LEADERS - not followers

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Fourth Millennium (14)


9 To Market And Beyond

Halibut, the contact in Sector 747, eyed Starling, Nightingale, and Rose suspiciously. For the first time, their meeting was to take place outdoors, in a crowded, public area; the marketplace. This was Halibut’s stipulation; he wanted to be sure that he could make a quick and effective getaway, by mingling with the throng, in case he’d walked into a trap. Even Hawthorn’s most emphatic assurances that “these three are going to be the one’s to do it”, as well as the inclusion of Robin’s niece, Rose, had not persuaded him to break his over-cautious habit. There seemed no point in tempting fate, he thought, despite the fact that so many less-qualified candidates had been introduced in similar circumstances, albeit without such strong and enthusiastic recommendations from the ‘network’, and had received their verdicts of rejection, without complaint or incident.
Halibut had a tried and trusted method of initially gauging his ‘prospects’, in what was intended as a preliminary meeting, which so far, no-one had graduated.
He would greet his ‘freshmen’, by deliberately mispronouncing, or wrongly stating, their names. Then he would await, and assess, their reactions, before reaching the decision to either turn away and disappear, or continue with the interview. His next step would be simply to ask;
“So, what brings you here?”
This was Halibut’s way of asking for a list of words that included the names of all the contacts they’d already been in touch with, and describing the items, and any other relevant information they had been given as ‘graduation’ gifts, in their previous interviews.
The only hint that Starling, Nightingale and Rose had been given to indicate Halibut’s style of conducting his ‘first interview’ was the warning that they may find his methods a little unconventional.
Nightingale had reminded his two companions, unnecessarily, on their return from the cliffs that blatant understatements had been a recurring feature of the quest so far. Starling had responded with the statement;
“Don’t worry, Nightingale; you’re preaching to the converted,” having learnt well from his mentor, Robin, and indicating that he was fully prepared to expect the unexpected. Rose had smiled her own understanding and response to, as well as appreciation of Nightingale’s comment, implying that her ten years under the protection and guidance of her uncle, Robin, had taught her to treat any and every situation with an analytical attitude.
Halibut appeared exactly as Hawthorn had described him; a slightly built forty year old, with a slightly nervous disposition. He was forever brushing away, imaginary specks of dirt from the arms and shoulders of his tunic; rubbing at his temples and cheekbones; sniffing, and clearing his throat, as he spoke. To Starling, Nightingale and Rose, he stood out like a sore thumb, in the crowded marketplace, causing them to wonder how he’d managed to maintain his confidentiality for so long. He’d been active in his role of intermediate for the best part of ten years.
Starling had approached, nonchalantly and confidently, a few paces ahead of his companions, extending his right arm as instructed, and saying;
“Ah, Halibut! No wonder I couldn’t find you.”
All instructions having been followed, he waited for the unrehearsed response.
“Well, well; if it isn’t Duckling, I don’t think I care to know who it is.”
Initially uncertain of just how to react, Starling maintained his composure, smiling as he turned to face his friends, and said;
Starling would have similar reservations. Why don’t you say ‘hello’ to my companions?”
Halibut complied, greeting them with;
“Good afternoon; you must be Sloe, and this must be Nightshade.”
Rose and Nightingale smiled at his inept corruptions, before Rose, seeing that Halibut was awaiting some sort of response, quickly latched on to the theme and provided the comment;
“Forgive my blushes; I always turn red as a Rose whenever I’m introduced to somebody, for the first time.”
A nod from Halibut seemed to indicate approval, but Starling suspected it may be just one of his characteristic twitches.
Nightingale joined the game of coded identity confirmation;
“I’m not as deadly as I appear, I can assure you, and I possess the voice of a Nightingale, even if I do say so myself.”
It all seemed to satisfy Halibut’s implied requirement to be corrected subtly, without reprimand, and not just ignore his deliberate mistakes. He gestured to them, with a sniff and a cough, and another ‘twitch’, to come closer.
“So, what brings you here...?” A booming voice that didn’t belong to his child-like frame issued from his lips. “…’Star’ling?” he added in a much quieter tone, almost disguised by the cough that was issued simultaneously.
“Well, Halibut, as you know, it’s quite a journey from Sector 246. We started off by ‘road’, before we somehow lost ‘track’, and everything was ‘up in the air’ for a while, but getting here was always our ‘number one’ aim. I swear to you, it takes the courage of a ‘lion’ to ask for directions in the transport offices. They’ll tell you anything; a ‘hundred’ different things, ‘five hundred’ if you let them. I don’t know, it all adds up to a lot of wasted time. I counted up to ‘two thousand seven hundred and thirty six’, waiting for my travel ‘disc’. I thought the ‘man’ looked more like a woman, but the ‘real woman’ gave me ‘two thousand seven hundred and sixty five’ reasons he’d taken so long. Then the ‘man’ at the next place looked even more like a woman; but we made it, eventually, after a journey of ‘two thousand nine hundred and fifty five’ kilometres.”
“Perfect…” cough, sniff, “you made it…” sniff, cough, “We must celebrate, but not now, I’m in a bit of a rush. Meet me later, at five; my house. You know where to find it, don’t you?”
Starling had no idea of Halibut’s ID number, which would have simplified the process, but answered, confidently;
Yes Halibut; it’s just…over…there” He pointed in the general direction of nowhere in particular.
“There…if only” Halibut whispered as he turned to walk away, nodding, or twitching as he did so.
“What do you think?” Nightingale asked, uncertainly.
“I think he would have walked away much sooner, and much more discreetly, if I’d got anything wrong,” replied Starling.
“I agree; I think you handled the job brilliantly. I loved your crafty explanation. I think he did too. No-one would have just stood there and listened to all that nonsense, if it wasn’t what they wanted to hear. Just one thing though, Starling; how ‘do’ we find him again later? We don’t even have his ID number.”
“I know, and we wouldn’t have got it from ‘him’, either. We’re all ‘old friends’, remember? It’s not the sort of thing I should need to ask, but don’t worry, I’ve got a plan.”
“Good for you, Starling.” Nightingale was relieved. “Coming from anybody else…present company excepted, I’d consider that an excuse for not knowing how; an attempt to buy time. You haven’t let us down yet.”
“Quite the contrary,” agreed Rose, “I know who ‘I’d’ choose to trust…every time.” She gave Starling’s hand a gentle, but deliberate squeeze, sending a surge of excitement along his arm, across his chest, and straight to his heart.
Rose realised they had only three hours to find Halibut’s house, and quickly moved away, thinking to herself that she’d not ‘broken’ her rule of restraint, merely bent it, in order to send a message; a hint of her growing attraction towards Starling. She justified her action by convincing herself that no harm had been done, and they were still on course to complete the next stage of their quest.

“Halibut?” asked the receptionist at ‘official’ headquarters. “What number?”
“I’m acting on a possible mistaken identity, so you’ll have to give me Skate as well. The number is definitely 74760. That’s the only confirmed ID reference I was given.” Starling explained.
The greying receptionist, in her early fifties, quickly checked her charts, and delivered a piece of surprisingly good news.
Skate 74760, is from east-northern, three; he must be your man, because the last Halibut ID is 74747, west-western, one; not that that’s any help to you now.”
“Thank you very much, you’re a model citizen. You have no idea how much this speeds up a totally routine and irritating, minor investigation.”

“That wasn’t a plan; it was a pure fluke,” gasped Nightingale, once they’d left the building.
“Just as well we didn’t have to use ‘plan two’ then, isn’t it?” Starling laughed, reflecting that too much emphasis on the mechanics of an operation, could affect the outcome, just as adversely as too little; not forgetting to utter a silent word of thanks, to whomever, or whatever was responsible for his latest triumph.
“We’ve got just enough time to get there as well,” added Rose.
“I only hope we’ve not missed something. He wasn’t exactly liberal with his information, Halibut, was he?” Starling questioned.
“No, that’s for sure,” agreed Nightingale, “but he’s looking for something a bit special, and if we have got anything wrong, or missed any subtle details...well, it’s not us that’s special, is it?”
“If we weren’t special, we wouldn’t have made it this far, would we Nightingale? Keep the faith, and we’ll see this quest through, to conclusion…I can guarantee that.” Starling’s motivational comment was just the tonic.

To be continued

Copyright © Stanislaw Skibinski

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