A Syrian refugee living in Istanbul gets recruited by the CIA for a dangerous mission.
Ahdaf dropped a coin in the tip bowl and left the hammam. The hectic street quickly robbed him of the languidness he had enjoyed stretched out on a hot marble slab. He dodged pushcarts and deliverymen, some shirtless in the warming day, and jumped out of the way when boys, clinging to the back of wagons piled high with boxes, shouted warnings as they came hurtling down the hill with nothing more to brake them than their heels in thin sandals.
It wasn’t much less chaotic inside Leyla’s Café. People—mostly dark men with some amount of facial hair—sat around small tables, their voices raised competing to be heard, and flailed the air as they acted out whatever they were saying. A cloud of smoke hung overhead, abetted by the few men puffing on sishasthat sent up drifts of sweet, tangy smoke.
Ahdaf squeezed up to the bar where Leyla had laid out power strips for customers to recharge their phones for free. She’d done it to help refugees, and it hadn’t hurt her business either. Only one cord was free, and Ahdaf snatched it before someone else did and plugged in his phone. He was in the red zone, down to a seven percent charge, and he was aware how his own life was dependent on his battery’s life.
“You coming from the hamam?” Leyla asked.
“How can you tell?”
“You smell like soap.”
“Is that good?”
“It’s better than you smelled yesterday.”
“You changed your shirt, too.”
“I wash one, and when it dries out, I wear it and wash the other.”
A stranger pushed up to the bar. “Sounds like you could use a third shirt,” he said.
“I’d need a bigger closet. Three sugars today,” he said to Leyla. “I’m counting calories, and seem to be missing my daily quota.”
“I charge for sugar now.”
“You boys aren’t buying enough tea to cover my electric bill. Thirty centimes a packet.”
“Then only two cubes.”
“I’ll buy you a third one,” the black stranger said.
“I’m good with two. ”
Leyla served his tea in a steaming glass balanced on a small saucer. “You’re too skinny. Let the man buy you another sugar.”
“And let you get even richer off me than you were expecting?”
“Get rich off you?” Leyla laughed. “I couldn’t get rich off all you guys in here put together.”
Ahdaf frowned as he stirred the sugar into his tea. “We had jobs in Syria. We could’ve made you rich then.”
The man stuck out his hand. “I’m Selim Wilson. Sam if you prefer.”
“Selim’s easy for me. I’m Ahdaf.”
They shook hands.
“Why do you have a Turkish name?” Ahdaf asked.
“Is my accent that bad?”
“It sounds American.”
“My father’s American. My mother Turkish. She and I spoke it all the time.” Selim smiled. “We could share secrets in front of him.”
Ahdaf chuckled, and they both drank more beer.
“Is there a reason you pushed yourself up to the bar?” Ahdaf asked. “Because you’re not charging your phone.”
“You’re a smart fellow.”
“For figuring out that I wanted to meet you.”
Ahdaf glanced at Leyla. Give me some space, his eyes said.
She nodded. “I’ve got other customers.”
“Before you rush off, a beer, please,” Selim said. “One for Ahdaf, too, if he wants something stronger than tea.”
“You need the calories,” Leyla reminded him.
“Is the beer really cold?”
Leyla pulled two bottles from a refrigerator and set them on the bar. “Is that cold enough?”
Ahdaf, wrapping his hand around one bottle’s neck, nodded.
“Good. Two cold beers.” Leyla popped off their tops. “I can make that four when you want. Beer’s more profitable than sugar.” She stepped away.
Ahdaf wrapped a hand around a bottle and took a swallow from it. Looking at the bar not Selim, he said, “Why do you want to meet me?”
“I’ve heard you get things done.”
“Who told you?”
“A lot of people could have told me.”
“But only one person did.” Ahdaf swallowed more beer before he turned to Selim. “I like to know how people find me.”
Selim shook his head. “We need to be working together first.”
“I’m not helping ISIS.”
“I’m not either.”
“By smuggling them to Europe?”
“By knowing who they’re trying to smuggle. You could help us.”
“Who are you? CIA?”
“We need to be working together first,” Selim repeated himself.
“You’re making it sound like we need to become blood brothers or something.” Ahdaf checked his phone. “I’m charged,” he said, and slipped it into his daypack. “Thanks for the offer.”
“You didn’t hear my offer. A visa anywhere you want—someplace safe—and money to set yourself up.”
Ahdaf shouldered his daypack to leave. “I know what ISIS can do. Nothing you offered could make me go near them. Thanks for the beer.”
“Just remember, Ahdaf Jalil—”
“How do you know my name?”
“What you call moving people is trafficking for the rest of the world. Turkey could deport you and send you back to ISIS.”
“I didn’t come looking for you. Fucking leave me alone.”
“Take this.” Selim forced a business card on him.
“I don’t want it.”
“You might need help. Not everyone is a nice guy like you.”
Ahdaf glanced at the card. It had only a telephone number. A local prefix in Istanbul. “I ask for you?”
“You don’t ask for anyone. You leave your name and a message, and where to find you if you need help.”
“I won’t need help,” Ahdaf said, and stuck the card in his pocket. “Thanks for the beer.”
“Next time I’ll buy you a meal.”
Ahdaf made his way to the door of the lively café. He knew some eyes trailed him. Nobody’s business was especially private since most of it was conducted on the streets. So everybody kept an eye on each other, and not always to be helpful. Selim hadn’t said he was CIA, but he was somebody like that, and probably somebody in that café knew exactly who he was.
The door hadn’t closed behind him before his phone started ringing.