by Ryan C. Thomas

Chapter 1


Rhonda White had not been on the third floor of CIA headquarters in well over a year. The last time was when the faxes went down, forcing her to hand-deliver a document on black market goods. The cubicles were so creepily sterile, filled with people she didn’t know who wore expensive suits and yammered into black phones like there was a prize awarded to anyone who passed out from incessant talking. They all had a particular glare that made her feel she was under suspicion for being alive. Mostly what she remembered about the third floor, though, was hallway after hallway lined with closed office doors, and on each one, a gold placard that may as well have read someone more important than you works here. Even now, as she slid her ID card through the elevator’s scanner, she couldn’t begin to guess why she was being asked to come up. Some directors just didn’t like to discuss secrets over the phone, even within the building. All she knew was that her services were required—which could be bad or good.

Chances were it was either something that needed interpreting, or another rumor about the Castro brothers working with the Iraqis, a rumor that needed to be dispelled. Or maybe some dumb American got himself arrested trying to buy drugs in Havana and needed Uncle Sam to rescue his ass. When were people going to learn that Havana was as deadly as it was exotic, and any sign of disrespect to the locals would come back to haunt you? Cuban police got off on messing with Americans—as did many law enforcement agencies around the world these days.

The elevator doors opened and two suited men stepped out, nodding politely as they passed by. One of them had a prominent bulge under his jacket, no doubt his gun holster. In the year she’d been working for the agency, she still hadn’t gotten used to the sight of so many firearms. Many carried by men who looked like they’d just graduated high school; field officers fresh from the military, which meant they’d had their share of training, she knew, but that didn’t make her feel any better about it. She herself did not carry a gun. Never would; it wasn’t required for her contributions. She barely knew how to hold one. There had been no special weapons training classes for her Poli Sci major at Yale...at least not that her advisors had told her about.

She entered the elevator and pressed the button for the third floor, rubbing her hands together as the doors closed. The elevator rose silently, the tiny camera in the upper corner recording her movements, another of many things she’d had to get used to here. It had been weird at first, her every action filed away on a hard drive somewhere, but she understood the necessity of it. There’d been too many leaks over the years not to keep every movement on file. Information was easily bought and sold; everyone had a price, even the men behind the doors with gold placards. Secrets were weapons during times of war, and with the way the world was now, terrorism front page news every night, it seemed America would never know domestic peace and trust like it had before 9-11. Selling classified intel was as much a money maker as selling weapons, drugs or pirated software. Free enterprise, right? 

She smoothed her suit jacket, straightened the ID badge pinned to it, pushed her hair out of her eyes and took a breath. Her anxiety rose with the lift. Why? She wasn’t sure. But the man who’d rung her desk a minute ago sounded authoritative, his request urgent. For a change, it hadn’t been her division director, Dan. No, it was a voice she’d not heard before. Military, she suspected, judging by the formal command—he’d called her Miss. Normal bosses didn’t say Miss, they said “Hey, you.” Or perhaps someone from DOD? Rumor was DOD was hanging around so much these days they were moving into the building. Hell, could just be a new departmental liaison who wanted to say hi—with so many departments here it was hard to keep track of who was who.

Her stomach rumbled. She checked her watch and realized it was getting close to lunchtime. Hopefully this mystery meeting wouldn’t last long. Lunch breaks were becoming a luxury, and she had two reports due by the day’s end. Castro’s recent sickness had damn near tripled her workload. Sure, Cuban doctors were still lying at the dictator’s request, telling the press that Fidel was going to be in charge for several more years, but Rhonda knew different. Fidel was lying mute in a bed while his brother, Raul, slowly transitioned the country to his own control. His own, ruthless, manipulative control.  Things were going to get worse before they got better.

And that meant more long nights ahead.

The elevator doors opened and she stepped out into the hallway. To her left the cubicles seemed to pulse with telephone chatter. To her right, closed doors with name placards greeted her. She’d been told to come up to briefing room 323, but she had no clue where it was. She knew she must look out of place standing in the middle of the hall, craning her neck to see which way the numbers went. The hallways here were also lined with cameras, even if you couldn’t see them. How long before someone came out and asked her if she was lost? Or demanded to see her ID?

A young page, already going a bit gray with stress, came out of a nearby office. “Excuse me,” she said as he drew close. “I’m looking for 323.”

The young man didn’t miss a beat as he passed by, pointing down toward the far end of the hall without looking her in the eye. More pages came around the corners, each carrying dossiers, manila files, coffee deliveries or some other kind of menial offering to the men and women who sat secretly behind all these closed doors. All of the pages were young, probably still in college. Rhonda had only graduated college two years ago, groomed by a professor with friends in high places. The pages didn’t seem to notice her as they made their way to the offices around her, closing the doors behind them. The pages served as the delivery system for the exchange of information beyond emails and telephones. Security wasn’t even guaranteed in the offices of the nation’s secret agent headquarters. Write it on paper, pass it off, shred the paper. Official files? They existed, but whether or not the information they contained was true was anyone’s guess.

She found 323 at the end of the hall and rapped on the heavy wood door. The sound of several locks being undone (one or two with whirring servos) only served to heighten her anxiety. Closed doors were one thing, but computerized locks were another entirely; the director’s didn’t want these doors opened accidentally. This increased secrecy in a building of secrets again begged the question: why did they need her rudimentary skills? The door opened to reveal a room bathed in shadow—the blinds drawn—and an older man with white hair and black-rimmed glasses looking her over. There was no badge fixed to his dark, pinstriped suit. “Rhonda White?” he asked.

Nothing like being expected, she thought. “That’s me.”

“Jim Wilkins. Come in. Over here.” He closed the door, pressed the keypad (tumblers slid home, locking her in), and directed her to a long dark table. She saw now that the lights in the room were lowered to better illuminate the monitors on the walls. “Have a seat,” Wilkins commanded.

She pulled out a chair and sat between two men that she’d never seen before. The younger wore a black suit, though not as nicely tailored as Wilkins’, and an ID badge. The elder wore an officer’s uniform, no ID badge and a bad toupee. He was clearly some kind of higher-level military bigwig. Across from her, her director, Dan Yauch was playing with his pen. The sight of him made her feel a little better and she felt her muscles loosen a bit. Familiar faces tended to do that in these types of situations.  He liked her, and she him. He must have recommended her to the men in the room.

 Wilkins’ picked up a remote control from the table and walked over to one of the monitors, which currently was just a blank, blue screen. “Miss White, Mr. Yauch here was telling us you’re brighter than a sunspot when it comes to Cuban Intel. Spend a lot of time there, do you?”

The question felt like an accusation and she recognized his voice as the one on the phone. She quickly put together the information coming at her, based on the way Wilkins was running the show and the fact that he hadn’t bothered to introduce the other men. He had to be upper level CIA. A commanding presence and a disregard for social protocol always gave away the CIA brass.

“Yes,” she answered. “I just got back about two months ago. Is this about Raul’s takeover? I’m actually working on a report right now.”

“Nah, Raul won’t be a problem much longer,” the military man said, waving the thought off. Yauch and the other men said nothing.

What did that mean? Was the US going to assassinate Raul? She knew there’d been attempts in the past, but such black ops were rarely discussed openly in front of a lowly analyst. Curiosity tugged at her, but she was fairly confident they would only tell her what they wanted her to know, questions would be futile.

“Let me pull this up,” Wilkins said, turning to the monitor. He pressed a button on the remote and a picture appeared on the screen, an angled top-down view of three men in a field. It could be Cuba or anywhere south of the equator. “How many times have you been, all told?”

“I go about every four months,” she replied. Across from her, Dan merely nodded, as if to tell her she was doing well so far.

 “Then you’re aware that Raul is not the only threat to the Cubans right now. Military generals are moving their pawns and rooks up the chess board, so to speak. We’re trying our best to keep note of them all. Like fucking cockroaches, these men. Seem to spawn their own little armies overnight.”

“I’ve counted seven noteworthy factions so far,” she said.

“You keep good tabs, I see. Just as Director Yauch tells me. Right now though, we’re interested in these men here.” He pointed to the image.

“I don’t recognize this part of Cuba,” she said. “Cartel land?”

“No. You don’t recognize it because it isn’t Cuba. It’s Panama.”

“Panama? But that’s not my area—”

“I know, I know. Let me explain. One of our Recon Sats shot this last week. This man here is Abhur Quayarah. He’s Iranian military. Also an arms dealer, a real piece of shit. Had both his wife and daughter killed in an honor killing last year. This other guy here is Manuel Fereza. Chilean. Military as well. He ordered the killings of nearly two thousand refugees a few Christmases ago. Also deals in illegal arms. Both bow to the presidents of their homelands. And both have tried to buy plutonium on the black market in the past year. Thank Christ the Russians have been going nuke crazy over this Chechnya bullshit and buying it all themselves. The goddamn Chechnyans had better back down soon or they’re gonna find their asses glowing green with dirty radiation. Then we’ll all have a real shitstorm of a conflict to solve. But for now that’s none of your business.”

“Jim, the point,” the military man said.

Wilkins didn’t look happy to be reprimanded in front of the others, but he let it go. “You’re here because we want to know who this third guy is.” He clicked the remote and the picture changed to a close up of a black man in a sun hat. He held a cane topped with what looked like some kind of animal skull, a cat or something. Various feathers and bones dangled from the handle. Around his neck he wore tiny bones, shells, and what were arguably the teeth of a shark. The picture was remarkably clear, but his face was obscured by the hat.

“No idea,” she said. “You have a name?”

“We have nothing, Rhonda,” said Dan. It was the first time he’d spoken since she arrived. “I went through all of our files and can’t find him anywhere. I thought maybe you’d know. I mean, the skullcap cane and all. Kind of hard to miss.”

She shook her head. “Sorry. I haven’t seen him before. Are you telling me he’s Cuban? How do you know?”

“We don’t for sure,” Wilkins said. “But we have this.” He clicked the remote again and the picture changed to a color shot of a dirty urban alleyway. The black man with the cane was talking to two other men. Behind them an open door revealed what looked like the storeroom of a small arts and crafts shop. There was nothing nefarious about the picture per se, though the men did radiate the type of seediness associated with drug pushers: the slicked back hair, the gold chains, the pinky rings. They were Latino, one about 30 years of age, the other a little younger. They looked familiar, but she couldn’t place them. “DEA agents took this in Brooklyn two days ago.”

She got the point right away. “So this mystery man, he’s in the States.”

“Right. Now, these two guys here—” he clicked the remote and the screen closed in on the men’s faces—“as I’m sure you know, are Estabán and José Uriquez.”

“Of course.” Rhonda sat up a bit straighter. She knew of the Uriquez brothers, notorious drug smugglers who had ties to several Cuban drug lords, and to Raul Castro himself. Rumor had it that their father was funding much of Raul’s takeover. She relayed this to the Wilkins, who seemed to know it already.

“This alleyway,” the man continued, “is behind a store called Regalo del Sol. Sells chotchke swag from Latin America, the Caribbean and Cuba. Mostly Cuba. It’s run by a man named Javier Ortez. Also Cuban. In fact, the whole neighborhood is Cuban. Are you putting this together?”

Rhonda nodded. “Our mystery man is meeting with Cuban drug dealers in the States, after meeting with plutonium-hungry terrorist commandos. You want me to do some research, find out who he is?”

Wilkins said nothing, turned his attention to Dan, evidently waiting for him to take over.

Seeing it was his turn to speak, Dan took his glasses off and pinched the bridge of his nose. He looked stressed about what he was going to say. “Rhonda, we need you to do a bit more than that. DEA says this guy is still lurking around Brooklyn. They don’t know where he’s staying, keep losing him in the maze of low income apartments in the area, but they’re confident he’s still there. What we need is someone to go in and find out who he is. Someone familiar with Cuban culture. Someone who can pretend to be right off the boat, immerse herself in the neighborhood, get close to this guy and find out why he’s meeting with both arms and drug dealers.”

“Hold up,” she said, putting her hands out in an effort to stop the conversation. “You want me to go undercover? I’m an analyst, not a field agent. No way, send someone else. I’ll help whoever you send, but I’m not going anywhere.”

“We would if we could,” Wilkins said. “But our other Latin-trained field agents are spread thin checking out possible terror camps near Ibagué. Right now, there’s no one around who knows the ins and outs of these people like you do. You’re the top Cuban analyst at our disposal. All we’re asking is a couple of days. Bump around, see what you can find out, then we get you out and get someone else to replace you. But if we don’t move now this guy may disappear back into the shadows. You won’t be in any danger. Promise. We’ll have an agent keeping watch over you, and DEA will be informed of who you are as well. All we want is a name for this guy.”

Dan leaned across the table. “Rhonda, it’ll be safer than going to Cuba itself.”

“Bullshit, Dan. When I go to Cuba I sip Mojitos and buy fabric, read the paper and talk to a poor reporter or two. I don’t fraternize with drug lords. Do you have any idea what these guys do to people who cross them. You’ll never even find my body it’ll be in so many pieces.”

“I won’t let that happen.” This came from the man in the black suit seated next to her. It was the first time he’d spoken.

She turned to him. “And you are?”

“Special Agent Steven Plante.”

“No offense, Agent Plante, but you won’t need to protect me because I’m not going.”

“We need you,” Dan said. The look in his eyes made it clear he felt bad asking this of her, was maybe even under pressure to do so. But she didn’t care how bad he felt, she wasn’t going.

“I’m not trained for this, Dan. You know that.”

With a sigh, Wilkins turned off the monitor and sat down at the table. “Listen, Rhonda, Cuba is more volatile now than ever. If this guy is selling arms to the Iranians and Chileans, we need to know about it. But I can’t pull my other people out of Columbia just yet, not for a couple more days, and we sure as hell can’t send a white person in--they’d stick out like a sore thumb. If this cane-wielding bushman is a Cuban arms dealer, we need someone who will fit in and knows how Cubans operate. Cuba is your specialty, so that means you. All we want is a name. That’s it. Agent Plante here will be nearby at all times.”

“You think that makes me feel better, that you need a man with a gun to shadow me so I don’t end up as pigeon food?”

“You won’t get hurt, Rhonda,” agent Plante said. “These guys won’t suspect a woman to be infiltrating them.”

“Infiltrating? Sounds like I should have night vision goggles and an Uzi.”

“Look at it this way, Rhonda,” Dan said. “You know how this place works. You know how people get ahead, and it’s not by riding a desk, no matter what your position. It’s by proving yourself. You want to move up, you want a big desk of your own? This type of thing, it’ll look real good someday. Trust me.”

“It’s just a couple of days,” said Wilkins. “We’ve got a room already set up for you. Everything’s taken care of. Just give us the word.”

Rhonda looked around the room, saw all eyes boring into her, even the military man who had yet to speak. They had each flaunted positions of power and were placing a huge weight on her shoulders. She wondered if she even had the option of saying “no.” Her ego allowed her to be a tad flattered that they were asking her to undertake a job this important, but intellectually she knew it was lunacy to even consider it. What if she got in trouble? What if she was found out? She was a thin woman, barely five-foot-seven. All the self-defense classes in the world wouldn’t save her from a pissed off drug dealer with a gun.

Still, what Dan had said was basically true: if she ever wanted her name on one of the gold placards that adorned those closed office doors, she had to prove she was worth more than the occasional report on an ailing dictator. She sized up Agent Plante beside her. He was fit, looked like he could handle himself. He was making no effort to conceal the gun under his shoulder.

“Just a couple of days?” she asked tentatively.

“Three…four…at the most,” Dan said. “Promise.”

With a sigh, she nodded.