An Agent Of Principle

Missouri River

A play on the legal term ‘agent of principal’.

The protagonist borrows names or initials from the FBI’s first three female agents. Recruited in the ’50s, they were soon edged out and the bureau did not take female recruits again until 1972. Read about them here.

US state close to the border with Canada, 1973

Jessie L Davidson, Special Agent. The plastic I.D. spelled it out in bold letters, clear as day. It was warming to look at. A gentle tingle of joy like she got from standing in the afternoon sunlight. For as long as Jessie didn’t look at the damn date of birth. They should put an opt-out box on the form, surely?

Vanity was not one of her vices. Or if it so, not a dominating one. What did she care how old people thought, knew, she was?

If I’m showing some hood my badge, I doubt I’ll be asking him out.

Her irritation at the short sequence of numbers went deeper. It was something she was born with. Something she had no control over. Jessie was a woman, always had been, and not two years ago they wouldn’t have let her within a hundred yards of the F.B.I.

That was their loss. I’m in the door now and climbing my way up the front staircase. 

Except she knew she wasn’t. Nobody had laid out the bureau’s roadmap to a cushy office on the top floor of the J Edgar Hoover Building, but Jessie was sure a posting out in the back of beyond didn’t feature on it. She had been relegated. All but dismissed.

Garbage. It was how they saw her. It was how she felt. Damn if she’d let it break her.

Jessie remembered being a young girl. How young had she been? Scuffed-up pigtails, muddy flower-pattern frocks and dolls lying untouched in their cardboard boxes. That young. That sort of girl. She didn’t know when it began, but for as long as her memory served her she had wanted to be a special agent.

Forty-one years of age last fall. Over the hump. Thirty plus years waiting for someone in the world to grow some sense. Filling out a desk job and watching the clock. Watching a calendar. Watching women shoot into space, and still nobody thought to hand them a badge.

I’ve got my badge now. Time to quit whining and face reality. You wanted to be a special agent? Here we are. What now?

Her alarm clock had a fit. Shuffling around on its short metal legs. Why did she still bother setting it? Since the academy she hadn’t been able to sleep in, unless she was coming down with something. Being last up in the morning, being the only woman in your class and the only one over thirty. It was enough to make you spring up from your bed at the crack of dawn every day singing The Star-Spangled Banner and throwing salutes to the flag.

Welcome to the rest of your life.

The clock rattled closer to the edge of her bedside table. Ringing. Ringing. Ringing. She snatched it up and flicked the switch. Paused for a moment with her finger resting against the battery pack. No, not today. Every morning she considered doing it, but always there was ‘What if?’ What if she overslept tomorrow? What if she forgot to start getting ready on-time?

Who’d know? Does anyone even know I’m out here? 

They had hardly pushed her onto a train, stuck an address label to her chest and shipped her off to the sticks. Jessie knew when she was being melodramatic. People knew where she was. They sent the circulars to the local police station. She was encourage to check-in by phone now and then. It would be a lie to say she’d been forgotten.

It’s not like they care though, is it? 

There was no arguing with that.

Jessie breezed through her morning routine, leaving her I.D. out on the kitchen table so she wouldn’t chicken out and climb back into bed. It hadn’t happened yet, but it was always worth taking the precaution. Shower, clothes, breakfast. Oatmeal and raisins. Two slices of buttered toast and jelly. She looked down at her waist.

I’m getting fat. 

A little vanity could be a good thing. She walked downstairs to the first floor and jogged back up to her apartment. Repeated the exercise until she was wheezing for breath on the landing then stepped out onto the sidewalk. Already sweating and today was going to be hot. The workout had been a mistake, but she was feeling better about the day ahead.

Her car sat on the street under a thin film of dust. As soon as she found a reason to go anywhere, she’d take it for a drive. Somehow it felt like a crime to buy a new pickup and only take it from the salesman’s lot to her front door. Did she even know where she left the keys?

Ten minutes walk down the idle main street and she arrived at the station house. Stepping inside she was greeted by the same pitying looks, as if the local sheriff’s deputies thought a badge and gun might be too heavy for her. Like carrying them would give her arthritis.

That wasn’t fair. They were honest guys and they’d been welcoming enough. Most of them were good guys. Jessie saw the sheriff and made a beeline towards him. His second coffee of the morning was still steaming in his hand. A good sign. Catch him between his first caffeine hits of the day and he was a terror.

‘Morning, Tom,’ she said, raising a hand in greeting. ‘Has anything come in for me?’

Federal agents don’t wave to local police. Get a grip, for Christ’s sake. 

‘Mornin’, Agent Davidson,’ he called, returning the gesture with a broad smile. Then the mournful look returned. Like he was turning away a begging dog. The comparison wasn’t too far off the truth. ‘Nothing’s come in so far. You thinking you might drive up to the reservation and take a look at things over there?’

His tone was almost pleading. How could she blame him? Sheriff Tom was trying to run his town and keep one step ahead of whatever petty criminals happened to breeze through it. The last thing he wanted or needed was a special agent slouching around his office, waiting for a call which never came. She could go up to the reservation. In technical terms, it was her jurisdiction.

‘Has anything happened up there?’ she asked, trying to stand up straight without her holster chaffing. Why didn’t the deputy just get off his lazy backside and fetch her a chair? He gave her a bored look and went back to his paperwork. The sheriff seemed oblivious, keeping his kindly gaze on her.

‘Nothing I know of,’ Tom replied, stepping into his office and motioning for her to accompany him. ‘It’s pretty much always quiet out there.’

The distraction would be welcome, but it didn’t sit right with Jessie. She wasn’t blind to the resentment some within the reservations had to federal involvement. Interference, as they saw it. Was it worth poking her nose in, maybe inadvertently stirring up trouble, just to give herself a sense of purpose? Her conscience prickled at the idea.

Well, what else am I going to do? I’m here to do a job. What use is having a conscience if it won’t let me get on and do it?

‘I’ll head out there another time.’

Tom nodded, slow and thoughtful. When once you don’t succeed, try and try again. Jessie waited. She was getting to be an expert at waiting. Watched the cogs grinding round behind his kindly, pitying eyes.

‘Hey, Deputy West,’ he called through the door. There was no reply from the surly deputy sitting behind his desk, eyes glued to his report. ‘West, where’s that report which came in last night?’

Swaggering like a younger, portlier John Wayne, the deputy strolled into Tom’s office. He flourished a sheet of paper, slapped it down on the sheriff’s desk and touched his forelock to Jessie.

Why does he do that? I know he’s not wearing a hat. He knows he’s not wearing a hat. It’s pointless. Is he just letting me know he knows I’m a woman? No, he’s saying I’m a lady. A deputy doesn’t tip his hat to a federal agent. 

 ‘Thanks, West,’ Jessie said, tapping the brim of her own imaginary hat.

Who’s the lady now?

It was petty and the deputy didn’t even seem to notice, but the small act had felt like revenge for something. She turned back towards the sheriff and cringed under his stare. Tom had seen it. A calculation was happening behind his weary eyes. Turning cogs. Whirring gears. He was studying her. Trying to work out if she was a loose cannon which would jeopardise the cohesiveness of his small-town police force.

‘Here’s something for you,’ he said, handing over the report.

There wasn’t much to it. Several lines of black typed font about an ex-con recently released on probation. Something to check up on. Deputy’s work.

‘You want me to follow-up on this?’ she asked, glancing over it again to see whether she’d missed something.

‘He’s been released from prison in another state,’ Tom said, aloof, giving her an apathetic shrug. ‘So I reckon he’s crossed state lines to get here, which makes it your jurisdiction. Of course, I can’t ask you to do anything you don’t want to do. You have seniority here.’

He waved his arms to encompass the tiny, cramped station house. Making it clear how absurd their situation was. A federal agent riding a desk in a backwoods border town. No security threats or serious crimes to speak of. It was a damn shame and they both knew it. If he was throwing her a bone, Jessie wasn’t so proud she wouldn’t jump to catch it. After all, it was better than rousing up the reservation just to stave off boredom.

‘Thanks, Tom. I’ll look into this.’

She headed out, feeling like a hundred bucks. The address was on the other side of town, far enough to justify wiping some of the dirt off her pickup. This was turning into a good day. It didn’t last. A short drive and an even shorter conversation later, Jessie was staring down the wrong end of a shotgun barrel. Trying to remember whether she ever made her will.

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