Young Robert reported to me on Friday. The market was on Saturday. It’s Sunday now, the lad will be mid-Atlantic, I’d imagine, and I’ve changed my name.
I was Margaret, and it’s been my kind of weekend.
* * *
I’d known it was coming. There’s only so long, even in the Secret Service, before somebody starts to have suspicions that you just might be drawing salaries from more than one source. Between one day and the next, you can go from trusted operative to bad apple.
Looks like they twigged right after sending me Robert for field training. Being of a sometimes literal nature, I’d taken him to an open air flea market, in a field, to practise … well, to be honest, to practise helping me trawl for bargains. I love a good flea market, me.
I was just having a rummage through some old sheet music when the lad gave me a nudge that nearly knocked me sideways.
“Margaret! Look! It’s her!” he hissed. And it was!
I grabbed his elbow and got us out of sight sharpish, round the back of a fish and chip van.
“That’s really strange,” he muttered. “They told me there’d be no contact for at least a month. While I was training with you. You know, for security reasons. But there’s the Chief!”
“Heavens! Do you suppose it could just be a co-incidence?” Yeah, right, because this was a woman who ALWAYS bought her handbags from car boot sales and market stalls. I peeped out and saw she was fingering a selection of ethnic mirrored satchels and shoulder-sacks hand knitted out of recycled tractor tyres. There was a look of bemusement on her ineluctably aristocratic face. They should never let these people out of the office, I thought, but then again she was the Chief of the Secret Service. Who was going to tell her she was about as clandestine as a pterodactyl on a duck pond?
Robert chewed his lip. “No, I don’t think it can be a co-incidence. I think it must be some kind of emergency.”
“You’d better go and show yourself, then – find out what she wants. I’ll stay out of sight.” Even over the strong hot-fat-and-vinegar smell of the fish and chip van, I could smell a rat.
The lad squared his shoulders, to the best of his ability. “Right,” he said, and stepped out from cover.
What followed was a classic piece of street theatre – a ballet, almost, of such extraordinarily stylized non-nonchalance it had me reaching for my loose change. Robert, whistling (I swear to God), sashayed past the bag stall and then pretended to notice something over his shoulder so that he could go by again. The Chief, not realising he had already seen her, started to call out, thought better of it, coughed instead, looked down as Robert looked over, looked over as he looked away, finally grabbed a scrap of paper and a pen from the stall counter, scribbled some words on it and practically threw it at Robert’s feet before turning tail and mincing off, doubtless to where her driver had parked the Mercedes and was currently guarding it against short-sighted plebeian graffiti artists. In his eagerness to pick the paper up without visibly bending, Robert managed to step on it, crumpling it even further before finally scooping it up sideways and skedaddling back behind the fish and chip van.
“Got it!” he told me. His puppy eyes were huge with excitement as he smoothed out the scrap and read the words:
£104 – 00
He read them twice and then drooped like a rain-soaked daffodil. “But this doesn’t mean anything.”
What do they teach these kids? I’d got the message immediately, even though it was patently not meant for me to be reading! I swung into action.
“Come now, Robert. Don’t you think the Chief of the Secret Service knows what she’s about?” Ha! “Well then, assuming this is more than just some throwaway lines on a scrap of paper, what do you think she’s trying to tell you?”
“I don’t know! Unless, maybe it’s in code?”
I nodded encouragingly. “And …”
“And to crack the code I need to know what code it is?”
“Good! And what code is it?”
“I don’t know! She didn’t say.”
“Well, no, because then someone who shouldn’t might over-hear, which wouldn’t be clever. But didn’t you notice? It was the mirror bags she spent longest looking at. By a good 97 seconds. Doesn’t that suggest anything to you?”
The boy swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing like it was Hallowe’en in his skinny neck. “I … I didn’t … I don’t …”
I took pity. “She was telling you the message is in mirror writing. Backwards. To read mirror code, you hold the paper up to a mirror. Leonardo used it.”
I sighed. “Da Vinci. Never mind. Do you have a mirror with you? You can borrow mine … Now, what does the message say? Ignore the 088, by the way. That’s just the printed number on the receipt pad.”
The boy was charmingly awkward, juggling the paper and my makeup mirror into relationship to each other, the tip of his tongue poking pinkly out as he concentrated.
00 – 401£
“But – that’s gibberish! I mean, look at it – it doesn’t tell me anything!”
“Hmm … well … Let’s consider it a bit at a time. KRAP RAC … a not-very-good car breakdown recovery company? Or – no, look, move the space over a bit and you get K.R. Aprac! Didn’t I read something about somebody with a name like that? Sounds foreign …” I checked the lad out of the corner of my eye. He was frowning, but he was nodding as well. Plant a seed – watch it grow, I thought to myself with an unbecoming smugness.
“2102 – could that be a street number?” he suggested. “North American maybe? They have long street numbers.”
I nodded and gestured for him to continue.
“And REBOTCO could be a company called Rebot … But that’s not enough to go on with – where, exactly, in North America?”
“Well, I would think that 00-401 most likely refers to the far western end of the Ontario Highway 401, which would be Windsor, Ontario – though in fact I don’t believe there is an actual Exit 00, so perhaps that is to do with the currently not-yet-finished extension of the Highway over a new bridge to Detroit. And then there’s the £ sign … Blimey! What do you bet it’s something to do with smuggling currency across the border?!”
Talk about your wild surmise – the boy was as high as a peak in Darien. “And LLATS,” he squeaked. “That could be somebody’s name, too! L. Lats, maybe. That sounds foreign as well …”
“So the opposite of BAG, which means grab, arrest, bring in, is GAB, which means …?”
“Which means somebody – maybe somebody called Lats – has been shooting off their mouth! Gabbing out of turn!”
“And since we’re talking about a border town – Windsor’s just across the river from Detroit, as I’m sure you know – this is something big. Something of international importance.”
“Gosh with socks on. They must really think a lot of you, young Robert, giving you such a big case so early on. I’m well impressed!”
He blushed like the dawn. “I couldn’t have done it without you, Margaret. I … don’t tell anyone, but I really didn’t notice the thing with the mirror bags. If you hadn’t helped me I’d still be trying to read the message frontways. And even now, there’s still one more thing I don’t get.” He pointed at the word paid with the squiggle under it.
“diap? That’s do it and promptly. And under it is her signature. Her secret signature,” I added quickly, on the off chance the lad had ever actually seen the Chief’s autograph.
Robert folded the scrap of paper carefully and put it into his pocket. “Right. Well, then, let’s go.”
“Good luck,” I said with a friendly smile. “There’s a bus stop just along the way.”
He paused. “But – won’t you be coming with me?”
“No. The message was for you. I don’t think I was even meant to see it.” And that’s the truth!
“Wow! My first solo case!” He surprised me with a kiss on the cheek, and then he was off, heading for the nearest airport and a flight to the new world where sinister money-laundering foreigners were spilling the beans about Rebot, somewhere in the 2100 block off the 401 in southern Ontario.
He really was a sweet boy. I hope he doesn’t get into too much trouble. I’d love to be a spider under that table, when he tells them what he thought the message said …
Oh, and my name, before I changed it? That would be Margaret. Margaret Stall.
Bag me? I don’t think so.
By Joan Lennon