Secret Agents
rating: +14+x

"FBI, open up!"

Colleen shoved her laptop into her purse and centered her breathing. In for three seconds, hold for two, out for four through her mouth. The raid was a problem, yes, but she would win this.

Her boutique's front door crashed down.

She just needed to dazzle them with her blessing in a way that wouldn't make them shoot in panic. Once they were distracted, she could run away and set up shop elsewhere. She cut the lights through the breaker panel.

Three agents passed the threshold, their gun lights swaying. Aisles of statuettes, mirrors, crystals, and oils separated her from them, allowing plenty of time to gauge their weaknesses. She closed her corporeal eyelids and opened her third eye.

Before her appeared three caves, each with an agent's name carved above the opening. Wind from the caves whispered internal monologues. Irene Lorack was marveling over the goods on Colleen's shelves. Paul Acre hung back, worried he would botch the mission and prove he wasn't worth his raise. Louis Byram, the leader, ground his teeth thinking about his flabby and incompetent coworkers. The glow radiating from Byram's cave made her skin crawl.

Colleen was used to following the path in suckers' mindscapes straight to their bank account passwords. Probing their dirty secrets was just a bonus. She strolled through the familiar route inside Lorack’s cave.

Bank account password: tr4MpoL1NejUMp

"What do you think the best daycare is around here?" asks Paul's wife DeAnne. She's been chatting with me throughout the company picnic and her words give me a headache.

"I live alone."

"When are you planning on becoming a mom? I want kids as soon as possible, but you know how expensive it is to get a decent-sized house in this area." She talks about herself too much. I wish she'd latched onto somebody else.

"As soon as they pass a law making infants sleep all night."

Her eyebrows wrinkle. "But what will your husband—"

"Look, between my dad and the criminals at work, I have enough people to take care of."

Her face contorts in exaggerated concern. "Why, what's the matter with your father?"

"Nothing." I'm tired of all her prying. "Look, I gotta head to the bathroom, be right back."

I duck behind the public restroom and fumble through my purse. A pack of Marlboros waits at the bottom, where it's been tempting me for a week. I told everybody — my coworkers, my boyfriend, my dad — that I wouldn't light another. But now I need that quick sense of relief.

One thing she had learned from her blessing was that everybody had a different sense of scale for their secrets. What one person would brush off, another would stay up chewing their nails about.

She scampered through more tunnels in Lorack's mind until she found one that widened until it became a hallway, right angles connecting the walls and floor. A light bulb hung from the ceiling. Everybody had an area like this in their mind, but the only people she'd seen with hallways as large and bright as this were parents, nurses, and people in management roles. Lorack's previous memory seemed to rule out all three.

The hallway was still in the general secret area of the mindscape. Colleen wandered into the room corresponding to the earliest memory there.

Today's the first day I'm bringing food to the snail people. It's a mundane task and they're one of the least useful Can Men, but they’re new to me, so I’m still fascinated.

The enclosure in front of me has bulletproof glass for all four walls, three video cameras, and several monitoring machines hooked up to mammoth Cold War computers.

Sackett is sitting in a wheelchair that folds him almost in half with the way his shell presses against it. His eye stalks stare back at me through grimy monocles. Like most Can Men, he’s been here for decades. A sense of my unit’s decay washes over me, how our power has withered just like these Can Men. I push a tray through the food slot — a ham sandwich, salad, and milk.

Colleen's stomach twisted.

Maybe the wheelchair was more comfortable than it looked.

She must have walked into a daydream, not a memory, but its secret location meant it could still be useful.

He slowly wheels to the door, peers at it, and looks back up at me. “What is this! Iceberg? Iceberg? It’s supposed to be romaine!”

They warned me he would be a complainer. “You'll feel better when you've—"

“In Baltimore, I could buy all the romaine I wanted!”

I walk away. In some ways, being a prisoner would be simpler. I wish my worries were on the level of what kind of lettuce was in my salad…

Colleen double-checked for daydream markers and her breathing exercises stopped as she gasped.

This was no fantasy.

There were others like her — many others. No time to think about that, though, not with three armed FBI agents knocking over her herbs.

The other hallways all contained work-related memories, which looked fascinating but not useful. Colleen dived back into the rest of the mindscape's maze.

My dad doesn't ask about the bracelet, but his gaze lingers on my wrist. How could I have lost it? With all the stress at work, I lose so many things.

If I didn't know him by voice, I wouldn't recognize him in the harsh hospital light, bald and thin with bags of chemicals hooked up to him. And here's me, losing his precious bracelet…

That could work.

Colleen summoned as much confidence and mystery into her voice as she could. “Agent Irene Lorack! You don't wish for your father's cancer to blossom further, do you? I'd be getting back in my little van and reporting an escape if I were you.”

Lorack's footsteps stopped. The stalagmites of her mindscape twisted into sculptures of her father, shriveled on a hospital bed.

Colleen was lifting herself out of Lorack's quaking mindscape when Byram said, “Come on. You think Lubanda would have left a power like that out of the dossier?”

Lorack sighed. "Hands up, you're under arrest," she called.

Colleen didn't have time for that! As she raised her hands, she raced through the caverns of Acre’s mindscape, hoping for another lead.

Bank account password: ninja123

I stride into the gym, peer at the machines, and settle on the one that looks least threatening — the exercise bike, since I can sit down while I use it. Once we have enough room for a kid, I want to look like the kind of father that Victor or Victoria can be proud of. Maybe Byram won't look at me with such disdain if I have a six-pack, too.

I told Dee I would be here for an hour… but after twenty minutes, I'm beat. I can't go back to her in shame. I don't even want to slink out the door and know what the receptionist is thinking. If only I had my M4 — not even to shoot, just to have. I seal myself in the bathroom, turn out the lights, open Candy Crush, and wait. There's still plenty of days to get fit.

Colleen rolled her eyes. She noticed glow-worms creeping on the cave walls, which grew more frequent in certain directions. As she followed them, the stone showed more signs of being ground down by human tools. A few flatter walls had arrows carved into them. The cave became a spacious hallway and the worms gave way to light fixtures. The area was much larger than the hallways within Lorack's mindscape.

“And I broke my ottoman this morning trying to get to the cupboard. The house is just too da—”

“Too damn small?” Mitch grins from inside his cell. He’s the only one around here who gets me, really gets me. Being around him is like lifting the lid off the box Byram puts me in. He nods. “You deserve better than the chump change they give you. A job’s supposed to be like a second family. Well, it will be shortly for you, eh?”

I grimace. “Dee decided to work on her watercolors instead,” I lie. Everything is going wrong these days.

“That’s too bad, I was hoping to steal her poker strategies.” He pauses, adjusting his seat. “Any chance you could contact Hillary?”

“Hillary… Clinton?”

His easy grin wavers for a moment, then returns. “Remember? My daughter?”

“I… well, section five of the employee handbook, it says…” If Lubanda found out, or, oh God, Byram… no.

He glances away. “I understand.”

I try to get back to the point. “If the, uh, the damn zoning laws would let me build an extension…”

I turn my cell phone's ringer off. If I timed things right, Lubanda will enter the break room soon. It won't look like I know he's around since we can't see each other, but he'll hear me and the raise will be mine. I've been here longer, so I'm just getting what I deserve.

"Yeah," I say into my phone. Like I'm just talking to a friend during break.


"I disagree, but you, uh, you can't be too careful." I glance around.

"Just like in Vermont."

"Oh, Irene? Yeah."

"Well, she's an awesome partner, if a bit flighty. We've gotta work late hours fixing her reports sometimes, but honestly? She's so funny, you almost can't be mad about it." A little lie for a lot of money…

“Why are you wasting time on me when your coworker, Paul Acre, said such interesting things about you to your boss a month back?” She slung her purse around her shoulder for her escape. “He’s making a lot more money now — I wonder why.”

Klaxons sounded in Acre’s mindscape. Tiny versions of himself with lusher hair sprinted in and out of rooms, shouting, "It's the end of the world! It's the end of the world!"

Back in the real world, Colleen heard Lorack say, "What did you tell Lubanda?"

“Ms. Colleen Diggs, you are, uh, under arrest for identity theft.” Acre’s footsteps quickened toward Colleen.

Lorack raised her voice. “Goddammit, what did you—”

"There’s time on the drive back," said Byram.

Colleen contemplated opening Byram's door, which shone with menace, but balked. She returned to Lorack's, not wanting to see more of Acre’s empty prattling. She had incapacitated her using Acre, so perhaps she could stop Acre using her.

The burrows of Lorack’s mindscape twisted and ruptured in anger as Colleen walked. Visions on the stone of the walls displayed Lorack stabbing Acre, whacking him with a bat, and shoving him off a skyscraper.

My cursor hovers over the send button. Is it right to do this? I deserve some reprieve in life.

All it takes is one email. An email expressing concern that the new applicant confided she might leak classified documents if she found anything too dangerous. An email, and peace of mind.

Colleen closed her third eye. She had adjusted to the darkness and could make out the outlines of their advancing figures. "Wouldn't it have been nice, Paul? To share a coffee with your wife during breaks, have a supportive face around?" she grinned, lowering her hands. "Such a shame Irene ensured she never made it past the interview."

Acre stopped.

Lorack’s face in his gun light said enough. His gun clattered to the floor.

"You!" Acre lunged for Lorack. "You're the reason I’m not painting a room for Victoria right now!"

“Do you know how long I've been eating rice to afford medical bills?”

Lorack landed an uppercut on his jaw, and he staggered backward into a bookshelf, whimpering. He shook his head, tucked into a crouch, and knocked her to the floor.

This was Colleen's chance. She squeezed between two vitrines of human bones to dash for the door.

A rough hand on her muumuu dragged her back.

Byram shoved her to the ground and pointed his gun at her nose, the light blinding her. The man she was hoping to avoid.

The others had few secret memories of him, so she had to go in. She opened her third eye slowly and entered his glowing mindscape.

The rock gave way immediately to a cavernous room shining brighter than daylight. The back wall held a grid of doors connected by ladders. She glimpsed traces of memories behind each. Being inside his mindscape felt mildly painful, like bathing in scalding water.

A couple of the doors were locked, but not many. At a glance, his secrets were only passwords, classified documents, and memories of paranormal encounters at work. Nothing of his personal life.

Bank account password: N9\SKfY[E){\}JV{9<KL[tB?(?X[wy

Each door on the back wall had a placard beside it. She picked one at random. Losing at tennis. Not worth opening. Meeting with teachers. Nope. Acre messes up. Might have something. The lock was no match for her.

“Can Man's right across the hallway here. He’s a thing… a pyromancer. Shoots fire, you know, so, uh, watch out,” Acre said to the Skipper.

I resist the urge to strangle him. He should have lied, should have claimed ignorance. But I can’t expect that from him. I’m the one who should have interrupted. Now the Skippers will bag the Can Man and we’ll be useless once again…

The next door said, Tyler misbehaves. She passed it by. Tyler was probably another coworker. The one after that also said Tyler misbehaves. Then Holly and Tyler misbehave. Holly misbehaves. Watching The Producers live with Rhonda. Holly misbehaves. Holly and Tyler misbehave. Tyler misbehaves. Late night at work. Holly misbehaves.

Byram ordered her to put her hands behind her head. Even though seconds in a mindscape progressed more slowly, she was running out of time. She stepped into the next door, another Tyler misbehaves.

“Did I raise you to steal?” I ask, furious. Tyler is always filching things from the pantry, the little thief. He keeps his right hand behind his back. If he doesn’t show it soon, I’ll wrench it from him.

I crouch toward his face. “All day at work I deal with criminals trying to hide things from me. The ones who reveal themselves the quickest end up hurting the least.”

Something was very wrong with Tyler. He looked like one of the children from famine aid charity commercials. Around three years old, with his skin hugging his bones. He was shirtless and his ribs poked out, moving up and down with each breath. The only part of him not skeletal was his distended gut, which displayed several yellow and purple bruises. Colleen wanted to look away, but couldn’t stop staring through Byram’s eyes.

His arm trembles as he shows me the pepper shaker. I thought I’d locked up everything he could pilfer, but he always finds fresh ways to rebel. I snatch it from his hand. It’s empty, and his drool coats the top.

Something was wrong with his house, too. Every wall had giant windows, so Colleen could see everything — the kitchen, the cars, the toilet — from where Byram stood. All except one room in the middle where the windows were too tinted to make out the inside.

“This is why kindergarten didn't want you. You can’t go one day without stealing.” No matter what I do, he and Holly never learn. “I’m cutting your meals again — you can chew on your actions tonight.”

He just stares at me, not a thought in his head, no contrition. I kick at his shin, not hard enough to break the bone but enough to knock him off balance. He doesn’t even bother picking himself up. I head back to my room…

She exited the memory room. How could somebody… why would he… her stomach roiled. She thought about leaving and announcing his secret, but she wanted more time to… exist. To wander along the doors and breathe. If she got out of this, she would build a bunker and never interact with another living soul. Not when they could be like Byram.

Holly misbehaves. Lorack and Acre accidentally let a Can Man loose. Holly misbehaves. Tyler and Holly misbehave. Romantic dinner with Rhonda. Good haircut. Tyler misbehaves.

Reading the signs obscured the images in her mind, if only for a moment. Until she saw Death of Holly.

I should get out of here, she thought.

But she had to know.

Rhonda returns from the crib, trail mix in hand. “Holly’s dead.”

I sit up in bed. “Her too? What a month.” Homer and Marge will have to wait for now. “Another aging gangster drank bleach at work, too.”

“We can’t just dump her in the chest and report her missing this time. Too many missing kids might…” She looked down. "They might…. draw the wrong kind of attention."

“Look, the first time I made a smuggler understand his situation at work, I assumed I would 'draw the wrong kind of attention' of my superiors, too. But they understood and so will anybody who looks at our circumstances.”

“Well, I just don't want people talking. And if you love me, you'll keep them away from us.” She glances out the dark bedroom window toward the crib. “I think we should torch the house and leave. They'll see a burnt body after a fire. No reason to think it was anything else, right?”

I sigh. Rhonda is the most beautiful woman in the world, but she didn’t exactly order a second scoop of brains. “If this is so important to you, we can figure something out. But burning the house down for a delinquent? Come on.” I stretch. “Hurricane season’s almost here. We’ll fake a vacation to wherever the next storm hits and claim she was lost in the debris.”

“You do always know these things.” She pours a handful of trail mix.

I walk to Holly’s room and undo the locks on the door. Her crib smells like shit and piss, since in the end, she wouldn’t even clean up after herself. She barely looks human, a sign of the corruption in her soul. But her still-open eyes bear traces of the innocence she was born with. So much potential, thrown away to disobedience. A fly lands in one and I shoo it away…

Colleen clawed at her forehead, trying to rip out her third eye. The child was younger than Tyler, a wide-eyed skeleton in putrid sheets. Her head seemed too big for her frame. Each bone stuck out like a mountain in her body’s landscape. Deep bite marks covered the wooden bars of the crib.

Colleen rushed back to reality. Her bloody fingers were mangling her brow. “Holly… Tyler…”

“Those names mean nothing to me now,” said Byram. A sharp clang sounded from Lorack and Acre’s tussle.

“Your children… you starved your own children.” She repeated it louder, trying to make his coworkers pay attention.

“Yes. What of it?” He handcuffed her.

She was screwed. Holly, she couldn't end up like Holly. Surely this was a mindscape or a dream, not the real world. Her thoughts raced as Byram dragged her outside. Four transparent walls, constant camera monitors, was that her future? No, no… she could still talk to the others. Right? She could use them against each other again to let her out.

The butt of Byram’s gun struck her side, and she collapsed to the pavement, whimpering involuntarily.

“I wish I had the time to hit you for each dollar you stole,” said Byram.

"You're a monster."

The gun struck her again, this time against her jaw. The tang of blood filled her mouth. She retched as the gun hit her across her lips, splitting them. Teeth rolled against her tongue as he hit her two more times. She coughed and spit and tried to shout, but only a low gurgle came out.

Lorack and Acre walked outside, fresh welts on their faces, refusing to look at each other. The UIU agents tried to pack her into the back of the van. Lettuce. All she would have to eat would be sandwiches with tasteless iceberg lettuce or nothing at all. She coughed and flailed, tearing her nails against their clothes. They pushed her into the van. The door slammed shut behind her.

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