He stood facing the apartment block entrance. His back leaning quite comfortably against a very plain, very average dark blue vehicle. He wore a long, dark grey trench coat over a very plain grey suit and he wore dull, worn dress shoes. He had clean-cut, nut-brown hair and nut brown eyes. There was nothing about him that stood out. There was also nothing flash or fancy about him. You would forget him as soon as look at him, he wasn’t memorable. Which was entirely the point. He took a drag of his cigarette and waited, he was in no hurry but they did have a schedule, and she was late.
He didn’t like the rookies, the newbies. They very rarely worked out. He didn’t like training them either, they never seemed to get the point. They never seemed to understand the true mission of the Agency. Moreover, there was always one bright spark newbie, who for some reason or another thought people should know about the Agency. They were all a waste of time for him and very few ever made the cut, yet he did his job anyway, without question. His life was the Agency that was all that mattered to him.
Anyone who spoke of the Agency, disappeared and no one asked questions as to the hows and whys.
They knew the rules and the stakes.
They also knew and believed in the Agency and if you broke the rules, the code. No one cared for you when you disappeared. There was a code for a reason.
She came out of her apartment, saw him standing there. But did not apologize for being late. She had also dressed appropriately. She’d worn plain clothing and no makeup, comfortable shoes. She’d dressed unmemorable, just as instructed. Few Rookies did as such, so he made a note of it.
She was also younger than he expected.
Once a rookie had come out in full makeup, hair, heels, the works and a very much tailored suit. She’d dressed to impress, a clear overachiever. He hated those. So he’d told them to go inside and change and then drove off.
He also noted that this once however, did not waste time with apologies.
He stubbed his cigarette out with his right shoe. Stood up straight and then got into the car. She said nothing and got into the passenger’s side of the car. The last one he drove off on, because they had stood on the side walk, awaiting instructions and introductions.
That wasn’t how it worked. That wasn’t how the agency worked. And if you’d come this far and still didn’t get that.
You got left on the side walk and forgotten.
And if you were stupid enough to complain to anyone.
The Agency made sure they’d help you keep quiet on matters.
By any means necessary.
They drove in silence. The rookie asked no questions and she didn’t take notes. The Agency was okay with note taking for its newbies but it was however frowned upon. They did not like the idea of information of any kind about the Agency being accessible to anyone but them. Their success relied heavily on their secrecy. If anyone found out about what they were and who they were. It would all be over and that could not happen. And they would make sure it never would happen. No matter what, at any cost.
Their first destination was a place an hour away on the other side of the city. Just on the outskirts.
A woman in her forties, dressed in a pale, pastel long shift dress and cream colored apron, Stood in her small yard and was hanging her washing. Her back ached in agony but she ignored it. She walked back inside through the back door which led into the kitchen. The walls of her small home, were all their entirely lined with photographs. Though the woman herself, was not related to anyone in the photos and wasn’t in a single one. The house itself was silent, her being it’s only occupant.
Moreover it was small, cramped and very much run down. The woman then put the kettle on. She knew they would be arriving soon.
She then went into her bedroom and pulled out three thick and full manila files.
She then walked back into the kitchen, placed the files on the worn kitchen table.
Then she filled two small travel mugs with tea and a third ordinary mug for herself.
They parked the car behind an old service station and walked a mile down the road. When they reached the run down house, the woman was in the kitchen waiting. They said nothing, exchanged nods and he picked up the files. He then took the tea, nodded once more and left out the door. The rookie took her tea and also nodded. The woman looked the rookie up and down, assessing her with her sharp eyes.
The rookie said nothing and turned to leave.
“What’s your name?” The woman asked just as the Rookie was about the exit.
She opened her mouth but then remembered, turned her attention back to the woman and nodded. She then once more went to leave. She wasn’t sure she had done the right thing but the woman nodded, watched them leave and locked the door behind them.
He was already out of the yard and moving quickly back up the road to where the car was parked. The rookie, with tea in hand, moved quickly to catch up with him. When she had, he passed the files to her. She did not open them. Though she wanted too. She wanted to know, but knew the rules and tucked them under arm and said nothing.
He took out another cigarette, offered the rookie one but she shook her head.
She was different from the others and he could see the potential already. He could see why the agency had picked her. Yet more often that not, newbies, all failed in the end 97% of the time. It was why he hated it. Though he did it anyway. He did whatever the agency asked of him. No questions asked. Ever.
Once they had made it to the car, he took the files off of her and opened them. He did not offer her a look and she did not ask. Even though she wanted to. Her skin was crawling with curiosity, excitement and adrenaline. However she remembered the rules and did not ask, instead she waited.
He remember how once, a rookie had read the files on the trip back. He’d tipped both teas on the silly boys head. Knocked him out and left them there for the other Agents to collect. This one however was doing okay, although in his mind there was a very heavy and distinctive, ‘for now’. They never worked out and even if she made it through the day. Very few, if any were willing to make the sacrifices required of them.
He opened the first file, flicked through it and pursed his lips in annoyance. Someone had broken the rules. He put that one at the bottom of the three and looked through the other two. He read through them both, then picked one and placed the other two underneath the passenger seat of his car. He then looked at the time on his wrist watch and asked his companion if she was hungry. She nodded and so they drove out from behind the service station and made their way back into the city.
They parked on the middle level of a multi-story car park. He looked over the file once more. Made a note of the address and placed it under his arm. He took both travel mugs, now empty and placed them on the floor of the car.
They blended in with the crowds and continued walking till he found a street food vendor he liked. It took a while, for a man who seemed unflappable and said very little, he was fussy about his food. He settled on a hotdog vendor and ordered her one just like his, with all the trimmings. He didn’t ask what she wanted it or even if she liked it. Moreover she never clarified either and ate it anyway. As they ate, he looked through the file once more.
They then walked a few more blocks until they had reached one of the rougher and grimmer areas of the city. Unbeknownst to the Rookie, he was armed.
He remembered the time a newbie had made all sorts of fuss and drama about being in what she quoted was an ‘Unsafe zone’ and hailed a cab and gone home.
Another had been too much of a ‘wanna be gangster hero know it all’. He’d left him there in the middle of the street. Only to find out later that the rookie walked down the wrong ally, got mugged, raped and shot.
He didn’t in any way feel responsible when he had found out. They knew the rules, they didn’t listen, which meant they were not fit for the task at hand. They were not worthy of the Agency and what it stands for.
They reached a worn apartment block and entered. The intercom did not work and the large doors to the building were already open. The stairs were littered with trash and a homeless man was asleep at the foot of the stairs. The rookie took all this in and said nothing. She followed him as he stepped over the homeless man and walked up the stairs. They walked up several flights of stairs and by the time they reached their desired floor, the Rookie was out of breath and needed a moment. He on the other hand, was fine and he walked down what was a long corridor and knocked three times on the last door. The Rookie then stumbled quickly after him and stood somewhat behind him. He did not look at her, his attention fully focused on the door. After a few moments, the door swung open and a small women, with wide, but tired eyes looked at them and then led them both inside. The woman was dressed in flannel grey pajamas and a long woolen blue grey cardigan. She was middle aged, with short shoulder length dark hair that was peppered ever so slightly grey.
Her apartment was nicer than the building, which was not saying much. It was small, shoe-boxed and opened planned. She sat them both at a small worn table and then took the chair in front of them. The table was pushed up against the wall, next to a large arch window, that gave a view of the comings and goings of the street below. She then pulled out a cigarette and then offered them both one each, The Rookie refused, him on the other hand accepted and gladly.
He placed the manila file he had been carrying onto the table. The woman, lit her cigarette and pulled her cardigan tightly around her shoulders. She glanced briefly at the file but said nothing. This was not their first meeting that much was clear. The Rookie however, sat still and said nothing.
He did not open the file but instead fished for a lighter out of his coat and lit his own cigarette.
The woman then turned her gaze toward the window and took long drags of her cigarette.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t put you somewhere more comfortable.” He told the woman.
His voice was soft, calm and gentle. Something the Rookie did not expect, his staunch behavior gave no indication of the warmth that was now in his voice.
She turned away from the window and turned her attention to him.
“It’s fine. No one would be looking for me here.” She replied and then added, “Is there anything I need to sign?”
He reached for the folder. Most people threw questions at him, this woman had not. She had understood and knew what was expected of her. He liked it when things went this way, because more often than not, they didn’t. He took a pen out of his pocket and open the file to the last page and pointed at several dotted line.
The Agency, his department at least, offered deals to those in need. The Agency offered people that they picked, at random, a chance to start again, no questions asked. Sometimes they did something small, a new car, a medical bill, debt, groceries for a families that could never afford or survive on their own without it. On rare occasions, they act as mediators and sometimes, they give you a brand new life, a fresh start and a new beginning. Sometimes they even offered a chance to redeem themselves in this way, by helping them start again. No one knows who they are or who they work for. If an Agent is ever asked such questions, along with the how’s and whys, they are either met with silence or are told simply that they work, for ‘the people’.
However, there was, as always a catch to these deals. People were never to reveal the Agency, to anyone. They were to spend their lives helping others and if it was the case, not to fall back into bad habits or repeat the mistakes they had made in their former lives. The Agency also had strict policies, repercussions for such things as breaking their rules and not honoring the code.
The woman signed the dotted lines, closed the file and pushed it toward him.
“You’ll be moved in two weeks time. Again I apologize for the area and that you can not be moved sooner but I promise you. Someone will come” He told her, to which she nodded and gave him the semblance of a faint smile.
He then stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray in the middle of the table and then he stood up. He then nodded at the woman and turned to leave. The Rookie too stood up from the table, nodded at the woman, abet awkwardly and then followed him toward the door. Just as they reached the door the woman call out a startled, nervous and almost gurgled “Thank you.” But neither turned around to look at the woman and proceed to walk out the door.
The Rookie was now bursting with questions and she wanted to fire them all in a blaze at her companion. There was so much now that she wanted to know and being left in the dark was wearing thin on her. By the time they had reached the bottom of the stairs and walked all the way back to the car she was a powder keg waiting to explode. It was mid afternoon when they finally reached the car he threw her the keys and told her to drive. She had done well, he thought and there was still much more ahead of them. However once they had gotten in the car and she was behind the wheel. She could not contain herself anymore.
“I’m not driving.” She told him flatly and defiantly.
He looked at her for a moment, then went to open the passenger side door. It was locked.
“Nice try,” She told him and then added “Central locking is a bitch”
“Clever.” He snorted.
She took a deep breath and rested both her hands on the steering wheel.
Three weeks prior, a man and a woman, both dressed in trench coats, like the stranger next to her; knocked on her door and invited themselves both inside. The woman had been carrying a manila folder. They then had both proceed to sit on The Rookie’s sofa and waited for her to sit across from them. When she did, the man spoke and told her that, they had a job for her. The woman then had taken a single sheet of paper with instructions neatly printed on it and had then handed it to The Rookie. They then both, the man and the woman, got up from the sofa and left, without another word. At first the Rookie in a daze, sat there is utter disbelief at what had just occurred. She then looked down at the paper and read the instructions she was given. It did not tell her anything about the job, just that she was not to ask questions, that the position was given only to a select few, that is was her chance to make a difference in this world, what to wear, what was expected of her and that her orientation would be in three weeks’ time and that most of all, she was to tell no one. At first she had wanted ignore it, shake it off as some strange joke. Then she had wanted to screw the paper up and forget about it. However, curiosity had always been her Achilles heel and it had gotten the better of her and as the three weeks passed she just had to know. She had told no one, none of her friends or family, she had followed all the instructions but. Now however she wanted and needed answers.
“I need to know. You need to give me something.” She told him.
She had wanted to yell, she had wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake all the answers out of him, however she had remained calm and gripped the steering wheel tightly, till her knuckles went white.
He turned and looked at her, not for the first time, however this time he look at her properly. So far she had not been like the others and she had done well to contain her frustration and something about the way she gripped the steering wheel reminded him, of himself, long ago. He had been with the Agency for so long, he had forgotten what it was like to not be part of it. He had forgotten how hard it was in beginning and how much harder at times, their job could be. He did want to tell her, but it was not time yet and he hoped she was able to hold out till then. He didn’t like the rookies, the newbies. They very rarely worked out. He didn’t like training them, not at all. They had never seemed to get the point. They never seemed to understand the true mission of the Agency. There had been over one hundred applicants before this one. Yet this one, he could sense was different and though he did not want to say it out loud or even admit it to himself, he wanted to see if this one could make it to the end. At least to the end.
“We have one more stop, then we will talk.” He promised her.
She wanted to yell and she wanted to tell him that that was not good enough. Instead however, she turned on the ignition and drove out of the car park and as they drove he gave her directions and once again, she found that they were driving out of the city.
It was late afternoon when they had reached their destination. They had a driven to a quiet, middle class, rather picturesque suburb on the outskirts of the city. They had then driven to a cul-de-sac and parked in front of a quaint, red bricked home, the outside of which was decorated in roses and a sycamore tree on the front lawn. A removal van was parked out the front of the house. Several men, in grey overalls were walking in and out of the house, loading the van with various pieces of furniture. A small man, the rookie guessed to be somewhere in his 30s, stood in the driveway, in nothing but a dressing gown, a sweatshirt and sneakers, arguing and protesting at the men. However, his protest were met with indifference and the men continued to load the removal van.
Before they left the car, he told the Rookie to reach under the seat and pull out the bottom manila file. She did, handed it to him, he then flicked through it and pursed his lips once more, and nothing he read in that file pleased him. He then closed the file, held it in hand and got out of the car. The rookie followed.
The walked up to the distressed man in the driveway, who lit up the moment he saw them. He did not recognize The Rookie, but her companion he knew straight away.
“You have to help me. You said you’d help me.” The man pleaded.
Her companion however said nothing, instead, thrust the file at the man. The man took the file and read through it.
“But but…..”He started to stammer, but as he read through the file, The Rookie watched all the color drain from his face.
The removal men then walked past them and nodded. It was clear their job was done and the sun was soon to set.
“Keys please.” He then said to the man, who still, in utter shock, without questions handed her companion the keys to the house. Which were then thrown at The Rookie, with instructions to, ‘lock up.’
When she was done, the sun was just setting, everything was still and the man was now in the back of the car, while he leaning against the car door, cigarette in hand. The Rookie tossed the house keys at him and he caught it with his free hand.
“You know those things are bad for you right?” She told him.
“Sometimes the job requires stress release.” He told her with a small laugh.
She opened her mouth to ask about the man, who now sat in the backseat, looking sheepish and stonewalled. She wondered what was in the file. However, once more, she kept hold of her tongue and once more got into the driver’s seat. He got into the passenger seat and rested the manila folder on his lap.
They then drove, out of the suburb and further away from the city. They drove for hours in silence, driving down back roads, further and further away from civilization. Till they reached a bridge just outside of small backwater town. The Rookie was then told to pull over, which she did.
“Shoes and get out.” He then shouted at the man in the back seat.
The man in the back seat opened his mouth to protest but instead, did as he was instructed, taking his shoes off and placing them on the seat beside him and then got out of the car. The Rookie noted that he now looked, even smaller than he had, hours prior.
“Drive and step on it.” He then told the Rookie flatly.
The Rookie, hesitated for a moment and she glared at her companion. She wanted to object, the man looked so helpless, standing there.
“Drive.” He told her again, this time sternly.
The rookie turned on the ignition and did exactly that, however, though she did not voice it, she made a mental note of the bridge and the backwater town of which she now found herself, driving at high speed toward.
The town was a one pub, one gas station sort of town and spinning the tires as she did so, pulled into the town’s one and only pub’s car park and parked the car.
“What the fuck was all that about?” She yelled and when he did not answer, she added, “What the fuck is this? Please give me something, what and why am I involved in all this?”
He looked at her, but instead of answering her questions, he instead placed the manila file on her lap.
“Read it.” He told her.
She turned on the car indoor light and poured herself over the contents of the file. There was a lot of documentation and it was not what she had expected. Time passed and as she read, they both sat in silence. When she was almost done, he fished a cigarette out of his pocket and not for the first time in that day, offered it to her and as she closed the file, she accepted the cigarette.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a flask in that coat as well would you?” She said to him.
To which, he then reached into his coat once more and pulled out a silver flask.
“Thanks.” She said and took a large mouthful, handed it back to him and then proceed to light her smoke.
Moments ago, she had felt nothing but empathy for the poor man they had just left, shoeless and on the side of the road. None she felt nothing but utter disgust and a part of her felt that he had gotten off lightly. Moreover, she was finally starting to understand the Agency, what it meant, what they did, what they knew and what could do. She also now understood why it was better to not ask questions and why they operated in such secrecy, however there were still things she wanted and felt she needed to know.
“Why me?” She asked him.
To which he handed her, the last of the three files and placed it, gently on her lap, on top of the other manila file.
As she opened it, she realized it was none other, than her file and she gathered, it was the same one from three weeks ago, the one which the Agents who had visited her, who had offered her the job, had been carrying.
The file contained everything, everything she had done, the good and the bad. Everyone she had ever spoken too, all her records, school photographs. For a brief moment, she wanted to yell at him, that they had violated her privacy, that they had no right but. Then she realized what is was the Agency did and thought about the file beneath her own.
“Do you have one of these on everyone?” She asked
“How else do you think we can do what we can do.” He replied.
“But I still don’t understand why me.” She stated.
He took a long drag of his smoke, inhaled and exhaled deeply.
“We all have reasons for being picked. You fit the criteria.” He told her and then handed her the flask again. She took another large swig.
“It’s a hard life, a hard job but if you want to make a difference. Really want to. This is your chance.” He then told her.
“So I got the job?” She asked him, surprised.
“If you want.”
“There are sacrifices” he told her gently
“I know and I’ll make them.” she promised him.
“Then I will pick you tomorrow. Same time.” He told her, to which she nodded.
They then drove back to the city.
Two weeks later.
Dressed in a long, dark grey trench coat, over a very plain grey suit, and dull, worn dress shoes, stood the Rookie, outside the apartment door, she had visited two week prior. This time, she stood at in front of the door alone and carrying a single, manila file. She knocked three times on the door and waited.
The same woman from two week earlier, opened the door, however this time she smiled and did not invite The Rookie in.
“Ready?” Said the Rookie
“As I’ll ever be.” Said the Woman, her smile growing wider as she said it.
The Rookie then handed the Woman keys to her new, red bricked home with roses and a sycamore tree. Situated in a small picturesque suburb, on the outskirts of town.