Bert and Ernie: A Short Story
The two men were driving together in a stolen car. They had stolen it. But one would never know they had done such a thing by their utterly tranquil demeanor, the ease with which they took their leisure, in the convertible with the top down, sort of leaning back.
Their CIA handlers called them Bert and Ernie, but they weren't from Sesame Street. That was for sure. They couldn't remember when they had been so innocent, even though both men were only in their early-thirties.
It was an early Sunday morning in the Fall. The air smelled of fresh apples. They were actually on their way to one of those commercial apple orchards, where, several hours later, young families would come, pick apples off of branches, buying baskets of them, and pumpkins, and other such autumn treats. Oh, the cookies, cakes, and pies that would be made! The Halloween parties would be grand and the Thanksgiving dinners glorious. Eating turkey, watching football, and drinking apple cider.
Bert and Ernie were meeting an Agency man called Chandler---probably not his real name---to get their next assignment.
They drove down a quaint dirt road, arriving at the Adirondack AllGoode Apple Orchards. They parked the car, and as they got out Ernie grabbed the suitcase from the backseat. Bert and Ernie's eyes met for a moment, the merest ghost of a smile lighting their faces.
They found the front gate unlocked. Of course it was. What was there to steal? No need to lock the place down. They mosied along, breezy, carefree, but also, by necessity, hyper-alert.
They saw Chandler, who waved at them from behind a tree. They went to him. The three men exchanged perfunctory greetings. Bert and Ernie did not ask why they were meeting at such a place at such a time. This was a bit "cloak 'n dagger" even for the CIA.
They gave nothing away, neither in their body language nor in their facial expressions indicative of any irritation or anxiety. Still, they were curious. They wouldn't have been human if they hadn't been. And they were, they thought, still human.
But they stayed within themselves, never grasping after things they wanted in life, which, they believed, only repelled those things. They maintained an inner stillness of the spirit, attracting all they wanted at their pleasure.
Besides, Chandler wouldn't tell them if they asked. Therefore, they would deny him the satisfaction of asking. Chandler liked withholding information from them---information he could have just as easily shared without any liability. But keeping things from them seemed to make Chandler feel important.
Once, Bert and Ernie had been privileged to meet with Chandler at CIA headquarters at Langley, for their instructions. In response to every question they had asked, every other phrase out of Chandler's mouth had been, "Sorry, need to know."
Bert and Ernie had had a chuckle about it afterward. Bert said, "He really does take this 'secret agent' business rather seriously, doesn't he, Ernie?"
"He certainly does, Bert," Ernie said. "He certainly does."
It had quickly occurred to the duo that Chandler was behaving the way he thought a CIA officer was supposed to behave. And the man seemed to have lifted the template from bad Hollywood spy movies and/or bad spy novels.
In a high falsetto Bert said, "What'd you have for breakfast this morning, Chandler?"
In a bass falsetto Ernie said, "Sorry, that's classified, a matter of National Security!"
Now the three men were standing together, behind a tree with ripe green apples hanging down. Chandler said, "Were you followed?"
See? More Hollywood stuff.
"What do you think?" Bert said. This was one of his areas of expertise. He had done the driving.
"Are you certain you weren't bugged or otherwise surveilled?" Chandler said.
Surveilled! Chandler really was a weasel!
"Come on, Chandler baby," Ernie said with a smile. "What do you take us for?" This was one of Ernie's areas of expertise.
Chandler frowned. Chandler baby? Bert and Ernie had never kidded around with him before. He had always projected such awesome severity with them, as well as with his other underlings, despite the fact that he continued to feel like a soft little boy inside, one that had been bullied in school.
But then, he squared his shoulders, straightened his back, tightened his jaw,and prepared to speak, this time with a vocal register an octave lower. He remembered that the gods themselves quaked under the power of his disapproving stare.
Chandler spoke. There, that did it. Bert and Ernie had wiped those silly grins off their faces and they were looking at their shoes. They had forgotten themselves, but Chandler had brought them to heel with his projection of awesome severity.
Chandler gave them their instructions. He told the duo that they were to route out a mole, a spy, a double agent in their midst. Bert and Ernie were being sent to Sweden, as part of a diplomatic delegation. There in Sweden, in non-descript little Sweden, the Central Intelligence Agency has dozens of American intelligence officers, under diplomatic cover, running spies all over Eastern Europe and Asia.
"One of our people," Chandler said, "is selling NATO secrets to the Russians and very sensitive U.S. military technology to the Chinese."
Actually, Chandler was selling both sets of information to both the Russians and the Chinese.
Ernie said, "When we find him, then what, do we call the FBI or something?"
"If we were gonna go that way," Chandler said, "we wouldn't be sending you two."
Got to get to Sesame Street....
"You find the mole, you deal with him, understand?" Chandler said.
Bert and Ernie would find the evidence that Chandler had carefully planted a long time ago, implicating the man he had framed---a man Chandler detested. Years ago, at a CIA Christmas party, Chandler had overheard the man saying to a colleague, "Chandler? But.. that guy is so... one-dimensional, isn't he?"
Chandler's first reaction had been white-hot rage. But then he got hold of himself. There was no need to get angry. "Okay, buddy," Chandler had thought to himself, "you've just been elected the fall guy."
"Of course," Bert said. "We deal with him."
"Its what we do best," Ernie said.
"Any suspects?" Bert said.
Chandler handed him a folder with a dozen photos and career histories, along with explanations about why they were currently questionable. Bert and Ernie began scanning the contents.
Chandler was a student of history. He understood that empires come and go, rise and fall. As far as he was concerned, the United States was a declining hegemon. The up and coming world power was Russia and especially China. That was where the global focus of power was shifting, to the East! He, Chandler, was simply determined not be caught on a losing team. It was all about getting in good with the new boss.
He had even been taking lessons in Mandarin Chinese from a gorgeous instructor, whom he was having an affair with, and whom he intended to leave his dumpy old wife for.
Bert and Ernie had read enough and they both looked up. Chandler wasn't going anywhere. Long ago, when Chandler had been taken on by the CIA, right after college, his personality tests had marked him as something of an opportunistic weasel. But the Agency had hired him anyway, after all, some of the Central Intelligence Agency's most effective operatives were and continue to be opportunistic weasels.
But a surprisingly low number of them, the weasels, actually betray their own country. That puts Chandler among the elite, the lowest of the low, a traitor worthy of Philby.
And, unfortunately for Chandler, his lovely language teacher/mistress, with whom he's so in love, happens to be a Chinese-American undercover counterintelligence agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Chandler was saying something... blah, blah, blah... something about wanting regular reports of Bert and Ernie's progress.
Bert tossed the folder on the ground. "I think we can give the first report right now, Chandler baby."
Chandler frowned. Chandler baby, again? Wait... where is Ern...
Ernie pinned Chandler's puny arms back, wrapping them up in one of his, and muffling his screams with his free hand. Bert produced a hunting knife and plunged it into Chandler's heart and twisted.
Chandler's body crumpled and sagged to the ground like the air let out of a balloon.
"A weasel's end to a weasel's life, Chandler baby," Ernie said.
Ernie opened the suitcase and took out an axe.
Bert said, "New axe?"
"Yeah," Ernie said, "like it?"
"It's shiny," Bert said.
Ernie hacked off Chandler's hands and feet and scalped him. Bert used the knife to dig out the eyes, cut off the ears, nose, and tongue. He used pliers to carefully extract all of Chandler's teeth, one-by-one. That would delay identification of the body for a little while.
They stripped the body down to Chandler's boxer shorts. They put everything---the clothes and Chandler's body parts---into black heavy-duty rubber bags.
Next, Bert and Ernie dressed the body up in the uniform of a scarecrow---straw-haired wig, straw hat, checkered shirt, overalls. They propped the body up against the tree, keeping it standing upright by tying rope around the neck, throwing the other end over a branch and tying it around the trunk of the tree.
Ernie said, "Well, what do you think?"
"If I was a crow," said Bert, "I'd be scared."
Ernie plucked an apple and tossed it to Bert. "Here, you know what they say: 'An apple a day keeps the doctor away.'"
Bert held up the apple to the light, as if it were a rare stone he was examining for flaws. "Yes, so I've heard."
Bert and Ernie walked away munching their Granny Smith apples.
Thanks for reading.