Bride of a Bygone War
PF Publishing, Boston
This ebook is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by Preston Fleming
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
PF Publishing, Boston, MA
Conrad Prosser picked out the pale yellow point of light just above the horizon to the left of the rising crescent moon. He leaned forward, all of his attention concentrated upon the light, until his nose pressed against the windshield and clouded the glass. “It’s coming. I see it. There, at two o’clock.”
“The hell it is,” Bud Strickland replied. “That’s Venus. It’s too bright for an aircraft. Besides, it ain’t moving.”
“Of course it’s moving. I saw it do a little dip a minute ago. Then it drifted a bit from left to right.”
“That’s just an optical illusion,” Strickland insisted, his Tennessee drawl dragging out the long vowel of the last word. “Anything in the distance will seem to move if you stare at it long enough. Face it, old fella. It’s twenty minutes past sundown, and the flight is an hour and a half late. Our man ain’t coming.”
“He’ll be here. Amman is less than an hour away, for heaven’s sake. They’d send out a spare plane from Beirut if it came to that. The Lebanese need the money too badly to cancel a flight.”
Strickland gave a knowing shake of the head. “Emile says the airport won’t handle passenger flights after dark anymore. The only night flights that arrive these days are cargo flights. What do you say we check one more time at the arrivals counter and call it a night?”
“In a minute, Bud, in a minute. First, let’s watch this baby land. Something tells me it’s the one we’re waiting for.”
“There’s a fifty-Leb note in my back pocket says the damned thing isn’t man-made.”
“Double it and you’re on.” Prosser held out his hand, which was large and square and attached to a thickly muscled wrist.
Strickland gave it a perfunctory shake and then returned to twisting the dial of the AM car radio. Like all embassy vehicles, the American-made station wagon was a rock-bottom, no-frills model, and the radio was anything but high-fidelity. Strickland twirled the dial until at last he found a clean signal and then snorted loudly in disgust. It was the evening news, in Arabic.
“Can you understand all that mumbo-jumbo?” Strickland asked.
Prosser laughed. “The U.S. government kept me on full salary for nearly two years to learn that mumbo-jumbo. What you’re hearing now is the Voice of Palestine, covering Chairman Arafat’s return from his meetings with his brotherly Arab leaders in North Africa. According to the report, he delivered an important—scratch that, historic—communiqué on behalf of the revolutionary leadership concerning the need for solidarity and steadfastness in the face of the Zionist and Imperialist enemies. There’s more, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you in case you planned to read about it in the morning papers.”
Strickland flipped the dial again but found nothing but news: four broadcasts in Arabic and one in French. He switched off the radio and lit up a Marlboro, far and away the number one brand on both sides of the Green Line.
“You do know what he looks like, don’t you?” Strickland asked absently, gazing through the windshield at what he was sure was the second planet.
“Lukash?” Prosser answered after a long pause. “I’ll recognize him all right. My first week in Jeddah, I did the jerk a favor and nearly lost my job over it.”
Strickland raised an eyebrow. “What did you give him, the cipher tapes?”
“A passport, slightly used. One of Lukash’s agents had to leave the kingdom in a hurry and asked him to help get the man’s girlfriend out. Since I worked mornings at the visa counter, Lukash asked me if I could dig one up for her to use.”
Strickland let out a low whistle.
“No, it wasn’t an American passport,” Prosser said. “I’m not that big a fool. I found him a nice little Italian job, complete with Saudi exit visa and a freshly minted U.S. tourist visa. The year of birth, physical ID, and photo were all quite close to what he needed. I heard later that his gal made it past Saudi and Italian passport controls without anyone giving her a second look. So I held up my end of the bargain.”
“Then why the flap?”
“The next day, when I tried to reach Lukash and couldn’t, I was dumb enough to ask the deputy chief whether Lukash’s exfiltration arrived safely in Rome. It never occurred to me that Lukash hadn’t cleared the operation with the front office. For a while it looked like we were going to have to brief the ambassador and have U.S. Immigration put the passport on their watch list. In the end it didn’t come to that, thank God. The chief of station managed to sweep the whole affair under the rug.”
Strickland’s eyes betrayed his disbelief.
Prosser sighed. “The thing was, this particular woman could have raised an enormous stink for us if the Saudis had pulled her in. Enough to get half the station kicked out of the kingdom. I think Lukash honestly believed he was doing the right thing in getting her out of country fast, even if it meant not waiting for approvals. But both of us still got letters of reprimand for it.”
“Hell, Con, seems to me you got off easy. If one of our techs did something like that, he’d be processed out of the Agency within twenty-four hours. What were you planning to do if the real passport holder showed up? Tell her the dog ate it?”
“Oh, she showed up all right,” Prosser answered with a dreamy, distant look, as if he were reliving the incident in his mind. “The signora presented her numbered chit at the desk, and our Pakistani file clerk gave her his typical runaround, bless his soul. I kept my distance until he had time to wear her down a bit. When she finally demanded to see an American, I stepped forward with a song and dance about her passport being accidentally shredded with the classified trash. Of course, I apologized profusely and promised to intervene with the Italian embassy to get her a new passport and with the Saudi interior ministry to get her a new exit visa. And after some wailing and moaning, she accepted the offer.
“But the consul wasn’t as easily convinced. He never challenged me on it, but from then on, he kept all the unclaimed foreign passports in the four-drawer safe in his office. Jack had an uncanny instinct for spotting bullshit. Even mine. I imagine it comes from all those years of being lied to by visa applicants.”
“Not to mention several generations of junior intel officers under consular cover,” Strickland added.
“I beg your pardon,” Prosser protested. “Didn’t they teach you right from wrong at the Farm? There’s nothing wrong with lying for your country. It does you good. Ask anyone at Headquarters.”
“Jesus Christ, the damned thing has grown,” Strickland interrupted, his gaze fixed on a yellowish disc to the left of the moon.
Prosser saw it, too, and broke into a self-satisfied grin. “What did I tell you, Bud? Middle East Airlines 434 on its final approach from Amman.”
Strickland pulled out his wallet and slapped a hundred-lira note onto the dashboard with a sulking grunt.
Prosser stuffed the note into his trouser pocket and let his thoughts move on to other things. In a few minutes he would be responsible for conveying Walter Lukash safely to the American embassy. As it happened, Lukash’s arrival had occupied his thoughts for most of the day. Nearly two years after the passport episode, he still resented Lukash for having taken unfair advantage of his inexperience. He had hardly known the man when the favor had been asked, yet Lukash had been able to persuade him to suspend his natural caution and good judgment. Such talent for inspiring the confidence of mere acquaintances doubtless accounted for Lukash’s unusual success at recruiting agents. In Delhi, Jeddah, and Amman, Lukash was said to have recruited a slew of them, all solid reporters.
“You stay here,” Prosser said. “I’ll meet our man at the gate and walk him through customs. The ambassador wants to see him the moment we get in.”
“You may need this.” Strickland held out a thin, wallet-like airport pass, backed with forest-green kidskin, embossed with the Lebanese interior ministry’s seal. Inside, Strickland’s name was carefully inscribed by hand in Arabic and French, and his photo was fastened at diagonal corners with two brass grommets to prevent substitutions.
“No, you keep it,” Prosser replied. “Just in case you have to come in to get me. This one is all I’ll need.”
He pulled his diplomatic identity card from the inside breast pocket of his suit. It had an identical green leather backing with a Ministry of Foreign Affairs seal that seemed all but indistinguishable from the Ministry of the Interior seal on Strickland’s pass.
The yellowish light remained suspended like a parachute flare over the Mediterranean, and then it slowly divided into two distinct landing lights as the aircraft began its final descent. Prosser and Strickland remained inside the station wagon, watching the twin beams alternately hover and drift back down to earth.
After a few minutes Strickland broke the silence. “Does Lukash know you’re the one sent to meet him?”
“I don’t see how he could. But what’s the difference? The passport episode is ancient history. Lukash has a short memory; he only cares about what’s happening to himself today—here and now. If ever there was a guy who never looks back, it’s him.”
* * *
Twenty-five minutes later Strickland was still twisting the radio dial in search of a language he understood. A handful of Lebanese passengers with luggage had begun to trickle out of the arrivals gate, but the bulk of the passengers aboard MEA 434—if indeed that was the flight—were still awaiting clearance from passport control and customs.
Strickland gave another glance at the terminal and saw a tall, broad-shouldered foreigner of about thirty-five step over the curb surrounding the diplomatic parking zone. The stranger wore a black turtleneck under a camel’s hair jacket, and his closely cropped black hair was brushed back in a style favored lately in Frankfurt and Berlin. The stranger stopped a good three or four meters from the station wagon and dropped an expensive-looking leather carry-on and matching garment bag onto the pavement.
“American embassy?” he inquired with a confident smile that presumed the outcome. “Not that anyone else would drive a full-sized Chevy wagon in a country with a chronic gasoline shortage.”
Strickland stepped out and offered the newcomer his hand. “Bud Strickland. Good to see you. Tell me, were you really on the flight from Amman?”
Lukash smiled. It was a forthright, all-American-boy kind of smile that made Strickland think of sandlot baseball, teamwork, and fair play. But at the same time, Lukash’s broken nose and the inch-long scar above his right eye left the impression that he preferred contact sports—ice hockey, or maybe lacrosse or rugby. There was something about those unblinking gray eyes that confirmed that impression: something withheld, hidden, and cold at the core. Strickland imagined he could see why Prosser had come to resent the man.
“Here, let me put those in the back for you,” Strickland offered affably, unlocking the tailgate. “Where’s the rest of your gear?”
Lukash shrugged. “That’s it. I thought I’d pick up a new outfit or two on Hamra Street. The rest of my stuff is on its way back to the States.”
“Two carry-ons? That’s all?”
“Hell, it’s only a two-month gig.”
Strickland hesitated. “I wouldn’t count the days just yet if I were you.”