Once A Pawn  

Posted by Brock Booher

I recently finished a writing class where I produced several short stories. So far none of them have been published, and I have returned my focus to novel writing. The problem with short stories is that there isn't a big market for them. Almost nobody gets magazines with short stories in them anymore.

As a writer, you work several hours on a story. You send it out into the world looking for a home. You deal with the rejections and tweak the story. In the end you might get a hundred bucks for your efforts. But they are still fun to write. So, I have decided to post this story for your enjoyment. Enjoy. Feel free to critique. Thanks for reading.

Once A Pawn

“I’m innocent!” shouted Jamil, but the sound traveled no further than the soundproofed walls. He strained to see through the mirrored glass in vain. He guessed it had been over an hour since they locked him up. “I’ve done nothing wrong! This is all just a misunderstanding!” He rapped his knuckles against the glass. “Can anyone hear me?”
Nobody responded.
Tired of pacing the room, he sighed and sat down in the stiff metal chair. By now, he was sure his flight home to Chicago had left without him. He wondered how he was going to explain this one to his ex-wife.  She would be furious when he didn’t show up for their daughter’s birthday party tonight. If they ever let him make a phone call he would try and explain it to his daughter, but three-year old girls have a hard time understanding the concept of distance.
Jamil jumped to his feet when he heard the door open with a squeak. A uniformed policeman walked in followed by a short guy in a suit. The uniform placed pen, paper, and two bottles of water on the metal table and left. The short guy in the suit stood motionless with both hands in his pockets, staring at Jamil as if sizing him up for a fight.
Jamil knew he should say something, maybe introduce himself, but he froze with uncertainty. He just stood there, waiting for something to prod him into action.
“Hello,” said the guy in the suit as he extended his hand, “I’m Special Agent Conti.”
Trying to show a measure of confidence, Jamil took the man’s hand in a firm grip and introduced himself. “Jamil Tannous, Equipment Sales and Leasing with Commercial Banking Corporation, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Sit down Mr. Tannous,” said Agent Conti as he took a seat at the table. “You’re in a bit of trouble today.”
“Please, call me Jim. And, yes, I do seem to be in a difficult spot,” responded Jamil as he took his seat.
“Okay… Jim.” Agent Conti pushed a bottle of water across the table. “Do you know why you’re here?”
“Well, I know that I was selected for random screening at Kennedy airport as I was going through security, and when they swabbed my briefcase sirens went off. After that, the TSA took me into custody. They held me for short time before I was transferred to NYPD and brought to this room.” He opened the bottle of water and took a drink.  “Obviously my briefcase has alarmed a few people. I didn’t know leather could get you guys so riled up.”
Agent Conti smiled at the weak attempt at humor. “Leather alone doesn’t excite me, but let me read you a list of things that the swab from your briefcase contained.” He picked up the notepad and began reading the words with some difficulty. “Cyclotrimethylene trinitramine more commonly known as RDX, polyisobutylene, and diethylhexyl. Are you familiar with those chemicals or substances?”
“No, but they don’t sound that harmful,” he chuckled, “Only difficult to pronounce.”
“The substances are a lot easier to pronounce if you just use the street name. Can you say C-4?” asked Agent Conti. “In addition to the traces of C-4 on your briefcase, we found eleven-thousand five hundred and twenty dollars in your briefcase covered in the stuff.” Agent Conti paused. “Blown up anything recently?”
“Just my marriage,” retorted Jamil. He ran his hands through his hair. “Look, this is just a misunderstanding. I can explain.”
Agent Conti turned the page on his notepad and tapped his pen. “Do you travel to Spain often?”
“Yes,” answered Jamil looking more puzzled by the moment. “I travel to Spain regularly. Why?”
Agent Conti referred to his notes. “I see that you just returned from Spain, particularly Malaga, Spain. What hotel did you stay at?”
“Uh…the Malaga Palacio, as usual.”
“Do you know what happened at the Malaga Palacio about four hours ago?” Agent Conti leaned close enough for Jamil to smell the onion on his breath. “Jim?”
“No,” said a puzzled Jamil as he leaned back as far as the metal chair allowed.
“Somebody used C-4 to blow up a couple of rooms.”
The blood left Jamil’s face. The knot in his stomach came untied and unleashed a wave of nausea.
Agent Conti tapped his pen on his notepad. “It just so happens that the US Ambassador and his family were in the rooms at the time of the explosion and several people were killed… including the Ambassador.”
Jamil placed his trembling hands on the table and looked Agent Conti square in the eye. “I am innocent!” He shook his head and looked away. “I had nothing to do with that explosion!” He crossed his arms and clammed up.
Agent Conti popped a breath mint into his mouth. “I want to believe you, but so far you haven’t provided any explanation.” He propped his feet up on the table. “So, tell me how you ended up at JFK with traces of C-4 and over eleven grand in a briefcase about the same time a US Ambassador was being blown to bits in the foreign hotel you just returned from. It better not begin with, Once upon a time.” 
Jamil took a deep breath, relaxed his shoulders, and began his story.
“I just got back from a business trip to Malaga, Spain. I landed in New York yesterday evening on Iberian Airlines, but of course you already know all this. I needed to go by the home office this morning, so I checked into the Central Park Hotel and went to bed early.”
“Since my body hadn’t adjusted to the time changes, I was wide awake at four o’clock this morning. I’m a runner, so I decided to go for a run in Central Park down by the Bethesda fountain; you know the one with angel statue, and then on to the Ramble. When I got to the halfway point, about three miles, I took a little breather and walked down to the edge of the lake.”
“There at the base of a tree near the water’s edge, I noticed this clear plastic bundle and took a closer look. As I got closer I could see that it was cash. I recently got divorced, and the ex-wife took me to the cleaners, so I was pretty excited. I looked around and didn’t see anybody.  Since it was raining a little bit I had on a light jacket. I stuffed the money into my jacket and ran back to the hotel, nervous as hell.”
“When I counted the money, I noticed a white residue on some of the bills, but I was in a hurry. So, I stuffed it all into my briefcase and showered for work. After taking care business at the home office, I took a cab to Kennedy and here I am.” Jamil let out heavy sigh and looked at Agent Conti for some sort of reaction.
Agent Conti rolled his eyes. “You expect me to believe that fairy tale? You found the money laced with C-4 in Central Park while you were out for a morning jog? Please!”
“It’s the truth!” shouted Jamil as he stood and began pacing the room. “Check with the hotel, I’m sure somebody at the front desk must have seen me go for my run.”
“Jamil… Jim, even if we see you on the hotel security footage leaving and returning when you said, that still doesn’t prove the rest of your story.” He tapped his pen on his notepad. “How about this? You gave terrorists access to your hotel room in Malaga. They paid you with money that had been exposed to C-4. You handled the money and then with the residue still on your hands, you handled your briefcase. You were selected for extra screening at JFK and, bingo, here we are.”
Jamil looked up at the blank and patient stare on Agent Conti’s face. The smell of onion and mint lingered in the air between them.
Agent Conti looked at his watch. “Take your time. I’ve got all day.”
Jamil fixated on the watch. “That’s it!” he shouted as he slapped his hand on the table. “My running watch has a built in GPS. It records my runs and downloads the information to my laptop. If you let me download today’s run to my laptop, it’ll prove my story.”
Agent Conti popped another mint and took in Jamil’s comments.  After a moment, he looked at the one-way glass and nodded. “Okay, we’ll take a look at the data from your watch, but even if this backs up your story you’re not in the clear, you know.”
“I’m telling you the truth,” begged Jamil.
Agent Conti stood to leave, and stopped at the door. “We’ll see.”
Jamil had paced the room for hours trying to stay alert against the onset of jet lag and adrenaline letdown when Agent Conti opened the door.
“Have a sit Jim,” ordered Agent Conti.
“My story checked out didn’t it?” asked Jamil in a calm voice.
“We checked the security videos, spoke with the hotel clerks, and verified the route from your GPS. Your jogging story checked out, but that doesn’t mean you’re not hiding something,” answered Agent Conti as he took a seat.
Jamil breathed a sigh of relief. “I told you I was telling the truth.”
Agent Conti leaned forward. “I’ve been at this game a long time, and I can usually tell when someone is lying or not telling me the whole truth.”  He pointed at Jamil. “You’re not telling me the whole story. You’re simply telling me the truth you want me to hear.”
Jamil looked away from the accusatory finger.
 “Do you play chess Mr. Tannous?” asked Agent Conti.
“I’ve played a couple of times,” said Jamil with a shrug. “Personally I prefer blackjack or Texas hold ’em.”
“I have a theory about people,” continued Agent Conti. “People are like chess pieces. Some people have the power to move their lives in multiple directions, like the knights, rooks, kings, and queens. Others are simply pawns in the game of life. They have limited ability to move, and are usually controlled by others. They have little power to change the game, and are easily sacrificed. In fact, many chess players make a clear distinction between chess pieces and pawns. Which are you Jim? Are you a chess piece in this game, or are you a pawn?”
“I don’t think of myself as a pawn.”
“That’s good. Because one of my other theories about people is, ‘Once a pawn, always a pawn.’” Agent Conti popped a mint. “It’s just a theory.”
Jamil stabbed the table with his finger. “Well, maybe I am a pawn, but I am not a terrorist.”
Agent Conti put a briefcase on the table. “That’s what I told the DA’s office.”
“You’re not charging me with anything?”
“Well, you did try to pass through an airport checkpoint with explosive residue. We’re confiscating your briefcase and its contents, including the money, but we’re not charging you with anything… yet.”
“Am I free to go?”
“Yes, but we need you to come in for more questioning tomorrow.  Why don’t you get a good night’s rest, and come back in around, say, ten o’clock? You don’t mind spending a couple of more days in the city do you?”
“Do I have a choice?” asked Jamil.
 “No, not really,” replied Agent Conti as he opened his briefcase.  “We have to keep your phone for a bit. You know, check out the calls and messages.” Agent Conti slid a cell phone across the table. “The agency has provided you a temporary replacement. My number is programmed in under ‘Conti’ if you think of anything else.”
Jamil walked out of the precinct office a free man, even though he didn’t feel like one. A throng of cameramen and reporters pressed down on him making it almost impossible to get into the cab. He wanted to sleep, but knew he needed to lose the newshounds. After changing cabs several times, and a short ride on the subway, he happened upon an out-of-the-way dive and checked in.
The clerk didn’t seem to recognize Jamil and checked him in without fanfare. After getting his room key, he slipped out front, found a pay phone, and dialed. Layla picked up on the third ring.
“Hello,” answered Layla with a touch of curiosity in her voice.
“It’s Jim. I need to see you. Tonight!”
“Jim? Are you okay? Did they release you?”
“I’m fine, but I have a lot of questions. I need to see you!”
“Sure baby, tell me where you are and I will be there as soon as I can.”
“Be careful. I’m probably being watched.”
Jamil gave her directions and returned to his room. He was tired and irritated. He knew he had been played, and he was determined to get some answers. Layla would help him.
He had just stepped out of a hot shower and was toweling off when he heard a soft knock at the door. He wrapped the towel around himself and peered anxiously through the peephole. A feeling of relief came over him when he saw Layla. He unlocked the door and ushered her into the room.
She had her hair pulled up under a Yankees baseball cap and sunglasses on. In spite of the warm weather she had on a light jacket and sweatpants. She sat her large handbag on the bed, and tossed the sunglasses next to it.  When she took off the baseball cap hat and let down her jet-black hair with a shake, the smell of her intoxicating perfume filled the room.
“Oh Jimbo, I’m so glad your okay,” she said as she rushed into his arms.
“Do you think you were followed?” he asked.
“I don’t think so. I think we’re safe,” she said as she kissed his neck.
He pulled away from her and looked through the sheer curtains at the city lights trying to keep his head straight. “Layla, I think those CIA guys played me.”
“What do you mean?” She peeled off her jacket and pulled a bottle of wine from her bag.
“Those guys you introduced me to paid off my gambling debt at the casino in Malaga, and told me they wanted to bug my hotel room so they could catch a spy. They said it was a matter of national security. Instead they blew up the US Ambassador and his family!”
“Hey baby, calm down.” She slipped up behind him and started rubbing his shoulders. “I’m sure the CIA will clear up the misunderstanding.”
He shook free from her soft grip and spun to face her. “Misunderstanding! The extra money they gave me was laced with C-4! They played me!”
Layla reached out and cupped his face with her long fingers. “Oh Jimbo, I’m so sorry. You know it’s not your fault.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Did you tell the police about them?”
“No, I didn’t tell the FBI about them because I was afraid I would be implicated.”
“Hey come on baby, you’re tired and upset,” She said as she drew the curtains. She pulled close and wrapped her arms around him leaning her head on his chest. “Let me pour a drink and ease your mind.” She looked up at him with her dark eyes.
Jamil pulled away and sat in the overstuffed chair across from the bed. He rubbed his temples and tried to think.
“We can clear up this mess, tomorrow. I’ll go with you and we can tell them the whole story. Tonight just try and relax. Please?”
She was right. It wasn’t his fault. He’d had a long and taxing day and he needed a drink, a little fun, and a good night’s rest. Tomorrow they would get their story straight and talk to Agent Conti, but tonight he could unwind with a good woman.
Jamil let out a heavy sigh and leaned back in the soft chair.  “Maybe you’re right. I’m letting myself get all worked up.”
She perched herself on his lap and caressed his bare chest. “That’s my Jimbo.  I’ll go with you tomorrow and sort this all out.” She kissed his cheek and nibbled at his ear. “Let me pour you a drink and change into something more to your liking.”
Jamil closed his eyes and relaxed deeper into the soft cushions as Layla stood and opened the bottle of wine. Too bad my ex didn’t treat me like Layla.  If she had, maybe we would still be married.
“Here you go Jimbo. Drink this while I go transform into your goddess of love,” she said with a wicked look in her eye.
Jamil took a long drink and began to unwind. His muscles began to relax. He could feel all the tension of the day leaving him. Then the room began to spin. He struggled to breathe. He tried to think, but it felt like his thoughts were stuck in quicksand.
Layla walked back into the room, still fully clothed, with rubber gloves on.
“Layla! Help me!” His words slurred together. He struggled to remain conscious as the room began to twirl.
She ignored his pleas, and took his glass of wine with her gloved hands.
He watched her through a gathering fog, trying to understand why she wasn’t helping him. Like sounds echoing through a tunnel, he heard the hotel room door burst open. Black-clad figures with guns rushed in. The fog faded to darkness.
         Jamil awoke to a strong antiseptic smell, and beeping noises. He was in a hospital. He opened his eyes and saw Agent Conti sitting in the corner playing chess with a uniform.
         “Good morning Jim,” said Agent Conti with a big grin. “We almost lost you there. Welcome back to the land of the living.” He moved his bishop and took a pawn. “Checkmate.”

The End

Fear of Morality?  

Posted by Brock Booher

I read something going around in social media the other day that certainly started more than one argument. “The human species is the only species that displays homophobia.”

I found the statement most interesting because of what it tried to accomplish even before the real debate even began. It labels anyone who disagrees with a moral stance as having a phobia. For me, the statement was a “non starter” because I won’t engage anyone in social media once they revert to name-calling, but I did spend some time thinking about the real argument over what is considered morally acceptable, or legally acceptable, when it comes to sexual behavior, or perhaps the deeper notion that we as a species have a moral code at all.

Nietzsche said, “Fear is the mother of morality.” I’m afraid I don’t agree with him.

First, the idea that if you disagree with the behavior of another person on moral grounds that you must therefore have a phobia is ludicrous and disingenuous. If I disagree with the behavior of a thief does that mean I am a cleptophobe? What if I disagree with a buddy of mine cheating on his wife? Does that make me a malaxaphobe? If I have objections to someone setting buildings on fire, does that mean I suffer from arsonphobia? Maybe I shouldn’t be writing about this because I am a catagelophobe, who knows?

One thing we know for sure is that the human species is the only species with a codified moral code. Every law that exists on the books is based on a moral judgment of some sort. We judge that public nudity is inappropriate and we therefore pass a law. We judge that taking property that does not belong to you is morally wrong and we pass laws against stealing in various forms. We consider it morally wrong to take the life of another human being and codify a multitude of laws against the act ranging from negligent manslaughter to first-degree murder. As a species we have passed moral judgment on a variety of behaviors. That is what makes us different than the rest of the animal kingdom.

It is true that other species display various types of moral behaviors such as caring for their young, or division of duties, but we can also find a variety of other accepted animal behaviors that we consider morally wrong. These are included but not limited to – eating your young offspring, killing and eating your mate after sex, pecking the weakest member of the group until it is dead, beating or killing your rival because you want to be in charge, bludgeoning your sexual rival and taking their mate as your own. All of these behaviors are perfectly accepted among animals, but we humans frown on them and even enforce laws against such behaviors because of our moral code.

We have set ourselves apart in the animal kingdom, not because of our phobias, but because we have dared to set a moral standard and even codify it with laws. Fear will not bring us to higher moral ground, and name-calling will not win an argument. If we want to rise above the behavior of animals, we must engage in legitimate moral debate, because after all, deciding individually or collectively if a sexual practice is acceptable is a moral judgment, not a phobia.