The treatments are becoming more difficult. I feel like I have the flu. I was told this was normal. Some of the chemicals being added to my bloodstream are vaccines against new strains of disease popping up throughout the world. Vaccines which make me feel ill in the short term. All I know is I feel like crap.

I spend the next forty-eight hours in bed, mostly sleeping. My dreams are incoherent and disturbing. Fire falling from the sky. Humans eating one another in fierce rages of cannibalism. The Old Man laughing. All in quick, glancing images. Hieronymus Bosch meets MTV. After such twisted visions, waking up to watch the news is actually a relief.

I learn that the bombing in San Francisco was officially claimed by the PRP. In other news, a plan has been negotiated to officially divide the former Pakistan into three nations. Israel has formally expelled all Arab citizens. Skinhead violence has erupted in London. Fifty-four more American troops were killed. And water riots have been suppressed in Phoenix. Same as it ever was.

It takes another three days but I eventually get over the flu symptoms and start clamoring to get out. I need to get laid. I always need to get laid. I have been told that this is just a result of all the steroids they pump me full of but I wonder. I guess I should be grateful. Having something, anything, in my life that can make me forget about the world for a few hours is a beautiful thing.

I walk to a nearby bar where the beer is cheap and the women always interesting. I meet a fine young lady named Nichole. After some brief small talk about how screwed up the economy is, we end up back at my place. For the first time in days, I feel alive again. The next morning, she leaves without a fuss and doesn’t even bother to pretend we are going to see each other again. I appreciate her understanding of the situation.

That afternoon, I take the T to the lab. It’s time to see The Old Man. I sit quietly in the examination room as they try to read my thoughts and predict my behaviors. Chemical levels are determined and recorded. Synapse activity is closely monitored. I am not a human being to them. I am a project.

They continue to put me through procedure after procedure and test after test. It’s not the physical discomfort I hate as much as having The Old Man in my face. His breath stinks like dog, for one thing.

“How are the headaches?” The Old Man asks with all the warmth and kindness he can muster. “They’ve been bad.” An answer I don’t want to give but know that I have to. He can tell what I have already suffered and what I am likely to endure in the future. The question is simply a courtesy. A courtesy and a way of making sure I remain truthful with him.

The Old Man pokes and prods and questions and monitors as he has countless times in the last thirty-three years. My childhood memories are filled with the traumas of early such visits. The medical check ups were both terrifying and painful. I asked many, many times why I had to go through such things. I was not sick. Far from it. Even as a very young child I was highly capable. Things came quickly and easily to me compared to the other kids. The pros and cons of being genetically modified, I guess.

I’m not a clone. And, try as they might, I’m not a bio-engineered robot. I just had help making sure I was a little smarter, a little faster and a little better looking than if my genetic make-up had been left to pure chance. As a result, I’m basically that guy in High School. The one who was Class President, star quarterback and fucked all the cheerleaders. I’m him, and then some, but still as pathetically human as all the rest. Given what was involved in making that happen, it’s certainly not a choice I would have made. But it wasn’t exactly up to me.

“Everything looks good” The Old Man says. “Time to move on to your least favorite part of the procedure.” Every single part of the procedure is my least favorite. Feeling people inside your thoughts is not something I think many would find a good time. Knowing that this man will adjust various chemicals and physiological processes to try to alter my behavior truly repulses me.

As usual, the injections of medicines and chemical agents into my blood make me feel nauseous. But it is not the nausea I hate the most. That will subside. It is the sensation afterwards as the chemicals began to have their effects. I can almost feel parts of my brain shifting. Parts of my mind being rearranged. And I know that a few of the things that make me “me” are being numbed or taken away forever.

I never had a choice. I never had a choice in any of this. I was born into it. The genmod program was originally initiated with all the best of intentions. Diseases which had plagued man and drained the economy could be detected and cured at the embryonic stage. Cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s were largely eradicated. It was a golden age for medicine. An era of great discovery and joy in the accomplishments of science. All of which was swept away by the world turning to A-1, pure shit.

For starters, the “Great Recessions” of ’09 and 2015 proved to be only warning tremors. Tremors which foretold of the crushing of the world economy a few decades down the line. As if that weren’t enough, politicians looking to secure their power ensured the full explosion of the Holy Wars around the globe. Those twin evils fed into each other. The more people lacked work and the means of basic survival, the more easily they took on extreme views. The more extremism, conflict and terrorism, the more nations were drained of their resources. Out of that extreme poverty, even more martyrs were created. And so on and so forth. It became the ultimate self-perpetuating cluster fuck.

And into these happy new Dark Ages I was born. An age of false gods and fear. An age where science is considered heresy. Of course, the same government which has declared genetic modification an immoral, evil act punishable by death continues to secretly fund it. They don’t seem to mind the hypocrisy as long as I keep helping their god win.

The treatment ends and I feel exhaustion wash over me. And then it all fades into darkness. I fall into an unnaturally deep sleep until something awakens me a few hours later. My eyes scan the familiar recovery room. I don’t even remember being brought in. Then again, I never do. I lie flat on my back looking around. Everything about the place is function and utility. The monitoring equipment I am attached to, the cabinets, even the chair The Old Man sits on when he asks his follow up questions. The only thing of interest in the entire room is the view of the Boston skyline. A skyline which is now filling with smoke.

Another bombing. It looks like Back Bay. A dark column rises above the familiar shapes of buildings I walk by many times every day. I wonder how many are dead this time. A dozen? Two dozen?

“Jihadists again?” I ask as The Old Man walks in. “Yes, looks like the PRP had some sleepers here.” He reviews some information off of one of the boxes attached to my body. “So, how are you feeling?” he asks, bombing not affecting his light-hearted demeanor in the least. “Like I need to get laid again,” I respond. “Just be careful. Chief Holmes is not nearly as sympathetic as I am to your dalliances. I know some of that is a result of your treatments but he’s not pleased with that sort of behavior.” “What’s he going to do, order you to castrate me?” I challenge. The look in The Old Man’s eyes gives me an answer I don’t expect. My joke turns out not to be that far from the truth.

The anger must have shown in my face. “You know, we really are here to help you” The Old Man lies. “I know you’re just doing what you need to do, Doc. But feeling nauseous and then passing out are not my idea of a good time.” He nods. “We can increase the stomach medication next time and see if that gives you an easier go of it.” I smile. A fake smile that even he knows to be false. He hands me my refills of pills and injections. And then he shakes my hand. This man who wants me to trust him. This man who I wish were dead.

I step out into the cold. The grey, winter sleet fits my mood and awakens me. The sirens have stopped and the smoke has subsided. Because of the bombing, the trains are going to be even more useless than usual. I start the long walk toward my apartment. With any luck, I’ll be back home in a couple of hours.

My Bunker Hill apartment is small and rundown but it has a fairly regular water supply. The building also has its own generator. My favorite aspect of it, however, is the view. It faces a two-hundred-year-old cemetery. Sometimes, I spend hours looking at it and just thinking. I wonder what their lives were like. I wonder what they would have thought about how things have turned out.

I rest for a few hours and then go out again. Another night. Another girl. She doesn’t stay long. As soon as she leaves, I find myself getting a craving for street pollo. Maybe it’s the gin talking but spicy street pollo, the kind from the barrios, not that yuppie farm raised crap, sounds perfect to me. As disgusting as the idea of eating marinated rat meat used to seem to me, I had quickly become a convert on an earlier assignment. The marinade makes the, normally stringy, meat nice and tender. It also kills most of the diseases the rodents might have acquired. And Man, does it taste good. Unfortunately, the only place that does it worth a damn around Boston is The Flats. Not only a crap neighborhood but somewhere I will have to take a long subway ride to. But what the hell? It’s not like I am going to be able to sleep tonight, anyway.

As usual, a power outage delays service on the train. Forty-five minutes later, I am finally able to push my way into a crowded, stinking car. Every time I hear a hoarse sounding cough, I just imagine the TB flying through the air. Luckily for me, I have people to take care of that and make sure I am not infected. As for the rest of the poor souls on the train, who knows?

Ninety-four, way too damn long, minutes later I arrive at The Flats. A pair of body-armored National Guardsmen stare me down as I step out of the train. They couldn’t have been more than twenty and you could tell they were just looking for an excuse to go off on somebody. I remind myself that those poor fuckers are likely to be sent to Indonesia to get their faces blown off soon. A thought that helps me restrain my anger at their ridiculous attempts to look menacing.

The smell of The Flats is overwhelming. A combination of pollution, piss and charred meat. I walk past the children looking for tricks to make some food money and round the corner. I am really looking forward to some street pollo and a cold beer. Just my luck, instead of the food vendor I am looking for, I am greeted by a group of machete wielding thugs.

I quickly make an assessment of the situation. Only two have machetes and the other three just have box cutters. Things move at an alarming speed. Long ago, the quaint idea of threatening someone for their cash gave way to the mentality of just kill them fast and take it. They set upon me quickly and the games begin.

It is only as my fist connects with the Adam’s apple of the first one that I realize they are very young. I would guess twelve or thirteen tops. However, whatever they lack in technique, they more than make up for in enthusiasm. The boys act more like wild dogs than human beings. Only after I shatter the forearms of the second and third, and crush the kneecap of the forth, did it even occur to them they might actually get hurt from this little activity. But the final one, the smallest and probably youngest among them, is not to be deterred.

That last little shit manages to swing the machete blade quickly enough that I am only able to get a partial block on it. He actually makes contact with my shoulder and cuts me. It hurts and I am pissed. My anger expresses itself in the form of a blow under his chin which snaps his neck back and gives me the opening I need.

Before he comes out of his daze, he finds his own arm gripped tightly by my left hand. I wield my right hand high overhead with his very own machete in it. He looks into my eyes and realizes what I am about to do. A little Jihadist justice, American Style. One swift, continuous movement and his hand will be lying on the ground and his arm spouting blood like the city fountains of old.

I hold the blade there and just let him think about it. Let the fear build within him. His friends disappear from the scene. It is just him and me here now. There is nothing he can do but wait for the inevitable pain and disfigurement to come.

But I let him go. I release his hand from my grip and gesture for him to leave. He stands there confused, terrified and unable to move. I kick him to help him along and he finally runs off. The little shit knows he just had the luckiest day of his life.

I look at my shoulder. It probably needs a couple of stitches but I don’t feel like bothering. Let The Old Man make it pretty again when he performs the usual maintenance procedures on his billion dollar puppet.

What a night. But at least the street pollo is good. Spicy and tender. I go through four of the tiny little things accompanied by a can of crap beer. It is the most joy I have felt in a long time. As shocking as it is, for a brief moment there in The Flats I manage to forget about The Old Man and all the rest. I may have even been, dare I say it, happy.

My reprieve from reality is short lived. It is not the two hour subway ride home that destroys my mood. It is a message on my handheld. I had seen the call come in and ignored it for as long as I could. But I already know what it is. The Chief wants to see me. They have found something worthy for me to do. A way to win another one for god and country. I finally deal with it and listen to the message. I need to report in tomorrow morning by eight. Being that it is already near five, I don’t even bother going to sleep.

I should be relieved. Whatever the assignment is, it is better for me than having no assignment at all. As much as I love the idea of having more nights to just be with women and explore the cuisine of The Flats, I know the truth. The moment I am considered unnecessary to execute their plans, is the moment my life will probably come to an end.

As usual, thoughts of not reporting for duty fill my head. Just disappearing is such a powerful fantasy. But a fantasy it is. Using nanotechnology, they had implanted the equivalent of a GPS system into my actual cells. They said this was to monitor my whereabouts during missions so that they could extract me if necessary. But it also means no matter what I do and where I go, they will always be able to find me.

I start to feel like crap as I make the journey across town to report to The Chief. It’s hard to say if it was the gin, the street pollo or something else. All I know is I feel sick. The last thing in the world I want to do is let The Chief and The Old Man know that, though. Getting another lecture on my drinking and eating habits might just send me over the edge. Smacking the shit out of my bosses, as fun as it might be, is probably not a wise move.

So, it is with the bravest, cheeriest persona I can fake that I arrive back at the office complex. The Chief has his offices one floor up from The Old Man. It’s at a front company called “Gilead Holdings.” Unfortunately, there is not the standard, attractive, young girl at the front desk. Instead it is a middle-aged black man who always talks in a high-pitched, over-friendly voice. I would have so much preferred the young girl.

I am led into a windowless conference room and told to wait, which suits me fine. I need the time to gather myself. I chug a half-bottle of water down. For a brief second I think about the ever increasing number of people who don’t have access to safe drinking water. No money. No water. The poor fucks.

My thoughts are interrupted by The Chief. He is a large, toned man in his late fifties. The fact that he is bald and has glasses does not make him look any less intimidating. Any sane human innately senses that The Chief is not someone to be messed with. In all probability, he is a sociopath. I am not exaggerating. He is truly someone without a conscience or any trace of genuine human empathy. Every action and gesture is calculated to mimic human emotion. But there is no emotion. None. Only logic and lies.

The one thing that I actually love about The Chief is that to him there are only a few small, practical differences between me and everyone else. To some people, I am something different and strange and somehow less human than the average individual. To The Chief, everyone in the world is a playing piece on the game board. People are “assets” and “resources” to be used for strategic gain. The fact that I am, more or less, lumped in with everyone else in this regard gives me a rare feeling of satisfaction. I am as worthless as every other human life to him beyond the intelligence I gather and the missions I complete.

The visual presentation begins. A photo of an Arabic man in his twenties fills the screen on the wall. From the looks of it, this man had gone through some serious unpleasantness just before the photo was taken. “This is Kareem Alhaj. He was captured by our operatives in San Diego on February fourth.” The Chief looks at me to make sure I am paying full attention. I am, in spite of the fact I really want to just be home in bed. “After coercive interrogation, he confessed to be a member of the Terani Separatists and gave us an address in New York of where he was to go next.” I wait for him to explain a bit more about who Alhaj is. He doesn’t. “We want you to go that address and find out who it is he was supposed to meet. In addition, find out what his purpose was and if it is tied to any forthcoming operations.” And then The Chief indicates that he is done. I sit there trying not to look as confused as I feel.

“That’s it? That’s all the information you have? Do we know anymore about who Alhaj is or what he might be meeting this other man for?” I ask. The Chief answers slowly and deliberately. His expression doesn’t shift in the slightest. No anger. No impatience. The same cold eyes and measured tone of voice. “I’ll have a recording of the interrogation provided to you” he says. “That would be good” I say. I am still hoping to get a little more information. It’s hard to tell if The Chief doesn’t actually know anymore or if he just doesn’t want to share it with me. Either way, this has to go down as one of the shortest and least helpful briefings I have ever had. “The arrangements have been made for you to take the train down tomorrow morning. You’ll be on your own after that.” The Chief stands up. The meeting is over. I get up and walk out to the front desk.

As I expect, they have a file all ready for me containing travel information. The front desk man also gives me a small, microdrive media player. “You might want to test it before you go,” the desk man says. I place my thumb in the recessed part of the microdrive. It recognizes my thumbprint and begins to play. “Yeah, it’s good. Thanks.” I walk outside debating whether I should listen to the recording as I walk home. Actually, I know I should. I just don’t feel like it. I’m tired and just want to go home. The recording will have to wait.

Finally back in Bunker Hill, I fall asleep almost instantly. I wake up forty minutes later, feeling even worse than I already did. I’m not sure if something external woke me or it is just my screwed-up sleep habits. Either way, the idea of getting any more sleep before I leave for New York seems out of the question. I slug down some coffee and pull up some general background files on the Terani Separatists.

It’s the usual story. Oppressed people get sick of being oppressed and become more bitter, violent and angry. With few career options besides becoming a “freedom fighter” they are spurred on by various religious nut jobs to become killers for the cause. The only real difference is that these particular nut jobs, out of the soon to be former Pakistan, have already managed to kill a few thousand Americans over the last ten years. This is in no small part due to the fact that they are backed by some serious Saudi cash and have political connections with other terrorist groups around the world. A worthwhile target for The Chief to be sure. But why so little information provided?

The train station is the usual throng of people. I push my way through the mob and find my gate. At least The Chief still thought I merited a First Class ticket even if I wasn’t trusted with basic background information. I might even get a seat. The one time I had ridden in General Class was more than enough for a lifetime. The standing while trapped in the mob and barely able to breathe wasn’t the worst of it. It was the occasional yelps of those on the roofs of the train cars as they tried not to fall to their deaths that was the nasty part. Why people risked their lives to get from Boston to somewhere else was a bit of mystery to me. Loved ones? The promise of a job? Whatever it was had to be pretty damn important to make the risk of falling to your death seem worth it. Then again, maybe I was giving the will to live in this shitty world a bit too much credit.

Someone once told me that the exact train route I was on used to be a dedicated high-speed rail line. Once upon a time, Boston to New York meant riding on a super-train traveling at a hundred and forty miles per hour while sitting in a comfortable leather seat and being served the beverage of your choice. Those days were long ago and short lived. The very year after those state-of-the-art trains were dedicated, the financial system went under for the last and final time and the true chaos began. A hundred and forty miles an hour…I can hardly imagine it. Today, between the aging diesel locomotive and the disintegrating tracks, getting to New York at all seems a bit of a miracle.

Speaking of miracles, I actually get a seat. It’s wedged between a very haggard looking woman with a crying kid and a pretty teenage girl wearing a Christian Youth uniform. Eventually, the train pulls out. I put in my earphones and get ready to start the audio recording. I am not looking forward to it. Hearing another human in agony beyond comprehension is not my idea of a good time.

I listen to the interrogator and interpreter explain to the suspect exactly what was going to be done to him. In this particular case, it is a mechanical technique using electric shock. Old school and primitive but still very effective at inflicting controlled amounts of pain to those being questioned. The problem with torture isn’t finding ways to inflict horrendous pain on someone. That’s easy and was probably discovered by the first caveman who wanted the other caveman to reveal his secret stash of food. Nor is it the fact that if you do it to your opponents they will do it to you. The fact is, they were going to do it to you and vice-versa. It is this; the odds of the information being accurate are incredibly small.

There is a very, very short window of time during a coercive interrogation where the answers will be truthful. That window is somewhere after the period where the suspect is willfully trying to deceive you with misinformation and the later stages. Those later stages, where most information is actually gathered, have a different problem. At that point, the suspect is in such physical anguish, and filled with such fear of even more pain, that they will do anything to make it stop. Unfortunately for the interrogator, this means trying to tell them what they want to hear, not what the actual answer may be.

All the same, it seems the interrogator on the recording I was listening to had enough experience to at least get an address out of his suspect. The only other thing I learn that is of any interest is the complete lack of skill Alhaj possessed. He was never trained at any of the camps. He was not proficient at anything and the odds of him even being able to pull off the most basic shoot and run type terrorist attack were low. Whoever he was supposed to meet either planned to spend a lot of time training him or had something planned which required no skill. A suicide bomb was the most likely but even that seemed dubious. Alhaj seemed like the type who would give himself away long before he reached the target.

It’s already dark by the time I arrive at Liberty-Penn. The mob on our train fights its way off as the crowd trying to get on charges toward it. Being in First Class, I am escorted through the crowd by baton wielding thugs that work for the railroad. I see more than one poor sap trying to get on the train get a good thwack.

The amazing thing about Liberty-Penn Station is how impressive it looks when you first step off the platform. It is truly a beautiful building. Shimmering steel plates and polished wood against a cathedral-like, soaring Plexiglas canopy. It was the last bold structure built in New York before the shit storm made such things impossible. Like every other large capital project of the day, it was stripped of the promised cash needed for completion with alarming speed. As a result, the main lobby is the only part that is actually finished. The rest of the station consists, mainly, of “temporary,” plywood hallways that have been up for decades now.

It’s through one of these hallways that you can see another famous New York site. The Garden. The largest tent camp in Manhattan. It was cynically named for the New Madison Square Garden which was supposed to have been built there. The only thing this garden grew was crime and domestic terrorists. In spite of many heavy handed attempts to control it, the fact that it connected to a labyrinth of tunnels below made that next to impossible. The riots when they tried to though, were always interesting. To this day, police live in fear that they might be dragged into the tunnels and never come out. It is a fear well based in reality. Even flame throwers weren’t enough to save one patrol. Another unit found their picked over remains, months later.

A crackly announcement comes over the p.a. system. I can’t understand a word. Then I arrive at the subway entrance and figure out what it probably was. The gate is pulled across the stairs and has a big sign hung on it. “Security Lockdown in Progress.” Fuck. I’m not sure why I am surprised but I am. I angrily walk through the “temporary” hallway and exit. Now, I am going to need to spend a lot of The Chief’s money on a cab. A ride that is not only expensive but will probably take me even longer than the subway would have.

I climb into the first cab I see. It smells like air freshener and body odor. The cabby is African and has a huge scar on his arm. “Where to?” he asks in an accent I can’t assign. “Jackson Heights” “You have a cash card?” He asks. I just nod and give him a glare to shut the fuck up and drive. He does.

The smells in the cab soon intermix with the odor of low-grade diesel permeating the interior. The cab is a plug-in retrofit. And clearly not a very good retrofit from the smell of it. Electric plugs-ins were all the rage once. Economical, good for the environment, politically correct. That was before things went all to hell and the electrical grid decayed into near uselessness. Trying to plug one of these things in now was not likely to get you much. Well, other than getting yourself a very nasty electrical burn. All of which meant bottom of the barrel prices for these cars and the thriving business of retooling them to run on primitive diesel engines. One of the free market’s few recent successes.

We drive across town. On the surface, Manhattan still retains much of its glamour. Especially at night when the darkness hides the decay. Even with few lights on, the skyline looks almost as it had at the Turn of the Millennium. It seems appropriate that this place, this true capitol of America, would be at the heart of everything. It was here the first warning tremors were felt of the political and economic chaos that would envelop the world. It was a symbol of everything that once was and all that was lost. Unfortunately, it also has some of the roughest, pothole-filled streets in the country.

Between the decaying roads, traffic and check points, it takes over two hours just to get across town to the onramp of the bridge. There are only two bridges still deemed safe to cross the East River. “Safe” being an arbitrary term, of course. More than one trucker had found this out as he plunged through the rotting steel to his death. All the same, the odds are considered good enough that a vehicle can make it across that they are kept open. One of these, luckily, is the 59th Street Bridge toward Queens. In spite of the current toll being over five hundred dollars, it is worth every dime to get across. Let The Chief bitch at me all he wants about cost overruns. I am not about to walk from Manhattan to Jackson Heights tonight.

As the semi-living memorial to things past that is Manhattan fades away behind us, I realize things are changing quickly in Queens. It has only been four months since I was down here last but the signs are everywhere. The graffiti on the wall seems to mock the National Guard. Roughly translated from Vietnamese, it says “The Nation of Queens Fucks You Very Much. Death.” Not exactly a fully coherent sentence but the idea is there. The five boroughs of New York are becoming more and more separated by bad transportation and infrastructure. In practice, if not officially, they are slowly becoming independent fiefdoms with their own leaders and laws. Between that and the waves of illegal immigrants from every corner of the globe, Queens is now an ideal breeding ground for malcontents and terrorists.

It becomes a contest between reaching my destination and my nausea from the diesel fumes. The nauseas wins and I puke outside the plastic window of the cab. The African driver is none too happy and lets me know that there will be an extra hundred dollar clean up charge. I don’t argue with him. It’s not my money.

He drops me off at a motel just a few blocks from the address obtained from Alhaj. Big letters on the motel sign offer “special hourly rates.” I am not thrilled with the idea of Zip addicts and whores keeping me awake all night. All the same, it’s a bed and the location is good. So, I bite the bullet and take the room.

I take out my handheld and report in to The Chief to let him know I have arrived. He’s already seen the cash debits and gives me a lecture on being more prudent in my expenditures. I’m tempted to tell him he’s right and that I should spend the money on things I might actually enjoy instead of nasty cab rides. But I don’t. I say “yes, Sir” and call it a night. I’m so tired, even the sounds of the whores don’t keep me from sleeping.

I wake up in a freezing cold room and struggle through a four minute lukewarm shower. The motel is eerily quiet in the morning. I walk a few blocks past the brick row houses and onto the main avenue. A subway roars overhead, dangerously shaking the decaying pillars which support the tracks. My attention focuses on something else though. A very, very pretty Indian girl crossing the street. I am tempted to follow her but know I don’t have the time right now. Maybe later.

I arrive at the address given by Alhaj. It’s not an apartment building but a row house with a basement apartment. I buzz the doorbell. An old Greek guy answers the door. His warm smile immediately throws me off. “Hello” he says. I go through the little speech I had prepared in my head. “Hey there. A friend of mine said you might have an apartment for rent here.” He shakes his head. “Not ready yet. Needs paint and plumbing work. My son is supposed to do it but he’s lazy. Out all night at the dance clubs doing drugs.” I already like this guy. It’s been way too long since I had a conversation like this. “That’s no good. I had a friend who got into that. Drugs ruined him. I hate drugs. There’s enough problems in this world without people doing that to themselves.” And with that, I win the heart of the Greek.

I convince him to show me the apartment even though it’s not ready to rent, yet. It’s nicer than I expected. It’s only a single room but it has a new vinyl floor. It also has a walk-through patio door, covered with a metal gate, that looks out onto a well kept, little back yard. I immediately start to have my doubts about anything too secret being done here. The interior is very visible from the neighboring building. “That’s beautiful back there, the yard.” The Greek nods. “The tenant kept it always closed. Such a shame.” “What do you mean, closed?” I ask. “Curtains. Lots of curtains. Always drawn. So, dark in here. Why?” I start to wonder “why?” myself. So much for not doing anything they didn’t want seen.

I walk around feigning interest in the apartment which is more difficult than you might think. It’s small and simple and doesn’t exactly warrant a three hour tour. “It smells a bit like food down here.” The Greek looks embarrassed. “I like it” I assure him. “Indian food?” I ask. “Afghani. He was Afghani. All sorts of strange foods.” He goes over to a drawer by the kitchen sink. There is nothing in it but a stack of take-out menus. He hands them to me. “Always from these places. Never cooked.” I assume he meant the tenant never cooked, not that the food was never cooked.

I flip through the menus. Pizza, Chinese, Vietnamese, Ukrainian, Indian, El Salvadorian, Afghani…There are some items circled on the menu. Enough food for at least two. “I love Middle-Eastern food. Can I take this?” It’s the first thing I’ve said the Greek doesn’t seem to approve of. He nods but suddenly seems very disappointed in me.

I walk into the tiny bathroom. There is a small, dirty glass by the sink. I check to see if the Greek is watching me. He’s not, which allows me to slip the glass into my jacket pocket. Hopefully it was the tenant’s and not his. Aside from not being useful, I’d hate to get an earful from him on the evils of theft and what a bad person I am. First the preference for Afghani food and then this. The Greek might have a heart attack.

I glance one more time at the apartment. I thank the Greek and make up some more bullshit about wanting to rent the place. He says he’ll call me after it’s repainted. I write my number on a scrap of paper and thank him for his time. I really do like the old guy.

I start walking back toward the motel. I’m starving and get some pork buns from the Chinese Bakery on the way there. All this great food makes me want to move here. In all honesty, I hate Boston. Yes, it’s quaint and historical in parts. But it’s expensive and a pain in the ass. It’s basically all hassle of living in New York with only a fraction of the reward.
Maybe if I ever escape the grasp of The Chief and The Old Man, I’ll move here. What a pleasure it would be to just loose myself in the multitudes of the downtrodden and unwelcome.

My motel room seems to smell even worse than when I left it. The smell of mold and rot. I guess I was so tired last night I hadn’t noticed. Or maybe it was just so cold the garbage didn’t stink as much. In any case, I don’t find it a very pleasant place to be and get right to it. I pull the kit out of my bag to dust and scan the glass. I send the info over my handheld to The Chief and company to do their thing with. I wait for a response. I get one about three minutes later.

The Greek’s picture pops up on my screen. Shit. That’s not going to help me. I’m also a bit crushed to learn that this nice old guy had a record. He’d been in prison for beating the crap out of his wife. Who knows how many times he has done it since? They long ago stopped arresting people for such things making “priority crimes and terrorist prevention” the only things that got any attention. For all I know, the Greek has since killed his wife and buried her in that nice little back yard.

The handheld then gives me a bit of hope. “Partial Print Also Detected.” I hadn’t seen any other prints besides the one on the glass. Then again, the scanner was far more sensitive than I was. So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. I eat my pork bun and wait to see if anything else is forthcoming. A few minutes later I get my answer. “No ID found. Beginning Patriot Protocol.” So much for quick information.

The Patriot Protocol is a top secret tracking and identification program that combs through the phone conversations, emails, medical records, etc. of everyone in the country. It is amazingly comprehensive but incredibly slow. The government now has so much access to everyone’s data that they have created a problem for themselves. They have not yet developed a technology that can mine all that data for useful information. It’s one thing to just monitor phone calls but this is far more involved. Basically, whatever you say or do, the computer is going through it.

I decide to venture back out instead of hanging around just waiting for a response. The room is just depressing the hell out of me. I slip the handheld back into my pocket and leave the rest to clean up later. If somebody really wants to steal a dusty glass, more power to them. I am done with it.

Just as I’m walking along and debating whether to get another pork bun or to tough it out until lunch, the handheld vibrates. I step to the edge of the sidewalk. The fact that the response came so quickly is interesting. The program has either improved a great deal since the last version, has gotten very lucky or, most likely, my information has just been given the entire neural network to search for the answer. How much that must have pissed off every CIA, FBI, NSA and other spook in the world to be put on hold while I did my thing.

My little moment of joy and feeling special is soon quashed. The reason the information has appeared is because it is right there. In fact, it should have come up in the first run-through without even using Patriot. He has a record. The print on the glass belongs to an Algerian named Yacef.

He had been named after one of the great guerilla leaders who fought the French in Algeria back in the Mid-Twentieth Century. But this Yacef is not a guerilla leader, he is a finance guy. A bookkeeper for the killers. He had been arrested by the Germans four years ago but then released. Reading between the lines he was not released due to “lack of evidence” as officially stated, however. He was released as part of a prisoner swap deal for a German soldier captured in Pakistan. I wonder what airhead politician thought that was a smart thing to do.

At least now my internal lunch debate is solved. I will venture to the Kabob shack of preference for Yacef and play the part of my favorite cover character. I switch out a couple of things in my wallet, make sure I have the right business cards and make my way down the avenue. Eleven in the morning is a bit early for spicy veg or “lamb” but I’m hungry and duty calls.

I order a couple of kabobs and then start chatting to the kid at the register. I show him Yacef’s photo on the screen of my handheld. “You seen this guy?” The kid hardly looks and shakes his head no. “Listen to me, I’m from the Reparations Department. If he’s a friend of yours, he would want me to find him” I flash the fake ID. The kid looks more carefully. “No, I haven’t seen him,” the kid answers. I spot a Middle-Eastern guy in his forties chatting with the cook. I ask him on the chance that he’s the owner. If he is, that means he probably spends fourteen hours a day in this dump trying to keep it afloat.

The guy walks toward me. “I’m sorry, Sir. What were you inquiring about?” Yep, he’s the owner. I show him Yacef’s photo and my fake ID. The owner reads it carefully. I don’t say anything. Wait for an answer. “No, I’m sorry, Sir. I don’t know this man.” He’s lying. “You understand what I do, right? I mean for a living?” “Yes.” “The U.S. government does not often seek out people to pay them compensation but when it does, it does it right. You know what I am saying?” The owner stands firm. “I’m sorry. I do not know this man.” The kid comes to my rescue. “What did the government do to him?” “I can’t really get into the details but the German government took action against him based on false information from The U.S. Government. It was a mistake and we deeply regret it.”

The kid shoves a plastic basket with two Kabobs in it toward me. I can tell from just looking at them they are going to be inedible. “What did the Germans do to him?” The kid asks. “I can’t get into that. But it was bad enough we think Mr. Yacef is due some appropriate monetary compensation.” I take out my fake business cards and give one to the owner and one to the kid. “Well, if you do run into him again, please have him contact me. He will thank you for it, trust me.”

I desperately want to just turn around and walk out. Only the chance that the owner will come sit with me and get further into my compensation story makes me stay. I take a seat and eat the kabobs. They are every bit as disgusting as I feared. I make a mental note to take some of the pills The Old Man had given me when I return to the hotel. They’re formulated to fight food poisoning.

The owner of the joint never does join me. I thank him and the kid on the way out. I make sure to leave a crappy tip. All the government types do and doing otherwise might have blown my cover. Besides, the food was nasty.

I decide that as long as I’m not puking or shitting I can tough out the ill-effects of the kabobs and continue working. I pop into dozens of cheap restaurants and stores and use the same story about being from the Reparations Department. It’s always such a beautiful moment when the suspect comes to you and demands his money. The look on their face as you arrest them and take them off for interrogation is truly priceless. It’s not fear so much as a true sense of injustice that you’re not giving them the money they have decided they deserve. Unfortunately, I had a bad feeling that Yacef was going to be far too careful and smart for such a ploy. But it’s a start and you never know who’s going to come forward with information once you get to the “finders fee” part of the tale.

I keep thinking about the kabob place’s owner. He is lying but I don’t know about what or how much he really knows. I can only hope he contacts Yacef. I dial in the info on the kabob place to The Chief. If the owner uses a phone, sends an email or walks by a video camera, I will know about it. If that fails, there is always coercive interrogation but that has to be the last resort. Taking in the owner would be a sure tip-off to Yacef that we are onto him. There is nothing to do but wait and hope, at least as far as my official duties are concerned.

Me being me, I find a fine way to kill some time. I spot that hot Indian girl again. She’s walking into a coffee shop. I follow her in and lay it on thick. Her name is Mary and she is from Central India. She is probably around twenty-two. It takes a little more effort than I’m used to but she’s worth it. Things work according to plan and an hour or so later she’s back in my room with me.

The squalor of the place seems to be a turn on for her. She is doing the total bad girl act. Honestly, she isn’t nearly as decadent and kinky as she seems to think she is but I enjoy myself all the same. A lovely, curvy body. A sweet taste to her skin. For a few brief moments, I almost forget about everything but her.

Mary leaves and I spend the rest of the day going to various cab companies and asking about Yacef. I repeat the same story about trying to give him money. Listen to the same bad jokes I’ve heard thousands of times about giving them some. Nothing useful comes of any of it.

The next part is even more tedious. The following two days I try to track down all the independent gypsy cabs in the area. Being that they are unofficial and individually owned, there is no central office for these guys. They just ride around and pick people up as they find them. More than one gets pretty angry when they realize I just want information from them. One dude, a Russian guy, even starts to act tough and tries to get physical. I hope his newly broken finger reminds him to treat his customers better in the future.

In hindsight, it probably wasn’t smart to get into things with the Russian. He just pissed me off so much I couldn’t help it. But government compensation geeks weren’t known as much for their fighting technique as much as they were their cheap suits. It was a mistake and I regret it. More than that, I have just spotted another problem, potentially a big one. I am being followed.

There are two men sitting in a bland looking sedan. One of them young and Hispanic, the other white and in his fifties. The sedan looks government issued. Then again, the Feds had sold off so many of their cars and remaining assets at auction, it could be anyone.

There’s two types of following. There’s the kind were you want to tail someone and see where they go and there’s what these guys were doing. Letting me know they were watching me. They want to make sure I see them and to be intimidated. Exactly what that is supposed to accomplish, I’m not quite sure. But they are doing the total program. The slow rolling of the car behind me. Staking themselves out across the street from where I grab some food. It gets so annoying, I, eventually, decide to play too.

I step off the curve and start walking right toward them. The little pricks take off. How does that make sense? You either want to be seen and let me know who you are or you don’t want me to even know you exist. I don’t get it.

Luckily, I don’t have to worry about it much longer. Mary sees me and sends me a welcoming smile. In direct defiance of my “never twice with the same person rule” I agree to meet her again later. Experience tells me this is a bad idea. Once with a girl they write it off much easier. Twice makes that one time thing complicated in all sorts of ways. But Mary is so damn pretty I decide to make an exception.

The next day, I decide to go talk to my friend the Greek again. It’s hard to enjoy being with him the way I had before. Something about those photos of his wife all bloody and with a broken nose somehow take away from his gentle image. I have to bury the rage and temptation of letting him spend a few hours on the receiving end of a beating for a change. It turns out to be a good move. Not holding in my rage. I mean, that too. But seeing the Greek again. Just as I arrive I see an absolutely stunning blond chatting with him. I keep my distance and just watch. I also check for the Feds, or whoever the fuck they are, again. They seem to be gone. Maybe it’s their nap time.

Just as I’m deciding if it makes more sense to follow the hot blond or go have a conversation with my Greek buddy, I see the blond give him something. It looks like a business card. Decision made. I wait for her to round the corner and casually walk over to the Greek. I give him the happiest, warmest smile I can muster.

“Hey, you renting my apartment to someone else?” I joke. The Greek doesn’t know if I’m serious. “Just kidding. Then again, if I had the choice of looking out my window at a tenant that pretty or a mug like me. I’d rent to her too.”

The Greek finally gets it. “No, no. She was just asking about the man before. The smelly one.” I look at him quizzically, faking my confusion. “There’s no way a woman like that was with the tenant you described. No way.” The Greek laughs. “Maybe you thinks she belongs more with someone like you?” I grin. “Well, now that you mention it? You wouldn’t happen to know how I could talk to her, would you? He studies me over for a second. “Why didn’t you just talk to her now? Afraid? You don’t seem afraid of girls.” I shake my head. “Priorities. I wanted to make sure she wasn’t stealing my apartment.”

“If you really want it that bad, it’s yours.” “Really?!” I exclaim as I start to think of a way out of an apartment I have no intention of ever taking. “Sure. You come by tomorrow with first and last months rent, it’s yours. Move in next week.” “What about the painting and plumbing?” The Greek shrugs. Fucker. He thinks I am an eager tenant that will take it without being fixed up. I keep up the act.

“Excellent. But the girl. You going to help me out?” The old Greek waves his finger in front of me. “Blonds are trouble. You should stay away.” “Yeah, but it’s the kind of trouble I like.” He enjoys my answer. Hands me her card. I thank him profusely for both the apartment and the card and promise to let him know how it goes. He yells at me as I’m walking away to remind me the checks need to be cashier’s checks. Whatever. I have a blond to find.

Her name is listed as Karen Meyers. The business card is for a place called “Clear Filter: Household Purification Units.” Not a bad business to be in. The tap water in New York had long ago become unsafe to drink. Cheap home filtration units that could work on hand pumps instead of the ever unpredictable electrical system were really in demand. So much so, that people were paying through the nose for them. And then there was the title: “Regional Sales Representative.” Well done Karen Meyers or whatever your real name is. A nice solid cover that gives you plenty of reasons to talk to strangers and be out a lot.

I scan the card into the handheld and wait for The Chief’s folks to get back to me. The initial hit spews back a slew of information on the company. It seems to be real. Established twelve years ago. Financially solvent.

A few seconds later information on Karen pops up. It seems she’s real too. Either that or it’s a very, very good front company supported by big people with big bucks. It’s hard to say which of those two scenarios makes me more nervous. If it’s a front, it’s for somebody big. If it’s not, I might be wasting my time. Well, at least in terms of the assignment. A woman like that is never a complete waste of time.

The one thing really bothering me at the moment isn’t her. It’s the goofballs in the sedan. I don’t want to get The Chief’s people involved yet, just in case it is the Feds. Being told I need to co-operate or worse, being yanked off the job, is not something I want to set myself up for. For one thing, I’m having a pretty good time in New York and am not real inclined to want to return to Boston, yet.

I suddenly don’t feel so good. Nauseous and hot like the flu. Maybe that kabob had given me food poisoning after all. I go back to my shitty motel room and puke a few times. I actually feel a lot better after that. But I’m tired and lie down. The motel is always so much more quiet in the daytime. I decide to take advantage of it and sleep for the next three hours.

I wake up feeling perfectly fine. I guess I just needed to get that rotten food out of my system. I brush my teeth and then pull out Karen’s business card. Give her a call. I tell her I’m a local home owner and would like to talk to her about installing a filtration system. She strikes the perfect combination of friendliness and professionalism in her tone. I give her an address. It’s a building just down the street. My plan is to lure her there and then get her inside the building. I thought about trying to meet her in a coffee shop or something but I want to make sure we are alone when we meet. This had the potential to get ugly.

We agree to meet the next morning. I think about asking my lovely Indian friend over again but decide three times is two times too many. That leaves me with two options. Find someone else or call it a night. I decide to just get some Sudanese take out and get some more rest. Given that I had just been puking my guts up a couple of hours ago, I am shockingly hungry.

Not much later, I’m enjoying my food and listening to two jackass politicians argue about currency unification on the TV when I hear a knock on the door. I peer out. It’s Mary. I open the door and she kisses me. It’s a good kiss and I almost let it play out. But I don’t. Enough is enough already. I give her the usual spiel about how it was a blast but we have to stop. She doesn’t take it well but gets the message and leaves. I fall asleep, soon afterward.

I only wake up a few times during the night which isn’t bad for me. I get two large coffees from the Chinese bakery down the street and take them back to my room. The Chinese can’t make coffee worth shit. Not that anybody can make this synthetic garbage called “coffee” taste very good. But the hot dark liquid, whatever it is, gets my brain going. I call in to The Chief and get the expected bawling out for spending too much money and not making progress quickly enough. He has nothing new to tell me on Karen, Yacef or anyone else. He does, however, manage to tell me I better stay focused on the job.

The Chief switches me over to The Old Man for a remote physical. I prick my finger and all the other diagnostic bullshit I am ordered to do. The handheld tells The Old Man about my current condition. He looks at the data. Says nothing. Eventually, he lets me know that I’m fine. I mention the nausea and get a lecture on eating too much street food. The whole thing just irritates me and makes me angry.

The Old Man asks how I’m doing emotionally. The same, soft “trust me” voice he always uses. I tell him I’m actually doing really well and love New York. Unfortunately, he takes this as the cue to tell his oft-told tale of his days as a resident at Beth Israel.

He had studied under one of the great research scientists of the day, Dr. Samuel Wharton. The man who discovered how to negate the effects of Ebola. Not a small thing given that Anthrax and Ebola were still the disease du jour favored by terrorists, back then, for bio-attacks. I find my mind wondering as The Old Man goes on and on about his glory years in New York. The way he’s talking, you would think he’s the one that found the antidote, not Wharton. I keep thinking about Karen. I’m looking forward to my meeting with her. Water filtration system or not, we have a lot to talk about.

A few hours later, I stand across the street drinking yet another cup of shitty coffee from the Chinese place. There is better coffee just a couple blocks further down but I’m feeling too lazy. Maybe it was a psychological thing I should have brought up with The Old Man. My need to punish myself with crap coffee. Just as I get my mind churning with such useless internal banter, I see her.

Karen makes even more of an impression on me than she did before. She’s got the walk. That way certain women move that is marked with a subtlety of movement that is as erotic as all hell. I’m not talking about the over-the-top ass shaking, hip swinging, they’ve spent far too much time practicing in front of the mirror shit. I’m talking this. Karen and that long-legged strut of hers.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the closer she gets the more I can appreciate the curves of that body and that face. The girl is the total package to be sure. She checks the address on her handheld. Goes up the stairs. She already seems to sense that something is off. The building is empty. She rings the doorbell and checks the address again on her screen. I let her sweat for a minute. She dials the number I gave her and I hear it ring. I pick up my phone as I watch her and tell her I’m running late. I’ll be right there. And then I keep watching. She is clearly put out and not at all pleased. I think about seeing how long it is before she starts to leave but decide she’s rattled enough. Time for my entrance.

I rush across the street and make my apologies. Of course, she tells me it’s fine and not to worry. From the expression on her face a couple minutes ago, it wasn’t fine in the least. But she lies well. Enough to make sure I’m always paying full attention and looking for clues instead of staring at her ass.

I calmly tell her that I own the building already but haven’t occupied it. I’m thinking of having all the work done before I rent it. I make it clear that this is just one of several properties I own and that if I like this filtration system of hers, I might convert all my buildings. Dangling such a potentially big sale in front of her should have triggered some enthusiasm in her if she really was a salesperson. It doesn’t. Then again, maybe she somehow knows I’m just full of shit and thinks I’m wasting her time.

Either way, I open the door I had broken into just hours ago and step inside. She follows me in. A beautiful woman like her, following a man she doesn’t know into an empty building, makes me wonder. Either she’s clueless to the dangerous situation she’s just put herself in or she’s very confident she can protect herself. Both choices are mistakes.

I point her toward the back of the apartment and tell her the filtration tank would have to sit somewhere back there. I also make sure I stand between her and the front door. It’s the only way in or out since I made sure the back door is blocked by an old stove. She goes on and on about the benefits of her product. She’s good. I cut her off mid-sentence and tell her I have no interest in buying a water filtration system.

I can see the thoughts process through her. Confusion. Anger. Fear. “Why do you want to find Alhaj Yacef?” I ask. “Who?” I don’t even bother to answer. “Why are you looking for him?” Something flickers behind her eyes as she adopts a game plan. “I don’t know what you are talking about.” She calmly walk over to me and reaches for the front door. I grab her arm and yank her toward me. I say with as much menace as I can, which I’m told is quite a lot, “Why are you looking for Alhaj Yacef?” The fear wins out. Tears form in her eyes. If it’s an act, it’s a convincing one.

And then I feel the pin prick. “You bitch” I say, already feeling the effects. How could I have not seen the needle between her fingers? A small, homemade stinger, like the kind favored by Latina gangs. She removes herself from my grasp and takes off out the door. I am so stupid. How could I have missed it? As I collapse onto the floor, I only have one thought in my head. I hope it’s not lethal.

I wake up relieved to still be alive. I don’t feel any numbness or dizziness and everything seems to work. I got off lucky and I know it. I look out the open door. It’s still light out. I check the time to see how long I’ve been out. I’m surprised. Whatever she gave me only put me out for a couple of minutes. I stand up and try to get readjusted. I feel a bit confused for a second but then get it together and walk to the door. I look around, not so much expecting to see her as to make sure nobody saw me while I was passed out. It’s not exactly the sort of thing that makes a good impression on people.

I walk back toward the motel debating whether I should ask The Old Man to give me another remote rundown. It would be the logical thing to do. Not only could he make sure I was alright but determining what I was just pricked with could tell me something about her. The downside, however, is making me inclined not to do it. I hated the physical monitoring to begin with and don’t really want to give The Old Man an excuse to rummage around my body anymore than he already does. On top of that, The Chief would be furious. Letting myself get caught off guard like that was embarrassing enough. Telling The Chief about it and possibly having it put in my file was just too much. Fuck it. If I wasn’t dead yet, I would be fine.

Unfortunately for me, my screw up with Karen, or whatever her real name is, means I need a new plan of action. But it looks like I have another problem to deal with, right now. I knew that second time was a mistake.

Mary is walking quickly behind me and pointing at me. “That’s him” I hear her yell. I turn and see that three Indian youths with baseball bats are running toward me. “You think you can treat my Sister like that?!” one of them says. “Use her and throw her away? Treat her like a…” Before I let him say the word “whore,” I take his legs out from under him. The other two swing at me, one after the other. One of the blows connects and I stumble back. “Get him! Get him!” Mary shrieks.

I grab the bat out of the hand of one of my attackers while moving my head out of the way of the oncoming bat of the other. Even though I only hold the bat by its middle with my left hand, I’m able to get enough velocity going to send it flying through the air and into the nose of attacker number two. “Mitesh!” I hear her yell as her brother/nephew/friend/whatever covers his now well broken and blood-gushing nose.

I’m hoping valiant warrior and defender of the virtuous, attacker number three, gets the hint and takes off on his own. No such luck. He comes at me straight on with the bat held high in the air. He’s not even sure what happened as he drops the bat and starts choking. A blow to the neck will do that to you. But, much to my annoyance, it’s still not over. Bloody nose comes at me with bat in hand, once again. I grab the bat from him as easily this time as I did the last. I get ready to take him down, once and for all. “DON’T MOVE.” It’s not the voice of my hot little Indian friend.

“Freeze. NYPD.” I move slowly. Turn to face the source of the voice. It’s the idiots that were kind of, but not really, following me. The Hispanic one points his gun right at me. His old-white guy partner is also there and also, unfortunately, has a gun pointed at me. The Indian lads I was dealing with all remain frozen. The girl that caused this whole thing, however, seems to have disappeared. Isn’t that always the way? Start the trouble and leave the men to pay for it.

“Put your hands on top of your head.” I’m told by the Hispanic one. I have about two seconds to make the call. There is a chance, possibly a good chance, that these two jokers are not NYPD at all. If that’s the case, I need to deal with them as quickly as I can. Not an easy task considering the bullets they might put into me. But doable. The real problem is all the ramifications involved if they are who they say they are. Taking out NYPD personnel is not something The Chief would approve of. Then again, neither is being brought in for questioning by them.

The other scenario is this. They are imposters and I am about to surrender myself to god knows who for reasons unknown. Reasons unknown but sure not to be nice. This would, obviously, not be a good thing. Far worse than being taken in by the NYPD.
The guns make the decision for me. Not the fact that they are pointed at me. The make and model they are. Standard government issue. Of course, these guys could still be someone else who had the same taste in guns. But, given what information I have, I make my call. I put my hands on my head and let myself get arrested.

Twenty minutes later, I am processed and sat down in a dingy looking room with bars over the window. The police station looks hundreds of years old. I can only image the toxic fungus that must be growing above the water-stained, dropdown ceiling. I can’t believe what a shitty day this has turned out to be.

I sit there quietly, handcuffed to a table, until my cop friends come in. They introduce themselves as Torres and Walters. I keep quiet. Torres starts the proceedings. “So, what did you do to piss her off so much? Forget to buy her flowers after fucking her up the ass?” In spite of knowing it’s part of his interrogation technique I have to hand it to the guy. Not bad. I decide to go with it. “Sometimes a girl just doesn’t want to hear. No, means no.” “So, you wouldn’t put out for her? That doesn’t seem fair. No wonder she was pissed.” Ironically, even though Torres was joking he had hit the nail on the head. Unfortunately, Mary had taken it even a little further than most.

“Where’d you learn to fight like that? Pretty good for a Reparations Clerk.” I’m happy to hear they had spent some time with my files and learned my cover story. I decide to test how far they had dug. “You know the answer to that.” Torres puts on the grin again. “Yeah, we do. Pakistan must have been rough back then.” I shrug. “How come you didn’t reenlist for a third tour?” They had done a good job. Not Torres and Walters but The Chief and his people. My cover story and background files were air-tight. Not only was everything about them “authentic” and “verifiable,” some real thought had gone into them. Realizing my combat skills might one day attract attention, The Chief made sure I had the military background in my file that could explain them.

“So, really. What did you do to get her so angry at you? Did you rape her the way she claims?” I panic for a split second. Mary is just unbalanced enough to tell them a story like that. Then I realize I hadn’t been put through any of the normal forensics procedures a rape suspect would have gone through. “No, I did not,” I say.

“You sure? Oh, by the way, we’re supposed to ask you if you want a lawyer. You want a lawyer? I mean, we can get you one but that would mean keeping you for thirty days while we wait for them.” I know the right answer. “No, no lawyer, thanks.” I start to lose my patience with the proceedings. They could charge me with assault but it was clearly self-defense. Both are considered petty crimes these days, regardless, and generally ignored. They also wouldn’t find any files in my handheld that would incriminate me. I was just some guy who pissed off the wrong girl.

Walters, who hadn’t said a whole lot yet, walks up to me. He tries to look threatening. I brace myself for a blow to the face. It will be clichéd good cop/bad cop from here on out, I’m guessing. But I’m wrong. He asks the question of the day. “Yacef. Why do you want to find him?” And suddenly I have the answer I am looking for. The thing I couldn’t figure out was what these guys were really about. The reason they would even stop and bother to break up a street brawl. And there it was. These were not just plainclothes NYPD, these guys were Counter-Terrorism.

Going way back to 9/11, New York had set up its own version of the FBI. Something which pissed the real FBI off to no end. But, being that 2600 people had just been murdered in their city courtesy of Osama, the NYPD kept pushing. Not only did they prove they could hold their own with the FBI, they outshined them in all areas. They even had a network of people overseas. As long as it was something that might involve an attack on New York, it was their business. Something the Homeland Security Director upheld and the city kept amply funding.

“You know the answer to that. The Reparations Department thinks $3 million will make him feel better after the U.S. government had him tortured in Germany.” Nothing moves in Walter’s eyes. He’s good. Torres chimes in. “Shit for $3 million dollars, I would volunteer to be tortured. That’s a lot of cash.” I imagine Torres enduring what high-value prisoners endure. From the looks of him, I don’t think he would make it through alive.

“Reparations Department,” Walters says. It’s not a question. “Reparations Department,” he says again. He pinches the bottom of his nose and sniffles. “Reparations Department,” he says, yet again. I don’t react at all. I refuse to ask him “what about it?” or say “yes, that’s correct” or any of the things I know he’s looking for. He stays on his game. Takes a seat right across from me and stares into my eyes. “Reparations Department” I hear him say again. And then he smiles.

“You know, I had a buddy of mine that worked at Reparations. A buddy an awful lot like you actually.” I sit and just wait for him to keep going. Torres seems completely out of the picture at this point. He’s content to let Walters be the master of ceremonies. “He had also been in the military for a while. Indonesia.” Walters sniffles again. “And he said something to me once about how, just in theory I’m talking, the Reparations Department would be a really good cover for people from Military Intelligence or the CIA.” “Interesting” I say with perfect calm. “Yeah, isn’t it? A job where trying to find people that may be connected to terrorism makes perfect sense.” I see my opening and I take it. “Mr. Yacef was not connected with terrorism. He was a hard working, innocent man who was wrongly imprisoned and tortured at the behest of the United States Government.”

I see the flash of anger in Walters’ eyes. It disappears as quickly as it had arrived. He continues in perfectly modulated and measured tones. “Right. Which explains why you’ve been trying so hard to find him.” “Why else would I be looking for him?” I immediately regret giving into my urge to play with Walters. I didn’t say it coyly but answering like that was a slap to him. If he picks up on it, all I will have succeeded in doing is confirming his suspicions. Then again, there was really nothing he could do to interfere with my plans other than be a real pain in the ass. I hold the high cards here, whether he realizes it or not.

Walters doesn’t give any indication one way or the other regarding my answer. He stands up and takes out the keys to the handcuffs. Instead of unlocking them, I get a nice punch to the jaw. I feel my teeth crunch into each other. Fight the urge to pass out.

“Unlock him and let him go” I hear Walters say. He walks out of the room. Torres unlocks me and puts his arm around my shoulder to guide me out. He eyes my jaw. “You got off lucky, My Friend. Last guy he did that to had to have his jaw reset. But yours looks just fine.” It hurts to talk but I still manage somehow. “Yeah. I must be having a really good day.”

What a mess. The one good thing, the one bit of solace I have, is something regarding Karen. Walters never said a word about her which leads me to believe he probably doesn’t know about her. At the very least, it seems unlikely he knows about me contacting her or the fun we had in the empty building. She is the key to finding Yacef. Not that I have any logical reason for thinking this. None at all. She could just be a sales chick who knows how to defend herself and has some street smarts. All the same, I just sense it to be true. Karen is the key to all of this. If only I can figure out where to find her.

What really pisses me off is that it looks like I am not going to get the chance. I call The Chief. He is already aware of my cover name being run through the system and has made his decision. Report back to Boston. He accuses of me of blowing my cover, jeopardizing the operation and compromising the security of the entire agency. It is all said without a trace of anger in his voice. It is The Chief at his cold, sociopathic best. And it sends chills down my spine. I have faced plenty of things that have caused fear in my life but encountering a person like this would shake anyone up. Knowing that this same person can, and very possibly will, order my death at some point is a bit much.

I talk myself down from the panic after the phone call. I am too expensive for them to toss out like that. And, honestly, getting pulled in by the NYPD is not the end of the world, as long as things still get done. Things like finding Yacef and discovering what he is up to. How I am going to do that remains a mystery. And I only have fourteen hours to figure it out before I head back up to Boston. I did get one bit of good news. In the remote medical that followed my fun with The Chief, The Old Man said my jaw didn’t look broken. In all the fun, I conveniently forgot to mention the stinger prick from Karen. One fuck up to report a day was more than enough.

Once again, thoughts of throwing in the towel and making a run for it race through my head. How nice it would be not to have to deal with this shit. I try to imagine what a life outside of all this nonsense would be like. I picture myself in a small cabin in the woods, totally off the grid. At least as much as anyone is capable of being “off the grid” these days. Maybe I’d get a dog. Something big, not one of those little lap dogs. Damn that would be nice. It all sounds so great right now.

I snap myself out of it. I have things to do. I had just been told to sit tight and stay out of trouble until I get the train back to Boston. But I don’t feel like sitting tight. Sitting tight just fills me with anger and anxiety. I need to do something. To try to fix this mess head on. Which is a problem. I need The Chief’s help. I need to find Karen and finish the talk we started having before my little drug-induced nap. In order to do that, I need some technological assistance.

I dial The Chief and make my case. I’m here in New York and Karen is a viable lead. I plead with him to at least let me try to follow up on it before I report back in. I stare at his cold gaze on the handheld’s screen. If he says “no” I should start to prepare for the worst. It would indicate that he has given up on me and gone into damage control mode. I breathe a sigh of relief as he reluctantly gives me the go ahead. However, it is conditional and my orders to report back are not changed. I have very little time to do what needs to be done. And I still need a whole lot of luck on my side.

It only takes Boston seconds to locate Karen. She’s in Manhattan. East Side in the Twenties. I am not pleased. Finding a suitable staging areas is not going to be easy in that part of town. I get my kit all prepped and then hop on the train to the city. If I mess this up, things in Boston are going to get pretty ugly.

Between the conversation with The Chief and preparing my kit, I have already lost precious time. In addition, it takes forever for the aging subway to arrive. As expected, it’s also packed. I push my way in along with the rest of the great unwashed masses.

About forty minutes into my journey, I have rehearsed all the most likely scenarios in my head. Pulling this off without any sort of recon was going to be tough. In fact, it greatly increased the odds of getting busted and having it all fall apart. Worse yet, this one was not going to be something my cover story was going to get me out of. This was high-risk and maybe no reward. Not exactly my favorite way of doing business. My thoughts are interrupted by the smell of human feces. Someone has just taken a dump in the subway car. Could have been a bum or it could have been someone with dysentery. Either way, my already unpleasant ride gets that much more unpleasant.

I finally arrive at my subway stop. The place is crawling with National Guard. I mean, even more than usual. I begin to worry about a random search. Explaining the items I am carrying would not be easy. I see two guardsmen approach me. Decide I’m going to have no choice but to take them out, run and hope for the best. Seconds before I’m about to send the nearest one tumbling, I realize they are going to walk right past me.

I confirm Karen’s location with Boston. She is now at her hotel. I don’t tell them anything about my plan beyond that I hope to talk with her. A mild understatement given my actual intentions but if I had told them my real goals, they probably would have nixed them. Too risky, especially given the short timeframe and lack of prep. There’s also a host of other things that start running through my mind. Things that don’t really add up. But they’ll have to wait. Right now, my focus is on the task at hand.

I walk around for far too long before I come across an abandoned building that will work. I walk inside and am greeted by a dozen Zip addicts. Zombies in the darkness. All but one of them are already semi-comatose on the floor enjoying their break from the real world and all its misery. The one, however, freezes like a deer in the headlights. “Sorry, my mistake” I say and walk back out. Way too many complications. Time is ticking away. I need to find a good staging ground and get things moving. Every second I delay means my odds of success decrease. I am pissed.

It takes me a while before I find a suitable location. It is already getting very late. It’s after ten before I am finally ready to proceed. I check in on Karen’s location. She has gone out. If she doesn’t return to her hotel tonight, I am screwed.

I mentally will her to return to the hotel. I watch the tracking feed from Boston and wait. I start to wonder if she will be sleeping in someone else’s bed tonight. Someone else’s bed far away from where I need her to be. I needn’t have worried. An hour or so later, she is headed back to the hotel. Better yet, it looks like she is walking instead of taking a cab or getting a ride. I make one last run-through of everything. It all seems ready to go. Now comes the hard part.

I walk the few block from the staging area to the hotel. I realize how odd it is that she is even staying here. I wonder if I’m going to have to deal with some secret lover of hers. Why would she even have a hotel if she’s based in New York? Karen is getting more and more interesting to me every minute.

I finally see Karen strut down the street. Not only is she alone, but, from the slight over-correction of her walk, she is a bit drunk. I put my gloves on and wait until I can approach her from behind. There are a couple of people on the streets but that shouldn’t be a problem. I see Karen walk by and start walking behind her.

I make a final mental check of the people closest to her. An old lady with a dog pissing on the lamppost. A bunch of teenage idiots trying to out funny one another. A couple quietly groping one another in the shadows. None of them should be a problem. I keep walking behind Karen and start approaching her more quickly. My hand moves into my coat pocket and reaches into the plastic baggie for the damp cloth. I wait until I am a few feet away from her and call out. “Hey Karen. Wait, Honey, it’s me.” She turns, totally confused. She’s more drunk than I thought and doesn’t seem to even realize who I am until I’m kissing her. Kissing her while one hand holds her cheek and the other, the one with the cloth in it, holds the back of her neck. The drug soaks through her skin and into her system.

I hold the kiss for as long as I can, stifling her struggles with my grip. The teenagers walk by. “I need me some of that” one of them says as I continue to keep my right hand firmly across the back of Karen’s neck. It’s amazing how long seven seconds can seem during something like this. But Karen is drunk and caught off guard, so I manage. I release my hand from her and put the damp cloth back in my pocket. From her dilated pupils I know I’m in good shape. The drug has already taken effect.

The particular medication which Karen now has flowing through her blood does not hurt her or even make her pass out. It just makes her very, very cooperative. It’s illegal but, like most outlawed substances, is extremely easy to buy off the streets. It’s a very popular item, as it has become the date rape drug of choice. I guide, a now very mellow, Karen in my arms. The old woman with the pissing dog smiles as we walk by. Nothing like the appearance of two people in love to warm the hearts of young and old alike.

“Where are you taking me?” Karen mumbles. “Shhhh” I tell her. “It will be fine. I just want to go somewhere where we can talk.” She smiles, probably thinking she’s making some smart ass joke back to me about wanting more than talk. I’m glad she’s reacting well and in a good mood, right now. It will make the plummet all the more effective. We walk slowly to the location I have readied. Her joyful, mellow mood never falters on this part of our journey. It’s only when I walk her down the crumbling stairs into the abandoned basement that she starts to look concerned. However, thanks to the drugs, she is still very easy to guide into the dimly lit and isolated cellar.

I shut the steel door behind us and let her eyes adjust to the dim light. She tries to run away but her body refuses. I quickly get her down into a chair and tie her to it. She is completely immobilized. I also gag her. She is scared but the alcohol and drugs are acting as a sedative. I need the exact opposite effect. Total fear. I go to my kit and prepare a syringe. She looks at me with curiosity and bewilderment. I inject her with the adrenaline and wait for it to take effect. She should not only sober up and become more alert, her heart should start racing and her body physically induced into a more excited state.

I put the syringe back in the kit with the other gear. The adrenaline kicks in quickly. Karen struggles against the ropes and yells into the gag. I let her struggle and strain, fearful and confused as to what’s happening. All I can think about is how long this is all taking. I know I need to give it time but I still need to report back to Boston tomorrow as ordered. She starts to plead and cry into the gag. I walk toward her.

“What’s your name?” I say softly as I pull down her gag. She doesn’t answer. I say it again, even more gently “I just want to know your name.” Still no response. I try yet again, this time yelling loudly and angrily into her ear. “What’s your name!” I demand. She jolts from the volume and intensity of my query. “Karen. My name is Karen. Please don’t hurt me.” I move as quietly as I can to the other side of her. “Try again” I tell her. “What? I’m sorry, I don’t…”

“Answer my questions truthfully and you will be free to go.” She debates the truthfulness of my statement. I stand right in front of her for a second. She starts to panic. Too much so. She screams and struggles. I slap her across the face. It doesn’t hurt her so much as bring her back. She fights back the terror and looks at me long and hard. Long enough to understand what sort of person she is probably dealing with. She makes a conscious decision to cooperate and hope for the best.

“My name is Emily. Emily Miller” she whispers. “Who do you work for, Emily Miller?” I ask. “Nobody” she says. I can’t believe it. “Nobody?! Try again!” I yell. I am sincerely angry. We don’t have time for this. “I swear. I don’t work for anybody!” I’m at a critical juncture. I can’t get much harsher with her without this going somewhere I really don’t want it to go. For one thing, I just don’t like the idea. On a more practical level, there is also something else. I might need more than just immediate information. I might need Karen, or Emily, or whoever the fuck she is, to cooperate in ways beyond just telling me what she knows. She might be useful down the road. The uglier this part of things gets, the more unlikely she will willingly cooperate later.

Just as I’m considering this, she mutters something that makes no sense to me. “My son.” I wait for the rest. Nothing. “What?” I ask. She is sobbing too hard to answer. I wait. Finally, she pulls herself together. “My son was recruited by them. I’m just trying to find him so I can bring him home. I don’t work for anybody. I just want…” her voice trails off. “You just want what? Talk to me” I say in the most evenly measured voice I can.

And then the words start to pour out of her. Karen, a.k.a Emily Miller, starts talking about her days in high school. Not exactly what I’m expecting to hear. The long and short of it is she was raised in Michigan, slept with a lot of different guys, and got knocked up. It was agreed that the best thing possible was to put the kid up for adoption. That was twenty years ago, when Emily was all of fifteen. I also learn that the father had long ago died of TB.

The words keep flowing and the story keeps unfolding. Emily tells me that it was while in her early twenties that she started to take an interest in her son. His name is Henry and he’s being raised by his adoptive parents, the Hancocks, in Minnesota. Or was. She doesn’t seem sure where Henry is right now. But she backtracks and returns to how she tracked him down.

About five years ago, she used some computer fraud skills she picked up from one of her boyfriends. She hacked into the neural networks and found everything she could about Henry. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do with all of this information but she felt an overwhelming compulsion to try to get to know him. So far, her story was holding together nicely but didn’t help me one bit in finding Yacef. I decide to fight my urge to move things along and let her ramble a bit longer.

The rest comes out in little chunks which are a bit harder to make coherent. It’s also the part of the story that interests me the most. The connection I’ve been looking for to substantiate my hunch. Two years ago, the boy went on a field trip to London with his church group. Being a somewhat rebellious kid already, he wandered off on his own and met a man named Abu Bahrami. Bahrami was a nineteen-year-old of Iranian descent who was born in England. He was studying to be an electrical engineer but sounded every bit like a Jihadist from the description Emily gave of him.

“I’m cold” Emily says, stopping her story just as it’s getting worthwhile. “Stay focused and finish your story” I insist. She understands my words and once again faces the reality of her position. “Tell me more about Henry and this Iranian” I say.

“Nothing happened between them for a while but they kept emailing and stayed in touch,” she continues. I listen attentively. Not only to the information but for the wording and inflection of Karen/Emily’s voice. I cannot afford to be lied to. She goes on with the tale. Being that Henry is a teen-age boy, it seems he eventually turned to Bahrami for a way to get to his parents and to find some new answers. One thing lead to another and, at age fourteen, Henry ran away from his adoptive parents in Minneapolis. He did not run away to London, he ran away to New York. Specifically, Jackson Heights, New York, to stay with a man named Yacef.

As happy as I am that this connected back to Yacef, I am also very confused. I try to put the pieces together. Why would Henry go to New York instead of to London? He didn’t even know Yacef as far as Emily knew. Which raises another question. “How do you know all this?” I ask her. “How do you know about his communications and how do you know he went to stay with Yacef?”

“He told me himself when I finally had the courage to meet him face to face” she tells me. “What else did he say?” I ask. Emily’s expression turns somber. Not that it had been an expression of joy she was wearing but this was something new. “He thanked me and forgave me.” “Forgave you for what?” I ask. She seems to have trouble getting the answer out. When she does, she says it so softly I can hardly hear her. “He forgave me for being an unworthy whore.” She barely holds it together but stays strong and determined. Her mood shifts from sorrow to anger. “He’s still my son. I have to stop him from doing anything stupid. I owe him that much.” Her eyes are defiant. She has a fuck you if you try to stop me attitude toward me and everyone else. I have to say, I actually kind of admire it. The girl’s got some balls.

I listen to the rest of it. How she decided to go to New York to try to find Henry even after he told her in no uncertain terms never to see him again. How she used the name Karen instead of Emily to make sure Henry didn’t know she was still looking for him. How she got there too late and never found Henry or Yacef but was going to keep looking. And then it all stops. She seems to have no more answers to give me. No more words to say. I could keep pushing but I decide to take another course of action.

I dial Boston on the handheld. I watch her as I give all the key information to The Chief’s office. I get my answer from Boston almost immediately. The information checks out. I wonder why the hell they didn’t find all this stuff with Patriot on the first run. It was probably all there but buried under a trillion other bits of useless information. So much for state of the art data mining. Although The Chief is none to happy I have proceeded this far without clearance, he’s pleased that there is some progress being made. I have also been told that any decision I make regarding how to end the interrogation will be acceptable. If I kill Emily, he’s fine with it. It’s completely my call.

“How badly do you want to find your son?” I ask. She looks at me, totally confused. “How badly?” I ask again. “I would do anything” she answers. “Alright, good. This is what’s going to happen. I’m going to let you go and help you find him.” She thinks it’s a trick. “Why would you do that?” she asks. “Two reasons. One, your interests and mine are largely parallel.” “And the other?” she asks. “Using adults for your goals is bad enough. Using kids just pisses me off.” As clever a line as this would have been to just get what I needed, I actually meant it. Things are shitty enough in the world without bringing stupid fourteen-year-old kids into the mix. Karen is a little surprised at my reaction but senses that I am telling her the truth. She calms down and I cut her loose. I even tell her she is free to go if that’s what she really wants. It’s all up to her now what happens.

We walk back to her hotel in silence. We are both exhausted. Not only that, given our recent situation, it is more than a little awkward and tense. I tell Emily that I will come by tomorrow at ten to decide our next move. She returns to her room. I stay down in the lobby to get a room on the same floor as hers. I have to say, I like her choice of hotels. It’s quite a step up from that dump in Jackson Heights.

After I check in, I redial Boston. I ask them to alert me if Patriot picks up anything from Emily, tonight. I also ask them to do a Level 3 check on all the information she gave me during the interrogation. It’s expensive and time consuming but I need more than the usual confirmation and fact checking. Especially, given that so much seems to have slipped through the earlier checks. I hang up but still feel anxious.

I am way too wound up to sleep. I drink the gin, all of it, from the mini-bar. The vodka soon follows. It’s not going to help me sleep but it sure feels good. I’m exhausted, but exhausted in that horrible way that sleep is not an option unless a great deal of The Old Man’s pills are taken. I’d rather be tired and drunk than passed out under the influence of that old fuck.

Morning can’t come quickly enough. I spend all night fading in and out of sleep, not doing a real good job of either. I feel like shit. At five thirty, I just give up and down some coffee. I’m shocked. It’s real. Not the instant, chemical crap known as coffee. Real beans. I can’t imagine how much that’s gonna cost The Chief. The water consumption involved with growing coffee puts it in the ultra-luxury category. I’m actually pretty surprised this hotel even has it. It’s a nice place and all but I thought only the true high-end joints had real coffee beans like this.

About three cups in, I force myself to stop thinking about such trivial nonsense and to focus on the primary task. My brain is not working as effectively as I wish it were but I have a lot to figure out. I get the updates from Boston. No Patriot activity for Emily last night. No contact with anyone or transactions of any kind. I also get an update on the Level 3 verification. 87% complete and, so far, no unacceptable discrepancies.

I take a shower and then go for a long walk. Even at seven in the morning, the streets of New York are already crowded with people. I see cart after cart of household goods and food items being pushed down the streets to one of the markets. For those without cash card access, barter is the only way. Then again, even people with cash cards and plenty of credit still often went to the markets. Bargains can be found and the food is often some of the best there is. I look at my watch and decide I have just enough time to go. Hopefully, all the activity will jolt my brain into working a bit better.

I walk up to Bryant Park. It’s a trek but feels great. It’s already packed. I look at all the electronic gadgets for sale that nobody can afford to use anymore. The TVs, stereos and microwaves from a time when electricity was cheap and dependable. I pass a huge crowd at the water truck. The National Guard are their usual surly selves as they keep the crowd in line and eject anyone without the means of paying. And then the smells. The sweet, sweet smells of market food. Street pollo, dried fish, salted pork, roast dog, even real chicken. The selection and variety puts The Flats to shame. I spot a dosa stall and push my way into the line. I am already imagining how good it’s going to taste when the bomb goes off.

The explosion was close. There is smoke and dust everywhere. As I get my bearings, I see the carnage over by the water truck. I can make out the bodies of the dead and wounded. There are dozens of them. A few people run into the smoky mess to help. Most run as quickly as their feet will carry them in the other direction. I stand there for a second knowing what I need to do. Knowing that I need to walk away. Nothing can interfere with the assignment. Fuck it. I start to run toward the bomb scene.

Minutes later a second bomb goes off. I find myself lying on the ground, shaken and dazed. My ears are ringing and I can’t hear a damn thing. I am a bit banged up but otherwise seem to be fine. I look around and try to get my bearings. A thick white cloud of ash and debris hangs over everything. It slowly dissipates, revealing shadowy figures of the dead and the dying. The second bomb killed far more than the first. A National Guard unit pulls up in a truck and men jump out of it methodically. They quickly seal off the bomb site to make sure no more heroes get themselves killed today.

My full hearing comes back as I start back toward the hotel. I got off lucky and know it. I walk into the lobby and check the time. It’s only twenty after eight. I decide to take another shower before meeting Emily. I need to get the soot and ash off of my flesh.
The second shower feels even better than the first. I thank The Chief for once again having an ample bank account to pay for such things. I almost feel human. Twenty minutes later, I knock on Emily’s hotel room door. There’s no answer. I knock again. She finally opens the door. She looks as haggard and worn out as I would expect. Not only had the interrogation been an emotional ordeal, the adrenaline I had pumped her full of probably kept her awake all night.

She doesn’t say a word and lets me in. I shake off the memories of the market bombing and focus. “Did you try the coffee? It’s the real deal” I say. She looks at me with a disinterested gaze. “I guess you don’t like coffee, then.” She shakes her head silently. “How the hell can you do what you did? Put me through all that. And then come in here and make chit chat about coffee?” It’s a question I’m not really sure how to answer. I decide to just move on. “Fair enough. How about you tell me what you were planning to find your son?”

She doesn’t answer. Instead, she seems to have come up with her own list of questions. “Who the hell are you?” she asks. I answer with the obvious. “The person that’s going to help you find your son. Now, get over whatever it is your dealing with and help me find him. Have you been to see the boy’s adoptive parents, yet?” She shakes her head no. I am surprised and ask her why she hasn’t. She seems to get depressed even thinking about it. “I just don’t think they’ll help me.” I look at her. “Well, maybe they’ll help me. You have their address?”

The good news is she has it. The bad news is that the adoptive parents live in Minnesota. It is not an easy journey or a cheap one. I also wonder if Boston is going to back me on this new track. Not going after Yacef directly probably makes them very uncomfortable. Having Emily so involved probably makes them almost insane. But it is the best option available. I know it and they should know it. I hope.

I return to my room. After a brief but very tense call with The Chief, I get permission to go to Minneapolis and arrangements are made. I also have a typical, and typically unpleasant, remote monitoring session with The Old Man.

I return to Emily’s room. She has showered and is making some of the coffee. “I don’t suppose your people, whoever they are, would want to pay for all this?” I think about it a second. “Actually, they will.” She looks better than she did earlier. Much less hostile and more focused. Whatever mental gymnastics she did, she seems to have made peace with the events of last night and our new, symbiotic relationship. On top of that, it’s clear the girl cleans up nice. My usual, steroid induced, urges kick in. In spite of knowing better, I start to look at her in the terry cloth robe she’s got on and picturing what’s under it. Luckily, I have enough of a grip on things to make sure I don’t do anything about it. I get on with the plan and go over the itinerary for the next couple days.

Five hours later, Emily and I are sitting in a forty- year-old jumbo jet. The fatal incident rate on these jets is officially put at %3. The reality is it is probably double. Not bad odds, really. I’ll take a %94 chance of survival any day. The plane is as crowded and foul smelling as the subway. The only real difference is that you can’t get off at the next stop if you decide you can’t take it anymore. Well, that and the very well armed and prominent Air Marshals posted throughout the plane.

Emily falls asleep quickly. I guess the stress subsided and the adrenaline finally wore off. I notice how young she looks for her age. As far I can tell, it’s all natural too. No surgery. No drug treatments. The power of heredity and genes. I guess genes were the key to everything. No wonder The Old Man was so proud of me.

We finally land in Minneapolis. The sky is dark and the ground is covered in dingy-looking snow. I am relieved that my %94 worked for me. Emily stirs awake. She has been asleep the entire journey. She even has a mark on her face from where it was pressed against the seat.

“Are we there?” she asks. “We’ve landed, if that’s what you mean.” I notice the rest of the passengers shifting and fighting the urge to try to exit the plane before it even finds a gate. “I’m surprised I slept” Emily says. “I’m also really hungry.” “We’ll get something at the hotel” I respond. “Aren’t we going to see Henry’s parents?” she asks. “Not tonight, it’s too late. Besides, I want time to look over some background on them” I add. “Stuff your people got for you?” I don’t answer. For that matter, I’m annoyed she even asked. “We really shouldn’t be talking about this right now” I say. She can tell I’m irritated and stays quiet the rest of the time.

We get off the plane and make our way past the dripping ceiling of the terminal. We pass through Domestic Security and have no trouble with our false identification. Then we stand outside in the cold trying to hail a cab of some sort. We end up in what has to be the draftiest plug-in retrofit I have ever been in. The lightweight body and cracked plastic windows do next to nothing to keep the cold out. Emily shivers. I half-expect her to move closer to me just to stay warm. She doesn’t. In fact she moves as far away from me as she can possibly get. I am actually relieved. It would not be a good thing for either one of us to be mixing business with pleasure right now.

We pull up to one of the nicer hotels in the city. I tell myself it’s just good practice to mix up the type of place I stay in. Sometimes it’s dives, sometimes it’s places like this. Truth be told, I just like nice hotels. Who wouldn’t? Especially on somebody else’s dime. And I liked them even more when I had a beautiful woman to share the room with me. Not that Emily was to be that woman, on this occasion. She would be getting her own room again. But somebody out there, hopefully, would get to be my guest tonight. After all the work got done that needed to, of course.

Emily approves of where we are staying but is more concerned with eating than anything else. We agree to get something in the hotel restaurant together so we can talk a little more about Henry’s parents. Over a meal of over-cooked tofu and Thanksgiving style sides I learn that Emily already knows a lot about them. The couple, Mr. and Mrs. Hancock, adopted Henry and changed his name to Mathew. They, like most people in this part of the country, are extremely religious and have a track record of supporting the ultra-right wing party. Henry went to a private Christian school paid for with a government voucher and had good grades until he was about eleven. It was then that he seemed to rebel and his grades fell. Several minor disciplinary problems had also been noted in his file. “Do they know you and Henry talked?” I ask. “No. It was something he kept to himself. As much as Henry pretended to hate me, I think he still liked the idea that his mother was secretly around if he really needed her” she says.

The rest of the meal I ask her things to try to get a feel for the kid. What sort of kid is he? How smart is he? How desperate is he to give the big fuck you to his parents and to blow shit up? Although Emily has only seen her son once, face to face, she seems to feel she knows him quite well. A mother’s instinct, she keeps saying. I hope she’s right.

“How does this work?” she asks near the end of the meal. “How does what work, finding Henry?” She fixes her eyes on mine. I am surprised by the strength of her gaze. “No, this. You and me. What do you expect me to do?” she asks. I answer quickly. “Whatever I tell you to do.” Emily gets very quiet. I continue. “Do what you’re told and don’t screw up and this will all come out well. And I mean for all of us, you, me, your son, everyone.” I see her struggle with my words. She slowly nods. At least she’s trying to believe it even if she’s not quite there.

I spend the next few hours in my room going over all the information from Boston. The most intriguing thing is the information on Abu Bahrami, the man that seems to have recruited Henry. It appears he had become a very popular person in London. In fact, he had become the right hand man to a cleric named Fazullah. Fazulla was, and is, a well known radical who has been threatened with deportation and possible prison unless he tones down his rhetoric. The odd thing is that Bahrami hasn’t been seen in almost two years. He just disappeared from London without a trace. The FBI, Interpol, CIA and all the rest have since been trying to find him, to no avail. He’s either dead or up to something. All of which makes me both nervous and annoyed. You would think such obvious suspects would have been watched a little more carefully.

The information on the Hancocks seems only to confirm what I have already learned. They are the usual good Americans. They are regular church goers, voted right-wing, believe the government will protect them, consider most science blasphemy, the whole bit. In fact, the only dirt on them anyone could find is a questionable claim of excessive expenses on their tax returns. I guess even the devout like to cheat on their taxes.

I also spend some of my time trying to get more of a read on the kid. Henry seems like a normal teenager who got fed up with all the lies his parents were feeding him and decided to tell them to fuck off. There was just the right amount of dabbling with drugs and disciplinary problems to make me think he was just acting out in nice, normal and predictable ways. If he hadn’t gone on his church trip to London and met Bahrami, my guess is he would have come out of it all just fine.

And then there was the information on Emily. Volumes of it. Nothing like a Level 3 to dig up thousands of pages of useless shit on a person. I probably should have spent the entire remainder of my night combing through all that stuff but I had other things I need to take care of. I am not about to let this great king sized bed go to waste just sleeping in it tonight.

I have never been to Minneapolis before and make a total rookie mistake. I go to a bar downtown near the hotel. If I was looking for something soft and warm to console myself with, this isn’t going to be the place. It is nothing but a bunch of business types talking about how the currency unification scheme is going to destroy America. That and coming up with some bizarre argument that the Chinese are responsible for the water shortage and killing the agricultural business. I get out of there as fast as I can.

As luck would have it, I stumble across the University District. It isn’t exactly hopping but it is certainly a step up from the other part of town. At least I might find some nice, young eye candy to look at. The first bar I go into is some theme-park style Southern Place. Cheap beer, cheap food and loud, bad music from fifty years ago. At least it wasn’t that electronica shit that had become fashionable again. I order from a fine selection of crap beers and notice more than a few eyes on me. Most are kids wondering who The Old Man is in their playpen. A few are women, or more accurately, girls, sizing me up. For as much shit as I give The Old Man about making my life unbearable, whatever genetic manipulation he did to give me this in my life made me hate him a little less. It takes all of eight minutes before one of the girls comes over to the bar and stands right next to me.

One thing I have to hand it to Minneapolis for is the way their xenophobia helped them hang onto a nice Scandinavian heritage. I get to know a nineteen-year-old named Katie. Tall, blond, blue eyed, just lovely. I try to convince her to go back to my hotel with me. She resists but offers up a trip to her dorm room instead. I’m not thrilled with the idea but she is too beautiful to argue with. Forty minutes later, we’re having sex in her dorm room as her roommate pretends to be asleep.

Katie seems to have no problem with me leaving right away. She gives me her number and asks me to call her sometime. It’s an empty gesture on her part. As far as I know, she doesn’t even know my name. As I walk back, I wonder what Katie’s parents did to be able to send her to college. Only the rich and privileged can still afford it. The rest of the population had their choice of military service with a bit of education thrown in or just taking their chances. I’ll say one thing for Katie, I liked her youthful energy. She actually tired me out. So much so that, as soon as I hit the hotel bed, I’m asleep.

I wake up to the alarm four hours later. I feel like crap, as per usual. I hope against hope that they have real deal coffee like the NY joint. They don’t. All the same, the fake stuff works for me and I start to feel better after my third or fourth cup. A quick shower and I’m finally ready to deal with Emily and all the rest.

I find her in the hotel restaurant finishing her breakfast. That woman can eat. I sit down across from her. She looks pretty tired. Worse than me, actually. “Rough night, sleeping?” I ask. “I’m fine” she says. “Good, we’ve got at least a two hour journey out to Henry’s parents place” I say. “Adoptive parents” she corrects me.

As we get up to leave, I realize I probably should have rented transportation at the airport. I ask at the desk and find out there’s a rental place about twenty blocks down. No cars, of course. Just mopeds, and those ridiculous looking golf cart things. Neither will exactly give off the appearance of intimidation and authority I’m looking for. I thank the desk clerk and decide it will be easier to just steal a proper car.

Emily and I walk a few blocks down and find a small, white sedan parked by a scrap metal yard. The lock was still mechanical. Breaking in is easy enough. The problem, of course, is the GPS. There are still enough satellites that haven’t crashed to give it some spotty coverage. It takes a good four minutes before I can fritz out the damn tracking tag. Four minutes sitting in a car you’re trying to steal is not the most comfortable of feelings. Especially with a woman who seems totally panicked at the thought of being caught. I guess hacking from a computer was one thing and hands on crime, like this, another. Either way, it eventually gets done and we drive off.

Only fifteen minutes out of the city boundaries we start to see the giant crosses and “Praise the Lord” signs everywhere. These people love their God almost as much as they hate their foreigners. Even in the cold, the smells from the pork farms start to overwhelm us. Giant factories processing one of the few remaining types of livestock not devastated by disease. Sure you can still get a good steak or find real eggs, you just have to be able and willing to pay an awful lot for them. Pork is still affordable for what is left of the once Middle Class. As for the others, those that couldn’t even afford that, there’s always street pollo.

“I heard you come back last night. Pretty late wasn’t it?” Emily asks. I ignore her. “I didn’t think anything was open in this town that late. Were you meeting someone?” I am intrigued. She obviously feels pretty comfortable with me, given the situation, or she would not be so bold. It’s a feeling I want to encourage, at least for now. So, I decide to humor her. “I went out for a drink and met someone.” She smiles. “Business or pleasure?” It’s not the behavior I expect from her. “Pleasure. A lot of pleasure” I answer. “Good for you. Let me guess. She was about ten years younger than you and blond” I try not to grin. “More than that and yes she was?” Emily smiles. It’s the first time I have seen her smile since I saw her making nice with the landlord back in Queens. For a number of reasons, I’m hoping it’s not the last.

“You like being with women a lot, don’t you?” Emily asks. “I’m straight, if that’s what you mean” I answer. “It’s more than that, isn’t it? You like women a little beyond the way most men do.” I think about it a second, debate if I should cut off the conversation right here and now or keep going. Many times you can find out as much from the questions people ask you as you can from getting direct answers from them. Let’s see where this is headed. “I like women probably about as much as all guys like women. I’m just able to do something about it easier than most guys.” Emily seems amused. Very much so. “I say something funny?” I ask. Emily just keeps smiling and shakes her head. It’s then that I realize I just sounded like a total ass. I decide to shut up for a while.

We spend the remainder of the journey in silence. It’s only when we briefly hit an ice patch and the car skids a little that we both seem to awaken from ourselves. I apologize for the careless driving and we continue. The break in silence allows me to give her the rundown on my plan on how to get information about Henry.

We are going to present ourselves as FBI agents tracking down missing children. As anyone who remotely pays attention would know, the FBI does no such thing anymore and hasn’t for the last fifteen years. Whatever resources they have are used for counter-terrorism activities and that’s about it. All the same, desperate parents would probably believe what they wanted to believe and be grateful that someone was taking an interest in their missing child.

I tell Emily that she is not to let them know who she really is, no matter what. She is to remain completely quiet other than polite “yes” or “no” type responses if they ask her a question. No details. No questions from her. I also tell her to just watch and listen carefully. I want her to take mental notes about everything they say and if it jives with what she knows, or thinks she knows, about Henry. She seems to understand and takes the fake FBI ID I had prepared for her. “Are you really in the FBI?” she asks. I don’t bother to answer the question. “Just stick with the plan” I remind her.

We slowly make our way up a muddy drive and approach a beaten down old house that must be well over a hundred years old. A complete mess of satellite dishes and communications towers protrudes from the roof. Around it is nothing but dirty snow and empty fields. Complete isolation.

My knock on the door is answered by a woman who could have played the part of the kindly grandmother in any movie. Slightly chubby with a wide, wrinkled face, gray hair and glasses. Emily seems as shocked as I do that this elderly woman might be Henry’s guardian. But she is. This is Mrs. Hancock. I go through my little speech about being from the FBI and there to talk to her and her husband about Henry. As predicted, she buys it completely. People believe what they want to believe. It’s just human nature.

She lets us in. Given the part of the country we are in and the things we have seen on the drive out, I expect the place to be some tacky museum to all things religious. It’s not. Other than a small, simple cross on the kitchen wall, there is nothing religious in the house at all. It’s dusty and smells a bit like cat litter but is otherwise well kept and maintained.

The old woman, Jean, calls her husband to join us. He is the perfect match to her. Equally as sweet looking and kind enough in appearance to give The Old Man a run for his money. All of which serves me as a reminder that these sweet and harmless old folks could still turn out to be some of the most evil fuckers on the planet. We sit down on a sofa and sink into its worn out springs. I start my questions quickly. “I noticed when we drove up, you have all that communications gear on the roof. What’s all that for?” The old couple share a smile between themselves, an inside joke. Finally Jean answers.

“Hats.” I am confused. “I sell hats over the internet. We used to have satellite broadband but then the satellite crashed or something. So, now we use microwave service.” I buy it. Although I do wonder how many hats somebody can sell and make any money, given the cost of everything. “Would you like to see some?” the husband chimes in. It takes me a second to realize he is about to go into sales mode and try to sell Emily and I some hats. I cut him off politely and get into things regarding Henry.

The Hancocks confirm all the background we have already heard. Henry was a good kid who somehow fell into the wrong crowd and is now in trouble. The old woman seems really hurt even talking about it all. She obviously cares for her wayward son. Her husband, on the other hand, seems like he has already written the kid off. “Once the devil has a soul he’s not likely to give it back” he says. I try to fill in all the spots being glossed over in the Hancock’s story.

I can imagine how oppressive and dull life out here must be for a teenager. Thinking about the xenophobic hysteria and the “our way is the only way” angle on religion, I almost find myself admiring the kid. If he wanted to find a way to say the hell with it all, he found a damn good one. Blowing shit up with a bunch Jihadist nut jobs pretty much says it all.

Emily shivers. The inside of the house feels even colder than the outside. It’s not like the Hancocks could afford to heat the place or anything. “Would you like a blanket dear?” Mrs. Hancock asks. Emily declines. I see Mrs. Hancock check out Emily a little more carefully than I would like. I wonder is she sees some physical resemblance to Henry. From the photographs I had seen of him, there wasn’t one. But what did I know?

I ask to see Henry’s room. It looks completely normal. The only slightly rebellious thing in it is a poster of some trash metal band. Then I read the name of the group. “Savior.” Even the kid’s rebellion wasn’t a real rebellion. “Have you changed anything in his room since he went missing?” They shake their heads. Emily draws my attention to the cheap and clunky looking Indian made computer. The kind that has the fucked up hardrive that doesn’t come out easily. I ask if I can take it back with me to look for clues about Henry. Mr. Hancock objects until I tell him we will compensate him for it in full. A quick wire transfer and some more small talk later, and we’re leaving the house with the computer.

We wave goodbye to the Hancocks and drive off with the computer in the back seat. “They seemed nice” Emily says. “Yeah, Henry could have done a lot worse” I answer. “You mean like me?” Emily says. The question catches me off guard and irritates me. “No, I mean like the kind of parents that adopt only to pimp the kids out and make a buck.” Emily nods. She seems lost in her own thoughts as we start to head back to the city. The visit with the Hancocks has not been good for her.

I dump the car at a metro-rail stop. As inconvenient as it is compared to just driving all the way back, getting hassled about a stolen car is not on my “to do” list. We stand for over an hour on the freezing cold platform waiting for the rusting, creaking train to finally get to us. As we push our way in, I make sure nobody is stupid enough to think that the piece of junk computer under my arms is worth stealing.

It’s dark and snowing by the time we get back to the hotel. I tell Emily she’s on her own again for a few hours. I need to see what I can find on the kid’s hardrive. She seems as ready to be done for the day as I do. My lack of sleep is starting to catch up with me.
My mood doesn’t get any better as I start to go through the files on the computer. His emails had all been deleted. We could still get them but I was going to need more time and some assistance from Boston. I’m not thrilled with having to deal with The Chief and decide to keep going on my own to see what else I can find. It is amazingly boring.

Henry was into Christian rock, some game called “Night Stalkers” and so much mind numbing garbage it made me want to kill myself. He didn’t even have any porn. I hope he had some and just deleted it or hid it or something. A teenage guy, for that matter, any guy, who wasn’t into looking at some sort of pornography is not a healthy human. At least Henry had some pictures of some hot teen-age actress. Nothing revealing about them but it was something.

My eyes start to go blurry and my head starts to hurt after looking at all his rambling schoolwork. Essays with titles like “God and America” and “The Economic Threat from Africa.” From the look of the last one, he had done a fine job of parroting somebody else’s view on the foreign masses ready to storm the gates. I’ve had enough. I shut off the computer and go to the mini-bar. I am tempted to grab one of the pricy little bottles of gin but decided it will just make me feel more exhausted. I am also going to have to call Boston soon and let them know where I am on all of this. I’m dreading it. The mere thought of having to deal with The Chief and his constant lecturing and hammering makes my chest tighten with stress. I walk over to the mini-bar and grab the gin after all.

A few minutes later, I decide to get it over with and make the call. I get patched through to The Chief. The conversation is very short and concise. I am to take the computer to Boston for full analysis tomorrow.

I walk across the hall and knock on Emily’s door. I hear the TV on inside. She answers quickly. I tell her we need to take the computer back to Boston so it can be more thoroughly searched. She understands and seems quite disappointed that I didn’t already find anything useful. I decide to ask her more about some things I had brought up on the car ride back. She hadn’t really given me useful answers then. So, I’m not sure what made me think they would be any better now. All the same, I give it a shot.

“So, do you still think Henry ran away?” She seems perplexed. “Yes, of course. I told you the things he said to me. He ran away and fell in with that man in London.” I nod but just keep staring at her. If she’s holding back, I need to hear it. Emily starts to get really angry. “What is this? You don’t believe me anymore? Go fuck yourself!” It’s the angriest I’ve seen her. “I didn’t say that” I say. Emily is still pissed. “So, why the third degree then? Are you going to threaten me again now? What the fuck?!” Her anger looks real. I am relieved. I can’t afford to be lied to. If I’m wrong about her, this whole thing will go tits up and The Chief will respond accordingly.

I apologize. I lay out the next steps to her. “As much of a pain in the ass as it is to go to Boston, it’s probably a good thing. They have the resources there to find out everything Henry has ever done on that computer. More importantly, they can find out every single person he has ever come into contact with.” Emily seems to like the idea. Her anger is ebbing away. “What time do we have to leave?” She asks. “We have a nine o’ clock flight.” She gets up and tries to take control of the moment. “I need to try to get to sleep then” she says. I don’t argue the issue and leave.

I decide to just make an early night of it. I wake up the next morning pissed off at the world. Not an unusual state for me but this was bad. I really hated everyone and just wanted to be left the fuck alone. But no such luck, Boston beckoned. I was dreading all of it. The uncomfortable travel, The Chief’s sociopathic gaze and, most of all, The Old Man and his prodding, poking and manipulating. Once again visions of somehow escaping filled my thoughts. Once again, I came to the conclusion there was no escape and to just deal with it.

Emily and I barely talk during the plane ride. She spends most of the time sleeping. Eventually, we make it to Boston via some half-assed detour through Baltimore. I rent a car and drop Emily off at one of the hotels near Boylston. The kind of place with real coffee and unlimited water. “How long until you think they’ll find something?” she asks. “Not long. Give it a day or two and they’ll know everything Henry did on this thing.”

Emily then does something that completely throws me. She smiles. Not much but enough to make me feel things I shouldn’t be feeling and thinking things I shouldn’t be thinking. It’s bad enough just wanting to sleep with her. That’s something I can write off as a side-effect of the steroids and just being a guy. But anything more would be a complete disaster. I’m here to do a job, not to play Romeo and Juliet.

I drop the kid’s computer off that night to the lab. It’s a relief to be rid of the damn thing. The good news is that The Chief and The Old Man are willing to wait until the next day before they do their thing with me.

I try to get a good night’s sleep but it’s just not in the cards. I spend most of the night tossing and turning and trying not to think too hard about things. About Emily and how determined she is to find Henry. I want to save this kid but it’s only a matter of time before the order comes to drop it and move on. Henry means nothing to The Chief. As far as he’s concerned, if the kid is stupid and misguided enough to blow himself up in the name of Allah, so be it. Henry is just a means to an end. If he can’t lead us to the others quickly, The Chief really won’t see the point.

The next day at the lab is the same horror show it always is. The one thing that’s new is The Old Man’s concern over the stress and anger he is detecting. He asks gentle questions to figure out what, exactly, I am so angry about. The truth is, I’m not even sure. I just feel like I want to be left alone, right now. His queries aren’t exactly helping the situation either. But I know the drill. Answer semi-truthfully. Lies will get you caught. Misdirection and spin are the name of the game.

He lays it on thick. Wears an expression that makes him look as gentle as a pussycat. He asks question after question about Emily. How I feel after interrogating her the way I had. If the nausea and side-effects of the immunizations were taking more of a toll on me than he thought they would. It feels like it doesn’t ever end. Question after question after question. All monitored by the watchful eyes of The Old Man and a roomful of medical gear to watch brain patterns and stress levels in an effort to catch lies.

Finally, The Old Man is done. He ends our little session with yet another immunization booster. I wonder what disease he is so worried about me getting. I consider asking but know he would not tell me. I have to give answers, he doesn’t. For all I know, during one of my assignments I’ve already been infected with some horrible disease. Maybe they’re keeping me alive with all their boosters and adjustments and I’m just being an ungrateful bastard. It would be just like me.

I’m still in my foul mood when I have to meet with The Chief. He actually seems like he’s in good spirits. He probably just had his inter-agency rival killed or something fun like that. Then again, I’m not sure he even really has moods. Not anymore than a refrigerator would. The Chief gives me that look. The cold, lets get down to business look. I get an earful about continuing to work with Emily and bringing her back to Boston with me. I thought he had been OK with the idea. It seems I was wrong. As much as I explain that I consider her a valuable asset, The Chief doesn’t seem to want to hear it. He’ll let me handle things the way I want but warns me that Emily may be an asset who’s danger as a security threat may outweigh her usefulness.

Only after the lecture on Emily do I finally learn anything interesting. Tech Forensics has pulled an IP address from the kid’s hardrive. The emails seem to have been, very intentionally, destroyed. Not just deleted but wiped out. Something much harder to do than most people realize. But the addresses those emails were from have been reconstructed in the lab. One of them connected young Henry to a Saudi organization long suspected of supporting terrorists. This same organization, based in California, had tight political connections to Washington going back four generations. Those connections were only made tighter by the recent U.S. involvement in their country suppressing a revolt against the ruling family. A revolt that ended up with a whole lot of young Muslims dead and a whole lot more even more set on destroying America than they already were.

Anyway, it’s a good lead and good news. The Chief wants me to go out to Santa Monica and interview a man, named Farat, at the charity. He has been on the organization’s radar for years but there has never been a direct link to him before. Then again, the fact that Henry and Farat had contact isn’t exactly a smoking gun. My instructions are to go talk with him and assess the situation. Nothing more. At least not at this point. The political situation is too fragile for anything too drastic.

I leave happy to be out of there but already dreading the flight to Los Angeles. I am more than a little tired of all this nonstop traveling. I call Emily and tell her I will meet her at the hotel in an hour. I’m not even sure what Emily’s role will be out in California. Maybe The Chief is right and I should just cut her loose. But something in me keeps telling me she’s going to turn out to be the key to this whole thing. It’s an instinct contrary to current facts as I know them. However, it’s those very same instincts that have kept me alive and effective over the years. It’s also possible I simply like being around the girl. Rationalization can be a beautiful thing. Whatever. I decide not to worry about it.

I meet Emily in her hotel room. She looks good. She looks healthy and well rested. Better than I’ve seen her since New York, in fact. I give her just a small part of the information about Farat. I tell her, basically, he’s a man who might have connected Henry with some nasty people. Emily begins to look worried. She is, once again, imagining her son hurting himself and a whole lot of other people. “Don’t worry, we’ll find him and stop him” I say to try to reassure her. “Yeah, of course we will” she responds. She tries hard to believe her own words.

The trip out to L.A. is as horrible as I had predicted. Domestic Customs seems hellbent on being the biggest and slowest pain in the ass possible. The car rental is even worse but we eventually get ourselves a decent running diesel sedan. On our journey to Santa Monica from the airport we drive by the latest ruins. Remains of the recent race riots. Just another sign of starving dogs fighting over a rotten piece of meat. They are quite the site. Burnt out shells of places that people once called home.

Santa Monica, itself, is its usual rich man’s glory. Their own, very well armed, police department makes sure its pristine beauty remains untouched by grubby rioters’ hands. Emily has never been to the West Coast and seems to take to it immediately. The warm weather alone beats the constant chill of under-heated buildings along the East Coast. She also seems to think of the place filled with movie stars she might run into any second. It isn’t, of course.

These days, the film folks rarely ventured past their high-perimeter fences other than to do their jobs and to make a few million. It was simply too dangerous for them. What few once did venture out had pretty much stopped doing so since young and lovely starlet, Joanna, got caught in a suicide bombing. She survived just fine but the damage done to her face made her completely unsuitable for the pretty girl roles that made her career. And, Lord knows, the girl wasn’t exactly talented enough to pull off a straight dramatic role. I can’t bring myself to tell Emily any of this, of course. I let her hold on to her Hollywood myths and to dream of days long past. My guess is she’s going to need every diversion she can find after we talk with Farat.

We pull into a bland, unassuming hotel around eleven. I’m actually looking forward to an early night, alone, in bed. I should have known just wanting such a thing was going to ensure it didn’t happen. Minutes after I get into my room, Emily knocks on my door. “Hey, I know it’s like two in the morning for us, East Coast time, but I can’t sleep. I’m thinking of taking a walk by the beach. Do you think it’s safe?” she asks. I should probably tell her it’s not and send her back to her room but I don’t. “Yes, it’s safe, just bring your ID because Santa Monica PD will be out there and asking for it.” She seems to like my answer. “So, you want to come with me?” I actually consider it for a second. A moonlit walk with Emily on the beach. Now, there’s a bad idea. “No, I need to sleep.” And with that, she’s off to explore the beach on her own.

The next morning I wake up feeling better and more well rested than I have in weeks. A message on my handheld confirms our appointment with Farat and his charity. Boston had arranged the cover story and false trail we needed to spark his interest. Emily and I are pretending to be hired hands sent to scope out the charity. We are here, in theory, to see if Farat’s organization is worthy of a very, very large donation from an unnamed patron. Of course, Boston had also made sure some clumsy clues were planted leading back to a wealthy water baron as our false employer. I have already mentally planned every line I am going to say and how I am going to speak with Farat. There is only going to be one shot at this and I have to be absolutely sure I am right about Farat, one way or the other.

The appointment to see him isn’t until late afternoon which gives Emily and I plenty of time to explore Santa Monica. It turns out she cut her beach walk short last night after realizing how uncomfortable the heavy police presence made her. She was used to seeing police and National Guard everywhere but somehow seeing an armored car patrolling pristine beaches was too much for her to deal with. She still seems relaxed and relatively happy, however. We walk through the market and down toward the beach. She wants to see the pier. Even though it had long ago been closed as a security hazard it was still there to look at. Another ancient monument to gaze upon with wonder.

We walk through a couple of check points and down to the beach. We both stare out at the large wind farm off the shore. My own attention is diverted to the military patrols around it on their speed boats. As inefficient as wind farms are, they still seem to attract sabotage like bees to honey. Emily seems to only focus on the waves and the sun. She likes it here, in spite of it feeling like a prison camp with us as the overly-monitored prisoners. “Thank you,” she says. I can’t handle the kindness in her voice. I can’t afford to slip up right now and need to put some distance between us. “I didn’t bring you here for vacation. We’re here to do something.” She looks at me, almost amused. “That’s actually what I meant. What I was thanking you for. All the effort you’re putting into finding Henry.” “Just don’t screw up this afternoon,” I warn. She seem genuinely hurt by the harshness of my response.

I know asking is pointless but I really am curious about something. It’s a bad question to ask and a bad thought to plant in her mind but I really need to know. So, I just come out with it. “Why do you care?” She looks at me, confused by the question. “About Henry. You hardly know him and the kid told you to fuck off when you finally met. Why bother?” Emily looks at me like I asked what planet we were on. “He’s my son.” I still don’t really understand, which Emily must have sensed. She continues to explain. “Men don’t get it. I mean there’s no way they could I guess.” I wait for her to continue. “The moment a woman is pregnant something changes in her. This bizarre wave of love and attachment that comes over a pregnant woman is something men will never, ever understand in a million years. And the thing is, it will never leave me. Henry will always be part of me.” I decide she’s probably right about me not getting it and leave it alone. I nod in agreement with her words even though they make no sense to me.

The rest of the day goes by without me initiating anymore awkward conversations. Soon, it is time to do what we came here for. It’s time to meet Farat. We arrive twenty minutes early at his office. It’s in a tall black glass building right on Wilshire. After a prolonged and thorough security check, we are allowed up to the main floor. The ocean view out of the thirty-fourth floor office is spectacular. Even the wind turbine farm looks small from up here. It’s only the tiny wisps of smoke out the other window that reminds us that it’s not just a quiet and peaceful day. Something is burning down in Compton. Could be riots. Could be a bomb. Could be the end of the damn world for all I know.

The receptionist, young, tan and well spoken, comes to get us just a few minutes after we arrive. She leads us down a long white hallway with tacky gold leaf trim. Not that I notice so much, preferring to focus on the form of the rather attractive young girl walking in front of us. I see Emily see me looking at the other girl. She in not jealous so much as entertained by my apparently quite obvious and predictable behavior.

Our fine young guide opens one of two large glass doors and holds it open for us. “Mr. Farat will be with you shortly,” she says. I make sure to thank her and get a read on her interest. Seems like I might have some company soon. But I return to the activity we are here for. It turns out we have just been lead from one waiting room to another. Just as I start to get depressed that this is going to be an all day affair, a tiny little man pops out of the door at the end of the room. “Hello, I am Nizair Farat. Welcome.” He extends a warm hand and a practiced smile. I go through the usual small talk banter and introduce myself and Emily. If Farat suspects anything, he’s certainly not showing it. He guides us through yet another set of doors into his office. He closes them and sits behind a minimalist, glass desk.

Contemporary art lines the walls. Some of it is worth millions. I see my first opening. “As you know, Miss Miller and I represent an individual who believes very strongly in your mission. But before I even continue with that, I have to ask about the art.” I wait to see what he does with this. He just keeps smiling. “So, you appreciate fine art. I am so glad. The one behind you is an original…” I cut him off. “Shouldn’t the money spent on all this great art be going to other places?” I probe. He doesn’t flinch in the least. “I whole heartedly agree that there are many causes which could use the money. Unfortunately, the art is not ours to sell. It is on loan from another of our donors.” I wait for the rest. “But I appreciate your concern and your direct manner. Maybe you have other concerns you would like to put to rest as well? Please…” I shift in my chair. Decide it’s too early to hit him with the big question. “I guess I would just like to hear, in more detail, what happens to donor’s money once it is handed over to you.” His smile never falters. “Of course.”

We then sit through a very dull and fictional account of all the good things our money, or more correctly, our mythical bosses money, will do. Things like education programs, hospitals, sewer systems and so on. He conveniently forgets to mention the terrorist training camps, the weapons, the bribes to get their operatives into the United States and all the rest. He’s so enthusiastic at telling his version of things, I begin to wonder if he actually believes it. I guess in his world blowing civilians up and helping kids get an “A” on a math test are all part of the same struggle.

I finally decide enough is enough of his over-polished bullshit. I make sure Emily is paying attention. She is. Seconds before I cut him off, Farat stops his spiel. “So, does this sound like a worthy cause for your employer?” He sits and waits. I let him wait. See if he’ll fill the silence. He doesn’t.

“Tell me about a kid named Hancock” I demand. His expression is unmoved. Unmoved except for one brief millisecond of surprise followed by contempt. I wonder if Emily saw the same thing. “I beg your pardon. Who is this child named Hancock? I do not believe I know him.” Emily chimes in, right on cue. “He’s my son. And you people recruited him and plan to use him for things no teenage boy should be involved in.” Farat seems calm as ever. We could be talking about the weather from the look of him. “I’m sorry. It appears there’s been a mistake. I’m not aware of any teen-age boy named Hancock and I can assure you our organization has nothing to do with the type of activities you are implying.” I already have what I need. As difficult as it is going to be, I know the next move.

“Emily, I believe him. I think we’ve made a mistake,” I say. Emily looks at me. For a second I think she’s going to blow it. “Emily, he’s not the one. He can’t help us.” She starts to look very sad. If she’s acting, she’s damn good at it. She doesn’t know exactly what I’m doing or what I am planning. She just knows she needs to always listen for my cues and go with them. She needs to trust me. And she does.

I apologize profusely for wasting Mr. Farat’s time. I explain how desperate Emily has been to find her son and how much we regret accusing him and his, clearly worthy, philanthropic organization. He very calmly says he understands and that no offense was taken. He even offers to have his driver take us back to the hotel. We politely decline, apologize once again, and leave. The wheels are already turning in my head about the difficulty in pulling off what’s next. We are on record, including video, speaking with Farat. We will almost certainly be questioned if anything happens to him. It’s a risk I will have to take.

Emily is confused and asks me to explain what’s going on. She doesn’t understand why I cut our meeting with Farat short and just left. She knows he is lying about Henry. She can feel it as strongly as I can. Based on that assumption alone, Farat is in for a very rough time in the near future. I just tell Emily that she did well and that the next part of things won’t involve her. She asks what I plan on doing and I tell her it’s best if she doesn’t know. The answer bothers her, to say the least. All the same, she knows that she has no choice but to live with it. “He can still help us” I reassure her. “Just give me a little time to make it happen.”

I leave Emily on the Promenade and walk back to the hotel. I am unpleasantly surprised by another wave of nausea washing over me. It had been a while and I had hoped these little waves had gone away forever. By the time I get back into my room I am sweating and just hoping I make it to the bathroom in time. I do and spew barf and bile into the basin. Not that I’m keen on studying it too long but from the looks of it, my vomit has some blood in it. I so don’t need this right now. I lie down and try to figure out whether I’m going to tell The Old Man or not. I decide to see if my condition gets worse. If it does, then I’ll tell him. If it stays the same or goes away, it will have to wait until all this is over and I get back to Boston.

I need to call The Chief but instead I fall into a deep, solid sleep. I wake up wondering how many hours have passed. Look at the clock. It’s only been fifteen minutes. The little nap has made me feel much better. Not great. But better. I drink some water and take a quick shower. I need to look good and be on my game when I talk to The Chief.

Just as I’m about to call him, Emily knocks on my door. I answer wearing sweats and a t-shirt. Emily looks me up and down. “You took another shower?” she asks. “Long story” I say and try to move on quickly. “I still need to make a call. Can I meet you in the downstairs bar in about an hour?” She looks me over again. It’s hard to tell what she is thinking. Nothing registers. “Sure” she says and leaves me to my unpleasantness.

I make my call to Boston. The Chief does not react as I hope when I tell him my plan. Based on my read of Farat lying, I plan to kidnap him and interrogate him properly. The Chief, in his infinite wisdom, reminds me of the political turmoil such action will cause in both Washington and Riyadh. “That’s only if I get caught” I say. “So, you expect me to authorize the kidnapping, interrogation and disposal of an extremely well connected suspect based on your gut feeling?” The Chief asks, cruelly. Put like that, the whole thing does sound a bit dicey. However, I have to admit, it was a pretty accurate summary of what I was proposing. “Yes” is the only answer I have for him.

The Chief is still not convinced. He reminds me that anything other than the complete success of my plan will result in incredible exposure for the whole organization. A scenario which, it is implied, rather than overtly stated, would result in every possible loose end being wrapped up. Loose ends like Emily and I. I tell him I understand and still think it’s worth proceeding with my plan.

His one last objection is the one that worries me the most. “Even if you find this teen-ager, you have yet to prove any connection with Yacef other than the word of this woman who claims to be looking for her son. Even with full cooperation from Farat, the trail could lead nowhere useful.” I tell him I agree but don’t currently see any better options. We need to see where all this goes. The Chief finally gives me his ok. I hang up feeling more nervous than ever. As great as it was winning the argument, now I have to pull this thing off. One bit of bad luck and this is all going to end very, very badly.

I go downstairs to meet Emily in the cookie-cutter hotel bar. She’s being chatted up by some jackass wearing sunglasses on his head. I stand and watch for a second. I can’t hear what Emily says but the next thing I know the asshole’s expression changes and he’s walking away in a huff. I walk up and sit next to her. “What was that all about?” I ask. “What? That jerk?” “Yeah” I prompt. “Nothing. I just told him I wasn’t interested.” I consider pressing for details but decide better of it.

We eat dinner in the hotel restaurant and chat over some sort of faux-Flounder. I tell Emily she’s going to be on her own for a few days. I’m going to check out and stay somewhere else while I prepare for this thing with Farat. She seems concerned. “You’re not just going to take off and not come back, are you?” she asks. “No, I just need some preparation time and this isn’t the best location for that” In spite of the fact that this is the truth, Emily doesn’t seem to believe me.

We don’t discuss anything of importance after that. We talk casually about life in California, movie stars and the weather. It’s only after she gets a little tipsy from all the wine she has been drinking that things get tricky again. “So, what about you?” she asks. I answer quickly. “What about me?” Her words come out as she stares down at the table. “You know everything about me. Questioned me about the most personal, intimate, private things in my life. Don’t you think it’s only fair you tell me something about you?” She finally looks up. Sees if I’m going to answer.

“What do you want to know?” I ask. “Anything. How about your parents? Let me guess, you grew up in a large family with a great stay home mom, who used to have freshly baked cookies for you when you got home from school.” I answer slowly. “Not exactly.” I consider telling her about the special boarding schools I was raised in. They weren’t exactly warm and cuddly and parents weren’t really a part of the equation. As much as I want to, I know I can’t. I brush her off and move on. “You want some more wine?”

I don’t tell her anything she’s after and she soon gives up trying. She then contents herself with stories of movie stars and gossip. All the while, she keeps drinking. Two more glasses on top of the two she’s already had. I probably should have stopped her. “I know you have all the cards” she says out of nowhere. “You have thee card.” “And what’s that?” I ask. “Henry. I know you don’t get it and will never understand, but I will do anything, and I mean anything, it takes to save him from those people.” From the look in her eyes it’s clear what she means.

Sleeping with Emily will screw up this whole thing. Especially, if it’s part of some deal she’s trying to make with me. But, much more importantly, it will screw me up. I don’t know what about it is different but it just is. It would be a mistake. A huge mistake. And I am tempted as hell to do it anyway. Something she must have picked up on.

“I already told you I would find Henry” I say. The words seem to mean nothing to her. She stands up and walks over to me. She takes out her two keycards and plants a warm and lovely kiss on me. I should have turned away. I didn’t. I have to say, it’s a mighty fine kiss. The kind of thing that makes my whole body stir in all sorts of good ways. “See you in a few minutes” she says. She leaves me with one of her keycards and starts off toward the elevator.

I sit there knowing all the right answers. The whys and wherefores. The do’s and don’ts. The consequences of all the choices that could be made. Of the choice that every chemical reaction in brain is driving me to make. Sleeping with Emily would be a bad idea. Sleeping with her feeling as out of control as I do right now would be a disaster. It would also be damn fun.

I pay the check and head upstairs. By the time I reach her door I have images in my head of how great this is going to be and what it will be like. Her and I together. Right here. Right now. Yes, it’s a mistake. Probably a pretty terrible one. But I don’t care.

And then the elevator opens. A young couple steps out. Both are dressed to the nines. The girl, twenty-three at best, is wearing a red dress and matching heels. Her young, long legs being highlighted in just the right way. Her child-like boyfriend gives me a pathetic, jealous look and holds her closer against him. It doesn’t stop the girl from looking my way. Finally, they pass by. There are plenty of women who can give me what I need, physically. Emily does not need to be one of them. I put the keycard back into my pocket and walk back toward the elevator. It’s time to go out and find myself a version of Little Miss Red Dress for the evening. Two hours later I do.

I leave my playmate bright and early the next morning. I have things to take care of. I return to my room at the hotel and gather my things to leave. As for Emily and her behavior last night, I don’t have the energy to even deal with her right now. I write her a note telling her to just sit tight for a few days and slide it under her door.

In many ways, it would have made more sense to just stick at the hotel where I was and work from there. But Emily is a problem. She is distracting and I can’t afford to let her see or know any more than I already have. All of which makes the inconvenience and additional complications of having to book another place seem worth it. The situation also makes me really think about the pros and cons of bringing Emily out here. Maybe The Chief was right and it’s time to just cut her loose.

The annoyingly intrusive clerk is not enough to distract me as I check into yet another hotel using, yet another, false name. The views of the ocean are pretty damn impressive from my room. So are my chances of dying if the building gets bombed or a fire breaks out. But that is the least of my worries. What I am about to do could set off an international shitstorm. Not could. Would. The key is going to be directing said shitstorm away from me and toward someone else.

I start to research some files from Boston on groups with deep penetration into the U.S. The PRP are, as always, perfect. They are total nut jobs and sworn enemies of the Saudis. In fact, they consider the Saudis betrayers of the faith. More importantly, they are connected to something, or should I say someone, right here in Los Angeles. My fall guy. He doesn’t know it yet, but a lone wolf named Christos Garan is about to kidnap a prominent Saudi named Farat.

The surveillance part of the operation is incredibly dull. Since Farat and many other people at his office have seen me, I have to keep my distance and make sure I’m not spotted. Surveillance is hard enough when you’ve managed to blend into the scenery. Doing it like this was all electronic, hi-tech bullshit.

Breaking into the city’s web of security cameras is easy enough. I am able to track Farat whenever he sets foot in a public space or is driven by his armed chauffer on a city street. Although they are all tapped, Farat’s private cell phone is the only phone line I really listen to. Luckily, I know Arabic from a previous assignment.

Up until very recently, The Chief seemed to make a point of sending me to as many far flung parts of the globe as he could. China, the Middle East, Europe, Japan, I had been to them all courtesy of Boston. I can’t say I missed it. International travel is fun for only so long, if ever. All the same, I am thankful for the language skills as I listen to Farat drone on. It turns out he is not the rich playboy I hoped he was. No drugs. No long nights at dance clubs. In fact, he is a very dull and serious man. The true shock is he actually seems to be faithful to his wife. If I didn’t know this man was responsible for so much human slaughter, I’d think he was one upright citizen.

I start to work out the details of my plan. Farat has a wife and three kids. If I was following the M.O. of the PRP, taking him at his home meant I would have to kill them all. Not really my thing. For that matter, it’s also more likely to cause complication and make the job even harder.

What I finally decide to do is unbelievably basic and primitive. Something that will feel like it was done by Garan and not anybody with half a brain. I’m just going to grab Farat in front of his office. The only switch off point nearby is a fairly busy parking structure usually filled with mopeds and mini-bikes. I’m going to need some serious luck to make it in and out of there alright. The rest of it I am far more confident of. Crude as it may be, it will all have to do.

A couple hours later, I find a remote location just outside the Santa Monica Zone for the staging location. After some more unexpected delays getting the flag I need, I prep the room. Lights are set, the flag is hung. A perfect terrorist propaganda theater set. Everything is prepped and ready for the next day. Three days since I left Emily and I am all ready to go. Maybe that woman was slowing me down more than I realized.

That night I don’t drink and I don’t bother to find a woman to share my bed with. I just take it easy and watch crappy television. Much to my surprise, I fall asleep quickly and easily.

I wake up the next morning anxious to get on with the job. I check out of the hotel and make my final preparations. I place a call to Boston and let them know it’s still on. They don’t bother to threaten me again or remind me of the risks involved. They don’t have to. If I get this wrong, we’re all up shit’s creek.

It’s finally time to do my thing. I park my recently stolen car along Farat’s route to work. And wait. And wait. And wait some more. Finally, I see his black Mercedes ready to pull up. I put a hood over my head and start up my own piece of shit car. His car pulls up and stops right in front of the door to his office. There are four guards inside, a driver and a bodyguard I will have to deal with.

I pull about ten feet behind the Mercedes. Farat and his bodyguard get out. So do I. I take out the driver first with a single armor piecing shot through the glass. The bodyguard then turns and pulls his weapon. Aim. Fire. Done. I charge at Farat as he still tries to make sense out of everything. His confusion finally fades and he turns to run toward the safety of the office building. Too late. I grab him before he can get anywhere. I tell him in Arabic to shut the fuck up and come with me or he’s dead. He buys it and moves where I guide him.

I push him into my stolen car and yell at him to drive or be shot. I pray the records I have on him are correct and the asshole really knows how to drive. He does and overcomes his panic enough to drive us out of there. He even speeds up without much of a fuss when ordered. We leave the building just as the four guards inside get their act together and start charging out. Thank god they were as slow and unprofessional as I had counted on. If those four had come out as quickly should have, this could have been a very crappy morning.

I can’t believe it worked. So basic and so simple. The kidnapping style of a complete amateur. We had cleared the building and were on our way. Farat was doing just fine following my orders. Luckily for both of us, he kept his head on straight and did just what I needed him to do.

I order Farat into the garage. We park by the other vehicle I had parked there earlier. Farat is frightened and docile and does not resist as I order him into the trunk. Keeping in Saudi insurgent mode, I smash him in the face with my gun to put him out. I can’t exactly take the chance he’ll kick or scream and be heard from the trunk. Done and done. Maybe these amateur types are onto something. Keep it direct and simple and screw all the covert games and systematic methodologies.

I am relieved to drive out of the garage like a totally normal citizen. It will take them a while to find all the video and put it together. By then, it won’t be very helpful to them. The automated pay booth takes my fake cash card and lets me through. Now, the only tricky part is going to be the check point. If they search my trunk, obviously, I have a problem. Luckily for me, the guards at the exit of the Santa Monica Central Zone checkpoint seem bored and not particularly alert.

I am perfectly calm as I talk to them. If the Saudis have already been able to connect to Santa Monica PD, it won’t matter. They will be looking for a kidnapper and searching every trunk. Hopefully, the communications scrambler I threw at their system will have bought me a few minutes. A bit of confusion thrown into a group of people already freaking the fuck out usually goes a long way toward buying some more time.

Both the charm and the scrambler apparently work. I get waved on and begin my drive to the primary location. It’s only about ten minutes even on crappy, crumbling roads but it’s ten minutes of being a sitting duck. With the alert sure to be out any second and Farat in my trunk, I can’t get to the primary location quickly enough. My luck seems to hold. I finally arrive at the interrogation site.

The fact that I’m alone and not part of a three or four man cell means the authorities tracking me are going to be really confused. They are all going to be at each other’s throats, regardless. Who’s in charge of this whole thing will be a topic of much political wrangling and argument. They will also spend a lot of time trying to figure out if I am really part of the terrorist group I claim to be. To make sure that I add some spice to the debate, I photograph the still passed out and bloody Farat in front of the PRP flag and other props that I have set up. I send the photo and a pre-recorded audio address to media outlets around the world. Most importantly of all, I make sure the information can be electronically tracked.

By altering some of the transmission readings, my misguided American, Garan, is going to be seen as responsible for this whole thing. Boston has him on record as being guilty of nothing more than being loud and stupid about his hatred for America. That and, conveniently, having some loose ties with the PRP. He is also just dumb enough to want to take credit for this whole thing. I hope so, it will slow down the investigation even further. Either way, it should be enough to keep things confused until my job with Farat gets done.

Finally, after all of this silly charade, I get to the real work. It’s been over an hour since I took Farat. I lay out the vials of liquid and the syringes. I then take a deep breath and relax. I’m still trying to come down from the rush of the day’s activities. What I am about to do next has to be cool and methodical. This, in spite of my new found affection for the nice and direct amateur style. It is time to get what I came for and I need to do it quickly. Farat is not in for a good time.

Just like Emily before, I tie him to a chair and pump him full of adrenalin. Farat startles awake as it kicks in. He bolts up confused and agitated. I give him a moment to figure out what’s happening to him. He does. He doesn’t ask questions or talk. He just waits. It’s show time.

I fill the syringe with DP-20 in front of Farat. “This drug was developed by my colleagues for one simple purpose. To create pain.” Farat starts to tense. “The thing is, I can’t have you in constant pain because I need you coherent enough and not so busy screaming you can still answer my questions.” Farat stirs in his chair. “This drug does two things very well, and very predictably, that make it ideal for this sort of situation.” Thankfully, my words are being heard. “One, it creates a chemical reaction in human blood which makes the blood itself pain inducing. I’m told it feels like you are being burned alive from the inside.”

I start to walk toward Farat with the syringe in my hand. “Two, it works in waves of increasing pain and increasing duration. As miserable as the first wave is, it is followed by a short break which will allow you to give me the answers I need. Then a second wave occurs even more painful and for an even longer period of time, followed by another break. It’s all very systematic and efficient.”

I reach over to his arm and yank up his sleeve. Farat tries to rock in his chair and resist. The chair is nailed down so I have no fear of him falling over. “Oh, and there is no antidote. No way to reverse the drug. Once you’re injected the best you can hope for is I’ll kill you before the three days, on average, it would take the drug to.” I bend down real close to him. Get into his face. “You have one chance to spare yourself and one chance only. Tell me about a man named Bahrami.” Farat clenches his jaw. He is going to try to hold out.

I am not surprised. At this point, I am not even annoyed. I am where I should be mentally and emotionally to achieve the necessary results. I don’t feel anything. It’s as if I am an observer watching myself on screen. Watching this person that is not me do things to another human being that should never be done. I take hold of Farat’s arm and jab the needle into it. The DP-20 flows into his bloodstream.

I walk away and lay down the empty syringe. I grab the ball gag, a souvenir from an underground S&M store, and place it into his mouth. I doubt anyone will hear him when he screams but I don’t want to listen to it. He starts to sweat as the drug begins to take affect. I lean against the wall and I wait.

There it is. Right on schedule. Farat starts to spasm and thrash as his own blood starts to boil inside of him. There is nothing he can do now but endure the incredible pain his own body is causing him. Well, that and cooperate so I can end all this for us both.

Whoever the sick fuck in Boston was who came up with this stuff, I have to give them credit. I’m sure The Old Man had a lot to do with it. It was precise and effective every single time. The intensity of the pain and duration had been tuned to perfection based on massive amounts of data acquired from past interrogations. As Farat thrashed and kicked I wondered about the poor bastards they tested the stuff on to collect the test information. My guess is that some of them probably wouldn’t have been given such harsh treatment unless more data needed to be collected. Anything for the cause.

The first thirty second wave comes to an end. Farat collapses in his chair. I walk over and remove the gag. “You have fifteen minutes to answer my questions before the next wave of pain hits. What did Bahrami recruit Henry Hancock for?” Farat shakes his head and starts muttering in Arabic. “No. No. No. No.” I can’t figure out if he means no more torture or no he’s not going to talk. It will become clear soon enough. “Tell me about Yacef. What is he preparing?” Farat still doesn’t give me anything.

I had argued with the team that created this stuff that fifteen minutes was way too long a break. They insisted it was perfect as most suspects cracked after their very first experience with the pain induction caused by DP-20. The fifteen minutes was just long enough to get the key questions you needed answered. Of course, if you had more, you had to put the suspect through another wave of pain and wait for the next break. Kind of unfair if the suspect was already cooperating but nobody told these assholes to become terrorists in the first place. They deserved no more pity than what they showed to those murdered by their bombs.

Farat starts muttering religious phrases to himself. “You pray away. It won’t help. I’m going out to get some air.” I put the gag back in his mouth. Then I walk out of the factory and stand by the edge of the door. I see helicopters massing over The Santa Monica Zone. The search for Farat has begun. I try to focus on the sky and not think too much about what’s happening to Farat as I hear him thrash around again, inside.

I walk back in as Farat’s body convulses with an involuntary twitch and then goes still. How much he must want me to just kill him now and end all this. I pull off the gag. He’s already had enough. “The tower. In Chicago. Baharmi is going to blow it up,” he confesses. “Which tower?” I demand. “The tall one. Independence Tower.” “When?” He shrugs. “Soon. But I don’t know.” “Chicago not London?” “Chicago,” Farat insists. Terrorists had had a hard-on for the Independence Tower since the turn of the Millennium when it was still known as the Sears tower. Chicago had since turned to one giant race riot but the tower still remained a pretty noticeable symbol. The giant crucifix made with its interior lights every night had become one of America’s most prominent icons. Exactly how Bahrami planned to get through the rings of security to get to it I had to hear.

“How are they going to get through security?” I ask. “The boys. They are young and American. Church boys.” And there was the Henry connection. Sadly, he was right. Good, God fearing white kids still had plenty of access to the tower and could probably get close enough to it to do some real damage. “When?” Farat shakes his head. “I do not know. Soon.” “Soon doesn’t help me. A day? A week? A month? I need a time,” I counter. He keeps shaking his head. “I do not know.” “Then tell me where they are.” I say. Farat shakes his head again. “Well, I suggest you think pretty hard about where and when because in just a couple of minutes you’re going back to hell. Understand me?” “No. No. Please. No…” he starts to whimper. I put the gag back into his mouth and walk away.

I return to the doorway and think through what he has told me. I decide to use the time to contact The Chief. I tell him the interrogation is in process and the target is the Independence Tower in Chicago. He tells me to obtain more details and is not pleased when I tell him I’m not sure Farat has all of them to tell me.

I walk back in and see Farat thrash around in agony. I’m surprised more people given the stuff don’t have their hearts give out. Well, I guess that’s pretty much what does eventually happen but not for three days or so. How can the human body endure pain like that? I just hope my own end is something more pleasant like being hit by a bus. Having your blood burn you up from the inside does not sound like a good time in the least.

My talk with Farat resumes. “Where and when?” I demand. Farat shakes his head. “Where and when!!” I yell. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.” He begins crying. “Just tell me and all this can end. Where can I find Bahrami and Henry Hancock?” “I’ve told you all I know. Please. No more. Please…” He is a total puddle of mush. Completely broken already.

I walk back over to the table with my tools laid out on it. I grab another syringe and another vile. Farat’s eyes fill with terror. “No. Please. No.” “Oh, this one you want. All I have to do to make sure your agony lasts for days and gets worse and worse is to stand here and do nothing. You give me nothing. I do nothing. Other than just watch and wait as the drug keeps working on you.” Farat is starting to get confused. “I told you, once the drug is injected it can’t be stopped. It gets progressively worse and will last for days. Do you really want to keep going through all this for three days or more? Farat shakes his head furiously. “Then tell me what I need to know.”

He just cries and starts muttering. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.” He starts babbling and muttering incoherently. “You have about two minutes before the next wave hits. Tell me something interesting.” He keeps shaking his head. “If you do, I will inject you with this.” That gets his attention. I hold up the syringe I just filled. “It will put you into a deep sleep the way we put dogs to sleep. You will be asleep and no longer feel the pain. You can finally rest.” I see the hope in his eyes. It’s amazing how much men will crave death given some alternatives.

“There’s a house. A house where they met once.” Farat starts to explain in Arabic to me. “Where?” I ask, still using his own language. “It’s by…” He suddenly screams as the next wave hits. His cries of agony don’t even sound human and send a chill down my spine. I rush over and try to get the gag in his mouth. His head is thrashing all over the place. I grab him roughly as he continues his inhuman shrieks. I’m worried I’m going to snap his neck accidentally but I finally get the gag back in.

I wait for it to end. Not as much as he does, I’m sure. When it finally does, I give him a drink of water. “Now, tell me quickly so we can be done with all this. Tell me about the house.” He nods. “There is a townhouse in Glenview, by the train station. Yacef and I once met there. But that was a very long time ago.” “Yacef not Bahrami?” I ask. “Yacef” he insists. “How long?” “Nine months. We only met that once.” “Keep going” I prod. “I know nothing else. Please…” I make him describe the neighborhood and the house to me. He is exhausted but coherent. “Please” he begs.

I am tempted to be sympathetic and give him what he wants. But I can’t. His delay in telling me about the house indicates that he might still be holding out. “Tell me about Yacef. What is his connection to Bahrami and the boys?” “Money. He deals with all the money. The contact man for the operational funding.” It all fits now. Bahrami is the recruiter and planner and Yacef is the money man. I keep asking Farat more questions. It seems he has given me all he can. All the same, I need to be sure. I need every bit of accurate information I can get from him.

Unfortunately for Farat, that means several more, increasingly painful, waves of unendurable pain. Two hours and ten minutes later, I am fully convinced he has nothing left to tell me. What he has given me, he at least believes to be true. Farat has provided me the target and a location to at least start searching from. It was a good bit of intelligence.

“Please” what’s left of the man once known as Farat, mutters again and again. He is barely human anymore. Crushed by a pain I can’t even imagine. I just know it must be really something. I’ve seen it break down many tougher mother fuckers than Farat. I finally give him his wish and inject him with the other drug. It’s not quite the nice, gentle slumber I made it sound. In fact, it induces the heart attack he was already headed for which will give the Medical Examiner a reasonable answer as to what happened. In this particular case, it doesn’t matter so much. Farat’s kidnapping wasn’t exactly low profile. Pretending he died of natural causes in his living room won’t cut it. All the same, the seizure will still erase any obvious trace of DP-20 and not give anyone a clue as to how high-tech his agony had been. Better they think the whole thing was about accidentally killing him before he could be beheaded, not talking to him.

Farat finally dies. It’s over. The whole thing from smash and grab to death has taken just under four hours. Hopefully, the information obtained proves to be worth it. One good thing about the way this thing had been laid out was I didn’t need to dispose of the body. Getting rid of a human body was a royal pain in the ass. More than that, it put you in an extremely vulnerable position. You can talk yourself out of a lot of things but being caught with a corpse is one of the tougher ones. Luckily, this job calls for the body to be left as the key prop in the silly drama I have created. That damn Culver City terrorist, Galan, has just gone too far this time. At least, that’s what I need people to believe.

Getting back into the Santa Monica Zone is more difficult than I would have guessed. The manhunt for Farat makes a mess of everything and traffic is tied-up on Wilshire for miles. I should probably check the news to see if the Culver City raid has happened yet but I’m tired and really don’t feel like dealing with it. I put some music on instead. I turn it up loud. I need something to drown out the echoes of Farat’s screams still in my head.

I ditch the car and walk the last couple miles back to the hotel. The hotel that I hope Emily will have stayed in as instructed. I check into my room and immediately head for the shower. I don’t think there is any forensic evidence on me but you can never be too sure. My entire body is clenched tight. As the warm water relaxes me I realize how much my stomach hurts. I’m not sure if it’s stress or something else. Either way, it’s not a pleasant feeling.

After the shower, I stretch out on the bed and watch some television. Sure enough, that idiot in Culver City is very loudly trying to take the claim for Farat’s kidnapping and a whole bunch of other shit he had nothing to do with. Anything for a few moments of fame, I guess. No word on Farat’s body being found yet. It might be a few days for that one.

My stomach starts to feel better and I am overcome by a wave of exhaustion. I always feel the same following an interrogation. I want nothing but to be left alone to sleep for days on end. Yet, I know sleep will remain elusive. Better to just keep working and not have time to lie there and think too much.

I also need to deal with Emily. I’m not looking forward to it. That whole little game of hers about waiting for me in her room has left me feeling really uncomfortable. I decide that I can’t deal with it right now and just lie there for a while longer.

Eventually, I get dressed and walk across the hall to her door. I don’t hear anyone inside. I knock. Nothing. I worry for a few seconds that she has checked out and gone off on her own again. I doubt it, given her need for me to find Henry. But, you never know. I decide to call her. Her voicemail picks up. I leave a brief message telling her I am back at the hotel and to come back to meet me as soon as she can.

I finally return the calls to The Chief I have been ignoring. I dread the conversation I know is coming. The good news is that the moron from Culver City is doing a fine job of wasting time on the investigation. There also seems to be agreement that the crude, shoot and grab, lone gunman, kidnapping indicates that the attacker was a member of some wanna-be rag-tag Saudi splinter group. He was clearly not a member of any sort of sophisticated, government backed organization. Then the bad news starts coming.

The Chief lays into me. He is still not happy that I took such a risk kidnapping and interrogating Farat. He had gone along with it but still questions my judgment. This, in spite of the fact it seems to have worked and paid off in spades. In addition, I am hammered for the second hotel room. He doesn’t understand it and doesn’t get why I didn’t just stay put in my current hotel. Telling him I needed to get away from Emily is not a good answer. Which is right where he is headed.

The Chief fails to see what value she is bringing to any of this. She is an added complication and a huge security risk. The fact that I tell him repeatedly that I feel the need for her to be part of things clearly holds less and less weight with him. I argue my case, again, how my independent judgments and instincts had been highly effective to date. I insist that now is not the time to question them. I am overruled.

As far as dealing with Emily is concerned, my instructions are clear. The Chief has made a firm decision and I am to execute his orders. I hang up feeling dizzy and sick. This is not what I want. It makes sense and I know it but there has to be another answer.

I end up just sitting on my bed for hours. I turn the light off and just stare out into the darkness. I face a side street but there is still something calming about the rows of palm trees under the streetlamps. I stay like that for a long time. Just staring. Just thinking. I hate what I have been asked to do. Even more than I hated having to do what I did to Farat. I’m not sure I can go through with it. Finally, I see a shadow under the bottom of my door. Hear the footsteps and the knock. It’s her.

I walk over to the door and open it. Emily looks at me with a wide smile. It catches me off guard. She actually seems happy to see me. “Hi” she says. I let her into the room. “Were you sleeping?” she asks. I tell her no and reach out to turn the light on. “No, leave it off.” I look at her in the semi-darkened room. “I like the view,” she says. “What view?” I look outside. “The palms. I just really like them. To me they’re kind of exotic.” I don’t argue and return to the bed. Emily sits in a chair.

“Did you find out where Henry is?” she asks. “Maybe. I’m not sure yet.” “When will you know?” Even that question already poses problems for me. I am thankful that the room is dark and she cannot see my eyes. This whole thing will be a lot easier this way. I tell her I’ll know as soon as I get some answers from Boston. I also warn her it could be another dead end. Even in the dark I can see her slump in her chair. “Do you think we’ll find him?” she asks. It is the most pain and doubt I have ever heard in her voice. The time I left her alone has not done good things for her morale. “I don’t know” I answer.

I can’t stand the way things are right now. I need something to stop it all. To make it something different than it is going to end up being. “Come here,” I say as gently as I can. Emily hesitates. I put out my hand “Come on.” She gets up and I reach out and pull her to the bed. I wrap my arms around her. She doesn’t resist. Ploy or not, I know Emily will have no objection to this part of things. In most cases, a moment like this is quickly followed by getting the girl out of her clothes and moving on to more direct actions. Not this time. I just don’t have it in me. At least not yet. The Chief’s orders are still ringing in my ears. I’m probably making this even more difficult than it needs to be. But I can’t help it. Right now, I need this.

We sit there in silence. “About the other night…” I cut her off. “It doesn’t matter. Let it go,” I respond. “But.” “It doesn’t matter, Emily.” And, with that, I kiss her. It feels good. Exactly what I need to make it all go away. We start to make out. Two teenagers groping in the dark. But I stop myself. As easy as it would be for me to just go with this and sleep with her, I know this is going to make things even more difficult. She takes my rejection the wrong way. “Are you just not into me that way, or what?” she asks. Even the wording of the question irritates me.

“What is it with you Emily? You just need a good fuck? Is that it?” I say. It comes out with more than a little anger in my voice. She gets up quickly. I pull her back down to me. “Let go of me,” she demands. I do. She gets up and walks away. Just before she opens the door to leave, I give her some of the news from my call. “I’m going to leave here tomorrow to go find Henry on my own. You can’t come along.” She freezes.

“Why not?” she asks. My voice gets very quiet. “It’s not my decision.” She tries to look into my eyes. The room has gotten too dark for her to see much. “Who the hell are these people? What right do they have to do this? To tell me I can’t look for my own son?” I watch her pace in the shadows. “Why don’t you tell your FBI bosses or whoever they are how much I can help you.” “I have,” I say. “But they feel the pluses of having you are outweighed by the negatives.” “Fuck them!” she yells. I lay it out for her.

“I tried to argue. I lost. You have to just trust me now and know that I am doing everything I can to find Henry and to stop those people.” She keeps trying to fight it even though she knows it’s a lost cause. “Who are they? Can you at least tell me who these people are that think they can do this to me?” I cut to the chase. “They don’t think they can, they know they can. But I’ll find Henry. I promise.”

She paces even more frantically, tries to churn the situation through her head. Truth be told, she has no options. She doesn’t know anything about Chicago or any of the other information about Henry. And she certainly isn’t aware of The Chief and his methods. “No. I’m going” she insists, yet again.

At this point, her pacing is driving me nuts. I grab her hand and pull her down to the bed again. “Listen, you will do no such thing. I’ve defied orders by even telling you this.” She seems surprised. “What? They just wanted you to leave without saying a word?” I don’t answer. She keeps fighting the situation and trying to find a way past the fact that from here on out she can do nothing. I promise her again and again I will find Henry. Finally, she stops arguing and just gives in.

We just sit silently for a while. Although it is dark, I know she is crying. All her fears about Henry are coming to pass. He is out there somewhere getting ready to kill innocent people. He is out there somewhere ready to end his own life. All for a cause he never should have had anything to do with.

Of course, what occurs next is incredibly predictable. Things just happen. We have sex. Lots of it. The image of seeing Emily on top of me, lit by the glow of the streetlights, is something that sears into my brain. Such a perfect moment. Such a perfect image. There is an intensity to the night I had never experienced before with anyone. I am not sure that I like it. Especially, given what I have been ordered to do.

Later, as Emily sleeps beside me, my brain tries to process a thousand different ways to make the outcome different than I know it has to be. I look at her, so sweet and innocent in her slumber. I can so easily imagine a life with her I know can never be. I can almost picture the two of us as a normal couple, living a normal life. No Chief. No Old Man. No terrorists trying to recruit her teenage son. A world of peace and contentment that is about as far away from reality as you can get.

I know what my orders are and, more than that, I know they make sense. The Chief is not being vindictive or cruel, just logical. Logical in the cold, inhuman way I despise in him and fear in myself. I start to regret what I have done. Getting even closer to her. Yet, it felt like exactly the right thing. A way to say goodbye.

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