“How was your flight?” The voice was deep and measured, a slight Russian accent. The question was clearly an attempt at irony – I had been chained in my seat with a black canvas sack over my head for the duration of the five-hour flight and my petulant scowl left little doubt as to my disposition. He approached from behind me and, stepping around the table, sat across from me.
“Any black-bag flight I’m not thrown out of ranks high in my estimation.” His eyes lit up and he smiled. He had a live one. I’d seen him, we’ve all seen him, his deadly cherub good looks, the model for a Bond villain, with his own very real body count, Vladimir Putin. I found myself and the president of Russia seated at a table in a Stuckey’s restaurant in Howling Beaver, Virginia.
“Well, I am happy you made it.” He indicated the menus. “Have you eaten, would you like something?” Five and a half hours earlier I had stepped out to throw some water on the dead brown patch that was once a lawn when I moved in, not so very long ago. But now the gophers had left it a barren, bored-out sand pit, a little dust vector kicked up with regularity, by the local sandblast winds which make the hood such a fire nightmare. So I, in order to pretend I am a good tenant, will on occasion go out and water the dirt, keep the dust down. During my out-stepping, two big lads sapped me down then renditioned my ass. I came to in the plane, my head throbbing, hands cuffed behind me.
I seethed contempt, an occasional fictional issue with me, and the bus boyperson Claudio came by with a mop and wiped it up. I was furious at being abducted, knocked unconscious by thugs in suits, dragged across the nation to a shithole in Virginia, which owing to mining bears a striking resemblance to my front lawn hole, and made to sit across from my hitherto unknown antagonist, smiling at me as if nothing was the least bit out of the ordinary. “Yes please.” I was hungry, no sense turning down a sandwich.
After orders were taken Vlad got down to business. Interestingly, I had never heard him speak American and as my Russian was abysmal, it was convenient for everyone involved that he chose our encounter to reveal his fluency. He considered me as I sucked down my iced tea. “You don’t ask why I have brought you here. Why is this?”
“Figured you’d get to it by and by. My head hurts too much to want to piss off your goon valets.” He looked at me confused.
“I was under the impression you were notable for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.”
“With hysterical results, sure. But that’s my other fictional persona. This one is all business and pleasure, so I’ve even written myself a slight headache and not the throbber one would expect with a goon sapping.” He seemed impressed if not a little baffled by the new fictional me, the calm and reserved one that ordered a combo plate with two, two sides! I’m not fucking around here.
“I was misinformed.” I picked up a French fry, from the stupidly early-arriving side when the main is nowhere to be seen, and pointed it at him for emphasis.
“You fell for intelligence bias. You believed what you read about me, forgetting that I am able to top-load information to bias your perception. I decide what I put out there for your watchers to gather. You have come to imagine me as all No Business Art, goofy, drugged out, making one bad decision after another…”
“With hilarious results.”
I smiled at him, he didn’t seem so bad. “Yes, hilarious. But tonight, I am more on point, not all sloppy crazy, so you’ll have to adapt if you even hope to keep up. You want one of these fries?” Before I could even get it out of my mouth he reached over and snagged one.
“Thank you. You are an interesting fellow, Mr. Hammer. Many of us take delight in your swipes at our asset. He, I fear, is not bright enough to appreciate your nuanced outrage, though we are pleased he has not blocked you.” I watched as his hand hovered near the fries. He was being complimentary, what the hell, I slid it toward him and he grabbed another fry.
“You renditioned me because of my Twitter feed? Seems a little extreme. You could have just DM’ed me.” I rubbed my noggin, it suddenly becoming more prominent in my thinking. He grabbed two fries and looked at me.
“Because of the nature of my position, I don’t ask for people to accompany me. I want you to join me, you join me.” He grabbed the catsup and squirted a little on the ends of his fries, then crunched down on them with Slavic gusto.
Looking around at the restaurant – very public, no need for me to have been black-bagged – I stared at him quizzically. “Well, as you’ve brought me to this terrible place and anyone can just walk in off the street, what was the point of the black bag?”
“Come on. How would your little story sound if I just bought you a plane ticket and you came here of your own volition? Pretty uninspired, huh?” Well, he nailed that so I decided to let it pass. I pulled the fry plate back as a sign of reticence. He appreciated the nuance and pulled back, finger tapping lightly on the Formica.
“Okay, before you eat all my fries, what is this about?” He could see I was impatient with him. He had eaten half the fucking plate, left me with a bunch of stubs.
“We figured you’d be including Trump in your follow-up to No Business, a fine read I am happy to report…”
“Of course. We have all kinds of stories that have never hit the press. Thought you might like them.” I was confused. Why would he help me damage his asset? Before I could write this as dialogue he continued, “His value has been attained, he’ll do us no more good. But he can do you some good, while further damaging himself and especially his acolytes, so we are happy to share with you.”
This was an unexpected turn of events. I figured more pain and irony, but then this surprising generosity, especially in regard to the sequel to a book not yet published. His benevolence bade well, as it indicated that No Business would inspire a follow-up. But then the other shoe dropped, as I knew it would. “So, can you get this? All I’ve got are rubles…”