“Still in Brooklyn. He has no classes today.”
Monroe scanned the transcript, but it was as his agent had said. He looked at the scribbled drawings with a silent shudder. They were crude, but oh so familiar. They represented the heartbeat of some huge and diseased thing that had been pulsing since before life appeared on earth, transmitted down the generations to our own.
Monroe could not go to anyone else with this. It would be months before anyone would take him seriously. He could not go to the President, nor to the Joint Chiefs. His operation was still—as it had always been—off
grid. A black op. With a black budget, filched and fudged from other departments, other operations. And rightly so; had he tried to get official sanction for this, they would have had him committed to St Elizabeth’s long ago.
So he relied on unsuspecting experts in their respective fields. He trolled the Pentagon’s Minerva Project—the boondoggle for impoverished anthropologists who were expected to conduct “antiterrorism” research in Asia, Africa and the Middle East—looking for those with specialized knowledge of languages, cultures, religions. Cults. These were difficult people to deal with. Their intel could not always be trusted. They padded their reports to make themselves appear more valuable, to gain access to more Defense Department cash. And they were such prima donnas, to boot.
But one such specialist always stood out. He had no interest in Minerva, no expectations of wealth. He didn’t play the political games every academic was supposed to play. He seemed to have no ego at all, at least not where academic standings and credentials were concerned. And he had the field experience they needed, coupled with an unparalleled academic background in the target languages and the people.
Even more attractive—and of utmost importance in this case—was his family’s connections to Rhode Island, to Providence, and to its famous son: the eccentric author of pulp fiction, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. It was a double-edged sword, though.
Gregory Angell was a blade that could cut both ways. Compulsively, Monroe once again looked at his watch. “There’s still time to catch the afternoon flight to New York.” “Sir.”
“Do what you can. Promise what you have to. But we need Angell on the next available flight to Baghdad.”
“We do this black?”
Monroe thought for a moment. He had the juice to authorize a military transport, but someone, somewhere would start asking questions. He did not need that distraction now.
“Arrange a commercial flight to Istanbul, and then take it from there.
We still have assets at the border?” “Yes, sir.”
Monroe nodded, more to himself than to his agent.
“With any luck, then, we could have Angell embedded by this time tomorrow.”
“What about Miller?”
Jason Miller was the remote viewer who had gone AWOL a few months earlier. No one knew why.
“Still no sign of him, sir.”
“That worries me. Miller knows just enough to become a problem for us.”
“We’ve had him put on the TSA watch list, and have notified the Brits, the Israelis and Interpol that he is a terror suspect. We’ve changed all the codes, anything to which he was exposed or privy. But he has not surfaced anywhere.”
“Miller was good. He had Special Forces training and did a stint at CIA before coming to us. He had exceptional RV abilities.” Monroe nodded to himself.
“Sir, maybe he went off the deep end, like the others.” Monroe frowned at the suggestion.
“He wasn’t like the others. That’s what worries me.” He sighed. “We can’t let that interfere with the schedule. Go to New York. Find Angell. Recruit him to our side and get him to the sheikh at once.”
“And report back on the secure line as soon as you’ve landed in Turkey.” The agent nodded, and left the room quietly.
Monroe showed no sign that he was aware of the agent’s departure. His eyes were focused on the locked cabinet and the world’s only copy of the file he called the Lovecraft Codex. What had begun as a kind of hobby had turned into a passion, and then an obsession. He was aware of the danger of becoming too narrowly focused on an obsession. It was something that had ruined some of the best agents he had known, not only the field agents who could lose a sense of perspective after long periods in an alien culture, but even the office-bound analysts who could get completely side-tracked by a stray document, an old news story, a seductive idea. The glamour of intelligence work wears off rather quickly when bureaucracy, office politics, and the stupidity of elected officials interfere with the mission. There is the urge to come up with the earth-shaking revelation, the missing
piece of the puzzle, the information no one else has but which everyone else suddenly needs. The urge to feel important. A need to stand out among the hundreds and thousands of others. It’s what happens when the sense of community falls apart, when the common good takes a back seat to individual concerns and political ambitions.
Monroe knew all about this first-hand. It’s what prompted him to conduct his investigation quietly, even when he felt he had to grab everyone by their collective lapels and shake them until they could see what he saw. Of course, paranoia was also part of his reluctance to discuss his findings with colleagues and superiors. He did not know how far the infiltration extended, and who might be in charge of protecting it.
He also could be just plain crazy.
At least, he used to think he might be. It was gratifying to realize that he had not been deceiving himself all these years. Gratifying, and now terrifying. Like a husband who has long suspected his spouse of being unfaithful and who now sees photographic proof.
All those years of intellectual isolation were still years of making his contribution to the defense of the United States of America, the only country he had ever loved, the only idea to which he kept faithful loyalty since before the Cold War began.
And now he had no choice but to extend that loyalty to the entire human race.
How easily treason had become ethical.
Magic can only be efficient if it has been transmitted without loss and without flaw from one generation to the other, till it has come down from primeval times to the present performer. Magic, therefore, requires a pedigree …
—Bronislow Malinowski, Myth in Primitive Psychology
Brooklyn Heights Promenade That evening
Gregory Angell sat on a bench and gazed across the East River towards the spot where the Twin Towers used to stand. Finally, after more than ten years, the towers were being rebuilt.
Like many New Yorkers, he was not entirely sure that was a good thing. Of course, from the point of view of the peculiar sort of patriotism that New Yorkers feel—a patriotism that is inextricably linked to their City, which they identify with their country—it was inevitable that a new edifice would be raised in defiant memory of the old one. He remembered all those bumper stickers in the days and months after the September 11 attacks, the ones that said “We are all New Yorkers.” At the time, he felt an incredible emotion well up within him at the sight of those gestures of solidarity, but he knew they would be short-lived. America did not really
like New York City.
He was born in Rhode Island. Like many people living in the City he was from “out of town.” But he had been in New York since his university days at Columbia, studying ancient religions and archaeology. Now he was a tenured professor of Middle Eastern languages, especially the dead ones:
Akkadian, Ugaritic, Sumerian. He was fluent in Biblical Greek and Hebrew, and could make his way in Arabic, Farsi, Pashto and Urdu. He was an anomaly, a lover of language and its nuances. He hated the way language had been used to divide peoples, societies, civilizations. He felt that the real motivations for most wars could be reduced to the famous quip from Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
He was idealistic once. That died, along with God, in Mosul. Now he knew that there was no hope for humanity. That people would never transcend their racial, ethnic or religious differences. God had become a source of cheap labor for politicians, demagogues, and terrorists of all religions, all races, all ethnicities; made to defend or oppose whatever they wished, whatever their vile, fever-induced fantasies delivered to them.
The New York City skyline had offered up an altar to this cheap labor. Angell’s most famous relative had perished on September 11 when his plane flew into the North Tower. An important and hugely successful television producer and writer, responsible for the major sit-com hits of the 1980s and 1990s that were based in a Boston bar, a Seattle radio station, and even a small airport in Massachusetts; this particular Angell had died along with his wife and more than a hundred other passengers in a ball of flame that Gregory Angell had actually witnessed from the very spot where he was sitting now.
For him, it was Pearl Harbor. He was only an academic, but he wanted to enlist somewhere, join up to fight the amorphous “enemy.” Even at the time he realized such a wish was futile: there was no enemy army, no enemy country. The antagonists were all underground, living in caves or melting through European, Asian, African, American landscapes with false identities and a network of safe houses, mosques, madrassahs.
So instead, he found himself embedded with a US platoon in Afghanistan in 2002, providing translation and “cultural” assistance to the young kids in their high-tech helmets and comm gear, who had no idea where the hell they were or what they were supposed to do, but who were all fired up to do it anyway. He did not have a commission, was not regular Army, but one of a corps of civilian advisors and experts called in at the last moment for their language skills and knowledge of the religion and the region.
It was an exhilarating time, to be walking in the footsteps of Alexander the Great and wallowing in the Kipling-esque atmosphere, all the while dodging bullets from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Kandahar—the city in southern Afghanistan that served as his base of operations, founded by Alexander himself in the third century BCE—was home to one of the oldest human settlements known, dating to a prehistoric period in the remotest past, with gods and cults of which modern scholars know next to nothing. He had no idea at the time how relevant this ancient religion would become to his own life.
He saw very little in the way of firefights or IEDs at first, and was used mainly to communicate with village elders in territories the Army had successfully pacified. Later, as the Army tried to hold onto the regions it thought it controlled, Angell’s role became murkier. He found himself negotiating with frightened old men and women in small homes made of brick and clay, with the name of God written in Arabic on plaques hanging on their walls. He found himself performing a kind of ersatz intelligence role, collecting and analyzing information and passing it on to the officers in charge. He had crossed a line from trying to help the people he met to spying on them. It made him doubt his motivations, and he had a hard time connecting this mission to the one that had prompted him to enlist his abilities in the service of his government in the first place.
When he saw an opportunity to return Stateside after a few months in- country, he took it. For awhile he found himself lecturing CIA action agents on the local languages and religious customs of the northeastern region of Afghanistan: Waziristan and Nuristan, areas on the Pakistani border that contained a confusion of tribal conflicts and ancient rivalries. Then, after a few months of that, he was back at Columbia, his ethics and sense of purpose a little battered, but still intact. He found that he hated the Taliban, and especially Al-Qaeda, but had developed a sincere appreciation for the people of Afghanistan, people who had never heard of the World Trade Center and who only wanted to be left alone to live in peace. He devoted the next few years to his academic work and fell back into the comfortable rhythms of the classes, the libraries, the museums, the collegial discussions with fellow professors and grad students.
But then his country called on him once again.
It was to be a simple field mission, this time in the northwestern part of Iraq, in Mosul, near the ancient city of Nineveh. He was to go there as an
archaeologist, which was fine with him because it would give him the opportunity to visit some of the excavated sites as well as the museum in Mosul. There had been a steady traffic in stolen artifacts from Iraq’s national heritage, an inevitable side effect of the war. The famous Baghdad Museum had been looted during the invasion, and while most of the priceless treasures had been returned—stolen by the museum staff themselves to save them from looters—there was a significant number of items that had never been returned and which had wound up on the black market. It was believed that some of the money obtained from these illegal sales was lining the coffers of Al-Qaeda. It was Angell’s mission to ask around and get a feel for how the black market sales were being arranged. Posing as an archaeologist—which he was—he could gain entree to the world of museums, antiquities dealers, and tomb robbers and pretend that he was interested in sourcing some choice items for museums and collectors back in the States.
That was when he found himself in a Humvee, stuck behind a crowded bus during what passed for a normal rush-hour in Mosul.
February 20, 2007 CE/1427 AH
The rusted claptrap of an old school bus made its way carefully from the Mosul Textile Factory to the small town of Bashika, in Nineveh Province. The workers were silent inside, tired from a long day at work in the hot and airless plant. The murmurs of some of the men were like white noise to the driver, who had driven that route more times than he could count. All he wanted was to finish the run and get home to his wife and children and maybe a hot meal.
Angell was in a heavily-armored Humvee that had just come from the archaeological site at Nineveh, the one excavated and explored by Layard in the nineteenth century. His mind was wandering, trying to accommodate the clash of eras—the ancient period when Babylon was at its height juxtaposed with modern, war-torn Iraq—as he sat next to the driver, a seasoned US Army veteran who now worked for Blackwater, the mercenary firm that was run by some kind of Christian Fundamentalist from America’s Deep South. Angell’s security had been farmed out to Blackwater as a matter of course: he wasn’t on a tactical military mission