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Close Your Eyes, Count to Three

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The door to the interrogation room finally opened, and in walked a supercilious looking agent, complete with overly gelled hair. I would wager he had never been out in the field his entire career - a bureaucrat. He laid out the folders he had brought with him on the desk, crossed his arms, and stared at me.
Two could play the waiting game. The only sound in the interrogation room came from the snap of the match in my hand as it hit the striking surface on the matchbook. The brief flare of light that it provided seemed to throw him off his game, since his gaze flickered down from my eyes to where I was using it to light a cigarette. When I blew a ring of smoke in his face, he finally had enough and began to speak.
"You are the agent codenamed 'Luna' from the ... fiasco in Budapest," he stated. "Tell me about what happened, from your point of view."
I sighed. "I've already been over this three times, with three other agents. And since you have my report sitting right there in front of you, you clearly already know what happened."
"I have read your report, yes, but it leaves a number of unanswered questions. Which is why I want you to go over it for me again. Start with the details of your undercover assignment."
I took a deep drag from my cigarette and began to talk.
Once upon a time, in the golden age of espionage, the most interesting places to be were in Moscow and Berlin. Then the Berlin Wall fell down, disarmament began, and the Cold War ended. That had been a very long time ago though. Nowadays, the most interesting city was Budapest.
All roads haven't led to Rome since the decline and fall of the empire. The current center of traffic for all of Europe was Budapest since its central location in the continent means that all major highways and rail lines pass through it. Possibly as a direct result of that fact, it was also the center for all organized and semi-organized crime in Europe. With the current focus on criminal and terrorist organizations, rather than on opposing countries, these two facts combine to mean that Budapest is one of the highest priorities for every intelligence agency in the world. For obvious reasons, there's no official census information on where spies live, but if there were, I have no doubt that Budapest would have the highest number of spies per capita.
The Zodiac Lounge was well known for two things; its diverse menu of food from all nationalities, and its selection of cheap liquor. These two factors meant that it was popular among foreigners in Budapest, whether they were looking for a taste of home or trying to save a little money on a night out. Those same two factors also meant that it was a popular destination for members of the underworld and served as neutral ground for all the various gangs in the city, a trait for which it was less well known by civilians. Getting an agent inside the Zodiac Lounge was the dream of most agencies.
It took a solid month of playing at various open mic nights around the city and making connections through the entire Budapest music scene before I managed to get noticed by the bass player of The Scene, the band that regularly played at the Zodiac. It took another month of asking for help with the bridge of a new song I was working on, collaborating with the drummer to come up with lyrics for one of their new songs, lending vocals to a duet they were working on, and a number of pointed hints about looking for extra gigs to make rent money before I got invited to perform with them for a Friday night at the Zodiac, with a promise that I could turn into a regular addition to their lineup if it went well.
Two months of undercover work that all paid off that first night at the Zodiac, when Laszlo Gabor walked through the central dining room to the reserved back room during the first number we performed.
"Wait," the bureaucrat interviewing me held out a hand to stop my retelling as he furiously scribbled some notes down. "Go back to the beginning. When did you first find out about Laszlo Gabor's organization?"
I had to bite down on my tongue to keep myself from saying or doing anything I would regret. I knew that the only way to get through this was to answer his questions. I worked the next cigarette out of the pack and continued my story.
I first found out about Laszlo Gabor on my first day in Budapest. I had graduated top of my class from the academy, and as a result, I was offered my choice of assignments. Naturally, I asked for Budapest, but I was still a little surprised when I was actually assigned there as a rookie. When I arrived at Ferihegy airport, my first task was to report to the station chief for the city, in a safe house in the Ferencvaros district. Its location near the universities and the younger crowd in that section of the city meant that there was a much higher turnover rate in the housing market, and people were less likely to ask questions about our presence.
The safe house was a small apartment in a high rise. I knocked on the door, in the staccato quintet of beats that was drilled into all of us at the academy. The door to the apartment opened, revealing two men talking inside; the first an older, bald man that I recognized from my briefing file as Rudolf, the station chief, and the second was a young man with a moptop, suited and with sunglasses, near him.
"You're dismissed," Rudolf told the boy, as he gestured to me to enter.
I waited for him to leave before entering, and made sure the door was shut tightly before following Rudolf into the main room of the apartment. He was laying out files on a table, all the information they had about Gabor's organization.
"We've been tracking a growing organization in Budapest. They currently are one of the largest criminal syndicates in the city, and have branches in the rest of continental Europe. We have a good handle on most of the major players here, but this new group means that we need more agents on the ground. I know you just got out of the academy, but I'm afraid you're going to have to learn to swim fast, since you're going straight in the deep end. I need you to get undercover and get more information on this man, Laszlo Gabor, their leader, and the nightclub they are using as a meeting ground with other organizations, the Zodiac Lounge."
I took a moment from my recounting to take a sip of water.
"And that was the first time that you met either Agent Rudolf or Agent Justin directly, yes?" the paper pusher across from me asked, as he continued to take notes.
"Yes, that was my first meeting with both of them," I replied.
"Please," he said, "continue with what happened that first night you entered into the Zodiac Lounge undercover."
I spent the rest of the night staying far away from Laszlo. I didn't want to provide any reason to suspect me as anything other than a new singer brought in to fill a gap in the band, and so I made sure to stay in cover the whole night. I sang, had a few drinks at the bar, and didn't have a conversation with anyone other than the band and the club's management the entire night. I left with the rest of the members of The Scene, and didn't try to tail Laszlo, or anyone from his organization. I devoted the entire night to securing my cover, and, while I did pick up a few overheard details from when I went to the bar to pick up drinks for myself and the rest of the band, I didn't actively try to gather any intelligence that night.
I went back to the safe house the next morning, used the same broken five beats to signal myself to gain entrance. I was a little surprised when no one answered the door the first time I knocked; there should have been someone there watching at all times. I tried a second time, and a third, but there was still no answer.
At that point, I got a little spooked, and decided to walk away, try to figure out what was going on and report back in later; if there was a problem, it was better to stay safe and under suspicion for approaching the safe house if someone was watching, rather than try to pick the lock and confirm any suspicions they might have.
I was halfway down the hall back towards the stairs, when I heard a door open behind me, and I turned around to see who it was. It was Rudolf, in the doorway of the safe house. And he had a gun pointed right at me.
He glanced around the hallway to make sure I was alone a few times, and then he gestured me towards the apartment with his free hand. "Quickly," he hissed.
Once we were both inside, he triple locked and bolted the door shut. As he did so, I looked around the room, and saw that everything important, all the files and information stored here, was being shredded and put in trash bags.
Rudolf noticed where my attention was, and said, "You got here just in time. I'm closing this house down right now, and it's the last one left in Budapest. We have a mole; somebody leaked the identities of most of our agents to Gabor's syndicate. I haven't approached you yet, because you got here just before it happened, and you were probably not compromised and safer undercover than being approached, but we've been sending everyone else to ground and getting those we know are compromised out of the country as fast as possible, but right now our entire organization is vulnerable. So far, they don't seem to have done anything with the information, but we have reports that they're going to be auctioning it off to the highest bidder."
"I just made contact last night, I've got an in," I told him. "I can get close to Gabor, recover the data before it's sold."
Rudolf just sighed and looked tired. "I wasn't exaggerating. Everyone else has gone to ground, or been evacuated through the airport and the embassy. You are currently the only spy we have left in this city, because only I know your identity, and whoever the mole is couldn't sell you out too. The potential rewards for this are too great, so I can't tell you not to proceed, but you need to be aware of the risks, since you would have no backup or assistance of any kind."
I nodded, determined. "I can do this. I'll recover the information."
"If you do manage to recover the information, bring it to our embassy. Don't try to take it out of the city, it's too valuable to risk with just one agent guarding it for an extended trip. And be careful," he waved me towards the door, "I have to finish sanitizing this location, so good luck."
So that was it then. I was officially on my own, with no help or backup to finish this mission. People like to think of spies as James Bond like figures, capable of saving the world all on their own. They forget that even James Bond has help from Q and the rest of his supporting cast. I would have to do everything myself. I would have to plant bugs in all the rooms where they might talk about their criminal activities, monitor the recordings and take notes on everything that they discussed, perform cryptanalysis on any codes they used, cross reference their schedules to find out where their hideouts were, and perform stakeouts on those locations myself, all while managing to maintain my cover identity and not arouse suspicion. This wasn't a job for one person, it was work enough for ten people.
I took a deep breath. I could do this. I had the training. I had the best scores of any recruit in the last twenty years.
And what's more, I was motivated. This was my chance to prove myself to the rest of the agency. And this was my chance to make a difference.
So, I would just take things one step at a time. And the first step for this operation would be to get intel. Which meant that I needed to go plant some bugs.
I couldn't plant any bugs in the Zodiac, since it was regularly swept by both the Lounge's own security force, as well as any number of gangs who were meeting there. I was able however, to get close enough to Laszlo that first night to overhear him mention an old house on the other side of the Danube, near Rose Hill in Buda. It took me two days of surveillance to make sure I had the right place, and to figure out which rooms to bug. Two days spent in abandoned houses nearby, taking pictures of their movements in and out. Once I got a sense of their positioning though, I was ready to act.
The guards were always fewest during the day time, around noon, when there were usually no inhabitants there. I weaved in through their security sweeps of the yard, and used a tree near the house to get into the second floor through a window. I was able to plant my listening devices in two of the more frequently used rooms easily, both on the ground floor, but I was just at the door of the last room I needed to bug, a meeting room on the second floor, when I heard a door open downstairs and voices start to carry through the house.
I cursed under my breath, and sprinted for the room, leaving the door open. Shutting it would only buy me a few seconds if they came up here, and it would cost just as much time to shut it silently enough not to draw their attention. I lifted one of the lighter weight chairs up from near the wall and placed it under the chandelier, to use as a footstool so I could plant the bug there. While I got the bug in to the bowl of the light fixture and was placing it, I was also keeping one ear on the men downstairs, who seemed to be staying in the lobby. That was when I heard the front door open again, and more men enter, and I realized that they had just been waiting for the rest of whoever was invited to arrive. And worse, the sudden noise from the front door had startled me into dropping the bug into the chandelier. I was rapidly running out of time, so I shoved the antenna wire into my mouth to free up my other hand to help me grab the bug and attach it in a less conspicuous place in the bowl. I quickly wired up the antenna to the chandelier's cord, stepped off the chair and placed it back against the wall where it had been initially. But when I got to the door, I realized I was too late, and that the first of the goons had already reached the top of the stairs and my escape route was cut off.
I stubbed out the remains of my latest cigarette in the increasingly cluttered looking ashtray on the table.
"The mission to that manor in Obuda, that was your first direct contact with Agent Justin," the man interrogating me asked.
"Yes," I continued, "But that's getting ahead of the story, if you want me to tell it in order."
He nodded his assent, so I thought back to my first trip into Obuda.
I ducked back out of sight before anyone could spot me, plastering myself against the wall next to the door frame. I only had a few seconds to act, but I had prepared well before entering the mansion. The guards patrolled the grounds regularly, and whenever the house was used for meetings they increased the frequency of their patrols. So, while I could go out the window of this room, I wouldn't be able to get back through the yard and over the fence without being spotted.
But what I could do, and did, was go through the window and use the narrow ledge to get to the next room over between patrols. I had to reenter the house to avoid being spotted from the ground, but I was much more nervous once inside. They were having a meeting only one room over, and if I was very lucky they wouldn't check inside this room. I hugged the wall near the door frame again, out of sight of anyone walking through the hallway or just casually glancing inside this room, and pulled the one knife I was carrying out from its sheath on my thigh and gripped it close to my chest; there was no way I could take out all the armed guards if they saw me, I wasn't armed nearly heavily enough, but I could maybe buy myself enough time to make a run for it if I had to.
No one came in to check though, and I breathed out a sigh of relief when I heard the door to the meeting room shut. I still had to wait for them to finish their meeting and leave, but it looked like I would be fine; they might check this room after the meeting on their way out, but I had plenty of time.
Which is why, five minutes later with the meeting in full swing, when the door to the room I was in opened suddenly and someone stepped in, I was shocked enough to freeze for half a second, just long enough for the person entering the room to see me. I belatedly swung for his neck with my knife, but he was already moving to block. A few short seconds of vicious and silent fighting later, and I managed to get a swing out unblocked, and had my knife at his throat. Unfortunately, he had a knife of his own and had it at my throat as well.
Which was the first time I really looked at him, and realized that I recognized him. It was the same mop headed young man I had seen on my first day in Budapest.
"You," I hissed, my eyes widening. If he had been at the station chief's meeting house and was now working with Gabor, it meant that he was most likely the traitor who had sold out half the agents in this city.
His eyes widened too, at the same time. Clearly he recognized me as well. I began to move my knife towards his throat again.
"Wait," he whispered.
I froze. If he really was the traitor, he should have shouted just then. In fact, if he had made noise at any point during our fight, it would have summoned the rest of the guards and I would have been doomed. The only reason he would have to be whispering right now is if he was really still on my side.
"Deep cover," he continued, "three years now. I'm the only agent to make it inside Gabor's organization, as far as I know."
"You're not the traitor?" I asked, and pressed my blade against his neck lightly, to remind him of his situation.
He shook his head slightly. "No, if I was, I would have sold you out too. I met you months ago. When it happened, I already knew what you looked like. Same way I know it's not you, since I'm still undercover."
I thought furiously for a minute. If I trusted him and was wrong, it would mean I was in huge trouble. There was still the possibility that he was a double agent, working a long game, waiting to get me where he could interrogate me to figure out my mission. But the meeting next door started to sound like it was breaking up, and there would be people walking around soon, and whatever I decided, I didn't want to be seen here, which meant I would have to make a decision soon.
I decided to take a leap of faith.
I sighed and pulled my knife back from his neck and stood up off of him, moving back against the wall. He quickly stood up, sliding his own blade back into his sheath behind his back, dusted himself off, and went to the door.
"Wait here," he told me, unnecessarily, "for at least five minutes. I'll make sure no one else sweeps in here on their way out. That'll give us enough time to be gone before you clear out."
And with that said, he walked out into the hallway. The next five minutes were incredibly tense for me. I kept wondering if I had made the wrong decision to trust him. Finally though, the background noise in the house died down, and it seemed like everyone had left. I made my way back through the house carefully, to the room I had made my entrance in and retraced my steps back out through the grounds.
"And that was the only time you encountered Agent Justin on your mission, yes?"
I hesitated for a moment, and stubbed out my cigarette to buy a few seconds.
"No," I admitted as I lit up another cigarette, "I also encountered him during my recovery mission."
The bureaucrat looked at me carefully for a moment, then nodded. "Please, tell me about that operation."
It took an entire week and a half of listening to recordings from the various bugs I had planted to plan out when the best time to recover the data on our agents would be. Finally, I was ready to make my move.
They were storing the information in another building in Obuda; this time in an apartment complex, built around an open air interior. I set up on the roof of a building across the street, and would rope over to the roof of the target building, make my way downstairs, pick up the package, and continue down and out through the back. The guards would be busy out front, with a distraction that I had arranged for. I went in two days before the auction was to take place, when everyone would be focused on the upcoming security changes needed, and not as alert. Everything went according to my plan initially. The distraction went off without a hitch and the guards were too focused on it to notice me make my way between the two rooftops. I got to the room containing the files quickly. I had to spend a tense minute picking the lock on the door from the hallway, when there was a pair of guards on the same level, but they were both on the other side of the atrium and focused on the commotion at the front of the building, prepared to head out front if they were needed. I managed to pick the lock and slipped the door open a crack, stepped inside and shut the door again as quietly as I could, and I didn't see either of them glance in my direction for the brief moment before the door was shut again.
It took me a couple of minutes to crack the safe in the office, and ate up most of the window before I expected the guards to return, but I finally got it open. I grabbed the files inside, flipped through quickly, to make sure they were what I was actually looking for, and then stuffed them inside my coat, before making my way back to the door. I kept a tight grip on my knife as I opened it a crack, hoping that the guards would still be on the other side of the building, but preparing for a fight if they were back at their stations in front of this door.
Luckily, they were still where I had last seen them, on the other side of the building. I again slipped through the door, and shut it silently, before making my way around to the staircase. I kept my eyes and ears open for any shouts of alarm, or guards seeing me as I worked my way down the stairs, but didn't sense anything out of the ordinary.
Just as I emerged from the staircase onto the ground floor though, I heard a shout from above me. I looked up and saw Justin struggling on the third floor, right above me, with a bald man that I recognized.
It was Rudolf. There was no reason Rudolf should be here. He had told me himself that he was burned along with the rest of our agents, and was cleaning up and leaving the city when this whole mess started. There was no conceivable reason for him to be here ... unless he was the one who was the actual traitor.
Justin finally got the upper hand, and managed to push Rudolf backwards, knocking him over the railing. Instead of trying to pull himself back up, he reached inside his jacket and pulled out a pistol. He aimed at Justin, and took a quick shot, forcing him to duck back behind a column to avoid being shot. Rudolf then aimed down at me, but just as he got me in his sights, he lost his grip and fell, not five feet from me. Justin came back onto the balcony, looking down at me to make sure I was okay, before a sudden shout came from across the building. We both turned to look, and saw that the two guards on the upper floor had heard the gunshot and noticed us.
"GO!" Justin shouted, and I ran. The guards had both moved towards the stairwell, and were following me, but I had enough of a head start that I managed to break contact within a block.
Our embassy was back in Pest, on the other side of the Danube. I continued to watch for a tail the entire way back, changing directions and transportation three separate times, but I didn't encounter any further problems on my way.
I reached for the last cigarette in the pack, and held it in front of me as the bureaucrat across the table began to speak.
"And this is where we have reached our problem. Your eyewitness accounts of Justin assisting you are the only information we have to suggest he was on our side and not a double agent for Gabor's organization. All the agents who had their identities revealed were agents that he was aware of, while agents he wasn't informed about, such as yourself, did not have their identities listed in the information you recovered. He was working in Gabor's organization, and had ostensibly remained undetected despite the fact that every other agent of ours who attempted to infiltrate that organization was discovered, there is computer activity revealing that he accessed the files for our agents located in Budapest. And finally, there are the suspicious payments to accounts in his name. All the evidence points to him being the traitor and not Agent Rudolf. Is there anything else you can tell us? Were there any other interactions you had with Agent Justin?"
He was sitting at a table in the cafe, just as he had said he would be. I took another look around the room, but didn't recognize anyone else there. I walked across the room, and sat down across from him.
"Look," he began, "I'm afraid I'm being set up as the mole. I was checking the books at the syndicate, and found a huge outgoing payment. I thought it might be to whoever the mole is, so I traced it, but I found out that it led to a bank account in my name, that I didn't open and have never accessed. I'll help you recover the data, but afterward, I'm going to disappear for a while. See what the agency's response is before I try to go back home. But I just wanted to let you know, if it turns south, and I do get the blame for this, I'll go to Monte Carlo for a while to lay low. I'll check the train station every Sunday at noon, on the third track, if you want to contact me."
"No," I said, "There's nothing else."
"Then I'm afraid we have no choice but to conclude that Agent Justin was the mole." He began to pack up his papers, "You'll be put back on active duty, but I'm afraid that after an operation such as this, there is mandatory vacation and psych counseling required before you can go back into the field."
"That's fine," I said, as I sparked one final match across the striking surface, and lit my cigarette. "I hear France is beautiful this time of year. Maybe I'll visit Paris."
After all, it was only one quick train ride away from Monte Carlo.
I stood up from my seat, took a deep breath, and blew out the match as I left the room.