The Chinese throwing stars made him feel secure somehow, special. In his back yard on weekends he sometimes practiced for hours, flinging them at targets he had strapped to trees. He had devised a special shoulder holster that offered quick and easy access when worn under a loose sport coat. He never wore a sport coat, of course, or the holster, except in the back yard behind the tall curtain of bamboo he had planted years ago to secure the privacy of his playground. In that world, two thickly wooded acres behind his tiny split-level, he wasn't Tim Seeple, balding warehouse clerk, he was Agent Star of the JMA—Just Me Agency. An agency of one requires no consensus, only a powerful will, discipline, and vicious accuracy with throwing stars.
One Saturday afternoon, splayed on the ground behind an upended picnic table, pinned down by enemy fire, Agent Star heard Tim's phone ringing. He called time and trotted up the sagging stairs and through the sliding back door. The kitchen was dark and stank of uncleaned turtle terrarium. Livermore was looking a bit peaked these days; Tim thought he might be going to the Happy Trundling Ground soon enough. He grabbed the phone from the wall by its cord, a trick he had been practicing, and tried to swing it up and catch it. The receiver evaded his grasp and bonked him on the forehead. "Hello?" he said irritably.
"Is this Agent Star?"
Inside, two instincts at war: the first to shrivel quietly into a ball and play dead, the second to speak, to lay claim, to take agency. His hand stole under his armpit and lingered there. "Yes."
There was a long sigh, as of satisfaction. "Thank you. Remain where you are Agent Star. We will come by to collect you shortly."
No time to waste. This was what he had trained for. His other life, finally come to life. His holsters were full; the morning's exercises had just begun, and he had only gotten off a few throws before the phone rang. Perhaps he should go out to the yard and loosen up a bit. Or maybe he should pack a small bag. Indecisive, he took a swig from the bottle of apple juice in the fridge and munched several crackers, mindful of his tendency to become lightheaded when his sugar got low.
There was a knock at the front door, a single report struck as if with an iron fist. Star felt his bowels seeple, but forced himself into action. Moving quietly, he pressed his ear against the cheap wood of the door. He could hear nothing, but felt a presence nonetheless.
"Open up," a voice said, deeper and more gravelly than it had sounded on the phone. "We don't have much time."
Destiny knocks not when we expect it, Star thought, but when we have proven ourselves ready. He put his hand on the knob. There was no reason not to turn it, no reason not to step through into the world he was sure lay beyond, ready to swallow him as if through giant lips pressed tight around his front door. He had trained; he had devoted himself; he was ready. There would be adventure, camaraderie, possibly even women.
But Livermore would be lonely and need food, as would Geraldo, his boa, who lived in the basement amidst the mountains and tunnels of the model train village. And who would tend the yard, whose targets and beaten paths would become overgrown without their master?
"Hurry," the voice said, grating like crushed glass. "We have to go."
"I can't," Tim whispered, leaning into the door. "I want to . . . " But the sense of a presence, an answering pressure, was gone. He listened for a car speeding away, or perhaps the burr of a souped-up motorcycle, but heard nothing. After a while he went back to the kitchen and dropped a few turtle pellets into the terrarium. Livermore didn't move. He was staring intently out the sliding back door into the yard.
Star shrank behind the shoulder of the refrigerator and dropped to one knee. He thought he could hear the telltale rustle of assassins sneaking through the long grass. Slowly, slowly, he reached for his weapons and prepared to join the fray.