The music vanished as quickly and mysteriously as it had appeared.
“At last. A little peace and quiet.” I breathed a sigh of relief as two sets of rough hands stripped me to my skivvies and tied me to a sturdy, well-built chair. “What excellent craftsmanship,” I noted, with no little perturbation. I could have reduced a cheap, pre-fabbed chair to splinters in short order. But this hand-crafted, herculean affair? No doubt it would slow down my inevitable escape. “Is it mahogany?” I asked.
The responses from my two assailants were diametric, yet equally useless. Henchman Number Two was silent as he hovered in a shadowy corner, while Henchman Number One replied in pure German—a language with volumes ranging from loud to louder—and therefore impossible to tell whether he was screaming expletives, or calmly informing me whether or not the chair was made from mahogany.
Either way, when he finished speaking, he smacked me hard across the face. My head snapped to the right. He smacked me the other way and my head naturally followed suit. Right, left, right, left. I might have been a front row spectator at Wimbledon if it weren’t for the balloons of blue and purple swelling across my immaculately sculpted cheekbones. They always go for the cheekbones first, don’t they? I would normally put it down to base jealousy, but Number One, though suitably muscular and stupid man for his line of work, was not unattractive, and I felt it a that pity I’d have to ruin such a firm jaw line.
Blood dripped from my nose. I eyed the heap of clothing—my clothing—piled near the door, where Henchman Number Two removed himself from his shadowy corner and stepped under the light of the single, unadorned bulb.
I smiled. Now here was the perfect trifecta of strong, stupid, and ugly whose future pummeling would present no qualms to my soul. I shifted, causing the steel manacles to saw against my wrists, as he stomped over and dropped an ominous looking black duffel at my feet.
“What ees your name?” he said.
“A bit impolite to ask my name without first giving me yours. We English, you know, are quite particular about etiquette.”
Number One barked a word in German, which prompted Number Two’s hand to disappear into the duffel at my feet. It emerged with a pair of glinting pliers. “Your name.”
“What a question. I hardly know where to begin. Even I’m not certain how many names I’ve worn over the years.” It was the truth. The imperious Budiman Hui, second prince of Morotai, was a personal favorite. Then there was Thanh Mong, Vietnamese general with an expertise in guerilla tactics. And I would be remiss not to mention Chong Mar, a prudent Chinese businessman with the renown of being my very first alias.
But I would no sooner relate my illustrious resume to this brace of splendid idiots as I would my current moniker:
Achilles Lee, top-tier agent in Her Majesty’s secret service.
“Why don’t we make things simple. You,” I indicated Number One, “can call me ‘please,’ and you”—a nod at Number Two—“‘don’t hurt me’.”
They were unfazed. Most of the stupid, incautious ones are by this point in the game.
But they had yet to hear the music. It had revived at some point during the violent interrogation: a nascent, quiet beat, only there if you were listening to it. Within seconds it had crescendoed to a pulsating bass line, woven with the high-octane screech of a flock of trumpets.
The music that was my undoing.
The music that played whenever something was about to happen.
It all began with the name von Strumheim. It was an ancient name, a powerful name. A name that brought to one’s mind full-bellied opera singers or hammers of mythic repute.
It was also a dangerous name. The von Strumheim’s had been on the radar of Her Majesty’s Secret Service since the Cold War. The family had maintained a neutral position throughout, concluding that their profit margins were best improved by providing weapons to both sides of the conflict, and by the turn of the millennium they flourished as one of the largest arms dealers in the world.
We remained largely unconcerned with their enterprise. Supply and demand, I suppose, and when the world demands weapons, the suppliers do tend to spring up like so many indestructible weeds. We wouldn’t have bothered with them at all, really, if one of their products hadn’t exploded smack dab in the middle of East End.
Viral YouTube videos declared it the work of an angry faction of the Albanian mob. Two days after the bodies had been sorted and counted and offered to the media like carcasses to a pool of sharks, I was summoned to 85 Vauxhall Cross and seated across from The Minister, our esteemed and rarely glimpsed head of the agency.
He looked as he always did, bearing an immovable side-sweep of brown hair, a pair of black-framed, nondescript glasses, an entirely unreadable expression, and a silk tie emblazoned with the Union Jack.
I inclined my head at the shrieking garment. “Are you wearing matching boxers?”
Not a single crack in his plaster-like face. He handed me a manila folder, inside of which contained a dossier on Edgar von Strumheim, the current head of the crime family, along with a list of known associates.
“I assume you’ve seen the news, Agent Lee. Parliament wants the heads of every person involved in the attack—from the masterminds to the suppliers—delivered to them on a silver platter.”
“Which means we need to acquire proof that the von Strumheims were in fact the Albanian’s suppliers.”
“And I’m to acquire the proof?”
“With your usual style and flair, no doubt.”
I finished perusing the brief, then closed the folder. It promptly incinerated. “My cover?”
He handed me another folder as I brushed away the ashes. “Byung Park, top official in Jong-Un’s regime. You’re to meet von Strumheim at a fundraising gala benefiting conservation efforts for de Elbe Polderland. There, you will present him with an offer to buy a number of long range missiles. The goal is to pry out a list of his clientele on the pretense of gaining a good reference.”
“The von Strumheim’s are known worldwide. Hardly the type to need a reference.”
“Except, perhaps, to the North Koreans, who are about as closed off from the world as my son at family gatherings, and not exactly known for being a trusting bunch.”
“True.” I quirked an eyebrow. “You do realize I don’t speak a lick of Korean.”
“Then I suggest you learn quickly.” He slid an ornate invitation across the table. “The party is in one month.”
It was a harrowing four weeks of tutoring, study, and copious rewatches of romantic Korean dramas (purely for research purposes, of course). But I managed to sort out my leuls and euls by the time my tux arrived, a black and white Gucci furnished with all the discreet, yet deadly accouterment that could reasonably fit within a three-piece, as well as a short note from Wibbly:
All the usual gadgetry included, with something a little extra besides, just in case.
“Oh, Veronica. It’s adorable how you worry.”
I climbed into my ride, a lightning bolt of midnight blue trimmed in azure. The might of a thousand horses thundered me up the narrow roads that wound a course through the Berchtesgaden Alps, the roar of sixteen cylinders singing to my every whim as if I were a master conductor.
“At the very least,” came Wibbly’s clinical voice through the vid screen, cleverly superimposed on the rear view mirror, “keep the car intact, for once.” Veronica Wibbly, the acclaimed lead scientist of our research division, as well as my right hand woman, had argued against the expense of the Veyron. “I’d hate to tell Rogers we have to let him go because you smashed another one of your toys.”
Whatever Wibbly was wearing lay buried beneath her blindingly white lab coat, her green eyes dulled by thick, plastic safety goggles. But her hair had a spark of life. This evening, whether in the spirit of the mission or because she’d forgotten her brush, she’d harassed her carrot-colored lion’s mane into a disheveled bun, hair wisping about her face like twirls of ribbons.
The effect was not unpleasant. “Rogers is a perfect waste of space in that laboratory of yours,” I said with a grin. “You’re the certified genius, and everyone knows it.”
The vid screen rang with a fantastic boom, then flooded with smoke. Behind Wibbley, Rogers flapped his arms like a wounded duck. “I wouldn’t exactly argue the point,” she said, “but it’s rather nice having someone about to fetch tea.”
I kicked the engine into sixth gear and let down the top. My skin drank in the moonlight and the trickling mist, top speed winds ravaging my thoughtfully constructed hair. The lumps of shapeless mountains seemed to heave and settle like giant beasts in slumber as I scurried along their backs. In time, the castle rose out of the craggy peaks and darkness, all stone spires and mossy brick and looking positively medieval, despite the bright lights shining from every window.
“The von Strumheim castle dates back to the fourteenth century,” Wibbly said. “It was initially built for use as a prison, which makes it ideal for their line of work.”
“Lots of places to hide.”
“And to keep things hidden.” Wibbly cleared her throat—a sign she was winding up for a lecture. “I’ve told you two hundred and eleven times already, but I feel I should tell you once more. Currently, your control over the acoustic vibrations is minimal at best. Strong emotions, surprise, overconfidence—any of these can tip the balance of your control, and if that happens, the music will—”
“That was only during simulations. In the field, I’ve always maintained perfect control. And besides,” I laughed, “you of all people should know that I lack basic emotions, and am never surprised.”
“And what about overconfidence? As you said, you failed a number of simulations, and it didn’t go unnoticed that the music was most apt to unexpectedly go off at moments of supreme arrogance.”
“Enough with the compliments, Wibbly, you’re making me blush.”
She pushed up her goggles and continued in her automated way. “Obviously, our Agent Enhancement experiments were a mixed success and resulted in some … unexpected side effects. In due time, I’m sure you’ll master your control over these acoustic vibrations. But in the meantime, the research is clear: the music materializes when its source—that is yourself—believes in his own hype so strongly that everything he does is accompanied by an imaginary musical score—which then turns not-so-imaginary.”
Rogers snickered. “Do you truly imagine your own theme music while you’re on the field?” It might have been the only clever thing he’s said since he was hired back in ninety-three.
“Yes,” Wibbly replied. “He does. Achilles’s ego—and the music it spawns—is the only flaw in an otherwise perfect asset.” Her eyes were hard. “And the only way to stop it is to start remembering you’re never as good as you think you are.”
I rolled through a stone archway and merged into a line of sparkling cars waiting their turn for the valet service. Before exiting and handing over my keys, I flashed Wibbly a smirk, and left her to chew on my infamous last words:
“You’ve got me on the job, Wibbly. What could possibly go wrong?”
The castle reeked of money. Marble columns, moulded ceilings, thirty foot arched windows. In the ballroom, a stage bearing a forty piece orchestra regaled the room with variations on Strauss as Swarovski chandeliers glittered overhead.
Yet the second I swooped inside, those inferior trappings fell away and every eye fixed on me: the patterned cravat with matching pocket square, the tight fitting velvet waistcoat, and a full head of tactfully disarranged hair, as black and gleaming as my polished belt and shoes.
I swirled through the room, a whirlpool of glamor and urbanity. I snatched a champagne flute from a passing tray as I began making the rounds. Hands were shaken, cheeks kissed, repartee traded, and I gradually schmoozed my way towards the only people in the room wearing off-the-rack suits.
There were two of them, flanking a reinforced door. I made for the doorknob, and was summarily stopped by a hand to my chest. “Name?”
“Herr von Strumheim has been expecting you.” He gestured me inside, and the door hushed to a close behind me.
It was a sparse office, decorated in a modern fashion: glass desk, floating bookshelves, incomprehensible artwork. On a black leather sofa lay Edgar von Strumheim himself.
Shocked would be an understatement. Flabbergasted comes a bit closer to the mark, but what I really felt at that moment was unadulterated offense: There I was, trained in twelve styles of martial arts, armed to teeth with classified weaponry and lethal charm, and with absolutely no occasion to wield any of them! What kind of evil arms dealer takes a nap on the cusp of an important meeting? Even my fascist alter egos deserve a little bit of respect, thank you.
But my mood soon took a turn for the better: on the glass desk lay an open folder file—the references required by the good Mr. Park. They detailed the von Strumheim’s most high profile clients, including our eager Albanians.
Despite Mr. Park’s wounded pride, Achilles Lee couldn’t restrain a slow smile from smoldering up his face. I’d heard of easy missions, but this would practically be a vacation, and I withdrew my mobile and began snapping the photo-evidence that would put von Strumheim away permanently. It was so simple. A mere press of the button. A zero collateral mission. No body count, no property damage, and most importantly—no headlines. Perhaps not the makings of best selling novels or blockbuster movies, but in reality it’s the kind of operation all the higher-ups in the agency dream of, and could supply me with clout at the secret agent water coolers for years to come. Interpol, Mossad, the CIA—everyone would be talking about the great Achilles Lee who took down the world’s most notorious arms dealer without a single drop of blood—on either side. Oh, the stories they’d about me tell, my name passing through a thousand different lips, the commendations, the promotions, the—
Bass lines? Was that the strumming of a bass line?
I looked up from my mobile. The pin-drop silence of the room was suddenly not so silent, and between my frantic photography and a frighteningly familiar melody, Wibbly’s words regurgitated back up into my mind:
Moments of supreme arrogance.
A fanfare of trumpets blared to life, sharp and shrill. Edgar von Strumheim snarfled awake. “Who are you? What are you doing?”
His eyes widened at the mobile hovering over his desk, and we both went for the gun holstered to his side.
Being several feet closer and attached to it at the hip, he reached the gun first.
Being one foot taller and twenty years younger, I did the only thing I could:
He crumpled. I pressed a button on my mobile which compressed the phone into a micro-square, and slid it into a hidden compartment in my tuxedo. Von Strumheim was out for the count and I needed to leave. The music, now pacing and daring and loud enough to rattle the room, was bound to draw attention.
I opened the door.
“Hello boys.” I raised both my hands at the pair of guards on the other side, their guns drawing a bead between my eyes. “It’s a pity we had to meet again like this. But if you surrender now I promise not to damage you too much.”
Which brings me back to my current status: helpless, handicapped, all but naked and growing increasingly toothless by the hour.
Not that it bothered me overmuch: the agency has an excellent dental plan.
Nevertheless, the shackles were bound fast. Blood covered me from chin to waist. I’d been humbled. Deprived of my flashy car and its undermount turbo boosters. Stripped of my tailored tuxedo with the retractable knives in the cuffs, the explosives-lined cummerbund.
Yet the music played unaccountably on. Was Wibbly wrong? Was it really conceit that dampened my control of the acoustic vibrations and created the spontaneous outbursts of music? Or was the music not so much a result as it was a precursor. Perhaps it was, like Wibbly herself, a warning.
After all, it did always play when something was about to happen.
Henchman Number Two dropped first his grin, then the pliers. “What ees that noise?”
“Noise?” I asked.
“A music of some kind. Like the one we heard before, when you were in Herr’s office.”
“A running bass line?”
“A bold and brassy trumpet melody?”
“Ja! Ja! What does it mean?”
I was boiled down to nothing. Nothing but myself, and a loud, obnoxious theme song growing louder and more obnoxious by the second.
Oh, and Wibbly of course.
The heap of my tuxedo by the door began to fizzle and pop. “It means,” I said with a grin, “that something is about to happen.”
An explosion rocked all three of us backwards. A hurricane of confusion followed: fire, smoke, and a large hole in the steel door through which Wibbly emerged, wearing stilettos and a faintly annoyed frown.
It was the most emotion I’d ever seen on her face in my life.
She clacked to my overturned chair and dropped a set of picklocks into my hand. “Make use of these, if you please.”
In half a minute I freed myself and staggered to my feet. “You’re a godsend, you know.”
“I do know. And thank you.”
She gestured to the goons groaning on the floor. “I believe our best course of action is for you to go on and do what you do best.”
I grinned, cracked my aching knuckles, and did exactly as she ordered.
“Bitte!” said Number One.
“Don’t hurt me!” cried Number Two.
The room was silenced once again, both of howling henchman and gratuitous theme music.
I squatted near the remains of my tuxedo, poking through the ashes. “It’s a shame about the photos. They would have sent von Strumheim away, and given us concrete proof to go after the Albanians.”
“Really, Achilles, I would have never guessed you harbored such a low opinion of my abilities.”
“You mean they’re not destroyed?”
“The images were uploaded onto my servers the minute you took them.”
With some skulking and a fair amount of tip-toeing, we liberated ourselves from the castle and located the Veyron. Seeing as I was mostly clothed in nothing but my own blood, Wibbly took the driver’s side.
“And I suppose you implanted the self-destruct device in my tuxedo?”
“And a distress signal.” She revved the engine and peeled away. “I did tell you in my note that I added something a little extra. It was wired to go off precisely two hours after being removed from your body.”
“A pressure trigger?”
“The clothing was mapped to your DNA, actually. ”
How did she do it? “Amazing, as usual,” I said. “While your talents are, of course, uncomparable, I still have to ask: what if I’d undressed for more… recreational purposes?”
“That was certainly a risk, knowing you.” We accelerated down an incline, the speedometer in triple digits. “But with your recent…musical complications, there were other risks. Risks I wasn’t willing to take.”
Our getaway was as clean as a surgeon’s blade. With a few supplies stowed in the back, I was able to mop myself up and change into a fresh set of new (and non-combustible) clothing. The dawning sun, full of pinks and oranges and a yellow as fresh as butter, climbed over the misted peaks of the Alps.
“Beautiful,” Wibbly said.
“Very.” She wore a green silk dress and diamonds at her throat, an air of cool confidence tempered by just the right dose of caution. She must have glossed herself up to blend in with the crowd at the gala. “Do you know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in an evening gown before.”
“Oh? She fingered the green silk hugging every curve. “Do you like it?”
“Funny thing: I think I prefer the lab coat.”
“Hmmm.” She said nothing for a long while. Then: “I think that might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
We pulled into headquarters. Wibbly lifted up the parking brake just as the dulcet tones of a running bass line, trumpets buzzing like a flight of bees, began to warm the temperature of the car.
“The music…” she whispered.
“But why now? There’s no danger, and I think you’ve been suitably humbled for one night.”
“Or one lifetime.” I tapped my temple. “Do you know what that music means, Veronica?”
“I’ve told you what it means.”
“Yes, yes, a thousand times before.”
“No, not a thousand. Two hundred and twelve times, and I would tell you two hundred and thirteen if I didn’t suspect you thought I was wrong.”
“You are wrong.”
A slow smile curved onto her face. “Then enlighten me, please. What does the music mean?”
I put my arm around her, and smiled in return. “It means something is about to happen.”
Mei Davis is a former Angeleno transplanted to the cold wilds of Detroit, where she lives with her husband, children, and the far-flung hope that her scribblings are of more interest to the world than her happily unexceptional life.