By Natasha Blade
It was the eighth time in as many days that Graves had visited. And as far as Phineas could gather, from his hacking and background checks; the young man was not secretly a spy and wasn’t connected to any criminals. Which begged the question of why he wanted to break into a well-known criminal base.
“To sell tacos. To be completely honest, that’s the reason I do most things.”
Phineas contemplated. It was what the young man had said every other time; each time with such conviction that Phineas was starting to wonder if Graves actually believed what he was saying. Maybe he had been brainwashed into thinking he had to sell tacos to criminals in highly secure criminal fortresses.
“So, will you help me?”
Phineas contemplated again. If Graves was brainwashed or had ulterior motives it would be best if someone kept an eye on him. It wasn’t as if he and Rey had any plans for the week.
He nodded. “We leave tomorrow.”
Graves frowned at his ticket. “Please explain, again, why we’re going under false names?”
Phineas glanced up from his newspaper. “I was under the impression that you understood the first two times I explained.”
Graves made a frustrated sound. “I do, but it still doesn’t make sense!”
“Lower your voice; someone’s going to hear you.”
Graves looked pointedly at the only other passenger, who was falling asleep while reading a textbook.
Phineas raised an eyebrow, trying to communicate to the salesman that even a college student, short as he was, could still be a spy.
Graves gave him an unimpressed look, but didn’t say anything, other than to offer him a taco.
“No thank you. I don’t like Italian.”
“How many false names do we need? This is my third one and nobody’s even tried to talk to me!”
“That young woman threatened to call the police on you if you mentioned the word taco again.”
“It’s my job to sell tacos! And that doesn’t count! I initiated that conversation!”
“What did I say about drawing attention to us?”
“Why would I have any spare cash on me? I sell tacos. That’s the complete opposite of buying things!”
“You can’t tell me everyone pays you in exact change.”
“Well, Mr. ‘Prepared-for-everything’, I’ll have you know that my tacos are good enough that people don’t mind giving me a tip. You’d know this if you bothered trying one.”
Phineas sniffed. “I don’t like Chinese.”
Graves bristled. “It’s not –“
“If you are so anxious to sell a taco, that child over there looks like he could use one. That should get us the money we need.”
Graves grumbled under his breath. For being so adamant that they needed to draw as little attention as they could, Phineas sure met up with a lot of informants. The older man looked over at him, as if sensing his thoughts. Graves instantly started inspecting hi nails, refusing to look at the retired detective.
The man turned back to his informant and Graves made a face at his back.
Graves turned the map upside down, then right side up. Then he flipped it to look at the back and shook it.
Phineas gave him an odd look. Was salesman secretly communicating by doing that? It didn’t look like any form of code he’d ever seen, but he still made a note to spend the evening trying to decode it.
Graves threw the map down in a huff, not even bothering to fold it.
Phineas looked at the taco. “I’m not eating that.”
“It’s on the house.” Graves nudged it closer. “Think of it as my thank you for all the help you’re giving me.”
Phineas resisted the urge to push it back to Graves’ side of the table. “I don’t like seafood and I don’t take bribes.”
Graves waved the map in the air, making it impossible for Phineas to see what spot he was pointing at. “We’ve been going in the wrong direction! This is where I need to get to–” He shoved the map closer to Phineas’ face, as if trying to give him paper cuts. “And we’re been traveling away from it for two days! Do you even know what you’re doing?”
Phineas moved the map away from his face. “Please cease your yelling. You’re drawing unwanted attention.”
“No matter which way I look at it,” he twisted the map in demonstration. “I can’t figure out how you think we’re going in the right direction! This is why you don’t say you can read maps when you don’t even understand what north is!”
Hm. So that’s what the boy had been doing with the map last night. “We’re going in a round about way so they don’t see us coming. Basic strategy.”
“Well, why couldn’t have told me that from the beginning? If you hadn’t noticed, I’m a salesman, and we tend to use the front door approach. Quite literally. I even know a guy who brings his own doorbell, just in case they don’t have one.”
“Why are all your spy’s so short? Do you have a height requirement? ‘If you’re over three feet tall you’ll betray me! Ahh! You’re three foot one! I can’t trust you!’ “
“I’ll have you know that he’s three foot, four.”
“Ah, so no taller than three and a half. I think my niece qualifies.”
“We’re stealing badges?” Graves hissed, looking at little sick at the idea. “You’re a detective! Shouldn’t that sting your professional pride? Or, I don’t know prick your conscience? Because stealing is illegal and wrong.”
“Retired detective. And technically we are buying badges that someone else stole – from criminals – so we could get into the criminal base that you asked me to help you break into.”
“…I didn’t think breaking in would involve illegal stuff like stealing.”
“When did you get those blueprints? You said that would take major hacking and you haven’t been near a computer since we got kicked out of that library.”
Phineas fought down a twinge of guilt. He hadn’t tried to get kicked out of the library this time. “My partner.”
“Your partner? I thought I was your partner! I certainly didn’t give them to you! I hardly know what hacking is! Stop trying to involve me in illegal stuff!”
“My… other partner.” Right. He hadn’t told Graves about his ‘invisible’ helper.
“He’s – he’s a criminal, isn’t he?” The salesman was almost hyperventilating. “That’s why you haven’t told me about him, isn’t it? I’m aiding and abetting a criminal. I’m –” He leaned over, trying to breath. “I’m – This, this should go on my criminal record.” He look up at Phineas with horror. “This – this makes me a criminal.”
“Technically, in this situation, the criminal would be aiding and abetting you.”
“We have badges, and we’re sneaking through the vents? Why?”
Phineas would have glared at the salesman if he could see him “You wanted to meet my other partner and it’s not a good time for him to leave his under-cover position. By going through the vents you will be able to see him.”
Graves grumbled under his breath. “You could have just told me about your secret partner before. Then we wouldn’t be crawling around, above ground level, on our hands and knees.”
Phineas stopped abruptly.
“Ow! What’d I say this time?”
“That’s my partner.”
“Which one? There’s like seven people down there.”
“He’s by the fridge, holding a vial. He’s turning around – ”
“The short guy?” Graves snickered. “The short scientist is your partner? All your spies really are that short! Next, you’re gonna tell me that it’s actually a requirement!”
“Be quiet, Graves. The vents are not soundproof.”
“This smell like a trap.”
“Look, you did your part – sneaking us halfway across the country to get into a ‘secret’ criminal base three hours from where I live – and I trusted you. Now that we’re here, let me do what I do best – sell tacos.”
Phineas looked at him, unimpressed. “You snuck into a criminal base to sell tacos in the equivalent of the town square. Do you understand what bad ideas are?”
“I’m not going to sell tacos here – not after what happened last time. We’re here because this is where I’m meeting with my customer.”
“Last time?” Phineas narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean ‘last time’?”
“Ah! There he is!”
Graves had more tacos with him than should have been humanly possible – Phineas was surprised that nobody came banging on the door – demanding to know what the smell was.
“And that’s $445.15 for the tacos. My hazard fee…” Graves flipped through several pieces of paper. “Amounts to… $275.00”
The criminal frowned. “It wasn’t that much when I made the order.”
Graves shrugged, apologetically. “I had to commit criminal acts to get here. But as long as no one catches us leaving, the hazard fee should go back down to $200.”
The criminal grumbled, but he paid the $700 in cash.
Graves grinned at him. “Now, would you like to try our new taco?”
Phineas escorted Graves to his doorstep – refusing the offered tacos every step up the driveway. “I don’t like Thai food. You should know this by now.”
Graves narrowed his eyes. “I was hoping to convince you to try some Mexican.”
Phineas shook his head. “Thank you for the interesting week. Please never drag me out of retirement again.” He turned to go.
“Smell it.” Graves pushed a taco under his nose. “You can’t tell me that doesn’t smell good.”
“It makes me want to set all Indian food on fire.”
Graves snatched it away. “Then what about your partner?” He nodded to the end of the driveway. “Maybe he’d like one.”
“You didn’t even ask –”
“No need.” He raised a hand in farewell. “He doesn’t like Mongolian any more than I do.”