It was both somewhat obnoxious, but at the same time entirely indistinguishable and unremarkable and outfit.
Plain blue jeans, ugly and nameless suede and rubber sneakers. A bright red hooded sweatshirt, sticking out from the cuffs and collar of a not-quite North Face light jacket, a generic knockoff of the kind that urban fathers wear when they’re attempting to become outdoorsmen. A black knit cap pulled down over a wholly unremarkable face in a fall afternoon in a city. Far from any sort of “punk” or “hip” aesthetic that populated the immediate area and surrounding neighborhood, but at the same time not that far off from what Lyle saw as the generally artistic and open-minded atmosphere of the area.
Lyle was a few days from his 33rd birthday but people always thought he was anywhere between his early twenties and mid-thirties, again with the typical scruff of “that type” of face and “those type” of glasses. And that was the beauty of it as he stood in the bookstore, seemingly browsing through a rough collection that counted as the “graphic novel section” with role-playing game bibles and paperback collections of comic book series with “SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE!” promotional stickers on them. Entirely undistinguishable from anyone in there, just one more face whiling away paychecks on the modern-day equivalent to dime novels.
The bookstore was in the fashionable area of Columbus, Ohio that managed to not be too fashionable, on the edges of what he’d found out was called German Village. It could have been anywhere in any hip city he thought, with average streets but wide sidewalks with patterns of tiles every so often to add what he thought was an attempt at artistic and historical décor, built and rebuilt over time to accommodate on-street seating for cafes and restaurants and outdoor wrought-iron benches chained to what had been, years before, the posts for tying horses and anchoring carriages visiting the fashionable brickfronts. The age and construction of the streets and sidewalks made for uneasy footing, gnarled and uneven and forcing people to watch every single step, making every foot journey through that part of town just a tiny bit slower and more measured. It made a job like Lyle’s a whole lot easier, letting him take his own time and meander, a welcome pace from the usual pattern of walking and running and dragging your feet that he’d always have to use, the kind that he’d learned from all those books and movies over the years combined with his own experience over the years.
Lyle found stuff and got it back. Usually small things, small but always extremely important to other people who were willing to pay. He had an “employer” who paid him to be unassuming enough to get close to people, find out where they kept or sent things they’d taken that didn’t belong to them. If he could get it, he got it. If not, he made sure that others did on his and his boss’s behalf. It wasn’t necessarily big things or fancy things, but they tended to be important to someone, and Lyle understood that.
The last thing he found for someone, in Vancouver, was a leather-bound Moleskine notebook, tied not only with the standard elastic cord that came with the trendy little travel notebook, but also with a strange old strand of ribbon as well horizontally. Her name hadn’t been important but she’d been the assistant to the owner of the notebook and had, almost casually and to anyone watching accidentally, slipped it in her own stack of things to take home and try to do something with it, Lyle didn’t know what. He’d fallen back on something he’d seen in a movie when he was a little kid, something he’d found out in a book was called a honeypot, the dumbest but simplest idea ever.
She hadn’t noticed when he got up in the middle of the night while she was still asleep, and gone through the contents of her desk and found it, almost forgotten despite its importance, on top of an artfully and probably artificially-aged and battered desk under a stack of bills. The number he’d given her was a throwaway so who knows how long she’d called him after waking up to find him gone, only to later realize that she should probably make sure the notebook she’d lifted was still in the “hiding place” in her desk.
This wasn’t too different from that despite it not being a “honeypot” or being in the neighborhood he currently lived in, as opposed to another city where he had to take his time. This was his home turf, wondering how a professional bike courier would be absent-minded enough to “accidentally” take a flash drive home with him. A flash drive that meant a lot to someone. A flash drive that someone like him should know better not to look at and should have just dropped it off no questions asked like his contract said, instead of trying to see if it could somehow be worth something.
As if a flash drive sealed into a larger metal canister the size of a travel coffee mug wasn’t going be worth something.
Lyle’s boss called everyone who Lyle had to follow a “target”, but Lyle didn’t really think about them like that. It was more like someone who had made a mistake, just a mistake and Lyle had to get it back in order to make things good again for someone.
Someone who was very attached to it.
The young man left the store without buying anything, and after a heartbeat, Lyle followed, keeping his eyes at an off-center view, staring but not staring in the way that looked like he wasn’t paying attention to anything at all when he was really keeping as much as possible in his entire field of vision. Black jeans, black sneakers, and a black jacket with a screaming face, a zombie of sorts, printed on the back by the shoulders. All seen from the behind as Lyle kept a two-person distance back.
A human being walking alone tries, depending on the setting, to always keep an arm’s length of space around him at all times, Not being with someone and close enough to them to allow them the intimacy of that personal sphere of space, you always had an arm’s length ahead and behind you empty you wanted to maintain. It’s a primordial instinct, leaving you enough space to make split-second decisions regarding fight-or-flight. When you’re following someone close, try to keep the equivalent of two spheres’ space worth between you and the target. Enough to see and sense, but far enough to not be in their radar, even subconsciously, as a threat. Lyle did this automatically, letting his own body set the patterns of the pace as he followed the target towards the edge of the neighborhood towards the more developed center of town. There were always people this time of day scattered around, and so far, so good.
He didn’t really think that anything he did was particularly special. His boss said that HIS bosses called it “optimum adaptability”, something to do with being completely unnoticeable and being able to turn it on and off whenever he needed it. To Lyle though, it was just natural, the way you survive when you’re just trying to not be noticed by every stimulant that could trigger a panic attack, a latent agoraphobia mixed with misanthropy that was just below the surface, below Lyle’s skin that he felt sometimes when it’d been a really bad day. Being able to just slip in and out of being one of the crowd was something he did naturally, a byproduct of teen years plagued by anxiety attacks striking in public, forcing a young man who travelled way too far to go to and from high school to fake conquering the way his brain worked at times with coping, instead.
The focusing was a great tool for his job, honestly, and ovet th years the anxiety attacks were minimal and almost non-existent, leaving only the tools and coping mechanisms that made him a natural at blending in. Except for the following thing, that was something that he’d had to learn, watching movies to see how it was done wrong, how it was done right, reading books on how there really wasn’t any “real” way to do it effectively because no matter how good you are, someone will always eventually notice when the same person has been behind them for any period of time.
The best example had been in a book he’d found at a dollar bin, in a bookstore like the one he’d just left. The Cold War novels he inherited from his dad, cheap spy and cop adventures, had been the best for learning really good things Lyle had found. It’s just a matter of making sure that everything always looks natural, with cups of coffee in your hands or a book under your arm, looking like you know where you’re going and even knowing, with a little bit of preparation, where the person is heading ahead of time. Getting an iPhone was the best move he’d ever made, the ultimate in “something in your hands” to seem like you were just another person walking along the sidewalk as you’d follow someone back to their house, then slip in one day when he goes out to work to retrieve the cell phone he stole or the heirloom watch he “accidentally” pocketed.
The kid suddenly stopped, and Lyle kept going out of force of habit, instinctively telling himself not to stop, bump into the kid, and reveal himself. Bumping into other people happens all the time, but not when you want to keep up behind him. A giveaway like that’s only good if you plan on never seeing them ever again, and are trying to plant something on them or pick their pockets or bags. Walking past he stopped after a ways at a crosswalk, looking as if he was going to cross, and pulled his cellphone out to check it, seeing the kid out of the corner of his eye patting his pockets worriedly.
He has it on him.