psul's sandbox

A listless sun in the flat blue sky. Around the tarmac, dry grass sways in a hot wind. James Bradshaw steps onto the creaking airport stairs, surprised again by the heat. Even after the stopover in Buenos Aires, he isn't used to a February summer.

Jacket over his arm, James scans the sleepy terminal for a car rental sign. A faded paper banner proclaims "Bienvenido a Neuquén - Próspero 1977!". Thick paint over the final digit: last year's sign reused. James smiles wryly.

By the time he reaches the side of the rental booth, he is parched. White dust kicks up as he drops his travel case, marooned in the empty lot, squinting in the glare. Now what? His contact is supposed to be here. His instructions - Boston to Buenos Aires, to Neuquén, meet the contact - have run out. It feels exposed in the baking sunshine. He shouldn't just stand here.

James shields his eyes, looking back to the terminal. No one. Is that a good thing? Would a watcher be friendly or -

A sharp tapping breaks his reverie. It came from inside the booth, but the bright light makes mirrors of the windows. James hesitates. His arm sweats under the jacket. Tapping again, but lighter. The person inside is encouraging him. Luring him? He has to do something.

A small fan moves hot air around the cramped hut. Out of the sun, it feels cooler. The woman behind the folding table is mid-forties, slim, smiling. Navy uniform, olive skin, dark eyes.

"Good afternoon, sir," she says in English. Her accent is barely perceptible.

His Spanish is good; he is too proud not to use it. "Thank you for inviting me inside. It is very hot out there."

"Do you need some assistance?"

She is sticking to English. James feels piqued.

"Actually, I'm fine. I was just waiting outside for a minute before-"

There is no flicker of movement to give it away. Perhaps she is slightly too still. James has a shock of understanding; he has missed the challenge phrase.

He scrambles for the countersign. "- uh, I'm an architect, so I would like to see Neuquén's historic churches."

"Our Lady of Sorrows is the oldest, but the new cathedral is more beautiful." Even as she gives him the confirmation, she is scowling. She switches to Spanish to castigate him properly. "What's wrong with you? Are you drunk?"

James begins to protest, but she waves him silent. "You have no time. I am Belén. Let's get your car." She is already walking out the door. James follows.

Belén leads him across the lot. The wind trails chalk-powder from their footsteps. She pauses to relish the sun's heat, loosening the ascot at her neck.

"Have you travelled to Argentina before?"

"No."

"In winter the mountains are beautiful, but the summer is best."

Her smile is for people other than him, James realises. All of her body-language is a play for any potential hidden audience.

"How long have you been in the field?"

Her question carries the hint of an edge. James catches a glance at his posture, his paunch. He is shamed by her judgment, but at least she trusts him enough not to hide it.

He pulls to a stop. Ticklish beads of sweat are forming at his hairline. "I'm a researcher," he says, defensive. "I'm here because I studied the anomaly. I'm not a field agent."

"Keep moving." Belén's expression is still congenial, but her tone betrays concern. "So Command puts us both in the oven, huh? A scientist when the Americans expect a field agent."

James is incredulous. "The Americans? You mean -"

They are walking up a shallow rise towards a knot of cars, close parked. The airport surrounds are empty in the noon sun. The only sound is shrilling cicadas.

"They wouldn't just give the anomaly to the junta and let them slaughter their own people in peace." Belén laughs. "The Americans don't trust SIDE to use it properly, so they babysit, but discreetly. And they watch the Foundation, so they know you're coming."

James' skin prickles despite the heat.

As they walk between the cars, Belén continues. "The junta mostly use it against civilians now. Artists, professors, sometimes the church. Their next target is a construction worker, a union leader. Agustin Varela. I don't know when, but it will be soon."

Belén stops at a locally-made Jeep, tan paint scratched and faded. She opens the passenger door and pulls out a folded map. James spreads his hand flat on the hood, looking for something solid.

"So when they try to use it on him, I recover it. Somehow. Where?"

"Varela is at a building site, sixty miles south-east of Los Menucos," says Belén, pointing at the map. "Drive fast, but stay off the highways. Enjoy our beautiful countryside, and have a pleasant stay in Argentina."

The last sentence is louder, in English again, the artificial cheer returning. James is about to wonder why when the man walks out from behind the back of the car.

He is already moving forward, asking in Spanish if this is the American. Belén turns her body and gestures towards James with her left hand, holding the map. Neither the man nor James see the knife in her right.

The man steps into a backhand slash at his throat. The knife bites deep, dragging across with a wet noise. He stumbles. The knife is wrenched from Belén's grip. She drops under the Jeep and is gone.

James is frozen. The man kneels, groping at his own neck. Too red and slick to pull out the knife, his hands fall, useless.

A second man clears the back of the car. He sees James, sees his companion dying. He starts towards them, reaching into his jacket.

Two steps. Belén emerges behind him, around the back of the car where he has just been. She kicks out his right knee, all her weight on it, riding his fall. The ascot is around his throat. As he goes down, she yanks it hard, cracking his head against the Jeep. Her knee in his back. His face in the gravel. She pulls the scarf tight.

She kills two men in the space of a minute. Obscured by the cars, no-one will have seen it. The cicadas scream on.

It feels as though James has not breathed in a year. He gasps, wanting to be sick. Belén pulls him upright.

"You don't have time. Here, the keys. I need to clean up."

For a moment, James thinks she means blood, then sees the white dust across her uniform. He nods vacantly and picks up his bag. When he sits in the Jeep, the leather seat is warm.

Belén hands him the map, then stares at him for a second. She reaches a decision.

"Maybe Command don't need a field agent. Maybe it is better they send someone lucky."

"Lucky?" James repeats blankly.

Indicating the bodies, she says, "Yes. What if they were not amateurs? What if they called their handlers first? What if there were more than two? Now, when they get here, the Americans will see you did this. They will be wary. They will wait for professionals."

It is all so impossible, James almost laughs. Then he realises. "You're not coming with me?"

"No. Alone you are a tourist, but together we are what? Memorable. I'll wait for them to interview me. Then I will find you."

"At the building site. What town is it?"

"It has no name. Ask for the new city. You will find it." She points up the hill. The first step.

James' mind is still scattered. His seatbelt brings a brief sense of security. He starts the engine rumbling.

"I'm sorry - I should thank you, I guess," he says. "I mean, I couldn't have - I would have - shit, you know what I'm trying to say. They shouldn't have sent me. Jesus, what makes this anomaly so important?"

Belén shakes her head in disbelief. "This is not about the anomaly. I don't even know what it is. How many did they take from us, the Americans, the Russians? We never recover them, not any more. No, we need your knowledge, but that's not why they sent someone."

"What? What do you mean?"

"This isn't about recovering the anomaly. This is personal. Agustin Varela worked fifteen years at Site-12. The junta are going after one of our own."

Before James can respond, she slaps the Jeep's door. "Go now. Not the highways. Be safe."

Belén turns, and is out of sight between the parked cars.

The dark conifers part at the top of the ridge. He can see across the sun-flattened pampas, brown grass stretching into the West. Against the distant blue, three black specks circle.

James pulls his gaze down, shoves the gearstick forward, and drives into the sunlight.


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