Evinrude Boulougante returned to his home in a quiet suburb of Ngorongoro from a vacation of unknown length and destination, at least as far as anyone else knew. The sort of getaway he preferred, unencumbered by an office desperately trying to reach him. Evinrude was Quesonte’s most auspicious espionage agent of his time. Now in the winter of his career, he had been assigned to embassy duty on Ladascus. Proverbially put out to pasture.
It was a beautiful day, not too hot, no bitter breezes to remind you that winter just ended. Evinrude drove a rather common gray car up to his rather common house in a rather common neighborhood and parked outside his garage. He knew the best place to hide was in plain sight, which was made easier by his thin graying hair and aged face. He had always been blessed with a sort of anonymity by just being himself. He liked not being noticed.
His neighbor and his neighbor’s son were out mowing their lawn, the son struggling to handle the remote-controlled lawn mowing machine that was much too big for him, while the father sat drinking his maisivrec and supervising.
“Hi Evan,” his neighbor, Andy, yelled across the yard from his lawn chair.
To Evinrude’s neighbors, he was Evan Esce, an ordinary Quesonte businessman who had taken residency on Ladascus. Over the years the planet had become so diverse with Soufte, Quesonte, and a multitude of alien migrants that diversity was considered a normal part of society. As for Evinrude, age had changed his appearance so much that he was no longer recognizable as the most feared and notorious enemy of the Disturbance. But as a neighbor, he could always be relied upon for a helping hand or a tool whenever a neighbor called. And as far as ribs on the barbeque went, Evan had no equal. He often entertained his Ladascan neighbors on summer evenings. The kind of evening that today was promising.
Andy walked over as Evinrude unpacked his only piece of luggage from the trunk; years of government travel had taught him to pack light.
“Enjoy the tropics, Evan?” Andy asked. Evinrude also knew the office would never think of asking his neighbor where he was. Using a general term like the tropics didn’t give away much information since fifty percent of Ladascus is tropical.
“Hello, Andy. It was great. I highly recommend it, especially when he’s in high school and can appreciate the scenery,” Evinrude replied, referring to the young man beside them. Andy’s son had forgotten about the remote lawnmower, and it drove itself into a tree.
“His mother wouldn’t appreciate it,” Andy rebuked.
“There’s scenery for her too,” Evinrude smiled. “I’d like to thank you for watching the house for me.” Evinrude was slightly taller than his Ladascan neighbors, but then all Quesontes were. He also had a mildly darker complexion than usual from the tropical sun, his hair was thinning, and he had small dark eyes.
“That’s what neighbors are for,” Andy replied. “We have a little mail for you, too. The post didn’t stop for a couple of days. I’ll bring it over shortly.”
“Thank you.” Evinrude’s over-politeness was often perceived as conceit. But those few who knew him well were aware of his strict upbringing. He turned to the young man. “I see you did an exceptional job mowing my lawn while I was gone. Thank you.” Evinrude surveyed the masticated sod that used to be his lawn. “How would you like to continue mowing it for the rest of the summer?”
“No,” the young lad blurted out.
His father looked a little embarrassed. “It was a little challenging for him at this age, but he stuck to it and did his level best.”
“Maybe next year, then. Let me know when you’re ready for the job.”
“Maybe next year,” the proud father echoed.
“If you’ll excuse me, I think I’d like to get unpacked and settle in.”
“Sure thing, Evinrude, we’ll bring the mail over in a jiff.”
Evinrude entered his house and dropped his bag just inside the door. He went up to the kitchen, grabbed a maisivrec from the fridge and opened it. The first gulp of the bitters was satisfying and cold. He noticed the flashing light on his message center. The cool refreshing moment was gone.
Evinrude played the message. Cheryl, the embassy secretary, said bluntly, “Evinrude, when you have a moment, we desperately need your assistance at the office.” A slight pause ensued, followed by the digital voice tag, “Saturday 8:25 AM.” With a sigh, he eyed his maisivrec, swallowed it down whole, and turned to exit his house. Opening the door to leave, Evinrude ran into his neighbor holding the mail. “Oh. Andy.”
“On your way out again? You just got home.”
“Office called. Some sort of emergency. They’re helpless without me.” It may have sounded like a sarcastically playful remark, but it was exactly how he felt. Evinrude was growing tired of being the go-to guy every time something went amiss, and the closer he came to his retirement date, the more it seemed to irk him.
“Well, here’s your mail.”
“Thank you.” Evinrude took the mail and tossed it onto a credenza by the door, then continued to his car.
“And Evan, we’re barbecuing tonight, feel free to come on over.”
“Are you beating me to the first grilling of the season?”
“Yes, I am,” Andy boasted.
“If I am home, I will be there,” he accepted as he got into his car. “Thank you very much.”
Evinrude’s usual fifteen-minute commute was now thirty. Roadwork season had begun in Ngorongoro since he had left for his vacation. The city’s crews had the nefarious ability to immobilize traffic with the mere use of orange cones. He often entertained the thought that if the Ladascan Department of Transportation had been involved in the Disturbance, Ladascus could have won.
Ngorongoro was like any other metropolis. Suburbs surrounded a concentration of large buildings and financial districts that made up the heart of the city, with arenas and forums for entertainment and sports, and traffic congestion to match. On the east side of the city was a long shoreline bordering a large inland sea.
Evinrude was a veteran of the Disturbance and several other wars. As a fighter pilot, he had been a national hero and was called an “Ace of Aces.” He was widely respected, even by his enemies, and Boulougante became a household name. As the Disturbance dragged on, he found himself participating in more and more covert operations. He was finally made a full-fledged espionage agent for the Quesonte government, his clandestine skills unequaled.
Now in the twilight of his career and life, he felt as though he had become a relic, spending most of his time in an office as an analyst for the Quesonte government.
He read files and followed up on other agents’ assignments. He did not mind the lightened workload, but it did lack adventure.
He parked behind the embassy and entered through a specially locked door, saying hello to the guards on his way down the hall to Ambassador Drakewood’s secretary. “Good morning, Cheryl.”
“Good morning, Evinrude,” she replied. “I trust you enjoyed your vacation.”
“Seemed short,” he complained.
“How true, one can never seem to get enough time away anymore,”
“Has Ambassador Drakewood been trying to reach me for very long?”
“Oh yes, you were the first one he called.”
“Then I shan’t keep him waiting.” Evinrude went through the door behind Cheryl’s desk.
Inside was the stately office of the Quesonte Ambassador, Elmer Drakewood. Pictures, medals, and mementos of his accomplishments and service to his government littered the walls. Behind a grandiose desk sat a fellow with a round face and belly; his shape purported to the luxury and ease of an unburdened lifestyle.
Ambassador Drakewood took the heavily chewed cigar out of his mouth. “Good day, Evinrude. I trust you had a good rest.”
“It was a very welcome rest, sir,” Evinrude returned. “I believe I should like to take up vacationing full time.”
“Wouldn’t we all?” Drakewood quipped back. “But how would you occupy yourself?” He placed the oversized unlit cigar back in his jowls. Since he stopped smoking it was more of a pacifier now.
“I could always freelance if I got bored.”
“For our side, of course.”
“Whoever the highest bidder is,” Evinrude joked as he took a seat. “We are capitalists, you know.”
The ambassador gave him a stern look and then laughed heartily. “You are a quick one, Evinrude. Although I should warn you,” Drakewood went on to explain, “Central Command was not pleased with the lack of contact during your vacation. They wanted me to remind you going off the grid like that arouses suspicion. I assured them you were just getting away.”
“My loyalty to Quesonte is older than my teeth,” Evinrude snapped back a quaint saying from his early years in the service.
“You don’t have to convince me. It’s the young blood in the higher ranks.” Drakewood leaned forward in his chair, resting his arms upon the desk, and whispered, “It’s their loyalty that should be questioned.” He leaned back and resumed talking at a normal level, “But anyway, I’ve called you in because we have a small assignment for you, now that you’ve returned from your vacation.”
Evinrude pondered, “A small assignment would lead me to believe it was some sort of farce to get me to a lame retirement party.”
“Oh no, we have a very different farcical assignment planned to get you to the lame retirement party. Besides you’re not retired yet,” he backpedaled. “I believe you officially have three months left.”
“That is correct, sir.”
Drakewood began briefing Evinrude on last night’s events. “Friday night, one of our agents was in an auto accident and never made it to a drop with an obscure courier. The courier is a small-time jewelry dealer by the name of Henry Streator. A data file had been micro-etched onto the inner plane of an ordinary diamond. Streator acquired the diamond off-world in a bulk purchase of diamonds he makes regularly, and he was transporting it to Ladascus on Friday. When no one made contact, out of panic, Streator placed the diamond in a safe at the Mercantile Exchange office in Allen Shooman Tower. He hid it among his other diamonds in an attempt to protect it until he could re-establish contact.”
“Pardon me,” Evinrude leaned forward his demeanor softened, “Who was in the accident?”
“Is he ok?”
“He will be. Got banged up pretty bad but should make a full recovery.” Drakewood got back on subject, “But to continue, the diamond was stolen that same night.”
“Too much of a coincidence to be chance,” Evinrude sat back in his chair, contemplating the implications of this information.
“And I can’t stress this enough, it was stolen by a real pro. We haven’t seen stealth and expertise of this caliber since the Roswell incident of ’47.”
“Well, now I am a little intrigued, but why me? You have plenty of other capable people for a job of this sort,” Evinrude defended his colleagues. “If I may, James is top-notch, and so is Sylvia.”
“Your years of experience will be beneficial. You have established contacts that run deeper than anyone else in the office.” Drakewood’s brow furrowed. “I believe it may be an old nemesis of yours. We need you to accomplish two things: retrieve the information before it becomes compromised and recruit the guy who performed the heist. He would be a great asset to us.”
“Where are you on the investigation?”
“We’ve only just begun. Two Ladascan police androids, who go by the names Dash and Desi, are assigned to the case and began their investigation this morning.”
“I trust you have copies of their files?”
“Oh yes,” Drakewood told him. “The boxes are in your office.”
“Cheryl was kind enough to print out a lot of the information, knowing you prefer to work with hard copies,” Drakewood explained. “One of the detectives is a rookie and was overzealous gathering facts.”
“I hope he didn’t use a bunch of circles and arrows, and a paragraph describing each picture, with over-embellished facts and a multitude of remarks.” Evinrude had run across rookie reports before.
Drakewood gave a hesitant nod. “The thief apparently didn’t leave much behind, so they meticulously went over every minute detail they could find.”
“If you’ll excuse me, sir, I’ll get started right away.”
Evinrude exited Drakewood’s office and was intercepted by Cheryl holding up a stack of mail for him. “This is yours, too.”
“Thank you, Cheryl.” Evinrude took the mail and walked down to his office. He dropped the mail on his desk and went over to a small credenza, where three boxes filled with papers, computer discs, and photos were waiting. He opened the lids and started picking through them.
The Soufte embassy, located on the opposite side of Ngorongoro’s business district from the Quesonte embassy, was a dark, foreboding edifice with thick brick walls bordering the grounds and tall towers on each corner. Last moved at the end of the Disturbance, the rusty archaic gates stood open.
Sitting in chairs against the wall in Ambassador Callaway’s office, Fred and Frank watched the ambassador pace back and forth in front of them. Callaway was a very slender man with a long rectangular face, currently made even longer by his grimace.
“Now, we here at the Soufte Embassy on Ladascus like to pride ourselves on the professional manner in which we conduct ourselves,” he screeched in a high, raspy voice. “You two gentleman seem to have journeyed a great distance off the road from professional behavior and landed yourselves in a mire of…um…mm…ah…unprofessionalism!” Ambassador Callaway lectured, pacing, his hands clasped tightly behind the small of his back. “I expect a lot more out of any personnel assigned to this office. Here on Ladascus, we have two rules. The first rule is: always conduct yourselves in a professional manner conducive to the dignity of this embassy. The second rule is: obey all rules.”
“It’s not entirely our fault,” Fred snapped back at Calloway’s unwarranted scolding.
“Ah!” Ambassador Callaway warned, pointing his finger straight up in the air.
“Ah! Ah, ah!” His eyes bulged and veins popped, his finger now over-exaggerating its point. “How is it not your fault?”
“The Esprit…” Fred persisted. Determined to make his point.
“Mm! Mm! Mm!” Callaway mimicked locking his lips shut, his face just inches away from Fred’s face.
“Kept malfunc —” Fred tried to finish his sentence, as Callaway winced and made zipping motions across his lips. Calloway looked deep into Fred’s eyes and, with intense malice said, “That was a rhetorical question. And! Rhetorical, by definition, is a question that is used for insincere dramatic effect and no response is expected!”
Fred looked helplessly at Frank. Frank did not respond, secretly enjoying seeing Fred squirm. Although Calloway was their main contact and lead on this case, in the end they took their orders from IIA headquarters. Calloway couldn’t fire them, but he could make the rest of their careers miserable. Frank decided he would just let Calloway vent, and then get on with the job at hand.
“We were lucky to survive the crash!” Fred blurted out. “The ship malfunctioned!”
“Were you unconscious?” Calloway asked.
“No,” Fred answered meekly.
“Why’d it take so long to come in?”
“We had to find Joe,” Fred said without thinking.
Frank sank deep into his chair. Fred had just implicated them both.
“Joe?” Calloway questioned. “What’s a Joe?”
“Um,” Fred hesitated as he realized he had just said too much. Frank’s head sank into his hands. “He’s the Earthling we accidentally brought back with us.”
Calloway’s anger unleashed, his arms flailing about wildly, he yelled, “What!?”
“It was an accident,” Fred pleaded. “The ship crashed on his planet.”
“Go on,” Calloway prompted him.
“And he fell in,” Fred continued.
“And you didn’t take him back?” Calloway questioned.
“We didn’t notice him until we were almost here. And then we were worried about our time constraints, and Frank figured we could just ship him back.”
“A few air holes in a cardboard box and some torn up newspapers lining the bottom?” Calloway had lost his composure again. Now he turned to Frank. “And you! You’ve been awfully quiet throughout this whole thing. Apparently this was your idea! Don’t you have anything to add?”
Frank shook his head. “Fred’s doing a good enough job crucifying the both of us.”
“So, where is this Joe?”
“We lost him,” they both said.
Calloway lost his dignity immediately. “Have you fallen off the edge of sanity and into the abyss of idiocy?! You lost him?!”
“Yes,” they both whimpered.
“Have you two pickled your brains? You brought an undocumented, unregistered alien to this planet! And lost it?!”
Hesitantly they both answered. “Ah…Yes.”
“Did you fall out of a tree and crack your coconuts! He’s not sanitized. He’s germ-infested. He’s a biological hazard. Did you at least take an anti-biological hazard pill after abducting him?” They shook their heads no. “Decontaminate yourselves?” Another headshake no. “Did you at least wash your hands?” They looked at their hands hesitantly, paused and then shook their heads no again.
“Have you guys wound your clocks too tight?” Calloway’s expletives become more and more unique the angrier he got. “This violates so many trade and shipping laws, most of which I helped create myself. We’ll need a planet full of lawyers to dig us out from under this quagmire of composting matter.”
Calloway walked away and stared blankly at some plaques on the wall. He straightened his back, regaining his posture, and coolly asked, “Who else knows about this?”
“Well, when we didn’t find Joe at first, we called for a little help. So, we got the local park rangers since we were in a national park. They called a fire department’s search and rescue team —” As Fred explained, Calloway’s posture slumped and Frank slouched lower in his chair. “— who called the sheriff and a nearby police squad, who brought in a small military reserve. Some locals who were apparently monitoring their scanners came out to see what was going on. Tricia, your secretary; Phil, the embassy driver; and the tow-truck guy.”
“Let me rephrase that.” Calloway sighed with his back to them. “Who doesn’t know about this?”
They both looked at Calloway blankly.
“So…has anyone found this Joe of yours…yet?”
“No,” they both said quietly.
“So, to summarize what you’ve just told me: Although it appears you’ve both just been lobotomized, you’ve abducted an alien, who’s not been cleared of contamination for space travel, and transported it halfway across the galaxy. You allowed it to run loose on this planet among the general population, without going through quarantine, trade procedures or protocols. No documentation or registration of any kind through any government agency. If it’s traced back to us, we will be in violation of so many intergalactic trade laws they’ll write a new chapter just for us, thus destroying years of diplomatic work, to the effect that no one in the civilized galaxy will trade with us again. So, we might as well just start smuggling 9-volt batteries for a living.”
They looked at each other and meekly replied, “Yes.”
“Well, gentlemen.” Calloway breathed heavily as he slumped back into the chair behind his desk. He pointed to the door. “You’re dismissed.”
Fred and Frank slowly got up, walked out, and started down the hallway to their office. Fred held his head down in shame, while Frank shook it off, ready to get to work.
Tricia intercepted them from another room. “You’re finally out of there.” She gave Frank a highball.
“Thanks, Tricia, you know me too well,” Frank said.
Fred gave an exasperated huff. “Don’t you think we need clear heads right now.”
“A clear head clouds the mind,” Frank responded.
Tricia glanced down the hallway to make sure Calloway couldn’t hear. She leaned in to Fred and Frank and whispered, “I’ve never heard Calloway so loud before. I had to leave my desk just to make phone calls.”
Frank shrugged his shoulders while downing the welcome drink.
Tricia explained, “His sunisa is in hot water too, you know. He has to answer to all of Ladascus, who in turn will let all of his superiors on Soufte know, and he’ll have to answer to them. Be glad he’ll act as a filter between you and them.”
Fred came back defiantly, “We can handle the heat.”
Frank corrected him, “No. No, we couldn’t. And don’t tempt him. It’s my fault, too. I should have turned around and dropped Joe off, and then we’d only be scolded for being late.”
“Anyway,” Tricia went on, “one of our contacts in the Thirty-Third Precinct noticed that the Quesonte embassy has taken an overwhelming interest in a case a couple of detectives are working on.”
“What luck!” Frank declared. “This could be the break we need. Is it possible to get copies of the investigation’s files?”
“Already done,” Tricia answered. “They’re in the office you’ll be using while you’re here.”
“You are amazing,” Frank exclaimed.
“Only amazing, not amazing?”
“You’re right. Amazing!!”
“I also take gratuities,” she joked.