Red Mist, Chapter 3
Updated: Apr 23, 2020
A half-hour had elapsed after Paul Verdy left the coffee shop when Max Koga received an email from Dr. Damien Harris, the independent psychiatrist tasked with salvaging his career. The doctor’s verdict was brief and direct, consisting of a mere ten words.
“After carefully evaluating your test results, I cannot recommend reinstatement.”
It took a few seconds for the message to sink in. When it did, for the first time ever, Max felt completely lost. The main purpose in his life—protecting his country from all enemies foreign and domestic—was suddenly gone, coming to an end in the form of an email no less. Equally painful was not having a way to avenge his colleagues.
He looked down at Verdy’s business card and wondered if the general had been truthful when describing his company; if it really was unlike other PMCs. His train of thought was interrupted by the buzz of his smartphone. The screen showed that it was a text from Donald Rawlings, one of his closest friends. They had shared an apartment together in Coronado, California, several years back when Koga was with Navy Intel and Rawlings with SEAL Team Five.
Yo, my man! How are u doing? the message read.
Koga picked up his phone and typed: Hey Donny. Long time. What’s up?
Rawlings replied, Just wanted to check in with u. Been hearing things. U all right?
Max wasn’t ready to talk about his recent misfortunes yet, so he changed the subject. I remember you saying that you were thinking of leaving the Navy. Whatever happened to that?
That’s what I wanted to talk to u about. Gotta sec?
Koga paused, for the last thing he wanted to do was talk, but considering that it was his best friend from whom he hadn’t heard from in a while, he replied, Gimme five. Let me step outside.
After gathering his belongings and leaving Verdy's business card and the Lexus key with the Starbucks barista, Max stepped out of the café to search for a quiet spot, when he noticed a black mid-nineties Chevrolet Tahoe driving slowly by on the main road. It wasn’t the blacked-out windows or the thick gray smoke from the tailpipe that caught his attention, but rather, it was missing a license plate. Koga’s eyes followed the boxy sport-utility as it passed several open parking spots and stopped in the middle of the road, immediately next to his third-gen Mazda RX-7 parked a block away.
In the next instant, the driver’s door of the Tahoe flew open, and a dark-skinned man jumped out with what appeared to be a long metal pipe grasped tightly in his hand. His face was mostly hidden by a pair of sunglasses and a New York Yankees baseball cap, but the color of his hair and skin suggested he was either Latino or of Middle Eastern decent. He peered into the Mazda from a side window.
Not wanting to be guilty of profiling, Koga decided to peacefully confront the stranger, but before he could do or say anything, the man moved to the back of the car and swung the metal bar into the rear window, shattering the glass into pieces.
“Hey, that’s my car,” Koga shouted.
The man did not respond, but instead took out a plastic-wrapped package from under his shirt and tossed it into the Mazda’s rear luggage compartment. Then, while keeping his head low, he jumped back into his Tahoe and sped off.
Koga ran after the SUV, but it was long gone.
Was he an Al-Aqarib operative sent to finish him off?
It made little sense, for all it would have taken was a drive-by with an automatic rifle to take him out.
Could it be a potential terrorist attack?
Also unlikely, as the location and makeup of the area hardly made for a worthwhile target; there were plenty of more populated and politically significant areas nearby.
All the same, Koga walked to his RX-7 cautiously, ready to drop to the ground in case the man had left behind an IED—an Improvised Explosive Device—of which Koga saw his fair share of in Afghanistan and Mexico. As he peered into the car's rear compartment, he saw the white plastic bag, taped shut, with the words “To Agent Maximilian Koga, DEA CIA FBI” sloppily written on its face with a black marker. The package itself was flat and small, and the absence of wires convinced him that it was not packed with explosives, so he carefully reached through the jagged hole in the window.
He lifted the bag out of the car and held it away from his body before slowly tearing open the top. No clear liquid or white powder, which meant it wasn’t booby-trapped with poison. Instead, there was a single manila folder with a printed letter and several photographs inside, all blurry and faded, but the main person in every image was unmistakable: Nasim al-Ahmed. The one photo that drew Koga’s attention showed the bearded one-eyed terrorist in the driver’s seat of what appeared to be an exotic sports car. Judging from the small section of the car that was visible, it was a model that he had never seen before.
Koga then read the letter:
My name is Abdul Hassan, and I am the cousin of Nasim al-Ahmed. I was there when Dr. Madani tortured you. I am sorry I could not help you then. I can supply you with the location of my cousin in exchange for protection and the reward money of fifteen million dollars. In good faith, I have provided the location of an active Al-Aqarib cell in the United States. If you do agree to my terms, please leave a yellow mark on the electrical box near the corner of 166th and Denker in the city of Gardena. I will then make contact with you. And bring fifty dollars in cash. This is not a trick or trap. I implore you to trust me, for I am risking my life doing this.
Koga reread the note, then a third time. He looked up at the darkening purple sky, visualizing the faces of his dead comrades among the stars, wondering if they were sending him a message.
* * *
Dusk had already descended on the greater Los Angeles area when Paul Verdy stepped out of the Argon Securities office, located in Marina Del Rey. It was a convenient location for a center of operations, as Los Angeles International Airport was nearby, with the added perk of being a few miles away from the ocean. Among Argon’s neighbors were satellite offices of several big tech companies, including Sony and Google, prompting some to refer to the area as Silicon Beach.
Verdy pressed the unlock button of his remote key fob, eliciting a honk and a headlight blink from his Infiniti QX60. He stopped when he heard the distinct rumble of a naturally-aspirated V-8 engine roaring in the distance. A moment later, an electric-blue Lexus RC F came to an abrupt halt in front of the retired four-star general.
The driver’s-side window of the sports coupe lowered revealing the face of Maximilian Koga.
“Sir,” he said, “upon further reflection, I think I’ll take you up on your offer after all.”