Writing

Precipice

The smell was terrible. Terrible but impossible to identify. Zabars, Five Guys, and Taco Bell bags were spilling out of the trash can. It was a Superfund site of rotting food that would get worse throughout the day. It was summer in New York City.

Alex made his way north on Broadway, sticking to the shade when possible. He’d just left a conference where he got paid well to talk about information security and policies. The best time to review your organization’s security protocols and best practices was 20 years ago. The second best time is today. That line always went over well. He’d even heard conference attendees parrot the line at happy hours. He stole the line from a realtor friend of his who said something similar about investing in property.

The man turned right on Columbus and went to Spin Cycle Records. He went there at least once a week on Monday or Tuesday, between 6 and 6:30.

“Jason, how’s it going? Anything good come in?”

“Hey Alex. Sure did. Roberta Flack. I haven’t put it out yet. Surprise your lady with that and you are gold.”

“Is that right?”

“Brother, you know I wouldn’t steer you wrong. Perfect for her Thursday gigs.”

“Have you told her about it yet?”

“Not a chance man. This is the stuff of surprises.”

“Great, I’ll take it. I’m going to look around a bit, too.”

“Cool.”

He walked up and down the aisles, looking at everything and nothing. There were about ten others in the shop. He was flipping through some Prince albums when a man approached him.

“I must be blind, do you see where they’ve got the Beatles?”

Alex pointed. “Right over there. But there won’t be much. The owner hates Yoko Ono. Try Bowie or the Stones if you need a Brit fix.”

“Thanks. I’ll try my luck.”

He walked back to the counter.

“Didn’t find anything?”

“I could always walk out of here with something new. Tonight I’ll just stick with the Roberta Flack. Thanks for the recommendation.”

“You got it man. Tell Kate hello for me.”

“I will.  Stop by her set, I’ll buy you a drink.”

“That sounds great.”

“See you then.”

The man stepped outside and looked at his watch. 6:30. He had four routes to choose from depending on the time of year and weather. Time for a 90 minute walk. He wasn’t worried about his status, but he didn’t know about Mr. Beatles. He was probably clean, too, but people make mistakes.

He checked the time again on his phone and then started walking. He went to a small arts supply store, bought some carbon pencils, and then pressed on. Before his second stop he turned off his phone. Colleagues of his debated this practice. He reached into his bag for a second phone, a now ancient flip phone, sent a text, pulled the battery, and put the phone away. He’d never use that phone again. 

He got to Finnegan’s 15 minutes early. He’d set the times long ago and demanded strict adherence to them. He allowed enough time to walk by the bar and watch from across the street. He lit a cigarette. When Mr. Beatles arrived he tossed the cigarette into the street. He waited and watched for a few more minutes before going in the bar.

Mr. Beatles was looking at a menu but saw Alex walk in and take a seat at a booth. Mr. Beatles joined him.

“Hello Alex.”

“Hello Paul.”

Paul smiled. “It’s been a long time.”

“It has. I saw you at a SIPA jobs fair discussion last year.” Alex held up his phone before tucking it into his coat pocket. Paul did the same.

Paul looked surprised. “You did? Yes, I’ll finish up there in a few months.”

A waitress walked up and asked if they wanted to order.

“Two Guinnesses, please,” Alex said. She walked off.

Paul said, “I like that in New York the Irish bars are actually Irish. I love that accent.”

“It’s a nice touch. Why didn’t you send a note to arrange this meeting?”

“I only found out about it last night. I didn’t want to risk any delays. Claire says hello.”

“That’s nice. She’s well?”

“Seems to be. The last time I saw her she looked tired, but she was in good spirits. Last night it was just a message. The board has authorized the project.” Paul paused to assess Alex’s reaction.

“I see.”

“This is great news, I thought you’d be more excited.”

“I’ll be excited when it’s over, and when I’ve seen that it’s been successful.”

“You don’t think it will be?”

“I think we’ll implement the project successfully. Longer term, who can tell. These things often bring with them unintended consequences.”

“True. Regardless, our competitors will be hobbled for years.”

“Our competitors have demonstrated resiliency in the past, the willingness to put aside differences in the face of adversity.”

“I don’t disagree. It’s why the board has consistently refused or delayed the project. My guess is that Kennedy’s announcement changed their calculus.”

“Hmmm.” Alex laughed. “Calculus…you’ve really taken to the ivory tower. You sound like Betts.”

Paul smiled. “I do like SIPA. Maybe I can get a UN job down the line and see how this all plays out. A first-class seat on the Titanic, with a fat lifeboat.”

“An apt analogy. It will be interesting to see if it sinks or hangs on.”

“The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay if they’d put fifteen more miles behind her…”

Alex laughed and nodded. “Wrong boat.”

“Same ending.”

The waitress returned with the Guinness.

“Cheers.”

“Cheers.”

“That’s not bad. You know what they say about Guinness…”

Alex nodded. He knew what they said but waited for it anyway.

“The Irish keep the best Guinness for themselves, on their island. Think it’s true?”

“Who knows. I’ve never been. But the best Guinness I’ve ever had was in Hong Kong, a place called the Dublin Jack. I think that’s the name. I heard it’s closed, but it seems like one of those places that will get resurrected.”

“Everyone loves the Irish.”

“Indeed. Tough to beat an Irish or Swiss passport. Did they say anything about the project timeline? I suspect I’m not going to like it.”

“You’re not. They want it in motion before the end of the investigation. They anticipate the findings will be released in August. Slow news month, everyone is on holiday, and before the congressional elections.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Sorry. Can I do anything to help?”

“Absolutely not. After we walk out of here I don’t want to see you for ten years. If there’s a problem, you’ll know. You have all the contact information just in case?”

“I do.”

“Good. I’ll verify that’s all correct when I see them and check in. If something’s changed I’ll send an update.”

“That sounds good. I know you know this, but they’ll be nervous wrecks back there. Claire’s smart. She knows you won’t be able to check in for a week or so. She’s getting in a swim, some sun, and sleep while she can.”

“She also knows if I fuck up, if any of us fuck up, she’ll be first against the wall.”

“Let’s hope she’s promoted and set for life.”

“Cheers to that.” Alex watched Paul take a long drink and wondered if he had an exit plan if things went south. Alex did. He wanted to know if Paul would see Claire soon, but it was a dumb question. Paul, wisely, wouldn’t answer it.

“I have the money. You can grab it out of the top of the bag or we just switch bags, up to you.”

“I’ll just grab it. I bought an album at the store. You’re not getting it.”

“That hurts. Think of it as a chance to school me in some culture.”

“An impossible task.” Alex reached down, grabbed the envelope, and put it in his bag. “I think that about covers it.”

“Almost. Claire knows you get…focused. She asked me to repeat this verbatim…check the fuck in.”

“Fair enough. Ok, Paul, I’ll see you around. These pints are on you. Stay and have another.”

“I will. It’s funny. I’ve always wondered about moments like this. No one will ever know that this is how it started.”

“Oh yea? Tell that to Kermit Roosevelt.”

“Who?”

“Look him up. Jr., not his dad. But do it at a Kinko’s.”

“They’re FedExes now.”

“Right. It was good seeing you Paul. Take care.”

“You too, Alex. Good luck.”

Alex left the bar and started what would be about a 45 minute walk to see if the meeting had attracted any attention. He tried to resist the urge to see if he could spot João. He looked but didn’t see him. Alex carried on and chose a route that would let him pick up some wine, dessert, and flowers.

Paul downed another Guinness before leaving the bar. He focused on his breathing in an effort to calm down. He had considerable experience in his profession, but he’d just been sitting across from a legend. Not only sitting across from him, but he had issued his marching orders, ones that would take the Americans down a few notches, perhaps permanently.

Paul set off on his own surveillance detection route. He was good, but João was better. João followed Paul for a while but did not force it. He knew what Paul looked like now, and Alex had signaled in the text message that he had information about his pattern of life. João dropped Paul before the second leg of his route.

Alex woke up at 6 and slipped out of bed.

Kate reached and grabbed his shoulder. “Two days in a row, not bad. Next stop Boston Marathon.”

“I don’t see any marathons in my future. I conveniently convinced myself years ago that they’re unhealthy.”

“I agree. So stay.”

“You’re tired, delusional, and politely ignoring that I’m getting fat.”

“You’re not getting fat. I have some morning meetings. Want me to leave you some breakfast?”

“No thanks. Just leave some coffee. I’ll check in later.

“When did you say you were leaving town again?

“Thursday, for a couple of weeks. Pittsburgh and then San Francisco.”

“Take me to San Francisco.”

“I’d love to. You’d like Pittsburgh, too. It has changed a lot, and it’s flying under the radar.”

“Two weeks. I knew something was up when I saw the wine, flowers, and album.”

“I also cooked dinner and got gelato.”

“I consider those as standard operating costs.”

“You sound more like the consultant here. Get some more sleep if you can, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Alex got dressed, put on some running shoes, and left the apartment. He used to love running, but he was out of practice. He’d read that men in their 40s should not start running the moment their shoes hit the sidewalk. It was reasoning he embraced, and he started with a nice walk.

He began running when he got to Central Park. It was crisp and clear, perfect running weather. He did a few laps around the reservoir and then walked northwest, towards Morningside Heights and Columbia. João approached from a side path and joined him.

“How long were you with him?”

“Not long. I just wanted to get a good look at him. I’ll pick him up again today at Columbia. Are you worried about him?”

“No, but I haven’t worked with him much. I just want to make sure that he hasn’t picked up any bad habits.”

“I understand.”

“I’ll be out of town for a couple of weeks. Are you good? Need anything?”

“No, I’m set. If anything urgent comes up I’ll be in touch.”

“Good. Thanks João.”

João nodded and peeled away, heading east further into the park. Alex turned west, walked out of the park, and grabbed coffee. He was relieved to be out of limbo, but he didn’t like the project’s timeline. If his bosses were correct, Mueller would release the results of his investigation in August. The plan’s chances for success were higher if things kicked off before that. He wished that Kennedy had announced his decision to retire a few weeks earlier.

Alex stopped at a FedEx on his way home and sent an email to Bronx Gearworks asking if they had any used Mustangs. If so, he’d like to come in tomorrow to look at them. It was a silly message, but it didn’t really matter. Tomorrow morning there’d be a vehicle waiting for him in a small, all day parking lot. There’d be a simple manila folder on the dashboard to help him find it.

He was tempted to fly to Knoxville. He wasn’t all that concerned about showing up on airport security cameras. His face and information wouldn’t trigger any red flags. He wasn’t entirely clean, that was impossible, but he was fine to move about in the United States. Still, it was better to drive. If his contacts in Knoxville and Detroit had come under scrutiny, he wanted to make it as difficult as possible to trace things back to New York. Make them shoot 3-pointers.

The car was a 2012 Toyota 4Runner. It showed a lot of wear and tear, but he knew it would be reliable. He drove south, making good time until he hit DC’s beltway. He’d considered taking 81, but the last time he took that route, he got stuck in traffic jam for four hours. It was caused by a massive pileup of tractor trailers and cars.

Alex relaxed again after he got west of Manassas. He passed Front Royal and then turned south on 81. He was tired and thought about stopping in Harrisonburg, but he wanted to make it to Blacksburg. Shame that the Red Hen is closed

Alex stopped at a Days Inn outside of Blacksburg. In the morning he continued on to Knoxville and checked into a Marriott Courtyard. Alex dropped his bags in the room and went to the hotel’s bar for some food and a drink. One turned into two, but he stopped there. Tomorrow would be a long day with an early start, so he went back to his room, read, and then slept.

In the morning he went for a 90 minute drive. He made a few short stops, including one at a bookstore. He bought a copy of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. He parked the car downtown and walked around, slowly making his way to the World’s Fair Park.

Alex saw his contact walking towards him in the distance. Alex paused, consulted his map, and looked around. Keep it simple. He approached his contact and said, “Sir, can you tell me where the nearest diner is?”

The man he was speaking to was in his early 30s. He had on tan 5.11s with a black Under Armour polo.

“Sir, it’s good to…”

“You too. Now point somewhere, anywhere. No bad habits, Simon.”

“Right, sorry.” He pointed off in the distance.

“Good. How’ve you been. Any trouble getting here?”

“I’m great. Morale is high. Our brothers are very happy with how things are going.”

“They shouldn’t be.”

“Sir?”

“Storm clouds are brewing. Things are moving. We need to talk. I’m at the Courtyard on Brookview Centre Way, do you know it?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. Room 204. Be there at 1300. That gives you time to get some jeans instead of those 5.11s. We’ve been over this before. The days of the parade ground and spit shined boots are behind you. You look straight out of Blackwater.”

“Yes sir.”

“And lose the Oakleys, too. What’s the room number?”

“204.”

Alex made three stops on his way back to the hotel. If Simon had picked up heat, now would be the time to spot it. If he was compromised and cooperating, it could be a moot point. The FBI could just ask him the location of the meeting and set up there. But if Simon had unknowingly drawn their gaze, the FBI would almost certainly start following Alex now. In either scenario, it was unlikely the FBI would let Alex out of their sight.

After determining he was clean, Alex went to a liquor store and bought a bottle of aquavit, sausage, and two shot glasses. He returned to the hotel, put the liquor and food out on the table, and wrapped the book in red paper. He then added white trim in the shape of a cross.

At 1230 he started watching the parking lot. Simon drove into the lot at 1250. He drove around for a bit, stopped, and started smoking. Alex made a note to talk to Simon about better ways to handle an early arrival, but then he reminded himself that if everything went as planned, this would be their last scheduled meeting.

Simon knocked on the door at 1301. Alex let him in, gestured to a chair, closed the door, and secured the bolt.

“Thank you for coming Simon. Any problems getting here? Notice anything unusual?”

“No sir, everything was fine.”

“Good.” Alex put on some music. It wasn’t really necessary, but old habits die hard, and better safe than sorry.

“Odin sends his regards, along with his gratitude for your efforts. He is proud of you, and he looks forward to the day when you can openly join us in the Great Hall.”

Simon smiled and sat up straighter. “I’m honored to be here, sir. Please tell Odin and the Valkyries I said hello.”

“I will, they’ll be pleased to hear that you are thinking of them. I wish my visit today was under happier circumstances. Our operatives tell us that Soros and the globalists are feeling desperate, and they are about to act. Mueller and his Deep State team have put the final touches on their hoax of an investigation.”

“Any more word on their ultimate plan?”

“No, we’re still trying to work that out. We suspect that a group of them, pretending to be bipartisan, will immediately call for impeachment and ask Clinton and Romney to form a caretaker government.”

“I knew Romney was a snake.”

“He is. Of the worst kind. Odin needs a little more time. We need to slow the Deep Staters. I should not tell you this, but he’s got the forces to cover north and south of DC. Fort Meade and Quantico are good to go. He needs a little more time for east and west of the city. This is where you and your team come in.”

“We’re trained, we’re ready.”

“Odin knows that, and he’s grateful he can count on you. He has several special teams, but yours is the most capable. He doesn’t think he can trust this with anyone else.”

“Sir, we’re honored.”

“We need your team to hit Mueller. It will not be easy. He is very well-guarded. This next part is going to be the most difficult for you. Odin has ordered that you not participate in the actual operation.” Alex paused for the objection. Will it be sincere or forced? Both?

“But sir…”

Alex held up his hand. “I know I know. Odin knows you want to be with your team, but leaders must be prepared to make difficult sacrifices. Odin needs you in the next phase.”

“Yes sir.”

Alex pulled a small laptop out of a backpack and set it in front of Simon. “Odin’s Intel Battalion has prepped the laptop with everything we know about Mueller’s pattern of life. Your team needs to strike by the end of July.”

Simon gasped. “That is soon, sir.”

“I know, I’m sorry. There’s nothing for it. The fate of The Nation and Vinland to be is on your team’s shoulders.” Alex turned on the computer. “Enter the code.”

Simon looked confused.

“Enter the numbers.”

Simon nodded. 1-4-8-8.

“There’s only one file on that computer. Everything you need to know is in there. Open it and read through it.”

Alex went to the kitchenette area and made coffee. He placed one cup beside Simon. “You have one hour. I need to check in with Odin.” Alex moved to the kitchen table, opened another laptop, put on headphones, and watched an episode of The Walking Dead.

“Any questions?”

“No sir.”

“What are your initial thoughts. You have extensive training. Where and when is the best place to strike?”

“I’m thinking the morning. I’d like for us…for the team…to be able to set up at night.”

Alex feigned interest. Simon’s militia team didn’t have a chance. Alex reckoned they would be rolled up well before they could take up any sort of ambush position. Ideally, they’d get into place and at least fire a few rounds, but it didn’t really matter. He would ensure that details about the plot became public. If the team managed to get in place and launch an attack, that would be a bonus.

“That sounds reasonable to me. Odin trusts your judgment, that’s why he chose you. Speaking of Odin, he sent some things for you.”

Alex retrieved the aquavit, sausage, and bread. He then pulled out the now gift wrapped book and a small package. He poured out two glasses of aquavit.

“First, a toast to the old ways.”

“To the old ways.”

They sipped the liquor. “Now let us share meat and bread.” Alex broke the baguette, placing large pieces on two plates. He then cut off several pieces of sausage. He handed a plate to Simon.

“Simon, which of the Valkyries did you favor?”

“They are both incredible!”

“Indeed, but you must have favored one.”

“Julie.”

Alex smiled. “Smart man. Call me in three days and be prepared to tell me when the team is departing, their route, and the day of the attack. Odin wants to be able to stage assistance units for your team’s escape. Julie will arrive at your house the day before to…celebrate your team’s success.” And poison you.

“Are you serious?”

“Of course I am.” He reached for the package. “There’s $15,000 dollars in there. That should be more than enough to train some more, rehearse, and get your team in place. Use some of the money to get the team an Ops laptop. Copy the intel file for their use. If you budget well, there should be enough for a few steak dinners for the team, too.”

“Yes sir.”

“Okay, last few items. Odin asked me to give you this. He told me it’s a book, but I don’t know which one. He asked that you open it in private. He’s reading it now and looks forward to discussing it with you at the Great Hall.”

Simon took the book and held it, feeling around the edges, like a child on Christmas Eve.

“And now the last item. Odin has instructed that your team be promoted to officer rank. More important, they will forever hold honored places in New Vinland.”

“Thank you sir. Please tell Odin we will not fail him.”

“He knows that. He has complete faith in your abilities.” Alex raised his glass for another toast. “Cheers brother.”

“Cheers sir.”

“Ok, let’s wrap this up. Walk me through what we discussed.” Alex listened as Simon recapped the details that would set his team’s doomed mission into motion. These idiots might not even make it to DC. The FBI does a fairly good job of monitoring militia units. If they do make it, they’re dead men. The laptop, the weapons, and evidence at Simon’s house would be more than enough to accomplish the objective.

Alex watched Simon drive out of the lot and then watched another episode of The Walking Dead. This show has gotten terrible. After it was over he put his laptop in his bag and drove downtown. He was anxious to leave, but he was stuck here for the night. An early departure would likely go unnoticed, but there was no point in taking unnecessary risks. Keep that boring, grey profile. Staying away from the room for several hours would also give anyone watching him an opportunity to tip their hand.

He returned to the room in the evening. Everything seemed in order. He allowed himself two 50ml bottles of Jack Daniels and called it a night. When in Rome.

He woke up at 0500 and looked out the window onto the parking lot. He didn’t see anything unusual. He made a cup of coffee and took it outside for a short walk. Nothing. He returned to the room, showered, packed, and then got on the road. He figured the drive to Louisville would take at least 4 hours. There was a time he loved long road trips but now he dreaded them. He hoped The Brown Hotel would have a room available.

Alex checked into the Brown Hotel, had a light lunch, and took a nap. He was meeting Rebecca for dinner at 8. He wanted to start his walk there at 5. He didn’t think anyone was following him, but there was no room for error. In theory, a team could have placed a tracker on his vehicle in Knoxville and kept its distance, waiting to see where he’d go. Unlikely.

Alex was in the Highlands area at 1930. He was clean, so he burned some time walking the sidestreets. He put on a pair of glasses and a hat. He didn’t like hats. They looked great on Humphrey Bogart and Indiana Jones, but in 2018, it just looked like you were trying too hard. He arrived at Lilly’s at 8:02. Rebecca was waiting for him.

“Nice hat, hipster.”

“Isn’t it, though?”

The host, carrying two menus, politely interjected. “Good evening sir, welcome to Lilly’s. I’ll show you to your table."

Lilly’s was busy. It was an unusual place to meet to discuss espionage. It would be fine for Alex and Rebecca, though. Neither of them knew anybody in Louisville, and they didn’t need to discuss anything in explicit detail.

“How was your meeting?”

“It was good. I’m confident the team will do something.”

“What if they don’t make it out of the gate? Still think it won’t matter either way?”

“They’ll get on the road at the very least. They’re idiots, but they’ve got some training and motivation. Regardless, I have enough to work with. We can signal boost their efforts, even if they’re failed efforts.”

“Ok. When do you think it will go down?”

“End of the month or early August. Can you work with that?”

“Have I got a choice?”

“No, not really. Yours is the critical piece. The Left can mobilize and march, but this contest is lopsided. The Right has the weapons, the militias, and the gun nuts. Hit the NRA, and all of their paranoid fantasies spring to life.”

She laughed. “Less than four weeks. Asshole. I’ll prep my guy for that window, and then I’ll put things into motion as soon as I get word from you.”

“Good. If the incident makes the news you’ll probably recognize it, but I’ll send word after it happens. You need to be ready to bounce as soon as your guy executes.”

She stared at him and shook her head.

“Sorry. I know you know that. Just walking myself through the timeline. I have to ask this - is there anything that will tie back to you? Let me rephrase that…how much will tie back to you and how quickly?”

“No worries, it’s an important question. My DNA’s in his apartment. I taught him pretty well - not taking photos, switching off automatic syncs with the cloud, scrubbing existing photos… I’ll plant all the photos and such after he leaves for the op. And they’ll find photos of him and his ANTIFA associates at protests and from surveillance footage.”

“Right.”

“I’ll be in some of those, but always obscured and in a group. I’ve checked all of his devices. There aren’t any photos of me. Sure, he could have sent someone a photo of me and then deleted it, but I doubt it. Besides, once his friends hear he’s blown himself up at the Chicago NRA, they’re going to scatter. The police will be more interested in them than they are in me.

“Okay.”

“Why do you think they’ve decided to go through with this?”

“I don’t ask…”

“Bullshit.”

“Ok, take it easy. I’m not sure. I always viewed it as a safety measure. An option if it looked like the country were getting its shit together.”

“It definitely is not getting its shit together.”

“I agree. I figure they must think Mueller’s investigation will galvanize the people and the parties. I don’t see that happening. I think it will tear the place further apart, regardless of the findings. After the new judge gets appointed, I can’t imagine them focusing on anything other than domestic laws and policies for years. Maybe they’ll be able to agree on some things about North Korea, Iran, and Israel, but that’s it.”

“What if they lash out wildly afterward, like they did in Iraq?”

“I’ve wondered about that, too. They must think it’s unlikely. I think it’s unlikely.”

“Unintended consequences always worry me.”

“Me too. But I think chances are they’ll be paralyzed.”

“I hope you’re right.” She drank some wine and then looked at him. She held his gaze. “And what about afterward…any second thoughts?”

“None. If we cross the border we’re done. You know this.”

“I know I’m done. You have powerful friends.”

“Not that powerful. They’ll feel bad about it for a few days, but they’ll be worrying about how high the cleaners will go, and how quickly.”

“What about the woman you’re seeing?”

“It won’t be a problem. It’s pretty casual. I’ll tell her I’m taking a job in San Francisco when I get back to New York."

“Heartbreaker. Think they'll go after her?"

"I hope not. Maybe keep an eye on her for a while."

"Okay. I’ll meet you in St. Louis then. If you’re not there within 24 hours of the Chicago event, I’m gone.”

“Same for me.”