“You can do it. Just fall back.”
“Come on. Your partner will catch you. This is about trusting our fellow coworkers.”
A cheery blond woman pleads for me to “participate in the activity”. Her smile is way too big for her face and I’m sure she is uncomfortable as I stare down at her, wondering how she gets it that wide without pulling a cheek muscle. From head to toe she is dressed in an eye-roll worthy outfit that almost exactly resembles the boy scouts that knock on my door every once in awhile. The other guys in at the retreat don’t seem to be having any difficulty doing this but they haven’t had to deal with what I have these last few months.
I glance behind me, still with arms crossed, where I see a coworker who gives me a faint smile as if to say, It can’t hurt. What he doesn’t know, is that it already did. My job was one giant trust fall. For the longest time no one fell. No one second guessed the other, no one questioned anything. Eventually, we crashed and someone burned. Now, I find myself doing nothing but questioning.
Without a second thought, I walk away to the pond that plays as the center of the pinwheel of fake log cabins that makes up this take on a company retreat. The blondie and and her whistle shout after me over the subtle tweet of birds, but to my surprise, she isn’t relentless, and settles to continue her bonding exercises and let me free.
Rocks bounce up and down the small beach in and around the various ripples. They scurrying around each other like a game at an elementary school recess. My eyes scan the shore for flat, smooth rocks and I am tempted to pick one up to skip before realizing that I have to get away from the judging looks behind me. I’m out of here.
“Fletcher! Wait up! Fletcher!” my friend, Graham, calls from his place in the blondie’s trust exercises. I speed up a little and look over my shoulder just in time to see him dart my way leaving our new intern to drop to the ground. Graham dashes after me as I enter the campground’s parking lot.
“Oh man!” I exclaim throwing my hands up in the air. “Perfect. Just perfect.” I can’t find my car.
When you are part of an undercover spy team, your car changes weekly to keep clients on their toes and I can’t remember what car I was given a few days ago. Pulling out the keys, I play a call and response song with my car to find it hidden on the far side of the lot, right next to Graham’s. Because he and I trained at the same university, our techniques are the same and escaping him is never going to happen.
“Dude. You’ve made it through these past two days, you can do two more. I know this is hard for you, but you can’t just leave,” Graham puffs out through deep breaths. I’ve always pondered over the fact that he graduated with his lack of stamina.
“Watch me.” I hop behind the wheel, pull out and look in my rearview mirror to see a cloud of smoke deflating around Graham. Suddenly, he screams to me to “Look out!” and I turn around with seconds to spare from crashing into the woman in a sleek SUV who is turning into the parking lot. She leans on her horn, throwing a fist out the window, but I’ve already swung out of the parking lot without an apologetic wave.
I tried trusting, I really did. All it did for me was take away my partner and my best friend.
Three days later the company trip is over and I know I have to go back to headquarters today. Not that I want to, but the chief left me a voicemail last night saying I had urgent business that I needed to attend to.
I pull up to the office building and stare up the mirrored glass of the exterior. Tossing a pair of dark, mirrored sunglasses on the dashboard, I hop over the doors of the slick red convertible I snagged yesterday for this week’s car. Janet, the handler for the company's cars, said I deserved a week to “ride in style”. She’s always seemed to be able to read me like a book but its always felt a little pity.
The elevator comes way too quickly. I contemplate sending it to the top floor and then calling it back down but that just seems like a use of too much effort. I reluctantly step in, press the fake emergency button, scan my left thumb, and feel it drop.
I’ve worked here for probably four or five years but still every time the secret elevator drops down to our headquarters my stomach just about comes out my mouth and back in. The lights dim and flicker for a few seconds when we pass through the foundation but they return in an darker shade that I’ve always matched to the old velvet-covered hotels I’ve stayed in while undercover. The doors slide open.
“Fletcher. Good to see you,” nodds the same new intern Graham dropped the other day. I’m still figuring out his name, but I’m pretty sure the accent he has is Scottish. “Chief is waiting to see you.” He steps into the elevator and I shrug past him.
Every single nook and cranny of the facility reminds me of what happened. Every chair that I know we had our morning coffee in or every white board that we used to mapped out a case. It all comes back and floods my body with a feeling that I can’t stop from seeping through me.
“Come in, Fletcher,” Chief waves from his doorway. When I enter, I see the back of a woman. Her hair is a fiery red and cut in a way that reminds me of Black Widow from my childhood Marvel comic books. I take a seat next to her and the Chief does the same behind the desk. “This is Agent Morton. She’s new.”
“Claire. You can call me Claire.” Black Widow shoots out a hand, a hair flip, and a toothy grin. Somehow, I seem to recognize her face but I sweep it from my brain. We shake but still I wonder what she has to do with me. Usually all the new guys get introduced to the whole company at once.
Chief continues. “Agent Morton will be working with you on this next case.”
“Why?” I ask. “I’ve worked alone since… since, you know.”
“Well not anymore. Claire is your new partner.”
I leave. Just get up and leave. With a flurry of head shaking and clomping of boots, I storm down the hall. The words new partner automatically clench my teeth and tighten my grip. They swirl and twirl in my brain creating a tornado of bad memories. Chief should have known.
“Fletcher! Wait!” I blink back just as Claire grabs my arm. “We are partners now. That’s that. Now, we have get started on this case.” I give her a look which she doesn’t seem to notice but instead, pulls me into a seat. “Since you didn’t stay to hear about the case, I will catch you up.” She pulls out a manila folder. “Two days ago -” she starts but I cut her off.
“How do you know my name? How does everyone know yours? How do you already know the details on the case?”
“If you had stayed at the retreat, you would have known that I was the one pulling in that you almost crashed into. Chief had invited me for the second half of the retreat to meet you and everyone else,” Claire says with a sassy tone. Now it makes sense. The woman that honked, the woman who I almost crashed into, the woman I didn’t apologize to. That was Claire.
With a heavy exhale, Claire directs our attention back to the folder. “Yesterday, some jewels were stolen. Not just any jewels, but jewels belonging to a late First Lady.” She lays out some photos of the jewels and a suspect list. “Our job is to catch the culprit and return the jewels.”
“No way, really?” I sarcastically remark yanking the photos and folder from her hands. “I bet I’ve been in the spy business at least twice as long as you have missy. I've had a partnership where I let the other person call the shots and I just wound up here with you so it's about time we do things my way. I will be making the decisions around here so you better keep quiet.” I know it came out a little ruder than intended but I want her to feel just a little hurt. By the way her perfect posture falls, I know it did its job.
It’s about five or six hours later. In my mind, it feels closer to sixty six. Claire and I drive down the highway at a pace that is “way too fast” according to Claire. She reads the directions from her phone and when I glance over at her I can’t help but notice how beautiful her hair looks in the wind and late afternoon sunlight. A blazing fire sits in my passenger seat, and glimmers in my eyes. I try not to let her get to my head. She’s just my partner for a little while, though I’ve never had a woman for a spy partner.
“So hey, I wanted to ask you something,” Claire starts. “What happened?”
“What do you mean?” I ask, but I know what she’s getting at and by the look she gives me, I can tell she does too. With a loud and long sigh, I attempt to give her what she wants.
“My old partner died. I haven’t had one since.”
“I figured. Why not another one?”
“Because I don’t want one.”
“Don’t or didn’t?” She compliments it with a mischievous eyebrow raise. When she senses the silence wafting between us to be my answer, she moves on with this game of twenty questions.
“What happened to him?”
“I trusted him.” I left it at that. She didn’t need to know anything more. Anyways, we were here.
With what was felt to be an endless discussion, we had narrowed it down to two suspects. Luis Preston and Blake Armstrong. They both worked at the museum downtown, a short twenty five minute drive from headquarters. Claire’s got her heart set on Armstrong but to be honest, I’m not sure which side I’m leaning towards yet.
After some scouting around the museum, we find out that they both have shifts at the café this afternoon. Coincidentally, Preston seats us at a table for two near a window.
“Ok Fletcher, I have a plan,” Claire whispers over a menu once we’re alone.
“What did I tell you about making decisions?!” My hushed voice becomes more of yelp.
“Just listen. So we know it’s Blake Armstrong. I say we - ”
“We don’t know it’s him! It could be Luis Preston too. “
“Look at him. It can’t be Luis. According to his file, Blake was the one to close up the museum that night. That's a perfect time to steal some jewels. Come on, Fletcher. You know I’m right.” Claire was practically begging now. Her soft hands curled around mine to show her hope. She didn’t sound wrong, Blake’s file was pretty promising. But I couldn’t do it unless I was sure.
Something inside of me told me to trust her. I would, but the last time I did anything even remotely close to to trusting another person, they died, ripping a part of me away with them. I wanted someone I knew I could fall into. A trust fall. I wasn’t even close to done grieving and even though I hadn’t known Claire that long, I don’t know what I would do if I killed her too.
My hands suddenly were drenched with clamminess and I pulled away from Claire so she won’t feel it. My heart beats a like rapid metronome as my left leg quivers to the same speedy rhythm.
“Please Fletcher. We are partners. You can trust me,” Claire said sinking closer in so her elbows lay on the small table. When she said it, I felt it. Every ounce of me felt it and the fast pace of my heart stopped. My face melted into a faint smile and I knew she understood. For the first time, in a long time I fell backwards, unsure of what was behind me.
“Let’s do it, Agent Morton. Let’s get Blake Armstrong.”