Drones buzzed overhead as Miller entered the restaurant. The front looked normal enough, but the back half was a mess of rubble and blood. Policemen collected evidence and took statements as paramedics carried out bodies covered in white sheets. Miller flashed his badge at the soldier who greeted him and walked over to a pair of policeman chatting in the corner.
“Well, if it isn’t my favorite buddy cop duo.”
“Miller.” Ezra, the taller of the two, offered his hand. The short, perpetually scowling Ali merely nodded.
“How many this time?”
“We’re still scraping bits and pieces off the ceiling, but at least twenty. Mostly civilians, plus a couple IDF soldiers on patrol.”
“Any ideas on a motive, besides the usual troublemaking?”
“The owner is related to one of the big shots in the Transitional Government,” said Ali. “But he wasn’t in the restaurant today.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time they’ve acted on shoddy intel.”
Miller pursed his lips as he glanced around the remains of the building. This was, what, the third bombing this week? Fourth? At least it wasn’t as bad as the mosque. Shame, though—he had always meant to eat here.
“Another vatman?” he said.
“Do you even have to ask?”
“No need to get snippy, Ali. Let me know when your tech boys have figured out what the bomb was made of. I want to know how they got past the sensors this time.”
“One of the witnesses said he saw the host slip out the door right after the bomber came in,” said Ezra. “We’re thinking he was bribed to disable the sensors.”
“Find him, fast. Shouldn’t be hard for Tehran’s finest, right?”
Neither of the men looked amused by Miller’s joke. He made a mental note not to try another one just as his ear buzzed.
“Miller? It’s Browning.”
“What’s up, Chris?”
“The police have a guy they’re pretty sure has a connection to the Guard. They’re holding him for us.”
“Is ‘pretty sure’ more or less sure than when they were ‘really sure’ about that student being a Guard agent?”
“Come on, just get down here. I just had to listen to another lecture from Langley, and that was before they heard about the latest bomb.”
“Alright, I’m on my way.” To the policemen he said, “Duty calls, gentlemen. I take it you know the drill by now?”
They nodded and went back to picking through the rubble. Miller walked back out into the beautiful spring evening, taking care not to step in any blood on the way.
Light, muffled sounds. Blobs moving on the other side. He was used to all this. But the sounds were louder now, the blobs closer. Suddenly, the liquid that suspended him began to drain away. He felt his feet touch something cold, heard a crack and a hiss. The other side was coming to him. He was scared.
A door swung away and a blob took shape. It looked like him. The man offered him his hand. He hesitantly took it.
“Hello, Navid. My name is Yousef.”
“I am… Navid?”
The man smiled. “Yes. Yes you are.”
The interrogation room was cramped and grimy. A paunchy middle aged man, head drooped, was tied to a wooden chair in the center. Behind him were two policemen, their faces blank. Browning stood by the door. Leaning against the wall was Simon, the Mossad man.
“What do we got, Browning?” asked Miller.
“This is Saeed. Runs a bakery near the school that was bombed last week.”
“Yeah? His bread any good?”
Miller lifted the man’s head up. His face was battered and bruised, his nose broken. The fear in his deep brown eyes made Miller think of the deer he used to hunt back home.
“Christ, Simon, what did you do to him?”
“We were just getting to know each other.” Simon grinned.
“Do you actually think this guy’s with the Guard, or are you just looking for an excuse to beat up some Iranians?”
Simon’s smile vanished. “Don’t tell me how to do my job, Miller.”
Miller saw the policemen exchange a glance.
“Alright, Simon, I’ll show you.”
Miller lifted the prisoner’s head up again. Taking a cloth from his pocket, he wiped the blood from the man’s nose. In Farsi he said, “Hey, Saeed. My name’s Miller. We’re going to have a little chat.”
“I didn’t do anything.” Saeed’s voice was ragged.
“I’d like to believe that, but you’ve got to convince me. You have any friends in the Guard?” Miller crouched down to Saeed’s level.
“No. I don’t want trouble.”
“Come on, you’re an older guy. No buddies from before the war you’ve been staying in touch with?”
“My ‘buddies’ were killed in the invasion.”
“You sound a little bitter, Saeed.”
“No! No, I don’t want any problems.”
Miller glanced back at Simon. “You have any motives for this guy, or are you just wasting my time?”
“Money. Our baker is in debt, and his creditors are… impatient.”
“That true, Saeed? You having money troubles?”
“People are afraid to go outside and shop. I had to take a loan to keep my bakery open.” The man had calmed down a little when Miller started talking to him, but now he sounded nervous again.
“Must be tough to pay back a loan when the economy’s in shambles. But I hear the Guard pays well for help…”
“I would never work with them! Please, I swear.”
“Saeed, what’s the name of the man you owe money to?”
“Karim. He’s a thug, but I was desperate.”
Miller stood and addressed the policemen. “What was the name of the guy who tipped you off?”
“Karim, sir,” said the Iranian one.
“So our suspect owes money to a man named Karim, and you roughed him up because a man named Karim told you he might be a terrorist. Great fucking detective work, guys. Really impressive stuff.” Miller clapped as the policemen dropped their gaze. “Hey, Simon, I thought you were supposed to be teaching these guys not to be such dumbasses.”
Simon glared at Miller, then the police.
“Come on, Chris, let’s get out of here.” Miller left the room.
Navid liked Yousef. Yousef was a nice man who was teaching Navid a lot. He told Navid that they were both people called Iranians, and that they could not go outside because people called Americans and Israelis were trying to kill Iranians. But Yousef taught Navid how to behave for when they were allowed to go outside. He showed Navid pictures and videos of what outside looked like. Outside looked nice. Yousef also showed Navid pictures of Americans and Israelis. They looked mean. Navid didn’t like those pictures.
Navid did like his brothers. They all looked just like Navid, though their names were different. Yousef was teaching them, too. He said that one day, hopefully soon, they would all get to go outside. Navid liked to talk with his brothers about what outside might be like, though Yousef didn’t like it when they talked without him. He said that would put silly ideas in their heads. Navid didn’t understand, but he obeyed. He trusted Yousef.
Navid didn’t like Hamid. Hamid was rude to Navid and his brothers. He was even rude to Yousef. Yousef would tell Hamid to be patient, and he would go away for a few days. But then he would come back and be rude again. He had just come for another visit, which had put Navid in a bad mood. But Yousef had just announced that he had exciting news, which made Navid happy. He couldn’t wait to hear it.
Miller looked up from a dossier on the restaurant host Ali and Ezra had tracked down. “Take that next right,” he said to Browning.
“Right? Isn’t it faster to go by the university?”
“Not if you want this hunk of junk to stay in one piece. Students are protesting again.”
Miller laughed. “What do you think of your first couple weeks in Iran, kid?”
“I think it’s a mess. Half the country wants democracy, the other half wants the Ayatollah back, the Mossad doesn’t want either, and none of them trust us. How the hell are we supposed to do anything?”
“Don’t worry, we don’t have to rebuild the place. We just need to stop the Guard from blowing people up long enough for the Israelis to slap together a government that can keep order while still kissing their ass, and then we can go home until somebody fucks things up again. So, a few months.”
Miller laughed. “It’s not that bad. We’re here to save lives—that’s a good thing no matter whose side you’re on. Hell of a lot better than what I had to do in Damascus. Take that left.”
“You served in Damascus?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
They drove in silence the rest of the way to the police station. Miller watched a drone fly by before they entered the building.
Ezra was waiting for them at his desk. It hadn’t been long since Miller last saw him, but he looked more stressed.
“Miller, Browning.” He didn’t offer a hand.
“Ezra. Where’s your buddy?” asked Miller.
“Stakeout. Our restaurant host was… talkative.”
“You don’t sound convinced.”
“It didn’t take much to get him going. The Guard must be getting desperate if they’re hiring unreliable help. Either that or he’s lying. My bet’s on the latter.”
“Let’s hope you’re wrong. What did he say?”
Ezra swiveled his monitor around, showing them a picture of a house. “Says the Guard have been operating out of here.” The address indicated it wasn’t far from the station.
“Looks big enough to hold a cloning lab,” said Browning. “But how could they suck up that much power without drawing suspicion?”
“There are ways to mask consumption,” said Miller. “Still, they’d have to have some serious balls to run one of their labs just outside the Green Zone.”
“Hiding in plain sight, I guess. I don’t buy it, though,” said Ezra.
“I take it this is what Ali is checking out?”
“Yeah, he’s keeping an eye on it. Hasn’t reported anything unusual yet, though.”
“Guess we should pay a visit. Thanks, Ezra.”
Miller and Browning stood to go. Ezra was already on the phone, learning about the latest problem.
Navid was very happy. He had been wondering why he had not seen some of his brothers recently, and now he knew it was because they had gone outside! He asked Yousef when they would come back, and was sad to hear that they were too busy outside to come and visit. But he cheered up when he was told that soon he would get to go outside, too. He had already been allowed to leave their home—Yousef had brought him into what he knew was called a van. He was in the back of the van, so he couldn’t see outside, but he enjoyed being bumped up and down and side to side as they moved. But the van hadn’t moved for quite some time, and Navid was getting lonely—none of his brothers were with him. Yousef had promised that he would be back soon, and that once Navid went outside he would be reunited with his brothers. So Navid waited patiently, smiling as he imagined the wonderful things his brothers would tell him.
Miller and Browning slipped into the backseat of Ali’s car. Ali was looking out the window with a pair of smart specs and, to Miller’s annoyance, Simon was with him.
“I was wondering when you two would show up,” said Simon. He removed his specs and handed them to Miller. “Have a look.”
Miller slipped the glasses on. The house at the end of the street zoomed into view.
“Looks normal enough. What do you think, Ali? You’ve been here a while.” Miller gave the specs to Browning.
“I think we’re wasting our time. It’s been a bit busy, but nothing suspicious.”
“I disagree,” said Simon. “I had a chat with a few of the neighbors. ‘A bit busy’ would be a severe understatement.”
“Alright, well, keep watching it and we’ll see what happens,” said Miller. “Sound good to you, Ali?”
“We can’t afford to sit around and wait. By the time our suspicions are confirmed there will be another bombing,” said Simon.
“So what, you want to send a team in?” asked Miller.
“Forget it,” said Ali. “We’re not going to send police in there. Do you have any idea how many booby traps the Guard will have set up?”
Simon swore. “Fine, then I’ll call in a strike. But don’t blame me if it gets messy.”
“You want to use a drone? In the middle of a suburb?” Ali removed his specs and stared at Simon. “Are you crazy? Come on, Miller, back me up here.”
“You sure about this, Simon?”
Miller and Browning exchanged a look.
“Your call, boss. I’m just the new guy.”
“Fuck you, Chris.” Miller sighed. He thought of the restaurant and the mosque, and the men back home demanding results. “Alright. Hit it.”
Simon got on the phone and said a few words in Hebrew. Then they waited.
It didn’t take long. There was a buzz, a boom, a flash. When the dust cleared, they saw the house had turned to rubble. Miller heard a few screams, but he had learned to tune those out long ago.
The men got out and walked down the road, passing fleeing civilians as they went. They found bodies in the wreckage, a man and a girl that had been crushed by the collapsing second story. Blood and body parts suggested others in the house had been caught in the explosion.
“Shit,” said Ali. “I told you.”
“Maybe if your men weren’t jumping at shadows we wouldn’t have to resort to this,” said Simon.
The men glared at each other. Miller worried it would come to blows, but Browning relieved the tension by calling them over.
“Basement’s over here.” He pulled out a penlight and shone it down the stone steps.
“Let’s have a look.” Miller led them downstairs and flashed his own light around. The shock of the strike had made a mess, but his eye still caught things that were out of place. Somebody had left in a hurry.
Simon plucked a fluid sack from the ground and waved it in Ali’s face. “You told me, huh? Look familiar?” It was the liquid used to sustain vatmen while they were gestating.
“You think that’s proof? Where’s the rest of the lab?”
“Oh, shit,” said Miller. “It’s mobile.”
“What?” Simon wheeled around to face Miller.
“Their labs are mobile. They make a vatman, break the lab down and scatter the pieces, then reassemble in a different location. Hell, they could even be making them in stages.”
“That would explain how they’re masking their power use,” said Browning. “If they only spike the power for a day or two, it wouldn’t be enough to arouse suspicion.”
“Hell, they could even be running on generators. And they could be sneaking into houses when the owners are gone, bribing or threatening people for an overnight stay, calling in favours… Jesus.”
“If you’re right, this means a complete change in tactics. We’ll need to start searching cars, too.”
“We’re already stretched thin,” said Simon.
“Well, we don’t exactly have a choice.”
Ali had wandered off to take a call, and now rejoined the group. “That was Ezra. You’re going to want to hear this.”
Navid was so excited, not even the presence of Hamid could dampen his spirits. He was going to go outside! The van was moving again, and Yousef was giving him instructions as Hamid fitted a vest on him. It was a little bulky, but Navid didn’t mind.
Yousef was telling him that he would see some Americans and Israelis when he went outside, but he needed to be nice to them. He asked Yousef if they would try to kill him, and Navid said they wanted to, but couldn’t. He asked why, but Yousef told him to stop asking questions. He was a little rude to Navid, which was unlike him, but Navid thought he was just sad to see him leave.
Hamid put something in Navid’s hair and eyes that changed their color. As he did this, Yousef told Navid what he had to do outside. They were going to let Navid out near a restaurant, and Navid was to go in and order some food. Yousef told him to enjoy his food until a man—Yousef showed him a picture—arrived. This man was a friend of Yousef’s, and Navid was to go over and introduce himself. He was then supposed to press a button on his vest, which would let Yousef know the man was there. Then Yousef would come and tell him what to do next.
Yousef kept repeating his instructions, but for the first time in his life Navid ignored him. He was too busy wondering what he would be able to eat at the restaurant.
Miller sipped his drink as he watched people enter the restaurant. Simon sat across from him, toying with his food.
The presumed target of the last restaurant bombing was visiting his other two establishments, to ease the concerns of jittery workers. Miller couldn’t decide if the man was very brave or very foolish, but either way he was a target. As they looked for vatmen here, Browning and Ali were across town doing the same.
Miller had seen army and labor vatmen, and he’d seen what was left of the corpses of the vatmen the Guard were using, but he had never had to pick out a live bomber. He looked for single diners, or pairs of men that were suspiciously similar—but the Guard were good at disguising their operatives, and that sent his heart racing whenever someone so much as dropped a fork.
He had his eyes on one man sitting in the corner, and a pair not far from him. Simon, looking in the other direction, had his own targets. Their table in the center of the room gave them a view of the entire restaurant, but it also meant they would be caught in a blast no matter where it came from.
“There’s our man,” said Simon. The owner had arrived. Miller wrapped his hand around his gun.
Navid was having the time of his life. Outside was loud and confusing, but by sitting in the corner of the restaurant and watching the world go by he was starting to get a grip on it. He gave a friendly smile to anyone who looked at him and, to his great satisfaction, most people smiled back. Even the Americans and Israelis were being friendly. That confused him, but maybe they had been told to pretend to be nice just like he had been.
Navid especially liked his food. It was far better than what Yousef had fed him, although he wouldn’t tell him that. He didn’t want to hurt Yousef’s feelings. He didn’t even know what he was eating was called—overwhelmed by the menu, he asked the waiter to bring him the tastiest food the restaurant had. That had amused the waiter. Navid raved about how much he loved his meal whenever the waiter came to check on him, and that made the waiter very happy. He would have to ask the waiter what the name of it was.
The man in the picture entered the restaurant. Navid tensed—this was his chance to prove to Yousef that he could be trusted. This was his chance to prove that he belonged outside.
He let the man and his companions get settled as he thought about how best to approach him. When he decided, he stood up and walked to the man’s table. He was so excited that he walked very quickly.
Another man, an American, got up and blocked Navid’s path. He spoke to Navid in a deep voice.
“Hey. What’s your name?”
This American was not pretending to be nice like the others. He sounded stern yet nervous, like he didn’t trust Navid. Navid didn’t like this man, but he remembered Yousef’s instructions and responded politely.
“Hello, Navid. My name’s Miller.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“What are you doing here today, Navid?”
“I’m just enjoying a meal.” That was what Yousef told Navid to say if anyone questioned him.
“Oh yeah? You seem to be in a hurry to go somewhere.”
“I saw a friend. If you would please excuse me, I would like to talk to him.” Navid tried to step around the American, but the man did not relent.
“What’s your friend’s name, Navid?”
“I’m sorry, I must go speak with him.” Yousef had not told Navid the name of his friend. The American was making Navid very nervous.
“What’s the rush? I’d like to ask you a few things.” The American put his hand on Navid’s shoulder. He was smiling now, trying to look friendly, but he didn’t fool Navid.
“I…” Yousef had not told Navid what to do if this happened. He was getting very worried.
“How did you get here, Navid?”
“A… a friend drove me.” Navid decided to be honest with the American. All Yousef wanted Navid to do was say hello to a friend. There was nothing wrong with that. If the American realized that, he would have no reason to distrust him.
“A friend, huh? Did your friend ask you to do anything while you were here?”
“He told me to say hello to his friend.”
“Yeah? Anything else?”
“He told me to press a button.” Navid opened his jacket to show the American his vest. He saw a man behind the American point something at him, and then he saw nothing at all.
“Jesus Christ, Simon!” Miller wiped blood and brain from his shirt. “I was trying to bring him in alive!”
There was panic in the restaurant. People ran or hit the ground while soldiers rushed in to control the situation.
Simon kicked the vatman to make sure he was dead. “He was going for the trigger.”
“Bullshit. He was answering my questions. I had him under control.”
“You don’t know that.”
“The hell I don’t. Weren’t you listening to us?”
“I wasn’t about to risk the lives of everyone in here so you could have a chat with a terrorist vatman.”
“Do you have any idea how valuable a live one would be to us?”
Before Simon could respond the restaurant’s owner, pale-faced and trembling, asked them for an explanation of what just happened. Miller left Simon to answer. He stepped outside and watched as a drone soared overhead.
Mark Hill is a columnist and freelance editor for Cracked. He’s also contributed to many other publications, and you can read more from him at www.mehill.org.