And then Gaddafi came in, totally in drag. Not just eye shadow, which he was famous for, but a full evening dress, pearl necklace, and hose. Rouge on his cheeks. Four burly female bodyguards tailed him, holstering guns. Besides the slight dip in volume of conversation, no one at the party acted like anything was askance. Gaddafi’s lips were the red, it occurred to me, of that "Say goodbye a little longer" chewing gum, and it was that commercial jingle that played in my head as I watched him walking in heels like he practiced it. It wasn’t like he didn't have the facial features to cross dress: thin cheeks and high cheekbones like a model's. (This was before age sunk his face into a permanent scowl, before he insisted on that comb mustache and that sweep of a rug under his chin.) Perhaps this was because I was trained to spot such disguises, but it was obvious to me from the moment he walked in.
"Ho-ly Christ," Edwards said to me, recognizing the Colonel underneath the makeup.
At that time, the main problems with him passing—besides his famous face—were twofold: his eyebrows and his persistent five o'clock shadow. Either would have given him away: What women wouldn't have plucked those two caterpillars above the eyes? What lady could look unshaven in any light? The Colonel was always an outlandish dresser; he would later wear military garb with the pictures of Nasser on it, and many times he wore many traditional Libyan robes, changing them several times over the course of day, such as when he studied in England, which may look feminine to the eyes of the three-piece suit wearing, buttoned up Western white society. But that evening there was no mistaking the dipping neckline of the cocktail dress.
"Don't say anything at all," Edwards whispered to me. “He’s just trying to fuck with everybody.”
The bar had been set up in the back of house, tastefully off to one corner in what was posing as Edwards' home office. He was one of the deputy station chiefs. Not that Gaddafi knew he was in the house of someone who worked for the Agency, of course, because both Edwards and I were still posing as ex-pat British arms dealers. The guest list was selective, all loyalists to the regime, the kind of guys who doled out the contracts and didn't ask questions. The house was in Benghazi, not too far from the Royal Military Academy, just the kind of place somebody looking to sell guns would set up shop.
Gaddafi talked to a woman near the coat closet, and one of the guards wandered through the buffet line for him, pulling together a plate of bazin with potatoes and fish, zummeeta with chili sauce, and the coup de gras, Mb'atten. Edwards made sure to hunt down only the best caterers, and if the alcohol was a bit sub rosa, he made sure the local cuisine was conspicuous.
Soon Gaddafi and his female entourage started fanning out across the main thrust of the house, where most of the partygoers were arrayed. They must have been sussing out the security situation, but it looked like mingling. Nervous smiles appeared around Edwards and me, and it was obvious that they are all saying to themselves, "Oh, it's going to be one of these nights." Perhaps it wasn't only obvious to the spies.
"Don't worry," Edwards continued. "I have this covered." As he often did, he gave me a mocking namaskar, something he gave most everyone in the company since an assignment in Punjab, showing me his balding crown.
Edwards asked the burliest of the guards, in Arabic, what kind of refreshment she'd like, and then asked to be introduced to the "lovely woman" (a rough translation) nearby.
Edwards was good at this sort of thing—languages, schmoozing, classic spy stuff. Me, I was a desk jockey if there ever was one; the classic skills were what I lacked. Thus it had been a shock when I had been reassigned to the station in Libya, and shipped out of Langley. Although my Arabic was better than Edwards’, I’ve never had a conversation in it. I clicked screens and file reports. I wrote concise briefings, executive summaries, dreaming of my own Long Telegram. I didn’t run around with a gun. “You’re just a different breed,” Edwards had told me, though I suspected he meant something more than what initially appeared.
Edwards and the Gaddafi entourage drifted out of earshot. From across the room, with a watered-down old fashioned in my hand, I tried to watch without watching. It was a practiced, feminine way that Gaddafi flirted with his hands, fingernails in fuchsia, dancing in the air. Eventually Edwards locked eyes with me and gave the universal pantomime of a cocktail, so I ventured to the bank of the house to mix him a couple weak vodka tonics.
The purpose of this party had everything and nothing to do with the Colonel himself. In a sense, nothing could be done with Gaddafi here, but nothing could be done without him, either; he was the bride arriving too early to the wedding, before the groom had taken his place. We were posing as British arms dealers to establish who in the Colonel's inner circle had been reselling stock to some fringe anti-Israel terrorist groups. We were to tender some dummy weapons and trace them. Our sources indicated the operation did not reach the Colonel, so the man we are hoping to lure, one of the mid-level deputies in the defense department under Abu-Bakr Yunis Jabr, was now stuffing himself full of Mb'atten and probably too nervous to make a move.
When I delivered Edwards the drinks, expecting to return back to the sidelines, I felt an icy grip on my wrist. Expecting one of the security guards, I looked down instead to find the hand belonging to Gaddafi himself. Only, the hands don’t feel masculine. The fingers were delicate. Almost familiar.
"And who is this?" Gaddafi asked Edwards in English, looking at me.
Edwards took the drink from my hands and introduced me with my cover name. “Reynolds’ the money man. Never shot a gun in his life.”
"And this is Madame Mafoud," he continued. “Mafoud” dropped her grip, a sort of reverse handshake. "Her husband insists on such security when she socializes outside his presence."
He said it such an irony-free way that I suddenly questioned whether Gaddafi actually stood before me. Could this be a Gaddafi body double (for surely there are some) who also wore women’s clothes? Or was my insight so far off I'd unfairly labeled some other woman as the Colonel in drag? Looking for signals from Edwards, I found none; Edwards rarely said anything without irony, but perhaps he was using his expert-level spy stuff again.
Continuing my practiced accent, I greeted everyone in the small circle, taking care not to meet Mafoud's eyes—even though she was now staring at me from behind heavy mascara, eyelashes as thick as feathers. I considered whether Edwards was actually part of this whole charade.
"Where was it you were born, then?" Mafoud asked me. The English voice sounded more feminine—if practiced—than the Arabic one I’d caught from across the room.
"Salisbury," I said.
Mafoud smiled. This wasn’t the answer she quite expected, which in our trade was usually the goal. "One afternoon, when I was studying in London, I took the train there,” she said in a British accent that made my own feel inauthentic. “Charming town. I had to see Stonehenge once, you know."
"One of the sights of the world."
"I'm sure by now you are tired of it and all the tourists. You see the same thing, or do the same thing, and it becomes worse than routine, you know. No variety. It's no way to live a life." Mafoud paused and looked me over. "Or to keep a woman."
The intention, I know, had nothing to do with my life, my ex-fiancé, and instead everything to do with a charade of flirtation—the obvious implication, I guess, was her putative husband. Edwards' eyebrow raise seemed aware of both meanings.
When, three months before my assignment to Libya, I had received the padded envelope from my fiancé, running the bump between my fingers, I knew immediately what was inside; but I had hoped to find a note, at least, something explaining the gesture, offering some sort of window or possibility of being able to slip the ring back on her finger again, even though we both knew it was a sham. “Be quiet about your own…stuff,” Edwards had advised me then. “The old spooks will use it against you.”
"I have an idea," Mafoud suddenly said to me. "Why don't you and I go for a drive? I want to hear more about England.“
I noticed two of the guards exchanging a glance, although it didn’t seem to possess any surprise.
"I have a car," Mafoud continued. “Can you drive a stick shift on the right side of the road?”
Edwards ran his head through his goatee, reminding me of one of the unofficial Company policies was to never turn down a man who wasn’t used to being turned down.
Mafoud waved away the guards as we exited the house. They stalled for a moment on the curb, but eventually retreated to their lamb, bemused and blowing kisses. Parked behind a black limousine and a black SUV was a white Corvette convertible. Once we were inside and I had the steering wheel in my hands, Mafoud produced the keys from her cleavage.
"Have you been to Al-Buduzeera yet?"
I shook my head. Since arriving in Libya, Edwards had been all business, working with our station chief and contacts and reading briefings for hours upon end. The party was the first time I’ve spoken to someone outside of a safe house since arriving. We hadn’t even seen the Mediterranean yet.
“The park reminds me of England," Mafoud said. “We have a full moon tonight. You must see it in the moonlight."
Despite the intermittent streetlights of Benghazi, which flickered on and off almost like in a code, it was easy to see ahead of us. Silver rays caught the pavement of Nasser Street, and eventually the red clay of the many undeveloped city lots, too. Edwards had claimed Benghazi was a burgeoning metropolis, a locus that would become important one day; to me the city looked like a half-formed place, a city unsure of itself, a city that hadn’t learned how to embrace the sea. This floated over my mind as Mafoud provided gentle directions northeast and through the gates into Al-Buduzeera, while we discussed Wales, the British Museum, and the Magna Carta. In the park, we pulled past chalets arranged for water views, a few still warmly yellow and alit from the inside. Our road wound between and around them, following the general shore of the lake.
"There is a nice spot to view the water," Mafoud said, "two turns ahead."
"Who lives in these chalets?" I ask, attempting to steer her away from her quiz, certain I would slip up on some detail.
"Sycophants in the regime, mostly." Her voice, which had dropped a register from the party, sounded dismissive and perhaps slightly intoxicated. “They use them for their mistresses.”
Only as the car turned and slowed did I seriously start to worry about what was going to happen once we parked. Mafoud's five o'clock shadow stood out in the moonlight. The wind was scant and the lake's surface was crystalline and calm, a lambent mirror sending back a Xeroxed celestial body to the sky. Our spot was secluded.
"I've heard the regime dumps dissidents and sodomites in the water,” Mafoud said.
This comment I interpreted as a sort of test. "In my line of business," I eventually replied, to my own disdain, "the customer is always right. And if the regime is the customer, then I would suggest that perhaps that whoever was dumped in the lake deserved the dumping."
After a long pause, Mafoud replied: "Do they do this sort of thing in England? Dump people in water, with stones roped to their ankles?”
“Metaphorically,” I answered after a pause.
I then became aware of the hum of all the bugs outside the car.
“I imagine it’s even worse in America.”
I didn’t respond.
Mafoud said: “Metaphorically, I mean.” After a minute, Mafoud continued: “Doesn't this remind you of the Lake District?"
From the inside of the car I could see the midges gathering around the windshield, attracted by something on the surface of the hood. Could Gaddafi have only been 27 when he staged the coup that brought him into power? How little I had come to know myself by 27, and how little progress I had made since then.
“Yes," I lied. "Wordsworth and Coleridge could be right there"—I pointed over, past the midges, at a copse of trees near the shoreline—"debating the merits of 'Christabel.'"
Mafoud cocked her head slightly, ostensibly unsure of whether to laugh.
"Tell me," she said, "what does an arms dealer know of Romantic poetry?"
I froze in silence. This was an occupational hazard of Company work in the field, that you would have been identified from some list somewhere, but far worse would be to give yourself up accidentally. I could see Edwards in my mind, holding his hands over his face, murmuring curses, like when I had slipped up and called him by my ex-fiancée’s name the other day.
"Relax,” Mafoud eventually said. “I don't care why you're here. I just care that you're here."
After a few seconds she started again. “My husband, he is in the military. I don’t know what I expected.”
She turned her head away from, toward the curve of the lakeshore, and then back to me. This presented an odd moment of silence, as we looked at each other, me still trying to grasp whether Gaddafi was sitting in this Corvette with me in the moonlight, and by now the engine had been keyed off, and the car dome lights had faded, and we were sitting in dim silver glow, and as Mafoud leaned forward a bit and so did I, not knowing what else could cover for my dip into the centuries-old 'Christabel' controversy. That was when we kissed. Mafoud pulled away quickly, and then held up a hand to her face, ostensibly to hide the blushing.
"Oh—I'm married!" Mafoud said, turning away. “We can't do this."
"Yes," I eventually replied, trying to hide my—what was it?—relief? "I'm sorry. That was—inappropriate.” The situation, of course, required me to seem disappointed, or that’s what I interpreted the point of the kiss was, but I could not help but think of other possibilities.
We took a different way out of the park, me taking turns too quickly and sharply. Mafoud pointed out the darkened waterslides we passed, and the picnic areas, the campsites "favored by men with AIDs,” and the like. I could already see the ridiculing smile on Edwards’ face. Mafoud stayed mostly silent until we were nearly back.
“He’s ugly sometimes,” Mafoud said. “But he is what he is.”
Although my story about being from Salisbury was a cover, I had indeed been to Stonehenge. It was during a college trip with my then-girlfriend; the Anglophilia wasn't bluster. The civilization that had built the monument had not left a written record; their only story had been stone, and our only guesses about how they lived were based on interpreting rocks. That seemed somehow reassuring to me, how masked their true intentions may have been. What was more frightening: the masked man, or when the hideous man took off his mask?
On our return, we found Edwards' house much as we had left it; the guards, stationed outside, had finished their lamb and stood with their arms folded across their chests. Seeing Edwards' giant smile—just as I had pictured it—I guessed that, perhaps thanks to my diversion, some kind of progress had been made on our assignment. Or else he was going to ask me if I’d tried on the dress.
“We may have to do this again,” Mafoud said, just as I was about to put the car in park. I knew immediately I was supposed to agree.
Greg Walklin is an attorney and writer living in Lincoln, Nebraska. His fiction and book reviews have appeared in The Millions, Midwestern Gothic, Pulp Literature, Palooka, the Colorado Review, Ploughshares Blog, and the Lincoln Journal-Star, among other publications.