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Infil 1 back, in more ways than one (Better warn a friend)

Infil agents are so deep undercover in the world of international terrorism even law enforcement agencies don’t know about them. That’s OK though, because Infil agents will never end up back in the US. Will they?

No level of clearance will get you access to the Infil program file. Already in the know? Then read the exciting next chapter below. Want to catch up or read on your favorite device? Pick it up on Instafreebie or at charlesvella.com.

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Infil 1

Infil 1 (Chapters 1-3)

Copyright © 2017 by Charles Vella

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without written permission of the author.

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental

Chapter 3: This isn’t good

This isn’t good.

Jamil sat jammed into the back, saying it over and over to himself, his mantra for months now. His name was Jamil. Jamil Jamil Jamil. Not Jamie, what his new friends thought was an Americanized Jamil. The name he’d told them he’d gone by before God’d introduced himself and confided that alms to the poor was for suckers. Slaughtering innocent people was the only true way to heaven. For sure not the name his parents’d given him and that he’d carried home from the hospital in Detroit. The one he’d grown up with like an old shoe, never realizing how comfortable it was until he’d forced himself into a new one. That name he never thought about, and so it constantly leapt into his mind without warning, riding to the tip of his tongue and forcing him to swallow it back with the bile that seemed to collect there. The name he was so afraid to dredge up even in his sleep that he was sure one day he’d blurt it out. And not. Absolutely never, Infil 1. He’d started digging a hole for that one almost as soon as he’d heard it. A hole he’d been digging ever since because he knew it’d never be deep enough.

The car that’d sat belching smoke at the curb in front of the airport was one of those big American boats from the nineties. A station wagon with fake wood peeling down the side. Half a tarnished chrome model name hung from the front fender. The other half no doubt’d been ground into dust long ago. Faded paint a shade of green that Jamil associated with vomit peeked out from under a layer of dirt as if the thing’d been dug out of an archeological site. The car rolled like a ship at sea, sending him across the mile of back seat into one or the other of them every time the driver aimed it in a slightly different direction. They sat on either side of him, staring out the dirty windows as if they were avoiding looking at him. Were they? Avoiding looking at him? What’d that mean? An icy shiver ran down his spine as he refused to focus on the thought. Get a grip. They were staring out the windows for the same reason he was. What the hell else was there to do in a car? Besides, he doubted either of them had ever been to the States before. They were curious. Murderous, but curious. So then why’d he always end up in the middle? And why was one of them always within sight when they stopped? Jamil shook his head, glanced left, tried to catch the eye of the girl, but her eyes were focused on the passing cityscape. He’d named them Hansel and Gretel, like he’d named the ones who’d lived with him in the compound Mutt and Jeff. Funny names. Safe names. Hard to imagine saying, ‘Hey Gretel, beheaded any Americans lately?’ It was a way to keep sane. Was it working? He took a deep breath. Focus on the humming of the wheels, the gentle vibration through the seat. Focus. Focus on something. Anything but the thought that he wouldn’t, couldn’t, let into his mind.

Oh come on he told himself for the millionth time. They hadn’t made him. If they had then Jamil, Jamie, the kid his parents’d brought home from the hospital and Infil 1, all of them, would be at the bottom of a shallow grave somewhere in Syria, or wherever it was he’d ended up after the months they’d spent moving him around like a piece on a sandy chessboard. A bullet in his brain if they’d been in a hurry. His head under his arm if they’d had the time and inclination to make him a video star. But Jamil wasn’t in that hole, facing eternity. He was here. Perched on the wide bench seat between the young man and woman he’d travelled from France with but hadn’t been introduced to. Was that significant? That no one’d been introduced? STOP, he screamed to himself.

That’s what was driving him over the edge. Exactly what the psychiatrist at the training facility’d told him not to do, sitting safe and comfortable in his cluttered office sipping his herbal tea. Don’t obsess over how they act around you. Think of it, he’d suggested, like having a girlfriend who hated her job. She’s bound to seem preoccupied. She’s not necessarily thinking of some other guy she met. Remember it’s not all about you. He’d leaned back into his leather chair in triumph, all the answers at his finger tips, his cholesterol level the biggest danger he faced every morning when he woke up.

Jamil shifted and studied Hansel out of the corner of his eye. He’d memorized the face, not the three day stubble but the things that couldn’t be changed. Shape of the jaw, ears. About five-ten. A hundred-eighty pounds. It’d probably never matter but when his training kicked in at least it let him run on autopilot. Memorizing. Preparing testimony. ‘That’s him Your Honor.’ Pointing to Hansel, no doubt now cleanly shaven the way he’d been in France. Khakis and a blue button down shirt to match the outfit they’d given Jamil for the trip. And Gretel? Can you identify her? Gretel who he’d never seen except covered head to foot in a loose black dress until that early morning when they’d been hustled out of Paris. Tight jeans and an oxford shirt. Any normal girl would’ve smirked at the shocked look that Jamil must’ve had on his face when he’d seen her transformation. But Gretel your honor, Gretel’s no ordinary girl. She certainly doesn’t smirk. Eyes like black marbles that reflected the world around her without connecting with it. He’d watched those eyes for days framed by the narrow slit of the black Niqab she’d worn on her head like the eyes of an enemy soldier in a bunker that had to be charged. The effect’d given him the creeps, but somehow seeing her in the western outfit was worse. She’d stared at Jamil and he’d known, deep in his soul, that she knew. Knew exactly who he was. What he was. The same feeling he’d gotten from that bastard who called himself Abdullah. Jamil saw that psychopath’s acne-scarred face in his sleep.

Abdullah’d been the one who’d come into his room before light, how long ago? A week? Two? Time’d started running together like the colors in a melted ice cream cone, seconds and minutes running down his hand and dripping into puddles on the ground. Jamil saw that ice cream cone vividly and knew he was dangerously low on sleep. Had been for months. That was something they hadn’t warned him about. Maybe they didn’t know. How you couldn’t sleep. No matter how tired you got you just lay there, thoughts hidden all day by activity and the need to concentrate. They surged into Jamil’s brain as soon as he tried to relax. He’d been exhausted the morning Abdullah’d opened his door, murmured a few words in Arabic that’d jolted him out of bed like an electric shock. Jamil’d found himself dressed, his few belongings in an overnight bag crowding his feet in the tiny square of floor space behind the driver’s seat of the dirty rattle trap they’d hustled him into, shivering and breathing small, white clouds into the early cold. He’d watched the village fade away to open fields, listening to Mutt and Jeff mutter in Arabic that was way too fast for him to follow, with bleary-eyed lack of interest. Could you get that tired? Kill me or don’t but for God’s sake just let me get some sleep.

Jamil hadn’t been worried at that point. At least nothing more than the fear that wrapped his brain every waking hour of every day and that intensified during the hours he spent tossing and turning in his narrow bed. Movement was routine for these people. People who live in the suburbs and work in the city move in a pattern. Get up every day. Drive to work. Turn around and do it the other way in the evening. That wasn’t how it worked for people with drones circling the skies looking to hasten the meeting with God they all claimed to be so anxious for. For them patterns are death traps. They move randomly while faceless people somewhere sat at consoles, watching, trying to shrink the space they were confined into. It wasn’t the first or the tenth time Jamil’d been jolted awake and found himself in a car going somewhere. Just a day at the office. Until they’d handed him his passport.

He’d stared at the gold PASSPORT and eagle with United States of America underneath it like a foreign language he only had a passing familiarity with. Sometime into the first hour of bouncing on springs that were probably older than he was Abdullah’d turned and rested his arm on the corner of the front passenger seat to give Jamil a long look. Jamil stared back blankly, fighting down the churning fear rising from his stomach to his throat. Abdullah’d finally given his head a tilt toward the fields passing on their left and muttered Turkiya.

Turkey. Abdullah was a fanatic of few words. He wasn’t likely pass the time on a car trip by pointing out the highlights, ‘and there’s the biggest ball of aluminum foil in the Middle East’. He never smiled. Never formed an expression of any kind on his face. Jamil’d sat with him once watching I Love Lucy reruns. Jamil’d laughed until tears ran down his face, no doubt some of the stress escaping. Abdullah, he’d stared at the tiny black and white picture of the woman trying to operate an assembly line running too fast, scrambling back and forth, shoving candy into her mouth, with less expression than a New York subway commuter. No. If Abdullah bothered to point out Turkey it could only mean one thing. Jamil’d looked out the window across the empty fields. It looked like you could walk across. No doubt it was harder than it looked because they kept driving until they’d reached a wall. It was an East Berlin looking thing. Ten feet or so of concrete topped by rolls of razor wire. No guards, but this wall was built to keep people out, not in. The guards would be on the other side.

The line of cars and minibuses already snaked into the dusty distance from the border crossing by the time they joined it on the outskirts of some town. They sat for hours behind a minibus that belched a thick cloud of black smoke whenever it rolled a few feet forward. At least the road was paved, so the mushroom cloud of dust accompanying the smoke barely singed Jamil’s eyes. Paved and lined with a curb painted in black and white stripes. Trees lined the outside of the curb, which must help in the summer. Jamil’d thanked God that was winter when they’d crossed. The men, women and children trudging down the road on either side of the cars were wrapped in coats, carrying bags and backpacks. All looking at the street passing slowly under their feet like a giant treadmill powered by their collective exhausted legs.

They’d rolled, stopped, rolled and stopped again while Jamil’d wondered idly why they hadn’t just driven across the fields. As they turned into the final straightaway to the border checkpoint the curbs gave way to the kind of concrete dividers you saw between lanes at construction sites in the states. Jamil could tell from the glances his companions shot at those dividers that they hadn’t liked the change. It was like a cattle chute, and cattle chutes led to the slaughterhouse.

The Syrian side of the border wasn’t a problem. The young men milling around with automatic weapons hanging casually from one arm clearly weren’t soldiers and just as clearly knew Abdullah because after a look at him the rest of them weren’t given a glance. The two, what were they, border guards? Soldiers? Teenagers who’d’ve been buying beer and cruising the corn fields if they’d been born in Iowa? Whoever or whatever they were they backed away from the car when they’d seen who was in it and waved them through without any apparent interest.

The Turkish side was different. The tension in the car became a physical presence as they rolled up to the soldiers, real soldiers, and Abdullah’d stared at Jamil over the back of the seat with a cold eye that was part searching, part warning. Jamil’s perception of time and space had slowed, stretched out. Soldiers loomed over the small car, staring through suddenly narrowed eyes, weapons hitching almost imperceptibly. An officer stood in the doorway of the building sliding up on their left and the thought’d flitted through Jamil’s mind that he’d paid off to let them through. Had they? Paid him? How much? Enough to remember to tell his men? The soldiers’d moved to either side of the car with their palms moving up and down signaling for the windows to come down. All the windows. Jamil’d pushed his button and the window’d jerked slowly as far as it went and the bill of the soldier’s cap almost tapped against his forehead. He could hear the faint thump of the rifle barrel against the door as the soldier’d breathed his breakfast into Jamil’s face while the soldier on the other side took the pile of passports from Abdullah and carried them into the building, past the officer who didn’t give them a glance. The soldier’s face disappeared from his window and Jamil’d stared back at the officer, willing him to look back, suddenly desperate to be taken into that building and questioned. To tell them who he was. To watch Abdullah and his little band of merry men led away in handcuffs.

But that wasn’t how things worked in that part of the world, and when the soldier reappeared and tossed the passports onto Abdullah’s lap and the other one slapped a palm against the roof of the car, Jamil knew he’d been lucky. This wasn’t American TV where the cops pulled out guns and said ‘freeze.’ If they’d yanked that door open both the officer who’d been paid off and the fanatics in the car would’ve known the game was up and somebody, probably everybody except Jamil, would’ve started shooting. And only God and Abdullah knew what was wired to that car. As Jamil’d caught the officer’s face growing smaller in the car’s mirror he knew that there was no scenario where he would’ve ended up drinking coffee with his handlers, explaining what happened. There’d only been two possible outcomes when they’d pulled up to the check point. One was the palpable sense of relief in the car as the border station slowly disappeared behind them. The other was showing up on the evening news back home as a smoking hole in the ground in some Turkish town that most Americans would stare at over a mouthful of dinner and shake their heads at before turning back to their plates. Jamil and the terrorists’d been on the same side, and they’d been lucky. That time.

But he did know, or at least suspected he knew, why they hadn’t gone over the fields. During the twenty or so hours they’d spent driving across Turkey Jamil was prepared for the next border, which was when the word target first crept into his mind and set up shop.

Jamie, not Jamil now, was an American aid worker who’d been in Syria, which told him that the point of the border crossing had been to get a Turkish entry stamp on his passport. It also told him that if he had any illusions that this was just one more random move to keep ahead of the young Americans sitting in front of screens looking for targets he was kidding himself. There wasn’t much reason to go to Turkey to lie low. The terrorists had sympathizers there but it was enemy territory. The only reason to go to Turkey was to go on to Europe, and there weren’t many reasons for this crowd to want to go on to Europe. None of them involved sight seeing.

They’d pulled into Istanbul in the early evening, Jamie gawking around him like a tourist in spite of the panic that’d slowly seeped into his pores during the mind numbing hours of watching identical villages and fields roll past their dirty windows. When they’d finally pulled into a courtyard surrounded by flats the overwhelming thing he felt was relief at getting out of that goddamn car. They’d stood, and even Abdullah’d seemed momentarily human, stretching with his hands on his lower back and wincing, before shuffling to the door of one of the buildings overlooking the courtyard.

Jamie was third in line moving toward the door. Somehow he was always second or third, never last. A sign they didn’t trust him still? Or just an overactive imagination? No one ever said anything but whenever they walked anywhere he found that someone’d dropped in behind him. His momentarily relief at getting out of the car disappeared and he concentrated on slowing his breathing, suddenly afraid of a panic attack as the doorway loomed over him. Leading to what? He could sense people. Smelled cooking food. But no one passed on the groaning steps or opened a door to greet them. Just faded paint and dim light until they’d reached the third floor and Abdullah opened a door and disappeared. Jamie followed the line, to what? What if he saw video cameras? It flashed through his mind. His family watching a grainy video. Three men in black ski masks standing behind a kneeling man. Jamie. Staring desperately into the camera. Feeling the sword Abdullah brandished behind him. Waiting for the little swoosh of air that’d be the last sound he’d ever hear to go with his last sight of the camera lens, as lifeless as Abdullah’s black eyes, and last smell of some kind of meat cooking.

Jamie thought for a second he was going to faint and Mutt eyed him curiously as he closed the door, then crossed the room to a sofa that sagged to the floor and raised small clouds of dust as he collapsed into it, never taking his eyes off Jamie, who stood in the middle of the room waiting with shaking knees for his executioner.

No video cameras. Just some ramshackle furniture that everyone else’d fallen into. For some reason, that night Jamie’d gotten the best night’s sleep since he’d passed from the world of malls and highways where religious fanatics mostly confined themselves to raising money on television to one where they beheaded people and blew themselves up for the greater glory of God. He’d actually woken up feeling good. Jamie’d once read a book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn about prisoners in a gulag. The thing that’d stuck with him was the statement that every morning, when a prisoner wakes up, the first thing that hits him is that he’s a prisoner. That knowledge was the inescapable companion of his waking hours. Jamie hadn’t realized that he’d remembered that until the day after he’d made contact and had passed the point of no return. He’d tossed and turned all night on the plank with a thin foam cover where they’d put him while they decided what to do with the American who’d shown up wanting to joint the Jihad. That was when the dream’d started. The one where he watched people he knew, they changed every time he had it, parents, siblings, even children he didn’t know, in a burning car. In the dream he leapt into action, or tried to, but his feet were planted into the ground like tree roots. He couldn’t even turn, just had to watch them burn and listen to their desperate calls for help. When he’d finally jolted up with the first rays of the sun he should’ve been relieved it’d been a dream, but the realization that he was their prisoner had slapped him in the face. The thought’d followed him like a shadow after that, no matter how much he worked to stay in character. He’d slip it for a second but it was always there, starting with his first waking thought of every day.

But not that day. For some reason Jamie’d woken up feeling optimistic. The memory of why he’d signed up for all this surged into him like an electric charge and he knew he had to see it through. That he would see it through.

Halfway through that first day in Istanbul a guy’d shown up in a dingy gray thawb, a shirt that fluttered around his ankles revealing glimpses of bare, skinny ankles in cracked wing tips, and a Ghutra, a checked Yassir Arafat scarf attached to his head by a black band. In spite of the fact that the guy needed a shave himself he’d reached into his bag and pulled out clippers and a straight razor. They’d pulled a wooden chair into the middle of the room and Jamie’d taken his turn with Mutt and Jeff getting an old fashioned American haircut. The guy’d even shaved them. Jamie’d leaned back in the wooden chair, trying not to rock on the uneven legs while the guy’d breathed garlic and stale cigarettes onto his neck and lifted his chin with one finger while the razor scraped along his stretched throat. He’d felt the slight push of the blade against his skin, could tell how sharp it was by how it cleared away the whiskers without even a tug. The guy’d flicked the razor off Jamie’s chin with a flourish, given it a wipe on the dirty towel hanging over his shoulder, then slowly dragged it back up Jamie’s neck. Over and over until Jamie’s surge of optimism’d disappeared and he’d been ready to leap out of the chair screaming, ‘DO IT. JUST DO IT’. But the guy hadn’t done it. Hadn’t grabbed his hair and sliced his head half off like a Ramadan goat. Just finished his neck and, finally, pinching Jamie’s nose between his thumb and forefinger while he sliced hair off of his upper lip, cleaned and packed his tools and disappeared through the door, throwing a last look around the room that suggested his tip was getting out alive.

Abdullah’d disappeared when the barber arrived. He’d reappeared later with a collection of plastic shopping bags with bright store names and logos splashed across the sides. It was a little like the grim reaper showing up in a Santa Claus costume. These people didn’t shave and pull new shirts out of cellophane because they had dates. They changed for cover, and clothes like the ones emerging from these bags meant someone was going west, and the clean shaves gave away who. West. That could only mean one thing. They’d spent months indoctrinating and training Jamie. Turning him into Jamil. Stoking the hate for his native country that they believed was already there. Teaching him how to shoot. How to make bombs. Months and months of loading him like a weapon. Going west could only mean one thing. They were getting ready to fire him.

The thought racked his body with the shakes while he’d showered. The day in, day out grind of stress of living with these guys had dulled his senses, narrowed his view of life until it was like staring down a long, narrow tunnel where you couldn’t really see the light at the end. Then suddenly the floodlights were turned on, blinding him as he’d put on the oxford shirt and khakis, horrified at what he’d seen in the mirror. His high school yearbook picture. Just the kind of person who might be drawn to intelligence work after college. Thick dark hair and complexion that allowed him to be recreated into a wide range of ethnicities from whole cloth. Jamie’s great grandfather had been from Malta and the old man’s original immigration card had listed his complexion as swarthy, a distinction that’d been scattered among Jamie, his siblings and his cousins. Jamie stared into the mirror, straining to hear the low rumble of conversation on the other side of the door over the pounding of his heart. It was like walking into the costume party and having not just his mask but his entire costume ripped off, leaving him naked while everyone stared, their eyes saying ‘we knew it was you all the time.’

But to his surprise when he’d walked into the room they’d actually looked pleased, which, if you thought about it with a cool mind, or at least one not clutched in fevered paranoia, was what he should’ve expected. They didn’t want him for himself after all. Jamie was a walking American passport, which made him the most easily concealed weapon in the world. The shave, haircut and new clothes would make him increasingly invisible the farther west they moved. It was a surreal feeling. The closest he’d come to being one of them, leaving a strange mixture of satisfaction and revulsion in its wake. His mind flashed an image, sitting in front of his pediatrician, his pediatrician?, dressed as a judge, explaining that Jamie had Stockholm syndrome, but that they’d decided to hang him anyway.

That was the final realization. Like what they’d told him as a kid, if you put a frog in water and slowly increased the temperature it wouldn’t know it was being cooked. But Jamie’d always believed that there’d be a moment when the frog thought ‘shit, I’m being boiled.’ This was his ‘shit, I’m being boiled’ moment. The shave and haircut, the clothes, the passport lying in his pocket like the last weight that’d suck him into the whirlpool that he’d known was waiting for him since the day he’d gotten the assignment. Hell, since the day he’d talked to that Agency recruiter on campus, smiling and explaining all the benefits of government service. Health care and retirement. All you had to do was live long enough to use them.

The trip from Istanbul to Paris was such a logistical nightmare there were times he almost forgot he was anything but a miserable traveler. It was two in the morning by the time he’d dragged himself off the bus they’d picked up outside the Sirkeci train station in Istanbul and rode about a million back-breaking miles to a one-horse town called Kapikule. Jamie’s passport’d barely received a glance from the bored border guard when they’d filed, shivering, off the bus and had their passports stamped at the Bulgarian border. Bulgaria? Weren’t Bulgarians the bad guys in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Had he even known Bulgaria bordered Turkey when he’d started all this? Try as he might, Jamie couldn’t focus on his immediate problem, how to get a call into the number he kept hidden in the far recesses of his brain. The number he could call to tell someone he was on the move. Hours passing like years on a bus, crammed into a window seat shoulder to shoulder with Mutt while Jeff sat across the narrow aisle had sucked everything out of him but the desire for a bed. It actually was possible, he’d decided as he’d trudged from the bus to a train, the Balkan Express of all things, the strap of his backpack digging into his shoulder, you could get too tired to care whether you live or die.

Dawn’s early light was showing signs of appearing in the east by the time the train lurched out of the station. Jamie’d spent the next six or seven hours drifting in and out of sleep as the train crossed Bulgaria, finally entering Sofia mid morning. The factory creases in his new clothes were long gone by the time they changed trains and were on their way to Belgrade that evening. He’d never been so happy to see a bed, or at least something trying to pass as a bed, as he was in the sleeping car after spending the day sprawled across a bench in the Sofia station. The sleeper had six berths lined up in a grid along one wall and Jamie unsurprisingly found himself in the top where he had to climb past both Mutt and Jeff to get up and down.

Not that there was much to get down for, except the toilet crammed into the back of the car where he was sure either Mutt or Jeff watched the door as he sat and thought through his options while the train rumbled west toward whatever nightmare was in his future.

Where were they going? The trains and countryside became more and more familiar as they moved west. The train from Belgrade to Zagreb was air conditioned with comfortable seats, and the sleeper from Zagreb to Munich was absolutely plush, with the three of them sharing a room with a small sink. They got into Munich around six in the morning and Jamie felt as if he were well and truly in the west, moving steadily closer to what they had in mind but still with no way to get a message out.

They stuck to him like cling wrap, every step he took, every second of the day. At the Munich station Jamie knew he could just walk away. Say sayonara. Leave the whole thing behind. But then what? What would the whole point’ve been? Grab a German cop by the arm and point dramatically to Mutt and Jeff and say…what? ‘Officer. Arrest these two. They’re up to no good.’ Then what? Even if the cop didn’t think he was a lunatic and actually arrested them, what would that solve? Mutt and Jeff were flunkies. They’d just find someone else to go and do whatever they were sending them to do. This trip, whatever they had planned, having Jamie there was the point. Remember?

They, the people who’d gotten him into this, had considered, way back before sending him on this jaunt into Dante’s Inferno, putting some kind of electronic chip under his skin. Jamie’d thanked God they’d decided not to. These people might live in dumps but they’re electronic sophisticates, one of the people who’d moved in and out of his nomadic life had even been an electrical engineer from MIT. The days of strip searching were long gone. He’d been scanned so many times he’d be surprised if his internal organs weren’t half microwaved at this point. No, technology had reduced them to a communication method that’d been around for more than a hundred years. Give us a call. Let us know where you’re surfacing and we’ll be there. Simple, right?

The original idea, the one they’d discussed at training, seemed ridiculous now. He was a misfit, a convert. He’d be embraced. Win their confidence. Become one of the boys. They’d plan something. Set him up as the lynchpin. All he’d need to do was make his way to a phone and warn the good guys about what was coming so they could send the cavalry to save the day and round up the ringleaders. Great idea. Except they didn’t trust anyone. Not even themselves. Certainly not him. Oh he could walk away. Go to a phone. Make the call. Mutt and Jeff wouldn’t do anything. Nothing but stare at him with murder in their eyes that is. He doubted they were armed. Maybe he could even get them picked up. Disappear to that desk job waiting for him. A job where people didn’t stare at you as if calculating how far in they’d need to stick the knife. No. The stares he’d look up to from his gray, government-issued desk would be of the ‘couldn’t hack it’ variety. Knowing winks. ‘That’s him. The guy who jumped ship and called just in time for the good guys to catch a glimpse of the rats as they scurried into their holes to reappear another day.’ Another day when Infil 1 wouldn’t be around to warn the good guys. That’s what he told himself, over and over, what kept him, relatively, sane. They thought they were watching Jamil, but Infil 1 was watching them. Now that they were in the west he was in control. He could walk away any time. He could banish the fear and focus on getting the message to someone who could stop whatever was in the works. So no walking away. But he had to find someone.

So how do you deliver a message on a train rolling across Europe with two dogs on your heels every step you take? He wasn’t getting to a phone himself, not without giving the game away. So process of elimination told him the only way was to get the number and a couple of words to someone who would make the call for him, but who wouldn’t stop the three of them and want to know what was going on. Not a cop. Shove something in a cop’s hand and he wasn’t likely to watch you walk away wondering what that was all about. A cop’d grab you by the shoulder and want to know just what the hell you’re up to. Then what? Point out Mutt and Jeff? End up back where he’d started? Maybe they’d be questioned, maybe not. The most likely outcome was they’d be deported, salmon thrown back downstream to wriggle and worm their way back to the west when it suited them.

It took him from Munich to Stuttgart to manage it, and in the end he’d never even been sure he’d succeeded. Step one’d been at the Munich Hauptbahnhof. He’d found himself standing next to a Frenchman with a hangdog look as his wife waved her hands in the air and chewed him out for some crime that must’ve been at least mass murder judging by how long she went on about it. The guy’d absently shoved a pen into his pocket after writing a note on a timetable and Jamie’d managed to jostle him and get it into his own pocket before hoisting his backpack and getting on the train for Stuttgart, trying not to think what he was putting the poor bastard in for when his wife asked him for the pen.

The pen is mightier than the sword, which he assumed was why one’d never appeared in his baggage. On the train Jamie lurched his way to the bathroom, the only place he was ever left alone. He’d composed the message in his head and wrote it on a paper towel braced against the small mirror, shaking the pen every few seconds to try to convince it to write on the narrow edge of the sink. When he’d finished he folded it into a small square and slipped it to the bottom of his back pocket. He looked at the pen for a long time. Could he explain it away if they found it? Would he need a second chance? Would he get a second chance? If he stuck it in his pocket it’d be easy to find and would at least make them suspicious. If he hid it and they found it they’d know for sure. They weren’t searching him but he be surprised if they weren’t rifling through his clothes while he slept.

In the end he got rid of it because he’d been in there too long and he needed to do something. When he’d come out he’d grimaced and laid a hand briefly across his stomach and hadn’t thought they’d looked at him any more suspiciously than usual. He began his search for a target.

He’d managed step one, thanks to the harangued Frenchman. Stumbling out of the men’s room, holding the seat backs against the movement of the train, step two suddenly seemed harder than getting the pen. Who could he give it to? All he needed was someone calling, ‘Hey. You dropped something.’ He had to make eye contact with someone. Someone perceptive. Maybe not enough to know what he wanted, but enough to know he wanted something. Someone he could make enough of a momentary connection with that would leave him or her staring at the piece of paper, then finally opening it without any fuss. Someone who’d believe what the paper said and finally, most importantly, doing what it asked. So all he had to do was find someone like that and deliver the note without being seen by Mutt and Jeff, whose eyes never seemed to leave him. Simple. What would he do for an encore? Cure cancer?

He was starting to get desperate when he saw her. He’d decided young women were worse than cops. More than likely to think he was trying to paw them and start screaming bloody murder if he bumped into them. But in the end she wasn’t only young but attractive.

He caught her eye as they’d switched to a double decker bullet train for the Stuttgart to Paris leg. As he’d turned to sit her eyes’d flickered from him to Mutt sitting across the aisle and watching him. He’d seen, or hoped he’d seen, a flicker of curiosity in intelligent eyes. She was an American diplomat. He could tell from the snatches of conversation he caught between her and the young man sitting next to her in the row behind him.

He’d given the dogs a meaningful look, caught her eye again on the way to the men’s room, sat on the toilet taking deep, slow breaths, trying not to hyperventilate. He’d only get one chance, if he got that. If Mutt or Jeff saw him drop it, if she said ‘what are you doing?’, if she said anything, if the guy next to her said anything. If, if, if. If anything happened then it was over. He imagined the stares from Mutt and Jeff as they realized. Imagined himself giving Jeff one in the jaw as a parting gift. Calling a cop who’d most likely lock him up for punching Jeff. All the work, all the fear, all of it’d be flushed. Only one chance. But he wasn’t getting a better one. It was now or never. He dug a finger into his back pocket and fished out the little folded square, experimented with various ways to palm it, finally jammed it under his thumb. He stood, heart pounding, hands sweaty, and stared at himself in the small mirror. What time is it? It’s game time.

One more deep breath and he’d snapped the lock, pulled open the door and stepped into the aisle, letting himself adjust to the rocking of the train, felt like he was watching it all pass on a movie screen. Mutt turned and gave him a look, but after a second his head turned back to the front. Jamie made his way slowly down the aisle, trying to make his hand look natural, steadying himself on the seat tops as he lurched along. Mutt gave him a last glance as he reached his seat, then just as Mutt turned away he dropped the square of paper onto the woman’s lap, sharing a momentary, but he hoped penetrating, look with her as he clambered over Jeff and dropped into his seat.

He turned his face to the window and watched the outer suburbs of Paris slide slowly by, willing himself not to think about it. Waiting for her to say something. Listening for the slight rustle of paper, but he didn’t hear anything. After a few seconds he caught the movement of her getting out of her seat and disappearing down the aisle out of the corner of his eye.

Then to his shock he drifted off. He half jumped out of his seat when the train finally lurched to a stop, actually getting a small chuckle out of Mutt and Jeff. When he stood to follow Jeff off the train the only thing on the seats behind them was an empty newspaper.

Had she gotten the message? She’d gotten the paper. Hadn’t said anything. He stepped down from the train and walked down the platform, elbow to elbow with Mutt and Jeff, into the open space of the gare de l’est in Paris. He glanced around, trying to look like a tourist rather than like a hostage looking around for a young woman and her companion. The train station was packed with people from a dozen countries speaking as many languages. Faces passed him in a fog to the accompaniment of garbled French over the loud speakers, the clacking of the sign posting arrivals and departures and the hiss and screech of trains coming and going. Grim-faced French policemen, automatic weapons hugged to their chests, walked in small groups into the central hall, eyeing the travelers who parted in front of them like the Red Sea before Moses. Jamie felt himself deluged by a tsunami of despair. What a waste of time it’d all been. She’d probably thrown the paper away. Laughed about it with her friend. Some pathetic crackpot trying a creative way to pick her up. She’d probably seen them all. And even if she believed it. Called the number. Told them he was in Paris. Then what? By the time they got whoever they had in Paris out to watch the train stations he’d be long gone. He almost threw himself into the arms of the cops when suddenly the three of them were facing an outstretched palm.

Jamie stared back at them in shock, but Mutt and Jeff knew the drill. They’d pulled out their passports and stuck them into the outstretched hand. The cop flipped through them while the other two watched Mutt and Jeff through narrowed eyes. He finally closed them and stared at Jamie until one of them, Mutt or Jeff, he never knew which, dug an elbow into his ribs and shot an apologetic smile at the cops. ‘Our friend. He’s not very bright.’ But the cops didn’t look as if they could be less interested.

Jamie stared at the cop as he flipped through the passport, his interest noticeably waning when saw Jamie was an American. He handed it back without a ‘thank you,’ or an ‘excuse me,’ and marched away, looking for other Arab-looking tourists to roust. Mutt’s sheepish grin disappeared and he and Jeff shared an evil look before they put their passports away and started through the crowded terminal.

Jamie forced himself to gape up at the vaulted ceilings like the tourist he might’ve been if things’d turned out differently, giving up on the young woman as they walked along, jostled by the crowd. The smell of coffee and fresh baked bread made him realize how hungry he was, but there evidently was no plan to stop. They rode the escalator down in a tight little group to a comparatively claustrophobic area under the main hall, which from the signs led to the metro entrance. He’d stood shoulder to shoulder with Jeff while Mutt went to the guichet and then disappeared. He returned holding out metro tickets, baguettes jammed under one arm.

They munched and walked through the crowded halls to the more crowded metro platform but the bread tasted like sawdust in Jamie’s mouth. Line four, Porte de Clignancourt, and he wished that some of his extensive training had been spent telling him something about the Paris metro system. The platform was cold and he shifted his backpack and pulled the thin windbreaker they’d given him tighter with one hand while he ate with the other. He got a few dirty looks and wondered whether eating was allowed on the platform. Another trio of policemen passed and eyed them as the train entered the station with a whoosh. That’d be a good one. Getting arrested for eating on a metro platform. But the cops’ eyes slid past them as the crowd began jostling toward the car screeching to a stop.

The train stopped and the doors opened, disgorging a panoply of expressions ranging from worry to anger on the faces shooting out the doors as their bodies ran into the press of people on the platform as if they were trying to keep them from their busses or connecting trains, shoulders lowered like fullbacks hitting the line, yanking huge rolling suitcases behind them, trailing a stream of sharp French as they shoved their way through. Jamie had to jump back as a woman barreled right into his personal space, pulling a huge suitcase behind her like a stubborn dog who didn’t want a walk. The doorway finally cleared and the tide surged the other way. The crowd carried them through the door into the car packed in like sardines. The smells of bread and coffee fighting and losing the battle with garlic and body odor. And then he saw her.

She looked like subway riders all over the world. Staring blankly, no eye contact. But the push of the crowd had carried her onto the same train, the same car as they all settled into each other when the train lurched away from the platform. She certainly wasn’t looking at Jamie and he had to fight his eyes away from staring at her. Had she called? Had they asked her to see where he was going? Asked her to follow him? Or was she just doing it on her own? He wanted to let out a cheer in spite of the bleary-eyed, unshaven guy pressed into his back, breathing his breakfast onto Jamie’s neck, and the young woman pressed into his front who looked like she had an elbow ready in case he so much as breathed wrong. Mutt and Jeff were as close as they could get in the press of the crowd, but there were people pressed in between them and Jamie and he thought he could get away with a glance at her until his eyes caught Mutt’s in the black reflection of the train window. He fought back the urge to look. It was too much to be a coincidence. Don’t blow it now.

The train screeched to a stop amid a rustling of people and garbled French announcements. Mutt tilted his eyes and Jamil started pushing his way toward the door, not daring to look over to see whether she was following. They escaped to another packed platform and a few minutes later he was sitting in another train, this one a lot less crowded, his bag on the empty seat next to him, Mutt and Jeff in the row behind. He didn’t know whether she was there, but neither did they. Neither of them seemed to consider the possibility that they were being followed. They stared straight ahead as the metro car lurched from stop to stop, finally disgorging them onto another platform and then out onto a busy Paris street.

It was a street that would’ve looked at home in Cairo or Tunis. Small shops with signs fought for space with grim looking high rise blocks. Women in black from head to toe, looking at the world through eye slits or sheer black material. Men in ankle length shirts and head scarves. No Caucasian faces as far as the eye could see. If the young woman were still following them she’d stand out a mile. Jamie had to physically restrain himself from turning to see if she were there.

In the end he never knew. At least not for sure. As they’d stepped through the yawning black square of a doorway into one of the buildings Jamie’d risked a glance up the street. He thought he’d seen the blur of a white face but couldn’t be sure before disappearing back into the netherworld these people lived in.

So it was going to be Paris. Jamie found himself running targets through his mind. Soccer stadiums, metro stations, night clubs, and he suddenly understood the flaw in the whole Infil program. The idea was to get someone inside, deep inside, to win trust and be in a position to locate the cell so it could be arrested or destroyed. Great. Good idea. But just exactly how do you get out to let someone know? So Jamie’d managed, he hoped, to get a message and with any luck, they were being shadowed. But what happened as the planning got farther and farther along, as they were actually moving into position, what happened if Jamie found himself standing somewhere ready to start mowing people down with an automatic weapon, and the cavalry didn’t ride over the hill? What happened then? How far down the road of preparation did he get before he tried to make a break? And exactly how would he make that break? He could’ve walked away any time moving across Europe but didn’t kid himself that he could do it now. He knew there were arms and explosives in this place. Had to be. No doubt lots of them. So when? How? Walking up the stairs he could feel sweat gathering on his back that had nothing to do with the exertion.

And then…nothing. He’d spent days in that flat. How many? He’d lost track. But no planning. Just sitting around and watching French TV. Occasionally one of the others stared through the slit in the curtains at the street. Jamie did once or twice, torn between fear that they’d think he was signaling and fear that if he didn’t look they’d think he was trying not to seem suspicious. Mutt and Jeff disappeared after a day and were replaced by Hansel and Gretel. Hansel was your garden variety terrorist. The kind of serial loser who’d drifted in and out when Jamie was still in Syria. But Gretel, she was different. Smoking black eyes looking through a slit in the black Niqab that covered her head like a World War One artilleryman peering at the enemy through the slit in a pill box. It seemed to Jamie that every time he turned around he was staring into those eyes. As if they were watching him. And when he found himself staring at them there was no connection. No shared sympathy for another traveler ready to do God’s work by murdering all the innocent people he could get his hands on. Reptilian. That was the only way to describe them. The eyes of a crocodile, waiting for you to walk your little dog a little closer.

She’d made his skin crawl covered in black, but it was worse, much worse, when she’d appeared the morning they’d finally left. Jamie hadn’t realized it was coming, and certainly wasn’t ready for the way Gretel appeared, very westernized, and very beautiful, which somehow made those black eyes following his every move even more frightening.

Maybe they were being watched, because they took an elaborate route out of the building. Up to the roof, climbing to the roof of the next building, going down stairs littered with trash and reeking of piss. They got to the bottom and turned to the back of the building, waiting at the door for something to be whispered over a cell phone before wrenching open the door and walking rapidly across a cracked concrete courtyard into the back of yet another building, running up a flight of stairs, then walking quickly out the front door and through the opening door of a car waiting at the curb. Jamie was the second one in between Hansel and another guy not dressed as an American and so probably just along for the ride. Gretel jumped in front next to the driver and they slowly pulled away from the curb, Hansel and the other guy in the back looking through the rear window.

So had they been followed? If so had they shaken the tail? Were they getting ready to attack somewhere? Jamie didn’t think so. The morning’s activities had more of the feel of an escape than of a planned attack. For the moment, all he could do was sit back, wonder where they were going and hope that they were surrounded by a surveillance team switching in and out, reporting their progress by radio.

They picked up a highway pretty quickly and it wasn’t much more than a half hour later when Jamie felt the cold chill of panic creep down his spine. Charles de Gaulle. The airport. They were pulling into the airport. It wasn’t going to be Paris, but where? Nowhere in Europe or they’d take a train. Why an airplane? Planes had the tightest security of any way they could pick. Charles de Gaulle meant international flights. Where? Or was the plane the destination? Was something going to happen on the flight? Were Hansel or Gretel carrying some kind of plastic explosive that could get through security? But then why bring Jamie along? He didn’t have any explosives, not that he knew of anyway. The thought made his blood run cold. Maybe he was the one carrying it. Taking the risk of getting through security without some trigger happy French cop cutting him in half with an automatic weapon. But then why were they along? To do whatever you had to do to set it off of course.

The car pulled up to the curb and Gretel handed him his passport over the seat before he climbed out after Hansel. Jamie’d stood at the curb, watching the parade of little European cars pulling in and out. Back again to the point where he could walk away, but the stakes were also ratcheting up. Walk away now and he, they, would never know what these guys were planning. But he could grab a cop, tell him these guys were terrorists. If were carrying explosives that was evidence. He’d have them. But what if he was the one carrying them. Which suitcase was his? Would he end up being the one with his face against the floor, a boot on his neck, Hansel and Gretel staring down at him in shock, as if they’d never seen him before, had no idea what he was talking about. He was still wrestling with what to do when he got the huge shock.

“Congratulations.” At first Jamie hadn’t known what the hell the smiling woman behind the counter was talking about, but his racing mind caught up as the transformed Gretel took his arm and was suddenly the girl next door. Smiling back and chattering away in English, not just English but good American English, about a wedding that Jamie hadn’t been to. A wedding where he’d been the little terrorist on top of the cake.

He was married. They were married. He and Gretel. How the hell had they done that. Easy, that’s how. Their passports had been taken to some local official who was either in their pockets or who was willing to marry any passports you brought to him for a small financial consideration. Jamie stood gaping, the perfect, stupid new husband, while Gretel and the woman on the other side of the counter, a matronly French lady, shared a knowing laugh about grooms and Hansel, evidently Jamie’s new brother in law, hoisted suitcases Jamie’d never seen onto the scale to be weighed and tagged.

It did tell him one thing though, he realized as Gretel led him toward security after checking in. It wouldn’t be on the plane. If they were using Jamie to get something through security they would’ve kept their distance. Maintained deniability. Posing as happy newlyweds heading for New York with the brother for a chaperone meant they wanted Jamie’s passport to get them all on the plane and across the ocean. At least he hoped that’s what it meant.

And it did. Or at least the plane didn’t explode out of the sky. Jamie spent the flight in an existential struggle with himself over what to do. Given their elaborate route out of the apartment in Paris he had to assume they’d lost their surveillance, if they’d ever even had one. By an amazing coincidence Hansel needed the men’s room every time Jamie did, so to get word to the stewardess he’d have to break cover. Unlike the train stations there was nowhere for Hansel and Gretel to run, and once the intelligence services got their hands on them they weren’t likely to let them go. There are enough vague laws on the books to protect homeland security to hold Pope Francis indefinitely. So walk away. Bag his game. Move on.

But, and the but raised its head every time he decided it was time, but what about who they were going to meet in New York? They might be able to crack Hansel, given the right combination of drugs and torture they might even crack Gretel, but by the time they did their contacts would be long gone. Long gone and planning what? And then there was the passport check. One possibility no one had planned for was him coming back to the States, although as he sat jammed in by the window with nothing but time to think, he couldn’t imagine why not. What else did they think the terrorists would want to do with someone who had an American Passport? In any event, Jamie’s passport passing through immigration would no doubt set off enough alarm bells to wake up every law enforcement agency on the eastern seaboard. By the time they got to the airport entrance they’d probably have a hundred person surveillance team. Hell they’d probably be followed by helicopters. And cracking a terrorist cell in New York was big. Was why he’d joined the Infil program in the first place. It was a chance to roll up whatever and whoever the terrorists had there and set them back years.

By the time they’d landed Jamie was afraid that they’d pull him into one of their small interview rooms as soon as they scanned his passport and hold him while Hansel and Gretel strolled off to disappear into the city. He filed off the plane wide awake, ready to convince whoever they sent him to that there wasn’t time to screw around. He needed to be released and they needed to put a tail on him, or to hold all three of them until they could arrange a tail and find a plausible story to convince Hansel and Gretel that it’d just been a mistake. He’d stepped up to the bored guy behind the immigration counter who’d flipped his passport open with the one handed expertise of a short order cook who’d been flipping burgers since high school and scanned it. He frowned slightly at his screen and Jamie fought to keep a neutral look on his face. When the immigration officer’d waved him to wait in the corridor for a minute he’d had to keep from high fiving the guy as he walked over to Gretel, waiting on the other side of the check.

He’d joined Gretel on the other side of the line and she’d taken his arm and they’d strolled away while the immigration officer, studiously ignoring Jamie, explained to Hansel that he was in the line for US citizens. Hansel had joined Jamie in line and made sure that Gretel was through before they got to the counter. Jamie caught a last glance of Hansel smiling sheepishly at the officer. Aw shucks. Wrong line. Was Jamie as convincing with them as they were with cops, immigration officers and everyone else with the job of looking out for them? Gretel never glanced back. She took Jamie by the arm and walked him to the baggage carrousel.

Jamie followed, waiting for the shouts, for the sound of running feet, alarms, but all he heard was the drone of announcements and the buzz of conversation as people started to wake up from their night crammed into a tiny tube flying across the ocean. Could they’ve set up surveillance that fast? They must be able to or they wouldn’t just be letting him walk away, would they? They strode quickly to the baggage carrousel. With another look around Gretel grabbed the first unclaimed suitcase she’d seen, shoved it into Jamie’s arms, nothing looks more suspicious than the attractive young woman carrying the suitcase while her husband walked beside her, and led Jamie past the NOTHING TO DECLARE sign. She gave the guy standing there two customs forms and a beautiful smile that he didn’t bother to look at because he was scanning the rest of her, and before Jamie fully realized what was happening they were walking out into the cold night. The cold New York night. A guy ran up and grabbed the bag they’d stolen and tossed it into the back of a station wagon the size of a small cabin cruiser that waited at the curb.

Jamie stopped, halfway through an open door, one foot on the curb and looked around. JFK. Cars, lights, cops. The sight of the cop walking along on the street side of the stopped cars with that sauntering, wide-footed gait cops had, waving cars along, froze him. Sights and sounds crowded in on him as if he’d sat too close to the screen of a movie.

Months of training, of living side-to-side with people who would’ve gladly sliced his throat and smiled for the cameras if they’d known who he was. Jamie’s head felt suddenly heavy as if God held his life between his hands, compressing it into a handful of seconds at a crowded curb. Cars passed, traces of carbon monoxide and burnt air drifting up his nose in their wake. The cop strolled near, hand resting on the gun in the holster sticking up from under his jacket; Gretel and the guy who’d taken the bag stood on either side of him, their faces unnaturally large. The world tilted and somewhere in the back of his mind Jamie knew his head was turning, taking it all in. The car door loomed open and dark like the mouth of a cave leading straight to hell. Get in. Walk away. Call the cop. A chorus of voices, his trainers, Abdullah, Gretel, his mother, like faces at a prize fight, pressing into the camera of his eye and shouting at him. Go. Stay. The soft pressure of Gretel’s breasts crowded his back and he felt a gentle push toward the door. The sights, sounds, colors started to unmoor and spin and he felt his knees buckle. He shot one last look at the cop who stared blandly past him before he tumbled through the door and slid over to the other side. Gretel climbed in behind him. The other guy pulled open the front passenger door and jumped in and the driver, with a discipline that Jamie would’ve admired if he’d noticed it, glided slowly away from the curb, one eye on the traffic approaching in the side mirror while the front passenger leaned an arm on the seat back and considered Jamie curiously. Gretel smiled and waved at the cop, who smiled and waved back, no doubt strolling away with the pleasant thought of the attractive young woman who appreciated his efforts to protect her.

The automatic locks snapped shut as they pulled away from the curb and Jamie knew without trying that there was a child protection on the door so he couldn’t open it and roll out, even if he’d had the energy. Gretel didn’t even glance at him as they cruised around the airport. The passenger in the front pulled out a cell phone, hit speed dial and held it to his ear, one eye never leaving Jamie. None of them said anything, didn’t introduce him to the new guys, as they circled, two, three times. Jamie started to get a grip on himself and had the presence of mind to wonder what they were doing when the guy with the phone nodded and pointed and they glided back to the curb. The passenger jumped out and grabbed another bag Jamie’d never seen before from Hansel, who stepped off the curb. The locks snapped and Hansel pulled open the door and got in next to Jamie, the other guy tossed the bag into the trunk and slammed it shut, got into the front, and they glided away again with a palpable sense of relief among his companions.

Jamie spent the half hour or forty minutes they drove with his head tilted back on the seat, his hands folded in front of him, wondering what, if anything, they’d made of his performance at the curb. No one treated him particularly differently, he still hovered in the no man’s land between co-conspirator and prisoner. Like a conscript in Stalin’s army, German bayonets in front of him and Russian behind. The guy in the front finally turned around, but still turned and glanced at him occasionally. But they all did that when they first met him. Gretel didn’t notice him, but she seldom did and he didn’t look forward to those few occasions when she did. She was every evil queen and wicked stepmother he’d feared as a child rolled into jiggling package wrapped in tight clothes.

They drove about a half hour before stopping at yet another apartment building, where did they find them? By now Jamie’d gotten over whatever temporary insanity had hit him with his first view of home. The feeling that they were on his ground now, that he was the hunter and not the hunted, hit him much harder than it had in Europe. He got out of the car and trudged after Hansel across the empty sidewalk and into the dark building, followed by Gretel and the other passenger as the car rolled away into the night. Tomorrow morning he’d start formulating his plans. He wasn’t sure of his ground in Europe, but all he had to do here was identify them and his people would take care of the rest. American law enforcement didn’t hamper itself with civil rights or the constitution when terrorists were involved.

It was still dark when Jamie woke up the next morning in a tiny room scattered with backpacks, pictures and plastic action figures that told him the usual resident was a boy between say, eight and twelve. He flipped to a sitting position and looked around the tiny space. “Who,” he mumbled to himself, “lends their child’s room to murderers?” But his voice sounded funny, as if it didn’t want to be heard. Smarter than he was. He reached across the small space between the bed and dresser and picked up one of the little plastic men. Who was it? From some movie? After Jamie’s time, but the same kind of crap he’d had in his room once upon a time. Jamie’s room’d been bigger. The paint fresher. The furniture newer. The room bigger, but not any cleaner. It’d looked out on a cherry tree in the front yard that for about a week a year was a huge pink explosion, which he’d never admitted to his mother that he’d loved waking up to.

He stood, swayed for a second. Took a deep breath. Turned and leaned his head against the glass. This kid, whoever he was, had a view over the rail of a fire escape down a long, narrow canyon of a street, still dark except for the occasional light shining on a store front. A truck followed its headlights in a lumbering trail down the street. Not a cherry tree, or a tree of any kind, in sight. The kid’s view. His world. A tiny smile tried to force its way onto Jamie’s lips, but it fought against his trembling chin and burning eyes. He needed to get a grip or he’d be a end up quivering lump. The differences didn’t matter. For a second Jamie was the kid in this room, which was only a half step to the kid he’d been in his own room. Somehow the fleeting sensation threatened to open the floodgates on the fear and stress that’d sat on his back like a weight for the past months, growing heavier day-by-dreaded day until it was amazing he could get out of bed in the morning. Jamie found himself fighting for breath and suddenly knew that he had to get out. Couldn’t do it anymore. The confidence he’d felt surging into him gone. He’d just laid his fingers against the window to see if he could lift it when the door opened. They never knocked. Like jail.

“War…,” he cleared his throat. “Warm in here,” he croaked. “Maybe getting sick.” But he was talking to air. Hansel’d thrown the door open, seen he was up, and disappeared, leaving the door swinging slowly closed in his wake. That was when Jamie’d realized that the reason he’d woken up was the stirring of activity on the other side of the door. He took a deep breath, lifted his brows to stretch the skin around his eyes as he wiped them on his wrist, pulled on his clothes. He tried not to touch anything else in the room. Tried not to wonder whether this kid’s parents were innocent dupes, lending their apartment to friends they thought they knew, tried not to think about what would happen to this kid’s innocence as he grew, ventured out in the world. He didn’t even take a last look around before steeling himself and following the sounds of activity.

Things were different. Jamie would’ve felt it immediately even if it hadn’t been for the guns. But the guns. The guns were there. The guns didn’t just verify that it was different. They told him that he’d been kidding himself about having time. As his trainer used to say, he was ten feet from the electrified fence and running full tilt. If he was going to change direction without being spread eagle across the chain link, lighting up the night sky with the voltage running through his body, he had to do it fast.

Hansel and the passenger from last night were quietly and efficiently checking out the four vintage AK-47’s lined up on newspaper that covered the coffee table, their butts hanging at forty-five degrees over one side and their barrels over the other. But the assault weapons only held Jamie’s eyes for a second before they travelled to the hand guns that each had in his belt, finally resting on the knife in the sheath that seemed to travel halfway down Hansel’s thigh. They barely glanced at Jamie, focusing on their task with the concentration of people preparing for something. Something serious.

Jamie took a step back toward the room, the fire escape, but his foot didn’t land on the wood floor. He turned and found himself staring into Gretel’s black eyes, down her tight tank top to her tight jeans, a handgun resting in a holster on one hip, a knife like the one Hansel sported on the other, to the small foot under his, then back up to her eyes. Jamie moved his foot, forced a confident smile to his lips and nodded toward the bathroom as he passed her. He could feel her eyes burning on his back as he closed the door, accompanied by the rustle of a new activity as the weapons were slipped into canvas covers.

Jamie stood with his hands on either side of the sink, watching himself in the small mirror, trying to hyperventilate quietly. Think. Plan. Act. They’d drilled it into them in training. Prepared them for any eventuality. What they hadn’t prepared him for was the constant wrestling with sanity as he fought with his fears for control of his body.

By the time he’d gotten himself together, again, they were packed and ready. Jamie slipped on his jacket. No clothes to change into. His bag had stayed at the airport. Didn’t bother to take a shower. He clearly wasn’t being offered the time and from the set look on their faces by the end of the day it wouldn’t matter whether his teeth were brushed.

They shoved the canvas covered weapons into Jamie’s arms and tramped noisily down the stairway to the front door. The car was at the curb and they hit the door almost at a run, Jamie’s feet raced to keep up with the weight in his arms. Hansel pulled him from the front and the passenger from the night before pushed from the rear. He fell through the open door, the hard steel of the weapons under the canvas knocking the wind out of him. Gretel jumped in after him and the door behind slammed shut behind her. A few seconds later the door on the other side opened and Hansel pulled the weapons out from under Jamie and slid them over the seat and into the trunk. The driver and passenger were already in front. They slipped away from the curb down the dark street.

They glided along on springs that’d been soft when the car was new that now gave it a rolling bounce. They left the neighborhood street behind and rolled down a highway with a liberal sprinkling of potholes that made it like sailing a stormy sea. The driver didn’t say a word. Stayed the same pock-marked neck and occasional eye in the side mirror as the night before. The cold inside of the car had a D-Day feel. The sense of long preparation that’d come to a single point when the risk had to be taken.

Warehouses, stores, and bright squares of light in the slab sides of apartment buildings flashed past in the dark. The occasional whoosh of a passing car signaled that driving the speed limit was probably an easier way to be noticed than driving too fast but the driver stubbornly held to it, both hands gripping the wheel. Had they, Jamie’s people, made him at the airport? Followed them? Jamie had the sinking feeling they hadn’t, but couldn’t make out whether that was pessimism borne of fear and desperation or knowledge that it’d all happened so fast at the airport that the ball must’ve gotten dropped somewhere. Jamie’s view of the casual attitude of the immigration officer shifted from highly trained response to bureaucratic indifference. He tried to recover his confidence that he was on American soil. That he was the hunter, but it slipped from his grasp as if he were trying to hold onto a wisp of smoke. He replayed the entire trip in his mind. Suddenly clear that there were at least ten times he should’ve taken the chance and gotten to a phone. Tried to let someone know. Pulled the plug. What’d his father used to say? Hindsight was twenty-twenty.

He fought the urge to look back. See if he could spot something. Why bother? If there were a tail and they were obvious enough for him to make out his companions’d see them first. They were hyper alert, looking constantly in the mirrors as they bounced along the highway and then over a bridge. Jamie’s New York geography wasn’t much better than his grasp of the Paris metro. The Verrazano-Narrows bridge. They must be leaving New York, at least that’s what he’d thought until pock-marked neck veered suddenly from the far left lane, all of them, even the driver he noticed to his temporary panic, staring the mirrors. If they had a tail he’d better damn well know what he’s doing.

The car rolled like a boat turning in a choppy sea and Jamie felt himself pressed against Hansel. The engine whined in protest as it pulled all that weight across two, fortunately empty, lanes aimed at an exit that already seemed to be flying past. Jamie’s stomach kept going straight as the car’s weight seemed to settle over the two left wheels. The engine wailed and narrow, probably bald, tires screeched as they skidded toward the exit.

The concrete barrier flashed by inches from the window but they somehow made it. The weight shifted back to the right and the loose springs then swayed like a hammock as they bounced down the ramp. Jamie tried to brace keep himself from sliding back and forth but couldn’t get ahold of anything. They must’ve been doing seventy by the time they swung right again and this time Jamie was sure his problems were over because trees and building rose in the windshield as if they were being shot at them. His arms flailed out to grab onto Hansel who was bracing himself on the door as they swung onto a divided street through some kind of small business area. What looked like a motel raced past through the trees to the left, small businesses to the right.

The driver accelerated a couple of blocks into a residential area. Driveways leading to single family houses, duplexes, small apartment buildings slid past. The vague notion that it was a variation on the Detroit suburbs where Jamie’d grown up flashed through his mind as it zipped past. The same stores, gas stations, suburban sprawl. Duplexes with little metal fences around postage stamp yards and row houses with long driveways, all giving on sidewalks. Not much grass. The first couple of blocks passed in a blur while pock-marked neck’s eyes scanned the mirrors. Hansel pushed Jamie to the center of the seat, suddenly brave as the roll settled and they could pull themselves straight. Jamie straightened, his head swinging back like the others. Did they see anything? Because he didn’t. No one’d followed off the ramp. The driver swung the wheel left and Jamie just caught the reflection of a car pulling into the road behind them as they turned the corner and the driver slowed, cruising, water to their right. He watched behind with the others. Nothing.

This isn’t good.

Keep reading, tell a friend

If you’ve enjoyed Infil 1 so far the next chapter will be available soon. Thanks for your interest and please consider telling a friend. Because Infil 1 isn’t for sale yet you can’t leave a review, but I’d love to hear your feedback so please leave a comment on my blog or Facebook page. Thanks very much for reading.

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Infil 1 back, in more ways than one (Better warn a friend)

Infil agents are so deep undercover in the world of international terrorism even law enforcement agencies don’t know about them. That’s OK though, because Infil agents will never end up back in the US. Will they?

No level of clearance will get you access to the Infil program file. Already in the know? Then read the exciting next chapter below. Want to catch up or read on your favorite device? Pick it up on Instafreebie or at charlesvella.com.

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Infil 1

Infil 1 (Chapters 1-3)

Copyright © 2017 by Charles Vella

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without written permission of the author.

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental

Chapter 3: This isn’t good

This isn’t good.

Jamil sat jammed into the back, saying it over and over to himself, his mantra for months now. His name was Jamil. Jamil Jamil Jamil. Not Jamie, what his new friends thought was an Americanized Jamil. The name he’d told them he’d gone by before God’d introduced himself and confided that alms to the poor was for suckers. Slaughtering innocent people was the only true way to heaven. For sure not the name his parents’d given him and that he’d carried home from the hospital in Detroit. The one he’d grown up with like an old shoe, never realizing how comfortable it was until he’d forced himself into a new one. That name he never thought about, and so it constantly leapt into his mind without warning, riding to the tip of his tongue and forcing him to swallow it back with the bile that seemed to collect there. The name he was so afraid to dredge up even in his sleep that he was sure one day he’d blurt it out. And not. Absolutely never, Infil 1. He’d started digging a hole for that one almost as soon as he’d heard it. A hole he’d been digging ever since because he knew it’d never be deep enough.

The car that’d sat belching smoke at the curb in front of the airport was one of those big American boats from the nineties. A station wagon with fake wood peeling down the side. Half a tarnished chrome model name hung from the front fender. The other half no doubt’d been ground into dust long ago. Faded paint a shade of green that Jamil associated with vomit peeked out from under a layer of dirt as if the thing’d been dug out of an archeological site. The car rolled like a ship at sea, sending him across the mile of back seat into one or the other of them every time the driver aimed it in a slightly different direction. They sat on either side of him, staring out the dirty windows as if they were avoiding looking at him. Were they? Avoiding looking at him? What’d that mean? An icy shiver ran down his spine as he refused to focus on the thought. Get a grip. They were staring out the windows for the same reason he was. What the hell else was there to do in a car? Besides, he doubted either of them had ever been to the States before. They were curious. Murderous, but curious. So then why’d he always end up in the middle? And why was one of them always within sight when they stopped? Jamil shook his head, glanced left, tried to catch the eye of the girl, but her eyes were focused on the passing cityscape. He’d named them Hansel and Gretel, like he’d named the ones who’d lived with him in the compound Mutt and Jeff. Funny names. Safe names. Hard to imagine saying, ‘Hey Gretel, beheaded any Americans lately?’ It was a way to keep sane. Was it working? He took a deep breath. Focus on the humming of the wheels, the gentle vibration through the seat. Focus. Focus on something. Anything but the thought that he wouldn’t, couldn’t, let into his mind.

Oh come on he told himself for the millionth time. They hadn’t made him. If they had then Jamil, Jamie, the kid his parents’d brought home from the hospital and Infil 1, all of them, would be at the bottom of a shallow grave somewhere in Syria, or wherever it was he’d ended up after the months they’d spent moving him around like a piece on a sandy chessboard. A bullet in his brain if they’d been in a hurry. His head under his arm if they’d had the time and inclination to make him a video star. But Jamil wasn’t in that hole, facing eternity. He was here. Perched on the wide bench seat between the young man and woman he’d travelled from France with but hadn’t been introduced to. Was that significant? That no one’d been introduced? STOP, he screamed to himself.

That’s what was driving him over the edge. Exactly what the psychiatrist at the training facility’d told him not to do, sitting safe and comfortable in his cluttered office sipping his herbal tea. Don’t obsess over how they act around you. Think of it, he’d suggested, like having a girlfriend who hated her job. She’s bound to seem preoccupied. She’s not necessarily thinking of some other guy she met. Remember it’s not all about you. He’d leaned back into his leather chair in triumph, all the answers at his finger tips, his cholesterol level the biggest danger he faced every morning when he woke up.

Jamil shifted and studied Hansel out of the corner of his eye. He’d memorized the face, not the three day stubble but the things that couldn’t be changed. Shape of the jaw, ears. About five-ten. A hundred-eighty pounds. It’d probably never matter but when his training kicked in at least it let him run on autopilot. Memorizing. Preparing testimony. ‘That’s him Your Honor.’ Pointing to Hansel, no doubt now cleanly shaven the way he’d been in France. Khakis and a blue button down shirt to match the outfit they’d given Jamil for the trip. And Gretel? Can you identify her? Gretel who he’d never seen except covered head to foot in a loose black dress until that early morning when they’d been hustled out of Paris. Tight jeans and an oxford shirt. Any normal girl would’ve smirked at the shocked look that Jamil must’ve had on his face when he’d seen her transformation. But Gretel your honor, Gretel’s no ordinary girl. She certainly doesn’t smirk. Eyes like black marbles that reflected the world around her without connecting with it. He’d watched those eyes for days framed by the narrow slit of the black Niqab she’d worn on her head like the eyes of an enemy soldier in a bunker that had to be charged. The effect’d given him the creeps, but somehow seeing her in the western outfit was worse. She’d stared at Jamil and he’d known, deep in his soul, that she knew. Knew exactly who he was. What he was. The same feeling he’d gotten from that bastard who called himself Abdullah. Jamil saw that psychopath’s acne-scarred face in his sleep.

Abdullah’d been the one who’d come into his room before light, how long ago? A week? Two? Time’d started running together like the colors in a melted ice cream cone, seconds and minutes running down his hand and dripping into puddles on the ground. Jamil saw that ice cream cone vividly and knew he was dangerously low on sleep. Had been for months. That was something they hadn’t warned him about. Maybe they didn’t know. How you couldn’t sleep. No matter how tired you got you just lay there, thoughts hidden all day by activity and the need to concentrate. They surged into Jamil’s brain as soon as he tried to relax. He’d been exhausted the morning Abdullah’d opened his door, murmured a few words in Arabic that’d jolted him out of bed like an electric shock. Jamil’d found himself dressed, his few belongings in an overnight bag crowding his feet in the tiny square of floor space behind the driver’s seat of the dirty rattle trap they’d hustled him into, shivering and breathing small, white clouds into the early cold. He’d watched the village fade away to open fields, listening to Mutt and Jeff mutter in Arabic that was way too fast for him to follow, with bleary-eyed lack of interest. Could you get that tired? Kill me or don’t but for God’s sake just let me get some sleep.

Jamil hadn’t been worried at that point. At least nothing more than the fear that wrapped his brain every waking hour of every day and that intensified during the hours he spent tossing and turning in his narrow bed. Movement was routine for these people. People who live in the suburbs and work in the city move in a pattern. Get up every day. Drive to work. Turn around and do it the other way in the evening. That wasn’t how it worked for people with drones circling the skies looking to hasten the meeting with God they all claimed to be so anxious for. For them patterns are death traps. They move randomly while faceless people somewhere sat at consoles, watching, trying to shrink the space they were confined into. It wasn’t the first or the tenth time Jamil’d been jolted awake and found himself in a car going somewhere. Just a day at the office. Until they’d handed him his passport.

He’d stared at the gold PASSPORT and eagle with United States of America underneath it like a foreign language he only had a passing familiarity with. Sometime into the first hour of bouncing on springs that were probably older than he was Abdullah’d turned and rested his arm on the corner of the front passenger seat to give Jamil a long look. Jamil stared back blankly, fighting down the churning fear rising from his stomach to his throat. Abdullah’d finally given his head a tilt toward the fields passing on their left and muttered Turkiya.

Turkey. Abdullah was a fanatic of few words. He wasn’t likely pass the time on a car trip by pointing out the highlights, ‘and there’s the biggest ball of aluminum foil in the Middle East’. He never smiled. Never formed an expression of any kind on his face. Jamil’d sat with him once watching I Love Lucy reruns. Jamil’d laughed until tears ran down his face, no doubt some of the stress escaping. Abdullah, he’d stared at the tiny black and white picture of the woman trying to operate an assembly line running too fast, scrambling back and forth, shoving candy into her mouth, with less expression than a New York subway commuter. No. If Abdullah bothered to point out Turkey it could only mean one thing. Jamil’d looked out the window across the empty fields. It looked like you could walk across. No doubt it was harder than it looked because they kept driving until they’d reached a wall. It was an East Berlin looking thing. Ten feet or so of concrete topped by rolls of razor wire. No guards, but this wall was built to keep people out, not in. The guards would be on the other side.

The line of cars and minibuses already snaked into the dusty distance from the border crossing by the time they joined it on the outskirts of some town. They sat for hours behind a minibus that belched a thick cloud of black smoke whenever it rolled a few feet forward. At least the road was paved, so the mushroom cloud of dust accompanying the smoke barely singed Jamil’s eyes. Paved and lined with a curb painted in black and white stripes. Trees lined the outside of the curb, which must help in the summer. Jamil’d thanked God that was winter when they’d crossed. The men, women and children trudging down the road on either side of the cars were wrapped in coats, carrying bags and backpacks. All looking at the street passing slowly under their feet like a giant treadmill powered by their collective exhausted legs.

They’d rolled, stopped, rolled and stopped again while Jamil’d wondered idly why they hadn’t just driven across the fields. As they turned into the final straightaway to the border checkpoint the curbs gave way to the kind of concrete dividers you saw between lanes at construction sites in the states. Jamil could tell from the glances his companions shot at those dividers that they hadn’t liked the change. It was like a cattle chute, and cattle chutes led to the slaughterhouse.

The Syrian side of the border wasn’t a problem. The young men milling around with automatic weapons hanging casually from one arm clearly weren’t soldiers and just as clearly knew Abdullah because after a look at him the rest of them weren’t given a glance. The two, what were they, border guards? Soldiers? Teenagers who’d’ve been buying beer and cruising the corn fields if they’d been born in Iowa? Whoever or whatever they were they backed away from the car when they’d seen who was in it and waved them through without any apparent interest.

The Turkish side was different. The tension in the car became a physical presence as they rolled up to the soldiers, real soldiers, and Abdullah’d stared at Jamil over the back of the seat with a cold eye that was part searching, part warning. Jamil’s perception of time and space had slowed, stretched out. Soldiers loomed over the small car, staring through suddenly narrowed eyes, weapons hitching almost imperceptibly. An officer stood in the doorway of the building sliding up on their left and the thought’d flitted through Jamil’s mind that he’d paid off to let them through. Had they? Paid him? How much? Enough to remember to tell his men? The soldiers’d moved to either side of the car with their palms moving up and down signaling for the windows to come down. All the windows. Jamil’d pushed his button and the window’d jerked slowly as far as it went and the bill of the soldier’s cap almost tapped against his forehead. He could hear the faint thump of the rifle barrel against the door as the soldier’d breathed his breakfast into Jamil’s face while the soldier on the other side took the pile of passports from Abdullah and carried them into the building, past the officer who didn’t give them a glance. The soldier’s face disappeared from his window and Jamil’d stared back at the officer, willing him to look back, suddenly desperate to be taken into that building and questioned. To tell them who he was. To watch Abdullah and his little band of merry men led away in handcuffs.

But that wasn’t how things worked in that part of the world, and when the soldier reappeared and tossed the passports onto Abdullah’s lap and the other one slapped a palm against the roof of the car, Jamil knew he’d been lucky. This wasn’t American TV where the cops pulled out guns and said ‘freeze.’ If they’d yanked that door open both the officer who’d been paid off and the fanatics in the car would’ve known the game was up and somebody, probably everybody except Jamil, would’ve started shooting. And only God and Abdullah knew what was wired to that car. As Jamil’d caught the officer’s face growing smaller in the car’s mirror he knew that there was no scenario where he would’ve ended up drinking coffee with his handlers, explaining what happened. There’d only been two possible outcomes when they’d pulled up to the check point. One was the palpable sense of relief in the car as the border station slowly disappeared behind them. The other was showing up on the evening news back home as a smoking hole in the ground in some Turkish town that most Americans would stare at over a mouthful of dinner and shake their heads at before turning back to their plates. Jamil and the terrorists’d been on the same side, and they’d been lucky. That time.

But he did know, or at least suspected he knew, why they hadn’t gone over the fields. During the twenty or so hours they’d spent driving across Turkey Jamil was prepared for the next border, which was when the word target first crept into his mind and set up shop.

Jamie, not Jamil now, was an American aid worker who’d been in Syria, which told him that the point of the border crossing had been to get a Turkish entry stamp on his passport. It also told him that if he had any illusions that this was just one more random move to keep ahead of the young Americans sitting in front of screens looking for targets he was kidding himself. There wasn’t much reason to go to Turkey to lie low. The terrorists had sympathizers there but it was enemy territory. The only reason to go to Turkey was to go on to Europe, and there weren’t many reasons for this crowd to want to go on to Europe. None of them involved sight seeing.

They’d pulled into Istanbul in the early evening, Jamie gawking around him like a tourist in spite of the panic that’d slowly seeped into his pores during the mind numbing hours of watching identical villages and fields roll past their dirty windows. When they’d finally pulled into a courtyard surrounded by flats the overwhelming thing he felt was relief at getting out of that goddamn car. They’d stood, and even Abdullah’d seemed momentarily human, stretching with his hands on his lower back and wincing, before shuffling to the door of one of the buildings overlooking the courtyard.

Jamie was third in line moving toward the door. Somehow he was always second or third, never last. A sign they didn’t trust him still? Or just an overactive imagination? No one ever said anything but whenever they walked anywhere he found that someone’d dropped in behind him. His momentarily relief at getting out of the car disappeared and he concentrated on slowing his breathing, suddenly afraid of a panic attack as the doorway loomed over him. Leading to what? He could sense people. Smelled cooking food. But no one passed on the groaning steps or opened a door to greet them. Just faded paint and dim light until they’d reached the third floor and Abdullah opened a door and disappeared. Jamie followed the line, to what? What if he saw video cameras? It flashed through his mind. His family watching a grainy video. Three men in black ski masks standing behind a kneeling man. Jamie. Staring desperately into the camera. Feeling the sword Abdullah brandished behind him. Waiting for the little swoosh of air that’d be the last sound he’d ever hear to go with his last sight of the camera lens, as lifeless as Abdullah’s black eyes, and last smell of some kind of meat cooking.

Jamie thought for a second he was going to faint and Mutt eyed him curiously as he closed the door, then crossed the room to a sofa that sagged to the floor and raised small clouds of dust as he collapsed into it, never taking his eyes off Jamie, who stood in the middle of the room waiting with shaking knees for his executioner.

No video cameras. Just some ramshackle furniture that everyone else’d fallen into. For some reason, that night Jamie’d gotten the best night’s sleep since he’d passed from the world of malls and highways where religious fanatics mostly confined themselves to raising money on television to one where they beheaded people and blew themselves up for the greater glory of God. He’d actually woken up feeling good. Jamie’d once read a book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn about prisoners in a gulag. The thing that’d stuck with him was the statement that every morning, when a prisoner wakes up, the first thing that hits him is that he’s a prisoner. That knowledge was the inescapable companion of his waking hours. Jamie hadn’t realized that he’d remembered that until the day after he’d made contact and had passed the point of no return. He’d tossed and turned all night on the plank with a thin foam cover where they’d put him while they decided what to do with the American who’d shown up wanting to joint the Jihad. That was when the dream’d started. The one where he watched people he knew, they changed every time he had it, parents, siblings, even children he didn’t know, in a burning car. In the dream he leapt into action, or tried to, but his feet were planted into the ground like tree roots. He couldn’t even turn, just had to watch them burn and listen to their desperate calls for help. When he’d finally jolted up with the first rays of the sun he should’ve been relieved it’d been a dream, but the realization that he was their prisoner had slapped him in the face. The thought’d followed him like a shadow after that, no matter how much he worked to stay in character. He’d slip it for a second but it was always there, starting with his first waking thought of every day.

But not that day. For some reason Jamie’d woken up feeling optimistic. The memory of why he’d signed up for all this surged into him like an electric charge and he knew he had to see it through. That he would see it through.

Halfway through that first day in Istanbul a guy’d shown up in a dingy gray thawb, a shirt that fluttered around his ankles revealing glimpses of bare, skinny ankles in cracked wing tips, and a Ghutra, a checked Yassir Arafat scarf attached to his head by a black band. In spite of the fact that the guy needed a shave himself he’d reached into his bag and pulled out clippers and a straight razor. They’d pulled a wooden chair into the middle of the room and Jamie’d taken his turn with Mutt and Jeff getting an old fashioned American haircut. The guy’d even shaved them. Jamie’d leaned back in the wooden chair, trying not to rock on the uneven legs while the guy’d breathed garlic and stale cigarettes onto his neck and lifted his chin with one finger while the razor scraped along his stretched throat. He’d felt the slight push of the blade against his skin, could tell how sharp it was by how it cleared away the whiskers without even a tug. The guy’d flicked the razor off Jamie’s chin with a flourish, given it a wipe on the dirty towel hanging over his shoulder, then slowly dragged it back up Jamie’s neck. Over and over until Jamie’s surge of optimism’d disappeared and he’d been ready to leap out of the chair screaming, ‘DO IT. JUST DO IT’. But the guy hadn’t done it. Hadn’t grabbed his hair and sliced his head half off like a Ramadan goat. Just finished his neck and, finally, pinching Jamie’s nose between his thumb and forefinger while he sliced hair off of his upper lip, cleaned and packed his tools and disappeared through the door, throwing a last look around the room that suggested his tip was getting out alive.

Abdullah’d disappeared when the barber arrived. He’d reappeared later with a collection of plastic shopping bags with bright store names and logos splashed across the sides. It was a little like the grim reaper showing up in a Santa Claus costume. These people didn’t shave and pull new shirts out of cellophane because they had dates. They changed for cover, and clothes like the ones emerging from these bags meant someone was going west, and the clean shaves gave away who. West. That could only mean one thing. They’d spent months indoctrinating and training Jamie. Turning him into Jamil. Stoking the hate for his native country that they believed was already there. Teaching him how to shoot. How to make bombs. Months and months of loading him like a weapon. Going west could only mean one thing. They were getting ready to fire him.

The thought racked his body with the shakes while he’d showered. The day in, day out grind of stress of living with these guys had dulled his senses, narrowed his view of life until it was like staring down a long, narrow tunnel where you couldn’t really see the light at the end. Then suddenly the floodlights were turned on, blinding him as he’d put on the oxford shirt and khakis, horrified at what he’d seen in the mirror. His high school yearbook picture. Just the kind of person who might be drawn to intelligence work after college. Thick dark hair and complexion that allowed him to be recreated into a wide range of ethnicities from whole cloth. Jamie’s great grandfather had been from Malta and the old man’s original immigration card had listed his complexion as swarthy, a distinction that’d been scattered among Jamie, his siblings and his cousins. Jamie stared into the mirror, straining to hear the low rumble of conversation on the other side of the door over the pounding of his heart. It was like walking into the costume party and having not just his mask but his entire costume ripped off, leaving him naked while everyone stared, their eyes saying ‘we knew it was you all the time.’

But to his surprise when he’d walked into the room they’d actually looked pleased, which, if you thought about it with a cool mind, or at least one not clutched in fevered paranoia, was what he should’ve expected. They didn’t want him for himself after all. Jamie was a walking American passport, which made him the most easily concealed weapon in the world. The shave, haircut and new clothes would make him increasingly invisible the farther west they moved. It was a surreal feeling. The closest he’d come to being one of them, leaving a strange mixture of satisfaction and revulsion in its wake. His mind flashed an image, sitting in front of his pediatrician, his pediatrician?, dressed as a judge, explaining that Jamie had Stockholm syndrome, but that they’d decided to hang him anyway.

That was the final realization. Like what they’d told him as a kid, if you put a frog in water and slowly increased the temperature it wouldn’t know it was being cooked. But Jamie’d always believed that there’d be a moment when the frog thought ‘shit, I’m being boiled.’ This was his ‘shit, I’m being boiled’ moment. The shave and haircut, the clothes, the passport lying in his pocket like the last weight that’d suck him into the whirlpool that he’d known was waiting for him since the day he’d gotten the assignment. Hell, since the day he’d talked to that Agency recruiter on campus, smiling and explaining all the benefits of government service. Health care and retirement. All you had to do was live long enough to use them.

The trip from Istanbul to Paris was such a logistical nightmare there were times he almost forgot he was anything but a miserable traveler. It was two in the morning by the time he’d dragged himself off the bus they’d picked up outside the Sirkeci train station in Istanbul and rode about a million back-breaking miles to a one-horse town called Kapikule. Jamie’s passport’d barely received a glance from the bored border guard when they’d filed, shivering, off the bus and had their passports stamped at the Bulgarian border. Bulgaria? Weren’t Bulgarians the bad guys in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Had he even known Bulgaria bordered Turkey when he’d started all this? Try as he might, Jamie couldn’t focus on his immediate problem, how to get a call into the number he kept hidden in the far recesses of his brain. The number he could call to tell someone he was on the move. Hours passing like years on a bus, crammed into a window seat shoulder to shoulder with Mutt while Jeff sat across the narrow aisle had sucked everything out of him but the desire for a bed. It actually was possible, he’d decided as he’d trudged from the bus to a train, the Balkan Express of all things, the strap of his backpack digging into his shoulder, you could get too tired to care whether you live or die.

Dawn’s early light was showing signs of appearing in the east by the time the train lurched out of the station. Jamie’d spent the next six or seven hours drifting in and out of sleep as the train crossed Bulgaria, finally entering Sofia mid morning. The factory creases in his new clothes were long gone by the time they changed trains and were on their way to Belgrade that evening. He’d never been so happy to see a bed, or at least something trying to pass as a bed, as he was in the sleeping car after spending the day sprawled across a bench in the Sofia station. The sleeper had six berths lined up in a grid along one wall and Jamie unsurprisingly found himself in the top where he had to climb past both Mutt and Jeff to get up and down.

Not that there was much to get down for, except the toilet crammed into the back of the car where he was sure either Mutt or Jeff watched the door as he sat and thought through his options while the train rumbled west toward whatever nightmare was in his future.

Where were they going? The trains and countryside became more and more familiar as they moved west. The train from Belgrade to Zagreb was air conditioned with comfortable seats, and the sleeper from Zagreb to Munich was absolutely plush, with the three of them sharing a room with a small sink. They got into Munich around six in the morning and Jamie felt as if he were well and truly in the west, moving steadily closer to what they had in mind but still with no way to get a message out.

They stuck to him like cling wrap, every step he took, every second of the day. At the Munich station Jamie knew he could just walk away. Say sayonara. Leave the whole thing behind. But then what? What would the whole point’ve been? Grab a German cop by the arm and point dramatically to Mutt and Jeff and say…what? ‘Officer. Arrest these two. They’re up to no good.’ Then what? Even if the cop didn’t think he was a lunatic and actually arrested them, what would that solve? Mutt and Jeff were flunkies. They’d just find someone else to go and do whatever they were sending them to do. This trip, whatever they had planned, having Jamie there was the point. Remember?

They, the people who’d gotten him into this, had considered, way back before sending him on this jaunt into Dante’s Inferno, putting some kind of electronic chip under his skin. Jamie’d thanked God they’d decided not to. These people might live in dumps but they’re electronic sophisticates, one of the people who’d moved in and out of his nomadic life had even been an electrical engineer from MIT. The days of strip searching were long gone. He’d been scanned so many times he’d be surprised if his internal organs weren’t half microwaved at this point. No, technology had reduced them to a communication method that’d been around for more than a hundred years. Give us a call. Let us know where you’re surfacing and we’ll be there. Simple, right?

The original idea, the one they’d discussed at training, seemed ridiculous now. He was a misfit, a convert. He’d be embraced. Win their confidence. Become one of the boys. They’d plan something. Set him up as the lynchpin. All he’d need to do was make his way to a phone and warn the good guys about what was coming so they could send the cavalry to save the day and round up the ringleaders. Great idea. Except they didn’t trust anyone. Not even themselves. Certainly not him. Oh he could walk away. Go to a phone. Make the call. Mutt and Jeff wouldn’t do anything. Nothing but stare at him with murder in their eyes that is. He doubted they were armed. Maybe he could even get them picked up. Disappear to that desk job waiting for him. A job where people didn’t stare at you as if calculating how far in they’d need to stick the knife. No. The stares he’d look up to from his gray, government-issued desk would be of the ‘couldn’t hack it’ variety. Knowing winks. ‘That’s him. The guy who jumped ship and called just in time for the good guys to catch a glimpse of the rats as they scurried into their holes to reappear another day.’ Another day when Infil 1 wouldn’t be around to warn the good guys. That’s what he told himself, over and over, what kept him, relatively, sane. They thought they were watching Jamil, but Infil 1 was watching them. Now that they were in the west he was in control. He could walk away any time. He could banish the fear and focus on getting the message to someone who could stop whatever was in the works. So no walking away. But he had to find someone.

So how do you deliver a message on a train rolling across Europe with two dogs on your heels every step you take? He wasn’t getting to a phone himself, not without giving the game away. So process of elimination told him the only way was to get the number and a couple of words to someone who would make the call for him, but who wouldn’t stop the three of them and want to know what was going on. Not a cop. Shove something in a cop’s hand and he wasn’t likely to watch you walk away wondering what that was all about. A cop’d grab you by the shoulder and want to know just what the hell you’re up to. Then what? Point out Mutt and Jeff? End up back where he’d started? Maybe they’d be questioned, maybe not. The most likely outcome was they’d be deported, salmon thrown back downstream to wriggle and worm their way back to the west when it suited them.

It took him from Munich to Stuttgart to manage it, and in the end he’d never even been sure he’d succeeded. Step one’d been at the Munich Hauptbahnhof. He’d found himself standing next to a Frenchman with a hangdog look as his wife waved her hands in the air and chewed him out for some crime that must’ve been at least mass murder judging by how long she went on about it. The guy’d absently shoved a pen into his pocket after writing a note on a timetable and Jamie’d managed to jostle him and get it into his own pocket before hoisting his backpack and getting on the train for Stuttgart, trying not to think what he was putting the poor bastard in for when his wife asked him for the pen.

The pen is mightier than the sword, which he assumed was why one’d never appeared in his baggage. On the train Jamie lurched his way to the bathroom, the only place he was ever left alone. He’d composed the message in his head and wrote it on a paper towel braced against the small mirror, shaking the pen every few seconds to try to convince it to write on the narrow edge of the sink. When he’d finished he folded it into a small square and slipped it to the bottom of his back pocket. He looked at the pen for a long time. Could he explain it away if they found it? Would he need a second chance? Would he get a second chance? If he stuck it in his pocket it’d be easy to find and would at least make them suspicious. If he hid it and they found it they’d know for sure. They weren’t searching him but he be surprised if they weren’t rifling through his clothes while he slept.

In the end he got rid of it because he’d been in there too long and he needed to do something. When he’d come out he’d grimaced and laid a hand briefly across his stomach and hadn’t thought they’d looked at him any more suspiciously than usual. He began his search for a target.

He’d managed step one, thanks to the harangued Frenchman. Stumbling out of the men’s room, holding the seat backs against the movement of the train, step two suddenly seemed harder than getting the pen. Who could he give it to? All he needed was someone calling, ‘Hey. You dropped something.’ He had to make eye contact with someone. Someone perceptive. Maybe not enough to know what he wanted, but enough to know he wanted something. Someone he could make enough of a momentary connection with that would leave him or her staring at the piece of paper, then finally opening it without any fuss. Someone who’d believe what the paper said and finally, most importantly, doing what it asked. So all he had to do was find someone like that and deliver the note without being seen by Mutt and Jeff, whose eyes never seemed to leave him. Simple. What would he do for an encore? Cure cancer?

He was starting to get desperate when he saw her. He’d decided young women were worse than cops. More than likely to think he was trying to paw them and start screaming bloody murder if he bumped into them. But in the end she wasn’t only young but attractive.

He caught her eye as they’d switched to a double decker bullet train for the Stuttgart to Paris leg. As he’d turned to sit her eyes’d flickered from him to Mutt sitting across the aisle and watching him. He’d seen, or hoped he’d seen, a flicker of curiosity in intelligent eyes. She was an American diplomat. He could tell from the snatches of conversation he caught between her and the young man sitting next to her in the row behind him.

He’d given the dogs a meaningful look, caught her eye again on the way to the men’s room, sat on the toilet taking deep, slow breaths, trying not to hyperventilate. He’d only get one chance, if he got that. If Mutt or Jeff saw him drop it, if she said ‘what are you doing?’, if she said anything, if the guy next to her said anything. If, if, if. If anything happened then it was over. He imagined the stares from Mutt and Jeff as they realized. Imagined himself giving Jeff one in the jaw as a parting gift. Calling a cop who’d most likely lock him up for punching Jeff. All the work, all the fear, all of it’d be flushed. Only one chance. But he wasn’t getting a better one. It was now or never. He dug a finger into his back pocket and fished out the little folded square, experimented with various ways to palm it, finally jammed it under his thumb. He stood, heart pounding, hands sweaty, and stared at himself in the small mirror. What time is it? It’s game time.

One more deep breath and he’d snapped the lock, pulled open the door and stepped into the aisle, letting himself adjust to the rocking of the train, felt like he was watching it all pass on a movie screen. Mutt turned and gave him a look, but after a second his head turned back to the front. Jamie made his way slowly down the aisle, trying to make his hand look natural, steadying himself on the seat tops as he lurched along. Mutt gave him a last glance as he reached his seat, then just as Mutt turned away he dropped the square of paper onto the woman’s lap, sharing a momentary, but he hoped penetrating, look with her as he clambered over Jeff and dropped into his seat.

He turned his face to the window and watched the outer suburbs of Paris slide slowly by, willing himself not to think about it. Waiting for her to say something. Listening for the slight rustle of paper, but he didn’t hear anything. After a few seconds he caught the movement of her getting out of her seat and disappearing down the aisle out of the corner of his eye.

Then to his shock he drifted off. He half jumped out of his seat when the train finally lurched to a stop, actually getting a small chuckle out of Mutt and Jeff. When he stood to follow Jeff off the train the only thing on the seats behind them was an empty newspaper.

Had she gotten the message? She’d gotten the paper. Hadn’t said anything. He stepped down from the train and walked down the platform, elbow to elbow with Mutt and Jeff, into the open space of the gare de l’est in Paris. He glanced around, trying to look like a tourist rather than like a hostage looking around for a young woman and her companion. The train station was packed with people from a dozen countries speaking as many languages. Faces passed him in a fog to the accompaniment of garbled French over the loud speakers, the clacking of the sign posting arrivals and departures and the hiss and screech of trains coming and going. Grim-faced French policemen, automatic weapons hugged to their chests, walked in small groups into the central hall, eyeing the travelers who parted in front of them like the Red Sea before Moses. Jamie felt himself deluged by a tsunami of despair. What a waste of time it’d all been. She’d probably thrown the paper away. Laughed about it with her friend. Some pathetic crackpot trying a creative way to pick her up. She’d probably seen them all. And even if she believed it. Called the number. Told them he was in Paris. Then what? By the time they got whoever they had in Paris out to watch the train stations he’d be long gone. He almost threw himself into the arms of the cops when suddenly the three of them were facing an outstretched palm.

Jamie stared back at them in shock, but Mutt and Jeff knew the drill. They’d pulled out their passports and stuck them into the outstretched hand. The cop flipped through them while the other two watched Mutt and Jeff through narrowed eyes. He finally closed them and stared at Jamie until one of them, Mutt or Jeff, he never knew which, dug an elbow into his ribs and shot an apologetic smile at the cops. ‘Our friend. He’s not very bright.’ But the cops didn’t look as if they could be less interested.

Jamie stared at the cop as he flipped through the passport, his interest noticeably waning when saw Jamie was an American. He handed it back without a ‘thank you,’ or an ‘excuse me,’ and marched away, looking for other Arab-looking tourists to roust. Mutt’s sheepish grin disappeared and he and Jeff shared an evil look before they put their passports away and started through the crowded terminal.

Jamie forced himself to gape up at the vaulted ceilings like the tourist he might’ve been if things’d turned out differently, giving up on the young woman as they walked along, jostled by the crowd. The smell of coffee and fresh baked bread made him realize how hungry he was, but there evidently was no plan to stop. They rode the escalator down in a tight little group to a comparatively claustrophobic area under the main hall, which from the signs led to the metro entrance. He’d stood shoulder to shoulder with Jeff while Mutt went to the guichet and then disappeared. He returned holding out metro tickets, baguettes jammed under one arm.

They munched and walked through the crowded halls to the more crowded metro platform but the bread tasted like sawdust in Jamie’s mouth. Line four, Porte de Clignancourt, and he wished that some of his extensive training had been spent telling him something about the Paris metro system. The platform was cold and he shifted his backpack and pulled the thin windbreaker they’d given him tighter with one hand while he ate with the other. He got a few dirty looks and wondered whether eating was allowed on the platform. Another trio of policemen passed and eyed them as the train entered the station with a whoosh. That’d be a good one. Getting arrested for eating on a metro platform. But the cops’ eyes slid past them as the crowd began jostling toward the car screeching to a stop.

The train stopped and the doors opened, disgorging a panoply of expressions ranging from worry to anger on the faces shooting out the doors as their bodies ran into the press of people on the platform as if they were trying to keep them from their busses or connecting trains, shoulders lowered like fullbacks hitting the line, yanking huge rolling suitcases behind them, trailing a stream of sharp French as they shoved their way through. Jamie had to jump back as a woman barreled right into his personal space, pulling a huge suitcase behind her like a stubborn dog who didn’t want a walk. The doorway finally cleared and the tide surged the other way. The crowd carried them through the door into the car packed in like sardines. The smells of bread and coffee fighting and losing the battle with garlic and body odor. And then he saw her.

She looked like subway riders all over the world. Staring blankly, no eye contact. But the push of the crowd had carried her onto the same train, the same car as they all settled into each other when the train lurched away from the platform. She certainly wasn’t looking at Jamie and he had to fight his eyes away from staring at her. Had she called? Had they asked her to see where he was going? Asked her to follow him? Or was she just doing it on her own? He wanted to let out a cheer in spite of the bleary-eyed, unshaven guy pressed into his back, breathing his breakfast onto Jamie’s neck, and the young woman pressed into his front who looked like she had an elbow ready in case he so much as breathed wrong. Mutt and Jeff were as close as they could get in the press of the crowd, but there were people pressed in between them and Jamie and he thought he could get away with a glance at her until his eyes caught Mutt’s in the black reflection of the train window. He fought back the urge to look. It was too much to be a coincidence. Don’t blow it now.

The train screeched to a stop amid a rustling of people and garbled French announcements. Mutt tilted his eyes and Jamil started pushing his way toward the door, not daring to look over to see whether she was following. They escaped to another packed platform and a few minutes later he was sitting in another train, this one a lot less crowded, his bag on the empty seat next to him, Mutt and Jeff in the row behind. He didn’t know whether she was there, but neither did they. Neither of them seemed to consider the possibility that they were being followed. They stared straight ahead as the metro car lurched from stop to stop, finally disgorging them onto another platform and then out onto a busy Paris street.

It was a street that would’ve looked at home in Cairo or Tunis. Small shops with signs fought for space with grim looking high rise blocks. Women in black from head to toe, looking at the world through eye slits or sheer black material. Men in ankle length shirts and head scarves. No Caucasian faces as far as the eye could see. If the young woman were still following them she’d stand out a mile. Jamie had to physically restrain himself from turning to see if she were there.

In the end he never knew. At least not for sure. As they’d stepped through the yawning black square of a doorway into one of the buildings Jamie’d risked a glance up the street. He thought he’d seen the blur of a white face but couldn’t be sure before disappearing back into the netherworld these people lived in.

So it was going to be Paris. Jamie found himself running targets through his mind. Soccer stadiums, metro stations, night clubs, and he suddenly understood the flaw in the whole Infil program. The idea was to get someone inside, deep inside, to win trust and be in a position to locate the cell so it could be arrested or destroyed. Great. Good idea. But just exactly how do you get out to let someone know? So Jamie’d managed, he hoped, to get a message and with any luck, they were being shadowed. But what happened as the planning got farther and farther along, as they were actually moving into position, what happened if Jamie found himself standing somewhere ready to start mowing people down with an automatic weapon, and the cavalry didn’t ride over the hill? What happened then? How far down the road of preparation did he get before he tried to make a break? And exactly how would he make that break? He could’ve walked away any time moving across Europe but didn’t kid himself that he could do it now. He knew there were arms and explosives in this place. Had to be. No doubt lots of them. So when? How? Walking up the stairs he could feel sweat gathering on his back that had nothing to do with the exertion.

And then…nothing. He’d spent days in that flat. How many? He’d lost track. But no planning. Just sitting around and watching French TV. Occasionally one of the others stared through the slit in the curtains at the street. Jamie did once or twice, torn between fear that they’d think he was signaling and fear that if he didn’t look they’d think he was trying not to seem suspicious. Mutt and Jeff disappeared after a day and were replaced by Hansel and Gretel. Hansel was your garden variety terrorist. The kind of serial loser who’d drifted in and out when Jamie was still in Syria. But Gretel, she was different. Smoking black eyes looking through a slit in the black Niqab that covered her head like a World War One artilleryman peering at the enemy through the slit in a pill box. It seemed to Jamie that every time he turned around he was staring into those eyes. As if they were watching him. And when he found himself staring at them there was no connection. No shared sympathy for another traveler ready to do God’s work by murdering all the innocent people he could get his hands on. Reptilian. That was the only way to describe them. The eyes of a crocodile, waiting for you to walk your little dog a little closer.

She’d made his skin crawl covered in black, but it was worse, much worse, when she’d appeared the morning they’d finally left. Jamie hadn’t realized it was coming, and certainly wasn’t ready for the way Gretel appeared, very westernized, and very beautiful, which somehow made those black eyes following his every move even more frightening.

Maybe they were being watched, because they took an elaborate route out of the building. Up to the roof, climbing to the roof of the next building, going down stairs littered with trash and reeking of piss. They got to the bottom and turned to the back of the building, waiting at the door for something to be whispered over a cell phone before wrenching open the door and walking rapidly across a cracked concrete courtyard into the back of yet another building, running up a flight of stairs, then walking quickly out the front door and through the opening door of a car waiting at the curb. Jamie was the second one in between Hansel and another guy not dressed as an American and so probably just along for the ride. Gretel jumped in front next to the driver and they slowly pulled away from the curb, Hansel and the other guy in the back looking through the rear window.

So had they been followed? If so had they shaken the tail? Were they getting ready to attack somewhere? Jamie didn’t think so. The morning’s activities had more of the feel of an escape than of a planned attack. For the moment, all he could do was sit back, wonder where they were going and hope that they were surrounded by a surveillance team switching in and out, reporting their progress by radio.

They picked up a highway pretty quickly and it wasn’t much more than a half hour later when Jamie felt the cold chill of panic creep down his spine. Charles de Gaulle. The airport. They were pulling into the airport. It wasn’t going to be Paris, but where? Nowhere in Europe or they’d take a train. Why an airplane? Planes had the tightest security of any way they could pick. Charles de Gaulle meant international flights. Where? Or was the plane the destination? Was something going to happen on the flight? Were Hansel or Gretel carrying some kind of plastic explosive that could get through security? But then why bring Jamie along? He didn’t have any explosives, not that he knew of anyway. The thought made his blood run cold. Maybe he was the one carrying it. Taking the risk of getting through security without some trigger happy French cop cutting him in half with an automatic weapon. But then why were they along? To do whatever you had to do to set it off of course.

The car pulled up to the curb and Gretel handed him his passport over the seat before he climbed out after Hansel. Jamie’d stood at the curb, watching the parade of little European cars pulling in and out. Back again to the point where he could walk away, but the stakes were also ratcheting up. Walk away now and he, they, would never know what these guys were planning. But he could grab a cop, tell him these guys were terrorists. If were carrying explosives that was evidence. He’d have them. But what if he was the one carrying them. Which suitcase was his? Would he end up being the one with his face against the floor, a boot on his neck, Hansel and Gretel staring down at him in shock, as if they’d never seen him before, had no idea what he was talking about. He was still wrestling with what to do when he got the huge shock.

“Congratulations.” At first Jamie hadn’t known what the hell the smiling woman behind the counter was talking about, but his racing mind caught up as the transformed Gretel took his arm and was suddenly the girl next door. Smiling back and chattering away in English, not just English but good American English, about a wedding that Jamie hadn’t been to. A wedding where he’d been the little terrorist on top of the cake.

He was married. They were married. He and Gretel. How the hell had they done that. Easy, that’s how. Their passports had been taken to some local official who was either in their pockets or who was willing to marry any passports you brought to him for a small financial consideration. Jamie stood gaping, the perfect, stupid new husband, while Gretel and the woman on the other side of the counter, a matronly French lady, shared a knowing laugh about grooms and Hansel, evidently Jamie’s new brother in law, hoisted suitcases Jamie’d never seen onto the scale to be weighed and tagged.

It did tell him one thing though, he realized as Gretel led him toward security after checking in. It wouldn’t be on the plane. If they were using Jamie to get something through security they would’ve kept their distance. Maintained deniability. Posing as happy newlyweds heading for New York with the brother for a chaperone meant they wanted Jamie’s passport to get them all on the plane and across the ocean. At least he hoped that’s what it meant.

And it did. Or at least the plane didn’t explode out of the sky. Jamie spent the flight in an existential struggle with himself over what to do. Given their elaborate route out of the apartment in Paris he had to assume they’d lost their surveillance, if they’d ever even had one. By an amazing coincidence Hansel needed the men’s room every time Jamie did, so to get word to the stewardess he’d have to break cover. Unlike the train stations there was nowhere for Hansel and Gretel to run, and once the intelligence services got their hands on them they weren’t likely to let them go. There are enough vague laws on the books to protect homeland security to hold Pope Francis indefinitely. So walk away. Bag his game. Move on.

But, and the but raised its head every time he decided it was time, but what about who they were going to meet in New York? They might be able to crack Hansel, given the right combination of drugs and torture they might even crack Gretel, but by the time they did their contacts would be long gone. Long gone and planning what? And then there was the passport check. One possibility no one had planned for was him coming back to the States, although as he sat jammed in by the window with nothing but time to think, he couldn’t imagine why not. What else did they think the terrorists would want to do with someone who had an American Passport? In any event, Jamie’s passport passing through immigration would no doubt set off enough alarm bells to wake up every law enforcement agency on the eastern seaboard. By the time they got to the airport entrance they’d probably have a hundred person surveillance team. Hell they’d probably be followed by helicopters. And cracking a terrorist cell in New York was big. Was why he’d joined the Infil program in the first place. It was a chance to roll up whatever and whoever the terrorists had there and set them back years.

By the time they’d landed Jamie was afraid that they’d pull him into one of their small interview rooms as soon as they scanned his passport and hold him while Hansel and Gretel strolled off to disappear into the city. He filed off the plane wide awake, ready to convince whoever they sent him to that there wasn’t time to screw around. He needed to be released and they needed to put a tail on him, or to hold all three of them until they could arrange a tail and find a plausible story to convince Hansel and Gretel that it’d just been a mistake. He’d stepped up to the bored guy behind the immigration counter who’d flipped his passport open with the one handed expertise of a short order cook who’d been flipping burgers since high school and scanned it. He frowned slightly at his screen and Jamie fought to keep a neutral look on his face. When the immigration officer’d waved him to wait in the corridor for a minute he’d had to keep from high fiving the guy as he walked over to Gretel, waiting on the other side of the check.

He’d joined Gretel on the other side of the line and she’d taken his arm and they’d strolled away while the immigration officer, studiously ignoring Jamie, explained to Hansel that he was in the line for US citizens. Hansel had joined Jamie in line and made sure that Gretel was through before they got to the counter. Jamie caught a last glance of Hansel smiling sheepishly at the officer. Aw shucks. Wrong line. Was Jamie as convincing with them as they were with cops, immigration officers and everyone else with the job of looking out for them? Gretel never glanced back. She took Jamie by the arm and walked him to the baggage carrousel.

Jamie followed, waiting for the shouts, for the sound of running feet, alarms, but all he heard was the drone of announcements and the buzz of conversation as people started to wake up from their night crammed into a tiny tube flying across the ocean. Could they’ve set up surveillance that fast? They must be able to or they wouldn’t just be letting him walk away, would they? They strode quickly to the baggage carrousel. With another look around Gretel grabbed the first unclaimed suitcase she’d seen, shoved it into Jamie’s arms, nothing looks more suspicious than the attractive young woman carrying the suitcase while her husband walked beside her, and led Jamie past the NOTHING TO DECLARE sign. She gave the guy standing there two customs forms and a beautiful smile that he didn’t bother to look at because he was scanning the rest of her, and before Jamie fully realized what was happening they were walking out into the cold night. The cold New York night. A guy ran up and grabbed the bag they’d stolen and tossed it into the back of a station wagon the size of a small cabin cruiser that waited at the curb.

Jamie stopped, halfway through an open door, one foot on the curb and looked around. JFK. Cars, lights, cops. The sight of the cop walking along on the street side of the stopped cars with that sauntering, wide-footed gait cops had, waving cars along, froze him. Sights and sounds crowded in on him as if he’d sat too close to the screen of a movie.

Months of training, of living side-to-side with people who would’ve gladly sliced his throat and smiled for the cameras if they’d known who he was. Jamie’s head felt suddenly heavy as if God held his life between his hands, compressing it into a handful of seconds at a crowded curb. Cars passed, traces of carbon monoxide and burnt air drifting up his nose in their wake. The cop strolled near, hand resting on the gun in the holster sticking up from under his jacket; Gretel and the guy who’d taken the bag stood on either side of him, their faces unnaturally large. The world tilted and somewhere in the back of his mind Jamie knew his head was turning, taking it all in. The car door loomed open and dark like the mouth of a cave leading straight to hell. Get in. Walk away. Call the cop. A chorus of voices, his trainers, Abdullah, Gretel, his mother, like faces at a prize fight, pressing into the camera of his eye and shouting at him. Go. Stay. The soft pressure of Gretel’s breasts crowded his back and he felt a gentle push toward the door. The sights, sounds, colors started to unmoor and spin and he felt his knees buckle. He shot one last look at the cop who stared blandly past him before he tumbled through the door and slid over to the other side. Gretel climbed in behind him. The other guy pulled open the front passenger door and jumped in and the driver, with a discipline that Jamie would’ve admired if he’d noticed it, glided slowly away from the curb, one eye on the traffic approaching in the side mirror while the front passenger leaned an arm on the seat back and considered Jamie curiously. Gretel smiled and waved at the cop, who smiled and waved back, no doubt strolling away with the pleasant thought of the attractive young woman who appreciated his efforts to protect her.

The automatic locks snapped shut as they pulled away from the curb and Jamie knew without trying that there was a child protection on the door so he couldn’t open it and roll out, even if he’d had the energy. Gretel didn’t even glance at him as they cruised around the airport. The passenger in the front pulled out a cell phone, hit speed dial and held it to his ear, one eye never leaving Jamie. None of them said anything, didn’t introduce him to the new guys, as they circled, two, three times. Jamie started to get a grip on himself and had the presence of mind to wonder what they were doing when the guy with the phone nodded and pointed and they glided back to the curb. The passenger jumped out and grabbed another bag Jamie’d never seen before from Hansel, who stepped off the curb. The locks snapped and Hansel pulled open the door and got in next to Jamie, the other guy tossed the bag into the trunk and slammed it shut, got into the front, and they glided away again with a palpable sense of relief among his companions.

Jamie spent the half hour or forty minutes they drove with his head tilted back on the seat, his hands folded in front of him, wondering what, if anything, they’d made of his performance at the curb. No one treated him particularly differently, he still hovered in the no man’s land between co-conspirator and prisoner. Like a conscript in Stalin’s army, German bayonets in front of him and Russian behind. The guy in the front finally turned around, but still turned and glanced at him occasionally. But they all did that when they first met him. Gretel didn’t notice him, but she seldom did and he didn’t look forward to those few occasions when she did. She was every evil queen and wicked stepmother he’d feared as a child rolled into jiggling package wrapped in tight clothes.

They drove about a half hour before stopping at yet another apartment building, where did they find them? By now Jamie’d gotten over whatever temporary insanity had hit him with his first view of home. The feeling that they were on his ground now, that he was the hunter and not the hunted, hit him much harder than it had in Europe. He got out of the car and trudged after Hansel across the empty sidewalk and into the dark building, followed by Gretel and the other passenger as the car rolled away into the night. Tomorrow morning he’d start formulating his plans. He wasn’t sure of his ground in Europe, but all he had to do here was identify them and his people would take care of the rest. American law enforcement didn’t hamper itself with civil rights or the constitution when terrorists were involved.

It was still dark when Jamie woke up the next morning in a tiny room scattered with backpacks, pictures and plastic action figures that told him the usual resident was a boy between say, eight and twelve. He flipped to a sitting position and looked around the tiny space. “Who,” he mumbled to himself, “lends their child’s room to murderers?” But his voice sounded funny, as if it didn’t want to be heard. Smarter than he was. He reached across the small space between the bed and dresser and picked up one of the little plastic men. Who was it? From some movie? After Jamie’s time, but the same kind of crap he’d had in his room once upon a time. Jamie’s room’d been bigger. The paint fresher. The furniture newer. The room bigger, but not any cleaner. It’d looked out on a cherry tree in the front yard that for about a week a year was a huge pink explosion, which he’d never admitted to his mother that he’d loved waking up to.

He stood, swayed for a second. Took a deep breath. Turned and leaned his head against the glass. This kid, whoever he was, had a view over the rail of a fire escape down a long, narrow canyon of a street, still dark except for the occasional light shining on a store front. A truck followed its headlights in a lumbering trail down the street. Not a cherry tree, or a tree of any kind, in sight. The kid’s view. His world. A tiny smile tried to force its way onto Jamie’s lips, but it fought against his trembling chin and burning eyes. He needed to get a grip or he’d be a end up quivering lump. The differences didn’t matter. For a second Jamie was the kid in this room, which was only a half step to the kid he’d been in his own room. Somehow the fleeting sensation threatened to open the floodgates on the fear and stress that’d sat on his back like a weight for the past months, growing heavier day-by-dreaded day until it was amazing he could get out of bed in the morning. Jamie found himself fighting for breath and suddenly knew that he had to get out. Couldn’t do it anymore. The confidence he’d felt surging into him gone. He’d just laid his fingers against the window to see if he could lift it when the door opened. They never knocked. Like jail.

“War…,” he cleared his throat. “Warm in here,” he croaked. “Maybe getting sick.” But he was talking to air. Hansel’d thrown the door open, seen he was up, and disappeared, leaving the door swinging slowly closed in his wake. That was when Jamie’d realized that the reason he’d woken up was the stirring of activity on the other side of the door. He took a deep breath, lifted his brows to stretch the skin around his eyes as he wiped them on his wrist, pulled on his clothes. He tried not to touch anything else in the room. Tried not to wonder whether this kid’s parents were innocent dupes, lending their apartment to friends they thought they knew, tried not to think about what would happen to this kid’s innocence as he grew, ventured out in the world. He didn’t even take a last look around before steeling himself and following the sounds of activity.

Things were different. Jamie would’ve felt it immediately even if it hadn’t been for the guns. But the guns. The guns were there. The guns didn’t just verify that it was different. They told him that he’d been kidding himself about having time. As his trainer used to say, he was ten feet from the electrified fence and running full tilt. If he was going to change direction without being spread eagle across the chain link, lighting up the night sky with the voltage running through his body, he had to do it fast.

Hansel and the passenger from last night were quietly and efficiently checking out the four vintage AK-47’s lined up on newspaper that covered the coffee table, their butts hanging at forty-five degrees over one side and their barrels over the other. But the assault weapons only held Jamie’s eyes for a second before they travelled to the hand guns that each had in his belt, finally resting on the knife in the sheath that seemed to travel halfway down Hansel’s thigh. They barely glanced at Jamie, focusing on their task with the concentration of people preparing for something. Something serious.

Jamie took a step back toward the room, the fire escape, but his foot didn’t land on the wood floor. He turned and found himself staring into Gretel’s black eyes, down her tight tank top to her tight jeans, a handgun resting in a holster on one hip, a knife like the one Hansel sported on the other, to the small foot under his, then back up to her eyes. Jamie moved his foot, forced a confident smile to his lips and nodded toward the bathroom as he passed her. He could feel her eyes burning on his back as he closed the door, accompanied by the rustle of a new activity as the weapons were slipped into canvas covers.

Jamie stood with his hands on either side of the sink, watching himself in the small mirror, trying to hyperventilate quietly. Think. Plan. Act. They’d drilled it into them in training. Prepared them for any eventuality. What they hadn’t prepared him for was the constant wrestling with sanity as he fought with his fears for control of his body.

By the time he’d gotten himself together, again, they were packed and ready. Jamie slipped on his jacket. No clothes to change into. His bag had stayed at the airport. Didn’t bother to take a shower. He clearly wasn’t being offered the time and from the set look on their faces by the end of the day it wouldn’t matter whether his teeth were brushed.

They shoved the canvas covered weapons into Jamie’s arms and tramped noisily down the stairway to the front door. The car was at the curb and they hit the door almost at a run, Jamie’s feet raced to keep up with the weight in his arms. Hansel pulled him from the front and the passenger from the night before pushed from the rear. He fell through the open door, the hard steel of the weapons under the canvas knocking the wind out of him. Gretel jumped in after him and the door behind slammed shut behind her. A few seconds later the door on the other side opened and Hansel pulled the weapons out from under Jamie and slid them over the seat and into the trunk. The driver and passenger were already in front. They slipped away from the curb down the dark street.

They glided along on springs that’d been soft when the car was new that now gave it a rolling bounce. They left the neighborhood street behind and rolled down a highway with a liberal sprinkling of potholes that made it like sailing a stormy sea. The driver didn’t say a word. Stayed the same pock-marked neck and occasional eye in the side mirror as the night before. The cold inside of the car had a D-Day feel. The sense of long preparation that’d come to a single point when the risk had to be taken.

Warehouses, stores, and bright squares of light in the slab sides of apartment buildings flashed past in the dark. The occasional whoosh of a passing car signaled that driving the speed limit was probably an easier way to be noticed than driving too fast but the driver stubbornly held to it, both hands gripping the wheel. Had they, Jamie’s people, made him at the airport? Followed them? Jamie had the sinking feeling they hadn’t, but couldn’t make out whether that was pessimism borne of fear and desperation or knowledge that it’d all happened so fast at the airport that the ball must’ve gotten dropped somewhere. Jamie’s view of the casual attitude of the immigration officer shifted from highly trained response to bureaucratic indifference. He tried to recover his confidence that he was on American soil. That he was the hunter, but it slipped from his grasp as if he were trying to hold onto a wisp of smoke. He replayed the entire trip in his mind. Suddenly clear that there were at least ten times he should’ve taken the chance and gotten to a phone. Tried to let someone know. Pulled the plug. What’d his father used to say? Hindsight was twenty-twenty.

He fought the urge to look back. See if he could spot something. Why bother? If there were a tail and they were obvious enough for him to make out his companions’d see them first. They were hyper alert, looking constantly in the mirrors as they bounced along the highway and then over a bridge. Jamie’s New York geography wasn’t much better than his grasp of the Paris metro. The Verrazano-Narrows bridge. They must be leaving New York, at least that’s what he’d thought until pock-marked neck veered suddenly from the far left lane, all of them, even the driver he noticed to his temporary panic, staring the mirrors. If they had a tail he’d better damn well know what he’s doing.

The car rolled like a boat turning in a choppy sea and Jamie felt himself pressed against Hansel. The engine whined in protest as it pulled all that weight across two, fortunately empty, lanes aimed at an exit that already seemed to be flying past. Jamie’s stomach kept going straight as the car’s weight seemed to settle over the two left wheels. The engine wailed and narrow, probably bald, tires screeched as they skidded toward the exit.

The concrete barrier flashed by inches from the window but they somehow made it. The weight shifted back to the right and the loose springs then swayed like a hammock as they bounced down the ramp. Jamie tried to brace keep himself from sliding back and forth but couldn’t get ahold of anything. They must’ve been doing seventy by the time they swung right again and this time Jamie was sure his problems were over because trees and building rose in the windshield as if they were being shot at them. His arms flailed out to grab onto Hansel who was bracing himself on the door as they swung onto a divided street through some kind of small business area. What looked like a motel raced past through the trees to the left, small businesses to the right.

The driver accelerated a couple of blocks into a residential area. Driveways leading to single family houses, duplexes, small apartment buildings slid past. The vague notion that it was a variation on the Detroit suburbs where Jamie’d grown up flashed through his mind as it zipped past. The same stores, gas stations, suburban sprawl. Duplexes with little metal fences around postage stamp yards and row houses with long driveways, all giving on sidewalks. Not much grass. The first couple of blocks passed in a blur while pock-marked neck’s eyes scanned the mirrors. Hansel pushed Jamie to the center of the seat, suddenly brave as the roll settled and they could pull themselves straight. Jamie straightened, his head swinging back like the others. Did they see anything? Because he didn’t. No one’d followed off the ramp. The driver swung the wheel left and Jamie just caught the reflection of a car pulling into the road behind them as they turned the corner and the driver slowed, cruising, water to their right. He watched behind with the others. Nothing.

This isn’t good.

Keep reading, tell a friend

If you’ve enjoyed Infil 1 so far the next chapter will be available soon. Thanks for your interest and please consider telling a friend. Because Infil 1 isn’t for sale yet you can’t leave a review, but I’d love to hear your feedback so please leave a comment on my blog or Facebook page. Thanks very much for reading.

Any resemblance with the future is hopefully exaggerated

The year is 2065, three years after cross-country caravans were sent the way of the dinosaur by the insurance companies. Someone knows that Adams is the only guy left who can lead one, and doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, that someone else will do anything to stop him. And that someone else can change screen records and make people disappear.

Take a wild ride to a future today. Go to amazon.com/author/charlesvella. If you go today there’s no cost, except for the feeling that comes from a glimpse at a future that’s run off the rails.

05 Right-of-Passage-FRONT-COVER MASTERBill Portrait 3 by 4

Take a wild ride to the future (without leaving home)

Would you go back in time and undo the worst thing you’d ever done if you knew there was a one percent chance it would kill everyone involved? How about two percent? What if you had to send someone else without telling her why she was going? It gets complicated.

Go to amazon.com/author/charlesvella today and get a free Kindle copy of Soul Source or Back and There Again to see just how complicated it can get.

Here is what readers have to say about Soul Source.

OMG!! My neck is suffering from whiplash because I sat up all night to finish reading this book and couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to steady my heartbeat!! WOW! What a masterpiece of work. It gives you a lot to think about concerning our future. Pick it up, read a couple of pages and I dare you to put it down. Kudos to Charles Vella!!

Great read which makes you think about the implications of Time Travel on what we perceive as reality. The possibilities the author has created makes one hope that Time Travel never becomes a reality. Or has it already….. This reads like a good mystery novel so don’t miss any little detail. I read it twice and it was better the second time through.

“Meddling with cause and effect is like shaking a tree with mankind hanging from every branch. It’s more profound than splitting the atom. Inventing a time machine is the equivalent of harnessing nuclear power. No. It’s even more fundamental. It has the ability to light up the world or melt it down.”
Scientists discover that it’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature Father Time as they venture back to 2012 to stop a terrorist attack . . . or are they trying to keep secret the identity of someone involved in the attack . . . or is there another reason entirely?
Time travel is risky. Things can go very, very wrong.
These people were talking about doomsday scenarios. But how could stopping one crime cause the end of the world?
“Think of the deviations as ripples in a very still pond,” Pruitt said. “No matter how softly something lands, no matter how tiny it is, there’s always a ripple. Always something you can’t anticipate. Someone sees the landing and runs home to tell someone else, and because he’s in a hurry steps out in front of a car. As the missions go farther back thee deviations are compounded. The person who stepped in front of the car doesn’t have children he otherwise would’ve had. Those children don’t have children. The deviations grow exponentially and their variations spread out. Fictional time travel is comical. People go back hundreds of years, fight battles, kill people and them come back to a world that’s exactly the same.”
You’ll need to put on your thinking cap for this book. You’re dropped down into the middle of the action, there’s a large cast, and it may be confusing at first. Don’t worry; it will all make sense eventually, and the payoff is oh, so sweet. You can expect a clever, intelligent story that does not insult a reader’s intelligence . . . though it may make your brain hurt just a bit when you think too hard about a sentence like this one:
“. . . he got the idea to bring you back before you leave because he saw you come back before you left.”
Or this one:
“That’s you at the door. You better hide.”
If you’re looking for a smart, funny, challenging read, get to this one in a timely manner.

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Infil 1 Chapter 2 is here

Who is Infil 1? Even more important, where is Infil 1? And most vital of all, what is Infil 1 going to do next?

To find out, keep reading for chapter 2. Missed chapter 1 or want a copy of chapters 1 and 2 for your Kindle or other device? Just click here. Want to see other books by Charles Vella? Then click here for Charles Vella’s Amazon page. If you have any problems then just email me at CharlesLVella@gmail.com. Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoy Infil 1.

Infil 1

Copyright © 2017 by Charles Vella

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without written permission of the author.

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental

Chapter 2: Not even a mouse

“We’re back.”

“Passing the target. Not a creature stirring. Not even a mouse,” Jackson’s voice from Echo Two had the dulled edge of routine that came from watching the dawn through a dirty windshield at the tail end of a shift. It pushed a disconnected thought into Nadim’s mind. Some quote about some English general, said he’d strike like a dagger, and some American said ‘probably more like a butter knife,’ or something like that. History hadn’t been Nadim’s best subject, but he did like reading about World War II. Back when both sides wore uniforms so everyone knew who was who. When you could join a side and everyone would believe you were really on it. When you didn’t have to constantly prove yourself to a bunch of people who don’t have any more right to be here than you do.

“Funny man,” Gallagher growled to himself, taking a sip from his cup and slouching further into his seat.

“Copy,” Nadim yawned into the mike. Shoved it back onto the dash as he coasted to a stop at the curb. He pushed the shifter up into park and worked his jaw with his hand as he turned to his partner. “A comedian.” He looked left and could just make out the taillights of Echo Two disappearing into the early morning gloom up the street between the rows of cars parked at the curb. Why Echo? Were there Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta teams wandering around somewhere, wasting their time the week before Christmas, watching people who probably weren’t doing anything more than looking like terrorists? And what’d it mean to look like a terrorist anyway? Nadim for instance? Did Gallagher think he looked like a terrorist? Did Jackson? Nadim shook off the thought. Focus on something positive. Like what’re the chances the brass’ll pull the plug on this and he’ll get home for the holidays? He should’ve put in for a few days off, but that wasn’t done. Not in law enforcement. Not if you want to go anywhere. You just sit and hope someone somewhere took a breath between eggnogs and said, ‘do we really need to leave those poor bastards out there over Christmas?’

“Rats ate all the mice anyway,” Gallagher grunted. He balanced his coffee cup on the dash and tried to retract his square jaw under the bill of his cap like a turtle whose head was too big to get into its shell. “Then the locals roast the rats for Christmas dinner. The circle of life in dumps like this.”

“Should’ve followed him,” Nadim said, watching the house a couple of hundred feet up on the right, just starting to appear as the sky made half-hearted attempts to lighten from black to a dull gray. You couldn’t make out the little iron fence yet, but Nadim knew it was there. Unless it’d disappeared since they’d taken their last turn around the block an hour ago. A waist high fence, painted black, leading out to a cracked sidewalk and a strip of trash embedded into the hard dirt by the feet of a million winos and druggies. An occasional spindly tree stretched pathetically toward the dark sky like an old man reaching for a loved one he couldn’t see anymore, pulling up the sidewalk with its roots.

“Sure, sure,” Gallagher grunted from under his cap. “Then another one leaves and we follow him. Then the third one leaves and, no wait, we only have two cars. Take off your mittens and you can do the math yourself.”

“We don’t have any idea where he went.” Nadim drummed his fingers on the dash. His partner sighed and lifted the cardboard coffee cup off the dash, blew across the square hole in the top and took another tentative sip. He held the cup in both hands to absorb the warmth. Wherever the guy who’d left the house’d gone, following him had to be better than sitting here. Anything had to be better than sitting here with Mr. Congeniality three days before Christmas.

“Probably picking up Uncle Muhammad for the holidays. Oh that’s right,” Gallagher corrected himself with a knowing nod of his head. “You people don’t celebrate Christmas, do you?”

Nadim nodded. You people. Four months on the team and he was you people. Dipshit Gallagher tried that on Wallace in Echo Two he’d be up on charges. But Wallace was black, not second generation Lebanese. His people’d gone through fitting in for the last century. What would the HR asshole say to do in this situation? Talk it out? Explain that he’s a Christian? That his family makes a big deal out of Christmas? That while Nadim was sitting here listening to this racist bullshit they’d be cooking turkey and opening gifts? Sure. Then they’d hug it out like some lame ass sitcom. Become buddies for life. No. If he got through the holiday without killing Gallagher he was finding another partner was what he was doing. They’d only stuck him with this jerk because Nadim was new. They also probably figured a guy with a name like Nadim’d be so honored to be accepted on the task force they could shove him in with the Son of Sam and he’d say thanks. Not anymore. The guy was an asshole. An asshole with bad breath. It’d been bad enough when they were fully staffed, but with the holidays and flu they’d gone down to three cars, one on either end of the street and one swing car, and yesterday dropped to two. So Gallagher, in his infinite wisdom, had decided they’d ignore the target who’d walked down the street past them and turned right, toward the water, buried in an old army coat, hands jammed into his pockets. He’d disappeared into the early morning mist like a character at the end of an old movie. Swallowed by cold that was starting to feel unusual, even in late December. It’d gotten to almost sixty yesterday, but’d dropped back down over night. Cold now.

“We generally sacrifice a virgin,” he finally said through clamped teeth. We’d use your sister but, you know, we have standards.

Gallagher shivered, and pulled himself into his coat. Either not listening or not giving a shit. “Christ it’s cold in here. Turn the heat up huh?”

“The heat’s on,” Nadim said, but pushed the fan up a couple of notches. It wouldn’t get cold in here if you didn’t open the window to smoke, which you aren’t supposed to do in these cars. He leaned back in the seat and looked down the street, fighting off his drooping eye lids. He watched Gallagher place his cup carefully on the dash in front of the mushroom cloud of condensation it’d formed on the windshield. Should’ve gotten a coffee too. Something to do at least.

Houses, cars, the occasional pedestrian, slowly appeared in the dawn, like the setting as the lights went up on scene one of a play. Except this was a play with no action, and a setting that looked better in the dark. The street that the house was on snaked up the hill between a gauntlet of parked cars for a few hundred feet before twisting out of sight, but Nadim knew from driving it thousands of times that it dumped into a three-way intersection. Auto repair shops, bars, square brick buildings marked as houses or apartments by the people going in and out or hanging out in front when the sun peeked down enough to lure them outside. Window air conditioners idle in December, even with the warm weather during the day. Trash occasionally drifted down the street like urban tumbleweed, but most of it was ground into the dirt or flattened to disks on the street by years of being run over, stepped on, ignored. What kind of neighborhood was it? Women pushing strollers and loitering men drinking out of paper bags, watching the world through plumes of smoke as the red tracers of their cigarette ends formed arcs from their mouths to their hips. Cars pulling up in front of houses and roaring away after hurried transactions accompanied by furtive glances up and down the street. No Christmas decorations in sight, although St. Paul, the street that ran next to and joined the street with the target house in an acute angle a few hundred feet away, was liberally decked out with lights, manger scenes, and Santas shoved into postage stamp yards. No trash on St. Paul either. Funny thing. One block away and a completely different feel. Normal houses. No sounds of air wrenches ringing in the morning air. Two different neighborhoods. And you couldn’t watch either from two cars. Not if you didn’t want to be watched back that is.

Two non-descript sedans with small aerials poking from the trunks. Gallagher’d at least had enough sense to find some dirty lots to drive through so they hadn’t shown up shining on the gritty street. They’d gone down to three units, one car parked at either end of the street while the third cruised the block. Then down to two, making due with rotating which end of the street one car idled at while the second car cruised. Nadim, one black guy and two white guys, all with haircuts right out of central casting for The FBI! In color! At least they were in plain clothes, so occasionally one of them went strolling aimlessly down the street, glancing around out of the corner of his eye, about as inconspicuous as Santa Claus at an Easter parade. They must’ve been made days ago. Everyone in the neighborhood probably knew they were watching someone. The only mystery was who. Nadim reached for the key.

“You trying to freeze my ass off?” Gallagher growled. Nadim hesitated, then pulled his hand back, silently cursing himself for doing it. He hated idling. Every second the car ran he could feel poison pumped into the air, poison that would come back and choke his young children. If he ever had young children. Anyway, letting the car idle was weakness. Damaging the environment for your own comfort. But it wasn’t worth the fight. Even if Gallagher hadn’t outranked him. Nadim thought that idling might even be against policy, but he knew it was an argument that he’d lose even if he won. Was that cowardice? Should he’ve turned it off and told the jackoff to…sure, he chuckled to himself. And then what? Dragged Gallagher’s sorry ass out of the car and kick the shit out of him? That’d go over well in the debrief. ‘Anything interesting happen out there today?’ Not really. Just Nadim slapping Gallagher around on the hood of the car while the suspects watched. He took a deep breath. Well, when the holidays were over he was marching in and demanding a new partner.

“Just passing,” Jackson’s voice yawned over the radio after what seemed like hours of silence had crawled by. “Not a creature stirring.”

“Not even a mouse,” Nadim mumbled.

Keep reading, tell a friend

If you’ve enjoyed Infil 1 so far the next chapter will be available soon. Thanks for your interest and please consider telling a friend. Because Infil 1 isn’t for sale yet you can’t leave a review, but I’d love to hear your feedback so please leave a comment on my blog or Facebook page. Thanks very much for reading.

Successful promotion

Thanks to everyone who downloaded one or more of my books last weekend. The promotion was very successful in terms of downloads, over a thousand. My goal remains to get 10 reviews on all my books so if you read one and like it please consider writing a review on Amazon and telling a friend. I’ll be putting up the second chapter of Infil 1 in a couple of weeks. If you’ve got a few minutes give that one a try as well.

Infil 1

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All of my books will be free this Saturday and Sunday, September 23 and 24. Pick up a copy at my Amazon page or my web page. Thanks for reading.