The river was delightful if not sublime, and we moved on our bicycles with the current. I had so many questions. The tradecraft alone could have taken all afternoon. There was one question predominant in my mind.
“Tell me. How does this not end with two black helicopters and twenty guys fast-roping with the express intent of locking me away for a very long time, or preferably, double-tapping me for the Good of the Country?”
Moof Curtis thought about this for three full revolutions of his pedals, which is to say, not very long. “The only thing I can promise is that the helos won’t be black,” he said. “That is so two-thousands. But seriously, I have a cover for you, plausible deniability of course. I’m teaching a course in PoliSci at the university. For political correctness, we can’t use real country names or scenarios. You’ll be contracted to provide source materials for case management, hypotheticals involving fictional country and city names, memos and supporting documents. There’s only so much I can pay through university accounts for this, so you’ll be getting some sources of income that will surprise you.”
“Look, just make sure you pay taxes on all of it, okay? I can get you an accountant, believe me. Just say the word.”
“I do okay with TurboTax.”
“Seriously? Dude, I am going to take the word as given. My guys will be in touch next February.”
“So you’re saying if I ever get hauled up in front of Johnny Law, all I have to do is claim I’m a writer supplying hypothetical material to a Political Science professor? And given both our backgrounds, I’m supposed to claim ignorance of my employer’s secondary income?”
“Primary income, truth be told. But yeah, I’ll send you a few letters. You answer with a few letters. Establish a paper trail. Oh—important—use FedEx. There’s an existing deal with USG. We’ll work it out. You’ll have a solid paper trail to back up your involvement. What I do with your material is up to me. Your shitty little life doesn’t have to change.”
We pedaled along. He came to a stop a few meters from the vendor’s stand. “Look, I’m trying to make a difference here, okay? I’ve been here for a full tour and I just re-upped. I sit in the south, just waiting for a threat that’s never going to come, and I talk to the people and realize how ineffective we are in bringing them into the world after so many years in the dark. I’ve put assets in place, I’ve closed sales, but I can’t do everything. I need someone I can depend on, a fresh voice that can’t sound like me. I can’t go to the embassy, the foreign service officers are too stuck on nobility and rule of law. I can’t directly engage DoD without risking increased funding for equipment and salaries to the local military caste, which is counter-productive. I can’t start with corporations, because they have more analytical ability than the public-sector pukes and they’ll see through the level of subterfuge I can push out.”
“And I’m guessing company channels aren’t especially productive?”
“They’re too focused on the southern threat. They’ve never understood that the best way to protect American interests is to promote, and trust in, the basics of what we believe. Self-determination. Maximum suffrage. The right to earn a buck and keep as much of it as possible. The fucking Enlightenment, not the Inquisition. Short-term gains have dictated local manipulations which always come back to fuck us. See: Afghanistan.”
He didn’t have to tell me.
“What’s the bugout?” I only asked because every operation needed a bugout plan, a signal and course of action in which it was Every Man for Himself because the op had gone to shit. I had only needed to bugout once, and it had involved Moof Curtis. I’d never had the chance to ask him about how it had worked out for him, though I assumed he’d done at least as well as me. I’d been told to balance my body weight on my fingertips against a rough concrete wall. I’d buckled conveniently under the pressure, as any civilian would, and spilled my guts about how I felt about the political situation. After a few other indignities that I can only attribute to the personalities in question, I’d been dumped. But alive.
Moof thought about this far too little for my taste. I wanted him to really value what I was asking, feel my pain, know the danger. But the truth was this: he was a company man and I was not. Fair enough. “The bugout is BACKGAMMON.” he said. “It’s up to you to design your network, but I can guarantee a certain amount of company support in documents, et cetera.”
“BACKGAMMON. The game of kings. A combination of luck and skill to get all your pieces home. Could you be a little more obvious?”
“Well there’s no chess metaphor. When chess ends, the king is dead and no one cares who’s left on the battlefield.”
“We’ve certainly been there.”
Moof faced me and put his hand on the back of my neck. I let him. I looked in his eyes and felt the years roll along. This man, this man, who I knew I would bleed for. Had bled for. It didn’t matter how he held me. We saw each other, how we’d suborned life itself. I saw heartache, filial insufficiency, the disproportionate nature of the burden we place on the young to carry the flag until they’re old before their time. God knows what he saw in me, and I don’t believe in God. Tears welled in his eyes. I couldn’t believe them, I assumed they were part of the pitch, but I let him hold me when almost anyone else would have fared unfavorably.
“We’re going to do great things,” he said.
“Tell me what you need, Brother, and I’ll do what I can.”
He scribbled out some basics on the envelope he’d used to hook me, and put me in the car. The apricot drove me, leaving Moof to joke with the bike vendor, who was laughing like a schoolgirl seeing a meal ticket.