The Letter in A-2

By Hannah Christensen

He plucked up the long, creamy envelope with long, bony fingers and sniffed it. It smelled crisp and clean, with acrid undertones that held no hint of must. The faintest touch of citrus brushed his well-developed nasal cavity. He failed to place the exact fruit scent in the one sniff allowed—a second would render him conspicuous. He flipped it over and examined the printing on front.

Poison purple ink swirled in lines of perfect loops and curlicues, printed font masquerading as elegant handwriting. Such costumes could never fool these shaded grey eyes. They stripped off the mask from the words to reveal cheap machinery tricks. Instead of wasting time trying to decipher the writer’s character and state of emotion, the grey gaze flicked to the upper right corner. The stamp was nothing noteworthy, merely a striped national banner folded into ripples too perfect for any earthly wind to produce. The perforated edges lined up neatly parallel with the edges of the envelope, a pristine  corner. The subtle lack of a postmark clearly indicated an outgoing message, and the careful lack of personality in its addressing meant that the recipient was indicated in a much simpler method than employing a code. It must be delivered by smell.

A greyed-black coarse wool coat with thread-bare elbows and cuffs too short from being turned to cover the fraying edges swallowed the envelope into a inner pocket.

“Do we have a tracking number for that order of watches yet?” The middle aged executive nervously moved a rubber band ball made exclusively of white rubber bands to an L-shaped hop away from a sleek black pen shining and erect in its stand. He fluttered his fingers over it, not quite letting go, and nervously eyed a nearby quill pen. It stood tall and elegant, soft black feather strands curling about its edges and delicate as a feather fan the coyest marquise in Spain could wish. The broad silver band filled with curling scripts and angular hieroglyphs seemed at odds with the slightly pudgy fingers and overly short fingernails that were suspiciously rough around the edges. With a jerk, he pulled the ball back and hopped it to the side to smack down a black rectangular paper-clip holder instead.

“It has not been posted yet,” soothed a woman in a non-descript grey skirt suit, except for the peony woven into her hair above the right ear. “You just signed the order yesterday evening. The post does not go out until this afternoon.”

“Perhaps someone should take a special trip to the post office. That package is imperative for the upcoming mission.”

“That would look rather conspicuous, I’m afraid. We don’t want to jeopardize everything over an equipment order. But if it would make you feel better, I’ll go check on it.”

“No, no, I’m sure it’s…on the other hand, checking wouldn’t hurt anything. Yes, go ahead, do.”

The executive nervously pushed a few black and white paperclips around on his desk, sweeping two off onto the floor and knocking over a white pencil sharpener. He was chewing his nails, studying the position of the white feather pen in relationship to the black steel cased pen when the secretary returned. He spun around and stared, expectantly.

She picked some dirt out from under a thumbnail. “There may be a problem. I could not find the envelope. Unless, of course, I am overlooking something.”

“Never assume either that you are overlooking something or that you see it all. Investigate.” He thumped his fist against the pine wood desk. The office supplies quivered like kingdoms dreading inevitable collapse. “To begin, where did you leave the said envelope?”

“Office A-2. You were concerned about its timeliness, and I didn’t want to risk it getting lost in the—sir?”

The executive had clapped his hands to his temples, and was staggering around, pushing down against his cheeks, the disfiguring drag warping his groaned, “No…no…no.” He ricocheted off his rolling chair and sent it crashing into the desk. Office supplies scattered. He stumbled around to face the chaos, letting go of his face to hover his hands protectively over the fallen pieces, too late to do any help.

“Someone may have simply decided to take a personal hand in its delivery rather than leave it to route delivery.”

“A-2? No doubt. No doubt at all. And I’m sure I can pinpoint who did it. To the ruin of all.” He stared a while longer at the mess on his desk. His secretary was just on the point of slipping out of the office when he spoke again.

“Set up my board for me while I’m gone. This time I’m going to collar him myself. Or at least that envelope. If I’m not back by the time the mail goes out, call in the Specialist Team K2-19 and share the status. They’ll need to take it from there.”

She frowned. “You think this is an outside job?”

“Oh, no. I could wish. It might be more straight forward that way. But if we miss the mail, we’ll need their expertise to fake a new order into the post office today without anyone noticing.”

Most of the people rushing about or lounging in the corners together dressed less formally than suit and tie. Still, looking down at his patched elbows, the man decided he did not blend in as much as could be hoped. Besides, it was time to trace the odor label to another floor. Near the entrance point of the floor he slowed down close to the wall mounted hooks, then slipped into the bathroom with an overcoat and umbrella. Stepping into a bathroom stall until the room cleared of other occupants, he turned on a sink and sprinkled water over the outside of the overcoat, then slipped it on. The umbrella, remaining closed, received the same treatment.

A colored handkerchief from his pocket got tucked around his neck like a tie peeping out.

He studied his reflection. He wished for a hat to cover the grey streaked hair and shadow his face, pulling attention away from the long nose. No, what he wished for was a building full of hatted men. One hat would be conspicuous. This would do for now.

The elevator door stood next door to the bathrooms. The newly disguised man pushed a button to the elevator. He had just stepped in and turned around when a frantic looking man with ginger hair and a flapping tie ran toward them.

“Wait!”

He did not wait. He was on a mission, and panicked people, however unrelated they might be to a mission, invariably endangered the success rate. He let the elevator close, and used his umbrella handle to swipe a swath of buttons before pushing one, apologizing to the other occupants for such a clumsy mistake, of course.

The elevator door slid closed. The executive lurched to a stop and punched the air. He looked around for something to throw onto the floor, especially something he could stomp on properly.

“Just lose a client?” a gravelly voice tinged with amusement asked. The executive swung around as though he wouldn’t mind using the wiry old man in lavender shirtsleeves as his next venting target.

“If I don’t get that order back, worse! Especially after the last few times!”

The elderly man’s voice scraped up through his throat in a chuckle. “Are you sure it was him this time? You might be jumping to conclusions.”

“Who else could be sneaking into the elevator in my overcoat wetted down to pretend he’s just in from the rain?” The executive gestured toward the sun filled window down the hall. “And when has it been anyone else? Sometimes I think I should nail A-2 up!”

“It might be easier to send him away,” murmured the other, pulling at a purple shirt cuff.

The executive sighed and ran fingers through his sandy hair. “He wouldn’t remember. He’d just come back. I don’t even know how he’d handle getting that office blocked off. Probably find him sleeping in my closet. Or he’d just find a way to get in.” He shrugged. “Even if he managed to forget how to come back, he’d wander around looking until the police got involved, trying to help, and an investigation would be so…inconvenient.”

“Perhaps it won’t be so bad this time.”

“He took the watch order.”

The older man flinched back. “That isn’t out yet?”

“That’s why it was in A-2.”

The elderly man pinched the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes. “You do have a plan, don’t you?”

“We had better start by sending an observer to every floor to see where he gets off at. The sooner we cut off his travels, the better our chances stand.”

The doors of the elevator slid open a fifth time. The scent here was promising. There might be a close match or a recently abandoned receiver. It was a good lead. He stepped out and made a show of shaking the water droplets off of the umbrella.

A figure caught the corner of his eye. The man was neither hurrying about nor standing in line like the rest of the inhabitants on this floor seemed to be. He leaned casually against the stair sign, his hand curled around something suspiciously the same size as a pager or undercover walkie-talkie.

Hairs stiffened along his neck. He couldn’t prove he was being watched, but the hunch was strong. He rustled his hand around in a coat pocket, then started, as though surprised to have missed something. Wheeling around, he rushed for the elevator, raising a hand to show he needed someone to keep it open to let him back on. The only occupant was too deep into his news report to notice.

He reached out with his umbrella, but the doors sealed shut, catching the smallest tip of the umbrella between them.

The man by the stairs began to pick his way around, not approaching so much as cutting off an escape into the bustle of the floor. Now his neck hairs bristled as sharply as sucked icicles and threatened to prod the rest of his scalp into similar action. Yet another good use for a hat—hair action disguise. This trailer would not abandon the most obvious exit without backup behind him. Some opponent was attempting to hedge him in. He jabbed the elevator button, but the engine had already begun to hum, pulling it away. They thought they had him now, that he could neither lose himself in a crowd nor wriggle through an exit. But he had one more trick up his sleeve. Pulling his arms out from the overcoat and letting it hang from his shoulders, he delicately pulled up an elbow patch and, with a swift sweep with one bony finger, pulled out a slender wedge-shaped tool. The slight catch of the umbrella in the outer door might even prove useful here.

“Complications!” spat the executive. His pacing area had grown from the threadbare area behind his desk to both his office and the outer reception room. If his footsteps spread any farther afield, he would start breeching the hallway. His secretary only looked up from her typing to frown a reminder when he fingered the “on” switch to his walkie-talkie.

“They had him surrounded—I was leaning on the elevator button myself—how could they have complications?”

The secretary did not bother to explain that if he had not yelled that very question through the top secret radio system, he might not have compromised security so much as to need to turn his own device off. He might have, instead, received an answer to that question already instead of having to wait until someone could find the time to come debrief him in person. After two or three times, such explanations became less than useful. By the thirty-seventh time the question was asked, repeating the answer would only be an annoyance to everyone involved.

“Elevator monitoring indubitably shows he did not get into the elevator, and the agent said he still had visual contact with the target. It would be totally out of character—and training!—for him to turn in open opposition. Complications! What kind of complications could they have had!”

He walked nose first into the opening door.

The fellow entering froze mid-entry, watching him stagger backward and flail about in a vain attempt to catch himself before crashing backward into the secretary’s desk.

“Is…now not a good time?”

“Don’t you dare leave!” The executive used the secretary’s desk as a launchpad to hurl himself at the newcomer. Grabbing him by the collar and dragging him into the room, he shut the door behind them and pushed the fellow into an empty seat.

“Now, tell me what exactly was meant by ‘complications’. Where did he go? We had all the bases covered!”

The seated man rubbed sweat from his thinning hair line, then plucked at his ribbed beige sweater. “Maybe not completely covered.”

“What is that supposed to mean!” The executive picked up the last empty chair in the room and began slamming it feet first against the floor.

He startled to notice the secretary standing behind him. Her arms were crossed, and her lips pursed in stony silence. The icy glare from beneath her lashes served as a reminder that, acting secretary or not, she was a full fledged spy herself.

“My receiving room, your office,” he mumbled meekly. Softly he set the chair back down.

She continued to glare at him until he perched on the edge of the chair’s seat and wadded his hands into a ball on his lap. With a severe nod, she returned to her desk and her task on hand.

“He managed to open the elevator door.”

“He got in the elevator? I thought we had successfully removed that!”

“So did we. I mean, we did. With the elevator gone, we didn’t think to guard the elevator doors. We, um, failed to keep him from forcing them open.”

“But we just agreed there was no elevator behind the doors. Where would he have gone?”

“Up the elevator shaft. Sir.”

“Where?”

“Up the shaft. It was a little hard to track, but he started by going up the shaft. Then down the shaft. Then up the shaft. We think about that time he dropped onto the top of the elevator and started to ride it. They went up the shaft. Then down the shaft. Then up the shaft. Then they stopped to push a button. Then they went up again. Then down. Then up. Then up some more, and—”

“Will you just tell me where they ended up!”

“On the twelfth floor. Within a fifteen percent margin of error.”

“Who do we have up there?”

“Er, two agents closing in from the stairs, but with several floors to go with one and stairway obstructions holding up the other. The elevator is stalled between floors eleven and twelve.”

“No one at the windows?”

The messenger’s face wrinkled in distress.

The executive flapped his own question away. “No, no, that would be much to conspicuous, you’re quite right. But to think we’ve lost him again!”

“Bathrooms 12-C and D are scheduled to be cleaned within the quarter hour,” murmured the secretary.

“I should have known,” wailed the executive, trying to pull his hair. It was just too short to wrap satisfactorily around his fingers. “We have to get there first! Get out the Blast-O-Duct.”

The other man winced. “I thought you said—”

“But this is an emergency.”

The secretary got up and pressed open a secret panel beside the closet. Behind it was a wooden door unlocked with a skeleton key, then a steel door unlocked by a ten digit combination, and finally a purple tinted bullet-proof glass door that slid open when she passed a zip lock bag with some rough black hairs inside in front of a sensor. From this compartment she pulled a cubical framework which looked like a giant mouth with loopy intestines or antennae all about its outside.

“Are you quite sure, sir?” she murmured, lashes swooped low over her eyes.

The executive swallowed and thrust his shoulders back. “Yes.”

The other man sidled away.

The secretary inclined her head. “As you wish.” She tore the air vent cover off and wrangled the contraption inside. Stepping back, she ushered the executive in with a flourish. He hunched over and squished into the narrow space. She handed him what looked like an inverted grappling hook with barbs, almost suppressing a smirk. He braced himself and, with a knock to the side of the contraption, sent himself shooting off.

Odd noises clunked out of the air vent grate in office 9-12. A balding man in a too tight collared shirt glanced at it nervously.

It had started more gusty. Not only had it sounded like a windstorm down an alley way, but several papers had blown off the desk. He had popped next door to his mentor’s office, asking how to contact maintenance to check out the central air system. His mentor, who had worked here for almost two decades, assured him there was nothing unusual about the ducts here being noisy from time to time. Only half assured, the man had returned to his desk and continued working on his report.

Now the noises from the vent thumped more. And dragged. It wasn’t a normal dragging sound, either, but had a slightly slithery quality punctuated by scratches and occasional grunts. What could be dragging through the ventilation system? It sounded like a giant rat squeezing through. He looked over his shoulder at the vent above his head. Yes, there was a slight vibration in the wall. This was definitely a question for his mentor.

“I was wondering about pest control,” he said as casually as he could from the doorway. “Is that something we take up with management? Or maintenance?”

“That depends. Are we talking mice or termites?”

“Actually…” The balding man glance nervously up at the air vent in this room. Surely his coworker had noticed the racket. “I was wondering if you may have ever had a problem with…infestations. In the vents.” He couldn’t bring himself to say giant rats. There must be a better explanation. He just couldn’t think what.

“Two transcribers ago we had someone quit because of too many mosquitoes in her cubicle. She claimed they poured out through the vent, but a neighbor had a stagnant fishbowl. It’s more likely they bred in there.”

The thumping and scraping and slithering noises continued moving behind the wall. The grate shivered a little.

“But…look…can’t you…”

His mentor sighed and stood. “I think the problem is your stress. You need a break.”

The balding man pointed, but his mentor just gently took his arm and led him out of the office.

“I have every confidence you can slam that report in. But it doesn’t hurt to take a rest every once in a while, especially your first time.”

The balding man winced. He swore he could hear a giant squeak. He did need a break. He just wasn’t sure it would fix the problem.

A crash sounded from a storage room down the hall.

“Rats!” He bolted away, not caring if he headed for somewhere his boss would smile on him visiting. Lounge or laboratory, he was putting distance between himself and that rat.

The executive eased the door open a crack. It opened much more quietly than the air duct vent in this storage room had. He had worried a bit that someone would come to investigate the box he had knocked down while climbing out, but the hallway looked deserted. He nudged the door open farther and slipped out. Time to intercept that plagued envelope snatcher. A quick glance at the dim end of the hall told him slouching down the hallway should be a better blend than striding down the hallway. He allowed his shoulders to droop and his head to sag, but did not have the time for a full fledged, dawdling slouch. He stretched his steps out toward the bathroom. He might not know exactly where the perpetrator was, but if he guessed right about where he was heading, interception might still be achieved.

The cleaning cart was not at bathroom 12-C, but just beyond, near 12-D. He pressed forward into a stride, head angled down to mask his frantic searching. Perhaps the Blast-O-Duct had been worth it for once. Perhaps he had arrived first on the scene.

His hope was dashed to the cold cement ground and crushed to splinters under hobnailed army boots when he caught glimpse of an all too familiar coat. Even had the figure not been moving away, back to the elevator, he recognized the walk of a man whose mission is accomplished. Many a time he had seen it, with all its nuances, until he could tell the degree of success an agent had encountered as he walked into the room, especially an agent he was well acquainted with.

The old agent opened the elevator doors and stepped in, seemingly unaware of how noticeable that was when instead of an elevator, you were stepping into an elevator shaft floored by the roof of the stopped elevator. Perhaps he had forgotten.

As the doors slid back shut, a new hope began to bloom in the executive’s mind. Just because a delivery had been made did not mean that it had been delivered from hand to hand. In fact, a proximity delivery was far more likely under the circumstances. All he had to do was to find the letter first. He began to edge toward the cleaning cart.

The letter was neither threaded between the bottles of cleaner nor perched behind the dustpan. Perhaps it lay between the layers of folded cleaning rags. He should be able to check if he bent over and pretended to tie his shoe.

“What do you have to say for this?”

He jumped at the brittle crack of the voice and whirled to find a pair of fierce black eyes glaring at him. Not far from them a sturdy thumb and finger pinched the exact envelope he was searching for.

“Ah, I was just looking for that. Fancy you ending up with it.” He voice came out as limp as an al dente spaghetti noodle.

“No, I do not. As I’ve told you before, I have enough to do cleaning without running a mail delivery service as well. This was your last chance.”

“I’m sorry. I never meant for you to—just give me the letter! Please!”

The cleaning lady gripped it in both her hands and began to tear.

“You don’t need to deliver it! I’ll take care of it! It just got mislaid.”

Rip.

“Please! Just let me take care of it!” He fell on his knees, his hands outstretched.

Rip. Rip Rip.

He almost crawled over to beg it from her, but that would have meant putting his hands down where it was hard to grab at the precious envelope. “Please.”

She dropped the pieces and let them flutter into his clutch. “And you have forfeited bathroom cleaning for the week.” She marched into bathroom 12-D with the mop.

The executive cradled the paper scraps in his hands. He wondered if it would be more conspicuous to forge an order form and sneak it into the mail or to tape this one back together. It would have to be a professional tape job, for sure. But then, surely that type of thing was in the job description for secretary. He glanced at the timepiece on his wrist band. Nineteen minutes until mail pick-up. It probably wouldn’t tax her any. Though she’d probably push him into cleaning the bathroom over it this week.

Then again, this would give him the chance to find out just what the ladies did to their bathroom to need teams to use it. It was time to blow their cover. Though maybe he should take his coat back first. Just in case.

Back to Memory Loss stories

More Stories by Hannah Christensen

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