These are the the first few pages from the Science Fiction Novel, Swift & Co.
It started off like most days: crappy.
I may as well not have had a sign on the door, Swift Enterprises, Photography & Investigations. Good thing I didn’t have a secretary. I wouldn’t have been able to afford her salary and, from boredom if nothing else, would have been fooling around with her.
Hey, if I hired a secretary, she’d be pretty.
The name, Swift Enterprises, doesn’t necessarily mean quick. Sometimes tasks take time. My name is Thomas Allen Swift, emphasize the Thomas. Calling me Tom Swift causes all sorts of smartass remarks about my “electric rifle,” or “flying submarine.” Most of these come from old farts that may have read ancient Tom Swift books as kids and think making puns on other peoples’ names is cute.
Most old farts think they’re cute.
Crap! The fax machine’s groaning. A pizza ad, no doubt. Maybe they have a special, doesn’t hurt to check.
I dragged my chair out from behind the desk (bought at Mike’s Used Furniture—with some interesting amateur carvings) and rolled across the flattened gray carpet to the multi-function machine. Didn’t want to stand up if possible. Weather must be changing, thigh aching.
Damn! Business—or, at least the prospect of a paying job.
Our firm, Universal Exports, is interested in securing your photographic services for documentation of product condition in regard to insurance services.
Our principals will be available to discuss terms and compensation tomorrow, May 15th, at 2:00 PM if this is suitable.
Please call our offices or send an email in reply to this message if the appointment is not at a convenient time for you.
There was a local phone number, and local address, upstairs. I’m on the sixth floor; they were on the ninth. The email address was email@example.com. I sent a message accepting—it wouldn’t look good if I immediately knocked on their door, and it wasn’t as if I had a tee time to interfere. I don’t play golf. Never took up the game.
Army sergeants have other things to do. When I retired in 2010, I was a Master Sergeant, U.S. Army Special Forces—yes, the fabled Green Berets. After two tours in Afghanistan and another looming within months, I pulled the plug—after 24 years. At 43, I figured I was still good for another career. I had a hefty amount of intelligence training and I was pretty good with a camera; hence, Swift Enterprises.
Unfortunately, I get the occasional inquiry about delivering packages. Maybe I should buy a truck. Not a helluva lot of room in my car. I drive a BMW Z4—big enough for two people—so long as they’re normal-sized.
I had a bit of money stashed away that neither Blanche—my ex, nor her foul, predator lawyer—knew about. I bought a house about twenty miles from downtown Mobile, in Fairhope, then the car. My office, is about the size of a medium-small medieval monk’s cell, but it overlooks Bienville Square. Not much space is necessary for a lone photographer/investigator, though. Most of my business, sparse though it’s been lately, comes from angry wives/husbands seeking photographic proof of infidelity.
Some of my in flagrante shots are priceless. Of course, the customer pays a hefty sum for the little gems, but then, he or she will get that back during ¬¬litigation—if the lawyers don’t take it all.
Phone. Turning out to be some sort of day for Swift Enterprises.
“Swift Enterprises, how may we help you today?”
“Mr. Thomas Swift, Please,” a contralto voice with a faint British accent.
“Speaking. How may I help you?
“This is Lois with Universal exports. We received your email just moments ago. We’ll be eager to meet with you tomorrow. I’m just calling to confirm our appointment at 2:00 P.M.,” she said.
“I’ve cleared my calendar until 5 p.m. in case we need to explore details. Shall I bring my camera?”
“No, not at this stage. Mr. Lee would like meet you and discuss your services before we begin.”
“Did you say your name is Lois?”
“I’ll look forward to meeting you in person, Lois.”
She hung up.
I was hoping the woman I’d meet matched the voice. Smoky and feminine. I was unattached except for a professor named Lil, who taught in the master’s program in nursing at Spring Hill College. She spent frequent weekends with me. She said she liked the beach and fishing. She could cook flounder as tasty as I’ve ever eaten. We’re comfortable together. We’ve both been burned in marriages and haven’t ever talked about it for ourselves. Yet.
I stood in front of a solid mahogany door, looking at a heavy, old-fashioned brass plaque, five minutes early for the appointment. Universal Exports, the plaque said in deeply engraved block letters. My brain cells twitched a bit, but couldn’t find the reference. I pushed the door open.
The outer office was spacious and well lighted by windows and incandescent bulbs. It was furnished with polished wood furniture that looked a bit dated. The only person in the office, a redhead sitting behind a desk behind an old-fashioned electric typewriter, stood as I entered.
“You must be Mr. Swift,” she said.
Her voice, in person, was more of a Lauren Bacall sound. Husky, sexy.
“Yes, I’m Swift, and you are Lois?” I said.
She chuckled. Nice. She looked familiar, quietly sensuous in a tight sweater and skirt. Auburn hair, green eyes, minimal makeup. I had the same tingle I’d had about the company’s name.
“My voice gives me away every time. Mr. Lee is expecting you. Come this way please.”
She looked great from behind as she led me to the inner office. She partially opened it and leaned in.
“Mr. Swift is here.”
I heard a voice, couldn’t understand the words, but she opened the door and waved me in.
The office was spacious and well lighted. There was an immense rosewood desk. Two wingback easy chairs faced the desk. One was occupied, but the chair’s wings blocked his face. The man behind the desk, I recognized. He was the man who played the part of M in the early James bond movies. He stood and held out a hand.
“I’m Bernard Lee,” he said.
I stepped forward to take his hand, forgetting Lee had been dead for years. As I moved toward the desk, the man in the wing back chair stood up and faced me. He nodded.
“Bond, James Bond,” he said.
I nearly choked. He was a duplicate of the young Sean Connery. He wore a navy blue, three-piece suit, red tie and white shirt. When he stood, I was surprised at how tall he was. I’m six-one. He was a shade taller.
“Mr. Swift, please make yourself comfortable. I know that our appearance is a bit disquieting, but there’s a good reason for our masks,” the man who looked like Lee said.
I sat in the chair next to Bond/Connery. He gave me his ironic half-smile.
“Miss Moneypenny, would you please bring coffee and tea?” Lee said.
Damn! Lois Maxwell, Moneypenny. I decided to play along with the charade—didn’t seem threatening and my curiosity buzzed like a cell phone locked in silent vibrate mode.
“May I refer to you as “M”?” I said.
“Of course, of course. Our masks are for your convenience. Someday, we may show you our true physical forms. Just not now,” M said.
True physical forms?
“Since we’re working through James Bond symbols, I’d like to meet Ursula Andress or Honey Ryder—whatever you’re calling her,” I said.
M didn’t blink. Bond smirked. Our silent male bonding over the sensuous actress was broken when the Moneypenny clone showed up. She was carrying a silver tray with two pots and four cups. She set it down on the table between the chairs. She gave the Bond clone a special smile and swayed sweetly out the door. The coffee smelled wonderful and proved as good as the scent.
“Mr. Swift—may I call you Thomas?” M said.
“Sure, but you haven’t told me about Ursula,” I said.
These two characters looked so real that I figured the Andress clone would be astounding up close.
“Miss Ryder may join us after we make a few arrangements. Now, I’m sure you have a number of questions. I think that we can answer them best by showing you what we are going to ask you to do,” M said.
“First thing: just what in hell is all this masquerade about. You ask me to come here on the pretense of business and I’m confronted with people who look like actors playing in a movie. What do you want from me? I have a business to run,” I said.
Actually, my business was limping along. Sounded good, though. The Bond-looking/Connery-looking character hadn’t changed expression. He still looked bemused.
“Mr. Swift—Thomas—we do intend to offer a paying job. One, I might add, that you’re quite suited to do. Please wait until we show you,” M said.
A light tapping on the door: the Moneypenny clone stuck her head in.
“Major Boothroyd is here,” she said.
Until the man walked in the door, I had no idea who Major Boothroyd might be. I couldn’t remember the actor’s name, but he was “Q,” from the first Bond movies. The clone introduced himself as Peter Burton. As Q, he had seemed the archetype of the British scientific type: gruff and unbending with an encyclopedic knowledge of gadgets. The Brits called them “boffins.”
Still no Ursula/Honey. I let it slide. Nothing else to do anyway. They’d decided to address each other as characters in the Bond films. No threat, but I could feel my .45 nestled in the small of my back, under my jacket.
“Thomas, Major Boothroyd will set up a bit of equipment. We’ll first show why we require your services and then describe precisely our needs. We’ll answer your questions,” Boothroyd said.
“Watch closely, Thomas. Some details could be critical,” Bond said.
He hadn’t spoken since the introduction. His voice was grim.
The Boothroyd or “Q” character set six little boxes around the room. They appeared to be featureless. They were slick black and about the size of Bose sound cubes. He touched each of them—appearing to stroke their surfaces—and moved to stand beside M’s desk.
“Gentlemen, we are ready.”
“Proceed, Major,” M said.
The room we were in disappeared. We were in a triple canopy jungle.
I taught at the Army’s Jungle Operations School in the Panama Canal Zone in the early ‘90s. The illusion was accurate and powerful. I could smell the jungle. In M’s office, we were in a “Green Hell.”
The camera, if that’s what guided our senses, took us down a footpath to a village. To call the collection of dome-shaped woven huts a village was generous. A fire smoldered in the middle of the open area and I could smell the embers. The sensations of heat and humidity were so real I felt sweat on my back.
A man and a woman: humanoid, but different, squatted on hard-packed ground beside the fire. The woman was holding a skewer with chunks of multi-colored objects over the fire. She and the male—obviously male, but, again different, chatted and nodded. The sounds were clear, but unintelligible. The skewer dripped into the embers, sparking sputtering flames.
They were naked except for loincloths. The two were basically humanoid, but their skin had a pale green tinge. Their ears were smaller than one would expect on a human, and rounder. Their hair was straight, black and appeared to be very fine-textured. They were slim in the way of Olympic swimmers.
I could smell the meat cooking.
The male stiffened, trying to stand. A spear with a metal point pierced his back and thrust out his chest. He dropped forward, dying.
The female dropped her skewer and ran down the footpath, into the jungle.
What stepped into the clearing and jerked the spear from the dying male was less humanoid. It wore a short skirt and a vest made of something that looked like armadillo hides. Short boots of the same armored skin completed its ensemble. The creature was approximately the size of an extra large NFL offensive guard, with a face ripped from nightmares. A pelt of pale brown fur covered the brute where there was no leather. The nose was like the first inch of a pig’s snout and twisted as he sniffed. The eyes, under heavy brows, were red. But only when the thing turned, could one see narrow vertically elliptical, black pupils. When it snatched the spear from the body, I noticed that it had eight fingers on each hand—if one could call them fingers—the nails were heavy black claws.
Whatever device Q was using, panned to the face in a close-up. The beast had fangs Dracula might have envied.
The scene/illusion disappeared.
We were back in M’s office. Boothroyd picked up his cubes and, nodding to the three of us, left.
I drew breath again.