Circles in the Sand
by Gary Clifton
“Ms.... uh, Janssen?” A slender young man rushed up to her table, out of breath and visibly flustered. “I’m Lieutenant Flynn. Sorry we’re late.”
Liz looked up with her most rehearsed, sexy come-on smile. The kid, ramrod-stiff as fresh cardboard, was tall, slender, blond, and appeared about sixteen. If not for the lieutenant’s bars on his U.S. Army uniform, she’d have guessed the local high school ROTC had sent him. She instantly mentally named him “Blondie.”
“Dust storm held us up,” he stammered, appearing uneasy in the presence of a high-ranking government official who was also strikingly attractive. “Tower reports we’ll have no problem getting back, ma’am.”
Liz was on her third cup of El Paso International Airport overpriced coffee. Not sorry he was late, she was elated the mission appeared to be successful so far. She was in serious trouble for mishandling an assignment a year earlier, and her route to El Paso and the intended caper beyond had been elaborate and unspeakably chancy. The ghost of failure rode on her shoulder at all times, and the CIA was an unforgiving mistress.
“Not every day we have a civilian — especially, an executive from the State Department — come to our godawful place.” His expression and stare hinted he’d also like to have added some comment about her chest line at the end of his declaration.
Liz estimated that, a year earlier, he had still been at West Point. Snaring him in her web would be a first priority. “No problem, Lieutenant.” She rose, snuffed out her cigarette in a table ashtray and stooped to pick up her briefcase.
Like a kid going for a merit badge, he grabbed at the briefcase. He was so full of protocol, he might have ripped off her hand in his enthusiasm.
Liz did not like to be separated from the case, even in the hands of a naïve soldier three feet away, but experience had taught her to roll with the punch. “Thank you, sir.” She flashed the long-practiced, toothy smile and followed him down a flight of back stairs to a four-seat helicopter, the rotor whirling at idle in the sweltering August sun.
As Blondie helped her into the rear seat, she made certain to show both him and the kid at the controls plenty of spa-enhanced, suntanned leg, with as much inner thigh as a tight skirt would allow.
Blondie climbed into the front passenger seat and they were off.
Her two-hour wait at the El Paso airport had generated at least a half-dozen compliments of her bauble-adorned, glitter-clustered nails. At 41, Liz was still a looker. Well aware she was many miles and years from being a sweet, young thing, she knew she still had “it.”
Her statuesque figure, her carefully coifed red hair were a magnet for nearly every man she passed on the concourse. Liz didn’t walk, she swayed. A carefully rehearsed, subtle swish of that fine backside drew lingering looks any time she felt the urge.
During the hour’s choppy helicopter ride over barren desert, she couldn’t quite shake her pre-mission jitters. Two years earlier, from the back seat of a chopper, she’d leaned forward and put a .38 round behind a double agent’s ear. Then she had helped the pilot toss him into the Gulf of Mexico.
As they were approaching the site, she could make out a scatter of single-story buildings and more fence than she thought existed in the entire world. Her knowledge of geography was reasonably good. But, lacking a map or compass, she could only guess they were about a hundred and fifty miles east of El Paso and thirty or so miles from the Mexican border, somewhere near the frontier of civilization.
When they skidded the chopper into dust at the desert prison, she wondered if the pilot could see in the dark. He cut the rotor, and Blondie sprang out.
Many years of paranoia made her painfully aware how simple it would be for an operative to help her out of the cramped rear seat and put one of those .38 rounds into her own head. Lots of space existed in all directions to plant unneeded corpses in that no man’s land.
But Blondie reached for her hand to assist her exit with military precision. “Welcome to paradise, Ms... uh, Janssen.” He quickly glanced down at his clipboard, embarrassed at his lapse in military precision. Forgetting her name was a major faux pas.
Liz flashed the smile that had carried her through a thousand awkward situations over the past twenty years.
Still a tad chagrined, he tried to cover with a quip. “You have successfully reached the end of the world.”
“Certainly the end of the road.” She smiled, giving the desolate terrain a quick survey.
As she accepted his hand to crawl down out of the helicopter and made certain to repeat the leg-and-thigh show. He noticed, and then the pilot leaned across casually to attempt a clandestine peek. She was “on” today.
Her brazen display appeared to work. Neither Blondie nor the pilot gave any hint of questioning why the hell a female civilian with a letter of White House authorization had shown up to interview a prisoner who was doing life without parole in a wire cage.
The combined Department of Defense and Department of Justice management of the facility had denied the CIA access; “Need to know,” they’d alibied. But, in major trouble for mishandling the earlier mission, survival had plunged Liz forward as she developed an elaborate charade for penetrating this desert fortress. Now, professional redemption was only a dusty trek away.
“My goodness, how do y’all survive in this heat and dust?” She futilely fanned her face, her long, beautifully painted nails impossible for the Blondie not to see.
“Ms. Janssen,” — he smiled — “I’d like to say you get used to it, but my mama told me never to lie to a beautiful lady.” He suspected nothing.
He pointed her to an ugly, military green van, which looked very much like a hearse. “Only vehicle available was this old ambulance.” He semi-confirmed her observation. “It’s got no a/c and rides like a bulldozer, but we only have a mile to go to make the gate.” He grinned.
He held the rear door while she climbed in. A second young military type, a clone of Blondie, except his hair was black, sat behind the wheel. “Mornin’, ma’am.” He caught her eye in the rearview mirror.
Unable to show either leg or fingernails, she smiled her sexiest at the back of his closely cropped head, meeting his eyes in the mirror. “Good morning, sir. Can I smoke in here?”
Blondie slid into the passenger front seat. “Smoke might clean the air a bit, ma’am. Go right ahead and light up.”
She dug out a pack of Marlboros and managed to light one in the windy, open-windowed van. True to the young officer’s prediction, the van bounced along a rutted road, generating enough swirling dust to make a mud pie — if it ever rained in this hellhole.
Two additional crisp, young men with holstered pistols at their waists and as parade-ground military as her two original escorts, stood behind the gate and inspected her papers. A female soldier in full combat uniform sat in the heat behind a sandbag-protected machine gun just inside the gate.
When a woman of forty dressed in khaki emerged from the guard shack and motioned her inside, Liz rolled with the flow. The strip and full-body cavity search only took fifteen minutes. Liz was not pleased when the “nurse” examined the most intimate places, but her career had involved far more indignities than this mug could dish out.
Both men guarding the gate saluted as they opened the heavy barricade and waved the ambulance though. Liz did not re-enter the vehicle, which Dark Hair parked nearby.
With Blondie in the lead and Dark Hair bringing up the rear, she estimated they walked at least a half mile inside a narrow, chain-link corridor. The wire walls pressing in on either side appeared twenty feet tall, topped by razor wire. Ten feet outside the taller barricade, a second, shorter fence, a single wire and electrical insulators on extended poles above it, gave mute testimony of the futility of trying to climb out of the place. If an inmate managed to scale the inside fence, where the hell would he go next?
Both officers stopped in front of a squatty, metal building where a small window air conditioner was doing battle with the blistering heat. It appeared the little machine would eventually finish second.
Odd, she thought, the door was jailhouse steel, but the small window next to it, framing the air conditioner appeared to be unsecured. She knew, though, if that window were opened or broken, an alarm would sound.
Blondie gestured toward a cluster of similar buildings further down the walkway. “They’ve already brought him down, Ms. Janssen. If you need anything, just tap on the glass or door. Lieutenant Robinson and I will stand by.” Then he reaffirmed the obvious: “Uh, ma’am, don’t try to open the window or that door.”
Nodding, when Blondie opened the door with a key from his belt and stepped inside, she followed.
Blondie spoke. “You got company, prisoner 2765X4.”
Carlos sat at a metal table, his hands cuffed through a steel ring in the center. True to form, he did not reflect the slightest hint of recognition.
He was older. It had been seven years, and his thick black hair showed a fleck or two of silver, but chained like an animal in a horrid orange jump suit, he still generated a double dose of the animal appeal that had attracted her at the outset many years ago.
She was infuriated with herself at the lapse in emotion. She’d been certain that was all over. Discipline; she must maintain mission integrity. Survival was in the balance.
Blondie motioned Liz to a metal chair across the table from the manacled man. “Any crap, prisoner, and it’s thirty days in the box.” He turned without further conversation and clicked the door shut behind him.
Carlos, eyes still showing no reaction, mouthed the words soundlessly, “Did Langley send you?”
She waved a single decorated fingernail above her in a circle. Pulling the stem of her watch, the little instrument began emitting a soft, but audible noise like a blend of buzzing bees and the squeal of metal on metal.
“Yes,” she answered.
“You don’t need that gadget, Liz. This is a lawyer interview room. They got their asses in a bind last year for bugging this building. No cameras either. The Supreme Court protects us innocents.” His hollow laugh punctuated his hopelessness.
“Don’t bet your life on it, babe,” she smiled. It wasn’t the smile aimed at Blondie, but her regular, genuine curl of the left lip. Carlos would have seen through the first instantly. She leaned back, found the Marlboros, lit up, and blew smoke at the ceiling.
“This place is locked down solid. How...why...?”
“What do they call it, Carlos? ‘Exigent circumstances’? Langley needs to talk with you.”
“You did bring a helicopter, I trust, Love, to fly us away to Shangri-La?” He eyed the cigarettes wistfully.
She smiled a “no”, slid the pack across the table, then leaned across and lit his cigarette with hers. The narrow divide of contact once more caused a rush she hadn’t expected. She sat back down, again furious with herself.
“If they didn’t send you to break me out, what do you want, Liz? Nobody comes to this damned place for R and R.”
“Carlos, the Kaminsky Cartel has Johnny. Langley has a man inside. Kaminsky says he’ll butcher the boy alive if you don’t give up the name the guy is using.” The tears that welled appeared genuine. “My God, Carlos, he’s only nine.”
Copyright © 2015 by Gary Clifton