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Authors: Charles McCarry

The Mulberry Bush

BOOK: The Mulberry Bush
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Other Novels by Charles McCarry

The Shanghai Factor
Christopher's Ghosts
Old Boys
Lucky Bastard
Shelley's Heart
Second Sight
The Bride of the Wilderness
The Last Supper
The Better Angels
The Secret Lovers
The Tears of Autumn
The Miernik Dossier

A Novel
Charles McCarry

Copyright © 2015 by Charles McCarry

Jacket design by Carlos Beltrán/Big Dot Design
Jacket photographs: man © Mark Owen/Arcangel
Author photograph © Bill Keefry

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher is prohibited. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author's rights is appreciated. Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or anthology, should send inquiries to Grove Atlantic, 154 West 14th Street, New York, NY 10011 or
[email protected]

Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America


ISBN 978-0-8021-2410-4
eISBN 978-0-8021-9080-2

The Mysterious Press
an imprint of Grove Atlantic
154 West 14th Street
New York, NY 10011

Distributed by Publishers Group West

15 16 17 18 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

To Otto Penzler

He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself.

—Chinese proverb


On a midsummer day in January, Luz Aguilar, the love of my life and the only child of the legendary Alejandro Aguilar, martyr of the revolution, and I met for the first time at first light in a rose garden in Los Bosques de Palermo. The vast park was empty. Dew sparkled on the roses. Beyond its gates, felt but unseen and still abed, Buenos Aires stirred and coughed as it awakened. As Luz approached, details of her face came into focus. I saw the color of her eyes, glimpsed the even teeth beneath her upper lip, her piquant face, her dark hair, which gathered the light. Short skirt. Memorable legs. She squinted into the sun, trying to make me out. She had been told I would be carrying a copy of the financial newspaper
in my left hand and wearing a Brigade of Guards necktie—the one with the broad diagonal red and navy blue stripes.

As scripted, we bumped into each other lightly as we passed, and then murmured the sign and countersign:

“Un hermoso día, señorita.”

“Buenos Aires es siempre soleada, señor.”

For operational reasons I had studied Spanish with a Honduran tutor. Argentineans are famous for their linguistic snobbery. She looked at me as if I were speaking her mother tongue with an Inuit accent.

Like the citizens of many great capitals, the
as people who live in or around Buenos Aires are called, have their own way of speaking the language. Among other peculiarities, they habitually use the formal
and almost never call even the closest relatives or friends
but address them instead with the archaic

In English—I knew she spoke it fluently—I said, “Follow me.”

She did as she was told. Luz was already a marginal asset of the intelligence service I worked for, ostensibly because she held a minor post in her country's foreign ministry but actually because she had grown up with her father's terrorist friends, many of whom remained persons of interest. Because it is the business of an intelligence service to stay in with the outs no matter how odious the outs might be. Because we wanted to keep tabs on her honorary uncles and aunts who were still terrorists in their hearts—sleepers waiting to be reawakened by a messiah waving a red flag. Because in their imagination, this savior would resemble Luz's late father, Alejandro Aguilar, the One—enemy of mankind, murderer, traitor, hero of the romantic left.

Actually, for the final weeks of his time on Earth, Alejandro was systematically betraying the revolution to its enemies. At that point I knew little about him and did not need to know more, or so I then thought. He died before Luz was old enough to be trusted with the truth. It was also good for his cover that Luz's mother, herself a beauty, had been disappeared. It was said that she had been thrown out of an airplane, probably after being tortured until her bones broke. Even now, as I would later learn, Luz dreamed of her, naked and falling, falling in cold darkness, hearing the airplane's throbbing engines, smelling the sea, not knowing until impact the exact moment when she would hit the frigid water and die.

Once a month Luz met her Yanqui case officer and handed over a thumb drive loaded with useless information. For this, and because Headquarters was partly responsible for her father's early and violent and famous demise, we paid her a monthly stipend, in cash, that covered her hairdresser, her clothes and shoes, her beautician, her wine, her holidays, her impulses. And theoretically bound her to us because she signed for every payment with a thumbprint and this gave us the power to denounce her as a traitor to her country or to her father's memory. This was not a diabolical threat that applied to Luz alone because she was who she was. It was standard procedure—just the way we did the thing we did.

Thanks to her upbringing among people who played at danger, Luz knew enough tradecraft by the time she was ten to realize that if she was ever caught leaving a clandestine meeting with a blackened thumb, this treasonous smudge would be all the evidence military intelligence or the national police would need to gang rape her while they waterboarded her and administered electric shocks to her genitalia before locking her up for life or dropping her from an airplane into the Atlantic Ocean. The federal police and military intelligence were no longer supposed to do such things now that democracy had been restored, but who knew when they might revive old habits, or if they had ever really given them up?

Owing to our good relations with the Argentinean intelligence services, Luz had less to fear from exposure than she imagined. Nevertheless, the memories and the fear with which she had grown up lingered within her. Headquarters didn't require her to take large risks. Like the superfluous ingredient in a recipe, she was being reserved for another purpose.

I led her to a coffee bar where they were just rolling up the shutter. We sat down at a corner table. For the moment we were alone except for the cashier and the skinny kid who ran the coffee machine. For show, still following the script, Luz smiled at me as if for a lover just home from the sea. She squeezed my hand and passed me her monthly flash drive. She had downloaded onto this drive an entire digital folder of the useless
gibberish that is generated daily by the inconsequential ministry of an irrelevant government. The moment it touched my fingers, its new life as a valuable commodity began—valuable not because it had any actual value, but because it was secret and because it was purloined. I would pouch it to Headquarters. Some wretch in Virginia would be required to translate it, another wretch to read it and yet another wretch to analyze it, and yet more wretches tasked to follow up on the analysis. The value of secrets, like the value of money, is in the mind. A strip of paper the exact size of a hundred-dollar bill is worth nothing in itself, but smear it with green ink and the portrait of a dead president and presto, it's worth two tennis shoes.

While we drank our coffee we talked about movies for the benefit of eavesdroppers. I claimed to admire the work of a certain radical Argentinean director. In riposte Luz quoted the pope on the subject of Mel Gibson's S-and-M epic about Jesus of Nazareth: “It is as it was.” Despite this readiness to quote the Holy Father, Luz was no Catholic. Her father and mother had immersed themselves in their roles as godless Communists, so their child was raised as a heathen as part of their cover. Still, a small gold cross nestled in her cleavage.

I scratched my right ear with my left forefinger—a signal, absurd like all tradecraft, that it was time to break contact. Luz got out her stamp pad, which was disguised as a compact, and surreptitiously inked her thumb. I handed her the receipt and she thumb-printed it. I gave her a foil packet containing an alcohol swab with which to clean the ink off her thumb. She smiled a tiny smile at this small gallantry. Then she picked up the folded
in which her money was cleverly concealed, and rose from the table.

In the mirror behind the coffee bar as she walked away, Luz noticed my eyes glued to her bottom, and she gave me, in the mirror, the same minimal smile as before.

Much later, she told me that the thought that brought a smile to her lips was

Two minds with but a single thought.


Although I am, for the time being, hiding something from you when I put the matter so simply, I became a spy because my father before me was a spy. He was recruited during his final semester in New Haven. Being chosen in this way was the culminating honor of an early life filled with promise. He had been a star athlete at school, he was a popular man on campus. He posted good marks, was tapped for one of the more desirable secret societies, held his liquor and his tongue, smiled when the situation warranted it. He was presentable in an all-American way, and even the prettiest Seven Sisters girls would not have refused a proposal of marriage if he made one. He was a fine tennis player and a fairly good midfielder in lacrosse. In other words, he was the whole package.

In those days, as the Cold War waxed, many of Headquarters's most alert talent spotters were professors at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale and at smaller eastern colleges that specialized in producing a type that thought alike, spoke alike, and behaved with predictability. Though I suppose he had his suspicions, Father never knew which of his mentors recommended him or why exactly he had been singled out. It didn't really matter. He had
been tapped for membership in the most exclusive fraternity in American life, and that was enough for him to know. He accepted the invitation to go undercover without a moment's hesitation.

The Korean War was in progress, and to his surprise, Headquarters sent him to the Marine Corps instead of straight into the heart of darkness as he had hoped and expected. No one told him the reason for this detour (he assumed it was just a detour), and mindful that he was being watched by invisible judges, he did not ask. He completed officer candidate training at Quantico with his usual brio and was commissioned in the Marine Corps reserves as a second lieutenant. His commission was, in the jargon of the intelligence community, a “genuine-false” credential—that is to say, the commission was genuine, but its purpose, its only purpose, was to provide him with a convincing résumé.

While the other new second lieutenants with whom he had trained went off to risk their lives in the mud and snows of Korea, Father was sent into quarantine at a secret installation on a locked-down military base in Virginia. There he was trained in the techniques of espionage and absorbed into the culture of the craft, which was not so very different from the culture of the secret society to which he had been elected at Yale—or for that matter, from that of a summer camp of the Boy Scouts of America. The Plantation, as this installation was called, was an incubator, a place so closely guarded, so profoundly secure that not even his real name was at risk. He and his fellow trainees were called by their “funny,” i.e., fictitious, names. They were told that even the instructors did not know their true identities. Father and his classmates were assured in many small ways that they were now on the definitive inside, immunized against risk or even visibility—safe, protected, nonexpendable. Glamorous.

Meanwhile, one in every four of Father's Quantico classmates were being killed or maimed on the battlefields of Korea. In later years the gnawing guilt he felt about his own escape from combat tended to emerge
in fits of anger, usually after the third martini. Suddenly he would become a different person—angry, loud, wild-eyed. Mother called these drunken tantrums “the escape of the lout.” She hated these non-U outbursts, and over the years decided, as his career spun downward and their marriage crumbled, that the lout was the real him.

I don't really know what, if anything, the ghosts of dead or mutilated classmates had to do with the first step in Father's self-destruction, but it began with something he did at the Plantation. The training course for apprentice spies was a game, something like military maneuvers, with a clueless rabble of students pitted against a disciplined, battle-tested Wehrmacht of instructors in a series of exercises that the Wehrmacht always won. The pedagogical goal was to teach the students, through repeated failure and humiliation and constructive criticism, to learn from their mistakes, and like children learning to talk, to master tradecraft by absorption rather than by precept.

The emphasis was on the tried-and-true: proven methods brought desired results, reckless innovation bred disaster. The final exercise in the cycle was a mock operation in which the students attempted to penetrate a Wehrmacht target and neutralize it without arousing suspicion. It was a given that the students would fail to achieve this impossible objective, be captured by the Wehrmacht, be interrogated with realistic brutality, and in some cases be broken and give up their service, their country, and their honor, and be weeded out before it was too late.

For my father, this contrived failure, this suspension of his natural worth, no matter how brief, was a bitter pill to swallow. His upbringing and his education had endowed him with a belief in his own value, in his natural invulnerability. No one could be his puppeteer, no one could touch him without his permission—especially not those who were not his equals and could never be his equals. The instructors, or some of them, affected the manner of the underworld: tough talk, uncouth accents, Neanderthal politics, contempt for hapless rich kids, a manner
that suggested that their street smarts were a hell of a lot more useful than the dead language of literacy the neophytes had learned in Ivy League classrooms.

Father, along with other students—these young men were not where they were because they were stupid—understood that the outcome was designed to humble the students. He decided to teach the instructors a lesson about the danger of making false assumptions. What happened next became part of Headquarters lore. Under Father's leadership, a core of the smartest students turned themselves into a gang and put together an operational plan to turn the tables on the instructors. In a preemptive strike, the students captured the instructors, interrogated them, broke a couple of them, and infuriated all the rest.

The chief instructor, a revered figure who had done great things behind enemy lines in World War II, was gagged and tied to a chair and denied bathroom privileges, a standard interrogation technique. He fouled his pants. When his gag was removed he shouted that Father had a lot to learn about playing the game. With maddening insouciance Father replied that the chief instructor had just learned that playing the game was a matter of not always playing the game.

This anecdote was passed on to me years later by a lofty superior, a friend and admirer of the chief instructor, who had known Father at the Plantation and who had prudently refused to take part in the coup Father engineered. Father himself never mentioned the episode to me, or for that matter, anything else having to do with his work. His early education had taught him to keep secrets from those who had no natural right to know them.

Father's schoolboy prank, which placed so many assumptions in question, split Headquarters into two camps. The old guard wanted to fire him and blackball him from all other employment that normally was reserved for men of his social class in the outside world. The positive thinkers and those with a sense of humor, a minority at Headquarters but
at the time a powerful one because it included an imaginative director, thought that Father was exactly the kind of young fellow Headquarters needed—unafraid and smart and daring and, above all, creative.

He was retained, even promoted a little ahead of time. Had he been as smart as his admirers thought he was, he would have at that point resigned with his laurels intact and gone back to the real world. Apparently he liked the glow he now gave off as a result of his wonderful joke, because he elected to remain inside. This was a fateful decision. For the rest of his career his admirers pushed him into assignments where they believed he would shine. But when he got to where he was going, the chief of station almost always was an avenger of the chief instructor who saw Father's arrival in his shop as an opportunity to put out the bastard's lights.

Consequently, Father never became the star at Headquarters or in the field that he had been for that brief moment at the Plantation, or before that in college, home, and school. It is difficult to pinpoint the reasons why a man who seems destined to succeed fails to live up to expectations. Father could have dispelled the mystery by telling his own rollicking story at dinner parties, but he never emerged from his tomb of discretion to set the record straight.

Never apologize, never explain,
he counseled me, his only child, over and over again. I listened to this precept, and as you will learn, it cost me, in the end, almost as much as it had cost him.

My mother also paid a steep price for his folly. She married Father expecting to become, in due course, the wife of the Director, dining with the world's most powerful men and playing bridge and gossiping on the telephone with their wives. It was Father's fault that this did not happen. He had misled her into marriage, he had betrayed her in a way that was a hundred times worse than adultery. Obviously he had something wrong with him, a skeleton in his closet, a genetic defect he had failed to disclose to her. He was imperfect. He had hidden this from her. He
deserved no sympathy. The important thing to her, the central fact of her life, was her own crushing disappointment.

Another of my superiors, who had known Father in his youth and afterward shunned him as damaged goods, summed it up with cruel brevity.

“Your old man,” he said, “was all sizzle and no steak.”

Maybe so.

Father was what he was, and like so many others in all walks of life, he is remembered for his worst or best moments, depending on your point of view. He was living proof that there are no second acts in American lives. If in fact he was incompetent except for that one brief Fitzgeraldian flash of brilliance when he was twenty-three years old, he had plenty of company.

My own experience of the world of intelligence and the wider world is this: 90 percent of the workforce feigns effort, and of the 10 percent who do put their hearts and minds into the job, no more than one in ten is any damn good.

My own ambition—and I had no illusions about my chances of success—was to do one great thing to clean up Father's reputation before I used up my life and its opportunities.

Like father, like Quixote.

Father crashed and burned for good when he was about twenty years into his blighted career. His own opportunities, as we have seen, were severely limited. Over time, his fitness reports portrayed his work as acceptable, nothing more, and he had risen in rank in step with those findings. Promotion at Headquarters tends to be fairly rapid in the early years. Headquarters does not use military rank, but most intelligence officers (there were very few women on board in Father's time) reach a level equivalent to the military rank of major by their early thirties. Some advance to the equivalent of colonel around their fortieth birthday, and then, for most, promotion stops.

At forty-five Father was posted to Moscow, an assignment in which he had almost no chance of succeeding. He spoke no Russian and had no background in Soviet affairs or expertise in communism, which he regarded as a sham religion, modeled on Christianity, that was mainly interested in controlling the poor as a means of accumulating wealth.

At the time, Father's civil service pay grade was that of a lieutenant colonel, the tombstone rank of officers who are neither successes nor failures. The Moscow assignment would be his last before he was shooed out the door. He knew this, and the knowledge that the end was in sight plunged him into a midlife crisis. He who had once, long ago, been a somebody in the fabulous somewhere of his famous university, had become a nobody. His colleagues regarded him as a drone. His wife treated him as if he were invisible and hadn't granted him access to her body in fifteen years. Other Headquarters wives, who seemed to smell this rejection upon him, treated him like a eunuch. His friends had surpassed him and fallen away.

He and his only son, myself, had barely a nodding acquaintance. I imagine him, three sheets to the wind after the fourth martini and all alone in his bugged, shabby, underheated Moscow flat, uttering a loud
Fuck it!
into the empty air and deciding to wing it in whatever time and identity he had left.

In the months that followed, he drank too much at diplomatic receptions and often showed up at the office smelling of booze and seemingly incapacitated by hangovers. The chief of station ignored him but sometimes gave him a meaningless assignment. When tasked to meet a potential asset, a female Muslim from Kazakhstan in whom the station had no real interest, he embraced her on the street and kissed her moistly on the cheeks and (or so it was said) squeezed her left breast. She fled in outrage and was never seen again.

He slept with the first sparrow, or trained sex specialist, the KGB put in his way, and was photographed by hidden cameras committing Kama
Sutraian acts with her and two of her coworkers, one of whom was male. Father himself told me this story during the brief moments toward the end of his life when after years of estrangement, we became friends. After the encounter with the sparrows, he knew that he had not seen the last of the KGB. In his fertile mind, a plan took shape—he would entrap the Russians who were trying to entrap him. In one last prank, he would turn the tables on them and on his own service and make his enemies at Headquarters shit

He began to take long, lonely nighttime walks, knowing that the Russians would take notice and see an opportunity. They would follow him, watch him, and in due course attempt to hook him. What fun.

To record the approach of the apparatchiks, he wired and miked himself and wore on his tie clip a tiny camera that took clear pictures in very dim light. All of this gear was his own property, not the station's. He had bought it in a spyware store in a Virginia mall before leaving for Moscow. His plan worked. He was followed, monitored, watched by teams of sidewalk men wearing overcoats that resembled grocery bags with sleeves attached and fur hats like sawed-off shakos pulled down to their eyebrows. In his who-gives-a-shit state of mind, all this amused him tremendously. His intention, fueled by alcohol and disdain for his tormentors at Headquarters and the sheer boredom of having operated at 10 percent of capacity for twenty years, was that this joke would be the way his world would end: not with a howl but with a giggle.

BOOK: The Mulberry Bush
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