Sooooo, it’s been so long since I worked on this that I couldn’t find my previous file. What probably happened is that I worked on it while I was on my trip to Qatar in February (since that seems to be the last time I wrote anything significant on it) and the computer I used is now broken.
I bet it was on the hard drive of that one. Anyway, now I’ve started over again and it’s not exactly the same as what’s in my previous updates. I’ll just go from here with the new file I made. Starting from the beginning now…
This is the rough draft of Grub Stage, book 3 in Renegade Agents of A.R.S.A. Click here to get the first two books in this series.
Caught in the Act
I paused when I felt the presence of another person, but didn’t turn around. I know she had surely heard me talking before I heard her approach. And seeing as how there wasn’t anything obvious around to be speaking to, it wouldn’t do any good to act normal about it now.
“Speak to them while they’re sleeping, and you have a much better chance at being heard.” I turned slowly to face her.
The young woman I spoke to snapped to attention as she realized I was no longer speaking to the tree and had now directed my attention to her. She was an unexpected presence in front of the tunnel entrance this crispy morning, and I hadn’t even seen her until just now. She was on my side of the tunnel.
“Really,” she said.
No fear in her eyes or body scent. Unusual. Anyone else who’d managed to accidentally end up on this side of the portal would have realized something was very, very wrong, and adrenaline would have kicked in by now. But her reply wasn’t a question, rather it was a blatant statement of disbelief.
A little snort blew through my nostrils. I didn’t mean to react so audibly, but the sound of disdain in her voice drew it out of me before I could rein it back in.
“Yes. Really.” With most people, it wasn’t worth the effort to explain. With this one, though …. The fact that she was even here was one good indication that it might be worth the effort this time.
She sucked in a deep breath and let it out. “Okay.” A few seconds pause. And then, “Why is that?”
Wow. This one really had me intrigued. Now it was a question. Acknowledgment. A follow-up question. And that should mean the seeker would be responsive to hearing the answer.
I turned slightly away and smiled. Just a little turn of the lips. It was much like that with the trees, too. In the beginning, I always had the sense that they looked away just a little and smiled before they answered me, too. And so I turned back to face her, and gave her the answer.
“Trees are curious while they’re sleeping.”
She laughed. A real, deep, belly laugh. I withdrew some of my enthusiasm a little bit, tucked it back into the safe space inside of me, and lost the glimmer of hope.
Then she stopped laughing and stuck out her hand.
“Hi. My name’s Treya. I think you’re the person I’m seeking,” she said.
What a nice unexpected turn of the tide this cool and misty morning. I took her hand. “I’m Ledeir.”
The trees had indeed heard my whispers.
I left Dersuss in a haze of anger and confusion. First of all, the anger. It was all-consuming. The confusion came in because I couldn’t figure out why.
But the why didn’t bother me until after some time had passed. When I left him at the trader’s station- which was really nothing more than an old man living in a shack between the Upper Buffalo valley and Huntsville – I think I actually threw gravel in his face with the spinning tires of the Jeep.
The anger burned so hot, I even made it down the crumbling access to White River and onto the barge without the fear that gripped me on the way over the first time. I don’t even remember getting off of it and back onto the pot-hole riddled ex-highway.
My debriefing at Headquarters amounted mostly to a long, expletive-filled rant about being abandoned by the man they’d assigned me to for mentoring. At the end of the day, they gave me an apartment to stay in and get some rest.
I’d have an appointment with the company doctor the next day to be examined. But for the first night in what felt like years, I had a real bed to sleep in and a shower to enjoy.
It had only been a few weeks since I’d first walked into the architectural oddity that was A.R.S.A. Headquarters. But I walked out of it that day a changed person. An angry one. And one with a vengeance, and a new mission in life that would underly everything I’d ever do from that day forward.
Now I was back on foot, walking around the downtown Bentonville streets looking for the doctor’s office. I couldn’t wait to get back out there to finish my hunt.
First, though, I needed curare. My weapon of choice was a blow gun I’d gotten as a coming of age gift in the rainforest of Peru. My parents were ethnobotanists and were there doing research on plants. In the years there, I sort of assimilated with the tribe.
Even the girls got to learn how to hunt, but it was the men who gathered and prepared the sacred curare that we used.
While I hated to give Asshole any kind of credit at all, there were two things he’d given me before I left that made me grudgingly thankful. A tip on where to go to find more curare, and a body suit made of some strange fabric that rendered me invisible. If I took all the other clothes off.
I’d taken to wearing the suit underneath my clothes at all times. As long as my clothes covered the unitard, it had no effect. It felt like a second skin and never made me too hot in spite of being an extra layer. I’d never needed to use it, but I wore it nonetheless.
In the little pockets I also had a pair of gloves and a tight-fitting baclava that even covered my eyes. The fabric was so thin I could see right through it with no trouble at all. Ha. I spent quite a bit of time in front of the mirror just marveling at the thing.
All that aside, I still hated the man. It was a strange kind of hate, though. I had no idea why it burned so hot. He’d taught me a lot, and I admired his skill. But I hated him. I couldn’t get past the feelings long enough to question why.
We’d been working on my first assignment as an A.R.S.A. agent when he’d betrayed me. And that was the other odd thing. I couldn’t remember exactly how he’d done so, but I knew he had. We weren’t finished with my assignment, though.
I had one more hunt on Avery to finish. There was no telling where the last leg would take me. So before I got started on that, I needed to get some more curare while I was in the vicinity of the one spot I knew I could find it.
And before that, all of that, I had to go visit the company physician so he could try and convince me to get the implants. Always a rabbit hole to follow before I could get on to the next things on my lists. It frustrated me to no end.
I stopped and surveyed the street. This looked like where I should be, but none of the offices had signs hanging out perpendicular to the street so you could see at a glance who was who.
I thought about that envelope in my pocket. Cory said not to open it, but to just give it to the doctor. He said that would end all the pressure to get the implants.
The thing is, though, … some of those implants sounded pretty useful. I pulled the slip of paper Raymond had given me out of my other pocket and looked at it again.
“102 SW A Street,” was scrawled in pencil. Raymond didn’t have the best handwriting, but I was pretty sure this was the right place. It didn’t look like a doctor’s office, though. There was no sign on the door to indicate a doctor in the house. But the number was there, sure enough, crudely scratched in with some sort of sharp point.
I began to have misgivings about the implants.
I tried the door, but it was locked. So I knocked and waited. Just as I began to turn away, I heard the deadbolt slide.
A short wrinkled woman opened the door a crack and peered out at me from behind her spectacles. Gray curls wisped rebelliously from her coifed hair.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I’m here to see Dr. Marlin,” I said. And then remembered the other thing I was supposed to say. “A.R.S.A. sent me.”
“Oh. Come in, then.” She proceeded to put her weight into opening the door wider before she stepped out of the way.
I glanced either direction down the sidewalk, irrationally pleased no one would have seen me enter.
Just inside the door was another door with a small space like an alcove with a couple of antique plush chairs. There were no windows on the walls and a small lamp left the corners pretty dark.
“Wait here,” she instructed. I looked at the heavy frame on the artwork hanging over the chairs and decided to stand while I waited. If that thing fell, it would probably break my neck.
I studied the painting. Art was something I never looked much at. Growing up I studied reading, writing, and math. My parents were scientists. I just tagged along and I don’t think anyone really gave much thought about what would come after.
After the missions to the jungles. I had become of age while living under the green light of high canopies. I had a custom made blow-dart gun to prove it.
While most girls were flirting with boys, I was killing monkeys.
Perhaps if things had ended differently, if the world as I’d known it hadn’t ended the night we returned stateside in a panic… maybe I would have eventually become normal.
I dismissed that thought nearly as soon as it entered my head.
Normalcy was a state of being that felt more unrealistic than my reality. And in my reality, I was standing in a dark alcove in the office of a doctor that wanted to implant me with devices to make my ‘normal’ self a lot more lethal. That would make me even less normal than I am now.
The painting interested me, though, in a way it might not have before my title became ‘assassin’.
Two dogs with bared teeth in the foreground, face to face and hackles raised. And two dogs in the background, visible beneath the jaws of the ones in front. These two were locked in mortal battle. Blood and spittle flying. It wasn’t evident which of the two would survive the fight.
It made me think about the nature of men. And my role in that world too. But mostly of men, because although I get to play this role in what more and more looks like a larger game that started long ago, it is still men making the decisions in my life.
The ones who survive and come out on top, the ones who get to make the rules – and break them … are the ones willing to do the awful things, incredibly vile and vicious, if called for, to other men in order to beat them down to a submissive stance. Then the winner backs off and plays nice, all the while watching to make sure the once submitted does not again attempt to become the dominant.
I’ve watched this behavior in dogs. Humans are animals, too, so it makes sense that this instinctive drive is what compels mankind to war with each other. We are acting exactly like dogs in a fight. If necessary, the dominant one will maim or kill, if the other won’t submit.
Question is, is the US going to regain status to be the dom? Or are we going to fight to the death because the UN is so large and powerful now it won’t even dream to roll over and expose the belly and neck? OR will the US become tired of the fight at the same rate as the UN and we both roll away from each other, both living to fight another day?
Or, … Did we roll over when I didn’t notice and now the game is long finished? There was no one to discuss these things with now in my isolation since my parents were taken all those years ago.
For a flash of a moment, I missed DRSS. And then the sound of his acronym name in my mind disgusted me and immediately the hatred returned. Mixed in the anger and hate were other things I thought I knew, but couldn’t quite place a finger on.
Things I knew went along with the line of questioning about the wars and fighting. Important details I once knew but now were shrouded like dreams upon waking. I wanted to go back to the dream, so I could remember.
Footsteps approached from the other side of the next door. I figured I’d better decide now what I wanted to do about that prospect.
The door opened and an older gentleman squinted as he looked me over.
“Treya Noname?” he asked.
I nodded. Headquarters must have let him know I’d be here, because I hadn’t given my name to the receptionist. I rubbed the spot in my pants leg where the envelope was hidden, but didn’t pull it out of my pocket.
My mind raced. What should I do? DRSS said to never get the implants…
Fuck Dersuss. I had another card I wanted to play with that envelope.
I put out my hand and doc took it in a firm grasp.
“That’s me,” I said.
“Come in. We have matters to discuss.”
I stepped through the doorway. “Yes, we do,” I agreed.
The doctor worked on his own, apparently. He took my vitals by himself and I never saw the receptionist again. After he scribbled the numbers down on a pad he pushed his spectacles down farther on the bridge of his nose and looked over the rims at me.
“So have you decided which enhancements you’d like to receive?” he asked.
I took a deep breath. I had, in fact.
“You know,” I began, “I’m a little jealous of how well the asshole is able to hear heartbeats. I’ve tried, but it just doesn’t work well for me. I want the one that enhances that. And I’d like to be able to walk miles without tiring, jump from high points without breaking my legs, and deflect bullets with a flick of the wrist.”
Doc screwed his lips around a little while as he scribbled notes on the pad.
“Hmmm. Sounds like your first mission influenced your choices,” he mused. He was right. It had. But that reminded me of one more.
“Oh, and I want to be able to breath in low oxygen environments.”
He chuckled and marked that one down too.
“Okay. Here’s the thing.”
I sensed he was about to bring me down from the high.
“You can only get one in this first session. We have to see how your body handles the changes, first.”
And there it was. Inexplicable anger surged again. Apparently, it wasn’t just DRSS that made me angry, but anything that made me feel inferior to him, too.
I had to choose only one. Nothing in the brochure mentioned that and it pissed me off a little that they’d omitted that important detail.
So many things seemed to piss me off these days, since leaving asshole behind.
My hand brushed against the pocket holding the envelope.
I unbuttoned the flap holding that pocket secure and pulled out the manilla package.
I’d folded it lengthwise to make it fit in there and so I straighted it out and thought about what it might contain. I had no idea. It was sealed when Cory had given it to me, and he asked that I not open it. So I hadn’t.
Now I wished I would have.
I passed him the envelope.
“What’s this?” he asked.
I tucked stray hairs back behind my ear. He turned it over and examined the envelope.
“I think it’s insurance,” I said. “A friend asked me to pass it on to you.”
A look of consternation came over his features, drawing his brows into furrows between his eyes as he opened the envelope and pulled out the contents.
Playing My Cards
I watched as his eyes flitted quickly over the page. He blanched, but it was in slow motion. Color slowly drained from his face starting at the eyes and radiated outwards the more he read. He swallowed hard and darted his eyes from the page to my face and quickly back to the page. His hands began to shake.
“Where did you get this?” His voice was barely above a whisper but I heard him plainly enough.
“Well, here’s the thing. I can’t tell you who gave that to me. But I can say that this isn’t the only copy. That person doesn’t want anything from you,” I said, pausing for a breath.
A look of relief began to recolor his face and he took a breath.
“But I do.” His breath stopped. Color flooded his face now. And I could smell him. Smell the fear. Somewhere, way down in the pit of my stomach, the fear excited me. I’d think about that later. Right now I had other business to attend.
“First. I want to know what happened to my parents. Second. I want a removable enhancement that allows me to hear heartbeats better. Like asshole can.”
Doc looked at me as if he didn’t understand.
“Asshole. You know, D.R.S.S. The man with an acronym for a name. Asshole, for short. Remember? I mentioned him in my first set of requests.”
“But his aren’t removable,” he said. We made eye contact. Doc cleared his throat and lowered his eyes. “ And, they aren’t enhancements.”
“I know that. But that’s what I want.”
Doc scribbled on his notepad.
“And, I don’t want anyone at HQ to know they’re removable. I want them to think I got standard issue.” That thought had only just occurred. But if asshole had warned me to not get implants, he must have had a reason.
Much as I hated the man, I had to give credit to the fact that he’d at least survived as long as he had.
More scribbling. He took a deep breath.
“Anything else?” he asked. I thought about it.
“One more thing. I want to see the file on Eli. And no I don’t have a last name, but I suspect you know who I mean.”
And the color drained once again from his face. It made me smile to imagine the workout his capillaries were getting during my visit. Then he composed himself and scribbled a little more, leaving the pencil poised on the paper for a few seconds.
He looked up at me over the rim of his glasses.
“I’m not sure I can help you with that one,” he said.
“You should find a way,” I replied.
I left the office with paper in hand to prove I’d been there. Doc said he needed some time to meet my needs, so the receptionist tentatively schedule me to come back in two weeks. Now it was time to see about getting my hands on better curare than the stuff in that little pot Cody had gifted me.
ARSA still let me use the Jeep for running my errands, but fuel was always an issue. To get more, I’d have to go back to Headquarters and fill out a form. Then they’d hand me a permit that allowed one full tank’s worth. I didn’t want to have to do that. But I also didn’t know any other way around it. I’d need more gasoline to be able to get to the location DRSS had given me for meeting my curare contact.
When I pulled into the back parking lot, there was colorless Raymond standing in the glass window at the door. He watched me get out of the Jeep and scurried back into the shadows. Back to his office where he could sanitize himself again, I guessed.
Since I’d been to headquarters last, which was only a week ago, they’d installed some security measures. Now there was an arm across the drive to get in and a keypad at the door. Presumably to get out I’d have to enter some code to the kiosk at the gate. But really, the concrete coping that surrounded it all wasn’t so high that the Jeep couldn’t just climb over it if I wanted to skip all that.
I sighed. But if I took that shortcut, sure as shit, the next time I came in there’d be a concrete wall. Maybe even Constantine wire. Ha. What are they so afraid of?