Even on his best days, Ted Bean felt useless. At least the hours were regular and he was inside during the winter. That’s what he told people who said that he had a hard job at Headquarters. He remembered when he used to do things that mattered. After 28 years of government service, he didn’t want to end his career in a cubicle in this sterile, D.C. hive.
Walking from the end-of-the-line Metro station a step slower than the other commuters, he buttoned the collar on his trench coat against the November wind and tugged his hat tighter. Life wasn’t bad, but like champagne left too long in the glass, it had lost its sparkle.
Years ago, he had intercepted narcotics, detected fraud, written fines and arrested criminals. He had saved lives, directly on occasion, indirectly on a regular basis and exercised his courage. People needed him, or so he believed. These days, even his greatest accomplishments in the Customs and Border Protection headquarters consisted of paper shuffling and computer play.
Ted was often discouraged in his cubicle and in meetings. He didn’t think like other people. He saw links and connections between disparate facts and ideas that often evaded his colleagues. When he got it right, he was the hero of the moment. More often, he was the office crackpot. What made him acceptable—when he was--was that he saw his job as a mission that was more important than his ego. What often hurt him was that he also saw the mission as being more important than the egos of his bosses.
As Ted started his car in the parking garage, the radio sprang to life. At least D.C. news was more interesting than in most places. That was another compensation. The reporters were saying something about the number of people who hadn’t gotten the flu vaccine, and how many cases were in the district and in neighboring Virginia and Maryland counties. At the exit booth, he tapped his plastic fare card against the automatic reader, and drove the rectangle of turns to get to 66.
His wife was the kick in his flat champagne. Ted regretted that she hadn’t known him in the old days. Galina’s picture of him was of an office drone. Golly, as he called her, had never seen him leave the house with a gun on his hip or come home with bruises or stitches. Of course, the wife who had seen those things hadn’t been impressed either. Maybe, he mused, it’s not possible to win a wife’s admiration when she has to live on a civil servant’s pay. At least in the old days, he had thought well of himself.
By this time in life he shouldn’t be wrestling boxes and crawling through the bowels of ships. But, middle age is deadening enough without reducing all the adventure of life to the commuting drive. Maybe that’s why Ted bought lottery tickets twice a week. Life is like the lottery, he mused, perhaps with slightly better odds. Sometimes you hit a winning streak. And, to tell the truth, he hadn’t done badly so far, but the odds are always with the house.
The tall, lighted sign of a convenience store loomed ahead. Ted had worked late today and was happy to see that there was only one other car parked in front. Through the rear window of that car, he saw the driver sitting at the wheel with the motor running. Ted parked alongside, and stepped out of the car. A cold gust nipped his ears. The other driver looked at him with a worried expression and twisted his hands on the steering wheel. Odd, Ted thought.
Through the glass doors, he couldn’t see any customers, just the clerk at the counter. Ted entered, and scanned the magazine rack. The glossy pictures of cars, celebrities, and women in skimpy outfits seemed no different from last week. As he turned back toward the counter, a short, dark man wearing a windbreaker, possibly Hispanic, carried a six-pack of beer to the checkout. He also seemed uncomfortable to see Ted behind him. Ted mused that he had no friends in this crowd. Maybe at home. Another man in a long coat, taller and lighter, approached from the back of the store.
The clerk, a twenty-ish Indian named Ramon, asked for ID, and rang up the beer. Ted knew Ramon from his regular visits and from the young man’s name tag. He usually seemed alert and conscientious, destined for better things. When the register opened, the beer buyer said, “Leave it open, bro.”
Ted caught a movement from the corner of his eye, and over his shoulder saw the other man swing a full-length shotgun from under his coat. Twelve gauge, automatic--did the extended tube mean a five or six shot capacity? Ted’s first thought was that he was too old and too tired for this. His second was to appraise the demeanor of the man in the long coat: nervous, but in control. That was good. Long Coat spoke, “You got any money on you?”
Ted calculated quickly, “About twenty.”
“Shee-it,” the robber smirked, “You wearing a tie and a suit. You got more than twenty.”
“If I do,” Ted replied calmly, “you can have it. But, I’m married—she’s got all the money.”
The crook was well groomed, his eyes were clear and he held the gun steady. Ted estimated that he was not crazy or on drugs. Long Coat nodded toward the door. “What kind of car you driving?”
The crook made a face to show that a Mazda was not his idea of a great prize.
Ted wanted to say, “I like it,” but decided that it was unwise to praise one’s property to a thief.
The crook in the windbreaker spoke quickly, “Give me a bunch of those lottery scratcher tickets.” This man was less steady than his partner.
Long Coat cancelled the order. “Forget it. Those tickets have serial numbers. Go in the office and get the video tape.” He waved the shotgun inclusively, “You two. Get over here, I’m going to lock you in the cooler.”
As Ramon walked around the counter, Ted performed a quick mental inventory. He had a 3-inch folding knife in his pants pocket under his coat, also his belt, and a couple of ball point pens—all potential weapons, but Long Coat was watching him closely. He couldn’t reach inside his coat. Ted glanced at the chips rack and the coffee bar. If he needed a weapon, he needed to find one.
Ramon was three steps ahead on the walk to the cooler. Ted didn’t like the signs. The robber knew that he had money, but hadn’t asked for it. They were taking the surveillance videotape to prevent being identified, and were moving the only witnesses into a back room. This did not bode well.
The refrigerated section, with its glass doors, took up most of the rear wall. A wooden door on its left provided access to the storage and service areas of the store. Ramon opened the door. Ted stepped quickly to close the gap between himself and the store clerk.
Over Ramon’s shoulder, beyond the door, he saw a mop in a bucket. Ted had to decide quickly and whether a bad move was better than none at all. He shoved Ramon to the left with one hand and swung the door shut behind him with the other. The door slammed on the shotgun barrel, which roared and spit buckshot into shelves and wall. Brown paper towels fluttered toward the ceiling and then rained down.
With the gun’s report ringing in his ears, Ted also heard a higher pitched shriek, which he would later learn was the back door alarm, triggered when Ramon dashed outside. Meanwhile, Long Coat pushed on the door and Ted threw himself against it. Rebounding, Ted snatched the mop from the bucket.
When Long Coat pushed the door again, Ted held the mop handle like he had been taught in bayonet practice so many years before and parried the shotgun, knocking it aside. The gun boomed again. Before the barrel could be swung back in his direction, Ted chopped the mop handle down hard into the base of his adversary’s neck. This paralyzed the nerves temporarily, and the crook crumpled. The shotgun fell to the floor. Ted couldn’t resist a “vertical butt stroke” as the gunman fell--a move in which a rifle is pivoted to swing the butt in an uppercut.
However, the mop was longer than calculated and it struck Long Coat in the stomach. Still, it pushed the robber over, and he fell heavily onto his back. Ted dropped the mop and dove for the shotgun.
The entire action had only taken seconds. The other crook stood at the counter; pistol in hand, unsure what to do. As Ted had ducked down for the shotgun, the pistoleer fired two wild shots. On the floor, Ted dropped to his belly swinging the shotgun around toward his assailant. The other man evidently believed that he had made his point and was out the door.
Long Coat was recovering. Thrusting the gun barrel under the man’s chin, Ted held it there as he stood up. “Relax right there.” Heart pounding, Ted glanced quickly at the door again to be sure that the other man wasn’t returning. “I am a federal officer,” Ted began. He took a deep breath before continuing, “and you are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. If you give up that right, I am going to blast your goddamn head clear across the room. Do you understand these rights? Just nod if you understand.”
The prisoner nodded. Ted continued, speaking each word distinctly. “I am off duty and you have pushed me to my limits of self control. You do not want to find out what is on the other side of my limits. Do you understand that?” The man on the floor was sweating, eyes darting from Ted’s face to the gaping muzzle of the shotgun. “Put your hands on top of your head. Interlace the fingers, and roll over onto your belly.”
Both men started when Ramon entered the front door. Ted told him to shut off the alarm. Ramon boasted breathlessly that he had seen the license number of the getaway car. Ted ordered him to write it down--now—then turn off the alarm. And then, call 911. After Ramon wrote down the license, Ted had one more command. “When you call the police, tell them that the bad guy is on the floor and an off-duty officer has the gun. I don’t want them shooting me by mistake.”
* * * * * * *
The next day, in Budapest, a small man in his mid-forties walked briskly on
the sidewalk overlooking the Duna River. Castle-like buildings rose up on the
far side of the water. The man’s breath puffed visibly in the cold air. He was
in a narrow park approaching a bronze elf as large as a pubescent child sitting
on the railing. It was a common meeting place for Hungarians, and he would
not seem conspicuous waiting there. He hadn’t noticed anyone following him,
but the small man left nothing to chance. He assumed that he was under
observation at all times. He looked at his watch and paced. Traffic,
both vehicular and foot, were brisk at this hour.
Among the people walking on the opposite sidewalk was a large man,
bareheaded in a gray woolen overcoat. He walked briskly with his shoulders
hunched against the cold. At the corner, he looked around. The small man
across the street glanced at his watch once more. With that unobtrusive
signal, the large man turned his back on the park to walk up the street.
A plainclothes policeman followed him. His partner drove their unmarked
car around the corner, and cruised ahead. The small man noticed the
surveillance with satisfaction. If they were this obvious, then he was probably
The large man continued trudging up the shop-lined street until the road forked. In the middle of the fork was a café. The large man sat at one of the outside tables. There were no other outside customers. A minute later, a waitress took his order for coffee. Five minutes later, another man arrived.
The new man said hello, and was welcomed. He also ordered coffee. The two men chatted. As the wind picked up, the new man asked why they had to meet outside. “For 20,000 forints apiece.” Without explaining further, the large man slipped a small envelope from his sleeve, keeping this movement under the table. He peeled wax paper from a sticky patch on the envelope and pressed the envelope to the underside of the table. The wax paper went back up his sleeve, underneath a rubber band. The men talked about other things, finished their coffee and left. The large man scanned the outdoor tables once more to be sure that he knew which table had been his. The two men walked toward the river.
A young woman with red hair and coral lipstick in a fur jacket joined the small man beside the bronze elf. They kissed each other on the cheek. She remarked that it had been a long time. He smiled and asked how she had been. From the corner of his eye, the small man watched as the two men approached the intersection. At the corner, the large man scratched his left ear.
When they had passed, with the police team behind them, the small man escorted the woman to the café. The signal had told him which table held the envelope. He retrieved it without the woman being aware of what he was doing.
They would finish their coffee and take a taxi to a hotel.
The small man behind his glasses could have passed for any nationality. To the red-haired prostitute, he was a Greek businessman. To the large man who delivered the envelope, he was an Italian Mafiosi. In the shadowy world of Middle Eastern terrorists, he was thought to be Lebanese and known as al-Musrafi, The Banker.
When they reached the modern, Scandinavian-style hotel room, the prostitute provided her services, was paid twice her normal rate, and left. Not a particularly lustful man, The Banker needed the woman as cover for his activities at the café, and had to follow through to prevent raising suspicions. The Banker checked his watch to see that he was still on schedule, and washed himself thoroughly. He never felt good after sex.
From the envelope, he withdrew a plastic hotel room key. A number had been written on it with a marking pen. The Banker subtracted three from each of the digits to calculate the room. After turning on the television, he quietly left his room and went to the stairs.
Inside the second room, he found trays of snacks on the bed: puff pastries filled with caviar, beigli and kifli (Hungarian rolls and cookies respectively) filled with poppy seed, walnuts and apricots. Bottles of water, arrack, vodka and cognac stood on the bureau. The Banker sampled one of the crispy beigli and paced back and forth.
Things were going well. The apricot begli reminded him that travel was the primary benefit of his job. Every important communication was made in person. Only appointments were made by telephone or internet. He had no permanent address. Hotels and dingy apartments were his reminder that the place he had once called home had been bombed and destroyed. He tried a kifli next, nibbling it while peering around the curtain at the driveway below.
A bearded man two floors above left the television playing in his room while he stepped into the stairwell and felt under the fire extinguisher for a plastic room key. Then, Hamza Rami he descended two flights to join al-Musrafi.
The Banker did not trust telephones or electronic communication. All of his meetings were face-to-face, and the appointments for such meetings were made in code.
The men greeted each other like old friends, praised Allah, and commented on the snacks. Finally, The Banker provided a verbal accounting of the money he was handling for “our brothers.” Their investments had increased by 19% over the past six months, praise be to Allah.
Hamza was flowery in his compliments, but had a concern. There was a rumor that The Banker carried an Israeli passport.
The Banker calmly watered his arrack, turning it from clear to milky white. “If you could explain how I could visit our Palestinian brothers with a Saudi passport, I would gladly do it.” He sipped his drink and nodded approval of the taste. “I sell cocaine and heroin to the Israeli mafia, and transport Ukrainian and Romanian women for them. I convinced my Israeli partners that I was a Portuguese Jew and they produced a passport—absolutely genuine—to expedite my travels. The shipments of drugs hide arms for the struggle.”
Hamza Rami did not approve of using criminal organizations of non-believers, but could not argue with the results. Hamza himself was not a religious fanatic. He did not truly trust those who were. Religious extremists are always splitting hairs, and may Allah protect you if the split does not go your way. Hamza was a nationalist and a regionalist. He believed that Arabs had been sleeping for too long, and that it was time they drove out the infidels and reclaimed their past glory.
Despite knowing him for years, Hamza did not know what drove al-Musrafi, but The Banker was definitely driven. His motivation was dark and hidden, Hamza suspected a personal tragedy caused by his enemies. There were many in the movement who pursued revenge. Such men could be trusted because their fire would never go out.
For his part, Al-Musrafi had little patience for the endless arguments among the organization’s leaders. He had worked for nearly two decades earning the trust of his colleagues and finding new streams of revenue. These commercial chores did not satisfy his hunger. He yearned for more direct involvement. He wanted to mount his own operation.
The conversation went on for another half hour discussing payments to other groups before The Banker broached the topic that was the reason for their meeting.
“I read that the Germans have broken another one of our efforts. We have not had much success lately in the West.” He sipped his drink and watched his colleague closely. “For some years,” The Banker continued, “I have been building a network throughout Europe and the United States. We can already move drugs, arms and money without detection. Therefore, I would like permission to draw 350,000 Euros to launch my own operation.” The Banker declined to give any details, arguing that there were too many leaks to risk telling anyone his plans. Even those involved would know only their parts and not the entire scheme. He estimated that once he had approval, the operation would take a year of preparation. In truth, the little man with the receding hairline had been trying for two years to bring all of the elements together, and now-- Now, he had to fight to control his excitement.
The bearded client tried to learn more, but understood that The Banker could very well have skimmed the money he was requesting without telling anyone. Hamza agreed to take the proposal back to the leadership.
This was good news to The Banker because he had already taken the money and was poised to put his scheme into effect within the next few weeks.