The two men parted, allowing me access to the post office’s front steps.
“We’ll be right behind you.”
Agent Klom’s promise didn’t make me feel any better. I managed a grin, though, a wobbly one reflected in his sunglasses.
“Miss?” Agent Rymes offered over my box.
Taking the package, I dusted off the dirt earned from its tumble in the sun-dried shrubbery after the agents had flanked me and flashed their alphabet-soup badges, granting governmental authority to their civilian attire. Rymes, however, ruined the covert façade by twisting the stem of his glasses between his fingers.
“Sorry again about startling you.”
Klom cleared his throat, and Rymes set his sunglasses into place, the sincerity in his gaze vanishing behind opaque lenses.
“It’s fine.” I held the box close, hoping his blue eyes and my desire to do the right thing wouldn’t sink me deeper into their clandestine affairs. “If I’m doing this, I should get going.”
Klom nodded, as curt as his crew cut and the seams in his jeans. The pair stepped to the curb, their backs to me, their mumbling too soft to overhear.
Keeping myself from seeking black vans and armored patrol officers, or wondering if the pedestrians enjoying a summer afternoon stroll and driving by on the way to beaches, picnics, or barbeques shared the agents’ high-level clearance, I resumed what had once been a bouncy jaunt.
The cookies I’d baked the night before rattled now as if nervous to be mailed off for Aunt Susan’s birthday, or perhaps like me, worried about what waited in the post office I neared. Their sugary quiver joined forces with the brick steps warming my flip-flops, encouraging brisker strides to thwart what Klom had explained would be a danger to me, to my sweet-toothed aunt he somehow knew lived across the country, and everyone in between. The sun added its blare, toasting my t-shirt and watching on as earnestly as the two agents I left behind.
Entering the post office, I crossed the threshold with echoing whacks of plastic soles on tile and stopped, letting the glass door whoosh closed and the conditioned air cool my bare legs. Three stations lined the far wall, but at this time of day, only one had an attendant.
The nameplate identified Bert, and the white lettering frosted my painted toenails. Like his name, his square-jawed features, and salt and pepper mane matched Rymes’ brief description. Despite the bulk wrapped in a postal worker’s uniform, he seemed far less menacing than the agents had suggested. He looked bored, honestly, skimming over paperwork while a snowy haired woman tittered with her stooped companion before a folder of stamps.
The agents, however, had been insistent, and like the cookies, I couldn’t let Aunt Susan down.
In silence, I repeated the words they’d told me to say and tried not to consider the consequences they’d hinted at if I didn’t do as they asked. Braced by logic and concern, I navigated the roped lane to the yellow stripe on the floor.
Bert peered past the elderly couple, and when set his paperwork aside, I inspected the address on my package. The smell of sharpie blended with the brown paper I’d used as wrapping as Bert lingered on me longer than I’d have wanted from a suspected criminal, then spoke to his current customers.
“Have you decided?”
“The peacocks. No,” the woman raised her hand, “the flowers, yes the tropical flowers will be perfect.”
Bert ducked beneath his counter and returned with a colorful packet. I willed the couples’ hunt for quarters and dollar bills to stretch into autumn, but they spilled exact change onto the counter, fussed over whether to put their stamps into her purse or his wallet, and finally shuffled away debating their next errand.
Bert leaned forward and stretched a half-smile at me. “Next.”
Clutching my package, I forced myself forward, feeling the cameras watching, feeling the agents watching, feeling the whole world holding its breath.
The phrase Klom had given me-something about stamps being square-tumbled off my tongue and interrupted Bert’s “What can I do for you?”
His face blanched and he pressed his large, muscular hands, on the counter. “No, I don’t know what you mean.”
I dropped my gaze to the package I still clutched and waited for a storm of agents, of police, of someone other than me to burst inside. No one came through the front entrance, the windows, or the swinging door separating Bert’s station from the processing area in the back.
“You want that mailed?”
Bert’s question nipped at my patience for the whole ordeal. I’d done what they’d asked but now it seemed I’d been duped into some weird government endeavor, or worse, someone’s practical joke.
“Yeah.” I set my package onto the counter. “I’d like this to arrive by Friday.”
Palming my box, Bert placed it on the scale and bent to read the digital panel. The bend shifted his shoulder-length hair, revealing a blue tattoo tucked beneath the black stud piercing his left lobe. I didn’t recognize the square symbols, but something about the marks made my stomach water. I tipped against the counter, the edge carving into my middle while I tried to place the shape, the meaning, the purpose for the design and justify the effect on my innards.
Perhaps my attention or the gust from resurging air conditioners agitated the ink. Bert scratched at the etched lines as he punched buttons, moving aside more hair and exposing other tattoos running beneath his collar.
The scale beeped. “That’ll be fourteen dollars if you want it to go First—”
Bert returned to me and I had to wrench my gaze from his left ear, from the tattoos his resettling hair obscured. I found myself locked with his hard, blue eyes instead, and wanted nothing more than to be back under the less blistering sun outside.
“Great,” I whispered.
At a whoosh from the front door, we both swiveled. A buxom redhead swayed to the self-service kiosk, the hand-sized dog poking out of her purse protecting her with a high-pitched yap.
For a moment, I wondered if she hid a gun tucked in her mint-green sports bra and running shorts, or if another agent could hear my conversation through her prattle into a jeweled phone. Perhaps the dog had the badge.
The last thought made me snicker, and the tension in my body leaked away. Shaking my head, I returned to the counter and reached for my card.
“How much did you say again?”
My question floated into empty air. Bert had vanished. The door accessing the back swung in slowing thumps and running footsteps slapped concrete. Behind me, the front entrance whooshed again and the dog yipped.
“I told you he’d recognize me, Klo’.”
I spun back to the redhead whose dog growled at the agent marching to her side. Around them, Rymes led a line of SWAT-garbed officers, the half dozen disappearing through another back exit.
Klom checked his watch. “We had to know for sure.”
“Your code phrases not working?” I flushed when the redhead peered at me, her crimson fingernails carving through her dog’s fur. “Who’s the new girl anyway?”
“Classified.” Klom pressed against the pip in his ear and squared himself to the doorway Rymes had used while thuds and slams, grunts and shouts rose behind the wall.
The redhead neared the counter. “Having fun, hon’?”
“I’m just trying to mail a gift.” I collected my package and she smirked.
“In a little over your head are we?”
After a glance at Klom, I lowered my voice. “I’m not sure what I’m into at all.”
“And you have no need to know.” Klom glared at us despite the sunglasses, and the redhead rolled her eyes.
The swinging door burst open and Rymes appeared. A gash above his right eye oozed blood, the skin around the wound already puffy. He guided a stooped Bert, his massive hands cuffed, his nose dripping red, his salt and pepper mane burned away. The lost hair revealed a pinked scalp and the extent of his tattoos. They throbbed scarlet now in their race across his neck and plunge beneath the collar of his uniform.
“You can’t hold me,” Bert jerked, but Rymes’ grasp didn’t budge.
As they passed by carts full of mail, Bert’s gaze landed on Klom. “You’ve got nothing on me, Klom, nothing but lies. Her lies. The Fold’s lies.”
Klom pulled open the counter’s half-door, clearing the way into the lobby. “We’ll see.”
“I won’t talk.” Bert’s eyes narrowed as Rymes guided him onto the tiles. “You won’t get answers from me.”
“Perhaps.” Klom lowered his right hand to his waist, his fingers tapping at his belt. “Perhaps we’ve learned to ask the right questions.”
Bert choked and his face scrunched in pain. He hung his head, the markings on his skin glowing orange.
I moved forward but the redhead flicked a wrist and settled her shaped nails on my shoulder.
“What are they doing to him?”
She sneered at the twitching man. “Nothing he doesn’t deserve.”
Shrugging off her hand, I spoke to Klom. “You’re hurting him.”
The redhead barked a high-pitched laugh and her dog matched the titter with a yip. “He can take more than a little—”
“Of what’s classified.”
She met Klom’s bespectacled stare and pouted. “Fine, Klo’. Are you done with me then?”
“Your ride’s outside.” While Klom returned to Bert, the redhead flipped her curls and swayed to the front entrance.
“You shouldn’t have involved her again.” Bert cackled even as sweat dripped down his face and plopped on the tiles along with his blood. “She’ll turn on you as soon as she gets what she wants.”
“Not everything that happens to you,” said Klom, “happens to me.”
Two officers entered the lobby, hauling a chainmail coat between them.
Klom motioned at Bert. “Get him dressed.”
The pair fumbled the clinking coat over Bert’s head, over his shoulders, and around his torso. As they cinched and buckled, Rymes stepped back and flexed his hands. When coils of pale-blue smoke rose from his fingers, I gasped.
“It’s nothing, Miss.”
I supported myself on the counter since my feet refused to carry me away. “Who are you people?”
Bert cackled again, the sound strained from fastened straps and tight fit. “What are you going to do with this one, Klom?”
“The same as with the rest.”
I clutched my package while the two agents squared off.
Klom puffed his chest but he couldn’t match Rymes’ build. His command, however, didn’t seem to need the extra foot of height, the muscle, or smoking fingertips.
“You know the code, Rymes.”
Rymes squeezed his hands into fists, the coils billowing off his flesh. “She doesn’t know anything, sir.”
“She knows what I look like.” Bert straightened, growing taller than he’d been at the counter. He stared at me, his eyes reddening, the whites turning a stormy gray. His flesh began to blanch and sizzle, like water thrown on a hot pan. The scorching hiss filled my ears until my skull seemed to crackle.
A blurred forearm swept across my sight. I stumbled back as a figure stepped between Bert and I. Dropping my package, I caught myself on a pylon and hugged my belly, wheezing to fill my lungs and drinking deep through my nose to cool off my brain.
Clarity arrived a heartbeat later and Rymes shook out his hand, the bones in his fingers snapping. Bert lay face down on the floor, drooling blood and spit, eyes shut, body motionless in his chainmail cocoon.
“Get him out of here.”
The officers hustled to Klom’s order, hauling the limp Bert, his sneakers squeaking on the tile.
I hung onto my pylon as they exited, listening to the grunts of their effort, the whoosh of the doorway, the quiet hush of cars outside, and the responding air conditioners resuming their rumble.
“Deal with her.” Klom stomped after the others and didn’t look back even when Rymes lifted an objecting hand.
“What is going on?” I forced my voice to steady when Rymes knelt before me. “Who is that guy? What is that guy?”
“No one you need to remember.” Rymes glanced at his knuckles and rubbed them with his thumb, each stroke crackling like mixed embers. “At least not yet.”
“Who are you?”
The sincerity in his gaze twined with regret. “You don’t need to remember me either.”
My legs wavered. “You’re about to help me with that aren’t you?”
His downcast face couldn’t hide a sad smile. Rymes dug into his back pocket where he’d kept the badge he’d shown me on the sidewalk. This time, he revealed what looked like a stick of gum, paper shiny and silver. He replaced his sunglasses, and I made a staggered retreat to the counter.
“I’m not going to let you shine some light at me and make me forget.”
Rymes held out the paper and I covered my eyes with both hands.
“I’m not looking.”
“You don’t need to.”
A spark ignited and gas teased my senses.
“What are you doing, Rymes?”
An aluminum crinkling replied, and a shadow fell upon my face. My breathing quickened in the silence and being blind suddenly felt like a poor choice. Gathering my courage, I squinted between my fingers.
Clouds hovered around me, thick and white as if I’d been at 30,000 feet and peering out an airplane’s window. Rymes had gone. The counter had disappeared. I couldn’t even find my feet let alone Aunt Susan’s package.
I sought the counter’s edge but the clouds swirled, keeping me shrouded.
A short breeze then split through the haze, and Rymes’ face appeared in shades of blue. The clouds closed in while I met his gaze. I felt pressure in my hand, something small and hard shoved against fingers I could no longer see. I grabbed hold nonetheless.
“What is this?”
“This?” Rymes’ grinned as his visage faded, “This is classified.”