by JOHN HAGGERTY
At 3:55PM I close the Threat Desk. I say “close” in the interests of accuracy, because at the inception of the Threat Desk program, when we were given a generous selection of models and options to choose from, I eschewed the vulgar fiberboard and laminate models offered to the budget-conscious, stretched my finances and went for a top-of-the-line model—a glorious Louis XVI replica bureau à cylindre, hand carved throughout and replete with such authentic details as pommele mahogany veneers and bronze inlays and fixtures that hold a lovely patina. The secondary woods (and sometimes I remove the drawers to view the excellent workmanship of the dovetailing) are all French oak. It is stunning. So often reproductions are disappointing—mass produced and cheap, with nary a whiff of the original attention to craft and detail, but my Threat Desk far exceeded even my rather elevated expectations.
At this moment, however, I take little pleasure in the excellence of the piece. It is indicative of my level of emotional upheaval that I discontinue my Threat Desk viewing period five minutes before the end of my shift—something I have never done in the roughly three and a half years the Threat Desk program has been in effect. Indeed, as I close the desk (and did I forget even to turn the Threat Desk screen itself off?) I see that my hands are shaking.
I compose myself for a moment, and, again, the workmanship of the desk begins to comfort me. Surely all cannot be lost in a world where such beauty still exists. Perhaps in search of more salubrious climes, my mind strays to a familiar fantasy in which next door neighbor Mary—Mary Lott—visits my house for the first time. I see her eyes wander approvingly over my immaculate housekeeping and tasteful decor as I usher her into my study for the climax of the tour. The golden rays of the late afternoon sun bring the warm brown tones of the Threat Desk to life. On the Threat Screen is one of the pithy quotes that fill it when not displaying the names and faces of the miscreants, villains, and monsters that would do our proud nation harm: There is No Freedom without Fear, Mistrust is Mandatory, and the reassuring 1,235 Days without a Terrorist Attack. Our shoulders nearly touch as we look on it in admiration.
With effort, I pull myself back to the present. Even fortified by my brief imaginary sojourn with Mary, I am unable to confront the news that the Threat Desk has just imparted to me. I take a few deep breaths and then, more as a distraction than anything else, call Fred to make sure our bridge foursome was still on. It’s me and Fred and the Lotts—Ben and Mary—every Wednesday. A return to routine, I reason, will be just the thing to settle my jittery nerves.
I don my lucky bowtie, uttering a brief (and almost certainly unanswered) prayer that Fred will be at his best for the evening. But my reflection in the mirror brings my thoughts, unbidden, back to the troubling image that I last beheld on the Threat Desk. It was, in fact, my own face, surrounded by the red border that signifies that the subject of the report is a villain of the highest water. “Walter Millotti,” it said. “Terror Cell Leader.”
This raises a number of troubling issues, the largest one being that I myself was previously unaware of my terrorist activities. And underneath that lay a whole host of other concerns: what fueled my black hatred for our great country? What nefarious plots was I even now planning, living as the apparently ordinary, if more tasteful and discerning than most, Walter Milloti, insurance office manager? The sensation is akin to one of those anxiety dreams in which the poor somnolent shows up for a course’s final exam without any knowledge of the subject at hand. For a man such as me, a man who prides himself on his preparation and orientation to detail, the situation is terribly disturbing.
My thoughts are still awhirl as I knock on the Lotts’ door, but I maintain a sufficient presence of mind to note that the Lotts have, as yet, not freshened the paint on the trim of their house as I had suggested the previous week. It is badly faded, and even beginning to peel in spots, something that seems thoroughly emblematic of the way Ben makes his way through life. That he managed to woo and wed a creature of Mary’s delicate character and sensibility is a mystery far too deep for me to plumb.
This familiar train of thought is interrupted by Mary herself, who opens the door wearing nothing but a lacy black bit of lingerie. Mary has put on a few pounds in the last couple of years, and the whole outfit looks extremely tight and uncomfortable. Even so, I quickly find myself undone by the sight. Her pale skin, the thing that attracted me to her initially, is incandescent, even in the bluish illumination of their poor-quality fluorescent foyer lighting. She looks so delicate, so ethereal—or would, if she left her beast of a husband and submitted herself to my discipline and ministrations. Oh Mary, my love, my dove. Let me take you away from this, the peeling paint, the slovenly yard, your fleshy, vulgar husband. We are two souls united by temperament, and yet separated by a chain link fence and a strip of crab grass that your husband refuses, for unfathomable reasons, to resod—one in spirit, but divided by an eternal abyss.
“Do you like it?” she asks.
I clear my throat uncomfortably. “It is bridge night, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes, but Ben and I thought, you know…” A look of annoyance crosses her face. “Look, it was all I had. I’ll go shopping tomorrow.”
I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to answer. “Great,” I said. “Great. How’s everything else going?”
“Oh, can’t complain,” she says, turning to lead me into the house. “Bobby and Sheila are driving us crazy, but they’re teenagers. That’s what they’re supposed to do, right?”
I follow her into the living room, where Ben has the card table set up and is already shuffling the deck.
“Ready to get your clock cleaned, Walter?” Ben fixes me with a contemptuous little smile. A wave of hatred washes over me as I stare down at him. I suppose Ben was handsome once, but it is impossible to imagine that he was ever charming. Now, afflicted by both time and his own unhealthy appetites, he presents a leprous sight indeed, with his thinning hair ridiculously combed over his speckled scalp, his red face sprouting like some misshapen fruit above the sepal of his double chin, and dressed outlandishly in a hooded sweatshirt of the sort that young hooligans wear.
I cannot look at him for long, and as my gaze wanders restlessly around the room, my attention settles on an only slightly more pleasing sight—that of Mary and Ben’s own Threat Desk, a portable fiberboard model with folding steel legs, currently shoved into a corner next to their wet bar. Sad and ugly as it is, it always causes a riotous bloom of hope in my chest. One glimpse, I think, one glimpse of my Louis XVI, and Mary must surely be mine. And then I remember the terrible secret I nurture in my bosom and, my knees suddenly weak, I sink down at the card table.
“So,” Ben says, eying me intently, “what do you think?” He nods toward Mary, who shifts uncomfortably in the chair across from him. That negligee, it is clear, is really very tight.
“I’m not sure what you mean, Ben.”
“Did you…” Ben and Mary exchange a look. He leans toward me and whispers, “Threat Desk. You had a shift today, right?”
“Ben,” I say sharply, “we can’t discuss that.” There are strict rules on information compartmentalization. Each household has its own Threat Desk for a reason. In order to maintain a proper level of watchfulness, it is crucially important to limit the amount of communication shared outside of a single, designated residential unit.
“Jesus, Walter,” Mary says. “You’ve always got such a stick up your ass.”
The years with Ben, I fear, have taken their toll on Mary’s spirit. She is given to these sorts of vulgarities with a disturbing regularity. I reply with a gentle tone, hoping that she can see, finally, what is truly in my heart. “Mary,” I say, “the rules are there for a reason. There is no safety without suspicion.”
“If you were on the desk today, Walter,” Ben says, leaning toward me, “you know as well as I do that we’re all members of a terror cell.”
My eyes widen in surprise. “Us? The three of us?”
“Don’t play dumb, Walter,” Mary says. “You know there’s four. Fred’s in on it too.”
“Anyway,” Ben continues, “the intel is that I’m probably some kind of assassin, and Mary, well…” he turns to her, “what did they call you?”
“A honeypot,” she says. “As if I didn’t have enough on my plate. Sheila’s been a nightmare since she got braces, and Bobby’s got soccer practice almost every night. I’m supposed to, oh God, what did it say…use sex to suborn important officials? In my spare time, I guess. And Ben, what does he have to do? Shoot someone every now and then?”
“Don’t start with me, Mary,” Ben says. “You know I’m up to my ass in crap down at the firm. If I don’t get my billable hours up…”
“Don’t say it. Don’t say anything about making partner. I hate to be the one to break it to you, Ben, but you’re not making partner. Not ever. No matter what your hours are.”
The doorbell rings, and I feel a wave of relief. It must be Fred, who is better at handling Ben and Mary’s bickering than I am. And, frankly, I was happy to use his entrance to cover my own humiliation. I curse myself for ending my Threat Desk shift early, today of all days. My face burns with the secret knowledge of my transgression, and I vow that I would rather die than let Mary discover that I have been so lax in my duties.
Fred bustles in, looking even more frantic and distracted than usual. He’s the manager at one of the superstores downtown, and it’s hard to imagine how they make a profit with him handling the inventory.
“Sorry I’m late,” he says, “but I just thought…” he stops short, his watery eyes moving between the three of us. “You know, right?”
“We know, Fred, we know,” Mary says.
“What do you bet Walter already has a twenty-five point agenda made up,” Ben says. “And a PowerPoint presentation on terror goals for the upcoming month.” He goes back to shuffling the cards. “And he’ll get all pissy if we just want to have a few cocktails and play bridge.”
I feel my cheeks burning. Somehow, Ben always knows how to inflict the most painful wound. I should have an agenda. Terror cells, I would imagine, don’t organize themselves. The fact that I had only learned thirty minutes ago that I am the leader of this particular one offers me no comfort at all. That is the kind of excuse a loser would use. The kind of excuse Ben would use.
“I thought we could meet more informally tonight,” I say. “But I will want to handle things with a bit more rigor next time.” On more comfortable footing, I meet Ben’s eyes steadily. There is a reason I am in charge here, I think, and foremost among them is organization.
“The thing is…” Fred says tentatively.
We all turn to him.
“I’m…” he fidgets in his chair as if covered by insects. “I’m not a terrorist,” he says.
“Oh come now, Fred, you’re being too hard on yourself,” I say. Over the years, I have discovered through painful experience at the bridge table that Fred responds more readily to praise, even false praise, than criticism, no matter how apt. “You’re a bang-up terrorist. Why just the other day…” I search my mind for terrorist-type acts that Fred has committed, but come up completely blank. I pat his forearm in what I hope is a comforting way. “You’re coming along nicely,” I finish weakly.
“I think there’s been a mistake. The Threat Desk said I was a bomb specialist. I don’t know anything about making bombs. It’s crazy.” Then a sudden realization seemed to strike him. “Have you, you three been…”
Again my confidence plummets. Our little group has not, to my knowledge, committed any acts of terror at all. We are, by all measures, completely ineffectual. It is something that I will be forced to use a firm hand to correct. But first, Fred’s little rebellion must be quashed.
In the friendliest voice I could muster, I say, “If we’re not terrorists, why would the Threat Desk say that we were? And as far as bomb-making, well, isn’t that what the Internet is for?”
“I don’t know. I’ve heard rumors. You know, that it’s just some computer somewhere, that it’s just randomly generating…”
“How many days has it been since we’ve had a terrorist attack?” Ben asks him sharply.
“1,235,” I say. “And what does the Threat Desk say at the start of every session?”
Fred hangs his head. “‘Never Doubt the Desk’,” he quotes.
“It was right about Justin and Terri,” Mary says.
“Bingo,” Ben says, pointing a stubby finger at her. “It told us they were up to no good, and next thing you know, the cops are carting them away.”
“And we never would have figured them for terrorists, right?” Mary says. And of course she is correct. Justin and Terri were a friendly, chubby couple who were always mounting canned food drives for some group of starving children or other. They had two Boston terriers and a timeshare in Tucson. It was the perfect cover. Clearly they were consummate professionals.
“Yeah,” Fred says slowly. “I guess you’re right.”
I am relieved at Fred’s acquiescence but realize that the thought of Justin and Terri leaves my mind troubled. They had never caused anybody any trouble at all. On our street their house was second only to mine in neatness. What had they done to deserve whatever fate befell them? Though I had never given it much thought previously, now it all feels just a little bit unjust. I contemplate this unfamiliar feeling, and wonder if this is one component of the rage that fuels my subversive activities.
At that moment, there is a loud knock at the door.
“Who could that be?” Mary asks.
“Police.” A man’s voice shouts. “We have a warrant for your arrest. Open the door.”
The police? But how? I have known about our secret life for such a short amount of time. How could law enforcement…a horrible realization dawns on me. We have been betrayed, I think, and I know immediately who the Judas is. I am suddenly furious. I leap to my feet. “Ben!” I shout. “Ben informed on us.”
A loud, rhythmic banging sound came from the Lotts’ foyer. They are using, I imagine, a battering ram to gain entry.
“What are you talking about?” Ben says incredulously. “It’s all over the Threat Desk, you idiot. Everybody knows about us now.”
He’s right, of course, though it is agonizing to admit. And yet how did we get on the Threat Desk in the first place? Ben is still the obvious suspect, and I vow to ferret out his secrets later, by every method at my disposal.
The banging on the door intensifies. This is it, my first test of leadership, but I find myself filled with doubt. One would think that in my position as leader of a terror cell, I would have finely honed my leadership instincts by now, and yet I am paralyzed.
Fred, the police, the possibility of an informer in our midst—things are happening too fast for me to process. But then my eyes fall again on Ben, his corpulent face, his fleshy hands, and I imagine them touching Mary’s skin with a revolting familiarity. He is our betrayer. There can be no one else. I am, I find, suddenly aflame with rage. I leap at him, my hands clutching at his throat. We roll briefly on the floor, and it becomes clear that Ben, through sheer mass, will soon have the better of me.
I hear a cracking sound. The front door is failing under the assault. The police will soon be inside. Ben has managed to position himself on top of me. He pulls back a meaty fist, preparing to deal me a tremendous blow.
The picture window shatters. There is a deafening explosion and an excruciating flash of light. Ben rolls off me, and I lurch to my feet, disoriented. I gather that the police have used a stun grenade to confuse us. My ears ring, and my vision fills with stars. The smell of cordite bites into my sinuses. We are, it is clear, putting on a very poor showing, and I know that the stigma of failure would come, however unfairly, to rest most squarely on me, the leader.
As my senses slowly clear, I realize that I am leaning up against the Lotts’ wet bar. Taking shelter behind it, I find myself huddling next to Mary. She is sobbing uncontrollably, her face swollen, mucous streaming from her nostrils. At that moment, my old vision returns, of me and Mary, in my study, gazing fondly at my Threat Desk, united in mind and spirit. The image reinvigorates me. We shall overcome all of this, Mary and I. Together we will fight on for…that I am still not entirely certain about what poisonous creed we have pledged our lives to concerns me only momentarily.
I put my arm around her waist, acutely conscious of her warm skin just beneath the tight black negligée. “Worry not,” I shout over the chaos and noise, “we struggle as one.”
Mary stares at me blankly.
“We fight!” I yell, leaping to my feet. “In our death is only glory!” My hearing is nearly normal again. The front door gives way with a shattering sound. I look frantically around for a weapon, settling finally on a gin bottle from the bar. Predictably, it is the bargain brand of a big-box store, strictly bottom-shelf. I would have liked to go into battle with something more dignified, a nice cognac, perhaps, or a single-malt scotch. But adaptability, I am learning, is a key component of a successful insurgency.
Grasping the bottle like a club, I look toward the foyer, where our enemy, I am certain, will soon appear. My heart is beating like a tireless industrial hammer. I am filled with a sense of purpose. Of joy. Mary is just behind me. I see Fred trembling behind Ben and Mary’s Threat Desk, overturned in the confusion.
The Threat Desk, I realize, was inerrant in its information. The four of us comprise a force to be reckoned with. To be feared. No wonder the police chose to act with such alacrity. A vision of my own Threat Desk, glorious, effulgent, rises in my mind, and Keats’ immortal words come to me. Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all I know on earth, and all I need know. I live, I fight, I die for the truth. For Mary. For Louis XVI furniture. For poor, benighted Justin and Terri. The room begins to fill with a choking, burning smoke. Through the murk I see shadowy, furtive movement. I raise a fist in the air, and with an exultant cry launch myself into the fray.
John Haggerty lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has appeared in dozens of literary magazines including Michigan Quarterly Review, New Orleans Review, Nimrod, and Santa Monica Review. He is the winner of Pinch Literary Award in Fiction in 2013 and the founding editor of the Forge Literary Magazine.