| The Invitation
The doorbell rang late one afternoon. I opened the door
and found a white envelope a messenger had placed on the floor
mat. It was an invitation for dinner that evening. In classic
Bristol, the card gave the address and the time without further
indication. I looked at the back to see if there was any mention of
the host, a phone number, an RSVP? Nada!
After a shower and a fresh shave, I jumped into a tailored
black suit; sprayed some of my favorite cologne; checked
whether my tie matched the rest; dropped some visit cards inside
my pocket and I was ready for what I had concluded would be an
adventure. I had decided that I would be elegantly fashionable,
but not too much: just enough to be ready to tackle any social
I hadn't even entered the building cited on the invitation
when a lady abruptly opened the door.
"Yes, that's me."
"Follow me, please. Where is your car?" she asked.
"Right around the corner," I replied.
"Let's take it."
I had an old British convertible that I had bought for a
good price in an auction and that I would only take out on
occasions. I saw a quick smile briefly break her serious mask
when she saw the vehicle.
"I like these older cars," I added in an attempt to break the
ice. "You really feel the road and experience sensations that you
can no longer have when you drive today's high tech cocoon
"Sure," she responded without any interest.
"May I know where we are going?"
"I can't tell you, but be patient and in a few moments
you'll know all about it."
"How about giving me a clue?"
"I wish I could, but I can't. Please, be patient."
This time, her voice was slightly supplicating. It may be
cliche, but I can't resist an imploring pretty woman. So, I stopped
short of grilling her and accepted my fate.
I may have never told this to any one before, but a great
advantage to driving a low convertible sports car. Even an
antique like mine is not just the sensations you're getting from
driving - when the weather is amicable - but it's also that the
compression of space in the cabin, the low seats, and the stick
shift just inches away from your passenger are all factors that
could play to your advantage, if you're riding with a lady you are
courting. By letting your hand slide "inadvertently" to the side of
the stick shift - or miss it as you are twisting your body to
negotiate a narrow turn, you initiate physical contact and test her
reaction. If you have - as I have - acquired some expertise in this
field through the years, you can get a pretty good feel of where
you stand on her "likeability" scale based on how she reacts?
I didn't feel like using any of what I just revealed. I didn't
know where she was taking me, and whether it's one of those
Russian mafia deals where they use pretty girls to hook up some
naive guys and then blackmail them for the rest of their lives with
compromising pictures. But I am not married, so nobody cares
with whom I hook up.
My guide avoided looking at me and directed me from
street to street, from light to light, without giving me any further
insight as to the target location. After just a few minutes of
blindfolded ride, we arrived at our destination.
"Here we are; that's the building seventy-seven forty-four,"
she indicated. "Go up to the third floor."
"Left or right?" I asked.
"There is only a red door."
"All right; thank you, Miss?. I am sorry; I did not get
"You have a good evening. And, by the way, nice car!"
That was unexpected. I knew she would not give me her
name, but her admission that she liked my car came as a surprise.
I think she liked me. Or, maybe I am being naive and selfindulgent.
The door was Japanese red. A brunette with striking good
looks opened the door. What's with these babes? I wondered. Is
this a modeling agency or some kind of preview staged for some
happy few fashionistas to which I am invited by mistake?
The space was empty: no furniture and nothing on the
walls. Only the floor, with its nice mosaic tiles of Greco-Roman
theme, created some liveliness in an otherwise gloomy environment.
My guide was not exactly beaming from excessive joy either, but I
had gotten used to that already and I didn't mind.
A "welcome" cheered me as I entered a large room where
two gentlemen sat on the bare floor. This was the first greeting
with some real warmth in it that I had heard since the beginning
of this evening, while I was bounced from one robotic guide to
another cold hostess. The gentleman was possibly in his sixties, a
bit obese, wearing a three-piece dark suit?unexpectedly covered
by a Jelabah. The other person was younger and definitely
slimmer, but dressed almost similarly - with the Jelabah. What
kind of eccentric fellows am I dealing with? I wasn't really afraid
but I wasn't sure where I had landed. The two men look pretty
"So, what's this invitation about: a romantic Bedouin
dinner on the deserted office floor?" I asked. "Forgive me, but I
could not resist." Both laughed politely.
"Allow me to introduce myself: I am Hector Elias
Shumington III. And here is my good friend: the respectable Dr.
We shook hands and I sat on the bare floor.
When I dressed classic chic to suit any social occasion, I
hadn't exactly in mind this kind of indoor picnic. But then again,
as the saying goes, when in Casablanca, do as the... Or maybe
was it something slightly different? I can't remember.
"You may be wondering," started Shumington, "why we
have brought you in here. But before that, I would like to
apologize for the mystery that has had to envelop your visit.
All Iterrorist activities. We believe we are onto something very
important, which, if not prevented, could have catastrophic
consequences. In your books, you have addressed the subject
long before anybody else. Our analysts have meticulously studied
both your professional and private lives - to an extent you can
hardly imagine - and, out of several potential candidates, they
have concluded that you are best qualified for this task."
"I am flattered, but is this a joke? Is this a prank? Come
on, gentlemen, wherever you are hiding, come on out. I got it. It
was wonderfully planned. Now, come on out and let's celebrate
your revenge. Dinner is on me." I scanned the room looking for a
door to open and see my friends jump out laughing. "You too,
gentlemen, you were great. I don't know which talent agency
they've hired you from, but give me your cards because I may
need your services one of these days: I am an inveterate prankster
"Sir, this is serious business. Many lives are at stake,"
Necromonti said with his marked Italian accent, a bit offended by
Shumington was not laughing. Necromonti was
consternated. Looking at their faces, I realized that either I was
wrong or these guys were very good. So, I decided to go along
with their story and let it unfold.
"Okay, my apologies. Continue, per favore, dottore."
"Grazie; what was I saying?" Necromonti was trying to
recover from a moment of confusion. "Oh, yes? that we picked
you to help us track and neutralize a looming danger. We have
received indications that a group of individuals somewhere,
somehow, are preparing to hit. But we don't know where, when
"You sound like George W. Bush and the Iraqi WMDs."
I can tell you is that we didn't have any choice; they were simple
security measures for your own safety."
"Yes, I am still clueless," I said, faking self-confidence.
"But I am here and I am listening."
"How can I phrase this?" Shumington's face expressed
intense cogitation while Dr. Necromonti either stared at the floor
or at Shumington, obviously boiling with impatience, "?we need
This being said, what did they need my help for? What do
I know or what do I do that can help them? I do ‘consultant on
international affairs' for a living. I sell my pseudo-expertise to
big businesses and political organizations alike. I also write a
book and some articles from time to time, just to stay in sight. I
know: these guys have just discovered the Jelabah and want to
launch the trend in the US, but don't know how to approach the
Moroccan Government to get export licenses and need my help to
teach them how to court Rabat with cultural sensitivity in mind...
"How can I help you?" I said.
"This is where it becomes a bit complicated," Shumington
Necromonti took over. "We are here on a mission to
convince you to help us save the planet from a potentially deadly
"Come on; give me a break!" These guys, with their
three-piece suits and their Jelabahs, sitting on the floor of an
empty office, couldn't expect me to buy into these cheesy lines.
"I know; please, perdone our methods," Necromonti said.
"But the truth is that you are the person we need to conduct this
"What mission?" I asked with some irritation.
"Be patient, per favore," Necromonti said. "We work for
an international agency that fights unconventional crime and
We have some trails to follow God knows where --
actually, allow me to correct: Hell knows where would be more
appropriate. It would take someone like you to figure it out."
"I am no James Bond. This is a job for the CIA, the FSB,
the MI5, the Mossad, the Mukhaberat, or even La Piscine, and
definitely not for me. The only thing that I see in my profile, that
may have caught your attention, is the word international; other
than that, I am just a cerebral - a pathetic intellectual. I analyze
others' actions and minds and theorize and gloze about them and
sell the result to make a living. Besides, I make it a point of ethics
not to get involved with any of the subjects of my studies."
"We have done our homework," Shumington said, "and
we know a lot about you - probably more than you would want us
to know. But, since you asked, the one thing that qualifies you
more than the other competitors is your sense of instinct, your
aura. You guess and subodorate things like no other can."
"Thank you." I was indeed flattered by the compliment.
"I am not flattering you," Shumington said. "You had
guessed years ago that some dangerous minds could use the
collapse of the Soviet-Union to acquire bio-weapons to harm
"I recall how my publisher laughed at me and the media
dismissed it as ‘unimaginably fantasist,' preferring to put the
emphasis on the collection and destruction of nuclear warheads
"Well, Sir, I think that what we are on right now is
exactly that or something similar. But we are not sure, and this is
why we need you."
"All I had done was to mention the eventuality. Perhaps it
was a chapter in the book?"
"Let us not diminish the value of your premonition,"
Necromonti said, as if my expression of realistic modesty was
going to cost him some disappointment.
"Unconventional terrorism. The UN has tasked Interpol and
Interpol has tasked us and?"
"That's a pretty heavy burden," I commented.
"Yes, especially if you consider that now we count on
"I am not joking, Mr. Haftemizan," Shumington said. "If
you don't help us on this case, we are toast and probably half of
the planet as well."
"Are you ****ing kidding me? You pick me out of
nowhere and seat me on the floor with your, your?Jelabahs and
tell me that if I don't help out, half of Humanity will perish?
There is no way I am going to take this kind of responsibility.
Ciao, dottore Necromonti and a riverderci, Mr. Shumington. I
wish you good luck!"
"I understand your ire," Shumington said. "We're all
irritated by the enormity of the task, but think about its nobility.
Think about the lives that we are helping to save. And besides,
we are a team; you are not alone."
"Think of the Musketeers," Necromonti said, lifting his
hands to the sky. "We are the world's new Musketeers."
Necromonti's literary image struck a cord within me. This
comparison gave me a more concrete image of what I was asked
to do. I would be chasing the Cardinal's bad guys, while ending
up in bed with some gorgeous ladies dressed in superb gowns
with more laces than I would have the patience to untie? Yes;
now, we are talking? I was ready to serve Humanity.
"All right, I'm in. I apologize for my outburst. You have
to admit that this is not a normal situation for me. I am usually
much more guarded than that in my reaction."
"Dr. Necromonti is absolutely right; do not sell yourself
short. You had the sense of it before anybody else: it was the
work of a genius."
"Well, if you put it that way? then, I guess maybe I had
an intuition that probably was ahead of its time," I said, playing it
falsely modest. I haven't had these kinds of compliments in
years. "Forgive my insistence, but I still don't understand how in
practice I can help you. You know, I have a job to do, I have
clients who count on my analysis, I have deliverables, and tutti
"We know all that," Shumington said, almost offended
that I was underestimating their professionalism. "As I told you,
we did our homework before we finally decided to bring you
"You are going to announce that you're taking a
sabbatical to research your new book. Besides, this is a terrific
idea for your cover."
"And what about my clients: they really depend on me?
I can't just close the doors and let them down like this?I would
lose them forever. It took me years to earn their trust."
"We know that and we know there is no easy solution.
This is why we thought that while you would have to reschedule
the type of commitments that require your presence, for the rest -
i.e. reports and other written analyses - your staff of assistants
will take care of it in your absence."
"I don't have a ‘staff of assistants.' The only assistant I
have is wired, has buttons and is sitting on my desk, pitifully
"We know that, Mr. Haftemizan. This is something we'll
be taking care of. And as for the analysts, I can guarantee you
that they are the best the market can offer. If you help us, we
won't spare any effort to help you keep your activities up
and running in your absence. I have the authority to give you absolute
assurance in this regard."
These Jelabah-wearing gentlemen were committed to hire
me at all cost and had foreseen all possible scenarios. There was
not much more that I could do to slip away from their grip. But
before I made any commitment, I needed some assurance that
this was not some type of phony scam.
"Well, gentlemen, you got me. I am in, but I need you to
show me something more than your serious faces to convince me
of the authenticity of your? whatever it is you are doing."
Shumington smiled. He had obviously foreseen this one,
too. He retrieved a laptop from the bag next to him and turned it
"Here, Sir; this is Interpol's highly secure website? and
here is the link to Erebus. As you can see, I've been able to
access it, which, I would hope, is giving you confidence that we
are in serious business here."
"So, you work for Interpol?"
"I've been working there for many years, but Dr.
Necromonti is new. He jumped on board - a little bit like you -
not so long ago."
"You mentioned ‘Airbus'? Is that a code name for
"It's EREBUS," corrected Necromonti, as if I should have
known better."Erebus is the name of our project. It's a small project in
terms of the number of people involved -- as you well know, only
quality matters -- but it's of vital importance. Only a very select
number of people know of its existence. Our mission is to fight.
"We understand," Shumington said. "And, believe it or not, when
our big boss personally assigned me to this task, I had the same
kind of reaction or probably worse."
Judging from his round face and jovial expression, despite
the seriousness of the situation, one wouldn't expect Hector Elias
Shumington III -- what a tediously long name - to explode into a
violent outburst. But then again, you can never know. There is a
saying, somewhere in the world - I can't remember where - that
warns us to ‘beware of the sleepy water.' To the contrary, one
could expect this kind of irritability from Necromonti. His lean,
long and somewhat marked face gave him an appearance of
worried seriousness. Necromonti's facial features were so
expressive that he did not need to raise his voice to express his
discontent; a slight convergent movement of his eyebrows and
everyone would get the message. He had tragedy written all
over his face.