For most people, names are who you are. The sum over the dotted line of the ledger.
For Trey, names were hats. Today, he wore this one. It was not necessarily the same one he wore yesterday, or would wear tomorrow.
Goodbyes were exchanged (an effusive fairwell from the taxi-driver, a small nod from Trey), and then he walked down the street, towards his contact’s address. It was an expensive house. The government had paid for it.
Trey had taken 30mg of dextroamphetamine before the assignment, and he was wired. His brain felt like it was simultaneously exploding and imploding and melting and freezing. He couldn’t stand still. His vision darted from quadrant to quadrant, mentally noting escape routes and ambush points. Plans and ideas tumbled through his mind in lunatic tickertape.
He had taken care to look nondescript, but bystanders looked uncomfortable as Trey passed by. Nothing about his appearance was egregiously wrong, but he stood out. Psycho-stimulants and years of monklike training had turned him into something as inhuman as straw stuffed into a suit.
Trey approached the house, and knocked on the door. Five seconds passed with torturous slowness to his overstimulated brain, then he knocked again – harder.
The door opened, and a woman in her forties filled the doorway. Her smile showed lots of teeth. “Hi, I’m Jo, how can I help you?”
“Hello, Jo. Your real name is Isabelle McKittrick. I’m Emmanuel Trey, and I work for the National Intelligence Directorate.”
Not-Jo’s smile began showing less teeth by the second. “I’m sorry? Who are you?”
Trey produced a ID card. Buzzwords swarmed on it like soldiers occupying a barricade. INTELLIGENCE ANALYST. STAGE 5 CLEARANCE. “Ms McKittrick, we are short on time. Twenty years ago, you were recruited for the NID’s so-called Wet Encryption program. In this capacity, you agreed to memorise certain numbers and codes. The NID relocated you under a false name, and told you to keep your head down. In exchange for a monthly stipend, you became the protector of various government assets. ”
As Trey spoke, her expression changed from confusion to comprehension. But the smile did not return. She looked as though she would rather not be there at the moment.
“The short of it, Ms McKittrick, is that there has been a security breach. Some of these assets are now in jeopardy. I need you to come with me. You are a human key, and our agency needs the codes in your head. ”
McKittrick stood there, clearly looking for excuses.
Car brakes screeched.
Both of them turned and saw a dark BMW rocking on its suspension springs in McKittrick’s driveway. Its windows were tinted.
Three men got out of the car,
“Associates of yours?” McKittrick asked.
Trey said nothing. He stared at the newcomers, seemingly lost in thought.
The three men wore their nondescript clothes like battle dress. Their eyes were hard and merciless. If Trey looked odd in suburbia, these men looked ludicrous – and frightening.
“Is she the one?” One of the men. He gestured at McKittrick with a wart-studded sliver of a hand.
“McKittrick? Yeah.” the lead man replied in an accent hard to place.
They moved closer. The proximity became uncomfortable. Two of the men spread out in what was unmistakably a flanking manoeuvre.
“Ms McKittrick’s with me.” Trey said, unmoving.
The men ignored him.
“Good morning, Isabelle.” The lead man said to the woman. His hair was blond, and his voice was accented “We’re some new friends. We’d like to take you for a car ride.”
McKittrick looked from the man to Trey, and back again. Her tongue was stilled by all the questions fighting for space on it.
“What about this freak?” the second man asked, pointing at Trey.
“NID cannon fodder. I’ll deal with him. Cuff this bitch and get her in the car.”
McKittrick let out a soft wail as a gun came out.
The warty man Zip-tied McKittrick’s hands behind her back. McKittrick barely seemed conscious of what was happening.
Trey spoke. “Ms McKittrick is under government protection. Whoever you guys are, she’s not going anywhere with you.”
The blond man wrapped an arm around Trey’s neck. He started whispering into Trey’s ear, a lover sharing intimate secrets. “You’re not going to be a problem, are you? I hate problems.”
Trey felt a silencer dig into his neck like a plastic auger.
The blond man’s breath was foul. “Heard we were coming, didn’t you? Thought you’d rescue this little piece of fluff for the government, didn’t you? Well, you’ve fucked up, Sir Galahad. Don’t try and be brave. It won’t last long.”
Trey moved with horrifying speed.
He clapped his left hand over the Beretta, threw his tailbone into the other man’s gut, and twisted the gun out of the man’s hand. It thudded to the grass, followed an instant later by its owner.
The warty man swore, and went for his gun.
Trey’s open palm slammed into his face, rocking him back. “McKittrick, get inside!” he yelled. As the man tried to rebalance, Trey kicked him in the stomach, chopped him hard across the windpipe, and tore the gun from his hand. He moved with unbelievable speed, a Shaolin priest in a three piece suit.
As McKittrick raced through the door, the remaining man drew his gun, snapped the safety off, and put a point on Trey.
But Trey had grabbed the wheezing blond-haired man’s shirt, and swung him into the path of the gun. With the blond-haired leader now in the path of the shot, the man eased back on the trigger, snarling in frustration.
Trey dashed through the door, slammed it shut, and locked it.
Breathing fast, but not too fast, Trey met McKittrick in the foyer. “Are you okay?”
The foyer was dark. Parquet tiles spread out in an staggered chessboard pattern. That and the house beyond spoke of a neat and co-ordinated mind. Perfect matching lines of a vacuum cleaner stood out on the carpet. You could have dined off any surface in the house. McKittrick’s mental organisation had made her an ideal candidate for the Wet Encryption program.
“No! I am fucking far from okay!” McKittricks hands weren’t shaking but only because they were Ziptied behind her back. “What’s going on here?!” She made the sentence span octaves. “First you arrive, then…them…”
Hammering fists pounded on the door, but no shots were fired through the door. Trey was just meat to them, but they could not risk killing McKittrick with a stray bullet.
Trey grabbed her by the shoulder and led her further into the house. “Come on, this house has been set up with a panic room, hasn’t it?”
“On the left, underneath the stairs.” McKittrick seemed close to tears. “Trey, what’s going on? Who are these people?”
“They are the Soldati di Domani, the Soldiers of Tomorrow. They were once a group of politically motivated businessmen. The government now considers them to be a terrorist organisation. There’s no time, is this the room?”
They were at large wall face beneath the stairwell, with only a slight egress and a deadbolt betraying the door. A stone bust of Emperor Nero regarded them with scorn from atop an adjacent cabinet.
McKittrick nodded, and Trey unlocked the deadbolt. The massive steel-reinforced door swung open noiselessly. He turned on the light.
The room was small and dark. A computer terminal was connected to a phone line, which ran out through a hole in the fortified cement bricks. A dull bulb glowed overhead, giving just enough light to see the dirt all over the floor. McKittrick had forgotten about this room. She had forgotten about many things, like the cost and exactment of duty.
He ushered her inside, and closed the door.
Outside the panic room, a gloved fist smashed through the window of the front door. Frosted glass tinkled to the floor, splaying little teeth of refracted light across the parquet floor.
The fist reached through the hole, groped for the doorknob, and found it.
“Can you do something about my hands?” She asked.
“Your hands…? Oh, right, sorry.” Trey produced a coin from his pocket, and snapped it in half. Inside the coin was a tiny cavity with a coiled kevlar thread.
Trey gestured for McKittrick to turn around, and looped the thread between his thumb and index fingers like a ligature. He applied the edge of the thread to the plastic Zip-tie restraining McKittrick’s hands. “We use fake coins quite a bit because they’re easy to get past security checkpoints. You can fit a number of small things in them. Data drives, bugging devices. Hell, I’m aware of one agent who had to get a document out of a hostile zone. He shredded the document, put it inside ten or fifteen fake coins, and reassembled it at the other side.”
“Do people ever spend the coins by mistake?”
“What do you think? There’s tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of government hardware circulating the economy as bus money.” He sawed away at the plastic Zip-tie until it broke with a dry popping sound.
“McKittrick, get to the computer. I need you to access the bank account that holds the money. The Soldiers are after you, and I would count on five to ten minutes before they take down the door with a pneumatic drill.”
“I can’t hear anything. Maybe they’ve left.”
Trey listened for thirty seconds. There was silence, total silence. The house wasn’t being ransacked. Was it possible?
He unlocked the deadbolt, opened the door a little, and poked his head out.
And pulled it back very quickly when he saw the man with the gun.
A bullet screamed off the steel-reinforced door and took the bust’s head off with its richochet. The sound of the gunshot was followed by the sound of yelling and approaching footsteps. Trey re-locked the door.
“Fuckers were waiting for me. Okay, there’s nothing for it. Let’s rescue this account, and get ourselves out of this mess.”
McKittrick rubbed her abraised and irritated wrists. The computer was whirring and humming as it started up. “So these Soldiers of Tomorrow have something to do with the NID security breach?”
“A mistake was made.” Trey explained. “Someone mass-forwarded an email containing the names of several Wet Encryption agents, including yourself. One of the recipients was a known sympathiser to the Soldiers of Tomorrow.
“For years, the government and the NID has been finding ways to fight terrorism without firing a bullet. We don’t know who the terrorists are and we don’t need to know. We simply go after the people who feed them. We freeze their bank accounts, prosecute their supporters, and spoil their cash flows. Violent and dangerous men exist, McKittrick. We want to make sure they’re also poor and starving men.
“As the Soldati di Domani’s financial state worsens, they have been seeking alternative revenue streams. They knew about the Wet Encryption program, and that billions of dollars are being guarded this way. But they didn’t know the names of the Wet Encryption agents. They do now.
“Those three gentlemen are, I presume, a rendition team of the Soldiers of Tomorrow. If you had gone with them, they would have taken you to a soundproof room and extracted the bank account code from you.”
“You don’t understand.” McKittrick said.. “Wet Encryption doesn’t work like that. It was designed to be unbreakable through torture.”
Trey thought he heard some noises from outside the panic room. The computer was still starting.
“Wet Encryption agents work in pairs.” McKittrick said. “There’s a code protecting the bank account, but I’ve only got half of it. The other half is known only to my assigned partner, and we’re on opposite sides of the globe. Every 24 hours, Wet Encryption agents make contact with their partners, and confirm that they are safe and healthy. If my partner doesn’t hear from me by the end of the day, the NID will assume I’m MIA, change the bank passcode, and match my partner up with someone else. Even if these Soldier of Tomorrow freaks capture me, all they’ll get is one half of a useless number!”
“They don’t know that, McKittrick. They’re desperate. They’ll try anything. But that changes my mission parameters not at all. I have been instructed to empty the bank account you’re protecting, as even a somewhat compromised account is an unacceptable risk. I’ve been dealing with the Soldiers for a long time. It’s very likely they have a second rendition team on a chartered plain, stalking your partner.”
“You know a lot about these people.”
“I wish we knew more. We tried planting a man in the Soldiers of Tomorrow once. That didn’t go so well.”
Trey sighed. “It was years ago…oh fuck, what a mess that was. We had an agent called Marcus, who wanted to join the air force. He was a giant of a man, six foot eight or something like that. The air force has a maximum height allowance of six foot four. Marcus wanted the height limit waived, and he’d been told that membership with the Soldiers was a good way to do it. That was his story when he approached them, anyway.
“Well, they found him out. A van pulled up in front of a Fayetteville recruitment center one morning, dumped Marcus’s body, and drove off. He a bullet in his head and an air force application stapled to his chest.
“We had our people on the scene within an hour. They all commented that Marcus seemed…shorter. A lot shorter. Some thought it wasn’t really him. Then someone pulled up the legs on his denims. The Soldiers of Tomorrow had cut six inches out of his thighs with a bow saw and sewn him back together. Anyway, you talk to your contact. I’ll dial the police and report a home invasion.”
McKittrick swallowed. “This safe room…is it strong?”
Trey got out his phone. “Built by the cheapest bidder.”
The computer terminal had loaded, and McKittrick dialled a Skype contact called “Angelus.”
“Come on, Tony…pick up…pick up…”
A groggy, sleep-choked voice. “Isabelle, what’s going on? It’s five in the fuckin’ m…”
“Huge problems are what’s going on, Tony. Men have broken into my house, and I’m in the panic room with an NID agent who nearly just got shot in the head. They invaders are trying to get the bank account passcode out of me, and we have to transfer the money to a secure account.”
“My god….well, okay, we can do that. But we have to follow procedure. Can you turn on your webcam?”
McKittrick turned it on. She showed Angelus the room, she showed him Trey talking on the phone to the police, she showed him Trey’s ID, and she showed him herself. She showed him that she had no electrodes clamped to her wrists, temples, or breasts, no signs of torture or duress. She gave him her phone number, and intoned the alphabet forwards and backwards in a slow, even voice. “Satisfied that I’m not standing her talking to you with a gun held to my head?”
“Yeah, that’s good enough. This NID agent, what’s his name again?”
“So he’s the one who will oversee the money transfer? That’s a bit irregular, normally we get a finance officer to do that stuff. Is he trustworthy?”
“Tony, he’s the reason I’m still here. He nearly took a bullet for me a few minutes ago. If you block this transfer because of some red-tape bullshit, there’s a strong chance the money will end up in the hands of terrorists. Just do it!”
“Alright, alright. I’m logged on. You enter your half of the code, and then I’ll enter my half.”
McKittrick pressed eight keys. Eight asterisks appeared in the Telnet prompt. Over the Skype connection there came the sound of tapping, and a further eight asterisks appeared. Sixteen asterisks guarding a fortune like enigmatic soldiers.
“Authenticated. We’re in.”
“Over to you” McKittrick said, handing Trey the keyboard.
Trey’s fingers performed a dazzlingly fast dance. He pressed “Enter” and nodded to McKittrick.
“The money’s safe, and we now just have to wait for the cavalry. My thanks to you, McKittrick. Things could have gone a lot worse.”
McKittrick was about to relax…and then she noticed two things.
Both of them were horrible, and both of them she noticed too late.
Trey’s phone rested on the desk. It was completely powered off, without even a LED glowing. Thirty seconds ago, he’d been making a call to the police on a turned off phone.
The second was the gun.
In Trey’s hand.
The other hand was screwing on a silencer.
Angelus’s voice cut through the quiet.
“Uh, Isabelle, we have a problem. Can I just have you confirm something? One of my NID contacts just ran a database search, and there’s no operative called Trey on their books.”
McKittrick opened her mouth to scream.
“That’s spelled T-R-E-Y, like the playing card, right?”
A bullet tore into her throat. The scream drowned in blood.
“What just happened? I heard a noise…goddamn…hello? Is anyone there? Isabelle? ISABELLE…!”
Bad thieves break windows. Good thieves pick locks.
Emmanuel Trey left the safe room, and was greeted by the three Soldiers of Tomorrow.
“Well?” The blond man asked.
Trey took his hand out of his pocket. It had swiped a credit card. It had struck the warty man in the face (though his face had no bruising or blood…none at all). It had tendered a bank transfer of millions of dollars. It had pulled a trigger.
Now, it flashed them a thumbs up.