Looking back, it had all seemed so very simple: I understood my orders, I knew my target, his current appearance and exact whereabouts. Although decades had passed, it had been decided. Under no circumstances, I’d been informed, will a secret service operative turned double agent, slip away into a newly invented life and escape final retribution. Justice, must be served and due to my particular specialism, I had been selected as executioner.
Following my arrival in the city of Chürke on a fresh, sunny Sunday morning, I immediately set about preparations in my usual meticulous manner. Selecting a room in the Grande Belmondo Hotel facing directly opposite the Space Museum, had seen me off to an excellent start. From a balcony window, for much of the following week, I carefully studied the movements of Professor Dumbelassè with my handheld, twenty-five times magnification, naval captain’s telescope (a family heirloom). Fortunately, the professor turned out to be a creature of habit and by the Thursday, I had set my watch to emit a beep in synchronisation with each distinct, routine event.
Quicker than anticipated, there came no need to sit at the window for hours on end. Instead, I found distractions to help pass the time. Watching television featured strongly, as did brushing up on my phrasebook lingo – in case the need should arrive – and reading a novel, which back home I’d struggled to significantly break into.
Following an audio alert from my wristwatch, a quick glance through the window confirmed the professor’s arrival for work, or his ten minute coffee break combined with mid-morning stroll. And later, him scampering over to the town square sandwich stall, collecting his regular order of currywurst in a bap.
On my fold-out quarto tabletino screen, I scrutinised the digitised architectural blueprints for the museum. These had been stolen some eight years or so ago – before I’d even begun working for the service. I had to admire the astute cathedral-thinking of my employers, hacking the original architect’s archive, then sitting on the files for this long, guaranteeing concerns for the theft and security breach had long since disappeared.
Able to identify the trade entrance, I committed to memory a route through a network of corridors, leading to the main exhibition hall. An online virtual tour provided me with up-to-date information concerning the exact positioning of each exhibit. These, I carefully transposed onto the floor-plans. Actual-scale rockets, lunar modules, satellites and replica space probes were amongst the many space programme artefacts the professor had collected. At key locations within the main hall, video documentaries and sound-effects played on loop. Well-constructed dioramas recreated scenes from every-day life on the Moon and Martian colonies. I watched as figures clad in modern, light-weight spacesuits, populated common scenes. Space travelling families entertained friends, scientists were depicted in cut-away laboratories, geologists shown examining rocks. Motion sensors, when approached, activated movement and simple interactions between the characters, transporting the visitor into an immersive experience.
In the evenings, before sleep-time and in the mornings before hauling myself out from the comfort of the hotel bed, I imagined a museum walk-through, growing evermore familiar with the details necessary to help complete my task.
On day six, I received notification from command. The coded instructions were to eliminate the professor the very next day. This, I remember thinking to myself, will almost be too easy.
Security in the museum struck me as surprisingly lapse. I picked the lock on the back door within a matter of seconds. Although well-versed in overcoming security systems, none existed within the service areas and I easily found my way to a props, scenery and costume storage room. Inside, I located a complete spacesuit outfit. Stripping down to my underwear, I gently eased myself into the suit, clamped down the helmet and slipped on a pair of gloves and boots. Back in the corridor, I navigated to the main exhibition hall. The time on my watch read eight-forty-five, meaning fifteen minutes before the professor’s arrival and another thirty minutes before the museum opened its doors to the public.
My first problem: I wished I’d left the boots off, at least until I’d reached my goal position. I hadn’t anticipated how much they weighed and found myself taking long, slow strides, each one requiring considerable effort to complete. Luckily, I had time to play with and took my place on an exhibit at a dining table amongst a family of space colonists, several minutes ahead of Professor Dumbelassè’s arrival and daily inspection rounds.
I’d not long settled into my seat, clear lines of vision established, when the echo of a heavy fire door opening and closing, reverberated around the hall. This, signalled my quarry’s entrance. The professor appeared, dressed in a white lab coat and carrying a mug of coffee. In his other hand, he held a newspaper picked up from the subway, which he read while walking. Upon reaching a display, his gaze briefly scanned, then he continued on, taking a sip from his mug at each interval. He appeared much older closer up and in comparison to the images contained on file. Ambling around the museum, I observed a stout man with a florid complexion and a weary, resigned expression, suggesting acceptance of this as his life now. Whilst watching him ascend the steps to a section of a shuttlecraft, I wondered if he missed the high stakes adventure and excitement of his former profession.
The lighting inside the flight deck flickered on, as the professor disappeared inside. With this as my cue to move, I left the diorama and plodded in my heavy boots the short distance to the stairway. Checking the time on the large, digital clock situated above the main entrance to the museum, I proceeded to take my first two steps up the stairs. To my unpleasant surprise, lifting either of my feet for a second step proved impossible. The boots – I concluded – were magnetised. As I stood there frozen to the spot, the gentle rise-and-fall whirr of a vacuum cleaner emanating from inside the shuttlecraft, reached me at the bottom of the stairway. At least for the moment, the professor appeared occupied.
Working quickly, I resolved that whilst my legs refused to lift directly upwards, if I twisted and leant heavily with great effort over onto one side of my ankle, the soles of the boots gradually peeled free from the metal steps. My progress slowed significantly.
Half-way up, I paused for breath. Condensation had formed on the inside of the helmet and perspiration clad my body. By my assessment, if I didn’t do something soon, I might pass out from heat exhaustion. Left with no alternative, I knelt down, released several catches and stepped barefoot out of the boots. Simultaneously, the sound from the vacuum cleaner died, followed by indistinct rummaging noises, suggesting completion of the cleaning task inside the shuttlecraft. Instinctively, I tried to lift both empty boots with my hands – but they remained stuck fast. Then … I heard a voice.
“What on God’s Earth … ?” Looking up, I saw Professor Dumbelassè standing at the top of the stairway, hands on hips. “You are struggling with the anti-gravitational boots. You see there,” he pointed his finger, “there is a red-coloured release button on the back of the heel section, press it twice, firmly now.” I followed his instructions and each boot came away freely. “What are you doing in one of the museum’s spacesuits? You know they are not replicas, they are the real thing. You shouldn’t even be in here, we are not yet open to the public and you need to purchase a valid visitor’s ticket. Please, explain yourself to me!”
I remained silent, peering through misted glass. The far easier barefoot ascension of the stairs came as a relief. Momentarily, the professor appeared distracted. “Your … your toenails, you have them painted green!” A truth, the outcome of becoming super-bored twelve hours earlier. “You – you – you, you’re a woman!” He shouted, stuttering at me. I had to lose the helmet, it had become a rotisserie for my head. A firm twist released the headgear and allowed cool air to rush inside. With the helmet removed, we stood stock still, staring at each other in silence.
“What … what do you want from me?” The professor finally asked, his question prompted by an involuntary twitch, which see-sawed several times back and forth across two bushy eyebrows. “Why don’t you talk?”
Honestly, I am an efficient, highly economical operative. I don’t waste time, I don’t waste words, I don’t engage in philosophical debate with a target. I am here for a singular reason. It served no purpose to elaborate on this with the professor. Although, with his knowledge gained in his previous employment, I sensed a dawning realisation taking place.
“You’re here for me, aren’t you?” His voice quavered, instilled with fear. “The fact you appear unarmed, this informs me of your physical attributes in the way of the martial arts.” Crestfallen, he drew in a deep sigh. “It also tells me, it is pointless to resist in any.” I drew level with him on the stairway. “You know,” he said turning to face me, “here, with what I have been instrumental in creating, I thought I had finally found happiness in my life. It seems such a shame for this to all end now. But I know, you were perhaps just about to tell me, there is no fairness to life.”
Removing my gloves and wiping sweat from my forehead, I broke my rule. Looking into his tired eyes I imagined the possibility of living more than one kind of life. Where, during a lifetime, we balanced the actions taken in one half, with better actions in the second. I felt an unfamiliar and dormant emotion of sympathy, for the old man stood before me.
“I am a specialist in pressure points Professor,” I told him, “you will barely feel any discomfort as you slip away.”
“But you must understand – I have not made any preparations! I have my wife, Grethe to think of.”
A brief expression of surprise crossed his face, as my fingers applied specific force to critical areas of his skull. His eyes rolled, several times he gulped for breath, staggered, then collapsed unconscious into my arms. Death followed, as he tumbled down the stairway. Uppermost vertebrae snapped apart, as one might expect. In doing so, the professor’s elimination defied suspicion and would be regarded later, as nothing more than a tragic accident.
I’d completed my mission several minutes before the museum opened to the public, enough time to get changed and leave unnoticed. I returned to my hotel room to freshen up. An element of rumination usually follows the completion of an assignment. I wondered about the professor’s wife, if she knew of his double identity and I questioned how he had imagined it possible to get away with espionage betrayal. Naivety, arrogance? Or, maybe he hadn’t really expected to?
Ultimately, it is important I let go of these kinds of thoughts and standing underneath a cool shower, usually fulfils this need. What may seem important today, becomes ever increasingly irrelevant, with the passing of time.
©Brinkinfield 2020 All Rights Reserved
Part of the Ekphrasis Project (story inspired by picture)
With special thanks to the Covid-19 Lockdown