Originally submitted to NYC Midnight’s 2019 Flash Fiction contest. (Genre: Spy, Object: ATV, Location: Sweat lodge. Ranked #8 out of top 15 in First Round Results.
Tariq, an undercover spy for the U.S. Department of Defense, meets with a high-ranking ISIS official to exchange niceties, and death, in a Turkish bathhouse in Antalya.
I stare at the wet scrap of paper between my fingers. The ink is running as fibers unravel into a globular pulp. Mila handed it to me right as I walked into the change room.
I undress, revealing a built sandy figure and neatly-trimmed black pubes. The other men in the room are chitchatting casually in Turkish as they dress and undress to enter the steam room. I look for a big bushy beard, hoping to find Maulana Abu Bakr, or the thirty-something year old previously known as Khurram Ismaili. He’s the third in command with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or colloquially known as ISIS. He’s also a big fan of Turkish hamams in Antalya, a stone’s throw away from his crumbling empire in Syria.
Remnants of the paper seep in between my fingers. I wipe them down with my red checkered peştemal, loosely throwing it around my waist. The good about these places is you can bring your own towel. Pulling one end tighter, I wipe the remaining paper pulp and trace the cotton lining with my fingers for a small pocket. Around here, the most secure lines aren’t encoded, they’re ink on paper. The glass vial sits snugly inside. Thallium has a high aqueous solubility, and it is perfectly colorless, tasteless, and odorless.
“Hoş geldiniz, brother, salaam,” a man calls out. Khurram’s stocky fat palm slaps my shoulder from behind.
“Salaam,” I say, turning to him. We speak niceties in Urdu as I wait for him to undress and shower. I watch as he bends to remove his salvar, or shalwar as they say in Pakistan. His belly fat folds over and covers his small penis. No wonder his ego is so inflated, but I wonder if I’m any better. “I’ve waited all day for this,” he grins as he wraps himself in an extra large towel. “Alhamdullilah.” For America’s most wanted terrorists, Khurram is short, with a small nose and beady eyes. He is nothing particularly striking to look at.
We enter the hamam and head to the göbektaşı, the central, raised platform above the heating source.
We continue niceties in Urdu for a while. He asks about my work and my father’s health. I tell him things are okay but I am interested in shifting my work to something meaningful. He smiles and nods, splaying out his legs and sitting back on arms as he looks me in the eye. I try to keep my eyes softened to avoid appearing too aggressive.
“When do you go back?” Khurram says, referencing my return to the United States. He understands that I have high security clearance at the Department of Defense. He also understands that I am unhappy and eager to reconnect with Islamic roots that my father covered up in a desperate act to assimilate into American culture.
Or so Khurram thinks.
I do have high security clearance with the Department of Defense. But, unbeknownst to Khurram, I love my father’s patriotism and my country.
And I’m in Antalya for one purpose, and that is to kill Khurram Ismaili.
“Soon,” I reply.
“Inshallah, you will have information before you go,” he says. The attendant approaches me and pours warm water to loosen my angst. He sets his bucket down near my arms and begins scrubbing, as bubbles form all over my body and turn me into a wet cloud.
Khurram watches, almost too eagerly.
I met him in 2016 through online forums managed by ISIL, following his Twitter account and exchanging conversation about the wretched state of America. He’s sent me sizable files of propaganda, religious scripture, and photos of his guns. We share a fondness for the Glock 19, mostly due to its concealed size. Tariq, he calls me sometimes. Madarchod, motherfucker, mostly. I tell him both the Democrats and the Republicans don’t give a shit about protecting Muslims. He’s agreed repeatedly, eventually inviting me to meet him in Antalya. He’s given me assignments to study the principles of Wahhabi Islam, with basic phrases and prayer.
“ISIL is the halal NRA,” he laughs, spinning around to lay flat for his turn on the marble. I slide the vial out of my pocket, popping it open and throwing it into the bucket. The attendant pays no attention to our conversation, moving to scrub Khurram next.
“Saat kaç?” I call out in Turkish. The attendant tells me it is fifteen after four, throwing the wash cloth heartily into the tainted thallium bubbles. I remember that Mila is waiting outside in an unmarked ATV. For miles out of the town, there is nothing but dusty Turkish wilderness. Our secured pickup is near Demirciler, an hour and a half away.
“In a hurry?” Khurram rolls over. Drenched in contaminated bubbles, he’s laying on his side like a schoolboy chatting with his friends. I feel for the attendant, but symptoms will develop a few days later after we’ve returned to the States.
“I have to report back, they’ll become suspicious,” I say.
He nods, straightening himself out and readjusting his towel. “Are we good for Güllük tomorrow at 11? There is Termessos there, we can meet again.” Khurram is talking about a meeting we’ve arranged for intel about remaining US troops in Syria. While they’ve dwindled recently after Trump’s withdrawal, there are a precious few remaining ripe for hostage taking.
My brother Faisal comes to mind. Ground pounders, I smile. Our father tells everyone how proud he is of his sons, both in the Armed Forces. You couldn’t get more assimilated than that.
I push myself up to leave. “Inshallah,” I reply. He smiles widely, satisfied with my progress. “You are a good Pakistani boy,” he grins stupidly. “Just like me.”
Discarding my towel before entering the change room, I grab my salvar and loose top. I pocket my keys and skimpy wallet, containing a fake identification card and inactivated cards to a nearby hotel.
“Allah ‘akbar,” I say, exiting the bathhouse. I’m greeted by Mila’s familiar face outside.