"I said no. End of discussion." The Official is doing his best bullfrog impression for the pair of suits who're leaning over his desk, trying to muscle him into giving in to their oh-so-polite ‘request'. "The I-man project is my asset, and that's the way it stays."
"And it’s totally wasted on this nickel and dime operation you're running, Charlie, and you damned well know it!" The shorter of the two snarls at him. "Now, if you insist, I can go over your head and have this whole agency shut down, but in the spirit of inter-departmental cooperation, I'm giving you one more chance to play ball." He leans a little further over the desk, and I wonder if the Fish will back down.
"And for the last time, Rawlins, the answer is no. The project stays with me. I'm not going to turn it over to you bastards in Central Intelligence so you can send my agent off on some bug-hunt in Afghanistan! He doesn't have clearance for the kind of wet operations you want to throw him into."
Call it a guess, but I think I just heard the Official defending me against a hijacking. The weird sort of ache that's been in my guts since the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, suddenly gets worse. A lot worse. Most of the time, I don't consider myself much of a worrier. No, I'm more of a ‘roll with the punches' kinda guy. Now my partner, Bobby Hobbes, he's got the worrying thing down to a fine art. But this, this is making me nervous.
"Clearance can be taken care of, Charlie. That's by far the most trivial hurdle we have to jump with your pansy-assed little agent. What the hell possessed you to use an ex-con as your guinea pig? Now we're stuck with trying to turn a moral weakling into a freaking super-agent!"
"We? I don't recall you being invited to participate in my project's decision-making processes," the Fish snaps back, looking more like a bullfrog than ever. "Now get the hell out of my office, Rawlins, and take your stooge with you," he says as he stands up slowly and puts his hands on the desk, leaning in towards his visitor until they're just about nose to nose.
Rawlins shoots him a look that would melt steel and takes the suggestion, marching out of the office in a snit, his boy in tow, slamming the door shut after himself before I can squeeze my way out behind him. So now I'm screwed, at least until someone comes in to check on the boss-man.
In case I forgot to mention it, I'm doing about the best fly on the wall impression you've ever seen, here. Or maybe it's never seen. See, I'm the pansy-assed agent Rawlins mentioned so flatteringly. The Official's ‘asset', as he put it. Not much of one, I'll grant you, but hey, it's not like I had a lot of options when I was recruited. See, Hobbes and I are government agents, which I still find cool to say, even after a year and a half. I've got this gland in my head - don't ask, it'd take way too long to go into - but suffice it to say I've got the unique and useful ability to go invisible. Yeah, see-through. Which is my current wardrobe. I'll say this much, it makes accessorizing a snap. Everything goes with clear. Even Jack Daniels.
I settle on the metal ladder-back chair against the wall under the windows, not wanting to give myself away by risking the whoopee-cushion effect the ratty vinyl-upholstered guest chairs are prone to, watching the Official pour himself a massive shot from the bottle he's just pulled out of his desk. Okay, so now I'm really worried. I wish I could get a shot of the stuff myself, not that I drink all that much, besides beer, I mean, but I have the feeling that getting drunk is a good idea, right about now.
He swallows off half of what he put in his glass, and then fills it again, and the gravel-pit in my belly turns into boulders. Dread is something I dislike, and I've spent most of my career as an agent feeling it, to one extent or another. It sucks. Big time. If the Fish is getting set to drown his sorrows, we – the editorial we', the flunkies that make up the nameless Agency that Charlie Borden gets his kicks out of ruling with an iron fist – are in for a really rocky ride. I watch him swallow another mouthful as if he's bracing himself for something, and then he picks up the phone and pages Eberts.
So now I'm wondering, do I stay, or do I take the opportunity to duck out the door when his Imperial Majesty's favorite slave and toady comes in, and miss out on the opportunity to listen in on the post-game analysis? I waffle, hovering by the door, but not too close, cuz the chill coming off me when I go ‘poof' is like standing in front of an open refrigerator door, for those not covered in the silvery stuff, also known as quicksilver, that lets me do this trick. From my perspective, it's more like being locked in an industrial freezer. Uncomfortable, but not immediately dangerous. Until I start accumulating too much quicksilver in my bloodstream. Then it gets dangerous in a hurry.
"Shut the door, Eberts," the Official snaps at his mild-mannered little file clerk, who's looking pale and as worried as I feel. So I stay, missing my second chance at escape. Eberts is another one of those masters of worry, but the expression on his face is several notches above anything I've seen there until recently. I figure what with New York suddenly becoming a war zone, and Covert Ops types beating down our door, I have a personal stake in knowing exactly what's going on. Knowing how bad ‘bad' is.
"Yessir," he says, snicking down the lock on the doorknob to keep out casual intruders. He settles himself in one of the two vinyl covered chairs, looking like a kid who's just been called in front of the principal.
"We have a problem, Eberts," the Official says. Well, duh.
The hamster nods. "Yessir," he repeats unhappily. "I recognized Deputy Director Rawlins," he adds. "Are they going to disband the I-man project?" he asks.
"There's a distinct possibility they're going to try and take Fawkes away from us. For national security reasons." Oh, crap. That's what I was afraid of.
"But sir, without Agent Fawkes, we no longer have a raison d'être," Eberts exclaims. "His presence is the basis for our funding! We'll all be out of work if they do that!"
"Not all of us," the Fish corrects him with some of the usual ‘kick em when they're down' pleasure in his voice. "Just you, me, Hobbes, and everyone besides the Keeper and Fawkes. And maybe Monroe. That girl has a knack for landing on her feet. Cheer up, Eberts, we can stand in the unemployment line together," he says snidely. I feel a little sorry for Eberts. He really does kinda look like a hamster, and he's as loyal as a dog. The Official kicks him around some, but he's such an inviting target, it's hard to avoid. My partner does it too, only Eberts doesn't do the grin and bear it thing as well when it's not the boss-man chewing him a new orifice. He's a born bureaucrat. Woe betide anyone who disturbs his sacred files, or breaks his pencil sharpener, or uses up the paper in his calculator. He and Hobbes've gone a few rounds over his fondness for docking our paychecks to cover property damage a time or two.
"But sir, the project was your brain child. They can't do this!" he complains indignantly.
"I'll lay you odds they're going to try," the Official contradicts. "Especially when they realize who Fawkes's father is."
Eberts goes a scary shade of gray, looking like he can't quite get his breath. "Oh, dear," he manages eventually. It takes me a second longer to figure it out than it took him, but I have to bite my tongue on the curses that threaten to pour out of my mouth and give me away. See, I found out not too long ago that my old man is a former government employee himself. Of the lethal variety. He worked for the government, eliminating problems that could be solved by the judicious placement of a bullet or two. Yup, my daddy was a hitman. My brother, Kevin, and I grew up thinking he was a small-time thief and hood, in and out of jail dozens of times before he finally abandoned our mother and us. Turns out, he was off doing the government's dirty work. And as soon as the bastards who were in here earlier today make that connection, they're going to operate on the assumption that it runs in the family. The talent for marksmanship, I mean. Which means they're gonna enlist me to exercise my constitutional right to bear arms. And exercise the President's newly granted powers to ignore that same constitution so he can go out and kill him some terrorists. And anyone else he wants removed from the world stage. And a lot of innocent civilians, while he's at it.
Don't get me wrong: give me a gun and a clean shot at bin Laden, and I'd take it. I wouldn't even waste any anxiety over the morality of it. Sometimes, that kind of sickness has to be excised. I just have a problem with leveling a nation to get one guy.
That Tuesday, we all huddled around the TV in the Official's office like it was a campfire or something, watching the half hysterical news people cover the attack. I couldn't really believe what I was seeing, so I spent time watching everyone, kind of checking their reactions against my own. I don't think I've ever seen the Fish look that tired. He looked like he'd been in the hospital waiting for a coronary bypass, this pain on his face as he watched the World Trade Centers collapse onto the sidewalks of New York. Eberts was the same shade of gray he is now, rocking back and forth on the edge of his seat making these little moaning noises under his breath. I was tempted to offer him one of Bobby's tranquilizers, but Bobby was obviously gonna be needing them. He spent hours pacing around the Official's office doing one of his rants that starts getting a little scary-sounding if you listen too close to what he's saying. He's got a tendency toward hyperactivity on a good day, but on a bad one, he belongs in a straight jacket in a rubber room, a place he has more than passing familiarity with, I might add. And this was a very, very bad day. Claire, my Keeper, and my doctor, just sat in the metal ladder-back and cried silently, like she didn't even know she was doing it, tears running down her face for hours while we watched. Alex Monroe split the difference, vacillating between some of Hobbes's hysterical revenge babble and Claire's grief. She's the newest senior member of the Agency, and she kind of got herself stranded here when she finished up the assignment that brought her here in the first place. She's prickly, sarcastic, and hard to get to know. Hobbes is jealous of her connections. So's the Official, I think. I'd like to get past that ‘don't tread on me' bitchiness and find out if there's someone worth knowing under it all, but she makes it hard. Especially the way she treats my partner.
Hobbes is my friend. That may not sound like much, but to me, it's kind of a new thing. Since I misspent my youth under the tutelage of a female second story expert thirteen years older than me who passed along any gifts I may have for petty theft – and not so petty ones – I never really did the usual stuff, you know, like varsity sports, dating, that kinda stuff, at the usual times. Friends were actually more like acquaintances, people I did the occasional job with. And you know what they say about honor among thieves: there isn't any. But Bobby makes up for it. Honor is practically his middle name. I didn't make it easy for him, either, since I have kind of a smart mouth myself. But he stuck with me. In his world, Bobby Hobbes does NOT abandon a partner. He was assigned the job of keeping an eye on me in the field, and he's done that, and more, risking his life for me more than once. Even when anyone else would have let me get my fool head blown off, just to be rid of me.
Actually, he's pretty much taught me anything I know about the field. Let's just say I didn't exactly graduate from secret agent school before I signed aboard this gig So anyway, Alex has a tendency to treat the rest of us like we're a bunch of not-so-bright kids. And she treats Hobbes like a joke. Actually, to be fair, all of us do, occasionally, but he knows we don't mean it in a derogatory way. Most of the time. See, Bobby is a little different.
Maybe a lot different. He's had one of those lives Ian Flemming could have based a Bond novel on. Only, unlike ole' James, Bobby broke under the pressure of serving his country in spook capacity and kind of went off the deep end when his partner disappeared, and his wife sued him for divorce. The paranoia he developed as a survival mechanism got out of control, and he started slipping across the borders into psychosis. He's fine as long as he remembers his meds But when he doesn't, the world becomes a seriously unfriendly place from his point of view. Maybe he isn't so paranoid after all, considering what happened in New York.
I tune back in as Eberts speaks up again. "How are we going to handle this, sir?" he asks, always the faithful servant.
The Official takes another hefty swig of scotch and then blinks as though remembering Eberts is there with him. He fishes out a second glass and pours a splash into the bottom, handing it to the hamster, raising his own glass in a mock toast. "Let's drink to early retirement," he suggests sarcastically.
Eberts takes a tentative sip and the stifled cough tips me off to the fact that he's not exactly a heavy drinker. "Sir, perhaps a review of our Agency charter would be helpful. It should have guidelines stipulating the actions necessary to disband the organization" he offers, taking another sip. He can't be doing more than wetting his lip in the stuff, cuz the level hasn't changed at all. The glint in the Official's eye, the sharpening of his already sharp expression, tells me that he hadn't thought of using the Agency's own by-laws to defend it against the piranhas out there.
"Get on it, Eberts," he commands with the usual imperiousness. "And keep it quiet. I don't want things any more disrupted around here than they already are."
"Yessir," Eberts answers as he puts down the glass with relief and gets up, heading for the door. I follow him, sliding out past him as he pauses in the doorway to glance back at his fearless leader, who's definitely not looking so fearless at the moment. The Official looks like he's seriously considering that early retirement he was joking about. At least, I think he was joking
I head down the Agency halls, vintage institutional, circa the 1950's, shaking off the silver dust that falls away, leaving me my usual stylin' self, in living color. I'm heading for the Keep, our fond nickname for the lab/torture chamber/hospital my Keeper spends all her time in. It's also where I go to get my regular fix of counteragent, the stuff that keeps me from doing a ‘Bobby Hobbes' and going psycho when the levels in my system get too high. I even have a little electronic monitor masquerading as a tattoo that lets me know when I'm getting close to the legal limit. Ain't technology grand?