Fiction by Ben Gochberg
Photo credit Angel Mantecoso
History keeps her secrets longer than most of us. But she has one secret that I will reveal to you tonight in the greatest confidence. Sometimes there are no winners at all. And sometimes nobody needs to lose.
– John le Carre
Jonah gripped his side, holding his jacket into his hip. He could feel the warmth in his waistband, running down his leg, soaking his sock. Getting shot feels like being hit with a baseball bat, if a baseball bat were the size of a dime and could be swung at 1200 feet per second.
Unpleasant…More unpleasant that he has to find a way to get stateside with a gunshot wound.
The brass was still rolling on the floor and a wisp of gunpowder still in the air inside the little office where he stood. His ears rang with the high-pitched buzz of gunfire inside an enclosed space. On the other side of the desk a body slumped in a splitting leather office chair. Blood bubbled up through the Oxford of the only man Jonah had trusted for the past three years.
Deftly, Jonah holsters the Beretta from his gloved hand. He rips out the desk drawers, tosses them onto the desk. Papers scatter. He throws books from the shelf… Then he finds it…a photograph of the two of them as younger men at a bar in downtown Mexico City. He quickly pockets the picture, takes the money and the wallet from the body, and paces out onto the city street.
ALL CATS ARE GREY AT NIGHT
- Do You Have a Light?
Ordinary. Expected. Stereotypical, in fact, for a recruit. He had served a Spanish-speaking mission as a Mormon. No significant vices to speak of for most of his youth. Incredibly studious and overly academic at every turn. A divorce in his early twenties, disillusioned about society, without any strong ties, walked away from his roots. Authority problems.
When the financial markets turned in 2008, he had been working as a young banker. No real position of authority, but good with people. The financial world was imploding, and for better or worse, he had decided to make a career out of staring at spreadsheets and business financials.
The Patriot Act had opened up all kinds of possibilities for government funding, and it wasn’t long before several agencies realized they could recruit, train, and deploy people domestically in spite of official mandates.
Between 2009-2014 the NSA, CIA, and FBI recruited hundreds across the financial industry. White collar crime, terrorist funding, drug trafficking…all of it came down to dollars…
Jonah walks through the hallway briskly to the plain office that had been his home for the last five years. The bank had kept him on after college, offering just enough to keep him hoping for a promotion, but not enough to make him think fondly of the institution.
Fred sat in the office down the hall. They worked in the same office, but in complete isolation from each other. They had what could have been deemed a real conversation at one point, but that was accidental.
Jonah looked up to see Connie leaning against his door.
‘Where have you been, huh?’
Connie was an excellent assistant. She could follow directions without knowing or caring why. Her ability to follow directions, however, came with the downside of occasionally acting like she had the authority to run the entire office.
‘The brewery in Breck, Connie…you remember they were bringing on investors. An expansion. Wanted to see if I could get in there.’
‘Nice. Well make sure you update their file.’
Connie is halfway back to her desk already and talking to an empty hallway as Jonah rises to shut the door.
This was the downside of a double life. Double work load…one whole side of it full of the monotony of a bank credit department. The work almost made Jonah regret responding to the original code-breaking request in the first place.
In 2008, this is how he got hooked. The Feds had put out a request for cryptanalysis candidates, and this was the puzzle that got the conversation rolling. Pretty simple actually….the fifth line will get you started in the right direction. Jonah had a knack for starting with what he knew and working problems backward.
English…left to right…punctuation? Or Website? Words. No math likely. Most common two letter words in English. At, to, it, no, am, an…. etc. Or just skip the guessing and note that the yyy is likely a www, and the ofz at the end….likely a com.
The next few years were a whirlwind. Interviews, tests, general bureaucracy….all the things Jonah hated. If not for the whole two-income thing, he probably would’ve bailed a long time ago. He had looked forward to the day where he could sit in an office and solve puzzles for a living. Like most things in life, it didn’t really work out as cleanly as he’d hoped.
Keep the job they said. Do analysis on the side, and keep your access to millions and millions of data points and financial documents. We need you.
4:30 pm now. After updating a few notes and some obligatory reporting, Jonah packs up and heads across town.
The Jerome looks just like it has for the last few decades. Original wood bar…stools. A floor that creaks when you step on it. Little hallways to kitchens and back offices. They used to let you bring your horse with you into the bar back in the day. It’s one of the only places in town that still understands the subtleties of an Old Fashioned.
Jonah stumbles in from the January cold and looks for the only man who knows who he is anymore.
They sit side by side every week or so. Most of the time it’s just drinking and checking in. Updating god damned files, just like at the office. TJ is a few years older than Jonah. Unnaturally skinny for how much he drinks. Pushes paper for a living and picks up the phone. After the incident in Mexico, TJ kept Jonah from going off the deep end. He was encouraging, but Jonah also knew he was being manipulated.
‘A Coors Light is fine.’
‘How was work?’
‘Oh, you know. The usual nonsense. Looks like powder tonight though. Maybe I’ll take a few hours in the afternoon and go up. What are you up to this week?’
‘I had a call with my Dad. Lots going on. He asked about you. Maybe save the skiing for the weekend.’
‘Yeah I guess there was a handy man going around town screwing people. You remember when I asked you for advice on how to handle the financial stuff he was dealing with?’
‘Yeah well, they picked the guy up. Good instincts on that one.’
‘I’m so glad I have your approval. Did your Pop get his money back?’
‘Yeah, quite a few people did, actually.’
Jonah squints into the beer, uses the mirror across the bar to check around himself.
‘What was recovered?’
T.J. smiles broad, childlike, and lowers his congratulatory tone.
‘More than 400 so far…all of it tied to the guy.’
Jonah’s heart jumps. $400 million in recovery represents a huge hit to the drug trade.
‘Like I said. Good instincts. Anyway, my Dad says thanks. A lot of his friends are pretty impressed too. You willing to look at something else, or you need a break?’
Jonah laughs a little bit too loudly for discretion…a break…anything but spending more time looking at spreadsheets.
‘No, I’m up for it. Work is pretty quiet right now.’
‘The usual place. I know you don’t smoke, but you should try it sometime. There’s some pretty cool people I’ve met in front of that place over the years.’
‘You mean pot?’
Jonah finishes the beer and stands. ‘Good to see you TJ. My regards to your fucking Dad. I should have asked for a cut.’ He smiles, but is only half-joking.
New York Pizza sits up an old flight of wooden stairs from the street. In one of the most trafficked part of town, it is a cheap and easy place to grab a slice. Jonah rounds the corner, eyeing the pack of snowboarders standing out front, and swings the door open to go inside.
The stairs have always been loud, and the traffic of the ski season, even at 8 at night, makes the place seem much smaller than it actually is.
‘Just pepperoni…yeah, that one is fine.’
He wanders back outside into the cold, paper plate in hand, staring across the street into a clothing shop with windows full of overpriced ski gear.
The snowboarders have wandered off, but one of the group sits against the wall. Jonah finishes the slice and throws the plate away, wiping his hands of crumbs. The young snowboarder pulls out a new pack, slamming his hand into it while he unwraps it to keep the tobacco together. The noise is a little too obvious, but works as intended. Ah….to be new to this again.
Jonah glances back at him.
‘You have one of those I could buy off of you?’
The snowboarder chuckles and rises to his feet.
‘You can just have one. How about that?’
Jonah smiles and accepts the outstretched cigarette. The young man produces a lighter, lights his own, and passes it to Jonah. He starts to leave.
‘I’ve got another…’ The young man crosses the street, hits an alley, and is gone.
- The Cicada
On January 4th of 2012, a lone man walks up to a streetlight in Warsaw, tapes a poster, and takes a picture. A few hours later, an anonymous user posts a message in an open forum Internet chat room known to be frequented by conspiracy theorists:
“Hello. We are looking for highly intelligent individuals. To find them, we have devised a test. There is a message hidden in this image. Find it, and it will lead you on the road to finding us. We look forward to meeting the few who will make it all the way through. Good luck. 3301.”
‘Who is this TJ?… Is this us?’ Jonah, through a scrambler application, calls into the secure line.
‘No…and it’s not the British either, or so they claim.’ TJ sounds more anxious than normal. ‘We have some concerns. I can get more information to you as it comes in, but we’d like you to start working on this tonight. If you can get to them first, there’s no telling where it could go. We have several people on this, so try not to spend too much money.’
‘No budget? Sounds like a fun night. I’ll update you.’
Jonah ends the call and looks back at his computer monitor where the solicitation post and the picture of the poster cover the screen. His girlfriend was still out serving tables. He grasps at the lighter on the table and takes it to the stove. Puncturing the fuel cavity, he burns it in a small pot. Flames scorch through the web address printed on the inside of the sticker. Burn your rosebuds while ye may. He laughs at his own mutated idiom.
The monitor glows as he looks at the image. Nothing special about the web address where he found it. Public forum….lots of activity. No comments in the strand that seem to suggest anything…. These conspiracy people are going to go nuts for this stuff….Rightfully so. Jonah chuckles.
Enlarged, the image shows nothing. There’s no code manipulated into the image itself…. Maybe it’s in the code script?
Jonah reopens the file in text format. Lists of code…. Nothing… Nothing… Nothing…. But there, at the end of the paragraph…
VS CLAVDIVS CAESAR says “lxxt> 33m2mqkyv2gsq3q = w] O2ntk”
It’s a Caesar cipher…hence the reference. The letters are just shifted uniformly based on location in the alphabet. Find the right shift. Must be an http at the beginning there… Distance from h to l…does it…yes…four spaces up.
The path takes Jonah to a web address image of a mallard duck. More codes…but predictable tests. A mix of logic and technical use. The hours drag on. Finally, five or six steps in, he arrives at a website with a timer. A cicada image graces the PGP response….it’s the right place.
—–BEGIN PGP SIGNED MESSAGE—–
You have done well to come this far.
Patience is a virtue.
Check back at 17:00 on Monday, 9 January 2012 UTC.
—–BEGIN PGP SIGNATURE—–
Version: GnuPG v1.4.11 (GNU/Linux)
—–END PGP SIGNATURE——
It was going to be a long weekend. Jonah checks in with TJ before pouring himself a drink.
‘They paused the race until Monday at 10. I think I’m in the right spot.’
‘Are you keeping records?’
The PGP signature allows for the validation of the source of the message…no one else had intercepted these guys yet. Whoever they were, they knew what they were doing.
Why, though…why was another whole question.
Jonah takes the day off on Monday. The original problem solving had taken most of the first night. No sense in starting a chase that couldn’t be finished because of the apparent necessity of the office. He could hear Connie complaining about not knowing where he was or when he was coming back. He drops a quick email…just for Connie’s comfort.
‘I’m feeling pretty sick today and need to head in to the doctor. There wasn’t much going on this week, but if anyone calls for me they can reach me by email still. Thanks.’
Thirty seconds after sending:
‘Jonah, you didn’t seem sick on Friday. Are you skiing?’
Jonah looks at his Blackberry in disbelief. Is this really how people live?!
‘No Connie, I’m feeling very bad. Thanks for worrying though.’
He grabs his forehead, still in disbelief.
9:55. Laptop open.
9:57. A cup of coffee, pacing around the kitchen, looking at his monitor. How punctual will they be?
9:59. Sits down. Notebook, pen, granola bars, 5 hour energy, phones, charger….OK…
The image appears identical. The site doesn’t appear to change. Just a cicada poster, like in the beginning. He opens the jpg using a steganographic decryption app, OutGuess, and then he sees it in the code:
The phone rings. He puts it on speaker.
‘They are coordinates TJ….California, Australia, Arkansas, Hawaii….There’s three in Seattle.’
‘Send me what you’re looking at.’
Jonah pulls back to snap a picture with his phone. Sent.
‘OK…I’ll call you back in a few. We can have someone else take a look at these.’
The phone sits on the table again, quiet. Steam from the cup of coffee. Silence in Jonah’s kitchen. Outside the water drips from icicles melting in the sun. A few cars go by on a nearly empty street. Somewhere someone is walking a dog with a collar. Its tags click against each other.
Something in these numbers isn’t right…
Jonah scrolls through again….The last coordinate….He looks it up once more. It’s too specific…it’s oddly specific.
It’s a bus stop just outside of Gimpo airport in South Korea….it’s too long…it’s….
‘It’s my birthday….’ Jonah’s skin crawls right off his body and onto the hardwood floor.
His cell rings, nearly causing him to hit the ceiling.
‘TJ, listen, I think I’ve been compromised. They know who I am. I don’t know what they know, but they know who I am.’
‘The last coordinates…look at the last 13 digits…prime number, like some of the other tags. No reason for the coordinates to be that specific. It’s obviously referring to the bus station. But look at the numbers….3301, the cicada, then my birthday. It’s my fucking birthday TJ!’
‘Take a deep breath. Get out of the house. Meet me.’
Jonah runs a wipe file on his laptop. He grabs a towel from the sink and wipes down the keyboard. From under the sink, he pulls a gun from behind the adjacent drawer space. He drops it in the kitchen…just leaves it there for a second…His hands shake as he puts on his long coat from the back of the chair, a baseball cap next, picks up the gun and puts the holster on his side waistband?. It’s his old Beretta. Hasn’t fired it since Mexico City.
‘Get your shit together….’ He mumbles to himself.
Jonah parks hurriedly in the east parking lot in town. Across the street, tourists skate on an ice rink while classic rock plays through the air. He pulls his scarf up around his neck and takes a brief look at the crowds before heading down the sidewalk towards the Jerome. It’s crowded. An easy place to hide. Jonah finds himself somewhat comforted by the tourists in the street.
He makes a quick call.
‘Hey babe, hope you’re having a great day. Listen, Leif called and invited me to play in a poker tournament. He sounded like he really wanted me to come out, so I’m going to head to Central City for a few days. I might be playing pretty late so don’t worry if I don’t pick up. I’ll talk to you soon.’
It’s standard procedure from here to get to a meet, he tells himself. He’s done it a thousand times before. Alternative routes. Random stops. Double-backs. Just like always.
He stops in front of a Gucci store to get his bearings, and it’s then that he sees what he was trained to see….trained to see, but never trained to expect.
There in the reflection, across the street approaching a corner, a man looks up briefly at him and then slows to a stop. There is no reason for that man to be looking at him. As the light changes and the crosswalk fills, the man leans against the signal light, looking down the street, then up the street, then down the street again. He must’ve noticed that Jonah had stopped.
Jonah hurries on down the sidewalk now. He crosses the street again through traffic, speeding up to a quick jog to keep the cars from slowing. He looks back at the corner where the man stood, and sees a woman in the crowd watching him….and he knows….and she knows he knows…
When you follow someone, the closest member of the surveillance team is rotated back, ensuring that the eye isn’t the same face from 50 feet away the whole time. But if the rabbit backtracks, or comes closer to the original path of the eye, sometimes the tail of the team will cross paths with the rabbit….and of course, you never make eye contact with the rabbit. Amateur hour here in Aspen.
Jonah knows it’s at least a two-man team…but the box could be four or six people deep. He doesn’t have time to overthink it. He scurries down the street, passing the Jerome, looking for any way to escape.
A quick secure text to TJ.
‘Followed. Get out.’
His steps are fast. Down a busy sidewalk, crossing back over the street again, walking through an open bar deck. He circles back around to the parking lot. A nearly full bus is about to close its doors. The driver reaches for the handle. Jonah jumps on and the door swings shut behind him. The driver pulls away as a line of people swipe their cards to pay. A sigh of relief escapes Jonah’s lips.
He looks up to see a man jog into view from around a building…he didn’t see him get on the bus.
The bus barrels out of town down the highway. A few stops on the edge of town, and Jonah is able to switch buses again. Next stop, Aspen airport.
It’s bitter cold for how sunny it is. Jonah steps from the bus and through the doors of the airport. United has a few flights to Houston mid-morning which leaves him enough time to put himself together.
The airport has remained small in spite of growing air traffic over the last few decades. Other than a few coffee shops and restaurants, there’s nowhere to go.
Jonah heads to the bathroom and quietly sits in a stall for a few minutes. The usual traffic in the space makes it difficult to get any privacy. The bathroom still has old styrofoam ceiling tiles, left out of the budget for the remodel. After about fifteen minutes or so of waiting, Jonah is alone. He stands on the toilet and swiftly moves a tile out of place. He sets his gun on the adjacent tile, and quickly replaces the tile back to its original position.
As he is leaving the bathroom he sends one more text:
‘Gun drop. Beretta, one mag. Men’s bathroom Aspen airport before security. Stall closest to wall, sitting on ceiling panel just in front of the toilet if looking up.’
Jonah imagined all the ways the gun could be discovered by a janitor and all the subsequent horrible explaining that would have to happen when it was traced back to him. There’s probably somebody free in Denver that could fly up and retrieve it quickly, if luck is on his side.
Jonah settles into a bar stool at Jedediah’s facing the terminal. He takes an inventory of the situation so far and lets his mind rest.
He makes it through security, and was lucky enough to get one of the few remaining seats on the flight. From Houston, he thinks, he can connect easily through Dallas or maybe get a flight directly to San Francisco before proceeding to Seoul. By then he should’ve heard something….by then maybe TJ will have an update and they will bring in a team.
The bartender approaches, sets a beer in front of Jonah.
‘Coors Light…from the guy over there.’
As he signals to the other side of the bar, a man rises from his stool. Jonah doesn’t know him. The man walks casually across the bar, and Jonah subtly looks at his silverware. His hand drifts toward the fork, pulling it under his palm.
‘Mind if I join you?’
The man slowly sits beside Jonah, in spite of the lack of response. He holds a messenger bag on his lap.
‘I figured I would catch up to you here… Good slip there in town I must say.’
‘I’m sorry I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.’
‘Listen Jonah, I’m not one of the bad guys.’
The man keeps his hands in view on the bag in his lap. Jonah lets his hand pull away from the fork, but keeps himself ready.
‘To my knowledge you’re not one of the good guys either.’
‘That’s right. I’m not one of the good guys either. Bad, good…I find it’s a matter of perspective.’
‘Well, from my perspective you’ve just followed me around town….and for what? To buy me a beer and talk politics?’
‘No…to tell you that you need to make a stop in Mexico City.’
His tone is almost pleading. Jonah raises his face to the man from the study of his beer. The man now sits sideways in his chair, leaning on the bar. Jonah notices that the man looks nervous. He wasn’t accustomed to this type of interaction. He fidgets with the strap of the bag.
‘There’s nothing left in that city.’
‘Two days ago somebody accessed your safe deposit box at the Santander near your old station house. The log shows it was you…but I know you were here. There were only two people who knew the access password for that box…unless of course you disclosed it to your people.’
Jonah’s mind floods with all the possibilities…No one within the organization would make the trip to pick up a few passports and cash. No sensitive weapons left there… Photographs of the two of them….a USB…nothing with much exposure for anyone…old station files…and he hadn’t given the password away to anyone. Only David could have known it…David is dead.
‘Why are you telling me this? How do I know that this is real?’
‘We hope that you will accept it as a gesture of trust. We know that the two of you were friends before…’
‘Before I killed him.’
‘Before you thought you killed him…yes.’
‘I put a bullet in his chest and watched him bleed out in an office chair…’
‘It was a miracle he lived. Frankly, it was a miracle you lived too … up until you shot him you were a suspect as well…they had one of their own tailing you to that office. And us…well…we picked him up and took him in only minutes after you had left.’
‘He was working for you?’
‘No…we saved his life. It was a gesture of trust.’
‘Who are you people?’
‘We’re not the bad guys. We stay underground, keep to ourselves… There’s a few too many predators out there for people like us these days.’
‘Cicadas…,’ Jonah chuckles, ‘a little too direct of a reference don’t you think?’
The man stands, shoves the messenger bag at Jonah with a grunt, and starts to walk away. He calls over his shoulder:
‘Go to Mexico City. Your people know that box was accessed too. You can save him.’
‘But he shot me…,’ Jonah mumbles to himself.
‘And Jonah…,’ the man turns back for a moment, ‘It’s 2012. Ditch your phone.’
Jonah watches as the man heads out of the terminal. He pulls the bag close to him now and peers inside. His Beretta, with one mag. They are either better at following him than he thought, or able to intercept encoded messaging…either way, not comforting at all. He tosses his phone in the garbage.
The flight to Houston is pleasantly uneventful. Other than mild turbulence, Jonah is able to sleep for a few hours. The days of blowing up planes in mid air for one mark are long gone.
The Houston airport bustles with the best and worst of humanity. A young couple going on a honeymoon, an elderly man in a wheelchair, a single mom and her three children…. Jonah heads into a souvenir shop and buys a tshirt and ball cap with cash. Hook ‘em horns. He changes his shirt in a bathroom stall. His long coat and shirt go in the garbage on the way out the door to the terminal. He throws his bag over his shoulder, and he’s off.
Jonah glares at the departure board and finds a flight scheduled thirty minutes out. With a little bit of polite conversation at the gate, he is able to book the flight last minute. Early afternoon flight on a Monday…best time to travel.
The plane touches down at 3:45, and Jonah rushes to rent a car. The terminal is familiar. Jonah spent the first 3 years of his assignment in Mexico City. The low smog that seems to hover just at the hilltops….from the air the city looks more like a scab than a living thing. Dark brown and always growing outward. The city of palaces…mostly dark palaces now…centuries of decay and modern smog beaten into their stones. No fond memories here.
When David met Jonah at the baggage claim for the first time in 2009, Jonah’s world was very black and white. He was anxious and excited. Green. David was tall, blonde, quick witted, but sad at the corners of his eyes. He’d spent a few too many years chasing people. His beard was full and white, but kept very short. Jonah never saw him with a woman during the first year they worked together…but if David was gay, he didn’t have time for that either. David seemed engrossed in his work, and focused entirely on Jonah’s first field assignment happening without incident. He would rant about communication errors, clarity in reporting, being late to a meet … all in a slanted Catalan accent.
‘Mira, chingado…’ That was Jonah’s nickname when David was upset. Fucked.
Jonah was one of several recruits who had applied for a junior executive position at HSBC. Reports had been flowing in that someone on the inside was allowing large cash deposits without reporting…and that the numbers were getting big. Jonah’s position allowed for the supervision of the more than two-dozen branches downtown, and access to reporting for most of the other branches around the country. He had won the job, and with it, the right to the work.
A few months in, Jonah had discovered the inside group associated with the outside couriers…but things started going sideways. Evidence previously discovered started disappearing. A few informants were killed. The cartel was actually renting small planes and throwing bodies out midair over their neighborhoods. Large amounts of cash were being moved out of the bank again. Jonah suspected a leak from the inside. His mistake was telling David about his suspicions.
The reality of the moment comes crashing back. Tinted windows….he needs a car with tinted windows….He looks too American today. In spite of the city being much friendlier now, he doesn’t want to deal with the risks of being an easy target for police bribes.
‘Yeah, um…me puede dar una con ventanas mas oscuras que normal si es posible?’
‘Claro que si. Que tal un Lincoln?’
‘Sure. Esta bien.’
‘Perfect. Aquí viene.’
The young man opens the car door for him, and he hops quickly inside the cab. 4 pm. Just enough time to get to the box at Santander.
‘Esta dirección downtown please.’
He passes a scribbled paper to the driver. The gun finds a comfortable spot from the bag to his waistband. The driver turns on the AC, and on request, looks for a radio station to drown out Jonah’s thoughts.
Jonah realizes that he is driving in downtown Mexico City. His mind catches up to him all at once. A few miles from here, in a dark office, he took his first bullet….and he killed his handler.
The city streets are covered with people. It’s a mess. Too many cars. More cars than any place should ever have. Stickers are sold for your plates for specific days of the week, so you can drive.
When Jonah first learned Spanish he would practice conjugations of swear words just for fun. Out of context, it’s hilarious…
To Fuck / chingar
I fuck / chingo
He, she, it fucks familiar / chingas
He, she, it fucks formal / chinga
We fuck / chingamos
We fuck ourselves / nos chingamos
Ye all fuck / chingais
They fuck / chingan
The Santander branch bank looks just like he remembers it. During the 19th century, bank buildings were supposed to look safe. Big pillars. Marble floors. Monuments to the false reality that the entire economy depended on a man with a book, putting the decimal in the right spot. Numbers on a page.
Jonah pays the taxi from the other side of the street and wanders up to the steps of the building from the side. Too many places for someone to hide, he just keeps his head down and hopes for the best.
Revolving brass doors. Two guards at the entrance. Pistols only. Cameras behind the tellers, but only from above for the lobby. The safe deposit station is over to one side of the lobby.
‘Hola Señor. Tiene su llave?’
‘Yeah, right here. 1317.’
‘Ok, you please to sign right here?’
The entry log has his signature on it….from two days ago…someone was dedicated.
‘y parece que hay un password with the box…’
‘Si, uh…it’s chingado.’
‘Ok pase.’ The girl rolls her eyes.
She takes Jonah through the first gate into a private room. With her access key, she unlocks the secondary lock for the box, then uses Jonah’s key to open it partially. She locks Jonah in the room and stands on the other side of the gate.
Jonah removes the metal box from the cavity, placing it in an enclosed observation area. He touches the edges of the box, using the bottom of his shirt to cover his fingers. Slowly, he lifts the lid.
Inside, everything is just as he left it. A few passports….no changes inside. Old case files. Then he sees it.
A photograph of David and him at a bar downtown, bent at the corner. He turns the photo over in his hands.
‘Ermita Iztapalapa 451, Prado Churubusco’
Jonah smudges the address with his fingers, folds the photograph, and sticks it in his pocket.
Iztapalapa at night was not the friendliest place in the world. He grabs another cab from the bank and starts on the ride from downtown south. He only speaks in Spanish to his driver now, but even a fluent American sounds like an American.
One more costume change en route, and he’s ready. He pulls on a loose fitting set of jeans and a black t-shirt. He gives his ball cap to a kid in the street and buys a Real Madrid cap from a street vendor. Another cab.
It’s still dusk in the city, so he abandons another cab to grab a quick bite. Wait for night. Hasn’t eaten all day. Tacos al pastor. A futbol game on a small television in the corner of a restaurant where everyone knows each other. None of the movies ever show anyone eating anything….you have to eat. He smiles to himself, and let’s his mind work through the outcomes as he covers one more taco in grilled jalapeño and hot sauce.
It could be a trap. If David was actually alive, he had been shot…and he shot Jonah first…and he had a reason for not wanting to be found. It doesn’t make any sense though…he must’ve known the box was being monitored. Why risk it…maybe Jonah had missed something.
Pesos from the safe deposit box fall on the table.
The streetlights start to turn on as the final cab pulls into a driveway at a market a few blocks from the address. Jonah hops out and paces intentionally down the street. A few teenagers standing out front of the market watch him walk away. No one is harmless, but they don’t look dangerous. Across the street, an old man is out for a stroll with his walker. One leg scrapes across the concrete…the other leg is covered by a sliced racquetball.
From the sidewalk, as Jonah approaches, he can see the glow of a Little Caesar’s pizza. The bastardization of global culture, he thinks. Most of the street is dark, but windows have started to light up with televisions and evening activity. A few buildings across the street and down from the address, an entire building sits dark. Jonah casually walks by it at first, then seeing a gap in the fence where the kids in the neighborhood have broken in, stops, crouches, and pushes his way through…first into the yard, then through the chained front door of the converted old Victorian. Stairs inside take him up a few flights. The windows have been blown out years ago. Feces, nests of mice, garbage everywhere. The perfect place for a stakeout.
From the third floor, he can see the apartments above the Little Caesar’s. There are only two that face the street. In the first, a young mother and two small children. No males. Cooking. Watching TV. The second apartment has a light on…but Jonah can’t see anyone moving. The window is shut, and the drapes are pulled closed. It’s 95 degrees and the building doesn’t have AC…that’s probably the one. Access to the upstairs apartments appears to be through a door adjacent to the Little Caesar’s.
Jonah abandons the building, squeezing back through the fence and crossing the street. Avoiding the streetlights, he slows his step. His hands find his pockets. His head hangs. For 90 seconds, he is someone else, somewhere else….a 3-beer drunk heading home to his nagging wife…an office worker downtown who is visiting his abusive father…nobody…everybody. When he arrives at the door, there’s no camera. He walks into the lamplight and gazes at the apartment list. 4 units…a David in unit #2. He buzzes the Mom in #1.
‘Ay permiso, intente a David. Me puede dejar pasar?’
The door buzzes and the lock clicks. He pulls the door open and bounds up the stairs. Down the hallway his eyes scatter. His hand on his gun, he crouches and pulls back the hammer and grips. Unit 4 first…music inside. The hall is still empty. Garbage shoot on the far side. Opening for another stairwell at the end of the hall. No sounds.
He paces forward, past #3. Gun drawn at his back pocket, he spots #2. He slides against the wall. The door is ajar.
THE DOOR IS AJAR…
Silence in the hallway.
He nudges the door open with his free hand.
Music plays quietly on a radio in another room.
He steps inside, swaying the door mostly closed behind him.
He hears water running in a sink.
His feet fall quietly on linoleum.
He hears someone walking around in the kitchen to his right.
In one swift movement he crosses into the kitchen, gun at eye level, hunched, finger on the trigger… All at once he sees David, the knife on a cutting board, an open beer, David’s hands in the air, and no gun.
‘WHOA WHOA WHOA….’
‘Who else is here David?’
David starts to lower his hands.
‘OK OK…Jesus…calmate. I was….iba a ofrecerte una cervezita…Chingado guey…’
David snickers. After a few deep breaths, Jonah lowers the gun. They stare at each other for a second.
‘You don’t thin I know you coming? I knew you coming. I left you the chingada direccion.’
‘I killed you David. Le mate!’
David pulls his already deeply unbuttoned Oxford aside….a round scar.
‘It is how you say…through and through. I shot you too. You thin every shot it kill the somebody?’ David pish poshes with his hands. ‘Coors Light?’ David motions to the fridge.
‘…I…I don’t know how to process this. There is not a place in my head for this…’
David opens the fridge and Jonah raises his gun again.
‘I swear to fuck if you pull a gun out of that fridge I will kill you again.’
David slowly pulls a Coors Light out of the fridge. He opens it. He sprinkles beer salt on the can, then passes it to Jonah. Jonah takes the beer, uncocks the gun, puts it back in his waistband, and takes a sip, the whole time keeping his eyes glued on David’s hands, then sets the beer down on the counter.
‘You stole money.’
‘You were working with the cartel.’
‘You got people killed.’
‘Si…an I kill people.’
‘You shot me.’
‘I shot you si. Sorry bout tha.’
‘There is not a universe in which any of this makes sense to me.’
David looks down, thinking for a moment. Then gaining his thoughts, he gestures in Jonah’s direction.
‘You know wha I tink when I dyin there in that chair? I tink…all dis time…I kill wrong people…now I almos kill my frien. If I live … I kill the righ people.’
‘I have to take you in. My people know you are here. If I take you in, you can probably live out your days in some nice cell somewhere.’
‘No…You an me both know they won take me in. You kill me here … or better … you help me kill the righ people now.’ David smiles.
Jonah looks carefully at David, and he knows he’s right. He’s a dead man. He should’ve found a way to crawl into the empty casket they buried for him. He should’ve stayed dead. But it’s not alright…you can’t just start over and pretend that nothing happened.
Jonah pulls the gun back from his waistband, grabs David by the collar, and pushes him back against the counter. The gun rests under his chin.
‘You are NOT one of the good guys here David! I can just kill you and be done with it.’
David looks into Jonah’s face, a mix of confusion and surprise, he gathers his voice.
‘Yes Jonah, you could kill me. You are no longer a scare young man. An you’re right…I’m not one of the good guys…but I an not one of the bad guys either anymore.’
It was then Jonah noticed how frail David had become. He was shorter. Tired. His eyes hung from his face. He looked like he hadn’t shaved in weeks.
‘And so I should just let you go?’
‘I don care anymore…. You do wha you need to do, but after….after, you shoul go to Seoul an meet the cicada…’
Jonah pushes David back against the counter as he steps away. Pulling his gun back to eye level, he breathes heavily. He doesn’t like being manipulated.
‘Is that what this is all about?!’
Sirens in the distance. There wasn’t much time.
‘I should just kill you and be done with it! Why should I let you live?’
‘Why are you tryin to fine a reason? You…them…the time…all cats are grey at night…Anyway, I die.’
Jonah pulls the hammer back with a click.
‘Before you go…did you brin that picture with you?’
Jonah studies David’s face and outstretched hand. He pulls the picture from his pocket and hands it to him. David unfolds the photograph in his hands. He chuckles.
A man with a ball cap swings the door open to an apartment building. He paces down the sidewalk, head hung, enjoying the cool air. He throws something with a clank into a garbage can he passes, and rounds the corner near a park. All at once, the man is a 3-beer drunk with a nagging wife…an office worker downtown visiting his abusive father…nobody…everybody.
An old man with his walker hobbles down the sidewalk on the other side of the street. Police cars pass, speeding in the other direction, as the man walks up to a brightly lit market. A few teenagers outside watch him as he approaches a pay phone. In these times, no one is harmless, but they don’t look dangerous. The man reaches a frail hand to the phone, punches in a dozen digits, and a beep on the line lets him know he is through.
‘Tell hin…the chingado…he is coming.’
Benjamin A. Gochberg was once a banker. He now lives full time.