A child ran unseen down a narrow street, weaving through hundreds of people hiding from the scorching sun. The weather had been sweltering for weeks, but at least outside there was a breeze. The boy slowed, as the subtle smell of lemon and roasted nuts leapt into his nose. It was his favorite treat, a love cake, the only thing that could keep him from his mission. He inhaled deeply and scanned the area with his eyes. He searched past several vendors as they yelled, while continuously wiping the sweat from their forehead. Finally, he spotted the distraction to his left. His mouth watered as he imagined the sweet, sour treat crunching in his mouth.
Whap! A metal spatula slapped the table next to him and the vendor hollered for the young boy to move along. Instinctually, he ducked behind an adjacent food stand, crashed through a group of men drinking tea, and giggled as he snuck away unseen. He turned down a steep and narrow alleyway. He was almost there now, to an apartment a recluse called home; a ghost the children called the Candyman.
David Westbrook sat with light cascading in from the cracks at the front door. His eyes were glued to incoherent numbers and letters as they flashed across the screen to his left. A larger, brighter monitor sat in front of him, and a third one displayed a three-dimensional map of the middle-east, extending as far east as China. On the map were hundreds of dots, some small and blue, indicating limited activity, while others were large and red, showing tremendous activity. He was pinging computers by the thousands, his algorithm working flawlessly as it began to create a picture of which computers were playing nice, and which had ulterior motives.
“Sabah El-Khair!” the young boy yelled as he burst through David’s apartment door. The intense sunlight pierced the room, causing dust in the air to glow in the multicolored rays of light.
“Get out,” David hollered, shielding his eyes from shooing the boy to leave.
“Biddi, Biddi!” the boy exclaimed.
“You always want something but you never give me anything good,” David responded, frustrated that the boy was once again bothering him during peak hours.
“Of course I want news, but you never deliver. I work alone Amal. Each time you tell me something, I have to follow up. It’s how this works.”
The young boy laughed and pointed at a box in the corner of the room. He held up two fingers, “ethnain.”
“In English, Amal.”
“Two for this.”
“You tell me what you found and I’ll decide.”
The young boy, barely ten, had always tried to negotiate his rates with the Candyman but it never worked out. Nonetheless, he paused and rubbed his chin as if deep in thought.
“Ok Amal, leave now. I don’t have all day,” the impatient agent said as he spun his chair towards the desk and watched the numbers continue to scroll across the screen.
“It’s good, it’s good!” the boy said shuffling towards the man.
Quickly, David sprung to his feet and stood well above the small boy from Yemen, his t-shirt sticking to his chest and abdomen. “Tell me now.” The look David gave Amal was one meant for the men he often interrogated after hearing these good reports.
“I hear about a man in the mountains. Very powerful. Nobody knows his name but he’s training hundreds to attack U.S.”
“That’s not even worth one,” he said holding up a finger.
“I know! That’s not what I have to tell you. There’s a man in the city. Today only. He will know. I hear a man on the street say he will be here.”
“The port. A ship coming.”
“Ok. You can have one now, and two more–If this is all true,” David said softening his demeanor and rubbing the boys head firmly. “Come back next week and I’ll let you know.”
Amal ran to the corner or the dark, lifeless room. He tore open a small box and grabbed a bag of blow-pops.
“Amal. Grab me one,” David said with his back to the boy. Once again, his full attention was on the data flashing across the screens.
“Shukran,” David said smiling to Amal as they both unwrapped their candy. “You have a green! That’s my favorite.”
Amal lifted it towards the man, offering a trade.
“No, no. You’ve earned that. I’ll see you next week my friend,” David said and reached his large hand out, the boy taking it and squeezing as hard as he could. David smiled at the effort.
Amal placed the candy in his mouth. The tart, sugary combination immediately made his mouth water and his eyes light up. He skipped out of the room, but only after giving David a high five. Once again, the room was completely dark, but this time the Candyman was focused on darker thoughts.
It was 1300 hours when David arrived at the port in Aden. He wore a small brown satchel over his right shoulder and held a digital monocular in his left. It only took him minutes to find the Lady Phoenix, which he quickly learned was heading for America in three days. He stood behind the tall legs of a loading crane as it lifted cargo containers onto the large ship, creaking under the stress of a particularly heavy load. Every ten minutes he would remove his Ray Bans and lift the monocular to his eye, scanning the ship. Finally, after over two hours, he saw a group of five men.
They were as conspicuous as could be, all wearing yellow hardhats, all wearing overalls and thin white shirt, and all sporting beards of various lengths; except for one. His hardhat was white, pristine, and his clothes were meant for a lunch meeting at a five-star restaurant rather than the deck of a cargo ship. His grey pants and custom tailored white button-up seemed staunchly out of place.
As David walked towards the parking lot, he soon spotted his marks car. It was the only luxury car in the lot, a black AMG Mercedes, parked perpendicular to the many other cars. David walked past a few port employees, nodded at them, and made a direct path to the Mercedes. As he approached, he reached into his bag and grabbed a small black device. He visually scanned the immediate area, as well as the horizon for any other individuals who could be watching. By the time he reached the Mercedes, he was confident there was nobody providing security for the meeting on the boat.
David pressed the small device gently onto the door of the car. Within seconds, the doors unlocked and disengaged the security system. Quickly, he climbed into the spacious backseat and laid on the floor, the intense heat and thick, stagnant air immediately caused his heart to beat more rapidly.
He closed his eyes and focused on his dark one room apartment, his data, and the map full of dots displayed on his screens. David ached to make sense of it all. He had thousands of data points. He knew all came together, but couldn’t build the algorithm in his mind. His dual degrees in mathematics/electrical engineering and computer science from MIT should have helped, but without a fresh set of eyes looking over the information, it was tough to get perspective. It’d been nearly four years since hearing an American voice. The data was too large to send, and too sensitive. He was forced to send small encoded pieces back to the U.S., which was often overlooked due to the agency back home not having the full scope of the numbers. This is what led him to his unique form of interrogation. That’s the only intel the suits back home listened to.
David lay uncomfortably still on the black carpet, his heart beating forcefully and rapidly. Sweat had saturated his thin clothing and began to moisten the floor of the car. He fought the urge to move, knowing the man he waited for was more likely to be coming with each second. Finally, he heard the actuators from the doors unlocking.
Bright sunlight entered the car as the driver’s door opened. David could smell the man’s cologne before he even entered. The man sighed heavily and dropped hard into the leather seat. He pushed the start button on the car, leaving the door open for a moment. David felt the fresh air wash over him and he silently took a deep breath. Cool air from the air conditioner reach his left arm, leg, and torso; a chill encompassed his body.
Thump, he heard the tight seal of the Mercedes’ door close and slowly they pulled away, the sound of rubber over gravel gave David a rush.
David waited several minutes enjoying the comfortable air as his heartrate slowed to normal. He knew the drill. David reached quietly into his messenger bag and pulled out a black blade. He also removed a syringe full of his homemade ‘Candy.’
The car stopped for a traffic signal, and David shot up from the floor. Using his right hand, he grabbed the driver’s chest and slammed him hard against the seatback. His left hand held the blade tight against the driver’s throat.
“Don’t move,” he told the man calmly in Arabic.
“What am I supposed to do!” the man squealed as the light changed to green.
“Turn right and drive until it ends.”
“I’ll tell you nothing.”
“I doubt that,” David said as he bit down gently on the syringe between his teeth.
Quickly, the driver lurched forward, but David was faster, removing the knife from his neck and slamming him back into the seat. It was terrifying how spindly and strong David’s long arms were, as if they were hydraulic and carbon rather than human.
“Drive,” David growled, as he noticed a streak of bright red began to run down the knife towards his hand, as he held it firm against the driver’s neck.
It took a several minutes to reach the end of the road, but in that short time, blood had run down the blade handle onto David’s hand; a metronome of viscous fluid dripped down to the floor of the car, becoming lost in the dark carpet. David was worried. His drug typically took thirty minutes for a full effect.
“Pull over,” David said as he looked to the right and left, seeing nobody in the dark, lonely alleyway. This was one of several locations around the city which David had commandeered over the years. He found it much easier to have a variety of “facilities,” making it easier to get to a location he knew was safe. He also knew his questions would never get answered without a certain amount of aggression. He tried leading with the nice guy approach on many occasions, but that only wasted time.
“Get out,” he demanded and pulled away the blade when the driver’s door opened. David got out and looked at the man for the first time up close. He was middle-aged, about 5’10 and wore a thick, manicured beard. He also saw the crimson stains on the man’s shirt which completely saturated his collar, and advanced in a tapering streak to the level of his heart, for now.
“Walk,” David said directing him with the knife towards a dark doorway of the building to their right. It was shadowed by its own height, the sun already descending behind the structure. The prisoner listened without hesitation.
Inside the room smelled of rust, despite the lack of steel. There were two wooden chairs and a small amber light hanging from the center of the room over plywood floors. As they walked deeper into the void, the wooden floor became peppered with dark spots, increasingly becoming larger and more dense as they approached the chairs.
“There,” David said pointing at the dark chair. The prisoner approached and the smell of iron filled his nose. His eyes became wide and he hesitated, thinking to run as he realized what the dark stains were.
“Please, no. I have children. I know nothing, I know nobody. I was at the port today for a friend. You must believe me!”
“I know you called someone in the car. Who was it?”
“Sit down,” David said glaring at the man and pointing the knife directly into his face.
“You’ll kill me,” the mark said with a trembling voice.
“Not if you talk. So, talk.”
“I have no informa–”
David hit the man hard in the face with the handle of his knife, splitting the his skin just under his right eye. Quickly, David took the syringe and jammed it into the man’s arm, pressing the plunger down hard.
“You’ll sing now,” David said wiping the spattering of blood off his dirty white shirt.
“Ha ha ha,” the man began laughing as he plopped down into his chair. “I’ve done drugs before, sir. They gave me a lot of things for a moment like this.”
“See, you’re talking already. You can’t help it, can you?”
“This is nothing. You won’t make me talk. I’ve taken everything. Truth serum is useless, infidel.”
“I’m not sure if you’re just a bigger pussy than most, or if it’s the loss of blood, but you’re talking early. You’ll die soon, either way.”
“I talk for nobody! I told you in the car,” he said and spat at David, landing on his shirt. David took his shirt off, revealing his lean body. He wound his moist shirt tightly and whap! He snapped the prisoner in the chest, splitting his skin. Whap! He did it again. Whap, Whap, Whap! He did it several more times leaving small wounds in the man’s chest through his bloodied shirt.
“Stop!” the man yelled and covered his chest with both hands.
“What’s your biggest secret?” David asked as he sat backwards in the chair, leaning on the back of the seat playfully, his head resting on both hands.
“I slept with my wife’s sister. Her son is mine. Nobody knows I give her money.”
“Interesting,” David said laughing and sitting up, as the man sat staring at the floor, reviewing what had just come out of his mouth.
“It was a joke,” the man finally said looking up and stretching out his arms as he struggled with a smile.
“No, it wasn’t. You see, the drug I gave you is my own cocktail so to speak. You haven’t had any experience with this. I promise you.”
“Have you heard of the Candyman?” David said and waited for the reaction. He had a reputation now, having been in the middle-east for over a decade, moving from one large city to the next. The terrorists had begun to hear rumors about a CIA operative who used atypical techniques.
The mark began to cry silently, but several tears ran down his face as his mind drifted through horrific stories he no doubt heard over the years. The dismemberment, the burning, the waterboarding, hunting down family members and murdering loved ones. However, none of this was true. Most of the time, David let them loose after they talked. From there, the terrorist organization would likely do the torturing and killing as a retaliation for them speaking with the Candyman.
“I was there to look at a ship.”
“I know that much already.”
“It was for a man from Saudi Arabia.”
“I don’t know.”
“Tell me more than that,” David said as he showed the black blade to the prisoner again who still stared at the floor. David lowered his head in a search to find the captive’s eyes.
“That’s all I know about it,” he said wiping his hands together.
“What do you know then?”
“An attack in the U.S.”
“A dozen men.”
“Do you have any names?”
David took out his bag and grabbed a notebook and a pen. “Write their names, and anything you know. Where they stay, what they plan to do, as much detail as you can.”
Several minutes went by but the prisoner had written down two pages of information and given it to David. It consisted of three names, six addresses, and a tentative plan for suicide bombing several college campuses around Los Angeles. David looked the intel over with care before locking eyes with the prisoner who sat calmly in his chair. The prisoner was pale, his shoulders rounded forward and he was taking slow, quick breaths. The left side of his shirt was now covered in blood, and slowly dripped down to the floor, adding to the stains.
“Do you even have kids?” David asked gently.
“Only the one from my wife’s sister.”
“He’s taken care of?”
“That’s good.” David stood up and took his shirt, wrapped it around the man’s neck, and began to pull it tight. The prisoner didn’t even fight.
David walked out into the night air and stretched his arms high above his head. Shirtless, he began his walk across town where he would make an encrypted phone call stateside. He knew this was something they’d want to hear immediately.