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"Malabar"

 

 

(beginning of excerpt)

 

 

One of creations many small jokes is that, during the course of human interaction, we are the only ones we cannot see, without the assistance of mirrors or other reflecting surfaces. The ability to do so, suddenly and unexpectedly, is a little more than unnerving, and Burlette later had no idea what went through his head except: Hey. There I am. Look at that. “It’s the final test, Mr. Elridge.” As they rolled by the cab, the cab that Burlette had taken to the Business District, the cab driver turned and winked at Malabar, whom he knew was riding by in the limo, even though he could not see Malabar through the limo’s darkened windows. “The only real way we can certify that you are not being followed is to follow you ourselves.”

The limousine in traffic, during his ride to 8th and Pine …  My god, he thought, over and over again. They were the only two words his mind could seem to call on.

“Now you can see why I’m known for time-travel, Mr. Elridge. I can’t seem to help myself, but this time I actually have a reason.”

Burlette noticed the clock on the dashboard. It was five minutes after noon, when he had hailed the first cab. This was how Malabar had known the ride would be fifteen minutes, precisely. He had driven through the very same traffic, and timed it.

They continued on, and the conversation lapsed. Burlette knew what was coming next, because he had already lived through it, too. Ten minutes passed. Ten minutes, to the second. They passed the corner of 8th and Pine and Burlette saw the arm, or more accurately, the body that controlled the arm. Burlette knew who he was, because he saw himself swept away again, off toward the stairs to the Metro. A red light at the intersection afforded him enough time to see himself ushered down into the terminal. The body was shorter than he was and, even from an angle in front of the man, Burlette’s own body (a good two inches taller) hid his view. They made a left at the intersection, pulled to the curb on the opposite side of the street from the terminal stairs, and idled. Burlette watched the cab that had just dropped him off pull up two seconds later, on the same side of the street as the stairs coming out of the terminal.

Malabar yelled, “Damn fool’s blocking our view!”

Burlette was watching the cab, the stairs, the clock on the dashboard, the back of the driver’s head, the cab again—strangely, he never even glanced at the man he had come to see; the one whose description would later seem so hazy, whose height will only be retained in a dreamlike recollection, who seemed to be always slouching. In his presence, Burlette is distinctly aware of the urge to keep from staring, yet there has been no particular command to do so.

It just feels better not to.

Burlette watched, instead, the young guy in white high-tops hurry down the terminal stairway. He was poking at his ear, appearing to adjust his Walkman’s headphones.

Three and a half minutes passed, by the dashboard clock.

“I’ve been here three times now,” Malabar tells him, “and I can’t figure out who it is. Is it the young jogging man in the basketball shoes, or the businessman who comes out just behind the jogging man? The man in the suit doesn’t seem to know what he’s supposed to do.”

Burlette watched the young guy run out of the terminal, jog in place, poke his Walkman earpiece, turn, and jog over to a bank of pay phones along the wall. The businessman, meanwhile, stands on the corner at the top of the stairs, staring directly at the limousine.

“Too obvious. He’s the herring. It’s the jogging man … there! I saw him this time! He never puts a coin in the phone, yet he talks to someone as though he has reached his party. Moreover, he’s looking around … as though he’s lost … Oh, good show! Good show, indeed!”

“I’m confused, sir—”

“Congratulations, Mr. Spy. I must give you that. Tremendous distance you made this time. You Agency boys rely far too heavily on nonexistent advantages of surprise. My God, you do keep me on my toes. That you do!”

Burlette’s eyes went to his host this time, and stared hard, as though Malabar was the last bit of daylight he would ever see.

For what this introduction could have led to, Burlette decided, the inevitable parting would be more like dying before dawn.

“Take me with you. I only used them to get me close to you, not to give you to them. I want to offer my services. I have no loyalty to them. Please, I know a great deal about the places and things that you have access to. Please—”

Malabar lifted a cell phone to his ear. He pressed a button, waited, and finally, “We’re done here. Please, I really have no more time for this today. Thank you.” He closed the phone, and Burlette felt that unprovoked urge again, to turn and look out his window toward the direction of the jogger and the businessman. They are both tails, and they are both coming right at him, no longer trying for anonymity. It seems, to Burlette, as though the weight of pretending such has been gladly discarded.

“Just tell me if it’s really you or not?”

Malabar, if that is the name of his host, chuckled at the question, as though with the lightness of one who knows how the trick has been played, who stands before the frustrated spectators with their admission nickels firmly in hand, and with no obligation to explain the trick.

“You test the recruits, don’t you? In exchange for anonymity, is that it? I get it. The moles do not work for you. You are the mole.”

“Keep your friends close,” Malabar tells him. “Keep your enemies closer.”


 

 

(end of excerpt)

 

 

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