The Agency

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Sheila yawned as she drove up the ramp from the underground car park. The morning sun bounced off windows to reflect in her rear-view mirror. She tilted it to cut the glare and joined the vehicles waiting to exit the downtown area.

 

Three streets ahead, an electrified fence and iron gates barred the way. Between them and the high-rises, a block cleared of buildings allowed guards to see anyone approaching. She drew up next to a scanner and lowered her window. Identified, the gates opened and Sheila drove through to No Man's Land.

 

For security, the city also levelled a section outside the fence. After the razing, people picked over the rubble for anything to burn as fuel. Now tufts of grass found pockets to grow, jostling for space with shy Johnny-jump-ups and brazen Arctic poppies, bright splashes of colour in an area reminiscent of a war zone.

 

Once past No Man’s Land, a huddle of derelict tenements flanked a curve in the road. Sheila drove around the bend just as two men pushed a broken-down car into her path. She slammed on the brakes and men erupted from the buildings on either side. A rifle roared and a bullet ricocheted off a window.

 

Sheila threw the car into reverse. Behind her, a rusted truck drove at an angle to block her escape. She stopped, put the Mille in neutral, and hit a red button on the dash. Fear shook her and she took a calming breath.

 

One man tried to open the door and screamed when the Mille blasted him away; another rammed a rifle butt at the windscreen; then a man with a booming voice stood in front of the car. He carried a flame-thrower.

 

"Get out of the car!"

 

Built to commemorate the second decade of the second millennium, the Mille-20 was one of the last cars off the assembly line. Modified to withstand most attacks, the windows and lights were bullet proof, the bodywork embedded with steel grids. Puncture sealant inflated the wheels, and it had a trick or two beyond Henry Ford's wildest dreams.

 

"Get out of the car!" The order came again.

 

Trapped, Sheila waited, hands locked on the steering wheel to still their trembling.

 

"Leave her alone!" A man with a red beard and flowing locks ran out of an alley to launch himself at the other man. He wrenched away the flame-thrower and lobbed it at the nearest wall.

 

Others followed and a fight broke out between them and her assailants. When the attackers fled, her rescuer and his men dragged the car out of her path. Sheila eased the Mille forward, wary of a trick as the red-bearded man bowed her through the narrow gap with the theatrical flourish of a medieval courtier. She smiled and mouthed her thanks as she passed. She would know him again. Redbeard. Until she learned his real name, she would think of him as Redbeard.

 

Sheila took another deep breath to ease the tension knotted in her chest and switched on the radio to take her mind off what had just happened.

 

Last night, guards apprehended the five insurgents who broke into Northside Penitentiary Maximum Security Prison two days ago. Among those captured is Jules Rimbeau. A repeat offender, Rimbeau faces lethal injection at noon today. The others, including twelve-year-old Matthew Dawson, are denied future incarceration.

 

Instrumental in identifying the insurgents is Edward Mischenko. For his part in the capture of the five men, Mischenko's reward is an extension of his six-month sentence.

 

The Olympic committee continues to assess host bids for the 2036 games from Vancouver, London and New York. The IOC estimates the city with the successful bid will add 50,000 employees to the payroll.

 

On the home front: A bus carrying farm workers lost control on the highway south of Calgary and rolled into a ditch. Dead are eight employees of the MacKenzie—

 

She flicked off the radio. They relayed that piece of news via the agency minutes after it happened and she spent the previous evening drafting a contract for replacement workers for MacKenzie Farms. There were times when she cursed the efficiency of her information network.

 

Although too early for the office to open, several people gathered outside. As the Mille approached, a guard cleared a path to the underground garage.

 

On the lower floor was the heart of the agency where banks of computers stored the information that allowed them to operate efficiently. Here, Margot clucked over her electronic children and Charlene broke codes to glean details from computers across the city. This was where Aunty Jean juggled accounts. Tia and her security team worked here too.

 

Other employment agencies were closing, unable to compete with Davenport. Sheila sank her inheritance and all her savings in the business four years earlier, with nothing more than earning a living on her mind. It was evolving into something that, at times, scared the hell out of her. She grabbed her briefcase and headed for the stairs.

 

Lorna was at the fax machine.

 

"Anything new?" Sheila threw her the question as she made for her office.

 

"They think the bus driver had a heart attack. They’re doing an autopsy this morning." Lorna rose and followed Sheila. "You look coffee depleted. Late night?"

 

"Yes. And yes." While Lorna poured coffee, Sheila took the MacKenzie contract from her briefcase and tossed it on the desk. "Take a butchers at this. Make sure I didn’t miss anything."

 

"You never do." Lorna placed the coffee before Sheila, dropped onto a chair and took up the contract. "I made your appointment for nine."

 

Sheila checked her watch. 7:45. She had time. "Do we have suitable people registered?"

 

"Twelve possibilities. One went to agricultural college way back when."

 

"If I get the assignment, tell Angie I'll meet with the placements at two. What about the driver?"

 

"The bus company will see me at ten."

 

Sheila nodded. "Read the bloody contract." She leaned back and sipped her coffee. Vestiges of fear clung in pockets of jangling nerves and coursed along her veins like poisoned darts. She took a relaxing breath and concentrated on the sales call ahead.

Cochrane. She passed through years earlier on her way to the States. She knew nothing about farming beyond the stench when they spread manure and the growl of harvesters crawling over wide expanses. That would have changed because the fuel needed to power the huge machines cost more than a farmer could pay. Even for her it took a week’s salary to run the Mille for a month. Hiring men to harvest crops manually was more practical for farmers like Pete MacKenzie.

 

"Great." Lorna placed the contract on the desk. "Do you want to check my proposal for the driver?"

 

Sheila shook her head. "I trust you." She gulped the last of her coffee. "I’d better get going."

 

On her way out of the city, Sheila reached a police roadblock and an officer waved her onto the shoulder. She pulled to the side of the highway as he approached the car with a hand on the gun at his hip.

 

"Identification?" He bent to peer into the Mille.

 

Sheila handed him her ID from the briefcase. "What’s the trouble, officer?"

 

"No trouble." He studied her documents then gave them back. "Business or pleasure?"

 

"Business." These days, no woman in her right mind would drive into the country for pleasure. "I have an appointment to keep. Will this take long?"

 

He ignored her question and held out his hand. "Keys?"

 

Sheila took the keys from the ignition and passed them to him. The most likely reason for pulling her over was— "Are you expecting a supply truck?"

 

Suspicion iced the blue eyes. "Step out of the car."

 

She climbed out and stood with one hand on the door.

 

"Move away from the car."

 

She let the door swing to a close and went to the front of the Mille. Vaguely, she was aware of another vehicle waved to the shoulder but her attention was on the officer as he unclipped the holster.

 

"Open your jacket."

 

Sheila held the front edges of her suit jacket apart to expose the lining and silk shell.

 

"Your wrists?"

 

She held out her hands, fingers down, and showed him the backs of her wrists. "No tattoos. I am not a criminal."

 

As though she hadn’t spoken, he pointed to the verge. "Stand there."

 

Sheila walked to where he indicated and another officer sent the woman driver to join her from the van parked behind the Mille. A little boy clung to the woman’s skirts and she held a baby to her shoulder, one hand protectively on the back of its head.

 

"This is ridiculous," Sheila commented. "Surely you don't suspect two women of—"

 

"Be quiet!" The officer glared at Sheila and moved to stand behind them.

 

The woman took her hand from the baby’s head and tugged Sheila’s sleeve. "Don’t antagonize him."

 

Sheila studied her. In her mid-twenties, she had a tired look, the hair pulled into a braid already streaked with white. Life was tough enough without having kids to worry about, but the human race perpetuated itself. It always had, even in countries where famine and disease had existed for generations.

 

Aware of Sheila’s scrutiny, the woman glanced at her, eyes wide with fear she transmitted to the child. His hand crept into Sheila’s and she glanced down, forcing a reassuring smile as she held the small fingers that reminded her of— She pushed the memory away.

 

Tangled and overgrown fields surrounded them. For anyone bent on ambushing a supply truck, there was nowhere to hide. To the west, nestled at the foot of the Rockies and no more than a dark haze, were the coveted trees. People denuded whole hills before the government sent troops to guard what had become a precious commodity: trees fortified the thinning ozone layer. At least that showed some improvement because fewer vehicles belched deadly fumes, and even fewer factories. Man and technology were no longer a problem.

 

Against the backdrop of prairie, glinting in the sunlight, a truck seemed to float above the shimmer of heat haze that gave the highway the appearance of a windblown river. It drew close enough for Sheila to distinguish the escort of smaller vehicles before the rumble of engines hung in the air. Seconds later, high-powered motorcycles sped past followed by an army truck, its tarpaulin down and soldiers manning two machine guns. The ground vibrated and the small hand gripped tighter as three eighteen-wheelers growled by towing refrigerated containers. Behind them, another truck carried two more manned guns, and four motorcycles ended the cavalcade.

 

The police officer jangled keys and held them out. "Show’s over."

 

They took their keys, and the officers strolled to their cars.

 

"Do you have far to go?" Sheila asked the woman.

 

She shook her head. "Just a short way." She walked toward her van, the boy clinging to the faded flower-print skirt. He glanced back and Sheila waved to him before climbing into the Mille.

 

*

 

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