An Agent of Principle #8

Minnewaukan ND

Chapter 8

‘What the Hell was that?’ Jessie asked, her voice sounding dead and hollow in her own ears.

They had scrambled down the library’s narrow staircase, covering their faces against the red spores which swarmed after them. The memory made her feel sick to her stomach. Those things had been inside Melcom. Inside his rotting corpse.

How did he get up there if he was dead? What the Hell is going on?

‘You shot him, sheriff,’ Deputy West said, sitting in the back of Tom’s car with the librarian sobbing in his arms as they shot down the high street, the hint of a question in his voice.

Tom gave Jessie an uncertain look. ‘Did I?’

‘You missed.’ Speaking made Jessie want to vomit again and she clapped a hand over her mouth.

‘What happened then?’ West asked. ‘A bomb?’

‘He was already dead,’ the sheriff replied, looking at Jessie again for confirmation. ‘A dead man can’t detonate a bomb.’

‘Then what was it?’

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An Agent of Principle #7

Minnewaukan ND

Chapter 7

For the first time in her life, Jessie felt like a real FBI agent. It was like being in a cop movie.

Ripping down the high street in convoy. Sirens blaring and lights flashing as their wheels roared over cold tarmac. The sheriff’s truck in front, Deputy West’s squad car behind, Jessie’s pickup bringing up the rear and the other deputies riding shotgun. Radios chattering and weapons loaded.

I’m a special agent with a whole team of law enforcement officers at my back. Melcom doesn’t stand a damned chance this time.

She gave a grim smile and pressed her foot down harder on the gas pedal, her teeth gritting together as the engine’s hum rose to a throbbing growl. Another thought interrupted her determined yet bitter ecstasy.

Melcom’s dead. Doc said there’s no way he could’ve survived. And the look on his face when I told him what I saw at the funeral home. But Tom said he’s alive… What the Hell is happening here?

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An Agent of Principle #6

Minnewaukan ND

Chapter 6

The gas station six miles out of town was like a fuelling stop on Mars. All around were empty horizons of flat grassland, a crisp ashen green under the morning frost. Winter was rearing its head, ready to bury Jessie’s backwoods town under a deluge of sleet and heavy snow.

She didn’t bother to give the road more than a cursory glance every few minutes. No one was driving out that way. The road led to nowhere, dissolving into dirt tracks and scrubland after twenty-or-so miles before it met the hostile wilderness which hedged the US-Canadian border.

Like Hell he’s going to drive out here. Dead men don’t drive.

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An Agent of Principle #5

Minnewaukan ND

To say it had been a long day was an understatement. The morning jog up and down the stairs seemed like a distant memory to Jessie.

Hell, it’s nearly morning again.

Jessie had been back at her apartment for hours, but bed still hadn’t tempted her. She was wide awake. Staring out at the starlit sky through her murky window. Sleep as distant to her as the bright pinpoints of light in the black sky.

The doorbell rang.

Who the Hell is that?

She moved to the window and lifted the curtain a few inches, peering down into the street below. It was darker than she was used to, the streetlights spread out more than they were in Washington. But Jessie could easily make out the white pickup with its red and blue bulbs on top. The sheriff’s car.

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An Agent Of Principle #4

Minnewaukan ND

They parked outside the station house and Tom led Jessie along the high street. People nodded to them in greeting. Innocent enough, but Jessie saw them cluster together after they passed, whispering behind her back.

‘The agent who got shot.’

‘What’s she doing up and about?’

She was glad when Tom said they were nearly at the morgue. Less so when he led her through the local grocery store’s side door. They stepped into the back cold storage room, where two men were standing over a stretcher set up in the middle of the floor.

The doctor was in his late thirties. White coat, clean-shaven and cropped dark hair. The other Jessie guessed was the grocer. Cut-off jeans shorts, tie-dye t-shirt, white beard trailing down over his bony chest and a pair of thin spectacles propped on top of his smooth, bald head.

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An Agent Of Principle #3

Minnewaukan ND

Damp cartridges. What a thing to have saved her life. Jessie had woken up in a hospital bed with a bunch of battered yellow flowers on the table beside her. Left by the sheriff, as she found out when Tom came in to check on her. No memories of what happened after she got out of her car.

His eyes were downcast, fixed on a sheet of paper in his hands. Apology written in his lined face. A fax from the state capital. Dangerous, do not approach. Melcom had been talking the big talk in prison. The “I ain’t going back inside” talk. Shooting his mouth about how he planned to go down fighting if they tried to take him in again.

It was just a routine check. Driving out to a tin-roof shack to look in on an newly released felon. Nothing serious. Nothing dangerous. Deputy work. And Tom had sent a special agent out there, waving her bureau I.D. in a paranoid ex-con’s face.

‘Don’t beat yourself up about it,’ she’d said, meaning it. ‘I volunteered.’

Continue reading “An Agent Of Principle #3”

An Agent Of Principle #2

Minnewaukan ND

A sign rolled into view at the side of the road. You are now leaving Roiville. Jessie didn’t think she’d ever been happier to leave anywhere. The only thing tempering her relief was the knowledge she would be coming back.

Back to what? A town with one foot in the grave and the other stuck so far in the past they probably believe Abraham Lincoln is the president.

The radio was chattering away in the background. She turned the volume up to drown out her morose thoughts. And now a special announcement from President Nixon. Her hand shot down and flicked the radio onto static. Dialled the volume back down to an indistinct hum.

Politics. No thanks.

When Jessie got behind the wheel of her new ride for the first time there was a Lynn Anderson cassette in the slot. Blasting country music from the moment she turned the key in the ignition.

‘Brand new and ready to drive off the lot,’ the salesman had said.

Yeah, and pigs can fly.

If it really was brand new, then someone at the factory in Japan or wherever had an ear for country. Jessie doubted it.

Turning off the main road the trees crept closer on either side. Dense, dark forest visible through breaks in the treeline. A dirt track, rutted by the passage of tractors and trailers. Was she lost? Jessie couldn’t be sure. There were no landmarks, nothing of note save the dust blowing in her rear-view mirror and mangled roadkill in her peripheral vision.

Something crept into view as she pulled the pickup round a winding bend. A monstrosity of corrugated iron and plywood. Not even worthy of being called a shack. A backwoods hovel. Jessie eased down on the brakes and the car nudged forwards, jolted to a halt.

She peered through the windscreen. Flecked with dust and dead bugs. There was no movement at the end of the road. All she could see was the tin-roofed hut and a beat-up chevy with rust glaring through flaking paint.

Is this the right place? I mean it looks like the kind of place an ex-con would live, but I don’t see how anyone could live here.

Two glances over her map and she was certain this was the felon’s house. A man stepped outiside, letting the door slam behind him. Jessie watched him put a cigarette to his mouth and freeze. Motionless. Like a deer catching a predator’s scent.

Damn.

She lifted the map higher, making it half-visible over the dashboard. A match flared and touched the end of the cigarrette. One puff. Two. He started walking over, arms hanging heavy by his sides.

Very thin, almost emaciated. Sunken cheeks. Puffed red eyes. She wondered if the ex-con was sick. Perhaps he had the flu.

No, not sick. He’s a burn-out. Drugged off his head, most likely. Probably hit a doobie just before I arrived. Keep cool and don’t spook him.

Jessie slid one hand across her breast and down towards her ribcage. As if checking for her own smokes. The small .38 revolver was reassuringly solid against her side. A good weight to it.

What if I have to draw it?

The damn thing was wedged in so tight by her suit jacket, it would take at least a minute to wrestle from its holster. Bending over and feigning a closer expection of her map, Jessie tugged at the smooth wooden handle. It didn’t budge.

Come on. You’ve got to be kidding me!

A short struggle and the pistol came free. With a sigh of pure relief, Jessie dropped it into the side door compartment. A loud tap on the window. She squinted up, blinded by the sun shining overhead, and rolled down the window. Realised how dishevelled she looked after her fight with the holster. Unkempt hair and creased jacket.

‘You lost, miss?’ he asked in his hooting country midwestern accent. Took a drag and flicked ash on the side of the car bonnet. ‘Don’t see many unfamiliar folk out here.’

‘Maybe you can help me,’ Jessie replied, pulling out her badge and flashing the I.D. ‘I’m looking for Jim Melcom. Does he live round here?’

No reaction to seeing the badge. Not even a twitch. His eyes remained cool, easy as if she’d asked his opinion of the weather and shown him her driver’s licence. Another drag. Another slug of crumbling ash on the pickup’s pristine bodywork.

‘Oh yeah? That’s my brother. I’ll head on in and fetch him.’

He flicked the butt out into the roadside undergrowth. Strolled back towards his iron sheet and plywood shack. Limping. Why was he limping? It didn’t matter. Jessie knew he was her man. His mugshot had been in the damn report.

For Christ’s sake, who does he think he’s fooling?

Her hands were trembling as she folded up the map and stowed it in the glove compartment. Deep breath, hold for ten, release. She opened the door and stepped out into the midmorning sunlight.

I should start wearing a hat. It’s dumb not to. Tom and his deputies all wear one, but then again, they’re not federal agents. What sort of hat does an agent wear? They don’t teach you that at the academy.

Lectures on the national security threats of Communism, counter-culture and organised crime were less than useless out in the northernmost midwest. Jessie doubted she’d find anyone within a hundred miles who could tell her who Karl Marx was.

He was coming back. Melcom walked down his dirt-and-weed driveway with one arm around his wife’s waist. Thin as a rake, hollow-cheeked and with a pinch in the bridge of her nose. Say what you might for the grime and rips in her dress, the woman’s hair was gorgeous. It stunned Jessie. Everything else about them and their home was falling apart at the seams, but there she was. Golden hair tumbling in soft curls over her shoulders.

Hell!

A sneer tugged the corner of Melcom’s lip. Baring dark molars in a bestial grin. The easy sway of his shoulders. His wife stepping away to one side. Something was wrong.

Jessie reached inside her jacket. Empty. Smith and Wesson .38 revolver still lying in the side door compartment of her truck.

Melcom’s hand gripped a thick wooden stock. The long, black double-barrel emerged from behind his wife’s back, as if time had slowed to a gut-clenching crawl. Sick fear weighed heavy in Jessie’s gut. She reached out her hands, palms open. Reassuring. Non-threatening. Following every lesson she had learned at the academy.

Two loud cracks and something punched into her chest. Like being kicked by a mule. It knocked Jessie off her feet and the world drowned in red in her eyes. Explosion. Fireworks. Red lights. Flashing. More explosions and dust blowing around her.

Wailing, screaming outside her head. The world dissolved around Jessie as the squad car pulled up to the hospital doors.

Don’t worry, it’s not over yet…

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.