Broken Crown, Part II


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Scene Title Broken Crown, Part II
Synopsis Nick and Rue take the first steps to infiltrate Mazdak.
Date March 25, 2021

Tall fluorescent lights cast a pale ambience in a mostly vacant parking lot behind the high-walled facade of Jericho Hospital. The bay doors for accepting ambulances are all rolled shut, and while there are lights on in the hospital, it does not appear to be remarkably active at the moment.

The night air is crisp and cool, accompanied by a steady breeze blowing through the resettlement camp, carrying with it the distant yap of dogs or, perhaps something more wild. The night’s sky is mostly drowned out by the light pollution, but the nearly-full waxing moon still shines bright in the sky.

It’s under these auspicious conditions that Nick Ruskin and Rue Lancaster find themselves wondering if they’ve been had.

Jericho Hospital

Aqabat Jabr
Jericho Governorate, West Bank

March 25th
12:03 am Local Time

There are no vehicles waiting in the parking lot, no one lingering in the gloom behind the dumpsters, no sign that Rahm held true to his word to help a pair of foreigners make their way into the heart of Baghdad. In the distance there’s a staccato pop of automatic gunfire, far enough away to not be an issue, and common enough at night to not raise immediate alarm.

And yet, it is of absolutely no comfort.

It’s the fact that there’s no cry of birds to accompany that gunfire that assures Nick that this nightmare is not actually a nightmare, and that he’s unfortunately awake and not asleep somewhere in a comfortable bed. He glances again at the wristwatch he wears, not truly expecting it to have changed since the last time he looked just a few moments before.

“Only 12:03,” he says softly from where the two stand in the shadows. “Desert time might be like island time. You think Rahm’s standing right in front of us, invisible, watching how we react and we don’t know it?” He’s amused at the thought, but it’s a very reasonable thought — to watch how the two “tourists” act when they think they’re alone.

“Helluva guy. Five star service,” he quips, just in case Rahm’s there listening. The levity, all delivered in that soft American-toned voice, doesn’t quite disguise his anxiousness; he taps his hand now and then against his thigh a few times before he shoves his hands back in the pockets of his dark coat.

“It’s making me wish I’d found someplace to camp with my coffee while I wait for you men to sort out the details.” And by coffee, she absolutely means her sniper rifle. It does her very little good disassembled as it is currently for transport. “Cheer up, darling,” Rue teases in a tone far lighter than any emotion she’s actually experiencing right now. “Worst comes to worse, we’ll at least have had a lovely evening stroll together.”

And the CIA will have dropped a good chunk of change for the pair of them to be stood up on prom night, and they’ll either spend another chunk of change to find another guide, or they’ll be getting creative and handling this leg of their assignment entirely left to their own devices. Rue isn’t sure which of these options is most favorable.

Whichever one doesn’t result in being killed or worse, she imagines.

The sound of a heavy engine in the distance draws both Nick and Rue’s attention. There’s very few vehicles on the streets of Aqabat Jabr after curfew, even fewer that sound that loud. When they see headlights coming up the street and see them slow on approach, it starts to raise alarm bells. But the presence of a semi truck pulling a trailer with the Pinehearst logo on it is at once familiar and concerning.

The semi truck pulls up into the hospital parking lot, and Rahm emerges from the passenger side door, hopping down to the asphalt with a clap of his boots. He makes a quick progress over to Nick and Rue, eyeing Rue’s headscarf before unwinding a kafali scarf from around his own neck to offer out to Nick.

“Put that on, keep your face covered.” Rahm says as the roar of a semi truck’s trailer opening reverberates through the parking lot, followed by raised voices shouting in Arabic. “I got you jobs, lifting and transporting. It’ll get you into Baghdad.”

Rue’s keeping to role draws a wry smile from Nick, since in this back parking lot, he’s a little more himself than he is Mike. “There is that,” he says, warmly, before that rumble of the truck draws his eyes in that direction.

“A taste of home. I was hoping for a Toys R Us truck, myself,” he says quietly before the door opens and Rahm emerges. He accepts the scarf and drapes it around his head and neck as best as he is able in the style of the area, though Rue may have to adjust it for him for longer wear.

“Good to see you, man,” he says. “Anything we need to know?” Like those names or places he had asked about last time to no avail.

Keeping to role — tongue in cheek as she is — is also keeping her nerves in check. Rue hopes she’s doing some of that for Nick as well. As she starts to lean to nudge his shoulder with her own, she hears the truck’s approaching and easily sways back to a firmly planted position. “Not terribly subtle, is it?” she mutters out of the side of her mouth.

While Nick’s quip about which defunct company’s logo he might have liked to see on the truck, Rue’s own cheeky response dies when she sees the one that does adorn it.

“Soldiers left, scientists died. Mazdak has it now, the medicine. Supplies.”

Rue sucks in a breath between her teeth. This is what she’d asked for and what they were hoping to achieve, but she didn’t expect to be this close this quickly. Jobs, their guide says. Gently, she places a hand on Nick’s shoulder so she can turn him just the slightest bit toward herself and fuss with his scarf. It’ll work for the time being. When they have a moment of quiet, she can wrap it again. “Better,” she pronounces in a hush.

A glance is given to Rahm, the spectre of a smile lit by the golden glow of headlamps.

“Nothing to know. Yousef speaks Farsi. Probably your best bet for an intermediary.” Rahm says, pointing out Yousef from among the other workers as he does. The workers spread out from the truck and bang on the back bay door of the hospital, shouting through it. A moment later the door slowly rolls open, revealing a pair of waiting men with cardboard boxes on dollys.

“You’re not American,” Rahm says as a reminder to them both, then takes a few steps back. “Talk to Yousef, do what he says, take the ride and get paid when you get off. Don’t ask questions or you’ll get shot.”

Rahm smiles like he’d been delivering good news in that quiet confidence, not terrifying news. “And best of luck,” because based on Rahm’s backpedaling trajectory, this isn’t a ride he’s going on.

It isn’t the worst job Nick’s had while undercover. That accolade goes with being one of The Irishman’s crew, once upon a time in New York City. But it’s certainly not the best, and Nick’s shoulder injury of yore already twinges at the thought of hauling boxes.

His eyes, meeting Rue’s as she fiddles with his scarf, don’t show the nervousness, but maybe some dark amusement. “If Uncle Mark could see me now,” he says wyly.

Turning to Rahm, he nods in understanding. “Got it. Thanks for hooking us up,” he replies, accent suddenly French, a little muddier than the Parisian he’d sported in the cafe — a little harder to place for ears not so used to Europeans (or those pretending to be them). “No paperwork or IDs?”

Nick’s not-nervous gaze finds a mirror in Rue’s. Which should tell both of them all they need to know about the other’s feeling of ease in this situation. Rather the lack of it. Still, her smile grows when she slants it his way instead, encouraging. Neither of them is entirely out of their element, but this is a variation Rue at least hasn’t had to account for previously.

Her attention turns to the workers and the truck. There’s a wailing siren of concern in her mind, trying to warn her of what’s to come of this. Whatever it is, success or failure, somehow she doesn’t think either outcome is especially good, but that his is more of a game of avoiding which is worse.

Still, if Rahm is intent on leaving them to whatever fate may lay ahead, Rue will be the first to make the approach. Even if all it does is signal to Nick that she’s unafraid to move forward in this improvised number of theirs.

Rahm pauses, halfway turned around, and points at Nick with a dipping finger. “Check your pockets,” he says with a playful wink, before rippling into a heat-haze mirage and fading from sight. Nick’s hand reflexively moves to his side pockets—nothing—then his back pocket where—

Son of a bitch.

Nick feels a pair of hard-backed but thin folios in his back pocket; passports. Rahm must have palmed them on him when they were talking.

Over by the truck, Rue spots the man Rahm had identified as Yousef; no older than nineteen or twenty, dressed in loose and mismatched clothing with a tactical vest. He’s aggressively talking to some of the other workers, clapping his hands together trying to get them moving.

Tu parles français?” Yousef asks of Rue, one brow kicking up as he gives her a long look up and down.

Men coming from the cargo bay of the hospital circle around rue with the boxes on dollies, handing them off to workers waiting in the back of the truck. They show proficiency and familiarity, they must do this often. Out of the corner of her eye she sees hospital staff nervously standing by more boxes of medical supplies, there must be dozens of them.

With a chuckle, Nick nods. “Thanks, man,” he says. He glances up to track Rue’s progress as she seeks out Yousef, then discreetly opens each of the passports to check their names — may as well get adjusted to their new legends, even though they’ve scarcely broken in the identities of Michael and January.

Later, he’ll wonder about how Rahm got their photographs.

Tucking them in a more secure spot on the inside of his jacket, he heads forward to join Rue. Beneath the shadow of the scarf, his bright eyes scan the parking lot, taking it all in. He can’t help but reminisce wistfully about his last job where he worked as a waiter at a Parisien cafe he could eavesdrop on his mark’s conversations, Notre Dame as an artistic backdrop.

There’s no shock to be asked the question, but there is a small coil of concern in the pit of her stomach that it’ll take her a second of concentration to work loose. Rue shakes her head quickly, further elaborating, “Only enough to tell you that the answer to that question is non.

Her attention is shifted to Nick — split between Yousef and Nick on the latter’s approach. “He does,” she indicates with a tilt of her head in her partner’s direction. “Parles français,” she clarifies for him, in case he hadn’t overheard.

You,” Yousef says to Rue, pointing two fingers at her and then the cargo door, “lift.” He then points to the open back of the semi’s trailer. Then, watching Nick arrive, Yousef is far more loquacious.

“«You and the girl,»” Yousef says with a nod to Rue, “«help us move these crates. Work fast. We have a delivery to make to the hospital in Mahmudiyah by tomorrow night. You will be paid there. Ten hour ride.»”

Nick recognizes Yousef’s accent; the uvular r’s of French spoken through west and central Africa.

“Brigitte,” Nick says, with a nod to Rue in a short introduction that’s really more for her as it is for Yousef — he probably doesn’t really care what their names are, but Nick is nothing if not polite.

“«Thanks. Philippe. We appreciate the work,»” he tells the other man, offering a hand to shake, despite Yousef’s no-nonsense demeanor.

In his French accent, he quickly translates the directions to Rue, not that she can’t catch on from Yousef’s gestures or by watching the others. “Shall we, then?” he says, and moves toward the crates in question. “I really hope I can punch Marcus again when this is over,” he murmurs under his breath as he takes hold of one of the crates to haul to the truck.

There’s a faint twitch of the corner of Rue’s mouth when Nick introduces her. It’s far better than January as a cover identity. She’ll accept it readily. She doesn’t smile to Yousef at her introduction or to acknowledge the task set before her. With merely a nod, she moves along, following in Nick’s wake.

There’s some biting of the inside of her lip and a lift one one brow to convey Rue’s amusement when Nick conveys his hopes for when they make it home from all of this. “Give me a ringside seat,” she utters under her breath to him. There’s what appears to be a moment’s hesitation that follows in its wake, like she’s assessing the crate in front of her, and the next however many more she’s going to need to move, and deciding if she’s up for the task.

It’s for show, as she makes her careful way to the truck with the first load. She carries herself with more confidence on the second run. All the while, she’s counting the heads and willing the bad feeling in her gut to be no more than a kaleidoscope of butterflies. A nuisance, but a manageable one that doesn’t spark her heart rate or make her palms sweat.

But it doesn’t make the night go by any quicker.

Three Hours Later

Somewhere in Jordan

After the truck was loaded, most of the crew that helped pack it with medical supplies went back to Aqabat Jabr where they lived, but a handful of the workers were clearly long-haul, like Nick and Rue. Yousef was among them, but he had the privilege of riding in the cabin, not packed in with the medical supplies like everyone else.

The truck never stopped at the Jordanian border, that much Nick and Rue are able to pick up from the piecemeal language they get from the other workers, who give the two foreigners as wide a berth as possible in the back of the trailer. They sit on stacked crates of medical supplies, some talking, others trying to sleep while they can.

This whole operation feels well-oiled, practiced, done over a long period of time. The drivers must have ins with the Jordanian border guard to be able to slip unsearched over the Israeli border like this. Mazdak’s influence is both powerful and subtle. Based on what Yousef had said, this was a ten hour ride.

There was more road ahead of them than behind.

Nick and Rue have been quiet, keeping their language to general topics, Nick’s English always accented with the overlaid French accent. They know Yousef speaks French; they don’t know if any of the people sharing the truck’s cramped interior speak English.

After a long spell of riding in silence, Nick stretches, cricking his neck one way and then the other. His eyes seek Rue’s in the gloom of the truck. “If you want to sleep, I’ll stay up,” he offers quietly. They slept in preparation for the trip, but he knows she probably didn’t sleep as well as they could have, with the worries of all that could go wrong on this excursion. Nick knows he didn’t sleep well.

The number of things that could go wrong far outnumber the multitude of crates.

“It’ll at least pass the time faster than counting the bumps in the road. I’m up to about four thousand and thirty,” he says wryly.

“Shit,” Rue laughs under her breath, holding Nick’s gaze with a spark of anxious amusement. “I only have four-thousand-twenty-eight.” While she jokes, her eyes dance between his, looking for a sign that he’s offering more to her than he can afford to part with here. After all, it was her turn to take the bed last night. But neither of them got as much sleep as they ought to have.

Another beat passes, three more bumps in the road. “Fine,” she acquiesces quietly. There’s no instinct to argue, no urge to insist that she can take first watch. No misguided need to prove anything about herself or her capability. Between the two of them, at least one of them needs to be fresh. Barring that, one of them needs to be able to watch the other’s back. It’s just a matter of who takes up which part.

It looks more in keeping with expected gender roles anyway when Brigitte shifts her posture to rest her head against her partner’s shoulder, sighing with a weariness she doesn’t actually feel as she shuts her eyes. Rue’s hand finds Nick’s briefly and squeezes. It’s in thanks and the only true indication she’ll give of her anxiety in this situation. The close confines of the truck don’t excite her, but she’s certainly not helpless here.

The tires rumble against the road, the roar of the journey goes on. As Rue closes her eyes with her head against Nick’s shoulder, a silence gradually falls over the trailer. Soon, there is just the noise of the wheels and the road, the rumble of the cargo against the aluminum bed, and a growing knot of dread in the bottom of Nick’s stomach.

So far, bumps aside, this was all going smoothly.

Way too smoothly.

Seven Hours Later

Baghdad Governate

10:37 am Local Time

Eajla! Taeal alan!

It’s a crisp sixty degrees under a bright, warm sun. Nick and Rue have been working for close to a half hour unloading supplies at the Mahmudiyah Hospital, a small medical facility located on the outskirts of the rural farming community.

A vast sea of arable land spreads out as far as the eye can see in every direction beyond the hospital, tended not by field laborers but spindly machines walking on long stilt legs. These harvester robots reach down with spidery appendages, driving holes into the ground and then injecting seeds. Hundreds of them walk through the farmland on their gangly legs.

On the outside, Mahmudiyah Hospital looks stark in contrast to the high-tech agricultural hardware on display. Its exterior is drab and tan, riddled with cracks. Even the interior and its chipped tile floor looks run down and in need of repair. But the lion’s share of the medical equipment looks brand new and cutting edge. Rue and Nick have seen much of the ground floor as they bring medical supplies in by hand.

Most of the supplies are refrigerated vaccine shipments, and from what the pair have been able to piece together it’s H5N10 vaccines. While the dreaded “Evolved Flu” was wiped out in most of the world, sanctions and politics kept the flow of vaccine out of the hands of the Iraqi people, and the H5N10 ward of Mahmudiyah Hospital is filled with the young and the elderly alike.

By and large they’re done now, just bringing the last vaccine shipments in from the truck. They’ve made it into Iraq, though they’re still roughly a half-hour by car from Baghdad.

Nick’s pulled on a pair of sunglasses to help obscure his distinctive blue eyes, now that they’re operating in daylight; the relative pallor of his face is lessened by the five o’clock shadow. The night spent in the truck was not a restful one, for all of its metaphorical smoothness. Very real worries keep a good night’s sleep at bay even when a person isn’t rumbling along in the back smuggling them across borders they shouldn’t be crossing.

The fact he’s helping deliver flu vaccines makes him feel a little better about the situation — having seen it befall the children of Pollepel, having almost died to its fellow strain.

As they carry their last loads to the delivery point, Nick juts his chin in the direction of some of the equipment. “I’d think I was in Yamagato if it weren’t for the decor,” he says under his breath.

For her part, Rue hides behind her own sunglasses and the protective covering of her scarf to provide a barrier from the sun as much as to obscure her identity. After this long out in it, though, the freckles on her face have darkened and stand out more, even if her pale skin hasn’t burned.

“No kidding,” she responds in a hush, glancing around behind the rose gold mirrors shielding her eyes. “I don’t know about you, but my fucking teeth itch.” Stepping away from the stack of crates and moving back toward the door Rue doesn’t wait to see if Nick’s following her. She knows it by instinct, like a shift in the air. “I’m beginning to think we should scrub,” she confides, for all the world looking conversational.

Yes, they’ve just moved supplies that will help a lot of people. So long as they are what they say they are. But she has doubts.

She has such doubts.

“I think we should walk away from here. Try our luck on our own.” The slope of Rue’s manicured brow tells the tale of her concern, her worry. The risk, she fears, may far outweigh the reward. She turns once they’ve exited the hospital doors, putting distance between them and the other workers. Backward she marches, trusting Nick to watch her back while she watches his. “I don’t know. I’ve been going over it in my head, and… I think I’ve been made.” Her shoulders come up in a delicate shrug. “Or maybe I’m just paranoid, but… I don’t know if we should follow through on this path.”

It’s quiet enough around Nick and Rue. The noise of the hospital is louder further in, raised voices and violent coughs. Some of the people from the truck are talking with doctors and staff in a local dialect neither Nick nor Rue are familiar with. But it seems casual, light. The atmosphere lacks a certain tension that both are accustomed to when there’s a noose tightening.

Outside, multiple trucks roll by going at least seventy miles per hour. Out the front windows, Nick and Rue spot a convoy of large military vehicles headed westward, some of them flatbed trucks carrying tanks, others carrying what look like the child of an eight-legged spider and a tank. Rue’s familiar with them from the assault on the California Safe Zone. A dozen of them just rolled by, headed to points unknown.

It’s different out here, but all the old fears linger in the shadows.

Nick looks out the window at the convoy of trucks rolling by as Rue conveys her worries. He’s felt out of his depth the entire trip — the language, the culture, the fact the two of them are like bright white beacons no matter how they wrap their scarves… none of it sits well with him. None of this is what he’s been trained for.

“I don’t think Rahm cares, to be honest,” Nick tells her in a low voice. “Not sure if any of these folks are connected. But let’s get paid and regroup and figure it out from there. The only lead we have is the museum, and I’m not sure how much of a lead that is, but it might have us rubbing elbows with those trying to become — what was it — aikhtiar — chosen. I hate to say it, but the only way in the cult might be to pretend to want to be in the cult.”

He looks for Yousef or whoever it is paying them for a job well done. “This job is making me seriously question my career choice,” he mutters.

Rue fixes Nick with a steady, protracted gaze, judging the veracity of his words. Does he believe what he says? That Rahm likely doesn’t care and that he thinks the others they’ve been alongside may not even be connected?

The nod tells him she’s decided in his favor. There’s an attempt to banish her jitters with a sigh. “Sometimes I wonder if that bastard cyclops just sent me out here to die.” It’s Ruby Harper’s insistence of Marcus Raith’s faith that keeps that particular doubt from spiraling out of control.

Everything about this makes her uneasy, even if she does ultimately decide to trust in Nick. The trucks and the tanks have her stomach tying itself into tighter knots. It’s not a terrible shock to see the spider-like machines here, given what she’s understood of Adam Monroe’s affiliations with both Praxis Heavy Industries and Mazdak at one time, but that doesn’t mean she wants to face one down without the Katsch and an anti-tank gun.

“Okay, partner. We get paid here, and we make our way to the museum. We lie.” Searching Nick’s eyes for understanding, Rue continues. “We lie to get where we need to be. We lie to everybody under the sun, if that’s what it takes.” One hand reaches out so she can catch him by the forearm above the wrist, delivering a brief squeeze. “We lie to everybody but each other.”

Edict delivered, Rue tips her head, indicating that she’s ready to carry forward together, on to the next step.

There are six parts to any good confidence trick.

Foundation work: meeting Rahm, getting the lay of the land, setting the stage.

Approach: Getting in with the Mazdak medicine shippers, making that initial contact.

But that’s where the incline gets steeper. Part three is always where it gets complicated.

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