Here’s what I need to save a life: coffee.
Regular, hot coffee works fine, but I like mine to be full of syrup and whipped cream and to smell like candy. Edgar would say (under his breath) that it’s because I’m a pain in the ass. But what’s easier to get noticed–someone with an ordinary coffee stain, or someone smelling like peppermint and stained with an impossible to remove blob that only sugary syrup, whipped cream, and coffee can bring?
Besides, my job is hard enough that I figure if I can make someone else’s easier, maybe then one day the universe will pay me back somehow. Maybe it will give Gloria the ability to walk again, or maybe it will make Edgar stop being an ass.
Maybe one day I’ll be able to do things normal people can. Like have dreams that are just that, dreams. Or go outside just because I want to. That would be nice.
I can’t be thinking about any of this now because now I hold my Peppermint Surprise! latte–the name would make me smile, if I smiled when I was at work–and make my way through Union Station.
It’s thirty-seven steps to the door David Lewis will come through, the one by the gate his train from Maryland uses–he takes the MARC line to and from Germantown. His security team is lax because he’s not just loud, but abrasive, and he won’t live in the city, which means all four of his bodyguards have to commute in and out with him, plus live in Germantown too, and if you’ve ever been to Germantown–well, let’s put it this way. It makes DC look positively glittery.
And DC is not even remotely glittery. It has power, and lots of it, but it is not a shiny city. Most of it–past the gloss of the Mall area and Georgetown–isn’t even pretty.
David Lewis, division head of an arm of a government agency that technically doesn’t exist but can be found in one of the “banks” scattered around the Ballston Metro stop, will not be surrounded by an alert, prepared security team when he walks into Union Station. He’ll be alone, because all the video footage Edgar showed me told me that David Lewis comes out through his gate and walks by himself for anywhere between thirty and forty-five seconds before his disgruntled guards catch up to him.
You’d think working for the government, especially for the kind of agency that Mr. Lewis does, would make you more aware.
It doesn’t. DC is so full of people with secrets that everyone get used to them, so people do things like stop noticing that there are always a couple of guys in dark suits near, say, that gray-haired gentlemen they might share the Metro with every morning.
I once told Edgar that I was sure ninety percent of every security detail in DC spent its time on the Metro or sitting in traffic.
“Probably closer to ninety-five percent,” he said, because he’s Edgar and he doesn’t think anything is funny. At least Gloria got it. “And the other ten percent waiting outside meetings,” she said, laughing.
The thing about Gloria is that she’s got that kind of laugh that makes you laugh too. It’s just the way she is. Gloria is warm like the sun.
Thirty-five steps to go, and I shift the coffee a little in my hand. I’m a Georgetown Day student today, my carefully worn-yet-expensive book bag stating my status as wealthy and skipping school, probably out to meet my boyfriend for a day of mocking tourists and using fake IDs to cruise Georgetown.
I see the assassin at step thirty. She’s wearing the usual government worker uniform–moderately priced skirt suit, complete with hose even though it’s already over eighty degrees outside. Sometimes I think DC has two seasons, Hot and Hotter. Well, two and a half, because there’s usually a few weeks of Brutal Cold, but mostly it’s just hot. And yet what does almost every female government employee wear even when it’s so hot you feel like you can wring the air out? Pantyhose.
Before her accident, Gloria used to pose as a worker at various agencies. She says the one thing she doesn’t miss is “the goddamned pantyhose.”
The assassin’s disguise is quite good. She’s got the uniform of a government worker down, and she’s even got the Post out and open.
The only thing is, she’s reading yesterday’s Style section, and she’s not really reading it. She’s looking around it at the door.
David Lewis comes out as I hit step thirty-five. He’s gadgeting away on the latest and greatest handheld thing all the high-level, private office government types like him have.
Thirty-six steps, and the assassin fingers the (sedate) wedding ring set on her left hand, a very nice touch, then starts to step forward, right hand going into her bag.
Lethally loaded syringe, I’m sure. With so many people around, her best bet is to get him down, fast, and keep moving, blend in and be gone.
Thirty-seven steps, and my coffee slips from my hands as she moves forward and spills everywhere, the kind of messy splash that makes people notice and back away, glad it wasn’t them who got drenched.
“Oh no!” I say to the assassin as David Lewis walks past us, frowning as he glances down at his suit to make sure it didn’t get splashed. (You’re welcome, by the way) “I totally didn’t see you and oh man, I lost all my coffee. This sucks because I’m totally sleep deprived and need caffeine. Do you want a napkin or something? I have one, I think. And since you were, you know, in the way, you owe me a replacement. Oh, and I waited in line forever so it might take a while. And I like extra whipped cream too, okay?”
“Go away,” the assassin hisses at me, frowning at her splotched self and at the back of David Lewis’s head, now casually flanked by his security, who always use the time he takes to gawk at the pizza stand (he doesn’t ever get pizza for breakfast, but he looks) to catch up to him before he goes downstairs to catch the Metro.
“Hey,” I say, when she tries to move around me, “What about my coffee? I get that there’s a line, but there’s always one and I totally need my coffee. Like, I am so close to crying right now.” She’s not from the Middle East, and her accent isn’t Russian. I think it’s Ukrainian. Maybe Georgian. I don’t know what that means except she’s probably a hire. But that’s not my job to figure out. Someone else, somewhere else, does that.
I just stop her.
And I do it by what I just did. By dumping coffee on her and then saying she needs to buy me another one. Loudly.
Loudly–and long enough that someone from Union Station security ambles over, asking me why I’m not in school and asking her–the assassin–if she needs anything.
“I don’t have school today,” I tell the security guard who’s talking to me, and “accidentally” bump the assassin again, jostling open her bag a bit. She’s not nervous around the security guard–for all of DC’s fanaticism about security, the people they have working in most public spaces suck–so she’s annoyed and thinking about how she’ll catch up to Mr. Lewis.
That is, until I scream, “Oh my god, she’s got drugs! My dad is like, important, and she–what if she was going to drug me and like, carry me off or something to make him do stuff to get me back!”
Then things get a little more intense–for the assassin, anyway, as more security converges–and I shriek and pretend to be terrified, which gives me space because I’m a teenage girl being all hysterical and everyone, even Union Station security, worries about lawsuits–and that’s when I do it, when I toss my bag and my stained top shirt (replaced with another one just like it) into a trash can that I know will be emptied in five to ten minutes. Edgar makes me track everything.
So just like that, I vanish into the next crowd of commuters that comes out from their trains and go down to the food court and into the very grubby public bathrooms (the cleaner ones are up on the train level)
As soon as I step into a bathroom stall and close the door, I rub my eyes, pulling out the green contacts I’d had on, and then reach back and pull off the fake brain I’d pinned on earlier. A few twists and turns and when I come back out I’m wearing a pink mall-girl shirt, tight and so clearly not something worn in front of parents. I flip my hair, shoulder length now, so it curls over my ears, and then I’m out and headed toward the Metro, just a girl fumbling in her bag for her music/video player and shoving a crumpled ten into the farecard machine. (I’d love to use the automated pass, but they track where you go and so I’m forever stuck buying stupid tourist day passes)
David Lewis is actually on my Metro car, a good stroke of luck for me as Edgar won’t be able to complain about me not doing my job properly (although, knowing him, he’ll find something).
I see David Lewis’s face when he gets the message from The Institute, the warning of what was going to happen, the grainy video footage of how it was stopped. Not that he’d recognize me if I got up and screamed in his face.
I’m a seventeen-year-old girl. I’m not capable of that sort of thing, in my little pink tee and latest episode of the latest reality show about singers/cooks/teens streaming in front of my eyes.
Except that I dream about people in danger before they can get hurt, always people who never see me, who never hear me when I scream, trying to save them. Gloria takes the images I see and pinpoints it to who they are and to something Edgar can turn into a plan so I can save them.
I’m a seventeen-year-old girl whose best friend is thirty years older, paralyzed, and as trapped as I am.
I’m a seventeen-year-old girl who doesn’t exist, at least not to anyone but Edgar, Gloria, and whoever runs The Institute. My job is to save people and to make sure they never ever know I was there.
My job is to be no one, and I am.
It helps that I don’t know even know my real name. I was found on the steps outside a Virginia police station when I was nine months old, and there was no trace of me being born in any hospital in the state (or country), so I got dumped into social services. I don’t know more than that other than that when I was four and in my millionth foster home, Edgar came and got me after I dreamed that one of the other foster kids was going to die–and she did.
“You’ll be fine,” he’d told me then, and he didn’t lie, not really.
I am fine. I know what I am.
I just don’t know who I am.
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