The Bureau

John remembered the knife plunging into his gut. He remembered staggering through the alley, unable to ask for help loud enough to draw anyone. He remembered falling to his knees and crawling, trying desperately to find anything or anyone who could help him. All in vain. He remembered the warmth leaving his body before everything went black. He remembered all of that which meant that he had reached game over. There should have been no continue, no option to put in more tokens. Yet, here he was sitting at a table in a barren room.

He took a deep breath to prove that he could and then tapped his fingers on the table. Sight, hearing, and touch were all still working. At that moment, he could not smell anything but there did not seem to be anything especially fragrant in the room. He was not about to taste the table, of course. Still, it seemed that he was alive. Why he wasn’t patched up in a hospital bed was not exactly evident. The mystery nagged at him. He should be dead or at least severely injured.

He reached down to his side and felt no wound. There was not even any tenderness at the site of impact. Still, touching it was making him remember the attack more vividly which made his anxiety levels rise. He jerked his hand away. He spent time doing the customary checks one does after misadventure. He counted his fingers. He checked to make sure his limbs were intact and moved around. He checked his head for any bumps or contusions. He seemed to be in full health as far as he could tell. He stood up.

There was a sudden smell of a mix of peat and blood that strangely did not smell too bad. Any displeasure was offset by the realization that his sense of smell still worked. Another test passed with flying colors.

“Please have a seat, Mr. Caldwin,” a woman’s voice said. He looked back at the table and there was a woman sitting in a chair that had not been there before. She was wearing a wide-brimmed hat in such a way that he could not see her face. He had not seen or heard her come into the room. He sat down. As soon as he did, he noticed a steaming cup of coffee that had also not been there before. He drank without hesitation and without consideration even afterward. His anxiety lessened. The woman was looking at some sort of file folder.

“Thank you,” John said. “I mean for the coffee, of course, but also for whatever you did to keep me alive.”

“You’re not strictly alive,” the woman said without looking up. She wrote something quickly.

“I beg to differ,” John said. “Everything seems to be in working order and I’m not a bleeding wreck on the ground in an alley.”

“Well yes,” the woman said. “We are responsible for that. So you’re welcome.”

There was a long silence after that little exchange. John slowly sipped his coffee and watched the woman’s hat bob a bit as she read and wrote in the file folder. He was uncomfortable with the silence. The woman seemed to be just fine with silence.

“So you know my name,” John said, waiting for the obvious answer.

“I do,” the woman said. She kept her focus on her file folder without fail.

“And you are…” John said, trailing off to let the woman fill in the blank.

“Very busy,” the woman said. She finally looked up and John was taken aback to realize that she had no face. Where a face would have been, there was a blur that was uncomfortable to look at. John found himself staring at her hat rather than trying to establish eye contact with non-existent eyes.

“I don’t mean to be rude but you seem to be missing your face,” John said, trying to be helpful. “It’s just not there.” He managed calm words but he felt the cold stab of fear.

The woman sighed. “It’s not missing,” she said. “I just don’t have one. I’m not a human. I’m more of a concept. Please focus on the important things.” She closed her file folder and it ceased to exist.

“Is this the part where you explain things to me?” John asked. “I really need it to be the part where you explain things to me.” A headache was slowly forming behind his eyes.

The woman sighed again. “I don’t have time for that,” she said. “This book will explain everything.” She placed a leatherbound book on the table and then she vanished into thin air. At least she left the coffee behind.

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