I was silently swearing as I finished up my household chores. I was running late. Today was the day when I make contact with my handler, and if I missed the exchange, lives could be lost.
I was going to the thrift store. A location that didn’t draw attention, but with an abundance of places to disguise a coded message.
They say our most vivid memories are attached to specific smells. Whenever I catch of whiff of Old Spice aftershave, I think of my granddad. It’s White Shoulder perfume for my grandma. That distinctive sweet, warm milk smell that hits you when you step inside an elementary school, will transport me back to second grade every time.
It’s the musty, dusty aroma of old attics that will forever be associated with my clandestine occupation. On the third Thursday of every month, I go to Pandora’s Treasure Chest. Ostensibly, it is to peruse through the new merchandise on display, being that Thursday is the day vendors add to their kiosk inventory.
The dealer ID numbers change monthly, but I will find my instructions waiting for me somewhere amid the jumble of garage sale rejects, closet purges and miscellaneous handcrafts. To a layperson, the message is lost. I know the secrets hidden among the mundane, to anyone else, it’s merely junk.
This week, once inside the store I am seeking a set of wooden, toy letter blocks.
Like a sliding tile puzzle, the position of the letters, the orientation of the wheeled rack holding the toys, the pictograms on seemingly random blocks… it all is a cypher for me to decode.
As I was snapping a picture of the blocks with my cell phone, Carol, the shop manager, came around the corner ready to challenge me over taking photos.
“What are you doing?” Carol had a way of asking a question with a high level of contempt.
“I found this set of blocks and thought they would make a nice gift…” I didn’t get to finish my explanation.
“For whom?” Carol clutched at the collar of her moth-eaten cardigan.
“My niece,” I said with feigned innocence. “I’m sending my brother a picture to make sure the gift is age appropriate.”
I had what I needed with the image capture, but to maintain my cover, I handed the tiny wagon of blocks to Carol, and followed her to the cash register.
Later that night, when my skeptic husband came home, he noticed the toys on the kitchen counter.
“What is it this week?” He rolled the wagon back and forth. “A plot to discredit an out-of-favor politician, a covert mission to assassinate the leader of an enemy nation? Maybe devalue the Euro?”
“You know if I tell you, I’d have to kill you,” I said, moving the blocks back to their proper spot.
“No matter,” he said, then left the room, calling over his shoulder, “just put this in the junk room with all your other stuff.”
A spy’s life is lonely, especially when your significant other believes you are only a hoarder and pathological liar. It is a good cover, though, right?