Broken Crown, Part I


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Scene Title Broken Crown, Part I
Synopsis Nick Ruskin and Rue Lancaster travel to Israel in search of a contact that can get them closer to Mazdak.
Date March 23, 2021

It’s a ten hour flight from the New York City Safe Zone to Cairo, Egypt. Under the aegis of the Global Mediterranean Policy the African nation maintains a moderate level of compliance with invasive SLC-Expressive screening and registration. In spite of this, Egypt was one of the safest bets for Americans looking to get into the Mazdak-controlled portions of the Middle East unnoticed.

It took three hours in customs getting registry identification checked against Egypt’s EUSR-Compliant for Rue Lancaster and Nick Ruskin — or as their passports identified them as, January and Michael Hoffman — to get out into the warm sun and strong breeze. Neither had much time to appreciate the sprawling city. The pyramids were on the other side of the Nile and miles away, too far to see from Cairo International, and the pair had a ten hour bus ride to Israel ahead of them.

“Why we didn’t plan to rent a car, I don’t know,” Nick grouses in the voice of a disgruntled Michael Hoffman, the accent generically American with its flatter vowels that are hard to place in any specific locale by anyone other than Henry Higgins. The syllables were carefully selected and honed in study to make him seem like he hails from somewhere between the Pacific and the Mississippi, somewhere above the Mason-Dixon line but not too far north. Anytown, USA.

His whinge can be roughly translated to ‘Why the fuck is the CIA making us take a 10-hour bus ride when we could ride in a perfectly good automobile?’ There might be a better answer, but his guess is budget.

“Well, we’ve had one extreme for weather, so why not appreciate the other?” That much is sarcastic coming from Rue. There’s no great lengths gone to in order to hide her own accent. She’s good at faking one when she needs to, but she’s lived away from the Midwest long enough, travelled abroad enough to pick up a vowel sound here or a dropped consonant there. It makes the smattered American of her accent a smart match for Michael’s very nondescript dialect.

But February Lancaster isn’t known for the sound of her voice. What she is known for is the color of her hair. For now, it’s all pinned up and hidden beneath a light-colored scarf meant to keep the sun from beating down on her quite so hard.

January cozies up to her husband briefly to fix him with an impish look. “I brought books. And plenty to drink.” His shoulder is nudged with hers just once gently before she half-steps away again. Then she gasps softly, eyes getting big and lighting up. She’s just had the best idea.

“We could play I Spy.

“I hate you.” Nick’s reply is quick and not heartfelt, and he flashes a smile over at his pretend wife. “Don’t think there’ll be too much interesting to spy between her and there, but I suppose we can always hope. Otherwise you can look forward to me re-enacting Dory in Finding Nemo — I spy something orange and white, and it will be you, every single time.”

Yes, he just called her hair orange, even if it’s currently covered up by a scarf.

“You don’t,” Rue shoots back playfully. “Deep down, you enjoy my terrible sense of humor.” She lifts a brow and grins cheekily. “It’s why you married me after all.”

She’s going to have fun with this absolute nonsense that they were assigned for backgrounds. It’s either that or be pissed off and miserable. Cracking jokes is a far better way of dealing with her nerves anyway.

When he tries to poke fun right back at her, Rue’s grin grows wider. “So you do think about me all the time.”

There’s going to be no living with her, is there?

Nick shakes his head and smirks, his blue eyes lifted to the sky like he’s commiserating with someone in the clouds. He pulls his phone from his pocket and holds it up to indicate just how he’ll be spending the bus ride.

“I’ve downloaded eleven hours of podcasts to get me through, but if you’re good to me, I’ll let you listen,” he teases. “Fair warning, half of them are in languages other than English. Don’t think the roads’ll be good for reading, but you’re tougher than I am in most things. Not surprising if you are when it comes to reading while riding a bus.”

However they spend it, it’s going to be a long, bumpy, and boring ride — but boring is better than the alternative, on a mission like theirs.

Ten and a Half Hours Later

Sami Hostel
Aqabat Jabr
Jericho Governorate, West Bank

March 23rd
12:16 am Local Time

There is silence this late at night, but it does little to dull the ringing in Rue and Nick’s ears from the business of the last 24 hours. Their shared room at the Sami Hostel has them residing within the boundaries of a Palistinean refugee camp, unfortunately close to an area of clashes between Israeli military and Palistineans. But the operation dictates the proximity.

The room is small, hot, and cramped with a single narrow window that looks out onto the alley beside the hostel. Yellowed street lights cast a shadowy illumination outside of the hostel’s windows, and the rough, rich texture of the decor inside makes it feel like living in another era. Spread out on the small table by the window are Rue and Nick’s operations dossier that was left for them in this room by a CIA contact.

Satellite reconnaissance photos, maps of the region marked with areas of current conflict, and a route from Jerico through Jordan and into Iraq plotted out for them. Atop the map are several wide-angle shots of an athletic man with short cropped hair in a crowded market talking to a very familiar woman.

Seeing Hana Gitelman in the photographs is something of a shock to the former Ferrymen, especially given her disappearance off the radar. The former Major of Wolfhound is seen speaking with Nick and Rue’s intended contact in photos dating back just a few months; a former Israeli police officer named Rahm Malka who now operates as a fixer and information broker in regions of international conflict. Presently, he’s working here in the refugee camp outside of Jordan for Palistinean interests.

Rahm doesn’t look any older than Nick, and his kind eyes and slacked posture belies a dossier indicating a history of military service and mercenary violence. But the years-long gaps in his dossier leave room for questions. But Malka was, and is, the CIA’s only real in-road to Iraq and the best ear to the ground regarding Mazdak that they have in the region.

Finding and contacting Malka would be the first part of getting into Iraq.

The duffel bag and backpack that serve as Nick’s luggage are unceremoniously dropped once the door is closed behind them, though he does nudge them out of the way so they won’t trip on them during their stay here, given the small size of the room. He heads to the window, looking through it and smirking as he cracks it open to get at least the semblance of fresh air in the room.

“I thought we asked for a room with a view, sweetheart,” he says. Even safe from eavesdropping, he keeps that American accent in character as he has since they got to the airport back home. It’s almost second nature at this point, after so many years of slipping in and out of personas, and he knows it’s better to cement it instead of shifting from one to the next. And one never knows who’s listening, in this line of work.

As he looks at the photos, his brows draw together. “Well, good to see she’s doing all right,” he says. “And she doesn’t look like she’s trying to murder him, so that’s a good sign, right?”

The words are vague, like he could be looking at a photo on someone’s Instagram account, and he’s warned Rue not to say anything too specific until he’s swept for bugs, which he sets out to do systematically, starting in one corner of the room and working his way across. The hostel should be safe, but it’s part of the job to make sure it is. Nick looks in all the usual places and a few unusual ones too — sliding his hand along the bottoms of furnitures and drawers, behind any surface a bug might have been left.

“You never know with her,” Rue responds conversationally, making an effort not to let the tightness of her throat obstruct her voice. She’d been down this road, looking for the Major. Realizing she didn’t want to be found. Maybe… Maybe there wasn’t anything recognizable to be found.

After a brief period of feeling sorry for herself, Rue gets up from her seat and starts from the other corner of the room to assist in the sweep. More hands makes less work.

“It is a good sign,” comes the belated addition. Once she’s satisfied that her side of the room is clear, she moves over to the bed and starts to peel out of the outer layer of her travel attire. A linen coat, a skirt over a pair of more form-fitting leggings.

The last thing to go is the scarf. Pulling out a pair of bobby pins, the garment is removed from its wrap around her head, revealing the large blonde curls her hair has been styled into. It’s all been carefully pinned up to give it the illusion of having been cut short.

Taking the time to fold her things just gives her something else to do with her nervous energy. It keeps her hands busy while she follows Nick’s movements with a wry smile. “As for that view, I suppose we’ll just have to go out for ourselves tomorrow if we want to see the sights.”

Once he’s finished sweeping his side of the room, Nick sits on the edge of the bed, running his hands over his face and back through his dark hair. The day of travel has taken its toll, given him a headache and wearying him — along with all the anxiety that comes with the job they’re here to do, in an area he has no experience with.

“Room’s clean,” he says. It shouldn’t be otherwise, given the information left for them by another CIA operative, but better safe than sorry. He lifts a brow at her unpacking, but doesn’t say anything about it. Everyone deals with the anxiety of travel (and tradecraft) in their own way, after all.

“My thought is once we connect with him, we come clean, or close to clean,” Nick suggests. The legend, or background, he’d pitched was that the Hoffmans were traveling to the area doing charity for a pro-Palestine organization back home, and the trip was to gather information, interviews, and photographs to use for a fundraising campaign. “But we’ll have to suss it out a bit.”

Nick grimaces a little as he says the word suss in his American voice — he’s too tired to self-edit his Britishisms but at least the accent is in place. “A lot can change in a few months.”

Once she’s folded her clothing just so, she takes the scarf and unfolds that to drape it over her shoulders as a shawl. From there, Rue round the end of the bed and comes to sit down next to Nick on the other side. “How clean is clean?” she asks cautiously.

“Sussing it out seems reasonable.” If he’s worried about his choice of words coming off as the wrong flavor of English, she’s at least normalizing it. “I’m not sure if my former affiliations will help or hinder this situation. I’ll defer to you.”

Usually she’s the one calling those kinds of shots, but this isn’t her outfit running the show. This isn’t her element. “I feel a bit like I’m flying blind here,” Rue admits. “I’ve never operated abroad before. Across cultures. But…” There’s a small smirk, wry as it is, that accompanies a shrug of her narrow shoulders. “I’m good at following a lead. I can follow all the steps in the dance and do it all backwards, in heels.” Sometimes, her confidence in her abilities shines, even if it just breaks through the clouds of her self-doubt periodically.

“Wouldn’t rule out bed bugs, but I’m pretty sure it’s clean of the bigger bugs,” Nick says with a chuckle.

The rest gets a nod and Nick taps fingers against his knee as he thinks. “We don’t have to mention your former workplace. Technically in this, you’re here through mine, so we’ll just lean on that since we already have those connections with our contact. Going to assume we have some similar interests here, and if we want real intel, finding that common ground’s our best bet.”

Rue’s analogy makes him chuckle again. “Well, I’ve got two left feet even when I know what the fuck I’m doing, and I don’t this time. This isn’t my area of expertise so my experiences abroad don’t do a lot for me. The closest I’ve been to this area is Algeria, and I was pretending to be French.”

Nick glances at his watch. “Should probably get some sleep. Big day tomorrow.” One on which he has no idea what to expect.

“Gross,” Rue laughs in return. But they’ll probably be fine. She can’t imagine the CIA wants them dealing with that kind of pest while on a mission as critical as this almost certainly has to be in their eyes.

His assurances bring her to quiet and still. She nods her head, agreeing with his spin on things. The Wolfhound angle only needs to be pursued if it turns out to be a necessary road to travel. As far as anything else is concerned, she’s an asset. It’s an arrangement that suits her just fine.

There’s a glance given to Nick’s watch. Rue agrees with that assessment, too. Getting to her feet, she moves back to the other side of the bed, setting out her traveling kit for the next day without fanfare or much time needing spent. Packing efficiently is a skill she’s had to cultivate over the years.

Back to the bed, Rue grabs one of the pillows. “I’ll take the floor,” she tells him without it being a loaded thing. There’s no expectation for him to insist that he’ll do that himself so that she can get what she wanted all along. She’d warned him on the flight over that she could sleep anywhere, and apparently she’s prepared to further prove that sans complaint.

He shakes his head and chuckles. “Oh, sure. Now if I insist on it, I’m anti-feminist. You probably just want me to get the bed bugs instead of you. Well played, Mrs. Hoffman, well played.”

He pulls his shoes off, apparently not planning on arguing with her, and swings his legs up onto the bed, content to sleep, it seems, in whatever he’s wearing. “Tell you what, if you wake up at some point, wake me up, and we’ll swap, all right? If not, tomorrow night I’ll take the floor.”

Wherever that may be.

Later That Morning

Aqabat Jabr
Jericho Governorate, West Bank

8:06 am Local Time

Aqabat Jabr is barely a mile across, a settlement of densely packed buildings interlaced by packed earth streets. Vehicle traffic is relatively dense and late model pre-war American automobiles are the most common sight along the road, aside from bicycles and foot traffic.

Rue and Nick took to traveling Aqabat on foot, getting an effective lay of the land between their hostel and the cafe their soon-to-be contact Rahm Malka frequents. It’s less than a half mile to their destination, but along the way Nick and Rue are given a ground-level view of the day-to-day life of Palistinean refugees living in the resettlement area. Water scarcity is very real and signs in both Arabic and English speak to the cost of buying and selling water that makes even the skyrocketed costs in the US just after the war’s end seem palatable.

The distant pop of mortar fire echoes on the horizon all morning, fighting happening somewhere outside of Aqabat Jabr. The residents seem adjusted to the disturbances, even children seem to pay the sound little heed. It’s a distressing fact of life that people here have long needed to become accustomed with, long before Americans had to.

Halfway from the hostel, Nick and Rue spot a tractor trailer truck parked on the dirt side of the road. Their trailers stenciled with a faded logo that sparks both concern and curiosity. A double helix on blue with dark gray font.


Armed men and women stand in the back of the truck, dispersing medical supplies to residents of the refugee camp. Judging from their mis-matched gear and their relatively youthful appearances, they don’t appear to be from any official military organization; insignias for neither the Palistinean Liberation Army nor the Israeli Defense Force are visible. In fact, it is the lack of official insignias that makes them stand out.

Not far up the street and onto a paved main highway on the way out of the refugee camp is the Alrabie Cafe, a predominantly outdoor establishment consisting of a concrete slab attached to a brick dwelling with a metal roof and roll-up curtains on three sides. A mixture of plastic lawn furniture and repurposed living room sofas and chairs are arranged in a cafe style environment, with low tables of irregular styles. Two flat-screen televisions are mounted back-to-back from the ceiling, running a rebroadcast of a soccer match from the other night.

There are only a handful of people here in the morning, a pair of middle-aged Palistinean men drinking coffee and quietly talking, three men in their twenties loudly shouting at one-another, and the man Rue and Nick had come here to meet.


Rahm sits in an overstuffed armchair with a Yamagato Awasu tablet in his lap and a teacup steaming on an end table at his side. He taps away on the tablet, head down and focusing completely on whatever is on the other side of that screen.

The truck had drawn Rue’s attention, made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. She never had the direct dealings that others had, but she’s done enough research to ping her anxiety. “Lighting’s fantastic here,” she’d murmured to her partner, and positioned him so she could snap a picture ostensibly for their scrapbook.

It might be nothing, but if it’s something, then she has that much. For now, they have the Cafe and their contact to make. Adjusting the tail of her shawl over her shoulder and running her fingers along its folded edge to assure herself the pins still have it affixed to her hair the way she wants it to be, Rue nods her head, glancing toward Rahm. She’d like the opportunity to see what’s on that screen of his, but in this scenario, she’s the beggar.

“After you,” Rue murmurs.

The Pinehearst logo draws one of Nick’s brows up over the dark rim of his sunglasses, the dark shades hiding the rest of his eyes but no doubt there’s a look of wariness in them. He manages to smile for the photograph of the less-than-picturesque setting, then looks over his shoulder at the operation underway.

He turns, though, to the cafe, and studies the customers for a moment — it doesn’t take long to find Rahm, but he studies the other two groups, before nodding to his partner and walking in that direction. Once “inside” the airy cafe, Nick looks up at the television, maybe checking who’s playing and the score, before approaching Malka.

“Good morning,” Nick says, pulling sunglasses from his face so that Rahm can see his eyes — all the better to gain trust. “We were hoping you could assist us.” He glances at Rue, including her in the we, then back to their contact point.

Rahm shoots a sharp look at Nick the moment he hears English. He’s quick to turn the tablet’s screen off, set it face down on the arm of the chair. Rahm looks around the cafe, then slowly rises from his seat and takes a step forward, offering out a tattooed hand to Nick in genuine greeting.

“Rahm,” he says confidently, though stealing a glance at Rue all the while. “Figured you might come around, isn’t often I see Americans here who aren’t a part of a PMC. Didn’t figure you for Durandal,” he admits with an easy smile. “Order yourself a tea, if you’d like. I’m just wrapping up something.”

By the time Rahm’s attention has turned to them, Nick’s partner is soft around the edges, unassuming. The glance is returned, demure and somewhat coy, with perhaps the barest ghost of a smile. But only the ghost of one, because the mention of Durandal sets her teeth on edge, metaphorically speaking.

“I can fetch the tea, if you like,” Rue offers softly to Nick, being sure to defer to him in front of their contact.

The friendly (seeming) greeting evokes a smile from Nick, his hand clasping Rahm’s. As Rahm steals that look at Rue, Nick looks over the tattoos swiftly, for anything that might align the man with particular groups of interest, anything not in the file. He also makes the mental note, if a bit tangential to their mission, that the photographs left for the two spies didn’t do Rahm justice, especially those eyes.

“Ah, you were expecting us then,” Nick says, brows lifting, and he laughs at the mention of not being with Durandal. “I’m afraid I’m far too mundane and docile for their tastes. I’m Michael and that,” he tips a head toward Rue, “is January. Her parents were hippies, but she came out all right.”

With a nod at the suggestion to grab some tea, he adds, “Take your time.” Nick nods to Rue, then selects a pair of chairs not far from Rahm, but enough to give him space to finish what he’s working on without their spying eyes.

The tattoo is worrying. A Persian lamassu, a winged bull, faces Nick head on. Above its head is an eight-pointed star. The tattoo is exquisitely detailed, but the symbolism is also distinctly tied to both Mazdak and the Dinu organization that serves as its militant arm. It looks new enough, the black ink lines still fresh.

“Like the actress.” Rahm remarks about Rue’s alias. “January Jones.” He flashes a smile. “Mad Men, so good. Shame about the war, so much good television cut short before its time.” He tries to sound casual, but the war in the US is a distant and impersonal thing to him. And, Nick detects, there’s a hint of bitterness too. Not lasting, but old. As if the Civil War in the US was long overdue from his perspective.

Rahm looks back down at his tablet after that off-handed remark, flips a few windows closed, then locks the screen. Rahm then switches to a cell phone, checking his text messages and composing another with the screen angled away from Nick. Wrapping up his current business before starting something anew.

He smiles and she smiles back. “Like the actress,” Rue agrees with a twinkle in her eye. Maybe she prefers that association to Really? Like the month of the year? Her hand rests over her heart briefly, mourning along with Rahm the loss of the great television that was. As though the Second Civil War could be something distant to her, too.

It isn’t as though the struggles in this part of the world consumed her waking thoughts. Fair’s fair.

But while she’s provided a nice bit of distraction, so too do his screens as she starts to slip away. The ink is noted, and she avoids making eye contact with Nick, but settles instead for a tap to his arm as she heads past him to go for the counter. “I’ll be back,” she promises in a low murmur and one last overt glance over her shoulder in Rahm’s direction.

The ink and its symbolism is enough to make Nick’s stomach drop — any hopes of commiserating with Rahm on Mazdak’s control of the area are dashed instantly, but he manages to keep his expression neutral.

He can’t see the work that the other man does, but he can see a new task on a new device has begun, and it itches something he doesn’t like. Have they been made? He wouldn’t have been worried about that, as he knows the man’s worked with the CIA in the past, but with that fresh ink on Rahm’s arm, maybe his allegiances have shifted to something besides cash.

Like Mazdak.

Nick’s blue eyes lift to watch the game but he keeps account of all the things in his periphery — Rahm, Rue, the other patrons — while he waits for Rahm’s attention to come back to him.

Two taps is all it takes for Rahm to finish whatever it was he was doing. The phone gets laid, face down, on the table in front of him. “Distractions away,” he says with a smile, scooting forward on the armchair, folding his hands between his knees. “When you’re out here, on the borders of decree and democracy, you have to make sure you kiss all the necessary asses.”

Rahm motions to Nick with his chin. “So, you’re not tourists. Tourists don’t come to me. Not that I want to know your business,” he notes with a whoa there motion of one hand toward Nick, “but just so we’re both clear, no one in this room is an idiot. And we start on that foot.”

“Now,” Rahm glances in the direction of where Rue went, then back to Nick, “what do you need?”

Not far away, Rue has slipped into the main building of the cafe. Her fear of standing out among the residents is accentuated inside. Most eyes turn to her when she makes her way in, but everyone is polite and the woman behind the counter greets Rue in English. The menus too are multilingual, written in Arabic, Hebrew, and English. It feels remarkably welcoming, in spite of how much scrutiny she’s getting.

In some ways, this is precisely what she wanted. The eyes follow her. She’s done her best to keep to customs and norms with her attire, and a brief pass of her hand around the edge of her scarf tells her that her hair is still covered. Still, she is undeniably of the western world, and when she flashes a smile to the woman at the counter and opens her mouth to speak, she leaves no doubt that she’s American.

“Good morning. I’d like a cup of tea each for my husband and I. And…” She turns away from the counter for a moment, glancing back out to the space beyond. It gives her a chance to note the attention she’s gathered in passing as she seeks out and confirms the two men are precisely where she left them. And of course they were, but now she’s pointed out the company she’s keeping to the other woman.

“The gentleman out there was very kind to me a moment ago. Do you happen to know what he likes? I’m hoping I can return that kindness.” Rue turns back to the counter with that dazzling smile of hers. If she sounds a little vapid, so much the better. The more people curious about her, underestimating her, the fewer people are paying attention to Nick. And when the time comes that Nick has captured the scrutiny, Rue will have the benefit of not being the airhead she’s happy to appear to be.

In truth, she shares some of Nick’s concerns. Her fear is that she has been made by their new friend out there, but not as herself. Rue isn’t sure if being mistaken for her alternate can be spun to her advantage or if it would spell disaster.

The woman behind the counter calls back over her shoulder to a much younger woman in the kitchen, relaying Rue’s order. When she turns back there’s an apologetic expression in her eyes. “He brings his own tea bags and asks for hot water. He is very kind though, always tipping too much for… nothing.”

When Rahm holds up his hand to keep Nick from oversharing, the faux American grins — it’s not completely feigned, because he was in the midst of rethinking everything he had planned and going in on a wing and a prayer.

And Nick Ruskin is not religious. Michael Hoffman may be.

“Not tourists, no. I appreciate not having to pretend. It’s a bit tiresome, to be honest,” Nick says, as if in confidence, to his newfound best friend, who may or may not be Mazdak.

“We’re looking for a way into Iraq.” Nick opts for the Occam’s Razor approach to solving the problem of Maria Malka and goes with the truth. “We can pay. I couldn’t find an up-to-date rate sheet, but I’m sure it’ll be fair.”

Rahm’s expression is hard to read. His silence, however, isn’t. Nick can tell that mention of Iraq has complicated their interactions, but it’s also given Rahm something to think about. He reconsiders Nick, looking him up and down and then shakes his head slowly.

“Not easy crossing into the caliphate,” Rahm admits, slowly reclining back into the armchair, “not safe, either. The west, I guess that makes it more possible. No Turkish soldiers this far out, no war zones you’ll run into. Still, border security is tight because of all the fighting. Mazdak can’t afford to let militants inside the country. It’s hard.”

Rubbing his hand over his mouth, Rahm looks Nick up and down. “Where in Iraq do you need to get. It’s a big fucking country.”

Inside, Rue lifts a brow to express her surprise that the kind man outside doesn’t have a standing order. Beyond the hot water, anyway. “He must understand the value of taking up a seat,” she reasons. “When I was younger, I took up a table to myself at this little cafe, across from the most gorgeous fountain I’d ever seen. All I ordered was coffee while I watched the water and the people.” She leans in a little, having shared this thing about herself. “I made sure to tip well, too.”

And she’ll do so here as well. This intent is telegraphed when she unzips her bag and reaches inside for her wallet. “He’s very charming, isn’t he?” There’s something girlish about that admission, a shy smile comes with it part and parcel. “Does he entertain many friends here? A man like that can’t possibly spend all his time alone, drinking his own tea and using the Wi-Fi.”

“He’s the know-it-all around here,” the woman behind the counter says while Rue’s order is being prepared. “Mr. Malka knows everyone, and everyone knows him. And,” she smiles at Rue, “we all know better than to talk about his business.” The old woman’s eyes are both a warning and a threat.

“Well then,” Rue responds with that easy smile of hers, “I can see I’ve come to the right place.” She counts her bills out and slides them across the counter to the woman while maintaining her eye contact. Her hand doesn’t lift away from the cash.

Outside, as Rahm looks him over, Nick waits, one brow lifting as if to ask if he meets muster. “Borders these days are a challenge everywhere unless you’ve got a teleporter in your pocket,” he says, which he knows is altogether possible in the world they live. “Unfortunately, I lost track of mine, so we’re willing to buy our way in.”

His smile is wry, but his eyes are as appraising as Rahm’s, watching for hints of animosity or alarm.

Nick taps his knee twice, considering the question. “Baghdad or as close as we can get. It’s a big ask, I know.”

Rahm whistles, but the sound breaks into laughter. “New here, huh?” He rubs his palms together, scooting forward on his chair to get closer to Nick. “There’s a bus,” he says with a wagging point across the street and a wide open stretch of flat land, “leaves from that bus stop twice a day, it’ll take you to the Jordan River border crossing, about forty miles north. From there, you catch another bus to Amman, which probably takes a whole day or more. Jordan has a non-aggression treaty with Iraq—convenient—which means you can catch a flight from the Queen Alia International Airport to Baghdad International. All told, a couple days.”

Squaring up with Nick, Rahm’s expression seems less eagerly helpful and more apologetic. “But I get the feeling you don’t want to go through customs. Which, if I’m reading this right,” he says with a gesture to Nick, “complicates things. Because in that case, you need to make an illegal night crossing into Jordan, under where the Allenby Bridge used to be, to the east.” He points somewhat to his right. “Ten miles to Amman from here, straight shot. No official border crossings, though.”

Resting his hands on his knees, Rahm rolls his shoulders. “Assuming you don’t get caught, I can hook you up with a tour guide who will drive you to Baghdad, he knows the right bribes to get you past security checkpoints, but you’ll be riding in a cargo truck. Probably with other people being smuggled into Iraq.”

Into? The notion of anyone smuggling themselves into Iraq sits oddly with Nick. That isn’t how the political climate works in his understanding.

“You want to go the legal way, no payment needed today.” Rahm says. “Free directions given.” He smiles cheerfully. “You want to get into Baghdad quietly, then we need to negotiate based on your specifics. The more you can share, the more I can help.”

Rahm then looks at his tattoo and up to Nick. “Don’t let this scare you,” he says with a twist of his wrist, “it’s kuliashngu; mark of the friend. It gets me into places. But I’m not, you know, involved.

With a tilt of her head, Rue indicates the road she came from to the woman at the counter. “There’s a truck back that way. I didn’t recognize the logo. Relief workers? They do right by you all?” There’s a genuine concern in her expression. This isn’t about the mission. Probably. She genuinely wants to know if the familiar symbol equates to a familiar foe. If it does… Well, then there’s something else for them to worry about.

The woman behind the counter shakes her head, but not to the offer. “Americans,” she says with a nudge of her chin toward Rue. “Science company from years ago, they had offices in Iraq when the army was still there. Soldiers left, scientists died. Mazdak has it now, the medicine. Supplies. They share with us, hoping we’ll side with them when the war comes.” She shrugs, disinterested. “The war has always been here for us. Just not the one they’re interested in.”

When her order finally comes up, Rue slides the bills the rest of the way across the counter and lifts her hand from it. They’re the woman’s now. “Thank you,” she says with sincerity. “Stay safe.” Maybe the tone isn’t quite right for the farewell, but Rue genuinely feels for the people here. She’s seen firsthand people just trying to live their lives while chaos consumes everything around them. Taking up the cups of tea, she finally makes her way outside to join the two men.

Outside, Nick’s brows lift at the laughter and he grins too. “What gave it away?” he says in the easy and self-deprecating nature — the first is learned behavior, the second comes naturally.

As he listens, he wonders how much Marcus Raith hates both of the spies, given they could just fly in, but he knows that the journey will put their ears closer to the ground, closer to other people who have to take the illicit path into Iraq. It’s those people that they need to be close to — say in a cargo truck, smuggled by coyotes.

“Unfortunately, we’re looking to go the hard way. Gotta keep our names clean. You know how it goes,” Nick says wryly. “As much as I’d prefer a plane ride.”

When Rahm looks at the tattoo, Nick glances at it — it allows him to look more directly at the art, to study the symbol, to memorize it for cross referencing later and fact-check Rahm’s words. “Did I look worried?” he asks, grinning a little, eyes lifting up to meet Rahm’s again.

The question seems rhetorical, though, as he poses another. “Why the friend zone, then? Not interested or not wanted, or something else?”

“I’m fighting a different fight,” Rahm says with a wave of his hand from side to side. “Besides, I don’t do well in ideological conflicts. Otherwise I’d still be in Israel.” He smiles, though it’s both self-deprecating and sad.

“I can put together documents for you. Best bet is academic,” Rahm notes with a look up and down at Nick. “You could be a professor, might want to pick a different accent if you can muster. Americans and Brits, and Brits pretending to be Americans aren’t really top-quality in Iraq. Canadians, maybe a pass. The blonde,” he motions to the door, “she could be a student. Do you have an expertise? Something you know a lot about?” He cracks a smile. “Aside from how to make bad life choices?”

“I see we’re discussing my favorite topic,” Rue chimes as she inserts herself into the conversation. “Here you are.” One mug of tea is passed to Nick. She comes to perch on the arm of his seat, looking comfortable with the proximity they share. “My mother wanted me to be an actress — like Miss Jones — but instead I take photographs. Life behind the camera is far less glamorous than in front of it.”

Slender shoulders come up in a shrug. “But then perhaps I would have been in a lavish Hollywood mansion. Instead, I’m here. Maybe the choice wasn’t such a bad one after all.”

Nick glances up as Rue sits down. “Thanks,” he says, reaching for the mug, and smiling up at her. “Yes, I imagine those who were still out in their Hollywood mansions might have regretted a few things. Ironic.”

His blue eyes return to Rahm, brow lifting. “Why would a Brit ever pretend to be American?” Nick asks drolly in that all-American accent of his. “Je peux passer pour le français, perhaps with a Canadian wife?” He glances at Rue, not remembering if she has a passable French accent or not — studying French and passing for a French native are two distinct things, and the CIA agent had been trained by Interpol in France to do the former.

As far as what he knows a lot about, Nick lifts one shoulder, and the opposite corner of his mouth in another smirk. “Language itself, if that’s not too on the nose. I imagine people study French or English, and I can hold my own if pressed to demonstrate. I imagine I can bore anyone properly with a discussion on irregular pluperfect-subjunctive verbs. Christ, even I’m bored at that.”

Rue rolls her eyes dramatically. “I’m already falling asleep,” she complains, but with a fond smile.

“Language is good,” Rahm agrees, nodding along with the plan. “French is widely spoken in Iraq as of late, English moreso. So, an educator and student on a trip. There’s a new museum in Baghdad, focusing on the cultural history of the nation’s Mesopotamian roots. Gets a lot of people from out of the country visiting. I’d recommend that as a cover. I can forward you information about it. You won’t be able to find any yourself, not with the country having cut itself off from the Internet the way it has.”

Rahm shifts in his seat, one palm planted on his knee as he runs his other hand over his beard. “I can get you in, but I can’t guarantee getting you out. Just so we’re clear. It’s a lot of road between here and Baghdad, though. A lot of ways this could go wrong.” Then, as if he expects there to be more, Rahm asks, “What else?”

“A student,” Rue repeats, as if trying it on for size. It leaves a sour taste in her mouth, but she smiles pleasantly. “I think I can manage that.” No matter how it rankles. Instead, she shrugs easily. “I used to know some Québecois in my acting days,” she says, accent tinged appropriately. Many Americans don’t know to distinguish it from a Francophone, but hers is distinctly flavored from Nick’s. “Only problem is,” she continues, “my French is horrible.”

So, she switches gears. “But my Canadian,” she offers on the other hand, voice less thick, words more crisp but also rounder on the vowels, “that I can do.” Rue Lancaster’s party trick of being able to mimic accents more than passably will pay off for her here. She may not be CIA trained, but she expects to be able to hold her own just fine.

An arm is looped around Nick’s shoulders casually, but he can feel the tension coiled in her muscles, hidden by the long sleeve of her jacket. Rue tilts her head and regards Rahm for a moment. “What else do you think we should know about the region that we wouldn’t have been able to glean on our own from afar?”

“I can also speak English as a Frenchman, non?” Nick says with a smirk, the French-accented English keeping the same nuances of the same region of France as the French itself. “My mother was from Paris,” he says, with a touch to his chest, to explain his reasons for knowing the language.

At Rue’s subtler shift in tone, Nick reaches an arm around her waist and grins up. “Mr. Malka probably has made the mistake of assuming you’re not on the dark side of twenty-one yet, like so many have,” he says lightly, but he looks back at Rahm, brows lifting as he considers what else.

What else, indeed.

“If we wanted to be considered kuliashngu,” he says, a brow lifting, “what would that entail?”

Rahm snorts softly, scrubbing the side of his chin with his thumb as he laughs. “More time than you want to expend,” is his diplomatic answer. “For me? Easy. For you? Her? That’s a steeper hill to climb.”

“Look,” Rahm says with a spread of his hands, “I’ve been here, getting people across this border for a long time. A lot of borders. I don’t care who you really are, I just care about facilitating a transaction and keeping my head while doing it. Whether it’s information or otherwise.”

Looking down at the table his phone’s on, Rahm laughs. “What’s the American saying, ah,” he snaps his fingers, “ah, shit or get off the pot?” He laughs, shaking his head again. “Double-talk doesn’t go far here. Wastes my time and yours. Cut to the quick if there’s anything else. I’m not here to judge. Leave that to the Dinu.”

There will almost certainly be enough judgement from the Children of the Sun. That’s if they can manage to get close enough to be effective in any way. That’s one hell of a dual-edged sword, isn’t it? Rue smiles thinly. “I like you,” she pronounces. “Not that you give a fuck what I think.”

She leans forward, tea balanced on her knee and arm still slung across Nick while a light of interest dances in her eyes. It speaks to a hunger of some sort, a need in Rue to find answers. “I’m not afraid of a climb, and I don’t expect any shortcuts. If I want to walk that path,” her chin dips to indicate the ink on Rahm’s arm, “where do I start?”

Rahm looks Rue up and down. “Two paths.” He says with a rise of his brows. “One? You’re born a friend.” He taps the center of his chest with two fingers. “The other? You put in the hours, from the ground up, prove your worth and maybe after a year or two you get chosen—aikhtiar—to be made a friend.”

Slouching to rest his elbow on the arm of the chair, Rahm looks between Rue and Nick again. “After that, who knows. I never see the chosen again. But there’s been plenty of people asking after it. Plenty more disappearing in search of it.”

The blunt answers from Rahm draw that easy-going chuckle from Nick. “Apologies,” he says. “Despite being American, I like to try to be subtle at times, but perhaps too subtle for some.”

His brows lift at Rue and he chuckles again. “Easy there, tiger,” he murmurs, before looking back to Rahm. “That long? Are there ways to speed up the process, say with money, other favors, or is it all far more spiritual than that? It looks that way on the outside, but we can’t see all the cogs of the machine, so to speak.”

Glancing up at Rue, like maybe he’s doing all of this for her,, Nick lifts two fingers and turns back to Rahm again. “So if we wanted to go through Door Number Two, is there a name, someone we should meet with? A welcoming committee?”

Rahm slowly shakes his head. “No,” he says. Nick and Rue can see something in his eyes when he speaks that wasn’t there before; apprehension, fear. “If you want them, they find you.

As ominous as that sounds, Rahm only makes it worse as he continues. “I’ve heard people say they only thought about getting the Gift, and people from Mazdak showed up on their front door. Maybe it’s telepaths, maybe it’s something else—yad allah—the Hand of God.” He shrugs, trying to seem casual, even if he’s become more tense.

“So, no. I don’t know a good path for you to take to become a friend.” Rahm concludes. “But it may be safer for you in the long run if you don’t. Like I said, though, the clearer you are about what your goal is, the better tour guide I can be.” But then, Rahm taps two fingers on the surface of the coffee table. “This is usually where the tour guide gets paid, too.”

Rue’s stomach drops so hard she’s amazed it doesn’t hit the floor. How the hell do they spy on an organization that can read wishes? But her posture is casual, even as she seemingly reigns in that eagerness of hers. Unwinding her arm from Nick’s shoulders, she tells him, “I’ve got this one,” as if this situation were as mundane as who’s picking up the check at breakfast. Setting her tea aside and reaching into her purse, it’s not her billfold she procures, but an envelope, which she sets down on the table, sliding it toward Rahm.

With the money, she decides to lay some cards on the table. “Someone very important to me came this way to learn more about receiving the Gift and disappeared. I’m here to try and find out if it worked.” Rue smiles, but her expression is glum. “Or see if I can recover anything worth burying or memorializing.”

Rahm’s fear is contagious, but Nick manages to keep a thoughtful and interested expression on his face, brows lifting at the information. “Great,” he murmurs, a small and wry smile pulling his mouth upward, “now I’m going to worry I’ll accidentally think it and then come get swooped up before I know it. Mundane people like me, it’s not like we never think about it, even if we’re not planning to go to such extreme lengths to get it.”

Nick looks up to Rue when she reaches for her purse and smiles a quick, tacit thanks. His icy blue eyes remain on her while she speaks, for a long moment, then turn back to Rahm. He lifts a shoulder in a half shrug.

“I suppose if we can’t just join the club, our goal is to get close to people who are in it — whether you can tell us those names or not. A name or a location would be helpful, maybe earn you a bonus.” If money talks, Nick will certainly let it.

Rahm looks back and forth between the two, then down to the envelope. He checks to make sure no one else around is watching before he slides it up into his jacket. “Two days, New Jericho Hospital back parking lot, midnight. Just you two.”

Rahm straightens and rises to stand, grabbing his tablet as he does. “Until then…” he says, sliding his tongue across the inside of his teeth, then ripples with a heat-mirage effect of some kind of expressive camouflage.

“Keep a low profile.”

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