Of Miguel’s many talents, the one he liked least was his ability to be underestimated by everyone he met. He thought it would help in his career, but really it was just annoying. Of average height and weight, curling light brown hair with stooped shoulders and a paunch, he was not attractive, nor a threat. Always ready with a quick joke, he was remarkable only for being unmemorable. His light brown complexion could be of several nationalities, and his voice was lost in crowds. He was a cypher in more ways than one.
The last morning of his regular life, he stepped onto the bus on the way to work like he did every day. Miguel scanned everyone as he was trained to, but no one was new. The older woman who always wore a scarf gave him a suspicious look, like she did each morning. The two young women, one blonde and one brunette, ignored him as usual. The gentlemen in the porkpie hat finally gave him a head nod. It only took two years for that.
The bus suspension wooshed air and then rolled side to side as it moved off to the next stop. His legs matched the roll from years of practice. He took his usual seat in the middle of the car and pulled out the newspaper, unfolded, then re-folded it carefully to expose the crossword puzzle. He rarely did not finish in the 30 minute commute to his office. At the next stop Miguel did not even look up at the new riders until the bus moved again.
The crossword clue was ‘unexcited’. Five letters, starting with B.
Just like his life. He looked up out of habit, and saw a new face.
The young man in the light gray jacket appeared too fit, too well dressed for this commuter bus. Miguel quickly looked down, his mind raced. Could it be? But why now? He retraced his steps that morning, then from the last few days. Nothing out of the ordinary. Just to be safe, he exited the bus before his regular stop to see what would happen. He stood alone watching the bus continue on, the crossword only half completed.
Miguel began the walk to his office. Was he just paranoid? He worked hard to get this job, expecting high stakes adventures, beautiful women and car chases. But no. All he does is sit in a cubicle and move letters and numbers around. He walked through the revolving doors of the huge circular headquarters of the global tech company, the bright sun shining through the curved windows. Past the modern art and large water fountains and then into the elevator. Arriving on his floor he walked down a small corridor, and then through the inconspicuous door into his actual job. Dim lighting and dark furniture greeted him, torpor floating in the air with the dust. The CIA’s office decorating budget did not compare to an international corporation’s.
After 15 minutes he had answered all his emails, returned the one phone call, filled his coffee and even re-adjusted the items on his desk. Then, he waited. Watching the clock, he willed it to go faster. He took out his paper to finish the crossword.
The clue was ‘feeling of unease’. Seven letters, starting with MA-
Malaise. He understood that all too well. He finished his crossword, then looked at the clock again.
His computer pinged, and with relief he stood up. He took the long way around to pick up his assignment from his boss, Dashiell. Once a heralded field agent, Dashiell had risen through the ranks to become Deputy Director of the Latin America Department, famous for his legendary bravery. His sharp intelligence was one of the few who matched Miguel’s own. Miguel had hoped to take his place one day, but it was hard to be noticed in this dingy back office.
In front of Dashiell’s office was his young and attractive administrative assistant, Pala DeOro.
“Hello Ms. DeOro, I must say you've become more beautiful since yesterday.” Miguel gave his best smile and leaned provocatively on her desk with his elbow. “Dashiell wants to meet with me?”
She handed him a manila envelope, ‘Urgent’ crossed the top in red.
“Only, the latest dispatch.” Miguel said, disappointed. “He doesn’t need my opinion, or to give me a field assignment?” Miguel said.
She pushed his elbow off her desk, making him fall.
On the way back to his desk he stopped by his colleague Jason’s cubicle, mostly hidden behind a large plastic plant.
“Anything coming over the wire?
Some chatter about an assassination, not sure who or where, probably nothing. “ Jason said, waving his hand with disdain. “A pint tonite? There is a soccer game…”
“You know I’m more of a baseball guy…”
“Clarissa and I should take you two out, a double date.” Jason said. “I still haven’t met your Russian princess. You know I was stationed in Moscow, years ago. I know some Russian. “You've been married two years now? It is about time to bring her out of the bushel you are hiding her under!“
“Um, yah we should.” He stepped away, he did not want to bring his wife into his work life, it was too dangerous for a civilian.
He stopped in the kitchen to refill his coffee, but spilled and burnt himself. Cursing under his breath, he circled back around the cubicles to his corner to begin his work.
Sitting at his desk, he looked around at the faded dusty walls of the cubicle, the cheap plastic desk and his battered computer. He began to type in the symbols. He was too old to keep up with the office politics, yet too young and poor to retire. Shuffled into a back corner, he dealt only with the least interesting dispatches. He remembered when he had liked his work, the challenge of using his brain to battle against the intellect of his counterpart, the legendary Finley. Out there somewhere, the master villain Finley had never been caught, his codes sublime in their elegance, even though they contained orders for chaos and terror. Having wreaked havoc all over the globe, he had been quiet for a year. Without a worthy opponent, Miguel stopped caring. He missed the agony of fighting against a difficult puzzle and the thrill when the solution was discovered.
Something needed to change, he was fed up with this office life, filled with malaise. He was ready for something to happen, he needed a change, a spark to light up his sad life. Absent-mindedly he worked over the dispatch. Used to prosaic dispatches of business intrigues or the perversions of government officials, he stopped paying attention. He worked the problem and manipulated the language, lost in the intricacies of finding the solution.
Suddenly the words connected, and a message appeared. This was not a normal dispatch! He finished it quickly and stood up to take it to his boss. But Dashiell was already at his desk, his face bloodless, his eyes wide.
“Is that what I think it is?” Dashiell asked.
Miguel nodded slowly. “The date is set, tomorrow, and the place. It is for the Governor! It’s the Puerto Ricans! Finley is behind this, I just know! He is back with the most despicable plot yet! Who else could be so clever, so sinister…”
“-Miguel, he knows who you are.” Dashiell interrupted. “He has finally discovered your identity. Did you know he calls you ‘El Cerrajero’, the locksmith? The man who has broken every code he has created. We have heard from our source, Finley put a hit out on you! One million dollars on your head!” Dashiell pointed at Miguel.
“Everybody is going to be after you, El Cerrajero has made a lot of enemies!”
“What!” The adrenaline coursed through Miguel’s body, his hands shook, fluttering the paper.
“I saw someone this morning, has it already started?” Miguel sat down hard, he wiped his forehead, sweat was pouring off him.
Dashiell took the deciphered note.
“Miguel, you are the greatest cryptographer in the world, but you are not cut out for this type of danger. Get home. Collect your wife, go somewhere safe, at least for the next few days.”
Dashiell looked worriedly at Miguel.
“Do you have a gun?”
“No!” Miguel squeaked. “I haven’t touched a gun since the Farm!…. Do you really think I will need it?”
“Here is a Walther PPK.” Dashiell pulled a small gun from his pocket.
“It worked well for me. Hopefully you won’t need it.”
On the way home Miguel saw the young man in the gray jacket again, at a nearby coffee shop, looking out of the window.
“It's true, he is following me!”
He ducked down in the back of the Uber car driving him home, hoping he was not seen.
Once back to his house, he quickly walked to the door, looking nervously at the quiet tree lined neighborhood. Was he safe here?
He saw his wife in the kitchen. Tall and lithe, she moved like the gymnast she once was. He still couldn’t believe she had asked him out when they met by chance at his regular lunch pub. She was one of the few people who noticed him.
“You’re back early?” Brenna said, in her thick Russian accent. Her hands on her hips, concerned.
“Are you home for lunch? I have pirozhki, or borscht, the beet soup?”
“We need to leave, at once- we are in danger!” Miguel shouted.
“Danger? What danger?” She started laughing. “From what, the crossword puzzle police? What could you have done?”
She stopped laughing when she saw his face.
“Pack a bag, we have five minutes then we have to go!” Miguel threw several items into an empty satchel.
Just a few minutes later the phone rang. Brenna answered it.
“Hello, hello?” She hung up, her eyes wide.
“No one is there?”
A car screeched to a stop outside. Miguel looked out a window and saw two men jump out of a black sedan, the young man holding something in the front pocket of the gray jacket.
“We need to go!”
“I don't understand?” Brenna said, fear crossed her face.
Glass broke next to the front door and an arm came in. Their dog Titan barked furiously.
“Come on, I’ll tell you in the car!” Miguel grabbed Brenna's hand and they ran together through to the garage.
Dancing in the street, the low slung Porsche 944 coupe skidded left and right, dodging slower traffic, the black sedan gaining fast. Miguel heard pops of gunfire from behind them. The skills from his Evasive Driving classes came back quickly, the almost perfect weight distribution of the car allowed for superb handling. At the last possible moment, he put his whole body into the turn, the back end drifting before the wheels caught and he swerved onto the on-ramp. In the rear view mirror, through the smoke from the burnt tires he saw the black sedan spinning in the grass next to the on ramp, they missed the entrance! He laughed out loud, his anxiety and stress flowing off him. The feeling of adventure coursed through him. He had tested himself against a true challenge and survived. He saw the open lane in front of him and pressed on the gas hard, the little sports car leapt at his command. He was taking charge of his life! He twisted the wheel right, then left to pass a too-slow minivan.
They got to the hotel and paid cash for the suite.
Once in their room Miguel was filled with youth and vigor. He felt alive, a lion in the small bedroom. They celebrated their escape with champagne and room service.
He woke up and saw Brenna sitting across the room on her phone. Wearing different clothes than she usual, leather pants, a loose silk shirt and a tight fitting jacket, she looked like a different person, harder, and amazingly attractive. Miguel felt good about his life for the first time since he was a kid. The fast cars, threat of danger and a beautiful woman by his side, he might not be in Monaco but for a cryptographer working for the CIA, it was better than sitting in a cubicle.
“Brenna-” Miguel began, his head down. “I am so sorry that you are here, and you got caught up in this-”
“So you are the spy who breaks codes, El Cerrajero.” Brenna interrupted.
“Yes, well, it is normally not that exciting. But, wait how do you know that name?”
He looked up and she was standing in front of him and holding a gun. Dashiell’s gun!
“I could not believe it when I got the assignment- ” Brenna said.
Her voice was different, her accent was, Spanish?
“You were so, patético! I could not believe you were a real spy. You are so soft and weak!”
“Are you from Puerto Rico!?” Miguel said. "I am too! And you are an agent? What is going on, was our love real?”
Miguel’s mind raced, re-thinking their life together.
“We could have been eating much better food!”
“I am sorry, Miguel. I was told to find you, to build a relationship. But, once I met you, I could not help myself. I have grown to love you, you are an amazing person! I was an agent for Finley, but now I am your wife.”
Tears were flowing down Brenna’s face.
“But he has taken mi Madre, she is in San Juan. He will kill her unless I do what he says.” Brenna said, straightening up, her eyes hard. “I received the call, and it is time for you to die.”
He looked down the barrel of the gun, facing death for the first time in his life. He was shocked at how much he liked the feeling.
A harsh knock on the door distracted Brenna. “We know you are in there!” The loud voices shouted through the door.
Putting his karate skills to use, he leapt up from the bed, kicked the gun from her hand, grabbing it mid-air.
“Be quiet!” he whispered. He shut the bedroom door and pushed a chair against it.
He took a rope from his satchel and tied it to the bed frame.
He grabbed her hand and they stepped out onto the small balcony. The strong morning wind whipped Brenna’s hair across her face. The balcony overlooked the State Capital, the sound of a large crowd echoed below them.
“What if there is another way? Now we know the truth about each other.” Miguel shouted over the wind. "Come with me right now, we can work together to fight against Finley, and we will rescue your mother!”
Brenna looked out over the balcony wall, down the 15 stories to the street below, packed with people waiting to hear the Governor's speech.
The hotel door cracked, and then exploded open, echoing across the suite.
“Tiempo de morir, El Cerrajero!” The young man shouted.
“We don’t have a lot of time…” Miguel looked into Brenna’s eyes.
“OK!” Brenna said, and fell into Miguel's arms.
“Do you trust me?”
She looked up. “Yes!”
“Come on up.” They climbed up on top of the balcony ledge, Brenna easily balanced on the narrow edge.
They heard loud banging on the bedroom door, the men were close.
“The sniper who was hired to take out the governor is in the room below us.” Miguel said. “We are going to swing down and take him out.” He pulled on the rope, it held taut. "The we will go after Finley!"
He held her close and kissed her.
“I love you. Let's go!”
Holding on tight, they jumped together into their future.