by Richard Butner
“1985 sure is dark,” Nick said, and another 100 watt bulb popped gently in his hands. “It’s a good thing we have these protective gauntlets.” Nick waggled his hands and scattered shards of glass on the bedspread.
“These aren’t protective gauntlets,” the Assassin replied, “they’re rubber gloves we stole from the bathroom at the Burger King.” Except for the brownish-blue gloves, the Assassin was dressed in black from head to foot.
“I like to think that they were left there for us. We are on a mission, after all.”
The motel room was strung with cheap extension cords that fed a dozen utility lamps clamped to any available surface. The dingy bedspread, scattered with supplies, glowed in the center of the ring of lights. Between the two of them they’d already smashed five bulbs.
The Assassin carefully peeled off his gloves, pushed up his mirrored sunglasses, and rubbed his eyes. His hands shook. Nick started doing one-handed pushups on the carpet.
“I’m feeling much better now that we’ve got these lights up,” Nick said, gasping. “But I’m thirsty. Let’s get some beers. What’s the best beer in 1985?”
Before the Assassin could answer, Nick went on: “Today my horoscope said I was going to be struggling, obsessive, and combative. Do you think that’s a secret message of some kind? Maybe our handler is trying to contact us via the newspaper astrology column.”
“Maybe. My horoscope said I was patient, adaptive, and deep.”
Nick chuckled as he jumped up from the floor. “Good, that’ll come in handy. Especially the deep part.” The Assassin managed to screw a bulb into the last lamp without smashing it. “These things sure are fragile.” Nick pulled a battered tape recorder with a built-in radio from a grocery bag on the bed, fished around in the bottom of the bag, pulled a tape out labeled “Early 80’s Medley,” snapped it into the recorder and pressed “Play.” The motor whirred for an instant then stopped.
“OK, beers and batteries. I wish they had cold fusion in 1985. Then we wouldn’t need batteries to listen to tapes. I love these tapes. They’re full of E minor chords. Don’t you just love E minor chords?”
The Assassin didn’t reply. He was curling himself fetally around the pile of trash and supplies on the bed. An empty can of mixed nuts rolled against his thigh.
“There were lots of E minor chords playing the first time I had sex, which I fully admit was woefully late in life.” Now Nick was pacing back and forth from the windows, where they’d duct-taped the curtains to the walls, to the bathroom, where the Assassin had taped a cover he’d torn off of Cosmopolitan to the mirror. “SUSPECTED ALIEN” was written in brown felt-tip across the bare midriff of the cover model. “How many people have you had sex with, transtemporally speaking?”
“I’m never going to tell you. I’m asleep.”
“This is no time for sleeping, man! We’ve got to pick up our sealed orders! And get drinks. And batteries. Actually now that I think about it there’s a whole bunch of stuff we’ll need to get to blend in properly. . .”
The Assassin said, “We already blend in. We’re driving a battered Ford Escort. Have you noticed how many battered Ford Escorts there are in 1985?”
“Yeah, that thing blends in. It’s not very stylish, but it does blend in.”
The Assassin tried to burrow underneath a newspaper, but Nick snatched it off of his head and held it at arm’s length to examine the front page.
“God, what a couple of ugly bastards.” SUPERPOWER SUMMIT IN GENEVA, the headline read. “I wonder if we have to go to Geneva?”
“I don’t think the Ford would make it.” The Assassin rolled off of the bed and cracked the vertebrae in his neck with a quick jerk. “Let’s get those beers.”
Nick had on a long trenchcoat, a scarf, a knit cap, and his pair of rubber gloves, even though the Assassin had complained about them. They crossed the parking lot and the empty boulevard, headed for a convenience store, the Quickie Mart, at the corner.
Big fluorescent signs in the front windows advertised specials on milk, bread, and eggs. Taped-up flyers for church bake sales, rooms for rent, lost dogs and missing children flapped in the breeze. Nick fumbled spastically, trying to push his way in the OUT door as the Assassin shambled past him going in the proper way. The Assassin was examining the beverage selection as Nick bounced in, muttering at the recalcitrant doors.
“Afloat in a universe without end,” Nick said to the cashier, who was alone in the place. He leaned against the counter, drumming madly with all his fingers.
“Huh?” she said, and then she blew a big purple bubble and popped it immaculately.
“Oh, nothing.” Nick retreated to the battery display.
“You two sure are dressed funny. You going to a Halloween party, or are you just here to rob the place?”
Nick was scrutinizing the various types of batteries, holding the cardboard and plastic packets up close to his eyes. He swiveled his head and bared his teeth at the cashier.
The Assassin strode over to the counter. “We are neither, ma’am. We’re transtemporal operatives for an intelligence agency that you’ve probably never heard of, that perhaps hasn’t even been founded yet.”
Nick yanked the Assassin over to the battery display and mumbled in his ear, “Great. Why don’t you tell this backwoods breeder everything? You did skip the part about how we’re pretty much behind enemy lines and we haven’t heard from our handlers, after all.”
“It’s the old Purloined Letter trick,” the Assassin whispered back. “We’re hiding in plain view. She won’t believe it. We’re safe and now we’re free to act as crazy as we want to.”
“So y’all are spies,” the cashier said, smacking her grape bubblegum heartily.
“Something like that. Where’s the beer?”
“Bobby Ray don’t allow us to sell beer. It’s against God. But if that’s what you want, there’s a bar up the way. Take a right up there at State Road 1347 and look for the place with the rusted Double Cola sign out front.”
The pair went back to shopping, piling up their purchases on the counter: some blank cassette tapes, a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of white bread, several rolls of film, some notebooks and ball-point pens, a Rubik’s Cube.
“Looks like you’re stocking a dorm room, not a spy house,” the cashier said.
“I think you mean safehouse,” the Assassin said. “Anyway, documentation is the key to any successful operation.”
“Yeah, we need all this stuff,” Nick said. “It’s too bad you have such a lousy selection of batteries.”
“Don’t I know it,” the cashier said, and she popped another piece of gum in her mouth.
They found the bar, which wasn’t much more than a wooden shed at a fork in the road. A couple of men with less than a full complement of teeth played foosball while the fat bartender chewed the butt of an unlit cigar and watched a football game on a small black and white TV.
The Assassin ordered two Budweisers.
“Bottles, eh?” Nick said as the fat man slid two longnecks across the warped plywood bartop. “Don’t you have any beer in aluminum cans? I love aluminum. It makes me feel all ductile.”
The fat man retracted one Budweiser and swapped it for a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Nick peeled off some money and handed it to the fat man.
“Yep, aluminum. It’s not one of your rarer elements, but it’s important all the same. Now here is some fine aluminum,” Nick said, and he pulled a keychain from his pocket. There were no keys on the ring, just a shiny little ape. The ape held a pair of dice, one in each hand. Nick swung it slowly as if he were hypnotizing himself.
“Picked this up in Michigan, 1975.”
The Assassin’s face brightened. “Jimmy Hoffa, right? That was you?”
Nick shrugged and took a long sip of his beer. “Uh, yeah. Well, I don’t want to take all the credit. It was a team effort. I was a, uh, creative consultant. Anyway, do you like the keychain?”
“Here, you can have it. I want you to have it.”
Nick pressed the metal ape into the Assassin’s palm and curled his hand closed around it. The Assassin drew his hand away quickly and stashed the keychain in one of the breast pockets in his black fatigue jacket.
“Hey, do you think this guy has any music with E minor chords in it? I’ll ask,” Nick said, but the Assassin quickly drew his finger across his throat.
“Look, you’ve gotta calm down with this E minor stuff and this aluminum stuff. Are you sure you’re a secret agent from the future?”
“Just like you,” Nick said.
“I’m still calculating the probability of this whole situation. That two time traveling spies would meet up by chance in this backwater–it’s a pretty remote possibility.”
“Hey, somebody’s got to win the lottery. I’m just glad you picked me up instead of driving by. You could obviously spot the futuristic tilt of my pelvis as I was hitchhiking. I don’t know about you, but my whole operation was busted from the beginning.”
The fat man glanced up from his football game. Nick smiled and waved but the fat man just grunted and slid his gaze back to the television.
“You see, my mission is so secret,” Nick stage whispered, “that they had to send me off without even telling me what it was. And I think I might be a few years early.”
“I hate it when that happens,” the Assassin said.
Back at the room, as the Assassin was searching the bathroom for eavesdropping devices, Nick pulled the yellow plastic top from the can of mixed nuts. Inside was a slimy bit of crumpled paper. He picked it up and scanned it quickly.
“My orders came in,” he yelled.
“You mean our orders. Let me see!” The Assassin bounded out of the bathroom. “What does it say? Are we going to Geneva?”
“Uh, no,” Nick said, and he shoved the paper in his mouth and began chewing.
“Are we going to have take somebody out? Smash and grab? Black ops? Extreme sanction?”
“Not quite,” Nick said around his mouthful of mushy paper.
As he chewed, Nick began yanking the extension cords from the wall sockets, extinguishing lamps one by one as he got more and more tangled up in the cords.
“If you really want to know, we have to ‘make a new friend in a new town.'”
“This doesn’t sound like high intrigue. Do I get to assassinate this new friend?”
“No! My guess is it’s strictly a stake-out type deal. But hey, it’s an assignment, you know? If you’re coming along, you better get your stuff packed.”
Nick shoved all the utility lamps into a big cardboard box, and he removed the duct tape from the curtains, ripping big streaks of paint from the walls in the process. He had opened the door in preparation for carrying out the first load of junk to the car, when he noticed a large blue sedan pulling into the parking lot. As he tossed the box of lights into the back of the Ford, the blue car pulled up behind him. A heavyset woman in a green and white jogging outfit jumped out the driver’s side door.
“My son! What have you done with my son!”
Nick ignored her and kept arranging things in the hatch of the Ford. The lady in the jogging suit walked up to him and leaned over and screamed in his ear, “What have you done with my son, mister?”
“Uh, are you talking to me?”
The Assassin backed out the motel room door, his arms laden with grocery bags.
“Oh, there you are,” the woman shrilled, and ran over to the Assassin. “What kind of trouble have you got yourself into this time?” she said. The Assassin sat the grocery bags down on the pavement and closed his eyes. His entire body went slack as the woman examined him.
“Mom, this is really a bad time.”
“It sure is a bad time, young man. It’s always a bad time when you stop taking your medicine, but this has been the worst time of all. I’ve been worried sick for almost a week now. I’ve been calling police departments and putting up flyers. I’ve been driving all over five counties in a rented car looking for you.”
She stopped ranting long enough to size up Nick, who was trying to slink back into the motel room. “And who are you?”
“Nick. Nicholas P. Enlarger. I’m glad you found your son.”
“No thanks to you. Are you one of them chickenhawks I read about in Reader’s Digest? I’m just lucky the cashier at the Quickie Mart noticed him.”
The Assassin stiffened and turned to face the woman. “Look, you might be my Mother, for all I know, but you might also be an android duplicate of my Mother, you know? Let me just warn you that I have a wide array of Black Crane style capture holds at my disposal, which I will not hesitate to use unless you let me continue on my mission.”
“Son, the only kung fu you know is what you get from watching them movies on Saturday afternoon. Now get in that car before I lose my temper. Uncle Mack and I will come back later for the Escort.”
With that she swatted the Assassin firmly in the seat of his ripstop nylon paratrooper’s pants with her open hand. He walked quickly, without looking at Nick, to the passenger door of the rental car and slid inside. The fat woman got in and sped out of the parking lot, spraying dust and gravel.
“You can keep the keychain,” Nick yelled as he waved goodbye to the back of the Assassin’s head.
Nick walked down the side of Highway 15 with a plastic grocery bag in each rubber gloved hand. He had just been dropped off by his third ride of the afternoon. The driver of the chicken truck had suggested to Nick that he might need to get some fresh air. When the traffic died down, Nick rested against a guardrail and popped the batteries he’d bought in a Seven-Eleven in North Hartsville into the tape recorder. He turned the radio switch from AM to FM and then one notch further, where there was no marking, and began talking slowly into the speaker.
“Other Agents” originally appeared in LCRW 5.
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