Bill was sitting at his desk busily placing priority orders from Sam’s list of supplies. The price was mounting up but Sam had more than enough to cover it. How did a guy in his mid-twenties get so rich? Probably best not to know.
Something about the room changed. Hairs on the back of his neck stood up, tingling. What was it? No sound. The only light in the room, maybe in the whole building, was the antique desk lamp at his elbow. If someone had come in the front door the lights would have automatically come up in the waiting room.
There it was. A click, like the front door closing.
Bill stood and walked to the door of his office. Hall was still dark. He peeked around the corner. Waiting room dark. He stepped into the hall and headed for the front door, his hand slipping along the wall to guide him. When he reached the waiting room the lights came up but only half way. On the far side of the room stood the shadowy figures of three men. They were dressed in simple black tunics and black slacks. At first glance they seemed identical but on further examination Bill could see they were not. One was blond. One had dark hair. One was nearly bald. They were all close to six feet tall but there were variations. The one in the center was the tallest.
The one on the left spoke first. “Bill Lundigan.” It was not a question. It was a statement of fact, declarative, emphatic.
The one on the right smiled, more a smirk really, and the smirk infected his words. “You’re in over your head.”
Bill found his voice. “Who are you?”
“Never mind that. You just listen.” Lefty again.
The one in the center took over. “We are agents of a special secret task force. We are responsible for seeking out and tracking individuals who are escaping planet Earth, who are marshaling a force intended to take control of Earth and establish their own empire, to overthrow the present legally constituted government and return us to poverty and slavery.”
“Do you have some ID? I’d like to see your IDs.”
“You don’t need to see any IDs.” Righty this time.
The man in the center gave him a look then returned his attention to Bill. “We know you are adept at tiptoeing on the edge of the law. We know we have enough to shut you down and break you back to the poverty you came from. But we don’t want to do that. What we want…”
He paused to build a little pressure. Bill waited, gave them his poker face. If he felt the pressure he was not going to show it.
“What we want is information. You have a young man who is buying a ship. He has stolen a lot of money but we don’t care about that. We want to know where he is going and when he is leaving. You can supply us with that information.”
“I don’t know where he’s going. He won’t tell me.”
“Find out. What about when?”
Lefty snickered. “He can’t buy today and leave tomorrow. No way he can tie it all together.”
“He says he is. That’s all I know.”
Center reached in a pocket and pulled out a credit card. He held it up for Bill to see. “Find out where. We need to know. When you find out speak it into this card. Then swipe it anywhere, ATM, cash register, anything. We’ll get the message.”
He handed the card to Bill. Bill looked at it front and back. Lefty and righty started for the door. Center held his ground.
“There will be others coming your way. Word will get around. Feed us the info, when and where, and life will be good. If not…”
The room went dark and they were gone.
Bill stood there considering. There were so many top secret government task forces they kept running into each other. Most were not all that secret and most were more threat than action. What about this one? Did he need to worry? He fingered the card. He would give them something. Probably not the truth but something.
He turned and headed back down the hall using the faint light from his office as a guide. He took one step into his office and froze.
Someone was sitting behind his desk. The lamp left him in shadow but the face was familiar. It was everywhere: billboards, subways, television.
“You’re in over your head.”
“So I’ve been told.” Sweat was beading in his scalp and would soon be rolling down his cheeks. He had to find a way to mop it up before it showed. ‘Never let them see you sweat.’ But Devareux. Here. In this office.
Devareux leaned back in the chair. “Have a seat. Relax.” He waved to a couch in the corner of the room. “Lights half strength.” and the lights came up.
Bill sat on the edge of the couch leaning forward, anything but relaxed. Devareux got up and moved to an easy chair in the same corner.
“I said relax. You’re not in trouble. Well yes you are but not from me.”
Bill sat back. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his brow. What the heck. Devareux knew.
“I’ve had my eye on you for some time. You dance a fine line, skating close to the edge, sometimes maybe going over. Can be a dangerous game but you seem to know how to play it.”
Bill shrugged. He didn’t know whether to accept the complement or deny playing.
“But here’s the thing. People who play your game usually do it for money. They get rich. You’re not rich by any means.”
Bill glanced up at Devareux and back down at his hands, afraid to make eye contact. “I guess I’m a poor businessman.”
“I don’t think so. I think you are a very smart man. You make yourself out to be cold, cynical, a hard nosed businessman out for nobody but yourself but I know better. You base your pricing on ability to pay and need. You’re willing to fleece somebody who has plenty of money and needs to have some taken away from him. But if somebody comes along who has a need and doesn’t have the money you’ll adjust your pricing to match. I think you’re into helping people.”
Bill looked up, met Devareux’s steady gaze and held it. He shook his head. “No. No, I’m just a poor businessman.”
Devareux ignored him. “Take this Sam fella. Sam…”
“Sam Jeffords. Based on his apparent worth he can’t afford that ship. Certainly not the supplies you’re lining up for him. But you’ve set him up. Everything he needs. Why?”
Bill looked at him, not knowing how to respond.
“So here’s what I want. Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep…”
“I know. Let you know the when and where. Your minions told me.”
“Not my minions.”
Bill interrupted hastily. “I didn’t mean to say minions. I meant…”
Devareux raised his hand. “Don’t get upset. No offense taken. Here’s what I was going to say. Keep doing what you’re doing. I’ll head off the posse when I can. See here’s where I’m coming from. If anybody wants to get off this rock and start a new life, wants to live free, free of this bureaucratic nightmare, I’m all for it. If they are willing to take the chances it takes to get out, I say more power to them.”
Bill opened his mouth to speak. Devareux interrupted.
“I’m the undisputed leader of the industrialized world, right? Why am I here in the middle of the night? Why don’t I just announce that everybody is free to go, set up a colonizing program?” He looked around the room, thoughtful.
“There are factions, people with agendas. Paranoia, conspiracy theories. I’m doing a juggling act. If one faction thinks I’m leaning too far one way they will come after me. If I fall, if the balance is upset, one mob will have too much power. This society, such as it is, will disintegrate and will fall into chaos. It’s not about me you understand. It could be anybody. It’s just that somehow I turned out to be the one chosen to maintain the balance.”
Devareux stood up. “Just know this. If it comes to a choice between keeping me in power and giving you up…”
Copyright © 2012 by Angus B. Lewis
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