Authors: Charles McCarry
“Have some green tea,” Burbank said, pouring the acrid stuff into the bowls. “It’s a good pick-me-up.” He lifted the white napkin. “We have carrots and celery. And what’s this? Tangerine segments.”
Was he a vegetarian? For me, this was breakfast. The bitter tea did in fact shock the nervous system and clear the mind. Burbank ate the crunchy tasteless food with real appetite. For some reason, this was sort of touching. To my surprise, I realized that I was beginning to like him. We chewed and drank in silence, a great blessing. After the repast, Burbank—how can I put it?—withdrew into himself. I don’t want to fancify. He didn’t exactly go into a trance, but he was no longer fully present. His eyes were open but unseeing. I thought he might be meditating—it fitted in with the vegetarianism. He remained in this suspended state for several minutes. I didn’t want to stare at him, so I looked at the pictures on the wall, and thinking hard, remembered the names of three or four of the ex-directors in the portraits. I counted the safes. There were 216 of them—three triple-deck rows of 72 each. Did they all have the same combination? Unlikely. But how could even Burbank remember all the different ones, and why didn’t he just store his data on thumb drives, and lock them all up in a single safe?
Burbank opened his eyes and closed my file with a thump and came to the point. He said, “Tell me exactly what happened on your night on the Yangtze. No detail is too small.”
I complied, leaving nothing out.
When I was done, he said, “Have you asked yourself the reason why?”
“Of course I have.”
“I haven’t a clue.”
“But you do. They said they were teaching you a lesson.”
“On somebody’s else’s behalf, yes?”
“That was the implication.”
“Does this not suggest that you have offended someone?”
“That’s one of the possibilities.”
“What are the other possibilities?”
“That the guys who did this don’t like foreigners, especially Americans. That they’re crazy or under discipline. That they were just having fun on their day off. That they had made a bet. That they were high. That it was a case of mistaken identity. That all of the above apply. Shall I go on?”
Burbank, gazing into space, considered my words for a long moment. Then he said, “In other words, the whole thing makes no sense.”
“You shrug,” Burbank said. “Shrugs are the sign language of defeat. They get you nowhere.”
True enough. I said, “So what’s the alternative?”
He tapped on his desk with a forefinger. “In this work there’s only one requirement, and it always applies. Take everything seriously. There is always a reason.”
“Always. Our job is to look for the reason, discover the reason, overcome the threat.”
“To what purpose?”
“Usually the issue is tiny,” Burbank said. “But in certain cases it is an acorn that contains an oak. I don’t know how these acrobats, as you call them, could have made that any plainer, or how they could have had any purpose apart from making you understand that this was your last chance, and the next time they come for you, you’ll die. Don’t you want to know why before it’s too late?”
The answer was, Not really. What I wanted to do was go back to Shanghai, find the tenor, and throw
in the river. This did not seem to be the right answer, so I said nothing. Neither, for the moment, did Burbank. He looked beyond me, apparently lost in thought. I guessed that this was part of the technique. The stillness accumulated. Certainly this man had no need to gather his thoughts or choose his words. Even on short, uncomfortable acquaintance I thought his mind was quicker than his behavior suggested, and far more capacious. I was quite sure that mental copies of everything stored in the 216 safes were filed away in the appropriate pigeonholes in his brain. I waited. This interview had already gone on for more than an hour. The strain of keeping myself in the tilted chair was taking its toll. My legs quivered. Abruptly I stood up, staggered a little.
Burbank registered no surprise. He said, “Why don’t you take a little walk to the end of the room and back?” Limping slightly at first, I did as he suggested. When I was back in front of his desk, he said, “Do you need a break?” I shook my head, turned the chair around and straddled it, my arms folded across the back. This made it much easier to keep from sliding off. Burbank’s expression did not change. He made no comment.
As if the conversation had never been interrupted, he said, “You haven’t answered my question.”
“I’m not sure there is an answer.”
Burbank said, “You don’t like questions. This has shown up in your polygraphs.”
“And what does that suggest to you?”
“It suggests, among other possibilities, that you aren’t easily intimidated. That you’re your own man. That you see no need to impress others.”
to be clumsy?
Burbank smiled as though he read the thought. “That seems to be your most noticeable characteristic,” he said, pouring it on. “Nearly everyone we interviewed remarked on it.” He pointed at the chair. “For example, no one else has ever turned that stupid chair around as you just did, even though it’s the obvious thing to do.”
I was surprised no one had ever hit him over the head with it, but again I was discreet enough to keep what I hoped was a poker face. Burbank was doing the same, of course, because his masklike mien seemed to be pretty much the only facial expression he had.
“Now I want you to put cynicism aside for the moment,” he said, “and listen to what I have to say to you.”
I lifted a hand an inch or so: be my guest. It was a disrespectful gesture. Burbank ignored the lèse-majesté and went on.
“I want to put an idea into your head,” he said. “What happened to you in Shanghai is significant whether you think so or not or will admit it or not. This is just a proposal for you to consider, no need to say yes or no right now. I have something in mind for you. If you decide to do it, you alone will be the agent of your fate. You will have to be smart enough to get the job done and strong enough, callous enough to live with it. People might die, I will not lie to you. And in a sense you would have to give your life to it also. I don’t mean that it’s likely you’d die like the others, just that this project would take years, almost certainly many years.”
“May I ask who the ones who are going to die might be?”
“Enemies of mankind. You may think what happened the other night is trivial, but believe me when I tell you it is the seed of something that can be large indeed.”
“Like what, exactly?”
“You’ll know more when you need to know it. Nobody but you and me—nobody—will have knowledge of this operation. Ever. You will work for no one but me, report to no one but me, answer to no one but me.”
I didn’t know what to say to all that, so for once I wasn’t tempted to say anything.
For a long moment, neither did Burbank. Then he said, “Do you know what a dangle is?”
“You bait a hook and hope the adversary takes the lure.”
“And I’m the lure?”
“I’ve been looking for a long time for someone I thought could handle this, waiting for the opening,” Burbank said. “I believe you can handle it, and I also think no one else can.”
He did? Talk about the chance of a lifetime. I said, “Why?”
“Because you’re a good fit,” Burbank said. “Because you keep interesting company. Because mainly you tell the truth if you know it, you’re brave even if you choose to deny it, you have a good ear for difficult languages, you’re arrogant but you try not to let it show. People trust you—especially a certain kind of woman. Most importantly, if I understand what you’ve half-told me, you seem to have died at least twice, or thought you did, and you didn’t care. That’s a rare thing. There’s one more reason, out of your past.”
“You want to be the starting running back, as you deserve to be.”
I was out of Burbank’s office
in seconds, out of the building in minutes. It was a Friday. Sally had told me as she took me down in the elevator that Burbank had mentioned that I might want to spend the weekend with my mother in Connecticut, then on Tuesday call a different number at a different hour. I called Mother on the way to the airport. Her voice rose by a tone or two when she heard my voice. For her this was the equivalent of a shriek of delight. She collected me at the train station. I was glad of the chance to be back in the country. Summer was coming in, everything was in leaf and color. I breathed more deeply than usual, as if inhaling my native air awakened some earlier self. Mother seemed glad enough to see me. She smiled at me, rose on tiptoes and kissed me on the cheek. She smelled, as always, of expensive perfume and makeup. In the car she behaved as if I were home from school, asking no questions about where I had been or what I had seen in the last year and a half. She drove her coughing twenty-year-old Mercedes with competence. She talked about her forgetful sister, about the wretched political slough America had become with everyone, even the children, turning into bloody-minded bigots, about a grocery store (“It couldn’t be nicer!”) she had discovered across the state line in Massachusetts that had wonderful produce and excellent fish and very nice cheeses. She was still pretty and slim and dressed by Bergdorf. She had no news. She knew only six people in town by first and last name. Nearly everyone she had known had died or been locked up in a nursing home. She had lived alone since my stepfather died. His name did not arise. Nor did my natural father’s name, but he had been absent from her conversation for many years. It had taken her about three days after the funerals to forget her late husbands—probably even less time in my father’s case. Men died and ceased to be useful, women lived on. Once a protector could no longer protect, though he was still expected to provide, what was the use of thinking about him? As far as I knew she did not have lovers, but how would I know? Remembering the sounds of frolic that issued from the master bedroom when she and my stepfather were together, I reserved judgment.
I soon fell in with Mother’s routine. By day I went for walks so as to breathe as much of the crystalline air as possible. In the evening we read a lot—companionably, each of us in a favorite chair under a good lamp, Mother with her Kindle, me with a thriller from long ago I found in my room. Since my stepfather’s departure, Mother had had no television set or radio. She disliked the news, abominated sitcoms and cop shows, thought that pop music was noise. The food was excellent. We made our own breakfasts, always the rule in this house, and a taciturn young woman, a recovering crack addict who had been a chef before she crashed, came in and made the other two meals and put the dishes in the dishwasher. A second woman, a cheerful Latina, came in daily, even on Sunday, and did the housework. On Monday, when Mother and I said good-bye, she patted my cheek. Her eyes were misty. This was not exactly a surprise. Though she had never said so, I knew she had affection for me in spite of the fact that I was my father’s child.
Late Tuesday afternoon, from Reagan National Airport, I made the call I had been instructed to make at the minute I was supposed to make it. Same routine at the other end, but this time in Sally’s voice. She told me exactly where to wait for my ride. The car that came for me was a gleaming black Hyundai, the luxury model. Remembering the battered motorpool Chevy and Sally’s motorized garbage can, I didn’t think this could be my ride, but it was and it was as shipshape inside as out. The driver was Burbank himself, who maneuvered through rush-hour traffic to Arlington National Cemetery without speaking a word and parked in an isolated lot. It was too hot to walk among the headstones on this day in early June. Leaving the engine running so that the air-conditioning would go on working, he cleared his throat and in his rumbling basso asked the question.
“Yes or no?”
I said, “Yes.”
Burbank said, “You understand what you’re getting yourself into?”
“I know what you told me.”
He handed me an envelope. I didn’t open it.
He said, “Go back to Shanghai. Finish your language immersion. Will a year be enough?”
“A lifetime probably wouldn’t be enough, but my Mandarin should get better if I can keep the teacher I have.”
“On the basis of the benefits so far, why would you do anything else?”
From another, larger envelope he handed me a blue-backed contract. “This changes your status from staff agent to contract agent,” he said. “From now on you’ll be working outside, under cover, on your own except for your case officer, me. The contract provides for a one-grade promotion, so you’ll be making a little more money. You’ll still receive overseas pay and the same allowances, so you should be rolling in dough. If you continue to do well, more promotions will follow. You can also be summarily dismissed, but that’s always been so. Read before signing.”
The contract was addressed to me in my funny name, the one I had been assigned for internal use only after my swearing-in. I asked about retirement and medical benefits.
“Nothing changes except the title. Contract agents cannot mingle with the people inside. In theory they cannot
inside. It will be as I told you. No one but me even has a need to know who you are or what you’re up to. You’ll be alone in the world.”
Just what I always wanted. I said, “One small question. What about the tenor and his friends?”
“Next time you’ll see them coming.”
“Evade or kill.”
“Are you serious?”
“Everyone has a right to defend himself.”
“I am unarmed and outnumbered.”
“That may not always be the case. Buy what you need and expense it as taxi fares.”
I read the contract twice and signed it. We talked a bit more. Burbank told me to stop e-mailing Tom Simpson and write to him, Burbank, instead, on the seventeenth day of every month. His name for this purpose was Bob Baxter—impromptu cover names like this one, don’t ask me why, almost always began with the same first letter of the owner’s true surname. In the envelope I found a list of new wild cards. Also my e-ticket and ATM and credit cards on a bank different from the one I had been using. I was to go back to Shanghai tonight and go on as before, living the life I had lived, playing the amiable dumb shit, hanging out with the Chinese, absorbing as much Mandarin as possible, staying away from other Americans and Europeans, especially Russians and Ukrainians and people like that.