Hannah Carmack © 2017
All Rights Reserved
August 3, 1963 through August 30, 1963
Shortly after midnight, the mood in the Nightmare Café finally calmed down. Duke Ellington’s “Warm Valley” spun out softly from a late-night telecast. Couples on the dance floor swayed and glided like figure skaters on air. Dresden sat stiffly in a red booth at the back of the place, a newspaper lay out in front of him so his watching would not look conspicuous. He admired the gentle crane of lovers’ arms, the way eyes locked and spoke a language known only to two, and the faintest hint of a smile as it pulled at a woman’s lips. The dancers stepped so carefully, as though nothing else in the world mattered, but Dresden’s old-time fantasy cut out at the fading of piano keys and the familiar howl of Buddy Holly’s voice coming from the radio as the dance floor flooded. Music like this was fine, but it did not captivate Dresden the way a ballroom waltz did. It was then that a woman’s hand grazed the top of his shoulder.
“Come on, Dresden.” Her voice sounded like honey, sweet and slow flowing.
He waited for the café’s door to close behind her, before getting up and following her out onto the cold, barren streets of DC. He took one last glance at the dancing ensemble as he left.
Outside on 22nd Street, she waited. Her name was Hera, and she was a goddess amongst men. With cascading pin curls the color of wheat and full apple cheeks that dimpled when she smiled, she radiated beauty. Her laugh could steal hearts. Her talent was unmatched. But these facts made her no less parasitic to Dresden. When they were together, he did not offer any warmth or words. Instead, they waited in silence. The only acknowledgement of the other’s existence came when the woman leaned back against a street-parked car and lazily held out a pack of thin cigarettes to him. Dresden considered the offer for a moment, but shook his head, deciding against it. She shrugged, lit one for herself, and continued to wait.
Finally, the man their evening hinged on showed up. He was short and scrappy-looking, with a swarthy tan and a sloppily tucked button-up. He came from the back of the café, talking to Hera and Dresden even though they were clearly out of earshot. Eventually, he got close enough that Dresden could make out what he was saying.
“And you two are just standing here like a couple of damn pariahs!” The man’s face lit up brilliantly with a grin. Any tension between Dresden and Hera dispersed for the time-being.
“Are we good to go?” Hera asked. “Is everything done?”
“Good as gold, but not if you two keep skulking out here.” The man turned to Dresden expectantly.
There was another lull of silence as Dresden stared back at him with a blank expression. Things were starting to get uncomfortably quiet when it dawned on him. “You have the keys, Niccolò,” Dresden said. “That’s why we’re standing outside the car.”
“Oh! Ha! Guess that means this one is on me.” Niccolò snorted as he rummaged through his pants pockets, first pulling out some lint, then a bottle opener, and finally their keys. “There we go.” He stepped around to the front of their car. It was a 1962 Corvair with a black exterior and cozily lined seats. “Let’s book,” he ordered as he slid into the driver’s seat
Hera waited, not moving an inch until Dresden pushed the seat forward and crawled into the back. She never settled for anything less than shotgun.
“How did it go?” she asked as she climbed into the passenger’s side.
“Well enough for the rookie team to take it back over.” Niccolò turned the ignition and then pulled into the road.
“Isn’t that keen.” Hera sighed, obviously discontent. She rested her hand under her chin and propped her elbow up on the windowsill.
Niccolò spoke with an undeniable amount of sarcasm, “Clean-up crew not all you dreamt it to be, beautiful?”
“Don’t you think it’s just a little bit ironic? The CIA has only, what…six or seven female agents and one of them is stuck on cleanup. It’s 1963! You think we’d be past this.” Hera curved her lips into a warm smile. Niccolò and Hera shared a coy glance that was quickly cut short by Dresden.
“It is not ironic when the female agent put herself there in the first place,” Dresden said.
Every muscle in Hera’s face started to change.
“Honestly, I quite like it here,” he added. “I was hoping we would possibly elect to extend our assignment.” Hoping and possibly were added to create the illusion of choice. He had no intention of leaving the States again.
“The work may be easy, but it’s unfulfilling, don’t you think? We’re making no difference here in DC. Your talent and fine attention to detail would be better utilized in the field.” She spoke fairly, showing no sign of bias. “Besides, we’re not even here on a certified assignment, Dresden. You know that.”
There was a slow calmness about the exchange that set the group on edge. Niccolò tightened his grip on the steering wheel. White-knuckled, he cleared his throat. “So did you guys eat at the diner? Their pierogis were not that bad. I had this one filled with a raspberry coulis. Just heavenly. Delectable really. All that and more. The best pi—”
“Of course, I could not forget that, Hera.” Dresden ignored Niccolò’s plea for normalcy. “I know we are here on punishment. A punishment which was grossly short for the offense.” Dresden turned his attention out the window so he didn’t have to make eye contact with Hera, who was now fully turned in her seat and staring him down.
“What was that?” She offered him a chance to recant.
“Here, let me clarify,” Dresden said with such a dangerous control that his voice did not once falter in staring down his superior agent. “I am talking about when you exaggerated your clearance level, took advantage of a security breach, and then pinned it on Niccolò and me. Now, to verify the aforementioned, I feel like three months’ cleanup crew was a pretty lenient punishment.”
“Man!” Niccolò shouted, trying to drown out the two of them. He banged his fist on the steering wheel. “Are we all still on this? Are we still arguing about whose fault the security breach was?” He sounded deceptively joyful. “Because you know what, we can put it on me and lay this whole argument to bed.” Niccolò let out a wheeze of uncomfortable laughter.
“What Hera did was crooked, and she knows it.” Dresden shook his head.
Niccolò cut in again, not letting Hera work a word in edgewise. “And when you steal from dukes and I lie to holy men, it’s crooked, too, but we keep going. That’s the job. Intelligence work relies on deception.” Niccolò pulled the car over to the side of the road, sweat building up on his forehead. He leaned in close to his partners and made large exaggerated gestures with his hands. “I can’t take you two aping out all the time. We are a team. An incredibly successful team, at that. Arguably one of the CIA’s best teams. With one of the CIA’s first and finest female agents. The breech is in the past. Let’s just move on from it. I cannot handle being in the middle of you two, especially while driving!”
Dresden didn’t allow an inkling of silence. “I can’t see you like this, Niccolò.” He turned to Hera. “Let me out. I’ll walk from here.”
“No, Dresden, it’s fine. I’ll drive us. I just want the situation here to simmer down before I start driving again, or we’ll all end up in the hospital because I will have an aneurysm on the parkway, and that’d be a drag.” Niccolò sassed, looking to and from his partners as though trying to solicit some kind of empathetic response, but they’d have none of it. “Anyway,” Niccolò segued, “we just had a pretty golden mission back there and we did it as a team. We were all on board and we made something amazing happen because of it. Why don’t we go back to that moment and get drinks or something? Celebrate a bit.”
“I am just expressing my desire to stay in DC.” Dresden unbuckled from his seat. “Hera, if you would please. I’d like to leave.”
Eyes wide, Hera’s glassy gaze turned to Niccolò. At first, Dresden didn’t understand what was going on. Once he realized what she was doing, he was disgusted. She was waiting for permission. Like the thirty-some-year-old killer needed the go-ahead from her boyfriend-of-the-month to let him out of the car.
Dresden spoke again. “I will make you both move if I am not out of this car in the next ten seconds.”
Niccolò ran his hands through his hair and relinquished with a sigh. “You may as well let him out.” Niccolò dramatically collapsed onto the steering wheel. “Once he’s set, he’s set. That’s just him. Such a Dresden thing to do. Go on. We’ll see you in the morning. Same time, same place as always, right?”
Dresden smiled, although there was no warmth to it. “As always, Niccolò.”
Hera opened the passenger side door, slid out, and then allowed for Dresden to step out onto the sidewalk.
As he stood there looking at her, luscious blonde curls blowing in the breeze, she spoke, “I do hope we can have peace, Dresden. Please understand that what’s done is done, and all I did was the best I could. He’s forgiven me. Can’t you?”
“He couldn’t be mad at you even if he tried,” Dresden hissed.
“Because I won’t let him?” Her face remained relaxed. “I am tired of having this same conversation with you, Dresden. You need to fall in line.”
“I am tired of you manipulating and lying to get what you want, but it looks like we’ll both have to settle for the night.” Dresden gritted his teeth into a grin and then quickly turned and walked away.
As soon as he heard the Corvair pull back into traffic, it was as though a weight lifted off his shoulders and he could breathe again. He and Niccolò had been partners for five years. They’d spent those years together, successfully running missions, training new operatives, and climbing their way up the ranks. Working with Hera, nicknamed the Goddess because of her codename and notoriety, was supposed to be an honor. She was the best field operative the CIA had to offer. She had an irrefutably high success rate, but she brought an endless string of theater with her.
Dresden had to reset, switching his focus instead on the crowd of faces passing him by on the busy streets of DC’s shopping district in order to avoid his own kind of aneurism. It was only after a minute had passed, that someone familiar approached. And although it took Dresden a moment to catch her attention, his face flushed red when their gazes finally locked. It was Ruth.
“Timmy,” she called out, a big, toothy grin already on her face.
A wave of cool air hit him right as Ruth’s voice rose above the crowd. Hearing his real name always provided him with a feeling of comfort and control. The people he hated called him Dresden. The people he loved called him Tim. He straightened up and stood still, looking for the twiggy little thing wearing some variety of in-crowd fashion.
Ruth swiftly made her way over to Tim and then greeted him with a big hug and a peck on the cheek. She was significantly shorter and a decent amount younger than he, so she stood on her tiptoes as her arms wrapped around his neck for a fleeting moment.
“How ya been, Timmy? Haven’t seen ya in a few days.” Her eyes sparkled.
A number of things drove Tim mad about Ruth. She had eyes that glowed with youth and hope, a laugh that filled the room with melodic dreams, and a swaying dance of a walk, but perhaps the trait he admired most was her kindness.
“Ruth,” he said fondly. “I’ve been well enough. Things have been busy at the post office.”
“I could tell.” Ruth had an eager bounce about her. “I was watching when you pulled up. Was that the woman?” she whispered, her face scrunching in excitement. “The one who has been messing with your coworker’s head? Because that looked like a bad scene.”
Tim chuckled. “The very one,” he answered. “But none of that. I just got my blood pressure down. How have you been, Ms. Ruth Lee? I haven’t seen you around the mailboxes in a while.”
“Oh, I’ve been staying with one my girlfriends.” Ruth stiffened up. Tim could read in her body language that she was not only about to lie but lie poorly. “Just closer to work.”
Tim raised an eyebrow, skeptical. “Something is troubling you.”
“Ah, it’s nothing really. Ronnie just hasn’t written in a while and I’m worried. It’s not like him to not write. So, I stay over at her place, just helps keep my head straight—” Ruth’s voice dropped as her focus drifted from Tim’s face to slightly over his shoulder. “That’s her now, actually. She just got outouva picture and I was waitin’ to walk home with her. Why don’t we get together for a bite Tuesday, yeah? I can tell you everything over…” She moved her hands as though grabbing for some forgotten word. “Oh, what did you say they called fries overseas?”
“Chips,” Tim mused.
Already, Ruth’s thoughts seemed miles away from whatever she and her fiancé, Ronnie, had been fighting about. She waved her friend over.
“But, to answer your question, I believe we already had plans for Thursday. Would you rather we meet on Tuesday?” Tim asked.
“Oh, both.” Ruth boasted. “This’ll be a two-parter.” She held up two fingers for emphasis. “I can just feel it. So, I’ll see you Tuesday and Thursday at Dicks, yeah?”
“Sounds like a gas.” Tim tilted his head just to the right enough to recapture her gaze from her friend. “I’ll see you Tuesday and Thursday at Dicks. I’m heading back home now. Did you want me to grab your mail and slide it under your door?”
“Nah, it’s all good. Thanks, though, Timmy. You’re always thinkin’ ahead.” She pulled him into a hug and gave him another brief kiss on the cheek.
Tim waited for Ruth and her friend to completely vanish from his line of sight before starting toward the Upper East Side of town. He was farther from his apartment than he would have liked, but he couldn’t take another minute in that car. Hera had changed Niccolò. There was no doubt about it. She’d changed everything about the dynamic of their team. It worried him, but he had to press on.
His apartment complex was only two blocks from the brightly lit and bustling historical district. Despite its promising location, the building was run-down. The basement windows were boarded up, and the call box looked like it’d taken one too many punches from a drunk’s fist. There was always the smell of river water wafting on the air, and some variety of sinister character lurking around the front stoop. It wasn’t much and it wasn’t pretty, but their confinement to DC was only three months long. This was one of the few places that would rent for such a short lease. Occasionally Tim entertained the thought of where his partners might live. He imagined Hera living in a glamorous studio uptown with what she’d call a “posh” interior, and Niccolò living half his night in a bar and the other half in the back of the Corvair.
Inside the building’s entryway, there were rows of beaten bronze mailboxes. The lighting buzzed with a fluorescent hum, and Tim thought only of going upstairs, making himself a cup of coffee, and reading. But first, he stopped at the mailboxes and unlocked one: Ruth’s. He grabbed a handful of letters and flipped through them carefully, stopping only for one marked with an obnoxiously kitschy stamp and addressed with a heart. He put the rest of the mail back and then continued into the lobby’s handprint-smeared elevator.
Three floors up, Tim slipped off his loafers outside his door and entered. Scattered around the room were boxes flooded with files. Decorating the walls, were scribbles of half-baked thoughts on torn page corners that were left all over like a secret code or madman’s drabbles. Around the room’s border, stacks of books looked dangerously close to falling. A small picture of younger, significantly happier-looking versions of Tim and Niccolò sat on the kitchen counter. Although there were plenty of places in the apartment that needed tending to, the first thing Tim did was sit down at his dining room table, which was made up of some milk crates and a piece of plywood. He smoothed out the stolen letter from his pocket and then opened it with an unmatched level of tenderness. He treated the letter as though it was a ritualistic piece of holy text.
It was addressed to Ruth, and it started “Dearest, your silence worries me…” the rest was all sweet nothings of reunions to be had and times long spent together. Tim read silently. An occasional smile crept on his face while going through the pages. Nothing pleased him more than the sap-laden sweetness Ruth and Ronnie shared, even if he was certain that it would have to end and he’d be the one to end it.
After a few read-throughs, he put the letter down and sat for a minute, letting all the words sink in. He then placed the love letter in a large stack of mail. Tim had been hoarding Ruth and Ronnie’s exchanges for almost a month now. It was as he added the newest letter to the pile that something caught his attention from the corner of the room.
Tim jumped from his seat, sending papers from the table everywhere in the wind of motion. “Hera, have you just been sitting there?” He was more confused than upset. “How did you even get in here?”
“What did you just call me?”
The voice startled Tim. He thought it was Hera. He was positive that it had to be Hera, but this voice was not that of the goddess. This voice was husky and cold.
When she came into the light, Tim saw an operative he had never met, only heard of. She was an androgynous amazon; the corners of her face were delicately angular and framed by a short champagne-blonde pixie cut. Her eyes were that of an eagle, shrewd and prepared to strike at any moment.
“Not the goddess, but her paramour,” he chided. “Nikola.” Her name left his mouth as though it was a taboo word. “What are you doing here?” Tim could feel his thoughts racing from one point to another. How would a fight play out in this apartment? How many neighbors were home? Were these the types of neighbors who called cops? Could he handle the collateral damage alone? Did she have back up? He thought this all while maintaining his focus on her.
She tsk’d. “Not like you’re living in Fort Knox here.” No matter how much Tim tried to remain calm, it was clear that she could see his distress. “Calm down, Dresden. I’m here with a business proposal.”
“A business proposal from whom?” Tim moved cautiously closer, knowing that under his couch cushions was a hunting knife, and wedged in between his collection of Bronté was a semiautomatic pistol.
“Paramour. Whom.” She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be so proper. I don’t have the time for formalities. We still have two other agents to collect before the night is through. Short and simple? I’m with the KGB now. We want the CIA’s finest thief for our own. Your options are to accept it willingly or be taken by force.” Her sentences were curt.
“I can’t imagine this to be true,” Tim spoke uncharacteristically sweet and gave a boyish smile. “A woman of your beauty? Your stature? Your articulation? They wouldn’t send someone beautiful as you here to collect a brute like me.” Tim stepped closer to her, staring deep into her hazel eyes, his hand now hovering beside hers.
Her face went from calculated and aloof confidence to complete distaste. “Ah, my charm and charisma from just a second ago really convinced you, didn’t it? Honestly, Dresden, we suspected you wouldn’t come willingly. It’s refreshing to see you’re still a scumbag.”
“Still into broads then?”
“Even if I wasn’t, your act wouldn’t have worked.” She followed Tim’s gaze around the room before speaking again. “Stop casing the room. We did a sweep. The overly decorated hunting knife is gone, as is your pistol. As well as the gallon of homemade napalm we found in your back room. What’s the story on that?”
Tim went silent. He wanted to know how they found him. He blamed this all on Hera, of course. On his own, Tim was a spy of minor notoriety, known for his stealth and thievery, but nothing on a truly grand scale. What could he do for the KGB except provide access to her?
“I’m required to at least allow you to hear the offer before I beat you black and blue. So hurry this up.”
“No, thanks.” Tim smiled the same, hollow smile he’d given Hera earlier that night. “I have no interest in the KGB. I have no interest in being touted around Moscow and the Ukraine and all in its likeness, no interest in the reds, the ruskies. Unless your offer is a complete halt on the arms race and a peaceful, yet fair ending to the cold war, I suggest you look for your Judas elsewhere.”
Nikola’s eyes sparked with mischief. “That’s all I needed to hear.” She caught him off-guard with a sudden and abrupt swing at his gut, her fist driving into his diaphragm upon landing. Tim doubled over, and within seconds, Nikola was coming in for a second hit. He barely managed to dodge the blow. His entire body swayed as he attempted to regain his balance. He didn’t bother mulling over options. He charged at her and sent her stumbling to the ground. She quickly rolled back to her feet and grabbed the nearest dinette chair. She swung at him. Head still spinning, he turned on his heel and let the chair crash against his back. Nikola held the remains of a chair leg. She jabbed it toward him. Tim spun around again and batted it out of her hand like a mother would a child. His face felt hot, but he was calm and focused. Taking this moment to regain his footing and his breath, he started to calculate.
“We don’t have to fight,” she taunted, raising her fists in front of her face. She peeked out from behind a few stray strands of hair, and in her eyes, Tim could see a dangerous playfulness.
He paused, partly considering the offer but mostly taken by her gaze. Women had always been Tim’s weakness, but as soon as she showed even a hint of genuine hesitance in pulling her next punch, Tim bolted for the door. As he ran, he threw the plywood from his makeshift table up in hopes of tripping her, but she lunged over the lumber and instead tackled him from behind. She wasn’t heavy enough to bring him down, so instead she wrapped her legs around his waist and locked her arm around his neck. He twisted and reached for her scalp in a controlled panic. Everything blurred as he lost oxygen. He slammed her back into the interior door of his apartment, but he could feel her grip tightening. He couldn’t breathe, and he knew if he didn’t think fast, he was likely to stop breathing altogether. Desperate, Tim threw himself to the ground, which gave him the chance to work his own hand in to pry her arm from around his neck. He rolled away from her and jumped to his feet, then ran for the door again. But as he touched the handle and pulled, nothing budged. Frantically, he jostled the handle, yanking it harder, but it still did not move. Something or someone was outside the door, holding it in place. Tim swung back around just in time to see Nikola climb to her feet.
Blood pumping, his head cleared. There were no more options but the fire escape. He had his target in mind and was ready to get the hell out of Dodge. He put his fists out and charged at her. She spun, dodged his strike, and drove a hand into her back holster only to come up empty-handed.
“Shit.” She looked up to see Tim pointing her own gun at her. “You—” She was cut off by the crack of gunfire. It was a small pistol, but the noise filled the apartment. The bullet barely missed her. “A warning shot, swell.” Nikola then swung for him. He quickly deflected and bashed her right temple with the butt of the gun. She ducked just a second too late as the grip of the gun smacked against her skull and a stream of blood started down her face. She groaned and plowed into him. She slammed her shoulder into his lower abdomen, causing him to drop the gun. As it fell, it went off, breaking through one of the poorly insulated walls.
Tim shoved Nikola off him, not bothering to swing at her. He was through fighting. He picked up the gun again and shot at her twice. She managed to stumble out of the path of the first bullet, but the second buried itself into her left arm, causing blood to fan out as it exited her flesh. She doubled over, letting out a groan. He shot again, wounding her stomach. She wailed this time. She was down for the time-being. It was enough for him.
He had her gun. She was on her way out. And more than likely, there’d be other agents coming the longer he waited. He’d rather save his energy and bullets for later. So, he made his way to his fire escape, careful to wipe off his sweaty palms before climbing out the window. He scaled the ladder as fast as he could and then landed on the pavement feet-first. Once he turned his back on the apartment complex, he booked it, and that’s when he was shot.
Dead. It was the first thought on Tim’s mind as he woke in nothingness. If he remembered correctly—and he always remembered correctly—he was definitely dead. He’d been shot, one bullet shattering a spinal column, another ricocheting its way into his chest, and another taking out his liver. That’s when he hit the pavement of the alleyway outside his apartment. Of course, that didn’t make sense. Since he was very much alive, conscious, and cramped in an air ventilation system.
Tim originally mistook his metallic-hell for the drawers in a morgue, but after a brief crawl in the darkness, Tim could tell this was not a simple drawer. This was a labyrinth of vents and ducts. He was on his stomach, confined and hungry but alive and feeling surprisingly well for someone who should be paralyzed.
He crawled through the vents, his movements were not aimless, but exploratory. For an easy escape, he needed to find an exterior vent. He kept going over the events of the night he died, the café, the car, Ruth, and the KGB agent. Her name had been Nikola, and although bits and pieces of the memory were fuzzy, Tim was pretty sure she had killed him, not with bullets but afterward. As he bled out on the pavement and tinges of pain sent his body seizing, he remembered her standing over him with long, graceful legs and a calmness in her eyes as she broke his neck. In fact, he was positive of it. He remembered trying to fight her off and the dirty copper taste of blood in his mouth. He tried to shove this unexplainable memory to the back of his mind and carry on.
After clambering forward for eight or nine minutes, and almost falling five feet into an underground vent shaft, Tim couldn’t fight the questions and honestly, thinking about his unexplained death was easier than crawling around with no end in sight. He lay there, his face barely touching the bottom of the metal vent. He was still trying to figure out the different ways he could have survived the bullets, the injury, the pain, the bleeding, the healing. Based on how he felt, he imagined it could be months, possibly even years since he’d been shot. It was as though he’d never been injured. His back felt fine. His arm wasn’t weak. But most importantly, he wasn’t immobile. He lay there with just the dark as company while trying to figure out