IV. Crabs in a Barrel
Home of Commander Rich Terbim, Ruiner Project Head, U.S. Army. Nov. 14, 2016 23:03 pm. Monday.
Commander Terbim was hissing furiously into his telephone even though the party on the other end had hung up about five minutes ago. He eventually noticed this and slammed the phone back into its cradle.
That’s how all his conversations with Vincent Harris ended.
The Office of Commander Turbim, Ruiner Project Head, U.S. Army. Nov. 15, 2016, 07:46 a.m. Tuesday.
“Johnson!” He barked. “Get me the red phone. Now!”
Maury Johnson was used to this sort of behavior from his boss. He’d recently celebrated his 15th year working for the nameless top-secret sub-group of the U.S. Military that spawned, among other things, Project Ruiner. Looking back over the past ten of those years, he couldn’t remember more than 2 days in a row going by without something like this happening.
He liked the job way better before Harris came onto the scene. It was a lot quieter. Johnson really wasn’t important enough to know what was actually happening. He thought he worked for a General with anger issues, not for the Army’s secret weapon support system. He knew how to do his duties, but not why he was doing them, which is something he and Vincent had in common. Unlike Vincent Harris, Maury Johnson didn’t disobey orders over being denied time off. He only had another 5 years until he retired; he and his wife were going to buy a boat and do a whole lot of relaxing.
Whenever the yelling got to be too much for him, Johnson would close his eyes and imagine himself sitting on the deck of his boat watching the sunset. If the yelling was extra bad, he would add a beer. When it was the worst, he’d toss in the image of his wife belly dancing in front of that sunset. It worked every time.
Today’s yelling was under the average for both decibel and duration. On a scale of watching-the-sunset-on-his-boat to watching-the-sunset-on-his-boat-while-drinking-beer-while-watching-his-belly-dancing-wife, he gave this outburst somewhere around pretending to take an extra long shit in the men’s room while on the clock. Which didn’t even rate on his scale. This was nothing at all really. Best day he’d had all week. The fact that it was only Tuesday did nothing to dampen things.
Terbim slammed his fist on his desk and rattled off a laundry list of obscenities. After a few seconds he screamed “God!”, then he thumped his fist, then he yelled “Damn!”, one more thump, “…It!”, one more thump, which was followed by a bonus pound, which led to an exasperated sigh.
“Johnson, get me that phone already before I have you transferred to Utah.”
The red phone was in a black box in Terbim’s office closet. It would be just as easy for Terbim to grab it himself as it would be for him to yell out to Johnson to do it instead. This had always puzzled Johnson, but he had no business bringing it up.
When he first started working here, Johnson used to wonder why it wasn’t referred to as “The Black Box” as in “Johnson, go get the black box.” It would have made it easier to find. He spent two hours on his first day looking for a red phone when he should have been looking for a black box. After a few weeks he realized that just about everything that came through this place was in a black box of some sort or another. A good percentage were handcuffed to their carrier’s wrists, so it came to be sensible to him that he was asked to get a red phone instead.
The particular black box he was looking for was locked and needed two keys to open it. Just like how launching missiles goes in the movies. The Commander kept one key in a safe in his office, the other was in a safe in the Communications Room. In order to get it, he just called Marcus on the second floor, who would then call Joy in the Communications Room. Joy would take the key from a safe and hand it to a pair of armed guards (usually Tom and Jackson, but personnel varied) and they would take a special elevator to the office and hand Terbim the key. The elevator door would close and Terbim would make his call. When he was done, Terbim opened the elevator door and handed back the key to the guards.
The guards then returned the key to Joy, she would put it back in the safe, and let Marcus know. Marcus didn’t need to notify Johnson because Johnson could tell when the commander was done with it on account of he was right outside his office all day.
Johnson called Marcus and fetched the black box with the red phone from Terbim’s closet. Then he went to the bathroom and pretended to take a shit.
After the elevator door had shut, Terbim unlocked the black box containing the Red Phone.
The phone went to another red phone located in the bottom right-hand drawer of Commander Kole, who was the highest ranking officer in the Forth Branch.
Commander Carl Kole was sipping coffee when the red phone rang. He knew who it was and had been waiting for Terbim’s call all morning. The process for answering the phone on this end was much simpler. When it rang, he would unlock the drawer via a fingerprint scanner, and then he’d open the drawer and answer the phone. Usually with a “Hello” or “Kole here, go”, that was all there was to it.
“Kole here, go.”
“What the fuck is going on? I just found out about what a shit storm Project T67 became. Jesus, Carl. Jesus.”
“Relax Rich, Didn’t you check your e-mail? It’s all in there.”
“Of course I read the goddamn e-mails. I didn’t get an e-mail about this. If I had, I never would have sent the Ruiner to kill a Forth Branch Agent. What the hell was she doing on this anyway? This is my operation!”
Kole sighed. He didn’t like angry people. He didn’t care for swearing much either. He wasn’t a a square or anything, he just preferred things to be calm. Especially things like national security issues that involve aliens or assassins with near-magical abilities.
“You just found out? Well, Harris and Agent 34 are both OK and in our custody. Newark safehouse. Got confirmation an hour ago, O-six-forty. We were waiting for you to call to discuss how to proceed…you didn’t get that e-mail either? What have you been doing? Hang on a second.”
Kole opened up his e-mail and checked his “sent” folder. “Oh man,” he thought. “This shit didn’t sync yet.” His dislike of strong language only applied to spoken words, not internal thoughts.
“Uh, I’m seeing here you didn’t get the e-mails. The past 20 or so that I sent didn’t get there. Got stuck in Drafts somehow.”
“I fucking hate Outlook!” Screamed Terbim before hanging up.
Two minutes later, Terbim called back. He sounded much calmer this time, but his rage was just better focused, not at all lessened.
“What the hell is going on and what are we going to do about it?”
“What do you know about Project T67?”
The conversation went on for over an hour. Project T67 concerned Albert Alum, billionaire weirdo and international criminal. Terbim wanted to get as much info about his business deals/relationships with foreign governments as he could before killing him.
Terbim explained to Kole T67’s mission objectives: An agent, posing as a Canadian intelligence officer who was doing some side work for the Chinese government, was to gain Alum’s trust, learn all that he could about his dealings and doings, and then send a message to headquarters to have Alum killed. The briefcase Harris took contained files that explained just about everything Alum was involved with. This information would then be used to systematically dismantle Alum’s operation.
That much, at least, had happened as Terbim had planned it.
However: Kole and the Forth Branch, on the other hand, had been using Agent 34 to gain Alum’s trust and cooperation, offering immunity and protection in exchange for information.
The Forth Branch as a matter of policy never informed Project Ruiner or anyone else about their plans; it’s hard to announce your actions and remain an invisible arm of the government at the same time. They only sent e-mails after they noticed they stepped on someone’s toes or messed up something they couldn’t hide.
Therefore it happened that after 90 minutes of terse, profanity-laden discussion, this much was clear: A secret branch of the U.S. Military had sent the closest thing the world has to a super-hero to Newark, New Jersey in order to, essentially, murder a co-worker because someone’s boss didn’t get an e-mail.
If Harris and Agent 34 had been killed or if Harris had completed his assignment and killed Agent 34, Kole and Terbim would already be looking for new jobs. Fortunately for them, that had not happened. Instead, their job security now depended on the actions of an angry, over-worked assassin currently seething in the subjective security of a Newark safehouse.
Home of Agent 34, T67 Head Field Operative, Newark, New Jersey Nov. 14, 2016. 23:23 p.m. Monday
“I thought you were trying to kill me, but decided not to,” she said while taking her gun from Vincent.
“I was and I did, so I’m not, but when I don’t do what I’m supposed to, they send…others.”
“What kind of others?”
“Nothing we can’t handle, but being here isn’t safe. We can’t take your car either, it’s a work car- they can just remotely cut the engine.”
“They can also just blow it up,” added Agent 34.
“No shit, since when?” asked Harris.
“They started adding a self-destruct mechanism last year.”
Vincent Harris shook his head in disgust. Then he turned quickly and looked out the window. What he saw, he didn’t say. What he did say was “Get on the ground! Now!”
Harris jumped over the bed and crouched down on the floor. Machine gun fire lit up the room, sending glass everywhere and ruining the mood for everyone.
“Are you ok?” Harris asked, casually.
“No,” responded Agent 34 calmly.