A commercial, character-driven, international espionage thriller. A former top Canadian Intelligence Operator, long ago forced from the game after a mental break down, is dragged back into the field to help a friend and expose the violence and corruption that cost him his career. He has to battle his former agency, African Terrorists, corrupt American officials, and his own mental illness to save those closest to him, and ultimately himself.
– Chapter Two –
“None of these stories end well for the grizzled old warrior,” I thought as I took off my shoes, walked through the metal detector and let some 25-year-old-kid grope around my legs and waist in case I was trying to smuggle knitting needles or a nail-clipper onto my flight out of New Orleans. I couldn’t decide if Max had sucked me into my own Obi-Wan Kenobi quest to reclaim a place in the world, or if I was on my way up the river into The Heart of Darkness – the jungles of Apocalypse Now.
“Sorry for the delay, ladies and gentlemen, but our pre-flight checks found a small issue with the valve controlling the pilot’s windshield wiper, so we’re going to take a couple minutes to swap that out and then we will be on our way. In the meantime, drinks are still available for a small charge. And remember, we only take credit cards.” That was almost an hour ago. I’ve been nursing my hangover and broken nose, locked in a 123-foot aluminum and carbon-fiber tube with 96 other less than jubilant economy-class travelers.
Airlines have commoditized and charged for every square inch of space you use, or air you breathe and any romance or sense of adventure from traveling is dead long before you arrive at your destination.
But there is a feeling I’ve never been able to shake, no matter how many planes I’ve boarded, or how far I’ve travelled. It’s endured from the first time I flew as a teenager until today, with my salt and pepper hair and stiff morning joints.
You hear the engines roar, then feel the sudden, powerful acceleration down the runway that pushes you back into the cramped seat. The front of the plane pitches up, and if you close your eyes and relax you can feel the wheels leave the ground. And there you are, no longer on the face of the earth, no longer connected to the planet in any way. Totally free of responsibility, decisions, people, and problems. You’re no different to this earth than a cloud floating by on a windy summer’s day – just for that briefest moment.
The roaring and rattling of the plane, the crying toddler two rows back, the pain from my still-swollen nose, and the hangover that was pounding in my head and threatening to dump my stomach in the pudgy salesman’s lap beside me, made sure that moment didn’t last leaving Louisiana.
Max was gone by the time I had crawled out of bed at the motel. She left an envelope of cash for expenses, an encrypted email address, and a username for encrypted text messages. When I opened my phone, I had one message from her with a simple phone number in Vancouver and instructions to call, “if desperate.” I hope it isn’t an escort service.
Toronto was in the middle of a week long deep freeze when I finally got off of the plane. Canadians know that “cold” is a relative measure, based on where you live. People from California, or the south will tell you that anything within 10 degrees of freezing is “cold.” Even people on the West Coast of Canada will complain of the “cold” if it dips, even momentarily, below freezing. But for the rest of The True North, Strong and Free, cold doesn’t start until minus 15°C/minus 5°F. Memorable “cold” rings in around minus 40°C or F and keeps falling. You can actually feel the snot inside your nose flash-freeze when you step outside.
I had just made it through Customs at Pearson International when I heard a slightly annoyed voice call me.
I took a quick look at the tall, well-dressed, black man in the tie, wearing a trench coat and kept walking. I’ve learned not to trust well-dressed men in airport security zones, especially with a clear cable running into one ear. Eddie Veitch. The old man’s favourite lapdog of late. He never was much more than a thug. Routine field ops, no talent for analysis.
“Ryan Bishop,” he was definitely annoyed now, as he stepped in front of me, blocking my path out of Customs.
“I have a car waiting,” he said, very politely. “The Director would like to have a word before you go home.”
“I doubt ‘like’ is the word he used.”
“Well, no,” he almost cracked a smile. “He said you’d be an asshole, and that I should ignore that and bring you in anyway. And what happened here,” he said as he reached toward my face. “Making new friends with that sense of humour of yours?”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to make him into liar,” I pushed his hand away, “that might be rude. Am I under arrest? Do you have a syringe, and a suspiciously non-descript, white panel van full of guys waiting outside?”
“He just wants to talk.”
“Well, apologize for me, but I, unfortunately, have to refuse his warm hospitality. Ask him to carefully follow the instructions I gave him when he screwed me over; about performing an unnatural sex act on himself – with a goat? I think I said something about a goat. He’ll remember; the old bastard never forgets anything.”
“Look,” he began, but I cut him off.
“Remind the fossil that the true joy of leaving was that I don’t have to listen to him. I’m a free man here Veitch, so unless you plan on carrying my luggage for me, fuck off.”
My hands were still shaking and my heart rate was through the roof as the cab nudged slowly along in the heavy, mid-day traffic on the 427 toward downtown. “Breathe man,” I thought. Short breath in, long breath out. Just keep breathing. By the time he dropped me off in front of my place on Tecumseh, near Queen West, the cabbie must have thought I was going into labour.
“Keep the change, and try to stay warm.”
I stood outside the cab for a second or two while I watched the blue Crown Victoria park down the block and shut its lights off. I didn’t know if they were looking for Max and hoping I would lead them to her, or if they knew about New Orleans and were there to watch for my next move.
Either way, I waved.
Veitch didn’t wave back.
“Who’s the asshole,” I muttered with a nervous smile.
I slung the strap from my bag over my shoulder and walked across the small, street-side patio and through the leaded-glass and oak door of “Ne’er Do-Wells & Rogues – A Public House,” the bar I opened with my severance and hush money when I walked out and “retired” about 10 years back. An elevated area with a fireplace, shelves stuffed with books and games, surrounded by comfortable leather couches and chairs in one corner; a long marble-topped bar along the other wall with 3 huge flat screens hanging above it, with booths and tables in between. Lots of dark woods, mosaic tile floors, and a high, tin-panel ceiling kept it old school without being run-down; and rough, without being a dive. It covers its own costs and salaries, pays my rent, and keeps me both entertained and on the straight and narrow side of the law. My two-bedroom apartment above it isn’t nearly so presentable.
“Hey Mr. B., welcome home. I wasn’t sure when you’d be … Holy crap, what happened to you, your face is a mess man.”
“Trust me, it feels worse than it looks. I’m just back to grab some stuff, I’m heading back out on Thursday. Is the kitchen up and running yet?”
“What? No, they just got in to start prep. Coffee’s on though,” Trevor said as he poured me a mug at the end of the bar. “You sure you’re ok?” He’s been working for me part-time for about three years while he finished his undergrad at the University of Toronto and was now chasing a law degree.
“I’m fine Trev, really. Thanks though. I miss any excitement here?”
“There was a guy looking for you yesterday, seemed pretty official if you know what I mean. I just told him you were out of town for a few days.”
“Tall, coloured guy? Well dressed, no sense of humour?”
He laughed, “yeah, that’s the one. You know him?”
“We bump into each other from time to time. I’m heading upstairs to clean up, let Jill know I’m here when she comes in, will ya? And slide a bottle of my bourbon down the bar too.”
Jill has been running the place for me the last couple of years as we’ve grown and become a neighbourhood hang-out. She saved this place from my disorganization and incredible capacity for procrastination.
I looked out the front window and down the block. If tall, dark, and unfriendly was looking for me yesterday when I was in New Orleans, they didn’t know where Max was, or that I was going to meet her. But they probably do now. They won’t know for sure if I’ve already met with her, but they’ll keep following me to try to piece together what I’m doing and where Max is headed. Luckily for her, I have no idea. They haven’t bothered to put a tail on me for years, so they’re following me to get to her.
How much do they know about her, the missing bureaucrat, Asim, and their daughter, Sarah? A smart man would probably have taken the meeting offered at the airport to try to figure that out.
I grabbed the bottle and the coffee off the bar headed out the back door through the kitchen, waved at Chef and the guys, tried to ignore the chuckles about my face, and headed up to my apartment. We’d had a couple inches of snow since I left, so the fresh, undisturbed snow on the steps and landing made me reasonably confident that no one had pulled any cloak and dagger shit inside. Maybe they hadn’t had the time yet. Besides, one of the big advantages to being paranoid, the motion camera pointed at the door I had installed would confirm it. I could relax. If only I could learn to do that.
I threw my bag into the bedroom and sat down with the coffee in the messy kitchen. The dirty dishes and I were trying to out wait each other in our regular game of chicken, and the general clutter and waste just built up inside the door. Until the stuff on the dishes moves by itself, I’m ok with it. I poured a healthy two fingers of the Widow Jane into my coffee, took a healthy sip, and carried it into the washroom. I’m exhausted. I almost never left the apartment anymore, unless I was going downstairs, so the last couple of days had really run me down.
“Jesus,” I muttered as I looked into the mirror at my broken and badly bruised nose, and the two black eyes that went with it, “I do look like shit.” I ran the fingers of my one hand through the top of my greying hair to the back of my head, then rubbed the salt and pepper stubble on my face and said, “and I feel like it too.”
I opened the mirror and pulled the five bottles out of the cabinet; venlafaxine, lorazepam, quetiapine, prazosin, and muscle relaxants. Doled them out and swallowed them all with another healthy dose of the coffee. “Another medicated day in paradise.” I grabbed a bag of frozen peas from the fridge, sat down on the couch in the living room, refilled the coffee mug with Widow Jane, tilted my head back and covered my face with the peas.
“This is why I fucking hate people.”
After ten minutes, I sat up, tossed the peas on the table, and pulled out my phone. I popped out the safe, and almost blank, SIM and memory cards that I use when traveling, folded the waist of my pants over and pulled my everyday SIM and memory card out of the tiny pocket sewn into the lining, then put them in the phone – it keeps uncomfortable questions from border guards to a minimum. Now all my contacts, messages, emails and pictures were back – like I said, sometimes the paranoia was almost helpful. I had been on the move, around people, traveling, getting hit with too much stress, getting hit in the face. Far more activity than I’ve dealt with in the last couple years – and my body was shutting down.
It needed sleep. It needed rest. It needed some meditation to get my anxiety under control so I could make good judgements. But first, it needed more bourbon. Good decisions later.
Knock, knock, knock.
Knock, knock, knock.
“Ugh. What the hell?”
By the time I woke up and pushed myself off the couch, realized that it was now dark, found my phone – three missed calls – and got to the door, Jill had turned around and was heading back down the stairs.
“Wait, Jill, come back.” I yelled as I unlocked the door. Jill is in her early 30’s and has all the energy of a Red-Bull addict on meth.
“Bishop!” She shouted, jumpy as always. “You tell them you want to see me, then you won’t answer the phone or the damn door. What the hell?”
“Sorry, drifted off.”
She ignored me and started back up the stairs.
“… and shovel the snow off these stairs, I almost broke my neck climbing up here. You can’t afford that Ryan, not only would I sue you, but this place wouldn’t last a week without me.”
She stopped talking long enough to cover her mouth with both hands as she laughed after seeing my face, “Oh, my, god! They told me you looked hideous, but that is nasty. You look like shit.”
“I wish people would stop telling me that.”
“Oh, as if. That is something. Tell me how a 6’ 3” mountain of a man, with all that martially arts stuff, gets worked over like that? No, don’t. I don’t want to know.” Her face quickly lost the mirth and now looked concerned as she stepped inside and put her hands on either side of my face. “Oh Ryan, that looks so painful, are you okay? Have you been to a doctor?”
I put my hands on top of hers and started to say, “it’s not that b …”
“Sweet Jesus on a 10 speed! Is that booze on your breath? Have you already been drinking today? You can’t be boozing up with all those medications you’re on, you idiot. Are you an alcoholic now too? God, my Uncle Ned died from that. You know that right?”
“Good lord Jill …”
“And look at this place? Do you loan it out to a college frat house? What is it with middle-aged men who won’t take care of themselves? I swear those dishes have been there for two weeks,” she said pointing to the sink.
“When do you even breath?”
“Ugh. Ryan. You know I love you like a brother, but the way you’re living. Its not healthy man,” her voiced softened again. “I think its great that you’re finally getting out of this apartment, its been months since you left it except to go downstairs. But are you sure suddenly flying all over the place for days at a time is the best way to get back into the world? Baby steps – that mean anything to you?”
“Hi Jill. I had a good trip, anything go on downstairs yesterday while I was away?”
“You ass,” she said, laughing again. “No, it was a pretty routine day, nothing special. Trev says you’re going away again tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I have an old friend who needs a hand. You’ll be okay without me?”
“God. Of course, and I’ll call Molly Maid too. I’m not cleaning this shit, and its pretty obvious you won’t.”
“I’m gonna grab a shower, then I’ll see you downstairs and we can go over the receipts and reports from the last couple days and order anything the bar or kitchen needs.”
After a shower, and a very, very uncomfortable shave, I opened my contacts and found the Kitcheners, Dave and Helen, and jotted down Helen’s mobile number on a piece of paper. I opened the safe, under some old boxes, in my bedroom closet floor, and put my traveling SIM and memory card in the RFID-proof metallic baggie, and threw it back in the safe beside my Sig Sauer 9mm and holster, extra magazines and ammo, my knife, and the big zip lock full of cash, fake ID and an American passport – my escape kit.
“I hope she still has the same number,” I mumbled as I pocketed my phone, locked the door, and headed back into the bar. Dave was still with Military Intelligence, where I first met him in Afghanistan. He has a lot of the same access I used to have, but his command and reporting structure don’t go anywhere near my old department, or the Director. If I’m lucky, he can get me some of the answers I need to shrink the haystack in Vancouver.
The kitchen was whirling with activity now and the place was about half-full of people getting an early dinner or drinks. I grabbed the booth in the corner and waved Trevor over, “Hey man, I left my phone upstairs, can I borrow yours just to make a quick call?”
“Yeah, sure. Here,” he handed me his cell and headed back to the tables. I pulled out
Helen’s mobile number and dialed.
“Hello?” It sounded like her.
“Hey Helen, its Ryan.”
“Ryan? Ryan who?”
She cut me off, “oh my God! Ryan. Its been forever. How are you? Where have you been? Where are you working?”
“Hi Helen, I’m doing great,” I lied, “I live in Toronto now. Is Dave around?”
“He’s just out for a run, he won’t be back for a while. If you wanted to talk to Dave, why didn’t you just call his cell? Oh god, its one of those. You Intel guys drive me nuts. Probably the same reason you’re calling from some stranger’s phone. Do you want him to call you back at this number?”
“No, that’s OK. Do you have a pen? Can you give him a message for me?”
“Sure, but I warning you up front, I don’t have any disappearing ink or anything.”
I had to laugh, “that’s OK, we should be alright, this time. Can you tell him that I need him to have lunch with a friend of mine as soon as possible?”
“Yup, is that it?”
“His name is Asim. Asim Manohar, from the federal Ministry of the Environment. Got all that?”
“Great. Ask him to shoot me an email through the Proton Mail encrypted service. My address is RidgemontJeffSpicoli@Protonmail.com.”
“Good lord, its like you’re kids with a secret decoder ring you got out of a cereal box.”
“He’s always been one of my heroes,” I explained. “But Helen, this is important. Remember when you went outside the wire in Afghanistan with the Princess Pats?”
“Yes, of course I remember. I will always remember what you did.”
“I don’t mean to be an ass, Helen. I’m tied up in something here. Remind Dave when you give him the message, I really need the assist Helen.”
“Its no problem Ryan. We will do whatever we can.”
I made sure to erase the call from Trevor’s log and gave his phone back. “Thanks man, I appreciate it.”
“No worries Mr. B.”
I went through the paperwork with Jill, had a steak for dinner, then called it an early night and dragged myself back upstairs to bed with another bottle of Widow Jane. Jill shot me a nasty look as I grabbed it from behind the bar.
At 3:30 on a weekday morning, even the great multicultural circus of Queen Street West in downtown Toronto is quiet. It’s a rare neighbourhood where income, race, culture, sexual identities, religion, and political beliefs mingle almost seamlessly under the shadow of Canada’s tallest buildings and surrounded by the white privilege and old boy institutions of the country’s beating economic heart. The entire world can be found on the streets of this neighbourhood during the day, from the homeless to the ultra-rich, and everyone feels at home, like there’s a place for them. Retail, restaurants, live music venues, dance bars, artisans, craftsmen and women, artists, parks, and families are all here.
In the middle of a clear night at -35 even the air seems still and unmoving. So why the hell am I up? I roll out of bed covered in my own sweat with my heart racing. My hands shaking so badly they can barely pour myself a drink, and I spill bourbon on the bedside table. Jesus, when I fell apart, I never imagined the nightmares would keep coming like this.
I opened the laptop and logged on to see if Helen’s husband had responded to my call. Captain Dave Kitchener had been assigned to the Canadian base at Kandahar in Afghanistan for the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command (CFINTCM) when I was running an off-book, catch and interrogate operation for the Director.
I was on a patrol to find one of my marks with local militiamen we had hired when we heard the big explosion, then small arms fire, and rocket propelled grenades(RPGs).
We crept up to the top of a hill, staying low so we didn’t create any silhouettes to be shot at – wherever you are in that country its always right beside a hill – and saw a disabled Canadian light armoured vehicle(LAV), its soldiers dug in around it, fighting off a Taliban ambush. The Canadians were seriously out-numbered and it looked like a few of them were already injured and out of commission from the explosion that had flipped the vehicle and disabled it. From our position on the hill, we could see a group of Taliban fighters moving into a flanking position on their right. In a couple of minutes, they would be behind the troops and have a clear line of fire at them. The soldiers were firing everything they had to keep the large group in front of them from advancing. They would be wiped out.
“Toast.” I looked at my interpreter Hafiz. “Isn’t that what you call this,” he continued, “are they not toast?”
“For fuck’s sake,” I muttered. “This proves God hates me because I don’t believe in him.”.
“All kind of people around here happy to introduce you to Allah, furangi.” Hafiz laughed, “they’re over there shooting at your friends.”
Officially though, I wasn’t there, and realistically I was an analyst, and my militia guys weren’t equipped for, and had no intention of getting into a serious, stand-up, firefight to save more foreigners. The point of being off-book, is that no one knows you’re there. We didn’t even have military radios or communications. So, I did what all good Canadians do in a tight spot in foreign lands, I pulled out my sat-phone and called the Embassy. Well, I called military intelligence back at Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar, and Dave Kitchener picked up the phone. My translator, and the local gunman on the ground beside me gave me the language-neutral, universal face for, “what the fuck are you doing?”
“Shut up,” I yelled at all of them as I dialed.
“Not our cows, not our …” Hafiz started. I quickly corrected him, “you mean; not my zoo, not my monkeys.”
“Yeah, Bishop. That.”
“Monkeys are just too funny to ignore, I’ll show you on YouTube.”
“If you survive,” he added.
“Well, yeah. That.”
The phone squawked out its encryption handshake before it made the connection.
“Ghost Zone K,” I shouted into the phone, “Ghost Zone K, this is Culture Shock. I say again, this is Culture Shock. I’m watching a LAV and its unit in the tall grass 3.5 klicks east of Alpha seven-five, just past the airport road, under heavy fire. LAV is disabled. Am I clear?”
“Culture Shock? What the fuck is Culture Shock?” You could hear the keys on his computer clicking away on the other end of the line. “Who are you?”
“Jesus, I am Culture Shock, you fuck, and there isn’t time for this shit, they need air-support. They are being flanked to the east and cannot see the enemy maneuver. They are heavily outnumbered. Advise you contact ISAF Command South immediately.”
“Culture Shock, there you are, please confirm now.”
“Dammit,” I said as I pulled a notebook from a pocket in my body armour and read out, “Indigo, golf, whiskey. Three, niner, niner, five, seven, two. Over.”
“Got you Culture Shock, response code…”
“I don’t give a shit, I believe you. Get the air support.”
“We’re on the other line with Command to get help, but this is coming at them sideways, and out of channel, it won’t be fast. Do you have assets with you to intervene?”
“Small arms only, 5 Afghan operators plus myself. We are a snatch and grab Ghost Zone, we cannot survive a heavy firefight.”
“You’re all they have from what I can see. Other assistance is 20 minutes out.”
I hung up the phone and must have screwed up my face. “Well, what are we doing Bishop?”
“Trying not to get dead I guess. Its our zoo now.”
“We don’t have to fight them Hafiz, just make the flanking guys think about bullets in their ass instead of the guys at the LAV. Break into twos. Fire a couple mags at them from three positions. They won’t know how many are shooting at them and will have to stop and find cover. We just have to stall.”
Through the glasses, I could see a few of the Canadians turning toward the east. The message must have been passed through. They still couldn’t see the flanking Taliban, but at least they knew they were coming. Hafiz had made his way over to Rahila, Kalib and the others and sent two further along the hill, had two stay put, and then he and I moved down the road in the other direction, putting us behind, and between the two groups attacking the Canadian patrol below.
“Here we go.” As soon as we started firing the flanking guys dove to the ground and started shooting wildly behind them. I looked up the road and saw Kalib’s head explode and his body drop to the ground like a sack of potatoes. “Fuck.”
The main group was firing at us as well. Rahila pitched backward onto the ground with his arms spread out a few seconds later, like a gruesome, red, snow-angel. I had put us in a crossfire.
“Toast,” Hafiz shouted beside me as he slapped another mag into his AK-47 and started firing again.
>>RE: Lunch Meeting
>> Bishop you ass. Thanks for triggering the wife’s PTSD by bringing up that damn patrol in Kandahar.
I thought you were off the board, I thought you had gotten out and become a real human
being, but if you’re looking for Manohar you are in the middle of something you should avoid.
His email went on to describe pretty much what Max had already told me about Amir, his job, and the under-that-table work he was doing. Even the official reports were thin on any detail surrounding the disappearance in Vancouver on his way back from Africa. Dave made two alarming conclusions at the end of his email. First Max was radioactive. Dave didn’t dare access any files related to her because they were all flagged. The were looking for her, and they were serious about finding her quickly, but so far had not. Secondly, and strangely, Dave said the only people looking for Asim Manohar in Vancouver, were the Vancouver Police assisted by the RCMP, because of his position as Director of Wildlife Enforcement. Normally, if an asset goes missing, everyone burns the candle at both ends to find them. Why not Asim? Why was the Intel community letting this guy fade to black?
I sent an email back to thank Dave, but had more questions than ever and no answers. I had to head to Vancouver, but first, I had to try to sleep again.
My phone woke me up around 7:30 the next morning.
“I know I didn’t call. I don’t have much new to say or report, its pretty much the same as it was in New Orleans.”
“Yes, we made a deal, and I know I said I would call yesterday to keep you updated. But there just wasn’t much to say.”
“No, the drinking is under control. No worries.”
“I said its under control. Not a factor. I can hold my shit together.”
“They don’t seem to be looking for him at all.”
“Yeah, I know. They aren’t looking for him.”
“Why not? Well Its one of three things, right? They must know where he is, know he’s dead, or they already have him.”
“No, it hasn’t gone that well, but I’m still here and functioning. I’m going to have to head to Vancouver and poke around.”
“I think I can handle it, its ground I know.”
“Yes, I will keep checking in, and I’ll call if there’s a break.”