“I thought you said the location was secure.”
“You’re even worse at this than I thought. There’s a goddamn bird meeting going on.”
I scanned the street. All of the houses had their curtains drawn. Maybe that meant something, or maybe the August heat was just more than anyone wanted to let in. A few parked cars loitered along the curb, but no seat backs lurched out of sight, concealing beaked men. Jack sniggered. I checked again. The afternoon sat empty around us, a summer oven in which we were taking all the heat. Then, craning my neck, I saw it.
Strung along the power line, dozens of little black bird butts dangled like burnt-out Christmas lights. “Idiot,” I said. “Should we move?”
“No. Stay down.”
“What if they shit on us?”
“That’s supposed to be good luck. Mission Susie Lowe could use some luck.”
“Don't call it that.”
“Because she's dead.”
"Fine," Jack said. “Mission Popsicle."
"Isn't that a little obvious?"
“Oh, so now you’re the spy expert?”
“No. I just thought code names were supposed to be random. Like Mission Boxwood.”
Jack’s snub nose drew up between his eyes, “It’s not random if it names your hiding place, idiot.”
I shifted. We’d only been squatting in the hedge for a few minutes but already my legs yelped with bright, sharp strain, and sweat ran freely from where my calves pressed into my thighs. “Did you bring the money?” I asked, hoping to steer us back on track.
Jack nodded toward the backpack wedged between us, “Front pocket.” I waited, unsure if he was simply informing me of its location, or if he meant for me to look. “It’s. In. The. Fa-runt. Pocket,” he said, placing invisible punctuation between the words and extra syllables within them. This was the first time we’d needed money for one of our missions and anticipation tickled what parts of us the spiders hadn’t already unnerved with their pinprick legs and silken boobytraps.
I balanced the tattered canvas bag on my knees and unzipped the pocket, inside, the glint of gold. Removing the empty foil wrapper revealed a scrunched-up five-dollar bill coated with chocolate. So much for unmarked bills. “Is this enough?”
“Probably,” he said.
“How much do you think Susie had?”
We looked around, as though however much it had been might still be somewhere in the shriveled leaves and stray garbage, as though the crime scene investigators hadn’t thought to scour the area. I prodded a flattened, waxy paper cup, like the ones my mom kept a stack of in our downstairs bathroom, with the tip of my sneaker. “Less than us,” Jack concluded. “It was a long time ago.” Then, to end our apparent search, added, “She wasn’t run over near here anyhow.”
There were a lot of urban legends in our neighborhood - the house at the corner of Winchester and Pike where the old woman would chop you up and feed you to her cats if you got too close, the tree on Anderson whose roots lashed out like octopus arms at bike tires - but everybody knew that Susie Lowe had been real. That the accident had been real. They’d even made a rule: no ice cream trucks in the neighborhood.
“There he is!” I said, spotting our mark.
“Are you sure?”
The man did look rather ordinary. Too old to be our dads and too young to be one of our grandpas. He wore neither white coat (not that I blamed him in the heat) nor funny paper hat, but instead walked the length of the house directly across from us in cargo shorts and a faded t-shirt commemorating the tour of an even more faded band. “Yes.”
Jack stood and strode after him as though walking out his front door, and not crashing through a dense wall of leaves and sharp twigs. I followed. The man disappeared around the corner. We followed. He withdrew a key from his pocket. Its click in the lock covered the sound of our arrival.
“Are you an ice cream man?” Jack asked.
Startled, the man’s throat pulled tight, ready to host a bird meeting, “I am.”
“May we please buy some ice cream?” I asked, flashing the fiver.
The man looked back toward the street, “You boys live around here?”
“Then no.” He turned and opened the driver’s door.
We teetered as if struck by an octopus root. He wasn’t supposed to say no. I lobbed a grimace his way, but with his back turned, the gesture ricocheted, flattening my scowl. Even Jack was flummoxed. It felt like the part of the movie where our lockbox full of passports was discovered. We’d been compromised. When the man turned back around, we made to run.
“I can’t sell you ice cream,” he repeated, “but you can have these.”
Orange creamsicle poured down our chins as we made our retreat.
MISSION BOXWOOD: SUCCESS.