FOR A MOMENT I couldn’t remember what city I was in. I couldn’t remember the country either. I closed my eyes and focused. I listened to the sounds around me. I listened to the buzzing of motorbike taxis. I listened to the car horns; most high pitched, small cars, moving fast, but distant, as I was in the hotel courtyard. The sounds echoed and the street was beyond the walls. I was staying in a decent hotel. The Radisson. It was excellent, actually. I was at the restaurant. It was late afternoon. What city was I in? I went through the list in my head. Kampala, no. I had been there; I wasn’t sure when, though. I took off. Did I return? No, I was there and didn’t return. I would remember flying over the lake recently, and that was a distant memory. Mogadishu, also no. It wasn’t dry enough where I was sitting right now for this to be Mogadishu. I could feel the humidity inside my shirt against my skin. Okay, work forward, I said to myself. I remembered my travel, city by city. I had been in Prague, then Vienna, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, working my way up. Why did I do that? I knew why; I could barely remember when, though. Then it slowly came back to me. I could hear conversations and accents around me. I listened to the mixture of British English, two Americans, but also the thick and quick accents of the staff, who spoke Swahili to one another. I don’t know Swahili except basic greetings, but I know what it sounds like. Then it started to come back to me. Nairobi, I was in Nairobi. I had been here for two weeks. I opened my eyes to see the tea on the table in front of me and it was cold now. I took a breath and my head stopped spinning. I was in Nairobi. Keep it together, Evans. This was almost over.
The loss of memory was important. That would become clear later.
I was close, finally. He was here. I just needed confirmation.
I had navigated something like eleven airports in east Africa in the past two months. I had awakened some days and couldn’t remember where I was (or I sat at the table on the patio of a hotel restaurant and forgot). In each city I kept up a cover, repeated it at each hotel when asked. Officially I was in construction, looking for sites where I could renovate buildings for my company. My company existed on business cards and online. You could call the number you find there and the secretary in Chicago would answer.
In reality, I was a manhunter.
My target was in Nairobi. After three months of hunting him, I knew that much. Three months was a long time for a glorified Agency parole officer.
This assignment began in rather typical CIA fashion. I worked out of the station in Prague. Prague was a medium-sized office, relatively speaking, but not very active.
Prague and its neighbors were far more active during the Cold War, but now we were kept busy only as we traced terrorist activity from the Middle East, often through Turkey. There was some financial activity funneled from Russia that the station handled. We got the scraps from more active parts of the globe, and that trickled down to me. My experience was in tracking wanted people; I did so for the FBI before I joined the Agency.
My first station with the Agency was Berlin, which, in the years following GWOT was highly active, with terrorists being tracked all over Europe and a new threat of an attack somewhere every week. The CIA developed intelligence, analyzed that information, and identified persons of interest which went into our global system. If any of those targets were identified in the area under our purview, I would be tasked with finding and tracking them until either one of our teams came to snatch him up, whether our side or the DOD (usually meaning Army), or we turned the real-time information over to the host nation or INTERPOL. We were much more cooperative in those days.
The further from 9/11 we progressed, the more this kind of work slowed down. My work was less and less frequent. We still identified plenty of potential threats, but new directives had us passing that information on or even ignoring it.
I was transferred to Greece, where I found myself in an office without any clear, defined protocol for apprehension and more often than not I followed subjects with no clue what I was meant to do after I sat in an empty, dark room watching them light up a joint in a crowded apartment across a street, or worse, run into the airport on what I knew was a fake passport. Or board a train for Albania. There was uncertainty about the role the Agency should be playing on the global stage, and that uncertainty filtered down to my position where I saw unclear policy play out in real time.
The Agency I’ve always felt is very much like a snake in a field of mice. You can keep it in a box or let it loose, but once you do it knows only how to do its thing. By the time I was re-assigned to Prague we were, in my opinion, back in the box.
Some took this in stride; I didn’t. I wasn’t meant for the office. I didn’t fit in well there. I wasn’t invited out to social lunches or happy hours; I wasn’t included in pools to bet on the Final Four. I knew I was an outlier, someone whose instincts and personality went against the grain. Probably thirty years ago I would have had a niche, fit in as an outsider in a society of outsiders, but in more modern times it meant I was slowly edged from center stage to life behind the curtain.
I didn’t complain, but I was bored. I considered returning to the FBI, but truth be told I enjoyed exploring the world. I liked being in new places, wandering and mapping cities I had never been to before. I had a girlfriend, Marie; we worked together at the Embassy in Athens and had grown steady there, our relationship comfortable, and we moved in together and had requested and been assigned to Prague together. Our relationship wasn’t the most on-fire romance, but we were partners in tourism and enjoyed every aspect of it. I was comfortable, in other words, and not compelled to see if the grass was greener on the domestic side hunting homegrown US terrorists and picking up after Homeland Security inside our borders.
Now, in the former capital of Bohemia, and one of the largest Eastern European cities, I wasn’t completely without an interesting job, even if it wasn’t the high-stakes manhunting of terrorists that had thrilled me in the early days.
Prague had its share, albeit limited, of international persons of interest who popped up on the radar and myself and/or my counterparts were sent after them. We coordinated with the Czechia government on a more or less open and friendly basis. In 2006, a decade before my arrival, my office was responsible for helping stop a terror plot to blow up, or take hostage and murder, Jews in the largest synagogue in the city . In that case, a terrorist called Dobrosi escaped prison in Norway and came back to Czech Republic, as he had a wife and child here. At the time, Czechia was an active ally in our war in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda drew up several plans against them. The station helped deter more than one threat over the course of a few years there where Prague was targeted.
We eventually caught Dobrosi, though that part we didn’t tell the Czech Republic. (The CIA had further interest in him and these were the years when we were still in the business of shaking down bad guys to catch more bad guys.)
IN THE YEARS that followed, with the change in administrations and shifting global geopolitical climates, Prague grew quiet as far the CIA was concerned. Our work was more clean up. In 2018, a local radical Muslim cleric who was supporting the growth of a Syrian terror cell was arrested by Czech authorities following intelligence our teams in Syria sent us, which we then developed in the streets and on the ground here, then provided to the local authorities. That same year we caught a terrorist responsible for killing our soldiers in Afghanistan and turned him over to the Prague Public Prosecutor’s Office.
In most cases our information was shared willingly and openly; in some cases we tracked people and surveilled them, or even the host country’s law enforcement databases without their knowledge. (I was firmly in that more old-school camp that we shared too much. Marie believed in diplomacy).
In the last four years, things were quiet, our stations in the Middle East, Moscow, London and certainly those in Asia were busy as they had ever been but we had table scraps at best. I tracked and directed a team to capture a man who committed acts of nationalist terror 24 years ago. We had a list of six names that turned into fourteen last year, a cell of 20-somethings planning a digital attack on local financial institutions. They had ambitions to do more but I doubted their capacity and acumen to get out of the junior leagues. It wasn’t my job to make those sorts of determinations, though. I got a name, I tracked down that name, I turned them over. That was my job. And lately it had been rather dull.
Until a Monday three months ago, when a name was flagged by our station, and the flag was forwarded to my desk. I worked at a desk more often than not; when I went into the field, as I was now, it was hardly sexy. If I had a superpower it was in being inconspicuous.
The name that appeared in the alert was Robert Harper. There was no way of telling if that was his real name, of course, but it’s the name the Agency had listed in their system. He was a high priority subject—I was to find and apprehend him.
Typically that meant someone like me would head into the field, follow this subject, and report to a team that would then capture him or her. Some were new to the list—wanted terrorists known to have fled an area of operation. One time a Somali pirate I tracked for four months I found staying with family in Istanbul when I worked that station.
I was a manhunter, like a private investigator but with a more restrictive budget and little job satisfaction—I never knew where the arrestee went if I tracked him to the point of arrest; that was above my pay grade. Most of what I did involved very little interaction and lots of patience.
For the FBI I worked a similar position on surveillance teams for wanted persons. I had assignments at three field offices: Kansas City, Philadelphia and Atlanta. After breaking off an engagement to a coworker in the last city, I looked for a change of pace and thought a job that took me overseas would do the trick. In my last year with the FBI I was twice sent to Europe as a liaison to the Agency, and I got a taste for it and was offered a job.
I got the job with the FBI out of college, with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and minor in criminal justice, which I earned at Iowa State University. I started at a desk as an analyst, tracking suspects via a paper trail instead of on foot. I wasn’t fond of desk work. I liked to walk, sit in cars with a camera, listen through hotel walls and chase people through the shadows.
My position is considered lower priority at most stations; the people I go track down or surveil tend to be subjects the CIA is not actively seeking, the equivalent of espionage cold cases. I assisted but did not lead more active and pressing cases. Both meant that wherever I was, I saw the worst of the city and country, as most wanted criminals didn’t stay at the Four Seasons. I enjoyed exploring new places. I liked striking off on my own. I especially liked not having anyone breathe down my neck.
When Robert Harper appeared on my desk there was nothing more than a name and two designations. One designation indicated the level of CIA interest in him—high, but not the highest. The second indicated to whom Harper’s case was to be referred: DCI. That was unusual. My first indication, if I was paying attention, of what was to come. I wasn’t.
Harper was identified via a new biometric scanner system installed that same week at a train station in Prague, and I believed he hadn't expected it to be there and didn't know it had captured him. He flew then from Prague to Dubai. At that point I passed his case off to Dubai station, expecting, as was protocol, that my counterpart out of that station would pick up the trail. Instead, word came back quickly: I was to head to Dubai to track him personally. I was to be afforded every accommodation by whatever station’s jurisdiction he passed through.
And that is how, from Morocco to Lagos to Mogadishu to Nairobi, with many stops in between, I lost his trail, then picked it up again, then lost it, then picked it up again. I had scrolled through hours and hours of airport security footage. So many I began to see the world in grainy black and white. I found patterns, hotels; chasing him was like pursuing a ghost—it was a phantom in front of me, nothing more. I had never once seen Harper, in fact. Only the trail he left behind. When I needed help, it was given, but no explanation as to why so many resources were diverted and allowed me. So I, the dutiful parole officer, bounty hunter, or whatever you wanted to call me, kept on task. I worked every day like a bloodhound on a scent, never letting up. At least not so long as I could remember what city I was in.
He currently lived in Nairobi, or near it. Of that I was fairly certain, based on two things. One, when I had tracked him to Nairobi, I discovered that he did not go to any hotel, as he had in other cities. Which meant he wasn’t passing through and trying to lose a tail as he had in every dot on the map previous. Two, the customs official identified him. The official confirmed that the target was once held up in Nairobi on suspicion of using a stolen passport. The name he gave at the time was not Harper. Nor was there any explanation given me why he was let go.
He had come here before, likely many times, likely with different identities. This man was in his fifties, maybe sixties. He was white, with short gray and brown hair. He wore glasses. He was described to me in one place as American, which could be an explanation as to why he was so sought after by Mother. That piece of the puzzle I could not solve for sure, but if he was an agent run by Mother with some kind of inside knowledge of operations gleaned from a sloppy case officer who had then turned on his heel to serve another master, that would explain why they wanted him back. That would be an unusual circumstance. I couldn’t imagine that he was an officer of the Agency himself; news like that would have made the gossip rounds, if not the news. His file, when it appeared on my terminal, wasn’t recent. I couldn’t tell for sure how long he’d been listed as Wanted, but it was since before our modern case coding system, which predated my arrival eleven years ago.
So here I was in Nairobi, and this was not a country I had relevant experience in. For the FBI I had traveled abroad, a State Department Special Liaison, and our investigative assignments were not always on the beaten path. I was a seasoned traveler, in other words, and I knew Africa fairly well.
The hotel where I sat was usually full of international businessmen, and was used frequently as well by the State Department or the CIA or DIA using the State Department as cover. In reality, though, the DOS had little interest in Kenya these days. Kony and Boko Haram were not so much in their crosshairs, those missions having been relegated to the direct action military teams that went out to kill them on occasion. The ivory trade and its terror connections were still important (I assumed, anyway; I had no business in East Africa and didn’t communicate with anyone here regularly) but handled more often than not by FWS, ATF and others coordinating with African countries and supporting investigative action.
Copyright © 2022 Thomas Ray