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 many grow grey, but few grow good [18+], for abbey
bird
 Posted: Jul 28 2015, 11:24 PM
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“We’ve put together a profile,” the operations chief begins.

The analyst is getting a little too old for these early morning trips down the freeway, even sitting, as he is, in the plush back of a sedan with the air conditioning turned up high. The bucolic towns of rural Pennsylvania, each lovelier in late summer than the last, are wasted on him. He thumbs through the dossier and only half-listens to the operations chief, picking his thumbnail at staples, mumbling his assent at appropriate intervals and trying to stay awake.

The profile comes with several vetted candidates, each a single manila folder. Mid-yawn and mid-dossier, the driver makes an abrupt turn off of the freeway, making the files scatter out of his hands. One of the supplementary photos shakes loose by his knee, a young man beaming back at him from the slim square on the smoke-sour car seat. “For fuck’s sake,” the analyst barks, smoothing the papers with all the tension of a man who knows he shouldn't have them. Peevishly, he clips the photo back in place.

The corresponding file is a thin white sheath open on his lap, listing eye colour (brown), height (seventy inches), OMS-certified clean bills of health, credentials and references and transcripts of the usual, expected excellence. But the chief’s eye catches on a string of text over the peak of the young man's cadet cap, tilted at a decidedly non-regulation angle, and he pauses, rolling the edge of the folder between finger and thumb. “Hey,” he says, “Isn’t this the major’s son?”

*


A second look into the initial background checks reveal that, yes, it is the major's son. Much more usefully, one of the prodigal variety. They check other things too, of course -- banking records, sexual history, employment records, any association with suspect political organizations of the past or present -- but it’s the thing that sticks, the thing that makes the analyst remember his name over the others. A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do (the chief vaguely recalls) but here he is, this wayward scion of that very particular species of American military dynasty. At Langley, of all places. Huh.

Well, good enough.

For his next trick, the major’s son manages to be good at it -- out at Camp Peary, anyway, where training turns out to be the best fucking thing that’s ever happened to him. He hums, under the skin, with a fanatic, frenetic energy, kicking in doors and clambering over obstacles, tapping his boots impatiently over a Virginia tobacco field while the Hercules climbs to altitude before falling backwards, whooping, into the sky. When they finally send him and a few of the more promising young things up the forested road to Langley to complete the last phase of their training, he practically vibrates passing the checkpoint. “Holy shit,” he breathes as the trees thin back around the campus, so guilelessly that the trainee next to him wants to punch him in the face.

Not that the honeymoon lasts. The Langley academic syllabus is just about as punishing as it is byzantine, and navigating it takes many sleepless months. Between hand-to-hand combat drills and weapons training and the daily five-mile run through the sprawling Virginia woods, he dozes in half a dozen different blood-warm classrooms, muddy dreams drifting across the backs of his eyelids, filling countless spiral notebooks with frantic, scrawled notes on steganography and surveillance techniques, microexpressions and mechanical sabotage, French and Farsi and fieldcraft until he can barely remember where any of it ends or begins. In fairness, most of the fresh meat don’t do much better, thinned out in a scant few months to a little more than half their rank. There are even less of them when, in a lecture about the finer points of covert activities in 1980’s Central America, a thin-lipped man that he's never seen before gently prods him awake.

"Outside," the thin-lipped man says, squaring his drab, suited shoulders against the fish-faced expressions that his charge must be making. Most of the trainees that wash out just drop out of their own volition, but not always. He scrapes his chair back, rising, a choking fearful mass sinking in him. Twelve pairs of eyes track him across the auditorium.

Outside, the heavy metal doors swing closed.

“You report to Operations from now on. 0800 tomorrow morning.”

“Wait, what?”

“Graduation day,” the thin-lipped man shrugs, smiling in a tight, spare horizontal. A slim manila folder hangs offered in the space between them.

He’d never thought it would happen like this.


*


"Dean Curtis," he reads. "Sir, um, isn't that a little too close to my actual name?"

"That's good," the operations chief says. "You'll be less likely to forget it." Unlike the instructors, the chief actually has a window: a single floor-to-ceiling glass panel looking out over the forest in autumn, obscured by a set of undignified plastic blinds. In front of them, flanked by overstuffed bookshelves and backlit by threads of golden morning sunlight, this brawny graying beast of a man adjusts his wire-frame spectacles and introduces himself as John Howe. A medal gleams on his desk when he does it, ushering Curtis into his seat with a flash of white teeth and a single, carefully reflexive son. “You’ve read the file?” Behind him, around them, a spider plant colonizes the room, strangling it with the smell of green.

“Good,” Howe says, when he nods, cuddling the steeple of his fingers. “Before we get into it, though -- you understand that your participation in this is strictly voluntary, right? We can't guarantee your safety, especially if you're made. You have to be prepared to accept full responsibility for the consequences of your actions. Legal shit. You understand."

“Of course,” Curtis says, with his brand new blue laminated badge pinned to his cotton t-shirt, still forest-damp, and the sun in his eyes. He twists his hands in his lap under the medal’s cyclopean golden gaze. Quickly, he adds, “It's an honour to serve, sir."

“I was hoping you’d say that." Howe smiles, cracking open the spine of a fat three-ring binder sitting on the oakwood. “I guess we might as well begin?"


*


Over the next few weeks, under the operations chief's auspice, a parallel narrative blooms around him. Cover is what you believe, Howe likes to say, so Curtis mouths his lies daily into the mirror, with toothpaste in his teeth, until he believes them. He practices his signature, looping it over and over again on post-it notes until it feels natural again. He lets his hair grow out a little more and unlearns some of his good posture, excising enough jargon out of his vocabulary to become just a reservist’s son. Instead of lectures, or extra time on the range, he spends hours in a dank basement room poring over records marked FOX, DAMIAN CASSIUS and any and all notable associates. He devours financial statements and field reports, press releases and shipping records, practicing down to the floor plans of the department he supposedly spent a year of exchange at, reading Italian and French literature. He makes notes, which they don’t let him keep, and creases his new passport and British student’s visa to a state of acceptable wear.

And then, after all that, there’s London. London! Heathrow isn’t even a sprawling concrete spider over the plane wing when his breath catches, his face nearly pressed against the window when they reach the edge of its insane teeming sprawl. Canary Wharf shimmers like fireflies in the dust past the liquid golden haze of a thousand tenements. He lands, small suitcase in hand, not really prepared for a clammy English autumn that smells like fried food and gasoline. The next morning, a brush pass under the lianas draping in the Barbican yields a burner with a single unnamed number programmed into it, though Howe has informed him that it corresponds to a WELLS, FRANCESCA, the scowling dark-haired woman serving as his case officer. They give him an apartment (a shoebox with a view), a laptop (terrible), and a phone (okay) and enough time to adjust to the new time zone and get some of the wonder out of his eyes. They don’t give him a gun.

It’s not James Bond or anything, but he’s here and he can’t stop his heart from hammering in his teeth each night. He creases the spine of an airport paperback without being able to settle on so much as a word of it. He texts the pre-ordained phrase to the phone number programmed into the burner. He waits.

*


Fox Enterprises occupies six floors of a glass and silver spindle in the City, with a creamy white marble lobby that could serve as a decent stand-in for a luxury space station. Curtis paws at the knot in his tie, drags his palms one last time over his uncooperative tawny hair, and makes his nervous ascent to the thirty-second floor through a tide of brokers and bankers. There, he smiles winningly, with both palms on the smooth stone top of the receptionist’s desk, and says, “Hi, sorry, I have a eight o’clock meeting with Mr. Fox?”

But the receptionist just gives him a sympathetic look and leaves him to stew, alone with the plush white chairs and tasteful arrangements of orchids for company. Ten minutes fidget by, then twenty. Left to his own devices in a lion's den on a foreign continent, the Company's terrier sticks a peppermint between his teeth and grinds it down to an anxious dust.

--------------------
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abbey
 Posted: Aug 2 2015, 07:44 PM
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Once upon a time, Fox stole fire from the sky. This was well before Prometheus's time, when Man had one name and not many.

The sky grew dark, and many trees withered and died.

When the other Animals came to ask how Fox could keep all of warmth and light to himself, he answered, "To keep you safe and whole, O friends! You could catch alight. You could scorch out your eyes and shrivel your tongue." They went away, grumbling and growling. They knew it was Fox's vanity, which was vast, and not his generosity, which was less so. Fox loved fire as he loved himself, for only the fire burned more brightly than his flame-orange coat.

One day, Wolf poked his nose into Fox's burrow and felt warm for the first time in days. "Cousin Fox," he said. "Won't you share your fire with me? The night is cold and long, and hunting hard. Man has stopped gathering around the fire without a fire to share."

"Ah, but it is a very small fire. Barely enough to warm me!" As he spoke, Fox went deeper into his burrow, and made it smaller and smaller. Wolf tried to wriggle inside, but the burrow was too small for him and he went away snarling.

All of my neighbours desire to be warm, thought Fox. But only he had the cleverness to be.

That same night, drowsy and dazed with warmth, Fox fell asleep by the fire. The little twig that held the fire was all but consumed, and the flames leapt to Fox's fur, which went up like kindling. He woke to the smell of burning. He ran, but the burrow he had made was too small, and the fire ran across his body faster than he could outdig it.

When the other Animals heard his crying, they came to see what had happened. The North Wind came too, and the Seasons with it. Fox emerged from the remains of his house, but gone was his flame-orange coat, his handsome white waistcoat and polished black boots. His bottlebrush tail was a sad and blackened stick. His home was gone. His lungs croaked with smoke. They pitied him, and yet some of the Animals were glad to see him so ruined.

"We are taking back fire," said Summer.

"It is not yours," said Autumn.

"You will need a new coat," said Spring. "I may let you borrow mine."

"You will need several," said Winter. "But in my coat, when the winter grows thin and lean, Cousin Wolf will turn on you and hunt you for food. There will be little to scavenge."

"And in mine," said Summer, "Hounds will come for you. Your scent will carry on every waft of my breeze."

"And in mine," said Autumn, "there will be steel traps that hide in my leaves. You will not know which berries to eat. Some will poison you."

Finally, Spring said, "When you wear my coat, all the world will be your friend."

Fox was not listening to their concerns. He was happy to have so many furs, orange and black and white and blue, each as beautiful as the last, and he gave the fire back willingly. The sky was light again, and trees blossomed.

Since then, Fox has had a different coat for every Season.
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abbey
 Posted: Aug 3 2015, 09:28 PM
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"No."

No. No. Giovanni Bassani is a professional, and as such he has heard the word 'no' many times in his profession, but it is usually followed by a coy 'maybe' or an emphatic 'yes'. He shortens the cloth measuring tape in his hands and tries not to frown. It's difficult, with his client. Anyone would frown. Even his great grandfather, who had a talent for talking men like this into suits like these. He stares at the man in the mirror, standing tall and straight on the tailor's stool, his left wrist gold-watched and glinting eight o'clock, his right hand holding the jacket closed at the waist, like a man about to receive his date at the door, frowning. Handsome men can frown without seeming like they're about to start an argument, of course. Giovanni could never frown like that.

The suit fits perfectly.

"What do you dislike, sir? The cut—" English cut, like the thousand other suits Giovanni knows Fox has bought. Thin lapels, unpadded shoulders, dual vents in the back, a vestige of the days when all gentlemen rode horses. "—or the material?" Italian wool.

"Yes."

"You dislike all of it, then?"

A furrow forms between Fox's eyebrows, and his eyes flick from Giovanni's in the mirror to Giovanni's in the flesh. He is suddenly, acutely annoyed. "I don't have time to design your suits for you, Bassani. It looks old. Are you sure it's even from this season?"

Even annoyed, the suit fits him perfectly. The tailor in Giovanni wants to take the man by the shoulders and shake him, yell that the oxblood goes with his hair and this is the cut he requested and dissatisfaction is all in the mind, really, Giovanni's father told him that a sale was made once you got the man in the suit, but Giovanni Sr. never met Damian C. Fox.

Giovanni wonders if this is Hell, and if so, what he has done to deserve it. "Sir—"

A knock on the door interrupts his Alighieri.

"Come in."

A willowy young woman pokes her upper half into the room, legs hidden by the door. "Mr. Fox, a Mr. Curtis is here to see you. He starts with you today."

Fox turns his head, one eye still fixed on himself in the mirror. An acknowledgement without the followthrough. "Who? Oh, that. How long has he been waiting?"

"A few minutes."

"And we're sure Samantha isn't coming back?"

"Yes, sir. Her paperwork is on your desk."

Fox sighs. Giovanni imagines it is the sigh that says 'yes, yes, I'll be right out', judging by how neatly the young woman leaves and shuts the door behind her. For a moment, he imagines too that Fox is almost regretful in the mirror, adjusting a shirt cuff without any enthusiasm.

Then he says, "Show me another."



8:30 a.m. comes and goes before anyone is out to see Curtis.

His employer settles on a charcoal suit, English cut, with an oxblood tie as a small concession. It's his mourning suit, mourning his old personal assistant on the way to meet his new one. Fox could have sat in on the interview, but he doesn't have the time, that much is true, and this way there is the smallest possibility that they've hired someone competent. The brief being: young, dumb, CUTE! at the very least (underlined, footnoted). ** Yes, I know you take issue with the legality of my language, Ms. Gromann. You're HR. You deal with the details.

He has a manila folder of his own. It isn't classified, but much of the information is the same. Fox Enterprises runs background checks on its employees. Necessary, with so much money around.

"Mr. Curtis!" Fox's voice travels across the room well before he does. It's a surprisingly rough voice, given how smooth and glossy-coated the man is.

According to Company intel, Fox is a British national, the gold standard of English, boarding school, valedictorian. Old money that went bankrupt and was renewed through the dirtiness of hard work. It's clear in his voice and his 6' of height. His colouring is mixed. Hazel eyes, perfectly dark eyebrows, white teeth, and that special mixture of salon and sun that results in auburn hair and a tan. The faded ghosts of freckles flit under his eyes.

"Damian Fox." He extends his hand. "I'm told it's your first day. Nervous?"
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bird
 Posted: Aug 4 2015, 09:45 AM
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The Company has, of course, anticipated the background check. Everything in Fox's little manila folder has been fastidiously engineered by Ops' sleepless army of technicians, during the same time that Curtis had so carefully dissected and reassembled the Company's own file on Fox and his bedfellows. Still, he story stays the same - middle-class East Coast high school valedictorian, graduating summa cum laude with an ear for Romance languages and a truly remarkable incompetence for throwing a football. All they have to do is adjust some of the details: Dean Curtis went to Northwestern, not West Point; his mother is an accountant named Mary and not a major named Maryse; and he speaks three languages besides English with competence, not five (not that he's much good in the other two, Howe points out, and how plausible is it that an East Coast WASP can ask about a weapons cache in Farsi, anyway?). Addresses aren't too hard, and forged tax records are just a matter of cashing in a few favours with the IRS. Filling the regulation social media void takes about an afternoon, with his sister happily supplying a few photos from some spring break vacation a few years ago. (Somehow, that one feels more invasive than anything else they do.)

Fox, for his part, when he walks in, seems just about everything the Company's scant volume in his name has said he'd be. Still, the photographs are old, and he seems a little less sharp-eyed in them, and HEIGHT: 72.3" doesn't really do justice to the way the room shrinks around him when he walks in. It's not like it mentions what the man sounds like, either, and it's to Curtis' great credit that he manages not to jump out of his skin. He looks up. He sucks in a breath. Go time. Okay. He smiles.

"Dean," he says, as if Fox might use it, and luckily enough the brightness of his expression makes up for at least some of his wardrobe. They're his clothes, and it shows: the button-down collar, in light blue, says tasteless just as much as it says American, and his off-the-rack jacket, in small navy check, doesn't do him any favours beyond fitting at his shoulders where he has a little muscle to fill it out. The effect is all wide-eyed schoolboy ingénue, still wet behind the ears, and, thus, is utterly believable -- except, maybe, for the easy, athletic grace that propels him to his feet or the friendly warmth with which he shakes Fox's hand. He smells a little like the receptionist's peppermints. "Honestly," Curtis says, with a small, nervous laugh when he lets go, "maybe a little! I'm still taking it all in." He doesn't know how to smile yet without it reaching his eyes.
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abbey
 Posted: Aug 7 2015, 08:36 PM
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Curtis's hand fits in his. Fox shakes it, not too firm, not too gentle, having had years to perfect the pressure. Much happens in those first few seconds. They observe each other. Fox has, if not an equally expressive face, one that tells a story of what's going on behind his eyes. He takes in the bargain bin suit, the blue check layered on blue, and by the end of the handshake, he's frowning again.

'Dean' very nearly fits the brief. Young and cute, double underlined, with his genuine smile and his Oklahoma good looks. Shame about the suit. As for dumb, they'll have to wait and see.

"Don't be. You'll soon find your way around." Curtis's file says that he's no stranger to it. Still, there is something about him that bristles newness. Newness says, Open me. Looking at him, Fox imagines unwrapping the crepe paper from a Tiffany. He smiles. "If you need any direction, ask one of our staff." There is a courtesy to his voice that implies Fox is staff too, and infinitely approachable, though a good personal assistant shouldn't take up more of the CEO's time than he saves.

Fox Enterprises has a lot of staff. Curtis would be finding this out for himself, if he hadn't spent those dusty months poring over everything, but seeing it is something else. They step into an elevator that feels like the Space Needle. At the top, the doors open and the floorplan is less of a plan and more of a wide open shining plain, a Serengeti of people in pressed suits and skirts making the world work, running figures and amounts under their fingers, checking and double checking, some of them fixed to their LCD screens and some flitting among the tall, obelisk-like cubicles, all of them clicking, tapping, typing, chatting. A few turn their heads as Curtis walks by. They're more likely looking at Fox.

"This is where you'll be working, mostly." Welcome to the concrete jungle.
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bird
 Posted: Aug 8 2015, 11:43 PM
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"Thanks," Curtis says. He has a way of nodding with his eyelashes, a brief little twitch to his mouth that says thank you, in the very specific. If he looks a little scared, the cheap suit makes it the small town boy here in the big city -- just want to do a good job! kind of scared, the kind that a little warmth from the big boss goes a long way to smooth over. "I appreciate that, Mr. Fox. I'm sure I will." So nice of Fox to look out for his young employees. Curtis watches his eyes.

The elevator ride up is actually pretty cool: kind of like Moonraker, except with taste and a budget. Upstairs, the tactful glassy modernism persists. He misses a beat when the doors open, struck briefly by something between déjà vu and vertigo, whistling just audibly under his breath before he can catch himself doing it. Knowing this place right down to the locations of the fire exits and the air conditioning vents, to the number of employees Fox has, to the Pantone colour picked out for the carpet doesn't help him, and it's a dizzying, disorienting, humbling sort of feeling to have learned this much and still not quite get it right. Still, half a step ahead, Fox remains a thing to solve, a cipher by comparison. Curtis squares his shoulders, looking at him, and sweeps back into his wake.

"I'm looking forward to it," he says, brightly. If the associates or the bankers notice him in Fox's shadow, they see his hands in his pockets and his eyes wide, the affable look that says we're all friends here, right? Rare morning sunlight streams in from the windows on the far side of the room, with the Thames a silver slick oozing beneath bridges and little boats in miniature far below. "This is really impressive, by the way -- Ms. Gromann mentioned you had something to do with the renovations up here?" Namely, that she wasn't too happy about it, but that doesn't seem important right now. He tilts his chin to the City and the city beyond it, with the light in his eyes. "Hell of a view."
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