Agent Chandler as of yet, sir.” I hate saying.
I pride myself on results, and with her I’m getting none.
“That is not what I want to hear, Michael. You make something happen today. We are on the clock, and the countdown has begun. Our intel suggests Agent Randolph has a meeting scheduled next week with Sandoval, the leader of Black Hail. This means your time table has just moved up. Secure your place with Agent Chandler, and do it now.”
“I understand,” I state. “I’ll let you know when I’ve made contact.”
“Good,” the General barks before the comm goes dead.
I grab the cell phone from the nightstand and dial. “Stavros, where is she?”
I’m done taking things slow. Stavros runs point on the shadow team in charge of knowing where Agent Chandler is at all times.
“She’s at the Starbucks on Melrose. Are we to stand down?” Stavros asks.
“No, keep her in your sights. I’m on my way. When I get there you and your team fall back to second position,” I hang up, grab my keys and I’m out the door.