The Grey Edge: Chapter Thirty-Six

Ryan nodded, it was what was expected of him. They didn’t want him talking, both Clarke and the Matriarch had made that clear once the negotiations had started. He was there to be a figurehead, nothing more, and even that was in question, considering the Matriarch’s repeated references to him as a Dusker.
Politics however, were what they were, and they were part of the job.
He gave another polite smile, and went back to the game of Solitaire in his HUD. He placed two more cards, and won his forty-seventh game in a row.
‘-an hour for lunch, then we’re back,’ he heard Clarke say, and he closed the game. ‘Matriarch, I’ll show you down the hall, we’ve prepared a range of-’
He stood and gave a half-bow to the Matriarch as she and her staff left the room.
There was the familiar sound of a head hitting the conference table, and he looked down to see Curt slumped, almost off his chair, his face in his notes.
He allowed himself a small smile – the first real emotion on his face for over two hours. ‘Are you all right, Curt?’
Curt sat up and shook his head. ‘Sir, I’m not sure how much of a learning experience this is when I’m barely following the conversation. I know the basics of Court law, and the major laws of the Kings, but not much more than that. I’m fairly certain I know more about fairyland moving violations than I do about non-treaty alliances. Some of these precedents are from three hundred years before I was born, and half of them aren’t applicable because of the changes in Agency operating procedures.’ He sighed. ‘Sorry, I’m not ungrateful, it’s just…’
‘If it makes you feel better,’ he said as he stood and stretched. ‘I’m barely paying any attention myself.’
‘Is this really what he does? From the little I’ve heard him talk, he makes it sound like he walks around being the gods’ gift to women and everything sort of falls into place from there.’
‘He does manage to get away with that a lot of the time, but there’s also days like this, when it’s nothing more than dusty and irrelevant laws. The Kings’ law about parents owning their children? It’s been in every version of their laws since the records begin, but it’s wrong, but people still use it, exploit it, and ruin lives through it. It takes far too long for the laws to be updated, because when they update one law, they re-examine all of their laws.’
Curt stifled a yawn. ‘Are we…winning at least?’
‘I presume so,’ he said with a shrug, ‘she hasn’t threatened us with the bomb again.’
His recruit swung his arms. ‘If we’ve got an hour, I think I’m going to stretch my legs, and maybe get some stimulants from the doctors.’
‘There’s something first if you don’t mind.’
Curt shuffled his notes back into order. ‘Of course not.’
With a thought, he shifted them from the meeting room, and across the country. ‘You did say you only needed a few minutes,’ he said as the world became crisp again.
‘Where are-?’ Curt began before looking at the sign. ‘Sir, no, I can’t-’
He started up the stairs to the childcare centre. ‘Yes, you can.’
‘My ex will kill me if she sees me anywhere near her!’ Curt said, trying to keep his voice down.
‘She won’t know, so far as they’re aware, we’re just here to ask about suspicious activity in the area. Houses being broken into and such.’
‘We’re walking in as liars, that’s going to make the reader happy when we come back from lunch.’
He stepped up to the door. ‘Are you coming in or not, Curt? They’ve already seen us, and it’ll be suspicious if we disappear.’
He pushed open the door and flashed his ID to the receptionist. ‘Good afternoon, we’re here to see your manager, she is expecting us.’
The gaunt receptionist glared at him. ‘Please keep your voice down, they’re just down for their nap, and they’ve been really loud today.’
He gave her a polite smile. ‘Of course, my apologies.’
There was a jingle as Curt pushed open the door. ‘Oh, cute,’ the receptionist said, ‘you match. Sandy will be out in a minute, you can take a seat.’
The seats were made of hard plastic and extremely uncomfortable – the foyer, despite the bright colours and the children’s pictures wasn’t welcoming. He stopped attempting to make himself comfortable, stood and began to inspect the pictures.
The receptionist’s mobile rang and she excused herself from the office.
‘I never had to bring Alexander to a place like this,’ he said as he looked over the photos. ‘And I’ve always wondered why the parents wouldn’t want to take all of the paintings home. Surely being appreciated at home is better than on a wall, unloved, dissociated from the child that did it.’
‘I didn’t know you had as son,’ Curt said.
‘I don’t,’ he said as he sat back down on the hard plastic chair, ‘not really, not any more. He’s grown up, he’s got his own family, but I lost him a long time before that. He didn’t want me around, he didn’t want me as a father, and I had no choice to be in his life.’
‘I’m sorry sir.’
‘Right now, you don’t have a choice to be in your child’s life, but it isn’t going to stay that way forever. Your probation is only two years, and it’s almost over, I can try and get it cut down to eighteen months, they may listen now because of your Aide position, and if you have an agent or three advocate for you.’ He smiled. ‘You could even look into getting some custody back. You shouldn’t think that your career with the Agency blocks any of that.’
‘But I can’t be there for her now. What’s she going to think when she starts getting a weekend daddy?’
‘Why assume the worst?
Curt shrugged. ‘Because it’s easy? Because I’ve had so much crap thrown at me that I have trouble believing in happy thoughts and rainbows?’
An older woman buzzed herself through a childproof gate. ‘Gentlemen, sorry to have kept you waiting.’
He stepped forward and shook the woman’s hand. ‘Thank you for seeing us on such short notice.’
‘My office is back through here.’
‘If you don’t mind, I’d like to have my young friend question some of the children.’
‘I don’t think I-’
‘His education is in early childhood development, it’s generally useless in this line of work, but today seems to be appropriate.’
The manager looked past him, and down at Curt. ‘Just don’t be too loud.’
He followed the woman through to her office. ‘I only skimmed the message,’ she admitted as she sat behind her desk, ‘what was this about?’
He sat in the seat in front of the desk – so strange to be in this position. ‘Seventeen houses in the surrounding suburbs have been broken into in the last three weeks, two businesses have also been hit, looks like the same people, so we’re just looking for information at this point.’
‘We’re only open six till six, and I don’t think there’s any chance they’d hit during those hours, sorry.’
‘You would be surprised,’ he said, ‘it generally does take a more brazen criminal, but if it’s an area where most of the residents are out during business hours, it can be safer to break in, rather than in the early hours, when people are home, albeit asleep.’
‘You sound like you have some experience in the matter.’
‘This is my job,’ he said with a reassuring smile.
‘Seventeen…seems like a lot, especially considering how safe the area is.’
‘Things unfortunately have a habit of changing.’
‘They do,’ she agreed, ‘but some things stay the same, and I have invoices to get out this afternoon, so if we’re done here?’
He stood and held out a business card. ‘If you hear anything, feel free to contact me.’
Curt was waiting in the foyer, his phone in his hand. ‘They were all asleep,’ he said, ‘anything on your end?’
‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘Again, thank you for your time,’ he said with a nod to the manager.
‘Well?’ he said to Curt once outside and out of earshot of the childcare centre.
‘Saw her, watched her sleep, snapped a photo and left a soft toy in her bag,’ he said.
‘And wasn’t that better than staying away?’
Curt shrugged. ‘I’ll let you know when I figure it out, sir. Thank you though, it’s better than just getting emailed photos.’
He took a quick look around, made sure that no one was watching, then shifted them back to the Agency. ‘You should get some lunch, Curt, this is probably going to go for a few more hours after we resume.’
Curt made a move toward the door, then stopped. ‘Can I ask you a question, Agent Ryan?’
‘Of course.’
‘I’m still having nightmares about Russia,’ he said as he leaned against the back of the nearest chair. ‘I mean, I have bad dreams about everything I’ve done, but that’s taking over at the moment.’
‘And your question, recruit?’
‘Stef looks like she doesn’t get enough sleep, that or Agent Jones gave her some very sleepy-looking default settings. Every time I’ve asked her, she says she’s fine, but…with what I did, I don’t think “fine” is a word that can be used here.’
‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s not you. Her nightmares have nothing to do with you.’
‘Then what, sir?’
He fought back the urge to dismiss the boy, to tell him that it was none of his business – it wasn’t true, concern for a friend made it his business. ‘Coming back,’ he said slowly, ‘has its price, has its toll. It changes a lot of people. Stef, ever since…she’s had night terrors, unnaturally bad night terrors.’
‘I didn’t know.’
‘It’s not something we’re broadcasting, the less people that know, the better. I don’t want anyone to experiment on her to find out what’s causing them, or why…’ He balled his fists and pushed them into his jacket pockets. ‘She screams, she cries, I can’t wake her up, and sometimes when she does wake up, she’s in pain. She looks like she needs more sleep, because she does. In terms of her software, she only needs about an hour, maybe two. Psychologically, she needs a lot more than that, because of whatever is still latently human about her. Sometimes she forces herself awake, or stays awake just to avoid having a nightmare.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘For your own piece of mind,’ he said, ‘she is fine with Russia. There are very few things that truly bother her, and that isn’t one of them.’
‘That doesn’t take away the guilt.’
He flinched. ‘Don’t live a life filled with guilt, trust me. It takes the enjoyment out of the simplest of things. Let things go, if you can.’
‘I’ll try, sir.’
He watched Curt leave, then shifted up to the roof. He crossed the concrete and leaned against the railing, watching the traffic slowly make its stop-start way up and down the street. The city noise was comforting, familiar, and drowned him out like it would anyone else. It didn’t discriminate against the blue in his veins, didn’t ask him if he was human, it made him stop at the lights, like everyone else.
It made him feel normal.
‘Guess I’m lucky I didn’t bring a girl up here,’ Clarke said as he stepped up beside him, a cigarette hanging from between two fingers. ‘Or do you like to watch, I forget.’
‘We’re on lunch, Clarke, whatever you need can wait until later.’
‘No, boss, it really can’t. Aide or not, you’re still drowning in paperwork, so if I get two minutes alone without that noise machine of yours attached to your arm, I’m going to take it.’
He focused on the traffic. ‘I know what you’re going to say, and I presume you’ve already spoken to Jones as well, but I haven’t signed off on it, we can wait a couple of days. Give it a couple more days.’
Clarke shook his head. ‘I’m not even going to get to step foot into Magpie territory for another two days, and by that point it doesn’t really matter what I find, you can’t be a man down for that long. Rules are rules, and you have to follow them sometimes.’
He wrapped his hands around the cool metal of the railing. ‘Generating a new agent isn’t something I take lightly.’
‘No, it’s just everything-’
He pressed his gun into Clarke’s stomach. ‘Not today, Clarke. Don’t. Two of my people are missing. Taylor, gods, he’s one of my agents, he’s part of this Agency, even if he doesn’t want to be. And Magnolia? She is the sole reason we have a functional combat division. Generating a new agent means we’re giving up on them.’
‘I’ve got a meet,’ Clarke said, ‘you wanted a rescue, we’ll do what we can, but we’ve got to face facts, and a newborn may be what you get stuck with.’
He put his gun away. ‘And when we get them back? What then?’
‘Aren’t you always complaining that you want more staff?’
‘This isn’t something to-’
‘Take lightly? Had no intention of it, Ryan. You’ve got to have Jones working on this within thirty-six hours or there’s going to be questions, and questions are the last thing we need right now.’
‘Reynolds would-’
‘Reynolds is dead,’ Clarke snapped, ‘may as well be anyway. He’s forgotten, and you’re the only one haunted by his ghost, the only one trying to keep things the way they were in his day. Wake up, this Agency is on its way to hell, we’re going to be the new Florence if we’re not careful.’
‘You broke lock down procedure because you’re emotionally compromised. Gods, did you even hear yourself in there? You’ve known this girl for weeks, and only weeks, and you’re out and proud and playing happy families?’
‘I don’t have to explain myself to you.’
‘You’ve known her long enough if you wanted to fuck her, or marry her, or slip a few less-than-top-secret teasers, but this? This is a joke, right? She isn’t your kid, yet you’re still leaving open a weak spot a mile wide.’
‘You should leave.’
‘What would you do if I asked you to perform a Procedure 19?’
‘I’d ask for another liaison to cover this area.’
‘And that’s the litmus test isn’t it? Being afraid to take it is as good as a positive result.’ Clarke pulled his phone from his pocket, tapped in a quick message, then looked back up. ‘Have you taken her to the basement yet?’
‘Of course I haven’t.’
‘You should have, weeks ago.’
‘No one likes going down to the basement.’
‘You take her down there, and keep her down there for at least an hour, and I’ll back off on your pet project for a bit. Generate a newborn, get a few other things up to scratch, and I might stop dissociating myself from here.’
‘I personally don’t care what you think, Clarke, because you act like you aren’t one us.’
‘Wouldn’t it be nice not the be in the bottom ten Australian Agencies for the eighth year in a row?’
‘It would be nicer to not have to hold two funerals.’
Clarke stubbed out his cigarette and pitched it over the side of the building. ‘We’re back in twenty, but they need to leave in two hours, so we’ll try and get as much covered as we can.’
He let out a slow sigh. ‘I’ll talk to Jones.’
Clarke clapped him on the back. ‘See? I’m not trying to ruin your day. And you know I’m not an arsehole, so give me a break, would you?’
He made a non-committal noise.
‘I should get back to our guests,’ Clarke said, ‘just in case she’s thinking of blowing us up again.’
‘Clarke,’ he said quickly.
He turned away. ‘No, nothing.’
‘Don’t leave me imaging the worst, boss, what? You need a hit put out? You want a hooker disappeared, you want a hooker, without the disappearance, you want-’
He looked away.
‘Oh,’ Clarke said, ‘thought you’d never ask.’
He stared at the concrete for a moment, then up at Clarke. ‘You said you knew-’
‘Agency-friendly girls, yeah. What are you looking for?’
‘I don’t have time to take a trip into Fairyland, not at the moment. I just need-’
‘I get what you need,’ Clarke said with a grin, ‘when? I mean, I can get one of these girls to your office in half an hour if you’re itching that bad.’
He gave a half-shrug. ‘Tonight, if you could. But not here.’
‘No, of course, I’ll get you a room. Something swanky, you’re a classy guy. What’s the set-up, you want a dinner first, or should she arrive naked?’
‘I don’t want a date.’
‘All the easier to organise, trust me to pick a girl for you? I could wrangle a shape shifter, but they’re expensive.’
‘I’ll trust your choice.’
Clarke grinned. ‘We’ll play politics, then I’ll set it up for you, I’ll get the details to you as soon as I’ve got them.’
‘I don’t want this getting around.’
‘I’m a discrete pimp,’ Clarke said, then shifted away.
He leaned back over the rail, closed his eyes, and let the traffic noise cloud his mind again.