II. The Round Hole
It was early in the morning but still dark out when she returned from Vermont.
Agent 34 pulled into a parking spot in the underground garage of her apartment building. This wasn’t her usual apartment. She hardly spent any time there anymore. Her usual apartment was in Los Angeles. She was currently in Newark, New Jersey. She’d been here for almost a year. She didn’t like it. No one likes New Jersey. It consistently held the top three spots on her list of top five least favorite states. Number four was Texas. She couldn’t stand those damn mega churches. Five was Florida. She didn’t know why she didn’t like Florida. She just never did.
She got out of her car and opened the trunk, removing a backpack and a tool box. The walk through the garage and up the stairs to her apartment was uneventful, just like the ride back from Vermont. New Jersey or not, she was glad to be home and was looking forward to sleeping. Surprise exploding houses always meant that things were about to get more interesting, or annoying, depending. At the very least there would be meetings, briefings, debriefings, and re-briefings.
Agent 34 opened the door to her place, entered, and closed the door behind her. She drew a pistol from a holster at the small of her back. After searching the apartment at gunpoint and finding no one she relaxed and placed the gun on her coffee table.
She changed out of her current clothes and into a pair of sweatpants and a giant t-shirt. She opened the freezer, removed a pint of ice cream and sat on the couch in front of her gun. Three spoonfuls of ice-cream later a bra hit the wall and flopped to the floor.
Agent 34 had some thinking to do. She, like most people, think better while eating ice cream and not wearing a bra.
Nothing that happened earlier was supposed to have happened.
It was supposed to be a routine breaking and entering, not a shitty mess.
Hardly anything a spy does turns out as planned, at least not in real life. Fictional spies seem to do alright for themselves most of the time. She was used to things not going as planned. She was fine with it, really.
Soon there would be reports to file and questions to answer. Her boss wasn’t going to like the current state of the situation. She didn’t like it either, but there wasn’t much she could do about it at the moment except brainlessly eat ice cream and think.
The house wasn’t supposed to explode. The man in the basement wasn’t supposed to die, and the briefcase was supposed to be with her now, not wherever it was.
She went over everything she knew and everything that had happened for the 15th time. The 14 times she went over it on the car ride failed to reveal any additional insights into the evening’s events.
What she knew about the man in the basement was that his name was Albert Alum. He was now presumed dead. Albert was a shady billionaire, an international real estate mogul. He was wanted in several countries for fraud and tax evasion and other things of that nature. He was suspected of trafficking drugs and children as well but attempts to pin anything of that nature on him never stuck. Lawyers are modern day wizards.
Mr. Alum was renting that house to meet with a Canadian intelligence agent who had ties to the Chinese government. Something about tariffs? What was in the briefcase was unknown (at least to her) but considered extremely vital to national security by her superiors.
As far as she knew, no one aside from Alum, his bodyguard, the Canadian-Chinese double agent, herself, and her supervisor even knew what was supposed to be going on at the house.
Agent 34 had no idea who her direct supervisor was. The agency forbids the use of real names. Everyone was a number.
When she needed to communicate with her superiors, she would call the customer care line for a popular hygiene product and ask to speak to Harold in accounting. The call would get transferred and she would either leave a recorded message or listen to one. The voice she heard was always different. The voice she left was always the same.
The agency she worked for was commonly referred to as “The Fourth Branch” among those who were aware of its existence. The Fourth Branch is an obscure branch of the United States government that mostly dealt with nonstandard threats to the nation. Aliens, portals to different dimensions, occult warfare, psychic spying, and related matters. Those kinds of threats were real, make no bones about it. They were also rare. A real alien might come to Earth every few years or so. Most of them just want to use the bathroom; only a tiny percentage are dangerous. So when reality was pretty stable, the agents of the Fourth Branch handled boring things, like shady international business deals.
Agent 34 called the customer service line and asked to talk to Harold in accounting. Her call was transferred in the usual manner. She pressed one for “English” and waited for the beep.
“Agent 34. Update on Project T67. House on fire when I arrived. Target not acquired. No third party interference noted but suspected. Please advise.”
There would be nothing for her to do until she heard back from the office. So she turned on the television and relaxed into her couch.
At about the same time Agent 34 was opening her front door Vincent Harris’s cell phone rang. It didn’t surprise him, but it did annoy him. He answered the phone and said nothing. Not even “Hello” or “Harris here,” he just silently listened. He knew who it was. It was his boss; it was always his boss. The phone could only receive calls from one number, so that made it pretty easy to guess who it was.
He listened to the voice on the other end and waited for it to shut up. When it did, he hung up and went to the bathroom. The shower made shower noises for a few minutes, and then the toilet made a flushing noise. Mumbling and pants-fastening sounds followed. Vincent exited the bathroom fully dressed and holding a trash bag. He gathered up his dirty clothes and stuffed them in the bag. He left his room and headed down to the lobby, depositing his trash in a maid’s cleaning cart along the way. After he had exited the building, he turned left, towards Newark.
Vincent Harris hated Newark, New Jersey about as much as Agent 34 did. This wasn’t the only thing they had in common. He had seen her pull up to the house he blew up last night. He didn’t know who she was or who she worked for, only that she wasn’t supposed to be there that night and he had been ordered to kill her. He wasn’t sure if he was going to, though. He was kind of tired of killing at the moment. He wasn’t contemplating a career change or anything; he just needed some time to recharge and center himself is all.
He walked to the nearest car rental lot and rented a car with one of his several fake driver’s licenses. This time he even remembered to use the credit card with the matching fake name.
“You’re all set, Mr. Williams. We’ll bring the car around in front for you in a few minutes.”
The ride was uneventful. He didn’t even think for most of it. He didn’t like thinking about work when he was driving, or walking or sitting still.
About four hours later he checked into a motel a few miles from Agent 34’s apartment under the name of Williams. There was a package waiting for him like he knew there would be. He took the package and the room key, said “Thanks” to the desk attendant, and headed to room 21 where he promptly laid down on the bed and finished the nap he had started in his imagination two hours ago. The package he received at the front desk remained unopened on the floor near the door.
While Vincent Harris tried to sleep off the indignity of being in Newark, Agent 34’s phone let out a dinging noise, letting her know she had a new text. She grabbed her phone and checked the message. It was an animated GIF of a stick man waving a red flag. He was jumping up and down and everything.
This isn’t the first time she’d received this message. It meant she was to back off and not proceed until further notice. Standard operating procedure. Nothing to worry about. She passed the rest of the day watching television and taking naps.
Later, sometime during the evening news but before the late night talk shows started, Agent 34 was dozing off on her couch. Vincent Harris was scaling the wall up to her bedroom window. Climbing walls and remaining unnoticed was easier than it looked if you knew how to do it and spent a decade refining the skills needed. When he reached her window, he opened it like he was a key and climbed through. He made no sound, just like always.
He shut the window and sat down on the floor beneath it. The lights were out. His eyes adjusted to the darkness while he waited for Agent 34 to ready herself for bed.