Four years after they met, Charles Duluth saw Philip Jennings for the first time without a disguise. They were in a bar in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of D.C., and Charles, in another series of firsts, was very deliberately trying to get drunk at 10 in the morning.
He didn't have the paper with him. He wasn't as pathetic as that. But he could have recited chapter and verse of the article in question: the Washington Post article accusing John Mitchell, former Attorney General of the United States and current head of the Committee to Reelect the President, of having controlled a secret Republican fund for intelligence gathering on the Democrats while still in office as Attorney General.
It was the type of article Charles had dreamt of writing when he started out as a journalist. Bold, precise, the result of thorough research. Standing up to power, uncovering the truth. It was the type of article he now neither would nor could ever write, and he hadn't realized quite how deeply that hurt until this September day.
"I told you," Charles said when Philip sat down next to him. Philip still wore the moustache, sideburns and glasses that had been part of his persona since Charles had met him in 1968, and still called himself John, "after John Lennon", he'd once joked, though the fakeness of the name had been the first truth Charles had ever uncovered about him. "They wouldn't let it go."
The joke of it was, the unsurpassable joke: Charles could have written this particular story. Oh, he hadn't been on the scene the way Bob Woodward had been when the Cuban burglars who'd been caught at the Watergate Hotel had to appear in front of a judge. But like many reporters in town, he'd gotten phone calls from Martha Mitchell, John Mitchell's excentric wife, quickly heading for a divorce and currently specializing in giving various members of the media broad hints about "this cops-and-robbers-business". Charles had followed it up. Had discovered several of the details the Post reporters were mentioning in their article, including the money trail going from the burglars to Liddell to Hunt to Mitchell.
And then he'd handed the information over to his Russian handler, which amounted to burying it. The KGB didn't want the dirty practices of the Nixon administration exposed. They wanted blackmail material, because Nixon was likely to win the election in a landslide, and leverage on key members of his administration would be invaluable.
"Bad luck," Philip said, in his John disguise and his John voice that was about to be discarded. He didn't have to ask what Charles was talking about. Not many people in D.C. could be talking about anything else this morning. "But they still haven't made the connection to Haldeman, have they?"
Charles put down his empty glass and signaled the bartender. "Can we at least pretend to be rooting for the free press here? For five minutes? Well, the press that's owned by a Washington socialite who throws ever so delightful parties, but my point still stands. Cheers."
His handler didn't say anything, and Charles turned towards him. The disguise was perfect, it always was, but there was something in his handler's blue eyes that never fit with the low key, easy going demeanor. They were intent and focused, no matter the surroundings or the time of day and night, and studied you with the precision of a knife.
"You know", Charles said, "they have this wonderful gift for coining a phrase, Nixon's people do. Have I told you about "ratfucking" yet? That's one of theirs. Wonderfully descriptive. What they mean by this should be familiar, though, even if you don't know the term yet. They had their people infiltrate the opposition, you see. Various of the more promising Democratic candidates. And then their people openly attack other Democratic candidates in the worst way possible. Making two opponents look bad for the price of one, that's capitalism for you. Now maybe they still call it agents provocateurs overseas, but that's French and pretentious, downright un-American. Won't do, you see? Of course you do. Here's to ratfucking, John, and the fuckers who do it. And the fucking rats!"
It wasn't really a spontanous outburst, more something that had grown inside him and reached boiling point during the long, hot summer of Nixon's reelection campaign and the Post's dogged coverage of the burglar story which was rapidly turning into the political story of the decade. A part of Charles felt satisfied by finally saying it out loud. Another jeered at his hypocrisy. He'd kept his voice down through every hissed syllable, and the caution of it ruined any appearance of tidal anger. Not to mention that it proved a pathetic desire to please his handler.
Yet another part wondered whether this would be the end of his none too illustrious brief career as a spy. The lethal end, as Charles was under no illusion you could quit working for the Russians with a handshake and a promise never to say a word. He was just angry and depressed enough this morning to risk it.
Or maybe he'd simply get a lecture about how all of this had been his own choice, which was true. How "John" had warned him in advance, had told him how hard it would be to live a lie day in, day out. Well, he'd know, wouldn't he.
"Philip," his handler said, not turning his intent gaze away from Charles, removing first the glasses, then, with two economic movements that happened so quickly that you could have missed them while blinking, the moustache, palming it away and letting it disappear into his jacket. It was amazing how those two missing details transformed his face, which at that point Charles had assumed himself to be familiar with.
Or maybe it had nothing to do with the glasses and the moustache and all with the expression. It wasn't just the eyes now . John the handler had most of the time worn a lively, slightly amused expression, or, if the occasion called for it, indignation about the latest injustices carried out by the American government. By contrast, the man sitting next to Charles now had an utter stillness to him, and a coldness that was breathtaking.
"If we're name calling", he continued, speaking as low as Charles had done, and the pronunciation was subtly different - still perfectly American; whoever had taught him had done a brilliant job; but different from John's generic Texan intonation. "Mine's Philip."
If wasn't, of course. Not really. Couldn't be. But the instinct honed in a thousand interviews with people who were experts in lying told Charles it was the closest thing to it. He wouldn't help feeling excited and privileged while being aware he was meant to. A few years ago, when he'd been nothing but a young journalist fancying himself a crusader and eager to learn from the best, Charles had spent a week in New York stalking Truman Capote. He'd been good looking and amusing enough to earn a few tips from the master, the most useful of which was that in order to get someone to spill their soul, to create a true sense of intimacy, you had to give away secrets of your own. Not lies. Hand over genuine pieces of yourself.
Reporting and spying, Charles had gone on to learn, went remarkably well together. Which was why he was here in a bar with a man who offered him lies and truths in a heady intoxicating mixture, and not typing away on an exposure of the Nixon administration.
"Well, Rod would have been too macho for you anyway," Charles said abruptly, and enjoyed the fleeting look of puzzlement before the stillness returned to Philip's face. "And I'd make a terrible Marlon."
Philip remained silent.
"On the Waterfront," Charles clarified and went for his best Marlon Brando impression, which, as he had just pointed out, wasn't very good. "I coulda have been a contender." It just occurred to me, that's all."
Evidently, On the Waterfront had belonged to the American movies Philip at some point had familiarized himself with, perhaps because of the union theme, or because of bloody Elia Kazan directing. In any event, his next words showed he'd made the correct association and recalled Brando's character who'd thrown a fight at the behest of his brother , played by Rod Steiger, thereby giving up an honest career in favour of political corruption.
"Ah yes," Philip said mildly. "I always thought that movie was a wonderful exercise is self pity and propaganda for betrayal."
Which was just about the most perfect backhand for Charles' earlier taunt about being a ratfucker that anyone could have come up with, anyone, that was, with a very good knowledge of Charles Duluth. Charles' father had killed himself after Truman's Loyalty Order had hounded him out of a job and the later House Committee on Unamerican Activities hearings, those hearings at which the likes of Elia Kazan had testified, had completed the ruin of his life.
"You really are a bastard," Charles said, half stung, half admiring. His maudlin mood was almost gone, though. Yes, he would never write a story like the one everyone referred to by the short hand of "Watergate". But even if this one ended the career of a few Republican government officials, it would not make a true difference in the long term. A few pawns would be sacrificed, while the corrupt system would remain in place. Whereas what Charles was doing, or at least trying to do, was contributing to a defeat of the system itself.
He'd made his choice years ago. Time to stand by it.
"I think they'll manage to expose Haldeman," he said, matter-of-fact tone intended to indicate to Philip that neither self pity nor betrayal were on the table, "but my material on Ehrlichman should be exclusive for a while longer. So who knows? A Presidential aide could still be good for something."
"Here's hoping," Philip returned and gave him a somewhat more cynical version of John's smile.
Charles was eight the first time he saw the White House. His mother was part of a picket line of people demonstrating for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Her hand firmly clasped his, but the crowd, the suffocating heat and the signs begging for clemency still had his heart racing. He'd seen photos of the Rosenbergs in the papers. They looked quintessentially familiar, like his own parents, like most parents in his neighborhood. At school, the teacher had said they were Communist spies. His parents swore they weren't, that they were just progressive people. "Progressive" was also the word his father had used when trying to explain why he had been dismissed from his government job after President Truman had signed Executive Order 9835, the one people called the Loyalty Order. But being progressive couldn't be a good thing, if it made people call you a traitor.
If it could get you killed.
The Rosenbergs were executed. Charles' father killed himself ten months later. His mother never went to any more demonstrations. One of her oldest friendships ended when she told Annie Stein, the formidable woman who led the campaign to desegregate downtown restaurants in Washington, D.C., that she wouldn't participate anymore. And then she remarried, married the most conservative man who was showing interest, who happened to be a Colonel in the army. Charles spent the rest of his childhood and youth on army bases, full of resentment against his mother and his stepfather, and even his father for abandoning them by his death, but most of all he loathed the system that had made it all possible. As a child, he couldn't understand how his mother could abandon all she'd believed in and go from the woman who'd taken him to Lafayette Square to shout out loud for the Rosenbergs to the woman who demurely served cocktails to her husband and his friends while they talked about dirty traitors who'd given the Soviets the atom bomb. As a teenager, he thought he understood that it was fear for her own life, plain and simple, which he acknowledged but condemned in his adolescent righteousness. He let his copies of Trotsky and Marx lie around ostentatiously, half hoping to provoke her into at least confirming or refuting she still had some of her old convictions buried somewhere, and bought every Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson record he could get his hands on. But only his stepfather brought it up; his mother never did.
"Don't they make you sick?" he once asked her, and only once, when his stepfather's friends had left and he had been ordered to help her clean up.
"These people are my friends now," she said, voice low but firm. "Friends don't make you sick. You accept them. They accepted me." And then she surprised him by adding with a cynicism that hadn't been there in her years with his father and was carefully disguised in her marriage with his stepfather: "Everybody loves a convert who proves you were right all along."
That she was a knowing sellout didn't make her less of a sellout, but it gave him something to cling to: that the mother he remembered from before his father's death hadn't been an illusion. Which didn't change his condemnation of the pleasant woman fading into the wallpaper more with every year that she spent as the Colonel's wife. Then the draft started to be an issue, and Charles began to understand his mother a bit better. The war in Vietnam was something he'd have been against in any case; to him, it was the perfect example of everything that was wrong in this country. But the draft made it into a personal threat. He was young and able bodied. He liked to think the prospect of killing people in a third world country whose cause he considered just made him abhor the prospect of getting drafted, but in his heart, he knew very well it was the prospect of getting killed by them that kept him up at night. It was the sight of coffins returning that made him swallow his pride and ask his stepfather to save him from the draft, using the very privilege he railed against in articles about how most of the drafted came from the lower income population, especially the Negroes.
Yes, Charles understood his mother better now, and understood about irony. It still caught him by surprise when Philip suggested to him what was, essentially, becoming his mother, at least as far as everyone else was concerned. Minus the marriage; as a man, he'd get into bed with the establishment in a less literal fashion.
"You're not serious", Charles said. They were in the Trans-Lux Theatre on Fourteenth Street. As a child, his mother had taken him to the small law office across the street where Annie Stein would be waiting, every Thursday and Saturday, to pair him off with a black child to start the desegregation marches. He didn't think Philip was aware of that particular biographical detail, but then again, maybe Philip was; Philip was methodical and very thorough.
"Think about it," his handler replied. "Charles, socialist journalists mean well, but they'll never make a difference in this country. You're too smart to believe that the masses will rise because of anything you'll ever write."
"They'll love a convert, though."
"Everybody does," Charles said and hearing his mother in his voice, he laughed.
Charles was a very good hater. Philip wasn't, which was something that surprised and intrigued Charles once he'd figured it out; whatever had driven Philip to choose a lifetime of sabotage and the occasional murder, it wasn't loathing of the U.S. Charles had, perhaps naively, assumed you needed hate as an incentive to kill, but there was no bile in Philip's voice even when they discussed the likes of Nixon and Kissinger, and the non-existence of that "secret plan" Nixon had claimed to have for the withdrawal from Vietnam, which had won him, at last, the White House.
"What he's actually doing is expanding the war," Charles said and felt the guilt again, the knowledge he'd bought his personal safety. "The crook."
"A smart crook, though," Philip commented, matter of factly. No, he didn't hate Nixon. But a hapless Senator's staff member with access to information Philip wanted ended up dead that same week nonetheless.
When Charles started to come around to the idea of becoming a right wing convert whom the establishment would take to its collective bosom and share at least some of its secrets with, thereby allowing destruction from within, he felt entitled to ask about the practicalities of emotional detachment.
"That's not how you do it," Philip said. Charles couldn't be sure, but he thought there was a slight emphasis on "You". Mistake or intention?
"Not how I should do it, or not how you do it?" he asked, to clarify.
"You won't live long if you're cutting yourself off from anyone and everyone around you, Charles," Philip replied, which was both a reply and an evasion; with Philip, one needed to pay attention to such subtleties. "You wouldn't be convincing, either. What you have to find is the part of you who can enjoy it. Living the inside life. You can like it, you know. There's no shame in that. Being good at your work should be satisfying. As long as you never forget what the point of it is."
It was unsettlingly sensible advice. It also offered the most insight Charles thought he'd gained into Philip so far.
"Discovering my inner redbaiting attack dog who longs to be petted by the powerful", he mused out loud. "You know, a man could get insulted about the implication here."
"He could," Philip said in his John voice, eyes sparkling, "but it would be a waste. Your type of anger shouldn't be wasted, Charles. Not when it could get you to the top."
Therapy was all the rage now, but Charles had never considered it. He didn't need a psychiatrist to tell him that for all his rage at the system, a part of him had never stopped feeling deserted by both his parents, in different ways, and that publically trampling all over their ideals had something of an emotional payback. There was also the undeniable thrill of finding people who'd seen Communist agents behind every book club happily wining, dining and in some cases screwing someone who actually was a Communist spy.
But it cost him every genuine friendship he'd made at college and in his early years among the left. One or two friends attempted to understand when he said it was the Soviet oppression of the Prague Spring that changed his mind, but they threw up their hands in disgust when he began to praise Nixon as the best politician of the Western Hemisphere and devoted his considerable talent for bile on articles about Ted Kennedy's private life or innuendo about George McGovern's mental stability. His girlfriend, who'd never been as radical as Charles had and even thought McGovern was too much of a leftist, left nonetheless. Since his new friends were actually sources and his one night stands, while sexually satisfying, generally people he disliked in varying degrees, this left Philip as the one genuine relationship in his life.
On the bright side, the invites to the likes of the White House Correspondents Association annual dinner at the Washington Hilton offered first class booze and the opportunity to watch those in power working up a sweat in close-up. Never let it be said Charles wasn't grateful.
Occasional encounters with Vietnam veterans didn't make him feel guilty anymore, either. He had his own ongoing rendezvous with death.
After September 29, 1972, Philip never showed up in disguise again at any of their meetings. Once, and only once, he brought his partner along, because Charles needed to be able to recognize and contact her in an emergency. She wasn't the only KGB agent other than Philip Charles was to meet in the course of the 70s, but she was the only one who actually made him uncomfortable on sight. There was an intensity to her that reminded him of Annie Stein and those long ago demonstrations, the aura of a believer, Joan of Arc almost, and it made him feel like a lightweight. Thankfully, she didn't stay long.
She and Philip were posing as a married couple running a travel agency together. This, Charles gathered, was Philip's primary American cover identity. It sounded so close to the paranoid Red Scare scenarios that had poisoned Charles' childhood that he couldn't decide whether he saw it as another karmic irony or a cause to wonder whether those bastards of the HUAC hadn't been on to something.
Keeping permanent company with the right could have that effect on you.
Beyond feeling valued by having this information, Charles didn't have much interest in Philip's suburban travel agent existence. That man and the one he had his barbed, intimate conversations with were two different people, though the fact that Philip, who knew about finding the part of you that enjoyed one particular lie to live in, chose this one made some points about just what Philip was comfortable with.
Who Philip had been before Philip Jennings did interest Charles, but it had been established as a taboo subject early on. Which, of course, made it downright irresistible. Every now and then, he approached it in a circumvential way. There were opportune moments. As the 70s went on, Philip stopped being all-patient, all-knowing in their meetings, and occasionally arrived short tempered, frustrated or even depressed. Consequently, when he told Charles to cut back on the drinking, he didn't phrase it as a concern-clad order given by a wise handler, but as a terse observation from an equal.
"You know, coming from you, that's rich. I've seen the statistics", Charles said. "What I'm consuming is still below average in Russia."
"We're not in Russia."
"No, we're not. We are, however, in a country where you're making yourself suspicious if you're the only journalist not drinking like a fish and smoking like a chimney. It makes people think of you as judgmental if you don't share their vices, and then they're less inclined to puke their guts out in front of you. Both literal and metaphorical."
Philip was still frowning, so it obviously was one of those increasingly frequent days where he wouldn't keep up the smooth facade.
"I can see why you don't get drunk here," Charles said. "But don't tell me you never did in..."
"In none of the European countries I ever visited," Philip interrupted in an undertone of warning. Charles decided to change tactics.
"Well, that leaves the idea of you drowning in tequilas in Mexico at least as a possibility," he returned lightly. "Don't disillusion me. It's a nice thought."
The corners of Philip's mouth twitched. Something that had remained constant about him from the early days of him posing as John to the present was that he had a sense of humor and a propensity for jokes; unless he was deeply furious, you could almost always get him to relax by appealing to it.
"Anyone is entitled to their fantasies, Charles."
The ostensible reason for this particular meeting was Philip wanting a personal assessment of Ronald Reagan, former governor of California, former B actor and more and more likely future President, since Charles had secured a lengthy interview for Time Magazine recently. Complete with assessment and names of Reagan's staff, just in case. So Charles replied:
"That's what I thought when interviewing the governor. He's living in a world where he personally liberated the camps in WWII. Presumably by the power of his bad acting, because as we all know, he never left the studios during that time. "
Philip shrugged. "Politicians exaggerate during campaigns, news at eleven."
Philip's ability to remain objective this time annoyed Charles more than usual.
"He also thinks the Russian language contains no word for freedom, which proves his staff is really bad at research or never got to s in their dictionary," Charles said. "And swoboda is such a noble word, too."
"Your accent is terrible, though," Philip returned and Charles felt a bit of glee because he had gotten Philip to comment on something Russian after all. It buoyed his diatribe about Reagan.
"But the most worrying claim of all during that interview was that South Africa always supported us during all wars we had to fight, and so we owed them our support. Leaving aside the bad history and the part where the Brits locked up the party leadership of the current South Africa regime during the war because the Afrikaaner really loved Adolf, it proves he's not going to go along with a boycott if he wins the election. Which is bad news for Nelson Mandela and the ANC, I suppose, and that's a shame, because that shithole of a country really could need the revolution. Right now."
He didn't have to fake the anger and the disgust. Reagan had reminded him of an old lizard, senile viciousness hidden by a genial, folksy manner. But the most worrying aspect of all had been the man's effect on everyone else. The people around him and the listeners to his speeches radiated adoration.
"I want Nixon back", Charles said. "At least he knew when he was lying. And nobody ever confused him with their favorite grandfather, even when they were voting for him."
"People who don't know when they're lying are dangerous," Philip agreed. "How many glasses did you have before I came, you said?"
Because Philip was good at getting back to a subject in a circumvential way, too. Oh, to hell with good: he was great.
"I know exactly how many. I just don't have a reason to tell you. You're not my doctor, I'm still an atheist, so you're not my confessor, either, and we most certainly aren't married. I can handle it. That's all you need to know."
He felt Philip's fingers around his wrist before he saw them. They were firm and perhaps the only thing which could give Philip away if you felt him like this; far too calloused and strong for a travel agent. But presumably Philip could explain this with squash games.
"Cut it out, Charles."
"Or?" Charles asked, pulse racing. He was neither drunk nor stupid enough to point out that the KGB couldn't afford to drop him as an asset; he knew too much, including the primary cover identity of two of their illegals. They would have to kill him, and it was unlikely they'd do that over some drinking. Not the service who'd employed the likes of Guy Burgess and Kim Philby. Burgess hadn't been sober once when in Washington during the early 60s, and stories about his outrageous behavior still made the rounds among the older Washington socialites.
Then again, that behavior by Burgess had led to his, McLean's and Philby's discovery, so it was perhaps not advisable to rely on precedent.
"Or I'll have you transferred to another handler."
This sobered Charles up faster than a cup of coffee would have done. It stung, though not in the way Philip had presumably intended. Instead, it stung with the sharp, acid clarity of long sought after enlightenment.
He knew damn well that without these meetings with Philip, handing over information, trading sarcasm, his life now would be meaningless. He'd known that for a while. But what he hadn't known before was what Philip got out of it.
"No, you won't," he said. "Or you'd have done it already. There isn't a reason in the world why it has to be you, not after all these years, and I've never claimed I wouldn't talk to another handler. You need me."
"Delusions of grandeur. You're not even in the top range of my most valuable assets." Philip sounded downright hostile now. He hadn't let go of Charles' wrist, though.
"Yes, but none of the others know you," Charles retorted. "Correct me if I'm wrong. They know John. Or Paul. Or George and Ringo. You're still coddling them, aren't you?"
There was Philip's partner, of course. The other illegal. St. Joan of Arc. But if her knowing the truth about him would have been enough relief, Philip wouldn't have needed to keep this up to begin with. It was simple, really, if you thought about it. If you thought about Philip not as a perfectly functioning KGB killing machine but as someone living a lie day in, day out, with extremely limited opportunities to vent and let go. Someone who would, when reaching for a threat to keep a man in line, instinctively go for exactly the threat that would work on himself. Because if nothing else, they were fellow liars exactly attuned to each other's truths.
No, Philip didn't drink, the way Charles did. He had other addictions.
Philip withdrew his hand. "You don't know me, either."
"And which you is that?" Charles asked, feeling no need for alcohol right now because this was a far better rush. "Because the one I know is still sitting here, opposite me. But there's no need to get existential. Look, I'm not falling apart and in danger of letting the side down. I'm not. And not to go sentimental on you, but you know I'd die before that, for the pure and simple reason that you'd kill me if it came to it. Now I want to live. Rather badly."
He'd once thought the stillness in Philip's face was a revelation. But now he changed his mind. It was the sense of turmoil beneath it. Charles wasn't the only one who was aging. Who had said that after 40, everyone had the face they deserved - Abraham Lincoln? Yes, surely Lincoln. They'd both hit forty soon, and Philip's face which could go from friendly guy next door to stone cold killer was starting to have the worn out beauty of a statue still in the process of being unearthed. A lot of dirt and scratches that grounded the structure underneath in reality.
"Do you?" Philip asked, which stopped being rethorical when he added "Why?"
That was indeed the question. It didn't look like the revolution would arrive in America any time soon; if anything, it looked like another push to the right was impending. Which meant Charles would have to keep his mask up for at least another decade, his mask which had become so tight that sometimes he was afraid that there was no face left underneath. And if the old reptile did become President, with access to the red button, he might even blow them all to kingdom come, in which case not just Charles' life but all of humanity would have been finished.
"Because I haven't forgotten what the point of it is, Philip," Charles said, and now it was his turn to put his hand on Philip's. His own fingers, used to typing, were flexible, and currently far too cold. This whiskey certainly hadn't been worth it.
"Then act like it," Philip said curtly. But he didn't pull back. Instead, he signaled the bartender with his other hand for a drink of his own. It was something of an art he had perfected, always ordering drinks which he never actually drank, if you paid close attention. He looked at Charles again, and he was frowning again, as if he was trying to remember the point himself.
Charles returned to reporting the rest of his Reagan encounter, complete with staff names. Philip asked a few questions about likely cabinet choices and the interest groups behind them. Neither of them mentioned Charles' drinking again, or the fact that Philip was here on a Saturday night for a conversation with an informational value that could have been contained in ten minutes.
Providing information was the most basic thing Charles did in both of his professions. In both, he also distorted it. Framing the Polish dissident with a rape charge and playing the helpful journalist keeping the scandal away was neither the first nor the last time he did something like this for the cause. He didn't have much pity for the man, who was what Charles only pretended to be - a convert from socialism - with the added hypocrisy of religion and pretensions to celibacy while immediately flirting with the first pretty woman batting her eyelashes at him. Easy to go through this with a shrug.
Assisting Philip with extracting secret information from a highly secure government facility, on the other hand, turned out to be a near fiasco. The only thing which Charles managed to do smoothly was leaving his glasses at a desk without the owner of said desk noticing, which provided Charles with the wished for excuse to return. From the moment he reentered the man's office, though, he started to feel like a clumsy schoolboy completely in over his head. His heartbeats felt loud enough to drown out drums, he started to sweat like a pig, and while he found the entrance code to the Arpanet lab and jotted it down on his hand, it became illegible by the time Philip turned up. It was pure luck that Charles remembered the code correctly.
It wasn't very logical to panic, he knew that. While the physical danger was new, he could have been arrested at any point during the last fourteen years. Even in New York: if the wannabe leader of a new Polish government had truly been as virtuous as he claimed and insisted on facing the cops, they might have found out fairly soon Ann from Toronto wasn't Ann from Toronto. Questioning the man who had introduced her as such would have been the next step.
But that had never felt as real a possibility as arrest and execution in the Arpanet affair. He'd been eight again and waiting with his mother for news about clemency that never came, waiting first in front of the White House with the crowd and then in Inspiration House where everyone sat in tense silence at 8 pm until the phone rang and confirmed that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were dead.
It was 1982, nobody thought of the Rosenbergs anyore, and Charles was alive. Would stay alive. Once he'd exited the building, the ringing sounds of the fire alarm behind him, the giddy relief was breathtaking. Right until Philip showed up with a face like a thundercloud and the confession that he didn't even know whether there was a point to it all. Do you know how many people I've killed? Philip demanded, and for the first time, it occurred to Charles that it could be Philip who might fall apart first.
This was unthinkable. For a moment, he saw the two of them as someone else might: maudlin men approaching middle age with pretensions to star in a Graham Greene novel, wrecking havoc without even quite remembering why. You're wrong, Charles said, denying the patheticness of it all. He told himself to get a grip. Philip was angry because of the drinking and the panic earlier, that was all, and of course worn out by the repeated need to kill - which made the difference, didn't it, between Philip and those smug bastards in the Pentagon. He'd rally, though. He'd get back to being the enigma around which Charles' life revolved, because if he didn't, the abyss would swallow them both.
When Charles got home, he didn't look for a bottle. Instead, he found himself staring in the window. Not through it. He stared at the glass and his distorted face. Maybe he shouldn't have gotten rid of the beard; it made him look too much like the young journalist he'd buried deeper than a grave.
"Charles," he'd said, "Charles Duluth. From The Rag."
"I'm John. Not from the Scrap, but maybe from the Shred."
They'd laughed. The Rag was an underground newspaper, mainly distributed through Students for a Democratic Society, and Charles was proud to write for it, but it was true everyone at SDS tended to take themselves a tad too seriously, so it was refreshing to find someone with a sense of humor.
John was likeable in general, always ready to listen to everyone's complaints and plans to further the cause of participatory democracy. He didn't even get into an argument with the Maoists, and the Maoists drove everyone crazy. It was this very amiability that made Charles distrustful. He felt ashamed at first, but then again: once you found out several of the neighbors who fed you cookies simultaneously informed against your parents, paranoia started to look like a healthy attitude. Not that he could tell anyone else. Everyone liked John.
After some weeks of cautious research and increasing suspicions, Charles had decided to confront John with what he thought he knew. He didn't want to do it in front of all the others; public shaming was an awful tactic that reminded him too much of his parents, too. Besides, there was the possibility that Charles had gotten it wrong. He should hear John out first.
They shared a beer on some deserted playground not too far from where a SDS party took place when Charles said: "I know what you're doing here."
"Me too," John had laughed. "Having a beer."
"You're not a student. You're not an activist. You're undercover here, trying to infiltrate us."
"Charles, that's bullshit", John said full of righteous indignation, but he said it too quickly, and he didn't ask what had given Charles the idea.
"I even have a name," Charles said, mouth very dry. If he was right, this could be the big scoop of his dreams.
"Are you high or something?" John asked, still wounded innocence. He even laughed. "Seriously, Charles, that's loony..."
"Operation CHAOS," Charles interjected. In the ensuing silence, he mentally counted to ten. "That's what it's called, isn't it?"
John looked at him. The moonlight made his moustache into merely a shadow on his face.
"Go on," he said slowly. There was no amusement in his voice anymore, and no indignation. Just quiet focus. I knew it, Charles thought.
"I'll go public with this, you know, either way. It's illegal, the CIA operating on US soil. Not that this bothers you guys, I guess. But you - you have a chance to make up for what you wanted to do to us, John. Like I said, I'll publish either way. But two sources are better than one. If you confirm it and tell me your side of the story..."
He was fishing now. What he had were rumors. Someone knew somebody who'd said something, about the CIA trying to infiltrate various anti war organizations among the students in order to prove the students were really acting as agents of foreign governments. But John couldn't know Charles had no proof yet, and with some luck, he could be bluffed into providing some.
"Operation CHAOS, huh. You sure have some imagination."
"And you're not as good as poker as you think you are," Charles retorted. "You should have said that before asking me to go on. Oh, and incidentally, your papers aren't as good as you think they are, either. It took me just ten phone calls to find out John Oastley from Dunkirk, New York State, died two weeks after he was born. Look, you guys could pull this kind of crap in the 50s, when everyone was scared of the Russians, but things are different now. People are starting to think for themselves."
"Looks like it," John said. "There's just one problem." He left the swing he was sitting on and made a step towards Charles.
Only then did it dawn on Charles that he could be in danger of something worse than an intimidation attempt. He cursed his naiveté. But there it was, the basic assumption that government agencies might harass and threaten and ruin people's lives, but they did, could not, would not, surely, kill one of their own citizens who stood in front of them without any kind of weapon.
John wasn't a tall guy, but he was athletic. And if he was CIA, they'd probably trained him to unarmed combat. Charles forced himself not to back off. This was it. The moment of truth. He wasn't his parents. He wouldn't fail.
"I'm not a student activist," John said, and Charles slowly exhaled, wishing he had thought of bringing along some pot.
"Yeah, I think we settled that," he said as flippantly as he could while his knees were turning into butter.
"But I'm not CIA, either. Or FBI, if that's your next guess."
This sudden turnaround should have scared Charles more, since it indicated that whatever restraints the CIA did or did not have, they wouldn't apply to this man. But it came too suddenly to be thought through in its full implication. Instead, in this night on a deserted playground, it simply seemed funny.
"Well, don't keep me waiting," Charles said, and then the helpless laughter that had started to boil up in him the moment John said he wasn't CIA exploded. So this was what being hysterical felt like. But it was just too perfect. The last time he was on a playground like this, he'd heard other children taunt him about his daddy being a Commie spy. His father, who'd probably never met a single Russian in his short, miserable, abruptly cut off existence. Mid laughter, Charles started to get undignified hiccups and found himself wheezing on the ground soon, with John providing claps on the back to get rid of the hiccups. It was definitely completely different from the movies.
"Operation CHAOS," John repeated when Charles had calmed down. "So that's what they call it. I knew it existed, but I didn't know the name. And you do have proof?"
"Are you now or have you ever been?" Charles said in his best imitation of Roy Cohn's malignant voice. Which John evidently didn't recognize. Of course he didn't.
"I already said I wasn't CIA. Keep up, Charles."
"Are you now or have you have you ever been a member of the Communist party? That's what they asked in their hearings. Because they weren't called trials. If it had been trials, there couldn't have been anonymous testimony admitted, for starters. Keep up, John."
"Yes," John who wasn't really John but was someone else entirely said without further dicking around, and something inside Charles finally felt free.
"Well, actually I don't have proof, not something that would hold up anyway. I was hoping to get it from you."
It looked like Not-really-John's sense of humor wasn't just part of his cover. He laughed as well. Not maliciously, just with amusement. It didn't sound any different from his pretend laughter at being accused earlier, though, which said some interesting things about just how good an actor this man must be.
"And here we are," Charles' first actual spy said. "What am I going to do with you?"
Later, Charles became fairly certain that Philip had planned on recruiting him all along, and that the whole thing had been a test; if Charles hadn't been smart enough to figure out something was off about "John" on his own, he wouldn't have been worth considering as an asset. Still later, he revised his opinion yet again, because by then he had realized how much improvisation and coincidence were part of an agent's life, and moreover, he'd stopped seeing Philip as infallible and was taking into account that Philip himself had been young and fairly new at being a spy, perhaps even encountering a potential asset for the first time outside supervision.
Besides, playing at bravado and nonchalance was something young men of any nation were good at without any training.
On that night in the late 60s, though, Charles didn't think any of this. He just thought that he'd met the first person who didn't just throw around a few select Marx and Lenin quotes and then called their bourgeois parents to wire some more money. Someone who not only believed but acted on it. Lived it.
Someone who could make a difference.
"Something interesting, I hope," Charles said. "I've only been waiting for you my entire life."