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Detainee 717


Chapter 2

“What are you doing now? Right this second? You’re downstairs, you’re stretched out on the bed wearing your 501 jeans and your frat-boy white dress shirt that’s still tucked in, still buttoned up. Your shirt cuffs, they’re still folded over twice. Tell me I’m wrong.”

Lamborghini’s voice spirals around its silken thread of breath, traveling through the receiver, penetrating the intimate orifice of his ear. As though using the cell phone’s digital echo as a needle, she sews her sound into his head, attaching it to his thoughts in an evasively erotic hemline. K13 approves of her presence inside him in this unfathomably literal way; the iota of space she occupies inside him subtracts an iota from his full possession of himself. He listens for a time to her breathing, saying nothing, content to let the wordlessness wash over him. He’s on the bed, comfortable and still as a body in a satin-lined coffin. The space designated as his living quarters is on the first floor and commands a view, through a floor-to-ceiling window, of an expanse of property that might have been rolled off a spool of rumpled burlap, unfurling an acre’s length to the edge of a sheer bluff that wears the tilting crown of a cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. His eyes are closed but he can picture it perfectly: nondescript lot, quilted by weeds, with a seedy, morally bankrupt look about it. A Zen garden of desolation. To fulfill its bleak pictorial promise, this landscape would only require a rusty oil drum topped by scant flames, the drum ringed by a clan of shivering derelicts. Down the bluff so steep that access from below would be nearly impossible is a gnarled section of isolated beach virtually hidden from the public; the heavily trafficked lakefront is many miles away. Embedded in broken nests of driftwood, the boulders on this swath of beach are skull-like, dramatic, Shakespearian. You see them and think alas, poor Yorick. Eventually he says, “You just saw me, thirty minutes ago.”

“Yes, I just saw you. What, that’s not enough time for you to put on a t-shirt, an old sweatshirt? People undress at the drop of a hat once the day’s done. They get comfortable. But not you.”

“You’re right. My cuffs are still rolled up. Why is that?”

“You’re asking me to hold forth on this whole cuff thing?”

“Asking you to hazard a guess.”

“Do I look like the kind of woman who carries around a crystal ball?”

“You see things. You have answers. If you can’t answer a question, you improvise: you lie.”

“I could answer, but I choose not to. How about that?”

“Ominous. That’s not very nice.”

“Nice? I’m not a nice person. Neither are you.”

He thinks about it briefly. “Fundamentally? No.”

She is either muffling the phone with the palm of her hand, or tucking it between her chin and collarbone, close to the neck, as though playing the violin. As far as he knows Lamborghini does not play the violin, but if she did, she would play it expertly, but without feeling. The tongue would become a sleigh on the slope of her neck. Her neck would smell like ice and taste like absolutely nothing at all. She says something to someone, either to Audi or to her detainee. Either don’t stroke him or he’s broken. A strange stereo effect: listening to her voice through the cell phone and at the same time actually hearing her voice, muted by distance, floating down to him from the second-floor study in the southwest corner of the house, a sheer veil shed in a sonic strip tease.

“I think I can hear you up there. There’s a weird echo, a nano-delay. How’s it going?” he asks.

“I don’t want to talk about how it’s going. That’s why I call you. So I can remove myself for a few minutes from how it’s going.”

“I’m a 10-minute distraction.”

“Five,” she corrects him. “I will say that having returned from Cairo less than twelve hours ago, I’m exhausted. I hated Cairo. Everything’s a scam. Fake precious stones, fake papyrus. Pay to take a desert camel ride and if you want help getting down off the thing, you have to pay again. The beast reeks. You have to buy an extra ticket for your camera if you want to take it with you inside the pyramid. Noisy nights. You need barbiturates to sleep.”

“You’re in Cairo. Or you’re in Stockholm. You’re in Beijing. I’m always here. Another why. You had time to sightsee?”

“I have business everywhere but in Rio, where at least I could see my other sibs. Haven’t been back in over 10 years. So what is this, K13? Sour grapes?” Heavy stress she lays on the “K” falls like a Steinway grand off a high roof, splintering their conversation with an irony that borders on dissonance. Her intent is to mock the convention of codenames, ridicule the notion of stylized anonymity as nothing more than a laughable antic, a game devised by testosterone-dazed adolescents trapped in adult bodies. The quality of her ensuing silence suggests thoughtful inspection, capitulation.

“Maybe you don’t want to take your clothes off at the end of the day because it’s tough deciding what to wear in the morning.” She has decided, after all, to tell him why his shirt is still on, the cuffs rolled up. Her timing is a seasaw; now that he no longer wants to know, she’s intent on explaining. “Is this a day to blend in or stand out? A day to come across as demented or harmless? Day to look smart but-not-too-smart, or just give off this sort of oblivious vibe? Wicked or wise, good or evil? Getting it right takes effort, fine tuning. Decisions, decisions. Times when you’re off-project, you have to try hard to remember what to do to look like someone who’s not any of the above, that is unless he really is any of the above. Notice I didn’t say, ‘to look like yourself,’ because after all, what does that mean at this point? Bottom line: All that effort you put in it, you’re reluctant to just discard it. Take off your clothes, you’re admitting you’ll have to start over the next day. It’s not just about playing dress up. This whole thing requires deep inauthenticity, disguising yourself from the inside out.”

Her tongue runs a relay race, a pink streak, each word the baton passed with imprecise timing to a stumbling teammate. He wonders what accounts for it, the jittery verbal zoom, the nervous energy, the pseudo-philosophical sprints around the track. If things are going badly for her this could be an attempt to recover her footing, regain her sense of pacing. Her detainee at this point would look haggard and haunted; his face would reflect spiritual gauntness, emotional emaciation. This would be the fourth consecutive hour for him, every minute of it harder than a sentence of life-long penitentiary time, inner resources and its scaffolding of ideology teetering on collapse, and K13 has found that the fourth hour is often a turning point. But after the fourth hour, both the detainee and the detainer suffer erosion.

“It’s understandable you’re reluctant to take the clothes off,” she reasons, “but it’s necessary. By the way, when I say off I mean all the way. Even if you’re naked for only 30 seconds, it does you good. At least it does me. No layers, just you in your own skin. For 30 seconds. That would be a good article in Cosmopolitan, wouldn’t it? In Your Own Skin For 30 Seconds. Is that magazine still around?” Without waiting for his response she continues, “Why aren’t you somewhere else now? Visiting your kid, for example. You didn’t have to be here today. You’re not working.”

“I like to ease into a cold pool, not jump in. When I’m away, I forget about this place. That’s not good when it’s time to come back.” For a moment his silence lays heavy as something severed. Yet his emphasis is casual when he finally says, “I didn’t tell you I had a kid. I wouldn’t.”

“No, you wouldn’t.”

“If I wasn’t flattered by the effort you made to find out, I might be upset. Everything needs to stay on the surface, Lam. Don’t waste resources on me.”

“Is that what I waste, ‘resources’? Don’t flatter yourself. Or do, if you insist. You know I don’t care about all that shroud of secrecy crap,” she says.

“There’s a reason for it.” “I call my own shots, or as many of them as I can. Neither of us are perms. I work with somebody, or not even work but just in close proximity to somebody, I like to know a few things about them.”

“If they don’t see fit to tell you, maybe you should figure it’s not worth knowing.”

“They who, you mean them or …” she asks.


“Who really listens to them? Do you?”

“It would be anomalous,” he points out, “if they weren’t listening now.”

“Anomalous. I knew someone who liked to use big words from time to time.”

“Sounds like a punchline’s coming. What about this person?”

“No joke. Just died. But struck by lightning of all things. A one in a million death. An anomalous death, right? Some English class I had, some teacher had us reading this little fiction piece where the guy was struck by lightning more than once.” “And?”

“Story didn't make sense.”

“English teachers tend to like those kind of stories.”

“Writers don't have to figure out endings. Must be nice. Must make a story easier to write.”

“I don't know,” he says, putting the shrug in his voice. “Maybe without the ending the burden is shifted to other things.”

He can tell she's thinking about that. Then she says, “Big brother already knows we don’t trust them, so hearing me say it would be nothing new. Besides,” she says in a lighter tone, “I sweep and tweak. My one concession to gadgets and devices. Signals, frequencies, buzz and fuzz blooming like springtime, it’s everywhere in the air. See a schematic of it, the space between these four walls must look like an air traffic control screen on a brutally bad day, like maybe on nine eleven.”

“You scrambled their tech like an omelet.”

“Probably a hundred k worth of bug just in the bathroom alone, and all I have to do to fuck it up is turn on the microwave in the kitchen, heat up a Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese entree.” She laughs, her amusement spilling with the intimate satisfying click-clack of cat-eye marbles poured from a drawstringed pouch. “I look at it like when I’m here? hey, this is my house, baby. They’re so interested in what I’m saying, at least work for it. Break out the longs lens, throw some poor underpaid lip reader a bone. Squander some taxpayer dollars.” She pauses, then says, “About that ex-wife, fourteen-year-old daughter thing. It wasn’t much of an excavation. I didn’t dig deep.” An analog builds itself below the level of K13’s awareness: A pedestrian with the intention to jaywalk steps off the curb, spies a nearby cop, and then converts that original intent by pretending to pick up a coin, casually stepping back up onto the curb and innocently massaging the back of the neck. In the same way, Lamborghini has come close to committing the emotional misdemeanor of offering an apology, but then veers away from it at the last second.

“In possession of that fact for how long?” he asks.

“We’ve been here in this house for, what, about six months?”

“Since March third. Six months.”

“Then I’ve known since March fourth.” His voice spreads thin and flat, like white plaster spread with a sheer blade onto a white wall. “But it wasn’t much of an excavation. You didn’t dig deep.”

“I’ve got an ex and a fourteen-year-old myself.” Although she offers this personal information as readily as a child cascades the counter with coins in exchange for candy, actually her statement is the completion of a transaction, the prompt repayment of an IOU.

His eyes frisbee the room, a languid toss and glide to the far corners. The walls separating the formal dining and living rooms, the kitchen and two bedrooms, have been half demolished. Randomly and in ignorance of any method or system, without any concession made to architectural guidelines or principles, K13 had swung a double-faced sledgehammer with a yellow fiberglass handle, watching holes blossom where blows fell. Now the holes tattoo what is left of the walls in intriguing Rorschac sizes and shapes: subliminal landmarks in a shattered psychological landscape. He had done this shortly after sliding his duffel bag under his bed. He did it because he had wanted to do it; he did it because they told him there were no limitations or policy-related obstructions that he would ever have to be concerned with, no paperwork, no written reports to submit, and he wanted to see if this was so. It was, after all, a valuable piece of property, and though K13 occupied it, he did not own it. But it turned out to be true. He smashed the walls because he wanted to, and no one had appeared at the front door with a bill for the damage. However much the place had cost them, it represented a pittance, a wave in an infinite ocean of available funds and resources. He has learned that the house is nothing more than an expendable commodity. Trash this $800,000 Victorian-style home on a bluff above the lake and they would simply buy another, offering the owner double or triple its appraised value. If the owner refused to sell, in the end they would invoke eminent domain and simply commandeer the property. At this point the price paid for the property would unfortunately no longer be double or triple the appraised value. To punish the civilian for all the trouble caused, he or she would be forced into a condition of haplessness, loss and regret.

Lamborghini with an ex and a son is not information he wants to know. The appearance of these sorts of hairline cracks and fissures in the otherwise smooth surfaces of the facades they work so hard to construct forecasts miscalculation, misstep, imperiled improvisations. Their work, what they do here in the rambling house on the remote stretch of shoreline climbing out of the affluent upper east side of the city, is specialized, narrow in scope and limited in depth. Similar to but extending beyond even the porous boundaries of shadow operations, it has no official existence and no chain-of-command or hierarchy that can be captured on any organizational flowchart. It more or less begins and ends here, in this house, each of them exercising sovereignty over their separate kingdoms, the pair of Lamborghini and Audi upstairs, K13 downstairs.

“Anything can happen, Lamborghini. Am I right?”

She makes her way haltingly through the traffic of his talk, approaching his question as she would a yellow light at an intersection in a Porsche she drove, with reluctant caution, wanting to plow through. “Anything can happen? Okay. And?”

Her lifelong love affair with fast cars has fueled the choice of Lamborghini as a code name. He learned this when they met for the first time here, strolling across the echo-rich hardwood floors. Her mood that day was married to expansive chatter. They forced open jammed windows to an April morning fathering surprising breezes that played hide and seek in the empty rooms. Like roommates vying for the top bunk bed, they both laid claim to the second floor. But K13 could produce no compelling reason for his preference, and when he asked why she wanted it and she responded the higher up you are, the closer to god, he acquiesced with a shrug, thinking that maybe it was a Brazilian adage, a saying that encapsulated her culture’s wisdom.

“So let’s say something happens,” K13 proposes. “To you. There you are, answering the sort of questions you’re used to asking. Your big toe in a garden shears.” With whisper and Mafia inflection as theatrical props, he sends gravelly hiss and menace gliding across the sandpaper stage of his voice. “Tell us all about your friend. Don’t tell us what we already know: 6 foot even, short black hair, big browns, big hands, fortyish, etcetera. You’re gonna give us a detailed K13 data dump, little girl, or you’ll look like a three-toed sloth in less than 30 seconds. At first you’d deny everything. We’ve all seen too many movies where they make the attempt to resist pain look noble. But after the first toe, you’ll know better. You’ve been doing this longer than I have, Lamborghini, I don’t have to tell you this. Still, we fantasize. We lose sight.”

“I’m willing to admit I made an error in judgment. But I’m intimately acquainted with my limitations and capabilities. I don’t expect you to be swayed by this, but you know your limits and I know mine. There are ways to evade the pain, if it comes to having to inescapably deal with it. Because hey. Aren’t we the new breed?”

“The new breed,” he says. “Whatever that is, you’re saying we’re it.”

“The new breed. Open-ended and off the grid, completely – all this is all just my theory, nobody’s told me diddley – no administrative or field experience. No history or direct connection with any intelligence gathering agency. No in-depth high-tech training. No military expertise and no claim to expertise in any realm of espionage. Not attached to anything that has a structure or an infrastructure. Someone finally figured out that the old ways didn’t work: tons of specialized knowledge and skills, all the esoteric techniques and technology, the heavy bleed-over into geopolitical intrigue, all the physics of deception …”

“You’re saying there’s a place for all that, but that’s not what we do.”

“Something like that. I’m talking all that old-fashioned prep work, all that bureaucratic bloat and overkill. Almost to the point where it’s academic. Hell, none of that makes you any better at this. For this, you need a sense of native cunning, the lean mindset of a survivor. You can’t teach a chameleon to change colors when it’s supposed to. The new breed, okay? The more organizational layers you have, the more inefficiency and corruption there is. Why not take away the layers, get civilians with no vested interest in wanting to claw their way up through the ranks?”

“You’re saying our friend is the architect of this thing that’s a complete departure from how it’s always been. ” “The Diplomat? Him or someone like him. Where was I going with this? Goddamn. I hate losing my thread. What am I taking all this shit for every day? Gingko, vipocetine.”

“The road to insomnia is paved by memory,” K13 says.

He hears her fingers snap in triumph.

Civilians. You use Joe American, Cindy Citizen instead of all the overcompensating little frat boys and sorority girls fresh out of the junior officer training program. People who still pay their taxes, have never been to jail or worked for the mob or a South American drug cartel. I’m not talking about criminals living outside society’s code. They’re too far gone. I’m talking about people who know how to lie, cheat and steal and get away with it but have chosen not to. Maybe these are people with antisocial tendencies. Or people with borderline psychological profiles and atypical emotional architecture, okay? High IQ, high functioning types with deep glitches and hollowed out psyches, who’ve known instinctively how to manipulate the system all their lives but aren’t entirely motivated by what the system has to offer…”

“Hollowed out psyches. Interesting. Is your psyche hollowed out, Lamborghini?”

“Oh, but it’s the contrary. Mine is filled to the brim with malaise.” Without thinking but with no intent to be unkind he asks, “The part about high IQ. Where does that leave Audi?”

Now fatigue rays the rim of her voice, like the serrated edges surrounding the sun in a child’s yellow-crayon drawing. “That doesn’t matter. Audi works for me. A subcontractor along for the ride. Anyway, all that is just my theory, obviously. Nobody has bothered to give me the rationale for anything, so what do I know. I’m offered a project, I take it or leave it.”

“Truth? Your new breed sounds qualified to do absolutely zip in this field.”

“Field? Is that what this is?”

“You’ve got to call it something.”

“That’s my point. The words for what we do are all old words, they describe old systems,” she explains.

“There’s no reason for me to believe that what you’re saying has any validity.”

“I repeat: It’s just my theory.”

“Fair enough. But I think I missed what the new breed has to do with garden shears.”

“Nothing. They were two separate topics. Ways of dealing with pain and a bad segue to the new breed.”

“So you’ve got a kid. A fourteen year old. You love him because he’s nothing like you, because he’s everything you’re not? It works like that with me. And you tell yourself that you do this for him. This obscene amount of money you couldn’t possibly make without doing exactly what you do, it’s for him, his future.” They have come this far, and building commonalities rather than allowing the crowbar of her confession and apology to be wedged into the seam of the relationship seems the only reasonable thing to do. Turn her one-sided error in judgment into a two-sided disclosure, let the confessional patter flow back and forth and no one is alone in this thing. Bonds are forged and strengthened under such conditions. “This is me guessing. You’ve made provisions. Your will is in order, the college tuition is taken care of, the trust fund established. You give him an allowance?”

“No. He’s lazy. His grades suck, his room smells like a kennel on the days it doesn’t smell like old stashed porn mags. I have to foam at the mouth to get him to take out the garbage. You?”

“No allowance. I try to give her one and she won’t take it. What do stashed porn mags smell like?”

“Like dampness, sea water. She won’t take it? Why? What are you offering her, humiliation in the form of a buck fifty a week or something? I sense that about you, you know. There’s something retentive about you. Tight, beyond what’s necessary to do your job. You’re probably a cheap bastard.”

“I love it when you lash out at me.”

“My mother used to say I had a tongue that cut like a bull whip. Over the years I’ve gotten better, though.”

“Better at what?”

“Lashing out with less vigor.”

“Less vigor goes along with improved efficiency. You don’t need to expend so much energy now because you’ve become an expert. One lash has the strength of ten. Less is more.”

“Sometimes more is more.”

“Twenty-five a week allowance, she doesn’t want it. I mean, she takes it, but she doesn’t want it for herself. Donates it to Save The Children.”

“What a dear,” she says, meaning it. “Namaste – she’s got a beautiful name. I’m a sucker for beautiful names.”

“Her real name’s Meagan. She renamed herself Namaste. She’s a Buddhist. Or an aspiring Buddhist. That’s the whole angle with Buddhism: all this aspiring you’ve done all your life, it collapses when you realize there’s no way to get to where you already are.”

“It’s all process, no destination,” Lamborghini says. “Bam. That’s the big awakening.” “I think it's one of those things that loses something when you try to translate. But a fourteen year old Buddhist? Jesus, at fourteen I was still cultivating my Barbie collection.” Her attention seems to be focused somewhere beyond the ambits of the immediate conversation. “They’re going to put you to work pretty soon, huh? Someone’s about to become a busy little bee. I think about this sometimes: there’s a guy out there right now, doing what he’s doing, and he has absolutely no idea what’s about to happen to him. It gives you a weird, omnipotent feeling. It’s almost sickening.”

It is as though with this observation Lamborghini is shining a flashlight inside him. As though his mind is a cave, his thoughts a colony of bats accustomed to dwelling in the dark. Prodded by the light from their nocturnal sanctuary, the thoughts veer, disoriented, from his mouth when he says, “Salah Bhatti. Has no idea he’s about to become detainee 717.” Then he returns to himself, and he does not know whether he is merely repeating what she has just said or whether he is saying it for the first time himself.

“That’s it exactly.” Her tone is distracted now. “Salah, huh? Another beautiful name.” Then abruptly she tells him, “Absolutely must go,” and hangs up.

He savors the cellophane sound of disconnection, the brief moment of static collapse and crumble; it reminds him that most things end this way, suddenly, crushed and compacted inside a swift-appearing void.

Next Chapter

Chapter 3

Article By: dglenn

Arts | Fiction | Novels

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