It was early in the afternoon. I thought about trying to make conversation with the apricot, but how to proceed? Did he have any idea about Moof’s operation, or even his occupation? I tried to remember if my old friend had mentioned any details in front of this thickness… no, he hadn’t. He hadn’t spoken openly until we were on the bikes, by the river. So probably the apricot was hired help, although Moof’s reticence could just as easily have been an acknowledgement of the historic simplicity of turning vehicles into recording devices. Still, I decided to avoid the awkwardness inherent in engaging a foreign stranger, that terrible feeling after “do you speak English?” when you’re never really sure how truthful they’ve been. Instead, I looked out the window and tried to get ideas from the countryside. Mostly, I was unsuccessful.
The thing about any good intelligence work is this: it is reliant on people. Not just human sources, or HUMINT as the old acronymical stalwarts insist, but also people who have no idea they are the targets of deep observation and analysis. A Good Dog hast to get in there, read the papers, get drunk and go to church, listen to schoolteachers and their little charges, hear the jokes as well as the political propaganda. If we’d spent a little more time learning the humor of the Soviets… well, it wouldn’t have happened any faster, but we might’ve saved a lot of money.
I knew all this. I knew the right course of action would have been:
A) Tell the apricot to drop me downtown and take off.
B) Secure hotel rooms at two different hotels, on opposite sides of the river.
C) Locate a bar.
and then stay for a couple of weeks. But I knew the contents of my wallet, where the company had deposited my cash expense account, and I knew the contents of my checking account. I could stay anonymous as long as the cash held out, but once I used a card of some kind I was On Record, and I didn’t know enough to be On Record just yet. Top of that, I didn’t trust Moof Curtis and his preposterous promise of ten thousand a week. Last thing I wanted was an unfunded vacation this far from home. Besides, I’d told the girlfriend I’d only be two days in Buffalo. Jesus, I had to decide what to do about the girlfriend.
So instead of ingratiating myself with the local gentry, as they say, I sat in the back of the car as it rumbled along, and I stared out the window and didn’t even collect information from the one human available. I popped a pill and chased it with my last small bottle from the inbound flight. I really hated traveling.
I tried to piece together what Moof was up to. He’d definitely played me, now that I had a chance to stop and think about it. He’d talked about old times to establish a connection, kept flipping me on conversation points and then physical locations to keep me off-balance, and pushed all of my personal buttons concerning politics, devotion, and Right. He even fucked me right in my well-documented frustration about ineffective policy. Jesus, I was supposed to be there to get answers, and he’d flipped me into a job interview where the only possible result was me as an accessory to federal conspiracy. I even knew he was a hustler, and I practically cried when he touched me. “Tell me what you need, Brother…” Embarrassing. This was beyond textbook stuff. He was good.
The landscape outside the window, as we moved out of the city and toward the airport, took on a zoetrope quality. I spread my fingers against the window and tried to slow it down, to peer through the slots and see the individual frames. Pick it apart. Do your job. Figure it out.
And then the paranoia started. He must have known I’d see through his game, right? His bugout code was BACKGAMMON? Seriously? He staged our initial meeting in that office that wasn’t even his… why? To show me how easy it was to alter perception, to point out to me how easy I am to fool. To establish his dominance in his own playground. Did the bike vendor know we were coming? Oh fuck, were the bikes bugged? I thought over everything I’d said… had I actually agreed to do this?
No, I told myself. Everything I’ve said so far can be explained away as an old friend having pity on the deranged fantasies of a frustrated operative. Nothing serious. Nothing, well, treasonous.
Ten thousand dollars a week. That was some scratch. Forty thousand a month, half a million in a year, and he’d described a two-year commitment. A million. The risks were high, but what he was asking for didn’t warrant that kind of payday. Was he truly trying to help an old friend? Trying to make amends for all the times he’d screwed me one way or another? Trying to reward me so grotesquely as to ensure my loyalty? Maybe he couldn’t count on me to be a Champion of the Little Guy in a region I didn’t know, for a people I couldn’t care less about. Maybe things were going to get worse before they got better, and he needed to know I would stick. I had to admit it was a smart investment.
I made a decision. Facts:
- Moof Curtis wasn’t playing me level. He was a lying shitbag spying lowlife who (professionally) convinced people to finger their sisters; there was no way he was doing Correct & Right here, not even if he was hopelessly in love with large-breasted Native twins who felt okay about sharing a man.
- My prospects were shady at best. I should walk away. But at the very least, I needed to watch my back, trust no one, and be prepared to bugout on ten minutes’ notice. Pretty much Standard Operating Procedure.
- As a mid-forties freelancer with limited assets and no health insurance, I could use the money. I would really like to just build furniture for a living. And lately, there was blood in the toilet. Mental note to get that checked.
- If by some remarkable stroke everything Moof had told me was level, this was a great chance to do things the right way and deliver a colossal finger to Da Man. Which would be hilarious.
I would dip my toe in the water. I would bite the bait.
It took a lot longer than I thought, but as the sun was setting the apricot pulled through an open gate on the south side of the airport. He parked just under the concourse and got out, retrieving my carry-on from the trunk, where it had been for the duration of my visit. I poured out of the back seat, a little more liquid than I’d expected: probably the result of mixing the bottle with the pill. I’ll never learn, I suppose.
The same suit that had greeted me was at my side again. He hoped my visit had been satisfactory; I hoped he’d been in the airport bar. We chuckled and he pointed and I slapped and grumbled my way across the wet tarmac to the airstairs of the waiting short-hop plane. No one asked to look in my carry-on, and no one cared to look at my passport, which was a terrible likeness anyway. The rain had stopped.