By Amy Marques
~ A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing. – Archilochus
MISSION: INFILTRATE THE COMPANY
Sam was the only one who went to headquarters for the meeting. Every other desk was empty. Everything was online: files, conversations, people. Most agents had never even tasted the coffee in the lounge. Maybe that’s why they still drank coffee.
“We need someone on the inside who can join the troupe,” the boss said.
“Why?” Dennis asked. He always asked, even when he knew the answer: need-to-know-basis. They weren’t cleared to know anything beyond the company went places they needed to go and met people they needed to reach. A perfect cover.
“Can we just wiretap?” Emme asked, their little Zoom box blacked-out with just a giant E for a name.
“We tried that. I think we tried that,” the boss said. “Jess?”
Sam sipped her tea and listened as Jess, head of cybersolutions rattled off everything they’d tried: the quietest drones were too loud on stages known for amazing acoustics, ceilings were too high for wires to catch conversations, and nothing ever stayed still long enough. Props come and go, curtains rise and fall, dancers are everywhere, and there’s never anything consistently close enough for them to tap a wire into.
“So, who will it be?” the boss asked.
Sam’s face gave nothing away. She was too good at her job for that. But she wondered at the stupidity. Once upon a time the powers that be understood that you can’t google your way into expertise. Some things take the time they take.
The boss shared his screen populated with pictures of fresh-faced agents. Versatile. Savvy. Every agent on that roster could speak multiple languages, prepare a drink, drive, fly, sail, and parachute out of planes. They could play a part. Not just act it out on screen, as an actor might, but actually play the part: barista, gardener, driver, assistant, receptionist, consultant. So many consultants. But you can’t play at being a ballerina.
“Miller?” the boss asked, “She looks the part.”
“Knee injury,” Dennis said. “Green? She ran a marathon last week, so she can more than keep up.”
Sam couldn’t stop herself then. She snorted. Nobody heard. Her zoom was muted.
She unmuted herself.
“This isn’t going to work,” Sam said. “You can’t just add someone to the troupe.”
There was a pause. They respected her. Or her history. Maybe. They were tolerant of her presence. Invited her to meetings. Gave her every job that needed an invisible little old lady planted on a scene. She was useful. And, usually, she was quiet. You don’t last long in this job if you have too many opinions or think too much for yourself. Or of yourself.
“I appreciate hearing your thoughts, Sam,” the boss said, voice carefully pitched in the tone one uses for beloved children, powerful dimwits, and the elderly.
Sam noticed that he didn’t ask her to clarify. He always asked others to clarify. He hadn’t heard her thoughts. Yet.
“I’m happy to clarify,” Sam said, not pausing, knowing that if she kept talking, he would have a harder time interrupting on zoom. One of the few advantages of moving department meetings online. He couldn’t just tip his chair and spread his hands out on more than his fair share of the table. The little boxes on the screen were all the same.
“You can’t crash-course an agent into becoming a ballerina, and—” Sam held up a hand, preempting a disagreement, “AND—even if you could, no troupe would take an unknown dancer wholly new to the scene. It’s too small a world for you to fabricate a dancer’s background. It would be tissue-thin. Unbelievable.”
“Do you have any better ideas?” Jess practically sneered. The cyber department was not well versed in nuanced interactions and never had to learn to hide their thoughts or modulate their tone.
“Yes,” Sam said. “Yes, I do.”
“Well?” the boss asked, his voice was no longer modulated, and Sam gave herself a beat to enjoy it.
“You can’t train an agent to be a ballerina, but you can train a ballerina to be a spy.”
If it had been a regular meeting, there would have been a cacophony of voices speaking over each other. As it was, with so many muted boxes, all Sam saw were mouths moving and eyes widening.
“Sam, it’s not that easy,” the boss’s voice was back to tentative, deceptive softness. “It would take years. You know how rigorous a program it is to join the team. Besides, not even I have been cleared to know all the particulars of this job. We can’t use informants because we don’t know what questions to ask yet. We need someone who knows what they’re doing.”
There was no longer any reason to mask her thoughts, so Sam allowed her face free reign as she stared him down until his explanations trickled into silence.
“It is that easy,” Sam said, using a voice she’d have used on Charlie when he was a puppy and insisted on licking toilet bowls. Like Charlie, the boss backed off. “I should know. How do you think I was recruited?”
It didn’t take long to convince them. They needed someone who could travel with different troupes, access stages, and be inconspicuously present when VIPs were entertained. Many dancers qualified. The rest was fairly easy. Not that the agents enjoyed hearing their skills described in mundane ways, but any dancer who’s reached proficiency has perfected the skills of smiling through pain, working towards precision, and conforming to arbitrary rules and impossible demands. In fact, having experienced both, Sam knew it was easier to please the agency than a choreographer.
All that was needed was to teach the dancer what to listen for and how to report what they learned. To expand observation of nuance in music and movement to all interactions.
“Okay,” the boss said. “You got the job.”
“What job?” Sam said.
“You’re picking and training our new agent.”
MISSION: TRAIN A FOX
Sam had thought to pick the understudy. And a woman. Rule number one of spy school: always be prepared to change your mind.
Ari was perfect. He was a swing, dancing in any position they needed, adjusting to any part. In the short time Sam, under the guise of a feature reporter, observed him, he’d danced in seven different positions and nailed every single one. He was flexible—body and mind—and he watched everyone and everything like a hawk.
“Thank you for speaking with me, Ari,” Sam shook his hand and noted, with satisfaction, that his grip was firm, his stance confident. He smiled with practiced ease. Too practiced, maybe.
“Of course, Ms. Night.”
His voice was cultured, she noted. There may have been an accent once, but she couldn’t place it. Perfect tone. Unthreatening. Soft. Immemorable.
“Tell me, Ari, why aren’t you a soloist?”
“I’m allergic to the spotlight,” Ari guided her towards a seat with such practiced grace that Sam’s body instinctively responded as they walked in a plie-and-push she thought she’d forgotten long ago.
“Really, Ari,” Sam laughed, adjusting her media badge, “Nobody’s allergic to attention!”
“Ah, but I am.”
Sam would’ve raised an eyebrow, but she’d never quite mastered that skill. No need. Ari understood.
“Some of us were born to be shadows, Ms. Night.”
So we were.
Ari was a natural. He sped through every manual, mastered every task. Even offered suggestions. He could send information coded into dance routines, merge languages to add a layer of complexity, purposefully make mistakes to keep himself from moving up in the corps. He kept himself in the role of swing, substituting for those who missed a show. A replacement. It kept him moving. Replaceable. Everyone is replaceable.
And he could move between companies, troupes, countries. The Agency could throw him into anything. He always landed, gracefully, on his feet.
MISSION: REWARD A FOX
It had been seven years since she’d last seen Ari, and though she’d purchased a ticket for tonight’s performance, Sam still wore her media badge. A cover, even if it was no longer needed.
He was perfect.
The spotlight followed every move of his graceful solo. Each detail precise. Seemingly effortless.
She stood for the standing ovation, even though, leaning heavily on her cane, she couldn’t clap well. It was over. He’d been the perfect choice.
There would be a party afterwards. She hadn’t been invited. But she preferred this: an empty theatre; the echoed aftermath of a performance.
“Thank you for the flowers,” Ari slipped into a seat beside her.
“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at the party? What happened to your face?!”
“I told you,” Ari smiled his easy smile, but his whole face was covered in rashes, “I’m allergic to the spotlight.”
Agent Dancer to be awarded the Distinguished Intelligence Award for outstanding service during operation REDACTED.
* * *
Amy Marques grew up between languages and places and learned, from an early age, the multiplicity of narratives. She penned children’s books, barely read medical papers, and numerous letters before turning to short fiction and visual poetry. She is a Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, and Best of the Net nominee and has work published in journals and anthologies including Streetcake Magazine, MoonPark Review, Bending Genres, Gone Lawn, Ghost Parachute, Chicago Quarterly Review, and Reservoir Road Literary Review. You can read more at https://amybookwhisperer.wordpress.com.