The Saggitar Mosaic Originally appeared in Gallery Magazine.
Text and background image copyright (C) 1989, 2012 David Alexander. All rights reserved.
Whipping sheets of November fog that obscured the narrow, serpentine alleys of Venice and the dark of night, made the trap all the more lethal. But it would have been no different in the dazzling sunlight of August, when the piazzi were thronged with tourists and the fog, which Venetians called la nebbia, was still months away. Stone had been judged expendable. He had been marked for death ... and death was no stranger to Venice. Death and Venice, as a local proverb held, were lovers. Somewhere nearby, positioned in streets barely wide enough for a man to walk without slanting his body sideways, the hit team dispatched by McQuade was fanning out, drawing the net tighter. Stone could not dispute the logic which had sent out the hunters. He had been entrusted with Saggitar. He had seen Taurus's courier. McQuade could not afford to allow him to live. End of story. Stone cursed himself for having taken the fool's gambit. But he also acknowledged that he had not had much of a choice. Which is why McQuade had to him in the first place, and why there would now be hell to pay. To make it out of Venice alive, Stone would have to beat the devil. Some options still were open, some avenues existed. The fog and the night could be allies as well as enemies, the labyrinth of streets could shelter him from the contract killers with the soulless eyes and lethal firepower. Stone cautiously edged from the shadows of a narrow lane feeding into a broad square directly behind the Rialto, scanning the billowing curtains of Adriatic mist that pelted his face with fine, cold needles, alert for the hunters concealed within it, his hand gripping the butt of his Beretta machine pistol in the pocket of his overcoat. He would have to cross the covered Renaissance bridge spanning the Grand Canal and knew he would be at his most vulnerable there. The deserted flagstone square glistened under the street lamps, reflecting the shop windows displaying overpriced, high-tech goods. The street lamps bled halos of light into the enveloping mists. From somewhere came a snatch of music from a radio, then the sound of a window slamming, then nothing. Stone crossed the square and walked quickly up the Rialto's broad granite steps. An ACTV waterbus-vaporetto slid up the Grand Canal, tooting its horn as he crossed the bridge's hump. To his right, a prostitute huddled with her john against the ancient parapet. They paid Stone no attention as he walked down the opposite flight to the darkened stalls of the shuttered bazaar at the bridge's foot. Five men, little more than half-glimpsed, fog-veiled shadows, were positioned in the tangle of streets at the Rialto's base, sealing off all exitways. Without having to turn, Stone knew the couple he'd just passed would be behind him, weapons drawn; the end points boxing him in, trapping him like a mouse in a squeeze cage, his life about to be surgically snuffed with the precision of a scalpel in the brain by experts who could kill silently and remorselessly, then vanish without a trace. He searched desperately for a way out. There were only two problems: how and where.
Harry's American Bar. Stone pushed through the double glass saloon doors with the word H-A-R-R-Y etched in white on each pane, into the ground floor of the legendary watering hole for the rich, the famous and the corrupt. Harry's enjoyed the distinction of being one of the few places in Venice, outside the opulent but overrated Danielli, where you got ice in your scotch without asking for it. A Sicilian gigolo was seated at the bar, looking nervous beside a well-preserved older woman who fondled a pink-dyed poodle and spoke to the bartender in guttural German. The bartender poured a round for the dog. A sprinkling of late afternoon patrons sat at tables here and there. The man he had come to see was at a table against a window with a view of the Riva degli Schiavoni, watching the parade of tourists, thieves, male and female prostitutes, portrait artists, transvestites and drug dealers on the wide quay. McQuade motioned for Stone to sit down. "Your drink, if I remember correctly, is straight Cynar?" McQuade said as Stone nodded. "Don't know how you can drink the stuff. Tastes like something the goddamn locals drain out of their boat engines." The drink was ordered by hand signal. Scotch and soda for McQuade, Cynar on the rocks for Stone. "Tell me what you want so I can get out fast," Stone said. "It's beginning to stink in here, McQuade." He detested the CIA's regional special operations honcho and knew the feeling was mutual. He had come simply because to not have done so would have been highly dangerous. McQuade had saved Stone from a compromising situation that had gotten him cashiered from the Company ranks. The woman's husband -- a local Mafia caporegime -- had threatened to have him castrated. Stone suspected the entire affair had been orchestrated by McQuade to put him in his pocket as his personal nonoperational contact, his NOC. But suspecting was one thing: proving was another. The price for McQuade's silence was high. And McQuade would continue to call that price due. Every so often, Stone would perform odd jobs for McQuade. He would be paid for his services, but hardly well-paid. It was McQuade's way of keeping him on a tether. Stone needed a score to get out of the city. To go somewhere else, far away from McQuade and men like him, the merchants of Venice who would traffic in death if the price was right. But he had no money and no serious prospects for getting any. He was stuck in the flooded city on the Adriatic as sure as the bones of St. Mark, stolen from the Turks in the Third Crusade, were stuck in the church named after him. McQuade motioned the white-jacketed waiter to stop neatening his scotch. "The drop goes down this afternoon at Campo di Pozzi. The recognition code is, 'The gondola rides are very pleasant.' The response is, 'Especially with a singing gondolier.' Any questions?" "What's so critical about a routine drop that one of your regular delivery boys can't handle it?" Stone asked, finishing the bitter artichoke liquor of Venetian fishermen. "What's it this time? Afghan heroin? Chinese anthrax? A pound of plutonium maybe? Let's level McQuade." The covert ops honcho stared off through the windows at the colorfully attired passersby on the Riva degli Schiavoni. Japanese tourists, coming off the double decker ferry from the Lido, videotaped pickpockets posing as portrait artists. Hookers and drag queens cruised the strip while pitchmen hustled everything from forged antiquities to black market babies. When he focused on Stone, his eyes went flat. "You've heard of Saggitar?" he asked. Stone nodded, feeling a surprise jolt of adrenaline. Saggitar was the code name of a document. A highly classified document that he had dismissed as only a rumor. It was said to have contained damning evidence of clandestine complicity in events from the Kennedy hits to the 911 attacks, engineered by a rogue operative; a double agent known only by a code name: Taurus. He had helped train the deep black assassination teams that had gunned down JFK in Dallas. He had since gone on to bigger things. Taurus had been instrumental in the airport massacres of the previous year and the bombings in Harrods in London the summer before. Saggitar implicated people high up in seven presidential administrations. It was pure dynamite -- if it really existed at all. "I always thought the file was disinformation." "It's not," returned McQuade. "It's real. Too fucking real, I'm afraid." "Give me the whole shot," said Stone, his interest quickening. Despite his questions, he hadn't expected an answer. It was not the practice of any intelligence agency to inform low-level smurfs of such sensitive information. By revealing this much McQuade was tightening his grip on the NOC he owned. The price for hearing out McQuade would be Stone's soul. "Taurus wants to come back in from the cold. Wants it so badly he's willing to trade the only thing that's kept him alive all these years. Saggitar. One of his mules is to deliver the file as an up-front payment today." The rest didn't need to be finished. There was no way that the Company, let alone the U.S. government, could risk any connection with Taurus or acknowledge the existence of a dossier as damaging as Saggitar. Taurus would use a series of cutouts, monitoring the results at a safe distance. He wanted asylum in the U.S. -- but not in a body bag. "Why Venice?" Stone asked. McQuade laughed. "You've been slipping, Steven. The reason is perfectly obvious: because it's one of the few cities on earth where you can get in and out by plane, train, car or boat -- very quickly. It's always full of tourists. And its weird layout practically ensures cover and a safe, fast getaway should one prove necessary. In short, it's the perfect drop zone." "How much, McQuade?" It was clear to Stone that he had no choice. All that remained was to be told the price. McQuade extracted a thick envelope from the breast pocket of his jacket and slid it across the starched white tablecloth. "Ten thousand U.S. dollars." As Stone was about to take it, McQuade slammed his fist down over the envelope's end. His piercing green eyes flashed. "After this, leave Venice. Run fast. Run far." He added, "And don't stop running."
The Plaza of Saint Mark was filled with middle-aged American sightseers. They had swarmed in droves from an immense tour boat a few minutes before. Now their guide was standing before the twin Pillars of St. George, explaining that no true Venetian will walk between them, because of the beheadings having taken place there during the reign of the Doges, the city's bloodthirsty Renaissance rulers. It was a short walk from Harry's to the drop site. It was a short walk anywhere in Venice; if you knew how you could cross the entire city in a little over fifteen minutes. On the other hand if you didn't know your way around, it could take hours just to walk from one district to the next. Venice played with time and space. It fucked with your head. It came on like a painted whore, glittering and available, but when you shucked off the glossy wrappings, scar tissue was all you found. There was a price tag on everything in Venice. Fine art and heroin were both on the auction block. Religion took kickbacks from sex. It had been that way for a thousand years. Venice was a vast clearinghouse for anything that could be bought, sold, traded or ripped off. Stone turned off the tourist-thronged main drag onto one of the side streets just behind it. Crowd sounds immediately muted as he found himself in a small courtyard with a brass cistern at its center. Stone followed the meandering alley leading from it for a few hundred yards, then stopped to tie his shoelace. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the man in the trenchcoat stop and pretend to admire a grotesque, winged gargoyle on a cornice overhead. Stone smiled. Around the next sharp bend, he darted into the lobby of a hotel no larger than a storefront and out the rear exit, doubling him back behind McQuade's tail. Trenchcoat jerked left and right, cursed and barged into the lobby. Stone heard him and the concierge arguing inside. It was a short walk to a small shop on the Campo di Pozzi --the "Square of the Crazies" -- selling cheap glassware and the wrought iron lanterns all the tourists from home bought at the identical "bargain prices" every vendor advertized. An old man with hawk's eyes sat behind a display case filled with glass figurines of erotic nudes, most in the act of coupling with strange animals and demonic beings. Carnival masks with exaggerated phallic noses hung from the walls. Ranks of multi-hued glass spiders, scorpions, ants and other fanciful insects swarmed over glass shelves along the walls. The old man was using a brazing torch to fashion a beautifully detailed butterfly from thin rods of colored glass. Stone gave him the recognition code and was given the response in accented English. The old man handed him a small glass replica of a winged lion, the ancient symbol of Venice. Stone left without paying Taurus's mule. Early twilight deepened to night as Stone brought the souvenir to the lobby of a movie house doubling as a brothel in the Rialto district. A light, cold drizzle began, as a pea soup fog rolled in off the lagoon. Directly behind the Rialto was an area resembling the Souks of Istanbul. Narrow streets thronged with people were filled with the odors of frying meats. Music blared from loudspeakers, drawing in shoppers. Whores openly solicited customers, bringing their johns into the back alleys for sex, often performed standing up. Storekeepers were closing down as he searched for the whip seller's shop beneath a neon sign shaped like a gigantic spike-heeled pump.
The men had been inconspicuously positioned, but they were waiting for him and had seen him just as he'd eyeballed them. Stone wheeled and heard their running feet echoing on the ancient, moisture-filmed flagstones. He had the advantage of knowing the twisting and turning alleyways better than most natives. Trapped in a cul-de-sac, it could take you more time than you had to live to find your way out again. Dodging passersby as he ran, he was thankful McQuade had wanted Saggitar so badly he had gotten careless. "And its weird layout practically ensures cover and a fast, safe getaway...." had been the words Stone's handler had used. Taurus would soon, Stone knew, be long-gone, if he had watched the hunters close in, which he certainly had. And Stone knew far too much to be allowed to live. The ironic part was, Stone had never cared much about living....
...Until now. Stone scanned the ancient brickwork walls of the surrounding buildings, looking for a way to stay alive. In front and behind, lurked an ugly, unclean death. Autofire stuttered from the bridge as the killers opened up with 9-mm subguns. Stone wheeled sideways, returning fire on the fly as hot lead razored through the space his head had just occupied. Flame belched from both sides of the lane as two of the ice men opened up ahead, hosing down the flagstones of the bridge with mini-Uzis. Stone strained to see through the fog until he found what he was looking for: a wooden door set in the wall of a nearby building. He palmed in a fresh clip and sprinted from cover, snapping off two short bursts. The head of the nearest hunter disintegrated into bloody fragments. The corpse pitched forward, landing on the raw meat deathmask that had once been its face. Stone kicked open the flimsy door and barged into a musty smelling storage area filled with light construction equipment. Like most Venetian buildings this one led out onto another alley, in this case one running parallel to the square on the far side of the bridge. Stone heard the survivors of the firefight yelling in confusion as they scrambled after him. But in the maze of alleys, nothing short of a helicopter would enable his pursuers to locate him again. Cats fled as he raced down a circuitous alley into a narrow courtyard ending in a flight of moss-covered steps leading down into a dark canal. A boat was tied up nearby. Stone stepped into the boat as noiselessly as he could and paddled out into the canal. When he had drifted free of the landing, he started the engine. Just beyond the mouth of the small channel, where it merged with the Grand Canal, the boat's prow struck an object floating in the dirty green water. It was a corpse. Although the body was already bloated with decay, the face was still clearly identifiable. It was the old man with the hawk's eyes who had sold souvenirs off the Square of the Crazies, and who had given him the statue of the winged lion of Venice.
Beyond the Ghetto Nuovo, where the Jews of medieval Venice had once been locked away after dark, there is another ghetto; a modern one. Here, on the walls of crumbling buildings, graffiti proclaims death to all; capitalists, carabinieri; anyone but the supporters and martyrs of the "socialist workers revolution." Here, communist banners emblazoned with the hammer and sickle fly alongside the tripartite flag of Italy and the brightly colored laundry flapping in the breeze off the stinking canals. It is a neighborhood called Il Incudine; "The Anvil," taking its name as much from the shape of the island on which it stands as the way life within it mercilessly comes down on its inhabitants. In its labyrinth of narrow streets filled with garbage-scavenging cats, very few outsiders ever stray. Except those with very good reasons. Even the police venture into Il Incudine with caution, and then only in secure numbers. In an apartment above a bar festooned with posters of Che, Castro and Mao, Stone maintained a sterile house. Faint sounds from the landing above alerted him as he mounted the flight of rickety stairs. He drew the Beretta, quietly inserted his key and flung open the door of the one-room flat. On the bed with the dark-haired girl were two men. Both stared at the big blond American pointing the 9-mm machine pistol at them, hastily snatched up their clothes and tore past him. A rapid string of Italian curses followed as the woman ran into the shower to wash off the come and sweat. "That was tomorrow's food money, candyass," she said, switching to American English. Amber was half New York Italian, half New Jersey Irish. She had come to Venice looking for stardom. She'd found only whoredom. Like Stone, she was caught on flypaper. He let her come and go as she pleased and crash at his apartment, turning a blind eye to her johns. In return she'd sometimes be called on to sexually service, and sometimes compromise, the targets of Stone's surveillance and interdiction operations. Stone poured himself a drink and took a hard swallow. The strong anisette spread its warmth through him. The hunters had taken out the courier. Now they were combing the city for him. Taurus would be gone. The decoys he'd sent out having warned him. Suddenly a thought struck Stone. Decoys, warnings.... He threw the glass figurine on the floor. It shattered into a thousand shards. A wafer of microfiche lay dark against the glistening fragments. Stone held the rectangle up to the bare light bulb in the ceiling, half-knowing what he would see and yet unable to suppress the icy shiver that ran up his spine, as if someone were walking on his grave. The fiche was blank. Blank as his future. He had been set up for a double fall. Stone checked his Tag-Huer. It was four A.M. He had a few hours till dawn. A few hours to decide where to run, how to run. Decide how to save his ass. He'd been sandbagged from the first. That much was obvious. The question was, by who? Was it McQuade, running a disinformation scam of his own? Was it Taurus? Or did Taurus even exist? Yes, he reasoned. The legendary agent was real. Saggitar was real. This had none of the earmarks of a disinformation scam. It looked like an operation which had been bungled, had gone off the wire. Saggitar. Somewhere at the center of the web stood McQuade. McQuade who wanted Saggitar, McQuade who was probably running a private operation without official sanction, cowboying it for reasons of his own. McQuade who had been kicked downstairs, away from the action to a sleepy command post in a city where intelligence took second place to petty smuggling, espionage a back seat to selling pussy on the street. McQuade had wanted Saggitar as a hole card to deal himself back into the high stakes intelligence game. There was yet another explanation. That he was a double; another cutout on a long string of paper men stretching from North Africa to Washington, from the stinking lagoons of Venice to the highest echelons of the U.S. intelligence community. Whatever McQuade's true game, whatever Taurus was actually peddling, it had to be worth a world of hurt. Amber came out of the shower and lay on the bed, dark hair wet, taut body beaded with moisture, breasts conical and firm, nipples erect. After they had sex, Stone would sleep awhile. And then he would place the call that would mark the biggest gamble of his life.
At precisely 9:30 A.M. that morning, the sterile phone on Regional Director of Covert Operations Robert McQuade's desk rang twice. McQuade nodded at a man from the technical directorate who sat across the room before a table cluttered with sleek electronic equipment. The technical nodded and McQuade reached for the phone. "Yes?" said the spymaster as his secretary connected Stone. "I have the dirty laundry, McQuade," Stone told him, his eyes focused on the sweep hand of his watch. "I want to deal." "What's the ticket read?" asked McQuade, his eyes moving to the technical who gestured to indicate that McQuade was to keep Stone talking. "Half a million dollars, cash. Worn hundreds. American eagles only. Rubber banded stacks, a thousand bills each, in a standard-sized black attache case." Stone checked his watch. The sweep hand had completed one circuit of the dial. He would be off the line before it could complete two more. "The drop is to be made tonight on the Number One ACTV waterbus-vaporetto between the Ca d'Oro and Piazzale Roma stops. Nine P.M." "I'll need until tomorrow," McQuade protested, stalling as the technical tried for a fix on the landline connection. "There are procedures. Even our imprest fund can't -- " " -- make the drop or the laundry gets aired," Stone said in a level voice and hung up before the sweep hand of his chronometer completed the third circuit of the watch's dial. The technical got up, holding a printout he'd snatched from one of the infopliances on the table. "We couldn't complete the final linkage," he said. "And voice stress analysis of the phrase 'I have the dirty laundry' does not show a positive confirm." McQuade snatched the printout and studied the peaks and troughs of the graph. Whether Taurus's mule had given Stone a copy of the fiche or a dummy could not be ascertained. He regretted using lethal truth drugs on Taurus; the operative had died before the interrogation was complete. McQuade muttered a curse, balling the printout and flinging it to the floor. When the technical was dismissed, McQuade picked up his phone, dialed an in-house number. "I want the following sum drawn immediately," he began, adding, "in cash...."
The lingering Venetian twilight had already deepened to indigo over the Grand Canal as the Number One waterbus-vaporetto, making local stops between the Rialto and the mammoth split-level car park at Piazzale Roma, chugged from its second stop outside the gaudy rococo extravagance of Santa Lucia. Onboard was a courier with a black slimline case containing $500,000 in worn, unmarked century notes. Wired into the shell, however, was a wafer-thin organic microchip little thicker than a postage stamp, which could accurately transmit its position for two months, before its power source deteriorated. The courier shivered against the chill of the lagoon, bunching the collar of his trenchcoat as he watched the medieval palazzi drift past, as if in a fevered dream. Trenchcoat gave no more than a passing glance at an old priest who walked past, limping and clutching a cane ... until he felt the hard steel of a gun barrel jammed painfully into his rib cage. "Walk slowly to the stern," Stone said to the courier, taking the case. "Do as you're told and you won't get hurt." Stone shepherded the courier up the stairway to the upper deck. A placard chained across the landing notified passengers that the deck was closed. Stone motioned Trenchcoat under the chain. When they reached the upper deck, he threw the courier overboard. Stone then took the contents of the attache case and placed it neatly into an identical one of the same dimensions Amber had purchased at one of the stalls on the Rialto early that evening: he'd wired more than one mule in his tenure with the Company. Stone checked his Tag-Huer. From out of the fog, came the steadily mounting drone of a powerful outboard engine. He walked quickly back to the lower deck, leaving the original case behind. The vaporetto had been clean. McQuade would have expected him to make sure of that before showing. The hit would be planned to go down elsewhere, later on. The vaporetto's starboard side was deserted as the shining mahogany speedboat pulled close, the water taxi's engine slowing to an idle as Stone jumped, clutching the attache case. He nodded at the helmsman, who gunned the engine and sped quickly away. Venice practically ensures a fast, safe getaway, had been the words McQuade had used. Stone hoped they would choke him. Stone turned toward the stern, staring for the last time at the ancient, doomed city on the Adriatic disappearing behind him in the frothing wake spewed from the speedboat's screws. The island of Malta was a state both sovereign and corrupt, and only a few hours away. There, officials could be bribed, a clean passport purchased, a passport that would be the beginning of a new life under a new name. Mercifully, the bullet fired by the helmsman killed Stone instantly. The corpse disappeared in the speedboat's wake. The helmsman picked up the microphone of his ship-to-shore radio. In his office, Robert McQuade hung up the phone. Locking the door, he took a thin celluloid wafer from his pocket and held it over his ashtray, burning the strip of microfiche until wisps of fine black carbon fluttered against the thick Venetian glass.