Chaos, thought Layla as she crossed the street and nearly got run over by a cab. The streets of nighttime Cairo were filled with cars, pedestrians, lights, and overwhelming chaos.
Layla followed a maze of side streets using the GPS on her iPhone. She was a little ashamed to be dependent on a machine to navigate the streets of the city she had been born in, but she was beginning to understand that that’s what life undercover meant— she might always be a stranger, even in familiar places. Even to herself.
Pierce had given her the iPhone the day after Layla arrived in Cairo, along with a Motorola phone and a relic of a Nokia phone that looked like the missing link between flip phones and smartphones.
Use the iPhone for official business, she’d said. The Motorola is for whatever you want to use it for, and this phone here . . . She’d taken the Nokia out of her pocket and handed it to Layla. You use only for contact with me. This is a burner. This is our lifeline. You got it?
That morning, Pierce had summoned her, by encrypted email, to meet at nine that night. Approaching the safe house required vigilance and discretion, but Layla also walked quickly. She looked forward to Pierce’s company and some time in the cocoon of the safe house. It was the only place she felt she could relax her cover.
Layla glanced back, and seeing nothing suspicious, ducked down a narrow, well-lit side street lined with coffeehouses. They were filled, she soon noticed, with men—men perched in rickety chairs, men playing backgammon and dominoes, men smoking shishas, men glancing up and staring. Staring at her. Shit, she thought. It was a mistake to have gone this way. She couldn’t even blame the GPS. The disruptive wake she left behind her churned. Shaking heads and muttered disapproval. She glanced back and saw two young men in soccer jerseys rise from a table. They walked in her direction. Were they following her?
She’d managed to blow part of her cover by the simple act of walking down the street. It was fitting that they wore soccer jerseys. Both men were built like soccer players: slender, athletic, and, she suspected, fast. It was hard to tell how strong they were but she guessed that she could turn and punch them out or stun them with a couple well-placed kicks and vanish fast enough if she needed to. Just as she debated which of the two she might hit first, she passed three tourist policemen, noticeable in their white uniforms and black berets, standing at the entrance to a café. One glanced toward her as she passed and she thought about asking for assistance, then instantly thought better of it. She didn’t want to be on the radar of any police force in Egypt.
A quick glance at her phone showed her that she didn’t have far to go. She quickened her pace and the men quickened theirs. She turned the corner, onto a quieter commercial street lined by shuttered storefronts and brightly lit signs. What street was this? She considered taking a detour, to throw the two men off. She looked back at her phone and saw that she was going to be late. Her annoyance gave way to impatience.
She came to an intersection and spotted a shop across the street.
Beyond the propped open door, Layla spied an older woman behind the counter. She turned and darted across the street.
“As-Salam-Alaikum,” she said to the woman behind the counter. “Alaikum-As-Salam,” nodded the woman, smiling. She looked to
be in her late fifties or early sixties, with wisps of gray hair visible at the edges of her hijab. Hers was a friendly, soft, and welcoming face in a night crowded by strange men.
Layla slipped inside. The aisles were jam-packed with merchandise, but no one else was in the store. It reminded her of a Manhattan bodega. She walked fast to the back and lingered for only a moment, too anxious to turn and look at the entrance, her eyes darting this way and that until she spotted it, a narrow doorway without a door, stairs leading down into darkness. She didn’t turn when she heard footfalls and a man murmur As-Salam-Alaikum at the front of the store and the storekeeper’s friendly response. She lunged into the darkness. At the bottom of the stairs she turned on her phone’s flashlight and looked around. Shelves lined with overstock goods and wares, boxes of laundry detergent, canned food, bags of rice, and boxes of cereal. She spotted what she was looking for: a big metal door. She darted through it and closed it quickly behind her. She headed back toward the lights of the street. Once she reached the sidewalk, she ran.
The two men were nowhere in sight, and she slowed to a light jog. She buzzed the intercom outside the safe house building and waited for Pierce to answer. She buzzed again and waited. Finally, she retrieved the key from her purse and let herself into the lobby. Upstairs, she listened at the door. Where might Pierce be at that hour?...