Sister Caterina, RGS, hurried back into her workroom after picking up the mail in the rectory front office. The post stamp on the envelope showed May 20, 1975-seven days ago-inside a red circle formed by the letters P h i l i p p i n e s.
It had been over three weeks since the last one, six months since the first. In that half-year period, she felt as if she'd known Mother Teofila most of her twenty-one years in the Church. Not including the six years between her postulancy, which she spent here in Rome and partly in Florence from the age of eighteen, and her final profession to sisterhood.
In the first letter which came soon after they spoke on the phone briefly about the Sister's year-long mission, the Filipino nun wrote how happy she was to have spoken to the Sister, and that she looked forward to working with her in their apostolate soon.
The island of Mindoro is a fascinating place to be, she wrote. There are great challenges that will put one's faith and endurance to a test. It is a place like many others in the Philippines where, by the grace of our Lord, your calling leads you directly to your flock. You see how little you've come with to give. It's never enough, but then you see how far it goes, how fast it multiplies, and you realize it's not the measure of giving that matters. It's the act of giving itself, regardless of how generous or how little.
Sister Caterina tore the envelope open and dove into the letter. Writing in her beautifully disciplined handwriting, Mother Teofila wrote first about the weather. Rain, rain and more rain, she wrote. For the past nine days now. It's good for the forests, the coconut trees, the fish in the shallow waters and the rice fields. But it's not good if you live in a house with a leaky roof, or if you have to travel to your ministry in a rural area through muddy roads.
And when it finally stops, the sun boils in the sky with a vengeance and bakes the earth. Then you need an umbrella, this time not against getting wet but against burning in the heat. But in the evening, the air cools and everything smells so fresh and fragrant from the tropical blossoms.
That's just part of what makes the island, the whole country, what it is along with the culture which was the result of more than three hundred fifty years of foreign rules, Spanish and American. I have never been to the countries you said you've traveled-in Africa and eastern Europe. I've only been out of the Philippines twice, once during a short visit to Hong Kong and again to Bangkok, and those are places closer to home in many ways. So I couldn't begin to imagine how if I were you-having lived in a great city like Rome all my life, coming to live here for the first time-I would find it.
I once knew a Belgian missionary who came here for the first time. I worked with her for a while and we got to know each other very well. She had since left to retire in Belgium, about two years ago, after living here for thirty years. That gives me some idea.
Mother Teofila then wrote about the work ahead of them.
Sister Caterina's living space as well as that of her aide, the young and newly professed Sister Natala, and their office in the convent would be ready for them when they arrived in the first week of June.
Father Benedicto himself, the Vicar Forane of the Good Shepherd Vicariate of the Apostolic Vicariate of Calapan, Oriental Mindoro, had put together a committee to officially welcome the Sisters from Rome and to take them to a reception banquet in Victoria, the parish where their mission operations would be based. Speaking of the mission, there is much to be discussed not only between them, the Sisters and Mother Teofila, but with other people, among them the Vicar, the parochial school Director, Principal and some community leaders. It's best, wrote the Mother, that they wait till the Sisters get settled first after they've arrived and had a little time to adjust to the climate and the culture. There's no need to rush. They'll have plenty of time to get down to work once they got started.
Later in the day, Sister Natala, a modest but intelligent young woman of twenty-three years came to her office. Like Sister Caterina, everyday as their departure date drew nearer, she awaited any news from Mindoro; any word about the mission. Her face lit up as soon as Sister Caterina showed her the letter. She sat in a corner of the office and read it anxiously.
Nine days later, the Sisters left the routine of daily life in their parish in Rome, in the school, the church, the rectory, the Residence of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. They took a jet plane to the Far East via Frankfurt and Bangkok and, after being airborne for over sixteen hours altogether, they landed in the sizzling summer of Manila.
The following day, after yet another two-hour journey by bus from Manila south to the city of Batangas and a ferry-boat ride from there to Calapan City, the capital of the province of Oriental Mindoro, Sister Caterina finally met Mother Teofila. From the moment they laid eyes on each other, it looked as if they'd met many times before and now after a long separation, were brought together again. The two nuns put their arms around each other for a moment then held each other at arm's length with happy smiles on their faces. The welcoming committee let them have their moment for a while before they gathered them in a bus and took them to the reception banquet in the church hall in Victoria.
It was the beginning of a close friendship that was to develop over many months. Months of building a school and shelters for the underprivileged in the surrounding rural areas, ministering to them daily, bringing them sustenance, both material and spiritual. As Mother Teofila had written in her letter, Sister Caterina found out how true it was that she did not have enough to give. She wished, after several months, that she could give more of her time if nothing else, but even that quickly ran out.
A whole year passed. When it was time for her to leave, she felt grievously that she had barely accomplished her part of the mission. But her time was up. The young Sister Natala would stay to carry on with the work in the mission as part of her continuing formation in her sisterhood.
In her daily prayers, Sister Caterina thanked God for having allowed her the privilege to serve 'this flock'. She gave thanks for the time she shared her life with these poor and innocent ones, and most important of all for having come to know and work with Mother Teofila.
In the short year she was with her, there were many things she learned from the Mother, not just about their apostolic life, but about herself-her own weaknesses and how to correct them, her own virtues and how to enhance them.
Yet, even more than that, Mother Teofila taught her what she had always believed she understood of the virtue of kindness and humility. This came to light when the two of them went to a Barangay (a council district similar to a barrio or a village) near the foot of the 8,400-foot Mt. Halcon. There, they met a fifty-seven year old man, a former Japanese Army officer who after the war lost himself in the jungles and became what was known as a straggler.
There were several Japanese stragglers found in the island years after the war. Many of the Filipinos wanted them executed but the peacetime authorities, with the urging of the Church, prevailed to have them rehabilitated and returned to their homeland. Captain Hiroshi Yamada was found in 1960, fifteen years after the war. When he was brought into the parish church in Calapan where then Sister Teofila first met him, he was full of shame and, he told her, he should have killed himself. He was a well-educated man, had traveled to Europe and America before the war and spoke several languages.
He could not be persuaded to return to Japan. Through the support of the Church in the parish and the personal guidance of Sister Teofila, he remained in the country, converted to Christianity from Shintoism and devoted his life to making up for the suffering the war had brought to the islands.
Earlier, he was constantly threatened with death by some men who were survivors of the victims of Japanese war atrocities. Sister Teofila learned of these men and spoke words to them that Sister Caterina would remember for a long time.
"Be kind to your enemy," Sister Teofila said to the men in Tagalog. "Do not be cruel to him, even as he might have been to you. For what good is a victory if it turns you into your enemy?"
Working as a member of the laity with the apostolates of the diocese for years, the missionaries, the nuns and the priests of various religious orders, Hiro-as he later became known to everyone-won the acceptance of the community. Soon, no one seemed to even remember who or what he was before. He was looked upon with reverence, especially among the Mangyans, the indigenous tribe of Mindoro to whom he demonstrated acts of kindness, humility and the respect most Filipinos would not afford them. He found peace in himself and brought it to everyone he touched.
On their way back to the mission office from the Barangay, Mother Teofila summed up what she saw as the working of the grace of God in the life of Hiroshi Yamada as well as the people he served.
"You can see," she said, in her eyes an outpouring of that forgiving look that reached out into Sister Caterina's soul. "In kindness, there is no greater wisdom. In humility, no greater peace."
It had been eleven years since an Italian-American who immigrated to America twenty-two years before as a five-year old boy, returned to Rome for a visit. He went back to America with a bride he met in Florence. The bride was Sister Caterina's younger sister Cecilia.
The siblings hadn't seen each other since then until four years ago when Sister Caterina went to a world congregation of the Sisters of the Religious of the Good Shepherd in Washington, D.C. Cecilia was having a time of her life then as a happy wife and mother of two-a five-year old girl and a two-year old boy.
It was a sad day when Sister Caterina left Mindoro. She wished she could have stayed longer. Another year or two, perhaps more. She promised Mother Teofila and everyone in the mission she would work out something in Rome to return as soon as possible.
She flew out of the country with great reluctance, a heart sad but filled with the satisfaction of having given of herself all she could. It was an enriching one year of her life and she looked forward to adding to it.
In the meantime, she had this four-week sabbatical ahead of her that she would spend in America to see her sister Cecilia in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. She couldn't wait to share Mindoro with her. Mother Teofila, Hiro, the Mangyans, the local people, the places they live in. But more than all that, she wanted Cecilia to be the first to hear of the words of Mother Teofila. The message that had etched itself in her mind, in her soul, from the day the Mother spoke it to her.
The siblings were never before happier to see each other again. Caterina stayed with Cecilia and her family, in a room next to the children's, for two weeks. The rest of the month she kept busy with Church activities in the Capital area.
Cecilia's children were darlings. The girl was now a pretty nine-year old, the boy a handsome six-year old first-grader. At first, the boy was afraid to come near the woman who suddenly started living with them in the next room and came out into the house dressed in that strange garb with a hood over her head. Cecilia took care of this by explaining to him what nuns are and why they dress and live like they do.
The girl knew better and quickly got acquainted with her aunt. It was with her that Sister Caterina, one day, unexpectedly found herself sharing the words of Mother Teofila.
Several days before, the niece got into a fight with a girl, a schoolmate her age who lived three houses down the block. The quarrel was over a book the neighbor claimed the niece had borrowed sometime ago and wanted to have back. The niece insisted she had returned it, the other insisted she hadn't. It went back and forth resulting with the neighbor avoiding the niece and refusing to even talk to her. The niece did the same and from being friends and neighbors, they became enemies.
In the mornng of this day, a Saturday, the niece was sharing a moment with the aunt on the front porch. The girl told Sister Caterina that she saw the neighbor at school carrying the book that broke up their friendship but the neighbor would not acknowledge it and continued to refuse to talk.
"I hate her," said the niece. "I don't care if she never spoke to me again. It's not my fault. She made a mistake and she doesn't want to admit it. I'll never speak to her again either. Ever!"
Sister Caterina took out an English copy of the Holy Bible she always kept handy. She placed it on her lap with the back cover up and laid a hand over it.
"It's not good to let hate come between you," she said to her niece.
"But she won't admit she was wrong!"
"There's nothing you can do if she wants to be that way, sweetheart," said Sister Caterina gently. "The important thing is-you know you're right. You know the truth. You've won the argument. You have a victory."
"I hate her! I hate her! I hope something bad happens to her." The girl was nearly crying with anger. Sister Caterina put an arm over her shoulder and comforted her.
"Now, you really didn't mean that, sweetheart," she said. "You wouldn't want someone wishing something bad to happen to you, or to someone you love. It's cruel. Whatever anybody has done to you to make you feel bad, you don't want to do to her or to anybody else."
"But why not?"
"Because then you would be no different than her." Here, Sister Caterina lifted the back cover of the Holy Bible and showed her the words of Mother Teofila which she had handwritten on the inside of it. "This was said to me by a very nice Mother nun in the Philippines not long ago," she said. "I wrote it here so I won't ever forget."
Be kind to your enemy. Do not be cruel to him,
even as he might have been to you.
For what good is a victory
if it turns you into your enemy?
In kindness, there is no greater wisdom.
In humility, no greater peace.
They sat motionless for a while as they both read it in silence. Then the girl inched closer to Sister Caterina, leaning on her slightly. The angry look had vanished. In its place, an expression of calm and regret as she turned her face up to her aunt. "I'm sorry, Sister," she murmured. "So sorry."
"You're forgiven," said the nun. "Now, the next thing to do is patch things up between the two of you and be friends again."
"One of you will have to break the ice. And since you're the one who's here, you're it. Don't worry. I'll help you. It'll work out."
They walked to the neighbor's house a few minutes later and knocked on the door. The niece, holding behind her red and white roses held together by a rubber band, hid behind the aunt as they waited for someone to open the door. Sister Caterina had to work her up to this a little.
A girl, not the soon-to-be-friend-again, opened the door. She was bigger and older than the other girls probably by at least four years, and even prettier. Once she saw the nun standing outside, she backed up wide-eyed and called out to her mother inside. A woman came to the door quickly and showed surprise at seeing the nun. But she managed to bring on a smile and didn't back off in mortal fear as did her daughter.
Sister Caterina introduced herself and explained what her visit was about. No, it's not a charity solicitation. No, she's not going around the neighborhood recruiting young girls for the convent life. She came to help the two young girls become friends again.
The mother said that her daughter wanted the same and that she had tried to talk to the nun's niece but the latter wouldn't speak a word to her. It turned out the niece was the one who was being stubborn and not telling part of the truth about the continuing break in their friendship.
When they finally got the two face to face, Sister Caterina prodded her niece to step up to her neighbor and offer the flowers for their reconciliation. The two women watched happily as the two children made up. The daughter accepted the flowers and thanked her friend. They shook hands and gave each other a hug and they were off together to the niece's house to get back to their Saturday morning routine of watching the 'toons on TV.
Her last week at Cecilia's house, Sister Caterina saw the mother a few more times and they became well acquainted. She learned that the woman, Minnah (Arabic for kindness, politeness), was herself in a situation in life, one that may not be as simple to 'patch up' as that between neighbors with a gift of roses on a Saturday morning. Both she and her husband were Lebanese. She was a Christian and he a Muslim. They were moving back to Lebanon the following year for business reasons back home, she said.
During one of their talks when Minnah visited the Sister, she said that her husband was not as open about his religious beliefs in Islam as she was trying to be with hers in Christianity. He was very strong-minded about it with her and the children, the two girls. But Minnah was no pushover herself, as Sister Caterina saw in the way she talked about her husband. She stood up to him, she said, when he required everyone in the family to read and study the Koran and no other religious book-meaning, the Holy Bible. She claimed he stole the only copy she had of it and wouldn't give it back. He denied it. They had a constant battle. She went as far as threatening separation to soften him up.
And she did.
The next time she visited the Sister, she reported that he had backed off some and was allowing the family to read both the holy books. But he still refused to admit he took and hid her copy of the Holy Bible. She began to have doubts about what really happened to it. Maybe she simply lost it and he really didn't have anything to do with its disappearance.
Anyway, now that she had him in good measures, she told the Sister, she didn't really mean her threat of separation. She knew he had some soft spots in him and she knew how to get to them. Sister Caterina couldn't help feeling amused at knowing this, and glad, rather than seriously concerned about the future of this family. She decided she would save Minnah the trouble of getting a new copy of the Holy Bible and went into her room for a minute to get her copy to give her.
"Please take this," she said, putting it on Minnah's lap.
"No, I can not," Minnah refused. "I will get my own."
"Please," the Sister insisted. "I want you to have it. My gift to you and your family."
She took the book and held it to her breast in both hands. "Thank you, Sister," she said, her eyes brimming with gratitude.
They were sitting out in the front porch and it was around the time in the afternoon school busses started dropping kids off from school. Just then, Minnah saw her eldest daughter get off the bus. The girl headed their way upon seeing her mother waving at her to come over.
Minnah asked how was school. "Fine," the daughter responded politely, still feeling her way in the presence of the nun.
"Look," Minnah said, showing her the book. "We have a new bible. Sister Caterina just gave it to us as a gift."
The girl's face lit up. "Oh, that's wonderful," she said, taking the book from her mother, looking at it happily and holding it close to her like her mother did. "This is really wonderful especially coming from a..."
Minnah caught on quickly during this one awkward moment and intervened.
"By the way, you haven't been properly introduced," she said, looking at one and then the other. "This is Sister Caterina," she said, turning first to her daughter and holding out a hand to the nun. And then going the other way, she said: "Sister, this is the one who ran away from you the other day, my eldest daughter-Kamilah."
The four weeks seemed to have come and gone in only half the time, just like the year in Mindoro. Now it was another day to fly away, to say goodbye again to people she loved.
"Will you come back soon?" asked the niece, her whole family standing behind her at the passenger departure concourse of Dulles International in Virginia.
"Of course, I will, sweetheart. I promise," Sister Caterina said, already thinking of her return trip to Mindoro, hopefully not too long from now.
"Say goodbye now to Sister Cathy," Cecilia said to her family. "We don't want her to miss her airplane."
Everyone said goodbye to the Sister and gave her a hug. When it was her turn, the niece said: "'rivadarci, Sister Cathy."
The nun bent down to the girl affectionately for the hug and said in her natural Italian: "Arrivederci."
Office of Civil Defense Logistics, Treasury Department. Sounds so...tactical, militaristic, protective. One wonders where else in the country can you hear something like that, find an office-name like that, except in Washington, or inside the Capital Beltway. Geographically it's in Virginia, on the ninth floor of a glass high-rise among several at Skyline Center near Bailey's Crossroads on Route 7 just inside Fairfax County from Arlington County on the north and Alexandria City on the south.
Coming out of the elevator, you saw it as the doors slide open, spelled in sharp white letters on a marble panel above a glass wall with a pair of double glass doors. And one wonders what went on beyond those doors, past the reception counters, behind yet another pair of doors, these ones of solid metal finish. To Robert Grundell, 42, who had been in and out of those doors the last ten of his fifteen-year career with the federal government as a program analyst, nothing much.
If it's talking about his career with OCDL, not a hell of a lot. Not as far as promotion, recognition and respect are concerned. Ask anybody in the office, including those assholes in management who had kept him down at the bottom of the career advancement ladder. Even those they had favored for promotion over him. They know what's going on in this office, but none of them would talk about it. They simply want to make the impression that... that's just the way things are around here. And there's simply nothing he can do about it, except maybe get himself another job someplace else.
Now, talking about the job, what he did and how much of it he did, it was a different story. There's a lot going on, a lot he did over the years, most often more than he was called upon in the duties and responsibilities listed in his position description.
There's handling highly critical-sensitive data created within the office and coming in from other federal agencies, top-secret documents both civilian and military, to providing security to these information and conducting background checks on anybody requesting access to any of the information; designing a computer system for the storage and processing of the data and managing the operation and maintenance of the system to keeping track of the IT people working on it. He did so much, and he did his job so well that when he thought about it, maybe that's why, ironically, he never got the recognition he thought he deserved.
Because everything worked so well-the project didn't go over budget and it was finished on time as the contractors had quoted, everybody thought everything he did was easy to do and, therefore, anybody else could have done it just as well, and perhaps even better.
For his sake then, it might have been better if he had deliberately botched up a couple of things here and there to show management how not so easy things really are if he didn't know what the hell he was doing or if they had picked some second-rate program analyst to do the job. Make them see the difference, what kind of service they get and realize how tough things could get without the right man on the job. Then maybe they would have appreciated him more.
This was a few years ago and nothing had changed. At this point, he had resolved that the only thing to stop the aggravation is to get away from it, get another job. Fine. They win. Who gives a shit anymore. The first job he sees out there that fits his resume, he's out of here. But this resolve amounted to no more than a quiet wish, a mute idea. Unless he got extremely lucky, spotted a job-posting in another agency that matched his credentials and beat all the other applicants to it, he knew he wasn't going anywhere.
So, what's left to do besides wallowing in the aggravation? Maybe get even. Give them back some of the aggravation. Play the same game they play on him. Fuck it. Why not? Sabotage their career, do things to make them look bad but make sure to leave no traces. The worst thing could happen is they find out he was doing it. So, then what-make his life miserable? They couldn't do better than the way they've been doing it for years now.
They could fire him. But that could take ages if he contested which he'll of course do. Also, that's really a two-way street. He could file grievances against them too. Write them up and get the EEO on their backs like the minorities did all the time. And did he have plenty to write and substantiate as well.
He and his lawyer-could have personnel dig up all the hiring and promotion that had taken place in the office, say, the last five years and see how each one was done, if the jobs were posted in a timely manner for all applicants to get a shot at the opening, how a promotion was justified, examine the performance and accomplishments of the successful candidates at the time and match them against those who weren't selected then scrutinize them in detail. Open up every can of worms there is.
Fuck it, maybe that's what he'll do if they got to that. Why not? Could be fun.
Today, this was just what he was thinking, looking through the tinted glass window in his office at the 4:00 o'clock traffic on Route 7 and the shopping plaza across, nine stories below. Earlier, he had received data from OSERS of the Interior Department headquarters in D.C. about the completion of the last of the three projects they had out in the Midwest. There will be an opening celebration with a dedication ceremony at each one of them. Most of the members of the senate Subcommittee on Water and Power, about a half a dozen U.S. senators, will take a ceremonial train ride to North Dakota and Montana from Washington, D.C., and Treasury had designated OCDL to manage security and safe passage for the senators, round trip, throughout the scheduled activities.
Now, what he could do is play with this assignment. Like maybe put the senators on a train to Juneau, Alaska instead. Or detour them down to Vegas for a night. That would be a sure bet to make his boss, Milton Pheasant, head of Interstate Logistics Division, red in the face, and Pheasant's boss, the Treasury Undersecretary for the Office of Civil Defense Logistics, shit in his pants when he had to answer to the senators and maybe even Congress. Then maybe one of them, or both, could get fired before any of them could find out what he did and fire him.
It was time to go home but even this wasn't a welcome relief from his life at work. He had nobody to go home to, not since four years ago when he and his ex first separated and it became permanent through the divorce a year later, after a barren five-year marriage. He went out to the singles scenes in the Virginia suburbs, dated some the past couple of years but none of that came to anything life enhancing.
It was mid-October and there was a good hour and a half of daylight left. He felt it was too early to go home and decided to go over to the Palm Grove, a short walk across the Skyline Plaza, as he did occasionally, for a drink. There he sat at a tiny table for two in a high bar stool facing the TV hung below the ceiling. A baseball game was on. It sounded like a recap or re-run of the latest game of the World Series.
Across the room, sitting at the far end of the bar, two men watched him turn away from the TV a minute later to get his order of beer from the server. One was taller, heavier and older than the other by a whole generation. Late forty, early fifty at least. They were dark-complexioned, Middle-Eastern, both bearded. The younger one said something to the other, nodding at the subject of their attention and took a sip of the drink in his hand. Then he put a grin of familiarity on his face as he left the other man at the bar and began to approach Robert.
"Bobby!" he greeted as he stood beside Robert at the little table. "What a pleasant surprise."
"Ahmed, my man," Robert said, genuinely happy to run into his nextdoor neighbor at the garden apartment building in South Arlington where he had moved to since the separation. "Have a seat, my man. Have a seat."
"So, how was it today?" asked Ahmed Khalifa, a native resident of Hyderabad, Pakistan to the age of twenty-seven when he succeeded in getting a tourist visa to Canada three years ago for a visit made necessary by a very sick close relative. It turned out to be a very long visit which had stalled his return to Pakistan indefinitely. "Long day? Busy day? Happy day?"
"Shitty day, as usual. But now I feel better 'cause I'm out of there."
"Ow, c'mon, it couldn't be that bad. Don't forget how lucky you are to have a job nowadays. And a government job at that. A career job."
"Yes, and some career it turned out to be too," Robert said after downing a third of the beer in the mug. "And how was your day, hotshot?"
Ahmed laughed. More than three years after he finally escaped a life of nothing but material hardship to look forward to, he hadn't exhausted the pleasure of seeing these north Americans take the ease and comfort and security of their social, economic and political life for granted.
He'd like to, if he could, take this Bobby to Karachi or Calcutta one day, leave him there for a month, maybe even only a week in a one-room apartment without heating, air-conditioning, television and with no car and nothing to do but forage in the public market everyday with just a pocketful of rupees to find something to eat and at the same time see some of the lowest of all the lowest of human conditions possible on the face of the earth. Then we'll see how much he appreciates his 'shitty government job' and the quality of life it affords him. He'd probably go back to work and, first thing in the morning, see his boss whom he said he hates and kiss his hand and feet, maybe even offer to get him coffee and donut.
In the seven months since he moved in the one-bedroom across the courtyard from Robert, it had been like they knew each other from twenty years back in some old hometown. They went out to singles bars weekends occasionally, watched a ballgame on TV in one or the other's living room over beer and pizza and got to knew each other pretty well. However, there was no telling how much one really let the other into his closet.
Robert had a thought at first about whether or not the Pakistani was an illegal alien. What he'd heard from the man, so far, began with his two years in Toronto, Canada where he first landed with a six-month visitor's visa he later managed to convert, with some relatives vouching for him, to a student visa which allowed him to work parttime at certain times of the year. Then, after completing a curriculum at a tech school in Toronto, on to Detroit where he got a job offer from MidEast Continental, Ltd. which petitioned the INS for his working visa. The company traded in Middle East oil, owned part of several refineries in Canada and the U.S. and operated a chain of gasoline stations in Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore and the Capital area.
After six months in a desk job in Detroit, he was picked for the job in the Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. to help run the gas station operation here as an assistant to one of the area managers. Sounds legit enough, thought Robert.
Anyway, what the hell did he care? The man appeared civilized enough, was educated, friendly and made good company. And so he didn't mind at all when Ahmed took the liberty of calling him Bobby after hearing an uncle visitng from Ohio a few months ago call him that while the three of them were watching an Orioles game. Only thing was, Ahmed liked to cook that curry stuff which sometimes stinks up the whole place. But even that, Robert-Bobby-didn't mind as much now since Ahmed had invited him over for dinner a couple times and he actually liked the dish.
Ahmed didn't care much either who he came to know in Robert Grundell as long as Robert didn't start acting like some of those snotty Canadians he met at school and at work. Prejudiced, ignorant, narrow-minded. All that considering the country was practically made up of new immigrants from all over the world as well as first generation Canadians, many of those very same snotty ones he encountered whose parents surely must have gone through the same shit they were dishing out on him. That's why he didn't have a second thought about coming to the U.S. the first chance he got.
Here, he didn't think he'd run into as much of that ugly stuff, thinking as he'd heard from many people both sides of the border that this is an older more established society of immigrants and that people here are long past that, more liberal and intelligent. Not only that. There are all kinds of laws-civil rights laws, human rights laws, equal opportunity laws that are enforced and work equally even for those in the lowest rank in society, and even for immigrants.
Of course there are some people, Americans, who still wallow in their old prejudices. Racial, cultural, religious. And he had run into a few of them in Detroit and here in the Washington Capital area. But so far, those he'd known who were the opposite had made him feel better about himself, and life in America. This included Robert although as a rule, after what he'd experienced and seen happen with others of his kind-dark-skinned, south Asian or Middle-Eastern, Muslim, he was always cautious, tentative, distrustful especially about throwing his allegiance to any persuasion and giving up any part of his own.
He could almost say he considered Bobby not just a neighbor with whom he knocked down a six-pack in front of the TV once in a while, but a friend. But he can't say he gave a shit either if he never saw him again. The reason was, everything in this country, this culture, felt so temporary, so fast-paced and quick-changing that it didn't make sense to feel any attachment to anything, or anybody. You just can't nail anything down.
"I had a nice day today, thanks for asking," he replied to Bobby who had turned his face back up at the game on TV. "A good friend of my boss dropped by this afternoon but he, my boss, had to leave early-some family errand he had to do for his wife-and I ended up taking his place. Boss for a half a day. So I took care of the man. We had a late lunch at the Olive Garden across the street and came here for a drink."
"Who's he?" asked Bobby.
"He's one of the major stockholders of the company. He's sitting right there at the bar. Mr. Abu Kamal Ramshallah."
"Moving up in the world, aren't we?" said Bobby after glancing at the man in what looked like a million-dollar suit and tie. "Swimming with the big fish, power-lunching with the elite, huh?"
"No big deal, man. He's just another small fish in a big tank. The big ones are in Michigan. Besides, I just happened to know him personally myself back when I was in Detroit. Actually, he recommended me for the job here."
A big uproar in the game suddenly interrrupted them and for a moment they watched three Yankees touch home base.
"I hate those damn Yankees," Bobby said after almost emptying the beer mug. "Why can't anybody else be as good as they are? Or better."
"They are better than everybody else and there's nothing anybody can do about it. That's the way the game is played, man. You got to be better than everybody else."
"No, no. In this game, you got to have the best hitters and pitchers there are. And you know how you do that?"
"Yes, yes, I know," Ahmed said. "You buy them, steal them from anybody you can get them from."
"Exactly. And that's what I hate about this whole business of the big league ballgames. Everytime I think about a twenty-five-year old player being lured to play a team for seven million bucks a year for six years, and a signing bonus of two million to start with, I feel like... like I could throw up."
"It's disgusting. Here I am, forty-two years old, working in this piddly-shit government job for fifteen years now and probably for the next fifteen, for an annual salary this guy under thirty years old right here on the mound," Bobby said, now pointing up at the TV set, "earns in two innings."
"You should've gone into sports. Did you ever play the game?"
"Baseball? Yeah, in high school. First base. I was a lead hitter too."
"I should've stayed with it."
"Why didn't you?"
"That's not the thing to do at the time. Nobody thought it's any way to make a buck. No. Gotta finish high school, go to college and get a good job."
"That's the sure way. And there's nothing wrong with that. If you think about it, things could've been worse. You could've dropped out of high school and now might have been delivering pizza or shoveling dirt in a construction site or doing some blue-collar job like that to make a buck."
That brought Bobby's eyeballs to level with Ahmed's from the TV set.
"You know, that's one advantage you guys just come from a Third World country have over us homegrown folks," he said, sizing up the Pakistani man. "You know the difference, and you remember it."
"We've seen worse than you ever did, not just on TV, but in person."
"I know. I have an idea, but-that doesn't change the situation I'm in where I am now. Heck, I understand a twenty-something guy getting paid seven million a year if somebody thinks he's worth it for what he does and is willing to pay him that kind of money. But I don't get it when a guy does good in his job, me to be exact, makes everybody else look good especially his freakin' bosses, and gets his career fucked up instead."
"What can you do? Anything?" asked Ahmed.
"What the hell can I do? Yes, there's lots of things I can do-"
"You know, for what you told me about your job," Ahmed interrupted, "it sounds like you do very responsible and important things for your office handling top security data for the government."
"Darn right I do."
"Some people would pay you a lot for doing that kind of work, someplace else, for somebody else."
"Yeah, I thought about that. Getting another job."
"I don't mean that, exactly. Tell me," Ahmed said, pausing a moment to eye Bobby as if to scrutinize how the man fit in his clothes. "How pissed are you at your boss, your job, the whole stituation where you are?"
"What do you mean pissed? I've told you lots of times and I'll tell you again, I am pissed. Irritated, angry, frustrated. How else can I tell you how that feels?"
"Pissed enough to make something out of it?"
"Like I said, a lot of money."
"Where? How? What kind of money?"
Ahmed turned to look at his companion at the bar and raised a hand slightly in his direction to give a signal.
"Listen, man, I got to get back to Kamal over there," he said to Bobby, "I told him I'd just be a moment to say hello to my neighbor. Let's talk about this some more later, if you want." He picked up his drink and started to move.
"How much money are you talking about?" Robert asked quickly.
"I'll call you tonight and we'll talk some more, okay? Bobby?" Ahmed said, giving Bobby a light jab on the shoulder as he stepped away towards the bar. "Take it easy."
"Alright. Talk to you later."
The E320 Mercedes eased out of the Skyline Center parking lot and headed west on Route 7 to Tysons Corner.
"Back to the hotel, Ghulan," Abu Kamal Ramshallah told the driver, shifting to a more comfortable position in his end of the back seat facing Ahmed Khalifa from whom he awaited hopefully some good news.
"Yes, sir," Ghulan Wahid, the driver, replied obediently even after chauffering his passenger most of the day, hanging out at parking lots patiently for stretches in between destinations.
"So, how did you do?" asked Abu Kamal.
"Very well, I would say," replied Ahmed in a measured voice to the man who saved him from having to go back to Canada or, possibly, back to Pakistan.
Now, Abu Kamal, in a tone of voice to someone who owed him plenty: "And what is-very well?"
"It means that for a first attempt, I got a bite. The man is angry, as I told you I thought he is. And he is. I think we can get to him. But, still, I have to be a little careful."
After what Ahmed Khalifa told him the first time about this nextdoor neighbor of his who worked for the federal government with a Treasury and Pentagon top secret clearance, Abu Kamal Ramshallah-a Syrian, but also part Saudi, Egyptian, something else, and senior board member of MidEast Continental, Ltd., wouldn't rest till he heard more about what kind of a man this Bobby was. It sounded like a lot of potential, this civilian government employee and what he did at work-maintaining an information system that passed top security data between civilian and military agencies involving the whole intelligence circuit of the United States, local and state to federal government level.
Goddamn! This guy could be a gold mine of information.
His bosses in Detroit were ecstatic when he mentioned this to them last month. And soon after that, they said they got the go ahead from Cairo to work on the guy, with instructions to be as 'generous' as they needed to be.
So the next time they got together, he told Ahmed see what kind of an American Bobby is: a southerner? a redneck? a northerner? a westerner? Listen what comes out of his mouth when he talks about things like God and country. Is he a radical or a moderate what-Democrat or Republican? Is he the patriotic type or the type who doesn't give a shit who he works for like if Toyota bought the whole country, as long as he eats well and drives a nice car?
Next, figure out how stupid or how smart he is. Is he a thinker? An intellectual? When you're in his apartment, look at the bookshelves and see what he's got in there and talk about books. Find out his ideology, his beliefs. Is he a Jew? A Christian? And which type is he of either-a Conservative? Reform? Catholic? Protestant?
Ahmed told him everything he already knew: definitely not a redneck; man's from Cleveland, Ohio, born and raised; married five years, divorced, no children.
"He told me he voted Democrat the last presidential election but he said never again," Ahmed related. "He's a Presbyterian of some kind but does not do anything about it. Does not go to service, nothing. A thinker? As far as his work is concerned, yes. He sounds like a very capable worker. I don't think he's an intellectual. Not that kind of thinker, anyway. He's not a politician so he's not a radical, I know this from his attitude particularly about his office. 'Parasites, phoneys, high-salaried assholes, that's what most of them are,' he says about the people in his office especially those in management.
"He's on his own, an individual whose only concern is his own. That's why I said I think we can get to him. It's not like we'd have to worry about a whole bunch of other people. Now, stupid? He's the kind of man who would hate to be made to feel stupid, by his own doing or by someone else's. I think he feels stupid about his situation at work but doesn't want to admit it to himself because he can't do anything about it right now. This is how I see us doing business with him."
Abu Kamal sat back, looking pleased. With a small grin under the beard on one side of his mouth, he said: "So, somebody offers him a half a million dollars for some classified government information which he can spill out to a diskette from the database in less than two minutes, he certainly wouldn't want to feel stupid by turning it down, after all these years of getting treated like a piece of shit by the office, huh?"
Ahmed didn't say a word and just let that sink in between them, bobbing his head ever so thoughtfully with that same grin the other man had on his face.
"Very good," Abu Kamal said next, more like thinking it. "Very good. Work on that angle. Dangle a carrot"
"That's where I'm at right now," Ahmed said and proceeded to tell what kind of bite he got from Bobby before he withdrew quickly lest the man start getting leary. You don't dangle a bait, let your quarry take big bites at once and risk making it look too good to be true. Although with this one, Ahmed expressed with confidence, he was almost sure they faced very little risk. They could offer to buy some classified information from this very disgruntled, itching-to-get-even employee for a certain amount of money and he'd accept with no qualms at all.
"I'll start him with a small offer," Ahmed continued.
"Good. I'll tell you what the deal is," said Abu Kamal. "If he accepts, pay him. And once you're sure he's in the bag, so to speak, I want to meet him."
Job. Love. Health. Family. Personal interests.
Chris Phillips, at 35, sitting in his ten-by-twelve office in this government job he'd had for seven years now, ran that through his head. He did this every now and then when something or somebody stimulated him to do so. It was a self-evaluation of his life, to check where he was headed, how far along he was, and if he was headed in the right direction.
At the moment, the stimulus was a man who just went past his door and sat in the office next to him-Homer Pinckney: 53, 27 years government service, divorced, three kids, single, dateless, depressed most of the time, ran up the health office in the fourth floor at least twice a month thinking he was having a stroke or a heart attack.
The guy was a specimen of midlife deterioration. A case like that, when he sees it, Chris Phillips wished there was some way he or somebody could intervene. But, hell, for every Homer here, there's dozens, hundreds of other Homers out there, everywhere. Who knows? Besides, he had his own life to worry about, steer in the right direction, not where Homer is now. He's working on it. And he's pretty much on track, he thought.
Now, the job? He believed he could do better in another agency if he's willing to fight for it, be a top bullshitter, a sleazy politician, an asshole like the few they had in the office now. But it's just not worth it, turning into somebody he didn't want to be. Besides, it's tight in government now with all the downsizing and job freezes all around, not just here in the Capital area but all over the country.
He could live with what he had now, salarywise, workwise, as a program analyst with the Office of Socio-Economic Reserve and Security of the Department of the Interior in the agency's headquarters in Washington, 19th St. NW and Virginia Avenue. And he earned his GS-13 paycheck as a socio-economic program specialist handling vital government data for OSERS, keeping them current by monitoring the country's human resource and natural energy reserves, keeping the information secure and sharing it with other authorized agencies.
It's a lot of work but it's challenging. And he liked it. Kept him busy. The only sore spot here, at work, was a little bit about some of the people. The usual government deadwoods, the make-work paper-shufflers, the bullshitter politicians riding on the backs of those who produce real work, the vintage assholes. But at this point in his work career-including three years in private industry before government, he didn't mind.
Experience had upped his tolerance enough to accept the fact that assholes are everywhere and there's no getting rid of them. Things could've been worse. Things had been worse as he'd seen in his other jobs, in private industry and the two prior government jobs where he lasted exactly a year each: first with the Military Personnel Command of the Department of the Army where it took the entire top brass of the Command to move a piece of paper from one desk to another all day long, sometimes all week long if nobody's around, and the Air Force Information Service Center in the Pentagon where the whole place crawled with high-paid bureaucrats, civilian and military, who knew and did no more than be loud, look good and kiss ass.
Here at Interior, he felt better putting in his forty hours a week, for seven years now. Not only that there were less of what he saw in his other government jobs but because there were some, enough, of those like him, and Homer Pinckney who was actually a productive worker, to balance against the assholes and the politicians.
Next-love. Relationship. Involvement. Entanglement. Or whatever people like to call it these days.
Currently, it's Julie going on two full years now. Julie Santorelli, 36, divorced, math teacher at St. James College in Falls Church, Virginia. That's her maiden name which she never gave up when she got married and was glad she didn't after it was over three years later.
Julie is 100% Italian. Well, Italian-American. Her family saga goes: grandparents with three small kids-two boys and a girl-left Rome for America two years after WW II. The two boys survived, the girl died of dysentery. Father, the oldest child, went back for a visit twenty years later and met mother in Florence, brought her to America; two years later had a baby girl.
Like the job, there were precedents to Julie. But none of them made the distance this relationship had so far gone. Not much more than whole weekends together, the dinner-and-movie routine or an out-of-town holiday vacation drive on occasions, but nowhere near talking live-in full time as they were now exploring seriously.
She told him she loved him, a lot. He told her he cared about her, deeply. She never pressed the issue of making him say the three big words to her. She figured if it's there it's just there and if it's not, she wouldn't want to hear about it anyway. This was one thing Chris liked about Julie: she's level-headed. Not just liked but loved about her, among other things.
They got along well, shared interests in different kinds of book, music, history. They fought over stuff in the guise of a mild disagreement. They were good friends. One paid attention to what the other was saying or might be ranting about. They kidded each other and laughed together. And they had good sex which they did at least twice a week at present.
He thought he's doing pretty good in that arena. Love, or whatever you want to call it.
And Health? Heck, for somebody in his mid-thirties, likewise, he knew he's in top shape. A lot better than many he'd seen his age: potbellied, balding if not graying, couch potato, high-cholesterol, kidney problem, emphysematic from smoking, beer-guzzler, you name it. He's none of that. In fact, he's the opposite of all of that.
He drank beer only with meals and he loved it, especially with steak or kabob. He didn't smoke, never did since he quit inhaling those Salem menthols twelve years ago when he started running instead. Running at first two miles every day till he built up to five a few months later. Now he ran three, four miles consistently-rain or shine all year round, every other day. And this was another thing Julie loved about him besides all the others they enjoyed doing together.
On his running day, she'd go out with him to the park and she'd walk while he ran. He'd finish first and join her walking the next fifteen, twenty minutes, the two of them side by side around the park talking, kidding around, having fun.
Next he thought about his family.
For a start, his mother and stepfather in Pittsburgh, his retired unmarried father in Manassas, Virginia and his only sibling, a brother five years his senior, in Falls Church, Virginia. But then he glanced at the time on the corner of the computer monitor screen-11:25 AM-and that broke his concentration, bringing him back to... lunchtime in a few minutes. Also, the weekly updates he was to give his boss and several inhouse and outside-agency analysts on a new database they were building. That was supposed to be at a meeting earlier at 10:30 this morning which was postponed till 2:30 this afternoon because Stan Ranceid (pronounced the same without the e), one of the analysts, a co-worker most people in the office avoided having anything to do with, couldn't make it and asked to move it later. There's one really irritating, rancid co-worker.
There wasn't much else to do after all the preparations he'd made for the meeting so he got on the internet and read the news. The system was annoyingly slow and while waiting for the news to download, that's when he saw Homer Pinckney and got into his life-overview exercise.
Now he turned to the news on the screen and read about an unidentified man, a runner or a walker, found dead on a street in a neighborhood in Arlington. Except for what appeared to be some house keys, he didn't carry one piece of information that might help identify him. The police put out a telephone number to call for anyone who might happen to have any lead on the identity of the man.
He sat motionless for a minute thinking about what he just read.
And about Julie.
She went out from her townhouse-condo in Fairfax City after work for a forty-minute walk a couple of times during the week. He remembered asking her if she carried any ID with her when she goes out and she said no. He made a lot of noise to her about it, telling her how irresponsibly dumb that is but she didn't pay much attention to it.
He carried an ID whenever he went out running. Whenever he went out anywhere. He used to carry his driver's license with him running but he thought of something better. He typed his name, address, SSN, license plate number, home and work phone numbers on one side of a piece of paper within two square inch. On the other side, he put 'Emergency Contact:' and under that the name and phone numbers of his brother who lived in Falls Church, Virginia. He made several copies and wrapped each one in double layers of transparent waterproof tape. Now he carried one copy in his wallet, one in his running shorts or pants when he went out and one he left in his car for reserve.
He ran yesterday, Monday, so he would go out again tomorrow, with Julie. She came during the week, usually Wednesday, after work. So now he clicked on the Microsoft Word and brought up the file ChrisID.doc. He replaced all the information in it with that of Julie, as much of it as he knew and saved the file as JulieID.doc. Then he called her cell phone.
"Hey, kiddo. Where are you?"
"On my way to my room from my 10:30 class," she said. "Next is lunch in half an hour. Brown bag today. Tuna salad and peach yogurt. How's life in government today?"
"I'm doing okay. Not much politics today and no assholes in sight. You coming over tomorrow, correct?"
"Unless otherwise noted."
"Don't forget to bring your walking gears. Running day tomorrow."
"Listen, I need some personal data from you. SSN, license plate number, and your mom's home and work phone numbers."
"What are you up to?"
"I'll tell you later. Tomorrow. Just let me have them."
"Whatever it is, better be good. Better than good," she said, entering her workroom and dropping papers and books from the last class on the desk. Without further inquiry, she gave him the information.
He typed the data, printed three copies of the document and made the two-inch square ID's out of it exactly the way he did his own. Tomorrow, no matter what she says, how paranoid and silly she thinks he is, he's going to make her carry one with her, leave one in her car and another in her purse. That's that. Now lunch.
On the way to the cafeteria downstairs, he detoured to the men's room but as he turned a corner, he found himself walking behind Stan Ranceid and Willie Gonzales, one of a rare few who didn't mind being within an arm's length of Stan. He thought he spoke too soon when he told Julie on the phone there were no assholes in sight.
He slowed down behind them and when he saw them go into the men's room, he turned around and went to the one downstairs near the cafeteria.
The days were getting shorter. And colder. But Chris liked that part of it. The autumn chill. He liked this season of the year better than all the others for running. He'd rather be cold on the outside and building up sweat on the inside than gasping for air on a hot and humid summer day. So he told Julie when she called before coming over, "Bring your sweatsuit and let's be out before it gets dark."
She got to his two-bedroom townhouse in Fairlington, a sober World War Two community in Arlington, a little after 5:30 carrying a tote bag containing a change of clothes for next day's work and her walking gear-sweatsuit and walking shoes and socks. Wednesdays had started to become routine-out to their run-walk venue, usually the nearby Fort Ward Park in Alexandria or the Episcopalian seminary campus across Braddock Road from the park, the Mt. Vernon trail at Old Town by the river and a couple of other places nearby; home-cooked dinner at his place, a little TV afterwards if there's a show anyone's interested in, or book-reading.
They nibbled on energy food, part of the routine, before going out. She on high-fiber crackers she pasted on one side with babaganoush, a spread made of eggplant and mayonnaise she learned to eat when she dated a jewish guy briefly. He on pitted California prunes he simply loved to chew on. Then they went to Fort Ward, a four-minute drive from his place in Fairlington which he usually covered on foot, running from his front door when he went out by himself. During the three-minute stretch at a picnic table nearby, he told her how he was going to do the three-mile run.
Once around the park on its 5-MPH road was six-tenths of a mile. When he first discovered the place several years ago, he ran the regular five laps around it and walked a sixth to wind down. Then some months later, it got monotonous and he would do just one or two laps inside the park then take off across Braddock to the sidewalks alongside the seminary grounds, do a mile out there then come back in to finish the run.
If she went the same way, what he would do was flip-flop every two or three minutes to stay with her and keep her company especially when it starts getting dark. She usually started out first, walking, then he would catch up with her after giving her a two-minute lead in the park. Today, he told her, he would do two laps inside then take off to the seminary.
"If we get separated, be back here at the car in forty minutes," he said, looking at his digital watch while she stepped backwards away from him checking her watch too.
"Worry wart," she kidded, hopping in place in her Nikes, sniffing the crisp early autumn air.
"Give or take three minutes, ok?"
"Yes, sir." And she was off.
He did some more stretches for one minute before switching his watch to the timer and starting it as he began the run, going the opposite direction at first for a half a minute then turning around to catch up with her. There weren't many people left in the early evening hour using the park. Some walkers and joggers, old ladies walking their dogs. None of the picnic benches were occupied. Not many cars either, parked or moving at the speeds of a little above the five-mile-an-hour limit. It was a good time to be out in the park.
He liked running here more than any other place in the area except perhaps by the river which she also liked even more. In two or three weeks, the leaves would start turning into blazing colors and later drift in the autumn wind to cover the ground. He wished this time of the year would last much much longer than it did.
Coming to a bend by the sunken amphitheater to the right where he had watched some local performers-country bands, folk dancers and singers in the summer, she came into view some two hundred yards away. It was here that he pulled out the face towel he had in his jacket pocket and spilled the two-inch square ID's, four of them, he had brought with him and forgotten to give her. He picked them up fast and sped up to catch up with her.
"Hey, you unidentified walking woman," he said, hopping by her side. "I got something for you."
She turned to him questioningly, keeping her pace, and said: "You talking to me?"
"Yes you, Ms. UWW."
"I'm sorry, but I don't know you. Please go away or I'll call the cops."
"How?" he asked. "You don't carry a cell phone." This was another thing he had nagged her about a couple times.
"I can scream."
"Here," he finally said, holding out the ID's to her, three of hers and one of his. "Carry one with you whenever you go out, especially when by yourself. Put it in a place near the door where you won't miss it going out of the house for a walk. Keep one in your purse and one in your car, ok? The other one there is mine."
She took them from him, saying with just a trace of skeptic disbelief in her smile: "My guardian angel. What'll I do without you? So, does this mean I can drop dead now, disappear, and nobody'll have to worry about it 'cause now I can be identified and be disposed of properly?"
"I wish you'd quit fooling around like that about this and be more serious, really," he said and told her about the news item on the unknown dead man he saw on the Internet yesterday. "So, carry that from now on and no more arguing about it."
"See you in a few minutes." He gave her a wink and sped up.
"Have a good run," she called after him, elated at seeing how concerned he was about her well-being even as she thought it, indeed, a little paranoid. But she didn't mind. In fact, she was touched, seeing it as a genuine sign of his caring, the value he placed in the part she played in his life.
When they first met at a friend's house-party nearly two years ago, she didn't think there was anything there between them. In fact, the first conversation they had ended up in an argument. But the more they argued, the more interesting it got as they opened up to each other and learned what one is made up of. He learned she was into astronomy, the planets and the stars, the galaxies of the universe, space exploration, Star Trek which she said fired her imagination when she first saw a few episodes. Small wonder, he thought later that evening at the party, when she told him she is a math teacher.
His, she learned in their subsequent encounter at the party, wasn't too far from that realm either: statistics, computers, IT in government socio-economic applications. The only thing that gave a bad taste in her mouth in that is the thought of him being a bureaucrat. Here they had another mild argument with him defending, explaining to her, his position in government saying he resists being branded a bureaucrat since he is one of the guys, the good guys, who does work to minimize and eventually get rid of red-tapes and bureaucracy in government.
The other side of that about him, she felt, is actually quite good: a career job, not a super-great income but steady, as long as people pay taxes to support the government, good benefits, pension plan, lots of vacation leave. The man is solid, in his early thirties, not like her 40-year old ex whom she had to support half the time they were married while he was 'in between jobs'.
After they got the personal bios out of the way, the matter of chemistry came next. They didn't know what they had there going into the second date. They were both aware they adapted to each other's presence and had become friendly. In the third date, they looked forward to it and enjoyed each other's company throughout. First came the kidding around, the jokes. They had more than a few laughs and enjoyed the whole evening. Then at the moment of parting-the short good night hug, the kiss that one felt the other didn't want to end and which then turned sexual and became an overture to a passionate relationship in the months that followed.
What's good about this one boy-meets-girl story, each of them agreed, is that they started out as friends, even as antagonists at the first encounter, and they turned that around and managed to see through each other later on. And now, they could turn this whole relationship around upside down inside out and it would still land safe on its feet. The worst could happen is they break-up, become just friends again, then jump-start the relationship which they shouldn't have any trouble doing. And that had happened before.
Twice before. The last time when she was at his place in the middle of the week and the phone rang, she picked it up and it turned out to be one of his ex-girlfriends, she figured out after she handed him the phone, sat nearby and listened, pretending not to pay attention as he spoke to the mouthpiece in a low voice.
"So, is that the one immediately before me?" she asked without malice, just curious, when he hung up. "Or two before me?"
"Honey, what does it matter? It's over between us a long time ago."
"Then why did she call? Rita, is that her name?"
"Yes. She called to ask if I still had the book she had me read one time and I said yes I still do. She said she'd like to have it back."
"Sounds good," she quipped, perking up a bit. She meant to simply tease him at first but now she started getting agitated. "So when will it happen? The rendezvous. After work at Starbuck? Lunchtime at that good old favorite café in Georgetown?"
"Julie, please stop this," he begged while she picked up her things in the living room and started to leave. "I'll just put the damn book in the mail."
"Well, since you still have her address," she said on her way out the door, "why waste the stamp? Just drop it off at her door. And maybe go in for a quick visit?"
That rift lasted ten days. They were back together two weekends later after a few phone calls, both ways, as if nothing had happened.
She watched him as he got farther away in his blue cotton-polyester jogging suit, now thinking as she did occasionally for nearly two years now about how sure she was, the first time she talked to him, that she wouldn't have anything to do with him, a man obviously lacking in social skills and any knowledge in making the acquaintances of women. How wrong she was after uncovering the man behind the first impression he projected to her. First, the good humor which she now knew he uses to start a rapport as he did with her. Then, once he got the two of you opening up to each other, all the finer things she wanted-any woman would want-to see in a man: kind-hearted, good-natured, innocent as a child in the sophistication of women, sweetly innocent but not helpless where it mattered to be a man.
One thing Robert Grundell looked forward to coming to work every morning was breakfast at his desk especially when he decided on his way down to the cafeteria after taking his coat off and turning the computer on, that he's okay with bacon and egg and hash brown today. He tried to limit this to twice a week to keep his cholesterol in check. The rest of the time it was donut and pastry, one of each.
One thing he didn't relish upon settling down in his office to begin the day's work was going over the emails and finding one or two from Herod Hardin, his second-level boss, the Branch chief of Plans and Security Database, reminding the staff to 'be on time turning in your weekly work status report', or one addressed to him personally, saying something like 'Call me as soon as you get in.' or 'Meeting at 9:30 with DOT people, don't forget. Bring your stuff'.
Of his ten years in the office, the last five had been with Herod Hardin as the branch chief. And all those five years, no one including him had gotten over how any mother on earth in this day and age could name her son Herod. It sounded like a joke when the man first came to the branch to replace the one there before who retired. Not only that-the last name following the first came to his ear in a beat that compounded a sense of ridiculousness.
Herod Hardin. King Herod, someone said when, not long after he came, the man indeed turned out to be the despot that everyone in the branch had hoped he wouldn't prove to be. Herod hardon, Robert Grundell said next among his peers in the office, to which none disagreed.
There were nine emails, only one from Herod, King Herod, which he read last. Most of the rest were what he considered junk messages from the LAN Administrator's office, the OCDL Director's office, Personnel office, making agency-wide announcements about office policies that don't amount to anything more than make-work for those high-grade bureaucrats who had nothing else to do but send those emails to everybody. He deleted every one of them after reading only the first few words, except one that created an instantaneous burning effect behind his ears. The one sent out division-wide by Milton Pheasant, the division chief, about Leon Justice, one of King Herod's do-nothing senior-grade minions, announcing Leon's grade promotion and re-assignment to a management-level position.
Leon! That friggin' faggot, he thought. The guy came on board three or four years after he did and all these years he'd been with the agency, they didn't know where to fit him in. He'd been moving around between the Branches in the Division. One got the impression that nobody wanted him around. Meanwhile he kept getting promoted. For what?
With the burning-ear sensation came a sinking feeling in his stomach, churning out everything he had in it-bacon, egg, potato, coffee. His fingers literally froze on the keyboard, his breathing slowed as a wave of anger and disgust built up inside him at the realization once again that it's not enough that you do your job well in this fucking place; in fact, it's not even necessary that you do your job well, to get ahead. All you need to do is have friends, make friends, kiss ass, lick ass, suck ass, laugh at unfunny jokes, kowtow to assholes, and be an asshole yourself.
It took him about three minutes to start breathing normally again after that and to proceed with what he was doing.
The email from Herod read 'Anything new from OSERS about the Senators' itinerary out west? You need timeline data by the minute from them if we want to know exactly what kind of security to come up with from beginning to end. Let me know if there's any problem. Give them a push if you need to.'
Like he needed to be told how to do his job he'd been at for ten years. The dumbshit. Get a life. Get a hardon!
Reluctantly, he hit a Program Function Key to toggle to the mainframe and look at the file he had received from OSERS two days ago. He didn't do anything about it after he read it for there was nothing for OCDL to do yet going by the data in the file. In one part, it contained pages of historical background from the initial conception of two water and power projects in North Dakota to its economic, environmental and national-security impacts, congressional funding and presidential approval. In another part was a description of the projects detailing the geographic location, topography, existing and proposed road accesses and the man-made structures above and below ground. There were pictures and site survey drawings too that came with the file.
The same materials were in the file for the third project farther west at the foothills of the Rockies in Montana. The last page gave a summary of the activities of the opening celebrations at each of the three projects sometime in the middle of December, two weeks before Christmas. But there was no program of activities by which OCDL could map out security plans for the dignitaries attending the projects' inauguration. He expected Interior was still working on that and would get it out to him later.
He looked at the calendar beside the computer monitor. Two months, he thought, to the week in December. There's no cause for anybody to wet his pants over this. What's the big deal finding escorts for a bunch of senators on a train ride out to those back countries?
Alright, maybe he ought to call Interior's OSERS people for some details of activities of the coming event, see if they got anything he could start with to put a plan together, get an idea at least how many federal plainclothes dicks would be needed for those Capitol Hill bigwigs, then maybe call in a couple of them dicks, the headmen, for an advanced briefing.
But first, the next item in the morning routine after the emails: check the TSL bin, the phone voicemail and the priority return calls to make, if any. Actually, checking the Top- Secret-Log bin took a higher priority than anything else in the morning routine. But because it's such a pain in the butt going through the procedure doing that, he was always tempted to go over the emails first.
First he had to get the day's password to access the bin file. He among only a few other people in the office got a new one everyday. And that was done by calling a number at Fort Meade in Maryland, some NSA prick over there with an attitude.
"Hello, my name is Robert Grundell, Office of Civil Defense Logistics, Treasury Department," he would start out every fucking morning like the prick at the other end hadn't heard him say the same thing a million times before. "Calling for my TSL password today, please."
From that, he was taken through the following telephone queries:
Social Security number, please?
Date of Birth?
Mother's maiden name?
And your password yesterday or the last one you were authorized?
There were times when, because he only used it one day, he never committed it to memory long enough to remember it the next morning, let alone over a weekend. And they were strongly advised not to write it down anywhere so when this happened, he had hell to pay going to King Herod and King Herod's boss, Milton Pheasant, to substantiate to the NSA prick who he really was, where he worked, who he worked for, what he did and what business he had trying to access the Top-Secret-Log file that contained today's collection of the government's security data gathered and submitted daily by all the federal intelligence agencies, civilian and military, as well as the local law enforcements of the Capital area.
After the third time he went through that the past couple of years, he decided-the hell with it, he's going to write the damn thing on a tiny piece of paper and stick it in his wallet everyday. It's so damn ridiculous. Who's going to frisk him thinking that's what he'd done?
When he finally got to access the bin, he completely forgot the rest of the morning routine the next hour and a half. A matrix of security entries he kept an eye on everyday had an entry from the FBI with the label ATTN blinking at him in bold red font. The text box read:
OCDL alert. Item-Israeli Defense Minister
ETA Reagan National 1130 am Oct 24.
Item-suspected attack, imminent.
Item-require airport security sweep and
two-layer stakeout 12 hrs prior.
First things first, on a red alert. Finish going over the TSL bin, see if there were any more red-blinkers and if there were, decide order of priority. Then take immediate action going by the book in a vault under his desk. Everything needed to be done, from the moment he got a red-blinker, was done by the book.
A couple of years ago, during a U.S. visit of the foreign minister of Japan, some people in the front office-management-King Herod among them, didn't know this about the duties and responsibilities written in Robert Grundell's position description and in the book. They thought they were the first in line of command to take action on a red-blinker and that he should notify them first upon his discovery of the red alert before doing anything else. He did what he knew he had to do upon seeing the red alert: contact the Deployment Division, relay the situation details, the timeline and request security; then respond to the source of the entry in the TSL bin, that one the CIA, to tell them OCDL has done its job.
To cut red tape and bureaucratic tie-up, the book instructs the staff on the job to do just what he did-respond to the red alert quickly, follow procedure to the last critical step required of the Plans and Security Database Branch, then report the status to management. They didn't like that and they pounced on him like a pack of babboons but drew back later after he dropped the book on them and let them read up on it some.
Dumb assholes. They sit everyday doing nothing but collect their fat government paychecks every couple of weeks while workers like him do their jobs, keep an eye on the systems and their knowledge up to date, then when hell breaks loose they want to jump on center stage, get in all the action and look like big stars without knowing the procedures. Assholes.
He finished scanning the rest of the TSL bin, didn't run into another red-blinker and went into action to secure next week's arrival of the defense minister at the airport from the enemies of Israel who, according to the specifics in the alert entry, were suspected sleepers assigned in the Capital area by an Al Qaeda terrorist cell working the Mid-Atlantic region.
It sounded pretty grim but he had seen this a few times before over the years and nothing happened. It's either the bad guys were tipped off that their cover had been blown and so didn't show up or the red-blinker was a dud. Some government spook tricked into staging the alert as a joke or the spook himself started it so he and his fellow spooks would have something to do.
But... who knows what goes on with government intelligence work? There had been instances when neither the White House nor Congress knew what the CIA and the FBI were up to both at home and abroad until the media happened to stumble upon it. All in a day's work, as far as he's concerned. He does his part in it as far as his job takes him and beyond that, in all honesty, those Middle Eastern people could blow each other's head off any day for all he cares. Nothing he did at work, big or small, obscured the magnitude of how pissed he was at the way he had been trashed in the office and what he'd do to either get the hell out or get satisfaction at getting even.
After following the last in the procedures which was reporting the status of the alert to its FBI source and to the OCDL management, he went back to the rest of the morning routine. Next was checking the voicemail.
It seemed today was fast turning into one of those piss-me-good days when he listened to a message from Herod Hardin talking about the promotion of Leon Justice to Project Management Coordinator for the Branches in the Division. He'd be coordinating the work between the Branches so that he, Robert Grundell, the same as the other program analysts throughout the Division would have to submit weekly activity reports to him starting the end of this week. Leon would be setting up a meeting with them early next week.
He gasped for air momentarily. There's no end to the bullshit that goes on in this fucking place, he thought
The next message was from Ahmed Khalifa. The call was made late the day before just after he left. The man apologized for not having gotten in touch with him as he said he would two nights ago and suggested they get together tonight for dinner if he's free. There was no other message so he hung up. But as soon as he pulled away, the intercom line rang. He picked up the phone again with a grunt halfway between indifference and relief after reading who it was on the caller-id window.
"What's up, Max?" he said to Max Poysen, a co-worker three away from him across the aisle and a more senior program analyst by eight years over his ten in OCDL. The fifty-six year old man recently became eligible for regular retirement a couple of months ago when he made thirty years of service. Max was one of a very few people in the office he could have a no-holds-barred rapport once in a while.
"Got the email about Leon Justice, the dumb prick?" Max asked.
"Yes. Two of 'em. One from your Uncle Miltie, one from King Herod. I just about threw up a minute ago."
"Yeah, me too. And, hey, I don't have a relative working here."
They laughed briefly then fell into a grim hush.
"I don't know how much more I can take of it here, Max," Robert said first. "You're in a better shape. You're almost out of here, out of this whole federal government bureaucracy and bullshit politics."
"Almost is not quite the same as out of here. Meantime, I have to put up with bowing to that prick twenty years my junior and doesn't know shit of what we do here and how we do it. That promotion puts him in a position to order us around, in case you don't realize it. And you know he will do it too if for nothing else but to show us some muscle."
That brought back the burning-ear sensation to Robert. He didn't think about it but Max was right. He drew one loud deep breath of revulsion in response to Max over the telephone.
"I don't want to talk or even think about this now for one second," he pined. "If that's all you're calling me about, you might want to talk to somebody else about it."
Max Poysen understood as they hung up. Poor miserable Bob Grundell. He could feel what he was going through. He'd seen it himself, what those assholes in management had done to the man's career, keeping him holed up in a corner for years with no advancement. What he didn't understand is the man is about the best analyst there is around, good thinker, effective, puts out good work, dependable. He knew. He'd worked with Bob on several projects in the past. The man is an asset to the agency.
Maybe he didn't have the type of personality they admire, the way he presents himself, the way he looks at you, talks to you or doesn't laugh at your jokes. But that's no reason to dump a guy and forget everything else he is. The only thing he could think of behind this was they considered Bob a threat being so much more productive and accountable than they were and allowing him to get up there in higher position would certainly expose their incompetence and make them look bad.
Lunchtime, Robert Grundell decided he needed a walk and bought two hotdogs, a regular and an eight-inch half-smoked with everything on it, at a stand across the street. He ate them at a concrete bench beside a tree out at the Skyline Plaza. After finishing the big one and washing it down with the caffeine-free coke, he took out the cell phone and dialed Ahmed Khalifa's work number.
He got off two hours early to have time to shop at Saheed's South Asian Imports in Clarendon, a short drive from work in the Ballston area of Arlington, and pick up some stuff he needed for Bobby's favorite tandoori chicken, in addition to the curry vegetable dish he himself liked. He had it all planned when Bobby called at noon, as Kamal had thought out mostly and discussed with him the day before: get him into your apartment, make him feel comfortable, at home; dinner, drinks, whatever, but make sure nobody else is with you.
For what you want to get him to talk about and hopefully you would and how far you go into it, Abu Kamal had said, we don't want to take the chance that his place is bugged. Get an extra six-pack, let him load up, and stretch the evening as long as you can till you get him to do business with us. Then drop the envelope under his nose. Let him smell it.
Bobby sounded very cheerful, even eager, he could tell in the sound of his voice over the telephone, when he told him come over for the chicken dinner at six-thirty, don't worry about anything, just bring yourself. It was now half past five. He'd been working in the kitchen over an hour and was just about done. He bought the marinated chicken pre-cooked in a clay oven at the store and all he had to do was restore the herb seasoning and warm it up before serving. He took a little time doing the curry dish but even that was no big production: peel the veggies, cut up to bite-size pieces, open a can of the pre-mixed Bhuna, a medium-hot dry type of curry mix with peppers and onions, Bobby's favorite, throw in a pot with the veggies and stir to desired blend.
He kept an eye through the kitchen window at the entrance to the apartment building across the courtyard. At ten past six, he saw Bobby come up the walk through the courtyard and up the entrance. Even from this distance of his second floor apartment, he could see how laborious every step was Bobby made getting home from his government job. There is one unhappy man who needs a way out of where he is bad, the thought ran in Ahmed Khalifa's mind as much a cold, calculating observation as a feeling of sympathy.
Seeing the man so distraught made him hope and wish Bobby would do business with him regardless of who he'd be doing it for, as much to screw those making his life miserable as to at least make it pay. Turning away from the window just now to turn the gas oven on and start warming up the chicken, he had the strongest urge to just blurt out to Bobby what this whole evening was all about when he comes in.
"Take the money man, it's in the envelope. All... twenty thousand of it. Then tell me anything you can to fuck every one of them up, defeat their usefulness in their jobs and to whoever and whatever they're protecting in the country. Make them all pay and look bad."
Fifteen minutes later, he led him to a seat in the living room and brought him a beer and a glass.
"You look terrible, Bobby," he joked, not thinking Bobby would take it seriously. "Drink up. We'll have a feast tonight."
"So, it shows, huh?" Bobby said, picking up the bottle and pouring it in the glass. "Well, I can't help it. I had another terrible day today."
"Forget about it for now. You can tell me later," Ahmed said from the kitchen, checking the oven. "Just relax, man. You're on your own time now. Don't let them get to you all the way home."
You're so right about that my man, he thought, and drank nearly half of the beer in the glass. No sense using up your own time getting worked up over the job. The beer tasted so good he felt he could down a six-pack before he said another word. And as Kamal coached him, Ahmed made sure that Bobby did, before and after dinner. In the course of that time, a man employed by the U.S. federal government in a position entrusted with a mine of classified top-secret national security data, feeling unappreciated, trampled and discarded by government bureaucracy and cronyism, sold out to America's enemies.
It was a breeze leading him on to the night's prime objective, Ahmed told Abu Kamal later. He didn't have to walk the narrow path of feeding him a cue a step at a time. During his second serving of the tandoori chicken, Bobby came right out and asked about a deal Ahmed talked about before for his services which he said his government office does not seem to put much value in, much less-appreciate.
Still, Ahmed remained cautious. "Well, Bobby," he said in between spoonfuls of the vegetable curry, "my company for one, as well as its subsidiaries, which as you know is in oil and energy business, they're constantly looking to expand their market and so they're always doing research, gathering data. All kinds of data, not just trade and marketing information but... stuff like business competition, demographics, and even-as a matter of fact, even more important, security data. Stuff like you do at work."
"Oh, yeah?" queried Bobby, busy on a leg of chicken.
"Yes. Like I told you before, they'd pay big bucks to get an idea of how to protect their interests, learn how to do it better, perhaps the way the U.S. government does it. Model their facility and security design for their water, power and communication resources after those of the government."
"Oh, hell, I can get you all that easy. I got a database full of that sort of thing. Nothin' to it."
"Maybe to you it's nothing," said Ahmed, throwing a quick glance at Bobby across the table. "You work with it day in and day out."
"Darn right I do. And I'm getting tired of it."
From there on, Ahmed started to fan Bobby's confidence and enthusiasm, at the same time raising his antenna to make sure he didn't miss any signal or misunderstand anything. It wasn't easy reading Bobby at first. But after they loosened up near the end of the first six-pack of beer, he had a good idea how to pace himself toward making Bobby an offer, and dropping the envelope in front of him.
He knew what he had here was a very disgruntled employee of the U.S. government who hated the people he worked for, but he had no idea what Bobby's position would be to the idea of selling classified data. Would he be doing it for the money or out of spite, or both? He tossed this out fast, thinking what do I care what he might do it for? The more important question was if Bobby might view it as a betrayal of his country. A criminal act that could get him in serious trouble. Did Bobby think it's anything to worry about? Or did he give a shit at all?
This is where Kamal's idea to study the man, check out the books he read, the TV shows he watched, and to listen carefully to the way he talked and what he liked to talk about paid off. He believed he knew the man enough, after cultivating a neighborly rapport with him for months, to broach the idea of making money, a lot more money than he made in government wages, with what he knew and did. Given the way he felt about his government job and the things he had said about the government, the parasites, the ass-kissers he'd seen in the civil service, Ahmed had no doubt about where any sense of patriotism, if Bobby had any at all, placed in his personal life at this point.
The signal he'd been hoping would turn up came when Bobby, going into his fifth bottle of beer, said: "Now, what exactly is the deal working for somebody else for a lot more money doing what I do now for Uncle Sam?"
In that, Ahmed heard the answer to one of his questions: Bobby didn't give a shit; not at all. And the key to it which was more than the money part in it was the most reassuring: 'working for somebody else'.
Thus, now feeling more certain where he stood, he went down to business. "Alright, Bobby," he began with a nonchalance he could believe himself, "let me get straight about this. I told my company about what you do and how you could really, really help them with the great amount of information, data you work with, which could be very valuable to them."
Bobby took a deep breath without doing or saying anything, his eyes fixed on the glass of beer in his hand. They were now sitting in the living room, Ahmed in the armchair adjacent to Bobby in the near end of the sofa. Something was dawning on him, Ahmed could tell.
"Bobby, you alright?"
"I'm fine... fine," Bobby uttered, still focused on the glass of beer. "Go on. Give me the rest of it."
"They asked if you could get me some sample data I could show them... "
"That guy you were with the other day," Bobby interrupted without looking at Ahmed, "Who's he again? Your boss?"
"No. He's a friend of my boss. One of the big stockholders and member of the board of the company."
"Ah, yes, I remember. The money man. So, they want samples."
"If it's possible. If you can." Ahmed got up from the table and went to get a manila envelope around a half inch thick sitting on a shelf of a bookcase across the room. "They said they'd appreciate it a lot. This is just a token of that appreciation, they said to tell you." And he dropped the envelope on the coffee table in front of Bobby. Then he went to the dining room to clear up the table some more and get Bobby another beer.
Neither one said a word for a long time. Ahmed to give Bobby time to weigh things over and Bobby... he had considered the possibility that the Pakistani man could be telling him something, wanting to break something to him earlier in the evening and even going back to their previous meeting. Even if he was right, he didn't think it would be coming along this fast between them. He wasn't totally caught unaware but the envelope was a big surprise.
Ahmed excused himself to go to the bathroom after giving him the beer. When he came back out three minutes later, he found Bobby standing by the living room window looking at the trees in the courtyard outside. Just standing there looking out. In that time, a torrent of ideas, thoughts and emotions, past and present, had come and gone through his whole being.
It was a series of imagery he had experienced before when he felt its full impact on his personal life but which now he resolved to have little effect on him. His failed marriage and his aspirations in life then, his effort to recover and start over, his work career up to this very day, coming home from this government job feeling unhappy, looking terribly unhappy the whole world can see. Yes, now he resolved not to wallow in his unhappiness. He just wouldn't give a shit anymore. Not anymore.
He turned around just as Ahmed sat back in the armchair still keeping quiet.
"What kind of samples?" he asked suddenly after taking a drink of the beer in his hand.
A smile of relief broke on Ahmed's face. "It's all in the envelope," he said. "Go over it now if you want. Or do it in your place later. We can talk about it later, if you have any questions. I'd prefer later. Right now, I'm feeling so good I just want us to loosen up some more and forget about everything."
"You trying to get me stoned to get me to do business with you guys?"
Ahmed broke out laughing, raising his glass at Bobby. He got leary for a moment until Bobby said: "Hey, you don't have to do that. 'Sides, I'm already drunk!"
Now the two of them broke out laughing and the Pakistani man knew he had the American government worker in the payroll.
It was a good thing Ahmed preferred not to get into the business of the envelope right then and there. Because now, sitting in the living room of his own apartment at ten o'clock, even as the six bottles of Coors were now working to numb his face and fingertips, he realized how he would have flinched in front of Ahmed the way he just did-with a sudden loss of breath-at seeing the stack of the hundred dollar bills, at least a half-inch thick in a paper binder in the envelope.
He wasn't really drunk, just whoozy from the amount of alcohol in his blood. And he wasn't tired. If anything, after such a good meal which he enjoyed so much-thanks to a neighbor's good cooking-he felt relaxed, comfortable, and awake enough to once again as he did earlier, weigh the situation he faced. He took the money out of its binder and spread it on the coffee table like a double deck of cards, guessing how much there was of it which he'd find out later to be exactly twenty-thousand dollars.
It didn't take him long, two or three minutes, to consider the choices he had and decide which one to favor. All he needed to do was consider the ten years he had spent at OCDL and remind himself of King Herod and his parasite minions, Leon Justice among them and what Max Poysen said about the latest development at the office today.
Fuck it, he thought once again. I don't give a shit. I don't give a shit anymore.
He then went over the five-page document that came with the money in the envelope. Like Ahmed said, it's all in there, what that stack of money was supposed to pay for. He was bobbing his head as he read through the materials, looking amused with an easy smile as if reading the questions in a school quiz to which he already knew all the answers.