Continued from “No One Left to Speak Out” and “Last Words” from the December and January issues.
By Bao Hu Yi
Anthony stared at the package on his coffee table, and wondered exactly how long he’d been staring at it. He checked the time on his phone: it was 12:17 pm. It had probably been about an hour, but he wasn’t sure. He was sitting there trying to work up the courage to do what he’d been instructed to do. Pausing to think on what the specific instructions had been, he remembered the truck driver’s careful message: “You should take a look as soon as possible, if you want to save them.” While on the surface the man, whose name was Shreve, had been referring to the box of bruised tomatillos he’d had in his hands at the time, in reality it was far more serious than a handful of bruised fruit.
“Fuck it.” He said it quietly to his empty apartment. He picked up the Ziploc, and taking a deep breath, opened it. First he removed a stack of $50 bills. Ulysses S. Grant’s solemn face staring up at him as a quick count revealed he had $2,500 in his hands, more money than he’d be able to make in a month. He gently stroked the paper-like fabric with his fingers, thinking about how he would have spent the money if it were his to spend. Anthony stopped and reminded himself of his mission. He gently placed the money facedown on the table, hoping that Grant wouldn’t be rolling in his grave if he couldn’t actually see him committing treason.
He reached back into the bag and pulled out the phone. It was a cheap plastic flip phone, the variety sold at liquor stores and strip mall service providers to young “pharmaceutical entrepreneurs” every day in the U.S. Opening it up he found a generic home screen showing the time and date, and a battery with a 90 percent charge. He closed it and put it on the table next to the money. He hesitated briefly when he reached for the note. There was a tugging feeling in the part of his mind that dealt with self-preservation that tried to pull him back. He ignored it and reached into the plastic bag.
He unfolded the paper and saw that while it was handwritten it had been photocopied and xeroxed a number of times. The folds and imperfections were burned into the next copy and the next, making it hard to discover its origins. The message itself was simple and to the point while the precise, flowing handwriting seemed out of place. It was more suited to the signature on a wedding announcement than here. He read it, quietly mouthing the words as he did so.
Burn immediately after reading
Three Wise Men
Look for the hammer & sickle
Be careful they are watching
Anthony read and reread the message, flipping the page over to make sure there wasn’t anything he had missed. He read it one last time, memorized it as best he could, then he placed it into an ashtray in his bathroom. He pulled a cigarette from his pack and lit it. He inhaled deep; drawing the smoke into his lungs, then used his lighter to ignite the piece of paper. The flames danced and flickered as the paper curled and blackened. Thin tendrils of smoke were sucked into the noisy fan that was set into the ceiling. He waited until the flames had died, then broke up the debris by hand. All that was left of the note was ashes, indistinguishable from all the others in the ashtray.
Well… He thought, now he knew what his job was. He didn’t know exactly what it meant, but he knew that at 5:45 on the dot he would be ordering a drink at a bar, keeping an eye out for his next contact. They’d told him it would be like this. His natural curiosity was screaming for more information, but in the rational part of his mind Anthony knew that more information would only get him, and others like him, killed.
“You hold their lives in your hands,” Jaime had said, “and they have yours in theirs. Nobody knows everything, and you probably won’t know anything. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” Anthony was surprised at how literally he’d meant that: he really had no idea what to expect when he arrived at Lawson’s. Jaime had been his first contact, a former intelligence officer in the Mexican military. They’d talked at length about the difference between training and the real thing, trying to prepare for a day that had just arrived. It wasn’t enough, although Jaime had told him that as well. Anthony would do what he was supposed to, as best he could or he’d die trying. That was enough for now.
Anthony pulled into the parking lot of Lawson’s Bar & Grill ten minutes before he was supposed to be there. It was a habit he had picked up working in a restaurant: you never knew when they might need you to jump in and take tables, so it paid to be early. As he sat in the car, he palmed the folding knife in his coat pocket and realized that his hands were sweating profusely. He pulled them out and wiped them on the front of his coat, hoping he wouldn’t need to pull the weapon out quickly. The area where the bar sat was a disused semi-industrial zone that had seen better days. The only other businesses he had noticed on his way in were a handful of warehouses, a dilapidated machine shop, and an auto repair place that advertised “D I S C O N T U B E J O B” on a yellowed sign out front.
The few people that were around were either vagrants, or shifty looking young men that Anthony suspected were more interested in stripping copper wiring from the shuttered businesses than anything else. If he wasn’t careful, he might need the knife after all. Anthony put the thought out of his mind; he was here for a reason. He took a deep breath, thumbed the knife one more time, and opened the door to step out into the cold November air. He shivered once and headed for the front door.
When he entered, he realized that the inside of the bar was a faithful recreation of the surrounding neighborhood: dark, dingy and depressing. It was almost as if someone had let all the light out of the place. Walking slowly, he scanned the room without moving his head, as Jaime had taught him and took a seat at the bar where he could see both the front entrance and another door towards the back that said EXIT. Including himself and the bartender, there were only six people in the bar. Two men in black Dickie’s pants and matching uniforms that said “Fred’s” above the breast pocket were sharing a pitcher of beer and a whispered conversation on the bar rail to his left. A heavily tattooed man sat in a booth facing the entrance, clasping a nearly empty bottle of vodka, his head hanging in his lap. That left a broad-shouldered man with a white apron standing near the bar rail, chatting quietly with a shorthaired female bartender. Anthony guessed the man was the cook or the bouncer, or maybe both. He took a seat and the bartender smiled at him. It caught him off guard, both because of its warmth and because it was so obviously out of place here.
“Hey there, what can I get you?” The words seemed to draw all of the sound from around him until he could hear his own heartbeat in his ears. He looked at the clock on the wall: 5:41. Just a little early.
“Um…just a water for now. I need to think.”
“Sure thing.” She said, filling a plastic cup first with ice, then water, and setting it down in front of him. He thanked her and then took a small sip of the cold water. It soothed his throat, which had suddenly turned dry and uncomfortable with anxiety. The seconds and minutes seemed to stretch themselves longer, and Anthony felt a palpable fear. What if..? He thought, and then suddenly forced himself to open his mouth and say the words:
“Let me have a Three Wise Men.”
He felt her look him up and down, then back up again. As she reached for the bottles and her mixer, she spoke.
“Been watching the news today.” It was more of a statement than a question and initially Anthony thought she might be his contact, that this was some sort of introductory game. He realized what she meant when he saw her jerk her head towards an ancient box television hanging from the ceiling. It was still showing the ticker announcing MARTIAL LAW, but images of state-sponsored violence had been replaced by talking heads editorializing the ongoing crisis. She must think I’m drinking because I’m afraid, he thought. He noticed her fear then, hidden behind the warm smile and her mascaraed eyes, and replied, “Yeah, its pretty fucked up, isn’t it?” He hoped no one would notice his practiced casualness and watched her pour a dark, almost black liquid from the mixer into a shot glass. He could smell it from here, nearly two feet away: the scents of bourbon, whiskey, and scotch mingled potently in his nose. He was surprised to see her pour herself the remainder into another shot glass. Handing him one, then raising the other, she said, “Everyone could use something strong right now.” He smiled a nervous smile, clinked the glass and said “Salud.”
The sensation of ghastly hot fire coursed through him, and he nearly choked. The bartender seemed to slide hers down without a care, probably not for the first time this evening. When his head stopped swimming she asked if he was all right, laughter in her voice. Once he’d nodded his head yes, she turned to serve one of her other customers. Looking around, he wondered which of them was the likeliest to be his contact. He didn’t think that his contact would be with anyone else, so he felt safe ruling out the two guys on his left. His hunch proved correct when they paid and left together about 10 minutes later. The tattooed man had finished his bottle and was mumbling to himself. Anthony could only make out the words “goddamned bastards” and decided it wouldn’t be him either. That left the cook/bouncer or someone who’d yet to arrive.
After 45 minutes the bartender told him and the drunk that in order to make it home by curfew, she would be closing up and they would have to leave. The drunk made a small fuss before seeming to realize he could hardly keep his head up, and that the cook/bouncer would have little difficulty throwing him out. Anthony decided that staying would raise more red flags than just doing what she’d said. He pulled a fifty out of his back pocket and told her to keep the change. She blinked once, thanked him and turned back to the cash register.
Walking out into the twilight, Anthony stood and surveyed the landscape. He thought about what to do next. Maybe there would be something in the burner phone, someone he could contact for instructions. He thought about returning home and trying again the next night, but a small voice at the back of his head told him that it might be too late then. He was thinking he might have screwed something up, when from behind him he heard someone clear their throat. He turned and saw the drunk wobbling on his feet, a cigarette in his tattooed fingers, looking at him with a glazed look.
“Hey man, can I get a light?” Anthony could see the man gently weaving his head as he attempted to keep his balance. He felt sorry for him, shrugged, and handed the man a brown Bic lighter. The man took it, slurred out a thank you and put the cigarette between his lips. When he raised the lighter to his mouth, he used his other hand to shield the flame from the wind. Anthony froze. In the light of the parking lot, he saw a small hammer and sickle tattoo on the back of the man’s middle finger, briefly backlit by the orange glow of the flame. The man tossed the lighter back to him, and smiled. He took an unsteady step forward and said, “Y’think I can get a ride?”
A few minutes later they were in Anthony’s car, backing out of the lot. Before Anthony could speak, the man held up a hand and said, “Don’t tell me your real name – before anything else, understand that.” He wasn’t slurring anymore. Anthony nodded, and the man put his hand out in Anthony’s direction.
“Call me Marco. I’m sorry about that, the bartender kind of fucked my plan up there.” Anthony took his hand in a quick dap and then blurted out the first name he could think of.“I’m Jaime. I didn’t really know what to expect.”
“That’s okay. C’mon, we got somewhere to be. Turn out this way.” Marco pointed to the left and they turned out onto the street. They drove for about ten minutes, making turns seemingly at random whenever Marco told him to. He kept glancing in the rearview mirror, making Anthony realize he was making sure they weren’t being followed. They finally pulled into the lot of the body shop he had seen on his way to the bar. Marco directed him to kill his lights and drive into the garage that was flush against a large warehouse. Inside, men in work coveralls guided his car up into the workspace. “If anyone comes knocking, you’re just having some car trouble, right?” Marco said.
When they had the car secure he got out and watched as the men lifted it up off the ground with a hydraulic platform and started looking underneath. Anthony wondered if they were also looking for a GPS tracker or some other type of surveillance bug and what they would do to him if they had found one. He followed Marco into the warehouse. Large racks towered above him filled with car parts and salvage. He could smell rust and oil in the air. About a third of the space was occupied by the racks and a small machine shop off to one side, but a wall with a porthole door divided the main space from a room that took up another third of the warehouse. They walked up to the door, and Marco knocked twice.
The door opened, and Anthony could see inside the room were several large tables covered with five-gallon plastic buckets. The men inside had cheap painters masks on their faces and were scooping red and grey powders out of the buckets and into measuring cups, while at another table two men sat dissembling more cheap burner phones, their exposed electronics and wires spread out. Marco clapped hands with a dark skinned man in a tank top and started talking. Anthony walked into the room, looked around, stopped, and realized he was standing in a bomb factory. He stared at the scene before him and turned to look at Marco and the man he was talking to. The dark skinned man looked at his expression, looked at the men at work, and then looked back and smiled.
“Welcome to the revolution.”