The Operative (Excerpt 1)
In the Grocery Section of the city mall, a man stood undecided before a shelf of cornflakes. With one hand resting on his empty shopping cart, he tapped his finger against his lower lip. He was a big man with a broad shoulder and a clean-shaven face that showed off his square jaw. A few shoppers strolled past him. A couple excused him. He offered his apology as he stepped clumsily aside for the girl to grab off a pack of white oats from the shelf. He flashed them a weak smile as they strolled away towards the Cosmetics Section. They were not to know that he was the Director of the Department of State Security. His eyes wandered to a surveillance camera up ahead; it was pointed to such an angle that offered a blind spot to his position. Reaching for the shelf, he grabbed two packs of corn flakes, deposited into his shopping cart and then inched to his right. The shelf offered a view of other instant foods that appeared strange to him. The kind of things people eat these days, he thought to himself.
Light footsteps approached him from the right side. They belonged to a small middle-aged man in an old tweed jacket and plain trousers pushing a cart in his direction. Turning to observe the approaching figure, he thought how the man looked so out of place and older than the last time they saw. The man came to a halt beside him, pretending to contemplate the contents of the shelf. Only a few people in the espionage business knew that the man in the tweed jacket headed and ran the Agency, a small free-lance outfit specialized mainly on intelligence gathering within national borders.
“You seem to be defying age,” the man in the tweed jacket said without taking his eyes off the shelf. He stooped, pretending to be examining the contents at the lower rungs.
“You are faring bad in playing the part of a shopper.”
The man in the tweed coat looked up at the Director and smiled. His lips parted to show even white teeth, too perfect for an ageing man in such outlandish attire.
“Then it is your fault to have chosen this location for this meeting.”
“I guess that’s a way of telling me to be point-blank.”
The man shrugged. “We are both working men.”
“I need a job done.”
The man straightened up and inched closer, still keeping up the pretense of contemplating a pack of instant cereals.
“We traced an illegal arm shipment headed into the country from a port in Iran. Somewhere along the line, we lost track. A few days ago, rumors came to our attention about suspicious activities going on in a warehouse abandoned for a considerable length of time. Our guess is that the arms are being held in that warehouse but then we have to be sure. We want you to take a peek and relay to us what you see.”
“That sounds simple enough. Too simple for one of your recruits to pull off, maybe as a test or something.”
The Director shifted his weight on one foot. His eyes scanned the vicinity. The man in the tweed jacket knew that the Director was contemplating divulging some classified information.
“The warehouse is run by a very influential Lebanese.”
“And you don’t want anything backfiring at you, I guess.”
“The President is walking a diplomatic tightrope with Beirut already. I don’t want the President to get wind of this operation until there is something tangible to present him with.”
“Some advantage perhaps, to use against the Lebanese government. I see.”
“I would prefer you don’t prod me further. I have divulged a whole lot to you already. Are you taking the job or do I turn to someone else?”
The man in the tweed jacket looked at him. There was no trace of a smile on his wrinkled face.
“Is your fee still what it used to be?”
“I wish I could increase it a little. The Agency is a little strapped on finances. We could do with some money every now and then.”
The Director reached into his suit jacket and extracted a large manila envelope. He held it out to the man in the tweed jacket. In a flash, the envelope disappeared into the tweed jacket.
“Everything you need is in there,” the Director said.
“It is in there.”
“And one more thing, your man is not on commission. The DSS and the Federal Government has total deniability in the event of any fallouts.”
“I think I understand that part of the sermon.”
“Call me when you have something.” The Director did not wait for the man’s reply as he wheeled his cart away. The man patted his jacket to feel the assuring weight of the envelope beneath. He replaced the contents of his cart onto the shelf, and abandoning his cart, he strolled to a shelf of biscuits. He grabbed a tin of Pringles, tearing the top open as he leisurely walked to the direction of the pay counters.
The phone on the bedside table beeped, bringing the sleeper suddenly awake. He lay tensed on the bed as his eyes roamed the room. He could feel the comforting outline of the pistol beneath the thin pillow. The phone beeped again and the man sat up. He reached for the phone. He recognized the number on the screen – the only number that ever called the line. Punching the ‘answer’ key, he put the phone to his ear.
“Michael,” the familiar flat voice came through. “Report to the office at 10.”
The watch on his wrist read 7:30; a lot of extra time to spend on nothing. He replaced the phone on the bedside table and took a visual sweep of the room that had become his home for the past three months. It looked Spartan, but nothing appeared to be in its place. He was sure that to a visitor, the room would stink, but then there was no need expecting any visitors except on the business of The Agency.
The daylight peeked through the gap in the blinds. He got off the bed and did twenty-four push-ups and twenty-four sit-ups. While the blood pulsed to his head and the sweat trickled down his taut torso, he strolled to the window and parted the blinds, instinctively stepping aside to take a peek at the buildings across the street. Everything seemed normal except for the woman working at a sewing machine by window of her flat on the second floor of the building across, and a little to the left. He studied her. She seemed too engrossed in some garment she was making.
Unhooking the field glasses from the wall beside his window, he studied the woman. He could make out the nipples of her breasts through her orange sleeveless gown. Her hair looked disheveled, the skins of her arms still looked firm and she worked fast at her machine. He thought her to be in her early forties. She must have looked real pretty in her prime. The cramped streets below looked as busy as every other morning of a working day. A man pushing a handcart containing bits of scrap metal had caused a holdup in the narrow streets. Drivers honked and hurled abuses and he returned their abuses, yet doing very little to ease the situation. Michael returned the field glasses to its place on the wall and made for the small bathroom with the browned tiles.
In a moment, he was fully dressed in a long-sleeved shirts tucked into a pair of plain black trousers. He noticed that he had added a little bit of weight – the disadvantage of lying fallow for a whole three months. Satisfied that there was nothing about his appearance to draw any attention to himself, he stepped into a pair of cheap black shoes and stepped out of the apartment.
Two boys in ill-kept school uniforms brushed past him on the stairwell. He recognized them to be the children of one of the tenants on the floor above.
The hold-up in the streets had cleared. Drivers cursed and honked as they negotiated the road made narrower by parked cars on either side of the street. Michael checked his watch. 8 o’clock. He decided against taking a taxi – there was much time on his hand, and the walk would offer him some time to ponder on the reason for the summons in the office. He wished it was a new job so he could be in the field once again.
The Agency office was a two-bedroom flat in a lineup of early post-colonial buildings that hugged the streets closely. It looked so much uninhabited and abandoned; the front door was permanently locked and boarded for good measure, the small perimeter fence was caked with dried-out moss, and the permanent staff of two always used the back door into the flat. The Professor’s cramped office took up the whole of the master bedroom, and lined with shelves on the walls that sagged under the weight of heavy volumes and folders. Whatever inch of space spared by the shelf was occupied with maps. Apparently, he had detailed maps of every piece of land found within the territorial borders of Nigeria. An old-model computer monitor took up most of the small scratchy desk. On the heavy-carpeted floor around the room stood stacks of paper piled end-to-end so that there was so little space left for moving about within the office. The professor seemed to have left out plans for entertaining visitors in his shabby office – apparently there was no need for such provisions as most of the job meetings were conducted in the most clandestine locations away from the office. Only his field agent, Michael still happened to be the only visitor the office had known in the eight years of its existence.