Excerpts from The Code Switchers, a Novel in Progress

How to Get Flipped (The Politics of Insistence)

—What an ass. I mean it. That guy’s a friggin’ ass.

Richard giggled, almost involuntarily—Well, what did you expect, Charlie? Did you think he’d order up a navy airlift for you, possibly call up marines to escort you safely home? Charles, don’t you get it? Hastings is…

—No…emphatically—no, of course not…almost spitting it out, rushing to cover words with words because anyone could see that Charles meant—I didn’t think he’d bend over backwards to accommodate me, but…turning to capture Richard’s face in his line of sight—but, well, what kind of person is so rude? I mean, the guy’s in public service, for chrissakes. He’s supposedly a goddamned diplomat, and he up and tells me “not to get my panties in a twist”? I mean, I fucking call him from the president’s office, and he comes out and says something like that to me? To me? Is that diplomacy? For all he knows I could be Jean-Paul’s close, personal friend, and this guy…

—Charles…in a tone as soothing as it was sweet—Charlie, do calm down. You’re making a spectacle of yourself, and we’re not alone…offering up a cigarette, again, from a pack he’d claimed not to have, shooting his Jacques a look intended to keep him in check—Hastings can be brusque, yes, but he’ll also sort it out. That’s his job. And really now, how long did he tell you to wait, a week? Odds are he’ll call you the day after tomorrow and invite you to lunch at the American embassy. That’s his style, Charlie boy. He ignores you until he does his research, and then, if he thinks you might be of use to him, he’ll try to flip you…lighting Charles’ smoke with a lighter, unconsciously attempting to take control of the conversation—You see, I know him well. Because that’s the way they do it, Charles. That’s what they do. Hastings is CIA.

Charles rolled his eyes, exhaled, and threw up his arms, all in the same motion. If an onlooker could see into the back of the Rover, one would have thought he was having a grand mal seizure. Yes, without a doubt, Charles had had enough. Was there anything, save from seeing exactly how incompetent a head of state could be, that he had found pleasure in, in this, what he had once thought would be a beneficent trip? He was nearly fuming, and so set himself the task of making a mental list. First off, he’d arrived for a funeral three years late; secondly, he arrived to discover his cousin living in a manner of opulence just shy of offensive, with an insanely disproportionate and no doubt undeserved job to boot; and then, as if those two affronts weren’t enough, he’d been subjected to a thinly veiled attempt at seduction by the president of Haiti. That made three major insults, one for every day he’d been in the country so far. Three is a magic number, he mused, because three days in Haiti was enough to make him think that maybe the place would be better off if someone just carpet bombed it.

But there was more. As if things couldn’t get any worse, Charles had called the American embassy hoping to solve his surveillance problem, from Jean’s private office no less, only to find himself demeaned and insulted by the person Jean had told him had been personally placed “in charge” of his case. This Hastings guy, who wanted only to know Charles’ connection to Jean, why Charles believed the U.S. government had a reason to spy on him, and what, really, Charles thought Hastings was supposed to do about it. This guy Hastings, who gave a dismissive snort when Charles mentioned that he was not a medical doctor but a Ph.D., and cut Charles’ explanations short by telling him that his even speaking to him was a personal favor to Jean, the president. The icing on the cake, however, had been the statement that Charles should simply stay put and not get his panties in a twist, as if Hastings couldn’t be really bothered, and considered Charles a waste of his time. It didn’t worry Charles so much as upset him, because now Jean, Richard, everyone who knew acted as if Charles had no reason to worry, as if he’d undergone something as mundane and simple as a one-hour background check. They’d been monitoring his life, not his background — his present, not his past — and the most annoying thing of all was that no one save himself really seemed to care about it.

Petulantly, Charles exhaled again, blowing the smoke through his nose and filling the back of the Rover with a smell as noxious as his temper. He was tired. Tired of personal and political intrigues that didn’t concern him, tired of his cousin’s snarky remarks, tired of having to jump over hurdles just to reclaim his basic right to privacy, and most of all, tired of being at the whim of government agencies and their petty bureaucrats — CIA-NSC-FBI-DOD-what-the-fuck-ever. I’m going home.

—Immediately?

—Fuck all of you. I’m leaving. I’m home. In my mind, I’m already there.

—Really, I wouldn’t…Richard cautioned—I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Of course, if that’s what you want, feel free, but I suggest we go to my office instead. We can talk there. You’ll just get arrested if you get on an airplane now, Charles.

—Nope, no way. I got rights. I’m going home.

—Charles…Richard began to chuckle—Come on now. I know you’re upset, and you’ve a right to be, but you haven’t been listening to me. Hastings is CIA, and you’ve just informed him that your country has been spying on you. He told you to wait, and now you want to leave? Ask yourself, Charlie, what is that going to look like? If you get on a plane, Hastings will have you detained as soon as you land in U.S. territory. He could ask Jean to have you arrested and held right here if he wanted, really. And Jean would probably grant his request, too, since Jean rather likes your company….

Truth be told, Charles wasn’t listening. He didn’t have to listen to detect the flaw in Richard’s arguments—Wait, you said this guy is CIA, but it’s the NSC that’s spying on me. If Hastings is CIA, then what reason does he have to want me? How would “they” — whoever the fuck “they” are — even know or find out about it? And besides, the American embassy is under the jurisdiction of the State Department, so what new kind of bullshit is this?…his paranoia beginning to creep in, his desire to reach some sort of closure finally bubbling over into exasperated interrogation of the nearest person around him, Charles never would have figured he’d take advice from an old television show: Trust No One—What the fuck are you not saying to me this time?…asking almost violently, as he just wanted out. Out. Even if his contract at Bigg U. was about to expire, well, he could just appeal the decision. That, at least, was a game with rules, a game he knew how to play.

Shaking his head in the negative, Richard attempted to calm him down—Don’t get hostile with me, because you’re blaming the wrong man. Hastings would simply detain and maybe de-brief you for quite a while. He’d want you to tell him everything you know about Jean, and possibly me. Hastings would want to know all the people you’ve met here who are or could be connected to us, and what they do or did in your presence. And just to make sure you weren’t making things up, he’d probably ask you over and over again, over the course of a few hours, or possibly days. That’s how a standard detainment for interrogation works. And really, Charles, he really is CIA, although you probably don’t believe me. And if you were still here and he asked that we arrest you, then the best I could do for you would be to convince Jean to hold you in protective custody, in order to protect you from Hastings. Don’t you get it? We’d have to arrest you, but only because things might be worse off for you if you were arrested by them. And you’re right, they all belong to a jumble of different agencies, but in the end, they all want the same thing: credit for a really fantastic arrest. Someone like you, they’d simply pass around. You’d be fun for them, Charlie, you know that? What, with the way you like to sniff cocaine with presidents and all. You’d be portrayed as some drug cartel’s bagman before a fortnight was out, and do you know how much time and money and lawyers and press and people you’d have to buy and convince before you cleared your name? Do you really believe you’d ever clear your name? Or is it you think they’d somehow miraculously decide you were above suspicion, inquiry? Charles, they already think you’re a subversive, why do you want to make things worse? Investigators investigate. Prosecutors prosecute. Spies, well, they gather information, and when they believe they’ve found a good source of information, they’re more than allowed to take it by force, provided no innocents are killed.

—And just how do you know all this? What…deliberately trying to get him back for bringing up last night—are you going to suddenly reveal to me that you’re the demon king of spies for all the Caribbean now? Just what’s in your job description again?

—Don’t…Richard gave him a hard look—Charles, don’t ever patronize me. And don’t pretend you have no knowledge of what I’m talking about either. It doesn’t suit you. And you know damn well how I know, since it was your fault that I was audited and placed under investigation… Richard pulled out a smoke for himself, but as if deciding against it, didn’t light it—That’s partially why we don’t extradite, Charles, at least not to the States. Your country has been giving us lots of grief because of it, but if we’re to survive as the nouveau regime, then we have to hold on to some people, even if they’re unsavory. And…lightening his tone, realizing he was allowing Charles to get under his skin, remembering his own time spent being questioned by U.S. agents, and so changing course—to answer your initial question, your country has a unified IWL: an intelligence watch list. Hastings is probably running your name through a networked system right now, but you needn’t worry, because he knows where you are. Yet the minute you activated your E-ticket, red flags would go up everywhere, and you’d draw all sorts of unwanted attention from overzealous authorities. They’d pull you off a plane in Miami or Puerto Rico, and it would be weeks before anyone ever heard from you again, Yankee or no. So please, calm down. We’ll go to my office. And if you’re really stressed out about it, then, well, we’ll have a drink. If you want, I can explain how it all works, how Hastings asked you to stay a week because he has to run things up his channels of communication. He’ll know all about you soon enough, but he needs to find out how to act towards you. If you really want, I’ll explain to you how these things work, but I think you already know. Just wait, Charles. He’s going to try to flip you, just wait. He’ll ask you something ridiculously blithe, like do you love your country, but that’s when you’ll be able to get completely free of the trouble you’re in.

Charles had been right about something, however, and that was that there was indeed something Richard was not saying. Richard did not have the heart to tell Charles the news, at least not while he was having a hissy fit, but Jean had insured that Charles would be forced to remain in country for quite some time, because Jean had let Charles do what Charles wanted. Charles phoning Hastings and getting him involved in his case was the dumbest move Charles could have made. They’d already been watching Charles for some time, to see if he could give them insight into the more secretive actions of the MCP regime. Now they’d just openly ask Charles to do their job for them. Richard had already asked Charles to stay, and would have told him everything if he had said yes, but Charles had refused his offer outright, in a fashion no less than insulting. Yet, Charles Walker living in Haiti was all part of the plan, et bien, donc, Charles would remain—Just try to wait a week, Charles. Really, because you’re innocent, and I’ve a feeling Hastings probably won’t take even that long to contact you again. Once he talks to you, he’ll know that. He’ll see how innocent you are soon enough, and you’ll get home without a problem.

Sometimes, even when reason wins out—Fuck…you still feel like punching someone. Charles cursed everything: the cocaine still in his system, the fact that despite his better judgment, he probably would have a drink if offered again, and the idea that no matter how fantastic, how outside the realm of possibility his current situation seemed, to even himself, there was no refuting some of the things said by his cousin. More to the point, Richard was right. After last night, his being in Haiti implicated him enough, was suitable enough to engender a mild scrutiny, a watchfulness, because not only had he met Haiti’s president, he had been sitting in Jean’s car, drinking and doing cocaine and chatting with him as if they were the bestest-best of long-lost friends. Charles realized — rather, he knew in retrospect — exactly how bad things might look to an outside, impartial eye. That is, he had called Hastings from Jean’s office, had been alone with Jean-Paul the night before, and since Richard was a member of Jean’s inner circle, one of the powers behind the party currently in power, apparently, one might even be led to believe that Charles could easily bend Jean’s ear. At best, Charles was guilty, but his only guilt was that of association and proximity to those who probably had done something wrong. Unfortunately, that too, is often enough.

Yes, Charles could have punched someone, because there were also the things he had done of his own volition. No one had asked him to meet Jean, Charles had demanded it. No one had asked Jean to help him, Charles had demanded it—Fuck…mostly, Charles could have punched himself. He’d already known that anything connected to the Plantagenet side of his family, any involvement with them, was bound to reflect badly upon him, pull him into the shit in some kind of way, but a momentary seizure of greed had overcome him, and because of his desire for a dead man’s money, he knew he was more than likely sure to be asked to perform a service for his country, a country he never really gave a damn about. Charles couldn’t stand it; his being spied upon was a hole that he, through direct and insistent action, had managed to dig even deeper. He could have punched someone, anyone, because he had made what was a bad situation even worse, and had no one to blame but himself—What if I just slipped away? You know, like, unannounced. Think you could arrange that for me?

A long and disbelieving look from Richard—Really now, Charles, and where would you go? How would you live once you got there? Charles, come on now, you’d leave a money trail, even if I gave you a suitcase full of cash, which I won’t. And besides, what would you do once you arrived at wherever you wanted to go, besides make a very small thing infinitely worse? Why don’t you just rough it out for a week and let things be?

—Because…really, there was no because, but Charles felt better just saying the word, resisting till the very end—because I’m no government’s bitch, that’s why.

Richard laughed. Once again, this was the Charles Walker he knew, and it was nice to have him back—Point taken. Now, shall we go upstairs?…the car stopped before a low concrete wall topped by a large, razor-wire fence—I’ve got to go up to my office, Charles, will you come with me?…once the fence slid open, the car drove approximately 50 yards down a ramp into an underground car park. They had taken the back way.

What Makes a Ministry

The Ministry of the Exterior is a squat, four-story building of molded and reinforced concrete, built to withstand nothing short of the most destructive hurricane or riot, whichever came first. In other words, it was impregnable to casual ground assault, although artillery shells could probably do it considerable cosmetic damage. A testament to old style Urban Brutalism, when compared to most other Port-au-Prince structures its ominous, oppressive, and incompatible style made it seem as if every minute spent inside it was akin to bleakest purgatory, the architectural equivalent of the River Lethe. For all definitive purposes, the ministry looked as if it were the place where bureaucratic functionaries went to waste away and die, lost among the grey barrens of photocopied reports, agendas describing the writing of meeting agendas, and cubicled space. Its darkly tinted windows and intentional lack of color, of course, helped to exacerbate its foreboding presence, and kept only but the most foolhardy and defeatist of individuals from wanting employment there.

Its outside façade was completely undone by its interior. Here, inside the ministry, essentially a concrete cube, one could find freshly cut flowers on every communal table, entire walls done up in Pointillist and Impressionist reproductions, and offices (with, granted, darkened slits for windows) that were explosions of teak, mahogany, and/or cherry wood in every hidden space and potential sniper’s roost, every nook and hallway an exercise in trompe-l’oeil and masterful interior design. The Ministry of the Exterior was, and remains, an architectural study in contrast, solely because the minister demanded it so. And while there were those in both the city and the country who formed social clubs and organizations simply in order to afford a television, or had a single phone to their village, the ministry was among one of the most wired edifices on the entire island. Not many people were aware of this fact however, because due to its squat-but-tough structure and the force with which it imposed itself on the skyline, few desired to step inside. The people, even those least cynical among them, had a common name for the ministry, one that signified exactly how they felt: chez Soviet.

No surprise, then, that Charles and Richard had parked in an underground garage. No surprise either that Richard flagged down a soldier at his post, telling him that—This man…indicating Charles—is very close to and dear to me. Arrange for him to have an identification badge with full access…and, turning to Charles with a sly look, Richard then proceeded further into a geometric maze of Toyotas, Renaults, and Peugeots, to casually mention some distance away—Well, here’s a tip, then, Charles, since you’re so intent on running away. If you should find yourself in a spot, or possibly even in trouble, then simply come here and mention to the first guard you see that you’re here to see a “close associate.” That phrase, of course, is an indication that you’re in trouble. You see, you’re safe here, but only if you happen to know how to correctly laissez-passez. Can you remember that?

—What’s the password?

—There is no password. There’s only a danger word. Danger words, actually. This is a ministry, after all, and part of it is still open to the general public. And can you not light that? We’ll be in an elevator soon.

One might think the minister’s office would be on the top floor, in a corner with the most idyllic and panoramic view, wherein Richard could look out over the cityscape and ponder what move to next make to improve the welfare of both his country and its residents, but far from it. Richard’s office, like all executive offices, was on the second floor, below the subdivided spaces of the level above and the archival libraries up top.

Richard would remark to Charles, once and in passing, that yes, while it did make the executive offices more vulnerable to a well-placed truck bomb, God forbid, he nevertheless got a perverse pleasure in knowing that a sign of success in the ministry, evidence of one’s rising in its ranks, meant that one had to literally sink. Sometimes, proof of one’s social status lies in one’s proximity to the ground, and Richard would pompously say that only the serious, the dedicated and truly concerned, were allowed the luxury of depth. The building, he felt, like other things in life, should reflect that. Yet what Richard failed to grasp was that what he’d done in terms of organizing the ministry’s social hierarchy was simply to adhere to the bourgeois belief that status, effect, and influence could and should be reflected floor by floor; the only innovative thing he’d really done chez Soviet was to lop off the top two floors of a typical Parisian building and force it inside an ugly government structure.

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