“So what was all that about?”
Framingham shot a look at Jenner as he took a bit off his shawarma, then she looked around the place as if they were surrounded by sharks. Jenner rolled his eyes and went to say something with his mouth full. Framingham responded by taking a paper napkin and putting it up to his face, but fell short of actually stuffing it through his lips. She just kinda wadded it up before he put his hand up to take it from her. He looked back at her like she was five.
Clyde poked at his salad with a plastic fork, “we’re the only ones in here, Frame.”
“Muhammad’s in the back!” She whispered loudly.
“He doesn’t even speak English,” Clyde whispered back mockingly as Jenner threw the wadded up napkin back in Framingham’s face.
“Yes he can he just pretends to have broken English, cuz he thinks we’re stupid Americans.”
“How do you know?” asked Jenner with his mouth full.
“Cuz I’ve heard him talk to other people fluently when he thought I wasn’t listening. You guys need to be more observant,” Framingham’s forced whisper was practically as loud as her usual soprano-like lilting voice, but neither really traveled far anyway. Framingham had the air of a young woman who had been an introverted wallflower all her life until very recently, and was still unsure of herself in social situations, but with Clyde and Jenner she felt more welcome than with most others. Though the three of them had been assigned to Project Lotus only roughly a year, the day in day out tedious grind of running a florist shop that wasn’t really a florist shop had forced a near sibling like closeness between them as they’d seen other low level agents come and go. For most this was just a stepping stone to bigger and better things, but Framingham was beginning to suspect for the three of them, this was where their superiors felt they could do the least damage. Their situation and her relationship with them reminded her of the Misfit Toys in that Rudolph Reindeer Christmas special she first saw as a child, and would secretly watch every year though she never told anyone. Framingham would watch Christmas specials every year in solitude, one of many things she didn’t feel comfortable sharing with others, and she was pretty sure both Agents Clyde and Jenner wouldn’t understand, but each of them were misfits in their own right.
Clyde was a genius at sixteen, especially when it came to computers. His seventeenth birthday was coming up but he seemed to be going out of the way to not make a big deal out of it. Though so young, Clyde’s friends and associates were all several years older, which he knew was considered unhealthy but he found people of his own age group boring and trivial. This new Rankin lady that Agent Stemmons was currently debriefing down the street was easily twice Clyde’s age. Sometimes Clyde seemed bored even by his elders, especially when they tried to explain to him what they thought was better for him. Even when talking to her, Framingham noticed Clyde seemed to dumb down his vocabulary and rate of speed for her benefit, and she considered herself of above average intelligence. Only computers seemed able to keep up with Clyde’s thought processes.
Jenner was quite the opposite. Framingham could imagine he had gotten this far in The Agency by way of his brawn and his good looks, but when it came to field work, he just didn’t think fast enough on his feet. She suspected dyslexia, but that would have been caught in medical tests and either treated with medication or he woulda flunked out in the Academy. Framingham suspected that before The Agency he got by through cheating at tests or cribbing off others’ notes and not doing a lot of the work on his own. Surely that didn’t work in The Academy though. Instead, he probably latched on to people like Clyde or herself, and got a lot of tutoring in return for help in more social endeavors. This seemed to work well for both he and Clyde. They often referred to each other as their “wing man” which Framingham felt made her the third wheel. They’d talk about their exploits off hours going to various clubs in Manhattan. Framingham hadn’t been invited to join them, and never asked, preferring to spend her weekends studying and working out. Jenner had talked about wanting to go up the ranks in The Agency and someday be a high level field agent, but his lack of autonomy and espionage skills kept him essentially a level two grunt. He did seem to have a green thumb. Framingham had observed over the past year sound evidence that plants loved Jenner, even if he didn’t really love them back.
“Rumor has it Muhammad’s practically an agent anyway. A lot of high level agents come here just to talk to him.” Jenner said after swallowing and before taking another bite.
“That’s cuz they order from me. I know nothing this Agency you speak,” Muhammad said as he walked into the main dining area from the back with boxes of takeout which he placed on a counter as he talked, then bagged up, “but even if I did I been sweared to secret by you director big boss man. And I be half deaf in both ear from car bomb in Kabul, 2004. So you talk and eat all you want I no say a word.” Muhammad turned around and went back to the back of the store from where he came, “I can’t hear you back here anyway I no speak English!”
Framingham looked at the others knowingly. They nodded reluctantly and filled their mouths with food. Silence permeated the small diner for several uncomfortable moments. A few times Clyde or Jenner would try to start a conversation about something else, but when the topic inevitably drifted back to shop talk that might be intelligence sensitive, Framingham would clear her throat and they’d fall silent once more.
The welcoming ding of a bell hanging over the front door spurned Muhammad to re-enter the room from the back and warmly welcomed a lady who entered and stepped up to the counter. He gave her the bagged up boxes of food. She gave him her credit card. They exchanged pleasantries. Framingham deduced from their conversation the lady was a regular customer, but this was the more food than she usually ordered. She had company coming and Muhammad assumed it to be a gentleman caller. She blushed and wouldn’t confirm his assumption but she didn’t deny it either. Muhammad wished her well and prophecied many children for her and her inevitable betrothed.
Framingham wore an “i told you so” look on her face as she looked back and forth to Jenner and Clyde’s faces who were both trying to hide their shock. This was the most English words they’d heard out of Muhammad’s mouth in the past year. Though they didn’t frequent this restaurant every day, they must have come here at least twice a month. It never occurred to either of the gentlemen before today to even consider Muhammad knew anything but Farsi. Then again, especially for Jenner, he’d never bothered to think about it much before. He’d just always point at the number one menu item listed on the wall. That was the extent of his conversation with Muhammad.
The lady customer admitted after a moment that she’d just met her gentleman caller, but thanked Muhammad for the wishful thinking. He cheered her on as she left and invited her to return warmly and loudly. As she left he sighed happily.
“Now datz amore!” Muhammad to the quiet threesome in an affected attempt at an Italian accent.
Wanting to test her theory even further with regards to Muhammad’s prowess and command of languages, Framingham cleared her throat and then spoke to him in fluent Italian: [translated cuz I don’t type Italian] “oh so you speak Italian, sir? Would it be helpful if I spoke to you in Italian instead of English from now on because I am fluent in both.”
Muhammad roared a laugh that practically shook the small room and reminded Framingham again of Christmas but just made Clyde put his hands to his ears. Jenner put more food in his mouth, oblivious to much anything else.
After enjoying his laugh, and using an affected Brooklyn accent, Muhammad responded to her, “Lady I speak eight languages fluently including English, I know more dialects than I can shake a stick at, I just been jacking with you guys all this time.”
Jenner looked up, food in his mouth, “What?” he asked.
Clyde stood up irritated, “You mean all these months you could speak fluent English?”
Muhammad laughed again, this time Framingham found herself laughing with him though she was just as annoyed.
Jenner swallowed, “so wait is he one of us?”
“Oh no of course not,” Muhammad said correcting him, “Well your Director once referred to me as a ‘consultant’ whatever that means, but i think he was joking. It was his way of complimenting the chef, at least that’s how I took it.”
The three looked at each other. The Director had eaten here? So far as they knew, The Director never joked when it came to Consultants. It meant officially the individual had no formal clearance level with The Agency, but unofficially he’d helped the Agency on occasion. You could generally trust a Consultant on a provisional basis to be sort of on the same side as The Agency, but they’re still essentially civilians. Agents weren’t supposed to talk shop around them.
Clyde slumped back into his seat, and returned to poking at his salad with a fork. He had assumed Muhammad couldn’t understand English all the past year. That must have been a reason why Clyde got low marks on his last review. He was a security risk. Loose lips sink ships, and all that. Somehow maybe Clyde’s talking in this diner about work to other agents must have gotten back to the brass at The Agency, especially if Muhammad had The Director’s ear. Somehow everything eventually gets back to The Agency. Clyde was now surprised they hadn’t fired him over that, which caused him to sink into a bit of depression.
Framingham stood up and walked over to the counter asking Muhammad low level security check questions, to which Muhammad raised his hands in surrender and repeated “no” a lot. Then with a forced affectation of a southern US accent, intentionally showing off, “I know what yer tryin’ ta do missy, but ah know better than to even try an answer questions like that cuz ah might accidently get one right an then what would ya’ll think?”
It was in that instant that the bell dinged again over the door and in walked Stemmons and Rankin chatting amongst themselves cordially, until Rankin saw Muhammad’s face.
Muhammad glanced away from Framingham over to the door at about the same time, recognizing both Stemmons and Rankin but seemed honestly surprised to see either of them.
“Studebaker!” Rankin growled angrily.
“Reggie?” Muhammad blinked and for an instant Framingham saw multiple emotions on Muhammad’s face simultaneously. She read fear, coupled with euphoria, but he also looked like he was seeing a ghost. Framingham would have liked to study his face longer to examine the conflicted emotions for a dissertation she had been working on regarding body language and its usefulness in interrogations, but that was when Muhammad’s face became a blur.
Gina Rankin jumped onto the the counter in a fluid motion and then pounced on Muhammad, tackling him in mid air with the full force of her short stocky form.
“No. Don’t. Stop.” Stemmons said mockingly as he stepped slowly towards Framingham and the counter.
Rankin’s weight threw Muhammad to the ground with a thud. She grabbed his arms swiftly and wrapped them behind Muhammad’s back faster than Framingham had ever seen anyone take down an assailant. Granted, Muhammad didn’t even put up a fight.
“Don’t ‘Reggie’ me!” Ranking was now squatting on Muhammad who was face down on the floor behind the counter half groaning and half stifling a childish giggle. Without looking behind her, Rankin put up a free hand, the other hand keeping Muhammad’s thumbs locked together. Framingham deduced Rankin was expecting Stemmons to give her a pair of handcuffs.
“No. Don’t. Stop.” repeated Stemmons as he passed Framingham and walked towards the table where Jenner and Clyde were still sitting. Obviously he wasn’t giving Rankin a pair of hand cuffs so Framingham pulled her own out of her back pocket and put them in Gina’s hand.
Gina looked at the handcuffs quizzically, then looked up at Framingham who was now looking down over the counter. With a quick smile Rankin said, “Oh. Hi! Thanks, but..” she gave the handcuffs back, “I know for a fact Stu can weasel out of that kind. I seen him do it. Stemmons I need your cuffs!”
“That was a long time ago, Reggie!” Muhammad managed to say though one cheek was being shoved into linoleum.
“Shut up you double crossing rat!” she said to Muhammad, then shouted again, “Stemmons gimme your cuffs!”
“No. Don’t. Stop.” Stemmons said flatly at Clyde and Jenner as he sat down, which made them both crack up like grade school kids.
“I take it you two have met?” Framingham asked Rankin.
“Venezuela!” both Gina and Muhammad said at the same time.
“Wait I thought Muhammad was from Afghanistan,” Jenner said trying not to laugh.
“I’m cosmopolitan,” Muhammad kinda shouted, though Gina was sitting on his spine and rib cage which made talking and breathing a chore. “I thought you were dead!” Muhammad’s voice was muffled but discernible.
“No thanks to you!” Gina growled.
“Been meaning to apologize about that.”
“Stemmons you giving me your cuffs, or not?”
Stemmons put his feet up on a nearby chair, and grabbed some fries from Framingham’s tray, “No. Please. Stop.” Stemmons had both Jenner and Clyde in stifled stitches.
“Good thing I mopped my floor, today!”
“Studebaker what the hell are you doing north of Mexico?”
“Witness protection program.”
“You turned on Chavez?”
“And found God! A lot can happen in five years. Allah Ackbar!”
“You son of a bitch!” Gina hopped off Muhammad’s back and helped him to his feet. The two hugged each other long and hard. Framingham couldn’t help but smile, staring at them like she was watching a soap opera. Muhammad went to kiss Rankin on the mouth and she put a hand between their faces. “Not so fast, Stu. I’m still pissed at you – you left me for dead.”
“I apologize. I was a different man back then. I’ve changed!”
“Yeah I bet!”
“Besides you didn’t need me! Look at you!”
“I had to fight twelve guys!”
“All at the same time?”
“No I bided my time and took em out in pairs.”
“What about the moat?”
“I swam it.”
“There were gators.”
“I got a pair of gator shoes in storage.”
“You’re shitting me.”
She smiled, then looked over at Stemmons, “Why didn’t you tell me our old friend worked here?”
“You’re not level six clearance. Oh by the way you still don’t know if anyone asks you.”
“Bastard,” Gina looked back at Muhammad, “what happened to your Studebaker?” she glanced over at Framingham with a thumb pointing to Muhammad’s chest, “we called him Stu cuz he had that stupid old Studebaker. He’d drive all over Central and South America in that thing tho the shocks were shot and it was terrible over rough terrain.”
“Loved that car. I lost my Studebaker in a bet. I let go of material things anyway. Well, most of them. I go by Muhammad now.”
“Cuz you found God?”
“He’s been very good to me!”
She hugged him again, “well I’m never trusting you to have my back again, but I’m happy for you.”
“I would have expected you to punch me in the face but I preferred the wrestling. Like the good ole days at Angel Falls.”
“Hey. You lost Angel Falls wrassling privileges when you left me for dead.”
“You can’t hold that grudge forever. Let me make it up to you over dinner.”
“Keep it in your pants, Sport.”
“Oh I’m sorry, you and Stemmons getting back together?”
“NO!” both Stemmons and Rankin said in unison.
“Well then you’re still a free agent,” Muhammad’s arms opened wide as if inviting Rankin to embrace him again.
“No offense to your beliefs Stu, but I wouldn’t be caught dead in a burqua.”
[Part Eight coming soon]