Authors: Eliot Peper
Lilly couldn’t scream. It was like all the air had been sucked out of the room. Her mind and muscles were locked in abject shock.
And it was because she couldn’t scream that she heard the gentle jingle of the bell attached to the property’s side gate.
ADRENALINE WAS THE NECTAR OF THE GODS.
The cold rush of it slowed time, sharpened the senses, and accelerated the heart. Adrenaline brought the world into focus and injected urgency into the otherwise mundane. It had been too long since Graham Chandler had tasted that sweet ambrosia. Now, he relished it.
He smiled despite himself. The graffiti scrawled across the brick wall next to him was brighter. The relaxed rhythm of his shoes hitting the sidewalk was sharper. The smell of jasmine from the vines entangling a nearby fence was sweeter.
Anticipating the young thugs hanging out on the corner outside the liquor store, he crossed the street and kept his eyes down. He could take them down in his sleep, of course. They were nothing more than high-school dropouts with egos inflated by the pistols tucked into their waistbands.
Graham had seen their kind all over the world. Young men with no prospects made for great recruits. When you had no role models and no path to employment or opportunity, there was only one option. Mafiosi. Sicarios. ISIS. They flowed from the same source. All their enlisted men had an identical, sour funk of sweat, testosterone, and desperation.
He could kill or disable them before they even realized what was happening. But that wasn’t why he was here. He had more important targets than street-level flunkies. Everything was falling into place. This morning had gone well. Quick. Clean. Efficient. Now it was all about the segue. A smooth exit to stage right. Scene.
So, for now, he was just another Slummer trying to get by. No need to draw attention.
He cut right at the next corner and headed for the West Oakland BART Station. Cheap prostitutes were already lounging on the corners. A homeless guy with beet-red eyes worked on his morning dose of malt liquor. Shattered glass peppered the sidewalk. A squad of gangsters pedaled by on BMX bikes, hurling insults at each other.
Graham felt just as comfortable here as in the gilded conference rooms of the elite. Hell, it was a serious step up from running ops in godforsaken Mindanao. Even the most poverty-stricken parts of the United States didn’t have endemic dengue and spiders bigger than your hand. He should have made the jump years ago.
He would have made the jump years ago if it hadn’t been for Granddad. Granddad, with his relentless dedication to an institution that had long forgotten him. What was loyalty worth when the people in charge were so incompetent that they undermined your life’s work? But despite the monstrous ineptitude in Washington, Granddad had stayed tenaciously loyal to the Agency right through to the end. They had erased all the records of what he had accomplished in Guatemala, Chiapas, Congo, and Kyrgyzstan. He had paved their path to power, and they had reciprocated by fencing him off in a bureaucratic labyrinth of nondisclosure and deniability. But they couldn’t sway his fierce dedication to a forgotten ideal, an American dream fading into the mists of history.
The smile soured. It was a blessing Granddad hadn’t survived to see Graham leave the Agency. He must be turning over in his grave right now.
“Black,” said Graham.
The street vendor was a hunched old man stirring a cauldron of coffee over a spitting Bunsen burner. He dipped a battered tin camping mug into the bumbling pot and offered it up. Graham approved the digital payment and accepted the steaming cup. The thick, bitter brew reminded him of his last official op in Aceh, Indonesia.
He had spent months mapping out the byzantine deals made in the hundreds of tiny cafés around the city. The coffee there had been just as viscous but impossibly sweet. Everyone had an agenda, and most had at least two. International oil companies vied for competitive advantage. Traffickers of anything and everything played cat and mouse with authorities in the Malacca Strait. Government officials from Jakarta whored out their country’s impressive stock of natural resources for pennies on the dollar. The Indians, the Chinese, and the Americans fought a shadow war for geopolitical influence while the Singaporeans tried to play all sides against each other. Even the Dutch still had a presence, unwilling to allow their historic colony to give up the ghost entirely. Some things never changed. Until they did.
The moment hung crystal clear in Graham’s memory. Walking into the suite in the boutique hotel on that secluded beach on Pulau Weh, a tiny island off the northern tip of Sumatra. The five men so intent on their game of poker that they didn’t even realize that the room service they had ordered was being delivered by a
, a white foreigner. Lifting the gleaming lid of the silver platter to reveal a matte-black Beretta
. The muffled pops of the silenced weapon as he double-tapped each scheming motherfucker in the head.
The ensuing coup handed Washington the strings. Only it turned out that the White House was too scared to play puppeteer anymore. The Agency should have pinned a Distinguished Intelligence Medal on him the moment he landed. Instead, his boss had ripped him a new one courtesy of the sitting president.
No wonder this country was falling apart.
Graham swigged the dregs, returned the mug, and thanked the vendor.
He had read the writing on the wall. All respect to Granddad, but Graham wasn’t about to be banished to a Langley cubicle. No. The back office wasn’t for him. His place was in the field, and he was, finally, his own man.
The geography of geopolitics was changing, and the folks in the corner office didn’t even realize what was happening. It was funny, in a pathetic kind of way. Washington was so caught up in its own intrigue that the players forgot the literal basis of the power they wielded. Letting corporate tycoons pad your campaign coffers was a respected form of corruption. But follow that line to its inevitable conclusion, and it changed who was beholden to whom. Bribes were investments, not gifts. Those investments paid themselves off with favorable policies, government contracts, and a friendly ear inside the White House. Suddenly the people making the real decisions didn’t even live in Washington. They delegated
Graham shook his head as he passed through the ticket gate and climbed the stairs up to the platform. American politicians had made the ultimate mistake. They weren’t playing the long game. Instead, they tripped over each other chasing votes and polls and contributions.
The train screeched along the raised tracks as it approached the platform. It jerked to a stop, and Graham entered and found a seat. The stained floor smelled faintly of vomit, and death metal was blasting from a portable boom box halfway down the car.
BART was a perfect example. It had been built in the 1960s to serve a growing Bay Area, and had been neglected ever since. Now, only Slummers used the crumbling public transportation system. Anyone who could afford it traveled via Fleet. Like so many other things, leadership and control of previously public infrastructure had been ceded to the private sector. No. Not just the private sector. Cumulus.
Venture capitalists weren’t the only ones riding the wave of accelerating technological innovation. New tools were all well and good. But Graham knew that these new tools gave their makers extraordinary power. That is what the laggards in Washington didn’t understand.
Software was eating the world. Whoever controlled software controlled the world. Whoever controlled the world needed people like Graham, whether they liked it or not.
He had to give Sara Levine credit. The bitch didn’t even beg for her life. He slipped through the door, and she looked up from the paperwork scattered across the coffee table in front of her. Only lawyers still used physical paper in that kind of quantity. She immediately moved to run, but he was ready for it and had the Beretta trained on her before she could get to her feet. Once she could see the game was up, she didn’t scream. She just half smiled this sardonic little smile, daring him to live up to her expectations.
But Graham hadn’t gotten to where he was today by giving in to sentimentality. You didn’t harass tech giants if you weren’t prepared to play in the big leagues. Sara should have known better than to file a nuisance suit that threatened to break up Cumulus. Of course, he had anonymously leaked her the key information about Cumulus that made her case a viable threat. Otherwise, there wouldn’t have been a need to eliminate her, and he would have remained outside Huian’s circle of trust. Powerful people were the easiest to manipulate because they had the most to lose.
Sara’s smile had disappeared when he put one bullet through her right eye and another through her heart. Oh, the rush. He patted his pocket and felt the miniature camcorder recording through a faux button. The pieces were falling into place. Intrigue was its own special class of narcotic. A fresh surge of adrenaline pumped through Graham’s veins at the thought of it.
His day was just getting started.
TWO SECURITY OFFICERS
looked Graham up and down as he disembarked and crossed over into the North Berkeley Green Zone. They could see his digital credentials outclassed them by many orders of magnitude, so they moved on to harass someone else. They probably thought he was returning from a long night indulging in Slum pussy. If they checked back through their feed later, they wouldn’t even be able to locate the record of his passing.
Time to shift gears.
He found a quiet espresso bar and ordered a macchiato. While the barista was preparing it, Graham slipped off into the bathroom and changed into the clothes he carried in his backpack. He carefully reinstalled the camcorder and stuffed the scummy garb into the backpack. He had entered the bathroom as a down-and-out Slummer and exited as a polished Greenie businessman.
The barista almost didn’t recognize him when Graham claimed his macchiato.
Graham sipped from the paper cup as he strolled along the shaded sidewalk lined by maples. Parents hustled their kids into waiting Fleets, haranguing them about being late for school. Everyone was so used to living in a bubble that they didn’t even bother to think about how easily bubbles popped. A photographer was taking pictures of the fall colors on the other side of the street. Autumn had turned the leaves into a fiery patchwork, and a morning breeze set them dancing. It had been a dry spring, and the Bay Area was suffering through another prolonged drought. But here in the Green Zone, the manicured trees and shrubs weren’t in any danger. Automated irrigation systems kept them verdant in the face of nature’s thrift.
A redheaded jogger ran by with a golden retriever at her side, cheeks flushed and breasts bouncing. He stole a quick glance over his shoulder to check out her spandex-wrapped ass as she continued down the block. It had been too long. Maybe he should have made good on the assumption of those Security guys and gotten himself laid last night. There were many things he loved about his chosen profession, but the permanent bachelor status wasn’t one of them.
Hollywood gave its spies a constant string of one-night stands with supermodels. That was where the James Bond movies deviated from the books. Cinematic
enjoyed his sexual escapades with the enthusiasm of a frat boy on spring break. Literary
was wracked by depression, and sex offered him little more than a tantalizing-but-brief distraction from the inherent loneliness of his job. Fleming had gotten a lot wrong about espionage, but he had nailed that last part.
Graham crumpled up the paper cup and tossed it into a bin. Enough. He was here by choice, and he would suffer the consequences.
Speaking of here, he had arrived.
The office was a small two-story building that had been recently reshingled. Redwood trees rose around it, lending the space a calm, arboreal feel. Graham walked past it, and then doubled back. He brought up a feed on his contact lens display that showed Dr. Flint Corvel’s calendar of appointments. Perfect, he was just finishing up with his first patient. Graham reached into the system and shifted the next appointment on the calendar, replacing it with a pseudonym. The change would propagate through the system and automatically reschedule the person in question, doubtless pissing them off. Given the rates that Corvel charged, they had a right to be angry. But that wasn’t Graham’s problem. To put it more precisely, Graham was Corvel’s problem.
The door opened at his touch, and Graham climbed the stairs to the waiting room. A few minutes later, a flustered-looking middle-aged woman emerged from the office, ignoring Graham.
Corvel’s balding head poked out of the office door. He was clearly surprised at having a new patient whom he hadn’t noticed coming up in his calendar. When he saw Graham seated there with his legs crossed, Corvel’s face froze.
“You.” His inflection dripped pure hatred.
Graham rose to his feet and nodded. “In the flesh.”
Corvel placed his short portly frame in the middle of the doorway, blocking Graham’s path into the office.