Chapter 16
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The Asset

Excerpt: Agent in Place

Cimetière du Père-Lachaise is the most visited cemetery in the world, but the Paris landmark was all but deserted on this rainy, gray, and cool weekday morning. An elderly couple fed squirrels on the cobblestones; a dozen young people stood solemnly in front of Jim Morrison’s fenced-off but simple plot. A group of German hipsters lounged among the graves surrounding Oscar Wilde’s tomb, and a lone man took photos of the statue of Euterpe, the muse of music, as she wept above composer Frédéric Chopin’s mausoleum.

There might have been seventy-five visitors in all on the property, but the cemetery spread over one hundred hilly and wooded acres, so anyone who wanted privacy could find it easily here in the warren of tombs, crypts, cobblestoned lanes, and old oak.

And one man had done just that. A dark-complected fifty-five-year-old with thinning gray hair sat alone a few rows up the hill from Molière’s tomb, on a small bench that one had to either know about or stumble upon to locate. His name was Dr. Tarek Halaby, and there wasn’t much about the man to make him stand out from the average Parisian of Middle Eastern descent, although someone with knowledge of fashion might pick up on the fact that his raincoat was a Kiton that ran north of two thousand euros, and they therefore might come to the quite reasonable assumption that this was a man of significant means.

As he sat there in the stillness of the cemetery, Halaby pulled out his wallet and looked at a small photo he kept there. A young man and a young woman standing together, smiling into the lens, with hope and intelligence in their eyes that said the future was theirs to command.

For twenty seconds Halaby stared at the photo, till drops of rain began to fall, splashing on the image and blurring the smiling faces.

He dried the photo off with this thumb, put his wallet back in his coat, and looked up to the sky. He lifted his umbrella and got ready to pop it open, but then the phone he’d placed on the bench next to him buzzed and lit up.

He forgot about the impending shower, put down the umbrella, and read the text.

Crematorium. Alone. Lose the goons.

The man in the raincoat sat up straighter and looked around nervously. He saw no one: only tombs and gravestones and trees and birds.

Cold sweat formed on the back of his collar.

He stood, but before he began walking he sent a reply.

I am alone.

A new text appeared and the man in the raincoat felt his heart pummel the inside of his chest.

Two men with guns in their coats at the entrance. Two more fifty meters east of you. They go . . . or I go.

Dr. Halaby stared at the phone a moment before typing out his reply with fingers that trembled.
Of course.

He placed a call, held the phone to his ear, and spoke in French. “He sees you, and he won’t do this with you here. Take the others, go get a coffee, and wait for my call.” A pause. “It’s fine.”

The man ended the call, slipped the phone into his raincoat, and began walking up the hill towards the crematorium.

Five minutes later Dr. Halaby held his umbrella over his head while he walked through the steady rain. The huge crematorium of Père-Lachaise was higher on the hill, another sixty meters on, but Halaby was still making his way through the narrow passages between the tall mausoleums all around. As he advanced, his eyes fixed on another man, himself holding an umbrella. He appeared around the side of the huge crematorium, then stepped into a parking lot between Halaby and the building. Halaby expected the man to continue in his direction, so he was surprised when he instead climbed into a small work truck and drove off to the west.

Halaby was doubly surprised to hear a voice behind him now, not three meters away, coming from a recess between a pair of crypts.

“Stop there. Don’t turn around.” The man spoke English, softly, his voice barely louder than the sound of rain hitting Halaby’s umbrella.

“As you say,” the doctor replied, standing still now, doing his best to keep his hands from shaking. He was partially shielded on three sides by the marble walls of crypts, and in front of him row after row of waist-high tombstones jutted from the wet grass.

The voice behind him said, “You brought it?”

Halaby was Syrian, he lived in France, but his English was good. “As instructed. It is in my front pants pocket. Shall I reach for it?”

“Well…I’m not putting my hand down your pants.”

“Yes.” Tarek Halaby reached into his pocket slowly and retrieved a blue badge in a plastic case hanging from a lanyard. There was also a folded sheet of paper with an address on it. He held both items back over his shoulder. “The badge will get you into the event. VIP access. As you know, there is no photo. You will have to provide that yourself.”

The man behind him took the badge and the paper. “Anything new to report?”

Halaby detected the American accent now, and he knew this was, for certain, the man who had come so highly recommended. He didn’t know much about the American other than his reputation. He had been told that this asset was a legend in the world of espionage and covert ops, so of course he would be thorough in his preparations, exacting in his demands.

Halaby replied, “All is the same as in the information you were given yesterday.”

“Security around the target?”

“As you were told. Five men.”

“And the threat?”

“Also the same as before. No more than four hostiles. Five, at most.”

“Five is more than four.”

Now Halaby swallowed. “Yes… well… I was told probably just four hostiles, so the intelligence is not certain. But it is no worry, because the hostiles will not act until tomorrow, and you will proceed tonight. Won’t you?”

The asset did not answer the question. “And the target? Still departing France tomorrow?”

“This is unchanged. The flight leaves at one p.m. Again, tonight is the last night where we can—”

“The address written on this paper. Is this the RP?”

“The… the what?”

“The rally point.”

“I’m sorry. I do not know what this means.”

Halaby thought he heard a soft sigh of frustration from the other man. Then, “Is this where I go when it’s done?”

“Oh… Yes. It is the address of our safe house here in Paris.”

There was a longer pause now. A grackle landed on a tombstone just a few meters in front of the man with the umbrella, and the rain picked up even more.

Finally the American asset spoke again, but his voice sounded less sure than before. “The man I talked to on the phone. He was French. You are not French.”

“The one who you spoke with, the one who hired you through the service in Monte Carlo… he works for me.”

Halaby heard soft wet footsteps and then the American came into view around the umbrella. He was in his thirties, a touch shorter than Halaby’s six feet, with a dark beard and a simple black raincoat. The hood hung low over his eyes; rainwater dripped off it in front of his face.

The American said, “You are Dr. Tarek Halaby, aren’t you?”

Halaby’s heart began pumping wildly upon hearing this dangerous man uttering his name. “Oui, that is correct.” He switched his umbrella to his left hand and extended his right.

The asset did not move to accept the handshake. “You are the director of the Free Syria Exile Union.”

“Co-director, actually. My wife shares the title.”

“You supply medical equipment, medicine, food, water, and blankets to civilians and resistance fighters in Syria.”

“Well… originally, yes. Relief used to be our only mandate. But we are now involved with more direct opposition of the regime of Ahmed al-Azzam.” Halaby spoke through a nervous smile now. “As you know, we haven’t hired you to deliver blankets.”

The American continued eyeing him, adding to Halaby’s disquiet. “One more question.”

“Yes, of course.”

“How the hell are you still alive?”

The rain beat down ceaselessly on the umbrella and the marble structures around the two men. Halaby said, “I… I don’t understand.”

“A hell of a lot of people would love to see you dead. The Syrian government, the Islamic State, the Russians, Hezbollah, the Iranians. And yet you came this morning in person to meet with a man you did not know. And you are here alone.”

Halaby answered defensively. “You asked me to send my people away.”

“If I asked you to shoot yourself in the face, would you do it?”

Halaby tried to control his breathing. With all the conviction he could muster, he said, “I am not afraid.” The truth was he was stone-cold terrified, but he did his best to hide it. “I was told you are the best there is. Why on earth should I be afraid?”

“Because I bet you were told I am the best there is at killing.”

Halaby blanched but recovered quickly. “Well… we are on the same side, are we not?”

“I am taking money to do a job. That’s not exactly a side, is it?”

The older man forced a smile. “Then I guess I should hope the other side didn’t offer you more to eliminate me.” When the American did not return the smile, he added, “It was important I met you. I wanted you to know how crucial tonight is for our movement.”

The American seemed to be thinking things over, as if he might just drop the badge in the mud, turn away, and forget this entire affair. Instead he just said, “Trust will get you killed.”

Even though he was scared, Halaby realized he was under scrutiny now, and he knew he had to assert himself to earn the respect of this man. He brought his shoulders back and his chin up. “Well, monsieur, if you are here to kill me, get on with it, and if not, let’s end this meeting, because you and I both have a lot to do today.”

The man in the hooded raincoat sniffed. He was not to be rushed. His eyes shifted around the cemetery for a moment, and then they locked back on the doctor. “I support what you are doing. I took this job because I wanted to help.”

Halaby let out a soft breath of relief.

“And that’s why it pisses me off to learn that you’re an amateur. You’re going to get your ass killed long before you or the Free Syria Exile Union actually accomplishes anything. Dudes like you don’t last long as revolutionaries unless you take extreme measures to protect yourself and your operation.”

Halaby had never been referred to as “dude” in his life, but he did not interact often with Americans outside the occasional surgical symposium. He said, “I am quite aware of the danger. Hiring you, I was told, was the right decision. I hope you will prove me right. By our actions we can, perhaps, deal a serious blow to the Syrian regime and hasten the end of this cruel war. Nothing you could do for our cause could be more important than tonight here in Paris.” Halaby raised an eyebrow. “Unless I could persuade you to go to Syria yourself to eliminate President Azzam.”

The remark was clearly a joke, but the asset did not laugh. “I said I support what you’re doing. I didn’t say I was suicidal. Trust me, you’ll never get my ass into that hellhole.”

“That hellhole… is my home.”

“Well… it’s not mine.”

Both men listened to the rain for a moment, and then Halaby said, “Please, monsieur, help us succeed tonight. Here.”

After another bout of silence, the American in the hooded coat said, “Pull all surveillance on the target. I’ll take over. And watch your back. If no one is actively targeting you yet, that will probably change after tonight.” He turned away and began moving off around the tombstones to the west.

Halaby called after him, causing him to stop after only a few steps. “You asked me how it is I am still alive.”

The American did not turn back. He just stood there, facing away.

“My wife has a philosophy about this. She thinks all the best and bravest of my people died in the first years of the conflict. An entire generation of heroes. Now… those of us who are left after seven years of fighting… we are the ones who were too afraid to get involved in the beginning.

“The resistance leaders of today aren’t in power now because we are the strongest. The boldest. The most capable. We are in power now, alive now, simply because we are all that remains.”

The asset began walking again, drifting off through the tombstones, but he spoke over the sound of the rain. “No offense, doc, but I think your wife might be on to something.”

Tarek Halaby realized he’d never really studied the man’s face, and now, thirty seconds after looking right at him, he doubted he’d recognize him if they met again.

Soon the American disappeared from view through the rain and the dead.

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