You have a lot of ideas about the life of a spy, and most of them involve danger, adventure and excitement: Fights and explosions and car chases. And the truth of espionage is that there's more of that than the actual agencies would like you to believe. It really isn't all bland bureaucrats reading foreign newspapers in some office building in Washington. But still, there's an awful lot of your time spent just sitting around waiting for something to happen. Ask any spy, and he'll take gunfire over hours in an empty room any day of the week.
The “Model Unit” of the Palm-Frond Condominiums was cheerily decorated in Cuba Chic. An artfully tattered Cuban flag hung on one wall, and the furniture was all Rattan and pale silk. The three men sat tensely on the edges of a couch and chair that seemed to have been stolen from the set of the “Miami Vice” remake.
“Where are they going, again?” asked Yusuf.
Bond glared at him, but Michael just quietly said, “A woman named Veronica. Old, uh, friend of Sam's. I spoke to Sam at my Mom's house and he'd made the arrangements. They'll leave there and meet us at the marina.”
“Right, right,” breathed the small brown man. “And he said mi Madre seemed all right? She's, you know...coping?”
“So far,” Michael answered.
Yusuf ran brown hands down his face. “She is going to kill me!”
“She loves you, Muhammad,” said Bond, his voice surprisingly gentle. “Whatever you've done, she's always your mother.”
Michael looked up at the clock. 2:07. It wouldn't be time to move on this until 3:30 or so. He sighed.
“They're going to meet us at the marina?” asked Yusuf, again.
“That's right, at the Marina,” Michael replied as Bond sighed.
Being associated with some distinctive piece of hardware, like a black 1974 Dodge Charger, as I said before, can be a problem. Only in movies do successful spies have a trademark. But there are times when that handicap can be turned to your advantage. Tradecraft has a lot in common with stage magic, and as much as the man in the tuxedo wants you not to look in one direction, he wants to make sure you do look in another. And that's where the charger comes in.
The watchers by the garage were pretty good. Michael only found the third when the first and second glanced over at him. He ducked almost low enough to be hidden by a Taurus wagon, and had to spend an extra few seconds crouched behind the Volvo before he could be sure they'd see him ducking into the garage and slipping around the frame of the door to the stairwell.
He took a couple of extra moments looking around and under the Charger. The smart move for the cell would be to watch it and try to follow Michael where he was going, but his experience wasn't that al Qaeda always – or even often – chose smart over destructive, and it would do their plans no good if the thing blew sky-high when he put the key into the ignition.
But these guys were smarter than the average jihadist, and the only unpleasantness Michael met when he turned the key was the Charger's all-too-usual stubborn, grinding unwillingness to start. He juggled gas and ignition, and coaxed the engine to life.
The old Dodge V-8, though, was like a high-school athlete. Hard to get to wake up in the morning, but, once roused, a true powerhouse, roaring with solid confidence as Michael spun it down and through the six-storey garage, letting the tires squeal loudly amidst the concrete walls.
The Charger burst forth from the garage in an explosion of splinters from the wooden barricade, and Michael swore quietly to himself while fishtailing loudly around the corner, thinking what replacing it would add to the expenses on this operation. For a long piece of wood painted yellow and black, a traffic barricade was terrifically expensive.
There was a long, tense moment before the headlights showed up behind him, and then Michael could relax, knowing he'd be leading a cell of homicidal terrorists back to his client.
When true fanatics swear upon your death, they're like the terminator. Criminals, you can deal with by making killing you more expensive and troublesome than leaving you alone, and most governments can be persuaded not to kill you in exchange for cooperation, but the real crazies will hunt you forever if that's what it takes, and absolutely will not stop until you are dead. On the other hand, very few have Austrian accents. Anyway, if terrorists want to kill you, the only way to stop them is to let them. And that can mean bringing them home when the time is right.
Michael actually had to circle the condo building to bring the Charger back to where he could park it somewhere visible. Instinct had taken over for a moment, and he'd forgotten he wanted it seen. It was almost two full minutes before the Pontiac cruised slowly by, driver making a great show of not looking at the condo. Michael heard it speed up almost immediately thereafter, and quickly fade into the distance.
It was another five minutes before the rented Buick Regal showed up, and the lean man with the dark mustache stepped out of it. “Mike? You there?”
Michael stepped forward from the shadows, threw the keys, and his brother caught them deftly. “Don't get cute, Nate. Just drive it to the mall.”
Nate's face froze. “Yeah, thanks, Mike. Appreciate the vote of confidence.”
“It's serious this time, Nate. You could get hurt.”
“All right, all right! Straight back to Mom's, then!”
Michael shook his head. “The mall, Nate. If all goes well, you can pick it up tomorrow, and keep it for a week. But I don't want it sitting in front of Mom's house or yours until I'm sure these guys are gone, you got that?”
Nate sighed. “All right, Mike, all right, I got it.”
Michael allowed himself a bit of a smile. “Good man, Nate. You're really helping me here. Don't think it's nothing.”
Bombs are nasty business, and you never want to be near them when they explode. But sometimes, you have no choice. If you have to let someone think they blew you up without actually going sky-high, then you want the kitchen or the bathroom.
In the kitchen, the place to hide is the refrigerator. Not behind it. In it. I know, I know, you spent your childhood hearing how when an old refrigerator is thrown away, the door has to be removed, and they were deathtraps for children. That comes from the old days when the fridge door had a latch that locked it from the outside. The modern fridge is held closed with a magnet, and the problem isn't getting out afterwards, but keeping it closed during the explosion.
If you're small and thin enough, the kitchen also offers the dishwasher and the oven. The bathroom may offer a decent bathtub. If it's a shower enclosure, stick to the fridge.
Bond looked sourly down into the antique iron claw-footed tub. “It's been a few years since I had to be flexible enough to get into one of these well enough to be under cover.”
“Think you'll be better off in the fridge?” asked Michael.
Bond just grunted and climbed in, sliding down to lay on his back, his knees above the level of the rim.
Michael nodded and smiled, and trotted back to the kitchen. The dishwasher and fridge both stood open. Their inner racks had been stacked neatly under the hardwood table. Yusuf was pacing in the room, running his hands back over his head nervously.
“I almost wish they'd hurry,” he told Michael.
“I know the feeling.” Michael looked again into the emptied-out space of the washer.
They kept looking out through the streetside window, and it almost killed them. Michael was never sure what led him to look back out the kitchen window at the beachfront, fifty feet behind the condo, but when he did, he saw the prow of a cigarette boat pointed right at them, a huge plume of spray rising behind it.
“Yusuf! Get in, now, now now!”
Yusuf ducked into the fridge, pulling the door behind him, and Michael glanced again back out at the leaping, driving prow, and forced himself to take his time, sitting back into the open dishwasher, sliding his legs in, reaching to pull the door shut. As he pulled up the doorway, he heard the low thrum of the boat's engines, pitch suddenly changing up to a howl as the boat leapt up the sand.
Then he was in darkness and silence, and the seconds seemed to stretch out into hours before the sudden percussive SLAMMM!!!!!! and the little metal box was flying, tumbling, with Michael inside it, feeling like he now knew what a die felt like in a game of craps aboard a ship in a hurricane.
There was a blast of heat that he did feel, and one wall of the cube as it settled into place grew warm quickly.
The sound twanged on and on in Michael's head as he shook it, trying to bring himself back to full consciousness. As near as he could tell from inside it, the washer had been thrown around inside the kitchen like dice in a cup, bouncing off walls, ceiling, counters. It had come to rest door-down, and Michael threw his weight toward the heat, knowing that the side with open flames against it was most likely not to be obstructed. Once, twice, and the dishwater teetered and fell over, and Michael sighed.
He pushed at the dishwasher door with his hands. It didn't budge. Had the latch been thrown? He reached up and touched the knob where the latch fastened, and it was bent sideways, with no hooked tongue in evidence. Not latched then: the pounding flight had bent the dishwasher out of true, wedging it shut. Michael's eyes flickered around the near-perfect darkness, saw slender orange lines around the door that showed the seal was no longer watertight, and he tried to shift backward, so he could bring his feet to bear on the door.
There was a sharp rap on the outside, and the rough Scots voice: “Westen!”
“It's jammed, Commander.”
Bond's voice sounded exasperated. “Hang on, then!”
There was silence, then a scrape, and then a metallic screech, and the door popped open. Bond stood crouched, backlit by fire, looking relaxed as he dropped the prybar. Michael slithered out of the cramped metal box, and stood, pulling his shirt up to cover his nose and mouth in the eye-smarting smoke.
“I'll get the car,” Bond said. “You fetch Yusuf.”
Michael glanced around through the smoke and flames as Bond danced agilely around smoking debris to the front door, and realized that his little hidey-hole had been blown out of the kitchen and into the living room. He turned to the kitchen doorway, and saw a growing inferno, pieces of boat and bits of appliances everywhere.
By the counter, with his back to Michael, Yusuf stood, holding a large carving knife in his left hand as if he were getting ready to slice a steak. The orange glow of the flames turned the sweaty brown of his skin into molten gold, and the lean muscles of his arms and back were as beautiful as if carved by Michelangelo. He stood perfectly still for a moment, head bowed as if in prayer, and then drew a breath, and moved. In one smooth motion, he lay his good right hand palm-up on the counter, while the left hand raised easily and fell quickly, the long, sharp kitchen blade removing the smallest three fingers of his right hand, and a web of skin connecting them. He grunted harshly, coughed in the smoke, then picked up the severed chunk of his hand, and slashed it savagely sideways across a ragged edge of torn metal from the stove, leaving the bloody web of flesh a tattered mess.
Michael stared, eyes wide, mouth a tight line.
Yusuf turned to him, tossing the bloody digits to the floor. “Souvenir,” he said. “Help them believe.” His mouth crinkled into a kind of smile. “Everybody needs to believe.”
There was a bang and whoosh of flames as an aerosol can in a cabinet went up, and the reality of the burning house caught up with them.
“Let's go,” said Michael.
In the world of secrets and lies, the word “Legend” refers to a cover story. It's all the details, many of them verifiable, of all the lies of a covert agent's life.
But sometimes spies are so interested in our tradecraft that we forget that these little words of ours have other meanings, older meanings, meanings from the real world. A world where legends are heroes or monsters. A real world where heroes and monsters are, in the end, only human.
Michael stood back in the shadows, watching, as Rosa Sanchez slid from the back of Veronica's Cadillac. The blonde woman sat stiffly behind the wheel, Sam equally stiff beside her.
Rosa's eyes swept the dock, found Mohammad Yusuf, and she ran to him, embracing him. The hiss of his breath told her he was hurt, and she stared wide-eyed down at his crudely-bandaged right hand.
“Pidi! You're hurt!”
“It's nothing, Mama. I did it to make us safe.”
“But, Pidi!” Her face and voice were profoundly shocked. “Your hand.”
“Mohammad,” said Yusuf, his voice gentle and kind and very, very firm. “My name is still Mohammad. I did awful things, Mama, in Allah's name, but I still believe in him.”
“Mohammad, Pidi, I don't care!” She embraced him again, burying her face against his chest. “I have my boy back.”
There was a sound of wind and cloth and rope, and in the pearlescent pre-dawn light, a medium-sized boat approached under carefully-managed sail. Michael trotted up, joining Bond at the deck to catch a thrown lanyard, and they pulled the vessel to the docks.
The man who jumped nimbly from deck to dock was tall and slender, with skin the color of Cafe au Lait.
“Cap'n!” His voice was deep and resonant, with the tropical flavors of the islands in his accent. “So good to see you again! How's retirement!”
“A damned sight too active for my tastes, Georges!” replied Bond with a laugh clasping the big, brown hand in both of his.
“Not if you're the man my father told me about,” replied Georges, easily.
Bond looked down. “I'd call him a damned liar, if he was here to laugh about it.”
“They's a few feet, Cap'n, o' dat Crab Key, where grass grows green and flowers sweet, an' that's all the eulogy he'll ever need.” He turned toward the embracing pair. “Mrs. Sanchez? Mr. Yusuf? I'm Georges Quarrel. Please, come aboard, the less time we we're here, the better. It'll be much of a day's sail out to motor range, and then a few more hours to Jamaica. Might may be we'll do a bit of fishing. Bring in a pus-fella or two.”
Quarrel helped his passengers aboard the boat, looking askance at Yusuf's mutilated hand, blood soaking through the crude bandage. “I'll see to that, sir,” he said, “once we're out of harbor.”
He shook Bond's hand once more, nodded over at Michael, who was standing now with Sam and Fiona and Veronica, the latter looking both confused and moved by what was going on here. “Ladies,” he boomed, “Gemmun, it's been a pleasure!”
Then Bond was tossing lines to him, something in his bearing suggesting that he'd enjoy jumping aboard and feeling the sea under him again, and Quarrel was pushing off, aiming for open water, and letting out a sheet. The wind caught the sail, and the boat was quickly receding.
Michael watched it go with an odd, contemplative half-smile.
“Sam...” Veronica's voice was hushed. “Sam, that was a lovely thing you just did.”
“I was only part of it, baby. Michael's--”
“Michael's Michael. I'm talking to you.” She took him by the hand. “Come on,” she said. “Let's go talk.”
Sam shrugged at Fiona as he let the blonde woman pull him back to the car.
Fiona returned it with a smile and a nod toward Michael. She stepped close to him. “What happened to Yusuf's hand? Hurt in the explosion?”
“You could say that,” replied Michael. “He cut off three fingers with a kitchen knife, left them as evidence. Proof of death.” He paused. “There was a moment, there, though... Maybe it was more than that. Maybe some sort of...” He trailed off, shrugged.
“Hell of an offering,” murmured Fiona, her own eyes dark.
“Well!” Bond's voice was almost hearty as he approached. “That's that, then. You did well, Westen.”
Michael nodded. “Thank you, Commander.”
Bond turned to Fi. “Miss Glenanne, it's been a pleasure.”
Her smile in return was radiant. “Could still be even more of one.”
Bond smiled. “Once upon a time, girl.”
“Why not this time?” she asked, her voice husky. Michael winced.
Bond looked back at her for a moment. “Good point,” he finally said. “Westen, the keys?”
Michael silently handed the old man the keys to the stolen Caddie, and Bond handed her into it as if it were a carriage.
As Bond rounded to the driver's door, Michael saw Fiona look down at her own right hand, her expression very still. Then the door slammed, and she smiled brightly over at Bond, and the car started easily, and spun away into Miami, leaving Michael behind, alone, in the settling dust.
Legends are heroes and monsters, and heroes and monsters are no more than men. In the grand cosmic scheme of things, questions of good and evil, sin and redemption, are way above my pay-grade. But there's one thing I do know: When you're crossing back over from the darkness to the light, there is always, always, a price to be paid.