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Fiction Romance Suspense

It was just your average, run-of-the-mill Saturday evening first date from Match.com at the quaint little local corner diner with burgers and fries, and…. Ah, who am I kidding? Here with reservations at Gary Danko, one of the fanciest, most expensive restaurants in San Francisco, are two apparently well-to-do, sophisticated individuals with impeccable fashion sense, who recently became acquainted with each other from the website named HighClassHeart.com, where the elite of society are introduced and begin their courtship. The name on the gentleman’s courtship profile reads Ahmad Firman. He had been a little nervous that his Middle-Eastern name might frighten off the woman he had his eyes on, and prevent her from showing up. Thankfully, she didn’t seem that bigoted to him thus far.

The remarkably elegant lady, Ella Fontaine, sitting across the table from him, didn’t have to worry about anything like that with her name. No, her worries were more along the lines of her coming off a little too aggressive on their first actual phone call they had two nights ago, where she got tired of waiting for him to do it, so she ended up asking him out on a date. They have only been exchanging messages online for two weeks, but things weren’t moving quite as quickly as she had hoped. After all, the thirty-five-year-old woman wanted this to happen sometime before she had grey hair. She had sent a short apology text afterward, saying she hoped she wasn’t moving too fast, and confirming that their ICS, or “Initial Courtship Supper,” the $10.00-phrase which the website referred to it by, was still on. She had been pleased to see the gentleman’s reply in the affirmative pop up on her iPhone.

As they sipped their exquisite wine, they each couldn’t help but notice how fine the other looked, and that, it appeared, neither one spared any expense in their choice of wardrobe, jewelry, and grooming for this night. Ahmad was decked out in a navy Tom Ford sharkskin wool O’Connor suit with matching glasses. She didn’t know the exact price, but she knew this outfit of his was in the ballpark of $3,000.00. She didn’t expect this level of taste or luxury from a man whose occupation listed on his online profile simply stated “Art Trader.” Not that Ella was dressed in a shabby getup or anything of that nature. Hardly. Ella made an incredible visual impact in her Oscar de la Renta strapless velvet cocktail dress, of which the manufacturer’s suggested retail price tag is upward of $4,500.00. And that is only fitting for her since her profile touts her career as “CEO of Embodiment Fashion, a soon-to-be globally-traded Fortune 500 company. Est. 2015.

Ella had a momentary thought to show up for their first date just “slumming it,” with “just” a $500.00 dress and $200 shoes, that she wears when she doesn’t feel like dressing up fancy, but, when Ahmad suggested this restaurant as their locale for the evening, she realized he was no slouch either when it came to enjoying the finer things in life. Ahmad has been fascinated in the few minutes they’ve been seated at the table, at Ella’s remarkable knowledge of every different fruit of the vine on the restaurant’s wine list, correcting him a couple times on the pronunciation and place of origin of the various wines.

Taking and savoring one more sip of her glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, she can’t resist her curiosity for a moment longer, and asks “Just what kind of art work are you trading, mister, to afford a three-thousand-dollar suit?” “$3,995.95 to be precise,” he replies matter-of-factly. “When you, after long months of searching fruitlessly and you’re at your wits’ end, about ready to pack it all in, but suddenly you happen to be in the right place at the right time and you stumble upon the holy grail of fine art that much wiser men that I have sought out for centuries. Nothing beats the thrill of that.” “I’m not sure I follow you, exactly,” Ella responds.

“Through my network of various art dealers and collectors I had built up over the years since I had begun pursuing my passion and embarked on this career path, I had received a tip that I would be very happy if I attended a small estate sale in Berlin of someone recently deceased back in 2012. Surely you’ve seen the so-called ‘meme’ online featuring “The Scream” painting by Edvard Munch, which he completed in 1893?” Ella, still not sure exactly where this is headed, replies “Yes, I’ve seen it on Facebook.” “Well, it’s long been known Mr. Munch actually painted four versions of ‘The Scream,’ each worth millions of dollars in their own right. What absolutely no one knew until that day at the estate sale, Edvard had painted a fifth version. And I acquired it at the estate sale auction for $1,000.” “Holy shit,” the startled Ella says, listening to his story in wonderment.

“Being the avid art lover that I am, I went through every possible scenario and explored every avenue of thought, on how I could keep this painting for my collection and still somehow make money off of it, but nothing was really panning out, and I had many bills coming due and a whole lot of student debt piling higher and higher, without much income at that time, so I decided to have it authenticated and appraised, then put up for auction Sotheby’s in 2013, fetching a record-breaking $574 million dollars.” Ella was a little surprised at hearing that this “art trader” is worth more than her, the CEO of an international clothing manufacturer.

Well, that’s her neat and tidy cover story anyway. She is playing her role admirably. She thinks to herself that she could have made an excellent movie star had she chosen to go to acting school or Hollywood instead of accepting the government’s recruitment offer while she attended the University of Texas. Ella kind of wishes it were true that she was a millionaire clothing CEO or a famous actor; it sure would be a hell-of-a-lot more glamorous and comfortable lifestyle than her actual one: Being an agent working for the Department of Homeland Security. Yes indeed, we are talking about the United States intelligence umbrella organization which the Patriot Act infuses with almost unlimited authority as long as it is done in the name of “the war on terror.”

Ella’s real name is Amber Parker, and she hails from Austin, Texas, not Paris, France like her dating profile states. She’s been tracking the Syrian terror cell, Al-Nusra, for ten months now and her latest intelligence gathering suggests they are planning an attack on the Golden Gate Bridge on July 4th, just two weeks away. Her network of informants has ultimately led her to this man: Ahmad Firman. She is quite aware that his cover story about the painting was a crock of shit due to her surveillance of Ahmad over the previous six months. Amber has witnessed him arranging drug deals and setting up cocaine distribution systems within California, Washington, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. This doesn’t come as too much of a shock to her because that’s a common practice of terrorist organizations, to fund their criminal activities through the illegal drug trade.

Three months ago he suddenly relocated to Surrey, BC, Canada. On a couple occasions, Amber has also followed him at a distance to a Moose Lodge not far from the hotel where he was staying there. She has jotted down in her notes that it would be highly abnormal for a rich art trader to stay in a rinky-dink hotel and also for him to live in a two-bedroom rent house in a rundown neighborhood in San Francisco, but thus far, no suspicious activities have been observed at the Moose Lodge and it is not listed for any connections to terror organizations or on any of Homeland Security’s bulletins or memos. Perhaps he attends there as part of his cover, to appear normal to outsiders, she wonders to herself.

She also is curious as to why she has never yet witnessed him meeting up with or contacting other members of the terror cell she’s been watching, and finds it even stranger that a terrorist would take time away from his mission to start an online dating profile. Then, just 4 weeks ago, he went back to his house in California. Whatever his game is, she is determined to figure it out.

“Now that you’ve heard some about me, let me satisfy some of my curiosity, and ask you how is it you know so much about wine of all varieties? Is that something they teach at CEO school?” Amber, a.k.a. Ella, chuckles softly and says “I have traveled the world extensively as CEO of a global company. It sounds a lot more dazzling than it actually is. When traveling for business as head of a company, you don’t have much time for sight-seeing, tourism, or other forms of recreational activities. But I damn sure made time to try the wines at every stop in Europe, Asia, and Russia.”

That last location mentioned set off all of Ahmad’s red flags in his mind, since that’s the real reason he’s here. He’s been hot-on-the-trail of a spy ring, made up of members of the Foreign Intelligent Service, sent to the United States by none other than Leonid Khabarov, the famous Soviet military commander and an advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their prime objective is to gather critical information on essential American infrastructure systems, such as our national electrical grid, our nuclear missile silos, and the undisclosed locations of the “Doomsday Bunkers” the US government built during the long years of the Cold War.

He used his real name for the dating profile since he figured this spy ring would have no way of knowing he was an undercover FBI agent. Plus, his name is fairly common one among Muslim men. Not quite as common or generic as “John Smith” in America, but he assumed it would provide enough cover for his mission.

Ahmad has risen through the ranks of the FBI over the years, in large part due to his successful undercover work, which he attributes to his uncanny photographic memory of his own fictional backstories he invents for his covert personas, and his near-total recall of people’s faces and names.

He’s used these skills to bust a North Korean hacking group and a Chinese spy within the Astronaut Training Program at NASA. After the adventures Ahmad has been on for the Bureau, he volunteered for this mission to have a change of pace – well, that, and he loved the idea of getting to play the part of a millionaire who goes around town in a $4,000 suit and drives a Lamborghini. The Russian angle to this was also important to him. Taking down Leonid Khabarov is personal to him, because he led the Soviet Union’s invasion force into Afghanistan which ended up killing Ahmad’s father and mother in 1986, when Ahmad was only 8 years old.

He had been tracking a group of Russian hackers into Canada, and that’s why he all-of-a-sudden moved to Surrey. He’s been a member of the Loyal Order of the Moose for all his adult life, so he was happy to find a Lodge nearby his hotel in the city. When he was finished with his surveillance of that group, which ended up being a dead end, he returned home.

His recent surveillance of Ella has revealed a couple of odd behaviors which lend credence to his working theory that she is a Russian spy: Ella uses another name, Amber, when speaking to people over the phone, she has sophisticated wiretapping devices, and she has been contacting not only high-ranking foreign leaders, but also certain key figures in leadership positions within our own government. Also, she lives in a small apartment, which he thinks would be very peculiar for a rich CEO of a clothing company. At least if it were him, and he had a million bucks laying around in his bank account, moving out of his small two-bedroom rent house would damn sure be the first move he made. The only part of his current secret mission he does not like, is participating in drug deals in order to gain the trust of some shady characters he needs to squeeze for information.

 Just as they are both attempting to work through their next steps in this undercover date, and also decipher the menu choices for dinner, a loud boom rattles the room they are seated in within the restaurant, followed by a plume of smoke and a crater in the wall on the East side of the building. Leaping immediately into action and retrieving a firearm from a holster strapped around his torso underneath his coat, Ahmad dashes over and peers through the hole in the wall and realizes he’s looking into a vault in the adjacent building, which happens to be a bank. He surmises that the bank is being robbed and someone set off a small explosive to gain access to the vault. He turns around to check on Ella, and tries to think up some sort of explanation that would make sense as to why he would be packing heat and leap into danger like he’s a police officer or a superhero. So far he’s drawing a blank on that one.

Ahmad is relieved, however, but also confused, when he sees Ella is no longer seated at their table, but instead, is carrying her own handgun, and has removed a first aid kit from out of her purse and is treating the wounded, all while speaking into a walkie-talkie, requesting “immediate backup.” A lightbulb goes off above his head and he now understands she is not an enemy and must be working for some faction of the Federal Government. The same epiphany, unfortunately, has not yet reached the mind of Amber. She turns to see Ahmad brandishing a gun next to the smoking crater leading into the bank vault and assumes he must have had something to do with the explosion and robbery next door. “Freeze! Hands in the air! Keep them where I can see them. Do not move. Get on your knees!” Amber orders firmly.

At first Ahmad tries to explain the situation, but he sees she’s losing more of her patience with him, so he decides to zip it for the moment. Amber cautiously yet unwaveringly saunters toward the man she was just on a first date with. By now he has obeyed her commands, and is kneeling on his knees with his hands above his head, remaining silent. Amber’s hands are now patting him down, checking thoroughly for any additional weapons or communication devices he might have on his person. Ahmad thinks about making a wisecrack about how she is getting physical pretty fast for a first date, but he bites his tongue, realizing it would not be a prudent decision to say that right now. Sarcastic jokes are one of Ahmad’s vices. His sarcasm has probably gotten him in more trouble than anything else in his life, well, other than being a Muslim living in the United States and still facing bigotry in the 21st Century.

“Since you’re already playing ‘hide the sausage’ with me anyway, if you would be so kind as to remove my wallet from my left back pant-pocket, I will be able to explain everything.” Amber guardedly assents, figuring he probably wouldn’t have a booby-trap set up in his own pant-pockets. She pulls out the wallet and opens it. Her jaw drops as she gazes at his FBI badge.

“Ah shit, it all makes sense now,” Amber exclaims. “But why didn’t you just tell me from the start that you were with the Bureau?” “If I had done that, we never would have had this first date to remember forever.” “Ha! Yeah, sure,” Amber retorts.

“But seriously, I thought you were a spy working for Vladimir Putin. This ‘date’ was all a ruse I set up to find out more about you, and then make the arrest and take down the Russian spy ring.” Amber, looking increasingly irritated, replies “You set the date up? I’m the one who set the date up. I had Homeland Security keep you under constant surveillance because we thought you were a key leader of the Syrian terrorist group known as Al-Nusra.” The somewhat offended Ahmad responds by saying “Syrian? Do I look or sound like I came from Syria? I grew up in Afghanistan and I haven’t even been to the Middle East since I was 10 years old. I guess you just think ‘all Muslims look alike,’ huh?”

“Oh, put a sock in it, pal, I’m still planning to charge you for your illegal drug trading and distribution,” Amber informs him. Ahmad replies, “Does this mean there won’t be a second date?” The look on her face says it all – if eye-rolls could kill, everyone in that restaurant would be 6 feet under.

February 15, 2021 01:59

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