Saturday, August 10, 2013

Informed readers want to know.

Working on a new novel. This one has some spy overtones (made more relevant with Snowden's recent revelations). So please, enjoy it! Remember, this is an initial draft and hasn't gone through the requisite proper edits!

The man walked to the street and looked down at the cafe, rustling awake in the morning sun. He could feel his muscles wrapped tight around his bones. And he could smell coffee in the air. But this was no time to think of his one addiction. He nodded at the young man beside him. The young man, Abdul, was sweating, his eyes darting back and forth.
“Don’t worry. I’m going to be here with you the whole way,” said the man. He stroked a scar on his jawline. It went deep. Old wounds from a war on the other side of these desert sands. In the mornings his jaw bone would hurt like nothing else.
He walked first, to scout the cafe, which was now filled with Western tourists. No one seemed alert. All had that vapid look the man had come to associate with the hated Westerners. He scowled at a handful of women with skirts on.
As he walked past, he pulled his cellphone out. “Abdul, it’s clear. Get a coffee and do it.”
He didn’t look over his back. When he turned a corner he jumped into the passenger seat of the car. The street here was busier. That gave them more cover. Horns honked, and the pollution wafted into his head. He waited. A few minutes later Abdul came around the corner. He smiled. Abdul jumped into the back.
The man pulled out a remote control. He had done this hundreds of times, and it never got any easier. He handed it to Abdul.
“Your turn,” said the man. “When I say so, press the button.”
The young man nodded and grabbed the remote, a little too easily for the man’s tastes.
The car drove forward and the cafe came into view. The man saw some kids playing soccer in front of the cafe.
“Not yet,” he said. He placed a hand on the driver’s forearm. “When he presses the button you move away slowly, like there’s nothing wrong. Got it? No driving fast.”
The man watched as the cafe owner drove away the kids with a broom. He noticed the red skin of a tourist who seemed to see him.
The flash and corresponding shock wave traveled through the man, and he felt the warmth of the explosion. Then the car alarms and screams. Smoke and mangled debris was all that remained of the cafe. They drove slowly around the corner. A few streets over people were going about their business. None of them seemed to know what was going on only a few blocks away. Near a pile of garbage Abdul threw the remote.
Soon they were on a highway out of the city. They stopped when they finally came to a mountain side house. It was their safe house. The government didn’t have much control out here.
But the man knew that his day wasn’t over. There was a meeting with some of the local tribal leaders in the evening. But first he was gong to have to talk to his bosses.
He told Abdul to relax and drink some water.
He walked into his office and saw his two bosses. The head of Al Qaeda in Magreb, and the liaison from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The man didn’t much like either of them. They were too grand, and never liked to hear about the minutiae of the local political movement. But they brought in recruits and money, so the man didn’t have a choice.
“Please to sit down,” said the man. “Drinks?”
The two men shook their heads. The liaison was a tall and lanky man. He claimed to have fought the infidels in Afghanistan. But the man didn’t believe that since the lanky man, Mohammad looked too good, with skin too smooth to have seen a battle. The man in charge of the Maghreb, Laith, was a short and stout man. He had blue eyes and red hair, though he was born in the sands of Algeria.
“How can I help you?” the man said, sitting back in his chair.
“How did the operation go, Ali?” Laith asked, his eyes gleaming.
“Let’s see,” Ali said, massaging his jaw bone again. It was always aggravated when these two came here. He switched on the TV and turned to the news channel. There was the cafe, with emergency services pulling people out of the rubble.
Laith and Mohammad giggled with glee. Ali forced a smile, though he didn’t like the way these two men seemed to love the sight of destruction. It only served to highlight how much they hadn’t done anything on the ground. How they hadn’t had actual blood on their hands and clothes and how that blood hadn’t infiltrated their dreams.
“It says ten dead, twenty injured, good job,” Mohammad said.
“Thank Abdul,” Ali said. “He was the one who carried it out. His first.”
“He’s a soldier,” Laith said.
Ali didn’t say anything. It was also the desk men who would dismiss a soldier’s job. “What do you two want?”
“Just wanted a discussion of where your team was going. The next few missions,” Laith said.
Ali let out some air and filled them in on the next few attacks planned, and the local political situation. The two men’s eyes glazed over. Ali dived further into the situation. Finally, Laith raised his hand.
“We also wanted your opinion on something.”
“Please,” Ali said, suppressing a smirk and preparing himself for a grandiose idea that he’d have to shoot down.
“You know the great Dr. Khan?” Mohammad asked.
“Of course, who doesn’t?”
“Well we have been in correspondence with him,” said Mohammad.
“Really?” Ali said and leaned forward. He never imagined these two to be that competent.
“Yes. We may have convinced him to finally come out and help us.”
“Come out?” Ali said. “The ISI watches him like a hawk. How can he come out? And even if he did, the Americans and the Israelis would have him killed in a heartbeat.”
“You think too small,” Mohammad said. “To risk-averse. We have good word that he’ll soon be with us, and that when he is, we’ll finally have what we always wanted.”
“Is that so?” Ali said. This still seemed ludicrous to him. “And what amazing nuclear facility will he be working at?” He leaned back. He did not like these two, and he especially hated their foreign accents. It only proved that they didn’t care for the local situation and would forever be grasping at magical solutions to mundane problems.
His comment shut the two of them up, but after a few glances they seemed to regain their composure.
“You think too small,” Laith said, shaking his head. “The doctor will soon be helping us. And then we shall be unstoppable.”
“Well, I must,” Ali said. “What did you say to him that brought him on board?”
“We explained how he could help the cause.”
“And what did he say?” Ali asked.
“At first he claimed we had no cause. But we think our last letter convinced him.”
“Why?” Ali asked.
“We told him to think of the bigger picture.”
“Ah, ingenious,” Ali said, wondering how long before he could kick them out of his office. He wanted to drink some chai. Then he wanted to talk to the local leaders about money for some water.
“It is,” said Laith. “We want to draft one more letter, though.”
“And you want me to?” Ali said, not hiding his annoyance.
“Yes. We need you. You can tell him some stories of the ground and help convince him about our cause.”
“All right. I will,” Ali said.
When the two men left he shook his head and wondered what letter he could possibly write to someone as smart as the good Dr. Khan. He would finish it later.
And as he walked out of the building, he felt a prickle on his skin. He looked up at the sky. The distant sound of an jet engine hummed. Just like any other day. As he watched the motorcade with Laith and Mohammad leave, he suddenly knew what was going on.
A few other men were milling about, and Ali yelled: “Missile!”
Most of the men stared at him like they thought he was mad. But Ali knew what the drill was and ran to the rocks a few hundred meters from the building. He dove into them as the sky was filled with a horrid swooshing sound. And in the middle of his dive Ali felt himself twisted in the air, a warm shocking push, as his world went black.

“Spare some change?”
Justice broke out of the hedge of his thoughts and stared at the homeless man in front of him. The homeless man’s skin was covered with grime and he smelled like sulfuric mold. Justice didn’t normally give to the homeless; he knew that many of them were undercovers, but he fished his pockets for some change and handed it over.
“What’re the stocks looking like today?” asked the homeless man.
Justice, staring at the rooftops of midtown brought his attention back to the homeless man. Justice wondered when the last time he looked at a stock ticker was. “No idea, why?” said Justice.
“Just asking,” the homeless man asked, then hobbled away.
Justice wondered what made the homeless man want to live his life like this. He didn’t appear to be nuts. What about choosing another city to panhandle in? New York had to be high competition. Justice knew if he were homeless he would go and live in the forests, living off the land and not letting anyone disturb him. He inhaled and felt the exceptionally-warm-for-spring air warm him up.
He walked by a kiosk, shaking off the strings that pulled his eyes towards the cigarettes. That was a habit he’d rather not pick back up. Though with the kind of job he had, he wondered why he cared.
At the corner, a man handing out leaflets stared at a beautiful woman passing him by. Justice was next to him, and the man tapped him. Pointing at the ass and licking his lips he said: “Perfect, huh?”
Staring at the woman’s perfect, almost loud proportions made Justice think about his woman and her perfect flesh. “Ain’t nothing perfect,” Justice said.
The man let out a hyena-laugh. His long roped body bent back, and his white teeth lit up the sidewalk. “Ain’t that the truth.”
They clasped hands and Justice tried to keep up with a handshake that morphed into what seemed like finger wrestling. The man’s bright eyes forced a grin to spread on Justice’s face. There was something about the man’s ways that made Justice feel better about humanity. They embraced, and Justice walked on. Now his eyes cut across a street and to the shining tower that was the Freedom Tower going up. It was almost finished, and it filled Justice with an immense pride. This was the reason he had his current job: to stop something like 9-11 from ever happening again. And though it took a long time, there was finally an emblem for his fight. He walked on.
Buzzing the door, he stepped into a marbled lobby, slid his card through a slot and waited for the retina scan. Coworkers told him that studies had shown that the retina scans caused premature glaucoma. And so what was his attitude. The door buzzed open, and Justice stepped to the next door. Here he punched in a code.
“State your name,” a raspy computer voice said.
It took a few seconds before the door opened and Justice walked through.
He remembered how he loved doing this when he first came to work, how it was an exciting feel to be in such a secure building.
Next he placed his palm on a touch screen and waited for it to scan. Another door slid open. Justice walked through that. Finally he walked by a desk where three security guards sat and talked to each other.
“Gentlemen,” Justice said.
“Justice,” they all said in unison. “How’s it going?”
“Not too bad,” Justice said.
“ID,” they said. Justice handed them his ID, and each of them took several minutes holding it up to the light.
When they handed it back, they buzzed open a door and Justice walked through and to a wide open hallway. No one was around.
Justice’s wingtips echoed as he hurried down the hallway. He turned left, then finally came to a large door with a brass title that read: “Head Officer In Charge.”
Justice knocked.
“Come in,” the voice on the other side said. He entered and smiled at a redhead with a scar running down her face.
“Julie,” Justice said, trying to keep his eyes off her screaming cleavage, and glass eye that never followed the real one.
“Mr. Justice,” Julie replied, giving him a once over that he was by now used to.
“Drail in?”
“Hold on,” Julie said as she picked up the phone. “Mr. Drail? Yes, Justice. Yes.” She looked up from the phone. “Go in.”
Justice headed in as Julie muttered something on the phone. Walking into his boss’ office always gave Justice a head rush. The room smelled old-school, like cigars and wood. While the walls were covered in plaques and pictures of Drail shaking hands with various Presidents and other heads of state. Justice knew the power his boss had—and his boss’ bosses—but to come face to face with visual representations was always overwhelming. When Justice first walked into the office several years ago, he had hoped he would be able to collect a few pictures of him self alongside some head honchos. That hadn’t happened yet.
“Justice,” Drail said, his large hairy hand sweeping at the chair in front of the desk. “Sit down.”
Justice sat down. When he hit a bump in his work, when he felt he wasn’t getting the promotions he wanted, he was ready to hate Drail. But he learned that he couldn’t help but like Drail. The large Greek looked dangerously Arab, though he would bristle at any such statement. Justice learned that on his first day of work when he assumed Drail spoke Arabic. Justice was lucky to keep his job then. Drail forgave faster than most. During those tough times when Justice was ready to quit, Drail kept him focused on the job.
“Drail, how’s it going?”
“It’s busy as usual,” said Drail, running his hand through his thick, black hair, that always seemed greased up. “How was your vacation?”
“Great,” Justice said, scratching his shoulder where his skin peeled from sun exposure. “Costa Rica hit the spot.”
“Nice women?”
“Went with my girlfriend,” Justice said. He wasn’t certain if he could call her that. Not after the fight they had. Not when in the wake of every silence between them his heart dropped. And as he thought of the possibility of losing his girlfriend, his heart sunk once more. But such topics he’d learned to keep away from work. And especially away from the likes of Drail, a former spec-ops officer.
“So… nice women?” Drail said, and laughed with his chin back before Justice had time to answer.
Justice smiled. “I’d say so.”
“You should stick to Miami. Best pussy anywhere in Latin America.”
“Next time,” Justice said. Though he’d developed a habit of leaving the country whenever he was on vacation.
“You’re probably wondering why I called you to come in early,” Drail said, and interlocked his fingers in front of his face. All his gold rings matched up in a perfect row. Justice wondered why he never got such rings.
“I suppose. I thought I was going to Yemen to work at the embassy,” Justice replied.  He thought about saying something to save his vacation days. He had a couple weeks worth coming up, but he wasn’t going to be able to use them up. And if he didn’t use them up they would be discarded in the next week. Perhaps they could be set aside. He decided not to say anything. His eyes shifted to a breast on the large Les Demoiselles replica behind Drail. It was something his boss enjoyed boasting about. He got the painting from a curator friend who claimed that it was impossible to tell the difference between it and the real deal hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“You were. But now there’s a change in plans. We need you elsewhere. And it’s a Tango-one mission. Just for you.” Drail raised his eyebrows as if waiting for Justice to start thanking him profusely.
Of course, Justice’s heart jumped and he felt a giddiness come over him. He had never been given a Tango-one mission before. It had been above his pay-grade. “Tango-one?”
“That’s right. Remember how I told you if you just stuck to your guns you would be rewarded. Well this is it. Your moment.”
“Thanks,” Justice said. He didn’t know what else to say. He wanted to ask about the raise that came with such a job, but he didn’t know if it would sound unappreciative.
Drail picked up a piece of paper and stared at it, narrowing his eyes and curling his top lip upwards. “You know anything about a Dr. Khan?”
“The Pakistani?” Justice asked, shifting in his seat. The smell of cigars, strong, was making his nauseous. His chair, a hardened plastic reject from Sweden, wasn’t helping.
“That’s right.” Drail looked at him as if he wanted to hear more.
Justice wasn’t a fan of these moments where he was expected to  recite all he knew. Reminded him too much of his times in school, teacher waiting with a ruler in hand as he stood in front of the class naming capitals on cue.
“Father of the Pakistani bomb. Helped numerous rogue states in their quest for nuclear weapons. Arrested and charged, though he never had anything more than house arrest. And even that was lifted a few years back. He can’t leave the country, if I remember correctly, but he’s free to go where ever he wants within Pakistan.”
“Damn horrid sentence if you ask me,” Drail says, shaking his head. “How anyone wants to live in those countries is beyond me.” He opened and shut his desk draw, staring as if something was really bothering him. “You’re missing one thing. He wasn’t free to go around. The Pakistani intel, ISI, followed him like a hawk. Nothing intrusive, just that they didn’t want any more crap on their faces.”
“Of course,” Justice said. “So what’s the problem?” He wanted to say something about Drail’s comment on Pakistan’s status as a country to live in, but knew better.
“Well, you know our relationship with those Paks is a little off. Especially with Geronimo and all.”
Justice nodded.
“And well, we were given a copy of a letter that Dr. Khan received a few weeks ago.” Drail adjusted the rings on his fingers. “A pretty bold letter to send to a man like that.” He shook his head.
“And?” Justice asked.
“He flew the coop a few days ago. ISI just told us, and gave us the letter, the bastards. Now we need to find him before things get out of hand.”
“And I’m the man to do so?”
“Well… There’ll be others, but you’ll be our head man in charge.”
“Who else?”
“Work alone.”
Justice shifted in his seat again. His rushed morning breakfast of coffee, cereal—no milk because he’d just returned from vacation—and more coffee had just been released from his stomach and was doing a number on his intestines. “Alone? Isn’t this mission kind of big for one man?”
“Some other agencies will be working on it, but don’t worry about them. We need to find Dr. Khan, and we need to do it as quickly as possible.” Drail leaned forward, placing his hands palm up on the desk. “I’m risking a lot by giving you this mission, Justice. You’ve got to show me results.”
Justice nodded. He could feel the gravity in Drail’s voice, but he still didn’t like the sound of this mission. It may have been a promotion and a once in a career chance, but something was amiss.
“We’re trying to get it done with as little fanfare as possible. The Pakis don’t want noise, and neither do we. If any terrorist groups get a wind of his escape, they’re going to piss themselves trying to find him.”
“And the letter?” Justice asked.
“The letter?” Drail cocked his head at him. “Oh yes, the letter. I’ll let you read it in the file. But first you have to let me know if you’re in.”
Justice hated this trait of Drail. He always loved holding information from Justice’s. Justice supposed that it came with the territory of being a boss: everyone above him since kindergarten enjoyed doing it. Still, it irked him. He stared at the breast’s brush strokes again.
Drail turned to see what Justice was looking at.
“So you like it, eh?” Drail asked. “You know it’s not real. Not that you.” Drail paused to make his point. “Would know the difference. Only a handful of people would know the difference. But unfortunately it’s not a real Picasso.” Drail turned back to Justice, his face expecting a reply.
Justice knew better than to point out he already knew about the painting, that in fact most people in this building knew about the painting. “That’s great. What a find.”
“That’s,” Drail said, tapping his temple. “What counts in this world. Those who can use their brains can make their dollar go a little further, you know?”
“True,” Justice said. He’d blown all his money this past vacation, so he was in no position to know the truth of any stretching of money.
“So what’s your answer?”
“Of course,” Justice said, shaking off the feeling that this was the wrong thing to do.
“Great,” Drial said and leaned back. “This will take your career far, trust me.”
“Good. There’s a promotion, right?”
Drail’s face turned as hard as stone. “Well you know about the budget cutbacks, don’t you?”
“I do,” Justice said. He knew this wasn’t the way to go with Drail, but why take on more work for nothing? “I just thought that this mission, Tango-one, was only for those with a higher pay-grade. So shouldn’t I be bumped up?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Drail said, waving his hand in the air. “That’s a matter of paperwork. And we can clear that up right away. The main point is that you have the ability to get this done. Don’t you?”
“Of course I do,” Justice replied, then felt foolish for sounding so chirpy.
“Budget cut-backs, Justice. We all have to sacrifice, don’t we?”
“We do,” Justice said, feeling admonished. “I also have some vacation days. If they don’t get used up, they’re going to go to waste.”
“Justice. You can’t take time off,” Drail said, shaking his head like he was talking to a child.
“I know that,” Justice said. “I, I mean if you could, you know, let me keep them and use them for later.”
“Justice, you know the rules. If you don’t use them, you lose ‘em.”
“I know,” Justice said. “I haven’t had chances to use them.”
“You know the job, Justice.”
“That’s right. Sacrifices, Justice. You know that.”
Justice shifted in his seat. He did know that. He felt small, so he lowered his eyes.
“So what’s the budget?” Justice asked.
“That’s the fun part. Over two million,” Drail said. He picked up a think manila envelope and handed it over to him. “And all you need to know is in there.”
Justice held the extremely slight folder in his hand. He couldn’t remember a folder being smaller. He shifted through the contents. A printout of an email and a blurry photo of a man with a crooked jaw and twisted smile slipped out into his hands.
“This is it?” Justice asked, confused.
“Yep. That’s why the budget’s so big.”
“Can I request more information?”
“You could, but you won’t get much.”
“Even about him? His history?”
“Not really. He wasn’t a priority before this.”
Justice let out some air, though he tried not to be loud about it. “So no information on him?”
“That’s why your budget’s so big,” Drail said again, nodding like that was all that needed to be said.
“All right,” Justice said.
“We want results, of course,” Drail added.
Justice stared at the picture because he didn’t want to look at Drail at the moment. “So it’s the letter that got him to jump ship?”
“That’s what we think.”
Justice looked over the email. The sender’s email was “They sent him an email? I thought he was being watched like a hawk?”
“Well, he was. But they were sneaky.”
“Sneaky with this email name?”
“Well, the algorithms weren’t built to catch something like this.”
“Makes sense,” Justice said. “And we think he’s going to meet them on account of this letter?”
“That’s the plan.”
“And I’m to stop him no matter what from reaching them?”
“Well, if things are that bad. Yes. Stop him. But we’d rather you find him, and bring him to us alive, or call us and we’ll send someone else to pick him up.”
Justice could feel his blood flowing faster. This was an important mission, he thought. So what if he wasn’t getting a raise. He signed up to defend this nation and now he was being handed the most important mission of his life. No more being a cog in the intel machine, crouching on his hands and knees, sifting through sewage to find something that would get churned into a supercomputer. No, now he was finally doing something substantial. He smiled.
“I see you’re looking forward to this, aren’t you?” Drail asked with a grin. “That’s the spirit. I knew you would  be up to the task. You’ll go far. I know you will.”
“Thanks,” Justice said, his chest swelling. “Well I’ll be off then. Need to get souped up on some gear.”
“Of course,” Drail said and stood up.
They shook hands.
“I’ll see you in a few?” Justice said.
“In a few. Give me updates whenever you can, and when crossing borders.”
“Got it,” Justice said and took one more look at the painting. It was a rather nice piece, though Justice was never one for modern art.
“Too bad you’re going to be busy,” Drail said.
“Why’s that?”
“Have a party in a few days. But you won’t be able to make it.”
Justice wasn’t certain if Drail was asking or telling. “Of course. What’s it for?”
“Oh, I got a raise. Been a tough few years of work, you know?”
“I know,” Justice said, feeling an odd feeling in his fists.
The phone rang and Drail picked it up. “Yeah? I’ve got my best on it.” Drail’s face hardened.
Justice felt himself perk up at the sound of “my best”. Surely that meant him?
“Don’t worry about it. We’ll get him,” Drail said and looked up at Justice, covering the mouthpiece. “They’re pretty worried about him.”
Justice knew who they were. The heads at Washington. They were the most powerful men in the country. He grunted affirmatively.
“They want you to get him as soon as possible. They think there’s going to be a mushroom cloud in DC if you don’t get him.”
Justice wasn’t certain if Drail was kidding, but he seemed to be serious. If the mission was this important, why only him? When Drial nodded, Justice turned and walked out of the office. Julie, sitting on her desk with the phone to her ear ,winked at him as he walked out.

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