The kids at my mother’s house are new recruits, and I don’t know their names. They look tired in their heavy wool coats. One kid examines maps pinned to the basement walls. Another shovels coal into the furnace.
I take a call from Central on the old basement phone. The handset is big and heavy in my hand. After the usual exchange of codes, the line goes to static.
A truck pulls into the backyard. Canvas flaps over its sides don’t quite conceal the rows of old toys. And inside those toys?
I run outside; the kids have to stick to their own mission. The driver is hitching my grandfather’s old lawn mower to the back of his truck. When he sees me, he leaps into the cab and drives off, spilling teddy bears and board games over the lawn.
I’ll have to take the glider, but that’s on the top floor. I head up the stairs and into a border outpost. I fish through my pockets for my papers. They’re missing, but nobody asks for them.
At the top of the outpost, we have a view on the whole valley. G is seated at the control panel. He pours me a mug of coffee and shows me the morning papers. Page after page of black-and-white comic strips: nothing but pratfalls and big sandwiches.
I descend from my mother’s attic and emerge in an alleyway in Damascus. S warned me not to come alone, but this is a quickly developing situation.
A fish merchant stands at the corner. I can see rubies through the mouth and gills of one fat trout. “That one,” I say, and the merchant flips the fish into a paper sack. A few rubies spill, but the merchant doesn’t see. I pretend not to notice. There are more gems inside the fish.
I glimpse S through an open window above. A burlap mask has been placed over his face, but I know him by the scar at his right temple. How did they find him?
The merchant starts yelling. I don’t have any cash, and he doesn’t want the junk from my mother’s attic. I leave the fish and run, but the man keeps yelling. A boy on a bicycle pulls up beside me and says in English, “Cover’s blown.”
Spread out across the central square are pieces of furniture from my brother’s bedroom. Local men and women, along with a few tourists, examine the desk and the dresser, the shelves, the nightstands. They stick small black numbers to the things they want. My brother is asleep in his bed. He always sleeps late.
The boy on the bicycle gives me a handful of the black numbers. I go to my brother and kneel beside him, but his face and hands are already covered.
The city was an American city. The car, an American car. The girl was missing, and time was running out, but it felt good to use a stick shift again. I wondered how that monster of an engine sounded to the dreams locked up in their houses.
At the top of a hill, I let the engine idle. A pool of water glistened among the trees at the bottom. The agent known as the Dandy was seated on a bench, feeding scraps of bread to the moon’s reflection. He saw me and waved, a little uncertain.
I thought: No more deals. No more dancing around time bombs.
I threw the car into gear and drove down the hill, straight at the Dandy. The car shook at the descent, at the power of its own functions. I heard bolts loosening. Pressure gauges hit the red. The rearview was an earthquake.
The car came apart, each piece moving out and away, an assembly line in reverse. I plummeted with only the steering wheel in my hands, but I could still hear the radio. Ornette Coleman was tearing a saxophone to pieces.
The Dandy, terrified, held up a sheaf of documents. I wasn’t close enough to read them. I was getting closer.
I’m called in after hours, to inspect the damage. The detective pulls the coat out of the closet with a gloved hand, shows me the bullet hole in the right breast. The hole is charred at the edges.
“No blood, though,” he says. “No body.” I tell him that’s because no one was wearing the coat at the time. The detective is stunned. I show him the back of the coat, the hole there. And the hole in the coat hanging behind the first coat. And the hole in the next coat. Seven coats in all, and the bullet passed through each of them.
“Monsters,” the detective says.
I point out a hole in the wall at the back of the closet. “What do you see through there?” I ask him.
He puts his eye to the hole and says, “It’s like the goddamn bottom of the sea.”
I instruct him to keep watching, then head into the hallway. It’s good these local yahoos called me in. They have no idea what they’re dealing with.
S is beside me, opening a can of peaches. “Status?”
“We’re looking for a room with deep cover and underworld ties. No windows, one door, full lockdown.”
S drops a peach slice into his open mouth, like he’s a dolphin, and he’s also feeding the dolphin. “Worse than I thought,” he says. “You suspect —?”
“The American? Yes. Or one of his chief agents.”
S’s eyes go wide. He sets the can on the floor and leaps down the nearest laundry chute. There are protocols.
I put my ear to the first door that gives me a suspicious look. I hear gurgling, and maybe a Teletype transmission.
I kick the door down. My brother is here, asleep in bed. I check him for wounds. He’s covered in popcorn, but no sign of struggle.
The only light in the room comes from the aquarium. I hunker down and peer into its depths. Past the dancing seaweed, over the ramparts of the plastic castle, a school of silvery fish zigzags, then disperses. And there it is: a little gray submarine, motoring over the sandy floor, pinging us with its sonar.
“Mom?” my brother calls, half awake.
I wave my hand at him, shushing. He sits up and looks at me. He doesn’t know my code name, and calls me by the one I grew up with. I wave at him again, signaling for him to cut it. The submarine is moving fast now, and the pinging grows louder. Its torpedo bays are open.
I grab my brother and pull him under the bed. “Cover your ears!” I tell him.
We stare at the shadows moving across the floor, and wait for the blast. I pray that the detective is still watching. That he trained himself never to blink.
Papers in Order
The documents we’d stolen were printed on jigsaw puzzle pieces. E had been working since dawn. She was good, but at sundown the puzzle was only halfway finished. I ordered takeout, opened two beers, and joined her at the table.
S came into the room, swinging his arms. There were tears on his cheeks. “My father,” he said.
I put my arms around him. I didn’t want him to knock over the puzzle. “I know,” I said, though I didn’t know.
“He just got smaller and smaller,” S said. “It went on for weeks. We lost him in the laundry.”
I squeezed his shoulders. “Who did this?”
E got up from the table. “It was the American,” she said. “He did the same thing to my sister.”
We geared up. Our motorcycles were old but they sounded good. Without speaking, we knew where we were headed. Those blinking red lights on the horizon: a communications array! How had we never noticed?
We took the tunnel under the river. Soldiers stopped us at the checkpoint halfway. None of us had our papers. S said, “Now we’ll see who’s been feeding the piper.”
A soldier brought us a flask. “Drink from this,” he said. “It keeps the weather out.”
S and I took deep gulps, but E only smelled it. The soldier looked offended, snatched back the flask, and put his hand on the butt of his pistol. Then he looked at the ground and shouted, “Schnell, schnell!”
The tunnel was filling with aquarium water. Green pebbles, plastic mermaids, and crawdads oozed up out of the drains. We rolled out, and I heard E laughing. She’d made this happen, called it in days ago. The perfect distraction.
“I love you,” I told her.
She couldn’t hear me over the noise of the engines. “What?” she shouted.
“You can see Jupiter tonight,” I said.
I pointed, and there it was. Big and orange over the clouds, watching us with its one weird eye.
Some local cops were behind my mother’s house, shining their flashlights into the trees. They didn’t have search warrants, and they hadn’t bothered to knock. I put on my best suspenders and headed outside.
The cops had changed into civilian clothing, but I wasn’t falling for it. I grabbed one of them and drove his face into the dirt. In high school he’d been a bully, or the cousin of a bully.
The other cops started backing away, like they didn’t want trouble, but I went in swinging. I had the superior training. They went down before my fists could find them: I was blowing them over with pure rushes of air.
The last cop standing put his hands up. It was R. In eighth grade, we’d had a band together for a week or two. “Dude,” he said.
I patted his shoulder, and we took the shortcut through the woods and headed downtown. I showed him where I kept my chopper. “Just one of the benefits,” I told him.
We followed the Hudson River down to the city, flying fast and low. Trains swept by on the east side, and I knew that E was on one of them, preparing her mobile base of operations.
We landed in Brooklyn, and the party was just getting started. We were famous here! R got behind the drum set and the cameras rolled. Central would be furious with me for doing a video, but I needed a new cover.
An enemy agent I’d seen in Kabul months before was behind the bar. He nodded at me, not bothering to keep up pretenses. I said, “This your night off?” He poured me a double and then showed me the little vial of poison.
“Fifty-fifty,” he said.
Too late to back out now. I downed the drink and closed my eyes, then opened them. The agent watched me, like not even he was sure what was going to happen. Then he laughed. “Get up there,” he said. R was already banging away on the drums. I grabbed a guitar, and wondered whether we had a bassist, whether our band had a name.
I knew only three chords. The kids were screaming for blood.
I remember how the American used to come around the house when I was nine or ten, blending in with my parents’ friends. He drank beer in the kitchen, talking loudly about whatever game was on television. He always had a different job: construction, deep-river salvage, accounting.
I was drawing a lot of castles then. The American told me about the portcullis, the murder hole, and the oubliette. He knew so much! Sometimes he’d be up later than my parents, and sometimes he’d have a girl with him. I saw them on the patio out back one night, sitting together on one chair. He whispered something into her ear, and she laughed.
Once he took me with him in his pickup to get a pizza. He said, “Your mom was the coolest, back in the day. We’d drive around in that little car of hers, with the top down. What a lady.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I told the American that I liked his Superman T-shirt.
“It’s yours,” he said, and he took it off right there, craning out of it while he drove first with one hand, then with the other, blind for a moment. The shirt was huge and full of holes. It smelled terrible. But I’d said I liked it, so I had to put it on.
Another time, I came home from school to find the American at the house. No one else was there. “Let’s walk,” he said. We walked around the neighborhood. I saw friends in their backyards, and I hoped they didn’t see me.
“I could use someone like you on my team,” the American said. “I’ve got plans, big plans. There’s a place for you, if you want in.”
I didn’t know how to refuse him. It was just like the T-shirt. I told him that I wanted in.
I went to meetings in the basement of the public library. Coffee-maker, a few people wearing ties, a few drifters. Maps on the walls, stacks of documents on a fold-out table. The American came sometimes, but usually he was too busy, and the woman I’d seen with him on the patio ran the meetings in his absence. We discussed pressure points, electrical systems, the benefits of meditation, propaganda, small island nations, archaic card games, chemistry, seduction, protection rackets, 1960s French cinema, firearms. I was always behind, and I had to pretend like I understood what the group was talking about. When I approached one of the other members of the group, the older brother of a friend, and asked him if he could help get me up to speed, he looked at me like I was an insect.
Eventually I stopped going to the meetings. I pursued other interests. For a while I played the recorder at historical reenactments. I went hiking and got lost on purpose, to practice my orienteering. The American stopped coming around, but as the years passed, I saw signs of his work everywhere. Few would have recognized his hand, but for me there was no mistaking it. It was there in the weather reports, in the stock numbers, in the comics. He sometimes appeared in newspaper photographs of politicians and business leaders, always at the edge of the frame.
Finally the other side reached out. Coded messages in snack boxes, windblown pamphlets on the sidewalk, smoke signals on the horizon: the usual recruitment tools. My training began in earnest. They knew from the start about my association with the American. I told them everything I could remember from those meetings in the library basement, but they either nodded like they already knew all that or told me that I’d probably been fed lies. That the American had foreseen even this moment.
Now we trace his movements by satellite, and by the subtle seismic activity he leaves in his wake. Sometimes it feels like we’re making progress. Usually it feels like we’re just the clueless guests at his birthday, the ones who weren’t told it was a costume party.
The Superman T-shirt is still in my top dresser drawer. I haven’t worn it since the day the American gave it to me, but I can’t get rid of it either. Its smell grows more sour every year.