Friday, August 31, 2012

Orkid's Song, Chapter 1

Part 1. Michael, Thursday, June 4th. 3:21pm

When people think ‘government agent’ I’m pretty sure my photo isn’t the one that comes to mind. I am, at best, unprepossessing. Basic stats are five foot six, brown hair, green eyes, and an off-the-rack suit that manages to look formal without style. If my appearance doesn’t get me confused with James Bond, my current assignment would definitely destroy the public’s preconceptions.

Auto accidents are noisy and annoying. Road kill is messy and filled with potential paperwork. Not profound I know, but that’s what was going through my head as the plastic sheeting was removed from the victim’s remains, or I should say alleged victim. That’s the danger of being a government employee, you start viewing every investigation in terms of how much effort it will take to close the file.

The assistant coroner started to say something in a tone that promised dire consequences. Distractedly I raised one rubber gloved hand and cut her short while looking down at the cause of my current headache.

Yoshiro Takamura had once been a powerful man. Now he was flat and dead, very much the worse for wear. Being hit by a city bus had definitively ended his life. The state of his corpus wasn’t what I was here for though. One dead foreign dignitary, no matter how powerful, was not something my office gets involved with. One dead man with a tattoo matching that of other recently dead dignitaries, all of whom have connections to a mysterious secret society, that my office takes note of.

I lifted the man’s arm carefully and looked at the inside of his bicep. The expected tattoo was there, the ink mixing with postmortem bruising to the point where the discoloration could be easily overlooked by an inatentive examiner.

“A bird, in flight through clouds, possibly a swan, marked in ink inside the left armpit. Victim is otherwise unmarked with the exception of the trauma from the collision.”

I spoke the words clearly so the recorder in my breast pocket would catch my observations.

“Sir, the autopsy is not finished. You are contaminating the process.”

Sara, as her name tag proclaimed, glared at me accusingly.

“Sara, what is, in your professional opinion, the purpose of an autopsy?”

“Well, obviously to establish cause of death as well as other peripheral details, relative to an investigation concerning the deceased.”

Her tone was what my mother might have charitably called Acerbic.

“Have you done a tox screen, taken pictures of the body, all that sort of thing?”

“Of Course. But I...”

“And in your professional opinion is there any question as to how this man died beyond the testimony of fifteen witnesses and three security cameras?”

“Well know, but that’s not...”

“Then Sara, let me offer you a piece of advice from one government employee to another.”

My voice remained calm and pleasant.

“When a federal agent shows up in your operating theater, asks to see a body, and starts taking notes, it’s in your best interest to give him what he wants. His presence means that there’s something about that body that a federal agency considers important. That means the agency wants you to do everything you can to get as much information about the situation as possible. If an agent, like say me for example, takes obvious steps to avoid contamination of the material, like say by putting gloves on, then that agent is trying to be considerate of your process. You’re better off giving them what they want. They’ll leave faster that way.”

I waved one considerately gloved hand at her for emphasis. I had what I wanted; there wasn’t any need to tick this lady off any further. I had more meaningful work to do than hassling a low level government drone anyway.

“Have a nice day Sara.”

“But sir, I don’t even have your name on the log...”

“Think of me as a ghost on a tax payer salary. I was never here, there’s no evidence I was ever here. I’m...The dread pirate Roberts.”

“The dread pirate who?”

As I through my gloves in a receptacle and exited the room I could hear her teeth grinding.

Puncturing peoples’ egos never loses its appeal; you just get better at it after the hundredth time or so. She deserved it anyway. I mean who doesn’t know The Princess Bride?

I left the morgue and retrieved my ride from visitor parking. The big SUV was one of the perks of working for homeland security. I investigate fringe groups who claim paranormal facility. Basically, my job is to keep tabs on potentially violent extremist groups who feel that they can do magic and bend spoons with their brains. Officially, my division does not confirm or deny the existence of the supernatural. We do however acknowledge that there are people who, as a result of their delusions, have the potential to do harm to their fellow man. It’s not as far fetched as you might think. A basic knowledge of chemistry combined with some showmanship can allow a person to do—magic—. People who think they’ve slipped the bounds of the physical world have very few qualms about slipping the bounds of the legal world; the more so when spurred to action by said theatrically minded chemist.

The morg had been my last stop before returning to the office to file the day’s findings. I was in a good mood. I’d taken the scenic route back to work, I had a confirmed clue, and I had put an officious functionary in her place. That is a good day’s work in my book.

HQ is a weathered antebellum home surrounded by shady trees and historic buildings. DHS rents it from the parks service, in a sort of incestuous tax sharing agreement. After parking my ride I crossed the whitewashed boards of the porch and went straight to my second floor office. My boss was waiting for me, perched like a malevolent garden gnome on the edge of my desk.

Nicholas Ragged is a dapper man, his suit cut perfectly, his tie knotted just-so with a Windsor knot, his shoes buffed till the distressed leather seems to glow. He’s also an honest-to-god midget.

“Michael, it’s about time. Sit down; stop looming over me before I report you to HR for creating a hostile work environment.”

His grin was honest enough to show that he appreciated the joke. His eyes weren’t laughing enough to let me get away with following his lead. Over the years I’ve seen him use his diminutive stature to put people off guard or at ease as it suits him, all the while bending them to his will. He plays office politics like Machiavelli with a charisma overdose, and he does right by his people. That’s about the highest praise I am capable of giving to a man who drives his employees as hard as Old Nick. I rounded the desk and sat in my office lounger.

“Agent, report.”

I hate those words. They mean school is in session, and its quiz time. I hate quizzes. You wouldn’t think a guy who barely tops four feet could intimidate a man a foot and a half his senior, but Nicky always reminds me of a little Italian lady I had as an English teacher. She just knew, without doubt, that she was the biggest, most dominant person in that room, and we all just believed along with her. Nicky is like that. He uses it like a weapon. I sat down and looked up at my boss from across the surface of my desk, the incongruity of his legs dangling over the edge seeming less amusing than it might have under other circumstances.

“I checked out the body at the morgue. Takamura matches with all the others, same pen-and-ink style tattoo, same lack of evidence of fowl play. I’ve looked over his personal effects, questioned witnesses, and I’m about to check the security tapes from the two corner stores and the ATM. Either someone is planting the ritual items, or we’re dealing with a professional hitter whose using techniques far beyond anything I’ve ever seen. The links between the deceased are solid as a rock, but, beyond the fact that they all have personal tattoos in the same style, they all were carrying possible ritual paraphernalia which doesn’t track back to any mainstream religion, and they were all of Japanese descent, all I’ve got is circumstantial. These people, they were all rich, powerful, well educated and in good standing. They seem to have had no contact with each other. Maybe there’s a link from their backgrounds I’m not aware of, the Japanese authorities have been reticent about disclosing personal details about their VIPs, but, there’s nothing solid that links them all.”

I remained at attention while my boss let what I had told him sink in.

“Sanchez is analyzing the ritual items for traceable materials and chemical evidence. The state department is, unhappy with our progress, but I’ve got them on hold for the moment. Someone is trying to discredit select Japanese businessmen for reasons unknown, we have a cereal killer on hand who has a taste for members of a cabal, or we’ve got some kind of gang warfare going on bushido style. I’m assigning Sanchez to you for the duration of this investigation.”

I groaned inwardly. Sanchez is one of the department’s best scientific investigators. He has multiple degrees in engineering, chemistry, biology, and physics. He also really gets on my nerves. I’m convinced that a person’s amount of coolness is inversely proportional to the amount of academic data stored in one’s gray matter. I could use him, but I was going to have to buy a muzzle for the guy and a bottle of scotch for me.

“Sir, may I ask a procedural question?”

Nicky didn’t blink, didn’t twitch, and didn’t move a muscle, even though he had to know what was coming.

“Go ahead.”

“What is our interest in this matter? U.S. citizens are not, that we can tell, being targeted, if there is any violence occurring in the first place. I grant you there needs to be an investigation, if for no other reason than the Japanese government would demand that something be done, but that’s not the point. I have three other investigations requiring my attention, among them the Hackman compound group out in Montana. This is stretching my resources thin for a case where the chances of murder are slim, our national interest seems limited, and—frankly—even if there is a terrorist cell in place here, they’re the ones going down. I need some guidance so I can best prioritize my resources.”

My boss gave me an approving nod, as if I had passed some test.

“This investigation, it gets your entire focus. There are, facts that I am conversant with that lend this case a much higher priority than any individual federal agency would consider appropriate. You do the work. You follow the clues. You don’t ask me questions about things I can’t talk to you about because neither of us has a documented reason to know about them. This isn’t a C-Y-A operation. Find me the evidence, I’ll get you the resources you need and keep the wolves off your back. That’s the deal.”

He said this all in a cold, matter-of-fact voice, never changing expression. It was creepy. My boss had just told me that he knew things he wasn’t supposed to, things that if exposed would put both our heads on the chopping block. We operate with limited invulnerability. Being an arm of the government established to deal with issues like 9 11 and being conceived with broad based authority to circumvent normal agency politics, our actions are usually under the radar. Being in a part of that agency that isn’t really taken seriously, jokes about investigating David Copperfield are the least of the abuse I take from my coworkers, well let’s say I generally am insolated from the front line stuff that normal agency pukes have to deal with. If you’re CIA, FBI, NSA or any of the alphabet soup agents, one of the tuff parts of your job is that the media, congress, and the public have a nasty habit of second guessing you after the fact. Sure you’re protecting them all, but good intentions, road to hell...etc. In an obscure branch of a well known but low profile agency, I just don’t have to face that sort of thing very often.

“Understood Sir. I’ll proceed accordingly.”

“Good. Get some sleep tonight Michael. This is going to hit the fan, and when it does I need you at full capacity. Anything less than 110% is unacceptable. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes-Sir. Like crystal.”

“See that you don’t disappoint me Michael. You’re a good agent. I have plans for you, plans I can’t put in play if you’re in the hot-box before a congressional oversight committee.”

He jumped down from my desk top and left without any further motivational comments.

“And here I thought he died in a bunker at the end of the war.”

I muttered the comment after I was sure the little guy was gone, and even then I made sure to keep my voice down. Sadly, my bravery only extends to the challenging of minor functionaries. Nicky is the real deal, and I am not so tired of this life that I want to tell him how much I love his people skills to his face. I don’t like being the departmental mushroom. In this case though, it was probably for my own good. Tomorrow was Friday and that always cheered me up. Even if I was likely to spend the day watching security tapes and reading through witness statements, happy hour was less than 24 hours away. That’s always a reason to be of good cheer in my book.

I closed up shop and drove home listening to some Mavis Staples and Bob Dillon. I was going to have that scotch and follow orders straight into a good night’s rest. The way Nick was talking, it might be the last full night’s sleep I got for a while.

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