BY DAVID DATZ
WHILE MARJORIE showered, Boris dressed in the odd, greyish, brownish, slightly bluish uniform, which he supposed had been purposely designed to make his force look official but not much different from a mall security agency. Unobtrusive, like himself.
The money was good, the rules simple, the reasons mostly hidden. He had signed a long contract that looked, he expected, much like Marjorie’s. Unlike her, he had not read it, but the recruiters and trainers had soberly made plain that signing it was like swearing an oath, and that the consequences of violating it could range from very bad to catastrophically awful.
The job was a perfect, high-paying opportunity for a laid-off small-town cop with a two-year college degree and no other prospects, a man “chosen from among thousands of applicants for his intelligence, skills, and experience.” The recruiters and trainers had told them repeatedly of the importance of their mission not just to America but to the entire human race (and weren’t they really the same thing?). They had heard many lectures about constant vigilance, about not disclosing outside the project even the most mundane project detail, about the certain severe punishment for even the smallest violation, and about how they could never know why. Boris was no lawyer, but he could sense the emphatic lack of reference to anything judicial. Not to mention the strong implication that what they called “intelligence” really meant an outsized capacity for boredom.
So every day he sat in the air-conditioned guard booth in the desert, earning a good salary as a glorified parking lot attendant. He read all the rules and regulations. He surfed the web, read books. Nobody cared. Very few vehicles went in or out, because they were not supposed to. Supply trucks and delivery vans came in, and a few minutes later they left. Almost nobody left without having first come, and when they did, he was ready with papers to match the ones the drivers and passengers held. He took signatures, swiped identity cards, took electronic fingerprints, checked his computer screen, made sure the automatic photos were taken, told folks when they were due back and handed them pages of fine print — these he had read, because he had the time — promising, in legalese, swift and certain retribution if they failed in any way to meet the requirements in the fine print. He made them sign receipts for the instructions.
At night, he went home to his pre-fab community. The promise to live where they put him, among all the other security staff, had been the only thing that had really worried him when he signed the contract. Was this organization really the military under a different name? There were some similarities, management said, but in the 21st century he’d like it. And he’d had to admit that the little house — not an apartment, but a house — was nice: sparkling clean, fully furnished, including two big-screen TV sets, wi-fi, modern kitchen, even a wet bar and outdoor hot tub.
They gave him a car with unlimited mileage and a bottomless debit card that he never had to think about. Of course, the closest city was a six-hour round-trip that the work schedule hardly ever left time for.
The other staff had identical perks. They were all bored, but seemed content at dissipating their off hours with the pre-fab amenities. When not watching TV, they would hunch over tables at one of the three local pre-fab bars, which, in Boris’s opinion, all tried too hard — one at country honky-tonk, one at inner-city funk, and one at elite sophistication, and all with bartenders who prevented any serious inebriation.
They would soak in hot tubs, alone or with each other. They were racially and sexually diverse. Management would accept anything except illegal drugs or too much alcohol. Management called them “Sec Staff”, because “security staff” was too long for government officials to say. Naturally, the staffers changed it to “sex-daft”.
Boris felt oppressed. The place was too comfortable. He mused that he would have preferred to take the TV and the computer, with the wi-fi, into a three-room board-and-batten house with a plain pine floor and a fireplace, for which he would have enjoyed chopping his own wood. Rustic charm to go with the electronics.
Boris felt like a highly paid prisoner. He knew that he was exactly two years, two months, and eight days into his five-year contract, when the good-looking brunette in the expensive German car stopped at the gate on her way out. She looked grim, and seemed to be working at a sort of executive brusqueness. She told him she knew she was acting beyond normal parameters, but she had official business outside, too urgent for preparation of the normal paperwork. She stepped out of her car (required), exposing nice legs below a short skirt (not required), handed him her identity card and what she said was an “exceptional permission” document, and put her finger on the print-reader.
Boris took his time reading the document. He swiped her card and looked at his computer screen, which showed a red border around the card and finger-print results.
“I know what you’re seeing,” she said. “It’s supposed to be that way. This is not a normal situation, as I believe the document makes clear.”
Boris gave her his best cop look-over.
She glanced at his badge. “Officer Feldman,” she said, “believe me this is real and serious.”
Boris stared back.
“You could get, I mean the consequences of your not letting me through, would be serious. This is a dangerous situation. You don’t want, I mean you want to avoid severe problems for yourself,” she said.
Boris knew desperation when he saw it. He did not speak, but later, he remembered that he might have raised an eyebrow.
“I also have this,” she said, and reached into her brief case for another document, several stapled pages, with a paper clip on the second page.
Boris watched her face as he returned her ID card and documents, including the paper-clipped batch of hundred-dollar bills. She was trying to hold herself together and succeeding fairly well, considering. But as he continued to stare, her hard, official look vanished and her face softened.
“Please,” she whispered. “I don’t want to do anything. I will come back. I just need to, need, goddammit I just need.”
He spoke for the first time. “Go back to town. Come back here at exactly 6:45 tonight. Park behind there,” he said, and turned his face toward the four-car parking shed by the road. “Stay in the car until I come.”
She drove away, back towards the compound, and, two hours and twenty-three minutes later, to his mild surprise, she reappeared as he had told her. At 0700 his relief came, his buddy Sydney — who managed to drink too much despite the official vigilance, good-time Sydney, who knew about shared “sex-daft” activity and lots of other stuff. Sydney happily did not notice Boris’s unusual and elaborate walks back and forth between the parking shed and whatever was behind it, or — was that another body behind Boris in the shadows as he got into his car? Who cared?
When Boris unexpectedly returned to the guard booth four hours later to retrieve the book he had left in the shed, Sydney shrugged, and was again happy not to notice anything unusual, such as the other car starting up and driving away at the same time as Boris’s. The sex-daft had to take care of each other because who else would?
After the third rendezvous the operation became routine. Boris, with help from Marjorie, would tip generously for the motel room. The clerk wouldn’t even smile. They would enjoy themselves for exactly two and a half hours, and return, in the same manner.
The fourth time, as they lay in bed, Marjorie took a breath and blurted a question: “That first time, why did you trust me? How could you tell I wasn’t a spy? How can you tell now?”
Boris thought of how to answer. The truth was he hadn’t cared, but he didn’t want to say that. So instead, he said, with only a little irony, “Cop’s intuition.”
He did not say that at the moment when he had given her back her phony documents and her money, he had known he was falling in love with her.
He figured Marjorie already knew that.