Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Exclusive Excerpt: Identity X. Michelle Muckley's Blog Tour.


Ben is a research scientist. He finds the cure for genetic disease in a serum called NEMREC. He celebrates with his best friend Mark and returns home to his wife Hannah. When he returns to his laboratory he finds that his research and his staff have disappeared. When he tries to leave the laboratory somebody tries to shoot him. He flees, and he manages to escape. But when he tries to contact his wife she cannot be reached. He has to work out who he can trust in an attempt to find his wife and his son Matthew, all the while dodging mysterious agents who seem to want him dead. He has lost his wife, his son, and the chance to save his son’s life with hisgenetic research. Identity X is the story of his fight to take these things back.

Chapter fourteen.

AS THE CAR SNAKED THROUGH the roads towards Headquarters, Mark sat isolated on the backseat, encased in the impenetrable cocoon around him. He sat with his arm resting against the heavy set door. It was almost as thick as the door of an aircraft, and he slumped into his seat with his elbow propped up against the inch thick glass that shielded the passenger from external harm. The reflection of his face rippling in and out of view with the passing shadows offered none of the familiarity or security that he came to expect. Instead he saw dark eye sockets and ruffled hair, he felt smaller, and disarrayed like his plan. He felt weaker, a man cut down by a virus, consumed as a host, unable to function.

He felt the vehicle draw to a halt, and the sound of both front doors opening prompted him to ready himself for his exit. He had loosened his tie on the journey on account of his throat feeling constricted and his breathing difficult in the expensive custom made but tightly fitting suit, and he straightened himself and his clothing up. In the centre of his head he felt a similar pressure. It was a tight knot that had positioned itself directly between his eyes and fed off his stress. The patch of eczema on the palm of his hand was itching, and it had got worse this last week, which he had repeatedly told himself was coincidental. He had a new patch on his foot too, and he could feel it itching in a location that was utterly inaccessible without the removal of his shoe. This was not an option, and he therefore crunched his toes up and rubbed the side of his foot against the other as if trying to stimulate a spark between two dry sticks in the search for a snippet of relief, but yet found none. He rubbed his forefingers against his forehead as he waited for the sound of the door handle to indicate it was time to leave, to flee from his isolation and be comforted in the crowd of people and responsibility. Left on his own for too long, it was easy to allow the mind to wander. His skin conditions always bothered him more when he was alone, when he would find that his palms would sweat for no reason and the itching would take control of his thoughts. Caught up in the moment, surrounded by action, it was easier to forget these other botherations, and in the last twenty four hours specifically, convincehimself that they were doing as much as they could to rectify the failure of the operation.

The heavy door opened, and he slipped out his feet in one steady motion. He heard the raindrops first on the umbrella that had been opened and was waiting for him, casting his exit in shadow.

“Sir.” He was greeted by a faceless agent, somebody that he didn’t know. He said nothing in reply and walked at his usual quick pace, not once considering the umbrella holding agent beside him who quickened his pace unnaturally in order to shield him from the falling rain. The steps that lead up to Headquarters were innumerable, and his quick pace continued as he proceeded towards the main entrance door. Above him the rows of identical windows offered no view in. They appeared reflective like mirrors, and yet as black as the raven that he could hear cawing in the trees whichencircled the building. They offered no clue to the presence of hundreds of Civil Servants that existed behind the walls. The rain began to fall heavily as he approached the front doors, and the flanking agents atMark’s side stepped up their pace to move ahead now that he was covered by the elaborate entrance held up by a balustrade of columns. They stood with their hands on the covered keypad, and as they simultaneously entered their private key codes they looked at each other to indicate that it was time to press their respective buttonstogether. They did so and the doors opened, and with second perfect timing, Mark approached the thick mirrored glass doors to see his wavering reflection disappear into the recess as they slid away, permitting him entry into the belly of Headquarters. He looked tired and dishevelled, and the usual sense of self gratification that he relished by seeing his reflection in front of these doors was lost on him today.

The heels of the crowd of agents resonated as they walked through the foyer with each step vibrating up to the high level ceiling. Captain White greeted them as they neared their destination of the rear door, his arms laden with papers. His usually neatly coiffed hair appeared tousled, scruffed up, like he had either had a really rough night’s sleep or had been running his oversized hands through it this morning. It was probably a mixture of both. He looked spent.

“Sir, all of the arrangements for Agent Sadler have been completed and Seventy Fourth Street has been cleaned.” His words came spluttering from his lips, all breathy and eager like he was talking to a really hot woman, each word jumbling into the next. He fidgeted the papers about in his arms waiting for a response, hoping he had impressed.

Mark stood quietly in front of his subordinate, his crowd of underlings waiting anxiously for his reaction to Agent Sadler’s name. Sets of eyes twitched left and right, looking for comfort in another man’s gaze at the uncomfortable mention of Ami. They had all heard by now what had happened. The news had filtered through like Chinese whispers, bringing with it sorrow and disbelief. Then the second wave of gossip had spread, she was a foreign agent, a double agent, working for both sides. Oh in that case, good job. It was for the best. Even the ones who didn’t really mean it kept their grief to themselves.

“It is quite clear to me now that Agent Sadler was not at all what she seemed. Amena Saad was in fact the daughter of Abdel Salam Saad, a well know buyer of weapons who feeds not only the east, but the west, the north and the south. Had they have successfully stolen the data that we have tried for many years to acquire he would have undoubtedly made a fortune from the nearest buyer and we in the near future would have been the victim of our own success, and failure.

“It is your department that manages recruitment and dissolution of contract, is it not, Captain White?” The whole crowd knew the meaning of dissolution of contract. It was a phrase that made even the most secure of agents fearful. There was not a single agent who would have wished for ‘dissolution of their contract’ and the discomfort rippled through the ten pairs of feet as they shuffled uncomfortably under the tension of the confrontation.

“Yes Sir. It is indeed.”

“Then you are as I understand solely responsible for her recruitment.”

“Yes Sir. That is my responsibility.”

“Then you and I will discuss matters regarding AmenaSaad at a later date. Right now I want to know the location of Ben Stone. What do you have?” Mark began to walk towards his office, through the corridors and hordes of eyes that gazed upon him as he walked, startled at the presence of their boss after the rumour of the operational failure had began its diffusion throughout the department. Captain White turned on his heels and followed in the footsteps of his superior. He glanced repeatedly from the papers towards the corridor, reading as they moved through the crowds, sidestepping the other agents in order to get close to Mark.

“Sir, Agent Mulligan tracked him to the underground station on Sixtieth. He shot an agent and disappeared into the tunnels. Her team followed him but came up with nothing. We picked up a signal from his phone line briefly, and we have sent agents in that direction, but it was a very brief signal, and has subsequently not been identified again.”

“You mean you haven’t got anything on him since he left the underground station?”

“For half an hour it looked as if he was heading in an easterly direction, but the last activity we recorded was over forty minutes ago.”

“Tell me, Captain White, how is it possible that a man with no identity, no financial strength, and approximately one hundred agents at our disposal to be placed on his tail as and when we choose to do so should evade our grip. We have tracked this man successfully for many years and controlled his life down to the decision of what breakfast he might eat. What holiday destination he may visit. Short of controlling when he goes to the toilet we knew everything about him, and suddenly we know absolutely nothing?”

“Sir we have every agent out looking for him. We have every underground station sealed. There is no exit he could take that doesn’t go through us.”

“Find him.” They had reached his office door and he held up his access card, another heavyset door opened giving access to his office. He turned to look at Captain White for the first time since they had started walking together. “Find him and kill him.” He turned to another agent on his right just before he closed the door behind him. “Mulligan is on her way in. When she gets here, send her directly to me.”

Mark didn’t wait for a response. He didn’t need the confirmation from his staff that his instructions would be followed. He knew that there was not a single person working in this department that would dare go against his will. He expected his commands to be followed as if they were in a military battlefield. There had been many whisperings that his appointment into his position had been misguided, a gentle nod from most of the staff with military experience that his lack of exactly that made his position untenable. They had all been professional to his face of course, but he knew what they were really thinking. He knew they were talking about him. This one flaw, some believed, would be the downfall of this operation. It had until now been an unfounded idea, a hypothesis courted by those he believed suffered at the hands of their own jealousy and envy. After all, who wouldn’t want his job?

He was more than aware that his failure to see through his final task, one that he had both requested and guarded against delegation to others in the scientific team surrounding Ben, would add fuel to such beliefs. To fail in Ben’s elimination at the final hurdle had the potential to show weakness and undermine everything he had ever achieved. It would render years of his work worthless. He knew people were already talking. They were wondering if his friendship had prevented him from delivering the fatal drug, and that somehow Ben’s unbelievable escape was part of a covert plan. They wondered if it was their leader that had warned him, and that had somehow ensured his escape. How dare they question me? Was it even Ben Stone that they were tracking now? Perhaps he was already out of the city, or the country? The only proof of his dedication to the agency now was Ben’s body, cold and dead and on a slab for display like a witch’s head on a stake. It was his only option.

As he sat at his desk, his arms folded defiantly in front of his chest, tapping his top lip with his forefinger, he gazed at the computer screens around him. He saw the multitude of red lights, each representing an agent in the field, and corroborating Captain White’s account that there was indeed no underground exit that wasn’t covered. The red lights blinked in uniform straight lines following the course of the train system, equally spaced and in pairs as his team sat guard at the stations. There was also a small collection of dots forming an arc around the eastbound perimeter of the city, a backup team in case Ben’s travel eastward had in some inexplicable way been successful. He rested his heavy head on the palm of his hand, as if his muscles couldn’t cope with the weight of it, which served only to make his painful headache feel worse. He took several deep cleansing breaths, safe from view of his team on the other side of the reinforced wall where such a display of tension he had forbidden himself long ago. His private office was a fortress within a fortress. It acted as an instant reminder to all who work there of the level of risk and secrecy in which they had chosen to live their lives, perhaps naively and years before they had begun to crave the love and security of a family, or a real connection to the world. The walls were reinforced against radiation and built with an aluminium and steel layer. The building had the potential to keep everything out, but should it fail, the walls to his private office offered him at least a secondary line of defence. From here he had his own passageway towards the underground bunker. It wasn’t for him, but he had access to it. Under no occasion had a senior member of the state been forced to visit Headquarters, to learn of its existence, and all involved in The Agency’s operation hoped that fact may remain for years to come, for it was their secrecy and invisibility that permitted their ongoing survival. Once it was compromised, it would be the end of the system as they knew it, because for it to survive, first it had not to exist.

He pulled the top file from the pile on his desk and after pushing aside the large glass paperweight he placed the pale beige coloured cardboard folder in front of him. It was marked three of ten, which meant that the pile had become irritatingly disarranged, no doubt by the staff that he had ordered to transfer the most recent files to his desk rather than the storage area. Mark had ensured that when the equipment had been removed from the laboratory, the one that Ben had called home for such a long time, that the equipment be placed in storage but for the documents to be entrusted to his own safe keeping. In truth, he wanted to read through them. He wanted the words to lift from the page and transfer into his own mind, reawaken his scientific abilities and transcend their ownership by Ben. Eventually he intended for them to become his own words, his own work. He had decided to read them repeatedly, until it made sense to the point that when requested to do so he could paraphrase it in a way that would instil confidence to his audience, but with just enough mystery that they would undoubtedly realise that without him the future application of the findings would remain an ambitious dream. First, he had to replace something that had until now proven irreplaceable. Ben.

He knew that he wouldn’t understand the majority of what was written immediately. It would take time. These were after all Ben’s handwritten notes from years of research. The date on the top of this file was from three years previously. He leafed through the contents, the notes and diagrams a foreign language to him. He brushed his thumb against the spines of the other files that sat atop his desk and felt their rough texture which set his teeth on edge, like fingernails on a chalk board. He found the latest file, named ten of ten. Opening the folder he saw that the latest page was dated only two days before, the final day of Ben’s existence. He glanced at the page as report after report was completed detailing the success of repeated experiments. He found it unbelievable how Ben had failed to maintain computer records, and had continuously tried to push him towards starting them, knowing that it would be infinitely easier to secure the work this way. He closed the file, knowing now was not the time to focus on Ben’s work, and opened his desk draw in order to place all of the files securely inside. Amongst the cigarettes, pens, and other office paraphernalia there was one other thing that caught his attention, and he found his eyes being antagonistically drawn towards it against his will. It was a photograph of him with Ben, taken as teenagers and before any influence from The Agency had snuck malevolently into their lives. As much as he denied it to the public and also to himself if he cared to admit it, seeing the past documented like this was painful. He threw the files on top of the photograph and slammed the draw shut, leaving his hand in place against the closed draw as he took in another deep breath. Angry at the photograph’s presence he reminded himself that to bring it here had been a moment of unacceptable weakness, and he tossed it back inside. There was a bin next to the desk which remained empty. He told himself it was the wrong place for disposal. He may have been right.

Taking one final look at the red lights blinking on the screen, he stood from his desk, leaving the office behind him as he stepped out into the corridor. The only sounds around him were the tapping of computer keyboards or the occasional scratch of the lead of a pencil against paper, and they resonated through the silence. Which one of you was talking about me before I came out of my office, he thought to himself rhetorically, fearing that the answer could be all of them.

Walking through the corridors he could feel the eyes upon him as heads raised as he passed them, like a Mexican wave as they each looked up to catch a glimpse of their under pressure boss. He knew what they were thinking. He knew that they considered his appointment to the head of this operation a failure. He knew they were thinking him to be a weak leader, or worse, a traitor. He ignored his desire to question them, to turn around and give them a piece of his mind and ask them if they had any idea what it was that he had given up in order to get this operation off the ground in the first place. If they had any idea of what personal cost he had paid in the pursuit of success, the thought wouldn’t even cross their minds. He held his head up, and pushed all memories of his youth to one side. There is no shame in what I have done. Anybody would have done it, maybe not exactly this but everybody is selfish. It’s normal. He focussed his mind on the metronomic beat of his shoes as they struck the stone floor of the corridor. It’s true, nothing lasts forever.

In his effort to forget his past, his present was doing little other than making him feel angry at himself. He had planned almost every step of this operation personally, and those that he hadn’t planned were organised under his close scrutiny. So far today he had suffered the embarrassment of not only discovering that Ben must still be alive, randomly wandering the streets and seeking access to the underground stations, but also that he had enabled and worked alongside a double agent for the last two years. Amena Saad had paid the ultimate price, her body now resting in their mortuary and waiting for cremation, but yet to Mark that still did not seem enough. He had no idea of the level of information that Ben may have gained from this traitor before he had given the order to take her out. For the first time in a long time he felt that he was the one in the dark, that he was no longer in control of everything. There were things happening that were not directly the result of his hands and he wanted it to stop. He needed Ben’s body in his mortuary, alongside Amena’s. It didn’t matter how hard it would be for him to see. He had hoped that his body could be disposed of directly, and that he would be able to avoid forming a real visual memory, but so be it. He would take responsibility for the mess that had occurred. His punishment would be the sight of his dead friend, Ben cold and lifeless, tag on the toe and penis hanging pathetically limp along his leg for all to see. That would be the price of success. Then he could put an end to the embarrassing whisperings of his staff regarding his potential involvement in Ben’s escape. Then he would be absolved.

As he approached another door he swiped his access card against the screen of the card reader. The red light at the side of the door changed to green and he slipped into the room in front of him.

“Where is he?” The agent stood to attention as the door opened and his boss walked through. Mark’s words werecannonball-blunt and unfriendly.

“Sir, he is just through here.” The guard led him towards another doorway which had no locking mechanism or card reader to grant access. Mark pushed the door open to see the little boy playing on the floor with a popup book, taking in each of the details as he turned the pages that brought to life images of mountains and animals, a tour of the world and its zoological inhabitants. A female agent, who looked less than excited with her appointment to this latest assignment, stood as she realised the man walking through the door was in fact her boss, but he brushed her away, ushering her to resume her disinterested position in her seat as if he knew this assignment was beyond boring.

“Hey Matthew,” Mark said, as he got close enough to crouch down next to the boy and ruffle his hair. His sudden change of tone, a full about turn, sounded alien to the other agents who shared their surprise in a quick glance behind the safety of Mark’s back.

“Uncle Mark!” A smile spread across Matthew’s face and he threw his arms around Mark’s body, his chubby arms wrapping themselves without caution around his waist. His hands gripped onto Mark’s clothes, and Mark naturally and softly slipped his hands around the small body, encasing him in a genuinely warm embrace as he scooped him up. “Did you bring it?” he asked.

“Did I say I would bring it?” The boy nodded, unsure if the response was in his favour or against him. “If I said I would bring it, then I must have brought it.” Mark pulled out a rolled up book from his inside pocket, no thicker or smaller than a magazine. Matthew’s eyes grew wide as he saw the blue of the book appearing as majestically as Poseidon from an underwater domain, which had been stowed there this morning, before he knew that Ben was about to wake up and slip through his not so carefully cast net.

“Wow!” exclaimed Matthew, unfolding the football sticker book onto the grey tiled floor as Mark placed him back down, pushing away his popup book and X-Men comics. “And the stickers?”

“I got ten packs.” Mark pulled the packets out from his inside pocket and scattered them onto the floor. He crouched down next to Matthew, uncomfortable in the oppressive room, dimly lit and claustrophobic on account of the low ceilings.

“Shall we do it now?” Matthew asked, as he tore open the first pack and scattered the contents to the floor, faces of football players tumbled to the ground. “I’ve gotGerrard, and Cassillas,” and he paused as another sticker came into view. “I got Beckham. We should wait. We should do it with Daddy when he gets here. He loves Beckham.” Mark slipped his hand underneath Matthew’s chin, and pulled it towards his. He leant down so that their faces met. Matthew’s smile drained away, just as if somebody had pulled the plug on his excitement, his dreams. Mark saw the shift of the female agent next to him, and wondered if she too thought him to be the libertine that he knew he had become.

“You remember what I told you yesterday Matthew? You remember what I told you about Daddy when you got here?” Had he not been holding Matthew’s head so tightly, a grip that said you will listen, it would have dropped like a fallen ice cream, splat into his chest, the thought of what he had been told enough to crumble his childish will and sense of hope. Instead Mark pulled on his chin, dragging his eyes back up to meet his own. “Do you remember what I told you Matthew?”

“Yes. You said he had to go away to work for a while.”

“That’s right.”

“But he promised me that we would go and play football on Saturday. He never breaks his promises. You promised too.”

“And we will Matthew, but not this Saturday.” Mark stood up, ruffling his fingers through Matthew’s curly blond locks which looked so much like Ben’s, but he felt him pull away as he did so. “Mummy will be back soon.”

Matthew pulled the comics towards him once again, discarding the sticker album in an act of childish defiance. He allowed his dreams of one day becomingWolverine or Cyclops to replace the thoughts ofbecoming Beckham, his fantasies drowning out the last words to leave Mark’s lips before he left the room.

“Don’t let anybody else in here,” he said to the agent that stood guard against the door.

“Sir, what about Agent Mulligan?” the guard of the main exit door asked, immediately regretting questioning his instructions as Mark glared at him through cold eyes, glass eyes, glistening like polished crystal.

“I said nobody.” Mark pulled his jacket neatly back into place, before once again swiping his card and passing through the door. As he walked back up the corridor, he saw Captain White approaching him. He looked even more harassed, his hair having a party atop his head, crazed like it was on a bad trip, as he hurried towards his superior.

“Sir, we need to talk.” Mark had seen this look before. It was the type of clenched-jaw tension that never proffered good news. Add into that ‘we need to talk’, and you virtually guarantee the imminence of disappointment.

“Tell me you have found him.” Mark clung onto the last unrealistic hope of positivity.

“We lost Mulligan.” In an instant, hundreds of half formed ideas raced through his mind, uncertain if any of them could represent the truth.

“What do you mean you lost her? You can’t just lose an agent.” He could feel his throat drying and pulse quicken as his muscles tensed across his body, like an electric shock they tightened in waves.

“Sir, it’s not just her,” he paused, as if saying it would somehow make it worse. “We just lost her whole team.”

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