It’s day one of surveillance training for the Department of Defense Counterintelligence course, and the students — members of all branches of the military — are in Boston.
Chapman is doing strange things with his mouth, moving his tongue around behind his tightly closed lips, pushing at his cheeks. He looks like he’s working his way through a mouthful of peanut butter. Meegan shades his eyes and looks again. Chapman stands behind a tree and intermittently leans out to keep an eye on the “rabbit,” the designated target for the operation. The rabbit sits at a bench near the Boston Commons playground where a handful of toddlers play.
Meegan listens to Chapman’s radio call over iPhone ear buds, which connect via bluetooth to a Motorola handset in his coat pocket.
“That’s Frank, Zulu one is still nine nine nine at the playground bench, just planet of the Frog Pond.”
Chapman’s voice sounds thick, swollen. Meegan heard it was mouth sores — brought on by anxiety. Some so bad that his teeth are loose in their sockets.
Chapman’s radio calls are timely and accurate. It’s unfortunate that he’s lurking around the park like a pedophile. He risks getting rolled up by the park police.
Meegan wants to approach him and say something, but part of him finds the prospect of an arrest amusing. The rabbit is up from the bench anyway — it’s Sarah from the analyst course. She’s lighting a cigarette and giving the surveillance team time to get their shit together and make the right calls.
“Seven seven seven seven, Zulu one is up and preparing to maneuver the blender.”
Chapman’s right on it with the call. It’s a bit soon, but he’s got the team prepped. Ramirez is sitting at a bench on the north side of the Frog Pond, but now he’s half-sitting, half standing waiting to see which way the rabbit will go so he can get into the follow. It’s a rookie move to react like this before he rabbit “breaks the box” but Meegan reminds himself that it’s only day one of surveillance training and these mistakes will be ironed out over the next week.
It’s a warm morning for Boston in March, and although a mist rises from the melting snow, three people skate in lazy circles on the Frog Pond as Bryan Adams croons from a loudspeaker. By noon the rink will be mush, and likewise the rest of the Common will be damp and soggy by the melting snow.
Sarah is up and walking. She’s headed east towards the visitor center, her thumb tapping at her cell phone. Meegan’s phone vibrates in his pocket. He grabs it. It reads:
Need to jug it at the VC.
To “jug it” is code for a bathroom break. This will be a good opportunity to see if the team collapses the box too soon, and if they send someone in after her to check for a dead drop. As Sarah approaches the visitor center, Meegan hears Wasserman take control. She follows the rabbit just long enough to watch her enter the visitor center then calls herself off.
“That’s Claire, Zulu One unsighted. Last seen entering the Boston Commons Visitor Center. Claire off.”
And that’s it, Claire takes herself out of the follow and the team fails to send anyone after Sarah. Meegan sighs and rubs his eyes. Students are transfixed with the rabbit’s direction and focus on making correct radio calls. The sole purpose of a surveillance is to uncover evidence that may support a counterintelligence investigation.
Claire Wasserman is days away from being sent home anyway. She failed two retests during the Investigations Phase of the course and is waiting the results of an appeal. Meegan manages that Phase, and signed the paperwork that will ultimately remove Wasserman from the course.
Still, Meegan will have to take a moment to speak with Wasserman after the exercise–alone if possible. He’ll offer some tips, hit her with some danger-ridden anecdotes — his days in Kandahar, in Tikrit. In Kosovo.
“It was nothing, ” he’ll say. “Routine clandestine ops. After a while you get used to being shot at.”
An hour later the students are released from training with instructions to take the three o’ clock train from North Station to Shirley. Meegan sits in the Glass Slipper, a strip joint on the fringes of Chinatown. He fumbles with a wadded-up dollar bill, while Phil and Alex watch the Bruins-Penguins game on a crappy TV. Meegan timidly drops the bill on the stage then returns to his seat. The girl on stage descends from her pole and slowly takes the bill and places it in her g-string. Meegan avoids eye contact. She’s pretty — young with platinum hair. Her left arm, from wrist to shoulder, is covered in a tattoo sleeve of hot rods and pin-ups. Meegan stares at her chest and wonders if she likes balding, middle aged men. He suspects that she doesn’t. He wishes he had more cash. Phil places a pint glass of Beringer White Zinfandel in front of him. It’s an Imperial Pint, twenty ounces.
“Thank you,” Meegan says.
Phil sits down and coughs out a chuckle. “My ex wife used to drink that crap. Bought it in boxes. Three boxes a week, no bullshit.”
Meegan empties half the glass in one noisy gulp. “Beer fills me up,” he says. “Who’s winning?” He nods to the TV.
“Bruins up by one. You into hockey?”
Meegan shrugs and turns his attention to the stage where a new woman dances lazily to a Bon Jovi song. She’s going through the motions. It’s slow in the afternoons. She looks Eastern European. Meegan attempts to qualify that observation in his head. What do Eastern Europeans look like? Like people from Wisconsin he concludes.
They’re out an hour later. Phil has bought all of their drinks and wants to stay in the city and meet girls. Alex has permission from his wife to come home late. Meegan has nothing pressing to go home to. They cross town and stop in The Fours on Canal street, just across from the Garden. The Fours is the adoptive instructor bar for the surveillance phase of the course. It has a classic feel, it’s dark, with a horseshoe shaped mahogany bar with a brass rail. It’s the kind of bar set designers would place on a hollywood sound stage for a sitcom set in Boston. Meegan has been at The Fours exactly twenty-seven times and has never tried the food. He’s seen the specials neatly written on the chalkboard outside, but cannot remember what kind of food The Fours actually serves. The bartender, Denny, is quick and attentive, and never has qualms about filling a pint glass with cheap wine. Denny is a beefy, round-shouldered man with white hair. His sleeves are always pushed up past his thick forearms. It makes Meegan think of politicians on the campaign trail–sleeves rolled up, ready to hobnob with the unwashed. Denny thinks that Meegan and the other instructors sell IT consulting services. It gives Meegan a thrill to lie about what he does.
“How’s business fellas,” says Denny as he lines the bar with coasters.
Jack and Gary are already at the bar. Seldom do they deviate from The Fours. As near as Meegan could figure, Jack is asexual. He is single, makes good money, and owns a cat. The only woman he’s ever mentioned, is his mother. Gary is hardly less ambiguous. He has actually been on a few dates with women, but once confessed that “who knows, five years from now I may end up being gay.” Back in the instructor office at Fort Evens, the two would engage in long, detailed discussions about survivalism, guns, motorcycles, and off roading. Gary likes to cook and often discusses elaborate recipes, but Meegan always sees him eating fast food alone in his truck.
Phil grabs his cigarettes off the bar.
“There’s not much talent here,” he says.
“Lame,” says Alex. “I got a text from Ramirez. They’re at Hurricane O’Reillys and he says the place is oozing with chicks.”
“I’m not drinking with students.”
“So stay here. Joe?”
Meegan empties his glass and stands. He pulls out his card to pay, but Phil raises his hand.
“Joe, don’ let this guy lead you down any dark paths. He’s supposed to be married.”
“I’m just going for a change of scenery,” Meegan says. “Students should be heading to the 1500 train anyway.”
“We’ll, I’m just saying,” Phil nods towards Alex. “The Devil. This guy right here.”
Hurricane O’Reillys is one door down Canal street from The Fours. It has a New Orleans theme. In the Summer, the walls slide open and the bar spills out into the street. Meegan and Alex arrive, and find the place empty save for Ramirez, Sarah, and Claire Wasserman. Sarah is drinking a Guinness, but the students have indeterminate clear drinks on the table in front of them. Students in the course are not allowed to drink until after they graduate — an asinine Army training policy thought up by over temperate bureaucrats.
“This place is just as shitty as The Fours,” says Alex. He’s tall and lanky, and looks likes famous country western singer that Meegan can’t recall.
Ramirez, is a former Brooklyn cop. His hobby is triathlons. “Bachelorette party just left, I swear to God.”
Meegan looks at Claire. She looks like a Claire. She’s Norwegian — tall, blonde, with wide hips. She’s clean and innocent and should be in the perfume aisle at Macy’s, not in counterintelligence training. In Phase One, Introduction to CI, she tested well, but in Phases Two and Three (Investigations and Surveillance) — where practical exercises replace PowerPoint — she had no point of reference and quickly lost her footing.
“I don’t get the s-codes,” she says.
Alex is ready to pounce. He runs the Surveillance Phase and a stickler for the proper surveillance codes — the prescribed radio jargon used during surveillance operations.
“You didn’t study your s-codes” he says.
Claire looks down for a second then squares her gaze at Alex.
“I don’t get the point of the s-codes.”
“I put that out in class. You clearly weren’t listening.”
Alex hates to be challenged, thought Meegan. Or, perhaps, he loves to be challenged. Either way, it invariably sparks confrontation. Thankfully, Phil walks in at that moment and joins them.
“It’s a veritable Mardi Gras in here,” he says. “You guys taking the 1500?”
Ramirez looks at his watch, then at Claire. “Getting near that time, what do you think?”
“I suppose, if we must.”
Sarah from the analyst course scrunches up her face a shakes her head. “No way, let’s hit the Glass Slipper in Chinatown. You’ve got to see the Glass Slipper.”
Phil Shakes his head. “We are not going to the Glass Slipper with students. I draw the line there.”
Alex takes Sarah’s Guinness and slams it back. “What’s the big deal?”
“What’s the Glass Slipper?” says Claire.
“It’s a strip club, ” says Meegan.
“Let’s go,” says Claire,
“Yeah,” says Ramirez.
“No,” insists Phil.
An hour later, back at the Glass Slipper, Phil is telling his cankles story to Claire and Ramirez in between dancers. Meegan has heard the story many times, and although it may not have been a classic anecdote, it was funny in the way Phil told it in his New Jersey accent.
“So she’s beautiful, right? Long dark hair, beautiful green eyes, tan skin, and a great body. Only she had these thick ankles. I mean her ankles looked like exhaust pipes on a Peterbuilt truck. No big deal, really, until we were invited to a wedding. So we’re at Macy’s at the Natick Mall and she’s trying on dresses. I kid you not, every goddamn dress she’s trying on is cut above the knee. Now, I’m doing my best to compliment her on these dresses while at the same time ensure that she doesn’t settle on one. I’m all, ‘wow, you look stunning babe, but something about that color,’ or ‘geeze babe, that’s nearly perfect, but it doesn’t really flatter your slim waistline.’ I am tiptoeing a minefield here. So she’s in the changing room and the Macy’s girl comes up to me. ‘I’m privy to your plight,’ she says. ‘Ankles like soup cans.’ ‘What do I do,’ I ask her. She tells me that she’s going to start bringing long, floor length dresses to my girlfriend. All I needed to do, was to fawn over these dresses, and the Macy’s girl would back me up.”
“Insidious,” says Claire.
“Brilliant,” says Ramirez. “Did it work.”
“Yeah, she opted for a tight green floor-length dress. She looked spectacular.”
“Nice,” says Ramirez.
“Nice,” says Phil. “Then we broke up on the morning of the wedding because she said my head was not proportionate to the rest of my body.”
“Now that’s offsides.”
Claire looks indignant. She keeps looking at her watch. Meegan is drunk and thinks he should say something.
“Cankles,” he says, but stumbles at a follow up. Claire seems not to hear him. He tips back his white zin and tries again.
“Everybody is different. Bodies, I mean. Ankles and whatnot.”
“What?” Claire says.
“I can help you with your s-codes,” he replies.
Claire turns to face him. Her eyes are a pale blue. They’re assessing, calculating something. She smells like vanilla. Her hair, blonde and falling to her shoulders, hasn’t been touched by the day’s activities.
“You have a secret?” She says with a conspiratorial smile, and Meegan isn’t sure how to interpret it–or whether there is anything to interpret.
“I could work with you. Used these codes in Berlin, Fallujah, you know, Miami. I know a bit about these codes, and their, uh, practical usage.”
Meegan struggles to steer his words towards the correct direction. He’s not sure which direction is, or would be, correct. All he knows is that Claire is a student, and that she is beautiful and smells like cookies. Behind her, he glimpses the Eastern European/Wisconsin girl hanging upside down from the pole as “Pour Some Sugar on Me” blasts from the speakers. Meegan is not sure that he would want sugar poured over him. He’d be concerned about ants.
“I’m getting a drink, you want another one of those?” Claire says.
He is vaguely aware that he should say something about the student drinking policy, but the fact is he does want another drink. He also wonders if there was policy regarding student and instructor attendance at strip clubs. He nods and Claire goes to the bar.
She returns with a Sam Adams for her, and a tall smoky-colored drink for him.
“They are out of wine. Got you a Long Island Iced Tea.”
“Must have cost a fortune,” Meegan says.
“Half off for the ladies,” she says.
Meegan sips his drink. It’s vaguely tea-like, but it burns his throat. He sips it again and warmth envelops him. Claire watches his reaction. He looks away, self conscious, tries to root himself in something familiar — Alex and Phil, but they both lay back with their heads on the stage and five dollar bills clenched in their teeth. He takes another swallow and his vision swims in front of him. The stage lights now have a corona and he realizes that he’s slipping into a pleasant drunk.
“You look like you need some air,” Claire says.
“You leave first,” he says. I’ll join you after.”
They are outside, walking down the alley-like street that connects The Glass Slipper with Washington Street in Chinatown. It’s six o’clock and the sidewalks bustle with people. The air is cool, but mild, and Meegan is happy to be out of the club. He feels Claire’s proximity to him narrow, can feel the warmth of her shoulder on his.
“Ramirez and I were down in Chinatown last weekend,” she says. “There’s a Vietnamese place up here to the left that sells two dollar shots of vodka.”
Meegan begins to feel like an astronaut left behind on an alien planet. As they join the throng on Washington street he senses that he is much taller than many of those around him. He concludes, instead, that he is the alien, sent to reconnoiter earth before the invasion. Get them drunk, he decides, and the Earthlings will be passive and confused.
Claire leads him into Pho Pasteur, a tiny restaurant packed with people slurping at huge bowls of soup. He smells onion, cilantro, lime, fish sauce. His stomach growls and he tries to remember when it was he last ate. He considers sitting down, ordering, but Claire takes his hand and pulls him to a small bar concealed in the dark corner. She holds up four fingers, and the bartender fills four plastic shot glasses from a plastic bottle that reads “Kappy’s.” Claire lays down a ten and holds up her hand when the bartender tries to give her change.
“I can’t,” says Meegan.
“You must,” says Claire.
“Of course,” he says. “it’s is your Earthling custom.”
They down the shots in rapid succession and Claire pulls him out onto the street. Meegan senses a reduction in the Earth’s gravity. He feels like he’s walking on the moon. He fears that the diminutive people around him will notice his odd alien gait. They head west on Boylston until the Common is on their right. Claire suddenly leads him left into an alley. There’s another bar here — Sweetwater something. It’s crowded but they find a small booth inside.
Meegan is now seeing the world as a 1974 elementary school filmstrip — a succession of images scarred with lamp burns, scratches, and errant hairs. Claire leaves him, returns with a pint of zin; leaves again, returns with a shot of Jaeger; leaves again, returns with two handfuls of paper towels; leaves again, returns with an angry looking woman who is pointing at the door.
The street again. It’s not so crowded, the Earthlings must sleep. Meegan is blind, and Claire is his seeing-eye dog. She’s a beautiful seeing-eye dog, though — that blonde hair and innocent smile, teeth so goddamn perfect, wide hips…
“Train,” he manages.
“Done for the night,” she says.
“I think we need to hole up here.”
“Where is here?”
They walk for a while and Claire steers him as his legs cannot cope with the uneven pavement or turns or walking in general. They’re next to a brick building. She’s pushing at him, leaning him against the wall, he.
“Stay here,” she says. “I will be right back.”
The filmstrip is back on: neon hotel sign, legless man in an Army field jacket sitting against the wall across the street, three backwards hats crossing the street towards him.
“You gotta light?”
“He ain’t got no light, his light is out.”
“Ima ‘bout to knock his light out.”
Claire’s face, her hands, his beautiful seeing eye-dog is leading him away. He’s in a bright hotel lobby, then a dark corridor. “Where’s the light?” he says, or thinks he says. “I’m sneaking you in,” she says.” “You’re a bit tipsy.” They’re in an elevator, then a hallway, then a room.
“Only one bed,” he says. “I’ll… bathtub.”
“No need,” she says. “We’ll share.”
And his clothes are off, then her clothes are off. They’re pressed together in bed. He smells her, feels the warmth of her body, yet her hands are cold. He struggles to process the episode, to come to terms with the moment, but the clarity just isn’t there. She’s saying something, her breath hot on his ear, but the sensation irritates him. He is unable to complain, to enjoy, to perform. Still she’s smiling and laughing in the dim light, in the dark spinning room.
Meegan wakes some time later. At first he thinks he’s in his shitty apartment outside of Fort Evens. He’s taken a shot between the eyes, or at least he feels like it. His eyes adjust. Hotel room. He’s naked, finds his pants on the floor, fishes out his cell phone — four in the morning. Someone has sent him a text, but he can’t be bothered. He stumbles to the bathroom. There’s a purse by the sink. The purse should mean something. The purse is somehow important. He opens it and sees makeup, a cellphone, and a wallet. He checks the wallet. Claire Wasserman — it’s coming back to him now. He smells the vanilla on his skin and smiles. He takes a leak and looks at the purse again.
Back in bed and Claire is softly snoring next to him. He’s fucked, he knows, if this gets back to the course manager. That can wait. Sleep first. When he wakes again, light is creeping through the hotel blinds. Claire is dressed and standing by the door, her purse hung over shoulder.
“Wait, we’ll grab breakfast,” he says, but his stomach lurches at the thought.
“Thanks, can’t, I need to get back to Evens and be ready for Monday.”
“Oh right,” he croaks. “The appeal.”
“I sent you a text last night,” she says. “It’s hard for me to say some things in person. Read it. I want you to understand how much this means to me. Later.”
And she’s out the door. He hears her footsteps grow silent down the hallway, hears the “ding” of the arriving elevator.
Meegan feels physically polluted, but there’s a lightness about the morning.
I want you to understand how much this means to me.
Once Claire’s drop packet is finalized, they’ll be free to see each other. Perhaps he’ll fly out to Minnesota, or wherever it was she was from, and help her lick her wounds.
He looks around for his cell phone, finds it on the nightstand. He grabs it and checks his texts. She has sent him a picture. It’s hard to make out at first, but Meegan taps it with his thumb to enlarge it.
“Fuck me,” he says.
The picture is cleverly composed so that both of their faces are clearly in the shot — her’s in the foreground, looking afraid and uncomfortable; his floating above her naked back, staring down at her ass, which he has clenched in both of his hands.
The look on his face is damning. He’s pie-eyed and predatory.
He taps the image again to reduce it and reads the two-word text that accompanies it:
He dresses quickly, intent on getting back to the training office as soon as possible. He’s thinking about plausible denial. He’s thinking about alibis. He’s thinking he’s been fucked before and somehow made it out.
He’s thinking this as he reaches the door handle. He pulls his hand back. Yes, he’s been fucked before. Something nibbles at his brain. He wrestles with it. It says “not so fast.” He turns and goes into the bathroom. He looks around and his eyes fall on the ice bucket. It is covered, and the plastic jutting out from beneath the lid indicates that it has been lined. He slowly approaches it. The synapses firing in his head urge him to remember. He lifts the lid.
The ice bucket contains Claire’s credit cards, military and civilian identification, MBTA Charlie Card, cash, and her Army orders assigning her to the course. He reaches in and finds the last third of the bucket has been filled with water and in that water is Claire’s cell phone. Claire has been rendered a nonperson.
Meegan walks through Paul Revere Park towards North Station. It’s early enough that the park is empty except for a few homeless folks sleeping next to shopping carts. He distributes Claire’s cards and cash careful not to wake them. He has already flushed her orders down the hotel room toilet, and destroyed her cell phone. As he crosses over the locks by the State Police Marine Division building, he discretely drops the cell phone fragments into the bay.
Meegan takes a deep breath and sighs heavily. It was another close call. It was another Berlin, Fallujah, or Miami.