A man wearing a grey, three-piece suit, whose dark hair was slicked back in a stylish 1950s coif, stood outside of Terry Runkle’s house and whispered to a raccoon. The raccoon’s name was Fred.
It was 11:00p.m.
Time was important to the man in the suit, because he dealt in a world of timing. Timing, you see, was related to the plan. Not a plan, but the plan. Windows opened and closed, doors revolved, and people moved through their lives on various paths and at various paces. People who were aware of time as a construct, however, were none the wiser of its relation to the plan.
It was the man in the suit’s job to be certain that certain marks arrived at certain places at certain times in accordance with the plan.
The man in the suit’s real name was Bill Glass.
Since he’d joined The Agency, however, everyone called him Agent Percy Stanbridge, or some combination of those three titles–Agent Percy, Agent Stanbridge, or even just Percy (his least favorite).
A man named Peter had assigned the name Percy Stanbridge to Bill Glass upon his sanctification. Bill had stood in front of Peter, and Peter had said, “Bill Glass, nice to meet you. Consider yourself absolved. From this day forward, you’re to be known as Percy Stanbridge. Please report to The Agency for training.”
Bill preferred the name Bill to Percy, but there was little he could do. The decision had been passed down from on high, and from that day forward he was Percy. Decisions and judgments were often passed down from on high.
Changing a name was important to The Agency. It was meant to distance the agent from what they’d known: give them a new life, a repurposed life.
Agents relied heavily on folders. Each Mark had a folder assigned to them upon birth, and that one folder contained a Mark’s present and future projections. The present projection indicated what a Mark was doing presently–walking, talking, sleeping, interacting, etc. The future projection indicated where a Mark would be or what the Mark should be doing in the immediate future. The “sheet,” as their record was called in The Agency, also indicated in real time, moment to moment, whether or not the projections, both present and future, aligned correctly according to the plan. The plan.
The folders resembled the cheap manila folders commonly found in the file cabinets of every office, since the conception of offices, paperwork, and folders. The inside of the folder contained the Mark’s sheet. The sheet was one part divine and two parts touch-screen user interface.
Since joining the agency, Bill had handled 3,127 cases. That meant 3,127 different folders and 3,127 different Marks. It also meant 6,254 different trips to the agency’s archives–6,254 different signatures on the office-mandated “in/out” form and 6,254 time-sucking conversations with the long-winded archivist Morton Piff.
For an agency that was so concerned with time, Bill often thought, you’d think that they’d have chosen someone a bit more introverted to run the archives than Piff.
Piff’s real name was Greg Landers.
Fred the raccoon stood at attention on his hind legs and rubbed his thieving paws together in anticipation.
“So, what time do you want it done?” Fred said.
“5:32a.m.,” Bill said. “Exactly.”
Fred stared across Terry Runkle’s unkempt lawn at three large metal trashcans. The cans were filled to their brims.
Bill looked over his shoulder, saw the trashcans, and then he turned back towards Fred, who was practically drooling.
“Until that clock in his kitchen reads 5:32a.m., don’t even think about it,” Bill said.
Fred stuck his paws out and turned his palms towards the sky above, as if to show Bill that he had nothing up his sleeves. The raccoon did not have sleeves–he was a raccoon.
“Think about what?” Fred said.
“Knocking those Goddamn cans over before 5:32a.m.”
Fred dismissed Bill’s accusation with the flick of a wrist.
“Don’t worry about it, Percy,” Fred said. “5:32. I’m your guy.”
“I can’t tell you how important it is that Runkle hears those cans crash down at 5:32, wakes up, and bursts out the front door,” Bill said. “But, let’s just say that it’s imperative to the plan.”
“Okay, okay,” Fred said, “Cool your jets, Per-cy.”
Bill felt the condescension in Fred’s tone. He stared Fred down. Fred realized that he was a bit out of line. Here was Bill after all, just doing his job.
“I have to go check in at the office,” Bill said, as he started walking away. “5:32, don’t fuck it up.”
Bill walked across Runkle’s lawn, stepping over and around an assortment of discarded automotive parts that were strewn about the yard. He noticed the discarded front end of a ’67 Mustang–the sight of which made him feel an uncanny nostalgia for reasons unknown, like seeing yourself in an old photograph but lacking any actual memory of the youthful snapshot. Bill walked down the short driveway and out to the street. Standing in the dim glow of the streetlight, Bill recited a haiku and vanished into thin air.
Fred scampered up a nearby tree, a maple. The tree faced both the kitchen window and the trashcans. The clock on the microwave in Runkle’s kitchen read 11:09p.m. Fred glanced at the trashcans, licking his lips, and then he looked out across the yard and road for any sign that Percy was still there, spying on him. He looked back to the trashcans. Soon, he thought. Turning back to the kitchen window, he noted the time, 11:10p.m. One minute had passed.
As Bill ascended to The Agency, he questioned whether he’d made the right decision. Raccoons weren’t trustworthy. Bill knew this. You should avoid delegating to a raccoon unless all other potential avenues had been explored and exhausted. Unless completely necessary. At least that’s what the agency’s manifesto on animal delegation, subsection 81-52.03, read:
Agents may find themselves in a pickle from time to time wherein two or more of their cases need/require intervention in present/future projection assimilation, concurrently. In times such as these agents must use their best judgment and available resources to ensure proper mitigation in their absence. This may include the delegation of occurrences to those animals or critters that the agency has determined, over the expanse of time, to be untrustworthy. These animals include flightless birds (incompetence), raccoons (impulsivity and lack of inhibition), and the common domesticated cat (apathy). Temporary employment of any of these aforementioned animals calls for a review of an agent’s actions by a panel of his or her peers and the agent’s supervisor, in accordance with agency reg. 2-04.39. ’An agent’s actions that are in direct violation of any agency regulation, that has been stipulated, a priori, in the manual titled Agency Regulations must be reviewed by the agent’s peers and direct supervisor at the first convenient time and date for all involved in the review process.’
In all his previous cases, Bill had only been up for review once. The circumstances surrounding his review were unfortunate. Dumb luck. Bill believed that his review had bordered on unfair. Bill had asked a turkey to spook a young girl. She would be walking in the woods, and the turkey was directed to pop out from under a shrub or small bush and yell, “dolololoololo!” Scare her. At least, that was the plan. The turkey, whose name Bill couldn’t remember, had actually done a decent job of stalking the young girl. However, neither Bill nor the turkey had taken into consideration that it was October. It just slipped our minds, Bill had said during his review.
A hunter named Eddie Kelp had fired his shotgun twice. After all, bird season had just opened, and Eddie had thought he’d seen two birds. Eddie killed the turkey and the young girl, the discovery and admittance of the latter, on his part, altered Eddie’s future projection assimilation for the rest of his adult life. Well, 20 to 30 years, to be exact.
The most trusted of animals, the manual stipulated, were birds of prey, rats, and all African ungulates (Kudu, Springbok, Oryx, etc.). Bill had only seen an African ungulate at a North American zoo while working on one of his cases in the late 20th century. He’d found the kudu to be pleasant enough, albeit a bit dumb, and he’d been rather perplexed as to why, precisely, they were held in such high esteem. Bill’s query remainned unanswered.
Back at Runkle’s house, Fred had descended the ratty maple and taken a seat at its trunk. He stared at the cans, overflowing with their beautiful, bountiful refuse. I could just go sniff it, he thought. His human-like fingers began to twiddle.
“Percy didn’t say anything about no sniffing. All he said was, ‘the cans must be knocked over at exactly 3:52a.m. Exactly.’ There were implications, he said. Percy’s a good guy. Right? Yeah, so he’d understand if I just went in for a sniff. Right? Of course he would. All I have to do is knock those cans over at 3:52, exactly.”
Fred’s paws got whatever was the raccoon version of clammy, and his skin went taut with goose bumps.
Bill arrived at The Agency exactly one minute after reciting his haiku. Agents traveled by haiku. Traveling by haiku always took one minute, regardless the distance. The agent must simply project his or her location to The Agency and recite an original, off-the-cuff haiku. One minute later, they’d arrive at their desired destination.
The explanation of travel-by-haiku, as it was known, existed in the manual titled, Agency Regulations 12-47.02, subsection Haiku:
If and when an agent finds him or herself in a situation wherein normal methods of transportation will not suffice, he or she is welcome to travel through haiku. Simply project a location, recite an original, off-the-cuff haiku, and one minute later the agent shall arrive wherever he or she desires. Agents must plan for this 60 seconds of travel, accordingly. The agency had considered allowing instantaneous travel, but after a period of deliberation it was believed that if an agent couldn’t prove adept at even the slightest coordination of his or her own travels, then how could he or she be expected to manage caseloads or present/future projection assimilations of multiple marks?
The Agency looked like any and every part of a large office building: there were cubicles, phones rang, agents wore suits.
Bill walked by the front desk towards his office, passing his secretary, Agent Deborah Green (her real name was Lordana Fury).
“They’re waiting for you in the big office,” Deborah said.
“Jesus,” Bill said, “I just got here.” Bill tapped Runkle’s folder on Deborah’s desk.
“Well, you know how the bosses like being kept up to speed.”
“It’s, mmmm,” Bill said. He smiled at Deborah, holding his tongue, and then he continued walking towards his office.
“Good luck, Percy,” Deborah said.
Bill waved Runkle’s folder at her as he walked away.
Fred approached the trashcans–lightly, quietly. He took his time to cross the yard, repeating the words, “Just gonna sniff, just gonna sniff, one lil’ wiff, one lil’ wiff,” as he tiptoed.
The scent of the garbage engulfed his head like a wreath, no, like a space helmet filled with flavor gasses, he thought. Fred imagined himself delivering the Sermon on the Mount to a thousand raccoons below, holding a spaceman’s helmet high above his head while his fellow masked-bandits went wild.
“Friends. Countrymen. Raccoons!” Fred said. “I have harnessed the smell. The one true smell, and it is good.”
The raccoons below were hooting and hollering with wild approval, reckless abandon.
“Within this helmet are the most powerful scents in the known universe,” he continued. “Within this helmet are dreams, and with- in this helmet are possibilities.”
Fred was walking around the cans on his hind legs with a paw on his chest and a paw raised above his head. His eyes were closed. He was marching to the cadence of his imaginary speech.
“I present to you, all of you,” he said, pausing for dramatic effect, “The Smell-met!”
A sea of raccoons bowed in the presence of greatness, and Fred raised his eyes, looking into the dark dome hovering above his head. Twilight beamed through the helmet’s visor with a magnificent platinum sparkle. Then Fred lowered the Smell-met onto his head.
At that exact moment, the deputy police chief of Durmond County, Dave Crandorff, left the station. It was 11:15p.m., and Dave was headed home. It had been a quiet night in Durmond. Not too unusual for the sparsely populated area. There’d been no calls that evening, no nothing, really, so he’d decided to leave early. He’d said goodbye to Tom Agna–the only officer on duty during third shift–and then he’d split. Dave was driving down Lanning road, about ten miles east of Terry Runkle’s house, and six more from his own. Crandorff’s future projection had him leaving the office at 11:27p.m., not 11:15p.m. None of The Agents had anticipated that he would just quit working earlier than usual that evening.
Bill dropped the Runkle folder onto his desk and entered the Big Office. Another meeting, he thought. Most agents hated meetings. Bill was no different. But, it said right there in the manual what was required of The Agents regarding communication and keeping the higher-ups informed. Agency Regulations, 72-14.82, subsection Meetings.
The conference room door closed behind him, and Bill took his seat at the table.
“Okay, priority cases,” Lannister said. “Go.”
A man named Gregor Yadlova stood. His real name was Tony Martuzzi.
“Sir,” Gregor said.
“Case?” Lannister said.
“Edwin James. Corn farmer. Iowa.”
”Father of five?”
“No, sir. Two kids, one of which was born HIV positive.”
“Jesus,” Lannister said. “How’d that happen?”
”Sir, according to his file, his wife contracted the virus before she was aware of her pregnancy while she was having an affair.”
“Problems? Concerns?” Lannister said.
“Sir, Mr. James has developed a conscience. This development has placed his present and future projections at extreme odds.”
“He’s supposed to be the new leader of the Iowa Corn Farmers Coalition that will put pressure on state representative Tanner. Pressure that will result in Tanner’s eventual loss in the upcoming election.”
“Problem?” Lannister said.
“The coalition is pro-GMO and aligns with conservative causes, sir. Mr. James’ sick child has changed his outlook a bit more than, uhh, expected.” Gregor said.
“Guy got any brothers? Sisters? Relatives nearby?”
“No, sir, just the children.”
“How old’s the oldest?”
“Yes,” Gregor said.
“Okay,” Lannister said, mulling it over for a second. “Here’s the fix.”
The room was quiet. When Lannister spoke, agents listened. He’d been assimilating present/future projections since time eternal.
“Mr. James will die in a freak accident of some type, or maybe a murder or some botched attempted robbery. The farm goes to the kid, the oldest. Younger brother holds on for a while, and then contracts some rare parasite, that, in coupling with his already questionable immune system, forces the inevitable, and the youngest dies. Now the oldest has nobody left, feels slighted by the universe, etcetera, questions his lot in life, blah blah blah, works himself to the bone to keep the farm going. Ummmm let me think.”
Lannister spun a pen around the thumb and index finger of his right hand.
“Okay, Gregor, align an older farmer’s path, who lives in the same area to cross with the young Mr. James Junior. Coalition still gets its young, fiery leader, except this one’s even younger and fierier.”
“Thank you, sir,” Gregor said.
“Okay, Gregor,” Lannister said. “But you guys need to do a better job, dammit. That should have been an obvious fix. And I keep saying it, and I’ll keep saying it, think out-side the box.”
Lannister kicked his feet onto the conference table, and he shooed at agent Gregor Yadlova to go away.
Gregor said, “Malicious bear claw, you are my favorite snack, cholesterol high.” Then he vanished.
Bill smiled–he liked that one.
“Next,” Lannister yelled.
Deputy Dave Crandorff was singing along with the radio. His car clunked along down the road. He was in no hurry. “There are stars in the southern sky, down the sev-en bri-dges ro-ad.” Crandorff tapped out the refrain to the Eagle’s hit on the top of the steering wheel. He bobbed his head along in time to the tune.
Dave was smiling. There was a good song on the radio (his opinion), he had half a sandwich in the fridge at home, and it was early enough that his wife, Kate, might still be awake. He turned up the radio. He thought about his wife, then the sandwich, then his wife, and again the sandwich. The car’s headlights led the way home–home to Kate, home to pulled pork and coleslaw.
Had Terry Runkle awoken at that exact moment and looked out of the kitchen window, he’d have seen a raccoon marching around his trashcans like a North Korean soldier on Dear Leader’s birthday. Terry Runkle, however, was fast asleep.
Lannister waited for the next agent to take the floor and give a progress report. While waiting, Lannister took stock of his troops. They looked tired, uninspired. They looked not like agents of the bureau, whose dedication and determination were unquestionable, resolve unflappable, but like modern American corporate hacks. Lackeys, even. They were bleary-eyed. Their hair disheveled. Lannister even noticed a few of the agents around him with wrinkled shirts, crumpled collars, and stained ties. All three in direct violation of Agency Regulation 3-28.01, subsection Wardrobe:
An agent must keep up all manner of appearances, including but not limited to the ironing of pants, shirts, coats, and vests, the immediate removal of visibly stained articles of clothing, the polishing and buffing of wing-tips, and the manicured maintenance of facial hair, hair hair, and the moisturizing of skin.
The agents were expected to act and dress as if they were representing a wing of divinity. And, they were. But things had become a bit more complex over the past few millennia.
The population of Earth had grown, and the size of the agency had followed–it was as simple as that. What had once been a group of 27 agents was now greater than 10,000. And still, the agency was shorthanded. Earth’s population exceeded twelve billion, not including every species of animal or insect. Every agent was overworked and overwhelmed, like public schoolteachers with classrooms of thousands.
Caseloads continued to grow with each passing minute. Manila folders manifested themselves in the file cabinets of the archives all day, every day. Morton Piff assigned each new folder to a caseworker without regard for his or her current caseload. Within each folder lay a new set of present/future projections. A life connected to the plan.
Doors needed unlatching so that toddlers could sneak out back and fall into a family’s swimming pool. A brick needed placing in the middle of a highway so it could be jettisoned by a passing 18-wheeler into the windshield of a semi-truck following closely behind, instantaneously killing the driver and causing a massive pile-up–killing another ten in the wreckage, but giving an up-and-coming news anchor her big break. A bag of meth needed placing next to a fire hydrant where a recovering junkie would get high and then go on to rape a 13 year-old girl named Allison Tanner who’d been walking home from school.
The last of which was the hardest case for Bill Glass to oversee. He watched from behind a brown picket fence, in a docile suburban neighborhood, as Allison Tanner was knocked unconscious and brutally raped by the junkie. Bill stood by as Allison’s present and future projections fell back into alignment.
This was the job. And once you were chosen, the job lasted forever. There were no sick days, no vacations, and there was no quitting. Time eternal.
After Allison Tanner’s case, Bill felt a bit down on The Agency. He had become a bit overwhelmed by his caseload, the nature of the work, the infallible bosses, the endless paperwork, the archivist Morton Piff, and the meetings (the meetings!). They were the worst, Bill thought, talking about work instead of actually working. How many meetings? Too many. Interrupting the day’s workflow so the higher-ups could opine, direct.
Most of the other agents shared Bill’s sentiments.
Terry Runkle’s case had been fast-tracked to priority status because of his ex-wife, Patricia. She had been and still was too good for Terry–miles beyond him. They’d been married right out of high school. Both children lived with Patricia in New York City, Manhattan, Upper West Side.
The kids, Scott and June, were too young to remember their father, and (since Patricia’s exit) it wasn’t as if Terry had made any effort to reconnect with the kids (or Patricia, for that matter). Patricia and the kids had left nine years ago. Terry thought about the three of them, maybe, once a month. They’d cross his mind when he was standing at his kitchen sink, washing dishes. Looking out of the window, he’d imagine two kids running around the yard out front, playing. They were faceless beings that had no discernible characteristics other than their relative size. Terry would picture Patricia lying in the grass, reading, and then he’d feel a pit in his stomach, he’d swallow, and he’d go on forgetting what he’d lost.
Patricia had worked as a high school teacher during their marriage. She’d taught political science and introduction to economics. It seemed to many who knew them that Patricia was far too good of a woman to have married such a dimwit as Terry, but the reality was that great women often married defective men, and no one, including The Agents at The Bureau, could ever explain why. Since the divorce, Patricia had finished her Ph.D. at Columbia, specializing in modern campaign strategies and influence throughout the region known as “The Bible Belt,” in the United States. Nowadays, Patricia taught at Columbia. Her colleagues respected her intellect. She spent her days immersed in life and work–at the university, raising two kids–and she’d just received an offer from one of two of the major political parties in the United States to help with their campaign strategy in the southern states. It was an offer for the upcoming national elections. The money was good, and Patricia was seriously considering the job.
The Agency needed Patricia to decline the offer. Future projections indicated her overall influence on the campaign as being the reason for the party’s victory. The party’s victory went against the plan.
Terry Runkle was going to find Patricia’s phone number next to a strategically placed flight voucher to New York. He would buy a ticket, fly to New York City, and surprise Patricia with a phone call and the news of his arrival. Terry’s mere presence would force Patricia to reconsider the job offer. Family, she’d be reminded, was more important than money. She’d consider reconciling, and she’d rescind the job offer.
Without her knowledge of political strategy within the Bible Belt, the candidate for whom she would have been employed would lose. This loss, politically, would make way for the rise of Coleman Dange. Coleman Dange would be known, historically, as the man who started World War III.
None of The Agents at The Agency had the slightest clue as to why WWIII was something that the higher-ups wanted, but, then again, none of The Agents even bothered to ask.
According to his future-projection, Terry Runkle was going to find the flight voucher and his ex-wife’s phone number in a pile of garbage. The garbage would be freshly spilled, lying in his driveway. Terry would hear a noise, wake, run outside, and see a raccoon scampering away from the scene of the crime. Through the intoxicating pink and orange light of dawn, and the shimmer of the dew and fog that rested on and above the damp morning grass, he’d see Patricia’s number and a voucher, and he’d say to himself, “Fate.”
Deputy Crandorff opened a can of Budweiser. He drank. It was crisp. He was thirsty. The Bud tasted good. He lifted the can again and again until it was finished. Then he threw the can out of the car’s window. Turning the radio up, Crandorff opened another Bud. Waylon Jennings was on the radio. Crandorff sang along, “I’m eas-y come, eas-y go, easy to love when I stay.” Crandorff thought about Dane’s BBQ–the local Durmond joint where he’d gotten his sandwich. Dane’s specialized in barbequed pork. He’d tried to recreate the sandwich, replicate the recipe at home, but he always came up short. It had something to do with their braising, he thought, that or their spices. Deputy Crandorff took another sip of Bud, and then imagined opening his own BBQ joint. Dave’s Den, he thought, that’s a good name. Crandorff’s Bar-Be-Dorff, no, that one’s dumb, he thought, throwing another empty can out of the window.
Lannister stood, hunched over the conference table with his hands at their mark like a sprinter resting at the blocks seconds before the gun.
“Everyone I can see, here,” Lannister said, gesturing to The Agents nearby, “looks like shit.”
A few of the men and women present bounced around uncomfortably in their seats, as if they had itchy assholes.
“I know I don’t need to bring up 3-28.01,” Lannister said. “Or do I?”
He looked smug. Knowing.
“This is the job,” he continued. Everyone present already knew that. “This is the job you signed up for.”
A hand rose.
“Yes,” Lannister said. “Go.”
“Sir, we were assigned to the bureau or, I guess, I was.”
“That’s not the–”
“What’s your name, Agent?”
“Delvin,” Delvin said. “Wait, do you want my real name or my agency name?”
“Why would I want your human name?” Lannister said. Agents were pathetically attached to the past, he thought.
“I don’t know.”
“I wouldn’t,” Lannister said. “You are an Agent of the Bureau, for Christ’s sake. Now what’s your name, Agent?”
“Julio,” Delvin said. “Julio Caesar.”
“Jesus,” Lannister said. “I’ve got to have a talk with Peter.”
There was a spattering of chuckles throughout the Big Office.
“Listen, I don’t know why any of you are still referring to yourselves with your human names, but if you are you need to cut that shit out. Right. Now.”
Lannister looked at The Agents in front of him. He shook his head in a disapproving manner, like an equestrian’s father, expectant and disappointed regardless of any outcome. The Agents held on to their human names, because it was all they had. They’d believed they would’ve been able to hold on to so much more.
“I need the level of professionalism around here to go up, okay?” Right now we’re here,” Lannister said, holding his left hand at his waist, “and I need you here.” He moved his right hand just shy of his hairline. “Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” The Agents responded.
“Take pride in your work,” Lannister said. “You are an integral part of–”
Bill finished Lannister’s lines under his breath. “An integral part of intricate plans, the plan, and we can’t do it without your absolute–”
“Dedication,” Lannister finished.
“Sir,” another Agent said.
“Name?” Lannister said.
“Caesar,” Caesar said.
“Is Peter just fucking with me?” Lannister said, raising his hands in the air, surrendering. “Never mind, don’t answer that, Chavez. Go.”
“Sir, it might be easier to take pride in our work if we were given ample opportunities to actually do our work.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Eyes darted back and forth across the conference table–flashes of concern. Curious agents wondered, “Was this conversation actually going to happen right then and there?”
“Sir, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we spend the majority of our time either pushing paper, tracking down folders, or sitting in oversight meetings. I haven’t actually monitored a Mark in, I don’t know how long. Future projections? Forget it,” Chavez said. “I haven’t got the time.”
“Don’t give me excuses,” Lannister said. “I don’t want excuses.”
“Not to mention the caseloads,” Julio Caesar said.
“Yeah,” Chavez said. “Sir, do you have any idea how many cases I have on my plate?”
“Stop. Stop it right now,” Lannister said.
Bill Glass wanted to speak up, but, no point in getting involved, he thought.
“Enough shit. Enough whining,” Lannister said. “This is how it’s done. This is the system, and it’s always been and it will always be. So, you need to… Figure… It… Out.”
Heads hung. Dejected. The sheep at the table nodded. Bill, for a moment, felt relieved.
“Okay, moving on,” Lannister said. “Who’s on the Runkle case?”
“Sir,” Bill said, standing from his chair.
“Go,” Lannister said.
Fred the raccoon had let his imagination get the best of him, again. He was in a world all his own. The Smell-met. A crowd of unworthy citizens gathered below him like the peasants of ancient Rome, yelling, reaching in awe of the power before them. Fred was finishing his speech.
“There will be no more hunger. No more fighting. No more failed attempts at lid lifting on modern, plastic receptacles. There will be only garbage for all. On demand. Such is the power of the Smell-met!”
Terry Runkle rolled over in his sleep, almost disturbed by the squeaking of a raccoon with an overactive imagination. “Squeek squeak squeak squeak squeak,” went Fred.
“But does it work?” cried a small and crippled raccoon from the crowd.
“Of course it works,” Fred yelled.
“Prove it,” the cripple said.
“Prove it,” yelled another.
“Prove it. Prove it,” the raccoons chanted.
“I shall,” Fred said, flipping down the Smell-met’s visor. “Let it be so.”
Fred gestured to the crowd to retreat, to part. And at his beckon, they did just that. Fred focused. He thought of trash. Garbage. Refuse. He thought of the Smell-met’s strength. He envisioned a small pile of garbage, and then he reached out and projected the powers of the Smell-met onto the Earth before him. Energy surged through his body and the pile grew.
The pile of garbage became a heap, and the heap became a mound. The mound grew, more now, and it became a dump. The raccoons looked on in disbelief as this, this God manifested a landfill’s worth of garbage from thin air–from nothing. The pile grew. And it grew more. And it soared towards the heavens.
Deputy Crandorff threw another can of Bud out of the window. He reminded himself that he was an officer of the law, and as such he probably shouldn’t be drinking. Just a couple, he thought, life’s simple pleasures. A few cans on the way home. Loosen up a bit before I get home to Kate, he thought.
Crandorff was a simple man. Not a simpleton, just simple. His dreams and aspirations were exactly what he felt they should be for a high school graduate with a steady job in the force (a steady job that paid quite well, benefits, etc.). He had a mortgage, and a wife who loved him and whom he loved, too. Even the yet-to-be-named BBQ joint that he’d fleetingly considered opening would be simple–five seats at the counter, a couple of booths–nothing too fancy. Deputy Crandorff had little interest in being a part of a grand plan. Any plans other than his simple ones, really.
Unfortunately for the deputy, he had just made a right turn down Choula Rd. and was only a few minutes away from Terry Runkle’s house. Dave’s wishes were of little consequence, because by leaving work early this evening he had altered the path of his future projection. Crandorff’s folder, buried deep within Morton Piff’s archives, reflected these changes.
There were no Agents present to witness these changes in Crandorff’s folder. All of The Agents were in meetings.
Bill cleared his throat.
“Sir,” he said, “as of exactly 11:00p.m. Mr. Runkle was fast asleep. A row of garbage cans will crash to the ground at exactly 5:32a.m., jolting Mr. Runkle into consciousness.”
“Continue,” Lannister said.
“Mr. Runkle will run outside to address the racket, and as he approaches the downed trashcans, he’ll see his ex-wife’s discarded phone number sitting next to–”
“Yeah yeah yeah, sitting next to a flight voucher to New York,” Lannister said, waiving his hand in a get to the point or get the fuck out manner.
“You’re telling me what I already know, Per-cy.”
Bill cringed. He loathed the name.
“This is the update, sir.”
“It’s the same as,” Lannister said. “Look, you’re just telling me what you think is going to happen. But you need to fucking convince me, Per-cy.”
“What about his wife’s projections? Are they in agreement with your plan?”
“I don’t have her projections, sir.”
“I don’t have the fol–”
“Why don’t you have the folder?” Lannister snapped.
“Piff wouldn’t give it to me,” Bill said.
Agency regulation 5-37.14, subsection Folders, stipulated:
An agent may only be in possession of one folder at all times. There are no exceptions to this rule. Folders must be returned and signed for, appropriately, with the archivist, before an agent may procure a different, assigned folder. Although this regulation may seem petty, The Agency cites the era known as the “Dark Ages” as evidence for the efficacious nature of adopting said regulation. The Agency must remain vigilant against losing or misplacing folders.
“Jesus,” Lannister said, rubbing his temples. “So we’re in the fucking dark, here?”
“Sir,” Bill said. “It’s, it’s hard enough.” He bit his lip. “I believe in the system, sir. The last future projection indicated that morning light, glowing on voucher and phone number alike would inspire Mr. Runkle to reconnect with his ex-wife. His phone call will take place at the appropriate time–the moment his wife needs to hear his voice. She will decline the offer. Future projections indica–”
“Okay, okay,” Lannister said. “Show me Runkle’s sheet.”
Bill looked down. The folder wasn’t there. Shit, he thought. “It’s on my desk, sir,” Bill said.
“High-priority case, Percy, and you leave the sheet on your desk!”
“One moment, sir.” Bill left the conference room. He passed his secretary, Deborah, who thought about asking how the meeting was going but then decided against it. He grabbed the folder from his desk. Fucking folders, he thought. Then he hustled back into the conference room. Bill tossed the folder at Lannister.
Lannister opened Runkle’s folder and saw a flashing green line. The green line changed to a flashing orange line. The orange line turned red.
“Oh, fuck,” Lannister said.
“What?” Bill asked.
The rest of The Agents in the conference room sat with dumb looks slapped upon their faces. Lannister turned the folder around revealing a big fat red line, as thick as painter’s tape. The projections had changed.
Fred the raccoon stood before the landfill that he’d conjured. The powers of the Smell-met witnessed by the masses. He held his arms out wide and, admiring his work, took a deep breath.
“Lead us,” shouted a believer.
“Lead us,” another said.
“Climb,” Fred said.
The believers nodded.
“Climb,” he said again, pointing up towards the peak of the towering landfill.
Fumes of the steaming refuse escaped through the composting vents of the towering mass, like geysers of smoke puncturing through the cracking countenance of Vesuvius.
“Climb,” Fred said, and then he began to leap.
As Terry Runkle stirred in his sleep, a car’s headlights shined in the distance. Deputy Crandorff was behind the wheel, slightly buzzed, singing along to Queen. “I like to ride my bicycle, I like to ride it well. I like to ride my bicycle, I like to ride it well.”
“How’s Runkle getting woken, again?” Lannister said.
“Trash, uh, trashcans,” Bill said.
“They’re getting knocked over,” Bill said.
Bill felt a slight pain in his side.
“Fred. By Fred,” Bill said.
“Who the fuck is Fred?” Lannister said.
“Fred’s the raccoon that lives in the maple tree outside of Runkle’s–”
“Oh, you Goddamn moron,” Lannister said.
Terry Runkle’s eyes opened. He blinked twice. He thought that he’d heard a noise. Terry looked at the alarm clock that sat on the bedside table. The clock’s numbers glowed yellow, and they read, “11:40p.m.” The sound was coming from the front yard. Clang clang clang went the sound. Terry jumped out of bed and ran to the kitchen, looking out the window in disbelief as he watched a raccoon jump into and on three overturned trashcans. What in the hell? He thought. The raccoon looked like a hyperactive child bouncing on the bed of some cheap motel.
Fred and his minions had reached the peak of their landfill and were celebrating in a state of sheer, unbridled ecstasy.
“Mother-fucker!” Terry yelled, grabbing a green handled broom from the pantry. He ran outside and bee-lined it towards the raccoon. Terry swung the broom, missed, swung again, and the broom’s handle made contact with the raccoon’s midsection.
Fred snapped out of his hallucinatory state when something whacked him in the stomach. Lying in a pile of garbage, Fred looked up and saw a naked man standing over him. Fred knew the man. The man was Runkle. Runkle swung again, but Fred, now aware, dodged the broom handle with relative ease and ran through the yard towards the big maple tree that he called home.
“Eeep, eeep, eeep,” said Fred.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” said Runkle, giving chase.
Deputy Dave Crandorff’s car careened around a shallow right turn, and, while looking out the driver’s side window, he witnessed a flabby naked man run through a yard, wielding what looked to be a sword. Crandorff slammed on his brakes. It’s always gotta be something, he thought, putting the car in park and getting out. Runkle stood at the base of the big maple tree, smacking the broom handle against the bark, yelling into the leaves and branches clustered above.
“Hey, hey you,” Crandorff yelled, his left hand out in front of his body like a crossing guard at a four-way intersection. With his right hand, he unsnapped the button at the heel of the gun holstered on his waist. “Stop.”
“Huh?” Runkle said, shifting his attention to the stranger walking towards him. “Who said that?”
“Police, sir.” Crandorff drew his firearm and trained it on the naked man in front of him.
“Police? What’s the police for?”
“I’m with the police. Don’t make any sudden movements, sir.” Crandorff examined his surroundings for a moment. Junk in the yard, abandoned cars on the property, what looked like a pile of garbage to his right. Yup, he thought, this guy could be dangerous.
“Sir, what the hell are you doing?” Crandorff said.
“Ohhh I was just chasing this damn raccoon here that knocked mah cans down o’er there,” Runkle said, pointing the broom towards the pile of trash.
“Where are your clothes?”
“Oh, well, I didn’t have no time to put on them pants if I wanted to get that lil’ fucker,” Runkle said. “What the problem is? Man ain’t gotta wear no pants on his own property any why no how.”
“Actually, sir,” Crandorff said, “You pretty much have to wear pants all the time.”
“Bullshit,” Runkle said. “Hell, I hardly ever wear pants.”
“This ain’t public. This mah fuckin’ yard.”
“Listen, sir,” Crandorff said. “If you go back inside and put some clothes on before the next time you come back out, I’ll ignore this ever happened.”
“Ain’t telling me what to do, fuckin’ pig,” Runkle said, and he lowered the broom handle inches from the muzzle of Crandorff’s sidearm.
Fred sat in the maple above and thought about how Agent Percy was going to kill him.
“You and you,” Lannister said, pointing at the two Caesars, “Let’s go.”
“What about me?” Bill said.
“Of course you’re coming, Percy,” Lannister said. “It’s your fucking mess we’re cleaning up.”
“Save it,” Lannister said. He closed his eyes and said, “My catapult flies, your stone walls cannot stop me, kings we overthrow.”
“Virtue knew nothing, said the evil to the good, oh mighty magpie,” Caesar Chavez said.
“Represent your hood, in this life and the next one, bang motherfucker,” Julio Caesar said.
“It was laundry day, and all my socks were dirty, not that it mattered,” Bill said. Bill vanished.
After Runkle had swung the broom handle at Deputy Crandorff, Crandorff had wrestled the man to the ground, placed shackles around Runkle’s wrists, and locked him in the back of his cruiser. Crandorff was upset; this lunatic, this ignorant hillbilly had ruined his night.
“Where you taking me?” Runkle said.
“Durmond County, you’re spending the night, buddy,” Crandorff said, swinging the cruiser around and starting back towards the station.
Crandorff turned the radio up, ACDC’s “highway to hell” drowned out Terry Runkle’s pleads for leniency.
The four Agents materialized in Terry Runkle’s front yard. Bill walked up to the big maple tree. The two Caesars headed across the lawn towards the house, and they peered into the dark windows hoping that Runkle would be home. Lannister sifted through the downed trashcans and pulled out a flight voucher and a piece of paper that had the word “Patricia” and a number on it.
“Fred,” Bill yelled, from the base of the tree. “Get down here.”
“No,” Fred said.
“Now,” Bill said. Fred made his way to the Maple’s lowest branch. He remained out of reach–Percy couldn’t grab me at this distance, he thought. Lannister and the two Caesars made their way over to the tree.
“What the hell happened, Fred?” Bill said.
“It’s all very complicated, and you’ll probably never understand.”
“Try me,” Bill said.
“Well, first off,” Fred said, “There was this helmet, well, a Smell-met, really, and it gave me these amazing superpowers. I was like a God. You should have seen it. And the others, they were all following me.”
“That’s enough,” Lannister said.
“Listen you little fuck-up,” Lannister said, “you have no idea what you’ve done here, no idea! Now, where’d they go?”
“The police man took the Runkle away, because he was naked and he tried hitting the policeman with a broom.”
“What police man?” Bill said, hoping that there was still a chance the ship could be righted. A broom lay next to the maple.
“Durmond County,” Fred said. “That’s the last thing I heard him say before they drove off.”
“Which way did they go?” Lannister asked.
Fred pointed down the road in the direction the cruiser had gone.
“Gentlemen,” Lannister said, “Durmond County jail. Go.” Lannister and the two Caesars repeated their haikus and vanished. Bill lagged behind for a second.
“You really fucked me over on this one,” Bill said.
“Sorry,” Fred said. “But, man, you should’ve been there. I was like a God.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Bill said, shaking his head, “and I don’t care. In the face of God, I question my existence, left unsatisfied.” And then he vanished.
Deputy Crandorff parked the cruiser and took the key out of the ignition. It’s always got to be something, he thought, taking a deep breath. He opened his door and walked around to the trunk of the car.
“Hey, lemme outta here,” Runkle said from the back seat.
“One damn minute,” Crandorff said.
Crandorff pulled a government-issue safety blanket out of the trunk. He closed the trunk and opened the car’s rear door. The parking lot was empty, save Tom Agna’s cruiser.
“Here,” Crandorff said, holding the blanket out for Runkle.
“Now, how ma sposed to grab that thang with these on?” Runkle said, turning to his right to show the bracelets that held his hands together behind his back.
“Right, right,” Crandorff said.
“Well, hell, least you got me a blanket.”
Crandorff draped the blanket over Runkle’s shoulders and around his body, twice. Runkle was cuffed and encased like a sausage, or like a cat wrapped in a small blanket–all head and hind legs, no body.
They made their way to the station’s entrance. Crandorff opened the door for Runkle, and then they stepped inside the building.
Durmond County was a small, tidy unit of police real estate–like an old man’s studio apartment. Tom Agna stood from behind the only desk in the office.
“Well hey there, Deputy,” Agna said. “We’ve been expecting you.”
“We?” Crandorff said, and then he saw the four men seated in the waiting area to his right, opposite the desk.
“Yes, sir,” Agna said. “These men here are from The Bureau. That right, gentlemen?”
“That’s correct,” Lannister said.
“Bureau?” Crandorff said, “What bureau?”
“Ha,” Agna said, straightening his tie. “The F–B–I.”
“My name is Special Agent Lannister,” Lannister said, holdingout his hand, “And these are agents of mine.” He gestured to the men behind him, “Agents Caesar, Chavez, and Stanbridge.”
“Y’all Mehsicans?” Runkle said, looking at Caesar and Chavez, who were quite obviously Black and Anglo-Saxon, respectively.
“Shut it,” Crandorff said, giving Runkle a quick shake. “That’s a black man, you idiot.”
Lannister grimaced. Time was being wasted with these, these morons, he thought.
“Well, hell, I dunno,” Runkle said under his breath. “Man says his name’s Chavez, that’s a Mehsican name to me.”
Crandorff shook Lannister’s hand.
“Pay him no mind,” Crandorff said. “What can I do for you?”
“Lannister, right. What can I do for you Agent Lannister?
“Hey, Agna, get over here would you and get this idiot in some clothes, would you?”
Tom Agna sped around the desk and grabbed the blanketed Runkle. “Come on, you,” Agna said.
“As I was saying,” Lannister said. “Right.” “Deputy, we’ve actually been chasing that man right there, Terry Runkle, for some time.”
“Really?” Crandorff said. “Because I ran his name through the system on the way out here, and it came through pretty clean. Couple of misdemeanors some time ago but nothing crazy.”
“Deputy, there are some databases you just wouldn’t have access to in a standard cruiser.”
“Oh yeah,” Crandorff said, shrugging his shoulders. “I suppose that’d be about right.”
“Anyways,” Lannister said. “We would’ve had him earlier today, if Agent Stanbridge hadn’t royally fucked up.”
Crandorff peered around Lannister’s head at Agent Stanbridge, whose own head was hung in shame.
“Him?” Crandorff said.
“So what can I do for you?”
“Well, Deputy, we need to interrogate your prisoner.”
“That’s correct,” Lannister said, articulating each word “He’s involved in a very intricate plan, and we need to find out what he knows.”
“Weeeeeell,” Crandorff said, “I suppose I don’t have a problem with that.”
“Good,” Lannister said.
“So long as I’m in the room with you fellas.” Crandorff winked at Lannister. “I just want to observe a bit of y’alls’ techniques. Get a little bit of FBI training and all that.”
Lannister closed his eyes and muscled out the words “That’ll be fine” through gritted teeth. They’re all idiots, he thought. God help me.
Runkle, Crandorff, Caesar, Chavez, Lannister, and Bill were seated at a round wooden table in the interrogation room. The room seemed more suited for a card game than an interrogation. The décor would be best described as 1990s Dallas Cowboys fandom; there was even a mini fridge in the corner. Crandorff was snacking on a small package of salted peanuts.
It was 12:17a.m.
“Well, let’s get to it,” Crandorff said.
Lannister glared at Crandorff. Who’s in charge here? He thought. He turned to Terry Runkle.
“Mr. Runkle,” Lannister said.
“Yep,” Runkle said.
“You’re probably wondering why you’re here.”
“Naw I ain’t,” Runkle said. “That man o’er there ‘rrested me, because I was chasing after a raccoon in my front yard.” Runkle leaned into a nonexistent microphone and said, “Let the record show that I was on my own property.”
“Not why you were arrested,” Lannister said, “Why you’re in this room. Here. With us.”
“Oh,” Runkle said. “You and your lap dog and them two Mehsicans got some questions for me or something?” Runkle motioned towards the agents.
“No. That’s not it,” Lannister said. Crandorff perked up. He wondered, aren’t we were here for questions?
“Well, what then?” Runkle said.
“I need you to do something.”
“What’s that then?” “I need you to call someone.”
“What in the fuck is all this?” Runkle said, looking at Crandorff. “Better do what the man asks,” Crandorff said. “The F–B–I.”
“Who?” Runkle said. Lannister held his arm out in Bill’s direction. “Agent Stanbridge, please hand me Mr. Runkle’s sheet.”
“I don’t have it, sir,” Bill said.
“What do you mean? You didn’t bring it?”
“I, I left it at the agency,” Bill said, thinking for a moment. “No no, you left it at–”
Lannister shushed Bill, and then he thought about it. He was the last one with the folder.
“Chavez,” Lannister said, “Get me that folder, now.”
“Sir,” Chavez said. “Metamorphosis, changing tides of woven bugs, wonderful beauty,” and then he vanished.
Crandorff jumped out of his seat, peanuts flew from his shaking hands. Runkle let out a high-pitched squeal, like an excited child who’d just seen a magician produce the three of clubs from his shoe.
“Where’d that Mehsican go?” Runkle said, bouncing in his seat.
“Sit down, please,” Lannister said, motioning to Crandorff. “This is big. Bigger than each of you, and I didn’t want it to happen this way, I would have preferred to keep both of you in the dark, here, but we are short on time.”
Lannister stood, walked over to Crandorff, and eased the Deputy back into his seat.
“That man jus’ dis’ppeared,” Runkle said. “I never seen nothing–”
“Stop talking,” Lannister said. “I’ve had enough.”
Runkle stared at the sorcerer and swallowed with a thunk–the kind of noise a large rock makes when it’s tossed into a pond by an obese redneck.
Lannister pulled out a cell phone, and he placed it on the table in front of Runkle. Crandorff and Runkle followed his every movement. They were stupefied. Awestruck.
Then Lannister reached in the inside pocket of his suit coat, and pulled out a piece of scrap paper. He placed the scrap paper next to the phone. Terry Runkle read the name Patricia, and looked at the phone number.
“Patricia?” Runkle said. “Patricia,” Lannister said. “My ex?” “Yes.”
“Now what in the hell you want me to call Patty for?” Runkle said.
“It’s bigger than you,” Lannister said.
“What you want me to say?” “Just call her and tell her that you’re coming to New York. That you miss her.”
“I can’t go to New York,” Runkle said. “I ain’t got that kind of money.”
Lannister reached into his coat once more and produced a flight voucher to New York City.
“You don’t need any money,” Lannister said.
Because Runkle was a moron, the phone number and the flight voucher impressed him more than the man who’d Just vanished into thin air.
“Oh-oh-okay,” Runkle said. “I’ll call Patty.” Bill, breaking out of character, questioned Lannister.
“Sir,” Bill said. “He’s not supposed to make the phone call until 5:32a.m.”
“I know that,” Lannister snapped. “You think I don’t know that?”
“I was just–”
Chavez materialized onto the tabletop. Everyone in the room jumped back, including Lannister.
“Sorry,” Chavez said. “I missed.”
He handed Runkle’s folder over to Lannister.
“Wha, what now?” Runkle said.
Lannister flipped the folder open, and he watched the sheet’s thick red line flash and then turn orange.
“We wait,” Lannister said. And wait they did.
Almost five and a half hours later, at 5:31a.m., Lannister nodded to Terry Runkle.
“It’s time,” Lannister said.
Runkle picked up the cell phone, and began to dial. The thick orange line inside the folder began blinking.
The phone rang. Lannister sat still, concentrating on the orange flashing line that determined so much.
The phone rang again.
Runkle looked up at Lannister.
Lannister held out his hand.
The phone rang once more.
A voice answered on the other end.
“Hello?” it said.
“Who is this?”
Lannister watched as the blinking orange line began flashing green.
“Terry,” Runkle said.
“Yeah, baby. Terry.”
“Terry?” Patricia said. “Are you fucking kidding me? I told you never to call here again. Ever.”
The line went dead. The flashing green streak turned into a solid red stripe.
“Hello? Patty?” Runkle turned to Lannister. “She hung up.”
“What do you mean she hung up?” Lannister said.
“She hung up. That’s it. She don’t really want me calling over there… it was a pretty nasty divorce.”
What a waste of time, Bill thought, all of it. Another giant, pointless mess.
“The wheels keep spinning,” Bill said, “just a cog in the machine, where nothing matters.”
And then he vanished.
The Adjustment Bureaucracy is from my new collection of short stories: When it All Went to Hell