Lion of Babylon
by T. Davis & Isabella Bunn
He exited the church’s double doors and surveyed the gathering. Ladies in their signature hats chatted and laughed while children played tag about their legs. Singles clustered round the periphery, drawn together by situation and need. The diverse congregation mirrored its Baltimore neighborhood. Marc Royce knew many of them, and would have been welcomed by most. But it had been some time since he’d moved easily among friends. Even here.
Spring sunlight glinted off a windshield to his right. Marc watched a limo glide down the block toward them. Dark-tinted windows reflected the trees and the stone church. As the vehicle approached, the back window began to roll down.
The congregation grew watchful, tense. In Washington, fifty miles to the south, only a tourist gave a black Town Car a second glance. But in Baltimore, limos meant something else entirely. A lot of Baltimore’s drive-bys started like this, with tinted windows masking rage and weapons until the very last moment.
Which was why all the parishioners gathered in front of the church’s steps gave the slow-moving limo a very hard look.
The Town Car swept through the surrounding traffic like a beast of the deep. The rear window was now all the way down. Marc tensed with the others, and reached for the gun he no longer wore.
Then an old man’s face appeared in the open window. The lone passenger was white and old and paid the congregation no mind. He leaned forward and spoke to his driver. Apparently the window was down simply so the old man could enjoy the fine spring day.
Appearances, Marc knew, could be deceiving.
The limo swept around the corner and disappeared. The gathering resumed their Sunday chats. Marc gave it a few beats, long enough for his departure not to be tied to the limo, then walked around the corner.
As expected, the Town Car idled at the curb. With Marc’s approach, the rear door opened. He slipped inside, leaving every vestige of the church’s peace outside with the sunlight and the cool spring air.
The limo driver pulled away before Marc had the car door shut. It was a typical Washington power move, as though the world turned too slowly to suit.
The old man asked, “How’ve you been, Marc?”
“That’s not what I hear.”
When Marc did not respond, the old man smirked, as though Marc’s silence was a feeble defense. “You’re suffocating, is what I hear. You’re not made for this life. You never were. You’re going through the motions. There’s nothing worse than a wasted life. Believe me, son. I know.”
Marc did not ask how the old man was faring. The last time they had met, it had been in the back seat on an identical ride. They had argued. Rather, the old man had raged while Marc fumed in silence. Then the old man had fired Marc and dumped him on a rutted Baltimore street.
“What are you doing here?” Marc asked. “Sir.”
“We have a problem. A big one.”
“There is no ‘we.’ Neither one of us works for the government anymore. You’re retired. I was dismissed. Remember?”
Ambassador Walton was the former chief of State Department Intelligence. In the three years since their last meeting, the ambassador had been forced off his throne. The Glass Castle, as the Potomac building housing State Intel was known, was ruled by another man now. Marc went on, “You called me a disgrace to the intelligence service.”
Ambassador Walton had shrunk to where he wore his skin like a partially deflated balloon. The flesh draped about his collar shook slightly as he growled, “You got precisely what you deserved.”
“I took a leave of absence to care for my wife.”
“I gave you the department maximum. Six weeks. You took nine months.”
“Both our parents were gone. She had nobody else.”
“You could have gotten help.”
Marc bit down on the same argument that had gone unspoken in their last meeting. He had lost his mother when he was six. When his father had become ill, Marc had been in Chile protecting national interests. His father, a construction electrician who had not finished high school, had been intensely proud of his son’s achievements. So proud, in fact, he had ordered his second wife not to let Marc know he was on the verge of checking out. Marc had arrived home just in time for the funeral.
Taking whatever time required to care for his wife had been a no-brainer.
When the limo pulled up in front of Marc’s home, he reached for the door handle. “Thanks for stopping by.”
“Alex Baird has gone missing.”
Marc’s hand dropped.
Alex Baird was assistant chief of security in the Green Zone, the safety precinct in the heart of Baghdad. Marc might have been out of the intel game. And America might officially be done with that particular war. But to have an American agent go missing in Baghdad was very bad news.
What was more, Alex was the only friend who had not abandoned Marc after the ambassador cut him loose. Alex had remained in regular contact. He had tried repeatedly to effect a truce between Marc and the ambassador. But Walton’s definition of loyalty was black and white. A subordinate was on duty twenty-four-seven. Everything else was secondary.
State Intel was the smallest of the nation’s intelligence forces, responsible for security in every overseas nonmilitary base. Their remit included all embassies, consulates, ambassadorial residences, and treaty houses. The head of State Intel held ambassadorial rank so as to interact with the heads of various missions at an equal level.
Ambassador Walton expected subordinates to treat his every request as a reason to go the distance and beyond. In return, the man accelerated their climb through the Washington hierarchy. Walton’s former protégés held positions in the CIA, Pentagon, Congressional Intel oversight committees, and the White House. Another directed the capitol’s top intel think tank, yet another served as ambassador to Zaire. In Walton’s opinion, Marc Royce had done the unforgivable. He had put his wife first. He had walked away.
Ambassador Walton broke into Marc’s thoughts. “You think if I had any choice I’d show up here and grovel?”
“When did Alex go off the grid?”
“Almost three days ago. Seventy hours, to be exact.”
Three days missing in Baghdad meant one of two things. Either Alex had been kidnapped, or he was buried in a dusty grave. Marc considered it a toss-up which one would be worse.
“The official line is, Alex has eloped. He’s supposedly hiding under a false passport at some Red Sea resort. With a young lady he met through a local Baghdad pastor.”
“The young lady is also missing. And she was seeing Alex.” Walton handed over a file. “Hannah Brimsley. Volunteer serving at the church in the Green Zone. Also missing is a second young woman, Claire Reeves. Civilian nurse contracted to the base hospital at Bagram Air Base.”
“For one thing, Alex would no more walk away from a duty station than . . .” Marc was about to say, than he would. But since this was precisely what Walton felt he had done, Marc let the sentence drop. “For another, if Alex was romantically involved, I would know it.”
“He never mentioned any secret work to you, something beyond the scope of his official remit?”
“Nothing like that.”
“You’ve remained in regular contact?”
“Emails a couple of times a week.”
“He hasn’t mentioned any problems related to his current role?”
“Alex loves his work. He lives for it.” Marc fingered the woman’s file. “How did you come up with an intel work-up on a missing civilian?”
Walton looked uncomfortable for the first time. “I never left.”
This was news. “Did Alex know?”
Walton shrugged that away. “Officially I’m gone. But I was asked to remain on as a consultant.”
“I’ll tell you on the way to the airport.” Walton’s gaze was the only part of him that had not softened with the passing years. “I’m not even going to bother with asking if you’re in. Go pack. You’re wheels up in three hours.”
Marc’s house was a Colonial-era brownstone overlooking one of the city’s miniature parks. The green was rimmed by ancient oaks, so tall they could reach across the street and shelter his bedroom window. Marc’s father had bought the house from the city back when the neighborhood had been a drug-infested war zone. The city had condemned the abandoned hulks, cleared out the drug paraphernalia, and sold them for a song. The renovations had taken five years and carried his father through grieving over the loss of Marc’s mother. After his father’s death, Marc had bought the place from his stepmother, who had wanted to return to her family in Spartanburg. Marc often wondered what his father would have thought, knowing the beautiful old place had comforted two grieving generations.
Ambassador Walton remained downstairs. He claimed his heart condition no longer permitted him the luxury of climbing stairs. Marc was grateful for the momentary solitude. As he tossed his gear into a bag, his gaze remained held by the photograph on his bedside table. Marc zipped up the case and sat down on the side of the bed. Walton’s querulous voice called from downstairs. Marc did not respond. He was too caught up in a conversation that had lasted three long years.
The photograph had been taken on just another sunlit afternoon. The brownstone did not possess much of a yard. So like most of their new neighbors, he and Lisbeth had claimed the park as their own. That day, they had taken an impromptu picnic across the street to watch a lazy springtime sunset. Marc had been going off somewhere the next morning. Such outings had been Lisbeth’s way to slow him down, force him to turn away from the coming pressures and pay attention to her.
Marc had taken her picture in a moment when the veils of normal life had fallen away, and Lisbeth shone with love. The photograph had resided in an album until the week after the funeral, when he had awakened in the night and realized that not only was she gone, but he would someday forget her ability to perfume almost any moment.
Marc studied the picture, wishing there was some way to formally acknowledge the fact that the time had come to move on. He had not felt this close to Lisbeth for a long time. The sense that she again filled his room and his heart left him certain that she wanted him to go. Do this thing.
A man, Marc silently told the photograph in his hands, could overdose on stability and quiet. Recently his most fervent prayer had contained no words at all, just a silent secret hunger. If he had been able to name his yearning, it would have been for pandemonium. Something to lift his life from boredom and sameness.
He remained there, staring at the best part of his past, until Walton’s voice drew him into the unknown.