Bait & Switch

An aquarium with green coral, salmon anemones and a wrasse.

Round Two of The 2022 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge
Group 72: Spy — an underwater cave — a passport.

*

Bait and Switch

Contains mohair, reluctant intrigue, and tropical fish.

Gate 87 B of international departures smelled like cinnamon buns, mild panic and hand sanitizer.

Max took a seat on the row of chairs facing the entrance to the pedway that ran under the airport aquarium. Blue light trickled through the water, eddies shifting with shadows of tiger sharks at the other end.

“Are you going somewhere, or coming home?” The woman sitting next to him had fluffy gray hair and a fluffy sixty-ish body. She knitted fluffy yarn with pink metallic needles.

“It’s a work thing,” he said, still irritated he’d been volunteered. He was supposed to be the guy in the basement, tailoring clever tactical gear to missions, not the guy on the mission. And it was an hour and a half past his lunchtime.

“How nice that your work takes you places.” She smoothed the pastel rainbow work-in-progress on her knee. “I’m going to see my grand…kid.”

He scanned the gate area, looking for the agent they promised would be his backup. A businessman with a cheap phone and an expensive watch had the stance of some years in the service, and the flight attendant at the podium held herself like she could stop a military coup one handed, but no one made eye contact beyond the brief half glance of travelers going in the same direction.

The knitter leaned closer with a conspiratorial grin. “They’re a they, now. Imagine growing up in a time when you could wear anything you want, be anyone you want.”

Max wished he was wearing his lab coat. The tinted mousse itched his scalp and the two-inch lifts in his shoes hurt his back. He checked the clock above the arrivals screen.

“Passengers on Delta flight 2756 to Helsinki, you are now departing from gate 12 C,” the announcement crackled over the loudspeaker, right on time. The college kid with the duffel too big for the overhead compartments groaned and swore, drawing too much attention to himself to be Max’s unknown partner.

A man in a red ball cap stepped onto the pedway, pulling a carry-on. Max stood, forcing himself to wait, to recheck his boarding pass, to not gawk at the wideset eyes under straight brows, jowls a little soft for his chin. Max and Ivanov could indeed have passed for twins, enough to foil facial recognition software.

Two men with elbows used to curving around a holster kept pace twenty strides behind.

Max slid onto the pedway, cutting them off before they could step onto the moving walkway, dragging his rolling suitcase behind. He strode quickly, the way his trainer had drilled him the day before, running him through a course marked out in the agency gym with crime tape at handrail height.

He stepped up to Ivanov as they eased through the underwater tunnel, catching the Russian’s carry-on with the wheel of his own. They both spun with a quiet apology, bending to their luggage, a perfect dance with a handoff of ballcap for passport, in the half light of the cave of anemones and coral. Max stood, adjusting the hat brim as Ivanov sped forward, their positions switched. The asylum seeker had been trained in the same move in reverse, Ginger Rogers to Max’s Fred Astaire—though Max was the one in heels.

He leaned on the handrail, his heart pounding. He glanced over his shoulder, at a school of angelfish. The two men, weaving around kids watching a manta ray, grew closer. They were big, with big forearms and big matching neck tattoos.

Max hadn’t been trained in goon combat. He was a tech, not a spy. Where the hell was his contact?

As he stepped off the pedway, rough hands grabbed his elbows on both sides, a flood of Slavic commands hissed into his ear. They didn’t see their true quarry disappearing around a tank of jellyfish.

They hauled Max into a service elevator etched with fish. An aquarium keeper in a jumpsuit sat on the floor, bound with tape and fury. One of the goons swiped her ID and pressed the up arrow.

They pushed Max out, a gun to his ribs. The air smelled of saltwater and sad fish. The floor was a steel grid over the tank, clanging under their heavy feet. Heavy curses accompanied each prod of the pistol, nudging him to the railing over the water.

“I’m not Ivanov.” Max’s voice squeaked with cowardice as he gave up his cover. “I’m just a decoy.”

The Russian swearing didn’t change. He inhaled, waiting for the shove that would send him swimming, but it never came.

His right elbow was released with a muffled grunt. Max pivoted on his heel, slapping the wrist holding the gun downward. The pistol sailed across the floor to rest by a bucket of chum.

The goon flailed, his face and fists bound up in a stretch of rainbow knit scarf. Goon Two lounged in peaceful recline, a pink knitting needle bisecting his neck.

“Good work, Agent Maxwell.” Granny Fluff patted his cheek. “The asset is safely in our custody.”

Max caught his breath as she secured the scarf decommissioning Goon One. “That is quite effective,” he said. “Can one knit Kevlar?”

The tiger sharks circled as blood dripped into the water, turning it orange.

She disassembled the pistol with quick hand movements and dropped the pieces into the tank. “You’d make a good field agent, you know.”

“I think I prefer the basement,” Max said. “Can we stop for lunch on the way out? Concourse A had a seafood place that looked good.”

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