Prologue: Do we need a reason we dance to the music we make? Yes or no, a reason is not the kind of answer that offers solutions, but it’s a start.
The two agents breaking into the apartment must have made a sound, because a gun went off, and one of the agents fell back. The other agent fired into the darkness, repeatedly shoving muzzle flash into the interior shadows, but the occupant allegedly escaped, according to the next day’s headlines. The government suspected possible security concerns; sabotage is what they used to call it in the old days. Now that we were given a new tune to current events, the government was deploying agents. The agents apprehended suspects and questioned them with any means at their disposal. And yet it never prevented the bomb from going off at a classified testing site, which the newspapers were not at liberty to discuss.
When this catastrophe reached the officials, they recognized it as a disaster of the greatest magnitude, and they took the news to the highest office in the land, straight to the President.
“What now, Goddammit, I’m fishing!”
Dice are like a gun, they say. Two men light a bomb in the middle of a room. One of them is a wire fiddler. Who has the shotgun? These are the kinds of questions the journalists ask. And the public listens carefully to all the answers published, now that no one feels safe enough to park their cars ten feet from a fire hydrant anymore.
The Big P. is in his office picking the nose hairs from his face. He will soon have a meeting concerning the crisis, and he has the agenda and related paperwork on the desk. He wonders if his butt is too big. But there are other matters to attend to. When news of the first attacks had come in, he was in raptures as he placed the nation under marshal law. He was now addressing every citizen on TV, and with a solemn expression, he gave the reasons his speech writers and public relations analysts carefully constructed in words that whistled with ease. However, his own views would surely surface in the privacy of his home after a glass of whiskey and in the presence of his “dingbat” wife. That’s where his genuine opinions always had a platform, and no one knew that better than his old prep school friend, the Vice P.
Now that the nation was under marshal law, the agents couldn’t be more comfortable, since it meant freedom, liberty, and the direct expression of their human rights. Agents became bounty hunters known as “black tie agents” who were hired to corporations, and they were quote, making a killing with their new employers, end quote, full stop. Many said the corporations were now in control, but the newspapers would not print that. Scientists were still looking for the final answer, and in the meantime were unknowingly making better weapons. And the new marshal government used this as a reason to start a war on the other side of the world. The artists and the unemployed protested on the streets, but since there was no one to meet this potential riot, it became nothing more than a well-delivered joke. The new corporate government seemed more efficient than the original. Many said the corporations had always been running the show, but what was the point of criticizing things when most of the people of this great nation of ours had their hands in business anyway?
Who are we, anyway, but the noise we make? Why question anything? It was all part of the same marching band. So, let that tune tumble forward into the wild chorus of made history.
The wildlife special on TV showed the dried remains of an insect after being trapped in the microwave effect of a parked car during the midday summer sunlight. A close-up rendered the weathered shell of the dead bug in sharp video detail, and the voice of a bona fide entomologist commented that it would be very difficult to scrape off the remains at this late stage. Jack turned off the television set and went to work.
“Check Engine” was blinking on the dashboard. Jack pulled over and went into the diner. He would have to take the car to a mechanic when he gets a chance. He ordered the dish of the day and had three cups of coffee before the waitress brought the plate. He was meeting his new partner there, the famous Agent Joe. Maybe he could ask him if he knew about car trouble. Agent Joe clapped him on the shoulder and sat in front of him ordering a hamburger, unaware that Jack had just finished. “So, you’re my new partner,” he told Jack with a broad smile.
“It won’t last long,” Agent Joe assured him, pasting a hard look over the smile. He shook his head. “I’ve got too many situations happening at once. They’ll reassign you somewhere else. It happens all the time. But maybe you can learn something with me. Who knows?”
When Agent Joe opened his mouth to take a bite out of his hamburger, a fly made its way inside. He had noticed the fly before when it was buzzing around, but he never would have dreamed that he was bound to eat it. He finished the rest of his burger quickly. “We know everything, Jack. Every detail.” He was still chewing on his last mouthful. “There is nothing we don’t know, and that is why we act with the full conviction of the righteousness of our actions. This is no joke, and our nation is currently in a hell of a situation with these terrorists. But the thing that burns my goat is that they think they’re right. They actually think that they’re on the right side. I’ve questioned a real big number of them, and they have no doubt about it. Can you believe that?”
Jack nodded his head.
“In the meantime, we’ve got a job to do, right Jack?” He clapped him on the back. They walked out of the diner with their ties loosened, hands in their pockets, and hats tilted back.
Just one more job before they call it a day. It’s supposed to be easy. They’re going in Agent Joe’s car since Jack’s car had a blinking light problem. Following procedure, Agent Joe double-checks the trunk of his car where the submachine gun was wrapped in an oilcloth. They drive.
In another part of town, the notes of bursting thunder delivers lead mites that perforate a man inside his automobile, now leaking fumes into his face from cracked engine block under the hood. The two agents are documenting the event with a camera before calling the cleanup crew.
Back at headquarters, they were going to cheer this latest exploit. Agent Joe was a goddamn hero. His new partner’s name is Jack, and they might clap him on the back and convince him that he did good. Jack pictures this. He is putting away the camera, walking back to Agent Joe’s car. Jack is chuckling, but then he stops. This is it. This is what we do. We just made that mess back there.
This is a revelation. “Why do we do it?”
Agent Joe starts up the car and says, “Who cares?”
And they take off.
It was common knowledge that every black-tie agent that trained with an agency was made to watch the same video of an exemplary gunfight. It was part of their training, compulsory, but quite entertaining to the young agents-to-be. Jack remembers it well. Through some unknown means, the agency had obtained the recording of an anonymous agent in action. This really did happen, and every agent trainee was aware of this, and that is what made the video documentary so compelling. It came at the viewer in the multiple angles the ubiquitous security cameras offered in the corporate building where this notorious incident took place. The corporate building was a front for covert operations of a subversive inclination. A black-tie agent was going inside for a standard surveillance of the suspicious building in question, and the plethora of security cameras recorded the following:
The man in the video walks straight into the lobby. This is the said agent — the good guy. One of the guards tries to call his attention, but he casually walks past the guard and into an open elevator, presses the control panel, and calmly pulls out his .357 magnum, easily recognizable to the savvy agency cadets in the audience. The doors open. He steps out of the elevator. A man is walking toward him, and the agent stretches out his arm and blasts him twice in the chest. The security camera provided no audio, but the riled up audience of agency trainees traditionally supply the sound effects, hollering, “Bang! Pow!” at the screen. He turns around and sights a man appear around the corner taking a spasmodic step back while fumbling for his machine pistol. One shot puts his brains against the wall. The agent crashes into a room and sweeps his gun like a film camera panning the view. He bolts through another door. There is a single occupant in this room, and this petrified office clerk pees his pants (no doubt), making everybody in the small auditorium revel with laughter. With gun lowered, the agent walks across the room and into another one. In this new room, there is another open doorway, and shadows can be seen beyond it stopping dead at the threshold. The agent fires the three remaining rounds through the wall, and the hiding subversive slumps to the floor. Before placing the .357 in the well-oiled holster in his jacket, he lets the empty casings hop on the floor tiles as he reloads. Cut to white flash and a number.
The end inspired a hearty applause at every ritual screening for the rookies. And the training video always came with the same pedagogical speech afterward about when you make music with your sidearm, you have to dance to it. It was pretty straightforward stuff.
Jack was between partners again, as Agent Joe had predicted. Meek little Lester was asking Jack what it was like working with such a legend while the two of them were side by side at the computers. Jack didn’t know what to say, so he invented something complimentary. Lester was gushing with glee, since here was a man that had worked with the one and only Agent Joe, even if for just a day. Hot damn!
“It’s like the training video,” Lester continued. “Do you think we’ll ever get a chance to do something like that, pop off all those bad guys?”
“I don’t know,” Jack said, pausing at the keyboard. “I guess time will tell.”
“I hope I never let you guys down,” Lester said while typing into the keyboard and chewing gum. “I hope I never get killed.”
In many cities around the world, people were being retired quietly. These people were never seen again. Most of the population would agree that this was a good thing because these were people with a potential for destruction. But there was a backlash to all this because there always is, and the news media unfailingly termed this as “reprisals.”
In the street, two agents parked their car and were sprayed with bullets five minutes later. The terrorists fled. The agent that thought he was still alive was commiserating with his dead buddy, before he saw his buddy’s ghost approach him at the driver’s window to take him away with him. But the newspapers didn’t comment on this aspect of the story.
And then there was the recording of the undercover black-tie agent that was discovered by the Organization of Faith Fundamentalists. They were going to execute him the old-fashioned way, without anesthetic. It clearly showed who the real bad guys were. The recording was hard to hear. It was garbled with the static from the cheap equipment these terrorists were prone to use.
He was on a chair in front of a gray wall with swollen matter under the splotches of blood on his face. He gave his name and his agent number, and he recounted the circumstances that led to his capture. “I met my contact,” the poor guy started. “She introduced me to the Organization. As an undercover operative, I soon became a part of their network. A few days after my introduction, they found my contact in the trunk of her car. Days before my capture, I managed to sneak a .38 into my locker.” He was wincing. “I knew they were on to me. Before calling it a day, I paid a visit to the locker. I walked out the front door of the building, like I would do everyday at this time. Gunshots were coming at me. I was hit. I took two of them with me. I was going to take one more…”
The video cut to three hooded men standing full frontal with Kalashnikovs and a machete. The Fundamentalists were healing his gunshot wounds before they prescribed the method of torture they were going to use on him.
The Big P. called out to the corporations to use the black-tie agents to rescue this poor soldier, with a plea and an argument about him being one of their own. Two steps ahead of him; the corporations already had a working plan.
That was officially the end of the line for covert ops, now that everything was out in the open. Time for a raid and rescue.
Boorman immediately took to the words: “Time for a raid and rescue.” He would repeat them around the water cooler, at the urinals, and right up until the actual briefing before the mission.
“Watch this,” Boorman said with total certainty. Boorman was always the man in the brown suit, and he was always the first to go in.
“Have you ever shot anyone?” Jack would ask him.
“What do you think?” was his answer every time.
Since Boorman was a big guy, he was an easy target. But that was inconsequential. Once he was quoted as saying, “I understand him. I would have shot the lousy fucker too.” Then he paused, got comfortable, and his eyes became unwelcomely seductive. “Only, I would have done it right. I would have slugged him with a .357. Two shots to the head. Pop! Pop!”
But Boorman carried a .38 like everybody else. And after saying, “Watch this,” he tapped the sentry at the terror camp on the shoulder like they did in the movies. The sentry turned around with machine pistol in hand, and Boorman caught a lateral placement of several rounds with his stomach. In plain agency terminology, it was known as being cut in half.
Meek little Lester pulled out his pistol and floored the terrorist with half a clip. Jack froze in place. Guns were going off in front of him, and some behind him. He was looking around to catch where he should aim his gun. The invisible turbulent energy of scattering bullets was knocking down men that were running and crouching and dancing away from them. Jack jumped behind a crate to think about it a little. Men’s voices were screaming under the unpredictable beat of tumbling gunfire. The raid had begun.
They lost Boorman and three others, but this place was a major terrorist camp, so it was worth the loss, and the fallen would have appreciated their progress, had they still been in the disposition. And they got flags and commemorations!
And now the rumors started. Jack overheard that they were getting closer to the whereabouts of Public Enemy #1. There were no statements to corroborate this, but all the agents felt something big coming, because no one was saying anything in the media or anywhere else. It was all very confusing. The rumors came from nowhere, and who trusted rumors that didn’t come from other rumors? It was preposterous.
Nevertheless, everything was going according to schedule. Agent Joe’s new partner was found in parts and places at the location of his last surveillance. This was not good. Agent Joe was looking for clues at the time, and he had no idea about the present condition of his partner, but then Agent Joe was getting a bad feeling. He left the scene and promptly returned to his car for the equipment in the trunk. He bumped right into the new suspect on the street. Agent Joe pulled out his gun. The suspect whistled so long, it was like a sustained high C made by a cheap carnival organ.
“Give me a reason, punk!” Agent Joe exclaimed, shoving the gun into the creep’s face. “Just one reason.”
“Do you really need a reason?” the assumed terrorist stated calmly in a tone rich with insolence.
Agent Joe paused. He didn’t have a ready answer, but this never troubled him. He retained the gun on him, and he was going over the case, from every angle, down a long line of cause and effect, around and around. And he got his answer just then. It had to do with more than the ideals of justice and freedom. He told the bastard, “It makes us feel better.” And there was a real sense of harmony coming off those lyrics.
Just like all of us know that one day we will answer for everything we have done, Public Enemy #1 had a strong feeling that something was going to happen to him in the next life. Looking out the window at the warm sunset, he sipped his iced drink, and he tried to think of something else. Always a couple of steps ahead of the bumbling corporate agents, he had moved from the bunker next to the terror camp because the Organization discovered that black-tie agents were scheduled to come and get him. His closest henchmen transported him to this remote tropical island, where they would never find him. When the Organization regroups, they are going to give it to those corporate infidels. He had plans bigger than before. In the middle of such reflections, he soon felt slumber overtake him like a serenity just before paradise. He didn’t know how much time had passed, but when he opened his eyes, he could not see. He felt cold concrete at his toes, and the smell of fermented sweat was making him gag. The sweat, he discovered, was his own. What was coming came in stereo.
“You’re in hell, buddy,” said a voice just to his right. “And we’re going to make sure you know it,” said another voice to his left side, followed by the sound of cracking knuckles. His blindfold came off. They were men in black suits and ties, with hats propped at various angles. Public Enemy #1 let out a scream that we heard loud and clear in the next day’s paper.
History was remade. Happy endings such as this come once in a lifetime, and yet the agent exploits that happened thereafter failed to grasp the imagination of the public. Though the war on the terrorists continued with new perils and feats of heroism, the news feed moved on to stories that made new melodies.
With the times changing, the Big P. is stepping down from office in order to return to the ranch and resume his cowboy life. Before he graciously retires, he signs a number of bills that endorses his old buddies at the corporations, giving them complete immunity for all past actions committed, of ethically sound character or otherwise. Black-tie agents return to being just agents, and they are ensured that no legal or political reprisals would come back to them, at least for the six months or so it takes to countermand the bill by the new administration. Soldiers with immaculate records like Agent Joe have six months to clear their trails and leave the country, possibly making connections with a small tropical dictatorship where they can thrive as advisors to governments willing to foster a new political ideology. The Big P. is listening to his cabinet in the days before he disbands them, and they are persuading him to seriously think about finding a scapegoat to take the fall. Common knowledge was placing that useless Vice P. in the crosshairs. The Big P. can see it all. He will soon have the distinction of a former president, and history will document his good deeds, and his portrait will hang among those of other great men.
Jack was outside his car on the side of the highway swatting mosquitoes off his neck reading a news periodical that ran along the lines of granting the man formerly known as the Big P. with the epithet of the dumbest son of a bitch to mosey on out of the one-star state. The media was either with him or against him, Jack duly noted, but what he couldn’t figure out was how the controversy even started. The struggle for freedom against those that wanted to take it from us was always defined in clear terms of black and white, and it took a special kind of a moron to be unable to comprehend that kind of clarity. Jack was making a new resolution. He was going to start his life with a clean slate and buy a new car. And maybe get a little more practice at the firing range.
Rey Armenteros is a Los Angeles-based painter and writer who has had his writing appear in numerous literary journals and art magazines, including The Nasiona, Lunch Ticket, Umbrella Factory Magazine, and Still Point Arts Quarterly.