6100 Words

…reckon not those who are killed in Allah’s way as dead; nay, they are alive (and) are provided sustenance from their Lord.

Never think that those who have perished in jihad are dead—they are still here. You are simply unaware of them.

—Alternate translations of Qu’ran Excerpt 3:169, Set 11, Count 32.

 

Two months after Cal Fichtner took himself officially “off the map”, Greer Reizendaark logged onto the Company webmail account to find a particularly well-scrubbed piece of e-correspondence waiting for him. No header, no address, no send-date—just a numerical link embedded in the body, with this curt instruction: LIVE AT ONE. CLICK HERE.

He waited ’til the clock at the corner of his screen rolled over, then did—and watched the whole way through, without comment, not stopping even when some newbie from Homeland Security caught a couple of seconds’ glance at it over his shoulder, and started puking. “Holy Christ,” she kept on repeating. “Holy, holy Christ.”

Greer didn’t turn around. Just snapped back, as the footage froze, looped and started over: “That’s exactly what they want you to say, you dizzy cunt.”

For I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads, and strike off every fingertip of them—Excerpt 8:012, Set 28, Count 62.

The dhimmi, the Crusaders, the Jews: make ’em too afraid to fight you, to resist the tide of jihad, by showing them just how bad they were gonna die, if they did.

The funny thing, though? Fichtner didn’t even look all that scared, in the clip—stayed a cast-iron son-of-a-bitch, right up to and including the part where they stuck a knife between his top two vertebrae, and started sawing away at his spine. Like it hurt, yes; mad, for damn certain…

He’d known all along this was the likeliest outcome, though. Hadn’t needed Greer to tell him that.

Hadn’t let him, when he’d tried.

§

This world was full of empty spaces, especially where the maps fell away—holes that most often plugged themselves with phantoms, the minute you looked somewhere else. Nature of the game. Nothing was certain, only wars and rumors of wars, ’til the intelligence checked out.

Or, as his last wife liked to put it: “You’re physically present sometimes, but you’re not really here, Greer—not ever. You’re not just a spook, you’re a ghost.”

“That’s a cliché, darlin’.”

“You’d know,” she said.

§

Sheikh Mehdi Nebbou called a half-hour after Fichtner’s execution, to demand: “Why were you not watching him, Greer?”

“Other shit on my plate, buddy. As goddamn usual.”

Greer certainly had been, in the beginning—no big secret there. Because while Fichtner might’ve been righteously quick to drop his GPS-enabled cellphone in the very next dry well he saw, he’d already known (as Greer had taught him) how the basic fun of surveillance came from realizing you could track anybody, anywhere, so long as you had a fair idea of who they were likely to be hanging around with. People always made the best anchors.

So if somebody’d wanted to find Fichtner, all they’d ever had to do was watch the clinic Fichtner’s new lady worked at, then wait for him to turn up somewhere in the background. Or hell, they could just watch Mehdi himself, who’d offered Fichtner a job as a “security consultant” the week after Fichtner tendered his resignation.

But things had gotten hot elsewhere, like they always did, and Greer’s attention had shifted, accordingly. Wasn’t like the interest ever seemed much reciprocated, since Fichtner certainly knew—had known—his home phone number, and Greer’d made sure not to have it changed in the interim, just in case his wayward protege ever felt inclined to ring him up for a little chat.

“They killed his fiancee, as well,” Mehdi said. “Miss Al-Kimani—the nurse? Though I suppose it might be asking too much to think—”

“Don’t tell me what I do and don’t care about, you supercilious S.O.B. You were the one s’posed to look after him now, remember? Your territory, your rules. He trusted you.”

“If you had only trusted me, Greer—from the very beginning—then none of this would have happened,” Mehdi replied. Then rang off, leaving Greer with nothing in his bluetooth but an oh-so-sophisticated lack of static.

Only the truth, whatever that was: Just information, a wonderfully fluid thing. Given the right tools and impetus, you could move it around, cover it up, modify it—give it a fan made out of feathers and make it do the shimmy, if you wanted. That was what Greer did all day, every day, to earn his Christmas bonus…and what Mehdi did too, while saving for a considerably different holiday.

From Marathon to Peshawar, the same routine: guys like Mehdi and Greer put people into bad situations, hoping they’d find out what their governments didn’t already know they needed to know. Most-times, the people got hurt. Sometimes they got killed. But the rules didn’t change, no matter what—whether you were getting the bulk of your covert intel with black magic tech, or an old-fashioned gun to the head.

By lunchtime, Greer was vetting three separate reports (Holland, Spain, Equatorial Africa) while simultaneously balls-deep in a three-way conference call with Washington, Toronto and London, listening to some CSIS asshole pontificate, and trying to chew his way through a cruller without it showing up on tape.

“You can see how this makes us look bad, Agent Reizendaark,” this guy said. “Your Mr Fichtner died for being a member of the global intelligence community.”

Now, there’s an oxymoron, Greer thought. And shot back—

“‘My’ Mr Fichtner? Hadn’t been that since I accepted his L.O.R., back in February.”

“They wrote ‘CIA BLOODSUCKER’ on the wall behind his corpse,” the designated representative from Greer’s side of the table pointed out.

“Outdated, then,” London broke in; “let’s not quibble over semantics, gentlemen. Particularly since I’m still not hearing anything about how you mean to deal with this particular—breach of protocol.”

“Well, what do you suggest?”

“Erase all trace of Fichtner, retroactively.”

“Looks to me like somebody already beat you to it,” Greer replied, punching out.

§

Two months ago. Greer still had that last call .mp3’d on his hard-drive, somewhere—could listen to it later tonight, alone in his empty house, where the only company left for him to keep was with a dead man’s voice.

Fichtner: You get my message, G.?

Greer: Yeah, I got it. So…hear you’re growin’ a beard for real, prayin’ five times a day, and why? ’Cause Aqsa won’t let you up under her hijab if you don’t?

Fichtner: ’Cause I like it, Greer. ’Cause it feels right.

Greer: Uh huh. So what’s the part you like most, huh? The killing in the Name part? The eight-year-old human bombs?

Fichtner: I like the part says there is no God but God. Seems true to me, or like it should be. Might solve a fuck of a lot of problems, on either side, people just took it a bit more seriously…

Greer: Some people already take it a bit too seriously for comfort, you ask me.

Fichtner: …and the rest? That’s mostly misinformation, misinterpretation. People thinking they always know better. (Pause) Sound familiar?

Greer: Fuck you, son.

Fichtner: Can’t do that sort of thing no more, G. Sorry.

Greer: No matter how drunk I get you, first?

Fichtner: Can’t do that either, buddy.

Greer: Well, hell, buddy—that sure ain’t no kinda religion I’d be willin’ to die for, but to each his damn own. (Pause) ’Cause they are gonna kill you, Cal…that’s the no-God-but-God’s honest truth. Her too, probably. You do know that, right?

Fichtner: Well, if they do, they do. I mean, Aqsa’s been living with this shit a whole lot longer than either of us, Greer—she’s stronger than I’ll ever be. Plus, at least she tries not to hate.

Greer: You really think the two of you’re gonna end up in the same place, though, after? Given all you done?

Fichtner: (Long pause) Maybe not. But that’s the hope.

And here the mental transcript broke off.

To wash the conference call’s aftertaste away, Greer hit the Geek Room, where his two pet surveillance experts—one male, one female, so he always just called ’em Guy and Gal, in his head—were poring over the latest input from a bunch of gyro-stabilized recon ex-satellite cameras Mehdi had agreed to retrofit onto some of his bosses’ “new” Navy P-3 Orions. As a vain stab at trying to keep things privateprivacy, the cameras got changed around weekly, which meant Guy and Gal spent most days downloading intel, plugging it into a 360-degree spread and then trying to figure out from the resultant virtual landscape just where and when said footage had been snatched, as well as what the hell was (probably) going on in it.

Today’s spread showed a meet-up somewhere in the desert (big surprise), though Guy and Gal were having trouble deciding exactly which one. Scans showed two vans, three open-end trucks and a yoinked U.S. Army Humvee ’round which figures in robes and head-scarves filtered, their faces all equally blown out by harsh light and sudden shadow.

“We think this one’s Ajinabi,” Gal said, tapping what to Greer was an utterly random set of features. The name—an agreed-upon monicker floated first through Mehdi’s group, then adopted by Greer’s, after Fichtner started using it in his reports—was Arabic for either “stranger” or “outsider”: a legendary organizer for hire, possibly foreign-born, or even a Fichtner-style convert who’d chosen jihad over live-and-let-live. But on lack of background detail alone, Ajinabi’d quickly become scapegoat of choice in the region—a convenient catch-all for a complex range of mischief, everything from holding bomb-building classes to coordinating lethal actions.

“He might’ve been in on Fichtner, too, boss,” Guy suggested. “Or know who was.”

Greer shrugged. “Might’ve. Which is pretty much the same as sayin’ the boogeyman did it, ’cause we’ll never know no better.”

Gal frowned. “We figure out who some of the other players here are, though, and turn ’em—that’d get us one step closer.”

“Don’t look to me like there’s enough there for the facial-recognition software to work with, even if our current operatives database wasn’t so far out of date—”

Guy: “Oh, look at that. I think…we got a hit.”

They all studied the results for a while, silently. Until—

“That…looks like Cal Fichtner,” Gal said, at last.

“Couldn’t be, though.”

“…no.”

Damn, though, if it didn’t seem like it was. Right there in the background, half-hidden in a shadow cast by that second truck from the right—even down to choice of sunglasses, or that raggedly white-boy meth-cooker beard he’d grown so Aqsa would feel more at home letting him walk her down the street. Same stone-age vs. Star Trek outfit he’d last been photographed wearing, calculated for maximum blend-in when viewed from above; same guy got his head cut off on almost-live not-exactly-TV, and made it exciting enough to watch that the footage ended up being streamed on Al-Jazeera.

“Look, fellas,” Greer broke in, finally, “I’ve seen the man’s head. They sent it to us postage paid, packed in salt, care of my office.”

“What about the rest of him?”

“Out in the desert somewheres, I assume—the hell’s it matter? We got DNA, got a hundred per cent match. Whoever that is, Cal Fichtner don’t come into the matter.”

“Well,” Guy muttered, “it might be…” Then cut off in mid-breath as Gal shot him a dirty look, visual shorthand for shut effin’ up, you boob. Greer raised a brow, angled to include them both.

“Might be what?”

Gal sighed. “Sometimes…data stays behind. Like…when you overwrite stuff again and again, fragments stick around, in the interstices. They just sort of collect.”

“‘Pixel-geists’, we call ’em—”

You do.”

“Whatever. So, stuff gets caught between the zeroes and the ones—I mean, so what, right? All part of the process.”

Greer shook his head, hoping that would help; it didn’t.

“Well…what do you do about it, when it does?” he asked, finally.

“Wait ’til it goes away again, mostly,” Guy replied.

§

That night, his BlackBerry chimed, and Greer opened it to find his inbox full of empty emails. At first he thought it was Fichtner’s killers trying to screw with him some more, but maybe not—these had addresses and time-signatures, though both jumped seemingly at random from past to present to future, ’round the world and back again. One was from Antarctica, for fuck’s sake. Greer shift-clicked the whole pile, hit delete. Then fell asleep watching football with one eye, BBC World News with the other, and head-first from there into a pile of dreams: Blurry, brief, bitterly disturbing.

That awful room, a tiny concrete cell with corkboard walls, with nothing in it but a gashed-up slab-topped table and a camera-stand. And bloodstains, layered in overatop of each other, so deep they looked like wallpaper.

The bluetooth buzzed against his cheek, hot with sweat. He reared back up, swatting at it, only to hear a voice he knew almost better than his own issuing from it—tiny and tinny, but distinct: internalized, like it was vibrating up through the bones of his jaw to reach the eardrum directly, its message’s content and delivery system alike both equally impossible.

Get my message, G?

“…What?”

Fichtner’s laugh, pricking tears from Greer’s eyes automatically, like a cold wind.

You—get—my message?

“Who is this?” No reply. “Listen, asshole, you need to get the hell off my line.”

Can’t do that. Sorry.

Greer knuckled his eyes, drawing sparks. “I…ain’t havin’ this conversation. You could be anybody, ’sides from—”

…me?

A long pause ensued, while Greer tried to figure out anything worth saying.

Maybe…not? the voice asked, gently.

“…can’t be.”

Well…seems true to me, or like it should be. Buddy.

Then silence. Not even a tone.

Greer sat there a while, thinking about how insane he must have gone without noticing, to actually believe that he might’ve talking to Cal Fichtner’s—what? Pixel-geist? Spook?

Around three-forty-five, he gave up on getting back to sleep, and called up Gal (who was still in the Geek Room, like he’d known she would be). Got her to send the spread over and went over it again—homed in on that tricksy little background figure, Blade Runner-style, and saw it was pointing straight at the same other silhouette Gal had initially tapped, exactly. “Ajinabi”, caught foreground-framed with his mouth open in mid-lecture, similarly faceless yet somehow more authoritative than the rest, judging by the way the others angled towards him. And totally ignorant of Fichtner’s finger cocked to the back of his head, like: Him. Here. See? This guy, and no one else…

…my message…

§

And then it was…later, and Greer surfaced to find himself somehow not only drunk as a lord, but already on the phone with Mehdi. Who was being surprisingly forbearing about it, given the circumstances.

“Things are still there even when you stop lookin’ at ’em, right?” Greer asked, pouring another drink he sure as hell didn’t need.

“I believe you may be veering dangerously close to the realm of metaphysics with this question, Agent Riezendaark. Or of spiritualism, perhaps.” A beat. “Why are you phoning me, exactly?”

“I…honestly have no idea.”

“Mmm. Do you happen to know what time it is here?”

“…early? Or late, I guess…”

“Yes, very likely one or the other. But then, time-zones were always a weakness of yours, as I recall. On a more personal note, however—you sound as though you need sleep, Greer, rather than alcohol. Rather badly.”

“Probably do, yeah.”

“Then sleep.”

“…not yet. You hooked up? Online?”

“I’m in bed, Greer. Where you should be.”

“Well, I’m flattered, buddy; don’t think you really want me in your bed, though. I’d wreck the mattress.”

Mehdi made a half-sigh, half-snicker. “Send me your data,” he said, at last.

§

The next morning, his head full of cotton and mush, Greer saw Mehdi’s number blink alight, and picked up halfway through the first ring.

“You can’t possibly think this is what it seems,” Mehdi told him.

Greer shut his eyes. “Well, that depends. What’s it look like to you?”

“Greer…”

“I want to hear you say it, Sheikh. Out loud.”

Another sigh. Then—

“…it appears to be a surveillance photo of Cal Fichtner. Standing in the desert. Pointing at someone.”

“Fella at seven o’clock, three from the right?”

“The very same. I cannot, however, make out his face.”

“Crap. I was kinda hopin’ you knew him.”

“Yes, that would be convenient, I suppose—if we had any idea what it was he was doing there, or why we should care to know, in the first place.”

“My geeks think he’s Ajinabi.”

Unimpressed: “Do they.”

“Yup. They say word on the Grid is, he keeps off it—does everything face to face, word of mouth. So if this is him callin’ a meeting, it’s gotta be about somethin’ pretty big. Think he might’ve been the one behind what happened to Fichtner, too…and Aqsa Al-Kimani.”

“The great Foreign Devil for Hire, wearing a thousand masks and pulling a thousand strings. I’ve heard those rumors as well, Greer—for quite some time, now. Far longer than you’ve considered them relevant, considering they really didn’t begin to attract your direct interest until a friend of yours…” A pause. “In terms of concrete proof, however, that’s exactly all they are. Rumors.”

“I’ve gotten the go-ahead on less.”

“Doubtless. But I’m not sure I’d boast about that, if I were you.”

Greer huffed out hard, and felt his temples start to throb. “Fine, then. What do you think these pics are, if they ain’t—that?”

“As you know, we of Islam tend to find representative images of the ineffable somewhat…difficult.”

“Even photos?”

Greer could practically hear Mehdi’s shrug. “Contextually, recent photos of a person one knows to be dead operating in the material world are likely to be almost as suspect as paintings of the Prophet, don’t you agree?”

“I think maybe this is some cultural thing we’re gettin’ into, here, and I ain’t exactly qualified to—”

“No? At best, Greer, this is a ghost, something whose testimony both our religions find equally suspect. We know Cal Fichtner was a good man, though not by all standards; all signs point towards the idea that he had come to terms with his past, made amends, found love, found faith…forgiveness. So he should be at peace—either in Heaven, or Paradise. Elsewhere, at any rate. Not—”

“You can’t know it’s not Fichtner,” Greer began, ridiculously annoyed.

“And you can’t know it is. The desert is a bad place to die, Greer—an empty place, home to many strange, empty things. Just because something wears a face you know…”

“What the hell you gettin’ at, exactly?”

“Do you really think a dead man still works ‘for’ you, simply because he seems as though he claims to? Or, better yet…when has chasing a ghost ever led to anything of true, lasting value?”

“We chase ghosts all the time, buddy.”

“Not literally.”

There was a small silence; Greer breathed into it, carefully, dialing himself back down. Trying to clear his aching head.

“We found her body,” Mehdi added, unexpectedly. “Miss Al-Kimani—buried up to her neck, stoned, then beheaded; the usual. Tragic waste of a perfectly good nurse, especially in a city with so few free clinics.” After a beat. “No further trace of Fichtner’s, unfortunately.”

“Desert’s a pretty big place, is what I hear.”

“Yes. It is.”

§

“Happened again, boss,” Gal said.

“We thought you’d want to know,” Guy chimed in.

This time, the photo spread came from a market in Casablanca, where some poor burnoosed bastard stood at a stall completely oblivious to the goons closing in on him (Guy had helpfully tagged him with a pop-up caption saying simply “ASSET”), and “Fichtner” was the one occupying the foreground—almost angled towards the fly-over, which was frankly impossible. Unfortunately, this still didn’t manage to bring the guy he was once again pointing at any closer.

“You run a point-by-point?” Greer asked.

Guy nodded. “Pretty much a match, so…looks like it is the same dude Fi, uh—” He stumbled, flushing, under Greer’s pointed look. “—same dude the…other one fingered.”

“But that don’t really tell us nothin’ we didn’t know before, huh?”

Gal: “Right.”

Greer scowled down at the multi-screen array. “What’s he even doin’ there, you figure that much out?”

They exchanged a look. Said, as one: “Maybe.”

The reason the missing operative grab hadn’t been clocked immediately—taking maybe five hours after he’d been grabbed from a nearby safe-house for his safe-house to call him in missing, plus another hour since after Fichtner’s pixel-geist had picked out “Ajinabi” for the birdie—was because he was just a local hire. Further examination revealed him as also A) one of Fichtner’s C.I.s, specifically during the last fiasco Greer’d puppetmastered with Fichtner as his man on the ground, and B) a guy Fichtner’d first found through Mehdi’s info-gathering networks, making that Greer’s next call. He sent over the new spread at the same time, and waited while Mehdi pulled it up.

“Offputting,” was all Mehdi had to say.

“Really ain’t no way anybody could fake that, is there?”

“Unless one of your pets is serving two masters, I think not.” Greer heard the click of a mouse as Mehdi fiddled around some, probably trying the image from the same angles Guy and Gal already had. Muttering to himself, as he did—

“If only we could see that man’s face a bit more clearly. If only Fichtner—”

(wasn’t blocking the view)

“Guess you don’t think it’s a jinn, then.”

“Ah, someone’s been Googling.”

“Gimme some damn credit, Sheikh. I work for a department’s been dealin’ with the Middle East for almost sixty years; might be I could’a heard the term, here and there.”

“Oh yes, you’re a veritable fount of Muslim marginalia—that must be why your Farsi is so atrocious.” With one last click: “So…are we meant to gather from this latest—communique—that Hasim Gullah is bound for the same place as Fichtner?”

“Beheadings-’R’-Us, then the Internet?” Greer paused. “Don’t suppose you’d be any closer to figuring out where that first stream came from…”

“Must I do all your work for you, Agent Reizendaark?”

Mehdi’d probably meant it to be light, a joke, but the tone wasn’t quite right. Still, Greer knew a kiss-off when he heard one.

So: “Fuck you, son,” he said. And hung up.

§

You get my message, G?

Thirty minutes earlier, the subdermal bone-buzz voice would’ve muffled itself against alcohol—but sleep had eluded Greer, and now the call rattled his skull straight through into incipient hangover.

Mya skip, sample-scratch brief—new—message?

Greer swallowed cold spit, sat bolt upright: he knew this trick, had used this trick. That one inserted word in a different tone, different stress pattern, different volume even from the rest of the sentence…and other than that, the sentence said the exact same way, every time. He was angrier at ever having fallen for the oldest Space Age surveillance Gaslighting trick in the book, if only the once, than at being targeted in the first place.

Tic-inducing, scrapy vibrations under his jaw: laughter, more tired than snide. People thinking they always know better.

Then another pause, while Greer timed it out exactly: Sound familiar?

“When I find you, shithead—”

Maybe not…

No click, but Greer knew instantly the contact was lost. He closed his eyes, fighting the urge to puke—his mind already supplying the rest of the quote, whether he wanted it to or not—

…but that’s the hope.

§

“Got a phone call from Fichtner, just now,” Greer told Mehdi, minutes later. “Plus last night, and…night before that, too.”

“Hmm.”

“Not the reaction I was expectin’, but hell—I’ll take it. Care to elaborate?”

“Very well: this, as you know, is something ‘Ajinabi’ really could fake. You set your share of bugs in Fichtner’s rooms, his cars…they would only have had to tune in long enough to capture his half of the conversation, from which to sample and loop a few pertinent phrases—”

“Mentioned the photo array, though. Ajinabi, scopin’ out Gullah’s beat. Gettin’ things all set for the Big Scoop.”

“Directly?”

“…sort of.”

my—(new)—message

“How long’d they keep Fichtner alive, you reckon?” Greer asked.

“Impossible to tell, without access to his corpse.”

“But you’ve been doin’ some investigation of your own in the meantime, I’ll bet.”

Mehdi didn’t bother to deny it; his fact-finding methods were legendarily effective, owing far more to the time-worn examples of Haroun al-Raschid and Hammurabi than to anything agreed on in the Hague. “My informants think…seventy-two hours at most.”

“Ain’t a whole lot of time to try and do anything about our Mister Gullah’s situation, is it?”

“I hope you recorded the calls, at least,” Mehdi said, eventually. “If so, perhaps you should have them analyzed, by someone not quite so…”

“Drunk?”

“I was going to say…personally involved. But make no mistake: someone is trying to puppet you, here, Agent Reizendaark—to get you down on the ground, where you are most unsuited to be. Having studied you, they no doubt know you like to sacrifice long-term build for short-term opportunity; they will lead you on some ethereal scavenger hunt in order to trap you, just as they did Fichtner. And what will happen then?”

Greer shut his eyes. “Oh, I think I got a pretty good idea.”

Forget the desert’s empty spaces and deceptive images—a guilty man’s mind had all of that and more, re-splitting under pressure exponentially, like a prism. Grief was an echo-chamber. No matter how hard you thought you were listening, the only thing you ever really heard was your own voice.

Or somebody else’s, still and small in the middle of the night, the way God’s was supposed to sound. Saying: Greer…you’re a ghost.

Well, maybe so.

But then again—not just yet.

§

Barely pausing to shower and shave, Greer hit the Geek Room again, doing his best Angry Fist of God impression. Told Gal and Guy to break it all down, far as they could, then farther.

As they did, he thought yet again about how “Intelligence”, so-called, was a machine that ran on universal constants—secrecy, stupidity, entropy. It wasn’t about the parts, and only slightly about the labor; damn thing’d keep running on its own, even if nobody did their fair share anymore. Stick a cog in, pop it out, throw it away, smash it to pieces; the machine kept grinding, exceeding fine, untouched. And though Greer might occupy its hub for the nonce, he had no illusions that that state of affairs would be perpetual. Lots of guys had held his exact same job, before being discarded and forgotten.

For now, however, he was still Big Man Off-Campus—the legendary Guy on the Other End of the Phone, running a large-ass part of Ajinabi’s competition. Knock Greer Reizendaark off his game, and the Foreign Devil would win a free block of unsupervised time in which to cut a few more people’s heads off…starting with Hasim Gullah, one assumed, before working his way back up the food-chain.

So: something to keep in mind, maybe, even now. Something to bargain with.

“Got something,” Guy said, finally.

Turned out, the very pixels making up the photos in which “Fichtner” appeared had GPS coordinates encoded in each of them—just beyond the border of Mehdi’s home turf, in (predictably enough) the desert. The location of Ajinabi’s death-room, Fichtner’s body? Or both?

“And get this,” Gal told Greer, excited as she ever got. “The phone-calls have a frequency and a series of tones mixed in, just underneath the signal itself.”

“A number.” She nodded. “Traceable?”

“Nope.”

Guy: “Looks like it’s been overwritten at least twice, like it’s changing every time somebody switches disposable cells—but a direct line, every time. Somebody important. Like it might even go straight to—”

“Uh huh,” Greer said, then read it out loud, and pressed his ever-present bluetooth’s “dial” button.

Wa’alaikum ah salaam,” a voice said, at the other end.

Greer grinned. “Ajinabi, I presume.”

Gal and Guy watched with horror-struck eyes as the negotiations commenced. Greer kept ’em short, if not sweet: a switch, him for Gullah, contingent on proof—positive, not ‘Net-based—that the guy was still alive.

“Sheikh Nebbou can ferry you to the meet-point, no doubt,” Ajinabi said, like he expected Greer to be impressed he knew they knew each other.

“He was gonna be my very next call,” Greer agreed—then paused, as he heard the “call waiting” tone.

“Ah, your superiors. You should probably take this,” Ajinabi suggested.

§

After that things began to move even faster.

Wasn’t much work to convince the CIA-CSIS-MI6 three-way that what had looked from the outside like Greer spiraling down into an alcohol-fueled psychotic break was really the triple-cross of the century—a trap so obvious, from either angle, that neither he nor Ajinabi could afford not to let it play through. Greer made sure to dangle the prospect of snapping up Ajinabi’s near-supernatural tech at the same time, of course: the combo of insider info and toys, whatever they might be, which had somehow allowed him to pose as the undeniably dead Cal Fichtner on phone and sat-cam alike.

(Amazing, really, how Fichtner’s current state had apparently given him skills Greer never knew him to possess, back when he was yet left upright. But then again, Fichtner’s best quality as an operative always was his ability to adapt to any given new environment they dropped him into, going native just as fast—and effectively—as humanly possible.)

Greer wasn’t too sure if they really believed him, or how much, or how much it mattered. But by Saturday afternoon he was walking off a transpo into bright sunlight, blinking at Mehdi’s familiar face in the unfamiliar flesh: all dolled up in a swank linen suit and a pair of custom shades, looking crisp. He towered over everyone but Greer, who only lacked a couple of the same inches—vertically, anyhow.

“Hadn’t thought to see you so soon, Agent Reizendaark, I must admit, Or at all, for that matter.”

Greer shrugged. “Well, that’s U.S. initiative for you.”

“Quite. So how do you find you like it, down here on the ground?”

“Not too much, buddy. Ain’t got the build for it.”

“Hmm,” Mehdi said, yet again.

“You’re startin’ to sound like a damn bee,” Greer told him, as they headed for the SUV.

§

Heat like a wall, dust everywhere. The drive went on so long, following GPS cue to GPS cue, it turned afternoon to night. The meet-point, meanwhile, turned out to be a low concrete building with slit windows; same place they’d brought Fichtner, like as not. Why mess with success?

“You don’t have to come with me,” Greer told Mehdi, who hissed, and drew some tiny little snub-nosed piece out from under his arm—small enough so it didn’t not to spoil the line of his jacket, the peacock. Greer put his own empty hands up, and kicked the car door open,

But when they hauled Gullah out to meet him, with Ajinabi striding behind, Greer (who’d earned part of the military rank few remembered he had while serving in EOD) only had to look at the way Gullah’s shirtjacket sat to know he was all rigged up and ready to blow.

Time went wonky, step-printed. To his right, he saw Mehdi raise his pint-sized gun. mouth opening, as Gullah’s guards pushed him headlong towards Greer. To the left, Ajinabi, fiddling with a pocketed cell—seemed like he might be trying to detonate it remotely, but the signal was being blocked. And Greer could suddenly see Fichtner standing next to him, haloed from behind yet snapshot-clear with one hand on the phone, while the other reached to seat itself deep in the back of Ajinabi’s skull: punch, grab, twist. A five-finger aneurysm in action.

“GET DOWN!” Greer yelled, kicking Mehdi away, and threw himself into the zone, as another of Ajinabi’s goons managed to trigger the bomb’s failsafe.

§

Amazing how little it hurt, after, considering the ungodly mess his body had made—his, Gullah’s, Ajinabi’s. (And where exactly had that bastard gone, anyhow? Greer sure didn’t see him, except in pieces.) But then, they’d all been ready to die for their respective causes, one way or the other.

Greer “stood” next to Fichtner, watching Mehdi grub around in the wreckage for a long minute or two: concussed and reeling, his suit unsalvagable, usually-dignified face streaming with tears. It was this last part which amazed Greer the most; hadn’t thought the man cared, let alone so much.

Fichtner “laughed”, or whatever its applicable equivalent might be. Little late in the day to go all modest on us now, Greer, ain’t it?

Greer “nodded”: True enough. He pointed at the half-leveled building, and “asked”—

Rest of you actually still in there, somewhere, or was all this for nothin’?

Buried out back, yeah. But they’ll find it easy enough, even without dogs—the grave’s dug shallow. A beat. Besides which…if this was really all about laying me to rest, I’ll eat my damn hat.

Greer could’ve argued that most ops were about more than one objective, at the very least—but it really did seem sort of immaterial at this point, so to speak. So instead, he just “nodded” once more.

Good end-game, son. You played it well—way I would’ve, pretty much.

Yeah? That’s almost flattering.

Uh huh. ‘Course, you did learn from the best…

But all twitting aside, Greer knew, it was only justice—payback after those years of Greer putting Fichtner’s ass on the line for whatever new info it might bring, when he’d staked him out like a goat again and again, just to see who’d come sniffin’. All the times he’d done his damn job, while helping Fichtner do his…

But: I really did let you go, Cal, Greer tried to get across, nevertheless. Just like you asked me to. Didn’t use you to draw Ajinabi—that was never my intent. Not you, and for damn sure not Aqsa—

Wouldn’t matter much if you had, not now. But for what it’s worth, Greer, I know. I know…

(everything, now)

Like you could too, you only wanted it.

(Really?)

Cal just gave him a shrug, like: Sure. Why not?

And then, all of a sudden—

—he did.

What was left of Greer Reizendaark raised his phantom no-hand to the sky, waving blithely at the satellite he knew Gal and Guy were currently hid behind, then reached right on back through the feed and into the mainframe to try some real tricks—sow a few search-links, start data-mining. Widening the parameters of the satellite’s sweep to track the rest of Ajinabi’s cell’s fleeing trucks as they dispersed, crossing borders at random; he started a new folder, hidden down deep in the infrastructure. Saved, clicked, saved again.

You’re good at that, what was left of Cal Fichtner “said”, almost admiring. Better than I ever was.

Greer had to agree. Turned out, his last wife had had it right all along, without even knowing—a ghost really was the best kind of spook imaginable.

Well, I been doin’ it all my life, son. Might as well keep on keepin’ on.

The answer came back, fading: Yeah, you just do that…

(But as for me, I’ll see you later. Maybe.)

Or…maybe not.

Heat, dust, blood; the totaled SUV, a smoking crater. Mehdi, weeping. And then Greer was abruptly alone, half in and half out, still stuck to the world’s dirty back by—duty? Desire?

While Fichtner, his revenge served plastique-hot, moved on to…wherever. Someplace Aqsa awaited him, hopefully, where maybe even poor Gullah had a seat set aside at that infinitely bountiful table.

(Again, if only vaguely, he wondered where Ajinabi himself really had gone—to his bed of virgins, as advertised? Or somewhere just a tad more…offputting?)

One could only hope.

I could do that too, Greer caught himself thinking. Just go, in either direction. But—

“Looking down”, seeing Mehdi looking so stricken, and feeling a weird surge of affection. Plus the sting of power unused, and a million different places to use it—to plug himself into the universe’s hide and genuinely be the puppetmaster he’d only thought himself, before he’d known better.

—no. Not just yet.

Greer “smiled” to himself, settling in, now so adjusted to his new state he could almost feel a memory of lips moving, in sympathy with the concept. And sent Mehdi an email.

 

Originally published in Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, 2012.

Former film critic, teacher, and screenwriter Gemma Files won the 1999 International Horror Guild short fiction award for her story “The Emperor’s Old Bones,” which appears in her collection The Worm in Every Heart. Both it and her earlier collection, Kissing Carrion, feature stories that were adapted into episodes of The Hunger, an anthology TV show produced by Ridley and Tony Scott’s Scot Free Productions. Her first novel, A Book of Tongues: Volume One of the Hexslinger Series (ChiZine Publications, 2010), was a Stoker first novel finalist and won a DarkScribe Magazine Black Quill award for “Best Small Press Chill” in both the Editor’s and Readers’ Choice categories. A Rope of Thorns (2011) and A Tree of Bones (2012) complete the trilogy. We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven, a story-cycle of linked short fiction, was released in August, 2014. Her latest novel, Experimental Film, will be released in November, 2015. You can find out more about Gemma Files at musicatmidnight-gfiles.

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