The Gray Man – Le Petit Bateau

“Your Highness, I beg your indulgence but I only have a few minutes in which to present an idea to you. An alternative to the undertaking upon which your ministers are about to embark. We believe this action to constitute a very large mistake, on behalf of your nation and its people.”

A true story.

Graham lay low in the back of the vehicle, almost into the floorboards, staring at the worn fabric floor mat and contemplating his decision. Both the plaintive straining of the vehicle’s four cylinder engine as well as seven days of poor sleep, hampered his ability to think clearly. This was unfortunate, given the situation. No, he was absolutely sure of it, a large powerful craft was not in the cards. No noise, no fast boats, no attention gathering exceptions from the background of daily commerce. If we were to do this, extraction by local fisherman was in order. Someone whom we could trust, a local who operated a reliable working skiff. The notion had broached by means of a gentle dawn whisper, at breakfast on the hotel balcony overlooking a newly sunlit bay. Gray took the opportunity to capture a picture of its thousand unspoken words onto his otherwise useless mobile device.

He would rather stink like fish on an air-conditioned flight to Paris, than rot in an African jail for weeks, or even… Gray put the thought progression out of his mind. Scolding himself for agreeing to enter this shit-storm for ‘expenses incurred’ only, he vowed to never undertake such a project again. ‘The Gray Man, back in the saddle, yes sir! We’ll sip on a couple Tuskers, tell a few tall tales – and Graham …we will owe you big time.’ he repeated to himself, mocking a secondary antagonist in absence. ‘Pro bono‘, Gray reminded himself, was the official term. Yes, this term worked, as it sounded appropriately competent and made him feel better about the whole sordid affair. After all, it is a Latin expression. It suggested professional serendipity, as opposed to the milieu of stupidity wound up in the concept of giving something away for free. A rose by any other name.

Such to-do was of no matter, as the repeated heaving of the car’s engine along with its winding turns and reduced number of potholes, indicated that it had broached the palace grounds. Gray slid his brief into position beside the back passenger door, readying for a quick exit of the vehicle. He could detect the sulfurous odor of the poor quality petrol they had bought from a street vendor ten minutes earlier. Chris, the Nigerian driver was well connected on the street here, and a master at getting anything which the team needed – cheap currency, informants, medicines, alcohol, or a very low profile fishing skiff at a critical moment. Thankfully the petrol had gotten them there, and would hopefully get them back, and back in time as well. Distant memories of disembarking Seahawk helicopters in the Middle East distracted Gray’s mind momentarily. The car’s tires issued a distinct growl as they rolled onto a more dense crushed rock gravel surface. This must be it, he thought, raising his head slightly to catch a glimpse.

“Shh, shh.” Chris issued caution with a hand held steady in Gray’s direction. “We should wait until we are called Mr. G.” A tall and well-built staff-member in kitchen garb emerged from a set of beige double doors, crossed the loading service lot behind the palace, and approached the vehicle. Guards adorned in Royal Defense Force uniforms patrolled the extremities of the loading area. The man glanced casually towards the roadway and around to the building ramparts. Once satisfied, he quickly opened the rear passenger door and bade Graham to exit. The staff-member swung his long white-sleeved arm outward, directing Gray towards the set of double doors. Gray scrambled from the vehicle and towards the palace rear entrance, brushing the dust from his knees and sleeves. He supposed that his dark green button-down shirt, jeans, terrain boots, and six-day beard would not make for the most executive of impressions upon the Princess. He breathed deeply through his nose to allay the anxiousness. It had come to the point in experience where he could time his body’s adrenaline rush. One minute and thirty seconds. No matter the task, don’t do anything for one minute and thirty seconds. Then, begin your work. Fretting was one of the strategist’s seven labors, a constant envisioning of how any particular scenario might play out, and how to respond accordingly. An ever-present specter of what could be, haunted mind and soul as so many moths to a flame.

As the entourage moved quickly through the service areas and kitchen, curious staff members scurried about stainless steel work tables, at once glancing and then deliberately looking away, aware that another Western dressed man surely involved something to which they had no desire to be privy. Only trouble lay in store for those choosing to know or see things. This man in kitchen garb was clearly in charge, and for that matter was more than simply a cook or chef. His mere raise of a hand sent military guards scrambling to open a panel in the wall. Graham, the chef, and one guard stepped into a hold area while the wall panel was shut quickly and quietly behind them, blocked deceptively once again by an attending mop and bucket. Gray took notice that this ‘entrance’ lobby appeared to actually constitute an emergency exit for important palace residents. Gray could feel the adrenaline rush ease, and although the space was small, he appreciated the fresh conditioned air flow. A stark contrast to the last seven days of heat, grassland, humidity, Subarus, calls to prayer, and mosquitoes. He found the small compartment’s red walls curious. Red walls would appear white under red lamp lighting and be highly visible at night, yet at the same time not interrupt the night vision which was critical as soon as one stepped outside. Blank security monitors adorned the ceiling line of the holding area. Gray could hear the rush of air through his nostrils as they stood in silence. Suddenly, the panel on the other end of the space began to move.

“We go.” uttered the chef with urgency. Gray was escorted down a very tight, shoulder-width hallway which exited through yet another wall partition into a modern living-room with long plush sofas, a large glass coffee table, and large screen monitor. “Please Mr. Graham, sit.” beckoned the chef. “I am Bachir, here to aid you with whatever you need for your presentation to Her Highness.” Bachir was no kitchen staff to be sure. Gray straightened his materials and glanced at the time on his Faraday-shielded mobile device. Not much time before his deadline to be back at the hotel and then further, the boat launch. The presentation he had developed over the last week and completed during the last 22 hours, was framed neatly inside a place cloth at the Royal end of the coffee table. Or what he assumed must be the seat of honor in the unexpected living room like setting. Ironically, the presentation document itself was a necessary but mere formality. No names, no sponsorship, no business logos, just the basics – precis, argument, summary recommendation. All anonymous. Gray was the actual presentation.

A large and ornate glass-paned door swung open at the long end of the room. One by one, smiling members of the First Lady’s cabinet filed into the room, as if so many beauty pageant contestants. Members of the entourage stood, and Gray followed suit, reminding himself again to breath deeply. Her Highness entered the room gracefully, smiling at Bachir, who grasped the back of the large end chair as if to move it on her behalf despite its massive structure. She sat and then bade with one hand that everyone in the room should be seated. Bachir leaned forward to the right ear of the Princess and uttered a low growling whisper, indecipherable to Graham.

The Princess nodded and looked directly at Graham. Her light-toned skin and green eyes took him aback slightly. It struck Gray, the Princess was Ebo, ancient Nigerian royalty, R1b haplogroup stemming from Egyptian pharaohs. In her eyes he read recognition, wisdom from an education to which even most Westerners are no longer privy. She was of Royal blood, deep heritage, and although never acknowledged, politically-leverageable beauty. She had been trained for this office since the age of four. Gray sensed the importance of her marriage to the President. This was part of the practice tradition of an ancient empire with ties across many nations, an empire older than either the US or China. Something Gray had to heed in his dealings with its leadership. Something as well, the Chinese had failed to understand. Arriving in flag-adorned stretch limousines, with dozens of black-suited thugs in sunglasses. A bad Hollywood act, one which had ignored tribal elders, chiefs, the First Lady, and finally her President. No courage, only greed, intimidation, and implicit threat of violence. Such aggressive pretense was not something by which ancient and silent Royalty was comforted in the least.

Her English was perfect. “Mr. Graham, you have come to visit during a trying time, and I must say, at a degree of risk to your own life. I also understand that you have met with our three tribes’ elders and chiefs over the last week. I am told that went well. Now since you have undertaken such an effort, how may I be of assistance?” Her eyes gleamed with deep interest and curiosity. She was flattered. Gray found her stare unnerving.

“Your Highness, you are correct. I beg your indulgence in that I only have a little time before I must leave. It’s anticipated that a Chinese backed paramilitary force will make an assault on our hotel this evening and attempt to take my team captive. We need to leave well before that time, and we have made arrangements to do so. Nonetheless, you must understand that your cabinet of ministers has adopted a plan, one submitted by a world power – a plan which will demand a very steep price of your nation and your people. This is a practice of the past. My nation, is proposing a different approach. Your Highness, I am here to present that approach, to you.”

Gray pulled the straplock tight on his technical pack and set it quickly by his briefcase at the hotel room door. The phone rang, and he spun around looking for anything forgotten as he answered it. His “Hello” was curt and serious.

“Sir, this is Monsieur Lebatt, the hotel proprietor. I have a gentleman here who wishes to speak with you. He is from the Armée.”

“Alright, I’ll be right down.” ‘The Army?’ Gray thought to himself. He quickly called a colleague, to inquire as to whether he had any knowledge of the visitor. “Evan, what’s up with this Army person at the front desk?” Evan, along with others, had refused to leave Graham alone at the hotel, when the threat of the paramilitary force had been communicated to the team.

“Well I guess you haven’t heard. Government forces raided our adversary’s camp tonight and took them out. They set up a buffer zone around the entire hotel district with 2,000 armed military guards. We are now ‘official guests of His Excellency’. Look, Chris is out front with the vehicle. I’ll meet you down at the front desk. See you in a sec.”

The hotel’s front portico was abuzz with vehicles and guests in a state of hasty departure. Evan quickly spotted and walked up to Graham and the Army representative who were engaged in discussion. He arrived just in time to hear the core engagement. “Monsieur Graham, I am Capitaine Igwe. His Excellency the President, has instructed my team to remain at your service this evening. He also offers you his deepest regrets that he was not able to receive you earlier today, and bids you earnestly to stay the evening and conduct your presentation with him tomorrow morning.”

It was 1938 once again, save for Humphrey Bogart no longer being around to advise.