Charlotte, North Carolina
Monday, January 8, 2007
0755 EST

        “Good morning, Alpha.” Martin takes off his tweed blazer and hangs it on the coat rack in the corner, next to his coworker’s worn-out size XXL bomber jacket. He’s early today. His shift won’t officially start for over an hour, but anticipation has chased away his sleep.
        “Morning, Gamma . . . you chose a good day to come in early. You’re in for a pretty exciting day.” Alpha seems to be in an uncharacteristically good mood.
        Martin felt off balance the instant he entered the room. But he’s gotten used to that. He’s learned to live with this feeling ever since he started working here, over three years ago. He’s not quite sure if it’s related to his metamorphosis from Martin into Agent Gamma upon crossing the center’s doorstep, or a result of the electromagnetic radiation emitted by all this equipment. Or it may simply be that the oscillating artificial lighting is playing havoc with his vision.
        The transition from the certainty of daylight to this room’s tentative luminosity is inevitably depressing. The center is windowless. It is lit by four neon lights in the ceiling, in addition, of course, to the glow of the three giant screens that occupy an entire wall, and the five tabletop plasmas. Within the center, there is no way of distinguishing night from day. Maybe that’s why Alpha calls this place the Ghost Center.
        “Any news?” Martin asks, trying to contain his excitement. A gut feeling tells him something big is about to happen.
        The inner section of the apartment is made up of this operations center, a toilet, and a kitchenette. The outer section is a full-fledged residential apartment. The bedroom closets are crammed. The washer contains soiled shirts and underwear. The fridge is packed. The dishwasher is pregnant with dirty dishes. The TV is timed to turn on at intervals. This apartment is part of a comprehensive undercover plan, which includes false names for its inhabitants, fabricated life stories, and correspondence addressed to them from time to time. The neighbors never suspect anything out of the ordinary is going on.
        The real technological marvel, however, is the magic passage that separates the two sections. It reminds Martin of Goldfinger, Dr. No, and the other James Bond movies that fueled his childhood fantasies. The secret entrance is located in the outer apartment’s bathroom, next to the washbasin. After a sensor recognizes the person through an electronic chip embedded under his skin, the entire wall slides sideways, exposing the passageway. Nowadays, access is limited to Agent Alpha and Martin—Agent Gamma, as he is known here. Until about a month ago, they had a third coworker. But his coordinates have been deleted from the central computer’s database, and now the COBRA Center is made up of just the two of them.
        “Actually, there’s good news and there’s bad news . . . would you rather I start with the good?” the fat man replies, after a provoking silence.
        Martin nods. He knows Alpha will do whatever he wants to in the end. After all, he’s the boss. Besides, communication between the COBRA Center and the mother agency is almost nonexistent, so he always has the final say.
        “The good news is: Mickey Mouse has surfaced at last. As we expected, he went to the bank to withdraw some cash.”
        “And the bad news?” Martin has never seen Alpha worried by any kind of news. When he enters this place, he simply leaves all human emotions behind. Maybe he parks them on the pavement, together with his Harley.
        “Mickey Mouse withdrew everything, which means he’s not going to visit the bank again. Obviously, he’s trying to disappear in the Cairo crowds.” Alpha palpates his enormous belly with both hands as he speaks, as though he’s measuring a change in its size. “This is our last chance.”
        Martin is quite aware of the difficulty of tracking down their subject. He’s single and has no known relatives. They’ve never located a lover or even a friend, and he doesn’t belong to a political party or group of any kind. He doesn’t even have personal vices that could give him away, like gambling or drugs or women. With his tiny body and commonplace face, he can easily melt into a Third World crowd.
        Alpha points at the central screen, which shows a bank entrance in a Middle Eastern city. A policeman dressed in black stands next to a doorframe metal detector. He looks on apathetically as the customers walk in without even emptying their pockets. The red lights on the top of the frame keep on flickering, but no one seems to care. A stream of pedestrians flows on the sidewalk in front of the bank. The picture is taken from a good angle, exposing all from above. Martin knows that the camera is fixed to a rifle with a silencer that one of their agents is aiming at the bank. He assumes that the agent is looking down from a window across the street.
        “We’re not going to fail this time . . . especially since our guys have already taken up their positions.” Martin has endless faith in their agents, supported as they are by the command and control capabilities at their disposal. When they built the Ghost Center, they gave its operators the option to make use of all the intelligence agencies’ capabilities, without even needing to expose their presence to these agencies. Martin has access to all the networks to obtain whatever information he needs. He can use satellites for surveillance and to send coded instructions to COBRA’s agents on the ground. In short, they can run their operations from this modest apartment with the capabilities of a giant intelligence agency.
        “It’s not that simple,” Alpha says. “Cairo’s overcrowded conditions
could confound the best-planned operations.”
        He picks up a handful of popcorn from a large bowl in his lap and mechanically deposits it in his mouth. On the counter in front of him is a giant plastic Coca-Cola cup. It occurs to Martin that he’s never seen the fat man without some kind of fast food in his vicinity, which he munches with the impulsiveness of a cartoon character who breathes fast food instead of air.
        After years of painstaking effort, their eureka moment happened three months ago, when they managed to track down Mickey Mouse’s bank account. After that, it was not difficult to follow the money trail. By studying the account’s activity over the past few years, they managed to chart a precise pattern for the subject’s banking habits. In fact, it wasn’t all that complicated, as the man had deposited all the savings he’d gathered from years of work in Iraq in the form of CDs in this particular branch of the Arab Bank. His banking activities during this period—ever since he escaped from Iraq in July 1999—were limited to a visit every six or seven months to withdraw a fixed sum of five thousand Egyptian pounds.
        Martin sinks into a comfortable computer chair next to Alpha, who’s crammed into an identical one. Although he hates to admit it, the fat man got it right when he dedicated a surveillance team to watch the bank during working hours. Martin had questioned whether the subject would continue this pattern of behavior until his account was completely cleaned out. He reasoned that a scientist with such a high IQ would find a way to make money and set aside the remaining balance for emergencies. He had not, however, objected to keeping an eye the bank, just in case. That’s why he had come in this morning bubbling with excitement. But now—after Alpha’s predictions have, again, been proven right—he’s overcome with animosity toward this Mr. Know-It-All.
        Although his shift doesn’t officially end till nine, Alpha is free to go anytime, since Martin is already here. But he seems to be in no hurry to leave.
        The right-hand screen shows a black-and-white photograph of the subject. The picture was taken from one side, almost in profile. Obviously, it was shot from a distance, while the subject was in motion. He cannot make out whether the background shows Egypt or Iraq. This distorted photo has been watching over the Ghost Center ever since he joined. Was it meant to better acquaint the members of COBRA with their eccentric target? Or simply to motivate them to track him down, like hounds once they’ve become familiar with their prey’s scent?
        Martin observes the subject’s innocent, childlike face. His glasses are too big, yet behind them the one eye that is visible in the picture is alert, radiating intelligence. His ear is too big and protruding, justifying the nickname Mickey Mouse, except that his buck teeth are more like those of a rabbit. Maybe they should have called him Bugs Bunny.
        Mickey Mouse suddenly appears in the bank’s entrance, as if obeying a telepathic order from Alpha’s eyes, which have been focused on the middle screen. The subject freezes an instant as he studies the street. Martin can visualize their agent’s finger creeping to the trigger.
        Ten more seconds and it’ll all be over.
        Martin’s pulse sends tremors across his seat. A momentary silence imposes itself upon the Ghost Center, but is soon broken by Alpha crunching a new mouthful of popcorn. The subject suddenly jolts forward.
        Has he been hit? Not possible; he would have fallen back. Then Martin realizes what has happened. An old man, standing just behind the subject, pushed him at the right moment. Had the agent pulled the trigger, he would have killed the old man instead. He’s wearing a red Turkish hat, beneath which his features are fuzzy. Martin wasn’t aware that such hats were still in use. The subject turns to face the old guy, but no words are exchanged. Before the agent can get the job done, Mickey Mouse lunges to the right and his small body disappears from the screen.
        The left-hand screen shows people coming and going on the sidewalk. This camera, Martin guesses, is built into the eyeglasses of another agent posted next to the bank’s entrance. It produces a posterior shot of Mickey Mouse. The agent is now following him. With a quick click of his mouse, Alpha moves this picture to the middle screen. It is replaced on the left-hand screen by a random flow of cars. This is an attempt by a third agent to catch the subject from the other side of the street. His fat coworker clicks again and replaces this picture with one taken from a higher angle.Their man in the window has managed to track the subject through his sniper scope.
        The target is in a hurry. He easily squeezes his small body through the crowd. The pictures on the left and middle screens start shaking. Alpha keeps munching popcorn. His gluttony increases by the day. He takes a long gulp of Coke, then double-clicks. For the first time since Martin has been here, the target’s photograph disappears from the right-hand screen. It is replaced by a map of Dokki, the Giza neighborhood where all this is happening.
        Alpha holds the mike and speaks in his calm, indifferent voice:
        “COBRA 3 . . . redeploy to the corner of al-Tahrir Street and Dokki intersection.”
        “Roger,” the loudspeaker replies.
        Unit 3 appears as two adjacent green lights. Immediately, they start to move on the map. This unit must be made up of two agents in a car. Their agents appear as green lights on the map because—like Martin—they have chips implanted under their skins, enabling satellites to chart their coordinates anywhere on Earth. Martin taps his keyboard without waiting for Alpha’s instructions. It is time to direct the satellite’s powerful lens to track their subject. It’s easier said than done, but he’s well trained.
        The challenge of tracking an individual via satellite stems from the fact that the angle of vision is perfectly vertical, showing only the tops of people’s heads and shoulders. This makes it difficult to distinguish particular individuals. Luckily, they have ground-based surveillance today, which makes the job much easier.
        Martin follows the satellite picture on his laptop. He fixes the cursor on the Metro exit and waits till Mickey Mouse passes next to it. The satellite’s picture is in black and white, which distinguishes it from the colored images of ground-based cameras. Martin follows the subject on the wallmounted screens. At the right moment, he focuses on the laptop. In a matter of seconds, the satellite’s lens shows Mickey Mouse’s head with its small bald spot. He fixes the indicator on the subject and left-clicks the mouse. Then he leans back and takes a deep breath. From now on, the satellite will automatically track the subject, who appears on the map as a red light, surrounded on all sides by their agents’ green dots.
        The subject stops suddenly in front of a shop window. What does the fool think he’s doing . . . window shopping? When all’s said and done, people’s awareness is so flawed, no matter how knowledgeable they may be. Ultimately, everyone makes mistakes. This is the golden rule of intelligence agencies. An officer’s job is all about careful observation and patience. Mickey Mouse—like all rodents—will ultimately fall into the trap.
        The sniper’s scope shows the target well within range. But once again, pedestrians get in the way. Martin curses the Third World and its crowds. The agent will have to wait for a clean shot. The crunching of popcorn fills up the universe. What a lucky break: the subject is still glued to the shop window. Funnily enough, this shop only sells women’s clothing. He obviously doesn’t suspect he’s under surveillance. This shows how professional and well-trained their agents are.
        For a split second, the crowd clears. The subject is now smack in the center of the sniper’s crosshairs. Martin flexes his finger as though he’s pulling the trigger himself. The end is near. Alpha sucks noisily at his Coke through the straw. His years of work are about to pay off. But suddenly, the old man with the Turkish hat blocks the screen. He’s saved the subject for the second time today. Who is this clown? Could he too be following Mickey Mouse, possibly to claim a debt or ask for some favor?
        The central screen, taken from the vantage point of the agent on foot, shows the old man drop a few coins into Mickey Mouse’s breast pocket. Then the old man turns around and walks away. For a second, the left hand screen affords an unobstructed view of the subject. But he quickly moves out of the screen. The camera in the eyeglasses of the agent on foot shows the subject rushing after the old man, waving for him to stop. Alpha shakes violently in his chair. His head is bald and pink, like a basketball. What’s left of his long red hair, on the sides and back of his head, is tied up in a ponytail, dangling over his collar. He has a thick red bush of a beard, like a Muslim terrorist. A flake of popcorn, caught in the man’s beard, catches Martin’s attention. The pictures on both screens shake intensely, and it’s impossible to distinguish the subject. But Martin can still trace him on his laptop, courtesy of the satellite camera.
        “The subject has moved out of the sniper’s range,” Alpha says as he strokes his beard. He discovers the corn crumb and mechanically deposits it in his mouth. Then he speaks into the mike:
        “COBRA 2 . . . prepare to redeploy.”
        The sniper’s picture shuts down. He will now join his mobile unit.
        With a click of the mouse, Alpha replaces his picture with that of the satellite on the left-hand screen. The subject suddenly veers left into a side street and hides behind a cigarette kiosk. He must have realized he’s being followed. At least he doesn’t suspect he’s being tracked via satellite.
        “All units . . . the subject is behind a cigarette kiosk in the side street . . . do not approach. I repeat: do not approach. Give him some breathing space,” Alpha whispers into his mike.
        “Roger.”
        Martin starts to wonder where the expression ‘Roger’ comes from, but he’s quickly distracted by Mickey Mouse’s suspicious maneuvers.
        The subject walks away from the kiosk and quickly enters one of the buildings, moving out of range of the satellite’s vision. Could he have figured out he’s also under surveillance from space?
        “COBRA 2 . . . redeploy immediately to al-Misaha Square,” the fat man barks.
Before Martin can figure out Mickey Mouse’s plan, he’s already back in the street. The satellite shows him pushing people aside and jogging alongside the cars. He must have uncovered the entire operation. But how?
        The central screen’s picture vibrates violently. The agent on foot is in hot pursuit. There’s no sense in hiding any more. The game is being played out in the open.
        “COBRA 3 . . . redeploy to Galaa Square.” The fat man talks mechanically.
        “COBRA 1 . . . redeploy to Orman Gardens.” This unit is made up of one person on a motorbike.
        Rather than tighten the noose around the subject, Alpha is redeploying his units in a wider circle to ensure that Mickey Mouse will remain under surveillance even if he manages to break free.
        The image on the central screen is still shaking. But at least the subject has reappeared inside it. The agent is gaining on him. He’s almost got him. Martin knows that the agent will stick the tip of his umbrella—fitted with a syringe that injects a deadly toxin—into the subject’s body. Then the agent will immediately disengage. Death will occur by heart attack within fifteen minutes. No one will ever suspect anything other than natural causes. This is, by far, their preferred method, much more useful than the sniper’s bullet, to which they only resorted out of fear that they might lose the target for good.
        Suddenly, the picture shakes even more violently and the asphalt swallows the screen. Then it goes completely dark.
        “The agent has tripped. He’s fallen to the ground,” Alpha says in amazement.
        The picture reappears, showing people’s legs approaching. The agent must have pulled himself up and is now sitting on the pavement. Pedestrians have gathered to help. The screen shakes again as the agent stands up. Martin checks the subject’s position on the left-hand screen. He has almost reached al-Misaha Square.
        “Everything is under control . . . no need to worry,” the agent says, panting, through the loudspeaker.
        “The old man with the tarboosh pushed me. I’m certain he did it on purpose,” he adds in a whisper, then resumes his pursuit of Mickey Mouse.
        On the right-hand screen, the green lights are racing in every direction. The left-hand screen shows the subject talking to two men and a woman. A Land Rover or Pajero comes to a stop next to them. They all climb inside. This has the makings of a well-drawn plan. The escaping vehicle appears on the left-hand screen. Martin was right: it is a Pajero.
        “The subject has obviously got himself some professional help.” The words stumble from the corners of Alpha’s thick lips. He digs his hand into the popcorn bowl, but finds it empty.
        “Whatever the outcome, it’s always fun to watch a car chase in the streets of Cairo. Unfortunately, the overcrowded conditions may not necessarily play in our favor.” Alpha takes his last gulp of Coke and stands to leave.
        At last, Martin finds himself in charge of the operation, as it enters its most critical phase.