Muir’s Gambit

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Muir’s Gambit

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Charlie March is dead. On a day that promised perfection to the hero of the CIA, an eighteen-minute countdown was all he got to enjoy it once he turned the ignition key and sent an electric spark to his sailboat’s engine. He’d arrived early, first light golden upon the water, this second-to-last morning in September. Halyards clanged against masts like bells summoning the faithful. It was a habit he had, on days like that, to be first on the water, but even old age and retirement don’t assassin-proof spies.

Habits kill.

He backed his yacht from slip 29 at the Pelican Landing Marina in Key Largo, passed the jetty, and turned toward open sea. No hat was found. He’d never been a ball-cap kind of guy, having had a mane of tawny hair—stark white since he’d left the Agency—wild and thick, that precluded a hat’s sun-blocking necessity. He knew his hair made him look like a lion and he worked it just so.

Beneath all his soft genius, his crackerjack heroics, and courteous affability, March was a vain son of a bitch.

His old man’s stoop had yet to begin. It never would, but his arms were loose-skinned, stringy-muscled, age-blotched, and knobby-comical as he unfurled his main sail and fed it to the wind. He breathed deeply, thankful to be alive to experience this moment, the moment before his last when the bomb hidden aboard his boat exploded.

A Harbor Patrol skiff operated by two officers of the U.S. Coast Guard arrived at the wreckage less than ten minutes after the big ba-boom. One fished Charlie March’s body from the wreckage with a gaff and pulled it onto the deck. The other manned the helm and worked the radio.

Burned so badly as to be unrecognizable as himself or any of the countless men he’d posed as in life, Charlie March gurgled out, “Thank Nathan for me… Thank him and tell him that.”

“Tell him what, sir?”

“He never murdered a soul.”

“Who’s Nathan? We don’t know Nathan, sir. Did he do this to you?”

“Too old for this. Made a mistake.”

It does not matter what they asked him next. They have reported those questions, but March chose to stop speaking after the thing about “murder” and “mistake,” so their further interrogatory line is irrelevant to us and to my mission. With the realization he’d said too much, Charlie March waited for death. His large, dark eyes stared lucidly, if not downright defiantly, at the intrusive Coast Guardsman from a face charred black and flaking away in the wind like pieces of a trampled papier-mâché mask.

I’ve read somewhere that, even after the heart and lungs cease function, the brain continues a minute or two.

Mine, right now, pictures a French Revolution Madame La Guillotine and a pair of Madeline eyes blinking over the head-basket edge, full knowledge of what’s become severed from what.

So, though clinically dead, “Some shit way to go, man” were the last words of a last remark heard by a dead Charlie March, one Coast Guardsman to the other. Having lived the life he’d chosen, I don’t think Charlie March agreed with the sentiment.

“And,” Nathan Muir said as he poured me into my rental car—I having clutched twice for the door arm rest without any sober measure of success—“Charlie March got exactly what Charlie March wanted.”

“Died proud, huh?”

I wanted to show Muir that while I hadn’t learned to hold my liquor the way he held his, I’d managed to pick up some of his sarcasm. I hadn’t. I sounded pissy. I sounded bruised.

“He delivered you here. Now we’ve split his silver.”

Muir was right. I gripped the steering wheel, scowling because I didn’t want any of March’s Tyrian shekels.

Here was the house Muir rented each September along a stretch of swamp and back bay on Florida’s Captiva Island.

He smiled, muzzle-flash bright, and stepped away from my car, the matador letting the bull think it actually has a chance of leaving the ring alive. But I had what I’d come for: signed documents for the Agency; the truth about Charlie March to keep me warm; the stone cold truth about Nathan Muir. And in those muzzle-flash expressions fired in silent ambush between his words, I took recognition that my truth, as dishonestly lived as any part of either of his and Charlie March’s truths, was a deception operation I’d perpetrated upon myself my entire adult life.

I left him there. Forever, I hope. I drove fast, tires kicking wet clay and ground-seashell muck I wished would spray his white linen pants and blue chambray sport shirt made in Vietnam to look French.

Here’s mud in your eye.

I drove drunk to the airport, hoping to gain enough time between now and my expected arrival back at headquarters tomorrow to commit a murder of my own. A murder that when done would drop, as Muir’s own admitted murders seem to imply, a shroud of balance over the muddled body of a life poorly lived.

I get ahead of myself.

I’m drunk. Still. And keeping it that way. I’m on the airplane home, writing an ending that is still only anticipation. I’ve left off the beginning. Anxious to get to my own story, I have left out Muir’s confession that, I suppose, is justification for everything I’ll do from here on out. I’m going to tell this like it happened. Out one side of his mouth, the other mine.

Yes, Mr. Director—or yes, gentlemen—or Your Honor—or Detective Inspector Blabitty-Blah, whoever the hell ends up reading this. All of you. Yes. This is my admission that he poured me into my car. Hammered.

This is my admission that I left him of my own free, calculated will, but doesn’t that also allow me the argument that at the point I arrived to Muir I might have been clear-thinking, sent and sober? You bet it does, and that’s what you want to know. That everything I did up until Florida was of my own free will. So here it is. I was thirteen years dry when I parked the car on the crushed-clamshell drive, got out into a downpour, and stared at the house. Two broad white concrete and glass rectangles stacked askew, the upper floor extended to cover the wrap around porch, all of it balanced upon rocket-fin pylons and stretching into jungle toward a point in time when the sixties were still the future. Muir met me with a challenge across the drenched gray air:

“Don’t tell me you’re the best Harker and his Young Turks could muster to assassinate me.”

“Mr. Muir, Executive Order 11905 specifically forbids the CIA or any other intelligence or military service of the United States of America from engaging in assassination,” I said, already as wet as the bottom of a puddle.

On the covered porch, Muir, aged sixty-two back on March 21, hit his cigarette. He sipped his scotch. He considered my response a moment, or more likely considered the taste of his drink. The next thing he did was extend his tumbler over the porch railing to collect some rain.

“Glad to hear that,” he said. “Matter of fact, there’s about a dozen fellas I met over the years who’d’ve been really glad to hear it.”

“Would one of these fellas happen to be Charlie March?”

Muir toasted me with a grin that lit the shadows. He drank more before saying, “Why not?”

My heart leapt—my purpose for being there—but reflecting off his grin was the question mark fish-hooking the end of his statement. A question is not a confession. A question admits nothing.

Hidden on three sides by dense tropical foliage, the house’s fourth side faced the windward and beach-less—so mostly undeveloped—western side of the island, where the storm-tossed white caps swatted at seabird wingtips with foamy paws.

Now, if you’d seen Charlie March in his prime, all large hands and feet and shoulders attached to a narrow frame with a funny potbelly that appeared after meals due to a serious lack of sit-ups, earthy and disheveled, and utterly common with the vast majority of men, your intellect would tell you: “This is what real spies look like.”

When you see Nathan Muir, as I saw him on that porch, tall and sculpted, blond and fearlessly blue-eyed, the coolest version of handsome with a smile that spoke an entire language of its own, your heart would tell you: “This is how spies should look.” This gut reaction is why Muir is the best. He gets the job done while you’re still marveling at how good he looks doing it. Breaks always favor the handsome man with the winning smile.

I’m handsome enough, I guess. In decent shape, with curly dark hair that doesn’t do anything for or against me. But my mouth is crooked. Madeline teases about my smile. “You’re better off when you don’t. Just be happy you drown girls with your eyes.”

My best feature: big, brown, romantically hopeless eyes.

Without an umbrella, I’d been drowning for about a minute since getting out of my rental car and retrieving my saddlebag briefcase, not knowing how to begin the questioning, and worried about other things—

Madeline. Shit. Shit. Shit.

—when Muir appeared at the porch railing and began the interrogation for me with the assassination accusation.

I remained steadfast in the deluge, as if that proved anything.

“Too easy—going for Charlie March right out the gate—even for you. How ’bout a drink? Got everything, long as it’s scotch and rainwater.”

“You know I don’t drink, Mr. Muir.”

He gave just enough pause to let me know how inadequate my statement made me before he said, “Stop standing down there like a dog too dumb to come out of the rain. Come on up here and make your lawyer’s assassination—the character kind not covered by Order 11905. Maybe by then I’ll have changed your mind."

I trudged to the front steps. Muir met me, putting a hand across my soggy back to take my shoulder.

Friendly gesture. Also a control.

He moved me beneath the covered porch, along to the side of the house, where his bottle of Macallan twenty-five-year-old single malt waited, his cigarette packs lined up like soldiers, his kitchen matches like prisoners in a ceramic holder stolen froma Vientiane bistro, and his view of the Gulf—if not for the obscuring rain.

“Drop your bag.”

Bag sounded a lot like gun. I dropped it where I stood.

“Sit.” He lowered me into a heavily cushioned rattan sofa.

“Comfortable. Surprisingly so.” I was quick to make small talk.

“Belongs to the guy I rent from. Ugliest furniture I’ve ever seen.”

Muir walked around the glass coffee table and all that shit ordered upon it he’s been trying to kill himself with since long before I ever met him. He took the matching chair to the sofa and sat across from me.

He smiled to himself briefly before grabbing the bottle. “My dog comment was uncalled for. Extra asshole of me. Sorry,” he allowed, refreshing his drink.

“Two comments: dumb dog and sit.”

He’d coupled sit with that disobedient-dog press into the chair that was the most offensive, but I knew Muir was counting and had added up two comments and a push into one specifically to bug me.

“Fine. Just don’t want you to think I consider you my bitch.”


True count: four.

“Actually, I’ve always been fond of you, boy.”

That’s all he thinks of me? I’m a dog—God, am I? Hell.

“Find you completely spineless,” he added. “Brave on paper, though.”

He set down his glass and poured a small amount of the scotch from the bottle into a coffee mug he had waiting for me. Scotch I was dead set against drinking.

Don’t feed him at the table.

The mug? Fanciful house cats lazed around it. Typical Muir: I’m supposed to be here for Charlie March and he’s got me bitched up about dogs, and now he throws cats and whiskey at me to spin my head on a tangent of whether the dog-cat thing is a coincidence or Muir’s purpose to get me off track to drink with him.

He topped the mug with fresh rainwater. “Seem to recall you having a problem with tap water fluoridation.”

He’d made the same remark to me April 1, 1970, twenty-one years earlier. I’d been a pre-law senior, majoring in philosophy at George Washington University. Muir, a visiting department professor teaching a mythology elective, running into me as I was running late to class, convinced me to play hooky. By some lucky accident, he found us a revival showing of Dr. Strangelove.

Sterling Hayden as the treasonous General Ripper sits on the sofa beside Peter Sellers’s terrified British Group Captain Mandrake. He puts his arm around Mandrake. In the background, machine-gun fire crackles as the world moves toward satirical annihilation. Ripper asks Mandrake if he’s “ever heard of a substance called fluoridations”?

Because Mandrake is not insane—going along to get along—he soothingly reassures him that he has, yes, but, “No, no,” he doesn’t know a thing about it.

Because Ripper is insane, he gives it to Mandrake rainwater and grain alcohol straight: fluoridation is the most odious communist plot ever conceived and exploited by the Soviet Union against the bodily purities of the United States of America.

The lucky accident of the movie was neither. On those rare but not completely elusive days when Muir cut classes with a student, Strangelove would always be playing. Just as the characters never changed in the film, the same eleven “characters” in the audience would be there as well. Too few to allow you to absorb into the crowd; too many to allow you to think that the showing was all about you: just enough to make you feel you shared something special. Everyone laughed on cue or murmured knowingly at moments selected by Muir for his young and impressionable guest to notice. I know because three years later, while I still looked up to him, I’d done a stint in the audience.

Muir’s pitch that followed would always begin at the end credits, Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again” to humankind’s annihilation of all life on the planet.

“Suffice it to say, the Soviets don’t have a Doomsday Machine,” Muir said.

I grinned, my future bright and impressionable before him.

“We do.” He wasn’t joking. “Up near the North Pole.”

My eyes were the same wide as those of his every prospective recruit at this shared confidence. Muir laughed as he always would, only to backtrack. Keep his target off balance. “Bullshit, by the way. The Soviets do have one. Naw, bullshit again, not really.” Another laugh. “You know, try never to believe anything I say, by the way, except this”—Prospective recruit outside the theater, he’d finish the scruttles at the bottom of his popcorn bag, go for the steely-eyed kill—“What the Soviets have is worldwide terrorism in the form of nuclear proliferation and now’s as good a time as any to let you know that people who dedicate their lives to making sure something like that idiotic ‘Doomsday Machine’ never happens...”

Crumples bag. The toss, two points—three-pointers not yet invented—into the wire trash basket. The city-sidewalk basket always there. Always half full. The basket: always a recent newspaper, folded so an appropriate Cold War horror headline peeked out for the most observant of his student candidates.

“They have asked me what I”—he points to himself—“think of you.”

And the finger turns on the target—hopeful brown-eyed, crooked-mouthed me, that day back in 1970, having just glimpsed corn kernels scatter across the top of the New York Times: “U.S.S.R. SENDS NUCLEAR-ARMED SUB INTO BAY OF BENGAL”—a bull’s-eye straight for my heart.

Though, like I said, I wasn’t the only one.

There was Tom Bishop.

He didn’t see the movie but bought the Muir ticket just the same.

Bishop: the best of Muir’s recruits. And where is he today? Estranged from Muir, running black bag ops out of Hong Kong station. Tom Bishop, the one to whom Muir would like to give the other half of “Charlie March’s silver;” Tom Bishop, whom Muir recruited in Vietnam and in Germany, and wasted in Lebanon; Tom Bishop, who replaced me as the apple of Nathan Muir’s eye the moment Muir found him sharing a bowl of grilled dog ears on rice in an ARVN sniper’s hooch near the Laotian border in Vietnam. 

Back to the porch. Back to the scotch. The thing about it, the Macallan that is, is that I realize the year of its distillation—as opposed to the no-year little plastic Johnnie Walkers the flight attendant (whom Muir would pointedly call “stewardess” yet manage to take to bed) is feeding me—is the year of Madeline’s birth.

Have I mentioned Madeline?

Only fair I should.

Oh yeah. Scrolled back. Chopped off her head in absentia a few pages ago.

Madeline’s easy. At least she was, screwing her brains out a lifetime of two nights ago.

She’s my lovely wife.

The man watching her fuck him wasn’t me. (Read it twice to feel my revulsion.) I was the guy pointing the other kind of gun straight at her.

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