Broken Crown, Part III


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Scene Title Broken Crown, Part III
Synopsis Nick Ruskin and Rue Lancaster's investigation into Mazdak takes an unexpected turn in Baghdad.
Date March 25, 2021

The third part of a good confidence trick is called the “build-up.” It’s when the mark is given an opportunity to profit from participating in a scheme. The mark's greed is encouraged, such that their rational judgment of the situation might be impaired. Spy work isn’t that much different from grifting, the marks are usually just better armed.

Seated in the back of a white pickup truck, warm breeze in their hair and the farmland surrounding Baghdad whipping past, Nick Ruskin and Rue Lancaster find themselves approaching their build-up. The five-thousand dinar they have to split between themselves carries significantly more value than it did before Mazdak’s rise to power and Iraq’s swelling economy. An economy that existed solely in hypotheticals before they started their approach to the city.

Even on the outskirts, Baghdad is nothing like either of their memories. The Baghdad in their minds is a dusty, brown refuge of people living under threat of constant violence. The US occupation of Iraq lasted for over a decade and left so much of the city in ruin with constant fighting against insurgent forces. Forces that would become known as Mazdak. But that vision of a once-prosperous nation, one plastered across news media for so much of their lives, isn’t congruent with reality any longer.

Now that they can see the city with their own two eyes, Nick and Rue find themselves approaching a metropolis that has more in common with pre-war New York than it does the smoldering memory of wars long past. The robotic farm machines seen on the outskirts of the city weren’t some sort of outlier, they were a shape of things to come. Skyscrapers dominate the Baghdad skyline, building with sweeping, organic angles and brilliant white finish. It evokes images of prosperous Dubai, of the economic excess of Saudi Arabia and neighboring Kuwait. Not whatever wars the Bush family started decades ago.

Vibrant parks filled with flowering trees line the highway into the city, a highway packed with multi-generational vehicles, from beat up old diesel trucks like the one they ride in, to self-driving electric cars made by Iraq-based manufacturers. It all evokes a sense of disorientation and disillusionment with the situation they were headed into. Western media doesn’t showcase the Iraq that rose up since the foundation of Mazdak, just the violence Mazdak perpetrates on other nations.

The confidence trick goes both ways, sometimes.

Baghdad Outskirts


March 25th
11:15 am

As they drive, the rear window into the truck’s cab slides open and the driver briefly turns around to shout over his shoulder in an accented English, “Where you want dropped off?”

“It’s a mad world,” Nick murmurs to Rue as they make their way into a strange and prosperous Baghdad. The CIA agent has heard some talk about the country and its transformation under Mazdak, but his work has never brought him here to see it with his own eyes.

He turns his head when the driver calls to them, and he turns to exchange a look with Rue — though she can’t see his eyes behind his sunglasses. He turns back to answer, shouting to be heard, over motor and wind. “We heard there’s a new museum that’s worth checking out, thought we’d start there. Any cheap hotels nearby?”

He says, quieter for Rue’s sake, “Regroup, change clothes, figure out our plan, yeah?”

“Holy shit,” Rue whispers to herself when the impressive whole of the city comes into view. She’s seen the intelligence as well, from different angles, and even she didn’t expect this level of modernity with the Afghan and Iraq wars in such recent memory.

Then again, if you can create a safe haven for Expressives, a place where they can take pride in their homes… Well, maybe New York could look like this in the aftermath of the States’ Second Civil War. Or at least be on its way toward it.

Nick’s gaze is met with as close an approximation as Rue can give from behind her own mirrored shades, nodding her head as though they’d had to confer about where they’d like to land. His suggestion to her alone leads to a more subtle nod of her head and sigh that sees her shoulders relaxing a touch. “First dibs on the shower.”

“I know a place!” The driver shouts back through the sliding window. “Nice, good with foreigners!”

Passing through the outskirts of Baghdad, Rue and Nick both notice the heavy militarization that casts the city’s renaissance in a skewed light. There’s a group of four soldiers in Raytech body armor standing on a street corner talking to a few teenagers, the fifth member of the soldiers’ squad is a seven foot tall robot. A model Rue still sees in nightmares. A Qing.

Down the adjacent side street there’s an armored personnel carrier with **الحرس **الكونفدرالي—Confederated Guard—stenciled in Arabic on the side over the symbol of an eight-pointed star. The truck passes the soldiers by without incident and the driver doesn’t seem to be nervous about their presence at all.

“Of course,” says Nick with a smile at Rue’s claiming first shower, but he nods his agreement to the driver. “Sounds perfect. Thank you!” he shouts back.

He leans his head back against the window as he watches the city unfold before him; his brow furrows above his sunglasses at the sight of the Raytech armor and the Qing. Rue’s position beside him lets her see his eyes slant her way in a sidelong glance.

“‘It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity,’” Nick murmurs, sounding very world-weary for the first time in their long journey. “Something attributed to Einstein he didn’t say, but it fits. The problem with tech is that the wrong people can copy it and use it for their purposes. Why do I feel we’re going to end up the way Benji showed us, no matter what we do? The path might be different, but the destination’ll be the same.”

“You’re very well read, aren’t you?” The misattributed quote gives Rue something to focus on. She notices the glance her direction, but her eyes stay roaming the road, looking for danger. But he’s forcing her to think about something else and to stop spiralling down the rabbit hole of being so certain that Marcus Raith did in fact actually pick the wrong Rue Lancaster for this operation.

“Maybe you’re right.” Finally she glances his direction from the side of her shades. Then she turns slowly. “But I have to believe that by doing things differently, by making better choices, we can mitigate the damage. We did with the war.” It became localized to the States rather than a third Great War. Her gift to him is a small, but encouraging smile. Pushing past her own fear to reassure him helps, as it turns out. She reaches out hesitantly and takes his hand. “Wish I had some profound saying or a passage from a book to quote to you, but that’s just not who I am.”

Nick smiles at the observation, lifting a shoulder as he turns to watch the other side of the road. “Apparently in another life, I’m a writer. Always liked stories, poems. Mythology. I read a lot, when I’m on the road. Lets me think about things other than the things I’d think about if I didn’t.”

When she takes his hand, he squeezes it. “Optimism and I aren’t well acquainted,” he says wryly. “But I hope you’re right.”

Rue squeezes back. “I’m an optimist with a side of pessimism.” Even if it may be a bit more like ordering an entire dinner salad as a side.

It doesn’t take long for the truck to reach its destination, a four-story building still ostensibly on the outskirts of Baghdad but a significant step up from the hostel they stayed in while in Israel. It’s a modern and rather western-looking hotel with a glass facade that wouldn’t look out of place in a mid-range Hilton back before the war in America.

The truck driver stops on the street before the hotel, looking back through the small window. “You two stay safe, yeah? Curfew at sundown, remember. Don’t be out after dark, not safe.”

“Thanks so much.” Nick says, with a nod of gratitude to the driver. “Ma’a salama.” He doesn’t try to alter his (fake) French accent for the foreign word, but it’s said with a sincere smile for the fact the man has gotten them there in one piece. At least one more leg of the journey is through. This is one place where the journey is likely to be the easy part, and that makes him all too nervous.

He stands, moving to the end of the bed to step over it, hopping down to the pavement below, before reaching out a hand to assist Rue — he knows she’s as capable, if not more, of getting out gracefully, but it’s part of the charade, and also in his nature.

The driver earns himself a wave of thanks. Rue finds herself grateful that she doesn’t have to ‘remind’ Nick to offer the hand out to her. She makes a small show of being certain her footing is going to be sure, dragging her bag to the edge of the bed before climbing over carefully and stepping down with that gentlemanly assistance. “Merci,” she offers in exchange for it, making no attempt to affect an accent like his. That’s not her story.

With their luggage — such as it is — in tow, Rue looks up at the building with a casual interest. “Five thousand isn’t going to get us far,” she murmurs as she loops her arm through Nick’s. “When and where do you want me to start lifting wallets?” That seems a safer option to her, rather than attempting to find quick and well-paying work in the city on a short lead time with no reputation.

Grabbing his duffel, he swings it over his shoulder, then reaches for hers, brows lifting a bit over the edge of his sunglasses as his lips curve in a smile. It’s part of the act, that look tells her — he’s not suggesting she’s weak by any means.

“We still have our starter cash, just need to exchange at a bank, but I wonder if there’s a concierge here that can do that, rather than get our mugs on camera,” he says under his breath. “I don’t know how well these new IDs will hold up. Or you can pull your Artful Dodger but if you get thrown in jail, I’m going to say that Mazdak’d make a Turkish prison seem like a Turkish bath.”

There’s a mirthful narrowing of her eyes. She enjoys the game they play, where he lets her appear more fragile than she is. It can only serve both of them if they get caught in a pinch, by her estimations. “Not sure we can exchange what we have for anything we can stretch further here, but it sure doesn’t hurt to try.”

With a glance over, she acts as though she’s unbothered by the potential consequences of her suggested actions, but he feels her hand tighten on his arm. “I’m just saying, bribes don’t pay themselves, and I’m not sure how far tits go in this economy.” Rue makes a noise of frustration, though her expression stays serene, pleased to be on this vacation of theirs. “It’s like going into any given social situation with my hands tied behind my back.”

“We’ll find out, I guess. Later, though, because we both need showers,” Nick says with a grin as he heads toward the front desk leaving on the table the discussion of tits for now. At the counter they find the cash they have is enough for two nights — not a surprise, but they’ll definitely need more.

The talk with the concierge will wait, Nick decides, until later as well. Once they have keys in hand, they find their way to the economy class room. Nick lets Rue do the honors of opening it, as he’s carrying the luggage, but when the door opens, it’s not like he needs her to move out of the way to see the entirety of the narrow strip of space featuring a bunk bed and a desk with barely enough room to walk between those two pieces of furniture — it’s all very clean, tidy, and spartan.

Rue holds the door open, taking in the room visually before she’ll step inside. They may not have chosen this space in advance, but caution pays its own dividends. It’s quickly apparent that there couldn’t possibly be anyone waiting for them here, so she steps in and steps back against the wall to give Nick the space to move past her without also having to handle the door.

“Well, at least we don’t have to play the who’s the bigger person game with the bed, huh?” she jokes after the door has clicked shut behind them and she’s ensured it’s locked, turning the deadbolt for good measure. “If we weren’t comfortable together before, we’re about to be.” She sets her shades aside on the desk against the wall opposite a pair of single beds, one over the other.. “I can take the top bunk,” she offers. “I can roll out of one of those things and land like a cat.”

A smile is flashed his direction as she starts unwrapping the scarf from around her head and peeling back the outer layers of her attire, tossing each piece onto the bed she’s already claimed verbally.

Logic says the room isn’t bugged — but his training has him sweeping the room visually once he’s inside, looking for anything he can see easily first. “What, and I can’t?” Nick says, still keeping to the French accent. “Last time I slept in a bunk bed… well.”

When he was caught running drugs and got recruited for Interpol of all things.

“You might land like a cat, but I’m on at least my fifth or sixth life by now,” he says instead, setting both bags at the foot of the bunk bed, before he begins a more physical sweep of the space, running fingers along the edges of the furniture.

Once the bedroom is swept, he steps into the bathroom, which is as spartan and economic of space as the bedroom would suggest — at least it makes for fast work.

One by one, she starts pulling the large pins out of her hair that keep it in a bob style, letting it fall to its usual length. “You and me both, handsome,” comes out as a sigh when it comes to comparing how many lives either of them may have left. “Turns out sailing and wildlife photography are more dangerous than they sounded on the brochure.”

By the time he returns from his sweep, Rue’s already wrapped up in a thin linen robe he’s seen more than once this trip already. Orange and patterned with large florals outlined in black that makes the colors pop more. Bed in their hotel is the one place she doesn’t need to blend in. “How’s it look?” She isn’t talking about the robe.

“Small but clean,” serves as an answer for both how the bathroom looks and the fact Nick hasn’t found any indication of bugs of the espionage kind.

“I believe you had dibs on the first shower, Madame,” he says with a smile, gesturing for her to head that way. “I’ll see if there’s an iron to get our nicer clothes presentable.”

He turns toward the closet door opposite the bathroom, sliding it open to peer inside — there is in fact an iron, and the desk will serve well enough for a board. “Save some hot water for me, yeah?” he says over his shoulder.

Rue’s already heading into the bathroom by the time Nick makes his request. With her fingers wrapped around the handle of the sliding glass door, she leans back, turning her head to throw a cheeky grin in his direction. “You might have to come and fight me for it.”

Her laughter echoes off the tile as the door slides shut, the frosted glass hiding her image from view if not quite her form. “I’ll do my best, but I take no responsibility if the water heater sucks.” The shower’s flow is started and she sighs deeply when she steps underneath. “Oh yeah,” she affirms to herself, “this is good.” After a chuckle, she calls over the spray, “See you in 45 minutes, partner.”

She may not have been joking about fighting her for that hot water.

He’s been worse places with worse plumbing, and definitely had worse showers, so he just chuckles as he waits for the iron to heat up, then sets about ironing garments that won’t smell of roadsweat and anxiety or get them side-eyed (more than any other two westerners, anyway) at the museum.

He knocks on the door, calling through it, “My eyes are closed,” with a smirk, as he slips her hung outfit into the bathroom for her to change directly into, finding a hook meant for towels to rest it on — the steam from the shower will do the rest will hopefully find any wrinkles his iron didn’t.

“Like what you don’t see?” Rue asks with a snort of laughter, entirely unruffled by her state of undress when the door slides open, whether or not he decides to look. “I just need to rinse my hair and it’s all yours.”

True to her word, she steps out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her hair and one wrapped around her body, her robe slung over her arm. “I’m going to micro-nap before we head out. Nudge me when you’re ready to go, okay? The pile of hairpins she left on her pillow are moved to the desk, now that the ironing is done. Now there’s nothing left between her and a nap in a venue that isn’t in motion. It is going to be glorious.

Not too long later, the pair are both dried, dressed, and micro-rested, and head back down to the lobby. Nick’s opted to dress in ‘professorial casual,’ in chinos, blazer, button-down shirt and suede wingtips. He first swings toward the tourism desk, with its brochures and the like, finding one for the museum that seems as good a starting place as any for their venture.

This he hands to Rue, before heading to the concierge with a smile. “Bonjour, hello,” he says, to see which of the two languages the concierge might wish to respond to.

The concierge looks up from a computer screen, brows raised, eyes scanning both Rue and Nick. A smile spreads across his lips, all but saying:

How can I help?

University of Baghdad Campus


March 25th
3:17 pm

Standing on the steps of the university, Nick and Rue converse with a young college student who points across the Tigris River to a large, eggshell-white government building. The teenager gestures as he talks, adjusting the strap on his backpack from time to time.

Students file up and down the stairs as he and Nick converse, while Rue, sips from a bottle of water, appearing to have checked out of the conversation. In reality, she keeps a lookout. Behind them, the sprawling new campus of the university looms large and vibrant. The students are smiling, chatting with one another. One flies in from far overhead and lands somewhere on the roof of one of the campus buildings.

Nick and the young man finish their exchange and money changes hands.

Baghdad Parliament Building


March 25th
5:12 pm

An armored Confederated Guard truck rolls past.

Sitting at a bench at a bus stop, Nick and Rue watch from across the street of the parliament building as politicians file out of the building toward waiting cars in the rotunda. Playing up the appearance of tourists, they snap photographs of license plates and vehicles, faces, handshakes, support staff, security.

When the 5:30 bus comes whirring up with a hum of its electric motor, Rue and Nick board and sit in left-side seats facing the parliament building, watching the last of Baghdad’s dignitaries depart in dark sedans and limousines.

Another armored Confederated Guard truck rolls past, an eight-legged tank following close behind it. For the first time since their arrival, Rue doesn’t tense.

Dijlat Al Khair Hotel

Khadra, Baghdad

March 25th
9:17 pm

Cool night air spills in from the small sliding door that opens to a shallow balcony.

Sitting at the small desk opposite the bunk beds, Nick pours over freshly developed photographs of the faces seen outside of the parliament building. No digital cameras, no technopathic intrusions while they’re in the field.

Nearby, Rue has covered up the glass-walled bathroom with black plastic trash bags. A dim red light spills out from beneath the door. Empty bottles of chemicals sit on the floor. It’s better conditions than what she dealt with in the field during the war. Today, she’s grateful for the crash course in photography she received as a means of distracting or sorting through her trauma. She’s grateful to be useful, so Nick isn’t trying to manage on his own. He has enough plates spinning.

Sifting through the photographs, Nick scans the images with his phone from the relative security of their hotel room. He cross-references them with a VPN-accessed CIA database of known Mazdak associates, but it’ll take at least a day for all of the queries to run.

The door to the bathroom opens, Rue’s makeshift dark room, and she emerges with a new set of freshly developed photographs from the trays on the shower floor, setting them down on Nick’s desk. Her head turns, staring through the open balcony doors and at the night landscape beyond their window for a long moment.

Outside, gunfire pops in the night.

Baghdadi Cultural Center


March 26th
9:42 am

An abstractly designed concrete-and-glass building six stories tall looms large over the river. Inside, thousands of historic artifacts recollected from around the world are on display. Signage in multiple languages including English details the historic importance of ancient Babylonian statues, Mesopotamian pottery, Scythian mummies, relics once scattered to the winds by colonial invasion.

As Rue and Nick walk through the Ancient Sumerian collection there are detailed signs indicating how Mazdak liberated these relics from foreign museums and private collections around the world to return them to Iraq, to their homeland. None of this has ever hit the news.

Stories about the Iraqi people reclaiming their stolen history by force never makes it westward, blackouts on this kind of coverage show the ignorance of western media, or worse an intentional coloring of events transpiring within the country. Or, perhaps, even this is just propaganda.

Standing in the shadow of a weathered statue of a “King Mesannepada” it is easy to feel insignificant. At the feet of the king’s statue is a glass-encased black obelisk, detailing the history of three slave children, each possessed of a divine power, sold to King Mesannepada in the 26th century BC.

Though it looks like Rue and Nick are taking photos of the artifacts, they’ve gained several candid shots of a wiry curator with a pencil-thin mustache.

But something about the display of the king and the obelisk draws her back. Cherry, Cherry, she hears in the back of her mind, the interlude of one of Eve’s ramblings. Why does she think of her of all people now? Rue studies the exhibit for a moment before taking several pictures. Someone was looking, she explains lamely. She’ll add the photographs to her own folio of findings.

Saj Alreef Restaurant

Al Wathiq Square, Baghdad

March 26th
2:37 pm

International dishes collide in an upscale, trendy restaurant on the banks of the Tigris. Seated indoors, Nick and Rue are spared the unrelenting heat in air-conditioned environments.

Locals and tourists alike sit at stylish wood tables under a post-and-beam decor. Pizzas sit alongside burgers and fries at some tables, along with tabbouleh salads, cheese sambusak, before the menu transitions into nine different types of spaghetti classified under Italian dishes, and then takes a sharp left into Cantonese dishes.

Out on the water a yacht slowly plies the river. There’s a scenic view of the Baghdad skyline out the window beside where Nick and Rue have their lunch. It makes for a perfect opportunity to photograph the men gathered on the deck of the ship, one of whom is the Iraqi minister of transportation, the other an unknown foreigner judging by the designation on the ship they tracked.

Rue remarks about the way the sunlight dances off the water makes it shine like diamonds while she twists her wrist to adjust the focus of her camera lens. More faces to be catalogued later.

Dijlat Al Khair Hotel

Khadra, Baghdad

March 26th
10:10 pm


Nick’s phone lights up with a chirp, rousing him from a brief nap. The CIA database back in the states finally caught a match for a known Mazdak associate. Nick matches the profile photo with one of Rue’s, a broad-shouldered man with extremely close-cropped gray hair. Hawkish features in spite of his broad face and muscular build.

Name: Jakob Tafero
DOB: 17 May 1962
Nationality: South African American
Expanded Details: Sergeant Major Jakob Tafero, US Marines. Born Pretoria South Africa. Enlisted USMC April 17 1986. Obtained Naturalized US Citizenship Sept 7 1993. Tours of duty in Operation Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom. AWOL October 18 2010. Believed radicalized by Mazdak. Suspected in connection with bombing of US Army Base Montero in Baghdad July 4 2011. Suspicion of involvement in disappearance of Canadian citizen Brandon Patenaude. Possible recruitment vector.

Sergeant Major Tafero draws the tableau Rue and Nick have been building together. A radicalized former US Marine working as an international recruiter for Mazdak. He’s here working whatever visiting foreigner is repeatedly meeting with the Iraqi minister of transportation, likely corporate judging from the size of the yacht.

Swiping Tafero’s details aside, Nick finds their search for the yacht's details significantly easier to find. The ship is registered in Marseille, France to a private owner Roger St. Germain. Following the trail of money of St. Germain leads to precisely what was expected, a corporate tie:

Davignon Corporation

A cursory search is enough to learn what Davignon Corporation could have to offer Iraq. They primarily handle rare-earth metal mining operations across the world. Davignon Corporation is the world-leading supplier of lithium for batteries as well as praseodymium and neodymium which is an important component in the motors of advanced robotics.

The name Davignon is familiar also in recognition of a death, Raytech’s then chief brand officer Remi Davignon, victim of an undetonated landmine in the Safe Zone. Remi was ostensibly the inheritor of the Davignon Corporation before her death, but her control of the company was tied up in manipulations in her father’s will and the corporation’s board that worked to push her out.

Now, it seems, Davignon Corporation is working inroads into Iraq.

From where he sits at the desk, comparing her photos with what he’s received from the CIA, Rue leans in to look over Nick’s shoulder. Her breathing has been even so far, even if her lips have slowly started pressing together to form a bloodless line and her brow knotting at the instant recognition of the name Davignon. Her association with Richard Ray, loose and complicated though it may be, means she has slightly more than a passing familiarity with the passing of the Raytech marketing maven.

If she were working with Avi, there’d be a conversation consisting almost exclusively of the word fuck, and they’d perfectly understand one another. Instead, Rue lets out a long, slow breath, pushing down the desire to start throwing expletives.

“So, we need to find out what kind of man this is in his spare time, I suppose. Who is he when he’s not recruiting or schmoozing?” Rue ponders aloud. Straightening up, she turns back to the beds and grabs a tablet off of hers, immediately taking to social media to start looking for any public glimpses into the life of Jakob Tafero. “God,” she whispers under her breath, “please let him be lonely. The lonely ones are always easiest.” She sits down to rest on Nick’s bed while she browses.

While Rue looks for Tafero, Nick starts a search for St. Germain. “I think our long-term goal is still to look like we’re candidates for recruitment, so this guy is still the best bet for that.” He taps the photo of Tafero and scans the information coming up on his search for more personal information on St. German.

“But this,” he taps the photos of the yacht — he’s always careful not to speak too many details just in case he missed a bug, “might be a short-term opportunity that we also want to get in on, before the window closes.” St. Germain might not be there for too long, after all. Whatever deal’s going down, they may have only a small amount of time to look into it.

“Maybe we get a fly in the wall of those meetings, let it do some work while we meet up with the other as potential employees?” he asks, glancing back at Rue.

Not much comes up for Tafero on Social Media. He has an old account that hasn’t been used since before the Civil War but is tagged in a photo from 2019 on a social media page belonging to Brandon Patenaude. It shows Brandon, Tafero, and a half-dozen other untagged men sitting at a table in a bar. The bar’s social media page is tagged, identifying it as
OPIA Lounge & Bar in Cairo, Egypt. Tafero—with a freshly-shaved head—is sitting next to Patenaude, drinking and smiling. There’s an eight-pointed star tattoo visible on Tafero’s forearm. It’s the only time he’s popped up anywhere since he went AWOL in 2011.

It’s worse than lonely. Rue gets the impression that Tafero is cautious.

Watching the yacht, Nick can see several ways he could get a bug on board. Under cover of darkness and with a bit of a swim in the Tigris he could climb on board and install some hardware. This is where Nick excels, the tradecraft intersection of INTERPOL and the CIA.

Frowning at the lack of social media presence — not any sort of surprise, given the givens, but even cautious men screw up, — Rue helps herself to more of Nick’s space, curling up on her side on his bed and scrolling through what she can find of Brandon Patenaude’s accounts. If he posted Tafero’s face once, perhaps he’s still doing it, while being wiser about leaving it untagged. “Looks like I owe you twenty dollars,” she murmurs absently, after the fact. “You were right about the ink.”

In the process of her cross-referencing dive, she also keeps her eyes peeled for St. Germain or other officials. Chiefly, she’s looking for Americans that are potentially at risk.

“See if you can spot anyone else with that,” Nick says, tapping his own arm to indicate he means the star. “On any of them.”

With that, he rises, going to his luggage. Carefully obscured behind a visible compartment is a hidden compartment, and it’s this he slides his hand into, retrieving a waterproof bag of just the sort of hardware he needs. “Nice night for a swim,” he murmurs, though he doesn’t look particularly happy about it. He glances at his watch — it’s too early yet. He’ll go in the wee hours, when even night owls are usually tucked in for a few pre-dawn hours of sleep.

Rue offers a short hum of acknowledgement about the tattoo, scrolling through pictures and pages. Her eyes lift from the screen when he comments about going for a dip, however. “I appreciate you,” she tells him with sincerity, rolling up to sit and then getting to her feet, vacating Nick’s sleeping space.

There’s precious little about Patenaude on the internet. His disappearance, public. His grieving family still clinging to the hope that he’s alive, painfully public. Patenaude was something of a frequent poster on professional social media outlets where he reblogged talks on technology advancements and updated milestones on his corporate advancement through Renautas. Nothing directly relevant to their investigation.

Patenaude’s most recent title listed him as an Information Technology Analyst for Renautas Technologies, a year prior to the hostile takeover. His last professional social media update is from late 2019, a week before his disappearance. Trivial, sharing an article from CNET on Renautas’ financial future being bright.

Brighter than Patenaude’s future, that’s for sure.

It brings focus back to the boat, to Tafero.

Marcus Raith had sent Rue and Nick to Iraq to get a pulse on Mazdak, to find out whatever they could about the organization’s activities. Something that some of the government’s best and brightest had failed to do. Now, here, they were presented with an opportunity to do just that. Marcus may not have known what—if anything—the two would find here in Baghdad, but he knew well enough that they could find something.

Nick peers over Rue’s shoulder at the information on Patenaude, then reaches for his phone to type a quick message to one of their contacts with the CIA.

Re Brandon Patenaude: any info if he was SLC-E? If yes, what ability?

“Popular guy,” he says thoughtfully. “Did they want him for his brain or something else, and which party was he dragged to, in the end?” He’s always careful to keep to vaguespeak in case he’s missed a bug — it’s not likely, but technology’s growing more and more advanced. He’d rather not be cocky about his own abilities to spot the wires when that mistake could cost them their lives.

He returns to the lower bunk, stretching out. “Gonna nap a little,” he says, tapping on his phone to set up an alarm for a few hours from now so he can wake up and take a swim in the wee hours of the morning.

"You do that. Looks like someone just swiped right on me, so I'm going to go sit in the hotel bar and look cute." Rue waggles her brows with a smirk, giving her phone a back and forth shake. "Don't wait up."

It was a troubling series of coincidences, divergent roads converging on a boat in one of the oldest cities in the world. Rue and Nick had found themselves in the middle of a global conspiracy with many tangled threads. With the weight of this settled squarely on their shoulders, and the uncertainty of how all of it comes together and matters when the end of the world looms large, Rue and Nick are left with little comfort.

A message that arrives on Nick’s phone an hour later only further muddies the waters.

Patenaude was SLC-N according to a blood test in the Canadian SLC-E/N Registry.

Many tangled threads, and just as many loose ends.


Enfant du Soleil
Tigris River, Baghdad

When viewed from the river at night, the city of Baghdad is a glittering arrangement of diamonds on a cobalt plate. Jakob Tafero watches those city lights twinkle from the dimly-lit cabin of the Enfant du Soleil. Lights are drawn down in these wee hours, but Jakob does not sleep. Instead, he whittles a cigarette down to a smoldering nub with each long inhale.

It’s the buzz in his pocket that he’s waiting for. Withdrawing his cell phone, Tafero swipes the screen up and reads over a message. His nostrils flare, brows knit together, and the phone goes swiftly back into the pocket of his beige blazer. He takes one last puff of his cigarette, then dumps it in a half-empty glass of wine on his way past the yacht’s bar.

Stopping at a door just off the cabin, Jakob pounds on the door. “Ey, they’ll be here soon. Wake the fuck up.”

There’s a groggy, tired noise on the other side of the door. Jakob can’t see beyond it, to the darkly-lit bedroom where someone lays partially-illuminated by the nearly full moon outside. Sighing, Jakob’s “guest” slides his legs off the bed and places both feet down on the floor.

Jakob knocks again, louder this time. “I said wake the fuck up!

This time the man in the dark rolls his eyes and barks back: “I heard you!”

I’m not bloody deaf!


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