With the coming of religious fundamentalism, nationalistic fervor, and oppressive dictatorships, many eyes throughout the world turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of western nations. Cyprus became the first point on a compass to liberation for persecuted and displaced peoples fleeing violence in a Syrian war. But not everybody could get to Cyprus directly, and so, a torturous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up. Damascus to Zahle, then a land journey north and west to Tripoli. Here, the fortunate ones, through money, or influence, or the intercession of relief agencies, or simply through luck, might obtain exit documents and flee to Cyprus, and from there to Istanbul or Athens or elsewhere in Europe or the Americas. But the others wait in Tripoli – and wait – and wait…
Neal Sampat Ugarte stole another closed-fist drag from his vape and spied Will McAvoy sitting across the room. He hurried over and clutched at a chair.
“I’ve been hoping to see you tonight, Will.” Uninvited, he seated himself and waved to a waiter. “Have a drink with me?”
Will said nothing and did not even appear to notice the other man had intruded his reverie.
Corrected in his assumptions but still far from chastened, Neal finally shrugged. “I forgot. You never drink with—well, I’ll have another.”
The waiter hurried off to comply.
“Too bad about those couriers, eh?” Neal began, fiddling absently with his e-cigarette.
Indifferently, Will lit a real cigarette and took a deep pull. “They got a lucky break. Yesterday, they were just two stringers scrabbling for a story. Today, they’re the honored dead.”
“You’re a very cynical person, Will.” Neal smiled. “I know you object to the business I do—“
“If I gave you any thought at all.”
“—But, Will, the established authorities need my help to maintain order—“
“Oh? Is there honor in collaborationism?”
“Such a harsh term. No. Not honor. But there is safety, and sometimes cash.” The very thought made Neal smile.
Will grunted in response.
“In any event, after tonight, I am through with the whole business.” Neal withdrew an envelope from his breast pocket and put it on the table. “Do you know what this is? Something even you have never seen—letters of transit signed by Trudeau—cannot be rescinded, not even challenged. Tonight, I’ll sell these for more money than even I have ever dreamed of, then addio, Tripoli.” He kissed his fingertips in a gesture of vehemence, then leaned back triumphantly.
“You know, Will, I have many friends here but simply because you despise me, you are the only one I trust. Will you keep these for me?”
Will lightly touched the envelope where it lay on the table. “For how long? I don’t want them here overnight.”
“Just a few hours, until my contact arrives.”
Will visibly weighed his choice, then finally scooped up the envelope and tucked it into his own breast pocket.
“Thank you, Will.” The waiter returned and Neal peeled off a few bills and told him, “I’ll be expecting some people. If anyone asks for me, send them to the bar.”
An hour later, Will was again at his table, noting who came and who left, and nodding occasionally to staff who held up questionable currency or excessive bar tabs for approval. He flipped his heavy Zippo lighter along its edges, but didn’t use it to light another cigarette, although he wanted it.
Self-denial was something Will McAvoy liked to cultivate anymore.
He’d stashed the letters of transit entrusted to him by the gangly and fawning Neal Ugarte. He knew there was blood at the bottom of this caper and already regretted having promised to care-tend the documents for even a few hours.
A familiar slight uniformed figure approached with another man.
The Prefect of the Forces de Securite Interieure (ISF), a generally corrupt public official who was incomprehensibly quite likable and full of bonhomie.
Captain Charles Skinner.
“Ah, Monsieur Will. We are very honored tonight. We have Major Reese Olikara visiting from Damascus.”
Will barely registered any response.
“We will join you.” Skinner motioned to a waiter. “Champagne cocktail, s’il vous plait. Deux. Or—“ he arched an eyebrow, “perhaps you will join us, Will?” At the deafening silence, Skinner shrugged. “Ah, just the two then.”
Will grudgingly acknowledged the third man.
“Major Olikara. From Damascus.” He repeated, considering the implications for his establishment. “Is this a social visit? Because I’m not sure you have any authority—“
“Oh, Will, must we speak of things like authority?” Skinner pooh-poohed. “Officialdom will wait, so let us consider this a social call for now.”
Olikara smiled thinly and removed a small notepad from his jacket. “Monsieur Will. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions? Unofficially, of course.”
“Make it official if you want.”
“What is your nationality?””
Will looked amused. “Drunkard.”
Skinner tittered nervously and offered, “That makes Will a citizen of the world. I have that passport myself.”
But Will added, in a matter-of-fact tone, “I was born in Nebraska, if that’ll help you any. On a road outside a town outside a town outside Lincoln.”
“I understand you came to Beirut—well, to this part of the world—about the time the civil strife caused by the terrorists began.”
Will made a noncommittal gesture.
“Who do you think will win the war?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea.”
Olikara smiled his unfunny smile again. “But you haven’t always been so neutral, have you?” He consulted his notes. “I have a dossier on you. William Duncan McAvoy, American. Left his own country in 2007—the reason is a little vague.” He cast a quick glance up to catch any reaction.
But Will made no expression.
“Why are you here, Monsieur Will,” Olikara asked with deliberate emphasis on each syllable.
“My health. I came to Tripoli for the waters.”
Captain Skinner barked a laugh and sputtered, “Waters? What waters? We're near the desert.”
“I was misinformed.” Completely deadpan.
Olikara didn’t appear to be buying Will’s attempt at sarcastic humor, so he flipped a page of notes and brought out the big guns. “We know of your associations in Hama and what you did in Homs.”
With a nervous glance between Olikara and Will, Skinner cleared his throat. As local authority, it was really more beseeming that he take control of this situation. “There are many exit visas sold in this cafe, Will, but we know that you have never sold one. That is the reason we permit you to remain open.”
“I thought it was because I stocked your favorite bourbon.”
“That is another reason. However, there is a person who will arrive in Tripoli soon. This person will offer a fortune to anyone who will furnish exit documents.”
Olikara raised a hand to silence the captain. “The point is—we wish to check up on anybody who can be of use to us. Tonight, a journalist by the name of Laszlo will come here in an attempt to buy an exit visa for himself and his confederate. They cannot be allowed to do so.”
At last, Will felt compelled to give a greater accounting of himself. “You yourself just acknowledged that I don’t sell visas. I run a saloon. So what is this shake-down all about?” He cast a sharp glance at Skinner.
“Laszlo and his accomplices broadcast the foulest lies from Aleppo until the very day we liberated the city, and even then they continued to smuggle stories to other media outlets. We do not intend to let it happen again.”
“Of course, one must admit that they have shown great courage.” Skinner’s intrinsic magnanimity got the better of him and the words slipped out.
Olikara returned a glare and ground out, “I admit only that they have been clever. They have slipped through our net for the last time. They will not depart Tripoli. And if you are thinking of warning them, don't. They cannot possibly escape.”
Will pushed away from the table dismissively. “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
“A very wise foreign policy,” Olikara agreed, not disguising a tone of menace.
“You’ll excuse me gentlemen,” Will added, rising. “Your business is politics, mine is running this saloon.”
“Elliot—I thought I told you never to play—“
In response to his boss’ ire, Elliot Hirsch ducked and shifted the piano stool to the top of his upright, pushing both away with great alacrity.
As he departed, Will froze, seeing now what he’d missed in his anger at the piano player.
Perennially underfoot, Captain Charles Skinner sauntered over, oblivious to Will’s shock.
“Well, you were asking about Will and here he is. Mademoiselle, may I present—“
“Hello, Will,” she said, without acknowledging Charlie’s preamble or presence.
“MacKenzie,” Will acknowledged, his eyes retaining astonishment after he had recomposed his features.
“Oh, you’ve already met?” Captain Skinner's eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Well, then, perhaps you also know—“
But she beat him to the punch.
“This is Mr. Laszlo. James Laszlo.”
The young man accompanying MacKenzie rose and extended a hand to Will. “Jim. Please.” He offered a determined smile despite Will’s stony silence. “One hears a great deal about Will McAvoy in Tripoli.”
“And about the Laszlo organization everywhere.”
“Two Cointreaux, please,” Jim said to the waiter who hovered nearby. “Will you join us?”
Captain Skinner doffed his cap with a knowing smile. “Monsieur Will never drinks with customers. Never. I have never seen it.”
Will made a gesture to the waiter that the others couldn’t quite make out, then took a chair opposite. Within seconds, two waiters returned with the drinks Laszlo had ordered, in addition to four coupe glasses and a sweaty ice bucket containing a heavy green bottle. A third waiter materialized to dislodge the cork with a discreet pop and wisp of vapor.
“Well! Veuve Cliquot Blanc de Noir 2007! Precedent is being broken and in high style, as well.” Skinner gave an appreciative glance to the bottle and then one of pleased surprise to Will before sinking eagerly into a chair. “Tripoli welcomes you to Lebanon, Mr. and Mrs. Laszlo,” he said, unaware of the wince that crossed Will’s normally expressionless face. “We hope you have a pleasant stay,” he added dryly.
“Thank you. We haven’t always encountered graciousness from local authorities.” Jim and MacKenzie exchanged an amused glance. “Although I must correct you—we are not—this isn’t like that. We are colleagues, true, and we have recently spent time working together in Aleppo, before it fell, but we aren’t together—not like that. Besides, this may not be common knowledge, but ‘Laszlo’ is simply a by-line, a nom de guerre—a convenience and a necessity for reporting in troubled times. The real name’s Harper. And she—“
“MacKenzie McHale,” Will finished, softly.
Even world-weary Skinner looked impressed at the sudden slip in Will’s impassive mask.
Will wet his lips and tried a more overtly sociable tact. “I congratulate you on your work. Both of you.”
“Thank you. We try.”
“We all try. You succeed.”
“As you might imagine from your previous acquaintance, Mac is both the brains and the heart of the operation. I’m really her assistant.” Jim smiled and took a sip of his Cointreau, looking around the cafe. “Still, it is very good to be here—to be away from where we were—“
MacKenzie had averted her face during the entire exchange, conscious that she was being scrutinized.
“I was advised you were the most beautiful woman ever to visit Tripoli,” Skinner said, leaning closer and lifting a glass of wine in salute. “Not only is that a gross understatement, but it completely omitted the fact that you are one of the most impressively—“
“May we speak of something else, please?” she interrupted. She threw a glance over her shoulder then back to Will. “I see Elliot is still with you. There’s no one in the world who can play As Time Goes By like he does. I daresay the three of us haven’t been together since the day the Syrian Army got to al-Waer.”
“I remember it perfectly. The army wore green. You wore blue.”
She plucked at the bush jacket she wore and forced a light laugh to counter Will’s steadfast stoicism. “I’ll wear blue again when they march out. Unfortunately, being on the run necessitates traveling lightly—“
“You are always lovely, Mac.” Will’s involuntary admission surprised them, himself most of all, and it was another illustration of how he was honestly moved and trying desperately not to show it.
She recovered first. “It would be nice to reminisce about the old days with you, Will. Perhaps if we return tomorrow night, you will be here?”
Both Skinner and Harper were now exchanging quizzical looks, acutely aware of the subtext between the others but unable to breach decorum to comment upon it.
“I never make plans that far ahead.” Cautious Will had returned, determined to avoid further lapses.
A man in a tuxedo, evidently the croupier or a floor manager, appeared and handed Will a clipboard. “Some Syrian official desires credit for the chemin de fer and I told him you would have to authorize it.”
Will scribbled on the paper. “Okay, Don, but only up to ten thousand.”
“And Miss Sloan wishes to know if she can sing La Marseillaise tonight. She says she wants to send a message to those—“
“Messages are for Twitter. You tell her that for me.” Will pushed the clipboard back to the dark-haired man. “Okay, she can sing. But take that damn guitar away from her. Sounds like a cat in heat.”
Don nodded and withdrew.
Harper tossed off the last of his drink and got to his feet.
“Mac, I hate to be the one to say it, but it’s late and we have a deadline.”
She nodded deferentially then turned and faced Will with the most direct gaze of the evening. “I hope we did not overstay our welcome.”
“Not at all.” He tried to stare her down but softened. “I hope—I hope you’ll return tomorrow. MacKenzie.”
A waiter sidled by and placed a small tray on the table near Harper. “Your check, monsieur.”
Will reached for the check and tore it in half. “My party,” he informed the waiter.
“Another precedent gone,” Skinner marveled as he watched the two journalists navigate the crowded room to the exit. He resumed his seat and poured another fortifying dose of champagne as Will finally lit the cigarette with which he’d been tempting himself.
“How extravagant you are, Will, throwing away women like that. Someday they may be scarce.”
But Will said nothing.