Authors: David Shafer
It was true. He’d been drunk. On a roof. With a nail gun. He would have fired himself.
Their time up, the doctor said they would meet again on Monday. “I hope you’ll use the weekend to come to terms with your circumstances. I think you’ll find that you’re really quite lucky you got here.”
Lucky? Leo left the little office in a haze of despair. Those blog posts read back to him—he really had been orbiting Planet Crane for a while there. That guy, with his pen cup marked
probably was a doctor.
He crossed the quiet quad; barely noticed the beautiful day around him. He thought with relief that at least you couldn’t screen-grab something that was never on a screen, so the doc hadn’t seen that one issue of
I Have Shared a Document with You
If the doc got his hands on that, it’d be electrodes for sure, in Leo’s near future.
eila looked behind her and saw the little white Datsun again, her two Burmese minders in the front seats. Heckle and Jeckle, she called them. They’d shown up a couple of days ago, the day after she returned from Myo Thit. It had occurred to her that she might just sneak up to their vehicle, rap on the window, and say,
Maybe you guys should address the open-sewer issue and high infant-mortality rates before you spend any more money on the network-of-spies-and-stooges thing
. But her Burmese wasn’t up to it, and these guys were hard to sneak up on. They were always right behind her, and sometimes they were there first.
she thought, lacing up her sneakers on the steps outside her apartment,
you feeling up to a 10 K?
Leila ran every day, first thing in the morning. Running was the only way she could make her body and mind operate at the same speed, which turned out to be the only time she could ever truly relax. And the thinking she did while running seemed to be more effective thinking; it was more likely to lead to decisions instead of just to more thinking. In Mandalay, running was also a good way to separate herself from the Lonely Planeteers, who would go down any rutted track if they were promised a shrine or a ruin and none if they were not.
Leila could not ignore her surveillance detail. The two men were always thirty yards behind her or in the far corner of her tea shop. And at first she was truly spooked. But they followed her in such a strange and polite way. They were not so much covert as discreet; there was no menace in their hovering.
Still, they were a pain in the ass, because everyone around her knew they were there too. Leila’s trying-to-blend-in days were over. Who wants to chat with the American girl being trailed by the secret police? Even her man at the tea shop treated her more cautiously. He still brought her Number Nines, but without his usual flourish.
She knew she had to stay away from Aung-Hla until she could sort this out. If he got pulled into it, it would be her fault, and the three hundred bucks that she hadn’t managed to get to him yet—that wouldn’t cover it. She had seen him a couple of times over the past week, but they only waved at each other across the dusty street and she thought maybe in his wave he was saying,
Yeah, you might as well keep your distance
. Dah Alice was off-limits also, which was seriously inconvenient. Leila could really have used her counsel now.
The problem was that Leila couldn’t figure out what she had seen in the forest, what those men had been talking about, or where they were headed. The other problem was that she didn’t even know whether she should try to figure it out. It wasn’t like she needed more work on her plate.
Besides, Leila had crossed paths with mercenaries a couple of times before, in Africa and Afghanistan. And her politics allowed for nuance; a security contractor
be fulfilling a legitimate, non-nefarious role. (In fact, she maybe owed a serious debt to a handsome Englishman in his sixties, a G4S “consultant” on her Sierra Leone job who’d sat up front with the driver; he had once talked the Suburban and all its occupants through an armed gang at a badly misjudged checkpoint. He had used his wits alone to do it, but Leila remembered his jaw muscles and the calm threat in his eyes that told the men outside the vehicle,
You do this, I have a hundred colleagues who will be here in an hour.
And yet her scavenging mind returned to the men lurking under that shade tree by the second checkpoint, to their wraparound sunglasses, to the air of menace they gave off. If it had been those two following her instead of Heckle and Jeckle, she would be truly freaked.
When she tried to plot the location of the forest checkpoint on a map, she couldn’t find the road that Aung-Hla had taken to get off the highway and up into the forest. It wasn’t on maps. And it wasn’t just her shitty tourist maps it wasn’t on; it also wasn’t on Sine maps or on any of the other mapping sites. It couldn’t be found using the expensive, proprietary satellite-mapping service she had access to through Helping Hand. She had even visited the dismal library at the university to look through their big atlases. There was just no road in a place where she could pretty much swear there had been a road. And yet she’d marked the GPS point on her running watch. What do you do when the Internet calls you a liar?
Gotta know when you’re just busting your knuckles,
Leila’s father used to say. He affected chestnutty speech like that when they were all new in America and his English was poor. Leila and her brother and sister would bring slang home to him, some of which he deployed, to his children’s great delight. They taught him to use
fill your pants
when he meant “be scared,” and he missed the joke, had thought it had something to do with running away. He used the expression for months. Once he realized his mistake, he was more careful and would have his children’s submissions vetted by an adult American English speaker.
Leila was busting her knuckles here, surely. The heat had definitely been turned up on her lately, and she suspected that it had to do with what she’d seen in the forest. But if there was something criminal going on up near Myo Thit, it would take more than a Sine search to get to the bottom of it—some information just doesn’t leave the safe or the briefcase or whatever. She almost wished there were a way to let them know—whoever
were—that she didn’t understand what she had seen and would leave it alone if they’d leave her alone. That might be a bit like volunteering your lunch money to a bully, but she had a job to do here: getting her medical supplies out of hock and finding scholarship candidates, neither of which was easily accomplished with Heckle and Jeckle dogging her every step.
What was up that road that deserved a visit from that entourage? Gems? Teak? That was one way that generals were screwing this place and enriching themselves—by selling all that to outside interests. But the generals were in bed with the Chinese and the Russians on that; it seemed unlikely that American mercenaries would be guarding any of those schemes. And what was up with that snazzy little guard post? Its retractable antenna and tire munchers? And that strange thing the angry one had said, about the hipster in the headphones:
He’s fucking tech support. He’s here to install software.
What the fuck?
Maybe ten kilometers, at a good pace, would jog something loose. Plus, it was amusing to see her minders keep up with her. In town, they were pretty slick. If she tried to shake them or make them work hard, they always found a way to handle it. They’d huff over footpaths and duck into doorways and reverse down chicken-clogged streets. She made them peruse souvenirs while she did the same. This seemed to amuse the souvenir vendors, in on a joke they would never have been allowed to make.
But during her morning runs in the shaggy, scraggy riverside parks on the west side of the city, there wasn’t much to hide behind. One of the men would stay in the white car and on the nearest-to-her road that was Datsunable while the other ran behind her. It was ridiculous. It looked like there were two recreational runners in Mandalay, but one wore tan slacks and ran thirty yards behind the other.
This morning she really pushed herself. Jeckle kept the pace just fine. She stopped once to stretch, when a sudden stitch chomped at her abdomen. She made her short self tall, and then bent in half. The river before her was flat and gray. A mild pong came off its dirty banks. Jeckle had to stop also; he pretended great interest in a fence post. Leila could see Heckle in the little Datsun, a quarter mile away.
What the hell—she waved at Jeckle.
That surprised him, and she thought she could see the bind he was in; all the binds he was in, a guy like that.
Take that, stooge,
But then he waved back.
There was plenty she
know about her situation right now. But that these guys wouldn’t wave back—that was something she had been certain of. Jeckle had waved like he was a
She turned and started back. Jeckle ceased to be intrigued by the fence post. And on the way home, Leila did run very fast, and she did indeed jog something loose. It wasn’t some genius discovery. It was just a step back, a different vantage point. All those little homilies about how you had to think new thoughts in order to solve problems—they were true. It’s just that the homilies seldom told you
to do that.
She knew some people who might know how to look into something like this, people who might even
to look into it.
She knew a reporter at the
Los Angeles Times,
and there was a boy with whom she had been briefly, fiercely, in love who was now important at the BBC. One summer, eons ago, she ate a lot of mushrooms with a girl who now ran the news desk for a big NPR affiliate. Another time, she had answered a medical distress call from a Reuters photographer in an African capital. (After a fish soup that he’d known from sip one he should not finish but had anyway, this man staggered back to his hotel room and clung to the towel rack as his insides cascaded out of him. He would have died there in that bathroom, from swift and acute dehydration, had he not called Leila. She came like a shot, commandeered a hotel car, and sang a Leonard Cohen song to him as they sped together through the blue night to the hospital.) Her little brother’s best friend, who as an eleven-year-old had been besotted with Leila, now did forensic corporate accountancy at some very high level for big-ticket clients. She knew someone at the
New York Times,
an investigator at the UNHCR, and a CIA librarian. She knew a beat cop in Queens, a CDC virologist, and a speechwriter for a congressman.
So that afternoon, all of those people received this e-mail:
Hoping that one or some among you might help me figure out whether there’s anything fishy going on near this site that I kind of stumbled upon. That’s not really even a cliché—I pretty much did stumble upon it. I think one of the big security companies (could be Exigent or Spire or Bluebird?) is protecting something in the middle of the forest, where there aren’t even supposed to be any roads. The place is in northeastern Myanmar, on the Chinese border. It’s hard to say who or what you’d be looking for. Maybe any new or high-value facility or activity within about ten kilometers of a Burmese town called Ashang. Or possibly near a Chinese town called Baguanzai. A GPS point you could start with is 24°22'40" North, 97°32'39" East. Whoever is doing work up there, I think they’re flying in tech-support guys with bodyguards. I know, right? I said it was fishy.
As ever, if you want a vacation in a despotic backwater, I remain your willing hostess,
PS: Despotic or not, Mandalay is quite beautiful; the offer is real. LM
ed Swain was almost two weeks into the battle of not smoking cigarettes. It was not going well. He tried controlled breathing; he tried to smoke the craving, not the cigarette; he tried to act like someone who did not want a cigarette. How do such people act? Probably, such people did not have bosses like the odious Nigel. Nigel was twenty years older than Ned, smoked Lucky Strikes, and looked wretched up close. When Ned really wanted a cigarette and really wanted not to want a cigarette, he looked at Nigel.
Usually, Ned would not have been in Nigel’s daily company. But Nigel had lately been ordering Ned to report to the chilly, windowless office in the hotel that provided the station’s cover. He said he wanted Ned to compile new region notes. This was like being told to clean the VCR heads or copyedit some never-read HR boilerplate. The truth was that Nigel was clearly baffled by the new platform software and wanted Ned to bump all the systems back to the previous upgrade. But Nigel couldn’t just ask Ned to do that—to do so would acknowledge his own technological deficits and violate about ten security protocols—so he had Ned show him over and over again how to do the new key-chaining and biometrics. Ned made sure to always appear willing. It’s handy to know your boss’s passwords.
But these days Ned was hyperaware of every cigarette around him. Did he hate them or love them? Where does love become need become hate-because-needed? When Nigel hunched over Ned’s desk to issue his pointless instructions, Ned definitely hated cigarettes. The stench was keen; it rolled off the older man like a viscous sludge.
“You’ll want to see if the Cambodians will confirm this,” Nigel said one morning from close behind Ned’s desk, rattling a recent edition of
New Light of Myanmar.
This was like saying
You’ll want to wipe your ass after you shit
. Nigel was constantly giving Ned instructions on the most easily intuited parts of his job. Ned dug his fingernails into his palms and thus succeeded in not pointing out that every single bit of reportage gracing the pages of the junta’s absurd and idiomatic daily English-language organ was subject to confirmation.
When Ned was himself a cigarette smoker, this close-quartered micromanagement had been a minor point in the long list of grievances he had against Nigel. But as Ned approached week two without Camel one, he was finding it harder to mask his distaste for the man.
Where to begin? Ned should have been in the meat of his career, but instead he was boxed in by a sociopath, made to do busywork in an obscure corner of the Service. Nigel didn’t want anything of any use getting out of Mandalay station without his being able to take credit for it, so he sabotaged the work of every analyst they sent him. Being posted to Nigel’s region was like being moved to a broom closet, but a broom closet where they could keep an eye on you.
Ned was a grade 4 field analyst for a clandestine U.S. military outfit called the Central Security Service. Though the name made them sound like mall cops, the CSS in fact outranked every other intelligence service and agency save one (that one was possibly mythical; it was said to have no name or emblem). But if Ned had to finish out his career working under people like Nigel, he’d rather just quit the Service. Did they let washed-up spies become schoolteachers?
There was no way to take Nigel head-on. You did not go straight at a grade 5. You went straight at a grade 5, he got on a secure phone and dinged your rating twenty points and you were now qualified to hold how many posts in the CSS? Oh, none.
So Ned did what people in stressed marriages and small offices have been doing since forever—he discreetly nudged at the edge of certain situations in order to elicit from his antagonist a rash move or utterance. He waited for his openings. He’d been doing this for a couple of years now.
So when he saw the flick-burst transmission about the possible OpSec breach at the gatehouse near the border, Ned saw an opportunity. It came in on Nigel’s computer station after Nigel had left the office. Nigel ended most workdays around three in the afternoon, but he always left his station open, because he couldn’t be bothered with all the key-chaining required to open and close it. So Ned saw the flick-burst before Nigel. He could have dismissed it, but instead, he made sure that Nigel saw it.
Ned thought that if Nigel was rattled, he might get sloppy and overshare about the Bluebird site. That’s just the kind of thing that Nigel would do. He was evil, but he was lazy too. He had already let Ned know that it was Bluebird securing
in the forest at the border; Ned wasn’t even supposed to know that. Whatever Bluebird was doing up there, it was grade 5 to Ned’s grade 4.
Ned didn’t consider that he might be putting the Majnoun girl in danger. It didn’t seem like much of an OpSec breach anyway. So the girl saw a couple of Bluebirds escorting a client to this big secret site? She was there by accident and she hadn’t gotten near the site itself.
But the news rattled Nigel more than Ned had meant or expected it to. Whatever the Bluebird client was doing up there, Nigel clearly felt that the Service was required to provide something more than the standard DADI protocol (deflect attention, discourage inquiry). He bumped the girl’s electronic surveillance to 6, which was pretty expensive in bandwidth alone. He ordered terra-surveillance from the locals and demanded that Ned update him daily on her movements and comms.
“Sir? If I may?” said Ned, in the voice and affect he used with Nigel. “I don’t think we need to worry about her. She has no idea what she saw, and she’s not going to do any serious snooping around. She’s having enough trouble here already. Zeya is seeing to that.”
“Have Zeya increase pressure on her. We need to mitigate risk to the zero point,” Nigel sputtered back, his small hands shaking. “You understand me, Swain?”
As he had risen through the ranks of the CSS, Ned had gradually come to know the score. Being a truly clandestine agency (the unpublished and unpublishable shield used by the CSS was a falconer’s glove below a falcon holding a telephone receiver), the Service had to work within unique budgetary constraints. Still, it also had to fulfill its mission, which, after 9/11, had been rewritten:
To build and maintain the world’s supreme electronic intelligence-gathering apparatus and cyberdefense infrastructure.
Ned could rattle it off; every analyst could. So the Service made common cause with a few private-sector endeavors—mainly tech and pharmaceutical, but patriots all. These were the partners. The partners provided the Service with intellectual capital and leading-edge technology. And the service that the Service provided to the partners? A little cover for the advanced research and complex commerce that, in order to be valuable and effective, must take place in zones unattached to a particular jurisdiction.
“We just throw a little shade on things when it’s in our interest, or when it can be said to be in our interest,” one of Ned’s supervisors told him once when he was having a hard time appreciating that particular shade of gray.
It was said that Nigel had been an excellent spy once; his speedy rise through the darker channels of espionage was the stuff of legend. In appearance he was nondescript, in manner receding. He could become a fucking coat tree or melt into a marble column. Then—
—he was right there, telling you just exactly how you screwed up.
But that was all years ago. Nigel was well past his expiration date. No one in the Service wanted to risk the capital that would be required to oust him. So he could pretty much do what he wanted until some major part of him broke. And what he wanted to do was drink in the hotel bar. To Ned, it seemed he hadn’t ever given a shit about anything that happened in Myanmar.
So why had he roused himself for this Bluebird thing? It looked like Nigel
the Bluebird client; it looked like the power was going the wrong way. Because Majnoun should not really be the Service’s problem. If some nosy civilian girl could derail your thing, you need to address the thing, not the nosy civilian girl. That was the deal, Ned thought.
Ned’s plan was working, somewhat. The rattled, worried Nigel was indeed more indiscreet about grade 5 matters than the bored, drunk Nigel had been. There definitely was something happening in the forest. Maybe a SAG (subsidiary agency of government, or “shadow-ass government,” as the joke went) was building an offline server, and Bluebird was protecting it during construction? But why would any U.S. agency—even some creepy unnamed SAG—see fit to build such a facility on the Chinese border?
Then Ned opened his workstation one morning and saw Majnoun’s e-mail, and his heart sank. He had seriously failed to anticipate that she would crowd-source a request for further investigation of the forest site. People generally quit after a few fruitless Sine searches. Not this girl. And what a list of names in the
field. Those were some
Because her e-mail had mentioned Bluebird specifically, there was no way Ned could keep it off Nigel’s computer. He just had to wait until Nigel opened his station that morning and saw it for himself.
“Christ. That little slit has gone and done it,” barked Nigel at 10:27 a.m. Some scalding Nescafé splashed out of his mug and into his lap; he leaped up and cursed secondarily. Ned could see him blame that on Majnoun as well.
“What’s up, boss?” Ned asked. In speech and manner, Ned never betrayed even a trace of his antagonism toward Nigel. He was always cheery and dim and acquiescent.
You have to be the easiest one in the room,
one of Ned’s mentors had taught him.
You have to be like a cornflake in milk
“She fucking e-mailed the coordinates of the new…of that secure site. How the fuck did she come up with coordinates? Didn’t the locals dud her devices before they let her go north?”
They had, but they had apparently forgotten about her fancy little running watch. Ned had noticed the oversight a few days after her return.
After another minute of cursing others and dabbing at his stained crotch, Nigel shut himself in the microSCIF—the phone-booth-size sensitive compartmented information facility that every covert station had been issued last year. Actually, it looked just like a phone booth, though the phone on its wall had a screen as well as a handset. Ned had caught only glimpses of the inside. It was for grade 5 use only, and there was no way around the biometrics (short of actually gouging Nigel’s eyes out of their sockets and chopping his hands off, a fantasy Ned sometimes indulged).
Nigel was in there for twenty minutes, and when he came out he looked even grayer than usual. He smoked one cigarette and then another; Ned could see gross little wheels turning in his head.
“Listen, Swain. I need you to go down to the Internet place on Eighteenth Street. You’re going to meet a guy there.”
“Who’s the guy?”
“He’s SAG. Don’t worry about that. Remember you said the NGO girl went north with that driver of hers?”
“You can pick him out? The driver?”
“I need you to meet the guy and show him which one is the driver.”
“Uh. Okay,” said Ned. He was stalling, though. Even a cornflake in milk would balk at some instructions. There are only a few reasons you identify a foreign national for a SAG asset, and none of them are happy ones. Nigel would know that Ned would know this by now.
“He’s a terrorist, Swain. He chose the wrong side.”
And what Ned saw in Nigel’s eyes just then—the hardening, the heartlessness, the sharp point of paranoia—it gave him a fright like he hadn’t known since he was a boy. Neither one of them thought the taxi driver was a terrorist. The words were just a conjurer’s spell, a Patriot Act
sim sala bim
. And the part about choosing sides? That was meant for Ned, and it was delicately laced with a predator’s menace.
The guy at the Internet place on Eighteenth Street did not look like a SAG asset. Generally, SAG assets looked like they were just dying to beat the shit out of someone. It would be very hard to pick one out at a hockey game, for example. But this guy was wispy and almost pretty, though once he was sitting in Ned’s car, Ned saw that he had the BMI of a shotgun shell and that his every movement came out of nowhere; he even opened the glove box in a deft and deadly way.
The asset was in the passenger seat, Ned driving. When the asset looked right, Ned stole a glance and saw that the guy had a picture of the taxi driver strapped to his forearm, under the long sleeve of his pirate-type shirt.
“Picture’s crap. That’s why you’re here,” said the asset without looking at Ned.
Ned drove slowly. He needed to think. You never knew when these things were going to come up. Knowing what you
do was seldom of any use. Saying to the man “I’m sorry, sir, but I joined the Service to keep my country safe, not to chauffeur assassins. Please exit the vehicle” wasn’t an option; Ned had blown past that point a while back. They passed the faded movie house, the flower market, the rubble-strewn park with the diesel-powered merry-go-round.
He thought of Leila. He’d been listening to her all week, though he’d made contact with her only twice, months ago. Once when she first arrived, and then once when he’d found her in the university cafeteria and talked to her about aspirated consonants. While it was part of his job to bore people into never suspecting him of anything, he couldn’t help being a bit hurt that he had been so successful in her case. She was very pretty: compact and Persian and poised. It would have been nice to get a nod from her. He thought of one of these guys prowling around Leila.
“If he’s working today, he should be up here,” said Ned. They were coming up on the pagoda beside which some of the taximen queued. But the traffic had grown thick around one of the circles.
Back home, on traffic reports, this is called stop-and-go traffic,
thought Ned. The asset wasn’t saying anything, just mowing down locals from behind his cheap-looking shades.