Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Extortionist

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I sat at the edge of a long metal table, noise-cancelling headphones over my ears, khaki blouse neatly pressed, sleeves rolled with perfect cuffs, khaki slacks knife-pleated, briefcase with laptop at my side, iPod in my hand, pda and smartphone in my pocket.

The metal building was quiet except for the clang and roar of air conditioning and the deafening yet reassuring sound of the AH-64 Apache helicopters zipping in and out of the desert locales referenced by coordinates rather than their gutteral and sometimes unpronounceable names.

I had locked the doors, although it was possibly against regulations. No one had informed me of regulations since, strictly speaking, I was a visitor. I had no actual reason to be here, except that a few individuals in positions in authority had told me they needed my perspective. They needed it quickly, desperately, without hesitation.

It was time for me to leave. Unfortunately, I would be relaying some awkward news back to my friends. I was trying to decide the best way to do it. Usually, the best approach was to empixelate it in a jpeg file, usually an image of flowers or mountains, or better, a smiling family, a graduation, a wedding, or something equally innocuous.

Alternatively, I could simply let the bad news reveal itself. By that time, I would be long gone.

The door rattled. The lock clicked open. A small, compactly built man entered. He was wearing a navy blue knit polo shirt, olive drab canvas pants. His hair was gray, his eyes dirty ice cubes. Either he was an officer in civilian clothing, or a contractor with clearance. Even though I was across the room, I could tell the whites of his eyes were dingy and gray. As he approached, I was aware that he exuded a scent highly evocative of mothballs. Hair sprouted from his ears. Despite the fact that he was, on the whole, an inutterably unattractive man, it was clear that he did not think so. He thought he was hot.

His bearing was smug, self-satisfied. As he approached me, his lips rolled involuntarily, like the lips of a large and unhealthy koi. I was reminded of half-dead ornamental foot-long goldfish I saw in a Nairobi office pond. Like them, his skin seemed slippery and vaguely fungal.

"Why was the door locked?" he asked. "That's strange."

He looked at me.

"Not so strange," I said. "After all, this is supposed to be secure."

"Have we met?" he asked.

He did not know I knew he had no business being in the air-conditioned metal building in the middle of a small desert forward operating base, next to a small airstrip and row of hardened tents containing spare parts.

I knew what was stored at this location. I also knew that his presence here in the prefabricated metal building meant that he suspected something and had come in to sneak around, to forage for information.

"I don't think we've met," I told him. "I'm leaving tonight. I'm getting out - we had to make an emergency landing. They said they'd have the repairs done by tonight."

"What are doing?" he asked.

"Nothing. Well. Something. I'm listening to my iPod and trying to sleep." He could see my old iPod mini propped up on the desk. It was the old pink brushed aluminum model. In my mind, it looked frivolous against my khakis.

He sat down. "I'm looking for Lt. Col. Branderwine. Someone said he was in here."

It was a lie. Lt. Col Branderwine had left two days ago.

He did not know I knew someone had been sending Branderwine threatening notes and that the notes had not yet demanded anything, but hinted that someone knew what had been going on, and what was stored here besides helicopter parts.

In my opinion, it was a zero-sum game. Contrary to popular belief, knowing people's secrets was not money in the bank. Instead, having too much information made one vulnerable and at risk of making fatal mistakes.

He gave me a fat-lipped self-satisfied smile. Then, he folded his arms across his flabby chest and smiled again with "cat who ate the canary" satisfaction on his face. I felt my energy drain away. He sucked away all the life force in the room.

I looked at the floor. Then I lifted my eyes and looked him straight in the eyes. He had no way of knowing who I was. And, he had no way of knowing I knew who he was and what he was up to.

He was the Extortionist.