They found him lying just inside the embassy gate, with cuts on his hands, bloodshot veins in his eyes, and the stink of days on the streets. I have no name, he said, but his fingerprints said otherwise: Iliev, Johann K. Bulgarian. 23 years old. Former construction worker. No criminal record. Nobody knew how he got into the country. Border records showed nothing. He had no passport. Bulgaria was outside the visa-free travel zone. But he was there, he was live, and he was waiting.
How are you here? they asked him.
I just am, he said.
How did you get into the country? they said.
I have always been here.
I don’t believe you.
That changes nothing.
Round and round they went, questioner and questioned, but answers never came, at least none that made sense. It was as though they were speaking languages. Nothing he said fit their mental framework. They expected certain types of answers to certain questions, but his responses were either illogical or irrelevant. They brought him a toothbrush and toothpaste, offered him water.
Slavic surname, Germanic given name. Explain, they said.
What’s to explain? You said that’s my name.
Your fingerprints say you’re from Bulgaria.
No, your computer says I’m from Bulgaria.
He sat at the table, picking at his fingernails, as they cycled in one interviewer after another. First the embassy security staff. Then an investigator. Finally a pair of bureaucrats, followed by a second attaché. They each tried to drill down on his identity, on how he came to enter the country, how he circumvented border controls, how he got inside the embassy’s perimeter, and back to who he was.
You don’t show up on security cameras anywhere.
That’s not my fault.
Everyone shows up on security cameras somewhere.
They cleared out of the room, leaving him alone beneath a flickering light bulb that hung from a wire, swaying foot beneath the ceiling. Every two minutes and thirty seconds, someone walked past the room to ensure he was still in place. The door was open. He could have walked out, but he didn’t.
Whispered conversations in sterile hallways. Just another migrant, they said. Who cares?
The security department cared. So did important people up on the third floor. People turned up at the embassy all the time. They usually didn’t show up inside the security fence.
They searched the compound’s perimeter, inside and out. No cuts in the fence, no holes dug beneath it, no concrete plates removed, no tunnels revealed. Thirty feet high, topped with barbed wire, and spanned by security cameras, the fence could not be ascended without observation.
Still, the man called Johann Iliev was here.
I feel like I’m banging my head against a wall with this kid.
I know. Men are from Mars …
This one is from Pluto.
A young woman brought him a meal: Sandwich, fruit, water. He thanked her and ate, two hands on a napkin-wrapped sandwich only large enough for one. She lingered in the open doorway, leaning inside the frame, fingers to lips before tarrying at her hair, wrapping locks around her index finger. A drop of moisture flicked off and hit the floor. It had begun to rain outside. She was just a secretary. It was not her place to ask anything of substance, but uncomfortable silences were not for her.
Why are you here?
He put the sandwich down, finished chewing and swallowed. He looked at her. Smiled.
Finally, he said, someone wants to know.
So he told her.
“None of this is true.”
“You would think. But it might be. We have to look into it.”
Kim stood at the window, staring out over the city. It was mid-day, but traffic was backed up at the intersection below. A woman was slowly crossing the street, pushing a baby carriage. A car honked its horn. Kim felt his teeth grind. Have a little patience for the lady with the baby, he thought. Anger briefly rose within him to join the hard skepticism toward what he just heard.
“I don’t buy it,” he said. “Where did you hear this?”
“One of my old diplomatic contacts at the embassy,” Schroeder said. He loosened his tie further, opening a good six inches of space between cloth and neck. “Nobody there buys it either, which is why she passed it to us. But she’s one of the best I know is at reading people, and she thinks there’s something to it. Something about this guy stuck with her.”
“Yeah, the suspension of disbelief required for his story.”
“No, the fact that this guy provided specifics: Addresses, names, dates. We can check on these things. Confirm them. And, funny thing, that’s your job. What’s the worst that happens? None of it’s true? Well, that’s great news. We can go on with our lives, because that’s one more atrocity that never happened and that we don’t have to worry about.” Schroeder reached over and took a swig from an open bottle of water on his desk. “But what if it’s true? Think about it. What is this guy’s motive to lie? He has none.”
“Sure he does. He needs a story. He wants asylum. Information is what he has to trade. Same as always. Plus, you just said it: Nobody knows how he got inside the embassy. You’ve seen that place. It’s jacked. Very secure. The whole thing is just bizarre.”
“Well, maybe somebody inside was sympathetic, let him in, and then looked the other way afterward to avoid responsibility for it. I’d bet on that. It’s happened before. It’ll happen again.”
“With other countries’ embassies, maybe. I don’t think he could pull that off with this one. That’s a major security breach. And his story…” Kim shook his head. “You’re talking about a type of violence without precedence there. This is an all-out massacre. There’s no way they could cove that up. It’s something out of a history book – and even then, the violence was never quite like this, never this organized, even lawful.” He bit his lip, pressed it inward, shook his head again. “I don’t buy it.”
Schroeder stood up from his cluttered desk, where calendars, journals, and stacks of anonymous black and white reports joined to create an Einsteinian jumble of chaos that stood out among the other desks in the large room that housed his team of ten. He could have had his own office, but he would say he preferred to sit among his team – a man of the people, he said – whether they liked it or not. He grabbed his cap, which he always carried around to cover his mostly bald head from the cold weather, and began using it as a pointer for emphasis as he paced back and forth.
“Think about it,” Schroeder said. “You have a country with press freedoms severely curtailed in recent years, so you can’t trust the information coming out of there, let alone know when you’re getting the whole picture. Before that happened, think about what we were actually seeing. All the signs were there. It was the same as we saw in Hungary, Greece, Serbia, Germany, France, Poland, others. Bad economy. Heightened fears about terrorism and internal uprisings, valid or not. So what happens in response? Everyone gets scared. Focus on the fears, not the good things that they had. You get xenophobia. Political polarization. Racism. Violent crimes against minorities and immigrants. A coarsening of the national discussion. What did they do, in each of these places?”
“I know, I know.”
“They cracked down, that’s what they did. Once people feel like they’re under siege, they’re more open to that. It gives government the opportunity and justification, right or wrong. Give people chaos, and they want order. It’s almost human nature. It doesn’t matter what comes with the order or what it takes to get it. People just want to know they can walk down the street at night and be safe. Give them someone to blame. Give them an Other so they have a bad guy to fit their narrative. They’ll accept the additional police presence. They’ll accept the limits on civil liberties, on free speech, censorship and control of the press. They’ll even accept it when the politicians stay in power past their time. Put military in the streets – it doesn’t matter. It’s war — even if it’s really not. Sacrifices have to be made. Stand united, fall divided. That’s the logic.”
“I understand the logic. I’ve studied fascist states before.”
“I just don’t see it happening there. It doesn’t fit the national character. Too many people would oppose it.” Again, Kim shook his head. “No, I don’t see it, Schroeder. I don’t see it.”
“Nobody ever does.” Schroeder flicked his hat at Kim with a backhanded toss. Kim caught it one-handed. “That’s why I’m sending you. I need someone to see it. Your job is to document what’s going on there. Prove these claims, or disprove them. I don’t care. Just come back with the truth — and the evidence to back it up.”
“Come on. I just got back from Sri Lanka on Monday.”
“Good. That means you’re ready to go. You don’t have to pack again.”
“Send Bouvier. He loves this sort of thing. I just want to wash my clothes and watch football this weekend.”
“Sorry. I need a skeptic.”
“Any rational person will do then. Nobody would believe this. ”
“And someone with your particular skill set. And more familiar with the country than Bouvier is.”
“I haven’t been there in years.”
“Doesn’t matter. You can fit in. Bouvier can’t. His accent would stand out, and he can’t pass for a native like you can. Neither can he change the way he views the world. He’s not the right man for the job. You are.”
“Then send Mutombo. She’s good.”
“She is, but she’s young. This is above her pay grade.”
“Sorry, Kim. It’s you.”
Kim cursed beneath his breath and looked back out the window. “You’d think a human rights organization would care more about the welfare of the humans it employs.”
“You would think.” Schroeder walked over and took his hat back. “Oh well. You have health insurance. Better than some people.”
“You dock my pay for it.”
“We like to call it a benefit. Plenty of jobs don’t offer it.” Schroeder turned and walked toward the entry to the office. The hands on the clock above the door said it was 6:32 p.m. Everyone else was gone for the day.
Kim stared bullets through the floor. Over and over, he just shook his head. The gesture was better than the alternative. “When do I leave?”
“Tomorrow? Just give me a few days, at least.”
“Sorry. Your travel is already booked. This is time-sensitive.”
Kim tilted his head back and closed his eyes in frustration. When he opened them, he saw the ceiling panel above his head was stained brown from a past water leak. “You keep telling me I need a hobby.”
“Well, it would help your stress levels.”
“I have no time for a hobby. You keep sending me all over the globe.”
“Well, that was me talking to you as a friend, Kim. I like you. This is me talking to you as your boss.”
“I know. But a breather would be nice. I mean … do you have any idea how long it’s been since I went on a date?”
“Funny you should mention that.”
“Oh no. “For the first time since the conversation began, Kim pushed away from the window. “No, you did not.”
“You’ll meet her in country.”
“Schroeder, no. Please, no.”
“She’s the best person for the job, and you know it. End of story.” Schroeder opened the office door and stood in the doorway, hand on the knob. “Full details on your team are in your inbox.” He shut the door behind him, leaving Kim alone in the office.
Kim stared daggers at the door. He often liked to think of himself as a pacifist, particularly after more than a decade working for human rights groups. Moments like these made him reconsider.
The boat swayed with the waves, a motion that might have been more calming had the rhythm not been so irregular and the drops not been so severe. But that was life on open water. Kim was crammed into a lower compartment of the vessel, not part of the crew, an added and undocumented cargo on a path through rough but unwatched seas.
None of this was unexpected. Kim knew what he was in for once he reached the docks. The boat had seen better days, and they were decades ago. The ship’s bow was once white. Now it neared gray flecked with brown. Everything was faded, including the lettering of the script that displayed the ship’s name, The Mary Joseph. The fishing nets looked frayed, and so did the captain, a bearded fellow in his 40s whose battered jeans and flannel matched the boat, weather and everything around.
The crew was small, just three in addition to the captain, and they seemed a tight group. None approached their passenger, and none questioned him. Even the captain engaged in minimal discussion. Kim had thanked him when they met on the pier, to which the captain just laughed.
“Thank me when we make landfall,” the captain had said.
“Thank me on your way back out, once you’ve done what you have to do.”
“And no, I don’t want to hear about it. Better I don’t know. Just get on with it. I’m helping out a mutual friend of ours, and I’m happy to do it. God knows I owe it.”
Schroeder had insisted it be this way, and if anything they had heard was true, it was the right call. The team’s members would be sent in country separate from each other, and not necessarily via formal border crossings. If they arrived together, it increased the chances of being associated with their organization, which would present problems. This way, Kim and his team were just scattered travelers across a large country, even if they entered normally and went through customs. Kim didn’t know how his teammates were getting in country, and he didn’t need to know. All that mattered was that Schroeder didn’t want them hitting any watch lists and getting turned away by border security.
In general, authoritarian countries with track records of human rights abuses didn’t want observers coming in and documenting what they did to their people, which meant outside observers inclined to be critical of such actions – newspaper reporters, television crews, human rights organizations, sometimes even the United Nations – were often persona non grata. Kim was personally a known entity in at least three countries with major human rights problems, and that notoriety had caused him problems before. For example, Turkey had stopped him at Istanbul’s biggest airport two years ago, put him back on the plane and sent him out of the country after they matched Kim’s name against a watch list of undesirables. Turkish authorities had grown tired of international organizations criticizing the government’s jailing of dissidents and crackdowns on civil liberties, so when they could turn away someone like Kim, Turkish authorities did. The Gambians weren’t his biggest fans either, but their security services were too underfunded and disorganized to accurately track people like Kim, and it was fairly easy to cross into Gambia from Senegal anyway. In the end, the point of entry was a bigger problem with some countries than others.
Schroeder didn’t want to take chances in this case, because he anticipated border teams would be fully competent.
But how much attention would they pay to a battered, old fishing vessel that routinely went out into international waters and bounced among the same set of ports on each side of the border, just like all the other locals? Schroeder and Kim were banking on them having clear sailing, and that proved to be true, metaphorically speaking. Literally, it was anything but that: Wind and rain battered the vessel, which was laden with fish and therefore heavier in the swells. The catches were stored on ice to keep for the voyage home, but that only deadened the smell, never eliminated it. Unlike the crew, Kim wasn’t used to living with that odor. By the time they arrived in port, a few hours later, the stench had permeated everything, and Kim would take it with him.
The arrival in port was surprisingly smooth. Like most fishing boats in the area, the vessel regularly traversed the border in search of better fishing waters, so the captain was able to report to the local security team by telephone, just like the other regulars. It was a small town, and routines took precedence. Still, they had to be prepared for border police to search the boat, which they were entitled to do and would do intermittently to keep folks honest. With Kim not appearing on the vessel’s manifest, he stowed himself inside the largest trunk they could find until they moored the boat in port. When the crew departed the vessel, they did so en masse, though the first mate remained behind so that anyone watching their departure would count the same number of crewmen walking the docks as there usually were. Kim and the first mate were of similar height, so Kim donned a fisherman’s cap, tossed a sack over his shoulder and walked head down, just like the rest of the crew, doing his best to imitate their postures and avoid conversation along the way. When the captain peeled off from the others to stop into the security office, Kim kept pace with the rest of the crew, and when they all parted ways, Kim stuck with the oldest member of the crew and joined him on the drive home.
They stopped at a thrift store on the way back, and Kim used local currency to buy a backpack, two pairs of pants, three shirts, a jacket and shoes. Shortly thereafter, they stopped at another stretch of stores, and Kim returned to the car with new underwear, socks and shoes. They continued back to the crewman’s house, a small bungalow surrounded by woods and fronted by a beat-up old Harley Davidson motorcycle. There, Kim showered, washing every part of his body twice to scrub the stench of fish from him, before stepping out and changing into a set of newly purchased clothes. The crewman collected the old clothes, threw them in the washing machine and hit the shower himself shortly thereafter, leaving Kim alone to ponder his thoughts.
Outside, it was quiet, and Kim liked it that way. He wandered in front of the house, skimming the perimeter of the woods. On the far side of the house, opposite the driveway, he found a large garden, fenced in and ringed with black dog hair, likely deliberately placed so the scent would chase off rabbits and deer, though he had yet to see a dog here. Every now and again, he heard rustling in the trees. Once, it was a small animal, probably a squirrel. Another time, a bird he could not identify. Still another, he wasn’t sure. There was abundant wildlife here, of that he was sure. Entering the country through one of its rural stretches had benefits. This wasn’t Sri Lanka, so densely populated in the southwest that, while there, he longed for the more rural but difficult and impoverished stretches in the Tamil north. And it certainly wasn’t the city he currently called home. This was some place vastly different, but he knew when looking at it that you could find somewhere a little like it in every country in the world.
Quiet. Solitude. The scent of pine, mingled with wild herbs and flowers if one treaded the right spots. Hints of the ocean carried on the wind. The song of a cardinal slipping through the canopy of trees.
“This is a good place.”
Kim turned around. It was the crewman, his host. “I know.”
“Not just here,” the crewman said. “This country.”
“Don’t let them do what they’re doing.”
Kim narrowed his eyes briefly. “What do you mean?”
“I’m the mutual friend. I know who you are. Why you’re here.”
Kim nodded, then looked back out toward the trees. No denial, no confirmation.
“My family’s been here a long time,” the crewman said. “Long time. Centuries. Before this was a country, we were here.”
Kim said nothing. Conversation wasn’t part of the plan. Confirmation wasn’t part of the plan either, not yet.
“We’ve seen ups and downs. Bad times, good times. More bad than good, really. This country has always had problems – God knows my kin know that better than most – and some stains you just can’t erase. But at least people tried to fix things. You judge people on their merits, not what their ancestors did. It could have been worse – should have been much worse. You know the history here?”
“Figures. You talk like us.” The crewman took a deep breath, exhaled slowly. Contentment and ruefulness, mixed. “Look around. This is a beautiful place. Hard sometimes, but it’s home. You have good people around here. But you got bad too. Always. Every place is like that, don’t you think?”
Kim felt the crewman’s gaze upon him and turned back to find the feeling confirmed. “Yes, I do.”
“A good man can’t stand idly by when things like this happen. People watch television. They think it’s like the movies, where every hero carries a gun. I got a gun. So does my neighbor, and he’s a jerk. Being a hero isn’t about carrying a gun. It’s about the choices you make. It’s about honor. It’s about doing the right thing when the right thing needs to be done. It may not be easy, but you damn well better do it, because somebody has to.”
Kim drew his lips inward. He was disciplining himself. He had just entered the country illegally, and this man knew it. Kim would reveal nothing. Not yet. Discipline was part of the job. But so was empathy. “I know,” he said softly.
“This is me doing my part,” the crewman said. “Getting you in. Getting you there. I fought for my country, but I’m an old man now.”
“You’re not so old.”
The crewman’s lips curled up in a skeptical half-smile. “See how you feel after twenty years of working on fishing boats.”
Kim felt himself smile briefly for what felt like the first time in days. “Fair enough.”
“That’s my country out there. Maybe we don’t all look the same or talk the same, and maybe our history is one big pile of dog shit. But you know what? Shit’s a pretty good fertilizer. My garden grows. And this is a good place. Or it used to be.” The crewman shook his head again, looked out into the distance. “What they’re doing isn’t right.” The crewman shook his head, contracted his fingers across his chin, scraping the still-drying black and gray beard. “It isn’t right. But nobody’s talking about it. Everybody knows what’s going on, but nobody’s talking about it.”
Kim stuffed his hands in his pants pockets. He felt lint beneath the fingernail of his right index finger. That lint had belonged to someone else once. A native here. Kim wondered about that man, much like he wondered about the crewman next to him.
“Make them talk about it,” the crewman said. “Don’t let the world look away. It’s only just starting. It’s going to get worse.” He looked down. “It’s going to get a lot worse.”