Tyler limped towards the other side of the room, then skittered back to grab his sheet, too aware of his naked state. His mind was pulling him this way and that, almost as much as he was dancing about the room. He couldn’t believe what he had seen, and couldn’t believe what was running through his head. The voices kept telling him the same things over and over as he stared, willing the screen to change back to Erikson.
Hell yeah, n00b. She betrayed you. Your fuckin’ angel betrayed you. Everyone does in the end. Ain’t it what you deserve? Ain’t that what you do to everyone you work with on your ‘missions’?
Tyler’s heart pounded in his chest, like the drums still under his feet. The shot changed. Men at the bar. Changed. Shots of couples sitting in the booths, happy with wine and music. Changed. Erikson. Fucking Erikson.
Talking to Eloise.
Tyler looked about the dim room, panicking. As stupid as he was at times, he couldn’t make an escape dressed in a bedsheet. He almost missed his jacket, hanging on the back of a large easy chair, a neutral and rather dull shade of grey. He limped over to it and pulled it on, feeling it huff in appreciation. Tyler started thinking of his escape as he looked for his shorts. They couldn’t have got too far.
How had Erikson got here? Had Eloise called him in? No. They’d tagged him. Tyler suddenly suspected his jacket and shrugged it off, letting it drop to the floor. His fucking jacket. After all these years, his jacket had caused the death of him. He saw his shorts, and pulled them on after tossing the bedsheet.
Had Erikson shook his hand? Was that when he was tagged?
That had to be it. Not the jacket then. Not Eloise turning on him like Fuzz had turned on him. Not his jacket. Tyler swore loudly as he noticed his boxers, shoving them into a pocket along with his red bandanna. He pulled his jacket back on and it bloomed into a priestly purple in appreciation.
Tyler looked at his hands, stupefied. They looked clean. But this was Sigma. They dealt in memories. Maybe he didn’t remember getting tagged.
Run you stupid fuck! Get your ass moving.
Tyler agreed, and dashed at the door. Not the one that Eloise had gone out through, but another one. One he thought he remembered lead to the backstage areas. He was almost in tears to think what he had done. He’d dragged his shit into this place. Fucked up the one last, pure thing he had. He should have known he was too hot to come hide out here.
Shoes. Fuck it.
Tyler felt the hard, wood floors against his feet as he dashed down the stairs, along a darkened corridor. This felt all too familiar. His side was starting to throb, and his chest hurt like hell, as he tried to drag in breaths. The bandages were crushing him, keeping everything too restricted. He couldn’t do this again. Not so soon after the last time.
Tyler tried to blend as he noticed a jazz trio push through a door up ahead. The warm sounds of the bar flooded in momentarily, before being shut out cold as the door swung closed. The three laughed and joked amongst each other. Tyler was shaking as he slowed his pace. They passed without giving him much more than a glance. One of them looked passed him, smiled. Nodded.
Even through the jacket, Tyler could feel the hard barrel.
“Not here, kid. Not in this club.” The voice was right close to his ear. “Come back upstairs.”
Tyler froze in the split second he should have lashed out. That was the only chance he had to get himself free. Instead, he froze. Then the man moved about, still keeping the heavy pistol aimed at him. The jazz trio headed into the dressing room, oblivious. It was Eloise’s second. That old man with the dusty grey hair. Dre Augustus, Tyler thought.
“Come on. Back upstairs.”
“I got to get out of here,” Tyler implored, quick and quiet tones. “Please, man. Lemme go before I get shit even deeper for Eloise. I love her too much to bring this shit on her place.”
“She knows how to take care of things. Move.”
Tyler turned and headed back the way he came. Would a jazz pianist really shoot him in the back? Dre seemed like someones cool old grandfather, but right now he seemed every much a part of the world Tyler knew. He was someone Eloise could count on to do anything. He thought about all those dreamy nights he had watched her sing. The first time he had met her.
What the fuck was she?
Tyler heard the door close as he got back up to Eloise’s room. Dre waved the gun towards the couch where Tyler had been crashed out. “Take a seat, kid.” Tyler did what he was told.
“You don’t know who those guys are. You don’t know what I do.”
“Doesn’t much matter to me,” Dre replied, keeping the gun trained. “I’ve got my orders though.”
“Did she sell me out?” Tyler felt the disgust rising in his throat as he said the words. He felt like shit even thinking it, but somehow they had spilled out all the same.
“You aughta know Eloise took a liking to you, kid. A long time back too. Else you wouldn’t be up here right now. And you’re a lesser man that I thought you were for thinking she would do something like that after all she’s done.”
Tyler felt the bite of guilt. “Rough night,” he said, trying to explain. “That’s all.” He saw his shoes, sitting next to the couch and cursed them silently, before pulling them on. The door opened, and Eloise came through. Tyler stood, ready with a litany of apologies.
“You’re the popular one, child.”
“I’m so sorry, Eloise,” Tyler said, crossing the floor. Eloise kept moving, nodding to Dre. The man slid his pistol away. “If I had have known I’d bring this shit down, I’d never have come.”
“I told you before, Tyler. You’re always safe here. But right now perhaps, you might be safer amongst your own people.”
Tyler looked up at her, tried to sense if she knew the truth. He wondered if she really knew about the Agency. He looked passed her at the monitors, but he couldn’t see Erikson.
“You know who he was? What he came here for?”
“It wasn’t for you, child,” Eloise remarked, smooth and silky. She caressed his face, turned his gaze back to her. “Oh, you’re such the paranoid one. Look at the state of you. You were going to run out of here dressed like that? Where are your boxers, child? The commando look isn’t so becoming on you.”
Tyler flushed bright red, and for some God-forsaken reason pulled them out of his pocket as some kind of proof. She just smiled at him, slowly. He felt bad for the way his shorts were hanging off him. He tried to hide behind his dreadlocks in shame. He didn’t even know where to start to explain the paranoia.
“He mentioned he was looking for someone of your description. I said I would keep my ears and eyes open. But you have a place you need to go right now, child? Somewhere important?”
Tyler nodded, taking a deep and slow breath. Eloise said something to Dre in a language Tyler didn’t understand and the man nodded, quick to act. There was a sense of motion and purpose about him, as he started talking to the air.
“If you have calls to make, online calls, perhaps it would be best in the air,” Eloise explained, her hands still on his shoulders. “Then you can go offline before we drop you off. It will be more difficult for them to get a fix if you go ghost again quickly.”
“Thanks. Eloise. I mean, I really mean it. Thanks.”
Eloise smiled, an expression so smooth and filled with mystery. She looked like she was enjoying some private thrill. A jazz singer playing spy. Tyler rubbed at the back of his neck, shaking out his dreadlocks a little before Dre turned back and said that the chopper was ready in five. Tyler tried to make sense of it, realising that he was being whisked away before he had a chance to work it all out.
“Next time, maybe your stay might be longer, child,” Eloise said. She gave him a slow and lingering kiss that took Tyler by surprise. He felt the soft, gentle touch against his lips, and then it was done.
“You’re not coming with me?” asked Tyler, still trying to find his breath. He knew how silly it sounded as the words came out.
“Of course I can’t. I have a show in twenty minutes. It would look out of place for me to miss even one. Stay safe, my daring child.”
Tyler nodded, and that was that. She drifted back towards the door, and back out of his life. Tyler stood stunned for a few moments, still tasting her on his lips. Dre had to speak to him a second time before he turned. They both headed to the roof and into the night where, indeed, there was a chopper waiting on the roof. Tyler climbed in, feeling his heart sink.
* * *
Manly was sitting opposite him as Tyler sat slumped back in the choppers seat. His handler was looking as in control as ever, despite what Tyler was going through. Tyler was forcing himself to subvocalise, so as far as Dre knew, he was just sitting back and enjoying the ride across the city. Tyler was too tired to enjoy the views.
“We will have an agent at point 61,” Manly remarked. He looked strange there, even in hyper reality. Something about him didn’t sit right in the chair. Tyler put it down to bad wetware. “We might have to evac you. Send you somewhere until all this blows over.”
“You know about point 60?”
“We have a shortlist. It looks like casual arson, but it obviously smells of much more than that.”
“Sigma,” Tyler remarked, staring across the cab at Manly. He saw his handler’s expression. Manly rarely seemed to be caught unawares. He did right now, Tyler noticed.
“Ah. Well, if that’s the truth, that explains a few things. Keep this short, Tyler. I’ll have an agent called Carter on the ground there. Truthphrase Jabberwocky. This’ll be quick. We can’t afford another mistake right now.”
Tyler found himself staring out of the chopper, the city lit in its powerful glory beneath him as they travelled. Manly kept talking in his cultured accent, “You’ve always done good work, Agent Burrell. The Agency looks after its own. That goes without saying. You need not have doubts.”
Tyler could sense it, not so much in the tone of Manly’s voice, but in the fact he was saying what he was. There was serious trouble right now in the house. Serious trouble.
“Not long now.”
Manly vanished like a ghost, right before Tyler went ghost again. He felt his wetware slump offline, like something wet running down his spine. Something felt final about it, like someone walking over his grave. Dre was looking at him, strangely interested.
“You ok, kid?”
Tyler felt the comforting warmth of his jacket against his skin, and crossed his arms against his chest. He stared out on the city and just nodded gently. Finally, everything was going to be ok. He closed his eyes and ignored the hard, rattling whir of the chopper.