Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport sat at a small café in Paris, sipping their respective coffees. They had been saddled with a busy day so far; however, they were provided with a nice gap at lunch time, so Mr. Transport had suggested they adjourn to one of their favorite dining establishments. Mr. Numbers had concurred, and they had left the sweltering plains of Africa for a more tranquil and enjoyable environment in which to dine.
As was their custom, they were reviewing the particulars of their next assignment before departing. Mr. Transport had been somewhat surprised to see that their next job was classified as “long-term.” Those assignments were quite rare, given his and Mr. Numbers’ capabilities to handle things in a prompt and efficient manner. The deeper he read into the dossier, though, the more concerned Mr. Transport grew.
“Mr. Numbers,” Mr. Transport ventured tentatively.
“Yes, Mr. Transport?” Mr. Numbers replied without looking up from his own copy of the assignment file.
“Do you feel there perhaps there was a misfile and we were given someone else’s assignment?” Mr. Transport asked, trying desperately to keep any hope out of his voice. It was very bad for one’s job and health to be heard questioning the wisdom of the company they worked for.
“The possibility crossed my mind,” Mr. Numbers admitted. “However, if you read on, you will see certain accommodations at the place of employment have been made specifically for us. It even references us by name several times.”
Mr. Transport flipped a few pages ahead, and sure enough, Mr. Numbers had been correct. “Very well,” Mr. Transport said carefully. “Just wanted to be certain we were deployed to the right area.”
“Quite understandable,” Mr. Numbers agreed. “It would be irresponsible of us as agents to allow time and resources to be wasted on a clerical error. Since that is not the case, though, it seems we have a few more hours until we begin our new assignment.”
“That it does. Perhaps we should use that time to pack and prepare so we are properly equipped for the full term of the assignment,” Mr. Transport suggested.
“Excellent idea,” said Mr. Numbers. “Would you mind depositing me first, then swinging back by in an hour or so to pick me up?”
“Not at all,” assured Mr. Transport. He reached into his wallet and pulled out a few bills. Mr. Transport kept a variety of currency for almost every country in the world available at his apartment. It was much faster than trying to haggle or work out an exchange rate every time, plus it allowed him and his partner to stay in the background, the area in which they were most comfortable. Mr. Transport set the money on the table, careful to tip generously. A moment later he and Mr. Numbers were gone.
Across the café, an elderly gentleman glanced at their table and noticed their absence. He nonchalantly folded his paper, set some money on his own table, and headed off to make a phone call. The elderly gentleman did not tip nearly as well as Mr. Transport.
* * *
Several thousand miles away, in the middle of the Arctic tundra, Mr. Transport and Mr. Numbers reappeared. Both began shivering almost immediately.
“How long?” Mr. Transport asked, willing his teeth to keep from chattering.
“Three minutes fourteen seconds until health problems begin to set in,” Mr. Numbers replied automatically as he felt the temperature around him, tested the speed of the wind, and added in the meager protection his black suit offered him.
“Watch is set for three minutes,” Mr. Transport said, quickly fiddling with the high-priced device on his wrist. Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport were very careful when they wanted to talk openly. They always selected areas with no possible people to surround them, in abstract locales and with ample background noise so that listening devices and GPS would be rendered ineffective. They never used the same place twice and always kept their conversations under five minutes. Say what you will about Mr. Numbers, he was a very calculating man. No pun intended.
“Now then, what do you actually make of our new assignment? Are we being punished?”
“For what?” Mr. Numbers shot back. “Our success percentage is 98 percent, we finish our missions in the fastest time of any team, and we have had no recorded insubordination in the history of our career.”
“Then what would make them do this to us?” Mr. Transport asked, allowing the uncertainty and fear he had kept hidden away since he saw the document flood into his voice.
“We mustn’t assume the worse,” said Mr. Numbers. “Many of the reasons they had for putting us on this job are actually quite sound. They expect me to see any problems coming before they reach a critical point, and you’ll be necessary in the event we need to evacuate ourselves and any others involved.”
“I don’t imagine that’s really all there is to it,” Mr. Transport said flatly.
“Nor do I,” said Mr. Numbers. “Unfortunately, with the data I have, I don’t yet know what the ulterior motive of placing us in this position is. The only option we have is the same we’ve always had: do our jobs, stick to the books, and give me enough time to see what’s happening behind the scenes.”
“Do you think you’ll be able to figure it out before we’re stuck in whatever trap someone is planning?” Mr. Transport asked.
“I always have. Of course, that doesn’t mean I always will, but I don’t really see any other options available to us, let alone any better ones,” said Mr. Numbers.
“Agreed,” said Mr. Transport. A loud beeping began emanating from his wrist. Mr. Transport raised his watch and promptly turned it off. Without another word said, he and Mr. Numbers were gone from the sprawling white mounds of snow.
They reappeared in the apartment Mr. Numbers was currently renting under the name Mr. Digit. Mr. Transport tipped his head to Mr. Numbers then vanished to go pack his own bags. Mr. Numbers moved about his home, carefully controlling his movements so as not to show his body’s relief at entering in the heat, nor to shiver out of the residual cold still clinging to him. Instead he packed up his clothes, which consisted predominantly of suits, gathered his very few personal effects, then bagged up the remainder of his possessions, which were his toiletries. The room would need to be cleaned of all traces of him, but the company had a department for that. They would also take care of settling up the rent and making sure no one asked questions about Mr. Digit’s sudden departure.
Mr. Numbers took a moment to go to his window and pull back the thick black curtain. Looking out, he sighed as his eyes took in the splendor of Rome. From his vantage point he had an excellent view of the Coliseum. That was why he had chosen this apartment in the first place. Mr. Numbers was not the type to get caught up in sentimentality or nostalgia, but as he sat on his window sill looking out, he had to admit that he was going to miss this view. He wished he could rent this place again once his assignment was over; however, that was against protocol. Once an agent had left a place he could never return.
Mr. Transport reappeared some time later, carrying a large, brown tweed suitcase and a black duffel bag. As Mr. Transport walked toward the window, Mr. Numbers noticed a slight clinking sound coming from Mr. Transport’s bag. Mr. Numbers bit back his desire to chastise Mr. Transport for bringing along alcohol. Given what the duo would soon be doing, there was a very strong possibility that Mr. Numbers would be seeking a nip of the hard stuff himself.
“Ready?” Mr. Transport asked as he reached the window and joined Mr. Numbers.
“Of course,” Mr. Numbers replied on cue, holding his own baggage firmly so it wouldn’t be left behind.
Then the room was empty, only the slight echo of a voice filled with duty and the warm Roman sunlight left to fill it.