Authors: Charles McCarry
The idea that our side or their side might kill me never crossed my mind. If I became a problem, Burbank and Chen Qi (I had gone so far as to begin thinking of the two of them as a unit before I buried the thought) would just cut me loose. I could do them no harm. Fox News or the
New York Times
would hang up on me if I called and babbled the truth. A psychiatrist would put me on drugs. I’d live in a virtual world—or in the real one in case I had already been living in a virtual one. No one in Headquarters or Chen Qi’s corporation or Guoanbu or any other intelligence service in the world would have anything to do with me. Hardly anyone at Headquarters even knew me. Those who did (remember the Gang of Thirteen) did not wish me well. They would be the Greek chorus: “There was always something funny about the guy. We all saw it even if the shrinks and the box missed it.” I certainly couldn’t count on the brave support of my few remaining friends on the outside. And wait a minute. “No fear of sudden death?” Did I not remember Magdalena? Oh, yes, I remembered her. But if she had been under instructions to kill me, she had already had a hundred opportunities. Had I been the target, I would not now be alive and trying to figure out what she was up to and whom she worked for. She got next to Mother, then next to me because she wanted access to someone I could get next to. But who? And why?
I told myself a lot of things. The fact was, when it came right down to it, I would go on doing the job no matter what, simply because I didn’t want to walk out before this movie was over, no matter how bad it was. Not that there weren’t worrisome signs I was loath to discuss with myself. For example, resentment was taking up more and more space in my mind. And you know what Burbank had to say about that.
Most of the above were night thoughts fueled by single malt whisky. In daylight I controlled my fantasies and waited for instructions. These were not long in coming. Late on a Friday afternoon, as everyone else headed for the parking lots, Burbank buzzed. It was the first time he had done so since we had our discussion about my meeting with Chen Qi and Lin Ming two weeks before. When I entered his office to return Mei’s file, I found him bent over a small refrigerator. He extracted two frosty bottles of beer. He gave me one. “Cheers,” he said. We clinked bottles and drank.
After a medium-long pause Burbank said, “You still have a phone number for your friend the basketball player?”
“If it still works, yes.”
“Call him up on your way home and set up a meeting for this weekend. In New York.”
I said, “What about Chen Qi?”
“He’s in Cairo.”
Chen Qi was in Cairo? Burbank read my thought, not that there was anything difficult about that.
“It’s probably just a coincidence,” Burbank said. “Business. But if it isn’t, he’ll walk into our surveillance and we’ll know something new.”
I asked what I was supposed to tell Lin Ming.
Burbank said, “What do you think you should tell him?”
“Why should we do that?”
“Because what they offer is of no use to us.”
Burbank lifted his beer bottle in another toast. “Right,” he said. “Isn’t it interesting how seeing the obvious makes things so much simpler?”
I said, “So now what?”
“So now you go to New York, meet Lin Ming, change the climate of your relationship with him.”
“How? In what way?”
“You say Chen Qi treated Lin Ming like a servant on the night of the blizzard, humiliating him. You saw that Lin Ming resented it.”
“Remember what I told you. Resentment makes things happen.”
Burbank’s lip lifted ever so slightly. He pointed a forefinger at me and clucked his tongue. I took this as positive reinforcement, as a reward for good thinking, as a sign of camaraderie. Or condescension.
I said, “You really think it’s possible to turn Lin Ming?”
“Didn’t you just suggest that it was?” Burbank said. “Maybe not this weekend but if you play him right, you can get the process started. As I hope you’re beginning to realize, these things take time. You know how to do it. Would you say that you and Lin Ming have the embryo of a relationship?”
“Are you sure? Will it grow, will its heart begin to beat, will it create its own brain and liver and arms and legs? Will it in time create others like itself?”
His face was a mask of earnestness. What was he up to? I laughed.
He said, “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I just didn’t know you had a metaphorical side.”
“Everyone has a metaphorical side. The question is, can you rattle his bones with a single question? Are you two friendly enough for that?”
He was grinning—a sight I had never seen before—and watching my reaction.
I said, “Maybe.”
“That’s the right answer,” Burbank said. And then, as if granting me permission to do something I absolutely longed to do, he said, “Okay, go. Go to it. Don’t fly. Take the next train. It will give you time to think.”
By the time
the Metroliner pulled into Penn Station I knew everybody in my car by sight. Walking out of the gate, I scanned the crowd: a buck-toothed girl hopping up and down in excitement, a Hasid who greeted another Hasid who had been sitting in the fifth-row window seat, a very short man with gym-rat biceps and a boxer’s flattened face. And at the back of the crowd, Lin Ming. Our eyes met. He turned around and walked fast across the waiting room. I followed him up the escalators and into the street, then uptown on Seventh Avenue to the Forties. He kept track of my reflection in store windows. I saw no one worth worrying about behind us or across the avenue or ahead of us, and no sign of the sidewalk crew. I wondered if we were headed for the Algonquin, but before we got there Lin Ming for some unfathomable reason walked into an all-night sporting goods store. He headed straight for a rack of warm-up jackets at the back of the store and got behind it. From there he had a good view of the door. The display window was a sheet of light. A stalker could look in, but Lin Ming could not look out. This made him nervous, very nervous. This person was not the relaxed Lin Ming I knew. How pleased Burbank would have been at this sudden change in behavior. I stationed myself on the other side of the clothes rack, facing Lin, my back to the door, as if screening him from a defender while he took his shot at the basket. I took a cheap Mets jacket off the rack, held it against my chest, and raised my eyebrows in inquiry. How do I look? Lin Ming paid no attention. He said, “Take the uptown local to Seventy-second Street and walk down to the river.” Then he left. I looked at two more jackets and tried on a Giants cap, then did as I had been instructed.
Forty minutes later, when I sighted Lin Ming, he was still on edge. You could sense a churning within him. A light breeze came off the Hudson. I could smell the river, glimpse New Jersey’s polluted sky, faintly hear its clamor over the monotonous hum of the West Side of Manhattan and the counterpoint of its many sirens. After a couple of blocks, Lin Ming turned into the park and found an empty bench. I sat down beside him. He didn’t flee.
In a voice I could barely hear he said, “Why are you here?”
“Because we have something to talk about,” I said.
“This is not good.”
“How do you know? We haven’t talked yet.”
Inasmuch as Lin Ming himself was nothing if not a devotee of the impromptu, this should have made the contact more interesting to him, but what did I know? No matter how good my Mandarin might be, I wasn’t Han and could not think like a Han no matter how hard I tried. We simply had different ways of thinking about thinking.
I said, “If you don’t want to do this, I can leave.”
“Too late,” Lin Ming said. “Say what you came to say.”
I did as he asked. Beside me in the half-dark, Lin Ming flinched. In the wash of the streetlamp he looked pale. He grew even more ashen as he listened to my words. Afterward he fell into a stillness. I waited for him to speak, to make a gesture, to leap to his feet and stalk away in anger, to pull out a stiletto and attempt to bury it in my heart or brain. Instead he remained as he was—speechless, inert. He leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs. His hands dangled between his knees. This pose of despair was as much out of character as the rest of his behavior. Was he acting, playing a scene? Making a joke of the whole thing? And if all this was genuine, how could Lin Ming of all people have believed that I had come to give him an answer different from the last one I had given him?
He muttered something. I said, “What? I didn’t hear you.” I spoke a little louder, a little more peremptorily than was absolutely necessary. This was method, one infinitesimal move in the reconfiguration of our relationship. He had to know this. It was a humiliation, however tiny. I felt a flicker of regret. I liked this man. I didn’t like what I was doing to him. He had had enough humiliation lately.
Lin Ming gave me a sidelong look. After a minute he leaped to his feet and walked, fast, toward the next streetlight. I caught up to him. Another empty bench came in sight. I took his arm, thinking that he would shake off my hand, but he let himself be steered to the bench. He sat down and turned his head to stare at me.
“Speak,” he said.
I told him what we wanted. Names, résumés, assessments of six high-quality targets within China, within the elite—perhaps within Guoanbu, though neither one of us would know about that. These people were so exalted that nobody less trustworthy than the ghost of Zhou Enlai would be cleared to possess such knowledge. Lin Ming did not flinch. What I had asked was too outrageous to register while my words still hung in the air.
Lin Ming laughed. In English he said, “You’ve got balls, I’ll give you that. Just as a matter of curiosity, what do you propose to give us in return?”
“The same valuable goods already on offer.”
“You’re crazy. You know who these people are—who their fathers are. They are untouchable.”
True. I didn’t even nod but waited for Lin Ming to go on.
He said, “What you’re offering us is chicken feed. One man in one embassy in return for the Party jewels? Be serious.”
“How do you know the man we are offering to you is the only one like him?” I asked. “How do you know it’s just one embassy? How do you know it’s not a network? How do you know what we know and you don’t know?”
“How do we know you know what you say you know?”
“You don’t. You won’t, either, unless you start playing ball.”
He smiled—you might have called it a twisted smile, but even so it made Lin Ming look more like himself. “I have already played basketball with you,” he said.
Without thinking I said, “Meaning what?”
“Meaning I know you are better than you pretend, that you can fake it when you feel like it,” Lin Ming said.
I had thought he might just walk away. He made no such move. He seemed to be waiting for something else. But I wasn’t going to request anything more and spoil things. I reached into my jacket pocket and showed him the brand-new cheapo cell phone I had bought for him.
I told him the number of my own brand-new phone. He committed it to memory, I could see him doing this. I said, “Give me a call when you’ve had time to think this over more carefully and realize just how much to your advantage it could be.”
Lin Ming knew exactly what was happening. If he took the phone he would take the first step toward life as a turncoat, because there was no conceivable way he could give me what I was asking for with the permission of his masters. He made no move to take the phone. I continued to offer it. He looked at the ground, he looked over my shoulder at the empty park. On the count of twenty he took the phone from my hand and hurried off into the darkness.
It was only eight o’clock.
I was hungry. I wanted to be with my own kind. I decided to drop in at the club. It was Friday again and I was dressed down like everyone else in this city and every other city in North America. Human beings cannot even go without a necktie unless they do it in unison. All mammals are the same—happiest when they all look alike, think alike, travel on well-trampled ground. Consider the wildebeests of the Serengeti, walking in their thousands around in the exact same semicircle season after season, all headed in the same direction, all eating the same grass, all watching placidly as reckless young nonconformists reject the blood wisdom of the herd and dash outside it to be killed and eaten by carnivores. I myself felt the pull of the herd. I hoped that Lin Ming would not feel it too strongly. Meanwhile, who knew, maybe I’d run into someone at the club who’d keep me company. On my first visit I had run into Alice Song, hadn’t I?
This time the street outside the club was deserted. Inside, the cocktail hour was over, so there were many fewer people in the bar than last time. Not a single woman was among them. There was no babble, no laughter. I recognized a face or two—half-drunk white-haired men with raddled cheeks and whiskey noses. Guillermo the barman was on duty. Clearly he had not memorized my face on our single meeting. I ordered a Belgian wheat beer and drank it and because I had come here in hope, waited for Alice to show up. She did not appear. If she did appear I was sure she would cut me cold. But that might not last. I could break the ice by telling her the truth and making her laugh: I was being followed on the night in question by sinister foreign agents who were always with me and my disappearance was my way of saving her from such evil company. Meanwhile I was still hungry. I asked Guillermo if the dining room was still open. He looked at his watch, nodded, and said, “Better hurry. It closes in ten minutes.”
The greeter was not happy to see me. No one was happy to see me today, almost certainly not even the phantasm I called Alice. Half a dozen tables were still occupied. White tablecloths, nice old silver cutlery engraved with the university crest. I ordered fettuccine Putanesca and a glass of a wine that the card on the table identified as Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The pasta wasn’t bad. I bolted it because I had had no other food that day and signed the chit. No one bothered me, but I had company of a kind in the pensioners across the room. We shared memories—the look and scent of the campus on the first warm day of spring and the delusion that the weather had always been like that, the drone of a lecturer, the sweet misery of hangovers. After only two visits I was beginning to like being a club member. It provided a sort of chaperoned aloneness that was new to me.