Invisible Men by Chris Green
‘You can call me Fritz,’ he says. Why Fritz? I wonder. He does not look German. He is skinny, dark-skinned and has crusty dreadlocks. He has a scar running the length of his cheek. He clearly has no intention of engaging in unnecessary conversation. I had become accustomed to Zoot. Zoot was friendly, amenable, chatty, and we had a mutual interest in 1950s West Coast jazz. Stan Kenton, Chet Baker, that sort of thing. Zoot had even burned me a CD of a rare Shorty Rogers recording to play in the car. I can’t imagine the new fellow doing this. While I appreciate that secrecy is part and parcel of the deal, I presumably need to form an association with the new man. But, without ceremony, he thrusts the small package into my hand and is gone.
There is no sense indwelling upon it. This is not the time to wonder what might have happened to Zoot. It isn’t the courier that is important; it is what is inside the package. I’ve no idea what this might be. Each package contains a unique set of instructions. There seems to be no pattern. FIX might be sending me on a mission to infiltrate an organisation, rescue someone, act as a minder, possibly even terminate someone. I haven’t had to do this yet, but I never know what is going to come up.
FIX operates in the margins. I cannot divulge too many details here because there aren’t many. However, all my missions are clandestine and I have access to firearms, should they be needed. Assignments can be a little strange. Once I had to fabricate an historical event by creating convincing bogus archives about a coup in a country I had not even heard of. Another time, I had to become a circus performer to infiltrate an Armenian circus to bring in someone called Zog. Until you’ve tried it, you cannot imagine how difficult it is being a clown. The instructions for my new mission come as a file on a thumb drive. I’m told that this is a more secure way of delivering data than sending it over the internet, where it can be easily intercepted.
Scott Walker! I have to find Scott Walker and bring him in. Not the singer, Scott Walker, of course. He is dead. All the bio I am given to go on is that this Scott Walker has connections with Invisible Men, an organisation so secret, there is no reference to it anywhere online. FIX Central gives no reason why they want him. Everything is on a need to know basis, and they must deem I don’t need to know. Perhaps he is a FIX agent who has overstepped his brief. Perhaps he is a FOX agent, who they want to interrogate. Or even a FAX agent. They’ve been rather quiet lately. Perhaps he is a tinker or a tailor. Who knows? The only photo of the man on the encrypted Word document is a grainy shot of him in profile, taken ten years ago outside a farrier in Totnes, Devon. I discover the farrier has since closed. Even in rural Devon, horses are on the way out.
To my surprise, there is an American politician called Scott Walker, who it appears is even more famous than the sixties’ singer. But there is no match on Google or social media for the guy I am supposed to be looking for. I try Scott Waller, Scott Walter and even Scott Wanker, in case there has been a typo. Amazingly, there is a Scott Wanker on Facebook, from Illinois, but nothing on our Scott Walker. My targets usually enjoy a higher profile. Finding this fellow might be a bit of a challenge.
Having little to go on, Devon seems to be the place to start looking. This is the only lead I have. But, as the internet seems to have completely bypassed our Scott Walker, it is time for some leg work. Newton Abbot might not be the obvious place to find someone connected to a secret society, but as all roads in Devon appear to lead there, it seems a convenient place to start. There are horsey connections. Newton Abbot has a racecourse and there are several blacksmiths and farriers in the area. I make my way to the library without a particular plan, but libraries are the places to find out information. I go up to the desk and a shapely librarian with a flirtatious smile hands me an envelope. Her name badge says Charlotte Ann.
‘This is for you, Mr Fixer,’ she says.
‘Not Fixer,’ I say. ‘Temple. Sebastian Temple.’ This is one of many names I go under.
‘Sorry, Mr Temple,’ she says, bending forward a little to reveal an abundance of cleavage. ‘My mistake.’
Inside the envelope, I find a handwritten note offering instructions. I am to log on to a particular PC in the library, where I will find a message waiting for me on the screen. As promised, there is a message waiting for me. It reads, access the document, scottwalker1.docx. The document is password protected. I do not know the password. I try abracadabra. To my amazement, this works. It opens up a story called The Invisible Man by Dario Benedetti.
In the story, the protagonist, Logan Daley accidentally renders himself invisible by drinking too much Honey Orchid tea and, realising the power of his unintended gift, goes on a killing spree in Belstone, Sticklepath and Sourton, far-flung villages of north Dartmoor, before being hunted down by a posse of left-handed fiddlers on horseback sent from the Highwayman Inn on the night of the harvest moon, the only time that Daley casts a shadow. Other than the Devon connection, I cannot see what relevance this has to the task at hand. However, I’m always ready to be corrected. My life is full of surprises. If you are looking for a straightforward, run-of-the-mill life, it is best not to be a FIX agent.
Charlotte Ann comes over and asks me how I am getting on. I cannot disclose details of my mission, so I tell her I am looking for a brass instrument for my daughter on eBay. I thank her for being helpful.
‘I finish work soon,’ she purrs, flashing an amatory smile. ‘Perhaps you would like to keep me company. We could maybe go for a bite to eat and then go back to my place to chill out and listen to some music. Do you like West Coast jazz?’
In my line of work, you need to be a little suspicious of women that come on to you strongly. But at my time of life, pushing fifty, and in my situation, divorced and lonely, I feel I am entitled to a little diversion now and again. What have I got to lose? For that matter, Charlotte Ann might have been recruited to help me find Scott Walker. I mean, why did she address me as Mr Fixer, and in a light-hearted way, if she wasn’t on board? I don’t think I misheard her.
‘That would be pretty much perfect,’ I say, looking her up and down. ‘And yes, I love West Coast jazz.’
I can’t recall much about the night with Charlotte Ann, but I have the feeling in my loins that something must have taken place between us. I also have a hangover, suggesting I may have drunk a lot of wine. I can vaguely remember the Pinot Noir being opened, but I can’t piece together the rest of the evening. I have no recollection of how I happen to be on a train to Barnstaple. This is strange because I normally have total recall, no matter how drunk I was the night before. Being able to handle one’s liquor is important in my line of work. Perhaps Charlotte Ann put Rohypnol in the wine and topped it up with a large dose of Benzodiazepine before putting me on the train from Newton Abbot. But, wouldn’t a manoeuvre like this have attracted attention at a provincial railway station like Newton Abbot? Besides, if I were unconscious, how would I have changed trains at Exeter? Why am I on a train, anyway? What has happened to my car?
I am still busy trying to figure all this out when I notice the woman in the aisle seat in front of me has her laptop open and is typing a report. Why is she using a large font? I take a peek. I can make out the name Fritz. No, I’m not imagining it. It says, Fritz. I surreptitiously scan down the page and see there is a reference to Invisible Men. Plural. As in the secret society. My head is spinning. Things seem once again to be getting out of control. Like they did when ……. Back then. …. How? Who? What? I struggle to regain my composure. My breakdown was a long time ago. Before I became a …… It’s the here and now that counts, not something that happened in the past.
But what is going on? Who is this woman? Am I now drawing attention to myself by leaning over? By staring at her? She is not easy on the eye, that’s for sure. She is built like a Russian hammer thrower. She has severely cropped auburn hair and is wearing a thick tweedy suit. I lean over a little more, as much as I dare, to read the name badge pinned onto her lapel. It says Sasha Ivanov, but I can’t make sense of the organisation lettering printed beneath her name. Is it in Cyrillic script or something? What on earth am I mixed up in?
I take a walk along the central aisle to the toilet, turning around a couple of times to see what reaction I might get from her. Will she come after me in case I get off at one of the little Halts along the line that the train stops at? She doesn’t. I take a few moments in the toilet to calm myself. When I return to my seat, Sasha Ivanov is gone. There is no sign of her. No bags, nothing. She can’t have got off. The train has not even slowed down yet, let alone stopped.
There is no sense in taking the train all the way to Barnstaple. Breathtaking though the scenery might be with its tors and river valleys, it will only take me further from my car, assuming this is still in Newton Abbot. I decide I’ll get off at Copplestone, sandwiched between Dartmoor and Exmoor. I should be able to get a cab from the station. It would be handy to make some calls, but my phone has no signal out here in the sticks. They probably haven’t even got television out here yet.
To my consternation, the cab driver seems to know who I am and be expecting me.
‘Alright or wha, Mr Temple?’ he says in a strong Welsh accent.
‘Newton Abbot, please,’ I say.
‘Thought so,’ he says. ‘Lovely day, isn’t it?’
He gives me a lengthy report on the sorry progress of Merthyr Tydfil Rugby Football Club, followed by a list of all the things you can buy at the new Merthyr Tydfil branch of Trago Mills. He talks as if this is the first chance he’s had to talk to someone for months. He tells me in great detail about his hots for Charlotte Ann, the librarian in Newton Abbot. How does he know her, I want to ask? But, suddenly, he breaks into a potted history of The Invisible Man. Why?
‘The original The Invisible Man was a novella by H. G. Wells, see,’ he says, in his sing-song delivery. ‘Not being funny, but written in 1897, it was. They made it into a film in 1933, starring Claude Rains. Then, in the fifties, they made a TV series called The Invisible Man. They changed Dr Griffin, who was the character in the book, to Peter Brady. This Peter Brady is a scientist who becomes invisible when an experiment goes wrong. He is initially declared a state secret and is locked up, like, but he convinces the British government to allow him to return to his laboratory, so he can search for an antidote.’
I keep trying to interrupt his narrative flow, but I can’t shut him up. Perhaps he is on amphetamines.
‘Anyway, MI5 recruits him for an assignment, see,’ he continues. ‘But, Brady’s security is breached, and he becomes a celebrity and uses his invisibility to solve crimes and help people in trouble. Then there is the 2,000 TV series called The Invisible Man about Darien Fawkes, a thief facing life imprisonment who is recruited by a down-at-heel spy agency and given the power of invisibility via an implant of a special Quicksilver gland in his head. The gland, alas, also makes Fawkes’s behaviour unpredictable, so the agency cannot control his growing psychotic tendencies. But, look you! I wouldn’t want you to confuse any of these with Invisible Man, which was a civil rights novel by Ralph Ellison. This is about an Afro-American man whose colour renders him invisible, see.’
‘What about the secret society, Invisible Men?’ I ask, ‘Who are they?’ But he is not listening. Instead, he starts to tell me about his friend Dafydd’s pet parrot, and before we know it, we have arrived back in Newton Abbot. One hundred and fifty-four pounds seems a bit steep for the fare, but I just want to be shot of him and get back to finding Scott Walker. At least my car is still where I left it, but it has a parking ticket on the front windscreen. I rip it off and bin it. At least it has not been clamped.
There is something not quite right about this mission. Normally, things start to fall into place by this point in proceedings, but here they are becoming ever more complicated. It is like one of those new serial dramas on TV, where, by about the fourth episode, the plot has become unfathomable. The point where you have to read a Den of Geek review to get you up to speed about what is happening. And still you are struggling with one or two of the details. It is time for me to take stock. What have I got to go on? There is not so much as a sniff of Scott Walker and to date, I have encountered a surly fellow FIX agent, a femme fatale, a possible Russian spy, and a spaceman, all of which seem to be, in their various ways, untrustworthy and in some unlikely way connected. There would need to have been an orchestra of collusion to explain the connections. And where does Dario Benedetti’s story fit in? Not having had a Wi-Fi signal on my phone, I have not had a chance to use the BugU app to check if Charlotte Ann, or indeed any of the others, has planted a tracking device on me. I do so now. They haven’t. I’m surprised.
I call in at the library, but Charlotte Ann is not there and predictably, with the way things are shaping up, no-one has even heard of her. I’m once more back to square one. There’s something of a pattern forming here. I need a new approach. I could pursue the equine angle and phone around all the vets in Devon. And get acquainted with the racing fraternity. A long-shot, perhaps. But there might be a simple explanation for Scott Walker’s absence. He might be dead. But, if he were dead, wouldn’t FIX know about it? They would hardly be paying me to find a dead man. Unless he somehow still presented a danger.
I phone my friend, Quinn. It is strictly against protocol, as he is not with the agency. But sometimes you have to ditch protocol. Quinn knows about zombies, ghosts and things that go bump in the night.
‘Good to hear from you, Ambrose,’ he says. ‘Long time.’ Ambrose Dove is another name that I use.
‘We’ll have to catch up soon, Quinn,’ I say. ‘Tell me! Is it true that some people are less substantial and harder to see than others?’
‘Ah! I think I see what you are up to, Ambrose,’ he says. ‘You’re in Devon, aren’t you?’
How does he know this? My location would not show up from my mobile.
‘Devon is the home of the paranormal,’ he continues, perhaps answering my question. ‘You want to know if all that folklore about ghosts and the like is true, don’t you?’
‘Something like that,’ I say.
‘Well, some of it is and some of it isn’t,’ he says. ‘It all depends on your point of view. And of course how susceptible you are.’
‘I was thinking specifically about invisibility,’ I say.
‘I don’t think that it is me you need to be talking to. You want a scientist. Probably one working with the US military. I believe they are experimenting with invisibility,’ he says. ‘They are trying to come up with an ultra-thin skin to cloak certain wavelengths of light around an object to render it invisible.’
‘I see,’ I say, not seeing at all.
I hear the mellow sound of Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone drifting on the wind. It is the Dave Brubeck Quartet playing Slow and Easy.
I turn around and see that the heavenly music is coming from Zoot’s red Pontiac convertible. Never one to undersell his presence, Zoot.
‘We’ve got him,’ Zoot calls out. A strange greeting after so long.
‘Who?’ I say.
‘Fritz,’ he says.
‘What are you talking about, Zoot?’ I say.
‘Fritz. The bogus agent,’ says Zoot. ‘Except his name is not Fritz. It’s Tyson Dark. Dark is not one of our agents, Nick.’ Nicholas Spain is another of my aliases.
‘He must be FOX, then. One of theirs. That makes sense,’ I say.
‘That’s right Nick. FOX. And he definitely tried to take you out. We intercepted some intel and discovered that the package he handed to you contained a fast-acting poison that would kill you within a matter of hours.’
‘But I opened the package. There were just some instructions on a memory card.’
‘That was a bluff. There was Ricin in the package too.’
‘So, what about Charlotte Ann, the librarian at Newton Abbot?’
‘Don’t know,’ he says. ‘I guess you just got lucky there. By rights, you should have been reeling from the effects of the poison, stumbling about, not knowing where you were, with minutes to live.’
‘I suppose that might help to explain the rest of my weird adventure,’ I say. ‘The unexplained train journey into the back of beyond with the vanishing Russian spy and the cab ride with the urban spaceman. I was delusional.’
‘Even more delusional than you normally are, Nick,’ Zoot says. ‘I guess you were just too tough to be killed.’
‘And there never was a Scott Walker.’
‘Scott Walker. The instructions that Tyson Dark gave me said I had to find someone called Scott Walker.’
‘Aha! I see No. Your Scott Walker doesn’t exist.’
‘So, where were you, Zoot?’ I ask. ‘Why wasn’t it you at the meet to hand over the package?’
‘That’s the thing, Nick,’ he says. ‘As I was getting into my car to drive to meet you, a FOX agent sprayed me with something that made me temporarily invisible. I was informed that an invisible man driving an open-topped Pontiac would draw too much attention. And you can’t imagine how difficult it is to hail a cab when you are invisible. Twenty-four hours it took to wear off. But, I’m here now. What do you say we take it that new jazz club?’
‘Cut!’ says Otis Red. Red is new. I’ve only seen him once or twice. He’s part of our second line support team. He turned up last week with a spare set of keys to open up that warehouse, so we could reclaim the hard drives that FOX had stolen. Perhaps he should have come along yesterday when Zoot became invisible. Instead of ….. Fritz. Why is Red fooling around with a movie camera? What we are doing here is supposed to be covert. He shouldn’t be drawing attention to us.
‘That was great, guys,’ Red calls out. ‘I think that’s a wrap. I’ll run these over to Dario Benedetti to see what he thinks. The problem is that Dario keeps changing his mind about where to take the plot.’
Who are all those people in the dark clothes with sound equipment hiding in the shadows? Zoot has spotted them too. He gesticulates. He takes Red aside to tell him something. But I have very good hearing and I can still make out what he is saying.
‘You’re supposed to stay out of sight, Otis,’ he says. ‘Be invisible and keep the crew hidden. Remember, Nick thinks this is a real mission. I picked him for you because he is the only one of our agents that never questions what he’s asked to do. He takes it all in his stride.’
‘Sorry, I forgot. Still, no harm done, eh!’
‘I think Nick became suspicious about the taxi driver scene, but he seems to have fallen for the rest.’
‘I think Dario will want to make cuts to the taxi scene anyway,’ Red says. ‘Josh Jenkins got a bit carried away with the Welsh ad-libbing. …… But, are you really telling me Nick had no idea we were filming? Hasn’t he seen any of Benedetti’s movies?’
‘What do you think?’ Zoot says. ‘Spy spoofs are hardly big box office these days, are they? They don’t get around the multiplexes any more.’
Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved