The Middleman

A Novel

Olen Steinhauer

The Middleman

With The Middleman, the perfect thriller for our tumultuous, uneasy time, Olen Steinhauer, the New York Times bestselling author of ten novels, including The Tourist and The Cairo Affair, delivers a compelling portrait of a nation on the edge of revolution, and the deepest motives of the men and women on the opposite sides of the divide.

 

READ THE FIRST THREE CHAPTERS

1

Kevin Moore leaned against the counter at Sushi Taka. He counted the rings in his spicy tuna roll—one, two, three—thinking of architecture. Then he went about the ritual: the trimming of the chopsticks, the laying on of ginger, the measured smear of wasabi. The flavor was appealing, but nothing special, not to his palate, yet he had eaten so much of this food since moving to the West Coast a year ago that by now the ritual was second nature. The joy he took in eating sushi was one of form and not content; this realization felt like something important.

He shifted his gaze to the window in front of him—watching, like always. A few minutes ago, he’d seen a homeless guy urinate against the bland office building across the street, turning to face the wall as if by this show of modesty no one would notice. But San Francisco residents had seen far worse—hadn’t everyone?—so no one bothered him. By the time Kevin’s phone vibrated beside the tray, number unknown, the homeless guy was long gone, and there was nothing to interrupt the steady Sunday trickle of tourists, vagrants, and hookers.

“Hello?” he said into the phone.

“Time to go, George,” said a male voice.

The office building blurred. “Really?”

“Now,” the caller said, then hung up.

Kevin blinked until his sight cleared, the hazy distance coming into focus again. He wasn’t scared, not really, because he’d been waiting weeks for this moment. Each morning, walking to the Office Depot in the Potrero Center where he stocked shelves and tried to be patient with customers, he’d carried in him the weight of knowing that this could be the day. It had never been, though, and after a while he’d begun to wonder if the day would ever come. Maybe Jasmine and Aaron had been full of hot air, posers in a city of posers, and all his time here would turn out to be a waste. And now . . .

No, not fear. Anxiety, yes, but not fear.

He lifted his phone again and scrolled through contacts: mom. He typed, Off on trip with friends, let you know when I get back. xx. Send. Then he took out his wallet and removed his MasterCard, the Virginia driver’s license he’d never gotten around to changing, and even his library card, but he held onto his debit card. He brought everything to the trashcan and dropped in his soiled tray, the empty cup of miso soup, the cards, and his phone. As they disappeared into the darkness, an involuntary sigh escaped him. Though he knew better, he’d grown attached to the phone that had been pieced together in some Chinese sweatshop. The truth was that Kevin Moore loved the modern world even when he loathed it.

The trashcan lid snapped shut. It was accomplished.

He walked casually over to traffic-clogged Montgomery and south toward Market, past the grand columns of US Bank, and at the ATM emptied his account of $580. He pocketed the cash, then found a trashcan at the corner of Pine. Good-bye, cruel world—in went the debit card. He looked around, wondering if anyone had spotted his madness, but no one stared. Like a man pissing on a wall, people had probably seen this sort of thing before. They’d seen worse.

What was unexpected, though, was the feeling of lightness that overcame him. The anxiety fell away as he walked deeper into his day. A phone and a bunch of cards. So simple. Yet with a few deft moves he’d become unmoored. Who, now, was to say his name wasn’t George? Who could say if he was a rich man or a poor one? Who, really, could say what he was? I’m a NASA scientist, he could say. Or: I’m a cop. The only thing he wasn’t allowed to say was I’m a revolutionary seeking to bury all this modern sublimity.

At Market he joined the crowd heading down into the BART station to catch the 2:14 for Pittsburg/Bay Point. He reached the platform just in time to face the wind of the gray-hulled train before it emerged from the darkness. Despite the gusts, he was sweating, while around him people stared at little screens in their hands. Any other day, he would have been doing the same thing. One of the well-washed masses. His dizziness returned. It was the light-headedness, he understood now, of abandon. There wasn’t much air up here.

He searched for a seat, but there were none available until Orinda, where he settled next to an old woman reading the Bible. He peered over her shoulder—she was somewhere in Leviticus—and when she noticed him he apologized. “Are you a reader?” she asked.

“Been a while,” he said, which was true enough.

She smiled a beautiful smile and offered the Bible to him. “I got plenty of ’em.”

He tried to refuse, but her insistence was so full of earnest generosity that he gave in and carried it as his only luggage when he left at Walnut Creek. He waited until the train left again before dropping it, too, into a trashcan and trotting down the stairs to reach the underpass. He leaned against a wall and untied his left sneaker, then took it off. Holding it in his hand, he walked out into the sunlight, a slight limp from his unbalanced stride, hardly even feeling ridiculous. He waited at the curb, watching. Cars came and went, but he tried not to look expectant. He used his eyes clandestinely, checking windshields, and peered beyond to the expansive BART parking lot.

He’d been told so little. Take off your left shoe and wait. Maybe Aaron would show up. Or Mother would pull up and tell him to call it a day. Anything, really, felt possible.

He guessed that fifteen minutes passed before an old GTO—must’ve been midsixties—pulled up. A rangy-looking white man of indeterminate age leaned across the passenger seat and cranked down the window.

Kevin said, “That you, George?”

A rough voice: “Get in.”

Kevin opened the door and settled into the stink of cigarettes and fried food. George put the car into drive, and they moved slowly forward. As they exited the parking lot and continued onto Oakland Boulevard, Kevin put his shoe back on and tied it up. “So,” he said. “Where to?”

“Away.”

“Far?”

“How about you let me worry about that?”

 

2

On the opposite end of America, in New Jersey, a party was under way. Bill Ferris, the host, guessed he didn’t know a quarter of the partygoers; and most of those partygoers didn’t know that they were here to celebrate his retirement from the world of entertainment law. Some were confused by the fact that this was Father’s Day, and even wished their childless host a happy one, while others—neighbors, mostly—had come solely for the free booze. Not that this bothered him. He and Gina were social creatures; they had spent decades gathering around themselves a menagerie of artists, actors, gurus, and agitators of a smorgasbord of races because this was what they most enjoyed witnessing: the descendants of Trotsky engaging one another on neutral ground.

Children were safely jailed inside a screened trampoline, while the sharp aroma of skunkweed came and went along with snatches of conversation: rising unemployment in the heartland, the latest corporate mergers, the recent acquittal of a Newark cop who’d shot and killed a black man in front of his wife and daughter, a congressional money-laundering investigation into Oklahoma City’s Plains Capital Bank and Frankfurt’s IfW, or Investition für Wirtschaft, and, as ever, POTUS #45. A voice on the warm breeze: “Fuck this, man. I’m moving to Canada.”

When David and Ingrid Parker arrived, Bill was on the front porch, signing for an emergency half keg of Shiner Bock. He kissed Ingrid’s permanently flushed cheeks and asked after her health—she’d just crossed into her second trimester. “The food’s staying down,” she said, pushing back the long walnut hair that she’d been growing out for a year; once it was long enough she was going to donate it to make wigs for cancer patients. “What’ve you got to eat?”

“Everything,” he assured her.

Bill had met the Parkers ten years before, back in 2007, during a month-long stay in Berlin to negotiate the minutiae of a studio buyout, and they had remained friends ever since. Ingrid had been writing grants for the Starling Trust, while David had wallowed in the dissolute life of an expat novelist. His debut, Gray Snow, a story of concentration camp survivors making their way home to Yugoslavia through the apocalyptic landscape of postwar Europe, had garnered impressive reviews back home, and by the time Bill met him he was working furiously on his follow-up, Red Rain.

David’s audience had been small, but he was living the romantic exile’s life, which, until 2009, was enough for him. Early that year a terrorist bomb went off in an apartment building as David was passing on the street, and his brush with mortality changed everything; all he wanted was success. The first step was to move back to Manhattan, to the nexus of American publishing, where all doors would be open to him. At first Ingrid resisted, but David eventually wore her down. She got a transfer to the Starling Trust’s New York headquarters, and they moved into an Upper East Side rental, where David spent his days hunched over a laptop, putting everything he had into his masterpiece. He was poised for success.

Which was why, after five years of hard work, he was dumbfounded when his editor unceremoniously rejected all eight hundred pages of Balkan America. Then Ingrid learned she was pregnant, and money became an issue. Her salary just covered their exorbitant rent, and as they ate their way through their savings they tried in vain to plan for the expenses of parenthood.

In the backyard, David stationed himself beside Bill, who was keeping an eye on some Kobe steaks. Though the rest of the party was being catered, Bill had insisted on manning the grill. They gazed down the arc of the yard to the trampoline, where a hired clown had just arrived to terrify the children of the Left, and Bill opened up about a fight he and Gina had been waging. “She wants to move south. Florida. Just contemplating a life in that cultural wasteland makes me sick.”

David gave him an appreciative smile, but his mind was clearly elsewhere.

“What about you and Ingrid?” Bill asked.

The smile faded. “She’s giving me a month.”

“What?”

“To start pulling my weight.”

“You still have savings, don’t you?”

“We’ve eaten up too much.”

Bill didn’t say anything.

“Teaching,” David said.

“The horror.”

David drank again, looking out at the busy backyard. “Maybe we should just throw in the towel and move back to Berlin. Every time we turn on the news we talk about it. This country’s a mess.”

“Don’t watch the news, then.”

“Ingrid doesn’t watch anything else,” he said. “You know where she was after the last election? In the streets, marching around with her not my president sign in front of Trump Tower. Screaming like a banshee. Then last week? Ran off to Newark to protest that Jersey cop who killed that guy . . . what’s-his-name.”

“Jerome Brown.”

A shrug. “She came back filthy. I think there was blood in her hair.”

“She wasn’t the only one protesting,” said Bill.

“Did you go?”

Bill shook his head.

“My point exactly. You and me—we’re grown-ups.”

Bill checked the steaks. While he wasn’t looking, they had burned.

 

3

Five months ago, Kevin had first been invited inside after a meeting in an Oakland loft of the uninspiringly named West Coast Anarchists (WCA). A Swede named Olaf who wore a bow tie as an act of radical irony had been discussing Martin Bishop’s latest diatribe, posted on The Propaganda Ministry, on “the pharmaceutical mafia.” There were about fifteen in attendance, none older than thirty, and when a med student from UCSF tried to explain the economics inherent in drug companies’ research and development, and their impact on prices, Kevin cut in with “You sound like a corporate shill. Since when is medicine supposed to be a profit industry? Make a profit on cars, sure, or toys, but hospitals and drugs, the Internet and basic foodstuffs—anything that’s necessary for living? That ain’t business. It’s a human right.”

The med student, not used to being interrupted, had been irritated. “Then move off to a farm and grow your own fucking food.”

“There’s only twenty-four hours in a day, man, and this late in history I don’t think we should all have to move back to the seventeenth century. Is that the promise of capitalism?”

He’d surprised himself with his outburst, and a few others looked surprised as well that the skinny black guy who’d sat silently through so many meetings suddenly had a bone to pick. Afterward, Jasmine—twenty-six, a performance artist—asked him out for a drink. “You’re right, you know. He is a shill, and so are half of them. I’m even starting to suspect Olaf is a spy.”

“Spy?” he asked, trying to appear sufficiently shocked. “For the Feds?”

“Why not?”

“Because a few millennials in a loft doesn’t mean shit to them. They’re looking for Russian hackers and ISIS bombers.”

“Maybe,” said Jasmine. “But if that’s the case, they’re missing out on something big, and they’ll be kicking themselves later.”

“Something big? Not the WCA.”

“I’m not talking about those guys.”

“Who, then?”

She smiled and raised her beer. “To the Revolution, Kevin. It’s gonna be massive.”

Aaron came along later, Jasmine introducing him at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge before the drag show got under way. Aaron shook his hand cursorily, then deposited the newest issue of Rolling Stone on the bar and opened it to a full-page profile called “The Revolution’s New Face.” Though not entirely flattering, it was a revealing piece, chronicling the life of Martin Bishop, the thirty-seven-year-old from Tennessee whose youthful Baptist fervor had reinvented itself in the shape of social justice. He and his co-revolutionary, a Pennsylvania thug named Benjamin Mittag, first made a name for themselves among the progressives of Austin, Texas. A blog (The Propaganda Ministry—www.propagandaministry.com) with an enormous following led to a Kickstarter-funded tour of campuses around the country, “speaking truth to power.” His followers called themselves the Massive Brigade.

In crowded auditoriums, Bishop held forth with religious intensity, and was compared by some to Martin Luther King Jr., though more often he quoted Thomas Jefferson’s personal seal: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” The power elite, he told audiences, had built up its defenses and become so distanced from the 99 percent that it barely noticed the whimpers of those who challenged it with sit-ins and marches and T-shirts and pop songs. The elite saw nothing to fear.

“Who, then, are they afraid of?” he asked auditoriums, then pointed at the people who were hit hard by lawsuits and jail time: the chaos-makers. Hackers, whistle-blowers, and the angry mobs that actually destroyed property. “Look to Seattle! Look to Ruby Ridge! Look to the Battle of the Brooklyn Bridge!” he soliloquized to a crowd in St. Louis. Whoever opened up the ruling class to examination by the masses, whoever exposed the illusion of their authority—those were the ones who forced power to reveal its true face: riot police and big lawyers.

He asked the students of NYU, “Is everyone blind? The police are gunning down our black brothers and sisters! The prison-industrial complex fills our jails with the cheapest labor around, for the benefit of McDonald’s and Wendy’s, Walmart and Victoria’s Secret. Our modern-day slaves man call centers for Verizon and Sprint. For ninety cents a day! And if you’re on the outside, don’t think you’re off the hook. Banks steal your homes at the first opportunity. Oil companies send your kids into the desert to die for their profits! Have I got something wrong here?”

The crowd came back, as one, “No!”

“If it looks like war and smells like war, what is it?”

“War!”

After the St. Louis meeting broke up, thirty pumped-up Massive Brigade followers smashed their way into a Citibank branch and trashed the lobby before the police rounded them up. That was when the charge of terrorism was first raised against Martin Bishop—if not by the authorities, then by the court of public opinion and his most vocal critic on television, Sam Schumer. Every day, Facebook delivered another salacious bit of news—sometimes fake, sometimes not—about Bishop and his followers. The Massive Brigade was synonymous with “the coming unrest.”

Sitting with Aaron, listening to him read out his favorite passages from the Rolling Stone profile, knowing instinctually where this conversation was heading, Kevin had felt a primal rush of excitement. The Brigade.

A manic-depressive whose moods were as unpredictable as his Marxist faith was unshakable, Aaron had worked with Martin Bishop in Austin, back in the beginning. Oh, he had stories he could tell, but they would have to wait until later. “The question I need to ask you, Kevin, is: Where do you stand?”

“Right next to you, man.”

“I mean, what do you see in the future? Once we’ve done what we’ve been put on this Earth to do?”

It felt like a test, which it was, but Kevin also smelled a trick question in the works. As he glanced around the bar, where men in makeup sipped prework cocktails, he thought over conversations he’d had since landing in town and making his way through the subterranean world of utopian thought. Left, right, and everything in between. So many opinions, so many dreams of tomorrow. He said, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

Which, to Aaron, turned out to be as good an answer as any.

Two weeks ago, the three of them were drinking beer in Jasmine’s Chinatown apartment when Aaron delivered his good news. “Word has come, comrades. We have to be ready.”

“For what?” asked Jasmine.

“To disappear.”

Aaron had passed their phone numbers up the ladder, and he explained that in hours, days, or weeks, word would come. They were to leave everything behind.

This was not entirely unexpected. Over the past months, as the media had worked itself into a frenzy of fear over the rhetoric that typified Massive rallies, the trouble in St. Louis, and the sporadic incidents of Massive followers in small towns being attacked by self-proclaimed patriots, it had been one of Bishop’s talking points: We have to make our own space for the dialectic. We have to create our own underground where we can defend ourselves against the fascists who run this country. When they come for us we’ll need a place where we can escape to. Where we can disappear. Until Aaron’s command, Kevin had assumed Bishop had been talking about a metaphorical underground. Not, apparently, so.

Aaron handed them each a piece of paper with an assigned meeting point and a signal that would identify them to their pickup. He ordered them not to share that information even with one another. “Things just got serious. Are we serious?”

“Absolutely,” Kevin told him.

Jasmine, giddy, nodded and laughed.

Now, sitting in the GTO with endless highway in front of him, Kevin listened as the driver he only knew as George said, “I was up on this shit long before Bishop and Mittag.”

“Sure you were,” said Kevin. They were an hour into their drive, taking I-80 around the north end of Sacramento. Traffic was surprisingly light.

George gave him a look. “You don’t believe me.”

“I don’t know you.”

“Nineteen eighty-nine—remember then?”

“I was one.”

“But you’ve heard of ’89, right? I mean, you got yourself some kind of education, yeah? East-West? Berlin Wall?”

“Sure. I’ve heard of it.”

“Well, I was ten. I remember all the noise and celebration. My dad was a Cold War obsessive. Dug a fallout shelter in the back yard in ’82—lost my virginity in that thing, by the way.” He winked. “Anyway, 1989: the Wall falls, and I remember my dad watching it on TV. Those Germans with their mullets and bottles of cheap champagne—my dad saw them and started to cry. He was so happy. Told me that the world had just changed. Wanted me to remember that moment. Enemies would become friends. Swords into plowshares. That sort of thing. I was ten, but I remember it all. I remember how excited I was. We were officially living in the future. Shangri-La. And then . . .” He tilted his head, cracking a vertebra. “You know what happened then?”

“Why don’t you tell me?”

“Nada, sir. Not shit. You got McDonald’s and a long line of salivating corporations piling into the newly free countries, scooping up land and resources. You had a lot of confused Easterners fucking over their neighbors to get rich, and quick. You had a war in Yugoslavia. You had Africa slowly falling apart. Genocide in Rwanda. They had a chance,” he said, staring hard at the cars ahead, “a chance to really make something of the world. But instead it was the same old story. Greed. Nothing changed. And a decade later people were surprised we were at war all over again. It broke my dad. Hell, it nearly broke me, and I was too young to know better. A system like ours—a system that pisses away a chance for a better world, that can’t see past short-term gain . . .” He sighed loudly. “Every day you see it—this week it’s Plains Capital and IfW. Some rich assholes didn’t want to pay their taxes, so they slipped billions to shady bankers who hid their cash in brand-new accounts opened under other people’s names. If the journalists hadn’t made such a stink about it, you can bet your ass there wouldn’t be any investigation.” He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter, though. Not a single rich white man—believe me—is going to pay for it.” George’s knuckles whitened as he squeezed the steering wheel. “A system like that needs to be ground into the dirt.”

Kevin watched the side of George’s face. How old was this guy? Ten in ’89—thirty-eight? With his shoulder-length unwashed hair and the cigarette dangling from his lips, he looked like he was aiming for eighteen.

“How long have you known Martin?” Kevin asked.

“Don’t. Not really. Ben’s my guy. I heard him speak in some dive in Toledo. His voice stripped the paint off the walls. I was in.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard Ben Mittag speak.”

“Not anymore, he doesn’t. His kind of speech? Gets too much attention from the Feds. That’s what happens when you talk about shooting cops and blowing up post offices. So he stepped back so the government would stay off our backs.” A grin. “Not that that helped much. But we’re still here.”

“So who’s running things—Mittag or Bishop?”

“You want hierarchy? Join the Democratic Party.” He looked into the rearview a moment, as if watching for shadows, then said, “What about you? You must’ve seen through the bullshit early.”

“Why?”

George opened a hand, bobbed his head. “I mean, you’re black. I don’t have to tell you about injustice.”

“No, man. You don’t.” He looked out his window to see a station wagon loaded down with possessions, a young woman at the wheel. Returning home from school, or escaping her life. Almost by rote, he said, “It was the realization—maybe I was thirteen—that my life was a cliché. Dad spending his life in Haynesville Correctional. Drugs, of course. Mom trying to get off welfare and onto her feet.” He hesitated, then went off script a moment. “Funny thing is, these days people are crying about laid-off coal miners hooked on opioids. Everyone wants to get them to doctors. Back then it was the same—laid-off workers hooked on crack. But those poor bastards—in the eighties, everyone wanted to lock them up.” He cleared his throat. “There’s only one difference between then and now.”

“Color of their skin,” George said so melodically that Kevin nearly gave him an Amen. Instead, he remained quiet until George said, “So that’s what brought you in.”

“First I went to my recruiter.”

“I thought maybe you were military.”

Kevin said nothing.

“See action?”

Kevin stared across an ugly expanse of industrial sprawl along the outskirts of Sacramento. “A little.”

“Afghanistan?”

He didn’t bother answering that.

George said, “You’ve seen the world. That’s good. And you got your foot in early through the black struggle.”

Kevin stared at him a long moment. “It’s not a black struggle. It’s a human struggle.”

“Sure it is,” George said, frowning. “But what are humans but a bunch of special interests? That, my friend, is why we’re going to win. We’re an army of special interests. I’m in the antigreed struggle; you can fight for your race if you want. Someone else can fight for the whales. But in the end we all work for the same thing.”

“The end of all this,” said Kevin.

“’Zactly,” George said as he slowed the car and pulled to the right. The exit was for Greenback Lane, a main thoroughfare lined with low houses and trees that eventually gave way to strip malls and stores: CVS, Dairy Queen, home fitness, Mexican restaurants, and a Red Robin burger joint, where George parked in the lot and killed the engine.

Kevin saw nothing but families, stuffed to the gills, limping to their cars. “I already ate,” he said. “I’ll wait in the car.”

“We’ll both wait in the car.”

“For what?”

George pulled a slip of paper from his shirt pocket; it was covered in cramped numbers written in pencil. Then he took out a cell phone, the sight of which surprised Kevin. George typed out a number and put the phone to his ear.

“I love this part,” he whispered, then changed his tone and said, “Mary, this is George. It’s time.”

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