Four

Eight hours later
May 7, 2024
1030 Z
Alexandria, Virginia
United States of America
Lazy streams of gold light appeared through the tiny slit of a window. Dawn slowly filtered across the jail cell, creeping up on its sole occupant.
A man sat alone, his eyes red from hours of weeping. He had been awake all night, hoping the dawn would come and wash away his anguish. Daniel Locke rubbed his hand across the stubble on his chin, massaging what was probably a colorful bruise blooming across his jawline. He was a powerfully built man who stood six feet four inches. He commanded respect, and whenever he walked into a room his presence was noticed. His closely cropped blond hair, strong jawline, and intense blue eyes drew attention. He was the kind of person that people wanted to be near. And yet, despite these physical qualities, Daniel Locke was a quiet man who rarely spoke. He lived a hard life, a life of sacrifice, duty, and honor. Though he had seen much death, his eyes were not dulled and uncaring. They had a sharp kindness to them.
The contrast between the man and the room could not be starker.
Unidentifiable dirt covered the walls. Not a single piece of the furniture was free from graffiti and scratches. The blood that covered Locke's shirt didn't look out of place from the stains on the bedding, and only his tears served to clean the room. The room appeared that it had not been cleaned in months, maybe years. Piss, vomit and blood from past occupants discolored every inch of the floor, but somehow the stench usually associated with such decor was absent.
A patch of red on his shirtsleeve caught his eye and he plucked at the fabric. Did the blood belong to him or someone else? He couldn't remember. He shook the thoughts from his head and sat trying not to think about the dirty prison he found himself in. The sun rose and threw the cell into sharper relief. He attempted to think of anything else than the little predicament he'd gotten himself into.

Five

About a year earlier
July 6th, 2023
1237 Z
Alexandria, Virginia
United States of America
McLaren's was always busy, day or night. The downtown location played its part, as did the two-for-one deals. The noisy hubbub and cheap drinks made it a favorite weekend haunt of Daniel and Gideon's when they were in Washington, an occurrence that seemed all too common.
Their perky waitress gave them a knowing wink as she guided them through the throngs of heavily drinking lawyers and single women looking for C-Suite catches to a table toward the back of the bar. The two had been in town for just a few days and were practically fresh off the plane. Both had changed into civilian clothes, jeans and button-down shirts. Although dressed up, both still looked rough and hardened by the sun, their faces scruffy and unshaven. Daniel had a few new scars around his neck and face, and he looked down at his hands as they walked in. They were rough and calloused, and he felt out of place.
The bar was a relatively pleasant establishment that many locals enjoyed on weekends. The duo liked it because it was not some seedy dive bar and not over the top. It had a good vibe, Daniel had noted one night. Gideon had guffawed at Daniel's rather unusual and uncharacteristic word choice. The middle-class crowd liked to chat and have some fun, and it was not the usual D.C. establishment with an endless discourse of politics. It was homey, and that made it comfortable to talk and relax.
The two friends sat down and ordered some drinks. They both still had “the squint” from looking across sunny desert landscapes for months. No amount of protective eye gear could block out the harshest rays of the Iraqi desert, not by a long shot.
The bar was divided equally among groups of men and women, and Daniel looked around and noticed a beautiful girl sitting with some girlfriends, chatting casually.
She saw him from across the bar with her dark eyes and gave him a slight smile. Gently flipping her dark long hair to the side, she greeted Daniel with a nod of her head.  The light color of her two-piece suit emphasized the lovely bronze color of her skin. She was slender and graceful, like a dancer.
Lebanese, he thought to himself, entranced. Daniel did not give the women surrounding her a second glance. From that moment, he saw only her.
"It's that girl again," Daniel said. He gave a strained smile and fiddled with the drink the bartender had placed in front of him.
"She's a beaut. Go get her."
"Nah, she’s the Capitol hill type. They don't hang out with grunts."
"I know, too smart for you." Gideon smiled in his lackadaisical way and went back to sipping his drink.
"Careful, I watch your back in dangerous places." Daniel was only half-joking. He was trying his best not to stare at the beautiful woman or think about her. Gideon laughed and shook his head.
"Maybe it's too soon anyway," Daniel said. "We just got back from the sand."
"Do what you gotta do, man." Gideon had learned long ago Daniel took advice from no man. He took another sip from his beer.
The music stopped, and in between songs Daniel felt building anticipation. He looked back and saw the girl as she approached the bar to grab another drink. Now or never, he thought. Gulping as he gathered his courage, he stood and walked up to her as she waited for her drink.
"How's it going?" he asked.
He smiled his best smile, but he knew it looked strained. She looked at him, and for a moment he thought there was a small sneer on her face. If it was there, she quickly dismissed it, then smiled curiously.
"You look like you just come back from somewhere," she said.
"Northern Iraq," Daniel said. He tried not to sound bitter. He looked into the distance over her head. The bar had a display of local history, and he pretended to look at it.
"How interesting. I work for Senator Westmore Cowell. We were briefed today by General Samson. He says the stabilization is going very well." She smiled with evident pride in her job and career choice.
Suddenly forgetting where he was, Daniel retorted, "I don't know who you’re hearing that from." It came out louder and harder than he meant it to. "It's an absolute mess, genocide waiting to happen.”
"What?" The shocked look on her face might have been comical in another situation.
"All your hearings are coming through the filter of people who will do anything to look good," he said, his romantic curiosity momentarily blocked by a dark cloud.
Sana was taken aback, but she was also deeply curious to hear the unfiltered truth. "Look, let's talk over here." She pointed toward a darker corner of the bar.
They took a quick look around, then slid into a private booth. Tall wooden divisions cut them off from the rest of the bar. Daniel tugged nervously at his collar, then slid onto the scarred wooden bench seat.
Sana Kuri noted that Daniel was a tall man but still built like an athlete. Probably some college football, she thought. The booth was a bit of a tight squeeze for him. Broad in the shoulders, narrow at the waist, his eyes were kind, a pale blue that hinted at vulnerability belied by his square jaw and strong features.
She sat primly, knees together, back straight. She was stunning, he thought, but distant. Her dark hair hung in shining curls around her shoulders. She wore a dark blue tailored suit and black pumps. Her only concession to the heat was that she wore no stockings. She wore little makeup, but what she did wear was impeccable. The faintest hint of perfume reached him, something exotic and exciting. It seemed as if she never perspired, as if nothing could break her calm composure.
“I guess I should introduce myself. Daniel Locke. I’ve been in Northern Iraq with a Special Forces team for the last three months.”
"Sana Kuri. I guess you already know who I work for." She stopped and regarded him for a moment, and decided the man was not just making a play. He had information she needed. An insider like this could make or break her career. "Let's dispense with the formalities. I'll cut to the chase. I'm very interested to hear what you have to say."
"Well, let me start with this.” Daniel reclined a bit and lowered his voice. “The Kurds have no desire whatsoever to have anything to do with the Iraqis. Without a doubt, they will declare their independence in a very short time."
Before Sana could respond with her burning follow-up, a waiter arrived and rudely interrupted to take their order. The two replied with their drink preferences, if only to get on with the conversation. After the waiter had left, Sana let out a low whistle, her dark eyes widening. "We are hearing that the Kurds are happy with the status quo and that they are not agitating towards that end at all."
Daniel couldn't believe she bought that story. Regardless of his lack of history with the beautiful woman sitting across from him, he wasn't going to let her mollify him with fabrications.
Daniel shook his head impatiently and ran his fingers through his dark, short-cropped hair. "That's probably what they're hearing from the Kurdish leadership. But that's not the reality on the ground. Mid-level officers speak openly of a fully independent Kurdish nation. To be frank, it's about time."
He spread his hands, as if to apologize for his lack of restraint. He could see Sana raise her eyebrows as she realized that this wasn't the easy brush-off that she was so used to receiving. She hadn't realized that Daniel wasn't just a pretty face, with his chiseled jaw line and inexpensive clothes. It made her feel slightly uncomfortable in her prim skirt and neat blouse.
Sana shook her head, her brow knit with concern. "Well, that would not be in the interest of my boss," she countered. "He's really gone out on a limb with this stabilization plan." She tapped her fingers on the scarred tabletop in a quick, soft staccato. He noticed her nails — short, painted a dark red.
He scowled. "So freedom through independence is no longer in the interests of the United States?" Daniel couldn't believe that the corruption had spread this far and was reasonably sure that he had utterly failed to keep the contempt out of his voice.
"With the CPC coming into existence, no. More fragmentation is not in the interest of the CPC administration efforts. We need fewer nations, not more."
With that definitive statement, she reached into her dark brown leather handbag, rummaged for a second and produced a business card and pen. The pen was silver, heavy, and likely expensive. In her clipped, businesslike script, she wrote her personal cell number on the back and reached across the table, tucking the card into Daniel's top pocket.
The waiter returned with their drinks and started to say something, so Daniel reached up and grabbed Sana's hand, holding it until the waitress retreated to find more talkative clients.
"I appreciate your candor," smiled Sana, unsure how she felt about having this rough man hold her hand like this. Her boss would be furious, she knew, but part of her had always enjoyed breaking the rules and marching to the beat of her own drum. At this moment, she wasn't sure what that beat was.
Daniel considered her dark brown eyes. "I'm off tomorrow," he said with a grin. "What would you like to do?"
She leaned toward him, her body language changing. She smiled at him. It was a warm smile, and genuine. There was a long pause. "I like to hike," she said, her statement a tentative invitation.
Daniel grinned. "I know just the right place for it," he replied.
He looked over to see Gideon beaming. No doubt he'd be full of comments about Daniel’s "game." It was tough having a married friend. Daniel stifled a smile.

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