The Set Up
The Night Hawk Cafe
New York, Summer.
Marit walked alone in East Harlem down the crowded sidewalk, sidestepping large friend groups. A blue envelope was mailed to her at her P.O. Box and in it was a slip of paper that read, “The Night Hawk Cafe.” It was the signal she and Isabelle, her French intelligence counterpart, used when they needed to meet, and it was usually at a bar. Isabelle was currently “working” at the bookstore in the French consulate and Marit had met her there. They had agreed on a place to talk and picked a bar that closed at 4:00a.m. because they, mainly Isabelle, needed all the hours for talking. Tonight the bar was near Marit’s apartment.
It was eleven at night but it was still humidly warm. She could see the airplanes staggered in the sky on their way to LaGuardia and Marit was anxious to get out of town and go abroad. She was in between assignments which always made her feel lost. She had her yoga group at a local storefront, a French literature class at The New School, and a German conversation class at the Goethe Institute, but her college friends were mainly in D.C. and her childhood friends were in Amsterdam. That left people in the New York station who were there temporarily until they were assigned an operation which was what had happened to Thoma. Thoma had been at the New York office for five months. He had a Michaelangelo sculpted body the color of a latte. They were both looking for someone to have sex with and neither was looking for a relationship beyond the bedroom.
She walked into the storefront bar which had exposed brick walls. A few blackboards hung on the wall with chalk drawings of the fruity drink specials of the night The bar counter stretched the length of the room on one side and on the other were shiny lacquered oak high tables. There was a half-door on what looked like a walk-in closet at the end of the bar, but it was really a kitchen where food orders were called out.
Isabelle was at a table in the back, wearing a white gauzy sundress with blue embroidery around the neck and her blond curly hair hanging down, looking more like a middle-aged hippie from Coney Island than a Parisian or even a upper east sider. Marit greeted Isabelle with an American hug, hanging on a little longer than usual. Marit ordered a white russian and Isabelle had her usual red wine with a basket of fries.
“Since when do you order hard liquor? Practicing for an operation?“ asked Isabelle.
Marit shook her head no. “I just need to be kicked on my ass tonight.”
“That’s what white Russians like to do,” said Isabelle. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s just frustrating. Everything that’s been happening: the shootings, the bombings. It’s like we’re not doing anything. And I’m not doing anything right now,” said Marit.
Isabelle nodded. “It’s hard. It’s always been hard. You’re too young, but I remember what the Brits went through with the IRA.”
Marit did some quick math. “You’re not that old.”
“Merci.” She smiled.
“It doesn’t seem to matter if you kill one of them, they’re like a Hydra head- another one takes its place,” said Marit.
“Of course. We’re out of our minds. Everyone is worried all the time,” said Isabelle.
“I know,” said Marit. She knew the French were desperate- tearing apart their country looking for terrorists like the FBI ransacks a house looking for evidence: every drawer upended and clothes strewn about.
“What else is going on with you? You’re upset.”
Marit smiled briefly. Isabelle was an operations operative. Reading people’s emotions was her business.
“Can’t keep a secret from a spy,” said Marit.
“I’m just a little restless. I’m in between jobs. . . .” Marit paused.
“In between men, too?”
“My favorite friend is out of town on business.”
Real out. Half-way around the world out.”
“My God. Find someone new Marit. Find someone . . . local. Not in the same type of work as you.”
Marit had told Isabelle her real name a few years ago. She had used the alias Marie for a long time, but she and Isabelle were friends, and that was unusual in this business. Neither of them had ever shown any interest in turning the other into a double agent. It was never about that. They just clicked when they first met and worked together. She knew Isabelle was right, but guys in the Agency understood when you left abruptly- for a month- and then returned as if no time had passed.
“I have something that will take your mind off him. Get you around some Frenchmen, French wine, French food. I have an idea for an operation. There’s a point to studying history. Sometimes old tactics work the best. I’d like to run it with your help.”
“Help or blessing?”
Isabelle waited while their drinks arrived.
“Santé.” They said to each other.
Marit’s drink went down her throat very smoothly. She noticed Isabelle watching her through her wine glass.
“Okay, remember why Radio Free Europe was established?” said Isabelle.
“A cold war tactic to spread propaganda.”
“That’s the cynical way to look at it. First, it gave new immigrants here an important purpose. They got a job. It put them to work to try to help the people back home who weren’t out yet. Gave them pride in their new country. The U.S. got on the ground info because the immigrants had just come over and still had family and friends back home. The CIA wanted to build a camaraderie among the people still there so they’d uprise. They wanted to foster dissidence.”
“I don’t think ISIS is listening to RFE.”
Isabelle smiled. “Daesh is totally listening- but online. The Arab spring was pushed along via YouTube. There’s bloggers. All sorts of mouthpieces have a platform now. Do you know the Muslim writer, Ahmad Kalil?”
“Yea, I’ve read him. Just articles he’s written in some magazines- not his books.”
“He’s prolific. He’s got a lot of books that have been translated into numerous languages. You should read one. He lives in Paris but travels around the country. He’s pro-Muslim of course. He’s a huge critical voice on the Muslim slum ghettos.”
“Think he’s helping the protestors?”
“Protestors- I could give a shit. What I’d like to know, is, if he’s helping Daesh.”
Marit took a sip of her drink to think. Isabelle was making a huge connection from an intellect responding to a bona fide cultural issue: the Paris suburb slums; to thinking he was not only treasonous but an accomplice to terrorism. She’d been friends with Isabelle for 10 years, had learned a lot from her, and respected her judgment. She needed to hear more.
“How would he be helping Daesh?” Marit asked.
“He’s got a blog, a website, a facebook, YouTube stuff, all the usual social media crap.”
“Hack it all and his computer and tap his phone.”
“Thank you Marit for all those illustrious suggestions.” She stared at Marit.
They stopped talking as the waiter brought the fries for them. They shared the fries with Isabelle enjoying each one as if she’d never tasted them before. Marit never understood Isabelle’s love of American french fries after growing up on French food.
“He’s got a huge wall up. Very sophisticated. Very Chinese,” said Isabelle.
“So he’s got heavy tech behind him.”
“But why,” said Isabelle.
“To protect himself.”
Isabelle scrunched her face at Marit. “He also gets noise from the Russian troll houses.”
Now Marit was really interested. The Russian troll houses were like drops of gasoline that Russia would cyberly drop into a heated online issue and just ignite the people. The troll houses competed against each other for Putin’s attention- and money. They were filled with multilingual communications experts- mainly young- who would pose online as a member of a community.
“In Saint-Denis, the police were raiding an apartment where they thought Islamic terrorists were located. The terrorists had explosives and blew the place up before the police could get in,” said Isabelle.
“Yea, but on social media, it had the police just blowing up the apartment with the suspected terrorists along with innocent Muslim residents. Muslim social media went nuts. We think the trolls helped start the rumor. We know the police would not do that- at least not intentionally.”
Marit sipped more of her white russian. “How does Kalil fit in? Was he involved in the Saint-Denis discussion?”
“He commented but only after there had been a lot of other comments. But he could be tipping off those troll houses. He gets what’s going on in the banlieues. He could feed it to St. Petersburg.”
“It’s your theory.”
“Shit Marit, they have to have someone- and someone with brains. He’s got a motive and he likes money.”
“Doesn’t he make it off his books?”
“Most people can’t make enough. There’s never enough. He lives high and travels well. Vacations in Bali are pricey Marit.”
“It doesn’t seem to be enough to go on. You basically just want to hack in and see if he’s connected.
Isabelle pressed her case. “Even if it’s not him, maybe it’s someone he has contacts with.
“I want to set him up and see if he falls for it.”
“Do you know the American writer Caroline Glenn? Read any of her books? They’re mysteries that take place in France.”
“Marit, are you still reading?”
Marit was about to give a smart answer but Isabelle kept talking without waiting for an answer.
“I’d like to use her. Have her contact Kalil. Tell him she’s sympathetic to the problems in the suburbs. Sympathetic to Muslims in France. How could she help? Well maybe she could blog about it? Put a plot in one of her books? She’s got a strong U.S. readership that wants Paris to be welcoming to immigrants. That’s an American thing you know.”
“I know. Where do I fit in? I suppose I have to talk to her.”
“Wave your flag Marit, patriotic duty. It will help the U.S., France, AND the Muslim community. Introduce her to me. I’ll get her on board. Once she’s on, we can hack her computer and surf onto his or pose as her.
“Can’t get in the back door so you’re going in the front.”
How’d you get this operation,” said Marit.
“I don’t exactly have it. If you wanted to run it with our help that would work.”
“It’s your idea.”
“They won’t let me run an operation. They might let me help out- help you out. I’m trying to stay in the game and get back to France.”
“How long are you here for?”
“I don’t know. That’s what makes it unbearable.” Isabelle drank her wine down.
Marit understood wanting to get back in the game. “What do you miss most?”
Marit laughed. French butter was unmatched. She worried that Isabelle would be retiring soon- or be forced to retire. Maybe after Isabelle retired they could have a normal friendship. The more Marit thought about it the more she looked forward to it and tried to offset her sadness of not having Isabelle on operations anymore.
“I’m not the ‘librarian’ type. Sitting inside all day. I need to be in the field. Look, all I want you to do is have her arrange a meeting. Glenn asks and Kalil’s either up or down with it.”
“Well I need to stay relevant to the D.G. Hopefully this will get me out of my librarian role.”
“I’ll run it by the station chief and see what she says. This seems small, inexpensive, and worth a shot.”
Isabelle smiled. She looked towards the waiter who sauntered over.
“Another round, please.”
“Of course,” said Isabelle.