TRUST NO ONE
Dr. Robert Vilari stood on the shallow hotel terrace overlooking Uruguay Street, a ten-minute walk from Beirut’s central district.
It was early evening and a crush of people was beginning to build along one of the busiest areas in the city. Soon every café and bar would be filled with tourists and a few locals. Vilari enjoyed this time of day. The arid, hot air tempered by the setting sun was more bearable, and the blasts of music and laughter from the raucous crowd drowned out the pressures of his job. He sipped his Arak, which he had ordered along with mezze, an array of appetizers.
As chief bioengineer for American Defense Laboratories (ADL), he visited overseas chemical plants in countries with liberal corporate laws and “understanding” governments. At one time, he enjoyed hosting lavish parties for power brokers and returning home with an agreement that meant more business for ADL. Now, CEO Mark Halpern asked him to make trips several times a year. Vilari knew, with his heart condition, he needed to cut back. Then he would have to tell Halpern about his health. That wasn’t a smart career move.
Swarthy men had in the past, offered Vilari money, women, and boys if he preferred, as incentive to divulge sensitive information. As his personal problems grew, he dreamed of starting over in a new place with his family.
He shut the terrace door, grabbed his wallet, phone, and keycard, and left his hotel for another night of mundane networking.
Vilari woke to the strong smell of dokha tobacco, with a massive headache and the need to urinate. With one hand over his eyes to block the light streaming into the room, he slid his legs over the side of the bed. He sat up and jerked, startled by the olive-skinned stranger relaxed in a chair, staring at him as he inhaled from a carved medwakh. First surprised and then angry, he was too weak to mount a verbal attack.
Vilari remembered the man from the night before. The wiry Arab had sat alone at a table in the corner of the restaurant where Vilari shared a cocktail and smoke with a potential client. He glanced at the man several times during his conversation and each time the stranger gave Vilari a slight nod of his head. Although the Arab’s stares were unnerving, Vilari had finally ignored him in favor of giving the client his full attention. Once the waiter brought a last drink to the table, the Arab rose and left the restaurant. Vilari recalled relaxing back in his chair with his drink but nothing after that.
He moved to stand. The man looked on, seemingly assessing his condition. Vilari shook off the penetrating stare and stepped toward the bathroom, losing his equilibrium. He attempted to straighten but fell backwards onto the bed.
The stranger, who Vilari determined was in his forties, wore his slicked black hair in a bun at the back of his head and his beard trimmed close to his face. Clad in an expensive suit and alligator loafers, the Arab rose to pick up a glass from a room service cart. He turned back to Vilari. “I am Amari Abboud,” he said, handing Vilari a milky beverage. “Drink it slowly. We have a lot to talk about.”
Vilari swallowed and cleared his throat. “What do you want?”
Settling back into the chair, Abboud pulled an envelope from his pocket. He began shuffling through several photographs, then glanced at Vilari who winced at the taste of the drink and rubbed his stomach. “Despite how you feel now, you had a good night.” Abboud held up a photo of a woman straddled atop Vilari, her smooth bronzed back to the camera. “Yes, a very good night.”
He threw the photos on the bed. With a shaky hand, Vilari spread them apart and gasped. In one, the woman had her face buried in his groin. Another showed Vilari returning the favor. He gagged and fell to his knees, grabbing a small wastebasket. The thought of Abboud making the photos public caused him to retch violently. Exhausted, he remained on the floor and leaned against the bed. Abboud tossed Vilari a hand towel to wipe the vomit from his mouth.
“Feel better?” Abboud asked.
With tears sliding down his blanched face, Vilari blinked.
“Good,” Amari Abboud said. “Let’s begin.”
Robert Vilari pulled himself from the floor onto the bed and waited for Abboud to speak.
“I am in the business of bringing people and products together. In your country, I would be called the middleman. I have wealthy business acquaintances that have need of your services and are willing to pay extremely well.” Amari Abboud smiled.
“I’m not interested,” Vilari turned to stare out the window.
“Typical rude, American cowboy,” his brow furrowed and his lips curled. “You haven’t heard what I want yet.”
“I don’t care.”
“In any case, your options are limited and all end badly. I could give these photos to your wife or her parents. Would that work?”
“No. My wife is a treacherous hag.” Yes, it would work. A sheen of sweat formed on his forehead.
“Perhaps, I would have new photos taken of you with a man instead of a woman.” Abboud waited. “Not yet?”
“No one would believe it wasn’t a doctored photo.” Vilari couldn’t meet his eyes.
“Well, if your resistance continues, I could step up the measures to unpleasant things for your family.”
Vilari’s face flushed, his eyes watered.
“Ah, I see I have your attention.”
Vilari adored his wife and children. He remembered the last time he saw Francesca, when she took him to the airport. Not wanting him to leave, she trembled when she hugged him. Her kiss had lasted longer than usual. The snap of Abboud’s fingers brought him back to the present.
“I can tell you now have the full measure of the situation.” Abboud smiled again and leaned back in his chair. “We need the bioweapon and the anti-toxin you are developing at ADL. The weapon is important to my client but, make no mistake, the anti-toxin is just as important.” Abboud paused for effect and continued.
“Your government has developed a bioweapon in response to a mega-toxin the Russians have. There are people who are uncomfortable with Russia’s growing military strength and aggressive posture in the world. They don’t have time to make up years of research and come up with their own product. Therefore, you will help level the playing field. If you do this, they will make you wealthy. If you don’t, well….”
Vilari’s eyes circled the room and connected with Abboud’s. His mind raced for other options. There were none; if he didn’t agree, he wouldn’t leave this room alive.
“How much will you pay?”