Chapter 12

 

Ayda Khoury

Ataturk Airport

Istanbul, Turkey

 

Customs is a breeze on my fake passport, in a friendly country with only my tiny handbag as luggage. The airline lost my baggage, I tell the customs officials, and they make sympathetic noises and help me file a claim that will never be filled.

The girl in the black-and-white hijab is at the taxi stand like Farah promised, leaning against the wall too far from her rolling suitcase, looking up directions on her phone. I sit on the suitcase and unzip the front pocket, find the replacement phone as promised, an eminently hackable Samsung Galaxy, and look up directions to the Pera Palace Hotel, the con hotel for Friends of Syria. No way can I afford to stay in a place like that. There’s money from North Ridge in the suitcase, but even if I could bring myself to spend it, it wouldn’t be believable. I’m supposed to have run away on my own resources. If it were true, I wonder if I would have been ruthless enough to buy stolen credit card numbers to finance my escape. Don’t think about that.

I use the maps app to locate a much cheaper hotel close to the Pera Palace before getting up and walking over to a taxi with the girl’s suitcase in tow. Cold War-style live drop. It's a little bit cool, even though I keep expecting someone to accuse me of theft, call after me in Turkish and give chase.

 I insist on keeping the bag with me, and check the contents of the suitcase on the way to the hotel. It’s full of clothes for someone much more glamorous than me, and a laptop like some field spy's idea of what a gamer would carry, an Alienware with a pearly finish. I'd have cooling problems if I were planning to actually play Black Desert, or even World of Warcraft, on it.

I’ve still got the medication bottle in my purse with nine pills in it, after I took one at what I think was the right time by the watch of the airline passenger next to me on the long overnight flight. Leaving my phone behind in Virginia left me without a clock. They’re for minor depression, what the DSM IV used to call dysthymia. I guess so it would sound more like a disorder in its own right and less like major depression’s pathetic, attention-seeking younger sister.

 I lied on the NSA psychological evaluation. Until I worked for them I didn’t have the insurance to see anyone about it anyway, but I don’t have enough sick days to stay unmedicated. The timing on the meds might have been wrong. I feel wrong, distant from myself, like I’m going to break into one of those emotionless crying fits.

I try to force myself to take in the sights, look out the window at the soaring Pera Museum, tall white buildings, and a nightclub named, with magnificent irony, Rehab. I’ve never been out of the US before. Dad used to threaten to take us to Lebanon, where his family and Mom’s were from, like the law didn’t favor him enough in the States. I was afraid if he took us we’d never come back, but I’ve always wanted to see where we came from.

The hotel takes the passport in my real name as ID, though the desk clerk looks at me too long when he tells me to enjoy my stay in Turkey.

Turkey is a friendly country to the US, and they can extradite me any time they want. From now on I’m on the clock, and if I’m caught with the fake passport I’ll be guilty of espionage in a friendly country. More than I already was, I guess.

What if they catch me, charge me with espionage here, and don’t extradite me? What if they keep me in a Turkish prison and—

Stop. Destructive. Call that catastrophizing the future and write it off to depression or I’ll never get anything done.

I go up to my room and check out the contents of the laptop Farah sent me. It’s got quite a cache. No names, but plenty of logistical details of arms and support to the Free Syrian Army, troop movements of Al-Nusra, stateless army Al Qaeda, Al-Azza’s Islamic State splinter group from Al-Nusra. Except for the FSA, they’re all people who used to be called Al Qaeda. Here’s the bit Farah was talking about as verifiable good faith: Longbow Hellfire missiles bound for Syria in support of the Free Syrian Army rebels.

I change out of the suit I tried to sleep in on the plane, into clothes I think I can get away with wearing to the tea room at Pera Palace, a pair of black slacks and a black suit jacket over a T-shirt that says I WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD, BUT THEY WON’T GIVE ME THE SOURCE CODE. It all fits better than the suit I’d bought for myself. Farah’s dressed me like a stylish prep-punk, like I wished I could carry off in high school and never quite managed. I keep the cross like she said, and armed with good faith, Farah’s advice, and a laptop, I head off on the long walk to the Pera Palace Hotel to raid their network, feeling like everyone is staring at me.

The hipster couple with the shopping bags from the graffitied Neofly boutique look at me too long. The man talking on his cell phone bores holes into me with his eyes. Maybe he’s staring at my chest. Maybe he’s just trying to read my shirt.

Farah says CIA calls it burn syndrome. The feeling that everyone knows what you’re up to, that every person you pass on the street is internal security. It happens to everybody, she said, and that it never gets any better, not even for professionals who’ve been doing it for decades. That was not reassuring.

The girl on the phone across the street from Pera Palace tracks me with her eyes as I approach the door. Legend has it Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express while staying at this hotel, where the Orient Express train used to have its southernmost terminal.

The look the doorman gives me doesn’t make the burn syndrome any better. It’s like being followed around at a too-fancy store, by clerks convinced you’re stupid enough to pick up a whole tote purse and try to walk out the door with it.

The hotel walls, inside and out, look artfully distressed, like Martha Stewart came through this rich people’s hotel with her crackle-paint to try for the shabby-chic look. Omar said Zara from Hezbollah’s Al-Manar news network is covering Friends of Syria, but she’s not staying here.

Al-Manar’s tradecraft is actually excellent; they broadcast in several countries where they’re outright illegal; they know how to hide. To look for them, I’ll start with the social angle. Whether Al-Manar gave anybody a byline for the coverage, or quoted any sources by name, or by implication so strong as to be nearly unmistakable, they shouldn’t be too hard for me to find. I make myself as comfortable as anyone can be in the hotel’s Kubbeli Saloon Tea Lounge, surrounded by enough deep maroon plush for a Disney hallucinogenic sequence. At a corner table, a couple of big bodyguard types in Western suits look a great deal more comfortable than I do. I wonder if they’re Farah’s. Even if you don’t see us, we’re with you, she said.

I order some kind of questionably luxuriant raspberry chocolate cake and nibble at it while I work.

Yelp and Foursquare are good for wifi passwords at hotels that keep them static, including this one. It lets me right in, and I use the hotel wifi, in the loosest sense, tunneling out with the Korean VPN to hide my location.

Omar has e-mailed me. I will [only] use my powers for good. Are you dead? There’s a warrant for your arrest in US.

And again. I will use my powers for good and not evil. *Ping* *ping ping ping* Is this thing on? You’re wanted in the US; msg me.

I email back. I will not be evil. Alive and well, not arrested, op still on + I'm in Turkey! Better explanation later, promise. Rescue my WoW and Black Desert accounts. Msg with what we did the last night in person as identifier.

If Zara bint Hussein sent her materials home over the hotel wifi or over the cell network from here, she had the good sense to use a VPN and probably an additional anonymizer. There’s nothing. Metadata from the photo posts on the Al-Manar blog leads back to a local Sunni political blogger. Either she didn’t take the photos, or she’s spoofing somebody else. Subtle is out.

Omar says I’m already wanted.

I can use that.

I follow Zara bint Hussein on Twitter from my terribly compromised but now-infamous @viralpanacea account, changing my password for the little it’s worth, hack her Twitter to follow me back, and Direct Message her to tell her I want to talk. I tell her This is me presenting myself at the embassy.

Silence. I sip my inexplicably named Apple Fantasy tea and nibble my very American raspberry chocolate truffle cake, refreshing my message box and avoiding reading my actual feed, while watching the diplomats and bodyguards and rich guests of the Pera Palace look at me like I don’t belong. The men at the table in the corner keep glancing my way, talking quietly in Turkish. The press have broadcast my face all over the US, walking out of the Capitol with Farah, but I don’t expect to be immediately recognized in Turkey. I can’t take it anymore. I flag down a waiter and pay for my food and try not to look like I’m bolting out the door.

My hotel seems much farther away on the walk back. Burn syndrome. Just burn syndrome. The bearded man a block behind me has been with me since I left the Pera Palace, hasn’t he?

A girl with a video camera and a pastel pink hijab is walking fast to catch or pass me, her eyes on the ground but her muscles tensed to spring. I try to get out of her way and she tracks on me, plastering a smile onto her face and calling after me. “Hey! Shaheeda!” Shaheeda is a pretty common name, even though we only ever hear it in the US as a title. It can mean witness, like someone who calls out the NSA and thanks the free press on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Or it can mean martyr.

The girl reaches for my hands and before I know what’s happening she’s kissing me on both cheeks and chattering at me in Lebanese too fast for me to follow. She’s got a grip like a vise. She tugs me by one hand, pulling me sharply off the main street, leading me away from my hotel. I have no idea where we’re going, but my bearded Turkish tail peels off and out of sight. Is she Farah's?

“You’re supposed to be a professional, what are you thinking?” my captor snaps in English, releasing my hand at last.

I am so not this kind of spy.

I know her voice, I realize. I've listened to it a hundred times, giving clever political commentary on Lebanon, Assad's Syria, and Lebanon’s seeming inability to hold a Presidential election. “Zara bint Hussein.”

It wasn’t just burn syndrome. She got the location from the Twitter post, or some of the watchers were hers. I try to picture the people I saw at the Pera Palace and remember the big men in the corner. Were they hers?

She’s wearing multiple silver rings and heavy eye makeup, and a colorful blouse and hijab. She’s not the kind of crazy austere I’d expect from Hezbollah.

“Keep walking,” she says. “I do not believe for a second that you want to defect to Lebanon.”

“Not Lebanon. The Party.”

She almost stops for a second, then quickens and walks double-time. “Why would you?”

I've rehearsed this. Farah made me say something like it again and again in the car, and I must have said it to myself a hundred more times on the plane. “I’ve been on your side before. In Operation Intifada." Breaking the rules of Anonymous. "I’m Lebanese. My name is Ayda Khoury, my mother is Rafqa Haddad.”

“From Ras Beirut?” Khoury is a Christian name; Zara figures we’re rich.

“From Bourj Hamoud.” In northeast Beirut, where the rent is cheap.

“You speak Armenian?” she asks.

“What?”

She looks skeptical. I don’t know why. She's not going to buy my story, and Hezbollah tortures people to death, and they're going to torture me to find out what's real and what's not on this laptop, and I don't even know, because Farah—

—Not useful. Say something useful.

“I grew up in the diaspora,” I try. “But we’re not Armenian; we’re Lebanese. Maronites. And you’re the enemy of my enemy. My government had us giving intelligence support to Al-Nusra. Fucking Al Qaeda offshoots Al-Nusra, 9/11 Al Qaeda. Commander Al-Azza’s men just kidnapped a chief of station and we can’t even admit it.” That’s a good lie. I like that one. “Washington is trying to pin it on Hezbollah. Actually, the Congressional Republicans are trying to pin it on Hezbollah to humiliate the administration.” It’s an even better lie, angry and not too savvy and something viralpanacea would say.

“What do you want from us?”

“A visa. A permanent one, for Lebanon. I need somewhere to run; there’s a warrant for my arrest in the United States. I know what the Syrian military was looking for.” So does she, but she won’t be able to admit it. Low risk verifiable information then ramp it up, like Farah said.

“What?” She’s a better liar than I am. I try to memorize her surprised face to mimic it later.

I give her the information Farah told me to offer first, verifiable to show good faith. “The US is sending the Free Syrian Army surface-to-surface missiles, Longbow Hellfires, from Incirlik.”

“Source?”

“We were providing communications support between the Air Force and the Free Syrian Army. I got to read everyone’s mail on both sides.”

“Then you can give us intelligence support for the Syrian war? If we accepted your defection?” She stops in front of a place that is seriously called Holy Coffee and pulls out her phone, an iPhone I will find a way to get an IMEI and ISMI for, in a pink case. She points the front camera at us, scooting over close to me and putting one arm around me like we’re best friends celebrating making it to Istanbul. We look like we could be on Hart’s daughter’s Instagram.

“I can tell you what aid the US has promised the rebels and which ones are getting it,” I tell her as she texts the picture to someone.

“I can get that from Friends of Syria.” She leads me into the cafe.

“I can tell you where the Hellfires are going.”

She doesn’t go as crazy for it as I thought she would; they must already have another source of this information. The station is penetrated? Or maybe Alex Hart was well-informed. The idea ties my stomach in knots.

She orders coffee, but I can’t stand the idea of trying to eat or drink anything. She makes small talk about how I’m enjoying Turkey, waiting for her controller on the other end of the cell phone. I wonder if it’s going to be like the movies, with black balaclavas and Kalashnikovs. They don’t have to trade. They can take and torture me like they did Hart.

She sips her coffee until her phone buzzes. “Alright,” she says, “One of my colleagues wants to meet with you. Tomorrow. 1400. Suleymaniye Cami.”

I have to look up where that is on my phone. It's a beautiful historic mosque. I'd probably want to see it, but I don't want to meet them on their ground, at their first choice location. Don't be too eager to betray your country, Farah said. Don't take their first offer and don't look like bait.

"Hagia Sophia Museum," I offer.

She gets up. "No deal." She won't make her controller wait.

"Wait." I don't like the desperation in my voice. All I can see in my mind’s eye is Alex Hart in an execution video like the one Pirate Bay had posted, of his agent’s death. The Suleymaniye Cami is a big tourist site, I tell myself; it can't be that bad. "I'll come. Tomorrow. 1400."

Right where they want me.