Lucian sat in contentment at a small table. Around him eaters murmured and laughed, elbowed one another and adjusted themselves, scraped tableware, and gentled through a pleasant midmorning. Toast and coffee, meat and eggs both raw and cooking, garish personal scent, footwear, undergarments, ongoing digestive and hormonal process swirled around him in relative magnitude, pooled in small zones and defined by Lucian almost subconsciously by area. The diner was well lit fluorescently, and agreeable. Sunlight also flooded the rooms indirectly, but under a broad eave covering the sidewalk, through the glass wall that was the front of the building.
The bell on the glass front door sounded, and without looking round, Lucian knew it was his appointment. He positioned a newspaper to one side on the tabletop just in case, entwined scarred fingers on the table before him, and counted a slow deep breath in and out.
A slim older man in a nearly white summer suit, white shirt, and natural straw homburg slid into the booth seat opposite Lucian, smiling slightly, secretly. He carried an umbrella which he hung by it's curved handle on the edge of the table beside him. The man looked about the room with bright clear blue eyes, then leaned forward, widening the smile as he removed the hat. He smelled of...an attic? But that was the suit, however smart. Lucian got no scent whatever of the man himself.
“A delightful place, completely nondescript, obviously loved by regulars.” He set the hat on it's crown to one side, beyond the folded newspaper, watching it, smiling more now as he did so.
“So unremarkable, in fact, I think I've been here many times before, but who knows?” Lucian replied wondering about the umbrella. “But I do know breakfast is generous and quick, coffee not terrible for commercial drip. A not bad roast, somehow.”
Nodding with good humor, and crinkling eyes, the now perfectly bald man looked at him directly saying, “You look healthy, formidable, even. Feeling fit? Any troubles?”
“None. Happy to be alive.”
“Wonderful.” Glancing at Lucian's forearms he added, “You appear to have been some interesting places.” Focusing on one he asked, “What's that image?”
Lucian considered his left arm. “Birdy on the ball. A branch of military service I apparently endured. This side I'm not sure of.” He fingered a depiction of an armoured vehicle suspended from a parachute on the other forearm. He looked up.
“The fog of war, I guess.”
“Also formidable. You seem the ideal operative for dangerous locales.” Looking up, “And the brief?” What do you think of the brief?” His skin smooth, tanned, perfect black eyebrows raised, inquisitive. He leaned a bit farther forward.
“I just always worry about the cover.” Lucian leaned back, relaxing himself.
“Of course, we always worry about the cover, but this is such a benign region, and such a self satisfied country, such a, a...” The man looked around.
“Such a complacent world?”
“Exactly.” The man looking back. “A complacent world.” They both indulged in hollow laughter. The man leaned back now too.
Lucian's face returned to neutral. Leaned forward, looking down, hands in lap.
“But I'm not a complacent person, I'm finding that day by day this time. It escalates my paranoia as these things continue.”
“And that's the perfect temperament for this. Increases your stealth.” The man smiling openly now, showing even teeth, leaning away while stretching his arm to adjust the hat at his right.
This guy is completely hairless, Lucian thought. The kind of a thought a local would have.
He watched the man's hat without seeing it, He wanted to examine his situation a bit before he gave to the project. But he had no choice. The man went on.
“It's just information gathering. In a few days you'll have someone to help. An observer. A neutral party. Something to concern yourself with. Bounce notions with. Is that the right term? A distraction so you don't dwell, aren't lonely.” The man watched him.
Lucian considered the man without blinking. Asked, “Lonely? Aren't I permanently lonely? And what is your name here, by the way?”
A moment. “Vasili. Call me Vasili.” Also not blinking. “You are Lucian Heck.”
“An observer.” Said Lucian.
“Is that a question?”
“You're sending an observer. To me. This is to comfort me? How will it not impede or endanger me, us? The observer and me. And as an observer, how is he to help? It is a he, no?”
Vasili leaned in conveying earnestness. “Yes. A “he,” yes. And he will help. He's a diplomatic observer slash investigator. He answers to someone else. I am just informing you. I am not...” and here Vasili looked away.
Lucian had the idea he was not searching for a word or phrase, that rather he was translating mentally before speaking. Perhaps reframing his own reference. Vasili went on. Turned back to Lucian.
“Some are seriously concerned. This might not be only genetic manipulation. There could be some sort of transport of other contraband. The diplomat is to convince others. Tell me what you think about the brief, and I will to allay your concerns.” Here Vasili spread his own large hands palms up on the table in an open show of honest reasonableness. “No one wants you in any difficulty, only to gather information and come back whole to give eyewitness material, sense material we can use. You've done this before.”
“I believe I have.”
A young plump waitress arrived smiling, swiftly placing menus and utensils wrapped in paper napkins in front of the men, announcing her name, Amanda, and asking, “who wants coffee?” Both men looked at her.
Lucian raised his left hand.
“I believe I'll have tea,” said Vasili. The waitress smiled off away.
“Convince others what?”
Both large hands of Vasili up now in theatrical resignation. Or supplication.
“You're to find out what. We hear what we hear. Someone in place, this place, notes the local media reports. Scans it. Those that seem to be pertinent, items that appear to be relevantly suspicious. Someone else adds it up 'till the balance tips, and a decision is made to send someone. You.”
“Yes, I know how I got here. Why, I mean. I mean, why is someone else coming. I guess I just want to know is this diplomat armed, on my side, and shooting for the same reasons, or will he be lifted out regardless of me, my situation? I guess I'm wondering if I need to care, watch out for him, trust him.
Who does he work for, ultimately?”
Vasili looked from one of Lucian's eyes to the other twice.
“Shooting, are we?” Again they looked at each other not blinking.
“Is it a dangerous locale?”
“What are you remembering? If there's some gaps in memory, any difficulty adjusting, tell me now. I understand there was quite some trauma in the accident, and while we're confident you're physically well, we never can be sure about the brain. A complex and inscrutable mechanism, that.”
“What am I not remembering, that is the tricky part.”
“Ha! I'd like to know that too, and the true origin of that amusing quote relating to unknown unknowns that trouble us for all time. But the trouble I need to know is what will bubble up in you.”
“No trouble will bubble up in me. But I have way too many scars too old to be just the accident.”
Vasili eyed him closely. “Your history, what you're not remembering, it is formidable too. You have found your home. You have found some history as well, I imagine. We believe there to be some fortuitous connections there if you can recall and define them, and see where they lead.”
Lucian gazed back. “And you don't know more than what I have before me in the house itself, and what will come to me as I move about this place?”
“I know what I am. Just an aggregate of what I've remembered and what I've decided. Relative to my insight, certainly.”
Coffee and tea arrived. Cream went in the coffee, the tea remained unadulterated, Heck noted.
“I can read between the lines in this report.”
“You're carrying it with you?”
“No no. Wouldn't do that. I just mean I can see there's a clear smuggling issue. The area here is obviously a perfect crossroads. An obvious pipeline up from the south to the eastern cities, and the other way back. Local cops are consumed with the problem. The cattle thing is just one cover of many. Like a lot of things it moves up from or over from cattle states to the south and west. There's a lot of cattle raising around here, too. Virginia and Pennsylvania, and the movement of big trucks of animals is an easy way to hide drugs, I can see that. But genetically modified animals? Why would you care about that? Genetically modified food? C'mon. There are veterinarians and state troopers for that.”
Vasili leaned back taking a deep breath. “The genetic engineering of animals has increased significantly in recent years, and the use of this technology brings with it ethical issues, some of which relate to animal welfare. I am myself interested in bringing scientific practice and emerging technology into the realm of societal values. For certain entities there are contentious ethical choices ahead.”
Lucian stared at him, one arm atop the other on the table. Then looked slightly away grinning. Vasili went on. Lucian's eyes came back to him. Vasili continued.
“Indeed, there are challenges that genetically engineered animals bring, governing bodies have started to develop relevant policies, often calling for increased vigilance and monitoring of potential animal abuse. Veterinarians can play an important role in carrying out such monitoring, especially in the research setting when new genetically engineered animal strains are being developed. Disease transmission is one additional concern, as monitoring of that is spotty.
But there are more important issues than animal welfare at the lower end of the spectrum. Or even the safe comestible considerations for humans. We believe there's a human trafficking element to these same …. smugglers.”
Lucian looked at Vasili directly now.