Baxter’s Last Cache
Beau M. K. Prichard
It’s not always easy to track things back to a single origin. How can you connect the death of a suburban housewife, and explosion in Virginia, and a man who was thought dead for more than ten years? Of course there was Baxter himself, but even though he had gotten lazy about his tradecraft, complacent in his retirement, he didn’t actually fuck up. You can track everything back to a missing kid.
Frank Dixon, his name was, and of course he wasn’t missing, everyone knew Frank was with his dad, but no one knew where dad had run off to. Frank hadn’t come back from his weekend with dad, and it was assumed they were on the run.
An amber alert went out, and it was less than 24 hours before Frank’s dad was caught at a gas station, and Frank was found at a Super 8, waiting for dad to get back with the groceries. Frank went home to mom and dad went to jail.
But those 24 hours were all it took for Baxter to get fucked. Royally. So we can blame Frank, or really Frank’s dad for trying to steal his kid, or maybe Frank’s mom for not letting his dad see him more often, or maybe you can blame the panicky society for needing amber alerts in the first place, or we can have a whole discussion about the responsibility of the media and you can see how it’s hard to lay the blame on any one person or thing. But after, when he found out all the details, Baxter blamed Frank. He had to blame someone, and he didn’t mind blaming a kid.
It’s hard to calculate how many times you’re on camera a day. Traffic cams, security cameras, those little silver circles in ATMs...There are a lot of cameras. And when they want to, the powers that be can use them, say, for trying to find a dad who ran off with his kid. That’s how they found Frank’s dad, his license plate was recorded driving on a toll road. Easy peasy.
During the fourth hour of the amber alert, while local law enforcement was letting their computers troll through thousands or millions of images, trying to find Frank and his father, there were other eyes watching as well. No one in the offices of the Oregon State Patrol noticed when a single image from an ATM was flagged.
The image popped up on a monitor in the basement of a very large concrete building on the Eastern seaboard. There was a red border around the picture. It was a man, in mid-motion, his profile captured, his slightly misshapen nose leading the charge. He was crossing from left to right, you could see him over the shoulder of someone actually using the ATM. A highlighted line traced the circumference of his ears and his profile. It blinked, another image leapt up, the same man, the same nose, only from head on. The persistent red band around the picture started to urgently blink.
It drew the attention of the tech, who was looking at another monitor, helping solve a problem halfway around the world. She blinked in surprise at the red beacon and looked up, face stark in the computer glow.
And thus was Baxter well and truly fucked.
Some children are born to names (he looks like a John!), some grow into their names, some have names thrust upon them. Baxter was the last one, of course. When Baxter is the name you prefer, you can imagine the other options were pretty bad.
Herbert Llewellyn Baxter was saddled with a name that he might, might grow into by the time he reached 50 or so. Until then, Herb or Herbert hardly seemed appropriate for the grinning blond boy he was at six, or the scrawny mess he was at ten, or the ball of limbs he was at 13. The first day of gym in Junior High, the PE teacher yelled out their last names. It turned out Baxter was fun to say, and within a week, Baxter was the only name he would answer to. That was the name he responded to throughout his years of high school, military service, and the intelligence service. It was a name that could be barked or whispered. It served him well.
Of course, in his years as a spy, he never used his real name. Beneath the plethora of false identities and aliases, however, he always thought of himself as Baxter, despite his training. The echo of the coach’s voice yelling “Baxter!” was the moment he was given an adult’s self-awareness. From that day on, of course he knew who he was. How could he not? He was fuckin’ Baxter.
But no one had called him by his chosen name in more than ten years. It was too unusual, it wasn’t worth the risk. From sometime in early 2003, he was known to one and all as Jerry Sumner. But for longer than that, the man known as Herbert Llewellyn Baxter, had been dead. Since September 11, 2001, in fact.
The tech told his boss, who immediately made a phone call. Five minutes later, he dumped all the information he had onto an encrypted thumb drive, and it went by courier upstairs (The sensitive things in this building were never, ever put on computers that were web-capable. Too risky.). The courier took it past two receptionists into a very important-looking office. The picture of the President of the United States watched over the exchange, smiling and unblinking.
The courier handed the drive to a snowy-haired man behind a massive desk. The nameplate on his desk didn’t have a title, that was on the door, and if you had to ask anyway, you were definitely in the wrong place. The name was simply, Smith, of course. Smith pulled open a drawer and plugged the thumb drive in. A sleeping computer hummed to life and the monitor on his desk sprang to life. Smith looked up and saw the courier was still there. He stared at the courier, his eyes flat and unwelcoming. It didn’t take long for the kid to get the message.
Alone, Smith pulled up the information on the drive. A picture came up, the original ATM picture, and as the highlights began to appear on the profile, Smith cursed under his breath. He didn’t need to be told.
Smith reached for the phone.
While Baxter’s life was being ruined, he was getting off. He lived in a fairly modest condo complex, but there were a lot of bored housewives around, and as far as anyone could tell he was not old yet, clearly of means as he never worked, and apparently very single. They all knew him as Jerry, of course, and he barely kept track of their names. They were entirely different women when they were in his bedroom. He would smile and nod when he saw them with their kids or getting the mail, but the rest of the time all he ever seemed to see of them was the top or the back of their heads.
Her hair was short and simple, not spiky or styled to draw attention in any way. If her cheekbones had been a little higher, her eyes a little bigger, or if she ever smiled, she would certainly be attractive. As it was, she was forgettable, which suited her and her work very well.
Smith had simply shown her the monitor and handed her a printout, which would never leave the office. She knew the information in Baxter’s file, of course, and Smith knew she knew, but the formalities must be observed.
“Any questions?” Smith said, his hands folded on his desk, the picture of Baxter hovering on the screen between them.
Smith shrugged. “Minimal as you can, but you have permission to break eggs if necessary.”
She looked at Smith flatly for a moment, eyes like steel.
Smith nodded and looked away, dismissing her.
She walked out, past one receptionist and then another, keeping her composure. When she was finally out of the building, she dropped her visitor badge in the trash. It was a name she’d never answered to before, and never would again. She was almost never seen in the halls of power, this was only the second time she’d ever been to Smith’s office. Deniability was essential.
The first time she had been summoned to Smith’s office was her only other wet assignment.
But Baxter! After more than a decade. She shook her head in disbelief, and then she realized she was well and truly surprised, and she could count on one hand the number of times that had happened. But, she reflected,if she were to be surprised, of course it would be by Baxter.
The woman sighed and rolled off him. After a moment she got up and walked to the bathroom. He admired the view, and then realized how short of breath he was. It was getting worse. It wasn’t bad of course, or he’d have done something about it already, but he was reminded with a pang of the layer of dust on his treadmill and the very close threat of having to buy pants with a larger waist size.
But still, the breath came back quickly enough so that he had his wind when she (the name escaped him, but he called them all babe and no one seemed to mind) returned and offered to roll them a joint.
He considered his situation. Naked, in bed with a woman who had enough spare time and disposable income to strive to look fantastic naked, while still being insecure enough to want to sleep with him on a regular basis to feel attractive. And this was his retirement! He never actually got to do fun stuff like this when he was a spy. People were just always trying to kill him, and it was never entertaining.
It had been some time since he had thought about his old life. Most of the time these days it seemed like it had happened to someone else or it was a book he’d read or a movie he’d seen. There were details here and there, but the narrative was...distant, unclear.
He made a snoring noise in the back of his throat but kept from coughing. He leaned over and put his lips close to hers. She took the smoke from him, inhaling as he exhaled and part of his brain went “See! You never used to get to do shit like that!” and he wasn’t sure why the tone was so argumentative.
She had a real identity, of course, but you’d never find her true name on any of her ID, the passports, drivers licenses, credit cards that were part of her stock and trade. Unlike Baxter, she was committed to her nom de plumes, in the back of her head she didn’t think of herself as deeply anyone in particular. Certainly not Lindsay Barnes, not Linds or Linz, or Barnes or Barney, even though she had been called all of those things. On the same level that Baxter knew he was Baxter, Lindsay Barnes had realized her true adult self when she had been assigned her first code name: Falconer. That wasn’t the code name she had now, of course, it changed often, for everyone’s safety. But if she was forced to say who she thought she was, she would say Falconer. But really all that meant was that she was an agent. She was a machine, an implement, a tool. She had been trained, honed even, to do very specific tasks. She found that she rarely thought of herself in terms of being a person at all. It was always about solving problems, finding solutions, making moves.
That in itself used all of her strength and energy, so when she wasn’t working, she took her time off just as seriously. She watched movies and read books with an almost alarming degree of focus, to the degree that she could rarely read in public and had almost given up on seeing movies in the theaters. Once a month she did big rails of coke and had gymnastic sex with a personal trainer, and the meshing of their lean, hard bodies always looked like an ad for something that would give you abs.
All the salient info on Baxter was in her head already, not because she thought she’d need it, but because she’d learned it once, and hadn’t decided that she needed to get rid of it.
Poor Baxter with his hideous name. Brilliant Baxter with his new ways of using old-fashioned tradecraft. Poor Baxter who came along too late to enjoy the cold war. Genius Baxter who saw just how to mold and shape Lindsay Barnes into Falconer.
She was walking on autopilot, taking in her surroundings, evaluating the environment, watching for warning signs, while she remembered Baxter.
It was harder than she would have imagined to recall his face, even though she’d just seen it on Smith’s screen. But after a moment of mentally squinting, there he was, that unfortunate nose marring what might otherwise be a dignified face. That straw-colored hair that was always a disheveled mop or a close-crop of military grade fuzz.
She rotated the face in her brain, remembering it, remembering seeing it with black streaks of face paint on it. Seeing it hiding behind glasses and a hat. Seeing it shine with sweat as he ran, ran, as if running were his real resting state. And, just once, seeing his face in the throes of a joyous, hungry, extravagant orgasm.
And then she started to think of how she would kill him.
After the slutty housewife left, Baxter ordered pizza. He had no plans that evening, but he figured rolling another joint and watching a movie seemed like a very likely plan. He yawned, stretched, trolled through the fridge for something to drink, put on some sweat pants.
Pulling on the pants reminded him of his almost-gut, actually, it was probably fair to call it a gut now, looking at it, and he didn’t want to think about it. Instead he thought back to the other thing, his old life, and the fact that it had come to mind today. And the fact that for some reason it had come to mind in a way that seemed to indicate he missed his old life. And he thought of how much goddamn work it was, running all the time, keeping his body ready for any emergency, and how that had slowly, very very slowly, fallen away from his priorities, getting lower and lower until he didn’t worry about it at all now. No one was trying to kill him now, after all. So what if he was lazy? No one knew Baxter was alive.