What Is Callaster?
10/06/2039 12:01 AM ET
What Is Callaster?

Harry Ethan Gilchrist
Washington Post Deputy Editor

CC BY 4.0 Suit by Paul Stevenson | Writer image: CC BY-SA 4.0 Aldon's Covision headshot by Aldon Hynes | Images were cropped. Images used for illustration purposes only.
Callaster is working behind some very powerful scenes.
Let me set a scene for you.

It's August. I'm at one of my usual DC haunts. Its floor-to-ceiling windows absorb the fleeing lights from thousands of cars, interrupting the casually slow tempo and warmly-lit aura of the bar.

There are maybe sixty or seventy patrons enjoying company and a glass, or just a glass. It would be thirty or forty, except it's Friday night. I don't mind because the mood for a little atmosphere has taken me, and I know in an hour or two the laughter will be a little more raucous as the Scotch and the Martinis take their toll.

Men outside smoke their cigars.

I'm sitting at the bar, with a friend who is leaning conspiratorially close. Normally my personal space would demand a little more restraint than he is showing, but he's thoroughly absorbed in what he is explaining to me, and I'm a reporter for the Washington Post, and I want to know what he knows.

I'll call him Z just because. Z is part of the DC foreign policy establishment, a cohort of men and women who are the bureacracy behind our bombs, if you will. They keep the wheels turning. They know more than the people you see on TV and many of them have actually been to the countries they can talk about.

Z is by his nature, affable. Tonight he is more lubricated. He has hinted in the past at marital troubles and I suspect that may be why he drinks, especially on Friday nights in Washington bars with floor-to-ceiling windows, with reporters and not his wife.

Our conversation began innocuously enough; I had asked about the President's weeks-old commitment to Hillary Clinton's 2023 immigration target equivalent to five percent of the population, from the third world. President Clinton had planned for this to be an annual target but it had been dropped quietly the following year due to furious Republican opposition. With both houses of Congress belonging to the Democratic Party however, it stands a chance.

Z's opinion on this is largely in line with the rest of his bureaucratic cohort: it's admirable, not feasible. But they're the horses pulling a carriage so they go where the reins pull.

But how, I ask, will the federal government screen out Islamic terror operatives? The kind who would like nothing more than to stand in Times Square and pull the trigger on a dirty bomb? After all, the President explicitly called for immigration from Africa and the Middle East, among other privation-ravaged global sore spots.

He goes silent. Then his hand begins to shake a little and he steadies it by using it to raise his glass to his mouth. He thinks I haven't noticed.

What, I ask him.

He begins by launching into an unexpected oratory of Nigeria's Civil War.

That war - known derisively by traumatized western soldiers as 'the Black Hole' for its ability to suck in wave after wave of life - became Africa's War. A sort of War for African Independence. Progress or terror?

Years of butchery and bastardry by Boko Haram had ravaged the civility of Nigeria's north-eastern parts, which had become their main area of operations.

Beheadings and abductions and forced marriages, and all that.

Then the videos with the soldiers in front of the black flag, proving that the pathogen had mutated and borrowed the historical and cultural currency of that other viral infection, ISIS.

It was ISIS' decline which set the wheels in motion for the war which followed, Z assured me. It found out the hard way that imposing seventh century polemics on twenty-first century people will be answered by Predator drones and F-35s aiming guided bombs at you.

But the demise of central support and funding for global terror cells further radicalized its suddenly isolated offshoots. They became scared and knew that they were suddenly alone. And it seemed the tide had turned against them.

So in their fear they turned to what they knew and became even more vicious. In January 2017, Boko Haram operatives kidnapped seventy western tourists - including fifty Americans - from a restaurant in Lagos, which is a bit like Georgia launching an operation in Seattle. The tourists were beheaded one by one and video was posted for the world to see.

In March they captured a hundred twenty Nigerian government soldiers and did the same thing before desecrating the bodies.

Z assures me the goal was not to get into another war with Muslims, but that the generals get an itch and it gets worse if a decade passes without a major engagement. Been that way since the Second World War, he says.

The story is largely rehashed from earlier wars: we send in special ops to 'train' and 'support', they are shot at, we retaliate, and before you know it, instead of destroyers and Seal teams, it's carriers and Marine divisions. But something funny happened: Boko Haram proved themselves as adept at marketing as ISIS had. Maybe they shared the same Manhattan PR firm.

They advertised the war as a 'crusade' - it's always the same rhetoric - and called for soldiers. And throughout 2017 they came from everywhere. They saw American soldiers on the ground in Nigeria, fighting Muslims and were inspired. From all around the Gulf of Guinea, and from Mali, Chad, Niger, the CAR. They trekked from Sudan and rode in beat-up old Toyota trucks from Senegal.

Reports came in that the conflict drew in fighters from Bangladesh and the Philippines; poor young men looking for something to believe in. A few years before, it had been ISIS.

No doubt the final, provable evidence of former leader Abubakar Shekau's death in late 2017 helped seal the deal. Since his replacement as leader with Abu Musab al-Barnawi at the hands of ISIS the year before, the clash at the top had split loyalties, weakening the group's appeal.

I wonder at Z's relating this story to me. Most journalists who cover foreign affairs are well-versed in the narrative.

Al-Barnawi was killed in 2021, purportedly in a firefight with an A-10 which had come to the aid of surrounded Nigerian forces. For the next year, Boko Haram's leader was not known until rumors, then confirmation that ISIS had picked a new man: Abu Mahmd al-Assem.

Z tells me nothing was known of this man. Intelligence sources suggest he may have spontaneously appeared out of thin air, for all we understood of him, his past and his motivations.

Al-Assem escalated the war dramatically, unfortunately showing himself to be a daring and somewhat intelligent military leader. And capable of displaying himself in regular clips posted online, as a charming man who was empathetic to the plight of his fellow Muslims, which was not a trait Shekau had been known for. Al-Assem's personality kept the flow of foreign soldiers coming.

With various successful strikes against US and Nigerian military camps, al-Assem forced the 'conflict' into its commonly-known 'war' phase. And from 2022 to 2029 the US and allied forces fought a vicious battle to free another Muslim country from another band of murderous fanatics (one suspects this will be our lot for the foreseeable future).

We lost 70,000 men and women. Estimates say we killed more than a million of their combatants. And of course ten million civilians die, which is usually what happens in these things.

Z reminds me that it was around mid-2028 when President Ryan began referring to Boko Haram not in terms of defeat but degradation. As in, "we will seek to degrade Boko Haram and its capabilities across the African continent", instead of "we will annihilate every last one of you" which was naturally the rhetoric he used in 2024 when campaigning for the White House. A more subtle wordplay is needed when the public tires of war and you're running to keep your job.

At any rate, it became clear that the war would end in a stalemate, which is exactly what happened. Boko Haram's operations were severely curtailed as a result of US bombing missions, al-Assem disappeared (presumed dead), and the flow of fighters dried up as televisions across Africa broadcast US military power and its terrible effects.

Eventually we left, drawing down our troop levels whilst leaving a rump force for training (always, with the training...) and Boko Haram went quiet. It was understood they were still there, but that the Nigerians could handle them and would - with a little American assistance from the air. It was a shaky end to a brutal war.

Which brings me back to Z and his shaky hands. I ask him if he's worried about possible infiltration by militants from Nigeria.

He answers my question with his own, calling for another drink. He asks me if I ever wonder why Boko Haram has not been completely destroyed? His vowels are a tiny bit longer than they used to be, as he loosens his tie.

I respond, suggesting that the Nigerian military is not all it's cracked up to be and that perhaps their soldiers are not learning as quickly as our Deltas might like. I tell him that I presume our bombing runs are keeping them in check, which is why we don't hear about them in publications like mine. No news being what it is.

Z snorts. He tells me we don't bomb Boko Haram anymore. My head involuntary tilts and I feel an interesting tingle run down my spine. Z elaborates: we haven't targeted them from the air for more than a year. He says last August they shot down fifteen of our aircraft.

I feel my eyebrows narrow and I place my glass on the bar as casually as I can. Nothing is known of this publicly. What Z is telling me is that this has been kept under wraps. Fifteen aircraft being shot down does not happen. Z shakes his head a little.

He tells me that there's more. Our bases near Maiduguri - near Boko Haram territory - have been relocated south, because they were being struck with missiles, launched from a hundred kilometers to the north. Hundreds of our service members were killed in these attacks until we relocated in March this year. Again, swept under the rug.

I remark this doesn't sound like Boko Haram. Z nods softly. He explains the technology.

It's believed Boko Haram is operating ZG-40 SAD (Surface to Air Defense) systems, taking down our aircraft. The ZG-40 is a Russian model that our intelligence community was only vaguely aware of until Nigeria. It's believed to be based on Chinese Shandian technology. It changes the air pressure around its target, inducing tremors so powerful they could in theory take down a 797 in about three-quarters of a second.

The missiles striking our camps were very likely AR-612s, German Bundestek prototypes: completely silent, and with a horizontal pulse mechanism which can launch a man into the side of a building at a speed of three hundred kilometers an hour, one kilometer from the blast site.

I state the obvious: they're not supposed to have this technology.

Z blinks several times. He says we have no idea how it's possible they have it. Even if the Russians wanted to fight a proxy war, there's no reason to believe the Germans do. If someone was dealing in the black market we'd at least suspect it. But we have nothing on any buying and selling.

Intelligence can't even figure out how the weapons are getting into the country. We have satellites trained on every Boko Haram site. We can see what they are doing. Weapons like this would need trucks, trainers, a staff. If they rolled in to north-western Nigeria, our intelligence analysts would see it instantly. Z tells me there's no evidence of any large scale movement of vehicles.

He says they have one lead.

In February this year our Seals launched an operation with Nigerian Army soldiers into the town of Baga. They arrived in Dreadnoughts in the middle of the night, and engaged in a firefight with militants. The mission achieved its aim of wiping out most of the enemy's capability in the area, with an added bonus: prisoners.

The Nigerians had managed to capture two of the enemy and pull their bloodied frames onto a Dreadnought before leaving. One expired en route, but the other was brought in and questioned by Agency men. Z looks sideways at me as he mouths the words, 'refined methods'.

Turns out, this one pathetic example of a supposedly all-but-dead regional Islamist movement, was able to provide us with our only clue as to its mysterious endurance:

Callaster.




TASKFORCE




Z stops at this point, glancing over his right shoulder, then his left. His sniffs and swishes the remainder of his Scotch. The need for sleep will overcome his loquaciousness soon.

Listen, he says. He looks me straight in the eye, leans in further and puts his hand on my arm. He says I can't repeat this, to anyone. He tells me it won't be acknowledged by those in the know and it could put me in danger. I'm more taken aback by his breath than I am by the warning.

He says he's serious and increases his grip on my arm.

Z informs me he was part of a taskforce earlier this year, the name of which he won't disclose. The downing of military aircraft and subsequent deaths of soldiers and base personnel in attacks spooked the establishment, as did the sudden appearance of next-generation technology in the hands of an enemy we thought had been reduced to throwing rocks.

They wanted to know who or what Callaster was.

The taskforce was comprised of about two dozen members: DoD officers, Agency and Bureau investigators, NSA types and civilians - Justice and State department policy wonks like Z. It was headed up by a retired Admiral who was well-respected and known for being methodical. Z won't name any names.

The delicate nature of the taskforce's purpose was well-understood by its members. The White House had kept the details of the deaths of American aviators and special ops guys dark - cover stories were fabricated, death notifications were staggered. They did a job, as Z said.

Even Congress was kept out of the loop; committee members whose job it was to be in on these kinds of secrets were purposely misled as to what was actually happening. Z won't elaborate, but he thinks the orders came from below the President. He doesn't really know how the chain of command is working, precisely, on this one.

I ask if the President was even aware of the investigation into Callaster, and he waves me off.

Z continues, telling me that the taskforce was separated into groups of four and five, each with an individual leader. Z's group focused on Boko Haram's relationships with other terrorist networks. Other groups followed the money, pursued the illegal arms market, or investigated the R&D personnel known to have contributed toward the weapons deployed by Boko Haram.

The aim was to find out who, or what, Callaster is. And what it had to do with Boko Haram.

The most obvious lead was ISIS.

After years of setbacks, ISIS had undergone a kind of resurgence in the twenties, as US efforts became more fully directed toward Nigeria. It was thought that with all the western expenditure - of men, money and munitions - that the Middle East could handle things. But ISIS began a broad push to reclaim its losses and began retaking towns one at a time, with its habitual violent excesses.

With a swing in momentum it was again able to attract foreign fighters and inspire local efforts across the globe. It is still the most prominent terror network in the world.

I did pieces on ISIS during the late teens, focusing among other topics, on how they were able to inspire other Islamic militant groups. Their so-called Caliphate was a medieval construction writ modern, but potent in its ability to communicate to the like-minded that the cause is actually possible.

Boko Haram's success was essentially built off the same model as ISIS: rejecting foreign (particularly western) influences, preaching a return to fundamentalist Islam based on Salafi and Wahhabist doctrine, and using said doctrine to justify violence in the pursuit of empire-building.

Their courting young men from other countries to sign up just adds to the similarity, and proves the viral nature of extremism.

The greatest tie between the two groups is obviously Boko Haram's (former) leader: al-Assem. His disappearance while never adequately explained, was always perfectly acceptable to those in leadership here, and in the UN. Along with a marked decrease in fighting capacity, al-Assem's ghosting essentially gave the West a perfectly honorable way of backing out of a long war which no-one was interested in continuing.

But it was a bug in the ear of everyone in the intelligence community that no-one knew anything about him. How could a man so central to such a focal point in world affairs have stayed off the grid - any grid, all his life? All we had was one scratchy image from his late teens.

Men do not rise in organizations like ISIS without detailed histories which prove their loyalty and doctrinal purity (usually in that order). Did we simply miss something?

Z's eyes droop a little and he sighs. He doesn't have much left in him.

What, I ask, did al-Assem have to do with finding out what Callaster was?

Nothing directly, he replies. Just a vague feeling that al-Assem was the lead they should follow. In fact, he continues, he was really their only lead. He was the other mystery in the narrative. But they did their due diligence.

Z's group pursued Boko Haram's links to the other continental Islamic terror organizations: Ansar Dine, al-Shabaab, Ansar al-Shari'a and al-Qaeda, were the groups at the top of the heap. Boko Haram's communication is constant with most of them but the links are tenuous. The groups are too far apart, safe travel is a burden (a car is really the only secure option) and the cultural differences are perhaps not adequately bridged to make actual alliances an option.

They were mostly using SIGINT (signals intelligence) and IMINT (imagery intelligence). There is some HUMINT in Sub-Saharan Africa but for obvious reasons terrorist networks are notoriously finicky about who they let in their inner circles. And there are no senior defectors.

So, to hear Z tell it, there were many interminable hours of looking at satellite images and footage of militant towns and villages, reading electronic messages and listening to phone calls. Z speaks and reads Arabic which is one reason he was on the taskforce.

Ideally it's the kind of work that gets staffed out so people like Z can perform more high-level analysis but someone had decided that the tastkforce was to remain small, so Z and his colleagues were left to the minutiae.

Tracking Boko Haram's ties to ISIS, Z's group discovered an assortment of expected channels: the obvious shipments of small weapons being ferried (usually via third parties) and the financial help.

Could the financial help have paid for Boko Haram's weapons? I ask Z. He shakes his head and breathes in deeply through his nostrils.

He says the kind of money required is beyond ISIS. And they've been devoting more financial resources to their own survival since the US took a renewed interest in them a few years back.

ISIS had also been sending advisors and trainers to and from the Middle East for years, and they were still coming and going. ISIS is less interested in parochialism than more of a global, patriarchal system with their key men at the center, which explains their willingness to travel, even by car with regularity over such great distance.

It also explains their placing their own man in charge twice (Abu Musab al-Barnawi in 2016, and Abu Mahmd al-Assem in 2022).

Searching for key figures was always going to be the hardest and potentially the most rewarding task. Finding high-level meetings and solving for the main players in those meetings can yield all sorts of interesting clues as to a group's contacts, strategies, limitations and expectations.

When Z's group settled on Boko Haram's ties to ISIS, Z's role turned into looking for these high-level meetings and analyzing the major players, especially looking for al-Assem. No-one knew how long Callaster had been about - whatever it was - but they knew the weapons were a fairly recent development, having only been deployed mid-late last year, so Z focused on meetings occuring 2030 onward.

The taskforce had been given access to all the intel that had been gathered on Boko Haram thus far, which is a monumental amount of data; thirty years' worth, stored on VERITY, the Intelligent database profiled so diligently by Reggie Bensen in the Wall Street Journal last year.

Searching for meetings of significance is more of a lateral thinking exercise. When it comes to people, VERITY's goal is to build a timeline. The more data, the more complete the timeline. She fills in some of the gaps with her reasoning ability, but most of it comes from data entry - from maps, images, footage, messages, etc.

To find information on meetings of significance, you need to find where senior figures' timelines intersect. Z says you can pull up every known key figure in Boko Haram and ISIS, and choose a graphical layout which will literally draw lines for you if you like, marking places, dates, and times of intersection. Where the lines meet up, you have a meeting of key guys.

Z began a search looking for Aces, Kings, Queens and Jacks (the intel agency ranks players based on playing cards). VERITY makes it a little easier because Z wasn't looking for the guys who had been identified, he was looking for who hadn't been. And for any given intersection, she'll show you an avatar for all the missing names (excluding ones and twos who are security guys, messengers, support personnel etc).

So the job then became finding each intersection, and looking at all the evidence to try to find what had been too difficult for someone else. Z looks up and tells me the devil is in the details, and this kind of work is devilish indeed.

The communications are important, but limited because terror networks have realized we are very good at snatching what they say right out of the air. You get a few phone calls, a few electronic messages about an important meeting, but little to help with identification.

You end up having to go through imagery and footage of each meeting, trying to build a case for a name based on the most innocuous evidence: faces (covered), builds, clothing, accessories, number of support personnel, number of security, weapon types, gaits (yes, gaits), vehicles, and any misdirection attempted. All these things among other details, are clues.

You have to tie what you've discovered into what you already know about a figure and hope it matches up.

Z won't tell me how many intersections he was looking at, but will say that it was hundreds. He had gotten past one hundred fifty, and he says it was about one in the morning when he found something interesting.

He was working an intersection in the year 2031 which took place in Baidoa, a town in southern Somalia. It looked like Boko Haram, some al-Shabaab elements, and a known money man linked to ISIS. Z tells me the meeting was late in the day during peak traffic, and the meeting took place in a building close to the city center. Allied incursions are less likely when the surrounding area is full of people who might be hurt.

Intel's list of confirmed identities in the video was displayed on a panel next to the rolling footage Z was watching.

Z saw trucks pulling into an alleyway. Let's say the Queens in this video have been identified as 1, 2, 3, and 4. Z watched these four men exit the trucks and he can spot 1 and 4. On top of his expertise in the area of counter-terrorism, he's been deep into this stuff for two weeks and these people are starting to have a certain familiarity, shall we say. He can ID them quickly without reference.

But 2 and 3 aren't right. He knows a lot about 2 and he's confident about 3. He knows the figures in the footage are not who they've been labelled. 2 and 3 are actually quite well-known figures in the intel community. One mistake would be odd, but two, in the same intersection?

Z pulled up 2. VERITY has him tentatively in Khartoum the next day. Khartoum is almost more than 2,600 kilometers by car, or almost two days. He can't fly. Either it's not 2 in Khartoum or it's not 2 in the footage Z is watching. Z pulls up the Khartoum intersection and zeroes in on an image. He knows that's 2. The figure in Baidoa is not 2.

3 is a mystery and VERITY has nothing on him for weeks after Baidoa. He couldn't corroborate it, but Z knew it wasn't 3 (he won't tell me how). Two mislabelled personalities by professional intel analysts is highly unusual. Z watched the footage with a growing unease - he tells me he had a feeling he was on to something.

After exiting the trucks, the four men make brief pleasantries with their host before entering the building. Then nothing for three hours. Then the men exit the building and it happens: the men are saying goodbye to their host when suddenly all heads jerk left.

VERITY provided the reason: local news reports of a transformer explosion downtown. But that wasn't the interesting part. Each man is wearing sunglasses - they know we watch them - but the angle of 3's sudden cranial movement (left and up) allows a glimpse past his Aviators and by the dim Baidoa streetlights, a look at his right eye.

Z relates his excitement, as his eyes brighten a little. The bar is a little thinner of patrons than it was.

The amount of eye was more than enough, and Z had VERITY run it. It came back.

Abu Mahmd al-Assem.

Despite the unintentional finding of the needle in the haystack, discovering al-Assem posed more questions than it answered. It became imperative to find out how, if at all, he was involved in the acquisition of advanced weaponry and how he was transporting it to Nigeria.

Also: was he still involved in the day-to-day running of Boko Haram? How many of Boko Haram's senior leaders were aware of his survival? Were they following his orders or did they have independence?

And what had he been doing in the two years prior to Baidoa?

Z tells me he called his group leader at home, and was groggily informed that they'd brief the Admiral the next morning. He plays with his glass and yawns, chuckling that he went home and got the best three hours of sleep he'd ever had.

He goes silent. What, I ask him.

Nothing, he says. But it's getting late... - I pat him on the back. C'mon! I say. Your'e not that old. Besides, the story's just getting good.

Z waves me off. Says he'll tell me the rest tomorrow. He thanks me for my company and takes ginger steps out the front door as the cars flee, lights creating contrails in my mind.




CONSEQUENCES




This Callaster thing sits with me all night, and I can't shake it. What is Callaster - or who - and how is al-Assem involved? Where has he been? What's he been doing all this time?

I know there's a story here. I have the first part and I'm eager for the rest of it. The night draws on slowly for me and my mind won't settle, though I try everything from reading to pushups.

Consequently, I don't end up falling asleep until after 2am.

I rise late, so I don't hear the news until late the following morning. I'm working on another piece when I find an AP headline: traffic accident claims 2 lives.

Z didn't make it home.

He had caught a cab which ended up at a set of lights in Georgetown. His cab was rear-ended by a sedan into the path of an oncoming bus, killing both him and the driver instantly.

Z was not a close friend but he was more than a source, which puts me in a state of mild shock. It will seem callous of me to also admit that I regret I won't ever hear the end of the narrative he had spun the previous evening, but that's being a journalist, I tell myself.

He was buried a few days later. I sent flowers. Funerals seem insincere to me; if you want to express your care for somebody, it makes more sense to me to do it before they're involved in a traffic fatality.

I go back to work and the next few days are inconspicuous. Pieces to write, research to do, people to talk to.

But Z's story - even though he was gone - would not do likewise. It sits in the back of my mind like an itch I can't scratch.

The story, in and of itself, could in no way be described as frivolous: there have been American military casualties, a major terror figure had re-emerged, and a third-world enemy responsible for ending millions of lives had just acquired weaponry which gave them the balance of power. In an engagement with the United States.

And it's all being kept secret. Maybe al-Assem is still out there, maybe he's been captured or killed. There are layers of interest.

Also, the issue of the two mislabelled figures at the Baidoa meeting sits above everything like a dirty cloud.

There is a story, but also a legimitate public interest and my responsibility as a journalist is as clear as my need to hear the coda. Hell, the coda and every part in between.

So I go to my editor and ask him for some time to work on something I'm cooking. I've been around long enough that when I tell him I need time to work on something, he knows it's important. But he wants details. I shake my head and he sighs and rapidly clacks his teeth through pursed lips. I want two weeks and he gives me one.

My first calls are to my senior foreign policy/terrorism sources at State, Justice and the FBI. But I mention Callaster and people are suddenly too busy to talk to me.

I tread a finer line with my next two calls. Have you heard about a revitalized Boko Haram, I ask? No and no. What about a new player in the terror community? Any new threats out there? No and no. I've been hearing about something called Callaster?

Harry...I have a meeting to attend, they say. I'll call you back.

They don't call back.

It's then that Z's words come back to me. He had said I wouldn't get anywhere with this and it seems he was right. He also said it would be dangerous for me. I make a mental note.

Three more contacts a little lower down the chain have nothing for me, but there's no subterfuge going on with them. They're just not highly-placed enough for this kind of information.

I go back over Z's story, mentally replaying it. Al-Assem makes a reappearance in Somalia with some of his Boko Haram guys, talking with al-Shabaab and an ISIS dollar boy.

I want to find Callaster, but I need to find al-Assem. Somehow he's central to this.

Maybe I've been going about this the wrong way, I tell myself. Maybe this just requires some more old-fashioned legwork. I have contacts in the intelligence community - perhaps one of them can help me. I'm going to start at the top again, because the information I need is sensitive.

My guy is high enough in the NSA that I know he has VERITY access, and lucky for me, he owes me a favor. I tell him I need something simple: the names and whereabouts of four men snapped in a 2031 meeting in Baidoa. I can't tell him anything else about the meeting except that it involves players from ISIS, al-Shabaab and Boko Haram.

I'm pretending I don't know the names of any of the four guys, and that I'm equally interested in all of them. The public has been darked regarding al-Assem's discovery so if I tell my source I'm looking for al-Assem, I'm concerned he might get the jitters and hang up. At least this way I have a chance.

I know that our new AUGUR satellites have given us virtually unlimited data on people and places of interest to the government. Each satellite reportedly has upward of ten million digital micro mirrors, and there are many AUGURS in orbit. Each mirror has the capacity to capture footage or stills clear enough to differentiate the individual hairs on your head as you walk.

What this means is that the government can extensively monitor huge swathes of territory with incredible detail, which is good news for me.

I know that mirrors are trained on pretty much every major town and city in countries where terrorists operate, and I know the roads are monitored too. Footage is continuously being recorded. What I want is where al-Assem might have gone after Baidoa.

My source says no guarantees, and then hangs up.

I decide to hit the gym in my garage and work the bag a little. My mind feels backed up with information which I need to loosen up. I need things to tumble to the floor so I can pick up the pieces and put them back together the right way.

Half an hour is enough to work up a decent sweat and I'm taking the gloves off when a thought occurs: the Admiral. Z had said his taskforce was headed up by an Admiral.

If I can find the Admiral, I might be able to source more details about the taskforce, including who authorized it, to whom it was reportable, why there was no transparency, and what government actions it had led to. Who knows, maybe we had simply nuked north-eastern Nigeria Or maybe Boko Haram now had nuclear weapons and was nuking us.

No, I think, that would be ridiculous.

Z's Admiral was retired, and known to be well-respected and methodical. Well, I think, that could be any one of dozens...no, probably hundreds of people. Who would have the cachet to be handed a gig like this? I sigh as I realize this is not going to be an easy find.

I have a subscription to Williams Military Bureau which has all sorts of information if you don't mind the very 2025 look and feel of the site. I quickly find a list of retired US Navy Admirals and filter it down to retired, last ten years. That's enough work.

I'm looking for anything suggesting significant ties to the intelligence community, either during his commission or afterward - he only gets a gig like this knowing the right kind of intel folks.

Thankfully WMB's biographies don't stop at retirement from the Navy.

Beyond that, really, I'm open to anything that catches my reporter's eye. Sometimes the most innocent of details will lead to the puzzle being solved, and you just have to rely on your instinct to tell you where to go.

I spend hours looking at a dizzying number of dark blue uniforms and reading things about people's lives summarized in paragraphically-clipped form.

There are more federal intelligence agencies than people are commonly aware of. I know for a fact there are multiple agencies so secretive that they are not subject to oversight, except that of the men and women who run them. They are not accountable to any of the branches of federal government.

My concern is that the officer I'm looking for has fallen into one of those cracks, without touching any of the usual suspects on the way down: CIA, NSA, FBI, NRO, DIA, NGIA, OTFI, OIA.

Etc.

I begin alphabetically.

By 3pm my brain is beginning to object to being forced into such repetitive work for so long; I'm getting a bit foggy. But I'm at the W's and I'll just push on until I'm done.

So I keep going and five minutes later my mind engages the brakes automatically. I've gone past something and my subconscious has taken over.

Orion "Oreo" Wiever.

United States Navy. Iraq, Iraq again, Seventh Fleet, Special Operations Command, Office of Naval Intelligence.

Again, my mind flies right past the obvious. I blink a few times. Office of Naval Intelligence.

Retired Navy, then...NSA, Signals Intelligence Directorate. He's an Admiral with strong links to the intelligence community. More than strong links.

11/4/70 - 4/10/34.

He was killed earlier this year. He's the only Admiral I've found who has passed this year. Z's taskforce was earlier this year.

There are a half dozen other possible candidates, whom I file away for later, but I have a feeling about Wiever. I have a feeling he's my guy. I sit back and promise myself beer and some time away from a screen.

I'm now half an hour into back porch time. I had it remodelled last year but the job wasn't well done and boards creak as I rock back and forth. I enjoy the swaying and the warm mid-August breeze.

When I'm immersed in something I like to take time and completely change channels mentally. I know from experience that my mind will do work subconsciously - who knows how that happens, really - and after an hour or two, will perform very well, often very insightfully.

So I rock back and forth and let my mind do whatever it's doing in the background.

The leaves will drop soon, and what is green and moist will become orange and brown, and a rich red. Time will only hasten the process. And only when the trees are humbled by their nakedness can we understand how richly they had grown.

I can hit my recycling bin from here with my bottle.

I miss it.




DEEPER




The dishes are in the dishwasher which is making a low humming sound. Night has fallen and I'm ready to get back to it. I finish wiping down the countertop and then toss a badly ageing sponge in the bin when the phone rings.

It's my NSA source. He says he has three and a half answers for me, which is cryptic but by now, really not out of the ordinary.

He gives me all four names, without hesitation. None of them are al-Assem. I trust him - relatively speaking, within the confines of our relationship, which might preclude him giving me something as big as al-Assem. But he sounds sincere.

I ask him if he's sure about the names? Of course, he replies. I follow up, asking if, hypothetically one of them had subsequently been ID'd differently...would VERITY have that on file? He says there would be a record of it, and a record of the contradiction being escalated for analysis and decision. He says none of the four figures have any contra decisions on file.

Z had discovered al-Assem, and had forwarded it to his group leader, who had presumably forwarded it to his Admiral. And there's now no record. Which means someone with access to VERITY has gone to lengths to see that no-one thinks that 3 is al-Assem.

I'll take the bold step of presuming it's the same person who mislabelled both 2 and 3.

I bring my mind back on track as my source starts to rattle off the current locations of the four men: Cairo, Dinsoor, N'Djamena...then he pauses. He tells me the fourth one was a bit of a mystery (there's that word again).

There is no forward ident on the last guy, he says. Which is strange because it's extremely rare for VERITY to have no forward ident on a Queen. These guys show up on the grid precisely because of their importance.

Z had said that both 2 and 3 had been tracked by VERITY forward of the Baidoa meeting. 2 is a mystery, but 3 has already positively been identified by Z as al-Assem. I'm guessing it's 3 whose forward ident has been erased. Someone doesn't want al-Assem's movements known.

My source continues, explaining that there is however, a backward ident on the mystery man. The truck he uses at the Baidoa meeting has a ding on the hood and that's enough for VERITY to place the same truck in Mogadishu Port the previous evening. They keep a mirror on the port permanently since Somalia is a major terror hotspot and terrorists need supplies.

Upon finding the truck, my source says VERITY also found the man among the people in the footage of the port. She has him disembarking from a container ship.

Do you have the name of the ship, I ask, too eagerly.

He tells me it's the Da Kang Shan. The man in question has an odd backward ident, he continues.

No kidding.

There's no record of him leaving Africa, and anyway being al-Shabaab he's pretty exclusively in Somalia. What he's doing coming in on a container vessel, my source can't figure. But two weeks earlier, he was in northern Somalia.

I ask where the Da Kang Shan has come in from.

Hell, you can check that yourself, he scoffs. He tells me we're even. I ask him for one more thing, and I know I'm pushing things but he really is well-positioned to know. He grunts impatiently.

I ask him if he has heard of an Admiral Wiever? I say I heard he died earlier this year.

Sure, he says. That was big news. All over the news for a couple days...he's surprised I'm not familiar with it.

Killed in a car accident, he says.

We hang up. My mind shorts out a bit and I try to mentally put everything back in the correct socket.

So I'm looking for Callaster, which has led me to al-Assem, who has been located by a taskforce using a database being altered by somebody to cover al-Assem's presence and movements.

And a member of the taskforce has been killed in a car accident. Another, whom I strongly suspect was the taskforce's leader, has also been killed.

There isn't a word for how I'm feeling at this moment. I'm thinking about the deaths of Z and Wiever and frankly, I'm a little concerned for my own safety. I'm also travelling toward a place of real concern - someone tampering with VERITY? That's got to be someone highly-placed.

But I'm also a journalist and I have a bead on al-Assem. If not his forward movements, then at least something pre-Baidoa. A break in the case, if you want to put it like that.

Shipping itineraries are easy to find; you can visit the individual shipping lines' sites or go to an aggregator (far easier). I visit Marine Logical Systems' site and punch up the Da Kang Shan. I filter for 2031 results.

&Da Kang Shan | CCOL Shipping | CNSHA Dep 7/5/31 | SOMGQ Arr 7/26/31&

She left Shanghai the fifth of July.

What's al-Assem doing in China?

I'm starting to get excited. I call my NSA source again, figuring I'll owe him one now, but he's not available.

I want access to VERITY again, and this time I can be truthful; I'll simply ask for any intel VERITY has on an Arabic man boarding the Da Kang Shan on the date in question. I know al-Assem is Arabic based on the old photo of him which was splashed across thousands of websites doing pieces on him, when ISIS first placed him in charge of Boko Haram.

Ideally VERITY will show him in a car with a plate number, preferably with other people.

I have two other intelligence sources who are probably high enough for VERITY. Neither of them can talk to me, and neither of them will promise to call me back. Odd. But not odd, really. Z painted this as a pretty tough nut to crack, and he was right.

This needs mulling.

The air is slightly cooler, but I'll turn the overhead fan on when I go to sleep. The steady beat whooshing above me will help my mind switch off.




FLIGHT




The following morning, I'm packing my leather bag with jeans, shirts, underwear and socks. I throw in a few toiletries and my tablet and a couple snacks, and grab my passport. My phone is in my left pocket, my wallet in my right. I grab my jacket and bag and check the place. Everything turned off?

Good. I'm going to China.

I live in Rockville, north of Bethesda, which is about a half hour commute to Dulles. I don't mind that, because I have research to do and so I grab my tablet. I have to think, and research who can help me in Shanghai. I need a list of people so I can go to a second and a third option if necessary. I have to know as much as I can about them as I can find; anything might come in handy. These are not people who owe me favors.

The route to Dulles takes me over the Potomac, and I am engrossed in research. It's another ten minutes before I look out the window and my head twitches. I'm seeing lots of greenery on both sides of the road, with upper middle-class houses dotting the landscape. We're on a two-lane road heading west.

We should either be on the I-495 heading south or Dulles Toll Road heading west. Dulles Toll Road is five lanes in each direction.

There are no cars around us.

I ask the driver where he's going. In a thick Eastern European accent he tells me, better way. I say this is not the way to the airport. He tells me better way, and his eyes meet mine in the rear-view. I feel my lips part slightly and they are dry.

In a blink, the cab driver pulls a pistol with a long barrel, and points it at me. I grab his arm and aim it up as chk sounds send bullets flying into the roof. He has one hand on the steering wheel and I grab his left wrist and twist as hard as I can. I have no experience in hand-to-hand combat but I know this hurts and he lets out a yelp and drops the gun. I open the door to see green and brown whizzing by.

I quickly judge what's safer and throw my bag out. The driver is regaining composure and speeding up. I edge myself toward the door and jump into a ditch, remembering something about rolling supposedly helping if you have to jump from a moving vehicle.

They lied.

I watch as the cab speeds into the distance, rear door bouncing back and forth.

Dusting myself off (miraculously, I'm not seriously hurt), I walk back in search of my bag. It's about five minutes before I find it in a thicket of trees. I brush the dirt off it and sling it over my right shoulder. I set off east, walking another five minutes before coming to a red brick mansion with columns in front.

I need to catch my flight. I put my experience with the cab driver out of my mind so I can function, but only far enough to realize that catching another cab might be a poor idea.

Walking up the driveway, I stand before two oak doors and ring the doorbell. A boy in his late teens opens the door.

Yeah, he says more than asks. I ask if his parents are home. He shakes his head, uh-uh.

I tell him who I am and that I work for the Post. I tell him I just got taken for a ride by a cab driver and I need to get to Dulles. I decide to just be straightforward, and I tell the kid if he has his license, I'll give him five hundred bucks for a lift. The kid looks at me suspiciously.

You can call the Post's switch and ask for my boss to verify my identity, if you like, I say.

He says that's cool but he wants to see the money. I pull out my wallet and give him half. I tell him the other half is his at Dulles. When people actually handle the cash they usually will go along with what you want them to do.

He says okay but it's his dad's car, which I'm fine with, without really understanding why that's important. He tells me to wait and shuts the door. Not long after, he's pulling out in a Ferrari.

I blink.

Five minutes later we're back on the I-495 heading south, and I reflect on the ridiculousness of the situation I've gotten myself into: I'm searching for one of the most wanted terrorists in the world in pursuit of a person or organization even more mysterious, I almost got shot, and now I'm being driven to Dulles by a teenage kid in a Ferrari so I can go to China.

You can't make this stuff up.

I make small talk with him. He's halfway through telling me about his girlfriend - she's volunteering with an NGO in South Africa - when I realize I don't have my tablet.

I left it in the cab. They have my tablet.

Lucky for me I'm somewhat old-school. I don't store personal files or data on my tablet. And I don't keep notes digitally - actually, I'm cautious that way, and I think I might be inclined to be even more cautious in future. But I keep a notepad, which as of right now is in my bag. It has everything I don't want to have to remember.

But with my tablet they'll have a decent idea of where I'm going and what I'm planning to do. I'm going to have to try something else. I mentally curse my not thinking with more clarity while bullets were being fired at me, as I hear how great Jessica looks in short shorts, y'know?

I settle myself with the thought that whoever I've antagonized clearly has the capacity to see what I'm researching anyway. There's nothing on my tablet they can't pull from VERITY or half a dozen similar systems. That's actually a discomfitting thought: I could have a VERITY timeline.

I try not to think about the fact that they're trying to kill me.




SHANGHAI




As I walk into the arrivals lounge at Shanghai's Pudong Airport, I half expect to see a man in a dark suit and tie, wearing a black cap and dark glasses, and holding a sign with my name on it.

Instead there's the usual gaggle of people, all excitedly waiting for loved ones and friends. Their earnest anticipation makes me think of Allison. We haven't been together for six years - she remarried three or four years ago, I can't remember which.

Why am I seeing her face now?

I clear my mind and look at my watch. 7:30pm. There's a cafe selling an assortment of outrageously-overpriced sandwiches and croissants that may or may not have been made this week. Hard to tell.

Handing over 200 Yuan ($30) for a ham salad sandwich, a coffee and an apple, I retreat to look at the people. Am I being watched? Are there intel people surveilling my every move? I'm sure I wouldn't know it. I've had more than enough conversations with the right people to know that if they don't want to be noticed, you won't notice them.

I have to put aside my burgeoning paranoia and get to the task at hand.

There are fifty or sixty cabs waiting for me as I enter the cool Chinese night. Figuring they can't all be operatives, I simply pick one.

I ask to be taken to the street address of a certain, prominent Chinese newspaper. I have a friend on staff, a reporter I know from years back. I'll call him F. We help each other from time to time on stories.

F is one of the most fastidious and dogged reporters in China. He's known for pieces which expose massive corruption in Chinese politics, some of which have led to the untimely end of exceptionally powerful people. Generals, Party Seretaries and the like.

Some in the upper reaches of China's élite appreciate his efforts and even consult with him in their internal investigations; others despise him. His newspaper provided him with permanent security a few years back after two assassination attempts while he was doing some digging into the financial affairs of a provincial Governor's son.

In other words, F is extremely well-connected.

We pull up to the newspaper's headquarters. I pull my notepad from my bag and write a quick note. I promise the cab driver fifty American dollars if he'll take it inside and see it delivered to F. Just tell reception you're working with F on a story, I say, and that you need to speak to him.

It may be 8pm but if I know F, he's still at the office.

I watch my driver ascend the grey steps of the building and cautiously enter the lobby, invitingly-lit in shades of gold. I take the time to look out the windows of the cab, half expecting to see red dots moving about the seats.

Other cars speed by, and no-one shoots me. There are no parked sedans whose lights suddenly flash on as they roar away. I look at the buildings standing over me all around. Shanghai is an extravaganza of light, and I can't check every window for snipers, but I want to.

The buildings are lit in exciting shades of green, blue and red.

My raging paranoia escalates slowly for ten minutes before I see a figure suddenly in my field of vision. I'm pressed up against the window and I recoil as my cab driver gets in, before I audibly exhale.

He say, yes. The driver nods as if to drive home the point. I ask him to drive me to a different location - even in my addled state, I have a plan.

We arrive twenty minutes later astride the entrance to a street food market. Bidding my driver thanks with fare, a fifty and a tip, I shoulder my bag and walk in, trying as hard as I can to look like any other western visitor. I look this way and that as if intrigued by the food on offer.

The market is well-patronized and lit with lightbulbs which hang from makeshift bamboo frames. Brightly-painted signs match the array of foods on offer under awnings. Lots of awnings.

My concern is that VERITY is looking at me right now with an AUGUR, and I need to use my wits to throw her off. She's intelligent, but I intend on testing that with a little tradecraft.

There are breaks in the awnings here and there which offers VERITY a view of anyone passing through, but up ahead the awnings on either side touch each other for twenty or thirty feet which gives me cover among the population shuffling through. As I pass under them I spot a vendor with access to the kitchen from the street. There's a doorway in back leading further into the building.

Something sweet is sizzling in a wok with lots of steam, in front of a small potbellied man in a t-shirt and slacks.

I stop and take off my jacket, stuffing it in my bag, and placing a black hat on my head. I zip up my bag and dart to my right, into the kitchen and behind the chef.

Busting through a shower of beads, I hear several people call out in clipped Mandarin tones, and the chef spots me and sets off in pursuit, adding things which sound decidedly unfriendly.

I've run into the guy's house and I guess I'd be a bit upset too.

His slow footsteps on thin carpet betray a fairly slow stride, and adrenalin is fueling memories of my quarterback days in college as I launch myself into a living room. There's an old woman watching a Chinese soap playing on an even older CRT television. She doesn't flinch as I bolt left down a short corridor, coming to a doorway covered in flaking green paint.

I unlock it and throw myself into a narrow alley covered from above with clothes lines which, luckily for me, are dressed as fully as the last time I was here. F and I had thrown up nearby after an all-night bender we regretted the following morning.

I hear the door slam behind me.

The second level of the row of houses overhang this particular street by a couple feet, which means I can walk under cover and hope that VERITY can't spot me. There are no cameras here, I tell myself. I make my way north, emerging on a busy street.

Turning right, I walk for ten minutes before finding the place I'm looking for. This Callaster business better be worth it, I tell myself. I'm getting too old for this.




COLLABORATION




The bar is decidedly western and lacks even token Oriental embellishments, having long ago sold its soul to the idea that young professionals are more in love with all things American and European.

Such is the way of large cities in emerging economies. They all want to be the Occident.

I spot F at the end of the bar near a corner. He is already sipping from a Heineken. I approach and clap him on the back. His face breaks into a smile.

Still ugly, he asks me. I nod and gesture to the bartender for what he's having.

F speaks perfect American. In fact, if you were chatting to him on the phone without knowing anything about him, you'd swear he was from the Midwest. He studied at Michigan, then Harvard Law.

He's looking a little older now than he used to, but that probably comes from working 80 hours a week at a job which encourages powerful men to try to kill you.

I wonder how old I look.

We exhange pleasantries, catching up as I try to ward off the fog creeping through my brain, demanding rest. I've travelled through twelve time zones and engaged in subterfuge. John Mellencamp plays too loudly in the background, irritating me.

The bartender pops the top off my beer and sets it before me. I take a long swig as F says, easy there tiger.

F asks what he can do for me, and my eyes shift left and right, taking in the upscale clientele socializing around us under warm lighting.

I tell him about the man I'm searching for, without mentioning al-Assem by name. Relating that it's for a story gives me no cover with F who can tell by my facial expression that it's a little more than that.

Do you have any contacts, I ask, who might be able to access footage of the Port of Shanghai when this man stepped on the Da Kang Shan? And who could backtrack his movements, tell me where he came from before embarking? I know Shanghai has CCTV cameras everywhere so it shouldn't be too hard to track him in and around the city.

F strokes the light stubble under his chin and dusts some detritus from his fingertips. He suggests that a contact on the party side of Shanghai's Municipal Government might be able to assist. He's a middleweight who considers himself a heavyweight and feels important when he's asked for favors.

The guy knows some of the top people in Shanghai International Port Group, the company managing the port, says F. But he'll want payment in cash.

I ask how much; F suggests a figure which has me pleasantly surprised.

And that will buy me the location he came from? F nods and says hell, I might be able to get you the location he was at before that one.

I upend my bottle, savoring the last drops of beer and run my hands down my face. F asks where I'm staying. I shrug - hotel, I guess.

Get your bag, he says, you can sleep on my couch tonight.




REVELATION




It's dark when my eyes flutter open gently. They're still heavy but that will change when I throw some water on my face. I look at my watch. 7pm. I hate travelling between time zones.

F has left the light off in his living room to accomodate me, but I can see a glow peeking out from a doorway at the end of a short hallway. There's a woman's and a child's voice. Oh, that must be F's family, I think. A yawn overpowers my facial muscles.

Looking down, I can see a large envelope placed atop my bag. I blink at it, then tear it open. There's a note inside, along with a map and an 8" x 10" photo.

Only got one location. Hope this helps. You owe me money!!! F

The map shows a route in red leading from the Port of Shanghai. It stops several kilometers away at a building. Oh, there's a note at the bottom. PTO. I flip the map.

Varantia China Research, Inc.

That means nothing to me. I look at the photo.

There, in a dark suit and purple tie, is Abu Mahmd al-Assem, exiting a building with a VCR logo above the door.

I look up at the sound of footsteps padding across the floor. A little girl with big brown eyes stares up at me. I blink and she giggles.

Her mother follows and scoops up the little girl. Hello, I say. She smiles and says hello in stilted English. Please- eat, she says, gesturing to the counter. There's a meal slowly cooling, with a Coke next to it. I bow my head in a clipped gesture and thank her. I ask if I might use the bathroom.

Oh- you shower. She points down the hall and to the right. I bow again.

The hot water feels good on my skin - it will be nice to feel human once more. The soap is refreshing and I can feel the steam open my pores. I exit the shower red like a lobster. There are towels.

I step out of the bathroom and see F to my right. He's standing at the doorway to a bedroom. He says something in Mandarin to his wife and then approaches. I thank him for the shower and the food.

Yeah, I saw you didn't eat yet. You slept too long, he says. You're gonna be jetlagged big time now. I nod.

I thank him again for the information. Did it help you, he asks.

Not sure, I reply. I need to do some research. Do you have a device, he asks, pointing to his laptop. You can use my-

I cut him off. For this, I say, it's better I don't. He slowly nods knowingly.

Are there any internet cafés left in Shanghai, I ask? F scoffs. Maybe, he says. In a poorer area where everyone might not have devices.

Twenty-five minutes later we're sitting on rickety old office chairs of differing colors. The ripped fabric testifies to the sort of place we're in, surrounded by Shanghai's urban demimonde. I can see a monitor in the corner which looks like a large box. Haven't seen one of those in decades, I think.

There is a smell of sweat and tea in the air.

I dust off the grey keyboard for reasons I'm not sure, since the grime has long been plastered to the edges of the keys.

I'm pretty sure an AUGUR can pull web traffic out of the air but I have no time to be that paranoid. I have to do research somehow in order to decide what to do next. My fear is that VERITY is trying to put a mirror on me and is waiting for certain search strings to be accessed before honing in with an AUGUR, to see if that person matches my description.

Again, I have no time to be that paranoid. I'll have to stick to the regular amount of paranoid.

I search for Varantia China Research.

The responses I get indicate that they're in medical research, but everything is irritatingly-vague. Their website is a shrine to terms like "industry-leading standards" and "outcome-driven performance".

Other sites' references to VCR are equally ambiguous and only deal with their work in a very general nature. There's information on VCR's stock movement, but that rounds out what is available. There's very little, which in itself is strange.

I decide to try searching the staff instead, and VCR can actually help me here as they have a 'who we are' page on their site. They're headed up by Dr Julius Kracj. Oh, they've been headed up by Kracj since their inception.

Let's see who Dr Kracj is, I think, tapping away.

Turns out Dr Kracj - let's use that term very loosely - is extremely interesting. His specialty is bioresearch with military application. He was in essence, chased out of Germany in 2018 for experimenting on patients at a university hospital, and found his way to Russia two years later. The WHO, Amnesty International and Interpol suspect him of using Russian prisoners as guinea pigs for experimentation.

And now he's in China, heading up a medical research firm, and being visited by al-Assem.

I feel ten kinds of warm and fuzzy inside.

My train of thought is disrupted by the power going out. I look outside, to see buildings all over the neighborhood darkened. In the café, other patrons turn on their cell phones and a sprinkling of blue screens illuminates a little of the darkness.

I suggest to F that we should go and he concurs.

We're parked nearby and the flashlight in F's phone shows the way. We're soon hurtling down Shanghai's streets. F says I can stay another night if I need to, and I'm grateful. I need to think and a place to do it is welcome. F knows the drill.

We turn on to a street devoid of traffic, with low-rise commercial buildings watching our passage. I notice F's hands tighten on the steering wheel. I look back into a pair of headlights flashing twice. Temporarily blinded, I blink and shake my head.

F curses. A dark car pulls alongside us and a window is lowered. We're dead, I think. They're going to blow us off the road. Maybe in China you don't need to manufacture 'traffic fatalities'.

An arm reaches through and a finger gestures to us in sharp jabs. They want us to pull over. F's head swivels between looking at the finger and looking at the road. The finger turns into a pistol. Watch out, I say. F mutters in disgusted Mandarin under his breath. I'm starting to wish we'd brought some of his security with us.

F pulls over.

The car pulls alongside and the figure who had been pointing a gun speaks a few stabbing words that sound like orders.

He wants us to follow him, F explains with a tone of muted anger. His face suggests foregone conclusion.

We follow the car around a corner, along another deserted street before turning into a parking garage.

Well, nice knowing you.

Proceeding up one level, the car comes to a stop. F brings us to a halt nearby. Two men exit the passenger side of the vehicle. An older man with thinning hair on top and a younger man carrying a satchel. Both wear dark suits and stony-faced grimaces.

We get out. F starts to speak and is quickly cut off with a bark from the older man.

You, Mr Gilchrist, says the older man. My eyes quickly become saucers. He is pointing at me.

You are looking for Callaster, he continues. It's not a question.

You will not find Callaster here.

I manage to speak, despite the extraordinary circumstances. Do you know who Callaster is, I ask.

The man's expression does not change.

Callaster is not here. You need to look at your home more closely.

I begin to explain that I don't understand, but he cuts me off with a bark at the younger man, who approaches with the satchel. He unbuckles it and produces a photo.

It's an 8" x 10" and I don't immediately recognize what I'm looking at. It looks like a large cement wall, with water lapping at the base. It's clearly early morning because a city skyline is silhouetted in the distance.

F gets it just before I do. That's the New York City seawall, he says. He's right.

There's a figure at the base of the wall where the waves are gently cresting. The figure is in a wetsuit and has a scuba tank. He or she is circled in red.

What is this, I ask, looking at the older man. He says nothing. The younger man places the photo back in the satchel and produces another.

This time it's a protest. A group of demonstrators who are predominantly black but with a multiethnicity which suggests America. There are hundreds of them, standing before a man with his back to the camera. The man's head is circled in red. The image is grainy and reveals nothing particular about the man.

F has nothing this time, gently shaking his head.

I look up at the older man again. If anything, his jaw is set even tighter.

The photo is placed back in the satchel and a third one produced. It shows three men in the reception area of a small office at what looks like ground-level. Above the reception desk is a logo which reads 'Klumbo'.

The three men have their arms around each other's shoulders and are smiling. The one on the left is circled in red and has his hand in front of his face as if to shield his eyes from the flash. I think to myself, they're not using flash, there's natural light all over the place.

I look up again and my palms involuntarily rotate upward.

I don't understand what I'm seeing, I say to the older man.

Find Callaster, he says. The younger man places the third photo in the satchel and gets in the car, following the older man. The doors shut with a soft thud. Tyres screech and the car speeds down toward the exit.

Does that normally happen, I ask F.

No, he replies. What normally happens in situations like this is they shoot you with a silenced pistol.

And yet...I begin.

F turns to me, looking quizzically at my studied expression. I find my voice.

I say, just before he left, when he said find Callaster...he was afraid.

F stands there in silence with me.

C'mon, he says, I'll take you to the airport.




Harry Gilchrist has been missing for six weeks. Forensic investigators provided this final piece to the Washington Post yesterday after being alerted to its presence by Google on a previously unknown account linked to Harry. If you have any information on Harry's whereabouts, please contact authorities immediately.
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