Harker piled cold Thai noodles from the buffet table onto his plate and spoke to my shadow on the wall.
“I am not going to let some old, dead triceratops and his Barney Rubble golden-boy gone rogue topple my Agency over some useless secret to some forgotten Malaysian conspiracy of thirty-three fucking years ago. Guess what—?"
I don’t need to guess. Barney Rubble never had a triceratops. He had a saber-toothed tiger and a pink prehistoric lobster grass-clipper.
…were I to stoop to Harker’s level and engage in guesswork (inappropriate for this deadly game we’re players in), I’d say, if he means anything, he means Baby Bop. That strange green little tri-top who hung out with the big purple T-Rex crooner of “Wheels on the Bus” fame. Squeaky-voiced like our Jessie, with whom I watched that cloying sing along as I’d rope my tie around my neck before I’d head to headquarters and, at the end of my gibbet, kick out the legal paperwork that keeps the illegal business of the CIA in lawful accord with our Constitution.
Jeremy Harker III executed a kind of King of Pop spin and singled me out, eyes behind gunmetal glasses, small and brown, that might as well have been the nubs of two bullets inside the cylinder and me staring up the dull muzzle of his nose.
“Not going to happen while I’m director of Central Intelligence,” he said.
Let’s be honest, Mads, he’s acting director. And not very well at that. His main focus these days Arthur Murray lessons twice weekly at a Tysons Corner mini mall.
“Dance and golf have a symbiotic relationship,” he tells me ten days ago as I collide with him and his missus. They heading out of the dance studio as you, I, and the kids headed into the India Clay Pot for curry.
The both of us—Harker and I—somnambulists in our belief that Southeast Asia rested safely folded at the back of the “been there, done that, bought the concert T-shirt” drawer of our Agency lives. But a spymaster’s murder, the loss of seven agent networks, and a coded message out of Malaysia from a long-forgotten agent ooh-gahed our klaxon and—moving too fast to your won’t-be-bothered-by-foreign-civil-war suggestion I might want to “Grab a fun T-shirt and those Patagonia fly-fishing shorts Jessie picked out for you last Christmas”—I pulled that drawer off its rails.
Tumbled concert T-shirts stared at me like a penilik nasib’s soothsaying portents. Their words, the exact timeline to all that would transpire: U2: Rock the Vote, Journey: Frontiers, Wham! The Dark Side of the Moon, and The Rolling Stones: Bridges to Babylon.
My mood not on doom, I missed the prophetic headlines, grabbed a shirt from the pile, and raced for Harker’s aircraft.
As usual, I stumble ahead of myself. It’s ten years and two children since my aborted suicide. Passing fifty after blowing through every stop sign of my forties, I strove to do right by my family only to discover striving became the thing I did most and best and I missed the effortless love staring me in my face. I neglected to cherish the gentle affection I received, and I never shifted a backward glance to understand why.
“Scratchy…” Jessie’s enjoyment of rubbing her hand up my cheek against the day’s stubble, then down, “Smooooth,” and I’d tuck her into bed.
Lots of love, the three of you. Though I now know you, dear Madeline, had more to give.
You tell me I’m maturing and better-looking than ever. I appreciate that. You point out that my eyes are still youthful and deep. My vision remains better than perfect at 20/15—I can read a freeway sign a quarter mile away like a hawk sees its dinner mouse from the sky—and my once unsettling crooked smile has lost its serial-killer leer (your tease, Mads, not mine) to become fully bemused, drawing people to me who want in on the joke, you not knowing that the joke is “bemused” has nothing to do with amusement and everything to do with my daily and constant ritual confusion.
I’ve lost fifty percent of my hair without noticing until after it was gone. My body—Corpus delicti—when I look in the mirror sags a bit too much everywhere and surely can’t belong to the me I remember I wanted to be and imagined I would. When I lie in bed to work a crossword, I stare at the backs of my hands. The skin so wrinkled and loose. My index finger creased and crinkled as an elephant’s trunk. When did the two or three brown spots decide to show up and ruin an enjoyable puzzle? It’s ten spots. I’m lying. As usual.
What was the first Muir Rule of Thumb—or Stare Decisis, binding precedent, to my legal mind? “Don’t trust a lie I tell unless you can make it true.”
Where am I? My mind keeps running away from my fingers as I type at Mach 1, claustrophobic among the clouds. Ah, right. Our Malaysia problem. The acting director (acting because the new president, dumb as they make him out, is not so dumb as to make Harker’s position permanent) Nureyeving from the buffet. Nervy and making me nervous.
The nerve of him.
“You’re sitting there like an idiot,” Harker said to me, jolting my attention back from its verbal gear-stripping, back to the DCI’s (Director Central Intelligence) Seventh Floor Conference Room.
Harker’s room as of fifteen weeks and four days ago when he foxtrotted in as acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency and, first order of business, added the daily buffet he’d been whining about since the day in ’91 Nathan Muir turned Operation SIDESHOW (Harker’s plan to let Tom Bishop be executed in China) into Operation DINNER OUT (Muir’s plan not to). The day when former Director Folger made the mistake of ordering in lunch as a way to keep Muir a pinned butterfly in a bell jar. This allowed Muir—retired with prejudice that morning from his forty-plus years as an ops officer and agent runner—full access to Agency headquarters.
Stare Decisis: Never let Nathan Muir flap butterfly wings inside Langley if you don’t want a tsunami on the other side of the globe.
“Huh?” I said.
“To repeat. You are sitting there, Aiken, like an idiot.”
"Yes, ‘sitting,’ sir, but idiot—no. Ing. Sir,” trying my hardest not to sound idiotic, which I always achieve—one or the other. I fixed him with my blandest stare.
Ballroom dancing is officially a fad.
I hate fads.
I hate Harker.
“Yet you are the only one, Aiken, who can get this job done.”
“I’m not sure I follow. This ‘what-job’?”
He hates me. Entirely.
If I hadn’t indemnified the Agency from the Charlie March murder ten years ago, legally hiding the secret of that former and still-pretended hero of the CIA’s treason; if I hadn’t secured the now deceased Muir’s early retirement after proving he engineered March’s assassination hands-free, legalesing our way out of the way of Executive Order 11905, which specifically forbids the Agency from engaging in political assassination, I wouldn’t be here these past ten years, papering dubious operations of doubtful results in the CIA Office of General Counsel.
Yes—sorry, Mads. I’m sure you caught that—Nathan Muir is dead.
I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you. It remains classified, but there’s no way to unwrite those words any more than God can unwrite an event. So, if you want to read further, you must trust me it’s happened—he is dead (Muir, not God, I hope)—and he was murdered. Trust that this meeting I was “idioted” in determined the culprit, and the culprit is who we’ve expected would kill him these ten long-and-misplaced, happily-sad spent years since promised and sworn to on our very own doorstep, July 4, 1991.
“Tell Nathan when you see him: if he did this, I’m going to kill him.” Patricide.
Or, in reproductive respects—or I suppose, “disrespect”—when Tom Bishop pulled the trigger, Muir murdered himself.
“I’m sending you to Malaysia. The job: you sort out this Bishop mess.”
“Not something I care to lawyer for you, Acting Director.”
“And this isn’t your campus law society. You don’t get a vote.”
"Conflict of interest,” I pointed out. “Entirely in my favor.”
“You’re not getting me, Aiken. I’m putting you in the field. Your dream job. ‘Transfer Request to Clandestine Services’: Approved."
He gave me his Gum-Gum with the Flavor-Flavor Chiclets teeth smirk.
Approved. My-my, glad you could get to it. After twenty eight years.
But my interest was piqued and, gray ambitions whoofed off in dustmotes from the cover of my life story, I heard myself saying, “That transfer permanent—not just this one field trip? I’ll have that to do this. Otherwise, I walk, and you can keep your Malaysian disruption, Muir’s burned foreign networks, and your Tom Bishop thorn snug in your paw.”
I clapped my hands and spread them palms up like a Vegas dealer to the eye-in-the-sky cameras—nothing to hide—God’s and Androcles’ honest truth.
Never in a million years Harker goes for this. Pension time, here we come. Not a moment too soon.
Harker’s smile shrunk to a furious butt-pucker as dry and loathsome as pumice. Harker did the impossible. He bobbed his head yes. “Permanent,” he said, using the same inflection a cobra uses to spit.
I had stopped applying for the lateral move across directorates five years ago after Harker hadn’t even bothered to deny the last one. I was hit by a high-velocity thought. The only reason Harker would hold on to my transfer request would be to one day use it to ruin me.
A “The-thea the-thea the tha-that’s all, Folks!” fade out for me.
“Thank you,” I said, best of enemies. “I’ll draft the paperwork to that effect as soon as we’re finished here. I look forward to a long and healthy career in the Directorate of Operations.” I gave him my most open-faced smile, but I’m as good as pulled-pork Looney-Tuned sandwich-pig dead.
Harker slurped a noodle. Tiny drops of peanut sauce flicked off its tail and only now does clarity arrive too late and too violent in its revelation of how this whole disaster worked its way into Harker’s best day ever: get rid of the last two (me and Bishop) of the three reminders (Muir, third, dead, off the chessboard) of his DINNEROUT/SIDESHOW blunder in which Muir prevented the execution of his CIA officer son and his son’s Crown Colony Hong Kong-British activist wife by rendering an unsanctioned CIA rescue of the pair from China.
Beside me at the conference table sat Harker’s deputy director, Meryl Hofmeyr. “For you, hmm.” She slid me the pre-drafted transfer paperwork.
Yeah, one f and no e. Explain that to two wiener companies. Hoffy, Oscar Meyer? Jessie devours them both when I grill.
“Is a hot dog a sandwich?” I mumbled, grasping for bricks, sticks, or straws.
Can’t stay away from the crosswords at cross purposes. Always been this way. I hear words, speak them, write ’em, read ’em, and especially think them across and down.
Sanctified and forgiven.
Or not, depending what I’ve deified. Words? Concepts? Constructs? God? Is it He in the detail or the devil? Far as I’m concerned, the devil never even lived. It’s all God, and God only exists in cognition, and cognition can only be deciphered through language that pins meaning to slithering life. My ouroboros. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Don’t nod, Mads.
Crosswords at cross purposes and the letter boxes, ependymal cells fill the grid of the four ventricles of my puzzled brain. The impenetrable black spaces ever-growing. F-U-N—as Arthur Wynne, inventor of the first crossword, chose the word to begin the neurosis I alternately chase or hide with every word I hope-hype-type.
Meryl, like Harker, is one of those whom Muir dubbed the“Young Turks.” Those CIA wonks who came in after the fall of the Iron Curtain to clear out the Cold Warriors. To look forward. Modernize. To www-dot everything possible with Spiderman slung accuracy. You met her once. Said she reminded you of a Teletubby. Laa-Laa. The yellow one. And not merely the look, the up-the-forehead curl of her bangs, but the funny little encouraging squeaks and hums she makes while you’re speaking with her; whirs she peppers her speech with as if trying to encourage herself to sneeze. As lifelong president of the Contrarian Society, Meryl Hofmeyr contemplates in those deceitful myna bird calls how to gain personal power and professional control from opposing what she’s pretending to haw to with the fatuous abandon of Laa-Laa bouncing her oversized orange ball.
“I’ll write myself an OPLAN,” I said.
“Ah-ah-ahhh—Russell.” Meryl chuckled. “Now that you are Ops, mmm, you’ll see we don’t really do this that way. You knooow, an OPLAN for the tiniest of whats? A Pony Express delivery? Officer to officer, hand to hand, no foreign involvement to finger the baton you’re trading off?” she tsk-tsked her tongue. “Not truly an op in need of a plan, now, seeing it that way, no?” She bore into me with a stern look.
I puttied my face with smugness, thinking verbal tics might be better named Tic-Tacs, their confectioning of language squarely identified as confection.
“Russell, Director Harker just tossed you off your law books. You’ll take a vacation from ‘on the record’ with this one.”
“Get out of here, Aiken,” Harker said. “I’ve got as much need for you remaining in this room as I do a big third tit.”
Didn’t know Harker sized his other two.
“Go home. Pack your toothbrush. Kiss your kids and make love to your wife. In two hours, your butt’s on my Citation X to Malaysia.”
Does Harker know five percent of women grow aberrant breast tissue in their axilla—their armpits—and in rarer cases the scapula, the thigh, and the labia majora? So, nippled or not, a woman can grow four to ten boobs. How’s that for a fun time? Harker—who has none—claims two and claims he doesn’t want a third because he hates me in his sight. Now that anyone can get ’em, tits might be a fad too.
I hate fads and the tit growing inside my skull.
Should’ve been a doctor if I’d known there was so much comedy in the human body. Once, a guy had five testicles. Proven fact.
“Splendid,” I said. “Of course, sir, your aircraft can’t make Malaysia in the time required. Short on speed by about fifty mph, time loss multiplied over distance.”
Silence around the table, which included Bill Carver (deputy director, Forensic Investigation, Office of Security) and three of his CIA detective investigators who put together the case against Bishop, plus two senior East Asian analysts who work the Malaysia Section for the Directorate of Intelligence. Had I gone too far? I’m sure I’d kept the tits and testicles comment utterly benign in my head. 99.99 percent sure, as benign goes.
One of the Malay Section boys came to my defense. “He is correct, sir. Also, your jet’s a bit short on range. Just saying.”
“This isn’t your concern, Dr. Zhou. You fucking figure it out, Aiken. Just get there.”
I got as far as the door. “One more thing. With or without an OPLAN, won’t I need orders cut for Bishop? Or a warrant? Something to get him back?”
“Bishop is rogue and running from a murder. Paper won’t cut it with him. You’re the only person in the Agency he trusts. If he shows himself to anyone, it’s going to be you, and it won’t be about coming back."
Or end as non-lethal as a paper cut.
Six days ago, all of Muir’s former agent networks short-circuited. Blacked out like bright-burst flashbulbs across the globe. Over fifty of our foreign agents. Arrested? Dead? Running scared…? No idea. Just gone.
Five days since Tom Bishop reappeared in Kosovo after vanishing rogue two years ago on the first anniversary of the death of his wife.
It’s four days since Nathan Muir’s murder.
It’s three days since Bishop was given both Harker’s “all is forgiven” and my last allowed CONPLAN, which sent him back into the field and into a budding Malaysian civil war.
Two days since Bishop went rogue. Again.
And twelve hours since it’s been settled that Tom Bishop murdered his father, Nathan Muir.