Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Black Coffee and Aspirin

“The coffee is rather strong, I’d recommend taking it with cream.”

The guard had returned with a carafe of coffee on a tray with a cup, saucer and a small pitcher of cream. The saucer also held some lumps of raw sugar and two aspirin. The guard set the tray down on the bench beside Sean and left the room—locking the door behind him. Sean downed the aspirin with a sip of the coffee. The guard had been right—it was quite bitter. After loading the coffee with cream and sugar, it was drinkable but remained dodgy.  “Probably been cooking on a warmer all night,” Sean thought.  The rain outside had stopped and it suddenly become very quiet. He was now able to hear sounds emanating from within the embassy: doors being opened and closed, footsteps in the hall, a telephone ringing, muted voices in the distance. By the time he finished his second cup the headache was nearly gone and Sean was wide awake. He made an effort to still his right foot—it was trembling—but soon both of his legs were bouncing. Sean began to pace. After what seemed like an hour, he heard the lock click and the door opened. Sally entered, followed by the guard with Sean’s clothes. As the guard placed the clothes on the bench, another man entered the room.

“Sean, this is Ambassador Halston. Ambassador Halston, this is Sean Carroll, the young man who has become involved in this unfortunate situation.”

“I wish our meeting was being held under less tragic circumstances, Mr. Carroll. It is most unfortunate that Senator’s son has died.”

“You’ve been contacted by the police?”

“Yes, of course. This is where the situation becomes extremely… complex. You see, Sean, on the basis of the identity papers found on the body, they have identified the body as being yours.”

“You told them it was Billy, didn’t you?”

“Sean, I’m going to tell you what’s been done already, and what remains to be done. It has been decided that, in the best interests of the United States, it would be best if the Icelandic police continued to believe that the person who died in the accident was a certain Sean Carroll, data analyst employed by Applied Diffusion Research of Seattle Washington, a tourist who had been vacationing in Iceland. William Clarkson, Junior, is currently at the United States Embassy, Reykjavík.”

“I become Billy? I don’t care for this at all. What about my life? What if I refuse?”

“Put your clothes on Billy,” said Sally.

“What's going to happen?”

“You are going to realize that you have no other options,” said the Ambassador.

Sean changed into his clothes under the watchful eyes of Sally (who seemed to relish the experience), the Ambassador (who tried to maintain an air of dignity), and the guard (who seemed bored.)  They had brought him a pair of shoes—wingtips—in a size too large.

“They were the best we could do on such short notice,” Sally said, “You’ll grow into them.”

Sean ignored her, thankful that he had three pairs of socks to fill the space. After he was dressed, the Ambassador spoke:

“Once again, we regret the events which have led to this awkward situation.  I hope you realize that we are aware of the sacrifice we are asking you to make. There are several extenuating circumstances which we cannot reveal to you at this time. This for your own protection.”

The Ambassador remained aloof, but there was a glint in his eyes, Sean sensed resolve and ruthlessness in the tenor of the Ambassador’s speech. “Don’t underestimate us,” he continued, “For we are powerful and many and you are but a single man. Work with us and reap the rewards, defy us and suffer grievous consequences.”

“Such as?” Sean still couldn’t quite wrap his head around what they were asking him to do.

“Come with us, please, for a small demonstration.”

They went out into the hallway, through a security door, and then into a meeting room that was sparsely furnished with a table, chairs, and a large screen monitor on one wall.  A green duffle bag was on the table. There was another man, who Sean took to be a technician, visible through a window in a control room.

“Mr. Johnson, please, put the downlink on the big screen, without sound, thank you. Billy, and you will be called Billy from now on, have a seat. What you are about to see is a live stream from the FBI headquarters in Seattle.  There is someone on it who you know.”

The room lights dimmed and images on the screen flickered, then became steady. It showed a room with  a mirror, a clock on the wall, and a desk with papers and photographs on it. A man was on one side of the desk and Molly was on the other.  She had evidently been crying; the man was haranguing her. He was pointing to the photos, he picked up a paper and began to read it to Molly. Molly’s head was down and  she was shaking.

The Ambassador spoke to Sean in a calm voice—as if he were reading from a grocery list.

“It seems that your choice of a partner was unfortunate. Before she met you, ‘Molly Berenson’ as you know her, had been involved with an underground terror cell. Actions of this cell included operating a bomb factory, plotting to destroy government offices, aiding and abetting fugitives, and consorting with known terrorist operatives. The list goes on.  Your ‘friend’ is facing years in prison. You wouldn’t like that would you, Billy?  Would you like to be linked with her as a ‘fellow-traveler?’  Be aware, this is only the beginning.”

“What can I do to help Molly?”

“It really is quite simple. You will become Billy, Senator Clarkson’s prodigal son returned, make some campaign appearances with dear old dad, and when he takes office there will be a nice job for you in the NSA—your line of work—and, if you keep your nose clean and out of trouble for a few years, you’ll be free to resume your previous life.  Molly will be allowed to live her life in relative freedom… as long as you perform your role faithfully. Do you understand me? It is really a very good deal for everyone.”

“I understand.  I take it that Molly will think that I have died and that I am to have no contact with her?”

“Yes. That is, of course, a necessary condition.”

“And what happens now?”

“There are still some things that Billy must do here in Reykjavík.  This is the trickiest part, for we have to get you out of the country without raising suspicion of the police or Billy’s friends in Reykjavík. He had the use of storeroom down by the harbor which he used as a ‘crash pad.’ We obviously couldn’t break in and get his things without creating a stir, but you are the key—or should I say, it appears that you have the key. It is important that you are seen by some of Billy’s friends so that it will appear that you, that is to say, Billy, are alive and well and have back to The United States.”

“Now what?”

“Go to the storeroom, it is on Grandagarður, in the harbor district. See if Billy has left anything. It will be dawn soon and you need to be seen in Grandakaffi, the restaurant that is across the street from number 11.  It was Billy’s usual morning hangout—he would meet with his friends from nine until ten. I’m giving you ten thousand krónur—roughly equivalent to about eighty US dollars. If someone who knew Billy talks to you, tell them you are ‘strung-out’, that you’ve been ‘speeding’ for a couple of days.  You won’t need to act the part—the coffee you drank contained more than caffeine.  After breakfast, walk around the center of town—be seen—but try to avoid any interactions which might give you away. A lot of people knew Billy, but be careful, he had some enemies. Go back to the storeroom, gather Billy’s effects and put them in this bag. Then sleep if you can. We need at least a day to arrange your transport out of the country. Here is a phone you can use.  We’ll call you when it is time to leave.”

“And Molly?”

“Do you accept our offer?”

“I accept your offer.”

The Ambassador picked up a phone and pressed a button.

On the screen, the man at the desk picked up his phone. The Ambassador was terse:

“We’ve landed the big fish. Let her go.”

The man at the desk hung up, picked up his papers and spoke to Molly. She looked surprised, and quickly got up and left the room.

“It's time to go, Billy,” said Sally, as she placed Sean’s hand on the duffle bag.


By Professor Batty