Morris ordered a French 75 from the barman whose wrists were as thick and contoured as the legs of a farmhouse table. The crowd didn’t seem so rough that they’d need to hire a wrestler to shake the martinis. Stairs beside the glass-fronted refrigerator led down to a cellar. Perhaps years of hauling kegs up and down those stairs might have hardened those arms. Might explain it. Morris glanced around the room again while patting his overcoat. He’d already scanned the faces when he entered; the old habit. A twenty-something—a kid by Morris’ accounting—at the table by the restrooms was up to no good. He seemed even less innocent on this second glance than he did when Morris first noticed him. One hand held deep into a coat pocket, fondling a knife or a gun. Probably a knife. It was early in the evening. Happy hour on a Tuesday. The business casual crowd. The kid didn’t blend in as well as he was trying. Outside, two plainclothes cops smoked cigarettes in a fifteen year old sedan. Morris had spotted them easily enough. He wondered who else knew about them. Probably the kid. That would line up.
Morris dropped his wallet on the bar and studied the barman’s hands. Deft, firm fingers. He squeezed the ever living hell out of the lemon slice but then the paring knife made origami of the rind. Everything about the barman screamed Army—the wrists, the shoulders, the square jaw, the cropped hair, the button-down collar, the silk dimple perfectly centered beneath the windsor knot—except for the gossamer placement of the lemon twist on the edge of the flute. No way to explain that delicate touch.
“How much do I owe you?” asked Morris, clumsily flipping open his wallet without lifting it off the bar so that the leather fold opened toward him. His left hand grabbed up the champagne flute and brought the cocktail to his nose. He stuffed his fingers into the leather fold and began counting his cash. In so doing, the wallet lay open like a book for the barman to peruse. The barman’s eyes glanced at the ID behind the plastic window. The picture of Morris was a few years old, taken before his mustache and the bags under his eyes. But the jagged line of the nose and the cold stare of the eyes were the same.
“Cash or credit?” asked the barman.
“I believe I have enough cash on hand. Why? Does it change the price?”
“If you’re sticking around, I could take the card now and charge you when you’re through.” He glanced at Morris’ ID again. He couldn’t help himself. A habit of the trade, both of them.
“I’d prefer cash. The wife doesn’t need to see my bar receipts.”
The barman nodded. “You’re from Illinois?” That was one, maybe.
“Not originally, but currently.”
“I spent some time there,” said the barman. “Long ago.” That was two.
“Ever been back?” Morris was not taking his time.
“Shame. It’s a quiet place. I don’t like the bugs there. But I prefer the bite of a mosquito to what the bees down here will do to you.”
“You got that right,” said the barman. He wasn’t quite following. Perhaps it’d been too long since he’d dealt with riddles.
A group of business travelers crowded the bar around Morris. He smiled and toasted them with his glass. He directed his eyes to the television above the bar. When the barman had settled the tourists, they took their glasses to a booth near the back.
“What were you saying about bees?”
“Me? I’m allergic. I don’t like them buzzing around. But it keeps me from eating too many sweets,” Morris said patting his belly and granting the barman the idiotic grin of a lonely traveler with no art for small talk.
“Yeah, I think I know what you mean,” said the barman. “What’s your name?” He’d seen the ID. He was making it a point. That was three.
“Morris. Matthew Morris.”
“Sounds familiar.” That was four.
“It’s a common name.” That was Morris confirming.
“I’m Collins. Joseph.”
“If I called myself Tom Collins in here, nobody would believe me.”
The men shook hands across the bartop. “Joseph, glad to know you.” He waved the champagne flute. “How much?”
“Twelve dollars. Happy hour prices, so you may as well get two.” There was the call.
Morris dug around his wallet. “I have a little over forty in cash. Forty-four to be precise,” he said, counting the denominations. “Unless you can break a hundred.” This was the response; a variation of a simple formula. Morris spread a small stack of dirty bills on the rubber bar mat.
“I wish I could enjoy the double, but I have to drink fast. I’m flying out tonight.”
“Oh yeah? Vacation?”
“No, back home.”
Collins nodded and scooped up the pile of bills and turned to the cash register on the back of the bar. “So you’re here on business?”
“Sadly, yes.” Morris with one hand slid the ID out of the plastic window of his wallet while it remained spread out, belly up. He tucked his ID in his inner coat pocket. Beneath the plastic window of the wallet, a nearly identical ID rested in its place.
Collins turned back to him and lay the change on the bar. Morris folded the bills and put them in his coat pocket. Collins noted the disparity and glanced again at the wallet spread before him. The Illinois license had the name Matthew Morris printed on it but the picture was his own face. The rounded edge of a boarding pass peeked out from the billfold.
The older man swallowed the rest of the drink and patted his mustache with a linen napkin. He dropped the napkin on the bartop, covering the wallet, and stood up from his stool. “Take care.”
We lost the war, but we will never know to whom.
That was the mantra of the Vermillion Volunteer Fire Fighters, who, despite their name, primarily played farm league fast-pitch softball games all summer in the mosquito infested meadows of lower Illinois. But these men—all men, never women—didn’t sign up for fighting fires or playing catch. They’d been approached by a man named Davis, usually on the airstrip. These were the soldiers without anybody waiting for them; without children, wives, or dogs. Davis introduced himself as a director of a new department of central intelligence; explained there was a fiery debate in the senate and money’d been allocated; a vanity initiative with no real focus and no real oversight—that was key—but results were demanded. He’d say things like, ‘We have a real opportunity here,’ and ‘The trick is to jump before they yank the carpet out from under this thing.’ What he wouldn’t say was that he’d been giving the same speech for twenty-odd years and there was no angel in the senate. In fact, there was no budget because the department didn’t exist. Nobody knew about his farm league insurrection. Davis was a re-homing liaison for the military, that part was true. His name was not Davis, but you probably guessed that already. The agency knew him by his birth name, but after a quarter century of field work that name was blown anyway. The volunteer firefighter/softball crew was a legitimate budget item for which he submitted expense reports each year. Flights to and from lower Illinois, motel rooms, lunches, bus trips to play other teams, uniform shirts. All of this was approved at high levels to rehabilitate the returning boys. In recent years, he was forced to accept women as well, and people of a more varied skin tones. This displeased him, initially. But, despite his ulterior conspiracy, he had a true passion for fresh off the tarmac veterans and he was glad to give any of them a few weeks of sports and cheap beer. Davis explained the divisive issue thus: ‘Blacks snooping around are going to cause more of a stink. White guy says he’s with the gas company, he’s got a better chance of walking away. I’m not interested in what is or isn’t racist. I am interested in understanding the world in which we must operate.’ He’d spin this into a monologue about cleansing the mind of precepts and recording only responses. ‘Ask ten folks for change. Watch how they look at you; if at all. Know how the world sees you. Be studious, be cautious, exploit what you can.’ And on women: ‘No matter how many pull-ups a woman can do, the female upper body just isn’t designed for snapping necks.’ Women were invited to the Vermilion River camp, but were cycled out with usual excuses. Over the years, Davis kept in touch with a handful of them. He wasn’t going to let a brilliant soldier pass through his fingers just because she couldn’t yank somebody’s arms off.
Roberts, the third base coach, complained about his grandkids while flicking his fingers in esoteric shapes to the runners. Evans, the pitching coach, did the same in the dugout, while complaining about Coach Roberts. Davis focused on the infield; 4-6-3s, 5-4-3s, etc. He’d maintain a play-by-play of the imaginary game, names for the line-up, positions in the field, personal details. The soldiers thought it was just something to do while he hit an endless stream of grounders at them. He’d play dumb—they didn’t know at first—and ask them to remind him where the imaginary opposing team was in their lineup, or what number jersey was on third base.
Then there’d be a fire. The city of Vermilion was accustomed to Davis’ annual retreat. The fire department, grateful for all the help they could get in the dry summer months, gave his crew a crash course in fire response and let them get a taste of the flames.
The next morning, it’d be back to practice in the field beside the motel. But there were small differences. Edwards was wearing Rogers’ polarized sunglasses. Davis’ blue ball cap with the silver V on it was now a blue ball cap with a white F. The names of Rogers’ granddaughter Jacey became Josie. And then there would be another fire and the fire department let the volunteers take the lead. And the next morning, Edwards was back to being called Evans again and Rogers was again Roberts.
Collins, now Morris, lifted the wallet, concealed by the napkin, and slipped it under his apron and behind his belt buckle while discarding the used napkin into the laundry bin at his ankles. He called to Juan, the barback, and asked him to cover the bar so he could take a leak. For a moment he glanced at the tips in the pitcher. Too early in the night to be worth the suspicion. Not enough cash to grab, and no reason to start breaking down the tips yet.
He went to the bathroom and locked himself in. The old man gifted eight hundred dollars into the wallet and a debit card from an Illinois credit union. All with his new name: Matthew Morrison. The plane was leaving at 8:55pm. He had a little over an hour. His jacket and his backpack were in the cellar. Casualties. Not having any stuff with him would make the security line go faster at the airport. There was a second boarding pass. Two flights, destined for O’Hare with a layover in Hartsfield. He’d buy a jacket at the Atlanta airport so he wouldn’t freeze to death in Chicago.
He had a girl down here he really liked. Seven months they’d been together. She’d be devastated. But it was his own fault. It’s one thing to get comfortable, it’s another to get greedy.
He took his previous ID and with his pocket knife peeled the plastic laminate. Working it back and forth he was able to separate the entire front and back. His picture was printed on a flimsy plastic sheet. He’d never forged a driver’s license before. His curiosity got the best of him. He spent too long playing with the plastic, testing its strength, rubbing the glue between his fingers. The small square that contained his face was easy enough to shred and flush. The rest he would keep with him and discard in the garbage outside.
He left the bathroom and instead of walking back into the bar, he walked into the kitchen. He bummed a cigarette from the dishwasher and stepped out back, ambling down the alley.
After two weeks of practice and a few games, the soldiers piled into an old school bus and Roberts drove them an hour away to their first game. Davis moved around to each row, chatting with the team, asking them how they were feeling. He’d ask harmless questions. ‘Hey, I think Roberts’ granddaughter will be at the game tonight. What was her name? Josie, that’s right. I’ve met her two dozen times now. I’m so embarrassed, I have no memory of what she looks like. She’s what? Nine? Oh, right. Yeah, she’d be twelve now, wouldn’t she.’ By this point in the summer, somebody would have figured out they were being tested. Some years, that rumor spread like wildfire and it made Davis’ job much harder. Other years, the one who figured it out kept their information private. Davis didn’t have a preference, but both tactics betrayed information about the personalities of that year’s cleverest recruits.
Davis never corrected them if they were wrong. He in fact used the misinformation. ‘Are you sure that first fire was in Marysville? Somebody over here was saying that it was Wentzville.’
And when they got off the bus, Evans distributed the team shirts. If they didn’t know they were being tested yet, they were about to find out. The shirts were grabbed at random. Nothing on the front but the team logo: Vermilion Volunteer Fire Fighters Fast-Pitch Softball ROCKETS. The back only had numbers. Davis said, ‘We’re the visitors, so we’re up first. You know the line up.’ The soldiers looked at each in confusion until somebody said, ‘Morris is top of the line-up. Is anybody number 2?’ And they all looked at each other’s backs until they found the guy wearing the number 2 shirt. Then Davis shouted, ‘All right, Morris, step up to the plate. What’s the hold up?’
When it came time to pitch though, that was the real test. Davis gave all the calls to the pitcher using the baserunning signs. Every single pitch; he’d tell the pitcher to steal third, or lead-off, or run all the way. After the inning when the pitcher came to complain to Davis, Davis would cut him off and say, ‘Repeat them all back to me, in reverse order.’
Davis cycled through the team. Everybody pitched a few innings by season’s end.
Matthew Morris rounded the corner just as he heard his name called. “Joe! Joe, stop!”
Morris stopped and turned back. “God damn it, Rory. Scram. It’s off.”
“What’s off? Nothing’s off.” This was the twenty-something kid who was sitting by the bathroom.
“You said we could drop it in a heartbeat if it didn’t feel right. Well, it doesn’t feel right.”
“That’s just cold feet, Joe. Happens to the best of us,” said Rory.
“It’s all sideways. The whole thing. Just walk away from it.”
“What are you gonna do, vanish? You got a a job back there. You don’t think that looks suspicious? Did you quit? Going home sick? What?”
“This was a terrible idea from the start. The first one was too easy. This one is way too easy. I couldn’t smell anything. I should have trusted my guts. I was bored and stupid.”
“What are you rambling about? Everything’s fine. The guy will be here in an hour. We’ve got the stuff in the cellar. It’s all done in five minutes. Tops.”
“You’re selling to cops, Rory. We’ve been set up.”
“What the hell? What makes you say that?”
“My good sense came back.”
“Joe, I’d know if it was cops or not, right? These guys play pool with my cousin. They like you. I told them all about your Army stuff and your crazy sign language crap.”
“You told them that? Jesus. I should be dead. You know that?”
“What are you talking about? It’s nothing. We were having drinks and I mentioned you had this whole way of communicating you stole from baseball.”
“What did they say about that?”
“They wanted to know everything. I told them they had to ask you, but it was probably a terrible idea seeing as you’re such a cagey bastard.”
“Well, I’m out. You are free to do this thing, but I’m gone. I’m going to take some time off of work and let this whole thing blow over.”
“Blow over? This is a one-time offer.”
“Good. Let it pass.”
“I’m not backing out. I’m two grand deep in this deal already.”
“That’s nothing. Two grand? Nothing. You bought yourself an education.”
“What the hell am I going to do with,” he looked around the empty alley, “three kilos of coke? Huh?”
“Are you crazy?”
“Fill up the tub, dump it in, and scrub up with some bleach when it’s all drained.”
Morris turned to walk away but Rory grabbed his sleeve. “Joe, there’s no deal without you.” There was too long of a pause. “They like you. It’ll be fishy if I’m by myself.”
Morris studied his eyes. “Did you sell me out?”
“Am I the deal? You’re selling them me?”
“Are you crazy? No!”
“That stuff I told you. How much did you tell them? And how many people have you told?”
“Why are you like this today? Everything’s normal. Everything’s the same.”
“It’s not my story to tell.” That part was true. “All that happened to my cousin, Ken. It wasn’t me, okay. Ken could get in a lot of trouble if that gets out.” That part was less than true. This was one of Davis’ tips and tricks: Never try to walk a lie backwards when caught, just keep piling as you admit to the lie. Your target will be proud of themselves for catching you but they’ll lose track of which part is the lie. Davis was quick to point out that this tactic would not succeed in an interrogation room.
“Your cousin will be fine. They just want to meet you.” That was the wrong thing to say. “We meet them this one time, they get to know us, and then we have a partnership.”
“I don’t want a part–”, Morris began to say. “Look me in the eye and tell me you didn’t sell me out.”
“I didn’t sell you out, man.”
“Let’s pretend I didn’t believe you. How would you prove it to me?”
“I don’t know. I would let you make all the shots. You do the talking, you handle the stuff. We can change venue if you want. We can change the date.” Rory’s answer came too fast. Morris didn’t think he was that smart. Did he plan that out in advance? Or was Morris just being paranoid?
“Change the date? You said it was a one-time deal.”
“I’m sure there’s some wiggle-room, man.”
Morris didn’t believe him. He couldn’t be certain Rory was lying. But he was certain that he wasn’t certain about Rory telling the truth. He wasn’t mad at Rory, though. He was mad at himself. It was only a matter of time before his girlfriend either found out his name wasn’t Collins or that he vanished. But he didn’t have to go screw it all up by agreeing to help out a low-level peddler.
“Fine,” said Morris. “I believe you. I’ll do all the talking, I’ll handle the stuff.”
“Good. Thank god. Jesus, man. You had me worried there for a minute.”
“But we do it right now. Call them and tell them we need to make it happen in the next ten minutes. If everything’s clean, that should be no problem.”
“Fine. All right. They can do that. I’m sure,” said Rory.
This was a major red flag. That sort of call would spook any buyer unless they were utterly desperate or trying to snatch something else.
Rory pulled his cell phone from his pocket. “Not that. Not out here,” said Morris. “Use the phone behind the bar. Just don’t say anything stupid on the line.”
“Okay, fine. Jesus.”
Rory and Morris walked back down the alley towards the back of the bar. The sky had faded to a deep navy. Just this side of the bar’s dumpster, Morris said, “I need a cigarette. You got one?”
Rory reached both hands into the pockets of his overcoat, fishing around for his lighter. Morris clipped Rory’s chin with his left and and then drove his right across the cheek. Rory didn’t fall perfectly but Morris had already turned and walked back down the alley. Never screw up a fast job by getting caught dragging the body where you want it. Rory probably wasn’t dead but he’d be out for a few hours. The kitchen staff wouldn’t see the far side of the dumpster, especially at night. Nobody would look for Rory, the buy wouldn’t happen, and Juan could cover for Joseph Collins on a Tuesday night shift. If the buyer was in fact police, the previous Matthew Morris just saved his life. He’d have to let Davis know not to use Collins in Florida anymore. Who was he kidding? Davis already knew.
Morris walked ten blocks into the nightlife and hailed a cab to the airport.
Those that didn’t pass Davis’ academy of sports and fire were told that the fickle senate revoked the budget and this little counter-intelligence experiment never got off the ground. Those that did pass were given false identification, boarding passes, and very short time to abandon their affairs. Wherever they landed, Evans and Rogers were there; but they were no longer Evans and Rogers. By then the new recruits knew not to greet them by their names until they introduced themselves. ‘Andrew, you remember Phillips.’ ‘Of course he does, Myers. Don’t be daft. How are you Andrew? How was the flight?’
Common names. Common clothes. That was Davis’ motto. Changed easily and frequently depending on the weather.
Davis told the following tale to those recruits who made it past the softball season. This would be anywhere but Illinois. Sometimes not even in the States.
I was in a sweaty little village in Cambodia, years ago.
On the menu, they had all the typical cocktails you can think to serve american tourists—tequila sunrise, old fashioned, french 75—each with a description in broken english of what was in the drink.
At the very bottom, right before the coffee and tea and soda pop, there was a cocktail listed that I’d never heard of. At least I thought it was a cocktail. It didn’t seem to belong to the non-alcoholic section. But there was no description and I’m a nosy old bastard, so I asked about it.
It was called Twelfe Twelfe. With Fs instead of Vs. I asked, ‘What comes in that?’
The server said, ‘The guy who makes that drink doesn’t work here anymore.’
And I asked, ‘So if I order it, you couldn’t give it to me?’
He said, ‘That is correct.’
I said, ‘Can you at least tell me what type of cocktail it was. Bourbon, rye, vodka, gin, tequila?’
He said, ‘I don’t know.’
I said, ‘Do you own this place?’ He did. So I said, ‘When you printed the menu, why didn’t you include the ingredients to this cocktail like you did with all the rest?’
He shrugged at me.
I said, ‘Why did you put it on the menu in the first place?’
He said, ‘It was a popular drink.’
So I circled back and said, ‘Why don’t you take it off the menu then? This must be a source of common confusion, no?’
He said, No. He said, ‘Every once in a while somebody comes in and orders the drink.’
And I said, ‘Sure. Then what?’
He says, ‘I let them behind the bar and they make it.’
‘How often does this happen?’ I asked.
He shrugged. ‘Enough.’
‘Is it a national drink? Is this a Cambodian thing?’
He said, ‘The men who order it are not Cambodian.’
Exacerbated, I said, ‘Well, can you at least tell me what’s in it?’
He said, No. ‘I do not know.’
I said, ‘Multiple men have come in and made this drink at your bar, from your inventory. Surely you must have seen it made!”
He said, No. He said, ‘Every time, I step away from the bar.’
‘These men could be coming into your bar and taking money out of your till for all you know!’
He shrugged. ‘They haven’t. Just make the drink then go.’
Finally, I said. ‘So why didn’t you tell me to come round the bar to make the drink myself. I ordered the drink and you told me you didn’t know how to make it.’
He said, ‘You didn’t order the drink. You asked about it.’
Davis would clear his throat and look around the sparse room. ‘Best agent I ever knew.’
The Cambodian bar owner became a totem for the recruits. Davis called him John Cambo. ‘Be Cambo, not Rambo’ was another mantra. Davis’ working theory, and his long-term strategy, was tangled up in the Cambo story.
‘Better to have a hundred Cambos all over your country than an active military force bound by government. Cambo may have been abetting terrorists. Or he may have been nurturing a network of resistance fighters. Or permitting an underground boxing ring to launder money. Or just being had by a prank. But the thing is, he didn’t know. He trusted. He played his role, unquestioningly. And that is the hardest part of the job. We are naturally inquisitive. But we rely on those unquestioning agents for every operation. Be they typists in the Square, or clerks at the Purse.’
Davis liked to fall silent around this part of his speech to incite counterpoint. A recruit would invariably argue that they’d rather not be abetting terrorists.
‘He was unquestioning, but not unthinking. He had his own logic, his own control. Whatever his evaluation, I didn’t qualify.’
Someone might suggest that John Cambo knew a great deal more than he let on.
‘I don’t think he did. He talked too much for somebody concealing knowledge. His play was honest ignorance. Impenetrable.’ He arched his eyebrows, sharing his admiration with his audience. ‘We are inclined to want to know more than we need to know. And yet by knowing too much,’ said Davis, ‘we’re infecting the operation with vulnerabilities.’
In short, somebody would call phooey. Davis studied their reactions.
‘Espionage networks are like a great organ that stretches all throughout the cathedral’s floor and ceiling but it is played by only a few fingers. The best agents are the couplings, sealing together two pipes. We’ll never see the players depressing the keys. We can only hope to do our part so that the organist who is on our side is capable of playing at their very best.’
The greatest flaw in Davis’ strategy, thought Matthew Morris as he flew thirty thousand feet above the softball field where he learned his trade, was that it favored those who didn’t take initiative. The best agents were pipes and keys in an organ. Sure. He got that. But what were those pipes and keys supposed to do between assignments services? What do you do when nobody’s playing the keys?
After the first year, he stopped sitting by the phone, so to speak. He’d been boring into his savings account. Finally he picked up the odd job. Bouncing, pouring, hauling. He wasn’t certain how deep the false identity went. Would it pass a background check?
O’Hare looked like every other major airport in the world. Maybe that’s what they mean by calling them International. You could be anywhere and you were certainly nowhere.
He had no luggage except the black parka he bought during the layover. He walked like he knew where he was going, which was a habit of the trade. And like an agent in an operation, pieces began falling into place. Over the concourse speakers, he heard a page for Matthew Morris. He angled toward the concierge desk, searching for his wallet in his new coat, but they didn’t check his identity.
“Hello?” he said into the chunky plastic handset.
“I’m terribly sorry. It’s my fault. I’m certain of that.”
Morris would recognize Davis’ detached voice anywhere. He looked at the concierge, an asian woman in her early twenties. Could she be one of Davis’? Could he have changed up his recruitment strategy? No, he wouldn’t need to. Customer service agents all across the world were unwitting part-time conspirators.
“No, I should apologize. Should have found a better use for myself.”
“I select out the impetuous. It’s harder to direct the passive. I suppose I don’t know how to instruct my players how to seek out volunteer opportunities. Rarely I find the perfect specimen, a cocktail of patience and alacrity. You, my friend, were patient until you were not.”
“That’s true enough.”
“‘True enough.’ Ah. A new motto? Could be.”
“Thank you for making arrangements. I’ll pay you back.”
“Nonsense. Operational costs. Already accounted for. That’s the real tradecraft.”
“Well, is there anything I can do?” He glanced at the concierge. She was typing into her console at the far end of the desk, making a show of ignoring him for privacy’s sake. If she were an agent, she’d be memorizing everything he said despite appearing too busy to even look over this way. But maybe she was like John Cambo, genuinely disinterested in affairs outside her purvey. Morris was beginning to understand the nuance of Davis’ strategy.
“As a matter of fact,” said Davis. “There’s a little town in need of a third base coach.”