Dust and darkness was his world as Mabry felt the truck rumble under his seat. They had been moving him around from camp to camp due to drone attacks for so long that time no longer had meaning. The mission was supposed to be a simple in and out, gathering intelligence on a terrorist cell operating in the Malfour Province of Eastern Calonistan, a small country bordering Afganistan and Iran. Most people traveling through it barely paid it a second thought. Another line on a map, the mission controller told him, how hard could it be?
He was to meet his contact in the village called M’Leod while acting as a helper for the relief mission stationed at the primitive hospital the settlement hosted. His cover held up for about two weeks before he was grabbed outside the local bazaar while shopping for supplies. One minute he was haggling with a round shopkeeper and his portly wife and the next a hood was thrown over his head and he was shuffled off to a vehicle.
He coughed under the rough burlap hood that the militants has placed over his head that blocked his vision but not the dust that seeped through the fabric’s pores and into his throat. He worked at the rope that bound his wrists together and silently thanked his luck that they hadn’t picked up on using the new nylon wrist ties that were becoming more and more popular. Still, the ligatures bit into his skin as he wiggled his hands and he stopped as he felt the truck stop and hands force him by his elbows to his feet.
He felt the oppressive heat ease as he felt himself being led indoors and shoved into a chair and the hood removed. His blue eyes hurt as they adjusted to a set of bright spotlights that shone down from atop a light bar fixed to an expensive video camera that appeared out of place in the hovel. Behind him, a large blue and white flag was tacked to the rear wall. Mabry recognized the banner symbol for the Cloud Brigade and realized the purpose of the set. His cover story as a Canadian independent journalist covering relief efforts had held up for the most part but the whispers from across the room told him that his cover had been blown. But by whom?
His captors wore black hoods with holes cut out for eyes and mouths. He blew strands of brown hair out of his eyes and made a random mental note to get a haircut once he was free. A small battered coffee table was brought in and set in front of him. His chair was pulled up to it as a sheet of paper was slapped down on the table top. Mabry looked up at the figure and studied the brown eyes behind the hood. “I’m not your enemy.” He said in Arabic.
The figure tapped the paper before leaning close to his ear. “I speak for the Cloud. You’re worse than our enemy. You’re a spy for the American Government here to destroy our lives. We will use you to send a message to your handlers that we are not to be trifled with.”
“Ending a sentence with a preposition?” Mabry replied, hearing chuckles from behind him before the Speaker backhanded him with a slender gloved hand, snapping his head back. He caught a glimpse of tinted eye liner around the eyes as the stars cleared. Eye Liner? “Struck a nerve, did I?”
The Speaker raised a hand and then moved it to adjust it around something at her throat. Mabry recognized the distinctive oval shape of a portable voice changer as his ropes were cut under the watchful glare of automatic rifles. She tapped the paper again. “You will read this statement or you will die. This is not a negotiation.”
Mabry picked up the paper and read it, listening to the click of a cigarette lighter as the leader put a filtered cigarette to their lips. The statement was crudely written in English and he fought off the urge to suggest corrections to spelling and grammar. “If I read this, I’m fairly certain that you will kill me anyway once I’ve served your purpose.” He shook his head as he put the paper down and pushed it away. “I’m no spy and I’m not worth a ransom. You’d be better off just killing me now.”
He felt the heat of the cigarette as the tip was brought close to his right cheek. “There are many ways to die. Our only choice is how and when.”
He twitched, his skin coming into contact with the burning coal. He jerked his face away as the Speaker dropped the cigarette and cursed as a stray ember landed on her dark Battle Dress uniform. She brushed the offending spark away and pulled a pistol from a holster on her belt. She made a show of slapping him across the face with the butt end before replacing it. She waved her comrades from the room and leaned in close to his ear. “I know who you are, Mr. Mabry.” She whispered in perfect English. “Consider your options carefully.” She turned smartly on one heel and walked away, the only sound behind her was the sound of the hovel’s door creaking shut.
Mabry groaned silently as he rubbed his jaw. Whoever was speaking for the Cloud Brigade here was smarter than what he had come up against so far and that scared him more than the prospect of death. Still, there was a way out of any trap and he had to find it. Consider your options carefully, she had told him. In English? It became obvious to him that she was dropping him a clue but what? As she was whispering in his ear, her compatriots were oblivious to the language change so what she was saying had to have been meant for him alone. Was she on his side? Lack of proper nutrition and sleep for weeks had dulled his reflexes but he sensed an opportunity. A twinge in his back reminded him to conserve his strength and wait for the right moment. He sighed and continued to scan his surroundings.
The video camera caught his eye. Rising slowly out of the chair, he studied the Panasonic AG-AC90 in detail as it rested on its custom mounted tripod. Though a few years old, the black camera with the wide hood surrounding the lens was still regarded as state of the art and obviously set the Cloud back at least a couple of grand. He overheard voices outside and for the briefest of moments, wondered why they had left him alone in the room. He traced the audio/video patch cable to a small recorder and let out a frustrated sigh as he noticed another thinner cable that snaked its way behind the unit and up the wall. He traced the cable with his eyes until it ended at a small web cam that had been crudely mounted in the ceiling. He shook his head and trudged back to the chair. A section of the worn flooring creaked under his feet. He pressed down and felt the wood give under the pressure. He heard movement outside and took his place back in the chair as the door flung open and his captors reentered the room.
Mabry felt his options slip away as the statement was slapped back down in front of him. He watched as one of the terrorists took their place behind the camera and switched on the recording lamp. “Well, here we are again.” He said as he picked up the paper. “You do realize that no one watching your video will believe that I wasn’t coerced into this?”
The camera operator nodded and made a gesture to the two standing behind Mabry. Battered but deadly AK-47 automatic rifles appeared, their muzzles trained at the back of Mabry’s head. “Mr. Mabry, Minion of the Great Satan, You will now read the statement in front of you.” He recognized the pistol that appeared as a Glock 17, an efficient and deadly nine millimeter weapon. It had been custom fitted with a noise suppressor and as she raised it level with his forehead. “Have you considered your options?”
Mabry nodded and raised the paper. As he read the prepared statement, he noticed the camera’s recording lamp blink several times in a familiar pattern. He didn’t catch it at first but as he read, his mind analyzed the flashes. Two long flashes followed by one quick, another quick flash, and one long flash. He kept on reading aloud while his mind processed what he was seeing. Get? Get what? When the lamp flashed out the letter D, he realized the message and dropped to the floor. The Glock made a sound like a large dictionary being slammed on a table top and the two terrorists fell to the floor. Another shot disabled the web cam in the ceiling and the video recorder. The remaining terrorist put her pistol away and held up her hands. “We don’t have much time. If you want to get out of here alive, you need to follow my instructions.”
“Why should I believe you?” Mabry looked down at the bodies. “If you were so willing to kill your own people, how do I know that you won’t just shoot me once my back is turned?”
“If I wanted you dead, you’d already be in the ground.” She walked over and rummaged through the dead men’s pockets. She retrieved a set of car keys and tossed them at Mabry. “Moustafa’s car is parked around back. Take it and go. There is a landing strip about four kilometers from the highway. There will be a plane waiting. Get on it and leave.”
Mabry eyed the keys. “Why are you helping me?”
“We don’t have time for this.” She stalked over and with the edge of a combat knife, cut off one of the spare buttons sewed to the inside tail of his shirt. She held the button up to him before slipping it into a pocket. “This is a GPS targeting coordinator. You were planted with it before you were inserted in-country. You needed to be a prisoner in order to throw off suspicion and get this device to me. Now that I have it, your part is done and I can pick up where you left off.”
“I was set up.”
“Grow up, Mr. Mabry. You were utilized as any other intelligence asset. Central Command needed the locations of those camps.” She looked around the room. “Now we need to get you out of here. You can’t leave through the door because the Cloud has snipers stationed at several points overlooking the street.” She tapped her hooded chin. “How can we get you out of here?”
Mabry gestured toward the floor. “What about through the floor? The boards seem loose enough to remove. If there is a crawl space, I might be able to fit through it.”
“You have no idea what’s down there, do you?” She reached down and pulled the loose section of flooring away. Underneath, in a slit trench, a thin stream of human waste flowed under the house.
Mabry watched the stream of waste flow by and shuddered. “I really don’t want to jump down there. There has to be another way.” He pointed. “It’s shit.”
Even through the disguise, he could see her nose wrinkle from the stench that made its way out of the hole. “This is the only way out and we’re running short on time. Get in.” She put a hand on his arm. “There’s one last thing I need you to do to make this believable.”
“I need you to knock me out.”
“That’s crazy.” He said. I’m not hitting a woman though after that pistol slap you gave me earlier, I’m sorely tempted.”
“If you don’t, you’ll blow your cover and neither of us will get out of here alive.” The door began to shake and angry voices thundered outside. “There’s no time for arguing.”
“I hate this job.” Mabry said, swinging his fist into the side of her face. The pistol fell from her hand as she crumpled to the floor. He scooped up the pistol and dropped into the trench. He barely had time to pull the wood flooring over him and crawl away when he heard the door smash open and angry footsteps stomped around above. Holding his breath, the best he could, he began combat crawling along the trench until he reached the open air. The battered light blue Mercedes was right where he was told and after dispatching an unfortunate stranger who happened around the corner, he got in and drove out of the town as alarms began to ring out. The countryside was devoid of large vegetation along the deserted highway as he sped to the rendezvous point. Ditching the car near the roadway, he hiked up a gravel road until he reached the landing strip. After that, it was a small matter of getting airborne and exiting Calonistan airspace.
The DeHavilland Twin-Otter didn’t have much in the way of amenities but there was a bathroom and he found wet wipes in the first aid kit. He cleaned up the best he could but the smell of human waste was one that he felt he could never completely scrub away. He returned to his threadbare seat and fought to push out the sound of the turboprops as they chewed through the air at five hundred eighty pounds of fuel per hour. At that rate, they would land in Bahrain in just under four hours barring any interference from Iran during the overflight. The Twin-Otter had the range to make the distance but with little margin for error and if a mistake was made, that’s all she wrong. He mentally calculated the range in his head and the result did little to ease his apprehension as he watched the desert sands of southern Iran fill the horizons. A few fighters from the Iranian Air Force flew alongside for several miles to get a look at the plane but they lost interest and flew off after jotting down the tail numbers. If they only knew, he thought as he pulled down the window shade and reclined his chair back. Four hours under threat of fighter and SAMs would be an eternity. He closed his eyes and cleared his mind.
When he woke again, the Iranian coastline was receding behind him in favor as the blue waters of the Persian Gulf as radio chatter from Bahrain filtered out from the open cockpit door. Mabry took a moment to exhale as the pilot turned around and flashed him a toothy smile. No doubt, Langley would have notified the Bahrainians to wave him to land and he longed for a shower and a hot meal. It didn’t take long for the airport at Galali to give them landing clearance. Once the plane had come to a stop and the doors opened, he stepped out into the cool evening air and used the pilot’s cell phone to make a call. Within minutes, an unmarked van from the Embassy in Al Manamah came to pick him up and although he had to deal with the disgusted looks on the driver and escort’s faces, they were courteous enough to take him to see the Ambassador.
Mark Carter had been the Ambassador to Bahrain for eight years and the former Georgia Governor had not lost a bit of his Macon accent. He shook his graying head as he handed Mabry a double scotch and bade him sit on the standard issue couch in his office. Unlike his predecessor, Carter wasn’t influenced by largess and insisted on replacing all the ‘gifts’ that the host government had seen to bestow on them with the original furniture that had sat in storage. Everything was cleaned, refinished and polished to a bright sheen before set up and organized according to Carter’s wife, who was well known, and very vocal, about her dislike for the posting. Carter wore his dark suit like armor and reminded Mabry of a relic of older and more genteel times. “Jesus, Tom, you look like Hell.”
Mabry took a quick gulp from his glass. “Thank you, Sir, it’s been an adventure.”
“I know you’ve been through the mill but Langley wants you checked out by the medical staff here before we send you back to the States. In the meantime, I made all the usual calls and got you a place to stay overnight. Come back at Nine in the Morning to pick up your plane tickets home.” Carter reached into a drawer and pulled out a small leather wallet that he tossed to Mabry. “That was Express Mailed to us this morning. I figured you’d want that to pick up some new clothes.” He took a few steps toward Mabry and stopped. “Tom, I’d burn that outfit. The address to the hotel is in your wallet.”
Mabry forced a grin as he shook Carter’s hand. “Thanks, Mark, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The Ambassador watched Mabry leave the office before he picked up his desk phone and dialed. “He’s on his way.”
Mabry felt insecure as he trudged across the polished lobby and checked in at the Bahrain Carlton. Checking into a high end hotel looking like a beggar from the bad part of town with no luggage and a slight odor emanating from his dirty clothes earned him more than his share of disdaining looks as he signed the register and presented his ID to the desk clerk. The clerk, an officious older man, clucked his tongue as he pulled the reservation up on his computer and handed over the room key. Mabry gave him a quick smile and bid a hasty withdrawal across the black and white star burst pattern on the lobby floor and into the nearest elevator. He got off on the seventh floor and made his way to Room 706 where he opened the door and took a moment to collapse onto the bed. He was so tired that he didn’t notice the figure sitting in one of the cream colored chairs with the back facing the balcony.
He lifted his head from the soft comforter. “Seriously? You couldn’t give me a moment’s peace?”
Colonel Miles Dawson smiled as he lit a cigarette, the gold Zippo lighter glinting in the dim lighting. “Thomas, you should know by now that The Company prefers to be expeditious when it comes to debriefing an agent coming from a prisoner situation.” He waved a hand across his thin nose before switching on a nearby lamp. “Of course, waiting until you’ve had a chance to shower and change into clean clothes might have helped.”
Mabry rolled off the bed and glared at Dawson, his fists balling up and his anger replenishing his strength. “I should punch you in the face for setting me up, Dawson. You should have told me that I was your drone beacon for hunting down those Cloud Brigade camps. There was no contact to meet.”
Dawson shook his head. “Ah, but you did meet your contact. That young lady with the left hook was your contact. It just took a while to get you into the position we needed you to be in order to make the meeting.” His smile was as practiced as any Mabry had ever seen. “All in all, I think you did quite well. We had to make your capture seem as real as possible so we couldn’t tell you everything. Thanks to your efforts, the Cloud Brigade’s presence in Calonistan is finished. They can’t go west because the Revolutionary Guards in Iran will have them for lunch and our forces are waiting for them east in Afghanistan. Either way, you’ve effectively destroyed a very dangerous terrorist organization.”
“Thanks to me.” Mabry echoed. He stepped up and pulled Dawson to his feet while removing the officer’s pistol from the inside of his gray pinstriped suit. He brought the pistol’s muzzle under his chin. “I’ve given fifteen years of service to The Company and the US. Give me one reason why I shouldn’t empty this magazine into your skull right now.”
“We’re one block away from Bahrainian CID Headquarters.” Dawson’s voice wavered, his brown eyes pierced Mabry’s soul. “One sound of gunfire and this place will be crawling with Internal Security and they won’t think twice about killing a violent infidel like yourself who has no diplomatic standing whatsoever.” He pushed Mabry away and smoothed out the wrinkles in his jacket. “If you would please return my sidearm, I’ll finish what I came here to say.”
Mabry pulled his trigger finger out of the gun before handing it over. “Fine, speak your piece.”
Dawson replaced the weapon inside his jacket and picked up the cigarette that had fallen to the carpet. He took a quick drag on it before stubbing it out in an ashtray. “The Director’s very pleased with your work, Thomas. So pleased in fact that he wants to promote you to the Domestic Desk. Once you’re back in the States, you are to assume your new post in Washington DC, after taking two weeks of mandatory leave.” He clapped Mabry on the back. “You have a bright future ahead of you.”
Mabry wasted no time thinking. He shook his head. “No way, I’m done. I quit.”
“You know as well as anyone that no one ever leaves The Company.” Dawson said. “Think very carefully about your next words.”
Mabry paused before bending his head back to laugh. “You don’t think I’ve thought about this before you stuck me in that shit hole country for two months of bad food, eating with my fingers, and slit trenches for toilets?” He said, the pent up rage thundering out through his voice. “As much as you want to believe otherwise, this is still just a job and I am just an employee who has had it.” He grabbed Dawson by the lapels and swung hard, catching the older man in the jaw with a fierce upper cut. “Consider this my resignation. I’ll find my own way back home and if you think about coming after me, I have copies of every classified operation that I’ve been involved with over the past fifteen years and it’s all set to be released to a select group of reporters and politicians would like nothing more than to crawl up your ass with a microscope over the next hundred years.” He shoved Dawson back. “Now get out. I still have the room until the Morning.”
Dawson adjusted his tie but his expression never changed as he stared at Mabry. “I can see that you need time to relax. I’m going to pretend that this is all the result of PTSD and simply advise you to return home as scheduled. Once we all sit down, cooler heads will prevail.”
“In a pig’s eye.”
Dawson smiled. “Perhaps. Good Night, Thomas. I look forward to your return.”
Mabry woke with a start and fumbled around in the dark until his fingers found themselves wrapped around a familiar smooth surface. He twisted the cap off the scotch bottle and poured a little of the burning liquid down his throat. The whiskey did little more than to act like a snooze button for his memory. The early morning sunrise peeked through the shades and annoyed him with unbridled optimism. He took the bottle with him onto the balcony.
“Here’s to your health, World,” he raised the bottle. “Four years later.”