A Story for the Rest of Us
by Jon Wesick
Jack Taggart entered CIA headquarters with a spring in his step. His lover Holly Pureheart was flying into Dulles at 9:00 PM after three months of volunteering for Doctors Without Borders in Chad. They had a lot of catching up to do. Taggart had made reservations at La Scala and had stoked his kitchen with oysters, salmon, the Malbec Holly liked in case she was too tired to go out.
“Emergency meeting in the SCIF,” Howard Rubidium from the Science and Technology Directorate intercepted Taggart before he could get his morning coffee.
After leaving his cell phone in a rack by the door, Taggart entered the Secure Compartmented Information Facility and took a seat at the conference table.
“Got a hot one, today, Jack.” Jimmy Doherty, head of the Operations Directorate, sipped from a Grande Starbucks cup, making Taggart yearn even more for his own.
Lisa Jane removed a secure laptop from its carrying case and connected it to the projector with a cable. The screen showed only a field of blue.
“I’m not getting anything,” Jane said.
“Control Panel, Display, Connect to Projector,” Rubidium offered.
“Already tried that.”
“Maybe if you restarted it,” Doherty suggested.
While the others fiddled with the projector, Taggart stared at the green, mermaid logo on Doherty’s cup and wondered whether he had time to duck out. As he was about to stand, Jane got the projector to work and filled the screen with a satellite map.
“For the past three years IAEA monitors have noted discrepancies in the fissile material audits of the Russian facility at Chelyabinsk 54.”
“Sounds like some the name of a perfume.” When no one laughed Doherty explained. “You know, like Chanel Number 5.”
“Chelyabinsk 54, because no man can resist the scent of beta decay,” Rubidium added.
“Hah! Good one.”
“We suspect the man behind the theft is Boris Kurchatov.” Jane showed a picture of a clean-shaven Russian. “Our scientists estimate he has enough weapons-grade plutonium to make a ten-kiloton device.” Jane changed slides to a map of Central Asia. “His most likely smuggling route is over the Hindu Kush because there are few authorities to stop him and local drug lords are easy to bribe. NSA has picked up an increase in terrorist message traffic that indicates Kurchatov will take the device to Vienna and deliver it to this man.” She showed a picture of a man with a skull cap and red beard that hung to his chest. “Scarfazulla Amin.”
“The Butcher of Bhagatanwala,” Taggart uttered unaware he’d said his nemeses’ nickname aloud.
Heads turned. Taggart touched the scar on his shoulder through his shirt. Oh yes, he’d tangled with Scarfazulla Amin before, first as a marine attached to Special Operations Command in Afghanistan and then throughout North Africa as part of the CIA’s Operations Directorate. No one was as tough and ruthless as Amin. The thought of him having a nuclear bomb made Taggart’s skin go cold.
“Looks like this one’s yours, Jack.” Doherty stood and tossed his empty coffee cup in the trash. “Get your team together and be on the next flight to Vienna.”
Seventy-five trillion cells, half of which were bacteria, made up Martin Ahimsa’s body. Of these one hundred million were neurons, each with seven thousand connections to their neighbors. Every cell performed between one hundred thousand and ten million chemical operations per second. Whatever its function, each cell did its job flawlessly, which was the minimum requirement for participation in the American economy. Martin’s role was as a junior analyst in the European Division.
Martin put his lunch next to Donna’s Lean Cuisine in the refrigerator. He was tired of tofu hotdogs on wheat bread but eating in the food court cost ten dollars a day, money he couldn’t waste when he had student loans to repay. International relations! He should have followed his parents’ advice and gone into dentistry.
Back at his cubical, he powered up his computer and was reading e-mails when a muscly guy with a brush cut stopped by.
“Is Sharon Head around?”
“She’s on leave,” Martin said. “It was use it or lose it.”
“Okay.” The guy’s icy eyes wandered as if he were lost, taking in the gray fabric walls that were naked except for the Nature Conservancy calendar left behind by the last occupant. Then he focused on Martin. “Name’s Taggart. I’ll need you to gather background data on CARNIVORE while I’m in the field. Get everything you can on Scarfazulla Amin – e-mails, cell phone traffic, and the like. We can use RAPTOR for secure comm.”
“Uh, Sure.” Martin fingered the splinter in his thumb. His beard trimmer had left the hairs of his mustache sharp enough to puncture skin and his current annoyance was the result.
After Taggart swaggered away, Martin searched the network for CARNIVORE with no luck. Next, he tried the CIA IDE but found no mention of it.
“Hey Donna!” he called to the woman in the next cube. “How do I get access to CARNIVORE?”
“Send a request to Ron Rivera.”
Martin fired off an e-mail. While waiting he compiled news articles about Bulgarian dissidents and occasionally listened to the conversations from his neighbors’ cubicles.
“It’s theoretically possible to travel backward in time. Kip Thorne proved it in the nineties but you’d need the power of a whole galaxy. Get this. You’d have to make an infinitely long cylinder out of black holes, spin it and the speed of light, and travel around it in a spiral.”
“What about the implications?”
“You mean if you killed your grandfather before you were born? I think it’s like quantum mechanics with each possible timeline existing in superposition. Extreme timelines cancel out due to quantum interference and the reality we see is the most likely quantum state. Your grandfather killer would just end up on some extreme timeline unconnected to the rest. At least that’s my guess.”
Hunger pangs measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale rumbled from Martin’s stomach, rattling windows and knocking books off shelves. His customary oatmeal breakfast was healthy but never left him satisfied for long. Martin checked the time, 10:23 AM, 3:23 PM Greenwich Mean Time. He contemplated eating his tofu-hotdog sandwich but he’d be hungry again at 2:00 PM and would have to raid the vending machines for corn chips and cheese curls, wrecking both his health and his budget. It would be better to wait for an hour. Fortunately, Nora Swenson informed the team she brought homemade, saffron cookies over e-mail. A crowd had already gathered by her cube by the time Martin arrived.
“Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world,” Nora announced. “You have to pick a ton of crocus blossoms just to get make a pound. Thanks to Trader Joe’s it’s here for you.” She gestured to a plate of pastries the deep yellow of a sannyasin’s robe.
Rivera’s reply came an hour later. He stated that someone needed to certify Martin had a need to use CARNIVORE before he could allow access. After an hour of searching, Martin learned that someone was Pete Delmonico. Martin took the elevator to the third floor, stopped by the nearest cubicle, and waited for an opening into an ongoing conversation.
“…You get in an inflated ball and they roll you down the hill,” said the thin man leaning against the partition.
“Did you see any penguins while you were there?” the seated man asked.
“No, but they made me chief of the bus on the Maori Village tour.” The thin man turned to Martin. “Help you?”
“Pete Delmonico’s office?” Martin asked.
“Three doors down.”
White-haired Pete Delmonico had and a mustache that completely covered top and bottom lips. He looked up, noticed Martin in the doorway, closed the file he was reading, and invited him in.
“I need access to CARNIVORE.” Martin’s eyes strayed to the coffee paraphernalia that included beakers and a digital scale on the table.
“Mr. Taggart wants me to find Scarfazulla Amin.”
“Jack Taggart? Say no more. Let me see your ID.” Pete took Martin’s badge and typed at his laptop. “Okay. You’re in the system. Usually takes twenty-four hours.” He returned Martin’s badge.
“Is that a Chemex filter?” Martin pointed at the porcelain funnel atop a coffee cup.
“Yes, it is. Have you had Chemex coffee before?”
“Just once when I was visiting my sister in Portland.”
“Have you tasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffe?” Pete asked. “It’ll change your life.”
“Wasn’t there was an outbreak of nasty bacteria in African coffee?”
“I wouldn’t worry. Anything that survives both the heat of roasting and brewing deserves to live,” Pete replied.
“I don’t know. Bacteria have a spore stage that lets them survive extreme conditions.” Martin mimed the duck-and-cover position to emphasize his point.
“Just smell.” Pete opened a glass, canning jar and held it under Martin’s nose.
The beans smelled so rich, complex, and delicious that Martin chose to take the risk. While heating filtered water, Pete weighed beans, processed them in a hand grinder, and poured the grounds into a paper filter fitted in the funnel atop a cup. Periodically he checked the water temperature with an instant-read thermometer. Once satisfied, he wet the filter to make it stick and drizzled hot water over the grounds. When the ceremony was complete, he handed Martin the cup.
Everything Pete said was true. The light roast persevered the coffee’s tartness and Martin could pick out notes of plum, blueberry, and chocolate. Words could not describe the pleasure. He nodded appreciation. Pete grinned.
The two men were still talking on Martin’s way back.
“This great German shepherd adopted us for a day in Buenos Aires. Sure wish I could have brought him back.”
“Friend of mine did that in Mexico. Rescued a black Lab from a car accident. Sweetest dog I ever met.”
Martin ate in the courtyard to enjoy the weather before the heat and humidity became oppressive. Outside the CIA’s walls nature struggled against the roar of air conditioning units and the pollutions of smokers forced to take their addictions outdoors. Martin sat at a picnic table of coarse, steel mesh much like a chain-link fence. The sun warmed his back and a breeze caressed the skin on his arms. A fat bee flew from blossom to blossom in the clover that grew amongst the grass. It seemed to hang precariously in the air as if suspended by a spider web that could snap at any minute. A blonde woman a watch and multiple bracelets on her wrist paused on her way from one building to another.
“Spotting a cardinal is always good luck.” She pointed to a bird pecking at the grass.
Martin swallowed the lump of food clogging his mouth and asked, “Is that a male or a female? Males are red and females brown but that one’s a bit of both.”
“Perhaps she’s transsexual.” The woman walked off.
With no access to CARNIVORE yet, Martin spent the afternoon completing both the CIA’s mandatory sexual harassment and transsexual awareness online training courses, not that he was the kind of guy who would ever think of harassing a transsexual. He couldn’t stop thinking about the cardinal. Was there such a thing as avian, gender-reassignment surgery? And why did avian sound like a bottled water? Periodically he overheard his neighbors.
“She made Rilke her project and even became his lover but she stopped sleeping with him after he published his first book.”
“Like Maud Gonne?”
“No, Maud Gonne never slept with Yeats. Hell, she wasn’t even Irish.”
Martin left at 5:00. A group of cross-dressing anarchists in blue lipstick demonstrated at the gate but security kept them off the access road. After a forty-five-minute commute, Martin arrived at his studio apartment and set a breath mint in front of the Ganesha statue on the coffee table. He’d seen visitors to the De Young Museum had do the same for the elephant-headed god in San Francisco. He wasn’t sure why but it seemed generous. Martin boiled water for pasta and put a bowl of sauce in the microwave oven.
“Martin, are you there?” a voice came from its tomato-splattered interior.
“Yeah.” Martin looked around.
“It’s Taggart speaking to you over RAPTOR.”
“Oh, hi, Mr. Taggart. No luck with CARNIVORE yet.”
“Don’t worry about that, now. I need you to pick up Holly Pureheart who is arrived at Dulles on flight 192 at 9:00 PM.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Taggart.”
“Just one thing. Can I claim the tolls and parking as legitimate expenses?” Martin waited by the microwave but Taggart had signed off.
With its clean lines and curved, white façade, the terminal at Dulles Airport was a 1960s futurist’s wet dream. Martin paid twenty dollars to park his Volvo 740, entered the terminal, and looked at the arrival monitor. Flight 192 was two hours late. Enough! He’d been willing to donate two hours of his free time to Taggart’s project but four or five was too much. Now he’d have to change his timesheet and that was a hassle on the computerized system. What charge number was he supposed to use for this, anyway?
Martin spent too much on a stale bagel and bought himself a Jason Bourne novel at a magazine stand to pass the time. At 10:30 PM he made his way to the arrival area, where passengers entered and exited airport security that stood between the outside world and the trams that ferried passengers to their gates. People came and went except for a sketchy guy dressed in a black, ninja costume. Odd, but it was a free country and the man was entitled to wear whatever he wanted to. Still, Martin did what he always did when someone made him nervous. He looked the ninja in the eyes and nodded. The ninja nodded back.
Martin sat down to read but somehow the thriller didn’t work for him. He used to love books and movies but now he had little patience for rehashing people’s conflicts. Hitchcock said fiction is life with the boring bits cut out but what was more tedious than people’s tawdry problems? All the pettiness and cruelty was tiresome and he no longer wanted to invest the effort to get to a resolution. He set the book down on a nearby seat for some traveler who might appreciate it more. After 11:00 PM, a group of massive, African women with turbans of purple cloth and dresses to match began exiting. A bird-boned woman wearing a tan, golf shirt and scuba-diver’s watch rolled her suitcase behind them. As Martin held up the cardboard on which he’d written Holly Pureheart in magic marker, the ninja removed a sickle attached to a chain from his Hello Kitty backpack and began twirling the weapon over his head. In a fraction of a second, he sent the sickle careening toward Pureheart’s throat.
Without batting an eye, Pureheart sidestepped the sickle, wrapped the chain around her slender wrist, and using superior body mechanics began reeling the ninja toward her. The ninja’s Air Jordans skidded against the linoleum but it was not enough to stop his inexorable slide toward his doom. When he was within striking distance, Pureheard buried the sickle in his skull.
“Um, Ms. Pureheart,” Martin stammered. “Mr. Taggart asked me to pick you up.”
“You tell Jack Taggart that I’m an independent, self-actualized woman who can take care of herself!”
The following morning, Martin received an e-mail stating he’d been granted CARNIVORE access. He clicked on the link, chose a password with at least three numbers and two special characters, and downloaded the three-hundred-page user manual. The document was verbal chloroform. He got drowsy on page three and by page twelve was practically comatose. More conversations drifted from neighbors’ cubicles.
“During festival season, the city’s population doubles. I saw one play about a couple trapped in a post-apocalyptic office. A tree sprang out of the drawer when the woman opened a file cabinet and a stuffed bear even walked across the stage.”
“See anything by Enda Walsh?”
“Saw one of his plays in Galway. The stage was a mock hotel room with space for only a dozen people and the dying narrator talked about it as if it were his whole world.”
Martin went to the men’s room, not out of need but out of boredom. The man in the farthest stall farted the nine-note intro to the “Deliverance” banjo scene. The man in the closest stall echoed the tune. Soon the two launched into a duet filling the air with the putrid methane of their improvisation. Martin left and went to the men’s room across the lobby. As he stood at the self-flushing urinal, a voice came out of its control unit.
“Martin, it’s Taggart. How did it go with Holly?”
“She said she was a self-actualized woman who could take care of herself before storming off. Want me to send flowers of something?”
“Hold off on that. Holly doesn’t know what she wants and she’s mad at me for not giving it to her.”
A fat guy in white shoes and plaid trousers entered the men’s room and started whistling. Martin never understood why older guys did that but it creeped him out. He stalled until the whistler left.
“Taggart?” Martin whispered into the urinal.
There was no reply.
Martin had gotten in too late to pack a lunch so he had to eat at the CIA food court. Out of curiosity, he ordered a sushi burrito at Ganryu’s Island.
“I’m waiting,” sang Ned, the blind owner who worked the register. Despite his disability, he remained cheerful and upbeat. Perhaps it had something to do with guide dog, a golden retriever named Bosch, who lay chin on paw at Ned’s feet during working hours.
“I got the sushi burrito. Here’s a twenty.” You had to tell Ned what bills you gave him so he could make change.
“Good day, sir! Here’s a five and four ones.” Ned handed Martin his change.
Martin expected the sushi burrito to be wrapped in a flour tortilla but it was simply a two-fisted maki roll. Martin loved it. The crispness of the tempura contrasted with tender sashimi and creamy avocado. The only problem was that the ingredients fell out of the bottom of the nori wrapper, forcing Martin to scoop up rice and avocado with his now sticky fingers.
Martin returned to his desk and continued his reading. After a half hour, he closed the CARNIVORE user manual and decided to wing it.
“Hey,” Martin called to Donna. “How do you spell Scarfazulla Amin?”
“Just like it sounds.”
“One L or two?” Martin muttered as he typed into the top-secret search engine.
One-L Scarfazula was a Viennese baker. CARNIVORE showed a picture of the thin man pointing to a display case of Middle-Eastern pastries piled as high as the treasure in Sinbad’s cave. Martin’s mouth began to water. How could anyone put a baker on the terrorist watch list? Anthrax in the almonds? Plutonium in the pistachios? Howitzers in the honey? Phosgene in the phyllo?
Martin had better luck with Two-L Scarfazulla. As soon as he entered the name, CARNIVORE displayed a photo of the bearded extremist.
“The Butcher of Bhagatanwala,” Martin whispered.
As soon as he identified his target, Martin searched digital records for his location. Bank cards, medical records, a Netflix subscription, and the address listed in amazon.com were a bust. He scored a hit on a subscription for a porn site that featured hirsute women and traced the credit card to a Motel 6 in Mogadishu.
Martin played the audio of Dr. Evil’s, “snakes with fricking laser beams coming out of their heads,” in celebration. Unauthorized software was strictly against policy but what could he say? Martin was a rebel. He owed himself a coffee as a reward for his good work. Searching for an excuse, he noticed that CARNIVORE had an add-on called WEREWOLF and headed toward Pete’s office to request access.
Martin left the building after 5:00 PM and took the long walk to the back of the lot where he’d parked his rusty Volvo. The relentless, summer sun had made the interior hot enough to melt lead so he rolled down both windows.
“Martin, did you find Scarfazulla Amin?” Taggart’s voice asked over the car radio.
The radio wasn’t on and Martin hadn’t even turned the ignition key.
“Yeah.” Martin leaned close to the speaker. “The guy in Vienna is just a baker. The Scarfazulla you want is at a Motel 6 in Mogadishu.”
“Motel 6, huh? Which one?”
“How many Motel 6s can there be in Mogadishu?”
“Good point.” The sound of gunshots in the background came through the speaker. “I’ll check it out. Gotta go.”
Martin decided to liven up his cube so he brought in his Big Lebowski action figures along with Wallace and Gromit. The Dude, in a hoodie and pajama pants, carried a suitcase-sized, 1990s cell phone. Walter, in fatigues, an aluminum-sided attaché case with his “whites.” Wallace, the eccentric inventor, wore NASA techno trousers, and his loyal dog, Gromit, sat in an easy chair knitting. Martin had epoxied a broken ear on Gromit’s head and the seam was still visible. As he attached the bowling balls to the Dude’s and Walter’s hands, Taggart stopped by.
“Thanks for all the help, kid.” Taggart set a charred backpack on the desk. “Got something for you.” He withdrew a .50 caliber Desert Eagle from his backpack and set several boxes of hollow-point ammunition on Martin’s desk before he found what he wanted. “Here you go.” He left a dented pastry box by the Dude before gathering his belongings and heading off to the next assassination, sabotage, or seduction.
Martin removed the pouch-shaped morsel from the box and paused. Perhaps it would be best for Ganesha.
Martin Ahimsa will return in Raid for Office Supplies.
Jon Wesick is a regional editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual. He’s published hundreds of poems and stories in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Metal Scratches, Pearl, Slipstream, Space and Time, Tales of the Talisman, and Zahir. The editors of Knot Magazine nominated his story “The Visitor” for a Pushcart Prize. His poem “Meditation Instruction” won the Editor’s Choice Award in the 2016 Spirit First Contest. Another poem “Bread and Circuses” won second place in the 2007 African American Writers and Artists Contest. “Richard Feynman’s Commute” shared third place in the 2017 Rhysling Award’s short poem category. Jon is the author of the poetry collection Words of Power, Dances of Freedom as well as several novels and most recently the short-story collection The Alchemist’s Grandson Changes His Name.