In the world of covert operations and espionage, anonymity is more than the coin of the realm, it is the air you breath. It is a cloak, comfortable and protective, and without it, you stand naked and defenseless. In short, you're dead.
That's why a spy's active lifespan is so brutally short. Usually a covert career lasts less than five years. Contrary to what TV and movies tell you, the very concept of a "Famous Secret Agent" is absurd.
The old man, maybe seventy years old, looked tough and hard as he sat alone at the small table, regarding them over his Mojito. His hairline had receded to a white C-ring around his head from just in front of his ears. His beard was white as well, except for dark streaks continuing from his iron-grey moustache, and in the center of his chin, a third dark streak underlined his rather cruel mouth. The brows were straight and dark and the eyes behind the enclosing folds and wrinkles were acute and clear, a hard grey-blue.
Those eyes didn't move as they took in Sam's startled double-take, took in his hand tapping Michael's forearm, Michael's glance and his startled pause. They did flicker up and down Fiona's trim figure, but Michael barely even caught that.
“Is it really him?” Fiona asked quietly.
“Woah, yeah,” said Sam. “Last I heard, SIS had him as Head of Station C. That was years ago, though.” He scratched the back of his neck. “I'll tell you, Mike, I never thought I'd see him in the flesh! Double-oh numbers may be passé, but I never heard he'd lost so much as a step. If he's in on this game, it's going to be a lot more interesting.”
Michael nodded, taking another covert glance, and seeing the grey-blue eyes, without indicating, notice it.
“Pretty cool, though,” said Fiona, in a sort of hushed, almost awed tone Michael was pretty sure he didn't like at all. “I mean, that is James Bond!”
Of course, there are exceptions.
3 days earlier
“Listen, Mike, this may seem a little weird, but I promise, it's legit. It's real work, and a real paycheck. So, you're not going to freak, right?”
Michael stopped to regard his friend. “Sam, I never feel good when you say things like that.”
“Have I ever steered you wrong?” Sam asked quickly.
“Well...” began Michael.
“Beirut doesn't count! It was a double-blind operation. How was I supposed to know about the other team? Anyway, I meant in lining you up with work.”
“I'm really not going to like this,” said Michael, as he followed Sam's broad-shouldered lead back to the table, “am I, Sam?”
“You are, you are,” said Sam. “When all is said and done, you're going to like it fine.”
They sat down together by the empty seat at the back corner table, beside the mostly-full pitcher, the tall tumbler of Iced Tea.
Michael stiffened at the silhouette that appeared in the lighted doorway back from the restrooms, and started to rise, but Sam held him in place with a hand on his forearm. “Trust me, Mike.”
The man who slid into the seat behind the Iced Tea was late in his middle years, with lines around his sunken eyes and habitually tight mouth. The light brown hair slicked back from a receding hairline was streaked with gray behind the leading prow of his widow's peak, but his mustache had kept its color. His look from Michael to Sam was serious, and he nodded at Sam with a kind of grudging respect.
“Hell, Sam,” he said. “When you told me you could get him here to meet me, I didn't think you'd manage it.” He turned back to Michael. “I appreciate you coming, Mr. Westen.”
Michael's brief glance at Sam Axe should have blown a smoking hole through him the size of a basketball, but his gaze was impassive as he turned back to FBI Special Agent Macauley Harris, who had spent months with his partner, Special Agent Morris Lane, keeping Michael under government surveillance.
“It's my pleasure, Agent Harris,” said Michael, smiling broadly. “What can I do for the FBI?”
Harris scowled and sat back, and they were interrupted by a waitress, a pretty, tough-looking Cuban, maybe twenty years old, with fine proud breasts she used to advantage.
“Two more tumblers,” Michael told her. “And our own pitcher of iced tea.”
“I was thinking of a bottle of Dos Ecces...” began Sam, and trailed off, looking at Michael's You're in enough trouble face, and finished, “...but now that I'm thinking about it, that iced tea sounds mighty refreshing. Extra lemons, though, honey, nice and tart, if you know what I mean.”
Her eyes traveled up and down Sam, dismissing him. “I know exactly what you mean.”
Sam laughed. “Oh, I'll bet you do!”
“Sam...” warned Michael, and nodded politely to the waitress, who returned it with a smile and headed for the bar.
Harris had sat stonily through this interplay, and waited until the waitress was out of range before he sat forward and said, “This has nothing to do with the Bureau, Mr. Westen. Strictly personal. And I mean strictly. I pay you in nothing but cold, hard cash, no documents or information or messages about your damned burn notice. It might have escaped your attention but there are things going on in this world that have nothing to do with your espionage career.”
“You came to me, Agent Harris,” said Michael neutrally. “I didn't come to you.”
“And I'll pay you a fair price for your services, just like anybody else you've dealt with here in Miami. But those are my ground rules. Cash and carry, or he can take his chances.”
“He who?” asked Michael, sitting forward.
Harris didn't give an inch. “My terms?”
Michael sat back and ran the tip of his thumb across his mouth. The waitress appeared with the tumblers of ice, two sliced lemons on a plate and a pitcher of sparkling brown iced tea. Michael smiled his thanks, poured himself a glass, and took a long pull. Sam busied himself with lemon slices and sugar, before pouring tea over it all, and shaking it in his glass. He winked at Harris, as if to say, “It's all over with, you've got him.”
Michael glared at his friend before returning to Harris. “All right, Agent Harris,” he said. “Cash and carry. Who's 'he?'”
“He's Elpidio Fernando Sanchez. Well, he was. I remember him as Pidi. Little boy lived three houses down, skinny brown kid with a high-pitched laugh running under sprinklers in the summer time. These days he's Muhammad Islam Yusuf. Converted to Islam back... 1999, 2000 maybe. He was seventeen then. You'd see him in the Seven-Eleven arguing with newspapers about how Israel deserved what it got for repressing Palestine, you know. The West was at war with the Muslims, and the Muslims could never win, but they'd always be right. Nine-Eleven came along, and it was like somebody plugged this kid into a light socket or something. Number of people died, didn't seem to sink in with him, he was just electrified that these Muslims struck against America, and won.”
“Charming kid,” said Michael, sourly.
Harris grunted. “Tell me about it. Anyway, not long after that, he heard about John Walker Lindh, remember him? Pampered suburban kid from California who'd been captured fighting for the Taliban? Well, Pidi – excuse me, Muhammad – decided that was the best idea he'd ever heard. Then he pretty well disappeared.” Harris looked across at Michael. “Damn if he didn't manage to get himself over to Pakistan and seek out the Taliban, join up. Got from there into Al Qaeda, and before he knew it he was making bombs – he was pretty good at chemistry and stuff, before he dropped out of school – and figuring out ways to ship them out to the field without them being found. Taught them a lot about masking compounds and so on. It got hot for him pretty quickly, though, so, they moved him over to Europe, had him recruiting for local cells. Apparently, quite a success story for them.”
“I just like this kid better and better,” said Michael.
“Look at it this way, Mike,” said Sam, “You may not take the job, but you can't claim Mac here whitewashed the kid to get you on board.”
“True enough,” said Michael.
Harris took another drink. “About a year ago, he was brought back to Pakistan, to one of the central camps. First thing they did was honor him with a stoning. One of the women had been caught with lipstick. He got to cast the first stone. First time he was directly involved with a death, and, well... You know how it is. It's different. It's all real. He's seen more stonings of women, seen men beaten, maimed, in the villages they control. And he started thinking that maybe that's not what Muhammad had in mind. He's remembering seeing Muslims and Christians and Jews here in the States, all working together to fund homeless shelters and food kitchens. So he left.”
Harris poured more tea from the pitcher, took one of the lemon slices, and squeezed it into his drink. “Well, you know how those folks are about Apostasy. They get him again, and they're going to behead him. But there's more. He's got intel. He's got the recruiting networks in the U.K. and Spain and Portugal. Do you have any idea what we could do with that stuff? It's huge. It's huge. They'd kill him to protect that, anyway.”
Michael sat back. “Okay, so you take him back, you pump him for intel, you ship him off to Gitmo. I don't see my role.”
“He's back here in Miami. He's hiding out. There's an Al Qaeda cell here that wants to kill him.”
“And you want...?” asked Michael.
“I want him. I want his intel, I want his knowledge. I want...” Harris looked up at Michael. “Listen, I remember this smiling, happy kid who ran through sprinklers. I want... I need to know how he went from that to...” He paused again, pulled at his iced tea. “Okay, listen. You read any coverage of the Seven-Seven bombings in London? It was the same thing. Three nice young kids, and a teacher everybody loved. Friend of one of the kids said, 'If you knew Shezzi' – that was his nickname – 'you would love him.' Kind of kid who'd help old ladies across the street, and he ended up blowing himself and a bunch of innocent commuters to hamburger on a double-decker bus. You ask yourself, How did that happen? And that happened, at least partly, because a kid I remember running under my sprinkler helped turn him into a monster. And someone right here in Miami turned little Pidi into that monster. There are kids in England, in Spain, in Portugal, right now, being turned into more monsters. And there're kids who will be unless someone can stop it. I want to stop it... But I don't want him in Gitmo. I don't know if everybody deserves a second chance. But I think little Pidi does.”
“Does he?” asked Michael. He was suddenly aware again of the small, puckered dimple, down low on his left side, remembered the grim face of Fiona Glenanne, lit by muzzle-flash. “Well, maybe he does at that. I'll need to meet him. If I take the job, what does it pay?”
“Ten thousand,” said Harris. “Lemuel, my oldest, got a full scholarship to Harvard.” he grinned. “That's freed up some funds.”
“Well, then,” said Michael, standing up, “tell Lemuel congratulations from me, and call me when you've set up the meet. I'll start looking for angles.”
As Michael placed a Ten on the table to cover his and Sam's drinks, Harris reached, put a hand on his forearm again. “Listen, about that crack earlier... I know you're not just interested in yourself and whoever burned you. Hell, Morris and I learned that much, at least. I'm just... This is hard. You understand?”
Michael actually did smile then, a small creasing of his lips as he glanced at Harris. “It's all right, Agent Harris. Thank you.”
One fact of life for spies is that you can't always pick your friends. The business of secrets is dirtier than, say, manufacturing -- maybe even Cable TV -- and everyone in it does things they're ashamed of. You learn to set some of your personal convictions aside, and let the ends justify the means.
But sometimes, that's pretty hard, and, after 9/11, any American who can hear the words “Taliban” and “Al Qaeda” without a flash of rage is probably not to be trusted. You die fast in this job, though, if you can't get control of your emotions. Follow your heart into disaster once or twice, and you learn to get a grip.
“So, Michael...” Fiona's eyes were bright with mischief. “You're working for an Al Qaeda recruiter now?”
“So far, I'm just going to meet with him,” said Michael. “Learn the situation. See how I feel about it.”
“See just how low you can go?” Fiona asked, and Michael and Sam looked up at her sharply.
“How long ago was it you were working for the IRA?” asked Sam.
“What's that supposed to mean?” she spat.
“It means,” shot back Sam, “that you're in no position to call anybody else low. I was in London in December of '83. I remember the Harrods bombing.”
“Six people died, Sam. 9/11 took out--”
“That just means your buddies weren't as good at it! I'm supposed to be--”
“Enough!” Michael's voice was a whipcrack. “This is not productive. All I'm doing is deciding whether or not to take a job.”
“Well, I believed in my cause!” said Fiona.
“You believed in adrenaline!” muttered Sam.
Fiona opened her mouth to fire back an answer, But Michael put a hand on her arm. “He's got a point, Fiona. You know that. I know all you were actively involved in was conflict with armed military, but money you brought in gun-running paid for St Mary Axe and Bishopsgate.”
She sat back as if he'd slapped her. “Jaysus, Michael!”
Michael's eyes widened. It was the first time her accent had slipped since she'd adopted it, and for those two words, her voice was pure Belfast. “Fi...”
“Is that what you think, Michael?” Fiona, her voice East-Coast American again, looked down at her hands in her lap. “I'm no better than bin Laden?”
Sam's mouth was a hard line, his eyes concerned as he looked back and forth from Michael to Fiona.
“Fi...” Michael sank down in front of her and covered her hands with his own. “You stopped. You were out of the Provos long before the Ceasefire.”
Her hands clenched under Michael's. “Too many pubs. Too many discotheques. Too many...”
“Too many,” sad Sam, quietly. He reached across, touched her shoulder. “I'm sorry Fi. I was out of line.”
“No, you weren't,” she murmured. “I was.” She turned back to Michael. “Do you really think he's changed?”
“I'll know that when I talk to him.” Michael said. “But I know he's valuable, and it's worth finding out.”